Friday, March 28, 2014

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird males begin to return
before winter has loosened its grip


I sit in my study, waiting yet another late winter snow storm. But I know that Spring is here. The visual signs are missing, but the auditory signals are certain.


By the still-frozen riverbanks, ponds and marshes, one of the earliest announcer of Spring has been passing through since early March. Nine inches of black feathers, he stretches his neck skyward, opens his pointed bill and belts out nasal, gurgling phrases which can only be called a “song” by another of this species. And as he sings, his wings open in flightless display, and red epaulets flash with sun-drenched brilliance even on the grayest of days. The Red-wing Blackbird has returned.

Some Red-wing Blackbirds may winter as near as the Connecticut coast, but most gather much further south in flocks which may number in the thousands. They wander through farmland, marshes, forest edge and open fields, gleaning whatever food might be available. But even before winter begins to loosen its grip, the males begin moving northward.

Male Red-winged Blackbirds claim their territory
when the marsh is still barren
By the time the Red-wing Blackbirds begin reaching our neighborhoods, the flocks are starting to break up. Individual males begin looking for breeding territory. When the ice finally goes out of our ponds and marshes, and plant life begins to reassert itself, the males will be there. Perched on a reed, cattail, or shrubby willow, they will stake their claim as proprietors, intimidating their rivals with red-wings and vocal prowess. “Conk-a-reeeee!”

When the drab females come along in another few weeks, the males will have settled their real estate disputes. They’ll be ready to urge one or more females to make a home.

The Red-wing Blackbird does not draw much attention from bird watchers except in March when it is one of the earliest of the summer residents to return. It is a successful and adaptable species. Except during our Vermont winters, there is no shortage. The Red-winged Blackbird is so common that it is easy to overlook its beauty ... and its toughness - it is a scrappy bundle of feathers.

Male Red-winged Blackbird displays his prowess
What the Red-wing’s song lacks in musical quality to our ears, it makes up for in volume. Inevitably, it draws my attention. If it draws your attention as well, you will be treated to the accompanying nuptial display. He holds the fore part of his wings well out from the shoulders. He spreads his shiny black tail. He bows his head low and displays his bright red wing patches. It is an impressive display; one might even say thrilling. And if I have that kind of reaction, imagine what it can do for a female blackbird! Some males are so impressive that they attract two or three mates, all nesting in polygamous harmony near one another in the same marsh or bog.

Female Red-winged Blackbird
Once the nuptials are concluded, the nondescript females seem to disappear into the confused tangle of the marsh while the male stands guard. He is vigilant, and fearless. A passing crow will draw his attack, as will a Northern Harrier, a bittern, or an Osprey. Neighbors will join the fray, and the passing intruder will be soon mobbed by angry blackbirds. On a misty, early morning, I once watched a Turkey Vulture laboriously take flight. It was all it could do to get airborne in the heavy atmosphere. The struggling vulture with his five and a half foot wingspan was soon hurried along by nine inches of black fury. The attacking Red-wing Blackbird pecked and prodded and harassed the backside of the hapless and probably harmless scavenger.

Nest of Red-winged Blackbird
Last summer I wanted to find the nest of a Red-wing Blackbird. So I cautiously ventured through the marshy fringes of the beaver pond and into the soggy grasses. I was just able to see a couple of nests - bulky open cups which were lashed to the reeds. But I quickly retreated. My slight intrusion into the marsh had sent the Red-wings flying into hysteria. They fluttered over head, heaping maledictions on my head. They raced from reed to reed to shrub wailing at my intrusion into their domestic realm. Seldom have I felt less welcome anywhere.

“Conk-a-reeee!” I heard the Red-wing’s gargle as I made a few quick birding stops in between my other errands. The sky grew grayer and heavier. The first few flakes of snow began falling. I hurried home to wait out the winter storm. Even so, I know it is Spring!

Male Red-winged Blackbird aggressively defend their territory
against rival males and any other intruders
Female Red-winged Blackbird on her nest

"Conk-a-reeee!” Good birding!

Friday, March 21, 2014

Wrens & Flycatchers

In the dark, morning light of Muir Woods, the Pacific Wren (split a few years ago from Winter Wren) presented itself so suddenly that I did not think about camera settings. Even so, I managed a few adequate photos ...

Pacific Wren

Pacific Wren
Wrens are troglodytes (cave, hole, or cavity dwellers). They do not always show themselves.  It took this Bewick's Wren several minutes to get comfortable with my presence ...

Bewick's Wren
Bewick's Wren

Bewick's Wren
The Black Phoebe has been a photographic nemesis on western trips. It would never allow any kind of approach. But in the campground at Montana de Oro State Park, this Black Phoebe was working the area quite unconcerned by people presence ...

Black Phoebe
Black Phoebe
And finally, Say's Phoebe

Say's Phoebe
Good Birding !!

Monday, March 17, 2014

Peregrine Falcons - Pretzel Park, Philadelphia

I returned on a bright clear afternoon to Pretzel Park in the Manayunk section of Philadelphia where a pair of Peregrine Falcons are preparing to nest for a second year in the tower of St. John the Baptist RCC. A few images ...

Arriving at the Park, both birds were flying overhead and making plenty of noise. On the top of the transmission tower, they were even noisier as they copulated ...

Peregrine Falcons about to mate - Note: both birds are banded
He then went off, presumably to hunt, while she waited in the steeple tower ...

Peregrine female - tower of St. John the Baptist
Then off she flew for another transmission tower rendezvous ...

It was interesting to observe the almost inverted position of the female as they mated ...

During their copulation, the size difference between the male and female (she is about 1/3 larger) was evident. It was also evident as he flew off (presumably with a smile) ...

Male Peregrine Falcon flies off after mating
Littered on the streets near the park, are the remains of their successful foraging among the urban bird population ...

European Starling
Rock Pigeon
 Good Birding!!

Friday, March 14, 2014

Sparrows & Blackbirds

Sparrows, those little brown birds that drive so many casual bird watchers crazy, are nevertheless one of my bird favorite families, and California provided many opportunities to enjoy "different" sparrows.

Golden-crowned Sparrow is a far west species. Adult breeding is distinctive; adult nonbreeding somewhat less so ...

Golden-crowned Sparrow

Golden-crowned Sparrow

Golden-crowned Sparrow
Fox Sparrow may be my favorite sparrow. At home in Vermont, it is a Spring and Fall transient, although one has spent most of this winter visiting my feeders. It was a prime example of the "Red" or "Taiga" subspecies.

It was a delight to see this favored sparrow in California.

Fox Sparrow  ...

Fox Sparrow (Slate-colored?)

Fox Sparrow (Sooty/Pacific?)
Dark-eyed Juncos are common across the continent, though they give several variations in the west. I thought this "Oregon" Junco was particularly handsome ...

Dark-eyed Junco (Oregon)
 Blackbirds tend to be an overlooked part of any landscape, which is too bad, because their iridescence can be stunning, and occasionally there are differences that should be noted, as in this Brewer's Blackbird ...

Brewer's Blackbird

In addition to being a "Bi-colored" Red-winged Blackbird, the manner of feeding with drooped wings was one that I have not noted in the eastern birds. I will watch more closely this year ...

"Bi-colored" Red-winged Blackbird
 Good Birding !!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Bushtit et al

I love songbirds, and the challenge of finding them and photographing them, but there are few of them to be found in the East during winter. This winter has discouraged wandering outdoors, which makes finding songbirds even more difficult. One of the delights of California last month, was finding different songbirds. A few examples ...

"Pacific" Bushtit


Chestnut-backed Chickadee ...

Chestnut-backed Chickadee
Chestnut-backed Chickadee

Chestnut-backed Chickadee
I was delighted to see the Varied Thrush, our most colorful thrush and only a rare vagrant in the East, but a little disappointed that none gave me good photo ops. This was the best I managed ...

Varied Thrush
I love the corvids, and especially the jays. Stellar's Jay is the Blue Jay's closest relative, with a very similar personality ...

Stellar's Jay
The Hermit Thrush is Vermont's state bird. His haunting, flute-like, and ethereal song carries through the forests in late Spring and Summer. On the breeding grounds, the Hermit Thrush is secretive and often very hard to see.

When the breeding season is over, the hormones subside and a personality change occurs. Hermit Thrushes were common, feeding in the open like a bunch of East Coast winter robins ...

Hermit Thrush

Hermit Thrush
Good Birding !!

Friday, March 07, 2014

Whimbrel & shorebirds

Here are a few shorebird samplings from our California trip, all from along the Monterey Peninsula ...

Whimbrel ...




 Black-bellied Plover ...

Black-bellied Plover

Black-bellied Plover
 Surfbird and Black Turnstone ...


Black Turnstone
 Black Oystercatcher ...

Black Oystercatcher
Good Birding!!

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

A Murder of Crows

“A Murder of Crows” was a 1999 thriller film which you’ve probably never heard of. The movie reviews were so bad that oblivion was its natural state rather than something which it faded into.

“A Murder of Crows” is also the name of several rock bands, one from Michigan, another from Washington State, and yet another from San Francisco. All seem to have the same prominence as the movie.

What is curious to me is why a term for a large number of crows shows up in popular culture. Does the phrase have play in a darker sub-culture that I know nothing about? Perhaps.

What is certain is that most cultures and folklore have, at best, a very ambivalent attitude toward crows.

The phrase, “a murder of crows,” refers to a large number of crows. The term seems to derive from the persistent folk tale that crows form tribunals to judge and punish the bad behavior of a member of the flock. If the verdict goes against the defendant, that bird is killed (murdered) by the flock. The basis in fact may be that occasionally crows will kill a dying crow who doesn’t belong in their territory - or, much more commonly, that they will feed on carcasses of dead crows. Also, both crows and ravens are associated with battlefields, medieval hospitals, execution sites and cemeteries, all places where crows scavenged on human remains. These are not the most endearing characteristics.

The lore and myths of Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest attributed more endearing and benevolent characteristics to crows, but they were generally an exception. Crow was often a trickster in Native American folklore, similar to Coyote. However, Crow’s tricks tended to be more malicious, probably because they were considered a pest to crops which the tribes needed to survive.

Most folklore and most appearances of “crow” in our language and culture are negative, or at best, neutral.

I grew up in Detroit at that ancient time when the Detroit Lions played the only Thanksgiving Day professional football game. My Dad and I attended the Noon kickoff, then went to my Grandfather’s home for the family turkey dinner. I remember one year when the headline on the next day’s sports page proclaimed that the Lions ate crow for Thanksgiving. I was sure that crow did not taste as good as turkey. Given that the Lions had been totally embarrassed by their opponent, it was not difficult to figure out that “to eat crow” was not a good thing.

Crows get a bad rap. Loud vain bragging is sometimes referred to as “crowing,” a reference to the sounds that crows often make. But why have crows become that kind of adjective? Why not jays - or gulls? I guess “jaying” or “gulling” doesn’t sound quite right.

Then there are those lines and wrinkles, usually on the face, often by the eyes - they could be sandpiper feet, or robin feet, or neutrally, birds’ feet. But no, they are associated with aging, a flaw in a culture of youthful beauty, and so they are “crows feet.”

There are some familiar terms in our language contributed by this common black bird which are not negative. A crowbar is used to pry up an object, much as a crow uses its beak with adeptness. The crow’s nest is the look out point atop the tallest mast of old sailing ships; notice the large dark masses high up in winter’s leafless trees. “As the crow flies” describes the straight line flight of crows.

From Georgia there comes the folk tale about the farmer and his wife who decided to sleep late one Sunday morning, the way the rich folk do. “The crows were gathered in a large oak tree, having a big morning meeting. They noticed that there was nobody stirring around the house, and that the corn was ripe in the field. So they adjourned their meeting mighty quick and flew over to the field to eat some corn. ‘Caw-n, caw-n,’ they cackled excitedly.”

The rooster continually cock-a-doodle-dooed, warning that “the crows are in the corn!” To no avail. The farmer and his wife slept on. “The old turkey came strolling into the yard and watched the proceedings. Finally he said to the rooster: ‘The corns all et up, all et up, all et up.’ When the farmer and his wife finally rolled out of bed, they found that the corn was all gone.”

Thus, in Georgia they say “the crows are in the corn” when it is time to get up.

In the Epic of Gilgamesh (the origin of Noah and the flood in Genesis), the hero releases a dove and a raven to find land. The dove flies in circles and returns, but when the raven is sent forth it does not return, leading the hero to conclude that it has found dry land. This suggests that the intelligence  of these large black birds was apparent even in ancient times.

One summer day on a hill in Newfane, I heard a murderous racket from a murder of crows  somewhere in the tree tops high overhead. The crows were angrily mobbing an owl, diving and harassing and screaming at the roosting nocturnal raptor. The Great Horned Owl, the Barred Owl, and some of the larger hawks, are among the crow’s few natural enemies. Driving the interstates, it is not uncommon to see crows driving off a Red-tailed Hawk or carrying on over the forest canopy. On that summer day, the hellish racket which accompanied their actions were an audio  etymology for a “murder of crows.”

On a completely different note, recently I once concluded a day of coastal birding by stopping for a quick scan of resting gulls.  Among the flock of mixed adult and juvenile Ring-billed and Herring Gulls, I found a single adult Iceland Gull. Gulls can be very difficult to break into their respective species, but I picked out the Iceland Gull with confidence. It stayed still so that my wife could carefully compare and contrast it with its cousins. I reminded her that she had never been with me on previous occasions when I had seen this gull; it was a life bird for her. At the very end of a day of birding, we had something to crow about!

Good birding!


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