Friday, April 18, 2014

A Day Worth Writing About

Black-throated Green Warbler
During spring migration, seeing a large number of migrants on a single day is a matter of some science, some luck and a lot of patience.  On their migration route, many birds have to cross the Gulf of Mexico, flying all night until landing, usually on the first bit of land they see where there is some food to be had.  Usually there is a steady stream each  night for a few weeks, but occasionally a series of storms in the Yucatan, for example, might prevent birds from launching for a few days, packing loads of migrants into one night's flight. Their path across the water is affected by several factors including the presence or absence of storms and wind speed and direction.  So, based on some lucky circumstances, a single area of the coast and a mulberry tree filled with ripe fruit can become a bird magnet.  Unfortunately, predicting which area of the coast will get all those birds on a given morning is a tricky business.  When you guess correctly,  and you hit the right place at the right time, it can be a day worth writing about.

Tennessee Warbler
April 14 and 15 were stormy and windy in the Yucatan, over the Gulf and along much of the coast of Florida.  I went out birding on both days and saw very little, but the conditions were ripe for a fallout on Wednesday the 16th.  For a variety of reasons, I hoped Cedar Key would be one of the hot spots.  The Red Van Gang pulled into the Episcopal Church parking lot early in the morning and was greeted by Rex Rowan who pointed to a tree and said "Black-throated Green!"  What a great bird!  What a great way to start the day!  Two trees over was a Tennessee Warbler.  Behind us in the mulberry trees were 50 or more Cedar Waxwings and both Rose-breasted and Blue Grosbeaks feasting on ripe berries.  Over in the bushes were several Indigo Buntings and at least six Orchard Orioles.  Then everything scattered as a Merlin flew through in hot pursuit of a breakfast of a different sort.  Soon a Black-and-white Warbler made an appearance, skittering along the branches of an oak.  Then a Worm-eating Warbler was seen nearby.  We scrambled over to the spot and saw it almost immediately.  Amazingly, all of these birds were in a space no bigger than a third of an acre, packed tightly together like a big family at a reunion buffet table.

Baltimore Orioles
Eventually we crossed town to the cemetery, usually a really good birding spot.  At first there was little to look at.  Then we reached the northwest corner and things got better quickly.  A Blue-winged Warbler grazed in one tree while a male American Redstart ate in another.  Two Baltimore Orioles hopped from tree to tree.  There were several Indigo Buntings in the grass and a Summer Tanager overhead.  Other species included a Blue-headed Vireo, a Prairie Warbler, a Common Yellowthroat and several Yellow Warblers.

With all of the day's success, I hadn't yet seen a Scarlet Tanager.  We heard there were several at the museum, so we headed there next.  We struck out on that bird, but found several others worth noting. Another birder told us of two birds we definitely wanted to see, a Wood Thrush and a Lincoln's Sparrow, both in the brush beyond the house.  We walked over there and saw the thrush right away.  A little effort paid off and we found the sparrow - a real surprise for April.  We also added a Northern Parula to our day's warbler list.

Yellow Warbler
Suddenly our museum visit was cut short by a phone call - there was a Nashville Warbler downtown.  We raced to the site, but soon learned that the bird had disappeared into the bushes along the canal.  We weren't able to relocate it, but were rewarded with a Gray Kingbird, an Ovenbird, a Hooded Warbler, and a Ruby-throated Hummingbird.

Then the phone rang again.  There was a Cerulean Warbler back at the church parking lot, just a few blocks away.  We dashed over there and this time we had success.  The Cerulean put on a nice little show.  She moved too quickly for my photography skills, but I got several good looks at her.

Our next destination was the Trestle Nature Trail.  As soon as we arrived we saw a gorgeous Magnolia Warbler, but the trail itself was nearly devoid of birds.  But Grove and Live Oak Streets were busy.  Several Indigo Buntings and the day's second Lincoln's Sparrow were within a few feet of the trail's entrance.  I also saw a Least Flycatcher that had been previously seen and identified by several others.

After some discussion, we decided to go back to the museum to search for the Scarlet Tanager.  On the way, we drove through some neighborhoods, searching for anything new.  Other than some Purple Martins and Tree Swallows, we had little luck.  And once again, our museum visit was cut short by a phone call.  A Kentucky and a Swainson's Warbler had been found at the sirport.  Another mad dash got us there in just a few minutes.  We dipped on both of them but saw a wonderful Golden-winged Warbler. 

Scarlet Tanager
It was getting late, but we weren't ready to quit just yet.  We decided to check the church again, and at first there was nothing new.  Then I saw a flash of red fly into a bush behind the mulberry trees.  I couldn't see anything up high, and the rest of my view was blocked by a fence.  I got closer and peered through a narrow opening.  And there at last was a Scarlet Tanager.  I put my camera to the opening and snapped a few shots.  You can see the results on the left. 

With that success under our belts, we decided to go back to the neighborhood near the Trestle Nature Trail.  It was still quite busy.  Several Yellow Warblers darted from tree to tree.  While we followed them, I saw a flash of a rich reddish-brown moving through the leaves.  I looked again and saw a bright yellow cap looking down at me.  It was a Chestnut-sided Warbler in brilliant, magnificent, gorgeous spring plumage.  The photo below isn't perfect, but it's the best we could get.  Still, you can clearly see how spectacular the bird was.  Our persistence had paid off, and it was a fitting end to a day worth writing about.

Chestnut-sided Warbler

Orchard Oriole

Black-throated Green Warbler

Baltimore Oriole

Indigo Bunting

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Feeder Watching

Pool Party!  Yellow-rumped Warblers enjoying a dip on a hot day.

There are many reasons to love the fall.  When I lived in Pennsylvania, it was the reds, golds and oranges of the leaves and the cool, crisp days before the long winter.  Now it's college football and fall migration ... and Project FeederWatch. 

Are you talking to me?
PFW is an initiative of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  Under its auspices, thousands of bird lovers around the country agree to watch and count the birds that come to the feeders and birdbaths in their own backyards.  I should mention that there is a small fee for participation ($15, I think).  The rules are simple.  You agree to count the birds you see over two consecutive days by recording the largest number of each species that you see at one time.  You agree to do this no more than once a week (or once every two weeks if you want to mail in your forms) from mid November until early April.  It's not a problem if you can't do it that frequently, you just can't do it more than that.  Also, you don't have to agree to a certain amount of time during a count period.  You can just glance out a window whenever you pass by, or you can sit and count all day long.  It's your call.  But for me, it's a reason to sit on my porch with a cup of coffee and simply enjoy the birds in my backyard.

Pine Warblers love the peanut butter and jelly suet.
As you can tell from my blogs, I can get a bit obsessive about birds.  That carries over to my feeders.  At this time of year, I have as many as 25 feeders including suet, thistle, millet,  sunflower,  meal worms, jelly and sugar water.  I also have some dripping water.  As a result I get a decent variety of birds, usually between 14 and 18 species over the two days and up to 30 species over the course of the winter.

But PFW is about more than the numbers.  I've learned so much from watching the "ordinary" feeder birds.  I've learned about the grab and fly birds.  The Tufted Titmouse will fly in, grab a seed and fly away to a safe place to crack it open and eat.  Then there are the leisurely eaters like the House Finches that come in and sit a while.  There are the skittish birds like the Gray Catbirds that fly at the first sign of movement.  And there are the calm ones like the American Goldfinch that freeze when I move.  If they decide I'm not a threat, they just go back to eating and ignore me.  And of course, there is the "Hour of the Cardinal."  It seems to me that Northern Cardinals are the last birds to eat before dark, congregating in bigger numbers as dark creeps in.

Goldfinches show up in big number and eat LOTS in March.
Over the years I've learned that Goldfinches come and go more than once.  I get a couple early in winter, then none.  Then a bunch will show up in January or February, and then they'll disappear again.  Finally they come back in huge numbers and empty all of my seed feeders in a few days until they migrate out of here.

Also, I've watched the House Finch numbers decline dramatically as they fell victim to the eye disease that blinded so many of them.  I used to get 12 at a time.  Now I rarely see more than three.

I love to watch the bathers.  Gray Catbirds in particular really love the water.  They'll get in the pool and flutter and flop for the longest time.  I believe they're in the water much longer than it takes to get clean, so I think they're just having fun!

Carolina Chickadees and Chipping Sparrows are bold!  After I've filled a feeder, I get no more than a few steps away and they're back at it.  They often sit right above my head as I fill the  feeder, squawking at me, telling me to hurry up!

I was stunned when this Eastern Bluebird stopped by.
I was thrilled to learn that three types of warblers love suet.  I regularly get Pine, Yellow-rumped and Yellow-throated Warblers, especially at the peanut butter suet cakes.  I've also had three woodpeckers eat the suet, Red-bellied, Downy and on one memorable occasion, a Hairy.

Which brings me to my last point for today.  The more you watch your feeders, the more likely it is that you'll be present when the surprise bird shows up.  I'm convinced that many more birds come to my feeders than I actually see.  But during PFW season, I watch more frequently and as a result, I get more surprises.

My greatest surprise was probably looking up into a nearby pine and seeing an adult Bald Eagle staring down at me!  And there was the New Year's Day when I was shocked to see seven Pine Siskins spread out among the feeders.  I was thrilled to see a Pileated Woodpecker do a belly flop into my birdbath.  And this season I had two really unusual visitors at my feeders - an Eastern Bluebird munching mealworms and an Orchard Oriole enjoying some grape jelly and orange suet.

I'm tempted to rattle on for hours here.  Instead, I'll draw this blog to a close by urging you to consider becoming part of Project FeederWatch.  Why should I be having all the fun?

Dang it!

Usually the Red-bellied Woodpeckers like the nut suets, but this is fruit cake.

This Orchard Oriole was a surprise visitor last month

This Brown Thrasher likes the fruit cake suet.

Tufted Titmouse.