Harns Marsh Preserve and the Swamphen Saga

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Harns isn’t listed with the famous birding destinations in south Florida (Corkscrew, Ding Darling, the Everglades, and Big Cypress) but maybe it should be.  This is a 578 acre preserve in Lehigh Acres set aside in 1985 for stormwater control along the Orange River.  Half is an open water lake but the more interesting half for birders is the shallower marsh and surrounding trail.  If you bird in the morning the sun will be at your back and allow some great shots of the waders and flyovers.  Bring a scope as many of the birds tease you from a distance.

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Sandhill Crane, Grus canadensis

In my experience Harns is the best place to see Snail Kites.  The imposing Sandhill Cranes approached me so closely I was a little worried about their intention, but it did allow some great closeups.  The abundant non-native Apple Snails also attract Limpkins, while Bald Eagles, Harriers, Red-shouldered Hawks, Bitterns, and Vultures galore complemented the usual Florida waders.  My personal life list here is 37, but locals report up to 100 species at Harns.

Black Vulture

Black Vulture, Coragyps atratus

The reason for our recent visit was to chase the unusual Grey-headed swamphen (Porphyrio poliocephalus), listed on eBird as a rarity at this location.  “Porphyrio” is Greek for purple, “polio” is Greek for grey, and “cephalus” is Latin for head.  I had previously seen the bird only once at great distance and it was a life bird for my colleague.  The large purple and blue bird was easily spotted among the grasses almost as soon as we arrived.  The grey head was subtle if present at all.  Apparently it is most obvious on the male; the female head is blue.

Grey-headed swamphen

Grey-headed swamphen, Porphyrio poliocephalus

The swamphen saga in Florida is either one of escape and survival, or invasion and alarm depending on your point of view.  The Purple swamphen is a native of Turkey, India, China, and Thailand and has recently been split into 6 separate species, the Grey-headed being one.  There are two stories of the origin of this large tropical rail in south Florida.  One account claims they escaped from the Miami Metro Zoo during hurricane Andrew in 1992.  The other story blames careless aviculturalists allowing them to roam freely in Pembroke, Florida at about the same time.  In any case the birds were sprung and made the most of their new freedom.

Tricolored-heron

Tricolored-heron, Egretta tricolor

This bird has been described as “a Purple Gallinule on steroids”, it being much larger but otherwise quite similar to its native cousin.  The non-migratory rail has quickly adjusted to the good life in the freshwater marshes of sunny Florida, primarily feasting on plants and supplementing the diet with mollusks, and small animals.

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk, Buteo lineatus

Up the food chain their threats are from alligators, large mammals, birds-of-prey, and for a while, man.  The swamphens often raise several broods a year and their population has grown.   With some alarm regarding their potential threats to the natives, authorities started a program of eradication, shooting 3100 birds over 27 months.  This campaign ended in 2008 with the birds still  surviving and thriving.

Grey-headed swamphen

Grey-headed swamphen, Porphyrio poliocephalus

What do you think about the non-natives moving in?  My feelings are colored by the Mute Swans that almost took over our tributary of the Chesapeake Bay several years ago.  At their peak I could count several hundred of these alien, aggressive, non-migratory birds on the river with multiple nest along the shoreline.  They were displacing the native, migratory, and more humble Tundra Swans and devouring the vital submerged grasses, roots and all.  They clearly went too far when they attacked us in our canoe, (I fended them off with the paddle), and played chicken with me on the riding mower.  Thankfully an eradication program ended all this and I have not seen one on the Chesapeake in years.

Belted Kingfisher

Belted Kingfisher, Ceryle torquatus

The jury’s still out on the swamphen.  Can they assimilate and play well with others, or will they follow the lead of the Mute Swans and try to take over and dominate the Florida marshes?  The bird is clearly a survivor.  I admire that and so far I am not aware they have caused any substantial damage, but only time will tell.  In the meantime, check out this photogenic bird and the other avifauna at Harns Marsh Preserve.

Bird Digestion

Florida Scrub Jay

Florida Scrub Jay, Aphelocoma coerulescens

 

I know this may be an unappetizing topic for some, but being a physician I find the comparative anatomy and physiology of avian digestion fascinating.  Don’t confuse my title and posting with the venerable and recommended periodical “Bird Watchers Digest”, mainly for their sake.  Check it out at http://www.birdwatchersdigest.com.

Herring Gull with lunch

Herring Gull with crab, Larus argentatus

I reckon that a bird spends the majority of his life eating or hunting for food.  Even the apparent sedentary perching owl or hawk is likely planning his next attack and contemplating the next meal.  And this is time well spent since the survival of these warm-blooded, active birds, with very high metabolic rates requires a constant source of energy.  Reproduction (breeding, nest building, and rearing of the young) along with migration are also time consumers, but take a back seat to eating and daily survival.

Piping Plover

Piping Plover, Charadrius melodus

Given the requirements of flight, birds do not have the luxury of storing heavy layers of fat or foods internally, with the one exception being the preparation for migration.  For this some songbirds increase their body weight by 40% and need every last ounce and calorie for the rigors of migration.  But generally most birds need a steady and constant inflow of food and energy to survive.  This is even more critical in the cold of winter.

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Little Blue Heron, Egretta caerulea

Luckily birds have evolved a rapid and efficient digestive system, able to cope with a varied diet.  For some birds and food types the transit from beak to cloaca can be as rapid as 30 minutes.  The beak and toothless mouth are for stabbing, carrying, crushing, and tearing the food, quickly sending it downstream to the tubular esophagus.  Fortunately, given their diet, birds have a small tongue with few, if any taste buds.

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Gull demonstrating the edentulous mouth, small tongue, and no taste buds.

Many have a widened area in the mid-esophagus called the crop.  This is the site of short-term parking for a big meal as is often demonstrated by the tell tale neck bulge of the heron who recently swallowed the large fish, always head first.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

The bird stomach is very different than ours.  It is a two-part affair with a glandular first sac called the proventriculus.  Strong acid, enzymes, and mucus start the digestive process here, before transporting the food to the second part called the gizzard.

Snowy Egret

Snowy Egret with large insect, Egretta thula

The gizzard is a thicker muscular sac with a rough sand-like lining, perfect for grinding and mixing.  Some contain sand and stones further aiding the process.  Pellets containing the non-digestible waste such as bone fragments, hair, shells, and feathers are passed and often mark the roosting sites of owls and other birds-of-prey.

Peregrine Falcon

Peregrine Falcon eating a Lesser Black-backed Gull, Falco peregrinus and Larus fuscus

The actual absorption of nutrients occurs in the small intestine where food is mixed with the enzymes from the pancreas.  Birds-of-prey have a relatively short small bowel, whereas herbivorous birds have a longer one, needed for the slower digestion of the tougher cellulose-rich food.  Multiple small sacs off the small bowel are called caeca and harbor beneficial bacteria, further aiding digestion.

Limpkin with Apple Snail

Limpkin with Apple Snail, Aramus guarauna

A bird’s colon or large bowel is short, just serving as a conduit to the final cavity, the cloaca.  The cloaca empties to the outside world via the vent, sometimes onto the unsuspecting birder.  As you know the cloaca is the common chamber for both sexes receiving the products of the gastrointestinal, urologic, and genital tracts.  The close and rapid contact of the vents and cloacae is when and where the genetic material is exchanged.

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Its a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher so it must be eating a gnat. Polioptila caerulea

The Cattle Egret below was finally fed up with his diet of insects and mice and got in the drive-thru lane at McDonalds thinking that they might offer a better menu.  I’m not so sure.

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Cattle Egret, Bubulcus ibis

Bird of the Day

Hooded Merganser

Hooded Mergansers

 

When you return to the car, a little weary and sweaty after birding you may ask the same questions we often ask.  What was the most memorable bird of the day?  Or maybe, how many species did we see today, or were there any year-birds or life-birds, or did we finally connect a bird with its song?  These are mind games that we birders commonly play.

Great Egret

Great Egret, Ardea alba

I had planned a solo outing to Corkscrew Sanctuary in southwest  Florida, but choking smoke from a controlled burn there chased me to the nearby Bird Rookery Swamp.  The ditch along the gravel access road had been recently dredged and waders in large numbers were apparently feasting on the stirred up fish and crustaceans.  I was already having a great day when the Hooded Merganser pair turned up in the same ditch.

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Lophodytes cucullatus

I find these small diving ducks, sometimes called “Hoodies” or “Sawbills” difficult to photograph.  Not only are they skittish, but the male’s jet black face and head sharply contrasts with the white hood.  One is invariably either under or over-exposed.  The larger female has a more subtle tawny beauty.  The ducks are winter residents here but breed further north, nesting in tree cavities or houses, similar to Wood Ducks.  Its hard to believe but the mother calls the hatchlings to the forest floor only 24 hours after exiting the egg, and leads them to water where they start swimming and feeding themselves.  Literally “sink or swim”.

Hooded Merganser

Hooded Merganser, Lophodytes cucullatus

The teeming ditch also afforded many chances to catch some flying shots as the waders took off and landed.  The Anhinga and Great Egret were my favorite keepers in this category.

Anhinga

Anhinga anhinga

Great Egret

Great Egret, Ardea alba

Finally, parking the car and setting out along the path into the swamp things quieted down.  The gravel path through the wetlands, gators, and Pond Cypresses must be similar to “Old Florida”.  I came across a non-birding couple, obviously out for a power walk, who had stopped and noticed a strange bird just off the trail.  Thinking it was likely just another Ibis or other common bird I stopped.  An American Bittern; great sighting!

American Bittern

American Bittern, Botaurus lentiginosus

Its funny–I’ve never seen this bird on my own.  It has always been sighted by others, usually non-birders, and then pointed out to me.  Once it was a 7 year-old boy who was tugging on my pants as I was chasing warblers high above, trying to get me to notice the strange bird he had found below, just off the boardwalk. This may say something about my observation skills but the bird is stealthy, with vertical striations blending beautifully with the adjacent grasses.  When alarmed the head and neck go straight up, further mimicking the rushes.

American Bittern

American Bittern, Botaurus lentiginosus

This short legged and thick necked wader also has multiple nicknames. “Bog bumper”, “Stake Driver”, “Bog Bull”, and “Thunder Pumper” are among the many, referring to the strange loud vocalization of this otherwise secretive bird.  To me it sounds like a toilet plunger relieving a stoppage.

So what was the bird of the day?  I has to be a dead heat between the beauty of the Merganser pair and the solitary Bittern.  It’s my game–ties are allowed.

Florida in Black & White

 

Fakahatchee

Fakahatchee

 

It’s the twenty-first century and I own a perfectly good camera and expensive lenses.  Why would I want to turn back the clock to the early days of photography and shoot in B&W?  Isn’t bird and nature photography all about color?  I live in colorful subtropical Florida and my species has been blessed with color vision.  Use it and be thankful.  Besides, color is in large part how I identify these beautiful birds and plants.  But then I ran across Clyde Butcher’s amazing Florida portfolio of fine art photography, all in black and white.

Brown Pelican

Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis

Clyde Butcher was an architect, sailor, and photographer from the West when he relocated to south Florida in 1983.  Apparently it was not love at first sight.  Florida does not have mountains and Redwood forests, and he initially feared the alligators, snakes, and poisonous spiders of the vast swamps.  The state’s unique beauty, however, slowly became apparent to him, especially after meeting and slogging through the wetlands with Florida native and friend Oscar Thompson.

Eagle Lakes Community Park

Eagle Lakes Community Park

Mr. Butcher’s reputation as a chronicler of Florida’s unique landscapes, flora, and fauna has grown. Some have called him the next Ansel Adams–the photos are strikingly beautiful.  He has two studios in southwest Florida, one at Ochopee in the heart of the Big Cypress National Preserve on the Tamiami Trail, and the other in Venice.  At the former you can view his gallery but also take a guided tour and experience the swamp hip-deep, up-close and personal.  Visit his website at http://www.clydebutcher.com. Be sure to check out his techniques and equipment.  He is not your typical DSLR photographer.

Florida Scrub Jay

Florida Scrub Jay, Aphelocoma coerulescens

Blue Jay

Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata

So, what are the advantages of B&W photography?  I believe there are times when color, especially vibrant shades, can overpower the photo and detract from subtle features.  B&W cancels this and brings out the variations in light, shadows, texture, and tone that you often don’t appreciate in color.  B&W can also set a noirish mood, often melancholy or foreboding, not always apparent with color.

Vanderbilt Beach

Vanderbilt Beach

Harnes Marsh

Harnes Marsh

B&W tends to accentuate the contrast of sunlight and shadows emphasizing chiaroscuro, especially when shooting architectural features with their distinct margins.  The gazebo, fence rails and shadows in the shot from Eagle Lakes illustrates this.  The soft texture of the Pelican feathers contrasts with the sharp, defined, and hard texture of the iron perch.  To Butcher “clouds are Florida’s mountains” and it’s in the clouds where one best sees the variations in tone.  I’ve tried to capture that in the Harnes Marsh and Vanderbilt beach shots.  The B&W mood also brings out the contrast between cloud, grass, and water textures.

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Glossy Ibis, Plegadis falcinellus

White Ibis

White Ibis, Eudocimus albus

I’m still experimenting with bird photography in B&W.  With monochromatic birds it seems to work well.  I don’t think I lose anything with the Crow or flying Ibises.  The jury is out regarding the Jays.  What do you think?

American Crow

American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos

There is a technical debate whether it’s best to shoot RAW in B&W or shoot in JPEG color and then convert to B&W.  All the photos in this post used the latter technique.  Some claim that it’s best to do your post-processing in color mode, bringing out the subtle tones, and then convert to B&W.  In any case you should shoot with the lowest ISO possible to minimize graininess.  Don’t be afraid of cloudy days, shadows, and low light situations which often add drama to your monochromatic images.  I direct you to the website of a fellow blogger, Victor Rakmil at http://www.rakmilphotography.wordpress.com.  He discusses many of these issues and displays gorgeous B&W photos.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

Don’t get me wrong–I have not become an exclusive B&W photographer.  In fact I primarily still shoot in color, but experimentation is one factor making this hobby so enjoyable.  Mr. Butcher and others have shown the importance of tone, texture, contrast, and light that can only enhance one skills and results.

Birding Your Patch

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My Patch

 

Birders, primarily British birders or “twitchers”, often refer to their “patch”.  A patch is a fairly small, personal birding location that one visits and revisits often.  I’m not talking a few times a year.  A genuine patch is walked several times a week so one develops an intimate knowledge of its fauna and flora.

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Tufted Titmouse, Baeolophus bicolor

The familiarity fostered by frequent visits adds a historical and seasonal dimension to your observations.  That shrub is where a Carolina Wren often hides, and that fruit tree is where the Robin nests each year.  Or that perch is where the Sharp-shinned Hawk sizes up the bird feeder and plans his surprise attack.  The large oaks along the cove are where the Great Horned Owls calls many winter nights, the one that I have still not yet seen.

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Laughing Gull, Larus atricilla

You learn the seasonal changes specific for your patch; when the Eastern Kingbird leaves and the Tree Swallows return.  Are they early or late this year?  Will the Martins use their house this year or find the apartments already occupied by the House Sparrows?  You observe and learn the subtle behaviors of your common patch birds, enhancing your birding skills.  The unexpected visitor or migrant may add some excitement, but this is usually low-key and quiet birding.

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Neighbor’s freshwater pond

A patch may or may not be your yard.  Its obviously best to choose a “birdy” location close to home with mixed vegetation, some low level shrubs and taller trees, some open space, and preferably a nearby fresh water source.  It could be a local park but the highly pruned and manicured variety are not ideal.  It may be nothing more than your tree-lined street with neighbors’ foundations plants.  The goal is to find one close-by and convenient.

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Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos

If your patch is your yard, as mine is, you have some unique advantages.  You can plant bird-friendly flora and set out houses, feeders, and baths, strategically located to be visible from your windows.  Your birding becomes informal and practically non-stop.  You see the Osprey swoop down for a fish while you’re dining and the Chipping Sparrow greets you at the end of the driveway when you retrieve your newspaper each morning.  These incidental sightings all add to your yearly patch-list growing on eBird.  Mine just hit 100 species with the addition of a Golden-crowned Kinglet and Yellow Warbler this fall.  For me the record-keeping is part of the joy of patch birding.  My first entry was a Red-breasted Merganser in April 1996.

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Brown Thrasher, Toxostoma rufum

When we bought our building lot in 1995 it clearly had potential, but needed some work to become a patch.  The land was a subdivided farm on a tidal tributary of the Chesapeake Bay.  It was mainly a grass field with just a few large Oaks and Honey Locusts at the water’s edge.  The shoreline was caving in and receding, silting the bay.  There were few submerged grasses.  I did see some wading birds, Killdeer, and a hunting Northern Harrier at the site, but passerines were virtually absent.

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Yellow-Rumped Warbler, Dendroica coronata

Twenty year of management have transformed the lot into a birdy patch.  Even before building we planted 25 sizable Loblolly Pines and a hedgerow of 300 sapling Red Cedar, Pine, Russian Olive, and Black Cherry trees along the property line.  We later added Red and Silver Maples, River Birch, Weeping Willow, Willow Oak, Sycamore, Crape Myrtles, and flowering Crab Apple trees.  Happily there is a fresh water pond at the nearby neighbors.  We’ve let the grass grow high, only keeping a manicured lawn close to the house.  The shoreline has been stabilized with stone hauled in from Pennsylvania; there are no rocks on the Eastern Shore, well south of the last glacial advance.  Salt water grasses have returned along with more wading birds.  The Passerines have given us a vote of confidence and are back.  Its been fun creating our patch.

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Building lot in 1995

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Same location in 2016

The concept of patch birding was introduced to me by two British blogs I follow.  One describes a patch within the city limits of London at Wanstead Flats and the other, a more rural patch at Hethersett in the county of Northfolk.  Their websites are:  http://www.iago80.wordpress.com and http://www.hethersettbirdingblog.wordpress.com.  Visit them and be inspired to begin your own patch birding.

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Eastern Bluebird, Sialia sialis

 

Winter Solstice Birding

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Tundra Swan, Cygnus columbianus

 

The shortest day of the year dawned with a heavy frost, but all was calm and bright.  The stockings are hung by the chimney with care, the shopping is done, and the guest rooms are ready for the extended family, soon to converge here on the Eastern Shore.  This was one last chance to bird before the guests arrive and the joyous celebration begins in earnest.

Swamp Sparrow

Swamp Sparrow, Melospiza georgiana

I consider myself knowledgeable regarding astronomical events, but the neolithic cultures have me beat.  Those observers in Stonehenge, England and New Grange, Ireland, warmed only by primitive furs and campfires, somehow determined the exact timing of the solstice.  They built stone edifices that survive today, aligned precisely with the sites of sunrise and sunset on their horizons.  It must be they were more aware than us about the natural world, being so dependent on timing the changing seasons for planting and harvesting.

Bald Eagles

Bald Eagles at Blackwater NWR                      click on any photo to zoom

I’m thankful for the 23 degree tilt.  That is the tilt of the spinning earth off its axis relative to the plane of its revolution around the sun.  It accounts for our changing seasons and spurs me on to Florida’s warmth each winter.  At the winter solstice, December 21, the northern hemisphere is tilted directly away from the sun and our hours of daylight are at their minimum.  Fear not, for the days begin lengthening tomorrow.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

My birding destination today was the Blackwater NWR.  I’ve described this wonderful location in an earlier posting called “Blackwater NWR, Dorchester County, Maryland”.  I only saw a few birders today but the site was loud.  Thousands of Canada Geese in the fields and shallows constantly squawked–what are they saying?  On a few occasions there was a sudden crescendo and on cue a huge flock took flight, the beating of their wings adding to the cacophony.

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Geese Galore

The Mallards were the next most numerous Aves and the second loudest.  I describe their vocalizations as a mocking descending chuckle, mocking whom I’m not sure.  There were also fewer retiring and quieter Northern Pintail and Shovelers scattered in the flock.

Northern Pintail

Northern Pintail, Anas acuta

Northern Shoveler

Northern Shoveler, Anas clypeata

Every birding trip seems to have a memorable event or bird-of-the-day.  During the recent Christmas Count, for instance, I saw more Cedar Waxwings than ever in one day; 207 to be exact.  The bird today was the Tundra Swan.  They have a plaintive, ghost-like call, almost but not quite drowned out by the geese and Mallards.  These seasonal visitors from the north are especially welcome when they treat me to a close flyover as they did today.  I saw them approaching low over the marsh just in time to jump out of the truck, aim, and shoot, hoping the settings were reasonable.  I was lucky this time.  It was another day to remember.

Tundra Swans

Tundra Swans, Cygnus columbianus

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all and may the Peace that passeth all understanding descend on you and yours throughout the New Year.

 

Top Ten Bird Photos of 2016

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House Finch, Carpodacus mexicanus

 

I know; it’s just a House Finch.  But each photo has a back story.  I was alone at the Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve last week.  The first visitor to this famous southeastern Arizona site on a frosty morning.  The drinking fountain at the visitor center was frozen and the slanting dawn light was just beginning to warm this finch and a flock of Lark Sparrows along the trail.  I’m still shivering along with this bird who had just survived another frigid night by ruffling its feathers to add precious insulation.

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Great Blue Heron, Ardea hernias               click on any photo to zoom

Deciding upon the “ten best” for the year is difficult.  My first run through hundreds of candidates yielded 30 nominees.  It’s the final elimination that is so tough.  I left many good shots on the cutting floor and came up with these.

In addition to the obvious factors of exposure, sharpness, color, and composition, what makes a photo special?  That Great Blue Heron shot above made the cut due to the background, or lack thereof.  That blackness, with just a hint of the green grasses showed the bird in stark contrast, all more an accident than planned.

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American Goldfinch, Carduelis tristis

The American Goldfinch made the cut by being a backyard bird visiting Cone Flowers, specifically planted pool-side years ago to attract this striking bird in male breeding plumage.

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk, Buteo lineatus

Every portfolio needs at least one flight shot.  I can remember the time and place where most of these photos were taken, even without the GPS tool.  But I can’t quite recall how I got the lucky eye-level view of the Red-shouldered Hawk in Florida.  Either he was very low or I was in high in a tower.

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Bridled Titmouse, Baeolophus wollweberi

The hiding Bridled Titmouse was included since it was a life-bird, found near Pinnacle Peak in Scottsdale, Arizona.  The partially obscured profile of this lifer with the dappled light on the eye reminds of the work needed to capture this elusive fellow on film.  Anna’s Hummingbird below was a lucky shot from the same location.

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Anna’s Hummingbird, Calypte anna

Some birds are included if they are somewhat unusual or a nemesis bird for me, but none of these are rarities.  It was many years of birding before I saw my first Red-headed Woodpecker and several more years before I got a decent picture.  This one’s from the Blackwater NWR in Maryland.

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Red-headed Woodpecker, Melanerpes erythrocephalus

The eyes have it.  I don’t care how great the other factors are, if you don’t have a sharp, well-focused bird’s eye you don’t have a great shot.  That’s especially true for the White-eyed Vireo below.  I also like the cocked head and unusual pose.

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White-eyed Vireo, Vireo griseus

The Golden-crowned Kinglet was a member of a large mixed feeding flock of small birds suddenly appearing and causing a great commotion in a hedgerow planted along the back edge of our property 25 years ago.  The dividends are paying off as he, Downey Woodpeckers, Titmice, Chickadees, Yellow-rumped Warblers and Ruby-crowned Kinglets all joined in the tit party.

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Golden-crowned Kinglet, Regulus satrapa

The last photo of the Pied Grebe is perhaps my favorite.  The ripples on the water and the action of swallowing that large fish make for a memorable shot, despite this being a common bird.  My goal next year is to seek out more action and flight shots–I have too many posed portraits.

Thanks for your interest and comments in 2016.  It’s been fun.

Pied-billed Grebe

Pied-billed Grebe, Podilymbus podiceps

No-Neck No-Nonsense Nuthatches

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Red-breasted Nuthatch

 

If you come across a small hyperactive bird foraging upside-down along a trunk or large branch you are probably seeing a nuthatch.  If you hear a clownish nasal call you can be sure.  I came across this poem by Francis Stella that describes these birds perfectly.

White-breasted Nuthatch

From bark to bark he darts in flight,

This craning no-neck woodland sprite–

Our all-season tree inspector

And invertebrate collector

Who claims old treeholes for his den.

Part woodpecker, and partly wren,

And bearing feathers that would place

Him in a pygmy blue-jay race,

He barely sings, he doesn’t drum,

But climbing up and down the plumb

Not only facing up but down

Is the nuthatch’s renown.

White-breasted Nuthatch

White-breasted Nuthatch, Sitta carolinensis    (click on photo to zoom)

 

The trunks he wends across his days

Are all his upright alleyways,

And as he charts his alpine course

We hear his scratch and nasal Morse–

His little traffic clearing horn

That seems less urgent than inborn.

His escalades will carry him

From bole to bough to outer limb

And all the while around he’ll wind

Above, before, below, behind–

No tree-climber’s quite as stellar

As this spry no-hands rapeller.

Brown-headed Nuthatches

Brown-headed Nuthatches, Sitta pusilla

 

All his circumambulations!

And determined excavations,

When with a probe and peck or flitch

This aide relies a broadleaf’s itch

And earns the morsel of some pest

He’ll eat or stash or bring to nest–

He saves for when the hunts are harder

In his secret winter larder.

And winter’s when he comes for seed or

Suet at the backyard feeder.

But he only stays for just a hello.

He’s strictly carry-out, this fellow–

Pygmy Nuthatch

Pygmy Nuthatch, Sitta pygmaea

 

He bills one seed then off he flits

And on a tree that seed he splits

To have the kernel–hence the name,

And soon he’s back for just the same.

The way he cranes about to see

When scaling up or down a tree!

This no-neck with his upturned beak

Could use a chiropractic tweak–

And music lessons, in our view,

But no-neck is no-nonsense too.

And with the nuthatch we won’t wrangle.

We see things from a different angle.

Francis Stella

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Red-breasted Nuthatch, Sitta canadensis

The White-breasted Nuthatch is the largest North American member of the acrobatic Sitta genus and a year-around resident of the majority of the continental U.S.  The Red-breasted is a slightly smaller short-distance migrator breeding in the pine forests along the U.S. Canadian border.  It winters almost anywhere in the lower 48 depending on food sources, with the exception of south Florida and Texas.  The Brown-headed and Pygmy Nuthatches are less common regional birds.  The Brown-headed is a bird of the Southeastern states with the Chesapeake Bay at the northern edge of its range.  The Pygmy is a bird of the long-needled pine forests of the western U.S.  I saw my first one in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.

White-breasted Nuthatch

White-breasted Nuthatch, Sitta carolinensis

Photography of these active birds can be difficult.  They are frequent feeder visitors so you can resort to that setting, although I prefer the more natural shots in the trees.  You often hear these bird’s nasal call long before you see them.  I have occasionally attracted them closer for a shot by playing their call on my cell phone.  Just don’t overdo this technique because, as Stella said, “no-neck is no-nonsense too.”

Birding in Bean Town

Boston Commons

Boston Common

 

Urban birding is a whole new kettle of fish for me.  That’s not to say it doesn’t have its unique and satisfying aspects, however the rural birder needs to adapt, just as the birds have.  I visited my daughter’s family in Bean Town, aka Boston, this November.  They are hooked on the urban life style; no car, high-rise accommodations, small footprint, public transportation, walking, etc., and I see its healthy appeal.  New birding possibilities became apparent on day one when my grandson pointed out the window at the sunset “bird show”.  We were looking down from the 25th floor at a feeding flock of Ring-billed Gulls soaring far below.

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House Sparrow (female), Passer domesticus

House Sparrows and Feral Pigeons are the low-hanging fruit in any city but if you look harder and are fortunate to be in a metropolis which has developed some green spaces, you will be rewarded.  The urban birds, residents and migrators, are seeking out and concentrated in those same green oases.  My first challenge was getting used to the loud traffic noise, sirens, screaming children and the general din of the city drowning out the birds.  Hustling pedestrians have little regard for a birder sneaking up on a rarity.  Despite it all I saw some good birds.

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Ovenbird, Seiurus aurocapilla

There were some pleasant surprises.  Cold, frosty morning–not a problem, there’s a Starbucks across the street.  Hungry–just visit the Panera Bread around the corner.  Right foot acting up–stop by the local CVS for Advil.  Want to check out another site–just hop on the subway for $2.25 and surface across town in just minutes.

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Common Yellowthroat (female), Geothlypis trichas

Do you remember the “Big Dig”?  This was the largest and most costly highway project in our country’s history.  In the 1950’s the Boston developers built the “highway in the skies”, elevating the central artery through the heart of the city darkening the stores and streets below.  By the 1980’s planners sought to correct this by burying several miles of Interstate 93.  Construction woes persisted from 1991 through 2007 plagued by cost overruns, leaks, poor design, poor materials, criminal arrests, etc.  Tax payers were left holding the bag for a project which initially was supposed to cost $2.8 billion but ended up at $14.6 billion.

Greenway

The Rose Kennedy Greenway

But there was and is light at the end of this tunnel.  What to do with the vacated space left by the buried highway was the question of the day.  It could have been developed commercially but greener heads prevailed and today there is an amazing linear park curving through the heart of Boston from Chinatown to the North End.  This “Rose Kennedy Greenway” was my first stop for several mornings of great urban birding.

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This park has had several years to mature and is a creative mixture of trees, lower shrubs and ground cover traversed by winding gravel paths.  They’ve held the lawns and concrete portions to a minimum and have been rewarded with a vote of approval from the birds. During two morning visits I saw 13 species including a Hermit Thrush, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Ovenbird, and Common Yellowthroat.  The e-Bird Hot Spot indicates 102 species have been seen there.

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Red-tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis

Christopher Columbus Park is near the northern end of the Greenway and perfectly suited for a lunch break at American Joe’s waterfront restaurant.  Near the entrance I saw a Red-tailed Hawk in an evergreen, also breaking for lunch with small feathers still hanging from its claws and beak.  While sampling some delicious clam chowder and watching a Ring-billed Gull perched just outside my window, I saw a Peregrine Falcon shoot by in pursuit of a Feral Pigeon–it doesn’t get any better than this.

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Ring-billed Gull, Larus delawarensis

The staid, historic and central green space in Boston is the large Common and adjacent Public Gardens occupying 74 acres near the western edge of “Old Boston”.  The Common has the traditional landscape of urban parks with crisscrossing paths, hills, statues, and beautiful old trees.  Despite the obvious beauty, (see the opening photo in the post), the lack of understudy plantings makes the birding there somewhat meagre, at least during my visits.  The Public Gardens is a gorgeous manicured green space with a large central pond, walking bridge, swan boats, and the famous and growing family of mallards, the stars of the classic children’s book, “Make Way For Ducklings”, by Robert McCloskey.  Other birds, however, were scarce, at least in November.

Post Office Square

Post Office Square

Post Office Square, aka Norman B. Leventhal Park, is a small 1.7 acre green oasis in the heart of the financial district surrounded by towering buildings, old and new.  This space does have low bushes and grasses and attracted a large flock of foraging White-throated Sparrows, I suspect newly arrived from the north.  e-Bird Hot Spot reports 92 species have been seen in this small, charming space.

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White-throated Sparrow, Zonotrichia albicollis

Mount Auburn Cemetery, though not actually within Boston, has to be included on any birders description of local sites.  It is located near the border of Watertown and Cambridge just north of Boston.  Take the Red Line to Harvard Square and Bus 71 or 73 to the cemetery and you will experience a birding and landscaping treat.  Countless winding roads and paths over hills and between tombstones create a reverential atmosphere. The autumn beauty is difficult to capture with words.  I published an earlier post just about this site on February 4, 2015.  My location life list at Mt. Auburn is 36 species but e-Bird Hot Spot reports 225 species seen over the years.  I always end my walk through the cemetery with a short visit to our family plot where both my parents are interred.  Mount Auburn will obviously remain a birding and personal destination for me, hopefully for years to come.

Mount Auburn Cemetery

Mount Auburn Cemetery

Birding Bombay Hook Delaware

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I had to get out of the wind.  The blue sky and fleecy clouds belied the penetrating chill from the 30 mile per hour late October wind gusting from the north down Delaware Bay and across the vast wetlands.  The birds were hunkered down, barely visible in my wind battered scope, and I needed some relief as well.  The Parson Point trailhead looked inviting, winding through a sheltered deciduous woods.  The only sound there was the wind rustling the high canopy, the crunching of dry leaves underfoot, and the distant call of a Red-bellied Woodpecker.

Greater Yellowlegs

Greater Yellowlegs, Tringa melanoleuca

The last thing I expected to see was an old crumbling concrete structure just off the trail.  A worn sign indicated it was the ruins of the foundation for a Army Air Force World War II radio and observation tower.  In the midst of an innocent birding trip I was reminded again of that existential struggle waged by an earlier generation worldwide, and that today’s relative peace and freedom has been bought with a price.

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Ruins of WWII tower; click on any photo to zoom

Bombay Hook is a 16,251 acre National Wildlife Refuge established in 1934 along the western shore of Delaware Bay.  The name comes from the Dutch “Bompies Hoeck” meaning little tree point.  The Dutch colonial settlers harvested salt hay from the marsh and found sustenance from plentiful muskrat, water fowl, fish, oysters, and crabs.  The Allee House is a large 18th century home in the preserve, currently closed and awaiting restoration.  The attraction for me, however, is the birding, scenery, and photography.

Short-billed Dowitcher

Short-billed Dowitchers, Limnodromus griseus

The refuge is a popular breeding, wintering, and migratory stopover location along the Atlantic Flyway.  Meandering tidal rivers crisscross the marsh where low grasses seemingly stretch to the horizon.  In the slightly higher areas one finds small hummocks filled with blackbirds, perching herons, and the occasional kingfisher.  Larger wooded areas contain trails leading to several observation towers which allow an expansive view of the entire preserve.

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Water control dikes have been built creating three large pools.  Gravel access roads on the dikes wind their way around these pools giving both close and distant views of the wildlife.  If you are lucky you’ll catch some shorebirds feeding on the near mudflats in perfect light.  But more often it seems, you’ll be using your scope and telephoto lens to see the mixed flocks on the opposite shore, often back-lit in the afternoon sun.

Snow Geese

Snow Geese, Chen caerulescens

I bird Bombay Hook both from the car and on foot.  By car I make frequent stops shooting through the open windows, and occasionally exit to set up the scope in the lee of the car or to catch a flyover of a Bald Eagle, harrier, or flock of shorebirds heading from the marsh to the pools’ mudflats.  The cold, wind, and/or mosquitoes favor birding from the car, but don’t forget to sample the wooded trails and an opportunity to observe the Passerines.  I especially recommend the trail to the Shearness Pool Tower from which you can see the vast panoramic expanse of the preserve.

View east from Shearness Pool Tower

View east from Shearness Pool Tower

Memorable trips to BH for me include a wintertime visit and the racket and spectacle of thousands of Snow Geese rising out of the marsh at dusk, the variety of wintering waterfowl, and my first sighting of Horned Larks in the snowy fields near the refuge entrance.  I’ve seen large flocks of American Avocets there and a huge flock of mixed shorebirds rising as one, spooked by an approaching Northern Harrier.  Even when the birds are sparse the vistas surround and reward you.  Visit in any season but pack some fly dope in the warmer weather.  Bombay Hook NWR easily makes my list of top ten birding sites.