Saturday, May 30, 2009

One Good Tern Deserves Another

Peter Pan is the Never Land boy who never grows up, ruling his Lost Boys and constantly harassing the villainous Captain Hook and hapless Smee. He is guarded and assisted by the jealous pixie, Tinker Bell, whose voice is like the tinkling of a bell, and who sprinkles pixie dust to make you fly.

In the stage productions of Peter Pan, Tinker Bell was a bobbing point of light. When Walt Disney animated the story in 1953, animators made her into a sexy young woman rumored to have been modeled on Marilyn Monroe, which probably encouraged dads to bring their children to the movie theater. The pixie hovers and dips and darts; she pauses in mid air, does a deep “u” dip, and pauses again before dashing elsewhere.

The flight of the spritely Tinker Bell in Disney’s animated feature is like the flight of the terns, particularly the small terns, like the Common, Forster’s or Least Tern. These feathered, almost ephemeral, pixies swirl on the wind currents with delicacy and sureness. I was going to try to describe their flight and fishing style until I read Edward Forbush’s account. Here are pieces of his writing about Common Terns fishing off the Massachusetts coast:

“High in the sunlight they hover above the surging sea ... The whirling, screaming, light-winged birds ... alternately climb the air and plunge like plummets straight down into the waves – rising again and again, fluttering, poising, screaming, striking ... shooting down into the angry waves. They played with gale and sea. Rising, they shook the brine from their feathers, and towering high, hovered a moment, breasting the gale; then setting their wings like long, barbed spearheads, plunged again and yet again.”

I love watching the terns as they hover over some tidal marsh or impoundment -- as they troll the waters of an estuary, or balance on the wind above ocean waves. Their flight style has given them the name, “sea swallows,” but for gracefulness in the air, they make the land swallows look like lumbering elephants.

They are also very good at what they do - fish from the air - and that talent is the basis for their courtship rituals. A year ago when I was in Florida, I watched Least Terns in their prenuptial routines. The male has to demonstrate his ability to be a good family provider. The female finds a perch and waits while he goes off fishing. As he approaches with a small fish in his beak, she begins calling. He feeds her the fish, postures proudly at his own prowess, then hurries off to fish again. The intervals between his trips are only a few minutes.

Early this month in Cape May, I watched the same prenuptial routine along a narrow tidal estuary, this time by a pair of Forster’s Terns. She perched on a piling, while he went off fishing. She signaled his return by calling. But on several occasions, it took him an inordinately long time to return - at least in her opinion - and her calls were not to welcome him back but to protest his delay. Even so, she must have been satisfied on the whole, for after being fed to her fill, bowing and posturing with him, she allowed him to perch on the same piling. Finally they took wing together, perhaps for an aerial courtship, flying high and gliding downward.

The terns may have a pixie-like, Tinker Bell-ish character to their flight, but this feeding courtship is all practical. The female needs a mate who will help her feed their voracious young. Last summer at Plum Island, I watched Common Terns feeding their recently fledged young. The young vocalized their demand for food with an insistence that made my impatient female Forster’s sound like the epitome of laid-back patience.

Here’s a brief run-down on our New England terns, Genus Sterna. The Caspian Tern is the largest tern and can be found on Lake Champlain and the southern New England Coast. Least Tern is the smallest tern and is generally close to the coast. Roseate Tern is only found on the seaboard and is considered endangered in the northeast; a few are nesting with other tern colonies on offshore islands. A few Arctic Terns breed on offshore islands in the northeast; seldom seen from land, this tern spends most of its life at sea and is the champion long range migrant, ranging from the high Arctic during our summer to the Antarctic during our winter. The Common Tern is common in the northeast; further south along the coast and inland it is outnumbered by the Forster’s Tern.

Common Tern and Forster’s Tern are readily identified in their winter plumage (check your field guide to see the differences). But they are identification nightmares in breeding plumage. Then differences are subtle. John James Audubon correctly identified the Common Tern of North America as the same species as the Europe’s Common Tern. However, Audubon only knew the Forster’s Tern in its winter plumage: “I shot several individuals of this species out of a number congregated on the broad eddies opposite New Orleans, in 1820 .... Since that time it had not been my fortune to meet with any birds of the same species, until I visited Texas in the spring of 1837, when two of them were procured.”

Forster’s Terns winter along the Gulf Coast; some (probably young birds) retain their winter plumage through the summer. Common Terns winter in the tropics. When they return north, they may mingle with the almost indistinguishable Forster’s Terns in breeding plumage. Audubon certainly saw Forster’s Terns in breeding plumage, and probably collected some. He just did not recognize them as different from Common Terns.

Parenthetically, Forster’s Tern is named in honor of Johann Forster who accompanied Captain Cook on his voyage around the world in 1772, and who wrote an ornithological treatise on the birds of Hudson Bay. Thomas Nuttall, an English and American ornithologist, bestowed the name. Audubon named it Havell’s Tern, in honor Robert Havell, “one of the best ornithological engravers in England.”

Audubon’s failure to recognize the difference between breeding plumage Forster’s and Common Terns, puts him in a crowded company. I am beginning to get some handle on the differences between the two, but ... if you bird with me and I tell you we are looking at a Common Tern, I will reserve the right to change my opinion (as I will also do with many other species). I have recently reexamined all of my photographs of Common Terns and Forster’s Terns and find that I need to reclassify a number of those photographs.

What I will not reclassify is my delight in watching these birds fly. The terns are masters on the wing - delicate waifs - flimsy, feathery wisps - pixies of the air. Yet they are undeterred by the storms and gales that pound our shores and roil the oceans.

(Post of "Tailfeathers," Brattleboro Reformer, 5/29/09.)
Quotes: Forbush & May, A Natural History of American Birds, 1953. John James Audubon, The Birds of America, 1840-1844

Notes on Photographs (in order of appearance):
Forster's Tern - silver-white primaries, long forked tale, beak orange w/black tip (05/09, Cape May)
Least Terns - (04/08, Green Cay, FL)
Forster's Terns - (05/09, Jake's Landing, NJ)
Common Terns - juvenile & adult - adult's beak orange-red (usually darker than Forster's), tail shorter than wings & primaries dark (08/08 - Plum Island, MA)
Forster's Tern - (05/09 - Brigantine, NJ)

Additional Photos:
Common Tern - Note dark primaries (05/08 - over ocean, Jake's Landing, NJ)

Common Tern - dark wedge on primaries - red-orange beak w/o black tip which is sometimes lost mid to late summer. (08/08 - Plum Island, MA)

Least Tern - smallest tern, yellow beak, short wedged tail - (05/09 - Nature Conservancy, Cape May, NJ). (For photos of Least Tern in flight, see Steve's "Shooting My Universe" in the blogs I follow.)

Forster's Tern - courting pair at rest - light primaries, yellow bill - (05/09 - Jake's Landing, NJ)

This exercise was done mostly for my benefit as I try to get a firmer handle on IDing Common & Forster's. I hope I got it right, and I hope it might also be helpful.

Good birding!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Weekend Birding

A few images to share from recent birding forays in local area.

On a remote beaver pond on Newfane Hill, five drake Wood Ducks gathered for their post "love'em-and-leave'em" stag party. Hens are probably on their nests; I did not see any on this pond, though I did see a hen Hooded Merganser.

After straining my neck upward for canopy warblers, I looked to the side and found this Gray Tree Frog enjoying a mid-morning snooze.

Bobolinks were easier to find, singing their wonderful bubbly songs in several hay fields and pastures around the area.

An open area near Somerset Reservoir is being managed for grouse and transition species. Chestnut-sided Warblers were busy singing everywhere. This gentleman had some things to say about my intrusion, then decided to concentrate on proclaiming his great beauty. No argument from me, since he is also the only warbler who allowed me a photograph that I can be really happy about.

Warbler neck was the order of the day, with many more heard than seen. This Blackburnian Warbler finally provided a few moments for viewing, which always elicits an "Oh Wow!!" reaction from me.

When the neck pain became too much, I looked down, and had another "Oh, Wow!" moment, this time over the stunning Pink Lady's Slippers on the damp forest floor.

Yesterday's Somerset birding concluded with an exploration of a remote cemetery at the end of a dirt road in Wardsboro. The first time I stumbled on this cemetery, I was surprised to discover the grave of the noted poet, novelist, critic, and Pulitzer Prize winner, Robert Penn Warren. But this time I noted the grave of Samuel Pike, died 1815, aged 85. His grave was marked with a flag and a medallion from the SAR - Sons of Revolution. With google's help, I found a number of "Samuel Pikes" who served in the American Revolution, but could not pinpoint this Samuel Pike. On Memorial Day, it seemed appropriate to pause by his grave and ponder how, why, and where a man in his mid to late forties might have contributed to the War for Independence.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Fish Hawk

I searched the edges of the marshy pond, hoping that a secretive bittern or rail might emerge for some meal and give a glimpse - or that a duck might slip out of the reeds for a late day dabble - or that a Solitary Sandpiper or some tiny peep might be working along the muddy flats. Away from any traffic noise, only persistent bird songs broke the silence of the evening - blackbirds clinging to a tall reed, flashing red epaulets, and rasping their harsh phrases - Song Sparrows climbing out of the thicket to trill - Marsh Wrens clinging splay-legged to grasses and tumbling forth their jumbled notes. In the golden glow of the late day sun, life was rushing toward the enforced rest of the brief night.

Overhead a large bird circled the pond. Its long pointed wings and sleek body were patterned in brown and white. It dipped lower, flushing a pair of Mallards and sending a dozen small sandpipers into the air. They were in no danger from this large hunter, though for small birds who are in the middle of the food chain and hence food for many larger birds, it is always prudent to see danger everywhere and flee. Were they to tarry for evaluation of risk on too many occasions, they would greatly increase their risk of being someone’s dinner.

The big bird kited above the pond, its long powerful wings holding it in one spot. Though as big, or bigger, than many of the predators that posed true danger to the ducks and shorebirds that had scattered, it had no interest in them. He was the fish hawk, and he was fishing - looking into the pond waters for a fish just beneath the surface.

I watched as he trolled the pond forty feet above its surface. Then he hovered, a slightly more prolonged hover. Wings pulled in, canceling all lift, and the bird plunged feet first toward the pond surface with a controlled plummet. Water splashed as he struck the calm surface and half disappeared. His long wings pulled him back to the surface, then heavily lifted him into the air. His talons gripped a fish. He rose a hundred feet above the pond, maneuvering the fish as he climbed so that its head pointed forward. With this aerodynamic adjustment, he flew toward a distant platform. In my binoculars, I could just see the huge mass of sticks that comprised his nest and the tiny spot of his mate’s head. She was patiently incubating while he was bringing them dinner.

“As is the osprey to the fish, who takes it by sovereignty of nature.” So wrote Shakespeare in Coriolanus. The Osprey is the fish hawk. It is found almost everywhere in the world along coastlines, lakes, and rivers.

One of my earliest sightings of the Osprey was in a tall spruce in Glacier National Park in northern Montana. A bulky nest filled the top of a spruce. Not far off were the open waters of glacial lakes where it fished.

Osprey nest in many places around our state. All along the Atlantic Coast, Osprey are nesting. Visit any spot where there is a modicum of conservation concern, and you will see Osprey, and in some places, you will see many of these magnificent birds. Around Flamingo in the Florida Everglades last spring, Osprey verged on the abundant. Last summer in a park near the harbor in downtown Hyannis, Massachusetts, I watched young Osprey calling for food from their nest in a radio tower. On my trip to southern New Jersey last week, Osprey were common on the many nesting towers in the tidal marshes and salt marshes.

This is a big change from just a few years ago. Widespread use of DDT and other pesticides accumulated in the food chain. Large birds of prey, like the Osprey, nested. But the pesticides caused thin egg shells, and failure to hatch. Osprey numbers plummeted to endangered status. In 1972, DDT was banned in North America and the long road to recovery began.

We lived along the Delaware River in eastern Pennsylvania. A biologist at a local university established an Osprey hack box program along the river. Underpaid and unpaid students hand fed Osprey hatchlings and chicks in an effort to reintroduce them along the river. It worked. It worked there as it worked in many other localities and for other species, notably the Bald Eagle and Peregrine Falcon.

The warning bells were sounded in time. The danger was removed. Protective measures were put in place. Conservationists and wildlife managers provided assistance, and the birds did the rest. Humans certainly screw up the environment for many species, including our own. But I am not a hand-wringing doomsayer. We can catch our mistakes and correct them. And then nature can take over.

Just north of Atlantic City, New Jersey, is the Brigantine unit of the Forsyth National Wildlife Refuge. An eight mile loop drive gives access to the managed pools, and tidal salt marshes of a small portion of the refuge. Nesting platforms for the Osprey have been erected throughout the tidal marshes. In the Spring, I have watched Osprey as they have returned from the wintering grounds to reestablish the bond with their mate from the previous year. Their high-pitched whistling call announces their return and signals to last year’s mate, or if she/he has not survived the winter, calls for a new mate. I have watched the courtship flights, and in mid-May have counted the number of occupied nests.

Last week about halfway along the drive, I noticed that a new nest platform has been erected; its wood was unweathered. It was fairly close to the road. There was a nest on the platform, a jumble of sticks. But it was a small nest - not the huge conglomeration that results from year after year of additions and remodeling.

An Osprey was on the platform’s perch. A second bird flew low over the mud flats and marsh, but not the way it would circle and fly if it were hunting. It landed on a distant grassy patch, then flew again and circled until it was on a course for the platform. The Osprey carried weeds and grasses in its talons to line the nest.

A new nest platform with a newly bonded pair of young Osprey: they were setting up housekeeping for the first time. It’s a joint project by both birds. But it looked like the one who brought the soft material to line the stick nest was the female; she was larger than the bird watching from the perch. She deposited the grasses, and arranged them, then looked up at her mate as though to say, “That’s how its done. Now you can help.”

The Osprey has made a remarkable recovery. In some places it can be designated, “common,” a bird you are certain to see at the right time of year. But the Osprey is never a common bird. Always the Osprey is magnificent and regal - a thrill to watch as it flies steadily through heavy wind, as it circles and hovers on long wings.

Always the Osprey says, “Good birding!”

Friday, May 22, 2009

A Few Small Birds that Held Still

Small birds are tough to photograph. You have to find them, get them to hold still, and hope they are in reasonable light. From my Cape May trip, here are a few which cooperated. I also got lots of photos of leaves, branches, and blurs.

Blue Grosbeak in a field at Higbee Beach WMA - a very cooperative first year male. Occasionally he would sing briefly. This is not a bird which makes it as far north as Vermont, so it is always a target on my spring trips. I have seen a first year American Redstart singing, and apparently breeding. Also a year old Orchard Oriole. So perhaps this young gentleman has a chance of attracting a mate.

Another species which doesn't make it to the Vermont north (though I have seen it in late Fall near the Massachusetts coast) is the White-eyed Vireo. They were singing everywhere, but it took three days before I finally had one that would stay in the open for a few seconds, as this one did in a brushy edge field along the road to Jake's Landing.

When I lived in Delaware Water Gap, the trail allowed me to look into the canopy and see these birds. Another "southern" species, I have usually been able to see them at the crossroads in Belleplain State Forest - and almost always hear them - Worm-eating Warbler ....

Once the Magnolia Warbler reaches my neighborhood, it typically disappears into the thick branches of the spruce and other favored nest areas. At Higbee Beach WMA, they were singing, and even showed themselves.

At Thompson's Beach, Barn Swallows were busy building their mud nests beneath the board walk, and putting on a magnificent display for the few people who ventured there. The Clapper Rails were also going wild, chasing one another in the open and vocalizing loudly, but never holding still in the open for anything but a brief look.

Obviously this is no rarity, but I love watching the Red-winged Blackbird displaying his epaulets as he makes his harsh courtship calls, which they were doing everywhere. This one just happened to be near the walk at the Nature Conservancy.

Good birding!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Matt's Landing

I'll begin this second post on my Cape May trip on the beach by the Nature Conservancy in Cape May. The endangered Piping Plover nests here. There were two nests protected with a wire cage on my first visit, and two more added a day later. The cages protect them from various natural predators. It always seems a little odd that an endangered species should be so easily seen, but I have never missed this bird on my Spring visit.

Matt's Landing is part of the Heislerville WMA in the county north of Cape May. After a morning in Belleplain State Forest, I spend the mid-day along this part of the Delaware Bay. The managed impoundment is a great shorebird spot, and I was there at low tide, so there were thousands of birds present. This next picture shows a tiny segment of the roost. Semipalmated Sandpipers dominate in the foreground, Dunlin in the background. Can you find the dowitcher?

A tight group of Semipalmated Sandpipers (plus three Semipalmated Plovers). The SESA is one of the "easy" peeps. I talked with another birder who had seen a White-rumped Sandpiper. Curlew Sandpiper is also seen regularly here, but I just did not have the patience to search 20,000 birds for either - especially since they regularly rearranged themselves! ....

.... as this next photo shows. It is likely that a Peregrine Falcon was somewhere overhead, since all of the birds on the impoundment took to the wing at one time, putting a curtain of birds on the scene! Breathtaking - although I have to remind myself that this is just a fraction of the numbers that refueled along the Delaware Bay a few years ago (another issue). Black dots in this mass of birds will clue you to Dunlins.

Matt's landing has been a dependable place for the Red Knot, but not this year. The only place I saw them was by Stone Harbor. After the cryptic reference to dowitchers, a couple of more satisfying photos are in order. The two dowitchers are notoriously difficult to tell apart, so if anyone thinks I have mis-identified these as Short-billed Dowitchers (adult breeding Atlantic - white belly, buffy to orange neck), please tell me.

An unexpected treat was the American Avocet, a bird that is accidental in New England and rare in New Jersey. (This was only my second sighting of one in the Northeast, if the Northeast can be extended as far south as New Jersey.) A beautiful bird! - and I hope it can find its way to breeding grounds and pass along its genes.

Godd birding!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Jake's Landing

Last week I made my Spring trip to Cape May and southern New Jersey. I managed all or part of 5 days birding, plus attending grandchildren's school programs in Philadelphia. I had good birding, and lots of fun with the camera. I will dribble out a few photographic highlights over several posts.

Jake's Landing is on the Delaware Bay north of Cape May about 20 miles. The boat landing is at the end of a dirt road about a half mile from the forest's end in a sea of salt marsh grass. A peaceful and quiet spot, I spent a late afternoon and evening just being there - and trying to get a few birds to hold still.

Seaside Sparrows were all over the marsh and singing their buzzy excuse for a song - but doing so with great enthusiasm. One even chose to sing where he was not just a brown spot on a grass stem somewhere in the marsh.

Where song birds proclaim the quality of their genes in song, the Forester's Tern has to demonstrate that he can be a good provider. This gentleman (on the right) has just delivered food to his lady love. She was not always patient with how long it took him to return to her, often vocalizing about his delay from her perch. But now she seems momentarily content (or else she's telling him to go out and get more), but for the moment he is proud of his feat.

Marsh Wrens lined the brush along the road and around the boat launch. Their courtship routine is multifaceted. He does fluttering flight displays, sings without ceasing, and builds nests. Sometimes he tries to do all three at once, plus defend his territory against other wrens and snoopy photographers. This busy bundle of energy had two nests within about ten feet of each other.

Here is an uncharacteristic moment when he was neither singing nor carrying nest material ...

Savannah Sparrows sometimes sit in the open in grassy fields and give you a good look, as did this handsome specimen.

Good birding!

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Sitting on the Rail

Birdwatching by sitting - or the elusive Virginia Rail. Which should I write about this week? I’m caught in indecision, so I’ll write about both.

Sitting, as a bird watching topic, was prompted by these few sentences from “Birder’s World,” June, 2009. The author wrote: “I have read (and written) scores of unsuccessful trip reports that begin with, ‘We walked all over the place and didn’t see a single warbler!’ The problem? The word walked.”

Simply put, when you walk through any bird habitat, even a concrete downtown, you are invading the territory of the birds, and they are going to become wary, head for cover, fall silent. When you go out to fill your feeder in the morning, have you ever had a healthy bird stay on that feeder and chat with you while you are there? A few people, through patience, may patiently train a bird - like a chickadee - to feed from the hand. But even the common feeder birders accustomed to human presence flee at your first appearance. The pigeons in my backyard - feral descendants of domestic birds - take flight when I step out. Get too close to them in an urban park, and they fly - not far, perhaps, but they do move off.

Why should it be any different when we walk through the woods, or along a hedge row, or through a field or marsh? Something big is invading a bird’s habitat, and the first reaction, by the bird, is likely to be concern.

My spouse and I have a fundamental incompatibility when we are in the woods. She wants to walk! - arms swinging, heart rate rising, miles accumulating. I want to creep, stand, sit. She goes out ahead, and I complain that she’s scaring the bird. “But I thought we were going for a walk,” she protests.

I retort, “We are on a bird walk. That means we can’t walk.” I can tell she does not buy my line.

Go slow. Stand still. Sit. Listen. Eventually those birds who have been invaded will calm down. You may hear a “chip,” or a song. Even if you don’t know what bird is chipping or what bird is singing, you will know that a bird is near at hand, and you can look for it. I guarantee that you will see more birds by making sitting a bigger component of a bird walk, than if you walk all the time pausing only when something flies nearby.

When you are on a bird walk and really want to see birds - don’t walk. And as important, don’t talk - whisper if you must.

Case in point. I went on the early morning bird walk which kicks off the Herrick’s Cove Wildlife Festival and afterward wandered the exhibits. There were good birds - though, frankly, too many people for a lot of good birds. More important on this day, there were friends, and good people, and lots of interest in wildlife, and birds, and nature.

Afterwards, on the way home, I stopped by Allen’s Marsh in Westminster. Walking along the road, I thought I saw a slight movement of marsh grasses, and I thought I heard something accompanying the movement. I stood still, but heard and saw nothing.

About to move on, I thought I saw and heard the same thing again. I stood still and looked intently. A couple more minutes, and I thought I heard a couple of call notes which I thought might be from a Virginia Rail, though I have thought wrong on many previous occasions. I continued to look intently.

A couple more minutes, and I thought I saw movement behind a clump of marsh grass, and whispered to my spouse. Indeed, a few moments later a Virginia Rail stepped from behind the clump, paused, probed with its beak, and moved on behind another clump. Then it reemerged, and gave both of us a stunning view of this secretive bird. Standing quietly next to me, she said, “What a beautiful little bird! I’ve never seen one before.”

Rails are notoriously secretive and hard to see birds. There are two rails that inhabit our marshes: the Sora and the Virginia Rail. Both are quite common, and often inhabit the same marsh. For most people, seeing one of these rails is sheer serendipity. It flies up, drops down, and disappears. It steps into the open at just the right time. It leads its downy chicks across a road just as you are passing by.

But enough is enough. My dear spouse much prefers to search a green house nursery than a mucky marsh, so off she went. I chose to sit on the dry berm of the road and gaze intently at the nearby marsh grasses.

After several minutes, I heard the descending wenk-wenk-wenk-wenk-wenk that passes for the Virginia Rail’s courtship song. From a second place, I heard an answering “song.” Were they two competing males vying for a female’s attention, or a male and female finding where the other was hidden?

I continued sitting. The rails called back and forth. Then one stepped into open water between clumps of grass. To the right, a second stepped into the open. There appeared to be some interaction, more akin to a tentative trial between the sexes than a testosterone standoff.

I sat. I watched. The two Virginia Rails explored their little marsh corner and foraged. I photographed them, with excellent results. After a few more minutes they disappeared into the marsh vegetation. There was no further sign or sound of their movement.

This disappearing act accounts for the phrase, “thin as a rail.” Audubon writes that like other rail species, “the Virginia Rail has the power of contracting its body to enable it to pass with more ease between the stalks of strong grasses and other plants.”

One of my goals for this year was to see our resident rails and get photographs - not an easy or certain undertaking. On this early occasion, I was successful by employing the bird walk technique of sitting.

I spent long minutes sitting on the rail. I will spend long minutes sitting on a warbler, or a thrush. Sitting doesn’t do much for the heart rate, but choose your sitting spot with some care, and it can make for some very good birding - Virginia Rail case in point.

Good birding!

Friday, May 08, 2009


From the Hinsdale setbacks and other locations south of Brattleboro, warbles filled the air! Such as ...

Yellow Warbler ....

Chestnut-sided Warbler ....

Common Yellowthroat ....

Warbling Vireo ....

Eastern Kingbird ....

Good birding!


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