Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Owl - Omen of Evil

Note: My next column in "The Commons" will be on owls and will include some folklore about owls. Here is additional folklore which did not "fit" into the forthcoming column.

Eastern Screech Owl - John James Audubon
“The screech owl is always a sign of heavy news, neither singing nor crying out clearly, but uttering a certain heavy groan of doleful mourning, and therefore if it be seen to fly abroad in any place it foretells some fearful misfortune.”

Pliny the Elder wrote these words in the first century; they capture one side, the dark side, of the conflicting folklore of these mysterious birds who rule the night. Most owls are nocturnal, and so they are not often seen. But their voices carry through the night air filling it with eeriness. Henry David Thoreau, listening at night from his cabin on Walden Pond, sensed vastness and mystery in the solemn song of the Eastern Screech Owl: “‘Oh-o-o-o--o that I had never been bor-or-or-or-orn!’ sighs one on this side of the pond, and circles in the restlessness of despair to some new perch in the gray oaks. Then ‘That I never had been bor-or-or-or-orn!’ echoes one on the further side ....”

The doleful wail of the screech owl seems to warn of disaster, death, or disease. In our Southern states, a person awakened from sleep by its notes must take immediate action to ward off evil by turning his left shoe upside down, or turning his left pants pocket inside out, or throwing a piece of iron into the fire. But even in staid and sober New England there is lingering superstition. Not many years ago “one that took up residence for a few days in a church tower, was credited with foretelling - if not indeed causing - the death of a citizen of dignity, domiciled next door.” (Forbush)

When I lived in Pennsylvania, I might awake in the middle of the night and hear the distant song of the Eastern Screech Owl, plaintive and long drawn out. It did seem sad and even foreboding, and I had to remind myself that I was merely listening in on a love song - a song of passion when it fell on the ears of another owl.

Only once have I been able to study the screech owl. One March, a Screech Owl took up residence in a flicker box mounted on a maple in our yard. I looked out my kitchen window one early evening, and saw this face peering out. For a quarter of an hour it surveyed our yard, then slowly emerged from the box and flew into the deepening night. This was repeated for about two weeks, and then the bird disappeared. I did not then know about turning a shoe upside down or throwing iron in the fire, but there was no evil that occurred in my life, or even in my neighborhood, that I know of.

There are few, if any, screech owls which breed in Windham County, so you don’t need to be too concerned. However, if you are in the Lake Champlain region ....

Monday, November 21, 2011

Tundra Swan, et alia

A few images from Saturday's trip to Forsyth NWR (Brigantine).

The highlight for me was the Tundra Swan (which makes only rare appearances in SE Vt). North America's smallest swan, it is still noticeably larger than the Canada Goose.

Tundra Swan
 This Tundra Swan was feeding in shallow water, often stirring the bottom with its feet. Coots stayed closed, apparently feeding on whatever the swan was disturbing from the bottom.

Tundra Swan with American Coot
When encountering a bird which is not normally seen, it is tempting to try to make it an even rarer species. Tundra Swan and Trumpeter Swan are very similar, especially at a distance (see Sibley for ID help). One clear field mark in the yellow lore which is sometimes visible on the Tundra Swan. The following photo provides a glimpse of this variable field mark ...

Tundra Swan with American Coots (note yellow lore)

Snow Geese arrived on the coast since my previous visit in late October. Only a few were close enough for photographs. These two found something delectable in the black mud of the impoundment ...

Snow Goose
Wintering waterfowl are the principle attraction along the coast during this time of year. I'll be doing a series of posts on dabblers soon. The moving flock in the following photo is dominated by Green-winged Teal, with no shortage of Northern Pintail. Somewhere you might find an American Coot. Mallards are in the foreground, and Tundra Swan in the background.

Green-winged Teal in flight

Great Blue Heron ... just because I like the photo ...

Great Blue Heron (juvenile)
Songbirds were limited, but flocks of robins and Yellow-rumped Warblers were still common. The bird in this photograph is swallowing a juniper berry. Juniper berries give gin its flavor, so I like to think that this bird is having a nascent gin martini, literally dry ...

Yellow-rumped Warbler
Good Birding !!

Friday, November 18, 2011

American Coot

Waterfowl are becoming the most common birds in coastal wetlands as we progress through November. Here are a few images of American Coots from a recent trip to Heinz NWR ...

Good Birding !!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

At the risk of ...

At the risk of compromising my status as a birder, I am posting photos of the Mallard. If this were a rare duck, we would fall over ourselves in finding ways to describe the handsome drake. But it is so common, easily tamed, and even self-domesticating, that it is typically ignored.

Mallard - drake
The Mallard is a dabbler (which occasionally will dive), usually feeding in shallow waters on a wide variety of plants and small creatures.

Mallard - hen and drake
Back to the handsome drake. We may overlook him because he is so common, but the hen is swept off her feet (or wings?) by the dashing fellow. This one unable to contain her enthusiasm - hooray to you, you wonderful, manly, hunk of duck!!

Good Birding!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Birding with Mudman

Note: For many years I have posted my weekly column on Saturday. The column is now monthly and appears in “The Commons” (see link on right). From time to time I will dip into my archives and post an old column. The archival dipping begins today.

Mudman is an occasional birding companion who does not like to talk with other people when he is birding, especially other birders. He’d rather find birds himself, and he distrusts the attitude of other birders. With some good reason.

Black Skimmers
Several years ago, we were birding along the salt marshes near Cape May. Other birders were scattered on the berms on either side of the road, intently scanning with their scopes. A car stopped and disgorged several intense young men. “Seen anything good?” the apparent team leader demanded.

“There’s a flock of Black Skimmers out by the sand-bar,” I replied. Mudman and I were both accustomed to seeing only one or two of these unusual birds on the northern New England coast, so we were excited about seeing over thirty at one time.

Tricolored Heron
There was no verbal response, but the facial expression and body language from this group of young men was one of sneer and contempt. “Seen a Tricolored Heron?” another asked.

“All the herons except that one,” I responded.

He turned to his companions. “Listen. Let’s not waste our time here. Let’s go someplace good.” They piled back in their car and sped off.

I won’t repeat what we muttered to one another, but you can imagine. I can tell you that we were both deliciously satisfied when, within five minutes of their departure, we saw their desired Tricolored Heron.

Least Bittern
That kind of snobbish attitude among some birders is a definite turn-off. But unlike Mudman, it does not prevent me from talking with other birders. The next day we were birding through the old cow meadows in Cape May (now a migratory bird refuge owned by the Nature Conservancy). A group of women stood in an intent group by the side of the trail. Mudman avoided eye contact and quickened his pace. I stopped to ask what they were looking at. Before I could say anything, a woman stepped away from her scope, whispered, “Least Bittern,” and signaled me to look. Mudman joined us and we spent about fifteen minutes watching the bird until it slowly stalked into the reeds. “Thanks for talking to them,” Mudman said. “That’s a new bird for me.”

There’s the dilemma in that question: “Seen anything good?” How do I know what is “good” to another person. Five species of warbler in one bush is “good” to me, even if I have already seen all five individually on that same day. But often the questioner really means (without saying it): “Have you seen a bird that hasn’t been seen around here ever?” And on the off chance that you have, he won’t believe you. The question is a Catch-22. However you answer, you lose.

When asked the question, “Seen anything good?” - I usually respond, “If I’ve got a bird in my binoculars, it’s good.” And then in as friendly a manner as possible, I ask the question which I think should have been asked, “What have you seen?” Sometimes I will risk posing the question as: “Have you seen anything unusual?” - hoping that the person I am asking will tell me about rare sightings.

Most birders I know are journeyman birders like me, and we don’t need to be subjected to the arrogance of those hot-shots who think they know everything. But we do need to receive information, and in turn share it. We simply enjoy the birding experience.

By stopping to talk with that group of women in the cow meadows at Cape May, I made it possible for Mudman to see an elusive bird for the first time in his long birding career. His high from that experience floated him over the marshes for the next hour. That was good!

Blue Grosbeak
And then near the end of the day ... when our eyes were beginning to cross and our minds were turning to mush from long concentration and intensive searching ... and when I suggested he scan the field one more time, concentrating on a particular bush .... and when I was able to say, “That blue bird is not an Indigo Bunting .... and he said, “Blue Grosbeak!?” .... and I said “Yes.” .... and it stayed in that bushing singing while we put a scope on him for a long close look ..... and I said, “First sighting for me in a long time” .... and Mudman said, “Life bird for me!” - now that was great!

Good birding!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Reprise OMG Birds

In the "omigosh" category, I returned to the Wissahickon on Wednesday for the morning light on the 50+ Wood Ducks wintering in the river.

And ... 2 more images of the Eastern Bluebirds from last Saturday ...

Eastern Bluebird dining on a grasshopper

Good Birding!!

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

2 OMG Birds

Two birds in the "omigosh" category caught my breath over the weekend.

Saturday in old farmland outside of Philly, Eastern Bluebird (sky blue above and rich earth below) provided OMG moments ...

Eastern Bluebird
At least six Eastern Bluebirds were feeding in a field, often in a watch and strike manner ...

The way they continually returned to the bird house, including checking its inside, makes me think that this may have been mom and dad with the kids they raised here ...

Sunday along the Wissahickon River in Fairmount Park, there were dozens of wintering Wood Ducks ...

Wood Duck - drake and two hens
In N.A., the plumage of the drake Wood Duck is only rivaled by the Harlequin Duck. For sheer flashiness, I tip the scale toward the Woodie ...

Wood Duck - drake
"Only" five Woodies in this photo, but many more in larger and smaller groups were up and down the river ...

Wood Duck - 2 drakes & 3 hens
Good Birding!!

Friday, November 04, 2011

Leucistic American Robin

The highlight of Thursday’s trip to Heinz NWR at Tinicum was a leucistic American Robin. Except for a tiny stripe of gray on the wing, a couple of tail feathers, and the black eye, the bird (from my vantage point) was completely white - bright white. In all other respects - shape, posture, behavior, and flight - it was typically “robin.”

leucistic American Robin
If “leucism” is a new term for you, here are a few extracts from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website on “Plumage variations: Albinism or Leucism?”:

“Albinism is a genetic mutation that prevents the production of melanin in the body. Leucism is a genetic mutation that prevents melanin from being deposited normally on feathers .... leucism comes in two main varieties — paleness, an equal reduction of melanin in all feathers; and pied, an absence of melanin in some feathers creating white patches .... It is also possible for a bird to be completely white and still have melanin in the body. In this case the bird would be considered leucistic and would have dark eyes because the mutation only applies to depositing melanin in the feathers. Albinistic birds have pink eyes because without melanin in the body, the only color in the eyes comes from the blood vessels behind the eyes .... Typically birds with abnormally white feathers do not survive long because they are so much more visible to predators. Those that do survive may have trouble attracting a mate. Consequently, the mutated genes that cause albinism and leucism are less likely to be passed on to a new generation.”

Link to article: “Plumage variations: Albinism or Leucism?”

leucistic American Robin

Other highlights of the morning were Blackpoll Warbler, Rusty Blackbird, and Golden-crowned Kinglet ...

Blackpoll Warbler
Rusty Blackbird
Golden-crowned Kinglet

There was also a nice variety of waterfowl and abundant numbers of White-throated Sparrows. Yellow-rumped Warblers seem to have moved on.

White-throated Sparrow - brown striped morph

Good Birding!!

Thursday, November 03, 2011

More from Cape May

This Brown Thrasher posed beautifully for me (Higbee Beach WMA), then added to his esteem when he flew as I was in mid-burst ...

Brown Thrasher
Late October migrants included (as expected) Northern Flicker, Gray Catbird, and Hermit Thrush in considerable numbers ...

Northern Flicker (Yellow-shafted)

Gray Catbird
Hermit Thrush
The most common migrant was the Yellow-rumped Warbler ...

Yellow-rumped Warbler (Myrtle)
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Myrtle)
Good Birding!!


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