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Thursday, August 31, 2006

Keep watching

We saw over 400 Common Nighthawks last night, in addition to the 500 plus we saw on Aug. 28th. When you take the time to look for birds, you see some amazing things. So keep watching! Have a nice holiday weekend.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Common Nighthawk MIgration

Common Nighthawk feeding with mouth open.

Common Nighthawk, male. Males have white throats and white bar on tail, females have buffy throat and no bar. Both have white bar across wing tips.

Don counting nighthawks..."62..63..64....."

Common Nighthawk against mountain ridge.

And up with the nighthawks were several migrating Monarch Butterflies!

Last night we counted 516 Common Nighthawks migrating over our property in southern NH. The weather was cool and overcast, not what you'd think was an ideal condition for migrating. We heard their telltale call, a nasal "peent", at around 4:00 PM, dropped everything and went down by our pond (which is a dammed up part of a river) to count them. Many of them were feeding over the water with their beautiful, acrobatic flight, seeming like very large swallows. They continued to come in along the ridge of the mountain across from us and at one point, we saw some drop down out of the clouds and join 131 others that were rising in a thermal, just like Broad-winged Hawks, very cool! We continued to watch and count until about 5:45 when they stopped appearing and the fog descended over the mountain.

What a thrill for us! Common Nighthawks are strange birds that feed at dusk and scoop up flying insects in their large mouths. They nest across much of the country, on gravelly soil in fields, or even gravel rooftops in cities. One of the best times to see them is during migration, which is taking place right now. So take your binoculars, go out at dusk to a location with good sight lines and see if you can spot them. We'll be looking too. If you live in certain parts of MA and NH, you can contribute to their Common Nighthawk migration study.

I photographed these birds, and even the Monarch Butterfly in flight, in challenging, cloudy conditions with my Canon 1D Mark II camera with a Canon IS 300 mm lens and a 1.4 teleconverter. Wish it had been sunny.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Birders at Western Reef-Heron sighting

A celebrity rare bird

It was seen from the the bridge in New Castle near the Wentworth-By-The-Sea hotel

Don views it from near the bridge

Birders looking it up in the African field guides

We first saw it on our wedding anniversary, what a great gift for us!!

Birders looking at it from the town pier in Kittery, Maine

There we saw Alan and Barbara Delorey. Alan is the author of A Birder's Guide to New Hampshire. Barbara's vision is fine. She said she is wearing the eye patch to block off the vision in her left eye, while she looks through the scope for long periods with her right eye. Great idea. Beats holding your left eye closed for a long time.

And the award for the youngest birder to see this heron goes to Daniel who was 5 days old!!!!! His parents, Jamie and Alena (who said Daniel really did have his eyes open), said this is not only Daniel's first life bird, it is his first bird, period. What a start to his birding career. Way to go Daniel!

Birders viewing the heron from Rt. 1B in New Castle, NH, where I photographed it. That's my big lens in the middle of photo.

The possible Western-Reef Heron was was still being seen as of yesterday, August 26th, in NH. It was first spotted in Kittery, Maine on August 18th and has been seen at locations both in New Hampshire and Maine since then. We saw it over several days in both states. This is a rare bird sighting of mega-magnitude, since Western-Reef Herons have only been recorded before in North America three times, (in Nova Scotia earlier this summer, in Newfoundland in 2005 and in Nantucket in 1983). No matter what this bird turns out to be, based on the latest thoughts on taxonomy, it was a very exciting occurence for us and all the birders who came to see it.
We had so much fun sharing this event with other birders and seeing old friends, as well as meeting new people. This camraderie and excitement is one of the things that makes birding such a rewarding and addictive hobby.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Possible Western Reef-Heron, cont'd.

Next three photos show a variety of feeding behaviors.

Here are more photos of the interesting heron that is being seen in NH and ME. The heron was discovered in Kittery Point, ME on Friday, 8/18/06. On the afternoon of Saturday, 8/19/06, it was seen near Newcastle, NH. It then alternated for the next several days, between ME in the morning and NH in the afternoon. It was still being seen today in NH on Rt. 1B, in New Castle.
The reason we are saying it is a possible Western Reef-Heron (sometimes called Western Reef Egret), is that there are some differences in the current resources as to the identification of this species and we wanted to take time to further explore the current state of thinking on the possible classification of this bird.
When we first saw the bird, we, and other birders with us, were having trouble reconciling the dark bill, dark lores, and black legs with fairly bright yellow feet with the pictures in field guides that birders had present at the site (these included: Birds of East Africa and the new National Geographic Complete Birds of NA). Most other field guides to North American birds do not include Western Reef Heron. When we got home, we continued to reference other guides and here is a summary of what we discovered.

What current field guides say about Western Reef-Heron

boea=Birds of East Africa by Stevenson and Fanshawe, pub. 2002
boem= Birds of Europe by Killian Millarney, pub. 1999
boej= Birds of Europe by Lars Jonsson, pub. 1993
ng= the newest Nat. Geo. Complete Birds of NA ed. by J. Alderfer, pub.2006
bowa = Birds of Western Africa by Borrow and Demey, pub. 2004

Bill Color
boea — yellowish brown
boem — variable, usually yellowish with darker culmen
boej — yellow to brownish with irregular dark elements
ng — dusky yellow
bowa — does not discuss (shows dusky yellowish)

The ME/NH bird: slate black bill with pale gray on extreme base of lower mandible (seen in blowups of photos).

Bill Shape
boea — slightly decurved
boem — a little longer and deeper-based than Little Egret, almost always slightly curved
boej — thicker than Little Egret with slightly more curved culmen
ng — subtle decurviture at tip
bowa — heavier than Little Egret, slightly drooped tip

The ME/NH bird: Bill seems to be long, rather straight.

Leg and Feet Color
boea — legs dark green, yellow on feet extends half-way up tarsus
boem — legs greenish gray-black to halfway or more down tarsus, rest of tarsus and toes dull yellow, legs can be more extensively grayish yellow
boej — legs dark with greenish yellow to yellow tones, subspecies schistacea (in India) has yellow feet and tarsus or patchy yellow tarsus; subspecies gularis (in Africa) legs dark brown, feet bright yellow
ng — legs black, feet yellow, feet black during courtship
bowa — greenish black legs, yellowish feet and lower legs

The ME/NH bird: Legs blackish all the way down to toes with slightly paler gray tibia (when dry, black when wet), toes bright yellow with a spur of yellow extending up the back of the tarsus for about 1 inch

boea — yellow (pictured dark)
boem — blue-gray, reddish during courtship
boej — (shows dark or pale gray, does not discuss)
ng — dusky yellow, red during courtship
bowa — does not discuss (shows dusky yellow)

The ME/NH bird: lores are dark bluish gray

boea — does not discuss
boem — does not discuss
boej — does not discuss
ng — does not discuss
bowa — variable white patch on primary coverts (shows obvious white outer primary greater coverts)

The ME/NH bird: Has an all-dark wing except for a small pale area at the base of the primary greater coverts (only seen in some flight postures from photos where primary coverts are lifted)

Going by the field guides alone, the ME/NH bird looked most like the dark morph Little Egret illustrated in Birds of East Africa.

Since then we have researched this issue and talked to many people and gotten some interesting feedback. Most of this information is about the taxonomy of Little Egret, Western Reef-Heron, and Dimorphic Egret, all of which have been split and lumped in just about any way that you could dream up.

But, it turns out that a highly-respected german researcher, Andreas Helbig, was doing work on the relationship of these species just before he recently died. A brief mention of his results and beliefs was kindly sent to us by Nikolas Haass from Philadelphia, a fellow of the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club and a member of the New Jersey Bird Records Committee. With his permission, here is a copy of his communication. (For clarification, there is both a Western and Eastern African population of Reef-Herons.)

Dear Lillian, Don and Jersey Birders,

Firstly, I don't have any doubts about the ID of the
Maine bird. I think it is a 'Western Western Reef
Heron', which I called 'Southern Little Egret' below.
Interestingly Eastern Western Reef Heron is commonly
kept in captivity and thus a frequent escapee. Western
Western Reef Heron seems not to be that common in
captivity. Thus, the bird might even be a 'wild' bird!
However, they are no long distance migrants... But I
don't want to discuss that, I'd rather wanted to give
more information or confusion concerning the taxonomy:

More details of the Western Reef Heron taxonomy:
gularis (Bosc, 1792), breeds at the West African
coast, schistacea (Hemprich & Ehrenberg, 1828) breeds
at the Indian Ocean coast, dimorpha (Hartert 1914)
breeds on islands in the Indian Ocean (CRAMP & SIMMONS
1977; HANCOCK & KUSHLAN 1984; DEL HOYO et al. 1992).

(1976); CRAMP & SIMMONS (1977); PAYNE (1979);
SIBLEY & MONROE (1990); SVENSSON et. al. (2000) treat
Western Reef Heron as a separate species.

HANCOCK & KUSHLAN (1984), DEL HOYO et al. (1992)
however, treat all forms of Western Reef Heron as
subspecies of Little Egret: Egretta garzetta gularis,
Egretta garzetta schistacea und Egretta garzetta

VOISIN (1991) treats Dimorphic Heron Egretta gularis
dimorpha as subspecies of Western Reef Heron.

(1977) treat Dimorphic Egret Heron Egretta gularis
dimorpha as subspecies of Little Egret Egretta
garzetta dimorpha (although they treat Western Reef
Heron as a separate species: E. gularis gularis and E.
gularis schistacea)

(1990) treat Dimorphic Egret as a separate species:
Egretta dimorpha ("Mascarene Reef-Egret" in SIBLEY &
MONROE 1990).

WOLTERS (1976) treats the Eastern form of Western Reef
Heron as separate species: Egretta schistacea.

The late Andreas Helbig (he is the one who split
European Larus argentatus and American Herring Gull L.
smithsonianus) summarized his work in Bauer et al.
(2005) (cf. also BARTHEL IN SVENSSON et at. 2000):
The Western (Atlantic) form of Western Reef Heron
Egretta [garzetta] garzetta gularis seems to be a
southern SUBSPECIES of LITTLE EGRET Egretta [garzetta]
garzetta. Similar to Snow Goose and 'Blue Goose' which
originally were geographically separate populations of
the same species, the southern subspecies of Little
Egret (gularis) occurs predominantly in the dark
In contrast, the Eastern (Indian Ocean) form of
Western Reef Heron Egretta schistacea (formerly
Egretta gularis schistacea) seems neither closely
related to Little Egret nor to 'Western' Western Reef
Heron (better 'Southern' Little Egret, this name is my
personal input), but seems to be a different species
and NOT even a member of the superspecies Egretta
On the other hand the Madagaskar form Egretta
[garzetta] dimorpha might be a separate species within
the superspecies Egretta [garzetta]!

Of course Eastern Reef Heron Egretta sacra remains
a different species.

A German summary of all that will be found in HAASS
(in press) and a summarizing German ID paper to all
the confusing egrets has been published in Limicola
(HAASS 1997).

Handbuch der Vögel Mitteleuropas. Bd. 1. - Frankfurt
am Main.
BAUER, H.G., E. BEZZEL & W. FIEDLER (2005): Das
Kompendium der Vögel Mitteleuropas. - Wiebelsheim
CRAMP, S. & K.E.L. SIMMONS (1977): Handbook of the
Birds of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. The
Birds of the Western Palearctic. Vol. 1: Ostrich to
Ducks. - Oxford, London, New York (Oxford University
HANCOCK, J. & J. KUSHLAN (1984): The Herons Handbook.
Paintings by R. GILLMOR & P. HAYMAN. - London & Sydney
(Croom Helm).
HAASS, N.K. (1997): Rätselvogel 62: Küstenreiher
Egretta gularis. Limicola 11: 310-311.
HAASS, N.K. (in press): Egretta gularis Bosc, 1792.
Küstenreiher. In: HÖLZINGER, J. (in press): Die Vögel
Baden-Württenbergs 2.1. - Stuttgart.
Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 1: Ostrich to
Ducks. - Barcelona (Lynx Edicions).
PAYNE, R.B. (1979): Ardeidae. In MAYR & COTTERELL
(eds.). Peter’s Check List of the Birds of the World
(2nd ed.). Mus. Comp. Zool., Cambridge, Mass.
PAYNE, R.B. & C.J. RISLEY (1976): Systematics and
evolutionary relationships among the herons
(Ardeidae). Univ. Mich. Mus. Zool. Misc. Publ. No.
SIBLEY, C.G. & B.L. MONROE (1990): Distribution and
Taxonomy of Birds of the World. New Haven.
(2000): Vögel Europas, Nordafrikas und Vorderasiens.
VOISIN, C. (1991): The Herons of Europe. London (T &
AD Poyser).
WOLTERS, H.E. (1975-1982): Die Vogelarten der Erde. -
Hamburg und Berlin (Parey).

Summing up where things now stand

Nothing is finalized, but it may be that the ME/NH bird could be called a dark morph (Southern) Little Egret. Little Egrets do breed on Barbados and the Nat. Geo. Guide says that dark morph Little Egrets breed there too (we are presently trying to confirm this). It is possible that dark morph (Southern) Little Egrets migrate north from Barbados in spring and south in fall and this is why we see them on the East Coast. All of this is still conjecture and of course the taxonomy suggested above has not been officially accepted by the American Ornithologists' Union. Still there is much room for thought, discovery, and research on these exciting birds.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Possible Western Reef-Heron

With juvenile Snowy Egret
With Snowy Egret
With Snowy Egret

Over the last two days we saw this possible Western Reef-Heron that has been reported from Kittery, ME and New Castle, NH. Here are some photos I took from the road, Rt. 1B, by Goat Island, NH, today at around 2:30 when the bird was seen close to shore. We will have more on this interesting bird, shortly.
I was using a Cannon ID Mark II camera and Canon 500 mm IS lens with a 2 x teleconverter. Images were shot in RAW and cropped in Photoshop.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Parker River, NWR, Plum Island, MA

Entrance to Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, Plum Island, MA

Observation Tower at Hellcat Wildlife Observation Area in the refuge

Don scanning the pool near the tower

There hundreds of shorebirds and waterfowl

Lillian photogaphing birds at the Salt Pannes with her Canon 1D Mark II camera and 500mm IS lens.

Lesser Yellowlegs reflected in the blue water

We loved watching the feisty Semipalmated Sandpipers chase the Least Sandpipers.

Purples Martins breed at the refuge in summer. This migrant hovered like an avian angel.

We recently went birding at one of our favorite birding hotspots, Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, located on Plum Island near Newburyport, MA. The weather was perfect so we were happy campers. The refuge is on a barrier island and consists of 4,662 acres of superb wildlife habitat with salt marshes, impoundment pools, beaches, and vegetation like Bayberry and Beach Plums. There is a road down the center and you can stop and view birds in the marshes and pools. Above are some of our favorite images from the trip.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Gone Birding

We have gone birding to Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, on Plum Island, MA. We will be back soon and have photos for you.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Baby, Look At You Now

Here is the baby American Robin we kept cool during the heat wave, considerably grown up into an adorable fledgling. I photographed it a few days ago, just after it left the nest. As you can see, it was sitting in the middle of our lawn, looking innocent and vulnerable. The temptation to pick up this baby was compelling, but I resisted. I could hear its parent nearby in a tree, giving soft alarm calls. I knew it would be cared for and my job was to back off and let the parent do its job.

So many times fledglings like this are scooped up by well-meaning people, convinced the fledgling has been adandoned. What a tragedy. If only they knew how to back up and observe from a distance, keep kids and cats indoors, and let the parents care for the fledgling and lead it to cover.

As it happened, a short while later Daddy Robin was seen feeding this baby, who had fluttered up on a 4 ft. high rock. The following day the fledgling was farther back in the woods. We watched Daddy foraging on our lawn, mouth stuffed Puffin-like, with juicy worms lined up in his bill, meant for this fledgling. The female Robin, meanwhile, had taken the other two fledglings from this brood to a different area of our property.

By the way, if you ever do find a truly abandoned fledgling or nestling, (confirmed by observing it for quite a while to be sure no parent is involved), you should know it is not legal for you to keep and raise a native bird. Bring the fledgling to a licensed bird rehabilitator.

Photo © Lillian Stokes, 2006

Monday, August 14, 2006


Today's Hoover Vacuum Cleaner award goes to........

Photo © Lillian Stokes, 2006

Friday, August 11, 2006

First Flight: House Wren

"To go, or not to go, that is the question."

"I dunno, that ground looks pretty far down."

" I go."

"I made it out of the box, now feed me, feed, me!"

I was photographing our box of House Wrens that were close to fledging and watched this baby. It had wedged itself so far out of the box, there was no turning back. It looked around and up and down, then got up its courage and launched itself. It fluttered a few feet and landed on the trelllis in the vines and promptly started to beg for food from the nearby adult. By the end of the day it had moved, along with the rest of its family, quite a distance to our woods.

Ahh, more House Wren babies in the world. Not everyone likes House Wrens because they can stuff many boxes with twigs before choosing one to nest in, and even evict resident birds from boxes. But, you gotta love 'em. Cute as a button, with a bubbly, cheerful song and endless chatter. The chatter reminds us of the sound made when a kid puts a playing card in their bicycle wheel.

All photos © Lillian Stokes, 2006