Friday, December 25, 2009

'Twas the Night Before Christmas

And all through the house
Not a creature was stirring
Not even Winston...

Merry Christmas and a safe and healthy New Year to all my friends and family.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Preparing for Space Coast - 59 Days and Counting

I registered last week for the 13th Annual Space Coast Birding & Wildlife Festival in Titusville, Florida. I have an aunt (hi Maggie!) in New Smyrna Beach - only an hour away - so I will be staying with her and driving each morning to the festival. I will also be attempting my first drive from Philadelphia to Florida. Nineteen hours! I hate long distance driving and will be stopping for an overnight stay at about the twelve hour mark. If I don't get a lot of life birds, the drive back will seem twice as long.

Scouring the Festival brochure was almost as much fun as being there. This is a huge festival with dozens upon dozens of field trips, seminars and events. Running from January 27 to February 1, the Festival will host keynotes by noted bird celebrities Kenn Kaufmann, David Allen Sibley, Louise Zemaitis, Alvaro Jaramillo and Reinier Munguia. Also in attendance will be my personal hero Pete Dunne and the incomparable Jeff Gordon. I will try hard not to stalk them. But no promises.

The Brevard Nature Alliance is hosting the Festival and along with the Marine Science Center is also co-hosting a North American Gull Conference sponsored by Swarovski Optik. I didn't choose any field trips or seminars connected with the Gull Conference. I am strictly novice at gull identification and my personal goal of the festival is 20 lifers, so I am focused on field trips that will garner those numbers.

Here are my field trip choices (no pelagics - I get terribly seasick. I am afraid that my North American Life List will never include pelagic specialities).

Beach Birds Field Trip: at Smyrna Dunes Park in Volusia County (how could I resist a field trip only 10 minutes from where I am staying??). Rarities like Glaucous or Iceland gulls are a possibility, but more likely to see Wilson's Plover, Oystercatchers, Red Knots, etc.

Central Florida Specialities: looking for these lifers - Least and American Bittern, Glossy Ibis, Wood Stork, Limpkin, King Rail, Eared Grebe, Sandhill Crane, Crested Caracara, Burrowing Owl, Mottled Duck, Grasshopper Sparrow, Red-Cockaded Woodpecker, Bachman's Sparrow, White-Tailed Kite, Whooping Crane, Snail Kite, Roseate Spoonbill, Purple Gallinule, Long Billed Dowitcher, Red-Headed Woodpecker and Florida Scrub Jay. Think I am setting my hopes too high for this field trip?? Wes Biggs is one of the trip leaders and I had a wonderful trip with him at the Quiet Resorts Festival in Delaware. I look foward to tripping with him again.

Ritch Grissom Memorial Wetlands at Viera: Jeff Gordon is one of the leaders of this trip. Looking to collect these lifers: Black Bellied Whistling Duck, Lesser Scaup, Ring Necked Duck.

South Brevard County: Again a Jeff Gordon-led trip. Could see these lifers here: Bachman's Sparrow, Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Scrub Jay, Fulvous Whistling Duck.

I am also looking foward to the Expert Bird ID Forum, a panel discussion moderated by Kevin Karlson. The panel includes Pete Dunne, Kenn Kaufman, Michael O'Brien and David Allen Sibley. And the David Allen Sibley keynote address is also my to-do list.

A side trip to Merritt Island should also prove fruitful. My Aunt Maggie is used to ferrying birders around since she takes her brother, my Uncle Jim and my birding mentor, out to find birds every time he visits. So she is an experienced guide.

Four days of 8+ hour birding trips plus two seminars will wear me the heck out, but I am cramming in as much birding as possible. After all, how often do I get to visit Florida in the company of such distinguished birders?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veteran's Day - and Dad

Dad at the Marine Museum in Quantico. Once a Marine, Always a Marine.

My father was a Marine. And a damn handsome one. He served during the Vietnam conflict (stationed on board the Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier) and was away from us for many years while serving his country. He doesn't talk about his experiences in the war. Ever.

There are pictures of him from his Marine days all around his house and he wears his "Retired Veteran" baseball cap with pride. Not to mention the "Proud to be a Marine" bumper stickers competing for space with the Philadelphia Eagles car magnets on his bumper. But still, he never talks about it.

His son, Joe, became a Marine and served for 10 years (including the first Gulf War). My dad was proud as punch and when Joe presented him with an engraved sword in an elaborate Marine ceremony honoring a retired veteran, we all cried and my dad hung that sword on the wall. It's still there. But he doesn't talk about his service.

Dad, his wife MaryAnn and I took a trip to the Marine museum in Quantico, Virginia last year. Gorgeous museum. Eye oepning exhibits, making me proud and sad at the same time. My dad answered my questions when we walked through the Vietnam portion of the museum, but still, he didn't talk much about it.

Then we sat down for a movie about the brotherhood of the Marines. It was sentimental. It was moving. It was stirring (the Marines know how to do pomp and circumstance and they certainly know how to make a bunch of young men brothers to each other). I glanced over and saw the tears on my dad's cheek. He didn't have to say anything. I know, Dad. And thanks.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Missing Birds and Blogging

I am sorry I have been out of touch lately. No blog posts and definitely no birding. I am preparing for some surgery next week (nothing serious) and work is keeping me in 14 hour days 6 days a week.

I realized how much I missed birding when I looked out the window to see.....a first of the season junco. While I love these little harbingers of cold weather, I never realized how much they meant to me until I felt the huge grin crack across my face. Since I have moved into my new house, my backyard birds have been limited to house sparrows, with a few titmice, mourning doves, nuthatches and goldfinches thrown in for good measure. At my last house, my yard list was a comfortable 57 species (just like the Heinz sauce!) - always full of diversity and something to look at.
Lilac, hydrangea and forsythia, a dogwood, an oak and a weeping cherry tree along with yew bushes line my yard providing good coverage and habitat, but still, the bullying HOSPS dominate. A cardinal couple and a white-throated sparrow joined the juncos pecking on the ground and I was in heaven. Then a house finch flew in. Never thought I would be happy to see a house finch, but I was!

Loooking at my new yard birds made me long for a real birding trip. Like last year's New River Festival. Or Cape May Autumn Festival. Or the upcoming Space Coast Festival in Titusville, Florida. I miss the Flock and I miss the birds.

Come January, I will be back to my normal, healthy self and plan on birding until I drop! And I promise to blog more often, too!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Beth, Birds, Boy Scouts and Bill of the Birds

On Saturday I took a group of 12 Cub Scouts and 8 parents/ chaperones to Peace Valley Park to go birding. Bill Thompson went along in the form of his book, A Young Birder's Guide, which I distributed to all the kids. It was a fabulous two hours full of discovery for these young people. And I had a good time, too.

Bill's book ready for distribution

It drizzled all morning, but we had Scout badges to earn, so we met in the parking lot of the Peace Valley Nature Center where I gave a quick lesson on the use of optics and a field guide. The attention span of a ten-year old is about 6 seconds, so I lost them pretty quickly.

Off to the bird blind where we saw Mourning Doves, Eastern towhee, tufted titmouse, Carolina chickadee, Northern cardinal (easily the day's favorite bird), blue jay, white breasted nuthatch and house finch. While in the blind, I took the opportunity to talk about feeding birds, male vs female plumage and migration. The Scouts impressed me with their intelligent questions and their observations. I anticipated a bunch of apathetic pre-teens who would rather be in front of an X-Box or the computer. Boy, was I mistaken. They were anxious to learn and that warmed my heart (which was shivering in the cold drizzle).

On Deer Trail in Peace Valley Park

Checking out a bunch of rocks where a snake might live!

On to the woodland trails. We saw bluebird and owl boxes which gave me a chance to talk about nesting habits and nocturnal birds. One of the boys saw a great blue heron fly in and perch in a tree over Lake Galena, so we all got great looks at it. Meanwhile, three belted kingfishers were doing a noisy display diving for fish. We trekked for about an hour and saw gray catbird, American goldfinch, mallard duck, downy woodpecker (thanks to a quick spot by one of the parents - I love it when the parents are involved), red bellied woodpecker, Canada goose, Northern mockingbird and the last bird of the day - double crested cormorants. By the time we saw the cormorants perched on rocks in the lake, the boys were more interested in tossing pebbles, so I knew it was time to wrap up the trip.

Tallying up the day's list

The Scouts also found deer and raccoon tracks, deer poop, a small animal den (with a front and a back door, one of them pointed out), turned over rocks looking for snakes, and picked me a beautiful bunch of wildflowers to show their thanks. But the day's best find, and the one that garnered the most excitement and shouting each time it was spotted.....the gray squirrel.

We gathered back at the picnic pavilion to write down our observations and have a snack as well as to gather for a group photo.

Me and the new birders (note some of them holding up their new field guides)

It was a fun birding day (20 species - not bad for a day in the rain with a rowdy group) and I hope that I was able to turn at least a few young boys into birders. Thanks boys. I had a blast.

And a special thanks to Bill of the Birds for a wonderful book that helped us immensely throughout the day.

My thank-you bouquet

Thursday, October 1, 2009

My Notebooks, My Treasures

When I started birding four short years ago, I took a tiny notebook with me and wrote down every single thing I noticed about birds. Field marks (I didn't know that's what they were called), behavior, lists of what birds I saw or heard, mammals and flowers (with little stars next to the bird name if it was a lifer), sketches of tail or head shapes, date, weather conditions, time and location. Looking back over these four books (one per year), it is amusing to see how my skills (limited as they are) developed.

I never wrote down in my trusty Peterson field guide (my favorite because it was my first) where and when I saw each lifer, but the notebooks keep those memories alive.

What made me smile recently were the pages from September 17, 2005 *8am, foggy conditions* at Hawk Mountain in the Pocono Mountains, Pennsylvania. It was a two hour drive early one morning. I was going alone to meet members of the DVOC for raptor watching at the height of hawk migration. I had just joined DVOC and had not met anyone from the organization or gone on any sponsored field trips. I was shy and nervous and little did I know that raptor migration was one of the hardest ID situations next to gulls.
I got to the parking lot over an hour early (told you I was nervous) and decided to start the hike up to North Lookout myself and meet them on the mountain. Improperly prepared/ outfitted, wearing sneakers instead of hiking boots and certainly not in the best physical shape, I struggled to make the climb. I felt it was a good thing I was alone instead of embarrassing myself in front of more experienced DVOC members.

photo courtesy of

I made it to North Lookout and was expecting a flat platform with railings, maybe some benches. Ha! Nothing but boulders, steep dropoffs and experienced birders perched all over. I was so intimidated. And scared out of my wits. I knew if I dropped off the face of the earth (a distinct possibility) none of my family or friends knew where I was. I was about to die alone.

I found a relatively flat boulder and perched gingerly. I tried to focus on birds that people were calling out all over: Magnolia warbler, Philadelphia vireo, Cape May warbler, cedar waxwing, rose breasted grosbeak, olive sided flycatcher, chimney swift, merlin....all of these would have been life birds if I could have seen them. When someone would call out a bird, everyone would jump up and swivel to find the bird. The first time I jumped up, I felt myself lose my balance and that was the last time I stood up. My butt got numb from sitting for almost 4 hours, but I was too scared to climb down! Besides, now it was quite crowded on North Lookout. I saw the DVOC group arrive, but I was so thoroughly cowed that I kept to myself and did not join them.

On a clump of trees in front of me, I noticed small bright yellow birds with black caps and wings. I looked frantically through my field guide, but couldn't find an id. I gathered my nerve and asked the woman sitting next to me (birders are truly friendly) and she told me they were American goldfinches. Wow! My first goldfinch and I thought they were gorgeous. I stared at them for 30 minutes. They were the only birds I truly saw on that trip. I wrote down every bird that others called out, but I only saw the goldfinches and waxwings.

I eventually climbed down the mountain and drove home. Enamored of birding, embarrassed by my shyness (I have certainly gotten over that!) and addicted to my notebooks where I write down everything I see.

Do you use notebooks in the field?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

New Home - Finally!

I am all moved in to my new house. It seems like forever since I signed the lease- 7 weeks ago. Lots of packing, unpacking, cleaning, moving, rearranging and all the accompanying stress.

Moving the kittycats was full of drama, trauma and a little bloodshed (from trying to get Winston into the cat carrier). But after two days huddled under the beds, the cats have adjusted well. They love exploring the new house - it is bigger than the last one. And with a lot more windowsills. A cat's dream home.

Winston, enjoying a little sun and a cool breeze on the living room windowsill

The birds did not follow me. I hung all my birdfeeders and so far have attracted nothing but a ton of house sparrows. Yuck. We'll see how it goes.

While watching my beloved Philadelphia Eagles in the season opener against Carolina (we won), I made a batch of Zick dough at halftime. I stuffed it in the new suet holders that my dad made. Now I will freeze them to harden the dough and have it ready for hanging when the weather gets colder. Aren't they cool? My dad took up several hobbies when he retired - homemade candles and wood crafts. I have benefited greatly from both.

Goldfinch suet holder (check out the serial killer eyes) and Northern Cardinal suet holder both full of Zick dough.

He and my stepmother spent a week with me after the move and cleaned the new house top to bottom (removing storm windows to clean, scrubbing toilets, hanging pictures and draperies, etc). It would have taken me months to finish without their help. My brother, Russ and his life-partner Jeff also visited to help hook up all the electronics. I am technologically challenged and not afraid to admit when I need help.

Dad and Russ hooking up the new flatscreen to the DVD, the DVR, the wireless router, the cable box and the electricity

Today, I had three of my best girlfriends over to see the house, have bagels and coffee and catch up. They live 50 minutes away and finding "girl-time" is difficult to say the least. So this was precious time. We all sat around the farmhouse table, drinking coffee, noshing and laughing so loud that I think I might get protest letters from the neighbors. When we went to make plans for our next outing, we all pulled out our PDAs, cellphones, iPhones and pagers. How pathetic is our dependency on gadgets?

Now that the move is over and I am settled comfortably, I will blog more regularly. I am taking a group of 10 Boy Scouts birding in 3 weeks, so that should make for one hell of a blog entry. Me and ten 10-year olds in the woods - the situation is ripe for great storytelling.

I leave you with a picture of the housewarming present from my friend Kathy - a punched tin bird that holds a tealight candle in it's belly. Friends know what you like. And they humor you.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Legal Troubles are for the Birds

My friends often laugh at my passion for birding; but those of us who are birders understand and accept the occasional ribbing with good-natured humor (most of the time). For a more serious homily on offensive birder stereotypes, check out Susan's post here.

After regaling my friends about my upcoming move to a new home (only two weeks away!), my friend Janet asked "Beth, what will happen to all the birds that currently mooch off your numerous feeders? How will they know where to find you? Can you leave a trail of crumbs to the new place? This could be very traumatic for your flock…."

I got this email from Janet's husband, Andy, also a friend (I think) and a newly-minted law school graduate studying for the bar exam. Now I have to worry about being legally pursued by my backyard birds who seem to have quite a good case against me for removing the largesse they have enjoyed these past three years!

(I have edited the letter for space reasons)

Dear Ms. Russell,

It is an unconstitutional violation of the fourteenth amendment to deprive a person of life, liberty or property without due process of law. XIV amend., U.S. Const. Here, your wards (the birds) have come to rely upon your charitable contributions and that reliance is a property interest - which cannot be terminated without due process. There is also a liberty concern in whether you are requiring them to move to obtain their property.

For a violation that deprives a person of a property or liberty interest, both arguably at issue here, there must be a pre-termination hearing unless the situation can be resolved via a post-termination hearing without prejudice to the injured party. It is likely that a post-termination hearing, after you've moved their food supply to a new location, will negatively prejudice them as it will immediately deprive them of food, and will require a pre-termination hearing. Any such hearing must balance the private interests and the possibility of wrongful termination against the needs of the government.

There is a high likelihood of wrongful termination since you arbitrarily decided to move. These private interests likely outweigh the government's interest (that is, your interest) to move. Although I do not specifically address the issue, it is likely that an Eldridge hearing will hold that, at a minimum, you must continue to provide food at the present location until they agree to move or their needs are provided by other sources. You may defend by arguing that they are not citizens but you are unlikely to prevail. Termination of property rights based upon alienage classification is subject to strict scrutiny.

Though they are birds (Avian-Americans) they were likely born in the U.S. thus giving them jus soli as U.S. citizens. You may also argue that the XIV amendment only forbids state action and you are not a government entity. However, where an activity is a traditional government action by a private entity, the courts have found state action and applied the XIV amendment.

You are providing welfare, a traditional government activity, and the courts will likely find that the XIV amendment applies to you. Although I am not your attorney (in fact, I'm not an attorney at all), I'd strongly recommend settlement discussions with the birds to resolve their claims prior to a hearing or, more costly still, an action in federal court. Given the strength of the birds' position and the weakness of your defenses, the court could order you to continue feeding these birds and their progeny, forever. To ensure this result, the court could create a constructive trust after your death to ensure that your estate continues to provide support for these birds.Please let me know if you have any questions or concerns. My strong advice is to seek competent legal counsel immediately.

So it seems that since the birds are legally considered Avian-Americans (hee, hee) with all the rights and privileges afforded US citizens, it would be in my best interest to enter into mediated negotiations with them to reach a settlement!


I think Andy has too much time on his hands!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Uncle Jim Bands Terns

My Uncle Jim, bird mentor extraordinaire, often takes part in bird banding projects throughout the year. This summer, he traveled to Pamlico Sound, the largest lagoon on the Eastern seaboard and in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, to band young terns. A 45 minute boat ride from Cedar Island brought the group to a small island with breeding tern colonies.

Click on the picture below for a larger look at the amazing column of terns waiting to be banded

Accompanied by his son, JP, seen here on the left, they and their group banded 5,564 (!!!!) terns in 5 hours! Pretty intense work. It helped that the terns were too young to fly, so they were easily corralled and the group culled off 500 at a time. Don't they look cute all penned up and waiting for their turn/ tern (hee, hee) to get a little bling clipped onto their leg? It was a colony of mostly young royal terns with about 600 sandwich terns mixed in.

I wish I had been there - what an awesome way to spend a day - on a beautiful island in the Outer Banks with over 5,000 baby shorebirds and doing a needed bit for bird research.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Almost Fledging

Here are two of the four baby bluebirds giving my camera the stink-eye as I check their box. How about those white spots on their feathers? Like a fawn is spotted when it is young.

It has been a long and crazy summer. Too much going on in my life to spend quality time birding and hence, the paucity of posts.

But the backyard bluebird couple are successfully raising their brood of four in the little house my father built for my backyard. I will be moving on September first, ten miles north of where I currently live, and am anxious to see the bluebirds fledge so I can take down the house, clean it out and pack it up for the move. I have already cleaned and packed the birdfeeders, so even my backyard birding has quieted down. But I did get my first yard Baltimore Oriole last week. That brings my yard list up to 53. And this morning, drinking coffee on the deck while trying to figure out how to pack up Beverly the Stone Chicken, I saw a flash of white in the trees. Tree swallows? Went inside for the binoculars and was able to id a pair of Eastern Kingbirds playing tag at the edge of the yard. Cool - first kingbirds of the year.

I remember the first time I saw and identified a kingbird. It was perched on the post that holds up my clothesline. Do you remember the first time you see each of your species? Most of them stick with me. Like the Painted Bunting I first saw with my Uncle Jim while the deer flies ate me alive. Or the Prothonotary Warbler on the tree over the creek that I saw from the bridge overpass. Or the Veery I just got in the parking lot of the state park a few weeks ago. How about the Bobolink in the hay field in West Virginia with my peeps, The Flock. Or the red-winged blackbird that swooped in front of my car onto the shoulder of the road while I waited at the top of an exit ramp. Or the Blue-Winged Warbler that I identified by voice and watched for 1/2 an hour while it sang in Peace Valley Park - my usual bird haunt. Or the Gadwall that Pete Dunne showed me in his scope on a Cape May Autumn Weekend. Or the Chestnut-sided Warbler that Paco got me on at the New River Festival (one of my nemesis birds at the time). Or the Gray Catbird that was so close I could touch it, flashing his rufous rump patch in PennyPack Park. I even remember my first starling - I was on my first bird trip with Uncle Jim and asked him what it was. He called it a "trash bird" and I remember thinking "How can such a pretty bird be trash?". Now I know.

So as I prepare for my move and lots of other stuff at work and at home, I push birding to the back burner. But I have Cape May in October and Space Coast in January (staying with my wonderful Aunt Maggie! - Thanks, Mag!).

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Fairy Bluebirds and Bali Mynahs - McNeil Avian Center Part Three

More amazing birds from my trip last week to the Philadelphia Zoo's McNeil Avian Center:

A Fairy Bluebird from the forests of the Himalayas, northern India, Burma and Indochina.

Check out the feather detail on this mystery bird. I did not write down it's name while I was at the exhibit and I can not find information about it on the Philadelphia Zoo website. If anyone knows what it is, please let me know. It reminds of what the feathers on a Gadwall look like-kind of plain brown from a distance, but the up-close looks will take your breath away.

This Violaceous Turaco from West Africa had amazing maroon underwings only visible when it flew. Unfortunately, I only got pictures of it perched.

Another look at the mystery bird. A funny shape that reminded me of a ballerina in her tutu.

My absolute favorite bird of the entire exhibit was this Bali Mynah from Indonesia. Snow white with teal blue face mask. Gorgeous. The Bali Mynah is critically endangered because of habitat destruction by timber harvest, illegal cage-bird trade, poaching, and nest site competition with the Black-winged Starling. Right now there are only about 13-14 Bali Mynahs left in the wild.

A Victoria-Crowned pigeon (about the size of a large chicken) from New Guinea sunning itself in one of the walk-through exhibits. The feathery crown on it's head would be the envy of lots of church-going ladies. On the 2008 IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature)List of Threatened Species, the Victoria crowned pigeon is listed as Vulnerable.

More Bali Mynahs....

Sunday, July 26, 2009

McNeil Avian Center Part Two

The Philadelphia Zoo's new McNeil Avian Center - home to over 100 exotic birds from around the world.

A Crimson-Rumped Toucanette from South America. They were not at all afraid of all the humans with cameras and flashbulbs. When he flies, you can see the red rump patch. And check out the cute little blue cheek patches:

This is the Blue Breasted Kingfisher from Africa:

There was also a Micronesian Kingfisher that is extinct in the wild, but the Philadelphia Zoo is trying to breed it. It was so shy that it was hidden behind too many branches to get a good picture. Here is a photo from the Internet showing what they look like:

photo provided by

My fingers are crossed that the Zoo gets a good breeding program for this bird in peril. Like other bird species in Guam, the Guam Micronesian Kingfisher (Halcyon cinnamomina cinnamomina) was decimated after the arrival of the introduced brown tree snake. Faced with imminent extinction, Guam and several research and conservation institutions, including the Philadelphia Zoo, captured the last 29 kingfishers between 1984 and 1986 to establish a captive breeding population in the hopes of re-introducing birds to the wild someday. Recently, a captive breeding population has been established on Guam.

Here is a pair of Collared Finchbills from southeast Asia:

" Dude, seriously. You need to trim your toenails!"

This amazing bird (about the size of a wild turkey) is a Yellow Knobbed Curassow from South America. He had jet black curly feathers on his crown and will eventually develop a yellow knob at the base of his bill (hence the name):

The Avian Center conducts a Flight Show twice daily with trained birds flying around Bird Lake outside the Center. The Sun Conure (seen below) can be found in most of South and Central America as well as parts of Mexico. In the wild Sun Conures are friendly, peaceful birds and seldom fight living together in groups of twenty or more, even during the mating season, and feeding on various seeds, fruits, and insects. The Flight Show included these Conures making circuits around the lake and swooping over the heads of guests. Colorful and cheerful, they were a joy to observe. You may have read in the news that one of the juvenile Conures made a break for it last week during one of the Flight Shows. Fortunately, he was spotted in Fairmount Park and quickly returned to the Zoo within 4 days.

And this is a Double Yellow Head Amazon Parrot who also took part in the Flight Show. He landed not 2 feet in front of me on a fence post and I got this picture of his face. Doesn't he look puzzled to see me?

"Whatcha' doin' out here in the sweltering heat, Beth?"

More pictures and birds of the McNeil Avian Center in the next post.

Babies, Babies, Everywhere

The bluebird couple and house wren couple that have made their home in my nest boxes have both laid eggs and now the bluebirds have hatched. The pictures are poor quality because I can not get the camera all the way into the nestbox and I don't want to stress the babies or the parents by removing nestlings to get good shots. Four of the five eggs have hatched so far. I don't know if the fifth egg will hatch or not. As you can see in the picture, the babies are very new and are not sitting up or opening their eyes yet. This morning, the parents were kept quite busy bringing moths and caterpillars to the box to feed them.
The house wren mother was incubating eggs when I went to check the boxes and she did not leave as I approached, so I left the box alone. Instinct to incubate and protect the eggs is so strong that it overrides the bird's personal safety. I will check the box again in a week or so and see how they are doing.

The McNeil Avian Center at Philadelphia Zoo

The new Aviary at the Philadelphia Zoo opened in May 2009, but I haven't had time to get to the zoo until now (and July is a hot crowded time to visit any zoo). The Philadelphia Zoo is America's oldest zoological park and I have been privileged to visit dozens of times as a child and adult. But I haven't been back to the zoo since I began birding four years ago, so I was excited to have an opportunity to see birds of other continents that I may never have the chance to see again. After all, I am no Phoebe Snetsinger and international travel is expensive!!

The Philadelphia Zoo’s new $17.5 million McNeil Avian Center has walk-through habitats with over 100 birds from around the world, many of them rare and endangered. The birds include huge Rhinoceros Hornbills, striking Victoria Crowned Pigeons and gorgeous Fairy Bluebirds and Bali Mynahs. Aimed at children, the 4-D Migration Theater has a animated movie following Otis the Oriole on his first migration to Mexico from where he hatched in Fairmount Park. In this movie, Cape May, New Jersey is prominently featured as a migration stopover for hundred of thousands of birds. Those of us who also migrate to Cape May for the bi-annual migration festivals are well aware of the special nature of Cape May.

At the McNeil Avian Center I got some great pictures with my little point-and-shoot digital. In parts of the exhibit, the birds are behind mesh cages and in parts you can walk right up to the birds (and they can poo right on you!).

Future blog posts will highlight the birds of the McNeil Aviary, but here is a video of the SubSaharan Africa section of the exhibit. You can hear the shrill singing of the Magpie Shrikes. The video pans over to a Hammerkop and an Egyptian Plover.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Eggs Have Arrived!

A house wren has moved into one of the houses in my yard and bluebirds into the second house. I think the wren finally has a mate because I often see two of them going in and out. However, no eggs yet, although the nest has grown to gigantic proportions! Now the nest is lined with feathers, so perhaps they are preparing for eggs. Trust me (I stuck my finger into the nest cup - it is quite deep) and it is soft and totally feather-lined. See how close the nest comes to the top of the nestbox? It's huge!
The bluebirds have been more successful.

Mr. & Mrs. Bluebird have a clutch of five eggs. I couldn't get the camera all the way into the box, so you can only see two of the eggs in this picture. The bluebirds incubate most of the morning and evening, but in the heat of the day, they leave the eggs alone. Aren't they a beautiful shade of blue? And so tiny.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

My Life as a Landlord

My father made birdhouses for me to hang on the old volleyball net posts in my backyard. For the last two years, I have had tree swallows in the single house I hung and I loved watching them with their beautiful iridescent blue backs and snow-white bellies as they glided in and out of the house to feed the youngsters. Year one I had five babies fledge from the little house and year two saw a family of four babies fledge along with a mighty bad infestion of feather mites that swarmed over my arms when I took down the house after the fledging.

This year, my father made me two houses (one with a pink roof and one with a blue roof - how cute). I was hoping for tree swallows again. I hung up the houses on a Friday in early April and on Saturday morning tree swallows were checking out the real estate. But they seemed to have trouble fitting in the opening and soon left. I took the houses into work and bribed the Maintenance staff (with chocolate chip cookies) to enlargen the holes to 1.5 inches in diameter. The very next day the swallows were back. Whew. All is well.

Uh oh. Three days later, enjoying coffee on the deck, I saw a male house sparrow going in and out of one of the houses and the swallows were nowhere to be seen. Damn HOSPs. I went over to the box and evicted the HOSP by removing his messy nest. The other box was empty. I evicted the HOSP three more times over the next week before he gave up, but the swallows never returned. I was heartbroken.

I called my Uncle Jim (bird mentor extraordinaire) who assured me that bluebirds (who have up to three broods over the summer), wrens or chickadees may still move in. I kept my fingers crossed.

In mid-June, I noticed a bluebird couple checking out the house with the pink roof. Yipee! Meanwhile, a male house wren was studiously bringing sticks to the house with the blue roof. Whoa - I have an integrated neighborhood! The bluebird couple seem so loyal to each other with the male catching caterpillars and bugs from the lawn and bringing them to the female who continued to stuff the house with sticks and dried grasses.

The poor house wren (the males build the nests and then sing to attract females who choose a mate based on whether or not they like the nest) continued to stuff sticks into his house and spent many an hour singing at the top of his lungs in vain for a mate. Sometimes the sticks he would bring to the house were too big to fit in the opening and he would spend minutes figuring out how to get the stick in sideways. Quite comical.

The house wren still seems mate-less, but it could be due to the fact that his house is so stuffed full of sticks I don't think a bird could fit in there! A classic case of trying too hard.

The bluebird couple seem ready to settle down and make a family. No further sign of the HOSPs and that makes me happy.

I will keep a close eye on both houses to see if any families are created. My dad is proud that his handiwork is providing for little feathered creatures and I am proud to be a landlord that provides the kind of housing that birds want.

Titmice, Thrushes and Towhees

Saturday morning, cool, sunny and breezy (for the middle of July anyway). No family or friend obligations. No pressing work issues. What's a girl to do with a whole summer day stretched ahead of her? Go birding, of course.

I usually bird Peace Valley Park only 3 miles from my house. Beautiful Lake Galena, woods, paved trails, hiking trails, whatever strikes my fancy. But today I wanted to try Lake Nockamixon, a state park about 10 miles away. So fortified with coffee and doused in bug spray, off I went - spotting turkey vultures in the sky for the first bird of the day.

I turned off the state road at the first hiking trail sign I saw and hiked into dense woods. Bugs everywhere, but the bird songs were loud and there was lots of movement in the trees. Yup, worth it. The first birds I saw were a family of noisy and rambunctious titmice chasing each other in spirals up the tree trunks. So inquisitive and cheerful. I know most birds don't participate in "play", but these titmice sure looked like they were playing. Time to move on.

Hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers were in attendance. White-breasted nuthatches (hello, old friend) and red-eyed vireos were singing up a storm (a monotonous storm at that). Peewees, catbirds, robins and phoebes were also collecting moths and other small bugs and feeding youngsters noisily begging for breakfast. A hermit thrush jumped from low limb to limb keeping an eye on me and allowing me a good look at his rufous rump patch. Chickadees and a lone rose-breasted grosbeak rounded off the forest trail birds I spotted in the first half hour.

Next, I headed to Lake Towhee and hiked into the "campground" areas in the woods surrounding the lake. The woods were silent. Tried using my new Birdjam (hi Jay!) to call in anything. No luck. So back to the car and as usual, the most bird action was in the parking lot. Doesn't it always happen that way? Robins, phoebes and catbirds were flitting around the edges of the woods. Chipping and song sparrows were on the manicured lawn of the playground area. Purple martins and barn swallows glided over the water. Eastern bluebirds flew in and out of two nest boxes near the playground.

Heard a wood thrush (gotta' love that eee-o-lay) and used Birdjam to call it in. Got a nice look and then saw another thrush-sized bird on the ground that wasn't a hermit or wood thrush. What the heck is that? Not a lot of chest streaking. No rufous rump patch. Juvenile robin or wood? Nope. Swainson's???? Nope, no eye ring. A song like a muted wood thrush (Peterson's describes it as liquid and ethereal). I took out the trusty field guide and found it - Veery! A lifer for me! I did the life bird wiggle (a condensed version since I was alone) and used Birdjam to call to it. Yup, it sang right back to me. Wow. How nice to get a totally unexpected life bird today. I got nice long looks at it and left the lake satisfied.

I drove to another hiking trail and went into the woods again. Something singing loud and insistently sounded familiar and very, very close, but I couldn't put my finger on it. I am not at all experienced at birdsong. I soon saw movement directly ahead of me about 10 feet up. Wow - gorgeous! Larger than a warbler but smaller than a robin. Black head and beak, white belly and chestnut side patches. Bright black button eyes. White outer tail stripes. What is it? This little bird was singing his heart out. Chestnut-sided warbler? Nope. Bay-breasted warbler (that would be a lifer!!)? Nope. What other birds have chestnut sides? I finally pulled out the guide. There it was. Eastern towhee. A bird I have seen a hundred times at feeders. Why didn't I recognize it? And isn't the lake nearby called LAKE TOWHEE???? And that distinctive song - drink-your-tea. I felt foolish for not getting it right away, but here was an opportunity to see a towhee (I still think of them as Rufous Sided Towhees - I don't like the name change) in the forest and not at a feeder.

Three hours had passed and I was getting eaten alive by gnats and skeeters despite my dip in DEET. So I packed it in for the day. Not a bad haul for 3 short hours.

Turkey vulture
Mourning Dove
Rock Dove
American Robin
Gray catbird
Wood thrush
Hermit thrush
Eastern bluebird
Tufted titmouse
Northern cardinal (looking a bit ragged - feather mites?)
Black-capped chickadee
Rose-breasted grosbeak
Eastern towhee
Purple martin
Barn swallow
Canada goose
Great blue heron
Chipping sparrow
Song sparrow
Hairy woodpecker
Red-bellied woodpecker
Eastern phoebe
Eastern wood peewee
Red eyed vireo
Blue jay
American crow
White-breasted nuthatch