Just Another Goose Post

I’m a bit of a schizophrenic birder when it comes to policing my patch on the Chesapeake Bay. In the front yard my feeders attract birds, (and squirrels) and supply nonstop entertainment through the window as I sit at the desk and write this. These are the typical passerines you all see, cardinals, jays, finches, chickadees, and titmice, with an occasional woodpecker or nuthatch thrown in to make it more interesting. On the waterside of the house however, it is very different. I’ve declared war on the dock, boat, and swimming pool desecrators, and those large birds that feed off my grass. We’re talking gulls, terns, and osprey, on the dock and those pesky Canada Geese fouling the pool and denuding the lawn.

Tufted Titmouse, Baeolophus atricristatus

A real birder and naturalist would welcome them all and put up with the guano and a mudflat for a lawn, as he or she observed our avian friends. They would tell me that I have invaded the their space and that I should be thankful that the birds even allow me a home on the bay. Not me. Recently my warfare has escalated and I believe that I have won, at least the latest battle.

Laughing Gull, Larus atricilla

It’s election season and time to exercise our democratic right to vote. It’s a time for patriotism and flag waving, or in my case, banner waving. For less than $20 you can purchase red, white, and blue, star-spangled windsocks. With perhaps a 10% split for patriotic fervor, and 90% for bird deterrence, I’ve hung them on poles up and down the dock and on the sailboat stays. It has helped somewhat, at least when the wind’s blowing. I still haven’t solved the flyover bombardment, though.

Carolina Chickadee, Poecile carolinensis

My greater victory has been against those nasty Canada Geese. James Michener in his classic novel “Chesapeake”, waxed poetic about these birds, mating for life, and traveling great distances from the arctic tundra to grace us with their temporary presence every fall and winter. That was before the geese learned that migration was not everything it was cracked up to be; why not just stay put on Steve’s lawn all year, get fat and happy, and raise a big family of sedentary resident goslings. The number of these non-migrators has skyrocketed and I hear grumbling even from my nature loving neighbors. After spending big bucks to reseed the lawn this fall I decided to try a new approach.

Canada Goose, Branta canadensis

On the way home from Blackwater Refuge in Dorchester County, a flat, rural land of large farms and fields, I noticed huge, perhaps 6 feet tall, Bald Eagles scattered throughout a field. From a distance they looked real, but obviously were not, at least to this discerning human. They were tall plywood birds, presumably erected to keep out the geese and save the crops. Why not give this a try at home?

A trip to Loew’s for 3 sheets of 2×4 foot plywood, a few cans of paint, and after the resurrection of some latent artistic skills (with a big assist from the spouse), I had three Bald Eagle decoys ready to go. My only blunder was the way too small feet and talons that can be corrected on later editions. These likenesses will not upstage Audubon, but everyone has to start somewhere.

Previously my typical day involved 3 or more mad dashes out the door, waving my arms to shoo away the 50-75 feeding geese, and even a few that were bold enough to lounge around the pool closer to the house. They would just honk a little, briefly fly away by making a wide circle, and return as soon as I went indoors. The recent addition of the migrating crowd to the resident geese made things even worse. But now, 3 weeks after the erection of the Bald Eagles I have not had a single Canada Goose land! They fly over, look, and keep going. Now the question is how long can I keep this deception going.

Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus

My first step has been to occasionally move the eagles to keep the geese off balance. Unfortunately my bluebirds are threatening to blow my cover. This week these beautiful passerines have been perching on the eagles’ heads and soiling my paint job. Zippity-doo-dah. I’m afraid the geese will notice the boldness of these little birds and finally realize that they’ve been duped. How is it that a little bluebird brain has figured this all out but the much larger goose brain has not. Size is not everything when it comes to birdbrains. I’m considering marketing these effective decoys, so don’t tell anyone about my invention. Maybe it will finance my retirement. If you check on-line you’ll see that people spend big bucks on devices to scare off geese.

Today we had another unexpected benefit from the decoys. A beautiful adult Bald Eagle landed near one of his plywood brothers to have a closer look. What was he thinking? Was he amazed at this amazon-sized relative, intimidated, or perhaps just being a critic of my paint job? I don’t think I’ve ever been closer to one of our national birds and grabbed this shot through the window.

Bald Eagle

It was all so patriotic with waving red, white, and blue banners, real and fake eagles on the lawn, election day fast approaching, and finally, beautiful green grass. I’ll permit the geese to also admire it all, but only from the neighbor’s yard.

Blue Birds

Bluebird at Night by Ember

When you get the viral blues, when you think you are actually living “Ground Hog Day” every morning when the alarm goes off,  just when the lockdown has you at the end of your rope, you can really benefit, as I did, from the artwork of a 5 year-old.  She knew I was a “bird person” and possibly sensed my blues, so she sent me “Bluebird at Night”.  It worked.  The blog is back.

Eastern Bluebird, Sialia sialis

We have four relatively common birds that share the striking blue plumage, but all with slightly differing hues:  the Indigo Bunting, Blue Jay, Blue Grosbeak, and Eastern Bluebird.  I have shared the physics of the blue coloration with you in prior posts, but it’s an interesting story and worth repeating.

Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata

The coloration of a bird’s feathers can be caused either by pigments, or the actual structure of the feather itself.  Pigments are ingested by the bird and become part of the feathers.  The depth of color reflects the amount of carotenoids, melanin, and other pigments in the diet and may indicate the health of the bird.  The color we perceive is the reflected light from the visible spectrum of color; the other wavelengths are absorbed by the pigment molecule.  The color reflected by pigments is not dependent on the position of the viewer.

Florida Scrub Jay, Aphelocoma coerulescens

There is no blue pigment for the birds.  Any blue pigment that the bird eats is destroyed by the digestive process.  Instead, their blueness is dependent upon a complex structure of layered keratin and air pockets within the feather that reflects the blue light in the spectrum.  This structurally dependent color may vary with the positioning of the observer.  The selective advantage for the intensity of the male’s color might reflect the preference of the female in choosing a healthy male, or may possibly just indicate her appreciation of his beauty.

Indigo Bunting, Passerina cyanea

Most birder’s remember the day they first saw the intense color of the Indigo Bunting, the bird most likely singing near the treetop at the edge of a wood.  Oohs and ahhs, and a double check in the guidebook to confirm.  For me it was a decade ago at the Corkscrew Swamp in Florida, at least as recorded in my eBird, however, in reality I think it was during childhood in Upstate New York.  It’s a blue like none other; difficult to describe.  The much drabber color of the female, as with other dimorphic birds, indicates that she does much of the clandestine nesting chores.  It’s interesting to note that sexual dimorphism is much more prevalent among migrating birds such as the Indigo Bunting, whereas it is much less common among non-migrators.

Blue Jay

The Blue Jay is an under appreciated beauty, perhaps due to its obnoxious loud call or aggressive behavior.  The bird is also one of the smarter of the Aves.  They often hide their food for later in the day or season.  Some ornithologists claim that when a Blue Jay notices another bird watching him hide the food, he will return a few minutes later when the other bird is no longer watching, and move the cache to a safer place.  That takes quite a bit of reasoning and brain power.

Western Scrub Jay, Aphelocoma californica

Eurasian Jay, Garrulus glandarius

David Sibley, the famous birder and author, comments on the striking white and blue coloration and suggests that the bright, white flashes of the wings serve as a distraction to an attacking predator.  He also says that the tuft and resultant shape of the jay’s head confuses the attacker who can’t figure out which way the jay is looking.  These predators are not so bright.  You can add the Scrub Jay, Steller’s Jay, and even the Eurasian Jay for the small patch of blue in its wing, to the collection, but these birds are not found in this neck of the woods.

Blue Grosbeak, Passerina caerulea

The Blue Grosbeak is closely related to the jays and buntings.  It also is a highly dimorphic migrator with the males displaying a pleasing mixture of blue and chestnut.  It likes the fields and brushy habitats near water and is a rarity much further north than lower Pennsylvania.  That accounts for me not noticing this bird until I left Upstate New York and moved to Maryland.  It’s primarily a field bird and rarely visits our yard.

Eastern Bluebird, Sialis sialis

I saved the Eastern Bluebird for last.  It also has a unique shade of blue as you all know.  The bird is ubiquitous around here, probably the most common bird in the yard.  What a comeback!  The contrast of the orange breast, caused by pigments, with the structural blue is wonderful and unmistakable as the bird flashes by from bird house to bird bath and back again.  The species is a dimorphic, short distance, migrator, but our winters have become so mild that the local birds grace us with their color all year long. I would be remiss in not mentioning for my Coloradan friend John, that the same vibrant blue occurs in his Mountain and Western Bluebirds as well.

Western Bluebird, Sialia mexicana

So just remember, “It’s the truth, it’s actual, everything is satisfactual”.  Mister Bluebird is on your shoulder.  “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay.”  I hope you all have an Ember in your lives as a reminder that better days are just ahead.

Key West

Brown Pelican, Pelicans occidentalis

 

John James Audubon, Henry Flagler, Ernest Hemingway, Harry Truman, and Joseph Long are all notable people, each with a different life story that brought them to Key West, at our nation’s southernmost point.  My recent trip to the island allowed me to reflect on each of them, relax with family in this small corner of paradise, and do a little birding.

Sunset in the Keys

Key West sits at the literal end of the road, the last stop.  The remote tropical setting has attracted travelers, including writers, drifters, gawkers, and pirates for years.  In the mid 19th century it was actually the largest city in sparsely settled Florida. I had previously driven the spectacular highway bridging key after key, but last month we opted for the high speed ferry from Marco Island.

J.J. Audubon’s Osprey

The Audubon House in Key West is somewhat of a misnomer, as historians have learned that the famous birder spent a few days at this site in 1832, but the house itself was built after his short stay.  Be that as it may, the beautifully restored period house is filled with Audubon’s phenomenal artwork and the museum shop on the grounds gives one the opportunity to own one of his prints.  Notables of his Florida birds includes the Osprey, Brown Pelican, Snowy Egret, and the Spoonbill, which he called a Roseate Curlew.  Remember, he birded in the pre-binocular era, shooting his birds before posing them dead for his paintings.

John James Audubon

One theme of the history of the Florida Keys is the periodic hurricanes that devastate the low-lying islands, and man’s persistent, almost fool hearted rebuilding, in preparation for the next inevitable onslaught.  Henry Flagler’s railroad from Miami to Key West was the epitome of that persistence as several powerful storms delayed this monumental project.

Audubon’s Snowy Egret

You might say that Flagler was the builder of modern Florida, at least the east coast.  He made his fortune as John D. Rockefeller’s partner in Standard Oil of New Jersey, but spent most of his later years at his various Florida ventures.  Building a railroad down the east coast of Florida in small sections and planting a luxury resort hotel at each terminus was his successful strategy in bringing the well-heeled Easterners and their cash to the sunshine state.  His last and greatest challenge was to connect Miami with Key West by rail, an engineering feat for the ages.  Read Les Standiford’s riveting book, “Last Train to Paradise” for this story.

Green Heron, Butorides virescens

The final track was laid in 1912 as a satisfied and elderly Henry Flagler rode the first train into town amidst a joyous celebration.  But Mother Nature was not done with the keys.  The severe unnamed Labor Day hurricane of 1935 flattened the islands, the railroad, its bridges, and everything else in its path.  Today one can still see the Stonehenge-like remains of the trestles from Highway 1.  The railroad was never rebuilt.

Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway, an injured ambulance driver from World War I left the expatriate crowd in Paris and arrived in Key West with wife Pauline in 1928.  He finished the classic “A Farewell to Arms” in his first weeks on the island.  Their house and its artifacts are well-worth your visit.  The hedonistic life style of Key West seemed to suit him well and evidence of those 12 years of writing, fishing, and partying are all apparent in their restored home on Whitehead Street.

Key West Rooster

My recent trip to Key West was not, strictly speaking, a birding excursion, but you birders all know the drill.  Carry the binoculars at all times and sneak in an early morning trek while your travel companions are still sleeping or reading the NY Times at the local coffee shop.  If roosters are your target bird, you are in luck as they awaken you each morning and seem to be taking over the town.  More serious birding is done at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park.  Its varied habitat is a magnet for migrants as well as the more common south Florida birds.  Visit http://www.keysaudubon.org for a good list of the local birding sites.

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus

By November of 1946 President Harry Truman was exhausted.  The war was over but the doctor’s orders were for a warm, southern vacation.  He chose the former officer’s quarters at the Key West Submarine Naval Base, hereafter known as the “Little White House”.  It worked like a charm as he visited it for 175 days on 11 occasions during the remainder of his presidency.  It’s now a museum with excellent docents.

Double-crested Cormorant. Phalacrocorax auritus

I’ll conclude this post with Joseph Long’s story–you probably have not heard of him.  He was one of the countless patriots that volunteered to serve in World War II.  At the age of 17 he enlisted in the Navy and was shipped to the South Pacific, serving as a gunnery mate on an LST, nicknamed by its sailors as a “Large Slow Target”.  He did his part in the closing campaign of Okinawa and was present in Tokyo Bay when the Japanese surrendered.  He concluded his service mustering out his colleagues at the relative paradise of the Naval Base at Key West.

Joseph, on the left, with buddies at Key West

Joseph Long

Thirty years later I had the good fortune to marry Joe’s daughter, and after another 38 years she and I were privileged to escort him back to Key West to visit the old Naval Base one last time.  The current Naval Air Station rolled out the red carpet for Joe, welcoming him as another revered member of that “Greatest Generation”.  As most of his fellow vets, he didn’t speak much about those war years, but you could sense his rekindled memories of those consequential days as we toured the site.  Joe is no longer with us, but our memories of him were renewed during my recent trip to Key West with his daughter, daughter-in-law, and son.

Joseph with daughter, Suzanne at Key West

Book Review: The Heart of the Valley by Nigel Hinton

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

 

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

White-throated Sparrow, Zonotrichia albicollis

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

Carolina Wren, Thryothorus ludovicianus

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

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

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

Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Coccyzus americanus

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

John Burroughs, who’s a shark on birds

(He classifies ’em by a feather),

Avers that they’re devoid of words

And simply cannot talk together.

He gives the nature-fakers fits

Who picture birds in conversation,

And tears their story books to bits

In scientific indignation.

 

But there’s a wren outside my door

That talks whenever I go near him,

And talks so glibly, furthermore,

That I just wish that John could hear him.

Of mornings, when I stroll about,

The while he hymns his glad thanksgiving,

He interrupts himself to shout.

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

Field Sparrow, Spizella pusilla

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

Bronzed Cowbird, Molothrus aeneus

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

Duck Stamps

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A peaceful alliance between the birder and hunter seems as improbable as the Biblical lion lying down with the lamb, but miracles do happen.  Just remember the stories of the vast flocks of Passenger Pigeons and Carolina Parakeets darkening the skies and their subsequent decimation by hunters.  Or recall the indiscriminate shooting of migratory birds-of-prey on Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania or the plume hunters of southern Florida.  On the Chesapeake Bay hunters used giant guns balanced precariously on small boats to harvest thousands of swimming waterfowl, often hundreds with a single shot.  During a recent trip to Italy I noticed the skittish nature of all the passerines, apparently due to the longterm hunting of these small birds for food.  But even with this history there has been a remarkable truce between birder and hunter in this country, benefitting both, as well as the birds.

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The stamp and picture above by Arthur G. Anderson

In 1934 at the height of the Great Depression, when you’d think politicians would have had more pressing issues on their minds, FDR signed the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act.  This act, designed to preserve vital wetlands, required that each waterfowl hunter purchase a Federal Duck Stamp yearly.  Ninety-eight cents of every dollar raised by this program has gone into a conservation fund and has been used to purchase wetlands throughout the United States.  Since its inception some 900 million dollars has been raised to purchase 5.7 million acres of prime habitat.

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by G. Mobley

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Currently a Duck Stamp costs $25, a price gladly paid by hunters and waterfowl art and stamp collectors as well.  The first stamp was designed by “Ding” Darling, a name well-known by birders who have visited the famous hotspot on Sanibel Island, Florida.  He was a political cartoonist and also the director of The Bureau of Biologic Survey, the precursor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  His first stamp depicted a Mallard pair landing on a pond.

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by William C. Morris

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Initially the stamps were designed by invited artists but since 1949 they have been chosen in a juried, open, and highly competitive contest.  The 2017 winner is a beautiful painting of flying Canada Geese by James Hautman of Chaska, Minnesota.  Amazingly this is James 5th duck stamp winner, tying him with his brother Joseph who also has 5 prior winners.  Another brother, Robert came in third this year and has also won two prior contests!  There’s duck stamps in those genes I’d say.  You can buy the stamp, a print of the original art, or a framed rendition of both at http://www.fws.gov/duckstamps/.

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by James Hautman, the 2017 winner

Birders receive “bird gifts” at the holidays and special occasions.  Recently at a retirement party my colleagues thoughtfully presented me with multiple interesting bird feeders and plenty of feed to stock them.  They also baked an amazing cake with frosting depicting a bird photo lifted from my blog.  Thanks for that; you know who you are.  Several years ago I received a call from a dear friend who was in a thrift shop in Arizona and ran across 6 framed duck stamps and prints from the 1980’s.  “Would you like them”, he queried.  “You bet”, was my quick reply.  I now have a beautiful gallery of stamps.

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I’m not a hunter but sincerely appreciate the duck stamp program, an alliance of hunters, birders, artists, art and stamp collectors, and conservationists.  And the birds like it too.