Dork Alert – Galápagos, Part 4

Maybe I should have titled this, “Birder True Confessions,” because I’m going to admit to some embarrassing things that happened on this trip. The first is that I sometimes get excited about birds that other people don’t. I wrote about one such occasion from my trip to Texas last winter, when my friend Rick was trying to show me a ringed kingfisher and I was more excited about a bunch of pelicans.

When I learned that I would have a chance to see flamingos in the Galápagos, I was really stoked. I bet most of my Ohio birder friends have seen flamingos already, but I hadn’t. This is because I’ve never been to Florida, believe it or not. Well, okay, I went to Ft. Lauderdale on spring break during college, but birds weren’t on my radar back then. And I’ve not been back to the Sunshine State since then, mostly because I’m afraid of birding where there are alligators. I know it’s an irrational fear, but what can I say? I imagine myself being distracted looking up at birds, and walking right into an alligator lurking in the vegetation along a trail. Don’t laugh, it could happen. But I hope to overcome that fear at some point and go birding down south.

So anyway, when the day finally came that we would have a chance to see flamingos, I was ready. I wore my flamingo t-shirt, the one I rarely wear at home because it seems so tacky. I don’t even know why I bought this shirt in the first place because it seems like something you’d get in a souvenir shop at the beach. But I had it, and I packed it for this trip, just for this day.  And I’m so glad I did, because that’s the reason I can show you this picture:

Kim's lifer flamingos in the Galapagos - Dork Alert

It seems I have no shame, sigh. But boy, oh boy, was I happy to see those statuesque pink birds! I was soaked in sweat and physically quite uncomfortable, but you can’t tell that from this photo.

Flamingo Collage w sig

It would have been awesome to find a huge flock of these elegant-yet-comical birds, but I was still thrilled about finding eight of them in a small pond. It was tempting to play with the color saturation when I edited these photos, so I made this collage with the original photo in the middle, bookended between lower-saturation and higher-saturation versions. I like it.

Marine iguana on rocks w sig
Marine iguanas were plentiful along the rocky shore, and swimming with the snorkelers

Another funny story involved my first attempt at snorkeling. If you’ll recall from my pre-trip post, I was so excited about it — I was going to swim with sea lions and iguanas, right? Well, as it turned out…not so much.  I went through the cumbersome and chaotic every-woman-for-herself process of getting fitted for all the snorkel gear on the first day we were on the ship: fins, wetsuit, and mask. On the second day, we were given our first opportunity to go snorkeling. We loaded all the gear into zodiacs and were dropped off on a beautiful red-sand beach. I asked the guide if he would be able to help me get started since it was going to be my first time. He said, “Of course!”

Snorkelers off Rabida island
My fellow travelers went snorkeling without me! (Note the pelican on the rocks.)

Well, he may have had every intention of helping me, but what actually happened was that people spread out all across the beach and the guides weren’t really anywhere near me when I went in the water. I managed to get my flippers on, and then put my mask on, and then turn myself over and put my face in the water. But within two seconds a wave hit me and my mask filled with water and I was up again. And I found out just then that I probably should have realized that I needed to make sure my mask was a tight fit on my face — which it clearly wasn’t.

I stood in the shallow water contemplating my next move: would I try to get the attention of one of the guides, or would I try again on my own? Just then I noticed an American oystercatcher running along the beach, and I knew what I was going to do. I was going to throw off those stupid flippers and take photos of this awesome bird! I had only seen my first oystercatcher the day before — life bird! — so I was still pretty geeked at seeing another one, especially at such close range.

American Oystercatcher with sea urchin for blog
American oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus) & pencil sea urchin (Eucidaris thouarsii, perhaps)

This one was first racing the waves in and out of a small cave, but it eventually came out and walked up on the rocks, where it found a dried-up sea urchin to investigate. I watched it poking into the sea urchin, apparently finding some tasty morsels still tucked inside.

Check out this video of him:

 

Kim taking pics of oystercatcher on beach
One of the guides was taking pics of me as I was shooting the oystercatcher!

So even though my attempt at snorkeling was an epic fail, all was not lost because I got to spend some quality time with a very special bird!

I think this may be my last post in the Galápagos series, at least for a while. Spring has sprung in Ohio, and I’ll be busy exploring the natural world closer to home for a few months. It’s finally dragonfly season! The first migratory green darners showed up here in Toledo a few days ago, and other non-migratory species will be crawling out of various bodies of water to emerge as winged insects in the coming weeks.  I can’t wait!

Galapagos sea lion sleeping on rocks
Yep, it’s time to take a break from talking about the Galápagos!

 

Penguins and More – Galápagos, Part 3

On the morning of March 12, the ship anchored off the coast of Isabela Island near Elizabeth Bay. We piled into the zodiacs in groups of about 15 people, and headed off to explore the beautiful and peaceful mangrove lagoon.

Mangrove lagoon scenery - blue sky and water

Almost as soon as we entered the cove, we found a lone Galápagos penguin resting on a rock. He lay there calmly as our boat idled 20 feet away, allowing us to take some nice photos before moving on into the lagoon. These are the only penguins in the northern hemisphere, and are endemic to the Galápagos. The Galapágos Conservation Trust says this about their current conservation status: “In 1982, there was a particularly strong El Niño event that caused 77% of the population to die of starvation and the population has been recovering ever since. The current population is estimated to be just 2,000 birds.”

Galapagos penguin lying down w sig
Galápagos penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus)

We soon saw a sea turtle napping in the shade, using the mangrove branches to keep himself afloat.

Green sea turtle resting in mangroves w sig

Another one popped up to say hello.

Green sea turtle w sig

I absolutely love turtle heads, don’t you? They look like toothless old men, but in a cute way.

In this lagoon we also got our first and only fleeting looks at golden rays. Unfortunately I didn’t get any photos of them before they were gone. I was also excited to see quite a few dragonflies zipping around above us. I’d not held out much hope of finding any dragonflies on this trip, so it was a big thrill. Dragonflies need fresh or brackish water, and I knew that most of our trip would be spent on salt water. But I believe the lagoon is brackish water, so that’s why there were dragonflies there. I was trying so hard to get a photo of one of them, and the boat driver tried to get me close to one, but I just couldn’t get the photo as the zodiac bobbed on the water. Talk about frustration! But all wasn’t lost in the ode department, because I managed to get a photo of one dragonfly on North Seymour island later in the week.

Dragonfly from Galapagos
Striped Saddlebags (Tramea calverti) photographed on North Seymour island

Galapagos penguins swimming in mangrove lagoon w sig

Small groups of penguins entertained us as they swam around us. We found two sea lions tucked up in the mangrove trees enjoying naps in the shade. I was a little bit irritated that our guide nudged the boat into their little sheltered hideaway to allow people to take pictures of them. Most times the guides were very good about keeping a decent distance from the wildlife, but this time I felt they went too far in invading the space of the sea lions, so I was glad when we finally backed out of the little inlet and moved on. I didn’t take any pictures of them because I felt bad that we were there.

This striated heron was lurking in the shelter of the mangroves too. I’ll have more to say about this species in a future post.

Striated heron in mangroves w sig
Striated heron (Butorides striata)

As we began our return trip out of the lagoon, a great blue heron flew in and landed in a mangrove tree, and I had that weird feeling that I often get when birding in a far-off location and seeing a bird that I see in Ohio. It’s like seeing a friend from home and saying, “Hey, I know you!”

There was one more treat to discover before we went back to the ship, and boy, was it great! This flightless cormorant was sunning itself on a rock as we emerged from the lagoon, and it made for such a gorgeous photo with the backdrop of the brilliant turquoise water.

Flightless cormorant reduced file size w sig
Flightless cormorant (Phalacrocorax harrisi)

The flightless cormorant is another endemic species in the Galápagos, so this was high on my bucket list of species I wanted to see. We only saw a few of them on the entire trip, and this was the closest we got to one. This photo is perfect for highlighting his stunted wings, which are the obvious reason that he’s flightless. He doesn’t even use those wings to propel himself through the water when fishing, instead relying on his powerful feet for propulsion. Because his wings don’t produce much oil, he can’t waterproof his feathers and has to spread the wings to dry in the sun after he’s done diving.

Okay, that’s three posts on the Galápagos trip, and I haven’t even mentioned Darwin’s finches yet. Stay tuned!

Pirates of the Sky – Galápagos, Part 2

In my first post about the Galápagos trip, I showed you photos of the beloved and iconic blue-footed boobies. Most of those images were made on North Seymour, a small island that’s host to large colonies of the boobies as well as frigatebirds. So let’s continue with the wonders of North Seymour. As our zodiac left the ship and approached this restricted-access island, I was enthralled by the sight of a sky filled with enormous birds soaring over us.

Frigatebirds flying collage w sig

Magnificent frigatebirds (Fregata magnificens) are aptly named, because they are simply spectacular. Most days there were small groups of them soaring above the ship, giving us dramatic close views. With a wingspan of up to 8 feet, this giant seabird is often called a pirate of the sky because of its habit of stealing food from other birds. You see, the frigatebird doesn’t have waterproof feathers like most other seabirds, making it unable to dive into the sea for its food. It can grab fish from the surface with its hooked bill, but more often it seems to prefer taking food from boobies and other seabirds.

Great Frigatebirds attacking booby and food falling below
A good day for the frigatebirds. The booby, not so much.

The first time I witnessed this thieving behavior was on Kaua’i, where I photographed two great frigatebirds (Fregata minor) forcing a red-footed booby (Sula sula) to drop its food. In this photo you can see the food is falling as the booby squawks its displeasure. After the food is released by the booby, the frigatebird swoops below to grab it before it hits the water. It’s all very dramatic and fun to watch.

Magnificent frigatebird with inflated gular sac w sig
Pick me, pick me!!

On North Seymour we were treated to close encounters with lots of nesting frigatebirds, and got to see their courtship behavior. While they don’t have a cute dance ritual like the boobies do, the male frigatebird has his own unique method of attracting a mate. He inflates his gular sac, a red pouch on his throat, which serves as the signal to all the ladies that he is an eligible bachelor. The island was dotted with males displaying their enormous scarlet gular sacs, eyes looking skyward, each one patiently waiting for a female to choose him.

Frigatebird in flight with red gular sac w sig
Male frigatebird soaring over us
Magnificent frigatebird female w sig
Female magnificent frigatebird, with her pretty blue eye ring

Once the female selects her mate, the two commence nest building. Usually the female stays on the nest to protect it from stick thieves, while the male goes out and gathers more sticks.

Both the magnificent and great frigatebirds live and breed in the Galápagos. Here’s a pair of great frigatebirds on a nest. Compare the female in this picture with the female in the photo above; the magnificent has a blue eye ring while the great has a red eye ring.

Great frigatebirds on nest w sig - red eye ring
Great frigatebirds on nest (Fregata magnificens); note the red eye ring on the female

North Seymour island was perhaps one of my favorite places of this entire trip. It was a wild and remote place, teeming with a great variety of animals. And as much as I loved the spectacle of the blue-footed boobies and the frigatebirds, there was another creature on this island that unexpectedly stole my heart.

On other islands earlier in the week, I’d seen lots of tiny lava lizards and medium-sized marine iguanas, but nothing had prepared me for the stunning beauty of the lizards on this island. Meet Conolophus subcristatus, the Galapagos land iguana.

Land iguana head crop w sig

These guys were just everywhere, often right beside the trail resting in the shade as dozens of awed humans walked past them.  Our naturalist guide was counting them, trying to beat her personal high count of about 70 on a one-hour walk. I think we counted almost 50 on this day, and I’m sure we missed plenty of them as we were distracted by boobies and frigatebirds overhead or sea lions on the rocky shores.

Land iguana great pose edited w sig
Land iguana shedding his old skin, exposing bright new colors

Even today, more than a week after the trip, I’m blown away when I look at these lizards. You should have seen them in all their majesty, lumbering across the hot sand and rocks, adorned in the colors of the sun! They make me wish I were an artist so I could draw or paint them.

Land iguana paintingLuckily for me, I was able to purchase an original painting from a local artist to commemorate the feelings I had as I watched these equatorial dragons roaming their kingdom. I can’t wait to get this painting framed so it can hang in my home. I’ve joked with friends that I’m the only person they know with giant photos of dragonflies and other insects on their living room walls…just wait until they see this hanging over the sofa!

 

land iguana skeleton w sig
Land iguana skeleton

Land iguana on sand edited w sig

Land iguana by ship staff (1)
Photo by staff of the Celebrity Xpedition

This last image isn’t mine; it was taken by one of the ship’s naturalists, and given to us at the end of the cruise, along with hundreds of other photos from the week’s adventures. I like to think that if I’d been allowed to spend more time with these iguanas, I could have come up with an image like this on my own. Maybe one day I’ll get another chance.

These first two posts have barely made a dent in this trip report, so next time I’ll show you even more natural wonders of the Galápagos!

And…We’re Back – Galápagos, Part 1

Well, that went by quickly, didn’t it? The anticipation of the Galápagos trip lasted for months, and then it was all over in a flash.  I’m editing hundreds of photos and struggling with how to write about it. There were highs and lows, as there are with any travel experience. The highs revolved around the wildlife, so that’s the part I’m going to write about the most. The less enjoyable parts were things like travel delays, regimented daily schedules on the ship, and a little bit of altitude sickness in Quito.

Cruise map for Celebrity Xpedition Galapagos Inner Loop
The route we took on the cruise around the Galápagos

I’m not going to recap the trip day-by-day, but rather just share my photos and thoughts about the animals. So let’s get started with, what else, blue-footed boobies!

Blue-footed booby edited w sig
Blue-footed booby (Sula nebouxii)

I’d say that, along with the giant tortoises, the blue-footed boobies are one of the most sought-after species by visitors to the islands. Even though they’re found in other parts of the world, they’ve become iconic symbols of the Galápagos.  My first close encounter with these striking and comical birds was when our zodiac boat floated past this one standing on a rocky outcrop at Rabida island. As you can see, the bird showed virtually no reaction to the appearance of 15 humans a few yards away.

That’s one of the most amazing things about wildlife experiences in the Galápagos  — the animals don’t flee when we approach, as they do in other parts of the world.  Most of these islands are so remote and devoid of people that the animals don’t understand that humans are a source of danger. It’s actually heartbreaking to realize that the entire animal kingdom has to fear us; I felt the gift of this precious experience deep in my heart every time I was able to have a close encounter like this. I admit that it was a bit disconcerting to feel joy and sadness at the same time.

Here’s a video of the blue-footed booby courtship dance, one of the highlights of the trip. I giggled at the beginning because it seemed that the female (on the right) leaned over and commanded the male to dance for her. And, as you see, he obliged her. Notice the difference in pupil size between the sexes; the male’s pupil is smaller than the female’s. She’s also larger-bodied than he is, as is common with many birds.

Blue-footed boobies showing pupil size differences in sexes w sig
Note the smaller pupil size in the male, standing behind the female

A few minutes later I was supremely lucky to come upon another pair of boobies standing just a few feet from the edge of the trail, and was able to use my cell phone to record them mating!

When the male walked toward me after the completion of his task, it seemed he was seeking accolades for his performance, and that made me smile. What a proud boy he was! (Yes, a harmless bit of anthropomorphizing, I know.)

The male booby makes a whistling sound, while the female’s call is more of a honking sound. Here’s a short clip showing a male whistling:

The population of blue-footed boobies in the Galápagos has suffered in recent years due to a decline in sardines after the 1997 El Niño. You can read more about their struggle for survival here.

We also saw two other species of boobies on this trip, the red-footed and the Nazca booby.

Nazca booby v2 w sig
Nazca booby (Sula granti)
Red-footed booby w sig
Red-footed booby (Sula sula)

The red-footed booby is the only one to have several color morphs, and it’s also the one most likely to be found nesting in trees rather than on the rocks (at least I think that’s what our guide said). I was enchanted by the pink and blue coloration on the beak of this cartoonish bird and would have loved to have seen one up close instead of 75 feet above me on a cliff, as this one was.

Blue-footed booby head crop w sigI want to point out that most of my photos on this trip were taken from zodiacs that were bobbing up and down on the ocean waves, so the sharpness of the images is much less than I would have liked. But even so, I hope you enjoy seeing them.

I’ve got much more to show you in upcoming posts…the only penguin in the northern hemisphere, the only nocturnal gull in the world, and the most beautiful lizards you’ve ever seen!

 

 

Monday Blues are Fake News

I don’t keep my bird feeders out in the summer, but I do feed in the winter. With all the recent snowstorms, I’ve been putting extra nuts and seeds out in the yard to help the birds survive the extreme weather. And I’ve been rewarded with quite a treat: the blue jays have been here in rowdy gangs, giving me lots of opportunities to observe them.

Blue jays and starlings on feeders in snow Jan 2019
Blue jays grudgingly sharing the feeders with starlings and a red-bellied woodpecker

These jays are one of our most common resident species, and I think because of that, we don’t often take much notice of their comings and goings.  But I find it’s sometimes rewarding to make a concerted effort to pay more attention to a common species than the more “exotic” transient birds.

I’ve taken a few pictures of my recent visitors, but am also sharing some of my archival photos that I just rediscovered. This one made me stop and say, “Hey, look at that beautiful gray breast!”

Blue Jay on branch looking at me (1024x770) w sig

I realized that, if asked to describe a blue jay without a photo, I would probably not have noted any gray on the breast at all. But there it is, plain as day. This guy is quite the looker, isn’t he? (Or she, it’s not easy to discern gender in this species as far as I know.)

Blue Jay portrait w sig Jan 2019

Something else that strikes me about these jays is that, despite being larger than most of the other feeder birds and having that loud, insistent call, they seem to be more skittish than the other birds. They’ll sit up in a tree boldly making a racket, but when they drop down to the feeders, they usually only spend a few seconds there before zipping away again, as if I’m going to run out and grab them or something. I guess it could be that they know their larger size makes them easier prey for the Cooper’s hawks who prowl through here on a regular basis.

Blue Jay taking peanuts from wreath w sig.jpgOne way I’ve found to entice them to stay for a bit longer is to put whole peanuts in one of these ring feeders so that they have to tug on it to get it out.

If you’ve ever used a birding app or field guide, you’ve probably noticed that bird vocalizations are described in two distinct categories: songs and calls. Songs are most often associated with breeding behavior like attracting a mate or protecting a territory, whereas calls are much more varied in purpose. There are contact calls, used to keep in touch with mates or juveniles while foraging, calls to communicate with other birds in a flock during migration, or alarm calls of varying urgency. As I was writing this I realized that blue jays don’t have much of a typical song. Their raucous calls are impossible not to notice, but their song is a very soft series of whistling and clicking sounds that’s easy to overlook. You can hear an example of their song on Cornell’s All About Birds site, here. Just scroll to the bottom past all of the calls to the “whisper song.”

Blue Jay juvenile begging w sig
Recently fledged juvenile being fed by a parent

The more I think about this bird, the more interesting it becomes. Such a study in contrasts — big, noisy, and aggressive one moment, then skittish and seemingly shy the next.

Blue Jay portrait on hook w sigEven though blue jays are year-round residents here, we still see large flocks of them moving along the Lake Erie shore each spring. Researchers still have many questions about why some blue jays migrate and others don’t. I’ll never forget the first time I looked up and saw a silent river of blue jays streaming along the shore just east of Toledo. There were hundreds of them in a long, narrow avian ribbon, flowing from west to east, not making a sound. Such a fascinating contrast to the noisy birds that visit my yard!

Blue Jay feather - one inch long w sigYou might be wondering about my title, “Monday Blues are Fake News.” Well, let me explain that. The blue jay’s scientific name is Cyanocitta cristata, referring to the blue color (cyanos) and their crested head (cristata). But did you know that blue jays aren’t really blue? Like other “blue” birds, their feathers only appear blue to us due to microscopic structures that reflect all the other colors of light except for blue.  If you crush the feather of a cardinal, it will be red. But if you crush a blue jay feather, it will be brown. The feathers of blue grosbeaks, bluebirds, and indigo buntings contain these same blue-light-reflecting structures. That’s such a fun fact to throw out once in a while to make myself sound smart. 🙂

Quick, Make Like a Statue!

series - red-breasted nuthatch hiding from cooper's hawk (1) w sigI’ve got an interesting series of photos to show you today, sort of a follow up to my recent post titled The Hunter and the Hunted. The other day I glanced out the kitchen window and saw a red-breasted nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) frozen in place on the side of the suet cylinder.  In the classic nuthatch pose, facing downward, he wasn’t moving a single muscle.

That simple sign told me there was a winged predator in the yard; sure enough, it only took a few seconds to find a mature Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii) perched in the big silver maple tree. The hawk’s view of the nuthatch was probably blocked because he was on the back side of the suet. But the little guy wasn’t taking any chances, and continued to “make like a statue” even after the hawk flew across the yard to perch on the fence.

series - red-breasted nuthatch hiding from cooper's hawk (7) w sig

Even from his new location, the hawk couldn’t see the nuthatch. You may notice that this isn’t the same immature hawk that was here the other day. This one is an adult, as indicated by his red eyes and more solidly-colored breast plumage.

series - red-breasted nuthatch and cooper's hawk
A cypress that offers shelter to small birds

After about 45 seconds on the fence, the hawk dropped down behind the large cypress shrub, and the nuthatch still didn’t move. As I was enjoying the drama of this scene, I was also glad to have a nuthatch who wasn’t moving so I might have a chance to get better photos of him, though I was still hampered by the double-paned window.

The hawk remained behind the cypress for at least 15 minutes. I’ve seen several hawks drop down behind there and stay for a good amount of time, possibly feasting on the birds who like to shelter inside. When the snow melts a bit, I’ll have to check to see if there are piles of house sparrow feathers back there.

But anyway, when the hawk had been out of sight for about four minutes, the nuthatch began to move verrrry slowly.  First he turned around and waited for a couple more minutes.

series - red-breasted nuthatch hiding from cooper's hawk (6) w sig

He looked to the left.

series - red-breasted nuthatch hiding from cooper's hawk (5) w sig

Then he looked to the right.

series - red-breasted nuthatch hiding from cooper's hawk (4) w sig

Continuing to be exceedingly cautious, he slowly creeped up and peeked up over the top of the suet.

series - red-breasted nuthatch hiding from cooper's hawk (3) w sig

Finally he felt the coast was clear, and took the opportunity to fly to the relative safety of the big cedar tree.

series - red-breasted nuthatch hiding from cooper's hawk (2) w sig

I don’t know if the Coop would have even bothered with a meal as tiny as a red-breasted nuthatch, but I don’t blame the little one for putting on his cloak of invisibility for a few minutes, just in case.

Focus on Yard Birds

When I started birdwatching, my photos were almost exclusively shots of birds on feeders in my yard. When I began to venture out for birding at places away from home, I gradually got better at taking photos of birds in the wild. I have a strong preference for the latter type of photography, showing them in more natural settings.

However, since I’ve got feeders out in my yard this winter, I’m finding it hard to resist making images of the birds who visit for much-needed nourishment in the frigid, snow-covered landscape. Just as they’re taking advantage of an easy meal, I’m taking advantage of a convenient way to capture their pictures. A few days ago I set up my tripod in the kitchen, with the camera pointing out through two panes of not-really-clean glass toward the feeders. And even though I knew these photos wouldn’t be of the highest quality, I shot them anyway.

carolina wren on suet w sig
Carolina wren

Why? Because mixed in with the hordes of house sparrows (see my previous post for more about that), there are some more interesting visitors, like this Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus). This guy is a special feeder visitor because he would normally prefer to be poking around the underbrush gathering insects or berries; only about 5% of a Carolina wren’s diet is made up of seeds. In times of heavy snow cover, like we have now, a supply of suet or peanuts can make a huge difference in the survival of this particular species.

This wren sometimes sits on my brush pile and sings his loud and cheerful song before making brief forays to the suet cylinder. He’s been here for the past two weeks, and I hope he stays for a while longer. I checked my records, and I’ve had this species in my yard for at least six months of the year, in all four seasons.

carolina wren on suet cropped w sig
Photogenic Carolina wren, watching me watching him

The other species that I really enjoy is the red-breasted nuthatch (Sitta canadensis). This species is only here in the winter, and there have been two of them here now since November. They’re known to prefer conifers, so I think they’re enjoying my two large cedar trees. In fact, I often see them drop down from a cedar to the feeder (haha, it rhymes). I really love their faces, with the black line running through the eye.

red-breasted nuthatch on suet cylinder w sig

Even though I’m enchanted by the more unusual visitors, I never want to overlook the beauty of “the regulars” in my yard. Downy woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens) are very common and frequent patrons of the suet cakes.

downy woodpecker on suet w sig
Male downy woodpecker (note the red spot on the back of his head)
white-breasted nuthatch on tree w sig
Windblown white-breasted nuthatch in his classic pose

White-breasted nuthatches (Sitta carolinensis), who are year-round residents in my yard, are significantly larger than their red-breasted cousins above. They make dozens of trips to the feeders daily, flying off with their bounty and often stashing it under the bark of one of the maple trees. They have a loud, nasal call that sounds like “yank yank!”

I’m still hoping for some evening grosbeaks to show up; they’ve moved farther south than usual this winter in search of food. I’ve got black oil sunflower seeds out there just for them, so if they happen to pass through the neighborhood they might be lured down for a nice easy meal. Fingers crossed!

Oh, and let’s not forget this guy. European starlings sometimes show up in large flocks to mob the feeders, outnumbering even the house sparrows. The history of the starling in America parallels that of the house sparrow. But that’s a story for another time. For now, just admire his onyx majesty, the way he wants you to.

starling on feeder w sig

 

 

The Hunter and the Hunted

There’s been a young Cooper’s hawk frequenting my yard recently. I see this species in my neighborhood throughout the year, but their visits become more frequent in the winter when I have the bird feeders out.

cooper's hawk w sig - my yard
Young Cooper’s hawk with blood spot on belly

An active bird feeder is like an all-you-can-eat buffet for a Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii). The accipiters are experts at the fast and precise tactical maneuvers needed to zip in and out of trees and other backyard vegetation where tasty songbirds hide.

When I photographed this one the other day, he had a fresh blood spot on his belly indicating a recent meal. Nevertheless, he was still terrorizing the innumerable house sparrows.

Many bird lovers are dismayed to see a hawk taking birds from their yards, and I get it. Nobody likes to see an animal die right before their eyes. And the first few times I witnessed this behavior it upset me too. But having spent so much time with birds over the years, I’ve made my peace with it. Because a hawk needs to eat just like any other bird does, so I can’t begrudge them taking advantage of an easy meal.

cooper's hawk on fence in my yard w sig
Mature Cooper’s hawk — compare him with the younger one

Raptors are fascinating birds to study, especially when you get a chance to see them hunting and feeding. I’m excited to be a new volunteer for a raptor monitoring project with Metroparks Toledo this spring, helping to keep track of hawks and owls throughout the nesting season.  I’ll go to an orientation meeting next month, and then be assigned a route that I’ll walk once every two weeks to document any raptor nesting activity.

The photo above shows an adult Cooper’s hawk in my yard last winter. If you compare the hawk in the first picture above, you’ll notice that the younger hawk has yellow eyes rather than the reddish eyes of the adult. The head of the mature bird is much darker, and their breast feather patterns are different as well.

As for the house sparrows that are often the prey of my backyard hawks, I’m ambivalent about them, as are many birders. You see, these birds are not native to North America; they were originally found in Eurasia, North Africa, and the Middle East. The first 8 pairs of them were released in New York City in the mid-19th century, followed soon after with other releases. Immigrants to this country wanted to establish populations of the birds they were familiar with from their home countries, but they had no way of knowing the problems that would be caused by this seemingly harmless introduction.

cooper's hawk with house sparrow prey w sig
Young Cooper’s hawk with a female house sparrow in its talons

They quickly established themselves throughout most of North America, often displacing native bird species by their aggressive nesting behaviors.  They begin nesting early in the season, often before the native birds have returned from migration, thus depriving them of their preferred nesting spots. Eastern bluebirds are one of the species that has been hardest hit by the impact of the house sparrow invasion. Ask anyone who monitors bluebird nest boxes and you’ll undoubtedly hear exasperation as they tell you about the house sparrows killing bluebird babies and building nests on top of their dead bodies. If you’d like to read more about this, check out this article from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

house sparrow on bush w sig
Adult male house sparrow (Passer domesticus)

House sparrows are very adaptable, able to eat a wide variety of foods and to nest in human dwellings. If you’ve ever noticed birds inside your local Costco or other big box store, or noticed nests hanging on the outdoor storefront signs of any business, those are likely to be house sparrows.

These birds are the reason I don’t keep my bird feeders out all year long; there’s a large population of them here and they spend much of their time in my yard. They roost in shrubs in the yard, and arrive at the feeders in noisy flocks, pressuring other birds into looking elsewhere for food. I wish they weren’t such a problem, because they’re handsome birds. Well, at least the males are handsome; the females are more drab.

Here’s a group of them gathered on the rim of a water bucket at a dog park, with a single male on the left.

house sparrows on orange bucket at dog park w sig

Finally, here are a few photos of the young hawk walking along the fence, peering down into the sparrows’ favorite roosting spot. He came away with empty talons this time, but I’ve seen Cooper’s hawks jump down into those shrubs and come out with a feathered meal many times. One day I saw two victims pulled out of there, a mourning dove and a house sparrow. I tend to mourn the loss of the dove more than that of the sparrow.

young cooper's hawk hunting on fence in my yard w sig
Come out, come out, wherever you are!

young cooper's hawk hunting on fence in my yard w sig v2

young cooper's hawk hunting on fence in my yard w sig v4
Wondering where all those sparrows went….they were just here a minute ago!

Finding the Joy, Redux

I’ve written here before about how birds helped me discover a love and appreciation for the natural world rather late in life. They gave me years of enjoyment and also led me to my current passions for native plants, dragonflies, and other insects.

That’s why my life was turned upside down when, about two and a half years ago, I had a very painful experience related to the birding community. It had such a negative impact on me that I soon found myself turning down invitations to go birding with friends, just to avoid reminders of what had happened. I decided to get some distance from birding, at least in my part of Ohio.

robin eating sumac fruits w sig
American robin feeding on fruits of staghorn sumac

I had convinced myself that I just didn’t care about birds anymore.  Deep inside I knew that was a rationalization to allow me to keep my distance from the pain. But lately, finally, I feel myself wanting to acknowledge that I still love watching birds.

I’ve skipped all of the local Christmas Bird Counts (CBCs) in the Toledo area this year, but I was invited to do two counts in other parts of Ohio recently, and eagerly accepted. Having now done those counts, I’m finding myself rediscovering what made me love birds in the first place. Not only are they fascinating animals, but birds are with us all the time, everywhere. Even in the depths of a midwestern winter, when it seems everything else is silent, dead, or dying, birds are here.

I can go virtually anywhere and find birds to watch, while the rest of the world scurries past, oblivious to these engaging little creatures living among them. That realization always makes me a bit sad for those muggles, but also gives me a bit of a thrill as I realize I’ve got a secret that’s right in front of them, if only their eyes would focus on it.

mockingbird on green gate w sig
Northern mockingbird keeping an eye on us

I did both of the recent CBCs with naturalist Jim McCormac, who writes a fantastic blog right here.  (I encourage you to visit his blog and poke around; your life will be richer for doing so.)  We did the Killdeer Plains CBC last weekend, and the Hocking Hills CBC this weekend.  Both were exhausting days, but full of great birds and conversations.

Because I’ve pulled back from birding recently, my limited skills were in desperate need of a tune-up. I’ve long known that the best way to improve my skills is to tag along with people who are more skilled than I, and birding with Jim is perfect for that because of his lifetime of experience with birds. To someone like me, he seems to have a magical sixth sense about where to find the birds. When I bird alone, I can fool myself into thinking I’m doing pretty well, and get a false sense of confidence. But birding with someone as experienced as Jim makes me realize just how many birds I’ve been missing.

mockingbird on branch of multiflora rose w sig
Northern mockingbird checking up on us again

When I expressed my frustration at not being able to pick out many of the calls he was hearing, he reminded me of the decades of birdwatching that gave him those skills. I get that, and I appreciated his encouragement about it. Having started birding so late in life, it’s doubtful that I can ever hope to develop those great birding-by-ear skills. But I don’t want to give up trying to improve.

On the Hocking Hills count yesterday, we spent some quality time with a northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) who was feeding on a bountiful supply of rose hips on a multiflora rose shrub along a rural road. This type of birding is most rewarding to me, when I get to take time to watch an individual bird’s behavior. We were very quiet and respectful of this bird’s space, and just observed how he interacted with other birds. He was zealously guarding “his” rose hips from a good-sized flock of eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) in an adjacent field. At one point when he was off chasing bluebirds, I saw a song sparrow (Melospiza melodia) slip inside the rose shrub, momentarily undetected. Sly bird.

mockingbird eating rosehips from multiflora rose w sig
Northern mockingbird feeding on rose hips of the invasive multiflora rose

The mockingbird occasionally popped out to make sure we were keeping our distance, but continued feeding calmly on rose hips between his bluebird patrols. At one point a red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) dropped down through the branches of a maple tree in an unsuccessful attempt to nab one of the bluebirds. He then quickly recovered and flew directly toward us, barely 15 feet over our heads. He briefly landed on a power pole beside the car, and then soared off across the fields. Sure wish I’d been quick enough on the shutter button to get that shot.

I’m grateful to have rediscovered a part of my life that had been put on the back-burner for too long. I’m not going to go so far as to say “New Year, New Me,” but I am determined to reclaim the parts of life that make it richer and more meaningful for me. Life is too short to let bad memories steal your chances of making new ones.

#FindingTheJoy

Seeing What You Want to See

A few weeks ago I went up to Michigan with my friend Tracy to see the Sandhill Cranes during their annual migration. We spent two days in the Jackson area, roaming the rural roads around Haehnle Sanctuary. Many of the cranes roost in the sanctuary’s marsh each night, but during the day they can be found feeding in agricultural fields nearby.

Sandhill cranes in corn field - blogWe were armed with a map showing where the cranes had been spotted in recent days, and so it wasn’t hard to find them. The first group we found had about 125 birds in it, and we spent some time watching them interact with each other as smaller groups flew in and out. On the second morning we found a large flock of more than 500 cranes, and watched them dancing, feeding, and flying overhead, all with the background noise of their prehistoric, spine-tingling bugle calls. It was fantastic.

It was a cold, blustery weekend with a gray sky, and the scenery was classic farm country:

Red barns in crane country - Jackson Michigan w sig

Crane monkey collage v2
I refer to this as the flying monkey posture, because when they drop out of the sky in groups like this, they remind me of the simian army in the Wizard of Oz.

I’m not posting too many crane photos today because I’ve shared so many of them already in past posts, and I’ve got another story to tell here.

We were hoping to find the single Whooping Crane that had been reported in the area, but that didn’t happen. I was reminding myself that it would be all too easy to trick myself into seeing a Whooping Crane because that’s what I was looking for. In fact, that happens very often among birders; I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people mistake one warbler for another one that they’re desperately hoping to see. Apparently your brain tries really hard to give you what you want.

And that’s an important preface to this next part of the story. As Tracy drove along one of the rural roads, I noticed two ducks as we approached a farm pond. I quickly pointed them out and as she pulled the car off onto the side of the road I could tell they were beautiful male Wood Ducks.  I rarely get a good view of this shy species, so I was very excited. The pond was on the driver’s side of the car, so I began shooting photos through the car from my position in the passenger seat. At first my view of the ducks was blocked by the angle of the bank, but I kept shooting photos while Tracy took shots from the driver’s seat.

Here are the first two shots I took:

Wood ducks - obstructed first view
It was raining and my view was obstructed…
Wood ducks - slightly better view 2
Starting to get a clearer view here…

Then she drove down the road a bit and turned around so I could be on the side closest to the pond. As I started shooting photos from my better vantage point, I was starting to get the feeling that something wasn’t right about this scene.

Wood duck decoy
Hmm, he looks much too perfect…

First of all, why were these two male ducks in full breeding plumage in October? And why were they sitting there calmly, out in the open, as we watched them from maybe fifty feet away? Usually when I come upon Wood Ducks, they hightail it in the opposite direction — either swimming or flying — before I can even lift the camera. But these two just floated lazily around…slowly spinning in a circle…wait, that’s weird…. Then I realized my mistake: these were decoys!

Wood duck decoy closer crop
How embarrassing — it’s fake!!

I almost died laughing as I understood that my brain had wanted to believe they were real, and that’s why it took me a while to figure out the truth. I mean, they might have been wooden ducks, but they were not Wood Ducks! I still smile when I think about that day. I feel foolish admitting that this happened, but I also remember how excited we both were when we thought we had the perfect view of these gorgeous ducks.  It wasn’t long, but it was fantastic while it lasted. I may not have gotten the shots I’d hoped for, but this story will entertain me for a long time to come.

And as I’m writing this, I’ve just remembered that this is the second time recently that this has happened to me. You may recall a post from June, when I mistook an Eastern Least Clubtail for a Riffle Snaketail in Hell Hollow (those are dragonflies).  In that post I linked to an article in Psychology Today about this phenomenon. I’ll quote a bit of it here, just to back up my assertion that I’m not a total fool:

The tendency to let expectation be our guide can cause even those of us who are intelligent, experienced, and well-trained to overlook some startlingly obvious things. One recent study asked a group of radiologists to examine a series of chest x-rays, just as they would if looking for lung cancer. Unknown to the radiologists, though, the researchers had inserted into the x-rays a picture of something no professional would ever expect to see: a gorilla. The picture of the gorilla wasn’t tiny; it was about 45 times the size of the average cancerous lung nodule – or about the size of a matchbook in your lung.

How many of the radiologists spotted the gorilla?

Very few. Some 83 percent of the radiologists missed the gorilla – even though eye-tracking showed that most of them had looked right at it. Just like Hitchcock, they had overlooked what was in front of their eyes. And just like the master, they had deceived themselves.

Source: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/kidding-ourselves/201404/we-see-what-we-want-see

Humbled by that encounter, I was a bit hesitant a few minutes later when I saw what I thought were two Eastern Meadowlarks fly into a field as we watched another group of cranes. Could I be fooled again so soon? But no, there’s no mistaking that bright yellow breast, and luckily I was able to get some photos as the meadowlarks foraged in the grasses. I discovered as I added these birds to my eBird report that they could have been either Western or Eastern Meadowlarks at that location at that time of year, but either way, they were gorgeous.

Eastern meadowlark in late October - Jackson County Michigan (6)

This whole idea that ‘we see what we expect to see’ can be used in a more positive, intentional way in our lives. I’ve found that I have the power to change my life experience, both positively or negatively, by the way I allow my expectations to develop before a particular event.  If I let myself believe that I’m going to have a bad time — the weather will suck, the food won’t be good, people won’t talk to me, whatever — then there’s an increased likelihood that I will have a bad time. On the other hand, if I intentionally expect to have a good experience — my friends will be there, I’ll see cool bugs, the fresh air will be good for me –– then it’s much more likely to be so.

I encourage you to experiment with this idea too. It has made a huge difference in my life in recent years. And if you ever see a duck that just doesn’t look quite right…take a closer look. 🙂