Saturday, September 25, 2010

Bald-Headed Birds

Since August, I’ve had a sizable flock - or maybe flocks - of Blue Jays that make several noisy forays against my bird feeders every day. Among those jays was one whose head was bald. It had no sassy crest, no white patch on its eye, no dark line through the eye, no black necklace - no feathers. It was bald.

Off and on during August, a cardinal would show who was also deficient in head feathers. His red crest looked like he had received a Marine Corps buzz cut. He wasn’t quite bald, but he wasn’t far from it.

What causes baldness? As a human, I know that my severely thinned topknot cannot be blamed on my father,  in spite of his baldness, because human baldness comes from the mother’s side. It was my maternal grandfather’s shiny dome that causes me to hide my thinning with an ineffective comb-over.

It’s much more complicated for birds. Some baldness in birds is easily explained. Vultures are bald. Vultures are carrion feeders. Their baldness is an evolutionary adaptation which accommodates their feeding methods. Sticking their heads into the cavities of dead animals would cause the head feathers to become caked with all manner of rotting gunk. No bird can preen its head feathers. Even if vultures preened one another, the gunk would be difficult to remove. So they are bald. Their genetic code is programmed for no head feathers at all.

But what about my poor bald Blue Jay, and the buzz cut cardinal? Why were they bald? I would like to be able to give you a simple answer. But, I cannot. Bird baldness does not succumb to easy answers. There are several possible reasons for baldness in birds, and these reasons are supported mainly by anecdotal evidence, not by scientific study.

Goldfinch in early April molting to summer plumage
Molt  -  Normally birds molt their feathers in waves, a few at a time, so that bare spots rarely appear. In the bald Blue Jay, something may have gone awry, causing all of the feathers to molt at once. Eventually the bird will regain its feathers and its normally sassy appearance.

Mites - An infestation of parasitic mites on the head could be the cause. Feathers require extensive maintenance, known as preening. But the head cannot be reached by the beak, and the mites on the head may result in the loss of head feathers. Or the birds may be scratching their heads with their feet, ridding themselves of head feathers while trying to rid themselves of the itching insects.

Nutrition - I found several anecdotal accounts in support of poor nutrition as a cause of bird baldness. From a Los Angeles observer, there is this account of a Western Scrub Jay: “I called him Scruffy because, well, that was what he was - almost totally bald on his head and neck and totally bedraggled feathers elsewhere. He was also rather listless and ‘depressed’ for a scrub jay, sitting huddled on a branch for long periods of time. He looked and acted like that for the first several months I knew him (I met him in about July or August), until I finally stopped at a pet store one day and got the best, most complete avian supplement I could find, then got some mealworms from a fishing tackle shop. Each day I gave him several mealworms to which I had added a drop of the supplement. Within a week or two he started to make a dramatic improvement and after about a month had become a beautifully sleek and energetic scrub jay. I continued to offer him mealworms and raw pinon nuts, all of which he eagerly accepted. He went on to acquire a mate the next spring and successfully nested twice without ever again displaying any feather problem.”

A less likely cause of bird baldness is feather-picking. Some birds, especially crows, peck head feathers from others. But they usually attack their own species. And then there is the House Wren in Nebraska which attacked a nest of almost grown bluebirds.  One of the babies was almost completely bald after the attack.

Bird baldness is most often reported in Blue Jays and Northern Cardinals, but I have found no discussion as to why baldness would be species specific.

The conclusion is that bird baldness may be caused by any of the factors I have mentioned, a combination of those factors, or something else altogether.

In humans, there is ambivalence toward baldness. One bald friend insists that God made a few perfect heads and gave hair to all the rest. His opinion is not shared by the hair transplant and toupee industry. Samson’s strength and virility disappeared when Delilah shaved off his long, thick locks of hair. On the other hand, a female country singer carols her delight at the sexiness of bald-headed men. Humans can’t decide.

Toward bald birds, there is more unanimity. I did not find a single report of bald birds which toted their beauty.  The most positive thing I found about bald birds is “Lizard-Head,” followed by the similarities between birds and dinosaurs which can be observed when a bird’s head is not veiled under feathers.

In human terms, bald birds are ugly - whether naturally ugly, like vultures, or unnaturally ugly like my bald-headed Blue Jay and buzz-cut cardinal. I am happy to report that my bald Blue Jay  is no longer ugly. It  is a healthy bird. Its feathers grew in, and it is now indistinguishable from the rest of the noisy flock.

Good birding!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Early Autumn on Putney Mountain

Last Saturday, the Putney Mountain Hawk Watch counted almost 1800 migrating hawks, a very high count for this site. In the conservative counting done by these watcher, 875 hawks were counted in a mega-multi-kettle during a ten minute period in the early afternoon, the largest and most concentrated flight of Broad-winged Hawks recorded in the history of the site. Unfortunately, I was not present; I can only report second hand on the awe experienced by those who were present for the northern mini river of raptors.

Smaller numbers of Broad-winged Hawks (a few hundred) were reported on Sunday and Monday. Yesterday, Tuesday, my count day, the broadies were down to a hand-full. However, this adult flew relatively low and was beautifully back lit by the blue sky. It had a very full crop, evidence that during this early part of the migration, they do eat (apparently a matter of debate among some). Passing directly overhead, the bird offered an editorial comment on the voyeurs seated on the ground - note the trailing white streak. Or perhaps it was just getting rid of excess baggage.

Blue Jays also migrate over the ridge. I counted 200 hundred yesterday, mostly during the quiet early morning hours.

This caterpillar of the Cecropia Moth has provided diversion during quiet hours this week.

Finally, just a couple of brief samples of the emerging autumn colors which transform the Green Mountains into a palate of bright, bold yellow, orange, and red from late September to late October.

Good birding!

Monday, September 20, 2010

A Few Fall Warblers

Warblers, the jewels of breeding birds in the Northeast, are on the move, heading back home to the tropics for winter.

Blackpoll Warblers make one of the most impressive migratory journeys. They gather along the New England coast, then fly 3000 kilometers nonstop across the western Atlantic Ocean to northeastern South America.

Blackpoll Warbler - juvenile
Black-throated Green Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler - female
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler - juvenile
Chestnut-sided Warbler - juvenile
Good birding!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Cedar Waxwing

I am not going to beg to differ with John James Audubon. I am going to be presumptuous, and differ with him outright.

I have been watching Cedar Waxwings. During much of the year they are legendary consumers of fruits and berries. But from mid summer to early fall, they are consumers of protein in the form of cankerworms, creepy crawlies, and insects on the fly. In the neighborhoods which I frequent, they go into full fly-catching mode, pursuing their prey on the wing.

Audubon acknowledges the fly-catching ability of Cedar Waxwings, but he qualifies that ability. Here is the full paragraph from his 1840 Birds of America:

“They are excellent fly-catchers, spending much of their time in the pursuit of winged insects. This is by way of dessert, and is not managed with the vivacity or suddenness of true Fly-catchers, but with a kind of listlessness. They start from the branches, and give chase to the insects, ascending after them for a few yards, or move horizontally toward them, perhaps rather farther than when ascending, and as soon as the prey is secured, return to the spot, where they continue watching with slow motions of the head. Towards, evening, this amusement is carried on for half an hour, or an hour at a time, and is continued longer at the approach of autumn, the berries then becoming scarcer.”

I watch the waxwings along the river behind my home. They move back and forth across the river, from tree branch to tree branch. They ascend and descend in pursuit of insects, tirelessly chasing their prey. I have watched them mid-morning, mid-day, mid-afternoon, and until the light begins to fade from the sky.

Contrary to Audubon’s description, listlessness does not apply to Cedar Waxwings when they fly-catch. They launch their aerial flight with suddenness and pursue with vivacity. They are not ordering an optional dessert after a culinary meal of berries. Insects are protein, and from mid summer to early fall, the waxwings need to gather huge quantities of protein for their young. Insects are the most efficient sources of protein available. They fly-catch with alacrity.

Cedar Waxwings nest late. They don’t get busy with the task until late June or early July, a time when many birds are fledging their young and bringing their breeding season to an end. In spite of the late start, if food supplies are adequate, they raise two broods.

Last weekend on Putney Mountain, I watched adult Cedar Waxwings make regular visits to a white pine. The would fly-catch for ten or fifteen minutes, and then disappear. Then they would return and repeat the fly-catching exercise. I think they were foraging for nestlings or fledglings.

Last year, during the second week in September, I watched fledgling Cedar Waxwings being fed. Every few minutes the parents returned from a foraging trip to feed the four young birds. They brought protein rich insects to the gaping mouths of the juveniles.

This was not dessert, and it was not done with the slightest degree of listlessness.

Last Saturday, I watched a Cedar Waxwing perch on the end of a pine branch. Insect hoards hovered within my binocular field of view. The waxwing followed the insects with slow motions of its head, just as Audubon described, then suddenly, it flew.

With patience, and a significant element of luck, I managed to get a few photographs of the waxwing as it did its flycatching. (I also got many photographs of an empty pine branch, blue sky, and blurred leaves.) The photographs froze moments that happen so fast the eye and mind cannot capture them - the sudden mid-air swerve with tail ruddered one way, head the other, wings another  - a flying insect as it is about to be captured in the open beak. Frozen visual moments demonstrating the matter-of-fact agility of a waxwing in flight, in particular, and of birds in general.

Cedar Waxwings belong to the Genus, Bombycilla, which is a made-up word that may mean “little mover,” or may not. There is also a Bohemian and a Japanese waxwing. The former is found in the coniferous boreal forests of Eurasia and North America; the latter is found in Japan. On the end of some secondary wing feathers of these birds, there is a bare shaft. The tips of these shafts are often red. When perching, with wings folded, this is the red patch that we may see on the waxwings. The color resembles that of the red wax which was commonly used (dare I say in olden times?) to seal letters and documents - hence the “wax” wing.

Cedar Waxwings are known for their prodigious consumption of fruit; they binge on berries. But, some taxonomists consider them to be closely related to, perhaps in the same family as, the silky-flycatchers, such as our southwestern Phainopepla, an accomplished flycatcher. As I watch the Cedar Waxwings at this time of the year, I certainly see a very accomplished flycatcher. There is not a kingbird, wood-pewee, or phoebe that I have seen who can do it any better.

What the Cedar Waxwing also is, is a poor excuse for a songbird. Cedar Waxwings simply repeat a series of high “scree” notes in an irregular way. They seem to do it whenever they are flying, or courting, or feeding, or whatever ... unless there is a predator nearby. Then they issue an alarm call, a piercing “seeew.” Here Audubon is right: “This note is feeble, and as it were lisping ...”

Finally ... the Cedar Waxwing is handsome. It has been described (in Bent’s Life History) “as the perfect gentleman of the bird world ... he is quiet and dignified in manner, sociable, never quarrelsome.” He, and she, is polite and unselfish. The “plumage is delicate in coloring - soft, quiet browns, grays, and pale yellow - set off, like a carnation in our buttonhole, by a touch of red on the wing.”

Good birding!

Addendum - I send my weekly column to the paper on Wednesday morning. In the interest of full disclosure, on Thursday morning I was on Putney Mountain, and photographed this juvenile Cedar Waxwing. Note that he is about to swallow a berry. The waxwings were not flycatching, but instead were binging on berries. The timing of their dietary switch could not have been worse, at least for the point I was trying to make, and perhaps my credibility. Alas!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Good Day for Watching Hawks

Tuesday finally brought more than just a few hawks to the Putney Mountain Hawk Watch - variable winds, variable clouds and sun, cool temperatures, a light shower, as many as fourteen experienced hawk watchers - and lots of hawks. Final count for the day: 790.

Sharp-shinned Hawk (just after stooping on the plastic owl) - 79 for the day
Bald Eagle - 3rd year bird - 5 for the day
Broad-winged Hawk - 684 for the day
Hawk Watchers - 14 for the day, plus visitors
Next 2 days have a positive weather forecast. Hopefully the hawks will continue along the ridge. Good birding!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Hawk Watch Season

The Putney Mountain Hawk Watch season has had a strange beginning with unseasonably hot weather during the first week of September, followed by unseasonably cold weather. In spite of gray overcast skies, there was some Broad-winged Hawk movement on Friday, and again on Sunday. Saturday, a clear, bright, seasonable September day had very few raptors flying - go figure.

Almost the single, truly visible exception on Saturday was this Bald Eagle which passed low over the ridge ...

Bald Eagle over Putney Mountain

Cedar Waxwings are typically common to abundant in the trees surrounding the watch site, often accompanied by juveniles. Saturday there were a few Cedar Waxwings doing their seasonal flycatching. With much patience, and a dollop of luck, I captured this adult as it fed from the branches of a white pine ...

Cedar Waxwing
Cedar Waxwing

Tomorrow is the 14th. Last year on this date, I saw fledgling waxwings being fed by parents. Wish me luck ... and since it is my day as official counter ... good hawk watching.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Still a Lot Happening

This post falls in the category of admonition: "Hey, Chris, pay attention! There is still a lot happening around here." As for example, mother cardinal feeling a fledgling in the yard just this evening ...

... or this young American Goldfinch, who was begging to be fed just three days ago. It finally got the idea that free meals were at an end, and joined the several dozen other finches eating my sunflower seeds.

American Goldfinch - juvenile

... or this adult Song Sparrow who is finally growing new tail feathers. Last week it, and several others, were tail-less as they scratched for seeds. Compare the tail length with that of the juvenile Song Sparrow.

Song Sparrow - adult

Song Sparrow - juvenile
 Tuesday on Putney Mountain the hawks were still few in number (that will change in a few days) ... but a young Yellow-bellied Sapsucker was still dogging (birding?) its parent for food.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker - juvenile (center bottom)

Sapsuckers are noted for the small holes with which they riddle a tree, but not always. The youngster's parent pried a juicy bug (spider perhaps) from the lichen in a vee.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker - adult

Later the same day, and with the help of visitors to the mountain adept with butterflies, I managed a photo of this American Copper (about 1"/2cm) ...

American Copper

Good birding ... and butterflying!

Monday, September 06, 2010

Waterton Lakes

Waterton Lakes National Park in southwestern Alberta, Canada, is know as the park where the prairie meets the mountains.

Lake Waterton

On our last afternoon at the park, we focused on the prairie. We spotted a coyote which appeared to be feeding on prey, or carrion. As soon as it became aware of our presence, it disappeared into the tall grasses. I moved slowly into the grasses, hoping for a better photo shot. I never saw the coyote again. From the direction the coyote had gone, this young buck Mule Deer came running. He paused briefly to look us over, then disappeared over the side of a bluff.

Mule Deer (Black-tailed Deer)
Mule Deer (Black-tailed Deer)

I would love to leave you in awe of our encounter with this large wild animal, but full disclosure requires that I tell you about the large bucks with the huge racks which we saw early in that morning in Waterton Village. They were resting peacefully in someone's front yard. There were also a couple of does and their fawns grazing about the village. These habituated, semi-tame deer amuse the tourists. Occasionally, the deer also attract a hungry cougar (or mountain lion) looking for easy prey.

Mule Deer (Black-tailed Deer) - in Waterton Village

We stayed at the Prince of Wales Hotel, one of those old park hotels built by the railroads. It is picturesque in its own right, perched atop a glacial bluff and overlooking the lake and mountains.

Prince of Wales Hotel
Hotel Lobby

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Clark's Nutcracker

Thomas Jefferson,
Thomas Jefferson, our third president, was a republican (small “r”) who believed in limited government and a strict reading of the Constitution. If the Constitution did not explicitly allow the federal government to do something, it could not do it.

But then Napoleon of France stole New Orleans and all of the attendant Louisiana territory from Spain. The Emperor soon discovered it was more trouble than it was worth and asked Jefferson (via diplomats) if the United States would like to buy it for $15 million. The dollar was still worth something back in 1803, but even so, the offer was a real estate bargain. With nary a glance at his Constitutional scruples, Jefferson said yes, and with the stroke of a pen, $3 million in gold downpayment, and $12 million in bonds (government debt), the United States doubled its recognized territory. (Legal territory was then determined by European governments and bore no relationship to the people who had lived in a place long before the Europeans showed up to claim it as their own.)

Jefferson had no idea what the United States had bought; neither did France know what it had sold. Within weeks of the purchase, Jefferson had Congress appropriate $2500 for an expedition to find out. He commissioned the “Corps of Discovery” as a scientific and military expedition to explore the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase. The expedition was “to explore the Missouri River  and such principal stream of it as by its course and communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean whether the Columbia, Oregon, Colorado or any other river that may offer the most direct and practicable water communication across this continent for the purpose of commerce.” He further directed the expedition to learn more about the Northwest's natural resources, inhabitants and possibilities for settlement. They were also to watch out for potential interference of British and French Canadian hunters and trappers who were already well established in the area.

William Clark (l) - Meriwether Lewis (r)
The task of exploration was given to Jefferson’s old friend, Captain Meriwether Lewis. Lewis in turned named William Clark as co-leader. Army bureaucracy, being what it has always been, did not promote Clark from his 2nd Lieutenant rank, but the men all knew him as “Captain.”

In May, 1804, Captains Lewis and Clark set out with a party of thirty-three men. Their journey up the Missouri River, on to the Pacific Ocean and back lasted 28 months. The expedition documented over 100 species of animals and approximately 176 plants. Specimens were collected, described, and catalogued and brought home to the ever-curious Jefferson. The expedition even sent a caged prairie dog, which had never been seen before in the East, to the President. It was a stunning scientific expedition. Indeed, it was successful in every way.

Clark's Nutcracker
Naturally, birds were among the animals described for the first time to the curious residents back east. In fact, the only species they described which commemorate their expedition and leadership are birds: Lewis’ Woodpecker and Clark’s Nutcracker.

Meriwether Lewis has a step up on me (in myriad ways I am sure); my life list does not include his woodpecker. Hopefully someday I can come back and write about his woodpecker.

But my life list does include the nutcracker named for William Clark. He “discovered” the bird in Idaho in 1805. Clark noted its bounding, jerking flight, and referred to it as “a new species of woodpecker.” Many observers since Clark have reported this first impression of Clark's bird. Given everything Clark was doing, and did, we can forgive him this mis-reporting.

Clark's Nutcracker is, in fact, a Corvid related to crows, jays, and magpies. During my recent travels in the Canadian Rockies, I watched many of these handsome gray-white-black birds. They exhibited the Corvid personality: noisy, curious, and opportunistic.

Throughout the Canadian parks signs remind visitors not to feed the animals. Sometimes those signs would showed the profile of a particular “wildlife” that was not to be fed. In several places, it was the profile of a raven. Around Lake Louise, I think the signs depicted a nutcracker. We walked a popular tourist path along Lake Louise. At the end of the walk, I sat on a bench and enjoyed the view. A family was sitting in the same area. In the middle of the area was a spruce, and from a branch just above my head, a Clark’s Nutcracker called loudly: “kraaa, kraaa, kraaa.” The young girl was eating peanuts. She dropped one. The nutcracker swooped down, grabbed the peanut, and was gone.

Less than a minute later, the bird was back: “kraaa, kraaa, kraaa.” The girl held a peanut in her fingers and stretched her arm. The nutcracker made a grab for the peanut. Surprised, the girl dropped it. The bird dashed in, grabbed the peanut and flew. In moments, it was back again, having again cached the peanut for later consumption.

Like the other Corvids, Clark’s Nutcracker is omnivorous. It will eat whatever is at hand. It favors pinyon nuts, which it does not crack. It pecks and pries the meat out of pine cones, tears bark off of rotting limbs in search of insects, snatches young birds out of nests, forages ants, beetles and snails on the ground, and stores food for later use, sometimes successfully “finding” its storehouse beneath many inches of snow.

Clark's Nutcracker - juvenile
I saw three young nutcrackers with a pinkish tinge to their breasts. I have not been able to find anything suggesting that this is a juvenile plumage, so I surmise that the pink tinge came from the diet they were fed, perhaps berries.

Clark’s Nutcracker shares with the Gray Jay the folk name, Camp Robber: “especially in winter when other food is scarce, it comes freely to the camps to pick up whatever scraps of food it can find, and almost anything edible is welcome; at such times it becomes quite bold, frequenting the open-air kitchen and even occasionally entering the tent or cabin. It invades the vicinity of farms and houses, looking for kitchen hand-outs or picking up crumbs of bread or waste grain in the streets.” (Bent)

William Clark first saw the nutcracker along a tributary near the Columbia River; its species name commemorates this location: columbiana. Establishing its Genus took longer. Its old generic name was picicorvus, suggesting its similarity to woodpeckers and crows. It has also been classified with the crows in the genus, Corvus. It is now firmly Nucifraga, “nutcracker,” a relationship which it shares with the Spotted Nutcracker of Eurasia.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition was a remarkable undertaking led by a pair of remarkable men, and made possible by a politician who could compromise his principles. Their achievement has been honored in the common names of two birds. In the case of William Clark, Clark’s Nutcracker is exceptionally appropriate; the bird is bold, daring, resourceful, and adventurous, qualities which Captain Clark exhibited in abundance.


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