Monday, February 28, 2011

Additional Antidotes

In the north country, one dove completes the list, so it was nice to have a leisurely look at the Eurasian Collared-Dove, even though it is an exotic.
Eurasian Collared-Dove
Also at Okeeheelee - Loggerhead Shrike.

Loggerhead Shrike
Birders love sewage treatment plants, but Green Cay breaks the image mold for folks from the north - acres of wetlands with boardwalks, and close up observations of the usually secretive and wary birds of marshlands.

Just before sunset, and with little light, this Sora fed with no concern for the ogling eyes and camera clicks.

Wilson's Snipe ...

Wilson's Snipe

More soon- as I process photos and have internet access.

Good birding!

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Painted Bunting - An Antidote

Yes, I wimped out on winter. I ran. Flew actually. But I found the antidote to winter at Okeeheelee Park somewhat west of West Palm Beach, FL, or one of those Florida communities that run from one into the next.

Painted Bunting! - a bird whose bright primary colors were applied with a few strokes of a wide brush, then with a couple of details added. Almost unreal, created by an impressionist with only three color pots.

That’s the male. For the female the artist mixed colors carefully to achieve a fresh, rich foliage green for her.

Good birding.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Carbonated Swamp-Warbler

... and Other Mystery Birds in J.J. Audubon’s “The Birds of America.”

Plate 60 in Audubon’s original double elephant folio depicts the “Carbonated Swamp-Warbler.” There is a reason why you have never heard of this bird. When Audubon reissued his “Birds” in octavo size, he provided this description of the bird which he now named “Carbonated Swamp-warbler:

“I shot the two little birds here represented, near the village of Henderson, in the State of Kentucky, in May 1811. They were both busily engaged in searching for insects along the branches and amongst the leaves of a dogwood tree. Their motions were those common to all species of the genus. On examination, they were found to be both males. I am of opinion that they were each young birds of the preceding year, and not in full plumage, as they had no part of their dress seemingly complete, excepting the head. Not having met with any other individuals of the species, I am at this moment unable to say any thing more about them. They were drawn, like almost all the other birds which I have represented, immediately after being killed.”

Two definitions and one reminder before proceeding. “Double Elephant Folio” was the largest book size produced in the nineteenth century, approximately 26 ½ x 39 inches. The term has become almost synonymous with Audubon’s great work, published 1827 - 1838; it consisted of 435 plates. “Octavo” refers to the size of a book or print that is 1/8 the size of a full sheet of paper, resulting from folding the paper to form 8 leaves. Audubon’s octavo edition was approximately 7 x 10 1/2 inches. The ocatvo edition was first issued in 1840-1844; in addition to plates of all the birds, it has extensive descriptive text.

And the reminder: Modern readers probably shudder at the matter of fact descriptions of shooting and killing birds. But remember, Audubon and every other naturalist of his time had no binoculars, no spotting scopes, no pocket digital camera to hold against the eye piece, no image stabilized long lens. To study a bird, they needed to hold it in the hand. A shotgun was as essential to Audubon in the study of wildlife as the expensive optics and cameras of birders today.

Carbonated Swamp-Warbler

Carbonated Swamp-Warbler
Returning to the Carbonated Swamp-Warbler. Audubon recorded when and where he collected the birds and that he painted them soon afterward. He also reported that he never encountered this bird again.

No one has seen the Carbonated Swamp-Warbler since. It is a bird that has escaped detection for the ensuing two hundred years. It has been suggested that the birds might be young Cape May Warblers, a suggestion that the American Ornithologists’ Union says might be true. But this is a highly qualified suggestion. The Carbonated Swamp-Warbler remains a mystery.

Audubon did remarkable work. He was often plowing entirely new fields. But there are mysteries in his work. The Carbonated Swamp-Warbler is one of five mystery birds which appear on the 435 plates.

A second mystery bird in “Cuvier’s Kinglet,” which Audubon named in honor of a celebrated naturalist. “I shot the bird represented in the Plate, on my father-in-law’s plantation of Fatland Ford, on the Schuylkill river in Pennsylvania, on the 8th of June, 1812 ... I killed this little bird, supposing it to be one of its relatives, the Ruby-crowned Kinglet ... and was not aware of its being a different bird until I picked it up from the ground. I have not seen another since, nor have I been able to learn that his species has been observed by any other individual. It might, however, be very easily mistaken for the Ruby-crowned Kinglet, the manners of which appear to be much the same.”

Cuvier's Kinglet

Once again, no one else has ever seen “Cuvier’s Kinglet” since Audubon. The AOU suggests that it may be an aberrant of the Golden-crowned Kinglet. It may also be a Golden-crowned Kinglet that Audubon painted from memory, forgetting that the bird he had shot had a yellow crown, not a red crown - or not. In the 1937 MacMillan edition, a brief comment accompanies the plate: “Audubon’s memory has been proven faulty on more than one point, but in this failing he is not unique. Naturalists - including amateurs - do well to take careful notes on the spot!” Cuvier’s Kinglet remains a mystery.

Blue Mountain Warbler

A third mystery bird is the “Blue Mountain Warbler.” Audubon writes: “It is somewhat strange, that among the numerous species of birds that visit the United States, a few should have been met with only in rare instances. The present Warbler is in this predicament, as it does not appear that many specimens have been obtained. ....” Audubon acknowledges that Alexander Wilson first discovered this bird in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. It “has not been my good fortune to meet with [the Blue Mountain Warbler], although it would be in no degree surprising to find it a constant visitor to some portions of our vast country yet untrodden by the ornithologist. My figure was taken from a specimen lent to me by the Council of the Zoological Society of London, and which has come from California.” In addition to the painting, Audubon gives a complete written description of this bird. He lists its range as “Blue Mountains of Virginia, and west of the Rocky Mountains.”

That is all that is known about the Blue Mountain Warbler. It has not been identified with any known species. It is a mystery.

Are Audubon’s mystery birds aberrations of known species, hybrids, juveniles, or might he have been overindulging in the corn distillations of the frontier? We don’t know. Some mysteries remain mysteries.

So if you see a bird you cannot identify, don’t feel too badly. You have some good company. Do like Audubon: enjoy the bird, and if you want, give it a name.

Note: David Sibley has an interesting analysis of Audubon’s painting from the perspective of birder/artist on his blog, sibleyguides

Friday, February 25, 2011

Still Nostalgic

Yes, still remembering the colorful wonder from Spring, 2010.

But be alert ... new images with cure-for-winter will be coming!!

Blackburnian Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Northern Parula
Prothonotary Warbler
Good birding!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Nostalgic for Spring

For the last three months, my wardrobe as rotated between 2 pair of flannel lined pants, 7 flannel shirts, supplemented with 2 wool vests. During this period, I have gone outside wearing my red & black plaid wool coat, with 2 exceptions when I opted for a slightly less bulky jacket.

Yes, I am nostalgic for Spring and even Summer, and I hope that early next week I can offer some definitive cures for wardrobe monotony. For the moment, however, I remember a few images from Spring, 2010 ...

Broad-winged Hawk
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Eastern Bluebird
Yellow Warbler
Good birding!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Waxwings and Larks

Just a couple of hundred feet from my home, I was stopped this morning by frenetic activity in some bushes - a mixed flock of 75+ waxwings, with Cedar Waxwings predominating, but with plenty of Bohemians Waxwings. With the waxwing flock were 10 Eastern Bluebirds.

Part of the mixed flock of Bohemian Waxwings and Cedar Waxings in my neighborhood

A few days ago I finally put to rest my worry that I would be the only birder in the county who would not see Snow Buntings and Horned Larks. Most were too far away for any photographs, but a few larks were nearer at hand and permitted a few so-so photo ops.

Horned Lark
Good birding!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Pigeons - High Speed Communicators

Common name: Rock Pigeon - formerly known as Rock Dove, popularly called “pigeon.”
Scientific name: Columba livia, in the Family, Columbidae.

The Latin livia means blue, blue-gray, or lead colored, a reference to the Rock Pigeon’s predominantly bluish plumage, although its color variations are many. The “rock” of its common name refers to its preferred nesting habitant in the wild on rocky places.

The Rock Pigeon is one of three species introduced to North America which has become abundant. All three are generally disliked by birders because they “don’t belong,” and displace native species. The three species are tough and adaptable birds which can tolerate and thrive in association with humans. The House Sparrow and European Starling were wild birds which were released from their cages in New York City (the House Sparrow in 1851, the starling in 1890) and which quickly adapted to life in the new home. Both spread rapidly and are abundant year round residents throughout most of North America.

The Rock Pigeon is also an abundant year round resident throughout much of North America, particularly in cities and towns. But unlike the House Sparrow and starling, the Rock Pigeon population in not descended from wild birds which were released. The Rock Pigeon population is descended from domesticated birds which escaped and established a feral population. Even today, many writers routinely refer to these pigeons are feral pigeons. Behind this “feral” status of the Rock Pigeon in a long and fascinating history.

Egyptian Dovecote
A bird or animal is said to be domesticated when it has been tamed and can live in or around human habitation and with human care. There is usually some change from wild form, often the result of controlled breeding in captivity. The most familiar domesticated birds are chickens, ducks, turkeys, and some geese. Controlled breeding changes a bird’s wild ancestor into a bird that may have more meat, lay more eggs, or produce more feathers.  We are familiar with these domesticated birds because we regularly consume them, or their eggs, or use other by-products from them.

But how many of us know that the Rock Pigeon was (probably) the first bird to be domesticated? There is evidence that people bred domestic pigeons during the Neolithic Age beginning around 8500 B.C. The earliest proof of domesticated pigeons dates from about 4500 B.C. and comes from terra-cotta figurines found in what is today modern Iraq. It is thought that pigeons were first raised in captivity for their meat.

However, pigeons have a remarkable homing ability. They can find their way back to their nest or pigeon cote from hundreds of miles away, regardless of the direction they have traveled or have been transported. They are rapid, and seemingly, tireless flyers.

We are all aware of the thousands of miles that many birds travel during migration and their ability to navigate those vast distances. But nowhere in the Rock Pigeon’s native, wild range do they migrate. They may move relatively short distances during seasonal changes and in response to food needs, but they are not natural, long distance travelers. How is it then that pigeons have such a strong homing ability. This homing ability is not well understood. An ability to navigate by the sun, moon or stars has been suggested, as has an ability to sense magnetic fields (a more likely explanation).

6th cen Mosaic, Israel
As human groups made the transition from hunter-gatherers to agricultural societies, food surpluses meant more leisure that had to be filled by the idle hands of emerging elites. Towns and cities developed and commerce developed. Donkey caravans traveled long distances and trading centers sprang up. I would imagine that many of those early traders carried cages of pigeons with them as a source of convenient fresh meat. Some of those birds escaped. The caravan master returned to his home base and discovered that the escaped pigeons had arrived long before he did. From the discovery of the pigeon’s homing ability, it was but a short step to employing the pigeon as a messenger carrier. At least, that is how I surmise that the domestic pigeon made the transition from domestic meat source to rapid communication medium. What is clear is that homing pigeons are known from Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets and Egyptian hieroglyphics by around 3000 B.C.

Messenger Pigeon
In human societies, the pigeon was the most rapid means for communicating over long distances, its speed unsurpassed until Samuel Morse’s invention of the telegraph in the mid-1830s precipitated the modern communications revolution. For most of human history, the pigeon was the instant messenger, the cell phone, the blackberry, relied on to deliver messages quickly.

The results of the Olympic Games were carried by pigeons to the Greek city states. In the fourth century, Alexander the Great used homing pigeons to keep his capital informed of his progress.  Julius Caesar reported to Rome his conquests in Gaul with carrier pigeons. In the sixteenth century, there were pigeon postal services available for a fee, just as local and long distance telephone service is available today for a fee. When Napoleon met his Waterloo, the news reached the English banker, Rothschild, by private pigeon post four days before horse and ship were able to convey the victory to the city of London. Reuters News Service began on the wings of carrier pigeons.

G.I. Joe in Retirement
American forces employed about 5,000 pigeons during World War I, and over 36,000 pigeons served during World War II. In October, 1943, British forces moved rapidly to take back an Italian village, but were then threatened by an impending American air raid. A message was affixed to the leg of G.I.Joe and he was tossed into the sky. The pigeon arrived at the American air base minutes before the squadron of bombers took off, sparing a thousand British soldiers from friendly bombardment. The lord mayor of London awarded G.I. Joe with the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross. The pigeon hero was retired to the army’s Pigeon Hall of Fame in New Jersey where he lived peacefully in retirement to an elderly eighteen years.

The pigeon population in cities around the world almost certainly traces to domestic pigeons gone wild. Romans not only employed them as messengers, but wealthy Romans loved their meat. Dovecotes abounded, but a carelessly tended cage meant escapees. Escapees were accustomed to human presence and soon resided abundantly in the cities where they had once been caged.

Dovecote, Tyron Palace, 1770s, North Carolina
Hence the presence of pigeons in North America. They were probably introduced first by the French at Port Royal, Nova Scotia, in 1606, then by the English in Virginia about 1621 and in Massachusetts in 1642. It is unlikely that these pigeons were brought across the Atlantic as homing pigeons for communication with Europe. Pigeons do not like to cross water and when released at sea head immediately for the nearest shore. They were probably brought as a food source, just like chickens. Some escaped, and their descendants, still tough and adaptable, line building ridges in downtown Brattleboro, clean debris off the streets, and peck seeds at my feeders.

Two sources were important for this column: “Encyclopedia of North American Birds” edited by John Terres (1980), and “Pigeons” by Andrew Blechman (2006).

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Nostalgic for Spring, 1

Winter drags on. The January thaw was a blip. The February thaw has reduced the snow pack in my back yard by about 6". Only 19" remain. The predictions call for a return to the deep freeze.

I am nostalgic for Spring. So I returned to a few images from the distant past - the long ago Spring of 2010 ...

... like a bluebird, a spot of deep blue sky, singing atop a snag ...

Eastern Bluebird
... or a goldfinch molting into his nuptial plumage, a yellow that will define the primary color ...

American Goldfinch
... or the primal pursuit in the open, but still cold, river waters of the drake merganser for the right to mate with a hen ...

Common Merganser
... and a robin busy with nest building, her pairing issue resolved.

American Robin
Good birding!

Monday, February 14, 2011

LBJs - Addendum

The Little Brown Job exercises which began in early December are at an end. There are many sparrows and other confusing brown birds which were not included, mainly because I do not encounter them very often. As I have watched, and studied, the LBJs which are in my neighborhoods, I find that I have gradually been able to identify them quickly. It is a skill which transfers to new areas, and new birds. When encountering an LBJ in a different part of the country, I can quickly eliminate many birds which it is NOT. The field is narrowed, and ID with field guide help can come quite quickly.

LBJs are not a mystery, unless you convince yourself that they are impossible to ID.

For example, in January, 09, we were in southern Arizona. I saw an especially plain little sparrow with no distinguishing marks; it was not difficult to ID Brewer's Sparrow

Brewer's Sparrow - near Tuscon, AZ

Brewster's Sparrow in desert brushy areas in winter defines drab bird.

Sparrows do not often provide clear, unmistakable field marks. The Black-throated Sparrow is a delightful exception. This one was photographed at a bird feeder in Patagonia State Park, Arizona, in January, 09. (Young birds are a bit more LBJ than adults.)

Black-throated Sparrow - Patagonia, AZ.
Also seen near Patagonia State Park in Arizona were these Rufous-winged Sparrows. With these birds, we were back in the true LBJ category. The first impression was that of a small flock of Chipping Sparrows. These birds were in mesquite shrub; they were secretive. Their cap was not quite right for a chipping, and they have pronounced "whiskers." So even though I never really saw the rufous wing, I was able to tick a life bird.

Rufous-winged Sparrow - Patagonia, AZ
When you are going after a well camouflaged bird, it helps to have help. At the Rio Grande Birding Festival in November, 09, I went on a field trip to King Ranch. The leaders knew where Sprague's Pipit was being seen. Walking a pickup truck track across a large grassy plain, they first heard the birds. Then one of these pipits worked along the track just ahead of the group I was with. This was a bird adapted to dry grassy areas!

Sprague's Pipit - King Ranch, TX
In mid-January, 2010, I photographed this American Pipit at Eastern Lighthouse Point near Gloucester, MA. Both pipits are bigger than the usual LBJs (namely sparrows), but neither will earn any awards for plumage brilliance. In winter this pipit typically "disappears" into grassy fields and mudflats, walking and bobbing its tail.

American Pipit - Gloucester, MA

Good birding!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Pigeons - Pests

Common name: Rock Pigeon - formerly known as Rock Dove, popularly called “pigeon.”
Scientific name: Columba livia, in the Family, Columbidae.

The Rock Pigeon is an exotic species in North America. It did not naturally occur in North America but was introduced, probably by French colonists in Nova Scotia in the early seventeenth century and soon after by English colonists in Virginia and Massachusetts. It now lives wild nearly everywhere throughout North America. It is most familiar to people as the common city pigeon.

An adaptable bird and a prolific breeder, the Rock Pigeon has attained the unenviable status of pest in many of its town and city locations. This pest status has led to a multitude of creative and bizarre efforts to control its numbers.

I first met the Rock Pigeon’s pest status and the human effort to control it thirty-five years ago when I was living in Kittanning in western Pennsylvania. Located on the Allegheny River, the town was about the size of Brattleboro.

Kittanning had a pigeon problem, or at least, the pigeons were perceived as a problem. I attended meetings of the Board of Trustees of the Presbyterian Church, a stately, century old stone building situated on a downtown corner. The dour businessmen on the board were offended by the white pigeon droppings streaking the roof ridge, concerned about the effect of those acidic droppings on the church’s copper eaves, and the stone and mortar of the church’s exterior, and positively livid about the depth of the pigeon guano in the open bell tower. They also knew it was a town-wide problem, shared by the custodians of the county courthouse and the municipal buildings, and the owners of downtown commercial properties.

The town councilmen took action. They drew upon the deep rooted cultural resources of western Pennsylvania. Western Pennsylvania was settled by descendants of the Scottish covenanters. These Scots Presbyterians were religiously conservative, fiercely independent, deeply individualistic, and in constant feud with one another unless someone from the outside threatened them in anyway. Then they drew immediately together. Whether the threat came from pope, bishop, or king, they responded and took up their arms.

Drawing on this genetically transmitted cultural trait, the councilmen set aside their feuding, quickly concluded that the cost of cleaning up and repairing the damage of pooping pigeons was intolerable, and so issued a call to arms. On an appointed day and time, several dozen of the local tribesmen lined the banks of the Allegheny River, armed with shotguns, and ready for the bloodbath of a pigeon shoot.

The pigeons flew from the understructure of the bridge, and the guns blazed. A few pigeons dropped. The rest flew toward the safety of the downtown buildings where better sense dictated against the discharge of firearms. Blazing away with gunpower has been a frequent recourse to getting rid of all manner of pests. That day of pigeon shooting in a western Pennsylvania river town allowed a few to strut their hormonal toughness, but had no impact on the pigeon problem.

The Presbyterian trustees eschewed their covenanter heritage and took a more passivist approach. They considered poison-laced pigeon feed, but decided that dying birds on the church sidewalks might not present an aesthetically pleasing solution. At this distance in years, I don’t remember all the steps they took, except one. Concluding that they would never be rid of the pigeons, they decided to take a longer range approach and try to control the pigeons’ breeding. So they had the pigeon control consultant spread pigeon feed in the bell tower. The pigeon feed was treated with the pigeon equivalent of birth control pills. (Readers: please note my restraint from further comment about church sponsored birth control.)

Pigeon shoots and poison continue to be used occasionally against the pigeons, but in most places those actions are wisely prohibited. There is no registered birth control or sterility drug currently available. But there are many others anti-pigeon steps which are taken, some bizarre, some environmentally hazardous, some very expensive, and some remarkably cheap and effective. The website of the Urban Wildlife Society has information about all of these efforts and a wealth of information on Rock Pigeons.

The fact remains that pigeons, in genera, are not well-liked. I once asked someone where some others who were doing a bird count had gone. The reply was that they were downtown counting pigeons.  Behind the reply was a host of implications - why count pigeons because they don’t really count - real birders don’t count pigeons - pigeon counters are casual and lax about the serious business of birding ... and so on.

And I have a friend who refuses to list pigeons on his life list or as a species seen on any day of birding. When I insist that they have feathers, he snorts, points at his neighbors chickens and scoffs, “So do they.”

On the other hand, I know someone who loves the town pigeons. He keeps count from the beginning of winter to the end of winter, duly noting the decline in the pigeon numbers. His passion is hawks, and a good flock of pigeons means that a wintering Cooper’s, or Red-tailed Hawk will have a well-stocked pantry throughout the cold months. He not only counts the pigeons, but watches  as the flock takes flight, scanning the sky for a circling Red-tailed, or quickly checking the tree tops for a Cooper’s about to launch its attack.

I saw the importance of Brattleboro’s pigeons to wintering hawks a few years ago when I was driving north on Route 30 near the Retreat Meadows. On the ice was an adult Cooper's Hawk perched on top of a Rock Pigeon. Traces of blood were on the ice beneath the pigeon. The Cooper’s looked around warily, then took off without the pigeon. The Cooper’s had not reached her tree when an adult Red-tailed Hawk landed on the ice next to the pigeon. The Red-tail scanned the sky overhead, then climbed atop the pigeon's prone body. After a moment, the Red-tail took flight with the pigeon in its talons. The Cooper’s was going to have to hunt a second time on that day.

The Rock Pigeon is the recipient of much odium, and the victim of widespread prejudice. But the trouble with hatred and prejudice, is that they are almost always based on ignorance. We should also know that there are many people who are enamored of pigeons for various reasons. In future weeks, I will write more about the Rock Pigeon’s quite fascinating history and biology.

In the meantime, I would suggest that you do not automatically exclude the Rock Pigeon from your definition of Good Birding.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Bohemian Waxwings

I was very excited about two weeks ago when a Bohemian Waxwing showed up in my backyard; the excitement was appropriate.

On Wednesday, Hector Galbraith and I followed a posting on VT Bird list serve of Bohemian Waxwings on the campus of Putney School. The reported 50 BOWAs exceeded all expectations. Hector's count was 250, though a few (but not many) Cedar Waxwings may have been mixed into that count.

What drew us to the campus in particular was the report of a Pine Warbler at the suet feeder outside of a classroom window. It was till present, resting on a window sill under the protective drip edge of a window. Not much of a picture, but another documentation of a bird that has no business trying to cope with a Vermont winter.

Pine Warbler
Good birding!

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Not the Face That Launched a 1000 Ships

... well maybe that's not fair. She is undoubtedly attractive to a turkey tom.

A couple of turkey flocks - 4 and 12 respectively - (also known as posse or raffle) have been regular at the feeders. As near as I can tell, they are all hens. In the previous picture, note the tan tipped feathers on the breast. The breast feathers of the tom are tipped black.

The turkeys are very skittish, sensing any inside movement. They were a little less so when I crawled to an upstairs window and looked down on them.

In the kitchen, I stood well back from the window. The scene outside was chaotic, especially given the size of these birds, as they competed for the best feeding position at the platform feeder, or on the ground.

When I got close to the window, they spooked and flew.

Good birding!


Related Posts with Thumbnails