Thursday, January 27, 2011

"What Hawk Are You?" Red-Shouldered & Red-Tailed Hawks

Red-shouldered hawk photographed on January 26, 2011, Phippsburg, Maine

Red-shouldered hawks are often confused with the Red-tailed Hawk, another species of hawk seen in the photos below.

"Are you looking at my red tail? Flashy, isn't it?"
     Red-tailed hawk photographed in Maine in 2009

     The top two photographs were taken through my living room windows yesterday. When the bird landed in the tree, I was still in my bathrobe sitting in front of my computer. I had been sitting there for hours deep in concentration. Nonetheless, in my peripheral vision I sensed, more than saw, the movement across the sky. I leaped up, grabbed the camera and slammed off some shots before it disappeared. My brain immediately said "Red-tailed hawk," but I quickly realized it was not. My brain also said "Ouch! My back!"
     It took study to identify this as a Red-shouldered hawk. I have seen and written about Red-shouldered hawks before, but it seemed an unlikely bird in the winter. The Northeastern populations migrate to Mexico. The last Red-shouldered hawk recorded in this county was in October of 2010. This raptor eats rodents: moles, voles and mice and some snakes, creatures which are hiding under the snow now. But, there are plenty of Red squirrels in our spruce woods (and my bird feeders) and the Red-shouldered will also hunt other birds. It's avian brethren aren't its favorites though, nor is it built for bird tagging speed. This hawk sits on perches as seen here then swoops to the ground to grab its prey. Sometimes they snatch birds and large insects from mid air. They also hunt on the ground for burrowing critters and will hop along after a target, an unusual behavior for hawks.
     So why was this hawk still here since most of its favored foods have disappeared? We don't know. So, I'm going to guess that it's a bad procrastinator with a major case of denial. It just waited too long dilly dallying around on the Maine coast. I have great empathy for
this; I was able to see the bird because I have the same   
problems. I photographed it after noon and I was still in my bathrobe. Yet again, I too had failed to migrate to the next venue. My laundry still wasn't done; my kitchen was a mess and bills still needed to be paid.
     I'm ashamed to admit this, but two of my favorite TV shows these days are The Biggest Loser and Hoarders. I've been trudging along on a weight loss journey for the past year and along the way, I've found The Biggest Loser inspirational. There's a lot of whiny drama, theirs and mine, but some useful tips, too.
     The people in Biggest Loser and Hoarders share in common that their lives are completely out of control. The contestants have stuffed their faces and bloated their bodies to a medical diagnosis of super, morbid obesity. The Hoarders are stuffocating on the stuff  around them until their homes have become uninhabitable junk heaps. Denial and procrastination got them all there one newspaper pile and one Twinkies at a time.
     Viewers of these shows probably fall into two categories: those who feel differentiated and thus, safer in contrast to what they see, and those who feel communality with what they see. I fall into the latter category. I watch those shows and think "Oh God, that could so easily be me!" It gets me on the treadmill and loading the dishwasher. So far, I've yet to be mistaken for a member of the cast of either show, but my day could come.
     Amongst  the cast of Maine hawks, juvenile Red-shouldered hawks are most likely to be confused with juvenile Broad-winged hawks. They can be distinguished by their longer tail and crescent-like wing markings. If you look at the above flight shot and squint, the crescents on the wings will stand out. You also can see how long the wings are. Red-shouldered hawks flap their wings a little differently, too. They are members of the genus Buteo, a group of medium sized raptors with broad wings and robust bodies. Because they kill mammals on the ground rather than chase other birds around the skies like Accipiter hawks, they are built for power not speed. So, their wings are broader and longer than their Accipiter cousins (see Cooper's & Sharp-shinned). Birds constructed for speed have longer tails for quicker in- flight maneuvering, too. Red-shouldered hawks are also easily confused with Red-tailed hawks, another big, Buteo which we more often see here in the winter.
 The Red-shouldered is one of our most vocal hawks bested only by ospreys. Crows often mob them, but legend has it that they also gang up with crows against Great Horned owls that prey on nestlings. When you hear crows screeching in the trees, look for hawks. A sign of an active Red-shouldered hawk nest is poop on the ground. By the time their nestlings are five days old, they can shoot poop over the edge of the nest. These hawks don't need inspirational television programming for good housekeeping, but it might nudge them toward timely migration.

Thanks for some of the information to:

Sibley, D.A., The Sibley Guide To The Birds (2000), New York: Knopf (2001), pp104-105, 108-109, 112-118, 122 This is the Cornell Ornithology labs data base site. It is a great place to put your bird sighting information. I encourage anyone who is interested in birds to enter their sightings here. The information is used by scientists to track population trends of birds and for conservation planning, among other things. There is tons of great information on this site. You can find when a bird was first, last or if ever reported  anywhere in the United States. It's a very user friendly web site.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Wordless Wednsday

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Sunday, January 23, 2011

"I've Had Eyes For You, Babe!" Common And Barrow's Goldeneyes

Common goldeneye drake, photographed in Phippsburg, Maine on Totman Cove. He just rolled the dice.

Barrow's goldeneye drake, photographed in Brunswick, Maine on the New Meadows River. If the bird had moved a hundred feet east, it would have been in Bath.

     So far, this has started out to be a big birding year for me. By the fourteenth of January, I had three life first birds: Bohemian waxwings, a Varied Thrush and a Barrow's goldeneye. If I continue at this rate of three new birds every two weeks, by the end of the year, I would accrue 112 new birds. Oh, if only that would be true. I might as well wish for an upside down, 60 degree, double, arcing halo intersected with a rainbow.
     There have been about 330 species of birds recorded in Maine. This changes a little as new birds are identified, which happens more often than what one might think. I'm not sure exactly how many, but there may be one or more a year.  My life list is 190, a fact I feel more anxious about revealing than my weight. Anyone who has tried to lose weight will tell you that the last few pounds are much harder to lose than the first two hundred. Birding is much the same; the next hundred birds are going to come much harder than the first two hundred. I may have to get out of my bathrobe, a major mental obstacle for me. Or, I could just sit and wait for them to show up, a strategy that has worked pretty well for me, so far. All three of these life birds should not have been here at all, or at least not to be expected with any consistency year to year. I'm on a real roll like a fevered gambler at a craps table, "Come on, dice! Momma needs a new bathrobe!"

  There are two kinds of goldeneyes, Common  and Barrow's goldeneyes. There are over a million Common goldeneyes and they reside over a much bigger area than the Barrow's. Populations of Common goldeneyes stretch uninterrupted across Canada and the northern United States. They are one of the last birds to migrate in the fall from these northern reaches. We have them here in the winter in protected coastal coves and inlets, but not the summer. An elegant, medium sized, diving duck they are fodder for hunters.
     Goldeneyes tend to dive simultaneously as a flock. A brace of them will seem to appear magically on the water surface and  then suddenly disappear. Both species of goldeneyes dive as deep as twenty feet in search of invertebrates, crustaceans and some vegetation. Neither species is endangered. Barrow's, though uncommon in Maine are seen with increasing frequency.
      Destruction of nesting habitat and pollutants are the biggest threats to their populations, though goldeneyes are the only ducks that have benefited from acidification of lakes. It is believed that acid tolerant, aquatic insects on which the ducks feed proliferate in acidified lakes, because the fish that feed on the insects don't tolerate that changed environment. Aquatic insects make up most of the ducks' diet while they are nesting and crustaceans the rest of the time.
     Both goldeneye species breed and nest in the biome of the taiga, the bitter northern reaches just below the Arctic tundra. They are sometimes referred to as 'boreal birds' indicating that they come from the northern forests, just like the Bohemian waxwings. While goldeneyes do live on lakes and rivers of the north woods, they also occupy the more barren parts of the north, so are more accurately called birds of the taiga.     
     When goldeneye chicks hatch their eyes are gray-brown. As they age, the eyes turn purple-blue, then blue, then green-blue. By five months of age they have turned a clear, pale green-yellow. The eyes will be bright yellow in adult males and pale yellow to white in females.
      An early contributor to modern birding as we know it today, was Walter Bradford Barrows, a professor of biology who worked for the US Department Of Agriculture. In the mid to late 1800s, Barrows wrote many respected books and professional papers about birds. The Barrow's goldeneye, was however not named for Walter Barrows, but rather after an English statesman, Sir John Barrows.

  The Barrow's goldeneye favors mountain lakes, often breeding at elevations of 10,000 feet or more. It is usually found in smaller flocks than the Common goldeneye. It feeds almost entirely on mollusks, but also eats occasional snails, sea urchins, or marine worms. The population of Barrow's goldeneyes is under 200,000, less than a quarter of the number of Common goldeneyes. The populations of them in the west and the east are completely distinct groups. Its patchy distribution suggests that it is an ancient species that was once more widespread and is now in decline. In the East, it is greatly outnumbered by the Common goldeneye but may occur in flocks of hundreds in the Canadian Maritimes. The range map on the left shows how few of them there are near Maine. Sometimes, a single Barrow's can be found amongst hundreds of Common goldeneyes. Hybridization of the two species occurs, but is rare.
     Goldeneyes are also called "Whistlers." When they fly their wing beats make a loud whistling sound. The whistling sound helps to identify them. Many times, I have heard them before I have seen them. Nonetheless, they are a wary little duck and hard to approach which makes them a challenge to photograph.
     I have been looking for a Barrow's, a birding needle in the Common goldeneye haystack, for a couple of years. To finally see one was a thrill! And, though I did have to get out of my bathrobe, I didn't have to get out of  my car, nor did I have to travel more than fifteen miles, preserving my standing as The Big Lebowski Of Birding.
     The simplest ways to differentiate a Barrow's drake from a Common drake is the patch on the face and the spur of black running down from its shoulder, as you can see in the photos above. The patch on the Barrow's face is a crescent which runs up beyond the eye. In the Common goldeneye the patch is found below the eye. Barrow's have a purple cast to the head, while Commons are green tinted and both birds have slightly different head shapes. The color characteristics are hard to see unless the light is just right and the head shape is a little tough unless the bird turns in the right direction. Females are harder to differentiate. Usually, the Barrow's hen's bill is mostly yellow where the Common's is only yellow on the tip. When the day comes that I roll the dice and shoot snake eyes on the goldeneye hens, I'll show you what their bills look like. Maybe next week.

thanks to:
Kastner, J., A World Of Watchers (1986) New York: Knopf(1986) pp. 42-44
Sibley, D.A., The Sibley Guide To Birds (2000), New York: Knopf (2001), pp. 100
Stokes, D.and L.,Stokes Field Guide To Birds (1996), New York: Little, Brown & Co.(1996) pp. 83-84
For a great guide to birding in Maine click here: Maine Birding
For more on the great taiga biome, click here

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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Predictions & The Science Of Rainbows

22 degree halo with Sun Dogs, January 11, 2011 3:08pm (sunset 4:20)

These photos were all taken on January 12th. Clockwise from left, Northern cardinal, White-throated sparrow and Song sparrow. Birds have to eat regardless of the weather. These two sparrows have been together at my feeders all winter. I can predict that when I see one, momentarily I will see the other.

22 degree parhelic arc photographed January 11, 2011

"You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows."                   
                                                                                            Bob Dylan

      The night before our last whopper of a snow storm, I took these photographs of 'rainbows' in the late afternoon sky. For days, the weather forecasters had been predicting a storm, but they could not say how bad it was going to be. Repeatedly, they sited computer models that just weren't reliable for what the satellites showed moving across the country. They thought we'd get six inches or less which for us is nearly a non event. While out and about, I first noticed the most westerly of these color patches in the sky which prompted me to keep looking upward. As I went in and out of buildings and my car while travelling about fifteen miles, the patch persisted. That's when I noticed at the same time, a second, odd rainbow further east. Sunset was then less than an hour and half away making it quite dark. But, I was compelled to photograph the phenomenon. These disturbances in the sky made me uneasy. I announced to my husband "Those weathermen should just stick their heads out of the window instead of relying on computer models. If they saw those two weird rainbows, they'd know all hell's going to break lose."
     The next day, before it was all said and done, we had fifteen inches of snow. Two days later, I saw another one of  the colorful patches in the sky. No snow was predicted at all, but before nightfall we did have a dusting that covered everything. Oh, if only everything were that simple to predict!
     I'm impatient with forecasters. Having been hit with a big weather stick after their last laizzes faire prognosticating, I'll be bored and ultimately unprepared when  an inevitable round of their histrionic prattling proves accurate. After all, this is Maine and it is winter. One of these days, after they've said so, we will be hit with another big one. Nonetheless, I should lighten up on the weather guys; meteorologists do get it right more often than wrong. And, weather is trickier to predict than what we want to think. With low tolerance for inconvenience and jam packed lives, most of us need tidy means for planning our affairs right up to the last minute. Often unrealistically, we expect science to provide and meteorology is not the only science that fails us. The predictions of medical science don't always pan out, either. 
     For nearly six days, my centenarian grandmother was in a coma. She did not drink nor eat nor respond.  The doctor called from the nursing home. "I'm afraid your grandmother is in heart failure. It won't be long. She's had a long fight." Expecting her to die any moment, hospice services were put into play.  I cried. I met with the hospice worker. I signed papers. I cried some more. I talked to my grandmother, though it felt like talking to nothing and nobody anymore, a piece of firewood. I told her it was okay to die, that she could let go and stop struggling. I sat beside her for hours every day doing nothing but being there. Finally, on the evening of day six, I decided to go home. I bent down and kissed her forehead. I told her "Grandy, I'm going home. I'll be back. I love you."
     Suddenly, her eyes flew wide open. Smiling broadly, my totally blind grandmother looked  right at me clear-eyed and said "Thank you! Is it raining?" "Raining?" I asked. "Yes, rain-ning" she enunciated, as if my bewildered response was born of stupidity. In the next fifteen minutes she  drank half a cup of tea and ate most of a cheap, molasses donut, her favorite. Now, three days later, she's still chatty, up every day, and dressed. The weatherman got it really wrong this time. But, one of these days............
   Greek mythology held that rainbows were paths from Earth to Heaven and the Norse believed that rainbows connected the realms of  the gods and humans. Irish leprechauns hid pots of gold in the secret place at the end of the rainbow. A rainbow is an optical effect which depends on the location of the viewer, so the end of a rainbow is impossible to reach. When walking towards the end of a rainbow, it will appear to move further away. Two people simultaneously observing  a rainbow from different locations will disagree about where a rainbow is. Rainbows have a place in legends owing to their beauty and historically, the difficulty in explaining the phenomenon.
     Rainbows aren't simple; what we see in the sky that we call a "rainbow" may not be a rainbow at all. A rainbows is  produced by the refraction of sunlight going into and coming out of raindrops, with reflection of the light inside the drops. The optical effect of the rainbow forms when sunlight enters a raindrop, slows, then bends (refraction). Light travels in waves of energy and appears white due to the combination of colors in that single wave of energy. When light bends individual colors separate. Violet light refracts the greatest and red light refracts the least. A rainbow is visible to us when the different colored light waves reflect on the walls of the water drops. This is the simplest explanation and the most common form of what we think of as a rainbow. But, light travelling through water in the atmosphere can also create circles, ovals, arcs, spots, pillars, and crosses.
     All the colored patches or atmospheric optical phenomena we see in the sky aren't rainbows, though single rainbows are the most common followed by double rainbows. When the sun is high in the sky, we may see the bottom of  a circumzenithal arc, a fascinating atmospheric phenomenon, sometimes called a reverse rainbow. It resembles a backwards or upside-down rainbow which looks like a heavenly smile. Rainbows even happen at night!
     What we see for atmospheric optical phenomena varies with the angle of the light source, usually the sun, and atmospheric conditions - fog, clouds or rain. Some form of water in the atmosphere  is necessary for the prismatic phenomenon to occur, but not necessarily rain or even bad weather. Colored arcs, bands, and smudges are also created by ice crystals. "Diamond dust" refers to ground level fog which forms ice crystals at very low temperatures. White light bounced off the crystal faces slows down and separates making the colors visible, sometimes as a band on a level plain parallel to the horizon.
     The classic rainbow arc is always seen opposite the sun, while halos encircle the sun (or moon, but that's another story). Rainbows are always water and halos are always ice crystals. We may not be able to see the whole of a rainbow's arc or the complete circle of a halo, giving the appearance of a patch of color.
     The most common halo is a 22 degree circle around the sun. I'm pretty sure that the photographs above are parts of a  22 degree halo, though I'm not positive. There is also a Sun dog or Parhelia  (the very bright light in the top photo). Sun dogs are red colored towards the sun and sometimes have greens and blues beyond. True rainbows have a reverse color order from Sun dogs.  Sun dogs can be blindingly bright, even brighter than rainbows. At other times they are a mere colored smudge on the sky. They are visible all over the world and at any time of year regardless of the ground level temperature. They often appear as a pair on opposite sides of the sun. These Parhelia or Mock Suns, are with the 22º halo, the most frequent of the ice halos. Whether Sun dogs are visible versus a 22 degree halo is simply a result of which direction the ice crystals are facing. They are most easily seen when the sun is low.
     I saw an odd rainbow in the sky. It seemed so simple. But, after hours of research and study, I'm still not sure what it was. The rainbow business is far more complicated than I would ever have guessed, like weather forecasting and steps toward death. There just aren't good computer models, light bends and the path to the end is not linear. My grandmother is still looking for the end of her rainbow.

Rainbow vocabulary:
1. Rainbow
2. 22 degree halo (common)
3. 46 degree halo (very rare)
4. cirumzenithal arc or reverse rainbow
5. circumhorizon arc or lower symmetric 46° plate arc
6. Supralateral & Infralateral arcs 
7. tangent arc
8. Sun dog
9. Diamond dust
10. The End

For more information on atmospheric optics and rainbow variations with great photographs, click on any of these links:

This is a Skywatch Friday post. Check out what other people saw on Friday!
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Wordless Wednesday

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Wonders Of The Waxwings - Cedar And Bohemian Waxwings

Cedar Waxwings
Bohemian Waxwings

"Forehead Up" is a Native American name for waxwings. I think that's because D.A. was already taken.

A group of waxwings are collectively known as an "ear-full" and a "museum" of waxwings
Seidenschwänze (Silky Tails) is what they are called in Germany.

     In the past three days, I have had two 'lifer' birds. "Life" or "Life Birds" are what birders call birds that they have seen for the first time. Each one of these gets added to a birder's "life list." Some say that the numbers on a life list are what separate the men from the boys of birding. There are "bird watchers" and "birders." "Bird watchers" are those who enjoy the birds but don't bother to learn to identify them. Some bird watchers live to merely tick birds off a list, thus building the list. "Birders" are those more interested in birding behavior, habitats and conservation. They are exacting in their identifications. "Birders" generally regard "Bird Watchers" with disdain, or at the very least, the begrudging tolerance one might bestow upon a snivelling younger sibling.  I fall somewhere in between. My Life List is pretty short by most standards (Like my weight, I'm not going to say what it is), because I'm fairly new to birding. Common birds may nonetheless be new birds for me. The longer a birder has been adding to their list, the harder it gets to add new birds. 
     I got my new lifers while racing back and forth to a nursing home to be with my grandmother. She is 100 years old; she has a long, rich life list. For the past four days, she has been trying to die without success. My husband says she's holding on because she is angry about the change in her astrological sign and is conducting a resistance demonstration. He, she and I are all, or at least were, Aries and proud of it.
     I've gone every day to sit with her. She is in and out of a coma, refusing all fluids and sustenance. Her lungs are filling as her old heart is slowly giving out. I'm not sure she even knows I'm there. Once in a while, she opens her eyes, but clearly sees nothing. When I stand up to stretch my howling back, she does clutch, as if fearing that I'm going to leave. It may be my imagination. We are just sitting, waiting. While she has been having her last life experiences, I've been racking up life firsts in birds, which gives me solace.
     On one of my trips to the nursing home, I saw my first Bohemian waxwings. There was a flock of 126 of them, a pretty good showing for a life first! The following day, I saw a second flock in the parking lot of the nursing home. Waxwings are gregarious, aggressive birds and very vocal. A flock or group of them is called an "ear-full."  Waxwings are characterised by soft silky plumage. Because of this, it's tricky to get feather detail in  photographs. They have unique red tips to some of the wing feathers where the shafts extend beyond the barbs. These tips look like sealing wax, and give the group its common name. When I was a teenager, I was a prolific letter writer. I enjoyed the whole process, including closing the flap with a dollop of hot, red wax and applying my seal to it. I still have my 'R' stamp, if not my astrological sign.
    Male and Female waxwings have the same mainly brown plumage, a black line through the eye and black under the chin, a square-ended tail with a red or yellow tip, and a pointed crest. The bill, eyes, and feet are dark. One of the quickest ways to tell the difference between Cedar waxwings and Bohemian waxwings is the underside, or "coverts" of the tail. As seen in the photos above, the Bohemian has a distinctly rusty red underside, where the Cedar does not. If the sun is shining, this feature is plainly seen even at a distance or on a bird in flight. 
     In North America there are only two species of waxwings. The Cedar waxwing is the more common, but is found only in this continent, while the Bohemian waxwing  is more rare in this hemisphere. It's a bird of northern latitudes. There is a third waxwing, the Japanese waxwing. You've probably guessed it's found in Japan. If we ever see them here, it will be because the earth has shifted on its axis again and we'll get a fourteenth zodiac sign.
     Cedar waxwings like cedar and juniper berries, thus the name. Bohemian waxwings are named for their wandering, vagrant ways. We only get these arboreal irruptives here when they push south from  the northern forests in search of food. True Bohemians, they are known for suddenly appearing, then disappearing. As a German immigrant, my grandmother referred to herself as a Bohemian, too. To be as accurate as a true birder, I should say that she was really my first Bohemian.
     All waxwings like fruit, though they eat insects in spring when egg laying and feeding young. During the winter, a birder can expect to find waxwings devouring Crabapples and thickets of Winterberries. There are some color variations in feathers resulting from which fruits the birds eat. Orange, rather than yellow bands sometimes seen on the tails are attributed to pigments found in an alien honeysuckle fruit introduced to their diet. There are several places with Crabapple trees that I visit frequently during the winter hoping for waxwings. Waxwings and berry bushes are closely linked; flocks gather, devour one crop and then, almost mysteriously, disappear to find the next. They pass the seeds right through their systems as they go, making a mess, a behavior belying their gentlemanly appearance. In a day or two, when the fruit is stripped, they vanish - here today, gone tomorrow. I was lucky to have seen the Bohemians. Had my timing differed by mere minutes, I would not have been able to add them to my life list.
     Any day now, my grandmother will disappear like the waxwings, too. Though it hasn't always been tidy with her either, I'm lucky to have known her, to have added her to my life list.

To encourage visits by waxwings to your yard grow:
Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)
Honeysuckle choose a native species, please
Serviceberry (Amelanchier)
Mountain Ash trees
roses with small hips
Cedar trees
Juniper bushes

Witmer, Mark C., Mountjoy, D. James, and Elliot, Lang. "Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla Cedrorum)." in The Birds of North America, Number 309 (Alan Poole and Frank Gill, editors.) The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C. 1997.

Tyler, W.M. "Bombycilla Cedrorum: Cedar Waxwing" in Life Histories of North American Wagtails, Shrikes, Vireos and Their Allies. (Arthur Cleveland Bent, editor.) New York: Dover Publications: 1965 (Unedited reprint of: U.S. Government Printing Office: Smithsonian Institution United States National Museaum, Bulletin 197: 1950). pp.79-102

Bent, Arthur Cleveland, editor. "Bombycilla Garrulus: Bohemian Waxwing" in Life Histories of North American Wagtails, Shrikes, Vireos and Their Allies. New York: Dover Publications: 1965 (Unedited reprint of: U.S. Government Printing Office: Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum, Bulletin 197: 1950). pp.62-79.

Stokes, Donald & Lillian. Guide to Bird Behavior, Volume 2. New York: Little, Brown &Company. 1983. (Cedar Waxwing, pp. 177-188)

Sibley, David Allen. National Audubon Society: The Sibley Guide to Birds. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 2000. (Waxwings: pp. 423.)

Sibley, David, et. al, editors. National Audubon Society: The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 2001. (Waxwings: pp. 485-487; waxwing article by Mark Witmer.)

Martin, Alfred G. Hand-Taming Wild Birds at the Feeder. Brattleboro, VT: Alan C. Hood & Company. 1963. (Waxwings: pp 113-117)

Leister, Mary. "Cedar Waxwings: Unpredictable Birds." BirdWatcher's Digest. November/December 1991 (Vol 14, No. 2). pp. 50-55.

Iliff, Marshall J. "Identify Yourself: Waxwings -- Cedar versus Bohemian." BirdWatcher's Digest. October 2001 (Vol 24, No. 1). pp. 38-42.

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Saturday, January 15, 2011

What A Rush! A Varied thrush

     I saw this male, Varied thrush in Brunswick yesterday. The bird had been reported several days ago and I had tried for two days to see it. We had just had fifteen inches of snow and it was cold. Twitching this one meant wading knee deep through drifts and standing around in the cold. Yesterday, I hit pay dirt. "The Bird," as it has become referred to lately in birding circles, is visiting a feeder on private property. The homeowner has been most gracious and tolerant of hoards of birders, bedecked with assorted optics, wandering around her homestead and knocking on her door. "Hello. I'm so and so, I've come to see 'The Bird.' Do you mind if........" She knows the drill. Before completing the sentence she gestures to her back yard. "Just stay behind the fence, please." NO problem. To see this bird here at all is nearly a miracle.
     Varied thrushes are birds of the Pacific Northwest. They are not uncommon there, nor are they endangered. A Varied thrush on the east coast is however, rare. Every winter for several years, one or two have been reported in Maine. Why the birds have appeared here so far out of their range remains a mystery. Where they go and where they breed in Maine, if at all, is an even deeper mystery. In the Northwest, they favor dark, damp hemlock forests where they are hard to even see. Their loud, distinct, almost mournful, single note call often is the first thing that gives away their presence. I did not get to see the bird reported in southern Maine last winter. So, having one  close to me this winter was a great opportunity and treat. It did take two days of tromping through the snow and invading a stranger's privacy to see it, though. The bird is flitting in and out of mixed forest to a well stocked feeder station. As it's name suggests, it is about the size of an American robin. Like robins, they have a mixed diet of seeds, insects and fruit, such as rose hips.
     The Bird gave me a major thrush rush. It's a ball of fire, a molten orb of flaming orange, a tangerine meteor flying across a snow field that melted my heart. The bird photographed here is male. The males are brighter than the females and the black collar is less pronounced in the females. The collar gives the thrush the nickname "Necklace thrush." Try as I might, I have not been able to find out why it's called a 'Varied' thrush.
John James Audubon painted the Varied thrush for his famous works in the middle 1800s. Audubon was infamous for killing hundreds of birds for study for his paintings. Those he did not kill himself were brought to him dead, usually skinned, by scouts from around the world. In perhaps his most famous works, Birds Of America, in his text description of Varied thrushes accompanying the magnificent color plates, he said, "The figures in my plate were taken from adult males and a fine female shot in spring." [1] Perhaps if he had seen them alive, streaking across a snowy wood as I did, he might have been less matter of fact.

1. Audubon, J.J., Birds Of America From Drawings Made In The United States And Their Territories, Vol. III, New York: J.J. Audubon (1841), p 22
The Rise And Fall Of The Varied Thrush is an article about the biennial rising and falling of populations of Varied thrushes suggesting cyclic changes in food sources as a reason for fluctuations. The paper is co-authored by Jeff Wells, a respected Maine birder. Jeff has a great blog on Maine birding. Click on his name for that.

In the Northwest, the biggest threat to the Varied thrush seems to be deforestation which reduces habitat.

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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Wordless Wednesday

Cabot Mill Antiques, Brunswick, Maine

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Saturday, January 8, 2011

Scenic Sunday - Duck Shooting On The Ducktrap

The Ducktrap River Delta, Lincolnville, Maine
January First

Reflections on The Ducktrap River
Buffleheads flying to the sea at the Ducktrap Delta
Buffleheads are our smallest ducks. It would have taken multitudes of them to feed a family.

Mallard hens and drakes dabbling on The Ducktrap

    This isn't really a delta, but I loved the alliteration. It is, however, the mouth of the Ducktrap River where it empties into Ducktrap Harbor on the western edge of Peneobscot Bay. The river runs through the Camden Hills State Park. Ducktrap River underwent a restoration of the waterway which was a first of its kind restoration project subsequently copied all over the world. The intent of  the restoration was to preserve the spawning grounds of threatened Atlantic Salmon. There are several famous seafood smoking companies that bear the river's name. John L. Locke wrote in 1859 [1] that the name "Ducktrap" came from a narrowing of the river below the bridge. Hunters sat in wait while others scared the ducks up. Hoards of panicking ducks flew down the river to the sea where they were ambushed and shot by the waiting hunters at the very spot you see here. 
    Whenever I travel past Camden, east along Route One, I always stop at Ducktrap hoping to find birds and I'm always rewarded. At the end of Howe Point  Road, a tiny, winding lane, is a turn around with views across the harbor to Spruce Head and Islesboro Island. Buffleheads and Mallards are abundant in the winter. I've never been there any season other than winter, because I'd rather take a bullet than travel up Route One in the summer, especially through Camden.
    It can be raw and gray on the exposed spit of land, as it was this New Year's day. But, I think it's worth it. So do other people who stop there to eat a sandwich while sitting in a pickup truck, looking out to sea. Or lovers who park there, kissing in spite of the sharp, damp wind. Every time I've been to Ducktrap there have been lovers and contractors on breaks.
    Standing in the biting wind, trying to keep my camera steady, I can almost hear the gunfire and the ducks quacking in terror, ghosts of two hundred years ago. In those days before Polar Fleece and Chinese take-out, a place like "The Ducktrap" would have meant survival. It took lucky geography like this and tough people to bring us forward generations later. Today's Mainers are still rugged people who don't mind the elements for moments of thought, affection and a great view. And some of us will endure most anything to see birds and photograph them, no sandwiches or kissing required, though they would be nice additions.


1. Locke, John L., "SKETCHES Of The HISTORY OF THE TOWN OF CAMDEN, MAINE; Including Incidental References To The NEIGHBORING PLACES AND ADJACENT WATERS,"(1859) Hallowell: Masters, Smith & Company (1859), p 64

For more information on the conservation of the Ducktrap River and the Coastal Mountains Land Trust, please click on the following links.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Are You Happy? Hedonic Adaptation And Hooded Mergansers

Hooded mergansers, three drakes and a hen

"Look at me!"

Seven Hooded mergansers fishing for crabs

Exhibiting classic hedonic adaptation, Hooded mergansers cavorting in nearly frozen water

     Are you happy? I know I am because, I'm a married birder. I have all the components of basic happiness - purposeful activities, meaningful relationships with other humans and safety of home and hearth.  I have the good fortune to live where there are more birds most of the time than most people see in a lifetime. Without getting out of my bathrobe, I see rarities, oddities, the diminutive and majestic, and enormous numbers. So, I should count my blessings. However, this constant stimulation does make me want more and more. One such pleasure begets the need for another.  Spoken like a spoiled brat, I'm going to say that birding has been agonizingly slow here of late. It has left me Jonesing hard for a birding fix.
    This time of year is especially hard on obsessed birders as most of the birds have gone for the winter. The stretch after Christmas until March is Deadsville until they start returning from the south. Let's face it: this is a hard time of year whether a person birds or not. About now, most people are in a slump and subject to the dreaded "cabin fever." I just got a call from a neighbor who, before she even said hello announced "I"m depressed." She was disassembling her Christmas tree and packing up decorations. Though all she does before the big day is complain about too much to do and the ingrates in the family she feels obligated to do things for, she is nonetheless, despondent when it's all over. Christmas puts a lot of pressure on everyone to shop, spend, cook, clean, be creative and give until it feels like the seams in the skull will split. The burden of expectations in our quest for holiday pleasure can be too much. And, no matter how we work at it, it often doesn't feel like enough.
     While at the supermarket, an acquaintance just asked me "Was Santa good to you?" It's a common post holiday greeting meaning "was it enough for you?" Socially programmed, we have an immediate response to the question one way or the other. I said yes, Santa had been very good to me. It was the most uncomplicated answer and I meant it though, under our Christmas tree, there had been nothing.
     In years past when it's been a lean gift scene, under the tree, I've placed fake gifts to create a feeling of opulence. I used to keep a stash of tastefully gift wrapped, empty boxes - faux gifts for under the tree, so that no matter what our economic circumstances, we didn't feel poor. Ersatzpräsent filled the empty belly better than no presents. This year, I did not bother. The pretty boxes were like expecting a duck decoy to suffice for the real thing.
     Although I have enjoyed them, Christmas presents have never made me happy. Admittedly, they've given me moments of bliss, some of them intense moments, like when my husband gave me a diamond. But, even that's not happiness. The sight of a rare bird, or life first bird isn't it, either (yes, you did hear that from me!).
     Differentiated from serial pleasures, happiness is a state of mind typified by love, contentment and satisfaction. It can be what gets us through when there's no presents or no birds. It's another type of gift easily confused with and often by pleasure. Proof of that is in the multitude of rich people out there that are utterly miserable, though they can buy all the pleasure they want. They can experience at will tremendous thrills, but in the end, they are human. Human beings tend to settle quickly back to a plateau of basic happiness, no matter what emotional peaks or valleys we experience. Our ability to survive depends on this knack for hedonic adaptation [1]. People in tragically poor countries are not less happy than those of us in wealthy countries. Happiness is relative to what we know, not where we are trying to go. Even prison inmates incarcerated for life are not unhappy most of the time [2]. Perhaps soon, all of the birds will fall from the sky like rain never to be seen again. I'll be deeply saddened, but I won't be fundamentally unhappy in life. Let's hope that my assumption will never be tested; keep the presents and birds coming.
   Attempting to define and quantify happiness and determine its sources, psychology researchers have devised a questionnaire called The Oxford Happiness Questionnaire (click on that link if you want to see how happy you are). However, direct measurements have remained elusive. I'm not sure why this is so complicated, because my friends and I would mostly agree that one another's company, eating chocolate, new camera equipment, and birds are all the experiential quantifiers anyone needs.
     On the last day of the year, while driving to see a friend with my husband and eating chocolate, I spied these Hooded mergansers. Cha-ching! A pleasure trifecta! I was well on my way to happiness. They were fishing for crabs in a tiny slip of open water at the end of a culvert that passes under a major highway. Crustaceans and small fish are their favorite foods. Hooded mergansers breed and summer in Canada and the northern most parts of the U.S. They are not uncommon in Maine, but we only get them this far south in  the winter. They are short distance migrants, this being their idea of warmer than Canada. The puddle they were occupying, though ugly and small, often hosts them. To "Hoodies," as birders call them, it was a four star, vacation resort! Even they know that happiness, if we just look around us, is where we are.

1. Brickman & Campbell, "Hedonic Relativism and Planning the Good Society" (1971), M.H. Apley, ed., Adaptation Level Theory: A Symposium, New York: Academic Press, 1971, pp 287–302.

2. Barlow, S.R. & Katz, B., "Reality Therapy And Wishful Thinking" (2012), Warren: Nonesuch Press, 2013, pp 00-000

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Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Wordless Wednesday

Inglorious End

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