Saturday, February 17, 2018

Back At Home

After a ridiculous weekend drive to Canada, this weekend is an opportunity to stay home and participate in Audubon's Great Backyard Bird Count. If you can participate, go to and enter your sightings for any day between Friday and Monday. I've had some pretty cool birds to enter.

Of course, our little Screech Owl is being counted. Here he/she is the other day in bright daylight.

"Our" Screech Owl
He/she has been sitting up in the opening of the box almost every day for months now so safe to say that this is "home".

Another raptor is making the count this year. A young Cooper's hawk has been wreaking havoc on the yard birds for the past few days. On Thursday, it crashed into the honeysuckle vine just outside of my office window chasing some sparrows. He came up short and sat on the bird feeder pole sulking.

Cooper's Hawk
I call this one a "he" due to the small size of the bird. At first, I thought it might be a Sharp-shinned Hawk which are a smaller version of accipiter.

In both cases, I root for the raptor even though I know that they eat the other birds. Anyway, I might end up counting fewer sparrows at the end of the weekend than at the beginning - if you know what I mean.

Speaking of owls . . . Connie and I took Peanut to Pennypack park this morning and found a Great Horned Owl perched in a tangle of vines.

Great-horned Owl
Before you wonder how in the world we could spot an owl in that mess, I'll tell you the truth. Connie and I didn't find this owl at all - the crows found him. A good trick to finding owls and hawks in the woods is to listen for crows, Blue Jays or other birds going crazy. Chances are that they found a raptor that they want to harass into leaving their woods.

Crows harrassing Owl

Not bad for staying home huh? And much cheaper too.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Wanna Go To Canada for the Weekend? Why Not!

You may remember that before Christmas, Todd and I took a few days off of work and headed to Algonquin Park in Ontario. We saw some really cool birds and Pine Martens. What I didn't say was that we almost detoured from that trip to chase a MEGA RARE bird in New Brunswick Canada. Mega Rare as in first ever reported.

The bird was reported about a week before we were to make the trip to Algonquin. We discussed chasing it but decided to stick with our original plan. Well, it is 2 months later and the rare bird is still in New Brunswick. You know what's coming next right?

Oh yeah. We couldn't resist. We added Marty to our crew, rented a minivan and headed up to see the first ever recorded Mistle Thrush in North America. Marty and I left my house at 8:30 PM on Friday night after working a full day. We picked Todd up in NJ at 9:30 and drove all night through New England, Maine, and made it to the border just after sunrise on Saturday morning. We traded time in the back of the van to catch some shuteye which helped us make the overnight haul.

By noon, we were on site in Miramichi, New Brunswick in the neighborhood where the bird has made it's winter home since December.

All reports said that the Mistle Thrush was hanging out in the neighborhood eating Mountain Ash berries. It moves between a few yards but has been mainly seen at 512 McKenna Avenue lately so that is where we began our search. After a few minutes of staring at the Mountain Ash without seeing the bird, we saw something move in the Spruce tree behind it. Yes. The Mistle Thrush was there. It flew up to the top of the Spruce tree.

It sat there for a few minutes where we got to study the field marks that set this bird apart from "our" thrushes. The main field marks are the size and the spotted breast.

And then, it had enough and flew to another part of the neighborhood. I caught a photo of the bird just as it took off. Interesting to see the spots go all the way to the tail.

We searched the neighborhood for the bird. I guess the residents are used to having cars with weird license plates cruising the neighborhood by now. We found the location where the bird was first reported and saw some other birds but no thrush so we drove back to where we saw it and waited. It only took a few minutes for the bird to return. Todd spotted it back in it's favorite hiding place - the Spruce tree. Then, it jumped into the Mountain Ash to chow down on some berries.

Photographing this bird is difficult due to the mass of branches, overcast sky and light snow. This is probably the best photo that I could manage and only after maneuvering the van a few feet at a time to get a clear view. I cropped the photo so that it shows one of the berry clumps that is keeping this bird fat and happy in Canada.

True Fact - this is NOT a life bird for me. I saw a few of these in England where the bird is supposed to be. Click here to read about that trip and see another photo of the Mistle Thrush. While not a lifer, this sighting does add another bird to my ABA list - now at 625!

A bonus for the trip is that Marty's sister lives in Bangor Maine and invited us to stay with her overnight. Boy, what a respite. She had pizza, beer, hospitality and beds all ready for us when we arrived at 7:30 PM on Saturday night. That was 23 hours after leaving my house! I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Am I Really a Leader?

Can you call yourself a leader if nobody shows up to the field trip? I have scheduled a few field trips for the DVOC over the past year. Most of the trips get rained out but last Saturday's weather was set to be sunny so I headed to Barnegat Lighthouse to meet the group at 8 AM. 8 AM came and went. Thank goodness Harvey showed up otherwise I would have been totally alone. Oh well. Their loss.

Harvey and I headed out on the jetty to see what we could find. There weren't many ducks but we saw Red-breasted Mergansers. I love the way the wind blows their feathers into a mess.

Red-breasted Merganser
 We were just about to give up on our prized Harlequin Ducks when another photographer told us that they were a little farther out. Jackpot. We found the flock up on the rocks of the jetty.

Harlequin Ducks
They swam past us while we snapped a billion photos.

Harlequin Duck

Harlequin Duck
We didn't find as many shorebirds as normal. Only this small group of Dunlin with a single Sanderling mixed in.

Dunlin and Sanderling
On our way back to the lighthouse, we spotted this Horned Grebe swimming away from us. It would dive under the water and resurface farther down the jetty.  I would run along to try to get ahead of it but that sucker can swim fast underwater. I managed to get this shot which shows that blood red eye.

Horned Grebe
The bird was on a mission to get somewhere fast. I couldn't keep up.

Harvey and I had a nice day. I wonder if anyone will show up to my next field trip? 

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Out on the Boat Again

We left Wildwood Crest at 6 AM on Saturday aboard the Atlantic Star headed offshore with hopes of seeing birds and whales. The seas were just rough enough to make everyone have to pay attention and hold on but not as rough as other trips. By 7:00, the sun was beginning to rise.

Sunrise on the Atlantic Star
The birds were weird. Normally on a winter pelagic trip, we chum and get lots of gulls and Gannets to follow the boat diving to pick up a piece of suet or fish guts from our wake. But on this trip, those birds were not interested. We only saw a few dozen gulls all day. We did see a few dozen Black-legged Kittiwakes. These are kind of in the gull family and mostly found up north. The ID is distinctive on juvenile birds. They have an "M" pattern on their wings in flight.

Black-legged Kittiwake
Here is a young bird that figured out that suet is yummy.

Kittiwake with treat
We did find the alcids that we were after - Common Murres, Razorbills, Puffins and Dovekies.  Again, the birds were weird. Typically, they all fly away from the boat and we only get to see them flying or sitting on the water at distance. On this trip, these 2 Razorbills didn't get the memo and hung around the boat giving us all fantastic views. You can see the "razor"bill on both birds. You can also ID Razorbills at a distance by the way they sit with their bills pointed up.

They finally had the shits of us and took off. It is always funny to watch alcids try to take off. They need a running start.

The bird that is often difficult to see on these trips is Atlantic Puffin. They are mostly black and blend in well with the water. In addition, they typically dive underwater when they see the boat rather than fly away. Not this guy. He hung around for a long time.

Atlantic Puffin
In summer, Puffins have a ridiculously colorful bill and bright white cheeks. You can see how dull they are in winter.
The other highlight of the trip was 3 Fin Whales that were pretty close to the boat. You can see the "fin" in this photo.

Fin Whale
Other than these highlights, the trip was pretty long with long periods of nothing to look at. Good thing the boat was full of nice people to chat with!

Tuesday, January 23, 2018


I served 2 years as the Secretary of the DVOC. As of Jan 11, I am now the Vice President of the club. My duties have changed from taking the meeting minutes to scheduling the programs for the meetings. The thought of finding speakers for 18 presentations per year is overwhelming. While I love birding and know alot of other birders, I really don't know that many ornithologists. I panicked and started contacting people back in June as possible speakers. What a relief. I have 2018 fully booked. 

The 2018 programs started with a tour of the Academy of Natural Sciences Ornithology Department and Specimen Tour presented by Dr. Jason Weckstein. Jason is a member of the club and full time associate professor at Drexel University (which now owns the museum) and associate curator of the bird collection. The meeting drew double the attendance as normal with over 40 people. Jason gave a short presentation and then he and his colleagues took us all up to the 4th floor to tour the specimen collection. We started with Harpie Eagle which is one of the largest and most sought after eagles in the world. This is Jason holding one up for the members to see. 

Here he is showing us Aplomado Falcon specimen. The 4th floor is full of cabinets like the one shown here. They are on tracks and can be moved to create aisles. 

The highlight for many members was seeing extinct species skins. These are Carolina Parakeets which were once very common along the mid-Atlantic region. They went extinct years ago as settlers cleared the land and removed their habitat. Incredible to think of our area having parakeets. 

Jason pointed out that one of the parakeets was tagged by John James Audubon. Here is a photo showing his handwriting. Incredible to think that these birds were collected in the early 1800's and are still in good condition in the museum's collection. 
JJ Audubon specimen tag
Imperial Woodpeckers are, rather were huge birds found in the tropics. They remind us of Pileated Woodpeckers on steroids. 

Imperial Woodpecker
Their close cousin is the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. This is a species that has made the news in recent years. It was written off as extinct after 1946 however there are always reports from the deep bayous of Arkansas and Florida from someone who says that they heard or saw one. These stories have ornithologists launching massive searches resulting in even more questions about whether the species is still in existence. After a recent search, ornithologists asked the Academy if they could examine a wing from a specimen to compare to a very blurry video. Here is Jason showing us the famous wing. Do Ivory-bills exist? Probably not but wouldn't it be great if they did. 

Ivory-billed Woodpecker
Anyway, the tour was a big hit. Here is hoping that the rest of the programs go off without a hitch. 

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Closer to Home

Our search for Snowy Owls and other winter birds took Todd and I to Canada in December. I guess we could have saved some gas money by waiting for the Snowy Owls to come south. Marty and I went to the Philadelphia airport this morning to see this Snowy Owl which has been hanging around the UPS hangar for a few weeks. We found him/her sitting on a light pole.

Snow Owl
A different angle shows that this location is in fact an airport. That's the radar tower behind the owl.

Snow Owl with Radar
There is talk of capturing this owl, banding it and relocating it to the farmlands in Lancaster county. The last Snowy that tried to make the airport it's winter home was killed by a UPS plane on the runway. Runways are not safe for birds (or any living thing). The trouble is that the same bird that was killed was also captured, banded and relocated to Lancaster. It took him less than 2 days to return to the airport! So, why bother? I hope they leave the bird alone and let him/her take it's chances.

Marty and I headed up to Pennypack on the Delaware park in search of ducks. We found icebergs.

Marty surveys the river
Some of them were grounded at low tide. It's less of an ice berg, than a big ice ball. It is accumulated ice slabs mixed with dirt and debris that froze together. Kind of neat looking.

Stranded Iceberg
We did find a few ducks. Here are Bufflehead amongst the ice flows.

Birding has been really slow lately. Hoping next weekend is better.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Florida Owl Experience

In between the Canadian cold and the winter storm, Connie and I drove to Florida for Christmas with my mother and her sister. The week was filled with cooking, eating, drinking and visiting. I brought my binoculars and camera but didn't expect to use them. Fortunately, Connie's sister lives in Cape Coral which has many vacant lots where houses hadn't been built for humans. Burrowing Owls love the lots. We found a corner lot with 7 burrows. Someone makes little wooden perches for them and puts stakes out to advise people that there are owls living there.

I went out late in the afternoon to try to photograph the owls. I drove to the corner lot and saw an owl sitting out next to the burrow. I quietly rolled the window down and turned off the engine. I snapped a few photos. The owl just sat there.

I pulled closer and snapped. The owl sat there. I opened the car door and hid behind it snapping photos. The owl sat there.

Then, the little kids on the block started riding their brand new bicycles with training wheels down the street. The owl just sat there. Another kid skateboarded right past the owl. The owl just sat there. Boy did I feel dumb. I got out of the car and walked to the curb. The owl just sat there.

The owl was so un-phased by human activity that he even took time to preen.

And then, something happened. I stepped on what I think was a storm drain on the curb and next thing I know, another owl jumps out of his burrow (he hadn't been out before this) and starts flying around the intersection hooting and then landed on one of the perches. I snapped this photo of him as he landed.

"My" owl hooted back a few times but still just sat there. And just like that, the mad owl vanished back into his burrow. I'm not quite sure what happened. Did I scare the owl? The only thing I can think of is that when I stepped on the storm drain, it echoed into the burrow and scared him. Or, something else made him take flight. I really don't know but I think it is weird that cars, joggers, skateboards and bicycles are ignored. Urban owls.