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. 

Strandfontein Wetlands

From Strandfontein Wetlands

From Strandfontein Wetlands

We were blessed with good weather while at the Cape.  Prepared for rain and low temperatures, we were happily spared both, although South Africa as a whole needs rain.

Our second day, August 26, we traveled south from Cape Town to Strandfontein Wetlands.  This is actually a sewerage treatment area, but there’s little olfactory evidence of its actual purpose.  (In the US, we would use “sewage” instead of “sewerage,” the word used by the facility in South Africa.)  The area is also highly attractive to birds, both grassland species and waterbirds.  We saw some little grassland species, such as the Karoo Prinia and Levaillant’s Cisticola.  The Prinia’s call is a regular buzzy call, but the Cisticola’s is more melodious.

Levaillant's Cisticola, Front

Levaillant’s Cisticola, Front

When we arrived we learned that several avid birders, Twitchers by nick-name, were hoping for another glance of the Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin, the wayward migrant I mentioned in an earlier post.  We had several brief glimpses of the Fiscal Flycatcher while waiting.  We walked along, looked at the Prinia and Cisticola, then returned, just as the Scrub Robin appeared on a log, perking up its tail similarly to a wren.

Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin

Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Julie Zickefoose Amid Flowers

Julie Zickefoose Amid Flowers

That lovely surprise was followed by beautiful flowers and lots of waterbirds.  We saw Cape Teal and Red-billed Teal.  Teal are small ducks; we have a few species in North America, as well.  Both the Red-billed Teal and the Cape Teal have red bills.  The Red-billed, however, also has a black head.  Easy to tell them apart with that field mark.  We also saw Cape Shovelers, with that unique filtering bill that shovelers have.  The sexes look alike except for eye color; the male’s is yellow.

Cape Shoveler Pair, #1

Cape Shoveler Pair, #1

The teal seemed to enjoy the company of a Black-winged Stilt.  The reason for its name is obvious!  We made our way to an observation blind, called a hide locally, where Greater Flamingos abounded, flying back and forth.  Trying to capture these beautiful, but ungainly, flyers was quite a challenge.

Greater Flamingo Duet

Greater Flamingo Duet

Hanging out on some piers were Sacred Ibis, Hartlaub’s Gulls, and Swift Terns, also known as Greater Crested Terns.

Swift Tern Landing

Swift Tern Landing

After a long but lovely morning at the wetlands we sought out some lunch, then made our way to Table Mountain.  It was a beautiful day–no rain, not a lot of wind–so our hopes were high that we would ride the cable car to the top for some magnificent views of Cape Town and the rest of the vicinity.  No such luck.  We unloaded from the van, which Kim parked, then strolled down to the ticket booth, only to learn that summer hours didn’t begin until next week.  Nor were we the only ones disappointed.  As we engaged (argued) with the agent, another tour guide, with her entourage and a similar understanding as ours, aonly to be equally surprised and disappointed.  The cable cars were indeed running, but the final group had already ascended, and the cars were only bringing people down.  We debated briefly about trying to come the next day, but rejected that plan since it would come at the cost of something else more desirable.  Still, the view of Cape Town from the parking area is nevertheless lovely.

Cape Town from Table Mountain

Cape Town from Table Mountain

We ended the day with a beautiful sunset over Chapman’s Bay.

Chapman's Bay Sunset

Chapman’s Bay Sunset

Enjoy these images from south of Cape Town. 

Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden

Kirstenbosch Garden

Kirstenbosch Garden

Fresh off the plane from hours and hours of travel (Providence to Philly to London to Cape Town for me), our little band of safariers loaded into a van and headed to Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, one of the world’s greatest gardens.  It sits on the eastern slope of Table Mountain, a sandstone uplift that dominates the skyline of Cape Town, South Africa.  Home to a multitude of flowering plants, many from the unique fynbos floristic kingdom, Kirstenbosch also attracts a wide variety of birds.  We walked around, crossing the canopy bridge, then ate lunch at the tea room.  After lunch we walked more, then stumbled back into the van for the drive to our lodging at De Noordhoek Hotel.  Many names in South Africa are from the Afrikaans language.  “Noord” means north and “hoek” means corner, so we were staying in the north part of Cape Town.

Our guide, Kim Walsh, works for Lawson’s Safaris, and is thoroughly versed in local wildlife, providing us with both common and scientific names of birds and plants.  It was a pleasure being with her for the first week of our trip.  Kim explained that fynbos is an Afrikaans name meaning “fine-leaved bush.”  Also, “y” in Afrikaans is pronounced like a long “a”.  Fynbos refers both to a biome and a vegetation type occurring on nutrient-poor sandy soils.  The dramatically balanced sculpture “Cheetah Chasing Buck” invites visitors to explore the garden’s treasures.

Cheetah Chasing Buck

Cheetah Chasing Buck

Some birds, like the Helmeted Guineafowl, were plentiful and easily seen.  Others, when seen, are back-lit, making their brilliant colors harder to see but not to appreciate.  Still others, like the Sombre Greenbul, shun the light, preferring to shelter deep in the branches of trees.

Helmeted Guineafowl

Helmeted Guineafowl

Brimstone Canary, Front

Brimstone Canary, Front

Sombre Greenbul

Sombre Greenbul

Among the most colorful and songful are the sunbirds.  No hummingbirds are found in the Eastern Hemisphere, but that ecological niche needs to be filled.  Both sunbirds and sugarbirds provide the service of pollinating nectar-producing flowers.  They are larger than our hummers and do not hover, but they do move about quickly, sometimes perching in the open to sing, like this Southern Double-collared Sunbird.

Southern Double-collared Sunbird Singing

Southern Double-collared Sunbird Singing

Enjoy this little taste of Kirstenbosch. 

Bird Atlas, Part 2016-03

Flicker-Front

Flicker-Front

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.

Flicker-Side

Flicker-Side

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.

Flicker-Shafts

Flicker-Shafts

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.