Monday, April 29, 2013

Palm Warbler--Bird #84

Spring migration has begun in earnest. My eBird email is loaded with reports of warblers and wading birds. We have an outing planned in May to head up to Tawas State Park for a weekend of birding, and I am hoping to make two trips this week to area hot spots to see what I can add to my list.

Closer to home--on our own five acres, actually--we are seeing summer residents return nearly every day. Just this morning Lori spotted a Baltimore oriole on the balcony. I had been thinking right before then that it was about time to put our new oriole feeder out, which I did after the sighting, with fruit jelly (no high fructose corn syrup crap for our birds!) and a sliced organic orange. That sounds so yummy I might go out for a nibble myself!

We've been keeping a list ever since we moved here in 2006, noting the first-time species as well as the regulars. We've been doing a New Year's Day count for three years now, to get the list started with the winter residents, who I would otherwise forget to write down each year. We've been right around 55 species for the past several years, and have logged 83 total species--these include birds that we see on the property, hear on or near the property, or fly over the the property. As long as our feet are on our five acres and we are certain of its ID, it counts.  As the years go by it's harder and harder to log new species, but as we have been doing some restoration work here I am hoping to attract a wider variety birds.

Saturday morning around 7:30 I was walking the dogs along the trail, and I happened to notice a small brownish bird in the front meadow, gleaning insects from last year's wild bergamot stalks. This is not behavior common to any birds we normally see here. I also noticed it's tail bobbed up and down a lot. I stopped in my tracks and held the dogs back, squinting in the dim dawn light to try to make it out. I thought I saw a rusty cap and yellow bib, and knew right away it was a palm warbler. I ran back to the house to get my camera, leaving the dogs perplexed as to why we hadn't finished our walk.

Male palm warbler on wild bergamot stalks.

I have photographed this bird before, both here in Michigan and in Florida--I got some great shots of a female at my grandma's house just this past January (see the post here). But this was a first for our home, and I was very excited to be able to log species #84!

What a poser!

He was at least 30 feet away, so I am really pleased to have been able to get a handful of decent shots at that distance. These are cropped quite a bit.

He was flitting from stalk to stalk, snatching spiders from the undersides of the dry flower heads.

Mmmm, breakfast!

Down the hatch!

He was so quick about his business it was hard to keep up!

Friday, April 26, 2013

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch....

It has been, to borrow from George Harrison, a long, cold, lonely winter. Anyone who lives in the upper Mid-west and Great Lakes regions can attest to this. It cannot be compared to last year, when we hardly had winter at all--and saw 80 degrees (and a close call with a tornado) in March. But it was colder than it's been in a number of years, although with less snow overall (unless you live in Marquette, or Rapid City, or....). And the wind! I think that has been the worst--I can deal with the cold but even 45 degrees feels miserable when you pile on 20 or 30 mph winds. I have hardly left the house. And now, even at the end of April, winter is still hanging around--I watched yesterday as we had a very heavy downpour of sleet. It only lasted about 30 seconds but still! Yeesh. But the forecast is for 60's today, 70 degrees next week, and I can assure you Michiganders will be out in shorts and flip flops.

So while the Florida trip from the end of January took me forever to write about, there really wasn't much else going on around here. We adopted a new dog (an aged beagle we named Mr. Pickles), and that was about it. We did have a few surprises from the birds, however. In late February or early March we were visited by a golden-crowned kinglet, a bird we've seen here only once before, and one I didn't have any photos of. The little bird was very gracious and posed on the balcony for pictures. He was licking up bits of suet left over from the other birds. We saw him over the course a few weeks, almost always at the same time of day, 3:30-4:00. I think now that the grackles and black birds are back and dominating the feeders we will not see this fella again.

Golden-crowned kinglet. Oh, I just want to pinch his little cheeks!

We were also visited, for the first time since 2007, by a small flock of common redpolls. I spotted this female outside my studio window. I snuck out the back door and raced to the house to get my camera, then snuck back in and watched for her. Several days later a flock of 15 or so showed up on our balcony feeders. They stayed around for a week or so, and a few stragglers were seen for a couple of weeks.

Common redpoll, probably a female.

But that was it for the unusual birds this winter. We had several pairs of red-breasted nuthatches, which is not unusual except that we didn't see any last winter. Lots of juncos, of course, and American tree sparrows. The juncos and RBN's are still hanging around but I haven't seen a tree sparrow in several days. Now our summer residents are returning. The house wren has been singing in the back yard, brown thrashers are taking up residence in the brush pile on the top of the hill, and the robins trill from the tree tops at dawn.

A few days ago I watched a number of birds from our walk-out basement windows, ground-feeders who were cleaning up the spillage from the balcony feeders above, including this song sparrow.

We've heard song sparrows singing across the road in the marshes for several weeks now.

The white-throated sparrow, conspicuously absent last year, has returned, and I've seen several poking about in the garden.

"Poor Sam Peabody, Peabody Peabody" sings the white-throated sparrow.

There were a few that looked like this, and I though perhaps they were female white-throated sparrow. But Sibley shows no distinction between male and female, and says that this is a "tan stripe" white-throated, as apposed to the "white stripe" seen above. I had no idea.

"Tan-striped" white-throated sparrow

We heard the Eastern towhee long before we saw one, out behind the house urging us to "drink your tea!!"

I have never been able to get a decent show of this bird. This is OK but I can do better. Love his red eye.

Not many warblers hang around our place. Even during migration we see very few. Our property is dry and the warblers seem to stick mainly to water's edge. But this pine warblers, who we have seen a few times over the years, showed up on the deck last week, picking up bits of suet, much like the golden-crowned kinglet did. I have heard them singing in the trees behind our house so maybe we'll get a pair to stay and raise a family!

Pine warbler, easily confused with a female goldfinch.

Monday, April 22, 2013

White Pelicans at Sunset

 Final Florida, 2013 post

Have I mentioned lately what a lucky girl I am? How blessed to have this life? To be able to spend my time enjoying the beauty this world holds, to capture it with my camera and make art from it, is a gift that is simply beyond my comprehension. Thanks to you for taking the time to share it with me.

My mom and I had had a great day at the refuge, and had seen tons of birds. I think I added nine new birds to my list on this trip, six of them at the Merritt Island NWR. I think just about all the birds we saw were firsts for my mom.

As we stood on the observation deck watching a few herons and egrets, I noticed a white pelican flying in from my right. I hurried and got the camera on it as it approached us.

White pelican.

 I was thrilled when it changed course and flew in a circle right in front of us!

Just eight or ten years ago digital cameras would never have been able to capture this shot, a white bird on a dark background. The whites would have been completely blown out. Imaging technology has come a LONG way in a decade.

Then, it continued on in the direction it had been heading, off to the north.

To my further amazement, a group of about five birds flew past shortly after, and did the exact same thing--banked around and flew in a circle right in front of us. They were so close I couldn't get them all in the frame!

 I had thought that the white pelican was a threatened bird, but I looked them up on the Cornell Ornithology site and they are a species of least concern. Huh. At any rate they winter along the Gulf coast but breed in the Central Plains and into Canada. They are fresh-water birds, compared to their cousin the brown pelican, who feed in both fresh and salt water. They are astoundingly graceful fliers, often soaring without flapping on those huge, black-tipped wings.

I have seen white pelicans on many of my trips to MINWR but never at such close range. My heart pounded while I photographed these magnificent birds.

 They too circled around and continued off to the north. What a rush!

We stopped at the restrooms to take a break before finishing the drive and heading back to my grandmother's house. I was exhausted but exhilarated. Some clouds had moved in and sprawled across the sky, obscuring the sun.

Sunset over Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.

While I enjoyed the sunset, a flock of 27 great egrets rose up and flew across the pale sky. I had never seen such a thing, so many of these birds together, and I thanked them for this parting gift.

Great egrets.

And with this I conclude the posts from my Florida trip--back in January!! None too soon, either--mid-April in Southern Michigan is migration time, and we are seeing many birds returning, or passing through. The girls and I did a little birding around our area yesterday and saw buffleheads, ring-necked ducks, TONS of yellow-rumped warblers and ruby-crowned kinglets. We also appear to have a pair of brown thrashers nesting in a brush pile on our property--a pile I nearly burned this winter. Glad I didn't, as I hope to document some of their family life this spring.

As always, thanks for reading--there's more good stuff to come!

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Savannah Sparrow

Florida 2013 continued

On my hikes and birding excursions I have found it helpful to have someone else along who notices the things I don't.  An extra pair of eyes and ears can locate birds that I've missed. It's also really hard to look everywhere all the time, which is why I think it's important to pick certain species you'd like to see before you go out. I told my mom on this trip what I wanted to see (rails) and where to look for them, and she did, and found them!

So it's little wonder that as we walked along the path to the observation deck from the Ducks Unlimited parking area at the Black Pond Wildlife Drive on Merritt Island, that she paid little attention to the small brown bird that was hopping along the trail ahead of us. I saw it and recognized it as an uncommon (to me) bird so I stopped to take some photos. My mom kept walking, even after seeing me shooting. I had to reach out and grab her--she was apparently unimpressed.

Oh dear, what are you? Pink legs and lower mandible, white eyebrow, distinct eyeline and mustache....

I was not sure what I was photographing, but the bird was very agreeable and let me get quite close--within six feet. I knew what it wasn't, but not what it was.

Dark but thin streaking on breast and sides.....

I got shots from all angles.

Notched tail....

I had to look it up in Sibley's when I got home to find out it was a....

Weak median crown strip....

...a Savannah sparrow! These birds usually have a yellow supraloral, the area between the eye and beak. But plumage is highly variable with this species and I feel confident with all the other identifying marks that this is a correct ID. It's fun, the detective work, but what is most rewarding for me is the opportunity to get so close to these beautiful creatures.

Pretty bird!

Next, and last Florida post: While pelicans and sunset over Merritt Island NWR.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Evening on the Black Pond Wildlife Drive

Florida 2013 continued

We left the Visitor Center and headed back out to the Black Pond Wildlife Drive around 4pm. I could not believe the change in the weather. Cold, 20 mph north winds had calmed to nearly nothing, and the air had warmed and softened. The light was amazing and the park nearly deserted. I think next time around I will either spend two days at the Merritt Island NWR, one at the Visitor Center and one along the drive, or do the center in the morning and the drive in the afternoon, as the light is so much better.

At any rate, we saw all sorts of birds, whose energy seemed a bit lower--the morning scramble for food was over and the birds were a bit more laid back, like these dowitchers.

Dowitchers--short or long billed, I have no idea--relaxing in the evening sun.

There was a large flock of lesser scaups in the pond where we'd seen the reddish egret earlier. I like this image, showing two females and a male.

Lesser scaup

We parked again at the Ducks Unlimited lot, where we had seen the shrike and sora earlier, and strolled down the path towards the far observation tower. There were quite a few birds in the pond along the trail, including a pair of napping blue-winged teal and these pied-billed grebes.

Pied-billed grebes. Such sweet faces!

 I was excited to see the mottled ducks were still there. Earlier they had been hanging out here with the teals but the light was behind them and so the photos were poor. I got lucky and caught this one very close to shore and right in the sun.  It was wary, though, and watched me carefully as it swam away to my left.

Mottled duck. This is a VAST improvement on the images I had of this duck.

I read somewhere recently that mottled ducks were not common so I looked them up on the Cornell site. According to Cornell they are the only duck adapted to breeding in southern marshes, so their range is limited to Florida and the Gulf coast. They are listed as a species of least concern, but they face the usual threats of habitat loss. They also breed with introduced mallards (who apparently are not native to the south?) so they could possibly be faced with being bread out of existence.

American coots are abundant at MINWR, and we saw several flocks that had to contain at least 500 birds each in several locations. This one was alone, though, and very close to the path.

American coot. Love the red knob that matches its eyes.

An anhinga swam by, looking all mysterious and snake-like.

Once at the platform we watched a number of birds, including this preening snowy egret.

Fun pose of a snowy egret.

Later, leaving the observation tower and getting back on the drive, we saw a pair of American wigeons. These are by far the best images I have gotten of these cute little ducks.

Female American wigeon.

Male American wigeon, perhaps my favorite duck.

As we approached the turn out for the bathrooms and the Cruickshank trail head we saw a large flock of Northern pintails.

Northern pintails.

 Most of them were at quite a distance but a small group was napping on a tiny island near shore. Another favorite, such gorgeous, stately birds.

We are not quite done with Florida. There will be at least one more post, perhaps two, where we'll go back in time just a bit and back to the observation tower and trail where we had two close encounters with two more birds.  Then we will be back to real time, as spring has finally sprung here in Southeast Michigan, and we will be looking to do some birding in our own neck of the woods.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Armadillo Encounter

 Florida 2013 continued

While we were out walking the boardwalk at the Visitor Center at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, I heard a rustling in the duff under the boardwalk ahead of us. Then I saw some tall grasses moving, as if being bumped by something low to the ground. I was so excited--what could it be?? I got the camera ready....

Finally, an armadillo emerged from under the boardwalk!

What an oddly adorable creature the armadillo is!

I have always wanted to see one of these bizarre animals up close. In all the trips to Florida I'd only seen one once, on the side of the highway (alive!) as we zipped along at 70 mph.

We watched as it nosed its way through the dirt and duff.

I was so happy to be able to get so close, and was amazed at how hairy they are!

We saw more of the back end than the front end.

I know nothing about these animals so I looked them up on the web. Here's what Wikipedia says about them:

There are about 20 different subspecies of armadillo living primarily in Central and South America. North America's armadillo is the nine-banded armadillo, named for the number of creases or "bands" around its mid-section. They inhabit primarily the southern states but can be found as far north as Nebraska. Prolific diggers, they are related to ant eaters and sloths, and their diets consist mainly of insects and invertebrates.

"The armor is formed by plates of dermal bone covered in relatively small, overlapping epidermal scales called "scutes", composed of bone with a covering of horn. Most species have rigid shields over the shoulders and hips, with a number of bands separated by flexible skin covering the back and flanks. Additional armor covers the top of the head, the upper parts of the limbs, and the tail. The underside of the animal is never armored, and is simply covered with soft skin and fur."

I had to include this photo, also from Wikipedia, because I had no idea the animal's anatomy was like this:

File:Nine-banded armadillo skeleton.jpg
A relic of a by-gone age for sure! The left side of the armor plate has been cut away to allow a view of its backbone.

We watched for a few minutes while it hunted grubs and other delicacies in the mud. The nine-banded armadillo prefers to live near water, so this was a perfect place for it.

Thanks to you, armadillo, for sharing part of your day with us!

Next: Back to the wildlife drive for some late afternoon birding.