Saturday, October 31, 2015

Yellow-rumped Warblers and poison ivy berries...

Butter Butts and poison ivy berries go hand-in-hand in autumn. If you find a large patch of poison ivy berries high in a tree, keep your eyes open, because sooner or later a Yellow-rumped Warbler will happen by and gobble up the tasty treats...

A fall Yellow-rumped Warbler perches in a tangle of poison ivy in a Sycamore tree. Good eats for the wee bird, a winter food supply of waxy berries entices a few of these warblers to overwinter in our area! 

In autumn and early winter, Yellow-rumped Warblers switch their diet from the abundant insects of spring and summer, to the abundant waxy berries of fall and winter. Because this warbler can survive without insects being its primary diet, it is the only spring warbler to overwinter in Ohio. All the other neotropical migrants head south for the winter where the insects still roam free. Not all of the Yellow-rumps migrating through our area stay all winter, however. Most head south as well, but you can usually see a few in the woods on bird outings all winter long. Rick and I have seen them many times along the Little Miami River in the winter.

The tell-tale camera click gives me away every time!
"Really?" our little warbler seems to say. "Can't you see I'm dining on poison ivy, the most delectable of all the berries? No photos, please." 

Oh, what a tangled web...of poison ivy vines! This very old sycamore was covered in hairy poison ivy vines, and the tree hosted several of the migrating (or overwintering) Yellow-rumped Warblers. 

Of course, Yellow-rumped Warblers are not the only birds to feast on poison ivy berries. Woodpeckers love them too. On winter hikes along the Little Miami River, I've watched Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Downy Woodpeckers, and a Northern Flicker pluck and eat them one berry at a time.

Being able to absorb and metabolize the fat in the waxy coating on the berry is unique among warblers and allows Yellow-rumped Warblers to be the most northerly wintering wood warblers. can barely see the little "pat of butter" above its tail that gives this sweet warbler its nickname, Butter Butt!

Click here for a previous post that shows a better view of that little pat of butter!

Click here for a look of a Butter-butt in all his springtime glory.

Why can Yellow-rumped Warblers survive on waxy berries in fall and winter?
Almost all the literature on Yellow-rumped Warblers mentions they are hardy warblers that can survive cold winters by eating waxy fruits such as poison ivy berries, bayberries, and wax myrtle, but the literature never explains why, so I did a little searching and found an article that details the warbler's unique digestive abilities in The Auk, 109(2):334-345, 1992 by Allen R. Place and Edmund W. Stiles titled, "Living Off the Wax of the Land: Bayberries and Yellow-rumped Warblers." Click here for the pdf of the article. It explains how Yellow-rumped Warblers are able to efficiently absorb and metabolize the wax that coats many of the fall and winter berries such as bayberry, wax myrtle and poison ivy.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Lincoln's Sparrow in Hocking Hills...

Rick, Matty and I, my brother, sis-in-law and my niece, and my parents all went to Hocking Hills in southeast Ohio last weekend. It was another of our fall trips. We started the tradition back when the kids were tiny little things, and we've kept it up through the years. Now the kids are juniors in college, and the tradition continues. This year we settled on Hocking Hills (an easy 2.5 hr drive) and rented an 8-bedroom "cabin" about 30 minutes away from the action of Old Man's Cave, Rock House, horseback riding, etc. I'm glad we did, because the cabin came with 30 or 40 acres to explore. It had a pond edged in cattails, scrubby fields, wet thickets, brush piles, a small stream in a small gorge, and even a few boggy areas, all of which add up to perfect territory for migrating Lincoln's Sparrows...

A beautiful fall Lincoln's Sparrow perches in a Sycamore sapling along the cattail edges of the pond.

We didn't know what the cabin would look like or what type of land would be around it, so I was really excited when we drove up the long, crunchy gravel drive and saw what was there. Basically, nothing. We were isolated from other people and cabins, which was wonderful! It was so nice to look out and see only trees and fields (my brother booked the cabin and did a great job!). In the back of my mind, I knew Lincoln's Sparrows were at the height of their fall migration through our state, and I was hoping to photograph one. Lincoln's Sparrows are shy birds, so they don't hang out where there is a lot of human activity, which made our lonely little cabin in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains a perfect location. The dashing little bird had always eluded my camera lens, so if ever I was going to be able to photograph one, this would be it.

Mr. Lincoln, you are a grand bird. The fine streaking and buff coloring sets this bird apart from other sparrows...especially song sparrows, which were all around me in the field.

I can't remember who might have been my mom, but someone wanted to know if the bird was named after President Lincoln. I didn't know, so I looked it up. It wasn't. It was named after Thomas Lincoln (1812 - 1883).  At the time, Thomas Lincoln was 21. He and 4 other young men, including Audubon's son, accompanied Audubon on the 1833 Labrador Expedition. Lincoln shot the bird for Audubon to paint for his The Birds of America book. Audubon named the bird after him, at first calling it "Tom's Finch."

Look at that jaunty little cap on his head trimmed with two chestnut stripes (lateral crown stripes), each streaked with black. That's one of the first things I look at when identifying a Lincoln's Sparrow. The black streaking on the head, and the fine dark brown and black streaks on the buff-colored chest and flanks.

A Lincoln's Sparrow in the morning light. 

Audubon's 1833 Labrador Expedition
On June 6, 1833, Audubon, his youngest son, John Woodhouse Audubon, Thomas Lincoln, William Ingalls, George Shattuck, and Joseph Coolidge (sometimes spelled Collide) set out from Eastport, Maine on the schooner "Ripley" commanded by Captain Emery. The trip was a collecting expedition with an emphasis on northern waterbirds for The Birds of America. They returned to Eastport on August 31, 1833. Click here for a map and timeline that shows the routes they took to and from Labrador. This map appears in the article, "Parts Unknown: Audubon's 1833 Labrador Expedition on the Ripley," and is on the Audubon website in "Audubon's Aviary, The Final Flight." The article contains a lot of other interesting historical information, e.g., in a letter Audubon wrote to his son Victor Gifford, we learn:
"I have chartered a schooner called the ‘Ripley,’ commanded by Captain Emery. . . . only a year old, of 106 tons, for which we pay three hundred and fifty dollars per month for the entire use of the vessel with the men. . . .”
While preparing for this expedition, Audubon suffered a stroke in March of 1833. He recovered quickly and continued with the preparations for the trip. For a personal account of the 1833 Labrador Expedition, click here for the pdf of an article from The Auk, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Jan., 1910), pp. 42-52, titled, "Audubon's Labrador Trip of 1833," by Ruthven Deane. In 1903 Deane interviewed Dr. William Ingalls, who was in his 90s and the last surviving member of the party. The article contains a letter written by Ingalls to Deane describing their trip.

Audubon's description of the Lincoln's Sparrow in Labrador
If you go to the Audubon website, you have access to all of the birds and the text from Audubon's great work of art, The Birds of America. Click here for the link. Lincoln's Sparrow is Plate 193, and the text that accompanies it is from the 1833 Labrador Expedition. I always love reading the original text. Here are a few of my favorite experts (click here for the entire text):
"We had been in Labrador nearly three weeks before this Finch was discovered. One morning while the sun was doing his best to enliven the gloomy aspect of the country, I chanced to enter one of those singular small valleys here and there to be seen. The beautiful verdure of the vegetation, the numerous flowers that grew sprinkled over the ground, the half-smothered pipings of some frogs, and the multitudes of mosquitoes and flies of various sorts, seemed to belong to a region very different from any that I had previously explored. But if the view of this favoured spot was pleasing to my eye, how much more to my ear were the sweet notes of this bird as they came thrilling on the sense, surpassing in vigour those of any American Finch with which I am acquainted, and forming a song which seemed a compound of those of the Canary and Wood-lark of Europe. I immediately shouted to my companions, who were not far distant. They came, and we all followed the songster as it flitted from one bush to another to evade our pursuit. No sooner would it alight than it renewed its song; but we found more wildness in this species than in any other inhabiting the same country, and it was with difficulty that we at last procured it. Chance placed my young companion, THOMAS LINCOLN, in a situation where he saw it alight within shot, and with his usual unerring aim, he cut short its career. On seizing it, I found it to be a species which I had not previously seen; and, supposing it to be new, I named it Tom's Finch, in honour of our friend LINCOLN, who was a great favourite among us. Three cheers were given him, when, proud of the prize, I returned to the vessel to draw it, while my son and his companions continued to search for other specimens." 
"The habits of this sweet songster resemble those of the Song Sparrow. Like it, mounted on the topmost twig of the tallest shrub or tree it can find, it chants for hours; or, diving into the thickets, it hops from branch to branch, until it reaches the ground, in search of those insects and berries from which it derives its support. It moves swiftly off when it discovers an enemy; and, if forced to take wing, flies low and rapidly to some considerable distance, jerking its tail as it proceeds, and throwing itself at the foot of the thickest bush it meets. I found it mostly near streams, and always in the small valleys, guarded from the cold winds so prevalent in the country, and which now and then nip the vegetation, and destroy many of the more delicate birds."

Our fall trips
This was a wonderful fall trip. The weather was perfect, the leaves were starting to change, and the birds were fantastic. From horseback riding, to hiking, to looking up at the Milky Way while listening to coyotes, I loved every minute with my family and want to go back...soon! There is a lot to see in Hocking Hills, and a day and a half is not enough time. Click here for highlights from a few of our earlier trips.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Gray Catbird on the boardwalk...

...this is probably one of the most recognized (and ignored) Gray Catbirds on the planet. I saw him in May when I was at Magee Marsh (near Toledo, Ohio) at the Biggest Week in American Birding warbler festival. Every time I was there, so was he...literally on the boardwalk, walking around trying to get everyone's attention. When you're a Gray Catbird surrounded by thousands of brightly colored rare warblers, you have to work a little harder to get any respect...

I saw this sweet catbird during the Biggest Week in American Birding warbler festival.
A beautiful Gray Catbird at Magee Marsh

Hey! Look at me...I'm a neotropical migrant too (just a little larger and grayer). 

This Catbird was not afraid of anyone. He would walk the planks while people looked on and walked past him. Apparently Gray Catbirds are forced to take drastic measures to compete with the glittery, colorful, tiny, fleeting warblers...

When he wasn't on the boardwalk, he dropped down beside it to forage on the ground and in shrubs for insects. He really is quite beautiful, and when he's not mewing, he has a lovely and varied song (mimicking other birds as well). 

Catbirds are great subjects to study to learn wing feathers. Since the birds are large, the feathers are easy to see. On the top of the "stack" are the three tertials, followed by the secondaries, then the primaries (the longest flight feathers) on bottom. 

The spring songbird in the winter gray flannel suit... 

Is it neophilia, or is it gray flannel?
If I heard, "Oh, it's just a catbird," once, I heard it a million times. These poor birds with their sweet mews and songs got no respect along the boardwalk. It's easy to understand, though. In the grips of WARBLERMANIA, the more common songbirds often fall by the wayside. Neophilia is the love of or enthusiasm for what is new or novel, and humans often fall prey to its lure. Many of the spring warblers are fleeting and rare and are definitely novel in our parts. Some of the visitors stay, but others are just stopping off on their long flight north adding to their mystique, but our sweet berry-loving catbirds are brave enough to live among us, becoming commonplace in the process. In the wild, catbirds like swampy, boggy, and soggy areas. You can always find them streamside along the Little Miami River, but they are neotropical migrants that can adapt, and they have taken to suburban and urban backyards packed with berries. We have resident catbirds in our backyard all spring and summer. They come readily to the mulberries and then stick around for the pokeweed berries, so maybe that's why throngs of people move quickly past them to look for the cute and colorful rare warblers...

...or maybe it's just the gray flannel! 

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Birding in Cincinnati website has moved...

The Birding in Cincinnati website created by Ned Keller has been absorbed into the Cincinnati Chapter of the National Audubon Society's website. Here is a quick breakdown with links:

Sightings Log
Click here for a link to the Sightings Log. It is still active. You can add sightings and see what's been seen recently in our area.

Birds of Cincinnati Frequency List
Click here for a list of birds regularly seen in our area rated for the frequency of finding them in every month of the year. The list uses finding codes from A-E and is very helpful:

      A. Easy to find; should find on over 90% of your trips.
      B. Usually find; should find on over 50% of your trips.
      C. Usually miss; should find on under 50% of your trips.
      D. Hard to find; should find on under 10% of your trips.
      E. Very hard to find; may not be present at all at this time in some years, but has occurred
           often enough to form a pattern.

Finding Codes
Click here for a detailed explanation of the finding codes (A-E).

Daily Checklist
Click here for a daily checklist. You can select a date from the drop-down list and print out a checklist specific for that date to take with you in the field (finding codes are included for that day).

Places to Bird
Click here for a list of places to bird in the Cincinnati area.

I used the bird list yesterday. A Ruby-throated Hummingbird was at our feeder throughout the day. I wanted to check on how often hummers were still in our area on Oct 3. According to the list, once October hits, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are rated E, so I'm lucky to have one visiting our yard so late in the season. This morning, the same (or another) juvenile hummer was at the feeder, quite chubby and ready to migrate (he was similar but not as big as as "Ping Pong," from this earlier post). I'm sure he will be gone either today or tomorrow. I wonder if this will be our last hummer for the year?

Here is a glimpse at what you will find in the bird list. It's very helpful information, and I'm glad we have such a resource:

          Species               Jan   Feb   Mar  Apr     May    Jun     Jul        Aug     Sep       Oct    Nov   Dec
Ruby-throated Humm                             ED   CCBB  BBBB  BBBB  BBBB  BBCD  EE

Friday, October 2, 2015

Red Admiral along the Little Miami River...

...what a beauty, and what a fast and elusive flyer too! A few weeks ago, Rick and I watched this fellow zipping all around us showing off his agility and quick moves. He'd fly in close enough to get our hopes up, and then he'd fly out again, until finally, he flew in and lit on a stem within camera range. What a twisty little thing he was. You would think he was a professional flyer or something...

Family Nymphalidae are called brush-footed or four-footed butterflies because they look like they only have four legs.
A Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) at rest (finally). Even with his wings closed, he is a beauty when viewed up close.

Seasonal migration
Red Admirals are fleet of wing, and like Monarchs, they undergo seasonal migrations. They can't survive cold winters, so they don't overwinter in our area. Some of the butterflies from the fall generation migrate south to winter in the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, and other southern states. North America is then recolonized each spring by butterflies coming up from the south. Click here for a 2012 post about a Red Admiral at a sap flow on our dying Ash Tree. It explains more about their migration patterns and also irruption years.

Red Admirals are seasonal migrants. They head south for the warm winters. They can't tolerate our freezing winters.
With wings open, the orange and black make Red Admirals a perfect Halloween butterfly. 
Too bad they usually take off for southern climes before October 31.

Brush-footed Butterflies
If you study the first photo, it looks like the butterfly has only four legs (two on each side), but insects have six legs, so what's up? Brush-footed Butterflies (family Nymphalidae) have six legs, but the first two are so small, you don't notice them. The butterflies don't walk on these very short forelegs, and some species don't even have feet on them, they just have little brushes or hairs, which accounts for the common name, "Brush-footed Butterflies." Because you only see four legs, this family has another nickname, called "Four-footed Butterflies." To learn more about them, click here or here. You can also click here, for an earlier post on a Mourning Cloak butterfly, which is another Brush-footed Butterfly.