Chasing Birds and Ancestors on Prince Edward Island

North Cape, PEI

 

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

Tignish Shore

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

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

American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos

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

Red-breasted Nuthatch, Sitta canadensis

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

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

Tignish Heritage Inn and Gardens

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

Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia

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

Common Eider, Somateria mollissima

Greater Yellowlegs, Tringa melanoleuca

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

 

Northern Harrier, Circus cyaneus

Cormorant beach party

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

Alberton Museum, Alberton, PEI

 

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

1909 photo of the Kinch homestead, PEI

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

Suzanne and cousin George

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

Guano

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

 

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

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

Laughing Gull, Larus atricilla

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

Caspian Tern, Sterna caspia

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

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

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

Masked Booby, Sula dactylatra                           photo by A. Sternick

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

Herring gulls, Larus argentatus

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

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

Double-crested Cormorants, Phalacrocorax auritus

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

Pelagic Cormorants, Phalacrocorax pelagicus

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

Northern gannet, Morus bassanus

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

The Death and Rebirth of Poplar Island

 

 

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

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

Willet, Catoptrophorus semipalmatus

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

Barn Swallow

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

Red-winged Blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus

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

Work in progress

MES’s plan

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

Fellow birders in action

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

Departure site at Knapp’s Narrows

Uncountable Cormorants on Jefferson Island.

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

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

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

 

 

 

Birding While Kayaking

Glossy Ibis, Plegadis falcinellus

 

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

Belted Kingfisher, Ceryle alcyon                    (click to zoom)

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

Least Tern, Sterna antillarum

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

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus

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

A mangrove tunnel, from the back seat

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

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

White Ibis, Eudocimus albus

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

Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus

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

Willey’s Island

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

The Eagle Tree

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

Toppled trees along the shoreline

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

Nesting Osprey

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

 

 

 

 

Bird Banding

Chipping Sparrow, Spizella passerina

 

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

Common Yellowthroat, Geothlypis trichas

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

Magnolia Warbler, Dendroica magnolia

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

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

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

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

Wood Thrush, Hylocichla mustelina

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

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

Grasshopper Sparrow, Ammodramus savannarum

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

Indigo Bunting, Passerina cyanea

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

Banding an American Goldfinch, Carduelis tristis

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

Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Archilochus colubris

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

The Fledging of the Brown-headed Nuthatches

Sitta pusilla

 

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

Parent with brown head, juvenile with grayer head

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

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

#1

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

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

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

Pygmy nuthatch, Sitta pygmaea

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

Red-breasted nuthatch, Sitta canadensis

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

White-breasted nuthatch, Sitta carolinensis

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

Juvenile and parent BHNH

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

#3 & #4

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

Parent, showing how it’s done

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

Swan Song for a Snow Bird

Cape May Warbler, Dendroica tigrina

 

The tropical heat is building and the watering holes are crowded. There’s an undercurrent of sniping between the permanent residents and migrators competing for food and space.  Many of the migrators are donning their finest garb in preparation of the trip north, hoping to find a mate, build a nest, and raise a family.  The older crowd is also anxious to return to the land of their roots, renew friendships, and enjoy the cooler breezes.  For them the trip is more strenuous but also a highly anticipated yearly event.  The full time residents left behind are anxious for them all to leave, no matter the reason.

Prothonotary Warbler, Protonotaria citrea

We’re both observers and participants in the great spring migration.  The crest of both the songbird and human waves have already passed us by in south Florida, but we plan to join in and catch up this week.

Northern Parula, Parula americana            (click on photos to zoom)

So often we search out the remote birding sites, but reliable sources alerted us to a passerine fall-out in the heart of downtown Naples.  “Just go to Cambier Park, find the stage, and nearby you’ll se a blooming bottle-brush tree full of birds, with smiling birders positioned below”.

Indigo Bunting, Passerina cyanea

White-eyed Vireo, Vireo griseus

This was great birding for old bones–I only wish I had brought a chair.  Just find some shade, adjust your camera settings, aim upward and shoot.  The only obstacles were “warbler neck”, the speed of the hyperactive birds, and an obnoxious Northern Mockingbird who was openly hostile to the more photogenic migrators passing through.

Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos

Black-whiskered Vireo, Vireo altiloquus

The Cape May Warblers were the most numerous birds, along with a good showing of Prothonotary Warblers, Indigo Buntings, and Orchard Orioles.  Fewer Black-and-white, Blackpoll, and Black-throated Blue Warblers were also seen.  Throw in an occasional Northern Parula, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Black-whiskered Vireo, Chimney Swift, and a flock of Cedar Waxwings and you have a very productive tree and day.

Orchard Oriole, Icterus spurius

Cape May Warbler, Dendroica tigrina

Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Archilochus colubris

Somehow I had never seen a Cape May Warbler prior to this day; it was a nemesis bird no longer.  Although first described by Alexander Wilson at Cape May, New Jersey in the early 19th century, it was not reported there again for 100 years; but the name has stuck.  This interesting bird winters in the West Indies and briefly stops here on the way north.  It has a unique curved tubular tongue for feeding on nectar in the tropics.  Up north it breeds in the forests of the United States and southern Canada and nests almost exclusively in spruce trees, feeding on spruce bud worms.  Populations and success of the bird varies proportionally with abundance of this worm.

Roseate Spoonbill, Platalea ajaja

We also visited the famous Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary to check on the spring migration there.  It’s my great fortune to have the knowledgeable Corkscrew guides, Nancy and Don, as neighbors in Naples.  They were on duty that day and reported that the colorful male Painted Buntings had already left but a few females still lingered.

Green Heron, Butorides virescens

The sanctuary was relatively quiet for songbirds, but they encouraged us to check out the ponds.  It has been a dry winter and spring in south Florida and the cypress swamp was unusually arid.  All the remaining water was in a few shrinking water holes, concentrating the fish, alligators, and wading birds together, not entirely peacefully.

Great Egret, Ardea alba

You heard the guttural sounds of the waders and uhhs and ahhs of the spectator crowd, even from a great distance.  The boardwalk was packed with observers, fixated on the spectacle of life and death on the pond.  It reminded me of the childhood “Wild Kingdom” television shows of the Serengeti Plains of Africa and its watering holes, with wildebeest, zebras, giraffes, and others risking life and limb for a drink as lions skulked nearby.

Anhinga, Anhinga anhinga

At Corkscrew the concentrated jumping fish had no where to escape, and the opportunistic wading birds were reaping the reward; that is as long as they could dodge the gators who were the “lions” of this scene at the top of the food chain.  The prowling gator’s only dilemma was whether to grab a fish or sneak up on a distracted bird for a larger feathery meal.  There must have been 100 or more storks, herons, egrets, anhingas, and spoonbills at the feeding frenzy.  As Andy said, “It’s a bad day to be a fish”.

American Alligator, Alligator mississippiensis

Whereas the migration of birds has occurred for millions of years, migrating human snowbirds to and from Florida is a relatively new phenomena.  In 1902 25 year-old Willis Carrier of Buffalo, New York invented the first “modern” air conditioner.  I doubt that the massive population growth of Florida and the South could have taken place without AC.  Even with it, Easter seems to be the signal commencing the human migration to the north.

Corkscrew watering hole

The wide boulevards, 8-lane highways, and glass and concrete high-rises now seem empty.  There are no longer lines at the best restaurants and theaters, and you can make it through an intersection with one turn of the light.  It’s almost eerie.  The infrastructure here is built to accommodate the huge population of winter and not for the fewer year-round residents.

Wood Stork, Mycteria americana

I visited the flowering bottle brush tree in Cambier Park one last time.  It was now quiet.  The itinerant migrators had all moved on and even the Mockingbird seemed more relaxed.  The resident birds had once again reclaimed their territories and until next fall, all was well.

Birding Mount Auburn in Springtime

Mount Auburn Cemetery

 

I strolled by the old Granary Burying Ground on Tremont Street in Boston on the way to the Park Street Station.  My final destination on this early spring morning was Mount Auburn Cemetery, but I couldn’t help comparing the two burial grounds.  The first, now surrounded by towering high rises, is a city block of ordered, simple stones arranged in precise symmetrical rows, typical characteristics of the Classical Era (1750 to 1820).  Burial then was as much for sanitation as it was for a memorial to the deceased.  You’ll find the graves of the patriots Paul Revere, Sam Adams, and John Hancock at the Granary site.

Northern Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis

American Robin, Turdus migratorius

Mount Auburn Cemetery, a short bus ride from Harvard Square in Cambridge, is quite different.  It is a quintessential creation of the Romantic Era, established in 1831.  The cemetery is 174 acres of beautiful free-form landscape in the rolling hills of suburban Boston.  Winding roads and meandering paths lead one among the graves, some simple, but other quite ornate reaching high toward the heavens in celebration of both life and death.  In this era imagination and emotion ruled; it was heart over head.  There are only a few defined rows of tombstones. Instead, most are loosely clustered in groves and glens throughout the spectacular arboretum.

Among the graves you will find Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, abolitionist Charles Sumner, author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, Julia Ward Howe, and the 19th century champion of the mentally ill, Dorothea Dix.  Ornithologists William Brewster and Ludlow Griscom have appropriately been laid to rest here among their cherished birds.  I also visited the modest stones marking the burial sites of my parents and father’s family.  They were Cambridge natives and Dad always hoped to be interred in Mount Auburn with them.  It’s easy to understand why.

Black-capped Chickadee, Poecile atricapillus

Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata

I have no guilt from birding among the dead.  It’s not macabre, but rather the activity is natural and even encouraged.  The landscape architects have purposely created an avian haven which has attracted 220 species.  Birders are commonly seen on the hallowed grounds among the 100,000 graves and bird walks are frequently scheduled.  Previously I have always birded here in the fall and so was anxious to walk the paths in April.  It was clearly too early to see evidence of migration, but that particular day was mild and sunny, sandwiched between the weekly storms that have been ravaging New England all season.

Halcyon Lake

White-breasted Nuthatch, Sitta carolinensis

I use to follow a map of the cemetery, but now I just wander, preferably along a shaded path away from the paved roads.  One can always find new areas to explore.  I even ran into a third large pond that I had somehow missed on multiple prior visits.

A Mt. Auburn Path

Early spring was not conducive to a long list of sightings.  I only saw 15 species on that day.  Juncos and Robins were the most common birds, found foraging among the crocuses and dead leaves.

Wild Turkey, Meleagris gallopavo

You’ll probably run across some Wild Turkeys in the cemetery.  In my home state of Maryland the turkeys are shy, but at Mount Auburn they are brazen.  One was reported to chase an innocent walker through the gravestones and mausoleums.  Luckily, they kept their distance from me.

Brown Creeper, Certhia americana

The “bird-of-the-day” was a Brown Creeper, aka American Tree Creeper.  I consider myself lucky to see this small bird about once a year, usually blending unobtrusively with the bark as it spirals up, always up, the tree.  The long tail braces the bird against the trunk, similar to a woodpecker, and the long curved wren-like bill is perfect for picking at the bark in pursuit of bugs.  I suspect this bird was likely a year-round resident of the cemetery.  If you’re interested, I previously posted a description of a fall bird walk through Mount Auburn and a history of this famous cemetery on 2/4/2015.  You can find it in the index or by using the search device.

View from the summit

I always finish by climbing to the top of Mount Auburn to check out the view of the Charles River and Boston skyline to the south.  It’s a great place for reflection.  The gravestones in the quiet urban oasis, the gorgeous landscape, and wildlife allow one to put things into perspective.

Red-tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis

At the summit you are eye-level with the tops of surrounding trees.  While scanning the canopy with binoculars I found myself face to face with a large Red-tailed Hawk, apparently checking me out as I was studying him.  Was he also in a mode of reflection among the gravestones, just like me?  I doubt it, but who knows?  More likely he was planning his next attack and meal, or perhaps hoping to attract a mate, or satisfying a more immediate concern, and content to leave the deeper reflections to Homo sapiens.

Chasing the Red-cockaded Woodpecker

RCW

 

Technically a birder does not chase a Red-cockaded Woodpecker (RCW), but rather finds the typical old growth pine forest that they prefer and waits; patiently waits.  A sighting is more a test of one’s patience than his endurance, but if you frequent the proper habitat and are lucky, you’ll find this small endangered woodpecker as Andy and I did this spring in southwest Florida.

Common Ground Dove, Columbina passerina

Our first attempt ended in a smoky failure.  E-bird was reporting a RCW in the Picayune State Forest near Naples several days in a row.  But we were taken aback as we pulled into its parking lot.  There had been an extensive controlled burn there since our prior visits and the air was currently smoke-filled, apparently from several new uncontrolled fires caused by recent lightning strikes. A ranger advised us to not venture too far from the car.  Our only sightings that day were a single Red-bellied Woodpecker and two Common Ground Doves, all ignoring the smoke.

Smoke and fire at Picayune SF

I had previously seen a RCW once but only had poor photos of it, taken in my early photography days when I still stubbornly clung to my point-and-shot camera.  I wanted better pictures and Andy yearned for a new life bird, so we headed to the 80,000 acre Babcock/Webb WMA, a good bet for seeing this bird about 75 miles north, near Punta Gorda.  It turned out to be a great decision and a five-woodpecker day.

Red-bellied Woodpecker, Melanerpes carolinus

RCW’s are finicky birds and this has cost them dearly.  Their numbers are down 99% from the 1880’s due to habitat loss in the eastern US.  They insist upon nesting in cavities in tall, old growth pines, preferably living long-needled trees, and trees standing in areas of limited understudy growth due to frequent fires.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Picoides borealis

The birds were declared endangered in the 1970’s and currently number only 14,000 survivors.  All the more reason for us to see it now before it shares the fate of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.  Visit Ralph Costa’s article for an in-depth discussion of the RCW and the efforts to save both it and its specific habitat.  http://scholarworks.sfasu.edu/forestry/426

Babcock/Webb WMA

RCW’s are nonmigratory.  When they find a suitable territory they stay put.  They also have an unusual social system.  An extended family composed of a breeding pair and several younger birds, usually males for some reason, stay together and all assist in incubation and feeding the new chicks.  The nests are all in cavities in living pines that have ample sap.  The birds create resin wells in the bark around the cavities to trap the sap, apparently to help ward off predators such as snakes.  The sticky yellow resin near the hole is a good indicator of an active RCW nest.

RCW cavity with yellow resin

Before you credit Andy and me as being hardy explorers, risking life and limb, trudging miles through snake infested forests looking for a rare bird, let me dispel those thoughts right now.  The rangers at Babcock/Webb have conveniently painted white rings around all the trees that contain RCW cavities and have even reinforced some of these holes with PVC pipe.  The designated trees are often just a short walk from the gravel road. All the birder has to do is plant himself amongst the circled trees and wait.

Downy Woodpecker, Picoides pubescens

The Red-cockaded Woodpecker was inappropriately named by Alexander Wilson in 1810.  A cockade was an ornament commonly placed on a hat in that era but the red cockade is rarely seen on the woodpecker.  Instead look for the large white cheek patch and the laddered black and white bars on the back. It does not have the elongated white stripe seen on the backs of the Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers.  It also has an unusual and distinct call that finally led us to our birds.

RCW

Even with all these aids the RCW’s remained elusive.  We stood among the white circled pines in several locations but saw nothing but a Black Vulture and a Great-crested Flycatcher.  I could tell that Andy was losing patience when the conversation turned from birds to politics, the stock market, and Syracuse University basketball.  I convinced him to try one more location, I think the same place I saw my first RCW several years ago.

Pileated Woodpecker, Dryocopus pileatus

I saw the bird fly in first.  It was clearly a small woodpecker but could not see it well among the pine needles.  I was able to get off a few poor shots with the camera but they were also inconclusive.  Andy insisted it was just a Downy, while I favored a RCW–wishful thinking.  We chased this bird several hundred yards into the pine stand, still debating its ID when Andy heard the characteristic call of an RCW coming from elsewhere.  The Downy had led us to not one, but two RCW’s, likely a breeding pair, foraging and singing in fine light.  Success!  Hundreds of photos later we were still enamored and loathe to leave.

A happy birder with new life bird at Babcock/Webb

Along with the RCW’s and Downy, we also saw a Northern Flicker, Red-bellied, and Pilated Woodpeckers, all in the same stand; five of the seven woodpeckers possible in the area.  We were only missing the Hairy and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker for a perfect woodpecker day.  On the triumphant trip home we could help debating who actually saw the RCW first.  No conclusion was reached, but both agreed that the RCW is an extraordinary bird and the chase was well worth it.

Birding Old Florida

Once a year we pile into Mel’s large SUV at dawn, grab a quick breakfast and coffee at Panera Bread, and head inland looking for birds in “Old Florida”.  Florida was the last of the southern states to be settled and civilized, in its case centripetally, from the east and west coasts first, and then gradually and progressively inland.  It’s in this sparsely populated inland region where one can still get a feel for what Florida once was in the 19th century and earlier.  You can also find the birds that thrive on the dry flat savanna and open spaces.

My birding colleagues

When I first started visiting South Florida in the 1970’s development along the coasts only extended perhaps 5 miles inland, whereas now one has to travel 15 or 20 miles inland to leave the strip malls, gated communities, and golf courses behind.  The coastal development of the 19th and early 20th century was spurred on by the construction of the 275 mile Tamiami Trail, (Tampa to Miami), begun in 1915, and the Florida East Coast Railway (St. Augustine to Miami, and later all the way to Key West), by Henry Flagler in 1885.  Florida’s history is a colorful account of land management and mismanagement, with the legal disputes still occurring today.

Eastern Meadowlark, Sturnella magna

This history of Florida is skillfully portrayed in the historical novel “A Land Remembered” by Patrick D. Smith.  It describes three generations of a pioneer family and their struggle to survive on a difficult frontier.  You’d think you were reading about the Wild West instead of the Sunshine State.  It’s a tale of cattle drives, crackers, rustlers, range wars, dust storms, hurricanes, vigilante justice, and Native Americans unfairly confined to reservations.  The narrative begins just after the Civil War and ends with the glass and steel skyscrapers of modern Miami Beach.

Osceola Turkey, Meleagris gallopavo osceola

Our birding technique for this trip was four sets of eyes scanning the, roadside ditches, wires, and shrubs at 30 MPH, calling out for Mel to pullover for any interesting bird.  Then silently lower the window for an initial shot and kill the engine to mitigate vibration if the bird was particularly photogenic.

Belted Kingfisher, Ceryle alcyon

You were lucky if the sighting was on your side of the SUV.  If not, after a courtesy few minutes you could try to open your door for a shot, hoping the bird would not spook.  They usually did, especially the frustrating American Kestrel which seemed to know the limits of my 400mm lens.

The big sky, flat grasslands, and grazing cattle could easily be Oklahoma or Texas, that is, except for the alligators lurking in each watering hole and the tropical Florida flora.  The roadside ditches and wet sinkholes were good bets to find Kingfishers Egrets, Herons, Cormorants, Spoonbills, and Anhinga, but we were more interested in seeing and photographing Caracara, Sandhill Cranes, Meadowlarks, and maybe even a Snail Kite.

Crested Caracara, Caracara cheriway

Almost at the center of the state, but slightly southwest of Lake Okeechobee you’ll find our final destination, the Dinner Island Ranch.  This is a 21,000 acre wildlife management area of uplands and wetlands with scattered palm and oak hammocks festooned with Spanish moss.

American White Pelicans, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

Calusa Indians frequented the region from 800 AD until the 17th century, but we saw nary a soul on the day of our visit.  Make sure you have a full tank of gas, food, and water for your visit, and don’t get stuck in a muddy sinkhole or sandpit as Mel has learned the hard way.  Tow trucks won’t readily respond to this remote location.

Dinner Island Ranch

This was the start of the breeding season for the Eastern Meadowlarks and they were out in great numbers singing for any potential mate.  They were the consensus photogenic bird-of-the-day, seemingly posing for us on every fence post, as if we were a mate option.  The striking yellow bird in the bright sun gave us dozens of great low-ISO shots, some of which you’ll see here.

Eastern Meadowlark

Add to them the pair of Crested Caracaras on the telephone pole, the Cattle Egrets faithfully following the herd, an unusual flyover of a large flock of White Pelicans, and the engaging banter of fellow birders, and you have a satisfying day in Old Florida.

Cattle Egrets, Bubulcus ibis

To top it off, Mel has a great knack for finding the perfect, out-of-the-way human watering hole to end our day.  Next time you’re in Immokalee check out the “Roma In Havana Ristorante” for great Italian and Cuban cuisine.  It was our chance to imbibe, tally our bird list (46 species), and make plans for next year’s visit to Old Florida.