Andrew home
Wild Bird Watching

Archives, 2005

Wild Birds archives

Birding Web sites:


December 28, 2005 [LINK]

Wood ducks on the pond

Wood duck After washing the car yesterday, I walked across the street to the pond at Gypsy Hill Park, and was delighted to see, amidst the dozens of Mallards and motley other ducks and geese, a beautiful, multi-colored Wood duck. I hadn't seen any there in several months, and in fact, there were two of them: a male and a female. I was surprised to hear them emit quiet squeaks rather than quacks. Wood ducks are notably smaller than Mallards, and shier as well. Indeed, when I returned today with camera in hand, they kept paddling away from me. A family was tossing bread to the ducks, in spite of the signs posted at the duck pellet vending machines urging people not to do so. Those machines help fund the Wildlife Center of Virginia.

Roll mouse over the image to see the female Wood duck, which is plainer.

December 26, 2005 [LINK]

Sharp-shinned hawk attack

Sharp-shinned hawk closeup I heard some rustling in the holly bush outside my window this morning, and sure enough I soon saw a Sharp-shinned hawk perched on top of the bird feeder. Photo op! As I was transfering the photos into the computer, sadly, I heard a tiny scream and saw the hawk fly away, presumably with lunch in its grasp. I hope its victim wasn't a goldfinch. It has since returned at least twice. Based on its relatively small size (about that of a pigeon) and plumage, I would say it is an adult male.

Princess apparently saw the hawk, because she was hiding in some unknown corner of the canary room for over a half hour. George was resting in the bedroom, blissfully unaware.

While driving up to Northern Virginia on Saturday [virtually no truck traffic: O joy! ] we saw a Great blue heron flying, the first one in quite a few weeks. The usual complement of Red-tailed hawks and American kestrels were perched alongside Interstate 81 at regular intervals.

December 17, 2005 [LINK]

Christmas Bird Count 2005

Because of a lack of volunteers this year, I had to do my circuit on the Christmas Bird Count alone. I covered the same section of northern Augusta County I did last year (with Mark Adams); see Dec. 19, 2004 blog entry. It was picturesque snow-covered scenery, with varied terrain, including rolling pasturelands, wooded ravines, and river valleys. Like last year, however, it was very cold, and many of the remote country roads were covered with slick ice. All in all, it was a pretty good day of birding, as I saw a total of 36 species -- the same as last year! The highlight was when I got an excellent closeup view of an adult male Yellow-bellied sapsucker, with bright red crown and throat, and an immature one right next to him. I deliberately left my camera at home to save time, and I knew I would probably miss a photo-op such as that one. Here is my complete count for today:

  • 4 Mallards
  • 3 Black vultures
  • 18 Turkey vultures
  • 4 Red-tailed hawks
  • 1 Sharp-shinned hawk*
  • 2 American kestrels
  • 56 Rock dove (pigeon)
  • 10 Mourning doves
  • 7 Red-bellied woodpeckers
  • 3 Yellow-bellied sapsuckers
  • 7 Downy woodpeckers
  • 1 Hairy woodpecker *
  • 2 Northern flickers
  • 22 Blue jays
  • 33 American crows
  • 3 Carolina chickadees
  • 4 Tufted titmice
  • 3 White-breasted nuthatches
  • 7 Carolina wrens
  • 19 Eastern bluebirds
  • 40 Robin
  • 1 Hermit thrush* (HO)
  • 12 Northern mockingbirds
  • 1 Gray catbird* !!!
  • 15 Yellow-rumped warblers*
  • 10 Song sparrows
  • 31 White-throated sparrows
  • 3 White-crowned sparrows
  • 16 Dark-eyed juncos
  • 12 Northern cardinals
  • 1 Eastern towhee* (HO)
  • 4 House finches
  • 4 American goldfinches
  • 4 Eastern meadowlarks*
  • 506 European starlings
  • 8 House sparrows

  • * -- not seen last year
    (HO) -- heard only

Ironically, the biggest birding achievement of the day came after I returned home. I went for a quick walk behind the Staunton-Augusta Rescue Squad just before sunset, and sure enough I saw the catbird, which I had last seen (and photographed) on December 6. It is not the first time that a catbird has been sighted during a Christmas Bird Count in this area, but it was still a rare occurrence. The "hardy straggler" probably should be a few hundred miles south of here right now.

Goldfinch set free

Jacqueline let the ailing goldfinch which we gave shelter go free the morning after I brought it inside. The warm air seemed to revive it; I hope it's still doing all right.

December 14, 2005 [LINK]

Br-r-r-r! Goldfinch takes refuge

Goldfinch, Princess, George A Sharp-shinned hawk was swooping about in the back yard today, and I soon noticed a Goldfinch that seemed to be ailing, just sitting on the ground with its feathers all puffed up. Wild birds are especially vulnerable to injuries when it is so cold outside, and I thought this one might be in shock. It remained surprisingly calm as I approached it and brought him inside to examine it. Princess and George only grudgingly came to accept their temporary house guest (on the left in this photo), which we will release tomorrow, assuming all is well. Its appetite is certainly healthy. The rule of thumb is to let sick or injured wild animals be, or else take them to a certified treatment center; "Don't try this at home."

(Roll mouse over image to see closeup; click on it to revert.)

I have separated the "blog" [posts, links, and special lists from] the more-or-less permanent portions of the Wild birds page; the latter have been moved to the new Wild birds introductory page.

December 8, 2005 [LINK]

Winter ducks on Bell's Lane

It has been cold as the Dickens lately, but I happened to be passing by the Bell's Lane area around mid-day, so I decided to stop and look for birds. Not surprisingly, some of the ponds were totally iced over. No harriers or owls were present, but I did see quite a few winter ducks, some of which were for the first time this season, plus a variety of smaller birds. Today's highlights:

  • Red-tailed hawks
  • Savannah sparrows
  • White-crowned sparrows
  • Red-bellied woodpecker
  • Meadowlark
  • House finches
  • Field sparrows
  • American coots
  • Redheads (FOS)
  • Ruddy ducks
  • Shovelers (FOS)
  • Ring-necked ducks (prob.; far)
  • Gadwalls (FOS)

December 6, 2005 [LINK]

Winter arrives, catbird remains

It snowed yesterday for the first time this season here in Virginia. We got about four inches, altogether. As the ground slowly turned white, we had as many as 25 ravenous goldfinches (see new closeup photo) at our feeders, plus a few juncos, Carolina wrens, and song sparrows. About 3:00 a Sharp-shinned hawk swooped into the back yard, frightening the smaller birds away. After resting for about 15 minutes on a tree branch, it zoomed away at an amazing speed.

This morning, bright blue skies framed the snow-covered trees, reminding us that tropical countries don't have all the fun. So, I went out for a walk (or a "trudge," actually) behind the Staunton-Augusta Rescue Squad with camera in hand to record the "winter wonderland." To my delight, I soon heard and then saw that "straggler" Gray catbird that has been lingering in that area. A Sharp-shinned hawk (same one as yesterday?) spooked it and other birds to take refuge in the bushes, but it eventually ventured back out and posed for this picture. It is the first catbird I have ever seen during the winter months; perhaps the snow will persuade it to join its friends further south. Catbirds normally winter in the Deep South and parts of Mexico, ranging as far north along the Atlantic coast as Tidewater Virginia. I also got a decent picture of a Song sparrow, and saw some Yellow-bellied sapsuckers (male and female), and even a Pileated woodpecker (female), which are seldom seen in this neighborhood.

December 4, 2005 [LINK]

More Fox sparrows

The cold spell eased enough for me to go on a comfortable walk behind the Staunton-Augusta Rescue Squad this morning. [Snow is forecast for this evening!] In the distance I spotted a Sharp-shinned hawk flying and then diving after its intended prey. I also saw at least a couple dozen Cedar waxwings, and quite a few Robins, as well as a Hermit thrush and some Fox sparrows. Unfortunately, the only picture I got of one of them was with the sun in back, resulting in excessive glare, but the bold streaks are still visible. Oddly, no woodpeckers or nuthatches appeared, though I did hear a few. No sign of that late-lingering catbird, either.

UPDATE: While clearing out the huge stack of accumulated e-mail messages from my in-box this weekend, I came across a few birding Web sites in other countries, so I've added them to my list of birding Web links: Gone Birding (Costa Rica), (Lima, Peru), and (French).

November 30, 2005 [LINK]

Northern harriers

I drove out to Bell's Lane late this afternoon, and sure enough, I saw three Northern harriers, which were reported by Allen Larner. They were the first harriers of the season for me: one adult male (gray) and two females or juveniles (brown). Augusta Bird Club member Jo King arrived while I was scanning the fields, but we never did see the hoped-for Short-eared owl. On the lower pond that is visible from the high point, I saw a Great blue heron, a dozen or so American coots, plus some Mallards, probable Ruddy ducks, and other ducks. Several meadowlarks were calling, and I spotted one on the ground, and a White-breasted nuthatch, which seemed out of place in such open country.

A Sharp-shinned hawk landed in our back yard this afternoon, but flew away before I could get a picture. Princess and George were unaware, thankfully.

November 29, 2005 [LINK]

Big dipper!

Dipper During a family visit to Colorado for Thanksgiving, my brother John was lucky to get this photo of an American dipper in the town of Lyon. Dippers habituate mountain streams in the West, and are unique among songbirds in being able to swim! The entire Midwest was blanketed by a blizzard just after John, Dan, and Dad returned home; whew!

Here in the Old Dominion, it's been raining cats and dogs almost all day, and many rivers are flooded. Local bird expert Allen Larner sighted some Northern harriers and a Short-eared owl in the Bell's Lane area yesterday, so I'm going to take a look when the weather clears up.

November 27, 2005 [LINK]

Fox sparrow, Winter wren

I took advantage of the first mild temperatures in several days by going for a walk on the trail behind Staunton-Augusta Rescue Squad this morning, and saw the two above-named birds for the first time this season. There was a nice variety of other winter birds, with the notable absence of any kinglets. To my surprise, given the recent cold snap, I saw a late-lingering catbird back there once again, probably the same one as I saw on Nov. 14.

  • Red-bellied woodpeckers
  • Towhees
  • Robins
  • Yellow-rumped warblers
  • Fox sparrows (FOS)
  • Purple finches
  • Cedar waxwings
  • Downy woodpeckers (F, M)
  • Hairy woodpecker (F)
  • Winter wren (FOS)
  • Goldfinches
  • Yellow-bellied sapsucker (F)
  • White-breasted nuthatch
  • Catbird (VERY late in the season!)

Osprey Web cam at Blackwater

Eagle at Webcam My friend Dave Givens sent me a link to a Web camera mounted on an Osprey nest platform at the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge, south of Annapolis, Maryland. The image reloads automatically every 30 seconds. Most of the time it's empty, but I got lucky this afternoon, when this Bald eagle showed up. See, or just click on the image.

November 15, 2005 [LINK]

Snake again!

I searched for the late-lingering catbird behind the Staunton-Augusta Rescue Squad this morning, but no dice. Otherwise, pretty much the same birds as before. Highlights:

  • Towhees (M, F, J)
  • Cedar waxwings (high)
  • Bluebirds (high)
  • Goldfinches
  • Downy woodpecker (M, F)
  • Red-bellied woodpecker (far)
  • Golden-crowned kinglet
  • White-breasted nuthatch

Also, I saw that Black rat snake in the same bush as it was in yesterday, and got a much better photo of it this time, so I replaced the old one. For good measure, I added two new photo gallery pages: Reptiles [revised link], and Virginia, Fall 2005 (part II), which has recent photos of fall foliage.

November 14, 2005 [LINK]

More of John's bird photos

Nashville Warbler After some prompting on my part, my brother John sent me another batch of bird photos he has taken recently, including this Nashville Warbler, one of the most inaptly-named members of the warbler family. It was seen at Spirit Mound, South Dakota in October. Others can be seen on the Photo gallery main page.

Late catbird

Highlights of this morning's walk behind the Staunton-Augusta Rescue Squad:

  • Gray catbird
  • Towhees (M, F, J)
  • House finches
  • Purple finch (M)
  • Goldfinches
  • Downy woodpecker (M)
  • Red-bellied woodpecker (F)

I don't recall ever seeing a catbird so late in the season, but I'll have to check my records. I also caught a glimpse of a probable Winter wren, which would be the first of the season. Another surprise was seeing a Black rat snake resting in the middle of a bare bush. For a much better closeup shot of the head by a professional, see [corrected link]

November 12, 2005 [LINK]

Bell's Lane A.M.

It was a bright and sunny but chilly morning, with frost on the cars. I was a bit surprised not to see any hawks as I drove along Bell's Lane on the way back from breakfast. Highlights:

  • 80+ Canada geese
  • 5+ Meadowlarks
  • 5+ Savannah sparrows
  • Goldfinches
  • House finch (JM)
  • 3 American coots
  • 7 Ruddy ducks
  • Cedar waxwing
  • Downy woodpecker

November 7, 2005 [LINK]

Lake Moomaw field trip

I joined several members of the Augusta Bird Club for a field trip to Lake Moomaw on Sunday. It was the first time I had ever been to that remote mountain recreation area, near the West Virginia border. Led by Allen Larner, our group made a preliminary stop at the reservoir on Back Creek, where Dominion Power has a hydroelectric generating station, about 10 miles to the northeast. The temperature was mild for the most part, but it was quite windy and mostly cloudy. I saw several first-of-season birds, and one life bird: a Red-throated loon, identified by Allen Larner. Most of the birds were too far away for good photographs, however, except for this Cooper's hawk that flew overhead. Sunday's highlights, in rough chronological order (not an exhaustive list):

  • Red-tailed hawks *
  • Great blue herons (one in tree top!) *
  • Bald eagles (2 J, 1 A) *
  • Cedar waxwings *
  • Goldfinches *
  • American coots (FOS)
  • Pied-billed grebe (FOS) *
  • Ring-necked duck (FOS)
  • Greater or lesser (?) scaup (FOS)
  • Red-bellied woodpeckers *
  • Flickers *
  • Downy woodpeckers
  • Common loon (FOS)
  • Red-throated loon (LIFE BIRD)
  • Golden-crowned kinglets
  • Ruby-crowned kinglets
  • Black-capped chickadees
  • Brown creeper
  • Towhee
  • Cooper's hawk
  • Purple finches (M, F)
  • Hermit thrush (seen only by me)

* -- seen in more than one location.

November 5, 2005 [LINK]

Brown creeper, Golden-crowned kinglets

Brown creeper I saw two more first-of-season birds on the trail behind the Staunton-Augusta Rescue Squad this morning: a Brown creeper (pictured here, roll your mouse over the image to see this well-camouflaged bird from a different angle) and several Golden-crowned kinglets. It was the first time in the nine years that I have been keeping records that I did not see the latter bird until November. A couple days ago I heard a Blue-headed vireo in that area, but there was no sign of it today. It would have been an unusually late sighting of that neotropical species. Today's highlights:

  • Downy woodpecker
  • Eastern towhee
  • White-breasted nuthatch
  • Yellow-bellied sapsuckers
  • Flicker
  • Red-bellied woodpecker
  • Cedar waxwings (20+)
  • Golden-crowned kinglets (6+, FOS)
  • Brown creeper (FOS)
  • Ruby-crowned kinglet
  • Robins, blue jays, white-throated sparrows

October 31, 2005 [LINK]

Fall in Montgomery Hall Park

I was lured outside by yet another gorgeous fall day, and took several pictures of the fall foliage, which is quickly passing the peak phase. The best one was of the "flaming" multi-hued tree (red oak, I believe) in front of Stuart Hall, a private boarding school across the street from, and affiliated with, Emmanuel Episcopal Church. I also went for a walk on YuLee's Trail at Montgomery Hall Park, where I saw a Hermit thrush for the first time this season. Since they are reclusive by habit, it's hard to keep close tabs on when they arrive and leave every year. Today's highlights:

  • Cedar waxwings (40+)
  • Robins
  • Red-bellied woodpeckers
  • Hairy woodpecker
  • Hermit thrush (FOS)
  • Ruby-crowned kinglet
  • Downy woodpeckers
  • Yellow-bellied sapsucker
  • Yellow-rumped warbler
  • Purple finch (M)

October 29, 2005 [LINK]

Purple finch

Among the dozens of goldfinches, house sparrows, chipping sparrows, and juncos in our back yard this morning, I saw a male Purple finch for the first time this season. He appeared just a few feet in front of me for a few seconds, and then flew off. While driving around the Swoope area in western Augusta County late this afternoon, I saw a two kestrels and a meadowlark.

October 23, 2005 [LINK]

Afternoon on Bell's Lane

Yellow-rumped Warbler On a drive out to Bell's Lane on a mostly sunny afternoon, I saw several White-crowned sparrows and Ruddy ducks for the first time this season, right on schedule. I also saw at least a dozen Yellow-rumped Warblers and took video and still photos of them; note a trace of yellow under wing in photo. I also got photos of a Palm warbler and a Savannah sparrow, which resembles the Song sparrow. Palm warblers retain much more yellow plumage than Yellow-rumped warblers do during the non-breeding season, and will soon head to the southern U.S.A. [not the tropics] for the winter. Local bird expert Allen Larner happened to cross paths with me. Today's highlights:

  • White-crowned sparrows (FOS)
  • Field sparrows
  • Chipping sparrows (12+)
  • [Phoebes]
  • Bluebirds
  • Ruddy ducks (FOS)
  • Great blue heron
  • Flickers
  • Red-bellied woodpecker
  • Yellow-rumped warblers (12+)
  • Palm warblers
  • Savannah sparrow
  • E. meadowlark
  • Red-tailed hawk (on fence post)

I also took good closeup photos of a Praying mantis on the side of a wooden fence, and one of several Woolly bear caterpillars that I saw crossing the road. They have been added to the Butterflies, spiders, and insects page. For the inside scoop on the legend about using the Woolly bear's to predict winter weather, see Upshot: NOT!

October 20, 2005 [LINK]

Yellow(ish) birds everywhere

In terms of both weather and bird abundance, it was yet another very good morning behind the Staunton-Augusta Rescue Squad, including the first Swamp sparrow of the season. I realized that most of the bird species I saw had at least some yellow plumage, indicated below with asterisks. Here are the highlights of what I saw:

  • * Cedar waxwing (50+)
  • Robins (30+)
  • * Yellow-bellied sapsucker (F)
  • * Red-winged blackbirds (15+)
  • * White-throated sparrows (I coaxed one to sing.)
  • E. towhees (JM)
  • * Blue-headed vireo
  • * Ruby-crowned kinglets (6+)
  • * Yellow-rumped warblers (6+)
  • Field sparrow (prob.)
  • House finches
  • Swamp sparrow (FOS)
  • * N. flicker
  • * Goldfinches
  • Red-eyed vireo

There was also a White-breasted nuthatch in our back yard, for the first time in a few weeks. Two mornings ago, I caught a glimpse of a Dark-eyed junco out back for the first time this fall. About 10:30 or so at night, I heard a flock of Canada geese honking as they took advantage of the full moon on their southbound migration.

October 15, 2005 [LINK]

I brake for turtles

As the nights grow chillier, our friends from the cold-blooded reptilian branch of the evolutionary tree find it necessary to grab every ounce of sunlight they can during the days. That means we all have to pay extra attention whenever an odd round bump appears on the road ahead, because it just might be a turtle catching some rays. I saved this guy from almost certain death on Bell's Lane this afternoon. He snorted softly as I examined him and put him back off the edge of the road. The only bird of note I saw in the Bell's Lane area was a Great blue heron.

"No, I do NOT want to come out and play!"

October 14, 2005 [LINK]

American golden plover

A walk behind the Staunton-Augusta Rescue Squad this morning yielded a few woodpeckers (Hairy, Downy, Red-bellied, and a Flicker) and some Cedar waxwings, but none of the lingering migrants seen on Wednesday. No records today. Late this afternoon, I decided to try my luck at Leonard's Pond where a rare American golden plover has been seen by local birders, and to my delight I spotted it almost a soon as I got there. It was only about 50 yards away, and I got good views of its distinct white eyebrow, dark crown, a white speckled back, and a black tail. That makes only my third U.S.A. life bird of the year. (I saw 70 new ones in Costa Rica and Nicaragua in February and March.) There were also dozens of Tree swallows, at least 50 Killdeers, 20 or so Canada geese, several mallards, and two Least sandpipers.

October 12, 2005 [LINK]

First Yellow-rumped warblers

It was a dark and gloomy morning, not encouraging for bird watching, but I needed the exercise. Before I even got out of the parking lot on my morning stroll, however, I heard an oddly familiar "chip, chip" call in the trees, and within a couple minutes some Yellow-rumped warblers popped into view, the first ones of the season for me. It was virtually the same arrival date as in the past two years, amazingly consistent. They are the only warblers found in most of Virginia during the winter months, and happened to be in my former neighbor YuLee Larner's back yard, probably wondering where YuLee was... Today's highlights from the (recent) birding "hot spot" behind the Staunton-Augusta Rescue Squad:

  • Yellow-rumped warblers (M, F/J)
  • Common yellowthroat (young male; close, but no camera!)
  • Red-winged blackbirds (high)
  • Red-bellied woodpecker (F)
  • Hairy woodpecker (F)
  • Downy woodpecker (M)
  • Catbirds (a few still lingering)
  • Wood thrush (latest date: Oct. 12!)
  • Phoebe
  • Goldfinches
  • Rose-breasted grosbeak (young male; latest date: Oct. 13!)
  • Cedar waxwings (10+)
  • Yellow-bellied sapsucker (M)

Note that the latest date two of these species have ever been seen in Augusta County are October 12 and 13, according to Birds of Augusta County, which YuLee edited. (A grosbeak was once seen in mid-November, but that was probably a sick or lost vagrant.) I saw some Chimney swifts flying around yesterday, but none today. If their migration timing of past years is any guide, those were probably the last ones of the year.

October 5, 2005 [LINK]

Princess resumes flirting

Princess, goldfinches Another sign of Princess's progress toward full recovery from the wing injury she suffered in early August: She's starting to chirp and flap her wings on the perch in front of the window whenever the goldfinches show up at the thistle seed feeder. She sometimes pulls at loose threads, as if contemplating building a new nest. Not having a nest, she has no regular place to sleep at night, and being lame, she has difficulty sleeping on a perch. Meanwhile, George is singing more loudly and frequently than he has in more than a year.

We have had as many as 15 or 20 goldfinches in our back yard, but the numbers of cardinals, titmice, and chickadees has declined, as a result of the construction-related "defoliation." I did see a male Downy woodpecker out back today, and a phoebe yesterday.

October 4, 2005 [LINK]

First sapsucker of season

A quick stroll along the trail behind the Staunton-Augusta Rescue Squad this morning yielded the following highlights:

  • Yellow-bellied sapsucker (F) (FOS)
  • Hairy woodpecker (F)
  • Downy woodpecker (F)
  • Phoebe
  • E. wood pewee
  • Palm warbler
  • Magnolia warbler (prob.; or else Cape May or prairie warbler)
  • Cooper's hawk, chasing flock of starlings

That makes four years in a row that I first saw a Yellow-bellied sapsucker on either October 3 or 4! I also heard some kinglets, but did not see any. Butterfly numbers are declining day by day, as the temperatures drop.

October 2, 2005 [LINK]

Fall colors (drab)

Goldfinch, window 3 I took this photo of a female (or juvenile?) goldfinch at the feeder outside one of our windows yesterday, and was pleased to finally get so much detail in the eyes and plumage. If only I had been able to get such a shot when the males still had their bright yellow colors!


"Whadda you lookin' at?"


Augusta Springs

Yet another clear, mild day beckoned me outside this morning, so I went to Augusta Springs and did a real hike for the first time in several weeks. Since it hasn't rained significantly since early August, the pond was nearly dry, and no ducks or other water birds were present. There were a lot of butterflies and spiders, of which photos will be posted soon. Today's bird highlights:

  • Chipping sparrow
  • Phoebes
  • E. wood pewee
  • Indigo bunting (F/J)
  • N. flicker (M)
  • Hairy woodpeckers (M, F)
  • Northern waterthrush
  • Pine warbler
  • Tennessee warbler (FOS)
  • White-breasted nuthatches
  • Ruby-crowned kinglet
  • Golden-crowned kinglet (or Yellow-rumped warbler?)
  • Blue-headed vireos
  • Red-tailed hawk (J)
  • Palm warbler
  • Towhee (M, JM)

September 29, 2005 [LINK]

Seasonal transition begins

It was a cool, blustery, overcast morning heralding the arrival of truly autumnal weather, and it was therefore fitting that I spotted two winter birds on the trail behind the Staunton-Augusta Rescue Squad. According to my records, this is the earliest date of the season I have ever seen either of them. Unlike earlier this week, there were only a few neotropical migrants, and hardly any catbirds. (They usually hang around until mid-October.) Today's highlights:

  • White-throated sparrow! (Previous earliest arrival was Oct. 12.)
  • Ruby-crowned kinglet! (Previous earliest arrival was Sept. 30.)
  • Rose-breasted grosbeaks (2 JM, 1 F)
  • Red-bellied woodpeckers (F/J)
  • N. flicker (F/J)
  • Downy woodpeckers (M, F)
  • E. phoebes
  • American redstart (M)
  • Magnolia warbler (F/J)
  • Tree swallows (10+, flying high)

September 28, 2005 [LINK]

Winged migration

Monarch_butterfly, thistle Jacqueline and I went for a walk on the road leading to the Frontier Culture Museum this morning, and saw several Canada geese and Mallards on the pond, but no migrating herons or shorebirds. Around the thistle plants that have already gone to seed we saw quite a few goldfinches, most of which have now lost their yellow feathers. There was one especially bright-colored bird in their midst, however, and as it flew off by itself I could see that it was actually a Yellow warbler! It was rather windy, wreaking havoc with the camera's focusing for closeup shots, but I still managed to get a couple photos of the many Monarch butterflies that are passing through town. They like the thistle flowers.

Back home, we saw an unfamiliar dark gray bird land on the chair on our back porch. By the time I had figured out what it was -- an Eastern phoebe -- it was gone! Birds often show up in strange places during migration season.

September 27, 2005 [LINK]

But wait, there's more!

I paid a return visit to the trail behind the Staunton-Augusta Rescue Squad early this morning, and was delighted to see nearly all of the migrant birds that I had seen on Sunday morning, plus a few additional ones. Seven warbler species!! This is the time of the year when you see the largest number of Monarch butterflies migrating south to their winter resort in the highlands of central Mexico, and I saw several of them as well. Here are the avian highlights, in approximate chronological order:

  • Common yellowthroats (3 F, 1 M)
  • Wilson's warbler
  • Swainson's thrush
  • Downy woodpeckers (M, F)
  • Red-bellied woodpeckers (M)
  • House wren
  • Magnolia warblers (2 M, 4+ F/J)!!
  • American redstart (M)
  • Scarlet tanagers (2 F/J)
  • Yellow-throated warbler (prob.)
  • Brown thrashers 3+
  • Rose-breasted grosbeak (F)
  • Eastern phoebe
  • Chestnut-sided warbler (M)
  • Black-throated green warbler (F/J)
  • Gray catbirds (15+)

I'm surprised by the absence of hummingbirds, which normally abound in the streamside areas where orange jewelweed blossoms abound. Within a few short weeks, the only birds listed above that will still be hanging around these parts will be the woodpeckers.

September 25, 2005 [LINK]

Burst of neotropical migrants

It was a cool morning with overcast skies, so I wasn't expecting to see much while taking a quick walk behind the Staunton-Augusta Rescue Squad, but I was in for a pleasant surprise. I saw two species for the first time in three years, as well as a flycatcher that I could not quite identify. It had the bold light-colored wing feather linings common to Acadian flycatcher and others in the empidomax family, but it might have been just another pewee, which I did also see and whose call I did hear. Highlights:

  • Magnolia warblers
  • Swainson's thrush (first of year)
  • Rose-breasted grosbeaks (F, JM)
  • N. flicker
  • Downy woodpecker (M)
  • Red-bellied woodpecker (M)
  • Black-throated green warbler (F/J)
  • Cape May warbler (prob., J -- first of year)
  • E. wood pewee
  • Uncertain empidomax flycatcher (prob.)
  • Cedar waxwings
  • Plus many vocal catbirds, blue jays, and robins

I'm pretty sure about the Cape May warbler, which had pale yellow around the head and heavy brown streaks (like a Pine siskin), but it might have been a young, early-arriving Yellow-rumped warbler. Very soon I expect to see it and other "winter birds" arriving, such as White-throated sparrows and kinglets.

September 22, 2005 [LINK]

More of John's bird photos

Blue-headed Vireo Here is the latest digital masterpiece from my brother John: a Blue-headed Vireo (misnamed, don't you think?), seen in the beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota. I think they should have stuck with the previous name for that species, the "Solitary vireo," but the experts decided that the eastern and western variants were distinct enough to be considered separate species. The Mountain bluebird photo John took is perhaps even more striking.

I went for a walk behind the Staunton-Augusta Rescue Squad this morning, which was very clear and mild, but the only birds of note I saw were a first-year House wren, a Goldfinch, and a Magnolia warbler. Goldfinches have been showing up at our backyard feeders more and more often, but the recent construction activity and clearing of underbrush has made the area less favorable as a habitat for birds. Think before you cut!

September 18, 2005 [LINK]

Almost heaven, indeed!

Pileated woodpecker On Saturday Jacqueline and I took a casual road trip with no particular destination, and ended up at the Shrine Mont retreat and conference center owned by the Episcopal Church in the old resort town of Orkney Springs, Virginia. It is situated just west of the mountain ski resort of Bryce, about 30 miles north of Harrisonburg, very close to the West Virginia border. There are hiking trails, a picturesque pond, and a variety of recreational and artistic facilities. It was our first trip there, and we were so mesmerized by the natural beauty and tranquility of the place that we promised each other that we would return. This Pileated woodpecker (male) showed up just as we were walking through the unique and enchanting outdoor cathedral at Shrine Mont. An angel dressed in black, perhaps? Several photos of our visit there can be seen on the new Virginia, Fall 2005 page.

On the way to Orkney Springs we stopped at an ice cream stand on the west edge of Bryce, and were fortunate to see some White-breasted nuthatches, a Blue-headed vireo, and a Black and white warbler.

Early this morning we went for a walk behind R.E. Lee High School, and saw a family of five Brown thrashers, a Red-bellied woodpecker (M), a Downy woodpecker (F), a Hairy woodpecker (F), but only one warbler: a Chestnut-sided one.

September 17, 2005 [LINK]

Birds on Betsy Bell Hill

I went for a walk on the above-named local landmark on Friday morning, and saw a fair number of passerine species. It was warmer than usual, which may have accounted for the low number of warblers. I was surprised by the absence of any birds from the flycatcher family. Highlights:

  • Blue jays (many, loud)
  • Flickers
  • Downy woodpeckers (M, F)
  • Hairy woodpeckers (M)
  • Ravens (2)
  • Black and white warbler (F/J)
  • Blackpoll warbler (F/J)
  • Black throated green warbler (F/J)
  • Red-eyed vireo
  • White-breasted nuthatches
  • Titmice (many, loud)
  • Chickadees (many, loud)

September 14, 2005 [LINK]

Nice evening stroll

Morning glories The hummingbirds have stopped coming by our feeder on the back porch, sadly, but they are still in the neighborhood. The hummers like sipping nectar from these pale blue flowers, which are from a mystery "volunteer" vine [*] that keeps trying to strangle our basil plants, whose tiny flowers the hummers also enjoy. Here's what I saw on the trail behind the Staunton-Augusta Rescue Squad while taking a walk to enjoy the beautiful weather just before dusk yesterday:

  • Ruby-throated hummingbirds (F/J)
  • Brown thrasher
  • American redstarts (F/J)
  • Black-throated green warbler (F/J)
  • Eastern wood-pewee
  • Least flycatcher (FOS)
  • Downy woodpecker (F)
  • Hairy woodpecker (M)

UPDATE: I later learned that these are Morning glories!

September 8, 2005 [LINK]

Warbler swarm in Staunton!

I went up to the picnic area at the top of Montgomery Hall Park around noon once again today, and this time I really hit the jackpot. As soon as I got out of my car I spotted one of the tiny, colorful insect-eaters (otherwise known as warblers) flittering about the tree limbs, and over the next 45 minutes or so I spotted five other warbler species, plus several other neotropical migrants. It was one of the best days of birding I've had since I went to Costa Rica! Here are the highlights:

  • Blackpoll warbler (F)
  • Magnolia warblers
  • Chestnut-sided warblers
  • Black and white warbler
  • American redstart (a warbler)
  • Northern parula (a warbler)
  • Red-eyed vireos (5 +)
  • Baltimore oriole (1st year male)
  • Scarlet tanager (F)
  • Northern flickers
  • Blue-gray gnatcatcher
  • Red-bellied woodpeckers
  • Downy woodpecker
  • Eastern wood-pewee
  • Cedar waxwings

September 7, 2005 [LINK]

Migration season picks up

With mild temperatures and sparkling blue skies, this is perfect weather for enjoying the delights Mother Nature has to offer. At Montgomery Hall Park yesterday I saw another Blackburnian warbler, other unidentified warblers, a female Scarlet tanager, an Eastern Wood Pewee, some Northern flickers, Red-bellied woodpeckers, and a Hairy woodpecker. The number and level of activity of the woodpeckers was astounding. I also saw a group of four Broad-winged hawks flying south over head, the first such migrants I've seen this season. As in past years, Brenda Tekin is coordinating the Rockfish Gap hawk watch at Afton Mountain, but I probably won't have much time for that this year. At Bell's Lane in the evening, I saw an Accipeter hawk (probably a Sharp-shinned), as well as a hummingbird.

As the season changes, it's interesting to observe how different species change their habits. I've noticed that robins and starlings are beginning to congregate in flocks, which are especially noticeable in the evening. Blue jays have become very vocal once again, as have chickadees.

When I was at the Nationals-Phillies game in RFK Stadium last Friday night, I saw at least 40 large grayish gulls; possibly immature Ring-bills. I may have glimpsed a nighthawk but couldn't be certain.

August 28, 2005 [LINK]


Ruby-throated hummer (F) perched I finally got some good closeup shots of one of the hummingbirds that have been entertaining us on our back patio in recent weeks. [This photo shows a female Ruby-throated hummingbird (the only hummer species in the eastern U.S.), which can be identified by the white throat. Immature male Ruby-throats have streaks and/or small red patches on their throats.] Unfortunately, the colorful adult male(s) isn't/aren't showing up as much as the female(s) for the past couple days.

NOTE: I retouched this photo to yield sharper definition; to see the original version, just click on it.

Bird diversity map

The Imperial College of London (link via Connie) has published a global map showing where various bird species live, highlighting their biodiversity. It is a more complicated picture than most people had thought.

"In the past people thought that all types of biodiversity showed the same sort of pattern, but that was based on small-scale analyses," says senior author Professor Ian Owens of Imperial College London. "Our new global analyses show that different sorts of diversity occur in very different places.
The team mapped three different measures of diversity for the study: species richness, threatened species richness (as assessed by their extinction risk), and endemic species richness (birds with a small breeding range). Only the Andes in South America contains bird hotspots under all three measures.

August 24, 2005 [LINK]

Early migrant warblers

A pleasant lunch hour repast in mild temperatures and clear skies at Montgomery Hall Park today turned into a surprisingly productive bird outing. I saw an Eastern wood pewee, a Ruby-throated hummingbird, a White-breasted nuthatch, as well as several Red-bellied woodpeckers and a Downy woodpecker. I walked over to investigate all the activity in the thick underbrush, and was delighted to see a female (or juvenile) Canada warbler. To my astonishment, I also saw a Golden-winged warbler, for the first time ever. I only glimpsed it for a few seconds, but it was enough to see the wing patch and bold head markings for a confident identification, so I can count it as the first domestic "life bird" for me so far this year. Finally, I saw a Red-eyed vireo and a Blackburnian warbler. All three of those warbler species nest in the mountains of western Augusta County, but are certainly not among the more common species. They are almost never ever seen in town except during migration season, so this is one of the first signs that autumn is on our doorstep.

We still see the male hummingbird at our back porch feeder every day, and sometimes a female hummer shows up as well.

UPDATE: I just learned that there is a new Web site for the Bath-Highland County Bird Club, to the west of Augusta County, and they are working on a project to monitor the number of Whip-poor-wills, a species that may be in decline. I've never seen a Whip-poor-will before, but after listening to the sound clip at (requires Real multimedia software), I'm pretty sure I've heard one at least a few times.

August 20, 2005 [LINK]

Faith of the Penguins

March of the Penguins posterJacqueline and I saw the movie March of the Penguins this week, and it more than lived up to the high expectations set by all the favorable reviews. It was a pure delight from beginning to end. (Click on the poster thumbnail image to see the movie's Web site.) The male Emperor penguins have to incubate the eggs (one each) for six weeks in the dead of the Antarctic winter (June-July) while the females return to the sea (70 miles away!) to feed, and then the females have to come back and do likewise while the males go eat. They alternate incubation/guard duty with feeding until late spring (November), when the young penguins are ready to make the trek to the sea. (The distance from their breeding colony site to the edge of the ice shelf is much shorter in the summer.) As long as the egg or hatchling needs to be cared for, neither the male nor the female Emperor penguin has any assurance that their mate will survive the arduous round trip, but they put their own lives at risk just so the next generation can live. Is this behavior nothing more than genetically determined? Perhaps. Nevertheless, there's no room for cynical skepticism, selfish indulgence, or "rugged individualism" in the penguin's world; they either believe in each other or they perish. A genuine "faith-based community"!

President spares swallows

While the President and First Lady are enjoying a relaxing vacation on the ranch in Texas (or trying to, at least), the White House is undergoing some minor home improvement. Having learned that a pair of cliff swallows is nesting atop one of the columns on the south side of the Executive Mansion, Mr. Bush instructed the contractors not to disturb the nest until the young swallows have fledged. Let's hope that this small but very real example of responsible stewardship of nature catches on in the general public.

Summer doldrums

With the oppressively hot weather we've had this month, I haven't done any serious birding at all. I did happen to see a Pileated woodpecker at Montgomery Hall Park about ten days ago, however, and an Eastern kingbird (normally a rural-dwelling species) appeared in our neighborhood this week. The male Ruby-throated hummingbird still shows up at our feeder several times a day, and has claimed our back yard as his territory, chasing away other hungry hummers. I happened to see a hummingbird chasing a House sparrow last week!

My brother John sent me a great closeup photo of a female American redstart a few days ago. Once again, the exquisite detail of the original photo cannot be appreciated at the low resolution of that small popup image.

August 7, 2005 [LINK]

Bald cardinal

Bald cardinal And you thought you had a bad hair day! This pathetic looking male cardinal has been feeding in our back yard for the past several months, and whatever the condition he has that caused the loss of head and crest feathers (parasites, perhaps?) has not improved. The male hummingbird still comes by to feed several times a day, and we also saw a Downy woodpecker out back. Before the construction next door began, they used to be more common around here.

August 1, 2005 [LINK]

Hummers are back

For the first time since May, a Ruby-throated hummingbird has returned to our back yard. It's an adult male, so it actually has the ruby throat. Maybe I'll finally get a high-quality closeup photo. Male hummingbirds have nothing to do with raising offspring, and are "fathers" only in the narrow biological sense.

We were surprised to see quite a variety of birds while strolling along Bell's Lane on Saturday evening: E. phoebes, E. kingbirds, Willow flycatchers, goldfinches, hummingbirds, a Green heron, a Red-tailed hawk, Downy woodpeckers, and (I think) a family of Scarlet tanagers. The open countryside is not tanager habitat, but it's fairly close to the woods where I saw a male Scarlet tanager singing in May, so it's not unlikely.

Raptor conservation

Yesterday's Washington Post (no link) reported that the number of Bald eagle nests along the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers increased from 401 last year to 429 this year, with a corresponding rise in the number of hatched eaglets.

As they did last year, the Wildlife Experiences organization is introducing Osprey fledglings to the shores of the Missouri River in southeastern South Dakota. I was lucky to stumble upon their project at Clay County Park when I was visiting my family last August; CLICK HERE to see a photo of two of them at their shelter on the platform.

July 28, 2005 [LINK]

Mystery sandpiper in S.D.

Mystery sandpiper

My brother John just sent me this photo of a "mystery sandpiper," which he saw on the Vermillion (South Dakota) Country Club this afternoon. As far as the sandpiper family goes, I would have a hard time telling a Godwit from a Dowitcher, but based on my field guide, I agree with his guess that it's a Buff-breasted sandpiper. If anyone can help identify it, please send an e-mail to or

Neighborhood warblers

My dear wife and I took a walk behind the Staunton-Augusta Rescue Squad on Tuesday morning, before the temperatures became unbearably hot, and were surprised to see an American redstart, a Black and white warbler, and a (probable) Prairie warbler. I thought at first the latter might be an Orange-crowned warbler, but they breed in the far north, and migration season for them is weeks away yet. It was plain except for pale markings around the eyes, so it was either a female or a juvenile. I heard a Prairie warbler singing in the now-off-limits section of that trail back in May, so it's possible a pair may have bred in this area. We also saw some Indigo buntings and a Great crested flycatcher.

July 25, 2005 [LINK]

Day trip to Todd Lake

We spent a pleasant, mostly sunny Sunday picnicking, swimming, and hiking up at Todd Lake, a U.S. Forest Service-maintained recreation area in the mountains about 20 miles northwest of town. (Click HERE to see a scenic photo.) There were a few interesting birds in and around that area, including:

  • Red-tailed hawks
  • Cedar waxwings
  • Blue-gray gnatcatcher
  • Blue-headed vireo (very vocal)
  • Chipping sparrows
  • Worm-eating warbler
  • Cooper's hawk (prob.), juv.
  • Goldfinches
  • Blue jays (very vocal)
  • [Great blue heron]

Mushroom montage #1 We also heard a pewee in the woods and a kingfisher [where the stream enters] the lake. The most interesting nature finds, however, were the many kinds of colorful mushrooms we saw on the trail above the north side of the lake.

UPDATE: Here is a montage of the best ones we saw yesterday. ("But wait, there's more!") Identification of some of these species is still pending, so I won't post the individual photos on the Mushrooms page until later. As always, stay tuned...

Saturday morning we saw a pair of Broad-winged hawks circling over Gypsy Hill park, screaming intermittently. There was also a female Wood duck at the pond, plus the usual hoards of Mallards and mixed breed ducks.

July 15, 2005 [LINK]

Global warming in Costa Rica

ABC's Nightline program had a report on global warming last night. To my surprise, much of it was filmed in the cloud forests of Monteverde National Park in Costa Rica, and there was a brief clip of a Violet saberwing. We didn't go to that park, but we did encounter similar fog-shrouded habitat at Poas Volcano. Scientists report that a number of tropical plant and animal species are in decline in Costa Rica, presumably because of global warming. (Pollution or other factors may play a part as well.) In an ideal world, more folks who are concerned about conserving nature would recognize that the only hope for restraining consumption of hydrocarbons and forest products lies in making prices reflect scarcity, either by taxation or by removing implicit subsidies. In the real world, much of that concern is wasted on utopian campaigns that ignore the way that human beings actually behave. Hence the ungodly tragedy of extinction.

July 15, 2005 [LINK]

Breeding neighborhood birds

I took a walk behind the Staunton-Augusta Rescue Squad for the first time in a while this morning, and had a few pleasant surprises. I saw at least two Great crested flycatchers, presumably part of a family unit. Later I heard a White-eyed vireo ("singing" its odd, jumbled "tune"), and finally spotted him in the tangled bushes. There was also an Indigo bunting that was singing while flying; I have seen as many as three in that area previously. I caught a glimpse of a probable Sharp-shinned hawk as well. Finally, I heard a familiar "wheezy, wheezy" call and soon spotted a Black and white warbler, which is very unusual for this time of year in that location. Breeding? Unfortunately, there was no sign of the Scarlet tanager which I saw back in May, but that was further along the trail.

Many thousands of magenta thistle flowers are now in bloom, meaning that goldfinches can at last begin building their nests for this year's brood. They are already quite dispersed, and we only see them occasionally; quite a contrast from the spring months! Speaking of no-shows, I haven't seen a hummingbird in over two months!

July 8, 2005 [LINK]

Still more bird photos from John

Red Crossbill My brother John just sent me another batch of bird photos, this time from his recent trip to Colorado. As usual, they are spectacularly crisp and clear. The most interesting one is probably this Red crossbill, which would have been perfect if the sun had been at a different angle. To see the rest of them, including great closeups of a Scrub jay as well as a Steller's jay, go to our Photo Gallery page.

All I got lately was this lousy Brown-headed cowbird (click for pop-up) in our back yard. Breeding season is winding down, and males are therefore singing less and less as we enter the summer doldrums of the birding world.

Wednesday's Washington Post had a feature story about the fanatic folks who put in long, miserable days and weeks in the mosquito- and snake-infested swamps of Arkansas and Louisiana in search of the no-longer extinct Ivory-billed woodpecker. To which Jacqueline would reply, "Get a life!" smile

June 26, 2005 [LINK]

Wildlife on Crawford Mountain

Scarlet tanager F I got motivated to hike to the top of Crawford Mountain yesterday, something I've been planning to do for a long time. With an elevation of 3,760 feet, it is about 700 feet shorter than nearby Elliott Knob, where I hiked almost one year ago. Just as on that hike, I passed through multiple ecological zones as I ascended 1,800 feet (net); I covered seven miles horizontally, round trip. I began at about 8:30 on the Chimney Hollow trail, where I have hiked several times in the past, enjoying cool temperatures in the shade. Along the way up I got video clips of a few birds, including this female Scarlet tanager, carrying an insect to her offspring, nervously waiting for me to get on my way. It got pretty warm as noon approached, and my feet and legs felt the strain. Fortunately, my determination to scale the summit paid off, as a group of five or so Ruffed grouses flushed just as I reached the top. The U.S. Forest Service has a special habitat management program for Ruffed grouses in that area, so perhaps it's working. Along the "saddle" ridge between the peak and Coalpit Knob on my way back down, I was startled to see an adult Black bear about 70 yards in front of me, on the left. It grunted and ran away as soon as it saw me, however, so I couldn't get any pictures. Just as well, I suppose. After making sure there were no baby bears around, I cautiously proceeded, looking back over my shoulder every ten paces or so. Here are the highlights of the avian creatures I saw (in rough chronological order):

  • Blue-gray gnatcatchers
  • Acadian flycatchers
  • Worm-eating warblers
  • Blue-headed vireos
  • Great crested flycatchers
  • Pileated woodpeckers
  • Hairy woodpeckers (M, F)
  • Towhees (F, M)
  • Black & white warblers (F, M)
  • Scarlet tanager (F)
  • Ovenbirds (A, J)
  • Ravens (high above, screaming)
  • White-breasted nuthatches
  • Juncos
  • Downy woodpeckers
  • Ruffed grouses (5+, first of year; at summit)
  • Pine warbler (M, singing close by)
  • American woodcocks (2, along Chimney Hollow Stream)

In addition, I heard several Black-throated green warblers, a Red-breasted nuthatch (!), a Yellow-billed cuckoo, a Parula, some Pewees, Wood thrushes, and several Veeries (!), plus a hummingbird at the trail head on Route 250. Not a bad day! Quite exhausted, I made it back home in time to see the last three innings of the Fox "game of the week." I've added some scenic photos from that hike to the Virginia, Summer 2005 page.

June 22, 2005 [LINK]

Kestrel nest in Verona

Kestrel juvenile Thanks to an e-mail alert sent by Lisa Hamilton of the Augusta Bird Club, Jacqueline and I got a good close-up view of a young American kestrel this morning. Just as we arrived, I spotted an adult leaving the nest cavity near the corner of a government building in nearby Verona. The juvenile, which looks like it's ready to fledge any day now, popped in and out of view for the next few minutes, but the adult did not return. This was after we enjoyed another pleasant stroll along Bell's Lane, where we saw Willow flycatchers, Brown thrashers, an Indigo bunting, and three juvenile robins, but no Orchard orioles this time. Yellow warblers were heard but not seen.

Yesterday afternoon there was an amusing sight in our back yard: a female Mallard leading twelve (12) babies on an arduous trek to better feeding grounds. A neighbor and I shepherded them across the busy street, holding back traffic for a minute until they were safe. Cute video clip pending...

June 18, 2005 [LINK]

Summer morn on Bell's Lane

A cool front has passed through these parts, making it a delightful morning for a stroll along placid Bell's Lane. Since this is the peak of songbird breeding season, we heard the songs of a dozen or more species, a veritable symphony. One odd melodic song in particular caught my attention. Jacqueline spotted a female Orchard oriole, and I soon located the singing male as well. It was the first time we had seen that neotropical migratory species since February.* Today's highlights:

  • Indigo buntings (M)
  • Eastern phoebes
  • Willow flycatchers
  • Red-winged blackbirds (many M, 1 F)
  • Goldfinches (M)
  • Cowbirds (M, F -- boooo!)
  • Brown thrashers
  • Yellow warblers (M, F)
  • Tree swallows
  • Robins (incl. 1 J)
  • Orchard oriole (M, F)
  • Canada geese
  • Red-bellied woodpecker (M)
  • Cottontail rabbit (J)

* In Costa Rica, that is. smile

Bridge-Tunnel to reopen

The commission responsible for the 18-mile long Bridge-Tunnel that spans the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay decided to reopen three of the islands to bird watchers, but only on a limited basis. (There is a restaurant and fishing pier at one of the islands, but the other three islands are normally deserted.) From now on, amateurs will be permitted to visit the other three islands as long as they get advance security clearance and pay $50 an hour for police escort. See Washington Post. It is sad to have to put up with such restrictions, but unfortunately, that happens to be one of the most vital strategic "chokepoints" in the continental United States. Norfolk is the home port to aircraft carriers and dozens of other combat vessels, and you don't want a bunch of "weirdos" with telescopes and cameras hanging around. Jacqueline and I went there to watch birds with my brother John in November several years ago (before 9/11). Our most unusual sighting was a young male Baltimore oriole, a forlorn "straggler" who was supposed to be in the tropics by that time of year.

June 12, 2005 [LINK]

Blue Ridge impromptu visit

As the result of a small but real wildlife tragedy, we made a brief, unscheduled visit to the Blue Ridge today. Jacqueline saw a neighbor's cat attack one of the chipmunks that lives in our back yard, and saved the poor thing's life, just barely. We took it to the Wildlife Center of Virginia, near Waynesboro, where the veterinarians administered painkillers while keeping it under observation... Unleashed cats often kill songbirds, especially newly-fledged young ones. Let this be a lesson for cat owners: See the American Bird Conservancy for information on Cats indoors! The Campaign for Safer Birds and Cats.

Since we were in the area, we took a casual drive around, and at the entrance to Lake Sherando I spotted a Louisiana waterthrush for the first time this year. The Blue-gray gnatcatchers that had built a nest there were nowhere to be seen, however, so I presume the babies have already fledged. Then we drove up the Blue Ridge and saw some Worm-eating warblers, a Blue-headed vireo (close!), a female Scarlet tanager, an Ovenbird, and some Redstarts.

Note that many of the birds listed on the Wild Birds page now show popup photos when you click on their names.

June 11, 2005 [LINK]

Orioles, etc. at McCormick's Farm, Part II

Jacqueline and I paid a short visit to McCormick's Farm this morning. I last went there on May 2, and today I was hoping to see some of the orioles that are supposed to be nesting there. We saw a Green heron (probable) and a Great blue heron flying overhead, a female Mallard with eleven ducklings in tow, plus a Great crested flycatcher. Finally, we did spot two Baltimore orioles, a first-year male most likely serving as an "apprentice," and a bright orange mature male who was singing intermittently. We could not pinpoint where the nest was, but we did see a pair of Cedar waxwings building a nest in the tree just west of the mill building.

Later in the day we saw two Phoebes and a male Pileated woodpecker in Lexington.

June 10, 2005 [LINK]

Charlottesville day trip

Jacqueline and I went to go hiking on the nearly-completed Rivanna Loop Trail that encircles Charlottesville, where we used to live. We didn't get very far, however, as the trail was overgrown with tall grass and poison ivy. One tick was all it took for us to turn back. We did see a few interesting birds during our short time there, most notably the first Pine warbler I've seen this year, as well as a Red-tailed hawk being harrassed by a crow, some Cedar waxwings, bluebirds, phoebes, all three common swallow species, and an Indigo bunting.

Afterwards, we drove around and gawked at all the new street and housing construction on the south side of town. Boy, is that town booming! Some wooded areas where we used to go hiking or biking are now fully developed residential communities, with others on the way. Finally, we stopped for a richly satisfying lunch at the famous Bodo's Bagels, one of the finest bagel establishments on the east coast. Their bagels are freshly made according to very exacting standards, and there is simply no way to describe how good they taste and how perfect their consistency is: firm on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside. Ah-h-h-h-h!

June 6, 2005 [LINK]

Dynamic tables fixed

Thanks to expert advice from my brother Dan, I've fixed (at least I think I have) the problem that was preventing non-Mac Safari users from enjoying the new dynamic effects on several of the data tables on this site, such as Stadium rankings, Military forces, 1995, and Life bird list. If anyone is still having problems with viewing those tables, which should have alternating row colors and highlights for the current row, please let me know.

June 5, 2005 [LINK]

Shenandoah day trip

Chestnut-sided warbler Jacqueline and I spent a wonderfully relaxing day up in the central section of the Shenandoah National Park today. We stopped at several scenic overlooks and went for a short hike to Dark Hollow Falls, near Big Meadows. We saw many Redstarts and Chestnut-sided warblers (see photo; note yellow cap), and I saw four other birds for the first time this season. [Prior to today,] I don't believe I had seen a Veery since 2000; unfortunately it was not singing its enchanting song. I took some video clips, but the results were mixed. Here are the highlights:

  • Indigo buntings (M)
  • American redstarts (M, F)
  • Chestnut-sided warblers (M)
  • Red-tailed hawk (juv.)
  • Broad-winged hawk
  • Towhees
  • Canada warblers (M, FOS)
  • Veery (1st in 5 years!?)
  • Hairy woodpecker (M)
  • Dark-eyed juncos
  • Blue-headed vireo
  • Scarlet tanager (M)
  • House wren (FOS)
  • Bluebird (M)
  • Hooded warblers (M, FOS)
  • Red-eyed vireos

June 4, 2005 [LINK]

More bird photos from John

My brother John just got back from yet another bird-watching trip to Arizona, and has sent me a batch of incredibly sharp photos, of which this Broad-tailed hummingbird is probably the best. That image does not begin to do justice to the amazing detail you can see at full enlargement. The Bullock's oriole and Vermilion flycatcher are nearly as spectacular, however. See the Photo gallery page. Thanks very much, John!

May 29, 2005 [LINK]

Warblers, etc. at Ramsey's Draft

Hoping to fill in some of the "gaps" from this sparse spring migration season, I trekked around the Ramsey's Draft area today, and had fairly good results: 3 first-of-season birds. I was surprised at the virtual absence of Ovenbirds, and I didn't hear as many Scarlet tanagers as I would expect. I didn't see any of the expected Louisiana waterthrushes along the stream either. Northern parulas and Pine warblers were heard but not seen. Here are the highlights of what I saw:

  • Phoebe -- Nest!
  • Chipping sparrows
  • Black & white warblers (M)
  • Red-eyed vireo
  • Blackburnian warblers (M) (FOS)
  • Worm-eating warblers
  • Blue-headed vireo (M)
  • Black-throated green warblers (M & F) (FOS)
  • Acadian flycatcher (FOS)
  • Downy WP (F)
  • Pileated WPs (M & F)
  • Indigo buntings (M)
  • Black vulture

The male Yellow warbler that was singing in our back yard for a couple days has departed for greener meadows, where females are more likely to be. Also, the Carolina wrens abandoned the nest they were building on our back patio and have taken up residence next door.

May 26, 2005 [LINK]

Yellow warblers

I saw a Yellow warbler in the wetland meadow on Bell's Lane this morning, and heard several others singing. There were a few Willow flycatchers as well. There seem to be just as many breeding pairs of both those species in that prime piece of "real estate" as there were last year.

I have heard Blackpoll warblers near our abode several times today, but so far none have popped into view. To my surprise, however, I did see a bright male Yellow warbler out back, quite unusual for inside the city limits. He was singing, in spite of the nearby construction noise, and it makes me wonder: Will a pair settle down and nest in our neighborhood? For at least two weeks we were seeing Northern rough-winged swallows out back every day, and some of them had started to build nests inside the ventilation ducts of the condo building being built, but then the workers covered the holes with vents. I hope no nesting females were trapped inside... A pair of Carolina wrens have built a nest inside a box on our back patio, so we look forward to seeing more baby birds in two or three weeks.

Beetle romance

Since it's "that time" of the year again, I thought this picture of these amorous gold-headed beetles would be appropriate. I took it several years ago, in Charlottesville. They were on the hood of my old Isuzu, of all places!

May 23, 2005 [LINK]

Cerulean warblers, etc.

Jacqueline and I went for a short hike around the Humpback Rocks area of the Blue Ridge yesterday, and were rewarded with lots of good sightings. I don't think I've ever seen so many Cerulean warblers on a single day; their populations have been declining in recent decades, but they seem to be thriving around here. On the way we stopped at the telephone microwave tower and a few other spots on Rt. 610, but most of what we saw were found on the trail east of the parkway. Here are the highlights:

  • Bald eagle -- Rt. 610, soaring toward the west
  • Raven -- Rt. 610
  • Cedar waxwings -- 25+, at visitors' center
  • Redstarts -- 2 M, 2 F at visitors' center
  • Indigo buntings -- M, F at visitors' center
  • Black and white warblers -- 2 M
  • Cerulean warblers -- 4 males seen singing, others heard (FOS)
  • Scarlet tanagers (M)
  • Ovenbirds (FOS)
  • Wood thrush -- female in nest! (FOS)
  • Red-eyed vireo
  • E. wood pewees -- courting pair
  • Hairy woodpecker

On the way home we stopped at the entrance to Lake Sherando, and sure enough the female Blue-gray gnatcatcher was brooding in the nest which we saw her building two weeks ago. I expect the eggs to hatch any day.

While heading to the landfill / recycling center on Rt. 648 this morning, I saw a Willow flycatcher and an Eatern kingbird, both firsts of the season for me. At the bridge over Mills Creek I saw a Pewee, Hairy woodpecker, and a Blue-gray gnatcatcher, and heard a White-eyd vireo.

May 21, 2005 [LINK]

Nesting Scarlet tanagers?

After a day of heavy rains, the skies cleared this morning, and hungry birds filled the tree tops. As soon as I stepped outside I heard the tsee-tsee-tsee song of the briefly-abundant Blackpoll warbler, and within a couple minutes I spotted one up in the branches. Strolling behind the Staunton-Augusta Rescue Squad I heard other Blackpoll warblers, as well as a loud Wilson's warbler, which soon popped into view at close range. It was in virtually the same place where I saw one on May 10, quite a coincidence. They nest further north, however, so it's very unlikely to have been the same individual. Further along the trail I heard and saw three Indigo buntings, two of which had the blotchy blue-and-ash plumage of first-year males but sang loudly nonetheless. In the hilltop neighborhood off to the east, I heard the enchanting, unreal song of a Veery, an elusive member of the thrush family I haven't actually seen in five years. Reaching the bend where the final leg of the trail begins, I heard the unmistakeable melodic burry song of a Scarlet tanager, as well as the "CHIP-brrr" contact call. I spotted the male near the top of a tree a few minutes later, and was thrilled that there may be a nesting pair in those woods. I also caught a glimpse of a female Towhee nearby; the males have fallen silent all of a sudden, and were nowhere to be seen. I estimate there must be at least five breeding pairs of Towhees in that wooded ravine. Toward the end of the trail I saw two female Blackpoll warblers as well as a female Redstart.

Andrew Clem Archives

May 16, 2005 [LINK]

Magnolia warbler video

I was pleased to find that there are still a number of warblers passing through the area on my walk behind the Staunton-Augusta Rescue Squad this morning, but the arrival of the Blackpoll warblers signifies the fast-approaching end of migration season. I managed to get a semi-decent video clip of a Magnolia warbler nabbing a small caterpillar in the bushes. Yummy! Note the distinctive field marks: black mask, yellow throat and breast, black streaks on the side, white wing bars, and black-tipped tail. The trilling chirp in the background is a Tufted titmouse. (In Apple QuickTime format; free download.)

  • Blackpoll warblers (M) (FOS)
  • Indigo buntings (M)
  • Black vulture
  • Towhee (M)
  • Magnolia warbler (M)
  • Black and white warbler (FOS)
  • Common yellowthroat (M)

In addition, I heard some Black-throated green warblers up in the trees, but couldn't see any.

Ivory-Billed Woodpecker & Whitewater??

At the Augusta Bird Club picnic on Saturday, someone gave me a copy of a cartoon by Tom Toles in the May 3 Washington Post, about the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker that was recently rediscovered in Arkansas. The point was, nature-tourism-oriented development could end up destroying the nearly extinct bird's unique habitat. That is the ironic risk in all eco-tourism ventures, as folks in Costa Rica have learned. But then I started thinking, "land development in in Arkansas," that sounds familiar... Oh yes! Might there be a connection with the Whitewater real estate development scheme? I did a quick Google search and found that others have already jumped to that hasty conclusion: see

May 14, 2005 [LINK]

Dedication of YuLee's Trail

YuLee closeupThe Augusta Bird Club (ABC) held its annual picnic this morning, but this year's gathering was a very special occasion. A nature trail at Montgomery Hall Park has been named in honor of my former neighbor YuLee Larner, a leading expert on birds and author of a weekly column in the Staunton News Leader. She is a founding member of ABC, past president of the Virginia Society of Ornithology, and editor of the first two editions of Birds of Augusta County. Several people spoke about all her lifetime accomplishments, including City Councilman David Metz, Becky Wajda of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, and John Spahr, vice president of ABC. Mary Vermeulen introduced the speakers and read a poem by Henry van Dyke.

I "met" YuLee via e-mail as I was moving to Staunton three years ago, inquiring about good places to watch birds in this area. She was one of those who responded to me, and we soon discovered that we lived practically next door to each other. Serendipity! Whenever either of us saw an unusal bird outside, we would call each other right away. Probably the most memorable rare sighting in this neighborhood was the Western tanager that I spotted in late March 2004. She was very anxious about missing the opportunity to see this rare bird, which had never before been seen in this region, and when she finally saw it, she was tickled pink. YuLee was very helpful to me in developing my bird-watching skills, and her devotion to monitoring avian wildlife is truly inspiring. I am proud to know her.

YuLee Trail signPictured at the top of the sign is a Prairie warbler.

Prior to the picnic brunch and ceremonies, club members divided into two groups to go looking for birds. At first it was chilly and windy, but soon the sun warmed everything up, and quite a number of birds started singing. Most of them remained hidden in the thick foliage, but after some patient stalking, we eventually got good views of some, including seven first-of-season birds for me. The best part of the day was seeing a Bay-breasted warbler (male) for the first time in four years. All of the colorful warblers looked truly gorgeous in the sun. Here are today's highlights:

  • Red-eyed vireos
  • Magnolia warblers (FOS)
  • Bay-breasted warbler (FOS)
  • Chestnut-sided warblers (FOS)
  • Eastern wood-pewee (FOS)
  • Yellow-billed cuckoo (FOS)
  • Yellow-throated vireo (FOS)
  • Downy woodpeckers
  • Towhee
  • Scarlet tanager (F)
  • Great-crested flycatcher
  • Olive-sided flycatcher (FOS, prob.)
  • Red-bellied woodpeckers

In addition, I heard but did not see several Black-throated green warblers, Black-throated blue warblers, Blackpoll warblers, and Indigo buntings. I should mention that I forgot to include a Wild turkey on my list of birds seen on the trail on Thursday; that entry has been corrected.

And speaking of erroneous reporting, the Washington Post printed a correction of the caption about the Red-bellied woodpecker which I called to their attention. That bird is a resident species, not migratory.

BELOW: ABC members and invited guests as the ceremonies were about to begin. YuLee is seated on the left-center, and the sign (then draped) bearing her name is in the right-center.

YuLee trail dedication

May 13, 2005 [LINK]

Augusta Springs again

Knowing that peak migration season has nearly passed, yesterday I made it a point to see Augusta Springs for the second time this spring. When I arrived, I had a nice chat about ecology and the decline of amphibian populations with two elementary school teachers who were preparing a large-scale nature field trip. Fortunately, the bus full of kids did not arrive until I was almost done. I saw five first-of-season species altogether. The highlights, in rough chronological order:

  • Red-eyed vireos
  • Towhees (M, F)
  • Field sparrow
  • Indigo buntings (M)
  • Cedar waxwings*
  • Pileated woodpecker
  • Solitary sandpipers (2)
  • Spotted sandpiper
  • Killdeer
  • Wood ducks (2M, 1F)
  • Green herons (FOS) (2)
  • Blue-gray gnatcatchers, at nest
  • Lincoln's sparrow (FOS)
  • Yellow warbler
  • Common yellowthroat (M)
  • Wilson's warbler

  • Scarlet tanagers (FOS) (2M, 1F)
  • Rose-breasted grosbeak (FOS) (2M)
  • White-breasted nuthatch
  • Blue-headed vireos
  • Worm-eating warblers (FOS) (2)
  • [Wild turkey!]

The ones below the line were seen along a mountain trail a few miles to the northeast, where I stopped on my way back. In addition, I heard a Yellow-billed cuckoo, some Wood thrushes, a probable Yellow-throated vireo, an Acadian flycatcher, and a Hooded warbler.

May 11, 2005 [LINK]

Carolina wren fledge day!

Baby Carolina Wren Thanks to my neighbor Therese, I was able to get some still and video images of the baby Carolina wrens on the very day that they left the nest on her balcony. At least three have fledged so far, and there may be one more to come. This little guy (or gal?) landed in our stairway by mistake, so I helped him get into the grass. He's no bigger than a golf ball and about as light as a paper clip. (This photo is larger than life size.) The plumage is much like their parents, a rich brown above and pale cream color below, with distinct white "eyebrows." Their tails and beaks are much shorter than those of adults, however. The yellow lining around their beak is characteristic of all baby birds, apparently a guide and/or stimulus to get the parents to feed their hungry offspring. The fledglings will be hiding from predators (cats? blue jays?) in the ivy for the next few days, while they gradually learn how to fly.

May 10, 2005 [LINK]

Wilson's warbler

It's a beautiful day, and the temps are headed toward the mid-80s. Behind the Staunton-Augusta Rescue Squad this morning I saw two first-of-season birds, and heard a White-eyed vireo and a Rose-breasted grosbeak. Yesterday evening I heard a Wood thrush out there as well.

  • Wilson's warbler (FOS)
  • Towhee (M)
  • Blue-gray gnatcatchers
  • Yellow-rumped warbler (1YM)
  • Common yellowthroat (F) (FOS)
  • Brown thrasher
  • Indigo buntings (M) -- one singing in a subdued way
  • Cedar waxwings*

* Cedar waxwings were plentiful briefly last December, but this is the first spring I can recall without any large flocks of them passing through.

I've added a list of my favorite warblers in the left column of the Wild Birds page, as well as a wish list of the warbler species that I have not yet seen. Most of the latter are only found in the West or Southwest.

In the Metro section of Sunday's Washington Post, a photo caption incorrectly stated "The red-bellied woodpecker is one of the 80 species of migratory birds coming through our area every year." In fact, that species is NOT migratory but stays put year-round throughout its range in the eastern USA.

Andrew Clem Archives

May 8, 2005 [LINK]

Happy (human AND avian) Mothers Day!

After hiking and picknicking at Sherando Lake (near the Blue Ridge) yesterday, we were lucky to see a pair of Blue-gray gnatcatchers busily building a nest in a tree right next to the parking spaces at the entrance from the highway. How convenient! Presented for your viewing pleasure is a 20-second video clip of the tiny "expectant mother" in action. (As any experienced birder will quickly note, the added sound effects are fake.) To see a closeup still image, click HERE. Note that the nest is made almost exclusively of tree lichens. We also saw an American redstart singing loudly, plus the first Red-eyed vireo of the season and a Hairy woodpecker. Heard in the distance was an Ovenbird, plus other probable warblers.

This morning I went walking behind the Staunton-Augusta Rescue Squad and saw several Yellow-rumped warblers (all males), a male Yellow warbler, and the first Nashville warbler I've seen in years. Plus a Pileated woodpecker (female), two flickers, two Red-bellied woodpeckers, a Downy woodpecker, two Brown thrashers, and a Red-eyed vireo.

UPDATE: Here's a (pop-up) photo of Sherando Lake, which I took yesterday. I forgot to mention that I saw a Baltimore oriole out back this morning, and a Ruby-throated hummingbird (male) late this afternoon.

FURTHER UPDATE: For some reason, I can't get the movie to play over the Internet. I've posted video clips to Web sites four times previously without a hitch, and this is the first time I've encountered such a problem. I'll see if I can fix it...

May 9, 2005

LAST (?) UPDATE: The movie clip is working now after I modified its file name slightly. That should not have mattered, however, so something else must be amiss somewhere.

May 5, 2005 [LINK]

¿Dónde están los warblers?

Goldfinch at window Every day the goldfinches seem to be singing more and more loudly in the tree tops. Nearly all the males have finished molting into their bright yellow summer plumage, as you can see here. Yesterday I saw a male Ruby-throated hummingbird buzzing out back for the first time this spring. This morning I went looking for migrating neotropical warblers along the trail behind Staunton-Augusta Rescue Squad, but they were absent once again, except for one Prairie warbler that I heard. (I haven't seen one of those in years.) The Yellow-rumped warblers stay in these northern latitudes during the winter, and are very common this time of year. In glancing at my records, I noticed that for the eight previous years, I first saw Catbirds in April, whereas this year my first sighting was May 2. The exact opposite is true of Baltimore orioles; April 27 this year was the earliest I had ever seen them. Here are today's highlights:

  • Yellow-rumped warblers
  • Ruby-crowned kinglets (late stragglers)
  • White-throated sparrows (late stragglers)
  • Red-bellied woodpeckers
  • Catbirds
  • Blue-gray gnatcatchers
  • Great crested flycatchers (FOS)*
  • Indigo bunting (FOS)
  • Field sparrow
  • Purple finch (F)

*(Seen in Costa Rica in February.) FOS = first of season. In the afternoon there were a couple Northern rough-winged swallows and a (probable) Cooper's hawk out back.

May 2, 2005 [LINK]

Orioles, etc. at McCormick's Farm

Baltimore oriole I happened to be passing by McCormick's Farm this morning, so I stopped to see if I could get some pictures of one of the Baltimore orioles we saw there last week. It was my lucky day, as I saw at least three orioles and got some photos (though not very close), and saw four other species for the first time this spring ("FOS") as well. There were a number of territorial squabbles between males. It was very chilly, however. Perhaps the warblers have been slow in returning north for a good reason. Here are the highlights:

  • Osprey
  • Baltimore orioles
  • Yellow warblers (FOS)
  • Solitary sandpipers
  • Spotted sandpiper
  • Gray catbirds (FOS)
  • Yellow-rumped warblers (M)
  • Northern waterthrush (FOS)
  • Brown thrasher
  • Bluebird
  • Swamp sparrow
  • Flicker
  • Palm warbler (FOS)

May 1, 2005 [LINK]

Oriole at RFK? No way!

I was probably the only one of the 41,000 or so baseball fans at RFK Stadium last night to bring along a birding field guide, and it sure came in handy! In the sixth inning, I spotted a Common nighthawk (first of season) swooping around the stadium lights. Thus distracted, I didn't see Nats first baseman Nick Johnson swing when he hit a home run. A good luck omen, perhaps? Then during the second rain delay of the game, in the eighth inning, well after dark, I was surprised to see a blackish bird flying around the field at the upper deck level. With my binoculars, I could see it was smallish in size, so I figured it was probably a swallow or a swift until I saw that it had definite light-hued patches on its rump and wings, making me think it was a Baltimore oriole. Was this a publicity stunt hatched in Baltimore aimed at taunting Washington fans? Finally, the bird landed in the middle of the outfield as the rain poured down, and I got a clear look at it with no glare from lights in the background. The unmistakeable pale yellow back side of the head left no doubt: It was a Bobolink, no doubt confused and disoriented. They are very uncommon in Virginia, and are usually found in places where cows outnumber human beings.

More seasonal firsts

I was awoken this morning by an odd but delightful song outside the window (in Northern Virginia), and even in my semi-conscious state I recognized it as a White-eyed vireo. Fortunately it stayed there and kept singing throughout the morning, and I finally spotted it in a thicket of tall bushes. Later my niece Cathy and I went for a short walk and saw an Osprey, two loud Red-shouldered hawks (probably courting), plus a Red-bellied woodpecker, some Chipping sparrows, Cowbirds, and a Bluebird, among others. On our way home this afternoon I spotted a male American redstart near the Panorama restaurant and gift shop (closed for the season) in the Shenandoah National Park.

April 28, 2005 [LINK]

Ivory-billed woodpecker???

In one of the biggest news stories from the ornithological world in recent decades, the Ivory-billed woodpecker, long thought to be extinct, was apparently sighted in eastern Arkansas last year. A paper written by Cornell University biologists provides strong, if not yet definitive confirmation of the discovery. A few years ago a search expedition in the swamps of Louisiana failed to uncover any of these elusive birds. They are, or were, larger relatives of the Pileated woodpeckers, the model for "Woody." See Washington Post. Frankly this news is almost too good to be true, so I'll remain less than fully convinced until I see further proof. What's next, finding live dodo birds or pteradactyls? It's always refreshing whenever some marvelous new discovery in the world of science confounds stodgy old complacent beliefs. Learning never stops...

McCormick's Farm

Ten or so members of the Augusta Bird Club went for a field trip at McCormick's Farm yesterday. Within minutes we saw a Greater yellowlegs, a Spotted sandpiper, and a Solitary sandpiper. The highlight was seeing a bright orange Baltimore oriole, who responded aggressively to my whistles. (My cheer was offset by chagrin at not having brought my video camera, and by an unshakeable grudge toward Peter Angelos. smile) The only warblers seen were two Yellow-rumped warblers; the absence of warblers in these parts so far this spring is a cause for some concern...

April 18, 2005 [LINK]

Woodcock display flight

On Saturday evening I joined an Augusta Bird Club outing led by Allen Larner to the Blue Ridge in hopes of seeing one of the more remarkable mating rituals of the avian world: the evening flight display of the American woodcock. (Jacqueline and I had seen a woodcock once before, in November 2003.) About 15 members showed up, and while we did see a Blue-gray gnatcatcher and a few other songbirds, no woodcocks were heard as the sky turned to black. While waiting in the chilly night air, I drew everyone's attention to Jupiter in the southeastern skies, the identification being based on the three adjacent moons I saw; up to four of its moons can be visible with binoculars. After two hours, we were ready to give up, but just as we were about to get back in our cars we heard the distinctive peent call of the woodcock, rather like the call of a nighthawk. Soon we tracked him down, and with the aid of flashlights were able to get good looks at the odd long-billed bird, about 40 yards away. It's a relative of sandpipers, but lives in moist woods, feeding mostly on earthworms. I managed to follow his upward twirling flight path up to a height of over 100 feet (higher than I expected), and then as it came fluttering down with an odd twittering sound, mostly caused by the wind in his wings, much like the Mourning dove. Very curious behavior, indeed. It's nice when patience pays off!

A group of Purple finches has been hanging out behind Lee High School/S.A.R.S. for the past week or so, but I haven't seen any warblers there yet.

UPDATE: I saw the first Chimney swifts of the spring flying overhead late this afternoon. They seem to be arriving later for the last few years. Also, I saw a Northern (yellow-shafted) flicker for the first time in months.

April 14, 2005 [LINK]

First neotropical arrivals

Unable to stay inside on such a beautiful morning, I went out to take some scenic photos (to be posted on this site soon), and then trekked over to Betsy Bell Hill to see what I could see. At first there was little activity, but eventually I got rewarding views of woodpeckers and a few newly arriving spring migrants who had spent the winter in the tropics. In chronological order:

  • Titmice
  • Red-bellied woodpecker (M)
  • Yellow-bellied sapsuckers (M, F -- heading north)
  • Downy woodpecker (M)
  • Blue-headed vireo (first of season -- winters on Gulf coast, Mexico)
  • Northern parula (M; first of season -- winters in West Indies)
  • Yellow-rumped warbler (M; first in several months! -- heading north)
  • Black vultures
  • Pileated woodpecker (squabbling with Red-bellied WP)

April 9, 2005 [LINK]

Spring at Augusta Wetlands

With sparkling blue skies this morning, I couldn't resist the temptation to do a little birding, so I drove out to Augusta Wetlands, in the foothills west of town. Here are the highlights of what I saw:

  • Bluebirds
  • Tree swallows
  • Northern rough-winged swallows
  • Chipping sparrow *
  • Broad-winged hawk *
  • Phoebe
  • Downy woodpecker
  • Wood ducks (M & F) -- 12!
  • Blue-gray gnatcatcher *
  • * = first of season
    Also heard but did not see Belted kingfisher and White-breasted nuthatch.

That sets a record for the earliest in the season I had ever seen a Blue-gray gnatcatcher; before today, the earliest date was April 11. Likewise for the Broad-winged hawk, but their migration schedule seems more erratic. The Chipping sparrow was unusually late in the season, however. I don't think I had ever seen more than a few Wood ducks together before, so seeing a full dozen of them in one place was quite remarkable. I also saw something strange in a small stream: Some kind of lizard or salamander with red spots along its spine was grasping a small frog as if to strangle and eat it. Can anyone explain that behavior to me?

Irregular irruptions

I was checking the Cornell/Audubon eBird news site, and these two items caught my eye: "Common Redpolls Stage an Unusual Off-Year Irruption!" and "Tracking the Great Gray Owl Invasion." (Does the INS know about this?) The unusual southward movements of those far-northern species this past winter may have something to do with the fact that my brother John was able to such excellent photos of them while travelling in Minnesota earlier this year. Click on the birds' names to see a popup photo.

April 9, 2005 [LINK]

Update: Bell's Lane

The weather being almost too good to be true, late this afternoon I went on a second outing, to the Bell's Lane area. I saw:

  • Hooded merganser (F)
  • Meadowlarks
  • White-crowned sparrows (M, J/F)
  • Savannah sparrows *
  • Kestrel
  • Great blue heron
  • Green-winged teals (M, F)
  • * = first of season

April 7, 2005 [LINK]

Birds: slow start to spring

Birding has taken a back seat lately, because of baseball. On Saturday Jacqueline and I drove up to the Shenandoah National Park, where we saw a Pileated woodpecker, a White-breasted nuthatch, and a Common raven. On the way there we saw several Tree swallows and a few Northern rough-winged swallows, for the first time this spring. Yesterday I saw a Swamp sparrow and a Field sparrow behind the Staunton-Augusta Rescue Squad, the latter being the first one this spring. After the intoxicating experience of seeing all those exotic birds in Costa Rica (note a few late-late additions to that page, at the bottom of the "second batch"), it's hard to measure up. But you never know what to expect; it was just over a year ago that I saw the first Western tanager ever observed in Augusta County, or for that matter (I think) the entire Shenandoah Valley.

March 22, 2005 [LINK]

Signs of Spring

Even though there are hardly any flowers or green sprouts visible yet, the cardinals have begun singing on a regular basis, so spring can't be far off. On Friday I saw a flock of 15 or so Tree swallows in the Bell's Lane area, along with an American kestrel or two. Tree swallows are one of the earliest migrants we see. Robins and grackles are also making more frequent appearances, but woodpeckers are strangely scarce lately.

I just got a batch of incredibly sharp bird photos from my brother John, who traveled to Minnesota several weeks ago. The Northern hawk owl and Great gray owl shots are worthy of publication. I've also updated the Costa Rica birds page with a second scrolling menu that shows the second batch of photos, which were taken from video clips. That page is now more or less complete.

Andrew Clem Archives

March 16, 2005 [LINK]

More Costa Rica bird photos!

Violet saberwing This Violet saberwing is just a sample of the 18 new bird photos I've posted on this site, making about 50 altogether. A few more bird photos may be added later, and I also plan to post a few photos of monkeys and other exotic wild beasts. The Costa Rica birds page has been revamped to make it quicker and easier to see just the photos you want to see. It now includes a scrolling "a la carte" menu to let you pick and choose. The 31 photos it contained are now on the originals page, while the 18 new ones (nearly all of which are freeze frames from digital video tape, rather than still images as in the first batch) are on the second batch page. Those folks with limited patience or slow Internet access speed may prefer to see just the "cream of the crop" at: Costa Rica birds, best. Other high-quality photos on that page from the new batch include a Summer tanager, a Chestnut-mandibled toucan, and a White-throated magpie jay. I wanted to include the Rufous-collared sparrow and the Black-bellied hummingbird, but there are already 16 photos on that page. Thanks to the video camera, I've identified several more birds, adding to my life list. Going through all that video footage to extract suitable freeze frame images and to identify birds has been very time-consuming, which is why blogging has been so light this week.

I did find a bit of time to stop at Bell's Lane on the way home a few days ago. I noticed a huge flock of black birds in a barren field, and was pleased to spot at least a hundred Red-winged blackbirds among the thousands of Starlings. There were also a few Cowbirds, but I didn't see any Grackles. Then I happened to meet up with a caravan of Augusta Bird Club members on a field trip. The American wigeons, Redheads, Ruddy ducks, and Green-winged teals that have been wintering at the big farm pond off and on are still there, along with the usual Canada geese, but I didn't see any of the American coots or Mallards.

May 8, 2005 [LINK]

Happy (human AND avian) Mothers Day!

After hiking and picknicking at Sherando Lake (near the Blue Ridge) yesterday, we were lucky to see a pair of Blue-gray gnatcatchers busily building a nest in a tree right next to the parking spaces at the entrance from the highway. How convenient! Presented for your viewing pleasure is a 20-second video clip of the tiny "expectant mother" in action. (As any experienced birder will quickly note, the added sound effects are fake.) To see a closeup still image, click HERE. Note that the nest is made almost exclusively of tree lichens. We also saw an American redstart singing loudly, plus the first Red-eyed vireo of the season and a Hairy woodpecker. Heard in the distance was an Ovenbird, plus other probable warblers.

This morning I went walking behind the Staunton-Augusta Rescue Squad and saw several Yellow-rumped warblers (all males), a male Yellow warbler, and the first Nashville warbler I've seen in years. Plus a Pileated woodpecker (female), two flickers, two Red-bellied woodpeckers, a Downy woodpecker, two Brown thrashers, and a Red-eyed vireo.

UPDATE: Here's a (pop-up) photo of Sherando Lake, which I took yesterday. I forgot to mention that I saw a Baltimore oriole out back this morning, and a Ruby-throated hummingbird (male) late this afternoon.

FURTHER UPDATE: For some reason, I can't get the movie to play over the Internet. I've posted video clips to Web sites four times previously without a hitch, and this is the first time I've encountered such a problem. I'll see if I can fix it...

May 9, 2005

LAST (?) UPDATE: The movie clip is working now after I modified its file name slightly. That should not have mattered, however, so something else must be amiss somewhere.

Andrew Clem Archives

March 7, 2005 [LINK]

Costa Rica (& Nicaragua) bird list

Blue-gray tanager Whew! After many hours of squinting at photographs, I've managed to compile a preliminary list of the birds I saw in Costa Rica (and Nicaragua). There are a few uncertain cases (marked with "?") among the 117 species, and this list will be revised based on scrutiny of video images, input from experts, etc. Plus signs (+) denote the most abundant birds, though in some cases they are not found in all habitats. Asterisks (*) denote new life birds for me, of which I've counted 63 so far. "(ph)" denotes that I have photographs and/or video images; "(ph!!)" denotes the very best photos. The Blue-gray tanager pictured here may not be as colorful as some others, but it has a subtle beauty and was the one bird I saw almost every place I/we went in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, and is therefore the most "representative" of all. (NOTE: Some photos have not yet been posted.) I plan to add one or more photo gallery pages with captions explaining the location and circumstances, but in the mean time you can see those photos individually by clicking HERE.

  1. Great-tailed grackle (ph) +
  2. Rufous-collared sparrow (ph) +
  3. White-winged dove
  4. Rock pigeons +
  5. Black vulture +
  6. Turkey vulture
  7. House sparrow
  8. House wren +
  9. Blue-gray tanager (ph!!) +
  10. Summer tanager (ph)
  11. Baltimore oriole (ph)
  12. Great kiskadee (ph!!)
  13. Tropical kingbird * (ph) +
  14. Clay-colored robin (ph) +
  15. Red-crowned ant-tanager *
  16. Rufous-tailed hummingbird * +
  17. Yellow warbler (ph)
  18. Ovenbird
  19. Hoffman's woodpecker * (ph)
  20. Cattle egret +
  21. Fiery-throated hummingbird *
  22. Sooty-capped bush-tanager *
  23. Sooty-faced finch *
  24. Black-cowled oriole * (ph)
  25. Scarlet-thighed dacnis * (ph)
  26. Gray-breasted wood wren * (ph)
  27. Green-breasted mango *
  28. Blue & white swallow
  29. Rose-breasted grosbeak (ph)
  30. Silver-throated tanager * (ph!!)
  31. Violet sabrewing * (ph!!)
  32. Green-crowned brilliant hummingbird * (ph!)
  33. Purple-throated mountain gem * (ph)
  34. Coppery-headed emerald hummingbird * (ph!)
  35. Tennessee warbler (ph)
  36. Roadside hawk * (?)
  37. Ruddy ground-dove * (ph!!)
  38. ? dove
  39. Scarlet-rumped tanager * (ph)
  40. Bananaquit (ph!!)
  41. Spotted sandpiper (ph)
  42. Magnificent frigatebird * (ph)
  43. Bank swallow
  44. Mangrove swallow *
  45. Brown pelican
  46. ? gull
  47. ? tern
  48. Red-crowned woodpecker *
  49. Belted kingfisher
  50. Amazon kingfisher * (ph)
  51. American pygmy kingfisher *
  52. Chestnut-backed antbird *
  53. Turquoise cotinga *
  54. Riverside wren *
  55. Chestnut-mandibled toucan * (ph!!)
  56. Streaked flycatcher ? * (ph)
  57. Philadelphia vireo *
  58. Palm tanager * (ph)
  59. Black-crowned tityra *
  60. Black-striped sparrow * (ph)
  61. Thick-billed seed finch *
  62. Crested caracara (ph)
  63. Bare-throated tiger-heron * (ph)
  64. White ibis (ph)
  65. Common black hawk * (ph)
  66. Green heron
  67. Great curassow * (ph)
  68. Scarlet macaw * (ph)
  69. Golden-naped woodpecker *
  70. Red-legged honeycreeper * (ph!!)
  71. Great blue heron (ph)
  72. Black-collared hawk (ph)
  73. (small, bluish, with green crown, yellow belly --- ???)
  74. ? parrot
  75. King vulture *
  76. Blue-black grassquit
  77. Yellow-bellied siskin *
  78. Groove-billed ani *
  79. Smooth-billed ani * (?)
  80. Great antshrike * (ph)
  81. Prevost's ground-sparrow *
  82. Blue-crowned motmot *
  83. Silvery-throated jay *
  84. Thicket tinamou *
  85. White-throated magpie-jay * (ph)
  86. Pacific screech owl * (ph!!)
  87. ? hawk * (ph)
  88. Inca dove (ph)
  89. Rufous-capped warbler (ph)
  90. Banded wren * (ph)
  91. Squirrel cuckoo * (ph)
  92. Yellow-throated vireo
  93. White-lored gnatcatcher * (ph)
  94. Olive sparrow * (ph)
  95. Striped-headed sparrow *
  96. Great crested flycatcher (ph)
  97. parrot * (ph)
  98. Elegant trogon * (ph)
  99. Scissor-tailed flycatcher
  100. Orchard oriole
  101. Broad-billed hummingbird (ph)
  102. ? swifts
  103. Great egret
  104. Olivaceous (neotropical) cormorant
  105. Purple gallinule
  106. Limpkin *
  107. Northern jacana * (ph)
  108. Montezuma oropendula (ph)
  109. Orange-chinned parakeet *
  110. Snowy egret
  111. Little blue heron
  112. Osprey
  113. Crimson-fronted parakeet *
  114. Nicaraguan grackle
  115. Social flycatcher ?
  116. Eastern meadowlark
  117. Indigo bunting

I used "A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica" by F. Gary Stiles and Alexander F. Skutch as a reference, and it was invaluable. If I had stayed in Costa Rica for one more week I could have heard Prof. Stiles give a lecture on hummingbirds and ecology at the University of Costa Rica. While at the La Paz Waterfall Gardens, where we saw most of the hummingbirds, I had the pleasure to chat with Dr. Aaron Sekarak, the resident biologist and avian expert. I invite comments or challenges to my species identifications: please contact

Andrew Clem Archives

March 5, 2005 [LINK]

Bird photo bonanza

Costa Rica birds montage I have literally dozens of fair-to-very-good photos from our trip to Costa Rica, and this montage is merely a preview. They are, clockwise from the upper left: Great kiskadee, Blue-gray tanager, Silver-throated tanager, Red-footed honeycreeper, Scarlet-rumped tanager, Scarlet macaw, Pacific screech owl, and in the right center, an Coppery-headed emerald hummingbird. More details on where I saw these birds and all the others are yet to come... I wanted to include the Elegant trogon in this montage, since it was one of my big photographic "prizes," but it is hard to distinguish the bird from the background foliage unless the photo is at a larger scale. All the above photos are still images from our Canon digital video camera. After I finish with editing those I will move on to capturing freeze frames from the many video clips I took. For faster-moving birds such as hummingbirds, it is almost hopeless to get good still images, so taking video is the only way to go.

With four or more inches of snow on the ground right now, our backyard bird feeder has been attracting a large number of juncos, goldfinches, sparrows, cardinals, etc. That makes it prime hunting territory for hungry raptors, and indeed a Sharp-shinned hawk collided (feet first) with the window in Princess and George's room while I was standing there about an hour ago. I think his prey got away this time, but Princess and George panic flew all around in a panic and are still nervous.

Andrew Clem Archives

February 27, 2005 [LINK]

Birds in Nicaragua *

This morning I took a boat ride along the shores of Lake Nicaragua to see the wildlife that abounds on "Las Isletas." It was thoroughly enjoyable, and I saw the Montezuma oropendulas that I was told were present. They are a large bird with yellow tails that built huge basket nests, much like the orioles with which they are related. I had seen oropendulas in Mexico in 1985, but I'm not certain about the exact species, so this may or may not have been a life bird. I also saw many other birds along the shore, including two life birds, Northern jacanas, colorful birds that dance on lily pads, and a Limpkin, sort of a cross between a heron and an ibis.

* This blog entry was originally posted along with other material at Archives/2005/02/27la.html while I was in Nicaragua, but has been retroactively renamed and placed in the Wild Birds category, where it belongs.

Andrew Clem Archives

February 26, 2005 [LINK]

Santa Rosa National Park *

Yesterday (Friday), I took a taxi to Santa Rosa National Park, about 15 miles NW of Liberia. My calculation that I would be more likely to see more bird species in a different habitat than we had previously seen proved 100% correct. I was lucky to meet an American biology student who was recording bird calls for a research project, and she gave me tips on where to look for birds. Among the highlights were White-throated magpie jays (big and loud), a Pacific screech owl, several Squirrel cuckoos, several Rufous-capped warblers, , and near the very end of my trek, two green and red Elegant trogons. AND MANY MORE -- Almost [15] new life birds in a single day! I thought my video camera ran out when I came across the trogons, but fortunately there was enough juice left over to get some pretty good shots. It was extremely hot, and my feet were even more sore by mid-day, with some vicious bug bites (DEET didn't work), but it was well worth it. If you're a bird fanatic, that is.

* This blog entry was originally posted along with other material at Archives/2005/02/26la.html while I was in Costa Rica, but has been retroactively renamed and placed in the Wild Birds category, where it belongs.

Andrew Clem Archives

February 21, 2005 [LINK]

Corcovado National Park *

What a trip! Words can barely begin to describe what we saw and heard at Corcovado National Park yesterday. First, I should warn would-be tourists to do their geographical homework to be able to weigh all the conflicting advice you're likely to get if you ever travel to this part of the world. Unless you've got a good sense of the lay of the land, you'll be at the mercy of hucksters and weirdos. We hopped on a Jeep-style minivan just before dawn on Sunday, and endured over two hours of bumpy, treacherous, rutted roads, fording several streams and rivers along the way. Thankfully, the driver indulged my requests to stop to take pictures of several of the amazing birds we saw on the road, including a Crested caracara, a Fasciated tiger-heron(?), a Great currasow, a Common black hawk, a White ibis, and a Green heron, among others.

When we reached the terminal point, the village of Carate, we began a 2+ mile hike along the beach to the park entry station. It was quite a struggle in the hot sun, but we were rewarded with great views of our main "target species" before we even entered the park itself: a screeching flock of Scarlet macaws landed in a palm tree nearby, and I got some decent pictures and video clips. They rarely descend below treetop level, so my photos were only so-so, but the brilliant red, green, yellow, and blue colors were quite evident. We paid $8 each at the entry station and learned that our intended destination -- a place called "Sirena" -- could not be reached within one day if we wanted to return the same day. So, we hiked about half that far, 2.5 miles.

Our first big thrill inside the park itself was seeing a group of Spider monkeys, including an infant clinging to its mother, and a toddler learning to climb along branches and vines. This time we got great video shots, since they were only 30-40 yards away. We also saw an anteater (I think) in a tree, a snake in a bush, and a huge spider. No jaguars or other feline predators, however. (A guy I met who is a fellow graduate of Virginia told me that while at Sirena he saw a puma (cougar, mountain lion) attack, kill, and devour a monkey.) Anyway, we didn't see as many birds as I anticipated, but there were some fine ones, nonetheless, most notably a pair of male Red-legged honeycreepers engaged in some sort of territorial display ritual, dancing and chirping around each other. (Non-violent conflict resolution!?) They were a gorgeous deep blue color. There were also Chestnut-backed antbirds, Riverside wrens, and others not yet identified. My feet paid a heavy price for that long beach trek (wearing only sandals), but the blisters were not as severe as I feared.

* The heading above was added retroactively, for the sake of clarity.

February 21, 2005 [LINK]

Do you know The Way to San Jose?

This morning, Monday, the 21st*, we left Puerto Jimenez on a bus shortly after 5:00. Dawn broke within an hour, and we soon saw quite a variety of birds in the farm fields. Even from a distance it was easy to identify a King vulture (white with black wings) perched on top of a dead cow. I also saw Groove-billed anis, some Yellow-bellied siskins, and a few others. Later I caught a brief glimpse of a medium-sized black and white bird perched on a wire, luckily while I was taking a video clip of the countryside. Replaying that clip helped me to confirm that it was a Great antshrike. (Why do so many tropical bird names include "ant"? I don't know.) That was just as we begin climbing from the hot, sunny valley where coffee, sugarcane, and pineapples are grown, into the cool cloud-forest mountains. After a few more hours we descended into the Central Valley, passing the city of Cartago, and finally arriving in San Jose around 3:00. Whew!

* NOTE: I realized that my last posting had the wrong date, which gives you a good idea how far out of touch with reality I am. Hence the corrected date, in [brackets]. While I'm out of the country (for the rest of the month) I can be reached at: ontheroad(AT) -- replacing "(AT)" with "@" of course.

Andrew Clem Archives

February [19], 2005 [LINK]

Welcome to the Jungle!

I've seen and experienced so much over the past two days that I don't know if I can relate our travel adventures in a coherent fashion. But I'll try. After learning from the weather forecasts that the Caribbean coast was expected to remain rainy for the next couple days (as it has been for at least the last two months), we opted for the Pacific coast, taking a seven-hour bus ride from San Jose to the town of Golfito, not far from Panama. Along the way we crossed some very high mountains, most of which were shrouded by thick clouds. Occasionally the sun would peek through and we would get a fanastic view of distant peaks and clouds far below us. We arrived in Golfito at 10:00 PM and took a "taxi-boat" to the village of Playa Cacao, and got settled into our thatched hut cabin. "Cabinas Playa Cacao" is a splendid, beautiful place to relax and enjoy nature, and Doña Isabel is a wonderful hostess.

The next day (Thursday, I think) I got up at the crack of dawn and saw Ruddy ground doves, Scarlet-rumped tanagers, hummers, various flycatchers, among others. In the afternoon we bought supplies in town (via the taxi-boat) and basically relaxed, since it was too hot to do much else. Late in the afternoon we walked up a hill and saw a Striped-crown sparrow, an olive-colored forager that was so big that it looked like a towhee to me. I also saw a Thick-billed seedeater, plus others. Then it started to rain so we had to hurry back.

This morning we took a hike along a stream into a genuine tropical rain forest. It was VERY dark in the dawn's early light, adding mystery to the ominous surroundings. Would we see jaguars or peccaries? Fortunately not, but we DID see two species that were at the top of our "target" list: White-faced monkeys (four or so) and Chestnut-mandibled toucans (two). We could hardly believe our eyes, but since I had the presence of mind to turn on my video camera, there is no doubt. I got great images of those, plus many other birds.

I wish we could have stayed another day or two in Playa Cacao, but I learned that our only hope of getting into Corcovado National Park was to spend two nights in Puerto Jimenez, across the Golfo Dulce on the Osa Peninsula. So we hopped on a ferry boat, and we are now ensconced in a decent hotel in this dusty fishing village / tourist mecca. I've learned that getting around in Costa Rica is a lot harder than you might think, given the country's relative prosperity. It's a jungle out there!

Andrew Clem Archives

February 16, 2005 [LINK]

"Backyard" bird watching

As everyone knows (or should know), Central America is the "backyard" of the good ol' U.S.A. So, when you go bird watching down here, you are in effect doing "backyard" bird watching. smile Today Jacqueline and I splurged on a "package tour," something I have rarely if ever done before. The prime birding and nature hot spots in Costa Rica are in very remote places, so I figured it would be better to start off with a guide. I almost regretted my decision after our first stop, the Poas volcano, about 25 miles NW of San Jose. It is one of a chain of volcanoes anchoring a mountain range that stretches across the middle of the country, from northwest to southeast. The higher elevations are a "cloud forest," which means that it is almost always raining or drizzling or misting. I was prepared with a proper jacket and umbrella, but the clouds and precipitation reduced visibility so much that we couldn't see anything inside the crater, which is supposed to be the second biggest one in the world. Fortunately, I saw a number of good birds, including some Sooty-capped bush tanagers, a Sooty-faced finch, a Black-cowled oriole, a Scarlet-thighed dacnis, among others. All those birds made it a worthwhile stop after all.

The we went to La Paz Waterfall, located on the eastern slope of Poas volcano. It includes an enclosed butterfly sanctuary, where we saw hundreds of chrysalises and/or cocoons. We actually saw an exotic butterfly emerge and take flight for the very first time in its life! But for me the biggest thrill was the hummingbird center, where dozens of feeders attracted a constant stream of so many different species of hummingbirds that there was no way I could hope to identify most of them. Actually, though, there was a way: our Canon DV camera! I tried my best to get as many of those tiny speedsters on tape as I could, and after further review, I would say I can probably identify at least six or seven species, maybe more. By far the best was the large Violet saber-wing. A German couple was blocking my camera angle for crucial minutes, and I almost despaired of one of the greatest bird photo-ops ever. At last, they moved, and I got some great shots. But wait, there's more! While at La Paz we also saw several Rose-breasted grosbeaks, Silver-throated tanagers (not well named, as you will soon see from the photos I took), Tennessee warblers, and others not yet identified. Finally, we walked along a precarious set of steel grate walkways to see the La Paz Waterfalls, which are awesome. The cloud forest foliage was just too thick to get good views of the many birds I heard and glimpsed.

Our final stop of the day was the Doka Estate coffee plantation, in the foothills between Poas volcano and San Jose. Just before we arrived there I spotted some kind of a hawk along the road. It was a pleasant and informative tour of the farm, the coffee bean sorting equipment, and the roasting mill. It is a modern monoculture plantation, however, which means that it is not good habitat for songbirds. Also, shade-grown coffee is better quality than coffee from trees grown in open fields, and I bought a bag of organic shade-grown coffee. Finally our tour bus brought us back to Kap's Place in San Jose. Another busy, exhausting, extremely rewarding day!

Tomorrow we may take a bus/boat trip to the Caribbean coast, or perhaps head south to the Pacific beaches. Maybe we can squeeze both in!

Andrew Clem Archives

February 12, 2005 [LINK]

New binoculars: great view!

In preparation for our travels to Central America, I just purchased a new pair of binoculars -- the "Raptor" 10x42 model from the Audubon line -- from the Birds I View store in downtown Staunton. I tested out my new binocs on Bell's Lane this morning (bright and sunny), and was thrilled to see such crystal clear images of distant objects. I saw Red-tailed hawks, kestrels, several hundred Canada geese, a Ruby-crowned kinglet, six or so American coots, two Gadwalls, two Ruddy ducks, and a male Redhead (duck) -- the best view of that species I have ever had. With the sun at a perfect angle behind me, I could clearly see the yellow-orange eyes, distinctive bill, and the glistening copper-colored feathers on his head. Beautiful!

Andrew Clem Archives

February 7, 2005 [LINK]

Road trip to Blacksburg

White-breasted nuthatch Jacqueline and I paid a visit yesterday to Blacksburg and environs yesterday, mostly to see our visiting friends from Spain, Montserrat and Josep, as well as their daughter Laura. It was a beautiful, mild day, with clear skies -- Could it be spring at last? While chatting and strolling around the rural home of their friendly and gracious hosts, Ed and Valerie Robinson, we saw this White-breasted nuthatch, whose eyes were closed when I snapped the shutter. I saw an Eastern phoebe (pictured below) as well, which is very unusual for this time of year; it eluded the other folks, however. During the cooler months, phoebes have a yellowish tinge on their bellies, which you can see in the photo. There was also a probable young Sharp-shinned hawk screaming in a nearby tree top, but it flew away before I could get a picture.

Eastern phoebe Later in the afternoon we were treated to a fine traditional country meal at the Home Place, a farm house converted into a restaurant in the village of Catawba. Pass the biscuits and gravy, please! Yum, yum. On our way home we drove on the recently-completed Rt. 460 bypass between Blacksburg and Christiansburg. It was one of those perpetual construction projects that used to be very annoying to us when we lived there, but now that it's done, getting around is a lot easier than it was before. As far as I know, the high-tech "smart road" project that will eventually connect Blacksburg more directly to I-81 is still years from completion. It was designed to test futuristic traffic control systems and includes a very high bridge over a river valley -- a veritable monument to "some day..."

Andrew Clem Archives

February 5, 2005 [LINK]

Death to Mute swans?

There is a growing controversy in Maryland over the planned killing of Mute swans, which many people believe are destroying aquatic vegetation upon which fish in the Chesapeake Bay depend for reproduction. A letter to the editor in the Washington Post earlier this week claimed that a bill introduced in the Maryland General Assembly by Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R) would "gut" the Migratory Bird Treaties signed with Canada and Mexico. I am skeptical of this, however. Mute swans are not migratory, and in any case the fact that they are from Europe, not North America, means they are not covered by Federal laws prohibiting hunting or killing of native birds. Starlings, House sparrows, and Rock pigeons are not protected for good reason: They enroach upon the habitat of native species, some of which -- such as Bluebirds -- suffered terrible declines for most of the 20th Century. The writer, Michael Markarian, an official of the Humane Society, claims that the question of which birds are really "native" to North America is complicated, but I am unaware of any such controversies. Mute swans are graceful creatures, but that doesn't entitle them to proliferate at the expense of other species. They can be very aggressive toward humans or smaller waterfowl. Mr. Markarian certainly has a point that a bigger threat to the Chesapeake Bay comes from waste runoff from corporate poultry farms. Gilchrest should show that his concern for the environment is sincere by pushing for tighter regulations on agricultural polluters.

Coincidentally, waste runoff has reached dangerous levels in Augusta County, where agribusiness is king. In fact, Lewis Creek, which flows through downtown Staunton, was recently deemed unsafe by state health officials.

Red-tailed hawk While driving around Augusta County after doing my recycling chores this afternoon, I saw several Red-tailed hawks (including this one, about 80 yards away), plus two Kestrels, one of which repeatedly hovered and dove toward its prey. None of the hoped-for Horned larks or American pipits previously sighted by Allen Larner were present, however. Along Bell's Lane I saw two Great blue herons, some White-crowned sparrows, and some Bluebirds. At the big pond (now half-thawed) nearby, I saw at least a thousand Canada geese and (probably) two Redheads (ducks).

UPDATE: Thanks to an e-mail message from Allen Larner to the Shenandoah Birds list serve, I can confirm that those were Redheads I saw today. My first sighting of that species was Jan. 25, 2003.

Andrew Clem Archives

February 3, 2005 [LINK]

Birds' brains

An article in Tuesday's Washington Post explains why George ought to get more respect for his intellectual abilities than most people give him. (!) Research scientists have recently discovered that the brains of birds, though small in absolute terms, are actually more complex than was once thought, so they have begun to revamp the system used to describe the various parts of the avian brain.

The new system, which draws upon many of the words used to describe the human brain and has broad support among scientists, acknowledges the now overwhelming evidence that avian and mammalian brains are remarkably similar -- a fact that explains why many kinds of bird are not just twitchily resourceful but able to design and manufacture tools, solve mathematical problems and, in many cases, use language in ways that even chimpanzees and other primates cannot.

In particular, it reflects a new recognition that the bulk of a bird's brain is not, as scientists once thought, mere "basal ganglia" -- the part of the brain that simply coordinates instincts. Rather, fully 75 percent of a bird's brain is an intricately wired mass that processes information in much the same way as the vaunted human cerebral cortex.

Any pet bird owner or wild bird watcher would probably not be surprised at all by this news. Our canaries, Princess and George, certainly seem to have advanced cognitive abilities, as well as complex social behavior patterns and emotional states. Frankly, I've always had the impression that pigeons and doves had below-average smarts, but the article suggests otherwise. On the very same day, coincidentally, our copy of Wild Bird magazine arrived, and it had an article on the same subject.

More snow, fewer birds

The white stuff was coming down pretty heavy for several hours today, but most of it had melted away. A Carolina wren belted out a LOUD song on our back patio, making George rather anxious, but otherwise there have been no signs of courtship behavior in the avian world. In a normal (mild) winter, we would expect to see crocuses by now. Grumble... Aside from the regular Cardinals, Titmice, Juncos, etc., there's not been much birding activity to report. I saw several Green-winged teals, Coots, and (probably) some Ring-necked ducks on Bell's Lane last week, and spotted a flock of 15 or so Meadowlarks in a field. Yesterday Jacqueline and I saw a Pileated woodpecker for the first time since October 24. Still no Yellow-rumped warblers since last November 11; they have been uncommonly scarce this winter.

Andrew Clem Archives

January 21, 2005 [LINK]

More snow, more birds

Cardinal - female We had another light snowfall last night, not as much as in southern Virginia, apparently. The forecast is for much more snow tomorrow and possibly Sunday. This female Cardinal was among the dozens of birds swarmed in our backyard this morning: mostly starlings, juncos, crows, goldfinches, titmice, and white-throated sparrows.

Yesterday Princess and George were frightened by a Sharp-shinned hawk that zoomed into our back yard. They flew out of their room in a panic and didn't return for nearly two hours.

The Photo Gallery page has been updated with newly added photos and some format refinements.

Andrew Clem Archives

January 19, 2005 [LINK]

Conservation and conservatism

Tuesday's Washington Post had an op-ed column about bird and wildlife conservation issues by Pat Patterson, of the Fairfax Audubon Society. He mentioned "Pale Male," the famous Red-tailed hawk in Central Park, as well as the Cerulean warbler, which is suffering from a loss of woodland habitat in the eastern states. (For some reason, I have seen them in the Blue Ridge more often than some other warblers that are supposed to be more common.) I was pleased to learn that First Lady Laura Bush is a birder, and that the President "claims that he is managing habitat on his ranch for the endangered golden-cheeked warbler," which has a very restricted range in central Texas. I heartily concur with Mr. Patterson's call for Bush to "support $100 million in funding for the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act." As a first symbolic step at the outset of the President's second term, it would be nice to see a bird feeding station set up on the back lawn of the White House.

To me, it is just common sense that conservatives ought to be more attuned to conservation issues, but reality and popular perception both suggest otherwise. Though the Republicans' record on environmental issues is hardly as bad as some hysterical activists such as Robert Kennedy, Jr. would suggest, there is, sad to say, some reason for the Republicans' shaky credentials. Business lobbyists often get regulations waived on economic grounds, and if past Washington Post articles are correct, campaign contributions may be part of the equation. If President Bush really wants to broaden the Republican Party's base, he should broaden the definition of what conservatives want to conserve, and make it clear that good stewardship of the bounty of God's creation is a duty of all Americans.

Andrew Clem Archives

January 17, 2005 [LINK]

First snow!

Song sparrow Snow fell last night in the Shenandoah Valley for the first time this season. (I also noticed snow falling in Gillette Stadium on TV yesterday evening, perhaps giving the hardy Patriots the extra edge they needed against the "sheltered" Colts.) This comes rather late, since mid-January is typically the midpoint of winter. The weather here has certainly been a lot milder than in California or the Ohio River valley region. This Song sparrow found plenty of good eatin' along our back porch this morning. Song sparrows are fairly plain, but can be distinguished from the more common House sparrows (a non-native import from Europe, often considered a pest) by their brownish streaks and a dark spot in the middle of their chest. They are aptly named, as they sing boldly and frequently, from February until late summer, and sometimes even in the colder months.

Andrew Clem Archives

January 12, 2005 [LINK]

Back to McCormick's Farm

Tufted titmouse I joined yet another Augusta Bird Club trip to McCormick's Farm led by YuLee Larner this morning. It was balmy, as it has been recently, though mostly cloudy. Our most notable sighting was five Gadwalls, which are a rather plain looking duck. If my records are correct, this was only my second sighting of that species, the first being in 2001. I also saw both Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned kinglets, Downy woodpeckers, Red-bellied woodpeckers, Belted kingfisher, and a Red-tailed hawk. We were startled to see two Carolina wrens (obviously males) locked in mortal combat, clutching each other by the feet and rolling around in the underbrush. One pecked at the other quite viciously, and we tried to break it up. The first sign of mating season!

After I got home, this Tufted titmouse appeared outside our window.

Andrew Clem Archives ~ Life bird: Cackling geese

January 10, 2005 [LINK]

Life bird: Cackling geese

Thanks to a tip from Allen Larner, one of, if not the most active member of the Augusta Bird Club, I spotted some Cackling geese for the first time ever yesterday. They are close relatives of the much more common Canada geese (in fact, they used to be considered the same species), but they are only about two thirds as big. I saw at least three, in the middle of a flock of 100 or more Canada geese. Two other birders, Brenda Tekin and Tom Pendleton, happened to be at the Bell's Lane location when I arrived, and using their spotting scopes provided a much better image than my binoculars. Thanks, folks! Red-tailed hawks were all over the place; we counted at least eight. Also seen: a Kestrel, a Downy woodpecker, and 15 or so Killdeers.

UPDATE: I just received a letter from Susan Heath, Secretary of the Virginia Avian Records Committee, informing me that my submitted sighting of a Western tanager last March has been accepted as a "Category One" sighting, the highest level of acceptance, based on physical evidence, i.e., photographs taken by Brenda Tekin and me. This was the fifth sighting of a Western tanager in the Mountains and Valleys region of Virginia since records have been kept, but the first ever in Augusta County.

Andrew Clem archives

January 1, 2005 [LINK]

A new year of birding

Golden-crowned kinglet New Year's Day in Staunton is balmy but rather cloudy, probably not much different than in Pasadena right now. On my first birding walk of the year I came tantalizingly close to getting a good shot of this Golden-crowned kinglet, but it moved just as I snapped the shutter. Well, at least you can see the crown, if not the beak. This one happened to be the first male of this species I had seen in some time; they are distinguished by bold orange feathers among the yellow ones, but sometimes they are more prominent than others. I also saw a Ruby-crowned kinglet nearby. Kinglets are tiny, even smaller than chickadees, but move very rapidly in search of small insects. Finally, there was a group of three screaming Red-tailed hawks, possibly warming up for courtship season, as well as several White-breasted nuthatches, Downy woodpeckers, a Red-bellied woodpecker, many titmice, cardinals, and all the other usuals except for no juncos at all.

As in the year before, nearly all the new life birds I saw in 2004 were in Latin America, 31 of 35 to be exact. I looked at the annual data on my Life bird list and noticed that, after declining steadily from 1997 to 2001, the annual number of new birds I've seen has been increasing by greater and greater increments each year. That pace will be hard to maintain in 2005, but there is a strong possibility of another venture south of the border...

Birds seen in Costa Rica

(This table is "under construction.")

SpeciesSan JoséGolfitoCorcovado Nat. ParkSanta Rosa Nat. ParkNicaraguaOther places
Great-tailed grackle (ph) +      
Rufous-collared sparrow (ph) +      
White-winged dove      
Rock pigeons +      
Black vulture +      
Turkey vulture       
House sparrow       
House wren +      
Blue-gray tanager (ph!!) +      
Summer tanager (ph)      
Baltimore oriole (ph)      
Great kiskadee (ph!!)      
Tropical kingbird * (ph) +      
Clay-colored robin (ph) +      
Red-crowned ant-tanager *      
Rufous-tailed hummingbird * +      
Yellow warbler (ph)      
Hoffman's woodpecker * (ph)      
Cattle egret +      
Fiery-throated hummingbird *      
Sooty-capped bush-tanager *      
Sooty-faced finch *      
Black-cowled oriole * (ph)      
Scarlet-thighed dacnis * (ph)      
Gray-breasted wood wren * (ph)      
Green-breasted mango *      
Blue & white swallow      
Rose-breasted grosbeak (ph)      
Silver-throated tanager * (ph!!)      
Violet sabrewing * (ph!!)      
Green-crowned brilliant hummingbird * (ph!)      
Purple-throated mountain gem * (ph)      
Coppery-headed emerald hummingbird * (ph!)      
Tennessee warbler (ph)      
Roadside hawk * (?)      
Ruddy ground-dove * (ph!!)      
? dove       
Scarlet-rumped tanager * (ph)      
Bananaquit (ph!!)      
Spotted sandpiper (ph)      
Magnificent frigatebird * (ph)      
Bank swallow      
Mangrove swallow *      
Brown pelican      
? gull      
? tern      
Red-crowned woodpecker *      
Belted kingfisher      
Amazon kingfisher * (ph)      
American pygmy kingfisher *      
Chestnut-backed antbird *      
Turquoise cotinga *      
Riverside wren *      
Chestnut-mandibled toucan * (ph!!)      
Streaked flycatcher ? * (ph)      
Philadelphia vireo *      
Palm tanager * (ph)      
Black-crowned tityra *      
Black-striped sparrow * (ph)      
Thick-billed seed finch *      
Crested caracara (ph)      
Bare-throated tiger-heron * (ph)      
White ibis (ph)      
Common black hawk * (ph)      
Green heron      
Great curassow * (ph)      
Scarlet macaw * (ph)      
Golden-naped woodpecker *      
Red-legged honeycreeper * (ph!!)      
Great blue heron (ph)      
Black-collared hawk (ph)      
(small, bluish, with green crown, yellow belly --- ???)       
? parrot       
King vulture *      
Blue-black grassquit      
Yellow-bellied siskin *      
Groove-billed ani *      
Smooth-billed ani * (?)      
Great antshrike * (ph)      
Prevost's ground-sparrow *      
Blue-crowned motmot *      
Silvery-throated jay *      
Thicket tinamou *      
White-throated magpie-jay * (ph)      
Pacific screech owl * (ph!!)      
? hawk * (ph)      
Inca dove (ph)      
Rufous-capped warbler (ph)      
Banded wren * (ph)      
Squirrel cuckoo * (ph)      
Yellow-throated vireo      
White-lored gnatcatcher * (ph)      
Olive sparrow * (ph)      
Striped-headed sparrow *      
Great crested flycatcher (ph)      
parrot * (ph)      
Elegant trogon * (ph)      
Scissor-tailed flycatcher      
Orchard oriole      
Broad-billed hummingbird (ph)      
? swifts      
Great egret      
Olivaceous (neotropical) cormorant      
Purple gallinule      
Limpkin *      
Northern jacana * (ph)      
Montezuma oropendula (ph)      
Orange-chinned parakeet *      
Snowy egret      
Little blue heron      
Crimson-fronted parakeet *      
Nicaraguan grackle      
Social flycatcher ?      
Eastern meadowlark      
Indigo bunting