A Magical Musical Bird: The Swainson’s Thrush

Swainson’s Thrush

The whistle came from a thick grove of old growth western hemlocks and Douglas firs. It might have been a tenth of a second long and then was followed immediately by a 2 second upward spirally flourish. It seemed like a flute or maybe an oboe was up in the trees. I stopped dead in my tracks along the dirt road and pointed my parabolic microphone in that direction.

The dense forest where the Swainson’s Thrush Sang.

Three seconds later a much softer whistle opened the tune followed almost immediately by a louder longer one and then a beautiful spirally flourish. The flourish was also a set of over-slurred phrases, each close together and slightly higher than the previous, getting softer as they went. My eyes closed to listen to this Swainson’s Thrush, a one-ounce bird who only recently arrived from his wintering grounds in South America. They breed in the temperate rainforests of Western Washington, and this one was defending its territory and maybe still trying to find a mate.

I’d read that each male has 3 to 7 song types. They vary in their detail and successive songs will be different. I cupped one hand behind an ear to listen closely. The opening whistles seemed to vary in pitch, sometimes one note and sometimes two. The flourishes were so complex and fast that I couldn’t tell how they varied. Maybe the sonograms of my sound recording would help me understand his melody.

The first song of the Swainson’s Thrush on my recording.

The first tune in the sonogram opened with two notes and then the upward spiraling flourish. The second note was louder than the first (as shown by the brighter color on the sonogram) and then the first section of the flourish was loud before it became fainter and went really high in pitch. The opening over-slurred whistles seemed to peak around G6 on the note scale. The first second of the next part went from G6 to G7 to B7 in a series of up and down notes. Then the song became softer and went all the way up to B8 before trailing out for another second around F7. The highest pitches and faint parts I could not hear, but I’m sure the birds could.

The second song by this same Swainson’s Thrush.

The next tune was dramatically different from that first. It opened with a soft up-slurred note and then two over-slurred whistles that were slightly louder before moving into a quicker paced flourish that included a series of over-slurred, up-slurred, and down-slurred notes. The pitch of the entire tune never went as high as the first, only reaching about D8. The next several also appeared a little different from these first two and after six or seven tunes, the bird was clearly repeating itself. 

Above is a Five-Minute Recording of the Swainson’s Thrush singing. The Sonogram of the recording will play as a movie and allow you to see the changing notes. The scale runs from 0 Herts to 10,000 herts.

The songs of Swainson’s Thrushes make my tension float away. These magical musical birds provide a gift of music to our souls.

Swainson’s Thrush

A Breathtaking Baritone

Stillwater Wildlife Area near Carnation, Washington

Author Note: This trip was done in 2017. As of late April 2020, Washington is in a “Stay at Home” mode as we try to control the coronavirus and the resulting COVID-19 disease. In early May, the state will open some protected areas for recreation while we continue to practice social distancing. If the Stillwater Wildlife Area opens, I hope to make it out early one morning to search for the “pump-er-lunk” bird. An earlier version of this essay appeared in WOSNews 173 in 2-18. I thank Dan Steiffert for letting me use some of his amazing photographs. https://www.flickr.com/photos/danstreiffert/

The trees were just beginning to show a little shape as I inched my way along the dike at Stillwater Wildlife Area. It was 5:00 AM on a Sunday morning in early May, and sunrise would not come for another hour, even longer before the sun hit this area at the western base of the Cascades. My flashlight was off so as to not disturb any wildlife. The songs of American Robins filled the air. Their “cheerily, cheer up, cheer up, cheerily, cheer up” melody proclaimed spring had arrived, and they were ready for another day, even though it looked like night. 

American Bittern – Photo by Dan Streiffert

A different sound made me stop, a gulping like someone was swallowing large mouthfuls of air. It came from the marsh across the small pond to my south. Five gulps were quickly followed by an eerie call: “pump-er-lunk,” then another “pump-er-lunk” and finally, a “dunk-a-doo.” A male American Bittern was trying to woo a female. 

I’d come to record this exact sound, so I settled onto the ground to put my stereo microphone rig on a tripod and see if I could hold still for the next hour. I slid off the gravel-topped dike to station my mic with its back to the bank, partially blocking sounds from behind me. The water was ten feet below, and a few bushes and cottonwoods lined the pond’s edge. Open water extended fifty yards to a thick marsh. The bittern was probably sitting at the water’s edge, hoping a female would like his display. 

Sonogram of the morning chorus at Stillwater Wildlife Area near Carnation Washington. The American Bittern has a deeper call than most birds. They hide in the marsh where this deep call will travel farther through the thick vegetation.

A second male began gulping; he was roughly a hundred yards east of my seat. The closer one instantly responded with his answer. Last week, I was here with a group of birders. The sun had risen as we searched along this old railroad bed, now a hiking trail. One person discovered a male bittern, probably this same one, lurking in the reeds and focused her spotting scope on him. We watched the male contort its neck as it lunged forward to gulp in air, expanding its esophagus like a balloon, and then used that air to make this resonant “pump-er-lunk” sound. 

In five decades of birding, I had never heard their call until last week. They don’t breed in Florida where I lived for more than two decades and were not common breeders near my Maryland home either. The sound last week took me by surprise; I watched the male for a long time while the birding party walked farther down the dike. Every few minutes, the bittern would begin again to blow up his esophagus and bellow out this resonating sound. This behavior and sound were so astonishing that I felt the need to return to see if I could record this spectacular call.

Their courtship boomings have a ventriloquistic nature, and rural people have given them some exciting names; “stake-driver,” “thunder-pumper.”  These are low-frequency sounds that will travel much farther through thick vegetation than the high pitch songs of most birds. Ornithologists think that these calls function both to attract females and tell rival males that this marsh was taken.

American Bittern (adult) Photo by Dan Streiffert

American Bitterns are members of the heron family. Their streaky brown and buff plumage allows them to disappear into the reeds, blending perfectly with the vertical shoots. They often freeze in a pose with their bills pointed skyward, neck stretched, so the streaks in their plumage will run parallel with the reeds. If they see people, they usually sulk back into the marsh.

But on that day, I was alone along this dike; no other person was out this early. I was hunched low; I had headset over my ears; my stereo mic pointed right toward the marsh where the bird just called. My eyes were closed so I could concentrate on absorbing the morning chorus of birds. It was still 45 minutes until sunrise. In addition to the robins, the Red-winged Blackbirds had started their “conk-la-ree” song, and I could imagine them drooping their wings while leaning forward and puffing out their bright red shoulder patches as they bellowed. They reminded me of my high school years when the football jocks would strut down the aisle, not moving aside for anyone, puffing out their shoulders when passing a pretty girl. The six-phrase melody of a Song Sparrow came from right above me. He was probably sitting at the end of a branch, looking across the marsh, and raising his head, puffing out his chest when he sang his beautiful song. Individual male song sparrows have about nine different melodies, and they mix them up in their morning repertoire. He hopes this diversity will impress a mate. 

Juvenile American Bittern (left) being fed by Adult (right) Photo by Dan Streiffert

These birds would be an excellent background to the bittern, creating a musical filler between this heron’s calls in my recording. He’s my quest today. To think a bird could be such a breathtaking baritone. Each time the sound came across the marsh, I was amazed by how these notes were made and wanted to show others this unique love song. Another bittern called to my left, and a third at the limit of my hearing on the right. A long pause happened between their trumpets and then once one started to gulp in air, the others followed. I tried not to move or say anything in spite of my excitement. My recorder picked up every nuance of the morning.

The Highlands of Western Panama – A Virtual Tour

Birds found at Mount Totumas Cloud Forest Preserve, Panama.

Self-quarantine got you down? Tired of birding through your living room window?  This video will take you to Western Panama and into the cloud forests. Be immersed in the sounds of Western Panama’s wild country. I will guide you through layers of gorgeous birdlife, exotic flora, and a quick jaunt through geologic history. Our goal is to understand how the isthmus of Panama has influenced the evolution of some of our common North American birds. 

The long tail of a Resplendent Quetzal blows in the wind at Mount Totumas Cloud Forest, Panama

The mountains of Western Panama are a mixing pot for birds. Neotropical migrants come to winter or pass through on their travels. Altitudinal migrants move in and out with the seasons, and then there are the permanent residents that make up a complex and diverse component. Central America is an active geological area, and over the last ten million years. The formation of the Isthmus has had a profound influence on the bird communities found throughout North and South America, including those in Washington State. Learn more about this fascinating place, its impact on the Western Hemisphere, see some flora and fauna and listen to sounds from the cloud forest.

Alternatively, join me for a live presentation on April 29th at 7:00 PM Pacific Time. I will do a different version of this talk for the Mountaineers. The session is open to the public and free. You can register for it:

https://www.mountaineers.org/locations-lodges/seattle-branch/events/panama2019s-cloud-forest-the-junction-of-bird-communities

A Zoom link will be emailed to you on the afternoon of April 29th.

A mother Howler Monkey lets out a bellow early one morning at Mount Totumas, Panama.

The Undertaker Bird

A muster of Marabou Storks congregated in the outflow from a small pond in Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

A muster of Marabou Storks congregated in the outflow from a small pond in Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

Three park rangers stood at the Y in the road, and our Landcruiser coasted to a stop. Our guide, Robinson, began talking with them in Swahili. The words were musical, crisp, and delightful to hear. I understood nothing. He handed them some papers, and I worried that something might be wrong. The one ranger stepped backward as she scrutinized the documents. Meanwhile, Robinson continued chatting with the other two, everyone’s hands waving in the noontime light. Robinson hesitated, turning to look over his shoulder and asked, “Do you want to see Marabou Storks?”

“Yes,” I blurted out without thinking. These are big birds, standing close to five feet tall and uglier than anything one could imagine. They are a bird of the savanna in East Africa, often visiting carcasses of large mammals where they feed with the vultures. I’d seen them in zoos but never up close in the wild.

Our guide went back to chatting with the rangers, and when they handed his documents back, we turned south to head deeper into Nairobi National Park. It was just a road check to make sure we paid our entrance fees. I stood in the back, my head out the roof, looking for any signs of these large birds. I’d spent a decade working on wading birds in the Everglades and had an affinity to these long-legged, long-necked creatures.

The adult Marabou Stork stood in the shallows, resting. He looked like a finely dressed gentleman out for the evening. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

The adult Marabou Stork stood in the shallows, resting. He looked like a finely dressed gentleman out for the evening. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

Twenty minutes later, we bumped around a corner to look onto a large pond. Two Egyptian Geese waddled along the bank, and a Spur-winged Lapwing flew out with a squawk. To the right, though, below the dam, were the storks, at least 50 of them. Many were wading in the swift-flowing water while others stood ankle-deep or in the grass along the edge. The ones feeding moved their bills laterally in the water, holding the tip open a few inches. They were searching for food, hoping that something would touch that bill, and they could gulp it down. Robinson drifted to a stop where I could gaze right down on these magnificent creatures, adults and flying young.

African lore says that this species was created from scraps of other birds, making something more Frankenstein looking than pleasant. Their habit of eating carrion resulted in them being known as the “Undertaker Bird,” and they are often part of the death folklore.

An adult male stork stood with his head hunched down on his shoulders. I smiled; he looked like a gentleman, all dressed up in his most elegant attire. A gray suit coat covered his shoulders, and it had white trim along its front and tails. The coat overlay a white shirt and a puffy pink tie hung from his neck. Long gray trousers ran down his pencil-thick legs. His balding head had the pink cast of too much time in the sun, and his long yellowish snout finished off that resemblance. This gentleman, in all his ugliness, gazed up at me as if I was some peon. I liked him, a grand specimen. 

The young Marabou Stork had a shorter bill than adults and lots of white down feathers on its head. Nariobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

The young Marabou Stork had a shorter bill than adults and lots of white down feathers on its head. Nariobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

Several looked like they must be young of the year. Although as tall as the others, their bills were noticeable shorter, and they had white down all over their heads and necks. White also edged all the covert feathers on their wings, giving them a distinguished look. These individuals showed no indication of the pink wattle. During courtship, adult males can puff up that structure. A tube connects the wattle’s pouch to their left nostril, and when full, the pouch resonates the guttural croaks he makes, noises that strengthen his bond with a female. My wife never liked it when I sang.

The Marabou Stork moved its bill sideways so quickly that if formed a wave in front of it. It was feeding in the shallow waters. If the bill touches something, it will snap shut. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

The Marabou Stork moved its bill sideways so quickly that if formed a wave in front of it. It was feeding in the shallow waters. If the bill touches something, it will snap shut. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

A stork started to walk right toward me. His bill was several inches in the water, and he moved it so fast to the side that a wave formed in front and a whirlpool behind. In the water, they are tactile feeders, not using their eyes. When the bill touches a fish or invertebrate, it snaps shut, and hopefully, they have caught a morsel. Several large fish were swimming among all the feet, and that innate behavior is probably why these storks didn’t go after them directly. It may be that those fish were what drew this crowd here, and many birds had already eaten their fill. It might also be that those fish were here for something smaller, and the storks were after that too. After five minutes of watching the feeding, I hadn’t seen a stork catch a thing.

A large fish swam in the shallows of a small creek where a flock of Marabou Storks were feeding. Nairobi National Park, Kenya (Thomas Bancroft)

A large fish swam in the shallows of a small creek where a flock of Marabou Storks was feeding. Nairobi National Park, Kenya (Thomas Bancroft)

A squabble grabbed my attention. Down the creek, three storks had their wings out, bills raised and pointed at each other. Maybe one walked too close to another. These are social birds, though, nesting in large colonies, and often found together at feeding sites. Right then, individuals stood lazily all around, probably digesting a good meal. It reminded me of dinner parties, where everyone lingers at the table after a superb meal, conversations lively, friendships strong. Some storks started to preen their feathers, using that long bill to work the vanes and make sure the barbules were aligned correctly. Those mighty wings were flexed in the process.

Their wingspan is over 9 feet, and their flying would rival — surpass actually — any glider pilot. A slight updraft is all they need to rise effortlessly into the heavens, not having to beat those wings. I followed Wood Storks and Great Egrets leaving a nesting colony in the Everglades to see where they went to feed. Our pilot would circle 700 feet above the colony and when a bird caught a thermal, I’d yell to the him to start climbing as fast as he could. He’d crank up the engine on our Cessna, but the birds sometimes past us on a good thermal. We’d lose them. 

The Marabou Stork began to preen its feathers, using its bill to carefully check the allignment of the barbules and make sure the feathers were in perfect condition. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

The Marabou Stork began to preen its feathers, using its bill to carefully check the allignment of the barbules and make sure the feathers were in perfect condition. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

Some people mistake these storks for vultures when seen high overhead because of how effortlessly they soar. Their silhouette — the long legs and big heads – helps separate them from the vultures.

My stomach growled right then. It was almost noon, and Robinson had picked us up at 5:30 AM. It would take an hour or more to drive out of here, mainly because something else would likely grab our attention. I’d hoped these birds might fly, and I could see the power of those massive wings, and then maybe one would grab a thermal, vanishing as a speck into the blue.

“Thanks, Robinson, this was great,” I said, “I hadn’t expected so many at such close range.” He nodded and started the motor. We turned to retrace our path. 

I watched the muster for as long as it remained in sight, but no bird made any effort to fly. The Undertaker was content.

The Marabou Stork stood at attention, his right eye glued right on me. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

The Marabou Stork stood at attention, his right eye glued right on me. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

Making a Connection

A bullet shot across the road in Nairobi National Park, hesitated, and then dropped onto a flower. A Scarlet-chested Sunbird had appeared. (Thomas Bancroft)

Scarlet-chested Sunbird, Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

A dark bullet-like object shot across the road, it hesitated, and then dropped into the wildflowers. On the other side of some acacias, Yellow-necked Francolins were giving their “ko-waarrk” calls; loud, raucous, chicken-like. The songs of longclaws drifted from some grasslands in the distance, and a light wind rustled the acacia leaves. The clouds had filtered the sunlight, and I felt magic in this landscape, mesmerized by the beauty, sounds, and sweet smells. This was the Africa of Beryl Markham and Karen Blixen, and I was stunned to be in this land. A place where lions dozed, impalas browsed, and hartebeests ambled by. 

The bullet transformed into a bird of only 6 inches and a gorgeous one at that. It hung from a vertical stem, rigid; one eye fixed on me. A large vermilion chest seemed to puff out. A metallic emerald-green forehead added additional color to an otherwise black object. The bill, though, was longer than its head and down curved in an even arch. Dropping its gaze, it hopped up the stem and began to probe the flower buds. A male Scarlet-chested Sunbird was less than two-dozen feet away, my first.

The Scarlet-chested Sunbird worked up the stem and began to prob among the flower cluster. Nairobi Natonal Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

The Scarlet-chested Sunbird worked up the stem and began to prob among the flower cluster. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

My binoculars were fixed on it. This sunbird fed much like a hummingbird in the Western Hemisphere or a honeyeater in Australia. The long bill explored between buds and darted around the inflorescence. Probably, nectar and insects were his goals. Sunbirds are distantly related to Australian honeyeaters, and other than being in the class Aves, not particularly related to hummingbirds. Their similar shapes and behaviors are a result of convergent evolution brought on by selection to feed on similar food sources, flower nectar.

One of my goals for this trip was to see examples of this convergence, many were topics of graduate school discussions, and they still needed my pondering. The sunbird flew to another stem, landing right below a cluster of red-tubed flowers. These birds are bigger than most of the hummingbirds I’d seen and don’t hover as often. Their shape, though, is remarkably similar as are color patterns.

If the flower tube is too long, sunbirds will pierce it near the base, sucking out the nectar. If so, then the plant doesn’t get the benefit of pollination assistance. Many plants have coevolved with sunbirds, hummingbirds, and honeyeaters, so they provide nectar to these birds, and the birds unknowingly carry pollen between flowers, helping provide cross-fertilization — another ecological process to brood.

The Scarlet-chested Sunbird flitted to a new flower stem and hung just below the flower cluster looking back at me. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

The Scarlet-chested Sunbird flitted to a new flower stem and hung just below the flower cluster looking back at me. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

This bird didn’t seem to be focused on nectar right now but rather probing between the flowers, probably trying for insects or spiders. His behavior made me think about the female, and I started to scan the surrounding vegetation for her. She’d be a dark brown color. This species often travels in pairs, and she was nowhere to be seen. Might she have a nest right then, in December, here in Nairobi National Park? Maybe, he was gathering protein to feed her or her newly hatched young. The nest might have been nearby, in a bush or back across the road from where he came, and I turned to look in that direction.

Scrub habitat with lots of grass extended for a long way. With the good “short rains” in the previous few months, blossoms were opening. In their memoirs of living in Kenya, Karen Blixen and Kuki Gallmann talked about their gardens, and the flowers they grew. Might they had looked for these birds and named them. Giving them a name makes them real, shows a level of respect. I turned back, wanting to see this bird that I’d only just identified, but it had flown. The image, though, remained in my brain.

An incredible warmth filled my body right then. In Africa, I’d just seen the first member of the family. I’d seen a different sunbird species in Australia a few years ago, but there was something about seeing one in Africa, more the center of this family’s distribution and abundance. I’d read about sunbirds for years, studied their pictures, attempted to learn the dozen or so species that might be on this trip. Seeing this first one, created a unique sensation that I hadn’t expected, a connection that will last.

The Scarlet-chested Sunbird hunched down on the stem to look through the flower patch, possibly preparing to check out another cluster. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

The Scarlet-chested Sunbird hunched down on the stem to look through the flower patch, possibly preparing to check out another cluster. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

 

More Photographs from Nairobi National  Park, Kenya

A tea-kettle Song

The elegant stance of a Carolina Wren makes it look like it owns the world and knows it. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The elegant stance of a Carolina Wren makes it look like it owns the world and knows it. This bird is frequently encountered on Christmas Bird Counts in the Eastern United States. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A loud booming song came rattling up the ravine. It sounded like “tea-kettle-tea-kettle-tea-kettle” then a pause and more “tea-kettle-tea-kettles.” I jumped from foot to foot, trying to stay warm as I scanned the deciduous hardwood forest. The temperature hung around freezing, and I hadn’t brought enough layers to Pennsylvania for doing this Christmas Bird Count. 

The melody jumped to the other side of the gully, but nothing seemed to have moved under the massive red oaks and hickories. The bird should be hopping through the leafless bushes, maybe clinging to the bark on one of those trees, or zipping along a branch, all places that it should be easily visible. I shuffled to my left twenty paces, trying to get the blood moving, and started a systematic search. I knew what the bird was, a Carolina Wren, but for some unknown reason, I desperately wanted to see it. They don’t live in Seattle where I do now.

The Carolina Wren moves up the log, probing amont the wood for possible morsels on this cold winter day. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The Carolina Wren moves up the log, probing among the wood for possible morsels on this cold winter day. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

These guys are small and chunky with a reddish-brown back and cap. Their white eyebrow and dark eyeline give them a distinguished look, and that long barred tail radiates energy. They always seem to be at high speeds, tackling life with gusto. Maybe it was envy that made me want to find it.

This was one of the first birds I’d learned as a small child. My sisters still have the farm where I grew up, and our place was just a quarter-mile up the hill from this location. For several years, a pair tried to nest in a little shed. A small cardboard box sat on a high shelf just above the lawnmower. They built their little grass cup in there and laid their creamy-white eggs with rusty brown spots. I’d try to sneak in and pull out the lawnmower without disturbing them. I don’t know if they ever were successful there. Once, late in the summer, I used a step ladder to look into the box and found four cold eggs still nicely clumped in the perfectly woven nest. That shed is gone now.

These little birds remind me of the Bewick’s Wrens that live in my Seattle yard. Bewick’s occasionally visit my suet in winter, and when it is warm, one will sing from the tops of bushes in my front yard. These two species are in separate genera but closely related. When we had heavy snows on the farm, Carolina Wrens occasionally came to our feeders, but their primary food was insects and spiders even in winter. 

The relative abundance of Carolina Wrens calculated from eBird Data by scientists at Cornel Laboratory of Ornithology

The general warming of the Eastern United States over the last fifty years has allowed Carolina Wrens to move north and increase in numbers. Severe winters, especially ones with snow that lasts for several weeks, knockback populations substantially. Christmas Bird Count data for Pennsylvania shows a significant crash after a particularly harsh winter in the mid-1990s. This wren has bounced back, though.

Christmas Bird Count data for Pennsylvania shows that populations of Carolina Wrens were depressed following a hard winter in the mid-1990s.

Perhaps, it’s that ability to recover after a catastrophe that was making me want to find this bird. A decade ago, I moved to Seattle following my wife’s death and a job loss. It took a while to find the right conditions, to find friends, to ….. 

A Carolina Wren sings its te-kettle tea-kettle song to let everyone know it is here. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A Carolina Wren sings its tea-kettle tea-kettle song to let everyone know it is here in Pennsylvania and that he owns this place. Their songs are loud and easily heard from a long distance. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

che-wortel, che-wortel, che-wortel” interrupted my thoughts. It came from farther down the valley and closer to the trail. The wren had moved, and I hurried along. There it sat, bouncing up and down on those two thin legs, looking left and right, no indication of being cold.

A pair lived in this ravine throughout those years following the population crash. Another couple lived through those times in the black walnut grove around my boyhood home. They tried to nest a few times on the back porch of that house where my sisters still live. These birds persevered through those hard times.

The wren flitted up through a bush and looked right at me. It seemed to say, “What are you thinking about? Get on with it!” It then darted left and dashed down over the hill. I stared for a while and then turned to continue my count. That ball of energy had somehow warmed me up.

The Carolina Wren leans to its left and stares right at me as if its asking me a question. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The Carolina Wren leans to its left and stares right at me as if it’s asking me a question. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Red-collared Widowbird

The Red-collared Widowbird landed on an exposed branch after doing his fluttering display over the adjacent grasslands in Nairobi National Park. (Thomas Bancroft)

The Red-collared Widowbird landed on an exposed branch after doing his fluttering display over the adjacent grasslands in Nairobi National Park. (Thomas Bancroft)

A long black tube-like bird came fluttering across the grasses. It seemed to be flying barely, flopping through the air, like a balance beam gymnast having trouble. “Can we stop?” I shouted to our driver. The slender shape was not quite vertical to the ground. I was standing in the back of a Landcruiser with my head out the roof, and there was no way I could hold binoculars still enough to train them on this creature.

It appeared all black, skinny, and extremely long, but I could get no details in the gray light. Body size seemed like our North American Red-winged Blackbird, but the tail was three, maybe four times the length of a blackbird’s tail. Males of African widowbirds are supposed to have extremely long tails that they use to attract females. So long, that its length can inhibit their ability to fly or so it seems.

“Is this a widowbird?” I called to Robinson, our guide and driver in Nairobi National Park.

“Yes, Red-collared, a male,” he had his binoculars up and was watching it come closer and closer.

I held my breath, hoping it might land nearby. Evolutionary, widowbirds are fascinating. The eight recognized species are all polygynous. Males vigorously defend a territory from all others, and they do a flight display to entice a female into their space. This individual was performing right now.

The longer his tail, the more likely a male Red-collared Widowbird will mate with several females. A more intense red collar will indicate that he is dominate over other males. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

The longer his tail, the more likely a male Red-collared Widowbird will mate with several females. A more intense red collar will indicate that he is dominant over other males. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

Widowbirds occur in the savannas of Africa and like areas were the grasses and short brush intertwine. Similar habitat to the Impala and Hartebeest that I’d seen earlier that day.

If a female shows interest, a male Red-collared Widowbird will use a partially built nest as a prop when he courts her. If she likes the nest structure and his performance, she might stay, accept the nest, and mate with him. But he doesn’t help the female finish the nest, incubate the eggs, or feed the young. So, by pairing with the male, the female gets the use of his territory and his sperm, nothing else. 

Presumably, she can evaluate the territory when moving through it, and in some respects, this will reflect the quality of the male, too. Good males will usually hold the best patches. She needs a safe place for her nest, one that will tend to protect it from predators, and an excellent area to find food for her young. But how else can she judge the “genetic” quality of the male?

The two central tail feathers on this male Red-collared Widowbird were still growing. Perhaps, these shorter feathers would make him less desirable to females. They use tail length as a que of his status. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

The two central tail feathers on this male Red-collared Widowbird were still growing. Perhaps, these shorter feathers would make him less desirable to females. They use tail length as an indicator of his quality. Nairobi National Park, Kenya. (Thomas Bancroft)

Experiments done by ornithologists showed that she focuses on the length of his tail. Males with longer tails tend to mate with more females than those with shorter ones. This drives selection on males for even longer ones, and they now have a tail during the breeding season that it is so long that it appears to hinder their ability to fly. Presumably, being able to survive with such an extravagant tail indicates their superiority. But what do males key on when they compete among themselves?

The male widowbird flew onto a bare branch not far from our vehicle, and his long tail blew back and forth in the wind. A bright crimson collar surrounded a black face and bill. Even in the subdued light, it radiated an intensity of red that surprised me. Of any birds, these males have the highest levels of carotenoids in those feathers. The concentrations of lutein and zeaxanthin help give that intense red color.

Converting nutrients into this red pigment is a costly process, requiring extra energy and a specialized metabolic pathway. But it is this red collar that tells other males an individual’s status. Scientists have manipulated the size and intensity of these collars and found that males with smaller or less bright ones had a harder time securing a territory or holding one. The researchers concluded that the “redness” of the collar and, to a lesser extent, its size indicated the dominance status of a male.

I jerked my hand down; it had been rubbing my beard for the last few minutes. I’d just turned 68 the previous week and had been wearing hair on my face for only five months. This widowbird was making me wonder why I kept it.  Last summer, I had let it grow on a week-long camping trip and discovered that some hair follicles on my cheeks and chin had stopped making melanin. The beard was a mixture of gray and brown, different from the solid brown on my head. 

After the camping trip, I let it continue to thicken because I wanted to see the mosaic of grays and browns when the beard was fuller. I had three weeks before a trip back east to see my sisters and planned to have it cut by then. The weekend before my flight, I went hiking with my nephew, and he talked me out of shaving it. To my surprise, my sisters liked it. They said something like, “It gives you a distinguished look.”  Later a friend said she thought it gave me a “professorial bearing.”

The male widowbird shifted his stance in the bush, and his red collar seemed to shimmer in the mid-day light. Perhaps, he was a dominant male, possessing a high-quality collar that intimidated other males, and his long black tail might be irresistible to females. He then flicked that tail and flew out over the grassland, waving it back and forth as he fluttered a few feet above the vegetation.

“You ready,” Robinson asked as the car started to drift forward.

“Yes,” came out as I rubbed my facial hair, wondering its significance for a single man at my age.

The intensity of red in the collar of this widowbird is an indicator of his dominance among male Red-collared Widowbirds. Males with bright red collars tend to hold the best territories. Nairobi National Park, Kenya (Thomas Bancroft)

The intensity of red in the collar of this widowbird is an indicator of his dominance among male Red-collared Widowbirds. Males with bright red collars tend to hold the best territories. Nairobi National Park, Kenya (Thomas Bancroft)

The Pied-billed Grebe – A Not So Mundane Bird

The bill on this Pied-billed Grebe still had the dark ring around it that is typical of the breeding season. This one was in a small pond in Magnuson Park and It was mid January. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The bill on this Pied-billed Grebe still had the dark ring around it that is typical of the breeding season. This one was in a small pond in Magnuson Park and it was mid-January. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A movement caught my eye on the chilly January day. The glimpse had come from under the leafless branches of some willows and cottonwoods where a small pond was tucked in a thicket. I froze but could see nothing until I slowly crouched down. There, floating on the water, was a football-sized mass of feathers, tan along the waterline and darker above. It had two black eyes that glared at me from a smallish head, probably wondering if I was friend or foe.  A tiny Pied-billed Grebe drifted less than 20 feet from me.

Typically, they slink away, so I decided to settle here and see what it would do. These grebes are permanent residents in the Puget Trough, but over much of the United States, they are migratory. People seldom see them flying because they travel at night and rarely fly to escape a disturbance. Usually, Pied-bills dive and swim away, often undetected. People on birding outings will often comment, “Oh, it’s just a grebe,” wanting I presume to see something more colorful, bigger, less mundane.

The distribution of Pied-billed Grebes in the Western Hemisphere as calculated from eBird Data by scientists at Cornel Laboratory of Ornithology.

Their distribution is fascinating with breeding populations in both North and South America. Although a few are in Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, and Central America, generally, a big geographic gap exists between those groups on each continent. 

The Pied-billed Grebe sat motionless in the water after surfacing from a dive. They are permanent residents in the Puget Sound area of Washington. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The Pied-billed Grebe sat motionless in the water after surfacing from a dive. They are permanent residents in the Puget Sound area of Washington. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

For North America, the animation of weekly abundance data from eBird showed that in January, Pied-bills were concentrated in Florida and along the Southeast coastal plains and across into Texas and Northeastern Mexico. Lots were also in the central valley of California and then a few here in Puget Sound. Some were scattered elsewhere, especially Central Mexico and near the Gulf of California. By March, birds had moved into the Great Plains and by late April had extended into the Canadian prairies, Central Washington, and British Columbia. Their numbers in the Southeast had plummeted by April, but those in central California remained pretty constant. In the fall, they started to head back toward the Gulf Coast.

https://ebird.org/science/status-and-trends/pibgre/abundance-map-weekly?forceLogin=true

In South America, the migration was in the opposite direction. In late January, lots were in Northeastern Brazil and then scattered to northern Argentina. As the year progressed, they migrated south to breed from Southern Brazil into Central Argentina. A few were also in Chile, Equator, and Columbia. Of all the grebe species in the Western Hemisphere, Pied-bills have the most extensive distribution. 

The pied-billed Grebe slowly turned in the calm waters at Magnuson Park. It then just sank into the water and disappeared. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The pied-billed Grebe slowly turned in the calm waters at Magnuson Park. It then just sank into the water and disappeared. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The one in Magnuson Park, a protected area in Seattle, slowly turned a complete circle while keeping one eye on me. Its back and sides had water droplets beaded on the feathers. Those feathers seemed slicked down but waterproof. The bill still had the black ring mid-way out and the bluish-white base. Usually, they lose that band, and the bill becomes more yellowish-brown in the non-breeding season. Perhaps, its breeding hormones were still flowing here in January.

The bird radiated a sense of pride, confidence. In Celtic mythology, the grebe guards the spirit world and helps humans find beauty where they otherwise might not. The contours of its body, the S-shape of its neck, the tautness of its muscles all projected splendor. 

Suddenly, the grebe just sank out of sight, hardly making a ripple. No dive, it just dropped as if it was a rock gently placed on the surface. The bird must have compressed its body feathers, squeezing out the trapped air, and tightened its chest muscles to make its air sacks smaller, decreasing its buoyancy.  

I shook my head as I got back to my feet. Birds are so marvelous.

The Pied-billed Grebe glared at me from a small pond in Magnuson Park. Water droplets were beaded across its back and sides. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The Pied-billed Grebe glared at me from a small pond in Magnuson Park. Water droplets were beaded across its back and sides. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A version of this essay first appeared in the Washington Ornithological Newsletter #184.

http://wos.org/documents/wosnws/wosnews184.pdf#page=8

Yellow-throated Longclaw: A bird of the East African plains.

Macronyx croceus live in subsaharan Africa and occur in grasslands and dry savannas.
The plumage on this Yellow-throated Longclaw is remarkably similar to the colors and patterns on an Eastern Meadowlark even though they are not closely related. The Longclaw lives in Africa while the Meadowlark lives in North America.

 A bird flitted out of the long grass and landed at eye level in a dark-green bush. It glared right at me as I leaned out of the Landcruiser’s roof opening. Here was the meadowlark “look-a-like” that I’d ogled at repeatedly in the East African bird book. This individual had a black-V across its yellow throat, chest, and belly, just like the Eastern Meadowlarks that we had on our Pennsylvania farm. Its back was also striped tan-brown, perfect for blending into dry grass. But this African bird, a Yellow-throated Longclaw, was no relation to the North American bird of my youth.

Yellow-throated Longclaw looks to its left, showing the yellow throat and black V on its chest.
The brown iris is emphasized by the markings around the eye. The dark flecking on the plumage gives this African bird a distinguished look and helps it blend into its grassland home.

It was only 8:30 AM on my first day in Kenya, and I yelled to our driver and guide, “Fantastic, what a great bird!” I first saw a photograph of this species decades ago when I was in graduate school. We were looking for examples of convergent evolution while also studying birds of the world. Longclaws are in the avian family Motacillidae, which includes the wagtails and pipits, too. Motacillids are primarily an Eastern Hemisphere group. Two pipit species do occur in North America, and two wagtails sneak across the Bering Straits into Western Alaska. The Old World, however, has lots, including eight longclaw species. The Eastern Meadowlark, though, is part of the Western Hemisphere family Icteridae, the blackbirds and orioles. 

Longclaws and meadowlarks live in similar habitats; grasslands and wet savannas. They nest low among the grasses and forage for insects, spiders, and invertebrates. Natural selection has encouraged the development of their plumage pattern. Their brown-striped backs help them disappear in the waving stems. The yellow front with the black-V probably also blends well and may also be important for courtship. The sexes though are similarly patterned. Males of both species have beautiful songs that carry across the landscape, declaring their ownership of a small section.

The longclaw gets its name from the length of their toenails. The entire front digits on this bird seemed longer than what I remembered for a meadowlark. The hind claw is even lengthier still, and I wished this individual would turn around. Instead, it just twisted its head back and forth, making sure it kept one eye on me. 

The yellow-throated Longclaw is a bird of subsaharan Africa and occurs in grasslands and dry savanna habitats.
The Yellow-throated Longclaw shifted its head to the side as if it was ignoring me. This species is found in Subsaharan Africa. It likes grasslands and dry savannas.

Perhaps, I have a stronger subconscious connection to meadowlarks than I’d admitted, and that drew me to want to find a longclaw on this trip. When I was growing up in the 60s, meadowlarks nested in the hayfields and pastures of our farm. Some were around all year, but a definite influx came in the spring. I never discovered a nest of one even though I walked through the long grass looking. I regularly found Red-winged Blackbird nests but not those of this secretive bird. Male meadowlarks would often sing from the tops of trees along the field’s edge, allowing me to watch them as I slowly circled the area on a tractor. We’d wait to begin the haying until after the blackbirds and meadowlarks had fledged their young. 

My sisters still have the farm, and the surrounding farms still have hayfields and pastures. But the meadowlarks are pretty much gone. In my lifetime, their numbers in North America have declined by 89%. It happened slowly, and often people didn’t notice. Scientists think it is related to changing agricultural practices, the loss of family farms, and increased pesticide use. I find it frightening.

Macronyx croceus live south of the Sahara Desert in Africa. They frequent grasslands and dry savannas.
The black V on the yellow front of this Longclaw really stands out. The yellow eyebrow and small ring of white below the eye gives it an elegant look.

It is part of a larger problem. North America has lost one in four birds since 1970 and that amounts to almost 3 billion individuals. Conservationists and scientists are focused on solutions. Protecting habitat and reducing window strikes, cat kills, and pesticide use all will help. We also need to counter this administration’s efforts to roll back environmental protections like the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Endangered Species Act, and others. Each time I visit my sisters, I walk their farm and the neighbors to see what birds I might find. The occasional meadowlark is a special joy.

According to Birdlife International, populations of Yellow-throated Longclaws seem stable. It occurs in many countries south of the Sahara. This place, Nairobi National Park, protects habitat for this species as well as many others. 

The longclaw seemed a little slimmer than a meadowlark, maybe like a ballerina rather than a gymnast. The yellow eyebrow made its face stand out. The thin black line of feathers from its gape extended down to its black-throat patch and the light flicking of black lines on its crown and across the yellow gave it a distinguished look. It suggested to me an eminent diplomate coming to make her case in front of an international body. I shivered, maybe, it was telling me to increase my efforts to protect birds, don’t give up. The longclaw then turned, dropped down into the grasses, and disappeared.

The bird glared right at me, both eyes focused intensely. Was it telling me that I needed to increase my efforts to protect habitat.
The Yellow-throated Longclaw glared right at me as if it was trying to tell me to get busy and protect habitat.

Yellow-billed Stork in Nairobi National Park

The long bill of a Yellow-billed Stork allows the bird to feed in water more than a foot deep. The bill is highly sensitive and when it touches a prey item, it snaps shut. (Thomas Bancroft)

The long bill of a Yellow-billed Stork allows the bird to feed in water more than a foot deep. The bill is highly sensitive and when it touches a prey item, it snaps shut. (Thomas Bancroft)

Only the base of the yellow bill showed above the water. The bird’s beak was pointing straight down, and it moved back and forth, latterly. A Yellow-billed Stork, my first ever sighting, was feeding in a small pond in Nairobi National Park. My brain wanted to study every detail of this bird, watch its behavior, see what I might recognize. But two male African lions were lying on the road between me and it. They, too, demanded my undivided attention.

An adult Yellow-billed Stork. (Thomas Bancroft)

An adult Yellow-billed Stork. (Thomas Bancroft)

The Yellow-billed Stork is one of four members of the genus Mycteria. The Milky Stork lives in Southeast Asia and the Painted Stork on the Indian subcontinent and east into Southeast Asia. The fourth, the American Wood Stork, lives in the southeastern United States and Latin America. I spent more than a decade working to understand their needs in Florida, the threats to their survival, and the things Americans should do to recover populations of this species. At the time, the Fish and Wildlife Service had listed the Wood Stork as Endangered in the United States.

The Yellow-billed looked remarkably similar in overall shape, size, and configuration to the Wood Stork. The bill length, more than a foot, was identical to a Wood Stork and was stout in diameter.  As the beak went back into the water, the tip opened about two inches. The bird began moving it again, seeing if it would touch a prey item. Highly sensitive sensors detect the brush of a fish or shrimp, and the bill then snaps shut, hopefully, capturing prey. Both stork species feed in virtually the same manner, and they wander in response to rains. Decreasing water levels help to concentrate prey and make fishing ideal.

The Yellow-billed Stork feeds by opening its bill and placing it into the water. It then moves the bill laterally., snapping shut when it touches a prospective prey item. (Thomas Bancroft)

The Yellow-billed Stork feeds by opening its bill and placing it into the water. It then moves the bill laterally., snapping shut when it touches a prospective prey item. (Thomas Bancroft)

Historically, through the 1960s, the majority of Wood Storks in the United States nested in South Florida. But as people drained Florida’s wetlands and altered the natural pattern of water flow, their numbers plummeted. By the mid-1980s, they had begun to nest farther north but still relied on the Everglades and Big Cypress as important feeding areas. While working for the National Audubon Society, I helped do a complete survey of all known breeding colonies in Florida, coastal Georgia, and Southeastern South Carolina. We used a small plane to circle them, counting the active nests and to search for new ones. Our work in the Everglades resulted in me being asked to serve on a technical panel that helped design a restoration strategy for water quality in the Everglades. The Florida legislature passed a law to implement that plan.

An adult Yellow-billed Stork spreads its wings as it walks onto the shoreline of a small pond in Nairobi National Park. (Thomas Bancroft)

An adult Yellow-billed Stork spreads its wings as it walks onto the shoreline of a small pond in Nairobi National Park. (Thomas Bancroft)

Like all adult Yellow-billed storks, the head on this bird had no feathers from the base of the bill to just behind the eyes. The skin there was a fire-engine red and contrasted with the body feathers that were pure white. The flight feathers and rectrices were black. Yellow-billed populations have been decreasing in Africa, but Birdlife International still considers their numbers okay. This bird methodically worked across the shallows, moving that bill rhythmically back and forth, occasionally pulling it out of the water. I never saw it catch anything.

A juvenile Yellow-billed Stork preens its feathers while roosting with Sacred Ibis and Egyptian Geese (Thomas Bancroft)

A juvenile Yellow-billed Stork preens its feathers while roosting with Sacred Ibis and Egyptian Geese (Thomas Bancroft)

On the far shore, among Sacred Ibis, Cattle Egrets, and Egyptian Geese, sat a juvenile stork, preening its feathers. The bill was yellow and the face red, but the body feathers were a light brown. I smiled, seeing this young bird; last year’s breeding season had been successful. A second juvenile moved into the water and began to feed. His grayish legs were two feet long, and his toes spread wide to give it support on the mud. It started to probe in the shallows. 

Successive Republican administrations at the state and federal levels have delayed Everglades’ restoration. Public support, though, remains steady and slow progress is being made. Fortunately, Wood stork breeding populations have stabilized around 6,000 pairs, resulting in the Fish and Wildlife Service downgrading them from Endangered to Threatened

Hopefully, in the years to come, we will see populations of the American Wood Stock fully recover, and ones of the Yellow-billed Stork be maintained or improved.

The two male lions slowly rose to their feet and began to head up the road. Their gate was slow but deliberate — two old brothers out for a stroll. 

A juvenile Yellow-billed Stork begins to probe in the shallows for possible food itens. (Thomas Bancroft)

A juvenile Yellow-billed Stork begins to probe in the shallows for possible food itens. (Thomas Bancroft)