Top Ten Bird Photos of 2016

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House Finch, Carpodacus mexicanus

 

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

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

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

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

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American Goldfinch, Carduelis tristis

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

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk, Buteo lineatus

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

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Bridled Titmouse, Baeolophus wollweberi

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

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Anna’s Hummingbird, Calypte anna

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

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Red-headed Woodpecker, Melanerpes erythrocephalus

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

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White-eyed Vireo, Vireo griseus

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

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Golden-crowned Kinglet, Regulus satrapa

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

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

Pied-billed Grebe

Pied-billed Grebe, Podilymbus podiceps

No-Neck No-Nonsense Nuthatches

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Red-breasted Nuthatch

 

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

White-breasted Nuthatch

From bark to bark he darts in flight,

This craning no-neck woodland sprite–

Our all-season tree inspector

And invertebrate collector

Who claims old treeholes for his den.

Part woodpecker, and partly wren,

And bearing feathers that would place

Him in a pygmy blue-jay race,

He barely sings, he doesn’t drum,

But climbing up and down the plumb

Not only facing up but down

Is the nuthatch’s renown.

White-breasted Nuthatch

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

 

The trunks he wends across his days

Are all his upright alleyways,

And as he charts his alpine course

We hear his scratch and nasal Morse–

His little traffic clearing horn

That seems less urgent than inborn.

His escalades will carry him

From bole to bough to outer limb

And all the while around he’ll wind

Above, before, below, behind–

No tree-climber’s quite as stellar

As this spry no-hands rapeller.

Brown-headed Nuthatches

Brown-headed Nuthatches, Sitta pusilla

 

All his circumambulations!

And determined excavations,

When with a probe and peck or flitch

This aide relies a broadleaf’s itch

And earns the morsel of some pest

He’ll eat or stash or bring to nest–

He saves for when the hunts are harder

In his secret winter larder.

And winter’s when he comes for seed or

Suet at the backyard feeder.

But he only stays for just a hello.

He’s strictly carry-out, this fellow–

Pygmy Nuthatch

Pygmy Nuthatch, Sitta pygmaea

 

He bills one seed then off he flits

And on a tree that seed he splits

To have the kernel–hence the name,

And soon he’s back for just the same.

The way he cranes about to see

When scaling up or down a tree!

This no-neck with his upturned beak

Could use a chiropractic tweak–

And music lessons, in our view,

But no-neck is no-nonsense too.

And with the nuthatch we won’t wrangle.

We see things from a different angle.

Francis Stella

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Red-breasted Nuthatch, Sitta canadensis

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

White-breasted Nuthatch

White-breasted Nuthatch, Sitta carolinensis

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

Birding in Bean Town

Boston Commons

Boston Common

 

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

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House Sparrow (female), Passer domesticus

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

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Ovenbird, Seiurus aurocapilla

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

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Common Yellowthroat (female), Geothlypis trichas

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

Greenway

The Rose Kennedy Greenway

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

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

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Red-tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis

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

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Ring-billed Gull, Larus delawarensis

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

Post Office Square

Post Office Square

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

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White-throated Sparrow, Zonotrichia albicollis

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

Mount Auburn Cemetery

Mount Auburn Cemetery

Birding Bombay Hook Delaware

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

Greater Yellowlegs

Greater Yellowlegs, Tringa melanoleuca

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

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Ruins of WWII tower; click on any photo to zoom

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

Short-billed Dowitcher

Short-billed Dowitchers, Limnodromus griseus

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

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

Snow Geese

Snow Geese, Chen caerulescens

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

View east from Shearness Pool Tower

View east from Shearness Pool Tower

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

Duck Stamps

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A peaceful alliance between the birder and hunter seems as improbable as the Biblical lion lying down with the lamb, but miracles do happen.  Just remember the stories of the vast flocks of Passenger Pigeons and Carolina Parakeets darkening the skies and their subsequent decimation by hunters.  Or recall the indiscriminate shooting of migratory birds-of-prey on Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania or the plume hunters of southern Florida.  On the Chesapeake Bay hunters used giant guns balanced precariously on small boats to harvest thousands of swimming waterfowl, often hundreds with a single shot.  During a recent trip to Italy I noticed the skittish nature of all the passerines, apparently due to the longterm hunting of these small birds for food.  But even with this history there has been a remarkable truce between birder and hunter in this country, benefitting both, as well as the birds.

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The stamp and picture above by Arthur G. Anderson

In 1934 at the height of the Great Depression, when you’d think politicians would have had more pressing issues on their minds, FDR signed the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act.  This act, designed to preserve vital wetlands, required that each waterfowl hunter purchase a Federal Duck Stamp yearly.  Ninety-eight cents of every dollar raised by this program has gone into a conservation fund and has been used to purchase wetlands throughout the United States.  Since its inception some 900 million dollars has been raised to purchase 5.7 million acres of prime habitat.

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by G. Mobley

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Currently a Duck Stamp costs $25, a price gladly paid by hunters and waterfowl art and stamp collectors as well.  The first stamp was designed by “Ding” Darling, a name well-known by birders who have visited the famous hotspot on Sanibel Island, Florida.  He was a political cartoonist and also the director of The Bureau of Biologic Survey, the precursor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  His first stamp depicted a Mallard pair landing on a pond.

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by William C. Morris

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Initially the stamps were designed by invited artists but since 1949 they have been chosen in a juried, open, and highly competitive contest.  The 2017 winner is a beautiful painting of flying Canada Geese by James Hautman of Chaska, Minnesota.  Amazingly this is James 5th duck stamp winner, tying him with his brother Joseph who also has 5 prior winners.  Another brother, Robert came in third this year and has also won two prior contests!  There’s duck stamps in those genes I’d say.  You can buy the stamp, a print of the original art, or a framed rendition of both at http://www.fws.gov/duckstamps/.

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by James Hautman, the 2017 winner

Birders receive “bird gifts” at the holidays and special occasions.  Recently at a retirement party my colleagues thoughtfully presented me with multiple interesting bird feeders and plenty of feed to stock them.  They also baked an amazing cake with frosting depicting a bird photo lifted from my blog.  Thanks for that; you know who you are.  Several years ago I received a call from a dear friend who was in a thrift shop in Arizona and ran across 6 framed duck stamps and prints from the 1980’s.  “Would you like them”, he queried.  “You bet”, was my quick reply.  I now have a beautiful gallery of stamps.

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I’m not a hunter but sincerely appreciate the duck stamp program, an alliance of hunters, birders, artists, art and stamp collectors, and conservationists.  And the birds like it too.

Confessions Of An Amateur Bird Photographer

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Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus)

 

You and I have read all of the “right way” articles instructing us how to photograph birds, post-process the images, and store the files.  These have given me some valuable tips, maybe even from your blog, but in the end I must make my own way, experiment, and go with what works for me.  When this deviates from accepted practices there is some hesitation, or even embarrassment in mentioning it.  Despite this I’m offering my bird photography confessions; please don’t laugh or ridicule.

Sandhill Crane

Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis)            click on any photo to zoom

On the input side I’m pretty conventional and follow consensus.  Use good equipment, the best that budget allows, take a lot of pictures (a day of birding typically results in 500+ shots), use aperture priority trying to keep exposure times to 1/800 seconds and faster.  Get close and stay low for ground birds.  Frequently check and adjust brightness compensation as conditions change, and if anything slightly under expose the bird.

Ring-necked Duck

Ring-necked Duck (Aythya collaris)

Here comes confession #1, I don’t like RAW.  If I was a professional and trying to make a living with bird photography I would use RAW, but I’m not and I don’t.  The RAW files are simply too large and the post-processing too time consuming.  JPEG suits me just fine.  Remember, I have 500 photos to sort through when I get home, even before post-processing begins.

Pied-billed Grebe

Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps)

A quick run through the 500 shots eliminates 400 due to motion, poor exposure, bad composition, or simply too many pictures of the same bird and pose; it’s easy to get carried away when the light and bird are perfect.  This brings me to confession #2, I do not use a sophisticated photo-processing program such as Photoshop or Light Room.  I’ve tried them and found that they are overkill for my needs.  The guiding principle here is KISS (keep it simple stupid).  Don’t laugh; I use Mac Photos 1.5.  It’s free and came with the computer.

Belted Kingfisher

Belted Kingfisher (Ceryle alcyon)

My post-processing goal is to take the remaining 100 shots and with reasonably little effort reduce that to 10 or 15 “keepers” suitable for long-term storage.  I crop most of my shots, stopping just before graininess becomes apparent and often realign the photo keeping the “rule of thirds” in mind.  A few quick tweaks to the exposure, brightness, and shadow controls and I’m done.  I almost never change tint and color.  If the shot doesn’t look great after these simple steps it goes into the trash.

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis)

Confession #3 is my methods for file organization and storage.  For a while a used Light Room’s rather complicated system entering tags and species identifiers to facilitate sorting.  When newer versions forced me into the Cloud I left LR and looked for a simpler solution.  I’m a little paranoid about the Cloud and the Russians–what if Vladimir Putin steals my warbler pictures?  Mac Photos 1.5 suits me well with periodic back-ups to a second computer and also to a free-standing hard drive stored in a fire-proof safe.  By the way, Photos 1.5 even handles RAW images if you must.

American White Pelican

American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos)

I’ve used multiple filing systems for bird photos and have switched to the scientific bird classifications.  In Photos I’ve created a separate album for each Order of birds, and a subfolder for each Family in the Order.  The Order names end with “…formes” and the Family names with “…idae”.  For instance a pelican photo is placed in a subfolder called Pelecanidae which is located in the folder called Pelecaniformes, and a nuthatch photo is placed in a subfolder named Sittidae which is in the folder Passeriformes.  This system has the value reenforcing my knowledge of bird classification as well as reminding me of the various birds’ anatomical and behavioral traits that place them into a specific Order and Family.

White-eyed Vireo

White-eyed Vireo (Vireo griseus)

On a few occasions a photo may be placed into an additional album.  For instance, bird photos from a trip abroad are placed in a country-specific album in addition to the entry in the bird classification file.  I also have a separate album for interesting flight shots.  Lastly I name the photo by common name and genus and species while the camera attaches a number, date, and now with the Canon 7DII, a GPS location.

Black and White Warbler

Black and White Warbler (Mniotilta varia)

So I confess to KISS, but am always open to suggestions and experimentation.  I apologize to the non-photography readers for the shop talk in this post but hope it triggers some conversation or comments from my fellow shutterbug friends.  It’s always fun to see how others handle their photos and files and is just another factor contributing to the many pleasure of this hobby.

Fall Shorebird Migration

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I live on the Delmarva Peninsula.  It is aptly named since it encompasses Delaware to the east, the Eastern Shore of Maryland to the west, and Cape Charles Virginia at its southern tip.  It’s bordered by Delaware Bay and the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Chesapeake Bay to the west.  Delmarva is a flat, rural lowland with abundant farms and tidal wetlands.  There is not a rock in sight as the glaciers of the last Ice Age never made it this far south.  All in all it’s a perfect stopover and refueling site, or even a final destination for migrating shorebirds.  There are 50 species of shorebirds that breed regularly in North America and 217 species worldwide, just a small percentage of the total avian population of over 10,000 species.

Piping Plover

Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus)    click on any photo to zoom

The spring and fall migrations of shorebirds are completely different animals.  In spring the birds with raging hormones are making a mad dash to arctic and sub-arctic breeding grounds.  They follow the 35 degree isotherm to ensure liquid water and insects upon arrival.  Males and females must arrive at nearly the same time to mate, establish territories, build nests, lay eggs, and raise the young, all during the short, two-month arctic summer.  Fall migration, on the other hand is a much more leisurely trip south spanning several months from late June through November.

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Ruddy Turnstone & Black-bellied Plover (Arenaria interpres & Pluvialis squatarola)

The birds that abandon the arctic first and head south, even in late June, are the unsuccessful breeders and nesters.  If their first attempt fails due to weather, predation, etc., there is simply not enough time to try again.  Better to head south early and hope for better luck next year.  Some species send one of the parents south (either the male or female) as soon as the eggs are laid leaving the other to sit on the nest and raise the hatchlings.  Luckily shorebird chicks are more precocious than most birds walking, feeding themselves, and flying at an young age.  The abiding  parent will also migrate relatively early leaving the offspring behind to gain strength.  Amazingly the juveniles will head south one month later, often flying thousands of miles to their wintering grounds without any adult supervision.

Black Skimmers

Black Skimmers (Rynchops niger)

There has been speculation about the reason for an early fall migration from the tundra, even though there are still abundant insects and other food sources.  Some have suggested that the ancestors of these birds were tropical or neo-tropical and only began migrating northward to find new and safer breeding grounds as the glaciers retreated and climate warmed at the end of the Ice Age.  Thus, their hearts are really in the south, to which they return to ASAP when their biologic duty is done.

Wilson's Plover

Wilson’s Plover (Charadrius wilsonian)

There is species-specific timing to the fall migration.  After the non-breeders, you’re apt to see adult Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers, Yellowlegs, and Dowitchers passing through the Mid-Atlantic region as early as the first of July.  There is a somewhat predictable parade of following species, with Dunlins being an example of a late migrant, peaking here in October and November.

Long-billed Dowitcher

Long-billed Dowitcher (Limnodromus scolopaceus)

August is a popular month for observing the shorebird migration as most of the other bird groups have not yet felt the call.  Just be prepared for some confusing fall plumages.  Some will still have their breeding plumage while others will be in winter garb or a combination of both.  Add in the juvenile plumage and potential sex differences and you have some real ID challenges.  There’s also always a chance you might see a vagrant, often a lost juvenile far off course.  If you need a good reference book for these birds I recommend “The Shorebird Guide” by O’Brien, Crossley, and Karlson.

Black-necked Stilt

Black-necked Stilt (Himantopus mexicanus)

You often hear of the amazing distances covered by these migrating shorebirds.  Hudsonian Godwits are thought to fly 8,000 miles NON-STOP between breeding and wintering grounds.  Other shorebirds “choose” a more conservative approach and forgo the longer trip to Central and South America.  The Piping Plover, for instance breeds along the Atlantic seaboard from Massachusetts to Georgia and winters in Florida.  Wilson’s Plover both breeds and winters in Florida.  The Purple Sandpiper is the most hardy of the “locals” wintering along the rocky Atlantic coast all the way up to southern Newfoundland.

Sanderlings

Sanderlings (Calidris alba)

The ubiquitous and seemingly mundane Sanderling has its own migration story.  This small wave-chasing shorebird is seen in flocks on virtually every sandy beach world-wide.  It lacks a hind toe as a special adaptation allowing it to outrun the surf.  These birds breed far to the north in the arctic islands of Canada, Greenland, or Siberia and in this hemisphere choose various temperate wintering shorelines in both North and South America.  While some of Sanderlings choose a short migration route, ornithologist have discovered that others circumnavigate the entire Western Hemisphere, leaving the breeding ground in the fall and flying along the Atlantic coast to Chile and Peru.  In the spring they return north along the Pacific coast and central corridor, finally ending up at their original breeding site in northern Canada.

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Delmarva shorebird (Erratum maximum)

Our local baseball team, a farm club for the Baltimore Orioles, is appropriately called the Delmarva Shorebirds.  It seemed like the perfect name until they chose the team logo–they really needed a birder on that committee.  I would have suggested a Sanderling, a Piping Plover, or maybe even a Black Skimmer.  Instead they ended up with some stylized nonentity that looks like a cross between a Pileated Woodpecker and a Raven.  It’s clearly not a shorebird.  C’est la vie.

Cape May Hawkwatch Platform

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If you had to rate birding hotspots or favorite destinations for the eastern United States, Cape May would likely be at the top of the list.  This southern-most tip of the New Jersey peninsula was named for Captain Cornelius Jacobese Mey who explored the region in 1623.  The generations of fishermen, mariners and whalers have slowly given way to vacationers enjoying the beautiful beaches and myriad Victorian gingerbread houses gracing quaint tree-lined avenues.  But I went to Cape May for the birds, who are not there to admire the architecture.

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Merlin (Falco columbarius)

In a relatively small area you’ll find a variety of habitats including woodlands, grassy fields, salt marshes, freshwater ponds, low scrubland, and sandy beaches attracting a large variety of resident and migrating birds.  Almost anything is possible during fall migration in Cape May as the northwest winds push the vast Atlantic flyway eastward toward the coast and the birds are funneled southward until they arrive at land’s end and the formidable Delaware Bay and ocean.  The smart ones rest and feed for a few days, enjoy the scenery, and create a show to remember for us birders before continuing over the water.

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Laughing Gull (Larus atricilla); the area boasts the largest breeding population of this gull–no joke.

Cape May is one of the only places I know where the birder, dressed in our weird outfits and draped with our equipment, does not draw that quizzical apprehensive stare.  You’ll see many birders and guided tour groups daily throughout the town, and may even run into the celebrities, authors, and gurus of our hobby.  There are far too many birding sites in the area to discuss here, but one of my favorites is the Hawkwatch platform near the lighthouse at Cape May Point State Park.

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Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)

Hawks have been watched and counted there for years but the counter became a formal paid position of the New Jersey Audubon in 1976 when they hired 24 year-old Pete Dunne.  The stump of an old telephone pole was the first platform, soon replaced by a plywood table built by Dunne himself.  Despite these humble beginning he, of course, is now one of our most accomplished birders and authors.  The platform itself has also grown to become a large, multi-tiered edifice and famous destination for birders, hosting 20,000 visitors in 2015.  It’s in a perfect location halfway between the dunes and beaches to the south, the tree line to the north, and directly faces a shallow saltmarsh to the east.  Curiously the migrating kestrels tend to hug the shoreline while the hawks pass east to west over the tree line.  Just to the west is the famous lighthouse, restrooms, visitor center, and plenty of free parking.

Hawk-Watch platform and counter

Hawk-Watch platform and counter

Think of a sports bar on a Sunday afternoon in autumn.  There are different football games playing on multiple large screen TV’s while “experts” multitask, keeping one eye on one game and the other eye elsewhere; at the same time debating over a cold beer on the wisdom of the last play call and the preferred strategy for the next.  That’s the hawk-watch platform during autumn migration; just substitute birds for the TV pigskin and bottled water for the beer.

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Herring Gull (Larus argentatus)

On the top tier of the platform and far to the right you’ll find the official counter.  He or she is the one constantly scanning the sky and often calling out the birds while they are still specks in the distance. “Merlin heading to the right between the two fluffy clouds, one binocular field-of-view to the left of the lighthouse!”  They amaze with their knowledge of characteristic flight patterns, wing flapping, and silhouettes, but you soon begin to learn their techniques and try your luck.  If you’re brave you may even call out a bird sighting yourself, but be prepared to be politely corrected if you blunder.

American Kestrel

American Kestrel (Falco sparverius)

As in the sports bar you can choose to just sit quietly and enjoy the birding banter.  Someone on the right is reliving an amazing count total from the past while someone on the left is describing recent trips to birding hotspots in Arizona and Maine.  Another expert is holding forth on the best camera, lens, or field guide while on the lower tier the Swarovski Optik representative (they are the corporate sponsor of the count) is hawking their wonderful scopes and binos.  While just sitting there I learned about the distinguishing dark carpal bands on the Common Tern and how to recognize the aggressive flapping flight of a Merlin, the “falcon with attitude”.  One made a low flyover right in front of us unsuccessfully chasing a fleeing sandpiper across the pond.

Greater Black-backed Gull

Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marines); look carefully to see his songbird prey

They count more than hawks from the platform with plenty of songbirds, waders, gulls, and shorebirds also called out.  My days at the platform were relatively quiet with a warm southern wind blowing in from the bay.  However, the day before I arrived they counted 91 American Kestrels and two days earlier had 325 Bobolinks coming in on more favorable NW winds.  The most common bird of prey which I saw was the Merlin, coming in seemingly every 10 minutes one mid-morning.  Extremely “big days” are possible.  Pete Dunne counted 11,096 Sharp-shinned Hawks and 9400 Broad-winged Hawks on 10/4/1977!  Oh, to have seen that!

Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)

Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)

There is no such thing as a bad birding day at Cape May.  And if the birds seem scarce just check out the “Hawkwatch Sports Bar” and you’re sure to pick up some tips or meet a celebrity birder.  There’s a counter there everyday from dawn to 5PM,  September 1 till November 30.

Staccato Summer

Red-bellied WP

Red-bellied WP, Melanerpes carolinus

 

I was under the mistaken impression that everyone loved woodpeckers with their striking black, white and red plumage, and distinctive behavior.  My sister-in-law has taught me otherwise.  She has a Red-bellied that keeps her awake at night by its drumming and drilling on the side of her cedar shake home.  Countless holes through the siding and sheathing and even into the insulation have caused mounting repair bills.  She now hangs gaudy Christmas tinsel year-round on the corner of the house to scare them off, all to no avail.  I’m afraid that more lethal interventions are now being considered.

Downy Woodpecker, Picoides pubescens

Downy WP, Picoides pubescent  (click on any photo to zoom)

Despite this I remain a strong admirer of the Picidae family of birds.  There are 25 species of woodpeckers in North America and 220 worldwide.  They vary widely in size but all have relatively short legs, long toes, and strong tails to support them upright against the tree trunk.  Their flight is rather slow and undulating.  The Flickers and Sapsuckers are migratory, depending on insects year-round, but the remainder are sedentary with a more diverse diet.  Woodpecker vocalizations are rather primitive, but loud and distinctive, often described as a descending rattle.

Red-headed WP

Red-headed WP, Melanerpes erythrocephalus

But where they really excel is with their staccato drumming ability–sorry sister-in-law.  I used to think that this was just the sound made by the bird’s search for food in the bark.  In reality it is a much more sophisticated communication tool used also for staking out breeding territory, attracting a mate (and maintaining the bond), and general communication–“I’m on my way home with more bugs.”

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Sphyrapicus varius

The cadences are somewhat species specific.  Flickers and Sapsuckers have random, discontinuous patterns sounding like Morse Code.  The large Pileated has a loud, deep sonorous drumbeat that slowly diminishes in amplitude as it increases in frequency.  The Red-bellied drums at 19 beats per second, the Downy at 17 bps, while the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker starts with a short roll, pauses, and ends with two brief rolls of 2-3 beats each.  I guess I’ll have to consider adding a stopwatch to my birding paraphernalia.

Pileated WP

Pileated WP, Dryocopus pileatus

The force that a woodpecker generates by banging his head against a tree trunk is many times the maximum force that a human head and brain can survive.  There are a number of adaptations that make this possible.  The bird’s skull is thick and highly trabeculated, the neck muscles are strong, and the beak itself is slightly flexible, all helping to dissipate the force of the blow.  They also have a third inner eyelid to keep the eyeball from popping out at impact.

Nutgall's WP

Nuttall’s WP, Picoides nuttallii

The Hairy has the most bizarre adaptation.  This bird has a very long and sticky tongue to reach deep into the tree.  The tongue is retractable via an elaborate system of pulleys and muscles into a long tunnel which extends from the throat, encircling the base, back, and top of the skull, finally ending in the front at the base of the upper mandible.

The neat Sapsucker rows; apparently it doesn't harm the tree

The neat Sapsucker rows; apparently it doesn’t harm the tree

The Sapsuckers peck hundreds of perfectly parallel holes, encircling the tree and creating “sap wells”.  The birds feed on the sap but also on the myriad insects it attracts.  The endangered Red-cockaded also thrives on the sap of the large live pines of the South.  In fact I found this uncommon bird in Florida by first locating the large hardened resin patches on its preferred trees and then waiting patiently for the bird to show up.

Acorn WP

Acorn WP, Melanerpes formicivorus

The Acorn is a communal clown-like bird appropriately found on our “Left Coast”.  It forms small breeding flocks of several males and females along with some non-breeding young adults, all sharing in the incubation and feeding duties.  The bird is famous for the precisely drilled holes, each packed with a single acorn hoarded for future consumption.  These “granary trees” have been known to hold up to 50,000 acorns and are jealously defended by the commune.

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Ivory-billed WP, Campephilus principalis               by John James Audubon

I suspect all birders are familiar with the Ivory Woodpecker story. The last sightings of this large, glorious bird were in the bottomland forests of Louisiana and Arkansas in 2005.  But you’ll notice that all the extinct designations are qualified by “presumed”, “probably”, and “likely”.  Whenever I’m birding in the forests of the deep South and a Pileated flies by, I always take an extra glimpse of the bill color.  You just never know.

Book Review: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard

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Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, published by HarperCollins Publishers, copyright 1974, 290 pages.

In the spirit and words of Henry David Thoreau, Annie Dillard went to her Walden Pond, Tinker Creek, “because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”  This remarkable Pulitzer Prize winning book by a 28 year old will impress and inspire.  Like Thoreau, “I have traveled a good deal in Concord”, Tinker Creek is her local unassuming haunt in the suburbs of Roanoke, Virginia. Dillard is the pilgrim to this sacred place, a small creek with island, winding its way through pasture and wood, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus

It is a book of her fascinating natural observations, but then buckle your seat belt and hold on tight as she takes you soaring into the meaning, or lack thereof, of it all. It’s a pilgrimage of the mind dipping into cosmology, theology, epistemology, and even quantum mechanics before bringing you back home, somewhat exhausted.  She intends to “tell some tales and describe some sights of this rather tame valley, and explore, in fear and trembling some of the unmapped dim reaches and unholy fastnesses to which those tales and sights so dizzyingly lead.”

European Starling

European Starling, Sturnus vulgaris

This is obviously not a birding book although she does relate some interesting bird encounters.  There was the “Wood Duck flying like a bright torpedo that blasted the leaves where it flew.”  Or the Mockingbird with the white-striped tail fan diving straight down, seemingly just for the joy of it.  Or the flock of migrating Red-winged Blackbirds hidden in the Osage orange.  Or the annoying flock of thousands of European Starlings in the valley.  At wits end a hunter went out with shotgun and fired into the flock, killing three.  Asked if that had discouraged the birds he replied after some reflexion, “those three it did.”

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A quiet contemplative day of birding?                           Photo by A. Sternick

Birders, like Dillard relish being out there day after day to see what develops, observing closely and carefully, and returning with some pearl or new insight.  As she says, “beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them.  The least we can do is try to be there.”

Wood Duck

Wood Ducks, Aix sponsa; female and juveniles; I still waiting for a good close shot of the colorful male

Insects seem to be her special interest and several tales lead you into that strange world.  There’s the small frog on the bank that slowly involuted into a pile of skin right before her eyes.  It was being sucked dry by the hidden Giant Water Bug that had injected its dissolving enzymes and was now enjoying the nourishing broth while leaving the skin behind.  Then there’s the female Praying Mantis slowly devouring her sexual partner during coitus until all that’s left is his sexual organ, still fulfilling its purpose.  She has a special place in her heart for spiders.  “Any predator that hopes to make a living on whatever small creatures might blunder into a four inch square space in the corner of my bathroom…needs every bit of my support.”

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Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos

I appreciated the section about quantum mechanics and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle which says that the process of observation itself alters what is being observed.  This led to a college term paper for me years ago.  I won’t attempt to review the theology of this text, New or Old Testament, Koran, and others.  Nor will I tell you what the author concludes about the universe; is it brutally cruel or kind, chaotic or orderly; actually I’m not sure what she thinks.  I’ll have to read it again.  Some may find Tinker Creek too obtuse.  I suggest just plowing through those passages and come back to them later for a fresh look with a clearer head.  There’s much here to ponder.  “Knock; seek; ask.  But you must read the fine print.”

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus

Some critics, including the author herself in recent years have complained about excessive verbosity in some passages–her style has later become more succinct.  You can also take the “deeper meaning” approach to the extreme, but remember when this was written.  We were all reading Hermann Hess and listening to Jimi Hendrix back then so I’ll forgive the influences of the time.  I still wonder how I overlooked this 1974 book for so many years, recipient of prizes and much acclaim.  Better late than never.