Thursday, August 31, 2006

Those other "bird songs"

I've been thinking about songs that mention birds in their lyrics and paying a special tribute to those that I know well. It takes a special lyricist to use a bird in their songs, but it takes a better one to reference an odd bird that not everyone would know. Those are the songs I'm looking for. Any help out there in the blogosphere? Please leave a comment.

Rockin' Robin - Bobby Day or Michael Jackson (pre-craziness)
Ok, it's an obvious choice, but "He out-bopped the buzzard and the oriole." is a great line. I'd like to think that the song references the Honey Buzzard of Europe, but they were probably using the colloquial term for a vulture or hawk. The song also refers to a "chickadee", a "swallow", and an array of other birds.

Suite Judy Blue Eyes - Crosby, Stills & Nash
At least, I think Neil Young was part of this one... This song references both the "Chestnut-brown Canary" and "Ruby-throated Sparrow". I couldn't find a reference to either being a real bird and the words are probably meant to be more descriptive than defining a real species, but Stephen Stills gets an "A" for effort. Also, I'm sure if I was hanging out with him circa 1969, I would have been seeing birds like this too, if you catch my drift.

Edge of Seventeen - Stevie Nicks
In this song, the throaty songbird of Fleetwood Mac fame, one of my favorite female singers ever, refers frequently to the "White-winged Dove". She could have sang about any ol' generic dove, but she chose this southwestern fella to grace her song. According to the song, the White-winged Dove sings "Oooh baby, oooh". I think a case can be made for that.

Ok, this is all I've got for now. Help me out! Let's try to keep it to songs that most people would know.

I and the Bird # 31 - Haiku!

Mariya from migrateblog gets extra kudos for her effort in hosting this week's edition to IATB. She wrote a haiku for every blog entry. Here's the one for my entry:

Rocky mountain highs
For Patrick and Beth's trip out west
Crossbills! Siskins! Yay!

Monday, August 28, 2006

Rocky Mountain High

Beth and I have returned from our trip to Colorado and what a wonderful trip it was! We spent 7 nights in Vail and 2 nights in Estes Park, right outside of beautiful Rocky Mountain National Park. We spent plenty of time enjoying the scenery, the flora, and the fauna that the Rockies have to offer.

This was our first experience at any sort of real elevation and, unfortunately, Beth got a bad case of altitude sickness the first day. It was amazing how out of breath you get just walking up some stairs. Our condo in Vail was on the third floor with no elevator, but it was a great place.

The first morning I did some birding from our window and found Stellar's Jay, a bunch of Black-capped Chickadees, Juncos, and some very close Pine Siskin's feeding on thistle. The whistle-like humming of Broad-tailed Hummingbirds permeated the morning air. In a small patch of woods behind the hotel I found a House Finch, Bewick's Wren, and a Western Wood-Pewee.

The next day we decided to take a hike on the Bighorn Creek Trail that was recommended in Colorado's Best Wildflower Hikes. Supposedly an "easy to moderate" trail, it was a lot more difficult due to the elevation. We found many species of wildflowes among the gorgeous aspen groves, but it was obvious that we were about a month late for the peak bloom. Bird-wide there wasn't too much to see. Chickadees, Siskins, and Stellar's Jays were about all we could find. A flyover group of Band-tailed Pigeons was a nice surprise and the distant tooting of what I think was a Northern Pygmy-Owl was very interesting.

One of the most ubiquitous birds we found in Colorado was the Black-billed Magpie. These brilliant black, white, and irridescent blue corvids were seen frequently along the roads and even around garbage cans. It's a shame this gorgeous bird is so commonplace. The appreciation of their beauty may be lost on the locals there.

There was no lack of Magpies in Colorado

The third day we took the gondola to the top of one of the mountains where I found my first two new birds of the trip. The first was a Mountain Chickadee doing a scratchy impersonation of a Black-capped. The second newcomer was a Brewer's Sparrow perched on a sign at the top of the mountain overlook.

I hit up a few spots that I had heard were good for birding. Pine Siskens were EVERYWHERE. It was unreal. They were by far the most abundant birds with Black-capped Chickadees a close second. I went to several spots that were supposed to be good for American Dipper, but I completely struck out. Every wide, rocky stream I could find was Dipper-less. The "Water Ouzel" would elude me for the rest of the trip. The birding spots around Vail didn't turn up any new birds, but we were awarded with great views of Yellow-bellied Marmot, Mule Deer, and a very accomodating Beaver.

Red Crossbill

Our time in Vail was wonderful, complete with a hot air balloon ride and a rodeo. Friday came and we were off to Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP). RMNP is known for its herds of Elk and Bighorn Sheep as well as having the highest, continues paved road at 12,183 feet - known as the Trail Ridge Road. Our plan was to take this road west to east ending in Estes Park. On the way to the park, we made a few stops at scenic roadside lookouts to look for flowers and birds. I was observant enough to spot some Mountain Bluebirds on a fencepost and a quick turnaround yielded some great views. A perched Swainson's Hawk added to the excitement. At another stop I was lucky to find a Green-tailed Towhee (the only one of the trip) and a Lark Bunting!

Mountain Bluebird!

Swainson's Hawk

A while later we made our way into the park. I don't know what it is about national parks, but I get a magical feeling when I enter them. It's sort of like a naturalist's Disney World. (Side note: Disney World itself isn't half bad for a naturalist. I got my lifer White Ibis, Moorhen, and Anhinga there!)

After paying the fee, we were on our way to Estes Park on the Trail Ridge Road. A few miles in we visited a lodge with a great gift shop (and 30% off Burt's Bees products!). They had an array of feeders frequented by very tame Pine Siskens, Chipmunks, Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels, and Cassin's Finches (lifer!).

Cassin's Finch

Siskins were everywhere!

Back on the road, we spotted a female Elk. Way cool! A little further up the road, another visitor's car alerted us to a Coyote frolicking in a field of grass. Even though they occur in NJ, I had never seen one in person. I'd seen plenty of scat, but never the beast in the flesh.

We wound our way through the roads higher and higher, following a map to several key points on the road that offered breathtaking views of the mountains. There was no civilization in sight. All we could see was the result of eons of glacial action.

The edge of the treeline was approaching in the distance. We made a stop at around 11,000 feet in authentic tundra habitat. The weather had dropped from 70 degrees to 50 degrees (at most). We walked a path out into the tundra. What a unique and amazing habitat. Wildflowers grew in miniature. Jagged rocks were strewn about. My first sightings on the tundra were a Vesper Sparrow and a pair of American Pipits. I searched in vain for White-tailed Ptarmigan, a very tough bird to find.

Top of the world, ma!

The wind and weather were quickly changing as we approached the Alpine Visitor's Center at around 12,000 feet! A large canyon behind the visitor's center held a herd of Mule Deer and some very distant Elk. I helped a few people to see the Elk in my binoculars and did my best to convince people that the much closer Mule Deer were not Elk. The much-hoped-for Brown-capped Rosy-finch didn't make an appearance. :( The weather began to turn nasty, so we decided to hit the road - but not before we found two Golden Eagles soaring high over the visitor's center. Beauties!

At around 10,000 feet, we stopped at a large curve in the road with a great lookout. A chorus of squeaks led us to a group of American Pika. These cute relatives of the rabbit were repeatedly running down the mountain and coming back up the mountain with a mouthful of grass. This grass is stored away to be food for the winter. A little ways down the path, a large bird popped up on the ledge - Clark's Nutcracker! This bird was obviously used to people and was very photogenic.

A friendly Clark's Nutcracker

We continued on our way down. A stop at the Endovalley Picnic Area didn't produce the hoped-for Woodpeckers and Sapsuckers that I was told could be there. Oh well. All of these great mammals and other bird sightings made up for it.

Leaving the park, the sun had returned as quickly as it left. A parking lot of people let us to a group of 50 Elk grazing in a field as dusk approached. It was a serene scene ripped from a nature painting. Bull Elk with huge, 5-foot wide antlers moved about the cows and young calfs. We made a last ditch effort to find some Bighorn Sheep, but luck was not with us.

A lovely group of Elk

The next day, our last day in Colorado, was spent around RMNP. In the morning, we hiked up to the spectacular Bear Lake and Emerald Lake before encountering a little rain. The hike was not as tough as our first hike, but the elevation really made you feel every step of it. The mirror lakes were a well-deserved payoff. Another payoff was the family of Blue Grouse that came amazingly close to us.

The reflection at Bear Lake

A very abiding Blue Grouse

In the afternoon, we drove the Old Fall River Road - the original road in the park - up to about 12,000 feet. On this narrow dirt road, it began to rain. The temperature on the car's thermometer began to drop. 55 degrees... 50... 45... sleet began to fall... 40... 35... the sleet became a blizzard of snow! Snow in August??? That's the mountains for you. We connected back to the main road and drove VERY carefully in the snow down to the bottom of the park. Again, the weather began to quickly improve and the temperature climbed back to the 50's. Our trip ended in a most stunning way. We spotted a small piece of a rainbow - a very bright rainbow where you could see all of ROY G. BIV. Winding around a corner, we spotted the other end of a rainbow which then materialized into a full blown rainbow stretching between two mountains. It was a fitting end to a wonderful trip.

Stay tuned for a look at some of the butterflies of the Rockies and for Beth's photos of the wildflowers we saw.

One end of a stunning rainbow

Thursday, August 17, 2006

I and the Bird #30... and Off to Colorado!

Bev of Burning Silo, a great blogger and amazing photographer, is the host for I and the Bird #30. Lots of great info there, so go check it out now!

Beth and I will be in Colorado until 8/27. Stay tuned for updates after we return. We got a 2GB card for our camera, so pictures will be plentiful. Speaking of Colorado, what the heck is Elephant's Head Lousewort? I hope it's curable. :)

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

White-tailed Ptarmigan

High on my list of birds to see in Colorado is a secretive, cryptic denizen of the alpine tundra known as the White-tailed Ptarmigan. The White-tailed Ptarmigan can be found in Rocky Mountain National Park and other alpine areas of Colorado. It's by no means common and I'll consider myself lucky to see one. Their breeding plumage is a mix of browns and grays with the male having black barring on its chest. The male also sports a keen red comb above its eyes. The female has a comb too, but it's less visible.

In the winter, the birds become pure white and can only be seen by the "black of their eyes"! I'd love to see one in winter even though it probably involves freezing off parts of my body.

These Ptarmigans eat similar food to most other grouses including buds, stems, and seeds. In summer, they also eat insects, leaves, and fruits. They nest in a scrape on the ground and typically lay 2-8 eggs. The young leave the nest in 6-12 hours after hatching!

Bill Schmoker has some amazing photos of White-tailed Ptarmigans (and many other wonderful photos).

Hopefully, I'll be lucky enough to run into one of these little guys. Wish us luck!

Monday, August 14, 2006

Colorado, here we come!

Beth and I are headed to Colorado this Friday. We have a lot to look forward to, other than the new security rules at the airports. We're staying in Vail for a week and then heading to Rocky Mountain National Park for a few days. I've never birded in the Rockies and I'm really excited about it. Of course, I have a target list of birds. Who wouldn't?! Here's a small peek at what I'm hunting for out there:

White-tailed Ptarmigan
Mountain Bluebird
Brown-capped Rosy-Finch (very local bird)
Ferruginous Hawk (not likely)
Prairie Falcon
Clark's Nutcracker (should be easy at Rocky Mtn Natl Park)
Lewis' Woodpecker
Red-naped Sapsucker
Williamson's Sapsucker

We bought a book on wildflower hikes in CO. It has some really nice hikes, some of which include 100 species of flowers. We'll be there about a week or two behind the peak bloom season, but flowers should still be everywhere. We'll also see some great mammals I hope. Pikas (no not that one), Bighorn Sheep, Elk, and Mule Deer are pretty abundant. We have a lot of other action planned other than birding and hiking, butg I'm not sure what it is yet :). I won't have my laptop with me, so no remote blogging unfortunately. We'll be taking TONS of pictures though, so look for those when we return. I'll keep posting until we leave on Friday AM.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Grasslands Breeding Bird Survey Final Update

Today was the last round of my Grasslands Breeding Bird Survey. I had to do the second habitat survey. The purpose of the second habitat survey is to see how the habitat has changed since the first habitat survey was conducted (prior to the 2 bird surveys). I was disappointed to find that in the 2 months or so since my last bird survey, a lot of the habitat has changed significantly. One of the best spots I had which was home to Grasshopper Sparrows and Bobolinks is now a mowed field. I don't know when it was mowed, but I can only hope it was after the birds had nested and the young had fledged. Several fields were tilled and a few others were now home to soybeans and corn crops. THere was hope as some of the areas still had good habitat. That's the story of grassland birds across the US I guess. I can't knock the farmers for making a living, but it's just a shame that almost every grassy field I drive by has a "to be developed" sign on it.

Monday, August 07, 2006

What one bird got me interested in birding?

Wildbird is running a contest for people to write in a story about the one bird that got them interested in birding. Here's mine.

Growing up, my dad would take the family to the Great Swamp NWR to look for birds – hawks mostly. We would always find Red-tailed Hawks perched in the distant trees and various other birds. I even remember seeing a Rose-breasted Grosbeak and a Red-headed Woodpecker. Around age 11, I discovered video games and the outdoors became a view through a window. My TV and Nintendo replaced my trips to the Great Swamp. I forgot about the birds.

Many years later while at college, I had an encounter that changed my life. It was fall and I was walking back to my dorm from class. I was walking through a small wooded area, more or less alone, when something dropped from the sky less than ten feet away. I was startled, but pleasantly surprised to see a large hawk standing in the dead leaves. Our eyes met and I could see its raw power. Its wings were spread a little and it looked around nervously. Its fiery red tail gave away its name. I stood there for a few minutes watching this stunning Red-tailed Hawk. I had never been so close to one. People walked by, oblivious to what I was looking at. The bird stayed for several minutes then took off into the trees. This encounter stuck with me for year. After college, I picked up an old pair of binoculars and went back to the Great Swamp for my first birding trip in years. Five-hundred species later, birding is my passion.


Yesterday, after my trip to the East Brunswick Butterfly Park, I headed to the Scherman-Hoffman Wildlife Sanctuary. This spot, owned by NJ Audubon, is a 2,500 acre forested sanctuary with a butterfly garden, a vernal pond, a river, and an amazing bookstore. It's probably the best place in NJ to see a Harvester, a very unique butterfly. I've never seen one and it turns out I was a few weeks late. I also looked in vain for some Harvester caterpillars that had been seen recently.

After exploring the grounds and finding a Clamp-tipped Emerald (a really cool dragonfly), I headed to the bookstore. I told the volunteer working there about my minimal discoveries and he told me of one of his own. He showed me a length of vine with interesting triangular leaves. The vine was covered in lots of small barbs. It turns out that this was the first specimen of Mile-a-Minute Weed found at Scherman-Hoffman. This sanctuary makes a huge effort to eradicate invasive species by burning, pulling, killing, and pretty much doing anything they can. They've also put up a deer exclosure to help revive the undergrowth of the forest. So, the discovery of an invasive like Mile-a-Minute Weed, which grows more like 2.5 feet per day, is disheartening.

Mile-a-Minute Weed is an alien from Asia that first arrived in Oregon around 1890. It arrived in the 1930's in York, Pennsylvania and has since spread to surrounding areas. Virginia is an especially hard hit area. The vine covers trees and blocks out light, killing the tree. Its self-pollinating nature makes it a prolific seeder. It's unfortunate that this awful plant has found its way into parts of NJ. Argh...I hate invasives!

Sunday, August 06, 2006

East Brunswick Butterfly Park

I spent an hour this morning at the East Brunswick Butterfly Park. This park just celebrated its 3 year anniversary, but this was the first time I've been there. What a shame that I haven't been before! This place is awesome. I had assumed it was a small area of butterfly nectaring plants, but it turns out that is is huge! There are tons of butterfly nectar and food plants including milkweed, butterfly bush, bee-balm, mints, and some wild meadows with Queen Anne's Lace and Goldenrod. The full list of butterflies is below along with some pictures. I also found a few dragonflies including Blue Dasher, Prince Baskettail, and Black Saddlebags.

Butterfly list:
Tiger Swallowtail
Cabbage White
Pearl Crescent
Red-banded Hairstreak
Silver-Spotted Skipper
Peck's Skipper
Zabulon Skipper
Tawny-edged Skipper
Northern Broken-Dash

A small part of the park

Zabulon Skipper

Red-Banded Hairstreak - a real beauty!

Peck's Skipper

Friday, August 04, 2006

Bret Whitney on Discovery Channel

Reknowned birder and tour leader, Bret Whitney, was featured last year on the Discovery Channel web site. The short video shows Bret in the field demonstrating his well known ability to identify bird song and vocalizations. You get a glimpse into his life recording vocalizations in South America. Bret is so versed in bird song that he's even discovered several new species in South America by hearing a song that he didn't recognize. Check out the video (click on the "Name that Tune" link). Also, an interesting article about Bret is here.

As a side note, I'd like to mention that the tour company that Bret started, Field Guides, puts on excellent tours! I went to the Rio Grande with them last year and it was awesome. I'll save more on that for a future post.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

New Kid on the Blog

My lovely lady, Beth, has taken her unrivaled passion for wildflowers to the cyberworld. Please take a swing on over to Wildflower Hunter and read her first few posts. I'm sure you'll find them really informative. Keep checking back for frequent updates and profiles of many wildflowers.

I and the Bird #29

Head on over to Alis Volat Propiis for the 29th edition of I and the Bird. If you're longing for a vacation this summer, Leigh's virtual trip will momentarily take you away from reality.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Fuzzy Wuzzy

This video surfaced on the net last week. Totally weird, but totally cool. Does anyone know what this is? It seems to be a caterpillar of some kind and probably a moth caterpillar. It looks like a woolly bear on steroids. If woolly bears predict the weather, then this critter says that Al Gore is right.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

A Few Random Thoughts

Sorry for the delay in writing... Beth and I took her brother to Boston for his 18th b-day. He's a big Red Sox fan and we saw them beat the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (worst sports team name in the world) in 11 innings. We didn't get to do anything nature-related and I passed on an attempt at the nearby Black-tailed Godwit at Parker River NWR. It hadn't been reported in a few days, so I passed. It hasn't been reported since Sat., so I don't feel so bad. Just some random notes for today:

Two Yankees Fans Being Incognito