Sunday, April 29, 2012

More Spring !!

I continue to be delighted that Evening Grosbeaks have returned to the vicinity after disappearing in the aftermath of last year's hurricane and flooding. At least two pair seem to be courting and hopefully will nest nearby.

Evening Grosbeak - male
Evening Grosbeak - female (background: Red-winged Blackbird female)
This has been an abundant year for American Goldfinches. Their cousins, the Pine Siskins, have also been common at the feeders, sometimes as many as a dozen or more ...

American Goldfinch
Pine Siskin
Chipping Sparrows returned two weeks ago. A few morning I have heard their vocal dueling through the bedroom window as early as 5 am.

Chipping Sparrow
The White-throated Sparrow in the bird bath is one of those "just because I like it" photos ...

White-throated Sparrow - white morph
With the females returning, the Red-winged Blackbirds are no longer hiding their epaulets, but are "singing," displaying, and chasing rivals with vigor ...

Red-winged Blackbird
... and finally, for the last month I have been trying to get photos of the Tree Swallow in flight, with several hundred failures. Then a few days ago, I had several credible successes. Here is one ...

Tree Swallow
Good Birding!!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Spring and the Recovering River Valley

Last August Hurricane Irene scoured the river valley around our home in devastating ways. Most of our backyard disappeared in a few minutes on a Sunday morning when a huge log jam gave way. The river was returned to its course and we got our backyard rebuilt (see posts in September/October).

Now comes the recovery. In the next few days, we will have topsoil brought in and begin the process of lawn and yard recovery.

Some is happening of its own accord. I am especially happy to report that Belted Kingfishers are working the river behind our home - a sign that life is returning to what last Fall was a scoured riverbed.

Belted Kingfisher - female
Other Spring signs are beginning to show their teeming presence. Eastern Phoebes are singing in several locations, and I watched one pair which was well into their nest building.

Eastern Phoebe
Evening Grosbeaks have nested somewhere nearby in past years. They have returned. They are singing - they don't have much of a song, but it is a song. A couple days ago, it looked as though they were trying to break sticks from a bush, a probable sign that they are preparing to nest - hopefully somewhere nearby. And the gentlemen are splendidly attired ...

Evening Grosbeak
Song Sparrows continue their enthusiastic singing, along with robins (4:30am) - joined by chickadees, titmice, Chipping Sparrows, and others.

Song Sparrow
Goldfinches are singing their cheerful song, joined by a good number of Pine Siskins - probably more Spring siskins than we have had in recent years.

Pine Siskin with American Goldfinch
And finally ... the Red-winged Blackbirds are no longer tuning up. The girls have returned and the boys are fully into their display.

Red-winged Blackbird

Monday, April 09, 2012

A Buzzard is a Buteo, Not a Vulture

Turkey Vulture - in N.A. often called a buzzard.
Last Spring when I was touring Windham County with a friend during a day of birding, we kept an eye on the sky for soaring birds. The atmosphere was rather heavy, and these soaring birds were not getting lift off the ground. In the early afternoon, my friend matter-of-factly said, “There’s our buzzard.” He was referring to the dark shape soaring high overhead, its wings forming a distinctive v-shape as it teetered on the air currents.

On another recent occasion, I was driving along an interstate when someone in the car asked about a circling bird, “Is that a red-tail?” She was referring to the common Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). Someone else in the car replied, “Nope, that’s just a buzzard.”

For many years my indulgent spouse allowed an old cowboy hat to perch embarrassingly on top of the grand-father clock. It was a tattered hold-over from youthful days when I experimented with various personae. It had a long dark feather attached to the band. From time to time a visitor in our home would look at the rakish plume on the ragged relic and ask, “Where did you find the buzzard feather?” I usually replied that I had picked it up along some river when I was canoeing.

Turkey Vultures have an acute sense of smell.
In each of these cases, the buzzard being referred to is the Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura). Turkey Vulture is the “official” common name established by the American Ornithological Union. It is the name by which a bird is supposed to be called among non-scientists. The AOU is not always successful in assigning birds common names, since folk names have an enduring persistence, but the AOU tries. One birding friend constantly uses old folk names for birds, causing confusion or disdain among the birders he meets in the field, depending upon whether they are inexperienced birders, or over-experienced birders.

“Buzzard” is a common and enduring folk name for the Turkey Vulture. Other folk names are “turkey buzzard” and “red-necked buzzard.” Likewise, the other eastern vulture, the Black Vulture, goes by “black-headed buzzard” or just “black buzzard.”

In the American dialect of English, the New World vultures are very firmly known as buzzards, and the fact that this is linguistically and historically inappropriate is probably irrelevant to most people.
Red-shouldered Hawk is a soaring hawk (buteo).
Originally “buzzard” was the common name for the soaring hawks - the buteos. In North America, buzzard became associated with vultures. The word “buzzard” derives from an Old French word, basart, which means “hawk” and which in turn probably derives from the Latin buteonem. The family of birds which we know as buteos (in the East: Broad-winged Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, and Red-tailed Hawk) in Europe would be known as buzzards, not hawks.

There is one soaring hawk (buteo) which is found in northern latitudes around the world. Its scientific name is Buteo lagopus. We know it as the Rough-legged Hawk; it makes its home in the Arctic and comes south to the northern United States during the Winter. But if you are talking with an English birder, he or she will refer to the same bird as the Rough-legged Buzzard (yet another tidbit of evidence that our countries are separated, not by an ocean, but by a common language).

So how did this change come about? I have a couple of theories. My Oxford English Dictionary tells me that buzzards were regarded as useless hawks This in turn led to a secondary meaning for the word: “a worthless, stupid or ignorant person.”

The judgment of useless derived from the usefulness, or lack of usefulness, to the falconer. Falconry used to be the “sport of kings.” There was a strict code among the nobility for who could fly what. It depended upon one’s rank. There could be serious consequences for the noble who presumed to fly a bird above his or her appointed rank. For example, a king could fly a Gyrfalcon; an earl a Peregrine Falcon, a noblewoman a Merlin, and landed gentry a Northern Goshawk. Nowhere in the list of who could fly what does a buteo appear.

The Red-tailed Hawk prefers a “sit and strike”
method of hunting - unexciting to a falconer.
As sporting birds, the soaring hawks did not measure up. Modern falconry often uses buteos with considerable success, but it seems that they are just as often difficult and frustrating. A friend use to fly a hatch-year Red-tailed Hawk during the Winter; he released it back to wild in the Spring. For three years running, I asked him how this year’s bird was doing, and each time he would talk about the difficulty he was having with the bird. It reached the point where my friend was questioning his falconry skills, but the characteristics of the genus buteo may have been as much, or more, of a factor. The old nobility did not use buteos, buzzards.

I have a couple of theories as to how buzzard changed its meaning from soaring hawk (buteo) to vulture. When the landless gentry (the second sons of the English nobility) came to the mid-Atlantic shores and started naming the fauna, they looked at the vultures, perhaps misidentified these soaring birds as buteos, knew they were useless as falconry birds, and named them buzzards.

However, since buzzard is a folk name for the vulture, and since most of the early European colonists were anything but nobility or gentry, I think it more likely that there was a political and social commentary at work among the common people as they put names upon the North American fauna. They knew that falconry was the sport of the idle nobility, and they knew that a buzzard was also a useless and stupid person. They looked the ugly vultures feeding on rotting meat, and all of those associations combined in their unconscious; the vultures were called buzzards.

Well, those are my theories. Take them with extra measures of caution. Scott Weidensaul has said all that can be accurately said about the folk naming of vultures: “The word ‘buzzard’ still properly refers to buteos. Early settlers in North America, however, transferred the name to vultures, and it remains an inaccurate slang term.”

However the vulture came to be named the buzzard in North America, it is almost certain that the sturdy Puritans who settled New England are not responsible. Historically, the Turkey Vulture is a southern species. As recently as the 1920s when Forbush wrote his “Birds of Massachusetts,” the northern limits of the Turkey Vulture’s range was southern Connecticut. It has moved northward and is now common in Vermont. When the snows recede and the air warms, Turkey Vultures return to our skies. Along with the blackbird flocks, the Turkey Vulture is now a sign of Spring.

The bald head of the Turkey Vulture is an adaptation
to feeding on carrion.
If you want to call vultures by their folkname, buzzard, you certainly may. But please be aware that they are not useless, or stupid. By our aesthetic standards, they may be ugly, but to another vulture that wrinkled red head is the height of beauty. Turkey Vultures are masters of the air, able to sail and soar gracefully with but the slightest of effort. And ... they have one of the most acute senses of smell in the animal world. They can capture a few stray molecules from as much as fifty miles away, and follow that trace scent to its source. Many people are turned off by vultures because they eat dead stuff and garbage. Most people I know also eat dead stuff, and humans generate a lot of garbage. Somebody has to clean up after us. Vultures do a lot of that.

Recapping the language lesson: Buzzards are buteos (soaring hawks), not vultures. Even if it is not correct, call vultures, buzzards, if you want. Slang makes the language colorful and alive.

Good Birding!

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Blackbird, Mockingbird, Ravensnest

The male Red-winged Blackbird intimidates his rivals and turns on the ladies with the brilliant display of his red epaulets. A photographic goal for this Spring is to capture first rate images of that display by a perched bird and one in flight.

The spring-like weather makes us think that the birds should be feeling as frisky as we do. But, it is still very early. The Red-wings are singing, but their epaulet display is still rather subdues, as though they are just warming up. Here are three early photos. The first is not a "display flight," but is the one I like best. The next two are perched males singing, but with half-hearted display.

"Taking Flight" - Red-winged Blackbird
Red-winged Blackbird - singing male
Red-winged Blackbird - singing male

While stalking the blackbirds yesterday, this Northern Mockingbird distracted me. There was no singing, but I enjoyed the sassy stance ...

Northern Mockingbird
I would like to describe the next photo as a joyous stretch in celebration of Spring's advent ...

"Ah Spring!" - Northern Mockingbird
... but the fact is, he was stretching for a berry.

"Carry-out Lunch" - Northern Mockingbird
Finally, I visited Ravensnest. Three chicks are in the nest. Even with the 400mm lens, it is a long shot across the quarry and significant cropping, so this is what I term a "documentation photo" ...

Ravensnest - Common Raven hatchlings

Good Birding!!

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Grosbeaks Return!!

Last August, Hurricane Irene ripped apart my little village. In my yard, 14 years of developing bird friendly habitat disappeared - and just as quickly, the birds all but disappeared.

Our bank has been rebuilt, our septic system installed, and bird feeders put up. Soon we will begin replanting.

Over the winter, I have wondered what would occur with our birds. When I returned to Vermont last week, I was delighted to see that the birds had also returned - perhaps not in quite the numbers of the past, but they are here: red-wings, grackles, cowbirds, goldfinches - an occasional siskin or two - sparrows, and all of the other regulars.

Most gratifying was the return of the Evening Grosbeaks. For the last several years they have been present every month of the year and seldom absent for more than a few days. After the hurricane, they were gone. One made a visit in late October.

The Evening Grosbeaks are back! - not 10-15 as in the past, but 5-7. This photo was taken through the back door & storm door, so it lacks the quality I would like. But the quality is offset, for me, just by his presence ...

Evening Grosbeak
American Goldfinches are common at the feeders and around the year, their song a cheerful reminder of new life ... and they are quickly changing from their olive drab winter wear to the bright yellow summer wear ...

American Goldfinch (through the kitchen window)
The squirrels and chipmunks are out of hiding and gleaning the seed scattered by the jays ... or in the case of this enterprising individual, discovering that a few remaining rose branches can get him/her closer to the source ...

Red Squirrel
Red Squirrel on the "inaccessible-to-squirrels" feeder
And finally, a few more friends at the feeders. Maybe there is nothing unusual about these birds, but after the experience of last year, so very welcome!

Blue Jay
Mourning Dove

Song Sparrow
Good Birding!


Related Posts with Thumbnails