Posts Tagged ‘birds. birding’

A Feast for Magpies

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Monday, December 10th, 2012
Black-billed Magpie

Black-billed Magpie © Lisa Densmore

A Feast for Magpies by Lisa Densmore

Location: Red Lodge, Montana

As I waited for 17 to show up at my house and dig into this year’s Thanksgiving feast, I couldn’t help but notice four Black-billed Magpies in my yard. They busily poked their beaks into the bony carcass of a white-tailed deer that had spilled out of a large trash can, the top of which had just blown off in a fierce wind. The wind also collapsed the tall fence that shielded the trash can from the rest of the world, downed trees and sent anything that wasn’t tied securely into the next county. Most of the deer was already in my freezer, but the opportunistic magpies avidly foraged a venison feast from the few scraps that remained.

My first reaction was to shoo away these carrion-eating corvids, but I paused, enjoying the chance to watch them swagger around their prize. Larger than a blue jay but smaller than a raven, they are rather attractive with their long iridescent blue tails and wing feathers and their flashy white sides.

The largest magpie stood at the high point on the carcass, flashing its eyes and ruffling its feathers if the others tried to get near his spot. Black-billed Magpies may be social birds but they still stake out their turf.

These western scavengers aren’t afraid of people either and consider us a good source of food. Early records of the American West mention magpies following hunting parties to feed on bison kills or to steel food out of tents. Magpies nab eggs and baby birds from other birds’ nests giving them a low-brow reputation, but they also serve an important purpose in an ecosystem, cleaning up after larger predators. And they perform a valuable service to wild ungulates, such as deer and moose, and to domestic cows eating ticks off their backs.

Magpies cache food when it’s abundant though the ones in my backyard didn’t have leftovers from their Thanksgiving feast. After a few minutes, I shooed them away and cleaned up the wreckage from the wind. On the other hand, I have enough turkey and stuffing left over to feed my family for the next week.

Identifying Raptors in Flight

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Thursday, August 23rd, 2012

Identifying Raptors in Flight

Peregrine Falcon

Adult Peregrine Falcon © Doug Wechsler/VIREO

Raptors and vultures in flight challenge birders to become proficient at identification from afar. Shape, flight style, and plumage characteristics are often evident enough to distinguish species, even at great distances, especially among the very large birds and the very small. The raptors intermediate in size between  the smallest and the largest, however,  require careful study. The six species described below can be confused with each other in various ways, even though they are not all closely related.

Peregrine Falcon

Peregrine Falcon

Peregrine Falcon

The Peregrine Falcon’s long, pointed wings often jut forward at the wrist, for a crossbow silhouette. Peregrine has a shorter tail than Mississippi Kite, and its fleet, fluid wing strokes are unlike the more delicate, buoyant actions of the kite.

Mississippi Kite

Mississippi Kite (Immature Female 1st Year) ©Brian K. Wheeler/VIREO

Mississippi Kite

The Mississippi Kite has long, pointed wings and a slender body. Despite its smaller size it can resemble a Peregrine Falcon when seen at a distance or in silhouette, but unlike falcons, kites twist and fan the long tail often when foraging.

Prairie Falcon

Adult Prairie Falcon © Greg Lasley

Prairie Falcon

The Prairie Falcon is regularly mistaken for Peregrine over the continent’s western interior. Prairie differs in its small size and its shape: it is more evenly slender of body and less pointed in the primary region (the outer portion of the wings).

Gryfalcon

Gryfalcon

Gyrfalcon

Gyrfalcon, despite its larger size, is also sometimes taken for a Peregrine; it has much broader wings overall, and its wingtips often look barely pointed. With its very heavy body and broad tail it can resemble a soaring buteo.

Northern Goshawk

Juvenile Northern Goshawk © Richard Crossley/VIREO

Northern Goshawk

A soaring juvenile Northern Goshawk can be confused with an immature Red-shouldered Hawk: both have a long, broad, banded tail, rather long, full, tapered wings with a slight bulge in the secondaries, and streaky under parts.

Red-shouldered Hawk

Adult Red-Shouldered Hawk (Florida) © Brian K. Wheeler/VIREO

Red-shouldered Hawk

A Red-shouldered Hawk juvenile is distinguished by the pale crescents at the base of the primaries. Compared to Northern Goshawk, its wingtips are more square-cut and less tapered, its wings are fuller, and its tail is not as long.

For more tips on identifying Raptors check out a post by Josh Haas: “Hawk ID Part1: ID Techniques 101″

A Morning Dove

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Thursday, February 23rd, 2012

Eurasian Collared-Dove by Jack Ballard

A pair of doves flutters across the snowy street in front of my car to perch in a leafless tree towering above the sidewalk. On this frigid February morning the thermometer registers 4 degrees (F).

Montana’s native doves, Mourning Doves, have all flown south for the winter. So what’s a pair of doves doing in Red Lodge, on the flank of the Beartooth Mountains, at this time of year?

These aren’t Mourning Doves. Rather, they’re Eurasian Collard-doves, an exotic species that has successfully colonized my home state like house sparrows and starlings. First officially sighted in Montana in 1997, by 2003 the statewide Christmas bird count recorded nearly 700 collared doves.

Mourning Dove © Rick and Nora Bowers/VIREO

My first sighting was sometime in the early 2000s in Billings. Now I see these plucky interlopers on a regular basis, no matter where my travels take me in the Treasure State. So far, the verdict is out concerning what impacts Eurasian Collared-doves might have on endemic species such as Mourning Doves. Some biologists feel the two birds occupy slightly different niches in habitat and won’t ultimately affect one another. Others believe the larger collared doves might displace Mourning Doves from feeding areas and nesting sites as their population continues to expand.

Out here, at least three types of organisms receive some benefit from these non-natives. Marauding housecats and predatory birds, such as Cooper’s Hawks, have an additional source of prey in the winter months. In Montana, human hunters can take Eurasian Collared-doves at any time of the year, since they carry no protected status as non-natives.

I’m not sure what to make of these newcomers. What do you think?

Black and White to Pegapalo: The Two Worlds of a Warbler

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Thursday, November 11th, 2010

Watching warblers on the wintering grounds is always amazing for me. Because I am most familiar with their breeding habits and habitats, they seem like completely different birds. But they are as at home here in the Dominican Republic where I stand as they are in the New England woods.

A Cape May Warbler forages in a bush in dry shrublands, a Black-throated Blue Warbler calls in a wet rainforest on a mountain slope. An American Redstart flits from fruit tree to fruit tree in an arboretum, a Blackpoll calls from a tree in the middle of the city on its way to South America, and a Black-and-white Warbler creeps down a limb, jumps to a hanging vine working its way downward foraging for insects.

The Black-and-white Warbler has an unusually long hind toe and claw on each foot, allowing it to walk on the surface of tree bark at any angle. They search trunks and branches for insects with pokes, prods and prying, which gives them their Spanish name here, Pegapalo – hitting stick. Most of their foraging time is spent on tree trunks and large, inner branches where fewer wood-warblers forage, effectively avoiding interspecific competition.

They are often found among mixed species foraging flocks comprised of other migratory and resident songbirds. As a flock of birds comes into their territory foraging, they tend to join and move with the group. This may have two benefits. It may reduce the chances of predation as more eyes and ears are on the alert, and it may increase foraging efficiency as the crowd flushes prey items.

Black-and-whites are most abundant in intact, large forests, but they are able to make a living in disturbed habitats too. I have seen them in city parks, backyards, and farms. Some of my colleagues in the Dominican Republic have found that 65% of Black-and-White Warblers kept territories on shade coffee plantations smaller than 25 acres. An amazing 40% of them returned to the same plantation a year or more later. That cup of shade grown, organic coffee in your hand is clearly important for Pegapalos.

In April and early May they’ll get the urge to migrate and soon they will be back at my house in New England singing their squeaky-wheel song and I’ll remember their southern home once again.