Saturday, September 28, 2013

Worm-eating Warbler

Central Winds Park
Worm-eating Warbler
Worm-eating Warblers are one of my favorite birds.  They make brown beautiful with their wonderful striped heads--they're dashing creatures. Their striped heads make them rather easy to identify.  Despite their name, I've never seen them eat an actual worm.  I normally find them searching through dead leaves on relatively low branches looking for caterpillars and other arthropods.

Central Winds Park
Worm-eating Warbler
Central Winds Park
Worm-eating Warbler
I've had a terrible time photographing these wonderful birds. It seems they're always under cover in low light conditions.  But over the last couple days, I've found two individuals at a park near my home that were very cooperative.  I finally have presentable photos of this species.

Central Winds Park
Worm-eating Warbler
Central Winds Park
Worm-eating Warbler
Here in Central Florida, we only get to see them during Spring and Fall migration.  They breed in the Eastern U.S. Their songs are beautiful.; it's a relatively high pitched rapid trill-like song, very similar to a Chipping Sparrow.

Central Winds Park
Worm-eating Warbler
Central Winds Park
Worm-eating Warbler

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Birding Chincoteague NWR

Looks like time got away from me and I am kind of rushing this post, sorry! My post is on this past weekend's visit to Chincoteague NWR located on the Virginia side of Assateague Island. It is one of my favorite wildlife refuges to visit. During previous visits and with the migration I am usually able to see amazing numbers of birds. The wildlife refuge is also famous for the Chincoteague ponies that can be seen running free on the island.

 Across the from the Tom's Cove visitor center we did see some great birds, above I was able to capture the Little Blue Heron, a Snowy Egret and a Tri-colored Heron together..a three-fer.

 I was kind of disappointed and sad this area of Virginia seems to be having a drought. The wildlife loop was mainly dry, a few mud puddles here and there.

While driving around the wildlife loop we could see there were areas where the ground looked dry and cracked. Not many birds to be found there except for a few herons and egrets. I am wondering if the usual thousands of Dunlins and other shorebirds we see here have moved on and found a new place to stop?

Back near Tom's Cove there were plenty of birds and water. I am always excited to see the Black Skimmers, they are cool looking birds with their distinctive red and black bill. Pictured above are the Skimmers, Willets, Forster's Terns, Marbled Godwits and possibly my lifer the Bar-tailed Godwit. In this photo, I believe my Godwit lifer is in the top right hand corner standing next to a few Willets.  The Bar-tailed has a two toned with a dark edge. The female Bar-tailed Godwit was found in Chincoteague back on August 3rd. I was very happy and excited seeing the Bar-tailed Godwit it is a very cool lifer for me.

Above, the Marbled Godwit seems to have a longer bill pink with the dark tip.

Not the best shot, but another image of the Bar-tailed Godwit located on the far left of the photo. The Bar-tailed Godwit is a large wader which breeds on the Arctic coast. They are commonly found in Alaska where it breeds and than migrates to New Zealand and Australia. It's migration is the longest known non-stop flight of any bird.

We saw a lot of the Little Blue herons, both adults and the white juveniles. Some doing a dance or just being bossy.

Another one of my Chincoteague lifers is the Sandwich Tern.  On the left, this bird is easily id with the yellow tip on its black bill.

One of my favorite birds seen at the Chincoteague NWR, is the Brown-headed Nuthatch. During a walk on the woodland trail we saw and heard many of these cute nuthatches.

I hope you enjoyed birding with me at the Chincoteague NWR. If you are ever in the area I would highly suggest a visit. 

Happy Birding,

Monday, September 23, 2013

Bird Banding at BSBO

After spending three days at the Midwest Birding Symposium, I decided to spend my final day in northwest Ohio birding at Magee Marsh and attending a Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO) bird banding demonstration. I arrived at Magee Marsh shortly after sunrise and was joined by some great friends! We started out along the Estuary Trail and found many warblers taking shelter from the wind on the south side of the trail. In just one small area, we managed to find about 15 species of warblers.

After thoroughly birding the area, we all headed up to BSBO for their banding demonstration. We arrived a little late, and they were already showing the crowd tons of awesome birds!

Kate Zimmerman from BSBO showing Carlos Bethancourt from Canopy Tower a Gray-checked Thrush!

A Northern Waterthrush taking a bite out of Kim Kaufman's hand.

Kim telling everyone about the amazing migration that
this Blackpoll Warbler is currently undertaking.

Up-close and personal with a Gray Catbird.
If you have not had the chance to attend a banding demonstration, I would highly recommend that you do sometime soon! Whether you are brand new to birding or extremely experienced, there is a lot to learn by viewing these birds up-close.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Bird That Got Away: Technically Bad But Interesting Bird Images

Capturing a great nature shot--especially when the subject can fly, scurry, or run--is a combination of skill, determination, equipment, and plain old luck or timing. Photographers often sift through lots of bad images before they share their work with others. Thank goodness for digital images that can be captured and deleted at practically no cost in comparison to film.  I've heard some great photographers say they shoot from tens to hundreds of images to get the one they think is worth sharing.

I love capturing and sharing images of birds and other creatures. I typically share only my favorites unless the image is meant purely for functional purposes such as providing proof of a rare bird. However, this post will be the exception to my rule. In other words, these are images that would have been really awesome had I been better prepared, had better equipment, lighting, timing, etc. I'll probably kill any chance I had for being published in National Geographic once this post gets out. What follows are images that could have been.

I was wandering around Silver Lake near Utah's Brighton Ski Resort one wintry morning when a Steller's Jay gave I call. I turned around just in time to fire off my shutter and capture the jay flying over head. It looks more like an x-ray than a bird in flight. The sky was gray so lighting, camera settings, and my preparedness were off for this one. However, it is a unique photo.

Steller's Jay at Brighton Ski Resort Near Salt Lake City, UT

I can't complain about the lighting for these images of a Red-shafted Northern Flicker that was coming in for a landing one sunny morning as I was strolling along American Fork Boat Harbor. I saw the bird coming and I'd always wanted to capture an image showing the really cool salmon-colored feathers. Unfortunately, I didn't get a tight focus until right before it landed and the branches obscured what I was targeting.

Northern Flicker (slightly out of focus) American Fork, UT
Northern Flicker (missed opportunity) American Fork, UT
An Osprey also gave me lots of notice once, but I couldn't get the auto focus to work properly for any of the ten or so images I captured as it flew toward me. All of those images could have been awesome raptor shots. If I crop it any more than this you'll quickly see that the eyes were out of focus. When the subject's eyes are out of focus it just doesn't make the cut--unless your point is to show what can go wrong in nature photography. Which, I have to remind myself, is the point of this post.

Osprey in American Fork, UT
Several years ago my company moved me into a nice corner office on the top floor of our building which was right next to excellent habitat for birds, foxes, deer, marmots, and more. I had seen some Peregrine Falcons around the area so I kept my camera in my office in case the perfect opportunity arose. On the day the opportunity presented itself I had left my camera in my truck. I saw a Peregrine enjoying lunch on the balcony ledge outside my office. I ran to the elevator, dropped six floors, retrieved the camera  from the truck, returned to the sixth floor near my office, and then slightly opened the door to the balcony while on my knees to get a direct line to the bird. I snapped what would have been very nice images if there weren't two metal wires running horizontally between me and the bird. Consequently, the falcon's chest and the lunch (a dove) were blurred.

Peregrine Falcon with Dove South Jordan, UT
I was quite "surprised" as I was driving through Surprise, Arizona on my way back to Utah one day. I saw a Greater Roadrunner, running rather greatly along the road. I suddenly veered to the shoulder of the road. I'm not sure if it was a legal manuver where I was driving, but my excitement about seeing a roadrunner up close for the first time overruled my concern for everything else going on around me. I scrambled to get the camera bag and turn on the camera. The excitement was so great I was fumbling with every move. The bird suddenly plucked a Round-tailed Ground Squirrel from beneath the sand and proceeded to thrash it against the ground. Man, I wish I would have been on a higher shutter speed to get a clearer image. It was definitely a moment I'll always remember.

Greater Roadrunner With Round-tailed Squirrel Surprise, AZ
Speaking of roadrunners, I got some really nice images of two roadrunners near Lytle Ranch in southwestern Utah this spring. However, one image had a missed opportunity because I wasn't anticipating that the bird would leap from one branch of a Joshua tree to another. I guess you could use this image to study its feet. The tail doesn't look like much, but wait til you see the next image.

Jumping Greater Roadrunner Washington County, UT
I had an adult Sharp-shinned Hawk do a quick fly-by right next to me as it was pursuing its breakfast one morning in Tonaquint Nature Center in St George, Utah. I got some nice images of the bird perched, but this time, unlike the jumping roadrunner, the hawk decided to dive down from a perch. That is a pretty squared tail, wouldn't you say?

Tail of Adult Sharp-shinned Hawk St George, UT
Townsend's Solitaires are often viewed as rather bland, gray birds. I've always wanted to get an image of a Townsend's Solitaire with it flashing its yellow wing patches. The bird below was actually perched and suddenly took flight. Unfortunately, the unexpected wing patch shot turned out to be more of the bird playing a mean joke on me. Not a bad shot of a branch however.

Townsend's Solitaire in Pleasant Grove, UT (it was perched when the image was framed)
Another unexpected jumping bird turned out to look like a Photoshop effort gone bad. I don't use Photoshop so this is probably just as good as if I did Photoshop the image all by myself. Trust me on this one.  It would have been a nice image if the bird would have sat still on the branch below it.

Jumping Townsend's Solitaire at Tibble Fork Reservoir Utah County, UT
How do you like this awesome Barn Owl shot? It was actually perched on a power line as I was driving to the grocery store. It started to fly when I pulled over for a photo. Apparently this owl doesn't know how to frame itself well for a photo. If you look closely you can see the little black spots on its underside. By the way, that's a beautiful snow-covered mountain in the background. Be honest now, doesn't it make you want to ski in Utah?

Missed Barn Owl Shot Pleasant Grove, UT
I was driving home from work a few years ago and saw not only my first Swainson's Hawk ever, but I saw several within minutes. They must have just gotten off the last flight from Argentina. That's where they come from you know. It was April and I think that is when flights from Argentina to Utah are heavily booked by Swainson's Hawks. I was also new to photography at the time and I think I had everything on my camera set to auto. Someone told me that was all I needed to do to get good photos. Must have been a poor job on the hawks part. I'm sure if it knew it was going to go viral on the Internet it would have focused itself and kept all of its body parts in the frame.

Swainson's Hawk Springville, UT
I don't know. Is this a bad image of a Killdeer? Nice colors I guess, but what did I do to scare it off in such a hurry?

Killdeer Spanish Fork, UT
When I saw this Pygmy Owl's eyes go wide and it mouth start to gape I knew a pellet was about to be ejected in some sort of projectile fashion. I pressed the shutter release and fired away in continuous shooting mode. It took longer for the bird to clear its throat than expected. Between the capacity of the camera's sensor and the memory card the frames per second choked and stalled right as the pellet came forth.

Northern Pygmy Owl Aspen Grove Lodge Utah County, UT
The best I could do was take a picture of the pellet after my friend traipsed through hip-deep snow to retrieve the pellet and place it on the road. The point of showing this image is to see if you can identify the species of bird or mammal inside.

Freshly Expelled Northern Pygmy Owl Pellet Aspen Grove Lodge Utah County, UT
Please don't give up on my work. I have desire and better equipment now. I'm getting better all the time. I promise I'll do better next time.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

August and September Recharging: A Beach Boy Fantasy

August and September make for a funny, exciting time of year. Students return to school with mixed emotions from their summer, all the television networks start winding up their football programming, monsoon clouds bring their (often false) promises and, most importantly, large portions of North America experience a surge in migratory birds. When people travel, they tend to prefer visiting or at least stopping at nice pretty places throughout our trip. For Arizonans especially, that's anywhere with some water. It's the same with birds, which is why the Glendale Sewage and Recharge Ponds are the premier shore-birding habitat in Phoenix and why so many birders spend their mornings near that which they're otherwise so eager to flush away. It is a plush post-flush ocean front property, and now is the time to make one last summer beach trip! 
So take a whiff of saltwater, hold some seashells to your ears, close your eyes, and pretend you're now at the beach (don't really close your eyes; then you wouldn't be able to read the post). We're going to do some Arizona shore birding!

Here we are at the beach. The sun is beating down upon us and the warm breeze stings our toes ever so slightly as it whips along the sand. It must be low tide, for there are no waves and the water is rather shallow. Thinking little of the low water level in the ocean or the faint smell of distant sewage, we unfold our rickety beach chairs, stick an umbrella in the ground, and soak in the scenery.

Upon closer inspection, we see that the shoreline is dotted with Semi-palmated Plovers. This is an annual yet uncommon bird in Arizona, but a predictable sighting for us here on the Pacific coast, even though the sand seems to have a weird, gross green algae growing over it.


In the background, Killdeer, Yellowlegs, and Stilts are maintaining a high-pitched cacophony, but the shoreline seems pretty busy so we decide to set up the scope and do some scanning their first. Soon we pick out the tiny but plump frame of a Snowy Plover. This would be a pretty solid find in Arizona, but since we're on the Pacific Coast instead, we don't think too much of it.

Away to the east, some movement above the water catches our attention. A Black Tern is foraging over the pacified waters, looking somewhat mottled in its intermediate plumage, but still graceful nonetheless. We enjoy the sighting and the bird's antics, pondering all the while how unusual it must be to see Black Terns and tumbleweeds at the same time. We know Terns migrate great distances, and apparently tumbleweeds do too.

A flock of Black-necked Stilts fly by, hiding a few Avocets in their ranks and adding more formality to the scene with their black, white, and pink ensembles. We feel a little underdressed for the occasion, and so turn our attention elsewhere.

A single Short-billed Dowitcher, differentiated by its tiger-striped tertials, is foraging with some Western Sandpipers. Like the Snowy Plover, this would be a very solid sighting if we were inland, but here on the pristine Arizona coast we think little of it.

In fact, the multitude of Long-billed Dowitchers, much more common inland, is the far greater surprise.

To really strain our eyes, we start scrutinizing the many flocks of Western Sandpipers to turn out a Semi-palmated, looking for shorter beaks and slightly varying plumages. 

It's a painstaking task, and we can't get photos of the Semi-palmateds when they do stand out. At least the Western Sandpipers are pleasant to look at in the mean time.

Looking at tiny peeps can be an arduous thing, so we walk further down the shoreline to the salt marshes, hoping to see Pectoral Sandpipers or Saltmarsh Sparrows. Calling Soras and jittery Egrets add to the boggy atmosphere here, but the Pectorals don't come into view.

There are worse consolation prizes than a Greater Yellowlegs foraging up close. At this point, having watched so many different animals feeding, we start to feel peckish as well. It's time to head back to the beach buggy and grab the cooler, time to take a lesson from the birds knowing how to enjoy their summer beach day. 

As we make the short walk down the beach, a startling cry echos from the right. Of course! It is a Killdeer, the common and noisy Plover near and dear to our hearts. He's standing along a rocky outcropping and blending in very nicely. Since this is the Pacific beach and not an Arizona sewage pond, we marvel at this unusual and refreshing sighting!

Ahh...a quick dip, some picnic lunching, some more cold beverages and it's time to pass out. What a lovely trip. If only the world, or even the universe, wouldn't mind holding still for a day or two and letting us preserve this experience. But the wind is moving, the birds are moving, and so too must we.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Tufted Titmouse - Small Bird with a Crest

In the last couple of weeks, entertainment duties in my backyard venue have been taken over by my favorite bird, the Tufted Titmouse. A troupe of these tiny, crested, gray birds gather around the feeders, coming in from all directions, grabbing a seed, and taking off in all directions.

There is at least one family, with at least six members - it is hard to count because they are always on the move. When an adult flies to the maple, or into the thicket of the lilac, there are two or three youngsters waiting, chirping away, fluttering their wings, and demanding food. A friend once described young Blue Jays begging for food by saying, “Boy, I’d hate to be their parents. They are a bunch of demanding kids.” The titmouse youngsters are no less insistent or demanding, although a third the size of th
e Blue Jays. They make a terrific racket as their parents retrieve food. The racket ratchets up as the food comes near, is interrupted only for the microsecond needed to gulp it down, and then resumes unabated

The common presence of the Tufted Titmouse in Vermont is a recent occurrence. When Forbush, the Massachusetts ornithologist wrote “Birds of Massachusetts,” he included the Tufted Titmouse, but had no field experience with the bird to draw from. Instead, he quoted the work of a southern ornithologist on its nesting practices. The Tufted Titmouse was a southern species, its range reaching north only to southern Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

 Tufted Titmouse in winter

Since 1927 when Forbush published his work on New England birds, the Tufted Titmouse has been extending its range northward. Vermont Christmas Bird Counts in the 1970s recorded fewer than ten birds until late in the decade when the numbers began climbing significantly. The first Vermont nesting record was in 1976. When the first Vermont Breeding Bird Atlas field surveys were conducted from1977 to 1981, the Tufted Titmouse was recorded in only nine survey blocks. Each confirmed breeding was recorded in the Atlas: nest building in Peru in June; adults feeding young in Stowe in June; recently fledged young in Brattleboro in July, and so on, for the eight confirmed breeding records.

The second Vermont Breeding Bird atlas (2003-2007) documented the dramatic expansion of the Tufted Titmouse in the state. It was recorded in 104 priority blocks. It was scarce only in the northeast of the state.

The Tufted Titmouse is a member of the family “Paridae,” a group of small birds which are often described as treetop acrobats because of the way they flit about and clamber over twigs and branches in search of insects. Titmice are close relatives of chickadees. For most of their taxonomic life, titmice and chickadees have belonged to the same Genus: “Parus.” About five years ago, the taxonomic gurus decided that titmice and chickadees were not quite so closely related, and assigned them to new genera: “Poecile” for chickadees, and “Baeolophus” for titmice.

Tufted Titmouse - small bird with a crest

On the other side of the Atlantic pond, the relatives of these birds are known collectively as “tits,” and include some birds which look remarkably similar to our Black-capped Chickadee, such as the Willow Tit or the Marsh Tit. The Crested Tit has a striking pattern to its head and crest; only the crest (as well as size and shape) brings to mind our plain, gray Tufted Titmouse.

“Titmouse” derives from Old Icelandic “titr” meaning something small; “mouse” is a corruption of “mase” from the Anglo-Saxon for a kind of bird. The plural form, “titmice,” has been influenced by the unrelated word, “mouse.” Hence, the Tufted Titmouse is a small bird with a tuft, or crest. And its relatives in the Old World are “Tits,” or small - the “mase” or “mouse” having been dropped. If you ever hear a British birder rave about all the great tits he saw, he is not being crudely sexist; he is talking about our chickadees and titmice.

A young Tufted Titmouse watches
a parent getting food from a suet feeder

The Tufted Titmouse’s range expansion is  probably the result of a complex combination of habitat change, environmental alteration, and climate warming. I worry about that in general, but I am delighted that it is a year round resident in my neighborhood. It will brighten even a winter day. Most birds wait until winter is on the wane before beginning their courtship singing. Not the titmouse. On a sunny day after a major snowstorm, you may hear his “peer, peer, peer” piercing through the crisp atmosphere, a sound of promise and a promise of life.

The titmouse prefers deciduous woods, especially those of swamps and river bottoms, but has adapted to residential woods, village shade trees, and city parks. One summary description of the titmouse goes like this: “active, vivacious, flits about foliage of trees, often hangs head downward while inspecting twigs, leaves, or clings to trunk or branches, searching in bark crevices for insect food, wanders about in winter in small flocks; tame ... intelligent, quick to learn.” (Terres)

The Tufted Titmouse is a cavity nester, using an old woodpecker hole, natural cavity, or occasionally a nest box. Pairs stay together all year. The male feeds the female during courtship and while she is incubating her 5-6 eggs (or sometimes 3-9 eggs). When the eggs hatch, the female stays with the young most of the time, while the male brings food. He often has a “helper,” one of their offspring from a previous nesting. Families tend to stay together through the Fall and Winter, often joining flocks of other small birds, such as chickadees, nuthatches, and Downy Woodpeckers.

Young Tufted Titmouse with raised crest, a sign of alertness.
The parent’s crest (right) is down, perhaps out of parental weariness

The young titmice in my backyard in late August are probably a second brood. At first, I tried to sort out the family relationships, tried to deduce whether I had one or more families. I gave up; I could not even figure out how many titmice there were, they moved about so fast. What with parents, helpers from a previous year or an earlier brood, and a half dozen ( plus or minus),  juveniles, there was more chaos and confusion than I could make order out of. A half dozen resources, consulted after the titmice headed for their nighttime roost, helped me understand some of what was going on. Mostly, I just enjoyed the show.

And ... by watching, I learn. Chickadees have now joined the backyard activity, occasionally announcing themselves with their familiar “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” or even an abbreviated “dee, dee, dee.” I looked more closely when I heard a “chee, chee, chee, chee.”  A titmouse seemed to be saying to its youngsters, “Hey, gimme a break. I’m getting it as fast as I can.” He repeated himself and another joined him at the feeder and grabbed a seed. So maybe he was calling for help.

In late summer and early fall, sitting out back with feet up and a cold tonic at hand, is almost guaranteed to produce some Good Birding!