Thursday, January 31, 2013

A Rarely Seen Field Mark

Thursday, January 31, 2013
A drake ring-necked duck.

Many birders have asked themselves, when afield and bird watching, why certain birds are named for virtually indiscernible field marks. The red-bellied woodpecker may (or may not) have a wash of pale red upon its belly, but that belly is nearly always pressed up against a tree trunk, rendering the field mark useless.

Raise you hand if you've seen the orange crown on an orange-crowned warbler!

Try telling short-billed and long-billed dowitchers apart using only your binoculars. It's tough, man!

These field marks are reminders to us that many of our native birds were named during the shotgun era of ornithology when men (yes it was mostly men) took to nature with gun and gamebag and shot any bird they saw—especially ones that were unfamiliar to them. These unknown birds were examined in the hand and sometimes given names that seemed perfectly useful to an gun-toting ornithologist who was nearly always going be looking at bird corpses up close rather than living, flying birds at a distance.

Roger Tory Peterson helped the ornithologists and bird enthusiasts of the day put down the shotgun and pick up the binoculars when he introduced his Field Guide to Birds in 1934. In this guide, RTP provided a system of bird identification based upon field marks that could be seen from a distance. No need to shoot every bird to know what it is, or rather, used to be.

The ring-necked duck is a perfect example of this shotgun nomenclature. It's a rare thing to see the ring on a drake ring-necked duck in the field. If Peterson or some other bino-toting bird guy (or gal) had been the first to discover this species it might have more properly been named ring-billed duck for the apparent rings of black, white, and gray on its bill.

Drake ring-necked duck, showing the ring of rusty-brown at the base of the neck.
On a recent trip to the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival in Florida I happened upon a cooperative drake ring-necked duck at Viera Wetlands. I must confess that it wasn't until I was looking at my images, back home in icy Ohio that I noticed that I had caught several shots that showed the ring on the neck of this species.

Pretty neat stuff! And no birds were killed in the process! Well, I did eat chicken for dinner that night, but that's a story for another time.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Space Coasting

Tuesday, January 22, 2013
Limpkin at Viera Wetlands near Cocoa, FL.
I feel only a little bit guilty for escaping the single-digit temperatures of southeastern Ohio this week for the relatively balmy temps along Florida's east coast. It's time once again for the annual Space Coast Birding & Nature Festival in Titusville, FL. This is one of the top events in the annual calendar of birding festivals. Its location is ideal for birding with great habitat and dynamic—even endangered—bird species nearby. Its timing in late January often coincides with the first days of winter despair for those of us who live in the rusty snow belt of the upper Midwest. And the folks who run the fest are just really nice and accommodating. Bird Watcher's Digest has been a sponsor of this birding festival since its inception.

Ruddy turnstone in winter plumage.
Oh, the reason it's called the Space Coast Birding & Nature Festival is because NASA's Cape Canaveral launch facility is located nearby. All those Apollo missions and Space Shuttle launches started from right here.

Florida scrub-jay.
 Two of my favorite birding locations during the festival are Viera Wetlands and Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. Both locations are a short drive from the community college auditorium and campus where the festival has its base. And both places offer amazing opportunities for birding, bird photography, and for appreciating the incredible natural diversity of this part of The Sunshine State. Brevard County certainly has its heavily developed areas but it also has a significant amount of protected natural habitat—and wherever this habitat occurs, it's as birdy as heck.

Least bittern photographed at Viera Wetlands.

 The last time I made the scene at Space Coast, I was accompanied by daughter Phoebe (then in 8th grade) and we spent several days visiting schools to take classrooms of her fellow 8th graders out birding. This was super fun!

 Phoebe also helped me at the book signings for The Young Birder's Guide to Birds of Eastern North America which she and her classmates at Salem Liberty Elementary helped me conceptualize and write. That's my friend and editor Lisa White from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the photo above. She was probably coaching me on how to spell my name properly during the book signing... B-I-L-L...

 On two separate afternoons, Phoebe and I escaped to the beach at Canaveral National Seashore. She was longing to see the ocean. It was cold, but we still took off our shoes and socks and rolled up our pants legs and raced into the surf.

Phoebe and me on the beach.

In fact I think it's safe to see that seeing that Phoebe on the beach just as happy and free as she could be was my favorite bird sighting of the entire week!

Do yourself a favor and visit The Space Coast Birding & Nature Festival's website and then make plans for your own late-January escape to Florida's Atlantic coast.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Downyton Abbey

Tuesday, January 8, 2013
We got a big snowstorm on December 30 which really ramped up the activity at the bird feeders. Our normally territorial downy woodpecker pairs clearly declared a truce during this inclement weather spell, taking turns at the suet and peanut feeders without the usual threat poses and beak thrusts.

One pair nests and roosts somewhere in the orchard and woods in the background of this image, which is west of our house. The other pair lives in the woods to the east of our house. I'm not sure about the titmouse. He's one of about 50 that we have around the feeders.

I love that our ridge-top farm and its feeding stations are a gathering place for the downy woodpeckers—a Downyton Abbey, if you will. This morning I heard a rapid, staccato drumming so it won't be long before these small wood-boring creatures will be back to battling over the turf that is our farmyard. Spring will bring forth an urge to court, mate, defend...For now I'm pleased to see them behaving like dignified lords and ladies.