25 May 2012

Who Says That North America Doesn't Have Showy And Attractive Birds?

A couple of weeks ago, there was a story on the local news that started with the anchor stating that "birdwatching in Michiana just got more colorful."  Someone's pet macaw had gotten loose, and there were interviews of residents who were blown away by seeing such a colorful bird in their neighborhood.  If only these folks would get out of their homes and into the woods and fields, they would see that in fact we have plenty of colorful and attractive native birds here at home that rival the beauty of the macaw.

Last weekend, Brian Miller and I were on a mission to find some of those native colorful birds as we camped at Maumee Bay State Park near Oak Harbor, Ohio as part of the South Bend-Elkhart Audubon Society's annual spring camping trip.  While there, we birded at several popular birding hangouts, including Crane Creek/Magee Marsh, Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, Metzger Marsh, and Mallard Club Marsh, as well as at our campsite.  We were joined for most of our trip by Ted and Jean Miller, fellow South Bend-Elkhart Audubon Society members.  On the last day of our trip, we also ran into Jeff and April Sayre (also South Bend-Elkhart Audubon Society members), who were birding with Kenn Kauffman (a former South Bend resident).

Camping at Maumee Bay State Park
The scene below is not an uncommon one at the Magee Marsh parking lot in the spring, as birders "flock" (get it?) to the area to see migrating birds as they rest before the long haul across Lake Erie and into their Canadian breeding grounds.  I didn't spend a lot of time surveying the license plates, but I recall seeing vehicles from at least five states, and I would bet that one could see plates representing nearly one-quarter of the United States on a mid-May weekend in this parking lot.

Magee Marsh Parking Lot
With all of those vehicles, there must be a lot of birders.  And, in fact, there are.  Sure, there are places along the boardwalk where it's fairly quiet, but you can tell that you're approaching an uncommon or unique bird when you see a pack of people clogging the trail.

Brian Miller and other birders along the Magee Marsh boardwalk
One of the most common birds seen and heard along the boardwalk at Magee Marsh was the Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula).  This blazing orange and black bird is found in forests as well as in open woodlands, and they can also be found in yards and in parks.

Male Baltimore Oriole
Like Baltimore Orioles, Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) were abundant at Magee Marsh and at the other sites we visited.  This iridescent blue and white bird is found feeding over marshes and can also be found in open fields.

Male Tree Swallow on nest box
You'll have to look closely for the bird in the photograph below.  Directly in the middle of the photograph is an American Woodcock (Scolopax minor), a woodland shorebird so magnificently camouflaged that one can often nearly step on an indivdual or a nest before the bird flushes. 

American Woodcock
Keeping with the topic of birds I would have walked right past had not a crowd formed to view them, below is an Eastern Screech Owl (Otus asio) that was difficult to see even after being pointed out.  To remain well hidden, this predator lives in forested areas, and can often be found near water.

This Eastern Screech Owl might not have moved all day long
At Magee Marsh, migrating warblers are the name of the game.  The two species below represent a bird that we saw infrequently and one that we saw frequently... but you may be surprised by which one we saw and heard more regularly.

Female Black-and-white Warbler
Isn't it great when a bird's name makes perfect sense?  The bird pictured above is a Black-and-white Warbler (Mniotilta varia), a warbler that acts differently than most warblers in that it clings to tree trunks and creeps up and down like a Brown Creeper or a White-breasted Nuthatch.  This species is usually more abundant than the next, but at Magee Marsh, it was the other way around.

Prothonotary Warbler
The photograph above shows one of numerous Prothonotary Warblers (Protonotaria citrea) that we saw and heard at Magee Marsh.  Unlike nearly all of the other warblers, this deep yellow-colored bird with contrasting gray wings nests in cavities.

Common Terns
With all of these woodland birds, it is easy to forget that you are within a stone's throw of Lake Erie.  The proximity to the lake allows for a variety of habitats and types of birds during a day of birding. Several times while walking the boardwalk, I heard an obnoxious parakeet-like call coming from above, and I would look up to see the pointed wings and swallow-like tail of a Common Tern (Sterna hirundo). When we walked out to the beach, we saw numerous Common Terns fishing as well as perched on a breakwall.

Brian Miller and Ted Miller scanning for shorebirds and waterfowl at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge
Interspersed with our birding at Magee Marsh, we made several trips to sites to view waterfowl and shorebirds.  Most of our time away from Magee Marsh was spent at Metzger Marsh, but we also took a driving tour through Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge.

Black-bellied Plover and Dunlin
Another of our highlights from the trip was seeing several Black-bellied Plovers (Pluvialis squatarola) at Metzger Marsh.  In the photograph above, the Black-bellied Plover is the larger bird just to the right of the middle of the photograph.  Black-bellied Plovers are the largest of the North American Plovers, and are distinctive in breeding plumage with a white back and black... well... belly.  The smaller shorebirds in the photograph above are Dunlin (Calidris alpina), which also have black bellies in breeding plumage, but they are much smaller than the previous species and they have reddish backs.

Common Gallinule
Usually when I see a black rail-like bird, it turns out to be an American Coot.  We did see American Coots at Metzger Marsh, but we also saw a few individuals of the species pictured above, Common Gallinule (Gallinula galeata), formerly known as Common Moorhen.  This species has nearly a worldwide distribution.

Thanks to Brian Miller for organizing our outing.  We had a wonderful time tallying over 100 species in approximately 20 hours of birding. Our complete list follows:

Pied-billed Grebe
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Green Heron
Black-crowned Night Heron
Turkey Vulture
Canada Goose
Trumpeter Swan
Wood Duck
Blue-winged Teal
Bald Eagle
Red-tailed Hawk
Common Moorhen
American Coot
Sandhill Crane
Black-bellied Plover
Semipalmated Plover
Spotted Sandpiper
Least Sandpiper
Short-billed Dowitcher
Long-billed Dowitcher
American Woodcock
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Caspian Tern
Common Tern
Mourning Dove
Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Eastern Screech Owl
Common Nighthawk
Chimney Swift
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Red-headed Woodpecker
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher
Acadian Flycatcher
Alder Flycatcher
Willow Flycatcher
Eastern Phoebe
Great Crested Flycatcher
Eastern Kingbird
Blue-headed Vireo
Warbling Vireo
Philadelphia Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo
Blue Jay
Purple Martin
Tree Swallow
Barn Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
House Wren
Marsh Wren
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Eastern Bluebird
Gray-cheeked Thrush
Swainson's Thrush
Wood Thrush
American Robin
Gray Catbird
Brown Thrasher
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
Tennessee Warbler
Nashville Warbler
Northern Parula
Yellow Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Magnolia Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler
Bay-breasted Warbler
Blackpoll Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
American Redstart
Prothonotary Warbler
Mourning Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Wilson's Warbler
Canada Warbler
Scarlet Tanager
Chipping Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Indigo Bunting
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
Orchard Oriole
Baltimore Oriole
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

In addition to all of these species, notable misses included Glossy Ibis (observed by several people at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge), White-faced Ibis (observed by several at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge), Virginia Rail (lots of habitat), Sora (lots of habitat), Great Horned Owl (observed by some at Crane Creek), Belted Kingfisher, Least Flycatcher, White-eyed Vireo, Yellow-throated Vireo, American Crow, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Tufted Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, Connecticut Warbler (observed by some along the boardwalk at Crane Creek), Eastern Towhee, Lincoln's Sparrow, and Eastern Meadowlark.

13 May 2012

For The Birds (And The Kids)

On 12 May 2012, Lindsay and I participated in the annual May Bird Count.  Our survey area includes much of the western third of Potato Creek State Park in St. Joseph County, Indiana.  We started the day with a Barred Owl at 4:30 a.m., and recorded our last bird at 2:00 p.m., after walking a total of approximately 6.3 miles.  We then added three additional species on our property later in the afternoon.

Lindsay birding
The count was conducted as part of the South Bend-Elkhart Audubon Society Bird-a-thon. Members of the chapter solicit sponsors for Bird-a-thon, and the money raised is used to purchase Audubon Adventures, an environmental education program for local schools. 

Eastern Towhee
We had some misses, including Hooded Merganser, Cooper's Hawk, shorebirds, Blue-headed Vireo, Swainson's Thrush, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, Ovenbird, Northern Waterthrush, White-throated Sparrow, and Orchard Oriole.  For the day, however, we still tallied the following 89 species:

Canada Goose - 55
Wood Duck - 13
Mallard - 2
Blue-winged Teal - 2
Wild Turkey - 4
Great Blue Heron - 9
Green Heron - 8
Turkey Vulture - 4
Osprey - 2
Red-shouldered Hawk - 2
Red-tailed Hawk - 2
American Coot - 1
Sandhill Crane - 2
Killdeer - 1
American Woodcock - 2
Ring-billed Gull - 2
Mourning Dove - 5
Black-billed Cuckoo - 1
Eastern Screech Owl - 1
Barred Owl - 2
Chimney Swift - 2
Ruby-throated Hummingbird - 1
Red-headed Woodpecker - 2
Red-bellied Woodpecker - 7
Downy Woodpecker - 7
Hairy Woodpecker - 1
Northern Flicker - 2
Pileated Woodpecker - 2
Eastern Wood-Pewee - 8
Acadian Flycatcher - 8
Willow Flycatcher - 4
Least Flycatcher - 1
Eastern Phoebe - 3
Great Crested Flycatcher - 4
Eastern Kingbird - 2
White-eyed Vireo - 5
Yellow-throated Vireo - 2
Warbling Vireo - 5
Red-eyed Vireo - 4
Blue Jay - 32
American Crow - 14
Tree Swallow - 52
Northern Rough-winged Swallow - 2
Barn Swallow - 1
Black-capped Chickadee - 6
Tufted Titmouse - 6
White-breasted Nuthatch - 4
House Wren - 9
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher - 10
Eastern Bluebird - 5
Veery - 5
Wood Thrush - 4
American Robin - 15
Gray Catbird - 43
Brown Thrasher - 3
European Starling - 20
Cedar Waxwing - 42
Blue-winged Warbler - 9
Tennessee Warbler - 7
Northern Parula - 3
Yellow Warbler - 36
Magnolia Warbler - 2
Yellow-rumped Warbler - 7
Black-throated Green Warbler - 1
Blackburnian Warbler - 4
Palm Warbler - 1
Bay-breasted Warbler - 2
Blackpoll Warbler - 3
Cerulean Warbler - 1
American Redstart - 18
Louisiana Waterthrush - 3
Common Yellowthroat - 38
Yellow-breasted Chat - 5
Eastern Towhee - 30
Chipping Sparrow - 6
Field Sparrow - 20
Savannah Sparrow - 1
Song Sparrow - 13
White-crowned Sparrow - 1
Scarlet Tanager - 4
Northern Cardinal - 23
Rose-breasted Grosbeak - 6
Indigo Bunting - 15
Red-winged Blackbird - 25
Common Grackle - 1
Brown-headed Cowbird - 25
Baltimore Oriole - 7
House Finch - 2
American Goldfinch - 27

05 May 2012

Until Next Time

Some final photos from our trip to Costa Rica...

Wait a second... that's not Costa rica, that's Colorado!  That's right, Colorado.  We had no idea there were beaches in the Centennial State.  This is Blue Mesa Reservoir, the largest body of water located entirely within Colorado.  Blue Mesa Reservoir was created in the 1960's by damming the Gunnison River.

The photographs above and below are from the Hogback Ridge Trail in Boulder County, Colorado.  This trail runs through Xeric Tallgrass Prairie and reaches elevations that are within the montane ecosystem.

Below is a Sagebrush Steppe community in proximity to Antelope Creek near Gunnison, Colorado.

More Stagebrush Steppe is shown below.  This photograph is from Lost Canyon near Gunnison.

Another shot of Sagebrush Steppe from the same site is shown below.

We made a short stop at Roaring Judy Fish Hatchery to do some birding and were treated to a beautiful view of what I think of as a typical Colorado river.  This is the East River near Almont, Colorado. 

Below is a mountain view from near Mill Creek in Gunnison County.

A typical montane aspen-fir-spruce forest is shown below.  This photograph is from near Mill Creek in Gunnison County.

As we rose in elevation, the temperature dropped and we started seeing an accumulation of snow on the ground. 

Just as we did during our first trip to Colorado a few years ago, we had a great time and can't wait to get back.  Thanks to the Fairlees and to Lynn Cudlip for their hospitality and for showing us some great natural areas!

04 May 2012

A Most Interesting Love Affair

Have you heard the story about the alga and the fungus that met and fell in love?  Sounds like a far-fetched fairy tale, doesn't it?  Amazingly, this actually happens naturally, regularly, and on every continent on Earth, and the results, called lichens, can be absolutely astonishing.  A lichen is the organism that results from the mutualistic, parasitic, or commensal relationship (called symbiosis) between a fungus and an alga or a cyanobacterium.

In no way do I claim to know lichens, but I had to take photographs of the nearly fluorescent lichens that we saw when in Colorado last month.  The bright yellow lichen in the photograph above may be an egg yolk lichen (Candelariella sp., possibly C. rosulans), and the resplendent orange lichen in the photograph below may be an elegant sunburst lichen (Xanthoria sp., possibly X. elegans).

Lichens often grow in seemingly uninhabitable places, such as on bare rock, tree trunks, and buildings. They are early succesional and help to create conditions more suitable for vascular plants.  Thank you, fungi and algae, for joining forces to produce the organisms that colonize bare rock, trap dust and water, and eventually help to create enough soil for my beloved vascular plants to grow in primary communities.

02 May 2012

A Few Colorado Birds

We're still trying to get through our Colorado photos before moving back to more local posts.  After this post on some of the birds that we saw, I anticipate one or two more posts before returning to Indiana.

Black-billed Magpie
Although many birders travel to remote places of the world to see showy birds like Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao), there are plenty of showy, common birds right here in the United States.  Take, for example, the corvid above - the Black-billed Magpie (Pica hudsonia).  In addition to the attractive royal blue, black, and white patterns, this very common bird of the western United States has a conspicuous tail that makes up half the length of the bird!  Black-billed Magpies are expanding their range eastward.  Like their American Crow, Blue Jay, and Common Raven relatives, Black-billed Magpies are smart birds.  They can sometimes be found landing on large mammals to eat the ticks off of them, or to remove ticks and cache them for later.  Insects that are hiding under rocks or logs beware... the Black-billed Magpie will flip objects to find prey.  They will also steel food from other birds, and are said to use scent to find food.  Around humans, Black-billed Magpies can be quite bold; Meriwether Lewis and William Clark reported them coming into tents and taking food from human hands.

Western Meadowlark
The song of the Western Meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta) has to be one of the most complex and musical of all of the western grassland and agricultural field birds. So characteristic and unique is the Western Meadowlark and its song that it is the state bird of six western states (only outdone by the Northern Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis, the state bird of seven states).  Until the late 1800s, the Western Meadowlark and Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna) were considered a single species.  In 1888, using observations recorded in 1805 by Meriwether Lewis, including that the bill shape, tail shape, and song of the western variant of the "Oldfield Lark" was different from those of the eastern variant, John James Audubon described and published the new species.

Golden Eagle
One of the most majestic of the western birds is the Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos).  I call this a western bird, but they are found to the Atlantic Coast in Canada, and they winter throughout the northern half of the eastern United States as well.  In addition, Golden Eagles are found in Eurasia and parts of Africa.  Mammals, fish, and birds of all sizes had better be on alert when a Golden Eagle is around; the list of prey of the Golden Eagle is diverse and includes fish, prairie dogs, hares, rabbits, ground squirrels, marmots, jackrabbits, cranes, swans, livestock, deer, seals, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, coyotes, badgers, and bobcats.

Townsend's Solitaire
Although the Townsend's Solitaire (Myadestes townsendi) isn't the flashiest of birds, seeing two individuals of this species was one of the birding highlights of our trip.  Found mostly in the western 1/2 to 1/3 of the continent, occasional individuals of this species wind up in northwest Indiana almost every winter.  Although they feed on different berries and insects in the summer, during the winter Townsend's Solitaires feed almost exclusively on female cones of junipers (Juniperus spp.).
Slate-colored Fox Sparrow
At our home in northern Indiana, we have seen Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca) feeding on the ground under our feeders in the winter.  The Fox Sparrow that we see in the eastern United States is the Red Fox Sparrow, aka Eastern Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca iliaca).  We weren't even aware that there were different forms of this species prior to our trip, so we were delighted to identify the bird in the photograph above as a Slate-colored Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca schistacea), the form that breeds from Brittish Columbia to Nevada and Colorado.  The two other forms of Fox Sparrow (Sooty Fox Sparrow [Passerella iliaca unalaschcensis] and Thick-billed Fox Sparrow [Passerella iliaca megarhyncha]) both have much narrower geographical ranges than the two former forms.