Archive for the 'Travel' Category

Jul 19 2017

The Same Bird Everywhere

Published by under Travel

Northern shoveler (photo by Steve Gosser)

Northern shoveler (photo by Steve Gosser)

During my recent trip to England and Finland I was happy to see lots of new Life Birds but was amazed at how many birds were the same at home and abroad.

Some are on both continents because they were introduced — rock pigeons, house sparrows, starlings, ring-necked pheasants and mute swans. But many in the duck, gull and tern families occur in both places because they flew there on their own. There are usually different subspecies on each continent(*) but in a few cases the exact same species is everywhere.

Here are four such birds, easily found in North America and Europe. There are no subspecies so if you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all.

Above, I saw northern shovelers (Anas clypeata) in England where they’re simply called “shovelers.” I was amazed to learn they’re the same bird everywhere though I should have known. They breed across northern America and Eurasia.

 

Red-breasted merganser (photo by Steve Gosser)

Red-breasted merganser (photo by Steve Gosser)

Red-breasted mergansers (Mergus serrator) breed in northern America and Eurasia and travel far on migration (for a merganser). They spend the winter at both salt and fresh water so it’s no wonder they can change continents.

 

Caspian tern (photo by Steve Gosser)

Caspian tern (photo by Steve Gosser)

Caspian terns (Hydroprogne caspia) are the largest tern on earth and found on every continent except Antarctica, though their distribution is scattered on coasts and in the interior. In western Pennsylvania they’re at Presque Isle in the spring.

 

Great black-backed gull (photo by shellgame on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Great black-backed gull (photo by shellgame via Flickr Creative Commons license)

And finally, great black-backed gulls (Larus marinus) are coastal and Great Lakes birds found on both sides of the North Atlantic. As the largest member of the gull family this bird is so powerful that it eats smaller gulls, even adults!

When you see a great black-backed gull at the beach this summer, consider this:  It’s the same bird everywhere.

 

(Great black-backed gull photo by shellgame on Flickr, Creative Commons license; click on the image to see the original. All other photos by Steve Gosser)

(*) p.s. A few examples of different subspecies between North America and Europe: green-winged teal, sandwich tern, barn swallow, barn owl, peregrine falcon.

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Jul 17 2017

On Silent Wings

Published by under Birds of Prey,Travel

Barn owl at South Acre, Norfolk, UK (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Barn owl at South Acre, Norfolk, UK (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Last week I mentioned that seeing a barn owl in flight was the visual highlight of my trip to England.  Today I’ll give you a taste of what it was like to watch this beautiful bird.

Barn owls (Tyto alba) live around the world (see map) but declined 50-70% in parts of their range after World War II due to intensive farming practices, the conversion of farmland to housing, and the introduction of pesticides.  In the U.K. the population fell 70% by the 1980s.  In North America they’re now endangered in Vermont, Connecticut and the Midwest, including Ohio.

Because barn owls are so secretive and rare in the U.S. I had seen only one in the wild — and it was roosting.  I had never seen a barn owl fly.  What a thrill it was to see one hunting the tall grass near the River Wensum in England.

The short video below is similar to my experience, though not the same owl.

 

I know I wouldn’t have seen a barn owl in Britain if it weren’t for the decades-long efforts of local wildlife agencies and trusts working to restore this bird to the English countryside.  One such group is The Barn Owl Trust located in Devon near Dartmoor.  Since 1988 they’ve worked to conserve barn owls and educate the public about these beautiful birds.  Learn more in their video below.

 

Thanks to conservation efforts around the world, we’re still thrilled to see barn owls float by on silent wings.

 

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original. Flight sequence video from the BBO Wildlife Trust on YouTube. Video on the history of The Barn Owl Trust UK from YouTube)

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Jul 12 2017

Birding Norfolk’s Fens & Forests

Published by under Travel

Bearded reedling (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Bearded reedling (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

My husband and I joke that we’re “Bird and Word.”   I’m addicted to birds.  He spends time with poetry, literature and art.  On our recent trip to England we made sure to pursue our dreams.  While Rick spent time in London visiting museums and the haunts of great poets, I went on a three day Oriole Birding tour of Norfolk County’s fens and forests.

The Norfolk Summer Breeders and Late Migrants tour on 28-30 June was great!  Seven of us joined bird guide Ashley Saunders for a tour that included 114 species (88 were Life Birds) despite relentless wind and rain on the first day.

From the moment I arrived at Kings Lynn railway station to the end of the tour, everything was taken care of:  transportation, meals, lodging and birds. We stayed at the Blue Boar Inn in Great Ryburgh where we enjoyed excellent accommodations, delicious food, and cool birds just a short walk away at the River Wensum.  Every day we spent 10+ hours in the field but our schedule included pauses for elevenses, lunch and 4pm tea, all packed in the van so we could eat outdoors and not miss the birds.  How civilized!

Ashley tailored the tour for the weather, recent rarities, and our wish lists.  He’s excellent at finding birds and making sure everyone sees them.  The advantage is that you see even more this way.  While we paused for a lingering look at Dartford warblers a rare pair of European honey buzzards flew over.  Woo hoo!

I saw all the birds I wrote about in the past few weeks except, of course, the birds of Finland.  And there were bonuses: I had never seen a chaffinch, an extremely common bird, so Ashley paused at a bird feeder to show me a brightly colored male.  Wow!  Click here to see a male chaffinch, about the size of a house finch.

Here’s Ashley’s summary of our Norfolk tour on the Oriole Birding website.

If you’re visiting England, I highly recommend Oriole Birding for great looks at the best birds in the U.K.  You’ll also enjoy Oriole’s international tours departing from the U.K. for birding sites around the world. Check out their website by clicking on their logo above.

 

In case you’re curious, here’s my list of Best Birds.  They were very hard to choose:

  • Eurasian spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia)
  • Eurasian hobby (Falco subbuteo) — excellent looks at this peregrine-like falcon
  • Black-tailed godwits (Limosa limosa) — beautiful rusty color
  • Ruff (Calidris pugnax) in breeding plumage, far better than the non-breeding ruffs rarely seen in the U.S. in the winter
  • Bearded reedling (Panurus biarmicus shown above)
  • Great bitterns (Botaurus stellaris)
  • European nightjar (Caprimulgus europaeus)
  • European honey buzzard (Pernis apivorus)
  • A family of little owls (Athene noctua)
  • And, near the Blue Boar Inn, superb views of a barn owl (Tyto alba) coursing over a field with rooks (Corvus frugilegus) wheeling in the background.  Without a doubt this was my visual highlight of the trip.
  • Last species on the tour: a family of peregrine falcons high up at their nest site in Kings Lynn.

 

 

(bearded reedling photo from Wikimedia Commons, Oriole Birding logo from the Oriole Birding website. Click on the images to see the originals)

p.s. Oriole Birding was named for the Eurasian golden oriole (Oriolus oriolus), a rare bird that used to nest in poplar plantations in Norfolk County.  The golden oriole’s nesting requirements are so specific that when the old poplars fell down, the birds did not come back.

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Jul 10 2017

Awesome Hawk in Helsinki

Published by under Travel

Northern goshawk holding wood pigeon prey, Töölönlahti Park, Helsinki, 6 July 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

Northern goshawk holding wood pigeon prey, Töölönlahti Park, Helsinki, 6 July 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

My interest in the Birds of Europe was inspired by a two week trip my husband and I made to England and Finland.  In the days ahead I’ll tell you more.  Meanwhile, here’s one of my favorite sightings in Finland illustrated with my very bad photos.

Last Thursday afternoon I took a walk along the paved pedestrian trail in Helsinki’s Töölönlahti Park.  I was enjoying close looks at arctic terns, great crested grebes, Eurasian coots, and barnacle geese(*) when a huge flock of mew and black-headed gulls swirled above me in alarm.

The gulls were the pursuing a bird of prey that quickly landed next to the sidewalk and stood on its prey the way our red-tailed hawks do in public.  The hawk was holding a wood pigeon and panting as it watched people, dogs and bicycles go by.  It was an adult male northern goshawk!

Northern goshawk holding wood pigeon prey, Töölönlahti Park, Helsinki, 6 July 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

Northern goshawk holding wood pigeon prey, Töölönlahti Park, Helsinki, 6 July 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

In North America, goshawks avoid cities and people so I was stunned and pleased to see one so close.  However the bird’s appearance confused me a bit.  In North America, juvenile goshawks have yellow eyes while adults have red eyes.  In Europe this bird’s bright yellow-orange eyes indicate he’s an adult.

His size fooled me, too.  He’s so large that I thought he was female.  The next day I learned from my bird guide, Jari Laitasalo, that male and female adult goshawks have different head plumage in Finland.  Females have very pale heads so this bird’s dark head indicates he’s male.

Goshawks eat birds(**) but their favorite prey in northern Europe is the wood pigeon.  Jari explained that the abundance of prey in Helsinki’s city parks has drawn goshawks and eagle owls to nest in the city center.

Not wanting to disturb this awesome bird I stood far back to take these photos with my cellphone and binoculars.  After 15 minutes he was still on the prey so I gave up and walked back to the hotel. Goshawks have more stamina that I do.

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

*  Barnacle geese were introduced in Finland and are now urban pests in Helsinki.
** The Finnish word for goshawk is kanahaukka:  kana=chicken, haukka=hawk.

 

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Jul 08 2017

Pigeon Of The Woods

Common Woodpigeon in Gdansk (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Common Wood pigeon in Gdansk (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In Pennsylvania we have only one kind of pigeon and he isn’t really ours.  He’s the descendant of European birds named rock pigeons because they nest on cliffs.  This distinguishes them from another European pigeon that nests in trees, the common wood pigeon (Columba palumbus).

Wood pigeons used to be shy and stay in the woods but now they hang out in parks and cities and are the most numerous bird in London, even more numerous than rock pigeons.

When these two encounter each other you can see that “wood” is bigger than “rock.”

Wood pigeon and feral rock pigeon (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Wood pigeon looks at rock pigeon (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In some parts of Europe wood pigeons are migratory.  In winter large flocks browse in the fields as shown below.  Notice the bright white patches on their necks and white wing bars visible in flight.

When it’s time to nest they’re back in the trees …

Wood pigeon with chicks at nest (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Wood pigeon with chicks at nest (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

… raising baby pigeons in the woods.

 

(photos and video from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals)

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Jul 07 2017

Take A Break

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

 

Take a break at the end of the week to watch birds in the backyard.

This soothing video highlights a British bird, the hawfinch (Coccothraustes coccothraustes), whose large beak is perfect for opening seeds.

Three other birds make a cameo appearance.  Can you identify them?

 

p.s.  The hawfinch is related to our evening grosbeaks.

(video by Ian Lavell on YouTube)

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Jul 05 2017

Kingfisher Envy

Published by under Travel,Water and Shore

Two common kingfishers, Alcedo atthis (photo by Lukasz Lukasik via Wikimedia Commons)

Two common kingfishers, Alcedo atthis (photo by Lukasz Lukasik via Wikimedia Commons)

Though only the size of a sparrow, the common kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) found in Europe, Asia and Africa looks anything but common to birders from North America.

Our much larger belted kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) is plain by comparison.

Belted kingfisher, Seattle (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Belted kingfisher, Seattle (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

 

What’s not to love about a tiny iridescent electric blue bird?

I am suffering from kingfisher envy.

 

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals)

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Jul 03 2017

Five Kinds of Chickadees

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Great tit, England (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Great tit, England (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In western Pennsylvania we have two kinds of chickadees: black-capped and Carolina.  Unfortunately they hybridize in Pittsburgh and look so similar that it’s hard to tell them apart.

The Birds of Europe lists five “chickadees” in Britain though they’re called tits, like our titmouse.  Only two are in the same genus as Pittsburgh’s chickadees and only those two look similar.  Here are all five.

The great tit (Parus major), pictured above, is 60% heavier than a Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) and more colorful.  He sports a yellow chest with a bold black stripe.

 

The coal tit (Periparus ater) is smaller than a Carolina chickadee though he looks large in the photo below.  Unlike our chickadees, his nape is white and he sometimes raises a tiny black crest on his head.

Coal tit in Devon, England (photo by Aviceda via Wikimedia Commons)

Coal tit in Devon, England (photo by Aviceda via Wikimedia Commons)

 

The blue tit or Eurasian blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus) is about the same size as a Carolina chickadee but prettier in yellow, black, white and blue.

Blue tit in Lancashire, England (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Blue tit in Lancashire, England (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

 

The marsh tit (Poecile palustris) and willow tit (Poecile montanus) look similar to each other and to our chickadees. They’re all in the same genus, Poecile.

Marsh tit (photo by S?awek Staszczuk via Wikimedia Commons)

Marsh tit (photo by Slawek Staszczuk via Wikimedia Commons)

Willow tit, Lancashire, England (photo by Francis Franklin via Wikimedia Commons)

Willow tit, Lancashire, England (photo by Francis Franklin via Wikimedia Commons)

 

I think British chickadees are prettier than ours.  My favorite one is blue.

 

(all photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals)

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Jul 02 2017

Tipping Point

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Rose-ringed parakeet, Kensington Gardens, London (photo by Tony Austin via Wikimedia Commons)

Rose-ringed parakeet, Kensington Gardens, London (photo by Tony Austin via Wikimedia Commons)

Imagine having this beautiful exotic bird at your backyard feeder on a regular basis.

One wild parakeet is a joy to watch. Two are nice, too.  But how many constitute a nuisance?

Rose-ringed parakeets (Psittacula krameri) are native to Asia and Africa and popular as pets in Europe, especially because they can mimic the human voice.  However escaped rose-ringed parakeets are now feral in many European cities and the seventh most numerous bird in London gardens (backyards).   Counts conducted a decade ago put Britain’s feral parakeet population at 30,000 birds.

In large flocks the parakeets are noisy and hungry, even voracious.  They shout everywhere they go.

Ironically, the birds have reached two tipping points.  Their population is increasing in urban Europe but declining in their homeland, India, where they’re trapped for the pet trade.

How many is too many in Europe?  How few is too few in the wild?

Read more about the U.K. population at CBC news and on the RSBP website.

 

p.s. The bird pictured at the feeder is female and not nearly as colorful as the male, below.  The males have rosy rings on their necks.

Male rose-ringed parakeet (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Male rose-ringed parakeet (photo by Dick Daniels via Wikimedia Commons)

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals)

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Jul 01 2017

Looks A Little Different

Published by under Travel,Water and Shore

Pied avocet, Netherlands (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Pied avocet, Netherlands (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

There’s something odd about this avocet.

The ones we see in Pennsylvania have orange heads in breeding plumage …

American avocet (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

American avocet (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

… and white heads in basic (winter) plumage.

American Avocet in basic plumage (photo by Bobby Greene)

American Avocet in basic plumage (photo by Bobby Greene)

 

The bird at the top looks different because he’s a pied avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta), native to Europe, Asia and Africa.

Our avocets are “American avocets” (Recurvirostra americana).

Fortunately we can identify both birds as avocets.  All we need is the right adjective.

 

(first two photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals.
avocet in basic/winter plumage by Robert Greene, Jr.
)

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