Thursday, August 20, 2009

A Really Ugly Bird?

I love birds. Everyone who knows me knows that. I think they are beautiful and, truthfully, I have never seen an ugly bird. Yes, I’ve seen some candidates for ugly. Vultures and cormorants come to mind. I know they are repugnant to some people, but not to me. I find even these birds beautiful in their own way.

I spent a couple of days on the Delaware coast last weekend reveling in the one of my favorite birding habitats. Driving slowly along a road through a salt marsh looking for anything with wings in reach of my camera lens, I was taken aback by a comment from a woman, undoubtedly a local. She was relaxing in chair near a gut in the marsh where she had been crabbing. She sized me up as a birder and called out in a friendly way, “There’s one ugly bird over there,” pointing off in the direction from which I had come. She had no idea what it was. She just knew it was ugly. I had a visceral reaction, feeling I needed to refute this claim, but it was tough, not even knowing the species that had offended her aesthetic sense. So I let it pass, replied that I must have missed that one, and asked how the crabbing was going.

Later, I couldn’t stop wondering what bird she might have seen. This is the time when “hatch year” birds are out and about, learning how to cope with the world, finding food on their own. The plumage of some of them can be a bit disheveled, but not as much as that of some adults in the middle of a molt. Was it a molting bird she saw? An “ugly” molting bird?

I assumed the woman saw a largish bird. Most non-birders don’t pay attention to sparrow-sized birds, so perhaps she had spotted a rail, or one of its babies that I had just driven from Northern Virginia with hopes to see?

Clapper Rails, the rail species that inhabits salt and brackish water marshes are not colorful or elegant. They have large feet, thick legs, short tails on plump bodies and walk around in tidal areas, so they can get a bit muddy. Their elusive nature and infrequent flights makes them often difficult to find, and so they are all the more interesting.

Clappers lay as many as 12 eggs which hatch asynchronously. Lighthouse Road, near Slaughter Beach, is a great place to observe rails, and I did succeed in seeing young of different ages, although I doubt that they were all siblings. They are downy when they hatch with their eyes open. They are mobile within an hour and can follow their parents, but still need to be fed for awhile. This one with its parent is the youngest I saw on this trip. It had no feathers yet.

This somewhat older one was catching its own food quite competently, and I noticed that plenty of fiddler crabs were available.

Now, some people (perhaps that woman) might not consider a young rail a beautiful bird, or to put it another way, think it an ugly bird. Rails may be cute and cuddly when they are black, downy, fluff balls, but August finds many of them at that “awkward” age.

This one has brown and gray body feathers, but it is retaining black down on the top of its head and that makes its plumage a kind of a mishmash. Its bill has almost changed from its pied, blackish and pinkish color to mostly gray; its legs are also gray. Not much of a fashion statement here, but the bird won't be wearing this outfit for long.

This one is a bit older, I believe, but I could be wrong. It has lost all of its down and it looks like wing feathers are still within their shafts. Still, a bit of a mess, but improving.

OK, I think they are cute at all ages, beautiful even. Watching the young scamper after mom and practice the skills which will allow them to survive independently is great fun. I believe appreciating these birds on their own terms is the key to seeing them as quite lovely creatures.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Shorebird in a Potato Field

They are harvesting potatoes in Delaware right now, the state’s #1 fresh market crop. Driving along Route 9 just south of Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge on Sunday, I could see red and white potatoes lying exposed on the surface of the ground in a big field. All was quiet that morning as I scanned for Killdeer, Horned Larks, Black-bellied and Semipalmated Plovers, and Pectoral Sandpipers, but I was really hoping for Buff-breasted and Upland Sandpipers. The latter two species are the ones seen least often and so a view of either is relished by birders. Both species had been reported recently at another potato farm a few miles south.

On Monday, I was back again and the farmers were working to harvest those spuds. Word must have gone out to the birds. Many of those expected birds had shown up, but sorting through distant birds in a field takes a bit of diligence and patience.

It surprised me that many of the birds were quite close to the machinery, a giant harvester and an open truck that received the potatoes dumped from the harvester's conveyor belt. As the two worked in tandem, moving down the rows, it seemed the birds flew out of the way only at the last minute.

After about a half hour of standing on the shoulder of the highway, with cars zipping by and the giant dust clouds occasionally obscuring our view and coating our optics, two others and I finally spotted an Upland Sandpiper. It was a beauty, only the second one I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t feeding at that time, but walking a bit, then stopping, sometimes disappearing into and reappearing from the furrows. It posed frequently, giving us adequate time to photograph it. The sun lit up the buffy feather edges which glistened like gold, as did its facial feathers. It was strikingly elegant and graceful in a field of dead potato vines, a marvelous sight. We never could find a Buff-breasted Sandpiper, but the “Uppie” alone made my day.

Upland Sandpipers use fields as staging areas in migration on their way to the pampas of Argentina where they spend up to eight months. It was hard to imagine that this species was extensively hunted in the U.S. until the 1920s for food, but also for target practice. In South America, too, it was on restaurant menus. Its eggs were also eaten. Although the bird we saw was using a potato field being harvested, the conversion of grasslands to cropland in much of its breeding range has adversely impacted the species.

I watched this bird with the greatest respect, knowing that the next leg of its journey will be over 4,000 miles. Will it make it to its South American destination? Will it live long enough to visit a Delaware potato field once again? I know I plan to visit Delaware again during potato harvesting time, but I will have to travel only 100 miles.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

How Social Dynamics Can Complicate a Rail ID

Huntley Meadows Park in southeastern Fairfax County, VA is a highly popular destination for birders, photographers, school groups, and naturalists. Much of its 1,425 acres is a freshwater wetland. A 1/2 mile boardwalk and observation tower makes wildlife viewing very accessible and enjoyable.

It has been 15 years since King Rails bred at Huntley Meadows. Speculation abounded about the reasons that this species, experiencing long-term declines due to range-wide habitat loss and degradation, no longer nested in the marsh. Some people may have thought the species might not ever breed there again.

The marsh has experienced great fluctuations in water levels in recent years primarily because beavers manage its hydrology and do it a bit differently than human engineers. They build dams and abandon them for their own good reasons. Rainfall is important too and this area has seen a number of droughts in recent years. But this year water is plentiful and the vegetation is lush, perhaps just right for rails?

Last year Virginia Rails bred successfully in the marsh. Here are a couple of photos I captured in 2008.

Again this season Virginia Rails have been observed and photographed with chicks. But, in the last week, a birder/photographer, Tony Coomer captured images of a King Rail with chicks that prompted skepticism and much discussion. Two of his photos are reproduced below with his kind permission. Others can be seen at his website

Some people were certain that these birds were the Virginia Rails, others just as certain that they were King Rails. The photos are quite good and certainly adequate for correct identification. So why the reluctance on the part of some to accept what the photos revealed? Why should there have been any controversy over the ID? Surely, everyone following birds at the park would want to believe that the long-absent Kings had indeed returned to breed again.

I considered Groupthink, a type of thought exhibited by group members who try to minimize conflict and reach consensus without critically testing, analyzing, and evaluating ideas. This kind of thinking happens all the time in birding. A birder, esteemed as an expert by all in a group, calls out an ID. Everyone assumes that he or she is correct and feels further scrutiny is unnecessary. Even when a mistake is recognized, only the most courageous among them will speak out and say, “Hey, I don’t think so.” But this is not quite the scenario we have here.

I’m more inclined to believe that it was a matter of overconfidence in experts, an overestimation of the ability of competent birders to find all breeding birds in a defined location.

These doubtful folks may have asked how the many expert birders who visit the park over the period could possibly have missed King Rails during the month or so of courtship, nest building, and incubation of eggs. They wondered how it could be that King Rails were first seen only when chicks were out and about. After all, they thought, bird sightings are reported to the nature center at the park by leaders of a weekly walk, attended by mostly experienced birders. A highly knowledgeable staff leads school children on regular trips into the marsh. Visitors record their observations on a ledger at the nature center. If King Rails hadn't been noticed before this, they couldn't have bred there, right? And the photos presented as King Rails must really be Virginia Rails. No, think it through again.

Consider the propensity of humans to see what they expect to see. Since Virginia Rails had already been known to be breeding in the park again this season, a quick glimpse of a mostly obscured rail, or the sound of a call, not dramatically different in the two species, could have been passed off by all but the most astute observer as a Virginia Rail.

Then, consider that rails are among the most secretive of species, flying infrequently, nesting a few inches from the ground in thick, inaccessible marsh vegetation. They work very hard to be sure their nests and eggs aren’t seen. They’re gotten quite good at this over the eons! Why should it be so hard to believe that these birds could be missed?

It seems undisputed now that they were missed. In the last few days additional reports and photographs of both King Rails and Virginia Rails have come in. So this story has a happy ending. Both rail species have produced young in the park in the summer of 2009! All those who love Huntley Meadows and its precious wildlife have reason to celebrate. Nature will always have surprises and we mere mortals should expect them and be humbled and appreciative.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Grassland Birds

The Dickcissel is a bird of the North American prairie. For folks living in its core breeding area like Iowa and Kansas, it may be nothing special. There, its song which it broadcasts over the grasslands, “ see see—dick! dick! chee chee chee, ” may become quite monotonous. But here, in the Piedmont of Virgina---Fauquier County, specifically--- the Dickcissel is a big deal. This species breeds only sporadically this far east, and some summers it can be difficult to find.

There is one charmed spot, a short stretch appropriately named Grassdale Road, that must have what this bird looks for in a place to raise a family. I have been visiting this location every year for the last five years, and yesterday this beautiful male appeared to be waiting for me. All I had to do was lower my car window after I turned onto this road and listen. He was right there, above me on a wire! His unmistakable, quickly repeated song was truly music to my ears.

I wonder where these guys perch to sing on the vast prairies where utility wires and fences must be spaced further apart? Here, they perch on nothing else, but make frequent trips to what I assume is the nest site, hidden deep in a field of wheat. The nest is placed near, but not on, the ground.

I’m worried that the field may be harvested soon. Incubation averages 12-13 days, but hatchlings require another 7-10 days in the nest. They are unable to fly for another few days after fledging. So, nesting in a cultivated field is a risky business.

The other species that appreciates Grassdale Road is the Grasshopper Sparrow, one of the ammodramous group, a little guy with a large bill, ragged tail, and intricately patterned plumage. Of course, you have to see them closely to appreciate the plumage. Photographing a 5-inch bird is more challenging than a 16-inch shorebird.

Male Grasshopper Sparrows favor fence posts along this road to declare their territory in song, and yesterday one bird had two favorite spots. He would make a large arcing flight between them, his wings flapping so fast that he appeared to be a little wind-up toy.

Visiting Grassdale Road, not far from Remington, VA, is a summertime ritual for me where, for a morning, I watch two of my favorite grassland species attempt to breed once again. I hope that as in July of 2007, when I took this photo of a newly fledged Grasshopper Sparrow, the birds I saw yesterday will be successful again.

With sadness, I remember that only one to two percent of the original North American Prairie survives. The Grasshopper Sparrow is in decline; the Dickcissel declined steeply by over 30% from 1966 to 1978 and then stabilized since 1979 at about two-thirds of 1966 level. (Cornell University's Birds of North American Online.)

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Kinglet eyelashes

As photographic subjects, kinglets present few challenges. They forage in low bushes and scrub much of the time and are not at all skittish. Yes, they flick their wings and rapidly flit from branch to branch, but with a fast shutter speed, their quick movements can be captured quite easily. I’ve taken many, many shots of kinglets, and have vaguely wondered why I usually see some blurriness around their eyes, especially those of Ruby-crowned Kinglets, even when the rest of their feathers appear reasonably sharp.

Last week, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet graced me with its presence at eye level in good light for 30 seconds or so. I managed a few decent shots. When I magnified one of them, I saw what appeared to be..... eyelashes! I didn’t know kinglets have eyelashes. Or do they? But, I could count them, for heaven's sake.

Kinglets’ eye areas are described as having a “grayish-white eye ring broken at the top,” or a “white, broken eye ring.” But what about these Hollywood-style, curly eyelashes?

So, I goggled for quite a while and finally found this: “Several bird species, such as ostriches, hornbills, rheas, cuckoos, and some owls in the genus Bubo, which includes the Great Horned Owl, are known to have eyelashes. These eyelashes actually consist of bristles resembling mammalian eyelashes, and possibly serve to protect the eye against dust and other debris. Bristles are simplified feathers that consist only of a stiff, tapered rachis with a few basal barbs. The feathers have both sensory and protective functions.” Claudia Zan, research assistant, Home Study Course in Bird Biology Cornell Lab of O

That’s right. I remember seeing beautiful, long eyelashes on ostriches and rheas in zoos. At Washington, D.C.'s National Zoo, I photographed this Greater Rhea whose eyelashes were hard to miss.

But kinglets are not mentioned as being among the birds with eyelashes, and so the question remains. Do kinglets have eyelashes, or are they, like those of Hollywood starlets, faux?

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Followup on "A Word (or two) about Duck Hunting"

Yesterday, after Rich Rieger introduced a hunting issue on the Virginia birding listserv, I posted to VA-Bird a link to my blog. The discussion of hunting is strictly forbidden on the listerv, but no such rule prevails here. I received a comment from Bob Adamek, a hunter, who expressed an opposing view. I have continued the thread with my response. If interested, refer to the comment section following “A Word (or two) about Hunting,” below.

I invite comments and none are censored or deleted. Mistakenly, I set my preferences allowing only registered Google users to be able to comment. I have corrected this so you can also use “Name/URL,” or “Anonymous.”

Saturday, January 24, 2009

A Word (or two) about Duck Hunting

The beauty of blogs is that the blogger gets to set the rules. There are no moderators, no list “owners” piping in to squelch a perfectly worthy and lucid elucidation. No wonder blogging is so popular.

The discussion of hunting is verboten on the Virginia birding listserv--just too darn controversial--even though every couple of years or so someone new to the list gets in a few licks before being clobbered by the moderator. So, I plan to express an uncensored view on this barbaric activity.

I drove the George Washington Parkway again today, hoping to have close views of the ducks that have been concentrated together in the Potomac River in the little open water amidst the ice, often near the shore. In just two days, with temperatures as high as 55, the river again has become all liquid, beautiful and blue. Alas, the ducks were widely scattered and distant.

At Riverside Park, hunters were distant too, across the river in Maryland, shooting from a blind off shore. In front of the blind, they had their cute little decoys assembled, with fake wings spinning. A couple of guys in smart camo attire were walking the shoreline. With my spotting scope I could see one of them using a duck whistle, while the other carried a gun.  I certainly recognized them as human machomen, not a walking forest, but they were counting on the fooling the ducks. 

They were having a good day, I gather, judging from the many gun blasts and some splashing in the water. I wonder how they retrieved their prey, since no dogs or boats were apparent.  I also wonder about those hunters on foot when hunting is legal only from duck blinds. I plan to spend more time watching next time and have the Maryland Department of Natural Resources police phone number in my cell phone. 410-260-8888

How many more generations will pass before ducks will realize that the only humans to fear are those wearing camo. The rest of us enjoy watching ducks, identifying ducks, photographing ducks. Some who really shouldn’t, feed them, and some just plain ignore them. We’re all harmless. But ducks need to be on guard only for those walking forests, machomen in camo. I hope and trust they will learn that in time.

John Burroughs, writing in Wild Life about my Cabin, had it exactly right. In the end, he said, the hunter will have “only a dead duck” whereas the rest of us will have “a live duck with whistling wings, cleaving the air northward.”