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Friday, May 25, 2012

This week in birds - #22

Female Orchard Oriole among the reeds at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge last week.


Cattle Egrets are very common here in summer and their appearance is very familiar to anyone who takes time to notice birds, but a very unusual egret has turned up in Florida. It is buff-colored rather than white and is almost orange in spots.  


In the New York Times this week, a scientist wrote about his research on the effects on its birds of forest fragmentation in Hawaii.


Also in Hawaii, an introduced bird, the Japanese White-Eye, is expanding its range and driving native birds out of conservation areas that were set aside for them. 


A new survey of the population of pygmy three-toed sloths found less than 100 surviving in the wild.


Great Egrets, a very common bird to us, is very rare in the United Kingdom. It has caused a great deal of excitement among birders there to learn that these birds are nesting in their country for the first time. Volunteers are protecting the nests to see that no harm comes to them.


And also in the UK, their oldest Osprey, a 26-year-old bird, has just hatched her 48 chick. She's been nesting in the same spot for 22 consecutive years.


In more unusual news of nesting birds, Black-crowned Night Herons are nesting in downtown Oakland!


The brown argus butterfly of the UK is expanding its range farther northward, apparently in response to hotter summers. It may be one of the species that actually will benefit from global warming.


Though it is still seriously endangered, the California Condor population now stands at 405 birds, a remarkable increase over the 22 birds that were alive just twenty-five years ago.


A new study shows that, for Song Sparrows anyway, promiscuity doesn't pay. Mating with birds outside the pair bond had less successful results than mating within the pair.


The color of a bird's bill can often indicate its health. The brighter the bill, the healthier the bird, and thus the bill can be an signal of the bird's ability to successfully breed.  A new study of storks confirms this.   


Around the backyard:

My little family of bluebirds fledged successfully on Thursday. Unfortunately, I didn't get any pictures, but I was happy to see them around the yard today. My yard can't have too many bluebirds.

I heard a Baltimore Oriole calling from my magnolia tree today but it was well-hidden among the dense leaves and I could never get a look at it.

I continued to hear my "rain crow," the Yellow-billed Cuckoo, around the neighborhood this week. Now, if only he would bring me some rain!

Here are a few more pictures from my trip to Anahuac last week.

A young Little Blue Heron, still mostly white.

Lesser Yellowlegs (I think).

Black-necked Stilt - lots of those around.

Double-crested Cormorant.

Blue-winged Teal pair.

An "authorized" Laughing Gull. Wonder what an unauthorized gull would look like?

Have a safe and happy Memorial Day weekend and never forget what we commemorate with this holiday

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Barn Swallows

It was always fun to visit Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge in summer to see the swallows. The refuge was famous in former years for the Barn Swallows which nested in the eaves of the visitors' center that stood at its entrance. The visitors' center is gone now, destroyed as so much else was by Hurricane Ike, and it has recently been replaced by a state-of-the-art new center that is actually several miles away from the refuge, two miles off Highway 10E at the 810 exit. It is a beautiful center and serves not only Anahuac but other wildlife refuges in the area.  

Where the old visitors' center used to stand, a new gazebo has been constructed, and the Barn Swallows have returned and now nest in the gazebo. When we were there last week, it seemed to me that there were not as many nests as in previous years, but still there were plenty of the beautiful fast-fliers around.

Some of the nests appeared to have young in them, but most still had brooding parents sitting on the eggs.

As I walked around the pond next to the gazebo, I saw evidence that some of the pairs of birds had already raised their young.

I came upon this dead limb which stretched out over the pond and it had five fledgling chicks lined up in a row on it. They had obviously just left the nest within the last day or so.

At first I had thought there were only four babies, but when I looked at them from another angle I could see that there were five.

While I watched, the parents would fly by every few minutes and bring food for the hungry chicks. They fed them literally on the fly, only hovering briefly to deliver the meal.

One of the parents decided to take a rest on the limb. It's hard to tell if this is Mama or Papa since they essentially look the same, but the female is slightly lighter on the belly, so I think this is probably Mama.

The babies seemed in no hurry to stretch their wings and sat tight with their parent, while the other parent continued to deliver food.

Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge is still recovering from the devastation caused by Ike, but the swallows are back in good numbers, and that is a very good sign.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge: Common Nighthawk

I have mentioned here on different occasions in recent years about how I have missed the sight and sound of the Common Nighthawk over my yard in spring and summer. They used to be quite common - as their name implies - but in the last two or three years, they just haven't been around. I'm happy to say that has changed this year. Any late afternoon, they can be heard as they wheel around the sky searching for flying insects. I saw three in the skies over my backyard just this past weekend. All of which leads me to the conclusion that these birds are more plentiful in the area than they have been in recent years. I didn't realize just how plentiful though until we went to Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge last Friday.

As soon as I got out of the car, I heard the sound of nighthawks hunting overhead, even though it was well up into daylight hours. These birds are usually at their most active at dawn and dusk, and they can sometimes be seen and heard hunting at night on moonlit nights or around lights in urban areas. But it's not totally unheard of for them to be flying during the middle of the day and they certainly were on this day. Everywhere we went their voices could be heard.

More typically though, the birds settle down during daylight hours and they are so cryptically colored that they often go unnoticed even when they are right out in plain sight. It was really a matter of chance that, on Friday, I started noticing the birds everywhere I looked!

This was the first one that I saw on a fence post next to the road. These posts are convenient places for many types of birds to perch and rest, or perch and sing as the various members of the blackbird family often do.

After I noticed the first one, I began seeing that every fourth or fifth post along the way seemed to have a nighthawk sitting atop it!

One even perched on the barbed wire. This is an unusual pose because the bird's legs are short and its feet small in relation to body size. It's not really made for perching. When it perches in a tree, often it will sit lengthwise on the limb rather than across the limb as most birds do.

You can see that lengthwise-perching behavior in this bird that was sitting in a tree. You can also see how very well camouflaged the bird is. If its eye is closed and its head is down, it just looks like a bump on the limb and you wouldn't give it a second glance.

The nighthawk is a member of the nightjar (Caprimulgidae) family which is characterized by short bills that open up to very wide mouths. When the mouth is open, it gapes nearly as wide as the bird's head and it uses this big mouth to scoop up insects as it flies about erratically.

This wide open mouth and the fact that the bird often flies over pastures in the late afternoon gave rise to a myth and a nickname, "Goatsucker". The myth goes back at least as far as the third century B.C.E. in Greece where country people claimed that these birds milked goats!

The bird had another nickname in the area where I grew up. We called it "Bullbat." I'm not really sure why but I assume it had to do with the fact that the bird does fly erratically like a bat and it's normally in the sky at the same time as bats, plus it is bigger than the other bats that were around at that time. There is also a sound that the males make during courtship, a kind of basso profundo booming that might recall the voice of a bull. They make the sound by flying high into the air and then going into a steep dive. As the wind rushes through the wing feathers, it causes a distinct "boom" which, if you have heard it, is not easily forgettable. It was part of the background music to the late spring and summer afternoons of my childhood.

The helter-skelter flight of the nighthawk is not so easy to catch on camera, but on Friday, I got lucky.

Two (I assume male) nighthawks were flying low over a meadow and seemed to be engaged in a territorial dispute. I tried to capture the two together but those pictures were just a blur

.Note the very long, narrow wings which give these birds excellent control in the air. The white spot on each wing supposedly can serve to startle insects and perhaps make them easier to catch.

I must have seen a score or more of Common Nighthawks at the wildlife refuge. I don't think I've ever seen so many at one time and place. I assume they must have just arrived on migration and perhaps were hungry which may explain why so many were hunting during the day. Whatever the reason, I was delighted with their presence on this day and delighted with the chance to say hello to a friend from my long-ago childhood.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge: Least Bittern

On our trip to Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge last Friday, there were three birds in particular that I had hoped to see: Least Bittern, Roseate Spoonbill, and Purple Gallinule. Well, I didn't completely strike out, but I did go one for three. I couldn't find a gallinule or spoonbill, but the most difficult of the three, the bittern, proved unusually cooperative.

As we headed around the loop that would take us to Shovelers' Pond, we stopped briefly at The Willows. It really should have another name now. The willows that gave it its name were drowned by Hurricane Ike four years ago. Vegetation has grown back but it's quite a different habitat from what it used to be. On this day, I found Orchard Orioles, Northern Mockingbirds, Mourning Doves, Red-winged Blackbirds, Great-tailed Grackles, and plentiful butterflies working the Joe Pye weed.

Just a bit farther along the loop, I caught a glimpse of a big bird flying into the weeds on the right hand side of the road. We stopped and I focused my binoculars to get a better look. I was delighted to find that it was, in fact, one of my target birds, the Least Bittern.

The bird was looking back and forth among the weeds.

Was it actually looking for something, I wondered, or was this part of a display?

Then there was a blur of movement among the weeds and a fuzzy chick appeared. The adult began to feed it. I realize you can't really tell much about this picture, but that is what is happening here. As soon as the baby finished feeding, the adult flew away.

  The chick stood looking in the direction where its parent had flown.

It continued to stand there for a minute, maybe hoping Mama or Papa would return with a second course. Then it dropped into the weeds and completely disappeared! If I hadn't seen it, I would never have known there was a chick there.

One almost has to be lucky to see a Least Bittern, because it lives in dense, tangled vegetation where its narrow body allows it to move about with ease. It is one of the smallest herons in the world and it is well-adapted for life in dense marshes. Its diet is mostly fish and insects and it would certainly find plenty of both at ANWR.

The nests of bitterns are usually widely scattered but they do sometimes nest, as many herons and egrets do, in colonies. In one study in South Carolina, these bitterns nested in close association with Boat-tailed Grackles. It is possible that they have the same association with Great-tailed Grackles at ANWR. There are plenty of those big grackles around.

Their clutch of eggs may number from 2 - 7, but most often are 4 - 5; however, I only saw one chick on this day, although there could easily have been others among the reeds. Both of the parents feed the young through regurgitation. A pair may produce as many as two broods of chicks per year.

Seeing the bittern was really the high point of my day of birding and it happened very early, but there were some other nice moments and nice birds seen. I'll share more of them with you over the next couple of days.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

This week in birds - #21

We spent a wonderful day at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge yesterday. It's one of my favorite day trips and I always look forward to the birds that I know I'm going to find there. My target birds for yesterday's trip were Roseate Spoonbill, Purple Gallinule, and Least Bittern. Almost immediately, I got very lucky with the bittern. I saw this bird fly into the spot where it is standing in the vegetation and trained my binoculars on it. Sure enough - Least Bittern! Not only did I see this bird but a few seconds later its fuzzy chick showed up wanting to be fed. I got a few pictures of the chick, too, as well as a lot of other birds. I'll post some more as soon as I've had a chance to go through the 200 or so and pick out the best.


And in news of birds, birding, and the environment this week:  

A new scientific paper just published describes the discovery of a large quantity of bones and eggshells of birds from the Late Cretaceous period that were apparently drowned and then preserved by mud and silt. The deposits indicate that even in that early time seabirds were coming together in colonies to breed and nest.


Male robins seem to discriminate among their offspring when it comes to feeding. Researchers found that the robins fed chicks that came from more brightly colored eggs more often. The speculation is that the color of the egg indicates health and likelihood of survival so the males are hedging their bets. But if a chick is fed more often, common sense tells me that like its likelihood of survival would be greater!


The organization American Rivers has released its list of America's most endangered rivers and topping the list is the Potomac. The threat to the river - and many others - is Congress which keeps trying to roll back the regulations of  the Clean Water Act.  For this particular Congress, any regulation at all is considered bad. Who needs clean water anyway? 


The Cliff Swallows no longer breed and nest at San Juan Capistrano Mission in California. A few years ago, the mission undertook a restoration project which drove the swallows away and they have refused to return. The mission has tried everything it could think of  to lure them back. Now they are playing recordings of swallow calls to try to bring the birds in.  Will this prove any more successful than their other efforts or are the birds gone for good?


Hen Harriers, a European species related to our own Northern Harrier, are in danger of being wiped out as a breeding bird in England because of persecution. As far as is known, only one pair shows signs of breeding this year. The harrier has had its nests destroyed, been poisoned and shot almost to extinction for one simple reason: It is a natural predator of the Red Grouse, and humans, surely one of Nature's more selfish creatures, don't want any competition in their quest to kill the grouse. 


Bug Girl, this week, had an interesting post about "The Coming Beepocalypse."  


As the climate warms up, especially at the poles, Arctic seabirds like Dovekies, or Little Auks, have adjusted their fishing habits to the warmer waters.


An post talks about Canyon Wren females as well as the males singing and says that among most North American wrens only the males sing. That may be true but, having spent my life listening to the vociferous Carolina Wren (male and female) perform their "call and response" duets, I have to wonder.


It's a pretty well-established scientific principle that crossbreeding can confer many advantages on the results of the breeding. The crossbred offspring often combines the best of both parents' genes and is better able to survive. A new study shows that crossbreeding happens among Heliconian butterflies and for much the same reason.


Those clever crows are confounding scientists again with their abilities. It seems that they are able to recognize different human voices as well as different voices among other species. Just one more strategy for being able to distinguish friend from foe it seems.


Around the backyard: While we were at Anahuac yesterday, I heard a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, the beloved "rain crow" of my youth, calling. I was glad to hear him but also somewhat sad to hear him because it reminded me that I have not heard one in my own yard this year and that I didn't hear or see one here at all last year. Imagine my delight then, when, while working on a pruning project in my garden today, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo called from one of the trees in my front yard! I heard the bird several more times as he moved around the yard. It made my day.

I was certain that my family of Eastern Bluebirds would have fledged by today. Wrong again.

The babies are still tucked up in the box and the parents are still flying themselves ragged to keep them fed. Here, the female exits after delivering a fat caterpillar. 

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Mama bluebird

Mama bluebird feeding her four babies. A mother's work is never done!


Friday, May 11, 2012

This week in birds - #20

(Owen Deutsch photo of male Painted Bunting courtesy of American Bird Conservancy.)

The American Bird Conservancy's Bird of the Week is the Painted Bunting. This is a bird of concern because its numbers are declining primarily because of loss or degradation of habitat. It is also vulnerable to cowbird parasitism. 


I told you last week about the Bald Eagle in Philadelphia that had been found injured, suffering from lead poisoning, from being shot, and apparently from being hit by a car. Its fate was still in the balance at the time I reported on it. Good news! The bird has now recovered sufficiently that it was able to be released back into the wild.


A lot of media outlets with the sense of humor of middle-school boys have been having a lot of fun this week with a scientific paper that propounded the idea that dinosaur farts may have affected the climate of Earth, helping to keep it moderate enough to sustain an environment that was friendly for dinosaurs.


The Mockingjay was a fictional genetically engineered bird in the popular The Hunger Games trilogy. But is such a bird actually possible?


The invasive brown tree snake has been a catastrophe for native wildlife on many Pacific islands where it has been accidentally introduced. Now Guam is waging an all-out war on the snake. One of the weapons in their arsenal is mice laced with acetaminophen. It's a pain-killer for humans but is a deadly poison for snakes. 


In other Pacific island news, the endangered Hawaiian goose, the Nene, has rebounded in recent years but the state is still carefully protecting its state bird as it makes its comeback. They spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year moving birds away from areas where they might be in danger, such as areas near runways of airports. 


The cause or causes of the deaths of dolphins and seabirds that continue to wash up on the beaches of northern Peru has still not been determined, although authorities theorize that the sea mammals may have died from a virus and that the birds could have been victims of starvation.


Lakes in the undeveloped High Peaks area of Adirondack Park in the Northeast are covered with ice for significantly shorter periods than they were just 32 years ago. Scientists say that the most pristine lakes in the area are the most vulnerable to the effects of global warming.


In more news of global warming,  new research has shown that a sector of the Antarctic Ice Sheet is at risk of melting within the century.  


Birds with more than one color variation are likely to evolve and split into different species faster than birds that have a single color morph, according to scientists. 


Around the backyard:

A female Downy Woodpecker searches for insects to feed her hungry babies, next to a series of parallel lines of holes drilled by Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers last winter. 

All around the yard this week the main business of Mama and Papa birds has been keeping those wide-open  beaks of their nestlings stuffed with insects. They work from dawn to dusk, flying themselves ragged to keep their families fed. In a few weeks, the nestlings will be fledglings and then, soon, they'll be on their own, and Mama and Papa can take a well-earned rest.

To all Mamas out there, I hope you will enjoy a well-earned rest this weekend. Happy Mothers' Day! 

Saturday, May 5, 2012

This week in birds - #19

The colorful Purple Gallinules have returned to the area for this summer. Look for them in wet, boggy areas especially at state parks and wildlife refuges. I caught this one with my camera at Brazos Bend State Park.


The effort to establish another flock of Whooping Cranes in the wild, the Wisconsin/Florida flock, continues to be tenuous, but there are hopeful signs. In order for the flock to be self-sustaining, the first order of business is that the birds pair up and reproduce. There was good news on that front this week when it was announced that a chick had hatched in the wild in Wisconsin.


Historical climate data assembled with the help of a NASA researcher shows that spring is actually coming earlier than the controlled climate change experiments have indicated. Birds are nesting earlier and plants are flowering earlier each year than was true in the past.


As more evidence of the advancing of spring, the Wandering Albatrosses that nest on the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia are now nesting an average of 2.2 days earlier than they did in past years, according to the scientists that study them. 


Scientists have postulated that the extinction of species, resulting in biodiversity loss, is just as big a threat to the environment as climate change, and that, in fact, this loss is one of the factors that is driving the rapid heating up of the earth.


A Bald Eagle in Pennsylvania has shown a remarkable tenacity for life. The bird was found recently in a pool of blood in a parking lot there. An examination by veterinarians of the wildlife services that rescued it showed that the bird was suffering from lead poisoning, that it had been shot with BB pellets, and that it had likely been hit by a car. It was barely alive when found and its life still hangs in the balance as wildlife rehabbers try to bring it back from the brink. They say they don't yet know if the eagle will survive. I'm betting on the bird. 


A new interactive map by the American Bird Conservancy shows areas where birds are most likely to be harmed by the placement of wind farms. It is hoped that this will be a tool in better planning for placement of the turbines in spots that will be less deadly to birds.


The development of natural gas fields in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is pushing the pronghorn antelope out of its traditional wintering grounds. This could result in a population decline of this iconic animal of the West.


Renewable energy sources are being more widely used in many states throughout the country over the past decade, according to a report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.


Ornithologists in Peru are investigating the mysterious deaths of some 600 seabirds, including pelicans and boobies, that have washed up on the beaches in the north of that country. This comes after a finding of mass deaths among dolphins in the same area.   


Heavyweight trees measuring three feet or more in diameter accounted for nearly half the biomass measured in Yosemite National Park even though trees of that size represented only about one percent of the trees growing in the park.


Conservationists are seeking Endangered Species protection for the declining Black-backed Woodpecker. Ironically, the bird is declining because of the reduction in forest fires in its habitat. This bird likes to feed on the larvae of beetles that attack trees that have been through a fire.


If you think tonight's full moon appears larger and brighter than the normal full moon, you're right. It's a Supermoon! The moon averages about 230,000 miles from the earth, but tonight's moon will be only 221,802 miles away at its closest point. That's 12.2 percent closer than the beautiful orb is when it is at its farthest point from our planet. It looks like it will be a clear night, so get outside and have a look!


Around the backyard: For the last couple of years, I've not noticed any Common Nighthawks over my yard during migration. Imagine my pleasure then when, late Wednesday afternoon, just before dusk, I was outside and heard two of their familiar voices up above. I looked up to see the two circling in the area, enjoying their late day meal of flying insects. More power to them!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

And here come the orioles!

I was mulching some beds in the front yard this morning when I heard a "chuk" followed by a melodious song coming from my magnolia tree in the backyard. I immediately recognized it at an oriole song, but, for just a moment, I couldn't remember if it was an Orchard or a Baltimore Oriole. Then my brain cramp cleared and I remembered. Yes, it was the Orchard Oriole, smallest member of that family that visits us and certainly one of the most welcome.

This is not a particularly good picture, but at least you can see the brick red and black pattern of the bird's coloring which is very distinctive. The Orchard is more conservatively colored than some of its cousins, including the Baltimore and the Altamira, but even so, it is flashy enough to leave no question as to which family it belongs. Also, notice that strong, black beak and think of the Red-winged Blackbird. Yes, blackbirds, too, are cousins of orioles although you might never guess it by some of their raucous "songs"!

Red-winged Blackbird, for comparison.

And this lovely bird you would almost think is a separate species altogether, but, in fact, it is a female Orchard Oriole. I caught her with my camera at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge just about a year ago. I didn't see one of these today because they don't announce their presence like the males, but I suspect there are some around. These birds generally nest in my neighborhood, although as far as I know, I've never had one nest in my yard. But hope springs eternal in the Backyard Birder's heart! 

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

"Wheeep! I'm back!"

A loud "Wheeep!" greeted me as I stepped out onto my back porch Sunday morning. It made me smile for I instantly recognized the call of an old friend from my childhood, the Great Crested Flycatcher. He had returned from his winter down south.

(Image courtesy of Cornell Lab of Ornithology.)
The Great Crested Flycatcher is another of those birds, like the Yellow-breasted Chat, that is often easier to hear than to see, but, indeed, there is no problem with hearing him. He has a distinctive and ringing call, unlike any other bird that I've heard, including any of the other flycatchers. If you do get lucky enough to see one, you will see a medium sized bird,  similar in size to a Western Kingbird and slightly bigger than an Eastern Kingbird. The Great Crested is one of the more colorful flycatchers of the eastern part of the continent, with a gray head, olive back, rufous wings and tail and bright yellow belly.  It is a hole-nester, normally nesting in a hole in a tree but it will sometimes use human-made nest boxes or other structures. I once found a nest in an old mailbox.

An interesting thing about this bird's nests is that they often will use a shedded snakeskin in the construction of the nest. Why? Is is a way of scaring off predators? Or maybe the bird just likes the look of snakeskin. Only the Great Crested Flycatcher knows for sure.

This flycatcher does nest in our area and some years I have them in my neighborhood throughout the summer as they raise their 4-6 young. I've never had one nest in my yard, to my knowledge. Maybe this will be the year!