Milestones of Birding

Sandhill Crane, Crus canadensis

It was meant to be a power walk, purely for exercise and Sunday morning fellowship with my spouse, but eventually my walk could not keep up with her power, and we separated, temporarily. Such a beautiful day it was, cool and crisp with just a hint of early fall color primarily in the sycamores and soybean fields. So there I was alone, in the midst of fall migration and great birding habitat, with no binoculars. It should not be a problem; this is what birders and observers of nature did for eons, pre-binocular. Just use your eyes, ears, and head, and pretend you are J. J. Audubon, absent the shotgun. And so I did.

Carolina Wren, Thryothorus ludovicianus

The Blue Jays, Carolina Wren, Cardinal, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Catbird, and Tufted Titmouse were all easy audible “sightings”. The Mockingbirds and soaring vultures were all clearly visible to the naked eye, but it took a little more discernment to separate the Turkey from the Black at that elevation. It’s the herkie-jerkie nervous flight of the slightly larger TV that makes this distinction for me. The flushed Northern Flickers were ID’ed by the white rump and undulating flight. It was satisfying to use GISS, just like the experts, (general impression, size, and shape).

Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata

But about the time my spouse rejoined me I was beginning to miss my binoculars. Several active small birds were feeding in the roadside shrubs, grayish with lighter bellies; perhaps gnatcatchers, kinglets, or vireos. I would never know. Audubon would have shot them and figured it out later when he mounted the corpse in a life-like posture and prepared his paints and easel. I, on the other hand, had to just walk away and rejoin the conjugal power walk. It all got me thinking about the early days of birding and the historical milestones that have made it so much easier, more efficient and enjoyable today.

Northern Flicker, Colaptes auratus

I cringe when I think of Audubon’s blasting birding and the sport of harvesting huge flocks of Passenger Pigeons and Carolina Parakeets in prior centuries, as if their numbers were infinite. At least Audubon only collected a few specimens and had their beauty and the advancement of science in mind. The other hunters were just out for a lark. Two things finally changed all that; binoculars and the Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

Turkey Vulture, Catharses aura

The optics of the early binoculars or “field glasses” were not ideal. Available as early as the 16th century they gave an inverted image with just a small field-of-view. One can only imagine trying to bird using this glass. The right-side-up prism design used today was invented by Ignatio Porro in 1854, and the clarity of the image took a leap forward with the superb glass manufactured by Carl Zeiss, starting in 1894. At last the subtle field marks of the flitting, living birds in the treetops were visible without bringing the specimen down with buckshot.

Black-necked Stilt, Himantopus mexicanus

The 1918 treaty between Canada, Great Britain, and the U.S. protecting birds was an interesting legal document. By using the international treaty format the federal government could override less stringent or contradictory state regulations. The law even disallows the collection of dead birds and their nests, feathers, and eggs, but does make numerous exceptions. Hunting game birds such as ducks, geese, and doves is understandably allowed, but surprisingly, other birds such as cranes, stilts, plovers, and sandpipers are not protected. Native Americans are given an exemption for religious reasons, but still, over 800 species are safer today due to this law.

Gray Catbird, Dumetella carolinensis

With most birds protected, at least on this continent, and with excellent glass available, the time was ripe for Roger Tory Peterson’s first modern “Field Guide to the Birds” published in 1934. It was a hit, quickly selling out the first edition and has remained popular for many years in 5 subsequent editions. His skillful illustrations of the birds and his technique of pointing out their most significant field marks, revolutionized birding and introduced many new generations of birders to the hobby, including me. There are now innumerable similar guides covering every county, state, and country. I know; I own many, too many.

Guides also come in flesh and blood. These human experts, at least in today’s numbers, are a relatively new milestone of birding, and easily contacted and engaged on the internet. They have enhanced my birding life immeasurably, both domestically and overseas. Stateside this includes guides at Cape May, the Rio Grande Valley, and on Monterey Bay, and during international birding in Argentina, Italy, India, Panama, England, Finland, and Norway. Every one of these guides made the excursions productive and memorable.

Red-breasted Nuthatch, Sitta canadensis

My list of milestones is much longer, but unfortunately, including them all would make this post too long and unwieldy, but might be perfect for a Part II someday. It would include eBird and phone apps, efforts to protect habitats, photo-birding, and the proliferation of bird feeders and back-yard birders. I’m sure you can think of more milestones.

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus

I lost a dear friend and neighbor today, not from the virus but rather succumbing to a far more sinister disease after a several year-long struggle to live. He was a fellow sailor and avid reader; a retired NASA engineer who used this same calm logic to cope with his illness, right to the end. He was not a birder per se but became a keen observer of the comings and goings of the Osprey to the platform he had constructed within easy view from his sunroom. My last conversation with him was in this sunroom. He expressed disappointment that the birds did not seem to breed successfully or raise a family this year. I reassured him that they were likely yearlings, practicing nest building and fishing, so next season, when they return, they could move up to the rigors of parenting. He seemed satisfied with that explanation and the testimony that life will go on. May he rest in peace.

Birding While Kayaking

Glossy Ibis, Plegadis falcinellus

 

When bit by the birding bug your behavior becomes bizarre, according to belittling bystanders.  Be that as it may.  One of our traits is the need to bird constantly.  As you know, birding can be accomplished at many levels of intensity.  There’s the full court press of binoculars, scopes, telephoto lenses, guidebooks, and computers on the one extreme, and the casual noting of birdsong and flyovers as you live the rest of your life, on the other.

Belted Kingfisher, Ceryle alcyon                    (click to zoom)

I’ve birded while sailing (see a prior posting), during a pelagic expedition off the coast of California (another prior posting), and now while kayaking.  I can testify that the latter is the most rewarding aqueous birding for me.  A kayak allows a stealthy approach to the quarry, the bird almost accepting you as part of the water.  There’s no flapping sail, noisy engine, or chumming (either intentional or due to sea-sickness).  As opposed to a tippy canoe, with a kayak you sit right down in the water, at eye level with the surface, giving a pleasing angle for viewing or photography.

Least Tern, Sterna antillarum

A couple practical hints:  wear gloves to avoid blisters, plan on getting wet (you might want to leave your expensive photography equipment on dry land), and if in a dual kayak, take the back seat (you get to steer, the other person can’t whack you with the paddle, and you can take a clandestine break while your partner keeps paddling).  Also, check the boat for varmints.  I keep my kayak turned over on the bank and wasn’t aware I had a large black snake onboard until well underway.  So much for the birding that day.

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus

I’ve birded from a kayak in the mangrove swamps of southwest Florida and near home on tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay.  The Florida excursion was with six people in three boats.  The leading kayak contained the alpha males whose quest was to traverse the swamp and inland waterway and make it to the Gulf of Mexico and unknown distant shores as quickly as possible.  The second boat was made up of young, physically fit bones that could paddle all day.  They weren’t really interested in birds.  The last boat was mine, with two sixty something year old birders trying to keep up and see some interesting birds.  I was in the stern seat.

A mangrove tunnel, from the back seat

The mangrove swamps south of Naples bordering the gulf coast are an extensive tropical tidal ecosystem covering 2700 square kilometers and sometimes extending up to 30 miles inland.  They are the final watershed of the Everglades and Great Cypress Swamp.  The mangrove are crisscrossed by a myriad of navigable tunnels and a few wider waterways.  Its very easy to get turned around and lost if you don’t keep up with your leader, assuming he knows where he’s going.  A handheld GPS is invaluable.

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

White Ibis, Eudocimus albus

We saw no rarities, but that did not detract from the adventure.  A Bald Eagle perched high on a tall pine bade us adieu as we entered the swamp.  The most common birds were egrets, herons, and ibises, with an occasional kingfisher.  I have yet to see a Mangrove Cuckoo.  We packed subs from Subway and passed the perfect sandy island on the way in, with plans to stop for lunch there on the return trip.  But time and tides wait for no man and we settled for lunch standing on this submerged island in 12 inches of water a few hours later.  It was still welcome food and a chance to stretch.

Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus

There are no mangroves in the Chesapeake Bay.  My Eastern Shore is characterized by uncountable tidal creeks, ideal for kayaking.  These are not your typical babbling brooks one thinks of as a “creek”, but rather wide, sometimes as wide as a half mile, of irregular fingers of the vast shallow estuary.  Think oysters, crabs, bluefish and rock bass, as well as sailing and kayaking.

Willey’s Island

My local destination is usually Willey’s Island, one of the bay’s many disappearing islands.  People tell me that at one time there was an active farm on the property.  I have watched it shrink for 20 years till now its just several sand spits, and small surviving uplands with its shore littered by fallen trees.  More succumb with each storm.  There was a single majestic pine on one end of the island, a favorite perch of a local Bald Eagle.  It now has died, has wet feet, and will topple over soon.

The Eagle Tree

The rising sea level is not the only explanation for the disappearing islands.  I’m told that the land itself is actually sinking due to deep geologic events.  These factors together have made these silt and clay islands vulnerable to shoreline erosion.  There are no stabilizing natural rocky shores in the Chesapeake Bay.

Toppled trees along the shoreline

My recent kayak trip to the island showed that a Cormorant had taken over my dying Eagle tree.  Chattering Least Terns are more numerous than Forster’s this year, and I wonder where all the sea gulls have gone.  Most years we’re overrun with Ring-billed and Laughing Gulls by now, but this year, nary a one.  My clean dock is evidence of this.  The Osprey continue to increase in number.  There is a housing crisis for them with now almost every channel marker sporting a nest, even the triangular red markers with the pointed top.

Nesting Osprey

A birder has a subliminal urge to keep birding in some form, to fight the passage of time.  Older legs may no longer be able to scale the peaks to see the alpine birds, or endure the transoceanic flights to other continents.  Florida’s mangroves are under development pressure and the Chesapeake’s islands are disappearing.  The birds are adjusting and evolving, but the rate of change seems to be accelerating and some may not survive.  The time, tide, and birds wait for no man.  Good birding, while you can, and try out a kayak.

 

 

 

 

Birding Rajasthan India

 

Lesser Goldenback, Dinopium benghalense

 

Prior to this trip India conjured up jungles, heat, and humidity, to my naive mind.   I got the heat part correct, but in addition to the jungles there are vast, dusty, and arid deserts, especially in Rajasthan, a state in the northwest bordering Pakistan.  I was lucky to have a front, wide-windowed seat on our tour bus ride from Agra to Jaipur.  The driver’s name was Veer and his assistant was Ram, perfect monikers and appropriate for our survival in the Indian traffic encountered on the 200 kilometer trip into the Thar Desert of Rajasthan.  You’re not just dodging other cars, buses, trucks, and motor scooters, but also cows, goats, dogs, camels, and even an occasional elephant.

This is the colorful land of the Maharajas and their ancient forts and lavish palaces.  We spent two nights in Jaipur, the pink city, and three in Udaipur, the romantic city on the shore of Lake Pichola.  I could spend the entire post extolling their beauty, but after all this is still a birding blog.  I tried birding while sight-seeing, even from the back of a lumbering elephant, but to no avail.  The best birding was on the grounds of our hotels in the early morning before breakfast, or in the late afternoon after returning from the sights and shops.

The Oberoi Udaivilas

The two hotels Tauck selected for our tour of Rajasthan, The Oberoi Rajvilas in Jaipur, and The Oberoi Udaivilas in Udaipur, are among the best hotels in India and in the entire world.  You feel like Rajput royalty as you wander, open-mouthed, in the gorgeous landscaped gardens, between reflecting pools and meditation sites.  I admit this was “soft core” birding, never far from a pool-side bar, chaise, or dining veranda, but the birds were plentiful, colorful, and almost all were life birds for me.

Coppersmith Barbet, Megalaima haemacephala

My first bird in Jaipur was a posing Shikra, right outside our room.  The widespread resident accipiter is very similar in size to our Cooper’s Hawk.  I was concentrating on the hawk when a couple of helpful British twitchers pointed out a Spotted Owlet on a nearby tree.  The owl hung around that tree for both days and we took far too many pictures of the photogenic bird.

Shikra, Accipiter badius

Spotted Owlet, Athene brama

The shots of the Lesser Goldenback may have been the star of Jaipur, however the Asian Koel and a family of rummaging Grey Francolins were close runners up.  We saw 15 different birds at that hotel.  I was truly amazed and appreciative when a hotel staff person, observing my interest in the birds, presented me with a lovely book of birds photographed on the hotel grounds by other employees.  Hospitality extraordinaire.

Asian Koel, Eudynamys scolopaceus

The setting of The Oberoi Udaivilas on the shore of Lake Pichola was even more impressive and the birds more abundant.  I elected to forgo a shopping spree in town to have more time to explore the hills, gardens, and shoreline of the property.  The Wire-tailed and Streaked-throated Swallows were found perched on a lakeside fence.  In the trees near a children’s playground I found an Indian Golden Oriole, Common Iora, Coppersmith Barbet, Common Tailorbird, and many Purple Sunbirds.

Common Iora, Aegithina tiphia

Green Bee-eater, Merops orientalis

I’d always wanted to see a Bee-eater (they really eat bees after carefully extracting the venom), and was rewarded with a beautiful pair.  The bird-of-the-day was a Indian Grey Hornbill flying in for lunch carrying a doomed lizard.  This is a bizarre appearing bird with a prominent dark casque arising from the upper mandible.  The casque is apparently a call resonator, but some hornbills are known to use it as a battering ram against other hornbills.

Indian Grey Hornbill, Ocyceros birostris (look closely to see the tail of the lizard hanging from the beak)

Common Tailorbird, Orthotomus sutorius

Udaipur was our last stop before returning to Delhi and bidding farewell to our touring companions.  In just twelve short days you develop some warm friendships that you hope to maintain, but know that it may not happen.  Our Tauck Director for the “Spotlight On India” tour was superb, blending his extensive knowledge of Indian history and culture with countless practical dietary, shopping, and general travel tips.  Peter Pappas has directed tours in 165 countries and all 7 continents, but claims that India is his favorite destination.  I believe him since his love for the land and its people is clearly evident.  He is highly recommended if India becomes your destination.  http://www.tauck.com/tours/asia-travel/india-travel.aspx

Wire-tailed Swallow, Hirundo smithii

Purple Sunbird, Cinnyris asiaticus

But we birders, all six of us, were not yet ready to leave the subcontinent.  As good as the tour was, we wanted time to relax, process photographs, and do some laundry before setting off again to discover parts of India off the beaten track.  We looked forward to new birding hotspots and many more birds.  While our friends boarded International flights for home we took a local Air Indigo flight to Hyderabad.  Stay tuned.

Birding in Bean Town

Boston Commons

Boston Common

 

Urban birding is a whole new kettle of fish for me.  That’s not to say it doesn’t have its unique and satisfying aspects, however the rural birder needs to adapt, just as the birds have.  I visited my daughter’s family in Bean Town, aka Boston, this November.  They are hooked on the urban life style; no car, high-rise accommodations, small footprint, public transportation, walking, etc., and I see its healthy appeal.  New birding possibilities became apparent on day one when my grandson pointed out the window at the sunset “bird show”.  We were looking down from the 25th floor at a feeding flock of Ring-billed Gulls soaring far below.

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House Sparrow (female), Passer domesticus

House Sparrows and Feral Pigeons are the low-hanging fruit in any city but if you look harder and are fortunate to be in a metropolis which has developed some green spaces, you will be rewarded.  The urban birds, residents and migrators, are seeking out and concentrated in those same green oases.  My first challenge was getting used to the loud traffic noise, sirens, screaming children and the general din of the city drowning out the birds.  Hustling pedestrians have little regard for a birder sneaking up on a rarity.  Despite it all I saw some good birds.

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Ovenbird, Seiurus aurocapilla

There were some pleasant surprises.  Cold, frosty morning–not a problem, there’s a Starbucks across the street.  Hungry–just visit the Panera Bread around the corner.  Right foot acting up–stop by the local CVS for Advil.  Want to check out another site–just hop on the subway for $2.25 and surface across town in just minutes.

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Common Yellowthroat (female), Geothlypis trichas

Do you remember the “Big Dig”?  This was the largest and most costly highway project in our country’s history.  In the 1950’s the Boston developers built the “highway in the skies”, elevating the central artery through the heart of the city darkening the stores and streets below.  By the 1980’s planners sought to correct this by burying several miles of Interstate 93.  Construction woes persisted from 1991 through 2007 plagued by cost overruns, leaks, poor design, poor materials, criminal arrests, etc.  Tax payers were left holding the bag for a project which initially was supposed to cost $2.8 billion but ended up at $14.6 billion.

Greenway

The Rose Kennedy Greenway

But there was and is light at the end of this tunnel.  What to do with the vacated space left by the buried highway was the question of the day.  It could have been developed commercially but greener heads prevailed and today there is an amazing linear park curving through the heart of Boston from Chinatown to the North End.  This “Rose Kennedy Greenway” was my first stop for several mornings of great urban birding.

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This park has had several years to mature and is a creative mixture of trees, lower shrubs and ground cover traversed by winding gravel paths.  They’ve held the lawns and concrete portions to a minimum and have been rewarded with a vote of approval from the birds. During two morning visits I saw 13 species including a Hermit Thrush, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Ovenbird, and Common Yellowthroat.  The e-Bird Hot Spot indicates 102 species have been seen there.

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Red-tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis

Christopher Columbus Park is near the northern end of the Greenway and perfectly suited for a lunch break at American Joe’s waterfront restaurant.  Near the entrance I saw a Red-tailed Hawk in an evergreen, also breaking for lunch with small feathers still hanging from its claws and beak.  While sampling some delicious clam chowder and watching a Ring-billed Gull perched just outside my window, I saw a Peregrine Falcon shoot by in pursuit of a Feral Pigeon–it doesn’t get any better than this.

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Ring-billed Gull, Larus delawarensis

The staid, historic and central green space in Boston is the large Common and adjacent Public Gardens occupying 74 acres near the western edge of “Old Boston”.  The Common has the traditional landscape of urban parks with crisscrossing paths, hills, statues, and beautiful old trees.  Despite the obvious beauty, (see the opening photo in the post), the lack of understudy plantings makes the birding there somewhat meagre, at least during my visits.  The Public Gardens is a gorgeous manicured green space with a large central pond, walking bridge, swan boats, and the famous and growing family of mallards, the stars of the classic children’s book, “Make Way For Ducklings”, by Robert McCloskey.  Other birds, however, were scarce, at least in November.

Post Office Square

Post Office Square

Post Office Square, aka Norman B. Leventhal Park, is a small 1.7 acre green oasis in the heart of the financial district surrounded by towering buildings, old and new.  This space does have low bushes and grasses and attracted a large flock of foraging White-throated Sparrows, I suspect newly arrived from the north.  e-Bird Hot Spot reports 92 species have been seen in this small, charming space.

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White-throated Sparrow, Zonotrichia albicollis

Mount Auburn Cemetery, though not actually within Boston, has to be included on any birders description of local sites.  It is located near the border of Watertown and Cambridge just north of Boston.  Take the Red Line to Harvard Square and Bus 71 or 73 to the cemetery and you will experience a birding and landscaping treat.  Countless winding roads and paths over hills and between tombstones create a reverential atmosphere. The autumn beauty is difficult to capture with words.  I published an earlier post just about this site on February 4, 2015.  My location life list at Mt. Auburn is 36 species but e-Bird Hot Spot reports 225 species seen over the years.  I always end my walk through the cemetery with a short visit to our family plot where both my parents are interred.  Mount Auburn will obviously remain a birding and personal destination for me, hopefully for years to come.

Mount Auburn Cemetery

Mount Auburn Cemetery

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.

Memorial Day 2016

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You never lived to see

What you gave to me,

One shining dream of hope and love

Life and Liberty.

With a host of brave unknown soldiers

For your company you will live forever

Here in our memory.

from “Requiem for a Soldier” by Michael Kamen and Frank Musker

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American Cemetery at Normandy, France

 

 

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Omaha Beach

 

 

Bald Eagle

 

 

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Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, San Diego

 

We’ll Never Forget

 

Sweet April Birding

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With thee the swallow dares to come

And primes his sutty wings

And urged to seek their yearly home

Thy suns the Martin brings

And lovley month be leisure mine

Thy yearly mate to be

Tho may day scenes may brighter shine

Their birth belongs to thee

John Clare

Tree Swallows

Tree Swallow (click on any photo to zoom)

So much has happened since I left the Chesapeake region 3 weeks ago.  The Tree Swallows, Forster’s Terns, Chipping Sparrows, and Osprey have returned and the Canada Geese have left.  I still heard one White-throated Sparrow in the underbrush, but he was nearly drowned out by the cacophony of other morning calls. The symphony includes the continuous trill of the sparrow, the endless repertoire of the mimics, and the territorial postings of the blackbirds and Osprey along the creek.

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Brown Thrasher

The early morning walk was just perfect.  The new leaves have their varied hues of light green, the air is still cool, the slanting light just right for photography, and the smell of wet dirt and fresh blossoms makes me agree with Clare’s “sweet april”.  Most of these photos were taken on that late April walk.

Chipping Sparrow

Chipping Sparrow

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Male Red-winged Blackbird staking out the territory

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while female Red-winged blackbird works at nest-building

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Northern Cardinal

Brown-headed Cowbird

Brown-headed Cowbird, likely celebrating the laying of an egg in another bird’s nest.

House Finch

House Finch

Osprey

Osprey with one more stick for the nest

Thou lovley april fare thee well

Thou early child of spring

Tho born where storms too often dwell

Thy parents news to bring

Yet what thy parting youth supplys

No other months excell

Thou first for flowers and sunny skyes

Sweet april fare thee well

                                                                                                                   John Clare

The two verses by John Clare are from The Shepherd’s Calendar chapter entitled “April”, first published in 1827. The work was compiled and edited by Eric Robinson and Geoffrey Summerfield, and republished by Oxford Press in 1964.

The Saga of the New Lens

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Every bird photographer has experienced “lens envy” and I’m no exception.  I was the happy owner of the Canon 400mm f/5.6L for many years.  This extremely sharp lens was introduced in 1993 and is still available at a reasonable price.  I have taken many exquisite photos with it and have recommended it to others.  It’s about the largest and heaviest telephoto one can carry comfortably while birding.  I’m no fan of the huge lenses one sees on tripods being transported through the woods and across sandy beaches in baby carriages.

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America Bittern (click on any photo to zoom)

Then along came the new Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II.  I reluctantly read the reviews, as I didn’t want to be tempted.  They were all stellar.  I stiffened my resolve and refused to upgrade and spend more money–“if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it”.  Then one of my birder/photographer friend bought it and began applying subtle pressure.  I saw that it was quite good, albeit slightly heavier than my old standby.  His photos were beautiful and sharp, but not really that much better than mine.  I carried on with my 400mm for another 6 months, but slowly came to recognize the capabilities of this new lens.

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American Bittern, at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Florida

The zoom feature is a big plus.  With the fixed 400mm I would often miss a great shot if the bird was too close.  By the time I backed up to get it in focus, the bird would be gone.  The ability to shoot down to 100mm with the zoom feature also makes the lens much more versatile. You can actually take some people and landscape shots while birding without changing lenses.

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Blue-headed Vireo

Also the old lens did not have image stabilization (IS).  I learned to compensate for this by keeping the exposures fast, 1/000 or faster but that, in turn, often required grainy high ISO settings, especially when shooting in low light.  IS allows slower shutter speeds and lower ISO settings, if the bird is still, resulting in sharper pictures. It also lets you to see the bird more clearly through the viewfinder facilitating a difficult ID. Additionally it allows you to place the point focus exactly where you want it on the bird.

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Carolina Wren

So as the title suggests, I finally succumbed and made the purchase.  Non-birders may not understand this, but waiting for the UPS truck to deliver a new lens brings to mind “visions of sugar plums” dancing in children’s heads on Christmas Eve.  You can even track the delivery across the country on the internet right to your front door.  I was ready and waiting when “Brown” arrived. I carefully unpacked the new baby, screwed on the new UV filter, and attached it to the camera–in my case the Canon 7D Mark II.  Remember to always save the packing.

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Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

The first shots taken around the house seemed OK on the camera LCD, but the acid test would be bird photos.  A trek to the mangrove swamp yielded numerous shots of wading herons and egrets.   My anticipation grew while the images loaded into the computer.  Disappointment.  These were not sharp and crisp images.  When you zoom to maximum on a bird’s eye, the glint of light should be perfectly sharp with a good lens and camera.  It was not.  I rechecked my exposure factors and they all seemed OK.  Maybe it was just a cloudy day.  I decided to try again the next day in better light but began to wonder if I should have been content with the old lens.

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Red-bellied Woodpecker

The next day in bright sunshine things were no better.  I took hundreds of shots and there wasn’t a sharp one in the bunch.  More doubt crept in.  Was it me, the camera, or just a bad copy of this lens?  I knew it wasn’t the camera since it produced great photos with the old lens. That left me and the lens.  I explained my issues to B&H Photos in New York.  They tactfully told me a bad lens would be highly unusual, but asked if I had checked the focus micro adjustments?  Dead silence from me as I wondered what he was talking about.  Again, tactfully they explained that camera setting and how to check it.

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Ovenbird

There is a great You-Tube video available describing how to check and make micro adjustments on your camera.  Sometimes a lens focus plane can be slightly in front of or behind the autofocus point you see in the viewfinder, leading to unsharp images.  This is tested by placing the camera on a tripod and aiming at a precise spot on a grid or ruler from a 45 degree angle.  Use a delayed shutter release to eliminate camera shake.  When you review the picture the best focus point should be exactly where you aimed.  If it is not spot on, you can adjust the camera.  I did this many times and got very inconsistent results–some focused behind the point and others too far forward.  It must be a bad lens.  With another call to B&H, they immediately agreed to replace the lens.

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Prairie Warbler

This time I awaited “Brown’s” arrival with apprehension.  Bad news.  It was deja vu all over again–the pictures were still not sharp.  I couldn’t possibly have received two lemons of this revered lens and I can’t call B&H again–they’ll think I’m crazy.  My friend with the identical camera and lens made a sympathetic house call to calm me down and compare our settings.  They all matched. So we headed out into the field for some birding shots, swapping cameras and interchanging lenses.  Finally, he suggested I remove the lens filter and shoot “naked”.  I have always used a UV filter primarily to protect the lens from dust and scratches.  EUREKA!  Problem solved!  The pictures were tack sharp. There is order in the universe!  It was always the filter.

Palm Warbler

Palm Warbler

So what have I learned from all this?  First, Canon makes great products and B&H gives exceptional customer service.  Second, do not cover your great lens with a cheap filter and always listen to the advice of a friend who knows more about photography than you.  Next, be aware of the camera micro adjustments even though you’ll probably never have to use them.  And finally, always save the packing material, even for the UV filter.

Most of the photos in this post were taken with the new lens minus the troublesome filter.  The Canon 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L II is truly a great lens.

A Thanksgiving Dilemna

 

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J. J. Audubon’s Wild Turkey

Every Thanksgiving this controversy comes up; should our national bird and symbol be the Bald Eagle with its strength and majesty, but also other less desirable traits, or as Benjamin Franklin implied, the Wild Turkey?

On July 4, 1776, the day that representatives of the 13 colonies boldly signed the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain, they also named a committee to create a national seal.  It seems to me they might have had more urgent issues at hand, but apparently a unifying symbol of power was important to them.  Nevertheless it took 6 years and 3 different committees before the final design by Charles Thomson was adopted in 1782.

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The Bald Eagle, the central element of the final design, was only added to the last version of the seal.  The initial committee was made up of the patriots Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams.  Franklin suggested the seal contain a scene from Exodus with Moses leading his people to the Promised Land.  Jefferson favored a depiction of the Children of Israel in the wilderness, while Adams pushed for a painting called the “Judgement of Hercules” depicting the choices of a quick and easy path, versus the more difficult path to glory.

Final Seal of 1782

Final Seal of 1782

A second committee of lesser knowns came up with a simpler flag-like design and a seated Lady Liberty, but it still contained no bird.  A third committee finally included a bird, but it was a rooster perched on a crest!  Sanity finally prevailed and the bird was changed to a generic eagle at first, and then to a Bald Eagle.  It holds 13 arrows in the talons on one side and an olive branch on the opposite side, symbolizing the preparedness for war along the desire for peace.

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Current version

So what about Ben Franklin’s objection to the eagle?   In 1783 the  Society of Cincinnati was founded to preserve the ideals and fellowship of the officers of the Continental Army.  It also chose the Bald Eagle as its insignia, and it was this, and not the new national emblem, that led to Franklin’s famous comments in a private letter to his daughter.  “For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the representative of our country.  He is a bird of bad moral character.  He does not get his living honestly.  You may have seen him perched on some dead tree near the river where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labor of the fish hawk; and when that diligent bird has at length taken a fish and is bringing it to its nest for the support of its mate and young ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.”

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“He is therefore by no means a proper emblem of the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven off the Kingbirds from our country…I am on this account not displeased that the figure…looks more like a turkey, for the turkey is in comparison a much more responsible bird…He is besides, a little vain and silly, a bird of courage and will not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his farm with a red coat on.”

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Wild Turkey, Florida Osceola subspecie (I took this photo after the publication of this post)

Anatole Kovarsky creatively envisioned what our national seal with a turkey would like on a New Yorker cover in 1962.  What do you think?

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So what’s my preference?  You may have noticed that I have no turkey photos suitable for posting.  I find the bird somewhat shy and elusive, usually seen in small flocks scratching for food at a great distance along the edge of a hardwood forest or field.  It is certainly not an attractive species and I agree with Franklin’s “silly” but wonder at his “courageous” modifier.  Interestingly both birds have fallen on various hard times and their survivals’ threatened.  The turkey was hunted out of much of its range but reintroduced successfully in the 1940’s, and is now found in all the lower 48 states.  The eagle suffered from habitat loss in the 1800’s from the clearing of the forests, and then was close to extinction in the 20th century before we learned the link between DDT, calcium metabolism and soft eggshells.  Since DDT was banned in 1972 it has made a dramatic comeback, very evident in the Chesapeake Bay and elsewhere.

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Blackwater NWR, Dorchester County, Maryland

Okay, the Bald Eagle has some issues, but who among us is perfect?  The dramatic appearance of that dark brown body contrasting with the snow white head and tail and the golden yellow of its beak, legs and talons is a thing of beauty.  The impressive size and regal bearing, with those piercing eyes and powerful beak certainly send a message.  The majestic sight of a Bald Eagle in flight will always bring on a thrill.  Sorry Ben, I think we got this one right.

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Bald Eagles Scavenging, San Domingo Creek, Saint Michaels

Tyrannus tyrannus, The Eastern Kingbird

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In my last post I declared the Osprey as the “king bird” of my yard on the Chesapeake Bay.  Since then I received some guff from another corner. The smaller, tuxedoed, bird that formally lays claim to the moniker Kingbird, can back this up with the Latin genus and species of Tyrannus tyrannus and its aggressive behavior toward any other bird, big or small.  You’d normally expect the “king” to be large predator like a buteo or maybe an eagle, not a smallish bird that eats flies.  But despite its size this bird is clearly the territorial policeman.

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Breeding pair

As flycatchers go this one is relatively large.  I’ve been thinking about it these days as it’s about to take off for South America.  We’ll miss its antics.  As the yard’s enforcer it will attack any bird flying over its territory including the much larger crows, herons, and even other stray kingbirds.  Even the Blue Jays shrink from the king.  Luckily the Osprey are fish-eaters and not a direct threat to the Kingbirds.  They seem to tolerate each other in the yard, even with nearby nests, and both leave for the south and return in the spring at about the same time.

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Even though this bird is not a visitor to feeders and bird baths, it is relatively easy to spot.  Look especially for the white narrow band at the tip of the tail.  Rarely you may glimpse a small red crown feather when the bird is displaying.  Like a king, this birds perches majestically in plain sight on trees and shrubs scanning for bugs.  Its efficient aerial hawking for bugs usually results in his return to the same branch, time after time.  This trait allows the observer, and especially the photographer time to set up the perfect shot.  This bird is not like the elusive warbler that will not sit still.

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The Eastern Kingbird, like other Tyrant flycatchers, is in the suboscine group of passerines that have a primitive syrinx and resultant simple song repertoire, likely in-bred rather than learned.

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Unfortunately, all its behavior is not regal.  The Kingbird is an intra-specific brood parasite.  Apparently the stress of wearing the crown occasionally gets just too great and the burden of feeding another mouth too much to bear, and she will lay an egg in the nest of another Kingbird.  At least it’s another Kingbird nest and only a sporadic trait, but this, after making such a scene of defending its own nest and territory seems so hypocritical.

Northern Cardinal, (the post just needed a little more color)

Northern Cardinal, (the post just needed a little more color)

This fall, when these birds head south, they’ll really go all the way, leaving the continent for the warmth of the Amazon River Basin.  Their behavior also changes in S. America where they become much more gregarious, living in flocks.  Even their diet changes to include fruit.  When they return next spring, there is a good chance that it will be the same bird, meeting the same mate, and perching on the same tree.  The reign continues.