Sunday, May 26, 2013

Yellow Warbler

One of the most easily identifiable warblers is the Yellow Warbler. 

Warblers can be hard to identify.  There are over fifty different North America warbler species alone.   Many of them are similar in appearance, but identifying the Yellow Warbler is easy…its yellow.

You could confuse the Yellow Warbler with an American Gold Finch or a Wilson’s Warbler, but for the most part the Yellow Warbler is a butter-colored yellow bird.

Even hiding in the sunlit foliage, he is pretty obvious.  Unable to disguise his brilliant chestnut streaked breast or his bright face dotted with deep black eyes…he’s destined to be discovered.

Look for Yellow Warblers near water.  That is where newly hatched insects are most abundant.  Insects provide the energy he needs to make a long migration possible and the Yellow Warbler's migration is long.  This Yellow Warbler could end up in northern Alaska by the end of his journey. Traveling on the leading edge of the insect hatch, he survives on tree bud if insects are scarce.  

Yellow Warblers are common and widespread.  If you haven’t seen one this year, try your local wetland.  Even if you don’t find one, the walk will do you good.  

Spotting a Yellow Warbler would make your walk even more enjoyable.


Baltimore Oriole / Orchard Oriole

People take notice of orioles.

Baltimore Orioles have an 
"ooh ’n aah" quality about them. They’re bold, colorful and special enough that you’ll look up when you hear one.

Although they choose the highest treetop, they’re easy to spot.  The male has a bright red-orange or yellow-orange breast and the female is mostly yellow.   

Their song is loud, clear and melodic and both sexes sing throughout the day.  They seem proud to be orioles in full view with no need to hide.

I photographed this female Baltimore Oriole last summer.  She probably had a nest close by, but not in this tree. Baltimore Oriole territories are not large compared to other birds.  The female builds a nest high up and wide of the main trunk.  The male may bring plant material, but the female does all the weaving for the hanging, pouch-like nest. The male’s main job is defense of the territory.

The Orchard Oriole is a bit smaller and a lot less flamboyant, although still impressive. He too has a black head and black wings. White wing-bars outline his wings...for contrast, a chestnut colored breast.  

The Baltimore Oriole and the Orchard Oriole territories overlap the eastern half of the United States in summer. They all leave for Central and South America in the winter.

Tall deciduous trees are important to orioles. If you want a nesting pair, you need tall trees.  But orioles are attracted to orange halves and nectar feeders filled with sugar water, just like hummingbirds.  You may not get them to nest without the tall trees, but you can enjoy them at your window with just a little food.


Saturday, May 25, 2013

Magnolia Warbler

Approaching the water’s edge carefully, this female Magnolia Warbler was ready for her morning bath.  

She didn’t plunge right in though;  first she considered the risks.

Once in the water she has only one escape route…up.  There could be a cat...could be a bird of prey...somewhere.  

Unsure of her surroundings she entered the water carefully.  

She arrived at the shallow creek in Lake Park, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, expecting to be alone. I’m sure she didn’t see me crouching behind the bridge post, three feet tall and getting a leg cramp.

Certainly, she would have flown had she discovered me watching her.

Settling down slowly, she tested the waters. I imagine all birds take a bath in cool water, as she seemed comfortable with the temperature.

Opening her breast feathers, she soaked up the water, shook, twisted and splashed, while I fired pictures as fast as my camera allowed.

Luckily, her splashing muffled my camera noise.  

She had no opportunity to linger, though…bathing is dangerous.

A wet bird can’t fly well.

Understanding her vulnerabilities, she popped up repeatedly.

Satisfied with her surroundings and still thinking she was bathing privately, she went about joyfully splashing…prepared for her day...fresh and clean.

She flew away to dry-off, never knowing I was there.


Thursday, May 23, 2013

Bay-breasted Warbler

Reluctant to reveal himself, this Bay-breasted Warbler hid from me for half an hour.  Preferring to stay on the opposite side of the apple tree for safety, he was a challenge to photograph.

Then for unknown reasons he came out of cover and perched on a bare branch with the attitude of, “OK, if you won’t leave me alone, get your damn pictures and go away”.  

Fair enough…front, back and two profiles…thank you. 

Then he went back undercover and I knew I wasn’t going to see him again.

He got his wish. I went away.

Large for a warbler, the Bay-breasted Warbler attracts a lot of attention.  Looking designer-dressed, he stands out at this time of year.  Sporting a rich rufous crown with contrasting black and white wing stripes, he’s in breeding form.  For most of the year male and female Bay-breasted Warblers have a similar, subtle appearance.  It's difficult to tell them apart for the untrained eye.  But, now it's time for him to shine.

Male birds commonly arrive first to the breeding grounds to establish territories.  The females come later, but they’re passing through right now.  I didn’t see a female Bay-breasted Warbler. I didn’t hear this male singing for one either, but they have a very high-pitched song and I could have missed it. 

He looks to be a healthy and handsome specimen of a Bay-breasted Warbler. He's probably on his way to Canada.  He only has a few short miles to travel, after migrating all the way from South America. He should be in Canada soon.

I can picture him proudly perched on a prominent pinnacle when he gets to Canada, showing  off his new colors.


Monday, May 20, 2013

Black-crowned Night-heron

When you think of a Black-crowned Night-heron you normally picture a football-sized bird standing motionless at the water’s edge, disguised against tall marsh reeds and waiting for a meal to swim past…at least I do.  

Seeing a Black-crowned Night-heron sleepy-eyed at the top of a hundred-foot tree was strange and disconcerting.

I was looking for warblers in Lake Park, Milwaukee.  The spring migration is on and the most interesting birds around right now are the multi-colored and abundant varieties of warblers.  

They’re everywhere!

They are passing through in flocks so large they show up on radar.  Spring is the most exciting time to see warblers because now they’re displaying their most beautiful breeding colors.  

Walking through one of the park’s ravines I approached a woman, sitting down, but looking up.  I asked her if she was watching anything interesting…a quite normal request between birders.  She pointed to the top of a 100-foot tree and asked me what I thought that bird was. 

I could barely see the bird a hundred-feet high, even with a 400mm lens. Being backlit, too, it was hard to determine its size or shape.  I suggested a Cooper’s Hawk, but she was pretty sure that wasn’t right.  Posed as a question, she said, "Maybe a heron."  It could be, I replied.  She turned out to be right.

At this distance and poor angle we decided to walk to the top of the ravine for a better look.  That put us fifty-feet closer and in full sunlight.  Now it was possible to see two Black-crowned Night-herons…an adult and juvenile.  Black-crowned Night-herons look alike as adults, but juveniles hold on to their mottled brown plumage for the first year. 

The ‘night’ in ‘Night-heron’ comes from their preference to hunt at night.  I’ve seen them hunt during the day, but they are comfortable and capable of hunting at night.  Being night hunters they sleep during the daytime.  That is how we found these two…dozing in the treetops. 
Sleeping in a tree might seem scary to a human, but it's quite normal for a bird.  From time to time their eyes would droop closed giving me the impression they were dozing-off.  I don’t know what a Black-crowned Night-heron looks like actually sleeping, so I’m making an assumption.
When they were awake it was obvious they were awake.  Those big red eyes shone in the sunlight. Walking branches like super-highways, they gave me every indication they were capable of sleeping comfortably in a breeze off Lake Michigan. 

When the wind blew you could see their unique feather-like plume projecting from the back of their black-crowned head. 

They were quite accommodating  being photographed. They  remaining in place even as I was leaving.

Today I went looking for little warblers, but found huge, by comparison, Black-crowned Night-herons instead.  

I can’t complain about that.


Sunday, May 19, 2013


When you see a warbler in a tree the first question you should ask yourself is, ‘Which warbler is it?"

Finding warblers passing through Wisconsin is easy now.  They’re colorful, common and curious as they bounce around the branches searching for newly hatched insects. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology lists eighty different species of warblers.  Ranging from olive drab to brilliant yellow…the warbler migration is a sure sign of spring.

The Cape May Warbler is a good example of warbler complexity.  The Cape May Warbler is multi-colored and multi-striped in bold patterns, but there are a half dozen other warblers that look similar.  It is a challenge to tell them apart.  Certainly, you don’t have to identify a warbler precisely to enjoy it. Knowing the differences is just more fun.

The Black-throated Green Warbler's size, shape and coloration is similar to many other warblers, but in a different order. You could drive yourself crazy trying to remember all the color combinations and patterns. Only experienced birders can do that well, plus they can recognize their individual songs.

The Black and White Warbler is one warbler no one should have a problem identifying.  He is black and white and boldly striped.  Watch for him along tree trunks looking for crawling insects. Few other warblers are this bold.

The Palm Warbler displays a more conservative look with a warm-brown back, yellow streaked breast and a small chestnut colored crown on top of his head.  Palm Warblers are abundant in Wisconsin right now, but they will soon leave for Canada. 

Yellow-rumped Warblers are very noticeable.  They may be the first warbler species you find in Wisconsin.  They are hard to mistake if you see them from the back.  They have bright yellow patches on their sides, one yellow stripe on the head and as their name points out, a yellow rump.

The Nashville Warbler doesn’t change colors significantly during the breeding season.  They look much the same all year long.  With a bright yellow breast and an olive back, they are passing through much of the United States at this time.  Look for Nashville Warblers high in the trees or low to the ground.  

You’re not likely to find a Canada Warbler at your backyard seed feeder. Warblers eat insects. Take a walk in the country or urban park to find one. Wisconsin is covered in warblers right now, but they're not here for long.


Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Looking down at me from his treetop perch, this Blue-gray Gnatcatcher was hard to see. In constant motion and tiny besides, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers prefer the taller trees to forage for food.

Normally a neotropical resident, Wisconsin is as far north as the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher is willing to travel during the breeding season.  Fortunately, they're here now if you want to see one.

As they bounce from branch to branch looking for food, they flash their white-bordered tail in an attempt to startle insects into the open.

The male Blue-gray Gnatcatcher is only slighter bluer than the female, otherwise they look alike.  

Binoculars are a big advantage in attempting to see this itty-bitty blue bird.


Monday, May 13, 2013

Hermit Thrush

As this Hermit Thrush foraged in Lake Park, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, he kept a safe distance from me at all times.  If I took a step forward, so would he.  If I took two steps, he would take the equivalent in bird steps.  He was maintaining a comfort zone and I was on the edge of it. 

When I tried to cheat the difference, he flew to the other side of the ravine.   Lucky for him, he found a wasp over there to eat. He never took an eye off of me though. 

The Hermit Thrush is a ground feeder…gleaning insects and berries from the understory vegetation.   It’s interesting how a spotted breast helps camouflage him from his prey. Maybe spots mimic his sun-dappled surroundings. He evolved into this pattern for a reason…maybe spots just work for him?

He would disappear in and out of the brush occasionally…always alert to the dangers of being a bird in a tight spot. I’ve photographed a Merlin in this ravine.  A Merlin could take a thrush in a heartbeat.   

What prompted him to leave when he did…I don’t know.  He did find one wasp.  Maybe that was enough for now.  

I could have made him nervous, too…I just hope not.


Note: Thanks to John O'Donnell for clarification on this thrush.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Red-headed Woodpecker, Lake Park, Milwaukee

It’s not easy for a Red-headed Woodpecker to hide.  Even at fifty feet high in a tree he’s easily spotted, but this one wasn’t trying to hide anyway. Black, white and brilliantly red headed, he’s impressive from all angles.

This bird was one of four Red-headed Woodpeckers hanging around a grove of trees in Lake Park, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Actually I can’t say how many different birds I have here.  Four Red-headed Woodpeckers darted in and out of the area, chasing one another through the trees, disappearing, only to return again.

I posted a Red-headed Woodpecker just last month.  The first Red-headed Woodpecker I ever saw in my life was in South Carolina.  Maybe two woodpecker tales in two months is too much, but I think they are exceptional birds and worthy of notice, wherever they show up. 

The closest this one came to hiding from me was to move to the back of the tree, but being curious, he’d reappear from the other side rather quickly. 

The fact there was four of them in a small area would indicate they were probably passing through…migrating north.  Most anyplace east of the Rocky Mountains is home to Red-headed Woodpeckers, so finding one shouldn’t have been that hard for me all these years, but it has been.