Archive for September, 2010

Sep 11 2010

Flight calls before dawn

Published by under Migration

Back home in Pittsburgh the weather feels like Maine but sunrise is much later.

This morning I had more than an hour before dawn to sip coffee on my front porch and listen to the birds fly by in the dark.  Most of the migrants sounded like spring peepers but I heard a few mystery birds mixed in.  What were they?

The spring peeper call is made by Swainson's thrushes.  To figure out the mystery birds I listened to the sounds on this blog by Paul Driver

Did I find out what they were?  Well, no.  My audio memory is not very accurate. 

The birds remained a mystery, as do those in the photograph above.

(photo from Shutterstock by Roger De Marfa)

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Sep 10 2010

Anatomy: Ruff

Today's anatomy lesson is a word that, to us, means a ruffled collar like those the Elizabethans wore. 

The ruff on a bird is the area around its neck where its collar would be. 

Pennsylvania's state bird, the ruffed grouse, raises its ruff during courtship display, hence its name. 

But the real champion of ruff raising is the bird whose name is simply "ruff."  Two of them are pictured here trying to win the affections of a female who is not called a ruff.  She is called a "reeve."   (Go figure!)

Ruffs (and reeves) are shorebirds native to Eurasia.  They rarely visit North America and only appear in small numbers during the non-breeding season. 

Because they don't breed here we never see them displaying this way.  Alas.  They are quite boring most of the year, making them hard to identify. 

Click here to see how boring they can be.

(photo taken in the Netherlands by Arjan Haverkamp, from Wikimedia Commons.  Click the photo to see the original)

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Sep 09 2010

Bird with a Headlamp

Published by under Travel,Water and Shore

Plovers are one of my favorite shorebirds, partly because they're easier to identify than peeps. 

This one is a semipalmated plover, distinguished by his single black belly band and black and white forehead.  Bobby Greene snapped this photo just as the bird was taking a step so you can even see the semi-palms between his toes that give him his name.

To me this plover is "The Bird with the Headlamp."

Can you guess why?

(photo by Bobby Greene)

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Sep 08 2010

Maine coast birds in fog

Published by under Travel,Water and Shore

Not many shorebirds at South Lubec yesterday, which was disappointing for my shorebird study, but I went to Campobello Island (New Brunswick) and saw whales, seals and ocean birds very close to shore at East Quoddy Head Lighthouse.  There were black-legged kittiwakes, razorbills, common murres, red-necked phalaropes just off shore.

Today is very foggy with intermittent rain but I went to the sandbar anyway and found many more shorebirds -- black-bellied plovers, semipalmated plovers and sandpipers, least sandpipers, sanderlings, short-billed dowitchers, red knots, whimbrel -- plus a life bird Hudsonian godwit!

To top it off a merlin cruised by to find his breakfast, though I didn't see him catch anything.

It will be hard to beat those two sightings in the rest of the day.

UPDATE at 5:00pm.  I did beat those two sightings.  I saw another Life Bird: spruce grouse!  Thanks to Jim and Naomi Honeth for showing me the trail at Boot Cove where the spruce grouse lives.

(photo of a merlin by Chuck Tague)

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Sep 08 2010

Peeps Say Peep

Published by under Travel,Water and Shore

Today is the last day of my shorebird self-study project in Lubec, Maine.  I've learned a thing or two by watching large flocks of the tiny sandpipers called "peeps" but I don't know if I'll retain anything because I have so little opportunity to see shorebirds at home. 

Maybe it'll help to write it down, so here goes.

  • The advice offered by the field guides and those in the know really works:  At first glance, forget about plumage.  Focus on the legs and bill.  What color and length are the legs?  What color, size and shape is the bill?  Amazingly the bills on semipalmated sandpipers, like the one shown above, really do look blunt compared to the bills on least sandpipers.
  • Know where you are and what time of year it is.  This sounds obvious but it has helped to know that in Lubec I'm unlikely to see a western sandpiper at any time of year.  The downside is that if there's a western sandpiper out here, I won't figure it out.
  • In a flock of peeps during fall migration the sanderlings really stand out.  They are larger and whiter, feed with their bodies at a different angle than the others, and are - unbelievably - slower-moving than peeps.
  • Some peeps can be surprisingly aggressive considering they hang out in flocks.  I've seen peeps head-butt a sanderling when it didn't move away fast enough.  Sometimes the smaller bird takes a running start and bashes into the sanderling.  The sanderling reacts slowly, looks up and steps back.  Huh?
  • And finally, peeps really do say "peep."  

(photo by Bobby Greene)

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Sep 07 2010

Rare Bird: rediscovering the Cahow

Third in WQED's lineup on Things With Wings Sunday, September 26, is the story of a bird thought to be extinct for more than 300 years.

Rare Bird is about the Bermuda petrel (Pterodroma cahow) which nests in only one place on earth -- the islands of Bermuda.  Locally it is called the cahow because of its eerie voice, a voice so odd that when the Spanish discovered Bermuda in 1505 they refused to settle there because they thought the islands were haunted by hundreds of thousands of devils that called "cahow" in the night. 

In 1609 a British ship wrecked at Bermuda and in 1612 British settlers came to stay.  Soon their crops failed and they ate the cahows -- all of them.  Within four years cahows were impossible to find and by 1620 they were presumed extinct.

Miraculously a remnant population survived, hidden from man because the birds spend most of their lives on the open sea, visit land only on dark nights during the nesting season, and nest deep in burrows on small inaccessible islands. 

Storms both revealed and threatened the cahow's existence.  In 1935 a mystery bird was found dead below St. David's lighthouse after a violent summer storm.  Sent to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, it was identified as a cahow.  In 1945 another mysterious dead bird was found on the beach and again it was a cahow. 

These discoveries spurred young David B. Wingate to look for the bird and at age 15 he joined the official search to find it.  In January 1951 he was one of the three who first saw the bird that was missing for 330 years.  It was almost too late.  There were only 18 nesting pairs left.

Nearly 60 years later, the cahow is now the national bird of Bermuda and, thanks to David Wingate's leadership, it is protected and more numerous.  Even so there are only about 250 individuals in this species.  It is still quite rare.

Watch the beautiful program, Rare Bird, on WQED on Sunday September 26 at 4:00pm and learn about the cahow's mysterious life and miraculous survival. 

(photo of a cahow from Wikipedia. Click on the photo to see the original)

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Sep 06 2010


Published by under Travel,Water and Shore

It may be too late in the season to see a willet at the Bay of Fundy but I will try.

Today I'm beginning an intensive three days of watching shorebirds -- and I mean watching.  My plan is to follow them no matter what they do:  feeding, walking, flying, flocking, calling.  I won't have an expert with me but I hope that by the end of three days I'll be better at identifying them by their general look and behavior -- and that's bound to help.

One such bird that I've almost mastered is the willet.  Many's the time I've carefully stalked these plain, long-legged, long-billed birds as they feed at the shore.  I try hard not to spook them while I figure out their field marks. 

I've been known to watch them with their wings closed for as much as half an hour.  Then I'm saved when a predator flies over.  The willets open their wings to escape and Wow!  No doubt about them!  Look at that distinctive wing pattern! 

I should learn from this that some birds can only be identified when they fly. 

Theoretically I could learn to recognize willets by their voices but that requires more time than I have this week, and it's unlikely I'll ever hear their territorial song in September.  It's the sound that gave them their name:  "Pill-will-willet."

(photo by Steve Gosser)

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Sep 05 2010

Where the Peregrines Nest

Published by under Peregrines,Travel

September 5, 2010:

When we watch peregrine falcons nesting on camera in cities or visit them at bridges we often forget that they nest in wild places.

Here's a wild place where peregrines nest every year:  Champlain Mountain at Acadia National Park.

Champlain is a 1,058-foot granite mountain with a sheer cliff overlooking Frenchman's Bay.  The side shown here is the "easy" slope but I can tell you from climbing it that even this side is steep.  It's a staircase to heaven.

The other side, where the peregrines nest, has a trail too steep for anyone afraid of heights.  (I am!) That trail is called The Precipice and it's closed during nesting season.

Precipice Trail, Acadia National Park (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Precipice Trail, Acadia National Park (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Cliff nests, though in beautiful settings, are generally not as successful as those on tall buildings.  In the past decade there have been as many as four peregrine nests at Acadia but all four failed one year due to bad weather.

This year, 2010, there were only two nests, one at the Precipice, the other at Beech Cliffs.  Beech fledged four young in June but for weeks it looked like the Precipice nest would fail. The pair picked a likely nest site but abandoned it when they should have been incubating.

The Precipice peregrines remained on territory but continued to puzzle everyone until late June when observers heard a nestling begging.  In July this pair fledged one young female.  And now the trail is open again for climbing.

For photos of Acadia's peregrines (including two pictures of Ranger Lora Haller, formerly of Pittsburgh), click here.


(photo of Champlain Mountain by Moses Martin. photo of Precipice Trail at Acadia National Park from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)

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Sep 04 2010

On Bubble Pond

Published by under Travel,Water and Shore

One of the most memorable bird moments of my life happened on Bubble Pond.

It was 20 years ago at Acadia National Park.  My husband and I had hiked up Cadillac Mountain and were returning on the carriage path when we paused to look at the pond through a gap in the trees.  There, only a few yards away from us, was a female common merganser.  Alone.

I was very excited to see her, but in those days I could not identify ducks without my field guide and it was in the car.  I told my husband, "This could take a while" and rushed back to the car to get it.  He understood and waited near the parking lot, reading a book.

Back at the pond the merganser was still there, dipping her face in the water to watch for fish.  Sometimes she raised her head and looked at me unafraid.  I figured out her name but I didn't want to leave. 

It was very quiet, only the sound of small waves lapping at the shore.  The sun sparkled on the water.  The merganser swam near me.  Peace. 

(photo by Kippy Spilker from Shutterstock)

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Sep 04 2010

Birds before the storm

Published by under Travel,Weather & Sky

Last evening before Tropical Storm Earl reached Maine, I checked on what the birds were doing:

  • Surf was high at the outer islands by late afternoon so rafts of common eiders came into the sheltered coves of Mt Desert.  I've never seen so many so close.
  • Another ocean bird came in too. By dusk, northern gannets were hunting fish within sight of shore.
  • An hour after sunset the air was calm and almost foggy when I heard large numbers of Swainson's thrushes migrating in the dark, heading west along the coast.  It seemed to me they were flying toward the bad weather.  I wished them luck.

The wind and rain did not begin until 4:00am.  At dawn the crows & osprey were up and out as usual.  Maybe the birds are better informed than the Weather Channel.

UPDATE, 11:00am: No wind, and now no rain.  Earl was more hype than storm.

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