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.