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Saturday, September 29, 2012

Nashville Warbler and Marsh Wren + Catch-Up Shots

A late migrant warbler passing through Lake St. Clair Metropark and a chance encounter with a Marsh Wren marks the passing of the Autumn Equinox in the Northern Hemisphere.

Marsh wren are loud yet visually secretive; hidden among the cattails. They're best seen in the Spring when the males are establishing breeding territories. I was lucky to see this individual hopping low at the Park. A change in habitat (the "Meadow Loop" at the Park), resulted in a migrating Nashville Warbler.  This also give me an opportunity to post some "catch up" shots from the summer -- the Nashville[right] seen below with a Western Kingbird [center] in Texas in June, a white-eyed vireo [lower left] seen at Corkscrew Swamp and a hooded warbler seen at Oak Openings Preserve (Toledo, OH).

The shorebirds at Lake St. Clair were almost all gone, excepting of course for the still numerous (and still annoying) Killdeer and a lone Least Sandpiper [lower right] shown here in the collage with the Buff-breasted Sandpiper that showed well earlier this month near the same venue.

At Oak Openings (where the Hooded Warbler was observed in June), Lark Sparrow [here seen in June, right] is at the Northern end of its breeding range. The park is an excellent venue for sparrows, including Field [lower left]; but the star passerine seen this year was seen much earlier in the year -- found in February -- a Lapland Longspur [upper left] seen in Michigan where it was (poorly) digiscoped.

In ending, a couple of random shots -- eagles seen at Protection island; Harlequins at Sequim Bay and a cooperative red-breasted nuthatch that showed well at Dungeness NWR in July.

The red-breasted nuthatch in close-up:

Saturday, September 22, 2012

A Pipit Among Shorebirds

American Pipit @ Lake St. Clair Metropark. Sept 2012.

Scanning the mudflats at Lake St. Clair Metropark -- looking at the color of legs, the extension of the wings and bill size and shape on various shorebirds -- I was distracted by an unusual sparrow-like bird that alighted briefly on the dried 'lakeweed' before taking off; flying in 'sine wave' fashion with a companion. 

The American Pipit is a plain bird with buff coloring and a breast with some light streaks. This pipit is widespread across the US; it is also found in Asia and is ecologically classified as "Least Concern" with stable population numbers.

An assortment of shorebirds is present in Fall migration at Lake St. Clair -- and this year in addition to some specialty species such as buff-breasted sandpiper, Baird's sandpiper and Golden Plover; the more common migrants were also seen such as semipalmated sandpiper [left], lesser yellowlegs [middle], sanderling [upper right] and least sandpiper [lower right].

Commonly seen as well were Pectoral Sandpiper [middle and right] which were perhaps the most numerous. This shorebird is very similar to sharp-tailed sandpiper but confusion between the two is hardly warranted as the sharp-tailed is an extremely rare bird in the US.

The Pectoral is a passage migrant through the US over-wintering exclusively in South America. Its migration route is very long and on stopovers it prefers freshwater habitat. In terms of identification, it can be identified by its finely streaked breast as well as the sharp transition from streaked to plain white which is characteristic. The legs are yellowish and the bill has a slight droop.

In this assortment of sandpipers, the one that perhaps the easiest to identify is the spotted [lower right]. Not very gregarious, it prefers foraging alone and its continuously bobbing tail is a dead giveaway. In addition to the semipalmated sandpiper [lower left], its plover namesake [semipalmated plover, upper right] was also seen near the water.

Birding is rewarding because of the many surprises it can bring and in this instance the Pipit was an unexpected gift.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A Tale of Two Plovers

The black-bellied plover (known in the rest of the world as Grey Plover) is a globally widespread shorebird commonly seen coastally when not breeding in the high arctic. It is the largest plover in America and a familiar sight.

The black-bellied plover has a global population four times that of the American Golden Plover. And, unlike the black-bellied, the golden plover does not overwinter in the US and is only seen briefly at stopover sites while migrating to South America flying thousands of miles; of which, 2,400 are over open ocean.

Golden Plover were shot heavily in the heyday of market hunting in the 1800's which was responsible for the decimation or extinction of many species (Read about Market Hunters at Wikipedia). Fortunately, Golden Plover are now classified as "Least Concern" and their numbers, while decreasing, are not considered to be in precipitous decline.

Coincidentally, the day this Golden Plover was photographed marked the start of goose hunting season in Michigan and echoes of gunshot rang in the air as spooked migrants flew for cover.

In this collage of golden plovers at Lake St. Clair Metropark, different lighting shows the variation in exposure that can result. The one constant is the "dainty" look, finer bill, and long wings. However, two diagnostic features help distinguish the golden from the black-bellied: black armpits and white rump of the black-bellied are absent in the golden.

Shown here for example, are the rumps of the golden plovers -- clearly not white. Compare the daintier golden with the heavier black-bellied:

As can be seen, the differences are elusive; the bill is a good distinguishing feature but not conclusive. Two plovers in migration -- alike yet different in subtle ways -- offer both challenge and opportunity for those birding shorebird migration in the Fall.

Mid-September and Lake St. Clair Metropark can be a worthy hotspot for migrants as well as a testing ground for honing your identification skills!

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Baird's Sandpiper @ Lake St. Clair Metropark. Sept. 2012.

Baird's Sandpiper is a passage migrant through the US. Like many other sandpipers, Baird's breeds in the Arctic and winters in South America. It's main migration flyway runs through the middle of the US and it is a migrant in a hurry -- known to cover 9,000 miles in 5 weeks.

A frenetic feeder, it is hard to get this sandpiper still in a picture. Its also has a tendency to crouch close to the ground when sensing danger which makes it appear shorter than it really is.

Baird's Sandpiper is a calidrid and in size, slightly smaller than a Sanderling. Round, staring eyes, a streaked breast and long wings extending past the tail distinguish this sandpiper from other species. This latter feature is also found exclusively in the white-rumped sandpiper which it closely resembles.

Shown here are some size comparisons -- much smaller than a Pectoral Sandpiper [left]; slightly smaller than a sanderling [lower right]. The front-view of a Baid's shows the a sharp transition from the streaking on the breast to a white belly; much like a Pectoral; but lacks the yellow legs and is much smaller. The photograph below shows all three sandpipers juxtapositioned which makes their size differences much more apparent [from the left: Baird's, Pectoral, and Sanderling].

While not commonly seen, Barid's sandpiper population trends are stable and hence it is rated as "Least Concern".

The sandpiper is named after one of the stalwarts of American Ornithology, Spencer Baird. A contemporary of Audubon, Spencer Baird was the first curator of the Smithsonian Institute.

There are many species named in honor of Spencer Baird and this charming Sandpiper does a worthy job of ensuring that his name lives on.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The one that didn't get away

We've all heard of the one that got away -- this is about that one that didn't. This Osprey (seen at Little Estero) caught a big one; but, unfortunately, the fish proved to be too heavy to carry off to the Osprey's feeding perch. The osprey was caught in a quandry; stay exposed with its kill on the ground; or, abandon it and fly away. After much thought, it chose neither and tried to take off with the fish; wings beating powerfully, trying to gain altitude, fish firmly in talons. Finally, all it could manage was a big, low loop and he was back pretty much where he started.

Around the area there were typical birds of the season:

A spoonbill [left, seen at Bunche Beach] fed in the tidal pools left by the withdrawing waters at low tide; a little blue heron [upper right] did the same, but much more stealthily and with great cunning. A red knot, a global sandpiper, was found with a foraging flock at Little Estero.

Also at Bunche were the first arriving Piping Plover [right] that were seen among the ubiquitous sanderling [upper left] and black-bellied plover [lower left].

Completing the roundup of shorebirds were short-billed dowitchers [upper left and lower right], marbled godwit [upper right], western sandpiper [lower left] and ruddy turnstone.

As the Osprey found out, you can count on Nature to serve up surprises in coastal Southwest Florida!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Prothonotary Warblers and Waterthrushes at Corkscrew Swamp

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary (Link to Audubon) preserves habitat that must have characterized large areas of Southwest Florida before logging and development. The Sanctuary boasts massive bald cypress trees that aren't seen anywhere else and it attracts a rich variety of birds, mammals and reptiles. An early September excursion to the sanctuary held promise of migrating warblers as well as other charismatic residents of the Swamp.

Traversing the 2 mile boardwalk often brings the unexpected -- as in this case, a red-shouldered hawk that landed yards away while it fed allowing close-ups that might otherwise only be possible at a raptor show at the local zoo.

Another marvelous resident of the Sanctuary is the barred owl which, while usually reliably heard, is an elusive subject for the photographer. But, enough of owls and hawks -- target species of the day were warblers.

The prothonotary warbler takes its name after the golden-hued robes of the proto-notaries of the Pope. This is an office that goes back to the "first scribes" (protos notarius) of the Byzantine Empire. There were about 4 of these dazzlers (the warblers not the officials) in the swamp and they were found low feeding near the water. This is the only Eastern warbler that nests in cavities and while it is classified as "Least Concern", its populations are declining.

Also found were both waterthrushes. Always heard before they were seen, their chips were good indicators of where they might be. Annoyingly, these chipping sounds are very similar to the Northern Cardinal's and this caused a great deal of confusion in determining their location.

In this collage, both Northern and Louisiana waterthrushes are shown in their typical environment but which is which? Clockwise starting at the upper left corner, I identified Louisiana, Louisiana, Northern, Northern Northern, Northern, and Louisiana. Diagnostic aids are the color of the supercilium and how it tapers.

Finally, while Corkscrew is famous for its wood storks, none were seen at this time [water levels too high]; instead a few small herons were found perching and posing:

Also seen were carolina wren, great-crester flycatcher, white-eyed vireo, belted kingfisher and ovenbird. Corkscrew Swamp is justifiably a star attraction on the Great Florida Birding Trail (link).