Posts Tagged ‘bird watching’

Bird Topography – The Head


Thursday, November 15th, 2012

Bird Topography – The Head by Drew Weber

Understanding topography, or the different external features, of a bird is an important step in identifying different closely related species. The head is a good place to start because there are many separate feather tracts that give rise to different physical appearances. The colors of the different feather tracts gives rise to the unique appearance of each species. Below we’ll look over the different characteristics of a birds head along with species that show distinctive features on those tracts.


Tufted Titmous

Tufted Titmouse, adult © Arthur Morris/VIREO


The crown is the top of the head, and like most other feather tracts, birds can raise and lower these feathers. Some birds have longer feathers on their crown which changes their appearance by giving them a crest like the Northern Cardinal and Tufted Titmouse. Other species without an crest can still raise those feathers, creating a slightly peaked appearance when they are displaying or agitated such as when Ruby-crowned Kinglets flash the usually hidden red feathers in their crown.


Northern Waterthrush

Northern Waterthrush, adult © Steve Mlodinow/VIREO


The supercillium is the white line that arches over the eye one the Northern Waterthrush, as well as many other species including many of the sparrows. The supercillium runs from the base of the bill to some point near the back of the head. On most species, this supercillium is white, or some lighter color than the surrounding feathers. The shape, color and size of a supercillium can be a key identification in separating confusing species like Northern and Louisiana Waterthrushes.

Eye line

Blue-winged Warbler

Blue-winged Warbler adult male, breeding © Garth McElroy/VIREO


Eye lines are prominent features on many species. Interestingly this eye line is invariably dark, possibly giving some glare protection to birds, much like the black grease baseball and football players swipe under their eyes. Late in the fall, it can be tricky to separate Orange-crowned and Tennessee Warblers. Looking at the face and seeing an eye line would be a strong indicator of a Tennessee Warbler.


Connecticut Warbler

Connecticut Warbler, adult male © Glenn Bartley/VIREO


A ring of feathers around the eye, often light in color and very useful for identification. Not all eye-rings are created equal, some species have bold complete eye-rings, while other similar species have a split ring around the eye such as MacGillivray’s Warbler. Eye-rings are particularly useful when you are identifying tricky flycatchers– some show a hint of the eye-ring, others have prominent round eye-rings and some have eye-rings with a tear drop shape towards the back of the eye. These subtle differences can take a while to notice but are crucial to identifying one of these cryptic species if it is not vocalizing.


Blackburnian Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler adult male, breeding © Doug Wechsler/VIREO


The auriculars, or ear coverts, are a group of feathers that covers the side of a bird’s head where the bird’s ear openings are located. Several of the warblers such as Blackburnian Warbler show a dark patch in the auriculars and Vesper Sparrow has darker brown feathers that outline the auricular region. The auriculars are a prominent feature on a birds face and therefore probably one of the first things many notice as it defines the face.


Chestnut-collared Longspur

Chestnut-collared Longspur adult male, breeding © Greg Lasley/VIREO


The nape goes from the back of the head and lays over some of the upper back feathers. One many birds, the nape blends in with both the back and the rest of the head. However some species have bold napes like the chestnut on a Chestnut-collared Longspur which aid in quick identification when you see it. A group of species where the nape can aid in identification is the sharp-tailed sparrows (in the genus Ammodramus). These small sparrows are secretive and often pop out of the vegetation only briefly, so a look at a purple spotted nape can identify a Le Conte’s Sparrow, an olive-green nape points to Henslow’s Sparrow and a gray nape would narrow it down to Nelson’s, Saltmarsh, and Seaside Sparrow.

Get to know the feather tracts of the face to boost your identification skills when you are out in the field. This knowledge will quickly add to the number of solid features you can use to separate similar looking birds when you might only get a glimpse of them.

Morning Stroll


Friday, March 2nd, 2012

Black-and-white Warbler by Rosemary Allen

I took a stroll last week past an oak hammock, down towards the edge where the willows meet the pond cypress swamp, near my home in SW Florida. While the lone Wood Stork flew overhead and Turkey Vultures rode the thermals, I walked through the still bare-leafed cypresses laden with their catkins full of pollen and their smaller female cones ready to receive. The pollen fluff from the willows greeted me first while warblers flitted and called, eating as they jumped, flew or crawled from branch to branch. I stood among stands of tall coastal plain willows mixed with Red Maples, dahoon holly and wax myrtle, the result of a wet prairie evolving into woodland after years of no fire.

Black-and-white Warbler by Rosemary Allen

There were more than enough clouds of gnats, swarms of flies and assorted larvae to feed this hungry flock of mixed songbirds. Finding my spot and being careful to avoid the fire ant piles, I sat and watched the Black-and-white Warbler work the willows. This bird appears to be very successful at finding food between the furrows of the bark, along stems, and under leaves with ceaseless movement. Just as quickly as he appears into my view in front of the willow trunk, he disappears behind. And for just a moment I have an opportunity to look at him straight on. I waited patiently for him to reappear but this time it was near the base of the small shrub. Now, this bird was hammering into the bark. For a fleeting second I wondered if he had learned this skill from the woodpeckers he hung out with and then, of course, I realized this was the woodpecker he was hanging out with, a Downy Woodpecker to be precise. Often when I am birding I only have a chance to glance at the head , back or wing, so I have learned to catch on to some identifiable characteristics. Both are bark foragers but in this instance the giveaway was the behavior. The warbler is more like a vacuum cleaner, hopping and creeping with his tail held up; the downy is more like a pneumatic drill sitting back on his tail. But they look so similar with their small size and their black and white coloring! Both of their heads are striped but there is a white stripe on the Downy’s back and the belly is white, not striped. The absence of a red patch on the head identifies it as a female. The warbler’s strong contrasting black and white stripes with the white eye stripe and white wing bars identify it as a male. And as I looked closely at their beaks, the warbler’s was thinner when compared to the chiseled beak of the woodpecker. Although identifying them at last gave me satisfaction; their behavior was far more interesting to observe.

Downy Woodpecker by Rosemary Allen

When I first arrived 12 years ago, this land was still a wet prairie and the wading birds were the ones to see here with flocks of Roseate Spoonbills, egrets, herons and ibis. For the time being, the songbirds and woodpeckers are the stars of the show filling their bellies and of course, the hawks and eagles are close behind waiting to fill theirs.

Downy Woodpecker by Rosemary Allen

Winter Birding – Ducks


Wednesday, January 25th, 2012

The winter months can seem like a slow time to bird in land-locked Pennsylvania. In general, the bright warblers have completely deserted the region along with the other colorful species such as Baltimore Oriole, Scarlet Tanager and Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

One group of birds that make winter birding more fun is the ducks. Most species of ducks breed in lakes and ponds scattered across the tundra. As winter approaches, the open water across their breeding range freezes and forces the ducks to migrate southward.

American Wigeon by Drew Weber

The best places to look for ducks are deep reservoirs and lakes that will keep their open water even when it drops below freezing. Species such as Ruddy Ducks, Buffleheads, Ring-necked Ducks and Northern Shovelers can form big flocks at these open lakes and attract other, less common species as well.

Since ducks are generally out on open water, it is often possible to observe them for longer periods of times than the typical songbird. This gives me a chance to practice my photography. I generally rely on digiscoping, which is basically lining up my point and shoot camera behind my spotting scope to get a closer shot of distant birds.

There are two main groups of ducks that we get in good numbers in Pennsylvania, dabbling ducks and divers. Dabbling ducks, like the Blue-winged Teal below, are often found in shallower water, as well as smaller ponds and rivers. They feed primarily along the surface of the water or by tipping headfirst into the water, looking for aquatic plants.

Blue-winged Teal by Drew Weber

Diving ducks, like the Ring-necked Ducks below, feed by diving beneath the surface of the water in search of food and can spend long periods of time feeding along the lake bottom. This can make them harder to observe as they continually disappear from view. The diving ducks are usually found in much deeper water than dabblers. An interesting thing about the diving ducks is that their legs are closer to the rear of the body, making walking on land difficult.

Ring-necked Duck by Drew Weber

When you are out birding your local lake, you are likely to see other birds as well. American Coots are often feeding in medium to large flocks and if you are lucky, you will get to see them wandering around on land, looking positively goofy. Keep an eye out for their big lobed feet that enable them to swim so well.

American Coot by Drew Weber

For more birding tips and photography, be sure to check out my blog, Nemesis Bird.

A Noisy Nuthatch


Wednesday, January 18th, 2012

White-breasted Nuthatch by Jack Ballard

Riding up a chairlift at a popular resort in Montana my son and I are engaged in conversation. Suddenly, an unknown interloper boldly interrupts us with its own communication. From a stand of mixed evergreens near the lift, we hear the iconic call of a Nuthatch, the nasal “yank, yank” that characterizes much of the vocalizations of these species.

“What was that?” Dominic asks.

“A Nuthatch.”

“What kind?”

“Don’t know.”

My son is familiar with the two species of nuthatches common to the evergreen forests of our area, the Red-breasted (sitta canadensis) and White-breasted (sitta carolinensis). But it is beyond the ability of his father to distinguish the species simply based on sound. Try as we might, we can’t catch a glimpse of the noisy bird.

Red-breated Nuthatch - Adult Male © Claude Nadeau/VIREO

On the next lap on the lift, the little rascal again takes up his chatter in the timber. A thin streak of feathers swoops from the inside of a lodgepole pine to perch momentarily on the leafless trunk of a mountain maple. We can now easily identify the spike-beaked sprite as white-breasted. A picture, in this case a visual image, is indeed worth a thousand “words,” even from the beak of a nuthatch.

Mind Games


Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012

Music is one of those amazing things that truly tasks the mind and sparks the imagination. It amazes me how something as simple as playing a music album I haven’t heard in a while immediately brings back memories from the past. The album “Under the Table and Dreaming” by the Dave Matthews Band is the perfect rainy-day album. “Only You” by Harry Connick Jr. brings me back to weekend trips to Chicago as newlyweds. “Thriller” by Michael Jackson brings back memories of driving to Halloween parties in High School. Music is very visual but only in one’s mind which makes it a different for everyone. Hearing music can trigger vivid memories but physically experiencing things can also trigger certain songs to come to mind.

Each May, we spend at least one weekend in Crane Creek, OH for birding and photographing Warblers. The habitat is diverse but what are noticeable for me each spring are the huge Cottonwood trees strewn throughout. As we slowly walk the boardwalk, we have hopes of hearing distant Yellow-Breasted Chat songs or rare opportunities of seeing Cerulean Warblers. One thing that always seems constant is I find myself with one song in my mind as we walk. The magic song is “Swamp River Days” by John Fogerty. The beginning of the second verse starts out with the line…”Sat down in the shade of a Cottonwood Tree.” This song plays out in my head the entire weekend. I find this to be an enjoyable memory but by the end of the weekend, I’m ready for it to be out of my head. =)

The majority of the time this happens, I typically keep these thoughts to myself. That was until one misty morning back-packing in the Porcupine Mountains, when my wife asked me, “Do you have a song in your head?” to which I replied, “Yes I do!” For me, the song of the hour was “Dream On” by Aerosmith. For my wife, it was “Sunshine on my Shoulders” by John Denver. From that point on, we typically share this tidbit of information with each other and it brings a fun element to our outdoor experiences.

By now, you’ve probably noticed our eclectic taste for music. There is a time and mood for every type of music and regardless of what you’re listening to, listen closely to all the different instruments and moving lines in songs. By using your ear to search for harder to hear parts of songs, your ear will improve picking out individual bird songs amongst the orchestra of the morning.

Chickadee Energetics


Wednesday, December 28th, 2011

Black-capped Chickadee with Seed

Black-capped Chickadees weigh less than a half-ounce or about the same as two nickels in the palm of your hand. As early winter temperatures bounce up and down here in New England as fast as the chickadees at my feeders, it got me wondering how these tiny birds can survive a cold winter night.

Each night they are confronted with the very high energetic demands of staying alive. If they don’t have adequate energy stores to burn, they may not see the light of day. To compensate for the long and cold nights during winter, chickadees increase proteins associated with intracellular lipid transport. Each evening when they go to roost, they have enough fat stores to supply just a bit more energy than they will need overnight.

More fat to burn isn’t the only answer. Chickadees also have metabolic tricks to save valuable energy. Their daytime body temperature is generally cooking at about 108 F. But on a cold winter night they can crank it down by 18 to 22 degrees into a hypothermic state. One study showed that when a chickadee was exposed to 32 F nighttime temperatures, they could reduce their hourly metabolic expenditure by 23 percent.

Each evening as the sun is dropping below the hills and the chickadees are flitting back and forth to my feeders, I know it’s a metabolic race for them to survive another night in the north woods. And for me, I’ll rely on stored energy from the sun and toss another log into the stove.

Birding from my Desk


Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011

Working in a small city from a building with 14 floors, one wouldn’t expect to see much by way of birds but to the contrary, there are birds to be seen. A few years ago, I had the pleasure of moving desks to a new area. Wouldn’t you know it, I was lucky enough to get a window seat. After hanging a couple of my framed photographs on the walls nearby to remind me of the fruits of my labors, I immediately got out a small notepad to keep track of birds seen from my desk. Many birders have life lists or yard lists but this would be known as my desk list!

Many would think that in a city such as Battle Creek, MI I would only see things like House Sparrows (#1) and Rock Pigeons (#4). The masses would be correct but a keener eye outside from time to time has yielded some interesting birds, especially after bringing in an old set of binoculars. Situated a few blocks from the river, this means I can look to the south and have opportunities of seeing Great-blue Herons (#16), Tree Swallows (#5) and even an occasional Osprey (#21). Looking straight down from my window to the small trees below often yields American Goldfinches (#8) and in spring their songs can be heard, even on the 7th floor behind closed windows.

Peregrine Falcon

Probably the best desk bird so far would be the Peregrine Falcon (#27). We’re lucky enough to have had a pair of Peregrines in Battle Creek for around 6 years now. Working in one of the taller buildings in town means they’re around a lot. I’ve experienced feathers raining from above while walking out of the building (mmm, lunch!). I’ve had them land outside my window no more than 10 feet away and enjoyed their acrobatic flights all around the facility. Other Raptors on the list include the popular Red-tailed Hawk (#28), Coopers Hawk (#30) and the majestic Bald Eagle (#32).

My list is up to 32 and slowly growing. The bottom line is there are birds everywhere and you never know when you might see them. Enjoy them when you can. My only advice would be to keep things in perspective and realize that we’re not at work to bird, but occasional looks outside are ok and can be re-energizing late in the day!

A Positively Scintillant Prothonotary


Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

Searching for warblers in the woods is a bit like mining for gems. During most seasons, picking a single mandarin garnet (American Redstart) or lapis lazuli (Blue-winged Warblers) from its verdant backdrop is enough to call it a good day. But imagine stepping into a wooded area where gems of every color—gold, citrine, jasper, hematite, idocrase—sparkle from all directions.

Walking the Magee Marsh boardwalk on the western shore of Lake Erie during the peak of warbler migration is like this. Migrant flocks of warblers—up to 37 different species—arrive here in waves; even moderate effort can produce well over twenty species in a few hours. Add to that a feast of other migrants—thrushes, sparrows, grosbeaks, kinglets—and you have the makings of a migrant mecca.

I was lucky enough to experience this first-hand during The Biggest Week in American Birding. I can honestly say this area provides a remarkable window for warbler watching. Here, you are afforded close-up views of dozens of species, and can compare and contrast them in one sitting. Anyone serious about improving their warbler identification skills should flock here, or find a similar area closer to home.

Though most birds use the marsh as a migratory stopover, some stay to breed, such as the Prothonotary Warbler in the photo above (also known as the Golden Swamp Warbler). Prothonotary Warblers are normally associated with wooded swamps in the southern United States, but find suitable breeding habitats within Ohio along wooded margins of reservoirs, large rivers, quiet backwaters, and ponds.

The grey back and beady black eyes of this male did nothing to tame its golden yellow head and belly. He was positively scintillant in the sun, and put on a sensational show just a few feet from the boardwalk where he and his mate were constructing a nest in the cavity of a dead tree.

As the female ducked into the cavity to arrange nesting material, the male dashed about in reproductive fervor, wildly claiming his territory with a loud and full-bodied tweet tweet tweet tweet.

The male gleaned ravenously as he circled from perch to perch, trapping spider webs around his head and skirting clashes with a disgruntled House Wren protesting the warbler’s choice of real estate.
At one point, the Prothonotary landed on the edge of his nest cavity and dipped his head inside to examine his lady’s progress. He then rose up, offered his most handsome profile, and cocked his head back in full song, as if to trumpet his good fortune.