Friday, October 31, 2008

The Dangers Of Listing!

It was a cool Fall morning with the temperatures only in the 40's. I parked along the side of a dirt road and started to gather my birding gear as I usually do; vest, field guide, camera, notebook, pen, and of course, binoculars.

As I walked around the perimeter of the pond, I could see fog rising off of the water. I reached the entrance to a trail that would lead me deep into a little known area of Connecticut woods. Although I wouldn't consider myself a lister, I decided that I would try to find at least 35 species this morning. I didn't want to pick a number that would be too difficult to reach. I figured 35 would be just enough to make a game out of it. The first species I saw was a Blue Jay that hopped out on the edge of a gnarled Oak Tree branch. It called out with brashly with an its alarm that sounded like- thief! thief! thief! The Jay scraped its bill across the bark at an angle that showed off its crest nicely. I started to add to the list as I moved along : Carolina Wren, American Robin, Northern Cardinal, Belted Kingfisher, White-throated Sparrow, American Crow, and Chipping Sparrow were quickly added to the list. I went a bit further and a loud squeeeak! came for the top of the top of a dead tree-Northern Flicker-#9, 21 more to go. A Red-shouldered Hawk cried out kyear kyear and flew from a nearby tree to another one further off in the distance.

As I approached a chain-lined fence reached the first fence, I noted my species count was at 17 .

I really don't want to specify the exact location I was birding in. It is a private area surrounded by multi-million dollar homes with advanced security systems. Behind the homes is a large tract of woods which is of limits to the public. It is bordered by an old chain link fence covered with vines and hidden behind heavy shrubs. A friend of mine who does landscaping told me about a portion of the fence which had been pulled away, creating an opening through which to enter. I crawled through the opening , pushing away the vines and shrubs as I forced my way through. My shirt temporarily got caught on a sharp piece of the metal making my adrenaline rise as I didn't want to get caught in the act.

Many years ago, when I was just a young boy, I used to fish in this area with my father. I miss the days when we were able to catch feisty native trout in some of the streams that run through here. They were darker than the stocked varieties and covered with brightly colored spots.

I couldn't find any trails so I had to walk straight up the middle of a small stream. I continued to walk for about a mile. Most of the stream was fairly shallow and the banks were lined with a massive tangle of shrubs and thickets. I added Yellow-rumped Warbler, Pine Warbler, and White-breasted Nuthatch along the way. As I was climbing out of the stream bed, I slipped and managed to get one of my feet wet. Fortunately, I had extra socks in my vest.

An old trail went at least 2 miles deeper into the woods before leading me to another fenced in area. I remembered my father warning me to stay away from this particular neck of the woods. He never went into much detail as to why I should stay away, just that it was dangerous. Over the years I have heard stories about this area. Everything from UFOs, government experiments, haunted woods, to Bigfoot like creatures were rumoured to have been seen here. I wasn't buying any of it. The UFOs were probably attributable to swamp gas or some sort of military aircraft. The Bigfoot-like creatures were reported by kids but they may have been Black Bears which have been known to wander through on occasion. Still, other people have said they have heard strange voices seeming to come from underground. If you've ever spent long periods of time in the deep woods like I have, it's easy for your imagination to get carried away. The sounds of trees rubbing together on a windy day can create eerie sounds that can make your imagination run wild.

The second fence would be much tougher to penetrate. As I approached it, a Gray Catbird popped on top of a shrub near the fence. It let out several of it cat squawks as I approached it, almost as if it were forbidding me to go in-"hello to you Mr. Catbird"! I said to it quietly.
I was thinking maybe I could climb it but with barbed wire at the top, this would be a very difficult task. instead, I followed it along the edge for about 300 yards before coming to a spot where it appeared that some of the soil had eroded from underneath the fence. It was filled in with some small boulders so I started to pull them out and throw them aside. After all of them had been removed, there was a trench leading under the fence that was almost big enough for me to squeeze under. I spent the next 20 minutes digging the hole out to make it bigger using a large, flat, rock as a tool. I got on my back and wiggled my way through to the other side.

The habitat in the second area was a little more open. There were thick areas of Mountain Laurel, a small swamp, evergreens, and mixed hardwoods. I walked away from the fence into a wooded area. I could hear the drops of dew falling from the trees, dampening the layer of leaves that now coated the ground. A Red-bellied Woodpecker flew over to the top of a dead standing tree. My view of the woodpecker was obstructed but I could hear it tapping its bill on the hollowed wood. Its pattern of tapping was interesting as it seemed to vary in speed and intensity. It reminded me of Morse code, which I had learned from a chart on the front of my walkie- talkies when I was a kid. They had a little red button that we pushed to send Morse Code signals to each other. Just for laughs, I followed the pattern of the woodpecker's tapping to see if I could come up with some letters. This is what I came up with: I_tr_der. I couldn't figure out the 2nd and 4th letter but I found it an odd curiosity that if the letters were n and u , it would spell out the word intruder. Of course woodpeckers don't know Morse code so this was just a strange coincidence. Still, the pattern of its tapping seemed unusual. The Red-bellied Woodpecker was my 33rd bird, so I only needed two more to reach my goal of 35.

I came to a patch of shrubs too thick to get past so I worked my way back out toward the fence. It was then that I saw a Black-capped Chickadee fly from the outside of the fence and land in a nearby tree. that was number 34. It let out a chicka-dee-dee-ee call. Immediately after that 3 more chickadees darted in and surrounded the first bird. I noticed something different about these other ones though. All three of them had a large white patch around their eyes. It made their eyes look as if they were bulging out. That's not all either. These birds had a different call that I had never heard from any other chickadees. It was a louder, slower and raspier call that sounded more like a checka-checka-dee-duh-duh-dee. I know that certain birds can be partially albino but these chickadees were huge by chickadee standards. They were more like the size of a Fox Sparrow, with larger bills too. What are the odds of seeing three birds like this? Very strange. What happened next I found to be very disturbing. I can't even bring myself to describe the way these 3 chickadees reacted towards the normal chickadee. I felt awful for the poor bird desperately trying to defend itself against the others but in the end it didn't have a chance. As much as it would be exciting to discover some new species, I hope these birds aren't capable of reproducing more of their kind.
-Note: After they are done checking the video and photos for authenticity, I will post them on this blog for those of you who are interested in seeing them. I will have to take them down after that because they would be too upsetting to look at for most people.
After my disturbing encounter with the mutant chickadees, I decided that I had enough birding for the day. I really didn't care any more whether or not I reached my goal of 35 species. I took a short cut by cutting across a small stream. Then I picked up a wide dirt trail on the other side. I was looking down admiring my shadow when I heard something large passing through the woods along side me. I was thinking it might be a deer but I was shocked when I caught a brief glimpse of what looked to be a man(or woman) wearing a black hooded sweatshirt moving rapidly through the woods. Why wouldn't they use the path? I wondered. They ran so fast that he was out of my sight within seconds. I started running a little myself because at this point, I really wanted to get out of there. I climbed on top of a big rock and looked downward to the bottom of a steep hill. I could see a large rock ledge with an opening to some sort of cave leading into it. I could also make out what looked to be some sort of metal table set up in the opening of the cave . It was what I saw next that absolutely shocked me! (I wish that I could describe it to you but I was told that I have to block out the next paragraph until they are finished with their investigation).
I was so scared that I could feel my heart pounding in my chest. Still, I felt that I needed to get more photos as evidence but my memory card was full. I remembered that my old memory was still in my camera case so I quickly changed cards. After snapping off another 50 photos, I started running, trying to retrace my steps to where I started. Finally I started to see some familiar territory and knew that I didn't have much further to go. I stopped to catch my breath and saw two woodpeckers that looked like either Downy or Hairy Woodpeckers. They were acting very agitated, making a lot of loud Pik! and squeak! noises as they moved erratically around the base of a large tree. Either species would have brought my total up to 30. I bent down to tie my shoe and both of them buzzed so close by my head that I think they might have actually made contact with my hair. That was the last thing that I remembered.
When I first opened my eyes, I was very disoriented. Everything was dark and I was lying on something that was very uncomfortable that had some sort of ridges on it. I started to panic a little. What time is it? Were people looking for me? I didn't like that feeling. Then it dawned on me where I was. I was lying in the bed of my pickup truck. The ribbed thing I was lying on was my plastic bed liner. It was dark because I had a black vinyl top covering the back. I pried up the back of the cover and opened the tailgate. It was still daylight--phew!!! -But what on earth had happened to me? I wasn't hurt . My camera was missing but I still had my binoculars and my notebook. My last 50 pictures were gone with my camera but I still had all of the photos on my first card. I looked at my notes to try to help piece things together. As I was looking over the ABA checklist of birds I noticed that someone... or something, had added another species to my list. There was a small but prominent hole poked through the checklist immediately to the right of what would be my 35th species, Hairy Woodpecker-number 35. Listing birds can be a very dangerous game.

I'm sure it's obvious that this post is completely fictional but I just wanted to make this clear. I saw no mutant chickadees, Morse-Code tapping woodpeckers or hooded people. I didn't break through any fences or get transported to my truck in a state of unconsciousness.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Pine Siskins Have Arrived In Connecticut

During my camping trip two weeks ago, I saw hundreds of Pine Siskins fly past a place called Blueberry Hill in West Granville, Massachusetts. I wondered at the time if some of them might end up in Connecticut. I don't have to wonder any more because I came across them in Glastonbury, Colchester, and most recently along the abandoned railroad line right here in Portland. There were about 30 of them in a tree along with a few goldfinches. All of them were eating what looks like miniature pine cones in a deciduous tree. Are those what people call catkins? If you've never seen them before, it would be easy to overlook them. They sort of look like female House Finches to me but with darker streaking and pointier bills. I was looking to catch a little of the yellow that they have in their flight feathers but didn't notice any. Even though they aren't particularly colorful or flashy, it's nice to have them visit on the lookout at your birdfeeders!

A Brief Summary Of Birding Experiences During My Vacation

  • Yellow-rumped Warblers, Palm Warblers, White-throated Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, and Ruby-crowned kinglets were present in good numbers at all of the places I visited.

10/13/08 Wangunk Meadows-I took a quick walk through the meadows today. My favorite sighting was of two adult Bald Eagles that were perched on Gildersleeve Island in the Connecticut River. They took flight and headed further south along the river. There was so many sparrows today that you would have thought that the state came in and stocked them by the truckfull. There were large numbers of Swamp, White-throated, Savannah, and, of course, droves of Song Sparrows. I also saw 2 juvenile White-crowned Sparrows, 3 Field Sparrows, and 2 Chipping Sparrows. It was fun watching so many sparrows hop up on small branches and then immediately take cover after taking a peek around. Imagine if people did that-hide in bushes and pop up for a second as you passed by before taking cover again.

10/15/08-I left the house at about 7:30 am today. It was foggy and about 50 degrees. I originally intended to visit Wangunk Meadows again but it was the first day of duck hunting season so I decided to stay away. Instead, I briefly checked the pond at Great Meadows Preserve off of Route 17 in South Glastonbury. I noticed that there were a few Wood Ducks mixed in with the Green-winged Teal and Mallards. The wooded portion of the trail was very quiet so I decided to move on. I later climbed to the top of Great Hill in Portland. By the time I reached the top, it must have been about 65 degrees. I enjoyed watching a few raptors glide around including 2 Red-tailed Hawks, 8 Turkey Vultures,1 Red-shouldered Hawk , and 2 Sharp-shinned Hawks which seemed to be headed west.

Sunday, October 19th-Glastonbury Meadows-I ran into Andrew D. this morning at the meadows. He is a Glastonbury resident who visits here often. Andrew has been birding since he was about eight years old, so identifying most birds is a cinch for him. We walked the fields for about 4 hours. Birding this spot requires a lot of walking but it is a very productive spot. I always visit here on Sundays to avoid hunters, especially during Pheasant hunting season. Some of the highlights today included: 20+ White-crowned Sparrows, 1 male American Kestrel, 2 Osprey, which were slowly making their way along the river, dozens of American Pipits, Eastern Bluebirds, 1 Blackpoll Warbler, and 6 Pine Siskins. I saw one bird of which I was uncertain of its identity. It appeared to be a sparrow but I could only see the back of it. I told Andrew that I thought it might be a Lincoln's Sparrow but it wouldn't show itself again. On the way back, we spotted the bird in the same location and it did turn out to be a Lincoln's Sparrow.

10/20/08 Babcock Pond Wildlife Management area-This is an area of land that is set aside for hunting. It is accessed by taking a dirt road called Miles Standish Road directly off of Route 16 in Colchester. The above photo was a little orchard that was set in a wooded area. I was intrigued by the combination of Pine Trees, fruit trees, and shrubby field area. Brown Creeper, Hermit Thrush, 8 Pine Siskins, Hairy Woodpeckers, and two Pileated Woodpeckers were the birds that I found most interesting here. I also enjoyed watching dozens of American Robins eating the fruit. They were making so much noise that I wondered if they were getting intoxicated from the berries.
10/20/08-Burnham Brook Preserve -East Haddam- I visited the Burnham Brook Preserve for the first time today. It was a cool morning but it was sunny and there was virtually no wind. The preserve was a pleasant place to take a walk on such a pretty Fall day. Shortly after passing the entrance, I passed by a private field where I saw at least a dozen Eastern Bluebirds flying between the nest boxes and the edge of the woods. Bluebirds seem to enjoy hanging around nest boxes even when they're not really using them. The wooded trail was very well marked with blue dots and arrows. The majority of the woods seemed to be made up of mostly deciduous trees but there were areas of Cedar and Mountain Laurel as well. I passed by old stone walls and a small stream (Burnham Brook) during my walk. One thing I like about the area is that the trees are not that dense so it makes it easier to get a nice view of your surroundings; making it easier to spot birds. The website advertised that there have been 180 species of birds at this preserve. I've learned from past experience not to pay much attention to those statistics. The 180 species were probably seen over a period of many years. I didn't see many species on this day. There was a nice population of woodpeckers there including: Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Downy, and Pileated Woodpeckers. I saw the Pileated Woodpeckers at an interesting angle as they flew across my path at a height of about two feet off the ground. A Golden-crowned Kinglet gave me a nice view as it hovered in a tree above me and showed off its crown. I'm planning to make a trip back here next May.
This poem was on a plaque that was attached to a giant rock. I've never seen the poem before but kind of liked it.
I saw so many of these White-throated Sparrows during the last week that I had to take at least one photo.

I went to check out Machimoudus Park, which I'll be making a visit to during an upcoming Christmas Count on December 14th. I couldn't resist recording a video of this hyperactive Mockingbird. I don't think it stopped singing the whole time I was there. I recognized several interesting calls in its song, including a Scarlett Tanager and an Eastern Wood-Pewee. See what other calls you can recognize.
Here is a very short video of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. I must have seen 100 of these little birds during the last week but I never get tired of seeing them. I never get tired of vacation either but it has once again come to an end. I'm always perplexed when I hear someone say they are tired of their vacation and ready to go back to work. I suppose the exception would be if what you do for work is the same thing that you like to do in your free time-like a photographer, for example. I don't mind working but I never get bored when I have free time on my hands. Jobs use up such a big chunk of time in our lives- and time is a precious commodity.
What birds visit your area this time of the year?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Hartford Audubon's Family Field Day Event

Hartford Audubon is celebrating its 100th anniversary. Each year they offer numerous free field trips, along with a variety of wildlife programs. On October 5th, 2008 Hartford Audubon held a Family Field Day event at Northwest Park in Windsor, CT. This included information booths, guided birdwatching trips around the park, and live birds of prey demonstrations. (Clicking on any of the photos in this post will provide you with a larger image with more detail) .

Teresa Kramer, from Canton Raptor Care , was one of the speakers at the family day event. She is pictured above with an injured Great Horned Owl who had lost one of its eyes. She noted that the owl will sometimes look out the window and find other birds of prey in the yard or flying by. Teresa also showed us an American Kestrel, Red-tailed Hawk, and another smaller owl (Screech?). Gerri Griswold, aka Bat Lady, of The White Memorial Conservation Center in Litchfield, Connecticut, was at the event to educate people about the importance of bats and to dispel some of the myths about them. According to her, the stories about bats getting in your hair and having rabies is greatly exaggerated. Many of the bats in North America and around the world are endangered.

Here is a photo of the tail and feet of the Big Brown Bat, one of eight species of bats that can be found in Connecticut.

The event was well attended, despite some early rain showers. Northwest Park has been known to have some species that are uncommon to Connecticut, including Blue Grosbeaks, Grasshopper Sparrows. Orchard Orioles nest here every summer. On this day, Lincoln's Sparrow, Winter Wren, Tennessee Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warblers and Swainson's Thrush were among the species found during the bird walks.

Falconry Demonstration: "Skyhunters In Flight"

My favorite part of the event had to be The Skyhunters In Flight Program presented by Brian Bradley. I've never had the chance to see a live falconry demonstration before. Watching it in a country setting on a Fall day made it even more dramatic!
I'll make a little guessing game out of this. You can test yourself by identifying the birds in each of the following photos or you can just click on the link for the answer.
#1) The first bird seen face to face with Brian in the above photo is a: click here for answer.
Brian explained the relationship between the falconer and the birds they use to hunt with. The falconer makes sure they are always fed, exercised and kept healthy. In turn, the birds of prey will capture live animals and return them to the falconer. It's amazing that they don't just fly off, although that does happen sometimes.

#2) The common name for the owl pictured above is: click here for answer.

#3) This owl is known for it's heart-shaped face and is native to North America: click here for answer.

#4) This bird can be found in parts of South America and certainly does not need glasses: click here for answer.

This photo is of a hawk that can be found in parts of Northwestern United States. It flew into one of the park trees during the demonstration. It is awaiting the signal from Brian to go after the artificial bait (fake rabbit). The hawk had to work a little before it was able to capture the bait but in the end it was mission accomplished.
#5) The name of this hawk is : click here for answer.

#6) Name that bird! click here for answer.

click to play flight video
Here is a video of it flying from one of the barn rooftops on it's way to capture its intended target.
#7) This is the final entry. Do you know the name of this chunky little owl?
It is not native to North America.- Click here for answer.

click to play flight video
Here it is responding to Brian's clicking call and being rewarded for following the command properly.
So how did you do? Did you guess them all?
By the end of the day, I had too many photos and videos to fit into this post. If you click here: You can see many more photos of the day's events taken by Mona Cavallero. There is also an article from the Hartford Courant about Hartford Audubon's 100th anniversary and an article about the history of the organization by Helen C. Beckwith.
Julie Zickefoose is scheduled to appear at the next Hartford Audubon wildlife Series event on Tuesday, October 21st: Click here for details.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Camping At Granville State Forest In Massachusetts

As I was driving across the Massachusetts border , I marveled at the crystal blue skies and vibrantly colored foliage. With daytime temperatures reaching the low 70's and cool nights just right for a campfire, I couldn't have picked a better weekend to go camping. I passed through a beautiful stretch of country road along Route 57 on my way to The Granville Forest Campground. I stopped at this little farm stand to buy a couple of apples. One was a variety called Crispin and the other was a Cortland (25 cents a piece). Apples aren't my favorite fruit, but these were so big and juicy that I couldn't help but be impressed. Realizing that there wouldn't be any stores close to the campground, I stopped at the next farm to buy Swiss Chard and a dozen eggs. Modern Grocery Superstores carry an unbelievable variety of foods, but there's still something to be said about purchasing food directly from our local farmers.

click to play
After settling in at my campsite, I sat back and watched the sun go down. After finishing dinner, I sat back in my chair and watched the sun go down. The air had become chilly but the sun shone through the tall pines to warm my face. As darkness settled in, I gazed into the fire and listened to the music. It's moments like these that make camping such a special experience.
I was up early the next morning anxious to explore the area in search of birds. I went for a walk along the Hubbard River which might have been about a mile from my campsite. I immediately found both Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned Kinglets fluttering and ringing in the treetops . I came across several large flocks of Dark-eyed Juncos, too. Common Ravens made their presence known by croaking loudly from somewhere deep in the woods. I could hear their wings flapping as they passed overhead. I did not see a large variety of species of birds in the Hubbard River area. I'm sure that it would be much more suitable for birding during the Spring migration or nesting season.
I hope no one was in this outhouse when that tree came down. I could think of several captions for this photo but I'll leave that up to you.
One of the places listed in a book called: Bird Finding Guide To Western Massachusetts , was Miller Road. It was here that I came face to face with a Barred Owl! Usually they fly off before I can get a photo, so I was happy to not only get a photo, but also some video footage.
After finding the owl, I tried birding for a while longer but breakfast was calling for me. After seeing this mushroom, I had a sudden urge for pancakes.

click to play
Here's the video of the Barred Owl. I was trying to keep my hands still but it's not every day that I get a chance to videotape an owl in the wild. (note-date should read 10/11/08 not 8/11/08)
Before heading back home from my camping trip, I visited a Hawkwatch Site called Blueberry Hill. The manager of the site is John Weeks. He keeps detailed data, including wind direction and air temperature, as well as the number, age, and sex of each raptor (whenever possible). He was very helpful in passing information along to me as well as other visitors at the site. There were a number of other skilled watchers assisting him. Some of the raptors I saw included: two Osprey, Red-shouldered Hawk, Red-tailed Hawks, Cooper's Hawks, Sharp-shinned Hawks, American kestrel, male and female Northern Harriers during the short time I was there. I was able to pick up a few tips and had fun helping to spot hawks. Other birds in the area included American Pipits , White-crowned Sparrow, Ruby-crowned kinglets (one was singing), and Yellow-rumped Warblers. We also counted at least 400 Pine Siskins that were flying by in flocks of 15-60 birds at a time, pretty amazing to me!

I followed a trail of Palm Warblers along the path that led me back to my truck. It was the perfect ending to my weekend.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Towhees In The Mist

It rained most of last weekend but not enough to make me stay indoors. I took the blue trail into the Cockaponsett Forest from the Beaver Meadow Road entrance in Haddam. I'm not that familiar with this stretch of woods, although I did camp there once when I was about 12 or so. I saw the usual assortment of woodland birds including my first White-throated Sparrow since winter and a Brown Creeper, but the ones that interested me most on this particular morning were Eastern Towhees. There were at least two males and one female (seen above) that were making round trips from the edge of the woods to the tops of some barren bushes. These jumbo sized sparrows like to jump backwards as they scratch up leaves and dirt looking for food. I didn't hear them sing their signature Drink-Your-Tea song but they were continuously doing their Toe-weeee calls that are not considered to be uncommon in Connecticut, but I really don't see all that many of them. Cornell's All About Birds, their populations are declining throughout range, most severely in New England .

click to play
This video shows a female towhee preening her feathers shortly after the rain ended.

I saw several mushrooms during my hike including this one. Does anyone know what type of mushroom this is?
As you walk through Cockaponsett Forest, you will find remnants left behind by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a work relief program started by President Roosevelt, for young men from unemployed families. This forest was once home to three CCC camps. With the way the economy has been going lately, maybe they should start construction on a new camp!
The trail system was well-maintained; thanks to volunteers like these.
I came across this little salamander enjoying the rainy conditions. It was actually red, but it lit up like a neon sign when I used the flash.
I also visited Rocky Hill Meadows . This is a good place to go when it rains because you can drive around and watch birds through your car window. The American Golden-Plovers were still around, along with Buff-breasted Sandpiper and Stilt Sandpiper (neither of which was seen by me but were reported by others).
I did see quite a few American Pipits for the first time this Fall. This is a photo of an American Pipit that was taken in 2006. It is worth clicking on this photo to get the full view, which shows a surprising amount of detail. I took some more photos of pipits sitting in mud but the photos were very drab.

click to play
I will leave you with a short video of the American Golden-Plover ploving around in the grass.
"I'm looking over a Golden-Plover that I overlooked before. It's searching- for morsels- out in the rain... People driving past me -think I'm insane.." :)