The Everglades and its Birds

 

My mother helped me hang the large colorful map of the United States right next to my bed.  Just due to their proximity I learned the geography of the southern states first, and the Florida peninsula best–it was right next to my nose.  What was this lower tip of Florida like, and why were there no cities and only a few roads there?  What is this Everglades written in bold italics across the whole region?  All questions for an eight year-old, finally answered 60 years later.

Roseate Spoonbill, Platalea ajaja

Mel was the instigator, always pushing Andy and me to join him in exploring new Florida birding sites.  The 200 miles to Flamingo Point, the most southern tip of Florida in the Everglades did not phase him one iota, and we were game, as long as he did the driving.  We traversed Florida, west to east through the Great Cypress Swamp, bypassing thousands of waders at 65 miles per hour, turned south near Homestead, and finally entered the Everglades National Park at its eastern border.

People say there is no other place on earth like the Everglades.  The park is part of a 1.3 million acre Marjory Stoneman Douglas Wilderness of south Florida, the largest wilderness tract east of the Mississippi.  Ironically this wild gem is hemmed in by 7 million residents and the growing urban sprawl along each coast.  The vitality of the low wetlands is dependent on surface water, slowly flowing from further north in wide, shallow, and barely perceptible  sloughs.

American White Pelican, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

The mantra of the Florida settlers in the 19th and much of the 20th century was to drain the swamp, divert the water into existing rivers, build canals, dikes, and a grid of roads, all to create dry land for building sites.  Swamps were bad; the home of monsters and the source of pestilence.  See my blog post, “A Real Estate Deal for the Birds”, dated 3/28/2016 for a more detailed account of this land-grab frenzy.

American Avocet, Recurvirostra americana

There is some justification for this movement.  Severe hurricanes in the early 20th century resulted in extensive flooding and loss of life when massive Lake Okeechobee overflowed its banks.  The Army Corp of Engineer’s solution was to surround the lake with the Hoover Dike and divert the overflow to each coast via canals and the St. Lucie River on the east and the Caloosahatchee River to the west.  This was a diversion away from the natural flow of water, south to the Everglades.

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias (white morph)

But we went overboard.  By the 1960’s and 70’s it became apparent these policies were killing the Everglades wetlands; they were dying of thirst.  The story of the dismantling of the dikes and canals, the creation of large holding ponds for the wet season and controlled releases from them during dry periods, the government’s repurchase of land from the swindled public, and the gradual return of the Everglade’s health is a fascinating story, still being written.

Black-necked Stilt, Himantopus mexicanus

The stakeholder list for this restoration is long:  homeowners and anyone who requires a viable aquifer, tax payers, developers and realtors, farmers including the huge sugar growers, sportsmen, politicians, environmentalists, birders, and everyone who values preserving some of our disappearing wilderness. The political maneuvering and posturing has been predictable.  Michael Grunwald’s great book, “The Swamp” chronicles this story up to 2006.

Roseate Spoonbill

There’s a sudden serenity one feels when entering the Everglades.  The 40 mile road from the entrance to Flamingo Point winds through a progressive series of habitats as one losses altitude, mere fractions of an inche per mile, driving toward the coast.  Initially you see the vast freshwater marsh, the famous “river of grass”, occasionally interrupted by small hardwood hammocks on slightly elevated land.  There are also scattered slash pine forests along the ancient limestone ridges, remnants of the retreated sea.  Brackish mangrove swamps, numerous ponds, and the islands of Florida Bay are the final features at the point.

Welcome shelter from a passing shower

There are numerous pull-offs from the main road with short hikes to observation towers and the ponds.  We birded most of these, seeing the usual Florida waders.  For me this trip was more about the historic land and scenic vistas than about the birds.  We did get some close shots of the Black-necked Stilts and an unexpected flock of American Avocets.  One can never see too many Roseate Spoonbills and snazzy warblers.  A snoozing American Crocodile and some lallygagging Manatees greeted us at Flamingo Point.

Black-throated Green Warbler, Dendroica virens

Mel has an admirable interest in the unusual fauna of Florida.  Andy and I were somewhat skeptical as he led us in a search for Liguus fasciatus, the Florida Tree Snail.  These colored tropical snails favor the smooth-barked trees and feed on the numerous epiphytes.  Near the end of the day Mel finally found one, than another, and another.  What do you call a flock of snails?  They are interesting creatures, another gift from the Everglades.

Florida Tree Snail, Liguus fasciatus

I used the long trip home to convince my colleagues to join me in our next birding adventure, a south Florida Big Day.  For non-birders this is a sunup to sundown scamper to find as many different bird species as possible.  It’s fast, hectic birding, ticking off the species quickly and moving on–so different than the usual slow walk in the woods, taking hundreds of pictures of each bird in all the various poses.

American Crocodile, Crocodylus acutus

The fun part of a Big Day is the strategy–what route should we take through the various habitats to maximize the species list?  Can we afford the long drive to see the Eastern Meadowlark or Red Cockaded Woodpecker when a more common bird close by counts just as much in the day’s tally?  In the end we all agreed to give it a go.  Wish us luck and look for our success or failure in a future post.

 

Book Review: Gulls Simplified

published by Princeton University Press, copyright 2019, 208 pages

 

Most birders have a nemesis group of difficult birds, or two, or three.  Flycatchers, sparrows, and winter warblers all come to mind.  But I suspect the gulls are the leaders of the flock of baffling bird identifications.  I’m even hesitant to label some of my pictures in this post and may end up with egg on my face.  It’s not just their similar plumages; it’s hard to admire birds that frequent the dump, crave McDonalds french fries, and steal your hot dog right out of your hand at a Super Bowl tailgate party.

Ring-billed Gull, Larus delawarensis        (non-breeding adult)

They’re all black, white, and shades of gray.  The only color breaking the monotony is the occasional red spot on the bills of some, the pink you see inside their mouths when open (which is often), the shades of yellow, pink, or green on their legs, and the drab brown feathers of the immatures.  And these young birds take their own sweet time maturing, some requiring up to four years to don the adult monotones.  Add to this the different breeding and non-breeding plumages and you have an identification nightmare.  Give me a Cardinal or Blue Jay, thank you very much.

Laughing Gull, Larus atricilla        (adult, non-breeding)

But then I ran across Pete Dunne’s and Kevin Karlson’s new book and decided to give them and the gulls another shot.  My first impression was positive; this book is short, only 200 pages.  I don’t need another encyclopedic guide to all the variations in first-summer or second-winter plumages, or the subtle field marks of some hybrid gull.  Their goal in writing this shorter guide seemed to be KISS (keep it simple stupid), one of my favorite life axioms.

Lesser & Greater Black-backed Gulls, Larus fuscus & marinus

The introduction grabbed my attention.  The authors don’t claim to be gull specialists, but rather birding generalists who seek to apply the popular GISS technique (general impression, size, and shape) to the confusing gulls.  This strategy features the grosser physical characteristics and behavior over specific field marks, and has been successfully used with raptors and in the popular Crossley guide books.  Luckily the gulls are frequently in mixed flocks that allow a direct comparison between the species.

Herring Gull, Larus argentatus                         (immature)

Right off the bat the authors dispel my impression of the gulls being the junkyard dogs of the avian world.  They extoll the virtues of the 22 species of regularly occurring gulls in North America as “intelligent, inquisitive, socially complex, and acrobatic aerialists,” well worth our scrutiny.  No other birds are so adept “at foraging on land, air, and sea”.  Seagulls however, with the exception of the Sabine Gull and kittiwakes, are not real sea birds or pelagics.  They are littoral, preferring the margins of rivers, lakes, and the seashore, rather than the open ocean.

Heermann’s Gull, Larus heermanni

The layout of this book is simple and effective.  The initial pages are profile shots and silhouettes of the 22 gulls and the introduction and first chapter explain the authors’ GISS approach to the gulls.  They caution us to relax and accept that we will not get a definite ID for every bird.  Learning the common ones in your area first will make the ID of the less common easier, later on.  And forget about all the plumage designations of 2nd and 3rd winter, etc.  Dunne and Karlson greatly simplify this to just three:  immature, sub-adult, and adult, the latter with breeding and non-breeding varieties unfortunately.  I like this “Readers Digest” approach.

Herring Gulls, (non-breeding adult & immature)

Each subsequent chapter is devoted to one gull with many good comparison pictures of the bird in mixed flocks of gulls and other shorebirds.  There are 35 quizzes scattered throughout the book but don’t panic.  The answers are all given in the back and no one will know if you peek.

Western Gull, Larus occidentalis

There are many advantageous aspects of gull ID.  The birds are abundant and worldwide, found on virtually every lake, river, and seashore, as well as on freshly plowed fields, landfills, and McDonald’s parking lots.  They are large and generally allow you a close approach to observe their feeding, fighting, and other comical antics.  Photography, however does offer some challenges due to their white and dark plumage.  I’ll leave that discussion for a later post.

Ring-billed Gulls (with Herring Gull in background)

I don’t generally chase rarities, but unusual gulls do turn up, not infrequently.  On two occasions I jumped into the car on short notice and was pleasantly surprised to find both birds, just as advertised.  The first was a Glaucous Gull reported on an isolated creek off the Chesapeake, about 40 miles south of me on Hooper’s Island, Maryland.  This pale, large gull (larger than a Herring Gull) is not a rarity, but still somewhat unusual and a lifer for me.  I waited alone at a parking lot of a seafood packing plant for several hours and was just getting ready to leave when it flew in and splashed down within 30 feet.  What a surprise and thrill.

Glaucous Gull, Larus hyperboreus

The second chase was to Delaware Bay, about 60 miles to the east.  A Sabine Gull was reported to be buzzing the Dupont Nature Center several Mays ago.  This small, hooded, and fork tailed gull winters in the tropics off South America and Africa and was likely blown ashore as it migrated north over the Atlantic, bound for its breeding site in Greenland or the Canadian Arctic.  As opposed to my solitary Glaucous Gull experience, the Sabine drew a large throng of birding paparazzi.  This actually was fortunate as I needed help in locating the bird amidst the vast flock of its more common and less famous cousins.

Herring Gull, (breeding adult)

Back to the book.  I do recommend it and believe Dunne and Karlson were successful in presenting this new approach to gull ID.  I note, however, that even they reverted to the more traditional plumage designations in some of their captions.  It will be hard to completely abandon that nomenclature, especially for the hard core gullers.  Also the GISS identification process is not really that simple.  It takes experience, years of experience, and many hours of observation to get good at it.  But I’m gullible and willing to give it a shot.  Wish me luck.

Florida’s Raptors

Red-shouldered Hawk, Buteo lineatus

 

 

I’m life untethered, soaring upward

on itself, sharp of talon and lethal of

beak, leaving nothing in my wake but

warm blood and gristle.

Taylor Rosewood

Maybe that first stanza in Rosewood’s poem is a little gruesome, but probably a fair description of the raptors or birds-of-prey who fill the niche at the peak of their food chain.  These predators include the hawks, falcons, harriers, osprey, owls, and kites, and also the scavenging vultures, eagles, and caracara.

Barred Owl, Strix varia

Raptors are characterized by keen eyesight for hunting, strong feet with talons for killing, and a sharp, curved beak for tearing flesh.  They are powerful in flight, some plunging from great altitude at high speed to take their unsuspecting prey.  A few, however, subsist on carrion, leaving the killing to others.

Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura

The hearts of birders and non birders alike speed up when we spot a bird-of-prey, and in Florida this occurs almost daily.  Not so much with the vultures, which only a mother could love, but definitely with the rest.  The most common hawk here is the Red-shouldered, which tends to perch and call from seemingly every woodlot and residential neighborhood.

Red-shouldered Hawk, Buteo lineatus

I’ve been accused, rightly, of failing to read the fine print.  A recent birding example of the malady was my futile attempt to find a Florida specialty bird, the Short-tailed Hawk.  Everyone else was reporting it but me.  Finally I read the fine print in Dunne, Sibley, and Sutton’s classic, “Hawks In Flight”.  This bird hides itself well and is practically never seen on the ground, but hunts from great soaring heights.  To see it “look up, way up, and be grateful for the backdrop of white cumulus clouds that enrich the Florida skies.”  Sure enough, there it was just as advertised, thousands of feet above me, soaring with the vultures.

Short-tailed Hawk, Buteo brachyurus

My pictures of this hawk are not ideal given the distance, however hawk ID is not about subtle field marks, but rather about the grosser patterns of light and dark, wing and body shape, and the cadence of the flapping wings and their attitude while gliding.  The Short-tail Hawk comes in two varieties or morphs.  I saw the light morph, which reportedly is less common in Florida compared to the dark one.  These are tropical raptors of Central and South America that reach the northern limit of their range in Florida.  Unlike most buteos, they are hunters of other birds, taking them unawares from above.

Crested Caracara, Caracara cheriway

Other birds-of-prey that might be considered a Florida specialty (not as widely seen in other states) are the Crested Caracara, Snail Kite, Swallow-tailed Kite, and Burrowing Owl.  The caracara vie with Bald Eagles for “king-of-the-road-kill” supremacy, They displace the Black Vultures from the carrion, who have displaced the Turkey Vultures, who previously shooed away the crows.  It’s a real-life pecking order.

Black Vulture, Coragyps atratus

I lived here several winters before I saw my first Snail Kite, formerly called the Everglades Kite.  This picky raptor’s diet is exclusively the apple snail, which it searches for in freshwater wetlands.  Issues with water management seriously threatened this raptor in the 1950’s with the number of surviving birds reportedly as few as 50.  Better management since has seen a recovery to 1000 or more birds, but it’s still a great birding day when you see a Snail Kite.  Look for a white base of tail in flight, not to be confused with the Northern Harrier which has a white rump.

Snail Kite, Rostrhamus sociabilis

The Swallow-tailed Kite makes it spring debut in Florida on Valentine’s Day, migrating across the Gulf of Mexico from its wintering grounds in South America.  Dunne, et-al gush, “some may argue that this kite is the continent’s most beautiful bird.  Elegant, almost rakish in design, it dresses formerly in black and white attire, tails and all.”  I do not disagree.

Swallow-tailed Kite, Elanoides forficatus

The “cute award” for raptors must go to the Burrowing Owl.  This diminutive raptor seem to thrive here, often digging their burrows in sandy vacant building lots.  Driving through Marco Island’s residential neighborhoods you see these birds sitting at their burrows with nearby stakes marking their protected nests.  It must drive the homeowners crazy while they wait for the owls to move out so they can finally build their Florida dream house.

Burrowing Owl, Athene cunicularia

I was birding at Clam Pass last week when a kayaker landed, pulled out a large net on a long handle and tried to sneak up on a Black Skimmer which appeared to be disabled by a broken leg.  Tim Thompson, I later learned was a good Samaritan and volunteer at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.  Along with many research and educational functions this venerable organization has an animal rescue hospital, http://www.conservancy.org.  I joined in Tim’s effort to net the bird, but to no avail.  It could still fly.

Peregrine Falcon, Falco peregrinus

But I learned that Tim did this type of rescue work on a regular basis and had recently worked with others rebuilding a wind-damaged Great Horned Owl’s nest. They successfully returned two flightless downy owlets to their home, high in a slash pine, all under the watchful eyes of concerned parents.  He offered to take Andy and I back to the site, inside an exclusive golf community, check on the nest, and give us an opportunity for some owl photos.

Great Horned Owlets, Bubo virginiaus                          photo by A. Sternick

We found the owlets still safely perched in the same tree, even after the thunderstorm of the previous night.  While dodging golf balls and golfers, (who were also seeking birdies) we also found one parent watching us warily from across the fairway.  Several hundred shots later, we finally called it a good day of birding.

Great Horned Owl, Bubo virginianus

So what is it about these birds-of-prey that makes them so compelling?  We’re in awe of their size and fierce countenance.  We’re shocked by their ruthless killings which keep their prey ever wary.  But there’s also a calm confident majesty they possess as the lords of their food chain.  They only kill to survive, and are superbly equipped to do just that, with an occasional leg up from Tim and the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.

The Florida Waders

Tricolor Heron, Egretta tricolor

 

At first you’d think it’s the name of an athletic team, but what jock wants to be linked to the ponderous sedentary birds.  Even a non-birder coming to Florida for the first time can’t help but notice these ubiquitous creatures–they’re everywhere you find water.  In roadside ditches, waste-water treatment plants, backyard ponds, as well as at the more picturesque shoreline, marshes, and swamps.

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

They are the herons and egrets.  Also throw in the ibises, bitterns, storks, and an occasional spoonbill and you have a very successful and easily observed and photographed segment of Florida aviculture.

Great Egret, Ardea alba

We left our northern home soon after Christmas with mixed feelings.  They say that birds don’t depend on the feeders for survival–they are more for the birder who wants to attract and observe the birds up close.  I hope they’re right.  It was a banner fall and early winter at the feeders with the Red-breasted Nuthatches leading the charge, but there will be no more sunflower seeds at my feeders this winter.  I’ll miss all the excitement, along with the waterfowl and the change of seasons from winter to early spring.

American Bittern, Botaurus lentiginosus

But Florida beckons and certainly has it’s own rewards including the climate, the beaches, and the Florida waders.  My favorite and most frequented patch here is the “berm”, a raised, paved three mile trail through the wetlands, with tall high-rises looming to the east and an extensive tidal mangrove swamp to the west.  Two boardwalks through the mangroves take you to a beautiful gulf beach where you can get a cup of coffee and check out the shorebirds.

Great Blue Herons, Ardea herodias

I often walk the berm bare (no binoculars or camera) for exercise, dodging all the power walkers, bikers, and roller skaters.  There’s no need for magnification to count and watch the waders who seem oblivious to the passing throng.  But when I do bring the binos an additional world of the passerines opens up and makes the jaunt even better.

Great Egret, Ardea alba

For those of you who like to classify the birds into the larger scheme of life, the waders are members of the Ciconiiformes order, which in turn contains six families.  Herons, egrets, and bitterns are in the Ardeidae family and characterized by a long neck of 20-21 vertebrae (you and I only have 7).  In flight all members of this family hold the neck in a “S” configuration, compared to the straight necks of all the other waders.

Little Blue Heron, Egretta caerulea

The storks are in their own Ciconiidae family, and may be incorrectly classified, as DNA evidence suggests they are more closely related to the vultures than to the other waders. Nesting storks on your roof ensures household fertility, so they say.  It’s too late for me to verify this.

Wood Stork, Mycteria americana

The family Threshkiornithidae includes the ibises and spoonbills.  These birds, and all the waders, have a very primitive vocal apparatus that results in the low, guttural croaks you often hear when they take to flight.  In ancient Egypt the ibis was felt to be the embodiment of the God of Wisdom.  It seems that the crows and jays are vying for this title in the modern world.

Roseate Spoonbill, Platalea ajaja

I’ll warn the novice birder about the three “foolers” among the waders.  The first is the so-called Green Heron.  If anyone can find a speck of green on this bird, I’d like to see it.  It’s a wonderful bird, but poorly named.

Green Heron, Butorides virescens

The second is the juvenile Little Blue Heron.  It’s as white as the fresh fallen snow up north.  It will turn a deep blue in its second year but loves to fool the uninitiated for a year.  The green legs, however, give it away and differentiate it from the similar sized Snowy Egret which has black legs and yellow feet.

Little Blue Heron (juvenile), Egretta caerulea

The last fooler is the white morph of the Great Blue Heron.  I have not yet seen this bird, or maybe I’ve been fooled like the rest of you into calling it a Great Egret.  The heavier bill is its distinguishing characteristic.  I’ll remain on the prowl for this one.

Glossy Ibis, Plegadis falcinellus

For those new to bird photography the waders are a great subject.  They usually hold still, they’re large and usually close, and when the do fly it’s in a straight line and slow.  But beware of over-exposure.  The most common error in shooting these birds is blowing out the whites, especially in the bright Florida sun.  You’ll need to dial back the exposure compensation several notches to preserve that subtle texture in the white feathers.

White Ibis (juvenile), Eudocimus albus

Whenever someone mentions record-keeping the eyes glaze over and the ears tune out.  I get it.  But before that happens let me quickly extoll the useful eBird app for your smart phone.  It makes recording your sightings simple and painless.  Your location is tracked by GPS and the birds are tabulated by date and location for you and the rest of the birding world to see.  You can see other birder’s results from the same location and determine what you’re missing, like that white morph heron.  The findings go into your eBird account allowing you to compare year to year what is happening in your patch.  And it’s all free.  This app has significantly added to my birding pleasure.

Little Blue Heron (entering year 2), Egretta caerulea

Intimacy with your patch is one of the joys of birding.  And it’s not just about the birds.  My Florida patch has frolicking otters, prowling alligators, and basking turtles.  You even get to know the trees, like the one that usually hosts a night heron’s nest, or the hollow tree that was the favorite perch of the screech owl, until hurricane Irma blew it down.  But the leading role here clearly belongs to the Florida waders, who patiently fish along the berm, just as they did last year and for millions of years prior.

Black Birds

Smooth-billed Ani, Crotophagia ani                                   photo by A. Sternick

 

Blackbird singing in the dead of night

Take these broken wings and learn to fly

All your life

You were only waiting for this moment to arise

 

Blackbird singing in the dead of night

Take these sunken eyes and learn to see

All your life

You were only waiting for this moment to be free.

Paul  McCartney

Boat-tailed Grackle, Quiscalus major

At first we thought it was just another Boat-tailed Grackle.  Common things are common, but we simultaneously called out “Ani” after getting a better look through the binoculars.  A little more in-depth birding identified it as the Smooth-billed Ani, not the rarer Groove-billed cousin.  All black bird with long tail and bizarre oversized bill with a small rhino hump on top.  The cat-like whining call nailed it down.  What we didn’t know at the time was that the sighting was the first eBird record of the bird at this hotspot.

Red-winged Blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus

The walk in Eagle Lakes Community Park in Naples, Florida was intended to be for exercise.  We had recently arrived from the frigid north and needed to attend to the extra layers of insulating fat acquired over the holidays.  Our spouses, true to the mission, took off at a power pace, but Andy and I got hung up counting coots at the gazebo.  At least I had left the camera home–Andy had not.

Smooth-billed Ani, Crotophagia ani      photo by A. Sternick

When will I learn?  Always bring the camera.  You never know when you’ll see something unusual, a new bird, a flight or feeding shot, etc.  I had only seen the Ani in Panama, and never in south Florida.  It is much more common in the West Indies and South America with a declining population in Florida.  Our theory is that recent Atlantic storms may have blown it in from the Bahamas.  In any case it was a great find and was posted on the eBird rarity alert for the county, triggering a lot of frenzied birders’ visitations to Eagle Lakes.

Anhinga, Anhinga anhinga

I don’t usually publish other birder’s pictures, but Andy graciously lent me these two to document the sighting, (he only took several hundred shots of the bird).  That’s another plus of digital photography.  When you have a good bird or pose, just start snapping away; check your settings after the first 10; readjust and keeping snapping.  Post-processing and deleting is done later at home.

Black Kite, Milvus migrans

Photographing a dark or back bird is not easy, and practically impossible if the subject is backlit.  Even with the sunlight behind the camera you’ll need to raise your exposure compensation settings several steps.  The goal is to resolve the subtle shades and textures of the dark feathers, even bringing out some of the irridescence often seen in the male grackles and starlings.

Phainopepla, Phainopepla nitens

The wide range of bird feather coloration is caused by either of two factors:  pigmentation, or the microscopic structure of the feather, or a combination of both.  The three pigments of note are the carotenoids (giving vivid yellows and oranges), the melanins (giving black and browns), and porphyrins (resulting in a variety of pinks, browns and red).  In each case the resultant color is due  to the reflected wavelength, the other colors and wavelengths are absorbed by the pigment.

Raven, Corvus corax

The other color-determining factor is the microscopic structure of the feather’s keratin proteins.  These layered proteins refract the incident light to varying degrees with our eyes perceiving the resultant composite wavelengths.

Brown-headed Cowbird, Molothrus ater

It’s interesting to note that there is no blue pigment.  The blue coloration of blue birds is entirely due to refraction.  The iridescent feathers seen in some birds, including many hummingbirds and some black birds, is also do to this refraction of light by the prism-like protein layers and the viewing angle of the observer.

Black Vulture, Coragyps atratus

Black birds are black primarily due to melanin pigments which absorb all the incident wavelengths of light.  White birds on the other hand reflect all wavelengths of the visible spectrum and absorb nothing.  It interesting to note that melanin pigments also add strength to the feathers.  This may well be why some of the white birds have black wingtips, edges, and other sites of wear and tear.  The White Ibis and Wood Stork are good examples of this.

White Ibis, Endocimus albus

When talking about black birds, especially the Corvids, the topic of bird intelligence invariably comes up.  Corvidae is a large family of blackbirds including crows, ravens, rooks, jackdaws, jays, and magpies, all known for their mental capacity.

Pied Cuckoo, Clamator jacobinus

People who know and measure these things put Corvid intelligence right near the top of the animal kingdom, surpassed only by man and some other higher mammals.  Their brain-to-body mass ratio is similar to that of the Great Apes and whales, only surpassed by Homo sapiens.  Observation of their feeding habits, memorization skills, use of tools, problem solving, and organized group behavior all speak to this higher level of intelligence.

American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos

I’m not generally a paranoid person, but these days, whenever I hear a “black bird singing in the dead of night” I’ll wonder what he’s saying and what he’s thinking.  Is it just an innocent song of aspiration, or could he be hatching some nefarious plot?  While walking through the woods, if a cawing murder of crows passes overhead, I’ll keep an eye on them, just in case.  They’re smarter than you think.

Ducks, Geese, & Swans; the Anatidae Family

 

You don’t live long in Chesapeake Bay country before realizing that waterfowl, the Anatidae, is a big part of our identity.  My rural home county in Maryland, Talbot, is crisscrossed by tidal creeks and marshes, giving refuge to the resident, migrating, and wintering birds.  This time of year we are awakened by the sounds of the hunter’s booming guns and the honking of geese moving from field to cove, and back again when they feel it’s safe.

juvenile Wood Duck, Aix sponsa

Every mid-November, just as the migrators are arriving, Easton hosts its famous Waterfowl Festival, doubling or trebling the population of this small town for four fun-filled days.  Anything that has even a remote connection to waterfowl is displayed, bought and sold, traded, demonstrated, eaten, and envied by the  wandering crowds.  The wildlife art including paintings, photographs, sculpture, and carvings is world class, with much of the proceeds from their sales going to waterfowl conservation.  http://www.WaterfowlFestival.org

Brant, Branta bernicla

Two of the most popular venues of the festival are the demonstration of the talented canine retrievers at a local pond and the duck and goose calling competition in the high school auditorium.  The soft mouthed dogs are magnificent as they plunge into the cold water and faithfully retrieve the waterfowl for their waiting masters.  The World Waterfowl Calling Championships are serious affairs, with both adult and child divisions.  The deceived waterfowl will not stand a chance when these artists get to their blinds.

Northern Pintail, Anas acuta

Speaking of retrievers, let me share this anecdote about my dog Cinder, may she RIP.  She was half Siberian Husky and half Black Lab.  I can testify that she never received a lick of training from me, but she was still a retriever of sorts.  Our neighbor and accomplished hunter, Phil, was puzzled why his recently shot ducks and geese would mysteriously disappear from his porch stoop, while I was grateful to the considerate hunter who was gifting me a growing pile of un-plucked waterfowl on my stoop.  We finally caught sheepish Cinder in the act, dragging the fowl across the yard to her master’s doorstep.  It’s in their blood.

Hooded Merganser, Lophodytes cucullatus

Identification of the 8 species of swans and 15 species of geese is straight forward.  We all likely learned about these birds from childhood picture books and nursery rhymes.  Most of these are monogamous and many bond for life.  It’s with the 57 species of the more diverse and colorful ducks where the ID’s become more taxing and the lifestyles more risque with multiple sexual partners, brood parasitism, hybridization, and bizarre reproductive anatomy.  Check out my posting of 2/10/2018, a book review of “The Evolution of Beauty” by Prum, for more details.

Mallard, Anas platyrhynchos

American Black Duck, Anas rubripes

The ubiquitous Mallard is probably the most recognized and common duck worldwide and the parent species of most of the domestic “barnyard” ducks.  But despite its rather striking male attire it just doesn’t get any respect.  Some have attempted to remedy this by putting the emphasis on the second syllable of “mallard” and add a slight French accent for good measure.  It hasn’t worked.  The overexposed Mallard is one of the herbivorous dabbling ducks that feed on the water’s surface or on anything within reach on the bottom.  That accounts for the common “bottoms-up” shots of these ducks.

Red-breasted Merganser, Mergus serrator

Common Eider, Somateria spectabilis

Diving ducks such as scoters, eiders, and mergansers are carnivores, feeding on fish, mollusks, and aquatic invertebrates.  Observing and photographing them is a challenge.  Just when you get them in your field-of-view they dive.  While underwater you guess where they’ll resurface and get all your exposure factors just right for the perfect shot, but are more often wrong than right.  Sometimes I think they are playing games with us photographers.  Unlike the vocal dabblers, the divers are generally silent.

Ruddy Duck, Oxyura jamaicensis

Ring-necked Duck, Aythya collaris

Yesterday I noticed some diving ducks from the Knapp’s Narrows drawbridge, on my way to Tilghman Island.  A quick U-turn and stealthy approach while hiding behind a concrete embankment allowed my all-time closest photos of the Long-tailed Duck.  This gorgeous diving duck, formerly known as the “Oldsquaw”, is a wintertime visitor from the Arctic.  It’s unique in that it goes through 3 different plumages each year.

Long-tailed Duck, Clangula hyemalis

The best place to see Snow Geese around here requires a short drive east to Bombay Hook NWR on Delaware Bay.  Earlier this week that drive did not disappoint.  At some distance across the marsh you could make out a long white line caused by uncountable thousands of these rafting geese.  Every five minutes or so, apparently spooked by an overflying harrier or eagle, the flock would rise up like a giant white amoeba, hover over the swamp, and then gently settle back again to the surface.

Snow Geese, Chen caerulescens                                       click on photo to zoom

The Anatidae family is part of the larger Anseriformes order that also includes the Screamers of South America.  People that know these things point out that all the Anseriforme tribes of waterfowl favor the southern hemisphere with many of the more primitive species found solely south of the equator, whereas none of our northern waterfowl are exclusive to the northern hemisphere.  All this suggests that our swans, geese, and ducks likely arose from a common primitive ancestor in the south, possibly from Australia.

Tundra Swan, Cygnus columbianus

Wood Duck, Aix sponsa

Each fall and winter I put on an extra layer of down and take a hot coffee to some prime waterfront location in hopes of seeing and photographing the waterfowl.  The fact that many of them are just here for a few short cold months makes me anxious to see them before I escape to Florida.  They are clearly much hardier than me since many will never venture much further south  than the Chesapeake before returning again to breed on the remote tundra.

 

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.