Rx: Go Birding, You Fool

Well, it’s been a long, hard winter in northwest Ohio, but we’re finally able to see light at the end of the tunnel. Birds have started arriving from their winter homes in the south, some trees are beginning to bud out, and a few wildflowers are popping up here and there. The transition feels excruciatingly slow, but all of these things are soul-healing sights after we’ve endured months of brutally cold weather, lots of snow, and then barren landscapes of brown and gray in every direction.

Today I went to my nearest metropark to get some exercise and see if I could find any more bird species to add to my year list. So far this year I’ve recorded 95 species in my home county, and today I added two more, which I’ll tell you about below. I thought I’d just recap the walk as I experienced it, because it was full of interesting bird behavior. The weather was still chilly, with a temperature in the low 40s but made to feel colder by a light but persistent northern wind. The sun was shining though, so that made it tolerable.

I should mention that I purposely left my heavy birding camera in the car today, because I didn’t want to carry it and I thought I’d just enjoy the birds without worrying about trying to get good photos. So the photos in this post were not taken today, but I still want to give you a representation of what I saw on my walk.

Before I even left the parking lot I heard some woodpeckers raising quite the ruckus in a large tree. At first it seemed to be an interaction between two Red-bellied Woodpeckers, but I quickly saw that there were three of the smaller Downy Woodpeckers also hopping around them, as if they were spectators egging them on. And a lone Eastern Bluebird sat off to the side on the end of a branch, calmly observing this melee.

(For some reason the normal caption won’t work on this, so the Downy is on the left, and the Red-bellied is on the right)

I watched the woodpeckers for a couple minutes, until they eventually quieted down and flew across the adjacent mowed meadow and into the woods. I’m still not sure what they were bickering about, although the red-bellies were a male and female, so maybe it was part of courtship. And perhaps there was a nesting cavity in that tree that the downies were interested in as well, who knows?

Eastern Towhee male
Eastern Towhee male

Just 50 yards farther along I heard some birds rustling around in the leaf litter of the woods, so I stopped to scan the ground and found a beautiful male Eastern Towhee poking around near a fallen log. These are such pretty birds that I don’t see all that often, so I walked slowly around the edge of this section of woods to try for a better look. Towhees have a pretty song that sounds like “drink your tea!” and I was hoping to hear him sing that one. He didn’t, but he did toss out a few repeats of his “chew-ee!” call, which was good enough for me.

Field Sparrow at Oak Openings w sig Kim Smith
Field Sparrow

Moving along, I headed toward an area along the river where I’d had some rewarding bird experiences last year. And I was not disappointed. I followed a mowed path that eventually just ended in a field surrounded by a broken down fence. I’d never walked this particular path before, and wasn’t sure I was supposed to be there, but I could see across the field to the place that was my destination, so I just continued into the field. I startled a cute Field Sparrow, who popped up and watched me with his sweet baby face.

Brown Thrasher at Magee w sig
Brown Thrasher

Then, as I turned my head I saw a Brown Thrasher dive like a bullet into a thicket about 25 yards in front of me. I was really excited by this, as he was the first thrasher I’d found this year. I slowly approached the cluster of tangled shrubs (maybe forsythia, but not blooming yet so I can’t be sure), walked all around it, finally locating the thrasher hopping around inside on the ground. These are usually pretty shy birds, so I didn’t expect to get a good look at him. But then he began singing his seemingly unending series of twice-repeated notes that is so distinctive to this species. It was, literally, music to my ears.  Here’s a Brown Thrasher song recorded by David LaPuma at Cape May, New Jersey:  (Courtesy of Xeno-Canto Creative Commons license.)

There are a few bird songs that make me just stop in my tracks and smile, and the Brown Thrasher’s is one of those. It’s up there with the song of the Wood Thrush, Northern Mockingbird, and Gray Catbird, in my opinion. Just melt-your-heart, catch-your-breath stunningly beautiful, jubilant song.

As I continued my walk along the river’s edge, I kept hearing the screech of a Red-tailed Hawk. I’d caught a couple glimpses of it soaring over the trees, but then I heard it once more and when I looked up I saw a mature Bald Eagle flying a lazy circle above the river.  And immediately I saw the hawk dive at him, and the eagle gave his squeaky chattery call as it tried to ignore him.

There’s an interesting bit of trivia about the call of a Bald Eagle that most non-birders don’t know, so I’m going to give you the scoop right here and now. Many times in tv or movies, for some reason the producers use the call of a Red-tailed Hawk when they show a Bald Eagle. If you’ve ever seen the opening sequence to The Colbert Report, you’ll see a Bald Eagle swoop across the screen as it screeches an ear-rending call. But the thing is, that’s the sound of a Red-tailed Hawk, not the eagle. I can only guess that it’s because people think a Bald Eagle needs to sound fierce.  Here’s what a Bald Eagle really sounds like:

(Courtesy of Paul Marvin on Xeno-canto.)

Golden-crowned Kinglet for blog widget
Golden-crowned Kinglet

Next I came upon an area on the river bank that was just hopping with birds — the first ones I noticed were Northern Cardinals and Song Sparrows, both belting out their lovely songs. There were Tufted Titmice and Black-capped Chickadees here too. But then I hit the jackpot. Ahead of me about 30 yards I could see a pair of titmice hopping around on the ground and thought I saw a Golden-crowned Kinglet near them. My plan was to slowly approach them and try for a confirmation of the kinglets, but suddenly I heard more of them very close to me, so I stopped in my tracks to listen.

As I waited for a kinglet to come into view, I saw another of my absolute favorite birds, the tiny little Brown Creeper. Creepers are aptly named, because their feeding behavior is one of creeping along the trunk of a tree in a spiral pattern, then dropping down to the bottom of an adjacent tree and repeating the spiral creeping pattern up that tree.  The creeper was several trees away from me, but I knew he would probably end up on the tree right beside me if I held very still. So I did, and he did. And it was awesome.

brown-creeper-at-stony-creek-w-sig-4-17-14
Brown Creeper

And just as the creeper moved past me, a Golden-crowned Kinglet landed in the tree beside me, just below my eye level.  The kinglet was my second FOY (first-of-year) bird today, after the thrasher I’d seen earlier. And this tiny creature paid me no attention as he searched the branches for insects to fuel his continuing migration journey. There were several more kinglets with him, and I stood on the boardwalk along the river bank for about 20 minutes watching them and another creeper who showed up. A two-creeper day is an excellent day for me. (Here’s where I wrote about a three-creeper day a couple years ago.)

My entire walk only lasted about 90 minutes, but as you can see, it was chock full of great bird sightings. And it went a long way toward lifting my spirits and helping me shake the winter blahs. Isn’t it amazing how nature can do that?

The One Thing

Red-winged blackbird calling Everyone has it, right? That one thing that is your sign that spring has finally arrived. For some people it’s seeing the first bulbs poking up from the mulch in their gardens. Others might be more attuned to the day the sap starts to flow in the maple trees. For me, it’s the first day I hear the calls of Red-winged Blackbirds or Killdeer. And today was that day, so I hereby declare the end of winter. Finally. Yes, there’s still snow on the ground here in Michigan and we’ll most likely have to endure more of it before we’re through. But now that I’ve heard the calls of both of my avian harbingers of spring, I feel the weight of winter melting off my weary shoulders. Hallelujah!

Great Horned Owl in bucket 2015Today I went to Lake St. Clair Metropark because I knew I could find these birds there.  I walked the trails for a half hour, passing the marsh where the blackbirds were already trying to out-shout each other from the tops of the cattails. I visited the Great Horned Owl bucket and found one of the adults already sitting there, as expected. I went over to check out the lake and found it still frozen solid, its surface speckled with ice fishermen and their tents.

Ice fishermen on Lake St. Clair
Ice fishermen on Lake St. Clair

So I decided to drive up to Port Huron, where I knew the river was ice-free. I wanted to see if I could find the King Eider that’s been there lately. I didn’t find it, and there wasn’t much other duck activity on the river today either. I spent a couple hours driving to various little parks and viewing areas along the shore, finding only scattered small groups of a half dozen species. There were Common and Red-breasted Mergansers, Long-tailed Ducks, Redheads, a few Scaup, and some Buffleheads. And the only ones that weren’t really distant were the Redheads, so they’re the only photos I didn’t have to crop a great deal. Aren’t these beautiful ducks? Just look at the golden eye on this male…and the water droplet on his back (you might have to click on the pic for the larger version).

Male Redheads on the St. Clair River
Male Redheads on the St. Clair River

Redheads are diving ducks, so they’re always entertaining to watch as they leap out of the water and dive below in search of tasty morsels.

Now you see me....
Now you see me….
...now  you don't!
…now you don’t!

 

 

 

 

 

 

But the most entertaining group of the day was this gathering of seven Common Goldeneye, five males and two females.

Common Goldeneye
They seem rather calm, don’t they? Well, don’t forget, it’s spring. And that means one thing to them: It’s time to find a mate. The mating display of this species is quite the spectacle, even for us humans. I made a video of it but something happened to that file, so I’ll just have to share some still photos.

The males display to the females by flipping their heads backward and forward repeatedly in a sort of “head dance,” as you’ll see in this series of pics:

Ah, he seems to have her attention with this first fancy move.
Ah, he seems to have her attention with this first fancy move.
Now let's show her how tall I am....
Now let’s show her how tall I am….
...and then the big finish! So baby, what do you think? Wanna date me?
…and then the big finish! So baby, what do you think? Wanna date me?

Let’s hope his efforts were enough to keep her away from his competition. (Here’s a video on YouTube if you want to see them in action.)

Here are a couple views of the river at Port Huron, looking across toward Canada:

Blue Water Bridge between Port Huron and Sarnia, Ontario
Blue Water Bridge between Port Huron and Sarnia, Ontario
The sculpture is called "Sugar the Iron Horse"
The sculpture is called “Sugar the Iron Horse”

Even though I didn’t see lots of birds today, the ones I saw were special and interesting. And even if I hadn’t seen any of these birds, this still would have been a great day — exercise, fresh air, sunshine and–most importantly of all–melting snow!!

I hope you’re finding time to get outdoors too. Being outside is always a good thing, but right now, at the end of winter, it’s really and truly good for the soul.

So what’s your “one thing” that means Spring?

Are They Here Yet? Huh, huh? Are They Here Yet?

Girl with binoculars
(Photo by Johan Koolwaaij via Flickr Creative Commons license)

Yes, it’s that time again, when those of us in northern latitudes start thinking about the return of our songbird friends. After a long and difficult winter, it’s time to lift our eyes skyward in search of things with wings. It’s time to start watching the eBird maps to see where our favorite migrants are each week, and try to predict when they’ll be passing through. It’s time to celebrate the return of spring and look forward to many hours spent hunting for our favorite birds in the woods, marshes, and grasslands. Yes, the days are filled with anticipation.

eBird map showing locations of Black-and-White Warblers as of March 19, 2014
eBird map showing locations of Black-and-White Warblers as of March 19, 2014
Black-and-White Warbler (by Jason Weckstein via Flickr Creative Commons license)
Black-and-White Warbler (Photo by Jason Weckstein via Flickr Creative Commons license)

This map shows where the Black and White Warblers are as of today…see, they’re already up to North Carolina! These striking birds spend the winter in Mexico, Central America and South America, with some of them only going as far south as Southern Texas or Florida. But they are definitely on the move now, and I’ll be checking eBird often now to watch the progression of those little orange markers on the map, which should pop up in Michigan in only four short weeks.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is also helping whip us all into a frenzy of excitement with their annual March Migration Madness brackets, where you can vote your favorite birds up in the rankings each week. I just voted for the Painted Bunting over the Bullock’s Oriole, basing my vote purely on the joyful colors of the bunting (I pick my basketball teams by the colors of their outfits too, by the way).

Today we're voting on the Tweet Sixteen...come and play with us (It's more fun than basketball!)
Today we’re voting on the Tweet Sixteen…come and play with us (It’s more fun than basketball!) (Photo by Melissa James via Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

It occurs to me that the Cornell Lab is a serious enabler. But in this sense, that’s a very good thing.

Photo via Max_Rae via Flickr Creative Commons license
Is that a bird over there? Is it? I think it is!                                                              (Photo by Max_Rae via Flickr Creative Commons license)

If you’re curious (or obsessed) and want to find out where and when the birds will be in your area, you can read the forecasts on Cornell’s Birdcast site. 

Since I’ll be so focused on birds for the next couple of months, I’d be thrilled to answer any of your bird-related questions if you want to send them to me. Heck, I’ll do that anytime. I’m no expert, but I sure know where to find answers. I’m trained as a librarian–so I’ve got killer research skills–and I know quite a few bird experts too. Just leave me a comment or use the “Contact Me” tab at the top of the page. I guess I’m an enabler too. 😉

Wherever you’re reading this from, I hope you find time to get out in nature this spring. And don’t forget to look up in the trees occasionally — you never know what might turn up during migration!

In Search of Spring

Red-winged Blackbird
Red-winged Blackbird (this pic is from last April)

Last Friday I started hearing people saying they had seen their first Red-winged Blackbirds of the season, and I thought it might help me deal with this agonizingly long and harsh winter if I could see my first one too. So I hopped in the car and drove a few miles to Holland Ponds, a place I often see those joyful harbingers of spring.

It was a beautiful day, with the temperature in the low 40s. Compared to the frigid temps we’ve been dealing with for months, it felt absolutely tropical. I was in heaven as I walked slowly down the path, gleefully stepping in the mud puddles that had replaced the treacherous, slippery surface that challenged me when I’d visited a few weeks earlier. I turned my face to the sun and inhaled fresh air deep into my lungs. I could feel my body beginning to heal from the months of being cooped up indoors. On my first few walks every spring I always feel like a kid being let out for recess, running and jumping for joy.

Path at Holland Ponds

Ducks at Holland Ponds
Ducks at Holland Ponds

The small pond was still mostly frozen, but several dozen Mallards swam in a small open water area, accompanied by two Ring-necked Ducks. I remember this same flock composition at this location from last year — just a couple Ring-necks with the other ducks. Interesting. There were no signs of kingfishers yet, but I know they’ll be here soon. I saw three bluebirds singing from perches high atop the tallest trees, flashing their brilliant blue wings as they jockeyed with one another for the best spots.

I headed out the trail toward the woods, hoping the path to the river was passable. Along the way I spotted a Turkey Vulture coming toward me. I quickly swung my camera up and started shooting as it flew in ever-tightening circles directly above me, coming lower and lower. For a few seconds I found myself holding my breath as I wondered if it was actually coming FOR me.

Turkey Vulture checking me out
Turkey Vulture checking me out

After he decided I was a bit too fresh for his taste, he moved along and I continued toward the woods. The path through the woods wasn’t cleared, but it wasn’t too difficult to navigate. I spent some time scanning the trees for owls, and then went down the steep, icy stairs, anxious to see how much of the river was thawed.

Footbridge to the river
Footbridge to the river
Partially thawed Clinton River
Partially thawed Clinton River

I was happy to see some water moving in the Clinton River, but it still had a good amount of ice on it. I spent some time walking along the banks enjoying the peace and quiet, then headed back up the hill, pausing to search for the source of some loud drumming on a distant tree. I thought it must be a Pileated Woodpecker but couldn’t confirm that.

Early spring sun in the late afternoon
Early spring sun in the late afternoon
My late afternoon shadow looks like I'm walking on stilts
My late afternoon shadow looks like I’m walking on stilts

This is my favorite time of year for walking in the woods because there aren’t too many other people out there yet. The only time I don’t have to fear being a woman alone in the woods is when it’s too cold for the bad guys to be out there. In warmer weather I always have to be on alert for someone who might have bad intentions, but when it’s cold I can really relax and enjoy the silence of the woods and the singing of the birds. It’s a sad reality in our society that a woman just can’t go hiking as easily or spontaneously as a man can; we have to be afraid. Even on this day there was a man who kept walking back and forth near me, seeming to pay too much attention to me. I headed into the really muddy section of the trail to get away from him, because he was only wearing sneakers and couldn’t follow me there.

Frozen marsh
Frozen marsh

There’s a large heron rookery in the trees to the right of the marsh in this photo (you can’t see it here though). I scanned the nests with my binoculars in case any of the herons had shown up yet, but didn’t see anyone on the nests. Quite a few of the nests at this rookery were destroyed last year when the trees started crumbling below their weight, so I’m curious to see how much of the colony comes back this year.

The obligatory "muddy boots" picture from my first spring hike
The obligatory “muddy boots” picture from my first spring hike

It’s sort of becoming a habit to take a photo of my muddy boots when I go on these spring hikes. I think I like to have proof that I’m no longer the prissy girl who didn’t like to get dirty. My boots are an important sign of personal growth!

By the way, I didn’t find my Red-winged Blackbird that day, but I saw one a couple days later when Eric and I went to see Snowy Owls in Lenawee County (at the Michigan/Ohio border). The birding community has had a wonderful time this year enjoying the historic number of Snowies that came south for the winter, but they are starting to move back to their Arctic home now. I only saw four of them this year, and had been hoping to see one in flight instead of just sitting still. My wish came true finally, and I was able to cature a couple photos of this beautiful owl as he glided only inches above the snowy field, his 5-foot wingspan controlled with the precision of a fighter plane. It’s a bittersweet feeling now, knowing that they’re leaving. I’ve loved knowing that these magnificent birds from a far-off place were here, near my home, all winter long; but I know they need to go back home now. Safe travels, my friends.

Snowy-Owl-in-flight-v4-w-sig Snowy-Owl-in-flight-v2-w-sig