Thursday, June 30, 2011

Mourning Dove

Common ... often overlooked ... food for Sharpies and Coopers, and who knows what else ... and when we have the time to stop and look ... beautiful.

No wonder the dove is a symbol of peace ...

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Tufted Titmouse - tuftless

The Tufted Titmouse gets its common name from its "tuft" - or crest, which is prominently displayed on this exited bird.

But often it keeps its crest lowered, or, as in the following photo, has no tuft. It looks like it has just come from a mad barber who administered a buzz-cut, but more likely it is in mid-molt ...

Good birding!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Elf of the Tree Trunks

Distantly I heard the ethereal, flute-like song of the Hermit Thrush and started in pursuit. The old forest lane breached a stone wall, a silent, moss-covered reminder that once this gentle hill top served different purposes. But that was long ago. Now it was all pine forest. Many years ago, 75 to 100 judging by their size, agriculture had been abandoned, and (perhaps with some human help) the forest had returned. Now red pines reached straight and tall. The dense green needle canopy overhead shaded the soft brown needle strewn ground.

Brown Creeper
I paused waiting for the thrush to sing again. In the quiet created by the still lifting fog of that early morning, I heard only the distant call of a Blue Jay, insects buzzing about my head, and a high, thin “sreeee.” The thrush was still silent, so I listened again to the “sreee.” At a different angle there was another “sreee.” Then another. It was still early morning, and my own mental fog had scarcely been chased off by coffee libations, but the repeated “sreee” finally penetrated. I turned my back on the silent thrush to look for the elusive little elf of the tree trunks, for I was quite certain that I was hearing the Brown Creeper.

The Brown Creeper winters in our region, and winter is when I usually manage to see it as it travels with mixed flocks of other wintering birds - flocks which may include chickadees, nuthatches, Downy Woodpeckers, or Golden-crowned Kinglets. But one could hardly call the Brown Creeper a gregarious or social bird, certainly not the way chickadees are. While other birds are busy and noisy, the Brown Creeper creeps silently up a tree trunk, searching for the food overlooked by the hasty habits of the others.

Brown Creeper
It is this quiet habit of climbing tree trunks that makes the Brown Creeper so difficult to see. Its mottled brown back blends into its background - usually the mottled bark of a tree trunk. Where other birds chatter and call in agitation when danger presents itself, the Brown Creeper opens its wings and stays perfectly still, becoming one with its tree, a mere bump on the upright log.

The high, thin “sreee” which caught my attention on this early summer morning sounds very much like the call of the Golden-crowned Kinglet. My rule of thumb is that a calling kinglet which remains unseen is a Brown Creeper.

The Brown Creeper climbs a tree, often spiraling around the trunk until it nears the top. Then he gives the bird watcher hoping to watch him a brief opportunity as he flutters to the bottom of another tree and begins to climb again. If he has happened to flutter to a nearby tree - rather than going deeper into the woods - and has landed on the facing side of the trunk, the bird watcher then has the opportunity to watch him “hitching his near-sighted way up a tree” (as Forbush put it).

But on this early summer morning in the open mature pine forest, I was hearing more than one Brown Creeper calling. And to my surprise I did not have to search long and patiently in order to locate the bird. In fact, I had the Brown Creeper in the plural. When I first put my binoculars on the tree where one had fluttered, I soon had a second one creeping upward in its “hitching way.”

Brown Creeper carrying food
One of the birds was carrying a bug in its thin, curved beak. Up one tree, and then another, and still it carried its bug. A third bird flew into view. A fourth called from my right, and I sensed there was at least one more hanging around. So many creepers in one place and so observable! Clearly, I had come upon one of two situations. Either there was courtship and pairing going on, or this was a family of parents and recently fledged young. I continued to watch.

Again, I saw food being carried, as though a parent was trying to give a visual example to a youngster, or that a youngster had found food and did not know what to do with it. Continually I sensed uncertainty in the creepers I was watching.

Young Brown Creepers are adept climbers as soon as they leave the nest; their flight skills take more time to be mastered. The birds I watched were adept climbers, but it seemed as though they did not know what they were supposed to be doing as they climbed - flutter to a tree - climb - flutter to another tree - climb - flutter - climb. Hey guys! You’re supposed to find weevils, beetles, insect eggs and pupae and eat them! I am sure there was lots of such food available to them, because there was plenty of insect food feeding on me.

A week later I was back on the wooded hilltop, but in another section of the mature pine forest. This time it was my intention to chase down the Hermit Thrush and maybe follow it to a nest or young. But again, the high thin “sreee” distracted me from my pursuit. The Brown Creeper, so elusive on so many birding forays, was busily creeping up the trunks of the straight red pines. I watched as two birds went up a tree; they seemed more sure of what they were about.

I followed one of the birds as it crept upward. Not once did it back down, the way a woodpecker might. It never descended head-first in the manner of a nuthatch. Observers who have seen a rare head-first descent describe it as awkward and ill-considered. The Brown Creeper is adapted to upward creeping; its long tail braces it as it climbs. Occasionally the one I followed ventured onto a branch, but returned soon to the more comfortable trunk.

Brown Creeper entering its nest
I watched a second creeper climbing a dead pine snag. Then it disappeared behind a behind a piece of loose bark. I was sure that behind the bark was hidden a shallow cup of twigs, moss and leaves. That is where the Brown Creeper hides its nest and raises its brood of 5 to 8 young. I continued watching as the creeper crept upward with a bug in its beak, disappear behind the bark, then reappear. It had fed young in its nest.

As I watched the Brown Creeper, the Hermit Thrush sang his other worldly song all around me. I’ll go looking for him another day. The elf of the tree trunks had captured my attention for the second time in a week.

Good Birding!

Friday, June 24, 2011

Yellow Warbler - a piece of the sun

With the lack of sunshine in recent days, I turned to recent photos for the color that has been absent, and found the Yellow Warbler - and a piece of the sun ...

Good birding!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Shrub & Edge

From the shrubby edge and trees around the Hinsdale setback wetlands ...

Yellow Warbler

Willow Flycatcher - the "fitz-bew" bird

Warbling Vireo
Good birding!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Convergent Evolution

Bird #1
Bird Number 1: Sitting by my river, I watched him working the opposite bank, teetering and bobbing as he went from stone to stone. He is a brownish bird, with a white breast and prominent dark spots on his breast. He is seldom found far from water, but it can be a river bank, a tiny creek, a lake, or a muddy pond. I remember seeing him one time when I was walking a friend’s farm in Pennsylvania. He stood ankle deep in a muddy puddle surrounded by dense brush and shaded by the forest canopy, bobbing his tail with each step. The one I was watching from my chair by the river suddenly took flight, his “peet-weet, peet-weet” giving me the signal to follow as he flew upstream to the next big rock where bowed repeatedly in my direction.

Bird #2
Bird Number 2 bobs and teeters, just like Bird Number 1. Bird Number 2 is larger than Bird Number 1: 8.5 inches verses 7:5 inches. Instead of the prominent spots, Bird Number 2 has a faint brown band around the neck and a white breast. It also is a bobber and teeterer. Both of these birds are tail waggers. The tail moves busily up and down as these birds perform their bowing gait. I see Bird Number 2 in puddles and ponds during May. It only stops in our neighborhoods very briefly before continuing its migration to the northern reaches of our continent to breed.

Bird #3
I saw Bird Number 3 was on the edge of a beaver pond in Stratton town. At 6 inches, this bird is smaller than the other two. But, it looked remarkably similar. Its back was dark olive-brown, its breast streaked and its sides buffy. The stripe above its eye was also buffy. The source of its folkname is obvious as I watched it move along a prone log: this was the “water wagtail.” However, the difference between this bird and the first two is most apparent when it sings: a loud, ringing, “twit twit twit sweet sweet sweet chew chew chew” carries through the forest, rivaling the winter wren for the power and clarity of its song.

Bird #4
Bird Number 4 is a Vermont breeding bird, like Number 1 and 3. In our neighborhoods it likes flowing streams, leaving the standing or sluggish waters to Bird Number 3. Bird Number 4 is almost identical to the Bird Number 3, except the sides and the eye stripe are whiter. Like the previous birds it wags its tail incessantly as it walks along the damp stream edges. Its folk names is also “water wagtail.” When he finds a singing perch he lets loose with three clear slurred whistles and a jumble of twittering notes.

So what are these four similar looking birds who have similar habits (tail wagging and bobbing), and very similar habitats?

Bird #2 - Spotted Sandpiper
Birds 1 and 2 are sandpipers, the Spotted Sandpiper and Solitary Sandpiper, respectively. They belong to the order, Charadriiformes, which includes the sandpipers, plovers, phalaropes, gulls, terns, alcids, and other birds closely associated with the water.

Birds 3 and 4 are waterthrushes - the Northern Waterthrush and Louisiana Waterthrush, respectively. They belong to the order “Passeriformes” - the perching birds. If you are able to watch either waterthrush for a period of time, you may occasionally see him leave the downed log or the damp pondside and sing his resounding, musical notes while perching on a low tree branch.

Bird #4 - Louisiana Waterthrush (J.J.Audubon)
Given their appearance, you might then conclude that the Northern and Louisiana Waterthrushes are related to the other thrushes, like the Wood Thrush or Hermit Thrush. Their names certainly suggest such a relationship. Alas, that is not the case. They are wood warblers, disguised as thrushes and with an extreme fondness for water, like sandpipers.

Confused? Don’t be. Classifying species is an art form masquerading as science, although in fairness to the biologists who try to do the classifying, DNA testing is making species classification much more scientific that it use to be.

Though not related, these two sandpipers and two waterthrushes occupy similar habitat, have similar habits, and are similar in appearance. “Convergent evolution” is the term used when unrelated species have, through time, come to look alike, think alike, and live alike.

In a very broad sense, the development of the forearm into a wing in bats and birds is an example of convergent evolution. In the Northern Hemisphere there is the auk family (e.g. Atlantic Puffin) while in the Southern Hemisphere there are the penguins with a similar life style and similar habitats - another example of convergent evolution.

Along our streamsides and ponds we may be able to see convergent evolution up close in the resident Spotted Sandpiper and the transient Solitary Sandpiper, and in the warblers which don’t look like warblers: Northern Waterthrush and Louisiana Waterthrush.

Bird #3 - Northern Waterthrush (Belize)
Edward Forbush, the early twentieth century Massachusetts ornithologist, provides this description of the northern waterthrush: “Watch him now, and see how prettily he walks, rustling among the fallen leaves where he threads his way like a mouse, or wading even up to his knees in the shallow miniature lakes, like a Sandpiper by the sea-shore, all intent in quest of the aquatic insects, worms, and tiny molluscs and crustaceans that form his varied food. But as he rambles on in this gliding course, the mincing steps are constantly arrested, and the dainty stroller poises in a curious way to see-saw on his legs, quite like a Spotted Sandpiper.”

Bird #1 - Spotted Sandpiper (non-breeding)
But lest we think that the Northern Waterthrush and Spotted Sandpiper are just imitations of one another, Forbush writes about the latter: “The Spotted Sandpiper swims and dives readily. It can dive from the surface of the water or from full flight, at need. Under water it progresses by using its wings, which it spreads quite widely, and in shallow water it can go to the bottom and run a short distance with head held low and tail raised like a Water Ouzel or Dipper.”  Spotty and the American Dipper is yet another example of convergent evolution.

Learning about the habits and relationships of the birds can be very illuminating. Watch the closely and see what you notice. Start with the birds at your feeders. Good Birding!

Thursday, June 16, 2011


This morning I went to the Green Mountains to a management area and did not find the Lincoln's Sparrow that was nesting last year, nor did I hear the towhee as I did last year.

Next I returned to the remote spot where I had gone chasing for a Canada Warbler photo op a week ago. Save for a very brief glimpse, I came up empty. No good looks. No photos.

But serendipity was with me. When I first approached the brushy area by the beaver dam, a bird landed on the dam 20 feet in front of me. The birding gods had smiled! ... a Blackburnian Warbler was gathering tasty caterpillars for his nestlings!!

Swainson's Thrush were singing in the forest around me, and I also came home with my first North American photos of this thrush (I had photos of Swainson's in Belize in March).

So I missed my target species for the morning. So what! I had good birding!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Thompson's Beach

Thompson's Beach, near Heislerville in southern New Jersey, provides good opportunities for many coastal wetland birds - e.g. rails, shorebirds at low tide.

Often it is also a place of splendid solitude and quiet, interrupted only by the irrepressible marsh rascal ...

Marsh Wren

Marsh Wren
 Barn Swallows swirled about in courtship ritual ...

Barn Swallow
 This gentleman's mate was incubating on a nearby nest platform. I photographed him last year with a partially consumed fish in his talons, and again this year - a sign that he will again provide well for his young when they hatch ...


Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Hot-Pink Sandpiper

Last week I left you hanging when I concluded with a report of a hot-pink breasted sandpiper which I saw at the Heislerville Wildlife Management Area along the Delaware Bay coast in southern New Jersey.

I was driving slowly along Matt’s Landing Road. A few lone peeps and plovers were feeding on the mud flats close to the road. A spot of color caught my attention. Even from the car, and without binoculars, I could see a small shorebird with a hot-pink breast. I pulled to the side and scrambled out of the car with camera in hand.

By the time I had taken my photographs of this hot-pink breasted sandpiper, I knew what it was. But I did not know the full story until I was back home processing my photographs and had done some internet research.

There was a time in my early bird watching career when I would have been super excited at finding some super rare bird with a hot-pink breast. I would have hurried to my books and scoured them for a sandpiper with a pink breast, and may even have tried to bend the guidebook so that it would conform with what I had seen. The temptation to make the evidence fit the conclusion is always seductive. Even the best birders and best scientists are occasionally seduced; I am not the best in either category and it certainly happens to me.

Semipalmated Sandpiper
But not this time. Everything about the bird - its size, its shape, its behavior - said Semipalmated Sandpiper, one of our smallest, and most common, peeps. Peeps are the small sandpipers which are so named because they vocalize with what is generalized as “peep.”

As I climbed back into the car, I concluded that this Semipalmated Sandpiper had acquired its hot-pink breast from researchers who were studying and tracking migrating shorebirds. Its breast had been dyed hot-pink to help in spotting the bird among the thousands of other birds with which it was traveling.

At home I processed my photographs which consists primarily of cropping in order to improve composure or to provide an enlargement of the subject. It was then that I noticed the leg bands. On the left leg there was a conventional aluminum band. The aluminum band contained a unique numeric code. The master data base for bird banding is maintained by the United States Geological Survey. When a bird is first banded, banding data is reported to the USGS, including where and when the bird was banded and who banded it. (A federal license is required.) When a bird is banded, it is also examined to determine weight, health, sex, age, and size. If the same bird is recaught by a licensed bird bander, the same information is gathered again and reported. Bands are also recovered from birds that have had fatal encounters with radio towers, windows, hunters, and your sweet house cat. Collectively, the information gathered from bird banding yields data about migration patterns, how long birds live, environmental stresses, and much more.

One document I found reported 690,000 non-game birds banded and about 8,000 recovered. That’s a 1.2% recovery rate. The smaller the birds, the lower the recovery rate. With vireos and warblers, 131,000 birds were banded; 89 were recovered. That about 6/100ths of 1%. The recovery rate for shorebirds is about 1%: 16,000 banded, 136 recovered.

The difficulty with conventional banding is that the bird must be physically captured (renetted) or recovered (e.g., found dead). Researchers look for alternate ways of gathering information without having to rely on physically holding the bird in their hands.

Semipalmated Sandpiper - green leg flag "E6N"
The hot-pink dye on the breast of the Semipalmated Sandpiper is one of those ways. The bird stands out in a crowd. A bird watcher scanning a flock of sandpipers will notice one sporting the hot color.

When I was processing my photos of the Semipalmated Sandpiper, I noticed a second band. It was a light green flag on the right leg with a three character code which I could read: “E6N.” I made some inquiries and learned of two places where the flag could be reported:

Shorebird Resighting Information:

USGS Reporting Encounter of Marked Bird:

I also emailed my sighting, and a photograph, to New Jersey Audubon. I received this reply: “This bird was banded by NJ Audubon's research staff, almost certainly right there at Heislerville (Matt's Landing) within a few days of when you photographed it (the breast dye indicates it was banded this year). Part of our banding effort is to re-find previously banded birds, and you've helped us in our work.”

Red Knot - green leg flag "3CK"
As I continued processing my photos, I found several additional shorebirds with leg flags and reported them.

I am sure readers can see how these flags can significantly increase the number of resightings. An observer with a scope on Plum Island, in the Bay of Fundy, or along Hudson’s Bay will see the pink breast and focus on the bird. With less luck than it takes to recapture a banded bird, resighting data can be collected and entered into the data base.

Ruddy Turnstone with color-coded leg bands
Colored leg flags and dye are two of the techniques researchers use to track birds. Colored leg bands in various combinations are another technique used to track individual birds. One of the newest techniques is the use of miniaturized radio transmitters and satellite tracking; unfortunately, the expense severely limits this technique.

The first bird banded in North America was an Eastern Phoebe. In 1803, John James Audubon tied a silver thread around the legs of nestling phoebes at his family home, Millgrove, Pennsylvania. Two of those nestlings returned to Millgrove the following year, convincingly demonstrating fidelity to the natal site.

Audubon got banding started on our side of the Atlantic. Today hundreds of researchers and thousands of bird watchers continue to gather data about the migration of birds. It is all part of the ongoing effort to ensure that our next generation can enjoy good birding.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011


Last year in a remote area of Somerset in the Green Mountains, I photographed the Canada Warbler. The bird was not cooperative and I was not satisfied with my results. So I returned to the same spot this year to try again.

Two to four males were singing on territory, but they were even less cooperative this year. During the 1 1/2 hours I spent there, I had mere glimpses of the Canada Warbler through thick foliage.

However, other wood warblers in the same spot posed quite nicely and provided a morning of good photography and good birding.

Magnolia Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler
Common Yellowthroat

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Curlew Sandpiper

Thousands of shorebirds roosted on the mud flats of the impoundment at Heislerville Wildlife Management Area along the Delaware Bay shore in southern New Jersey. Maybe the number was more like tens of thousands; I have no skill in counting such massive numbers. For certain, the numbers were huge. I was at or near the peak shorebird migration. I saw numbers that I have not seen for many years.

When huge numbers of birds are present, the odds go up that somewhere a rarity is present. On this day, a rarity was present - a Curlew Sandpiper. A Eurasian species, the Curlew Sandpiper nests on the tundra in northern Russia and winters in southern Asia, Australia, and Africa. Almost every year a few do not read the range map in the bird guides and appear where they are not supposed to be along the coast of North America.

The last couple of years, Curlew Sandpiper was reported at the same Heislerville WMA that I visited this year. I had made rather half-hearted attempts the last two years to chase the bird, but my timing was poor. I arrived at the impoundment when the tide was going out. Most birds feed during low tide when the rich mud flats are exposed, so there were fewer shorebirds present. The last two years I did not have the time to linger and search, or to adjust my presence to the tides. I can only manage a couple of days each Spring for bird rich southern New Jersey. It is my once-a-year shot at seeing birds that I won’t see in Vermont. So I spend my time looking for those birds.

This year my timing was better. At the Cape May Bird Observatory that morning, I learned that the Curlew Sandpiper had been present the day before, and that the tides were favorable for shorebirds to come in to the impoundment in the early afternoon to roost. The overcast skies did not make for good songbird photography, but would provide plenty of light for shorebirds. I decided it was time to “chase” a bird.

Shorebirds can be very difficult to learn to identify. They are often perceived as small gray and white birds that all look alike. That is an understandable, and rather accurate, perception. Some, like the Dunlin or the Black-bellied Plover, take on distinctive and striking characteristics during breeding season. Ruddy Turnstones and Semipalmated Plovers also have features which set them apart in most circumstances.

Even so, put tens of thousands of shorebirds together in a collection of roosts in an impoundment, and those distinguishing characteristics will meld into a single homogeneous organism. When something spooks the resting mass, like a passing hawk, they fly as though they were one organism, swelling and veering and coming back to rest as though directed by a single, interconnected guidance system.

The Curlew Sandpiper that I decided to chase is one of those shorebirds that has a distinctive breeding plumage. About the size of a Dunlin, it is bigger than the peeps, the tiny shorebirds that really confuse many people trying to learn how to ID shorebirds. And, best of all, in breeding plumage the breast of the Curlew Sandpiper is brick red. Still, it is an 8.5 inch bird among many 8.5 inch birds (Dunlins) and even more 6.5 inch birds (Semipalmated Sandpipers).

As I approached the impoundment for the first time, I had to make a choice. I could work my way around the impoundment scanning each massive roosting flock, looking for the single bird, the Curlew Sandpiper, that was different. Or, I could look for other birders and ask them if they had seen the Curlew Sandpiper. The most satisfying way of adding a bird to one’s life list is to find the bird on one’s own. The most assured way is to ask others. At the far end of the impoundment, half a dozen birders stood with binoculars and scopes pointed toward the roosting flocks. They were my first stop.

I made a good decision. In about five minutes, I focused on the Curlew Sandpiper as it fed along the edge of the water among a few other feeding sandpipers and thousands of roosting shorebirds. The decision became better; this Curlew Sandpiper had not molted completely from non-breeding to breeding plumage. In the gray light of that day and from a distance, it looked like a plain gray and white bird. Off and on when the sky brightened, I could see hints of the brick red plumage in the process of emerging. The molt was more obvious several days later when I examined my photographs at home, but in the field, the molt was not readily apparent.

A second “brick-red” Curlew Sandpiper had also been seen the day I was there. I spent the next hour looking for that bird, while returning periodically to the molting bird. Finding the molting Curlew Sandpiper again and again proved rather easy. It was larger that the peeps and plovers and more elegant and longer necked that the stocky Dunlin.

I have not been able to find very much anecdotal information about the Curlew Sandpiper except for this: The numbers of this species vary considerably from year to year depending on the population of lemmings on the Russian tundra. In poor lemming years, predatory species such as skuas and Snowy Owls will instead take Arctic-breeding shorebirds, like the Curlew Sandpiper.

On my third trip around the impoundment looking for the “brick-red” Curlew Sandpiper, I drove past the first group of birders who were looking at the first mass of roosting shorebirds. They were peering intently through binoculars and scopes. But the binoculars and scopes were all pointed in different directions. They were still looking for Mr. Brick-red.

Further along, a few lone peeps and plovers were feeding on the mud flats close to the service road. A spot of color caught my attention. Even from the car, and without binoculars, I could see a small shorebird with a hot-pink breast. For certain, it was not the Curlew Sandpiper I was looking for. But what was it? I pulled to the side and scrambled out of the car with camera in hand.

By the time I had taken my photographs of this hot-pink breasted sandpiper, I knew what it was. But I did not know the full story until I was back home processing my photographs and had done some internet research.

But I am out of space for this week. Please come back next week for the story of the sandpiper with the hot-pink breast.

Good birding.


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