The Bufflehead Birder

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.

Found An Acorn - puzzle #11

Filed under: Bird Puzzles — admin @ 2:50 am

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.

February 4, 2009

Least Sandpiper

Least Sandpiper

January 30, 2009

Gotta Get A Peanut - puzzle #10

Filed under: Bird Puzzles — Tags: , , , — admin @ 3:05 am




To do this puzzle, please click on image.


Gotta Get a Peanut

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.

January 23, 2009

Fun with Cardinals

One thing about bird feeders is that you can always count on something to photograph. You can also always count on certain birds to make an appearance. One of my all time favorites is the Northern Cardinal which I always loved as a child and love even more after being cardinal-deprived while I lived in Colorado. I miss the Golden Eagles and magpies of the West but there is some compensation when that bright red snatches my attention amidst the grays and browns of a winter forest.


Peace Valley Natural Area, which is just northwest of Doylestown, has a nice feeder station behind the nature center. Some of the most active visitors are the cardinals. The males take turns chasing off other birds and play King of the Feeder Ledge and munch down some seeds before being chased off by another male. 


The females wait quietly in the nearby shrubs until there is a lull in the mange-a-mania, and then perch politely on the feeder ledge.

 mangebird.jpg    sitting-pretty.jpg

But no matter one’s feeder manners, seed-crunching is a messy business.


The House Finches were the only birds that stood their ground against the cardinals.

Face Off

Sometimes the middle slat in the blind is right in the way of my lenses but I don’t mind hunching over for an hour or so because the action is so constant. For most of the shots in this post I used my Canon 20D SLR and 300mm lens. The fellow below was digiscoped.
You might think that feeder photo sessions would grow boring, but you know what? They don’t. First of all, I can get some nice close ups. Here is a cardinal with a peaceful and benign look to his face, but then, it’s likely he was sated on seeds and was content to let the rest of Bird World enjoy the feeder offerings for a few moments.


And there are some fun surreal action shots that I create with slow shutter speeds. The fellow below was making a fast reverse from off the ledge when a house finch made it clear no cardinals need sit and eat.


In between forays to the feeder cardinals made enjoyable subjects for idle shots. I could never get tired of that red on the male.


Nor could I ignore the subtle hues of red and tan mixed in with the olive green plumage on the female. With her back to my lens this female blends nicely into the background of her environment.


Yes, those cardinals were everywhere. I took a shot of this Carolina Wren and just look who manages to get his picture in there.

Wren and Cardinal

January 4, 2009

Digiscoping Serendipity

Filed under: Digiscoping — Tags: , , , , — admin @ 12:55 am

 Before I begin my little tale about the garter snake, I want to say thanks for all  the kind comments that were sitting in my comments section of Wordpress, waiting for me to notice them. For some reason they weren’t being announced in my email and I was unaware that anyone had written anything. Finally, after one friend insisted that she had commented on my blog, I went into the comments section and found a lovely surprise; quite a few comments were there, even dating back to October! Yikes! Beginner blogger strikes again. However, I approved all the comments with great haste and they are now posted.


About a year ago I was with a friend in a park off the Wissahickon River at Valley Green. We came upon a frog halfway down the hatch of a garter snake. The frog was still alive, of course, and a look of resignment in its eyes. Garter snake jaws have small teeth that angle backwards so that prey cannot slip out while the snake works on swallowing its meal. So the frog couldn’t even struggle to escape without hurting itself. It also made us wonder how we would retrieve the frog from the snake’s mouth without hurting it.

 Snake and Frog

 Matt had his cell phone and took this shot

There was no way that I could walk on and not help the frog. I appreciate that snakes have to eat and it may have taken that snake some time and effort to capture that frog, but still….

There is the belief among wildlife biologists and other scientists that we should not interfere with animals in the wild or interrupt their interactions. Sort of like the Prime Directive from Star Trek. To a point, I agree. But not in this case. So in the choice between saving the frog from an ugly death or depriving a snake of a hardwon meal we chose in favor of the frog.

After some discussion, my friend placed his toe at the spot on the snake just behind where the frog’s partially swallowed body ended and gently pushed down. Amazingly, the snake’s jaws opened and let the frog squirt free. After an apology to the snake we took the frog down to the water and lay it on a partially submerged rock.

Then this last fall I was given a chance to make it up to garter snakes when I went over to help my mother unpack some boxes and brought my digiscoping gear with me. She and my stepfather have recently moved to a retirement village. Their place has a manmade pond behind their yard and woods beyond that. They often get some good birds in the area.

After helping Mom, I thought about taking my digiscope gear to the woods behind the pond. I will admit that I was feeling that lethargy I sometimes get and even the prospect of getting some bird shots wasn’t having its usual butt-moving effect. Yes, I know. I yap a lot on my blog about how digiscoping is The Way to Happiness. It is, actually, but sometimes I need to remind myself of that.

While I didn’t reach photo Nirvana that day, the act of going digiscoping brought about an even higher level of happiness.

The birds weren’t active, the sun was hot, and I wasn’t getting the usual digi-high I get when peering at Bird World through the Swarovski, so when I reached the halfway point around the pond, instead of continuing the loop, I turned back and retraced my path.

When there are no birds around, I then look at the ground. I’m a wannabee tracker and love to just look down and see what I see.

And see something I did. Something I hadn’t noticed when I’d first come down that path.


A green and black snake with an orange dorsal stripe lay under some leaves and forest litter. It looked dead and I went to take a closer look. I was thinking it was a garter snake of some type and gently nudged it with a stick. It moved. Barely.

I was puzzled at first, as to why it wouldn’t scoot off like snakes do, but instead lay there in a lazy ‘S’ pattern. Then it made sense when I noticed pale green netting that landscapers use to hinder erosion. It had been put down to hold the edging all around the pond, and some of the litter that covered it had washed away, exposing the mesh.

This snake had been crawling along, going its happy way then entered through one or more of the mesh openings until the snake became so tangled that it could no longer move at all without the mesh filament tightening to the point of cutting sharply into the snake’s soft body at the slightest wiggle. I don’t know how long the snake had been imprisoned like that but it would have been a bad way to go; vulnerable to any predator that happened by, unable to drink, or to capture and eat frogs.


There was no question of snapping the filament with my hands without cutting into the little snake. But it wasn’t far to run back to borrow Mom’s tiny Swiss army knife scissors which were the main tool of operation in opening boxes.

As soon as I was able to cut the snake free of all the mesh lines twisted around its torso, it was gone, so there are no photos of that happy occasion.


All events and decisions have a consequence even if you never see it. If I had not come to help with boxes, or had not brought my digiscoping gear along, or had not heaved myself from a comfy chair and gone out to digiscope there would have been a consequence. If I had continued all the way around the pond, or the birds had been active that day and distracted me from looking closely at the ground there would have been a consequence. There would have been the death of a snake and I would have never known.

But it was lucky that things worked out. I’m glad that I was able to repay a small debt to the garter snakes of the world and that digiscoping played a part in putting me in the right place at the right time.

Somewhere out there is a little snake that will agree.

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

« Older PostsNewer Posts »

Powered by WordPress