The Bufflehead Birder

September 22, 2008

Parulas on Parade

Again, despite my desire to linger over tea and a new book at my favorite coffeeshop, I was glad that I had shown up for a morning bird walk with the Wyncote Audubon Society. It never fails, but to get out into the woods gets my mood up and often ends up with some worthwhile surprises.

Militia Hill, my favorite part of Fort Washington State Park in Whitemarsh, PA is always likely to provide something interesting. Plus, there was the promise of donuts and coffee at the end of the walk. And even if the walk proved to be scanty of sightings, why we could just take our donuts and coffee and go hang out on the grand 2-story hawk watching platform and join in with the birders gathered to help tally migrating raptors for the 2008 Hawk Watch.

Warblers were coming through too, and happened to be actively looking for what insects were still around. We had a few Black-throated Green Warblers, Black-throated Blue Warblers, one Black and White Warbler, and some American Redstarts along with a couple of immature males with yellow on the undersides of their wings and tail (Yellowstarts). I hadn’t ever seen one of those outside of a bird book.

But our most popular warbler of the day were the Parulas, including one stubborn one who was still in breeding plumage. Just about every greenish blur dashing from tree to tree turned out to be a Parula.

They were even cooperative at times by staying in view near the ends of branches, and I did not come away with Warbler-neck, as these birds foraged in the lower branches.

Below I took 2 still frames from a video clip I got of a berry-eating Parula.

Parula in Sumac

Taking photos of warblers is like taking snapshots of accelerated subatomic particles.

Parula with Sumac Berry

Thank you Nikon P5100 video and PhotoShop.


September 20, 2008

Red-tailed Hawk

Filed under: Bird Puzzles — admin @ 8:44 pm

To do this puzzle please click on image


Red-tailed Hawk

September 13, 2008

Breakfast at The Bathtub

For good eating and great scenery the best place on Nantucket Island is The Bathtub on Eel Point; that is, if you’re a Black-bellied Plover or a Short-billed Dowitcher or some other kind of shorebird. The Bathtub is a tidal cove separated from the open Atlantic by an arc of sandbars. Protected from the wind and with warm shallow water The Tub offers a nice bit of wet sand at low tide where shorebirds can enjoy some fine dining.

View of The Bath Tub on Eel Point

I can remember how alive and noisy it was with birds the last time I was there, looking through my stepdad’s spotting scope. So I was eager to head out there with my own digiscoping set up, and was pleased to find that the Nantucket Maria Mitchell Association had a bird walk planned at The Bathtub.

A large freshwater saltmarsh run parallel to The Tub and attracts birds that might not be seen in other habitats, such as the Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow. We did not spot one that morning but now it’s another reason to come back again next year. The open grassy dunes are also home to Northern Harriers (Marsh Hawks) and that morning we were treated to a brief visit from a Merlin. I believe I saw fox tracks in the sand as well.

Below a Black-bellied Plover scouts the shore for food. These birds will see something, hold a poise then scurry forward to grab it, like a cat frozen before the pounce. I have recently learned that it is believed the plovers detect the presence of worms by the outwardly gushing water from wormholes in the sand.

Black-bellied Plover

The wet sand menu consists of bivalves, beetles, an extensive variety of fly larvae, and the all-time favorite Polychaetes (Bristle worms), including those fabu-liscious ziti-thin worms (Notomastus, Scoloplos, etc.) that can be easily yanked from the substrate and gulped down in less than a second.

Below are a couple of stills from a video I took of a Lesser Yellowlegs cruising on a serious foraging mission along the opposite shore.

Lesser Yellowlegs #2       Lesser Yellowlegs and Black-bellied Plover

These birds love just about anything; beetles, fly larvae, small fish, worms, and even fish scales. Yes, according to one 1927 article the stomach contents of 9 Lesser Yellowlegs studied in Puerto Rico consisted of .33% fish scales. (Another interesting fact from Birds of NA Online - worth subscribing to if you’re into birds).

Despite the pleasant offerings and morning atmosphere of The Bathtub, nature is nature and some patrons will eat others. This Peregrine Falcon had killed a gull or tern, and was busy munching it down.

Peregrine with Kill

Other birds seen that morning were Snowy egrets, Cormorants, Herring gulls, a Great Black-backed Gull, American Oystercatchers, and Semipalmated Plovers.

However, I could have spent all day photographing one particular modest flock of Semipalmated Plovers who took time out from foraging to have a bath.

Semi-palmated Plover head dunk

Fluffing Semi-palmated Plover

A vigorous shaking and fluffing completes a refreshing bath.

The ambience of The Bathtub made the experience all the better. There was the eerie howling of Gray Seals coming across from outer sandbars beyond The Tub like wind hooing through the eaves of an old house. There was a gentle breeze rustling dune and saltmarsh grasses. There were birds having a good time, and fun bird folk to enjoy with whom to enjoy it all. The Eel Point Bathtub is a 5-star place to visit for birds and bird people alike.

Black-bellied plover

Puzzle Fun - September 12, 2008

Filed under: Bird Puzzles — Tags: , — admin @ 9:52 am

To do this puzzle just click on the image.

Dog Mailbox

August 20, 2008

Duck, Duck, Bear

Hello again. If you’ve been turning blue from holding your breath in anticipation of the next post you can let out that stale CO2 and take a deep breath. Here’s a new post with a couple of birds but something else, too.

I was checking through some old photos I have, thinking about what I might want to post just for a change from the digiscoped images. I picked out some shots I took in 1993 when I was traveling in Kamchatka.

In My Profile page I mention that I spent a lot of time in Russia, particularly Siberia. In 1993 I spent the month of August in Kamchatka in the Russian Far East traveling with a Russian friend who lived in the capital city, Petropavlosk. She and some colleagues were trying to start up an adventure tour company and I was a “guinea pig”. Tough job, that.

My most memorable ”test trip” was our 10-day horse trek in the Koriak Mountains, which are a volcanic mountain chain that extend up the spine of the peninsula. Our guide, Pyotr was a 3rd generation Russian hunter by profession, but was hired by my friend to help with setting up horse treks. Pyotr was one of the most kindly and pure-hearted people that I’ve ever known. He is also the fastest person I’ve ever seen at getting a fire going. Seriously, I’d see him arranging some sticks and 30 seconds later a fire was going.

The three of us spent 8 hours a day in the saddle with a 2-hour lunch break. We were lucky in that we’d had bright Colorado blue skies with little rain so the mosquitos weren’t as bad as they could be. I overheard someone say that earlier that year they’d been so numerous it was like you had fur on your arms.

On one particular day we had stopped for a brief rest along a stream banked with tall grasses. There was a loud swishing on the other side of the stream as something moved through the grass and even as I saw the creature, my mind was still working out what the source of the swishing and hadn’t fully taken in the large brown bear cruising along on the other side of the stream.

My guide, Pyotr pointed and whispered, “Boori medved.”

“Uh huh.” I was still pondering the swish sound. Then…a neuron made it to its receptor and a grand connection took place in my little brain; swish sound, brown bear moving through grass, swish sound, big brown bear swishing through grass right over there across this tiny trickle of a stream.

“Ah, boori medved,” I said as if I had been the one to place it first. I put the camera to my eye and clicked off some shots, and prayed the bear wouldn’t take notice of us huddled down behind some skimpy shrubs.

It’s possible the bear had known we were there; I don’t know. There wasn’t much breeze in my recollection and we had horses, who I don’t remember reacting either. If the bear had smelled us it never turned its head even once in our direction. It just kept on its merry way, which I guess is a good thing.

Here it is–Kamchatka’s favorite critter besides salmon.


The Kamchatka Brown bear (Ursus arctos), or “boori medved”, which translates from Russian as “grizzly bear”, is larger than its North American cousins, (Ursus horribilus).  An average Kamchatka male weighs about 500 kg or 1,100lbs, but some have reached trememdous weights of 1,500 lbs.


Okay, stop looking at the bear and see if you can find any birds in this photo and ID what they are.


I have to say I was relieved to see the hind end of our friend but at the same time I would have liked to watch it some more. The bear, that is, not it’s hind end.

And, yes, the ducks are female Common Mergansers. Both Common and Red-breasted Mergansers are found on the Kamchatka Peninsula, but the Common has a sharp delineation between the rust-red on its throat and the white of its breast. There is also a Chinese Merganser in the Russian Far East, which is similar to the Red-breasted but they are found only in the Amur Region and not on Kamchatka. So that makes it easier.


Did I mention how big Kamchatka Brown bears get?

July 8, 2008

Stepping Out the Door

Just when I think I pretty much know what to expect at certain times and in certain places, I discover that I don’t. It never fails to happen.

This Sunday I got to live that lesson again.

Almost every weekend I look forward to some digiscoping. There is a wetland pond I’ve been going to since May, but the afternoon heat and a general lethargy made me think twice. While lounging in the shade at home, debating about going out into the heat, I had to remind myself that it has always proven to be worth my while to make the effort to put myself into contact with nature. And what the heck, once I got out there with my disiscoping gear I would become immersed into the whole thing, as I always did. Who knows, perhaps I’d get another chance to see a snapping turtle out of the water as I had earlier this year.  


Sure enough, it was plenty hot out. My face was streaming. Every minute or so I had to wipe my eyes, and precipitation gathered in puddles on the lenses of my glasses. A bright sun made it just about impossible to see through the LCD viewer, while through my scope, the birds wavered in the thick humid haze like camels crossing a desert.

There was a male Red-winged Blackbird perched atop a snag and all in a huff, as he flashed his epaulettes and squawked in outrage. Some Robin-sized birds dipped and swooped for bugs over his head like a swarm of mosquitoes, using the dead tree and its snags as a landing and take off station.  There are quite a few Redwings breeding all around the wetland pond area, and while this particular male had been okay with the Tree Swallows that usually fly over the pond, he certainly was not okay with this sudden influx of visitors. 

   Blackbird3         Blackbird2        Blackbird1

I set my scope up, wiped some persperation from my face, and took a look through the eyepiece. Unlike the Redwing, I was pleased to see these birds were part of a visiting flock of Cedar Waxwings.


A Cedar Waxwing is different from a Bohemian Waxwing (which is the other type of Waxwing found in the U.S.). The easist way to tell them apart is the yellowish belly on the Cedar Waxwing as opposed to The Bohemian’s grayer underside. Also, the Bohemian has more white and yellow wing markings.

Both types of waxwings are nomadic birds that mainly eat fruits and berries. However, in summer bugs make up a good part of their diet.

The Red-winged Blackbird had left the dead tree to the Waxwings, who repeatedly landed on the exposed perches and held a pose for awhile before shooting off for more bugs. But even so, the haze and lack of LCD clarity made focusing a challenge for me. There is a focusing tip on Mike’s Digiscoping Blog that suggests turning off the auto focus of the camera and setting it to infinity, then relying on the scope optics to determine the focus, if I understand it correctly. So far I have haven’t managed to get that to work but I believe I may not have completely turned off my auto focus. I think I may pay a visit to the Nikon Coolpix P5100 section of Bird Forum.

Meanwhile, I was lucky to get a couple of shots that work.


By the next day most of the Waxwings had moved on, and while a few remained, that lively swooping and bug-snatching activity of the day before was gone. I thought about how easily I could have missed all of that.

There is always something taking place somewhere. There is always some moment out there that may never happen again.  Sometimes all it takes is stepping out the door.


June 29, 2008

Green Birding

Filed under: Main Posts — admin @ 9:44 pm

It’s pretty cool what has been done in the name of bird conservation lately.

While green birding has been around, it was the Big Bird Year (BIGBY) that has really put the concept out there in an inspiring way. The Big Bird Year was an incredible cross-country cycling trip for 10th grade birder, Malkolm Christie and his parents, that started in Alaska and ended some 12,000 miles later in Big Bend, Texas. At the end of the year it took them to complete this journey, Malkolm Christie had spotted 548 bird species and raised $20,000 some dollars for bird conservation. (Donations are still being accepted). But even as the Big Bird Year has come to its end, it’s a tradition in the making, I think, with greater journeys to come.

The idea behind green birding is to try and see how many bird species you can but only traveling to birding spots using fossil fuel-free transportation, or at least, more environmentally friendly means.

Many such challenges get sponsored and have raised money for bird conservation efforts. Even deciding on not partaking in a fossil-fueled trip to see a rare bird can be turned into a way to make a gift to conservation. Check out the June 18th post entitled “Sedge Wren” on Mike’s Bird and Digiscope Blog.

Meanwhile, before I even get to my car I’ve been having some close encounters with birds whether I want to or not. A family of Mockingbirds have made a nest in a Juniper right at the top of the steps to the parking area where I live. Even when I use the other stairs so as to avoid walking close to their nest, I’ve still felt the rush of air and the brush of feathers on the side of my head as I am dive-bombed by the Mockingbirds parents. I have been keeping a thick towel in the car for head protection should I need it.

Long View to Nest Secret Entrance

You can see the entrance hole to the nest, where the branches have parted some, in the top part of the yellow-green shrub.

At first, the attacks were limited to agitated vocalizations and I thought I had satisfied the parents by using the other stairway. But when the eggs hatched and both parents were non-stop bringing food to the babies the air attacks got worse. Hence, the towel.

Mockingbird with something yummy for the kids

And I had thought Brussel sprouts were bad.

Meanwhile, I now subscribe to Cornell’s Birds of North America online and have easy access to more information on Mockingbirds and how long I can expect to be under threat of dive bombing. What sold me on this resource as opposed to a field guide or wikipedia, is that the material is from the most current ornithology articles written by specialists of whatever species is searched.

I now know that it was most likely the male that was attacking me and that Mockingbirds recognize those individuals who are repeated intruders, and concentrate their attacks on those lucky folks. Actually, I find this interesting and wonder if using a different colored towel would make the birds think I’m someone else. Much as I can appreciate their protectiveness, I do have to get into my own nest and there are only 2 pathways that go from my car to my door.

Although for some reason, in the last couple of days the parents aren’t right there waiting for me when I get out of my car. One of them may sit and make some aggressive raspy sounds from the trees, but I haven’t been attacked all weekend. So I guess a towel switch or facial reconstruction won’t be needed.

I think, I hope, by the end of this week there should be some fledglings taking refuge in the shrubbery. There is something absolutely precious about young birds that haven’t quite learned to fly but hop around and perch on low branches. According to Cornell’s Bird of North America (BNA), the youngsters will hang out as fledglings for about another week before flying off.

Also, BNA tells me that while Mockingbirds often build more than one nest,in a breeding season (sometimes up to 6) they do not reuse the same one. So, we’ll see if next year I’m running a 3-week gauntlet with a towel and sunglasses.


Early digiscope image of a Mockingbird from last March in Peace Valley, PA

June 23, 2008

Weekly Puzzle - june 24,2008

Filed under: Bird Puzzles — Tags: , , , , , — admin @ 5:47 pm

Please click on this image to do this puzzle

Green Heron

June 19, 2008

Blustery Day in Heaven

Filed under: Digiscoping — admin @ 12:22 am

This may be hard to do, especially if you were in the Philly area during the last sweltering heat wave, but let’s try for the sake of this week’s post.

Picture a whipping wind shoving gray clouds across a pale mid-morning sky. This is how it was for me one Saturday last February when I took my new digiscoping equipment out for a real drive, not the 30-minute test drive at the nearby pond I spoke about in an earlier post.

Andorra Nature Center is located along the Wissahickon River. Not only is it located in a quiet part of the woods just off the walking trail along the river, but it also offers a complex of feeders, which is a boon to beginner digiscoper. Anywhere birds congregate is an excellent place to practice.


Firstly, there are lots of birds coming and going.

Secondly, there are always certain perches in the path of approach to a feeder that are used over and over by incoming birds. When these perches are noted, they make a handy place to focus your scope or camera while you settle in and wait. That’s the idea anyway.

However, keep in mind Hunter’s First Perch Principle:

If, the following is true:
X = likelihood of target bird using given perch
Y = frequency of scope or camera focused on given perch
Then, X will decrease in direct proportion to the increase of Y.

I stared at a lot of vacant perches until I got a few worthwhile shots.

Luckily, this principle did not apply to the path of approach used by the White-breasted Nuthatches. They liked to hop down the along the side of a nearby tree, stopping from time to time, and remaining still long enough for me to actually attempt a focus, before making the short flight to the feeder of choice.


White-breasted Nuthatch

Very cooperative, those Nuthatches, unlike a favorite friend pictured below.

Tufted Titmouse

Tufted Titmouse

The wind set my scope to vibrating, and although the low light conditions actually allowed me to see through my LCD viewer, it forced me to set my Coolpix P5100 to an ISO of 400 and to use the widest aperture possible. That made for grainier images but, at least they stood a better chance than the proverbial ice cube, of being in focus.

Wren Hairy Woodpecker

Carolina Wren and Downy Woodpecker

I stood huddled against the wind, clicking shots of Nuthatches, Downy Woodpeckers, Juncos, White-throated Sparrows, sometimes Tufted Titmice or Chickadees but more often of vacant perches. The wind was so high that trees bowed back and forth, and vicious gusts swept birds en masse off of the feeders and into the trees.


Chickadee with Seed

(Either Black-capped or Carolina. Black-caps have the more distinct white stripes on the wings. I couldn’t quite tell from my viewpoint.)

But the digiscoping thrill was on and I couldn’t stop. Just one more shot of the Nuthatch, or hey, now that Titmouse is finally on its perch, or what about a few more shots of those Juncos with their cheeks full of seeds?

And then there was a Red-bellied Woodpecker spinning around on the suet feeder while Titmice, Chickadees, and a Carolina Wren joined in. No chance here of a sharply focused shot, so I applied one of Mike’s digiscoping tips and took a video of the twirling feeder so that I could snatch a couple of in-focus stills from that later.
It was absolute Heaven.
Finally, 5 hours later, my fingers were too numb to shift the exposure dial, and the snow was starting to come down in a serious slant. It was time to beam back to the Home Planet and go get a hot coffee.





Andorra Bench

Weekly Puzzle - June 18th, 2008

Filed under: Bird Puzzles — admin @ 12:18 am

Please click on this image to do the puzzle




« Older PostsNewer Posts »

Powered by WordPress