The American Bald Eagle

The national symbol of the United States is a bird that commonly frequents the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, especially in the winter. That bird is the American Bald Eagle. The Bald Eagle is the only eagle that is unique to North America.

As I write this, I am sitting in the Visitors’ Station in the River “S” Unit of the Ridgfield NWR. In looking out the rear window, I can see an Eagle’s nest about 400 yards away from me between Lake River and the last part of the Auto Tour Route. Two adult eagles are perching there, one on the nest and the other on a branch supporting the nest. This, no doubt, is the same breeding pair that raised two eaglets in that same nest last year.

As a greeter for a number of years at the River “S” Unit of the refuge, the most frequent questions asked about birds are in reference to Bald Eagles. One of those questions is in regards to eagle’s nests on the refuge and their locations. We are fortunate at the refuge to have from six to eight active eagle nests each year. Several of these nests are visible to the general public, as the one behind the Visitors’ Kiosk. The others are in protected areas away from human contact. It is interesting to note that the number of active eagles’ nest in the lower 48 United States has increased 22-fold, from less than 450 in the early 1960’s to close to 10,000 active nests now. No doubt the reason for this tremendous increase was that in 1967 the American Bald Eagle was declared an endangered species. It was only on June 28, 2007 that the Interior Department took it off the endangered species list. The Bald Eagle will still be protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

The Bald Eagle’s scientific name is Haliaeetus leucocephalus. This name signifies a sea (halo) eagle (aeetos) with a white (leukos) head. At one time, the word “bald” meant “white,” not hairless. About half of the world’s 70,000 Bald Eagles live in Alaska and 20,000 of them live in British Columbia. The northwest coast of North America is by far their greatest stronghold and the primary reason is because of the salmon.

The female Bald Eagle is larger than the male. She has a body length of around 3 feet. and a wingspread of more than seven feet. Her male counterpart is about a half of foot smaller in both height and wingspread. It takes about five years for Bald Eagles to become sexually mature and for their head and tail feathers to become white. Until that time they are a mixture of brown and white with the young Bald Eagles having a black beak. Sometimes the juvenile Bald Eagle is confused with the Golden Eagle and many sightings of “Golden Eagles” have turned out to be juvenile Bald Eagles. A young bald eagle has more white mottled into its coloration overall than the Golden Eagle; a golden eagle is more solid in color, and its beak is more blue-black with a nearly black tip. Bald Eagles live in the wild for around 30 years. They mate for life although if one dies the survivor will not hesitate to accept a new mate. The eagle’s eye is about the same size as a human eye although its sharpness is four times as great as a person who has perfect vision.

Bald Eagles build their nests in large trees near rivers or coasts. A typical nest is around 5 feet in diameter. Eagles often use the same nest year after year. Over the years, some nests become enormous, as much as 9 feet in diameter, weighing close to two tons. In this area of the northwest, eggs are usually laid in March. One to three eggs are usual. The parents incubate the eggs for 35 days and the duties are shared, with the female spending most of the time on the nest. The young eagles (eaglets) grow rapidly and add one pound to their body weight every four-five days. They take their first flight 10-13 weeks after hatching. It is interesting that 40% of young eagles do not survive their first flight.

For much more detailed information about eagles and their nesting habits, the raising of their young, migration, and so much more go the web site www.baldeagleinfo.com. In my view, this is one of the best sites with the most concise information that I have seen on Bald Eagles.

Bald Eagles are common at the refuge in the winter. Listen for the shrill, high pitched call, and the twittering that are common vocalizations of the Bald Eagle. Notice a flock of geese, all of a sudden, erupting into the sky and chances are that an eagle is flying by. Find a good field guide, like Sibley’s, and study the five-year changing coloration patterns as an immature eagle becomes an adult. Find an active Eagle’s nest and observe the care and maintenance that the breeding pair will put into the nest throughout the year and finally watch the hatching and growth of the eaglets through the spring and early summer months.

Come and enjoy the Bald Eagles of Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge.

Some of the more unusual and rare birds that have been seen this past month are Snow Goose, Trumpeter Swan, Eurasian Wigeon, Canvasback, Redhead, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Peregrine Falcon, California Gull, Barn Owl, Short-eared Owl, Pileated Woodpecker, Black Phoebe, Northern Shrike, Varied Thrush, and Pine Siskin.

Note: All of the pictures on the Refuge Ramblings are my own. Anyone interested in more of these pictures see www.WindemuthPhotography.com

Posted in Uncategorized

They’re Back!

They’re back!   For the last several weeks, one could not help but notice the large white birds that were feeding on Rest and Schwartz Lakes or flying overhead sounding their unmistakable high-pitched honking calls. The Tundra Swans are back!

They have returned from spending the last six/seven months in the Arctic breeding and raising their young. The Tundra Swan’s breeding range spans most of the Arctic and sub-Arctic tundra from Bristol Bay, Alaska, north along the Bering Sea coast, the Arctic Ocean east to Baffin Island, and south to the northwest coast of Quebec. The female tundra swan builds a large stick nest lined with moss and grasses on islands or hummocks found near lakes, ponds or marshes.  There she lays around 4-6 eggs.  She incubates them for 32 days while her mate (it is generally believed that Tundra Swans mate for life) guards the nest. The young chicks (cygnets) are protected from the cold and predators such as foxes and jaegers.  They also must be protected from the swarms of voracious Arctic mosquitoes.  If all goes well, the cygnet’s growth rate is very rapid and in September, after about 70 days, their weight may be 28 times the hatching weight.  This growth rate is necessary because by early September the cygnets must be fully feathered and be able to fly long distances.

Tundra swans winter mainly along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of North America, from southern British Columbia to California and from New Jersey to South Carolina. Migration for the Tundra Swans generally begins in September and many times is done in two to three stages, no doubt because of the young who have just begun to fly.  Tundra Swans migrate in family units made up of several families all combining in a single flock. Marshes adjoining the Great Salt Lake begin receiving Tundra Swans in mid-October as we did here at Ridgefield NWR.  They begin to arrive at the Malheur NWR in S. Oregon from mid to late November and the swans are not present in great numbers on the winter grounds adjacent to the San Francisco Bay until early December.

The Tundra Swans spend their winter on the water and sleep afloat.  They are strong and speedy swimmers that take to the air with a running start, clattering across the water’s surface with wings beating. In flight, the rhythmic flapping of the swan’s wings produces a tone that once earned it the name “whistling swan”.  They feed by dipping their heads under water to nibble on aquatic plants, roots and tubers.

The Tundra Swans can be from  4 ft to 5 ft in length with wingspread up to 5 1/2 ft.  In the wild they can live up to 20 years.

Many times the Trumpeter Swan is confused with the Tundra Swan.  The Trumpeter Swan is a little larger, has a deeper, trumpet quality to its call, has no yellow on its bill (although 10% of the Tundra Swans have no yellow either), has its eyes more broadly connected to the bill than the Tundra, and has a longer straighter bill.  Please see the Sibley pictures on the left comparing the Tundra Swan (left) and the Trumpeter Swan (right).  Even though there are exceptions to the above, it is probably safe to say, at least at Ridgefield NWR, that the swan that you see there is a Tundra Swan. The Trumpeter is an infrequent visitor.

Come out to the refuge and enjoy the beautiful, graceful Tundra Swans.  While you are there, notice the thousands of other waterfowl and geese covering the lakes and fields, all making a splendid cacophony of sounds.

Some of the unusual/rare birds that were sighted this past month are the Snow Goose, Eurasian Wigeon, Redhead, Sharp-shinned and Red-shouldered Hawks, Merlin, Baird’s Sandpiper, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Dunlin, California Gull, Barn Owl, Short-eared Owl, Black Phoebe, Northern Shrike, White-throated Sparrow, Evening Grosbeak, and the very rare Common Redpoll.

Posted in Ramblings

The Changing of the Guard at the Refuge

It’s Autumn time at the refuge!  And once again, it’s the changing of the guard.  We say good bye to the friends of summer and welcome back our old friends of fall and winter.  Late summer and autumn is migration time and the face of the refuge is changing.

Not only will the leaves be turning red and gold, but the lakes, ponds, and wetlands will again be filling, hiding the mud and plants that were exposed during the dry summer.  The ducks and geese will again be covering the skies and many parts of the grasslands.  The refuge will have a fresh new look, completely different from just a few short weeks ago.

Migration is an interesting phenomenon,  At whatever moment, throughout the year, day or night, there are birds wending their way high in the skies of the Western Hemisphere, migrating.  But it is in the spring and fall, when the continent’s sky is swarming with billions of birds, that migration becomes apparent even to the most unobservant.  And yet, not all migration of birds is done by wing.  When the first winter snow comes, the Blue Grouse leave the warmer foothills of the Western mountains and migrate, by foot, up to the bitter wind-driven cold of the high country, searching for a diet of conifer needles.

Among our migrating summer refuge birds, the Rufous Hummingbird is one of our smallest visitors. We don’t see these birds every day, so even in the summer it is listed as unusual. It is the feistiest hummingbird in North America and it breeds farther north (Alaska) than any other hummingbird.  It migrates south along the mountain ridges to its traditional winter home in northern and central Mexico. But, more and more over the last quarter of a century, these little tykes are finding their way to the southwest and many places east of the Mississippi. Before this time it was unheard of to find a Rufous in any of these locations.

Another distinctive, migrating, summer bird seen at the refuge is the Yellow-headed Blackbird.  Its brilliant yellow head together with its loud rusty-hinge call makes this a conspicuous bird during the spring/summer at the refuge. It is less cold-tolerant than its cousin, the Red-winged Blackbird, and retreats farther southward. Yellow-headed Blackbirds leave most of their breeding areas and occupy a winter range that stretches from the extreme southwestern United States to central Mexico.  At the refuge this year, it seemed as if they began their migration a few weeks early as the last one was seen on July 20.

Among our winter refuge birds, the Canada Goose, a.k.a. the Cackling Goose is the most numerous and, because of its numbers, the most vocal of our winter birds.  At one time the Cackling Goose was a sub-species, along with ten other sub-species of the Canada Goose, but since 2004, it can boast that it, along with three other sub-species is now its own species, collectively called Cackling Goose.  Cackling Geese breed in western Alaska along a narrow strip of coastline primarily between the Yukon and the Kuskokwim Rivers.  They generally migrate to the Pacific Northwest in winter. In fact, it was this past week, September 24 -26 that they made their first appearance at the refuge—around three weeks earlier than usual!

I have only mentioned a few of the many migrants that spend a few months each year enjoying the Ridgefield Refuge, whether it be summer or winter.  Of course, though, there are a number of birds that enjoy the refuge year around as permanent residents, but that’s another story.

Come out this fall and notice the changing populations of the refuge.  Notice also the colors of fall.  This is the time of year when the refuge is on display.

Some of the unusual and rare birds that were seen this past month are Greater White-fronted Goose, Green Heron, Black-crowned Night Heron, Red-shouldered Hawk, Merlin, Semipalmated Plover, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Stilt Sandpiper, Red-necked Phalarope, Barn Owl, Black-throated Gray Warbler, Lazuli Bunting.

Posted in Ramblings

Shorebirds

This is the time of year when shorebirds are becoming more attracted to Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, and at times, in a big way.  The lakes and ponds at the refuge are now dwindling in size with mudflats taking their place.  It is from this time through October/November that shorebirds will be a common sight at the refuge.

Least Sandpiper

In North America there are at least 50 types of shorebirds that frequent its shores and mudflats.  This does not include the vagrants that are blown off course by storms and high winds.  They range in size from the small 6” Least Sandpiper to the largest 24” Long-billed Curlew. (This year Ridgefield NWR was host to both of these birds!)  Although some classifications differ,  shorebirds generally include Sandpipers, Godwits, Jacanas, Stilts, Oystercatchers, and Plovers.

Long-billed Curlew

Shorebirds are found throughout North America primarily along the edges of bodies of water.  Some prefer salt water and can be found along sandy and rocky beaches and mudflats.  There are others that will be found feeding in salt water and fresh water, depending on the season.  There are also a few that generally will be found in grassy pastures away from bodies of water.

 

Black Oystercatcher

Food sources for shorebirds are similar.  They feed on insects, aquatic invertebrates, mollusks and small fish.  Most walk(run) along shores and mudflats probing for food with their thin sensitive bills. The length of the bill varies considerably so differing species can work the same shore and obtain different food supplies.  They also sort themselves into preferred feeding habitats. Least Sandpipers feed on insects in drier marsh mud while dowitchers probe the substrate in shallow water for mullusks.  At the same time the yellowlegs feed in deeper water, snatching small fish from the surface.  At times, though, you will find many of the dowitchers and yellowlegs competing with the peeps (small sandpipers) for their food supplies in the marsh mud of the shoreline.

Long-billed Dowitchers

Shorebirds are some of the most difficult birds to identify.  Because of their closeness in coloration and size, some species are very difficult to tell apart except for their calls.  Most species will change colors dramatically from the breeding season to the dull, drab colors of fall and winter when it becomes especially difficult to properly identify separate species.

Solitary Sandpiper

Ridgefield NWR is fortunate to have at least 15 species of shorebirds that come to the refuge on a regular basis each year.  Some of the more common ones are the Least and Western Sandpipers, the Greater Yellowlegs, the Long-billed Dowitcher, the Killdeer and the Wilson’s Snipe.  Perhaps a little less common are the Pectoral and Solitary Sandpipers, Dunlin, and the Lesser Yellowlegs. Then, of course, from year to year, there are always the rare and accidental shorebirds that stop in for awhile and cause a lot of birding excitement.  Among these quite rare, accidental ones that have shown up at the refuge over the last year have been the Long-billed Curlew, American Golden Plover, and the Sanderling.

Lesser Yellowlegs

Next time you come to the refuge, look out on the mudflats with a good pair of binoculars and check out the shorebirds that no doubt will be there.  See how many you can find and compare that with the Weekly Bird Sightings List on the web at http://www.ridgefieldfriends.org/bird-sightings-last-week.php.

Some of the other uncommon/rare birds that were seen this past month at the refuge are the Redhead, Horned Grebe, American White Pelican, Red-shouldered Hawk, Semipalmated Plover, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Black Phoebe, Warbling Vireo and Lazuli Bunting.

 

Posted in Ramblings

The Original Colonists–Purple Martins

Over the last year or so, anyone visiting the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge during the spring and summer months would no doubt have noticed, upon crossing the river, a tall metal pole, about 100 feet from the road, having eight white gourds hanging from the pole’s cross members.  These gourds were put there specifically a little over a year ago to house nesting Purple Martins.  This spring is the first time that the Purple Martins are actively using these gourds and many notice the gurgling and chortling greeting upon crossing the bridge and entering into the refuge.

This pole, with its accompanying gourds, is only one of six Purple Martin housing colonies that the Ridgefield NWR staff/volunteers maintain and monitor during the spring and summer months. The other poles and gourds are located in areas inaccessible to the general public on Bachelor Island and the Roth Unit.

Purple Martins are the largest member of the swallow family in North America measuring 7 ½ inches.  The adult male’s entire body color is a blue-black, except for a few white feathers “hidden” under the wings.  The females look a little different being dark on the back with gray mottled undersides.

The Purple Martins are native to North America but spend their non-breeding season in Brazil.   Purple Martins adults return traditionally as warm weather returns, generally in the early part of April.  Typically, adults return to their previous successful homesites.  Adult martins are followed by many waves of younger birds, or subadults aproximately six weeks after the adults show up. These subadults are the martins which colonize the gourds.  In the eastern part of the United States the martins are totally dependent on human-supplied housing, in fact, there are over one million North American landlords hosting colonies of Purple Martins.  West of the Rockies and in the deserts they largely nest in their ancestral ways, in abandoned woodpecker nest cavities. In the Pacific Northwest, though, as at Ridgefield NWR, the Martins are beginning to use gourds for nesting.

The male and female both work at building the nest out of mud, grass, and twigs.  The female lays two to seven pure-white eggs, incubates them for about 15 days at which time the young hatch. Both parents feed the young continuously for up to 30 days until the young fledge.  Martins, like all swallows are aerial insectivores.  They eat only flying insects which they catch in flight. Since Martins feed only on flying insects, they are extremely vulnerable to starvation during extended periods of cool and/or rainy weather.

Purple Martins have a normal lifespan of about five to seven years with many reaching nine to 10 years.  Because of the long distances they have to fly during migration, the death rate for Martins is high, although the total population seems to remain fairly stable. One of the reasons for this stability is because of the tremendous help that many North Americans give by providing housing for the Martins.

There are several of us volunteers who put up the gourds in the early part of April and then clean them out and take them down in the fall.  Sometimes when we are a little late putting the gourds up, we hear the bubbling and chortling of the waiting Martins flying overhead of us, seeming to say, “Thank you, thank you, but it’s sure about time you got those gourds up!”

Come out to the refuge and be welcomed at the entrance by our bubbly refuge ambassadors, the Purple Martins.  Or, if you are interested in hosting your own colonies, spend a little time on the web where there is a wealth of information on hosting and maintaining colonies of Purple Martins. A good site to begin your education is sponsored by the Purple Martin Society of North America.

Some of the more unusual birds that were seen this past month at the Ridgefield NWR were the Redhead, Common Merganser, Horned Grebe, Eared Grebe, American White Pelican, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, Peregrine Falcon, Solitary Sandpiper, Caspian Tern, Black Tern, Band-tailed Pigeon, Barn Owl, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Cassin’s Vireo, Warbling Vireo, Bank Swallow, Nashville Warbler, MacGillivray’s Warbler, and the Lazuli Bunting.

Posted in Ramblings

The Well-camouflaged Bittern

It’s been a few months since I wrote my last “Ramblings” for the Ridgefield Friends Newsletter-December to be exact.  My wife and I have been enjoying the warm climes and terrific birding of Southern Arizona (close to Madera Canyon, south of Tucson).  I was able to see a number of great birds there although I only saw one “lifer” this time around, the Streaked-back Oriole (you can read about this find on my blog, Arizona Birding). When we first went to Arizona, some years ago, I had a whole page of lifers—now, only one (I’m sure birders everywhere can identify).

American Bittern skulks through the reeds

It was good to get back to the Ridgefield Refuge, though, seeing some of the old familiar birds, some of these that are quite unfamiliar in SE Arizona, common birds such as the Robin and Crow. One of the birds, though, that I missed seeing in SE Arizona was the American Bittern.  Although it has been seen there, it is rare and transient.  Here, on most good days, especially during mating season, one can see one, two, three, maybe even four of these unique birds along the ditches and wetlands of the refuge.

Bittern "Freezing"

The American Bittern over the years has gone by a variety of popular names based on its unique characteristics.  Depending on where you are and who you are talking to, you can hear such names as bog-hen, stake-driver, dunk-a-do, meadow hen, thunder-pump, barrel maker, plum pudd’n, Indian hen, and many other fantastic names.  Many of these names are descriptive of its appearance, haunts, or weird noises which is the male’s “song” primarily during the mating season.

Other than the mating season, Bitterns don’t usually “say” an awfully lot.  They are usually seen skulking, very deliberately, among the rushes and grasses along the canals and wetlands.  They are not always easy to spot. Most bitterns bear a camouflage pattern—streaks of variegated brown and buff—which enables them to escape detection by standing upright with bill pointed upward, imitating the reeds and grasses of their habitat.  This “freezing” action is especially true when one is startled. They feed upon fish, frogs, crayfish, and other small swamp and marsh animals, which they spear with their sharp-pointed bills. Once in awhile a bittern might even get entangled with a snake–usually with the bittern coming out as the victor.  The only time that bitterns are easy to see is when you may see one flying across a pond or marsh.

During the mating and nesting season, you will probably hear one before you see it.  You will hear the male vocalizing his peculiar “love song” sometimes audible for more than a quarter mile–a song likened to an old wooden pump.  If you are fortunate enough to have a good view of the contortions that go along with this song, you are lucky indeed.

Dinner coming up!

Bitterns build a flat nest of grasses and reeds on the ground or on a mat of marsh vegetation deep within the reeds.  The female lays up to seven olive brown/buff eggs and incubates them for about a month managing this entirely by herself. Once the chicks are hatched, they are cared for by both parents. They generally fledge (leave the nest) 25 days after hatching.

The American Bittern is one example of some of the very interesting birds you can find at the refuge. Of course, for me, most birds I find interesting once I take time to study their habits, habitat, and life history.

Some of the unusual and rare birds that have been seen this past month are the Greater White-fronted Goose, Canvasback, Redhead, Horned Grebe, American White Pelican, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Peregrine Falcon, Merlin, Solitary Sandpiper, Red-necked Phalarope, Caspian Tern, Barn Owl, Pileated Woodpecker, Black Phoebe, Hutton’s Vireo, Bank Swallow, Varied Thrush, American Pipit, and Bullock’s Oriole.  Two accidental(real rare) birds seen this past month were two Surf Scoters, and a Long-billed Curlew.

Posted in Ramblings

Arizona Birding

For the last couple of months my wife and I have been in Southeastern Arizona getting away from the cold and rain of the Northwest winter.  For the most part (I would say 98% of the time) we have succeeded, for the days have been sunny, warm (in the 70’s), and altogether blissful.

Elegant Trogan

This is the fourth year that we have been fortunate enough to be able to spend a few months at this particular spot in Arizona called Green Valley—an area that is a great location for birding in southern Arizona.  About ten miles from our townhouse is Madera Canyon, located in the Santa Rita Mountains—for many years now, a world-renown location for bird-watching.  It is a major resting place for migrating birds. With over 256 species of birds documented, it is a “required” site for all serious birders.

Just over the Santa Ritas, east, is Patagonia and Sonoita Creek, another one of the “best” bird watching havens in the Southwest. This lush riparian area provides habitat for over 200 species of birds, among them are the Elegant Trogon, Black-capped Gnatcatcher, Gray Hawk, the Zone-tailed Hawk and occasionally the Common Black-Hawk.

Green Kingfisher

Just a little further east is Sierra Vista, Fort Huachuca, Ramsey Canyon, and a host of other canyons and grasslands that are sacrosanct to people who love birds (It was several years ago at Sierra Vista on the San Pedro River that I saw my first Green Kingfisher pictured here). And, I haven’t even begun to mention the areas west of us  at Green valley, like the rippling grasslands of the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, 118,000 acres of habitat supporting the preservation of the Masked Bobwhite Quail, the Pronghorn Antelope, and other endangered wildlife.  This is truly one of the great areas for finding many species of sparrows.

Vermilion Flycatcher

In comparison to the Northwest, the SE Arizona desert/mountainous habitat is a completely different world.  But it is that very difference which brings its own beauty and mystery. These mountainous areas southeast of Tucson are collectively known as the Sky Island Region.  This region of southeastern Arizona is one of the most biologically diverse areas in North America, where the temperate and tropical zones meet, and North America’s two major deserts converge. Here, more species of mammals, birds, reptiles, bees and ants are found than any other place in the country!  From giant saguaro cacti of the Sonoran desert to shady conifer forests at nearly 9,000 feet, one passes biological diversity equivalent to a drive from Mexico to Canada in just 27 miles.

Least Grebe

Of course, the part that intrigues me the most is the unique bird populations that inhabit this region.  There are over 20 U.S. species that limit their range to just this region—you just don’t see these birds in other parts of the U.S.  Among them are birds such as the Elegant Trogon, Arizona Woodpecker, Mexican Jay, Bridled Titmouse, Yellow-eyed Junco, Broad-billed Hummingbird, and Least Grebe.  I have been fortunate to see many of these birds along with other rare ones and have tried to photographed all I have seen.  You will notice that several of them are pictured in this blog. For others please see my website at www. LumiscapePhotography.com

Yellow-eyed Junco

There are other birds, while not necessarily limited to this area that are target birds for birders when they come to this region.  Birds like the Montezuma Quail, Painted Redstart, Rose-throated Becard, Gray Hawk, etc.

But the real joy, for me, is finding the rarities that are seldom ever seen in the U.S. and very rare even in Arizona.  One of these is the Streaked-back Oriole which I saw just a few weeks ago in Tubac, a little town just south of us.  The Streak-backed Oriole, Icterus pustulatus, is a medium-sized icterid (the same family as many blackbirds, meadowlarks,, grackles, etc.)  It is primarily found on the west coast of Mexico and also in Costa Rica.  It is a very, very rare visitor in the Southwestern United States.

Streaked-back Oriole

It was the Arizona-New Mexico Birding ListServ on the internet where I first noticed that a Streaked-backed Oriole had just been spotted not too far from Tubac.  Since we were staying only a few miles from there, I jumped in my car and raced to the location mentioned in the directions: on the Santa Cruz River one-fourth mile north of the Santa Cruz River bridge on Bridge Road.  Not familiar with Bridge Road, I had had to get a map from the internet to show me the location of this road and the bridge crossing the river.  The directions said to use the De Anza Trail which parallels the Santa Cruz River.  This I found without too much difficulty. It was only after finding the trail that the difficulty began.  Walking north on the De Anza Trail, a well used path through some heavy brush and tall cottonwood trees, was not too bad, but determining a fourth of a mile was not easy.  After walking what I thought was that distance, I found that I was a hundred feet, at least, from the river. Determining that I had to get to the river in order to find the bird, I set out through the heavy brush, downed trees, gullies and the like.  On the way to the river, I found several other birders, perspiring freely, also trying to find this illusive oriole.  Finally after reaching the river, I had to decide whether to go right or left along the bank.  To make a long story short, after an hour of trudging back and forth, meeting a number of other birders, using the password, “have you seen the oriole?” I was finally led to the spot where several birders were gathered looking across the river into a tall tree.  This is where I saw the Streaked-back Oriole, flitting back and fourth from branch to branch. It was exciting, it was stimulating, and I wanted to shout as loud as I could to all the others that were still looking for it, “Here it is!”  I didn’t. Rather I just enjoyed, quietly, a rapturous moment that only a birder can realize after finding a rare bird for the first time. By the way, I did have my camera and took several pictures of the Oriole, although it was at a distance, so the pictures are not the best.

Rufous-capped Warbler

I’ve had several of those moments here in southern Arizona when I’ve found other rare birds.  Rare birds like the Rufous-capped Warbler that I saw and photographed in Florida Canyon (right next to Madera Canyon), the Least Grebe (seen and photographed at Pena Blanca Lake just north of Nogales, Mexico), the Rufous-backed Robin, (seen and photographed just south of Tubac), and others. Those are moments that I cherish and I look forward to more of them.  I hope that you also have enjoyed some of these types of experiences.  If not, it’s not too late. I encourage you, if you have not done so lately, to get your binoculars and get out there birding.  Who knows what rare bird you may find!

Posted in Ramblings Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Snowy Owl Irruption includes Ridgefield

This past December, visitors at Ridgefield NWR were thrilled to see a rare visitor from the Arctic visiting the refuge.  Birding records for the refuge have no listing of the Snowy Owl, so it was with a mixture of awe and excitement that many of us viewed this rarity sitting placidly across the road from Rest Lake.

This Snowy Owl was part of a general “irruption” taking place throughout the Northwest and many other northern states.  It sounds like ‘eruption’ but it’s an ‘irruption’ and it’s providing countless thrills for bird lovers throughout the northern states. An irruption is defined as a dramatic, irregular migration of large numbers of birds to areas where they aren’t typically found, possibly at a great distance from their normal ranges.

And now, the Snowy Owls are irrupting.  Rarely do they come this far south from their nesting grounds in the Arctic, but sightings reports have come in from many locations in Washington and other northern states.  Apparently, the cause of this influx is a dearth of their favorite food in the arctic, the lemming.  That, of course, is not good news for local voles, mice and other small creatures that are the favorite food source for our local raptors.

The Snowy Owl is the largest North American Owl, and one of the largest owls in the world.  They can have a wing span of over five feet with males taking second place in the size department.  The males also have fewer dark markings than do the females. Snowy Owls hunt for food by hovering in the air looking for prey.  They also watch from a perch. Like all owls, their eyes are enormous in proportion to their head, taking up most of the skull.  Owls cannot move their eyes, so they must turn their entire head to change their line of vision.  They have 14 neck vertebrae, and so they can swivel their head an amazing 270 degrees!  They can literally see behind themselves.

Most Snowy Owls are not completely snowy white.  They range from all white to having dark prominent bars all over, except on their faces which are always white. You can see these different markings on the pictures I have included with this blog. These are pictures I took at Ocean Shores, WA, several years ago during another less intensive irruption. The Snowy Owl also has small “ear tuffs” like some other owls, including our own Great Horned Owl witch has much larger tuffs.  These tuffs have nothing to do with the owl’s ears as they are much lower and more forward.

No one can tell just how long this irruption is going to last, but if you haven’t yet had the chance to see a Snowy Owl in the wild, take the opportunity if you hear of one being sighted near you, even if you have to drive a few miles.  I’m betting you won’t be sorry.

By the way, the last blog I posted,  “Rarer than Rare,” listing all of the rare/accidental birds seen at the refuge this past year, was hardly out of the chute when the Snowy Owl appeared at the refuge.  It would have taken one of the first place positions of accidental birds seen at the refuge!

Posted in Ramblings

Rarer than Rare

Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge has been blessed over this past year with rare bird-migrants that have caused quite a stir in the birding community.  Of course any stir in the birding community initiated at the Ridgefield NWR results in many visitors coming to the refuge in search of these rarities.  Four of these rare birds were seen on the River “S” Unit of the refuge and three were seen at the Carty Unit.  These seven birds that are mentioned below are even rarer than rare at Ridgefield NWR according to the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge Wildlife Checklist. They are either not listed at all or are listed as accidental.  To be clear, I should mention that many of these birds are not necessarily rare to the birding community at large, but are rare to this particular area whether it be the refuge, county, or state.  Also, it should be noted that all of these birds were seen in the refuge areas that are accessible to the general public.

Ridgefield Black Phoebe

Two of these seven birds were seen last winter.  A Barnacle Goose was sighted for several days last February on Rest Lake.  There is still some discussion as to whether this goose was a released goose or not although there are some strong indicators that show that it was a wild goose.  Also, last winter a Black Phoebe (or possibly two) was seen around markers 5-8.  These phoebe(s), with one or two more who came and stayed, built two nests (one nest was used twice) and hatched eight or more young (These Black Phoebe nests are Washington records).  There are still sightings of these Black Phoebes on the refuge, although most of these sightings come from Bachelor Island, the location of the nests.

In the spring there were three more birds seen, all at the Carty Unit, none of which are listed in the refuge checklist.  These were the Northern Saw-whet Owl, the Gray Flycatcher and the Hermit Warbler.  Each of these birds was seen several times.

Two more birds listed as accidental were seen this fall.  One was the American Golden Plover that was seen on the Kiwa Trail a couple of times.  The other one, which I mentioned in my last Ramblings, was the Vermilion Flycatcher.  The Vermilion Flycatcher was a young female that stayed around markers 10 & 11 for four weeks beginning the middle of October.  She stayed long enough to give the many people who came to the refuge especially to see this bird plenty of time to catch a view of this real rarity to the Northwest.

Black-throated Sparrow

One other bird, not recorded on the refuge checklist, was seen for a couple of days this past summer on the refuge’s Bachelor Island, a non-public area.  This bird was the Black-throated Sparrow—a bird that is commonly associated with the deserts of the southwest.

Even though I have gone to the refuge and travelled around the auto tour route hundreds of times, I still get a tinge of excitement before I start around again wondering what new, rare or unusual bird I will see this time.  If you haven’t felt that excitement lately, it’s time that you come back to the refuge and see what you can see.

Some of the interesting, unusual, and rare birds that have been seen at the refuge this past six weeks are: Greater White-fronted Goose, Snow Goose, Eurasian Wigeon, Canvasback, Common Goldeneye, Horned Grebe, White-tailed Kite, Red-shouldered Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, Merlin, Peregrine Falcon, Dunlin, Mew Gull, Barn Owl, Short-eared Owl, Pileated Woodpecker, Vermilion Flycatcher, Black Phoebe, & Townsend’s Warbler.

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The Thanksgiving Turkey

Excited Wild Turkey

Even though there are a number of people who don’t eat turkey on Thanksgiving, yet when we think of this special day, the turkey stands out as the classic symbol for good eating for both Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Throughout the history of the United States, the turkey has stood out as an important member of the bird family, in fact the turkey, if Benjamin Franklin could have had his way, would have become the national bird instead of the Bald Eagle.

The wild turkey is a distinct-looking bird, with its large size, its iridescent brown feathers, and its gray head and neck which turns a striking shade of red, white or blue when it becomes excited or distressed.  The turkey, as well as the peacock, uses his feathers to attract a mate.  In the spring, male turkeys, also called “Tom Turkeys” or “Gobblers” puff up their bodies, spread their tail feathers and strut around shaking these feathers letting out grunts or gobbles every so often.  This “Turkey Trot” is for attracting as many hens as possible for mates.  The Tom Turkey is not monogamous by any means!

The hen after mating prepares a nest under a bush in the woods and lays up to 18 tan and speckled brown eggs.  She will incubate these eggs for close to a month when they hatch into poults.  It will be another two weeks before the poults can fly.  The immature turkeys will stay with the mom for up to a full year.  During this whole time, the male does his own thing, not helping at all with the raising of the young.  His job was complete after mating.

Most people seldom eat wild turkeys.  It is the domestic variety that is the main attraction for the Thanksgiving dinner.  The domestic turkey’s weight is generally double the weight of its wild relative, and because of its weight, the domesticated turkey by and large cannot fly.

The pictures I have on this page are of wild turkeys that I have photographed.  Most of my turkey  photographs I took on my way to Glenwood, Washington. This is a trip I take, at least, once a year in the fall capturing the glorious colors of the aspen and cottonwood that show up during that time.  On the way, many times I run across bands of wild turkeys.   One day I followed one of these bands into an orchard.  I lost them there, but remembered I had my IPod with me which had the Tom Turkey Gobble on it.  I played this for a minute or so and soon had the whole group of turkeys(about 15) charging at me being led by a very large Gobbler, tail feathers distended and gobbling for all he was worth.  I quickly turned off my IPod and very soon the group quieted down.  It was only then, after taking some deep breaths, that I started taking pictures—from my car window.

Whether we have turkey or not for Thanksgiving dinner, may we all remember what we are truly thankful for and possibly we could all share that with at least one other person.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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