Book Review: Baby Birds

Baby Birds: An Artist Looks Into the Nest by Julie Zickefoose is a fantastic account on how baby birds develop in the nest, as well as a beautiful work of art. From 2002-2015, nature artist Julie Zickefoose set out to learn how baby birds develop and depict the amazing process through watercolors. In 13 years she painted 17 different songbird species. Many of the nests she found in her own backyard, an 80-acre sanctuary called Indigo Hill in Ohio. Some species were sent to her in pictures by friends who found interesting bird species in their yards.

Baby Birds: An Artist Looks in the Nest by Julie Zickefoose

From the day the young hatched, Zickefoose would select a chick (usually the oldest) and bring it into her art studio to paint. She would repeat the process each day of the nestling’s life until it seemed like it was ready to fledge. In certain instances Julie was able to continue to observe the birds after they fledged. Each species she encountered offered a unique and many times surprising experience. Zickefoose’s journey was not without its challenges though. She was not opposed to interfering when she felt it was needed. She rehabilitated some chicks, dealt with nest parasites, and warded off predators in order to help with their survival (although a few times these efforts did not pay off).

There are two types of baby birds: precocial and altricial. Precocial birds are born more developed, usually with down feathers and the ability to walk on their own. They are able to leave the nest within hours of hatching and can find food for themselves. Waterfowl, galliformes, and shorebirds are precocial. Altricial birds are underdeveloped upon hatching and require care from the parents for an extended period of time in order to survive. Examples of altricial birds include raptors, pigeons, and passerines (perching/songbirds). Julia focuses strictly on altricial birds in order to closely track their development.

The tone of Baby Birds is very casual; much of the book reads as if you are reading directly out of Zickefoose’s journal (which is some cases you are). Each species account begins with a spread of Julie’s painting with her fields notes. In a glance you can see what the bird looked like as it developed. As you dive into the chapters, Zickefoose breaks down what occurred each day and what milestones the chick reached. Next to each day is a larger version of the painting you see on the beginning spread.

I really enjoyed Julie’s style. The illustrations/paintings are very detailed and beautiful. She really captures the essence of each chick and the paintings look life-like. Peppered throughout her personal experiences are interesting facts about the species that she learned from research. Some species that Zickefoose painted include Eastern Bluebird, Carolina Wren, Chimney Swift, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Indigo Bunting, and the only cavity-nesting warbler, the Prothonotary Warbler. My favorite was the Yellow-billed Cuckoo.

I found it interesting that Julie included 3 species that many people consider pests: the House Sparrow, European Starling, and House Wren. Although she was originally against letting these birds nest and would remove any nests of these species she could find, sometimes the birds had other plans. She did ended up appreciating the experience to learn about these birds that people usually shun. In her chapter about House Sparrows, Julie notes that in some of their natural range of Eurasia, these sparrows are rapidly declining. It’s interesting that people in the sparrow’s natural range are scrambling to try to save their beloved bird, while people in the United States want them eradicated for stealing nesting spaces from native birds. In regards to this idea Zickefoose remarks, “Take no bird for granted, no matter how abundant.” It’s a sentiment that I agree with. Each individual bird is important, especially today in the midst of climate change and a rapidly changing world.

I would recommend Baby Birds to anyone with a love for nature, birds and/or art. Julie Zickefoose cleverly mixes art, science, and her personal experiences to captivate her audience and leads us on a fascinating journey into the life of baby birds.

A Really Big Day!

May 4th was Global Big Day. Global Big Day is a citizen science event run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Birders from all over the world count as many birds species as they can for a 24 hour period. This year, over 30,000 people participated and counted 6,899 bird species. Team BirdNation had an awesome Big Day with 61 total species for the day.

I started the morning at Rancocas Nature Center where I am a teacher naturalist. I led a spring migration birding walk. We had a nice variety of songbirds and warblers. During this walk I spotted my first of year/season Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Baltimore Oriole, Veery, Red-eyed Vireo, and Great Crested Flycatcher.

In the afternoon, Dave and I went birding at Palmyra Cove Nature Park. We saw 55 species! Here are the highlights:

  • 11 Warbler Species! Ovenbird, Louisiana Waterthrush, Blue-winged, Black-and-white, Common Yellowthroat, Northern Parula, Magnolia, Yellow, Black-throated Blue, Yellow-rumped, and Prairie
  • Red-breasted Nuthatches
  • A House Wren trying to set up their nest box
House Wren on its nest box (Image by BirdNation)
  • 2 Great Horned Owls on an old Bald Eagle nest
  • Many Baltimore Orioles, an Orchard Oriole, and an Eastern Towhee
  • Chickies!
Gosling (Image by David Horowitz)

Did you go birding on Global Big Day? Tell us about it in the comments.

From the Cliffs to the Cypress

At the end of April, Dave and I took a vacation to Calvert County, Maryland. We started our trip at Flag Ponds Nature Park looking for fossils as well as birds. The next day (4/27/19) we visited two very cool sites: Calvert Cliffs State Park and Battle Creek Cypress Swamp. Calvert Cliffs State Park, Lusby, MD The Calvert Cliffs were formed 10-20 million years ago during the Miocene Epoch along the Chesapeake Bay. The park is a popular fossil site as well as a lovely place to hike. We didn’t find too much in the way of fossils like we did at Flag Ponds (where we found a few really cool shark teeth). We did however find a great variety of birds. Red-headed Woodpeckers! Finally! A life list bird we’ve been seeking for a long time.
  • A lot of Wood Ducks. The wetlands here are the perfect habitat for them.
  • 6 Warbler species, including our new Yellow-throated Warbler
  • The 1.8 mile Red Trail that leads you to to the beach is absolutely breathtaking in the spring. The lush forests and wetlands were brimming with bird life and sounds. Our early morning hike was very serene.
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (Image by BirdNation)
Calvert Wetlands (Image by BirdNation)
Calvert Cliffs (Image by BirdNation)
Battle Creek Cypress Swamp, Prince Frederick, MD Protected by the Nature Conservancy, Battle Creek Cypress Swamp is unique because it is the only Bald cypress stand in Maryland west of the Chesapeake Bay. Bald cypress trees are native to the southeastern United States. This area of Maryland is the northernmost limit of their natural range. Bald cypress are known for their “knees” which protrude from the ground and surround the tree. The purpose of the knees are still unknown, but scientist hypothesize that they transfer air to the drowned roots or acts as anchors. The Bald cypress trees were so cool. Such an interesting habitat. A must-see if you visit Calvert County.
Bald cypress trees and knees (Image by BirdNation)
Prothonotary Warblers! Another awesome life list addition. These brilliant yellow warblers are known as the “swamp warbler” and nest in dead trees.
Prothonotary Warbler (Image by David Horowitz)
Our first Waterthrush species in awhile. Still trying to decide if its a Northern or Louisiana, but I’m leaning now towards Louisiana (opinions always welcome!) Fun fact: waterthrushes are actually part of the Wood Warbler family, not Thrushes.
Waterthrush (Image by David Horowitz)
I’m so happy we had the opportunity to visit Calvert County, Maryland. I always enjoy birding in Maryland, and Calvert County has such beautiful and unique landscapes to explore.

Old Friends

At the end of March, Dave and I visited Cape May Point State Park and South Cape May Meadows for some early spring birding. There were still a lot of winter visitors around, but many spring migrants were starting to arrive.

First of season (year) species during this trip included Ospreys, Field Sparrows, Common Grackles, Greater Yellowlegs, Great Egrets, Eastern Phoebes, Tree Swallows, and my favorite: the American Oystercatchers.

The beach of South Cape May Meadows is where we ran into one of our old friends: Oystercatcher 38. We met 38 last year at the same location, but according to his account from the American Oystercatcher Working Group, 38 is about 8 years old.

American Oystercatcher 38 (Image by BirdNation)

This year 38 was with an unbanded Oystercatcher that could potentially be its mate. They were running around the beach together.

38 with its potential mate (Image by BirdNation)

At one point, 38, his mate, and another pair engaged in a courtship display. During a courtship display, pairs will stretch their necks forward and down with their back parallel to the ground. They will run side-by-side with their mate will making pip! notes and bobbing their heads. Occasionally the pair will fly up in the air while piping. Many times pairs from other territories will join in on the display. When multiple pairs display together it is referred to as a “Piping Tournament” or “Piping Ceremony”. It was fun to see our friend 38 again. Below is a video of their piping tournament.

American Oystercatcher Piping Tournament (Video by BirdNation)

If you ever see a banded oystercatcher I would recommend submitting your sightings to the American Oystercatcher Working Group. They are a great organization, and their website contains a wealth of information about the American Oystercatcher’s life history, behavior, and banding. Check out their website at


At the beginning of April, Dave and I traveled to New Hampshire and Massachusetts. We are moving to New Hampshire in June due to Dave’s new job, so our primary purpose of the trip was to find an apartment. But you know us! Can’t travel anywhere without birding :-).

Mine Falls Park, Nashua, NH

Mine Falls Park is a 325-acre urban park located along the Nashua River. Mine Falls Park offers over 9 miles of trails and is part of the New Hampshire Heritage Trail System. Habitats include forest, fields, and wetlands. We explored the only side of the park by walking down the Nashua Power Canal towards Oxbow Lake. We observed 24 birds species and a muskrat. I definitely plan on making Mine Falls Park one of my regular birding spots once we move.

  • Pileated Woopeckers: We observed 2 Pileated Woodpeckers within the first 10 minutes of being in New Hampshire. (Pileateds are one of my favorite birds, so I knew 2 right away were a good sign lol)
  • Other woodpeckers: Hairy, Downy, Red-bellied
  • Large flock of Common Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds

Greeley Park, Nashua, NH

Greeley Park is more of a recreational park than it is a birding park. There are trails as well as large stands of pine trees. We observed 11 species during our walk.

  • Quiet! It’s not often I stand in a park that’s next to a neighborhood in the middle of a city and hear…silence. Come to think of it, I don’t think I can go anywhere in New Jersey and just hear silence (as in just nature sounds without man-made ones). NH is definitely not NJ. I can get used to less noise!
  • White-breasted Nuthatches and Black-capped Chickadees

Hampton Beach State Park, Hampton, NH

Hampton Beach SP is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean and Hampton Harbor Inlet. We spent some time sea watching by the inlet.

  • Horned Larks. There was a flock of about 10. We’ve only seen one Horned Lark so far; a juvenile at Laurel Run Park in Delran, NJ. It was a great surprise to see adults.
  • Common Loons and Common Eiders
  • Eastern Mud Snails

Red Wing Farm Reservation, Chelmsford, MA

Red Wing Farm is a small park comprised of meadow and forest habitat. This park connects with the 25-mile Bruce Freeman Rail Trail.

  • Bald Eagle and Red-tailed Hawk
  • Spring Peepers along the rail trail

Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, Sudbury Unit and Concord Unit, MA

Great Meadows is 3,800 acres and runs along the Concord and Sudbury Rivers. We briefly visited both the Sudbury and Concord units and observed a variety of spring migrants.

  • Lots of spring sounds: Spring Peepers and other frogs, Eastern Phoebes, Red-winged Blackbirds, Black-capped Chickadees, and others
  • A muskrat and turtles

Bye Winter, Hello Spring!

Winter is my favorite birding season. A common misconception is that nothing is really around in winter, but that couldn’t be more wrong! You can find a large variety of species around if you know where to look. Dave and I had a great winter bird-wise.

A New Challenge

I was inspired to try the eBird 365 checklist challenge for 2019. The grand prize for three lucky eBirders is a pair of Zeiss binocular, so I figured I would go for it. Even if I don’t get the binoculars, I’m still contributing valuable data to scientists, so it’s a win-win. So far I’ve submitted 86 checklists (as of writing this there’s been 84 days in 2019), so I’m two lists ahead. Off to a good start!

Year List 2019

This is my second year keeping a year list. We recorded 81 species from January 1- March 20 2018. This year we beat that record with 85 species. We did have some interesting life list rarities this season, so I’m thinking those rarities put us ahead of last year.

Life List Additions

  • January 6: Razorbills! Seen at Sandy Hook, NJ. New Jersey had a large influx of Razorbills off the coast this year, with numbers in the thousands over a few weeks.
  • January 27: Canvasbacks at Mansquan Reservior IBA.
  • February 3: Pacific Loon at Manasquan Inlet. This is an NJ rarity.
Pacific Loon at Manasquan Inlet (Image by BirdNation)

  • February 10: Pine Siskins at Cloverdale Farm County Park.
  • February 17: Red-breasted Nuthatch at Cloverdale Farm County Park during the Great Backyard Bird Count.
Red-breasted Nuthatch (Image by David Horowitz)

  • March 1: Northern Saw-whet Owl and Winter Wren at Palmyra Cove. I think the Saw-whet was my favorite 2019 life list bird so far. It was so cute!
Northern Saw-whet Owl (Image by David Horowitz)
  • March 13th: American Woodcock displays at Rancocas Nature Center.
  • March 17: Red-necked Grebe in a pond near the mall in Toms River.
Red-necked Grebe (Image by BirdNation)

Great Backyard Bird Count

For this year’s Great Backyard Bird Count, we counted 52 different species (over 1,500 individuals) at 6 birding locations. We beat our 2018 count by 19 species.

2019 Great American Arctic Birding Challenge

Team BirdNation is participating again in the Great American Arctic Birding Challenge run by Alaska Audubon. In 2018 our team found 62 species on the checklist between March 1- June 1. This year, the Challenge occurs between March 15-June 1. The Challenge is open to anyone, so get a team together and start birding!

Moving forward…

Spring has already been off to a good start. Spring migrants, such as Ospreys, Tree Swallows, and American Oystercatchers have returned to New Jersey. Dave and I have very exciting news coming in the next month or so. I can’t tell you yet, but you’ll know soon enough! (And no…everyone automatically assumes kids, but that’s not the case at the moment lol). In the meantime, happy spring birding!

What was your favorite winter birding moment? Tell us about it in the comments!