Wednesday, August 31, 2011

August Day on Plum Island (2) -- Purple Martins

This is going to be a short post because this weekend we were all hung up about securing the house and shop and lawn furniture for the passage of Hurricane Irene. Then we sat and waited, kept checking the storm tracking websites. The eye was getting closer and closer but nothing happened, I mean no wind, no fallen trees, no power outage, just lots and lots of rain. We only realized on Monday morning how fortunate we had been: there was major flooding in downtown Brattleboro, Vermont, and surrounding towns, and many roads and bridges were washed out...

To get back to Plum Island:

At Lot # 1 I stopped to look for Purple Martins. It seemed almost all of them had already left on their migration south. There was just one pair - two females - and a chick peeking out its nest in the wooden box.

One of the adults checked the nest and then turned back carrying a glistening white package in its beak, a neat way of removing the chick's feces..

I am going to be back in May next year when the colony is in full swing.

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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

August Day on Plum Island (1) REVISED FORSTER'S VS COMMON TERN

It's already late in the fall migration for many shore birds. So, when I went on a day-trip to Plum Island last week, I only saw small numbers. The beaches, that had been closed to protect nesting Piping Plovers, were soon to be opened, but a few vacationers had already made it into the restricted area at Lot # 1.

At the end of the day I came home with 400+ photos which needed to be sorted and put into neat piles of keepers and losers. Each one requires a trade-off between keeping too many and being overwhelmed, or being too thrifty and later regretting it. Best to sleep over it and leave the ultimate deleting for another day. It's late in the day, I am tired and have to be careful not to go on deleting binge as I have done before.

Now I know why:

According to a recent article in the New York Times Magazine about decision fatigue, each day we only have a limited supply of mental energy, and all decisions that we make will lower it bit by bit. Most decisions are not clear-cut Yes' or No's, but myriad Maybe's that sap our strength and render us unable to arrive at good choices at the end of the day.That's when we throw caution to the wind.  Glucose, however, partially reverses this depletion; so taking a break with a candy bar is not all bad.

Two early morning birders

I had left at 4:30 AM because I wanted to get there by 7 AM, well before the limited parking at Sandy Point at the very tip of Plum Island was filled up. Mine was the fourth car on the lot. I packed my gear and made my way down the sandy path to the beach.

There were already a couple of birders on the beach. I ran into one, who was on his way back, and couldn't let him go by without asking, "See anything? Any Forster's?"  He replied he had seen one Forster's at the very tip of the sand spit, but otherwise nothing out of the ordinary. -- I should add  here that Forster's Terns forage and breed in marshes and wetlands and are not that common right on the shore.

Small flock of Semipalmated Sandpipers flying along the water's edge.

 Although many shore birds had alreay left on their fall migration and were largely absent, there were many terns, both Common and Least.

There were lots of begging Common Tern juvies whose parents were trying to ignore them, often looking annoyed. Occasionally though one would bring a fish.

Least Terns were also there in good numbers, more juvies  than adults.

When at home I scrutinized the shot below of two flying terns I thought they looked suspiciously like Forster's, but Forster's and Common Terns are notoriously difficult to differentiate. I turned to to help with the ID. Here is the thread: According to one respondent, Smiths from Belgium, the left one was indeed a Forster's whereas the right one was a Common Tern. 

He gave a link to a sketch that helped him nail the ID. He writes:

"Based on this, the identification of the two terns in the photo becomes clearer, even though light conditions do not seem to be ideal. The left hand bird is definitely a Forster's; note extensive dark grey on central primaries, and white wedge on outers, almost like in a Black-headed Gull. Also, note bulging white loral area above bill base, and white underparts. I am not entirely sure of the right hand bird, but it looks more like a Common Tern to me: dark grey on the primaries is much more confined to the tips, there seem to be extensive grey blotches on belly and flanks, and the white loral area is much thinner."

REVISION: This can't be a Forster's tern which should show some white in the forecrown due to molt. Here is an excellent article on molts in Forster's Terns:

It was low tide and foraging on the  water-logged sandy beach was a solitary Piping Plover chick, as most adults depart on their fall migration by mid July.  It had the peculiar habit of putting one foot forward and letting it tremble in the shallow water, a behavior that I had not observed on my previous visit with Piping Plovers. It repeated the trembling with each step. According to The Shorebird Guide (O’Brien et al.) this foot-trembling feeding method causes prey to move and become more conspicuous.

View toward the public beach at Lot # 1

By afternoon all parking lots were full and there was a long line of cars  at the gate house waiting for to be admitted. It was time for me to pack up and drive home. But I'll show more photos in my next post. In the meantime head over to World Bird Wednesday at The Pine River Review for some terrific posts from all over the world.

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Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Chimney Swifts over the West River

It's close to impossible to get a close-up view of a Chimney Swift. They are spending most of their lives on the wing, feeding, drinking, even copulating in midair. They roost in chimneys, or other man-built structures, using their clawed feet to cling to the walls while bracing themselves with their spiny tails. With the change in the urban landscape and loss of suitable roosting places their numbers are diminishing. 

On a recent late afternoon I saw a loose, widely spaced group of Chimney Swifts, numbering perhaps thirty (see comment below), hawking for insects over the West River and surrounding fields. They were swooping and twisting overhead, cutting through the air, then rising suddenly on fluttering wings high into the sky and seeming to disappear over the trees and hills, only to reappear just as suddenly. They were changing so rapidly that I trouble focusing the camera on any particular bird. At home I had to do a lot of post-processing of the RAW images to give the birds shape and volume rather than showing them just as black silhouettes.

While soaring the bird often fans its tail

Here you get a suggestion of spikes in the tail.

A couple of months ago, standing on my deck, I was surprised by a loudly chirping trio swooping and circling and making sharp turns overhead. It only lasted for a couple of exhilarating minutes and then they were gone. Later I found out that this was probably part of a courtship display with two males chasing and courting one female.

James Audubon's wonderful painting of the Chimney Swift illustrates their hawking flight with gape wide open to catch insects. It also shows the claw-like feet, and lastly how a nest is constructed and glued to the wall with saliva, similar to the nest of a Cliff Swallow, - although swifts, contrary to expectation, are actually related to hummingbirds.

To really appreciate the beauty of this painting click to enlarge these images.

Cheers and Good Birding!

Comment on estimating numbers: It seems we are born with an innate sense of numbers

A study -- published online in a recent issue of Developmental Science -- indicates that math ability in preschool children is strongly linked to their inborn and primitive "number sense," called an "Approximate Number System" or ANS.
The article contains a link where you can test your own sense of numbers.

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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Strange Tale of Dog and Deer

This is a true story:
A couple of days ago I was walking along a logging trail on a nearby mountain with my dog Chance. After a sweaty and buggy uphill climb we finally reached the top, a large clearing overgrown with weeds, brambles and small trees. As I was scanning the leaves for small disturbances indicating a bird, Chance took off into the woods. After a few minutes I heard a distant yelp. Fear or pain? I called him back with no response. I heard nothing further. While waiting for him to return I noticed two small birds in the undergrowth nearby, two foraging Ovenbirds who paid little attention to me.

Suddenly, to my relief, I saw Chance trotting through the thinning forest about 50 yards off on my right. With his white coat and large black patches he was easy to spot. As he approached the clearing I expected him to turn toward me, but instead he continued straight on.

I should say a few words about Chance: He is friendly to all creatures except small furry things. Having been bitten as a puppy by an older dog, he is timid with other dogs and, if we encounter any on our walks, he clamps his tail between his legs until they have proven to be friendly. He has not met up with larger animals such as cows or horses. He has never seen deer at close range, only at a distance running across the field next to our house.
What happened next keeps replaying in my mind as if on a stage: a few steps behind him an adult antlerless deer was keeping pace with him. Chance continued to make his slow way through the weeds and low brush, stopping  at times to sniff  or examine something. The deer too stopped moving and resumed his pursuit as Chance moved on. Chance, seemingly unaware to his strange escort, did not once turn around. Soon both disappeared into the woods at the opposite edge of the clearing.

A couple of minutes later I saw the deer again, standing, as if posing, straight ahead at the edge of the plateau framed by two trees with  the sky as a backdrop. After a minute or so the deer walked off, stage left, and Chance reappeared from the woods on my right. Did he circle around behind me?

I had had a clear view of the entire strange spectacle but was so mesmerized by it that it never occurred to me to lift up my camera and and take a picture. So nothing to document it. I am still totally perplexed, still can't make any sense of it. 

A unedited preview of the peacable kingdom?

Jan Bruegel "Paradise" ca. 1620

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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Walking on Water

The Wilson's Storm-petrel is one of the most abundant birds on earth, but is rarely seen since it spends all its life on the ocean, coming to shore along the Antarctic coast only to breed. To escape the Antarctic winter it migrates to the northern hemisphere, summering on the North Atlantic, less commonly the Pacific.

On a pelagic trip off the coast of Massachusetts we saw them in large floating rafts which would disperse rapidly upon our approach.  Pattering with raised wings over the ocean surface foraging on plankton the birds looks like they are dancing.



When growing up I always dreamed of living close to the sea, of looking into the distance where water meets sky, and imagine far-away lands beckoning with strange lives and magical adventures. Well, here I am in land-locked Vermont...  I still love to visit the coast, walk along the beach, looking out over the ocean swell, watching the waves come in and dissipate in the sand.

I love the sounds the waves make.

When the noise around me gets too much I listen to a recording of ocean swells inside a rocky cave. Here is a snippet of End of the Cavern. The mp3 file is available here.

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