“Slim Fingers Beckon”

Common Yellowthroat, Geothlypis trichas

 

Most birders have a sentinel patch or first sighting that opened up the world of birds for them.  It may have been a solitary moment in the wild or just a momentary glance out the kitchen window.  It might have been the inspiration of a gifted bird guide or perhaps the emulation of a parent or friend.  In any case, I’ve found that many birders fondly remember that moment.

from Arch Merrill’s “Slim Fingers Beckon”

For me this moment occurred some 50 years ago while traipsing through the fields adjacent to our family cottage on the shore of Keuka Lake in Upstate New York.  What is that secretive bright yellow bird with the black mask that suddenly popped up from the grass, took a look at me, and quickly dove back into cover?  This was not a usual feeder or yard bird, but something entirely new.  Petersen’s bird guide clued me in; it was the Common Yellowthroat, clearly illustrated on that page.  I was hooked and a birder was born.

The name of this post is the title of Arch Merrill’s venerable and folksy tale of these Finger Lakes, written in 1951.  The six major lakes from west to east are Canandaigua, Keuka, Seneca, Cayuga, Owasco, and Skaneateles.  Each are long, narrow, and deep, oriented north and south, and cover a large area of central New York State.  Old Iroquois legend claims the “fingers” were formed when the Great Spirit pressed his hand onto the gentle rolling hills, blessing this land for the Iroquois Nation.  Our current scientific lore describes their origin from the gouging, retreating glaciers of the last Ice Age.

Baltimore Oriole, Icterus galbula

Today these lake are lined with cottages.  Some are palatial, but most, like ours, are more modest gathering sites for generations of families.  The clear lakes are dotted with pleasure craft and the bordering hills are adorned with vineyards and numerous small wineries.  There are quiet shaded glens and impressive waterfalls.  For a few short months of every year there is no place that I can think of that is more suitable for pleasant living.

Cedar Waxwing, Bombycilla cedrorum

I was beckoned back to the region this September for the 40th reunion of my medical school class in Syracuse.  The cottage was perfect lodging for the occasion and gave me a chance to spend time with my New Mexican brother who was also responding to the lure of our childhood home.  He, in fact, had trailed an old classic sailboat across the continent to renew our joys of tacking back and forth between Keuka’s shores.

A classic New Mexican beauty, Classico novus mexicanus

There are two 50-75 acre fields adjacent to our cottage.  One is mowed yearly and the other has been left untouched for 40 years.  These represent a laboratory model of ecological succession, comparing the results of a yearly disturbance with the progressive succession of plant life in an old undisturbed field.  By September the mowed field had become an array of typical grasses, weeds, and wildflowers with Queen Anne’s Lace, Goldenrod, and Batchelor’s Button most prominent.  We have observed the succession in the other field from these initial weeds and grasses to later clumps of small Sumac, Cedar, and Pine.  Years later we now have crowded stands of tall trees including Sweet Gum, Cottonwood, Birch, and Red Cedar, all intertwined with Poison Ivy and Virginia Creeper.  These fields and the dirt road which divides them are my sentinel patch.

Mowed field to the left of road and unmowed to the right

“Field” after 40 years of no mowing or disturbance

Over these 50 years the patch list has grown to a modest 56 avian species.  Birding was slow last week but my non-birder brother reported seeing a Golden Eagle.  I wondered if it may have been an immature Bald.  I got a brief distant look at the large dark bird and it was clearly an eagle, but the exact ID was still indefinite; maybe it was a Golden.  The hedgerow along the dirt road did yield a Wilson’s Warbler with its fading black cap, a new bird for the patch.

Wilson’s Warbler, Wilsonia pusilla

There was standing room only at the feeder with Black-capped Chickadees, American Gold and House Finches, and Downey Woodpeckers most numerous.  I heard but did not see a White-breasted Nuthatch.  Its been several years since I spotted the sentinel Common Yellowthroat there.  It seems that neither field habitat is conducive to its needs.  It all makes sense; field succession begets wildlife and bird succession.  Nothing stays the same.

Downy Woodpecker, Picoides pubescens

They say that you can never go home.  That’s not entirely true as long as you allow some inevitable newness to creep in among the vestiges of the old. Just as fields undergo succession and medical students age, our childhood haunts and homes will never be exactly as we remember them.  The cottage is a perfect example of this.  My sister and her husband have “modernized” it, while faithfully preserving some past structures, furniture and pictures as a reminder of 60 years of family history.  It remains a lure for us to come home and for future generations to enjoy.  The lakes, fields and hills continue to beckon the birds as well as us crazies that yearn to observe and photograph the same species, every year, over and over again.

Don’t You Wish You Could Molt?

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus

 

The late August birding in my patch was slow, very slow.  When that happens you can always resort to photographing butterflies, moths and plants, but where were all the birds?  There were several possible explanations.  Fighting over territories, mates, and nesting sites were yesterday’s battles.  The birds are now more interested in fattening up for winter or migration.  Almost all the new birds had already fledged while the swallows had left the patch and were flocking inland prior to their trip south.  The maniacal keeehahh of the perching Red-tailed Hawk may have had something to do with the quiet, but it was more a threat to the squirrels and rabbits who were having a banner year, than to the songbirds.

Red-tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis

Then it occurred to me.  Maybe they were molting, molting in private, hiding in their embarrassing and more vulnerable states.  I don’t know about you, but molting has always confused me.  Consider this post as a back-to-school course, Molting 101; my attempt to shed some light on this critical avian process.

Tiger Swallowtail, Pterourus glaucus

American Painted Lady, Vanessa virginiensis

Canada Thistle, Cirsium arvense

Feathers are dead appendages with no innervation or blood flow.  They are an amazing and complex adaptation for flight, insulation, and display, but their fragility necessitates periodic replacement.  They can be preened, cleaned, and rearranged, but they cannot be repaired.  Every feather has a rudimentary replacement in its follicle waiting for a stimulus to grow and push out the worn, frayed, precursor.  The simple annual cycle for birds is to breed, molt, and survive the winter or migration, and then start the same cycle next year, all over again.

Magnolia Warbler, Dendroica magnolia

Two sets of terminology are used to describe molting and the resultant plumages.  This adds to my confusion.  The traditional, used since 1900, describes the adult’s two plumages as “winter” and “breeding”.  Shortcomings of this system occur since many of our birds winter and may breed in South America where it is actually summer.  And other young birds in breeding plumage may not actually breed for several years.  Thus, in 1959 the second and preferred terminology was proposed.  In this system adult birds molt into their “basic” plumage just after breeding, and then in spring will molt into their “alternative” plumage, prior to breeding.

Verdin, Auriparus flaviceps

But it gets more complicated as each bird species has its own molting schedule and various numbers of yearly molts depending on its lifestyle.  Sedentary arboreal birds may stick to the standard molting script, whereas birds attempting long difficult migrations, or those living in harsh environments such as a desert or the Arctic, may undertake more frequent molts.  Birds wintering in cold climates may add up to 50% more feathers to their basic plumage compared to the alternate garb.  All this for added insulation and winter survival.

Chestnut-sided Warbler, Dendroica pensylvanica

Then there are the juveniles who molt out of their natal down into a juvenile plumage before fledging, and later molt into the adult basic plumage.  The progression to adult may occur in the first year for many, or may be spread over several years as seen in the gulls. They molt into first, second, and third winter, and for some even fourth winter plumages before obtaining the basic plumage.

Black-throated Green Warbler, Dendroica virens

Birds have evolved two major molting strategies.  Ducks, loons, grebes and others are called synchronous molters and get it done, all feathers, all at once.  This results in a month of flightless vulnerability often spent on an isolated pond or lake away from predators, but does not interfere with flight or life for the remainder of the year.  The other strategy is to gradually molt a few feathers at a time in a defined reproducible sequence, specific for each species.  This method has a minimal impact on flight and other routines of life.

American Goldfinch, Carduelis tristis

Molting is one of the most energetically costly events in a bird’s life.  It generally, therefore, does not overlap with the other demanding activities of reproduction and migration.  There are some examples, however, when molting does occur simultaneously with egg laying and incubation, but in these circumstances the molting process is much prolonged.  Very little is known about what factors trigger a molt.  A single lost feather is rather quickly replaced, but what triggers a generalized molt?  One theory suggests it is related to the changing length of daylight.

American Wigeon, Anas americana

My philosophy for understanding molting, and just about everything else is “KISS” (Keep It Simple Stupid).  So with that in mind, just remember that most of our birds have their most important molt in late summer, after breeding, replacing all their flight and body feathers with basic plumage in preparation for either winter or migration.  They will also undergo a second, partial, prenuptial molt in spring, often into a striking, colorful alternative plumage, enhancing their breeding opportunities.

American Robin, Turdus migratorius (in juvenile plumage)

Don’t you wish you could molt, or maybe you do?  I keep one basic and practical wardrobe, only requiring some minor cleaning and preening, and the alternative wardrobe for “date night” or other special occasions.  This latter plumage, like the birds, is colorful and designed to impress and turn heads.  Don’t I wish.

 

Our Flying Feathered Dinosaurs

Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis

 

 

The guttural squawk of the spooked Great Blue Heron as he arose from the shore of the brackish swamp took me back 200 million years, until my ringing cell phone jarred me back to the present.  I suspect that the heron somewhat resembles its Mesozoic ancestors;  large bird with wide wingspan and slow, flapping, straight line flight.  But who knows for sure?  The fossil record is spotty and the origin of birds has been hotly debated in academia for centuries.  This is not a “settled science”.

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

Remember the Genesis story.  Then God said, “Let the waters swarm with fish and other life.  Let the skies be filled with the birds of every kind, each producing offspring of the same kind”…And God saw that it was good.   It was and is very good.

GBH, click on any to zoom

In the 18th century some thought that fish and their scales were the precursor of the birds and their feathers, but by the mid 19th century scientists began to notice the many reptilian characteristics of birds.  Note the common three fingers hidden by the wing, and just substitute the heavy teeth with a lighter beak, add some feathers, and you have a bird.  But its not that easy.

Green Heron, Butorides virescens

 

A big break came in 1861, just two years after the publication of the “Origin of Species” by Darwin, when Archaeopteryx (Greek for “ancient wing”) was uncovered in a limestone quarry in Bavaria.  This 150 million year old Crow-sized fossil had the tail, spine, and claws of a reptile, but the wishbone and feathers of a bird.  Was this the transitional link?  Let the debate begin.

Archaeopteryx lithographica

The fossilization of birds is a very rare event.  Birds have thin, hollow bones and delicate feathers.  For a fossil to form the sediment must be oxygen-free and very fine in order to bring out the subtle detail of soft tissues and feathers.  That’s why Archaeopteryx was so exciting.  Later, in 1926 Heilmann published “The Origin of Birds” which suggested that birds and dinosaurs were related and shared a common bipedal reptilian ancestor 230 million years ago, but birds did not evolve from dinosaurs directly.

Great Egret, Ardea alba

Feathers evolved long before flight so clearly they must have offered some other survival advantage.  Many of the early feathered dinosaurs were much too heavy for flight and lacked other skeletal features that flight required.  The symmetrical dinosaur feather (birds have an asymmetric feather with a hollow core) were more likely used for insulation or for courtship display.  What female dino could possibly resist a male feather dance, or was it the female doing the dancing?  We’ll never know.

Great Black-backed Gull, Larus marinus, with unfortunate songbird in its talons.

Luckily there were numerous fossil discoveries in China and Spain in the late 20th century that shed new light on the origin question.  As a result, the current consensus is that birds did indeed evolve directly from Theropod dinosaurs, a group that includes the ferocious Tyrannosaurus Rex, but also a group of smaller, lighter, bipedal, raptor-like “dromeosaurs” that share many characteristics with early birds.

Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Tryngites subruficollis

The early to mid Cenozoic Era (37 to 65 million years ago) was a heyday for the birds.  The evolution of angiosperms (flowers) and grasses, and the mild climate were ideal.  Its been estimated that since their origin in the Mesozoic Era the Earth has hosted 150 thousand different species of birds.  There were two mass extinctions, however, that severely thinned the ranks.  The earlier was in the Cretaceous Period and took out many groups of toothed, aquatic birds along with all the dinosaurs.  The latter was in the Pleistocene epoch, 1.5 million years ago, a time of great climate upheaval with ice and glaciers covering vast areas of North America.  Of the 21 thousand bird species present at the outset of that epoch, only 10 thousand remain today.

By 20 million years ago most of the modern bird families and genera had appeared, but what are the most ancient birds?  Which are the true “early birds” that have survived the longest?  Only two major bird groups date back to the late Cretaceous Period in the Mesozoic Era, 65+ million years ago.  They are the Suborder Charadrii (shorebirds and gulls), and the Super Family Procellarioidea (albatrosses and petrels).  The others all came later onto the scene.

Black-footed Albatross, Phoebastria nigripes

There’s something about the dinosaurs that fascinate children, including me.  They learn the long names in kindergarten and play with their plastic models.  Maybe its their size or power, or maybe its because they ruled the Earth for so long and then disappeared so quickly and mysteriously.  Was it a comet strike or something else?  In any case, I’m so happy that some of their feathered offspring survived and continue to bring us newcomers, Homo sapiens, much pleasure today in the Cenozoic Era, Quaternary Period, and Holocene Epoch.

Avian Acrobats of Summer

 

It was just a Sunday afternoon jazz concert at the local high school and birds were the furthest thing from my mind, but when we drove into the parking lot I immediately noticed the flock of Least Terns greeting us jazz aficionados from the roof, singing their own raucous, high-pitched medley of zzreep and kvick-kvick.  Mental note:  Come back soon with binoculars and camera.

Least Tern, Sterna antillarum

The Least Tern is our smallest tern and a summertime resident along the coast.  It has a distinct white forehead patch.  They are endangered due to competition for nesting sites on the sandy beaches from sunbathers and developers.  As a remarkable behavioral adaptation the terns have moved their nesting colonies to flat gravel roofs, including our local school and Acme Supermarket.  The sunbathers have not yet followed them there.

Least Tern

I did return to observe the terns on a hot, sunny morning, timed so the sun would be behind and photography ideal.  Birds in flight, and especially these terns, present many challenges.  My best advice is to take hundreds of shots to get a few “keepers”.  You’ll need to keep exposure time faster than 1/1000 sec. and may find multiple exposure bursts helpful.  A white bird on a bright background is easily over-exposed so tend to your exposure compensation adjustments and check your results frequently.

Royal Tern, Sterna maxima

The sleek Least Terns do not do straight line flight but rather display a full acrobatic repertoire of twists, turns, barrel rolls, and hovering.  They almost seemed to relish confounding the earthbound photographer with the funny hat and large lens.

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus

According to Frank Gill in his textbook, “Ornithology”, “flight is the central avian adaptation”.  The ability to hover, dive, soar, fly upside-down and backwards, all require constant wing and tail adjustments, and set Aves apart from other classes of animals.  They’ve mastered the physics of lift, buoyancy, thrust, and drag.  Think of their refined brain and nervous system sending and receiving messages from specially designed bones, muscles, and feathers, all making this possible.  Flight, after all is the most energy efficient way of getting from point A to point B; more so than walking, running or swimming.

Tree Swallow, Tachycineta bicolor

In addition to the Least Terns there are other avian acrobats that highlight my summer birding.  The Osprey is the dominant bird-of-prey along our shoreline.  When its soaring flight changes to a hover you know it has spotted a fish and you need to be camera ready for a high speed dive. Just before impact the feet and lethal talons come out and enter the water first.  I’m still trying to capture that perfect splashing shot of impact.

Barn Swallow, Hirundo rustica

I’ve described our swallows and their acrobatic feeding frenzy over the lawn in a prior post on 8/1/2016 called “Where Have All the Swallows Gone?”.  At our location the “Barnies” seem to fly low, just over the lawn, while the feeding Tree Swallows seek insects at higher elevations.  Add an occasional Purple Martin and Chimney Swift and you have quite a show.  I find these birds the most difficult acrobats to photograph due to their rapid and erratic changes of direction.

American Goldfinch, Carduelis tristis

Let me add two more colorful performers to the list, the American Goldfinch and Ruby-throated Hummingbird.  My mother first pointed out to me the characteristic undulating flight of the goldfinch some 60 years ago.  I have yet to figure out the reason for this roller coaster ride and have concluded that perhaps the bird is doing it for pure pleasure.  In any case this allows the ID of the bird from great distances, without even seeing the striking yellow and black coloration.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Archilochus colubris

The “Hummers” are the world’s smallest birds and the flight of these iridescent gems is truly remarkable.  Slow motion analysis has shown a figure eight rotation of the wing allowing both the upper and lower surfaces of the wing to face downward and supply buoyancy and lift with each of the 80 beats per second.

Laughing Gull, Larus atricilla

Last week Suzanne and I sat down to a sunset dinner of crab cakes, steak, watermelon salad and chilled white wine on the screened, waterside porch.  The air was still and the evening quiet following the recent heavy rain.  I’m innocent; birds and birding were not on my mind when suddenly a mixed flock of 40 or 50 Laughing, Herring, and Ring-billed Gulls invaded our airspace and put on a captivating display.

This was not a short flyover but rather a sustained airshow of erratic, criss-crossed flight, rapid turns, and many near-misses with other gulls.  They were unusually quiet for gulls, only squawking to ward off a collision.  Seeing them periodically open their beaks and bend their necks we concluded they were feeding on an invisible-to-us swarm of insects arising from the moist lawn.  The spectacle ended as suddenly as it had begun, leaving both of us happy to have witnessed another show of the avian acrobats of summer.

Bird Bones and the Injured Goose

 

Since spring there has been a sad sac Canada Goose waddling around the yard, dragging an injured right wing behind.  I plead guilty to chasing it away from the pool deck and dock where it likes to deposit its fruits of digestion.  When chased it obviously can’t fly away with its friends but instead does a fast waddle to the riverbank and tumbles over the rip rap to the safety of the water.  It seems to have no problem swimming.  My initial annoyance with the goose has slowly changed to toleration and even a little respect as it strives to survive.

Canada Geese, Branta canadensis

I don’t know the story of the “accident”, or even if this is a resident or migrating goose as it was first seen before the spring migration when both types of geese were here.  Most likely it was wounded during hunting season by a poorly aimed shotgun, but that is all conjecture.  When I first noticed the injured fowl I did not give it much of a chance for survival with its dragging wing and the abundance of Red Fox, Bald Eagles, Vultures, and Great Horned Owls in the neighborhood.

Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus

But in May and June it was still here and even seemed to participate in the care of several broods of goslings hatched along the cove.  These, however, have matured and moved on.  The wounded bird is now usually seen alone, feeding on the lawn.  Who knows what awaits the bird this autumn and winter?

Great Horned Owls (juveniles), Bubo virginianus

Being a radiologist I would love to x-ray this bird’s wing and diagnose the exact problem.  Which bone is fractured or is it just dislocated?  Is there evidence of early healing?  And what is the prognosis for future flight?

Black Vulture, Coragyps atratus

The avian wing, the equivalent of our arm, is a magnificent structure formed for maximum strength and efficiency, while maintaining lightness for flight.  The upper arm or humerus bone is relatively shorter and thicker than ours and bears the major torque of the flapping wing.  The more distal paired radius and ulna are the equivalent of the human forearm, and like ours can be rotated or twisted.  This allows fine tuning of the wing attitude during flight.  Small bumps along the trailing edge of the ulna are the attachment sites of the secondary feathers.

Rock Dove Left Wing, from “Manual of Ornithology” by Proctor and Lynch.

Its in the wrist and hand bone where one sees the most deviation from the human skeleton.  The bird has two small carpal bones while we have eight.  They have three fused metacarpals to our five.  Distally they have three digits or fingers while most of us have five.

Brant, Branta bernicla

The pectoral girdle or shoulder of the bird is also very different from ours.  Just think of function.  The demands of flight require a  stout bracing for the large flight muscles and a strong attachment of wing to body, whereas the human shoulder is designed for flexibility and finer movements.  The bird’s oversized sternum and coracoid are obvious flight adaptations.  The “wishbone” or furcula is felt to be a flexible bone the bends downward with each wing beat and then springs upwards, aiding the flapping motion of flight.

Snow Geese, Chen caerulescens

Most bird bones are hollow and highly pneumatized with air sacs that actually communicate with the respiratory system.  Internal struts give the light, hollow bones added strength, but not enough to withstand the trauma of the shotgun pellets.

Canada Goose and goslings, Branta canadensis

Getting back to our injured goose, I’ve decided not to intervene.  I’m not going to sneak the bird into the hospital’s x-ray department at night for a wing film, or try to splint the ailing wing, nor will I consult the humane society.  Instead my goose’s fate will be up to nature, its survival skills, and/or some higher power. I must admit that I admire its dogged fight for life and am rooting for it as it faces the coming colder months.  You might even catch me scattering some corn when no one is looking.  We’ll see.

My injured goose

Book Review: Kingbird Highway by Kenn Kaufman.

Published by Houghton Mifflin, copyright 1997, 320 pages.

 

Did you ever dream of dropping out of high school, travel the continent, meet interesting people, and bird till you dropped, but never quite had the nerve.  That’s exactly what Kenn Kaufman did, a birder since age 6, and coming of age in the early 1970’s.  “Kingbird Highway” is his first person account of a year of extreme birding, breaking the one year record for the most birds seen in North America, but also a story of an astute teenager’s self examination and road-wise education acquired in a spartan manner that few of us would attempt or survive.

White-eyed Vireo, Vireo griseus           (click on photos to zoom)

Kenn Kaufman not only survived, but thrived and is now one of our leading ornithologists, conservationists, and authors.  His dropping out of high school was not due to disillusionment; he was not running away but instead beginning a personal pilgrimage.  At the time he was student council president in Wichita, Kansas and his remarkably tolerant parents supported his quest, as long as he agreed not to hitchhike.  That promise only lasted until the first Greyhound bus trip.

Anhinga, Anhinga anhinga

Armed with a notebook, mediocre binoculars, a small knapsack, and sustained by a meagre diet that sometimes consisted of cat food (it’s cheap), he crisscrossed the continent on a shoestring budget primarily by thumbing.  He eventually tired of explaining his birding goals to incredulous drivers and made up more mundane and believable excuses for being on the road.

Western Bluebird, Sialia mexicana

He describes hours spent on Interstate on-ramps watching thousands of cars pass by his scruffy self until one finally stops.  The best long distance rides were with truckers who often stopped after midnight looking for conversation on their long hauls.  His finances were periodically replenished by odd jobs such as apple picking, and in dire circumstances he knew his centrally located Wichita home and a square meal were never more than three hungry hitching days away.

Northern Flicker, Colaptes auratus

Kaufman describes happily meeting the subculture of like-minded obsessed birders along the way including his hero, Roger Tory Peterson and the prior record holder and similar aged Ted Parker, to whom the book is dedicated.  He often birded alone, but occasionally hooked up with local bird clubs on weekend birding excursions to prime sites.  Initial skepticism about this young, long-haired, hippie birder quickly changed to admiration as his advanced skills became evident.

Swallow-tailed Kite, Elanoides forficatus

Birders and non-birders alike will enjoy the many anecdotes shared in this book.  Like his honorary membership as an IDIOT (Incredible Distances In Ornithological Travel) bestowed by the Lancaster, PA Bird Club, or the young woman in the hot car that gave him a ride to a foul-smelling dump in south Texas, not really believing he was actually looking for a specific gull.

Verdin, Auriparus flaviceps

Or the story of the Christmas Bird Count in Freeport, TX where he was assigned to a jetty to search for off-shore pelagics but was swept into the gulf, scope and all, by the raging surf.  He barely survived, but did manage to see some great seabirds enhancing the local count.  There’s also the saga of hitchhiking the entire 1500 miles of the gravel Alaska-Canada Highway, and the incredible scene of a flock of Alcids in flight at sunset over the Bering Sea with the snow-capped Siberian mountains in the distance.

Florida Scrub Jay, Aphelocoma coerulescens

Amazingly Kaufman broke the old record of 626 birds by July and was able to spend the second half of the year chasing rarities and mopping up some common birds missed on his earlier trips. The tone of the narration and I think the mindset of the author changed as the year progressed.  He seemed to tire, both physically and emotionally, and began to question the whole listing rat race.  In this period he seemed to revive his interest in bird observation and his relationship with fellow birders, placing listing in a secondary role.

Brewer’s Sparrow, Spizella breweri

By the end of the book, the year, and 80,000 miles later his count was a phenomenal 671 birds, but there was no climactic celebration.  Almost as an afterthought the reader learns that another birder, older and better financed, also had a big year in 1973 and surpassed Kaufman’s count by several birds.  Ken was non-plussed.

Blue Grosbeak, Passerina caerulea

The author fist drafted his book in 1974 but did not finally publish “Kingbird Highway” until 1997, thus allowing a retrospective assessment of the incredible year.  The book contains descriptions of a plethora of birding hotspots, some of which I have visited but not with the birding eyes or ears of the esteemed author.  These include the Dry Tortugas in Florida, the Lower Rio Grande Valley, Santa Ana NWR, and Bentsen State Park in Texas, Cape May and Forsythe NWR in New Jersey, and Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve and the Chiricahua NM in Arizona.

Crested Caracara, Caracara cheriway

This is a story that will never be repeated, even though the record has been broken many times since.  “Kingbird Highway” took place in the pre-internet and pre-eBird era when there were no instantaneous rare bird alerts.  Back then sightings were conveyed by telephone, newspaper, or snail mail, and often stale by the time the birder could respond.  In those days hitchhiking was safer and cheap travel more available.  Kaufman spent less than $1000 for the entire year with half of that used for two plane trips in Alaska.  I’ll wager you’ll have a hard time finding any birder, young or old, that would endure the challenges of the year that Kaufman so wonderfully describes in this book.

American Oystercatchers, Haematopus palliatus

I’ll end with two Kaufman quotes.  “The most significant thing we find may not be the thing we are seeking.  That is what redeems the crazy ambivalence of birding…  It gets us out there in the real world, paying attention, hopeful, and awake.”  “Any bird-listing attempt is limited by time–a Big Day, Big Year, even a Life List are reminders of mortality.  The day ends, the year will end, everything will end.  Time is short…make the most of it.”

The Big Summer Solstice Sit

Great-crested Flycatcher, Myiarchus crinitus

 

The Big Sit is another of the plethora of birding games created to keep us birders out of trouble.  It’s a “competition” apparently conceived years ago by the Birding Club of New Haven, Connecticut and has since spread worldwide.  For you non-birders, let me explain.  You choose a circle 17 feet in diameter where you feel you’ll see a lot of different birds (who knows why they chose 17 feet), and take one day to identify  every bird species you see or hear while you’re in that circle. You can’t change the circle location but can leave for food or bathroom breaks.  Some try it solo while others cram as many birders and scopes into the circle as possible, creating a “tail-gate party for birders”.

Eastern Bluebird, Sialia sialis (click on photos to zoom)

I decided the summer solstice, June 21 and the longest day of the year, would be the perfect time for a personal Big Sit.  Not one to be constrained by rules I made some significant modifications for this event.  Forget the 17 foot circle.  I expanded the territory to include my entire yard taking advantage of the hedgerow and neighbor’s pond to the east, the tidal wetlands and cove to the north, and the river and disappearing Chesapeake islands to the west.  I chose sunrise to sunset (no nighttime owling) and for the initial attempt decided to go it alone.

Bald Eagle on Hambleton Island, Haliaeetus leucocephalus

The night before I filled the feeders, cleaned the baths, and put fresh sugar water in the hummingbird’s feeder.  Sunrise at 5:43AM found me sitting in the waterside yard with binoculars, scope, and camera primed and ready.  The first bird was a gently cooing Mourning Dove, a good start.  You have a preconceived notion of potential sightings for the day; 20 to 25 species that you expect to see, another 20 to 25 that you might see if lucky, and 9,950 others that you won’t see.

Carolina Chickadee, Poecile carolinensis

So  why would one even attempt a caper such as this?  It is quiet and contemplative birding performed in a comfortable sitting position.  I scattered Adirondack chairs around the property, strategically located in the shade and targeting all the prime habitats.  No traipsing through the swamp or woods today, but rather sitting with a cool Lemonade on-the-rocks and waiting for the birds to come to me.  The first 15 species were seen quickly, probably in the first 30 minutes, but then things quieted down and I settled in for a long enjoyable day, moving on to the next chair every half hour.

House Finch, Carpodacus mexicanus

There was plenty of time to observe bird behavior; it’s not just about the count.  It became quickly apparent that my yard was not a peaceful bird nirvana, but rather a tumultuous territory in turmoil. They were squawking, chasing, and fighting, hell-bent on protecting their nesting sites and fledglings.  The growling Mockingbirds were the most aggressive, but I even observed Bluebirds attacking Starlings and Tree Swallows taking on Fish Crows.  The Grackles showed up in large numbers, like a mob, clearly up to no good, while the Finches kept their heads down at the feeders.  No one seemed content or safe.

Tree Swallow, Tachycineta bicolor

When not fighting off other birds the adults were busy at nesting, feeding chicks, and giving early-bird instructions to their young.  I saw Bluebirds using my Martin house and Tree Swallows in the Bluebird house.  An adult Fish Crow was seen feeding a full-grown juvenile on the neighbor’s dock, an Osprey flew to the nesting platform with a headless fish, and the parent Bluebird was teaching its juveniles to drink from my gutters.  The European Starling had finally given up trying to build a nest in my boat lift motor and had wisely moved its digs off-shore to the vacant channel marker.

Snowy Egret, Egret thula

Around lunchtime a Chesapeake Bay thunderstorm roared through, giving me a short break.  The afternoon was hot and humid and the birding slowed way down with my count stuck in the low 20’s.  That’s when you have to get creative.  I remembered that a Snowy Egret usually fished under the base of the dock and a trip there did not disappoint.  Likewise, I had seen a Brown Thrasher last week in the hedgerow and sure enough, there he was again thrashing in the undergrowth.  By supper time the count was only 26, but I could not turn down an invitation for dinner at an air-conditioned Italian restaurant in town; as long as I could return to the task at hand for one final push before sunset.

Green Heron, Butorides virescens

A common bird I had still not seen was the Carolina Chickadee, so I resorted to playing its song along the hedgerow, a technique allowed by my rules.  Sure enough, there he was within seconds. The Great-crested Flycatcher tune yielded similar results.  One last binocular search of the far shore of the cove revealed a fishing Green Heron, somewhat unusual for my patch.  Just at sunset I thought I heard the high trill of a Cedar Waxwing in the tall Loblolly Pines, and sure enough there he was posing right above in great light for the best picture of the day.  The last bird, number 31, was an Eastern Kingbird, wary of the patrolling Mockingbirds and defending himself on a distant maple at sunset, 8:35PM.

Cedar Waxwing, Bombycilla cedrorum

If you google “Big Sit” you’ll be directed to an English site where they have set a Guinness World Record for the largest number of dogs sitting voluntarily and simultaneously.  The English love their dogs, but also their birds.  You’ll also find the site for the formal birding Big Sit, held this year during fall migration, October 7 & 8 and hosted by the folks at Bird Watchers Digest, http://www.birdwatchersdigest.com.  You can register, follow their rules, and submit your results as citizen scientists, adding to our understanding of bird population trends.  You’ll also have a great day.

 

 

Bird Humor

 

In times like these we need a little humor in our lives.  There are escalating terror attacks worldwide, the threat of nuclear weapons in hostile hands, and coarsened political discourse and strife.  We used to avoid discussions of just politics and religion at cocktail parties, but now add entertainment venues such as late-night comedy, movies, concerts, and news broadcasts to that list.  You could always start a conversation with, “Nice warm day we’re having”.  Not any more.  Feelings are running high, too high.

Brown Thrasher, Toxostoma rufum           (Click on photos to enlarge)

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not dismissing the seriousness of these issues that face our country and the world, but the hyperbole and hysteria have become tiresome.  It’s time to dial it back.  Although I have my own political leanings, I’ll not use this birding and photography blog to express them.  Rather, this space is an escape from all that.

Black Skimmer, Rynchops niger

So let’s step back and hear some benign bird jokes.  I’ve screened them for hidden meanings and believe they are all politically correct.  I’ve been accused of having the sense of humor arrested at the 8 year-old level, so I hope my grandson and his crowd can also enjoy this post.  The pictures were chosen from the recent archives.

Wild Turkeys, Meleagris gallopavo

How do you keep a turkey in suspense?  I’ll tell you later.

Laughing Gull, Larus atricilla

I understand a crow has one less pinion feather than a raven.  Then, how do you tell a crow from a raven?  It’s a matter of opinion.

American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos

How many birds does it take to change a light bulb?  Toucan do it.

Baltimore Oriole, Icterus galbula

What do you get when you cross a chicken with a duck?  A bird that lays down.

Northern Pintail, Anas acuta

A Frenchman with a parrot on his shoulder walks into a bar.  The bartender asks, “where did you get that thing”?  The parrot replies,  “In France, there are millions of them there”.

Rose-ringed Parakeet, Psittacula krameri

How did the gum cross the road?  It was stuck to the chicken’s foot.

Chestnut-sided Warbler, Dendroica pensylvanica

That is a new bird for me; what does an Eastern Gulp look like?  Like a swallow, only noisier.

Barn Swallow, Hirundo rustica

And lastly, my favorite, repeated far too often to my groaning family and friends:  Why do hummingbirds hum?  Because they forgot the words.

Anna’s Hummingbird, Calypte anna

So there; a little respite from our troubled world.  But I’m still an optimist, better times are ahead.

Spring Migration 2017

Baltimore Oriole

 

Take a deep breath, it’s over for now.  Birders can relax as all the birds have finished their northward spring migration and have settled into their breeding territories, some here, and many others much further north.  But believe or not, the fall southbound migration of shorebirds begins the first of July so our respite will be short-lived.

Blackburnian Warbler, Dendroica fusca

Of the 10,000+ species of birds only 40% are migratory, the others seemingly content year-long residents of their chosen habitat.  Of those that migrate, each species has a different strategy; long vs. short distance, daylight vs. nighttime, early spring vs. later, overland vs. overwater, and short hop vs. long haul.  Each strategy has advantages and short-comings.  For example, flying at night when it is cooler saves energy and avoids predators, while daytime flying allows feeding on insects cut during flight and navigation over recognized land masses.  I thought it might be interesting to look at a few migrating birds I photographed this spring and tell their migration story.

Baltimore Oriole, Icterus galbula

The orange and black blur streaking through the trees at Magee Marsh last week was usually not a Blackburnian Warbler, but much more likely the larger Baltimore Oriole.  In any other setting a birder would rejoice at the chance of observing and photographing the gorgeous oriole, but at Magee Marsh they suffered from overexposure–it was one of the most common birds there.  This tropical appearing bird is exactly that, a bird of the tropics spending most of the year migrating or wintering in Mexico, Central America, or Columbia, and only 4 months of the year in our temperate breeding zone.  Given this, it’s a bit presumptuous to name it a “Baltimore” Oriole, but being from Maryland I’ll live with it.

Shore birds at Mispillion Harbor           (click on photos to zoom)

I took a day this week to check out the migrating shorebirds along the western shore of Delaware Bay.  There were thousands feeding a long scope-distance away on the jetty across the harbor, with Ruddy Turnstones being the most numerous and good number of Red Knots and peeps mixed in.  I’m sure you’ve heard the Red Knot story of their long trek from the tidal flats of Patagonia, up the S. American coast, and the 7000 mile flight over ocean, bringing them to Delaware Bay just in time to feast on the trillions of Horseshoe Crab eggs.  See my blog dated 5/30/2015 “Spring Migration II:  The Red Knots vs. The Horseshoe Crabs” for more details.  But their rest stop in Delaware is just temporary with many miles to go before reaching their breeding grounds in Canada.

Red Knot, Calidris canutus

I also stopped off at Slaughter Beach.  The name seems appropriate.  I was there at low tide and the shorebirds were feeding far away on the tidal flats.  The beach above the high water mark was littered with thousands of overturned horseshoe crabs, likely upset by the surf as they were trying to lay or fertilize eggs.  From the smell I thought they were all dead but after kicking one over he or she started crawling down the beach toward open water.  So I tried another, and another, and so on, with perhaps half still living and saved by me for another season.  But there were thousands.  When do I stop turning them over?  Finally I did stop but could not help wondering what the very next crab thought of me as I turned away and left him to his fate upside down.

One of my rescued crabs heading out to sea

The Ruddy Turnstone shares in the feast on Delaware Bay but due to its shorter migration route is not as dependent on the crab eggs.  Turnstones can be found all winter along the Atlantic coast from New England to S. America and I see them frequently on the Florida coast in their non-breeding attire, (they are rarely found inland).  But seeing them in their spectacular spring plumage is a real treat.  They’ll soon be heading to their breeding grounds on the far northern coastal tundra of Canada and Alaska.

Ruddy Turnstone, Arenaria interpres

The Black-billed Cuckoo is a specie of concern due to declining numbers.  Its breeding territory is the eastern U.S. and southern Canada and migrates over the Gulf of Mexico in fall, wintering in northern South America.  I was happy to stumble across this difficult and stealthy bird, just off the trail near the visitor’s center at Magee Marsh, while scanning the underbrush for thrushes and low-foraging warblers.  He or she may have chosen the marsh as a breeding location, but more likely it was part of the throng of birds waiting for an opportune wind before crossing Lake Eire.

Black-billed Cuckoo, Coccyzus erythropthalmus

The Blackpoll Warbler, despite its lack of dramatic color, is the superstar of warbler migration.  Its breeding ground is the furthest north of all warblers, in western Alaska and stretching across the continent to Labrador and northern New England.  And its wintering territory is the furthest south of any warbler in the western Amazon and rainforests of S. America.  The bird I photographed at Magee Marsh was only halfway through its spring journey north, perhaps heading to Alaska.  In the fall even the birds far west in Alaska decline the straight route south and instead fly eastward to New England and then turn right, following the east coast of North America, the Caribbean, and open ocean before arriving exhausted in S. America, thousands of miles later.

Blackpoll Warbler, Dendroica striata

So as we settle down observing our familiar nesting and resident birds, we have again been refreshed by the less common spring sojourners and marvel at their semiannual feats on the wing.  You won’t want to miss Act II this fall.

Warbler Woodstock

Chestnut-sided Warbler, Dendroica pensylvanica

 

It was hot and humid.  There was a long line of creeping traffic entering a driveway which terminated in a dusty gravel parking lot by the lake.  There were several ripe porta-potties next to the woods, some with queues of anxious people waiting their turn. My fellow attendees were a strange-looking group decked out in multi-pocketed pants and vests and a peculiar collection of wide-brimmed hats.  Despite the heat, sweat, and crowd, everyone seemed happy, some coming from great distance to see the show and hear the music.  This was not 1969 in White Lake, New York, but rather 2017 in Magee Marsh, Ohio, and the performers were not Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix but rather the warbling songbirds, stopping here briefly on the long journey north.

Yellow Warbler, Dendroica petechia   (click on photo to zoom)

Every spring the neotropical songbirds cross the vast Gulf of Mexico and island hop the Caribbean in March, proceeding northward in waves depending on the prevailing winds and weather patterns.  The arrival of specific warbler species at Magee Marsh is amazingly reproducible year after year with the early arrival of Palm and Yellow-rumped Warblers by late April, others coming in early May, with later May arrivals of species such as Blackburnian, Canada, and Wilson’s Warblers.  Yearly the peak times at the marsh are the 2nd and 3rd weeks of May and by the first of June the show is over.

Black-throated Blue Warbler, Dendroica caerulescens

Magee Marsh is located along the rural southern shore of Lake Erie, 16 miles west of Port Clinton.  It is birded primarily from a slightly less than one mile boardwalk which winds through a mixed habitat of low-level growth, taller trees, and wetlands. I have found the birding best in the western half of the walk and judging from crowd size others agree with this.  You’ll find a mixture of birding styles; there’s the classic binos-only approach versus the camera-only style.  There’s even some birders with neither–many of the warblers are easily visible by naked eye right along the rail.  My technique used both binos and camera, but has the distinct disadvantage of forcing that choice each time a new bird popped up.

Magnolia Warbler, Dendroica magnolia

Wilson’s Warbler, Wilsonia pusilla

The warblers were plentiful all four days of my recent visit.  If you want to see the more uncommon birds just look for the crowd, aim your binos the same direction of others, or just ask for guidance.  There’s no paucity of good advice and opinion on the boardwalk.  The two major crowd pleasers of my visit were the Mourning Warbler sleuthing low in the underbrush and the Golden-winged Warbler high in the canopy near the visitor’s center.  Unfortunately my photos of these are not great but do confirm the sightings for my personal records.

Blackpoll Warbler, Dendroica striata

Blackburnian Warbler, Dendroica fusca

Warbler photography along the boardwalk presents major challenges.  First there are the dense thickets.  You may see the bird quite clearly in the shrubs but your auto-focus locks on intervening twigs.  I sought out relatively clear breaks between shrubs and just waited for the birds to fly to me–they were that plentiful allowing this successful strategy.  Secondly the warblers are extremely fast and active, chasing the bugs, and almost teasing the stalking photographers.  When one finally poked into the clear the  staccato camera clicks reminded one of the paparazzi of Hollywood.  Then there’s the low light issues in the lower bushes, suddenly contrasting with the bright sunlight as they bird moved upward.  You’re constantly adjusting your ISO and exposure compensation settings.  Lastly, as May progresses the shrubs and trees are leafing out, further restricting observation and photography.

Prothonotary Warbler, Protonotaria citrea

I don’t believe this setting is ideal for a tripod or the larger 500mm+ lenses–the birds are too close and quick.  You’re much better off with a more versatile 100-400mm zoom or other such system.  One day was very windy–I mean hold on to your new $26 dollar Magee Marsh cap or lose it forever in the swamp, windy.  The motion of the branches and leaves in the upper canopy was so severe that my birding that day was restricted to the lower regions.

American Redstart (female), Setophaga ruticilla

Birding-by-ear was much in evidence and I heard numerous birders working to learn that technique on the boardwalk.  Amongst the many songs there were two dominant tunes one could not help but learn over the several days.  They were sung by the plentiful and gorgeous Yellow Warbler with its three introductory notes followed by the fast trill, and the beautiful ascending cascade of the Warbling Vireo, heard all along the trail.

American Redstart (male), Setophaga ruticilla

If photography’s your game you’ll be taking a lot of shots to get a few “keepers”, the ones that make the effort all worthwhile.  I took 3500 exposures over the 4 days.  You can imagine the long evenings of post-processing and deleting in the motel and airport.  For this post I chose to show the more atypical poses, rather than the standard lateral “bird-guide” view, to better illustrate the activity of the beautiful birds.

Black-throated Green Warbler, Dendroica virens

I saw 19 warbler species during the trip, (along with 48 additional resident and migrating non-warblers) and could not have been more pleased.  My conversations with the other birders also revealed their enjoyment of this Warbler Woodstock.  Although there were some young people present, it occurred to me that the vast majority of folks were baby boomer birders of my vintage.  Who knows, maybe some were even at Woodstock in 1969.  Its seems we have supplemented our appreciation of rock with warbling birdsong, and that’s fine with me.