All The Birds You Cannot See

Red-headed Woodpecker, Melanerpes erythrocephalus

 

I had foolishly promised we would see the Red-headed Woodpecker at the Blackwater NWR, a site where I had seen it on almost every prior visit.  That is, until my last trip there just a few weeks ago when it was nowhere in sight.  eBird was also reporting a sighting a month ago, but none more recently.  The woodpecker was a nemesis bird for Andy.   He and his wife flew down from New York to spend last week with us on the Chesapeake and seeing that bird was high on our birding agenda–the pressure was on.

Blackwater NWR

We all have nemesis birds; unchecked boxes on our life lists of birds we should have seen but somehow have slipped through the cracks.  As we age that list shrinks for our local patch and the surge of excitement of seeing a bird for the first time becomes less frequent.  But a few birds, some of them quite common in Maryland and Florida, have avoided my detection.  I’m somewhat embarrassed to reveal that personal list:  Snowy Owl, Puffin, all the Rails, Worm-eating Warbler, and Mangrove Cuckoo among others.  The cuckoo hides from me despite my living among the Florida mangroves for a good part of the year.

Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus

There’s some good-natured competitive chiding between Andy and me over our unseen birds.  He does not hesitate to show me his exquisite photos of Snowy Owls which frequent his patch in Upstate New York, or his Puffin shots from Iceland, while I counter with my best Red-headed Woodpecker poses.  But it’s all in fun and I truly hoped for him to finally check that box at Blackwater last week.  We failed.

Wildlife Drive at Blackwater

But Blackwater never fails to impress the first timer with other features; the great vistas of tidal grasslands, lowland pine forests, and of course the soaring Bald Eagles.  Near the beginning of Wildlife Drive there are numerous snags and Loblolly Pines covered with woodpecker holes.  We saw Pileated, Downy, Red-bellied, and Sapsuckers, but no Red-heads.  Big disappointment.  Now I understand the pressure a bird guide must feel when he fails to deliver target birds to his paying customers.

Belted Kingfisher, Ceryle alcyon

Blackwater did seem less “birdy” that day.  Maybe it was the unusually warm weather or perhaps the prolonged drought.  Or perhaps we had just missed the songbird migration to the south and were early for the waterfowl from the north.  Even so, we did see 37 species and will never feel cheated by a trip to this phenomenal refuge on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

We detect birds by eyesight, but also by birdsong.  As a novice birder I always thought this was cheating; checking a box when never spotting the singing bird, who was often identified for me by a more seasoned birder or guide.  I’m still loathe to claim a life bird solely by song, but readily tick the common birds by song on my routine outings.  But there remain far too many songs that I have not yet matched with a bird.  It’s frustrating.

Greater Yellowlegs, Tringa melanoleuca

Birding by ear is an advanced skill that is slowly acquired over the years.  I’m impressed with some local birders that recognize an extensive repertoire of birdsong; some can even reproduce the song by mouth, hoping to coax the bird out of seclusion for visual verification.

Northern Harrier, Circus cyaneus

I’m working on my audio skills with the help of Larkwire, a helpful cell phone app of birdsong, complete with quizzes.  There are even apps that can detect and identify birds in the field, similar to Shazam, the app used to identify popular human song.  Among others these include Song Sleuth and ChirpOMatic.  I cannot vouch for their accuracy but their names are catchy.

Mallard, Anas platyrhynchos

I’ll never forget the beautiful haunting and repetitive birdsong I heard near Mount Fuji several springs ago.  Hoh…hokeyo, hoh…hokekyo.  The bird was clearly close by, first to the right and then the left, but skillfully avoided my visual detection for days.  Finally on the day of departure I caught a fleeting glance of the elusive source.  It was a small, plain Jane bird with a gorgeous voice.  On the flight home I played various songs on my laptop, finally matching bird to song.  It was Uguisu, the Japanese Bush Warbler, a secretive bird known to frustrate birders, but also a welcome harbinger of Spring.

Blackwater NWR

The great consolation and inspiration for us birders is that there will always be more new birds to see and hear, right up to our dying day.  More than ten thousand beckon us;  I have just scratched the surface.  That rush we get form a new sighting need never grow old.  Even Phoebe Snetsinger, may she rest in peace, and Noah Strycker did not see them all.  We may need to travel further, dig deeper for airfare, and hire more guides, but the quest will never end.

Norway

 

I live on the Chesapeake Bay, a famous large estuary on the east coast of the United States, but oh, so different from the fjords we recently explored along the west coast of Norway.  The fjords are also estuaries, which by definition are bodies of water open to the tidal seas at their mouth but also fed by freshwater sources upstream.

The Chesapeake’s freshwater sources are the mighty Susquehanna and smaller Potomac and Choptank Rivers, whereas the Norwegian fjords are fed by countless, spectacular cascading waterfalls draining the surrounding snow-capped peaks.  The Chesapeake is a shallow, mud and sand bottomed drowned river, south of the last glacial advance, whereas the nordic fjords are deep, steeped walled rocky valleys carved out by glaciers during the last Ice Age.

I don’t believe I’ve visited a more beautiful country than Norway.  Along with the many fjords penetrating the west coast, some as far as 100 miles inland, there are thousands of small islands just offshore.  You can envision the marauding Viking ships slipping out to sea from a fjord or island to rampage Northern Europe in the 10th century, or a sinister German U-Boat sneaking into a deep fjord during the more recent 20th century conflagration.

Bergen

This is not a travel blog but let me make this suggestion.  “Norway in a Nutshell” is a wonderful one-day tour of the best of southwestern Norway.  Starting in Bergen, on the west coast, we took the Bergen Railway inland and switched to the Flam Railway at Myrdal.  The slow train revealed Kodak moments at virtually every turn.  After a short stop at Kjosfossen falls we arrived at Flam and boarded a comfortable boat to explore the narrow Naeroyfjord (a UNESCO heritage site) and equally beautiful Aurlandsfjord.

Kjosfossen Falls, 305 feet

We stopped counting and photographing the waterfalls and cozy villages nestled at the shoreline at 100.  At Gudvangen we boarded a bus for a harrowing cross country ride on switchbacks and finally caught the Bergen train for home at Voss.  It was a spectacular day.

Fred, always after the perfect shot angle

Fred, Mary, Suzanne, and I left Bergen by rental car and headed east to explore this land on our own.  After the unseasonable heat in Russia we were happy for the cooler air but were surprised by a snowstorm in late May as we crossed over a Nordic mountain range.  I was constantly on the lookout for birds (but didn’t see many), while my companions were much more interested in Stave Church sitings.

A Stave Church

These are medieval wooden churches with a characteristic post and lintel construction, built between 1150 and 1350.  Most of the surviving structures are in Norway.  At one small village a young man was found waiting alone inside one, so happy to finally see some interested tourists.  He proudly shared with us his impressive knowledge of the history of the church.

Solvorn

We arrived at the village of Solvorn with enough daylight to appreciate the serene beauty of this small town nestled along the Lustrafjord.  Our hotel was the quaint and picturesque  Walaker, the oldest inn in Norway, dating back to 1640.  Nine generations of a family of innkeepers have expertly maintained this gem.  Unfortunately the elder innkeeper had just died and the hotel’s flag flew at half mast.  But another generation of hosts, I assume the 10th, stepped up and welcomed us.  Each comfortable room had a view of the fjord and the dinner and breakfast were simply superb.

Our only regret was that we had only one night to spend at the Walaker.  We vowed we would return someday for an extended visit, but you know that is unlikely.  I did some evening and early morning birding along the fjord seeing just 7 common species,  but there was a stealthy bird with a vaguely familiar call singing from the tall tree just in the Walaker’s front yard.  I finally caught a glimpse of the elusive European Pied Flycatcher, a life bird for me just a few days prior in Finland.

White Wagtail, Motacilla alba

Our European sojourn was to end in Oslo, but not before I hired one last guide to show me a few more Scandinavian birds.  I found Simon Rix through his website, http://www.oslobirder.blogspot.com.

Simon Rix

Simon is an Englishman who migrated to Oslo 18 years ago and has become the “go-to” birder for southern Norway.  I was lucky to book him for a half day, but unlucky as it rained most of the morning.  Even so, I had a great time.  He showed me 49 different species, including a flyover of a singing Cuckoo, apparently unusual for that time and place.  Yes, it sounded just like your grandmother’s cuckoo clock.

Fornebu

We birded the Fornebu peninsula, just west of Oslo, and the site of the city’s old airport.  The Luftwaffe landed here during their invasion of neutral Norway on April 9, 1940, but were finally ousted from the site and country by Allied forces in 1945.  The abandoned airfield has been reclaimed by nature and is a birding hotspot and favorite for Simon.

Fieldfare, Turdis pilaris

Common Wood Pigeon, Columba palumbus

On my last day abroad I arose early and headed to the Palace Park in Oslo.  It was finally sunny and a chance to put the Panasonic Lumix G9 and 50-200mm Leica lens to a good test.  The birds were largely common but cooperative with Fieldfare and Wood Pigeons galore.  But I did add one bird to my life list when a Hawfinch proudly posed for me near the palace as if bidding me Godspeed for our long return flight home.

Hawfinch, Coccothraustes coccothraustes

This post ends my accounting of our memorable one month excursion to Russia and Scandinavia.  I promise to return to my more typical birding and photography format soon.

 

Book Review: Gulls Simplified

published by Princeton University Press, copyright 2019, 208 pages

 

Most birders have a nemesis group of difficult birds, or two, or three.  Flycatchers, sparrows, and winter warblers all come to mind.  But I suspect the gulls are the leaders of the flock of baffling bird identifications.  I’m even hesitant to label some of my pictures in this post and may end up with egg on my face.  It’s not just their similar plumages; it’s hard to admire birds that frequent the dump, crave McDonalds french fries, and steal your hot dog right out of your hand at a Super Bowl tailgate party.

Ring-billed Gull, Larus delawarensis        (non-breeding adult)

They’re all black, white, and shades of gray.  The only color breaking the monotony is the occasional red spot on the bills of some, the pink you see inside their mouths when open (which is often), the shades of yellow, pink, or green on their legs, and the drab brown feathers of the immatures.  And these young birds take their own sweet time maturing, some requiring up to four years to don the adult monotones.  Add to this the different breeding and non-breeding plumages and you have an identification nightmare.  Give me a Cardinal or Blue Jay, thank you very much.

Laughing Gull, Larus atricilla        (adult, non-breeding)

But then I ran across Pete Dunne’s and Kevin Karlson’s new book and decided to give them and the gulls another shot.  My first impression was positive; this book is short, only 200 pages.  I don’t need another encyclopedic guide to all the variations in first-summer or second-winter plumages, or the subtle field marks of some hybrid gull.  Their goal in writing this shorter guide seemed to be KISS (keep it simple stupid), one of my favorite life axioms.

Lesser & Greater Black-backed Gulls, Larus fuscus & marinus

The introduction grabbed my attention.  The authors don’t claim to be gull specialists, but rather birding generalists who seek to apply the popular GISS technique (general impression, size, and shape) to the confusing gulls.  This strategy features the grosser physical characteristics and behavior over specific field marks, and has been successfully used with raptors and in the popular Crossley guide books.  Luckily the gulls are frequently in mixed flocks that allow a direct comparison between the species.

Herring Gull, Larus argentatus                         (immature)

Right off the bat the authors dispel my impression of the gulls being the junkyard dogs of the avian world.  They extoll the virtues of the 22 species of regularly occurring gulls in North America as “intelligent, inquisitive, socially complex, and acrobatic aerialists,” well worth our scrutiny.  No other birds are so adept “at foraging on land, air, and sea”.  Seagulls however, with the exception of the Sabine Gull and kittiwakes, are not real sea birds or pelagics.  They are littoral, preferring the margins of rivers, lakes, and the seashore, rather than the open ocean.

Heermann’s Gull, Larus heermanni

The layout of this book is simple and effective.  The initial pages are profile shots and silhouettes of the 22 gulls and the introduction and first chapter explain the authors’ GISS approach to the gulls.  They caution us to relax and accept that we will not get a definite ID for every bird.  Learning the common ones in your area first will make the ID of the less common easier, later on.  And forget about all the plumage designations of 2nd and 3rd winter, etc.  Dunne and Karlson greatly simplify this to just three:  immature, sub-adult, and adult, the latter with breeding and non-breeding varieties unfortunately.  I like this “Readers Digest” approach.

Herring Gulls, (non-breeding adult & immature)

Each subsequent chapter is devoted to one gull with many good comparison pictures of the bird in mixed flocks of gulls and other shorebirds.  There are 35 quizzes scattered throughout the book but don’t panic.  The answers are all given in the back and no one will know if you peek.

Western Gull, Larus occidentalis

There are many advantageous aspects of gull ID.  The birds are abundant and worldwide, found on virtually every lake, river, and seashore, as well as on freshly plowed fields, landfills, and McDonald’s parking lots.  They are large and generally allow you a close approach to observe their feeding, fighting, and other comical antics.  Photography, however does offer some challenges due to their white and dark plumage.  I’ll leave that discussion for a later post.

Ring-billed Gulls (with Herring Gull in background)

I don’t generally chase rarities, but unusual gulls do turn up, not infrequently.  On two occasions I jumped into the car on short notice and was pleasantly surprised to find both birds, just as advertised.  The first was a Glaucous Gull reported on an isolated creek off the Chesapeake, about 40 miles south of me on Hooper’s Island, Maryland.  This pale, large gull (larger than a Herring Gull) is not a rarity, but still somewhat unusual and a lifer for me.  I waited alone at a parking lot of a seafood packing plant for several hours and was just getting ready to leave when it flew in and splashed down within 30 feet.  What a surprise and thrill.

Glaucous Gull, Larus hyperboreus

The second chase was to Delaware Bay, about 60 miles to the east.  A Sabine Gull was reported to be buzzing the Dupont Nature Center several Mays ago.  This small, hooded, and fork tailed gull winters in the tropics off South America and Africa and was likely blown ashore as it migrated north over the Atlantic, bound for its breeding site in Greenland or the Canadian Arctic.  As opposed to my solitary Glaucous Gull experience, the Sabine drew a large throng of birding paparazzi.  This actually was fortunate as I needed help in locating the bird amidst the vast flock of its more common and less famous cousins.

Herring Gull, (breeding adult)

Back to the book.  I do recommend it and believe Dunne and Karlson were successful in presenting this new approach to gull ID.  I note, however, that even they reverted to the more traditional plumage designations in some of their captions.  It will be hard to completely abandon that nomenclature, especially for the hard core gullers.  Also the GISS identification process is not really that simple.  It takes experience, years of experience, and many hours of observation to get good at it.  But I’m gullible and willing to give it a shot.  Wish me luck.

Birding With a Guide vs. Going Bare

Mount Desert Island, Maine

 

When one charters a sailboat, you have a choice; board a craft with a captain, possibly even a cook, and just relax, or you can go “bare”.  Going bare does not imply complete nakedness.  You still have a seaworthy boat, stocked with food and plenty of navigation charts and devices.  You supply the seamanship, experience, and reap the rewards of independence and a heightened sense of adventure.

Eurasian Jay, Garrulus glandarius, from Italy

It seems to me that one makes a similar choice when birding.  I’ve done it both ways, using guides on four continents, as well as bare birding, both domestically and abroad.  I’ve come to appreciate the challenges of guiding as well as the traits of an ideal guide–I’ve never had a poor one.

Spotted Owlet, Athene brama, from India

But first let me point out some of the joys of going bare.  As in boating, you are not really all that exposed, eBird has seen to that.  All-star birder Phoebe Snetsinger’s technique of preparation before birding a new site has been a great lesson for me, and eBird has made that so much easier.  Just review their hotspot sightings for your trip, specific for the month of departure, and study those birds in your guidebook.

Red-breasted Nuthatches, Sitta canadensis, irruption this fall?

“Photo-birding” is a valuable tool when going bare, when there’s no guide at your side with a ready ID.  Generally I’m out to get the perfect shot; sharp, great background, lighting, and pose, but with photo-birding its all about the ID.  Just get something on “film” and make the ID later, over coffee and out of the wind.  Or you can send the picture to an expert for help.

Red-whiskered Bulbul, Pycnonotus jocosus, in India

Am I strange in finding some exhilaration in finally matching the picture to guidebook, and claiming a new tick on my life list?  I remember going bare in India with colleagues, photo-birding, and sitting around a table for hours, reviewing shots and guidebooks, and arguing about the finer points and field marks–sort of sharing our ignorance.  It was fun and it worked.

Crested Kingfisher, Megaceryle lugubris, in India

When overseas on a “non-birding” trip (is this ever the case?), I try to book hotels near parks or hotspots that can be easily visited while my spouse still sleeps.  This seems to work for us.  I’m sure I would have seen many more birds with a guide when we visited Japan, but those dawns alone, among the beautiful temples and gardens of Hakone, near Mount Fuji, or among the deer in Nara Park were unforgettable.  It was hard work to finally match that enchanting call to the elusive Japanese Bush Warbler, Uguisu. See posting “Birding Hakone, Japan”, dated April 17, 2015.

Hakone, Japan

Japanese White-eye, Zosterops japonicus, in Nara Japan

Bare birding in Kensington Gardens and St. James Park, London, walking the path that Kings & Queens have trod, and near the bunker where Churchill resisted evil a generation ago, was also memorable.  A local twitcher showed me the Little Owl in the Gardens, but I admit I did see more birds when excellent guide, Jack Fernside, took me outside the ring road for a day.  http://www.birdinglondon.co.uk

St. James Park, London

Little Owl, Athene noctua, in Kensington Gardens, London

A good guide tailors the outing to meet the needs of the client.  In Tuscany, along the west coast of Italy, we hired Marco Valtriani for a day, informing him that among the six of us, I was the only birder.  Now that’s a real dilemma.  He arrange birding by skiff, amidst the beautiful tidal wetlands, followed by exquisite cuisine on a cliff overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea.  After lunch we hiked the hills, exploring Etruscan ruins.  It was a home run for us all.  http://www.Birdinginitaly.com

Tuscan birding with Marco, on Tuscan coast of Italy

There are some locations where a guide is almost a necessity, both for safety and his local knowledge.  The Himalayan foothills, Corbett National Park, and Ramnagar Jungle of India were examples of this.  Our guide, Bopanna Patada, was the ultimate guide; the equivalent of yachting with captain and cook, with all the accoutrements.  He met us at the airport, rented a van and hired a driver for the week, booked us into first class accommodations, and hired local guides to assist him at each stop in northern India.  This was in addition to his infectious enthusiasm and knowledge of birds of the subcontinent.  http://www.indiabirding.com

Bopanna & colleagues in northern India

We’re planning a cultural trip to Russia next spring.  I hope to squeeze in some birding, but doubt that it’s a good idea for a lone American to be traipsing around Moscow with binoculars and telephoto lens these days.  I’m currently trying to find a guide for birding St. Petersburg.  If anyone has a suggestion, please send it my way.

Jacobin Cuckoo, Clamator jacobinus, in India

But the birds don’t always cooperate, even with the best of guides.  Last month I hired the guru of birding at Mount Desert Island and Acadia NP in Maine.  The fall scenery was spectacular as he guided three of us to his favorite hot spots, but it was just not a “birdy” day.  I felt sorry for the guide as he repeatedly apologized on behalf of the hiding birds.  Not to worry–there is never a bad day birding.

Acadia National Park, Maine

In addition to knowing the local birds and hotspots, what are the characteristics of a good bird guide.  Enthusiasm and patience are near the top of the list.  Also, the ability to succinctly point out a new bird, making sure everyone in the group has seen it.  He needs to describe its field marks and behavior, why its an x and not y.  Having a field guide handy to illustrate these points is also a plus.  Lastly the guide needs to judge the mental and physical stamina of the group–when is it time to quit?

Wood Ducks, Aix sponsa, near Bar Harbor, Maine

Just as there are bird-less days, there are also days when the birds come fast and furious, almost too much of a good thing.  The guide is rapidly calling out the birds while we frantically try to keep up, lucky to actually see every other one.  A hard core lister may tick them all, but I’d rather get a good look, before claiming a new life bird.

Hermit Thrush, Catharus guttatus, in Blackwater NWR

I recently tagged along with a novice birding class visiting Bombay Hook, Delaware, one of the birding meccas on the East coast.  Wayne, the guide is an especially talented birder and teacher.  There was a mixed flock of blackbirds on a wire some distance away.  Wayne ID’ed the back lit Cowbird by its signature pose with raised beak tilting toward the heavens.  This was new info for me.  We saw 50 some birds that day but he was especially pleased when at the end of the session he saw a small flock of Marbled Godwits landing on a distance mudflat.  It was the bird we were all hoping for all day.

American Avocets, Recurvirostra americana, at Bombay Hook, Delaware

So which is better, guided or bare birding?  You decide, while I keep doing some of each.