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.

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. 

South Africa

South Africa's Flag

South Africa’s Flag

I’ve just returned from two very special weeks in South Africa.  I was part of a group traveling with Julie Zickefoose, looking for birds, animals, and plants.  We began in Cape Town, traveled down the peninsula to Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, drove along the coast, visited De Hoop Nature Reserve, went over to the West Coast National Park, then flew to the eastern part of the country.  In the east we visited Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve, Kruger National Park, and Sabi-Sands Private Game Reserve.  You will be hearing of several of these places, with an emphasis on the birds we saw, as I work my way through processing the thousands of images I brought home.

I thought I’d start you off with something not native to South Africa.  On our second day in the Cape Town area we visited the Strandfontein Wetlands.  Actually, it’s a sewage treatment area, but most attractive to birds and with little olfactory reminder of its intended function.  We happened to hit a special day there, and chanced upon Cercotrichas galactotes (or Erythropygia galactotes, depending upon your source).  Never heard of it?  Well, you won’t find it in a field guide of southern African birds.  The bird was well off course, over 5,000 km from its normal range in southern Europe, the Middle East, and northern Africa north of the Sahara.  Its common name (again, depending on your source) is Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin.  Several versions of the common name are around–some just call it a Robin, others hyphenate Scrub-robin, etc.  I’ll be following the conventions in Birds of Southern Africa, fourth edition, by Ian Sinclair, Phil Hockey, Warwick Tarboton, and Peter Ryan.

We chanced upon a group of Twitchers, the nick-name for people who rush to see any bird rarity, close to home or not, mostly not.  A Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin in South Africa is a mega-twitch, for sure.  It was seen earlier, but was down in the grass when we arrived.  We watched a while, looked at other birds, then came back, just as the bird popped up into view and perched on a log.  Here’s my most-fortunate photo of this most-unfortunately lost bird.

Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin

Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin

North American birders traveling to South Africa are confronted with many more species than are found on their home continent.  My Southern Africa field guide lists more than 950 species, including pelagics, or oceanic birds.  In our two weeks we saw nearly 225 species, a lot, but a mere drop in the bucket of possibilities.  Several families of birds are found in South Africa that do not exist in North America.  There are Scrub Robins and Robin-chats, Buzzards and Bustards, Wagtails and White-eyes, Bulbuls, Boubous, and Brubrus. Waxbills and Weavers, Hoopoes and Hornbills, and the strangely-coiffed Hamerkop, which you’ll see later on.


Bird Atlas, Part 2016-03



We were atlasing in East Providence yesterday, in the woods behind Gate of Heaven Cemetery.  We saw some interesting things, some saved for a later post.  For today, however, I want to share with all of you who have ever had a bad hair day.  This bird certainly did.  This is a Northern Flicker, a type of woodpecker.  You can tell, in this view, by the black crescent shape near the neck, as well as the spots on the breast.  Well, in a well-groomed bird you can see the spots!  Another identification mark is the red marking on the back of the head, seen here.



Unlike many other woodpeckers, red on the head does not distinguish males from females.  For this species, the males have a black malar stripe, which this and other females lack.  The malar stripe extends backward from the base of the bill, and is named for the malar, or jaw bone.

Flickers also have a white patch at the base of the tail, visible here.

Flicker-Tail Coverts

Flicker-Tail Coverts

This feature is frequently seen as the bird flies up from the ground, where it has been foraging for ants.  That’s right, flickers seem to spend more time on the ground than they do in trees, since ants are their primary food source.  The tail, as with all woodpeckers, is very stiff, and the tail feathers end in sharp points.  All of that enables woodpeckers to use the tail as a third leg to steady themselves as they peck wood.  Woodpeckers excavate nesting holes in dead trees.  (There is an exception, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, that excavates nest cavities in live trees.)  They may make several nest cavities before settling on one to actually use.  The flicker’s tail is visible here.

Flicker-Tail Covertse

Flicker-Tail Coverts

Flickers have undergone an identity crisis in the nearly 60 years I’ve been birding.  I first learned this species as the Yellow-shafted Flicker.  The flicker part of the name comes from its habit of flicking its bill.  The yellow-shafted part of the name is apparent in this photo.



The yellow shafts are coloration in the primary flight feathers.  Although I don’t currently have a picture, the underwing of the bird is a beautiful yellow, especially if seen in good light.  There is another similar species, the Red-shafted Flicker, that resides in the western United States.  These were originally considered separate species.  One criterion that aids in speciation is whether individuals in two populations interbreed.  The Red- and Yellow-shafted Flickers originally were isolated from each other, so they met this criterion.  However, Americans joined east and west with telegraph wires in the 19th century–1861, to be precise.  The flickers followed the wire and met in the middle.  Love at first sight, I suppose, as one finds individuals cross-breeding near the 100th latitudinal line.  The hybrid offspring may have a mixture of characteristics.  The basic differences between the two now subspecies are that the Red-shafted Flickers have red shafts, lack the red on the back of the head, and males have a red malar stripe.