Monday, March 29, 2010


In my column posted Saturday, I said that one of my favorite birds seen on Trinidad is the Bananaquit. Here are a few additional images.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Asa Wright Nature Centre

I have seen lots of new birds this month, birds that I have never seen before. But I am not adding them to my life list because they were outside of the United States. I have decided that I do not want to be a world birder. North America is enough of a venue for listing and occasional chasing. I have reached the point in my life where I do not need to see all of life’s variety and beauty, but what I do see, I want to enjoy and appreciate.

That’s what I did during the week I spent at the Asa Wright Nature Centre in the mountains of Trinidad, West Indies. Much of my time was spent on the open veranda looking down on the Centre’s array of bird feeders, scanning the canopy of the tropical rain forest, and checking the dead snags for a passing raptor, toucan, or parrot. Often I had to put down my binoculars or camera and lean back in order to focus my eyes on a hummingbird or honeycreeper that was drinking from one of the hummingbird feeders hanging from the wide eaves. These small birds were so close that I could have reached out my arm and touched them.

The birds were wary, but generally unconcerned by the close proximity of people. Some, like the ever-present Palm Tanager, flew through the open veranda, even venturing into the living room and down the hall of the big house.

The White-necked Jacobin, a hummingbird about a third bigger than our Ruby-throated Hummingbird, was more concerned about patrolling his territory and protecting his feeder from other males of his species than he was about the human presence three feet from his favorite feeder. He had a lot of patrolling and protecting to do, and in spite of his hummingbird truculence, he was not equal to the task. Matures males, immature males, and females paused on branches, drank from the feeders, and visited blossom after blossom. There was so much activity that I never did figure out which male thought the territory was his, and his alone.

The Jacobin seemed to limit his territorial concern to others of his species. Not so the smaller Copper-rumped Hummingbird (about Ruby-throated size). He chased everything, from the diminutive Crested Coquette (the second smallest bird in the world) to the larger White-chested Emerald and Blue-chinned Sapphire. These latter names, by the way, capture the iridescence that flashes when these birds are in the sunlight the way a fine jewel might reflect that same sunlight.

As captivating as the hummingbirds may have been, they were not the only performers on the stage. There were seven species of tanagers that worked the feeders or fed in the tree tops. Some - like the Silver-beaked Tanager with its brilliant silver beak and deep crimson plumage or the yellow, deep blue, and turquoise of the Turquoise Tanager - were simply breathtaking.

There were two species of mannakins - dumpy little birds that are known for their elaborate dances and courtship display. The Yellow-headed Mannakin concludes his courtship song with a Michael Jackson type of backward shuffle along a branch. He takes time to feed, but most of his day he spends in a lek with other males, perpetually singing and shuffling in demonstration of his superior qualities. We watched him feed from the veranda, and later watched him dance on his lek.

Then there were the trails. Wandering through several hundred acres of mountainous tropical forest, any moment might bring a movement, a blossom, a butterfly, a scurry, or a new call.

For over forty years, the Asa Wright Nature Centre (a not-for-profit NGO) has supported research, conservation, and education. The most visible portion is the former coffee and cocoa plantation house which is the visitors’ center and lodge and which provides most of the financial support for the organization. The Centre was doing eco-tourism long before the term came into general use.

We talked with friends and did internet research before deciding on Trinidad. Trinidad, just off the Venezuela coast, relies on oil and gas for its economy; it has not developed a Caribbean tourist industry, except for the Asa Wright Nature Centre which attracts mainly birders from around the world. As birdy as the Centre is, we met several couples with a non-birding spouse who was enraptured with the veranda entertainment.

Accommodations were not luxurious, but they were very comfortable and spotlessly clean.  Food at the Centre reflects the many cultures which contribute to modern Trinidad - Amerindian, Indian, French, creole. In the best British tradition, tea is served at 4pm, and from the West Indian tradition, rum punch is served at 6pm. Both are evidence that pockets of civilization still persist.

Many organized bird tours come to Asa Wright, often in combination with Tobago. We wanted a more relaxed experience and decided to visit as independent travelers, setting our own schedule. The Centre has its own staff of guides; we had two small-group guided walks on the grounds. There was always a guide/naturalist on the veranda to help with identifications and answer questions. The local guides, from an extended family of Indian origin, have a well-deserved world reputation for their knowledge of Trinidad’s birds and for their ability to find the birds that birders want to see. On two occasions we hired a local guide for trips to different habitats in the lowlands, including the Caroni Marsh where thousands of Scarlet Ibis turn the evening sky red as they come to their night roost.

This year’s winter birds on my backyard feeders have been loyal patrons, but like the Dark-eyed Junco, they have been mostly colorless, varying only in degrees of gray. So it was a delight to watch brightly colored birds, like the Purple Honeycreeper with the male’s rich, deep blue plumage, or the Green Honeycreeper with the male’s brilliant turquoise green body and bold black mask. The females of both species are stunningly beautiful in their own right with bright, warm, green plumage.

Of the thirty to forty birds which we watched just from the veranda, my favorite was the Bananaquit. It was also one of the most common. It has a shape similar to our Red-breasted Nuthatch, but at four inches, it is even smaller. It has a dark back and head with white spots and a white eye line, a gray throat, and a brilliant yellow breast. On the hummingbird feeders, it drank the sugar water and clung to the rim upside down as it gleaned insects. It fed on the bread and over ripe fruit on the platform feeders, and took nectar from flower cluster after flower cluster. It seldom gave ground to a larger bird, but occasionally mixed it up with another of its species. It was a captivating little bird.

Indeed, the whole show at Asa Wright was captivating. Except for the tick bites I collected, it was a delightful week.

And now ... I’m home and ready for the season of great birding.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Additional Trinidad Birds

Here are five photos of five Trinidad birds, which I am posting because of the "unusual" nature of the birds, at least unusual compared to what I usually see around home. The photos themselves are not of the quality that I would like, but I think they will convey something of the avian diversity I on the island.

First, the most beautiful, and unusually colored, woodpecker that I have ever seen - the Chestnut Woodpecker. The drumming of this bird was heard all day from the veranda. I finally found it in the late afternoon working on some bamboo not far from the trail. I managed a few shots before it disappeared. I did not hear or see it during the remaining four days of our stay at Asa Wright ....

The Boat-billed Flycatcher looks like a Great Kiskadee (common on Trinidad) which has pumped up its beak and body with steroids ...

Antshrikes are a group of birds that are new to me. The two I saw were ground feeders, and secretive - tough to see - tougher to photograph. This male Great Antshrike was sort of cooperative ...

From the veranda we saw parrots fly over quite often, and occasionally pause in a tree top. The close pauses were reported to me. A more distant pause occurred the first morning on a  snag. Two Blue-headed Parrots are on the left, An Orange-winged Amazon is on right ...

... and finally, Trinidad's only toucan, the Channel-billed Toucan. The parrots left, to be replaced by the toucan on our first morning. Other times when this bird showed itself, it was much moreore distant. Once it chose a near-by branch but was back lit (alas).Still, toucans somehow seem like  symbols of the tropical rain forest, and I am glad I had a few opportunities to nod toward the icon.

Good birding!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Icterids in Trinidad

I have been working through my photographs from Trinidad since returning home Friday. As I get a handle of the hundreds of pictures, I will post additional ones. Here are a few samples of blackbirds (Icteridae) which we saw during our trip.

First, the Crested Oropendola (Psarocolius decumanus insularis) - This bird was a common visitor to the feeders at Asa Wright Nature Center.

Common in the forests through much of South America, this crow sized Icterid exhibited a personality which reminded me of the Blue Jays around my home and feeders - noisy, wary, swooping in to one tree, then another, then a bush, then a feeder - taking food quickly, but never lingering long.

The bright yellow tail probably gives the bird part of its name (oro - gold), while the rest of its name (I surmise) comes from its pendulous nests which it weaves high in the forest canopy in colonies with other pairs. The tail is especially prominent when it flies. This is the best, and sharpest, photo I managed in hundreds of attempts to capture the tail's brilliance as the bird flew quickly.

Also from the veranda of Asa Wright, I captured this Yellow Oriole (Icterus nigrogularis trinitatis)

I returned from this trip curious about the relationship between many birds, both on the island of Trinidad and familiar to me in North America. As I have been sorting photographs, I have also been referring to scientific names - and taxonomic tables - in order to get a better grasp on how closely related different birds are. The Yellow Oriole, for example, shares its Genus with the Baltimore Oriole and Orchard Oriole familiar in the Northeast, as might be apparent in the size and shape.

But size and shape can be deceiving. The Red-breasted Blackbird (Sturnella miliaris) is very similar in size and shape to the Red-winged Blackbird ((Agelaius phoeniceus), but not as closely related as the orioles just mentioned, as the Genus names indicate.

The Red-breasted Blackbird, seen near the agricultural station in a savannah of mixed grasslands and wet areas, was one of the most stunning birds which we saw while on Trinidad.

Other blackbirds (Icterids) which we saw were the Yellow-rumped Cacique (Cacicus cela) for which I have no decent pictures - the Shiny Cowbird (Molothrus bonariensis), much fewer in number and marginally more attractive than the Brown-headed Cowbird - and the Carib Grackle (Quiscalus lugubris), which looked like a grackle.

Around my home, the crocus are blooming where the snow has melted; the snow drops are blossoming even before the snow has completely melted; the roads are a muddy quagmire, and the yard is littered with winter's detritus of flower canes, tree branches, road grit,, sunflower shells and who knows what else. It  would all be a miserable mess but for one thing - it is Spring! - and my neighborhood is rushing to life!

Good birding!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Recovery of the Wild Turkey

A huge dark lump was on a branch of the cottonwood across the river. As I wiped the morning blur from my eyes, it launched itself with stubby wings beating. Barely in defiance of gravity, it coasted to my side of the river. Just over the bank, out of sight, but somewhere beneath the willow, it landed.

“Turkey,” I announced to the somnolent household. I continued watching through the kitchen window, hoping for another glimpse. Instead, from across the river I saw more brown lumps on a downward arc - coming from the pine trees where they had roosted during the night - to the old farm field and orchard. I counted fifteen.

From the spruce behind my neighbor’s several more came down with a flight pattern that seemed to say, “Trust me, I really am in control.” They joined the first bird, over the bank and out of sight. I watched, hoping they might wander up to where I could have a better look - come around and clean up under the feeders. They did not.

I pulled boots on, grabbed my camera, and silently opened the door. With all the stealth that a city-bred person can muster, I stalked toward the edge of the bank. I saw a dozen heads erect, on long necks. They were watching for me ... wary. I took a half step and raised my camera. They flew - with a roar of beating wings, with a quickness and agility which belied the barely controlled plunges I had seen earlier. My camera recorded only dark blurs as they disappeared across the river.

My backyard experience is not unique. I receive regular reports during the winter from people mesmerized by flocks of turkeys visiting their yards. It is a relatively new phenomenon, and one which we came close to losing forever.

Turkeys are native only to the Western Hemisphere. There are two species - our widely distributed North American Wild Turkey (with six recognized sub-species), and the Ocellated Turkey of the subtropical lowlands of the Yucatan Peninsula.

The Wild Turkey is our largest North American game bird, and one of only two domesticated birds originating in the Western Hemisphere. The Muscovy Duck is the other.

The turkey was domesticated by Native Americans in Mexico and southwestern United States. The earliest archaeological evidence for its domestication appears in Mayan sites dating to around 100 BC to 100 AD. Pueblo societies in the American southwest imported turkeys from Mexico about 300 AD. Turkey husbandry grew rapidly in the southwest beginning around 1100 AD.  In the early sixteenth century, Spanish conquistadors took turkeys to Spain. From there, they spread throughout Europe. By 1524, domesticated turkeys were being raised in England. English settlers then brought domesticated turkeys back to America.

The burgeoning population of the English colonists demanded food. The need outstripped what they could provide for themselves, and so they hunted. In New England, turkeys were abundant, and tasty, and they were heavily hunted. Relentless hunting and elimination of much of their forested habitat resulted in the Wild Turkey disappearing from much of its original range, especially in the northern and northeastern parts of the U.S.

Forbush describes their retreat: “Shooting and trapping the birds at all times soon had its inevitable effect, and the Turkey rapidly retired before the advance of settlement, and soon it could be found only in the wildest parts of the country. In Massachusetts Turkeys were most numerous in the oak and chestnut woods, for there they found most food. They were so plentiful in the hills bordering the Connecticut Valley that in 1711 they were sold in Hartford at one shilling four pence each, and in 1717 they were sold in Northampton, Mass., at the same price. In the last part of the eighteenth century most of the Wild Turkeys had been driven west of the Connecticut River.”

The last turkey on Mt. Tom was reported (and shot) in 1851; a few may have remained on Mt. Holyoke at that date. “Since then the Wild Turkey has disappeared from Canada and from most of the Atlantic seaboard, although a few are still to be found in Virginia and other Southern States, and it is still common in some western localities.”

Forbush concludes his account: “its great size and beauty contribute to make it, to my mind, the noblest game bird in the world. It is destined to vanish from the earth unless our people begin at once to protect it.”

The quotes are all from Birds of Massachusetts, 1929. A turnaround for the Wild Turkey began in 1937 when Congress passed the “Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act.” Lobbied for and supported by hunters, this act placed taxes on firearms, ammunition, and other hunting equipment and designated that the funds raised be used for conservation and wildlife habitat enhancement programs. From fewer than 30,000 Wild Turkeys in the late 1930s, the population today is estimated at nearly 7 million. There are huntable populations in all of the lower forty-eight states and in parts of Canada and Mexico.

I am not a hunter. Hunting was not a part of the urban culture in which I grew up. But I am grateful to hunters and sportsmen. Many of the places I go and experiences I enjoy in the out-of-doors are possible because of the fees, licenses, and taxes they have paid, and the attention they have given to conservation, habitat, and environmental health. Turkeys wandering our fields and woods are but one of those benefits we enjoy as a result of their efforts. Conservation organizations, wildlife agencies, sportsmen, hunters, hikers, naturalists and bird watchers probably have more goals in common than they have differences.

School children may think nothing of seeing a dozen turkeys cross the road and disappear into the forest. They may be unmoved by thirty turkeys feeding beneath a feeder. It may be no surprise to them to happen upon a turkey hen racing through the grasses and brush with a dozen poults behind her. But to those of us who are more mature, these are wonders! We never saw flocks of turkeys when we were young. Only in the last couple of decades has it become more possible to happen upon such sights and they are still not in the every day occurrence category.

Good birding!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

from Trinidad, 3

A third sampling from our stay at Asa Wright Nature Center, Trinidad.

Amazonian White-tailed Trogon ...

Purple Honeycreeper (male) ...

Purple Honeycreeper (female) ...

Green Honeycreeper (female) ...

Cocoa Thrush ...

Good birding!!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

from Trinidad, 2

A few additional samples from our stay at Asa Wright Nature Center, Trinidad.

Violaceous Euphonia ...

Copper-rumped Hummingbird

Golden-headed Mannikin ...

Plain-brown Woodcreeper ...

Good birding!!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

from Trinidad, 1

Favorite companion and I are in Trinidad (poor us) with snow a distant memory. We are at the Asa Wright Nature Center - wonderful experience is so many ways. Details when we return. For now, just a few first samples ...

... beginning with the iconic bird of Trinidad & Tobago, the Scarlet Ibis ...

... Southern Lapwing ...

... Green Honeycreeper (male) ...

... Bearded Bellbird (one of the oddest birds I have seen - with one of the most persistent territorial call) ...

... and one of many hummingbird species, some of which I have been able to photograph, White-necked Jacobin ...

Good birding!! (a bit of an understatement).

Saturday, March 13, 2010

More on the Black-capped Chickadee

Early last week when I finished my column on the Black-capped Chickadee and hit the send button, I then went outside to check the mail. From the top of a tree somewhere nearby, I heard a sweet and plaintive, “pheee-be, pheee-be.” The high-pitched notes were answered by “pheee-be-be, pheee-be-be.” The chickadee was singing, “Spring’s come ... Spring has come.”

When we begin to hear the chickadee’s “phe-be” in early spring, it is like hearing an overture to a great natural musical revue, a concert which will go on for months as dozens of species sing for their mates.

Our Black-capped Chickadee is a songbird. When it sings - most frequently in the spring and summer - it sings this simple “phe-be” phrase. The song sounds very similar to the repetitive “phoe-be” of the Eastern Phoebe; the phoebe’s “phoe-be” is more explosive, not as sweet or high-pitched, and repeated over and over and over. The phoebe usually does not return to our neighborhoods in southeastern Vermont until very late March or early April. Most of my home records first list it during the first week in April.

Bird songs are closely connected with the breeding season. A male claims his territory and sings. His song is intended to impress the females, to warn other males away from his territory, and perhaps to draw predator attention to himself and away from the vulnerable female who is incubating or tending young. Later in the summer, songbird singing is more difficult to explain; then the young males are learning their songs.

Beginning with the very early North American naturalists, there have been some who have wondered if the chickadee’s song really constitutes a true song intended to serenade a lady love. Bent’s “Life History” cites a late nineteenth century observer who rose before dawn to watch a chickadee excavating a nest in an old apple tree: There sat the chickadee, “within a few feet of his apple-branch door, throwing back his head in the truest lyrical fashion, and calling Hear, hear me, with only a breathing space between the repetitions of the phrase. He was as plainly singing, and as completely absorbed in his work, as any thrasher or hermit thrust could have been. Heretofore I had not realized that these whistled notes were so strictly a song, and as such set apart from all the rest of the chickadee’s repertory of sweet sounds; and I was delighted to find my tiny pet recognizing thus unmistakably the difference between prose and poetry.”

That being said, the courtship rituals of our Black-capped Chickadee are very limited. Though often overlooked in our casual observations, many species have very precise rituals for attracting a mate. The Red-winged Blackbird flashes his bright red epaulets as he “sings” atop the reeds. Grackles spread their tails and flair their wings on tree branches. Brown-headed Cowbirds strut with their heads held high. Evening Grosbeaks crouch on the ground with tail spread and wings fluttering. Jays and cardinals often feed their mates. This is just the briefest sampling of courtship rituals.

The chickadee courtship ritual consists of the male chasing the female. I have stood in my backyard in early April and watched four or five chickadees in loud and noisy pursuit. I presumed there were males pursuing females, males trying to chase off rival males, males and females grabbing a quickie, and who knows what else.

Here is a description from Bent: “the birds grow agitated late in March and increase their vivacity during April and early in May. They hurry between aisles of trees and swerve over bypaths, and males dart at and even clasp one another. Then they part, and the more dominant male pursues and chases a female over brush piles and even to the ground. Then up they arise and hurry onward. A few such days of immoderate activity, and their nuptial rites seem completed.”

Forbush described the male Black-capped Chickadee as a “devoted father, assisting his mate in all the tasks of home-building, incubation and the raising of their offspring; and the birds exhibit a tender affection and constant solicitude for the care of their eggs and young.” Forbush was describing what scientist now term “social monogamy,” where a pair cooperates closely in the whole process of raising young.

But what Bent described as chickadee courtship, and what I see as I watch the wild chases that go on in my backyard, is not the prelude to a genetically monogamous relationship. The males are pursuing as many opportunities as possible to scatter their genes as widely as possible. The females, for their part, are welcoming as many opportunities as possible to gather as much genetic diversity among their offspring as possible. Gosh, it’s entertaining.

Eventually a socially monogamous pair will raise a brood whose individual parentage is diverse and can only be deciphered by DNA analysis.

Somewhere in the midst of the courtship chases, a socially monogamous pair excavates a nest hole, or takes over a nest box, or old woodpecker hole, and prepares their nest. Cottony vegetable fibers, hairs, wool, mosses, feathers, insect cocoons - all go into the building of a soft and cozy nest. Anything with fur may contribute hair to the Chickadee’s nest. This time of year when you clean the dust bunnies from under your bed, or brush your dog or cat, scatter the results outdoors. Chickadees, and other birds, may gather it for nest materials. A friend once told me about his old dog napping on the sunny lawn in late April. A chickadee landed on its back, picked out a loose clump of fur, and flew off. The dog never stirred.

Forbush offers this summary of our chickadee: “The little Black-capped Chickadee is the embodiment of cheerfulness, verve and courage. It can boast no elegant plumes, and it makes no claims as a songster, yet this blithe woodland sprite is a distinctive character, and is a bird masterpiece beyond all praise.”

No argument there. With the chickadees in our woods and neighborhoods, we are assured of good birding.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

A Red-winged Blackbird (no photo) returned on time and on schedule this morning - always on the 8th of March, plus or minus a few days. (One was here on the big snow on Feb 24, but he doesn't count.)

Also - male Purple Finch on the feeder throughout the day - welcome back!

Up Augur Hole Road, we saw the beaver about 3pm swimming up his new pond. See previous post for his work on the dam and gnawing on the tree - overnight work was noticeably obvious on both, but no new photos.

And finally ... just because ...

Monday, March 08, 2010

Feel of Spring

Saturday we drove south into Massachusetts for some shopping. Snow was almost completely absent. But not in our yard in South Newfane. We still have a 2foot snow cover, but with temperatures this weekend around 50, it is beginning to retreat. The old schoolhouse at the corner is still fenced with snow (metal roofs shed the snow, but create huge piles next to a building).

Walking Saturday and Sunday we were able to see a new dam under construction by the neighborhood beavers, as well as their handiwork on some trees down river from the dam.

But the surest feel of Spring, is the return of the summer birds. We help raise a couple of Evening Grosbeak families each year. Four or five grosbeaks have been making regular visits the past week, as opposed to the quick forays through the winter.

This gentleman is attired in the splendor and finery that would have befitted a courtier in service to Henry VIII in the 16th century. But notice that he is silhouetted against blue sky - something we have seen little of in the last few months. Ah Spring!


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