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

Monday, July 6, 2009

Final Duck Update

Lucy and one of her youngsters strolling the courtyard.

It has been quite a saga with the duck families in the courtyard at work. See previous posts here, here and here.

Ethel and nine of her eleven ducklings were quickly relocated to the pond on campus to make room for Lucy and her eight babies. Two of Ethel's babies were adopted by Lucy, but died. Another three of Lucy's babies also died, leaving just five ducklings who soon grew into quacking, eating and swimming machines!

While I was on vacation, the Maintenance Department decided that the fountain was getting too polluted. One of the ducklings had already flown off on it's own and the ducks were getting too used to human company. It was time to relocate the rest of the family into the wild.

Catching the larger ducklings was easier than catching the tiny balls of fluff that so eluded us in the first relocation.

Ken, our Director of Plant Operations, with one of the youngsters looking longingly towards the ground.

Craig releases the family into the pond on the campus - their new home.

Swimming off into the sunset......bye, ducks!
I'll miss those little fluff-balls. It sure was fun watching and learning from them.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Some of My Favorite Things From Las Vegas

Luxurious hotel rooms with turndown service, chocolates on the pillows and amazing staff...

Nothing like a good minibar...

Wow, the bathroom was bigger than my first apartment. And I am all about a soaking tub...

My new favorite drink - a Sidecar (vanilla infused cognac, Cointreau, pineapple juice, sour mix in a sugar-rimmed glass)....yummmmmmy....

Tacky statues in the casinos (this is Buck and Winnie Harrahs)....

Riding in a Cadillac Escalade limouisine....

the tub again.....

Fantasy fountains in the hotel lobby.....

It was a great trip even if the only birds I saw were house sparrows!