Monday, October 31, 2011

Dripping Palms and both Kinglets

A week and a half ago I posted "Palms and Rubies." A Palm Warbler and a couple of Ruby-crowned Kinglets were in the remaining trees around my yard and teased me with a few mediocre photo opportunities. 

Last Friday at 8am, I stood along a field edge at the Higbee Beach WMA in Cape May and watched Palm Warblers dripping out of the trees. In the early morning light they were  gold nuggets with wings ...

Palm Warbler - Higbee Beach WMA, Cape May, NJ
An older woman stood nearby.Her cane rested against her leg as she held her binoculars to her eyes, watching the warblers. I said to her, "Isn't it great to stand in one place and have so many come to you." She replied, "I had six Palms in one glass. How good is that!!"

Palm Warbler - Higbee Beach WMA, Cape May, NJ
True to late October expectations, kinglets were active in many locations. On a trail through the state park in Cape May Point, Ruby-crowned Kinglets worked through the low shrubs and reeds, close enough that the red crown could often be seen without binoculars ...

Ruby-crowned Kinglet - Cape May Point State Park

Ruby-crowned Kinglet
In the cedars and pines of the state park, Golden-crowned Kinglets, demonstrated their acrobatic feeding, occasionally pausing briefly ...

Golden-crowned Kinglet - Cape May Point State Park
There were even flashes of the orange highlight in the golden crown ...

Golden-crowned Kinglet
Good Birding!!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

When Feathers Were More Valuable than Gold

Rock Pigeon nesting in Elliott St retaining wall -
a non-native bird that adapts to urban habitat
I enjoy standing on the top deck of the parking garage in Brattleboro and watching the pigeons swirl over the downtown buildings. They are masters of urban adaptation and they thrive in the barren habitats of cities and towns. As I walk down the stairs to Flat Street, I pause to watch their activity in the rock retaining wall beneath Elliott Street. Like the ancient cliffs that gave them their name, Rock Pigeon, they build their simple nests in the wall and raise brood after brood.

On Main Street, nondescript brown birds pick crumbs dropped by diners from beneath sidewalk tables. House Sparrows are the second species that has adapted and manages to make its living in the barren habitat of downtown streets.

Northern Flicker - a species favored by milliners
for adorning feathered hats
By contrast, if I want to see a native species such as the Cedar Waxwing, I will not look for it at Main and Elliott. I’ll go up to the neighborhoods and look for fruit trees, or further out to the orchards, or wherever berries hang heavy on bushes. If I want to see Northern Flickers, I go south of downtown along the Connecticut River in the Spring or Fall when they are migrating along the river and feeding in the mature forest near the banks. A downtown street in any town anywhere is not the place to look for waxwings or flickers or any other perching bird.

But there was a time when a skilled observer could identify many such birds in the barren urban habitats of our cities. Frank M. Chapman was such an observer. He was an ornithologist and curator of the bird collections at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. He developed the innovative exhibits which displayed birds in their natural habitats.

Feather adorned hat on display at
John James Audubon Center at Millgrove, Pennsylvania
In the late 1880s, Chapman left his museum office and took two bird walks along the streets of Manhattan. He identified 40 species of native birds. (Note that the House Sparrow and pigeon are not native species.) His list included sparrows, warblers, and woodpeckers. The flicker and waxwing were among the most abundant. But none of the birds identified by Chapman were flitting through trees, picking crumbs off of sidewalks, or swirling through the air. They had been “plucked, disassembled, or stuffed, and painstakingly positioned on three-quarters of the 700 women’s hats Chapman saw.” (“A Birder’s Handbook”)

The feather trade was thriving, and birds were dying to provide high fashion ladies with elaborate evidence of their taste and prosperity. Women’s hats became larger and ornamentation more lavish. The feather trade exploded. 64 species of native birds were hunted, and exploited, for their feathers.

Great Egret - demand for the breeding plumes
nearly led its extinction
The Great Egret and Snowy Egret were favored. At the beginning of the breeding season, both species sport extravagant plumage as sexual advertisements. But they were not given the opportunity to attract mates. They were shot so that their plumage could adorn the hats of Victorian women, a few of whom may even have defied the prudish conventions of the time and used those plumes as part of their own elaborate sexual attractions. Egret populations plummeted.

Herbert Job, an ornithologist and pioneer wildlife photographer, wrote about the feather trade: “Here are some official figures of the trade from one source alone, of auctions at the London Commercial Sales Rooms during 1902. There were sold 1,608 packages of ... herons’ plumes. A package is said to average in weight 30 ounces. This makes a total of 48,240 ounces. As it requires about four birds to make an ounce of plumes, these sales meant 192,960 herons killed at their nests, and from two to three times that number of young or eggs destroyed. Is it, then, any wonder that these species are on the verge of extinction?”

In 1903, feathers sold for $32 per ounce, twice the price for an ounce of gold. The millinery trade employed 83,000 people (1 of every 1000 Americans) in 1900.

Herons, such at the Great Blue, were sought after
by the millinery industry
The Audubon Societies were born in response to the carnage of the feather trade. Its symbol was, and still is, the Great Egret. In 1901 the Brattleboro Bird Club reorganized as the Vermont Audubon Society. Audubon Societies and preservationists began a decades-long push for the enactment of laws. Public awareness was raised through lectures on topics such as “Woman as a bird enemy.”

Gradually the “Age of Extermination” came to an end. Dwindling supplies caused prices to soar. Fashion evolved new directions. Women’s life styles changed. And governments acted. In 1916 the United States and Great Britain (on behalf of Canada) signed the Migratory Bird Treaty and in 1918 Congress enacted the treaty into law. The Act established Federal responsibilities for the protection of nearly all species of birds, their eggs and nests.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) made it illegal for people to "take" migratory birds, their eggs, feathers or nests.  “Take is defined in the MBTA to include by any means or in any manner, any attempt at hunting, pursuing, wounding, killing, possessing or transporting any migratory bird, nest, egg, or part thereof ...  In total, 836 bird species are protected by the MBTA, 58 of which are currently legally hunted as game birds. A migratory bird is any species or family of birds that live, reproduce or migrate within or across international borders at some point during their annual life cycle.” (

Blue Jay feathers are silent evidence of a hawk kill
Recently I received an email from a reader of my blog remarking about how lucky I was to find some blue jay feathers. The emailer wrote: “I live in Holland, and am not so lucky to find these beauty's around. Is there any way you could send some to me?”

He had seen photographs I had posted of the feather remains of a Blue Jay which had been taken by a hawk in my backyard. I replied that I photograph the feathers, sometimes study or examine them, but do not keep them. I could not send feathers to Holland because I do not have any and because it is illegal under the MBTA to possess or transport feathers.

Feather collecting, and the companion hobby, egg collecting (known as oology) are illegal in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom and many other jurisdictions. Underground and illegal collecting continues.

The MBTA allows special permits for protected nongame species that become local pests (e.g., giant flocks of winter roosting blackbirds). No other birds, except those for which there are designated hunting seasons, can be legally killed, trapped, harassed, or possessed (including birds found dead). Even “adoption” of young birds that appear to have been deserted by their parents is illegal without a permit.

Feather adorned hat on display at
John James Audubon Center at Millgrove, Pennsylvania
Fortunately, we can no longer see flickers and waxwings on the fashionable hats of fashionable women walking the sidewalks of downtown Brattleboro or any other downtown. The only birds commonly seen in the most barren urban habitats are pigeons and House Sparrows.

Even more fortunately, we can see the flickers, waxwings, and dozens of other species in our backyards, fields, orchards, ponds, and forests. They are protected. Watch them and enjoy them.
Good Birding!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Waders at Brigantine

Wednesday I made an early morning trip to Forsyth NWR, Brigantine Unit, for some very enjoyable birding and photography.

The highlight was the American Bittern being inconspicuous in the grasses near the first observation tower.

American Bittern
In several locations there were immature Little Blue Herons ...

Little Blue Heron (immature)
Great Egrets were common along the entire loop road ...

Great Egret with American Black Ducks

Great Egret
Great Blue Herons were also common. Most were immatures ...

Great Blue Heron (immature)
Good Birding!!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A Great Day of Ordinary Birds

Recovery from Irene has gone much better and faster than I could have anticipated, given the amount of damage. In South Newfane there is still much damage that is evident, but roads are open, passable, and in condition that will allow them to be plowed when the snow comes.

At home, the leach field is replaced and we can once again flush at will. To protect the nearby bridge, the precipice on which we were perched, post-Irene, has been rebuilt and the river rechanneled to its pre-Irene bed. The debris and sand on the lower yard has been cleared. As much has been done as can be done until Spring.

And so ... with various obligations met, I headed to our small condo in Philadelphia for a period of rest. It began with a visit today to the John Heinz NWR at Tinicum. This small refuge is in the shadow of the Philly Airport and in the midst of refineries. Though it seems a disconnect, it is a place of quiet, in spite of airplanes taking off and nearby interstate traffic noise.

For the first time in weeks, I was able to walk slowly and turn attention to photography and birds. Nothing unusual, but who cares! Nothing will lift the spirit like the bubbling song of the irrepressible Carolina Wren ...

Carolina Wren
 When the Ruby-crowned Kinglets dropped in for a visit in South Newfane, photos eluded me. They were elusive today, but presented some limited photo ops ...

Ruby-crowned Kinglet
If the Mallard were a rare bird, we would fall over ourselves with glee at any sighting. The drake is a gorgeous bird. No wonder that this hen has a glint in her eye ...

The most common bird was the American Robin refueling on its journey south ...

American Robin
Nothing rare, mostly common, but ordinary birds deserve their own exclamation -- Good Birding!!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Palms & Rubies

In spite of the lack of usual cover in the yard, there was an early morning fallout of Ruby-crowned Kinglets (no photos) and Palm Warbler ...

Palm Warbler - October 21, South Newfane

Monday, October 17, 2011

Birding Again!

For the first time in over 2 months, I mounted the big lens on my camera and photographed birds in the backyard. Hurricane Irene took out much of the backyard and washed away the trees, shrubs, and plants which we have cultivated for a decade to benefit birds and butterflies.

Installation of the new leach field required removing an old apple tree and several other large bushes which provided cover for the birds.

Even so, we preserved what we could, and some of the resident birds came daily to feed, in spite of the heavy equipment working nearby.

The residents included at least two pair of Downy Woodpeckers. This one is trying to reorient himself to the new feeder locations on a high bush rose which we saved ...

Downy Woodpecker

A small island of thick cover remained untouched behind the stone wall, providing Song Sparrows a close haven of safety. I wish there were someway to identify individual birds. As the changes took place in the yard, it often seemed that the Song Sparrows went first to where the feeders had been. With the leach field completed, grass seed spread, and feeders placed in new locations, they are beginning to get themselves reoriented. But are they the ones which came all summer, or did they stop on the way north and are now stopping on the way south, scratching first in the spot where they scratched in the Spring? I have no idea.

Song Sparrow

Mourning Doves have been present throughout, although their numbers do not seem as great as in previous Falls. But they come to the platform and forage on the ground several times a day.

Mourning Dove

Hairy Woodpeckers have also made daily visits, managing to find the suet feeder in its various locations.

Hairy Woodpecker
Installation of the leach field required digging up most of what remained of the lawn, yard, and flower beds behind the house.

Installing the leach field for the septic system

Taken just minutes before publishing this post, the leach field is completed, feeders are in and as close to cover as possible. Additional clean-up and grading will be completed this morning.

Completed leach field is seeded and finish work is being done
Good birding!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Birding - after a fashion

Today is the first day is several weeks when I am relatively free of post-hurricane issues and could enjoy a day of birding. But ... it is raining !! - so indoors it will be.

This past weekend, I did some birding after a fashion. The Newfane Heritage Festival showcased over ninety artists, craftspeople, and specialty food folk, some of whom find their inspiration from birds. Here are a few ...

Chickadee - reverse painting on glass by Joann Gaffron-Hargrove, Springfield, VT

Loon - James Easton, woodcarver, North Windham, CT

Pileated Woodpecker - Phil Morgan, woodcarver, Athens, VT
Hand-carved bird house - Mark Wingertson, Petersham, MA

Meanwhile ... post-hurricane work continued.

Last Friday, work was completed on restoration of the river bank behind our home as part of the long term protection of roads and bridges.

Dozer levels fill where the Weeping Willow once stood
On Saturday, friends from Pennsylvania came to help with post-hurricane clean-up. They attempted to clean a debris jam on the "river's edge" behind our home. The intense force of the water packed material so tightly that it was almost impenetrable. Finally, I asked the neighbor who is putting in the new leach field for our septic system to use his backhoe to pull the debris loose. In the next few days he will complete the job and haul the material to a nearby burn pile.

Debris jam yielded reluctantly to the backhoe

Neighbors and friends supervise the backhoe work
When the weather clears again, I am looking forward to some Good Birding!

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Progress, but not over yet!

When I read our local paper Tuesday morning, I might have gotten the impression that Hurricane Irene was completely in the past. There was only one item about the storm, an obvious press release which announced that the FEMA office in Brattleboro would be closing at the end of the day. Okay, the hurricane is all over.

This morning's paper was marginally more aware of the hurricane. Two articles involved local government discussions about costs and rebuilding, and one article about the downtown movie theater reopening. Otherwise, everything is over, done, and complete.

Where I live, this is a stark reminder that media has an extremely short attention span. Here are photos which I took in my neighborhood on Mon, Tue, and Wed (today). It takes time to recover from a disaster. One can only wish (futilely, it would seem) that local media would at least keep neighbors informed that many neighbors are still rebuilding and recovering.

Monday, South Newfane ...

Construction crews begin widening the channel of the Rock River and repairing/replacing the river bank
 Monday, nr Marlboro/Newfane town line ...

Augur Hole Road - construction on new abutment for the bridge currently served by the "Tom Fusco Memorial Bypass"

Telephone line crew working to restore phone service
 Tuesday, South Newfane ...

Continuing work on Rock River
 Wednesday, South Newfane ... another day in which the construction crew began work at 7am, and continued working until 5pm

Repairing river bank

Widening Rock River and repairing the river bank
And on a bird note ... Evening Grosbeaks have been regulars at my bird feeders and in my neighborhood every month for the last several years. Since the flood, I have not seen them, until Tuesday when one flew from the grass in a nearby field and paused in an apple tree ... good luck, and please come back!

Evening Grosbeak

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Being Normal and Human

(Note: This column appeared in "The Commons," Wednesday, September 28. It was written on September 19.)

Bridge - Augur Hole Rd nr Alcan Power Equip.
Hurricane Irene ripped apart the tiny village of South Newfane where I live. I was in Philadelphia when she struck. The village was physically isolated, with every road washed out in multiple places and many bridges reduced to rubble. Communication was severed. It was three days before I could make contact with any neighbor.

When I was finally able to return to South Newfane, I found my home safe, but the leach field for my septic system was gone along with 40-50 feet of property. The carefully developed bird and butterfly garden was severed, and many of the protective trees around the bird feeders had disappeared. Those that remain will be removed when a new leach field is squeezed into the remaining space.

the lower lawn
Compared to some neighbors, our damage was not severe. But I quickly recognized that every neighbor was affected. Hurricane Irene ravaged the mental and psychological state of everyone, just as she tore out homes, trees, roads, and bridges. Four weeks after the storm, the daze created by the storm and fatigue is still apparent as one talks with people. Ordinary tasks are difficult and everything seems to take too long.

A week ago I went to the flood sale for my neighbor, artist-photographer Christine Triebert. I paused before a mystical, mysterious scene with a small stream bubbling through a forest canopy. In the distance the water was spanned by a delicate, spider-like, bridge. The title read, “Rock River;” the bridge was the Parish Hill Bridge. Tears welled up in my eyes as I viewed the spiritually rich image - but an image of what was, and a contrast to the Hieronymous Bosch scene left in the wake of Irene. It will be a long time before I can view the image of Chris’ “Rock River” and draw from it the spiritual peace which the artist conveyed.

In the midst of all this, one grasps for the normal activity. One afternoon, I made myself cut the grass. It did not take as long as in the past, so I did the neighbor’s grass and a nearby field.

Black-throated Green Warbler
Two weeks ago after church, friends on Newfane Hill invited me to lunch. We ate our sandwiches and watched the birds coming to the feeders on the deck. I pulled myself out of the daze when an olive-drab and yellow bird landed on the deck. It took a while before the mental computer booted up. When it did, I watched the young Black-throated Green Warbler with a sense that my “normal” expectations for a mid-September day were still around. That sense continued as a young Blackburnian Warbler also gleaned food in one old apple tree while a young Common Yellowthroat gleaned food in another apple tree.

Last Sunday, I wandered along the Dover Road to again try to wrap my mind around the damage. Between the Covered Bridge and the Parish Hill Bridge there were four washouts. Road construction crew had brought these back to grade and had made them passable. Beyond my home on the Dover Road, another washout was nearly back to grade. Each of these required major road reconstruction. The tireless efforts of the construction workers was heroic, but in a way, unexceptional. The number and variety of people who have made heroic and tireless contributions is legion - volunteer firemen, cleaning crews, community dinner organizers, communicators, town officials, emergency workers, and neighbors handing out supplies ... and hugs.

Wild Turkeys

When I drove out the Augur Hole Road last Sunday, a flock of turkeys crossed the road. I tried to creep close to them in my truck, but the wary birds scurried off and gave me only a third rate photo opportunity. Even so, it was a moment of normalcy.

But that moment paled when I reached Tom Fusco’s home. The bridge just past his shop, Alcan Power Equipment, like all the others on the Augur Hole Road, had been washed out by the Marlboro Branch. Four culverts had been placed along side the broken bridge and a one car lane reconnected the isolated residents with roads to Route 30. At one end of the basic river crossing, a hand lettered sign announced “The Thomas Fusco Memorial Bypass.”

Tom Fusco Memorial Bypass
I laughed, as I am sure I was meant to. In the midst of so much somberness, for a moment the burden was lighter. As we slog through the debris and labor through the destruction, those moments when we cry, and those moments when we laugh, are moments that keep us human and connect our humanity.
The Bypass reconnected residents of the Augur Hole
Common Yellowthroat


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