Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Next Generation

For the last few weeks, Blue Jays have been "uncharacteristically" quiet as they come to the feeders, gather seeds, and leave. They have been nest building, incubating, and feeding nestlings. They are intelligent corvids, and they know not to draw attention to themselves during this vulnerable time. I have been waiting for the jolly raucousness to return, along with fledglings demanding to be fed. That happened this morning, as young swarmed through the trees, begging loudly and and chasing after parents when they did not get their way immediately ...

Fledgling Blue Jay begs for food
 The first fledgling Evening Grosbeak was fed in our backyard on June 9 ...

Evening Grosbeak - juvenile

... since that day, the young have been brought around for food and self-feeding instruction on a regular basis ...

"Hey Dad, is this where I get the food?"

Additional members of the Next Generation which we have helped to raise include ...

Downy Woodpecker ...

Mrs. Downy (the frazzled one in the back) feeds her daughter

Mr. Downy feeds his son
Hairy Woodpecker ...

Hairy Woodpecker - juvenile male
Red-bellied Woodpecker ...

A "shy" Red-bellied Woodpecker - he/she would not look at the camera
Common Grackle ...

Fledgling Common Grackle - one of many!
... and finally ... the Cedar Waxwings are getting down to the business of the season. This pair copulated on the branch while I went for my camera. When I finally focused on them, they had happy smiles, then flew off.

Cedar Waxwings
Good birding!!

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Black-masked Warbler

I drove slowly along the refuge road at Brigantine on the New Jersey coast, watching the small birds popping up from the reeds and grasses and disappearing again quickly. Most were Song Sparrows still in the early stages of their annual breeding cycle - the males singing and defending their territory - the females building nests. Between scanning the mud flats for shorebirds, I was checking out these small birds, looking for the Seaside Sparrow or the more elusive Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow. Occasionally I saw the Seaside Sparrow clinging to the top of a broken reed and singing his weak imitation of a Red-winged Blackbird.

A small brown bird flew across the narrow road, its flight and profile different from the ever-present Song Sparrow. It grabbed onto the top of a brown grass stalk. I grabbed my binoculars, hoping for a brief glimpse of the secretive Sharp-tailed before it dropped out of sight. The brown-backed bird turned, and I saw a bright yellow breast. From the side of its head, across both eyes and brow, it wore a black mask.  He quivered with attention as he surveyed his neighborhood, then sang  out with “witchity-witchity-witchity.

In the moist, young forest along the Wissahickon River in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, I heard several warblers and vireos singing and calling in the understory and the canopy overhead. They were moving slowly as they foraged among the leaves. Glimpses were brief, only enough to know that a bird had gone to a new perch or new branch. Softly, I tried to call them down - “phish, phish, phish.” The strange sound will sometimes attract the birds. But this day, they were unimpressed and out of sight.

I tried again - “phish ... pish ... pish.” There was movement in the bushes. I watched, saw movement again. My binoculars focused on the small bird whose curiosity got the better of his hunger, or caution. He wore a black mask above his yellow chin and breast. He chipped loudly as he checked out the disturbance, then dropped into the thick protection of the bush. From deep in the tangle, I heard “witch-i-ty ... witch-i-ty ... witch-i-ty.”

Female yellowthroat also investigates disturbances

Across the road near my home are the remnants of a pasture edge. A few young maples and oaks rise above the melange of cherry, honeysuckle and other small trees and bushy plants. Walking along the road, I heard a Chestnut-sided Warbler singing from a tree top. I saw him moving along a branch that had not yet fully leafed out. He paused, lifted his head and sang his “pleased-pleased-pleased-to-meetcha.”

I wanted a closer look at the Chestnut-sided, but had no binoculars with me. So I tried to “phish” him down. He moved immediately, disappearing into the foliage above, and sang again. From the thicket of roses, willows, and honeysuckle, a small bird came to inspect the neighborhood disturbance. To emphasize his territorial prerogatives, he cocked his short tail up and raised his black-masked head. “Watcha-see, watcha-see, watcha-see.”

The small black-masked bird is common in coastal marshes, in the brushy edges of fields, in alder swamps, in the understory of open forests, in open wetlands, in the shrubbery along streams. It is commonly known as the Common Yellowthroat.

The Common Yellowthroat is common in numbers, but uncommon in much of its behavior. The yellowthroat is a warbler, a rather stubby and short-tailed warbler. It is a nonconformist - the only warbler who nests in open marsh, but also content to nest wherever it can find relatively moist and dense habitat.

Watch the behavioral antics of the black-masked Common Yellowthroat, and you might think you are watching a wren. He has the cocked-up tail, the quivering intensity, the curiosity, and the pugnacity that is commonly associated with the wren family. All of this is markedly uncommon in the warbler family. The Common Yellowthroat is a very uncommon type of warbler.

As ubiquitous as the Common Yellowthroat is (there is hardly a day of birding during the summer when I don’t see or hear him) he is one of my favorite birds. When he pops out of the thicket and complains about my intrusion on his peace, I can only smile ... and apologize for having disturbed him.

Forbush captured the appeal of the Common Yellowthroat as succinctly as any writer: “To make his acquaintance one has only to visit his favorite haunts ... when presto! up bobs that masquerading scrap of animated feathers, nervously voicing his alarm with a variety of scolding chirps and chattering notes, his black eyes sparkling with excitement. Suddenly he explodes in a vigorous outburst of song, ... and darting impatiently here and there in the low undergrowth, plainly announces that his privacy has been disturbed; but his curiosity and indignation are soon over, and scurrying to the shelter of his retreat, he leaves the cause of his disquietude flooded with emotions of surprise and delight. The Yellowthroat captivates one’s fancy.”

At dusk, I heard the “tu-tu-tu ... tu-tu-tu” of a Black-billed Cuckoo. Stalking the sound, I determined that it was coming from somewhere in the mid-branches of a maple tree. I peered into the dark branches, circled around the tree, searching for the bird, but the fading light of the day rendered the search futile. Finally, I gave up and retreated.

From somewhere in the brushy edge near the water, I heard the New England dialect of the yellowthroat teasing me - “watcha-see ... watcha-see ... watcha-see.”
“Not much tonight, my friend,” I said.

The birding is always good when the Common Yellowthroat is around.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Osprey Home Improvement

I remember the early 80s when Osprey hack boxes were set up to help reestablish this species after the devastating effect of DDT. Now, 30 years later, reaction by some to the presence of this magnificent bird is almost ho-hum because they have become so common in appropriate habitats.

At Brigantine there are nesting platforms all along the loop road. I did not start counting how any were occupied until well along the drive, but the number was at least 6-10.

This nest I have watched over a number of years from when it was first put up and a "young couple" began keeping house. They have nested successfully ever since. Here, Mom feeds her young, while Dad keeps watch.

Osprey feeding chicks
Mom, hungry chicks, Dad

After feeding the chicks, she took flight, but not to forage for more food. Apparently, she felt the house needed some additional work, and she returned with a stick.

Taking off to shop

Still not satisfied with the home decor, she made two more trips across the marsh for nesting material ...

Second successful shopping trip

Third shopping trip
 Dad watched the kids, but left the home improvement entirely to Mom - a mother's work is never done!

Good birding!!

Monday, June 18, 2012

Marsh Birds - Brigantine

The recent day trip to Brigantine yielded my first photos of the Gull-billed Tern, a regular but uncommon summer resident in Forsythe NWR ...

Gull-billed Tern
Forster's Terns were not very cooperative as they fished the channels, usually choosing to give me backlight or their backside, but this one grabbed a worm out of the mud and I grabbed a photo ...

Forster's Tern
The bubbling energy of wrens always engages me, none more so than the Marsh Wren. Notice that this one is wearing jewelry ...

Marsh Wren

Wrens are "troglodytes" - cave dwellers. There were at least two newly made "caves" in the vicinity of the singing male ...

Marsh Wren nest
I wonder why this hen Mallard had only one duckling following her. Did her eggs not hatch? Had a predator taken eggs? Or had predators taken the young ducklings?

Mallard hen with her lone duckling
Willets are common nesting shorebirds along the coast, their "pee-will-willet" carrying over the marsh grasses ...

In a post early this spring, I said that one goal for this season was to capture the Red-winged Blackbird showing his epaulets in all their glory. This gentleman cooperated magnificently ...

Red-winged Blackbird
Good birding!!

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Waders - Brigantine

We've been in the Philadelphia area; when the weather cleared this week we made a trip to Brigantine unit, Forsythe NWR. Though rather hazy through the morning, there was good birding with the breeding summer residents.

In spring and summer, I always hear Clapper Rails along the Jersey shore but I do not always get a sighting. The rails "tek-ked" in many places in the salt marshes. The ebbing tide and patience finally yielded this individual as it crossed a muddy opening.

Clapper Rail
Long minutes were spent watching this Black-crowned Night Heron as it foraged for what appeared to be some kind of mud worm (sorry - still learning the birds, much less what they are finding to eat) ...

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron
Additional waders - common, but I never tire of watching them or photographing them.  The Great Egret shows the breeding plumage which the "feather trade" craved and which nearly drove it to extinction. Thankfully it has rebounded wonderfully.

Great Egret

Snowy Egret

Great Blue Heron
Glossy Ibis
Good Birding!

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Delivering Breakfast ...

I have not been out much. We had the house painted, and there has bee much to do getting the house put back together post painting, plus post-Irene yard work, and unstable weather. But this morning I got out for a couple of hours.

I begin with the end of the morning when breakfast was being delivered. This crow iscarrying food; it appears to be a frog or toad. The young have probably fledged, and there was one flying hurriedly behind this parent ...

American Crow - carrying food

Just a sampling of additional images ...

Pink Lady's Slipper

Chestnut-sided Warbler - female

Red Squirrel

Willow Flycather - "Fitz-bew!"
Good Birding!

Monday, June 04, 2012

More Tails ...

I am delighted to announce that a second collection of my essays is now available from Pondville Press

More Tails of Birding:
Birdwatching, Familiar Birds, Biology, and the Men Who God Us Started.

"When the weather turns foul, birdwatcher and writer Chris Petrak pursues birds in his study, feathering his observations with those who have put pen to paper: the ornithologist, naturalist, storyteller, folklorist, lexicographer, poet. He distills these many resources into entertaining and informative essays for readers in Vermont and bloggers around the world. In this second collection of his writing, he reflects on birdwatching, provides engaging accounts on familiar birds, gives us glimpses at their amazing biology, and tells us about the men who pioneered ornithology and birdwatching in North America. Also an accomplished photographer, chapters are richly illustrated with his black and white photographs. More Tails of Birding will delight both the backyard bird watcher and the experienced birder."

To view "Contents," read a sample chapter, and link to secure ordering, please visit


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