Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Spring is an exciting time of year for birds…the breeding season.

There are excitable boys all over Wisconsin right now, sporting their brightest feather coats of the year.  The Ruby-crowned Kinglet has to be one of the most excited.  His head looks to be on fire.

Fast, tiny and extremely restless, the Ruby-crowned Kinglet flits through the branches in search of miniscule flying insects and aphids. You can’t see what he’s catching…assume something, though, for the vast amount of energy he’s expending. His landing points are best described as launching platforms to someplace else.

I spent an hour sitting on the rocks of a tiny tributary to Trinity Creek with my neighbor Ralph Nowicki…cameras ready.  We stared into the thicket as a half dozen male and female Ruby-crowned Kinglets zigzagged before us.  The activity was furious…the pictures few.

In spring the competition for mates is on. Ruby-crowned Kinglets choose a different partner each year.  For the male the process involves flashing his ruby crown to impress a female and intimidate a rival. The display is quick and effective.  Males face off to display to one other for the briefest of moments, followed by a short chase.  They’ll repeat this display/chase routine in a different location of the same thicket again later. One eventually wins, I assume.

Following a Ruby-crowned Kinglet through the thicket is an exercise in frustration.  Expecting him to sit still for a picture only compounds your exasperation.  Picture a hummingbird with way too much caffeine and you’ll understand its fidgetiness.

He flashes his ruby crown only when he wants to be seen.  With his crown hidden, he blends nicely into the background.  Olive-green overall with only a short white wing bar for accent, hiding is no problem for the Ruby-crowned Kinglet.

For such a tiny bird he has an unusually robust range of songs.  Chattering and chipping in the thicket you might guess he wants to be found…more likely he wants to play a game with you…a game requiring incredible patience on your part.


Friday, April 26, 2013


Fairly common on coastal beaches and marshes, the Willet is a rather stocky, stout billed shorebird in shades of gray to dun.  Wading into depths his long legs can manage, he searchs for aquatic animals, small fish and spiders.  Being able to detect prey with a sensitive bill tip makes feeding both day and night possible.  When brooding eggs, the male usually takes the night shift while the female forages.

Being drab and colorless serves them well when nesting or head-down in the sand. When they take flight though, they transform into slender, sleek showy birds. 

With their boldly striped wings spread out in flight, they become graceful acrobatic flyers...streamlined and curvy.

Although mainly a shoreline bird they are often seen inland, too. There are presently reports of Willets in Green Bay, La Crosse and Waukesha, Wisconsin. A mudflat or marsh would be the best  place to look for them.

Whether flying or resting, males and females look alike.  Even in their breeding season their color transition is only from medium gray to a mottled dun color. 

If you’re lucky and find a flock of Willets, either onshore or inland, have some patience and wait until they rise into the air.  The flock puts on a striking air show.


Monday, April 22, 2013

Ruddy Turnstone

Ruddy Turnstones foraging at the water’s rocky edge claim what the waves brings in. Claiming it quickly, then retreating ahead of the next wave. Foraging in blind rock crevices, they have to be fast and possess a keen sense of timing to stay dry…they rarely lose.

Living on aquatic invertebrates and insects, Ruddy Turnstones form small flocks for mutual benefit.  Slippery rocks are not a problem for the Ruddy Turnstone.  Surefooted, they trot and jump in the rocks, appearing randomly like pop-up toys.

I was with Lou Skrabec, an experienced birder. It was getting late.  The sun was low on this second day of April and we had just started back.  We had a mile to walk to our cars when this small group of Ruddy Turnstones appeared on the rocks in good light and near-full breeding colors.  Aware of us, but unconcerned, they accepted us as no-threat as they patrolled the quarter mile long walls that make up the Murrells Inlet jetty. 

Prying nourishment from these rocks would seem a difficult task, but with their uniquely shaped upturned bill they skillfully wedge food loose.   Stepping lively when the wave comes in, they inspect the rocks as it receded.  I can’t tell you what they’re eating. Their ‘turnstone’ name comes from the act of turning stones over to discover what’s below.  

Though their food search seemed productive, they suddenly  decided these rocks weren’t good enough anymore. They flew off to check the millions of other rocks that form the Murrells Inlet jetty. 

It was a great day!


Locator for Murrells Inlet:


Saturday, April 20, 2013

Red-headed Woodpecker

It took a while for this Red-headed Woodpecker to get comfortable with me beneath his tree.  He flew away when I first arrived, but with all the holes in the trees I knew he’d be back. The holes in the trees told me he’d been here for a long time already. This was in one of his favorite resting spots.

Vereen Memorial Garden is on the North Carolina, South Carolina Stateline. The Intracoastal Waterway makes up the eastern border.   A quiet park with only basic amenities…bring what you need and take nothing when you leave, except the experience. Wide forest paths and marsh boardwalks take you around the park in loops.  With the tides, the park changes twice a day.

It didn’t take long for the Red-headed Woodpecker to return.  He knew I was still there on the boardwalk, but I didn’t threaten him enough to concern him.  He flew between several dead Loblolly Pines, staying half out of sight and always keeping one eye in my direction.

This is the Red-bellied Woodpecker, a dramatically different looking bird than the Red-headed Woodpecker.  I found him nearby, but much lower in the trees.  I see many more of the red-bellied, than the Red-headed Woodpecker, but that is only due to the local conditions where I live. They’re both widespread and common birds in the eastern half of the United States.

The Red-headed Woodpecker is listed as ‘Near Threatened’, though, due to loss of habitat. They need standing dead trees to hunt, nest and store food.  This one is looking for a hole for a newly found acorn. They have been known to stuff live grasshoppers into crevices to eat later, too.

Boldly feathered in red, white and black, he makes no attempt to blend into the marsh environment.   If you miss him, he will let you know where he is by drumming out his calling card on a hollow log.  Don’t pass up the invitation.


Locator for boardwalk:

Friday, April 12, 2013

A Personal Update

To the people on my Bird List and my additional Facebook friends, 
I would like to give a personal update.

On a recent vacation/birding trip with my wife, Linda, to the state of South Carolina, USA, I suffered an incident concerning my health.  It was not an official heart attack, where parts of one's heart actually dies, rather it was clear, advanced warning of what would happen if I did not address the problem immediately. 

I had an 85-95% blockage of the blood the heart muscle needs to function as a pump. Without sufficient blood to the heart muscle  it simply stops working. Due to the blockage, I had a triple bypass.

I was extremely lucky to be near quality health care personnel when I noticed the problem.  Their encouragement to have my heart further checked out saved my life.  I will always be indebted to them. 

This blog is about birds and my encounters with them.  I'd rather not get too far afield of that outline. If you would like to know more, feel free to contact me by responding to any bird story or Facebook post.

Thank you,

Monday, April 8, 2013

Common Yellowthroat

You’re likely to meet nice people when you go out looking for birds…almost always happens.  At least that has been my experience.

I found this Common Yellowthroat along a kid-crowded Huntington Beach State Park hiking trail in South Carolina.  I didn’t actually find the bird myself, Lou Skrabec did.  At first, he didn’t really see this secretive bird either.  He heard it and, recognizing the song, he waited for the Common Yellowthroat to come out of hiding.

Lou is a middle school math teacher from Greensboro, North Carolina with a strong interest in birds and the commendable trait of sharing his bird knowledge.  We met by coincidence in the parking lot shortly after sunrise.  He is familiar with Huntington Beach and he showed me the bird-friendly places he knew. We hiked ten miles (a math teacher’s mile estimate) searching for birds. We saw and I photographed a dozen new species and hundreds of birds in total.

The Common Yellowthroat is a small, bouncy, flighty bird, not given to pose for photographs.  Hunted by Merlins, Loggerhead Shrikes and even largemouth bass, he hides in thick reeds and is constantly on guard.  To find one you’ll have to wait and then be satisfied with only a brief glimpse.  That’s all you may get, but in birding, birds dictate the terms. 

However, if you recognize the song of a hidden bird you can win at this game of hide and seek. You’ll know when you should wait and when to move on, but it’s not easy.  Recognizing more than a few common bird songs is a skill level I have yet to achieve. 

That is one of the advantages of birding with an experienced birder.  Their knowledge and field experience is helpful in finding and uncovering new and interesting birds.  I’ve accepted many field invitations from experienced birders, like Lou, and I appreciate them sharing their knowledge.  A hike on a sunny day to look for birds is always enjoyable, but to recognize the song he’s singing is delightful.


Translated into English the Common Yellowthroat’s song goes: “wich-t-ty, wich-t-ty, wich-t-ty”. 
You can hear the actual song for yourself at:http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Common_Yellowthroat/sounds
credit: Cornell Lab of Ornithology 

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Green Heron / Tricolored Heron

        In front of me a Green Heron was inching his way out of the reeds in big, slow steps.  Behind me was a Tricolored Heron doing the same.  Both had spotted something 20-feet away in the water.  To get there
without spooking it was their challenge.

I was in Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina, but more precisely on a six-foot wide, 100-foot long, 10-foot high well-made and sturdy boardwalk with handrails, guardrails and a gazebo at the end. The boardwalk, extended over what one might unkindly call a swamp, but it was home to countless creatures including these two herons and even more worrisome… alligators.  I was glad to be on the boards.

The Green Heron’s gaze was fixed on something below the surface.  As he neared his target his pace slowed and he went into a crouch.  I’m sure he was aware something could be watching him wading in the water, too.

I’m guessing here, but the Green Heron looked fairly safe from an alligator attack in the 6-8 inches of water where he stood. 

An alligator would have to be fairly small to conceal itself at those depths, but I’m no expert on alligators.                                               

The Tricolored Heron, too, was approaching something delicious in the water.  Taller and more slender with a longer neck and bill he shares some of the Green Heron’s beautiful wine-colored plumage in more muted shades.

The Tricolored Heron’s S-shaped neck, crouched stance and fixed stare suggested to me that, he, too, was in striking range of something. With his longer legs he could be in 10-20 inches of water.  That would seem to me (a guy from Wisconsin) to be at alligator-hiding depths, raising the stakes a notch in this heron’s hunt. 

The hunt didn’t last long though.  Someway, somehow, he either lost sight, lost interest or just plain lost the battle, because he quickly returned to the reeds in big steps, empty-billed and empty-bellied, but alive to hunt another day.

Meanwhile the Green Heron was luckier.  He stalked, stabbed and caught a little fish for his efforts.  Not a huge meal, but the rather risk-free effort in shallower water kept him alive and safe today.

I too made it back to shore safely, without so much as a wood sliver.


Huntington Beach State Park, boardwalk locator

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Royal Tern


        This Royal Tern’s refreshing late afternoon bath looks to be as much fun, as to be a necessary function.

Just offshore in shallow surf, he and his buddy splashed and rolled in Murrells Inlet, near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.  He twisted and rolled in the water secure in the knowledge his flock mates were watching out for him.

Also watching, but seemingly unimpressed was a Laughing Gull.  

Soggy and waterlogged, a quick flight shed most of the water.

Aware of my presence, but unconcerned, a flock of fifty mostly Royal Terns crowded together. They  faced the wind, ready for quick take-offs and to go about the daily routines that keep them in top-flight shape. 

When nearly blown-dry, they rejoin the others onshore to preen, oil and straighten their feathers once again.

With their heads twisted around and buried in fluffy feathers, others remained alert for the flock’s protection.

The Royal Tern is a large tern found only along the coastal beaches of the southern United States and the northern beaches of South America.  They feed on fish and shrimp by diving headlong into the water, just like the huge Brown Pelicans that joined them here on this second day of April.

The pelicans, still in full breeding colors, monstered over the flock, but all parties were getting along nicely.

Tolerance of strangers only goes so far when it comes to birds. If you get into their comfort zone they will leave, as these Royal Terns did when I got within fifty feet.  Upset, but not alarmed, they rose one by one.  Angling past me and flying quietly they gave me one last picture opportunity to photograph these beautiful, graceful birds before disappearing over Murrells Inlet.

(click on any picture to enlarge)
Murrells Inlet Link (locator)