Red-headed Woodpeckers

Jamestown Island Va. 16 October 2014. Every now and then you’ll run into what seems to be a moving convention of birds of a feather. Birders often talk about waves of warblers, a fairly common occurrence in spring and fall migration when birds are moving en masse and they seem to be all around you, I’ve experienced it several times.

Today I found myself in a gathering of representatives of the Picidae family; the woodpeckers, I think it was just coincidence, not a migratory wave; but whatever the cause, it was memorable.

Blackjack Oak

Blackjack Oak leaves

This was our last day in Virginia and I had the day to myself again. For the purposes of this posting, it’s sufficient to say that the State of Virginia, in and around tidal waters, is a great place for finding birds. I spent a few hours on the botanically and historically rich Jamestown Island, stopping now and then to examine trees like Blackjack and Post Oaks, Persimmons and Black Tupelos trees, and exploring in general, trying to imagine how this looked as the capital of the Virginia Colony in the mid 1600s. Making my way out to the once strategic end of the island known as Black Point meant passing through an open glade of Loblolly Pines where I could hear the churring calls of two or three Red-headed Woodpeckers. That certainly stopped me in my tracks and moments later I was rewarded with one landing on a decaying tree trunk nearby.Red-headed Woodpecker-3

But there was more to this place than Red-headed Woodpeckers, I also noticed a Downy Woodpecker bashing noisily at something overhead and, if the Downy was bashing noisily, then a Pileated Woodpecker was positively pounding, if not axeing, a pine tree just across the way. Words don’t do its efforts justice, if a picture’s worth a thousand words, then a comic-book illustration with blurred action, sprays of wood chips and Pow! star-bursts would be more like it!  It was soon evident that there were, in fact, two Pileated Woodpeckers when they started calling out to each other with their rather slow mezzo-soprano laugh . They hung around for quite a while but were last seen flying away, one chasing the other like two overweight crows. The soft ‘chfff’ call of a nearby Red-bellied Woodpecker and a yellow flash overhead, the under-wing of a Northern Flicker completed the woodpecker clan gathering.

I lingered to watch the Red-headed Woodpeckers for a long time. In Ontario they are a rare treat and a rapidly vanishing species. A pity since, in a world where looks count, they are really quite spectacular.

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Black Vulture

Williamsburg Va. 16 October 2014. With a full day to do as I pleased I opted to take my time investigating the rich habitats along Williamsburg’s Colonial Parkway. Encountering a group of quite entertaining Black Vultures was an unexpected surprise and it added a rather amusing novelty to an already bird-rich day.
The parkway is a winding, two-lane road that amply deserves its name. It threads through dense forests which include many of my favourite trees: Black Gums, Tulip Trees, various oak species and Paw Paws included. It leads to the shore of the wide, tidal James River and follows it along, crossing a number of reedy tributaries that empty into the James.
I pulled into a picnic area under a canopy of towering Loblolly Pines intending to explore a stretch of waterfront beach and an adjacent river-mouth. Locking my car and glancing down at the beach I saw that I was being watched carefully by a group of Black Vultures, two on the strip of sandy beach, the other somewhat closer to me and up hill a bit. I appeared to be spoiling their fun, the lower two seemed to have been enjoying a seaside stroll while the upper one was pulling on the juicy remains of a large fish. They watched me cautiously while trying to continue with their fun, the lower two started to trot away for a bit, they actually seemed to be capable of quite a canter, but after a moment had second thoughts and strolled back. The fish-dinner individual sauntered further up hill until it stood at the top looking down at the others below. By this time a fourth individual had joined them and it became quite a party. Eventually they’d had enough and spread their wide wings into the wind and lifted off, wheeling away to rise quickly above the treetops.

Black Vulture

Black Vulture

They were quite a contrast to the many smaller and prettier birds that I’d spend a couple of hours watching beforehand. The cover and abundant supply of food along the shore supports a large population of Northern Mockingbirds, Eastern Bluebirds, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Carolina Chickadees and even a Saltmarsh Sparrow – a new bird to me!

Northern Mockingbird in full song

Northern Mockingbird in full song

I watched three Bald Eagles, an adult leading two juveniles, in a purposeful chase after an Osprey which had just caught a fish. The eagles soon caught up to the twisting and turning Osprey which then, perhaps as a result of hard lessons learned, chose to let go of its fish. I expected the eagles to make a mid-air catch, but instead the fish fell several hundred feet to the river below and as far as I could see, that was the end of it. Perhaps, if the fish survived its initial capture and then the fall, there was a happy ending; but there seemed to be nothing in it for either Osprey or eagles.

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Peregrine Falcon

October 13 2014. Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, Virginia.  The Eastern Seaboard of the USA can be characterised in any number of ways, for millions it’s somewhere to live and work, for birders it’s the Atlantic Flyway; a migration pathway followed by millions of birds. I spent a little time today on one of the hotspots along the Atlantic Flyway, on the southern tip of the Delmarva Peninsula, a long stalactite of abundantly fertile land that separates the teeming waters of Chesapeake Bay from the vast spread of the Atlantic Ocean.

The thing about this long finger of land (and Cape May, its little brother to the north), is that it’s a great birding destination. Most of the Delmarva Peninsula is in Maryland but the southern tip lies in Virginia, not that it makes much difference to the flyway. Away from the Atlantic or Chesapeake Bay shorelines, the land is intensively farmed on wide, flat fields of cotton, beans and sweet potatoes. Dense stands of oak, Sweet-gum and Tulip Trees, impenetrably tangled with vines and briars, encircle the fields, making them suffocatingly hot for many long summer weeks.

Tree SwallowsThis southern tip is alive now with migrating birds. I watched large passing flocks of Tree Swallows, hundreds strong and tailed by hopeful Merlins, Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks. At lower levels I could hear small birds chipping and calling in the bushes and trees and just above the horizon were groups of drifting Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures.

Tree Swallows

Tree Swallows

But I set out to tell of the Peregrine Falcons seen today. The first one passed low over our car and was noteworthy simply because, like all Peregrines, it flew as if it owned the skies; the second one, much later, was quite a different experience.

The tip of the Delmarva Peninsula is connected to mainland Virginia by a twenty-and-a-bit miles long bridge and tunnel combination; mostly bridge. The bridge-tunnel links the north and south shores of the mouth of Chesapeake Bay where it opens to the Atlantic Ocean.  Needless to say it is a very commercially important and strategically vital waterway. On a fine day it’s an easy drive, a touch tedious at times, but if you like ocean views and the thought of the engineering task that made it all possible, it’s a rather thrilling experience; but I imagine an approaching hurricane makes it a quite different story. As we drove across, a steady east wind was blowing and Great Black-backed Gulls were riding on the ridge of wind deflected upwards by the bridge structure. To drive north and be passed by a southbound gull surfing a wave of rising air just a few feet away and at eye-level was to make me wish I could stop for a dramatic photo. But while such a picture could be magnificent if done well, stopping to get it would be dangerous and thoroughly illegal.
But the greatest picture, held only in my mind’s eye, was of a Peregrine Falcon, my Bird of the Day, seen streaking south along that same pathway of rising air and, I like to imagine, looking each car driver in the eye as they passed.

Blue-headed Vireo

10 October 2014. Cayuga ON.  I make no apologies for celebrating a Blue-headed Vireo as my Bird of the Day even though I did so just a couple of weeks ago. Quite simply, today’s vireo met the standard that it, among all of the day’s birds, made me think Wow!

This time of year is a birding roller coaster, the weather is changeable, birds are migrating in enormous numbers and trees are shedding their leaves. I was at the bird observatory all morning, there was a touch of frost first thing, but by midday it was almost T-shirt weather. Our expansive meadows are knee-deep in what were once bright flowers but are now billions of seeds for American Goldfinches, House Finches and Song Sparrows, and there are trusses of wild grapes drawing in squalling flights of American Robins and young Cedar Waxwings; it’s time to fatten up .

My census round seemed quiet at first but here and there I could hear (and sometimes see) White-throated Sparrows or their close cousins White-crowned Sparrows. I watched two Northern Flickers high in a Shagbark Hickory feasting on Poison Ivy berries. (A couple of side notes: Our local sub-species of Poison Ivy is a high-climbing woody vine, unlike the more northerly ground-hugging version which rarely grows more than a metre high. I doubt any rational person would venture to eat the berries but clearly many other creatures are unaffected. After all, berries are the way they are in order to be eaten by something.) I noted a few Yellow-rumped Warblers foraging and it wasn’t until near the end of the census route that I found the Blue-headed Vireo. It seemed quite unmoved by the mini-crisis that was being whipped up by a small group of Black-capped Chickadees and a handful of anxious Chipping Sparrows. The vireo just went on about its business of gleaning insects from the inner branches of an American Basswood. I stood to watch and enjoy it for a while although it was never still for very long but I was able to get this satisfying action photo.

Blue-headed Vireo

Blue-headed Vireo

Merlin

8 October 2014. Burlington ON. I didn’t go looking for birds today; there are other things in life. But the day nevertheless ended with a lucky and spectacular sighting, a Merlin; I’m sure it saw me long before I saw it.

I have been helping a friend who is seeking election to the local city council. We spent much of the afternoon knocking on doors and as afternoon was turning into rush hour, I stopped to install one of her ‘Vote For Me’ signs on a strategic corner. I had finished the job and was just putting my tools away when I glanced up and noticed a good-sized bird sitting atop a utility pole. I knew immediately that it was a falcon and a quick binocular check told me that it was a Merlin.

Two things about Merlins: they terrify smaller birds and they make flying look easy. It’s a little difficult to be sure, but I think the back is bluish enough to make this a young male, but male or female, young or adult, a Merlin would be Bird of the Day any day of the year .

I admired it for a while and then decided that it was worth the gamble of driving home to get my camera; normally I wouldn’t bother, few birds stay in one place for very long. But Merlins are hunters that pounce on the unsuspecting and are inclined to sit and wait for an opportunity. Home was a two-minute drive away (maybe five in rush hour), the question was whether it would wait long enough.

Well, it did. I returned and was able to take many photos that capture both the hunter and the vulnerable inner individual, just another creature struggling to survive. As I returned to my car, I turned for one last shot and caught the moment of its take off.

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The photos in the gallery above is visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.

Northern Parula (warbler)

6 October 2014. Cayuga ON. I thought for a while that today’s Birds of the Day would be a pair of Turkey Vultures seen high on the stark limbs of a dead oak, waiting for flight conditions to improve. They were quite picturesque in a funereal sort of way and since the day started blustery with rain threatening they seemed to complete the picture; but then the sun came out.

Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture

And with the sun came loads of interesting, mostly migrant, birds. Before setting out on the daily census we had seen Tennessee, Cape May and Magnolia Warblers. The census got off to a good start with a Sharp-shinned Hawk trying to brush off a pestering American Crow. Soon after that, I found myself close to a busy group of White-throated Sparrows who were being watched by a couple of Gray Catbirds in much the same way that long-term residents might keep an eye on an erratic family moving in next door. An Eastern Phoebe, a Cape May Warbler, a Brown Creeper and a Black-throated Green Warbler all made me pleased to be out in the woods on this (now) bright and gusty day.

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A number of times during the census I seemed to be enveloped in a wave of small birds. I could hear tiny, high frequency pips and tseeps, my eyes were drawn to quick movements, many of which turned out to be falling leaves, but I had the greatest trouble really identifying what I was seeing – if I could see it. Too often it was a vanishing glimpse or a half view, although half views can sometimes be interpreted later from a decent photo. And it was while trying for such a photo that I found myself with a surprise Bird of the Day. I was hoping to get enough information to identify this bird.Golden-crowned Kinglet. RP

Which I now think it was a Golden-crowned Kinglet. But in my scramble to get a quick snapshot, I got this instead, a Northern Parula.

Northern Parula

Northern Parula

Birders get excited about parulas.  It’s not that they’re particularly rare, but that they are a standout among a family of generally beautiful little birds. A male in spring, like the one below, taken in Cape May last spring, presents with an almost alarming coat of many colours: slate-blue, black, white, orange and an intense chestnut; so striking! Today’s bird was not as eye-popping though, but it nevertheless surprised and heart-warmed me.

Northern Parula Cape May

Northern Parula Cape May

Bald Eagle

3 October 2014. Cayuga ON.  A warm and blustery wind from all points south pulled leaves from trees and blew them around like well, snow. It should have been a tough day for birds, had it been my choice (as a bird) I would have stayed low. But who am I to call the shots? The census at the bird observatory had its interesting moments, it seemed to be a woodpecker day because we found three each of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Northern Flickers, Downy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers. Another immense flock of blackbirds, mostly Common Grackles, traced the course of the river. They were impossible to count as they streamed by, large squadrons sometimes splitting off to connect with other flights on the opposite bank.

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Looking upriver I glimpsed a large bird dip down towards the river surface then peel away to vanish behind a willow. Osprey, I thought. But no, it was a young Bald Eagle. It came back into view, close to the river surface again, its bright yellow legs lowered and reaching, without luck, to snatch a meal, then wind-tossed, it peeled up and away like a war kite. That pause while it was behind the willow gave me time to get my camera ready and I managed to get a few shots, not great ones, but enough to be able to make out its white under-wings, the mark of a bird hatched just this year. Battling and playing with the wind like that, dipping and soaring, sometimes a victim of the wind other times master of it, this baby Bald Eagle was my Bird of the Day.

Blackpoll Warbler

1 October 2014. Cayuga ON.  Our long stretch of Indian Summer was shaken up with a stormy front passing through. It’s still warm but much cooler weather is imminent. The change has apparently reminded migrant birds that it’s time to stop dallying and to get a move on. It produced some interesting birds at the bird observatory.

I did the daily census, which was rather quiet, the number of species (21) was okay but numbers of individuals were low. The highlight of the census may have been a patrolling Belted Kingfisher working the far shore of the river. I was also grateful for a heard but unseen Common Yellowthroat who started singing its signature “witchety–witchety” song for the benefit of a visitor, just as I had finished describing it to her.

Birds of the Day came right at the end when we captured and banded two Blackpoll Warblers. Blackpoll Warblers can be tricky to identify in fall, the conspicuous black and white dress of spring, moults to a rather non-descript, easily confusable, olive green and muddy white with wingbars. Here are a couple of photos to illustrate the contrast.

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The Blackpolls weren’t the only warblers today, we’d also seen Black-throated Green and Black-throated Blues, an American Redstart and a Pine Warbler. A little more about the Pine and the Blackpoll Warblers is justified because both generated a lot of discussion and interest.

The Pine Warbler because it took a while to identify, perhaps because we don’t see them often. They are, as their name suggests, a bird that favours pines, and the observatory is surrounded by hardwood forest. Below is a photo of another Pine Warbler taken a year ago, probably a mature male showing all field marks. The one we handled today was a young female with absolutely none of the bright yellow about it. It was a very drab muted olive-yellow below, its back grayish brown, the wing-bars very subdued, the partial eye-ring whitish and that little line above and between the beak and the eye almost invisible. Even Rick, who knows his birds better than almost anyone I’ve met, was hard pushed to identify it, spending some time scouring the pages of the Peterson Field Guide to Warblers looking for a likely match.

Pine warbler

Pine warbler

Blackpoll Warblers are wonderful little birds with one of the nature’s best migration stories. They breed across the northern coniferous forests of Alaska and Canada where the dense forests give way to tundra; a very long way north of us. But their fall migration is an epic journey in which the mortality rate must surely be very high. After making the mind-bendingly long trip from the tundra (from as far as Alaska remember) to the softness of America’s eastern seaboard, they launch themselves south and east, out over the Atlantic. They fly endlessly, navigating by systems that we can barely comprehend, until they reach the north-east trade winds which blow them back to a landfall in Puerto Rico, the Lesser Antilles, or northern South America; a journey of up to 3,000 Km., or as much as ninety hours, non-stop. To survive they need a lot of luck and all of the gods on their side, they must: avoid predators like domestic cats, Merlins or Sharp-shinned Hawks: be in top physical condition; and have sufficient fuel on board to carry them on that open Atlantic stage for the best part of four days. (I don’t know what you were doing four days ago, but for me, the idea of a non-stop, foodless trot since Sunday’s Blue-headed Vireo encounter, (my previous post), is incomprehensible.)

The two Blackpoll Warblers we banded today were carrying large amounts of fat as fuel for the ultra marathon ahead. They each weighed about 22 g, double a more typical spring and summer weight of 10 to 12 g. Birds store fat in the avian equivalent of the hollow you and I have between our collarbones (just below our throat), under their wings (our armpits) and lower belly; all of these areas were bulging full. They even felt plump in the hand as we banded and measured them. Once banded, measured, aged, sexed and weighed we released them with our fervent best wishes for a safe passage.

Blue-headed Vireo

28 September 2014. Burlington ON.  I wonder when Indian Summer will become an inappropriate phrase.  Can’t be long!  As it is right now, my only concern about these glorious early fall days is the easy birding. It’s hard to beat T-shirt weather and a steady flow of interesting migrants.

This morning, I led a small group looking for birds in some interesting and varied habitat. We started out walking down into a wooded valley, spent some time watching over a large, cattail encircled pond and ended up strolling a creek-side trail. It was all very nice.

My Bird of the Day came early, it may in fact have been the very first bird seen, a Blue-headed Vireo. Those who follows my postings (is there anyone that compulsive?) will perhaps remember that I speak highly of vireos in general. We see five vireo species in Ontario, all of them summer visitors, only here to breed. Red-eyed, Warbling and Yellow-throated Vireos breed around here but not the Blue-headed or the Philadelphia Vireos, they both prefer the coniferous forests further north. I don’t ever recall enjoying lingering looks at a free-flying Blue-headed Vireo, they always seem to be on the move; today’s was like that. It first caught my attention when I heard its unfamiliar song, I was certainly puzzled, but with a bit of persistence tracing the song we found the bird and were allowed a couple of ‘now you see me now you don’t’ looks, enough to make an identification. Then it was gone. Most of our group missed it and it was probably only my excitement that was memorable. These photos shows how handsome Blue-headed Vireos are (at least I think so).

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Also for your enjoyment, a couple of shots of other vireo species: A Yellow-throated and a Philadelphia. The spectacles on the yellow-throated making it look a little like the Blue-headed. Note the business-like tip of its beak.

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The rest of our walk turned up several interesting birds: A single Sharp-shinned Hawk apparently consorting amiably with a small flock of Blue Jays; We heard but couldn’t find an Eastern Towhee and were amused by a deranged female Wood Duck which seems to have learned to beg food from passers-by. Perhaps its formative months were spent at a marina or urban park where the lines between humans and wildlife sometimes blur; I wonder how and where it will spend the winter and how dependant it is on hand-outs.

European Starlings

European Starlings

And finally, while it’s often hard to have much good to say about European Starlings, these two in their new feathers look quite fetching. The light tips of the feathers will wear off over winter; after which they’ll be just starlings again.

Blackbirds

26 September 2014. Cayuga ON. For reasons that will likely remain a mystery, the beautiful, Indian Summer weather of the past 24 hours resulted on a paltry collection of bird species, yet two days ago, under the same weather conditions, the birding was exceptional. Doing the daily census today, I found a scant fifteen species; two days ago thirty-four. All part of the mystery that makes this such an interesting study I suppose.

Far and away the best sighting of the morning was enormous flocks of blackbirds; they seemed to comprise equal numbers of Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles, but it is quite possible there were a few European Starlings or some Rusty Blackbirds mixed in; it was impossible to tell. I came upon the flocks while doing the census, I heard their racket long before I saw the birds. Racket, din or cacophony, any of those would fit, it’s not that the volume was high, it was just the overwhelming sensation of a sky-high wall of chatter. How many birds were there I have no idea, I wrote down 2,000 Red-winged Blackbirds and 2,000 Common Grackles, but it could quite posibly have been twice that number; or just as easily half. They filled the branches of several large riverside oak and hackberry trees, gossiping, sallying out for a quick fly-around or just slipping over to visit friends until, for who knows what reason, they decided it was time to move on. In my diary I wrote: “They left in chattering streams heading over the mansion and away. They seemed to suck all the life out of the census round”. They were Birds of the Day; sheer numbers have it.

A trifling few of the blackbirds.  Mostly Common Grackles in this shot

A trifling few of the blackbirds. Mostly Common Grackles in this shot

Had I not encountered the blackbirds I think a young male Northern Parula that we banded would have stolen my heart. Parulas have an appeal built on downright prettiness, it’s not that they’re rare, not especially anyway. But seeing one is always a rare treat. And then again, the first White-throated Sparrows of fall are quite captivating too, and we saw and banded several. Again, it’s not that they’re rare, they pass through each spring and fall, heading to cooler boggy areas in which to breed. (In fact, there are a few breeding pairs just 50 Km. north of the bird observatory but in dark bogs and swampy woodlands; almost a world away.) White-throated Sparrows have an appeal built on their, at times, elusive nature poking around in the understory but then a quite compliant, almost resigned, attitude once caught in a mist net and banded. Pretty too. Here’s a couple of photos of White-throated Sparrows from previous encounters.

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