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Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Got Spots?

No, Spotted Sandpipers do not have spots in their winter plumage. We watched this one forage at the water's edge, walking along and bobbing its rear end, looking for invertebrates. Sort of looks like its doing the rhumba. This bobbing is a constant characteristic of the Spotted
Sandpiper, and its function is not known. The sandpiper will acquire large dark spots on its white underparts for its breeding plumage — haute couture if you’re a Spotted Sandpiper.

One of the things we have always found fascinating about Spotted Sandpipers is that they have a polyandrous mating system. That is, the female is the one who defends a territory, mates with a male and the male is the one who incubates the eggs and raises the young. Females can mate with up to four males during a breeding season.

Spotted Sandpipers breed across much of North America near water. So, coming to a lake, river, or stream near you this summer — the Spotted Sandpiper. Watch for them.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Gone Fishin'

We watched this Osprey circle overhead, looking down. Then he dove fast and came up with this fish, grabbing the prize with his talons. During breeding, male Opreys do most of the fishing and bring the food to the female who remains on the nest, incubating the eggs and caring for the young. The males are smaller and lighter than the females, makes them top fishermen. The female usually has dark streaking ( a "necklace") on her upper breast.

Photo of Osprey © Lillian Stokes 2006

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Purple Martin Matters

We once overheard someone speaking about birds called “Purple Martians.” What they really meant was “Purple Martins.” Purple Martins are not space invaders, they are beautiful, purple, insect-eating swallows who are now migrating northward. By March 15th they are arriving in the middle of the country and reach northern areas by May 1st. These incredible, arial acrobats eat flying insects and live in communal housing in the eastern half of the U.S. From the Rockies West they live in natural cavities. They have an overblown reputation for eating tons of mosquitos. Truth be told, they eat many more other kinds of flying insects than ‘skeeters.

Male Purple Martins are all purple-black. Female martins have dull purple backs, tails and wings and are paler below with smudgy markings.

Martins actually prefer to live near humans. Attract them by putting up special multi-compartment housing of either gourds or apartment houses. Place houses at least 40 feet away from tall trees and within 30-120 feet of human dwellings. Martin houses should be on tall poles with a predator guard on the pole. They like it if housing is near open areas where they can feed. Being near water areas is a plus.

Purple Martin’s have many fans and organizations devoted to their care and survival. To be a successful Purple Martin landlord requires commitment and knowledge. The rewards are immense.

All photos © Lillian Stokes, 2006

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Snowing Buntings

It’s snowing in New England. This Snow Bunting photo reminds us of a blizzard of birds. Snow Buntings are beautiful, small birds that breed in Alaska and the Arctic and winter in lower Canada and across much of the U.S. They stay in large flocks in winter, feeding on the ground on weed seeds. To keep warm, they may even burrow in the snow!

Photos of Snow Buntings © Lillian Stokes 2006

Friday, February 24, 2006


Lillian and Don are driving down a side street by a canal in FL. Lillian yells "Kingfisher on the wire, slow down." Don slows car, Lillian grabs her Canon Mark II with the 1-400 lens and shoots out the car window just as the kingfisher takes off the wire. Presto! Lucky shot.

Actually this photo of a kingfisher is of a female Belted Kingfisher. The female has a reddish-brown belly band. The male looks similar but lacks the belly-band. We sometimes joke between ourselves and refer to a female Belted Kingfisher as a "Queenfisher."

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Bird Feeding Rainbow

Bird Feeding brings joy to so many people. It brings colorful birds up close for spectacular views and provides a supplemental source of food for those birds. In periods of extreme weather, feeding can be life-saving for the birds.

A basic feeding set-up that will attract the most birds includes:

* A Seed Feeder filled with Black Oil Sunflower, since it is the top choice of the most feeder birds, or a high quality seed mix.

* A Finch Tube Feeder filled with thistle (Nyjer), or Nyjer Plus (thistle plus sunflower chips), or a quality finch mix.

* Suet cakes in a suet feeder — highly attractive to Woodpeckers.

* Water for drinking — attracts not only feeders bird, but others, such as, Warblers, Thrushes and Vireos.

Experiment and see what seeds birds in your area prefer. Birds in different parts of the country may have different seed preferences. Our friends in mid-Florida feed birds and are lucky to have “oh wow” Cardinals and Indigo Buntings on the same feeder! In their yard those species like millet.

Photo of Cardinal and Indigo Bunting © Lillian Stokes 2006

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Life Birds

Friends of ours from Massachusetts just wrote to us and told us they were coming to South Florida and wanted to go birding with us. They like to see all the birds here, but specifically they wanted to get a “life bird”, or “lifer”. For them it would be the Red-cockaded Woodpecker, see photo.

What is a life bird? You hear birders talking about this all the time. A “life bird” is a bird you haven’t seen before, and when you find it you're seeing it for the first time in your life. It's a thrilling occurence and one you won’t forget. Many birders keep a “life list” of all the birds they have seen in their lives. It's a fun game and one anyone can play. Some avid birders will travel far and wide to see life birds.

Red-cockaded Woodpeckers are rare birds, (so rare they are an endangered species) that many birders would like to get on their life lists. Red-cockadeds live in mature pine forests in the Southeast. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that there are only about 15,000 birds left. Red-cockadeds have an interesting social structure and live in small groups of usually 3-4 but sometimes up to nine members. They nest as a group and the members incubate the eggs. They will only excavate a nest in a mature, live pine that has a fungus that causes the heartwood to become soft enough to enable the birds to excavate. It can take them 1-3 years to excavate a nest.

We hope our friends get their "life bird".

Photo of Red-cockaded Woodpecker © Lillian Stokes

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Numbers Game

Did you ever look at your binoculars and wonder what the numbers on them mean? (Of course, if you’re math phobic, you’ve probably avoided looking at the numbers.)

Daisy, our Pembroke Welsh Corgi, is wondering about the numbers. Actually, more likely, she is wondering when she’ll get her next dog cookie. Binos for dogs, there’s an idea. We are working on a harness strap to hold them up for her.

Well, the numbers are your friend because they give you information about what you own. They are also a clue as to what makes the best kind of bino for birding. Usually the numbers say 8 x 42, 10 x 42, 7 x 35, 8 x 21 or something like that.

The first number is the power of magnification. So if the first number is 8, that means the image you are looking at will appear 8 times larger than it would if you were not using binoculars. All the better to see birds, such as this Royal Tern, up close. Makes sense.

The meaning of the next number, the 42, 35, 21, etc., is not so obvious. That number is the measurement, in millimeters, of the objective lens — the lens at the far end of your binocular. Usually, the larger the number, the bigger and heavier the lens and the more light the binocular will let in, producing a brighter image. The trick, however, is to not have the objective lens be so big and heavy that it would take King Kong to lug around the binoculars.

In general, good, all-purpose binoculars for general birding have a magnification of 8 and the objective lens is somewhere around 42. Some people (Lillian included) do use 10 power binoculars and they can be fine for birding, but the higher power magnifies hand shake. So don't try to withdraw from coffee while using them.

Today is the anniversary of the day we got Daisy 13 years ago. Daisy here is your cookie. Woof.

Photos of Royal Tern and Daisy Stokes © Lillian Stokes

Monday, February 20, 2006

Shorebird Anxiety

Mention the word "shorebirds" and many birders get out their paper bags and start hyperventilating. Their anxiety stems from the fact that shorebirds are one of the tougher groups of birds to identify. Who wouldn't hyperventilate? Shorebirds are, for the most part, small, brown and look similar. Plus, they're are not always standing on your toes to make ID easy. You often need a scope to get good looks at the shorebirds on distant mudflats.

Is there a shortcut to learning these difficult birds? Today we are teaching a shorebird course and one of our messages is, to help take the stress out of learning shorebirds, look at shorebird shapes. Shape stays roughly the same through ages, seasons, sexes, and molt. Shape is often distinctive when plumage may not be.

Train your eye to look at the outline of shorebirds. Notice the length and shape of the bill, the size and countour of the head, the length and depth of the body. Is the bill longer than the length of the head, clearly shorter, or about as long? How long are the legs, and how is the body balanced on the legs? Is there more of the body in front of the legs, or behind? By training yourself to be sensitive to shape you will be better able to identify even what you thought were look-alike species.

Get out in the field and practice. If you cannot be in the field, a good way to work on shape is to look at bird photos, in books or on the internet. Here are some photos to practice on. The first is a Black-bellied Plover, Dunlin in the middle, and Piping Plover last.

Another resource is our photographic,
Stokes Beginner's Guide To Shorebirds (covers all N.A. shorebirds, used by novice-avid birders). It is organized by shorebird size and shape. So next time you see shorebirds, put the paper bags down and shape-up. Train yourself to look at shape and shorebird identification will be, if not easy, at least easier.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Leapin' Limpkins

We visited Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, in FL. today with some friends. Corkscrew is a preserve with a 2.25 mile long boardwalk that takes you through a prairie, cypress forest and marsh with excellent views of wildlife such as, herons, warblers, vireos, and marsh birds.
As we entered the cypress forest we heard some incredible screams, what we knew to be the calls of a Limpkin. We sped over to where the sounds were coming from and saw two Limpkins mating in some distant trees. One stayed in the trees, and the other came and fed right in front of where we were standing. Lucky us! Limpkins are often hard to find. These large, brown, heron-like birds have special bills that allow them to feed on snails. This one actively hunted in the marsh vegetation, raising its wings after a short hop.
Corkscrew is famous for the endangered Wood Storks that feed and nest there. Wood Storks have rather prehistoric looking heads, but beautiful white feathers with black edges to their wings. One flew over as we looked up.

In the marsh a little Yellow-rumped Warbler landed on a leaf. You can see the yellow rump and also white spots on the outer tail feathers. Yellow-rumps overwinter here and eat insects and berries. We saw many other herons, warblers, Gray Catbirds, titmice, Carolina Wrens, Eastern Phoebes and more, but the highlight was the Limpkin.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Mockingbird Mystery

The Northern Mockingbird in our neighborhood in Florida has begun to sing recently. We can tell because there suddenly seems to be less "air time" for other birds. The Mockingbird's constant singing dominates the place. Mockingbirds mimic the sounds of other birds, and even other noises (including fire engines!), repeating each sound three or more times. So in fact, when you hear bird song, you begin to wonder, is it the real thing, or a Mockingbird messing with my mind?

One litmus test to distinguish if it's a mocker is to listen carefully and discern if the notes are being repeated in groups of three or more. So if you hear 3 notes of Cardinal song, then 3 notes of Blue Jay scolding, then 3 notes of a Gray Catbird, etc. all in rapid succession, chances are it's a Mockingbird singing.

Our neighborhood mocker seems to mimic the songs of other birds that are around here. One mystery though, is that it has also been adding the notes of Gray Kingbird into its "song." Gray Kingbirds are migrants that do not arrive in Florida (where they breed) until usually sometime in March or in April. So how does the Mockingbird know to incorporate the song of a bird that is not even here yet? Does the Mockingbird remember the Gray Kingbird's song from last year? Only the mockingbird knows.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Bird Yoga

At first glance these plovers looks like they’re doing yoga. Actually they’re preening. Birds spend a lot of time preening each day in order to maintain their feathers, which are their only clothes. Lacking a brush and comb, they use what they have. This cute Snowy Plover is leaning over its back and pulling some feathers through its bill. The Semi-palmated Plover has one leg raised and is about to bring it up over its left wing and scratch its head. It’s no wonder it hasn’t fallen over. Don’t try this at home.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Magic Moment

There are many magic moments in birding. The more you get out in the field, the more you will experince them. We were recently in Ding Darling NWR at the end of the day and experienced this beautiful scene. As the sun was setting, birds of all sizes and shapes came in to the Tower Pond section of the refuge. Willets and Short-billed Dowitchers jockeyed for position on the exposed sand bar. Great Egrets stood heads above the shorebird crowd. And in the middle of it all, over 70 Roseate Spoonbills flew in to preen and stretch their wings. A magic moment.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006


Hi there, we are Don and Lillian Stokes. Welcome to our Blog. We will frequently give you updates and information about all aspects of birding, whether it's in the backyard or afield. We also want to share with you the beauty of birds captured by Lillian's bird photographs. In addition, we will keep you posted about things we are doing and our many wonderful products. So stay tuned :)


Finding rails is about as easy as finding a ghost in dense fog. These usually secretive marsh birds rarely give you a good glimpse and are more often heard than seen. Plus, they're crepuscular, meaning they feed at dawn and dusk — not great light for views or photography. We got lucky and found an area where a Clapper Rail and a Sora Rail have been feeding out in the open in the early morning and at night. Of course, we have been watching them through our "DLS" binoculars which give superb views of birds at low light, maintaining color and sharpness. And Lillian was able to get photos with the Canon 1D Mark II. The Clapper would walk about and poke into the water with its long down-curved bill, take a short time out while hiding behind some grasses, then resume feeding. The Sora is smaller than the Clapper and has a short, blunt, yellow bill. It acted more skitterish than the Clapper, flitting in and out of the grasses while feeding.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Happy Valentine's Day

Here is a preening Roseate Spoonbill that looks like a big Valentine's Day heart. It has its right wing raised, and is preening its belly so you can't see its head, only its eye peeking out from its left side. Lillian couldn't resist taking this photo. Roseate (pronounced rosy-et) Spoonbills are amazing pink birds with big spoon-shaped bills that they use to swish through the water and catch little fish. The pink color always reminds us of cotton candy. They live primarily in Florida and the Gulf Coast. Here is another Roseate Spoonbill doing a balancing act as it lands on a perch. Note the shape of the bill. Many people who encounter a Spoonbill for the first time mistakenly think its a Flamingo because of the pink color. The bill of a Flamingo is much shorter and differently shaped than a Spoonbill's bill.