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.