His Eye Is On The Sparrow…

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow, Melospiza melody

I remember sitting in a revival meeting at church as a youngster, when this especially large woman with a full, deep and rich voice belted out this song, “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me“.  By the end, and after multiple verses, she had the congregation nearly in tears, grateful that our Lord is watching out for each of us.  But I was thinking about that insignificant sparrow, apparently the songwriter’s example of the lowest life form–if God watches that little brown bird, he surely keeps an eye on Homo sapiens.  The LBJ’s (little brown jobs) took it on the chin again; they just don’t get any respect.

White-throated Sparrow

White-throated Sparrow, Zonotrichia albicollis

One of the ways you can identify a birder as an expert, is the way they handle the sparrows.  At first glance they all look alike and the novice birder feels overwhelmed in differentiating their subtle color patterns, shapes, sizes, tail length, etc.  When you are birding and come across another birder, they often ask, “have you seen anything interesting?”, meaning a hawk, eagle, colorful warbler, etc.  There is one older, gentleman birder I often meet on the trail and he asks, “have you seen any sparrows?”  He is the local sparrow expert and relishes these ID challenges.

Chipping Sparrow

Chipping Sparrow, Spizella passerina

The English colonists to the New World, used to seeing their House and Eurasian Tree Sparrows of the family Passeridae, started calling the New World LBJ’s “sparrows”, despite obvious differences.  Our sparrows are part of the family Emberizidae, and clearly distinct from the finch-like birds of Europe.

Swamp Sparrow

Swamp Sparrow, Melospiza georgiana

Sparrow ID is tough not just because of the bird similarities but also due to their secretive behavior, diving into the shrubs and giving the frustrated birder only a fleeting glimpse. Thats why the sparrow experts say to initially look at behavior, size, shape, tail length, habitat, etc. before the field marks.  Luckily during breeding season they tend to perch in the open and sing, creating photographic opportunities but in other seasons its more difficult to get a good look or photo.

Seaside Sparrow

Seaside Sparrow, Ammodramus nelson

My first sighting of a Seaside Sparrow was near Port Mahon on the Delaware shore.  A recent article said that was the place to find this bird, actually giving directions to a specific pot-holed road and marsh.  I took the 90 minute drive not really expecting much, and my doubts were initially confirmed when I parked the truck and walked the road, swatting mosquitoes.  But before leaving I tried using the I-Bird Pro recording–it worked like a charm with birds rising out of the marsh like spontaneous generation.  Within seconds several curious birds were posing for great shots, right along the road.  http://www.ibird.com

Field Sparrow

Field Sparrow, Spizella pusilla

An expert suggested that sparrow ID is “easier” if you learn one or two common birds in your area first, and compare new birds to them.  For me that would be the Song Sparrow with its streaky feathers, long tail, and breast spot, and the smaller Chipping Sparrow with its plain breast and rufous crown.  Both also have distinct songs, usually heard before the birds are seen.  I would also add that photo-birding is a big help here.  Take a lot of pictures, even if they’re not art shots, and make the ID from your guide books in the comfort of home.

Brewer's Sparrow

Brewer’s Sparrow, Spizella breweri

A trip to the Arizona desert yielded the Brewer’s and Black-throated Sparrows for me but the latter’s picture did not make the cut for this post.  The White-crowned also seem much more abundant in the West.

White-crowned Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrys

Back to the song for those interested.  It was written in 1905, with music by Charles Gabriel and lyrics by Civilla Martin.  It has become a staple of American gospel music since then and has been recorded by multiple artists including Ethel Waters, Mahalia Jackson, Marvin Gaye, and even Michael Jackson.  Whitney Houston’s rendition was released after her untimely death in 2012.  Here’s one of the stanzas and the refrain:

“Let not your heart be troubled,” His tender word I hear,

And resting on his goodness, I lose my doubts and fears;

Though by the path He leadeth, but one step I may see;

His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

Refrain:  I sing because I’m happy

I sing because I’m free,

For His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

Birding the Grey Lady, Nantucket, Massachusetts

American Oystercatcher at Great Point, photo by S.M. Sternick

American Oystercatcher at Great Point, photo by S.M. Sternick

It’s my good fortune to have dear friends with a home on Nantucket, and we have just returned from another week with them on their beautiful island.  These friends are also birding and photography enthusiasts and have taught me much.  For those who don’t know, Nantucket, or the Grey Lady, is a 48 square mile island in the Atlantic, 30 miles off the coast of Cape Cod.  Its “greyness” likely originates from the common morning fog or possibly the weathered shingles on almost all the buildings. The island’s rich maritime history is well known, but its birding is also phenomenal.  “A picture is worth a thousand words” so this post will be a small portfolio, sharing the sights from this late summer excursion and some earlier visits.

Brant Point

Brant Point (click on any picture for zoom)

Bobolink at Bartlett's Farm

Bobolink at Bartlett’s Farm

Nantucket Harbor

Nantucket Harbor

Peregrine Falcon at Great Point

Peregrine Falcon at Great Point

Double-crested Cormorant at Great Point

Double-crested Cormorant at Great Point

Madaket

Madaket

Common Tern

Common Tern

IMG_7233

Golden-crowned Kinglet at Hummock Pond

Great Point Light

Great Point Light

Common Tern with catch, Great Point

Common Tern with catch, Great Point

Foggy morning at Cisco Beach

Foggy morning at Cisco Beach

American Goldfinch at Bartlett's Farm

American Goldfinch at Bartlett’s Farm

Sankaty

Sankaty

Sanderlings

Sanderlings

Sunset over the moors, from Altar Rock

Sunset over the moors, from Altar Rock

Savannah Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow

Grey Seal off Great Point

Grey Seal off Great Point

Approaching storm at Great Point

Approaching storm at Great Point

Red Breasted Nuthatch at Hummock Pond

Red Breasted Nuthatch at Hummock Pond

Fog rolling in at Siasconset

Fog rolling in at Siasconset

Herring Gull with lunch

Herring Gull with lunch

Madaket

Madaket

Northern Harrier, photo by Andy Sternick

Northern Harrier at Smith Point, photo by Andy Sternick

Madaket Harbor

Madaket Harbor

Author and Andy Sternick

Author and Andy Sternick

A visitor to Nantucket is immediately struck by the vast undulating moors in the central island with isolated ponds, leading to unspoiled marshes and beaches.  The town has its countless photo-ops, but I prefer to wander the remainder of the island, especially after Labor Day when the crowds have thinned.  Various conservation organizations have acquired and preserved close to half of the island’s land.  Birding with friends with local knowledge allows one to visit countless habitats, some down dirt and sandy roads, to view native birds as well as migrants, seeking respite on the island before moving further south.  My Nantucket life list grew to 90 this week with the additions of a Black Tern and Least Sandpiper.  Keep in mind that the Linda Loring Nature Foundation runs weekly birding trips and a Birding Festival, this year on October 16-18, 2015.  Its a great chance to bird with local guides with knowledge of this gem in the Atlantic. http://www.llnf.org

Tyrannus tyrannus, The Eastern Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird-0378

In my last post I declared the Osprey as the “king bird” of my yard on the Chesapeake Bay.  Since then I received some guff from another corner. The smaller, tuxedoed, bird that formally lays claim to the moniker Kingbird, can back this up with the Latin genus and species of Tyrannus tyrannus and its aggressive behavior toward any other bird, big or small.  You’d normally expect the “king” to be large predator like a buteo or maybe an eagle, not a smallish bird that eats flies.  But despite its size this bird is clearly the territorial policeman.

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Breeding pair

As flycatchers go this one is relatively large.  I’ve been thinking about it these days as it’s about to take off for South America.  We’ll miss its antics.  As the yard’s enforcer it will attack any bird flying over its territory including the much larger crows, herons, and even other stray kingbirds.  Even the Blue Jays shrink from the king.  Luckily the Osprey are fish-eaters and not a direct threat to the Kingbirds.  They seem to tolerate each other in the yard, even with nearby nests, and both leave for the south and return in the spring at about the same time.

Eastern Kingbird-9525

Even though this bird is not a visitor to feeders and bird baths, it is relatively easy to spot.  Look especially for the white narrow band at the tip of the tail.  Rarely you may glimpse a small red crown feather when the bird is displaying.  Like a king, this birds perches majestically in plain sight on trees and shrubs scanning for bugs.  Its efficient aerial hawking for bugs usually results in his return to the same branch, time after time.  This trait allows the observer, and especially the photographer time to set up the perfect shot.  This bird is not like the elusive warbler that will not sit still.

Eastern Kingbird-6645

The Eastern Kingbird, like other Tyrant flycatchers, is in the suboscine group of passerines that have a primitive syrinx and resultant simple song repertoire, likely in-bred rather than learned.

Eastern Kingbird-4748

Unfortunately, all its behavior is not regal.  The Kingbird is an intra-specific brood parasite.  Apparently the stress of wearing the crown occasionally gets just too great and the burden of feeding another mouth too much to bear, and she will lay an egg in the nest of another Kingbird.  At least it’s another Kingbird nest and only a sporadic trait, but this, after making such a scene of defending its own nest and territory seems so hypocritical.

Northern Cardinal, (the post just needed a little more color)

Northern Cardinal, (the post just needed a little more color)

This fall, when these birds head south, they’ll really go all the way, leaving the continent for the warmth of the Amazon River Basin.  Their behavior also changes in S. America where they become much more gregarious, living in flocks.  Even their diet changes to include fruit.  When they return next spring, there is a good chance that it will be the same bird, meeting the same mate, and perching on the same tree.  The reign continues.

Osprey, The Fish Hawk

Pandion haliaetus

Large regal raptor

Head largely white

Black mask through eyes

Binocular sight.

Molted dark brown necklace

Body patterned brown and white

Hovers over water

Beating wings in flight.

Black patches in crooks of wings

Brownish black back

Wingspan up to six feet

Long sharp claws attack.

Plunges feet first for fish

Perch or shad to snag

Adjusts head first in talons

To reduce wind drag.

Makes sharp annoyed whistles

Yewk yewk or cheep cheep

Or when nest is threatened

Frenzied cheereek cheereek!

by Christopher Rudolph

1993-1

Tucked away in the far corner of Wyoming, about 50 miles northwest of Cody, and just over Dead Indian Pass, you’ll find the Sunlight Basin and the 7-D Ranch, a western paradise.  This small dude ranch is owned and operated by the Dominick family since the 1950’s and was the site of our two most memorable family vacations in 1993 and 2000.  http://www.7dranch.com

A little chaffed and saddle sore by mid-week, I jumped at the chance to go birding on foot with David Dominick, and add some western birds to my life list.  Hiking along a small stream bed in the shadow of the majestic Absorka Mountains and between sightings of soaring Golden Eagles, Clark’s Nutcrackers, Mountain Bluebirds, and Sagebrush Sparrows, I learned that David was not only an exceptional birder and President of the Denver Audubon Society in 1984-6, but also a key player in the saving of the Osprey and other large raptors.

Golden Eagle

Golden Eagle

DDT was first used as a pesticide to protect troops and civilians from the insect carriers of malaria and typhus during the second half of WWII.  It was found to be highly effective and was eventually used extensively in agriculture after the war.  By 1962 and the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring the effects on the populations of birds, and especially large raptors was becoming obvious.

Peregrine Falcon

Peregrine Falcon

By the process of “bioconcentration” the persistent breakdown products of DDT move up the food chain, accumulating in fatty tissues in increasing concentrations, eventually contaminating fish, the sole food source of the Osprey.  DDT does not kill the raptors outright but insidiously alters the bird’s calcium metabolism in a way that results in thin eggshells, unable to withstand the weight of the incubating parent.

Parent and chick

Parent and chick (click on any picture for full screen)

David Dominick received his B.A. in anthropology from Yale in 1960 and law degree from the University of Colorado in 1966.  In 1971 President Nixon appointed him to the newly formed EPA as Assistant Administrator of Hazardous Materials Control, and he was instrumental in the Congressional passage of laws banning DDT and other predator poisons and pesticides in 1972.  Without this intervention the Osprey was well on its way to extinction.

Osprey 5776

Pandion haliaetus

The Osprey (Latin derivation meaning “bone crusher”) is found on all continents except Antarctica.  It is the sole member of the genus Pandion–there is no other bird like it.  It is the only raptor that feeds almost exclusively on fish and therefore is always found in proximity to water, either salty or fresh.  It has evolved specialized adaptations for this aquatic life.  The feathers are heavy and oily to shed water, and also rank.  Its been said you can easily identify a stray feather as being from an Osprey, just by its smell.  The wings are over-sized for the weight of the bird to supply the added lift needed to haul the fish out of the water. The feet have raspy underpads and the outside talon can project backwards to effectively grasp the slippery fish.

Osprey-3584

In my yard on the Chesapeake Bay they are the largest, loudest, “king bird”, monopolizing the dock and waterfront from March to late September.  They arrive from the south each March, almost exactly when the migrating Canda Geese head north, and leave in the fall just before the geese return for the winter.  There are several active platform and channel marker nests nearby, giving constant Kodak moments of flyovers, hoverings, plunges, nestlings, etc.  They cover my boats and docks with fishbones and guano, and break the weather vane of my sailboat, but so what–the spectacle is worth it.

Will this stick be acceptable?

Will this stick be acceptable?

The nest building activity is particularly fascinating.  These birds mate for life but do not hang out together in their southern wintering grounds.  But each spring the male and female meet again, back at the same nest, make repairs, mate, and raise another family.  The larger female bird with the darker necklace is clearly in charge.  I’ve witnessed a male bringing in the “perfect” large stick for the nest, only to have the female reject it and kick it overboard when the male was not looking.  The second year birds spend their summer practicing nest building piling loose sticks and debris on every available surface, including the deck of my neighbor’s boat, but won’t mate and raise their own family until the following summer.

OPAL

OPAL (Osprey packing a lunch)

The Osprey usually lay 3 eggs, however the hatching is asynchronous setting up a chick rivalry with the older and larger chick usually winning the fight for food.  The youngest chick is often pushed out of the nest and does not survive.  The parents do nothing to intervene in this survival of the fittest.  The chicks fledge in July, practice flying, diving, and fishing, and then follow the parents south in the fall.

Osprey on my mast

Osprey on my mast

If you’ve ever driven the Atlantic coast of Florida in the winter you’ll notice the abundance of “snow bird” license plates from New York, New Jersey, and New England.  When you drive the opposite Gulf coast of Florida the licenses are from Michigan, Minnesota, and Ohio.  Tagging studies of migrating Osprey surprisingly shows this same distribution with Atlantic coast birds ending up in Eastern Florida with some continuing to the West Indies and the northern part of South America.  The Mid West birds like the Gulf coast, with the more adventurous going to Colombia and Brazil.

Hovering

Hovering

This is a success story for the Osprey with their numbers growing yearly.  Each summer as I watch the hovering Fish Hawk see its prey from 50 feet, plunge head first toward the river, bring its legs and talons forward just before impact, and resurface with a flopping perch, I remember our summers in Wyoming, birding with David Dominick,  and his part in ensuring the successful propagation of this unique bird.