Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Addendum on previous post - Richardson's Cackling Goose - My ornithological consultant, Hector Galbraith, confirmed my photo as that of a "pretty classic hutchinsii cackler."

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Cackling Goose

Yesterday among the hundreds of Canada Geese on the waters of the Brattleboro Retreat Meadows was at least one CACKLING GOOSE.

I spotted one from the parking area near Curves about Noon - behind the island in West River. About 2:30pm, I spotted one from boat landing on Rte 30. Same bird?

Perhaps a word of caution: I do not have a lot of experience with Cackling Goose, so if anyone has a doubt about the ID, please tell me, and reasons for not agreeing.

Unless contradicted, I shall call this a Richardson's Cackling Goose (Branta hutchinsii hutchinsii), but there is close overlap with Lesser Canada Goose (Branta canadensis parvipes), and there are intergrades in both species.

Thanks in advance - and Good Birding!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Philadelphia Weekend

Last week (19 & 20) we did an extended weekend in Philadelphia to celebrate the beginning of our decades long honeymoon.For people living in a small Vermont village, a big city get-away may seem an odd choice. But our kids wanted a part of the weekend, so Philly it was.

We stayed at a charming (and affordable) boutique hotel in the old Washington Square neighborhood.

I grew up in a big city (Detroit), but for me the charm and excitement of city life faded away long ago. However, the weather was absolutely superb, and people were every where enjoying life. Nearly every coffee shop, sandwich shop, tavern, and restaurant had tables on the sidewalks and wide open windows, and the streets were full of people enjoying company, food, and beverage.

The streets around our inn were full of history and historic old homes, now well cared for.

Much of this part of Philadelphia feels like an old European city, which is not surprising since those cities provided the known models for city planning and city building when much of this Philadelphia neighborhood were being built.

It was especially fun wandering the narrow streets and alleys to and from Independence National Historic Park a few blocks away - like this one, with a street barely wide enough for a car ...

Photography of architecture, history, or cityscape takes a different kind of camera eye from bird photography. These photos are of the tourist variety. For the next seveal weeks, I will do a Monday post with a few attempts at seeing the city and the history from angles other than the tourist angle. In advance, thanks for feedback.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Saturday's Birding

Saturday's hawk watching was mostly staring at blue sky. There were few hawks, and those few were distant. I arrived late morning at Putney Mtn, so even the morning songbird activity was on the wane. But I was pleased that there were so many Yellow-rumped Warblers in their confusing fall plumage. These winter "Myrtles" are such a contrast to the stunning plumage they sport in the spring. Lots of berries for them, and plenty of insects to "flycatch."

White-throated Sparrows have been common for a couple of weeks, and still are, but beyond these two species, the variety and numbers were limited (a few Blue-headed Vireos, Common Yellowthroats, Eastern Towhees, woodpeckers, ever-present chickadees). Blue Jays have been migrating by the hundreds.

And finally, just a couple of images from Saturday's wandering ...

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Northern Cardinal - A Favorite Bird

The Fall Equinox was this week. The “Farmer’s Almanac” tells me that today’s length is twelve hours and one minute. Starting tomorrow there is more night than day, and it only gets worse for the next three months as we head toward winter.

Long lines of geese cross the distant horizon. We hear their honking from somewhere overhead. Confusing fall warblers are heading to the tropics; the striking and colorful plumage differences that make these birds the envy of the world is now muted. The warblers all “look alike.”

The birds came north a few months ago because our temperate northern forests provide a protein cornucopia for raising young - insects, creepy crawlies, amphibians, reptiles, rodents and other small mammals compress their reproduction into a few intense months, producing so many offspring that birds come from thousands of miles to enjoy the bounty.

That protein bounty is about to go into hiding, or dormancy, and the birds are leaving.

Most species are through with raising young for this year, but a few are still busy with the task. Late nesting American Goldfinches were in my backyard early this week feeding fledglings. On Putney Mountain one early morning last week, I watched a Cedar Waxwing feeding fledglings. For at least an hour, the young birds did not move from their perches in the scrubby oak tree; they waited for their parent to return with food, then fluttered wings and offered a gaping mouth. This was a late brood. Elsewhere around the opening on the ridge, young waxwings were practicing their flycatching skills. Except for the proximity of their parents, they were on their own.

About a week ago I was surprised to see a very young cardinal on the ground around my feeders with his mother. He was a plain, dull tan-colored bird. He had only a trace of red wash in his feathers. His beak was black, not the orange red of the adults. Mother cardinal had led this young bird to a source of food where it could learn to forage. This may have been one of the first times he was expected to feed himself. He tried his begging posture, but without success. She ignored her fledgling’s pleas, and fed herself. She was beginning to replenish her fat reserves which she had expended in the arduous task of laying eggs and feeding young.

This very young cardinal was around the feeders for several days with one or both parents. Gradually he learned to feed himself, a picky picky eater. He still half hoped a parent would do the job for him. But the parents had shifted out of parental mode. Their hovering young might make it or might not. The adult cardinals knew that they would soon face the challenge of personal survival and that trumps all else.

Other young cardinals have been around the feeders for months. The ones that first appeared in late June or early July are molting into adult plumage. The males are beginning to acquire the red feathers that will make them such bright spots in the dull winter landscape.

The Northern Cardinal is an abundant bird of our southern states. It has been expanding its range northward. In the 1920s, Forbush knew of a few year-round cardinals “as far north as the region about New York City.” In Vermont, a sighting was recorded at Wells River in 1933. It wasn’t until the 1960 Christmas Bird Count that the next sightings were recorded - three that winter. By the time of the first breeding bird atlas in Vermont (c.1980), the cardinal had expanded its breeding range along the river valleys.

The cardinal is not abundant in Vermont, although it is common. It is non-migratory. A pair tends to stay on or near its territory throughout the year, while younger birds may flock together. The pair bond relaxes during the early months of winter, then renews in late winter and early spring as the male and female sing together and feed together. The female is as accomplished a vocalist as the male, something that is rare in the bird world and which doubles the pleasure of their human audience.

With her warm brown plumage splashed with red, the female cardinal is a beautiful bird. But her mate, sporting his brilliant red feathers and cocky red crest trumps any attention she may attract.

The male cardinal is a fierce defender of his territorial prerogatives. He will drive off any real or imagined rival with persistence, even when the intruding rival is his own image in a window. When we lived in Pennsylvania, for several summers we had a male cardinal who banged against the bedroom windows in an effort to drive off his reflection. This week someone told me about a male cardinal who attacked the side view mirror of their car; he saw another male cardinal in the car’s mirror, and was determined to drive it away.

The male cardinal also has a strong instinct to feed. He feeds his mate when she incubates and tirelessly feeds his own young. Male cardinals have been observed stuffing food down the throats of nestlings of other species. One male even fed goldfish in a backyard pool. I would suspect the sobriety of the reporter, except for the accompanying photograph (in “Song and Garden Birds,” by Wetmore, 1964.)

Cardinals raise two or three broods during a summer; four broods have been recorded. Multiple broods and warming climate are contributing factors to the range expansion of the cardinal. Bird feeders help as well, providing a food supply during the difficult winter months. I have yet to meet anyone who is not delighted to have cardinals at their feeders and often hear disappointment at their absence.

Most songbirds are heading south. The ones who stay around may be noisy with calls and chattering, but their melodious songs are over for the year. Except for the cardinal. This redbird may sing any month of the year, as though practicing for the springtime serenades. If the young cardinal at my feeders learns to feed himself, then he will soon be able to start learning the songs of his parents - his melodious cardinal songs adding to the fall colors and brightening the crisp days of winter.

“In richness of plumage, elegance of motion, and strength of song, this species surpasses all its kindred in the United States.” So wrote John James Audubon, and who am I to argue with Audubon.

I saw the young cardinal again today - still in plain plumage, still with a black beak. He was busy feeding himself on my seed. He’s learning, and that Good Birding!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Blue-headed Vireo

It was a gorgeous day on Putney Mountain - clear, crisp air - brisk wind - changing fall colors - but very few hawks. I finally dragged my tripod up so I could have my camera fixed on the plastic owl which sometimes attracts the attention and animosity of a passing sharpie. Alas, the few sharpies were high over head, and not interested. But with good company, and great scenery, I can still think of few better ways to spend a morning.

There were a few Yellow-rumped Warblers doing their flycatching act, and the ever-present chickadees (tits for any one from across the pond) ... and just before I left, I succeeded in phishing down this Blue-headed Vireo, curious about the strange creature making strange sounds.

Good birding ... regardless of the number of birds!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

I've been away for a few days and am just getting caught up. But today was my day as official counter on Putney Mountain. Last week was great - this week has been dismal, at least in numbers of migrating hawks. Weather was mild, thin cloud cover, no wind ... and no hawks, except for this single Osprey, which flew over the ridge so slow I felt like I could reach out and touch it. Migration will pick up when the front moves through. Late September early October are usually good times for Peregrines, accipters, and the larger buteos. TVs begin moving as well.

The open area along the ridge attracts migrating songbirds - several hundred noisy Blue Jays moved over the clearing today, while smaller birds fueled up on the berries - unfortunately most of the berries are from the invasive buckthorn. This Black-throated Blue Warber was anything but a confusing fall warbler ...

... nor was there any confusion about this Northern Parula ...

Good birding!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Broad-winged Hawk

Broad-winged Hawks reach their peak migration between September 10 and September 20. In anticipation of potentially seeing hundreds of hawks in a single day, hawk watchers have crowded Putney Mountain this week. As of mid-week when I wrote this, they have not been disappointed.

Buteos are the genus of hawks characterized by their broad wings, short tails, and soaring ability. The Broad-winged Hawk is our smallest buteo, with a body length of 15 inches, wing span of 34 inches, and weight of 14 ounces. By contrast, the familiar roadside hawk, the Red-tailed Hawk has a length of 19 inches, wing span of 49 inches, and weight of 2.4 pounds. (Measurements are from Sibley’s Guide and are approximate.)

The Broad-winged Hawk is a forest species that seldom draws attention to itself and often goes unnoticed unless someone knows it and searches for it. Its cousin, the Red-tailed Hawk was often known as the hen hawk for its opportunistic taking of farmyard birds. The Broad-winged never acquired such a nick-name because it rarely troubled with the farmer’s poultry or pigeons.

In spring migration and summer breeding, the Broad-winged can be completely over-looked, although the attentive person may hear its thin piercing whistle, “eeh-eeeeeeee.” Then it is time to look high. “In warm summer weather it frequently soars to great heights with widely extended and almost motionless wings ... Possibly no hawk ascends higher in the heavens than this rather small, inconspicuous species. Its broad, ample ‘clubbed’ wings, which name the bird so aptly when they are well seen, often make this hawk seem larger than it really it.” (Forbush)

As inconspicuous as the Broad-winged Hawk is during the summer, at the right place and right time during September it is the dominant hawk species. The birds lift out of their Northeastern woodlands and begin their journey south. They will travel thousands of miles.

A single bird rises above the forest canopy. Its hawk eyes see another bird circling upward, the second bird having found rising warm air. The first bird joins the second, then a third joins the two, then a fourth. And so it goes, the birds gathering, not as a flock for safety, but as a loose group taking advantage of the same flying conditions - rising thermals, ridge-line updrafts, and favorable winds. With good conditions, a Broad-winged Hawk is capable of traveling a couple of hundred miles in a day with barely a wingbeat.

Putney Mountain is one of those places where the conditions are often favorable. On a good day five hundred, or even a thousand, broadies might be seen. In comparison to some eastern watch sites, those numbers are not so impressive. Places like Duluth, Minnesota, Hamilton, Ontario, Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania, and (erratically) some mountains in Massachusetts, can have single day numbers in the thousands, or even tens of thousands. As the flyways converge in Corpus Christie, Texas or Veracruz, Mexico, the numbers can swell to hundreds of thousands.

The visiting “hawk snob” from some other “bigger and better” site might be disappointed with “only” five hundred Broad-winged Hawks in a day. But I have yet to hear any local hawk watcher on Putney Mountain who is disappointed with such numbers. When these inconspicuous forest hawks begin streaming over the ridge, or circling up by the dozens, there is excitement. There is wonderment. Where did they all come from? And of course, there is the puzzle: where are they going?

There is some good research about where the Broad-winged Hawks are going, and the impressive travels they undertake in the going and coming. The short answer is that the broadies are headed to the tropics - Central and South America.

Research has shown that the journey of the Broad-winged Hawk is as spectacular as its numbers in migration. Five adult females were fitted with radio tags at their nesting locations in north-central Minnesota and western Maryland in the Spring, 2000. With satellite telemetry, the hawks could be tracked for many months and thousands of miles. With luck, every zig-zag in their route could be tracked, where it stopped, for how long it stopped, and where migration ended.

Four of the adult female Broad-winged Hawks were tracked along their entire fall migration route. The fifth was out of contact until the next spring when she was halfway through her migration back to Minnesota.

The other four left their breeding grounds in September. They followed the expected path south, “converging in Texas, following the Gulf Coast into Mexico, passing over the famous hawkwatch in Veracruz, and taking an inland course through Central America.” One bird stopped in Panama and wintered there. Three continued to Colombia where one veered east into Venezuela. The other two traveled south of the equator and wintered in southwestern Brazil and southern Peru.

The radio tagged Broad-winged Hawks traveled between 3,500 and 4,800 miles. Daily travel was 50 to 75 miles per day. They reached their wintering areas between October 15 and December 15.

“Because of radio failures, only one bird could be tracked completely during its spring migration northward.” She flew 4,878 miles in 74 days from Peru to Maryland, where she arrived on May 22 at the same nesting location from which she had departed eight months earlier. Her total round trip was about 9,700 miles.

Yet another question often asked about Broad-winged Hawks is: What do they eat along the way? A more precise question would be: Do they eat on their migratory journey? On Putney Mountain, we occasionally see a low flying Broad-winged with a full crop, clear evidence that it has eaten recently. This week I have watched several Broad-winged Hawks stoop into the tree tops just below the ridge, as though they were diving after possible prey. But as the migrating hawks concentrate in Texas and Mexico into the hundreds of thousands (even millions), is there enough food? Or do they “fast” for a portion of their journey? I have yet to find research which addresses this question. So ... when there are no hawks to watch on Putney Mountain, we can discuss this question without having to worry about facts.

Good Birding!

Information for this column and quotations are from “Tracking Hawks’ Migration Patterns” by Paul Hess in “Birding”, October, 2004.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

September 16 on Putney Mountain

The regulars at the Putney Mountain Hawk Watch have been anticipating this day. One of our group, Woodcarver Phil, has been making guarantees to people about the number of hawks they would see on September 16. Phil looked at the count numbers for the last several years and noticed that the counts were very good on Sept 16 except when the day was rained out. And BTW, one of my regular readers, Frank at The Early Bird, also looked up the records on line and has been wondering if the 16th would hold to the pattern. He commented on the previous post.

There were a lot of people on the mountain to watch hawks today. It felt like October. It was gray, overcast, and raw. By all conventional wisdom, it was not a good day for Broad-winged Hawks to be flying. They need sun to create thermals for lift and gentle winds so they can stream south. But the weather reports called for clearing in the afternoon, so about two dozen people were on the ridge when I arrived about 11:00am.

The regulars were anticipating that disappointed visitors would be angry about an empty guarantee, and maybe do something about it - such as throwing Phil over the side of the ridge - we are very supportive of one another.

As soon as I arrived on the ridge, I put up my binoculars to see what everyone was looking at. There was a kettle of 20+ broadies. They had just begun flying, and for the next hour, against a dull gray sky, we went from kettle, to kettle, to kettle, or from stream of hawks to stream of hawks, with hardly a moment to catch the breath. Phil had "guaranteed" that people would see 500 broadies on the 16th. Between 11 and 12, 650 hawks were counted.

I took this photo of Phil at around noon time. Before I took the picture, I asked him to give me a smug look - though the question was unnecessary. In spite of all conventional wisdom about making predictions to anybody about what birds will be seen (much less a guarantee), Phil was dead-on right.

The numbers climbed more slowly after the noon hour, and I haven't gotten the final tally, but I am sure it will push, or exceed, 1000 - on a day that was lousy for flying. For Putney Mountain, that is an excellent day. The counters at this hawk watch "count" the birds, but several times the birds were so numerous that estimates had to be made.

As a group, we are very cautious, and very conservative, when counting, and even more so when estimating.

It was not a good day for photography, with poor light, and birds too high for the camera, but not for the eye. Here is one photograph of a portion of one kettle - there were birds that had already streamed out of this kettle -others that were still rising up - and yet others that were fading into or out of the clouds. I count 27 birds in the photograph.

Is it even necessary to say, good birding!

Tuesday - Putney Mountain

Tuesday at the Putney Mountain Hawk Watch was a day of eye strain, with most hawks only distant specks. A good viewing sky helped, but it was nothing like the two previous days when most hawks were relatively low and close. But we still tallied over 280 migrants.

It's always fun when school groups visit the watch, and these kids were fortunate to see some of the low flyers. anything we can do to encourage the next generation of bird watchers is worth the effort ... and the enthusiasm of many of the kids is infectious.

The hawks may have been high, but the ravens were playing along the ridge, and that is always fun to watch.

This juvenile Cooper's Hawk was one bird that came low and provided a good look at all of the features which distinguish it from the other accipiters - large head, arthritic wing beat, rounded tail ...

Finally ... our resident Red-tailed Hawk wandering along the ridge in the late afternoon (rather flat wings with up-turned fingers at the wing-tips) ...

Good birding!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Today's Hawks on Putney Mountain

It was another good hawk day at the Putney Mountain Hawk Watch. By the time I left at 2pm, the totals were approaching 500. As of this posting, I have not received an e-mail with the final numbers, proably because a few watchers remained into the early evening hours and have not yet reported.

There were few "tourists" today, but a dozen or more watchers.

Broad-winged Hawks dominated, as expected this time of year. My column this week will be on the broadies, so I will save the photos until Saturday's posting. The birds were flying at a much higher elevation today than yesterday, but enough were at a lower height to provide detailed looks ... as, for example, this juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk ...

... perhaps immodest, but that is probably the best photo of a sharpie that I have managed (to date).

There is no doubt that we have a resident adult Red-tailed Hawk (or two). We do not begin counting the "tails" as migrants until later in the month, but some think an exception should be made for the juveniles who certainly do a lot of wandering, usually in a southerly direction. This juvenile, however, seemed to be hanging around most of the day ...

... Red-shouldered Hawks are uncommon in our northern woods (though some reports this year suggest more nests than usual). We do not see many during the hawk count, but this one was an exception. We've had a number of good sightings of "shoulders" this year, perhaps the same bird. This one gave us some of the best looks we've had - usually the "shoulders" are mixed with other birds, or very distant. When one suddenly pops out of the valley, it brings oohs and aahs ...

When not totally preoccupied with hawks, we also count monarchs. Numbers seem to be down significantly this year, but a few do make their way across the ridge.

I hope your birding has been good - or at least, that your day on balance has been positive!

Cedar Waxwings - Putney Mountain

Tomorrow is my day to be the "official" counter on Putney Mountain, so I had the leisure early in the morning to check out the songbirds. There was not a great deal of songbird activity, but I stumbled on a family of Cedar Waxwings. These birds are common on the ridge in September, but this family was a very young family. I begin with one of the parents ...

... in a nearby tree, perched two reasons for his/her "scowl" - two recently fledged young waxwings ...

They waited patiently until they heard the buzzy approach of their parent, then became very agitated ... and hungry ...

The parent was able to satisfy, or at least feed, the gaping mouths of each fledgling in turn.

Good birding!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Sunday Hawk Watch

With the weather clearing this morning, hawk watchers flocked to Putney Mountain in anticipation of a good flight, scouring the skies for hawks.

We were not disappointed. By the end of the day, 689 migrating hawks had been counted, including 528 Broad-winged Hawks and 125 Sharp-shinned Hawks (an unusually high number of sharpies for so early in the season). Plus there were Red-tailed Hawks wandering the ridge (we don't usually consider them migrants until late September) and Turkey Vultures going, north, then south, then north.

The most recent issue of Birding has an article about "Molt in Raptors on Active Migration." Today's hawks were low, affording good views, and the opportunity to note various stages of molt, as is especially evident on the tail feathers of the broadies in these next two photos.
Both birds are adults, but molt was also evident in young birds. In some cases, missing primaries made for a very ragged appearance.

This young sharpie seems to be checking out the hawk watchers below, just as they are checking her out up above (probably her - the bird seemed large).

Only one eagle today - this young Bald Eagle (probably a first year bird) flew north, perhaps looking for someone to feed it or tell it what to do. Eventually it flew south.

In addition to the regular hawk watchers, there were many other visitors. They were treated to a day of very good hawk watching, with "eye birds" often flying quite low over the ridge.

Good birding!


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