Bird Sleep

 

Just after sunset, with fading light and falling temperature, wave after wave of Canada Geese circled our cove and gracefully landed.  They joined a raucous flock of geese, perhaps 500 or more, apparently judging the cove to be a safe haven for the night.  But with all the honking I wondered if any, myself included, would ever be able to fall asleep.  With darkness, however, they did quiet down, except for the occasional honk from a vigilant sentry goose proclaiming all is well.

Canada Geese, Branta canadensis

As one ages sleep patterns become an issue, and sometimes even a topic of conversation and concern.  Being a curious birder I decided to do a little research, emphasis on little, as to the sleeping habits of our feathered friends.  What’s their sleep pattern, how much do they need, where do they go at night, can they sleep while flying, etc.?  I also scanned my photo archives looking for pictures of sleeping birds.  Unfortunately I usually delete pictures of birds with their eyes closed, but did find a few suitable for this post.

Eastern Screech Owl, Megascops asio

On my bedside nightstand there is a fascinating book by Matthew Walker entitled “Why We Sleep”.  It’s mostly about humans but does include a great chapter about the evolution of sleep.  According to the author a biologic sleep requirement must have evolved very early, as all animals, even insects, demonstrate sleep cycles.  You can confirm this with the characteristic brain waves on the EEG’s of sleeping animals and by periodic cycles of non-arousal of small insects.

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Nyctanassa violacea

Although all animals require some sleep, the amount and style vary considerably.  Walker states that the length of the restorative sleep requirement is determined by the complexity of the animal’s nervous system.  Both the length and type have evolved separately for every species and are balanced by the equally important need for wakeful hunting, eating, nest-building, and blog writing.

Dunlins, Calidris alpina

We are all familiar with the two types of sleep, REM and non-REM, identified by their characteristic brain waves.  It’s interesting that REM, the shallower sleep stage associated with dreaming, only occurs in mammals and birds.  It is, therefore, a later creation in the evolutionary sequence.  I consider it an “eye opener” to think of birds actually dreaming.

Common Nighthawk, Chordeiles minor

Although there are similarities between avian and human sleep, there are also many differences.  Birds demonstrate hemispheric sleep, the amazing ability to let half the brain sleep while the other half stays wide awake, perhaps as a defense for lurking predators.  At some point this split reverses and the other half falls asleep.  It’s interesting that this hemispheric sleep only occurs with non-REM sleep; REM for some reason, requires total brain participation.

Barred Owl, Strix varia

Frigatebirds are amazing seabirds that can stay aloft without landing for up to two months.  They have one major deficit–they cannot swim.  If forced to land at sea they quickly become water-logged and drown.  So curious Niels Rattenborg and others from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology figured they would be the perfect bird to evaluate for in-flight sleep.

Magnificent Frigatebird, Fregata magnificent     photo by A. Sternick

Rattenborg fastened EEG leads to the skulls of 15 frigatebirds and attached a device to monitor flight speed.  The study confirmed that birds do indeed sleep while flying, but not in the expected manner.  They slept only in short bursts of 10 seconds and only for a total of 45 minutes each day, a much shorter duration than their sleep cycle on land.  They also only used hemispheric sleep while flying, and only slept while gaining altitude in a thermal.  They were completely awake and alert in every gliding descent, perhaps to avoid a lethal crash landing at sea.

Black Skimmers, Rynchops niger

Birds assume many different sleeping positions on land, but I’ve not yet seen one on its back with feet pointing heavenward.  Shorebirds sleep standing up, often on one leg, and usually facing into the wind.  Night herons, owls, and woodpeckers sleep  perched upright.  Their leg muscles in a relaxed state result in a clenched claw, firmly grasping the branch.  Many birds such as the nighthawks sleep horizontally, while some parrots sleep hanging upside down in a bat-like manner.  Many cavity nesters seek out a vacant cavity for the night.

Bonaparte Gull, Larus philadelphia

Birds, like humans, are susceptible to sleep deprivation.  Walker reports that the U.S. government has spent millions investigating the sleep pattern of the lowly White-crowned Sparrow.  If you deprive this bird of sleep during the season it would normally be migrating, it experiences no ill effects.  But similar sleep deprivation at any other time results in catastrophic physiologic brain and body dysfunction.

White-crowned Sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrys

I’m not sure how they deprived the little bird of sleep; perhaps with bright lights and continuous Barry Manilow songs at high volume.  In any case, this bird has apparently evolved some protective mechanism for sleep deprivation that the U.S. government would love to uncover.

Black-crowned Night-Heron, Nycticorax nycticorax

Have you noticed how difficult it is to sleep the first night in a new hotel and bed?  I now believe this is a throwback to my evolutionary past.  Is there a Sabre-toothed Tiger lurking in the bushes or a Wooly Mammoth lumbering past my cave?  Just like the birds I require safe sleep, but haven’t yet mastered that hemispheric trick.  I guess I need that sentinel goose, standing guard and signaling all is well.

Christmas Birding in the City

 

Northern Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis

 

City sidewalks, busy sidewalks

Dressed in holiday style

In the air there’s a feeling of Christmas.

Children laughing, people passing

Meeting smile after smile

And on every street corner you’ll hear

Silver bells.

 

Strings of streetlights, even stoplights

Blink of bright red and green

As the shoppers rush home with their treasures.

Hear the snow crunch, see the kids bunch

This is Santa’s big scene

And above all the bustle you’ll hear

Silver bells.

by Ray Evans & Jay Livingston

 

Boston Common

This was my Mother’s favorite Christmas song.  I remember her sitting at the old Chickering piano in the sunroom, belting out these lyrics as if it was yesterday.  I live in the country now, just outside a small town of a few thousand, with elbow room, trees, tidal wetlands, and only a rare passing car or visitor.

Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata

In the past we’ve had a house full of extended family celebrating the holiday, but those times have passed.  Understandably children and the grand-child are making their own traditions in their homes and we are welcomed and eager to be part of “Santa’s big scene” in the heart of downtown Boston.

White-throated Sparrow, Zonotrichia albicollis

Their high-rise apartment looks down on the city streets blinking red and green, the frozen Charles River, and a small sliver of the snow-covered Common.  Their tree is a real spruce and adorned with ornaments, many of which are familiar from Christmases past.  Outside soaring gulls fly by our windows while the urban House Sparrows stay much lower on the sidewalk among the shoppers and bunching kids. The skaters crowd the Frog Pond ice, while the Nutcracker is playing at the nearby Opera House.

Opera House

One cold dawn, two days before Christmas I broke away for birding at Mount Auburn Cemetery.  I’ve previously described this birding hotspot in several posts (2/4/2015, 11/11/2016, and 4/20/2018), but this is my first visit in the winter.  In spring and fall it is a migration trap for weary travelers; a welcomed oasis of green and water amidst the urban sprawl.  It’s also the home of year-round residents, including a Red-tailed Hawk perched atop the local food chain.

Red-tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis

A subway and bus ride took me to the north entrance of the cemetery.  The central “mountain” of Mount Auburn has shaded its northern side with crunching snow and ice covering the grave sites, pathways, and roads.  A sign cautioning to proceed at your own risk tried to warn me away, but to no avail.  It was a risk worth taking.

This birding site is one of my all-time favorite locations.  The birds were just the predictable, common species, and quite sparse on that cold morning, but sometimes birding is not just about the birds.

All the ponds were frozen solid.  I saw an adventurous squirrel skate across one, but there were no ducks or geese.  The deep dark glen, a sanctuary for countless birds in warmer weather was now cold and silent, except for the occasional raspy cry of a jay.

The cemetery compels one to quietly reflect on the years gone by and those still to come.  The stones mark many lives well-lived, and perhaps some, not so much.  I was happy to be there and see the nuthatches, robins, and sparrows, but also to leave the burying ground behind and rejoin the Christmas bustle.

Christmas Eve found us in a long line of revelers, waiting on cold Copely Square to enter the warmth of the magnificent Trinity Church.  Our seats, almost in the front row, gave us a great proud view of our grandson in the choir, as we all joined them in singing the Christmas favorites.  The soaring soprano descants brought us chills and the deep bass notes of the organ shook our seats and stirred our souls.  Music like this makes the sacred season for me.

Trinity Church

Christmas in the city with the family, great food, wine, and song–I think I can get used to this.

In the bleak mid-winter, frosty wind made moan,

Earth stood hard as iron; water like a stone;

Snow had fallen, snow on snow,

In the bleak mid-winter, long ago.

 

What can I give Him, poor as I am?

If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;

If I were a wise man, I would do my part;

Yet what I can, I give Him–give Him my heart.

by Christina Rossetti

Best Bird Photos of 2019

Roseate Spoonbill, Platalea ajaja

 

Time may be infinite, but our small slice of it is not.  Tempus fugit.  So yet again it’s time to submit these best-of-year photos and wrap up another memorable 12 months of birding.  Each shot has a back story, but this year I’ll just let the photos speak for themselves.  Hope you enjoy them.

Great Horned Owl, Bubo virginianus

Wood Duck, Aix sponsa

Green Heron, Butorides virescens

Red-shouldered Hawk, Buteo lineatus

White-throated Sparrow, Zonotrichia albicollis

Eastern Screech-Owl, Megascops asio (I believe Andy took this shot while I expertly held the light)

Black Skimmers & Sandwich Terns, Rynchops niger & Sterna sandvicensis

Double-crested Cormorant, Phalacrocorax auritus

Crested Caracara, Caracara cheriway

Tree Swallows (juvenile), Tachycineta bicolor

Snail Kite, Rostrhamus sociabilis

Downy Woodpecker, Picoides pubescens

Belted Kingfisher, Ceryle alcyon

Anhinga, Anhinga anhinga

Pied-billed Grebe, Podilymbus podiceps

Great Horned Owls (juvenile), Bubo virginianus

 

I can’t help but wonder where all these birds are today.  Their slice of time is even smaller than ours.  Best wishes for the holidays, Happy Hanukkah, and Merry Christmas to all.

Chasing a Vermillion Flycatcher

Vermillion Flycatcher, Pyrocephalus rubinus                             photo by A. Sternick

 

He was only a few months old, but felt that same peculiar urge of his parents and siblings to head south and leave his Texas birthplace behind.  The storm blew up unexpectedly from the west, quickly separating him from the flock.  The wind carried him over open water, big water, and for two tiresome days he rode the storm eastward.  Finally the fury calmed and the green Florida coastline beckoned the exhausted solitary Vermillion Flycatcher.

The eBird rarity alert had been posting news of the flycatcher, with multiple sightings, all at the Oasis visitor’s parking lot of the Big Cypress National Preserve.  I had previously seen these gorgeous birds in Texas and Arizona, but for Andy it would be a lifer.  In a sense it was also a lifer for Andy’s house guest, John who agreed to join us for the chase.  John was not a birder, but an astute observer of nature, human and otherwise, and curious to see the source of all the excitement.

Vermillion Flycatcher, male                    (seen in Texas)

In a previous post called “Chasing Rarities in South Florida” (3/3/2016), I defined a birder’s increasing levels of chasing fervor.  Since this was a 100 mile roundtrip, but did not leave the expansive Collier County, it would be considered a mid-level or Class 3 adventure.  Retirement allows such fun and games.

Green Heron, Butorides virescens

We all knew the chance of actually seeing our target bird was very low, as Andy quipped, “one in vermillion”.  After all, the Cypress Swamp is vast and birds have wings and fly away in the blink of an eye.  At least we could show John some impressive Florida alligators.

American Alligator, Alligator mississippiensis

The flycatcher family, Tyrannidae, is notorious for its drab plumage, making the identification of its various members one of a birder’s greatest challenges.  Not so the Vermilliion Flycatcher.  The flamboyant male in breeding attire stands out from great distance as it makes its usual roundtrip from perch, to bug, and back again to the same perch.

Anhinga, Ahhinga anhinga

Our Florida bird, however, was a more muted juvenile bird, or perhaps the similar adult female, with much more subtle coloring.  You Latin scholars know that Pyrocephalus rubinus was aptly named.  Ornithologists are deep in the academic weeds sorting out the various subspecies of P. rubinus, including an isolated group on the Galapagos.  Some are for splitting the monotypic genus into multiple new species.  These DNA debates lose me quickly; wake me up when the final answer is in.

Double-crested Cormorant, Phalacrocorax auritus

Notorious poachers tried to capture and sell the males to pet stores, however it soon became apparent that the brilliant hue quickly dulled in captivity.  I suspect the captors failed to reproduce the bird’s native diet.  In any case, this stymied the practice before it could seriously deplete the population.

Vermillion Flycatcher                                  (seen in Arizona)

The Oasis parking lot is almost halfway across the state of Florida, along the old Alligator Alley.  It was a busy place with most, I dare say all, of the clientele there to see the large gators.  They weren’t disappointed as the boardwalk along the drainage ditch allowed great views of these slithering prehistoric monsters.    Wading birds foolishly seemed to ignore the prowling gators which I’m sure imbibe a feathery meal whenever hunger calls.

Red-shouldered Hawk, Buteo lineatus

We finally left the crowd and headed to the parking lot where the flycatcher had been reported.  An incredible drama with comedic and tragic elements ensued.  A Red-shouldered Hawk had just caught a fish from the ditch and was settling in for quiet lunch up a tree, when he was mobbed by two squawking American Crows who won the prize fish and drove the hawk from the scene.

American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos               photo by A. Sternick

Andy was busy taking pictures of the chaos and trying to explain to quizzical John why these were American Crows and not Fish Crows, given their obvious diet.  As he inched ever closer for the perfect shot a panel truck pulled in and parked directly between the Andy and his quarry.  Murphy’s Law strikes again.  Just about this same time I noticed a salmon-colored blur in my peripheral vision.  It was the Vermillion Flycatcher on the fence, right where the report said he had been days before.  As I turned to yell to Andy across the parking lot a motorcycle gang, finished with gator gazing, simultaneously started their bikes and drowned me out.  The bird however, luckily ignored the decibels and my frantic gesticulations, which Andy finally saw and comprehended.

The deprived hawk

Hundreds of shots later the bird moved on, perhaps to Central or South America for the winter, or maybe just to the next parking lot, while we headed back to Naples.  John got to see two happy birders celebrate a successful chase and perhaps he now understands his obsessive friends and their strange hobby a little better.  His life list is now at 1, and counting.

John & Andy

There are 20 million Vermillion Flycatchers in the world, but only 10% spend any time in the United States.  Most of those breed in the far southern portions of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.  Only a scarce few ever visit Florida, and those likely by accident and just along the west coast.  We were fortunate enough to see one of these last week.

Blue Ridge Birding, Brides, and Biophilia

Red-tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis

 

If you’re a urban dweller in the Washington / Baltimore corridor the urge to escape the asphalt jungle can either pull you to the east and the rural tidal wetlands of the Chesapeake Bay, or to the  west and the historic Shenandoah Valley and Blue Ridge Mountains.  It was the lure of the saltwater bay that won the day for us, but not without an occasional wistful glance over our shoulders to the beautiful mountains of Virginia.  Luckily a family wedding and an invitation from friends allowed us to visit this hill country in October.

Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus

Edward Wilson codified our urge to commune with nature as the “biophilia hypothesis” in 1984.  He actually suggested a genetic basis for homo sapien’s desire to affiliate with other forms of life, both plant and animal.  I suspect it’s a driving force behind increasing urban green spaces, back yard gardening, environmentalism, and the popularity of birding.  It may have also inspired an urban bride and groom to head to the mountains to exchange their vows.

It was a perfect day for a wedding with an Indian summer sun’s slanting, late afternoon rays, shining on the wedding party.  Grazing cows on the nearby hills barely noticed the nuptial festivities.  I was not unaware of the soaring birds completing the idyllic scene.  Live music and dancing, with some blue grass flavor finished the memorable day.

Eastern Bluebird, Sialia sialis

The next morning we headed further south and west, higher into the Blue Ridge, along the Cow Pasture River.  Friends from Charlottesville, two families, had jointly dreamed of owning a cabin in the hills.  It would be a rustic, secluded lodge, along a river, ideal for fly-fishing, tubing, and hiking.  It would be a country retreat for the two large families, now with many grandchildren.  It was all that and more with a large front porch, stone fireplace, and comfortable beds, with a nearby bunkhouse for the kids.

One arrives at this destination over a mile of winding, narrow, gravel road along the creek bed, past a repaired wash-out, and through the dense woods.  Several times I wanted to turn back, this couldn’t be the right route, but we pressed on.  At the edge of the forest and the top of the last hill we finally saw the house in the valley below, with barking dogs, Lang, Peggy, and Mike all welcoming us to their home in the mountains.

Right out of the car I spotted a large bird perched atop a pole and power line, maybe a quarter mile across the valley.  It had a light upper and dark lower body and I prematurely declared it must be a Bald Eagle.  I quickly unpacked my camera and proceeded to close in for a better look.  The technique is to advance 50 feet, take some shots, check exposure factors, and advance another 50 feet.  If you’re lucky you may even get a flight shot when the bird finally spooks.

Yellow-Romped Warbler, Dendroica coronata

In my experience most raptors, especially eagles, won’t let you get very close.  My goal was to hide behind the last tree, perhaps 100 yards from the perching bird.  I inched my way there and still the bird did not move; something was not right.  I took more shots and zoomed them to the maximum.  It was not an eagle.  It was a Red-tailed Hawk, upside down, and dead.  The whiteness I saw from a distance was the hawk’s lower belly feathers, not the head of a Bald Eagle.

Obviously I could now get as close as I wanted, inspect the crime scene, and get as many shots as needed, all with the correct sun angle and exposure.  This hawk was not going anywhere.  How did this proud bird reach this ignoble, inverted end, hanging earthward, limp, dead?  Death had come recently.  There were no signs of gunshot, but man was not completely blameless.  I believe this was death by electrocution.

Birds land and perch on power lines everyday with no ill effect.  The flow of electrons takes the direction of least resistance through the wire, bypassing the relatively insulated body of the bird.  If that bird, however, ever touches another wire or any grounded structure, the current will flow through the bird and kill it.  My theory is that this hapless hawk landed on top of the wooden pole and its wing or feet touched the wire, completing the circuit from wire, to bird, to pole, and the ground.

Barn Swallows, Hirundo rustica

I did more birding that day and the next as our hosts guided us over the suspension bridge and through their forest on barely blazed trails.  We saw other woodland birds but I could not get that hawk out of my mind.  A couple weeks later Peggy emailed me that it had finally fallen to earth and the vultures had picked over the corpse, leaving just feathers and some bones to mark the spot.

And time goes by.  This fall weekend reminded me of that yet again.  Mother Earth and all its creatures grow old.  If we’re fortunate aging is graceful and gradual, but occasionally unexpected tragedy intervenes.  We cling to nature, each other, and our God for solace, but time waits for no one, not even a Red-tailed Hawk.

All The Birds You Cannot See

Red-headed Woodpecker, Melanerpes erythrocephalus

 

I had foolishly promised we would see the Red-headed Woodpecker at the Blackwater NWR, a site where I had seen it on almost every prior visit.  That is, until my last trip there just a few weeks ago when it was nowhere in sight.  eBird was also reporting a sighting a month ago, but none more recently.  The woodpecker was a nemesis bird for Andy.   He and his wife flew down from New York to spend last week with us on the Chesapeake and seeing that bird was high on our birding agenda–the pressure was on.

Blackwater NWR

We all have nemesis birds; unchecked boxes on our life lists of birds we should have seen but somehow have slipped through the cracks.  As we age that list shrinks for our local patch and the surge of excitement of seeing a bird for the first time becomes less frequent.  But a few birds, some of them quite common in Maryland and Florida, have avoided my detection.  I’m somewhat embarrassed to reveal that personal list:  Snowy Owl, Puffin, all the Rails, Worm-eating Warbler, and Mangrove Cuckoo among others.  The cuckoo hides from me despite my living among the Florida mangroves for a good part of the year.

Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus

There’s some good-natured competitive chiding between Andy and me over our unseen birds.  He does not hesitate to show me his exquisite photos of Snowy Owls which frequent his patch in Upstate New York, or his Puffin shots from Iceland, while I counter with my best Red-headed Woodpecker poses.  But it’s all in fun and I truly hoped for him to finally check that box at Blackwater last week.  We failed.

Wildlife Drive at Blackwater

But Blackwater never fails to impress the first timer with other features; the great vistas of tidal grasslands, lowland pine forests, and of course the soaring Bald Eagles.  Near the beginning of Wildlife Drive there are numerous snags and Loblolly Pines covered with woodpecker holes.  We saw Pileated, Downy, Red-bellied, and Sapsuckers, but no Red-heads.  Big disappointment.  Now I understand the pressure a bird guide must feel when he fails to deliver target birds to his paying customers.

Belted Kingfisher, Ceryle alcyon

Blackwater did seem less “birdy” that day.  Maybe it was the unusually warm weather or perhaps the prolonged drought.  Or perhaps we had just missed the songbird migration to the south and were early for the waterfowl from the north.  Even so, we did see 37 species and will never feel cheated by a trip to this phenomenal refuge on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

We detect birds by eyesight, but also by birdsong.  As a novice birder I always thought this was cheating; checking a box when never spotting the singing bird, who was often identified for me by a more seasoned birder or guide.  I’m still loathe to claim a life bird solely by song, but readily tick the common birds by song on my routine outings.  But there remain far too many songs that I have not yet matched with a bird.  It’s frustrating.

Greater Yellowlegs, Tringa melanoleuca

Birding by ear is an advanced skill that is slowly acquired over the years.  I’m impressed with some local birders that recognize an extensive repertoire of birdsong; some can even reproduce the song by mouth, hoping to coax the bird out of seclusion for visual verification.

Northern Harrier, Circus cyaneus

I’m working on my audio skills with the help of Larkwire, a helpful cell phone app of birdsong, complete with quizzes.  There are even apps that can detect and identify birds in the field, similar to Shazam, the app used to identify popular human song.  Among others these include Song Sleuth and ChirpOMatic.  I cannot vouch for their accuracy but their names are catchy.

Mallard, Anas platyrhynchos

I’ll never forget the beautiful haunting and repetitive birdsong I heard near Mount Fuji several springs ago.  Hoh…hokeyo, hoh…hokekyo.  The bird was clearly close by, first to the right and then the left, but skillfully avoided my visual detection for days.  Finally on the day of departure I caught a fleeting glance of the elusive source.  It was a small, plain Jane bird with a gorgeous voice.  On the flight home I played various songs on my laptop, finally matching bird to song.  It was Uguisu, the Japanese Bush Warbler, a secretive bird known to frustrate birders, but also a welcome harbinger of Spring.

Blackwater NWR

The great consolation and inspiration for us birders is that there will always be more new birds to see and hear, right up to our dying day.  More than ten thousand beckon us;  I have just scratched the surface.  That rush we get form a new sighting need never grow old.  Even Phoebe Snetsinger, may she rest in peace, and Noah Strycker did not see them all.  We may need to travel further, dig deeper for airfare, and hire more guides, but the quest will never end.

Birding Daily, Almost

 

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus

 

They were loud, almost obnoxious neighbors.  When we slept with the windows open to catch the gentle summer breeze they were the last thing we heard each evening and the first raucous greeting each dawn.  But now they are gone, without even a neighborly adieu, and I admit to missing them already.

Osprey family

There are three Osprey platforms along our shore and each hosts a successful breeding pair every summer.  The parents, new fledglings, and yearlings certainly created an interesting summer on San Domingo Creek this year, learning to fly, fish, and chase away the bullying Fish Crows.  But now they’re all gone and the quiet is eerie.

Eastern Kingbird, Tyrannus tyrannus

Other quieter cast members have also left the stage, exit south.  I refer to the Eastern Kingbirds, whom the permanent resident Northern Mockingbirds allowed to breed beside the cove, and the related Barn and Tree Swallows who breed under the dock and in the Bluebird houses.  Any day now they will be replaced by large noisy flocks of migratory Canada Geese and a new cacophony will begin.  Alas, another season has passed.

Barn Swallow, Hirundo rustica

My birding has evolved, and not necessarily for the better.  It’s been a long time, since Norway in May, for me to purposely set out on a birding excursion.  You know the drill; an early AM start armed with binoculars, camera with telephoto lens, guide book or cell phone, bug spray, sun protection, etc.

Tree Swallow, Tachycineta bicolor

I may have become a victim of the eBird challenge for us to bird continuously, submitting daily lists of sightings as we go about our non-birding lives.  Their intentions at Cornell are laudable, trying to expand the world-wide data base of birds to assess population trends and birds at risk.  But I think I may have carried this all too far.

Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos

The eBird app makes it too easy (http://www.ebird.org).  We went out for a seafood dinner along the Tred Avon River with a large group and I secured a waterside seat so I could clandestinely count the cormorants and gulls between bites.  No one knew.  One of my favorite personal locations is a comfortable hammock strategically positioned in the back yard between a feeder and birdbath.  The chickadees, finches, and hummingbirds hardly notice me there unless I snore and drop the iPhone.  I even got a few ticks through a hospital window during a brief illness last January.

American Goldfinch, Carduelis tristis

eBird got serious about these daily tabulations last January when they announced the “Checklist-A-Day Challenge”.  Submit your daily sightings all year long, even if a session is as short as 3 minutes, and be eligible to win a set of Zeiss binoculars on December 31.  More importantly you contribute to a valuable growing database of birds.  I started the year on a roll, 133 straight days of sightings, but then life intervened.  Not to worry, you just need an average of 1 list per day and there are still 97 days left in 2019 to make up the deficit.

Lincoln Park, Chicago

We recently took two short non-birding trips that allowed me to squeeze in a few observations.  One was to a spectacular family wedding at Chicago, Lincoln Park.  The joy of seeing my nephew and his beautiful bride begin their lives together, and seeing the satisfaction and celebration of the supporting families and friends overshadowed even the birds.  But I did count some on the shore of Lake Michigan and during an architectural tour on the Chicago River, whose flow, by the way, was remarkably reversed by engineers in 1900.

Keuka Springs Winery

The other trip was to Upstate New York, my native stomping ground.  To the New York City crowd, anything north of the Tappan Zee Bridge is called “upstate”.  The rest of us know that the true upstate is Syracuse, Rochester, Ithaca, Watkins Glen, Skaneateles, and countless other small towns nestled among the rolling hills, wineries, and the Finger Lakes.  The residents here even sound different than the big city folks.  I don’t believe there is a more beautiful and comfortable place anywhere in the summer.  But forget the winters.

White-breasted Nuthatch, Sitta carolinensis

It was another chance for some soft core birding while we became reacquainted with family and friends.  My sister has maintained and restored the old summer cottage that my Dad and Mom bought on Keuka Lake in 1956, and my brother has recently relocated just down the road.   We had dinner with the same next door neighbors that I knew in the 1950’s, now with several generations of offspring all returning to their homestead each year, similar to those migrating Osprey.

Wood Duck, Aix sponsa

I’m the only birder in the family, so for one week the old feeder is dusted off and filled with sunflower seeds.  It only takes a few hours for the chickadees and finches, to find the cache.  I’m particularly pleased with the nuthatches climbing the trunks of the ash and pines near the back door.  We have Wood Ducks, American Black Ducks, and Common Mergansers on the lake, all new since my childhood days when we only saw Mallards.  There even was an Osprey fishing near the shore, apparently just as happy with the freshwater sunfish and bass as their more common salt water catch.

Common Merganser, Mergus merganser

The last stop in Upstate was Ithaca, the home of dear friends and also the famous Sapsucker Woods and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  I can “blame” them for my list-a-day craze, but Cornell and their brain child eBird have seriously revolutionized birding.

Sapsucker Woods Pond

Their data, even my sightings from the hammock, have documented the loss of 3 billion birds from the U.S. and Canada since the 1970’s, 30% of our total bird population.  “More than 90% of the losses are from 12 families including sparrows, finches, blackbirds, and warblers”.  But all is not doom and gloom.  The water fowl population has grown 56% and raptors are up 200% over the same period.  Those ducks and the thriving Osprey families can thank Cornell, dedicated ornithologists, and even lowly eBirders for this revival.

 

Birding Florida in August

Tricolor Heron, Egretta tricolor

 

In early August I spent a week in south Florida.  No, I’m not crazy.  I had some indoor painting to do there, and own a perfectly functioning air conditioner.  It makes one wonder what people did in the South before AC.  And more importantly, how do the birds handle this heat?  Instead of watching the paint dry I  ventured outside to do a little summertime birding and to solve this mystery.

White Ibis, Eudocimus albus

The August humidity in Florida is oppressive; just get used to being damp while doing anything outside, including birding.  We sweat in an attempt to cool our bodies through evaporation.  Remember your high school thermodynamics; water going from liquid to gaseous phases requires energy and draws heat away from your skin.  But birds don’t sweat; they do not have sweat glands.  Despite this they still like to stay wet in the hot weather to take advantage of evaporative cooling.

Fish Crow, Corvus ossifragus

Birds have also developed other behavioral and physiologic mechanisms to deal with extreme heat.  They have a much higher metabolic rate than humans and a higher baseline temperature, as high as 108F degrees for some birds.  Ninety degree days, therefore are not as critical for a bird as for us humans, however extreme temperatures can be a problem.  Their behavioral adjustments to the heat strike me as just common sense, like things your mother would tell you.  “Stay out of the hot mid-day sun, feed and play in the early morning or evening, bathe often, and drink a lot of water.”

Brown Pelicans, Pelecanus occidentalis

I understand that soaring birds soar even higher on hot days, seeking cooler air.  If all else fails, the birds can always consider an earlier fall migration or relocation to habitats at higher elevation.  Indeed the ranges of many birds are expanding northward as the climate warms.

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus

Avian physiologic adjustments to heat are interesting.  Birds can increase their respiratory rate and breathe with an open bill, just like a panting dog.  Think of the bird’s lungs as a heat exchanger, with heat passing from the hot blood to the relatively cooler air.  Some birds take this thermoregulation to a higher level, by including a rapid vibration of the moist throat to enhance evaporation.  This is called “gular fluttering” and can be seen with cormorants, night hawks, and doves.

Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Nyctanassa violacea

Feathers, such vital insulating structures for cooler weather, work against the bird in the hot summer.  Luckily birds also have some vascular featherless body parts, (legs, feet, bills, eye rings) that can also function as cooling heat exchangers.  The huge bills of the tropical Toucans are very vascular and a good example of this cooling technique.  When the temperature finally falls the blood flow to these parts decreases to maintain warmth.

Green Heron, Butorides virescens

Vultures, as you might expect, lead the way with the most disgusting cooling method.  Urohydrosis is the sophisticated term for these birds urinating on their feet and legs to foster evaporative cooling.  The drying white urate salts also better reflect the sun’s rays than the darker clean legs and feet.  I’m told that multi-colored birds perch with their lighter and more reflective plumage toward the sun in hot weather, but have not observed this pattern myself.

Black Vulture, Coragyps atratus

Some of these cooling methods were evident while birding the Pelican Bay berm along the mangroves and further inland at the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.  The birds were hiding from me and the heat, especially the passerines where only a few were active in the deep shade of the cypress forest.  There certainly was no shortage of water as the ditches and ponds were all full from the daily monsoons.  The Florida waders were out in force, but I only saw one shorebird; a Willet frolicking alone in the Gulf surf.

Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Nyctanassa violacea

Anhinga, a juvenile night heron, and a vulture were all seen holding their wings out, away from their bodies.  This is for drying and evaporative cooling, but also to keep the insulating wing feathers away from the body.

Corkscrew’s Lettuce Lake

Don’t forget the birder who must also adapt to the heat.  Sunscreen, hats, water bottles, etc. are obvious, but I wasn’t prepared for the severe Florida humidity.  The air temperature was similar to that of the Chesapeake region this time of year, but the humidity was brutal.

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

Dripping sweat clouding glasses and lenses was a constant battle, but on the plus side, there were no throngs crowding the birding hotspots.  I made the 3 mile loop on the Corkscrew boardwalk and saw only two other birders.  There were many more guides than patrons.  The Pelican Bay berm and beach were almost empty with no joggers or bikers to dodge.  If you prefer to bird alone, Florida in August beckons.

Gulf of Mexico

August is our yearly lull on the birding calendar for more reasons than just the heat.  The excitement of breeding, nesting, and feeding hatchlings is subsiding.  Birds are lying low, molting, and building up reserves for a possible long fall migration.  For the full time residents of Florida, both avian and human, its just a time to relax, try to stay cool, and wait for the inevitable surge from the north, soon to begin.

Norway

 

I live on the Chesapeake Bay, a famous large estuary on the east coast of the United States, but oh, so different from the fjords we recently explored along the west coast of Norway.  The fjords are also estuaries, which by definition are bodies of water open to the tidal seas at their mouth but also fed by freshwater sources upstream.

The Chesapeake’s freshwater sources are the mighty Susquehanna and smaller Potomac and Choptank Rivers, whereas the Norwegian fjords are fed by countless, spectacular cascading waterfalls draining the surrounding snow-capped peaks.  The Chesapeake is a shallow, mud and sand bottomed drowned river, south of the last glacial advance, whereas the nordic fjords are deep, steeped walled rocky valleys carved out by glaciers during the last Ice Age.

I don’t believe I’ve visited a more beautiful country than Norway.  Along with the many fjords penetrating the west coast, some as far as 100 miles inland, there are thousands of small islands just offshore.  You can envision the marauding Viking ships slipping out to sea from a fjord or island to rampage Northern Europe in the 10th century, or a sinister German U-Boat sneaking into a deep fjord during the more recent 20th century conflagration.

Bergen

This is not a travel blog but let me make this suggestion.  “Norway in a Nutshell” is a wonderful one-day tour of the best of southwestern Norway.  Starting in Bergen, on the west coast, we took the Bergen Railway inland and switched to the Flam Railway at Myrdal.  The slow train revealed Kodak moments at virtually every turn.  After a short stop at Kjosfossen falls we arrived at Flam and boarded a comfortable boat to explore the narrow Naeroyfjord (a UNESCO heritage site) and equally beautiful Aurlandsfjord.

Kjosfossen Falls, 305 feet

We stopped counting and photographing the waterfalls and cozy villages nestled at the shoreline at 100.  At Gudvangen we boarded a bus for a harrowing cross country ride on switchbacks and finally caught the Bergen train for home at Voss.  It was a spectacular day.

Fred, always after the perfect shot angle

Fred, Mary, Suzanne, and I left Bergen by rental car and headed east to explore this land on our own.  After the unseasonable heat in Russia we were happy for the cooler air but were surprised by a snowstorm in late May as we crossed over a Nordic mountain range.  I was constantly on the lookout for birds (but didn’t see many), while my companions were much more interested in Stave Church sitings.

A Stave Church

These are medieval wooden churches with a characteristic post and lintel construction, built between 1150 and 1350.  Most of the surviving structures are in Norway.  At one small village a young man was found waiting alone inside one, so happy to finally see some interested tourists.  He proudly shared with us his impressive knowledge of the history of the church.

Solvorn

We arrived at the village of Solvorn with enough daylight to appreciate the serene beauty of this small town nestled along the Lustrafjord.  Our hotel was the quaint and picturesque  Walaker, the oldest inn in Norway, dating back to 1640.  Nine generations of a family of innkeepers have expertly maintained this gem.  Unfortunately the elder innkeeper had just died and the hotel’s flag flew at half mast.  But another generation of hosts, I assume the 10th, stepped up and welcomed us.  Each comfortable room had a view of the fjord and the dinner and breakfast were simply superb.

Our only regret was that we had only one night to spend at the Walaker.  We vowed we would return someday for an extended visit, but you know that is unlikely.  I did some evening and early morning birding along the fjord seeing just 7 common species,  but there was a stealthy bird with a vaguely familiar call singing from the tall tree just in the Walaker’s front yard.  I finally caught a glimpse of the elusive European Pied Flycatcher, a life bird for me just a few days prior in Finland.

White Wagtail, Motacilla alba

Our European sojourn was to end in Oslo, but not before I hired one last guide to show me a few more Scandinavian birds.  I found Simon Rix through his website, http://www.oslobirder.blogspot.com.

Simon Rix

Simon is an Englishman who migrated to Oslo 18 years ago and has become the “go-to” birder for southern Norway.  I was lucky to book him for a half day, but unlucky as it rained most of the morning.  Even so, I had a great time.  He showed me 49 different species, including a flyover of a singing Cuckoo, apparently unusual for that time and place.  Yes, it sounded just like your grandmother’s cuckoo clock.

Fornebu

We birded the Fornebu peninsula, just west of Oslo, and the site of the city’s old airport.  The Luftwaffe landed here during their invasion of neutral Norway on April 9, 1940, but were finally ousted from the site and country by Allied forces in 1945.  The abandoned airfield has been reclaimed by nature and is a birding hotspot and favorite for Simon.

Fieldfare, Turdis pilaris

Common Wood Pigeon, Columba palumbus

On my last day abroad I arose early and headed to the Palace Park in Oslo.  It was finally sunny and a chance to put the Panasonic Lumix G9 and 50-200mm Leica lens to a good test.  The birds were largely common but cooperative with Fieldfare and Wood Pigeons galore.  But I did add one bird to my life list when a Hawfinch proudly posed for me near the palace as if bidding me Godspeed for our long return flight home.

Hawfinch, Coccothraustes coccothraustes

This post ends my accounting of our memorable one month excursion to Russia and Scandinavia.  I promise to return to my more typical birding and photography format soon.

 

Finland

Helsinki                                                                                  Photo by F. Widding

 

When Heikki Eriksson emailed me the start time of 0300 for my birding adventure in Helsinki I thought it must be a misprint.  I know we birders like to start early, but 3:00 AM?  No misprint.  I forgot we were in the land of the “white nights”, latitude 60 degrees North, about the same as Anchorage, Alaska.  Heikki was gifted by his ability to bird-by-ear so the dim, predawn light was no problem for us, or at least for him.  The bird calls for me were all foreign, but interesting, none-the-less.

Heikki Eriksson

We arrived in Helsinki by train from Saint Petersburg on May 22, traveling along the northern shore of the Gulf of Finland, through low, boggy terrain, passing Vyborg near the border.  I’ve come to learn of the historic significance of this frontier south of Lake Ladoga, separating the great bear of Russia from Finland.

“Before the Storm” by H Munsterhjelm, 1870                         (at the Ateneum)

From the 13th until the early 19th century present day Finland was part of the powerful Swedish Empire.  Russia replaced Sweden as “empire-in-charge” in 1809, initially granting the Finns considerable local autonomy.  They, in turn, gave their women the right to vote in 1906, I believe the first people to do this.  The Bolsheviks granted Finland its complete independence after the Russian Revolution of 1917, but the subsequent first half of the 20th century was anything but tranquil for the Finns.

Mew Gulls, Larus canus

The nonaggression pact between Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939 allowed Russia to annex the small Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, while Germany was busy fighting further to the west.  Finland however, also a Baltic state, resisted this Russian intrusion, preferring to fight to maintain their recent independence.  Russia invaded Finland on November 30, 1939, and for over 5 months the Finns heroically fought before succumbing to their superior foe.  They refer to this struggle as the “Winter War”, differentiating it from later events of WWII.

Finland’s eventual defeat by Russia and the reluctance of other western democracies to come to their aid in 1939, partly explains their uneasy alliance with Hitler from 1941 to 1944.  This period is referred to by the Finns as the “Continuation War”.  Caught between the proverbial “rock and a hard place” they had few choices, ultimately distrusting the Stalin more than Hitler.  The Finn’s battlefield support for Germany however, was decidedly lukewarm, until they finally changed sides against a defeated Germany in 1945.  This turbulent and controversial chapter of Finnish history is well chronicled in “Finland’s War of Choice, The Troubled German-Finnish Coalition in World War II” by  Henrik O. Lunde, published in 2011.

A Birder’s Balance Beam somewhere near Helsinki

The weather in Helsinki was exactly the opposite of what we experienced in Russia.  The clear blue skies and unseasonable Russian heat were replaced by a cool, cloudy, drizzle, clearly not a good test for my new mirror-less camera and lens (Panasonic Lumix G9 camera and Leica F2.8-4.0 50-200mm lens).  Heikki picked me up at 3:00 AM sharp and we headed west along the coast to the nearby principalities of Espoo and Kirkkonummi where we birded several fields, tidal wetlands, and scattered woodlots.

Eurasian Blue Tit, Cyanistes caeruleus

Much of the serious birding in Finland is done further north than Helsinki, even above the Arctic Circle.  Visit the website of Finnature, a guiding company, at http://www.finnature.com to fully appreciate what this land has to offer.  They are the people that connected me with my guide.  I only had one birding day to spare during this initial visit, but Heikki certainly made the most of it, even close to the city.  I especially liked seeing the Goldcrest and Eurasian Blue Tit.  Spotting a Ruff in the wetlands and a flyover by an Arctic Tern were also notable.  We saw 76 different species in 9 damp hours, 28 of which were lifers for me.

Common Golden Eye, Bucephala clangula

Soon after sunrise the cold rains began.  The new equipment is weather sealed but even they must have their limits.  As the rain increased I reluctantly retired them to the car after only a few good shots, continuing the outing with just binos, visual memories, and eBird documentation of the sightings.

Yours truly

Every time I hire a guide I’m reminded of how much I have yet to learn.  Heikki displayed exceptional knowledge of birdsong and many of the early birds were “heard but not seen”.  I had no problem ticking them however, since most were seen later after sunrise.  His other skill was long distant ID by GISS (general impression, size, and shape), so helpful on the viewing platform.

Northern Goshawk and Cooper’s Hawks by J.J. Audubon

A memorable surprise for us both was a sudden, swooping, stealth attack by a Northern Goshawk, just feet away, taking a poor unsuspecting dove in broad daylight.  I liken it to the team of pick pockets who surprised me the prior week on Nevsky Prospect in Saint Petersburg.  The only difference was they just got my wallet; the dove lost much more.

When we were not birding or strolling Helsinki we discovered the fabulous Ateneum Art Museum.  Rainy day–not a problem, just head to the gallery resplendent with the works of Finnish artists and other masters.  Or you can relish the great seaside cuisine and take pictures of your plate as my “foodie” companions were apt to do.

Tallinn Estonia

We also took the ferry across the Gulf of Finland 50 miles, to the ancient and historic city of Tallinn, Estonia.  Near the city wall I finally ID’ed that common American Robin-like bird hunting for worms on seemingly all the European lawns.  It’s a Fieldfare; no big deal to the locals, but a life bird for me.

Fieldfare, Turdus pilaris

After 3 short nights in Helsinki it was off to Bergen, Norway by plane.  Just scratching the surface of fascinating Finland has enticed me to return; perhaps to the area above the Arctic Circle.  I knew I was leaving a “birdy” country when I visited the airport toilet before boarding the flight and they were playing birdsong on the public address system.  Heikki would have known the exact bird.