Monday, November 29, 2010


Northern Pintail
Hooded Merganser
Ruddy Duck
Ruddy Duck
Green-winged Teal
American Widgeon

Images from Cape May in late October. Good birding!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Unexpected Winter Birds

Dark-eyed Junco in February - a common winter sparrow
It is only a matter of time before winter arrives in full fury. Freezing nighttime temperatures are becoming more common than frosty nighttime temperatures.

You see the effects of this reality whenever you look at your bird feeders, go out for the mail, wander in the woods, or amble a town street. Most species which fill our woods and fields with song and movement from late Spring through early Fall are gone.

Internet bird notes and e-mail bird list-serves provide regular updates about what is being seen where; in particular they report on the unusual and unexpected birds for this time of year and our corner of the world. When someone from outside of the active bird watching community sees something that strikes them as unusual or unexpected, the report often comes with a surprised, “I’ve never seen that bird around here” ... or an implied, “What is that bird doing here at this time of year?”

Red-bellied Woodpecker in February
In the category of “never seen that bird before,” there are two which often bring such a response in southeastern Vermont. One is the Red-bellied Woodpecker. A feathered flatlander, this southern species has been extending its range northward. The first confirmed nesting in Vermont was in Brattleboro in 2001. Like the Downy, Hairy, and Pileated Woodpeckers, it does not migrate.

An aside: Birders have an imprecise vocabulary for describing bird populations: Abundant (you can’t miss it) - Common (you will probably see it) - Uncommon (you might see it if you are lucky, but no surprise) - Rare (you are really lucky if you see) - Accidental (you won’t see it because it just doesn’t belong here).

Red-bellied Woodpecker is uncommon in southeastern Vermont. You might see it, but it’s no surprise. It may even live in your neighborhood, in which case you will think it is common. The Red-bellied Woodpecker population in our area has grown significantly since its first nesting in 2001. It may not be too long before it will be as common as the Downy or Hairy Woodpecker. The Red-bellied is larger than the Hairy Woodpecker. It has a red stripe over the top and back of its head, a plain white breast, a barred black and white back, and a red belly that is almost never seen.

Caroline Wren in December
Also uncommon is the Carolina Wren. Like the Red-bellied Woodpecker, this is a southern species which is moving northward. Unlike our other wrens, the House, Winter, and Marsh Wrens, it does not migrate, though in severe weather it may “withdraw” (which may mean that many individuals get done-in by the severe weather). The Carolina Wren is solitary, or in pairs. It stays on territory year-round, and defends its territory against other intruding Carolina Wrens. It has the delightful habit of singing year-round. If you have a Carolina Wren, you may hear its rich, rolling, triplet notes that sound something like “tea-kettle, tea-kettle, tea-kettle” or “chur-ee, chur-ee, chur-ee.”  This wren will sing any time during the day, and any time during the year, except in the most atrocious weather.

American Robin in January
In the category of “What is that bird doing here at this time of year?”, there are also two that commonly elicit the question. The first is often reported with words such as, “I just saw a robin!” This is followed by, “It sure doesn’t look like spring out there to me!” or “Aren’t they supposed to go south for the winter?” No, it is not spring and won’t be for some months, and, yes, and they do go south. But for American Robins which nest far north in Canada, this is the south! Most range maps for the robin show it as a year-round resident in southern New England, barely fifty miles to the south of my home. Birds are not very good at reading range maps, however, and consequently robins may be seen in our region any month of the year. Some robins, I am sure, winter in our woods. Others move north and south with changes in the weather.

American Robin in February
I grew up watching robins hunting earth worms on the lawn of my city home, and so concluded that robins eat worms. But like most birds, they are omnivorous. Worms provide protein for nestlings during Spring and Summer, but during the rest of the year, berries and fruit with their high sugar content fuel a robin’s energy needs and keep its metabolism functioning.

In Spring, the robins disperse in pairs to raise their young. They are seen everywhere. If you don’t see or hear a robin when outdoors during the breeding season, you simply are not looking or listening. But in winter, they gather in flocks and wander about. Int the last ten years, the Brattleboro Area Christmas Bird Count has recorded robins every year except one. The number counted has ranged from one robin, to over 150 robins. During winter, there is no assurance that you will see a robin on any given day, but on any given day you may see a robin.

What is true for the American Robin is also true for another member of the thrush family, the Eastern Bluebird. If the response to the winter sighting of a robin is surprise, the response to a winter sighting of a bluebird is likely to be astonishment. Some of the reason for this reaction to the bluebird in winter is undoubtedly due to its recent rarity. For many years, bluebirds were so uncommon, that any sighting at any time of the year was greeted with joy and astonishment. The population recovery of the bluebird has been a conservation success story.

Eastern Bluebird in November
During breeding season, the bluebird disperses in pairs. The rest of the year, it gathers in small, loose flocks. Like the robin, it is a year-round resident in southern New England. Like the robin, it does not read range maps and may be seen any month of the year in southern Vermont. Like the robin, it migrates in late fall and early spring, perhaps. The Brattleboro CBC has counted an average 20 bluebirds during the last ten years.

There is no need to be astonished, or surprised, at seeing a bluebird during the winter. On the other hand, elation at a winter bluebird sighting is always in order. Few birds have the ability to catch my breath the way a bluebird does. In the words of naturalist John Burroughs, the Eastern Bluebird is the “bird that carries the sky on its back and the earth on its breast.”

Good Birding!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Did She Leave?

Since my post on Thursday, November 18, on the Townsend's Warbler in Walpole, NH, there have been no reports. Did she succumb to the cold night? Did a predator pick her out of the weeds and reeds? Or did she take off with the sparrows and finches and head south? I would prefer to believe the last - that she continued her migration - after entertaining local birders with her flycatching and her skulking through the reeds. But the fact is, no one knows. An accidental bird appears, and disappears, an isolated incident with no introduction and no conclusion.

What we do know is that several centuries ago, colonists from England survived difficult conditions during their first winter, enjoyed a good harvest and friendly relations with the native inhabitants during the following months, and celebrated their good fortune with a feast. Continuing the tradition begun long ago, we are joining our family for the feast and celebrating our good fortune. We hope you also have that good fortune. Happy Thanksgiving!!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Cape May Birds of Prey

The Cape May Fall Out on October 29 and 30 produced a smorgasbord for hawks. The small birds were everywhere, and the hawks were after them. One person I met started the day by seeing a kestrel at one end of a power line feeding on a yellow-rump, and a Merlin on the other end feeding on a yellow-rump. I was glad I did not have a feather in my hat, lest a sharpie or coops mistake me for food. A couple of sharpies came so close on their dive that I almost felt the rush of air as they dove after prey.

Cape May is one of the premier hawk watch and count sites in the world. Thousands of raptors pass over the watch tower every year. Almost every place I went, I saw birds of prey.

They are not easy birds to photograph, but on those couple of October days, I had many opportunities to practice. Here are a few images.

Red-tailed Hawk

Peregrine Falcon

Northern Harrier - juvenile

Bald Eagle - second year

Sharp-shinned Hawk - juvenile with full crop

Northern Harrier
Good birding!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Late October - Cape May

7:15 AM - Sunrise on the Beach
9:00 AM - Moonset
Mourning Cloak
Afternoon in the Marsh

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Winter Finches - Purple Finch

Winter Finches - Purple Finch with Pine Siskin
The “Winter Finch Forecast” is an annual attempt by Ontario ornithologist, Ron Pittaway, to predict the movement of northern finches based upon the seed crops of their favored trees. With assistance from this forecast, two weeks ago I wrote about the Pine Siskin. The siskin was almost completely absent from our area last winter. It has been reported at bird feeders in modest numbers for the last month. Highly nomadic and opportunistic, as winter approaches they seem to be wandering southward in search of food.

A second subject in the “Winter Finch Forecast” is the Purple Finch: “This finch winters in the north when the majority of deciduous and coniferous seed crops are abundant, which is not the case this year. Most Purple Finches will migrate south of Ontario this fall. A few may frequent feeders in southern Ontario. Purple Finch numbers have declined significantly in recent decades due in part to a decrease of spruce budworm outbreaks since the 1980s.”

Southeastern Vermont is obviously south of Ontario, but our state is also well within the breeding range of this northern finch. The recently completed Vermont Breeding Bird Atlas documented the Purple Finch in 350 survey blocks. Within my own immediate neighborhood, Purple Finches breed, often raising multiple broods. At times during the summer, they are the most common species at my feeders as adults feed their young offspring.

House Finch

The Purple Finch is one of two “red” finches in the East; the other is the House Finch. The House Finch is native to western North America. It was accidentally introduced in New York in 1940 and has become established and widespread in the East. It is slimmer than its cousin. The male House Finch is not as dark red as the Purple. It has a red eyebrow and forehead. The female is a dull, streaked brown bird.

The Purple Finch is chunkier of the red finches and has a shorter tail. In fresh breeding plumage, the male is a deep wine red; his head is more uniformly red. The female Purple Finch is a dull, streaked brown bird, but with a strong face pattern and white eyebrow.

The House Finch is more likely to be found in towns, cities, and open areas. The Purple Finch prefers forest.

It may be difficult for us in New England to think of the Purple Finch as a “winter finch,”
given that it breeds commonly in our forests, and most leave for the winter. While I have seen the Purple Finch every month of the year, through the winter months it is uncommon.

John James Audubon gathered much of his information for Birds of America while living in Louisiana. In the deep south, he knew the Purple Finch as a winter finch, wandering in small flocks of six to twenty birds from the beginning of November until April. This is the same period during the year when the Purple Finch is uncommon in my neighborhood.

While uncommon during the winter months, the Purple Finch is not unknown. Forbush had this to say about the Purple Finch: “Purple Finches are hardy birds and, if well fed, will live through rather severe winters. They bathe in brooks with the temperature below freezing point and some have been known to sing in the clearing weather directly after a blizzard ... If well fed, some males may be heard singing more or less almost daily in mild seasons during the latter days of February. Purple Finches spend winter nights in dense evergreen trees or thickets, or even in some open building or under the shelter of a cupola roof.”

In addition to the visual delight provided by the male Purple Finch, he also contributes to the audio quality of the neighborhood. If jealously were an avian characteristic, his song would make any warbler jealous, especially since most warblers don’t sing, they buzz. “This favorite bird is one of the most melodious of American finches. He pours out his gushing, ecstatic warble from the top of some tree ... a continuous melody ... this most remarkable vocal effort.” (Forbush) The song “is sweet and continued, and I have enjoyed it much during the spring and summer months, in the mountainous parts of Pennsylvania ...” (Audubon)

When these finches begin returning to my neighborhood in late winter and early spring from wherever they have spent the bleak months, they not only bring their delightful and promising song, they also bring entertainment. Though there is plenty of food in the feeders, each individual regards the sum total of the sunflower seeds as food which is exclusively his or hers.  “Purple finches are more or less gregarious at times, especially in winter; they are sociable and friendly at such times, except when feeding causes rivalry. Then they become selfish and belligerent. When several of them are eating at a feeding station they often seem quite hostile toward any new arrival, raising the feathers of the crown and rushing at him with wide-open bill. Occasional pecking may result, which seems to produce no great damage. The attacked one usually retreats somewhat and proceeds to feed only a few inches from his pursuer.” (Bent, Life History)

 As I have already observed, the plumage of the male Purple Finch is a deep red wine. It is not purple. Aside from the fact that bird names often make no sense, why is it called “Purple Finch?” To answer that, we need to know its scientific name: Carpodacus purpureus. The genus name comes from Greek and means “fruit eaters,” a questionable name for birds which are seasonal fruit eaters, but year round seed eaters. The species name, purpureus, comes from Latin and means “crimson” or other reddish color. Our word “purple,” meaning a color obtained from mixing red and blue, derives from the Latin, purpureus. The Purple Finch is really a crimson colored finch. Or, translating its scientific name, it is “crimson fruit-eater.” When taxonomists give birds their scientific names and common names, they put aside their science and become impressionistic artists.

And so ... Purple Finches, which are considered to be one of the winter finches, summer in my neighborhood, and leave for the winter. Except for a few ...

Good birding.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

What Will She Do?

The Townsend's Warbler in Walpole, NH, has attracted birders from around New England. Today there were people from VT, NH, and MA ticking the bird on one of their lists. Occasionally she flitted above the weeds in flycatching mode. Other times she worked her way along the ground searching for insects. Kaufman's Lives ... tells me she eats mostly insects, sometimes seeds, during the winter in the tropics some berries and nectar. There are plenty of berries on the bittersweet twined in the apple trees, but soon there will be much competition with other birds for that source.

But ... predictions for the coming nights call for temperatures in the 20s, and New England winter could descend at any moment. What will she do? ... when the insects are gone and the land is gripped by snow and ice?

Good birding! ... may not always be good for the birds.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Black Skimmer

The Black Skimmer is an odd relative of the terns; its lower mandible is much longer than the upper. It feeds by "skimming" the water with its lower mandible until it touches a minnow, then snapping shut and capturing its prey. When I began birding in Cape May 30 years ago, the skimmer was rarely seen. This flock was resting and feeding along the beach opposite the beach hotels.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Kinglet Cousins

I have seen the kinglet cousins on many different occasions. Mr. Ruby-crowned appears in mid-April, a tiny, curious bundle of energy who may pause anywhere to fuel up as he journeys to the boreal forests to breed. On his journey south in the Fall, his hormones have quieted, and he is more leisurely in his travels. Eventually he will find his way to the deep south, where winter hardly deserves the name.

Mr. Golden-crowned is smaller than his cousin, and hardier. He may head to the warmer southeastern states for the winter. He is just as likely to stay put, spending the winter in the boreal forests of the far north, or the coniferous forests of New England and the mountain ridges of the East. On a hardiness scale, Mr. Golden-Crowned rates a perfect 10, more the remarkable since he is the smallest perching songbird in the world. We may see him on the worst winter days working through the pine trees. Or more likely, we will hear his thin buzzy call and see something flitting among the needles. He is not a bird that sits still while a bird watcher fumbles to get his binoculars in focus.

On the other hand, Mr. Ruby-crowned is easier to see primarily because he likes the bushes and understory, where his cousin, Mr. Golden-crowned, prefers the mid-branches and canopy. Both kinglet cousins exhibit a restless energy that makes a two-year old toddler appear just shy of comatose. They are never still for long.

You need to be a patient birdwatcher in order to get a good look at either of these birds. They are tiny and almost constantly on the move. And, if they are difficult for the birdwatcher with binoculars, they are a real challenge for the photographer. When I was in the mountains of the Gaspe Peninsula this past June, I was in Mr. Golden-crown’s nesting neighborhood. He was quite provoked that I dared walk a trail in his territory, but he did most of his protesting while half hidden. He gave me only fleeting photo opportunities, and most of those were a blur.

But ... I was in Cape May two weeks ago when there was an epic fall out of migratory songbirds that left the most veteran birders in a daze. I don’t know how the kinglet numbers that were present compare with a “normal” year, but I do know that I had more close encounters with the two cousins in one day than I have had over the course of several years.

I stood in one spot during the mid-morning for over half an hour, watching and photographing both kinglets. I took lots of pictures of leaves and branches and caught blurry images of a bird that flew just as I clicked. I also had times when one of the cousins was so close that I could not focus with my long lens. There were so many opportunities that the law of averages and chance eventually tipped in my favor and yielded clear, sharp photographs.

The scientific and common names of both kinglets are consistent. Both are “little kings” who wear a crown. Mr. Golden-crowned is Regulus satrapa - “little king” and “ruler.” Mr. Ruby-crowned is Regulus calendula, “little king” and “glowing,” referring to the ruby crown. Both birds are named for their “kingly” appearance, not for their unusually tyrannical behavior. Parenthetically and by way of contrast, the behavior of our Eastern Kingbird is captured in his family, genus, and species name, all of which are “tyrant.” Also parenthetically, Europe has two additional cousins (Genus Regulus), the Goldcrest and Firecrest, both of which look very much like our Golden-crowned Kinglet.

Mr. Ruby-crowned Kinglet is something of an anomaly. Most of the time when I see him, he is a non-descript, midget. He is olive-drab, with wingbars and a white eye-ring. There is no obvious crown. In a fleeting look, he might easily be mistaken for a flycatcher. On the West Coast, Hutton’s Vireo is almost identical except for its vireo beak. Mr. Ruby-crowned might even be mistaken for a wren. One of his names is Ruby-crested Wren; his nervous activity and pugnacious attitude is very wren-like.

Most of the time, Mr. Ruby-crown’s ruby crown is concealed. I have had glimpses of the ruby crown during his spring migration when he has been agitated over my intrusion into his territory or when he has been rehearsing his repertoire for mate attraction. On fewer occasions when my viewing angle was just right, I have seen a hint of his crown.

To my surprise and delight, on many occasions when I was watching Mr. Ruby-crown in Cape May, his red crown was visible and obvious. Maybe it was because he was feeding so low in the bushes, sometimes even on the ground at my feet. I was looking down on him, down on the top of his head. The red streak of his crown was clearly visible.

As diminutive as the Ruby-crown Kinglet is, he has one characteristic that is oversized. Here is the description given by the ornithologist, Elliot Coues: “One of the most remarkable things about the Ruby-crown is its extraordinary powers of song. It is really surprising that such a tiny creature should be capable of the strong and sustained notes it utters when in full song. The lower larynx, the sound-producing organ, is not much bigger than a good-sized pin’s head, and the muscles that move it are almost microscopic shreds of flesh. If the strength of the human voice were in the same proportion to the size of the larynx, we could converse with ease at a distance of a mile or more. The Kinglet’s exquisite vocalization defies description; we can only speak, in general terms, of the power, purity and volume of the notes, the faultless modulation and long continuance.”

Alas, we will have to wait until next April to hear Mr. Ruby-crown’s song. When I watched him in Cape May, there was only a wiry “tsip” as he moved through the bushes in his feeding frenzy.

Of the two kinglet cousins, I must admit that I am most drawn to the Golden-crowned. Please keep coming back. Very soon I will atone for slighting Mr. Golden-crowned in this column by giving him a column all his own.

Good birding!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Townsend's Warbler

The Townsend's Warbler found by Ken Klapper in Walpole, NH, is still present. It appears to be a first winter female. She should be near the Pacific Coast of NA, or in Mexico/CA, not in the Connecticut River Valley. During the chilly and windy morning, appearance was erratic, but those who have watched the bird the last few days expect her activity to pick up as the temperature warms and insects fly. The presence of a rarity like this is good for local birders, but probably not so good for the bird who, if it manages to survive the New England winter or go south with the Fox Sparrows, still faces long odds for ever getting where a mate might be. Patience finally yielded a few passable photos.

More Birds from Cape May Fall Out

The Hermit Thrush has been called the "iconic" bird of the Cape May Fall Out on October 29-30. However, at the morning songbird count the American Robin led the way, with over 73,000 being counted. So as not to slight the American Robin ...

Like the robin, all of the birds were in a feeding frenzy. Yellow-rumped Warblers swarmed everywhere; this one fed in a juniper ...

Though not present in the overwhelmingly abundant numbers as the robin, yellow-rump, or Hermit Thrush, Palm Warbler and Northern Flicker were often close at hard ...

Good birding!!


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