Monday, March 29, 2010

Sandwich Terns and what John James Audubon thought about them...

Birding Longboat Key, Florida
These three Sandwich Terns with their mustard-tipped bills quickly became favorites of mine during our stay in Florida. Because they were never far apart from each other and huddled together like they were old friends, I started thinking of them as The Three Tenors, and I would not have been surprised if they had broken out in song.

The early morning sunlight was still soft across the beach, but it was growing higher in the sky by the minute.

...face into the wind like a good little Sandwich Tern!

...even though the mustard-tipped bill has nothing to do with their name, it really does fit perfectly with Sandwich Tern!

Wanting to learn a little bit more about these cute little terns, I did a bit of googling, and came across an entry written by none other than John James Audubon himself! I had stumbled across the 1840 "First Octavo Edition" of John James Audubon's seven-volume set of "Birds of America," which is online and available to all on Audubon's site. Here is the intro to Audubon's entry on Sandwich Terns:
"On the 26th of May, 1832, while sailing along the Florida Keys in Mr. THRUSTON's barge, accompanied by his worthy pilot and my assistant, I observed a large flock of Terns, which, from their size and other circumstances, I would have pronounced to be Marsh Terns, had not the difference in their manner of flight convinced me that they were of a species hitherto unknown to me. The pleasure which one feels on such an occasion cannot easily be described, and all that it is necessary for me to say on the subject at present is, that I begged to be rowed to them as quickly as possible. A nod and a wink from the pilot satisfied me that no time should be lost, and in a few minutes all the guns on board were in requisition. The birds fell around us; but as those that had not been injured remained hovering over their dead and dying companions, we continued to shoot until we procured a very considerable number. On examining the first individual picked up from the water, I perceived from the yellow point of its bill that it was different from any that I had previously seen, and accordingly shouted "A prize! a prize! a new bird to the American Fauna!" And so it was, good reader, for no person before had found the Sandwich Tern on any part of our coast. A large basket was filled with them, and we pursued our course."
What a difference 178 years makes! To read the rest of this chapter, click here. To access the book's online table of contents, click here.

...related to this subject, I just finished reading a book called "No Woman Tenderfoot; Florence Merriam Bailey, Pioneer Naturalist," by Harriet Kofalk. Florence Merriam Bailey was a proponent of studying live birds in their natural environment instead of studying birds that had been shot. She also organized the Smith College Audubon Society and led students to boycott the manufacturing of feathered hats, the millinery style that was killing more than five million birds a year. Through her writing and flyers, she helped turn the tide and no doubt saved many of our beautiful herons and egrets from extinction. It's an interesting book written in 1989. (My cousin, Mary Ann, found this book in a used book store and sent it to me. Thanks, Mary Ann!)

...taken later in the day on a different beach and in much brighter sunlight.
I love that face, and who can resist their mustard-tipped bills?

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Painting #19, Painting #20, and Painting #21 - Studies of an English House Sparrow in the Snow





English House Sparrows foraging in the snow on our deck for sunflower seeds.

In an effort to catch up on my challenge paintings, I knocked off three little English House Sparrows foraging in the snow today. Yikes! That sounds terrible, doesn't it? Especially when you consider there are lots of people who really would like to "knock off" English House Sparrows because of all the havoc they have wrought on our native cavity nesters, but I actually have a soft spot in my heart for them. After all, they can't help they were brought to another continent and then flourished. My Grandma B used to call these little guys “Chippies,” and in the summer we would sit on her front porch and watch them take dust baths in the dirt by the driveway. To this day, every time I see one flapping around in the dust it melts my heart, and I think of summer evenings at Grandma’s house.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Painting #18 - Red-bellied Woodpecker Eating Greenbriar Berries

A female Red-bellied Woodpecker devours greenbriar berries on a beautiful fall afternoon.

I watched this female Red-bellied Woodpecker plucking off these berries one at a time last fall. I knew I would get around to painting this scene sooner or later. It was my first time out after having the Swine Flu, and I was so happy to be out walking the Little Miami Trail with the birds.

This painting is part of the 100 Painting Challenge. If you're an artist and want to join the challenge, visit the 100 Painting Challenge blog hosted by Laure Ferlita. With the challenge, you try to paint 100 paintings in a year. Since I love birds, I'm limiting myself to bird paintings. To keep on track, you need to paint about 2 paintings a week. I've fallen a bit behind. I should be on painting #24, but I'm only on 18. The past month has been crazy busy, but I've get to get it in gear!!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Sweet little Sanderlings chasing the waves...

Birding Longboat Key, Florida
…continued from yesterday’s eaglet post.

From the eagle’s nest, we headed over to the ocean and immediately found a little flock of Sanderlings foraging for their breakfast in the receding waves. The sun was still low on the horizon, so the morning light stretching down the beach was soft and rosy and made these little birds glow against the dark, wet sand.

Probing the sand for invertebrates washed in with the surf, this little fellow soon nabbed a tiny mollusk as the waves retreated.

Sanderlings certainly work for a living by constantly running away from the waves as they roll in and then chasing them back to the sea as they roll out. Who can resist those little black feet as they pad along in quick motion?? They are just so cute! Several of my guides mention that Sanderlings are the only sandpipers that lack a hind toe. This photo clearly shows, no back toes on those feet!

The soft morning light highlighted his reflection as the water skimmed back to the ocean's edge. One of my favorite German words, "spiegelglatt" (mirror smooth), fits perfectly.

A very efficient Sanderling, this guy plucked tidbits from the sand every time the waves retreated.

What a cute mug. I don't know why, but he makes me think of a sad little puppy with a wet, black nose!

Beak Bit
These little guys may be cute, but they are powerhouses too, flying up to 8,000 miles to return to their breeding grounds in the Arctic. During the winter, they spread out all over the globe, spending time on sandy beaches on almost every continent in the world! ....and this is interesting....I read on Cornell's Birds of North America Online site, that Sanderlings regurgitate pellets made up of a mixture of sand with crushed crustacean and mollusk shells. Cool! When I was watching them pluck those little mollusks from the sand and swallow them whole I wondered what happened to the shell...

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Two juvenile American Bald Eagles practice flapping their wings and branching…

Birding Longboat Key, Florida
...continued from yesterday's American Bald Eagle post.

I need to back up just a bit. The photos of the eagle and eaglet in yesterday's post were taken in the afternoon in wonderful sunlight, but my day of birding with Rick (the Sarasota Birding Guide) started at 7:30 a.m. before dawn had crept her rosy fingers across the sky, so it was still fairly dark. To compensate for the lack of sunlight, I upped the camera's ISO to 1600 and hoped for the best. The high ISO made these photos a little fuzzy, but that's okay. We can see what they're doing, and that's good!

Rick said the two eaglets were expected to fledge any day, and they showed it by flapping their wings over and over and hopping from branch to branch (branching). They also would jump down into the nest from branches higher in the tree, and several times it seemed like they were about to soar out for that first flight. Last year’s eaglets were in no hurry to leave the nest, and the parents actually had to start dismantling the nest to encourage the eaglets to fledge. I wonder if this year’s brood will want to hang around for extra time too?


These eaglets were expected to fledge any day. You can really see personality differences and facial differences between the two. They don't look to happy with each other in this photo!

Here they are looking at papa in a tree across the path, probably hoping for breakfast!

...what a wingspan! When the first eaglet started flapping her wings, her huge size became apparent.

...not to be outdone, the second juvenile joins in.

...this photo cracks me up. The first eaglet turned her head upside down as she looked at her brother. She seems to be thinking, "What are you doing? Your form is all wrong!"

...she still seemed a bit confused with the second eaglet's flapping form and branching skills.

...but he does just fine as he hops down to the nest below.

The first eaglet goes back to flapping her wings. When the eaglets practice flapping their wings and branching, they are strengthening their muscles, but they are also developing their perching skills. Up to this point they've spent most of their time sitting in the nest. To walk along the branch and perch, they use their wings to help them move their talons.

...hopping to the nest below.

...time for a rest.
I wonder if she has fledged yet...

I'm just guessing this eaglet is a female. She was larger than the other eaglet, so since female hawks and eagles are larger than males, I made her a female!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Florida eagles aren't shy....

...AT ALL! I mean, for heaven's sake, this nest is smack dab in the middle of a condo complex right above a walking trail and just outside someone's bedroom window!

Can you imagine waking up to this sight every morning?

...or telling your guests, "Yes, that is an American Bald Eagle looking in at you."

I don't think I could ever tire of seeing this gorgeous bird.

...and to make things even better, imagine two eaglets growing up in this nest. Yes, indeed, eggs were laid, hatched, and babies raised while lawn mowers and leaf blowers roared underneath, and how would I know? Because I spent all last week in beautiful, beautiful, sunny, sunny Florida with Rick and Matty. Ack.....what a place. I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE Florida and all the wonderful birds.

Mama and one of the juveniles. The other juvenile was hunkered down in the nest.

This gives you an idea of the size of the nest. It was quite a surprise to
look up and see it overhead in a tree just off the walking trail.

Because of all the development in Florida, American Bald Eagles have been squeezed out of their prime nesting habitats and have learned to tolerate the noisy humans that live underfoot. Choosing to ignore the cars, noise and manicured lawns that require endless cutting, spraying, and watering, these birds brave the suburban areas because they have to.

The Sarasota Birding Guide
We stayed on Longboat Key just off Sarasota. Rick and Matty were there for tennis, but I was there for the birds, so in preparation, I googled, "Birding in Sarasota," and found Rick Greenspun, the Sarasota Birding Guide. Rick offers personalized birding and photography tours, so I immediately emailed him and booked a day of birding. Wow!! I'm so glad I found Rick and went out birding with him. Monday morning at 7:30 sharp Rick was at our condo and picked me up for 8 hours of non-stop birding. He even had water and snacks so we didn't have to stop for lunch. I saw and learned so much!!! I am really weak with shorebirds. All those sandpipers and terns...they all look the same. Well...not any more! Rick taught me how to spot and identify all those long-billed, long-legged, and short-billed, short-legged birds splashing around in the surf as they plucked and dug out tasty bits to eat. I saw so many cool birds, most were still in their winter plumage, but many were molting, and many were in full breeding plumage. I have tons of photos for the next week or so.........including photos of the juvenile American Bald Eagles testing out their wings as they were getting ready to fledge.

If you're headed to the Sarasota area, look up Rick, and be sure to book two days instead of one. You really need two days to make it to all the varied habitat. Rick, Matty and I loved Longboat Key so much we are going back next spring, so I'll get the second half of the trip then. Click here to visit Rick's website. "Bird Doggie" is also a fabulous photographer and has beautiful photos of birds on his site as well as info on his birding tours.

Rick...I went black and white with this shot. Hope you like it!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Window shopping...

The weekend before last I was out looking for that crazy cocoon again (no luck finding it; however, it has been identified--see below for details), and while I hiked around, I saw this little White-breasted Nuthatch searching out new spring digs. I fell in love with the way she checked out this potential nesting cavity, carefully inspecting it from every angle.






After more window shopping, she flew down to a branch on a neighboring tree and grabbed something to eat from under the moss. I think she's keeping this one on the "promising" list!

Giant Cocoon Mystery Solved!
Dave Wilson from Blue Jay Barrens (another Ohio blogger, yeah!) dropped by the blog and let me know that our little Downy Woodpecker was hammering away on a giant silkworm moth cocoon (Cecropia moth). He writes that "the Cecropia is the only giant silkworm moth that aligns its cocoon along a branch as yours has done." Thank you, Dave!!! If you haven't visited Dave's blog yet, check it out. Dave always has something interesting going on.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Downy Woodpecker hammering away on a Luna Moth cocoon...or maybe a Giant Silk Moth cocoon...or maybe...

A couple of weeks ago in February, after one of our heavy, wet snows, I headed over to the Little Miami River to see what I could see. The snow had stuck to thousands upon thousands of branches to create a magical tangle of spidery whiteness. It was a beautiful sight. The branches, heavy and dripping with cold and freshness, had bowed low over the path, muffling sound and creating an incredible winter arched walkway. Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, and White-breasted Nuthatches were very active all along the trail, and I could hear the quiet tap-tapping of Downies as they searched for insects wintering under the bark. At one point, however, a very loud hammering drowned out the other sounds. It was strange and it took me a while to discover its source. About eye level down the slope towards the river, a Downy Woodpecker was trying to hammer through the hard shell of a very large moth's cocoon.

In a frozen landscape, a little Downy hammering away on a large cocoon makes a lot of noise!

I love that intent look in his eye. He must know there is a feast inside waiting for him.

You've got to love those woodpecker toes. They are the clingiest birds around...

I sat in the snow in a tangle of honeysuckle branches and watched this beautiful little bird working so hard for his dinner. I wish I had given more attention to the mechanics of the scene instead of the art of it because I've been back three times and can't find it. If my mind had not been so befuddled and pixilated with the beauty of the unique snowscape, I might have taken a photo of its location....or marked it out with paces from a landmark, or took some detailed photos of the cocoon after the Downy gave up and flew away. Befuddlement and pixilation...it happens every time.

I don't know much about moths and their cocoons. Is there anyone out there who does and knows what type of cocoon this is?

Giant Cocoon Mystery Solved!
Dave Wilson from Blue Jay Barrens (another Ohio blogger, yeah!) dropped by the blog and let me know that our little Downy Woodpecker was hammering away on a giant silkworm moth cocoon (Cecropia moth). He writes that "the Cecropia is the only giant silkworm moth that aligns its cocoon along a branch as yours has done." Thank you, Dave!!! If you haven't visited Dave's blog yet, check it out. Dave always has something interesting going on.

Click here for information on the Cecropia moth.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Oh Sweet Canada...

Although there's still snow on the ground, there's not much, and the sounds in the air are definitely beyond just a whisper of spring. Yesterday morning as I was sautéing red peppers and grape tomatoes (barely awake and definitely not paying attention to much but the egg I was about to crack into the frying pan), "Did I just hear a Red-winged Blackbird?" popped into my mind. It registered at that subconscious level that makes you stop and wonder, but after listening for a second or two, the second call came through loud and clear, and I said, "Alright!" out loud. Spring is here... When I looked out the kitchen window, two Red-winged Blackbirds were in the side yard looking for something to eat. Last year I started hearing them mid-February, so they are a little late this year, but all the other spring bird songs have been right on time, especially my favorite "Oh Sweet Canada, Canada, Canada..." love song of the White-throated Sparrow.

A tan-morph White-throated Sparrow puffed up to gargantuan extremes to weather out the snow that arrived over the weekend. My lens was spotted with wet snowflakes, which gave this photo a cool look. (The white morphs have black and white stripes on their head instead of the muted tan and brown shown in this bird.)

The tan morphs do not sing quite as much as the white morphs, but our little tan-morph male was singing beautifully while a wet snow came down all around.

This winter we have had a lot more tan morphs than white morphs at our feeders.

...although not quite as dramatic looking as the white morphs, the male tan-morph White-throated Sparrows help out with the nestlings, plus they don't start as many fights as their flashy brothers...

For more information on the White-throated Sparrow, check out this site, the White-throated Sparrow Project. You can also read about the genetic behavioral differences between the two morphs on The Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds or The Birds of North America Online.