Audubon Guides

Spring Wildflowers

May 6th, 2013

Spring Wildflowers

What I’m looking forward to this spring…

On my two acre wooded lot in Woodstock, Vermont, the spring time treats me to three of my favorite wildflowers – Purple Trillium, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, and Wild Columbine.  The Wild Columbine is distinct from the Red Columbine of the west and prefers rocky, wooded, or open slopes and parts of my woods is perfect habitat.  Jack-in-the Pulpit prefers damp woods and grows in two spots.  Purple Trillium has a special place in my heart.  My dad transplanted several plants from the Adirondack Mountains in our backyard and they bloomed every spring for as long as my parents lived in the house (over 50 years) and I imagine that they are still blooming 20 years later in memory of my parents and brother.  I also love the regional names we have for this flower in the northeast, Wakerobin and Stinking-Benjamin.  I wonder who Benjamin was and why he was honored, having his name associated with this lovely wildflower. (Or was it his smell.)

Purple Trillium

Purple Trillium © Charlie Rattigan


Jack-in-the-Pulpit © Charlie Rattigan

Wild Columbine

Wild Columbine © Charlie Rattigan

Photo Essay: Brown Pelicans

May 1st, 2013

Photo Essay: Brown Pelicans by Charlie Rattigan

Boca Grande, Florida Gasparilla Island  (26.738520 , -82.264413)

Just after sunrise on April 10, 2013 nearly 100 Brown Pelicans, Laughing Gulls, and Common Terns began a feeding frenzy several meters off shore from the Gulf beach just south of Gasparilla Island State Park.  Of the many pelicans feeding, it was not unusual to see as many as five or six birds rise up and dive in quick succession.  The activity lasted well over an hour and was repeated the next day.  The weather was bright and sunny and the wind out of the east and calm.  It was only these mornings that I saw this behavior and suspect that when the wind shifted to a southwesterly direction the fish moved way from the shore.

Divining Brown Pelican

Divining Brown Pelicans © Charlie Rattigan

five pelicans

Brown Pelicans © Charlie Rattigan

knifing into the water

Brown Pelicans knifing into the water © Charlie Rattigan

Brown Pelican Birds

Brown Pelicans © Charlie Rattigan

pelican in various poses

Brown Pelicans © Charlie Rattigan

Pelican takes off

Brown Pelican takes off © Charlie Rattigan

Pelicans dive 1

Brown Pelicans preparing to dive © Charlie Rattigan

Throw Back Thursday: Happy Birthday John James Audubon!

April 25th, 2013

To celebrate John James Audubon’s 228th Birthday on April 26th download all Audubon Single Subject Apps for only $0.99! Available for iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, Android, KindleFire & NOOK.  (Sale runs 4/25/13-4/29/13)

Bluebirds © John James Audubon

Today birders and naturalists around the world are celebrating the 228th (this year) birthday of John James Audubon, the French-American naturalist and artist.

An iconic figure in ornithology, Audubon revolutionized the practice of field identification, created fantastical yet realistic works of art, and worked hard to follow his passion of illustrating birds. Indeed, his name is emblazoned across the top of this page – now the figurehead of an organization synonymous with birds and conservation.

California Quail

California Quail © John James Audubon

Here are some brief – and perhaps less-known – facts about Audubon:
1. Audubon was born in Haiti, raised in France, and moved to Pennsylvania at age 18 to avoid conscription to Napolean’s army.
2. After moving from southeastern Pennsylvania to Kentucky (with his wife Lucy), Audubon was briefly thrown in jail due to bankruptcy from a failed business venture.
3. Besides the familiar collection of his paintings, Birds of North America, Audubon released Ornithological Biographies (life histories of various bird species) and Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America (a compilation of illustrations and text, started by Audubon and completed by his sons after his death).

His paintings, though, are what define him for modern birders. The birds’ unique poses – that attempted to bring some life and nobility to the dead specimens he often used as guides – invoke the extraordinary from the common.

Brown Pelican Birds

Brown Pelican © John James Audubon

It is interesting to reflect back on the days before high-quality optics were widely available for the study of birds. It was acceptable- actually the norm back then- to go out and “collect” specimens, a euphemism for killing birds to study. Studying these lifeless forms formed the basis for his artwork, and it is actually quite amazing that he was able to incorporate such life and action into his paintings. I can only imagine what his artwork would have looked like if he had been able study live birds in equal detail. Would his paintings have become as iconic?

So let’s celebrate the artist, his legacy, and the organization that bears his name. Happy 228th birthday to John James Audubon!

Great Blue Herons are Back in Manitoba

April 22nd, 2013
Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron, adult © Arthur Morris/VIREO

Great Blue Herons are Back in Manitoba by Gene Walz

Those birds brave or foolish enough to return to Manitoba this week shine in the sky as if they are lit from within. And lit with a 500 watt bulb.

The snow has not melted here yet. Still a 2-foot mattress of white in many places. The sun reflecting off the snow turns raptors and geese into shining bird-ghosts, their white undersides brighter than bright.

Even birds that don’t have white undersides look white. A Great Blue Heron flew over me, and it shone so brightly that for a second I thought it might be a white morph (Great White Heron) or an intermediate (Wurdeman’s). A closer look revealed its silvery blue feathers shining like a brand new quarter.

Great Blue Heron, adult white morph (Great White Heron)

Great Blue Heron, adult white morph (Great White Heron) © Adrian & Jane Binns/VIREO

Great Blue Herons look so relaxed, so laid-back when they fly. The wings beat slowly and steadily. The long neck coils back on itself in a kind of lazy slouch. Not determinedly stretched out straight in front like cranes or geese.

I have no idea how this intrepid heron is going to find food. The rivers are still frozen two feet thick. (Ice-out usually occurs on April 1.) Marshes and streams  may not thaw for a month. It’ll be a while before the fish and frogs and slugs and bugs that suit a heron’s palate will make an appearance.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron © Arthur Morris/VIREO

Once the ice melts and the heron’s food supply make an appearance, this bird stalks its prey with the proverbial patience of Job. It stiffens into a feathered statue, its bill and long neck poised like a javelin. Then it springs!

But that’s for later. If a heron were to try that now, it would shatter its bill into splinters and end up with a very sore neck. I hope it’s got a good reserve of fat from its warmer wintering ground. It’s still winter up here.

Throw Back Thursday: Variations in Rough-legged Hawks

April 17th, 2013
Rough-legged Hawk

Rough-legged Hawk by Lisa Densmore

Location: Lima, Montana

If you’re wondering where Lima (pronounced LI-ma, like the bean), Montana is, you are not geographically challenged. With due respect to the residents of this small ranching community in the southwestern part of the Treasure State, the only reason Lima entered my life was because we passed through it on the way home after a weekend in Idaho. I’m not apt to forget it. It took a long time to travel through Lima, not due to traffic – we might have seen two cars in two hours on the open road on which we traveled – but because we saw so many Rough-legged Hawks (Buteo lagopus).

Rough-legged Hawk

Rough-legged Hawk by Lisa Densmore

They perched everywhere, on the irrigation pipes, on the tops of electrical poles, on fence posts… In this hawk-rich environment, I gained a new appreciation for this rodent-eating raptor, which is on the large side for a buteos, averaging 19 to 24 inches tall. With so many of the species in one place, I realized how much variation there could be from one to another. The typical Rough-legged Hawk has a dark belly, though it may be blotchy. A black patch normally shades the carpal joint where the wing bends, but not always or it might be very small. The wings have lots of white on the underside, and its white tail has a black band near its end, but the black morph has a mostly dark tail. ID-ing a Rough-legged Hawk can be challenging if you don’t already know the bird. It’s more diverse than Grand Central Station during rush hour. Fortunately, it lives in a less populated environment than mid-town Manhattan, making it easy to spot.

I enjoyed seeing its color variations. The phenomenon is not unique to Rough-legged Hawks. While each avian on my Audubon Birds app has a common look, variations occur. Have you seen birds-of-a-color that really are not?

A Murder in the Everglades

April 15th, 2013

A Murder in the Everglades by Jungle Pete

I awoke Monday morning before the sun had risen and before the light could burn off the fog of a dream that would remain with me even until today. It wasn’t one of those dreams where you’re about to die but wake up just in time.  In this dream, I was informed I was dead, how I died and how the world had proceeded in my absence. It was upsetting to say the least.

As I headed for my commute across the Everglades I decided to cheer myself up by navigating towards one of my favorite places in the vast wilderness of South Florida. At the southern tip of the peninsula, at the southernmost frontier of the continental United States is a little place called Flamingo in Everglades National Park. The park has three main entrances: the Gulf Coast Visitor Center in Everglades City, Shark Valley Visitor Center in the heart of the Everglades and the Ernest P. Coe Visitor Center just west of Florida City. From Ernest P. Coe (named for the spiritual father of the ENP), a 38-mile road winds its way through pine rocklands and sawgrass prairies, ever-so-slightly sloping into the mangroves and out to Florida Bay.

Out here the cell service grasps for devices just out of reach. Out here I am one of a handful of humans in a four million acre wilderness. I am content.

I am treated to the site of Anhingas feeding white-feathered chicks, camouflaged by the fecal-stained, white-washed tree islands and guarded by alligators basking in the last of the dry season watering holes. As I make my way south, the road sweeps back and forth through dwarf cypress prairies, like a school of mullet chased by dolphin. Crows hop away from bits of carrion pulverized by passing cars.

I stop for a moment to take advantage of one of several spur trails. A crow hops over and is joined by a second. I retrieve my camera for the walk and suddenly there are four crows watching me, speaking to me with a nasally “gonk”. I photograph them and wonder to myself how many crows make up a murder.


Crows © Jungle Pete

Crows © Jungle Pete

After my walk I head south once again on what seems like an endless road. Crow after crow hops to the side of the road as I drive along. And then one doesn’t. One crow maintains its position just on my side of the yellow line, watching me approach, looking as if it’s timing its move. It doesn’t, I slow dramatically and finally the bird takes flight. A light thud grazes the upper windshield and black feathers puff like a dandelion in the wind. I circle back, park and dart for the bird lying on its back on the side of the road. I get only a few feet from the car before I am mobbed by seven crows. I retrieve a hat for my protection and on my second attempt to check on the injured bird the crows are huddled like football players around their fallen mate. When a Turkey Vultures glides over the tree line and towards the injured crow the distracted mob of crows takes off and drives the carrion eater away, enabling me access to the bird. As I return to my car with crow in hand, the mob returns with more birds, perched above me, making a ruckus unlike I’ve heard from birds before. They are yelling and they are not happy.

Was the bird just stunned? Does she have internal injuries? (For some reason I sense she’s a female). Can I get her to an animal rehabilitator? Will they care for a crow as much as I do now? As I head to Flamingo the mob of crows follows me for a distance and seems to gather members as they go. I stop. They stop. I go. They go. It’s unsettling. The crow under my shirt on the passenger seat makes a soft “gagonk” and an “awww”. I peak under to see if she is ready to fly. She’s struggling and with one last “caw” she goes limp.

Crows © Jungle Pete

Crows © Jungle Pete

There are many cultures that believe that crows are messengers from the spiritual world. Any spiritual connection I have is with the natural world so it’s difficult for me to untether this moment from my unnerving dream. Was this a message and what did it mean? Is it possible that the intelligent crow that normally moves out of harm’s way made a mistake as I had? In the end I find myself struggling to find the meaning in death and in this case one that I caused. And now I can’t help noticing crows wherever I go.

Want to take a tour of the Everglades with Jungle Pete?  Visit his website for more information:

The Birds of Hawaii

April 11th, 2013

Nene © Arthur Morris/VIREO

The Birds of Hawaii by Gene Walz

Hawaii is not the place to go if you’re intent on adding to your Life-Bird list. There just aren’t that many unique native birds left on the islands.

Since “civilization” reached Hawaii about 200 years ago, over 30 native bird species have gone extinct.  Recent evidence seems to suggest that more species were killed off by the original islanders; bird plumage played a huge role in their costumes and decoration.

When I was in Maui in January, I did see about three dozen species of birds. But most of them I could have or had seen elsewhere. Cardinals, skylarks, mannikins, white-eyes, the usual Euro-trash, some common shorebirds and waterbirds from the Americas, and others.

There was even a colony of Peach-faced Lovebirds thriving in south Kihei – so new that they aren’t yet in the bird guides for the island.

I take delight in finding and identifying all kinds of birds. But it’s actually disheartening to see non-tropical birds on tropical islands. Especially if they are contributing to the demise of the native birds, the endemics.

One of the last places to see Maui endemics is in Hosmer’s Grove, a canyon near the top of the extinct volcano Haleakala on the east side of the island.

I went there twice and managed to get long, satisfying views of the Apapane, Amakihi, Alauahio, I’iwi — all bright, active, wonderful bird finds. But I missed the Maui Parrotbill and Crested Honeycreeper, two high-priority target-birds that are rapidly disappearing on the island. A huge disappointment.

Nearby I found several NeNe (Hawaiian Goose), and in the shallows at Kealia Ponds I easily spotted Hawaiian Coots, Hawaiian Ducks, and many Hawaiian Stilts.

I went to Maui for the whale-watching, the seafood and fresh fruit, the beaches, and the warmth. It would have been great had I been able to tick all the bird species I targeted. I guess I’ll have to go back. Damn!


March 25th, 2013
Collard Peccary

Collard Peccary © G. C. Kelley

Javelinas by Gene Walz

Big Bend National Park is a magnificent place – a desert full of mountains of every size, shape and color. If it were closer to civilization, it would be much more popular. But you have to drive through the rest of Texas to reach it. Not many people want to. So, it’s one of the least frequented of the national parks.

That’s great! The fewer the people, the more natural the experience.

I went camping there with my dog Buddy in February without knowing a single thing about the place. Buddy and I both wished we’d done some preliminary research.

For instance: it gets bloody cold in the west Texas desert! Usually around freezing or below at night (once it went down to 14 Fahrenheit), and “the wild Texas winds” that Marty Robbins sang about can make it feel colder.

For instance number two: the west Texas desert is full of too many spiky, thorny, prickly things that stick in a dog’s paws and fur. That makes it a bad place for dogs. I had to inspect and groom Buddy daily; invariably prickly things came off of him and stuck to me.

Also: several wild things that like to mess with dogs. We kept seeing notices about mountain lions, bears and javelinas. The signs warned that dogs must be kept on short leashes and never left alone because of them. That made it tough on both of us.

We never did see bears or mountain lions. (We heard wolves and coyotes.) But javelinas were our constant companions.

Javelinas (aka, Collared Peccary – Pecari tajacu) don’t look particularly dangerous.

They’re less than two feet tall and look like black, furry pigs with skinny legs and big heads. I heard a dunderhead call them “cute” and approach them for a photo. Bad idea! They have sharp tusks and bad tempers. They can gore and gut a dog in seconds. Probably a tourist too.

Collard Peccary hoof prints © NatureShare

Collard Peccary hoof prints © NatureShare

In Big Bend, Texas and nearby they are habituated to tourists. They hang around campsites and slake their thirsts in easily accessible areas of the Rio Grande (actually Rio Puny!).

Another example of wild things adapting. They hardly seem wild!

Reenergizing the Red-tailed Hawk

March 20th, 2013

Reenergizing the Red-tailed Hawk by Josh Haas

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk © Josh Haas / Glances at Nature

I’m betting the last time you saw a Red-tailed Hawk, you didn’t give the bird a second look. When birding and creating lists for the day, there are species that tend to get boring. As one of the most prevalent hawks in North America, the Red-tailed Hawk fits this category for many birders. But I’ve found the bird is worth a closer look.

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk – midwest © Crossley ID Guide: Raptors

This raptor is a dynamic hunter that tends to go after small mammals, amphibians, reptiles and more. It’s opportunistic nature is one reason the bird is so pervasive and, hence, boring to birders. One type of prey missing from the list is small perching birds. And while it’s true they’re not necessarily built for hunting this type of prey, once while hawk watching at the Whitefish Point Bird Observatory I saw an individual display the power and versatility needed for the task. Flying at tree-top level with a strong steady wing-flap, the bird suddenly fanned its tail in such a way so as to flip sideways and nab an unsuspecting Northern Flicker off a dead tree. My binoculars came down, a smile came over my face, and for me the Red-tailed Hawk became a little more exciting. More recently, during a Detroit River Hawkwatch count, I saw a beautiful Northern Harrier circling above the count site when a Red-tailed Hawk unexpectedly stooped into view in pursuit of the Harrier. Enthusiasm soared among the onlookers as the Red-tailed Hawk continued after the Harrier. The aerial battle demonstrated to all who had seen it that this large-bodied Buteo could not only keep up with other agile raptors but maneuver like a Merlin as it dipped and raced around the skies. Yet another experience where for me, the Red-tailed Hawk became a little more exciting.

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk Range Map © NatureShare

These are just two quick examples of how the Red-tailed Hawk is more than a modest soaring bird living around our highway systems. The large hawk is nothing short of amazing. With its large powerful feet, snappy wing flap, and keen hunting techniques, this adaptable bird can adjust easily to many habitats and situations. My hope is the next time you find yourself viewing a Red-tailed Hawk through your binocs, you’ll linger a bit longer. It might just do something for which the bird becomes a little more exciting.

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk © Dave Haas / Glances at Nature

To see more of Josh’s work, get tips on photography, or to sign up for workshops and trips please visit

Blog tour logoThe Crossley ID Guide: Raptors by Richard Crossley, Jerry Liguori, and Brian Sullivan will be available April 2013.  The book covers thirty-four of North America’s diurnal raptor species (all species except owls), 101 stunning color plates–including thirty-five double-page layouts, species information and more!  Be sure to enter to win the ultimate Crossley ID Guide Sweepstakes to win some cool prizes including the Audubon Birds app!

Getting Ready for Spring: Horned Larks

March 18th, 2013

Horned Lark adult male, Eastern © Arthur Morris/VIREO

Horned Lark adult male, Eastern © Arthur Morris/VIREO

Getting Ready for Spring: Horned Larks by Gene Walz

A winter tradition here in Manitoba that I missed this year usually involves jumping in the car on a clear, snow-free day in early February (on or near an accompanying friend’s birthday) and heading out to find Horned Larks. I spent this winter in a warmer, mostly snow-free zone. So the larks weren’t the first returning birds of the year for me. Bald Eagles beat them.

Horned Lark

Horned Lark adult male, Northern © Glenn Bartley/VIREO

I’ve never considered Horned Larks the true harbingers of spring. They don’t qualify because every year I hear reports of Horned Larks that over-winter here. And the migrating larks usually come back to Manitoba far ahead of the official arrival of spring on March 21, and well before the snow melts (the actual arrival of spring sometime in April). But I like to celebrate their hardy appearance.

Horned Lark

Horned Lark adult male, Interior West © Rob Curtis/VIREO

Any bird that sticks around from November to March or comes back here in the dead of winter has got to be special, deserves a salute, a toot of the horn, especially a bird so delicate.

Twenty-one subspecies of the Horned Lark can be found in North America (another 19 around the world). Subspecies associated with Manitoba, the Canadian Prairies, and the Great Plains include Eremophila.aalpestris enthymia, E.a. leucolaema, and E.a. praticola.

Dusty brownish-grey above and white below, they are best distinguished by the black, yellow and white markings on their heads and necks (black “horns” aren’t often visible) and their white outer tail-feathers.

Horned Lark

Horned Lark adult male, Interior West © Greg Lasley/VIREO

They prefer open areas with short, sparse vegetation — croplands, fencerows, road rights-of-way, pastures, and recently cut hayfields. The gravel mile-roads in farm country southwest of Winnipeg are the best place to find them.  They flit along the road edges, folding their wings after each beat and never flying very high or far from the car.

Because they are grassland birds, their numbers are diminishing. I’d hate to see them disappear completely. They cheer me up considerably in February when I usually need it most.

Horned Lark

Horned Lark adult, Pacific © Alan David Walther/VIREO