Best Bird Photos of 2018

Rusty-margined Flycatcher, Myiozetetes cayanensis                      Panama

 

Where did the year go?  As we age each year accounts for a progressively smaller portion of our lifetime.  For me it was 1.5% this year.  Maybe that explains the racing clock.  As my life list approaches 1000 I have less and less time to photograph those other 9000 birds.  It’ll never happen.  Life lesson:  just treasure each year and photo as its own gift.

Eastern Meadowlark, Sturnella magna                                Florida

Most of my birding this year was domestic, with frequent visits to favorite local haunts.  Panama, this November, was the exception and supplied me with countless photo-ops of new and colorful birds.  I vowed, however, to not let those avian superstars dominant this post.

Painted Bunting, Passerina ciris                      Florida

In the course of the year I take 20 to 30,000 bird photos, quickly deleting over 95% of them.  That still leaves 1000 “keepers” that are cataloged by family and stored for eternity or until my hard drive crashes.  An initial run through those yielded about 50 or 60 finalists.  The hard part is trimming that list down to 25 for this year-end post.  I hope you enjoy the result.

Yellow-Romped Warbler, Dendroica coronata                      Florida

Each photo has a back story.  That “cover shot” of the flycatcher from Panama is not really an exotic bird, but just struck my fancy with the ruffled feathers-look and interesting composition.

Great Blue Heron, Ardea hernias                  Maryland

Each winter I try to visit the Ocean City, Maryland jetties to see what the wind and surf are blowing shoreward.  It is usually a brisk but rewarding outing.  Generally my shots from there show the seabirds swimming away, probably spooked by the telephoto lens and large lumbering birder.  The resultant rump shots are not great, but this year I hunkered low among the rocks and got some shots with them coming in for a closer look at the crazy birder.

Long-tailed Duck, Clangula hyemalis                    Maryland

Common Loon, Gavia immer                               Maryland

September, on Prince Edward Island, Canada, yielded great landscape shots but was a little wanting for avian photos.  I was struggling at dawn with some eiders in the surf, but they were hopelessly backlit by the rising sun.  Two crows were mocking my efforts from behind.  Finally, turning around to shoo them away, I noticed that the light was just perfect for a crow shot.  Not great birds, but a pleasing, well-exposed photo resulted; and they seemed to enjoy their 15 seconds of fame.

American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos                PEI, Canada

It’s extravagant to include two shots of any birds, but the colorful Eastern Meadowlark is a favorite of mine, often striking a photogenic pose.  My best shots of them are from the Dinner Ranch, a beautiful wide-open space in south central Florida, far from the maddening crowd.

Eastern Meadowlark, Sturnella magna             Florida

Let me add some ordinary yard birds to the posting.  The mockingbirds are the yard’s apparatchiks par excellence, one patrolling the south half and his comrade working the north side. They’ll chase away anything larger and threatening, but seem to temporarily meet their match when the kingbirds arrive each spring.  The wren gets the prize for best yard vocalist, while the cardinals add local color.

Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos        Maryland

Carolina Wren, Thryothorus ludovicianus            Maryland

Northern Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis                 Maryland

What bird portfolio is complete without some flying shots?  The swans and eagle were active during my recent trip to Blackwater NWR in Maryland, and the gawky stork, of course, graced the airways of Florida.

Tundra Swans, Cygnus columbianus                                   Maryland

Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus                               Maryland

Wood Stork, Mycteria americana                    Florida

The birds of prey on the Floridian fenceposts strike two quite opposite poses.  The caracara is confident of his appearance and proud of his status in the avian hierarchy, whereas the vulture hangs his head in shame.  Actually both humbly survive on roadkill.

Crested Caracara, Caracara cheriway             Florida

Black Vulture, Coragyps atratus                   Florida

Feeding shots always add some interest.  The gull and unlucky crab were seen on Nantucket, while the Anhinga and unfortunate sunfish were residents of a south Florida marsh.

Herring Gull, Larus argentatus                                          Nantucket

Anhinga, Anhinga anhinga                            Florida

I know a bird photographer worth his salt is not suppose to post posed shots, but I offer these anyway, for better or worse.  Isn’t it fascinating how a bird is so often found in a setting similar to its own coloring?  The pleasing background blur or bokeh is sought by photographers for these portrait shots and results from using a wide open aperture giving a narrow depth-of-field in focus.

Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia                                Maryland

Palm Warbler, Dendroica palmarum                               Florida

I’ve included a few shots because they remind me of key events of 2018, like the fledgling of the nuthatches from Mary & Gene’s feeder, or finally finding and photographing the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker with Andy at Babcock-Webb Preserve in Florida. There was the fallout of migrating warblers this spring at Naples Park, and, after years of trying, I finally got a decent photo of a Brown Creeper from the Blackwater NWR.

Brown-headed Nuthatch, Sitta pusilla                     Maryland

Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Picoides borealis    Florida

Cape May Warbler, Dendroica tigrina                           Florida

Brown Creeper, Certhia americana            Maryland

And lastly, let me add a few more colorful birds from Panama.  That trip with these new tropical life birds, as well as the heat and humidity of Central America are still vivid in my mind.  I’m reminded of it daily as I scratch the persistent chiggers, so loathe to finally leave me alone.  Onward to 2019.

Shining Honeycreeper, Cyanerpes lucidus    Panama

Blue-chested Hummingbird, Amazilia amabilis          Panama

Crowned Woodnymph, Thalurania colombica  Panama

Birding Panama, The Canopy Tower

Green Honeycreeper, Chlorophanes spiza

 

I arrived in Panama at dusk with just enough time to go through customs, locate the driver, and arrive at the Canopy Tower in time for the introductory dinner to the WINGS tour.  The other 9 guests, hailing from throughout the U.S. and U.K., had beat me to this famous birding destination and were clearly excited at what they had already seen in just a few daylight hours.  My catch-up birding had to wait until dawn.  The plan was to meet on the observation deck at sunrise for a pre-breakfast session.

The Canopy Tower

It was a little like a childhood Christmas Eve–I couldn’t sleep.  So about 5:30AM I lugged my camera and telephoto lens, binos, and scope up several flights, through the dining area, and up the ship-style stairs and hatch, onto the observation deck.  It was still dark but I could barely make-out the canopy below.  I was alone, but someone had stationed several pots of hot coffee there.  This was going to be a great week.

Dawn on the deck

Sunrise brought out the other guests, the guides, and of course the birds.  They came fast and furious, the birds that is; almost too much of a good thing.  It was difficult to keep up with all the sightings called out by fellow birders and guides alike.  The laser pointer was a great help in locating the often sleuthy birds hiding in the thick canopy.  I saw our familiar migrating warblers, now in their winter home, but the real treats were the colorful tropical residents I had never seen or photographed.

Golden-crowned Spadebill, Platyrinchus coronatus

The tower is a reclaimed former U.S. Air Force radar site built in 1965 and abandoned when the Canal Zone was transferred to Panama.  Luckily Raul Arias de Para had a vision for this “giant beer can” and acquired it in 1996, transforming it into a mecca for birders and ecotourism.  The lower floors are for lodging, each room with a window opening to the rain forest.  The upper floor houses a large dining room, lounge, and library.  The tower sits on top of a tall hill within the Soberania National Park, about 2 miles from the canal.

Breakfast in the Tower

Gartered Trogon, Trogon caligatus

Ants figure prominently in the taxonomy of Panamanian birds.  There are Antbirds, Antpittas, Antshrikes, Ant-Tanagers, Antthrushes, Antvireos, and Antwrens.  What’s their schtick?  Even the tropical novice trudging through the rainforest can’t help but notice the numerous ant highways traversing the trails.  At first you see a long line of upright leaves, seemingly moving by magic.  Closer inspection shows the leaves are carried by Leafcutter Ants, heading to who knows where.

Spotted Antbird, Hylophylax naevioides

The birds don’t eat the crusty ants themselves, but have learned to follow the ant swarms, ambushing the other hapless creatures that are fleeing the marauding Army Ants.  We birders in turn seek the birds, that seek the insects, that escape the ants.  Some claim that you can hear an approaching ant swarm as their million of feet rustle the leaves on the jungle floor.  In short, when encountering an ant swarm, get ready.  The birds can’t be far behind.

Red-capped Manakin, Pipra mentalis

I was in Panama this November, near the end of the rainy season.  Rain, sweat, dew, puddles, mud, humidity, and any other form of moisture you can imagine were part of the experience.  No AC, nothing stays dry, just get use to being hot and damp in order to enjoy birding in the rainforest.  I even had difficulty keeping my eyeglasses and lenses from fogging, often when that special “rare bird” was making an infrequent appearance.  You can’t win them all.

Shining Honeycreeper, Cyanerpes spiza

Shining Honeycreeper, (female)

What is it about the tropics that fosters so much spectacular color in its resident birds?  Oh, we have our Cardinal and Jays, but most of our residents pale against the tropical gems.  The Blue Cotinga, various Manakins, Trogons, Motmots, and Honeycreepers startle one when first seen.  Then there are the iridescent Hummingbirds–we saw 10 species of these beauties during the week.

Blue-chested Hummingbird, Amazilia amabilis

Snowy-bellied Hummingbird, Amazilia edward

Birding in the thick jungle, and bird photography in particular are difficult.  Good guides are invaluable, and we had two of the best.  Gavin Bieber, from Tucson Arizona, has been guiding in Panama several times a year for 10 years.  His patience and expertise were readily apparent, and several in our group had birded with him before.  I particularly appreciated his knowledge and discussion of avian taxonomy, explaining in the field how a particular birds fits into the greater classification scheme.  His birding banter, both serious and in jest, made these day-long jaunts wonderful.

Whooping Motmot, Momotus subrufescens

Common Tody-Flycatcher, Todirostrum cinereum

Our local guide was Danilo Rodriquez Jr., a member of the Canopy Tower staff.  How does such a young person become such an expert birder?  His whistles and tweets could seemingly mimic and call-in any species.  I still can’t figure out how he spotted that Black-and-White Owl high in the tree, or that Great Potoo hugging the trunk.  Between Gavin and Danilo I felt we were birding among the giants of their profession.

Slaty-tailed Trogon, Trogon massena

The Tower was our base of operation for the week, but the guides also took us to famous near-by hotspots including the Pipeline Road, Ammo Dump Pond, Gamboa, Colon, and the amazing Hummingbird House of Jerry and Linda Harrison.  I’ll have to leave a description of those to another day and post.

White-necked Jacobin, Florisuga mellivora

I know, it’s not about the numbers, but they are impressive.  Panama, a small country at the narrow intersection of two continents, has recorded sightings of 978 bird species, many more than the entire U.S.  Many of our northern birds reach the southern limit of their ranges at the isthmus, and likewise, many of the South American birds reach their northern limits in the same area.  This creates an inviting avian menagerie in Panama.  My total count for the trip was 211 species, (I would have seen a few more except for foggy glasses) and my life list jumped by 148, but who’s counting.

The Flight of Birds; Fair or Foul?

I was minding my own business at the desk by the window when WHACK, a Cardinal crashed into the glass.  I rushed outside to look for a body in the hedge, or at least a stunned bird, but found nothing, not even a red feather.  He must have survived.  It got me thinking about flight.  It’s marvelous and amazing and we terrestrial-bound species are jealous of the birds, but it does come with risks and at a price.  What are the risks and what exactly have the birds given up when they evolved this specialized skill.

Northern Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis

I count five groups that have acquired the ability to fly, (omitting the gliding frogs and squirrels).  They are the myriad insects, the extinct dinosaurs–Pterosaurs, the mammalian bats, the birds, and Homo sapiens, since Kitty Hawk.  You must admit that at least with insects and birds, flight has been a successful strategy, with Aves flying around for 150 million years since Archaeopteryx, and insects for even longer.  This compares with a meagre 20 million years for Hominids on earth, with flight mastered by us just 115 years ago.

Brown Pelican, Pelicans occidentalis

There are, of course, obvious advantages of bird flight.  They can get from point A to point B quickly, whether its to find food, escape a predator, or chase a prospective mate.  The destination may just be across the yard or a migration of thousands of miles. Their flying skills include, hovering, take-offs and landings, on either land or water, soaring, gliding, and high speed dives.  They can catch a fly on the wing and even copulate in mid-air.  Very impressive.

Red-shouldered Hawk, Buteo lineatus

There are, however, obvious physical risks to flight.  My office window, multiplied by millions is an example.  Add to that the glass of towering skyscrapers, burgeoning wind farms, and power lines, and you have some real flight hazards.  Fall migration itself takes a huge toll on the young birds.  That’s why the spring migration is less crowded, returning to us just the survivors.

Limpkin, Aramus guarauna

But I’m more interested in the anatomic and physiologic adaptations that have evolved and made flight possible, and what price Aves have paid for this specialization.  The upper extremity of birds has reduced the five digits of its ancestors to three and these serve as the anchors for the primary flight feathers.  The wing is a wonderful and highly specific adaptation for flight, but useless for grasping a tool or playing the piano.  No matter; birds have evolved a flexible neck and versatile beak and tongue to partially offset these deficits.

Rose-ringed Parakeet, Psittacula krameri

What about size?  It does matter for birds.  Flight requires the birds to be relatively small and light.  When you double the length of a bird you increase its weight 8-fold.  Even though the large Golden Eagle only weighs 15 pounds it requires an 8-foot wingspan to fly.

Black Vulture, Coragyps atratus

The physics of flight applies to the birds, just as it did for the Wright brothers.  There must be air flowing over the wing or airfoil to create enough lift to overcome the drag.  Flapping adds greatly to the lift, but weight is still a limiting factor.  Just recall the spectacle of the heavy swan or goose, beating its wings while running across the pond, in its onerous fight to become airborne.

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus

Experts debate how the Pterosaurs and ancient birds “learned” to fly.  One camp suggests a “tree-down” approach, falling or gliding from a height, similar to flying squirrels.  Another group suggests a “ground-up” technique, running or leaping into the air, similar to our struggling swan.  I doubt we’ll ever know for sure.

Laysan Albatross, Phoebastria immutabilis

Birds have also solved the weight issue by their light, hollow bones, ideal for flight but lacking somewhat in strength–another compromise.  “Light as a feather”, the saying goes.  The evolution of the feather figures centrally in the history of flying animals.  Experts now believe feathers evolved long before flight.  Once we pictured dinosaurs as hairless, leathery reptiles, but now learn that some were actually adorned with colorful feathers.  The only question is whether their feathers were for insulation or for sexual ornamentation, but clearly they were not, at least initially, useful for flight.

Belted Kingfisher, Ceryle alcyon

The weight restrictions of flight also require that a bird brain remain relatively small, and surrounded by only a thin skull.  Most of its brain is devoted to eyesight, so highly perfected in raptors, and much of the rest to the regulation of basic functions and the intricate movements of flight.  Although much has been written about the intelligence of birds, (primarily the Corvids), don’t get carried away.  They will not be writing a Beethoven symphony any time soon, or even running for political office.

Prairie Warbler, Dendroica discolor

The warm-blooded, hyperactive, flying birds are massive consumers of energy.  Their high metabolic rates require a never-ending search for food (using energy in the process) for both themselves and their young.  It is a bird’s greatest mission everyday.  The avian respiratory system is also a unique and complicated adaptation of rigid lungs, multiple air sacs, and unidirectional air flow, all designed to supply richly oxygenated blood to meet their high energy demands.

Sandwich Tern, Sterna sandvicensis

It’s interesting that some birds have given up flight completely.  You wonder why.  For Penguins the rudimentary wings are now used for swimming, while the large Ostriches of the savannas of Africa use their downy feathers and wings for shade.  The flightless Dodo birds of the Mauritius Island in the Indian Ocean were doing just fine on the ground until discovered by Dutch sailors in 1598.  The vulnerable bird was easy prey for man and his contaminants and the Dodo is now extinct.  Unfortunately its name has become synonymous with naiveté and stupidity.

Wood Stork, Mycteria americana

So the birds have paid some price for their lives in the sky.  We humans need to keep this in mind as we stretch our frontiers upward, even to the Moon and Mars.  I consider Homo sapiens now a flying animal, similar to the birds.  We are part of nature and not just an outside observer looking in.  Never mind that our “wings” are metal and rivets and computers; they are merely our adaptations, the products of our brains, and our unique ticket to the wonders of flight.

The Wright brothers, Homo sapiens, 1903

 

Birding With a Guide vs. Going Bare

Mount Desert Island, Maine

 

When one charters a sailboat, you have a choice; board a craft with a captain, possibly even a cook, and just relax, or you can go “bare”.  Going bare does not imply complete nakedness.  You still have a seaworthy boat, stocked with food and plenty of navigation charts and devices.  You supply the seamanship, experience, and reap the rewards of independence and a heightened sense of adventure.

Eurasian Jay, Garrulus glandarius, from Italy

It seems to me that one makes a similar choice when birding.  I’ve done it both ways, using guides on four continents, as well as bare birding, both domestically and abroad.  I’ve come to appreciate the challenges of guiding as well as the traits of an ideal guide–I’ve never had a poor one.

Spotted Owlet, Athene brama, from India

But first let me point out some of the joys of going bare.  As in boating, you are not really all that exposed, eBird has seen to that.  All-star birder Phoebe Snetsinger’s technique of preparation before birding a new site has been a great lesson for me, and eBird has made that so much easier.  Just review their hotspot sightings for your trip, specific for the month of departure, and study those birds in your guidebook.

Red-breasted Nuthatches, Sitta canadensis, irruption this fall?

“Photo-birding” is a valuable tool when going bare, when there’s no guide at your side with a ready ID.  Generally I’m out to get the perfect shot; sharp, great background, lighting, and pose, but with photo-birding its all about the ID.  Just get something on “film” and make the ID later, over coffee and out of the wind.  Or you can send the picture to an expert for help.

Red-whiskered Bulbul, Pycnonotus jocosus, in India

Am I strange in finding some exhilaration in finally matching the picture to guidebook, and claiming a new tick on my life list?  I remember going bare in India with colleagues, photo-birding, and sitting around a table for hours, reviewing shots and guidebooks, and arguing about the finer points and field marks–sort of sharing our ignorance.  It was fun and it worked.

Crested Kingfisher, Megaceryle lugubris, in India

When overseas on a “non-birding” trip (is this ever the case?), I try to book hotels near parks or hotspots that can be easily visited while my spouse still sleeps.  This seems to work for us.  I’m sure I would have seen many more birds with a guide when we visited Japan, but those dawns alone, among the beautiful temples and gardens of Hakone, near Mount Fuji, or among the deer in Nara Park were unforgettable.  It was hard work to finally match that enchanting call to the elusive Japanese Bush Warbler, Uguisu. See posting “Birding Hakone, Japan”, dated April 17, 2015.

Hakone, Japan

Japanese White-eye, Zosterops japonicus, in Nara Japan

Bare birding in Kensington Gardens and St. James Park, London, walking the path that Kings & Queens have trod, and near the bunker where Churchill resisted evil a generation ago, was also memorable.  A local twitcher showed me the Little Owl in the Gardens, but I admit I did see more birds when excellent guide, Jack Fernside, took me outside the ring road for a day.  http://www.birdinglondon.co.uk

St. James Park, London

Little Owl, Athene noctua, in Kensington Gardens, London

A good guide tailors the outing to meet the needs of the client.  In Tuscany, along the west coast of Italy, we hired Marco Valtriani for a day, informing him that among the six of us, I was the only birder.  Now that’s a real dilemma.  He arrange birding by skiff, amidst the beautiful tidal wetlands, followed by exquisite cuisine on a cliff overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea.  After lunch we hiked the hills, exploring Etruscan ruins.  It was a home run for us all.  http://www.Birdinginitaly.com

Tuscan birding with Marco, on Tuscan coast of Italy

There are some locations where a guide is almost a necessity, both for safety and his local knowledge.  The Himalayan foothills, Corbett National Park, and Ramnagar Jungle of India were examples of this.  Our guide, Bopanna Patada, was the ultimate guide; the equivalent of yachting with captain and cook, with all the accoutrements.  He met us at the airport, rented a van and hired a driver for the week, booked us into first class accommodations, and hired local guides to assist him at each stop in northern India.  This was in addition to his infectious enthusiasm and knowledge of birds of the subcontinent.  http://www.indiabirding.com

Bopanna & colleagues in northern India

We’re planning a cultural trip to Russia next spring.  I hope to squeeze in some birding, but doubt that it’s a good idea for a lone American to be traipsing around Moscow with binoculars and telephoto lens these days.  I’m currently trying to find a guide for birding St. Petersburg.  If anyone has a suggestion, please send it my way.

Jacobin Cuckoo, Clamator jacobinus, in India

But the birds don’t always cooperate, even with the best of guides.  Last month I hired the guru of birding at Mount Desert Island and Acadia NP in Maine.  The fall scenery was spectacular as he guided three of us to his favorite hot spots, but it was just not a “birdy” day.  I felt sorry for the guide as he repeatedly apologized on behalf of the hiding birds.  Not to worry–there is never a bad day birding.

Acadia National Park, Maine

In addition to knowing the local birds and hotspots, what are the characteristics of a good bird guide.  Enthusiasm and patience are near the top of the list.  Also, the ability to succinctly point out a new bird, making sure everyone in the group has seen it.  He needs to describe its field marks and behavior, why its an x and not y.  Having a field guide handy to illustrate these points is also a plus.  Lastly the guide needs to judge the mental and physical stamina of the group–when is it time to quit?

Wood Ducks, Aix sponsa, near Bar Harbor, Maine

Just as there are bird-less days, there are also days when the birds come fast and furious, almost too much of a good thing.  The guide is rapidly calling out the birds while we frantically try to keep up, lucky to actually see every other one.  A hard core lister may tick them all, but I’d rather get a good look, before claiming a new life bird.

Hermit Thrush, Catharus guttatus, in Blackwater NWR

I recently tagged along with a novice birding class visiting Bombay Hook, Delaware, one of the birding meccas on the East coast.  Wayne, the guide is an especially talented birder and teacher.  There was a mixed flock of blackbirds on a wire some distance away.  Wayne ID’ed the back lit Cowbird by its signature pose with raised beak tilting toward the heavens.  This was new info for me.  We saw 50 some birds that day but he was especially pleased when at the end of the session he saw a small flock of Marbled Godwits landing on a distance mudflat.  It was the bird we were all hoping for all day.

American Avocets, Recurvirostra americana, at Bombay Hook, Delaware

So which is better, guided or bare birding?  You decide, while I keep doing some of each.

Chasing Birds and Ancestors on Prince Edward Island

North Cape, PEI

 

It’s a large smile-shaped sandbar lying in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, just west of Nova Scotia.  There are no rocks, just the distinct red sand and soil, the result of iron oxides and eons of silting of prehistoric rivers.  This is a gentle land of low rolling hills, tidy farms, expansive and nearly empty beaches, with a few bays and harbors populated with more fishing vessels than pleasure craft.  The people are also gentle and smiling, happy to see us tourists supplementing their income from the land and sea.

Tignish Shore

Prince Edward Island (PEI) is named for George III’s fourth son, the father of Queen Victoria.  The Mi’kmaq First Nation called the island “Epekwitk” which means “cradled on the waves”.  Jacques Cartier was the first European to see it in 1534.  Initial Acadian settlers battled New Englanders from the colonies for control until England gained the upper hand at the treaty ending the Seven Year’s War in 1763.   British settlers were largely Irish and Scots, with loyalists also emigrating from the colonies during the American Revolution.  PEI joined the Canadian Confederation in 1873 as its smallest province.

Suzanne and I spent two weeks in the Canadian Maritimes this September, reliving a similar trip some 40 years earlier.  I planned to do some birding, as we enjoyed all the sights, and also research Suzanne’s roots.  All four of her great grandparents on the maternal side were multigenerational immigrants from Ireland and hailed from the region of Tignish, a small town near the northwestern tip of PEI.

American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos

I’ve never seen so many crows as on this island.  They were American Crows, perhaps with an Acadian accent.  Not a rare bird, for sure, but they did pose for some good portraits.  The other most common woodland bird was the Red-breasted Nuthatch, honking from seemingly every pine.  I suspect they may have been actively preparing for the local winter, or perhaps a short migration to slightly warmer forests.

Red-breasted Nuthatch, Sitta canadensis

St. Simon & St. Jude Church is a majestic brick church, the tallest edifice in Tignish.  The people in the rectory were very helpful in our search, showing us birth, baptismal, wedding, and death records.  Someone had previously cataloged all the tombstones in the adjacent burial ground and were able to direct us to the plot of one set of great grandparents.  “It’s just down the lane, on the left side, three rows past the seventh maple tree.”  Sure enough, there it was, just under a tree and in plain sight of the towering church steeple.

Great grandfather Peter Kinch was a young man on PEI who shunned the usual professions of farming and fishing and instead used his woodworking skills building carriages and coffins. His first wife tragically died during childbirth in 1883, leaving him with two daughters, ages five and two.  Where better to search for a prospective wife and mother for his children than at Our Lady of the Angels Convent School, right in Tignish?  That’s where he met Mary Ellen Murphy, Suzanne’s great grandmother.  They had fifteen additional children including grandmother Marguerite!  This same convent school later became the Heritage Inn & Gardens and was our highly recommended lodging for three nights. https://tignishheritageinn.ca

Tignish Heritage Inn and Gardens

It’s ironic to find a “life” bird while combing through cemeteries, but one can bird while doing just about anything.  I was strolling along a hedgerow, just behind our B&B when I briefly glimpsed the chickadee.  It had more brown on the head and upper back than the black-capped.  I could not coax him out for a photo but will declare him a Boreal Chickadee and claim a new life bird.  The sparrow below was more cooperative.

Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia

PEI is bordered by beautiful wide red sand beaches, almost deserted in September.  I spent several dawns birding the shoreline in the slanting morning light.  Common Eiders were the prevalent birds in the surf, with soaring gulls and the more purposeful flights of Northern Gannets and Double-crested Cormorants noted off shore.  Shorebirds included foraging Semipalmated Plovers, Sanderlings, and Ruddy Turnstones.  In the picturesque freshwater ponds amidst the dunes of Greenwich National Park we were able to get close shots of two feeding Greater Yellowlegs.

Common Eider, Somateria mollissima

Greater Yellowlegs, Tringa melanoleuca

At East Point, the opposite end of the island to Tignish, there is a lighthouse and birding hotspot.  Unfortunately we were there on a blustery, rainy day.  My hopes at seeing migrating raptors was dashed, but the rip currents offshore were spectacular.  A Northern Harrier gave us a brief airshow while we were waiting for the ferry to Nova Scotia, and thousands of cormorants had a farewell beach party as we departed from PEI.

 

Northern Harrier, Circus cyaneus

Cormorant beach party

The small museum in Alberton, PEI, has an excellent genealogy section in the basement.  It also has a wonderfully helpful curator, Arlene Morrison, who guided our search for ancestors.  She directed us to the gravesite of the other maternal great grand-parents, the Casey’s, in the burial ground of the Church of the Immaculate Conception, again a large majestic church situated at a mere rural crossroads today.

Alberton Museum, Alberton, PEI

 

We were also given directions to the old Kinch homestead.  Initially we couldn’t find the house so I flagged down a passing red pick-up.  As luck would have it, he was the owner of a large potato farm that included the old Kinch land, and very eager to talk and point out the old farmhouse.

1909 photo of the Kinch homestead, PEI

He in fact called his elderly father on cell phone who came and joined into the conversation.  After we checked out the farmhouse the red pick-up pulled up again, this time with a red-headed cousin of Suzanne, probably 3rd or 4th removed.  Then they sent us to the home of an elderly Kinch in-law.  This charming nonagenarian took us into her humble kitchen and shared her memories of favorite family fables.  What a day–no life birds, just real, live relatives.

Suzanne and cousin George

One wonders why people choose to leave such a charming and beautiful island, but then again, we were there in September with a warming sun–barely sweater weather.  It must be bleak in midwinter.  Fishing and farming are professions for the hardy.  One hundred years ago both Suzanne’s grandmother and grandfather left PEI separately as single young adults to seek their futures in Boston.  As PEI transplants in urban America they found each other, and as the saying goes, the rest is history.

Guano

Blue-footed Boobies, Sula nebouxii                                        photo by A. Sternick

 

August must be a slow month for birding since my mind has turned to the fascinating topic of bird excretions.  It may also be because of the daily reminder found on my dock.  Early in the season the dock was guano-free, perhaps due to the policing of the nearby nesting Osprey which mobbed any intruding gull.  But now the Laughing, Ring-billed, and Herring Gulls are back big time and the Osprey all seem to have given up the dock patrol, perhaps preoccupied with planning their upcoming long migration to the south.

Royal, Least, and Forster’s Terns, as well as an occasional Double-crested Cormorant are now all contributing to the mess.  The rotating gull sweep and wind socks help some, but I sense the Laughing Gulls are defecating on my poor plastic owl with vocal hilarity.

Laughing Gull, Larus atricilla

Seriously, guano is much more interesting than you’d think.  It represents millions of years of evolutionary success and has even caused wars among us enterprising and competitive humans.

Caspian Tern, Sterna caspia

All animals require dietary protein (composed of nitrogen-containing amino acids) for maintenance of body structure and function.  The metabolic breakdown products of proteins are a toxic nitrogenous waste that must not be allowed to accumulate.

Double-crested Cormorant, Phalacrocorax auritus (the first step in guano creation)

In humans and other mammals these wastes are excreted in the urine as urea, dissolved in large amounts of flushing water.  First dinosaurs, and later birds, have evolved kidneys that have the ability to concentrate these wastes as uric acid, requiring only 1/20th the amount of water needed by us humans.  It’s these uric acid crystals that give guano its distinct white color that daily spots my dock.

Masked Booby, Sula dactylatra                           photo by A. Sternick

When various berries are ripe the spots are a slightly more pleasing pink, red, or blue, reflecting the diets of my avian friends.  If you examine the guano closely you’ll see small piles of tiny bone and shell fragments, the remains of fish and blue crabs finely chopped in the bird’s gizzard.  If so inclined I could monitor the contents of the birds’ excretions and publish a significant research paper.  I’m not so inclined.

Herring gulls, Larus argentatus

The word “guano” is derived from “huanu”, coined by the indigenous Quechuan people of the Andes and South American highlands to describe bird dung.  For at least 1500 years these people recognized the fertilizing power of guano, later shown to be due to its high concentrations of nitrogen, phosphates, and potassium.  Alexander von Humboldt introduced guano to Europeans in 1802, forever changing their desire for this valuable fertilizer.  It allowed much more intensive farming with significantly higher yields per acre.

While some Americans headed west to stake their gold-mining claims in California, others headed south to the guano islands to make their fortune.  The U.S. Guano Island Act of 1856 gave exclusive rights of guano deposits to citizens staking their claims on any unclaimed island.  Some of these small islands in the Caribbean and off the west coast of South America had guano deposits 50 meters deep.  100,000 indentured servants from China came to the New World in the 19th century, specifically to become guano harvesters.  The “guano rush” was on.  Conservation laws were enacted to protect the valuable islands and the guano-producing birds.

Double-crested Cormorants, Phalacrocorax auritus

The “best” guano is found along the dry western coast of South America.  The control of this guano paid a key role in the Chincha Island War of 1864-6, fought by Spain against an alliance of Chile and Peru.  Peru and Chile later fought each other in 1879 for this same guano.  Some people speculate that it may have been guano from Mexico, infested with the Phytophthora infestans mold, that cause the severe potato blight and famine in Ireland in the mid 19th century.

Pelagic Cormorants, Phalacrocorax pelagicus

Things began to quiet down in 1909 when the process of industrial nitrogen fixation became the primary way to produce ammonia-based fertilizers.  To this day, however, guano is still used as an effective natural fertilizer, and is especially cherished by organic farmers and consumers.

Northern gannet, Morus bassanus

Knowledge begets toleration.  Tomorrow as I hose off the dock I’ll not be mumbling about all the b.s., but rather pondering the structures of urea and uric acid and the eons that evolved the differing kidneys that excrete them.  And how enterprising man found a use for the foul of the fowl, and even fought wars over the control of it.  I’ll also consider planning a trip to South America and the islands, and maybe even see a Guanay Cormorant, Peruvian Pelican, or a Peruvian Booby, the most prolific guano producers of all.

The Death and Rebirth of Poplar Island

 

 

There were calls of “Glossy Ibis flying right to left”, “Bank Swallows on the bank”, “nesting Black-necked Stilts on the mudflat”, and “beware the large looming crane ahead”.  The later sighting was not of the avian variety, but rather a gigantic towering long-necked machine.  We birders were visiting Poplar Island, an active island construction and restoration site on the Chesapeake Bay.

I’ve previously described the disappearing islands of the bay, succumbing to rising water, sinking land, and erosion.  This has been going on for eons, but man is now fighting back on a massive scale.  The Poplar Island Restoration is an attempt to recreate this island in a sustainable fashion using dredge material from the shipping channel.  Hopefully the resurrected historic site will become a beacon to naturalists and local flora and fauna, as well as an environmental laboratory for future projects.  It is a work in progress but has already achieved much of these goals.

Willet, Catoptrophorus semipalmatus

William Claiborne surveyed Sharp’s Island, now gone, and Popeley’s Island, later renamed Poplar’s Island, in 1627.  Early English settlements had mixed results with an Indian massacre occurring in1637.  The British used the islands as a base when they invaded the Chesapeake Bay in the War of 1812.  In the mid 19th century Poplar Island, along with the nearby Jefferson and Coaches Islands, were over 1100 acres in size.  In 1847 an entrepreneur sought riches in the trade of black cat fur, populating the island with hoards of black cats.  Watermen delivered fish daily to support the herd.  All was going well until the winter when the bay froze over and the cats all escaped over the ice, their fur intact.

Barn Swallow

By the early 20th century there were 100 residents on the island living on several farms.  A school, church, post office, and sawmill graced the small community.  In the 1930’s and 40’s the democratic party built a hunting and fishing retreat center on the adjacent Jefferson Island, visited by presidents FDR and Truman.   But by now the retreating shores were evident and the island’s fate unsure.  You can read “Poplar Island, My Memories as a Boy” by Peter K. Bailey to appreciate the life of the islanders in this era.  “The Disappearing Islands of the Chesapeake” by William B. Cronin describes a similar process throughout the bay and contains fascinating pictures of the shrinking land.

Red-winged Blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus

By the 1990’s the island was only 4 acres of several small islets, barely breaking the surface.  Someone, looking for a site to deposit dredged material from the shipping channel, had the bright idea to restore and recreate Poplar Island.  This was not a simple task, but rather a complicated bureaucratic, engineering, and environmental feat attempting to restore habitat without damaging existing wildlife.  It became a joint effort of the Army Corp of Engineers, Maryland Department of Transportation, and Maryland Environmental Services (MES).

Work in progress

MES’s plan

The first step was to construct containment dikes of rock and sand to shape the various habitats of the restored island.  The goal was to create marshy wetlands as well as drier uplands.  Initially the plan was to restore the 1847 footprint, but given the success of the project, the target size was increased to 1715 acres.

Fellow birders in action

I’ve visited the island three times over the last several years and marvel at the progression.  MES proudly sponsors a free guided tour of the site on a seaworthy boat and air-conditioned bus.  Visit their website for more info; http://www.poplarislandrestoration.com.  My trips were sponsored by birding clubs and the itinerary was tailored for birders.  Bring your binos, scopes, bug spray, and sunscreen.  Others may visit to inspect other fauna and flora, or even the engineering feat itself.  There are several quonset huts along the dirt roads that describe the entire endeavor.

Departure site at Knapp’s Narrows

Uncountable Cormorants on Jefferson Island.

Ebird now list 240 species of birds seen on the new Poplar Island.  There are 34 nesting species reported including the American Oystercatcher, Glossy Ibis, Snowy Egret, Least and Common Terns, and Black-necked Stilts.  The island is popular with waterfowl in the colder months.  On one recent winter day a total of 15,000 birds were counted.  Other fauna are also returning, with Diamond Back Terrapins thriving.  Deer frequently swim over from the mainland to join in the party.

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

I’m attempting to picture my trip to Poplar Island 25 years from now.  I’ll be 92 and probably still have my same binoculars, (they’re guaranteed for life).  The restoration will be complete.  The cranes, earth movers, and bulldozers will all be long gone.  The island will be crisscrossed with a few hiking/biking trails, I hope, with some strategically positioned benches and viewing stands. There may even be a small harbor and slips for docking a few pleasure craft. I’ll limp from the wetlands to the uplands to once again check out the birds.  I will have a smile on my face as I survey Poplar Island one last time, the gem of the Chesapeake, a plan wonderfully conceived and executed by many folks for the lasting enjoyment of friends and fowl for generations to come.

 

 

 

Birding While Kayaking

Glossy Ibis, Plegadis falcinellus

 

When bit by the birding bug your behavior becomes bizarre, according to belittling bystanders.  Be that as it may.  One of our traits is the need to bird constantly.  As you know, birding can be accomplished at many levels of intensity.  There’s the full court press of binoculars, scopes, telephoto lenses, guidebooks, and computers on the one extreme, and the casual noting of birdsong and flyovers as you live the rest of your life, on the other.

Belted Kingfisher, Ceryle alcyon                    (click to zoom)

I’ve birded while sailing (see a prior posting), during a pelagic expedition off the coast of California (another prior posting), and now while kayaking.  I can testify that the latter is the most rewarding aqueous birding for me.  A kayak allows a stealthy approach to the quarry, the bird almost accepting you as part of the water.  There’s no flapping sail, noisy engine, or chumming (either intentional or due to sea-sickness).  As opposed to a tippy canoe, with a kayak you sit right down in the water, at eye level with the surface, giving a pleasing angle for viewing or photography.

Least Tern, Sterna antillarum

A couple practical hints:  wear gloves to avoid blisters, plan on getting wet (you might want to leave your expensive photography equipment on dry land), and if in a dual kayak, take the back seat (you get to steer, the other person can’t whack you with the paddle, and you can take a clandestine break while your partner keeps paddling).  Also, check the boat for varmints.  I keep my kayak turned over on the bank and wasn’t aware I had a large black snake onboard until well underway.  So much for the birding that day.

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus

I’ve birded from a kayak in the mangrove swamps of southwest Florida and near home on tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay.  The Florida excursion was with six people in three boats.  The leading kayak contained the alpha males whose quest was to traverse the swamp and inland waterway and make it to the Gulf of Mexico and unknown distant shores as quickly as possible.  The second boat was made up of young, physically fit bones that could paddle all day.  They weren’t really interested in birds.  The last boat was mine, with two sixty something year old birders trying to keep up and see some interesting birds.  I was in the stern seat.

A mangrove tunnel, from the back seat

The mangrove swamps south of Naples bordering the gulf coast are an extensive tropical tidal ecosystem covering 2700 square kilometers and sometimes extending up to 30 miles inland.  They are the final watershed of the Everglades and Great Cypress Swamp.  The mangrove are crisscrossed by a myriad of navigable tunnels and a few wider waterways.  Its very easy to get turned around and lost if you don’t keep up with your leader, assuming he knows where he’s going.  A handheld GPS is invaluable.

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

White Ibis, Eudocimus albus

We saw no rarities, but that did not detract from the adventure.  A Bald Eagle perched high on a tall pine bade us adieu as we entered the swamp.  The most common birds were egrets, herons, and ibises, with an occasional kingfisher.  I have yet to see a Mangrove Cuckoo.  We packed subs from Subway and passed the perfect sandy island on the way in, with plans to stop for lunch there on the return trip.  But time and tides wait for no man and we settled for lunch standing on this submerged island in 12 inches of water a few hours later.  It was still welcome food and a chance to stretch.

Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus

There are no mangroves in the Chesapeake Bay.  My Eastern Shore is characterized by uncountable tidal creeks, ideal for kayaking.  These are not your typical babbling brooks one thinks of as a “creek”, but rather wide, sometimes as wide as a half mile, of irregular fingers of the vast shallow estuary.  Think oysters, crabs, bluefish and rock bass, as well as sailing and kayaking.

Willey’s Island

My local destination is usually Willey’s Island, one of the bay’s many disappearing islands.  People tell me that at one time there was an active farm on the property.  I have watched it shrink for 20 years till now its just several sand spits, and small surviving uplands with its shore littered by fallen trees.  More succumb with each storm.  There was a single majestic pine on one end of the island, a favorite perch of a local Bald Eagle.  It now has died, has wet feet, and will topple over soon.

The Eagle Tree

The rising sea level is not the only explanation for the disappearing islands.  I’m told that the land itself is actually sinking due to deep geologic events.  These factors together have made these silt and clay islands vulnerable to shoreline erosion.  There are no stabilizing natural rocky shores in the Chesapeake Bay.

Toppled trees along the shoreline

My recent kayak trip to the island showed that a Cormorant had taken over my dying Eagle tree.  Chattering Least Terns are more numerous than Forster’s this year, and I wonder where all the sea gulls have gone.  Most years we’re overrun with Ring-billed and Laughing Gulls by now, but this year, nary a one.  My clean dock is evidence of this.  The Osprey continue to increase in number.  There is a housing crisis for them with now almost every channel marker sporting a nest, even the triangular red markers with the pointed top.

Nesting Osprey

A birder has a subliminal urge to keep birding in some form, to fight the passage of time.  Older legs may no longer be able to scale the peaks to see the alpine birds, or endure the transoceanic flights to other continents.  Florida’s mangroves are under development pressure and the Chesapeake’s islands are disappearing.  The birds are adjusting and evolving, but the rate of change seems to be accelerating and some may not survive.  The time, tide, and birds wait for no man.  Good birding, while you can, and try out a kayak.

 

 

 

 

Bird Banding

Chipping Sparrow, Spizella passerina

 

When I told a friend I was writing a post about bird banding he immediately conjured up his musical past and famous bird bands:  the Eagles, the Dixie Chicks, and Sheryl Crow.  And don’t forget to mention Jay and the Americans, he quipped.  That’s how his clever mind works, but this is about bird banding, not bands.  Maybe bird bands will be a topic for a later day.

Common Yellowthroat, Geothlypis trichas

I was only too happy to accept an invitation from Gene & Mary, the hosts of the erstwhile nuthatch family, to accompany them to the Chester River Field Research Station (CRFRS), last month to observe a bird banding operation during spring migration.  I had previously witnessed raptors captured in baited nets and banded at Cape May, New Jersey, but had never seen songbird banding up close.  http://www.washcoll.edu/centers/ces/crfrs

Magnolia Warbler, Dendroica magnolia

CRFRS is in the River and Field Campus of Washington College, an extensive 4700 acres of mixed habitat along 2.5 miles of the Chester River, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay.  The site includes riverine, freshwater ponds, marsh, grasssland and wooded habitats, all just a 10 mile drive from the main college campus in Chestertown, Maryland.

A long dirt road through the woods leads to a small clearing and humble white shed with a “James Gruber Birding Laboratory” sign posted proudly over the door.  Mr. Gruber himself and field ecologist Maren Gimpel greeted us warmly and gave an introductory explanation of the operation.  One immediately grasped that these were dedicated and knowledgeable ornithologists and teachers leading a small team of enthusiastic students and volunteers.  All were more than willing to answer our many questions about their work.

The interior of the “lab” itself was a crowded but efficient workplace.  The workbench by the windows was where the banding took place, with clipboards, calipers, scales, and other tools-of-the-trade apparent.  Along the rafters hung the small white sacs containing the captured birds from the last run, waiting to be banded, measured, and released.  There was a large bookcase containing records, textbooks, and bird guides (their favorite seemed to be Sibley’s).  On the wall hung large maps of the U.S. and Western Hemisphere with colored pushpins  marking the sights of origin of captured and previously banded birds.  A white board listed the spring arrivals for 2018.

The banding operation for the day started long before we arrived.    The fine mesh mist nets were hung along strategic pathways in various habitats at dawn and monitored at least every hour to retrieve captured birds.  The directors asked us not to photograph birds in the net for fear some might think the process cruel.  I can assure you that these people used the utmost of gentle care untangling the birds and released them ASAP back into the wild, none the worse for wear.

Wood Thrush, Hylocichla mustelina

Our knowledge of bird migration has been refined over the centuries.  Completely unaware of migration, Aristotle thought Redstarts turned into Robins, and Garden Warblers into Blackcaps each winter.  For years people thought Swallows hibernated and in the 16th century fishermen reportedly caught the torpid swallows in their nets.  In the 17th century Englishman Charles Morton decided birds must indeed migrate, but he claimed their destination was the moon!

Banding has enlightened us to the specifics of migration.  Audubon tied silver thread to the leg of an Eastern Phoebe to see if the same bird returned to his farm each year.  Hans Mortensen first used aluminum leg rings on Starlings in 1899, and Leon Cole  founded the American Bird Banding Association in 1909.  In 2017 CRFRS banded 14,757 birds of 128 different species.  Even though the recovery rate of banded songbirds is very low, (less than 1%), much can be learned about migration, shifting populations, and the health of the various species from this data.

Grasshopper Sparrow, Ammodramus savannarum

“Recovery” may take many forms.  It may be the netting of a hapless bird previously banded the day before, or a migrant returning to its breeding ground or just passing through.  It may be a bird banded elsewhere, hundreds or even thousands of miles away.  Some recoveries are by astute birders able to read the band numbers with a scope or telephoto lens, but often the recoveries are of dead birds, perhaps found as road kill, victims of window strikes, or even just old age.  A notable recovery of 2017 was an Osprey found dead in Venezuela, previously banded at CRFRS in June, 2003.

Indigo Bunting, Passerina cyanea

I found that walking the mist nets with the guides to be exciting, much like a child with “visions of sugar plums” on Christmas Eve.   You could see a netted bird from a distance and approached anxious to see it up close and try to identify it while the guide untangled and bagged the quarry.  An Indigo Bunting, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Magnolia Warbler, and Wood Thrush at two feet are truly a marvel.  Even the common Gray Catbird has its own subtle beauty at that proximity.

Banding an American Goldfinch, Carduelis tristis

Back at the shack the birds are fitted with the appropriate sized leg band, weighed, measured, and sexed if possible.  Breeding males often have a prominent protuberance at the vent, visible when feathers are brushed aside.  Age determination, (juvenile, first year, or adult) can often be determined by plumage.  Fat deposits on the breast are signs of a healthy well-fed bird.  All of this is painstakingly recorded.  A highlight for us observers is when the guides finally handed us a bird, light as a feather, to be released back into the wild.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Archilochus colubris

Two things stand out in my mind from the visit to CRFRS.  Its one thing to see these birds with binoculars and photography, but entirely different to hold these small gems in your hands or hear the rapid humming of the Hummingbird heartbeat in your ear.  The other lasting impression is of the knowledge and palpable enthusiasm that both the leaders and young students have for ornithology, and their obvious delight in sharing their expertise with others.  We were grateful beneficiaries of their mastery that day.

The Fledging of the Brown-headed Nuthatches

Sitta pusilla

 

I was six years old and still a dog paddler.  As I stood on the diving tower my knees shook and the water, six feet below, seemed forbidding.  My older brother and sisters begged me to jump but I couldn’t take the plunge.  My father, apparently losing patience, gave me a firm nudge and I fell.  Reaching out for the tower I was able to grab a support and clung there for a few more seconds before falling the remaining three feet into the lake.  I lived.

Parent with brown head, juvenile with grayer head

My son was also six when I ran down the road behind him, holding the seat of his new 20-inch two wheeler.  He was game but his balance was precarious and I was reluctant to let go.  But our rural road was straight and the only potential obstacle was our neighbor’s mailbox 100 feet ahead.  I let go and he was on his own and doing fine.  But that darn mailbox loomed large and Murphy’s Law was upheld again.  It was a direct hit.  He also lived.

These were my thoughts as Suzanne and I sat with Mary and Gene on their porch, sipped wine, and watched the Brown-headed Nuthatches (BHNH) fledge from their Bluebird house.  Mary had called us, all excited, as she sensed that the big moment had arrived.  I was immersed in household projects and reluctant to drop them, but my wife “egged me on”.  I grabbed the camera and we arrived just in the nick of time.

#1

The first fledgling was purposeful and bold; stuck his head out the hole, surveyed the landscape, and quickly launched himself into the new world.  I can just picture him (or her) as the dominant chick of the clutch, perhaps standing on the backs and heads of the others in the crowded box to get more than his fair share of the food.  His siblings were likely relieved to see him go.

#2 clinging for dear life as parent and #3 look on

Number two was a completely different story, poking his head out and withdrawing it several times.  When he finally left the hole he clung to the side of the house before scampering back inside, just to start the process all over again.  One time he lost his grip and fell down to the metal snake guard below the house.  A parent, reminiscent of my father and the diving tower incident, finally had enough of this and pushed the timid chick into the wild.  Each fledgling’s initial short flight was to the nearby loblollies, apparently a favorite tree for the species.

Pygmy nuthatch, Sitta pygmaea

This nuthatch, along with the similar west coast Pygmy nuthatch are smaller than the related White-breasted and Red-breasted birds of the same genus.  The brown head is distinctive and its call is comical.  If you hear a Rubber Ducky in your pine tree you’ll know you’ve found a BHNH.  We Delmarva birders are lucky to be just within the range of this bird, which extends south to northern Florida and west as far as Texas.

Red-breasted nuthatch, Sitta canadensis

The social BHNHs are often found in small groups, often with young males assisting with the feeding chores.  The breeding pair are monogamous, at least for the breeding season, and bring just one brood into the world each year.  This clever bird is one of the few avian tool-users, known to use a small piece of bark to dislodge insects from the tree.  The non-migratory BHNH will also visit a feeder for sunflower seeds, especially in the cooler months.

White-breasted nuthatch, Sitta carolinensis

Gene and Mary have created a wonderful avian habitat on their narrow tidal creek of the Chesapeake Bay.  We first met this erstwhile urban couple years ago when they had just recently left the city and moved to our rural Eastern Shore.  They quickly learned the local flora and fauna and have become astute observers and conservers of the land.  Their beautiful yard is bordered by stands of pines and hollies with sizable areas of wildflowers and gardens extending down to the tidal grasses at the shoreline.  Scattered birdhouses and feeders are carefully maintained and Mary keeps a log of the comings and goings of the wildlife.  This spring the nuthatches were the primo attraction.

Juvenile and parent BHNH

She first noticed the seven eggs in the Bluebird house on April 6, thinking they were likely the work of Carolina chickadees.  But by  4/13 she noticed the busy BHNH parents at the site and the hen incubating the eggs.  They hatched on 4/21 and fledged right on schedule 18 days later.  These birds are cavity nesters, usually in old woodpecker holes, but are also known to inhabit birdhouses on occasion.

#3 & #4

Numbers 3 and 4 seemed to take a team approach to fledging.  Both heads and bodies squeezed together into the birdhouse exit, seemingly encouraging each other to attempt the flight to the nearby loblolly.  We did not observe the other three fledglings but Mary reported that the box was empty and quiet the next morning.  I suspect for a few short days the parents will assist the fledglings with feeding but soon they will be on their own; sink or swim.  If lucky they may achieve a life span approaching eight years.

Parent, showing how it’s done

What must it be like for the new nuthatches?  Leaving the warm, safe confines of the 6X6X15 inch box and launching themselves into a vast universe of entirely new sights, sounds and dangers.  Think of your first day of school, or perhaps your first date or kiss. What about that first piano recital or being left alone for the first time at summer camp.  Even these can hardly compare to nuthatches’ first flights at only 18 days of age.  And we certainly did not have a crowd of curious spectators aiming those binoculars and that long telephoto lens at us during our debut.  The fledglings were truly a sight to behold and so far, they too have lived.