Thursday, May 21, 2009

Lucky Shot: Black-throated Green


While following colorful, feathered sprites around Magee Marsh last weekend, I managed to score a few lucky shots. This one I especially like. It's a male black-throated green warbler and it looks like he's singing. But if you look closely, you can see he's actually noshing on a small insect.

So there I was, having taking this warbler's picture, and I started thinking about mortality. The thought crossed my mind, as I strolled farther along the Magee boardwalk with insectivorous birds all around me, that if I were to be reincarnated as an insect or caterpillar, I REALLY hope it's not in May on the south shore of Lake Erie. That would be a very short life indeed.

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Reality of Warbler Photography

Cameras purchased by bird watchers who want to become bird photographers should come with a warning sticker that says:

Bird photography is not as easy as it looks.
In fact, it's not even close to being easy!

You need to be prepared to be extremely disappointed
in the images you'll be getting despite spending all this money.

Don't say we didn't warn you.
And no, there's nothing wrong with your camera.



That sort of fair warning/truth in advertising would go a long way to helping me feel better about the plethora of warbler images I take that look like this:


Or the ones that look like this:


Or this. Great photo of vegetation, perfectly in focus, hiding a blurry bird.



And then, before you figure things out, the bird bolts. Sweet!

But if the birding gods are smiling, the bird does a 180 and stops to check you out for just five seconds more, and you get this (below), an image which is JUST GOOD ENOUGH to keep you coming back, camera in hand, chasing after colorful fleeting things with wings.


Cropping and tweaking results in an image that is good enough for the old blog, but probably won't pass muster for the cover of National Geographic. Still, what a handsome devil this male magnolia warbler is!

Happy shutter-bugging to every bird watcher who is similarly afflicted.

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Monday, May 18, 2009

Warblers Up Close

Bay-breasted warbler, probably an old female, at Magee Marsh.

Having lived in Ohio for most of my birding life as a grown-up (relatively speaking), you'd think that catching the phenomenal warbler and songbird migration at Magee Marsh along Lake Erie's southern shore would be something I'd experienced annually. Most avid bird watchers in Ohio (and in the surrounding states for that matter) get to Magee at some point during the height of spring migration—between mid-April and mid-May.

To a migrant songbird in spring, Magee Marsh is the perfect rest stop before flying over Lake Erie and into Canada. When the wind is blowing from north to south (a headwind for migrants) the birds drop into the trees at Magee to rest, forage, and wait for more favorable traveling weather.

I'd been to the famous Magee boardwalk in spring, but always a bit too early or too late to catch many migrants. And I was there once with a team of birders trying to break Ohio's Big Day record. We timed things perfectly for everywhere in the state, except Magee, which was practically birdless on that May morning. Perfect weather—clear skies and a south to north wind—encourages the northbound birds to keep on moving across Lake Erie. And we chose for our Big Day attempt, a perfect weather day for the birds to keep on flying north. We ended that day deep in the wilds of southern Ohio, with 186 species (well short of the record) and with a bunch of unchecked boxes among the warblers on our checklist.

Last weekend the Ohio Ornithological Society held its annual meeting not too far from Magee Marsh. As a board member of this fine organization, I was required to be at the meeting, with the happy knowledge that it would REQUIRE me to spend two mornings watching birds at one of North America's most famous warbler hotspots.

The first day, Saturday, was overcast but warm at the start. By the time we left Magee around 11:45 AM to head to some other local birding sites, it was getting cooler and starting to rain. Still, we saw 20 warbler species, three vireo species, three thrush species, and so on. It was my best day ever at Magee. My fellow bird watchers chuckled at my enthusiasm.

Then came Sunday. Sunny and cold at daybreak, it did not really warm up until well into the afternoon. Bird watchers along the boardwalk gathered in crowds within the scattered pools of sunlight. If I'd thought Saturday was good, Sunday was amazing. Thousands of newly arrived birds moved through the trees, brush, and undergrowth. Everywhere you looked there was movement and song. People called out warbler names to no one in particular, with a mixture of joy and wonder in their voices. I thought to myself: This must be what heaven is like for birders. Except heaven would have a few more Porto potties and beautiful angels would be plying us all with warm doughnuts and hot coffee. But this was pretty close!
The boardwalk at Magee is crowded with bird watchers from late April through mid-May.

There were more female warblers present on Sunday, and more young, first-spring males, giving us a chance to note the subtle differences in plumage. However the most incredible thing about Sunday's bird action was the behavior of many of the migrants. Whether it was hunger, the cold temperatures, or just the rush of the migratory imperative, many of the warblers were low in the vegetation, foraging and singing actively, seeming to be oblivious to the humans a few feet or even mere inches away! And it's not like we were all being quiet and respectful. Cameras clicked, beeped, whirred, and flashed. Birders shouted to one another and narrated the birds' every moves:

"OH MY! LOOK at this bird! COOL! He just caught a bug! Now he's flitting over here! He's attacking that other bird. Oh, he's gonna poop! WOW! What a great LOOK! I can't BELIEVE THIS!" and so on.

But that was not all.

I heard at least three throaty cries of ecstasy—the kind of sounds that are usually accompanied by bad dialogue, cheesy jazz, and a rating beyond the reach of NC-17.

Like I said, the birding was good.

To illustrate one of my own close encounters of the warbler kind, here is a short video (rated G) that I shot with my point-and-shoot camera.
video

You can hear some birders talking in the background, including Jon Dunn, author of several key field guides, including the National Geographic Field Guide to Birds of North America. This male black-throated blue warbler was less than two feet from me, on the trunk of the tree, completely unperturbed by all the chattering humans draped in expensive optics.

I already know where I want to be when the birds come back next May.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Washington County Big Day 2009

What is that old saying about publicity? I don't care how you talk about me, just talk about me?

Saturday morning, May 9, 2009, came mighty early for those of us who were playing a gig at the Whipple/Wrangler Tavern the night before. But did that stop us from getting up at some ungodly hour to tally birds in the Mostly Annual Washington County, Ohio Big Day? Nope.

When I was a mere boy bird watcher, under the watchful tutelage of Mrs Pat Murphy and my mom Elsa Thompson, it was an annual ritual each May to try to see 100 species within Washington County, Ohio, where we all lived. We called it a Century Day—get it? Century=100 species!

I think I remember maybe one year when we got 100+ species. Nowadays with all our newfangled technology, including the Tubes of the Interwebs and The Google, we can pinpoint the location of happening bird action on a minute-by-minute basis. Our friends can tell us where all the warblers are warblering and where all the tanagers are tanagering.

These days, three full decades removed from Pat Murphy's Century Days, it's The Whipple Bird Club that has taken up the chalice and taken on the challenge of trying to top 100 species in little old Washington County, Ohio. This is an account of how things went on Saturday.

After we finished our gig on Friday night/Saturday morning, we loaded up the vans and cars with gear and everyone hit the road. I stayed behind a moment to collect my thoughts—the only person still extant at The Whipple/Wrangler Tavern. And I was rewarded for my fortitude by the nocturnal flight call of a Swainson's thrush! A mere 20 minutes later, as I traipsed up the walk to the house, I added species #2: An American woodcock which kindly peented its way onto the list.

And then I slept for 2.5 hours.

To start the daylight portion our Big Day, I rolled my tired carcass up the stairs to our birding tower. Day was dawning and the birds were already aloft, calling, or stirring themselves to life. But the clouds in the West indicated a day of unsettled weather. In quick succession I heard or saw a dozen, then two dozen species. By 7:15 am I was up to 45 species. That's when Shila showed up and added her bird-spotting skills to the team effort. The wind picked up and we pulled on additional coats against the wind. At least it was not raining.

The day started off promisingly from the birding tower.

The Whipple Bird Club is four core members: me, Julie Zickefoose, Shila Wilson, and Steve McCarthy. We've got lots of honorary members, but, it's the four core peeps who wave the flag of the good ol' WBC.

Every Big Day has a few birds that are total surprises and a few that completely skunk you. One of our early surprises was a merlin that Shila and I saw skirt the tower not once but twice! I got a bad photo of it flying away, having missed on its chance to nail a tree swallow.

Julie floated up the tower stairs about 8 am, bearing more coffee and some munchies. We were somewhere north of 50 species. Three hours later we were ready to leave Indigo Hill for the rest of the county and we had 70 species.

Pine siskins were still hanging around after last winter's influx.

A gorgeous male rose-breasted grosbeak came close enough for digiscoping.

Our male blue-winged warbler sang from the end of the orchard.

Phoebe and Chet came up to check on us in the tower.

Down the road just a couple of miles, we came across an eastern box turtle. It was a beautiful adult male and we helped him across the road to wherever he was going.

The box turtle we saved.

The Whipple Bird Club flashes its gangland hand signs near the Belpre Bridge (where there were no peregrines).

After poking around the western part of the county in a largely fruitless search for some long-shot species, and waiting to pick up the Royal Meteorologist of the WBC, Steve McCarthy, we headed back toward Marietta, the county seat, for some more familiar birding turf. We got the bobolinks not far from Route 676 where they've nested for a few years. We got American kestrel and killdeer there, too. Then it was off to the Kroger Wetland for some target shorebirds. We got both spotted sandpiper and solitary sandpiper there, plus willow flycatcher and house wren. A bonus yellow-billed cuckoo flew over. We dipped out on phothonotary warbler, however.

It was 5:00 pm and we had 96 species. The county record (unofficial) is 110 set by Steve, Shila, and me in 2007. We ate LEAST wanted to tie that. Preferably we'd beat the living tar out of it.

Spotted sandpiper at the Kroger Wetlands.

Steve scans the Kroger Wetlands while Liam and Phoebe dream.

Then we headed up the Ohio River for some other hopeful hotspots counting every species we got and plotting to add the next bird. We ran into a streak of shorebirds at the tank farm along Ohio 7: greater and lesser yellowlegs, plus an unexpected snowy egret. Then we hit Newell's Run. By this time it was already dinner time and the sun was sinking below the hills. We added a few of the expected warblers along Newell's Run: Louisiana waterthrush, yellow-throated warbler, and
Trying to drum up a few target birds on Newell's Run.

Bored kids will find something to climb.

By 8:30 pm we were deep in the woods of Wayne National Forest, hoping for a cerulean warbler. We got no joy. By 9:10 pm it was actively dark and the kids were weeping from hunger (as were we). A calling whip-poor-will came in as species #108 and we called it a day.


We pulled out ALL the stops in our effort to find more than 100 species.

I stepped outside the house a couple of times before midnight, but the wind was howling and the rain spitting and I knew that no self-respecting owl would be calling in such weather.

108. One shy of tying the record, which still stands.

Of course, the next day dawned clear and sunny and still and I felt like doing it all over again.
But would I?

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Monday, May 11, 2009

Finally, a Decent Bird Photo!


It had to happen sooner or later—the happy convergence of a fabulously lovely bird, the rich light from the sun on a clear morning, and my camera with a working battery and plenty of flash card space.

Thank you, Mr. Bay-breasted Warbler, for stopping by our weeping willow tree on the only sunny morning we've had for two weeks.

I did back-to-back Big Days this past weekend. More on that tomorrow. Or the next day. Or the day after that.

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Monday, May 04, 2009

Rainy Days of Birding

A weather front followed me on my latest birding adventure.

From Tuesday night through Sunday morning last week I was in West Virginia at The New River Birding and Nature Festival. As I left for the festival, crossing the Ohio, West Virginia border, a large weather front appeared in the West, darkening the previously blue, sunshine-drenched sky. Apparently this weather front was also attending the New River Birding and Nature Festival because we both arrived at the same time and stayed for the rest of the week.

But what's a little weather among avid bird watchers? We laugh in the face of a driving rainstorm, as long as we can get somewhere sheltered to dry off our lenses, preferably somewhere with hot chocolate.

Intrepid birders at the bobolink field.

The birds were showing well despite the weather—the only miss being the golden-winged warbler, which we figured must have not yet returned from the tropics. The bobolinks at the bobolink field were already in, but the males were flying around in bachelor groups singing and perching in trees. Two days later they had staked out territories and were at war with each other. What a difference between their migratory behavior and their on-territory/breeding season behavior!

Every trip I lead for this year's NRBNF netted some lifers for one or more of my group. On some trips we had new birders along, or bird watchers from the West (for whom many eastern birds were new), and we cleaned up on life birds! One festival attendee netted 70 life birds! That's nothing to sneeze at!
Cloudy skies did not diminish the nice views. At least when the fog blew away.

There are at least 50 reasons why you should go to the New River Birding & Nature Festival. Twenty-five to 30 of those reasons could be warblers, because that's how many North American warbler species are seen annually at this event.
A singing male Kentucky warbler photographed on another, sunnier day of birding.

More on my New River adventures tomorrow. If you are starved to read more about this wonderful event right this very minute, check out some of the posts from the Flock of Bloggers that attended this year's festival, which included:

Mary from Mary’s View
Nina from Nature Remains
Kathie from Sycamore Canyon
Kathleen from A Glorious Life
Barb from My Bird Tales
Lynne from Hasty Brook

I met most of these fine folks during my six days in Fayetteville, WV. Also posting mightily about the event are Jeff Gordon (from whom I copped the list above), Jim McCormac, and Julie Zickefoose.

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Monday, September 08, 2008

Fall Migration's First Wave

In fall, male scarlet tanagers lose their bright scarlet color and look similar to females.

This morning I could tell that today was going to be one of those autumn days. I KNOW I should have stayed home to watch birds.

Glancing out the window on the way to take Liam to the school bus, I saw two magnolia warblers, a flicking tail of an American redstart, and I heard the whisper song of a solitary vireo. Scarlet tanagers and eastern kingbirds played tag on the powerlines over my neighbor's cow pasture. Flights of chimney swifts twittered along our ridge. A band of northern flickers flashed up out of the driveway. Young American robins in various stages of spottedness squealed at each other as they landed in the cherry tree.

Mid-September is the birdiest time of year at our farm. All the resident birds and their offspring are about. The sky is peppered with migrants and their flight and contact calls reach our ears from all directions.

I think today was the first big wave day of the fall—at least for southeastern Ohio. Every year I plead with the migrant warblers to hang around for just a few weeks more so I can count them on The Big Sit day (October 12, 2008). By the time the Big Sit rolls around, we're sorting through the tailings of migration.

Yep. This is the BEST time of year for birding here. Maybe I'll stay home tomorrow....

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Warblers of South Padre

CapeMayWarbler
A curious Cape May warbler peers at me from a mesquite.

Because of its location along the Texas Gulf Coast, South Padre Island attracts certain creatures: spring break revelers from college, surf fishermen, boogie board addicts, sun worshipers, and migrant songbirds, and the birders that chase them.

Among the birds that pile up on South Padre in the spring, no group gets as much attention as the warblers. The convention center on the northern reaches of South Padre has a brackish marsh and several lines of trees. These are the first land-based features that migrant warblers see when the come across the gulf from Mexico on their all-night flights headed northward. So the birds drop out of the sky seeking refuge and head for the biggest clump of trees in sight.

Waiting for them are the birders and photographers. On a good day you might be able to catch 30 warbler species there. The trouble is that a good day for the birders is when the winds howl out of the North, forcing the birds to fight all night across the gulf. Many of them reach land just barely, dropping exhausted into the trees, onto the beaches, sometimes lacking the energy to begin foraging right away. So a good day for birders is often a bad day for the warblers.

While doing our Big Sit from midnight to midnight last Sunday on the back side of the South Padre Convention Center we heard rumors of a north wind bringing a storm front across Texas. This would be good for birds if it arrived at the right time. Well lucky for the birds, it arrived too late to inhibit migration. Unluckily for us we did not get the huge fallout of warblers that the Texas Coast is famous for having.

Still The Groovy-billed Anis (our Big Sit team) eked out a respectable 17 warbler species, the last two (a bay-breasted and a magnolia) right at dusk in pounding rain. More on the rain in a future post.

Here are some of the visual highlights, warbler-wise, that I was able to capture in between bouts of Big Sitting. I should note that these images are barely cropped if at all. The birds were VERY close, coming in for sips of water and for the insects sheltering in the trees. Tired migrant birds are less spooky and wary which explains why there were at least a dozen photographers there with their big rigs, shooting warblers.

TNWarbler
Tennessee warbler reaching for a tasty morsel.

YellowWarblerSPadre

Yellow warbler looking happy to be on land again.



GoodCapeMayW
Cape May warbler.

ChestnutSidedWarblerBug
Chestnut-sided warbler about to nail the insect above it (look closely).

MoonwalkingBlackpoll
This blackpoll warbler looks like he's moonwalking.

WilsonsWarbler
Wilson's warbler.

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