A Record Day

Over the weekend, Dave and I went to Edwin B. Forsythe NWR on a mission. There were 2 birds at Forsythe on the NJ Rare Bird List: an American Golden-Plover and a Black-headed Gull. Our mission was to see if we could find either of these species. By the end of the trip, we set a personal record for our Forsythe trips (I’ll tell you what it was at the end).

It was our first spring trip down to the refuge. The weather was nice; it was actually pretty cool (only around 60), but not too cold. We walked a little bit around the visitor’s center, where we saw a Chipping Sparrow, some Purple Martins, Tree Swallows, Savannah Sparrows, Tufted Titmice, and heard a House Wren.

We also walked a bit on the Songbird Trail, which becomes part of the Wildlife Drive. There were Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Red-winged Blackbirds, Mallards, a female Bufflehead, and a Red-bellied Woodpecker.

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Male Red-winged Blackbird (Image by BirdNation)

Once on the Wildlife Drive, the search for the rare birds began. Willets marched through the mudflats  looking for food. While watching a sleeping Mallard we spotted some tiny shorebirds running on the water’s edge. They were too small to be Sanderlings and were about sparrow-sized. Upon closer examination we determined that they were Least Sandpipers. It was a new edition to our life list. A Greater Yellowlegs was also hanging out nearby.

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Least Sandpiper (Image by David Horowitz)

At one point there was a mudflat/low tidal area that was occupied by a mixed flock of shorebirds. It mainly consisted of Dunlins, but there were also Whimbrels (life list #2), Black-bellied Plovers (life-list #3), Short-billed Dowitchers (life list #4), and American Oystercatchers. It wasn’t an easy crowd to watch though, because that area was overcast and the birds were slightly too far, so the more we watched, the more the colors would get washed out. I was seeing all these plovers, and trying to carefully scan for the American Golden-Plover. The supercilium (eyebrow), of the American Golden-Plover is very distinctive,  but we weren’t seeing that. No American Goldens here.

There was a gull that was hanging out near the shorebird flock. It was small, and had a red bill/legs. It was our Black-headed Gull! A birder nearby with a scope confirmed the id with us. Black-headed Gulls have black hoods similar to a Laughing Gull, except that their hood only goes to the top of the head and not the full head. This gull was nonbreeding, so it just started getting its hood, and had the characteristic two gray stripe on its head. I was so excited to find this gull! It could have been anywhere in the refuge and we happened to find him. Black-headed Gulls are rare because they usually are found in Northern Canada, Europe, or Asia.

A small group of terns arrived on the other side of the drive where the tide was higher. Terns plunge dive from the air into the water to catch fish. They can’t see under the water, so they rely on accurately locating a fish above the water. Sometimes they skim the water’s surface instead of plunging all the way under. The Double-crested Cormorants nearby took note, and decided to join in on the action. It’s cool when you see different bird species “helping” each other find food. Here’s a short video I took on my Iphone from the car.

Other birds we saw along the drive included Snowy and Great Egrets, 6 pairs of Ospreys on their nests, Great Blue Herons, Laughing Gulls, Northern Rough-winged/Barn/Tree Swallows, Common Grackles, and some left over Snow Geese to name a few. Our final life list addition for the day was two Boat-tailed Grackles. Boat-tailed are larger than Common Grackles, and have long tails that are almost half their body length. They typically fan their tails out into a V-shape, like the keel of a boat.

We had a great afternoon at Forsythe. We added 5 birds to our life list, making our total for the day 53 species, which is a record for our Forsythe trips. We didn’t see the American Golden-Plover, but did get to see the Black-headed Gull, which was a great experience, and another rare bird for the year. I’m looking forward to more great spring birding trips.

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Happy Birthday, John James Audubon!

“I know I am not a scholar, but meantime I am aware that no man living knows better than I do the habits of our birds; no man living has studied them as much as I have done.” 

These are the words of John James Audubon, the great ornithologist, naturalist, and artist. Today, April 26th, is Audubon’s birthday. He was born 232 year ago 1785. Audubon is known for his double-elephant folio prints of The Birds of America, which was a spectacular achievement and contribution to the study of ornithology. In honor of Audubon’s birthday, here are some interesting facts about The Birds of America.

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John James Audubon in 1826, portrait by John Syme
  • Audubon’s love for birds and nature stem from his childhood in France. His father encouraged him to study birds and draw. As he grew up, his artistic abilities improved, and he developed a unique way of sketching birds. After shooting the bird, he would pin it up on a grid. At the time, many artists would draw a bird in profile on a plain background. Audubon however, wanted his birds to look like they were moving, so he positioned them so it looked like they were either flying, hunting, or feeding and placed them in elaborate scenes.
  • As a young man, Audubon never considered publishing his illustrations, until he met the famed ornithologist of the time, Alexander Wilson. For a time, Audubon owned a general store, and Wilson came in to try to sell a subscription of his work American Ornithology. Audubon thought his illustrations were better, and that encounter sparked his interest in eventually publishing his work (perhaps to outdo Wilson’ work, which he eventually did).
  • The Birds of America was published between 1827-1838. It contained 435 life-sized watercolors on hand-engraved plates. Audubon insisted the birds be illustrated to scale, so he would position large birds in poses so that they would find the page. The pages of the double-elephant portfolio are 39 by 26 inches. Subscribers were sent sets of 5 prints per month (usually one large bird, one medium-sized, and three small birds).
  • The opening plate of The Birds of America is the Wild Turkey, a bird that Audubon was particularly fond of. He encountered his first Wild Turkey while on an expedition down the Ohio River.
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Wild Turkey print
  • There are 6 birds in the portfolio that are now extinct: the Passenger Pigeon, Carolina Parakeet, Labrador Duck, Pinnated Grouse, Great Auk, and Eskimo Curlew. Audubon identified 25 new species.
  • Audubon originally tried to find a publisher in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which during his time was the cultural and scientific center of the United States. However, he was met with enmity by the scientific community, many who believed Audubon was too conceited and remained loyal to ornithologist Alexander Wilson. Due to this failure, Audubon looked for a publisher in Liverpool, England. The British were fascinated by Audubon’s “American backwoodsman” image so much that he became extremely popular.
  • It took 14 years of studies, expeditions, and engraving to complete The Birds of America. 
  • Audubon not only loved illustrating birds, but enjoyed writing about them as well. Between 1831-1839 Audubon published Ornithological Biography, an octavo version that was 5 volumes. Ornithological Biography is an accompaniment to the prints where Audubon vividly describes his field observations and avian behavior.
  • A complete bound set of The Birds of America would sell today for upwards of $8,000,000. In 2000, a complete set sold at Christie’s, New York, for $8,802,500, setting the world auction record for any printed book. There are around 120 complete sets still in existence.
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Louisiana Heron on the cover of The Birds of America 

The love John James Audubon felt for birds will forever live on through The Birds of America. Ornithology was his passion, and through diligence and dedication, Audubon persevered to achieve his goal of his “Great Idea”. Happy birthday, John James Audubon! Thanks for being an inspiration to bird and nature lovers by sharing your passion with the world.

If you would like to see prints of the birds from The Birds of America, you can see them all on the National Audubon Society’s website:

John James Audubon Birds of America

What’s your favorite Audubon print? Tell me in the comments. (My favorites are the Great Horned Owl, Ospreys, and American White Pelican).

 

World Penguin Day

Today, April 25, is World Penguin Day! With their tuxedo plumage, penguins are probably one of the most recognizable birds in the world. As popular as they are, many penguin population are on the decline, especially the species that frequent or live on Antarctica. Climate change, habitat disturbance, human interaction, oil pollution, and non-native species are some of the reasons for their decline. It’s not too late to help penguins though! Check out these links to find out ways you can help penguins:

One Green Planet Website

Greenpeace Arctic Sanctuaries petition

Just in time for Wold Penguin Day, the group Oceanites released the first ever “State of Antarctic Penguins” (SOAP) report. All 5 species of penguins that utilize Antarctica were included in the study by Oceanites founder Ron Naveen (who describes his job as “I count penguins.” haha :-)). According to the report there are around 12 million penguins in Antarctica. You can read the “State of Antarctic Penguins” report at this link.

So in honor of penguins worldwide, here are some fun facts about these cute black-and-white birds.

  • When you think of penguins, you probably imagine them walking around in the snow in Antarctica. However, only 2 of the approximately 17 penguin species live in Antarctica (there’s some debate over how many species there actually are, some say up to 19). They are the Emperor Penguin and the Adelie Penguin. The remaining penguin species live in more tropical climates.
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Penguin Id Chart (Image via Pinterest)
  • Almost all penguins live exclusively in the Southern Hemisphere…except one. The Galapagos Penguin is the only species to live north of the equator.
  • The largest living penguin species in the world is the Emperor Penguin. They stand about 3-1/2 feet tall and can weight 77 pounds or more. The smallest living penguin species is the Little Blue, who stands about 16 inches tall and weighs only 2 pounds.
  • Penguins are flightless birds. Over time, their wings evolved into flippers used for agile swimming. While swimming, a layer of air in their smooth plumage aids with buoyancy and insulates them in the frigid waters. Some species can reach up to 22 miles per hour while swimming.
  • Most penguin species are highly social and live in colonies. They form monogamous breeding pairs. Smaller species lay 2 eggs per clutch, while the Emperor and King Penguin species lay only 1.
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A Gentoo and 2 King Penguins walk on the beach

Image by By Liam Quinn from Canada [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

  • All penguins have countershaded plumage. Their black and white plumage helps them to become camouflaged. A predator below, such as an orca, would have trouble distinguish a penguin’s white belly from the water’s reflection.
  • Most birds molt a few feathers at a time, but penguins molt all their feathers at the same time, called catastrophic molting. Penguins are land bound for 2-3 weeks since they are not waterproof during molting.
  •  Some species create loose nest out of pebbles and feathers. Emperor Penguin males actual incubate their single egg on their feet. The egg sits underneath their brood pouch (which is a featherless area with a concentration of blood vessels) to stay warm. After a female lays the egg she transfers it to the male. The female will go out the sea for about 2 months while the male balances the egg on his feet for 64 days throughout the harsh winter.
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Emperor Penguins with chick (Image by Robyn Mundy via antarctica.gov.au)

What’s your favorite species of penguin? Tell me in the comments below.

Strawbridge Surprise

Last Tuesday Dave and I went to Strawbridge Lake to destress after a long work day. The evening started out normal enough. We saw Canada Geese, American Robins, American Crows, Turkey Vultures, Red-winged Blackbirds, a Northern Mockingbird, and House Finches to name a few. You know, the usual cast of characters.

As we approached the end of the lake, something small was swimming in the distance. It was a Pied-billed Grebe! We’ve seen Pied-billed Grebes in the past, mainly at Palmyra and Amico Island. They are usually really far out though, making it hard to see their details.

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Pied-billed Grebe (Image by BirdNation)
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Pied-billed Grebe resting (Image by BirdNation)

This was our first Pied-billed Grebe at Strawbridge Lake. The best part was that instead of swimming away, the Grebe swam towards us! What a cutie it was :-). I couldn’t believe how close it got to us as it preened and splashed in the water. I think it knew we were there, but didn’t seem to mind putting on a show for us. This Pied-billed Grebe was a fantastic surprise to an otherwise seemingly normal night.

Here are some fun facts about Pied-billed Grebes:

  • The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s entry about the Pied-billed Grebe call them “part bird, part submarine”, which is an apt description of these expert divers. These grebes dive to catch crustaceans, fish, and other invertebrates with their chunky silver and black bills. They can trap water in the feathers to control their buoyancy and reducing drag as they chase after prey. Sometimes they submerge themselves in the water with only their eyes and nostrils on the water’s surface, similar to a crocodile, to avoid danger. If they do run into danger, they’ll “crash-dive”, plunging head first to make a splash.
  • Like other grebes, Pied-bill ingest a decent amount of their own feathers. Sometimes these feathers make up half their stomach contents. The purpose  of these feathers is to create a sieve-like plug to prevent hard parts of their prey from entering the intestines. They later regurgitate pellets of indigestible materials.
  • Pied-billed Grebes have lobed feet that help propel them through the water. Their feet are very close to their rears. This makes them excellent swimmers, but makes walking on land awkward. They are also poor fliers, so they try to stay on water as much as possible.

Have you seen a Pied-billed Grebe? Tell me about it in the comments.

Orange-crowned Warbler Sunday

Hi, friends! Our warbler of the week is the Orange-crowned Warbler. It’s one of the few North American warblers that is more abundant in the Western US than the East.

Orange-crowned Warbler (Oreothypis celata)

Descriptions:

Orange-crowned Warblers are one of the plainest New World warblers. Their plumage varies, but they tend to be yellowish or olive. Western Orange-crowns are yellower while Eastern birds are grayer, especially around the head. The orange crown described by their name is very rarely seen in the field. It’s usually only seen when the warbler raises its crest in agitation or excitement. Orange-crowned Warblers have small, sharp pointy bills, short square tails, and short wings. These features help distinguish them from other similar-looking warblers, such as Tennessee, Yellow, and Nashville Warblers. They are also slim and the brightest part of their plumage is usually the yellow under their tails. Orange-crowns also have a split eyering and thin dark eyelines.

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Orange-crowned Warbler in Texas (Image by Dan Pancamo via wikimedia commons)

Range:

Summer (breeding): Alaska and Canada, parts of the Western United States. Migrates throughout most of the Eastern and Midwestern United States. They migrate early in the spring and leave later in the fall. Winters further north than most other warblers. Instead of wintering in Central/South America like most wood warblers, Orange-crowns stay in the southern United States, Mexico, and some parts of California.

Habitat:

Shrubby vegetation, brushy deciduous undergrowth near or in forests.

Diet:

Mainly insects, some berries, nectar, and sap from woodpecker sapwells. They flutter around from branch to branch catching insects and will feed at flowers for nectar. In the winter Orange-crowned Warblers sometimes visits feeders looking for peanut butter and suet. They’ve even been spotted drinking from hummingbird feeders.

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Orange-crowned Warblers (Image by Easton Parkhurst via utahbirds.org)

Breeding/Nesting:

Orange-crowned Warblers tend to return to the same breeding spot each year. Males return first and sing to defend the territory. The female builds the nest low to the ground and covers it with vegetation. It takes her about 4 days to build an open nest cup out of a variety of grasses/twigs and lined with animal hair/grasses. The male does not assist with building the nest but will keep a close watch over the female.

3-6 white and reddish brown-speckled eggs are laid and incubated for about 11-13 days by the female. Both parents will feed the young, who will fledge 10-13 days after hatching. The parents will feed the young for a few days after they leave the nest.

Sounds:

A trilling song that may rise up then fall at the end: chee chee chee chew chew! The songs vary geographically. Males form “song neighborhoods” where males who live in adjacent territories will mimic each others songs.

Conservation:

Populations have declined slightly since the late 60s, but are generally stable. These warblers don’t face many of the same issues that other warblers do, such as deforestation in tropical areas, since their wintering grounds are farther north.

Fun Facts: 

  • There are 4 subspecies of Orange-crowned Warblers: the Pacific Coast lutescens, who are brighter yellow; the celatathe grayest and dullest form in Canada and Alaska; orestera found in the Rocky Mountains/Great Basin who are intermediate in color; and the sordida,  he darkest green form found only on the Channel Islands and small parts of California and Baja, California.
  • Orange-crowned Warblers breed in more forest types than any other warbler. They like open woodland and can be found in oak, laurel, fir-aspen, maple, willow, alder, and chaparral (to name a few).

Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve

On Sunday Dave and I took a day trip to Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve in New Hope, Pennsylvania. We visited Bowman’s Hill in fall of 2015 with Dave’s parents, but this is the first time we went to go birding.

Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve is a botanical garden and sanctuary for Pennsylvania’s native plants. In 1934, the Washington Crossing State Commission set aside 100 acres of land near Bowman’s Tower as a memorial to the famous crossing of the Delaware River during the American Revolution (you can read more about this and our trip to the NJ Washington Crossing trip here). This land later became the Wildflower Preserve (which is now 134 acres).

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A View from a Bridge (Image by BirdNation)

The Preserve has a variety of habitats including a meadow, a pond, woodlands, and Pidcock Creek. There’s a lot to see: lots of flowers (of course!), log cabins, and a three-arched stone bridge from the Great Depression. It’s also a birding hotspot; around 110 bird species can be found throughout the year, including up to 31 warblers during peak migration. One of the highlights is the Platt Collection located in the Visitor’s Center. In 1972, ornithologist Charles Platt donated a collection of over 200 nests, 600 eggs, and nearly 100 taxidermy birds. It’s quite an exhibit!

Dave and I ended up walking through most of the Preserve. We started at the feeders near the Visitor’s Center, where we saw Tufted Titmice, chickadees (not sure if they were Carolina or Black-capped), Downy Woodpeckers, and American Goldfinches. Once on the trails we saw Hairy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Eastern Phoebes, Turkey Vultures, Wood Ducks, a Belted Kingfisher, and a Brown Creeper (to name a few).

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Brown Creeper (Image by BirdNation) (Sorry it’s a little blurry!)

The highlight of our trip though was seeing our first warblers of the 2017 spring season: Palm Warblers! We were near the Medicinal Trail when we saw a flash of yellow fly into one of the trees. It was a lone Palm Warbler pumping it’s tail and swiftly moving from branch to branch. It was the first Palm Warbler we’ve seen since our first ones at Palmyra Cove in 2015! I was overjoyed to finally see one again! We saw a few more along the Evergreen Trail. It’s always an exciting moment to see your first warbler of the spring :-).

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Palm Warbler (Image by BirdNation)
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Palm Warbler (Image by BirdNation)

We had a wonderful afternoon visiting Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve. There weren’t a ton of flower out yet, but we did see some pretty ones along the trails. I’d be interested in returning to the Preserve closer to the summer to see more flowers and warblers.

If you are ever in Buck Country, Pennsylvania, I highly recommend spending some time at Bowman’s Hill. It’s a great place to hike any time of the year. If you’d like to learn more information about the Preserve, check out the link below.

Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve website

 

 

Common Yellowthroat Sunday

Today’s featured warbler is the Common Yellowthroat, which can be found throughout most of the United States during the breeding season.

Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas)

Description:

Common Yellowthroats are small warblers with a round head and medium-length rounded tail. Males have olive upperparts and yellow throats/chests. Their most unique and distinctive feature is a broad black face mask. They have a thin white line across their forehead that contrasts the black mask. Females are a dull olive-gray color with a faint yellow throat.

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Male Common Yellowthroat (Image by the USFWS via wikimedia commons)

Range:

Summer (breeding): Canada and most of the United States, with the Southwest being less common. Migrates through parts of California and Texas. Winters in Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean. Found Year-Round in the Southeastern United States to the Gulf Coast, and parts of California, Meixco, and Baja, California

Habitat:

Common Yellowthroats are the only wood warbler that nests in open marshes. Found in reed beds, swamps, briars, streams, overgrown fields, pine forests, and brushy thick areas. They tend to avoid dry habitats.

Diet:

Mainly insects and sometimes seeds. They tend to forage low in the trees, bushes, and other low vegetation growth. They glean insects off the foliage or forage on the ground, and sometimes will catch an insect in mid-air.

Breeding/Nesting:

Males may court females by doing a flight display where he flies up then lands on a perch to sing. They will also follow the female or flick their tails. Males arrive to defend their breeding grounds earlier than the females and fight more intensely after the females arrive. A female will signal that she’s ready to mate with her partner by fluttering her wings and chipping rapidly. This behavior attracts more males than her mate however, so it’s possibly that the female with also mate with a male who’s not her partner.

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Common Yellowthroat Felmale (Image by Tom Grey via birdnote.org)

The female will spend between 4-5 days constructing a nest close to or on the ground. She starts by building a platform of leaves and grasses then weaves together the cup with sedge and grasses. She lays between 3-5 eggs that are white with black or brown spots. The female incubates the eggs for about 12 days while being fed by the male. Common Yellowthroat nests are frequently parasitized by Brown-headed Cowbirds (I experienced a Yellowthroat adult feeding a cowbird chick once, you can read about it here). Both parents will feed the young, who fledge between 8-12 days after hatching. Common Yellowthroat chicks stay dependent on their parents after fledging for longer than most other warbler chicks do.

Sounds:

witchity-witchity-witchity! or which-is-it, which-is-it

Conservation:

Although still pretty widespread, populations have declined due to the draining of salt marshes.

Fun Facts:

  • There are 13 races of Common Yellowthroats, which differ slightly based off their face mask patterns and the brightness of their yellow. The brightest Yellowthroats live in the Southwestern United States.
  • Common Yellowthroats mainly migrate at night.