Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Roadside Cranes

From the Indiana Turnpike, Kenn writes: So yes, we just got home from New Jersey yesterday, but today we’re on our way to Chicago. And right there in a field next to the Indiana Turnpike, as big as life, were two Sandhill Cranes. A few years ago, this would have been big news. Now it’s just a big satisfaction to see these big birds along our route. The midwestern population of Sandhill Cranes has been growing over the last 20 years or more, with huge increases in Wisconsin and Michigan and scattered pairs starting to nest in Indiana and Ohio. Now we can hope to see these gangly birds, hear their guttural trumpeting calls, almost anywhere.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Raptors Are Coming

From Cape May, New Jersey, Kenn writes: Now is the season when birds of prey, or raptors – the hawks, falcons, eagles, and their fellow-travelers, the vultures – are migrating south. For the most part, these birds move on a broad front, spread across the landscape, and we don’t notice them in big numbers except in a few places where they’re concentrated by geography. But there are a few favored spots where the hawks follow ridges or shorelines and where huge numbers can be seen under the right weather conditions. Cape May, New Jersey, is one of the best such concentration points north of the Mexican border. The entire southern one-third of New Jersey is a peninsula, of course, and at Cape May it narrows to a point just a few miles across. During their fall migration, especially when winds are from the northwest, raptors will move south along the outer coast of New Jersey. When they get to the tip of Cape May Point they face a quandary, because most of them are reluctant to cross the open water of Delaware Bay, even on clear days when they can see land on the opposite side. Most of them will pass low overhead before they move off northwest along the Delaware Bay shore, apparently to find a crossing point to continue their journey south along the coast.

Today the weather was shaky at best, with winds from the south and occasional rain, and there were very few raptors around. But birders are ever hopeful types, and everyone around Cape May is talking about tomorrow. A cold front is supposed to come through tonight, and by tomorrow the winds are supposed to be from the northwest, so we’re all anticipating a big flight of hawks on Sunday.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Invasion of the Thistle Snatchers

From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kenn writes: The title from this post came from an e-mail we got yesterday, passed along from a naturalist at a nature center farther east in Ohio. Thistle snatchers -- yeah, they're talking about Pine Siskins. These sturdy little nomads have been showing up all over the place, little flocks bouncing around the fields and woodland edges all over the Midwest. I wrote about these birds back on October 14th -- see that post for more info.

It doesn't look like it at first glance, but the Pine Siskin is closely related to the American Goldfinch. In my Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America, I described it as looking "like a goldfinch in camouflage." And like the goldfinch, it's a major seed-eater. It likes the seeds of wild thistles, but it will come to bird feeders (often in the company of goldfinches) to eat Nyjer seed, which is often marketed as "thistle seed." One thing you'll notice, if you get siskins at your feeder, is that they're fearless. Goldfinches may get nervous and fly away if you approach within 20 feet, but the Pine Siskins will just glance at you with a bored expression -- "hunhh, who are you ..." -- and then go back to eating. Often you can walk right up and admire them up close. The streaky look, thin spiky bill, and flashes of yellow in the wings and tail will tell you for sure that you've got Pine Siskins. And this is the year to see them; they're still moving south in massive numbers. I expect we'll probably see some when we go to Cape May, New Jersey, later this week.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Magic and Mystery of Merlin

From Bellville, Ohio, Kim writes: Kenn and I led a field trip for the 2008 Audubon Ohio State Assembly this morning. This was actually a "Kim is so selfish" field trip. What exactly do I mean by that? Here’s the scoop…

The organization that I work for -- Black Swamp Bird Observatory -- was one of the Assembly partners. During one of our early planning meetings, Jerry Tinianow, Director of Audubon Ohio, suggested that someone really should do a trip to Ohio Bird Sanctuary (OBS) because, for one - it was close to the Assembly location in Bellville, Ohio; two - OBS is a really wonderful place that’s doing great work; and three - he felt that participants would really enjoy it. Well, I immediately volunteered to lead that trip. I mean, yeah, I had the best interests of our participants in mind, of course! But, mostly I had KIM in mind, because I had never been there myself, and I've always wanted to go. Whew...true confessions are so liberating. Now that I've got that off my chest...On with the birds!

Acting on a tip from Cheryl Harner, President of Greater Mohican Audubon Society, we stopped en route to the Sanctuary in this sweet little piece of habitat to do some birding. Lots of great birds here, including Yellow-rumped Warblers, Rusty Blackbirds, and Red-shouldered Hawk. But the scene stealer was Merlin himself. Arriving in, for me, a very magical way.

I felt like I was in a scene from some birding movie. Just picture this.....
There we were on this icy fall morning; a group of birding compatriots, standing in tight formation to combine body heat. The marsh we were searching was washed in misty fog, and absolutely everything looked stunning bathed in the golden light of early morning. We explored the scene before us in unison, longing for something to appear. From my left I heard Kenn utter one word so softly that I wondered if I had imagined it. "Merlin," was all he said. Several seconds of intense searching brought the bird to me, but it would be several more seconds before its approach would break the barrier of my identification skills and place it firmly on my birding radar. It was indeed, a Merlin. Handsome. Glorious. FAST. He was a total scene stealer. And he wasn't done with us yet. As he began to pass overhead, he seemed to pause, reconsider, and then drop down to investigate this odd group of mammals looking up at him. Even sitting still, somehow, magically, he never really seemed to be at rest at all. Baptized in golden light, he gathered up our collective breath and held it for several seconds before winging off into the morning.

God, I love birding!

Thank you, Jerry Tinianow and Audubon Ohio for putting us out there to experience that moment!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Siskin Attack!

From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kenn writes: I heard it this morning, high overhead, a sound that I'd been waiting for. Distant but unmistakable, a mix of querulous rising notes and dry rattles. Scanning the sky, I picked up a flock of half a dozen small, short-tailed birds, in high, bounding flight. Yes, they were Pine Siskins, all right.

Every fall, birders over much of the U.S. and Canada keep an ear toward the sky, listening for the calls of "winter finches" flying overhead. The "winter finches" are a group of about nine species that nest in the far north or in high mountains and that are mostly vegetarian in their diet: they eat seeds, buds, berries, but relatively few insects, unlike most other songbirds. These "winter finches" are extremely variable in their winter distribution. If there's a good supply of food in their nesting range -- a good cone crop on the spruces, for example, or lots of seeds on the birches -- the finches may stay in the Arctic all winter. But if wild food crops fail in the far north, the finches may invade far to the south. Depending on the season, other northerners may move as well: Bohemian Waxwings, Red-breasted Nuthatches, various northern owls. No two winters bring exactly the same mix of birds, and birders living south of the boreal forest always wait with anticipation to see which of these winter invaders will make an appearance.

Pine Siskin is a member in good standing in the "winter finch" group. A few siskins come south every fall, but some years there are huge numbers of them. It looks like this might turn out to be such a year. Just within the last few days, we've had reports of Pine Siskins suddenly showing up all over southern Ontario, southern Michigan, northern Ohio. These birds over Oak Harbor this morning may be part of a major flight. We should know for sure within the next few weeks.