Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Nighttime hijinks at the bird feeder

This evening I turned on the lights at the back deck just to see how things looked outside, and I found a three-ring circus taking place in the trees. Flying squirrels were everywhere! I've never seen so many at once. I counted at least 6 at one time, but I bet there were more.

See all the little dots that are under the feeder? That's seed that's getting spilled by these hungry rascals.

The word has definitely been spread that our feeders are THE place to dine. They are very vocal, making all kinds of squeaks. It's no wonder everyone knows to come here.

They were on all the feeders, and in all of the perimeter trees around the deck. I was sitting outside to take these photos, and actually felt surrounded at times. I was half expecting one to land on me. I think I've mentioned before that they are pretty fearless, and they run right along the deck railings just a few feet in front me. We can even swivel around the shepherd's hooks that hold the feeders, and they won't budge. The freakiest thing this evening was when I could hear one running around on the underside of the deck... somewhere, unseen, under my feet...

Flying squirrels are extremely fast-moving creatures. They hop, scurry and fly to get where they want to go. This one landed on the window screen, then made its way over to the siding before it flew over to a neighboring tree.

Preparing for take-off. I've not yet caught a photo of a flying squirrel in flight. One of these days...

You can see from these photos that they blend in pretty well with the trees. Much more so than their non-flying counterparts. Dave brought up a good point the other night: if they blend so well from this angle, why is their belly fur so white? The only reason I could come up with is that it would serve to startle whoever they might be flying at. Although, I just thought of another reason... maybe it has something to do with helping them see where they're trying to land when they fly... like the white on their bellies reflects off of the surface they're aiming for. That's a long shot, especially on a night when there's no moonlight, but with those big eyes of theirs, I'd say their night vision has to be pretty good. Anyone else got any ideas about this?

Look how fat he's getting on our seed! Oy!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Birds in the hand - what it does for your bird ID skills

Now that you've seen the process of bird banding, lets take a closer look at some of the birds. Keep in mind that since it's fall, these birds are no longer in their breeding plumage, which will make for some tricky ID work, especially when it comes to the warblers. (My Peterson's guide has several pages devoted to "confusing fall warblers" which I didn't really appreciate until now!)

By the way, I would just like to clarify that I did not handle any of these birds personally. All birds were banded and handled by the trained staff and volunteers of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory. This was all part of a public banding demonstration.

We'll start off with the thrush triple play that I mentioned a few posts back. Two of these birds were lifers for me.

We start off with the Wood Thrush, a denizen of our woods each spring and summer. The prominent identifying marks here are the bold white eye ring and the rusty coloring.

I have to apologize for the lighting on the next few pictures...

Grey-cheeked and Swainson's Thrushes (from left to right), both life birds for me. It's unlikely I would see them in my neck of the woods as they both breed far north into Canada. It would be a rare treat indeed to see them pass through on migration on this patch of land.

Both the Swainson's and the Grey-cheeked are more olive colored (especially compared to the Wood Thrush), but the Swainson's has a more visible eye ring than Grey-cheeked.

Here's the Grey-cheeked, perhaps the most drab of all 3 presented here. (Again, I apologize for the dark photos.)

Swainson's and Wood Thrushes side by side. Here you can really see the drab olive coloring of the Swainson's on the left versus the rust (some might say ochraceous) coloring of the Wood Thrush on the right.

And here, if you will indulge me in one more comparison, you can see the subtle differences in the spotting of the chest on the Swainson's on the left and the Wood Thrush on the right.

Okay, moving on to the warblers!

This is the Common Yellowthroat, which I never would have guessed the identity of in a million years. The BSBO folks said it's a hatchling-year bird (sex unknown), which is a likely explanation for the lack of the diagnostic black mask.

This little gem is the Magnolia Warbler. Again, a far cry from his boldly streaked plumage during breeding season, but still identifiable by the presence of wing bars and, more tellingly...

... the white band across the middle of the tail feathers.

Another thing that stuck out in my mind was the faint necklace of white between it's chin and chest. Oh yeah, this was a lifer for me.

Black-throated Green Warlber. Aside from the wing bars, only the faintest hint of black remains in the throat to give away who this is. Kelly and I tracked one of these down at Cedar Falls in the Hocking Hills back in July.

Nashville Warbler (lifer). Pretty plain as warblers go, this is distinguished from the Connecticut Warbler (which we did not see) by the fact that it's throat is yellow (the Connecticut would have a olive/bluish head AND throat).

Finally, we will conclude with some little sprites:

The Winter Wren and House Wren (left to right). Both life birds for me, and very good for me to see because I had no idea exactly how small they are. Compared to a Carolina Wren, well, these guys are tiny.

Comparing the tails of the House Wren (on the left) and the Winter Wren (on the right). Everything about the Winter Wren is compact, including it's stumpy little tail!

Here you can also compare the somewhat curved beak of the House Wren (left) to the straighter beak of the Winter Wren (right). Also, notice the eyebrow stripe on the Winter Wren.

I just want to put him in my pocket and carry him around with me all day - he's that cute!

Seeing all of these birds so close, having these pictures to study at my leisure, and comparing the photos to books and online field guides has greatly increased my likelihood of being able to identify these tricky birds in the future. I am grateful to the knowledgeable staff and volunteers at the Black Swamp Bird Observatory for pointing out so many of the field marks that I mentioned here.

This concludes my official "report" about my experiences at this year's Midwest Birding Symposium. I still have some random images I'd like to share, but I do have some other things I'd like to get posting about. If you found any of this info about the symposium even remotely interesting, keep September 2011 in the back of your mind for the next one (hopefully at Lakeside!).

Happy birding!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Bird banding at Black Swamp Bird Observatory

One of the coolest events of the Midwest Birding Symposium for me was the bird banding demos that took place at the Black Swamp Bird Observatory. The observatory, about a 40-minute drive from our Lakeside location, offered these public banding demos on Friday and Saturday morning, before the 10:00 AM keynote speaker presentations. Located only a few miles from Magee Marsh (dubbed by many as the warbler capital of North America come spring migration), the observatory is no doubt situated along the migratory path of many birds.

During the banding demo that we attended on Saturday morning we saw at least 15 different individual birds, most of whom were migratory species, and quite a few of which were life birds for me! In this post, I'm going to concentrate on the banding process itself and give you an idea of what it entails. This was my first ever banding experience, so it was interesting to observe that it's not just a matter of snapping a little band on the bird's leg.

By the way, I would just like to clarify that I did not handle any of these birds personally. All birds were banded and handled by the trained staff and volunteers of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory. This was all part of a public banding demonstration.

First you have to catch the bird. Mist nets that are 40 feet long and 8 feet high are stretched between 2 poles to catch the birds. The nets are virtually invisible to the birds, and when they fly into the net, they fall into a pocket (the several horizontal rows visible in the photo on the left give you an idea where the pockets are), where they will then be pulled out and transferred to a draw-string bag for safe-keeping until it is time to be banded.

In addition to being banded, the bird will be weighed, aged, sexed if possible, have a wing measurement taken, and fat scored (looking at the amount of fat stored in their abdomen). Here we see this hatchling year female Northern Cardinal being banded, weighed and having her wing measurement taken.

After all the measurements have been recorded, the bird will be released back into the wild. You may have heard or read that a Cardinal in the hand can be a memorable experience because they are vicious biters. The gentleman holding this bird (Mark Shieldcastle, Research Director of BSBO) noted that since this young bird didn't fully have a grasp yet on what her beak was capable of, she was fairly harmless. She certainly had some spunk, though, and was not terribly happy at being handled.

Here we have an adult female Brown Thrasher going through the paces: being fitted for a band, having her abdomen fat examined (how many of us would subject ourselves to that?), and being weighed.

I couldn't resist zooming in on this photo. Just look at this amazing bird. Isn't she beautiful? She was pretty docile in the hand, quite the opposite of what I've observed in the field. A breeding female is pretty territorial and will let you know when you've gotten too close to her nest. It was incredible to be able to see one this close.

A male adult American Robin. Based on the looks of his head feathers, I'd say he's in the process of molting. This Robin was special because he was a recapture (meaning he had already been banded by someone else). They didn't recognize it as one of the BSBO bands, so they had no way of knowing at that moment where it had been banded. All relevant measurements were recorded, and I'm sure they will submit the band number and info to U.S. Geological Survey. According to a pamphlet about banding available at the observatory, they only catch about 5 "foreign" birds (birds banded by another bander) per year. Pretty cool that we got to see one, huh?

This is one of my favorite photos of the entire morning. To me it encompasses the whole of the banding operation itself: seeing that data being entered by hand for each of the thousands of birds that pass through there, all the while having the bird in your hand while you capture its details. (For those wondering, that's a Swainson's Thrush in Mark's hand.)

Tomorrow we will look in detail at some of the other birds that were banded at the demo, and examine their field marks (in non-breeding plumage at that!). Stay tuned.

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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Marblehead Lighthouse (SWF)

I promise there are more bird photos to come from our recent trip to the Midwest Birding Symposium, but part of the fun of being in a new place (for me) is going exploring and sightseeing (and photographing!). Marblehead Lighthouse State Park was only about 4 miles away from our Lakeside location, so it was a no-brainer to go down and check it out while we were in the area.

Now owned by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, the lighthouse is the oldest lighthouse in continuous operation on the Great Lakes. The U.S. Coast Guard is responsible for the maintenance and operation of the actual beacon within the tower.

I seem to recall reading somewhere that this is one of the most photographed lighthouses in the U.S., but since I can't find my source on that, don't quote me on it!

I would imagine that some fantastic photos of this lighthouse could be made at sunrise (although when I do a Google image search for it, I don't see any sunrise shots...), but we were there at sunset. The golden hue of the fading light made for some pleasing colors.

The weather was quite nice when we arrived at the lighthouse, but some sort of front blew in seemingly out of nowhere, and the winds picked up to mild but steady gusts. Ominous clouds rolled in, but there was never any precipitation, which was just fine by me...
Ominous skies + no rain = dramatic photos and a dry camera!

I should have stuck around long enough to get at least one photo of the beacon in action, but I had already decided to pack it up by the time the green glow started its 10-flashes-per minute signaling (the light is green to distinguish from the white light coming from air beacons).

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