The Bufflehead Birder

December 27, 2008

Annual 2008 Xmas Tree Bird Ornament Count

 Welcome to the First Annual Xmas Tree Bird Ornament Count.

I apologize for not having the submissions posted on Xmas day as planned, but I had not realized where I would be spending the holidays did not have wireless access and time was a bit hectic to slip away to a local coffeeshop. However, we do have some fun photos of Xmas tree bird ornaments that were sighted in this year.

Let’s start off the photo results of our 2008 count with two species sighted by Vicki Henderson.

Peach-breasted Hummingbird

Peach-breasted Hummingbird

The Peach-breasted hummer lives in the Unicoi Mountains of Tennessee. It favors the environment of Yellow-bellied sapsuckers and follows them into the valley in winter, thriving on the sapsucker sap excavations. It also likes to lap the condesation from windows and looks brilliant in sunlight.

White-streaked Variagated Sparrows

White-streaked Variagated Sparrows

These birds come in two color morphs; red and blue. Both have a yellow breast patch. They frequently squabble over who gets a higher perch in the tree, a bit like siblings decorating a tree. The birds are endemic to Solvang, CA and live there year round. Both photos were taken with a Canon Rebel Xti 355 lens.

The next photos are of some not yet fully identified species that were seen by Peter Clement, Haverford, PA. Taxonomists have however, managed to assign these birds to two families: Family Danglidae (The Danglers) and Family Clipidae (Clipids). Note the dorsal string visible on the dangler individuals.

The cardinal-like specimen and the sparrow mimics are in the Family Clipidae. Clipids are easily identified by their cliptyle foot, which is actually two feet joined into a single extremity.

 bb.jpg     bc.jpg     b8.jpg

b9.jpg     bd.jpg     be.jpg

bb.jpg     ba.jpg

The final submissions are from the Bufflehead Birder. All shots were digiscoped using a Swarovski 80 HD ATS and Nikon Coolpix P5100.

The Beaded Tanager is one of the most elegant of the clipids. A joy to see anytime.


Lesser Ring-necked Pheasant


Posed on the Wissahickon Valley Watershed Association sign. The obvious dorsal string and diminutive size easily distinguish this bird from its larger and noisier cousin.

Miniature Ring-necked Pheasant on WVWA Sign

Although a member of the Family Danglidae with its wide red dorsal ribbon, the Wreath Gull can roost comfortably anywhere by constructing an evergreen “roost ring”.

Wreath Gull

In winter the forest is alive with the chatter of Bristletails. Below a pair of Red-winged Bristletails forage for berries. The male has a silver body with red wings, while the female is all red. After a certain age some bristletails may lose their thick springy tail feathers as has the male below.


 The Family Clipidae contains a large number of bristletail species. The exact number is unknown as new species continue to be described. A Copper Bristletail takes what enjoyment it can from a pale December sun.

Copper-sided Bristletail

The Painted Wissapooki is the only temperate climate parrot and inhabits riparian areas where it dines off shellfish and aquatic insects. A member of the Family Clutchidae, this bird uses its prehensile fourth toe to grasp its perch firmly while the remaining toes are free to brace prey items and obtain advantage in prying open stubborn shellfish as the Wissapooki below demonstrates.  I was too late to capture the action with the video function on my P5100, or you would have been able to watch the whole thing. Next time.

 Painted River Parrot


December 14, 2008

Announcing the 2008 Xmas Tree Bird Count


I’m sure many of you are taking part in the 2008 Audubon Xmas Bird Count, as am I, but what about the 2008 Xmas Tree Bird Ornament Count?

The rules are simple:

Photograph any holiday ornament bird that could attach to an evergreen tree via wire, string, hooks, or clips. It is okay to have the hook or whatever visible in shot.

You do not need to be a birder or even a photographer to submit.

It does NOT have to be in a Xmas tree. You may photograph it by a feeder, in a tree, in a mist net, being banded, basically any place a bird might be found.

Any type of photography equipment is acceptable, even a disposable camera.

It is not mandatory, but it is fun to include a name, life history facts, and type of camera and lens used to capture its image.

Also, let me know what name (if any) and hometown / state to put with the photo submission/s, and if you have a blog or website link you would like included.

Since this is the first year of this count, there is no limit to number of submissions per person. I’m entering all 9 of my bird ornaments.

Then submit your image/s to You may also send any other questions to this email as well and I’ll be glad to answer them.

This is not a competition, just some fun with our photography equipment.

All submissions will be posted December 25th.

Beaded Tanager.jpg

Beaded Tanager

Great Blues and a Kingfisher

Filed under: Digiscoping — Tags: , , , — admin @ 1:54 am

Just a few shots of a some Great Blue Herons I saw at my favorite pond today.


Not so cold as last Sunday but cold enough to keep most people away. So it was just me, the herons, 3 Red-tails circling and crying above, and yes, another kingfisher–the female this time.

Enjoy the photos.


The yellow eyes of the herons were easier to see in order to determine if I was in focus, whereas, it was harder to pick up the highlight in the kingfisher’s eyes though my LCD viewer. Sometimes I used the jagged edge of her crest as a focus target.


I can’t tell if her bill is scarred or just peeling in places. Can this happen from banging fish against rocks or tree limbs? My other thought is that these could be fish scales still stuck after her meal but not too sure about that. If anyone knows please leave a comment.


For more kingfisher and heron photos go to my Flickr account.


December 12, 2008

Puzzle - Fun with Feet

Filed under: Bird Puzzles — admin @ 3:52 am

Click on image to do this puzzle.




The Kingfisher and I

Just a quick post to show that the author of this blog is still alive and alert. I have other posts in the works but I am a slow writer. Last Sunday I had planned a trip up to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, which lies in the Pennsylvania Appalachians northwest of Allentown. But it was blustery and cold and I didn’t think it would be much fun on a mountain top.


So I took my digiscoping gear to my favorite pond to see who might be around. Wind whipped at my hair, snapping it around, and my body was still settling itself into a thermo-regulatory comfort zone as I headed over. The pond certainly looked dead. Who was I kidding? Everyone’s going to be hunkered down. However, no place is ever really dead. Just because birds weren’t screeching and hopping up and down for my attention doesn’t mean nothing’s there. So, I repeated my mantra: you never know.

I circled around to my favorite end, where in the warmer months turtles bask on the fallen logs. We’d had snow the night before and while most of it had melted, there was still a thin crust of ice on the pond and snow patches tucked in depressions and coating some of the bigger logs. Usually I spend some time getting shots of the turtles. Not today, though.

Kept walking. Nice to get out, get some exercise. A person can’t expect birds to be there waiting just because she happens to have her scope along, and sometimes, the quiet is nice. I set the tripod and scope down and recalled how wild the pond gets in summer with all the Tree Swallows, Red-winged Blackbirds, flickers, and the transient Cedar Waxwings.


But even on this cold and windy day I knew something would come by or peep out, as did a little wren later on, although it disappeared before I could get a shot of it. And sure enough, a familiar cry echoed from the woods along the stream that runs behind the pond. A chunk of blue tore out from the trees across to a nice open perch on the limb of a dying Red Oak, and even before it landed I knew it was one of the Belted Kingfishers that have been hanging out here all fall.


Great. They love this pond and will sit nicely on any one of their 4 favorite perches for long periods of time. Today it was the male that had come to fish. You can see how he has a plain white belly unlike the female with her wide rusty belt.

For some reason, even though I could see the bird in my LCD viewfinder, I couldn’t tell if it was in focus. I took a zillion shots and tweaked the focal ring now and then on the scope to increase the chance of some shots being clear. I am picking up new glasses next week with stronger bifocals on them. Let’s hope that helps.

About every 20 minutes the kingfisher, a male would plunge down for a fish. He sometimes flew behind a bush to eat his catch, the stinker, but I did get some shots when he deigned to eat in full view on a wood duck box.


The next 2 images are stills from a movie clip taken with the handy-dandy video on my Nikon P5100 point and shoot.

              eating.jpg         withfish1.jpg

I could have taken pictures of that kingfisher all day, and not just because I wanted to secure at least one focused shot, but because these birds have great photogenic qualities; that crest and bill, for one thing.


Although the photo quality is horrid and shameful, the shot (which is not a still from a video) does capture our friend in mid-squirt. It is a fine example of what photographers call the “decisive moment”. Kingfishers do this a lot. I’ve got videos to prove it. Must be that diet of fish.


While I was taking a breather from the kingfisher, another bird graced me with its presence. My first thought before I could see it through the scope was that it was a kestrel. It was about that size, maybe a tad bigger. But through the scope I could tell something was different. I don’t know my raptors as well as I should, although I’m learning, so it took me awhile to wonder if this might not be a merlin.


When I got home I checked it in my Birds of North America (National Geographic) and turns out I was right. No obvious white cheek patch as on a kestrel. I’m going to say that this was my first “conciously aware” sighting of a merlin. I probably saw them in Colorado when I was living out there, but as I never was sharp with raptor ID, who knows?

When the merlin left, I focused back on the kingfisher. Although I thought I heard another kingfisher call from the woods at one point, I only saw the male that day. Below is a shot of the female from one of my earlier visits to the pond. Note her rusty belt.


Two hours had passed and I was beginning to get chilled and my 2nd camera battery was giving me a warning that it was pooped. On the way home I made a stop at the farm where my horse lives. After giving him a nice brushing and some treats, I found another fun bird to digiscope. Maybe you’ll recognize the feet from the puzzle that you did before reading this post. You did do the puzzle, right, and not just glance at the little picture on the left? Good for you.


Guinea Fowl

You can look forward to more of these guys in future posts.

November 20, 2008

Waiting for Godot’s Owls

November 8th - Saturday Night

We were waiting for owls. So far none had shown up. But it was only 2 hours after dusk and we were to give it 4 hours because that’s when the owls really get active. That’s what research biologists Nate and Denise told us. So we sat back and opened a couple of more beers and passed the home-made brownies around again. I was with about 15 other members of The Delaware Valley Ornithology Club (DVOC) up in Hidden Valley on one of the highlight field outings of the year—spending the evening with researchers on the Northern Saw-whet Owl Project. The Saw-whet Project is headed by Scott Weidansaul, an author and researcher who works with migratory birds. I wish I could say that the owl photos below were mine but in fact, all the images in this post (including the puzzle afterwards) were taken by Philadelphia bird photographer Jamie Stewart, who was kind enough to let me use them.

SawWhetOwlBanding-1 by jaste1.

 Don’t you just love that face?

The Hidden Valley banding station is one of 3 located along the Pennsylvania Appalachians. The ridge alignment of these mountains, in particular Kittatinny Ridge, creates a corridor of favorable updrafts that comprise part of Atlantic Flyway. Nate was hoping for a low pressure system followed by a cold front because that would give the owls some umph to move south and improve the chance of a good capture rate that night.

From early October to the end of November many Saw-whets move south from Ontario and Northern New England. In winter months these owls may end up as far south as the Carolinas.

SawWhetOwlBanding-4 by jaste1.

The banding station cabin was unheated and there were port-a-potties located conveniently just outside. It was a nice rustic change for me from the Philadelphia suburbs. In a corner of the room was the banding table with a heat lamp, banding equipment, and then a short clothes line set up between two chairs with clothes pins. Nate said that some nights when there is a surplus of owls caught in a the net at the same time the researchers put them in sacks, which keep the little guys gently contained and calm. The sacks are then suspended from the clothes line as they await their turn at the banding table.


This is one of my shots. It’s the only one on this post without an owl in it.

The body of a saw-whet owl is the size of a baseball and the head with feathers is not much bigger than a tennis ball. Take the feathers away, and the saw-whet skull barely weighs more than a ping-pong ball. Saw-whets are the smallest owl on the East Coast. Males, in general, weigh 75 grams while the females get up to a whopping 100 grams. Wee, fluffy, and unbelievably cute and cuddle-liscious, these owls attract dozens of banding volunteers who devote 2-3 evenings per week for 2 months on the project, as well as groups of visitors who want to see and learn something about these enchanting little owls.

SawWhetOwlBanding-7 by jaste1.

Every 40 minutes or so Nate and Denise headed out to check the mist nets again hoping to get that haul of owls they had promised us. The weather was good, the audiolure was playing the sweet and, well…, alluring call of a male Saw-whet to stir the females to get out and about and hopefully into one of the nets. About 80% of the saw-whets that are caught throughout the state tend to be females. So far there is no completely satisfactory answer for that. The best theory is that the males with territories may hunker down to defend them as long as possible while females are freer to travel. Another thought is that perhaps the high capture rate of females reflects the actual demographics of Saw-whet owl populations.

In 15 minutes Nate and Denise return. Too soon. Not a good sign. We jeered as Nate assured us that the 3rd and 2nd to last net checks usually had the best results, and then we handed him and Denise more brownies.

To keep us from pounding the tables, chanting, “We want owls!”, Nate entertained us with more notes of interest about these birds. First of all, there are a lot more of them in PA than was previously thought, especially during migration. They are generally secretive and not as easy to spot as larger and more vocal owls, like the Great Horned or Barred. They are less active on nights with a full moon as their feared predators, Great Horned owls can spot them easier.

In fact, one banding stations had to be closed down as a result of predation. In the same way Coopers and Sharp-shinneds learn that backyard feeders are easy pickings, so Barred owls in that area discovered that this saw-whet banding station was a prime food spot.  Silent and lethal, the Barred owls would follow behind the banders and snag the newly released saw-whets.  “Sneaky” was how Nate described them.

Later in the evening we were joined by Scott Weidansaul and several board members of the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, and it got livelier and warmer with the extra bodies in the cabin. Scott made his rounds greeting us in his friendly and engaging manner.

“Isn’t banding exciting?” He asked one little girl, the youngest member of the group, who had shown absolutely no signs of getting tired as the night went on. “You get to see all this wildlife.”

Everyone laughed because it’s true both ways; as this night attested, you don’t always get to see something, but on the otherhand, sometimes you will experience more than you could ever imagine. Owl or no owl, the being there is good, and whenever I do finally see a Saw-whet it will be that much better appreciated for it’s not having been so available.

SawWhetOwlBanding-6 by jaste1.

Okay. One last net check. It was 11pm and almost time to call it a night and head home. Nate and Denise don their jackets and headlamps and head out again to check the nets. But soon they are back, empty-handed. Guess the owls had better things to do than fly into mist nets.  

So. No owls showed up that night. But I got to hang out in a cabin in the woods with other people who love birds, and be a part of something good. 

And then, there was an excellent bird joke told by our youngest member of the group:

Why don’t seagulls live by the bay?

Because then they would be bagels.


Waiting for Godot*

Saw-whet Owl - puzzle #8

Filed under: Bird Puzzles — Tags: — admin @ 8:35 am

To do this puzzle please click on the image below.

SawWhetOwlBanding-3 by jaste1

November 8, 2008

From Wood to Wren

On my kitchen table there stands a small brown Carolina wren. It’s perched on a small pile of lichen and pale green moss. The tail juts straight up like a wren’s should although its wings are a little too short for an adult bird. If you peer closely you might notice that the feather barbs are kind of crooked and chaotic and the bird is missing the first toe of each foot, but nevertheless, it’s definitely a wren.

Not too long ago it looked like a crooked chunk of wood with pencil marks on it. So I’m proud of the fact that it now looks like a little bird, even like a wren.

The last weekend in October saw the transformation of my chunk of wood into a wren when Ernie Muehlmatt hosted one of his bird carving workshops down in Salisbury, Maryland.

Ernie is a 3-time World Class Wildfowl Carving champion and teaches his art throughout the year in a variety of locations. Easy going and gifted with a good sense of humor, Ernie made the atmosphere of the workshop comfortable and inviting for a first-timer like me.

Ernie Muehlmatt

Ernie at work on his own wren.

It was also a blessing that two of Ernie’s long-time bird-carving friends attended this workshop and were willing to guide me along if they happen to glance over and saw that my wren could be on its way to becoming an avian Frankenstein.

We used tupelo wood, which has no definite grain pattern and is soft and easy to work with. We started with a “blank”, a chunk of tupelo with excess wood already taken off.

Dremel and Blank    

Someone in class said that the basic theory of carving is like that joke about how to make an elephant; just take away everything that isn’t part of the elephant. We all laughed because it’s basically true.

We started with a “blank” and beginning with the bill, worked back along the wings to the tail. 

First stage

So far, so good. But I thought of all those bird blanks that are going to get “wasted” if I intend to get into this new hobby. Kind of like all that film and money I blew back in the days before digital cameras while I was learning photography.

While bird blanks can be ordered from bird carvers, they are expensive enough that if you make lots of mistakes it could add up. I can save a little money buy getting my own saw. A band saw is what a lot of carvers use, but I don’t have the room for one, or the desire to donate any fingers to the cause, so I will most likely be getting a jigsaw later on. See, now I’m hooked and am thinking about what I’ll need to get in order to indulge in this hobby. Santa sure is going to be busy this year.

On the Saturday of our workshop weekend we took our lunch at the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art where Ernie led us on a tour of the galleries. If you are ever in SE Maryland a stop at the museum would be time well spent. It features early decoys carved by the Ward brothers, Lemuel and Steven, who made decoy carving into an art and more or less began the idea of bird carving into the art form that it is today.

Ward Wildfowl Carving Museum

One of the galleries here features a collection of the winning pieces from the previous year’s World Class Championship. These are some amazing works. Every component in the piece–the branches, the leaves, the pine needles, and rocks are carved from wood as well as the main bird. There are birds in mid-wing flap or mid-attack upon another bird who is poised in almost-escape, which are attached to their base by the merest feather or talon toe, giving the illusion of total free flight and movement. Each feather is flared or uplifted in absolute life-like detail, not painted but carved.

The joke about making an elephant popped into my head as I wandered among these carvings. Just remove what doesn’t belong and voila! But remove too much or what does belong, and there’s no slapping back of clay or rubbing out with an eraser. Just one mistake and entire piece that may have been weeks, months of long hours and excruciating concentration are for nothing.

Okay. Back at our workshop my little wren didn’t seem so overwhelming and I felt a bit more inspired.

So, once our birds had their basic shape we then carved the legs and feet and put the eyes in. That’s when I developed an affection for my little guy because now it could look out onto the world. Now it could look back at me.


A little wren looks content as it gets some wings.

Our birds then needed a “habitat” to perch on. So we carved lichens, rocks, and even a little toadstool.


Moss is a common feature of carving habitats and requires endless drilling of holes to accomplish the look. In the photo below I have barely started on my moss but you can see my uneven and crudely carved lichen.


After the carving there are more stages involved. Etching, stoning, and burning of feathes and markings. Then a laquering, application of Gesso, and a series of color washes, which I am still working on. However, below you can see the current stage of my wren as it poses proudly at the edge of my garden.

Almost There

Once the color wash is completed and cleaned up in some areas I will post a finished photo.

And no, sorry, my piece “Wren on Moss” is not for sale, but I’m flattered for the offers.

The puzzle below is of a Great Blue I digiscoped at the pond behind the Ward Museum. More pictures from the workshop are available for viewing at

Puzzle - Great Blue Heron

Filed under: Bird Puzzles — Tags: , , — admin @ 3:11 pm

To do this puzzle please click on image


Great Blue Heron at Ward Museum

October 4, 2008

Afternoon with Wood Ducks

Filed under: Digiscoping — Tags: , , , — admin @ 10:18 am

This past Sunday saw me at my favorite wetland pond where a couple of Wood Duck broods spent a successful summer surviving the snapping turtles that dwell in the pond. A high growth of vegetation along the pond’s edge let me set up my scope and camera without disturbing the ducks.


By this time in the year the pond has slimed up with algae yet these ducks keep their vivid colors.

Snapping Turtle

An ugly surprise lurks in the pond. Snapping Turtles are one of the big perils young waterfowl have to avoid. Plenty of these things dwell in this pond. A snapper can pull a full grown Canada Goose down and devour it. They also have amazingly long, longer than you would imagine, necks that can stretch and strike out over their backs.

Meanwhile, I put my fixed 30x eyepiece on my scope. I did so upon some advice given in Mike’s Birding and Digiscoping Blog. Previously, I used my 20-60x zoom. Most of the time I kept it wide open, but on occasion, just as many intermediate photographers do, I would zoom in just to see if I could get away with a closer shot. Sure, I got much closer compositions but I paid for it with poor light and blurry shots.

I am not sure why a fixed lens of the same magnification would be better than the zoom on that power setting, but I thought I might give it a try. Below is a shot of a brood from earlier this summer when I still had the 20-60x zoom in use.

Wood Duck Family

I am still experimenting and will have to do a better comparison, but I feel there is a bit more brightness with the fixed eyepiece as seen in the below shot.

Wood Ducks Getting the Kinks Out

The young ducks spent a good deal of time preening (again, all that algae), stretching, flapping their wings and hissing at each other, before finally tucking their heads into their back feathers to nap.

Then a family came down to the pond yelling and excited, and nap time for the Wood Ducks came to an end. The ducks headed for the other side of the pond and I headed for my car.



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