Who Saw That Bird First?

Cinnamon Teal, Anas cyanoptera

If a birding year has a theme, this one has been chasing rarities in Florida. On the surface it sounds like adventure birding, combing through alligator-infested swamps and among trees dripping with Spanish moss, all to make a discovery for “science”. Not really. With but one notable exception, these are rare birds which have been discovered here, outside their normal ranges, by others; meticulous birders tuned to the minutiae of this pursuit much more than I will ever be.

Palm Warbler, Dendroica palmarum

Just this week eBird reported a Cinnamon Teal just east of Fort Myers. I had previously ticked this bird in southern Arizona in its expected range, but Andy had never laid eyes on it. After getting temporarily lost in the rural steppe of Old Florida, we came upon the reported site, easily identified by two other cars on the shoulder and birders sporting the telltale scopes aiming at a roadside pond. We were kept at bay by a wire fence and several large cows. The shallow pond or watering hole was 75 yards away and a dozen dozing ducks were backlit and poorly seen. If it wasn’t for the kind birder who invited us to peer through his scope we would have never seen the teal.

American Coot, Fulica americana

This begs the question, who saw that bird first, anyhow? Someone must have pulled over along the remote road, and carefully studied the plumage of all those distant ducks. Despite the poor viewing conditions, they recognized the plumage of the vagrant bird, and properly called it a Cinnamon Teal. Now that’s a real birder. The rest of us who flock to the site of his or her discovery are just interlopers. That first intrepid birder also had to convince the skeptics at eBird of the sighting, whereas all the rest of us had to do was report a “continuing bird”.

Mangrove Cuckoo, Coccyzus minor

There are many examples of my interloping tendencies. Take that recent Mangrove Cuckoo at Ding Darling, the Groove-billed Ani and Ash-throated Flycatcher at Festival Park, and the Hammond’s Flycatcher at Corkscrew and the Vermilion Flycatcher last season in the Great Cypress Swamp. Some careful birder had the thrill of the initial discovery and was willing to pass it along to the rest of us via eBird.

Sandhill Crane, Grus canadensis

Back up north, a few years ago, I chased a Glaucous Gull reported way down in southern Dorchester County on the Eastern Shore of Maryland; talk about rural and off the beaten track. I amazed myself by finally seeing this white gull among many others, just as I was preparing to pack up and head home, disappointed. There it was, flying in like an apparition, allowing the perfect shot. Who saw it first among the teeming flock of similar gulls swarming around the waterman, fighting for his discarded bait?

Glaucous Gull, Larus hyperboreus

I crossed over into Delaware and to the shore of its large bay chasing a reported Sabine’s Gull. It also seemed like a hopeless task, scoping all the birds from the deck of the Dupont Nature Center. There were thousands of shorebirds, gulls, and terns on the breakwater and opposite shore of the inlet over a hundred yards away. They periodically rose and landed in a confusing and frenzied flock. Who saw that slightly different bird with a black hood and yellow-tipped bill among the many commoners? Fortunately another birder pointed the rarity out to me and I gratefully added another tick to my life list. Just a guiltless interloper.

Lesser Scaup, Aythya affinis

Andy and I did make one initial sighting of a rarity ourselves; or perhaps a semi-rarity. We were at Eagle Lake, near Naples, toward the end of our birding trek and talking more about politics than birds, when I noticed a perching black bird right off the trail. It was too large for a grackle and too small for a crow, and had a bulky bill. About the same time we both blurted out, “Ani”. We knew the bird from a prior trip to Panama, but had never seen it in Florida. It was a Smooth-billed Ani.

Common Gallinule, Gallinula chloropus

We posted our observation on eBird and had our fifteen minutes of fame in the birder’s world, as the initial discoverers. But our notoriety was short-lived. Another birder, posted the same bird a few days later and reported the Ani as “the continuing bird, first seen by…” He gave credit to someone else; we were robbed; our sighting was thereafter assigned to another! C’est la vie. We know who was really first, just that one time.

Smooth-billed Ani, Crotophagi ani

Don’t think for a moment that our chasing of rarities down here is universally successful. Careful observers have been reporting a small flock of Redheads, the duck I mean, down in Sugden Park, near Naples. I’ve seen the bird in Maryland, but never down here in the heat of South Florida, and Andy had never seen it anywhere. We got excited when we saw a single duck with a light back and dark head swimming off shore, but closer observation revealed a Lesser Scaup. Andy tried to convince me that the head had a reddish tinge, but that was just the wishful thinking of a frustrated birder.

Pied-billed Grebe, Podilymbus podiceps

I’ve made two more “empty” trips to the park to see this duck and Andy is now up to six excursions, still with no luck, even on a day when other birders had reported the target Redhead. His greater efforts reflect that urge to add a life bird, something that all birders will understand.

Limpkin, Aramus guarauna

Those trips are really not “empty”. Birders also know that there is never a bad birding day, but rather a chance to see some antics of common birds, try a new photographic technique, or catch a bird in an unlikely pose. Those coot and gallinule shots are from the Sugden trip. The Limpkin seemed like an uncommon bird here just a few years ago, but not now. In fact one keeps us awake nightly with its ghastly call, right outside our condo window.

Muscovy Ducks, Cairina moschata

I ended the Sugden Pond trip witnessing the almost brutal copulation of two Muscovy Ducks. Ducks are known for their aggressive breeding habits, and now I can attest to that. The larger male chased and finally caught the female and almost drowned her in the long process. She finally did escape and survive, but barely. It was all just another sighting on an “empty” trip chasing rarities in south Florida.

Best Birds of 2020

Boat-tailed Grackle

How can there be a best of anything in 2020, you say. To quote my young friend, “The only thing that’s open is nothing!” Isn’t this another year that will live in infamy, similar to Queen Elizabeth’s recent personal annus horribilis. It’s true that I couldn’t take any foreign birding trips and had to stick to the local patches, but even those gave up some decent shots.

Little Blue Heron
White-eyed Vireo

It seems I have quite a number of shots of passerines, peaking out among the leaves and only partially visible. But isn’t this just the way of our birding lives; fleeting glances of beauty, here for a second and then gone forever. Sounds like there’s a sermon in there, waiting to be preached.

Red-shouldered Hawk
Blue-winged Teal

I’ve chosen the inevitable “F” shots, feeding, flocking, and flying. Birds just being birds while we voyeurs, aka birders, watch and shoot.

Red-bellied Woodpecker
Sandhill Crane

I know it’s just a Mallard, but if you put the accent on the second syllable and look very closely you’ll see some real beauty in that common puddle duck.

Mallard

I try to avoid the classic poses or portrait views, however some sneak anyway by virtue of color, background, or other photographic features. I don’t usually get a clear shot of the Painted Bunting in the “wild” away from the Corkscrew Swamp bird feeder, so I’ve included that lucky view and marvel again at this spectacular bird.

Painted Bunting
Anhinga
Short-tailed Hawk

The Short-tailed Hawk shot is not technically anything special, but reminds me of my first sighting of this nemesis bird. Everyone was reporting this bird in Florida, except me. Finally I learned to look up, way up and found him circling in a kettle of vultures. Looking up; you’d think that would come naturally to a true birder. Sounds like the makings of another sermon.

Eastern Bluebird
Tricolor Heron
Loggerhead Shrike

Lastly, there are shots that just strike my fancy because of color, texture, background, or lighting. In particular I like that dark Grackle posed on nature’s blues and greens, and that Bluebird in a similar setting.

White-eyed Vireo
Red-shouldered Hawks

There’s only six shopping days left before Christmas and perhaps a last chance for a few more lucky shots. Until next year, hope your Christmas and New Year’s holidays are joyful and safe, and thank you again for your interest and comments over this last annus horribilis.

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.

Blackwater Birds and Bugs

Blackwater NWR

 

I’m not a sissy, or at least I don’t think I am, but we all have our limitations.  Mine were revealed recently at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge near Church Creek on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.  I can show you gorgeous pictures of the tidal swamp with a sea of grasses seemingly extending to the horizon, only rarely interrupted by Loblolly pine islets and areas of shimmering open water.  If you’re lucky you might see a hunting harrier there, or I can show you pictures of the Bald Eagle pair, the fishing herons, or the splendid Red-headed Woodpecker.  But all these shots tell only half the story.

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

It was very hot, humid, and overcast.  We just had several days of rain and the air was still nearly saturated.  The lowlands of south Dorchester County are barely above sea level and undoubtedly were a few feet below sea level during the recent hurricane.  It all was a perfect stew for the bugs.  The people who  live here are hardy souls, they must be.  On that recent day the bugs, not the birds, drove the bus.  There were mosquitos the size of a Buick, biting flies, the green-headed and other varieties as well.  In a prior life I did minor surgery and would prepare my patients for the initial needle stick by warning they were about to feel a Dorchester County mosquito bite.  They all understood the analogy.

Downy Woodpecker, Picoides pubescens

The absence of other birders at the refuge should have been a clue, but I just had to get out and see some birds.  It was early for waterfowl, the refuge specialty, but one can always see eagles and waders there, or maybe even a shorebird migrant.  The reliable refuge did not disappoint.

Belted Kingfisher, Ceryle alcyon

So, when birding Blackwater NWR this time of year you need a strategy.  Stay in the truck and keep the windows up!  But if you’re a real birder and a real bird photographer this just will not do.  The second strategy is bug spray, gallons of it, coating every  square inch of clothing and hat, not just the exposed skin.  The only problem with this is the chemicals wreak havoc with your camera and lens, and some bugs seem un-phased by the odor.  Incidentally the odor does fend off other humans, including a spouse.  A more informative blog would run down the pros and cons of the various insect repellents on the market.  You’re on your own in this regard.

Royal Tern, Sterna maxima

Another strategy is to pick a windy day to blow the buggers away.  My day was dead calm.  So in the end I tried a combination of all of the above cruising Wildlife Drive with the windows up and the AC on.  As you all know, pictures through the window glass are not ideal and the vibrations from the running engine further degrades the image.  When you sight a bird you have to decide if it’s worth the risk of venturing out of the truck for a quick shot, and then diving back in before the bugs realize what’s happening.  Even in those brief moments some invariably sneak in and must be dealt with, smished on the inside glass.  Remember to pack a fly swatter.

Red-headed Woodpecker, Melanerpes erythrocephalus

In some cases you can park the truck across the trail, trying to create a good angle through an open side window, remembering to kill the engine first.  The motion of the opening window spooks some of the birds but this technique did give me that shot of the Red-headed Woodpecker above.  There must be a back story to that Bald Eagle pair I saw.  They looked like a couple who just had an argument and couldn’t bare to look each other in the eye.  Blackwater is a premier location on the East Coast to see these beauties.

Bald Eagles, Haliaeetus leucocephalus

The Kingfisher, Killdeer, and gulls were distant birds, causing me to yearn again for a 500 or 600mm lens, but they’re still only a dream at current prices.  Lunch was yogurt, granola, and a bottle of water, in the truck, windows up, and the local country music station cranked up loud; it was not all bad.

Killdeer, Charadrius vociferus

And the bugs were not all bad either.  It was just the biting ones and the resultant welts that irritated me.  But it’s also the season of the singing Cicadas and the clicking Crickets.  My urban grandson, visiting from his loud downtown apartment last summer, couldn’t fall asleep on our screened porch in the country because of the insect symphony.  His honking urban jungle, however, is never a problem.  Between bird sightings at Blackwater there was a good butterfly show.  I need to improve these skills but did see many Sulfurs (not sure if Clouded or Cloudless), a few Buckeyes, and of course the glorious Monarchs, likely just beginning their long migration to Mexico.

Monarch, Danaus plexippus

But there is a definite downside to birding like this, largely confined to the truck.  You miss the valuable auditory component, especially for the little songbirds that are often heard before seen.  You miss the fresh air and breeze, the smell of the tidal marsh, and the sorely needed exercise gained by trudging along the waterside trails.  Despite this it was a good day of birding–do you ever have a bad one?  You should check out Blackwater NWR.  In a few weeks the wintering waterfowl will be in, the bugs will be on the decline, and the scenery is something to behold.

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

I must take a moment to pay tribute to the recent passing of one of our area’s pre-eminent birders.  Les Roslund was a lifelong birder, first in the Mid West and later here on the East Coast.  His extensive knowledge was kindly shared with all, especially the new birders whom he was the first to welcome to the local birding club.  I frequently ran into Les birding alone at the Pickering Creek Audubon Center near his home.  He always asked what I was seeing, especially the sparrows, in which he had a keen interest and extensive knowledge.  He was a gentleman birder, a friend to us all, and will be sorely missed.

A Season For Nesting

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

 

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven”, Ecclesiastes 3:1.  The earth has just passed through the solstice and the seasons have changed yet again.  We have that 23 degree tilt to thank for this welcome variety in our lives.  For the birds the spring migration is over and some of the Arctic nesters are already beginning to feel the urge to head south.  But around here in Chesapeake country, nesting and all its attendant chores is in full swing.

House Wren, Troglodytes aedon

The first task is to choose a suitable site, one pleasing to her, for even in the avian world the female needs to be satisfied.  “Mr. and Mrs. Mallard were looking for a place to live.  But every time Mr. Mallard saw what looked like a nice place, Mrs. Mallard said it was no good.  There was sure to be foxes in the woods or turtles in the water, and she was not going to raise a family where there might be foxes or turtles.  So they flew on and on.”

Mallards, Anas platyrhynchos

That’s the first paragraph of Robert McCloskey’s 1941 classic, “Make Way For Ducklings” and is a favorite of our family.  Mrs. Mallard’s final choice in the middle of urban Boston’s Public Garden makes me question her judgement somewhat, but as the story goes, she did receive welcomed police protection.

Juvenile Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus

This spring I’ve noticed a significant decrease in the Tree Swallow population, leaving the yard’s birdhouses to the Eastern Bluebirds which have had a banner year.  But even their lives are not without controversy.  “Of all the houses, in all the yards, in all the world, this is the one you chose?”  The male bluebird can just hang is head in shame and vow to do better next year.

Eastern Bluebirds, Sialia sialis

I marvel at the variety of nesting strategies.  Some try to hide the nest from predators and the elements, deep in the leafy shrubs, while others nest in plain sight, oblivious to the risks.  The former nests only become apparent in the leafless winter when I’m surprised to see the vacated refuge, often near the front door.

Yellow Warbler, Dendroica petechia

The Killdeer, however, just scrapes a few stones together in the wide open driveway and hopes that I’ll avoid it with the truck, or that he’ll successfully fool me and lead me away with that phony injured wing routine.  Inexplicably the ancient Diamondback Terrapin follows the Killdeer’s lead as she crawls out of the muddy cove, lumbers across the lawn, and digs her nest right in the middle of the driveway.  This is just too easy pickings for the Raccoon and Black Snake who have a great appetite for the leathery turtle eggs, but who am I to argue with eons of evolutionary success.

Anhinga, Anhinga anhinga

The breadth of nesting materials is great, ranging from stones to the soft down lining the nests of passerines.  Larger birds use coarser sticks, more structurally suited to their weight and their exposed sites.  But the Osprey couple often don’t agree on the suitability of every stick.  I’ve observed the triumphant male, with great effort, fly in with a beauty, to my eye the perfect stick, and proudly present it to his mate for placement in the growing nest.  As soon as he flies away to find another she kicks it into the river, probably muttering something unkind under her breath.

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus

Since large nests are difficult to hide, the waders seek safety in numbers, nesting in large, noisy rookeries, often on a island populated by diverse species.  The Venice rookery in Florida, a favorite destination for me and many bird photographers, is a great example.  But one can never completely protect the nest.  J.J. Audubon has wonderfully captured the drama of a rattle snake attack on the Mockingbird nest as these birds valiantly rise to the defense of their young.  There will always be risks.

Mimus polyglottos by J. J. Audubon

Cavity nesters have more choices than ever before.  Bird lovers have made up for the disappearance of natural cavities by building birdhouses galore.  I’ve constructed many of the standard wood variety, but have recently tried a more durable version made from PVC pipe.  It is stark white and suffered a few years of vacancy before its contemporary style was finally accepted.  The Purple Martins, on the other hand, seem to have no problem with the crowded, multi-family, modern look.  To each his own.

Eastern Bluebird, Sialis sialis

Purple Martins, Progne subis

There’s also great variety in the chosen structure of the nest.  Many seem too precarious to be practical.  I refer to the Osprey again, attempting to build on the point of channel marker 2SD, right off our dock.  I suspect this is a juvenile bird, still learning the ropes.

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus

The least appealing in terms of materials, view, etc., are the nests of the Barn Swallows, plastered to the underside of a dock or the ceiling of a dingy porch or barn.  They seem perfectly content with their residential design, however, and who are we to judge.

Barn Swallow, Hirundo rustica

Don’t forget the swinging sacs carefully constructed by the Baltimore Oriole, but the world’s record for the sac design has to be the Baya Weaver’s amazing creation which we saw hanging in India several years ago.

Baya Weaver, Ploceus philippinus

I hate to bring them up again, but must remind you of the dastardly Cuckoos and and Cowbirds that just avoid the entire drudgery of nesting by their successful brood parasitism.  I just hope it doesn’t catch on.

Pileated Woodpecker, Dryocopus pileatus

Is the season of nesting initiated by temperature, hours of daylight, hormones, or some other deep rooted instinct that passes down through the generations?  Nesting is clearly not limited to the Aves.  The American Pregnancy Association clearly recognizes the nesting urge in Homo sapiens, usually, but not always, occurring in late pregnancy.  They have published guidelines to help expectant mothers channel their energy toward making their nests perfect for the new arrivals.

Brown-headed Nuthatches, Sitta pusilla

This nesting season, as they all do, will pass too quickly.  The fawns are already losing their spots and wandering independently.  The fledgling geese, although diminished in number by the Red Fox, are almost full grown.  The Bluebirds and Brown-headed Nuthatches are still busy feeding their chicks, but this also will end soon.  Their nests, like ours, will be empty.  For everything there is a season.

Spring Migration 2020

San Domingo Creek

 

It seems trite to observe that every year is different, but this year it is certainly true.  I migrated northward on four wheels via Interstate 95 at 70 miles per hour while the birds were paralleling my route overhead along the Atlantic Flyway.  They were somewhat slower than me but did not have to contend with bathroom breaks, masks, and gasoline.  My migration from South Florida to Maryland was a substantial 1100 miles, but many of the birds far surpassed this distance.

White-throated Sparrow, Zonotrichia albicollis

I’ve been away from my patch on San Domingo Creek, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, since the start of winter and Mother Nature, both its flora and fauna, have tried to take over.  The grass and weeds are out of control, limbs are down from winter winds that have even dislodged planks from the dock.  Deer, Red Fox, Squirrels, and Insects have had a lark with the vacant property.  Even some of the birds need to be put back into their proper place.  Homo sapiens has returned.

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

The White-throated Sparrows, Juncos, Loons, migrating Canada Geese, and Tundra Swans have all exited to the north, but countless migrators have moved in from the south to replace them.  The competition for territories, mates and nesting sites has begun in earnest.

Red-winged Blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus

The male Red-winged Blackbirds are early birds on the scene and stake out prime nesting sites along the brackish cove, hoping their choice of real estate, along with their pleading trill, entice a mate.  This bird is a short distance migrator with the Chesapeake near the northward margin of their wintering grounds.

Eastern Kingbird, Tyrannus tyrannus

A more accomplished migrant, the Eastern Kingbird, arrived at my patch before me and established its customary territory on the north side of the house in the old oaks.  They made the trip from the western Amazonia region of South America, perhaps eastern Ecuador or Peru.

Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos

I like to think of these flycatchers, wintering in the Andes but still retaining that vague recollection or imprinting on their brains that brings them back over the many miles to this specific patch they left last fall.  I gladly welcome them home and observe again the truce these feisty birds, (check out their Latin name) have arranged with the equally territorial  Northern Mockingbirds.  The Mockers were here all winter but seem to tolerate the Kingbirds, perhaps as a herald of spring and better days ahead.  Just stay on your side of the house.

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus

The Osprey also beat me home.  Luckily neighbors on both sides have platforms just off shore, so there was no need for me to crowd in another.  The fishing prowess and flight antics will provide a wonderful show all summer.  I’ve often wondered about their migration, given the year-round Osprey and active nests I see along Florida’s gulf coast all winter.

Northern Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis

I’ve learned that those Florida Osprey have become a non-migratory population, whereas our Chesapeake birds have wintered further south in the Caribbean and Central America.  As they overfly Florida you wonder if they ever look down with envy at their cousins who are enjoying a more sedentary life in the sunshine state.

Canada Geese, Branta canadensis

Speaking of nonmigratory, please make those ornery residential Canada Geese go away.  Every year their ranks grow and these bold, fat birds refuse to yield when I return home.  They’re giving geese a bad name in these parts.  The fall-seeded lawn is practically bare from their work and their turds fill the pool.  They are not dumb and have figured out that a half dozen in the middle of the mesh pool cover weighs it down enough to create their own private pond.  They have the audacity to honk at me when I break up the party and chase them away.  I did notice only one small gosling in the flock this year.  The Red Fox did look well fed when he pranced by yesterday.

Chipping Sparrow, Spizella passerina

The loud keyew, keyew, of the Osprey dominates the avian chorus on the waterside, but the newly arrive Chipping Sparrow holds its own on the land side of the patch, even among the residential choir of Northern Mockingbirds, Cardinals, and Carolina Wrens.  There seems to be more than ever of these rufous-headed migrators in the Loblolly pines.  They’ve wintered along the southern U.S. border, Mexico, and Central America.

Least Tern, Sterna antillarum

The Least Terns I saw fighting over a small fish, scolding each other with their high-pitched chippering, are also new arrivals.  Their wintering grounds are not well established, but is likely off the coasts of Caribbean islands and Central America.

Eastern Bluebird, Sialia sialis

I put new roofs on the bluebird houses last fall and am pleased to see a breeding pair move into the best water view house.  These are beautiful year round residents of the patch and at least this year they beat the migrating Tree Swallows to the prime real estate.  The swallows have returned from the southern states and Central America but will have to settle for the lower rent houses.

Tree Swallow, Tachycinrta bicolor

I tried to be a nice guy and hung the “squirrel proof” feeder by the pool, but those dastard varmints, frustrated by the cage, just ate through the hanging rope and enjoyed a feast when it crashed to earth and scattered the sunflower seeds.  But I fixed their wagon and won round one.  It now hangs by a steel cable.  The European Starlings are dumber, but equally persistent.  I’ve now cleared out their nest from the housing of the boat lift motor twice.  Last year it took five evictions before they learned.

Carolina Wren, Thryothorus ludovicianus

Yesterday the bird du jour on my patch walk was a Spotted Sandpiper seen bobbing along the cove’s mudflat at low tide.  I only got a brief look before it spooked, but the ID was definite.  This bird, our most widespread breeding sandpiper in North America, also migrated from Central and South America and may choose to breed here or continue further north into Canada.  I have yet to get a good picture of this shorebird.

Spotted Sandpipers, Actitis macularius                               J. J. Audubon

It’s the female of this species that arrives first in the spring, chooses a territory, and attracts an interested male.  When the eggs hatch the male takes on the leading parental role while the polyandrous female moves on to another mate.  How many times she pulls this off per season is unclear.

Northern Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis

My only other innovation this spring is a small solar-powered fountain to go in the large concrete birdbath.  I’m hoping the aeration will hold down the algae growth and cleaning chores.  The birds may also welcome an occasional shower.  The reviews seem too good to be true, but I’ll let you know.  In the meantime, stay well.

 

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.

Bird Photography with a Mirrorless Camera

Green Heron, Butorides virescens

 

Here’s the issue.  I’m not getting any younger or stronger and my current camera gear seems heavier everyday.  The Canon 7DII camera with the 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 lens is a great DSLR system, but even the wide, cushioned strap is wearing a groove in my shoulder.  We’re soon leaving on a long trip across the pond and the weight and compactness of luggage, including the camera bag, is of concern.

Red-bellied Woodpecker, Melanerpes carolinus

There is an ongoing revolution in photography that bears on this; I’m referring to the mirrorless cameras, lighter and smaller than their DSLR ancestors.  There is also a growing number of petite and sharp interchangeable lenses suitable for these newcomers.  Is it time for a change?  This would be a big deal for me.

White Ibis, Plegadis falcinellus

This post reflects the musings of a conflicted conservative bird photographer, somewhat slow to adapt, but at the same time attracted to new gadgets and innovations.  I’ll sprinkle it with my latest photos taken with the mirrorless technology, all from the last two weeks.  Hope it doesn’t bore.

Blue-headed Vireo, Vireo solitarius

A SLR camera (single lens reflex) has a flipping mirror with the light and image gathered through the lens and reflected by the mirror to an optical viewfinder.  When you press the shutter button the mirror flips, sending the light to the detector and the image is stored.  In our digital age this mechanical flipping mirror seems somewhat primitive.  Indeed your SLR camera only has a lifetime of several hundred thousand flips; this may seem like plenty, but we’re talking bird photography here.

Black Skimmers, Rynchops niger

Mirrorless cameras are not new.  Your point-and-shoot and cell phone camera are all mirrorless.  What is new is the availability of quality interchangeable lenses for these cameras, and the development of advanced image stabilization, auto-focusing protocols, and rapid exposures.  This allow them to rival the best DSLR’s.

Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata

The absence of the flipping mirror allows the camera body to be smaller and lighter.  The size of the detachable lens is governed by the detector size in the camera; Olympus and Panasonic have the smallest detectors (the micro four thirds), and hence the smallest and lightest lenses.

Limpkin, Aramus guarauna

After pouring over the internet reviews I decided to take the plunge and buy the Panasonic Lumix G9 and three of their lenses, knowing I could return some or all after a field trial.  Will this system even come close to the image quality of the staid Canon?

Panasonic left, with 50-200mm; Canon right, with 100-400mm lens

Delivery day felt like a childhood Christmas morning, but do they purposely frustrate you by sending uncharged batteries?  Three hours later I was finally ready to take some shots.  Battery life is an issue with these cameras.  You have no optical viewfinder; the image you see in the electronic viewfinder or rear LCD screen are digital images, direct from the detector which is always engaged and burning energy.  I now carry two extra batteries, just in case.

Chipping Sparrow, Spizella passerina

Some of these mirrorless cameras are actually too small, especially for big hands.  The telephoto lenses make them front heavy and awkward to use.  That’s one reason I selected the Lumix, one of the larger models.  I know, I’m already compromising on my goal of smaller and lighter.  Everyone needs one all-purpose “walk around” lens; one can’t bird all the time.  I selected the Panasonic 12-35mm F2.8 II for scenery and people shots.

Barred Owl, Strix varia

The dilemma now became the choice of a birding lens.  There are two reasonably priced possibilities in the Panasonic line-up and I field tested both.  They are the smaller 50-200mm F2.8-4.0, and the larger and heavier 100-400mm F4.0-6.3.  The larger is still significantly lighter and less bulky than my Canon gear.  Both are high quality glass with the smaller having the advantage of better low light performance and the larger having the better telephoto reach.  The acid test would be in the field.

Double-crested Cormorant, Phalacrocorax auritus

It’s as if the birds knew I was coming and headed for cover.  Finally I found a posing immature White Ibis along the Pelican Bay berm.  Big bird posing in bright light–no problem.  A better test was the smaller Blue Jay and Red-bellied Woodpecker that showed up near my bench in Freedom Park.  These initial shots were all encouraging.

Sanderlings, Calidris alba

When you change cameras, the biggest obstacle to overcome is with the user, not the equipment.  Knobs, buttons, dials, and screens that you previously controlled by instinct are all relocated.  They say changes like these are helpful in maintaining a nimble mind.  We’ll see.

Red-shouldered Hawk, Buteo lineatus

One intriguing new feature of the Panasonic is its “Pre-Burst Mode”.  So often we focus on a bird, waiting for the instant of flight, but end up with a beautiful shot of an empty branch.  With this new mode you focus on the bird with the shutter depressed half-way.  The camera starts saving multiple frames per second in a temporary buffer.  When the bird finally flies you depress the shutter button fully and the camera saves the shots seconds before, during, and after flight.  I’m still experimenting with this, but it does have promise.

Point Ybel Lighthouse

One day before leaving Florida for the season, I was astonished to see the long bird list for April sightings at Point Ybel on Sanibel Island.  Previously, when visiting the island I had proceeded directly to the famous Ding Darling Preserve, but this small park at the point is apparently a migration trap.  Warblers in particular were reported in large numbers there.  So I left the packing behind and headed to Sanibel with Andy and the new gear, for one last Florida birding hurrah.

Cape May Warbler, Dendroica tigrina

We were not disappointed.  Birds and birders galore intermingled with sun bathers near the base of the lighthouse.  I got to try out my system on these difficult flitting passerines.  The Cape May and Chestnut-sided Warblers stole the show with the Vireos, close behind.  We thought we also had a Nashville Warbler, but birding ID by consensus decided on a female Common Yellowthroat instead.  I’ve been fooled by that bird before.

Common Yellowthroat, Geothlypis trichas

Life is jam packed with compromises.  You can’t know it all, see, hear, read, or afford it all, and your time is short.  So you make choices.  Granted, the choice of a travel camera and lens is not monumental, but for a birder it is important.  I’ve decided to stick to my original goal of lightness, compactness, and versatility, knowing that I’d be sacrificing some reach.  I bought the Panasonic 50-200mm lens and head to Europe this week with it, leaving my Canon behind.

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.

 

Best Bird Photos of 2018

Rusty-margined Flycatcher, Myiozetetes cayanensis                      Panama

 

Where did the year go?  As we age each year accounts for a progressively smaller portion of our lifetime.  For me it was 1.5% this year.  Maybe that explains the racing clock.  As my life list approaches 1000 I have less and less time to photograph those other 9000 birds.  It’ll never happen.  Life lesson:  just treasure each year and photo as its own gift.

Eastern Meadowlark, Sturnella magna                                Florida

Most of my birding this year was domestic, with frequent visits to favorite local haunts.  Panama, this November, was the exception and supplied me with countless photo-ops of new and colorful birds.  I vowed, however, to not let those avian superstars dominant this post.

Painted Bunting, Passerina ciris                      Florida

In the course of the year I take 20 to 30,000 bird photos, quickly deleting over 95% of them.  That still leaves 1000 “keepers” that are cataloged by family and stored for eternity or until my hard drive crashes.  An initial run through those yielded about 50 or 60 finalists.  The hard part is trimming that list down to 25 for this year-end post.  I hope you enjoy the result.

Yellow-Romped Warbler, Dendroica coronata                      Florida

Each photo has a back story.  That “cover shot” of the flycatcher from Panama is not really an exotic bird, but just struck my fancy with the ruffled feathers-look and interesting composition.

Great Blue Heron, Ardea hernias                  Maryland

Each winter I try to visit the Ocean City, Maryland jetties to see what the wind and surf are blowing shoreward.  It is usually a brisk but rewarding outing.  Generally my shots from there show the seabirds swimming away, probably spooked by the telephoto lens and large lumbering birder.  The resultant rump shots are not great, but this year I hunkered low among the rocks and got some shots with them coming in for a closer look at the crazy birder.

Long-tailed Duck, Clangula hyemalis                    Maryland

Common Loon, Gavia immer                               Maryland

September, on Prince Edward Island, Canada, yielded great landscape shots but was a little wanting for avian photos.  I was struggling at dawn with some eiders in the surf, but they were hopelessly backlit by the rising sun.  Two crows were mocking my efforts from behind.  Finally, turning around to shoo them away, I noticed that the light was just perfect for a crow shot.  Not great birds, but a pleasing, well-exposed photo resulted; and they seemed to enjoy their 15 seconds of fame.

American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos                PEI, Canada

It’s extravagant to include two shots of any birds, but the colorful Eastern Meadowlark is a favorite of mine, often striking a photogenic pose.  My best shots of them are from the Dinner Ranch, a beautiful wide-open space in south central Florida, far from the maddening crowd.

Eastern Meadowlark, Sturnella magna             Florida

Let me add some ordinary yard birds to the posting.  The mockingbirds are the yard’s apparatchiks par excellence, one patrolling the south half and his comrade working the north side. They’ll chase away anything larger and threatening, but seem to temporarily meet their match when the kingbirds arrive each spring.  The wren gets the prize for best yard vocalist, while the cardinals add local color.

Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos        Maryland

Carolina Wren, Thryothorus ludovicianus            Maryland

Northern Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis                 Maryland

What bird portfolio is complete without some flying shots?  The swans and eagle were active during my recent trip to Blackwater NWR in Maryland, and the gawky stork, of course, graced the airways of Florida.

Tundra Swans, Cygnus columbianus                                   Maryland

Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus                               Maryland

Wood Stork, Mycteria americana                    Florida

The birds of prey on the Floridian fenceposts strike two quite opposite poses.  The caracara is confident of his appearance and proud of his status in the avian hierarchy, whereas the vulture hangs his head in shame.  Actually both humbly survive on roadkill.

Crested Caracara, Caracara cheriway             Florida

Black Vulture, Coragyps atratus                   Florida

Feeding shots always add some interest.  The gull and unlucky crab were seen on Nantucket, while the Anhinga and unfortunate sunfish were residents of a south Florida marsh.

Herring Gull, Larus argentatus                                          Nantucket

Anhinga, Anhinga anhinga                            Florida

I know a bird photographer worth his salt is not suppose to post posed shots, but I offer these anyway, for better or worse.  Isn’t it fascinating how a bird is so often found in a setting similar to its own coloring?  The pleasing background blur or bokeh is sought by photographers for these portrait shots and results from using a wide open aperture giving a narrow depth-of-field in focus.

Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia                                Maryland

Palm Warbler, Dendroica palmarum                               Florida

I’ve included a few shots because they remind me of key events of 2018, like the fledgling of the nuthatches from Mary & Gene’s feeder, or finally finding and photographing the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker with Andy at Babcock-Webb Preserve in Florida. There was the fallout of migrating warblers this spring at Naples Park, and, after years of trying, I finally got a decent photo of a Brown Creeper from the Blackwater NWR.

Brown-headed Nuthatch, Sitta pusilla                     Maryland

Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Picoides borealis    Florida

Cape May Warbler, Dendroica tigrina                           Florida

Brown Creeper, Certhia americana            Maryland

And lastly, let me add a few more colorful birds from Panama.  That trip with these new tropical life birds, as well as the heat and humidity of Central America are still vivid in my mind.  I’m reminded of it daily as I scratch the persistent chiggers, so loathe to finally leave me alone.  Onward to 2019.

Shining Honeycreeper, Cyanerpes lucidus    Panama

Blue-chested Hummingbird, Amazilia amabilis          Panama

Crowned Woodnymph, Thalurania colombica  Panama