Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Does singing make birds feel happy?

Yesterday afternoon after the rain stopped I went for a walk in the woods. Along the path I was surrounded by the Ovenbird's emphatic "teacher, teacher, teacher". This was late into the breeding season when most of the other warblers were quietly foraging for food for their offspring.

Birds do look happy when they sing.

We know that birds live on a very tight energy budget. No wasted motions. Everything has to have a purpose for furthering survival and procreation, and  this holds true for emotions also. We sense a bird's anxiety when a predator approaches a nest or the anger when for example the Robin in my backyard  keeps chasing a Blue Jay through the trees away from her nest. But a feeling of happiness? Is it a luxury? Or a reward for a  behavior that serves a purpose in promoting survival?  Birds sing to attract mates or defend their territory.  But does the act of singing cause the bird to feel pleasure, or put in another way, does it make the bird feel happy?

Several years ago I observed a Mockingbird perched on a tall post singing his heart out. While singing he would  jump up, flap his wings and rise up several feet, drop back down, and do so again and again - a picture of pure exuberance!  He seemed to be jumping for joy - so much happiness! That this was part of part of the male's courtship display did not diminish it.

I unearthed an interesting study addressing the question of happiness. Any pleasurable action in animals, mammals as well as birds, is associated with a release of dopamine in the brain. A study of Zebra Finches has shown that singing increases dopamine release, but only while courting a female. Undirected singing does not.  So a male bird  that sings incessantly to keep out competing males is probably more likely to have an elevated level of the cortisol, not dopamine, and feels stress rather than pleasure.

Happy Birding!

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Sunday, June 19, 2011

Wood Warbler Season

My first thought is, when waking up in the morning, where am I going to bird today. I can't wait to get up and get going. I am fortunate not to have to travel very far to arrive at great birding spots. They are all around me. I just have to make up my mind whether it's going to be a pine forest, a second growth terrain, a grassy field, a swamp,  pond or river...

This weekend with warblers on my mind I hiked up Hogback Mountain to the top of the Tower Trail where last year I had seen my first Blackburnian Warbler astonishing me with his bright orange chest. And I saw him again, on the same moss-covered weather-beaten conifer, with the morning sun reflected in the blazing orange of his throat and chest.

 Eventually he dropped down into a  spruce to forage.

He found a fat spider...

...which he promptly swallowed. Last to go were the spider's legs.

Black-throated Blue Warbler

 Photographing warblers, such as the Black-throated Blue Warbler above or the Black-throated Green Warbler below, who are at home in the shady understory of a forest, present a special challenge. What's needed is a lens with a wide aperture to let in enough light, but the best I can do with mine is an aperture of 6.3, which means I have to use a slow shutter speed and high ISO to get anything at all. So usually I end up with grainy underexposed photos that require a lot of post processing work.

Black-throated Green Warbler

I found this Chestnut-sided Warbler in a power line cut. He was in bright sunlight but didn't want to sit still in his pursuit of insects through the brush until he finally flew into a distant tree to rest for a few minutes.

Cheers and happy birding!

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Friday, June 17, 2011

The Curious Behavior of two Brown Creepers

During one of my walks through the woods I observed two Brown Creepers rapidly flying back and forth between several tree trunks as if playing musical chairs. Most of the time they were on different trees, but occasionally on the same one, but without obvious interaction. They were moving so rapidly up and down, spiraling around, that I may have missed that part I thought maybe it was a parent with a youngster following it, but I never saw any begging behavior.

Is that a tick attached underneath the beak?

When I looked at the photos at home I saw that one of the two was carrying a bug in its beak and it seemed to be holding on to it, not passing it on to the other during the entire time that I was watching. They were totally oblivious to me following them with my camera.

Does it look like a doubled-over ant?

.... or perhaps a beetle?

The behavior seemed very odd. So I checked the article on Brown Creepers on BNA Online and found this as a possible explanation:

High-pitched call given, followed by a silent chase in which pair, about 1–3 m apart, spiraled around tree trunks with white undersides prominent, and landed on a tree trunk, one above the other. Wing-fluttering, rapid beating of wings held above the body, often occurred after a chase. This display often followed by another chase. Courtship feeding often occurred after these displays and continued throughout the nesting cycle until eggs hatched, male usually feeding female. Female wing-flutters and gapes similar to the begging of young birds; male lands above her, turns sideways, and places food item in female’s throat. Copulation not observed during these displays. Authors: Hejl, S. J., K. R. Newlon, M. E. Mcfadzen, J. S. Young, and C. K. Ghalambor

So maybe what I was witnessing was part of their courtship behavior? 

Friday, June 10, 2011

More Birding on Mt. Washington, NH

Putting the episode of the misidentified thrush behind me, I am returning to our trip to Mt Washington three days ago. Besides the Bicknell's Thrush we also saw a number of  Blackpoll Warblers.

Interesting fact: According to BNA Online, the Blackpolls undertake the longest migration of any warbler. Part of their fall migratory route is over the Atlantic Ocean from the northeastern United States to Puerto Rico, the Lesser Antilles, or northern South America. This route averages 3,000 km over water, necessitating a potentially nonstop flight of up to 88 hours.

 A Yellow-rumped Warbler was  stopping to drink from one of the refill stations for radiator water at a "brake stop" along the way.

Another familiar bird was the White-throated Sparrow, heard more than seen. It was startling to find this common winter backyard feeder dwell in this subalpine boreal forest. It gave me an altogether new three-dimensional view of this species.


After our return from the guided tour, which had turned around at midway, we (my husband and I) got into our Subaru Outback to drive to the very top of the mountain. The final 2000 feet or so of the 6000+ feet drive on the narrow auto route were hair-raising: sheer drop on the downhill side and deep ruts on the uphill one. I kept my eyes peeled to the center. Fortunately it was very early with no oncoming traffic, but we pictured this road on a weekend with bumper to bumper traffic both ways, imagining big SUV's shouldering smaller cars aside....  We were glad though to have escaped the clouds of black flies that had  emerged at the lower level as the day warmed up.

Arriving at the top,  I looked and listened for any birds in this rock-strewn wasteland and indeed heard one. I traced it to a Junco singing from one of the boulders lining the parking lot:

To find a Junco at this level with no tree in sight, just thin patchy low ground vegetation between the rocks, was a surprise. It was the only Junco though and no others responded to his song, nor did we see any other birds, no Ravens or Bald Eagles...

With still no oncoming traffic, driving down was a piece of cake, because of the much broader, long-distance view going downhill.  We made our leisurely way along the scenic Kancamagus Highway home to Brattleboro, VT, glad that we had bought mosquito head nets that kept the black flies out, but frustrating too because it' s near impossible to use them with binoculars.  

Cheers and Happy Birding!

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Thursday, June 9, 2011

Gray-cheeked Thrush NOT - Revised

Revision: I should have said to my self, "Calm down, calm down; don't rush to judgement ..." Well the judgement is in: it's a Hermit Thrush. I made the id by going back to same location, found the same bird calling insistently, although this time I did not get a good look at it - too much shade and too fleeting - and compared the call to the Hermit's. Bingo! :-(

Well, I still had two experts agreeing with me that it looked like GCT, so I am not quite red-faced. But I had retract my sighting on eBird and send out corrections.

Original: There is one thrush that looks exactly like the Bicknell's Thrush pictured in my last post.  According to my reading they can only be told apart by voice.. Well, this morning I walked along a path skirting a marshy pond on one side and a mature deciduous forest on the other side. I heard a bird calling close by. At first I thought it was a Veery but the call was much less musical. The bird was perched on  a tree branch about 10 ft off the ground.

The bird;s call sounded like the call of the Gray-cheeked Thrush in Sibley's on my iPod. Yet it would be very unusual to find one in Brattleboro, but it's also hard to imagine it could be anything else. I would appreciate any comments.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Bicknell's Thrush - a most threatened species

A once in life-time experience: Yesterday I joined a group of birders on a van tour up  Mt. Washington, the highest mountain in New Hampshire, to see Bicknell's Thrush. We left at 5:30 in the morning and stopped midway at about 3000 ft where the landscape turned into a stunted forest of mostly balsam fir with lesser amounts of spruce, white birch and mountain ash.

We scanned the tree tops and after a while found a BT on a distant tree bathing in the morning sun - too far for the lens on my camera.

We then heard two males chasing each other a short distance down hill from us. Suddenly one of them appeared in a tree very close to us. He wasn't shy at all.

He began singing, asserting that this territory was his.

Because of its fragmented breeding range in remote inhospitable forests at high elevations in the Northeast it is one of the least known bird species in North America. It also one of the rarest and possibly most threatened.

Distribution of Bicknell’s Thrush (BNA)

There may not be more than 50,000 individuals. Its winter range is even more restricted ; it regularly only occurs on four islands in the Greater Antilles where its habitat is threatened by deforestation.

Reference: Birds of North America Online  and Jeffrey Wells' Birders Conservation Handbook

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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

A Pair of Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes put in a very spotty appearance here in Vermont, and so I was excited to read of  two cranes having been sighted just a few miles from where I live. I got there early this morning and had no trouble locating them foraging near the road around a large puddle in a field as they were slowly making their way from the muddy back edge to the vegetation in front.  I got out and used my car as a blind.

About the rusty discoloration of their plumage I found this in Birds of North America Online:
"Plumage becomes colored adventitiously from water, vegetation, and mud; additionally, Sandhill Cranes intentionally rub their plumage with soil, all of which causes variations in the plumage color ranging from drab-clay to cinnamon-rufous. Stained feathers occur anywhere below the mid-neck but are particularly apparent among the primary and secondary wing coverts and upper breast feathers." Authors Tacha, T. C., S. A. Nesbitt, and P. A. Voh

One showed darker discoloration than the other.

Sandhill Cranes are long-lived - up to 20 year - are monogamous, and stay together as a pair.

One of them ventured too close to a Red-winged Blackbird's nest and had to fend off an attack.

Stretching of wings but not taking off - just yet. I thought I had taken enough pics and had sat back down in the car, thus missing the dramatic end to the show as the pair took off, their clamor filling the the air with hoarse honking and loud swooshing of wings. They flew low and settled again at the far end of the field, well out of my lens' range.

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