Monday, July 27, 2009

Quick Trip to Cape May

We were in Cap May for a family memorial over the weekend. The kids and grandkids were all there, so evening and Sunday morning were at the beach. If anyone is interested, you can pop over to "At Home in South Newfane" for a few pictures of the world's cutest kids.

I did get out one evening and early one morning for some photography and birding. The highlight bird had to be the Black-bellied Whistling Duck which has not been reported in Cape May for many years (it belongs in Florida and Texas); it had many local birders flocking for a look.

... and the bird obligingly scratched the itch of many ...

The Least Terns were busy over the Conservancy as they hunted food for their hungry young.

... and they were still as aggressive toward intruders as they were a month ago - quite unhappy with beach strollers like me ...

And for just a sampling of other feathered friends ... beginning with the Great Egret (always a favorite of mine, as readers know) ...

Many, many Mute Swans have nearly grown young and were moving about (these are not young) ...

In the nests at the State Park, Purple Martins had demanding young (redundant, I know, since the young of all are demanding, even cute grandkids) ...

... and at least one Mallard had a young brood (maybe a second on the year). Like all young, especially cute when they finally settle down for the night.

Good birding!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Primary Colors

Short selection of some primary colors that live in my neighborhood, and feed from the largess of my feeders - or as our British friends say - the bird table. I am sure Easterners need no introduction, but for those North Americans who are less fortunate in where they live, or for readers from elsewhere on our fragile planet, I shall introduce them. All three are males in breeding plumage (or as some prefer, alternate plumage).

Rose-breasted Grosbeak ...

Indigo Bunting ...

American Goldfinch ...

... and that's Good birding!!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Serene Beauty in the Great Egret

Bright white birds waded along the muddy edges of the ebbing water in the tidal marsh. They were distant so few details could be seen except for their dark legs and long sinuous necks. Great Egrets.

I was on the viewing tower at the Connecticut Audubon Center at Milford Point on Long Island Sound. Straight out from the tower was a nesting platform with Ospreys. Three large chicks waited impatiently for their mother to return with food. Dad perched on sentinel duty nearby. Over the distant estuary, I counted eight Osprey circling.

On a grassy edge, a Black-crowned Night Heron rested for the day. Another flew slowly pass. A Glossy Ibis probed the muddy bottom with its long curved bill for some morsel. Gulls foraged here and there.

But always my attention was drawn back to those white waders. A couple of smaller ones were Snowy Egrets. Most were the larger Great Egret.

Audubon knew the Great Egret as the Great American White Egret. Taxonomists recognize it as, “Ardea alba.” The same species is found in Europe where it has been called “Large” and most recently, “Great.” The Great Egret’s closest North American relative is the Great Blue Heron.

The Great Egret is common along the eastern seaboard from southern Maine southward. It is seen along river ways and lakes as far north as southern Ontario. There are breeding records in the northen Champlain region. My personal records are incomplete, but I have seen the Great Egret in early March in the Putney Meadows of Windham County and on Plum Island in Massachusetts, and in late November in Cape May. The species is known to disperse widely after the breeding season is complete, which has brought me reports of large white birds in a beaver pond on Augur Hole Road in mid September.

This handsome white bird is common. Its bright white plumage makes it conspicuous, even at a distance. Many birders, searching for something unusual, slide over it quickly. I often do so. But in my better moments, I linger on this egret as it stalks carefully through the marsh, listening and looking, lifting a foot from the water, stepping with precision. Here is Audubon’s description: “On foot its movements are as graceful as those of the Louisiana Heron, its steps measured, its long neck gracefully retracted and curved, and its silk train reminded one of the flowing robes of the noble ladies of Europe. The train of this Egret ... makes its appearance a few weeks previous to the love season, continues to grow and increase in beauty, until incubation has commenced.”

And that is why the Great Egret almost became extinct: beautiful breeding plumage and female vanity (“flowing robes of noble ladies”) fed into human greed. In the mid to late nineteenth century, growing prosperity spurred the middle class to emulate the fashionable elite. Women’s hats became larger and more ornate and were adorned with”aigrettes” (sprays) of breeding plumage from many birds. The Great Egret was one of the favored birds; it was slaughtered by the tens of thousands and the breeding plumage feathers sold to the millinery trade. The carnage of the feather hunters on the egret and dozens of other species was massive. At one sales auction in London in 1902, the packages of feathers sold would have required the killing of almost 200,000 herons.

The Great Egret was one of the first birds whose population was decimated by the feather trade, but hardly the last. In 1886, Frank Chapman, ornithologist at New York’s Museum of Natural History, took a famous walk along the streets of Manhattan. He counted forty native species of birds - often just the wings or tails, but also fully stuffed birds - on the hats of women.

The carnage of the feather trade led to preservation activism by many groups. Many local Audubon Societies were organized to fight against the feather trade. From those local societies emerged the National Audubon Society. The logo of the NAS was, and still is, the Great Egret. Public lectures by the Audubon Societies on such topics as, “Woman as a Bird Enemy,” and extensive lobbying for legislative protections for birds, eventually led to the end of the feather trade.

The recovery of the Great Egret has been remarkable, and provides a larger lesson for endangered and threatened species. In general, if we can remove or mitigate the human caused reasons for a species’ decline, the species can then recover on its own (e.g. egrets) or with some help (e.g. eagles and falcons).

With protections in place, the Great Egret seems to have expanded into places where it was historically almost unknown. When Forbush wrote of the Great Egret in the 1920s, he wrote about the bird only from observations in Florida; he says nothing about a New England presence. Likewise, when Bent’s life histories of marsh birds was first published in 1926, the breeding range was restricted to the Gulf Coast states. Prior to the plume hunters, they bred as far north as Virginia and Cape May, New Jersey. Now their breeding range extends much further north, perhaps due to reduced habitat in historic ranges, perhaps a result of more favorable climates in the north.

The Great Egret is always graceful and elegant. When I am fortunate enough to get close to the bird (close being a relative term, since they are cautious and wary birds), I am mesmerized by their beauty.

I once watched this three foot wader stalking the shallows during low tide at Brigantine in New Jersey. A sudden strike with long neck and bill, and up came the egret’s beak, gripping a small catfish sideways. The catch was deftly maneuvered, and then swallowed head first, the form of the fish bulging the neck as it slid down.

Also at Brigantine, this time in early April, the birds were in splendid nuptial plumage. In the chilly, early Spring breeze, they were tuning up for their courtship displays, long plumes held nearly erect as they practiced their majestic strut and challenged other males.

But at any time, in an early morning glow or an evening sunset, I am mesmerized when an egret is stands perfectly still in quiet pond or puddle waters. His white form reflects off the surface, and the real becomes the mirrored. Those are moments of exquisite peace, when time is as still as the Great Egret and life is serene.

Good birding!

Quote is from John James Audubon, The Birds of America, 1848.
Post of "Tailfeathers," Brattleboro Reformer, Friday, July 17

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Piping Plover - Milford Point

It was great meeting the birders at Milford Point; I wish I could have continued to the other places. But as I lingered on the shore, the plovers came close. It is ironic that this endangered bird seems never to be in danger of being missed during the course of a year of birding.

Good birding!

One More Time on “Cute” and “Not-Cute”

Last week’s column about not using “cute” when describing birds generated (via e-mail and blog comments) some vigorous defense of cute, cute birds on the one hand, and on the other hand, several nominations for additional words or phrasesthat should be voted off the planet: nice, amazing, awesome, look (as in “Look,” said the politician), and “to tell the truth,” (What?! Do you lie most of the time?) This week I continue the subject by contrasting a “not cute” bird and a “cute” bird.

Last week in Montague, Massachusetts, I saw a new life bird. A Henslow’s Sparrow was singing atop a grassy stalk in a weedy field. Henslow’s Sparrow is like most sparrows, a little brown job, a nondescript bird. It is small and spends most of its time hiding deep in the grassy habitat it loves. It is seldom seen.

Principally a bird of the tall grass prairies, its range extends into western New York and Central Pennsylvania. Only rarely does it make its way into New England. It has not been reported in Massachusetts for many years.

Therefore, when it showed up in New England, its presence brought birders flocking. This particular individual, probably carried off course by our strange weather patterns this spring, was singing vigorously in the hope of attracting a mate. Probably a forlorn hope. But he clung to the grass stem and sang on and on.

For the birders, it was essential that he kept singing. He was in the middle of a large field and could only be seen half-way decently with a spotting scope. Even then, the distinguishing physical characteristics could not be distinguished. Too distant. But the enthusiastic song was very distinctive and left no doubt about his identity.

You might think, when I say song, of something like the ethereal thrushes, or the robin, or cardinal, or even Song Sparrow. Not at all. The song of the Henslow’s Sparrow is a song that only birders could get excited about. Bent calls the song “unobtrusive.” Peterson describes it as “one of the poorest vocal efforts of any bird.” Kaufman calls it “one of the least impressive of all bird songs, a short tsilick.”

So the Henslow’s Sparrow is small, nondescript, hard to see, and with forgettable vocal abilities. Its redeeming virtue is that it is rare, out-of-range, and a tick on the life list for serious birders.

Kaufman summarizes the conservation status of this sparrow: “Has declined seriously in much of its former range, should be considered threatened. Loss of proper habitat is likely cause; habitat requirements are still not thoroughly understood.”

There is some research that is being done on the Henslow’s Sparrow, as my google results showed. But the research is being done by academics. There is a ho-hum quality about concern for this bird. There is little protest when threatened status under the Endangered Species Act gets denied.

Now let’s contrast the Henslow’s Sparrow with the iconic bird of the Maine coast - the Atlantic Puffin. Here is Forbush’s description of the puffin: “The serio-comic appearance of the little feathered clown is laughable. The bright and handsome colors of its nuptial array are forgotten in contemplation of its peculiar and amazing appearance. Its bright little eyes seem spectacled while its parrot-like bill [is] like a great, highly colored Roman nose ....”

“Cute” hardly describes the puffin. Endearing, funny, adorable are words that come to mind. In the tourist oriented communities along the Maine coast you will find puffin t-shirts, boxer shorts, pajamas, and sweat-shirts. You will find puffin mugs, puffin postcards and greeting cards, puffin framed photos, puffin carvings and all other manner of puffin related paraphernalia.

Here’s the irony: the Atlantic Puffin is almost never seen from the shore. It nests on off shore islands, then disappears somewhere into the North Atlantic. To see the puffin, you have to take a puffin watching boat tour.

In the 1920s when Forbush wrote, Machias Seal Island off the northern Maine coast was the puffin’s “nearest real refuge and breeding-place,” where it was making “its last stand near our shores.”

Kaufman summarizes the puffin’s conservation status: “Major declines during 19th century were due to overharvesting of eggs and adults. During 20th century, has continued to decrease at southern end of breeding range in both North America and Europe. Vulnerable to introduction of predators (such as rats) to nesting islands. Since the 1980s, an ambitious project to reintroduce puffins on former nesting islands off Maine has had some success.”

Ambitious indeed! The Puffin Project has the mission of “developing techniques for restoring seabirds to historic ranges and encouraging the protection and appreciation of seabirds worldwide.” Through efforts of the Puffin Project, several hundred puffin pairs now nest on southern Maine islands, along with colonies of terns and other seabirds. The techniques employed have been replicated in reintroduction programs around the world. The project has a research staff, enlists many volunteers, maintains a visitors’ center, and publishes a glossy annual newsletter.

So what my beef? NONE whatsoever! If it were not for the cute, cute puffin, any number of seabirds (most of which are black, white, gray, and brown, and seldom seen by anybody locked on land) would be silently slipping into extinction.

But how does all this relate to calling some birds, “cute?” Frankly, I’m not sure. In some way it seems that when I make some bird “cute,” I am also making a value judgment - that what is appealing to me in its aesthetics, or the warm fuzzies that it gives me, is inherently more important than what does not do that.

In a previous generation, hawks were slaughtered on sight because they preyed on “good” birds (and the occasional farm chicken). Crows ate corn, and Bobolinks ate rice - Bang! Bang! In a big attitudinal step forward, the adorably cute puffin now inspires now grants and donations for research and restoration.

But is the puffin more important than a sparrow that is seldom seen and has a poor excuse for a song? Both are a part of the exquisite variety in creation. Both give evidence to the unlimited imagination of whoever, whatever, or however you may term the mystery behind it all.

Even that poor excuse for a song, “tsilick,” has an essence that says, “Look at the astounding variety in creation!”

Painting of Henslow’s Sparrow is by John James Audubon, which he called Henslow’s Bunting.

Kenn Kaufman quotes are from “Lives of North American Birds,” 1996. Bent and Peterson quotes are from Bent, “Life Histories,” Dover edition, 1968. Forbush quotes are from Forbush & Mays, “American Birds,” 1953.

Post of "Tailfeathers," Brattleboro Reformer, July 10, 2009.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009


A neighbor sent me this limerick (well, he lives 4 miles down the road, but in Vermont, that's a neighbor)

There once was a guy named Chris
Who lived in a state of bliss
But wouldn’t stay mute,
If you called birds cute
So watch what you say about this.


Monday, July 06, 2009

Four Youngsters

Taking a pause from the Maine trip, yesterday's sun finally produced some good photo ops - and the young birds cooperated.

First, two young Blue Jays, one who had feeding himself/herself almost figured out, but still calling in hopes that the free ride would continue - and one begging noisily and impatiently ...

Young male Downy Woodpecker ...

Fledgling Purple Finch ...

Plus ... went to see the Henslow"s Sparrow again ... he was cooperative in singing, but still too far away for any identifiable photo.

Good birding!

Friday, July 03, 2009

Northern Fulmar

Even crummy photos can serve a purpose. Here are two from the Machias Seal Island trip which I almost deleted when sorting through the original mass. But something was a little different, so I kept them. When the sorting was done I looked more closely, then cropped and made adjustments, and discovered that I had a Northern Fulmar.

Just to be sure, I sent the photos to my neighbor, Hector Galbraith (dual credentials of ornithologist and British birder) who noted the wing molt and posited a non-breeder. Thank you Hector. I always appreciate your help and patience with my sometime skills.

First photo is uncropped, no adjustments.

Machias Seal Island

As reported in the previous post, the trip to Machias Seal Island was unable to land, so we floated among the target birds. Cloudy and foggy, though by the time we began the return trip to Jonesport, Maine, somewhat brighter.

The island through (at 20x with teleconverter) was crowded with birds - Razorbills in forground, Puffins up higher, Arctic Terns overhead, all coming and going from the island.

Misty, but the profile of the Razorbill and Common Murre is distinctive, and with pelagic birds, that is often all you get. Pelagics are difficult for me since I only get on the sea once a year, if that. Not much time to hone ID skills (such as they are) ...

Three photos of Razorbill ...

Common Murre with Atlantic Puffins ...

Two photos of Common Murre ...

Why do we readily call some birds, "cute," such as the puffins, and not other birds? They are all doing the same thing - feeding, breeding, raising young, preening. Are the birds different, or do we just perceive them differently? Come back tomorrow for my offensive opinions on "cute."

Yesterday I headed south into central Mass (what those eastern in Boston call western Mass) for the Henslow's Sparrow. -a life bird. He was cooperative in singing on the grass tops, but distant, so no pics.

Here in the Northeast, maybe the weather will clear someday and we can again get a day of good birding.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Atlantic Puffins

From Cape May, we went north to Jonesport, Maine (with a stop at Craignair Inn, Clark Island, a favorite place of ours). In Jonesport, we did the puffin trip to Machias Seal Island. Unfortunately, the tour leader felt it was not safe to land, so we did not get on the island. But the number of birds feeding in the water was considerable. We spent about an hour moving slowly among the birds.

Four target species nest on Machias Seal Island: Atlantic Puffin, Razorbill, Common Murre, and Arctic Tern. The tern was seen through the fog flying overhead, its voice different from other terns (Common, Forster’s, and Least), so I can count it for the year. But there was no way to see any field marks. The others were close, and good views were had. This post is limited to the Atlantic Puffin.

The Atlantic Puffin has a very endearing appearance and is one of those “sexy” species that the general public is drawn to, as opposed to the nondescript little brown jobs, or other birds which are “not pretty” or secretive. “Sexy” species the general public can be sold on for protection, or restoration, and that in turn enables help to the “unsexy” species.

Just a caution - don’t call the puffins “cute” (even if you think they are - and I admit they are) because this week’s column (post on Saturday) is a language rant with “cute” being the victim.

As always, thanks for dropping by.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Sunset in Cape May

Our travels started with a family gathering in Cape May two Saturdays ago. After dinner in the evening, we went for a walk at the Nature Conservancy, only to be chased back to the car by dark clouds and ominous rumblings. The downpour ended as soon as we returned to our room, so we returned to the Nature Conservancy for an evening sunset walk - that time when the sun is low and the light so wonderful.

In the protected nesting area, Least Terns were getting their act underway. This male was demonstrating his suitability by bringing supper to his mate. Some were already on the nest, a tiny hollowed-out depression in the sand. The terns did not like our presence and often we were threatened, screamed at, dove upon, and nearly raked by beaks. We retreated.

The highlight was the American Oystercatchers feeding their young, and generally carrying on all along the shore and dunes.

We heard one Least Bittern calling from the reeds, and watched several Great Egrets stalking in the evening sun.

The sunset was gorgeous. It was also the last sunlight we saw for the next six days.

Twilight on the Martin House.

A Photographic Note: I came back with over 800 photos; it takes time just to go through that many photos, dumping the trash (there was a lot) and then editing what remains. In Northern Maine I met Stan Buman, a wildlife and nature photographer from Iowa. He told me that on the Gaspe Peninsula he visited a gannet colony and took over 6000 photos. Processing all of those is mind-boggling, but judging by the photos on his website, he ends up with stunning photos. I’ve put a link to his website under “A Few Other (Mostly) Bird Sites.” I’ve also added a link to “Bird Photography by Hilke Breder,” a local Vermont birder and photographer.


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