Archive for Recent Sightings

Jul
22

A Life Bird. In the US. In July.

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Adirondacks view

What could possibly make a fine weekend with friends even better? The title of this entry says it all.

Not only did we get to spend time with Sally and Frank at their beautiful and comfortable Adirondacks camp, not only did we get to meet several others of their delightful friends, not only did Gellert form an instant and lasting bond with two new canine buddies, but Sunday’s birding led to a lifer for both Alison and me.

Sally, Alison, Merlin in Adirondacks

Saturday evening’s dinner conversation ranged widely and well, with birds prominent but never dominant; all the same, I made sure to listen hard to Pat and John’s excellent advice for our search. Early the next morning found us on a lovely bog road near Saranac Lake, with magnolia and black-throated green warblers and blue-headed vireos singing all around. We walked and listened, listened and walked, and drove a little farther.

Adirondacks landscape

And then Sally’s keen ears heard it. The first bird my binoculars found was a yellow-bellied sapsucker — and the second as well, two of those elegant woodpeckers together in a dead, nearly barkless snag. Immediately beneath them, though, another woodpecker. The woodpecker.

Black-backed woodpecker

A couple of patient minutes later, and this black-backed woodpecker was right on the roadside, not far above eye level and just one thin layer of trees in from where we watched, rapt and almost unbelieving. He — it took a while for the little round forehead patch to be visible even at such close range — drummed repeatedly, a “tight” series of a dozen or more beats coming too close and too fast together to distinguish and to count. A minute or more passed between drums, when the bird slipped to the back side of his perch and vanished, a sobering reminder of how fortunate we were to be standing on the road when he called the first time.

After several minutes of this, he flew back across the road, where he took a high perch in the open, more distant but photographable even for me. Again, he drummed continually, this time less frequently, the intervals filled with short bouts of preening and that golden crown glinting in the morning sun.

Black-backed woodpecker

We left the bird enjoying the sunshine, but he wasn’t alone. Just as he’d been attended by two sapsuckers when we first saw him, it took a scant few seconds for a sapsucker — one of the original two, or a third bird? — to join him in his preening tree, where the sapsucker maintained a respectful three or four feet of distance.

What all that was about isn’t at all clear. Though the smaller birds kept their distance, there was no obvious aggression on the part of the bigger black-back, and no clear signs of anxiety on the part of either species. All three of the perches taken by the black-back were in decidedly dead wood, making it seem very unlikely that the sapsuckers were guarding sap wells.

A mystery — and one that surely makes it worth seeing this species again. And again and again.

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Jul
19

Shorebirds

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Shorebirding at Brigantine was fun this afternoon — as always. The rarity highlight was certainly the alternate-plumaged Hudsonian godwit at the end of the day (too far for pictures), but I was just as happy to see my first western sandpipers for the fall, a dozen birds scattered among the semipalmated and least sandpipers.

western sandpiper

 

Who could fail to love these beautiful Arctic wanderers?

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I can still lead you right to the battleship gray table in the basement of Love Library where I first made the acquaintance of Frank Chapman. It was thirty-five years ago this fall (thirty-five! years!) that I discovered the wonders of 598.2 C36, with its shocking cover and its weirdly captivating photographs of birds and birders at the turn of the twentieth century.

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The travels Chapman recounts here don’t seem so exotic to me any more; but when I was sixteen, I could hardly imagine ever getting to the places Chapman and his friends got to bird.

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Barrier beaches and Florida heronries, alcids on the California coast and the flamingos of Caribbean islands: it was inconceivable that I should ever be able to witness any of those sites and sights.

Boobies, PUerto P, Sonora, January 24, 2007 090PUerto P, Sonora, January 24, 2007 083

What really got my attention, though, was that when he wasn’t traveling around the bird world with his camera and his shotgun, this famous ornithologist and writer and museum man had actually birded my part of that world, Nebraska.

And he wrote about it in the Camps and Cruises.

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The travels Chapman narrates were all undertaken in the quest for specimens for new habitat groups at the American Museum. In the AutobiographyChapman would wax nostalgic when it comes to prairie-chickens: during his boyhood in New Jersey,

 the desire to form a collection … found expression in gathering the feathers and wings of birds. Of the latter I acquired what I should now term a “large series,” willingly cut by our cook from Prairie Hens which, in season, at that period (1872-1876) festooned butcher shops.

Thirty years later, when birds were needed not under glass but behind it, the eastern chicken — the famous heath hen — was long gone from New Jersey, and trains no longer supplied east coast gourmands with barrels full from the prairies of the west.

When, therefore, I made inquiry of various correspondents concerning a place where I might count on finding Prairie Hens in numbers, I was advised to go to the sand-hills of Nebraska…. [where] the bird proved to be abundant and here, doubtless, it will make its last stand.

Greater Prairie-Chcken

Chapman, accompanied by the principal players in the creation of the museum’s habitat groups — the famous painter Bruce Horsfall and the equally well-known preparator Jesse D. Figgins — arrived in Lincoln on May 1, 1906, where they got their permits in order and were joined by Lawrence Bruner, one of the leading lights of natural history at the University of Nebraska and author of a book I already knew well.

Sandhills

The party must have driven to Halsey (not yet the site of a unit of the Nebraska National Forest), as Chapman says that they reached the collecting site on May 3 and were finished there by May 6; indeed, they were already in Tucson on May 10.

When they arrived on the banks of the Middle Loup, the birders found the northward migration “at its height,” with many passage birds mingling with the local breeders. Like generations of happy observers after him, Chapman was impressed with the mix of typically eastern and typically western birds on Nebraska’s Great Plains:

The Prairie Hen, for example, extends more than half-way across the state where it meets the Sharp-tail Grouse or Prairie Chicken; the Great-crested Flycatcher meets the Arkansas Kingbird, the Blue Jay the Magpie, to mention a few of many similar cases.

Sharp-tailed Grouse

The most abundant species recorded in the sandhills around Halsey was, then as now, the western meadowlark.

Western Meadowlark

Its “hurried, ecstatic, twittering, jumbled” flight song making a big impression on Chapman, so much more used as he was to the “clean-cut fifing” of the eastern meadowlark.

On May 4, Bruner took Chapman and colleagues out to the lek of the greater prairie-chickens, where the easterners

listened for the first time to their booming, with doubtless much the same feeling that an ardent music-lover first hears the voice of a world-renowned singer. The birds were distant about a mile, but their pervasive, resonant, conch-like notes, came distinctly to the ears through the still, clear air.

I distinctly remember my mind’s wandering from that evening’s calculus homework to ponder the meaning of that inscrutable “conch-like.” There was no google for me to consult back then, remember.

Greater Prairie-Chicken

By the way, if you want to bird Nebraska in Chapman’s footsteps, consider joining me next March.

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Jun
08

Birding Sussex County

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Three in the morning comes early these days, but somehow, for some unknown reason, I find myself just able to roll out of bed when I know that the reward for getting up in the dark is birds at dawn.

Fifty miles and 1700 feet of elevation later, I arrived at High Point just before 5:00. I stood, shivering slightly, in the parking lot, watching those rosy fingers break the eastern sky and listening to eastern phoebes and chestnut-sided warblers: it’s breeding season in Sussex County.

Stokes State Forest landscape

The rest of our congenial band was there right on time, and we set off to see what the lavishly leafed woods might hold. The sonic background, at dawn and all day, was provided by gray catbirds and red-eyed vireos, and the day’s first great crested flycatcher and indigo bunting greeted us as we emerged from the dark forests of the Appalachian Trail to bird the famous ATT tower that two decades ago saw the first reliable nesting pair of common ravens in the state in my lifetime. Ravens can be seen essentially anywhere in north Jersey now, but every High Point visit starts with a pilgrimage to the founder pair — and, today, the two fledglings they were so noisily guarding against intrusion.

The sun well up and the air slowly starting to warm, we moved on down Sawmill Road and took a longer walk. It was unusually quiet for the first week of June, but veeries, yellow warblers, and eastern towhees were in abundant evidence, and after a few minutes when I wondered what on earth was going on, we finally managed to find our first pair of cerulean warblers along the trail; the female flew in and gave the usual fleeting glimpses, and the male eventually flew across the path where we stood to give excellent views. Uncharacteristically, these were the only ceruleans we saw all day, though we heard another half a dozen males or so along our route.

After a quick stop at the monument to pick up the late arrivals, it was off to Kuser Bog, the real jewel in the High Point crown.

Pink lady's slipper

Lady’s-slippers and red efts kept our minds off of the relative lack of birds on the way in, but once we were at the bog, no distraction was necessary. Northern waterthrushes sang loud and close, and to my surprise, on actually allowed itself to be watched in the act: this bird is always conspicuous in the summertime bog, but rarely visible at all, much less perched up and showing off like this noisy male was.

Birding time always accelerates mid-morning, so we tore ourselves away and headed south through the woodlands to Stokes State Forest. A northern parula welcomed us to Ocquittunk, where the day’s first yellow-throated vireo sang invisible from the tall trees. I couldn’t turn up a Louisiana waterthrush at Kittle Field, so we went on to Stony Lake in search of Blackburnian warblers. It took a while, but we eventually heard a singing male, frustratingly close and always out of sight.

As so often, though, the search, futile in terms of flame-throated Setophaga, turned up something we weren’t looking for. Blue-headed vireos are scarce breeders even in Sussex County, so I was delighted to discover one taking caterpillars in a hemlock.

Doubly delighted when it swallowed its meal and started gathering cobwebs and willow fuzz.

And triply, quadruply, infinitely delighted when its mate flew to the nest still under construction in a nearby tree. I’d never found a nest in New Jersey, and to watch this one a-building was the highlight of my day, especially when the builders nearly disappeared into the fluffy half-globe, just their tails sticking out as they adjusted something visible only to themselves in the deep cup.

Almost twelve hours in, we — I — started to feel the afternoon drowse coming on. Our final stop was Van Ness Road, where prairie warblers stumbled up the scale and a broad-winged hawk soared overhead. A funny song, bzz-bzz-bzz-bzzzzz, like a golden-winged warbler standing on its head, turned out to issue from the mouth and syrinx of a perfectly “normal”-looking blue-winged warbler, but who can tell….

The croaking of a distant common raven seemed an appropriate bookend to the day. As we watched the sky, it flew closer and was joined by another — and then, suddenly, both of them were energetically mobbing an immature bald eagle. Just a dozen years ago, either of those species would have been noteworthy on a warm Sussex County afternoon.

And they’re still far from everyday, especially when they’re interacting so dramatically just over your head. Just another day in North Jersey? Yes. And I’ll take a thousand more like it, please.      

Even if I have to get up early.

I think this is the complete list for the day; I trust that the trip participants will let me know if I’ve left anything off. 

Stokes State Forest landscape

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May
12

Blackbird Hill

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It was 171 years ago today that John James Audubon, Edward Harris, Isaac Sprague, John Bell, Lewis Squires, and their crew tied their boat on the Iowa side of the Missouri River, across from the “famed bluff” known as Blackbird Hill.

Audubon’s bird list from the immediate area is more or less identical to what one might tally on a good morning’s birding today: Canada geese, mallards, wood ducks, bank swallows, Blackburnian and golden-winged warblers, yellow-headed blackbirds, and Lincoln’s sparrows were all seen or shot by the party — apparently all on the east bank of the river — between Wood’s Hill and Blackbird, landmarks on the Nebraska shore in what is now Burt County.

When I was in the fourth grade, I had a teacher named Edith Newton. Mrs. Newton had gone to school with my maternal grandmother and taught my mother, and then, in the early 1970s, she was my teacher for science and “social studies.” Only now do I realize, more and more with each passing year, how richly Mrs. Newton combined (and sometimes conflated) her academic subjects — and how much of an influence her fusing of science and history had on even a seven-year-old me.

Mrs. Newton was the first birder I knew. She taught us grade schoolers our first scientific names (can you imagine that today?), and introduced us — in the classroom — to the common birds and the early scientists and explorers who had studied them, including Audubon, who spent the night of May 9, 1843, in our town.

She also told us the story of Blackbird — the romantic version, of course. And she did not leave out the macabre tale of George Catlin’s grave robbing, whereby in 1832, with “a little pains” and the help of a pocket gopher, he stole the head of the Omaha and “secreted it” with the other skulls he gathered on his travels.

I don’t know whether Blackbird’s remains — one of more than 4,000 native skulls once held by the Smithsonian — have been returned to the Omaha yet.

Looking back from nearly two centuries’ distance, it’s obvious that that struggle was essentially over by the time Audubon and his friends ascended the Missouri in May 1843. Where Lewis and Clark had raised a flag in tribute to “the deceased king,” Catlin took a shovel to his grave; where Catlin had seen great herds of buffalo on the prairies, Audubon’s boat dodged bloated cattle floating downstream from the new settlements in Dakota. The Omaha, Audubon said, “looked as destitute and as hungry as if they had not eaten for a week.” They probably hadn’t.

Blackbird died in 1800. Audubon died in 1851. Edith Newton must have been born just about exactly halfway between Audubon’s death and my own birth, now more than half a century ago (how’d that happen, anyhow?). Books and stories and anecdotes and, yes, lies passed down from age to age still make me feel a part of it all.

But I’m sad that nowadays Catlin’s scurrilous “collecting” seems to have tainted the entire history of Blackbird, his life and his burial. Elementary school students in Nebraska don’t learn about Blackbird Hill anymore, depriving them of an opportunity to talk about biological warfare and economic co-optation in the ultimately one-sided struggle for the Great Plains.  

 

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