Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Bosque del Apache - Sandhill Cranes

Here is a second sampling of the Sandhill Cranes at Bosque del Apache.

We visited the refuge just after sunrise (about 7am). The cranes roost at night in shallow ponds. The ponds protect the birds from night predators, such as coyotes. In the morning, they take flight, a few at a time, and head to fields where they forage for grain.

By the time we arrived, hundreds had already departed, but hundreds more remained. Here is the context ...

... a family group ...

... many just hang out ...

... morning stretches ...

... take off ...

Good Birding!!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Bosque del Apache - Cranes in Flight

Sooner or later, a birder, bird watcher, or nature lover needs to find his/her way to Bosque del Apache Nat'l Wildlife Refuge on the Rio Grande in New Mexico during the winter. Managed for wintering waterfowl, it is a spectacle. When we visited in early February, there were an estimated 8,000+ Sandhill Cranes, 40,000 Snow Geese - the "signature" species. But they were hardly alone.

And ... they were accessible. Just inside the refuge boundaries, there were roosting ponds filled with cranes. It was a photographers delight, and there were photographers present with all levels of equipment. The problem is, with all those photographers, you know that there are lots of good photos being taken. So sifting through the hundreds of photos that one takes has the added challenge of trying to find those which may be above average.

I'm not sure if I have made those judgments correctly, but following is a sampling of the results.

We arrived at the first roosting pond very shortly after sunrise. The spectacle held us until the sun had climbed well above the horizon.

Sandhill Cranes in flight ....

Good Birding!!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Sandia Crest - Rosy-Finches - 2

Sandia Crest east of Albuquerque is one of two must visit winter sites in New Mexico. (The other is Bosque del Apache; I am still processing photos from Bosque, but will be posting some soon).

We drove to the summit (10,600 ft) on a Sunday morning. Only problem was that we arrived too early. The lodge did not open until 10am, so we had to spend about 20 minutes outside watching birds - (life can sometimes be difficult).

During the winter months when the Rosy-Finches are present, the Rosy-Finch Project does bird banding on Sunday, so we had a considerable additional plus to our day.

One of the banding team assesses the health of a Mountain Chickadee ...

Mountain Chickadee
A Brown-capped Rosy-Finch is about to receive a radio transmitter which will enable researchers to track its movements and where it roosts at night ...

Brown-capped Rosy-Finch
Birds are not caught in mist-nets, as is typically done when banding songbirds. They are trapped in a manually triggered metal cage. This Black Rosy-Finch has already been banded. Re-trapping banded birds over years helps to determine life span, and within a single season and from year-to-year assess the health of individuals and populations.

Black Rosy-Finch
A banded Brown-capped Rosy-Finch considers whether it can grab a seed from inside the cage and get out before slow human reflexes can trip the trap.

Brown-capped Rosy-Finch
Red-breasted Nuthatch wears aluminum jewelry, compliments of the bird banders ...

Red-breasted Nuthatch
Stellar's Jay begs for anthropomorphizing - intelligent, curious, cautious, sassy - but definitely gorgeous ...

Stellar's Jay
Two more photos ... just because ... Black Rosy-Finch ...

Black Rosy-Finch
Brown-capped Rosy-Finch ...

Brown-capped Rosy-Finch
 Good Birding!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Sandia Crest - Rosy-Finches

Sandia Crest is one of two unquestionable reasons for birders to visit New Mexico during the winter months. Only a short distance east of Albuquerque, there is a paved, well-maintained forest service road to the crest - elevation 10,600 feet. At the crest there is a deli-type eatery and gift shop. There is also a bird feeder, making Sandia Crest the most dependable place (anywhere, from all I have read) to see all three species of Rosy-Finch.

I have heard accounts from birders of long hikes in the tundra of mountain tops in the hopes of seeing these birds. During the winter they flock together, and a mixed flock dependably visits the feeder maintained by the operators of the Sandia Crest lodge.

I made the pilgrimage on a Sunday when the Rosy-Finch Project was doing banding (more in a future post).

It almost seemed too easy - sipping hot chocolate and sitting inside while the flock made multiple forays through the pines, and visits to the feeder. But guilt over such a situation no longer bother me in the least.

I saw the Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch almost thirty years ago in Montana. One Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch was in the flock, and it only provided me with one opportunity to photograph it.

Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch
The other two Rosy-Finches were life birds for me, and each provided many excellent photo opportunities.

Black Rosy-Finch ...

Black Rosy-Finch
Black Rosy-Finch
Black Rosy-Finch
Brown-capped Rosy-Finch ...

Brown-capped Rosy-Finch
Brown-capped Rosy-Finch
 Note the "jewelry" worn by this Rosy-Finch ...

Brown-capped Rosy-Finch
 Good Birding!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

A New Mexico Sampler - 2

I'm still working on the photos from Bosque del Apache and Sandia Crest, so please keep coming back for Sandhill Crane, Snow Geese, Ross's Geese, and the Rosy-Finches.

Those are great birds, but a trip to the southwest could arguably be defined by this one bird with a name that is impossible to say - Pyrrhuloxia - a bird which may arguably "out-beauty" its relative the Northern Cardinal (both Genus Cardinalis)


Pyrrhuloxia combines terms for two birds - Pyrrhula (bullfinches) and Loxia (crossbills), terms which come from Greek and Latin and mean flame-colored, or red, and crooked. So you now have a new trivia answer, should you ever need one.

Both meadowlarks are found year-round in New Mexico, according to the range maps in my guides. I have very little experience with the Western Meadowlark, but based on the yellow malar, I am identifying this one as Western Meadowlark. If anyone with more experience thinks otherwise, please tell me (and why) - this is a continuing learning experience.

Western Meadowlark
Gambel's Quail is always a treat on a southwestern trip. Love the plume!

Gambel's Quail
Last winter in Vermont, I tried to photograph wintering Horned Larks. They are quite common, especially around barns and in hay fields. I did not get any photos that I would care to share. But, at White Sands National Monument, this Horned Lark posed very cooperatively. (Against the white sand, I can pass this lark off as a wintering
Vermont bird if necessary.)

Horned Lark

Horned Lark
As of January 1, this young Red-tailed Hawk made the transition from "hatch year bird" to "after hatch year bird." Hopefully, it is on its way to becoming a healthy breeding adult.

Red-tailed Hawk
Good Birding!

Monday, February 13, 2012

A New Mexico Sampler

I have just returned from ten days in New Mexico. Bosque del Apache with the Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese was terrific, as was Sandia Crest where the three rosy-finches are reliably seen during the winter. Both places are prime spots for birders, and for birders with cameras. It will still take several days to process the photos.

For now, a sampling of southwestern species - not life-list birds, but first photo ops since photography has become a part of my birding.

I had a recent column/posting on the Black-capped Chickadee. Folks in the East are familiar with the nearly identical looking Black-capped and Carolina Chickadees, but they may be surprised to learn that the closest genetic relative to the Black-capped Chickadee is the Mountain Chickadee ....

Mountain Chickadee
Mountain Chickadee
Chickadees and titmice are no longer in the same Genus, but their “tit” personality remains very similar. The interior western titmouse is the Juniper Titmouse ....

Juniper Titmouse
I love the Corvids, and the West has more than its fair share. Stellar’s Jay and Western Scrub-Jay have the same raucous personality of the eastern Blue Jay, though the Stellar’s seems more wary and less given to being in the open ....

Stellar's Jay
Western Scrub-Jay
Once know as the Western Towhee, then lumped with the Rufous-sided Towhee, it is now the Spotted Towhee  - scratching through the underbrush in “ground robin” fashion and occasionally posing in the open ....

Spotted Towhee
 .... And finally, to conclude this first New Mexico Sampler, Townsend's Solitaire ....

Townsend's Solitaire

Friday, February 10, 2012

Dabblers on the Wing 2

Please see previous post for a few comments about dabblers in flight and photography.

Gadwall (l, male - r, female)
Mallard -females
Northern Pintail - l, 2 females - r, male
Northern Shoveler - (Fall or Young) Male
Good Birding !!

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Dabblers on the Wing

Ducks typically fly past the birdwatcher so fast that it is difficult to pick up the field marks that we use when the bird is on land or water. Photography has helped me freeze those moments and gain the "ha-ha" that helps me identify them the next time they make the quick  overhead passage.

But, photographing birds on the wing is not easy. Trying to do so has caused me to upgrade my camera equipment several times, from point-and-shoots (wrought with frustration) to the Canon 7D I now use.

Even so, the poor photos have learning value. I begin with 4 such photos which I share only because they do capture those fleeting marks which help identify a duck in flight. (My next post will step up the photo quality.)

American Black Duck
Green-winged Teal (female)
Mallard (female)
Good Birding !!

Saturday, February 04, 2012


Why the Chickadee Deserves a Place on the Favorite Bird List

Black-capped Chickadee
I was asked recently what my favorite bird is. Before I could answer, the interrogator said, “My favorite bird is the chickadee.” Implicit was a challenge that dared me to disagree. I always dance around that question, even if no one is challenging me. There are just too many birds out there to narrow the choice down to one.

That said, a good argument can be made for the chickadee being your favorite bird, and one of my favorite birds.

“Chickadee” is the common name given to a group of birds which talk with one another, and occasionally to us, with some variation of “chick-a-dee-dee-dee.” There are seven chickadees in North America, all in the Genus Poecile. Three are found in eastern North America. The Carolina Chickadee is the southern species which ranges about as far north as southern Pennsylvania; it has not been recorded in Vermont. The Boreal Chickadee is the brown-capped inhabitant of northern boreal forests. It is uncommon in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. On rare occasions during the winter it may roam as far south as my neighborhood in southeastern Vermont. “Our” chickadee in New England is the Black-capped Chickadee.

Back to my interrogator who immediately followed her declaration by adding,  “They stick around all year.”

Very true.  The Black-capped Chickadee is a year-round resident. I have long suspected that the chickadees which I feed in the summer are more or less the same chickadees which I feed in the winter. Then I stumbled on a chickadee account, drawn from good chickadee studies, which told me that in the fall chickadees form flocks of three to twelve individuals, stake claim to a twenty acre feeding area, and pretty much stay in that area until the hormones start flowing in the spring. This all but confirms that the chickadees which came to my feeder this morning are the same ones that have been coming since the first snow flew back in late October, and maybe before that. They are tough little birds.

Chickadee feeding on web-worms
Chickadees rarely move very far from where they were hatched. Over 60,000 Canadian banding records collected from 1921 to 1995 show that 90% of recaptured birds show no movement. When there is movement among the chickadees, it almost entirely young birds, though a severe food shortage may also cause movement by older adults.

However, there must be additional reasons for claiming the chickadee as the favorite bird than their every-day-of-the-year presence in our neighborhoods. Remember that House Sparrows and Rock Pigeons also maintain a year-round presence, and they do it even on the barren concrete and asphalt streets in the downtown. The House Sparrow and pigeon are hardy winter residents and survivors through the worst New England winters, just as are the chickadees. But, no one in their right mind would place either of these non-native birds anywhere close to a list of favorite birds much less name either as a favorite bird.

What is it then that would justify someone naming the chickadee as his/her favorite bird?

First, I have to admit to what I have written in the past. I have two chapters in my book, “Tails of Birding,” which argue that we should never call a bird “cute.” I have received lots of friendly flak for those essays, but I stand by them.  (I suggest you beg, borrow, or buy the book and find out why “cute” should never be applied to a bird.)

However, I have never considered consistency as a virtue. The chickadee can qualify as your favorite bird because it is so darn cute. It has one of the perkiest, most endearing personalities of any creature I know, feathered or not. When I put seed out in the morning, I hear a thank you “chick-a-dee-dee” as soon as I finish and return to the house. “Thank you” seems to be fading from the vocabulary of my own species. If I am late putting the seed out, I am greeted with a scolding “chick-a-dee-dee,” but it is then followed by the thank you.

Chickadees are curious little birds. Sometimes I will stand in the woods or near a thick tangle on a roadside. I won’t hear or see a single bird. Then I begin to “phish, phish, phish.” In moments, chickadees are coming near to check things out. They may bring a few friends, like a woodpecker, or a nuthatch, but they lead the way. They come close to check out the source of the phishing. Am I friend or foe? Could I possibly be food? Their response when they see me will explain why they are not my absolute favorite bird. When they see me they utter an exasperated “chick-a-dee” and fly off. It is as though they were saying, “Oh, it’s just you.”

Toward many people, chickadees are very friendly, almost tame. They will land on a head. They will eat out of a human hand. I have never had one do that, probably for two reasons. I have never taken the time or had the patience to establish that kind of a friendly relationship. And I have cats. They are indoor cats, but they like to sit on the kitchen table and watch the birds come to the bird feeders, especially the window feeder. When the chickadee lands on the window feeder, it can see the cat inside. That presents a barrier to a close chickadee-human relationship. How can any bird trust a human which would tolerate a cat? Chickadees are bright little birds.

When a hawk is in the neighborhood, Blue Jays raise a racket. They send out the alarm. So do chickadees. They don’t have the vocal capacity of the jays, but they are right there with their warning calls: “ChickadeedeedeeChickadeedeedee.” Chickadees not only call in reinforcements; they get right into the fray. They join the jays in harassing the hawk.

I once watched chickadees raise the first alarm on a Cooper’s Hawk, a bird eating predator and chickadee enemy. They were joined by a flock of jays and a couple of woodpeckers. A Cooper’s Hawk stands about 16.5 inches and weighs 1.0 pound. The Blue Jay stands 11 inches and weighs 3 ounces. The chickadee is 5.25 inches in height and tips the scale at about 1/3 ounce. The chickadees led the first attack.  They ceded their field position (or is it aerial position?) as soon as the gang of jays arrived, but who can blame them. The woodpeckers rattled alarm from the safety of a tree trunk. The cardinal hid in the bushes and the doves flew off across the river. You have to like the chickadees; they are bold and gutsy.

“Chick-a-dee-dee-dee” is not the chickadee’s song; it is the chickadee’s call. It is the everyday language used to talk with its own kind, share food sources, tell of dangers, and thank me for finally putting out the seed. On mild winter days, and when spring finally makes its fitful appearance, the chickadee begins to sing. The song consists of a low, sweet, whistled “phe-be,” or “fee beeyee.” It is easy to miss the song.

Chickadee emerges from its nest hole in a tree trunk
Chickadees are cavity nesters. They use old Downy Woodpecker holes. If they can’t find a woodpecker hole, they make their own nest hole in an old tree trunk. They have small, delicate beaks, so the tree has to be soft and well rotted. I have found chickadee-excavated nests a couple of times. Neither nest was reused a second year; the old tree had fallen over. They also like bird houses. Over the years I have had a number of chickadees raise families in my boxes. The preferred size is a wren box with a 1.25 inch entry hole. Unfortunately, House Wrens take exception to chickadees using their boxes and will evict them. When you clean out your nest boxes in the fall, you will easily see the difference between chickadee and wren nests. Chickadees build a neat, moss-lined nest, very precise and almost fussy. A wren nest is a messy jumble of sticks, as though they barely cared.

Chickadees are socially monogamous. They form a pair bound, often in the fall or early winter and stick together throughout the nasty winter weather. In the spring they share nest building and they raise their broods together. But when the hormones begin flowing in the spring, fidelity gets washed away. He cheats on her, and she cuckolds him. Watch the chickadees in mid-April as they race around the bushes, shrubs and branches. Everybody is trying to get a little on the side and keep someone else from getting a little on the side, and everybody is getting some on the side. After a long winter staring at the cabin walls, the chickadee sex races are marvelously entertaining, and so accessible. You have got to love them for welcoming spring with such consumptive horniness.

Chickadee opens a sunflower seed
If you take the chickadee as your favorite bird, you can make a good case for you choice. Edward Howe Forbush, the New England ornithologist, would agree: “The little Black-capped Chickadee is the embodiment of cheerfulness, verve and courage. It can boast no elegant plumes, and it makes no claims as a songster, yet this blithe woodland sprite is a distinctive character, and is a bird masterpiece beyond all praise.”

“Chick-a-dee-dee-dee.” Translated, that means good birding.


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