Tag Archives: birding

Woodpecker Glimpse

So happy to catch a glimpse of a pileated woodpecker the other day. He was busily moving up and down a large tree trunk in the woods, but I wasn’t able to get an unobstructed photo. They truly are the jackhammers of the forest.pileated woodpecker


Pothole Bathing

pothole bathrobin bathWe have two areas in our yard where birds in the neighborhood can get freshened up on a dusty day. In front, there is a large stone birdbath. In the rear, we have a small pond with a very shallow stream of water running over a ledge. Many birds land by the pond and walk over to the ledge for a quick rinse. By far, however, the all-time favorite bathing spot is the pothole in the street in front of our house. Every time it rains and water collects in the hole, a variety of birds come – some solo, some in small groups – to bathe. Maybe the hole is the perfect depth and width to attract them, or maybe they just like muddy rainwater, whatever the reason, it attracts more visitors than the birdbath and the pond.grackle bath

Identifying the Red Tail

Are they red-tailed hawks?

Are they red-tailed hawks?

The  red feathers are starting to fan out

The red feathers are starting to fan out

Notice the distinctive red tail feathers

Notice the distinctive red tail feathers

I have trouble identifying hawks because they all seem to look so similar. Looking for clues to a raptor’s identity — by zeroing in on features such as size, shape, coloring, stripes on the feathers or behavior — doesn’t always help me figure out what I’ve seen. Factor in distance or poor lighting and it’s even more difficult; if the hawk is a fledgling or a juvenile, “fuh-gedda-boud-dit!” The young ones are almost impossible for me to distinguish. Despite my difficulty ID’ing hawks, there is one type that is not too difficult to determine from the rear.

The red-tailed hawk is aptly named for its distinctively colored reddish tail feathers. Like many other hawks, the body and wings are brown and the breast is lightly speckled, but the color of the tail really stands out. It’s especially noticeable when the feathers are fanned in flight.

About a month ago, I saw two hawks perched high in a tree. I was uncertain about their identity, although I assumed they were red-tailed hawks because they are so common in my area. Once the hawks began to fly though, the red-brown tail was clearly evident. When you are out and about, look for the red tail to identify the red-tailed hawk.

Vulture Hangout

black vulture on fencepost trio of vulturesThis is THE place to hang out if you’re a black vulture. Linking to Friday’s Fences at Life According to Jan and Jer.

Sunning Tail Feathers

For a bird, a fence makes a great place for sunning your tail feathers after the snow.junco in snowsparrow on fence
Linking to Friday’s Fences at Life According to Jan and Jer.

Our Owl-less Outing Near the Ocean

sand and snow fence

Snow on the beach, but no owls

snowy owl bag

This trash sure looked like a snowy owl from a distance!

seawall fence

Lots of gulls, but no owls

heron on the path

A great blue heron on the path near the cove


A group of sanderlings

After reading all the news articles and blog posts about this year’s snowy owl irruption in coastal northeastern areas of the U.S., we decided it was our turn to see a snowy owl in the wild. So, earlier this week, on a very cold and windy day, we drove to Sandy Hook Gateway National Recreation Area in Highlands, New Jersey, to have a firsthand look. We chose to go to Sandy Hook because snowy owl sightings had been reported there. My eagerness was fanned even more after viewing some of the gorgeous snowy owl photos posted on Flickr by fortunate owl spotters.

Sandy Hook has several different beaches along the Atlantic Ocean for swimming, fishing and nude sunbathing(!), as well as a historic military area, nature/hiking/biking trails and a bay side. Since it was quite frigid, there were very few people at the park. At first, we explored some of the beach areas, then we headed toward Ft. Hancock. After that, we walked along a cove on the bay side. The scenery was beautiful. Unfortunately, we did not see any snowy owls, not even a quick glimpse of one. As a consolation for our owl-less outing, however, there were plenty of entertaining gulls, several great blue herons and a small group of sanderlings running back and forth with the waves.

Linking to “Friday’s Fences” at Life According to Jan and Jer.

A Circle in the Sky

A circle formation of flying birds

A circle formation of flying birds

A raptor (bottom right) was close by

A raptor (bottom right) was close by

A few fuzzy close ups of the raptor that I couldn't identify

A few fuzzy close ups of the raptor that I couldn’t identify

While near the Raritan River the other day, I noticed a circle in the sky that was moving rapidly. The circle was actually a large group of birds. The shape kept getting formed and reformed, over and over, while the birds moved westward.

I’ve seen flocks of european starlings before, flying in patterns in the air then landing en masse before taking off again, but this was different. The birds were very high up in the sky and they did not land. The pattern the birds made remained circular until they went out of sight.

What I didn’t see right away was the raptor in their proximity. The more I watched, it seemed that the formation of the circle was a way for the flock to protect and defend themselves from the threat. Although it looked like the raptor was after the group of birds, I suppose the birds could have been harassing the raptor too (like an angry mob). I’m guessing that the birds were starlings, although it could have been some other type of bird that flies together during migration. I couldn’t identify the raptor either because it was too far away.

Linking to Skywatch Friday.

Wood is Good: The Birds of Vermont Museum

owls whooping cranewarblersowl flying bird museum buildingIn the movie, “The Big Year,” the character Kenny makes the statement, “Birds wait for no man.” On a recent road trip, we found a place where the birds do wait. In fact, you can take your time as you observe more than 500 birds, including migratory species, ducks and raptors. How is this possible? The birds are hand-carved from wood.

When our summertime travels brought us northward, out of New Jersey, we ended up visiting the Birds of Vermont Museum in Huntington, Vermont. This museum is home to a meticulously designed collection of wooden birds that are displayed according to their natural environment. The craftsmanship is amazing. Each carving is actual size and extremely detailed, posed to capture the personality and behavior of the bird in its habitat. For example, the kingfisher had a freshly caught fish in its beak and the nuthatch was positioned on the trunk of a tree.

As we first entered the museum, we were immediately drawn to a windowed viewing area to watch the live birds visiting the outside feeders. A row of binoculars lined the windowsill for the guest’s viewing pleasure. When the hummingbirds and other species flittered near the window, an outside microphone picked up the sound so you not only saw the birds, but heard them as well. For a chance to see more live birds, you could sneak back outside to hike around a nature trail.

The curator chatted with us for a while, answered questions, and then showed us a quick, informative video about the museum’s history and the artist, Bob Spear. After that, we explored the upstairs and downstairs collections on our own. The collections included replicas of Vermont’s nesting birds, as well as endangered and extinct species. There were sections for birds of the wetlands and raptors. Even a life-sized Tom turkey was on display. Many of the plaques identifying the carvings contained a scannable bar code allowing you to hear the bird’s call. In the artist’s workshop, you could see various wooden shapes being transformed into birds. The collection is continuously being added to. The latest project is to complete the carving of the ducks and shore birds section.

The Birds of Vermont museum gives you an opportunity to study the details of birds in a way that a one-dimensional field guide can’t. Although the birds are hand-carved, they are lifelike. There was a lot to see, but my favorite carvings were the owls, wrens and warblers. If you are taking a road trip this summer, plan a visit to the Birds of Vermont Museum.

Three Tips for Identifying Swallows

swallow under bridge

Barn swallow sitting under a bridge – notice the long, forked tail

Juvenile tree swallow (inset shows the blue color coming in)

Juvenile tree swallow (inset shows the blue color coming in)


Barn swallow in nest under gazebo

swallow hole

A hole in the dam makes a great nesting spot for a tree swallow

flying tree swallow

Tree swallow in flight

I’ve always liked looking at birds, but swallows in particular are fun to watch. They tend to be in groups, flying and swooping down and around. When we are out near the water or in a park, we see them acrobatically flying back and forth catching insects.

The most common types of swallows we see in my area of New Jersey are barn swallows, purple martins and tree swallows. The other day, I saw some swallows that I couldn’t identify right away. I ruled out the barn swallow, but was still unsure what kind they were. Despite the white on the breast, they didn’t have the glossy-blue color of tree swallows. I took some photos and after I downloaded the pictures on the computer, I was able to look at them more closely. Little areas of blue were beginning to appear on the feathers; they were juvenile tree swallows.

When trying to identify swallows, here are three helpful tips to consider:

  1. Tail — When flying or perching on a wire, barn swallows are the easiest to identify by their distinctive tail. It’s long, pointy and deeply forked. Most other swallows have tails that are forked, but not nearly as prominent as the barn swallow.
  2. Color — It’s not too difficult to spot the orangey-blue color of the barn swallow. The blue on the face is so dark it’s hard to see their eyes. Cliff swallows have similar coloring, but without the prominent barn swallow tail. Purple martins are completely dark and are the largest type of swallow. Tree swallows are darkish blue on top and white underneath. If the swallow you are trying to identify is a juvenile, it can be a little tricky, especially if the lighting is poor and you are too far away for a good look.
  3. Nest — Barn swallows like the eaves! Of course, they are noted for nesting inside barns, but I’ve seen them build underneath an overpass on top of the support beams and on the small inner ledge of a gazebo. Tree swallows seem to favor a more closed-in location. Recently, I found some nesting inside the drilled out holes of a concrete dam. Purple martins can be very happy nesting inside manmade martin housing. When you see swallows flying around, try to watch where they go. When they return to their nests, you have another clue to their identity.

Signs of Spring

Trying to get the female cardinal to take notice

It’s spring, time to get the female cardinal to take notice

The male cardinal fanning his tail feathers

First a little singing, then fanning the tail feathers

The attentive female cardinal

The attentive female cardinal takes it all in

There are a few scattered piles of unmelted snow in the dark corners of my backyard, but some telltale signs of spring have come. The daffodils started poking out of the ground and, a few days ago, the spring peepers began calling from the boggy area down the road. I thought the birds would still be waiting for warmer weather, but the cardinals have already abandoned all thoughts of winter and progressed straight into the spring mating season.

I heard the male cardinal tweeting repeatedly the other day, so much so that I stopped what I was doing to look outside. From the top of a small tree, the male cardinal was loudly carrying on. The reason for all the ruckus? A female cardinal was perched nearby in an adjacent tree. After he finished his serenade, he flew over closer to the female and began chipping and strutting about, fanning his tail feathers and putting on quite a show. She played cool though, sitting very still and seemingly not giving him a glance. Today, I noticed the cardinal pair checking out the site of last year’s nest, so I suppose his display won her over. Spring is here!

Linking to “Signs of Spring” at the Outdoor Blogger Network.

The Stealth Move

This backyard hawk caused a downy woodpecker to make some stealthy moves

This backyard hawk caused a downy woodpecker to make some stealthy moves

The woodpecker flattened itself against the tree branch

The woodpecker flattened itself against the tree branch

What a trick! Hiding behind the branch out of the hawk's sight

What a trick! Hiding behind the branch out of the hawk’s sight

Every once in a while a hawk visits our backyard; today it came twice and caused one of our backyard birds to resort to a stealthy move for its survival.

The first raptor visit was early this morning when I was in the kitchen. Through the window, I saw the hawk perch low in the walnut tree next to our bird feeders. I wanted to take a photo through the sliding glass door, but the hawk flew off just as I returned from down the hall with my camera. Later this afternoon, I was outside in the backyard, with my camera, when the hawk returned a second time.

Normally, when a hawk is nearby, the backyard birds flee into the hidden areas of the bushes or pine trees and there is silence. All chirping ceases. This afternoon, the hawk appeared so suddenly it seemed to take the birds by surprise. They weren’t able to resort to their normal safety routines.

The female cardinal didn’t flee and hide. Instead, it stayed completely frozen in place on a tree branch, not moving whatsoever. The tufted titmouse was a little bit braver. It made a short, sudden warning call and then immediately dropped into the pine branches out of sight. The mourning doves stayed still in the same position they had been sitting in previously. The downy woodpecker, however, was the stealthy one. First, he froze on the tree branch. He didn’t move his head to the right or to the left, but you could tell he was aware of the danger. Then, he pressed his body down as close as possible to the branch. His final move was to swiftly rotate around to the underside of the tree branch to get out of the hawk’s direct line of sight. The woodpecker stayed completely still in that position, keeping the branch between himself and the hawk, until the hawk finally flew away. Once the danger was gone, the woodpecker moved back around to the top of the branch and started to eat some suet. The other birds also resumed their activities like nothing had happened.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Home

bird home
Home is the topic of this week’s Photo Challenge. Hopefully, after the snow from Winter Storm Nemo melts, this birdhouse will become a home to some feathered friends. See other photo challenge photos at: Weekly Photo Challenge.