Sunday, May 20, 2007

Leucistic Goldfinch, Indigo Bunting, New Feeder Birds

Since returning from our travels, I haven't gotten into the field for birding, but the backyard has been great.

A leucistic goldfinch has been a regular visitor.

We've had 3 (maybe 4) Indigo Buntings and at least 2 females for the last week.

Gray Catbirds have been regular diners on our suet. I don't recall seeing them on the feeders before.

Also, a female towhee was on the feeder, another first. Usually they're on the ground when they come to the yard.

Apologies for the fuzzy last photo. These photos are through our not real clean kitchen window using a Sony cybershot DSC-H5 w/12x zoom. For other examples of the photos from this camera, see "Recent Photos" on the sidebar.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Life Birds in a Southern Forest

We were out of bed at ten minutes to five. We brewed the coffee provided by the hotel, filled our mugs, and were on the road by a quarter after. Twenty miles north of Wilmington, North Carolina, was the Holly Shelter Game Preserve. We turned in the dirt road and drove a half mile before parking near an empty camping area.

We listened again to the song of the sparrow - one of two “target” birds - a long clear note followed by a slow musical trill. Then we were out of the car. The air was chilly. The clear sky was orange with the early sun whose light was just touching the top of the pines. We finished our granola bar breakfast, tipped the last drops of coffee out of our travel mugs ... and listened.

A titmouse repeated his courting song - “peeer, peeer, peeer” - robins rattled from many directions. Sunlight moved down the longleaf pines bringing enough warmth to stimulate a Pine Warbler into his even pitched trill. Eastern Towhees called their “che-winks,” and now and then one limbered his vocal cords with a partial song, and abbreviated “drink,” or “drink your” - not quite ready to sing his full “drink your teeeeeea.” We continued to listen to the awakening stir of life in the southern pine savannah.

At 6 am, a long musical note drifted down the road, followed on a different pitch by a rapid trill. “There’s the Bachman’s Sparrow!” We headed down the road. The sparrow continued to sing from the mid-branch of a pine ahead of us, then to our side, then slightly behind us. In a primitive way, we had triangulated his location, and began looking more intently for movement. He did not move, but on a branch about thirty feet up his dark profile showed against the clear, morning sky, quivering as he broadcast his song.

At 6:10am, we watched the uncommon Bachman’s Sparrow - large, long-tailed, plain brown and nondescript. But a sparrow with a song rivaled only by the plaintive “pooor, sam, peabody peabody peabody” of our northern nesting White-throated Sparrow. Bachman’s Sparrow prefers dense habitat where it forages on the ground and is seldom seen. Maybe a glimpse can be had as it runs beneath its cover, or makes a short flight when flushed before disappearing again.

But in the Spring, the males sing from a high perch in the lower branches of a pine, repeating their song over and over and over from the same place. And that was one of the reasons we were in this pine savannah on a cool Spring morning.

The other reason was the Red-cockaded Woodpecker. This rare and endangered species lives in contiguous, open, mature pine forests in the Southeast. Development and lumbering has severely reduced the amount of mature forests available for this woodpecker, or has fragmented the forest that remains. As a result, this woodpecker is in trouble.

The good news for a birder is that the Red-cockaded Woodpecker is a colonial nester. Where there is one nesting pair, there are likely to be others. Kaufman describes their nest: “Preferred sites are cavities excavated in large live pines infected with red heart fungus (which gives tree a soft center inside a solid outer shell). Cavity usually 30-40 feet above ground, can be much lower or higher (to well above 100 feet). Entrance surrounded by tiny holes from which sticky resin oozes out, protecting nest from climbing predators.”

As an endangered species, this colonial nature and these nest characteristics make it relatively easy for biologists to study the Red-cockaded Woodpecker. Also as an endangered species, it is intensely studied. In the Holly Shelter Game Preserve, a nesting colony was situated about a mile in from the highway. Nesting trees were marked with broad, white painted stripes.

I should explain how we came to be in this particular place. In negotiating our Spring vacation along the Atlantic coast, my spouse insisted that we not bird all the time, and that her interest in the Civil War be honored. In turn, I would target our birding to finding these two southern species, Bachman’s Sparrow and Red-cockaded Woodpecker. I studied guides to birding places and had a significant list of places we would visit in search of these species (and which would provide a significant amount of birding on the trip). About a week before we left, I mentioned my target species to Al at an Audubon meeting. A couple of days later he received an e-mail from a friend who had just seen both species. Al forwarded the e-mail to me. The e-mail described “one of the best places to observe the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker” and gave precise directions for accessing the game preserve and finding the woodpecker.

And that is how it happened that my first stop for these targeted species was in this game preserve north of Wilmington, North Carolina. We watched the Bachman’s Sparrow for about ten minutes, until something caused him to fly off. Then we turned our attention to searching for the Red-cockaded Woodpecker.

In addition to nesting colonially, this woodpecker often forages with its family and neighbors. We had stopped during the late afternoon the day before, but had seen and heard very little beyond the ubiquitous song of the towhee. But in the early morning, the birds are active and often feed together. So we began to prowl slowly and quietly in the vicinity of the marked nesting trees. We were looking for a woodpecker midway in size between a Downy and a Hairy, with a stout beak like a Hairy, a prominent white cheek, otherwise entirely black with white spots, and an invisible red “cockade” back of the male’s eye.

Southern pine savannah is open forest with trees widely spaced and little undergrowth. We could search for movement across wide areas. We scanned and watched and listened. With binoculars on her eyes, my spouse said, “There it is.” I followed her line of sight to a plain woodpecker with a white cheek on the side of a pine. It was 7 am, and we had just seen our second life bird for the day. Others in the family group were stirring to activity and we had long and satisfying views of this endangered bird.

It was early and so we turned our attention to the other bird life coming alive - a Common Nighthawk peenting overhead, doing his aerial display by diving steeply then pulling up with a booming sound. A Long-eared Owl called distantly. Pine Warblers and Prairie Warblers singing from trees tops and thickets. A Summer Tanager, bright red, led us through the oaks, scolding with his “pikituck.” Brown-headed Nuthatches worked the tree trunks. Always the towhees were singing and the Carolina Chickadees calling.

By 9 am, this first day of May was beginning to feel like a mid-summer day. We shed clothing, rearranged the car, and resumed our travels. We had had a full day of very good birding.

Quotation from Kenn Kaufman, “Lives of North American Birds,” 1996.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

The Sources of What I Know About Birds

I am a birding hobbyist. My interest in bird watching was stimulated by my wife and built upon a general interest in camping, hiking, and the natural environment. I do not have any formal training in ornithology, and in science only in a general way and long ago. To the degree that I have done anything related to academic research, it has been done in the fields of classical history and local history.

As a birder, I came rather late to the hobby and continue to play catch up in skills and knowledge. I still need lots of practice in identification and observation. Birds songs often drive me nuts, although each year one or two more songs finally click into place. Sometimes when I am birding with others, I wish I were birding by myself, because then some outrageous mis-identifications would be known only to me.

But I press on, because it is fun, fascinating, and a lot better than sitting in front of a television. I make new discoveries, see new places, meet new people, and then, remarkably, get to write about my experiences. One of the great benefits I derive from writing this column every week, is that I need to know something of what I’m writing about. I sometimes worry that someone who knows a lot more about birds than I do will catch me out in some glaring error. Since I have not received any telephone calls, e-mails, or snail mail letters pointing out a mistake, either I have managed to avoid them (the more outrageous ones anyway), or I’ve been dismissed.

To know something of what I’m writing about, and to build my understanding and appreciation of what I have seen when birding, I do a lot of research and reading. The internet is a terrific resource. But I come from a generation that did its research in libraries, pouring through books (often dusty and old). In my mind, it’s not real research unless I am turning pages and making notes. So I have been building up my home library of birding resources.

There are books that I return to again and again. Often in this column I have quotations and citations from other writers. Occasionally, someone will ask me for more information on a resource or for recommendations on books for their library. I’m off in the south this week, visiting new places, hopefully when the migrants are coming along and more hopefully finding some new birds. When I return home, here are some of the books that I am most likely to turn to for more information about what I’ve seen.

The Sibley Guide to Birds by David Sibley, 2000. This is as complete a North American home bird guide as you can find. I turn to Sibley when I want to have consistently good (though not perfect) illustrations, compare length, wing span, and weight, look at range maps, get scientific names and relationships, compare juvenile, winter and breeding plumage, compare sub-species variations, see in-flight illustrations, and more. There is a wealth of information to be mined from this guide.

Sibley has a portable western and eastern guide which I use in the field, along with Kenn Kaufman’s Birds of North America, 2000. A tattered copy of Kaufman resides in my car; a neater version is near my desk to supplement Sibley.

Field Guides (even Sibley, which is cumbersome in the field), emphasize bird illustrations at the expense of text - rightly so. They are unable to provide much information about habitat, habits, food preferences, migration, nesting, eggs, or young. For this, I have two favored resources.

Lives of North American Birds by Kenn Kaufman, 1996, puts all of this information into a straightforward, compact format. Photographs and range maps are included for every regularly occurring North American bird and there is at least a mention of every accidentally occurring bird up to the date of publication.

Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion by Pete Dunne, 2007, is subtitled A Comprehensive Resource for Identifying North American Birds. It is all text; nary an illustration save on the title pages. The text on each bird has not been skimped. It is detailed, complete, and engagingly written. Even when I don’t learn anything new (which is rare), Dunne’s turn of phrase expands understanding and appreciation.

When its time to go beyond the basics and get the fascinating details, my favorite resource is A Natural History of American Birds by Edward Howe Forbush, revised and abridged by John Bichard May, 1955. The heart of Forbush’s three volume Birds of Massachusetts and Other New England States, 1925, is contained in this one volume work. The volume presents the life history of birds found east of the central plains. Readable and often anecdotal, this book is a blend of science and literature which keeps company with America’s leading naturalists.

One of the first of those American naturalists was John James Audubon. I recently obtained the 1967 paperback reprint of The Birds of America, octavo edition issued in 1871. The reprint illustrations are all black and white, but the text is Audubon’s complete writing on the life of American birds. There seems little order to the arrangement of the seven volumes. When wanting to read Audubon’s account of a particular bird, I have to go through the contents of each volume one at a time. Audubon’s name for birds is often different from ours, so a reading of Forbush’s list of “other names” is a prelude to searching Audubon. In our day of binoculars, scopes, and digital cameras, it is often disconcerting to read Audubon’s accounts of collecting specimens - blasting them out of the air with his shotgun - and the tastiness of many species. But Audubon tells us about the bird life in a continent not yet tamed (or exploited). The wealth of materials he has collected, usually from first hand observation, is astounding, remembering that in most of his wide-ranging travels, he walked.

I am just beginning to discover Arthur Cleveland Bent’s “Life Histories” of North American birds. Published in 1968 in twenty volumes, the information collected on individual species is encyclopedic. He draws on the reports of hundreds of contemporary observers, as well as the writings of America’s great naturalists. You will probably see Bent cited more frequently in this column in the future.

The Birdwatcher’s Companion to North American Birds by Christopher W. Leahy, 2004, is an all purpose handbook/encyclopedia. Here you can learn about the people who’s names are attached to many birds (Wilson, Cooper, Townsend, Baird), bird biology (crop milk, dust bathing), bird families, birding terms (good call/bad call), and much more.

The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds by John Terres, 1980, is an encyclopedic, one volume, coffee table sized book. On individual species (grouped by families), it does not have as much information as some other resources, but on the range of bird biology topics, it is comprehensive and reliable. In my library, it gathers into one large volume what is scattered through many smaller volumes.

So, I’ve just given you a few of the secrets of where my bird lore comes from. Let me know if you catch me in a mistake. Good birding!


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