Thursday, January 27, 2011

One Coyote And A Lot Of Snow

I saw this Eastern Coyote in Portland on Saturday. I know that some people consider coyotes to be a nuisance but I am fascinated whenever I see them. This coyote was smaller than others I have seen in the area so I am wondering if it might be a female since they are usually the smaller of the two.

The coyote's mating season is during mid winter and the pairs stay together for life although their lifespan is only about 4 years in the wild. This coyote was sniffing the ground and at one point seemed to detect something beneath the snow. It cocked it's head as though it heard something and then pounced on the snow but came up empty. You can see it's yellowish eyes and black-tipped tail. There has been research showing that Eastern Coyotes have some wolf DNA in them which explains why they are larger and more variable in color than their western counterparts. As you can see from the photo of my driveway, Big January has become Big Mess. Enough with the snow already!

click to play
Here's a look back at a coyote video from August of 09

Monday, January 24, 2011

Did Alligators Once Have Feathers?

I was recently asked if I would be interested in sharing an article written by Carl Zimmer that will be featured in the February 2011 issue of National Geographic magazine. I found the article to be interesting and thought that you might enjoy it as well. Here is the introduction that was sent to me, along with a link to the article:

As an avid bird lover, you probably know that birds evolved from dinosaurs, but did you know that the same feather building genes found in birds are also found in alligators, indicating that the ancestors of all dinosaurs may have had hair-like feathers? This astonishing possibility and more are discussed in National Geographic magazine’s February 2011 article on the evolution of feathers, “The Long Curious Extravagant Evolution of Feathers,” by Carl Zimmer. The article traces the origin of feathers and will be of particular interest to any bird enthusiast.
Click: here to read the article.

Below are two different feathers photographed by Robert Clark which are featured in the Feb 2011 National Geographic Magazine:

The first photo is of a tail feather from a Northern Flicker used to assist in climbing.

photo 2 is from a King Bird-of-paradise (Disk tail-feather tip, wobbles during display).

The article by Carl Zimmer and and photographs by Robert Clark can both be found in the February 2011 issue of National Geographic magazine available on newsstands January 25th.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Snow Buntings Help Lift Winter Spirits

It has been a rough start to winter this year in Connecticut. Snowfall amounts exceeded two feet during a recent snowstorm and yesterday's icy conditions left thousands without power (mine went out while working on this post). One of the bright spots during this tough stretch of winter has been the arrival of large flocks of Snow Buntings, welcome visitors from the arctic region.
I took these photos of Snow Buntings at Hammonasset on Martin Luther King Day. I sat in my truck mesmerized as large flocks of Snow Bunting repeatedly took flight before settling down to start feeding again. It makes sense to me that some people refer to these birds as snowflakes, because when look like large snowflakes drifting in the wind when they are flying.
I was given a copy of this 1951 printing of a Chester A. Reed field guide some time back. The cardboard protector on the left shows that it retailed for $3.95 at the time. Here's some of what Chester A. Reed had to say about the Snow Bunting:
"When winter storms sweep across the land these birds blow in like true snowflakes and settle down on wind-blown hillsides and benchlands to fed upon the weed stalks that rise above the snow. They are usually found in large flocks which start up from the ground, as one bird, at the slightest noise."
This old field guide can't compete with today's field guides in terms of accuracy and usefulness in identifying birds but I like the descriptions.
Here is a quote from one of Theodore Roosevelt's books about Snow Buntings:
"One bleak March day,...a flock of snow-buntings came...Every few moments one of them would mount into the air, hovering about with quivering wings and warbling a loud, merry song with some very sweet notes. They were a most welcome little group of guests, and we were sorry when, after loitering around a day or two, they disappeared toward their breeding haunts."
Snow Buntings were also mentioned on pages 18 and 61 in this Inuit Mythology book by Evelyn Wolfson . There were also plenty of Horned Lark around. As I was scanning through one large flock of Horned lark, I was able to find a Lapland Longspur, # 74 on my January list.
I spent some time at Sherwood Island Park in Westport where Common Redpolls had recently been reported. During my visit I saw pretty much what you see in this picture.
As I was driving along the streets of Stratford, I spotted a Sharp-shinned Hawk, or maybe it spotted me.
There was also this one Killdeer, all by its lonesome. I talked to it for a while before moving on.
New Haven's Long Wharf was my last stop of the day on Sunday. I added Ruddy Duck, both scaup, and Gadwall. Most of those birds were located near docks along the shore. Just to the right of this photo there is a nature trail where I found a Greater Yellowlegs which flew off while repeating a 3-note flight call. This made it easier to distinguish for a Lesser Yellowlegs which usually makes a 1-2 night flight call.
click to play: Common Mergansers being harassed by gull
I've continued to plug along with my January despite the weather. My total number of species seen in January is 75 .

Sunday, January 9, 2011

My Stops Along The Big January Trail

1/9/11 Wangunk Meadows: I spent the morning walking along the river trail at Wangunk Meadows. Bright sunshine made a seasonably cold January morning feel more comfortable. A fresh coat of powdery snow covered the wooded trail, softening the sound of my footsteps as I made my way along the path. This section of trail is filled with rotting, vine-covered trees that makes it an ideal location to search for woodpeckers. I was able to add Brown Creeper, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Hairy Woodpecker, and Belted kingfisher to my list.
There were a dozen Ring-necked Ducks on the Connecticut River next to route 17. I used an ice scraper wedged into a guardrail as a makeshift tripod with the squeegee end serving as a nice base for the camera.
I entered Wangunk Meadows from Glastonbury instead of Portland because the Portland entrance hadn't been plowed. There was a flock of birds picking through a sparsely weeded area in the field. At first, I thought they were going to be Horned Lark since there were so many of them but after taking a closer look, I realized the vast majority were Snow Bunting with only a couple of Horned Lark mixed in. I counted 50 bunting before the birds were scared off by some dogs which were running loose in the field. I wish that I had a chance to see if there were any longspur there as well. 1/8/11: I was heading home, traveling along route 154 Haddam when I saw a hawk perched on a power line. I stopped the car and cleverly disguised myself as a snowman so that I could get closer at species #53 on my January list-Red-shouldered Hawk.
1/8/11-Old Saybrook: I took a ride to Old Saybrook on Saturday morning to look for water birds. This is scene looking out from the causeway.
As I had expected, there were some Bufflehead there but I was surprised to find a few American Coot there as well.
I found a flock of Monk Parakeets on a road right before the causeway. Some of the birds seemed to be exhibiting amorous behaviour. I don't think their mating season begins until spring, so maybe they were just practicing.
I saw these Bufflehead Just down the road at Saybrook Point. I was also found two new species for January there, Red-breasted Merganser and Long-tailed Duck. It took me an hour before I was finally able to find the Long-tailed Duck.
Sunday 1/2/11-Hammonasset- It was a foggy morning with temperatures near 50 degrees. The birds were unusually quiet throughout most of the park. I had my best luck finding birds at Meig's Point. My favorite find for the morning was the Common Eider seen in the photo. Other birds that I was able to add to the list included: Dunlin, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, Purple Sandpiper, American Pipit, and great Blue Heron.
My plan for this month is to keep a list of species seen in January but to go about my birding at a relaxing pace so that I can enjoy what I'm seeing along the way. ( I'm at 61 species now which is about 10 behind where I was last year at this time).

Sunday, January 2, 2011

5 Ways To Make Winter Birding Enjoyable

1) If it's just too cold, visit your local library-Most of the time I'd prefer to be outdoors enjoying nature but when the weather's not cooperating I enjoy visiting the local library. The Portland Library recently put some books about birds and nature on display. I checked out a book titled: How To Spot An Owl by Patricia & Clay Sutton-which leads me to #2 on my list.
2)Winter is a good time to look for owls: I occasionally come across Barred Owls by chance but I've never really found an owl by actively searching for one. The one exception is when my wife woke me up at 3am to tell me that she heard owls calling. I went across the street with a flashlight and found two Great Horned Owls in a big pine tree. That was worth getting out of bed for. I've read this book before. It has the basics of owling -playback of owl calls, searching for pellets, listening for mobbing from other birds, and looking for "cakey-white whitewash. Beyond the basics, it also teaches you how to get in the right frame of mind to look for owls-sort of like the Zen of owling. There were two sentences in the book on page 92 which read as follows:

"Check every hole in a tree, particularly those facing the sun, during cold weather. It may take a while, but eventually you will be rewarded by a camouflaged figure sitting at the entrance to its home."

I had those words in my head as I drove past a tree which had a peculiar looking knothole in it. I went back to take a closer look and found an Eastern Screech Owl sitting silently in the entrance of a hole in the tree! From what I read, screech owls tend to be more reddish or brown in our area versus gray in other regions. 3) Visiting places that have man-made duck Ponds: There are some places that have man-made ponds. Lyman's Orchard in Middlefield is one such place that I know of. There is always domestic waterfowl there either on or near their man-made pond but often there are wild ducks or geese mixed in with them. When your tired of checking through the flock, you can go inside to grab some pie and a hot cup of coffee. Not a bad way to spend a winter morning.
4)Outdoor campfire at the state park: I have seen many state parks in Connecticut that have outdoor fireplaces under pavilion shelters. I thought it might be a good idea to have some birders meet up and get a good fire going. This way you can search for birds in the surrounding woods while staying warm.
5) Keep track of the number of species you see in January: This is a tradition amongst birders called "Big January". You make a list of all the species you see between January 1st and January 31st. It's a nice way to motivate you to get out and see new birds in January. You can compete against your own previous totals, other birders or bloggers, or just do it for fun. The Hooded Merganser (photo from 2/09) was the 25th species I saw on the first day of 2011. My total for the day was 28 species with Fox Sparrow, Bald Eagle, Great Cormorant, and Common Goldeneye being some of the other notable birds I saw. All of my birding took place in Portland on Saturday.
So those are a few birding related ideas I have to help me make it through the winter months.
Do You have any ideas you'd like to share about ways to make winter birding more comfortable or enjoyable?