June 28th, 2010

Looking for Least Bitterns at Altamaha

Least Bitterns are not rare in Georgia. They breed here, mostly along the coast, though there is some inland nesting. And apparently a few may even winter here. But, embarrassingly, I had never seen one in Georgia. I bird the coast mostly in fall and winter, so I’ve just never been where they are when they are here.

But that changed this weekend. My wife, daughter, and I joined my dad and stepmother in Savannah for a long weekend. I knew I wouldn’t be able to do much birding, but I did want to set aside a little time to try to fill this empty box in my state checklist. Thus, a trip to Altamaha WMA was in order.

Altamaha WMA

View of Altamaha WMA from the observation tower

Altamaha is a fantastic place. The impoundments that formerly grew rice are now managed for ducks and other wildlife. From my vantage point on an observation tower I could see that the place was teeming with birds. Boat-tailed Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds were flying and calling all over the place. Every heron and egret that you would expect, even a couple of Black-crowned Night-herons, could be seen. Glossy Ibis outnumbered their white cousins. Well, on the ground at least. There were always some White Ibis in the air above, from pairs to large skeins. A pair of Black-bellied Whistling-ducks would fly around every now and then.

You couldn’t help but smile at the family of cute, fuzzy, black Common Moorhen chicks. A single, resplendent Purple Gallinule made a short appearance. I can’t believe I left the digiscoping adapter in the car, making it tough to get any pictures.

Black-necked Stilt display flight

Black-necked Stilt in a display flight

The most interesting thing, behavior-wise, was the displaying of some Black-necked Stilts. I could see two stilts feeding in the impoundment on one side. But every few minutes one of them would take off and fly around slowly in a circle, all the while calling kek kek kek incessantly. When it was done, a stilt from the other side of the dike would respond by doing the same thing. At the time, I thought that perhaps the raised dike was the boundary between two territories and that these were border disputes. More on this later.

But no Least Bittern. I scanned and rescanned the edges of the impoundments, hoping to spot one clinging to the vegetation, but to no avail. I only had a few minutes left, due to an appointment elsewhere, when I saw a small bird fly into a cluster of reeds. It was out of the corner of my eye, so all I was able to make out were large, buffy wing patches. That was enough to know it was my Least Bittern! I got my scope on the spot in time to see the bird, partially obstructed, clamber deeper into the vegetation and out of sight.

Whew. It was a great relief to finally see it, just in the nick of time. But looking back, I think I enjoyed the stilts even more. I had never expected to see such a shorebird display here. The arctic tundra, sure, but not in Georgia. That gives me hope that I haven’t become a crazed, list-obsessed birder. Not totally, anyway.

Back to the stilt display. After doing some research later, I think I was wrong about what they were doing. They may have been mobbing me. They were flying nearby or right over me, no more than twenty feet above my head. That could easily be explained, though, if the dike were the territory boundary with the tower at the corner. But both The Shorebird Guide and Pete Dunne mention that stilts will aggressively defend their territory against intruders, including humans, by giving incessant flight calls. I guess they took offense to my presence. I honestly didn’t think it was me at the time, but if it was, hopefully I didn’t disturb them too badly.

And now I’ve learned something new. Gotta love birding.

June 22nd, 2010

Another use for Spotting Scopes

Did you know that you can use a spotting scope to view things besides birds and other wildlife? Ok, maybe that’s obvious to most people, though apparently it wasn’t to me. I had never used my scope for anything else until yesterday.

By the way, this makes me realize how thankful I am that the prime shorebird season doesn’t correspond with the prime season for people on the beach. I can just imagine:

Random Beachgoer: (with a sly grin) Whatcha lookin’ at?
Me: (not noticing the grin) That flock of shorebirds over there.
Random Beachgoer: Suuuuuuure

That would get tiresome very quickly.

Anyways, the bodies that I was thinking of viewing through the scope are heavenly ones. As in astronomical, in case you first thought of something else. My wife and I had talked for a while about using the scope to find some planets, but hadn’t ever gotten around to it. But last night she noted that Venus, Mars, and Saturn should all be visible, so we finally gave it a try.

We first spotted a light that we thought could be Saturn. We really didn’t know what to expect; I was hoping to be able to see the rings, but we were doubtful. It took a while to get the correct object in the scope (so much harder than during the day – the little sight-guide-thing attached to the eyepiece was useless). At 20x zoom, it was just another star-like object. But after zooming in to 60x – we have rings! Well, I should clarify that. It still looked nothing like the Saturn you see in books, all swirly yellow with a thick, multi-layered ring surrounding it. Basically, it was a white dot with a white line through it. But it was still exceedingly cool.

What Saturn looks like through a scope

A crude mock-up of what Saturn looked like through the scope

We tried to find Mars next, but it turned out to be much tougher. There were two likely candidates, but neither one looked very unique in the scope. I was hoping it would be distinctly reddish, but no such luck.

And Venus was too close to the horizon, and thus blocked by trees.

To cap it off, I turned the scope toward the Moon and almost blinded myself! After letting my eye adjust, the view was amazing. You could make out some incredible detail, especially at full zoom: mountain ranges, colossal craters, NASA probes. Well, maybe not the latter.

You may be wondering how, out of all the possibilities twinkling in the sky, were we able to pick out the most likely planetary candidates. Simple – it turns out there’s an app for that. Planets is an app for the iPhone family of devices that makes it incredibly easy. It will show you what planets are visible and where they are. It’s a great little app, easy to use, and it’s free!

Clearly, spotting scopes won’t work as well for this as telescopes designed for astronomy. But if you have a scope*, you should give it a try sometime.

*Unfortunately, it does need to be a scope. Binoculars don’t work well for viewing planets since the magnification is too low and it’s impossible to hold them steady enough.

June 8th, 2010

Ode to Flycatchers

A couple of weeks ago I heard my first Eastern Wood-Pewee of the spring and realized something – I love flycatcher songs. In fact, as a group, they are one of my favorites.

This realization took even me by surprise. After all, they aren’t even songbirds! The songbirds (the Oscine sub-order of the Passerines) get the lion’s share of the musical acclaim among birds, and I can’t really argue with that. The unearthly strains issued by thrushes sound like they are piped directly from heaven. And the breathless serenade of a Winter Wren seems impossible for such a tiny bird. But there is just something about the relatively simple exclamations of flycatchers that makes me smile.

Here are a few of my favorites:

The song of the aforementioned Eastern Wood-Pewee is a simple, whistled peeowee.

You’ve gotta love a bird that announces its name. But my favorite pewee vocalization is one that I often hear during fall migration. It’s a combination of two distinct calls – spondivit and pee-u. Others might describe the first sound differently, but this pronunciation sticks in my mind because there is a local restaurant named Spondivits. I’m a picky eater and have been told that I probably wouldn’t find much to eat there. So is it any coincidence that I hear the pewees say spondivit … spondivit … pee-u?

If the pewee says its name, the Eastern Phoebe practically shouts it. This little bird may be drab, but it is charismatic. Sitting out in the open, pumping its tail, belting out its burry phoebe, it can’t help but make you smile.

Writing out bird sounds phonetically is an inexact science, to say the least. Everyone hears something different. But I must be hearing something really different in the case of the Alder Flycatcher. The Sibley Guide presents the song as rreeBEEa, and Cornell’s All About Birds has it saying “f-bee-oo”. But I hear it more as vree-beer. I certainly don’t hear the three distinct parts that many representations give. However, I do remember reading somewhere that the third part is often there. Even if you can’t audibly distinguish it, you can usually see it in the spectrograph (a visual representation of sounds).

Regardless of what it says, that burry, ascending explosion of a song is one of my favorite bird sounds ever. But it’s not due to the sound itself, but rather the circumstances in which I heard it. One May morning, I was birding the nature preserve in my north-central Georgia neighborhood. Out of nowhere came a sound that stopped me in my tracks. I didn’t recognize it immediately, but I’ll never forget my excitement as it finally dawned on me what I was hearing. Alder Flycatchers are a rare migrant in Georgia, so I certainly wasn’t expecting to find my lifer in my own subdivision. It is the only state review species that I’ve found, and it remains the only Alder that I’ve ever seen or heard.

That last part, “or heard”, is important. The Alder Flycatcher belongs to the genus Empidonax. These flycatchers, often called empids, look so much alike that they are almost impossible to identify by sight. You usually need to hear them in order to keep from having to record it as a generic “empid species” on your trip checklist. Thus, any empid vocalization is a welcome one.

But listening to flycatchers simply to ID them shortchanges both the bird and the listener. From the chebek of the Least Flycatcher that’s as cute as the bird itself, to the raucous kiskadee! of the Great Kiskadee, flycatchers are worth listening to on their own merit.

Even if they are not, technically, songbirds.

So what are your favorite flycatcher sounds?