Any birdwatcher knows that patience and faith are perhaps the two most important components to a successful bird walk.
I started a recent walk with high hopes, as I always do, but as the morning went on and no birds were to be found, I started to lose hope of seeing anything. To compound matters, the field at the park had recently been mowed for the first time of the year, making bird encounters even less likely.
It still would have been a pleasant walk because the autumn morning chill had given way to a beautiful and warm sunny day. But with fall migration in full swing, I was disappointed in the birding results.
Orange was the color of the day during a recent morning walk in the woods.
It had rained overnight and the trails were damp in most places and puddled in others. I got a flash of excitement when I saw my first eft. Then I saw another. Then another. Efts were underfoot on every fifth or sixth step.
Efts are eastern newts in the terrestrial stage. Some are brownish but most are bright orange and, despite their small size, very visible on paths in the woods. They can be found any day from late spring into fall, but damp weather is when you are most likely to find them, even if you aren’t looking for them.
Newts have four distinct stages, or life cycles. Females lay eggs on aquatic vegetation in the spring. A month to five weeks later, the eggs hatch and the newts live in water for a few months. At this larval stage, they are less than 1 inch long and have feathery gills. In the fall, they shed their gills, crawl onto land and live as efts for about three or four years. They spend New England’s harsh winters hibernating under logs or rocks.
Note: This column was originally published in newspapers on Oct. 4.
There was a lot of environmental and bird-related news to come out of Washington this past week.
In case you missed it, the big news was that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials declared the ivory-billed woodpecker extinct. The “Lord God Bird’s” removal from the endangered species list is surprising only because officials are reluctant to declare species extinct. It’s such a powerful word that carries with it such finality it’s a tough tag to put on something.
The dreaded label was also placed on 22 other species of wildlife, including eight freshwater mussels. Sadly, but not surprisingly, 11 species from Hawaii and the Pacific Islands have been declared extinct. That includes many birds.
Three species dominated the count total on my morning bird walk today. White-throated sparrows were plentiful and it was great to hear their song again. Yellow-rumped warblers were plentiful, as they often are this time of year. Palm warblers were numerous as well and a flock of five kept me company near a stone wall at Huntington State Park. The fall warbler migration is bittersweet. It’s great to see them, of course, but the crisp air reminds me they will be gone soon and a long winter looms. At least winter is good for birdwatching too.
The sun was starting to set behind the marsh, casting a golden glow on the backyard.
In this magical light, we could see dragonflies by the dozens, perhaps hundreds, zipping around the yard. Looking closer, aided by the light, we could see hundreds, if not thousands, of mosquitoes, presenting themselves as tiny specks in the air. Looking even closer, we could see the dragonflies chase down and eat the mosquitoes. The mosquitoes didn’t stand a chance against these perfectly engineered predators.
I went out to try my luck at photographing a dragonfly in midair. It’s been an elusive shot in my catalog of nature photos. Even with the sheer numbers of dragonflies and the perfect evening sun at my back, the shot proved to be a challenge. I somewhat met the challenge, however. I wouldn’t say I nailed the shot as it’s not ideally composed, focused, exposed or any other type of technical photography term you can think of. But, for my purposes, it’s not bad. I’m not shooting for National Geographic or anything.
Common yellowthroats are one of most familiar warblers we see in New England. While we are seeing many warblers pass through this time of year on their way south, yellowthroats remain one of the more common sightings. The male (pictured above) is easy to recognize with his black mask, but the female is a little more tricky, particularly in the fall when warblers are notoriously difficult to ID. Here are a few more shots to distinguish the female yellowthroat from other warblers passing through. Click here for a recent For the Birds column on yellowthroats.
It was an eagle. There was no doubt about that. I second-guessed myself only for a second because of where the sighting took place.
It was not on a remote lake in northern New England or on one of the islands in Long Island Sound. It was right along a highway.
We are all used to seeing hawks perched along the highway. In fact, when I drive to Pennsylvania a couple of times a year to visit family, I make it a point to count the number of red-tailed hawks I see perched in trees along Route 86. It’s usually between 10 and 15. Hey, it passes the time on a long drive.
I noticed from far away as I approached the scene that there was a bird perched in a tree overhanging a somewhat busy state highway. Even from a significant distance, I could tell it was not a hawk. The only question was whether it was an eagle or a vulture. It did not have the posture of a vulture, but rather the regal stance of an eagle.
I had just discovered a new berry tree at work and thought to myself how great it would be to see the birds raid the tree when the berries ripened.
At the time, the majority of the berries were red with a few purple ones mixed in. It wouldn’t be long now, I figured, before they were all purple and the birds would be feasting on them.
About a week later, I went back to check out the tree and it was practically picked clean. Apparently, the berries ripened quicker than I thought they would, and the birds wasted no time in having their feast.
I missed the flurry of activity that had the tree stripped clean, but I did see a lone gray catbird fly in and out to grab a few of the remaining berries. At least I wasn’t completely shut out of the show.
Sometimes the residual birds get unduly forgotten when a bird walk features a highlight species. In other words, the other solid bird sightings get pushed to the back of the memory bank. Then, sometime after the excitement of the highlight species fades, be it hours, days or weeks, the other birds come back to you.
This happened to me the other week when a pair of male indigo buntings highlighted an evening walk. It had been a while since I had seen buntings, and I became singularly focused on them when recounting the walk.
As I looked through the photos of that walk, I was reminded of some of the other birds I had seen. Before I took untold numbers of photos of the bright blue indigo buntings, I had snapped a few photos of a common yellowthroat pair. I had completely forgotten about those birds until I started looking through the photos.
The song sounded familiar, but it had been months since I last heard it.
There is an indigo bunting around here somewhere I said to myself and instantly abandoned my plans for a long, strenuous walk. I knew I’d be at that spot for a while.
I couldn’t tell if the song was coming from the left or the right. It sounded like it was coming from both directions. I thought it was just because I’m getting old and my hearing was playing tricks on me.
But sure enough, there were two male indigo singing: one to the left of me and one to the right.
The bunting to the right was in the shade as the evening sun was dipping below the tree line. The bird to the left was illuminated in that magical evening light. I turned my focus to that bird.
Thankfully, the bird was fairly cooperative and even posed for a few photos in a berry tree. It didn’t eat the berries, but rather just used the tree’s branches for a vantage point.
It had been a few years since I was able to get photographs of an indigo bunting. Photographing any bird is enough to get my blood pumping, but a bird like an indigo bunting really gets the heart racing — especially when they are being cooperative.
Male indigo buntings are one of the more striking birds we see in New England, right up there with scarlet tanagers, Baltimore orioles and rose-breasted grosbeaks. Indigo buntings, like many songbirds, are sexually dimorphic, meaning the males and females look different. Also, like most birds that are dimorphic, the female is much duller than the male. The difference between the electric blue male and brown female is stark.