Saturday, February 28, 2009

Raptors Highlight Coastal Birding

On a coastal birding trip during the winter, I expect to see a few unusual gulls. I expect to see many sea ducks, like the three scoters and Common Eiders, and maybe (very maybe) if I am very lucky, a King Eider. I expect to see diving ducks, like the Common Goldeneye and Bufflehead, and especially the wonderfully patterned Harlequin Duck whose plumage is rivaled only by the Wood Duck. I expect to see Red-breasted Mergansers with their wild crests blowing in the wind. I was not disappointed in these expectations.

On a winter coastal birding trip, I also expect to see Horned Grebe. On a really good day the single wintering Eared Grebe in the Gloucester harbor might seen, and in the ocean off of Cape Ann I might see a Red-necked Grebe. The Eared Grebe was missed but I did see the Horned and Red-necked Grebes.

On a winter birding trip around Cape Ann, I expect to see the Black Guillemot. An alcid that is black with big white wing patches in summer, in the winter is it a gray and white bird which disappears against the gray and white winter ocean. When it is seen, it dives, because that is what it does, but it often feels as though the bird is deliberately teasing. I also hope to see other Atlantic alcids, those ocean birds that come ashore only to breed - like the Common or Thick-billed Murre, the Razorbill, and the Dovekie. I saw the Dovekie in early January, only the second time in my bird watching chronicles that I have recorded it. All of these alcids have been reported, and were probably present at various places off shore, but I did not find them on this trip.

Birding around Cape Ann in the winter, I know where to look for the Great Cormorant, cousin of the very common Double-crested Cormorant which often occurs up in our area. The Great Cormorant winters along the New England and mid-Atlantic coast, then returns north to the Canadian maritime provinces to breed.

I expect to see Common Loons at many places along the coast and in the harbors; its plain gray and white winter plumage is a striking contrast to the handsome breeding plumage of the loons we may see on some of our lakes and ponds in the summer. From time to time, I even see a Red-throated Loon, though in the winter its red throat is just a memory.

On a winter coastal birding trip, these are the birds which I expect to see. What I do not expect, is to have a winter coastal birding trip that is an outstanding day of hawk watching - or more precisely - raptor watching.

It started late Friday afternoon with a quick trip to Salisbury Beach. Even in winter, I expect to see Northern Harriers hunting over the frozen marsh. This one was a male. The male harrier is one of the most beautiful hawks in flight - gray above, white below, with contrasting black primaries and a trailing black edge on its long wings. The harrier’s hunting style is a dipsy-doodle, rocking and rising on long wings, then dipping low across the marsh grasses, tipping left and right.

But the harrier was unable to mind his own dipsy-doodle flight. A dark bird with pointed wings swooped at him, sped upward, circled rapidly, dove at the harrier again in a deliberate near miss. Merlin.

On Putney mountain, a streaking hawk that brings a breathless what-was-that? - is a Merlin. Coastal hawk watchers know the Merlin as a bird with attitude, the falcon that will harass anything flying, often for what appears to be sheer fun. But this Merlin seemed to have a dual purpose. She was defending her hunting territory, while also hunting opportunistically. The harrier dipped toward the top of pine trees, flushing song birds into the air. With precise timing, the Merlin dove at the harrier, turning the much larger bird away from the trees, then instantly veering to make a grab at a flushed songbird. The Merlin came out of her dive with empty talons - this time. The flight display we watched made it clear that the Merlin would dine soon.

The next morning on the Jodfrey Fish Pier in Gloucester harbor, I turned my scope to the Gloucester town hall. A Peregrine Falcon was wintering in the bell tower. Before I could find the falcon’s perch, someone in the group was pointing overhead. The Peregrine was on the wing. Effortlessly it circled over the piers, the warehouses, the harbor, patrolling hundreds of yards in seconds. Sea ducks were nervous; even gulls were uneasy, milling aimlessly. At first, the Peregrine’s flight did not seem all that impressive as it flew above us, until we timed the passage from the pier to the warehouse a quarter mile away where pigeons scattered to safety at the last fraction of a second. The Peregrine’s flight demonstration, by itself, defined good birding for the day.

Mid-afternoon, we drove north from Cape Ann for a return visit to Salisbury Beach. A large bird with v-shaped wings flew above the state highway. As it came low over the roadway, the back-lighted wing pattern was not that of a Turkey Vulture. Rough-legged Hawk. A wide berm allowed us to pull over, and spill out without the risk that our binoculars would get run over by a passing car. Two dark morph Rough-legged Hawks hunted over the open fields, and chased off a pair of Red-tailed Hawks. Hawks of the tundra, Rough-legged Hawks often winter in coastal marshes and open farm lands. This pair seemed unwilling to share the fields with the resident Red-tails.

At Salisbury Beach, our target was the wintering Snowy Owl. We were looking for a bulky white bird, probably perched somewhere in the snow covered marsh or nearby dunes. Simple to sight, right?

Inside the state reservation, cars lined the road. On the cold, windswept marsh, there could be only one reason for those parked vehicles. A couple of hundred yards from the roadway, tens of thousands of dollars worth of camera equipment was lined up, pointed at the top of a dune. We joined the line-up that was ogling the handsome male Snowy Owl.

As for the Snowy Owl - well, this powerful Arctic predator regarded the lined up bird watchers and photographers with imperious detachment. He knew that he was lord of his realm and assumed that these strange creatures would keep their distance. And they did.

Eventually we moved on to the frozen and unoccupied campground - unoccupied except for the day-visiting winter birders. We did not find the White-winged Crossbills which we had seen the previous afternoon, but the Merlin was there. This time, she was perched atop a leafless tree, surveying her realm. Her feathers ruffled slightly in the wind, but otherwise she was the unruffled guardian of her realm.

The winter coastal birding yielded what was expected and was a day of good birding. But the unexpected show from the hawks and the owl made it a day of great birding!

Monday, February 23, 2009

Coastal Birding

At Salisbury Beach on Friday afternoon, White-winged Crossbills were busy in the pines ...

Around Cape Ann on Saturday, Iceland Gulls were found in several locations, this one at Lighthouse Point ...

Back at Salisbury Beach, the female Merlin which put on a show for us Friday afternoon, simply watched over her domain on Saturday, and again on Sunday morning ...

A clear highlight of the trip was the Snowy Owl seen Saturday afternoon on a dune at Salisbury Beach ...

The owl, of course, attracted the bird watchers and photographers. Here are just a few of those who gathered to observe the owl atop a dune about thirty yards away ...

A day of good birding. I will have more about the day anon.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Mystery of Bird Names

I once had an e-mail from a reader who reported a Red-bellied Woodpecker at his bird feeder. Then he mused, “I wonder where names like this come from....shouldn't it be Red-back-part-of-head Woodpecker? Why Rose-breasted Grosbeak instead of red-breasted? Why Red-breasted Nuthatch instead of rose, or reddish tan?”

His questions could serve as an English teacher’s example of a conundrum. Why the common names of birds are what they are is a mystery. To be sure, the Red-bellied Woodpecker does have a red-belly, but it is almost never seen in the field, even by those who see and study the bird frequently. The red-belly can be found when the bird is being held in the hand, and the prominent white feathers on the belly can be parted to reveal the underlying red. Hardly a dominating field mark! It has a black and white zebra-like back, prompting some people some place some time to call it the Zebra Woodpecker. Or how about one of its other folk names? - the wonderfully mysterious, “Cham-chack.” “I saw a Cham-chack at my feeder today!” That conveys a life, an excitement, that sends “red-bellied” to a place on the bench reserved for fourth string players.

Continuing my e-mailer’s musings: Why Rose-breasted Grosbeak instead of red-breasted? Good question. I have described the brilliant red throat which barely descends to the breast as blood-red. Roses come in all kinds of colors, but the red rose is the special domain for the lover wooing his lady-love. The “red-rose” -breasted Grosbeak is like a feathered Romeo who full throatedly serenades his Juliet in the Spring. But alas, he is spurned, and he bleeds a great drop from his broken heart. Then there is the folk name reflective of a time when violence was more common place: “Throat-cut.” Imagine also a more rural time when your survival depended upon the produce of your garden; you wage a constant battle against the insect vermin. Potatoes are especially susceptible to certain bugs. You notice a bird foraging through your potato patch. You don’t much care about the brilliant red throat or the bold black and white wings. You may even be seeing the dull brown female of the species. But you are glad to have the “Potato-bug Bird” helping in the fight against the potato bugs.

To my thinking, bird names lack imagination, beauty, and poetry. They also lack consistency, and often sense. But there seem to be some criteria that apply ... some of the time. For example, there is geography. The Northern Cardinal is the only cardinal to range as far north as Canada; others are tropical or sub-tropical. Our cardinal’s only other North American relative is found along the southern U.S. border, the Pyrrhuloxia, a bird with a name that is unpronounceable and of mysterious origin. Or there is the Carolina Chickadee, a bird of the southern states (including especially, I suppose, the Carolinas). It has a black-cap and looks almost exactly like the Black-capped Chickadee of our area. The name of the latter is based on a characteristic of its plumage which it shares with the Carolina Chickadee. (Redundancies noted!)

The Tufted Titmouse is a close relative of the Black-capped Chickadee and also has a name based on a distinguishing feature of its plumage - its “tufted” crest. But, all four North American titmice have tufted crests. However, the Oak Titmouse of California prefers oak habitat, while the Juniper Titmouse of the southwest prefers juniper habitat. Habitat preference, you might correctly conclude, is yet another criterion that sometimes applies when naming a bird. I have no quarrel with the name, Tufted Titmouse, but I also like the folk name: Peter-bird. With the first signs of a break in winter, you can hear the cheerful song of the Peter-bird: “peter, peter, peter.”

Another criterion is hemisphere: for example, American Robin, American Redstart, and European Widgeon (The last is a rare but regular North American visitor.) And then there is commonalty: Common Loon (not so common until recent conservation efforts), and Common Merganser (sometimes outnumbered by Hooded Merganser in our waters). Our local snipe use to be “common,” until it was split from its European relative and resumed its former name, Wilson’s Snipe. Alexander Wilson was America’s first true ornithologist; the birds bearing his name (plover, warbler, storm-petrel, phalarope, snipe) may have been first identified by him, or later named in his honor. That is yet another criterion sometimes used in naming birds - if you discover it, you can name it - after yourself if you have a rampant ego, or after a friend, mentor, lover, or whoever ... or whatever.

The naming of birds is fickle and inconsistent. The Baltimore Oriole (which sports the colors of Lord Baltimore, founder of Maryland) and Bullock’s Oriole (I don’t know who he was) were lumped into one species as the Northern Oriole. Then they were split and we again have the Baltimore Oriole and the Bullock’s Oriole. The Rufous-sided Towhee and the Western Towhee were lumped to become the Rufous-sided Towhee, then they were split to become the Eastern Towhee and the Spotted Towhee.

Presumably, when a single species is split into two or more species, the names assigned to the new species are “new” so as to prevent confusion with the old names. Hence the disappearance of the Rufous-sided Towhee. (Alas!) But when the Canada Goose was recently split into two species, confusion was allowed to reign: the new species are Canada Goose and Cackling Goose. Is there not a saying that attributes consistency to the small-minded?

The Rock Dove has finally been recognized for what it is and has been renamed the Rock Pigeon. Long before these birds became urban pests, they nested in caves in rocky precipitous cliffs. They still nest is such places, even though there may be no natural stone in sight: on bridges, in bell towers, building cornices, cupolas. The “rock” in Rock Pigeon is an historical reminiscence.

So who’s responsible for the bird names? Or if you prefer, who’s to blame? The American Ornithological Union has the responsibility in North America. Their efforts may provide outside observers like myself with limitless material for a weekly column. But, the AOU imposes an order and consistency across the continent which allows Vermonters to converse with Texans (if we must) about a bird without having to sort through different names for the same bird. There’s enough problem with the way those people use their vowels and clip their syllables.

But listen. I’ve got an ank-ank and a topsy-turvy at my feeders, so I’ve got to go. Good Birding - whatever you call them.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Acorn Woodpecker - Rated "X"

Here in the Northeast, our most familiar woodpecker is the Downy Woodpecker. It is not abundant, but it is certainly common. If you have a suet feeder in your backyard, you probably have downies visiting it at least once a day. During any month of the year, you will see a Downy Woodpecker during a day of birding. However, at any one time you are most likely to see only two, a male and a female. The exception to this highly generalized rule is during the summer when young have fledged and the parents are feeding them. The Downy Woodpecker, like most woodpeckers, is monogamous, and tends to stay that way through the year. It does not gather in flocks of its own kind.

There is an exception to this generally monogamous trait among the woodpeckers, although “exception” is too limiting. The Acorn Woodpecker simply pulverizes the rule.

During our January travels in southeastern Arizona, whenever we went into the mountains where there were oak forests, we encountered Acorn Woodpeckers. But we never saw just one or two. We saw four, or six, or a dozen - busy, noisy, active, and acrobatic.

The Acorn Woodpecker is described by nearly all bird guides as “clown-like,” a reference to its bold yellow, red, black, and white head and face pattern and general physical bearing. It looks like a clown drawn by a caricaturist artist. Its behavior further invites the observer to anthropomorphize it as a clown.

The Acorn Woodpecker lives in a family group year round. Its name come from its favorite food - acorns. The preferred habitat is an open forest with a mixture of oaks, so that if one species of oak produces a poor acorn crop in a year, another species may be able to take up the slack. The birds excavate small acorn-size holes in a granary tree and in each hole they store an acorn. Some of these trees are used generation after generation, and contain up to fifty thousand tiny cavities for storing acorns. The stored acorns are an important source of food during the winter and through the breeding season.

Acorns are the main food, but the Acorn Woodpecker will also flycatch. When feeders are available, it will happily eat sunflower seeds and store those seeds in its acorn granary. Peanut butter, suet, and the nectar of hummingbird feeders are also consumed.

What is unique to the Acorn Woodpecker is the way in which the family group structures itself socially. It is a cooperative breeder. Several generations work together to raise a new generation.

Cooperative breeding is quite common among birds, but the Acorn Woodpecker has given cooperative breeding a bizarre twist which may be unique in the bird world. Walt Koenig, a research zoologist at the University of California, Berkeley, has studied the Acorn Woodpecker for thirty years. From his long and persistent study, he has been able to describe the bizarre (Koenig’s term) social behavior of this species.

Acorn Woodpeckers live in groups composed of up to 6 co-breeder males, 3 joint-nesting females, and non-breeding helpers of both sexes.

Co-breeder males are brothers and/or fathers and their sons; they compete for matings with the joint-nesting females, who are sisters or a mother and her daughter who lay their eggs in the same nest cavity. (Tell me Freud couldn’t have a field day with this!) Offspring produced from this communal nest may remain in their natal group for several years as non-breeding helpers, during which time they help feed younger siblings at subsequent nests.

This kind of mating system is known as “polygynandry” - multiple breeding males and multiple breeding females. All individuals within the group are close relatives except that co-breeder males are not related to joint-nesting females. Incest avoidance is maintained because helpers only inherit and become co-breeders following reproductive vacancies when the breeders of the opposite sex die and are replaced by unrelated birds from elsewhere. Reproductive vacancies are often filled by a unisexual set of siblings who compete against other sibling groups in spectacular events called power struggles. Winners of power struggles become co-breeders in the new group; losers return home and resume non-breeding helper status.

It ought to be clear why Walt Koenig use the words “Group Sex” when he gives a talk on these birds. But his title also includes: “and Other Bizarre Behavior of Acorn Woodpeckers.” There is more.

There is a great deal of competition for reproduction within groups. Females do not begin laying eggs at the same time. The female who lays a first egg is likely to have that egg destroyed by another joint-nesting female. Then the second female lays an egg, and the first female destroys that egg, and so on ... until eventually they are both laying eggs at the same time and the removal of eggs ceases. The eggs which are removed from the nest are placed in a tree where group members come and eat them. Since joint-nesting females are close relatives, birds are destroying eggs that are also related to themselves!

A pair of joint-nesting females may lay as many as twenty eggs before an eventual clutch of 8 (plus or minus, but up to 17 eggs have been recorded in a single next) is incubated. Finally, the destruction ceases and the entire family group, including the non-breeding offspring of the breeding adults, turns to the task of raising young. Incubation is by the breeders at first, but the helpers soon join in. Incubating birds take turns, sometimes changing places many times each hour. When the eggs hatch, there is cooperative parenting and communal raising of the young.

Watching the Acorn Woodpeckers on the ranch in Cave Creek Canyon was a riot; they hurried from sycamore granary to feeders to oaks and back and forth. Imagine the Three Stooges multiplied by four - or Keystone Kops chasing one another from one branch to the next to the next. Each Kop wears a red beanie and sports the goggle-eyed expression of something that just escaped from the asylum. And this was only January. What will they be like when the breeding season approaches and the hormones crank up?

There was no television in the mountain canyons where we stayed on our Arizona vacation. We certainly did not need it. The Acorn Woodpeckers provided premium entertainment with no pay per view. That’s good birding!

Material for this column came from a public lecture by Walt Koenig and the website of UC Berkeley’s Hastings Research Center.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Northern Hawk Owl

After three weeks in Arizona, my blood thinned and I have been avoiding the cold. But the weekend gave slight hints of spring, and Northern Hawk Owls are being reported around New England. I chose the one in the NH lakes regions - also the closest. After writing about the good luck with elusive birds in Arizona, going for the owl was at the other end of difficulty. I approached Copper Harbor on Rte 25 and the vicinity where the hawk owl was being reported. There were cars parked along the roadside and a small crowd of people with binoculars, scopes, and cameras. Before getting out of the car, I saw the owl perched on a utility pole. For about a half hour it flew between perches and hunted over the snowy field.

A similar thing occurred the first time I saw the hawk owl in '01 in northern NH near the presidentials. On a bitter cold day, we drove to the small airport where the bird was reported. "Where do you think we should look?" my spouse asked. "How about the top of that tree," I replied.

As we all know, most birds are not so cooperative. This is a beautiful little owl with many hawk-like characteristics (hence the name). Good to see it. Good to get out and see birds.

Digiscoping with my 20x60 eye piece is producing some sharp images. The slight blur at the bottom is from a rain drop I missed.

Digiscoped, then cropped ...

Bird nerds ...

Good birding!

Saturday, February 07, 2009

The Birding Gods Smiled

CAVE CREEK CANYON, ARIZONA: Today we saw two sought-after Arizona birds: the Elegant Trogon and the Montezuma Quail. When I reported to our ranch host that we had seen the Elegant Trogon in the same area where it had last been reported over a week before, he responded: “That’s very good sighting.” I then told him that today we had also seen the Montezuma Quail. “Fantastic,” he replied.

“It was our second sighting,” I added. “The the cock stood straight up and posed for us.”

“That’s really fantastic!” said our host. “The trogon is really good, but the quail is really, really fantastic! We’ve had guests who have come multiple times trying to find the quail, with no success. Fantastic!”

The birding gods had smiled on us again. Those fickle spirits arbitrarily bestow good fortune and good luck to some and withhold it from others. Finding rare or unusual birds often requires persistence and patience. Alertness and skill are contributing factors to success. But none of these guarantee success. Randomly the birding gods spin the wheel of good fortune; often the undeserving is rewarded while the just goes away empty-handed.

The Elegant Trogon is a tropical species whose breeding range just barely reaches into southeastern Arizona. Slightly larger than our Blue Jay, it is a resplendent bird. Pete Dunne nails the description with these words: “The adult male looks like a bird painted by a color-struck four-year-old. The head, breast, and back are iridescent green. The face is black, the wings bluish, the belly red, and the tail oxidized copper (greenish and rufous) above, broadly banded gray-and-white below. The red ring encircling the eye ... hardly warrants mention.”

During breed season, the Elegant Trogon blends into the riparian woodlands in mountainous canyons. Vocally the males defend their territory and patrol their domain, giving birders a clue to their presence. When the breeding season is over, most Elegant Trogons withdraw southward, but according to the ABA guide, an estimated one to five trogons overwinter in southeastern Arizona.

Four years ago, we searched a riparian area where a trogon was wintering, without success. The same area hosted a wintering trogon this year, and we searched the area with the same negative results. In Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains, an Elegant Trogon was wintering along the creek behind our lodge. I asked the birding gods to spin the wheel in my favor, and wandered up and down the stream looking for it. The birding gods did not smile.

In Cave Creek Canyon in the Chiricahua Mountains, a wintering Elegant Trogon was being seen between two small forest service campgrounds. You might think that a rather large, flashy bird with a bright red belly would be easy to see. But during the winter, the Elegant Trogon is silent; it spends most of its time perched close to a trunk. Though the area where it was located was very limited, the forest was dense with evergreen oak.

This was our last day in Cave Creek Canyon. We made a final obligatory stroll between the two campgrounds. Near the end of the stroll, we glimpsed a jay pull up and land, nearly concealed in the shadow of a trunk. But the jay did not seem quite right. The Mexican Jays of these mountains are like our eastern Blue Jays; they never go anywhere without making noise, and this bird was silent. So we raised our binoculars. In the shadows, the jay’s head was oddly shaped. When that head turned ever so slightly, it was all wrong for a jay. It had a stout yellow bill and a red eye-ring. It flew a few feet further from us. A bright red belly flashed as it flew. It perched briefly, showing us its iridescent green back and oxidized copper tail. Then it disappeared into the dense oaks rising up the canyon side. We had a definitive sighting of the Elegant Trogon, a very good, much sought after, southeastern Arizona specialty. For a second time today, the birding gods had smiled.

The first time they smiled, Montezuma Quail appeared. The cock looks like a harlequin; the hen like oak leaves. These small, plump quail spend most of their time not being seen. They forage with glacial rapidity along the ground. When danger approaches - such as a birder seeking to build his life list at the quail’s expense - the wiley quail transforms itself into just another rock on the ground, invisible among all the other rocks, while the birder goes on by, oblivious to the proximity of his prey. In the great unlikelihood that the birder happens to stumble along the rocky ground that contains rock-disguised quail, they will burst into flight, scaring the bejezzus out of the birder before vanishing into the grasses fifty feet away. But at least the birder, if not too particular about examining a new bird, has added a new tick to his life list.

However, that did not happen to us. We were driving very slowly up the mountain road. The hillside was covered with dry grasses and scattered live oaks. I was not looking for birds; I was avoiding rocks and ruts, and easing the car across the washboards at a three mile per hour clip. Then my spouse said, “What’s that in the grass?”

A Montezuma Quail in his carnival mask stood erect; a few feet away a hen also stood erect. We grabbed our binoculars. The birds studied us with an expression of clueless interest. I pointed my camera, hoping the fickle auto-focus would work.

Then I blinked, and the cock had disappeared. The hen became a rock on top of a rock. I eased the car past the spot and pulled to the side. The hen was still an immobile rock on top of a rock. I circled wide and climbed the bank, hoping to find the cock somewhere in the grass. Certain I could find him, I stumbled carefully over the rocky ground. I took two more steps and flushed a dozen quail. They burst into flight, scaring the bejezzus out of me before disappearing a few yards away.

But before I flushed the covey of Montezuma Quail, I had a clear and satisfactory look at this secretive and elusive bird. Why? How is it that on the same day, I also saw the much-sought after Elegant Trogon? I would like to credit by superior virtue, or my exceptional skill. I would like to tell you that I had earned these two life birds, that life is fair and merit is rewarded. But I could only give you such answers while standing in a herd of bulls.

The truth is, the birding gods - capricious and arbitrary spirits that they are - smiled. As I did on other occasions during this vacation, this evening when I lifted a cup of nectar, I first toasted the birding gods and scattered a few drops as a grateful libation.

But I only ever scattered a few drops! Those gods don’t always smile.

Good birding!

Note: The bird finding guides from the American Birding Association are the best resources for finding birds. I forgot to pack my copy of “A Birder’s Guide to Southeastern Arizona;” the first day in Arizona, I bought a replacement copy. If an ABA guide is available for an area to which you are traveling, get it! See the link under Bird Resources.

The Pete Dunne quotation is from “Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion.”


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