The Bufflehead Birder

July 1, 2010

Trees of Mordor and the Jungle

Last week I spent a day with two friends from Colorado who were visiting New Jersey. But instead of going to a restaurant or museum, Julie and Jarett suggested we meet up for some hiking and a picnic lunch at the Mariton Wildlife Sanctuary. That was perfect. Conveniently located on the Delaware River outside of Riegelsville, PA., Mariton was not that far for either me, just north of Philadelphia, or for my friends who were staying in western New Jersey.


Mariton Preserve is a 200-acre tract, which in 1969 was placed by its owners under the protection and management of the Natural Lands Trust. The Lands Trust has been around since 1953. It has devoted itself, either through acquisition or conservation partnership, to protecting and managing land throughout the Delaware Valley.

Mariton has a wonderful visitor’s center with displays of bird and animal skulls, nests, photos, bones, feathers, stuffed birds, and rubber casts of animal tracks that you can press into a small sandbox to see what the imprint of a bobcat or snapping turtle might look like. Mariton also offers workshops and nature tours for school groups and other visitors, but last week the three of us had the entire place to ourselves. Not a car or school bus anywhere in the parking lot.


During tick season it’s a good idea to tuck pants into your socks.

The trail map offered 4-5 miles of hiking paths. We decide to plan for lunch at River Overlook, check out the bird blind on the way, and after lunch hike up South Fox Trail to Kit Trail, which leads down through a coniferous forest where we might spot roosting owls. On the trail map this pine forest was called ‘The Dark Habitat’. 


Now, anything named ‘The Dark Habitat’ is just begging to be checked out. It makes you wonder what else might be roosting in those spruce trees along with the owls. Julie and Jarett, being Tolkien freaks, referred to it as “Mordor”. So it was a must. Owls or no owls, how can you resist traveling through Mordor to get back to your car? 


Note the pants tucked into the socks.



Two things strike me about Pennsylvania forests, even though I have been back east now for 8 years. One is the absolute greenery, and the other is the intensity of bird sounds.

It’s not that there aren’t lots of birds in Colorado, but their calls can seem distant in the open lands.  Whereas, the dense forests back east contain bird sounds and bounce them back at you in a heavy dose.

While a Steller’s Jay is a grand sight to an easterner, so is the Northern Cardinal to a westerner. Julie and Jarett were enthralled with the bright exotic red of these birds, as I continue to be. In fact, throw in a few scarlet cardinals among the deep and luminescent greenery of a deciduous forest, and the surround sound of bird songs and screeches, and squirrels chattering overhead like monkeys, and a bit of east coast humidity, and you have yourself a Pennsylvania jungle.


A Rhodedendron reaches over the trail and gives the forest an exotic touch.

No jungle is complete, however, without some large prehistoric-looking bird. For the Mariton woods it was the Pileated Woodpecker which fit that role. Julie was hoping to see one. Pileateds aren’t found in Colorado, and they aren’t even that easily come upon in Pennsylvania, but the forest here had the mature hardwoods that these birds like. Sure enough, a black blur, the size of a football, cruised through the trees and landed on a the trunk of a beech tree where it lingered long enough for all 3 of us to pass the binos around and enjoy a nice long look at this magnificent bird with its red crest illuminated by the sun.


Pileated Woodpeckers make holes that are easily identified because of their large, rectangular shape.

We had a change of plan when we got down to River Outlook; there was not much room to sit and the view of the Delaware below was obscured by foliage. Perhaps, in the fall the view might be better.


River Overlook sits right above the Delaware River.

Since we had missed the bird blind somehow, we back-tracked to find it and eat lunch there. That turned out to be good move. We could eat and be entertained by fledgling birds and cheeky young chipmunks.


Young critters keep us entertained.

The feeder area was like a day care for woodland youngsters. Young Eastern Chipmunks plowed their little noses through the dirt, seeking out seeds, while juvenile northern cardinals pecked at anything with potential for tastiness. The cardinal parents supervised from nearby bushes.


A male Rose-breasted Grosbeak makes an appearance.

When we came upon the Trees of Mordor, we were horrified by their condition.  Branches, barren of needles, conjured up images of some East Coast pine beetle infestation, like that which is so prevalent in Colorado.


No sun means no needles.

But an information plaque informed us that the spruce were originally planted close together as part of an early tree plantation but none of the spruce were ever culled to create space between the trees so that sunlight could reach the lower limbs. As a result, the trees ceased to support a lost cause and diverted their energy towards the upper and outer branches, which were a nice healthy green. 


 The Trees of Mordor live.

For an early dinner, Julie, Jarett, and I went to the Riegelsville Hotel and Inn (est. 1834) where we ate on the back patio, behind which runs the 60-mile long Delaware Canal. Had we been eating our salad and fries and key lime cheesecake on the patio in the 1830’s or 40’s we could have also enjoyed watching boats pass by hauling iron, coal, stone, and goods from the mills on the Jersey side of the river. As it was, we had to content ourselves with the less quaint view of joggers, people on bikes, and families walking kids and dogs.


Meanwhile, we compiled our bird sightings from Mariton Preserve and came up with 25 species that we could positively identify, and happily, that included our Pileated Woodpecker.

If you ever want to work off dinner after eating at the Riegelsvill Hotel and Inn, you might consider a walk to New Jersey and back. That’s what we did, crossing the Delaware by way of the PA-NJ Joint Commission Toll Bridge.


An after-dinner stroll out of state.


The Delaware River looking north.



After about 5-7 minutes standing in NJ we moseyed on back to Pennsylvania, where we said our good-byes, reaffirmed with each other what a great day we had and wasn’t it cool that we saw that Pileated Woodpecker.


Can you find our favorite little resident of Mariton Preserve?

March 25, 2010

A Visiting Tufted Duck

Filed under: Main Posts — admin @ 3:36 pm

The best part about spring is not the warmer weather and longer days but the arrival of birds returning from their southern wintering grounds. And it’s not just the American Robin that is the harbinger of warmer days ahead, but also those birds just passing through. Snow geese who gather in massive flocks before heading further north into Canada and the Sub-arctic, or dozens of warbler species dotting the foliage with blue and yellow and white. And sometimes, there are special visitors. Birds who for some reason flew thousands of miles off course to end up God knows where.

One such off-track visitor was a celebrity for birders last weekend at some sewage treatment ponds in Eastern PA. Along way from her wintering ground in Southern Europe, a female Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula) took a migration break at the ponds, spending most of her time napping and drifting along with a gathering of ring-neck ducks. In fact, she might have easily passed for one of the females of that species except for the lack of pale cheek patches and the much darker head with its tuft that only really shows up when she drifts into a side-profile position.


Her tuft is so slight that it looks like feathers puffed by a breeze.

Normally, tufted ducks breed in Northern Eurasia and in the British Isles, where they also reside year round. But ocassionally they end up in North America and sometimes our ring-necks end up in Europe where people might confuse the female ring-necks with female tufted ducks.


Note the white eye-ring on the female Ring-neck. On the right are a couple of male Ring-neck Ducks. Male Ring-necks and Tufted Ducks are similar in coloration but Tufted drakes are distinguished by the obvious length of tuft that hangs from the back of their head like a drooping crest.


When she wasn’t napping the visiting tufted duck spent some time diving for food such as mollusks, algae, or aquatic insects. After a bout of extensive preening it was back to napping. After almost two hours waiting for our guest to wake up from her dozing, I was rewarded with a take off, after which the duck came back to the pond to preen some more before naptime.


Both male and female Tufted Ducks have a distince white wing bar.

Throughout the morning non-birders would wander up to ask what we were looking at.  A spotting scope is easier than binoculars for locking in on a bird and that made it handy for people, especially kids, to get an up-close look at a bird.  One of the joys of sharing a spotting scope is that pleased “ahhh” that comes afterwards.


Birders check out our Tufted guest.


Jake and Elwood, The Blues Pups.

The Tufted Duck was upstaged when two labradoodles happened along. Quite possibly it won’t be the American Robin or migrating ducks that signal spring’s arrival next year but dogs sporting kerchiefs and ‘rays.



May 11, 2009

Charley’s Hoedown

Every year local residents in my area, including employee volunteer regulars from Merck and Whole Foods, get the call to help out with the Wissahickon Creek Spring Cleanup. This yearly event is held by the Wissahickon Valley Watershed Association. For a few hours we wade and scramble up and down the banks of our assigned sections along the Wissahickon Creek, picking up plastic water bottles, junk food wrappers, and other colorful but not-so pretty litter. Often we find ourselves pulling and dragging old bikes, tires, bed springs, baby carriages, and other large unusual items from the creek. Afterwards, there is a picnic in one of the parks along the Wissahickon Creek.

This year the picnic was held at Militia Hill State Park, which is one of my favorite places to find birds, especially migrating warblers. Even as we sat and ate our burgers, or bean and rice salads, or homemade cookies, I saw a Carolina Wren hopping through the rafters above our heads inside the picnic shelter, where she had a nest. Blue-gray Gnatcatchers rasped in the branches of surrounding trees, while further on I could see two Red-bellied Woodpeckers chasing each other from tree trunk to tree trunk.

Carolina Wren

Not sure what goodie she’s got but I’m glad it wasn’t part of the picnic fare.

But the highlight bird of the picnic was Charley, a Senegal Parrot (Poicephalus senegalus), with the engaging personality of a debonair party hostess. Charley, which is short for “Chartreuse”, is about 9 years old—just a young adult for a Senegal, which can live up to 30 years.


Her human, Jerry, explained that while we were being treated to a mature, well-behaved bird, he and his wife were not spared the “Terrible Twos” that Charley passed through. Knowing something about bird acting-out behavior from having babysat friends’ birds, I imagine this charming parrot shredding anything less resilient than steel, screeching just because it feels good, and climbing onto anything her little talons can grip, nipping at anyone who might object.

A Relaxed Charley

But you would never know now. Pleasant and comfortable with this large group of people, Charley was passed around from finger to finger, as folks of all ages wanted to hold her.

Then to add to the spirit of Charley’s presence, two of the picnickers arrived with a fiddle and banjo. I had taken up the fiddle recently, and had met these two musicians at a couple of old time jams; The Main Line Old Time Jam at the Gryphon Cafe in Wayne, PA and the Old Time Jam at the Mermaid Inn, in Chestnut Hill. So their arrival with instruments was a pleasant surprise for me.

Charley, Jerry, Carl, and Ray

Now Charley could perform her gymnastic tricks accompanied by some old time tunes. The Single-claw Dangle was best done to “Blackberry Blossom”.


I look forward to cleaning up the Wissahickon Creek next year. It won’t just be for the great picnic afterwards, but I will hope to be treated to Charley’s presence and some old time music. I plan to bring along my fiddle, too. Guess I better get some requests ahead of time from Charley, the chartreuse parrot.

Charley requests a tune

“Sure, we can play ‘Cluck Ol’ Hen’.”

April 7, 2009

Cheek-Chireek from Moscow

I recently received an email from some friends in Moscow with this fantastic shot of a common visitor to the homemade feeder outside their second story apartment window. The Great Tit (Parus major), is a member of the Titmouse Family and is common to the woodlands of Europe and Asia. My friend, Sasha had constructed a bird feeder, and now he and Irina can watch and photograph birds from their kitchen window.

Great Tit (Parus major) -photo by Sasha Panov

Photo taken by Sasha Panov

These birds have been shown to be quite adaptable to urban living. One study found that male Great Tits will alter the structure and pitch frequency of their mating songs relative to the surrounding levels of traffic and other urban noise.

Borrowed from Wikipedia–a Great Tit nestling. Is this cute or what?

These little birds generally fledge not even 3 weeks after hatching. Considering that an average brood size is about 8 chicks, the parents have their work cut out for them and must procure as many as 500 or more insects and caterpillars for the fledglings. Click here for more info.

Moscow is in what is referred to as Central European Russia and its environs consist of mixed and broadleaf forests. Some of the more common birds of the Moscow Region are the Eurasian Crow (Corvus corone), White Stork (Ciconia ciconia), Northern Swifts (Apus apus), and the Eurasion Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus). The 3 images below are taken from Wikipedia. In the first photo a Reed Warbler feeds an itsy-bitsy cuckoo young’un.

Common Cuckoo (Wikipedia)        White Stork (Wikipedia)    

Cuckoo youngster and White Storks

Hooded Crow (Gray variety) (Corvus corone) Wikipedia

Hooded Crow

I couldn’t find any stats on how many birders there are in the area around Moscow, but I would suspect quite a few. While there may not be as many national conservation organizations as in the U.S., the Russian people have always maintained a closeness with nature in a way that many Americans have not. Almost any Russian can tell you what mushrooms and berries to gather, even what plant leaves can be used for various home medicinal remedies. 

Come Friday afternoon, the train stations swell with folks heading out of the city to their dachas, or to nearby parks, or villages. Sunday afternoon, buses are loaded with people heading back into the city, carrying buckets of berries, mushrooms, potatoes, carrots, onions, cucumbers, tomatoes, and herbs; foods all gathered in the forests or grown in dacha gardens. In my closet hangs a cherished daypack, stained purple with berry juice from blueberries and waterberries I had gathered with friends in Russia, and put in double plastic bags (paketi), but which, obviously, got squished in transportation.

There are several parks or “green” (protected natural) areas outside Moscow, which are accessible by train or bus. Losiny Ostrov (Moose Island) is Russia’s first National Park and located just outside Moscow. Yes, as the name implies, moose do abound there and will wander into nearby towns and stand in the middle of the road, blocking traffic, including trolleys.

Moose Portrait

I don’t know how squirrel-proof these are, but you can’t beat the craftsmanship and care that went into these hand-carved bird feeders that I saw in Losiny Ostrov.



         063.jpg           064.jpg

As birding and bird conservation gains global momentum there are more organizations that have been established in Europe and Russia, dedicated to bringing conservation awareness to the public. One such organization is Bird Life International, which has partnerships with other bird organizations throughout the world. In Russia, the Russian Bird Conservation Union (RBCU) acts as the Audubon Society does in the U.S. or the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in the U.K.. It works to educate and involve the public in bird conservation efforts. 

One such program is Spring Alive. Similar to the Backyard Bird Count, this program invites Moscow citizens to join other cities in Europe and get their binos out and take a count of the migrating birds they see throughout the spring (Feb. 1st to end of May/June). All the counts are submitted to Bird Life International and used to help monitor bird species populations. Right now the Spring Alive site is in Russian but you still have some fun with a couple of games on the site if you click here.

And, of course, those good ol’ milk cartons, worldwide, serve an important secondary function.


Moloko is pronounced “Muh-lah-koh” with the stress on the last syllable.

 Some fun Russian words for bird lovers:

Cheek-chireek = chirp-chirp, tweet-tweet

Pteetsa = bird

Pteetsi = birds

Aitso = egg

Gnyezdo = nest

Kormushka = bird feeder

Ya liubliu pteetz! = I love birds!



March 31, 2009

A Gaggle of Geese at Middle Creek

Snow Geese Take Off

It can start off as a sudden explosion of white and black wings rising from a hillside, or sometimes just a slim white funnel rising higher and higher until it mushrooms into a blast of deafening honks and beating wings that fill the sky and compel those nearby to gaze upward in absolute awe.

For those who have been to Pennsylvania’s Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area the sight of thousands of Snow Geese taking off at once is unforgettable, and for those who have seen a take off before it’s what brings them back and no visit is complete until they get to see the geese take to the air en masse.


A biker checks out the geese.

Middle Creek is located in Lancaster and Lebanon Counties, and is owned and managed by the Pennsylvania Game Commission. The area within Middle Creek comprises of a 400-acre lake and some 6,000 acres of woodlands and agricultural fields. The main concentration of geese is at Willow Point, which is a nice 10-minute walk from the parking area down to the water where there is a excellent view of both open water and surrounding hillsides and fields.

Talk about a gaggle of geese–the open water and hillsides ripple with white feathered bodies. There is constant motion and honking as the geese wander and feed, swim and preen and flap their wings at each other. In fact, the word ”gaggle” has its origins in the 15th Century Middle English verb, “gagel”, or the noun, “gagelen”, both of which arose as mimicry of the sound geese make. For some fun etymological history click here. Also, the word gaggle only applies when geese are on water or on the ground; once geese are airborne they become a flock or a skein.


“Do we constitute a gaggle?”

Even while wandering, bathing, preening, and foraging, the snow geese continued their ”gagelen” as they communicated various bits of information from one end of the hillside to the other. Although, as Snow Geese calls sound to me more like honks most of the time and not so much like gaggling, I might suggest an alternative word–”honkle”.

There’s a honkle  (noun) of geese on the hillside.

The fox had the geese all a-honkle  (past passive participle).

The hills are a-honkle  (descriptive adjective) with the calls of geese.

Take your pick. Either way, the honking or gaggling of geese in flight is a beautiful sound that evokes a surge of yearning and nostalgia, and makes me envy the Snow Geese that ancient connection they still share with our Earth.


A-honklin’ on one foot.

In late February Snow Geese begin moving up from as far down as South Carolina, gathering in numbers until a gaggle may reach as many as 100,000 geese and 5,000 swans flood the Middle Creek landscape at one time. The northward movement of the geese continues until mid-April, the best time seems to be somewhere in mid-March. It’s not an exact science as to when the number of geese will be at its peak but the thawing of the ice-cover at Middle Creek seems to be the key indicator as to the heavier accumulation of waterfowl, especially if southerly winds are blowing.


For a daily update on geese and swan numbers and activity go to the PA Game Commission’s website home page. There select “Middle Creek/Pyamtuning” listed on the right sidebar, then select, “Waterfowl Migration“.

Snow Geese are dimorphic and come in either the conventional white or the more unusual ‘blue’. It is the Greater Snow Goose (Chens caerulescens atlantica) that comes to Middle Creek, while the Lesser Snow Goose (Chens c. caerulenscens) is a western subspecies. Both types winter in the United States and fly north to breed in the arctic and subarctic of Canada.

Blue Goose and a tagged Snow Goose

         The white goose was most likely banded by the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS).

Believe it or not, it used to be that Middle Creek saw nary a snow goose or swan. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1990’s when the first Snow Geese and Tundra Swans made their appearance on the scene at Middle Creek and other inland areas of Pennsylvania.


 The first Snow Geese came to Middle Creek in 1994.

There was a time when the populations of Snow Geese, in general, were nothing to gawk at but climate changes in the 60’s and 70’s, transformation of coastal wetlands into agricultural industries, and wildlife refuges that sought to encourage increase of numbers of waterfowl for hunters have increased both the Eastern and Western populations of Snow Geese. Now the numbers of these birds are too vast to prevent degradation in what remains of their wetland habitats, and neither natural predation on the geese, nor hunting make neither ding nor dent in curbing the populations of geese.

There are several sources that discuss this issue in detail but if you would like to see some wonderful photography along with the whole story behind the Snow Geese population explosion, please check out Birder’s Lounge.

Meanwhile, Middle Creek Wildlife Area’s provision of open water and plentiful food sources in the cultivated fields that were originally intended for Canada Geese and other waterfowl make Middle Creek one of the prime staging areas in the Atlantic Flyway for both Snow Geese and Tundra Swans during migrations. Despite the issues of concern with the excessive gaggles and honkles of Snow Geese, it’s impossible not to enjoy the immensity and great sound of their presence.


That morning, as I stood at Willow Point, enjoying the camraderie of others who had gathered to enjoy the arrival of the geese, I got into a conversation with a fellow Middle Creek Snow Goose fan, who had been bringing his girls there since the 1960’s. The kids were now in college but he still came over on the weekends to see the geese.

Then one of the resident Bald Eagles left its perch. We could hear it; the first few honks of alarm, which, as more and more geese took up the call, would swell into a chaos of honks, as snow geese rose off the lake in a cloud of white. No one spoke. This wasn’t a moment for words. Over the lake it was a cyclone swirl of beating wings, a grand gaggling chorus of honks. Eventually, as the threat of the eagle passed, the honking eruption faded.

“Well, now I can go home. I’ve seen what I’ve been waiting for all morning,” announced my companion.

That sums it up very well for anyone who has seen a grand gaggle Take Off and the sky just a-honkle with geese. It’s what I’ll be looking forward to again next year and in the years that follow.

Click on this image to see a Take Off in action.

You can also click on the sidebar under videos to see other snow geese video clips.

March 17, 2009

Peril on the Jetty at Barnegat Light

Filed under: Main Posts — Tags: , — admin @ 4:56 pm

The jetty at Barnegat Light in New Jersey is a popular spot for photographing and seeing wintering waterfowl. And while I was aware of the potential broken ankle or banged up knee on the rocks, I never imagined the following hazard.  

Below is a link sent to the Delaware Valley Ornithology Club from a local bird photographer that describes a terrifying and unexpectedly perilous situation he fell into out on the jetty at Barnegat Light in New Jersey. There are also some fantastic shots of the waterfowl at Barnegat, too.

February 22, 2009

Shenanigans at the Feeder Station

You gotta love ‘em; those non-feathered critturs who want feeder privileges and are willing to make that extra leap, stretch, or sneaky tactic to get their share of seeds.


The feeder station at Peace Valley has its share of feeder bandits and they are as entertaining to watch as the birds. Take the squirrel below, for instance. This one had a daredevil strategy. All he needed was a nearby tree with a branch extending in the right direction.


Nuts and seeds, here I come.



A good running start down the branch is essential.



That’s right. No guts, no nuts.


Deer have it a little easier. Why, just delicately step over the already-bent wire fence that protects the feeder area from invaders. Then, stop and peer around to make sure no one is looking…


…extend the neck and tilt the muzzle upwards…


…and simply slurf out as many seeds as will stick to your tongue.



Feeders are for everyone.


Note: All photos taken with digiscope equipment, except the photos of the squirrel in flight and on the target feeder, and the deer standing next to a feeder. The image of the deer’s tongue close up and side profile were both digiscoped. See, you can digiscope other things besides birds and insects.

February 17, 2009

Last Owl in is a Winner

What weighs 88.4 grams and comes in a drawstring bag?

Weigh In

Here’s another bunch of clues. It has yellow eyes, a 10.3 mm bill length, and sometimes you can find it in a mist net at night. Sometimes it can be adopted.


A Northern Saw-whet Owl.

If you read my post “Waiting for Godot’s Owls” you will recall the long evening I and other Delaware Valley Ornithology Club members spent anticipating the capture of a saw-whet or two, but that ended without a single owl appearance.

But, apparently, waiting around for owls can be addicting. After 5-6 hours hanging out with DVOC members on that first outing to the Hidden Valley banding station I was chilled, drowsy and ready for bed, but begging to come back the next week to sit and wait for those elusive owls.   

The 2008 season was a low one for Saw-whet Owl captures along the Kittatiny Range. Barely over 200 individuals had been caught between the 3 banding stations; Hidden Valley, King’s Gap, and Small’s Valley.  Compare that to the 900 owls that might be banded in good years.

When there had been zero capture during my second visit to Hidden Valley I had begun to accept that this was not going to be an owl-year for me. However, I figured that, owl or no owl, my third and last visit would still offer one more pleasant evening of conversation with the project volunteers on duty and another chance just to savor that essence of being in a forest at night. 

I stepped from my car, greeted by the audiolure’s call of a male Saw-whet Owl that echoed through the darkness, and the crack of yellow light that spilled from the cabin door as Nate (bander and researcher) welcomed me inside for another owl vigil.

We sat with our feet next to the heater under the banding table, and within a comfortable reach there was a plentiful offering of snacks, including hotdogs and saurkraut. The evening was as mellow as previous ones until the door opened and an outstretched arm thrust a drawstring bag into the room.


It was Nate’s arm. He had just come back from checking the mist nets but apparently was just standing outside holding this owl-bag through the door like it was supposed to signify something. Maybe the hotdogs and saurkraut had put up roadblocks along the neuron pathways in my brain because the understanding of what the drawstring bag meant did not take the most direct route from one neuron to the next. But when it finally got to the target neuron, I felt a joyful surprise as if someone had handed me a gift and I’d forgotten it was my birthday.

An owl had arrived. The first and only owl of the night, and a winner. The last owl of the 2008 season, bringing the total number of saw-whet owls banded by all three stations to 219.

And it was my owl in another way, too. On my first visit to Hidden Valley I got the adopt-an-owl bug and had signed up to be a proud parent of a saw-whet owl. The fee for the adoption goes to help fund the Northern Saw-whet Owl Project, which is sponsored by the Ned Smith Center for Nature and the Art. In return I get a certificate with a photo of me and my owl. Moreover, I will be notified of any future sightings or captures of my owl along with any accompanying data; was she seen as far north as Ontario? Was she eating an insect, a vole, a warbler? Did she have a nest with young? Did she look healthy?  

Owl Number 0924-17522

Owl adoptions also make great Xmas or birthday gifts, should you be considering something for a friend of relative. My sister-in-law and a couple of my friends will confirm this. Click here to get started on that gift list now.

Often the adoptive parent will be assigned an owl from any of the 3 banding stations maintained by Scott Weidensaul, but if you should happen to be present during the capture of an owl, you may request that owl as yours.

Cute to the extreme, a true pocket pet, this owl was a bonafide Precious Planet Critter if ever there was one. The owl was a ’she’, and I gave her the name of Chipeta.


There was a lot of personal data to be gathered before Chipeta was to be released back into the woods. Nate took measurements of her tail and bill, and recorded the length of her wing when flat, as well as that of her folded wing (wing chord). He noted the thickness of adipose tissue on her body and whether or not her crop had remains of a meal in it. 

Essentials for Banding

Some necessities for banding saw-whets.

The wing chord length and the weight are the two determining factors that establish a saw-whet’s sex when there isn’t enough weight discrepancy between the males (75 grams) and the females (100 grams). 

Weighing slightly more than a shot glass full of vodka, Chipeta’s 88.4 grams was on the light side for a female, and it fell into the overlap of male/female weights. Therefore, both her wing chord length and her weight were correlated onto a Sex Ratio Chart and that told us she could be Chipeta and not Chip.

Taking Wing Cord Length   

Measuring the wing chord length.                    

Owls are the only birds that have the pigment porphyrin in their wing feathers. Porphyrin decreases as owls get older and it shows up well under flourescent light. The varying amounts of porphyrin seen in under a UV lamp help researchers read the molt pattern in the wing feathers and thus, estimate an owl’s age. For an excellent shot of what the molt patterns look like under flourescent light click here.


Chipeta was found to be in her second year.

There are some physical traits, such as eye color, that vary among the saw-whet owls. Presently, no one knows what significance these characterstics may have but they are included in the overall data gathering. Eye color in saw-whets has come in the four shades of yellow seen on the eye color chart below. Chipeta’s eye color best matched the soft moonlight yellow (number 4) at the bottom of the chart. 

Eye Color Assessment

We also noted down the white on the tip of her beak.

And of course, most importantly Chipeta is fitted for her band.

Band Size

Chipeta takes a size 4 band.

Saw-whet owls tend to be calm while being handled and Chipeta was no different. During the whole exam and banding session she remained collected and stared back at us with as much curiosity as we did at her. But all too soon it was time for her to go, and hard as it was to resist slipping her “accidentally” into my coat pocket, our little friend was placed gently back into her drawstring bag. The bag was left suspended in an adjacent dark room so that her eyes could re-adjust to the darkness. Then after some 25 minutes Chipeta was released outside where she flew back into the dark and onto the rest of her life.

It is possible that I may never hear any news of Chipeta down the road, but as more and more owls are recovered over the years as the Northen  Saw-whet Owl Project continues, the odds increase in my favor. My biggest hope is to hear some news in another 7 years or so, when Chipeta will be a ripe age of 9 and has lived a full life in saw-whet years.


They say that good things come in small drawstring bags. Well, it’s true.

If you are interested in booking a visit to any of the banding stations please click here.

Should you ever find a banded bird, please call 1-800-327-BAND.

January 25, 2009

Sunday Morning Vultures

It was Sunday morning at Valley Forge National Historical Park. The air was chill and crisp, church bells tolled, and atop the Washington Memorial Chapel, vultures basked in the sun.


My fingers were cold from spending the morning hours waiting for some no-show White-winged Crossbills that had been seen earlier in the week foraging for seeds in the hemlocks and spruce behind the chapel. The vultures had it good, I thought.  A nice view of the surrounding woodland and open meadows, and the sun on their backs and outspread wings. I envied them as I flexed my fingers and rubbed my hands.


A bright “Colorado-blue” sky provides a nice backdrop for two Black Vultures.

Vultures have been a longtime member of The Bufflehead Birder’s Favorite Bird Club. When I was a kid, there was something haunting in those Old Westerns; that floating spiral of black birds overhead when someone was about to kick the bucket.  In 1967 my family took a 2-week camping trip to Colorado, and should you ever ask her, my mother will tell you that my big memory of our trip was the dead cow with the Turkey Vultures around it. 

Unusual and beautifully adapted to cleaning the countryside of dead things, these birds still hold a fascination for me, and I love their faces even though I’m not their mother.


Vultures have some peculiar thermo-regulatory habits. If they want to take the chill off they turn their backs to the sun and spread their wings to absorb heat. If they want to cool off they urinate on the scales of their legs and feet–a practice called urohydrosis. The Turkey Vulture below takes in the sun’s heat.


Turkey Vultures, mistakenly called Buzzards or Turkey Buzzards, are larger than Black Vultures and have the colorful red head.


No church is complete without its gargoyles.

 For an interesting read on the adaptations of this amazing carrion bird check out this link from Audubon Magazine.

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


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