Civilization?

Canada Geese, Branta canadensis

I’m again reminded at how fast “nature” attempts to undo our efforts at civilizing the world. When we recently returned home to Chesapeake country after six months in Florida the meadow around the house was three feet tall, the deer, red fox, and ground hog were crisscrossing the land as if it was theirs, turtles were digging nests in the the weed covered gravel driveway, and the starlings were nesting in my boat lift cover again. At least the eagle decoys had spooked the geese into the neighbor’s greener pastures

Eastern Bluebird, Scalia sialis

We returned late this season; the forsythia blooms were long gone and the daffodils had just passed their peak, but the peonies were still bursting upward, inches every day. The watermen on the bay had put away their oyster tongs and were now running the trotlines and netting the delectable Blue Crabs. The corn was two inches tall and it will soon be summer with crabs, sweet corn, and strawberry shortcake on the menu. But first I would have to regain control of this yard.

Barn Swallow, Hirundo rustica

It occurs to me that we humans are also a part of the natural world, seeking to survive and create a safe abode. My house is in many ways similar to the Osprey nest built on the channel marker or the Barn Swallows who build their muddy home under the dock. The difference is the width of the swath our species cuts, at least in its modern version.

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus

Another difference is our unique awareness of the effects of our swath on the world and our attempts to mitigate them. The bay is clearer and the underwater grasses more abundant than in prior decades and the air is cleaner. We can celebrate these improvements knowing that there is still work to be done.

European Starlings, Sturnus vulgaris

On my recent road trip through middle America I traced in reverse the route of the European colonists who finally broke through the Appalachian Mountains at Cumberland Gap and elsewhere into the unspoiled lands of Kentucky, Tennessee, and later into Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri. They understandably cleared land for planting, hunted the abundant game, and built their hovels, filling a new niche, much different than that of their nomadic forerunners.

Missouri River at Eagle Bluffs

I crossed the mighty Mississippi and Missouri Rivers which still scoff at our human efforts to control them by periodically flooding their banks. We build dikes and dams, but cannot completely stem the flow. I birded one of these areas, Eagle Bluffs, on the banks of the Missouri, near Columbia. This is a 4400-acre wetlands and marsh providing habitat for year-long and migrating birds. A network of gravel roads on the dikes separates the numerous ponds and gives excellent views of the wildlife.

Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus

During the visit in late April waterfowl were the leading species; I don’t ever recall seeing more Blue-winged Teal. Living up to the locale’s name I saw a nesting Bald Eagle and several fishing kingfishers, but no migrating warblers.

Blue-winged Teal, Anas discors

Other birders have also wondered at the apparent scarcity of migrators this spring, but Cornell’s BirdCast has a reassuring report. Their research, including radar data, showed a whopping 400 million birds aloft on the night of May 14. “These massive flights may not, however, have produced spectacular birding on the ground…as meteorological phenomena that normally concentrate migrants are absent”. In other words, the weather has been favorable for the birds to keep pressing north rather than land and treat us birders to the typical spring show.

Belted Kingfisher, Ceryle alcyon

Standing on the banks of the Missouri I was impressed by the force of the downriver flow, draining much of our continent. One can picture the steamships of an earlier era; in fact, the “Plowboy” sunk there and is said to be buried in the sand and silt at Eagle Bluffs. I didn’t have time to dig around for it. My next stop heading east was the Audubon Museum in Henderson, Kentucky on the Ohio River perhaps a post for another day.

Common Yellowthroat, Geothlypis trichas

The recent road trip and my return to the home patch in Maryland emphasize again to me that we are not just onlookers or observers of nature, but rather full-fledged participants. In fact, a substantial partner given our relatively late arrival on the scene and our ability to alter the world for better or worse. But just when we think we are becoming the masters, the earth quakes, the tides roll in, the river valley floods, the virus spreads, the wells run dry, and we are again put in our place.

Good-bye to the Strange Birds of Florida

Limpkin, Aramus guarauna

They’re no longer strange to me, but to the non-Floridian this area has more than its share of unusual endemic birds. I remember my first days here, seventeen seasons ago, when I kept Kaufman’s Field guide to Birds of North America handy as I trudged through the swamps and upland savannas. Now these birds are like old friends that I’m leaving behind once again as we embark on our own spring migration to the north.

Anhinga (female), Anhinga anhinga

Strangeness is really a measure of familiarity, but even while I run across the Anhinga everyday in Florida, it remains a strange creature to me. The long gawky neck, bright red eye in the male and blue eye-ring of the female, and its underwater fishing, characterize this bird. You find it with its wings spread wide, drying in the hot sun–it doesn’t have the oil glands common in other water birds. And why do they soar at great altitude with the vultures when their food is underwater and invisible? Both it’s appearance and behavior are strange.

American Alligator, Alligator mississippiensis

That confounded calling Limpkin persists on the pond, just outside our bedroom window. Other non-birders in the condo have complained to the authorities, as if they could intervene. It is a nerve-racking chorus every night, but one I’ll soon miss hearing back in Chesapeake Bay country. The call is less frequent and energetic these nights; I think he’s giving up on attracting a mate this year.

Florida Scrub Jay, Aphelocoma coerulescens

The Florida Scrub Jay is an increasingly rare bird that is too familiar with us humans. It’s strangeness is shown by its unbridled curiosity about us, even lighting on the heads of birders as they seek out the jay to add another tick to their life lists.

Roseate Spoonbill, Platalea ajaja

Another strange one is the Roseate Spoonbill. Just start with the pink plumage. Why pink? It seems unnatural in the brown and green mud of the swamp, more suited to your baby girl’s nursery. It surely offers no camouflage for the lurking alligator. It took me several seasons down here before I realized the risk from dozing alligators, both to birds, pets, and humans. Keep a wary eye on them. And regarding those spoonbills, don’t overlook that spatula bill, an evolutionary experiment that hasn’t progressed much further.

Wood Stork, Mycteria americana

Why would anyone choose a stork to deliver a baby, as legend teaches? At least here in south Florida our Wood Stork is a leading candidate for ugly and strangeness. Despite that, we are grateful for the bird’s resurgent population, now an easy sighting almost any day.

Crested Caracara, Caracara cheriway

I’ll not forget my first sighting of a Crested Caracara. I had pulled over on the shoulder of Oil Well Road, right where an eBird report had recorded a recent bird, and sure enough, one flew over this excited birder, as if on cue. I was too unnerved to get off a shot. Now, years later, I’m completely familiar with this bird. Don’t let its debonair stature fool you. He’s a scavenger and more than holds his own with the vultures dividing the fresh roadkill.

Short-tailed Hawk (white morph), Buteo brachyurus

The Short-tailed Hawk taught me a valuable birding lesson that is probably obvious to most of my readers. A birder needs to keep looking up. You won’t find this raptor perched along the roadside as you commonly see our abundant Red-shouldered Hawk. Instead this bird is a soarer, often very high in the clouds. You’ll need to learn the appearances of the underside of the wings in the two variants–the dark and white morphs. It still is an unusual sighting for me, but as long as my stiff neck allows, I’ll keep looking up.

Mottled Duck, Anas fulvigula

When I first came to Florida I noted a slew of female Mallards, but never saw a male. Was this the result of some pathologic scourge affecting the green-headed males? But I couldn’t explain the smaller ducklings, recently hatched–someone was mating with the females. Of course, you astute readers know the answer that I finally learned. There are no Mallards in south Florida. These are Mottled Ducks, where the male and females are a very similar mottled brown, only differentiated by the lighter yellow bill of the male. You won’t find this duck up north.

Snail Kite, Rostrhamus sociabilis

It’s a risky and strange experiment of nature for a bird to subsist solely on apple snails, but that pathway has evolved for the Snail Kite, an uncommon endemic of inland Florida. That may be why we’re having a harder time finding this bird each winter. This year we did get a good look at one flying over at Harnes Marsh, near Fort Myers. It’s always a good birding day to make that sighting.

Groove-billed Ani, Crotophaga sulcirostris

We’ve done a lot of rarity chasing in Florida this year; Glaucous Gull, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Groove-billed Ani, White-faced Ibis. Just yesterday I got a polite note from the eBird referee informing me that my White faced Ibis was actually a hybrid of that bird and our common Glossy Ibis. It cost me a life bird, but teaches me again that there are very smart birders out there paying attention to the details. The rest of these are birds that have become confused or blown off their normal flight patterns. But one of the rarities of the season, the Mangrove Cuckoo, is a Florida endemic that has eluded me for all these seventeen years. I finally saw one and photographed it on Sanibel Island this winter–a gratifying day. Only other birders know that particular satisfaction; its a nemesis bird no longer.

Mangrove cuckoo, Coccyzus minor

As I say good-bye to Florida and my birding colleagues here, I’ll leave them this: never, never, never give up on you quest to see your nemesis bird; for Andy that’s the Least Bittern. Your family and I understand your obsession, even when you go looking for the bird several times a day and don’t understand why everyone else is seeing it except for you. Someday you’ll likely succeed, but even if you don’t, just relish the hunt as you stand among the reeds and alligators of our beautiful and strange south Florida.

The day after I drafted this post and the day before I left Florida for the year, Andy, with an assist from Mel, found his nemesis Least Bittern. His tenacious search and Mel’s encouragement are marks of birders extraordinaire. I’m already looking forward to another winter of birding with these guys in south Florida or wherever strange birds are to be found.

The Cumberland Gap and Its Birds

Daniel Boone escorting settlers through the Cumberland Gap, 1851-52, by George Caleb Bingham

Humans have migrated through the gap in the Cumberland Mountains, both to the east and to the west, for eons, and before that the trail was pounded hard and widened by the bison searching for pasture and salt licks. It is named for the Duke of Cumberland, son of King George II of England and has always attracted my attention as a possible destination. This was heightened by the messianic picture above showing Daniel Boone leading his entourage into the promise land to the west. In a recent road trip from Kansas City to Baltimore I purposely chose a route through the historic gap; it also gave me a chance to do a little birding in the historic park.

Tufted Titmouse, Baeolophus bicolor

The geology of the gap’s formation is fascinating but beyond the scope of this so-called birding blog, but let me make this one point. I spent two nights at the gap in the town of Middlesboro, Kentucky, not realizing at the time that I was smack in the middle of a 300 million year-old meteorite impact crater that contributed to the formation of this mountain pass.

Eastern Phoebe, Sayornis phoebe

It is difficult for us moderns to understand the formidable barrier that the Appalachian Mountains presented for the early colonists along the east coast. For a hundred years only a few intrepid explorers, traders, and missionaries ventured over the range. Eventually several gaps and trails, previously blazed by the large game and Native Americans were rediscovered by the colonists.

Black Vulture, Coragyps atratus

The Cumberland Gap was the premier passage, right at the boundaries of Tennessee, Virginia, and Kentucky. By the mid 18th century settlers had broken through and poured into the fertile region and cheap or free land in Kentucky and in the Ohio River Valley. By 1810 two to three hundred thousand new settlers had made this journey over the Wilderness Road, through the gap, and to the west. Quoting Moses Austin from 1796, “Ask these Pilgrims what the expect when they git to Kentucke. The answer is land. Have you any? No, but I expect I can git it. Have you anything to pay for land? No. Did you ever see the country? No, but everybody says it is good land”.

Cumberland Gap and surroundings

Today, when one drives through the gap you actually go through a tunnel which, in typical 20th century fashion was blasted through the Cumberland Mountains. But near the gap there is a wonderful historic park with myriad trails offering many birding opportunities. My road trip traced in reverse the westward migration of humans, but cut across at right angles the springtime avian migration to the north. It was mid April and my hopes were high for encountering some of those flocks.

Red-bellied Woodpecker, Melanerpes carolinus

Pinnacle Overlook is at the mountain top, guarding the northern edge of the gap and commands a marvelous view to the south. In the early morning I decided to test the endurance of my old but faithful car by tackling the switch-backs up the mountain. At the top I was rewarded with the view as the solitary morning visitor. The bird life there, however, was sparse with only the incessant call of the titmouse and a couple of nesting phoebes disturbing the peace.

Yours truly at Pinnacle Overlook, Homo sapiens

I was soon joined by a second birder, a gentleman and octogenarian who actually claimed to be related to Daniel Boone. We enjoyed the view together while sharing birding adventures. While we were jabbering a Sharp-shinned Hawk flew by the peak at our eye level, perhaps migrating to the north on the rising thermals. Vultures circled below. My friend became excited when I told him about a trip I was planning to Wyoming and Montana, and inexplicably, he started removing his outerwear and displayed the back of his tee shirt which was a map of Glacier National Park. He implored me to enter the park at his right shoulder, the easterly gate, and proceed to his left shoulder for the best route. Just another example of a helpful birder, as one frequently meets on the trail.

Downy Woodpecker, Picoides pubescens

At the top of the mountain there is a ridge trail that is noted as a warbler trap during spring migration. I just found woodpeckers and jays. I believe I was early for the warblers this far north. While I was far from home searching for birds at the gap, my friend and fellow birder, Andy, was sending me pictures of all the warblers he was seeing back in south Florida, just a few miles from my home. Timing is everything in this sport.

Carolina Wren, Thryothorus ludovicianus

But along the ridge trail I saw something that Andy did not see. That was a Civil War cannon embankment called Fort McCook by the Unions and Fort Rains by the Confederates. It changed hands several times during the war. The gap was of strategic value during that conflict, to the extent that the armies hauled their heavy guns all the way up the mountain. Supplying the fort was difficult for both sides, and as the war progressed the real value of the mountain top fort came into question. Now the site is peaceful and just a series of grassy mounds and historic markers explaining the 160 year-old wartime scene.

Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia

The park has a great visitor’s center at the base of the mountain and several flatter birding trails. Here, it was the welcomed spring melody of the Song Sparrow that greeted me. Overall my bird sightings were meagre but my knowledge of our human migration was enhanced. The short stay at the Cumberland Gap Historic Park was a rewarding experience. The warbler sightings will have to wait for another day.

Chasing the Mangrove Cuckoo

Mangrove Cuckoo, Coccyzus minor

On the face of it “chasing” birds seems like an impossible task. These birds are rare, they’re fast, they fly, and they hide. We never really catch one in the classic sense. A chase may end up with a fleeting glance or even just a few notes of a song, but more likely it ends with nothing. In the case of a dog chasing a car, one wonders what the dog is going to do when he catches it. For us birders, on the rare day when we “catch” our quarry, it will be time for high fives all around and a celebratory drink back at the lodge as we recount the adventure and tick off another life bird.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Polioptila caerulea

It never ceases to amaze me that we actually find a reported rarity on a few occasions, sometimes even in the same tree or perched on the same fence when it was reported on an eBird alert days earlier. That’s why I was only lukewarm while accepting an invitation from Andy and Sam to chase the Mangrove Cuckoo seen off and on for a week at the famous Ding Darling NWR on Sanibel Island, Florida. With eBird and their alert system, rarities are becoming less rare.

American White Pelican, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

The Mangrove Cuckoo had no business still being present on Sanibel. True, there are plenty of mangroves there, but the cuckoo much prefers the warmer tropics this time of year. Although our Florida winter has been mild, the last few days leading up to our chase were decidedly cooler and any self-respecting Mangrove Cuckoo should have long since headed south. Despite my seventeen years in Florida I have never seen this elusive bird, even in the heat of summer. It was also a potential lifer for my two companions on the chase.

Mangrove Cuckoo

You might picture a chase as a wind-blown jaunt in an open jeep, dust flying, screeching tires, careening around trees and through mud puddles, with four-legged creatures diving out of the way. Nothing could be further from the truth. My friends picked me up in their luxury car, soft music playing, AC cranked up, GPS tracking tuned in, with plenty of snacks and water close at hand. It was birding in fine style.

Reddish Egret, Egretta rufescens
Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Nyctanassa violacea

Prior successful chases for me in the Sunshine State started when the Florida Scrub Jay landed on my head at the Lyonia Preserve, near Deltona in 2010 and I was able to rotate my camera upward and catch a shot of the bold life bird. In that case the bird chased me. Andy and I chased the increasingly rare Red Cockaded Woodpecker last spring at the Babcock Web preserve near Punta Gorda. That episode did involve an actual chase on foot across the wetlands, pursuing the bird for a better photo. I caught the Burrowing Owl the first time on Cape Coral, and then again, closer to home on Marco Island.

Florida Scrub Jay, Aphelocoma coerulescens
Burrowing Owl, Athene cunicularia

We also successfully chased the Vermilion Flycatcher in the Great Cypress Preserve where we found it perched on the same fence that the helpful eBirder described in his alert. The less colorful Hammond’s Flycatcher also surprised us last year by showing up right on schedule on the boardwalk at Corkscrew Sanctuary as dozens of birders gaped and took their photos.

Vermilion Flycatcher, Pyrocephalus rubinus
Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Picoides borealis

On the road to Sanibel I tried to dampen down our expectations. We could depend on good shots of some wading birds, and maybe get a close-up of a Reddish Egret doing its captivating dance or a snoozing Night Heron, even if we didn’t find the cuckoo. We parked in the general vicinity of prior sightings and saw and heard nothing. The Mangrove Cuckoo has a low-pitched and raspy call and is often heard, rather than seen. There were a few other birders nosing around but no one had seen or heard anything of the cuckoo. We were about to pack it in when a bird, about the right size, flashed into a mangrove very close to us right alongside Wildlife Drive.

Mangrove Cuckoo, first look
Mangrove Cuckoo

The mangrove trees are dense, large-leafed affairs with plenty of hiding spaces for a bird, and this bird found them all. Finally he stuck his head out to check us out, and we all saw the characteristic black facial mask and curved bill with the yellow mandible. Successful chase! But we are also photographers and were not satisfied with that first meager look. An hour and 400 shots later the deceptive bird finally gave us what we all hoped for; a full frontal shot, gorgeous tail and all, perched in perfect sunlight with no obscuring branches or leafs. The bird itself was now singing, apparently tired of hiding from his pursuers.

Mangrove Cuckoo

By this time a birding crowd had gathered and some were downright giddy with happiness at the sighting. For many of them it was also a lifer, and just like us, had been sought for years. The non-birders hiking and biking through the reserve watched our reaction, shook their heads, and wondered who were the real cuckoos that day. But you birders all understand. There is a welcomed satisfaction as we tick off life birds. But there are obviously fewer of these un-ticked birds out there for each of us, and their sightings are becoming difficult, requiring more and more effort, longer birding trips, and a bit of luck. The years also keep ticking by and I still have 9,078 birds to chase worldwide, but that’s one less than I had last week.

Birding Et Cetera

Brown Pelicans, Pelecanus occidentalis

I had to cancel birding trips to upper Michigan and Costa Rica, twice because of this dastardly virus. A small price compared to the plight of many, but sometimes I think of all the birds I have not seen, and now may never see. Today as I performed by autumnal chore, raking leaves, it dawned on me that this was a lot like birding. You’ll never get every leaf, they’re still more to fall, in fact they are falling right behind you as you rake. It’s a perfect example of my favorite mantras of life; “just get the worst of it”, “do your best”, “make a small differene”, or “just save one”.

Little Blue Heron, Egretta caerulea

The reservoir of new birds for me may as well be infinite, not the 10,000+ we are told about. Even with Michigan and Costa Rica, I’m just scratching the surface. I have to chuckle when I check the “yes” box on eBird that queries whether you reported every bird that was seen or heard on the trip. We all know “yes” is a white lie. It’s good to realize your limitations right up front and then adjust your attitude to “just get the worst of it”.

Florida Scrub Jay, Aphelocoma coerulescens

For birders that involves adding some variety to your hobby as you visit the same patch for the umpteenth time and see the same old birds. I recently visited Florida again, post-election; it’s still there. It still had the feel of the summertime tropics, hot and humid, with afternoon brief monsoons. Andy and I birded our two favorite spots, Bird Rookery Swamp and Eagle Lake Community Park. I was hoping to visit the famous Corkscrew Audubon Sanctuary but they required an advanced reservation; much too formal and confining for our style.

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

The obvious birding enhancements include keeping the daily list and hopefully adding a lifer now and then. No matter where I bird, 30 species is a good day. A really good day is 40 and above and usually necessitates several sets of eyes, some audible-only ticks, a visit to multiple sites, seeing some uncommon birds, and a long evening soak in the hot tub. Three of us in south Florida got to 70 once. It was a long day.

Red-shouldered Hawks, Buteo lineatus

But I’m talking about more unusual enhancements. Let me pass on a few that we’ve discovered. The first involves photography. One should always strive for the sharply focused and perfectly exposed shot, but we’re on the lookout for something additional; perhaps feeding, flying, or mating birds. The moon was still visible that day and the air was filled with birds. Let’s set up the perfect shot with bordering branches and the moon and wait for a bird to fly into our field, or maybe even right across the face of the moon. We waited, and waited, how long does one wait for something like this? Our limit was 10 minutes. It never happened and we moved on. We did get a decent close flyover of a Cooper’s Hawk but he was a long way from the moon.

Cooper’s Hawk, Accipiter cooperii

As we walked the fence line I asked Andy, “what bird we invariably see perched right here.” He correctly responded, the Loggerhead Shrike. Almost immediately one flew in and posed on the chain link fence. But then a second flew in and perched right next to the first. Now it became more interesting. And then the male started a courtship dance, right before our eyes, and became more frantic when his lover seemingly ignored it all. But for us it was a home run.

Loggerhead Shrike, Lanius ludovicianus

The fence surrounded a baseball field and green scoreboard. It was Andy’s idea to line up the mating Shrikes with the “Strike” sign in the background. Weird, but very interesting. The male was busy, bowing down, tilting his head back, singing, and displaying his tail feathers and never noticed us edging closer for the perfect shot of the not-so-private lives of these birds. The male did not strike out.

Loggerhead Shrikes

When you run out of birds, think butterflies. It was a big butterfly day, great light, flowering Florida shrubs, and migrating Monarchs on their way to Mexico. I’m making a New Year’s resolution to learn my butterflies and plants better; it’s just another enhancement to your birding day.

Monarch, Danaus plexippus

The Shrikes brought up other possibilities. What about creating a portfolio of birds perched on signs. Maybe “keep of the grass”, or “no loitering”, or “beware of the dog”. Not a bad idea, and one that has not been previously done, I’m sure. I’ll begin working on that for a future post, but the Kestrel is a good start.

American Kestrel, Falco sparverius

But there has to be a limit. We always seem to meet interesting people and other birders on the trail. One guy finally revealed in conversation that he grew up in Branchport, New York, one tiny town away from my childhood haunt in Penn Yan, on Keuka Lake. Small world. It was the second guy, however, that left even us shaking our heads.

Herring Gull, Larus argentatus

After the usual pleasantries he pointed out a small flock of Common Gallinules on a pond. So what, I thought to myself. But he then went on to relate that he had been observing them for days, nesting, laying eggs, hatching, etc. He knew that there were initially two families and which hatchlings belonged to which parents. He also knew that some of the young had changed parents and nests and were being raised by the “wrong” adult. How did he know all this? Think of the hours he must have spent, sitting on the shoreline of the pond and taking this all in. We shook our heads, thanked him for the info, and moved on.

Cattle Egrets, Bibulous ibis

Then he called us back to warn us about an unusual large lizard that he had observed nearby in the tall grass. Of course he knew both the common and Latin names, genus and species, as well as the details of the reptile’s life story, recently imported from somewhere, I can’t remember where. Too much information. We wondered, are we becoming just like him in our retirement? But I recognize that it takes meticulous observers, just like him, to move the ball of knowledge forward. Think of Darwin and his cataloging of those bland finches, and his spectacular contribution to science. We just decided, however that we had reached our personal limits with the mating Shrikes and the moon shots.

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.

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.

Blue Birds

Bluebird at Night by Ember

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

Eastern Bluebird, Sialia sialis

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

Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata

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

Florida Scrub Jay, Aphelocoma coerulescens

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

Indigo Bunting, Passerina cyanea

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

Blue Jay

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

Western Scrub Jay, Aphelocoma californica

Eurasian Jay, Garrulus glandarius

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

Blue Grosbeak, Passerina caerulea

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

Eastern Bluebird, Sialis sialis

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

Western Bluebird, Sialia mexicana

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

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.

Trash Birds

Herring Gull, Larus argentatus

 

These are the birds no one loves.  They’re numerous, obnoxious, and ubiquitous.  We often do not even tick them off on our eBird lists; why bother?  Most do not migrate; we’re stuck with them all year long.  Monthly the National Audubon Society scares us with a growing list of near-extinctions, but these birds never make the list.  Despite our efforts to pollute and destroy habitats, these birds thrive.

House Sparrow, Passer domesticus

But, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure”.  If you don’t believe this just watch a couple episodes of the Antique Roadshow on PBS.  A little research can reveal beauty, wonder, and maybe even some monetary reward in even the most unlikely of candidates.  With this in mind this post tries to uncover a few redeeming qualities in my list of trash birds, at least in the beauty and wonder departments.

Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Passer montanus

Take the House Sparrow, please.  Previously known as the English Sparrow, it was introduced to New York in 1851, and we are still wondering why.  This aggressive Old World sparrow is a native of Eurasia and northern Africa and has enjoyed phenomenal success in North America.  The lookalike cousin across the pond is the Eurasian Tree Sparrow.  Its strategy has been to seek out urban centers, crowded sidewalk cafes, and virtually any man-made structure.  You can’t say the male is ugly with its gray head, black beard, and brown and white highlights.  The female is just another difficult to identify LBJ, (little brown job).

Rock Dove, Columba livia

Speaking of urban-loving birds transplanted to us from Europe, Africa, and India, you can count the feral Pigeon.  In more polite circles they are known as Rock Doves.  We are partly to blame for their success, domesticating them for their homing tendencies.  As we all know they have taken over our park benches, school yards, and sky scraper ledges.  A few have attempted to return to their rural roots, nesting on coastal cliffs and mountainsides, but the vast majority still cling to us humans and our cities.  Their redeeming feature is the great variety of iridescent feathers and that striking red eye.

Boat-tailed Grackle, Quiscalus major

Next there are the Grackles.  Just the name reminds one of their irritating call that mimics a rusty gate desperately in need of oil.  They often travel in wolf-like packs, swarming the feeder and driving off the shier passerines.  They have single handedly caused me to shut down the feeders in the warm weather.  One can only afford so many bags of sunflower seeds on a fixed retirement income.  You have to look closely to reveal their beauty, also found in the iridescent plumage and piercing golden eye of the male Common Grackle.  The less common cousins, the Boat-tailed and Great-tailed, share similar assets and  liabilities.

Ring-billed Gulls, Larus delawarensis

Sea Gulls have lost the “sea” in their name and have moved inland following our human trash, dumps, waste water treatment plants, and McDonalds parking lots.  For a birder to become an expert observer of this confusing family of lookalikes, he or she must become gullible.  They’ll take you to some of the most acrid and non-picturesque places on the planet and your reward will be a squabbling colony of black, white, and shades of gray.  You’ll have to hope for the chills and thrills of finding a rarity amidst that flock of a thousand scavengers.

European Starling, Sturnus vulgaris

We could drop the “European” from the name of our only Starling in North America, but keep it as a reminder of where this “gift” came from in 1890.  It has taken over the continent with vast flocks forming in the fall and winter.  It crowds out other birds in both the urban centers and rural farmlands, competing with other more welcome cavity nesters.  They are persistent.  I’ve now removed their nest from my boat-lift motor six times this spring, the last time despite a new protective screen.  They pecked right through it.  On a sunny day, when I’m feeling upbeat, I can appreciate the metallic hues given off by their feathers, decorated with a sprinkle of dots.  The yellow bill of the summertime male adds a nice contrast.  I’m trying to be kind.

Brown-headed Cowbird, Molothrus ater

Remember the phrase, “a face only a mother could love”?  The maternal Brown-headed Cowbird must have forgotten it.  She just clandestinely deposits her eggs in another innocent passerine’s nest and moves on, without even gazing upon the face of her offspring.  These brood parasites have developed a successful policy of avoiding the hard work of parenthood.  You have to admire their audacity or perhaps find some pleasure in their contrasting brown and black coloration, but its hard to find anything good to say about them.

American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos

We’re frequently told that Crows are among the smartest of all birds, but intelligence is no excuse and protector from being on my trash list.  There is a reason that a flock of these birds is called a “murder” of crows.  When’s the last time you saw a crow sitting innocently on a wire, just enjoying life.  They’re always chasing or being chased, raising a raucous, or attacking a poor songbird.  Perhaps you can admire their energy, but they are a constant reminder that intelligence does not always breed contentment.

Herring Gull, Larus argentatus

So there you have it, my list of trash birds.  I suspect this post will find disfavor among my birding friends who find beauty in all the creation.  On a good day I am among their ranks, but lately my tolerance level has been tested.  Here’s to better days ahead.