“Slim Fingers Beckon”

Common Yellowthroat, Geothlypis trichas


Most birders have a sentinel patch or first sighting that opened up the world of birds for them.  It may have been a solitary moment in the wild or just a momentary glance out the kitchen window.  It might have been the inspiration of a gifted bird guide or perhaps the emulation of a parent or friend.  In any case, I’ve found that many birders fondly remember that moment.

from Arch Merrill’s “Slim Fingers Beckon”

For me this moment occurred some 50 years ago while traipsing through the fields adjacent to our family cottage on the shore of Keuka Lake in Upstate New York.  What is that secretive bright yellow bird with the black mask that suddenly popped up from the grass, took a look at me, and quickly dove back into cover?  This was not a usual feeder or yard bird, but something entirely new.  Petersen’s bird guide clued me in; it was the Common Yellowthroat, clearly illustrated on that page.  I was hooked and a birder was born.

The name of this post is the title of Arch Merrill’s venerable and folksy tale of these Finger Lakes, written in 1951.  The six major lakes from west to east are Canandaigua, Keuka, Seneca, Cayuga, Owasco, and Skaneateles.  Each are long, narrow, and deep, oriented north and south, and cover a large area of central New York State.  Old Iroquois legend claims the “fingers” were formed when the Great Spirit pressed his hand onto the gentle rolling hills, blessing this land for the Iroquois Nation.  Our current scientific lore describes their origin from the gouging, retreating glaciers of the last Ice Age.

Baltimore Oriole, Icterus galbula

Today these lake are lined with cottages.  Some are palatial, but most, like ours, are more modest gathering sites for generations of families.  The clear lakes are dotted with pleasure craft and the bordering hills are adorned with vineyards and numerous small wineries.  There are quiet shaded glens and impressive waterfalls.  For a few short months of every year there is no place that I can think of that is more suitable for pleasant living.

Cedar Waxwing, Bombycilla cedrorum

I was beckoned back to the region this September for the 40th reunion of my medical school class in Syracuse.  The cottage was perfect lodging for the occasion and gave me a chance to spend time with my New Mexican brother who was also responding to the lure of our childhood home.  He, in fact, had trailed an old classic sailboat across the continent to renew our joys of tacking back and forth between Keuka’s shores.

A classic New Mexican beauty, Classico novus mexicanus

There are two 50-75 acre fields adjacent to our cottage.  One is mowed yearly and the other has been left untouched for 40 years.  These represent a laboratory model of ecological succession, comparing the results of a yearly disturbance with the progressive succession of plant life in an old undisturbed field.  By September the mowed field had become an array of typical grasses, weeds, and wildflowers with Queen Anne’s Lace, Goldenrod, and Batchelor’s Button most prominent.  We have observed the succession in the other field from these initial weeds and grasses to later clumps of small Sumac, Cedar, and Pine.  Years later we now have crowded stands of tall trees including Sweet Gum, Cottonwood, Birch, and Red Cedar, all intertwined with Poison Ivy and Virginia Creeper.  These fields and the dirt road which divides them are my sentinel patch.

Mowed field to the left of road and unmowed to the right

“Field” after 40 years of no mowing or disturbance

Over these 50 years the patch list has grown to a modest 56 avian species.  Birding was slow last week but my non-birder brother reported seeing a Golden Eagle.  I wondered if it may have been an immature Bald.  I got a brief distant look at the large dark bird and it was clearly an eagle, but the exact ID was still indefinite; maybe it was a Golden.  The hedgerow along the dirt road did yield a Wilson’s Warbler with its fading black cap, a new bird for the patch.

Wilson’s Warbler, Wilsonia pusilla

There was standing room only at the feeder with Black-capped Chickadees, American Gold and House Finches, and Downey Woodpeckers most numerous.  I heard but did not see a White-breasted Nuthatch.  Its been several years since I spotted the sentinel Common Yellowthroat there.  It seems that neither field habitat is conducive to its needs.  It all makes sense; field succession begets wildlife and bird succession.  Nothing stays the same.

Downy Woodpecker, Picoides pubescens

They say that you can never go home.  That’s not entirely true as long as you allow some inevitable newness to creep in among the vestiges of the old. Just as fields undergo succession and medical students age, our childhood haunts and homes will never be exactly as we remember them.  The cottage is a perfect example of this.  My sister and her husband have “modernized” it, while faithfully preserving some past structures, furniture and pictures as a reminder of 60 years of family history.  It remains a lure for us to come home and for future generations to enjoy.  The lakes, fields and hills continue to beckon the birds as well as us crazies that yearn to observe and photograph the same species, every year, over and over again.

Don’t You Wish You Could Molt?

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus


The late August birding in my patch was slow, very slow.  When that happens you can always resort to photographing butterflies, moths and plants, but where were all the birds?  There were several possible explanations.  Fighting over territories, mates, and nesting sites were yesterday’s battles.  The birds are now more interested in fattening up for winter or migration.  Almost all the new birds had already fledged while the swallows had left the patch and were flocking inland prior to their trip south.  The maniacal keeehahh of the perching Red-tailed Hawk may have had something to do with the quiet, but it was more a threat to the squirrels and rabbits who were having a banner year, than to the songbirds.

Red-tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis

Then it occurred to me.  Maybe they were molting, molting in private, hiding in their embarrassing and more vulnerable states.  I don’t know about you, but molting has always confused me.  Consider this post as a back-to-school course, Molting 101; my attempt to shed some light on this critical avian process.

Tiger Swallowtail, Pterourus glaucus

American Painted Lady, Vanessa virginiensis

Canada Thistle, Cirsium arvense

Feathers are dead appendages with no innervation or blood flow.  They are an amazing and complex adaptation for flight, insulation, and display, but their fragility necessitates periodic replacement.  They can be preened, cleaned, and rearranged, but they cannot be repaired.  Every feather has a rudimentary replacement in its follicle waiting for a stimulus to grow and push out the worn, frayed, precursor.  The simple annual cycle for birds is to breed, molt, and survive the winter or migration, and then start the same cycle next year, all over again.

Magnolia Warbler, Dendroica magnolia

Two sets of terminology are used to describe molting and the resultant plumages.  This adds to my confusion.  The traditional, used since 1900, describes the adult’s two plumages as “winter” and “breeding”.  Shortcomings of this system occur since many of our birds winter and may breed in South America where it is actually summer.  And other young birds in breeding plumage may not actually breed for several years.  Thus, in 1959 the second and preferred terminology was proposed.  In this system adult birds molt into their “basic” plumage just after breeding, and then in spring will molt into their “alternative” plumage, prior to breeding.

Verdin, Auriparus flaviceps

But it gets more complicated as each bird species has its own molting schedule and various numbers of yearly molts depending on its lifestyle.  Sedentary arboreal birds may stick to the standard molting script, whereas birds attempting long difficult migrations, or those living in harsh environments such as a desert or the Arctic, may undertake more frequent molts.  Birds wintering in cold climates may add up to 50% more feathers to their basic plumage compared to the alternate garb.  All this for added insulation and winter survival.

Chestnut-sided Warbler, Dendroica pensylvanica

Then there are the juveniles who molt out of their natal down into a juvenile plumage before fledging, and later molt into the adult basic plumage.  The progression to adult may occur in the first year for many, or may be spread over several years as seen in the gulls. They molt into first, second, and third winter, and for some even fourth winter plumages before obtaining the basic plumage.

Black-throated Green Warbler, Dendroica virens

Birds have evolved two major molting strategies.  Ducks, loons, grebes and others are called synchronous molters and get it done, all feathers, all at once.  This results in a month of flightless vulnerability often spent on an isolated pond or lake away from predators, but does not interfere with flight or life for the remainder of the year.  The other strategy is to gradually molt a few feathers at a time in a defined reproducible sequence, specific for each species.  This method has a minimal impact on flight and other routines of life.

American Goldfinch, Carduelis tristis

Molting is one of the most energetically costly events in a bird’s life.  It generally, therefore, does not overlap with the other demanding activities of reproduction and migration.  There are some examples, however, when molting does occur simultaneously with egg laying and incubation, but in these circumstances the molting process is much prolonged.  Very little is known about what factors trigger a molt.  A single lost feather is rather quickly replaced, but what triggers a generalized molt?  One theory suggests it is related to the changing length of daylight.

American Wigeon, Anas americana

My philosophy for understanding molting, and just about everything else is “KISS” (Keep It Simple Stupid).  So with that in mind, just remember that most of our birds have their most important molt in late summer, after breeding, replacing all their flight and body feathers with basic plumage in preparation for either winter or migration.  They will also undergo a second, partial, prenuptial molt in spring, often into a striking, colorful alternative plumage, enhancing their breeding opportunities.

American Robin, Turdus migratorius (in juvenile plumage)

Don’t you wish you could molt, or maybe you do?  I keep one basic and practical wardrobe, only requiring some minor cleaning and preening, and the alternative wardrobe for “date night” or other special occasions.  This latter plumage, like the birds, is colorful and designed to impress and turn heads.  Don’t I wish.