The Big Summer Solstice Sit

Great-crested Flycatcher, Myiarchus crinitus

 

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

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

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

Bald Eagle on Hambleton Island, Haliaeetus leucocephalus

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

Carolina Chickadee, Poecile carolinensis

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

House Finch, Carpodacus mexicanus

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

Tree Swallow, Tachycineta bicolor

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

Snowy Egret, Egret thula

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

Green Heron, Butorides virescens

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

Cedar Waxwing, Bombycilla cedrorum

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

 

 

Bird Humor

 

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

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

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

Black Skimmer, Rynchops niger

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

Wild Turkeys, Meleagris gallopavo

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

Laughing Gull, Larus atricilla

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

American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos

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

Baltimore Oriole, Icterus galbula

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

Northern Pintail, Anas acuta

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

Rose-ringed Parakeet, Psittacula krameri

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

Chestnut-sided Warbler, Dendroica pensylvanica

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

Barn Swallow, Hirundo rustica

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

Anna’s Hummingbird, Calypte anna

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

Spring Migration 2017

Baltimore Oriole

 

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

Blackburnian Warbler, Dendroica fusca

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

Baltimore Oriole, Icterus galbula

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

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

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

Red Knot, Calidris canutus

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

One of my rescued crabs heading out to sea

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

Ruddy Turnstone, Arenaria interpres

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

Black-billed Cuckoo, Coccyzus erythropthalmus

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

Blackpoll Warbler, Dendroica striata

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

Warbler Woodstock

Chestnut-sided Warbler, Dendroica pensylvanica

 

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

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

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

Black-throated Blue Warbler, Dendroica caerulescens

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

Magnolia Warbler, Dendroica magnolia

Wilson’s Warbler, Wilsonia pusilla

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

Blackpoll Warbler, Dendroica striata

Blackburnian Warbler, Dendroica fusca

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

Prothonotary Warbler, Protonotaria citrea

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

American Redstart (female), Setophaga ruticilla

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

American Redstart (male), Setophaga ruticilla

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

Black-throated Green Warbler, Dendroica virens

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

 

The Commoners

 

American Robin

 

“They don’t get no respect”.  Most are not even considered to be “feathered friends”.  Look out your window and you see them.  They’re ubiquitous and consequently ignored.

Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura                  click on photos to zoom

But their numbers alone speak to their remarkable success.  These are the birds the non-birders can identify.  They are survivors and adapters, and have carved out their niches in an environment dominated by man.  If you look carefully they are not ugly, perhaps with one exception.  Here’s my list of commoners;  you may have others depending on your location:  Turkey Vulture, American Robin, Mourning Dove, European Starling, House Sparrow, Mallard, and Northern Mockingbird.

Turkey Vulture

Beginning with the ugly TV, the red featherless head is way too small for the large black body.  This bird is a harbinger of death, living on roadkill.  It makes me a little uneasy to see them circling overhead in great numbers whenever I take out the trash.  How do they know I’m feeling my age and a little under the weather?  Look at their nervous flight pattern, constantly readjusting their glide paths as if they were just learning to fly.  They have a well-developed sense of smell and apparently find the rotting carrion by odor, regurgitating this mess into the mouths of their hungry chicks.  It all seems so fitting.

juvenile American Robins, Turdus migratorius

The American Robin is the first bird our country’s school children learn since they see it hopping across virtually every suburban lawn and serenading them each morning.  In our neighborhood they are present year-round, usually congregating into large flocks once their breeding season has ended.  When I lived further north in Upstate New York they left us each fall and their springtime return was a welcome early sign of spring, hence their Latin name, T. migratorius.  This common Thrush is an overlooked beauty.

Mourning Dove, Zenaida macroura

Rock Pigeon, Columba livia

My next choice is the Mourning Dove, but just substitute a Rock Dove, aka Pigeon, if you’re an urban dweller.  They also have a head too small for their body–is there a pattern here?  This gentle bird is common, but so welcome with that mournful cooing heard every morning and evening.  I’m still trying to figure out the origin of the whistling noise whenever they take off, as if their wings need some WD40.  Their numbers are increasing despite, or possibly because of us humans.  They are a regular foraging on the ground below our feeders.

European Starling, Sturnus vulgaris

We only have only one Starling, but use the modifier “European” seemingly to blame the Old World for S. vulgaris, first brought to our shores in 1890.  It has dispersed throughout the continent, congealing into large flocks in fall and winter.  The Starling’s  success stems from its toughness and intelligence and I can also vouch for its persistence.  Each spring it tries to build a nest in my boat-lift motor box and every week I take the box apart and pick out the twigs, only to have it return again, and again, and again.  Six weeks later I win, usually.  But look closely and you’ll see some shimmering metallic beauty, even in this pest.

House Sparrow, Passer domesticus

We can also blame Europe for the House Sparrow, introduced in New York in 1851.  Its widespread abundance and success stems from one simple fact–it likes us.  You’ll find it all year long in the rural farmyards or on the urban sidewalks, but rarely in the unpopulated woods and fields.  People, cars, trucks, and exhaust–no problem.  It aggressively evicts Bluebirds and Swallows from their nests.  Its name is even wrong.  The House Sparrow is really a finch and not a New World Sparrow, but in any case, it’s one tough bird.

Mallard, Anas platyrhynchos

Now, take the Mallard (put the accent to the second syllable to give the duck a little more class), but whatever you do a Mallard suffers from over exposure.  It’s the “Make Way For Duckling” duck that everyone knows.  Its promiscuity does not help its reputation; it even hybridizes with other species.  Be that as it may, when the light strikes that metallic green head just right, you will be dazzled.

Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos

Lastly I give you the Northern Mockingbird.  Of all the commoners this is the one that is invariably at my front door, back porch, and bedroom window, 24/7, twelve months a year.  The Mocker’s, Mimic polyglottos, remarkable repertoire of song is repeated incessantly, sometimes to the point of distraction and may drive one to drink.  It’s like the friend that will just not stop talking or singing and has never learned the joy of quietude.  It’s also not shy.  It will staunchly defend its territory, even attacking my old dog out for an innocent garden stroll.  Despite this, the bird has become one of the family and a welcome resident in our yard.  Recovering from years of being captured and caged, the Mocker is expanding its territory northward, approaching the Canadian border.

Northern Mockingbird

So much for the commoners.  I’m packing my bags for a trip to Magee Marsh, Ohio, and a rendezvous with the uncommon Warblers, migrating northward in their finest breeding garb.  Hopefully they will pose for a few Kodak moments along the Shore of Lake Erie–full report to follow.

Group Birding on the Eastern Shore

I usually bird alone or with one or two companions.  Last Sunday, however, we joined our local county Bird Club and had a memorable morning birding a venerable estate on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.  We knew this was to be a great day as we initially approached the large property via a long winding service entrance, traversing an old growth forest along the headwaters of the tidal creek, until we were stymied by a downed tree straddling the drive.  The alternative main entrance was a more formal straight road, lined by stately loblollies, leading to a brick mansion of pleasing symmetry.  We were greeted by several loud, bold Peacocks strutting across their front yard.

Ruddy Turnstone, Arenaria interpres (click on photos to zoom)

With twenty some sets of eyes and ears it’s a rare bird that escaped the group’s detection.  This included the bird-of-the-day, a Ruddy Turnstone seen alone on a distant sandy spit by particularly sharp eyes.  It’s not a rare bird, but uncommonly seen this far inland, away from the open beaches of the bay or ocean.

Common Yellowthroat, Geothlypis trichas

The dynamic of a birding group is interesting.  There are the regular members who rarely miss an outing, as well as newcomers, warmly welcomed.  There are birders of all levels of experience, with lots of questions, teaching, and sharing going on.  Just keep listening to the banter and you’ll learn.

Pine Warbler, Dendroica pinus

Chipping Sparrow, Spizella passerina

There are experts who impress with their knowledge of birdsong; we heard the call of the Baltimore Oriole high in the canopy long before we got a fleeting view of him flying away.  I learned the subtle differences between the trills of the Chipping Sparrow and Pine Warbler.  And there were other birds that were heard but never seen.

Eastern Kingbird, Tyrannus tyrannus

Also remarkable is the experts’ knowledge of the local timing of the spring migration–when particular species are expected and when their appearance seems early or late compared to prior seasons.  Migrating Eastern Kingbirds were common on Sunday. We also saw newly arrived Blue Grosbeaks, Common Yellowthroats, and “Crusty”, aka  a Great-crested Flycatcher.  Birds of prey included both vultures, a perching Bald Eagle, a soaring Red-tailed Hawk, and a rapid flyover of a Sharp-shinned Hawk on a mission.

Blue Grosbeak, Passerina caerulea

Great-crested Flycatcher, Myiarchus crinitus

The success of group birding depends in large part on the leader.    Our leader was Wayne, a friend I have known for years, a retired professor from the nearby Washington College Center of Environment and Society, and a renown birder, lecturer, and teacher.  He led the group through forest and fields with his trusty companion and aging black dog, Cinder, like Moses leading us to the promised land of Aves, constantly teaching, pointing out, and calling in the birds.  He apologized for the morning not being as “birdy” as hoped, but when the final tally was made we had seen 58 species, including life-birds for some and year or county-birds for many.

Red-tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis

One of the advantages of group birding is the access one is given to a beautiful private property on the Eastern Shore.  This grand historic home has a central brick Federal-style hall built around 1800, with symmetric hyphens leading to later additions.  The gracious owner had a wonderful brunch waiting for the returning sweaty birders in the elegant dining room.  The corn pudding, leafy salad, freshly picked asparagus, and cider with a kick were gratefully received and consumed on the waterfront veranda.  Wayne and the group compiled the day’s list and presented one lucky birder with a jar of home-made jam for correctly guessing the final tally.  I missed the mark by seven but am more than willing to try again soon.

Spoonbills & Sayonara

For newbie Floridians or the uninitiated, the first sighting of a Roseate Spoonbill is a memorable event.  You might hear, “Look at that Pink Flamingo”, or from the more observant, “Look at that Pink Flamingo with that deformed flattened bill”.  A gentle correction is in order.  Our Spoonbill, the Roseate, is one of six in the genus “Platalea”.  These include the Eurasian, the African, the Black-faced from Eastern Asia, the Royal from Australia and New Zealand, and the Yellow-billed from SE Australia.

Roseate Spoonbill, Platalea ajaja

The Roseate Spoonbill is a year-round resident of Florida and the SE Gulf States of the U.S., but also found in the Caribbean, and in large areas of Central and South America.  These large striking waders are active feeders, usually found in shallow fresh or brackish water, swinging their submerged bills side-to-side.  Along with the color, it’s the peculiar spatula bill that catches your eye.  It is lined with sensitive sensory nerves that causes it to snap shut involuntarily when it detects the unfortunate fish or crustacean.  The chicks hatch with a straight bill; the spatula shape develops with maturation.

A “bowl” of Roseates at Ding Darling

Roseates were pursued close to extinction by the plume hunters of the early 20th century, but they survived and have made a comeback since.  They seem to be more numerous now, even compared to when I first started coming to Florida regularly, a dozen years ago.  A “bowl” of Spoonbills are often found feeding along the berm, close to our home and have given me many close-up photo ops–they’ve adapted to the morning parade of human walkers and gawkers near their feeding pools.

click on any photo to zoom to full screen

The pinkness of the bird is determined by the amount of carotenoids in the ingested crustaceans.  The juveniles are less pink and lack the more intense coloring seen at the shoulder in the adults.

It’s about time to say sayonara to Florida; our seasonal sojourn is drawing to a close and we are about ready to migrate northward with the other “snowbirds” and genuine aves.

Without breaking a sweat our Florida seasonal bird count has reached 97 this year, with a couple birding days still left.  These are primarily resident birds, as the spring migration seems less evident down here.  Oh, you do notice the newly arrived Swallowtail Kites soaring above and the occasional colorful warbler passing through, but for most they ask, “why leave”?  This is the land of sunshine, plentiful food, beaches, and swamps, where the living is easy, even for the birds.

Chasing a closely related, White Ibis

But there are new adventures waiting up north along the Chesapeake.  I know the migrating Geese, Ducks, Swans, and likely the Loons will have left and the annoying non-migratory resident Canada Geese will have already built their nests at the shoreline.  Bald Eagles and Osprey will be far along their reproductive pathways and the Osprey will become the most boisterous voice, calling warnings from their nesting platforms.

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus

The monotonic but rhythmic call of the White-throated Sparrow will no longer be heard, but the Mockingbirds, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Chipping Sparrows will have joined the chorus.  I’m looking forward to seeing the acrobatic Swallows, Swifts, and Martins, as well as the Kingbird staking out his territory in the back yard.  And I must quickly break out the Hummingbird feeders before these unique migrators pass me over and all settle in my friend Barbara’s yard–she keeps many more feeders than me, all filled and ready.  I believe she has the local “record” for the most Hummers seen simultaneously at her feeders.  Wasn’t it twelve, Barb?  Keep up the good work, but leave a few for me.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Archilochus colubris

The Birds & The Bees

 

Great Blue Herons, Ardea herodias

 

Birds do it, bees do it,

Even educated fleas do it.

Let’s do it, let’s fall in love.

Cole Porter

You don’t have to be an astute observer to notice that something’s up in the avian world right now.  It’s springtime and once the birds have recovered from the stress of migration or the burdens of winter, their raison d’etre becomes reproduction. The hormones from brain and adrenal glands rule the roost and result in both physical and behavioral changes, all focused on reproducing and preserving their species.

Rose-ringed Parakeets, Psittacula krameri

Claiming a territory is step one in this process.  In my neck of the woods this is most noticeable with the boisterous Red-winged Blackbird, perched on the tallest reed, sporting his bright red and yellow epaulets, warning other males to stay clear and beckoning females to come and check him out.  He hopes they are attracted by his beauty, health, and strength.

Red-winged Blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus

There are numerous avian signs of courtship, some common and others quite bizarre.  The common include colorful breeding plumage, such as the striking migrating Warblers and their melodious songs, all evolved to attract a mate.  The more bizarre include the Magnificent Frigatebird’s inflation of his giant red throat (which other jealous males attempt to puncture), the water ballet of courting Grebes performed in perfect unison, or the Baryshnikov-like leaps of the Sandhill Crane.

Burrowing Owls, Athene cunicularia

There are the gentle offerings of food and mutual grooming, or the spectacular flight and airshows of the Hawks, or the lower nighttime air dance of the Woodcocks.  I don’t quite get the courtship practice of the male Parrot vomiting into the mouth of the female, allowing her to sample the prospective mate’s taste in food, nor do I condone the Mallards’ gang rape of a cornered female, so common with that specie.  But these are all signs of spring, evolved over millions of years to recreate and preserve life.

American Wigeons, Anas americana

As a Radiologist I have a special interest in the comparative anatomy of humans and birds.  First for the male, the avian testes, the producers of sperm, are located high in the abdomen, near the upper poles or the kidneys–male birds have no scrotum.  The sperm travel down through the deferent duct and seminal vesicles and empty into the cloaca at mating.  As with mammals, sperm require lower than normal body-temperatures to mature.  Birds solve this by lowering their body temperature at night and by storing sperm in the cooler seminal vesicles in the lower pelvis.

Copulating Black-necked Stilts, Himantopus mexicanus

Most male birds have no penis.  Mating occurs with “kissing cloaca”, the brief and often repeated contact of the male and female cloacae.  But a few male birds including Ducks, Storks, Flamingos, and Ostriches do have an erectile penis arising in the cloaca.  In the mating duck this is quite large and has a corkscrew configuration while the complementary female anatomy has a reverse corkscrew shape to accept it.  Some have said that these birds, who often mate in water, use this penetrating copulation to prevent water from washing the sperm away.

Red-shouldered Hawks, Buteo lineatus

The most interesting aspect of bird anatomy is that most female birds have only left-sided internal genitalia–the right sided structures are involuted or completely absent.  There are a couple potential explanations for this.  It may serve to reduce body weight and make flight easier, and it also prevents bilateral ovum forming simultaneously with opposing eggs obstructing each other in their passage to the lower genital tract.

Cactus Wrens, Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus

The ovary is positioned high in the abdomen, similar to the testes, and its eggs pass to the cloaca via the oviduct, uterus and vagina.  Grossly these three structures appear to be a continuous tortuous tube, but microscopic anatomy reveals differing functions.  At ovulation the soft ovum enters the upper oviduct and becomes coated with albumin and keratin as it proceeds downward.  The limey shell and egg coloration is added in the uterus and the finished egg is stored in the vagina.  It appears that the fertilization with sperm occurs in the upper oviduct.  The entire process from ovary to cloaca takes about 24 hours.

Greater Yellowlegs, Tringa melanoleuca

The structure and function of the avian egg is a fascinating topic by itself, but best left for a later posting.  Just as a trailer however, consider that a bird’s egg must be strong enough to withstand the weight of the incubating parent but fragile enough to allow the hatching chick to escape.  It must be a protective barrier, but also porous enough to allow oxygen transport and respiration.  It must also contain all the nutritional and energy requirements of the developing embryo.

Hooded Mergansers, Lophodytes cucullatus

So as you head out this spring remember the raging hormones have expressed themselves in many ways, some visible and some unseen.  The males are carrying testes that have increased their volume 100 times and are trying to find and impress a mate in any way possible.  The female, her own genitalia markedly enlarged for the season is the egg producer, primed and ready, hoping to find a worthy mate.  If successful, the real work will have just begun.

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus

Book Review: The Heart of the Valley by Nigel Hinton

Published by Harper & Row, copyright 1986, 236 pages.  Cover art by Pam Stephens.

 

During a recent bird outing in rural England a Dunnock was pointed out to me.  It was warily perched on the far side of a shrub, as if purposely defeating my efforts to get a good shot.  This was a life bird for me so I inched closer, but it flew, leaving me only some unpublishable blurs.  This common, drab, brown songbird is not a great discovery for an English birder, but reminded me of Nigel Hinton’s wonderful story of a year in the life of a Dunnock.  I read this tale years ago, read it again after this sighting, and have loaned my copy to multiple birders.  It’s received their universal acclaim.

White-throated Sparrow, Zonotrichia albicollis

Hinton chose to write about a common, non-flashy bird, living in common, rural Kent County, in a common valley, near a common Brook Cottage and Forge Farm, inhabited by common folks living typical common lives.  Although common, the trials and tribulations of these lives, both the birds’ and humans’, are gripping and existential.

Carolina Wren, Thryothorus ludovicianus

The main character is the female Dunnock, barely surviving the cold blasts of the particularly hard winter, her first.  The optimistic stirrings of early spring lead to a timid introduction to her first mate, nest-building, and egg-laying.  I know, it all sounds so corny, but the author avoids the pitfalls of some anthropomorphic literature.  These are not talking birds and this is not “Watership Down” or “Bambi”, but rather a compelling and detailed account of life, perseverance, and also of death.

Swallowtail Kite, Elacoides forficatus         (click on photos to zoom)

It’s not all happy.  The initial nest and eggs are destroyed and her mate is run over by a car.  The humans of the cottage and farm are also dealing with aging, stroke, and loss.  In the most compelling part of the novel the harrowing and fantastic migration of a female Cuckoo from Sub-Sahara Africa to the English valley is described.  Just as the reader is celebrating this successful migration, you watch in horror as the Cuckoo sneaks her egg into the unsuspecting Dunnock’s nest.  The egg hatches and this monstrous, ugly, parasitic chick wages its genetically programmed war against its smaller nest mates, duping the unsuspecting foster mother and hogging most of the food.  Even before its eyes are fully opened the Cuckoo tirelessly works to expel its rivals from the nest.  It is evil personified, or maybe “birdified”.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Coccyzus americanus

I didn’t realize that the anthropomorphic nature literature was so controversial and hotly debated near the beginning of the 20th century.  The famous and “pure” naturalist, John Burroughs, felt that authors did a terrible disservice by their non-scientific attribution of human emotions and qualities to wildlife.  Among others he singled out the writings of Jack London, William Long, and Ernest Seton, who had just published a book entitled “Wild Animals I Have Known”.  In retaliation James Montague wrote this poem entitled “Proof”:

John Burroughs, who’s a shark on birds

(He classifies ’em by a feather),

Avers that they’re devoid of words

And simply cannot talk together.

He gives the nature-fakers fits

Who picture birds in conversation,

And tears their story books to bits

In scientific indignation.

 

But there’s a wren outside my door

That talks whenever I go near him,

And talks so glibly, furthermore,

That I just wish that John could hear him.

Of mornings, when I stroll about,

The while he hymns his glad thanksgiving,

He interrupts himself to shout.

“Hey!  Ain’t it glorious to be living?”

Field Sparrow, Spizella pusilla

Believe it or not, even the President of the United States weighed in upon this vital debate.  Theodore Roosevelt publicly took the side of John Burroughs and against the “Nature Fakers”, adding more fuel to the raging fire.  And as we all know and agree, if the president says it, it must be true.  Cooler heads finally prevailed and the controversy returned to a simmer.  As for me, I can’t see what harm is done by imagining what a creature may feel or think, fully knowing that it may have little or no capacity for either.

Bronzed Cowbird, Molothrus aeneus

The female Dunnock did survive, at least for one season, as did the Cuckoo chick and one of the Dunnock chicks.  But survival for them hung by a thread and was temporary, as it is for us all.  This book has given me a new insight regarding the lives of these birds.  I’ve been keeping the feeders a little fuller and their baths a little cleaner, and maybe they’ll notice and like me a little more–who knows.

London, Birding With An Ally

Guide Jack Fearnside at Chobham Commons

 

Was taxation without representation really that bad that we had to split from these good people?  I certainly felt right at home this March in the U.K., now our greatest ally.  They may talk a little funny and drive on the wrong side of the road, but otherwise this was a wonderful visit to the Motherland.

Chobham Commons

Birds and climate in Britain are influenced greatly by the warming currents of the Gulf Stream.  It may come as a surprise to many that temperate London sits at the same latitude as Newfoundland and Labrador in the western hemisphere, veritable ice boxes on our side of the pond.  Gulf Stream or not, our visit was too early for the Spring migration; most migrants arrive in the southern U.K. later in March or April.  I was content seeing the wintering birds in London alone but decided to seek the help of a guide to sample the surrounding countryside.  Good decision.

Red Kite, Milvus milvus                             click on photos to zoom

I booked a whole day with Birding in London, an English guide company, http://www.birdinglondon.co.uk.  They escort individuals or small groups to various sites in and around London.  Whenever you hire a guide you take some risks, however, I have never been disappointed and was not this time.  Jack Fearnside picked me up at 6:30AM sharp at my hotel in Kensington and we spent a productive day in the countryside to the west of London.

Reed Bunting, Emberiza schoeniclus

Our first stop was Chobham Commons, a picturesque 1400 acre preserve of lowland heath and blooming yellow gorse with scattered islands of birch and pine.  The area was initially cleared by paleolithic farmers eons ago and has remained unspoiled, even through military encampments during two world wars.  I realized that Jack knew his stuff when he started identifying birds by their songs, even in the carpark and despite the traffic noise from the nearby M3.  I was treated to seeing 20 species here including Woodlark, Goldcrest, Stonechat, and the unusual Dartford Warbler.

Stonechat, Saxicola rubicola

Even in early March the over-wintering British birds are pairing up and beginning nest-building, although most egg-laying commences in late March or April.  The Long-tailed Tit takes 3 weeks to build its intricate nest so it needs an early start, but  early nest-building and egg-laying is a mixed dilemma.  It’s great to stake out a territory and get an early start before the migrating hoards arrive.  This allows the possibility of multiple broods in a season but also raises the risk of cold temperatures and meagre food sources in early spring, just when parents and hatchlings need nourishment most.

Long-tailed Tit, Aegithalos caudatus

Our second stop was Windsor Great Park, a 4800 acre gem, first set aside in the 13th century.  The area was hunted by William the Conqueror one thousands years ago.  Victoria and Albert picnicked on the shore of its Virginia Water in the 19th century and I was lucky to traipse these same grounds this March.  You’ll find that European birds are more skittish than their New World cousins and usually don’t respond to phishing.  Many of my photos therefore are distant views taken at 400mm.  Even at great distance, however, Jack was able to point out the electric green of the Eurasian Kingfisher on the lake’s opposite shore.  We saw 28 species at this historic site including Great-crested Grebe, Red Kite, and Eurasian Siskin.

Caretaker cottage at Windsor Great Park

I sensed that Jack really wanted me to see and hear the Skylark for the first time.  We heard him high overhead during his peculiar hovering flight long before we saw him diving down into the green pasture, and then rising again, all the time singing his melodious and incessant song.  This was at our third stop, Woodoaks Farm, a quaint working dairy farm dating back to late Saxon times, 1000 years old.  The lanes and barnyard were muddy from recent rains but the stop was well worth it giving up 16 species including the Eurasian Kestrel, Mew Gull, and the memorable Skylark and song.  Here’s a verse from “To a Skylark” by Percy Bysshe Shelley:

Higher still and higher

From the earth thou springest

Like a cloud of fire;

The blue deep thou wingest,

And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.

Chaffinch, Fringilla coelebs

Our last stop was Stocker’s Lake in Hertfordshire, an old 90 acre gravel pit which has been flooded and now serves as a wintering ground for numerous waterfowl and springtime stopover site for migrating passerines.  The lake is surrounded by a hiking path and numerous “hides” (blinds, in American English) and narrow canals with colorful canal boats serving as residences.

Canal Locks at Stocker’s Lake

There is a large Heronry on the shore and several islands and floating rafts serving as nesting sites.  We added more 32 species at this site for a total of 59 for the day.  The sun was setting and light becoming problematic for photography when Jack called out a flock of Northern Lapwing landing on an nearby island, another life-bird for me and a fitting ending to a great day.

Tufted Duck and Eurasian Wigeon, Aythya fuligula and Anas penelope

Birding London also arranges guided tours to the Dorset coast to the south, the channel coast to the east, and other sites.  I highly recommend Jack and his company and plan to hire him again if I ever make a return visit to the U.K.  For you poem-loving birders here is the last stanza of “To a Skylark”:

Teach me half the gladness

That thy brain must know,

Such harmonious madness

From my lips would flow

The world should listen then, as I am listening now.