Archive for April, 2012

Spring time is warbler time.  Birder’s hearts pound more rapidly anticipating the arrival of these tiny avian beauties.   20+ species of colorful little warblers flitting around in the treetops.  Most of them are here in Westchester for only a short period of time as they pass thru on their migration to breeding grounds farther north. 

So many new birds for the year.  So little time to find and ID them.  Fortunately they do not all arrive simultaneously.  Each species keeps a separate calendar and travels on their own schedule.  Therefore, their arrivals are spaced out (basically over the month of May.)  Since they can be confusing to identify it helps to know when each species arrives.  Here is the calendar showing their ETAs.

Late April:  Palm, Pine, Yellow-rumped, Common Yellowthroat, Louisiana Waterthrush

Early May:  Black and White, Yellow, Black-throated blue, Black-throated Green

Mid May:   Blue-winged, Parula, Blackburnian, Ovenbird, Bay-brested

Late May:  Worm-eating, Blackpoll, Redstart, Wilson, Canada

You can’t depend on this calendar with absolute certainty.  Sometimes a few of the species don’t get the message and arrive somewhat early, or maybe late.   Or maybe hang around a little longer. 

But you won’t know who is out there unless you get out and look.

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With the arrival of spring it’s time to begin reviewing the bird sounds that will soon draw many of us into the field. One of the best ways to help you remember these sounds is through the use of mnemonics (pronounced ne-mon-icks). These are verbal cues that help us recall and remember bird songs. There are three different types of Mnemonics: (1) the acoustic analogy, (2) the simile, and (3) the forced translation.

  1. The acoustic analogy connects the song with a known sound (e.g., a Rusty Blackbird sounds like a squeaky hinge on an old wooden gate)
  2. The simile makes an associated connection between species (e.g., a Fish Crow sounds like an Am. Crow with a head cold).
  3. A forced translation tries to find human words that sound similar to a bird song notes. (e.g., the Rufus-sided Towhee calling out “Drink you tea!”).

The best way to remember mnemonics is to use whatever memory-jogger works best for you. You can even make up your own. Remember, you don’t have to accept or use other people’s mnemonics, no matter how well respected the source may be. Use whatever works for you, or whatever helps you become more attuned to listening for bird sounds.

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This post is isn’t about birds.  It is about new binoculars.  (of course you can use them to watch birds)  The store just received amazing 8×22 binoculars made by Pentax, the camera company. They are lightweight, inexpensive and give a sharp, bright image.  Good for birding, concerts, theater and sporting events.

Their real uniqueness is the ability to focus on a object as close as 18 inches away.  Most other binoculars won’t focus closer than 8-10 feet. 

Their name “Papilio” means butterfly in French and they are ideal for a close look at butterflies on your backyard flowers.  I also find thm perfect for dragonflies, insects and other small critters.  It like carrying a microscope for close-up looks.

They also focus at long distances like regular binoculars.  It is really amazing to see how well you can see small objects from 1.5 feet away.  They open a whole new world.

Next time you are in the store, try them.  The up -close image will stun you!


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Goldfinch reappear

Throughout the recent mild winter people commented that there were no goldfinches at their feeders.  Thistle or Nyjer seed went untouched.  “What happened to the goldfinch?” was a common question.

This phenomena was not restricted to Westchester County.  It was true up and down the east coast.  Birds were not coming to feeders.  They were able to find seed which in a normal winter would be covered with snow and ice.  Seed sales were way down.   My joking explanation was that birds were following the recent food trend and sourcing their food locally.  They became “local-voires” finding their food nearby instead of eating store-bought seed.

But lately people are saying that goldfinch in their bright yellow spring coats are visiting feeders again.  Why return all of a sudden?  Why not continue to source their food naturally?  One possible explanation is that the local natural seed has been depleted by eating it all winter.  This year’s crops have not gone to seed as yet.  So there is less natural seed available.  Thus, birds are getting more birds at your feeders again.   It is good to see them again in the bright spring feathers

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Birders marvel at the mysteries of migration.  How can tiny creatures weighing a few ounces survive a southbound journey of hundreds or thousands of mile only to return north again in a few months?  More amazingly, they return to the same location they left in the fall.

I knew a bird bander in Chicago who captured the same bird in his backyard 5 years in a row, a bird that winters in South America.  It flew thousands of miles each year and returned each to his yard.  No maps, no GPS, no traffic reports.  How did it find its way?  I get lost just driving around the block.

Even more amazing to me is a bird’s a sense of time without the use of a calendar.  When I lived in Huntington Long Island a Black and White Warbler showed up in my yard every year on May 5th exactly.  Sometimes it hung around for a day or two but I never saw one before the 5th of May.  And I never saw one after the 7th of May.

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Birthday Party

I just an invitation to a birthday party on April 26th.  That day will be the 227th anniversary of the birth of John James Audubon.   Audubon is notable for his studies to document all types of American birds and for his detailed illustrations that depicted the birds in their natural habitats.  

His major work, a color-plate book entitled The Birds of North America, is considered one the finest ornithological works every completed. I seen parts of his work at the Museum of the City of New York and, I must admit, I don’t like his paintings.  The birds do not seem very real to me.  I much prefer the drawings in a Peterson field guide or any of the new guides.

I haven’t given much thought to what kind of birthday gift to bring.  A new field guide is an idea but it might be politically incorrect since it might be reflect on the quality of his work.  Maybe a app for his smart phone if he has one.

I still have one week to decide on an appropriate gift.

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Today as I pulled into a parking lot I flushed a N. Flicker.  It flew directly away from me.  Actually that direction provides the best view for identifying a Flicker.  The big white rump stands out like a neon light.  Combine that with a blur of yellow in the flapping wings and you have a positive ID.

Flickers are different than other woodpeckers.  You seldom see them on tree trunks and branches.  Their favorite food is ants which they find by patrolling on the ground, often on your front lawn.  Sometimes you see Robins and Flickers on the same lawn.

My most memorable woodpecker sighting involved three species of woodpeckers.  One day I spotted a Hairy Woodpecker on the trunk of a large tree, about 10 feet up on the left side.  A Downy Woodpecker was on the right-hand side of the same trunk.  I could view both birds simultaneously without moving my binoculars.  That is when I realized that the Hairy is really much larger than the Downy, maybe 50% bigger.  I know the Field Guide tells you it is bigger but I never appreciated how much bigger until that day.

When I lowered my binoculars slightly I noticed a Flicker on the ground about 10 feet in front of the same tree.  I had all 3 species in view.  Hairy on the left, Downy on the right, Flicker in front.  I could easily compare the sizes of the birds.  The Flicker was at least twice as large as the Downy, with the Hairy in between.

That sight permanently etched the size differences in my brain.

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One of the first semi-serious birders I encounter when I started out years ago was a Brit named Bob Trot, an interesting character.  I remember how he applied the classic characteristics of Type A and Type B personalities to birding. 

Like the typical hard driving Type A personality, a Type A birder rises at dawn, rushes to a nature center, races down trails checking off as many species as possible, then hurries to another hot spot to tally even more birds.  He will drive hours to spend five minutes ticking off a reported rarity.  His most valuable possession is his Life List, Year List, Day List.  More is better.  Type As enjoy accumulating ticks more than watching birds.

Bob was a Type B birder.  He felt you should find a good location and settle in.  Let the birds adapt to your presence.  Have a cup of tea and let the birds come to you.  He felt that the movement involved in constant rushing caused the birds to withdraw.  Being quiet, you blend in with the surrounding.  Birds ignore you and go on with their normal lives.  And you can get to know the birds.

There is some truth to Bob’s philosophy.   Consider the results from the annual Big Sit  – that is an event where participants stay within a 17 foot diameter circle and count how many different species they can see in one day.   Typical results for the Big Sit in Lenoir Preserve in Yonkers have seen upwards of 60-70 species.  I’ve been on many walks that involved driving great distances, hiking for miles through some unpleasant terrain and only tallying half the many birds.  Why bother?

Try to slot your birding friends into a Type A or Type B personality.  Most people are little bit of both.  But every now and then you encounter a pure Type A.  In that case, count be out.

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For most participants in my monthly BirdWalk last Saturday the most memorable sighting occurred near the end.  Standing under a tall tree, we looked up to see a Great Blue Heron perched on a branch about 25 feet above us.   Most people have never looked up at the underside of a heron.  Usually you see them at the water’s edge stalking prey. 

 It is hard to grasp the concept of a large bird with long skinny legs perched on a branch.   But it not uncommon.  Actually, herons (and egrets) nest in trees.   In fact, many of them nest within the same tree or group of trees in what is called a colony.   Once you have seen a heron colony or rookery, it is hard to forget.  But it is still surprising.  We expect shore birds, especially big ones, to be on the ground or shore.

Three other birds combine as the highlight of the Bird Walk – Palm, Pine and Yellow-rumped Warblers.  Yeah, I know none of these are exotic, rare or particularly attractive….but they were the first warblers of the year.  The vanguard of exciting birds to come, the coming attractions, the heralds of the main wave of colorful warblers.  

Hurray for Spring!

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At this time of year the most common questions at the store asked with a degree of surprise is “Do we have hummingbirds around here?  I have never seen one.”

Yes, there are hummingbirds in Lower Westchester.  Many people have never seen one in their backyard; others see them every year.  Why the big disparity?  People who see them have the right habitat and are good observers.  Hummingbirds are tiny, fast, always on the move, and easily dismissed as another insect.  In addition, many hummingbirds are just passing through moving farther north to better habitat.  So they only appear in your yard for a brief visit.  The best way to attract them to your yard and encourage them to linger for a while is to provide a hummingbird feeder and a variety of nectar-rich flowers.

Hummingbirds arrive in Westchester in early May, although a few are seen earlier.  I haven’t heard of any sightings so far this year.  The following link shows a map with the location and date when they were first  reported in 2012.  Looking at the chart you can trace their northward migration.


Hummingbirds are fascinating birds.  Look for them soon in your yard.

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