Friday, September 30, 2011

Angry Birds

Friday, September 30, 2011
The new Nature's Classroom facility at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.

I was down in the Florida panhandle a while ago, helping to open a wonderful new building at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge called "Nature's Classroom." This facility will serve as a resource for area residents, teachers, students, birders, photographers, and nature enthusiasts, giving them a place to meet, learn, explore, and a base from which to enjoy St. Marks NWR.

Some of the team responsible for the new Nature's Classroom building at the ribbon-cutting.

While there I gave three talks and lead a couple of bird walks, one of which was on the Plum Orchard Trail behind Nature's Classroom. We had 30 or so folks along, including some keen young bird watchers, and the birding was fairly good, considering it was a hot, muggy afternoon. We had lots of red-eyed vireos, eastern kingbirds, a green heron, immature white ibis, little blue heron, tricolored heron, pine warbler, four woodpecker species, and a noisy flock of brown-headed nuthatches. But the most interesting sighting happened right at the end of the walk on the sandy pool of water behind Nature's Classroom.

As we returned on the loop trail, one of our group spotted two shorebirds out on the pool. We initially thought they were spotted sandpipers because there were lots of spotties around and because they were teetering their tails the way that spotted sandpiper often do. But as they came out of the vegetation and walked closer it was clear that they were the larger solitary sandpiper. And they were really behaving weirdly: running around excitedly, bobbing almost constantly, looking into the grass.

Solitary sandpipers doing their best Angry Birds impression.

That was when the object of their attention slithered into view: a banded water snake came gliding toward the birds. The birds seemed to be conflicted about this: should they run or should they fight? As soon as the snake would head away from them, the solitaries would chase it. If the snake came toward them, they scampered away. Certainly the snake was too large for them to kill and eat, and I'm not sure that the snake could have subdued the sandpipers, so they were left to perform pantomime parries and thrusts with no actual attacks.

The whole scene lasted just a few minutes, but it was interesting to watch. I guessed that these birds might have been youngsters migrating south with the fall, and this might have been their first snake encounter.

Solitaries and the water snake.

This was my first trip to St. Marks—one of our oldest national wildlife refuges. What a fantastic place it is! I'm certain I'll be back again for another visit.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Birds & People at MBS 2011

Wednesday, September 28, 2011
I want to share some images with you from the 2011 Midwest Birding Symposium held September 15 to 18 at Lakeside, Ohio. If you were there, you know we had a really great time. If you weren't there, I hope these images will give you some idea of what the MBS is all about. I'll be posting about the MBS a few times in the coming weeks, but for this initial post, let's just take a gander at some of the birds and people. The image above is a male American redstart. The symposium was held at the peak of fall warbler migration along the Lake Erie shore.

Hoover Auditorium was filled with MBS attendees for both morning and evening keynote presentations by folks like Al Batt, Bridget Stutchbury, Peter Dunne, Julie Zickefoose, Kenn and Kim Kaufman, and Greg Miller (one of the three real characters from the book The Big Year). During the MBS, Hoover Auditorium was sponsored by SWAROVSKI OPTIK.

These are our friends Hugo, Irene, and Rafael from the Guatemala-based tour company Operador Latino. They were displaying their tours and materials in a booth in the Birder's Marketplace in South Auditorium. We had more than 60 vendors this year!

Avid Ohio birder/naturalist Sandy Brown keeps her birdmobile loaded with all the gear she needs to enjoy the natural world. Her license plate says it all.

Out at the six MBS designated birding sites, we had volunteer guides stationed, ready to take people out for some bird watching. All guides sported the official MBS guides' trucker hat: black with the MBS Caspian tern stitched on the front panel.

Over at Magee Marsh, many MBS attendees enjoyed looking at the trumpeter swan families. These birds are part of a reintroduction program that is aimed at restoring a viable population of these elegant birds to Ohio.

In South Auditorium on Saturday afternoon lots of bird book authors lined up to sign copies of their books. Shown here from right to left are: Mark Garland, Marie Read, Julie Zickefoose, Connie Toops, and Jeff Gordon.

Another fall migrant, a magnolia warbler. This beauty was photographed at Meadowbrook Marsh and official MBS birding site on the Marblehead Peninsula.

Bird sound expert and Zen master Michael O'Brien lead a walk to the Lakeside pier to listen for the sounds of migrant birds overhead. This was a nice add-on to his MBS talk "Things That Go Seet in the Night."

Super volunteers Marc Nolls and Mike and Karen Edgington helped to organize and run the MBS bird checklist as well as the conservation raffle. Thanks to their efforts, the generosity of our sponsors and donors, and the avid participation of our attendees, the 2011 MBS conservation raffle raised more than $11,000 for bird conservation causes. The Ohio Ornithological Society agreed to match up to $10,000, so our MBS conservation fund total was $21,000! I'm extremely proud of this.

Among the incredibly hard-working MBS staff were, from left to right: volunteer Sheryl Young, Jim Cirigliano, managing editor of Bird Watcher's Digest, and Ann Kerenyi, BWD controller and goddess of ossumness in charge of details for the MBS.

Guides from MBS sponsor Field Guides Birding Tours lead groups of MBS attendees at Magee Marsh. A total of 137 bird species were seen during the 2011 MBS, including a fly-by red-necked phalarope spotted by Cameron Cox at the Leica Lake Watch on the Lakeside pavilion.

My gratitude to the following photographers who took the images above during the 2011 MBS: Ernie Cornelius, Ann Oliver, Liz McQuaid, Sherrie Duris, Micki Hendrick, and Sandy Brown.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

St. Marks Morning

Sunday, September 25, 2011
It's been a wild few weeks here at Bill of the Birds international corporate headquarters. Apologies for the mostly unavoidable dead air here on the blog. So, as an attempt at making this up to my patient readers, here's a much-needed Moment of Bliss for you and me.

The image above was taken yesterday morning along the road to the St. Marks lighthouse. The air was cool and humid, with that whiff of brackish marsh. Birds dotted the sky as though the heavens spilled its pepper mill and I took a moment to feel my feet on the ground, to fill my lungs with sweet morning air, to count the glory rays striking skyward from the rising sun. It was so peaceful. Life at that moment, well, it was very good.

Then my camera battery ran out.

More soon.

Thursday, September 8, 2011


Thursday, September 8, 2011
Red-eyed vireo

We have three species of vireos that nest on our farm here in southeastern Ohio: red-eyed, white-eyed, and yellow-throated. There are three others that we see each spring and fall, just passin' through: blue-headed (formerly solitary and I can't seem to remember to use the "new" name), warbling, and Philadelphia. If we really stretched our birding fantasy list to the extreme I suppose we could one day see a Bell's vireo here at Indigo Hill, but if we do, that sighting will get its very own blog post.

White-eyed vireo

All summer long we hear the red-eyeds singing almost constantly. Yellow-throateds seem to be more selective singers, but when they do sing, they do it a lot. Their hoarse-sounding question-and-answer song seems to come mostly from our oak woods.

White-eyeds sing a ton during courtship, then not at all during nesting it seems. I wonder if the tree-top-loving red-eyeds and yellow-throateds sing more regularly (or the white-eyeds less) due to their relative exposure to predators. A red-eyed vireo singing in the top of a tulip poplar is very hard to find. A white-eyed may be skulking in the shadows, but it's usually at eye level or below in a patch of brushy habitat. Does this make them more susceptible to predators?

Yellow-throated vireo

Now that fall migration has started, these vireos can still be heard singing, though with nowhere near the intensity of the earlier seasons. The other notable behavior of fall migration is the aggressiveness of the red-eyed vireos. They zip and swoop from tree to tree, often chasing other birds. I imagine these other birds thinking "What the heck? Leave me alone!" I'm sure this behavior has something to do with the fluctuation in hormone levels brought on by the end of the breeding season and the onset of fall migration.

The red-eyeds remind me of teenage boys who, when they find themselves just standing around doing, nothing get the sudden urge to punch a nearby shoulder. This punch often elicits another, and so on.

Our vireos' aggressiveness sometimes pays nice dividends, like this morning when a pair of (probably young) red-eyeds chased two warblers out of deep cover in our sycamore tree: one was an adult male black-throated blue (my favorite North American warbler) and the other was a yellow-throated warbler—both firsts for this fall.

Philadelphia vireo

Later in September we start sorting through the vireos more carefully, looking for a Philadelphia vireo. We see far more of them in fall than in spring migration. It's one of the many treats of autumn that makes the leaving of summer just a little easier to take here in Vireotown.