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One Jackdaw Birding

Updated: 2018-03-06T02:14:06.152-05:00


Mid-Summer Birds, Beasts, and Bugs


 Adult and juvenile Barn Swallows sunning themselves on the metal roof of a barn.One was too lazy to pick up this dragon fly near the barn.July is a real challenge for birding. The birds are quiet, usually staying well hidden in the foliage, feeding their young or fattening themselves up before fall migration.Some observations are serendipitous such as a flock of Cedar Waxwings  performing aerial acrobatics over the West River in pursuit of insects, fluttering, zigzagging, turning and twisting and intermittently perching on to a tree to rest. The biting deer flies, usually helicoptering around one's head this time of year looking for a suitable landing spot,  are mercifully absent because of the heavy rains we've had.The one species I would encounter almost without fail when walking past a moist  thicket are the Common Yellowthroats. They are very territorial and just passing by will trigger their Tchak, tchak alarm calls. With a little bit of pishing they'll usually pop right out.When not distracted they are busy feeding their offspringHouse Wrens are almost done feeding their young in their nest. They are almost ready to fledge.And a couple of days later:  Late afternoon I saw a brown shape foraging in the grass ahead. Only on coming closer did I realize it was a doe.Taking a walk with my dog on the gravelly path up the hill brown and gray winged grasshoppers were popping up with every step, whirring through the air and dropping down a few feet further up. They are almost invisible unless you look very closely.In the meadow on top of the hill a flock of 6 to 8 Bobolinks, juveniles and females, no males, were fattening up for the fall migration later this month.Getting ready for take-offA solitary male Indigo Bunting on a look-out from the top of a tall pineGoldfinches showing up to feast on the seeds of the two tall thistles in our yard. Several times a day this Downy Woodpecker is taking a drink from my hummingbird feeder.It's August. The end of summer is in sight. Shorebird migration is already well under way and warblers and nighthawks are soon to follow.[...]

Where are the Bobolinks?


The first time I saw Bobolinks was about 30 years ago, when I was just a casual birdwatcher. I was taking my mother, who was visiting from Germany, on a tour of the mountain state that had become my home. We stopped at the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, VT, for  lunch, but did a look around first. It was a glorious day in mid June. There were several large hayfields on the slopes around the lodge and on them a burbling joyful cacophony, made visual by the spectrogram below, of black and white birds swirling over the fields and riding the fences. Emily Dickenson calls the Bobolink the Sorcerer of the Meadow in her poem "The Way to know the Bobolink"  :"The Way to know the BobolinkFrom every other BirdPrecisely as the Joy of him—Obliged to be inferred..........."Extrinsic to AttentionToo intimate with Joy—He compliments existenceUntil allured away........."By Contrast certifyingThe Bird of Birds is gone—How nullified the Meadow—Her Sorcerer withdrawn!"Bobolinks are iconic  grassland  birds of the northeast and center of the country. The males are easily recognized by their  buffy napes, black front and on their backs white shoulder patches and white on their rumps.  Many meadows may look empty at first glance  but watchful waiting and listening is often rewarded.They are semi-colonial and need at least 20 acres for a breeding. They prefer wide open grasslands, old hayfields with a mix of grass and broad-leaved forbs. They tend to cluster in the middle of a field away from  woody edges. The female builds her nest on her own in a small hollow in the ground weaving old grass and fine sedge together into a thin cup at the foot of a broad-leaved plant which provides shade and leafy shelter. Both she and the male are polygamous Her hatchlings are often fathered by different males. The males have a primary female who gets most of their attention, but they may also breed with, and provide for, other females. The males are generally not territorial, except during courtship, and often flock and sing together. These were the only two Bobolinks I saw carrying food during several field trips this year.The relentless torrential rain this spring and early summer must have flooded many, if not most, nests and drowned eggs and nestlings. I haven't yet seen any juveniles. Unless they are successful in re-nesting before the meadows are mowed the outlook for any first-year nestlings returning next year is not good. Unlike other songbirds many Bobolink yearlings return to the site where they were originally hatched according to banding studies done by Noah Perlut as recounted in this lively Burglinton FreePress article and video. Below are a series of photos of male Bobolinks on their perches, blades of grass, on which they often do their singing and calling.Mid-season June mowing will destroy nests and nestlings. To give late nesters and re-nesters a chance mowing is best delay until August. Here's a link to NY Audubon management recommendations. By October most birds have left for their wintering ground south of the Equator, the Argentine pampas.A couple of weeks ago I sent out an email on the VTBird listserve with title "Where are the Bobolinks?" because they seemed to be absent in the areas where I had seen them before in sizable numbers. For example I took these shots of a feeding pair on a meadow just up from my house in 2008. but I haven't seen any on there for the last several years.But judging by the response to my message Bobolinks are widespread and locally common most everywhere. However according to the Atlas of Breeding Birds in Vermont there has been a rather significant decline of one to two percent annually in Vermont and neighboring states. In some parts of the continent, especially in Ontario, CA, the decline has been dramatic: 88% since 1970 and it's continuing unabated. Studies by the Canadian Wildlife Service with help of researchers from the Vermont Center for Eco Studies are underway to figure out why this is hap[...]

Vanishing Whip-Poor-Wills


                                                                                                                          Photo: Paul CoolsWhen mentioning to friends that I'd never heard the call of a Whip-poor-will, I'd  get the reply more often than not: "Oh yes, I used to hear them but don't remember the last time I did". Last year when I wrote a blog post on the Montague Sandplains  in Western Mass., I had heard about their presence there, but hadn't stayed late enough to actually hear one. I was determined to do so this year.  The Montague Sandplains is a 1500 acre pine barrens habitat of low shrubs, scrub oak and small pine stands, maintained with controlled burning, on a large sand delta formed by melting glaciers more than 10,000 years ago.  I am including a map below for anyone interested in visiting the area. The species is shrouded in mystery. They are difficult to observe because of being active only at dawn and dusk, or on moon-lit nights.  Because of this crepuscular behavior and their camouflaging plumage little is known about them. They are an edge species, requiring dry woodland for breeding and open spaces for foraging, just what the Montague Sandplains WMA is offering.  When resting, they usually lie lengthwise on the limb of a tree and to the casual observer appear to be part of the tree.  Males establish and defend their breeding territories by calling from their perches on trees, fence posts or the ground. In the IUCN , International Union for Conversation of Nature, the Whip-poor-will is listed as a Species of Least Concern, and yet in the just published Second Atlas of Breeding Birds of Vermont their territorial range has shrunk dramatically compared to the first atlas published in 1985.  They were once very common and were widely recognized by their characteristic call  but having lost habitat to agriculture and suburbanization they are now a Species of  Special Concern in Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York and Connecticut.I had arrived at about 7 PM intending, while is was still light, to look for Prairie Warblers, Brown Thrashers and Eastern Towhees which are also common in this kind of habitat, and then wait until dusk for the Whip-poor-wills to appear. However shortly after my arrival three dirt bikers rolled in and started cavorting on the sand road and in the sand pit that formed one corner of the intersection of Plains Rd and the power-line corridor, their racket drowning out all other sounds. Fortunately they drove off just before 8:30 PM when the Whip-poor-wills started their repetitive calls.I had brought a flashlight to see whether I could get a reflection from their eyes during their foraging flights, but it wasn't yet dark enough. I saw one briefly though as a gray shape flying around a solitary  pine tree. Here is a recording of their calls: The spectrogram below shows a small  initial  "whip" followed by a brief pause, and ending with a crescendo "poor WILL"  Each call lasts about a second and usually goes on for many minutes; one bird was once recorded as making 1000 + calls in a row.The birds iintermittently sally forth from their perches after flying insects, or go after them during continuous aerial feeding flights. Their beaks are tiny but when open, their gape is enormous, wide enough to swallow a large moth tail-end first, as shown in James Audubon's painting below.                                                           &[...]

Birds of Spring, and a new camera


A couple of weeks ago we, a local VT Audubon group, met in the evening to watch a Woodcock's mating dance. It was close to 8 PM and dusk was descending fast over the large bumpy field of faded grass, when we heard the first peenting. We moved closer to the source of the sound and stood in a half circle listening and waiting. The peenting continued at regular intervals sometimes closer, sometimes farther away indicating that the bird was walking about.After several minutes of peenting the bird finally took to the air. It went up fast and high -  a member of the group indicated the flight pattern by the zig-zag motions of his hand. It was too dark by then for me, but we all heard the fluttering song of his wings. I had made a recording a couple of years ago. (If you use the Chrome Browser the sound starts right off and the browser lacks an on-off feature.)When you listen carefully you'll hear the following sequence: the thin nasal  buzzy "peent" call preceded by a barely audible "tuko" sound, the twittering made by the wings during sharp turns, and the vocal chirping during aerial flight which becomes louder as the bird descends. The last part of the descent is silent. Then a soft fluttering of the wings as the bird lands.I also took some photos of the bird on the ground, rotating in place while peenting. During the last week of April spring had arrived and migration had started. On a recent walk I saw and heard a couple of Blue Gray Gnatcatchers calling to each other across the trail.  The male sports a uni brow which gives it that fierce look.Also present were Palm Warblers and Myrtles (Eastern Yellow-Rumps)A pair of Blacks and White Warblers were flitting through the trees, One of them was a male, the other probably an immature bird or a female..The Ruby-crowned Kinglet is considered a migrant in VT, but I have also seen it here during a Christmas Bird Count. This the first one since last summer. The new cameraAfter reading Lillian Stokes enthusiastic review of the Canon Powershot SX50SH I had to have it, because its telephoto lens could zoom out from my current 400mm to 1200 mm, a feat that for my Nikon D300 would cost me thousands of dollars, and anyway would be way too heavy to carry. So I sold my Powershot S95 and bought this camera instead. I found out, though, to utilize this power I have to spend hours of practice. At such high power magnification with resulting small field of vision it's impossible to keep track of small birds on their foraging trips through the trees. So for that I went back to my large Nikon. Maybe I will yet the hang of it, anticipate, move faster... The camera works great for stationary birds, like the juvenile Red-throated Loon below which showed up on a sheltered bay of the CT River, or the Great Blue Heron about the snag his breakfast, or the Eastern Towhee below or the White-throated Sparrow. Have you noticed when the waiter brings the plates with food to the table, the diners' eyes pop out  just like this? Eastern Towhees were present in large numbers. This one was at Montague Sandplains WMR where, at dusk, I saw a whole flock of around 30 to 40 birds flying overhead east to southwestThe backyard is teeming with White-throated Sparrows. I have been scattering black oil sunflower seeds on the grass to avoid having them all at once sitting gobbled up by grey squirrels. This White-throated sparrow has unusual bright yellow alula feathers at the shoulders, which I haven't seen on any of the illustrations in my guide books. Alula feathers are often hidden; it's probably a variation, not a hybrid. Happy Birding![...]

How Google saved my life


White Storks used to be a common sight in the little village in Germany where I grew up. Their return to their old nests each year heralded the true onset of spring - and a new beginning since for us kids any sighting meant a new life was about to be born somewhere in the neighborhood. Gradually over the years sightings of storks became less and less common as the moors and wetlands were being drained to make room for agriculture.There's only one pair now, and to be sure they stayed, the villager erected a stable platform for their nest.On a trip to Spain though I discovered where our storks had stopped and stayed on their return from their wintering grounds in North Africa. Almost every high building or church spire in the city of  Caceres on the river Tajo had one or more of their massive nests and in the surroundings were plenty of ponds and wetlands to supply their favorite prey, frogs.Storks near Caceres, SpainA new beginning was what I was looking for too. I am apologizing that for the past several months I have neglected visiting and leaving comments on my favorite birding blogs. I have been dealing with a critical health issue, and so, in this post, I am not going to write about birds, but about how a Google search saved my life.I had become aware of some problems with my memory, such as blocking on names and words, and had started feeling insecure on walks. I was falling frequently without clear cause, falling on trails, on side walks, into a pond, and in an airport.There was no rhyme or reason to these falls, no stumbling or tripping that I was aware of, and fortunately no serious injuries other than bruises. My walking had turned into a choppy gait when tired and hurrying. My husband remarked on it and demonstrated to me what looked like a Parkinsonian gait.  But I knew it wasn't Parkinson's, since there was no rigidity or joint stiffness. It was also puzzling that these problems appeared only intermittently, days or weeks at a time.The pattern didn't fit any of the common neurological diseases. My memory problems made me worry, of course, about Alzheimer's disease (AD). My dad had died of it, and I was afraid I was heading in the same direction. As a physician I had taken care of plenty of patients with advanced AD and was horrified of facing that same future, an existence devoid of any joy: the patients never smiled, laughed or showed any pleasure, only occasionally displayed anxiety or anger. It was as if a cataract was blocking their mental access to the world and finally obscured it totally, like this:I saw a neurologist who however couldn't find anything abnormal and referred me for baseline neuropsychological testing. But it turned out to be more than a baseline. The tests looked like child's play with colorful disks, pictures, cards, photos...but the report, after several hours of testing, and the test results being abstracted into numbers and the scores compared to standard data, showed I was no longer as smart as I once was. The neuropsychologist reassured me however that the test results did not point to AD.I had done extensive reading on neurological diseases such as Parkinson's, AD and multiple sclerosis and had found none that matched what I was experiencing. So I finally entered my symptoms into Google search and I think putting "frequent falls" first was the tip-off in that a new disease popped up: Adult Onset Hydrocephalus and specifically Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus (NPH).  Everything fit: my many falls, my instability when traversing rough terrain, my memory problems and lastly, which I actually hadn't considered a problem yet, urinary urgency (or the sprint to the BR when observing my dogs relieving themselves before bed time).The tragedy is that the disease, although rare, is treatable but most of the time is not diagnosed. Many patients, bed-ridden or wheelchair-bound in nursing homes because of inability to walk, dementia and bladder incontinence, may a[...]

The three deadliest threats to our native birds


An icy wind is whipping the tall pines behind our house. Thick snow shrouds everything living. And yet for birds the greatest threats to survival are not the arctic temperatures or lack of food, but man-made barriers.Wind farms have been touted as one of the most important sources of green energy that may help save our planet from climate change, but are they also giant "bird blenders"?Modern turbine towers can reach a height of 270 feet with rotors as wide as a football field.Klondike wind farm in OregonWind energy suffers from one great disadvantage: the best sites are far from the dense population centers of the Northeast and mid Atlantic states where it's needed most.Setting up wind farms on the continental shelf along the North Atlantic coast would be one solution.  (See below Cape Wind)When starting my Google search on wind farms the first study I ran across was about an off-shore wind farm in the Baltic sea published in Biology Letters in 2005. Danish researchers did a radar study, covering the first year of operation, of migrating geese and Eiders negotiating their way through the forest of wind turbines.Black lines indicate migrating waterbird flocks, red dots the wind turbinesThey found that the birds kept a safe distance from the turbines and were flying almost exclusively down the center of the corridors, giving the turbines wider berth at night than during the day.  At first I felt reassured but that didn't last very long.Next I looked at a study of the notorious wind farm on the Altamont Pass in California, one of the largest  in the US. It was built before anyone studied its effects on air-borne wildlife such as birds and bats.Because of its mountain-top location  it was having a devastating effect on raptor populations, esp. Bald Eagles, Red-tailed Hawks and Burrowing Owls, by generating a warm updraft that would sweep the birds right into the path of the turbine blades, slicing them in half or decapitating them.Altamont Pass --- Aerial photo: Ian KluftThis wind farm supplies enough electricity to power a city the size of San FranciscoAccording to one study as many at 1300 raptors die each year in collision with Altamont's 5400 turbines. Worse yet, it's built next to the world's densest nesting area for Golden Eagles.  This and much more is contained in this fascinating 12 min video by KQED Quest.Since then much work has been done to mitigate the impact. In particularly one turbine, that stood on a hill by itself and was responsible for much of the slaughter, was dismantled. Turbine design has been altered so that the birds now tend to fly above the height of the turbines, though some experts say more studies are needed. A British study of onshore wind farms found that most birds are not harmed during the operation of the turbines. There was a significant decline of bird population however during the construction phase, probably due to interference with nesting. Most migrating birds fly at an altitude of 150 to 600 meters, that is, above the height of the average modern wind turbine (about 100 meters).Design of wind turbines has had a greater impact though on bat mortality. A study found that whereas the diameter of the turbine rotors did not affect migrating birds or bats, tower height though had a significant impact on bat mortality: the greater the height the greater the bat mortality, suggesting that migrating bats fly at lower altitudes than nocturnally migrating birds and that the newer larger turbines are reaching into that air space.Construction of the first off-shore wind farm, Cape Wind, is scheduled to start this year in Nantucket Sound between Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard and island of Nantucket. See white cross on map below.There was much controversy  about the economical benefits vs the detrimental impact on scenic beauty for property owners along the shore and yachtsmen on the sound. Little is known ab[...]

Three authors: Birds up close and personal, and Magpie passes mirror test


For crows living in flocks fosters complex behaviorsJust when I was learning to read I found a book in our attic which promised to teach me the language of birds. It was torn in half though, and the half with the answers was missing. So to my great disappointment the language of birds remained a mystery.That same desire underlies much of today's research about birds. Will we ever know how birds are seeing their world? how they interpret what goes on around them? or what they are thinking? Are they even conscious?The sixteenth century French philosopher Descartes claimed that animals are automatons, that is, pure machines without consciousness. Many researchers still adhere to the view that animals are biological entities subject to inborn unalterable instincts, but as animal owners and caretakers have known all along this is not true for their pets, not true for farm animals, nor is it true for laboratory animals. On closer acquaintance we know that within the limits of their abilities they are all individuals, have different personalities, are bold, shy, curious, anxious, happy, moody, playful, sociable, gregarious or withdrawn... just like human beings.The Bluebird Effect: Uncommon Bonds with Common Birds by Julie ZickefooseIf looking at the cover painting of Julie Zickefoose's The Bluebird Effect you think it's a picture book, you are mistaken. Yes, the author is an accomplished artist; she illustrates her book with exquisite  paintings and drawings, but her look at birds goes much deeper. In her work and writing she combines a human's lively empathy and warmth, a scientist's cool eye and a child's curiosity and wonder. She takes on the arduous work of a bird rehabilitator in rearing abandoned nestlings or injured birds. She takes on the impossible task, for example, of raising the chicks of  chimney swifts, blind and naked, only a few days old, dislodged perhaps by a chimney sweep. She gives them a home in a rattan basket where they can cling to the wall, the closest approximation to the inside of a chimney, keeping the area well heated to 8o degrees, blows on them to imitate the wing beat of the arriving parent,  nudging them to gape to be fed every 20 min, and keeping them hydrated with an electrolyte solution by eye dropper. She gives them names but they are not pets; she releases them back into the wild as soon as they indicate they are ready. The greatest reward for her is when one of her former charges recognizes her and, peeling away from its wild companions, lands on her shoulder.Northern Cardinal fledglingShe is a terrific writer. This book would enchant and entertain any bird lover. It would be a great gift for budding birdwatchers and perhaps foster in them a passion for birding.Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans by John Marzluff and Tony AngellCorvids, of which crows are a member, are exceptionally smart. According to the author they have much in common with us: language, delinquency, insight, frolic, passion encompassing wrath and grief, risk-taking and awareness. He devotes a chapter to illustrate each property with fascinating observations and stories. For example when caching food, crows are very aware of which particular bird is watching them. They may only pretend to cache and, when no one is looking, move  the cache to another place, but they only do so if they themselves have been thieves. Another example: observing a small flock of geese being tossed pieces of bread, crows quickly covered up each piece with a maple leaf, making it invisible to the geese, and saving it for themselves. This particular ability to know what another individual, even another species, is thinking is shared only by our closest primate  relatives. It's a complex cognitive property called possessing a theory of mind. They share with humans the ability t[...]

Birds in Winter


The other day I was surprised to see a flock of about 20 American Robins feeding on the hairy red fruits of  the Staghorn Sumac that was growing behind our shopping center. Because the fruits are dry, have little flesh, no fat or sugar they are usually left untouched until late winter. In spring and summer we are used to seeing them foraging on the ground, running, then suddenly stopping to listen and pouncing to extract an earthworm. In the winter when the ground is frozen they switch to fruit on the ground or still hanging in the trees. The Robins we see here in the winter probably probably started their fall  in Canada and found the Northeast temperate enough to stay through the winter, whereas those that summer with us have shifted southward. So these are probably the same Robins we see in early spring when the snow is receding,  in transient large flocks foraging among the old grasses and leaves in our backyards and fields. Many birds that are solitary during the breeding season often flock together in winter, when food sources are rare and much more sporadic. Even through the bounty must be shared with a larger number it still pays off to have more eyes scouting for them.Snow Buntings are highly territorial in the summer, jealously defending their nesting sites in the tundra, but during the winter they often travel in mixed flocks with Horned Larks. They are most easily found along plowed roadsides where they forage for grass seeds and grains.Snow Buntings crossing a paved roadFlock of foraging Snow Buntings and Horned LarksMale Horned LarksBoth the Horned Larks and Snow Buntings roost in scrapes in the ground or burrow into the snow for extra protection against the cold. During a storm they may let themselves be snowed in. In the winter Northern Shrikes, like this first year juvenile, migrate south from their home in the tiga/tundra to southern Canada and the northern United States where prey may be more available.  Sitting high in a tall tree they look innocuous, watching and scouting for any small movement in the trees or on the ground, when they are down in a flash to grab a bird or small mammal, revealing their true nature and justifying their Latin name Lanius excubitor "Butcher Bird".House Sparrow puffed up against the cold trying to keep warm.Bohemian Waxwings are true  nomads, roaming in flocks  and descending when finding berry or fruit bearing trees. They are voracious eaters and only leave when all the fruits have been consumed. They are so unpredictable that It's always a special thrill to see them. They cheer me up with their jaunty masks and feathered caps, the red wax tips on their wings and the red untertail coverts. Here they are feeding on fruit fallen off a crap apple tree. Their rakish looks make me smile.Homely looking Wild Turkeys foraging on a manure pile in a snowy field.I first saw this Common Raven on the flat roof of parking garage. It then flew across the parking lot and landed on a  mound of snow at the edge of the lot where I followed it in my car. I was able to take a couple more photos before it flew off heading east into the morning sky. Happy Birding in 2013![...]

Nomads of the North


My first view of the great eastern boreal forest was from 33,000 ft up  traveling home from a visit with my family in Germany. Down below lay a dark green expanse interrupted only by the distant glitter from bogs, lakes and and snaking rivers.  Far and wide in between  straight roads as if laid down with a ruler were the only signs of  human presence. This is still the home of billions of birds who are moving south only when their food supplies are running low. Every year winter finch forecasts are being published based on the seed crop supply. Click here to see this year's forecast. A couple of weeks ago when out with my dog I saw three plump birds with taupe undersides, two white wingbars and rusty caps feeding on a crab apple tree. At first I didn't recognize them but then "rusty" clicked in my head: female Pine Grosbeaks!  In Dec 2007 I had photographed a flock in a road-side crab apple tree. The majority were females but I was lucky to  also see a male as males often stay behind.Since then I have seen many reports of sightings on the Mass, NH and VT state birding listservs. So it's starting to look like a true irruption. Just the other day a large flock of about 30 birds appeared in Turner's Falls in the crab apple trees along an urban sidewalk gorging themselves on the fruit. They were all females, or immature males, with no adult males in sight. A light snow was falling. I took many photos but ended up deleting most of them since the birds in the trees were just dark gray shadows against a brilliant white sky. But many were feeding on the sidewalk and allowed me to come very close.Drinking from a puddleThe Evening Grosbeak, nominated as the 2012 ABA Bird of the Year, is at home in the coniferous and mixed forest of western northern US and Canada. With their massive bills they are masters at cracking nuts and seeds. They used to be common visitors at winter feeding stations in the East but in the last decades their numbers have plummeted. See Laura Erickson's ABA blog post on  "What is happening to Evening Grosbeaks?". I first saw the bird just after I had moved from Kansas to Western Mass in 1980. I was renting a condo with a balcony looking out on  a patch of swamp and coniferous forest. I had put our sunflower seeds in a tray on a table for flock of House Finches and one snowy morning I vividly remember a flock of large yellow, white and black birds swirling around the balcony with a great deal of commotion and loud noise and making short work of the seeds. Fascinated I kept refilling the tray. Since then I have seen them only on rare occasions. With their imposing presence,  their bold colors and massive beaks, they always strike me as being somehow larger than life.Crossbills are true boreal nomads. They are totally dependent on the seeds in spruce and pine cones, and appear wherever their food supply is plentiful. Their oddly shaped bill allows them to pry open the scales of cones to extract the seeds. Rarely do they show up at backyard feeders.Immature White-winged Crossbill at feederRecently I drove to Salisbury Beach State Park to see the Crossbills reported there. The pine trees there were bursting with cones. Chattering flocks of Crossbills were lofting up, then settling down again on a different group of trees.  White-winged Crossbills were in the majority but I also saw several Red Crossbills.   Adult male White-winged Crossbills look rosy as if dipped in red wine whereas immature males are peach-colored. Females are unobtrusively gray and olive, and have, like the males, white wing barsRed Crossbills come in various shades of brick red  with white undertail coverts. They lack wing bars. There appear to exist at least 10 types distinguishable only by their call and size of bill.The Purple [...]

White-winged and Red Crossbills in Salisbury Beach State Park


A couple of weeks ago on a beautiful warm day I drove to Salisbury Beach State Park at the mouth of the Merrimac River to see the Crossbills that had been reported there. The pines on the park's camp ground were studded with thick round cones that were bursting with seeds. I watched as flocks of Crossbills were flying short distances from tree to tree. Most of them were White-winged Crossbills. Red Crossbills were present in much smaller numbers. They are recognizable by their brick-red color with white only  on their undertail coverts. The color on the White-winged Crossbills is more purple, as if dipped in red wine, very similar to the Purple Finch's.  However it was easy to mistake one for the other if you just saw them from the front and didn't see their wings. They are messy eaters; many of them were feeding on the ground picking up dropped seeds. The "cross bills" refers to the peculiar shape of their bills which are well suited for wedging open the thick cone scales to extract the seeds.The following photos all show White-winged Crossbills, the flashy males as well as the more subtly colored olive and gray females. The paler pinkish birds are immature males.I got only a few photos of the Red Crossbills, all males.The crossbills are included in this year's report on the winter finch irruption. For a very informative updated report see Tim Schreckengost's post on Thermal Birding. Happy Thanksgiving! -- and thank you for visiting my blog. I am also thankful for all the wonderful birds I was able to see this year. I hope everyone will participate in their area's Christmas Bird Count. We owe it to the birds![...]

One of the world's great migrations: neotropical warblers and other songbirds


We may have seen pictures of huge herds of caribou migrating or wildebeest fording a crocodile-infested river on the Serengeti plain, but few people are aware of the hundreds of thousands of migrating song birds passing overhead as we sleep, birds that spend two thirds of their lives in the neotropics, in Central or South America.   On quiet nights if you have good ears you may hear the faint high-pitched sounds of the passing birds. Turning recordings into spectrograms may help with individual identification; yet almost nothing is known about the character and composition of these flocks.Most migrants stop in the morning to feed and rest and then resume their journey at dusk. It's a perilous journey with many obstacles. Most song birds live about two years with about 85% of the mortality occurring during migration. For example the tall glass towers in Toronto form a lethal barrier for birds coming south across Lake Ontario from the northern wilderness.The multitudes of migrating birds are most easily seen on weather radar. The Wordpress Badbirdz Reloaded site provides a good primer. There are several ornithologists that chart the nightly migration progress on their blogs. Drew Weber of Nemesis Bird is one of them.In New England by October most of the warblers have left, but there are still a few stragglers. The highlight of my recent walk was seeing an Orange-crowned Warbler, a life bird for me. Among the sparrows skulking through the underbrush I glimpsed a small bird with a delicate beak. Pishing brought it to the surface.The name is really a misnomer. The orange on its crown is almost invisible except in a certain light.  It's a late migrant that may stay into November and may even turn up during a Christmas Bird Count.The Palm Warbler is another such species that is still around in NE. I took these photos in early October on the West River Trail:On the same day I found a female Blackpoll Warbler, a species usually found in the higher altitude of the White Mountains - see previous post. Blackpoll Warbler undertake the longest migration of any warbler according to BNA online.  Their route takes them south across the Atlantic Ocean, a route that averages 3,000 km and may necessitate a nonstop flight of 88 hours.One of the most common warblers in the Northeast, the Yellow-rumped Warbler often stays into November:The Ruby-crowned Kinglet is another late migrantWhen substantial numbers interrupt their migration because of unfavorable weather, we have a fallout, an event much appreciated by birders  Last year we had both a spring and a fall fallout of Palm Warbler. Here, In the fall, they settled in a harvested cornfield for a day.Sometimes a bird gets blown off course. This happened two years ago in November when a Townsend's Warbler, a western species, showed up in a road-side weed patch in SE NH staying there for more than a week. Eventually it left. Its ultimate fate is unknown. It's ironic that these lost vagrants, most of them unlikely to survive, provide the greatest thrill and attract birders from great distances. If you like to read more about bird migration here are two remarkable books:Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds by Scott WeidensaulSongbird Journeys: Four Seasons in the Lives of Migratory Birds by Miyoko Coco ChuHappy Birding![...]

Bald heads reveal dinosaur ancestry


I took the feeders down this past spring to keep the bears away and instead have been scattering black oil sunflower seeds on the broad railing and picnic table on our porch. In the summer I was doing it at dawn, but now, with the shorter days, it's closer to 6. As soon as I step out on the porch I hear the Chickadees calling to each other, announcing that breakfast has arrived. They are landing even before I am finished. In a nearby tree I hear the resident Cardinal alerting his mate. They are a little bit more cautious and wait until after I have gone back inside.The minutes of peaceful feeding usually end with the noisy arrival of a family of Blue Jays. They are molting in late August and every year one or two sorry-looking individuals show up bald - with few feathers, or may be just a stubble on their heads. Fortunately that's only a temporary state lasting about two weeks until the feathers have regrown.Although adult, they often look immature because their large eyes are more characteristic of chicks:Others have more reptilian features:The naked heads remind us that their ancestors are dinosaurs, not mammals, and that their closest living relatives are the crocodiles. They usually reach maturity within 12 weeks, but retain the large eyes characteristics of juvenile dinosaurs.In a study published in the journal Nature on 5/27/12 examining this curious fact the authors conclude that         "We have provided a powerful new example of how heterochronic changes,       paedomorphic" (retaining juvenile characteristics) "and peramorphic" (early development of adult characteristics) "were crucial in the origin and evolution of birds. We further demonstrate that these changes were driven by an extreme degree of elaboration in vision-associated areas of the brain that parallels the olfactory elaboration of mammals, and possibly by the evolution of the face into a precision grasping mechanism as the hands were co-opted for flight."There is a very readable illustrated summary of the study in ScienceDaily:  Evolution of Birds Is Result of a Drastic Change in How Dinosaurs Developed[...]

Late Migrants


I was walking with my dog along the West River Trail starting at the Dummerston end and ran into a mixed flock of Blue-headed Vireos, Yellow-rumped Warblers and Chickadees.On my way back they had all moved on. There were lots of sparrows though, mostly white-throated. I am not sure what this White-throated Sparrow was eating.Here are some photos of other recent fall sightings.Scarlet Tanager, probably adult femaleRed-eyed VireoCommon Yellowthroat, probably first winter maleWilson's Warbler, adult maleHappy fall birding![...]

Common Nighthawk Migration


For the past couple of weeks I have given supper short shrift  -  quick meals out of the freezer or whatever leftovers I could put together -  because during the second half of August supper time is when the Common Nighthawks pass through on their fall migration. Every evening for the past several years Vermont birder Don Clark of Grafton has has been observing the migration at Westminster Station near the Connecticut River, a perfect wide open location with good views in all directions.Other birders, both local and from across the state, have been joining  him in spotting and counting the passing migrants for the annual record. They fly in small flocks, starting as barely visible dots on the distant sky, then turning into tiny ciphers fading in and out of view, and then suddenly they are right overhead, flashing their white wing patches, with little time for the lens to lock onto the target. When actively feeding their flight is erratic, banking and curving, suddenly veering off into a different direction. And before you know it  the opportunity to catch a good shot has passed. I found it helps to set my camera on continuous autofocus, have a fast memory card and then fire away until the buffer is full at about 100 shots, if set on JPEG Fine, or 19 when shooting RAW.Male Nighthawks are distinguished by a white sub-terminal tail band which is absent in females and juveniles. I am including these two shots, the one above and one below, because the legs are extended. They weren't coming down to land, but maybe they did so for some other maneuver that escaped me. The birds are often flying with their huge mouth agape when hawking flying insects, but  I only caught two of them doing so. I apologize for these blurry shots, just using them to illustrate this behavior.Common Nighthawks are long distance migrants from continental North America, usually along river valleys and lake shores, to their wintering quarters in South America. They have been listed as critically imperiled in the New England states.  In the past, migratory flocks often numbered in the 1000's  According to Don Clark the highest number this year at Westminster Station was 641 on 8/22, but on most evenings the counts were much lower, often in the 100's or low 200's. Here's a link to a  video featuring  recordings - the peenting nasal call and the boom made by the wings when the bird is diving - narrated by Macaulay Library curator Greg Budney. Great photos too, much better than mine.Finally on the last day, just when the numbers of passing Nighthawks had tapered to almost nothing, we were treated to two Bald Eagles circling above.Happy Fall Birding![...]

Ruby-throated Hummingbird in a patch of Jewelweed


I was checking the wetland patch next to our driveway for warblers when this female Ruby-throated Hummingbird arrived to make her rounds through the patch of Jewelweed. She must fatten up for her journey south.She works her wings like rotating ruddersLift off!  --- She'll probably be back tomorrow.Happy Birding![...]

End of Summer Birds


Summer is winding down. The first cool nights are here. The bird population in our yard is changing. I haven't seen any Robins for some time doing their running, stopping and listening for worms in the ground. It's oddly silent except for the raucous cries of the Blue Jays and Crows. I still hear an occasional Gray Catbird, though, giving its cat-like calls from deep inside a shrub. This one is was sitting out in the open and was about to launch into flight.A couple of weeks ago three or four Chestnut-sided Warblers were moving around in the thicket close to our driveway with one of the them looking like a male. I went  to get my camera, but then only found this one bird, probably a first year youngster. When walking along a trail pishing will usually draw out one or two Common Yellowthroats Dragon flies and butterflies abound. Avian migration in the fall is kind of protracted and all you can do is be on the lookout. In my next post I'll talk about Nighthawk migration.Happy Birding![...]

Watching Northern Gannets is fun, except when it's not


(Warning: disturbing images)The high point of my visit to my birth place in Germany in 2009 was a trip from Hamburg down the Elbe River to the diminutive island of Helgoland in the North Sea, 29 miles off the coast. The side facing the sea is a 200 feet high rock cliff, home to thousands of sea birds, mostly Northern Gannets, Common Murres and Black-legged Kittiwakes. It was a gorgeous day, bright sun, blue skies. I had only a few hours to photograph the birds, no way of avoiding the mid-day sun with its harsh lights and shadows. But losing myself  in the moment, I was happy and kept firing away at the awe-inspiring assembly of nesting Northern Gannets.Parental care: placing a featherMacabre DiscoveryClosely examining the photos after I got home, I discovered the tragic consequences of the Gannets' method of nest construction. The rocks were covered with tons of man-made indestructible trash: plastic lines and pieces of nets that the Gannets had dragged up for nest material in place of their customary sticks and seaweeds, and that ended up trapping many of them, leading to their slow and agonizing deaths. The living and the dead:  a recently dead adult bird in the left upper corner and the skeletal remains of one near center right among apparently oblivious  adults and chicksIs this adult going to be able to free itself from the sling around its neck?These juveniles didn't make itFortunately this  appears to be the only known Northern Gannet colony in the North Atlantic suffering such  calamity. The North Sea is a shallow shelf sea ideal for shrimping with drag nets over its bottom. Nets are lost or torn apart and remain floating in the water or washed up on the beach. Gannets are known to resort to beachcombing for their nest material. Or perhaps they grab it when the nets are  pulled in for mending. Scottish trawlerTrawl nets on Belgian boatPart of a trawl head on top of the rock. How on earth did it get up there?Until then I had been content to archive my photos on my website; but now I had to write about it, hoping to bring this debacle to the public's attention. That's how I started my blog.[...]

Eastern Phoebes building a nest


Several weeks ago an Eastern Phoebe pair decided to build  a nest in a corner space above the main entrance to our house. Wrong spot.  When I discovered the beginnings of a cup- shaped mud and moss construction, I scraped it off, but they kept returning with more mud and moss to the same site until we wedged a piece of foam rubber into the space sealing it off. There are lots of nooks and crannies around our house, shed, and workshop and I hoped they would find a more suitable spot - which they did, at least in their opinion, right above the back entrance to our porch. One or the other bird kept fluttering up at the upper portion of the porch door. Puzzled I watched it for a while. When I finally walked around I discovered a bead of mud plastered along the trim above the porch door. It didn't make much sense to me at first, but after a while they concentrated their efforts on a midpoint and started cementing together a nest. I think both the male and the female participated but can't be sure. They were messy, dropping mud and moss on the steps below. We decided to let them be and I locked the back door which we weren't using much anyway.Gradually they turned the mess into a neat cup-shaped nest.  Then for a long time nothing. It was too high and too deep for a nesting bird to be visible over the rim. For a time I thought they had abandoned the nest until, a couple of weeks later, I started hearing the typical chorus of begging nestlings. The parents used a clothes line fastened to the edge of the porch as a perch when approaching the nest.  They were easy to distinguish from each other because one of  them looked flat-topped having lost feathers on its head.The nestlings started to be visible over the rim and grew and grew...I was going to get some better photos, but the very next day the three chicks had fledged and departed our yard. There are young ones all around. Throughout the day I am hearing, in the trees above or the adjacent hay fields, the nasal begging calls of young crows. Small fast moving juveniles keep chirping and twittering in the thickets along the edge of our lot.  A couple of days ago a Mockingbird, giving off sharp warning calls, was dive-bombing my dog as he trotted along a wall of shrubs and trees behind our supermarket.  The bird swooped down repeatedly, but my dog was totally oblivious to these mock attacks.  Another adult was sitting on a strand of wires above. There must have been a nest nearby. There isn't  much else going on but I am reading that shore bird migration is starting soon. Happy birding![...]

Birding Glacial Montague Sandplains IBA


Shivers were running down my spine. I was standing on the very sand deposited some 10,000 years ago as a delta at the mouth of a melt water stream into a giant ice age lake, glacial Lake Hitchcock. Eventually as the climate warmed the glaciers disappeared and the lake shrunk back into what is now the Connecticut River bed. 

The sand delta forms the heart of the Montague Sandplains IBA. The almost impenetrable thicket of scrub oak, intermingled with pitch pine, covering the plains, forms a haven for several bird species, among them Prairie Warblers, Eastern Towhees, Brown Thrasher, Field Sparrows and Whip-poor-wills. It is a unique habitat also for species of insects and turtles who would be more at home on Cape Cod. 

I had arrived late in the evening and stayed till after dark to hear the Whip-poor-wills call, but no such luck. However from all directions Prairie Warblers were singing. 

For more please see my contribution on Birding is Fun

Happy Birding!



I ransacked my archive and came up with a few  worth saving.A very intense-looking female Baltimore OrioleThis male too looks anxious. Was it me?A Veery mom calling her offspring but they waited until I was goneYummy!!A juvenile Eastern Bluebird. It took me a while to figure this out.A baby Wood Duckling temporarily lost, but its loud contact calls alerted its mother and they were soon reunited. Happy Fourth![...]

Shorebirds of Cape May


Looking for photos of shorebirds for my final post on Cape May was like scraping the bottom of a barrel: there were many shots of distant flocks on tidal flats and few, if any, worth reproducing. Most of the shores were roped off to protect breeding sites on the beaches. Below a flock of Semipalmated Sandpipers with a few Dunlins mixed in.The Dunlins' summer plumage while on migration to their arctic breeding grounds was strikingly different from their familiar dull winter plumage. Only the drooping bill with its wilting tip looked the same. They were sporting a rufous cap and a bright rufous back. In addition they stood out by a sharply defined black patch on their belly, making them very conspicuous among the pale-bellied shorebirds. I wonder, since everything has to have a reason, what's the advantage of having a black underside? It is easier to understand the dramatic, and confusing, coloration of the Ruddy Turnstones, shown here with several Short-billed Dowitchers and a Sanderling: it makes them blend in with the pebbles of the shore.Short-billed Dowitcher above, compare to the slightly smaller Lesser Yellowlegs below.Some locations were made intolerable by the dense clouds of gnats that materialized within a couple of minutes of our arrival. Pete Dunne, our guide on several trips, was wearing an ingeniously constructed, airy, and bug-proof: The Original Bug Shirt on sale at the Cape May Bird Observatory. I decided I had to have one too. Although a little late on this trip, I will find a useful during black fly season in Vermont, or when exploring swampy, mosquito-infested areas, such as the heron rookery below.In closing a photo of a Boat-tailed Grackle, amusing and noisy coastal inhabitant. Happy Birding![...]

Piping Plovers, Purple Martins, and an Osprey


Upon arrival at their breeding grounds Piping Plovers establish a territory which encompasses a stretch of shoreline for feeding and  higher dry ground for nesting. A male entering an other's territory may provoke a threat display: lowering the head and fanning and puffing the feathers. This may last for a many minutes. Sometimes they engage in running in parallel along a disputed boundary.I am guessing  this is a dispute between two males with a female looking on  At a distance a couple of downy chicks were running about without any adults close by.Purple MartinsOn the same beach in back of the dunes a Purple Martin colony with compartmentalized wooden houses and gourds had been set up. They had just begun building their nests and laying eggs. No young had yet been hatched. Both males and females may claim many compartments and defend them against competitors but relinquish most of them once they have settled on one for building their nest, keeping some as spare rooms. Since not all compartments in a house may be occupied, the male of a nesting pair often sleeps in an adjoining one.Purple Martins are fierce defenders of their nests. They peck, bite and claw at any intruder who tries to enter. Males fight off other males and females other females. Violent battles may ensue if a competitor manages to get inside. The nest openings are crescent-shaped to keep out starlings who can't pass because of their larger sternums.OspreyOn any suitable platform along the coast Osprey nests are ubiquitous and man-made detritus is also ubiquitous, below an iconic sign of our human presence, the plastic trash bag. Plastic waste such as bags, balloons, and other junk are often mistaken for food and fed to the chicks causing them to starve and die. It reminds us to be mindful of what we discard and pick up such items on the beach when we see them. I have material for one more post on Cape May:  shorebirds. Until then, happy birding![...]

More Life Birds from Cape May


I arrived in Cape May for the Maygration Birding Festival mid afternoon on a beautiful day. I was unpacking my rental car when a very vocal crow dropped from the roof and flew off. A Fish Crow! A life bird for me.  Instead of the customary cawing the bird's nasal twang was unmistakable. It's like being in a foreign country.  Although they are a different species of crows Fish Crows (Corvus ossifragus) are indistinguishable from American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) except when seen side by side: they are little bit smaller and their beak is a bit blunter at the tip. To start off with a life bird I thought was a good omen. I soon discovered that the hotel I was staying at was on the "wrong" side of Cape May, away from most of the festival activities. It was facing the beach and was surrounded by blindingly white million dollar summer homes as yet unoccupied and was far removed from any stores or restaurants. The streets and sidewalks were empty except for the ocean fishermen parked along the beach side. One advantage though:  no bugs! The biting gnats can be a real problem along the back waters. They appear after a few minutes and cluster thickly around you, so that you want to cover every skin surface except the eyes. These are my other lifers: Seaside Sparrow, an inhabitant of the marshes of the Atlantic and Gulf coastMarsh Wren, an impressive singer usually deep in the cat tails only occasionally and very briefly coming to the surfaceBlue Grosbeak, larger than the Indigo Bunting, mostly found in the south eastern Atlantic states, distinguished from Indigo Bunting by larger size, larger beak and rust colored slashes on wings.Clapper Rail, skulking through the cat tails and easily missed. This bird is taking  bath in one of the channels created by low tide.Forster's Tern, common here but pretty rare in New EnglandAnd lastly a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, a common breeder in NE but one I have always managed to miss. This brought my lifetime tally up to 300. My next and last post on Cape May will be on a - presumed -  border dispute among Piping Plovers, a Purple Martin colony, several more shorebirds and of course the signature bird of coastal regions, the Osprey.  Happy Birding![...]

Red Knots, Skimmers and Oystercatchers


On my trip to Cape May for the Maygration Birding Festival I had hoped to see many warblers, but the timing was off. Because of the warm winter migration was early. By the time we started looking most males had established their local territories and had stopped singing, making them hard to find. However there were large numbers of shorebirds and seabirds. I was thrilled to see Red Knots, those fabled long distance travelers who on their journey from the southern tip of South America to the arctic tundra descend in huge numbers on the shores of the Delaware bay, their only stopover, where they fatten up on horseshoe crab eggs to replenish their depleted energy stores. In the last decades, though, the massive harvest of horseshoe crabs for bait has threatened the survival of the birds. A moratorium is now in place. In the hundreds of photos I took of distant shorebirds (distant because the beaches were closed for nesting) I found only three Red Knots, although I briefly saw a larger flock which landed  but took off again right away. They are one of the largest sandpipers. They get their name from the red chest in breeding plumage.Several years ago I watched  a program on PBS on horseshoe crab being harvested for their blood. It showed crabs in a large pharmaceutical lab being lined up at blood letting machinery like so many widgets. Fortunately many of the crabs survive the process and are released back into the sea. "Unlike mammals, horseshoe crabs do not have hemoglobin in their blood, but instead use hemocyanin to carry oxygen. Because of the copper present in hemocyanin, their blood is blue. Their blood contains amebocytes, which play a role similar to white blood cells for vertebrates in defending the organism against pathogens. Amebocytes from the blood of L. polyphemus are used to make Limulus amebocyte lysate, which is used for the detection of bacterial endotoxins.Harvesting horseshoe crab blood involves collecting and bleeding the animals, and then releasing them back into the sea. Most of the animals survive the process; mortality is correlated with both the amount of blood extracted from an individual animal, and the stress experienced during handling and transportation. Estimates of mortality rates following blood harvesting vary from 3% to 15%."Black Skimmers, so flamboyant in their appearance are another species that I wanted to catch on camera. Flamboyant in their appearance and habits. As their name implies with their peculiarly shaped beaks, hinged larger lower beak, they skim the surface of the water scooping up and snapping down on whatever prey comes their way. Here is a colorful description taken from BNA: The buoyant flight of this bird, coupled with its dog-like barks, prompted R. C. Murphy (1936) to describe Black Skimmers as “unworldly…aerial beagles hot on the scent of aerial rabbits.” I missed hearing that bark :-)The American Oystercatcher was another bird on my list to see. I am familiar with the Eurasian species. They are similar but not the same.Their beak is laterally flattened to squeeze into a tiny opening of a bivalve and cut the adductor muscle. If the clam is closed they use their beak to hammer a hole into the shell.  Courting pair in a piping display walking along the beach, being briefly swallowed by a wave and reemerging unruffled. Piping displayOn nest [...]

Jewels of the Woods


The season of the wood warblers and vireos is here. Although they are plentiful they are still not easy to see. Watch for a quick movement in the leaves, a shadow flying across a thicket, a flickering in the corner of your eyes. Then keep looking in that direction and you may be lucky. Pishing may lure them out into the open, but only briefly until they have satisfied themselves that you can safely be ignored.Wilson's WarblerPrairie WarblerBlack-and-White WarblerYellow WarblerWarbling VireoTomorrow I am off to Cape May for the Maygration Birding Festival. Until next week then, happy birding![...]