Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Last Day of the Year

On this last day of the year, it is snowing heavily - already 6-8". Birding is being done from the comfort of the home. The feeders are a frenzy of activity.

Siskins are abundant. This flock is picking seeds from the protected porch.

We are pretty much hunkering down - going to the last night activities tonight will have to await a decision. Maybe if the roads are cleared some. One cat is curled near the wood stove. The other, Lady, has been watching cat television in the kitchen.

Sometimes she gets so excited with what she is watching, that she tries to interact. Note the water bottle behind her; that so we can spray her when she gets on the table, thereby conditioning her to stay off the table. She could care less!

Hope your New Year's birding is good as Lady's is today!

Robins as Feeder Birds

The crab apple had a prolific year and is normally a preferred winter fruit by the birds. But it has already been picked clean, so the birds are resorting to the left over apples - and there are plenty of them. Previously, waxwings fed on the apples. Yesterday robins came as close to being feeder birds as I have seen, feeding on the apples, both on the branches and on the ground.

Not great photos - overcast winter days always are days of low light - plus I'm shooting through a window which needs cleaning. Nevertheless, we can clearly see this robin eating a hole into the apple. A lot of winter fruit ferments; I have seen waxwings get falling-down drunk on fermented crabapples and winterberries. I wonder about the robins; they did not seem to be staggering when they flew. The apple tree came down in an ice storm thirteen years ago and then regenerated from its root stock - this year was the first year it has produced apples. The apples are bitter; sugar content is minimal. Maybe the fermenting is retarded as a result. Anyway, if the apples have fermented, then these robins appear capable of holding their liquor.

There are lots of reports of siskin flocks, and I have my share. They predominate in the finch flock, outnumbering the goldfinches anywhere from 3to 1 (as in this photo, roughly speaking), to 10 to 1.

Can't resist including the cardinal and jay. We've had as many as three female and three male cardinals. Yesterday during the morning flurries, three males were behaving like someone was intruding on someone else's territory - a lot of chasing.

Love the jays! and I always pay attention when they make a big racket. The racket often means a hawk is nearby.

Happy New Year!!!

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Robins & Siskins

Christmas Day a flock of about 15robins visited the crabapple, picking the dried (and probably fermented) fruit.

Usually a few siskins mix in with the goldfinches, but again on Christmas Day we had a flock of siskins with only a couple of goldfinches. What is particularly interesting is the slight red that appears to be a remaining trace of young birds' gape flange. I don't know if this was present on all of the siskins, but it was quite apparent in my photographs of the birds on the sunflower feeder just outside the window - close enough to get that detail. I find this interesting since the siskins nest early, unlike their goldfinch cousins. I would expect this sign of young birds to have faded by now. I'd love to hear from someone who could shed more light for me.

These birds don't feed on the apples, but a flock of 20 waxwings hurried through in search of apple ciderjack in the the fruit.

Saturday, December 27, 2008


Our modern language and culture has the ability to create new vocabularies in the blink of a nanosecond. Some new technology or strange event and we have a long list of new words cluttering our airwaves. Or some new twist of culture comes along, and an old word takes on new meaning. The ability of the English language to adapt and change makes it one of the most dynamic languages in the world. There is no “correct” English language or grammar, because it is in constant flux. The fussy pedants who complain about “bad” English are trying to fossilize something that hasn’t died, but is doing what living things do - evolve.

Nevertheless, there are some words that have changed meaning that tempt me to dinosaur like protest. My rant for today is the contemporary meaning of “snowbird.” In modern parlance, a snowbird is a person who goes south for the winter. As the temperature plunges and the snows begin to fly, these less than hardy persons fly south. In many southern locales, such as Florida, snowbirds are welcomed. Though only seasonal, they bring the potential for lots of money. They have provided huge profits to people who convert wetlands to suburban lawns and miles of strip malls. Churches in these regions love snowbirds. The snowbirds may not attend church when they are in their summer lands, but on the wintering grounds they intently cram for their finals.

In the north, snowbirds are viewed differently - either with envy by those they leave behind - or with a bit of sneer by those who consider a New England winter to be the best season of the year when the true mettle of a person is revealed.

This is a modern meaning of snowbird, one which shows our cultural detachment from the natural world, but which also retains a continuity in meaning. We see the etymological evolution of this word when John James Audubon wrote about the “Common Snow-bird.”

“This is one of our winter visitants from the north, which, along with many others, makes its appearance in Louisiana about the beginning of November, to remain a few months, and again, when spring returns, fly off, to seek in higher latitudes a place in which to nestle and rear its young. So gentle and tame does it become on the least approach of hard weather, that it forms, as it were, a companion to every child. Indeed, there is not an individual in the Union who does not know the little snow-bird, which, in America, is cherished as the Robin is in Europe.”

Today we know Audubon’s Common Snow-bird as the Dark-eyed Junco (aka slate-colored junco.) Our junco is a winter bird, often one of the most common around our feeders and in our fields. “A bleak gray day in early winter - bare trees standing stark and black against a background of white snow - a cold wind sweeping across the drifted fields - and in a sheltered, brush-filled corner, a flock of lively little gray and white birds fluttering and twittering together. The Slate-colored Junco has been aptly described as ‘leaden skies above, snow below’ and it is with days such as these that many people in the North associate this friendly little visitor.”

This description by the old Massachusetts ornithologist, Edward Forbush, still captures the junco in our neighborhood. The junco inspires committed birdwatchers to fight a rearguard action against the movement of our language; they cling to the old meaning and refer to the junco as “snowbird.”

The Dark-eyed Junco nests at higher latitudes and higher elevations. It is a common breeder in the Canadian boreal forests, its range extending northward to the tree line. In New England, it can be found on mountain and hill tops. I have found breeding juncos in the Spruce forest on Mt. Snow, and in mixed hardwood, pine, and spruce forests on Newfane Hill and in many other locations at or above approximately 1500 feet. In the river valleys, they are rarely seen, but as Fall progresses toward Winter they become increasingly common. Juncos begin appearing around my feeders in South Newfane (about 700 feet) in late September and early October and will continue until the snow disappears in April.

I wish I knew whether my wintering juncos were short distance migrants, moving from the top of Newfane Hill or Dover Mountain down to my valley, or whether they have come a long distance from breeding grounds in Canada. I don’t know. As we know from the words of Audubon, they often move far south; they were common winter birds when he wrote his account New Orleans.

A few things we do know. There is some difference between the male Dark-eyed Junco and the female. The female is paler gray and her plumage is everywhere more veiled with brown. A dark gray, sometimes almost black, junco is almost certainly a male. Males tend to winter further north than females. It is thought that this puts them closer to their breeding grounds, and it is certain that the males establish their territories days in advance of the female’s arrival.

We are most likely to know juncos as wintering birds. Bent’s Life History cites several sources which document the formation of foraging flocks. Flocks form as the birds arrive in an area, and each flock has an exclusive foraging territory. In other words, the same flock of juncos visit my feeders day after day: “The formation of firm associations and the occupation of definite foraging areas take place at once among the earliest arrivals .... late comers are integrated into existing groups. The flock thus formed does not fly about as a unit, however. There appears to be no limit to the size of a foraging group. It may include the whole flock or it may consist of a single bird. The entire flocking procedure is marked by the continual forming and dissolving of groups of unpredictable size consisting of individuals that consort together and are daily visitors at the feeding sites.” (Bent)

In the winter, a flock of small gray and white juncos forages beneath my feeders. They hop and scratch in sparrow fashion, clearing snow and garden debris in search of food. Something alarms them, and they fly, flashing their bright white tail feathers. It reminds me of some lines from Robert Frost’s “The Wood-Pile”:

A small bird flew before me. He was careful
To put a tree between us when he lighted,
And say no word to tell me who he was
Who was so foolish as to think what he thought.
He thought that I was after him for a feather -
The white one in his tail ....

In spite of our modern language, snowbirds are not the people who flee our winter. Snowbirds are the hardy little juncos that seem to embrace winter. They may look like the leaden skies above and white snow, but there is nothing leaden about their hardiness and energy as they fly with flashing white tailfeathers.

Good birding.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Winter Storm Birds & Cat TV

Last week's ice storm had barely cleared from the trees, when more storms came through the Northeast. The feeders have been active, so far with the usual winter feeder birds. I did not see the hawk which also fed at the feeders, but I saw the remaining Blue Jay feathers from the violent encounter. The doves which were so hard to find last weekend for the Christmas Count were around by the dozens.

Let's start with the Carolina Wren - still a regular at the feeders - a pair I think, since we occasionally see two at a time.

A Blue Jay exhibiting nuthatch behavior ...

We've seen as many as three female and one male Northern Cardinals at a time ...

Plenty of "snowbirds", plus a few Song, White-throated, and American Tree Sparrows ...

Many goldfinches, but no siskins, though the Christmas Count had a record number last week ...

And finally ... I put in the dvd "Watching Sparrows" - beautifully photographed, and a good preview to our upcoming trip to Arizona. It was also a hit with both cats, who watched with intensity. In fact, at one point I thought Scampi was going to jump into the TV screen.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

An Icy Day Counting Birds

I stayed put during last week’s ice storm. Except for bringing in wood, I did not go out of the house. The lights flickered several times. I had to reset my clocks, but that is hardly unusual. I was insulated from the nasty weather in more ways than one.

Then came the Christmas count, and I began to realize the storm’s impact on our region. In the Brattleboro area, the 15 mile diameter count circle is divided into seven regions, each with a count team. Two of those teams begin the day at my home. On the count morning, nine people gathered from seven homes. Only two had electricity. A couple from near Springfield who were planning to take part had called the night before to say they were not coming - no power and blocked roads.

In the evening when we gathered in a Brattleboro home for the compilation pot luck, I learned even more about the impact. A week before the count, about forty people were planning to participate. Twenty-seven went out. The majority had storm impact with which they were dealing.

By now we know how severe last week’s ice storm was. At the evening pot luck, we were still relying on civilization’s oldest medium of mass communication - word of mouth. But the personal stories were not the main topic of conversation. Twenty-seven people had spent 170 people hours in the field. They had driven a cumulative 325 miles, and walked an additional 4 miles. A brisk day had gotten colder and more bitter. Closed roads created detours from the planned routes. Ice from above pelted heads and underfoot caused slips and falls. And at the end of this day, we talked about birds.

There was nothing unusual about what we did. The North American Christmas Bird Count in late December involves tens of thousands of people setting aside all other seasonal activities to take part in perhaps the largest citizen science event of the year. In whatever part of the country, the only thing that could be worse than the weather would be missing a count and not knowing how the early winter bird count this year compares with previous years and future years.

So we talked about weather, and we talked about birds. By the end of the compilation party, the mood was almost euphoric. The bird count for the Brattleboro area was the highest ever, around 5600. The number of species tallied for the day was 57, plus an additional 5 during count week, for a total of 62. Only in 2004 was the species number higher - 65.

Looking at the highlights and gleanings from the Brattleboro CBC, let’s start with the Bald Eagle. One or two have been seen every year since 2002. Five were counted this year along the open waters of the Connecticut River. Three adult eagles were seen together; at another location two sub-adult (probably first year birds) were counted.

The open waters also accounted for the highest recorded count of Canada Geese - almost 1100. In addition there were seven other species of waterfowl, including two late drake Wood Ducks.

A thousand Cedar Waxwings (triple the previous record) put this species into the abundant category. The number is probably low. The group I was with recorded 100 in an apple orchard feeding on the remaining fruit, but that figure was frankly a guess, and probably a low guess. We would see 20 to 25 waxwings moving about in a couple of trees, while distantly we saw more birds bouncing around, and yet more in peripheral vision to the left and the right. On another occasion, we watched waxwings feeding on rose thrips in between flights to and from protective pine trees. We tried counting, but the end result was another conservative guess-timate.

Last summer was a banner year for fruits and berries, and the waxwings are just one species using these food resources. Mixed among the waxwings were American Robins; usually counted in the single digits, this year’s 100+ was the second highest total.

The American Crow population was severely effected by the West Nile Virus. Last year, for the first time in recent years, the crow count dropped below 100. The population appears to be rebounding; the American Crow count this year was 225.

Winter finches had a banner year in 2007. They often appear in a two year cycle so they were not expected this year. Nevertheless, there were a few Snow Buntings, Purple Finches, Evening Grosbeaks, Common Redpolls, a single Pine Grosbeak, and a probable Red Crossbill. American Goldfinch was seen in record numbers (over 450) along its cousin, the Pine Siskin, which also broke records at 220+. In the last five years, the siskin has been virtually absent from our CBC.

In looking for patterns, it appears as though the number of common feeder birds is down. Chickadee, titmouse, cardinal, Blue Jay, the nuthatches, Mourning Dove, Downy Woodpecker - the number for all of these was down from recent years. But why? Perhaps the plentiful supply of natural food means they are less dependent on feeders. Perhaps fewer people are feeding, the birds are going elsewhere, and the counters did not find the active feeders. Perhaps their population has declined for some reason.

Or perhaps the counters did not work as hard at counting these birds. Our group spent a lot of time trying to get counts of the waxwings. Chickadees flit back and forth so rapidly that it is difficult to pinpoint different individuals. They are so much a part of the background scenery, that we may have just taken them for granted and thereby undercounted the chickadees and the other feeder birds that travel with them.

Two Northern Flickers were seen; usually a migrant, it has been absent in recent years. Red-bellied Woodpecker numbers continue to increase. Wild Turkeys were hiding in the protective pines; only 20 were counted. Fourteen Red-tailed Hawks matches recent count levels.

Late species included a Great Blue Heron, Belted Kingfisher, Hermit Thrush, Savannah Sparrow, and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

Rock Pigeon, European Starling, and House Sparrow are the birds that birders love to hate. One member of my team gags when I insist that we have to count them. The good news/bad news is that the numbers for these species is neither higher or lower than the range from previous years.

The Christmas Bird Count is a snapshot of the early winter bird population. It provides data for researchers as they study trends. It engages many people in citizen science. And it is almost always a day of good birding!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

A Brief Guide to Bird Guides

Last week I reviewed the new “Peterson Guide to the Birds of North America.” Roger Tory Peterson published his first field guide in 1934, and in so doing he taught us how to bird. His carefully detailed paintings were augmented by the “Peterson system” - arrows which highlighted field marks, those key features which distinguish one bird from similar birds. Peterson was so successful in communicating a love for birds, that the passion for bird watching is now shared by millions of people.

Today, birdwatchers have dozens of resources available to help identify birds, with more appearing every year. There is no such thing as the perfect field guide. Every field guide has strengths and weaknesses. I have seen exceptional birders puzzle through three or more guides in the effort to confirm an identity. Even backyard birders will find their feeder watching enhanced and improved by having at least two updated guides close at hand.

In addition to one of the Peterson guides, there are three all purpose, comprehensive guides to the birds of North America which most reviewers regard as essential.

David Sibley is sometimes considered the successor to Roger Tory Peterson. Sibley, like Peterson, is a world class birder and a fine artist. Peterson used bird specimens and field experience to create his paintings in his studio. Sibley sits in the field, peering patiently through a spotting scope, drawing and painting from live models. The stunning result of Sibley’s work is The Sibley Guide to Birds published by Knopf in 2000. There are not just one, or two, or three illustrations of a particular species; there are illustrations of all the plumage differences in age, sex, and races. Opening the guide at random, I found for the Indigo Bunting illustrations for the female breeding and non-breeding, the male breeding and non-breeding, and two each for the female and male in flight. When a Harris’s Sparrow which showed up in Vermont for only the second time (in Putney) in the winter of 2001, Sibley provided seven illustrations, including one which allowed the bird to be identified as a first winter bird. For the Lesser Black-backed Gull, which is increasing on the north Atlantic coast and which occasionally gets reported on our Connecticut River (but not yet confirmed), there are fourteen illustrations or drawings. Plus, there are range maps and textual descriptions. On a birding trip along the Massachusetts coast, I initially had difficulty identifying a Merlin which was harassing a Rough-legged Hawk and a Short-eared Owl. I know the Merlin as a “dark” falcon, but this one was light. With Sibley’s help I could identify the Merlin as a prairie population bird, probably female.

When I first bought the Sibley guide, I considered it more of an arm-chair guide, than a field guide. It is 6 inches by 9.5 inches by 1.25 inches and weighs in at 2.6 pounds - definitely not a pocket guide! But it is so comprehensive and so useful, that I found ways to keep it close at hand when birding. Fortunately, in 2003 Sibley issued an Eastern guide and a Western guide, both of which sacrifice very little in comprehensiveness, but are portable - almost fitting into the back pocket of jeans. Unlike the “big Sibley,” these “little Sibleys” have a quick index in the back to get you quickly to “falcon,” “sparrow,” or “jay.”

Birds of North America by Kenn Kaufman, (Kaufman Focus Guides, 2000) has become my pocket guide of choice. Beginners like field guides with photographs; experienced birders know better and prefer paintings which better convey field marks and plumage. The Kaufman guide is the exception. Using digital technology, Kaufman spent over 3000 hours working on over 2,000 photographs, correcting them for color, size, and lighting; removing shadows, sharpening contrast, and emphasizing field marks in order to get the photographs to look like the birds we see in the field The result is remarkably successful. This is also the first guide since Peterson’s to point to particular distinguishing field marks. The maps are small, but readable. There is a “quick” table of contents inside the front cover, and a useful “quick” index inside the back cover. The text does not follow a set pattern, but varies in its written description to include information that will aide in identification. For example, Kaufmann reminds me of what I have seen often: that the sanderling “runs up and down the beach, chasing the waves,” that the least sandpiper “is the one seen most often on muddy edges of rivers, ponds, marshes,” while the semipalmated sandpiper “swarms on mudflats.” I alternate between a “little Sibley” and “Kaufmann” when I am birding.

The third all purpose guide is the Field Guide to the Birds of North America (National Geographic, Fifth Edition, 2006). The bird illustrations on the 967 species are excellent - and for waterfowl and shorebirds, they are unsurpassed. The paintings are precision works of art, as opposed to Sibley’s paintings which are more impressionistic. I find this detail sometimes gets in the way of identification, but that may just be my quirkiness. I know some birders who won’t use any other guide. I am puzzled, however, at the lack of winter plumages, especially for the “confusing fall warblers”. The maps are small, but useful. The text uses “Range” to describe habitat and some feeding habits, useful information which is sometimes lacking in field guides. I would use this guide as my field guide more often, except it is too big to fit in my jeans pocket. However, if you customarily go birding with a fanny pack, or wear clothing with baggy pockets, then this is probably a better choice than Kaufman’s guide. One final caveat: from the limited which use I have given my copy, it does not look as though it would sustain a lot of field use before becoming fatally worn.

If you are hoping Santa will bring you a new bird guide for Christmas, don’t leave things to chance. Tell the jolly old elf you would like one of these. Or better yet - two of them. Good birding!

Monday, December 08, 2008

Thistle Bird

Some birds I never tire of, and the American goldfinch is one. They've been back in yard in considerable numbers, dining on the seeds we put out. But occasionally they even choose the "natural" seeds from the flowers that filled the yard with such color only a few weeks ago - at a guess, this one is picking at bee balm, whose red flowers are is also a tremendous attraction for hummingbirds.

It is a delight to have the Carolina Wren as a new visitor in the yard - we have a pair. I hope they make it through the winter and nest in the area. There will be plenty of food for them. Just a fun bird - and very lovely, colorful even, against the usual dullness of the late fall and early winter.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

The New Peterson Field Guide

There are some people that make such an impact on their field, that their influence continues long after they are gone. They become almost franchises that keep paying dividends to their heirs for years. Elvis Presley comes to mind. Charles Shultz’s Peanuts is another. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Ian Fleming’s James Bond go on and on.

In the bird watching field, Roger Tory Peterson fills that bill. In 1934, Peterson published his first field guide to Eastern and Central birds. The guide was revolutionary and transformative. Founded on good illustrative paintings of the birds, Peterson employed an identification system (known as the Peterson system) which uses arrows to point to key field marks and to focus on the differences in similar species. It was simple; today it seems obvious, but when the first edition appeared it was innovative and revolutionary.

The first printing Peterson’s new bird guide was 2,000 copies. It sold out in one week. The field guide and its subsequent editions has never been out of print. Peterson continually revised his work during his life time. The fourth edition was published in 1980, and his estate continued his work with a fifth edition in 2002, six years after his death in 1996 at the age of 88.

Peterson’s field guide melded the paintings, the identification system of arrows, and compact, descriptive text into a small portable volume. The result made it possible for anybody with a pair of binoculars to identify birds. Bird watching was no longer the exclusive domain of ornithologists and eccentric amateur naturalists. It became accessible to the masses and created the interest which makes bird watching today one of the largest spectator sports in America.

Peterson not only transformed the world of bird watching by teaching people how to watch birds, he also changed the English language. The word, "bird,"a noun, has become a verb and an adjective and has hatched new nouns. I bird. I have birding books and birding equipment. I am a birder who goes birding to see birds.

The respect which Peterson earned as a naturalist, not to mention the commercial success of the field guide to the birds, led to a whole series of Peterson Field Guides, based on the same principles as the bird guide.

Not long after the publication of the fourth edition in 1980, I attended a Pennsylvania Audubon banquet in the Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, area, not far from Mill Grove, the first home of John James Audubon. Roger Tory Peterson was the speaker. His personality commanded attention, and I still remember some things from his address (which is quite remarkable since I often can’t remember what I have said in a public address a week later). The morning of the banquet, Peterson had visited Mill Grove. When he got out of the car, the first bird he heard was an Eastern Phoebe - one of the first birds with which Audubon became familiar, and the first bird which Audubon banded - perhaps the first bird ever banded in America. Audubon was interested to know whether the resident nesting phoebe returned to the same place year after year, so he captured it and tied a colored thread around its leg. The next year he recaptured the same bird. Peterson then added, with wry wit, that the second bird he heard that morning had never been seen or heard in North America by Audubon, although it is now one of the most common birds - European Starling.

At the end of the dinner, Peterson autographed copies of his fourth edition. I had mine autographed. Somewhere in the intervening years, that autographed copy has gone missing. Someone borrowed it, or mislaid it, or stole it. It could not possibly have been anything that I did or did not do. Periodically, I still mutter a curse at whoever is responsible for my autographed copy going missing.

A new first edition "Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America" was published this year. During his lifetime, Peterson published two bird guides - Eastern and Central Birds, and Western Birds. The new guide combines the two guides into one volume. At 6" x 9" in size and 2½ pounds in weight, it is not an easily carried field guide. Like the original Sibley guide published in 2000, some special arrangement needs to be made in order to carry it when birding. My rule of thumb for a true field guide is that it can fit into the back pocket of a pair of jeans.

No field guide to birds is perfect. You need more than one guide, in the field or for reference in the back seat of your car or by your arm chair at home. You should probably have several bird guides. One of them should be a Peterson guide, such as this splendid one volume edition.

The new Peterson guide updates all of the taxonomic and name changes with new paintings of split species, accidentals and vagrants. Small range maps are next to the text of each species, while larger maps are in a special section in the back. The illustrations are larger, the plates uncrowded. Often the birds on a plate are presented in relative size to the others on the plate so that the size difference among similar species is visually apparent.

The Peterson guide is especially good with very similar species. For example, four very similar small terns (Forster’s, Common, Arctic, Roseate) are grouped on one page. Differences in head and bill are easily compared, as are those wing characteristics which are only glimpsed in flight but which distinguish the species.

A useful feature, which I think is unique to Peterson, are the pages of black silhouettes inside the back cover (shore, flight, and roadside), and scattered elsewhere through the volume. Without using the term, these incorporate "giss" (general impression, size, shape), an identification technique much in vogue and very useful.

Nearly every field guide includes a few pages about bird biology, topography, and identification techniques. Often these are wordy essays, dense, and sometimes obtuse. Peterson’s essay on identification is brief and clear. Like the descriptions of the birds themselves, he gets directly to the issue of identification beginning with a series of simple questions. Know those questions and ask them when you are in the field, and you will quickly gather the information you need to make an identification.

During his lifetime, Peterson made thousands of people into birders with his field guides. Twelve years after his death, he is still making us into good birders, and the new "Peterson Field Guide to Birds" can make us into better birders.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Greater White-fronted x Canada Goose Hybrid

I was outside of the Philadelphia for Thanksgiving Weekend. Friday we visited Audubon's home at Mill Grove near Valley Forge. In the millpond on Perkiomen Creek in front of the home, I photographed this Greater White-fronted x Canada Goose hybrid. However, since this is the first such hybrid I have seen, if anyone thinks otherwise, please let me know.

The Mill Grove museum included an original folio opened to Canada Goose, other displays about Audubon, and this sorta restored study room. I include this photo because of the powder horn on the bed, reminding us that ornithology in Audubon's day was pursued with a shot-gun. Undoubtedly Audubon would have "collected" the hybrid specimen. I wonder if he would also have thought it another species. After he all, he did not have Sibley, Peterson, Stokes, the internet, and a host of other resources to consult.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Black Skimmer - an Oddity among the Aerial Waterbirds

If you can get a close look at a Black Skimmer, you might think it has been mutated by some toxic soup. Its beak looks deformed. The lower mandible is noticeably longer than the upper mandible. Clearly the bird is incapable of picking up food. So how does it eat?

That was a question asked by one of the earliest European observers of the Black Skimmer. In the early 1600s, Samuel de Champlain voyaged to Cape Cod, briefly dropping anchor in what is now Nauset Harbor in Orleans. His “Voyages” describe one of the birds observed:

“We saw also a sea bird with a black beak four inches long and in the form of a lancet; namely, the lower part representing the handle and the upper the blade, which is thin, sharp on both sides, and shorter by a third than the other, which circumstance is a matter of astonishment to many persons, who cannot comprehend how it is possible for the bird to eat with such a beak. It is of the size of a pigeon, the wings being very long in proportion to the body, the tail short, as also the legs, which are red; the feet being small and flat. The plumage on the upper part is gray-brown, and on the under parts pure white. They go always in flocks along the seashore, like the pigeons with us.”

The gray-brown upper part described by Champlain suggests that the flock was dominated by juvenile birds who had perhaps wandered northward from breeding grounds along the mid-Atlantic coast. Old natives of Cape Cod knew the skimmers as “them cutwater or shearwater birds used to be with us summer times.”

By the mid-1800s, however, Audubon reported that the Black Skimmer was known in Massachusetts and Maine “only to such navigators as have observed it in the southern and tropical regions.” Along the southern coasts and Gulf of Mexico Audubon found winter roosts with thousands of Black Skimmers.

On a foul day in late October, I drove Beach Drive in Cape May, New Jersey. The promenade/seawall hid the beach, but I briefly glimpsed long-winged birds circling low against the gray sky as they descended to the sand. I parked, climbed to the promenade and descended to the beach. On the open sand, about seventy-five Black Skimmers were roosting in a tight group, all facing into the bitter ocean gale. Wind-blown sleet needled into my back as I inched closer to the roost. A couple of Laughing Gulls were nervous at my presence, but the skimmers seemed remarkably passive.

Older naturalists always included the “economic benefit” of the species they described. Forbush writing in the 1920s, for example, notes that the skimmer’s plumage was of no value to the millinery market and that its flesh was not valued as food. However, “its eggs were prized on account of their large size. As Skimmers deposit their eggs without concealment on the open sands, the same fate overtook them along the northern coast of the Middle States, where they have been extirpated within recent times.”

Thirty years ago when I began birding, I never saw Black Skimmers in southern New Jersey. I saw one at the Chincoteague NWR in Virginia, but it was years before I saw another. Protection programs have allowed the skimmers to reestablish breeding grounds along the New Jersey coast, and they are now quite common. That bitter day a month ago when I watched them huddle close, occasionally taking short flights, and coming back together, was a delight. Had the weather been more agreeable, I would have spent more time.

On a delightful, warm, sunny day last May, I spent an hour watching Black Skimmers as they went to and fro from their roost in a coastal impoundment to forage in a nearby estuary along the Delaware Bay. Skimmers feed by flying just above the surface of the water. Their long, lower mandible cuts the surface of the water. The beak is open. When the lower mandible touches a fish or crustacean, the prey gets swept up, the upper mandible snaps shut, and the bird eats.

Apparently Champlain never saw the bird foraging, since he wondered how it could pick up food to eat. With an upper mandible much shorter than the lower, the skimmer can’t pick up food without exceptional contortions. But, it doesn’t need to pick up food , once it has learned how to skim the water’s surface, grabbing food.

Parent skimmers feed their young by regurgitating food. Young skimmers, like the young of many species, are often sloppy eaters. They can pick food from the ground, since the projecting lower mandible does not fully develop until they can fly.

There are only three species of skimmers in the world; the Black Skimmer is the sole representative in the western hemisphere. Skimmers often forage at night and have keen night vision. Audubon regarded them as almost exclusively night feeders: “They spend the whole night on wing, searching diligently for food. Of this I had ample and satisfactory proof when ascending the St. John river in East Florida, in the United States schooner Spark. The hoarse cries of the Skimmers never ceased more than an hour, so that I could easily know whether they were passing upwards or downward in the dark.”

Skimmers also forage at dawn and dusk when prey is closer to the surface, and during during the day when the tide is low. In the day time their large pupils, adapted for night vision, close to a narrow slit, much like a cat’s eyes, protecting the eye from bright sunlight and glare from the water. They are the only birds with such an eye adaptation.

I finally inched too close to the Black Skimmers for their comfort and they swirled into the air, long wings lifting them easily and gracefully into the gale winds. Buoyant and strong, the flock twisted and turned and wheeled in unison around me, but soon settled again at a slightly more comfortable distance from where I stood.

Birding on that nasty October day was limited to my brief venture onto the beach to see the Black Skimmers. But that was enough to qualify for Good Birding.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Sanderling - a “True” Sandpiper

I love the seashore and beach most of the year. I am not too keen about the seashore during the summer when the sun is melanoma producing, and the sand is littered with debris that has drifted from inland and is scattered in nearly naked lumps all over the place. But in the fall, winter, and spring that debris has been gathered up and returned to its city scape. Then the seashore beach is in its elemental form. The rising and falling tides stir the sands, smoothing them at the water’s edge, constantly reshaping the sandbars and dunes, and often casting up the ocean’s debris.

In late October, I walked some beaches in Cape May, New Jersey. The low sun of the waning day glared off the placid waves. My long shadow preceded me as I walked slowly along the wet sand, just out of the water’s reach. Another lone walker was far ahead, apparently more intent on exercise than I was; her pace widened the distance between us. I allowed the distance to grow greater as I stopped and watched tiny white shorebirds chasing the waves.

Their legs were a blur as they ran up the sand ahead of the waves. Then they reversed direction to chase the water as it receded - back and forth, like school yard children playing tag - or teasing a playful dog on a leash. The birds I watched were Sanderlings, and they are one of the reasons I love the beach along the seashore.

Sanderlings are common along our seacoasts except from mid-June to mid-July. During that period they are north of the Arctic circle, breeding. They waste little time in that task and are soon back along our coasts, chasing the waves. If you see a sandpiper on a sandy beach going back and forth with the water, barely getting its feet wet, you are seeing a Sanderling.

Audubon knew this bird as the Sanderling Sandpiper. Somewhere along the line, the mavens of nomenclature decided this was redundant, and dropped “sandpiper” from its name. But the Sanderling is arguably the only “true” sandpiper.

The “piper” part of “sandpiper” seems to come from a word meaning “chirp,” or “peep,” hence sandpipers are “birds that chirp on the sand,” or “peep on the sand.” The Sanderling and its closest relatives (in the genus Calidris) are known among bird watchers as “peeps.”

The Sanderling (meaning “little bird of the sand”) is the only sandpiper which you will regularly find on sand - or sandy beaches. I went through the Kaufman guide for the habitats where we are most likely to see other Calidris sandpipers. Here’s what I found:

  • Least Sandpiper - edges of rivers, ponds, marshes
  • Semipalmated Sandpiper - mudflats
  • Western Sandpiper - open flats
  • Pectoral Sandpiper - grassy mudflats, flooded fields (the “grasspiper”)
  • White-rumped Sandpiper - flooded fields, marshy edges of mudflats
  • Baird’s Sandpiper - grassy mudflats, flooded fields
  • Buff-breasted Sandpiper - short-grass plains, plowed fields
  • Dunlin - mudflats
  • Red Knot - tidal flats, sandy beaches
  • Purple Sandpiper - rocky coastlines, jetties
  • Spotted and Solitary Sandpiper (not genus Calidris) - along creeks and ponds

Most of these sandpipers will rest and sleep on sandy flats. On northbound migration, they feed on horseshoe crab eggs buried in the sandy beaches of the Delaware Bay. But their usual, preferred place for foraging, and where they are most often seen by the watchers of shorebirds, is not the sandy beach. Most would be more accurately termed “mudpipers.” But don’t expect any name changes in the near, or even distant, future. There is no requirement for accuracy in a common bird name.

The Sanderling is the exception. The Sanderling is a bird of the sand. It sleeps on sandy flats and forages at water’s edge on sandy beaches. It is a true “bird on the sand that peeps.”

The Sanderling is common, and it is very tempting to see it along a sandy beach - say to oneself, “Sanderling,” and go on to look for something else. But they merit leisurely watching. I stood watching them as the waves broke, spray flying. They were masters of timing - probing the sand, then nimbly running up the slope ahead of the water - then racing the water back down to grab new morsels stirred by the water’s action.

I watched a dozen Sanderlings probing wet sand where the tide had ebbed. Something sent them flying further down the beach. I walked closer to where they had been probing. Tiny little holes dotted the wet sand, an inch apart in random lines. My feet barely left a mark on the hard, wet surface. The tiny feet of the Sanderlings left no mark at all. Had I not been watching, this series of holes in the sand would have posed a mystery, causing me to wonder what could have caused these neat, uniform holes in the sand. But I had seen the Sanderlings.

Most of the year when we encounter Sanderlings, we see them in winter plumage. Then they are white, or gray-white, pale and chunky little birds. In Spring they molts into breeding plumage, briefly sporting a rich, reddish brown on head and foreparts. The times of transition from one plumage to the next present an array of in-between appearances. But whatever the plumage, Sanderlings are most likely to be on the sandy beach chasing the receding waters and speeding from the incoming waves.

On that Cape May beach, the Sanderlings were frenetic in their feeding, but fairly calm with my presence. By slow degrees, I inched closer. I could see them probe with open beak, gulp some tiny delicacy, always mindful of where the water’s edge was, whether to hurry toward the ocean or away from it.

And then suddenly, the flock took flight. In an instant, sixty birds disappeared over the dunes. In the corner of my eye, I saw a dark form. Almost as quickly as I could lift my binoculars, the dark form had also disappeared beyond the dunes. I could only get a feel of pointed wings, but it was enough. Sanderlings were foraging along the shoreline in the late afternoon. So was the Merlin. I had watched Sanderlings ingesting energy against the chilly autumn night. And now I wondered if the Merlin, a falcon of the north, would also be feeding.

I can’t choose between the two, and have no right to do so anyway. So I wished the Sanderlings - and the Merlin - good luck and good feeding.

The seashore birding that late October afternoon was very good.


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