Friday, May 22, 2009

NRBNF Day 1: Birding by Butt

White-throated Sparrow getting ready to be banded by Bill Hilton 4-27-09

After meeting the Flock on Sunday night I roll out of bed early Monday morning. Today will be the first test of how we do at processing 8 women through two bathrooms in time to get us all out the door by 6 a.m. In our sleep-deprived state somehow we pull it off and met at the Opossum Creek lodge for breakfast. We fill our bellies with fresh hot coffee or tea and what will turn out to be the best breakfast of the whole week.

Outside the surrounding forest is alive with bird song. Bluebirds perch on the phone lines, gnatcatchers scold from the trees. A northern parula sings out is territorial song from a treetop, and from the forest edge the “wheezy, wheezy, wheezy” call of a Black and White Warbler is heard. Other birders rush to the edge to see if they can spot it. I have not seen this species yet. It will be a new Life Bird if I get to see it, but I am not successful.

Bird in the bag 4-27-09

Meanwhile, Bill Hilton, of the Hilton Pond Center in South Carolina has set up his mist nets in the grassy field beyond the trimmed yard. He has captured something special and we all gather around to see what he has. A tiny bird dangles inside a net bag. Another is flopping in a brown lunch bag held shut by a clothes pin. As Bill prepares to lift the little brown job from the safety of the mesh bag he tells us that this is a very special bird and that he has only banded this species 2 or 3 times before and he has never banded one at this site. Our excitement builds as he lifts it from the bag. He tells us not to shout out what species it is as he holds it up to view. How many people know what bird this is, he asks? I raise my hand with pride, because I do know this bird. I have seen it in my yard in Arizona and again at Sweetwater Wetlands. For those of us who do know, he asks us not to tell, and then he prompts the others to try to learn from the field marks readily available.

Lincoln's sparrow held by Bill Hilton 4-27-09

Sparrows are always a challenge to identify, but this Little Brown Job, or LBJ, does have some distinctive characteristics that make it a bit easier. The blush of buffy coloring that straddles the breast is one sure field mark. The fine streaking across this breast contrasting with a whitish throat and belly and a whiter eye ring are some other field marks. Bill tells us this little sparrow is a skulker and seldom seen. I did not know this since the one I saw just landed in my yard one day in plain view! After showing the bird and describing its field marks Bill ask me what species of sparrow it is. “A Lincoln’s sparrow” I say, with all the pride of a kindergartener on her first day of school.

Bill measures and weighs the tiny bird. He applies the band and records the necessary data. This bird was caught in net number 2 at 7:00 a.m. EDT in Fayetteville, WV. Its band number is 1561 13052. Then, he asks me to come up and release the bird!

First he shows me how to hold it safely.

Then, he places it in my hand.

I raise it high to the sky and just as the sun is peaking over the horizon…

…I set it free.

I feel trembling, feathered joy! This is going to be a good week! Before the morning is over, Bill will band a white-crowned sparrow, a feisty female Eastern towhee and a tiny female ruby-throated hummingbird. (Read his account here)

As the banding winds down a few of us gather for a nature walk down the long winding driveway and into the woods. Our guide for this little jaunt is a man named Jim McCormac. Jim is well known for his blog Ohio Birds and Biodiversity. While I have never met him or even heard of him before, it isn’t long before I realize that he has a child-like wonder and curiosity about nature. As we walk down the trail we are not only spotting birds, we are turning over stones looking for salamanders, or digging up terrestrial crayfish which he holds calmly in his hand. Every tree, flower and fern has meaning to him and he readily shares his knowledge with us. In the woods we cross a little brook. We find warblers high in the trees. And I quickly discover that most warbler photos will be from below looking up at their bellies where they are back lit by the cerulean West Virginia sky.

Ovenbird at Oppossum Creek Retreat 4-27-09

Warblers are a species of bird that has been sorely lacking on my life list. Until recently I barely knew what they were. I identified my first warblers in the early 2003 when a yellow-rumped warbler came to my suet feeder in Livermore Falls, Maine. Later that summer a pine warbler came, but most of the birds I knew where birds that came to my feeders, or could be seen at the shore line. Since moving back to Utah I learned a few more, such as the black-throated gray warbler, which showed up in my yard there. Now that I live in Arizona and participate in the Important Bird Area survey of Sabino Canyon I have learned to identify many more. But, western warblers are few and far between compared to the eastern ones and now they fly tantalizingly over my head and taunt me to try to identify them.

Fortunately for me, I don’t have to work too hard at this. There are plenty of birders and birding experts here to call them out with their iPods and tell me what I am seeing. This is a different kind of birding for me. I am use to stalking the birds alone and trying to identify field marks. Normally I take notes and take pictures and get flustered and excited. Now I focus on these tiny feathered jewels high in the trees and listen while someone tells me what I am seeing.

I learn that the birds get agitated by the songs of their species being played within their territories. While it brings the birds close enough to view, it also riles them up and changes their behavior. In some areas the use of recorded calls is banned due to this fact and also to prevent other birders from thinking they hear the species and identifying the bird by sound only, a controversial practice in some circles but accepted by the American Birding Association.

Black and White Warbler 4-27-09

I finally see my little black and white warbler perched in a tree singing to me. For the rest of the week I will recognize his “wheezy, wheezy” call wherever I go. As the week goes on I will face a new dilemma for me: do I count birds that I have heard but not seen, or only birds I have seen. It has never been a question for me before, since I am only just learning to bird by ear and all the bird calls I know are of birds I have already seen.

Photographer's Note: Many thanks to Bird Girl, Barbara, From My Bird Tales for the photos of me holding the Lincoln's sparrow. All of the rest of the photos we taken by Kathiesbirds with the Nikon D80 and the 70 to 300mm lens.

These are the birds seen on my first day of the New River Birding and Nature Festival at the Opossum Creek Retreat and Nature Trail. Life Birds* are listed in red:
  1. Black Vulture
  2. Turkey Vulture
  3. Red-tailed hawk
  4. Ruby-throated hummingbird
  5. Pileated woodpecker
  6. Eastern Phoebe
  7. Blue-headed vireo*
  8. Red-eyed vireo
  9. Blue jay
  10. American Crow
  11. Carolina chickadee
  12. Tufted titmouse
  13. White-breasted nuthatch
  14. Carolina Wren
  15. Blue-gray gnatcatcher
  16. Hermit Thrush
  17. Wood Thrush
  18. Eastern Bluebird
  19. American robin
  20. Northern Parula*
  21. Black-throated blue warbler*
  22. Black and white warbler*
  23. Ovenbird
  24. Hooded warbler*
  25. Scarlet Tananger
  26. Eastern Towhee
  27. Field Sparrow
  28. Lincoln's sparrow
  29. White-throated sparrow
  30. Northern Cardinal
  31. Brown-headed cowbird
  32. American goldfinch


Anonymous said...

What a lovely experience Kathie to be able to hold a bird in your hand like that.

Deborah Godin said...

I've not banded a bird, but have hand-captured dazed and confused birds that occasionally flew into my neighbor's open windows. There is no thrill or priviledge quite like holding and releasing a small bird!

Gaelyn said...

Oh Kathie, what an honor to hold the little sparrow and then set if free. I love the Black and White Warbler. This is an awesome trip. I need to get better at identifying birds by sound. But I have to laugh at the idea of "disagreement" about identifying by sound. I can see, or is that hear, calling the birds in, but it does seem like cheating.
Another great post. Can't wait for more.

Kathie Brown said...

Roy, it was aboslutley marvelous!

Deborah, you are so right.

Gaelyn, our guides were descrete with the use of the ipods and I must admit that I really did enjoy seeing the birds when they came. It does prevent large crowds of people tromping though their habitat, so I suppose you can look at it that way.

As for the listing controversy, that has to do with people who keep a Life List of all the bird species they have seen. Some only count birds they have seen, others count birds that they have heard also. One blogger out there is only adding birds to his life list that he has actrually photographed! He is more dedicated than I am. I am considering only counting "seen" species but it does get difficult with night species or skulkers like the Swainson's warbler, owls and rails. In order to see night species you have to shine flashlights on them and in order to see rails you often have to flush them from the reeds, which is distressing to the birds also. So, maybe counting a bird when you hear its call isn't so bad after all. I may do like many others where I keep a seperate list of heard birds and seen birds.

SandyCarlson said...

That must be an extraordinary experience! Your photos re wonderful.

Lynne at Hasty Brook said...

One of my fondest memories of the festival is of your sweet face releasing that sparrow. The joy and wonder was crackling in the air.

Its Time to Live said...

...and you didn't even invite me! Not really, great experience. Thanks.

DeniseinVA said...

Wonderful post, you can just feel your joy in the photos of you with that little sparrow. What an incredible experience that must have been.

Larry said...

Wow-You really hit the big time there! I would love to experience some of those birds in hand.

kesslerdee said...

A wonderful, wonderful post- thanks so much for sharing!

Anonymous said...

Oh how nice! That sure is a great experience, isn't it?
Great post!
Cheers, Klaus

Heather said...

Kathie, what a delight to watch you releasing that sparrow. I can't remember who else of the Flock posted pictures of you doing that, but I could feel your joy just from looking at the pictures.
You mentioned Jim McCormac - I will be meeting him for the first time this weekend when I go on my Birding by Ear trip to the Wilds. I look forward to it, he sounds like a great guy!
It sounds like the iPods and BirdJams were out in full force at the festival to call the birds in. I'm still not sure how I fell about the whole issue, but I did got to a Woodcock watch earlier this spring where the naturalist used the iPod heavily to call the bird in, and we probably would not have seen it otherwise, so....

Doug Taron said...

Kathie, that's such a great series of photos of you releasing the bird. I love the feeling of being totally immersed in the moment when I'm off at some fabulous location working with insects. I can see be the expression on your face that you were having a similar moment here. I would have loved to be part of this event. Thanks for sharing it with your readers.

Doug Taron said...

P.S. My plans for my summer trip to Arizona are beginning to come together.

Mary said...

Actually, I think watching you release the sparrow was a highlight of my week. I gave you a standing ovation, you know.


Kelly said... a fabulous and detailed post! Very enjoyable. I really liked the little Lincoln's Sparrow. He would have been a lifter for me. Looks like releasing the sparrow was very special to you (looks fun too!).

Amila Salgado said...

When releasing birds, I have been taught to hold them closer to the ground and release to prevent them falling down to ground. This is to prevent them from crashing to ground if they are having their wings injured during the process of ringing (happens when amateurs are involved - especially at extracting!).

I know it feels good to have an expert identifying birds you are seeing. Trying to identify birds you are not familiar with in a new location is quite exciting too. I think it sharpens your birding skills.

Congrats on all those lifers!
Great post, Kathie.

Celeste said...

What a wonderful day and five 'lifers' for you too, what could be better? I loved the sequence of you releasing the sparrow, what a truly special moment.

Quiet Paths said...

Fantastic post. What a very singular experience that must have been.