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.”

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Parkway Birding, Again

Once again, I returned to bird the George Washington Memorial Parkway. Why not? I enjoy seeing familiar avian faces and seem to discover something new each time I visit.

As I crossed the stone bridge over Hunting Creek, I spotted the two female ducks, a Lesser Scaup and a Common Goldeneye, who appeared to be sticking together here two days ago. No others of their species were in the immediate area, although many Lesser Scaup were on the Potomac within a mile or two. I've seen no other Common Goldeneyes anywhere else along the river this season. Maybe these two decided to be winter companions. Standing on the bridge with my camera didn't seem to spook the goldeneye.

Today, I followed the call of a Killdeer to its foraging spot on the edges of the little creek that runs along part of the boundary of the Belle Haven Country Club golf course.

You might think that pickin's would be slim here in late January, but this Killdeer nabbed a nice- sized insect larva.

Off it went to hunt a little further downstream.

I passed the dead fox, lying in the same position as when I first saw it two days ago. I was surprised that it had not obviously deteriorated nor been taken by a scavenger.

Keeping an eye out for the warblers I saw along this stretch of the parkway recently, I was delighted to see the Palm Warbler again. I didn't manage a photo, but was relieved to know it got through the night when the temperature fell to 8 degrees. I was able to find the Common Yellowthroat after the deep freeze but, so far, not the Orange-crowned or Yellow I saw here last week.

Today, I missed the Cooper's and Red-shouldered Hawks that I've seen on most visits, but rather a Red-tailed Hawk perched for a time on a two different trees alongside the golf course.

Ducks, geese, swans, eagles, gulls and herons can be found in the river at many spots from Hunting Creek to Riverside Park and it's fun to drive down the parkway, stopping at pull-offs and finally at Riverside to look for them. Every day, the birds are distributed a little differently, sometimes affording good views and even photos. So much of the river is frozen now, but the birds find the open areas and often congregate in tight rafts.

A couple of Tundra Swans were close to the shore at the Vernon View pull-off, but naturally, they took off in the direction of Maryland as I approached the water.

A good ear and sharp eye is often needed to spot a Brown Creeper. Fortunately for me, both were provided by a friend whom I bumped into along the parkway this morning.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Ice on the Potomac

Inauguration morning didn’t look any different than any other along the George Washington Parkway, except that the traffic was much lighter and there was a Coast Guard ship sitting at anchor in the mostly frozen river.

Having spent some time along the parkway over the last couple of weeks, I recognized a perched Red-shouldered Hawk and a Cooper’s Hawk that flashed by as likely regulars. A few Killdeer passed overhead, headed for some mud alongside open water.

Hoping to find the four warblers I saw a few days ago, I managed to locate only the previously camera-shy Common Yellowthroat. Chipping vigorously and foraging in low vegetation, he let me snap a couple of photos. He looked like a first fall male to me, with some mottling on his cheeks, suggesting the black mask he will acquire.

Both kinglet species know how to handle winter and a small flock of Golden-crowned and a Ruby-crowned were working the understory for nourishment to handle their energy requirements for another cold night.

No, not frozen swallows, they're only milkweed pods, possibly coated with a fungus of some kind.

Startled to come upon this fox, I drew back to a safe distance, not knowing if it was asleep or dead. It quickly became apparent it was dead. Its healthy appearance and beautiful, thick and lustrous coat gave no clue as to what might have taken it. Too bad.

Crossing over the stone bridge which spans Hunting Creek, I noticed a Pied-billed Grebe.

and nearby, two female ducks, a Lesser Scaup and Common Goldeneye.

The sewage treatment plant of the Alexandria Sanitation Authority discharges reclaimed water into Hunting Creek just upstream, so the creek is open and unfrozen. Many hundreds of geese and gulls were resting and cavorting on the creek.

Leaving in time to watch the swearing-in ceremony of the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama, I felt a bit like this Golden-crowned Kinglet who appeared to be jumping with joy.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Warblers in Winter

Warbler watching in winter in Northern Virginia? Who does that, you say? Well, this year, I'm doing it! December and January are months when birders usually turn their attention to waterfowl, raptors, and sparrows, not warblers. Certainly, encountering Yellow-rumped Warblers along the trail is expected at this time, but seeing any other warbler species is far from a sure thing.

Beginning in early December, birders have been reporting sightings of warblers along the George Washington Memorial Parkway, from the LBJ Grove to Dyke Marsh. Joining Yellow-rumps have been Pine, Palm, Common Yellowthroat, Orange-crowned, Yellow-throated, Yellow, and Northern Parula. Although not all at one location on one day, that’s still eight warbler species!

Many birders' hearts go thumpety-thump when a rarity is reported. The listers among them run out to snag a new bird for their life lists, year lists, month lists, whatever lists. None of these birds are true rarities, however, just uncommon to rare at this time in this place, except for the widespread Yellow-rumps. So birders haven't been flocking to the parkway to view warblers who are trying to tough it out through what may turn out to be a colder-than-normal winter.

I thought it might be interesting to see how often these eight species turn up on the D.C. Christmas Bird Count which encompasses this part of the GW Parkway.

Although it must be assumed that birds are often missed during CBCs, looking at the last 10 years of data, 1997-2007, still provides some sense of how often individuals of these 8 species can be found in December along the Potomac River, just south of Washington DC.

Here's what I learned:

Yellow-rumps: found every year in numbers ranging from 34-78.

Palms: found 7 of last 10 years, with numbers varying widely, from 1 to as many as 28 in 2002.

Common Yellowthroat: found most years, but just 1 to 4 of them.

Pine: found in half the years, similar to Common Yellowthroats in numbers, 1 to 5.

Orange-crowned: found in half the years, but just one individual in each of those years.

Yellow: found just once, one bird in 2001.

Northern Parula: never found.

Yellow-throated Warbler: never found.

I haven't seen all of these eight species myself, but a Yellow, Palm, and Orange-crowned, pictured below, were along the GW Parkway between the Belle Haven parking lot and the stone bridge on Jan. 13. A Common Yellowthroat was there too, but declined my invitation to appear in my blog. All seemed active and appeared to be foraging successfully.

Unquestionably, CBC data does not provide anything close to the whole picture. Last year, a Yellow-throated Warbler spent most of the winter at a park in Arlington, where it used the feeders, picked up suet crumbs on the ground, and poked around the eaves of the nature center, presumably finding over-wintering insects. I photographed this bird in February of 2008 at Long Branch Park.

Insects are the primary food of these eight warbler species, but many of them rely on a variety of food sources in winter, such as berries, tree sap, nectar, plant galls, even seeds and other plant material. Surprisingly, the Yellow-throated is one for which alternative food sources are not listed in The Birders Handbook, by Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye. The authors say the diet of this species is not well known, but may include spiders. I guess it can be safe to say that seeds and suet can be alternatives in winter!

Temperatures dropped to as low as 8 degrees a couple of nights ago. I worried about these tiny birds, hoping that they had eaten enough to stoke their metabolic fires and keep them warm through the night.