Thursday, September 28, 2006

Birds of Blackwater NWR

Thursday, September 28, 2006
While birding Blackwater NWR near Cambridge, Maryland, on a recent trip, our group encountered a black band across the road. It was moving, like a many segmented snake.

Upon closer inspection, it morphed into a mixed flock of black birds. Some were red-winged blackbirds, some were brown-headed cowbirds, and a handful were European starlings in brown-spangled winter plumage. We had no luck picking out a rusty blackbird, Brewer's blackbird, or yellow-headed blackbird (that species with the most melodious of songs).

On very close inspection, via the spotting scope, we could see that the flock was mostly cowbirds (boo hiss!).
Still, it was an enjoyable phenomenon of fall migration.

Later, while driving from the refuge toward the Eastern Shore town of Cambridge, we happened upon a merlin. I had been wanting to see a merlin for the entire trip and tried to turn every kestrel into one. John Schaust, the chief naturalist Wild Birds Unlimited HQ in Indiana spied this beauty for me as we drove past it. Thanks John! That evening we added a peregrine falcon along the Choptank River, making it a three-falcon day! Sweet!

Blackwater is a gem in the National Wildlife Refuge system. If you have never been, mark it down on your list of must-bird spots of the eastern U.S.

Here is what sunset looks like along Blackwater's wonderful wildlife drive.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Soaring With Eagles

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

I was birding around Cambridge, Maryland recently and noticed that there were bald eagles EVERYWHERE! What a stunning comeback our national symbol has made in these parts. Here (above) is a pair nesting outside a Delmarva trinket shop, along Route 50, seemingly oblivious to the roar of traffic below. So regal. So calm.

Perhaps it's because these eagles are made out of ceramic.

Later in the morning I saw an adult eagle striking a familiar pose on a post along the far-less-busy wildlife drive inside Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. It was such a stunning sight that I felt compelled to digiscope it.

Later that afternoon, I realized that the eagle on the post was simply practicing to get a job as a flag-pole eagle (see image below).

I hope he/she got the job.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Cape Mays and Cape May

Tuesday, September 26, 2006
The Cape May warbler is named for a specimen collected in Cape May, New Jersey in the early days of American ornithology--around 1811. But the reality is that this species is not very common in and around Cape May. It breeds in the northern boreal forests of the Far North and is a more common migrant inland than along the coast in both spring and fall.

Yesterday morning we had a big wave of Cape Mays coming through the yard. There were drab females and first-year birds, greenish and streaky, and a handful of still-colorful males. These fall migrants got me thinking back to my early birding days.

Back about 1978, when I first had my driver's license, I drove over to Cape May with my younger brother Andy. We went to help as volunteers with the hawk banding being conducted there. There was no well-established Cape May Bird Observatory then, but there was an established cabal of dedicated raptor banders who spent every weekend in the fall capturing and banding hawks and owls.

For Andy and me it was an eye-opening experience, seeing these men (and a few women) who were obviously passionate about birds and were dedicated to studying them. We slept with the other volunteers and official banders above the post office in Cape May Point. We squatted in drafty, cold shacks and watched for curious migrant hawks to get caught in the mist nets (and other traps). We'd untangle them from the traps and place them in tennis-ball cans (sharpies) or Pringles cans (Cooper's) to await weighing, measuring, fat check, data recording, banding, and release. Our mentors were serious, even harsh at times, but we learned a lot about birds, about banding, and about birding in the process. I count those two fall trips (we also went the following year) to Cape May among my most formative experiences as a young birder.

Today Cape May is a mecca for bird and nature study, and it is world-famous as a migration hotspot. I don't get there as often as I once did. But I think back every now and then to my first visits as a young bird watcher to the southern tip of New Jersey.

It's funny sometimes how a simple word or thought can trigger a cascade of memories from long ago.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Autumn Sunsets

Monday, September 25, 2006
There is something particularly alluring about the sunsets we get here in autumn. The light is different from summer light, it's richer and more saturated. And along about 7:30 pm, an hour that in summer, would find us still outside playing whiffleball, the sun is in its last throes, dying really.

On a bright evening, the sunset's rays hit the trees along the east border of the meadow, and it's an explosion of color. Add a few bluebirds and cardinals perching in the sumac or goldenrod and you've got enough color to make a peacock dizzy.

The beauty a nice sunset gives us makes it a little bit easier to say goodbye to the long, lush evenings of another summer.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Tufted Titmouse

Saturday, September 23, 2006
Crested dynamo
Addicted to cracking seeds
Peter, Peter, Pete!

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Cold Front, Many Birds

Thursday, September 21, 2006
The night before last we got our first big cold front of the fall. Nighttime temperatures flirted with the 40s. We thought it might bring some birds our way and it did just that, producing one of the best fallouts of migrant warblers we've had here on the farm in years.

The front end of the cold front. It convinced many birds to the north of us to begin heading southward.

Each morning, after we get the kids on the bus, we spend 30 minutes or so birding from our back deck. We could go up into the birding tower, but most mornings it just seems easier to step out onto the deck--only a few feet from the amenities of the house, including the telephone, which always seems to start ringing just as we settle in for a spot of birding. Plus, we feel less guilty since our piles of work are just a few steps away. We're not really avoiding starting the work day, we're just keeping our eyes occupied while we finish our coffee and tea.

Over the past seven years, we've planted a jagged row of trees that are about 30 feet from the deck. Two clumps of three gray birches, a mulberry, a sycamore, and a weeping willow. These trees, even though they are not yet full-grown specimens, are major bird magnets. We're on a ridgetop, and these trees are near the high point of the ridge, with lawn on one side and a brushy meadow and thick deciduous woods behind them. So they stand out to the migrants flying overhead just after dawn. It's really amazing to watch the birds drop out of the sky and head straight for these trees, which they must recognize as having good foraging opportunities for caterpillars, leafhoppers, and other tasty foods.

This male scarlet tanager is molting out of his scarlet summer outfit and into his drab olive-green winter duds.

Yesterday we had a couple of moments when we did not know where to look, there were so many birds. When things would dies down, we'd head back inside, only to pop back out onto the deck when we noticed another wave of migrants passing through the trees. The tally for Wednesday was 52 total species (almost without trying) and 12 warbler species, 4 vireo species (red-eyed, white-eyed, yellow-throated, warbling), 4 thrush species (bluebird, robin, wood thrush, Swainson's thrush).

We get loads and loads of black-throated green warblers, aka BTGs in both spring and fall.

Today we had 56 species again, with 17 warbler species (including a Wilson's!), 5 vireos (adding Philadelphia), and 4 raptors (broad-winged, red-shouldered, sharp-shinned, and turkey vulture). Again we barely tried. If we'd been doing a Big Sit today, I feel confident we'd have surpassed 70 species easily.

A Philadelphia vireo--it's been a banner fall migration for them on Indigo Hill. I bet we've seen 10 of them, This one was even singing!

Digiscoping warblers and vireos is the very definition of frustration. If the bird sits still long enough for you to get the scope on it, you then need to hope it will be willing to wait for you to grab your digital camera, turn it on, slide it onto the scope, auto-focus, then zoom up slightly to get rid of the vignetting, THEN you push the shutter. I have hundreds of images of bare branches. They are all perfectly in focus with the proper exposure.

From yesterday and today's all-too-brief forays onto the deck and a short stint over lunch in the tower, I got just a few images. None is going to win any prizes. But they do document a couple of days when the birds were everywhere and I was home, able to enjoy them.

The only purpose of this shot is to show you that this cedar waxwing has an orange tail tip rather than the normal yellow). This is apparently due to their diet. Waxwings that eat a lot of Tartarian honeysuckle berries get orange tail tips rather than yellow ones.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

BOTB's First Anniversary

Wednesday, September 20, 2006
Today marks the one-year anniversary of the blog you are presently holding in your hands, otherwise known as Bill of the Birds.

On September 20, 2005, as a new Blogger user, I was itchy to get started. So itchy in fact that I made the rookie mistake of creating four different posts that day. One about the new blog. One about the upcoming 2005 Big Sit. One about The Swinging Orangutangs. And one about the dickcissel that Julie photographed at our bird bath. I never got to see that dickcissel, by the way--I was too busy blogging.

All veteran bloggers know that you need to pace yourself so you don't run out of things to say. One post a day is ideal, it seems. I try to keep up with that but sometimes, well, if I have nothing to say or share, BOTB is postless. Hope that's OK, too.

I want to thank you for visiting BOTB. Thanks, too, for your comments, corrections, and contributions of content, links, and photos (especially of odd signs and Giant Things). You have helped me get a feel for this blogging thing and this blog would not be the same without you.

There will be some exciting new features rolling out here at BOTB in the weeks and months to come. Trust me, you'll be the first to know.

Until then....see more birds, have more fun.


Monday, September 18, 2006

The True Grit of Sparrows

Monday, September 18, 2006
A male house sparrow on a nest box it stole from bluebirds. (Boo! Hiss!)

Some birds will do anything for a little grit.

Birds have no teeth for crushing food items, so they utilize small, hard pieces of stone, eggshell, or sand as an abrasive digestive helpers. This is known as grit. Grit is consumed and housed in the bird's crop where it helps to break up food. Grit is a commonly consumed staple especially for birds that eat lots of seeds or insects with hard exoskeletons.

We see lots of examples of birds eating grit.

Our barn swallows spend most summer afternoons sitting on the front yard powerline, waiting, like vultures at an abattoir, for us to throw some eggshells onto the sidewalk and garage roof. I've seen evening grosbeaks hit along winter roadsides where they were ingesting small bits of rock salt and cinders. I've seen purple martins, aerial insect eaters, scarfing up eggshells from feeding platforms during the breeding season. We've even published articles in BWD about paint-eating blue jays! All of these birds are after grit to aid their food processing.

As a kid, in the early 1970s, I often noticed house sparrows clinging to the brick foundation of the neighbors' house and I wondered what was up. It was years later that I figured out that they were getting dietary grit from the sand in the mortar between the bricks. The old mortar was just soft enough for the hefty-billed sparrows to nibble away at it. If this went on forever, in theory, all the mortar would be consumed and the house would tumble to the ground. But the neighborhood cats and the resident sharp-shinned hawk probably kept the house sparrows in check, so the house is still standing all these years later.

On a recent visit to my parents' home I noticed that the foundation bricks on the neighbors' house had been painted gray. Standing in stark contrast were the pale divots between the bricks where the sparrows were still getting their grit--30 years after I first noticed it. And who knows how long the sparrows have been at it there. Certainly the first house sparrow that discovered this particular grit source is long dead. But I'll bet some of his or her great-great-great-great grandbirds are still here munching mortar!

And how cool is that?

If you look closely you can see a male house sparrow getting his grit, slowly demolishing this house one nibble at a time.

A close-up view of the sparrows' grit-gathering site. It would be interesting to compare these HOSPs to others that do not get their grit in this fashion. Have they worn down their bills accessing the grit? Over time, would a sparrow evolve with a bill like a bricklayer's trowel?

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Ohio's Birding Club

Saturday, September 16, 2006
This photo only shows a fraction of the OOS board, but it's an enthusiastic fraction. Special thanx to Jen S for her hospitality and logistical support.

I am a founding board member of the Ohio Ornithological Society (a fancy-sounding name for Ohio's largest and most avid bird club) and today we had one of our board meetings at the Hebron Fish Hatchery near Buckeye Lake, Ohio. Early morning fog prevented those of us arriving early from seeing many birds, but it did not prevent us from having an effective meeting.

"I call for a motion for Bill to continue his blog and not talk anymore about the super-secret inner workings of the OOS board."
"So moved"
"Do I hear a second?"
"All in favor of Bill continuing his blog, please signify by saying "Aye."
All opposed?
A distant horse says "Neigh."
"The motion carries."

While trying to find birds in the fog, we admired any number of dew-covered orb weavers.

I made a new friend in the forest and then, gasped as I noticed the damage to its body. Later, I realized this damage was caused by all the killdeer living in the hatchery. They cannot leave a defenseless deer alone. And you thought killdeer were just shorebirds? Well, they are stone-cold killers, amigo. Look into their eyes--they burn with the fire of a top-line predator.

Killdeer loafing on the dike between impoundments. Later in the day this flock flew into the woods to hunt for deer.
This super-sized bullfrog was spotted by Jim McCormac along one of the impoundments. He was so big, we thought he was fake. Of course, that's also what we often think of Jim.
Jimbo! Just kidding, giant dude!

Jim McCormac, the Incredible Hulk of Ohio birding and the President of the Ohio Ornithological Society. Here he is scanning the Hebron Hatchery ponds for dragonflies--his new favorite pursuit is Odonata-watching.

As for me, I'm waiting for the "Dragonflying By Ear" audio guide.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Giant Things of Iowa

Friday, September 15, 2006
When I was just a tadpole of a lad growing up in the quiet Midwestern town of Pella, Iowa, my dad worked in Des Moines, Iowa's capitol city. He was the press secretary for then-Governor Bob Ray and it was a big deal for my brother Andy and me to visit Des Moines to see Dad at work. As I recall, we'd make the hour-long trip several times a year, Mom driving, the kids wrestling around the back of the Ford station wagon--to shop for back-to-school clothes, to visit the fabulous Iowa State Fair in the summer, and to do other things we could not then do in Pella (like go to Iowa's only McDonald's!).

The road from Pella into Des Moines went right past the Andersen-Erickson Dairy plant, on the eastern edge of Des Moines, near the state fairgrounds. And the sight we looked most forward to seeing was the pair of giant milk cows standing near the A-E corporate headquarters. Someone would always tell the story about the Iowa farmer who was attending the fair, got drunk (somehow), and was found by the police trying to milk the AE cow statue. True story? I doubt it. The Iowa farmers I know prefer to drink Mountain Dew or really weak coffee.

During our recent Iowa trip I got a special rush of nostalgia when we passed the giant Andersen-Erickson milk cows. The last time I cast eyes upon them Spiro Agnew was our vice president. There they were, perhaps the first Giant Things I ever noticed. Only this time the comments of my fellow passengers had to do not with tipsy farmers, but with the fact that the baby bull milk cow was surely destined for a sad end (perhaps to end up in a Maid-Rite burger) and that somebody had better milk that big cow soon, because her milk bag looks pretty full.

I do loves me my Giant Things.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Our House is a Bird Feeder

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

While taking a break from writing this afternoon, I walked over to the back patio. There, around the edge of the metal window frame to the basement guest room, I saw irrefutable evidence that our house is, in fact, a bird feeder. Mud dauber nests!

Several rows of mud dauber nests appear each spring and summer under our deck and around our basement doors and windows. Mud daubers are wasps that build mud nests to protect their eggs. More detailed info on this interesting insect is here.

The mud dauber's eggs are deposited on paralyzed spiders and spiders and eggs are sealed inside the mud casings. When the eggs hatch, the larvae feed upon the spiders, then spin a cocoon in which they overwinter. This year's crop of mud daubers didn't make it very far. This afternoon I noticed that a downy woodpecker had found the mud chambers and opened up each one to eat the contents.
In the winter, our Carolina wrens poke around in the nests looking for anything the woodpeckers missed. By the way, the mud dauber wasp is harmless to people--and since it captures and paralyzes spiders--well, we consider it beneficial neighbor. We don't use any insecticides or pesticides, so we can feel good about the birds eating the wasp larvae.

Now if we can just get a kestrel or saw-whet owl to move into our basement to take care of the white-footed mice, we'll be all set.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Chipmunk House

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Tiny ball of fur
Hides inside a park cabin
where dogs cannot go.

Monday, September 11, 2006

For Julie on September 11

Monday, September 11, 2006
13 years ago:
"Bill, you may now kiss the bride."
My luckiest day.

photo of JZ by Jeff Gordon

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Some Recent Birdlife

Sunday, September 10, 2006
Fall Tennessee warblers can be picked out by their ochre-overall color, their super-thin bill, and subtle, thin black line through the eye.

We've had our traveling shoes on a lot here of late, but we've still managed to squeeze in short bursts of bird watching whenever possible. Here on the farm, most mornings go like this: Get up, scramble to get the kids on the bus (clothes, brush teeth, shoes, jackets, lunches, backpacks, run!), make coffee, head out to the deck or up to the tower for an hour or so with the birds.

Last Thursday we had 11 warbler species--and nearly all of them in our weeping willow during an amazing 15 minutes of action. The warblers were: magnolia, Tennessee, Nashville, hooded, black-throated green, yellowthroat, black-throated blue, chestnut-sided, blue-winged, Blackburnian, and blackpoll. The next morning we had many of these same birds plus yellow-throated, and American redstart. And three vireos: red-eyed, white-eyed, and Philadelphia! The Philly vireo is a bird we see each September but almost never see in the spring. We can pick them out if we're careful to watch for their snub-billed heads, and drab-colored bodies with a hint of lemon-yellow on the breast.

It's so birdy here this time of year. How I wish The Big Sit (coming on Sunday October 8!) were held in September! We'd clean up! It's much harder to get double figures in warbler species in October--even in early October.

Here are some images of birds I've digiscoped over the past couple of days.

The American goldfinches are beginning to fade from their bright canary-yellow spring and summer plumage.

A preening eastern phoebe in the morning sunlight.

Passing through late in the spring and early in the fall, the olive-sided flycatcher always makes itself obvious, perching in the treetops.

A fall Nashville warbler--the eyering is a dead giveaway.

Even in my fuzzy photo of this Philadelphia vireo you can see its stub-billed appearance.

Thursday, September 7, 2006

A Three-Owl Night

Thursday, September 7, 2006

Last night, as the full moon cast an icing of silver light across the meadow, and the cardinals let the day's final chip notes loose from the honeysuckle tangle, the birds of the night-shift took over.

First to perform was an eastern screech-owl, its frail whinny wafting from somewhere along the edge of the woods below the house. Its long, monotone tremolo note was nearly lost amidst the insect noises that are the soundtrack to these autumn evenings--tree and field crickets, tree, meadow, and oblong-winged katydids, and countless others.

About an hour after it was completely dark, the barred owls bark-hooted from the western slope of our wooded valley. These birds are our most regularly heard owls which is not surprising given the species' well-known tendency to inquire almost nightly (and sometimes even during the day) about who is doing the cooking for us. First the male called, then the female, slightly higher in pitch. Perhaps he was calling her to check on how the kids were doing--a few weeks ago we heard the rasping, food-begging calls of hungry young barred owls. No doubt they were branching out, having fledged from the nest cavity, and were making it easier for their parents to relocate them at feeding time.

Then, just as I was drifting off to the Land of the Sandman, I heard the big daddy of our owls--the great horned owl. But this one did not possess the booming basso-profundo voice I've heard in deep winter here at the farm. Instead, it was higher-pitched and a bit unstable--maybe a bird of the year trying out its hooting chops? The pattern was totally GHO, but the quality of the call reminded me of Peter Brady trying to sing "Time to Change" on that cheezy episode of The Brady Bunch where, in the manic throes of puberty, his voice cracked and squeaked.

A three-owl night. Somehow perfectly complete, with a full moon and a gentle, slightly chilly breeze carrying the owls' messages far and wide, along with our dreams.

Wednesday, September 6, 2006

The Urge For Going

Wednesday, September 6, 2006
European starlings massing for migration, covering the wires at dusk, somewhere in Indiana.

They get the urge for going
When the meadow grass is turning brown

Summertime is falling down

Winter's closing in.

I'll ply the fire with kindling now

Pull the blankets to my chin
I'll lock the vagrant winter out
and bolt my wandering in.

I'd like to call back Summertime
and have her stay for just another month or so

But she's got the urge for going

I guess she'll have to go.

She gets the urge for going

When the meadow grass is turning brown
And all her empire's falling down

Winter's closing in.

--Joni Mitchell, Urge For Going

Tuesday, September 5, 2006

My Favorite Bird

Tuesday, September 5, 2006
While we were in Iowa, we got to enjoy great looks at my favorite North American bird, the red-headed woodpecker. This was one of the first birds I identified by myself (as a 7-year-old in Iowa in 1969, not far from where this photo was taken in September 2006) and everything about the red-headed just gets me fired up.

I love its mix of colors. I love the way its wings flash like a semaphore when in flight. I love the bird's call: Queerp! And I love the fact that where you see one red-headed woodpecker, there are almost always others around--they are loosely colonial.

We showed the red-headeds we found to our kids, our nephews, and a bunch of our dear Iowa friends. Everyone who peeked in the scope at this cooperative red-headed (above) said "Wow!"

Talk about a great bird....

Monday, September 4, 2006

Another Sign of the Times

Monday, September 4, 2006
My friend and BOTB reader Jack Cole sent this along. It seems there was a meeting in Green Valley, AZ of the folks who study flying pigs. Bet THAT cocktail hour was a fun one.

Sunday, September 3, 2006

Under the Weather

Sunday, September 3, 2006
Sorry, BOTB readers, for leaving you hanging for a few days. I came down with a mysterious ailment that robbed me of most of yesterday (and entirely removed my ability to blog). But I feel better now, and my first task is to get something posted here on BOTB.

Here are a few things I've learned in the interim:
  • You CAN get good, friendly help at a hospital these days.
  • You can buy your prescriptions from a vending machine, right inside the hospital.
  • Backless hospital gowns do NOT make you feel sexy.
  • One of the many reasons I did not become a doctor is that there are things you have to do and see when examining your patients that surely must try your patience.
Here's the lowdown. I was having stomach pain and, while enjoying a round of golf (with heavy amounts of bird watching), it became apparent to me that I needed to get checked out. So I went to the local hospital here in my hometown of Pella, Iowa. In fact it was the same hospital I was born in, way back somewhere in the 1960s--sorry the actual date is lost in a haze.

I was welcomed to the hospital, filled out some paperwork, went to an examination room, got seen by the physician's assistant, then the doc. Had some tests, and an X-ray. Got the results, chatted about them with the doc. All in all a very civilized treatment.

The very nice doc I was examined by thought it might be a kidney stone. I'm not completely buying it. I think it might have been the reuben sandwich I ate in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Thursday afternoon--Cedar Rapids is not world famous for the freshness of its pastrami. But who the heck knows. So far the tests are showing it's nothing serious and I am very cool with that.

I think I am on the mend now. And we'll be home before you read this, so I am sure to be all better and fully blog-operational as soon as possible.

Special thanks to the kind folks at the Pella Regional Health Center. The next time I'm sick I hope it's in Pella.