Ducks, Geese, & Swans; the Anatidae Family

 

You don’t live long in Chesapeake Bay country before realizing that waterfowl, the Anatidae, is a big part of our identity.  My rural home county in Maryland, Talbot, is crisscrossed by tidal creeks and marshes, giving refuge to the resident, migrating, and wintering birds.  This time of year we are awakened by the sounds of the hunter’s booming guns and the honking of geese moving from field to cove, and back again when they feel it’s safe.

juvenile Wood Duck, Aix sponsa

Every mid-November, just as the migrators are arriving, Easton hosts its famous Waterfowl Festival, doubling or trebling the population of this small town for four fun-filled days.  Anything that has even a remote connection to waterfowl is displayed, bought and sold, traded, demonstrated, eaten, and envied by the  wandering crowds.  The wildlife art including paintings, photographs, sculpture, and carvings is world class, with much of the proceeds from their sales going to waterfowl conservation.  http://www.WaterfowlFestival.org

Brant, Branta bernicla

Two of the most popular venues of the festival are the demonstration of the talented canine retrievers at a local pond and the duck and goose calling competition in the high school auditorium.  The soft mouthed dogs are magnificent as they plunge into the cold water and faithfully retrieve the waterfowl for their waiting masters.  The World Waterfowl Calling Championships are serious affairs, with both adult and child divisions.  The deceived waterfowl will not stand a chance when these artists get to their blinds.

Northern Pintail, Anas acuta

Speaking of retrievers, let me share this anecdote about my dog Cinder, may she RIP.  She was half Siberian Husky and half Black Lab.  I can testify that she never received a lick of training from me, but she was still a retriever of sorts.  Our neighbor and accomplished hunter, Phil, was puzzled why his recently shot ducks and geese would mysteriously disappear from his porch stoop, while I was grateful to the considerate hunter who was gifting me a growing pile of un-plucked waterfowl on my stoop.  We finally caught sheepish Cinder in the act, dragging the fowl across the yard to her master’s doorstep.  It’s in their blood.

Hooded Merganser, Lophodytes cucullatus

Identification of the 8 species of swans and 15 species of geese is straight forward.  We all likely learned about these birds from childhood picture books and nursery rhymes.  Most of these are monogamous and many bond for life.  It’s with the 57 species of the more diverse and colorful ducks where the ID’s become more taxing and the lifestyles more risque with multiple sexual partners, brood parasitism, hybridization, and bizarre reproductive anatomy.  Check out my posting of 2/10/2018, a book review of “The Evolution of Beauty” by Prum, for more details.

Mallard, Anas platyrhynchos

American Black Duck, Anas rubripes

The ubiquitous Mallard is probably the most recognized and common duck worldwide and the parent species of most of the domestic “barnyard” ducks.  But despite its rather striking male attire it just doesn’t get any respect.  Some have attempted to remedy this by putting the emphasis on the second syllable of “mallard” and add a slight French accent for good measure.  It hasn’t worked.  The overexposed Mallard is one of the herbivorous dabbling ducks that feed on the water’s surface or on anything within reach on the bottom.  That accounts for the common “bottoms-up” shots of these ducks.

Red-breasted Merganser, Mergus serrator

Common Eider, Somateria spectabilis

Diving ducks such as scoters, eiders, and mergansers are carnivores, feeding on fish, mollusks, and aquatic invertebrates.  Observing and photographing them is a challenge.  Just when you get them in your field-of-view they dive.  While underwater you guess where they’ll resurface and get all your exposure factors just right for the perfect shot, but are more often wrong than right.  Sometimes I think they are playing games with us photographers.  Unlike the vocal dabblers, the divers are generally silent.

Ruddy Duck, Oxyura jamaicensis

Ring-necked Duck, Aythya collaris

Yesterday I noticed some diving ducks from the Knapp’s Narrows drawbridge, on my way to Tilghman Island.  A quick U-turn and stealthy approach while hiding behind a concrete embankment allowed my all-time closest photos of the Long-tailed Duck.  This gorgeous diving duck, formerly known as the “Oldsquaw”, is a wintertime visitor from the Arctic.  It’s unique in that it goes through 3 different plumages each year.

Long-tailed Duck, Clangula hyemalis

The best place to see Snow Geese around here requires a short drive east to Bombay Hook NWR on Delaware Bay.  Earlier this week that drive did not disappoint.  At some distance across the marsh you could make out a long white line caused by uncountable thousands of these rafting geese.  Every five minutes or so, apparently spooked by an overflying harrier or eagle, the flock would rise up like a giant white amoeba, hover over the swamp, and then gently settle back again to the surface.

Snow Geese, Chen caerulescens                                       click on photo to zoom

The Anatidae family is part of the larger Anseriformes order that also includes the Screamers of South America.  People that know these things point out that all the Anseriforme tribes of waterfowl favor the southern hemisphere with many of the more primitive species found solely south of the equator, whereas none of our northern waterfowl are exclusive to the northern hemisphere.  All this suggests that our swans, geese, and ducks likely arose from a common primitive ancestor in the south, possibly from Australia.

Tundra Swan, Cygnus columbianus

Wood Duck, Aix sponsa

Each fall and winter I put on an extra layer of down and take a hot coffee to some prime waterfront location in hopes of seeing and photographing the waterfowl.  The fact that many of them are just here for a few short cold months makes me anxious to see them before I escape to Florida.  They are clearly much hardier than me since many will never venture much further south  than the Chesapeake before returning again to breed on the remote tundra.

 

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.

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.

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.

 

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.

Fall Shorebird Migration

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I live on the Delmarva Peninsula.  It is aptly named since it encompasses Delaware to the east, the Eastern Shore of Maryland to the west, and Cape Charles Virginia at its southern tip.  It’s bordered by Delaware Bay and the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Chesapeake Bay to the west.  Delmarva is a flat, rural lowland with abundant farms and tidal wetlands.  There is not a rock in sight as the glaciers of the last Ice Age never made it this far south.  All in all it’s a perfect stopover and refueling site, or even a final destination for migrating shorebirds.  There are 50 species of shorebirds that breed regularly in North America and 217 species worldwide, just a small percentage of the total avian population of over 10,000 species.

Piping Plover

Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus)    click on any photo to zoom

The spring and fall migrations of shorebirds are completely different animals.  In spring the birds with raging hormones are making a mad dash to arctic and sub-arctic breeding grounds.  They follow the 35 degree isotherm to ensure liquid water and insects upon arrival.  Males and females must arrive at nearly the same time to mate, establish territories, build nests, lay eggs, and raise the young, all during the short, two-month arctic summer.  Fall migration, on the other hand is a much more leisurely trip south spanning several months from late June through November.

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Ruddy Turnstone & Black-bellied Plover (Arenaria interpres & Pluvialis squatarola)

The birds that abandon the arctic first and head south, even in late June, are the unsuccessful breeders and nesters.  If their first attempt fails due to weather, predation, etc., there is simply not enough time to try again.  Better to head south early and hope for better luck next year.  Some species send one of the parents south (either the male or female) as soon as the eggs are laid leaving the other to sit on the nest and raise the hatchlings.  Luckily shorebird chicks are more precocious than most birds walking, feeding themselves, and flying at an young age.  The abiding  parent will also migrate relatively early leaving the offspring behind to gain strength.  Amazingly the juveniles will head south one month later, often flying thousands of miles to their wintering grounds without any adult supervision.

Black Skimmers

Black Skimmers (Rynchops niger)

There has been speculation about the reason for an early fall migration from the tundra, even though there are still abundant insects and other food sources.  Some have suggested that the ancestors of these birds were tropical or neo-tropical and only began migrating northward to find new and safer breeding grounds as the glaciers retreated and climate warmed at the end of the Ice Age.  Thus, their hearts are really in the south, to which they return to ASAP when their biologic duty is done.

Wilson's Plover

Wilson’s Plover (Charadrius wilsonian)

There is species-specific timing to the fall migration.  After the non-breeders, you’re apt to see adult Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers, Yellowlegs, and Dowitchers passing through the Mid-Atlantic region as early as the first of July.  There is a somewhat predictable parade of following species, with Dunlins being an example of a late migrant, peaking here in October and November.

Long-billed Dowitcher

Long-billed Dowitcher (Limnodromus scolopaceus)

August is a popular month for observing the shorebird migration as most of the other bird groups have not yet felt the call.  Just be prepared for some confusing fall plumages.  Some will still have their breeding plumage while others will be in winter garb or a combination of both.  Add in the juvenile plumage and potential sex differences and you have some real ID challenges.  There’s also always a chance you might see a vagrant, often a lost juvenile far off course.  If you need a good reference book for these birds I recommend “The Shorebird Guide” by O’Brien, Crossley, and Karlson.

Black-necked Stilt

Black-necked Stilt (Himantopus mexicanus)

You often hear of the amazing distances covered by these migrating shorebirds.  Hudsonian Godwits are thought to fly 8,000 miles NON-STOP between breeding and wintering grounds.  Other shorebirds “choose” a more conservative approach and forgo the longer trip to Central and South America.  The Piping Plover, for instance breeds along the Atlantic seaboard from Massachusetts to Georgia and winters in Florida.  Wilson’s Plover both breeds and winters in Florida.  The Purple Sandpiper is the most hardy of the “locals” wintering along the rocky Atlantic coast all the way up to southern Newfoundland.

Sanderlings

Sanderlings (Calidris alba)

The ubiquitous and seemingly mundane Sanderling has its own migration story.  This small wave-chasing shorebird is seen in flocks on virtually every sandy beach world-wide.  It lacks a hind toe as a special adaptation allowing it to outrun the surf.  These birds breed far to the north in the arctic islands of Canada, Greenland, or Siberia and in this hemisphere choose various temperate wintering shorelines in both North and South America.  While some of Sanderlings choose a short migration route, ornithologist have discovered that others circumnavigate the entire Western Hemisphere, leaving the breeding ground in the fall and flying along the Atlantic coast to Chile and Peru.  In the spring they return north along the Pacific coast and central corridor, finally ending up at their original breeding site in northern Canada.

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Delmarva shorebird (Erratum maximum)

Our local baseball team, a farm club for the Baltimore Orioles, is appropriately called the Delmarva Shorebirds.  It seemed like the perfect name until they chose the team logo–they really needed a birder on that committee.  I would have suggested a Sanderling, a Piping Plover, or maybe even a Black Skimmer.  Instead they ended up with some stylized nonentity that looks like a cross between a Pileated Woodpecker and a Raven.  It’s clearly not a shorebird.  C’est la vie.

Cape May Hawkwatch Platform

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If you had to rate birding hotspots or favorite destinations for the eastern United States, Cape May would likely be at the top of the list.  This southern-most tip of the New Jersey peninsula was named for Captain Cornelius Jacobese Mey who explored the region in 1623.  The generations of fishermen, mariners and whalers have slowly given way to vacationers enjoying the beautiful beaches and myriad Victorian gingerbread houses gracing quaint tree-lined avenues.  But I went to Cape May for the birds, who are not there to admire the architecture.

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Merlin (Falco columbarius)

In a relatively small area you’ll find a variety of habitats including woodlands, grassy fields, salt marshes, freshwater ponds, low scrubland, and sandy beaches attracting a large variety of resident and migrating birds.  Almost anything is possible during fall migration in Cape May as the northwest winds push the vast Atlantic flyway eastward toward the coast and the birds are funneled southward until they arrive at land’s end and the formidable Delaware Bay and ocean.  The smart ones rest and feed for a few days, enjoy the scenery, and create a show to remember for us birders before continuing over the water.

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Laughing Gull (Larus atricilla); the area boasts the largest breeding population of this gull–no joke.

Cape May is one of the only places I know where the birder, dressed in our weird outfits and draped with our equipment, does not draw that quizzical apprehensive stare.  You’ll see many birders and guided tour groups daily throughout the town, and may even run into the celebrities, authors, and gurus of our hobby.  There are far too many birding sites in the area to discuss here, but one of my favorites is the Hawkwatch platform near the lighthouse at Cape May Point State Park.

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Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)

Hawks have been watched and counted there for years but the counter became a formal paid position of the New Jersey Audubon in 1976 when they hired 24 year-old Pete Dunne.  The stump of an old telephone pole was the first platform, soon replaced by a plywood table built by Dunne himself.  Despite these humble beginning he, of course, is now one of our most accomplished birders and authors.  The platform itself has also grown to become a large, multi-tiered edifice and famous destination for birders, hosting 20,000 visitors in 2015.  It’s in a perfect location halfway between the dunes and beaches to the south, the tree line to the north, and directly faces a shallow saltmarsh to the east.  Curiously the migrating kestrels tend to hug the shoreline while the hawks pass east to west over the tree line.  Just to the west is the famous lighthouse, restrooms, visitor center, and plenty of free parking.

Hawk-Watch platform and counter

Hawk-Watch platform and counter

Think of a sports bar on a Sunday afternoon in autumn.  There are different football games playing on multiple large screen TV’s while “experts” multitask, keeping one eye on one game and the other eye elsewhere; at the same time debating over a cold beer on the wisdom of the last play call and the preferred strategy for the next.  That’s the hawk-watch platform during autumn migration; just substitute birds for the TV pigskin and bottled water for the beer.

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Herring Gull (Larus argentatus)

On the top tier of the platform and far to the right you’ll find the official counter.  He or she is the one constantly scanning the sky and often calling out the birds while they are still specks in the distance. “Merlin heading to the right between the two fluffy clouds, one binocular field-of-view to the left of the lighthouse!”  They amaze with their knowledge of characteristic flight patterns, wing flapping, and silhouettes, but you soon begin to learn their techniques and try your luck.  If you’re brave you may even call out a bird sighting yourself, but be prepared to be politely corrected if you blunder.

American Kestrel

American Kestrel (Falco sparverius)

As in the sports bar you can choose to just sit quietly and enjoy the birding banter.  Someone on the right is reliving an amazing count total from the past while someone on the left is describing recent trips to birding hotspots in Arizona and Maine.  Another expert is holding forth on the best camera, lens, or field guide while on the lower tier the Swarovski Optik representative (they are the corporate sponsor of the count) is hawking their wonderful scopes and binos.  While just sitting there I learned about the distinguishing dark carpal bands on the Common Tern and how to recognize the aggressive flapping flight of a Merlin, the “falcon with attitude”.  One made a low flyover right in front of us unsuccessfully chasing a fleeing sandpiper across the pond.

Greater Black-backed Gull

Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marines); look carefully to see his songbird prey

They count more than hawks from the platform with plenty of songbirds, waders, gulls, and shorebirds also called out.  My days at the platform were relatively quiet with a warm southern wind blowing in from the bay.  However, the day before I arrived they counted 91 American Kestrels and two days earlier had 325 Bobolinks coming in on more favorable NW winds.  The most common bird of prey which I saw was the Merlin, coming in seemingly every 10 minutes one mid-morning.  Extremely “big days” are possible.  Pete Dunne counted 11,096 Sharp-shinned Hawks and 9400 Broad-winged Hawks on 10/4/1977!  Oh, to have seen that!

Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)

Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)

There is no such thing as a bad birding day at Cape May.  And if the birds seem scarce just check out the “Hawkwatch Sports Bar” and you’re sure to pick up some tips or meet a celebrity birder.  There’s a counter there everyday from dawn to 5PM,  September 1 till November 30.

Where Have All the Swallows Gone?

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Barn and Tree Swallows

Gliding, diving, graceful birds

Acrobats in flight.

On a boring day in May, June, or July you can always sit on the porch with a cool drink and watch the swallows.  This year the Tree Swallows won the annual competition for the birdhouse down by the creek, the one with the water view, and the Bluebirds were again relegated to the other two houses along the driveway.  I don’t pick favorites as both have great appeal.  The birdhouse by the water does have some issues as the smart Fish Crows from the neighbor’s trees are always poking their large bills through the hole, trying to snag a hatchling for lunch.  The parents do a brave job driving off the much larger crows, but I fear they are not always successful.  That doesn’t seem to stop the swallows from coming back here year after year.

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Barn Swallow, Hirundo rustic,                   click on any photo to zoom

The entertainment is their airshow.  Swooping, sharp corners, straight up, diving low over the grass and river, catching insects, eating and drinking, even in flight.  In my book only the terns can rival the swallows in aerial acrobatics.  The Tree Swallows arrive first in the spring to stake out a nesting cavity, and stay later in the fall since they are the only swallow that can also feed on berries when the bugs are no longer plentiful.  The later arriving Barn Swallows almost exclusively build their mud nests on man-made structures–in my yard that’s the underside of the boat dock.

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird at the “loser’s” house

The “Barnies” are the only North American swallow that has that deeply forked swallow tail.  It, plus the chestnut colored throat make the ID easy.  The Tree Swallows are striking birds with pure white below and metallic blue or green above, depending on the light.  These are the most common swallows in the East, but keep an eye out for the Bank S. with its dark chest band, the less sociable and more bland Northern Rough-winged S., and an occasional Cliff S. with its buff rump and forehead.

Tree Swallows

Tree Swallow flock

Then one evening in late July you notice they’re gone.  No fanfare or goodbyes, just gone, show’s over.  The birdhouse and dock are vacated.  And why did they leave so early?  There are still plenty of bugs, warm weather and sunshine, and maybe even enough time to raise another brood.  But I’ve learned that they are not gone.  The swallows haven’t really left for the season yet, but have changed their venue.  Just travel a few miles east to the inland fields with power lines or the vast tidal marshes along Delaware Bay and you’ll find them again.  You’ll see flocks, sometimes huge mixed flocks of swallows, no longer interested in breeding but now more intent upon consuming large volumes of insects and storing up energy for the coming fall.

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Stelgidopteryx serripennis

The fall migration is a much bigger deal than its spring counterpart.  A successful breeding season will swell the flock many times over the number of birds that arrived the previous spring.  But there’s danger ahead.  Its been reported that the mortality rate for songbirds during the fall migration and at the wintering sites may be as high as 85% due to disease, predators, accidents, weather, etc.

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Tree Swallows, Tachycineta bicolor

 Flocking prior to and during fall migration, and continuing all winter, may in part be a safety mechanism to confuse predators with visual overload.  As opposed to most songbirds the swallows migrate in these large flocks during daylight, perhaps relying on visual clues for guidance.  This also allows them to feed on the fly.  The Tree Swallows will actually undergo a gradual molt during the trip to South Florida, the Gulf coast, Cuba, or Mexico, whereas the “Barnies” wait to molt until they have arrived at the wintering grounds in South America.

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Coastal flock prior to fall migration

So the swallow’s sojourn in their summer breeding grounds appears to be a two part affair.  First mate, nest, and raise the young.  But when that’s accomplished congregate in great numbers, fellowship, teach the juveniles advanced flying skills, and build up fat reserves for migration.  And when the mysterious word is spoken, whether it’s hormonal, sunlight, or temperature, be ready to head south en masse.  Their return in the spring will not be in massive flocks but rather in smaller groups of survivors, coming north to start the cycle all over again.

Those Pesky Canada Geese; Why Won’t They Leave?

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Branta canadensis

 

The story of the increasing numbers of non-migrating, resident Canada Geese is more interesting than just “bird slothfulness”, and may be an example of the unintended consequences of human intervention, bird adaptation, and evolution in action.  These year-round birds also generate strong human emotions and responses, similar to when a house guest overstays their welcome.

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The migratory geese

My first childhood memory of Canada Geese was when my father pointed out the honking V’s, high overhead as we made our cottage ready for winter in Upstate New York.  When I moved to the Chesapeake 33 years ago they took center stage each fall, and all exited stage left each spring, leaving us with fond memories and anxious for their autumn return.  Back then they were very welcome, but things have started to change.  The Branta canadensis PR department must re-examine their new behavior before it’s too late.

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Click on any photo to zoom

There are about 5 or 6 million Canada Geese in North America with the resident non-migratory population now greater than 50% of the total.  In 1900 however, Branta canadensis was in serious jeopardy, mainly from hunting pressures. By 1950 the “Giant” subspecies, occidentals, was thought to be extinct.  Luckily a small surviving group was located and allowed to breed in captivity, and were eventually released back to nature, but now as non-migrating birds.  Interbreeding with other subspecies led in part to this growing population of geese that no longer heeds the call of the north each spring.

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And how can you blame them?  1500 miles is a long way to fly if you don’t need to.  When you get there, tired and hungry, you must immediately mate, build your nest, and fight off predators, only to make the return flight south in 6 months.  The resident geese however can enjoy a year-long stable climate and breeding conditions, beautiful grassy lawns for feeding and ponds for swimming, few predators, and only have to take short, low-altitude flights.  They’ve boldly adapted to lawn mowers, dogs, picnickers, golfers–no problem for them.

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A picnic in our front yard.

The problem is for humans.  Denuded lawns, goose droppings on the putting surface and elsewhere, polluted ponds and pools, health concerns, and airplane collisions are some of the issues.  The birds are protected by the Migratory Bird Act but some efforts to reduce the population have been tried without significant success.  Many states have an early hunting season, before the migrating geese arrive.  Nest and egg destruction, harassment, habitat management, etc. have all been tried to little avail.

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Early family life

It interesting to note that while the migratory geese are only breeding after they arrive in Canada, the resident geese breed down here–they don’t interbreed and their gene pools do not mix.  I suspect someday we will begin to see morphologic differences such as smaller migratory birds with stronger flight muscles, as well as genetic differences when mutations occur and are passed on only along the isolated lines.  I think I can already detect the fatter and bolder resident birds when the flocks mix here in the winter.  Someday, in perhaps several million years, we’ll see a distinct separation of two species.

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Teen age brood. Where are their headphones, cell phones, and tattoos?

This spring we had two families of resident Canada Geese raised along our shoreline.  I must admit it was enjoyable watching the growing families parading across the lawn each evening.  One day I found several small chicks had entered our pool but could not climb out–the parents were nearby honking loud instructions but were unable to save their young.  Here was my chance to cull the population–but I just could not do it.  I spent a long time catching the downy youngsters in my leaf net–those little buggers can really swim and dive even if that can’t fly.  I finally released them to their concerned and squawking parents, with nary a thank you I must add.  I guess I’ll just leave the culling to someone else.