How It All Began

Red-breasted Nuthatch Eating Suet

These little guys used to be a regular at my suet feeders during the winter. Then for a few years none appeared. This winter, however, a pair seems to appear sporadically. Red-breasted Nuthatches do nest in Rhode Island. In fact, I spotted a nesting pair a couple of summers ago while participating in the RI Bird Atlas. So, why a post about them when their cousin, the White-breasted Nuthatch, is so much more common? Here are the Whites, for comparison.

White-breasted Nuthatch with seed
My White-breasted Nuthatch Foraging

My father taught me to love the natural world. While serving in India during World War II he collected butterflies. An unfortunate plane crash took out his efforts, as well as the pilot, sadly. My naturalist education began with the study of butterflies when I was in the fourth grade. We spent summers in Michigan, so I became rather proficient with species from central Ohio and northern Michigan, though they are quite similar.

The next step for me was birds. I loved watching them come to our home feeders. One of my absolute favorites was–and still is–the Red-breasted Nuthatch. They are slightly smaller than their White-breasted cousins. My father broadened my birding experiences over the years. More than once we drove from Columbus to the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge and the Magee Marsh Wildlife Area near Toledo. As any serious birder will confirm, these locations are among the premiere places to see warblers. As these colorful little birds migrate to their nesting grounds in Canada they stack up along the shore of Lake Erie, feeding and resting, awaiting just the right conditions for taking off over the lake. I remember one time, after a morning of constant warbler sighting and identifying, we were sitting in the car eating lunch. The warblers literally dripped off the tree in front of the car! What a memorable experience.

By the time I reached the seventh grade I wanted a pair of binoculars of my own. “OK,” said my father, “but you have to pay for them yourself by saving your allowance.” At that time Columbus was home to a company that made binoculars–Burton. I needed $65.00 to purchase a pair of 8-power binoculars suitable for birding. It took me a year, but I made it. My father drove me to the factory store, and I handed over my hard-earned cash for my new birding companions. I vaguely remember that Burton was bought out by another company, but I can’t remember exactly who. Perhaps it was Bushnell. At any rate, a Google search yielded this ad from a hunting magazine.

Hunting magazine ad for Burton binoculars.

I had those binoculars for several years, until an unfortunate roll in a canoe proved that they were, indeed, not waterproof.

Binoculars today usually look quite different. The Burton ones were of the porro prism design, the only thing available at the time. Because of the interior placement and shape of the prisms, the objective lenses in porro prism binoculars are wide-set in relation to the eyepieces. This makes them awkward to hold. The roof prism design allows for the objective lenses to be in line with the eyepieces, making for lighter weight and greater comfort, at the expense of greater cost. This article gives some historical insight on the shift from porro prism to roof prism binoculars.

From butterflies to birds to nature as a whole. I love it all. In recent years I’ve added photography to the ways I enjoy the natural world.

Osprey Monitoring

Osprey in Flight

Every week, from April through August, volunteers in Rhode Island head forth to check on Osprey nests. The monitoring program, overseen by the Audubon Society of Rhode Island (ASRI), is a model for efforts in other states. The monitoring of Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) in RI began in 1977 by the RI Department of Environmental Management, and was taken over by ASRI in 2010. With one exception, data on Osprey nesting has been collected every year by citizen volunteers. Osprey numbers have increased annually, once the use of DDT was outlawed. The pesticide DDT accumulated in the food chain, causing major problems for birds like Osprey and Bald Eagles (among other species). DDT caused the shells of eggs to be thin, so thin that the weight of adult birds crushed them as the adults tried to incubate the eggs. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring highlighted these impacts, as well as the harmful effects of other pesticides, helping to jump start the modern environmental movement. Once DDT was outlawed in the United States, Osprey, Bald Eagles, and other species began to return in numbers and to locations they had previously enjoyed. Monitoring and reintroduction programs began. I am responsible for monitoring four nests this year, three in Hopkinton, RI, and one in West Greenwich, RI. Three of the four are active, meaning they are occupied and the adult birds appear to be incubating eggs or attending to young. In all cases it is not possible to see into the nests, so I have to judge from the adults’ behavior.

Osprey have several popular names: fish hawk, fish eagle, river hawk, and even sea hawk. As these names suggest, they eat fish exclusively, but are neither eagles nor hawks. Rather, Osprey are the sole species in their biological family. They are a holarctic species, meaning they are found throughout the northern continents of the world. Osprey occur on every continent except Antarctica, although they do not breed in South America, heading south in winter months from their nesting territories in North America. Osprey always fly with their wings crooked in an “M” shape and have a dark patch on their “elbows”, actually the equivalent of their wrists. They have scales on their toes that help them grasp fish, which they capture by diving. Unlike eagles and hawks, Osprey can rotate one toe backwards, better enabling them to hold their prey with two toes forward, two backward.

Looking for the King

King Eider – #3

Recently I went looking for the king–the King Eider, that is. King Eiders are an Arctic species, usually seen only in Alaska in the United States. Very rarely they will wander to the shores of New England in the winter, however. Over 25 years ago one was seen in Rhode Island waters, off the shores of Sachuest Point National Wildlife refuge. That was the first one I had ever seen until this winter, when a male King Eider started floating along the Cape Cod Canal with a bunch of Common Eiders.

King Eider with Common Eiders

Common Eiders are slightly larger than the King, but not as colorful, lovely though they be. The eiders were in a large raft hanging around Herring Run, where it flows into the canal, just south of Bourne, Massachusetts, on the west side of the canal. It was easy to get close to them, as they seemed not to mind people sitting on the rocks beside the water. The Common Eiders were showing some dominance and pair bonding behavior, as males chased one another and lifted up in display of their breasts. Young males were also among the group, the first year males having more dark areas in their plumage than the second year males. Also among the eiders were some Red-breasted Mergansers.

Common Eiders

Male Common Eider – #2

Enjoy these pictures of the King and his cohort.

African Penguins

Click For Animation

Click For Animation

A colony of African Penguins (Spheniscus demersus), also known as Jackass Penguins because of their call, nestles on the Cape Peninsula in South Africa.  Nestled as well are the penguins in their nesting burrows.  Other residents include Rock Hyraxes and visitors such as Cape Wagtails, Egyptian Geese, and Blacksmith Lapwings.

Penguin With Wagtail

Penguin With Cape Wagtail

African penguins are closely related to Magellanic Penguins (Spheniscus magellanicus) and Humboldt Penguins (Spheniscus humboldti).  The three  species can be distinguished by their location.  As their name suggests, African Penguins come to land to breed along the southern border of South Africa, whereas Magellanic Penguins breed along the southern coast of South American, in greater concentrations on the Atlantic side of that continent, and Humboldt Penguins nest further north, along the coast of Peru.  They also vary in appearance.  African Penguins generally have a bare (pink) skin patch that extends over the eye, and have a single dark breast band.  Magellanic Penguins have a less extensive bare patch and a double breast band.  In Humboldt Penguins, by contrast, the bare patch extends under the chin, and there is a single breast band.

Visitors access the colony via an extensive boardwalk.  As one walks along, one sees Rock Hyraxes feeding and adult and juvenile penguins near their nesting burrows.  The young birds are of various ages, as breeding is poorly synchronized.  Some are still in their downy plumage from birth, others have more adult plumage, still others are already heading out to the near shore to feed for themselves.  It takes approximately 14 months for the birds to reach adult plumage.

Juvenile Penguin

Juvenile Penguin

Penguins Heading Out To Feed

Penguins Heading Out To Feed

The birds head out to feed singly or in groups.  Watching them return to land and an upright posture can be very entertaining.  In the next image, “Penguins Heading Out To Feed,” I think the animal further out is a Southern White Sea Catfish, but that is only an educated guess.  If anyone reading this can provide a more definitive identification, I’d be glad to know of it.  It is not a shark, I am fairly certain.

Upon returning, the adult birds frequently reinforce their pair bonds by calling and by posturing and bowing to one another.

Young Penguin After Swim

Young Penguin After Swim

Penguins Renewing Pair Bond

Penguins Renewing Pair Bond

Enjoy this little gallery of penguin pics!

Cape Sugarbirds

Cape Sugarbird Male Singing, #1

Cape Sugarbird Male Singing, #1

Did you know there is an entire floristic kingdom almost exclusively found in South Africa?  It’s called “fynbos,” the Afrikaans name meaning fine-leaved.  In Afrikaans, “y” is pronounced as a long “a”, so “fynbos” would sound like “fain-boss”.  Fynbos is also the name of an ecological biome, confined almost exclusively to South Africa.  During our trip we saw several plants endemic (found exclusively in) to the fynbos of South Africa.  A number of fynbos plants belong to the genus Protea, also known as sugarbushes.  These beautiful plants are quite varied, having nectar-rich flowers and beautiful bracts colored pink, red, yellow, and/or orange.  Unfortunately, I’m a very long way from being a botanist, so I was totally overwhelmed by the plant species we encountered.  I had enough difficulty with the new bird groups with no counterparts in North America.  I cannot identify the species of protea these birds are feeding on.

One species of bird did put on quite a show for us on the third day (August 27), however, the Cape Sugarbird.  I was able to get enough photos of this bird to warrant its own post.  As you might expect, Sugarbirds feed on the sugarbush plants.  They are relatively large, larger than the Sunbirds, being 10-17 inches long, including the tail.  There are only two species found in Southern Africa, the ones we saw being Cape Sugarbirds.  This species is endemic to the fynbos, feeding almost exclusively on proteas and associated arthropods.  No hummingbirds are found in the Eastern Hemisphere, so Sunbirds and Sugarbirds fill the same ecological niche, feeding on nectar and thus pollinating the nectar-producing plants.

Looking For A Better Flower, #2

Looking For A Better Flower, #2

Male Sugarbirds have very long tails, with some variety in the length.  The one at the beginning of this post fared well in this regard.  Males will fly up and make a remarkable display, flapping their wings and clattering their tails.  Apparently females find this attractive, for various studies have found that longer tail length yields greater pair bonding success, but not necessarily greater reproductive success.  Those wiley females sometimes mate with shorter-tailed males in addition to their longer-tailed social partners!

We saw two males, one with a longer tail and one with a shorter tail.  Also hopping around and begging for food was a juvenile.

Enjoy this series of images of Cape Sugarbirds.