December 6th, 2010

Sprague’s Pipit is Not Supposed to be this Easy

“Hey, Honey…” How many conversations between a birder and non-birding significant other have begun thusly? That was Friday night, when I told my wife there was a bird I’d like to chase – a Sprague’s Pipit that was found that day at a sod farm in Marshallville, Georgia.

I don’t consider myself to be a hardcore twitcher/chaser. But: 1.) This would be a lifer; 2.) Lifers are getting harder to come by; 3.) It was “only” two and a half hours away; and 4.) It was a Sprague’s Pipit. Sprague’s are rarely found in Georgia, and are hard to see anywhere. They breed and winter in open, grassy areas where they skulk around like mice.

Sprague's Pipit hiding in the grass

As you can (barely) see, they tend to blend in. Approaching the sod farm on Saturday, the day after it was found, I was expecting a long and arduous search that would, hopefully, culminate in a view like the one in the picture above. Instead, I got this:

Sprague's Pipit in the road

It’s a poor digiscoped shot, but it gives a good idea of my introductory views of Sprague’s Pipit. I was encouraged to see a few birders at the sod farm when I arrived. As I approached one whom I knew, he said I was in luck. The bird was along the side of the dirt track we were standing on, about 75 feet further down. Sure enough, I could see the bird in the grass well enough to count it. But it then stepped out, right onto the “road”, as you see above. That was about the last thing I expected from this “elusive” bird (as based on its inclusion in the very enjoyable Rare and Elusive Birds of North America).

But it didn’t stay there long. It flew up, over us, and down into some short grass. Along the way, I got to hear its flight call that helps differentiate it from American Pipits.

Sprague's Pipit in flight

It’s coming right toward us!

We watched it for over an hour. Several times it flew, but it always stayed within about 50 feet of the road and its fans. It would walk within the relatively short grass, and every now and then stand up straight and look around. This bird looks very plain in field guides, but in person I found it to be quite attractive and, if I may say so, adorable.

Sprague's Pipit

Sprague's Pipit

Sprague's Pipit

Sprague's Pipit

Sprague's Pipit

It didn’t seem to even notice us, as this photo shows:

Sprague's Pipit with birder

I should mention that this birder did NOT approach the bird this closely. He had been sitting in the road photographing the bird, with the rest of us on the road 20 feet away from him. We were all about 20 feet from the bird, as it made its way toward us. The pipit then flew up and landed less than ten feet away from this amazed birder! He soaked it in for a little while, and then slowly stood up and walked back to the rest of us. The pipit never seemed to mind at all.

Unsurprisingly, this was an incredible experience. I always thought I’d have to go to North Dakota to get my life Sprague’s. But even there, according to the trip reports I’ve read, you’re not guaranteed a close, clear sighting like this. You may “just” see it as a tiny speck in the sky as it sings its song on the wing. But even though I don’t “need” a Sprague’s anymore, I still plan to make the trip to its breeding grounds one day. I think this sums it up perfectly:

But how inadequate a printed picture to portray this wisp of the thin air. The substance of the bird is there all right – the outline, form, and feather texture; the brown streaks and buffy wash, the pinkish legs, the black shining eye – but you need more than that to know the skylark of the Northern Plains, you need atmosphere. You need to know the plains themselves, the softness and the glow of distance and the reach of sky, the spicy air, the clarity…and then that thin music overhead.

A photograph is not enough.
William Burt, Rare and Elusive Birds of North America

November 15th, 2010

One Cooperative Rail

Rails are marsh birds that look quite chicken-like. While that’s true, I might as well have said they look like eagles, since most people will never see one to find out differently! They are secretive birds that hang out within dense vegetation in an environment difficult for people to get into.

All this is to say that when you get an especially good look at a rail, you should savor it. And that is exactly what I got while waiting for the Sapelo Island ferry last month during the Georgia Ornithological Society meeting. A group of birders were hanging out on the raised dock platform, watching a distant perched Bald Eagle, and a much closer Belted Kingfisher. But a motion in the marsh grasses right next to the dock caught my attention. Out walked this Clapper Rail.

Clapper Rail

I think this particular rail was either very confused, or just really needed some sun. It climbed to the top of a pile of dead grass in the middle of a small clearing about ten feet away from some incredulous birders.

Clapper Rail

And it stayed there for at least five minutes!

Clapper Rail

Finally, it was time to get back into the grass.

Clapper Rail

Thin as a...

You hear about how thin rails are laterally, but this is the first time I’ve ever seen one from an angle that shows how skinny they really are.

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October 27th, 2010


Herons are sometimes colloquially known as “shitepokes” due to their habit of lightening their load when they are flushed into flight. You may wonder why. Well, I’ll just let this immature Tricolored Heron demonstrate.

Tri-colored Heron

Tri-colored Heron

Tri-colored Heron

Tri-colored Heron

You’ve probably observed birds lifting their tails, as this one did, when defecating. But while reviewing these photos, I noticed that the bird also spread its legs. That’s something I don’t think I’d ever notice in the field. I guess that’s another benefit of photographing birds.

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September 24th, 2010

Magnolia Warbler Hover-gleaning

hover-glean: when prey is gleaned from a surface while the foraging bird is airborne
A Field Guide to Warblers of North America


I’ve been trying my hand at bird photography recently, and I’ve learned one major thing – it’s hard. Somehow, I don’t think that will come as a revelation to anyone. Many of the pictures I’ve taken are, at the very least, identifiable as to what species it depicts. But sharp focus is still a very elusive prey. And I still don’t know enough about the camera and photographic principles to make needed adjustments to the settings.

But even so, you can still get lucky sometimes. I was trying to capture a Magnolia Warbler at the end of a branch, when it started hover-gleaning. I was actually able to get several pictures in-flight, and even though they aren’t in perfect focus, I think they’re my favorite shots to date.

Magnolia Warbler hover-gleaning 1

Magnolia Warbler hover-gleaning 2

Magnolia Warbler hover-gleaning 3

Magnolia Warbler hover-gleaning 4

Magnolia Warbler hover-gleaning 5

The funny thing is that I had no idea the warbler actually nabbed something until I was reviewing the pictures!

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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?