Archive for the ‘Birds and Birding’ Category
These are the very slow days for birders and bird photographers. All the photos from the trips to the tropics are processed, yet it’s too early for spring migration. And you just can’t stand to take another photo of a Common Redpoll.
As a result, bird photos fall off at Wickersham’s Conscience. But WC, at least, needs a break from economic disasters, carbon dioxide crises and the lunacy in Juneau and Washington, D.C. So let’s spend some quiet time with the most modest of bird families, the sparrows.
WC probably has several hundred photos of White-crowned Sparrows, by far the most common Interior Alaska sparrow. Here’s another shot.
WC has seen White-crowneds in most Alaska habitats; only on the North Slope do they become scarce. It’s also one of the bird species whose song contains its name: “Hey-look-at-me-I’m-a-White-crowned-Sparrow.” During the peak of spring breeding season, it’s hard to be outdoor and not hear a White-crowned Sparrow singing.
Another common Interior Alaska sparrow is the Savannah Sparrow. The distinctive yellow eyebrow or supercilium doesn’t occur in all races of this species, or in juveniles, but the adults in Alaska generally have the yellow eyebrow.
This is another species that is a generalist, breeding in a wide variety of habitats, form the scrub willow of high elevation to swampy interior valleys.
The chunkiest sparrow in Alaska is probably the Fox Sparrow. Highly variable, Alaska races tend to a bit darker, and the Alaska coastal species are almost sooty.
The rufous in the butt and tail and the size, as well as the heavy streaking in the breast are good field marks for the Alaska races of Fox Sparrow. This bird has a behavioral key, too: a distinctive, two-legged hop and kick to turn over leaves and debris looking for food.
Another larger sparrow in Alaska is the American Tree Sparrow. Unlike the three mentioned earlier, the American Tree Sparrow does prefer trees, or at least large bushes, and is rarely found at high elevations where there aren’t alder and larger willow shrubs.
The dark dot on the center of the chest is a definitive, easy field mark. You’ll see this species singing in the willows along the higher elevations on the Denali Highway, but if you get away from the disturbed areas supporting the willows, out on the open alpine tundra, there are no Tree Sparrows.
Finally, a species that is uncommon in Interior Alaska but fairly common along the coast, the Song Sparrow.
Another variable species, but the large grayish eyebrow is a good field mark, and the streaked breast is against a white color and not the reddish-grey of the Fox Sparrow. The tail tip is generally rounded, although you wouldn’t know it from this photo. The strong dark streak behind the eye and dark malar stripe against the white throat make this usually a straightforward identification. Unlike the other four, this species will sometimes hang around in the winter, foraging in the wrack along the seashore.
It’s still a few weeks before the first sparrows – Snow Buntings – arrive in Interior Alaska. For now all WC can do is look over previous photos. But not too much longer now.
The National Audubon Society‘s stated mission is “To conserve and restore natural ecosystems, focusing on birds, other wildlife, and their habitats for the benefit of humanity and the earth’s biological diversity.” Note the “natural ecosystems” and the “focusing on birds.” Audubon is all about birds and bird habitat.
There is nothing natural about house cats. They are an introduced species. And feral house cats are decimating songbird populations across North America. There are tens of millions of feral cats in the United States. That’s not a typo. Population estimates published by feral cat advocacy groups seem to range between 60-100 million cats. If you extrapolate published work done in individual states, science estimates at least 1.7 billion songbirds – that’s billion with a “b” – are killed each year by cats, divided more or less equally between feral cats and pets that their owners allow to go outdoors.
Add that feral cats lead miserable lives, diseased and malnourished, and prey for coyotes, Great-horned Owls and other suburb-habituated native predators.
So why not extirpate the feral cats, at least? In a phrase, the cat crazies. Feral cats have their human defenders. And they are noisy, shrill and blindly devoted to the protection of feral cats. To quote Rob Drieslein at Outdoor News, WC isn’t going to debate the damage that feral cats inflict on the environment.
Outdoors users, naturalists, and bird watchers know it, Audubon knows it, and state and federal natural resources agencies know it. Feral cat colony proponents know it, too; they just don’t give a damn. Arguing this black-and-white topic with a free-ranging cat advocate is akin to debating Darwin with an evolution denier or the carcinogenic properties of cigarettes with a tobacco-industry lobbyist.
WC wants to be clear about this: the positions of cat crazies are scientifically indefensible.
What passes for a moderate cat crazy will argue in favor of “Trap, Neuter and Release,” TNR, a program which captures feral cats, neuters them, and then releases them back to the outdoors. Of course, the problem is feral cats preying upon native species. TNR doesn’t solve the problem. In fact, it enables it. For WC, TNR demonstrates the cat crazies really are crazy.
But this post isn’t about cat crazies. It’s about spineless national environmental organizations who collapse like wet kleenex when attacked by the cat crazies.
Ted Williams is an outstanding nature writer. For 33 years, he has written about the threats confronting natural ecosystems in the U.S. Although National Audubon Society won’t admit it now, for years he
has had been Editor at Large of Audubon Magazine and has had a regular column in it. He has been a tireless advocate for healthy natural ecosystems and for the songbirds that inhabit them.
Williams recently wrote an op-ed piece for the Orlando Sentinel, in response to an earlier op-ed piece by a cat crazy. In it, he advocated poisoning the supersized colonies of feral cats that infest Florida. Here’s Williams’ explanation of what followed:
The Audubon Facebook post pretty much tells the story. Not much I can add except to point out that I undertook the op-ed for the Orlando Sentinel at Audubon’s suggestion and for no pay because its Florida staff was too busy to respond to an op-ed touting trap, neuter, and release of feral cats. I was trying to help, but obviously failed.
The feral cat community seized upon a reference I’d made to Tylenol, a cat poison unregistered for feral cat control. The sentences, quickly struck by the Orlando Sentinel on the online version (there was no print version) because of comments from feral cat support groups, read as follows: ‘There are two effective, humane alternatives to the cat hell of TNR. One is Tylenol (the human pain medication) – a completely selective feral-cat poison. But the TNR lobby has blocked its registration for this use.’
Lethal control of feral cats is widely and legally undertaken by state and federal wildlife managers to protect imperiled birds and mammals. But because poisons like Tylenol are not registered, control is largely ineffective. Cats have to be trapped, and they quickly learn to avoid traps. This, as the recently released Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute study revealed, is why each year in the U.S. somewhere between 1.4 billion and 3.7 billion birds and between 6.9 billion and 20.7 billion wild mammals are killed by feral and free-ranging cats. I think that’s too bad.
At any rate, a group called Alley Cat Allies fired off a release to its members and other feral cat support groups urging that they write Audubon demanding my immediate dismissal because I had ‘published a major newspaper editorial calling on the public to kill millions of cats by poisoning them with Tylenol.’ This untruth went ebola viral, and Audubon received literally thousands of emails from feral cat advocates demanding that I be fired. The result is the Audubon Facebook post you have seen.
While I’m of course disappointed in Audubon’s response, I recognize that I’m a seller of copy and Audubon is a buyer and that it has a perfect right to do business with anyone it pleases.
Williams was thrown under the bus by National Audubon because of a letter writing campaign by the cat crazies. Williams is a lot kinder and more generous about it than WC would be in his situation. But National Audubon caved to the cat crazies. National Audubon clearly didn’t bother to read Williams’ op-ed piece; if they had, they would have known the cat crazies were grossly misinterpreting what Williams said. And National Audubon, which claims to champion science, caved to the anti-science of the cat crazies.
How can National Audubon claim to be an effective advocate for the environment when it caves to a fringe group like the cat crazies? What will it do in a real fight? What will it do when the science isn’t completely clear? Who will it throw under the bus then?
WC won’t presume to speak for his readers. But WC will be adjusting his charitable donations this year. At least until National Audubon’s actions bear some consistency to its avowed mission. At least until National Audubon can grow a spine.
*Window-killed Swainson’s Thrush and Willow, an indoors-only housecat in a staged photo used by Mrs. WC for a presentation.
[An earlier version of this post paraphrased Rob Dreislein and failed to credit it. WC regrets the error.]
There’s a special quality to early morning light, particularly when you are photographing birds. It’s not merely the low sun angle. Dawn light is generally superior to sunset light. Perhaps the air is clearer in the morning, or the world is somehow fresher.
You can tell from the Long-billed Curlew’s shadow that the sun angle is still relatively low, and the richness of the light on the bird is unmistakable. In this case, a tail wind has ruffled the bird’s feathers, but it is the quality of the light that prevents this photo from being prosaic. You can see the same richness in the light on this Marbled Godwit.
Perhaps it’s possible to create this kind of light in Photoshop, but WC sure can’t. You get this light by being in the field, near the birds, when the sun is rising.
Just to prove WC isn’t a Bill-ist, fixated on birds with very long bills, here’s an American Golden-Plover in non-breeding plumage:
This photo was taken perhaps 20 minutes after the first two, as you can see from the angle of shadow, and you can see the richness of the light is starting to fade. And you can see that a plover’s bill is less … radical than a curlew’s or a godwit’s.
If light is truly a photographer’s paint, the early stuff’s the best.
For those who aren’t already tired of WC’s Costa Rica birding trip, a trip journal is now posted on line. It’s probably only of interest to birders, but those who are curious what a birding trip to the tropics may look like are invited to surf over and have a look.
While they have their charm, the Common Raven, the dominant corvid in Interior Alaska, is the exact opposite of colorful.
Our dumpster buzzard is black. All black. Sometimes shiny black, but still… black. Compare that with some of the Raven’s cousins.
Steller’s Jays are common in Southcentral and Southeast Alaska, down into the Pacific Northwest and the Rockies. The blue is electric, and the black crest gives the birds a certain insouciance that Ravens can’t bring off.
The Western Scrub-Jay – an undignified name for a very handsome bird – is a cousin to Interior North America’s Blue Jay. Clever and comfortable around people, non-birders usually don’t make a distinction between Blue Jays and Western Scrub-Jays.
The Florida Scrub-Jays has the dubious distinction of being North America’s most endangered Corvid. The species is endemic to central Florida, and dependent on scrub oak thickets. Those forests are almost all gone, cleared to create orange groves and subdivisions. Their favored habitat is dependent on wildfire, and the species is suffering as a result. It’s classified as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
Corvids aren’t as successful in the tropics. They can be very hard to find, and typically there’s only one species in a habitat zone. Contrast that with our Raven, and the amazing variety of habitats they occupy. But what tropical corvids lack in numbers they make up for in style. The White-throated Magpie-Jay has an amazing headdress.
Inca Jays break away from the whole black, white and blue thing entirely. Colorful, with iridescent purple face masks and a bright yellow eye, in WC’s experience they are shy and easily disturbed. This pair was photographed in southern Ecuador.
There are 120 species of Corvids worldwide, 20 in North America and five in Alaska: Common Raven, Gray Jay, Black-billed Magpie, Steller’s Jay and Northwestern Crow. American Crow and Clark’s Nutcracker are documented in Alaska, but are rare.
WC’s attitude toward Corvids was captured by Mark Twain in his short story, “What stumped the Bluejays” (although the story is almost certainly about Western Scrub-Jays). Here’s a sample, if you don’t know the tale:
There’s more to a bluejay than any other creature. He has got more moods, and more different kinds of feelings than other creatures; and mind you, whatever a bluejay feels, he can put into language. And no mere commonplace language, either, but rattling, out-and-out book talk – and bristling with metaphor, too – just bristling! And as for command of language – why you never see a bluejay get stuck for a word. No man ever did. They just boil out of him!
So there’s yet another reason to enjoy birding: the Corvids. If you don’t believe WC, then have a stroll outside in downtown Fairbanks the next time it’s forty below, and listen to the Common Ravens talking to each other. You don’t have to be Jim Baker to understand what they have to say.
Surf Scoters aren’t common in Interior Alaska, but do turn up occasionally in spring migration. Sometimes in unexpected places. This handsome fellow was at 48 Mile Pond on Chena Hot Springs Road this past summer.
The colorful, knobby bill, the white eye and the white forehead patch make the species unmistakeable in the field. They winter in coastal waters; they’re pretty easy to find on Prince William Sound. This group was on Orca Inlet, near Cordova.
But neither in the flat waters of Prince Williams Sound nor the taiga lakes of Alaska can you understand how they got their name. For that, you need ocean, big waves and foam. Because this is a species that, except when breeding, lives in the surf, foraging among the big waves with an insouciant indifference to big rollers and undertows.
This is a diving duck, specializing in the white water surf zone, feeding on mollusks, especially bivalves. But the fun is watching them effortlessly deal with the waves, cresting the smaller ones and diving under the larger ones.
They don’t ever seem to get tumbled, or even inconvenienced, by the waves. It’s a near-perfect adaptation to the environment.
Remember that if you do beach photography with big glass and a good camera, you need to wipe your camera and lens down with a damp (not wet) rag, rinsed in fresh water, promptly after you’re done. Salt is the enemy of optics and electronics. And a beach with breaking waves has salt spray. It doesn’t take much, less than you can easily detect, to turn your expensive gear into a corroded mess.
WC was on a business trip to the San Francisco Bay area recently, and made time to snap a few photos of some of the local birds. Those birds included the lovely Western Grebe, with their spectacular eye and long, elegant necks.
The birds are starting to pair up, even though for almost all of them there is a long migration flight still to be made. The species migrates as far north as Central British Columbia; they do not, alas, breed in Alaska.
Until 1985, Western Grebes and their close cousins, Clark’s Grebes, were considered the same species. But they aren’t. The primary field mark for telling them apart is there the eye is in the black cap, or below it. Here, you can see the eye is well within the the black crown of the birds. Hence, Western Grebe. There are other field marks as well, but WC finds the location of the eye and the cap to be the most reliable.
Alaska has two other Grebe species. Interior Alaska hosts both Red-necked Grebes and the lovely Horned Grebes. So it was a special treat to be able to photograph Westerns.
If you haven’t suffered enough of WC’s Costa Rica trip photos already, here’s a link to WC’s photo account where you can look through as many of the 120 images as you can tolerate. Note the Slide Show button in the upper right hand corner.
Interestingly, this species, the Masked Tityra, is a bit of a mystery. To quote ornithologist and author Richard Garrigues, “the exact taxonomic placement of these species is currently uncertain.” There’s only one record of the species in the United States: March of 1990, in Texas. The species is fairly common from Mexico to Brazil.
Most of the photos in the slide show will eventually make their way into a web trip report, with bird lists and narrative. Although not any time soon.
All of those posts about idiot politicians and corrupt corporations have WC is a pissy mood. So if you are squeamish, this is probably a post to skip.
Roadside Hawks are probably the most common raptor of Central America, certainly if you are only looking along the road system. They hunt by dropping from a low perch onto small prey. In this case, the low perch was a big tree limb and the prey was an unidentified lizard. (Any resemblance to the annoying, chatty reptile in the Geico television commercials is purely coincidental.)
Like a lot of raptor species, the Hawk eats the head first. The thinking is, if you’ve eaten the head it isn’t going to get away, WC supposes. Once the head is gone, it’s just a matter of lining things up right. It’s a bit messy when you don’t have hands.
And then it’s just a matter of loafing around with a full crop, looking dignified for birders and bird photographers.
The remaining bits of intestine are there from an earlier meal, and beneath dignity (or taste) of a handsome raptor.
WC will try to be less … vulgar … henceforward.
WC and his birding buddy, Ron Teel, will be sharing photos and stories of birding the Copper River Shorebird Festival and the eastern half of the Denali Highway tonight at 7:00 PM at the Noel Wien Library. WC’s thanks to the Arctic Audubon Society for allowing us to share our stuff.
Whatever you may think of WC’s bird photos, Ron’s are better. Stop by and see. And if you are one of the handful of folks who don’t know who WC is, you’d probably find out.
Okay, the title is inaccurate and unfair. But it may be apt.
Costa Rica recently banned hunting, country-wide. One of the nearly immediate results was the increased populations and approachability of some of what had been Costa Rica’s big game birds. And these are big birds, ranging from 18″ to 36″ in size.
The Great Tinamou seemed to be the wariest of the big birds we saw. At first, we thought this bird was on eggs, but she abandoned the spot to a crowd of peccaries, who weren’t interested. So perhaps she was leading us away from the nest. This is the common view of jungle birds; not the clear and unobstructed views in the better photographs, but mostly concealed and obstructed. This was my best shot of this species, and it’s admittedly not very good. The Great Tinamou is 17-18 inches tall, and spends most of its time foraging on the ground.
There are two species of Guans in Costa Rica. This is the Crested Guan, easily recognizable by its big red dewlap and white spots. Unlike the Tinamou, this species forages in the trees, eating mostly fruits and leaves. This bird is 34″ to 36″ tall; it’s surprising a species this big is arboreal.
It’s cousin, the Black Guan is smaller, at about 25″ tall, and divides its time between the forest floor and graceful movement along tree branches. Surely the world capital for seeing this Costa Rica and Panama endemic is Bosque de Paz, where WC counted almost 30 birds at one point.
WC has posted photos of the Great Curassow earlier, but adds them again here for the sake of completeness.
This species can fly, but WC doubts it needs to very often. For a big bird, it can move with breath-taking speed, running on the ground. This is the biggest of the big game birds, 36 inches tall and weighing in at more than 10 pounds.
WC also saw Gray-headed Chachalaca, but didn’t get a photo, and heard but didn’t see Little Tinamou.
Any trip that gets you more than half of the Galliformes and Tinamous is a success. Any time WC can double the number of photos of those species is excellent.
The Fiery-billed Araçari was among the most dramatic birds WC saw on his recent visit to Costa Rica. The bill, seen through binoculars, can make your eyes water.
The specie is unusual among toucans in that it is social. The birds move in small flocks, foraging for fruit and insects. Up to five will sleep at night in an abandoned woodpecker hole.
The Fiery-billed is a resident of the South Pacific slopes of the Cordillera de Tallamanca, at altitudes up to about 5,000 feet. These photos were taken in Puntarenas Province, near the Golfo Dulce, in the karst terrain there.
An altogether spectacular bird. A reason all by itself to visit Costa Rica.
WC was recently asked what the difference is between birding and birdwatching. Some examples may help clear up the confusion.
Birdwatching is sitting on the verandah at Asa Wright Lodge on Trinidad, drinking their superb coffee – rum punch after 4:00 PM – and from the comfort of your deck chair training your binoculars on the amazing birds that come the feeders. You might have to exert yourself to get up for that third cup of coffee. In extremis, you might even amble down the groomed trail 100 yeards or so to the White-bearded Mannikin lek to watch the antics of the birds. That’s birdwatching.
Birding is when you try to get a rarity, like, say, the Nicaraguan Grackle. Many readers will be thoroughly familiar with the Great-tailed Grackle. It’s an exceedingly common bird in the southern half of the United States, and occurs at least as far south as Panama. The Nicaraguan Grackle is smaller. The male is black and doesn’t have the distinctive purplish sheen of its Great-tailed cousin. The female’s chest is paler, and like the male she is about two-thirds the size of her Great-tailed cousin.
About the only place in Costa Rica to find the Nicaraugan Grackle is in Caño Negro Wildlife Reserve, along the Rio Frio, a river that actually drains into Lake Nicaragua. Even there, the Great-tails greatly outnumber of Nicaraguans. WC spent over three hours in the scorching sun and steamy heat, cruising the Rio Frio in a boat with a brutally hard seat looking for the rarity.
There were certainly river hazards. In addition to snags, there were 12-15 foot long American Crocodiles, like this fellow:
And Spectacled Caiman to 10 feet long, like this specimen:
Just to be clear here, the reptile is not smiling.
There were amazing numbers of terrific birds. WC even got a couple of lifers. But there were not any Nicaraguan Grackles. Sunburned (despite SPF-30 sunscreen) and sweaty, we motored back to the landing and there, on the bank just downstream, were a male and female Nicaraguan Grackle.
And the female:
And that’s birding: not always comfortable, chancy and sometimes random, and sometimes even involving hard work. It’s the difference between watching a sport and playing a sport. Earlier in this same trip, our group hiked the Ocelot Trail at Esquinas Lodge, apparently given that name because only big cats can climb up and down some of the stretches. Afterwards, WC could literally wring sweat out of his shirt. And no, we didn’t get the target bird. But that’s birding.
Some of WC’s friends think his idea of a vacation is demented. But that’s birding.
Has WC answered the question?
One of WC’s target bird species for photography was the Resplendant Quetzal. They’re a challenge to find, and their tendency to perch high makes the background tend to be bright.
Yes, that’s the tail extending all the way down. Yes, the tail was blowing in the breeze. The photo has its flaws, but should give you an idea of this extraordinary species.
Thanks for your patience while WC has indulged his bird photo hobby. We will drift back to a more eclectic selection of posts soon.
WC went on a river cruise yesterday. On the Caño Negro, in a wildlife refuge near the Costa Rica – Nicaragua border. In a faux dugout, with a sun roof and few amenities. The birding was very, very good.
This handsome bird was skulking in the mangrove roots along the stream edge. The boat operator did excellent work getting us views of the bird. The angle here isn’t ideal, but WC is happy with the result.
Bandwidth at the current lodge is grievously limited. Posts have been difficult to impossible. But WC starts back to civilization today, alas, so subject to the whims of travel, Wickersham’s Conscience should shortly be returning to regular content.
Hummingbirds are always a birder favorite. We don’t get many in Alaska; only the Rufous Hummingbird is regular. And that only in southeastern and southcentral Alaska. In the tropics, however, their size, colors, bills and behaviors are bewildering. And their names are as whimsical as anything in science.
Here’s a Green-crowned Brilliant, at five inches in length a mid-sized hummer. You can just make out from the angle of the photo the distinctive purple patch at the throat.
By contrast, the Violet Sabrewing is a somewhat larger bird at six and a quarter inches, with a truly lovely glittering violet color in the male.
It’s more spectacular in flight but adequate flight shots are beyond WC’s skills and equipment. The curved bill (technically, “decurved”) allows it to forage in flower with curved stems, like Heliconia.
Most lodges have a few hummingbird feeders; some have a lot. They attract considerable numbers and species of hummingbirds, although not all. Some are not attracted to feeders. But the ones that do come in are jaw-droppingly beautiful and endless entertaining. It’s a privilege to watch them
Photographing birds is hard enough. After all, the little buggers don’t hold still. When you add the concept of color palettes to bird photography – selecting a set of colors that are related or complementary – WC’s head starts to spin.
But WC did get lucky this once, with a Black-faced Grosbeak feeding on similarly-colored berries in decent light, with this result.
It’s not ideal. It’s kind of an ugly color to start with, unless you really like mustard. And the focus on the bird’s head is just a tiny bit soft.
The bird was a part of a mixed flock, a birder’s ideal, with a couple of dozen other birds of mixed species. Always a delight to encounter a mixed flock of tropical birds.
Yesterday, WC posted photos of the Great Curassow, a 36 inch behemoth among birds. Today, WC offers the Black-crested Coquette, a small hummingbird a mere 3 inches in length, but with more than enough belligerence of a bird twelve times its size.
One of the many reasons that WC finds birds endlessly fascinating is this kind of endless diversity. Not just in size, although that’s dramatic enough for a family of animals that mostly fly. But in color, behavior, food, habitat and much more. Consider bird bills. You can see the hummingbird’s bill is a 3/4 inch needle, designed to extract nectar from flowers. Here’s another bird’s bill:
The Toucan’s bill is evolved for cracking open nuts and berries, and extracting fruit. It’s a sledge hammer in comparison. Yet it is delicate enough that the bird can preen.
In WC’s case, endless fascination is not the full-blown obsession of, say, Phoebe Snetsinger. But it is true that WC spent most of the day in 90-degree temperatures and 90% plus humidity to see and photograph birds like this.
This Tufted Flycatcher was working hard on building a nest.
If WC had more bandwidth, he’d upload more shots of this bird doing its job. Perhaps later.