Friday, October 31, 2008

Birding Cape May

Birding on Monday continued in the afternoon in and around Cape May. Highlights were Marbled Godwit near Stone Harbor, and an guesstimated two or three hundred American Oystercatchers, but both species were distant through the scope. Sanderlings were chasing wave on the Stone Harbor beaches

Nothing unusual about this Ring-billed Gull, but I love the way the wind has ruffled its feathers.

The ponds and wetlands around the state park were full of ducks - Black Duck, Gadwall, Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, Mallard, and American Widgeon.

Have to take time once in a while to just enjoy the place.

Tuesday was a foul day, cold, windy, and rainy. I made a couple of brief excursions, including visiting the Cape May beach where a flock of Black Skimmers were roosting.

Birding at Brigantine

This past Monday was delightfully sunny and mild, making for a pleasant stop at the Brigantine Unit of Forsyth NWR just north of Atlantic City. Started the morning with a Clapper Rail venturing out (sort of) from the grasses. Wish I had the time to hang around for hours like the photographer we met, but this photo is at least recognizable.

Another highlight was this Peregrine Falcon on the Osprey perch. Digiscoping the falcon was hampered by the wind, but again, at least passable.

Savananah Sparrows were moving everywhere, and this one gave me a great view. More often, they pop up from the grasses, fly low, then drop and disappear.

Snowy Egret

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Last year, Pine Siskins were in the backyard on September 1. Yesterday, October 18, I had my first siskin, although I have been hearing reports from others of siskin presence. Good to have them back.

Only the occasional White-crowned Sparrow has joined the Song & White-throats. Here is Saturday's juvenile.

Also on Saturday, I had my first adult White-crowned, enjoying the largess of my sunflowers. Unusual to see one on the sunflower feeder, although they have often used the platform in the past.

When people ask me why they don't have birds at their feeder, I tell them to look in the woods and fields. Everything that bears fruit seems to have had a banner year. It's much safer for the birds to feed in thickets than at feeders. On the other hand, I do have a certain nostalgia for '05 when there were a couple of hundred sparrows in the backyard throughout October. but I hasten to add, that I do not have a nostalgia for the bird seed bill from that year.

Just have to include a Blue Jay; I love their "expressions," the sense of intelligence which they convey, their feistiness and ... well, everything. One of my favorite birds.

Good Birding!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Snow Geese - Dead Creek

Friday I made my fall trip north to Dead Creek WMA in Addison - a beautiful day. About 1000 geese were in the area, but they did not come close to the viewing area to feed. However, they did a great deal of random flying around. The Fish & Wildlife manager I talked with was perplexed by their behavior. His only explanation was the adult eagle hanging around in the early morning - an "eagle aversion," I think he called it. However, with the Adirondacks to the west and the Green Mountains to the east, and all splashed with color, you can only have a good day birding.

There were at least four Northern Harriers hunting over the fields, including an adult male within reasonable range for my camera - a beautiful sight watching him hunt.

The Northern Harrier prompts a footnote to Wednesday's hawk watch on Putney Mountain. About 11am an adult male harrier flew over. Around Noon in Wilmington (about 16 miles to the southeast), a male harrier was seen hunting over a field, according to an e-mail I received that evening. There's no way to know for sure that it was the same bird, but the coincidence makes it likely, or at least possible.

Good birding!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Mid-October on Putney Mountain

Yesterday, the cloud ceiling was 1400 feet. The Putney ridge is 1600 feet. Not much in the way of hawks (total = 1). Today it was a glorious fall day and a half dozen regulars were there to view the mid-month flight ...

... such as this Red-tailed Hawk over the West River Valley ...

... and this Cooper's Hawk, which was definitely migrating, but also hunting (note the angle of the head).

The day also included a visit by a reporter for the Associated Press and her photographer. With the time they spent interviewing us and watching us watch hawks, perhaps a relatively major story might be forthcoming on our quirky group of people. At the least, we gave these two pleasant people a nice day out-of-doors during October.

Good Birding!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Limitations of a Bird Guide

Bird guides are essential in learning to identify birds, but there is no perfect guide, and no complete guide. Every field guide has its limitations, and those limitations become especially evident in the Fall. We are at that time of year when we may see juvenile birds, juvenile birds molting to adult plumage, adults still in breeding plumage, adults in worn adult plumage, adults molting from breeding plumage to winter plumage, adults in winter plumage, and all of the above in some in-between state. Consulting a field guide can become an exercise in frustration.

American goldfinches are common on my sunflower and thistle feeders. I had seven goldfinches on the feeders yesterday, and everyone was different. Here is some of what I had: a little brown bird with black wings and white wing bars. An olive bird with black wingS and white wing bars. A yellow bird looking like a worn out summer goldfinch. A yellowish-white bird with the right kind of wings. An olive bird with plain, blackish wings and no wing bars.

What I did not have among those goldfinches was a streaky brown bird with darkish wings containing a hint of yellow. I try to look carefully for this variation of the goldfinch, because it is not a goldfinch. It is a goldfinch cousin, the Pine Siskin.

I looked at the American Goldfinch in three bird guides. Sibley did not show a single example that looked exactly like any of the goldfinches at my feeders. The National Geographic guide was a little better, but not much. It had a couple of examples which were sort of similar to some of my goldfinches. Kaufman was the most helpful with three winter plumage examples which were close to some of the goldfinches I have been seeing.

The American Goldfinch is common. Even though there are many variations in plumage at this time of year, identifying the goldfinch should not be a problem. But those many variations and the lack of examples in the field guides points to an important principle. There is no infallible text. There are claims (open to dispute) from some religious quarters that the Bible is an infallible text containing all the right religious answers. By extension, some people seem to think that there should be infallible guides in non-religious spheres, such as birds. I do not often succumb to categorical statements, but here is one: There is no bible for bird identification. There is no perfect field guide.

Let me give you an example. The Black-throated Green Warbler is a beautiful little summer bird with a brilliant yellow head, an olive back, dark wings with white wing bars, and a prominent black throat. I saw one recently on Putney Mountain. It stayed still long enough to allow me to get (if you will excuse the immodesty) a stunning photograph as it perched on a spruce branch. But, the bird I photographed does not look exactly like any photo or painting of any Black-throated Green Warbler in any field guide which I regularly consult. For one thing, there is only the barest hint of a black throat; that hint is noticeable only when I study my photograph of the bird and employ some imagination.

I finally found a reasonably close approximation of my Black-throated Green Warbler; it was in the 1983 edition of the Golden guide, the bird guide I used when I was learning birds. It was on the two pages of “Fall Warblers.” The old Peterson guide has similar pages called the “Confusing Fall Warblers.” The more recent field guides do not include side by side comparisons of fall warblers and often don’t even show fall plumage for a particular warbler. They should.

On another day on Putney Mountain, I managed a few photographs of a mostly little brown bird. It was a plain nondescript fall warbler, with just a trace of yellow along its flank. From time to time when it perched, or flew, it revealed its “butter butt” and so identified itself as a Yellow-rumped Warbler. The fall plumage of the Yellow-rumped Warbler is a stark contrast to the blue-gray bird with bold black and white and splashes of yellow that we see in the spring and summer. If the bird guide shows a fall Yellow-rump, it will show the yellow-rump, as it should. But as I have watched the Yellow-rumps on Putney Mountain, the yellow rump has often been hidden from view.

One more warbler. The nondescript fall Yellow-rump will usually (not always) give away its identity by flashing its yellow rump when it flies. For some other warblers, just a small detail of plumage betrays its fall identity. In a tangle of thick brush I grabbed a glimpse of a dull, olive bird with a tiny spot of white on the wing. The glimpse might have suggested a Common Yellowthroat or a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, although neither would have felt quite right. But the white wing spot was a field mark give-away for a Black-throated Blue Warbler. And just to make life simpler, a male still in breeding plumage popped briefly into view.

Often when we try to identify a bird using a field guide, we focus on the details in the guide. I remember many years ago when I was a novice birder, sitting in my backyard and studying the House Finches at the feeder. I pored over those little brown females and those washed-out red males, trying to make at least one into a different bird - a Purple Finch, perhaps. Every slight variation had me searching through the field guide open at my elbow. Very, very slowly I learned that the details of a bird in all bird guides are never exactly right.

Using a bird guide successfully requires imagination, letting go of the details, applying the impression of the photographs or paintings to the plumage impression of the bird you see. Sometimes field marks help, but other times size or shape or behavior are better clues.

So ... You are watching the birds at your bird feeder. You notice that there are a lot of goldfinches. Except, they are all a little bit different. So you begin to wonder if they are all really goldfinches. And you start looking in your bird guide. But also ask yourself: are they the right size for goldfinches? Are they behaving like goldfinches?

Answer those question in the affirmative, and you can confidently conclude that they are goldfinches. But watch out for the streaked brown goldfinch that is really a cousin - the Pine Siskin.

Good birding.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Bald Eagle "Kettle"

It was a beautiful day on Putney Mountain, highlighted by a "kettle" of three adult Bald Eagles circling up before heading south. Interestingly, some time later, two adult Bald Eagles then flew leisurely back north along the ridge.

Eighty-eight birds were counted, with sharpies being the most common. Many were low, and a surprising number flew over with full crops.

There were also six Red-shouldered Hawks, and the Red-tail Hawk movement is definitely underway, i.e., October's buteo movement is in full swing.

In addition we had Northern Goshawks which were clearly moving, and some Cooper's Hawks. Kestrel and Merlin represented the falcons. Just one Osprey - there movement may be about over - but the one was delightfully low.

Songbirds are still dominated by Yellow-rumps and White-throats, plus juncos, and a moderate movement of jays.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Why Do Birds Migrate?

During September, Putney Mountain attracts day hikers, picnickers, leaf peepers, nature lovers, lovers, photographers, and many others seeking some experience of the out-of-doors during the waning days of summer. Many are curious about the hawk watchers who stare for hours at the sky, wondering what they are doing and what they are seeing. There is a lot of on the spot education about hawks and migration which takes place.

Sometimes the education is planned, as when a school does a field trip to Putney Mountain. Some field trips are well planned outdoor classrooms; others appear to be a day out of the classroom. For as long as I have been trekking to the ridge to watch hawks, I have seen someone among the day’s hawk watchers ready to do an instant lesson for school groups on migrating hawks, solicit the help of their sharp young eyes, and convey an appreciation for the wonders of the natural world.

Recently I did one of those spur of the moment outdoor classrooms, explaining such rudiments of hawk migration as where they are going, and how they use the thermals and updrafts along the ridge to help them get there. Then I asked, “Why do the hawks migrate?”

“To get away from the snow,” a student said. “Partly true,” I replied, thinking to myself that the answer is definitely true for those thin blooded retirees who head south for the winter. “What other reason?” I asked.

“Food,” said a youngster wearing binoculars.

“Right!” I replied, and now he also wore a big smile. I gave an example. A Sharp-shinned Hawk had just made a very fleeting appearance as it dove into the valley. That Sharp-shinned Hawk was chasing a small bird, because that is what a sharpie eats - small birds. The Sharp-shinned has a long tail and short rounded wings that enables it to twist and turn through the forest as it pursues its food. Most small birds migrate south for the winter. If most of the food you eat flies south, then you also fly south. And so, the Sharp-shinned Hawks are migrating south.

Generalizations are always risky, and almost never completely true. To say that “food” is the reason birds migrate is a risky generalization. Even so, most migrations by most birds are somehow related to food.

Bird migration is an exceptionally complex natural phenomenon which science has only recently begun to unravel. The how, why, when, and where of migration is different for nearly every species, but in some way food is almost always involved.

Most of our favorite songbirds are not really “our” birds. They are neotropical birds. They fly north to take advantage of our temperate climate. Our temperate climate produces abundant protein during a relatively short growing season. Those annoying mosquitos and plant eating bugs in the garden are a bountiful larder for birds needing lots of nourishment for their young. Some warblers arrive on their breeding ground at the end May. By the end of July, they have hatched and fledged their young. They don’t linger to enjoy Vermont in August; they start south.

The same is true for many shorebirds. They nest in the Arctic, where the growing season is even briefer and where food protein is even more intense. They breed; they incubate; the eggs hatch. By the first week of July, the adults of some species are already heading south. The precocial young feed themselves, and a month or two later, guided by their genetic encoding, the hatch year birds migrate south. Their food in the Arctic will soon be gone.

Cold weather and snow are not, by themselves, the reason that birds migrate. There are many species that live in Vermont year round, even when the temperatures plunge or the snow pack is measured in feet. Their ability to survive depends upon finding enough food. If food is scarce, some of these species will migrate further south. Some of the weaker individuals will die.

Bird feeders enable some birds to spend the winter. Species which have extended their range northward, such as the cardinal and titmouse, have been assisted by bird feeders. A few Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks have discovered that they do not need to make a long, energy expensive migration. Instead, they can grocery shop during the winter from bird feeder to bird feeder.

Last year, bird watchers in New England were treated with an exceptional number of boreal species: redpolls, shrike, Pine Grosbeak, Bohemian Waxwing. Pine Siskins appeared at my feeders in early September last year and were common through the winter. This year, Pine Siskins are absent and it is likely they will remain absent or very rare throughout the winter.

It has to do with food. The availability of the various food resources that the siskin and other boreal species prefer during the winter vary from year to year. A researcher in Ontario gathers reports from throughout Canada and forecasts whether and where such species may appear. For example, the Pine Grosbeak is a mountain-ash berry specialist in winter. He predicts that Pine Grosbeaks will stay north of most birders this winter because mountain-ash berries are abundant in northern Ontario.

For the last several weeks, when there haven’t been hawks to watch on Putney Mountain, I have been watching Cedar Waxwings. On some days, several dozen would be flying out of the tree tops, flycatching through hordes of insects. As the cold weather comes, those waxwings will form into large flocks and shift their diet to berries. They will migrate about the countryside and towns, pausing for a while to feast on the fruit, then do another short distance migration to another berry rich area.

The short answer to why birds migrate is “Food.” Migration from mountain top to valley. From neighborhood to neighborhood. From boreal forest to temperate forest. From temperate forest to tropical forest. From prairie pothole to Gulf Coast. From northern lake to Atlantic coast. From North Atlantic to South Atlantic. From New England to the deep South. Somewhere in the species specific complexity of those various short, medium, or long distance migrations, there is a food component. The energy expense and dangers of migration is offset by the availability of food for survival or reproductive success.

Other times on Putney Mountain, I have pursued sparrows, towhees, and warblers as they have moved through the thick brush, feeding on the abundant berry crop. Occasionally they pause to give me a glimpse, and then I can see the feathers around their beaks stained with berry juice. They are feeding up so they can continue their journey south. It makes for good birding.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Another Day on the Mountain

On Putney Mountain today, the northwest winds were brisk and the ceiling was low. There were not many hawks, but neither were there long waits between hawks. Sharpies were streaking along the ridge, wings tucked, here and gone, but low so that picking them up and following them was easy. Highlights were five Peregrine Falcons and a Golden Eagle, the sixth on the year. When rain approached, I wimped out and headed home, but a few watchers stayed on.

During one slow bit, I went into the woods to "kick a tree and set loose some hawks," the euphemism we tend to use for the call of nature (another quaint euphemism). In the woods, I was delayed by this Hermit Thrush who posed very nicely.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

More from Putney Mountain

Early yesterday morning the clouds lingered in the West River Valley, but the view still extended as far as Stratton, with the fall colors being rich beneath the moist gray sky.

Only a few hawks were flying, but they were low. Their passage over the ridge was leisurely and we had some good looks, as with this morning Cooper's Hawk.

In the afternoon, against a clearing sky the third Peregrine Falcon to pass over not only provided all of the classic flight profile and characteristics, but was close enough to see its "sideburn."

Large numbers of sparrows, towhees, and brush loving warblers have been moving through, but getting a decent look has been difficult. This White-throated Sparrow finally stayed still long enough for a photograph.

Eastern Towhees have been even more elusive. Their "zwink" call has been common, but most often the only sighting has been a flash of tail feather as they cross a path, or mostly hidden glimpses as they rustle through the underbrush. Yesterday, one finally stood still long enough for this photo:

Then it moved into the open and stayed there while I burned up the memory card. Good Birding!


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