Best Bird Photos of 2021

Roseate Spoonbill, Platalea ajaja

I’ve started, and then abandoned several blog postings in the last two months; life intervened. But now I find it’s time for the year-end summary of the year’s photos. I was going to write about seeing the amazing Tropical Kingbird near here in the Maryland wetlands, thousands of miles north of its usual haunt. Actually it was spotted from my backseat by the non-birder, Cora and photographed by her husband, Clyde, with his cell phone as I was showing off the scenery of the Blackwater NWR to these visitors from Arizona.

Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis
Carolina wren, Thryothorus ludovicianus
Tricolor Heron, Egretta tricolor
Red-bellied Woodpecker, Melanerpes carolinus

I meant to write about the recent excursion to the Dinner Ranch with Andy and Mel in remote southern Florida, far from the populated coast, and our sighting of 40+ species (depending on who’s counting) including those of the omni-present singing Meadowlarks.

Eastern Meadowlark, Sturnella magna
Sandhill Cranes, Grus canadensis
Common Gallinule, Gallinula chloropus

Or I could have written about my reluctant conversion to a mirrorless camera, leaving behind the heavier but reliable Canon DSLR. I’m increasingly using a Pansonic Lumix G9 camera which has a small 4/3’s sensor and an array of lighter lenses. The reduced weight will be welcome on the 13-day trip to Costa Rica we’re planning this spring.

Crested Caracara, Caracara cheriway
Great Egret, Ardea alba
Anhinga, Anhinga anhinga
Grooved-billed Ani, Crotophaga sulcirostris

I’ve been having this debate with myself; when does one have enough bird photos? How many shots of fishing Osprey, diving Pelicans, or singing Meadowlarks is enough? Maybe it’s time to bird without a camera, enjoying the view through the binoculars without worrying about the sun angle, camera settings, and obtaining the perfect shot. This debate will go on, and may never conclude, but in the meantime these are my favorite photos from 2021.

Red-shouldered Hawk, Buteo lineatus
Mottled Ducks, Anas fulvigula
Belted Kingfisher, Ceryle alcyon
Black-crowned Night Heron, Nycticorax nycticorax

One last triumph to end the year. Two nemesis birds, which did their best to evade me over the years, finally succumbed to my persistence, or more likely, just dumb luck. One was that Mangrove Cuckoo which we saw at Ding Darling on Sanibel Island, Florida, posing in plain sight and creating a traffic jam of grateful birders on the causeway.

Mangrove Cuckoo, Coccyzus minor
Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias
American Kestrel, Falco sparverius
Eastern Phoebe, Sayornis phoebe

The other was the Snowy Owl spotted just this week on the dilapidated lighthouse in the Choptank River, off Cambridge, Maryland. My daughter sent me a stuffed Snowy Owl last Christmas, commiserating with my fruitless efforts to see this bird, but I can now return the gift to her. I almost gave up on seeing the bird that was reported on eBird along the Cambridge waterfront, when I noted a small white lump on the side of the lighthouse, about 3/4 mile offshore. A scope and heavily cropped picture below certifies the sighting to the left of the “danger” sign. The picture does not really qualify as great, or even good, but I include it to celebrate this great ending to another year.

Snowy Owl, Bubo scandiacus
Reddish Egrets, Egretta rufescens

I admit to some birding fatigue as the year winds down and as the new hobby of astrophotography takes root, but that Snowy Owl, the celebrating Reddish Egrets above, and the upcoming Christmas Bird Count have revived my enthusiasm once again. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you all.

Dog Days of Summer

We call this season the “dog days of summer”. Whoever coined that phrase must not have liked dogs. It’s been hot and humid for days. The grass has burned brown, except over the septic field, and just recently revived to a touch of green by the afternoon monsoons. When Captain John Smith first sailed into the Chesapeake Bay in 1608 he declared it “a country that may have the prerogative over the most pleasant places known…heaven and earth never agreed better to frame a place for man’s habitation”. He must not have arrived in August.

Herring Gull, Larus argentatus

Actually “dog days” is an astronomical reference to our Sun’s August location in the zodiac, projected within the constellation Canis Major, the Greater Dog. The constellation and its brightest star, Sirius, the Dog Star, won’t be visible in the night sky, however, until winter.

Orchard Oriole, Icterus galbula

The bird behavior is also noticeably changed around my home patch. Yesterday, in the late day heat, there was an eerie silence. Even the Mockingbird and Osprey were hushed by the heat. I’ve been trying to keep the baths free of algae, but recently gave up the fight. The rains are creating enough puddles to quench the birds’ thirst.

Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos

Birds, as you know, do not sweat–they have no sweat glands. They can’t control their body temperature by the evaporation of sweat, as we can. When you see them frolicking in the bath or puddle they are both cleaning their feathers and wetting themselves to promote evaporation. Evaporation is an endothermic event, extracting heat from the feathers.

Indigo Bunting, Passerine cyanea

Nesting must be nearing its seasonal completion here, and some early migrants have already left. I’m seeing fewer terns on the dock and the gulls, which have been absent all summer, are regrettably back, bringing their mess of mangled fish, crabs, and guano. I surmise that the gulls work of nesting is complete and they are flocking to my dock in anticipation of the fall migration. That can’t come soon enough for me. The Osprey still have another month here, before heading south.

Forster’s Tern, Sterna forsteri
The flocking Ring-billed Gulls, Larus delawarensis

This month, for me has been very slow on the birding front. Much of it has been done from the hammock, or through the windows of the air-conditioned office. It’s a good time to catch up on some reading and preparation for fall, which is a glorious season on the Chesapeake.

Red-tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis

My reading list includes two new purchases; A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold, and How to be an Urban Birder by David Lindo. The first was recommended by a birder friend and does look interesting. It’s a naturalist’s classic, written in 1949, but somehow missed by me all these years. The latter is also destined to become a classic, written primarily for the urban-trapped birder, but is also full of suggestions for us country folk who occasionally venture into the concrete jungles.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Sphyrapicus varius

Leopold’s book is a collection of his essays and begins with this declaration; “there are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot.” Lind, on the other hand, is a thoroughly modern, urbanized resident of downtown London, who despite that became an avid birder. His book is full of tips for urban birding, and sprinkled with wonderful photos documenting his success, even in that environment.

Green Heron, Butorides virescens

So, my routine in these waning days of summer will be to read these books in the hammock, between rain showers. I’ll have the binoculars ready, just in case, and occasionally turn on the Merlin APP on my cell phone to check on any strange birdsongs. Yesterday it identified the Chimney Swifts and a distant call of a Red-tailed Hawk. Life is sweet, even in the dog days.

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.

Who Saw That Bird First?

Cinnamon Teal, Anas cyanoptera

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

Palm Warbler, Dendroica palmarum

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

American Coot, Fulica americana

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

Mangrove Cuckoo, Coccyzus minor

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

Sandhill Crane, Grus canadensis

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

Glaucous Gull, Larus hyperboreus

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

Lesser Scaup, Aythya affinis

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

Common Gallinule, Gallinula chloropus

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

Smooth-billed Ani, Crotophagi ani

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

Pied-billed Grebe, Podilymbus podiceps

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

Limpkin, Aramus guarauna

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

Muscovy Ducks, Cairina moschata

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

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.

Spring Migration 2020

San Domingo Creek

 

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

White-throated Sparrow, Zonotrichia albicollis

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

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

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

Red-winged Blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus

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

Eastern Kingbird, Tyrannus tyrannus

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

Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos

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

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus

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

Northern Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis

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

Canada Geese, Branta canadensis

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

Chipping Sparrow, Spizella passerina

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

Least Tern, Sterna antillarum

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

Eastern Bluebird, Sialia sialis

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

Tree Swallow, Tachycinrta bicolor

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

Carolina Wren, Thryothorus ludovicianus

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

Spotted Sandpipers, Actitis macularius                               J. J. Audubon

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

Northern Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis

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

 

All The Birds You Cannot See

Red-headed Woodpecker, Melanerpes erythrocephalus

 

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

Blackwater NWR

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

Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus

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

Wildlife Drive at Blackwater

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

Belted Kingfisher, Ceryle alcyon

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

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

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

Greater Yellowlegs, Tringa melanoleuca

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

Northern Harrier, Circus cyaneus

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

Mallard, Anas platyrhynchos

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

Blackwater NWR

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

Ducks, Geese, & Swans; the Anatidae Family

 

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

juvenile Wood Duck, Aix sponsa

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

Brant, Branta bernicla

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

Northern Pintail, Anas acuta

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

Hooded Merganser, Lophodytes cucullatus

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

Mallard, Anas platyrhynchos

American Black Duck, Anas rubripes

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

Red-breasted Merganser, Mergus serrator

Common Eider, Somateria spectabilis

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

Ruddy Duck, Oxyura jamaicensis

Ring-necked Duck, Aythya collaris

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

Long-tailed Duck, Clangula hyemalis

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

Snow Geese, Chen caerulescens                                       click on photo to zoom

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

Tundra Swan, Cygnus columbianus

Wood Duck, Aix sponsa

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