Monday, December 28, 2009

2009 is drawing to a close. The end of the year is the traditional time for doing a summary, and some reflection.

The opportunity to travel during the year opened up a new avenue for creativity and led me increasingly to expand of my birding hobby with photography. Photography is slowing down my birdwatching, making me more patient, more observant, and more appreciative of the birds.

Birding has been a component of travel, but not the sole component - history, culture, flora and fauna, are all important ingredients and I hope will remain so.

That being said, this is a blog mostly about birds, and a summary of my birding year is in order.

In 2009 in North America I logged 365 species and expanded my North American life list to 565, adding 18 new species. A surprise in those 18 new species is that 4 were in New England, my home base. I keep thinking that the odds are getting longer and longer for new species in the region where I do most of my birding. But each year something new turns up.

So for my year end summary, here is the list of new species, with photographs of the one that stood still long enough for me to document the sighting.

Dusky Flycatcher
01/11 - Patagonia Nature Conservancy, AZ

Rufous-crowned Sparrow
01/11 - Patagonia Rest Stop, AZ

Gray Flycatcher
01/11 - Patagonia Lake State Park, AZ

Rufous-winged Sparrow
01/11 - Patagonia Lake State Park, AZ

Rufous-capped Warbler
01/12 - Florida Canyon, nr. Madera Canyon, AZ

Painted Redstart
01/13 - Madera Canyon, AZ

Montezuma Quail
01/24 - Cave Creek Canyon - 2 clear observations of covey of about 12 on 2 different days

Elegant Trogon
01/26 - Cave Creek Canyon

Bar-headed Goose
04/18 - Brattleboro Retreat - probably an escapee - so not officially a countable but species, but what the heck ...

Henslow’s Sparrow
07/01 - Montague, MA

Manx Shearwater
8/10 - Pelagic trip out of Newburyport, MA

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
10/22 - Orange, MA

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl
11/12 - King Ranch, TX

Sprague’s Pipit
11/12 - King Ranch, TX

Hooded Oriole
11/13 - nr Falcon Dam, TX

White-collared Seedeater
11/13 - Salenos, TX

Bronzed Cowbird
11/14 - Harlingen, TX

Rose-throated Becard
11/16 - Estero Llano Grande WBC, TX

As a summary, a year in which there were many good things, not least of which was plenty of Good Birding!

Monday, December 21, 2009


The winter solstice happened at 12:47 EST. It is now officially winter, and from this day forward, the amount of daylight will increase. At the approximate occurence of the solstice, I stepped into my backyard and took this picture of the river behind my home. It is already deep into winter. Open water on the fast moving stream is disappearing beneath ice. A foot of snow covers the ground.

While many celebrate the faint beginning of light’s return with revelry, we will cosy by the wood stove and offer a quiet toast.

As we begin to emerge from the darkness, I’d like to direct your attention to a couple of “enlightened” enterprises which I have recently discovered. These are complimentary notices.

First, birders are noted for their earth-tone attire and nerdy focus on ... birds. What few non-birders realize, is that beneath the plain exterior, birders can be very sexy. A short notice in the most recent Sierra magazine drew attention to Urban Fox ( and the hidden opportunity to get risque while remaining a green bird nerd. While no Victoria’s Secret, the company provides “super-cute undies” that are eco-friendly. “All our undies, etc., are designed, dyed, and sewn by hand in the sweet, sweet midwest out of machine-processed bamboo and organic cotton blends.” (Sorry, no photo example.

Second, Birds and Beans ( “We want to make sure that people who enjoy coffee and care about conservation can get great coffee that they know is good for bird conservation, family farmers and the environment. Our commitment to quality and service ensures that fresh roasted, great tasting ‘Birds & Beans the good coffee’™ fly’s straight to your door and into your cup. Birds & Beans® only sells coffee meeting the demanding, independent certification of The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. SMBC’s Bird Friendly seal is by far the most rigorous bird conservation inspection. Bird Friendly coffee from Birds & Beans comes from the best managed family farms in Latin America.”

Finally, Mr. Cardinal finally stood still long enough for a reasonable portrait.

Thanks to all visitors to this site, and especially those who take time to leave comments. Happy Holidays!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Life and Death Around the Feeders

In early July, I wrote about the word “cute” as it is applied to birds. Back in the summer, very young birds are typically described as “cute,” although in fact they are clueless. They chase parents around, begging for food. They are slow in learning about food sources, and slower in learning about danger. I took a lot of friendly teasing over my protest on the use of “cute,” and probably did not change the verbal habits of anyone, but I shall continue to insist that “cute” is not an appropriate adjuective.

Now it is winter, and some of the birds coming to the bird feeders are still “cute” in the minds of many. And some are apparently still clueless. I admit that I enjoy watching the frenetic activity of many of the birds which feed on my largess. Along with my favorite companion (who is likely to use words like “cute” or “adorable”) I especially enjoy the woodpeckers, chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches.

The two woodpeckers, the Downy and the Hairy, wait patiently in nearby trees when I take in the suet feeder to refill it. When I rehang the suet feeder, I call out, “Okay, guys, come and get it.” There is a bit of chatter and by the time I am back in the kitchen, they are on the suet or waiting a turn on branches overhead. The Hairy is stocky and robust, and doesn’t say much to me. The Downy is “cute” as it peers down at me and chatters a “thank you,” or perhaps a “couldn’t you do it faster next time.”

The chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches come quickly to a feeder, grab a seed, and fly. Their acrobatics are entertaining. The actions of these year-round neighborhood residents are not all that different from what the juncos and sparrows are doing, but the ground feeders are not described as “cute” nearly so often.

The secret is in the eyes. The dark eye of the junco is not as noticeable against its dark head as is the dark eye of the titmouse. But any of these birds, or any small songbird, might on some occasion perch on a branch and look down at you with its head turned and cocked to the side, giving you the curious once-over in a very “cute” manner.

But there is serious business in the head-cocking, neck turning, hurry up - grab the seed - head to the bushes. The big eyes are located on the sides of the head, giving them a wide vision as they constantly watch for danger. They turn their head in order to get a look at me. And more importantly, they don’t linger to study a sudden movement in the periphery of their vision; they flee.

We call them “bird feeders,” but our bird feeders feed much more than just small songbirds. There are red squirrels and gray squirrels which find food on the ground or in the feeders. Field mice run tunnels beneath the snow, and gather the seed. Chipmunks stuff their cheeks throughout the fall and cache the seed in their burrows. At night deer feed on the fallen apples and lick the platform clean of seed. At different times of the year, skunk and bear scavenge food.

There are all kinds of food at the bird feeders. There is seed which feeds birds and animals. And then there are the birds and animals which feed other birds and animals. The eyes of predators do not look to the side. Their two eyes look forward. With keen binocular vision, they look for food. A fox looks for a mouse; a fisher spies a grouse. Your sweet, family cat with its eyes in front, hunts rodents and birds. Steathly slipping into a tree, the Sharp-shinned or Cooper’s Hawk studies the food possibilities around the feeders.

I sit at my kitchen table and watch the birds outside my window. A dozen Blue Jays are going to and from the various feeders. Suddenly they fly ... and every other bird flies; the jays are screaming loudly as they disappear into the pines. Somewhere nearby there is a hawk.

When the jays begin their loud alarm calls, I pay attention. They are warning everyone of danger. On a rare occasion, I see the jays mobbing a still silhouette in a tree, preemptively dealing with danger. A couple of times a year, I see a sudden flash through the yard as a hawk makes its attack. Most often, I see only scattered feathers lying about the grass or fluttering across the snow, silent evidence that the life and death struggle to find food has played out with some birds winning, and others losing in a fatal way.

When you put out a bird feeder, you must accept that hawks will come as well as chickadees. Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks are feeder birds. You can put your feeder where there is cover for the small birds - bushes, pines, trees - the thicker and more tangled, the more protection. But you must accept that hawks are sometimes going to look for food among the birds at your feeders, and sometimes they will be successful. If you cannot accept that, and leave the hawk unmolested as it hunts, kills, and dines, then you have no business feeding the birds.

Beyond those feathers scattered about the yard, I have had two recent experiences which lead me to issue the following: Warning, bird feeders are not for the faint of heart.

On my platform feeder a week ago, a Blue Jay was busy eating. It ate seed after seed after seed. But unlike the other jays, it did not come and go. Feathers around its neck were disordered and messy. One wing did not fold against its body and primary feathers were askew. When it finally flew, it did so with difficulty. In all likelihood, this Blue Jay had a near fatal encounter with something. Perhaps it damaged its wing as it fled from a hawk through a tangle. Perhaps it was hit by a young hawk, still not adept at taking prey, and escaped, but with injury. I only saw the injured Blue Jay one day. Unable to fly well - unable to use its feathers for full protection against the cold - it probably did not survive for long.

Sunday morning I saw a large dark circle atop the snow with a mound of red in the middle. When I went out to fill the feeders, I inspected. Beneath the three foot circle of downy feathers, the white snow was stained red. Bloody breast bones were picked clean. Part of the head remained to confirm the identification. The flock of thirty Mourning Doves which visit my feeders every morning had been reduced by one. A Cooper’s Hawk, the likely predator, had fed well.

The amusing antics of the chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches are serious business; there is nothing “cute” about them. These birds are in a race for life - contending with winter storms, freezing temperatures, and dangerous predators. Most of us have solved the problems of food and warmth during the winter. We have the luxury of warm dwellings and stocked pantries. We lighten the long, dark nights with neighbors, singing nowell clearly. We cosy down with the miracle of light and carols of hope. But the danger and struggle is never far off. It is as near as the other side of the window pane.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Snow Birds

Yesterday we had a real snowfall - about 12 inches. Except for snow-blowing the drive and helping a neighbor get a vehicle out of his drive, it was a good day to den up. But the feeders were active and a few photos were required, although the conditions were difficult - dark gray skies, heavy snow falling, and dirty kitchen window to shoot through - I managed a few keepers.

About 15 Blue Jays are regulars at the feeders. Occasionally they will rest/perch in a tree. Only a brief pause for this jay, but the snow was already forming a cap.

The jays often shovel the seeds from the feeders, providing ground feeders with plenty of forage. This one had to excavate the accumulating snow to find seeds. I had cleared the platform less than an hour earlier.

Dark-eyed Junco - the "snow bird" of our region. A flock of about 50 feed through the day.

Only a couple of feet from the house, the female Northern Cardinal posed nicely. I keep trying for a good, crisp photo of the male, but without success. Maybe his uniform red blurs detail, or perhaps he is just too skittish to hold still for a good portrait, or maybe I just haven't figured out how to photograph him - whatever, I have yet to get a picture I am willing to make public. I'll just have to keep trying.

Good birding!

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

First Snow

Saturday night we had our first measurable snow. A wet snow, it clung to the trees, and in Sunday morning's sunlight, gave us a fairyland of white. A passing wisp of air, or wing, or a chickadee landing gently on a branch, sent fluffy packets of white drifting to the ground.

One of our three Northern Cardinal females finds food in a seed head from our garden flowers.

Six Tufted Titmice make regular forays to our feeds, this one taking a sunflower seed from the feeder handing just outside our kitchen window.

Rock Pigeons, or doves, are often used as symbols of love or peace. That appears to be the case with these two as they cuddle up to one another. Truth is quite different. This was a part of a considerable scuffle on the platform as neither of these birds wanted to cede space to the other. The white one in particular did much aggressive wing flapping in the attempt to claim and keep a space on the feeder - as though the others might eat all of the abundance I set out for the birds.

As I write this post, our first real snow storm is underway, with several inches already on the ground. This storm has tracked across the country, with media reports of its intensity, hardships, and the like. Hawaiians take a spontaneous day off to ride, or spectate, the record-sized waves; Vermonters do the same with their skis. In the Green Mountain State, a monstrous snowstorm is a natural blessing.

Depending upon where you are - Good skiing, Good surfing, Patience & caution while shoveling - and of course - Good Birding.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Eurasian Collared-Dove

Over the Thanksgiving Day weekday, the Eurasian Collared-Dove was documented in Vermont for the first time. Homeowners in Norwich near the Connecticut River in central Vermont noticed a large pale dove chasing the Mourning Doves around their feeders. They studied the dove, ID-ed it, then called the Vermont Center for Ecostudies to report the first state record for this species. Their identification has been confirmed and documented.

Since establishing itself in Florida in the mid-1980s, the Eurasian Collared Dove has been expanding its range in the Southeast and has leap-frogged to widely scattered areas of North America. There have been a few reports from Massachusetts and New York, and its presence in Vermont has been anticipated. Last week’s confirmed “arrival” generated a great deal of excitement among Vermont’s birding community and naturalists.

A few years ago, a pale dove with a black collar was reported at a home in Brookline, Vermont, and I briefly hoped that I might be reporting the first state record. After careful study, that “collared” dove proved to be a Ringed Turtle-Dove. Soon after making the ID, I learned that several of these birds had escaped from a breeder who lived nearby. The Ringed Turtle-Dove is a common cagebird known by a variety of names such as Ringed Dove, Ring-necked Dove, Java Dove, Laughing Dove, and Barbary Dove. Because of the many common names, writers often refer to it by its scientific name, Streptopelia risoria, in order to avoid confusion.

Because of their popularity as caged birds, and because they often escape or are released, Ringed Turtle-Doves may be found any where. They may also be easily confused with the Eurasian Collared-Dove which is very similar in appearance, but with a very different life history.

The Eurasian Collared-Dove’s (Streptopelia decaocta) original range is believed to be the Indian sub-continent. During the sixteenth century it expanded through Asia Minor. During the twentieth century it spread through most of Europe, and it is still expanding its range into Russian and the Iberian Peninsula. Colonization seems to occur in jumps of several hundred kilometers, followed by “back-filling.” It reached Britain in the 1950s, bred in 1954, and today lives in Iceland and in Norway above the Arctic Circle.

The scientific name, Streptopelia decaocta, comes from the Greek for “collar” (streptos) and “dove” (peleia). In Greek mythology, Decaocto was an overworked, underpaid servant girl. The gods heard her prayers for help and changed her into a dove so she could escape her misery. The dove’s call still echoes the mournful cries of her former life.

Decaocto escaped her cage in the Bahamas in 1974. Eurasian Collared-Doves were imported to these islands when a supplier was unable to fill an order of Ringed Turtle-Doves. About 50 doves escaped. Within ten years, the population had multiplied to at least 10,000 birds. By the mid-1980s, the Eurasian Collared-Dove made an unassisted move to Florida and rapidly expanded its numbers and range.

For a time, it was thought that the wild population of Ringed Turtle-Doves in southern Florida was suddenly growing. Then ornithologists looked more closely, and realized that a new non-native species had arrived and was spreading. By 2000, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology showed the range of the Eurasian Collared-Dove to include Florida, southern Georgia and Alabama and eastern Louisiana. By 2005, the range extended throughout the southern states and Great Plains as far north as South Dakota, and as far west as southern California.

The Eurasian Collared-Dove has not yet been extensively studied. What studies have been done seem to indicate that it does not have a detrimental effect on native species (although I heard one southerner refer to them as “gray starlings.”) They appear to prefer a niche in the well developed suburbs somewhere between Rock Pigeons in the city and Mourning Doves in the open country. They feed on agricultural grains, leaves, fruits and seeds, and are drawn readily to bird feeders.

The website of Chipper Woods Bird Observatory concludes: “As these birds expand their range in North America, it will be interesting to observe the impact of this introduced species on populations of native birds, and to learn what ecological/geographical barriers finally limit their range expansion. North America has several open niches created when native species like the Passenger Pigeon and the Carolina Parakeet went extinct. Perhaps this dove will utilize part of the niche left vacant with the passing of the Passenger Pigeon and other bird species.”

Up to now, identifying doves and pigeons has been easy for Vermonters. There is the large Rock Pigeon and the much smaller Mourning Dove, with its pointed tail, black spots on the wings, brown appearance and dark eye. You won’t confuse the pigeon with the new arrival , but you might confuse the Mourning Dove. The Eurasian Collared Dove is slightly larger, pale, has a red eye, and a thin black “collar” on the back of its neck. Its tail is broad and blunt, and the undertail coverts are gray. The Eurasian Collared-Dove is a well-established exotic in the Southeast, and is likely to expand to the Northeast. The Ringed Turtle-Dove can look almost exactly the same, except its undertail coverts are white. If it shows up, it will be an escapee.

With Ringed Turtle-Doves often escaping, and Eurasian Collared-Doves rapidly expanding, either could show up at a bird feeder. All the sources I consulted caution about how easily the two can be confused. So ... if you see a dove with a black collar on the back of its neck, you’ll know that you have either a Ringed Turtle-Dove or a Eurasian Collared-Dove. Then you’ll have the fun of figuring out which one - an exercise that always makes for interesting birding!

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

A Miscellany from the Rio Grande

I think this miscellany will wrap up (for now) my postings from our trip to southern Texas and the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival.

from Laguna Atascosa NWR - Great Blue Heron (Willet in background) ...

from South Padre Island WBC - Tricolored Heron ...

... and Caspian Tern ...

from the waters off Port Isabel - Brown Pelicans in formation ...

from City Lake in Harlingen - Double-crested Cormorant ...

... and an American Coot telling you, "That's the tail end" ... at least for now.

Good Birding!


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