Monday, August 30, 2010


Late last week I got over to the Massachusetts coast for some shorebirding. Consistent with my experience the last few years, the best place is not the refuge, but Sandy Point State Park at the end of the refuge road. On the ever-changing sand bars and mud flats of the estuary, and the wide sandy beach, shore birds congregate at high tide - some to feed in the shallows and some to roost and rest. I spent a couple of hours in the late morning as the tide was coming in.

Piping Plover is an endangered species, but the Massachusetts coast hosts more breeding pairs than anywhere else. Most people get very excited to see this rare plover. I am almost embarrassed to say that I expect to see it at Sandy Point. This juvenile demonstrates the continued protection and good management by Massachusetts of the Piping Plover's nesting sites ...

Piping Plover - juvenile
 Sanderlings are "true" sandpipers, chasing the waves along sandy beaches (as opposed to most sandpipers that are really "mudpipers"). I think these two are in transition from breeding to non-breeding plumage ...


I would love to have someone tell me that this is a Ringed Plover, but until that unlikely event, this will be a male Semipalmated Plover ...

Semipalmated Plover - male
On a broad and debris littered beach, roosting shorebirds may be present in huge numbers, and may also be overlooked as they blend into the background ...

Roosting Shorebirds - plovers & sandpipers
Peeps are pips to identify, so I was pleased  when I picked out the White-rumped Sandpipers. This photo has the plus-factor of comparing size. The White-rumped, at 7.5," is noticeably larger than the nearby Semipalmated Sandpiper or Semipalmated Plover. Note the streaked flanks ...

White-rumped Sandpiper with Semipalmated Sandpiper (left foreground) and Semipalmated Plover (left background)
Semipalmated Sandpipers resting and preening ...

Semipalmated Sandpipers
Good birding!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Whiskey Jack and the Real Thief

“Whiskey Jack!” That’s a name that conjurs all manner of suggestive images. Whiskey Jack is also known as Moose-bird, Meat-bird, Meat Hawk, and most notoriously, Camp Robber. This assortment of names come from the north woodsmen who contended with Whiskey Jack’s thievery and found amusement in its antics, particularly during the short, cold winter days.

In 1840, John James Audubon wrote of Whiskey Jack: “when hungry, they shew no alarm at the approach of man, nay, become familiar, troublesome, and sometimes so very bold as they enter the camps of the ‘lumberers,’ or attend to rob them of the bait affixed to their traps. My generous friend, Edward Harris, Esq., of Moorestown, New Jersey, told me that while fishing in a birch canoe on the lakes in the interior of the State of Maine, in the latter part of the summer of 1833, the Jays were so fearless as to alight in one end of his bark, while he sat in the other, and help themselves to his bait, taking very little notice of him.”

Today, Whiskey Jack is known officially by the terribly commonplace common name of Gray Jay. In common name parlance, “Gray Jay” is a step down from “Canada Jay,” the common name by which Audubon and every other birder knew this bird until some committee recently lost all sense of historical place. I have no doubt that our good neighbors to the north ignore the committee and continue to call this bird by their country’s name.

Gray Jay (Canada Jay or Whiskey Jack) is a bird of the Canadian boreal forests. Its range extends south into the United States in the higher elevations of the Rocky Mountains, and into the boreal forests of northern Maine and Vermont’s remote Northeast Kingdom. Edward Forbush gave this description of its home and personality: “The Canada Jay is an inhabitant of the northern wilderness where it consorts with the mighty moose. Its home is in boreal coniferous forests and swamps where civilized man seldom penetrates. In these wilds it shows little fear of mankind. Its principal characteristic is its boldness ... Camp is no more than established when the Canada Jays or Moose Birds ‘rally round’ eager to snatch any bit of meat or other edible substance. They learn to go into tents and even into buildings ... and have been known to feed from the hand.”

The Gray Jay is a Corvid (Family: Corvidae), a relative of crows, jays, and magpies. Like the other members of its family, it is omnivorous, intelligent, and opportunistic as it makes its living in an often harsh and hostile climate. Perisoreus canadensis (“Canada” has been retained in the scientific name) has only two relatives in its genus, the Siberian Jay of northern Eurasian boreal forests and the Sichuan Jay of Szechuan Province in China.

The Genus, Perisoreus, means to heap up, an allusion to the Gray Jay’s habit of caching food, a behavior exhibited by many of the Corvids. In the Gray Jay’s case, the caching of food apparently enables it to begin nesting when common sense would suggest that its only concern should be survival. “Breeding Gray Jays build nests and lay eggs in March or even February, when snow is deep in the boreal forest, temperatures may plunge far below freezing, and there is no obvious food to support reproduction. In spite of such hostile conditions, Gray Jays have a high rate of nest success and the young typically leave the nest in late April, well before most boreal birds have even returned from the south, let alone begun nesting themselves .... Stored food enables nesting jays to feed their young even during a blizzard ....” (Wikipedia)

Like so many of the Corvids, Gray Jays have become the source of myth and legend. You might think that “Whiskey Jack” is a name bestowed by hard drinking northern lumbermen, memorializing their source of solace during the harsh winters. In fact, Whiskey Jack probably derives from “Wis-ka-tjon,” the name given to the trickster-transformer by native Americans north of the St. Lawrence and personified in the Gray (Canada) Jay.

One does not have to go far in an internet search to find photographs of the bold character of Whiskey Jack: feeding from someone’s hand, landing on someone’s head, stealing bits of food.

I have yet to have such an experience. I saw Whiskey Jack on my recent trip to the Canadian Rockies. He paused in a spruce tree along a popular, tourist laden trail at Lake Louise. He was shy, and quickly disappeared. The encounter was like the previous ones I have had in the Colorado Rockies thirty years ago and in Nova Scotia twenty years ago. On all of these occasions, my trail mix of nuts, dried fruit, and M&Ms was never threatened by a thief.

Whiskey Jack may have a reputation as the camp robber, but at this point in my experience, there are other birds which have had a much greater propensity for larceny. (Come back soon for more on this.)

But I have yet to experience any bird which could rival the brazen thievery of the mammal which I encountered in the Canadian Rockies. We did the short, but very steep, climb to Bear’s Hump in Waterton Lakes National Park early this month. At the top, the view was magnificent, but before we could enjoy it, we needed nourishment. We found a nice bench on which to sit and snack. Before the pack was even on the ground, a Golden-mantled Ground-Squirrel was begging - nay, investigating - poking his rodent nose into every small opening.

This creature is about the size of a red squirrel, but with a stumpy chipmunk-like tail. It looks like a chipmunk on steroids. And it is absolutely brazen. We shooed one away, then another, then another. When we recovered our energy, we stood to enjoy the view. Two robber squirrels immediately attempted breaking and entering. I stamped my foot and sent them fleeing, then turned away, then turned back to see four of the creatures swarming over our pack, around our drink, and through our jackets.

Whiskey Jack may have the reputation for camp thievery, but in my experience - confirmed just two weeks ago - the truly accomplished looters and robbers are mammals, like the Golden-mantled Ground-squirrel, or like those fur-less mammals (which shall remain unnamed) which continuously engage in planetary looting. Old Whiskey Jack, the Gray Jay, has the excuse of harsh winters (the sort that make Vermont winters look like a tropical interlude) for his rush to grab and cache food. But those other mammals have taken the brazen thievery of the rodents to even greater heights.

Perhaps I should not point fingers, lest - to paraphrase the words of that great American philosopher, Pogo - I meet the enemy and he is I.

Good birding.

Waterton Village and Waterton Lake from Bear's Hump

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

In the Canadian Rockies, 2

Jasper ...

Big Horned Sheep, ewe and lamb, above Miette Hot Springs ...

Athabasca Glacier along the Icefields Parkway ...

Yellow Warbler ...

Monday, August 23, 2010

In the Canadian Rockies

Morning along the Bow River, Canmore ...

Reflections ...

Life's web ...

Lake Louise ...

Yellow-rumped Warbler (Audubon's Warbler) ...

Saturday, August 21, 2010


Harlequin became a stock character in French passion plays by the sixteenth century. He was a comic character, often portrayed as stupid and gluttonous, a buffoon. But he was also nimble and acrobatic, performing cartwheels and flips. His head was shaven and his face masked. He dressed in motley - tights made out of discordant, multicolored diamond patches. His origin was probably in the court jesters, or fools, who itinerated during the middle ages, providing entertainment in marketplaces and royal courts. Recall the Fool in Macbeth who tries to lighten the king’s dark mood and speak a word of truth to the self-absorbed monarch.

In the natural world, Harlequin’s boldly patterned attire and acrobatic nimbleness is memorialized in Harlequin Duck (Histrionicus histrionicus). Among North American waterfowl, the drake Harlequin ranks second only to the drake Wood Duck for the striking beauty of its plumage. Harlequin is a small northern duck found in turbulent waters: rushing rivers and surf pounded rocky coasts.

Twenty-five years ago, I went looking for the Harlequin Duck. Our family was camping in Yellowstone National Park. The park’s bird list included the Harlequin, and I knew that the duck summered and nested along fast moving rivers. So whenever we stopped near by a rushing river, I looked for Harlequin Ducks. I had no success.

I did not see a Harlequin Duck until I moved to Vermont a dozen years ago. During my first winter, I made a day trip to Cape Ann along the Massachusetts coast. In the pounding surf along the rocky coastline, “Lords and Ladies” popped to the surface like so many cork bobbers. They swam briefly, then dove again, and bobbed up again.

I know better than to expect any guarantees when looking for birds. But, every winter along the Cape Ann coast, I see flocks of Harlequin Ducks diving close to the rocks. The flocks range from as few as six and to as many as twenty or thirty.

There are two North American populations of Harlequin Ducks - in the Pacific Northwest and in the Atlantic Northeast. In the Northeast, the status of this species is uncertain. Several sources suggest that the population is in series decline and may be threatened. On the other hand, Edward Forbush, the Massachusetts ornithologist, wrote in the 1920s: “It has never been my good fortune to see the eastern race of this rare and lovely duck, but in summer I have watched by the hour many flocks of Pacific Harlequins on the west coast.” It is hard to imagine that Forbush never visited Cape Ann during the winter. Whatever the larger status of this duck may be in its north Atlantic range, along the New England coast during the winter its presence seems to have increased.

The Harlequin Duck breeds along fast moving streams and rivers from the Gaspe Peninsula in Quebec northward through Labrador and eastward to Greenland, Iceland, and western Russia. In the Northwest, it moves from its wintering grounds along the Pacific coast to mountain streams in the northern Rockies.

Last week, we were in Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, Canada (the Canadian portion of Glacier-Waterton International Peace Park which spans the U.S. border between Montana and Alberta). We drove one of the few roads in this small park, stopping often to view the deep canyon and dramatic peaks of the glacially sculpted mountains. As the valley opened out, the road ran close to a mountain stream. We stopped at a picnic area so that we could sit by the river’s edge, and (in the back of my mind) look for an American Dipper, a small, stumpy gray bird that feeds by walking upstream underwater. There were no dippers, but on the opposite side of the creek, a family of five brown, nondescript ducklings were being carefully watched by an equally brown, nondescript hen.  Serendipity! Here were the Harlequin Ducks on a fast moving mountain stream that I had looked for twenty-five years ago.

I watched as the young dipped their heads beneath the water looking for food, while mother kept a wary eye on the human movement. Occasionally Harlequins will dabble. More typically, they dive to the gravel river bottom where they walk along the bottom against the current. They poke among the stones, eating nymphs, larvae, and adults of various aquatic insects. It seems like a much lighter diet than when they are along the coasts where they feed on crustaceans and mollusks, but apparently the insects do the trick. The ducklings I watched appeared healthy and vigorous, swimming upstream and scrambling over rocky barriers in the rushing waters.

The Harlequin Duck is charismatic with its clownish attire and acrobatic diving, as evidenced by its many folk names: lords and ladies, painted duck, totem pole duck, rock duck, glacier duck, mountain duck, white-eyed diver, squeaker and blue streak. But this is a tough little duck. It winters in turbulent coastal waters where rocks are pounded by surf. Adult Harlequins often suffer broken bones from the rough coastal niche where they make their living.

The Harlequin Duck family I encountered on the rocky mountain stream were all drab and camouflaged. The splashy drake is too conspicuous to hang around and help raise the young. He had made his contribution and departed.

My trip to the Canadian Rockies was not a birding trip, but when the birds came around, I naturally watched them. I rarely get to the remote places where so many of our birds breed. Encountering the Harlequins on a mountain stream was enough to make for a good birding trip.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Traveling the Canadian Rockies

We returned last Saturday from a two week trip to the Canadian Rockies in western Alberta - Banff, Jasper, and Waterton Lakes National Parks. This was not a birding trip, but when the birds appeared, we took the opportunity they presented (Please return Saturday for a column on one of those opportunities.)

The Canadian Rockies are dramatic, glacially sculpted mountains, as for example, this view along the Icefields Parkway in Jasper National Park ...

Clark's Nutcracker abounds in the mountains, one of those gregarious Corvids that I love ...

Wapiti (Elk) along the Bow River Parkway, Banff National Park, one of several sightings we had of this magnificent member of the deer family ...

Berry bushes were bearing mature fruit, which put many bears on the move as they begin to bulk up for the winter. (Berry bushes bearing bear's berries. -!?) We saw this Black Bear near Lake Pyramid in Jasper National Park ...

For years I have wanted to stay in one of the old destination hotels built by the railroads at parks throughout the Rockies. On this trip, we took the opportunity; Prince of Wales Hotel in Waterton Lakes National Park was built by the Great Northern Railroad. Perched on a high glacial bluff at the south end of Lake Waterton, it has an unrivaled view from its lobby, lounge, and restaurant ...

Monday, August 16, 2010

Game Birds and Flycatchers

Some miscellaneous photos from early to mid June that did not quite fit anywhere else.

In early June, Mr. Tom the Wild Turkey began making our yard a regular stop on his grocery route ...

Ruffed Grouse ...

Two Empidonax Flycatchers best distinguished by vocalization (to call either a songster would be a disservice to the real singers).

Alder Flycatcher (my mnemonic is "freeBEER") ...

Willow Flycatcher (FITZbew) ...

Good Birding!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Time Ran Out

During the second week of August, time ran out.

When we lived in Pennsylvania, the House Wrens arrived during the last week of April. Their bubbly, unending song began before first light and ended after last light. Six wren houses were scattered around the yard, and they used them all. Some only had a few sticks in them, but at least two, sometimes three, were crammed tight with sticks, except for the small cup that formed the nest.

They seemed to choose the box immediately outside our bedroom window for their first nest, which put their song very close to us for the first couple of months. Wrens volubly proclaim their every movement. And then the first nest would be silent. The young fledged and disappeared into the shrubbery and moved off toward denser habitat than that provided by the yard.

The activity shifted toward a second box, as did the voluble song. The second clutch of eggs had been laid even before the first brood had fledged, the female incubating the former, the male feeding the latter.

Many summers this scenario occurred a third time. This time the nest box was in the cherry tree at the side of the house, near the drive. The activity was in full gear in late July and early August, the wren singing before every entry into the box, and again with every departure, and often from somewhere in the yard as he foraged for the young in the nest.

Then during the second week of August, it was quiet. One day, I would be aware that the background noise of the summer was gone. Most years I could tell you the date when they first arrived in April, because I recorded such arrivals. But departures are more difficult to record. Unless you take attendance every day, you are not aware of an absence. You don’t write down last observations, because you’re never sure they are the last. One day I realized that the wrens were gone. The realization came during the second week of August. The wrens had left. I would not hear them again until the following April.

Some time after the wrens had departed, I gathered the wren boxes from around the yard, and cleaned them out before bringing them in for the winter. One year as I pulled out the dense stick nest from the third box the wrens had used, I found five unhatched eggs. Another year, I found four hatchlings and an unhatched egg. Most often I found four to six nestlings, perhaps half way to fledgling status. None were alive.

The nest had been abandoned and the eggs or hatchlings or nestlings were left to die. The internal clock of the wrens told them it was time to go. Regardless. Migration must begin. The wrens departed. For three and a half months, parental activity had been frenetic. The instinct to breed and raise young drove their every waking moment. Occasionally they must have consumed some insect or grub of their own, but these were quick bites squeezed in among the hundreds of trips they made to feed first one brood, then a second brood, then a third.

And then a second instinct took control, a more primal instinct than the parental one. Individual survival trumped the survival of their offspring. It was time to go, and they went. Quietly they headed to the thickets and woods, in a general southerly direction. They bulked up, adding fat for their long journey. The young in the nest were left to die.

Nature is a harsh odds maker, and it plays the odds. The odds of any fledgling bird surviving to the next year and being able to breed are long. Some estimate the odds to be, at best, one in five. The odds of an adult bird who has bred this summer surviving to breed again next summer are better. One in two is often suggested, sometimes a little better. The purpose for any individual is to pass along its genes. And that means playing the odds. Small parent birds expend tremendous energy and  effort to raise their young, but rarely do they deliberately endanger themselves in the process. To do so would mean an end to their genetic line - a dead end.

Small birds defend their nests against predators such as larger birds, or snakes. But they don’t sacrifice themselves; that would be a literal dead end for themselves and their offspring. The young they raise may not survive, but if the adults survive they may have another opportunity to breed in the future.

I have used the House Wren as an illustration and example. There are lots of exceptions to the generalizations I have drawn from the wrens. There are birds that stay together in family groups throughout the year. There are young that stay with parents as helper birds during the next breeding season. But for most small birds, there is a harsh limit to parental care. When the limit is reached, the parents focus their energy only on their own survival.

We often romanticize and sentimentalize nature. We are entertained, amused, and delighted by the birds which flock to our feeders, by their cuteness, vivacity, acrobatics, and antics. Sometimes we are upset when some seem aggressive, act like bullies, seem voraciously greedy. We scarcely recognize that none of them are influenced by human values.

I watch harried parent birds feeding their young. The young flutter and call and beg, and chase after their parents to be fed. I smile and think about how glad I am that my children are raised, and feel a moment of sympathy for those parent birds. But then I watch more closely, and I see that the parents are leading their young to food, showing them where to find food. Often the young birds that are slow to learn are driven away by their parents. Dependency by the young must come to an end; they must learn to survive on their own, for their sake, and their parents’ sake. A point comes when the parent must turn to its own survival and let whatever happens to its young, happen.

I felt a poignancy and sadness whenever I cleaned one of those wren houses and found a nest of dead babies. But then I reminded myself that even if those young had fledged, most would not have survived when finally left on their own. For the parents birds, it was time to head south, even though there were young still in the nest. Time ran out.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Tough and No-Nonsense

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the nesting loons on a nearby mountain lake. I reported that a dead loon had been found on the lake, apparently killed by the resident loon pair. A reader sent me an email, reporting that she was kayaking on the lake and saw the attack: “It was brutal and quick, the killing. They are such powerful birds.” I posted the email on my blog along with a photograph of one of the resident loons. That post brought this response: “Now that I've heard this story, the loon in your photo looks rather tough and no-nonsense.”

That is the way nature is: tough and no nonsense. Often brutal and violent.
So much of our lives are lived in a protective, artificial bubble, where temperature is controlled, inconveniences minimized, and life sanitized. But intrusions occur, nightly or even hourly, as modern media makes a disaster out of a thunder storm and a crisis out of a traffic jam ... where wars and rumors of war abound, where we are reminded again and again of how human degradation and brutality or just plain greed can destroy lives and livelihoods, and contaminate the pristine and beautiful.

That is how we so often look at the natural world outside of our bubbles - pristine, lovely, peaceful, a place of tranquility and regeneration. The spirit is refreshed when a rainbow sparkles in the sunlight after a gentle rain, or when the setting sun reflects across quiet waters, or moonlight bathes the night with soft light.

All is in order when we see deer grazing in a meadow, or a beaver swimming through a glassy surface, trailing a gentle wake. We love watching the sweet, little birds that hurry back and forth at our bird feeders. Even the chipmunk can bring a smile to the face as it stuffs its cheeks with fallen seed, tilting its head in curious observation as we stir nearby.

But that is not the way it is. The world outside of our climate controlled cocoons, outside of our frantic and over busy lives, outside of our technological insulation and electronic amusements, does not exist for our escapism. That world is an complex laboratory for life, a continuous experimentation in what works, what works best, what will best survive.

The chipmunk that most quickly learns not to trust the slightest movement in its vicinity, even your benign stirring, is most likely to live long enough to pass along its survival genes. Cute as it may appear as it gathers your fallen seed, its purpose in life is 1) to produce a new generation and 2) to be food for something larger.

I watch the songbirds in my backyard. They are raising their young. They feed their young with insects. They consume prodigious quantities of tiny, bothersome creatures. Is that good? But then a hawk comes through the backyard and kills one of those beloved songbirds. Is that bad?

Neither. Good or bad simply do not apply. Those are value judgments which may be appropriate as we consider our actions, the actions of other people, or the events of history. Creating a hierarchy of acceptable behaviors, articulating moral and ethical standards within the human community, is an ongoing endeavor for those who aspire to a civilized, and civil, world. Though it may sometimes seems like an exercise in futility, it is an endeavor we can never let up on.

For the rest of life on this green and watery planet, there is no good or bad. There is only the ongoing experimentation to discover what works best. Whether an individual or a species, the creatures which discover what works best survive; the others go extinct.

The loons on the nearby mountain lake are sleek and graceful in the water, and superb underwater swimmers. (In Europe they are called “divers.”) They raise two chicks a year. When the young are left on their own, they must learn to feed themselves, avoid predators, and survive storms and all manner of unexpected dangers for several years before they will be old enough to reproduce. That means that for the sake of the species, each breeding pair must take a no-nonsense approach to raising their two chicks each year. And if that means driving out Canada Geese and chasing off Mallards, and preventing other loons from competing for food, nesting space, or breeding rights, then that is what will be done.

The Common Loon is a large bird - nine pounds, thirty-two inches long, and a four foot wingspan. The adult loon does not have many enemies. Apart from humans, the biggest threat may come from the Bald Eagle which preys in particular on the eggs and the chicks, and on the juveniles after the parents have left them on their own. From a lake in Minnesota, I found this account: “The eagle attacked, not an unsuspecting fish, but the loons! It swooped in and landed on tree stump next to the loons’ nest. One of the loons then kept screaming that eerie loon scream, scolding the eagle. They faced off for about 10 minutes. ‘Every year the loons try to lay eggs here, and every year the eagles get them,’ an observer said. The larger loon stood its ground on the nest while the other screamed at the eagle. With the loons unwilling to budge, the eagle eventually gave up and flew off. The loons won this battle, but that eagle will be back. The war will continue.”

There is good reason for the loon to be tough and non-nonsense. It is in constant competition to prove that it can survive.

Quotation adapted from July 27, 2010, posting on the St. Croix Valley, Minnesota, website:


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