Juvenile robins battle for a turn at the water

Juvenile robins battle for a turn at the water

For the past two years, my wife has run this jury-rigged bird bath.  She hangs the hose over a convenient limb and lets the water drip into a horse feed pan.  The assemblage is completed with a couple of bricks that allow the birds to stand ankle deep in the water for drinking and bathing.

All of the birds in this picture are robins and all retain some spots on the breast indicating that they have not yet completed the molt into their first set of adult feathers.  The second photo shows a close-up of the juvenile plumage.  During the month of September, most birds molt into the familiar red breast.

Young robin with speckled breast.  The breast will turn red by the end of September

Young robin with speckled breast. The breast will turn red by the end of September

In the late summer both this year and last, we have noticed absurdly large collections of juvenile robins using the bird bath in September, virtually to the exclusion of adult birds.  The second most numerous users are juvenile starlings, followed by juvenile cardinals.  It is not as if the adults are absent—we still have plenty of them at our feeders.

Our question is why the juveniles love this birdbath so much and why the adults are absent.  Might it be as simple as the adults being more cat-savvy than the kids?    Anybody got any ideas?


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.

A friend of ours who phones from time to time with news of her birds called this afternoon to tell us that she had a baby vulture walking around in her back yard.  I asked her to describe it and she said it was black with a gray head, but it was mostly white.  I said no way.  She said come over and see for yourself.

By the time we got there, the bird had retreated deep into the taxus hedge at the back of her property.  I waded in carefully and saw the bird in the deep shadows perched on an old abandoned tractor tire.  It was indeed a baby Turkey Vulture and it was indeed mostly white.

This bird should clearly still have been in the nest.  It was covered with white down, what banders call the “local” plumage since it never gets very far from the nest.   The black wing feathers are molting in, but the tail feathers are only just emerging from their sheaths.  However, the head and beak definitely belong to a vulture.

Fledgling Turkey Vulture

Fledgling Turkey Vulture

Our friend’s place has an abandoned barn that we knew was a vulture roost.  They fly in and out of the hayloft window and can frequently be seen perched on the windowsill and on the roof peak of the barn.  I checked out this barn a year ago for the Ohio Breeding Bird Atlas program.   I found half a dozen active Barn Swallow nests in the lower story and three vultures roosting in the hayloft, but no sign of a nest.  I guess I should have kept checking.

Our theory is that the baby bird took the big leap a bit too soon, as baby birds sometimes do and now finds itself unable to reverse the process.  I suspect that the parents are aware of the situation and are just waiting for the humans to clear off so they can attend to the baby.  I advised our friend to call the raptor center at Glen Helen, near Yellow Springs for advice.  They said to put the baby back in the barn.  A plan is in hand to do just that.  The lady at the raptor center said they have several instances of straying Turkey Vulture chicks each summer and putting them back seems to work best.

This was the high point of the day, but we had already had an exciting morning watching the young Ospreys at the Mound Road access point at Caesar Creek Lake.  We had good views of all three of the young birds perched close by and in the air.  The birds were judged to be juveniles by the white tips on the back feathers, scapulars and wing coverts.  We were even able to see the orange irises of two of the birds.  These will turn yellow later in the year.  There was no sign of the adults; they may be on their way to Venezuela already.  The young will probably hang around the nest site for another month or so until they realize they are on their own.  Then they, too, will head south, following a routh that they were born with.

Juvenile Osprey. Caesar Creek State Park, Ohio

Juvenile Osprey. Caesar Creek State Park, Ohio

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.

One of the most difficult parts of communicating the location of a good bird (or a good birding spot) is uncertainty about how much knowledge is shared between the parties. Between some interlocuters “the cedar tree by the side of the road where the long-eared owl was last year” is good enough. Others require turn-by-turn directions from their home 300 miles away. A couple of years ago, I thought GPS was the answer. I would specify the coordinates and GPS-equipped birders would be able to navigate there directly. Unfortunately, the technology has progressed so rapidly that lats and longs have been completely bypassed. Maybe OnStar can get you to a set of coordinates, but most car GPS receivers are all visual; they don’t have any means of entering target coordinates. The obvious answer is some kind of map, but most of the online mapping services suffer from the same shortcoming.

But now there is My Maps from Google. My Maps lets you annotate and save a map from Google Local and send a link to it to all your friends. The map has all of the interactive functionality of the basic Google Local. I can use it to indicate a spot in a local wildlife area, and when you click on it, you can zoom out, click on your house, get directions and all the things you normally expect. This same map is just as useful to a birder in Cincinnati as it is to one in Cleveland. And best of all, it is dead simple, all drag and drop, and no programming. It only takes about ten minutes to achieve a reasonable level of skill. I wish all software were like that.

To get started, point your browser to Google Local . You should get a display that looks something like this:


This one is centered on my house just north of Wilmington, Ohio. Yours is probably centered on someplace in your neck of the woods.

02my-maps.gifLook at the tabs on the left. Click on “My Maps” as below. For now, resist the temptation to click on “Create new map.” First you want to zero in on the target area for your map, because that is the first thing your reader will see. We will use the pan and zoom controls indicated by the red arrows below to move the focus to Cowan Lake State Park, one of my favorite local birding spots. First, I will zoom out to get some perspective, as in the figure at right below.


Look in the bottom left hand corner. There is Cowan Lake. Now we need to center it and zoom in to make it a pretty picture. We do this with the cross-shaped controls on the left. There is also an undocumented method that is very handy for this sort of thing. Place the cursor on the lake and double click. Google centers on that point and zooms in by one increment. In any case, a couple of clicks should get us a map like the one below. Now, click on “Create new map.”


The cursor is in the title box on the left. You can enter a title and a short description of the map and what it is supposed to do. This gives us the basic map, we can begin to annotate it. Just to the right of the pan and zoom controls, you will see four icons that weren’t there before. The first (leftmost) of these is a little hand. This control essentially duplicates the pan control. You can use it to grab the map and move it. Just click on the hand, then click and drag the map. The next three are the three basic means of annotating the map. The little balloon annotates a point; the jagged line allows you to draw consecutive line segments on the map; and the last gives you way of drawing a colored polygon on the map. Let’s annotate a few points since that is the control you will probably be using most.

One of my favorite birding spots at Cowan Lake is the east boat ramp on the south shore. To annotate this spot, click on the balloon icon and drag it over to the desired spot as below.



09annotation.gif When you let go of the mouse button, an annotation panel appears. Click in the title box and enter an appropriate title. Then click in (or tab into) the description box and write as much description as you think your readers might find useful. When you are done, click OK. The annotation panel goes away, but the icon, the title and the first line or two of the text appear in the panel to the left of the map. Clicking on the title brings back the annotation. If we continue in this way, dragging and dropping the balloons on various points, we build up an map rich in information. Not only that, but the map retains all the functionality of the basic Google Maps utility. I can zoom out to Sacramento and get turn-by-turn directions to the east boat ramp. This flexibility is the great power of My Maps.


But wait, there’s more. Lurking under the annotation panel are a whole slew of additional symbols that give interesting possibilities. Look at the figure at right. I have put a marker on the Lotus Cove Trail Head, but that is not a birding spot. It is just a place to park. I can distinguish that by changing the icon to something more suitable.

I do this in the following way. In the panel to the left of the map, I click on Lotus Cove Trail Head. This brings up the annotation I created earlier. Click on “Edit.” This recovers the annotation dialog, from which I can make whatever changes I wish. Now I click on the balloon icon in the upper right corner. When I do that, a new panel appears that gives me the choice of about a hundred new symbols. I scroll down and choose the capital “P” for parking and the change is made


The map below shows what you can do with this. I have added a tent to indicate where the campground is, and a little sailboat to show the location of the marina, and an exclamation point to warn that an indicated road is actually private. Finally, Google Maps isn’t too good about including internal roads in the park, so I have used the line drawing tool to draw in the roads down to the beach and to the Big Hill picnic grounds. These are two of the best areas in the park and deserve the extra attention.


Finally, we need a way to make this map available to others. Google gives each map a URL so it is accessible to anyone who has the address. You can bring this address up by clicking on “Link to this page” in the upper right corner of the map.


When you do this, the URL appears in the address box of your browser. From here you can copy it and paste it into an e-mail or make it a link on a web page, like this one. I have done that with the finished map, which you can see by clicking here.

A couple of final words. First, making these maps is a web application and as with most web applications, it is excruciatingly slow if you are on a dial-up connection. Even with a broadband connection, it is not nearly as fast as a dedicated application that runs directly on your computer, like your word processor. Success requires a little patience.  The spplication is also a bit balky sometimes. I figure it is because every mouse click must be sent out over the web and a response must be sent back and some of them just go astray. One important corollary of this is that you must save your work early and often, as we used to do in the olden days. Google tries to save after every change, but sometimes the magic just doesn’t work. You have to take responsibility for it yourself.