Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Bald is (not) Beautiful

Tuesday, September 30, 2008
Today's post is in singalong form, sung to the tune of Time of the Season by The Zombies.

It's the time....
of the season....

(dum, dum, dum)
for feather mites.

In this time

preening isn't easy
(dum, dum, dum)
and you can try with beak and feet
To preen away the nasties
on your head
but they're just out of reach

Its the time
for male card'nal pattern bald-ness!

I could go on, but there's a restraining order...

Every fall we get several calls at Bird Watcher's Digest about "This weird-looking bird at my feeder! It's like a cardinal but it has a black head!"

It's an annual occurrence. The feather mites build up on cardinals and other birds in late summer and concentrate or do their most obvious damage in the one place that a bird cannot preen: its own head. I've seen bluebirds and blue jays with similar feather loss, but it seems to be most common or at least most noticeable in northern cardinals.

The head feathers get degraded by the mites and fall out. For a week or two the pathetic-looking cardinals come and go to our feeding stations sporting vulture-like black skin heads. Then, in one of Nature's most merciful acts, new feathers grow in and the cardinals look normal again.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Tennessee Warbler

Monday, September 29, 2008

Congratulations to all the contestants in last Friday's Fall Warbler ID Quiz. Alan Pulley, who blogs at this location, was the first reader to correctly name this mystery bird as a Tennessee warbler. Nice detective work, Alan!

My silence over the weekend was not due to my disapproval of the various guesses on the mystery bird's ID. Rather, I was blissfully out of touch with the Web while performing at The Berkeley Spring (WV) Fall Birding Festival. While there I got to see some old birding pals, make some new ones, and had the amazing experience of seeing nearly 1,000 migrant blue jays streaming overhead in groups of 6 to 40 during our Sunday morning bird walk at Sleepy Creek Retreat. No life birds, but a life birding experience seeing so many blue jays in the space of a couple of hours. The hurricane rains did nothing to dampen our spirits.

Now back to our mystery bird.

I did not use an image that showed the bird's face and head. Seeing the faint crowned appearance, the pale supercilium (line over the eye), and the very thin bill would have been really easy clues to the bird's identity.

The best initial step to take when trying to identify a drab fall warbler is to ask yourself: "Does it have wingbars?" If it does, you've already narrowed your potential species options to those WITH wingbars.

Next, check to see if the underparts are streaked. This narrows your choices even further.

(For a great synopsis of this process, get yourself a copy of Identify Yourself: The 50 Most Common Birding Identification Challenges. Eirik A.T. Blom, Julie Zickefoose, and I each wrote chapters covering the warblers in ways that we find helpful and memorable. Bird ID experts Jeffrey A. Gordon, Marshall Iliff, and George Armistead also share their knowledge in the book, which was published by Houghton Mifflin in 2005).

So what DID my mystery warbler photo show? It showed a bird with a uniformly greenish back and rump, with no obvious wingbars or tail spots. It appears to be only slightly lighter-colored below, with no obvious streaking on the underparts.

This eliminates chestnut-sided warbler which would appear paler/grayish-white below and which would show obvious wingbars. Pine warbler would show obvious wingbars, too and would be streaky below. A Cape May warbler would have a duller-gray back, but a lime-green rump. This bird's back and rump are the same color.

Orange-crowned warbler is an excellent guess. This is another Vermivora warbler, like the Tennessee. Both have finely-tipped bills; both are varying degrees of drab yellowish-green; and both lack obvious wingbars. (Please note the the orange crown on this species is not a field mark and is extremely hard to see.)

There are a few other clues that help to steer the identity of this bird to Tennessee warbler rather than to orange-crowned. The lack of streaking on the underparts, the lack of a yellow undertail (not well displayed in my photograph, sorry), and the location where the bird was seen: southeastern Ohio. Orange-crowned warblers are fairly unusual in the East in the fall, whereas Tennessee warblers are a very common fall migrant. (Tennessee warblers are rare in the West.)

Having grown up as a bird watcher in the East and Midwest, I am much more familiar with the Tennessee warbler than I am with the orange-crowned warbler. Every fall I see dozens and dozens of TNs on my farm. In 16 years there, I've seen exactly one orange-crowned.

Bathing Tennessee warbler. Photo by Julie Zickefoose.

Here is a fall Tennessee warbler bathing in our Bird Spa. Note the supercilium, the finely tipped bill, and the greenish back.

Sorry for the headless bird ID quiz photo. In the next one, I promise to show the head and face.

Friday, September 26, 2008

New Bird ID Quiz

Friday, September 26, 2008

Dear Bill of the Birds Readers:

Here's one to ponder over the weekend. What is this bird?

Hint: It IS a warbler. I took this photo on Monday, September 22, 2008, in my yard in southeastern Ohio. So we know it's not a chiff-chaff.

Good luck!

And when you're done with this quiz, get out to see some REAL birds this weekend.
It's the peak of fall migration here in the Midwest.



Thursday, September 25, 2008

Phoebe & The Young Birder's Guide

Thursday, September 25, 2008
Phoebe with her copy of the Young Birder's Guide at the New River Birding Festival.

The thing I'm most proud of in my career as a bird content guy is the Young Birder's Guide which I wrote with the help of my daughter Phoebe's elementary school class. The book has gotten quite a bit of notice from the media and seems to be doing a good job connecting with its target audience (8- to 12-year-olds). Working with Phoebe and her schoolmates was the best.

Phoebs and I recently were interviewed by Mark Lynch, host of the excellent radio show Inquiry on public radio station WICN-FM in Boston. The interview is now available on WICN's website. To give us a listen, go here.

Clearly, during the interview, I talk way too much and Phoebe—not enough. Phoebster, next time I promise to give you more airtime, babe.

The "Inquiry" page on the WICN website.

Share the joy of birds with a young person with the YBG.

If you live anywhere near western Maryland, south-central Pennsylvania, or eastern West Virginia, and are looking for something birdy to do this weekend, come watch birds with us at The Berkeley Springs Fall Birding Festival. This is the first year of what is planned to be an annual event. I am leading a bird walk for kids on Saturday morning and giving my "Perils & Pitfalls of Birding" talk on Saturday night.

Hope to see you there (or somewhere) soon!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Cuckoo Day

Wednesday, September 24, 2008
Yellow-billed cuckoo in our birch tree on 9/24.

Sorry I did not get a post up sooner. It's been a cuckoo day.
Hope your day has been mostly sane.
¡Hasta maƱana!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Bird ID Quiz Winner!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008
The original look at a Confusing Fall Warbler.

Congratulations to Neil Gilbert, who writes about Orange County Birding in his OC Birding Blog, for being the first BOTB reader to correctly identify this bird as a bay-breasted warbler. Neil, who is 16, lends further proof to my belief that today's young birders are WAY better informed and knowledgeable than most of the rest of us were (at least those of us older than 35 or so). Check out Neil's blog, too. He gots mad skilz.

A closer look reveals a bay-breasted warbler, probably a first year female.

I know I should be saying here that there's no such thing as a Confusing Fall Warbler. Better birders than I often say that, and I suppose it's true. But I still find myself scratching my head at some of the individual fall warblers that slip through our ridgetop trees here in SE Ohio. If that's not confusion, then I need to change shampoos.

There are three species that, in fall, look a lot like this bird: plain olive-yellow overall with wingbars and some streaking on the breast or back (or both). These three are: pine warbler, bay-breasted warbler, and blackpoll warbler.

At this point you might want to grab your favorite field guide(s) for handy visual reference points. I'd also suggest reading "The Blackpoll Trio" chapter in Kenn Kaufman's excellent book Advanced Birding.

All of these birds are subtly plumaged, and, in their most confusing versions (first year or hatching year females) they are REALLY similar. Adults are less confusing in fall because they tend to hang on to some of their breeding plumage coloration. Fall adult pine warblers look exactly like breeding plumage birds. Fall adult bay-breasteds of both sexes usually show some of the rusty "bay" coloration on the flanks (sides). Fall adult blackpolls are flying south over the Atlantic Ocean and are rarely seen inland. But if you DID see one, it would look streaky—and quite similar to breeding plumage adults.

In navigating the murky waters of identification of the "baypolls" as some birders call this trio, you should resist the urge to rely upon one single field mark. But two or three field marks vastly increases your likelihood of making a correct identification.

Let's review a few of the field marks than make this a bay-breasted warbler.

Our bird has definite streaks on the back, which pretty much eliminates pine warbler (which nearly always shows an unstreaked back). A close look at the bill shows it to be relatively thin and finely tipped. Pine warbler bills look stout and more bluntly tipped to me—perfect for a bird that sometimes probes beneath bark for insects. Pine warblers often show an obvious, though small, broken ring (pale in young birds, yellow in adults) around the eye, which this bird does not have. First year female pine warblers are the very definition of dull colored‚ almost gray-brown. Adult pine warblers show a lot of yellow on the throat and breast. This bird (above) shows quite a bit of greenish color, but not much yellow on the throat and breast.

So let's toss out pine warbler. mmmK? mmmK!
[For an excellent walk through the identification of a pine warbler, see Jeffrey A. Gordon's recent post about this very thing.]

So, how do we choose between blackpoll and bay-breasted? At this point I often look at the legs and feet. If I get a good look and I see that the bird has pale or yellow feet or legs, I'm leaning toward blackpoll. If the legs seem gray or dark, or if I cannot get a good look, then it could be either.

Next we should look at the streaking. If the bird has noticeable streaking on the breast AND the back, it's most likely to be a blackpoll. The Sibley guide (page 443) and the new Peterson guide (page 352) both show this quite well. The National Geographic guide (page 381) does not—the birds seem too dark to me. (Please don't get me started on the imperfections of printing, a subject about which I am all too experienced.)

Looking at the underparts of a "baypoll" warbler, the quality and location of the color can help steer you toward one species or the other. If the warbler's underparts are relatively uniform in color from throat to undertail (and lacking in streaking, remember?) you almost certainly have a bay-breasted warbler in your sights. If, however, there is a distinct change from greenish-yellow (near to the throat) to white (on the belly) and there's a little bit of faint streaking on the flanks, you're looking at a blackpoll warbler. For a nice discussion of this, please read the "Streaky Fall Warblers" chapter on page 296 in Identify Yourself.

A first-year blackpoll warbler in fall. Note the streaky breast and the pale legs and feet. Spectacular imagery by Julie Zickefoose.

Here we're using three distinct field marks—legs/feet, streaking, underparts coloration—to separate bay-breasted warbler from blackpoll warbler. The clues may be subtle, but if you're tuned in to them, the less subtly marked "baypolls" will be easy pickings for you.

I'm no warbler ID expert. But I do know enough to realize that each fall is a chance (for a few short weeks) to "go to school" on the baypolls. I also know that my mind is not a steel trap, so a refresher when these birds are passing through is most useful.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Bluebird Party

Monday, September 22, 2008

There were nine eastern bluebirds perched on the tower the other morning. These birds are forming loose family flocks for the fall and winter. We've rarely seen them in the past few weeks. After the last brood of summer fledges, our bluebirds disperse to forage away from the over-hunted area near the nest site.

I think they were coming by to see if the suet dough or mealworms were out yet (no, not yet). It's nice to have them back (lazy freeloaders that they are!).

Friday, September 19, 2008

Friday Haiku

Friday, September 19, 2008

Empty granary
alone on the horizon
cliff swallows nested

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Fall Warbler Quiz

Wednesday, September 17, 2008
OK, my peeps. Let's have a fall warbler quiz! I photographed this bird a few days ago in my yard in southeastern Ohio. Yes, it's a wood warbler and it's in non-breeding plumage.

You could even say it's a CFW: a Confusing Something Warbler. Or maybe the F just stands for Fall.

Please send in your best guess via the comments section below. I'll crown a winner in the next few days. The prize is bragging rights, baby.

Good luck and may the best bird watcher win!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

My Spark Bird

Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Snowy owl, but not THE snowy owl.

On my recent trip to Iowa, I took a detour to spend the night in my hometown of Pella, southeast of Des Moines. While there I visited with my awesome niece Annalea and Thompson family friend Barb Butler. And I also visited the exact site where I saw my spark bird (the bird that "sparked" my interest in birds) as a young man in November of 1969. I told my spark bird story back in January of this year here in Bill of the Birds.

Here's the briefest of re-tellings:

I was out in the front yard of my family's home on Monroe Street on the edge of town. It was Thanksgiving break from school and we were raking leaves in the front yard, under the giant oak trees. I seem to remember a slight dusting of snow on the ground. A flash of movement caught my eye and I looked up into the heavy, spreading branches of one of the old oaks to see a large white bird swooping to a landing. It sat there looking around, oblivious to the gawking humans on the ground 40 feet below.

What happened next is a blur. I remember running to fetch the Chester Reed Field Guide and the ancient WWI binoculars on our kitchen windowsill. We identified the bird as a snowy owl. WOW! I was pretty excited. This was a cool bird.

My family was not into birds at the time, but we'd managed to see a bird that we knew was fairly unusual. For me, however, this was the bird that started me on my lifelong path of watching and seeking out birds. It did not happen all at once, of course. I paged through the Reed Guide and tried to find some of the other birds. For some I had great success (northern cardinal, bobwhite, "purple" grackle) but for others I was to find no joy (painted bunting).

The snowy owl is still a special bird to me and I try to see them whenever winter brings them southward.

The morning after my arrival in Pella, it was already time to leave to head north for a speaking engagement. But first, I wanted to revisit the site of my spark bird encounter.
The Rickety House in Pella Iowa.

My family left Pella, Iowa to move to Marietta, Ohio in 1971. The house in Pella (which we kids called "The Rickety House") passed through a variety of owners, with the associated changes in landscaping, painting, and remodeling. The woodlot to the side of the house was sold of for a building lot. The old tree nursery and scrubby fields where I rambled in the 1960s looking for birds and animals are now a subdivision of perfectly kept houses.
The oak tree that the snowy owl landed in.

But the oak trees are still there. And the tree that hosted my snowy owl is still there, too. I stopped the car out in front and took several photos.

I was standing there and the owl landed up there....

The heavy rain on this morning did nothing to dampen my remembering of the day I met my spark bird.

Bird Watcher's Digest is creating a venue for sharing spark bird stories. We'd love to hear yours, and we'll share the best of them in a blog called, appropriately enough: Spark Bird Stories.

To share your spark bird tale, send an e-mail with the story to mysparkbird@birdwatchersdigest.com.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

On BirdWatch Radio

Saturday, September 13, 2008
Steve Moore is a Georgia birder and veteran of years on the radio. He's also the host of a Web-based podcast called Birdwatch Radio that he's been producing for the past year. He's had a wide range of interesting guests including several bird book authors, as well as reports from a birding business trade show and from one of North America's largest birding festivals.

I was pleased to be a guest on Birdwatch Radio recently. Like any good show host, Steve asked open-ended, interesting questions. Basically, he got me started on a topic and let me ramble (which I have been known to do).

If you're interested in knowing more about how my family started Bird Watcher's Digest, and the inside scoop on other bird stuff, check out Birdwatch Radio's new episode. While you're there, lend an ear to Steve's other episodes, all of which are good.

My thanks to Steve for inviting me to be a guest on Birdwatch Radio.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Back to Iowa

Friday, September 12, 2008

I am heading back to my native state of Iowa today to give a talk to the Iowa Ornithologists Union. Also hoping to see some family and friends in The Tall Corn State.

Tonight I'll ramble around Pella, Iowa, the town I was born in way back in the early 1960s.

I love the big sky you get out here on The Great Plains. There's nothing like 180 degrees of sky above to give you a new perspective on your own insignificance.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

September 11, 15 years later

Thursday, September 11, 2008
Most people associate September 11 with the terrorist attacks on the United States. I have something additional with which to associate this date: the anniversary of the day I got married. Today's post is a small tribute to the gal who was with me that day, way back in 1993.

Happy 15th Anniversary to Julie! It seems like only yesterday that we were enjoying our pig roast wedding reception right here at Indigo Hill.

Lord only knows how you've hung on this long!

After all...you've had to:

...raise helpless wildlife such as this phoebe, and this Liam.

You've endured trips to many, balmy, exotic locales...

where you've met many interesting people and creatures.

You've put up with me and my drinkin' buddies.

You've been forced to play gigs with Fredo from The Godfather.

You have "sweated to the oldies" right along side me.

You have been a great Mom to our (mostly) happy kids...
and especially to our youngest, adopted child, Chet Baker (who has your eyes).

Thanks for being my fellow traveler these past 15 years, Zick.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

September Sky

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Looking up I saw
earthy smell of rotting leaves
the September sky

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Swarms of Phalaropes

Tuesday, September 9, 2008
Half of our ABA group on the causeway leading to Antelope Island State Park, Utah.

Back in late June, during the American Birding Association annual convention in Utah, I was assigned to help lead a field trip to Antelope Island State Park. Antelope Island is located on the southeastern edge of the Great Salt Lake, north of Salt Lake City.

We left the Snowbird Lodge high in the Wasatch Mountains before dawn, dropping down to the desert along this large briny inland sea. Our trip consisted of two huge touring coaches, each one loaded with excited bird-heads.

Our first stop was along the causeway leading to the park entrance. So this is the Great Salt Lake. The smell of fermenting brine shrimp came onto the coach to meet us. Rugged plum-colored mountains surrounded the lake at a distance. Shallow brackish water bracketed the road. The water was so shallow that huge areas of salty sandflats appeared here and there, and the movement of birds and insects was obvious everywhere we looked. Stepping off of the bus I noticed several flocks of swift shorebirds flying overhead. They were buoyant fliers, snipelike in shape, but stiltlike in their gracefulness.

I was momentarily puzzled.

Then it hit me—just as someone else shouted "Wilson's phalaropes going overhead!"

Of course!
Wilson's phalaropes overhead, flying to join the huge feeding flocks on the Great Salt Lake.

Flock after flock, each one with between 12 and 30 birds, flew overhead, all headed in the same direction.

"Look at ALL those phalaropes!" I heard myself exclaim. I'd never seen so many at once.

"If you think that's a lot. Look out there, over the water!" said a birder next to me.

There, swirling over the water about 300 yards out were CLOUDS of phalaropes. They looked more like swarms of insects than flocks of birds. And they were reportedly ALL Wilson's phalaropes, staging, molting, and gorging before heading south for the winter.
Every June, as soon as they have finished nesting up north, the phalaropes begin gathering at the Great Salt Lake. As many as half a million may use the lake as a resting and feeding stop on their southward migration.

These birds, in a few weeks, would make a non-stop flight to northern South America. There they'll spend the winter on inland lakes high in the Argentinian Andes—a journey of more than 5,000 miles.

Red-necked phalaropes also pass through the Great Salt Lake, but not in such staggering numbers.

The appearance of these post-breeding phalaropes coincides with the large hatches of brine flies, small harmless insects that form their own dark clouds. The phalaropes and other birds gorge on the abundant brine flies, as well as the equally abundant brine shrimp, putting on body fat that will fuel their long migration.

Here it was, just the last week of June and already fall migration was on for these phalaropes.

I'll share a few images of the distant clouds of Wilson's phalaropes from our morning at Antelope Island State Park.

Like a wave above the water's surface, thousands of phalaropes shifted to new feeding spots.

The flocks were constantly ebbing and flowing.

This was just one small portion of the flock. It extended twice this far to each side of my camera's frame.

This must have been what flocks of passenger pigeons looked like 200 years ago.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Fall Migration's First Wave

Monday, September 8, 2008
In fall, male scarlet tanagers lose their bright scarlet color and look similar to females.

This morning I could tell that today was going to be one of those autumn days. I KNOW I should have stayed home to watch birds.

Glancing out the window on the way to take Liam to the school bus, I saw two magnolia warblers, a flicking tail of an American redstart, and I heard the whisper song of a solitary vireo. Scarlet tanagers and eastern kingbirds played tag on the powerlines over my neighbor's cow pasture. Flights of chimney swifts twittered along our ridge. A band of northern flickers flashed up out of the driveway. Young American robins in various stages of spottedness squealed at each other as they landed in the cherry tree.

Mid-September is the birdiest time of year at our farm. All the resident birds and their offspring are about. The sky is peppered with migrants and their flight and contact calls reach our ears from all directions.

I think today was the first big wave day of the fall—at least for southeastern Ohio. Every year I plead with the migrant warblers to hang around for just a few weeks more so I can count them on The Big Sit day (October 12, 2008). By the time the Big Sit rolls around, we're sorting through the tailings of migration.

Yep. This is the BEST time of year for birding here. Maybe I'll stay home tomorrow....

Friday, September 5, 2008

Funky Chickens

Friday, September 5, 2008
Labor Day weekend in Washington County, Ohio means the Washington County Fair, which provides the best opportunity all year to view obscure breeds of domestic chickens. These birds are raised by local farmers and 4-H kids and brought to the fair to compete for prizes. They live for the five days of the fair in small cages suspended at about waist height. Below the cages, piles of poop-absorbing sawdust are scattered (and blessedly changed regularly).

Every year we spend an hour or more looking at the chickens. Sometimes the notion of keeping some chickens on our farm rises in our brains. Then the reality of our coon-and-possum-and-weasel-filled woods settles in and we decided it's better just to enjoy these lovely beasts vicariously.

Here are some of this year's best-looking cluckers.

The poultry barn houses chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, and rabbits, too.

Dig the feet on this rooster!

All puffed up and ready to crow.

I think this Escher-print chicken is a barred rock, but I could be wrong.

This guy reminds me of Foghorn Leghorn.

Some of the color combinations are very pleasing. But how do they taste? Just like chicken!

I think I know where Tina Turner got the inspiration for her hairstyle.

This looks more like fur than feathers.


Let's see your eyes. Yeah, baby!

This bird reminds me of the tropical guans and tinamous.