Sunday, November 28, 2010

Fool's Gold and Foxy

They are polar opposites: one gathering in large noisy flocks on tall trees, the other mostly solitary, skulking through dense brush, one a pushy despised immigrant, the other a rarely seen native. Starlings are the high flyers. Fox Sparrows stay low to the ground. I just happened to run into both species on the same day a couple of weeks ago.

According to Birds of North America, the European Starling numbers more than 200 million today, all derived from 100 individuals released in Central Park in the late 19th century. They are ubiquitous and highly visible, gathering in large flocks in the fall.

"Following the annual (Prebasic) molt (mid-summer through fall), most head and body feathers have whitish or buff terminal spots. These light spots gradually wear away to produce the glossy black appearance of spring, although most birds retain at least a few of these spots."

The Fox Sparrow is a common but shy species, breeding north of us in boreal Canada, and appearing, solitary or in small flocks, in New England during migration. It prefers dense vegetation and little is known about its habits.

I was fortunate in that my dog rustled up this individual from the underbrush. It appeared very briefly in the bare shrub and quickly dropped out of sight again. All I could get was a couple of lousy pictures.

The skies have been particularly beautiful this fall.

On the road to Michigan for Thanksgiving

 Driving through farm country

Star-shaped contrails at a recent sunset

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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Townsend's Warbler continued

Another crisp fall day. The past three days were rained out and I had little hope that the Townsend's Warbler was still going to be there today. But it was. I joined fellow blogger Chris Petrak of Tails of Birding and a couple of other birders in staking out the bird. We didn't have to wait too long. It was foraging on and off in the reed-like weeds right in front of us, would occasional fly up and settle some distance away, but would ususally reappear in about the same area. I am much happier with these photos than those I had shown in an earlier post.

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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Wordless Wednesday

First Winter Blackpoll Warbler

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Friday, November 12, 2010

Townsend's Warbler, a rare visitor to New Hampshire

I joined the throng of birders traveling to River Road in Walpole, NH, to see the female Townsend's Warbler, first reported by Ken Klapper on the NH Bird List several days ago. It's a fickle bird  - it took me three trips to see it. The first two times I came either just after the bird had left or I left just before the bird appeared. You had to be very patient. But the sky was blue, the sun was shining, and the other birders there provided good company. 

Like all warblers it's a fast moving bird and hard to keep track of in the brushy thicket. So I was glad it stayed in one place for several seconds allowing me to get some photos. The first image is a "Find Waldo" overview. I drew a circle around the bird.

Here is a close-up of the first image

I was unfamiliar with this warbler. So I checked it on the Birds of North America Site and found out it wasn't only very late in its migration to Central America, but it shouldn't even be here!

To quote: A colorful, distinctive wood-warbler that breeds among the treetops of mature fir forests in the Pacific Northwest, Townsend’s Warbler also nests in montane spruce-fir (Picea-Abies) forests in Idaho, Montana, and northwest Wyoming, and in boreal forests in Alaska and the Yukon Territory. In September, it begins its southward migration to California and the highlands of Mexico and Central America, where it is the most common of all species (including residents) in some locales." 

In NH it's been recorded, according to eBird, only three times, once in 1982, once in 2005 and then the current one. It's doubtful that the bird will ever make it to its wintering grounds.

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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Cute Factor

I borrowed the expression from a 2006 article in the New York Times Cuteness is characterized by baby-like features, such as big eyes, small nose, or beak, and a large forehead.  I tried to track down the origin of the word but all I found in Shipley's book on the Origins of English Words was that it is a shortened version of "acute" i.e. sharp or pointed, which doesn't make sense for our use of the word.

This cuteness as a characteristic of young helpless animals seems to be universal in the animal world. Think of  fawns,  piglets, penguins, ducklings.... Even a Triceratops yearling with its large eyes was probably cute in the eyes of its mother.

So, when looking at photos of an American Tree Sparrow the first words that come to my mind is "how cute!", with their big bright chestnut crown, their prominent shiny eyes, their small beak and that little black button on their chest.

White-crowned Sparrows are not far behind in terms of cuteness.

So what does it all mean? I have no idea. Read what fellow blogger Chris Petrak has to say about "cute". He also thinks we ought to eliminate "nice", "amazing", "awesome" .... How about added "stunning" and "gorgeous"? I don't agree with him there. Many times you just want to let someone know that you enjoyed looking at their pictures, without attempting a specific critique -  and when reading comments, superlatives are the going coin of the realm.

To change the subject, we used to have many red squirrels visiting our bird feeder, generally outnumbering gray squirrels. In fact until a few years ago I rarely ever saw a gray squirrel. Red squirrels are usually very noisy, scolding and chattering from a near tree branch or the roof of our deck, but those sounds have been missing lately..

They, too, look cute with their large eyes and stubby nose, but they are an aggressive and highly excitable species. We were always worried about them establishing themselves in our attic which led us to purchase and install a "Squirrel Evictor" strobe light.  I am just realizing now that I haven't seen or heard a red squirrel for at least a month.

In the UK the native red squirrels have become endangered due to the spread of the squirrelpox, a virus apparently introduced with the release of a Canadian grey squirrel by a misguided animal lover. Is that happening here too?

I am wondering whether anybody else is having the same experience. If so, please contact me.

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Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Sadness of Captive Birds

A couple of days ago I revisited the VINS rescue and rehab organization in Quechee, VT.  It was a cold blustery day. Walking along the roofed over semicircle from cage to cage with eyes following me, I found not much had changed from three years ago. The two Bald Eagles, disabled by injuries, who arrived in 2000 and 2002, were still there.

 Back then a couple of volunteers were crawling around on the ground cleaning the cage to the great annoyance and vocal complaints of one of the eagles.

Sounds like an upset chicken, right? Eagles are so imposing that  they probably had no need to evolve a voice to go with it, I guess. Maybe they just needed enough voice to comfort their offspring.

Also still here:
Golden Eagle (since sometime in the 90's)

Peregrine Falcon (since 1995)

Broad-winged Hawk (since 2007)

Snowy Owl (since 2006 - raised in captivity)

Common Raven
Common Raven couple preening (the male since 1997 and the female since 2001)
Common Ravens are smart, they are curious, they investigate their environment. But what if there is nothing to investigate? Nothing to stimulate their minds, just a bare cage with wooden perches? Their cage was, I guess, adequate in size, but how humane is it to keep birds, who cannot be released back into the wild,  in barred cages, as if they were automata, for years if not decades? I am not criticizing VINS - their means are limited. I am posing it as a more general question to which I have no answer.

I didn't want to leave this post on such a depressing note. The day before, a beautiful late fall day, I had walked with my dog Chance up to the top of Black Mountain.

Black Mountain Granite Dome

The  leaves on the huckleberry bushes shone like little red light

The Connecticut River Valley in the distance

The West River runs like a silvery ribbon through the valley. The cars on the road next to it are so small that from this height the world looks like a toy shop.

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