Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Eastern Phoebe - post breeding molt

This disheveled-looking Eastern Phoebe used one of the granite blocks in the yard as perch, spending much time in grooming. It shows a patch of rosy skin on its belly, clearly a brood patch, and seems to be going through the post-breeding molt. I didn't see any young birds around.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Woodpecker's effect on trees

Inspired by Kelly's post on her weeping willow tree I took a look at the trees in my backyard. We have a dead pine tree trunk in the back of our house. Originally the young pine tree served as an anchor for a clothes' line, but as it grew, the line girded and killed the tree. Too bad, but the tree would have had to come down anyway because the area was getting too crowded. A pileated woodpecker has been working on it.
Pileated Woodpecker

pine trunk with woodpecker holes

There are two trees in the front yard that have been attracting woodpeckers. One is a crab apple tree on which I have been hanging my feeders. The trunk of this tree has suffered extensive pecking damage. I think the hairies, downies, and to a lesser extent the redbellies, are problably responsible for the death of one of its major branches.

Crab Apple Tree damaged by woodpeckers


The second one is the mountain ash that I had planted in the middle of the front lawn when I first moved into the house 20 odd years ago. I thought the red berries would attract birds, but the tree, hemmed in by larger trees, never really thrived, growning tall and spindly instead. Many of the upper branches have died. I am sure the yellow-bellied sapsuckers that seemed to be particulary attracted to that tree are largely responsible. They damage the tree trunk by drilling round well holes into it that look like pockmarks.

Mountain Ash damaged by sapsuckers

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

close-up of tree damaged by sapsucker

Eventually we are probably doing to lose the trees, but in the meantime they provide sustenance to the woodpeckers.

It's been very busy around the feeders: beside the woodpeckers, a family of rose-breasted grosbeaks with at least four by now almost fully grown fledglings, grackles, northern cardinals, goldfinches, red-winged blackbirds, mourning doves, blue jays, various sparrows, an immature brown thrasher, titmice and white-breasted nuthatches. There are a couple of crow families with youngsters in the large trees surrounding our property, and even an occasional raven. There must be a raven nest somewhere in the neighborhood. I hear their deep croaks when they fly over but am always too late for a photo.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Herrick's Cove

Yesterday morning I drove to Herrick's Cove for some birding and ran into Mitchell Harrison who's report appeared this morning in the VTBIRD list - I didn't know his name before but it couldn't have been anyone else. I was able to get a fairly decent photo of the immature Baltimore Oriole and Yellow Warbler. The two Great Egrets were too far away though. Otherwise nothing unusual. It doesn't help of course that I have to take my dog along - he is an 8 months old giant puppy, half Brittany Spaniel, half Blue Tick Coonhound, and needs lots of exercise. Fortunately he is able to amuse himself with sniffing out things in the bushes and is not on my heels, or worse yet, running ahead of me all the time.

On my futuristic wishlist: a handheld gadget that could pinpoint the exact location of a sound. It would make finding singing birds in the summer so much easier! There is actually patent on such a device, very complicated by the sound of it, and I don't think it has been fabricated yet. Also it would be really really expensive...

Friday, July 17, 2009

Red-tailed hawk being mobbed by two small birds

red-tailed hawk being mobbed
red-tailed hawk being mobbed
red-tailed hawk being mobbedI was fooling around with my camera in my backyard this morning trying out some different settings, when I heard a sharp hoarse cry in the sky. Looking up I saw a red-tailed hawk being harrassed by two small birds. I took a few pictures until the trio disappeared. In the third photo it looks as if the smaller bird is right above the hawk. I am not sure what those smaller birds were; someone suggested great crested flycatcher and another eastern kingbird; they look like two different species. It's probably going to be unresolved - the resolution is just not good enough.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Indigo Bunting, Great Egret and Belted Kingfisher

Yesterday while walking along the West River trail across behind the Marina at the far end of the cornfield I saw a bright blue Indigo Bunting - the first one I have photographed. The pictures are not as sharp as I'd like them to be but here they are:

indigo bunting

indigo bunting

This morning I went back hoping for better pictures, but no such luck. I did however see a great egret on the sandbank in the West River.

great egret

great egret

Yesterday in Keene by the pond behind the Target store I saw a belted kingfisher hovering over the water, then plunging down to grab a fish. Here are some photos of the bird hovering - the drop into the water was too fast for my camera.

belted kingfisher

Here is the bird in repose. I think it was waiting for me to go away, which I did.

belted kingfisher

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Hinsdale Bluffs Bank Swallow Colony and Orchard Oriole

In a previous post on June 23rd I claimed that there weren't any bank swallow nests in the bank on the Hinsdale Bluffs opposite the Vernon Dam. I stand corrected. I walked there on 7/5 and took another look. There are indeed nest cavities just below the rim extending for about 30 feet. I saw many swallows flying back and forth over the grass but did not see any entering the nests.

Bank Swallow Nests

I also saw an orchard oriole, I think the second one in my life - the first one was probably 15 years ago. I was just carrying a small point-and-shoot camera and tried to get a photo, but it was of course totally inadequate as you can see below.

When I first saw the bird among the leaves in a bush I thought, by the size, that it was an American Redstart, although the red didn't appear to be quite right. Only after it flew off and settled on a bush further away did I realize my mistake. I am going to go up there again with my big camera and hope that I will have another chance.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Pelagic Trip to Jeffrey's Ledge

The trip yesterday sponsored by the Mass Aububon Joppa Flats Education Center turned out to be spectacular. The weather could not have been better and the birds were plentiful and cooperative. Our experts David Weaver and David Larson called out the birds we were passing, supplied interesting information and were extremely helpful in answering questions. I took 600+ photos but only a small fraction were usable.

Double-crested cormorants were perched all along the breakwater as we were leaving the harbor. Here is an adult with a juvenile.

Soon after leaving the harbor we encountered our first Northern Gannets. They were all juvenile - this year's fledglings. Later on we also saw a couple of adults.

We saw rafts of Wilson's Storm-Petrels throughout our trip. They took off as soon as our boat approached. They are small graceful birds, often appearing to be running or dancing on the water. They are spending their lives out on the water and according to David Weaver they are one of the most numerous birds on the globe.

These birds are so small that they were difficult to photograph but the intricate mirror images on the calm sea were absolutely beautiful!

Lastly we saw numerous Greater and Sooty Shearwaters. There were also some Cory's but I did not see them. I also missed getting photos of the single Parasitic Jaeger and the Roseate Tern.

This Greater Shearwater has a drop of a concentrated salt solution hanging off it's beak - that's how the bird excretes the salt it takes in with the seawater. According the Christopher W. Leahy in The Birdwatcher's Companion to North American Bird Life the salt is concentrated in salt glands located in the bird's skull with a duct to the nostrils. From there the salt solution dribbles down the beak to the tip where it hangs until it is shaken off.

Sooty Shearwaters are about the same size as the GS. The name is self-explanatory.

We also a saw humpback whales, minke whales and fin whales. The humpbacks put on a great show with two females, Clamp and Valley, creating a bubble net and appearing suddenly next to each other out of the deep, mouth agape, to gulp the fish.

On arriving back at the dock we received the message that Rte 1 out of Newburyport was jammed up for miles due to a traffic accident on I 95 earlier in the morning. Instead of joining the jam, I drove out to the Parker River Wildlife Refuge. I stopped at Lot # 1 to see the Purple Martins. What a different scene from May a year ago when I came here last! There were only a few birds, not the boisterous crowd of last year. According to Sue McGrath the birds were starving due to the rain and cold weather. Many fleglings and females had perished of the cold and starvation. Here is her report. I drove down to Sandy Point but did not see anything of note and found that by 6 pm the route home was clear.

This morning David Weaver's trip report arrived which gives a vivid account of our trip and a list and number of the birds encountered. Thanks to David Weaver and David Larson and to all who made this trip possible.

Grey Partridge (Perdix perdix) identified by sound

Carrying a recorder, an Olympus LS-10, has made a great difference to me in being able to identify birds. On my walks I would hear something really interesting, tell myself to remember it, but was never able to do so.

On my recent trip to Northern Germany I was walking on a path bordering a field out in the country, a large field with short stubby grass which had recently been cut. As I was concentrating on listening to the melodius fluting song of a Common Blackbird (turdus merula) in a nearby bush I became aware of another sound, a series of eery low pitched scratchy sounds just beyond the edge of the field, it seemed, but the exact distance was hard to pin-point In the increasing darkness I gradually made out the dark silhouette of a game bird crouching near a clump of grass in the middle distance, from which the sounds seemed to be coming. I recorded a section and identified it as a grey partridge (link to audio file)

Spectrogram & waveform using Raven Lite 1.0:

Although I grew up in Germany in the 50's and early 60's I had never heard this sound before nor had I seen grey partridges which were supposed to have been quite abundant, although less so today because of intensive cultivation and loss of habitat. It was introduced to North America where it is also known as "Hungarian Partridge". It was extensive hunted in the UK and is currently on the Red List there.

Sunday, July 5, 2009


I am going on a seabirding trip out of Newburyport tomorrow sponsored by the Mass Audubon Joppa Flats Education Center. Getting the right settings for my camera is going to be crucial; I usually rely on the histogram on the LCD screen of my camera to check for right exposure and avoid clipping on each side, that is areas of the image that are underexposed and others that are overexposed. On a bright sunny day however the screen is almost impossible to see, even when shading it with my hand. This problem can cause great disappointment when getting home from a trip and finding that the majority of the photos have to go into the trash. I posed the question on a forum of the Nikonian website and was pointed to a gadget called Hoodman HoodLoupe 3.0 which you hold over the screen and allows you to get a clear view of your image. There is a nice video of it on Youtube. At $80 it's a bit too pricey for me though. Instead I fashioned a toilet paper tube, painting it ink black on the inside and wrapping it in electrician's tape on the outside. The soft edge of the tape on the screen blocks out whatever light would seep in under the cardboard. Pressing it against the screen and moving around gives a nice clear picture. This should do just fine for this trip.

The weather is going to be nice, I think, and I hope to get lots of pictures to post on the site here.

P.S. 7/7/09 The idea with the blackened toilet paper tube turned out to be poppycock. I stood in the shade for most of the trip and all I had to do was shade the screen with my hand to see the histogram.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Henslow's Sparrow

After reading all the reports MASSBIRD I too traveled to the Montague area to see the Henslow's Sparrow. He was perched on a green stalk in the back of a tall grass meadow singing. The stalk also seemed to be a favorite perch for three male bobolinks. When they appeared he would drop down in the grass; and at one point he reappeared about 75 feet to the left on a similar group of green grass. When the bobolinks moved on he moved back to his original spot. While I was there much to my chagrin he stayed in the back of the field and was pretty much out of reach of my camera. If you click on the photo to enlarge it you can barely make him out on the bent bright green stalk in the center back.

Another birder with a scope was kind enough to let me take a look. What a beautiful little bird! I was amazed at the brightness and clarity of the image. I'd been holding off on getting a scope but this made me change my mind, although this particular one, a Swarovski, would out of my price range right now. I did manage to get an 11 sec recording of the song, not great quality but good enough, I think, to give an impression. The spectrogram helps in visualizing the song.

Mark Fairbrother posted the first report on June 27. It seems a miracle that he discovered him, particularly since the song is not very loud. There have been very few recorded observations and, although historically a breeder in Massachusetts, he is now listed as an endangered species in the state. Unfortunately the chances of him finding a mate are incalculably small.