29 January 2012

Birding the St. Joseph River

Lindsay and I joined Brian Miller and other South Bend-Elkhart Audubon Society members on a "river run" along the St. Jospeh River on Saturday, January 28, 2012.  As we've heard from those who've been in our chapter for many years more than we have, this used to be a very productive field trip, with large rafts of waterfowl observed at various locations along the river.  These days, unfortunately, there is little waterfowl diversity on the river, but it still makes for a fun morning (despite the biting wind).

Lindsay and other SBEAS members looking at distant Buffleheads on the St. Joseph River
The battle for most abundant species on the river in the past several years always seems to be between Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) and Canada Goose (Branta canadensis).  During this trip, we saw more Mallards. Because Mallards are so common, I rarely take the time to look at them in detail.  If we didn't have Mallards around here and I saw one in an exotic place on a birding trip, I would probably think that the males, with their iridescent green heads, yellow beaks, and chocolate brown chests were superbly attractive birds.
Mallards (male and female)
Although Canada Geese aren't as colorful, there is still good reason to search through gaggles of geese, as there are some more uncommon species that can sometimes be found amongst them.  Although we didn't see any similar species on Saturday, I was watching for Cackling Geese (the smaller version of the Canada Goose), Greater White-fronted Geese, and even for Brants.

Canada Geese
Along the river at Eberhart Golf Course we saw the highlight of the morning.  Lindsay and I were in the last car in a line of members entering the property.  We were following the group and watching the river when a duck that was clearly not a Mallard flew in front of us.  Lindsay quickly identified the bird in flight as a Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula).  I hit the brakes and fumbled for the camera; meanwhile, the bird landed and swam farther and farther away from us.  By the time I was able to get photos, he was contently as far away from us as possible on the opposite bank of the river.  Common Goldeneye is one of the duck species that used to be much more common on the St. Joseph River in winter.  They are said to spend winters as far north as possible, so long as there is open water.  I wonder if the large rafts that we once had here now winter further north as a result of a warming climate.

A distant Common Goldeneye (male) 
Another surprise of our outing was seeing several Herring Gulls (Larus argentatus) in a wet spot along the road at the Mishawaka Riverwalk.  The two common inland gulls around here are Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis) and Herring Gull, with the former being much more common than the latter.  The typical parking lot gull is the Ring-billed Gull, and that's what I expected to see as we got closer and saw a flock of gulls along the road, but a good proportion of the gulls we saw at this location were Herring Gulls.

Herring Gull
For comparison, below is a shot of Ring-billed Gulls from the same location.  Herring Gulls are larger and have thicker bills.  They also have pink legs (as compared to the yellow-green legs of Ring-billed Gulls).

Ring-billed Gulls
Thanks to Brian Miller for leading another successful field trip.

21 January 2012

Looking Back...

Since I never posted on this blog about my spring botanical trip with Justin Thomas to South Carolina in May 2011, I figured that now would be as good of a time as any to start catching up.  I did post about our trip on Get Your Botany On! here, here, and here, so be sure to check out those posts as well.

In addition to the rare and wacky, and even on occasion the very showy, one of the things I enjoy most about botanical excursions around the country is seeing species that I'd previously never heard of in genera with which I am familiar.  The plant that is the topic of this post fits that description.  This is Houstonia serpyllifolia (aka Hedyotis michauxii), Thymeleaf Bluet.  At a quick glance, this species (particularly the 4-merous powder-blue flowers with yellow corolla throats) looks like the Quaker Ladies (Houstonia caerulea) that is widespread throughout the eastern United States.  Don't be fooled, though... one must take a closer look, especially at the distribution of leaves on the plant, to know that this is a species with a much more restricted geographical range and habitat requirement than that of Quaker Ladies. On Thymeleaf Bluet, or Mountain Bluet as it is also known, the leaves are tiny and nearly round, and they are distributed primarily on creeping stems from the base of the plant (leading to yet another common name, Creeping Bluet).  Quaker Ladies has leaves that are more spoon shaped in a basal rosette and sparsely distributed in an opposite fashion up the stems. 

As mentioned above, Thymeleaf Bluet isn't as common overall as Quaker Ladies.  In fact, the former is only known from a narrow band along approximately 500 miles of the Appalachian Mountains in nine states; in two of those states on the fringes of its range (Kentucky and Pennsylvania) this member of the Madder Family (Rubiaceae) is a species of conservation concern.

In addition to the foliage differences between Thymeleaf Bluet and Quaker Ladies, you would likely know you weren't looking at Quaker Ladies if you saw this plant simply by observing the habitat in which you were located.  Whereas Quaker Ladies grows in open woods, meadows, and grassy areas, Thymeleaf Bluet is found along streambanks and on rocks in streams, in rich woods, on damp slopes, and on spray cliffs in seepage areas.

In future posts this winter, I hope to highlight other plants from our spring foray that I didn't discuss on Get Your Botany On!.  Stay tuned!

15 January 2012

Some Common Winter Feeder Birds

On Saturday morning, Lindsay and I joined Brian Miller, Vic Riemenschneider, and Sam and Abby Lima at the South Bend-Elkhart Audubon Society wildlife sanctuary for a feeder watch.  Even though the birds we saw are common winter feeder birds, it was enjoyable to spend time watching bird behavior in more detail than I normally do.  We tallied 18 species, including Mourning Dove, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Blue Jay, American Crow, Black-capped Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, Carolina Wren, American Tree Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Northern Cardinal, House Finch, American Goldfinch, and House Sparrow.

Female Red-bellied Woodpecker
Red-bellied Woodpeckers (Melanerpes carolinus) are found throughout the eastern half of the United States.  It is always fun to watch this species at feeders because as they approach, they remind me of a big, goofy chocolate lab running up to a kid for a treat... they seem somewhat uncoordinated, fearless, and unaware of any surroundings as they plop down on the feeder; smaller birds tend to disperse when Red-bellied Woodpeckers land on feeders.  The bird in the photograph above is a female, whereas that in the photograph below is a male.  The easiest way to tell them appart is to look at the red on the head.  On the female, the red color is only on the nape (with gray or off-white on the forehead), whereas the male has the red coloration nearly all the way to the beak.

Male Red-bellied Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpeckers (Picoides villosus) and Downy Woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens) are often confused with one another.  In both species, the males have a red patch on the back of the head; females lack this red patch.

Male Hairy Woodpecker
The best field identification characteristic to tell the difference between these two species is not exactly evident in the photographs above and below.  Hairy Woodpeckers have a beak that is as long as the profile of the head, whereas the beak of the Downy Woodpecker is shorter than the profile of the head.  At the base of the beak, Downy Woodpeckers have a "conspicuous" tuft of feathers, whereas this tuft is inconpicuous on the Hairy Woodpecker (this characteristic can be difficult to see).  The Hairy Woodpecker has a larger black shoulder mark than does the Downy Woodpecker, and the outer tail feathers are completely white on the Hairy Woodpecker (Downy Woodpeckers have dark bars on the outer tail feathers).  Hairy Woodpeckers are also larger overall (about the same size as a Red-bellied Woodpecker) than Downy Woodpeckers (about the size of an Eastern Bluebird).  The calls of the two species, while similar, can be used to distinguish the species.  The Hairy Woodpecker call is sharper and a bit higher pitched, and is described as peek.  The Downy Woodpecker call is more gentle and a bit lower pitched, and is described as pik.  Listening to the calls will probably allow you to tell the difference more easily.  Both species are found throughout most of North America.

Male Downy Woodpecker
The American Tree Sparrow (Spizella arborea) is truly one of our winter birds.  This species breeds on the tundra of northern Canada and Alaska but spends its winters throughout much of the continental United States.  One of the best places to find American Tree Sparrows in winter is in fields with an abundance of goldenrod (Solidago spp.).  You would think that a bird with "tree" in the common and latin name (arborea means "tree-like") would spend its time in trees, but this is not the case here.  Although sometimes found in shrubby areas, American Tree Sparrows spend much of their time on the ground.  The species was confusingly given the moniker American Tree Sparrow by the European settlers because they were reminiscent of the European Tree Sparrows from back home.  In addition to the rusty cap and eyeline, the strong white wingbars, and the bicolored bill, the other strong identifying characteristic of this species is the dark spot on the chest.

American Tree Sparrow
The next two species can be fun to watch because they characteristically spend very little time at the feeder and more time caching food to eat later.  These species also often are in small flocks together with Black-capped Chickadees.

Tufted Titmouse
The Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) is a small year-round resident of forests of eastern North America and northeastern Mexico.  The gray back, orange flanks, light belly, and black forehead on a bird with a small crest allow for an easy identification of this species.  The song of the Tufted Titmouse is a whistled peter-peter-peter, but this species produces lots of other sounds that can sometimes sound a bit like Black-capped Chickadee or Golden-crowned Kinglet.

White-breasted Nuthatch
Another fun bird to watch is the White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis), a species of open woods throughout the continental United States and ranging north into Canada and south into Mexico.  White-breasted Nuthatches spend much of their time upsided-down clinging to trees or feeders.  The nasal, party-horn-like call of this species allows identification without ever seeing the bird, though its call can sound a bit similar to that of the Red-breasted Nuthatch.  The gray back, black cap, white underside, and long thin bill all point towards identification as a White-breasted Nuthatch.  This species lacks the black eyeline of the Red-breasted Nuthatch and the black throat of the Black-capped Chickadee.

Steely stare from a White-breasted Nuthatch
Special thanks to Brian for setting up this outing, and to Vic for opening up the sanctuary for us.

01 January 2012

2011 Comes To A Close

On the final day of 2011, I participated in the Elkhart Christmas Bird Count, birding with several others at Oxbow County Park.  Our group had to leave by noon, but we tallied 24 species during our hike.  When we were in a wet wooded area with lots of downed logs, I thought we had a good chance of finding a Winter Wren, so I played the Winter Wren song on our iPod.  Shortly after the song began, we heard the clear, ringing "teakettle-teakettle-teakettle" of a Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus).  A few seconds later, we were looking at a pair of Carolina Wrens, interested to see what all the Winter Wren commotion was about.

Carolina Wren

Later on our hike, we did see a Winter Wren as well; our other highlight was a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker... a nice end to the year.

Happy 2012!