Recent Birding Exploits


Though noted in  many species, the phenomenon of post-nuptial wandering is particularly pronounced in birds that breed in large colonies, possibly as a response to habitats that have become depleted in raising numerous broods.  Surprizingly little has been published in the scientific literature about post-nuptial wandering, but it is eagerly anticipated by northern birders as an opportunity to see long-legged waders from the Deep South in our own back ponds.  This year threw up a real rarity, a trio of Wood Ibis, only the fourth record of this species in Ohio.  Oddly enough, two of those records are from Clinton county, scant miles from Congress Farm.

The storks appeared in a quiet forest pool in Cochocton county in the Wills Creek drainage.  They were first reported by Robert Schlabach on 26 Aug and were last seen by Robert McNulty on 8 Sep.  In the meantime, the birds remained very predictable and were viewed by dozens of birders from Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania  and Kentucky.

The birds were all juveniles, showing much more feathering on the head and neck than is usual for adults.  There was also a considerable amount of muddy brown color on the neck and on the upper back.  The two photos below contrast the Coshocton birds with an adult photographed in the Everglades in 1998.

The Coshocton county wood storks, 28 Aug 08

The Coshocton county wood storks, 28 Aug 08

Adult Wood Stork in the Everglades, May 1998

Adult Wood Stork in the Everglades, May 1998

Note that the head and neck of the Everglades bird are completely bare and the plumage is completely white except for the black primaries.  The details of the juvenile Coshocton birds can be better seen in the following pictures.

Coshocton Wood Storks foraging.  Note "fuzzy" feathers on head and neck on mud-colored tracts on neck and upper back.

Coshocton Wood Storks foraging. Note "fuzzy" white feathers on the top of the head and mud-colored patches on neck and upper back.

Spread wings indicate fully adult wing pattern of black flight feathers and white coverts.

Spread wings indicate fully adult wing pattern of black flight feathers and white coverts.

These storks were very active and amazingly tolerant of birders.  They often foraaged fairly close to the road from where we were parked, allowing great opportunities for photography.  The foraging technique included shuffling the feet in the mud, presumably to stir up prey.  The birds also swept their bills along the bottom.

Coshocton storks foraging in shallow water.

Coshocton storks foraging in shallow water.

On several occasions, we and other observed one of the birds extending a wing in a maneuver similar to the characteristic shade feeding of Reddish Egret.  (The Black Egret of Africa also has a shade feeding technique, but it is much more exaggerated.)  My feeling was the the wing extensions I observed were reflex actions to maintain balance.  Young birds are often clumsy (see Pileated Woodpecker post below).  I believe these birds just lurching about on a bottom that probably differed greatly from what they were used to in the Everglades or the Gulf Coast.

These young birds were good, efficient foragers.  We observed a number of successful captures like the one below.

Wood Stork nabs a crawdad

Wood Stork nabs a crawdad

We were really lucky to have the opportunity to observe this species so closely in such an interesting plumage.  The only other verified reports (according to Peterjohn) date back to 1909 and 1946, both immatures in the Wilmington area, and two birds in Ashtabula county in 1955.  So it might not be too hyperbolic to say that this was once in a lifetime opportunity for Ohio birders.

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There has been a very accessible Pileated Woodpecker nest at Spring Valley Wildlife Area (map here) this year.  Cindy Beckman has been very dilligent in reporting the progress of the nest.  She and I and Bob Atkins were at the site this morning when the last of the three fledgings left the nest.  As an old fighter pilot, I am aware of that it takes a flight or two to get used to a new aircraft.  It is no different for baby birds.  Every summer, we see young songbirds falling off perches after clumsy approaches, but the experience of this young woodpecker was truly thrilling.  It came lumbering out of the trees, crashed into a big, solid tree trunk and bounced off.  It managed to right itself in midair and flew to another tree trunk.  It smacked into the second trunk somewhat less forcibly, managing to get a grip after sliding about three feet down the trunk.  It was quickly joined by its mum, who gave it a bit of food and urged it to climb up the tree.

The picture below shows the young woodpecker at lower right.  Note the short, brushy crest.  The dark moustache marks it as a female.  The mother bird is at upper left.

On 20 and 21 May, Bob Thobaben and I netted a Mourning Warbler each day. Here’s proof:

The female Chestnut-sided Warbler was just a little lagniappe.

Bob Thobaben called me at 1045 this morning with the news that there was a Pied-billed Grebe at the duck pond in Denver Williams Park in Wilmington. (Click here for map.) I arrived at the pond about 1105 and despite the modest size of the pond, it took me 20 minutes to find the bird. It was feeding and spent only seconds on the surface before diving again. The small size of the pond and the ability of the grebe to swim long distances underwater meant that it could (and did) surface just about anywhere. In statistics, one would say that the point where it surfaced was not correlated with the point where it dove. Anyway, I could never predict where it would appear next, so that it sometimes took me as much as 20 minutes to reacquire the bird. The dozens of ducklings on the pond, the offspring of the numerous feral mallards did not help. They were roughly the same size and shape and I kept alerting on them. I have never worked so hard for a Pied-billed Grebe.

Peterjohn, in The Birds of Ohio, gives very few breeding locations for Pied-billed Grebe away from Lake Erie. There is certainly very little hope that this bird is likely to breed here, even if it should be so lucky as to find an equally errant mate.  Peterjohn writes, “Breeding Pied-billed Grebes are restricted to large marshes, particularly those exceeding ten acres in size, where dense emergent vegetation is interspersed with small openings.” It is thus exceedingly wondrous that this bird should appear on a tiny, manicured pond whose sole purpose is to provide a flock of tame waterfowl for the local children to feed bread crumbs to.

Condor and photog

Yes, that’s a California Condor on the left, and no, the photographer is not a professional ornithologist, and no, this is not is some barely accessible wilderness.  In fact, the Pacific Coast Highway is only about 20 meters behind the photographer and there are about a dozen other people awaiting their turn for the condor photo op.

This is a far cry from my previous encounter with a condor.  In 1982, I and two of my sons decided to make a try for the condors.  We drove from Alamogordo, New Mexico, and camped on the top of Mount Pinos overlooking the Sespe Valley, the site of the last wild condor population.  We were prepared to spend five days on Mount Pinos waiting for a condor.  The first morning was great condor-watching conditions: clear skies and a million miles visibility.

After a couple of hours we had accumulated a nice little group of would-be condor watchers, but no condors. One of the group was an experienced condor finder and he told us that the way to attract condors was for one of the party to lie down on the ground and twitch from time to time. After a while, my son Hugh decided to give it a try.

Shortly thereafter, a speck appeared on the horizon. We watched it carefully. The wing posture was consistent with condor, but it could have been an eagle. As it drew closer, excitement grew as the bird took a “double dip” flap, a condor flight characteristic. By this time, it was apparent that the bird was very far away and was thus much larger than an eagle. A small bird was harrying the condor.

We watched all the way in. Judging from the amount of white under the wings, the bird was probably two or three years old. It finally passed right by us, about 100 feet away and at eye level. The little bird that was harrying the condor was a Red-tailed Hawk. It was a thrilling encounter, well worth the 900 mile drive.

The Sespe population continued to decline.  The last remaining individuals were rounded up in 1987 and entered into a captive breeding program at the San Diego Zoo.  The program was successful in producing new condors and in 2003,  condors began to be released into the wild.  There are now four free-flying condor populations in Southern California, Northern California, Arizona, and Baja California.

2007-05-18-1032-condors.jpg

Now, as much as I enjoyed getting up close and personal with these condors, I cannot help but think that this may not be the best way to bring back a famously endangered species.  These birds are part of the Ventana Wilderness population.  I am confident that No. 4 (top picture) is an adult, and judging from the lack of black on the heads of the two above, they are probably also adults, or nearly so.  But what are they doing hanging out with people?

Local experts state that condors are very predictable along this stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway, 40-50 miles south of Monterey. They have apparently made their way from the wilderness where they breed to the clifftops by the sea, where presumably they are foraging along the shoreline. It is a puzzle to me what they can be foraging on since condors are large carrion specialists, though it has been suggested that they are feeding on carcasses in seal and sea lion rookeries.

The fact that they are so approachable indicates that they are habituated to human contact seems to me to be worrisome. Recently, bottle tops and other human detritus have been implicated in the deaths of some young condors in this very population.  (The Vermillion Cliffs population in Arizona, which is considerably further removed from concentrations of humanity than these birds, has not to my knowledge suffered similar losses.)

I don’t see what can be done about it really- condors will be condors and if they want dramatic sea views, there is little we can do to stop them. However, this tendency may presage the ultimate failure of this population. Restoration money is so hard to come by, even for a big box-office species like the condor, that a highly public failure may lead to a loss of confidence in the ability of scientists to carry out projects like this. The ramifications could be far-reaching and severe.

 Caspian Terns occur fairly regularly in Southwest Ohio, but generally only in onesies and twosies. Larry Gara called me yesterday afternoon (18 Apr 07) to tell me that he had found ten on the beach at Cowan Lake State Park. (See the post immediately following for a description and an interactive map.) I went out to the lake immediately and found seven still present. I was able to get a photo with five Caspian Terns in the same frame.

Note the size relationship with the Ring-billed Gulls.

In stalking the birds to get better pictures of the birds, I managed to spook them, but my ineptitude resulted in a couple of nice flight pictures.

Note the usual pattern of very light upper surfaces of the wing with the very dark lower surfaces.  This can be a good mark in distinguishing Caspians from Royals in flight, should we ever be so lucky as to be in that position here in Ohio.

Larry reports that none were found this morning.