Saturday, January 24, 2009

When Good Birding is Not Important

BISBEE, ARIZONA: Last weekend we attended “Wings Over Willcox,” a small, delightful birding festival which focuses on the concentration of wintering birds in the Sulphur Springs Valley north and south of Willcox. Raptors flock to the valley. In places it seemed that a Red-tailed Hawk was perched on every fourth utility pole, with kestrels occupying the lines between the poles. The uncommon Ferruginous Hawk, the largest buteo, was seen overhead, perched on the ground, and on a utility pole. An owl roost included Great-horned, Long-eared, and Barn Owls.

Scattered through the arid grasslands of the valley are small wetlands filled with ducks, geese (including some Snow Geese), grebes, several herons, and a few shorebirds, all attractive to a birder in search of good birding.

But the iconic wintering bird, drawn by wetlands and fallow agricultural fields to be gleaned for grain, are the thousands of Sandhill Cranes which winter in the valley. They lift from their night roosts at dawn, filling the airwaves with their rolling bugles, and smudging the clear desert sky with their dark masses. People with only the most casual interest in birds gape as long, noisy v-formations pass overhead, as they rise from, or come down to, a roost with a cacophony of beating and braking wings.

Winter birding in Southeast Arizona is pale compared to spring migration and summer nesting, but remarkable nonetheless, with permanent residents, northern migrants, and Mexican vagrants providing innumerable opportunities. In Southeast Vermont, you might struggle to see thirty species on a January day; three times that number is quite reasonable in the basin and range of the desert southwest.

However, when we did our planning for this January trip to Arizona, our priority was not birding. Our priority was to be in a place on January 20 where we could watch the Presidential Inauguration.

On one of the birding festival bus trips, my spouse heard the driver say something like: there are too many Africans. I don’t want to parse the comment, but it did make me reflect on why a white male of northern European ancestry should feel such a sense of accomplishment in the inauguration of President Obama.

I grew up in the 1950s. My parents worked to build their American dream, aware of events but not strongly engaged in those events. Schools struggled to cope with the post-war baby boom; education was still slowly evolving from the simpler past. Political correctness and inclusiveness lay in the future. As I recall, history was a telling of the conventional truth, straightforward, simple, and perhaps even simplistic. But something in the atmosphere of the post-war decades infused my generation with an idealism - an idealism that accepted Jefferson’s Preamble to the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights as the way the world is meant to be.

Then other things began make their impact on me. I remember in the late 1950s traveling with my grandfather. I remember the first time in Virginia when we needed the men’s room; we went through the door marked “Whites;” another door was marked, “Colored.” Later we used the water fountain marked “Whites.”

The minister of the large church in which I grew up in Detroit was one of the great pulpiteers of his generation. To this day, I can remember a few snippets of his sermons. But I also remember that when blacks were being turned away from churches in the south on Sunday mornings that his pulpit made no comment or reference.

I remember a friend who lost his position as president of a theological seminary because he walked next to Martin Luther King, Jr., in a civil rights march in Alabama. I remember the chills which “I Have a Dream” sent through me, incorporating a vision of ideals becoming reality. I remember in the late 1960s walking with thousands in a civil rights march in Newark, New Jersey.

So many citizens have not been given the full benefits of our country, for the most superficial of reasons. I have to feel good that they feel so good about the realization of hopes and dreams.

In addition to what I view as a welcome political change, this Tuesday, January 20, is also a confirmation of youthful idealism - that there is reality in those hopeful documents from the earliest years of our history. I’ve been around long enough to have worn out the rosy lens and to grasp hard realities. For a few moments, I have returned youthful idealism. How great that is!

I enjoy a day of good birding. But even the best day of birding is trumped by a day of history and an affirmation of one’s ideals with their promise and their hope.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Arizona Sampler, 3

I'll be heading up Cave Creek Canyon later today and will be without internet until I finally return home around the 30th. I hope to have additional photos, and of course, columns and descriptions of the birding in Arizona. My columns are scheduled to be posted, as usual, on the next couple of Saturdays.

Sandhill Cranes, late afternoon, at Whitewater Draw ...

Vermillion Flycatcher ...

Mexican Jay ...

grazing American Widgeons, near golf course and treatment ponds in Willcox ...

young Black-crowned Night Heron, also at wetlands near Willcox golf course ...

Good Birding!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Arizona Sampler, 2

Sandhill Cranes ...

Phainopepla ...

Ferruginous Hawk ...

Greater Roadrunner ...

Loggerhead Shrike ...

Good Birding!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Arizona Sampler

Participated in Wings Over Willcox birding festival. The all day trip for Southwest Winter Specialties was very productive, traveling the length of sulphur Springs Valley, through farmland, ranchland, grassland, some mountains, and wetlands. In vicinity of Whitewater Draw, here are a few:

Ladder-backed Woodpecker ...

American Pipit (although we tried to make it into Sprague's, but then someone read Sibley who said - does not bob tail, and this guy was bobbing its tail) ...

Vermilion Flycatcher ...

Brewer's Sparrow (talk about a non-descript, little brown bird, this is it!) ...

Pied-billed Grebe and Eared Grebe (froze my tush at Niles Beach near Gloucester, MA, looking for this bird a few days before leaving on this trip) ...

More soon. Good Birding!!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

A Funny Little Warbler

Note: Sorry so few photographs - you'll know why when you read this.

MADERA CANYON: I am writing from a lodge near the end of the road high in the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson, Arizona. I have no telephone, no television, and no internet access. I have no idea when I will be able to send in this column; maybe when I return to Vermont at the end of January.

There is not much to do here except to relax, decompress, read, hike ... and oh yes, do some birding. I am not madly chasing birds, even though the mountains in southern Arizona are famous for the rare birds that show up here. Just watching the birds at the bird feeders has often been enough - the flock of Mexican Jays, not quite as noisy as our Blue Jays, but otherwise behaving like jays, the juncos, sparrows, turkeys, and Acorn Woodpecker.

But more of that on another occasion, perhaps. Yesterday I was at the mouth of the canyon in the dry grassland and mesquite looking for whatever. I met a young man who was obviously birding, and of course, asked what he had been seeing. He was still excited about the warbler he had seen the day before and told me about it. It was a Rufous-capped Warbler, a bird from central Mexico which on very rare occasions wanders northward to southeastern Arizona. I had already encountered other birders who had come chasing this rarity. I was ready for a different walk, and thought, why not? I repeated his directions several times.

About noon I drove to a nearby canyon as directed. I went to the end of a washboard gravel road that would make most of Vermont’s washboard roads seem smooth. Several cars were in the trailhead parking area. I suspected that the people from the cars were not hiking the rugged canyon trail, but looking for a rare bird to add to their life lists.

The trail paralleled a wash for several hundred yards, then made a sharp left. Following directions, I made a sharp right, scrambled down to the mostly dry wash and turned upstream. During the next twenty minutes I climbed up, over, and around stones, boulders, patches of running water and tiny pools of still water, each step ascending in elevation. It was rigorous, scarcely a step that might count as a normal stroll.

I was glad to meet a few people along the way. They were an excuse to rest without seeming to need a rest, to catch breath, and wipe the brow. A man had left his girlfriend in the area where the bird was being seen. She needed it for her life list; he did not. An older couple confirmed the final directions and told me I was only a few minutes from the area. Hiking alone, as I was, these encounters gave me a reassurance that I would not be alone should I slip on the next rock and find myself incapacitated.

At the last landmark, I climbed a narrow dirt path through dense shrub. Partway through I saw three people standing, staring overhead in my direction. I froze while they peered through binoculars. Finally they signaled me to continue. They had heard two birds calling. My approach had probably brought one bird closer, but they had no success finding it.

And so, in a long narrow canyon I joined three other people looking for a tiny bird that likes to stay in dense low thickets. The Rufous-capped Warbler, I had learned, is a funny little warbler. Its heavy bill is not warbler-like. Most warblers are sleek birds; this one is sort of squat, almost dumpy, making its tail look long. It likes to cock its tail upward, almost (but not quite) the way a wren does. The back and tail are olive-drab. Beauty comes from the bright yellow throat and the rusty-red cap on its head, a cap dissected by a sharp white line.

Skill and doggedness contribute to finding a rare small bird, but the key ingredient is luck. The woman whose partner had left her behind was here for the second day. The day before she had arrived about ten minutes after the young man who gave me directions had seen the bird for about two minutes at 2:00. She stayed until the 3:30 when the canyon became shadowed as sun dropped behind the ridge, and with it, the temperature. She was back at 9 am on this day, meeting an octogenarian who was already starting out of the canyon, having seen the warbler on the ground a few feet in front of him as he was climbing.

She had to leave at 2:00, but we heard a bird calling and went searching. Something moved in the tree top leaves. It was bright yellow underneath and streaked along its sides - a Townsend’s Warbler - a good bird, a beautiful warbler, an uncommon winter warbler - but not the rare warbler we were looking for.

I decided to stay another hour, then extended my stay another fifteen minutes, while watching the sun and the shadows in the canyon. When I saw that other people were still nearby, I added another fifteen minutes. I had been there over two hours. I had seen the Townsend’s Warbler, and I had watched a Prairie Falcon hunting above the ridge. Those were the only birds I had seen. The Townsend’s was also the only bird I heard, although straining ears tried to make dripping water into a bird call. Attention was grabbed when a butterfly fluttered across the canyon, or an insect busied around a tree, or a leaf rustled in the bare breeze.

A young woman was a few yards down slope, and the couple was approaching my perch. Five more minutes, I told myself, but I then extended another final five. It had been a good afternoon with bright warm sun. The climb up the almost dry wash was an adventure. The narrow band of riparian habitat along the wash contrasted with the semi-arid grassland with mesquite and cacti just a few yards up the steep canyon slope. There were no engine sounds, no modern intrusions, not even a power line or a scrap of rusty barbed wire. It was a day of good birding, even if there were hardly any birds to see.

I checked my watch. One more minute, I told myself, then stuffed my watch back in my pocket. I looked at a thicket to my right. Something moved low. Binoculars up. Olive-drab. Tail up. Moving through the woody stems. With one hand I signaled silently to the others nearby, while I watched. As they stepped next to me, I whispered where. Inches from the ground, the bird hopped onto a branch. The head was crowned with rusty red. It was still for about as long as it would take to say, “Rufous-capped Warbler,” then it flew.

We followed two birds as they flitted through the thicket, then flew across the wash, but the only thing that could clearly be seen was that there was a pair of small, olive-sort-of birds. It was now several minutes past my self-assigned departure time. They thanked me for the alert; I wished them good luck in getting an identifiable look. I started down the canyon.

I met eight people in the wash. Most had spent more time looking for this rarity than I had. Most were probably better birders than I am, and half were more serious chasers. I was lucky; the birding gods smiled on me. I doubt I did anything to deserve it. In the evening when I lifted a cup of nectar, I first toasted the birding gods and scattered a few drops as a grateful libation. But only a few drops! Those gods don’t always smile.

Good birding!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A Brief Sample from Arizona

I'm traveling in Arizona until end of January. Spent the first week in Madera Canyon with no modern conveniences, but peace, quiet, and good birds. Hopefully the Reformer will be able to run a column from the canyon on Friday and I can post it on Saturday. I'm working on the laptop and don't have my usual programs and tools, but here is an early sampling of some of the birds which stayed still long enough to get something of a photo.

First, the western replacement for our Black-capped Chickadee - the Bridled Titmouse:

Arizona Woodpecker ...

One of the most beautiful bird I have ever seen - Painted Redstart ...

One of several new sparrows for my life list, seen near Patagonia Lake, the Rufous-winged Sparrow ...

Harris' Hawk ...

The clown of the western woods, the Acorn Woodpecker ...

Good Birding!!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Wintering Robins

It was a clear, crisp, December day in 2004. The mid-afternoon sun gave a warm golden glow to the southern flank of Black Mountain along Rice Farm Road. We were winding down our long day on the Christmas Bird Count. We stopped to do a quick check of the scrubby fields, but did not really expect to find very much. We couldn’t have been more wrong.

In the shrubby berry bushes, we first heard Cedar Waxwings, then saw them moving rapidly, voraciously feeding on the fruit. Accompanying the thin buzzing of the waxwings was another very familiar sound - the rattling call of robins. We began to count them; after a few minutes we stopped counting and settled for an estimate which was more quesstimate - perhaps two hundred fifty robins were working between the woods, shrubs and fields.

Once robins have completed their breeding season - which may involve raising three broods - they begin to collect in flocks, often of hundreds, or even thousands of birds. As the season progresses, their diet also shifts from animal protein during spring and summer (earthworms, grubs, insects and the like) to vegetable matter, principally fruit in the fall and winter.

These large flocks wander, roam, and migrate. My late October trip to Cape May coincided with the passage of robins through southern New Jersey. Huge numbers of robins fell out of the morning sky after their night flight, feeding on the junipers, winterberry, bittersweet, sumac, and other berries. (Not coincidentally, the robins’ descent into the trees and shrubs was followed by Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks.)

The American Robin is one of the most widespread, familiar, adaptable, and successful species in North America. Except for southern Florida, extreme southern Texas, and the southern Arizona and California deserts, it breeds throughout the continent, north to the Arctic tree line. As winter approaches, it abandons its northern range and heads south. Most range maps show it absent from the northern Rockies, northern Great Plains and most of New England in the winter. But not necessarily ... when I went north to Montreal a few winters ago in pursuit of the Great Gray Owl, I also saw many wintering robins.

Unfortunately, that wonderful old piece of folklore about “Spring is on its way, I just saw the first robin” is not true. Robins can be found just about anywhere in the lower forty-eight during the winter. While typically wintering in large flocks, those flocks can be very nomadic; if their nomadic ways don’t intersect with our ways, then we conclude that they are not present - gone south.

The robins that nest in our neighborhood have probably gone south, while the hardier birds which breed far to the north, have moved down to replace them. But, through the whole continent, there is little variation in the American Robin (Turdus migratorius), an indication that breeding populations are constantly being mixed. Only in Sibley’s Guide are regional variations noted, and those variations are very minor - western robins have limited white tail corners - Atlantic Canada robins have a blacker nape and upper back.

The species name, “migratorius,” does suggest that a characteristic of the robin is its migration, but that migration pales when compared with the epic journeys of many other (perhaps most other) song birds.

The American Robin belongs to the thrush family, subfamily Turdinae, and the Genus Turdus. It is the only member of its Genus which any of us are likely to see. Rufous-backed Robin and Clay-colored Robin are accidental at a few places near the southern border, and the Fieldfare from Europe turns up in the East only on very rare occasions. The full common name of Turdus migratorius” is “American Robin,” but it is so common that almost everyone knows what you are talking about when you talk about “robins.”

Nevertheless, we should never underestimate the ability of grammar to create confusion. When looking for information, I googled “winter robin” and found many articles referring to, or even titled, “Winter Robin.” “Winter Robin” sounds like the common name of a bird species, and I have had a couple of occasions when I have had to explain otherwise. “Winter robin” refers to an American Robin that is wintering in a wintery area - staying the winter, or being seen during the winter. It might better be referred to as a “wintering” robin. Not all robins abandon our north country and head south. Not all robins pass through our north country for more temperate winter climes. Some robins, probably from father north, stop here, and may even stay here for the winter. They are wintering.

You should not be surprised to see robins throughout the winter. They are warm-blooded. They have remarkable insulation from their down feathers. They can maintain body heat through a cold night by shivering. They can survive as long as they can get enough food during the day to replenish their stored fat reserves.

There are factors which will affect whether you see robins during the winter or not. The biggest correlation seems to be snow cover. Data from the Great Backyard Bird Count done annually in mid-February indicates that the probability of seeing robins drops “dramatically in areas with even just a few centimeters of snow cover.” Unusually low snow cover often results in unusually high numbers of robins, a pattern which has been seen over several years of accumulated data. It seems that robins, which are primarily ground feeders, avoid snow-covered areas ... usually. But not always. I had a bumper crop of apples this past summer. Much of the fruit is still on the trees, but a few apples drop every day. During the week after Christmas, with snow cover in excess of twelve inches, I had robins feeding on the apples in the tree and on the ground. I watched a pair excavate a large hole in one fallen apple, happily scarfing down the fruit. The fruit was mildly fermented (in all probability), so they were getting a buzz along with their meal.

Robins are self-sufficient and quite capable of finding their own food sources. If they appear around backyard feeders, it is because there is some other food source. They do not eat bird seed; their stomach and intestines are not designed to digest such food. Some people have enticed robins to bird feeders by putting out cut up fruits (apples, pears, cranberries, blueberries), softened dog food, or a variety of worms. The problem is that most robins have never heard of such a thing as a bird feeder. It just doesn’t occur to them to seek human handouts. It has been suggested that putting out “robin food” during severe weather might be helpful, but it is more likely that the squirrels will find the food before the robins do.

Do not be surprised if you see robins during the winter. They are American Robins which are wintering - hence “wintering” robins. Their rattling call can brighten the dreariest of winter days, and should any of those winter days turn pleasant and mild, they are likely to burst into cheerful caroling.

Good birding!

Monday, January 05, 2009

Birding Cape Ann

I finally got over to Gloucester, Massachusetts, for a day of winter coastal birding. The highlights of the day were a King Eider (too distant for a good picture, but very recognizable), Thick-billed Murre (way too distant to even try for a picture), and Dovekie (barely popped to the surface before diving again).

Among the unusual wintering gulls, was the Black-headed Gull (in rear near rock). Even though the gull is small in this photo, I liked the other gulls and ducks in the foreground. (Greater Black-backed, Herring, Common Eider, female Red-breasted Merganser). This was near the fishing pier in Gloucester Harbor.

Also in the harbor was a first year Iceland Gull, or as the more precise and obsessive birders like to say, a "Kumlien's" Gull (a subspecies of a difficult to classify light-colored, or light gulls).

On Niles Pond, there were at least four additional Iceland (Kumlien) Gulls among the many Greater Black-backed and Herring Gulls of assorted ages. Also at least two Glaucous Gulls and a Nelson's (Glaucous x Herring. Hockey players kept the roosting gulls at a considerable distance. Glaucous is the large white gull in the center.

Sea ducks are always a significant feature of winter coastal birding, and all of the usual suspects were there, including all three scoters. This White-winged Scoter was quite close ...

... and one of the showiest of all ducks, the Harlequin Duck.

A day of Good Birding.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

The Peter-bird

Just before the January thaw came along in late December, I was bringing in an armload of firewood. Through the crisp winter air I heard clear whistled notes: “peeer ... peeer ... peeer.” Though the wind was cold, I had to pause my usually brisk pace to be sure I had heard correctly: “peer ... peer ... peer.” A Tufted Titmouse was singing. Was he a weather prognosticator who knew a warm front was on the way? And did that prompt him to get a early start in attracting a mate? Or was he just singing because the sun had made a brief appearance? - a cause for celebration during a weather-bleak week.

Later, I heard those clear whistled notes again, the song penetrating the insulated kitchen windows. Sometimes “peeer”- sometimes “pee-ter,” - the latter contributing the folk name, “Peter-bird.”

Rather common, at least in the valleys, the Tufted Titmouse is a newcomer to Vermont - a flatlander from the south. Edward Forbush, the Massachusetts’ ornithologists, knew so little about this bird that he had to draw on the accounts of others for his description. The titmouse was a rarity in New England when he did his major work in the first half of the twentieth century. He listed its range as extending only to New Jersey and southern Pennsylvania.

The first breeding record for the titmouse in our state was in 1975 in Dorset. During the first Vermont Breeding Bird Atlas (1976-1981), there were only seven confirmed breeding records of the Tufted Titmouse (one was in Brattleboro). There was one probable breeding record, and five possible breeding records. The Breeding Bird Atlas just completed recorded confirmations in survey blocks throughout the state. There is now no surprise at the presence of the Tufted Titmouse.

The Tufted Titmouse is a cavity nester, often taking over the old hole of the Downy Woodpecker. Primarily a forest bird, once the breeding season is complete it becomes a foraging opportunist. Audubon wrote that “it approaches the plantations, and even resorts to the granaries for corn.” Today, it uses the opportunities provided by bird feeders.

Audubon’s description of the titmouse’s feeding technique is worth quoting: “It moves along the branches, searches in the chinks, flies to the end of twigs and hangs to them by its feet, whilst the bill is engaged in detaching a beech or hazel nut, an acorn or a chinquapin, upon all of which it feeds, removing them to a large branch, where, having secured them in a crevice, it holds them with both feet, and breaks the shell by repeated blows of its bills. They are to be seen thus employed for many minutes at a time.”

I watch the titmouse do almost exactly what Audubon described, except that the “nut” which it carries to a tree to pound open with its beak is a sunflower seed. During its passage through the backyard, it goes back and forth from the feeder to a tree branch where it pries out the nutritious meat.

The strange name, “titmouse,” seems to derive from two Middle English words both of which have antecedents in earlier Germanic languages. “Tit” is a general term for anything small, while “mouse” derives from “mose” and means something like, “small bird.” So “titmouse” means (redundantly) a “small small-bird.” A few fussy language pedants insist that the plural of “titmouse” should be “titmouses,” but they are fighting a lost battle. “Titmice” is the accepted plural. Oh well, says one source, the bird has a mouse-like movement, so we should probably go along with more that one being “mice.”

Sometimes when I consult Audubon’s “Birds of America,” I have difficulty finding the bird I want to read about because his names are often different than the current common names. I did not have trouble figuring out that our Tufted Titmouse is Audubon’s Crested Titmouse. But his account of the Crested Titmouse was then followed by accounts of the Black-cap Titmouse, Carolina Titmouse, Hudson’s Bay Titmouse, and several more titmice (titmouses!).

The latter accounts all described chickadees, respectively the Black-capped, Carolina, and Boreal Chickadees. Audubon was using the English term applied to members of the genus, Parus, which in his time included many closely related and similar appearing species, all of which bore the name “titmouse.” The North American titmice and chickadees, and the European titmice, still belong to the same family, Paridae, but DNA studies have resulted in separating them into six distinct genera. In North America, there are two genera, one for chickadees and one for titmice. All have strong legs and short, stout bills. The chickadees all have a dark cap and bib; the titmice all have a short crest.

Perhaps you are now feeling that this is more name and classification information than you really need. That the Tufted Titmouse and Black-capped Chickadee are closely related can be seen by watching their similar behavior, as for example, the manner in which both open up sunflower seeds. Both are responsive, curious, and often very tame. They may travel together in the same foraging groups along with nuthatches and woodpeckers.

The chickadee is easily recognized by its most familiar call, the name-saying “chick-a-dee-dee-dee,” but it also has a variety of other calls which it uses to communicate with other chickadees. However, sometimes the chickadees that are calling are not chickadees. Sometimes the call (to use Sibley’s description) is a series of angry, nasal, rising notes: “sii, sii, zhree, zhree, zhree.” Or they are whining scolds: “sesee-jjeeer” (Kaufman). Then we are hearing the Tufted Titmouse.

The Tufted Titmouse, like so many of our winter birds, is rather drab - gray above, white below, with rusty orange along its flank. What it lacks in showiness, it makes up for in attitude - or at least in the attitude it evokes within me. I am cheered, and amused, and entertained whenever the titmouse comes to the feeder.

And best of all, it seems to grab at the flimsiest excuse to sing. A brief peek of sun on a crisp winter day, and I am greeted with the clear whistled “peeer ... peeer ... peeer” or “pee-ter ... pee-ter ... pee-ter” of the Peter-bird - the Tufted Titmouse.

Good birding!

Thursday, January 01, 2009

New Birds for the Year List

One of the great things about January 1 is that all the birds you see on this day are new birds for the Year List! I think I will venture into the cold and see how many I can come up with.

I'm still waiting this morning for my tailless Song Sparrow to drop by - he/she has been a daily regular. I wonder if this is a late molt, or the result of a "close encounter."

Purple Finches are not expected in my neighborhood in mid-winter, but occasionally come by. They are often missed on the CBC; I presume they normally winter further south. Since I have seen 3 males and 3 females at different times, I presume there are at least 6 around.

White-throated Sparrow is also a winter rarity in my yard, but tan-striped morph has been a regular.


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