Sunday, March 9, 2014

Scoter Trifecta!

It’s early March and duck season is winding down in the South, but as Maureen shared in her previous post, we’ve had some great looks at members of this group this winter. Several of these happened over our holiday travels, but one of our most exciting duck encounters of the season happened right here in Savannah, which involved seeing all three scoter species all in one place and at the same time.

Forster's Terns regularly grace the bridge leading to Ft. Pulaski

Scoters are sea ducks, and over the past couple of winters, we’ve been able to make out Black Scoters from the beach at Tybee Island. Usually when we spot them offshore, the waters are choppy, the birds are far away, and the females are barely identifiable to species. The males are hard to miss, though, with their jet black plumage, and the bright yellow knob at the base of their bill. Even so, these sightings haven’t been as satisfying as we would have liked, and we’d long hoped for the opportunity to see them under better circumstances.

Black Scoter. During one recent visit there were between 1,000-2,000

This Loggerhead Shrike guards the road in, and keeps the riffraff out

For the past couple of months those circumstances have converged on the Savannah River, along the south end of the Ft. Pulaski National Monument. Reports of White-winged Scoters and Surf Scoters, along with Long-tailed Ducks started turning up in my eBird needs alert emails pretty regularly. When we went to check it out, we were treated to well over 1,000 Black Scoters! There were also a considerable number of Greater and Lesser Scaup, dozens of Redheads, and several other species mixed in in smaller numbers. Included in these were a handful of Surf Scoters and White-winged Scoters, lifting our personal lists to new milestone: Our 300th ABA bird!

White-winged Scoter - you can see just a hint of the white wing patch here

White-winged Scoter and Lesser Scaup

White-winged Scoter and Surf Scoter

The light was fading fast when we came upon this feathered flotilla. We would come several more times in the next weeks, trying to locate a Long-tailed Duck (as many as three had been reported). However, we soon learned that birders weren’t the only ones turning out for the ducks. One day we trekked the half-mile from the parking lot toward the island where the ducks had been congregating, and prematurely started congratulating ourselves on the nice group of Canvasbacks mixed in with Redheads, Buffheads, and Scaup. Unfortunately, we’d been fooled by several long lines of decoys set up by a camouflaged group of hunters who had set themselves up on the island. 

White-winged and Surf Scoters, joined by Redhead and Lesser Scaup

A ragtag gang of sea ducks patrol the waterway

We never did turn up a Long-tailed Duck, but all three scoter species persisted throughout the season, sometimes giving pretty stunning looks. White-winged Scoters, in particular, are a fairly uncommon occurrence down here, and yet we were seeing sometimes as many as a dozen in a single outing. Apparently, they’ve come farther south this year to escape the iced over Great Lakes, and there seems to have been plenty of food for them here, as they’d dive to the bottom of the river and resurface some time later with a bill full of mussels. It’s been great to have the opportunity of studying this odd-looking group of ducks so closely, completing for us the scoter trifecta, and helping put us over a birding milestone.

Ft. Pulaski is also one of the most reliable places for marsh sparrows.
We were happy to see this Nelson's Sparrow pop up

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Review: A Feathered River Across the Sky

This year represents a dark anniversary in annals of natural history as it marks the centenary of the Passenger Pigeon’s extinction. Once darkening the skies for long hours at a time, flocks in the billions dominated the American landscape for hundreds of years. For many hunters and naturalists, the disappearance of the continent’s most numerous bird was simply unimaginable, and even after pigeon numbers dropped precipitously their extinction remained a remote-seeming, even ludicrous proposition to some.

The story of how this flagrant national tragedy unfolded is described in great detail in Joel Greenberg’s terrific new book, A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction. Based on years of intensive scholarship, Greenberg traces how humans’ relationship with the species evolved over time, from early Native American customs, to European settlement, and how the advance of industrialization served to ever increase the efficiency with which pigeons were killed.

Many of the events described in the book are stomach-turning, and not necessarily because the details are particularly gory. Instead, it’s the mere fact of unrelenting slaughter of tens of millions of birds at a time; the profligacy and senselessness of killing so many more pigeons than could possibly be of any use to anyone. There are lessons in all of this for our continued stewardship of our natural resources, and Greenberg does a fine job of extending the story beyond 1914 to demonstrate how the Passenger Pigeon’s extinction led to the birth of a conservation ethic, and scores of laws designed to protect our remaining species.

There are few heroes in the story of the Passenger Pigeon, unfortunately, which makes people like Henry Bergh all the more compelling to learn about. Bergh founded the ASPCA in 1866 and fought tirelessly against all varieties of human cruelty to animals. His efforts of 20 years eventually led New York state to ban pigeon-shooting matches, passing legislation that became a model for other states to follow. He and several other figures stand in stark contrast to the prevailing sentiment toward Passenger Pigeons right up until the end, which was to shoot (or trap) without compunction, and seemingly reflexively.

The Passenger Pigeon is a marvel to consider. Migrating flocks that would take days pass overhead, and roosting groups so large and so concentrated that they would uproot trees, and devastate forests… these things are things that the imagination struggles to comprehend, and the likes of which we will never see again. Joel Greenberg’s book is a bit too detailed at times, but he succeeds wonderfully in conveying what it was like to have lived during this period, both in the sense of awe that they inspired, and in the destruction that humans wrought in the path to the pigeon’s ultimate extinction.

A Feathered River Across the Sky is an important book that brings all of the best and up-to-date scholarship on Passenger Pigeons together in one place. It’s a worthy tribute to mark the 100th anniversary of their extinction, and a poignant reminder of what we’ve lost.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Duck, Duck, Goose!

One of the best things about this time of year is seeing ducks (and if we’re lucky, some geese) who have flown down south for winter. Throughout the year, we’ll see some Wood Ducks, the occasional feral Muscovy Duck, and the resident Canada Geese that have made a local lake their home. But between the months of November and February, few things (other than our birthday and the holidays) tickle us more than the excitement of seeing flocks and rafts of an array of ducks on a chilly day!

Female Ring-Necked Duck and Male Ruddy Duck (American Coot in back)
A couple of Ruddy Ducks

Our duck season started with a bang, and has been building up to a “ka pow!” I’ll start with the bang and show off some of the lovely ducks we’ve had the pleasure of seeing early this winter. At the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, Northern Shovelers and Ring-Necked Ducks fill the waters of the impoundments at the tail end of the wildlife drive. But who stole the show for us on my birthday birding outing were several Ruddy Ducks who came quite close to us and granted us great looks at their slightly up-curved bills and energetic diving behavior.

Ruddy Duck Diving

We again saw these fun little ducks at Lake Mayer, where we have sometimes seen really large groups of them. Again, they showed off their sassy little style. And as the habitat is fit for ducks and marshy sparrows, whenever we saw these Ruddy’s, we also had great looks at some chipper Song Sparrows.

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow

Ruddy Duck
Song Sparrow in the reeds
As our holiday time meant travel to our respective families, we made our way North to upstate New York before heading south and central to Texas. Unlike our past trips to Albany, it didn’t snow while we were there, but it did just before we came. We had our play time in the little bit of snow on the ground, enjoying dreary days with coco, drives by the buffalo farm, and of course a little birding. 

At a local park, we braved the cold and scanned the icy waters to find our lifer Common Mergansers! And on our drive back to the homestead from the park, we had a fantastic look at a lone Snow Goose – and where else but in the snow! It was gracious enough to pose for us as we adored it from the car.

In our last stop in Houston, we made our way to Hermann Park where we’ve previously had some decent birding. We started our day off well with a cooperative Orange-Crowned Warbler. And although we didn’t really have any surprises (other than a couple of nasty Nutria Rats with their bright orange teeth!), some Ring-Necked ducks floated nearby and showed off as they dipped in and out of the water like a Bond girl at the beach.

Orange-Crowned Warbler

Orange-Crowned Warbler
Nutria Rat

Male Ring-Necked Duck

Male Ring-Necked Duck
November and December had a great kickoff to duck season, and we can’t wait to share more of what we have seen lately. Until then, enjoy these guys!

Pair of Ring-Necked Ducks

Pair of Ring-Necked Ducks

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Lake Mayer Before the Ducks Return

It’s late November, and the ducks are starting to return to Savannah. That means we’ll be heading over to Lake Mayer more and more often, as it begins to crowd with Ruddy Ducks, Northern Shovelers, Bufflehead, and other treats. To be honest, we tend to neglect it during the warmer months, but we couldn’t resist a visit in early October when a Clay-colored Sparrow turned up, a good ways out of range.

Chipping Sparrows abound in these parts during winter, but this close cousin was a lifer Spizella for us. The two species are awfully similar, but a few characteristics set them apart. Fortunately, our excellent look gave us all the opportunity we needed to confirm it as a Clay-colored. Reports from a day earlier, and from that morning, led us right to it, and after just a minute or two searching the reeds, it popped up into a young, bare-branched cypress.

Clay-colored Sparrow

In the pictures you can clearly make out dark top and bottom borders of the auriculars. When it turned around, we could also make out the tan rump, as opposed to Chipping Sparrows' gray rumps. For a couple of minutes we admired and photographed him in the tree, until he got bored of posing for us and retreated back to his reedy thicket. We looked and looked for him after that, but he wouldn't pop up again over the next hour.

Yellow Warbler

Belted Kingfisher

We turned up plenty of insects as we searched though, including sulphur butterflies, and a pair of pearl crescents getting chummy with one another. The dragonflies included a lovely roseate skimmer, which is always a very welcome sight.

Cloudless Sulphur

Pearl Crescent

Pearl Crescents

Roseate Skimmer

And then we saw the shrike. When I think of Loggerhead Shrikes, I think ruthless bastards. Like avian Vlad the Impalers, they’ll spike their prey over whatever piercing objects they find nearby. They don’t look particularly vicious, but their black mask does give them a shady aspect, inspiring about as much trust as, say, the Hamburglar. But take away the mask and they suddenly become super adorable!

leucistic Loggerhead Shrike

This leucistic shrike had all-white feathering covering his head, rendering him harmless-looking, and letting him lull all sorts of delicious morsels into a false sense of security. Or so I imagine. He’s had his territory staked out at Lake Mayer at least since last spring, but we’d never run into him before now. Look at that face, and then try to imagine the brutality it inflicts on a regular basis. You just can't do it!