Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Lincoln's Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow and American Pipit

Yes! Luck was with me this morning! I finally got my Lincoln's Sparrow! I had been hunting for this species for a couple of years. It's a breeder of subarctic and subalpine regions. During fall migration it's fairly common in the West, but more elusive, and secretive, in the Northeast. It usually feeds on the ground, not far from cover. And this one was not hiding at all, but perched right on top of the brush pile, sitting very patiently for a portrait.

This sparrow was named after Thomas Lincoln (1812 - 1883)  a well-to-do Maine farmer who as a young man accompnied Audubon on his Labrador expedition. Audubon wrote "Chance placed my young companion, Thomas Lincoln, in a situation where he saw it alight within shot and with his usual unerring aim, he cut short its career. On seizing it, I found it to be a species I had not seen; and supposing it to be new, I named it Tom's Finch in honor of our friend Lincoln, who was a great favorite among us." Christopher W. Leahy, The Birdwatcher's Companion to North American Birdlife.

There were also several Swamp Sparrows in the same brush pile. It's easy to confuse them with the Lincoln's Sparrow unless seen side-by-side. They both have a mostly gray face and a buffy malar stripe. The best way to tell them apart is to look at the chest:  fine, discrete streaks on the Lincoln's chest and blurry ones on the Swamp Sparrow's.

Just as I was about to leave I saw a  slender, head-bobbing bird striding over the sandy ground, dipping in and out of the grass along the edge. As I got closer I realized it was an American Pipit.

American Pipits breed in the arctic tundra and alpine grasslands. We see them in the NE only during its fall migration to areas south of the winter snow line. They are common but easy to miss because of their earthy colors and ground-feeding habits.

It's an ancient species. Fossils have been found in Nebraska dating back to the late Pleistocene about 0.6 million years ago. It makes me realize that many species common to us are just transitory visitors with roots dating far back in time and with lives lived mostly elsewhere.

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Saturday, September 17, 2011

Trumpeter Swans at Montezuma NWR in upstate NY

Bill and I were at a family gathering in Michigan, driving straight through on the way there, but taking two days driving back. We spent a night in Seneca Falls and while Bill enjoyed a leisurely muffins-and-coffee motel-style breakfast I visited the Montezuma NWR nearby, a sweeping expanse of shallow marsh land right next to the interstate. A large flock of Canada Geese were feeding on the meadow around the visitor's center, but a little further off I found a small flock of grazing white swans.

I didn't really find out what kind of swans I was seeing until I got a good look at my photos on my computer. and then decide were these four birds the rare Trumpeter Swans or the more common Tundras? Both have black bills and black leg. They look very similar, although if seen side-by-side the Trumpeter is larger.

They are distinguished only from each other by subtle differences in bill and head shape.
The culmen, the line along the upper ridge of the Trumpeter's bill, is straight  whereas in the Tundra's it's concave. The Tundra's head is dome-shaped, whereas the Trumpeter's is flat. The black base of the bill envelopes the eye in the Trumpeter whereas in the Tundra it's tangential, often containing a yellow spot in the lores. The border between forehead and bill is V-shaped in the Trumpeter and U-shaped in the Tundra.

The upper edge of the lower mandible has a salmon red border which makes the bird look like it's wearing lipstick.

Trumpeter Swan Call recorded by Taylor Brooks, xeno-canto Cat. Nr. XC41300

The Trumpeter Swan was common and widespread when Europeans first came to settle in North America but was then hunted almost to extinction for its skin and primary feathers. In 1935 only 69 individuals were known to exist, until isolated populations were discovered in Alaska and Canada. With conservation the population has by now expanded to 34,000 individuals according to a continent-wide survey in 2005.

BNA Online:  Distribution of the Trumpeter Swan in North America.

. The Trumpeter Swan Society is a great resource for more information on this rare bird.

Regrettably I missed the spectacle of the birds taking flight as they were gone when I returned to the visitor's center after my drive around the refuge.

It was a good trip, no matter that I had my small Canon Powershot S95 and a battery pack with sync cable for our iPhone stolen from our car - total value $450. We were guests at a large party in a secluded neighborhood. Cars were parked in a long row along the curb. In the confusion one of us forgot to lock the car. Fortunately the thief did not find the Garmin GPS  behind the driver's seat, with "Grapes of Wrath" on it from Audible -  fantastic book, fantastic reader, about people with great grit escaping the dust bowl, the depression...  Nor, more importantly, did they find my workhorse, the Nikon with the long lens, well hidden in the trunk of the car.

I am watching Craigslist and eBay, but so far nothing. It hurts! For now no landscape shots, no close-ups...

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Tuesday, September 6, 2011

After the Storm

A Great Blue Heron looking stunned: how is a bird that hunts by sight supposed to find prey in this muddy soup?.  After hurricane Irene most streams and ponds in Southern Vermont look like this, carrying suspended soil from neighbors' backyards, farms and fields, along with sewage and waste.

Vermont's road map looks like a torn spider web. The flash floods have destroyed bridges, undermined roads and  broken up the asphalt into so many scrambled pieces. Most townships and villages have been affected in one way or other since many roads in a mountainous state like Vermont are built alongside streams. Many communities are still isolated and can only be reached over treacherous make-shift roads. In addition to carrying away houses and life stock the storm hit at the top of the harvest season, destroying field crops and orchards.

The Mallard Ducks seem to be making out alright.

Roadside leaves caked with silt

A lone crayfish, stranded by the receding flood,  marches along a dry dirt path....

until a predator spots him.

Cheers and Good Birding!

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