Archive for the 'Water and Shore' Category

Sep 13 2016

Wettable Feathers

For a bird that eats fish for a living, what possible advantage could there be in having feathers that get waterlogged?

Water beads up on the plumage of ducks and loons but the feathers of double-crested cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus) are “wettable” so they spend more than half their day out of the water loafing, preening and spreading their wings to dry as shown in the video above(*).

This wettability is not caused by a lack of oil on their feathers.  Instead it’s the feathers’ structure that allows them to get wet.

Combined with their solid, heavy bones, wettable feathers make cormorants less buoyant so it’s easier to stay underwater and hunt for fish.

The proof is in the eating.  Ta dah!  He caught a large catfish.

Double-crested cormorantwith catfish, Everglades National Park (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Double-crested cormorant with fish, Everglades National Park (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

 

Watch for double-crested cormorant numbers to build in western Pennsylvania this fall as they migrate south for the winter.

 

p.s. *Note: The bird in the video has a white feather or debris on top of his beak. It’s not a field mark.

(video from Cornell Lab of Ornithology, photo by R. Cammauf, National Park Service, via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original.)

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Sep 09 2016

In Only Two Months

Baby birds grow so fast!  Two months ago this loon chick was only one day old at Acadia National Park in Maine.  By now he’s as big as his parents and almost ready to migrate.

Every year I visit Acadia in early September (I’m there this week) but I arrive too late to see baby birds.  Claire Staples spent most of the summer in Maine and followed a family of loons at Beech Hill Pond.  Here’s what the chicks looked like as they got older.

At five weeks old, on August 3, the chicks are not as big as their parents and are still quite downy.  They swim but they cannot fly.

Fluffy loon chick waves his foot at 5 weeks old, 3 Aug 2016 (photo by Claire Staples)

Fluffy loon chick waves his foot at 5 weeks old, 3 Aug 2016 (photo by Claire Staples)

At six weeks old they still depend on their parents for food.

Adult loon brings food for 6-week-old chicks, 10 Aug 2016 (photo by Claire Staples)

Adult loon brings food for 6-week-old chicks, 10 Aug 2016 (photo by Claire Staples)

One of them really likes to wave his foot.  This is how they stretch their legs.

Closeup of 6-week-old loon chicks, 10 Aug 2016 (photo by Claire Staples)

Closeup of 6-week-old loon chicks, 10 Aug 2016 (photo by Claire Staples)

 

On August 24 they were eight weeks old and had lost their down. Now they resemble their parents.

Loon chicks eight weeks old at Beech Hill Pond, Maine (photo by Claire Staples)

Loon chicks eight weeks old at Beech Hill Pond, Maine, 24 Aug 2016 (photo by Claire Staples)

 

The Acadia chick hatched two weeks later than Claire’s loons so today he looks like the two in the photo above.

Soon the loons will leave the lakes to spend the winter along the coast.  They grow up in only two months.

 

(video by Ray Yeager on YouTube. Photos by Claire Staples)

p.s. On Wednesday I saw a loon adult and youngster on Jordan Pond.  Based on Claire’s photos the youngster must have been six weeks old.

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Sep 05 2016

Last Day of Summer

Waves and ! at Ocean Beach (photo by Broken Inaglory via Wikimedia Commons)

Waves and marbled godwit at low tide. Ocean Beach, California (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On this last day of summer, may you find a marbled godwit at the beach.

Happy Labor Day!

 

(photo by Brocken Inaglory via Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original)

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Aug 24 2016

Which One of You Is Least?

Two "peeps" (photo by Mike Baird, Morro Bay, CA via Wikimedia Commons)

Two “peeps” (photo by Mike Baird via Wikimedia Commons)

Which one of you is a least sandpiper?  That’s the question I ask all the “peeps” when I see them in the field.

This month I’ve been using the tips I wrote in Shorebird Practice on August 12 to find the answers. Here’s how:

  • Which small shorebirds are possible here and now? In western Pennsylvania in August the likely suspects are least sandpipers, semipalmated sandpipers, and at sandy shores, sanderlings.  At muddy locations you might encounter the relatively rare Baird’s sandpiper.  He’s longer-winged than the other three.
  • Are you at a sandy beach?  If not, rule out sanderlings.  If yes, examine behavior and size. Sanderlings walk on sand, they chase the waves, and they’re noticeably bigger than least and semipalmated.  Sanderlings also look whiter than the other two.
  • Size: Least and semipalmated are smaller than all the other species.
  • Legs:  If you can see colors and the birds legs aren’t muddy you’ve hit the jackpot.  Least sandpipers are the only peeps with yellow or greenish legs.   If you cannot see leg color then …
  • Posture while feeding:  Imagine a person knee-bending (least) versus extended out to reach something (semipalmated).
    • Least sandpipers crouch with bent legs and peck near their toes.  They look hunched.
    • Semipalmated sandpipers reach out with their bills to find food. They look stretched out and their tails may be cocked higher.
    • (Western and semipalmated postures are similar. Fortunately, there are no westerns here and now.)
  • Bills:  All are black.
    • Least sandpiper bills taper to a fine point with slight droop at the tip.
    • Semipalmated bills are shorter and straight, sometimes slightly blunt at the tip.
  • Micro-habitat: According to Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion:  “Any lone peep in marginal habitat is likely to be a Least (baked mud or tight watery leads flanked by rank tiny puddles).”  They say that leasts like edges.

So which one of the birds above is a least sandpiper?  It’s a trick question.  Both are.  And yet they’re standing up to their bellies in water to confound the “leasts liked edges” statement.  Notice their yellow legs.

 

p.s. Here are two extensive resources on identifying peeps:  ABA’s in-depth identification of peeps and Peep identification at The Nutty Birder website.

(photo by Mike Baird from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original.)

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Aug 12 2016

Shorebird Practice

A photographer and shorebirds at the Mingan Archipelago, Quebec (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

A photographer and shorebirds at the Mingan Archipelago, Quebec (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

It’s shorebird time and many of us are confused. In southwestern Pennsylvania we only see these birds on migration and a lot of them look alike.

I’m not good at shorebirds but I want to be better.  What to do? Practice!  Here are some tips I’m using this month, written down so I don’t forget.  Maybe they’ll help you, too.

Here’s a quick summary:

  1. Prepare in advance.
  2. Take your time.
  3. For some brown/gray shorebirds, 3 field marks are all you need:
    1. Size compared to other birds,
    2. Beak shape, size and color,
    3. Leg length (relative to body) and color.

Still stumped? You’ll have to read …

THE WHOLE LIST:

Prepare in advance:

  • Choose a birding location with lots of shorebirds so you can compare sizes, shapes and behavior.
  • Before you go, narrow your choices to what’s possible at that location at that time of year. Make a list. Highlight the common ones.  Bookmarks help.
  • Take field guides(*), a scope(+), a sun hat, and maybe a chair.  These birds stay put. So will you.

Methods in the field:

  • Take your time!  Study their behavior.  Quick impressions don’t work.
  • Pick one bird to identify.  Learn it well then move on.
  • Don’t focus on plumage yet unless the bird has really striking colors or patterns.  (Plumage is the least useful field mark on difficult shorebirds.)
  • Size: Compare to other shorebirds.  (ex: smaller than a killdeer?)
  • Silhouette:
    • Beak shape: Long or short? Straight or Curved up or down? Convex (bulged) or thin?  Sharp tip or blunt?
    • Legs: Long or short relative to the body?
    • Neck: Long? Short? “No-neck”?
    • Head: Big or little? Round or long?
    • Body: Chunky? Thin? Stubby? Long?
  • Color of beak and legs.  (Sometimes size, beak and legs are all you need)
  • Behavior:
    • Stands tall or always crouched?
    • In a tight flock or solo?
    • Does it stand in water? Or does it stay at the edge, hating to get its feet wet?
    • Does it peck daintily? Grab and go? Move its bill like a sewing machine needle?
    • Does it chase waves?  (field mark of a sanderling)
  • Now look at plumage (adults + juveniles this month).  Does it match your guess?
  • Can’t make up your mind? Repeat the process.

 

If all else fails, hope for a peregrine or merlin to stir them up. Some species are impossible until they open their wings (willets, black-bellied plovers).  And it’s always nice to see a falcon.

 

(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original.)

p.s. Did I miss anything?  Do you have a tip for shorebird practice?  Please post it in a comment.

Footnotes:  Here are some great guides to use at home or while sitting in the field. These books are big and heavy.
(*) For plumage and field marks: The Sibley Guide to Birds, 2nd Edition.
(*) For detailed behavior of each species (No pictures): Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion

(+) Scope: If you have a really good camera it can out-perform a scope. Photos show the details frozen in time.

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Jul 19 2016

Lesser or Greater?

Lesser yellowlegs and Greater yellowlegs (photos by Bobby Greene)

Lesser yellowlegs and Greater yellowlegs (photos by Bobby Greene)

Robins and song sparrows are still nesting but shorebird migration has already begun.  Lesser yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) have already arrived in western Pennsylvania and will be followed soon by their look-alike cousins, the greater yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca).

How do you identify these similar birds?

First, they’re different from other shorebirds.  Though their plumage may confuse you, these are tall long-billed birds with uniquely bright long yellow legs.  Both of them will wade and swim in deep water.  (The solitary sandpiper, also a Tringa, is shorter with greenish legs.)

And they’re different from each other.  If a lesser and greater yellowlegs are in the same pond they’re easy to distinguish by size — greater is bigger than lesser — but you’re not usually that lucky. Here are some additional clues:

Character Lesser Greater
Bills The bill is only as long as its head. Measure the underside from the chin. Bill is longer than its head front-to-back.
Call Tu …or… Tu-Tu (1 or 2 Tu’s) Tu-Tu-Tu (3 or 4 Tu’s in a row) This bird is noisy! Will give a single Tu over and over when agitated. The way to remember greater vs lesser: 3 Tus are greater than 1.
Listen
Body size Dainty, slender, weighs 2.8 oz Substantial, a bit bulky, weighs 6 oz
Behavior Dainty. Picks at surface or under water. Runs sometimes. When feeding appears angry, aggressive(*). Runs with long strides. Chases fish. Almost like a reddish egret but without the wing-dance steps.
Solo? Hangs out with other birds Tends to be solo or with other waders

(*) descriptions from Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion.

 

 

Using the information above can you tell who’s who in the video?  Behavior is a good clue even when there’s only one bird.

 

You’ll find these birds at wetlands, ponds, quiet rivers and lakes.

If you’re not sure who’s who you can always call them “yellowlegs.”

 

(photos by Robert “Bobby” Greene, Jr. video by Mark Vance on YouTube)

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Apr 08 2016

Great Blue Heron Courtship

 

Let’s take a break from birds of prey. Here’s a story about another species.

Great blue herons (Ardea herodias) are returning to Pennsylvania and gathering at their rookeries to court and nest.

This video from Florida shows their elegant gestures and courtship rituals as they build their pair bond.

An added bonus on the video are the bird sounds in the background.  Listen and you’ll hear sandhill cranes, boat-tailed grackles and American coots.

 

(video by Filming Florida on YouTube)

 

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Mar 20 2016

Best Birds Last Week

Published by under Travel,Water and Shore

Purple Sandpiper at the jetty (photo by Anthony Bruno)

Purple Sandpiper at Manasquan Inlet, New Jersey (photo by Anthony Bruno)

Taking a break from peregrine falcons, here are some birds that made me happy last week.

On March 14-17 I went on the Todd Bird Club outing to coastal New Jersey, led by Margaret and Roger Higbee.  We started at Cape May on Monday March 14 and worked our way north to the Sandy Hook unit of Gateway National Park by Thursday March 17.

It’s pretty hard for me to get a Life Bird in the eastern U.S. so I was pleased to see a seaside sparrow at the Edwin B. Forsythe NWR, Brigantine.  Click here to see what he looks like.   Thank you for finding him, Margaret!

On Wednesday we had close looks at purple sandpipers (Calidris maritima) at Manasquan Inlet, above, and I finally learned why this brown sandpiper is called “purple.”  In good light his slight iridescence produces a pinkish-purple sheen in the middle of each feather.  Who knew!

It was a real treat to see the harlequin ducks (Histrionicus histrionicus) at Barnegat Light. They’re fearless in rough water.

Harlequin ducks at Barnegat Light (photo by Anthony Bruno)

Harlequin ducks at Barnegat Light (photo by Anthony Bruno)

And every day we saw American oystercatchers (Haematopus palliatus) and long-tailed ducks (Clangula hyemalis).

American oystercatcher (photo by Anthony Bruno)

American oystercatcher (photo by Anthony Bruno)

Long-tailed duck in 16 March 2016, New Jersey (photo by Anthony Bruno)

Long-tailed duck, March 16, 2016, New Jersey (photo by Anthony Bruno)

 

Coastal New Jersey is a great place to visit in March. Thanks to Margaret and Roger Higbee for a great trip and Tony Bruno for these gorgeous photos of last week’s Best Birds.

 

(photos by Anthony Bruno)

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Mar 14 2016

Mallards Make Ducklings

Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) are common ducks in the northern hemisphere so their courtship behavior is easy to observe.  Here are tips on what you’ll see in March as they prepare for nesting next month.

Did you know that mallards are already paired up by now?  They start forming pair bonds in September and most have a mate by the end of the year.  This leaves some unattached bachelors however because their sex ratio is usually skewed — 1.33 males for every female.

Now that they’re paired up they get down to the serious business of making baby mallards.  The video above shows several characteristic moves and sounds of a paired couple:

  • Head bobbing: a pre-copulatory action that gets them in tune with each other.
  • Inciting:  The female (all brown) incites the male by dipping her bill in the water over her shoulder.
  • Leading: He turns back his head, then swims away from her to lead her away from the crowd; she follows.
  • Vocalizations: He whistles. She quacks loudly (only the females make the loud quacking sound).

The excitement went out of the pair shown above, but the video below shows head bobbing and copulation. Notice that the male always grabs the female by the back of the neck as he mounts her.  After mating the pair bridles (rears up) and steams (swims with head low).  Sometimes the male turns back his head and leads again.

Mallards are monogamous but Cornell Lab’s Birds of North America says that “paired males actively pursue forced extra pair copulations” — a polite name for what looks like gang rape.  Knowing this, the paired males stay close to their females to protect them during the egg laying period.

After egg laying their match falls apart.  Male mallards desert their mates during incubation and won’t pair up again until autumn.  They can afford to do this because the females incubate alone and the ducklings are precocious.

So it’s only once a year that wild mallards make ducklings.

 

(videos from YouTube. Click on the YouTube links to see the originals)

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Mar 04 2016

Getting In Tune

If you’ve been watching the Gulf Tower and Cathedral of Learning falconcams this month, you’ve seen the peregrines bowing and “chirping” to each other in courtship display.  Their rituals cement their pair bond and get them in tune with each other for the breeding season.

Some birds have fancier courtship displays.  Pairs of waved albatrosses (Phoebastria irrorata) get reacquainted after six months at sea by doing a courtship dance.

The video above shows their elaborate ritualized moves: bill clacking, rapid bill circling, bowing, touching the ground and their sides with their beaks, raising their bills, and making a whoo sound.  You have to visit the Galápagos to see them as it’s the only place where they breed.

The pairs do their dance in time for the female to lay her single egg in April to June.  Nestlings reach adult size in December and leave the colony by January to forage at sea until they reach maturity at 5-6 years old.

During El Niño there is too little food to raise a family so many birds don’t breed at all.  This year is a hard one for the waved albatross.

Sadly, this species is critically endangered.  The waved albatross’ range is confined to the Galápagos and the Humboldt current off the coasts of Peru and Ecuador.  Though long-lived, these birds are slow to reproduce and their population is declining, especially at the hands of longline fishing.

It’s quite a privilege to see them dance.

 

(video from Peregrine Travel Centre Adelaide on YouTube)

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