Monday, August 31, 2009

An Evening with Loons

Visiting with the Common Loon family off and on has been one of the most peaceful and relaxing activities of a busy summer. We are very careful about not approaching too close, moving very slowly and very quietly when we are in their part of the lake. Often I will just sit without moving, waiting for an adult to come up from a dive. It is not uncommon for the dive to end closer to me than when it began, and for the bird then to come even closer. With only a few canoes, kayaks, or rowboats, sometimes with a occasional fisherman, the lake is a protected haven for the loons - and for us.

Sunday evening, one parent was tending the two chicks, while the other was fishing halfway down the lake.

The young were doing a lot of diving, but I suspect that was just to keep track of where the parent was going to come up so that they could try to outrace the sibling for the food.

As I began the slow paddle back down the lake, I came close to the adult who had been off fishing by itself. It was now busy attending to its feathers, a task which consumes a great deal of time for all birds each day ...

Notice how far back the leg is - the rear location is great for swimming, but renders the bird almost unable to negotiate on land.

With preening complete, supervision of the young was passed from one adult to the other.

Sometimes it only takes one bird to make for a week of great birding!

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Buzz-Cut Jays & More Families

As handsome as Blue Jays are, when they are molting in late summer, they are pathetic looking. This particular jay has been around for about a week, and he is beginning to get his crest back ...

But his "do" is still nothing to brag about, although I probably should not anthropomorphize, because yesterday I caught a flash of a Sharp-shinned going low through the back yard. So it is probably more appropriate to say that he is being on the look out.

But this poor gentleman (or gentlelady) looks like it had a run in with a boot camp barber who only knows how to give a short buzz cut ...

No other way to put it but ugly. However, this does show the relationship, physically, to the dinosaurs ...

More families have been coming by. Mother Rose-breasted Grosbeak (left) was feeding the youngster all afternoon from the bounty and generosity of my feeders.

Sitting on the back porch, I heard Cedar Waxwings in the trees overhead. Then one flew into a nearby maple, showing the red tip of its tail. But not an adult - note the brown streaking. And of course, that open beak and begging posture! Tough being a parent.

And finally, a Black-capped Chickadee ... just because I love these little guys, and they stay around all winter ...

In the evening we kayaked Sunset Lake and I have more pictures of the loon. I am still going through them, but you'll want to come back tomorrow for the loon pics (or at least, I hope you'll want to come back).

Good birding!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Summer Is Over

From the end of a bare branch, the Carolina Wren lifts his head and sings his bubbly song. Nearby, a second wren perches atop a scrubby bush and sings his song. Both look rather scraggly; neither sport the sleek, neat plumage seen at the beginning of the breeding season three months ago.

I speculate. One is an adult male, his plumage worn after several months defending his territory and rearing his young. Raising young can do that. The other is a young male learning to sing, imitating, repeating, and practicing the song of his species. Assuming he learns how to feed himself, avoid dangers, cope with the elements, and survive his first winter, he must then compete with other males for the opportunity to pass on his genes. During the benign days of late summer, he has time to prepare for both tasks. So he sings.

In the same weathered branches from which the wren sings, a cardinal chips loudly. The beak on this female looking bird is dark. Before long it begins fluttering its wings with the begging posture of a fledgling. Its pleading is acknowledged as the mother arrives to feed it. When the mother flies, the fledgling pursues her.

I hear the triplet mimic song of the mockingbird from some bush top. I cannot find the singer, but ahead of me a gray bird flashes white wing patches and white outer tail feathers as it drops quickly to the grass then returns to the branch. When my binoculars pick up the bird, it has the wide beak with pink of a fledgling. It calls loudly, and is soon visited by a parent with food.

A dark bird with a long tail disappears into the tangle of a berry bush entwined with vines. A second dark bird follows it. Moments later one dark bird, then a second, then a third, fly from the bush across the marshy grasses. They stop briefly on a tree branch, then drop into the tangled undergrowth. Young catbirds are following a parent, still the only source of food for their insatiable appetites which they understand.

High-pitched “sseee” comes from a dozen places in the tree tops along the field edge, and at first appearance the bird movement seems random and chaotic. Through binoculars I see dull, brown- streaked birds mingling with the handsome plumage of the adult Cedar Waxwings. The adults are flycatching, their sorties for food imitated by the younger birds who have not yet gotten the point.

Crows are milling about on the ground. One is fussing over something dark, going through all those motions associated with scavenging on a food source. As I approach, it flies, and with another crow, stops on a nearby fence post, vocalizing loudly. With binoculars I can see its beak; it is a young bird. The adult bird that perched with it soon leads it away. I examine the food that the young crow was scavenging; it is a scrap piece of black landscape fabric, with no food value at all.

In the hot, muggy days of late August, these birds are finishing up their summer task, that of extending their species into the next generation. For some, like the cardinal, catbird, and mockingbird, this is the second brood that they are raising and will soon send on their way.

Our temperate northern latitudes provide abundant protein resources needed for hatchling and fledgling songbirds. In our narrow view, we find many of these resources annoying, but those pesky flies, bugs, caterpillars, and tiny creepy-crawlies are essential to the continuation of bird life.

The birds which I have just described do not migrate, or do not migrate long distances. They can postpone their breeding until late in the summer (waxwings, also goldfinches) or they can raise more than one brood.

For the long distance migrants (the neotropicals) who go to Central and South America, summer is over. They are on their way. In Cape May, a New Jersey Audubon Society research program monitors fall migration with a “Morning Flight” project which counts songbirds for four hours following sunrise. The count began on August 15 and will continue through October.

I visited the observation platform at the count site early this week. At sunrise, the temperature was in the mid-70s, and went up rapidly. The humidity was over ninety percent. It was a hot, sticky summer morning.

But for songbirds, it was fall and time to go home for the winter. I saw more American Redstarts moving through the trees tops and taking flight than I have ever seen at one time. Their movement is underway in full force. In addition, there were Yellow Warblers, Northern Waterthrush, Red-eyed Vireos, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, several species of Empidonax flycatchers, robins, Blue Jays, Northern Orioles, House Wrens, and many more.

The NJAS website describes the why and how of the project and explains: “the birds are identified in flight using an amalgam of clues - size, shape, overall color or pattern, manner of flight and (hopefully) vocalizations. It’s the toughest challenge in birding.” Many very experienced birders visit the site and stand with the official “Morning Flight” counter. They are typically reduced to observer status.

After observing the morning songbird flight, I went to the wetlands of the Nature Conservancy. For half an hour, I watched an Osprey hunting over one of the freshwater ponds. It seemed like a young bird, not quite sure of how to do this. Several times it hovered, plunged into the water, and came up empty. From time to time a second Osprey joined the first one. I wanted to think that a parent was coming around to watch its progress, maybe do some coaching, and certainly give encouragement. But I don’t really know.

I thought the same thing when I watched pairs of Forster’s Terns hunting the fresh water ponds - that a parent was teaching a youngster how to find its own food. The young birds need to learn the lesson quickly. The time when they can rely on a parent is coming quickly to an end, and they will have to feed themselves if they are going to survive and pass on their genes.

I may be wiping the sweat off of my brow. I may be sitting in the river to cool down from the heat of the day. But I have many clues that summer is over. I have long since lost the battle to eat the squash as they are picked. Now they just pile up. Soon apples will be peeled and holiday pies baked and put in the freezer. Wood is stacked. In so many ways, summertime - when the “livin’ is easy” and the “fish are jumpin’” - is over. The birds know that.

Good birding.

Post of "Tailfeathers," Brattleboro Reformer, Friday, August 28, 2009.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Last Weekend in Cape May

Greater Yellowlegs ...

Green Heron ...

Forster's Tern ...

Sanderling ...

Sanderling (the "true" sandpiper, as opposed to most being "mudpipers") ...

Black Tern ...

Black Swallowtail ...

Good Birding (and butterflying)!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Common Loon - Icon of Wilderness

Eerie. Haunting. Mysterious. Other worldly. Carrying across the still water in the mistiness of early morning or the dimming light of evening, the song of the loon is the song of the wild and untamed.

As summer has moved along, the over-filled days of modern living have dissipated, and I take my kayak to a small lake high in the hills. Mixed pine, spruce, and hardwood forest encircles the water with its protective quiet. Moving slowly over the mirror surface on a warm summer evening, the noise of life is far off - perhaps a distant dog bark. Overhead a kingbird buzzes a short and high-pitched call. Hidden in the forest, the ethereal evening song from a thrush crosses the still air. Just ahead, a small round object moves across the surface, then quickly dives; its broad tail slaps the surface, warning other beaver of an intruder. Rippling circles move out from where the beaver dove and only the quiet evening remains.

Now add to this the eerie call of the loon. Many call it a yodeling, suggesting a sound or song similar to a particular sound or song we might hear elsewhere. I don’t think so. The call of the loon is a call all its own, one that could easily suggest unseen spirits.

I am paddling across a lake where Common Loons have been occasional visitors for the last several years, and this year where a pair of loons are nesting for the first time.

Icons of the pristine wilderness and secluded lakes, loons have faced serious threats from a host of human caused changes to their habitat: development, acid rain, industrial pollution, and even lead sinkers from out-door loving sport fishermen. In the mid-1980s, the number of nesting loons in Vermont was only seven pair. The Vermont Loon Recovery Project has significantly improved the status of loons in the state by working with citizens, hydro dam operators, lake associations, state agencies, and other conservation groups. Typically, loons do not nest until they are seven year olds, so it has taken time for the project to show results. The results are being seen; since 1994, there have been 2-6 new nesting pairs in the state each year.

I sit as still as I can in my kayak, watching the loon with the two chicks. Further off, another loon calls, and I see the second parent approaching. The supervising adult swims with the chicks to meet the mate. In the thick beak, it carries a small fish. To my surprise, they come within a few yards of my kayak. The fish is passed from one parent to the other, but it does not appear that the fish is fed to either chick. Instead, I think the fish is dropped in the water. One parent watches attentively as the chick looks under water. It seems as though the adult is coaching the toddler in how to get the food, giving it an early lesson in fending for itself. The chick dives briefly. Perhaps it is beginning to get the hang of it.

Outside of North America, loons have been known as divers. They are superb at it. They hunt from the surface with bill and eyes submerged. Then they dive, staying submerged for an average of forty seconds and descending to a depth of as much as 250 feet. Their bones are denser than those of other birds, an assist to the diving. Plumage is also dense, keeping them waterproof and warm. Their legs and feet are far back on the body, giving them good propulsion when swimming and diving. “Whether it be fishing in deep water and rolling billows, or engaged in eluding its foes, it disappears beneath the surface so suddenly, remains so long in the water, and rises at so extraordinary a distance, often in a direction quite the reverse of that supposed to be followed by it, that your eyes become wearied in searching for it ....” So wrote John James Audubon.

Loons are so well adapted to life in the water, that they can barely manage on land. They push themselves forward on their breasts; walking is almost impossible. The large loons, like our Common Loon, cannot take off from land. They need a relatively large body of water so that they can run along the surface, beating their wings rapidly, until they get up enough speed to become airborne.

This awkwardness on land is probably the reason for their name. “Loon” seems to derive from the Scandinavian languages and means “lame,” or “awkward” - as in the lame or awkward way the bird moves on land. But then the associations of the language continue to evolve. The call of the loon is often described as moaning, or wailing. By the mid-17th century, the English language associated the wailing of the loon with the wailing of lunatics in an asylum - hence “crazy as a loon,” and “loonie” - a fool.

Science has been more kind, though not accurate, in the naming of our Common Loon: Gavia immer. “Gavia” is from the Latin for seagull, which the loon is not. Johann Forster, an ornithologist and companion of Captain Cook, gave the loon genus this inappropriate name and taxonomists have allowed it to stand. “Immer” means “diver,” so the scientific name is half right.

Loons are “old” birds. Bird fossils from twenty million years ago closely resemble modern loons. The resemblance of loons to waterfowl (ducks and geese) is only a resemblance, not a relationship. Some studies have suggested that the loons are related to auks (murres and puffins) and gulls. Others suggest the grebes, and yet others the tubenoses, penguins and frigatebirds. In other words, their closest relatives among the birds is unknown.

What is known is that the loon is a bird of the wilderness, encountered on the forest protected lakes on the north country. There the haunting sound of the loon takes us far from the noise of traffic and drone of the media, calling us to be still ... be calm ... allowing us to re-create.

Arthur Charles Bent began the loon’s life history with the place where it raises its young: “The woodland lakes would be solitudes, indeed, did they lack the finishing touch to make the picture complete, the tinge of wildness which adds color to the scene, the weird and mournful cry of the loon, as he calls to his mate or greets some new arrival. Who has ever paddled a canoe, or cast a fly, or pitched a tent in the north woods and has not stopped to listen to this wail of the wilderness? And what would the wilderness be without it?”

Good birding!

Post of "Tailfeathers," Brattleboro Reformer, Friday, August 21.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Herrick's Cove

We kayaked yesterday morning at Herrick's Cove, an IBA just north of Bellows Falls. Water level was high so there were no shorebirds, except for Killdeer. Here are just a few images ...

Great Blue Heron ...

Killdeer ...

Common Yellowthroat (female) ...

Gray Catbird (recent fledgling) ...

Good birding!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Nuggets of Gold - Birds & Bees

In the ever changing cast of bird life in our backyard, goldfinches are now in the lead role. They are singing everywhere, and they are abundant on the feeders. Here are just a few images of these nuggets of gold ...

Evening Grosbeaks may be on a new brood ... they are common, but not abundant as they were a couple of weeks ago. The occasional juvenile is still seen, and of course, this handsome adult male ...

Downy Woodpeckers continually work the suet feeders, as is this young male ...

This adult male Hairy Woodpecker was constant on the sunflower feeder, going from one opening to the next, and scattering seeds profusely ...

The resident male Ruby-throated Hummingbird still tries to guard his exclusive rights to our backyard, but their are so many young and females, that he often misses the intruder, as here ...

Birds and bees offer constant visual feasts, and a quiet way to spend the warm afternoons of our late arriving Vermont summer ...

Friday, August 14, 2009

Vermont Summer

A proportion of a Vermonter's summer is spent getting ready for winter! - hence gardens, canning, baking and freezing - and getting one's wood in for the winter. I did that today by stacking my most recent delivery of fire wood in the barn shop - this is a double row, and almost doubles what was already stacked in the car part of the barn.

About a half cord still needs to be moved - maybe tomorrow.

Grandkids left this morning. Great fun having them here, but it does wear one out. Stacking wood was a relaxation - although they did help this morning before leaving, to the degree that two six year olds and one three year old can help. Carys' two boys, Adam and Zachary, were here (oh yes, Carys too, and last week their dad also), and Tyra's daughter, Celia. This is Adam (6) ...

Vermonters also head to swimming holes when the weather gets hot - you know, 80 degrees or so. Our swimming hole is in the river out back. Here's Zachary (3) being helped by Celia (6). (Obviously good genes in their background, cute kind and smart kind!) ...

In the early evening I took my kayak to Sunset Lake. The loon chicks are doing well, carefully watched over by their parents.

A warm, pleasant evening, and water disturbed only by the dip of my paddles and the passing of the loons.


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