Posts Tagged ‘Birds’

Apr 22

The “Sher-rick” of a Great Gray Owl

A young Great Gray Owl sits on a branch in the Okanogan National Forest.
An owlet sat on a branch close to the trunk and stared down at me.

I cupped my hands around my ears. The sweet evening song of a Swainson’s Thrush drowned out all but the faint babble of the creek down the short draw. A distant second one made an echo of the first. Their opening whistles and spiral flourishes were spectacular. At any other time, I would have stopped and listened, but there was another sound I was straining to hear.

The previous evening, Julie, Craig, and I had come along this trail in Okanogan National Forest just as final twilight had been fading. The “sher-rick” call that repeated every few seconds came from a patch of Douglas firs and lodgepole pines across a small creek. We searched for the source of the sound for thirty minutes, but the light was mostly gone, and we could detect no movement. Craig and I had come back, but right then, all I could hear was the thrushes.

The recording of the “sher-rick” call of a Great Gray Owlet.

This was prime habitat for the gray ghost of the northern boreal forest. Great Gray Owls are large birds, looking bigger than a Great Horned Owl, although actually weighing a little less. A female may approach three pounds, and a male a little over two. They prefer mature forests with numerous meadows, bogs, and small openings spread through the trees. This species breeds throughout Alaska, Canada, and across Northern Europe and Asia, but only in some high elevation dry forests in the Western United States. These rodent eaters are often quite elusive, making them difficult to find. They occasionally fly out of their remote homes in winter, but my searches had consistently failed to find one. 

After moving in the direction of the previous night’s screech, I put a pair of headsets over my ears and pointed my microphone into the woods. Its parabolic reflector would amplify any sound. There it was, the “sher-rick” call of an owlet, persistent but faint, and a little off to our left, and then it stopped. We crept in that direction, scanning up and down trees, looking for a shadow or blob that might be a roosting owlet. Young Great Grays will jump out of their nests when only a few weeks old. Much like rambunctious teenagers, they strive for independence well before they can fly or care for themselves. After tumbling to the earth, the young owls will climb leaning trees to get off the ground and then hop from branch to branch back into the canopy. Usually, they sit right against the trunk on a horizontal branch, waiting for their parents to feed them.

Twice more over the next half hour, I put the headsets on to refine the direction toward the begging. Finally, after moving several hundred yards back into the forest, we heard the whining child without the aid of the parabolic reflector. Craig and I eased toward a small meadow with a clump of larches, firs, and pines surrounding it. I stepped around a six-inch lodgepole pine and scanned every tree in front of me, up and down the trunks.

Craig, who stood tight by my left shoulder, tapped my arm and pointed almost straight up. There, forty feet up a pine, sat a downy owlet on a small side branch. It was right against the trunk as expected, his clawed talons curling over the branch and his eyes looking straight down at us. I started the sound recorder, set the microphone down, pointed into the coppice, and focused my long lens on the owlet. As my camera began to capture pictures, Craig again tapped my shoulder, pointing this time across in front of me.

An adult Great Gray Owl flies in to feed the calling young owlet in the Okanogan National Forest.
An adult Great Gray Owl lands between two owlets and passes a vole to one young.

Two owlets, both with slightly longer wing and tail feathers than the first, sat about a few feet apart on a horizontal branch nearly forty feet up, and one gave that “sher-rick” call while they both stared right at us. Their dark eyes gave the impression of curiosity and amazement in seeing these strange two-legged creatures that had walked into their home. All three seemed totally unafraid of us. As I focused my camera, an adult flew silently into the frame, gliding up to land beside the screeching owlet where it passed a vole from its mouth to the young and then dropped off the branch flying back through the forest. The ghost had come and gone.

The parent owl immediately leaves after passing the vole to the young that had been calling.
The parent Great Gray Owl left as soon as it passed the vole and was off to catch more food for these young.

The breath slowly left my lungs as I continued to stare at the one with a vole hanging from its mouth like a long piece of thick brown licorice. These owls are not rare in their prime habitat, but because these dry interior montane forests are remote and inaccessible, few people have the chance to see one. Adults hunt from perches, and a perfect hunting site is a short tree on the edge of a meadow where the bird can scan for rodents. The facial feather disk on their oversized head directs sound to their acute ears, and they hunt almost entirely by hearing the prey. These owls can plunge through a foot or more of snow to snare a mouse or vole in winter. Pocket gophers burrow through the soil and are another favorite food. 

After a minute, the owlet wolfed down the vole in one giant swallow and then flew behind trees to land precariously on the top of a subalpine fir, where it swayed back and forth in the breeze. Its sibling followed it back into the forest. The adult came in again, landing in the middle of the thicket where it glared right at me while another vole hung from its mouth. Then the second adult arrived also with something in its mouth. It was as if these two predators had flown down to the local corner store for a snack of fresh live meat for their children.

An adult Great Gray Owl flies into a tree with a vole in its mouth. It was feeding its young in the Okanogan National Forest. The young had been calling.
An adult Great Gray Owl flies in with a vole hanging from its mouth.

For 30 minutes, I stood silently watching while Craig snuck to my right to see if he could spot where the other two had gone. An adult came in at least twice more but never to the one above my head. That baby yawned a few times, stretched its wings, flexed one or the other foot, but never moved. Occasionally, it became bored of us and stared into the forest. It never begged or seemed distressed that a parent didn’t come to visit. Finally, the light was fading, and we decided to back out of this place and leave the owls to their own. As we strolled through the forest, the occasional screeches from the owlet pushed us along, and a cloud of mosquitos buzzed around our heads. Neither of us thought to swat at those that feasted on our blood.

A young owlet waits for its parent to return. It had hatched in the Okanogan National Forest and was still dependent on its parents for food.
The Great Gray Owl tapped its toes a few times and kept an eye on the surroundings but was not fed while we watched.
Two Great Gray Owl young sit on a branch in the Okanogan National Forest. One had been calling and one parent had just passed it some food.
Two Great Gray Owlets sit on a branch, one had just been fed, and it held the vole for a few minutes before gobbling it down.

An hour-long recording of the evening serenade of the two Swainson’s thrushes mentioned early in this essay can be heard on Spotify or you can find it on Amazon and on Apple Music.

A version of this essay first appeared in the Washington Ornithological Society’s Newsletter.

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Mar 22

To Fly Like a Kite: The Northern Fulmar

The Northern Fulmar glides like a kite along the cliff in southern Iceland.
The Northern Fulmar glided along the cliffs at Krysuvikurbjarg in southwest Iceland. It held its wings stiff, catching the gale winds that blew from the ocean, using them for lift.

The bird held its wings stiff and flat as it glided along the Krysuvikurbjarg. The wind whipped along these cliffs, making me cinch down my hat, and this guy was using the gale to drift smoothly right in front of me, almost floating. The crashing of the North Atlantic filled the air, and other birds’ cries added to the chorus. I felt like I could reach out and touch this Northern Fulmar, but I was staying a good twenty feet back from the sheer drop. He seemed to be hanging there, like a kite, just playing in the blow.

This was a bird I’d hoped to see on this trip to Iceland. A friend had called a few weeks earlier to say he had an opening on a photography trip; he’d asked, “Do you want to photograph puffins and skuas?” I did, but I also thought about these guys and would I finally have a close look at this marvelous family. They have a unique tube on the top of their bill that gives the order their name, Procellariforms, the tubenose. Albatrosses, shearwaters, and petrels are all in this group. 

The Norther Fulmar is part of the order Procellariforms, also known as the tubenose group.
This fulmar’s head is stout and the bill large with a pronounced hook. The large nostril tube on the bill’s top shows that this bird is closely related to shearwaters, petrels, and albatrosses.

I’d seen this species in 2005 when I came to Iceland with my wife, daughter, and her future husband, but on that trip, they flew along a cliff more than half a mile away. So, I couldn’t study them in detail; see that bill. Also, my wife was sick with cancer, and that trip wasn’t about birds. But as we drove north toward Snæfellsnes Peninsula, a place she wanted to see because a volcanic crater, there, had been the inspiration for Jules Vern’s book, Journey to the Center of the World, I spotted fulmars flying, and she insisted I stop to look. I’d seen other members of this order a few times but also not well, not where one could have a feel for them. So, according to eBird, they were on my life list, but yet something still seemed missing. Mostly, I knew these birds from books.

Krysuvikurbjarg are cliffs in southwestern Iceland that have thousands of birds nesting in crevices and on ledges.
The volcanic cliffs drop two hundred feet to the ocean. Crevices and ledges at Krysuvikurbjarg provide nesting sites for thousands of birds, including petrels, kittiwakes, puffins, cormorants, and gulls.

Krysuvikurbjarg are a well-known breeding site for thousands of seabirds. The volcanic bluffs drop almost two hundred feet straight to the water’s edge, and birds nest on outcrops and in crevices. Siggi, my Icelandic guide, pointed out other great birds, including kittiwakes, murres, puffins, and gulls. He warned me not to get close because slabs of tuft or basalt sometimes crack, falling into the surf. He didn’t want to lose a customer. But right then, my concentration was focused on this Fulmar and its incredible ability to fly.

I used to dream of flying myself, especially when watching Red-tailed Hawks soar over our farm in Pennsylvania. They would catch the thermals that rose from the sun’s heating of the ground. On fixed wings, they’d make marvelous loops, never once twitching those wings, going in circles, often climbing higher and higher. They weren’t hunting, just playing in the afternoon, enjoying life. I’d be out helping with the hay or doing some other chore, stop, and watch in envy. 

Although fulmars look somewhat like gulls, they are more closely related to albatrosses. This entire group is true pelagic birds, generally spending all their time at sea and only coming to land during the nesting season. This guy’s body was thicker than a gull’s, about the size of a Mew or Ringed-billed gull, with a heavier head and thinner wings. On the top of its bill was that closed-over tube, like someone had glued an inch-long straw to its dorsal surface. The bill was also thick and had a distinct hooked beak. Apparently, they have an excellent sense of smell and use it to find food — eating fish, invertebrates, and offal from the fishing industry. Their numbers have grown in the North Atlantic over the last two centuries, presumably due to the increased food the fishing industry has provided.

The word fulmar is derived from Old Norse and means “foul gull.” Adults and chicks produce a nasty smelling sticky oil from the lining of their stomachs and will regurgitate it onto something threatening the nest. Siggi told a funny story of climbing a steep hill to get a better perch for a photograph. Unknown to him, a pair of fulmars were nesting just over a little bump. As his head came over the grass-covered rise, they vomited right on him, covering him in this smelling goo. He said the smell didn’t wash off, and his wife was not particularly pleased to let him back in the house.

The Northern Fulmar fixed its wings and glided in the strong breeze along the cliffs in Iceland, Krysuvikurbjarg.
The wing on this Northern Fulmar projects way out from the body. Note how it is thin and curves to give great lift as the air rushes over it. Some of the inner primaries are growing in new, and the bird is replacing a few covert feathers, too.

My attention, though, was focused on how this bird flew. This species and its close relatives, the shearwaters, petrels, and albatrosses, are best known for their flying abilities. Many of them travel huge distances on foraging trips, and Fulmars sometimes make many hundred-mile loops gathering food for their young. They can cover enormous distances across the oceans outside of the breeding season. His wings were longer and thinner than I expected, and that made sense as I thought about their ecology. The long-thin wings allow this bird to use any wind or slight updraft from waves to glide. When they do flap, their wingbeats are short and choppy and can take them readily where they need to go, but it was their use of the wind that I’d come to marvel.

My sister and I used to fly kites, especially in March and April when it was windy on our Pennsylvania farm. We take them up the hill, west of the house. Attached to a long string, with the appropriate tail, they’d climb above the hayfield, gliding back and forth with the constant breeze. Giddiness would fill our hearts. A gust might make them dip or crash if we didn’t react correctly, and a drop in the wind would cause them to fall. We had to turn and run to keep them up until the breeze picked up. Here, this bird was using the updrafts from the cliff. The brisk wind came in from the ocean, turned vertical, shooting up past us, and the Fulmar just drifted on that boisterous current. 

The wing of a Northern Fulmar showing that primary feathers are growing.
The Northern Fulmar has a long, thin wing typical of Procellariiformes. They are excellent fliers and can use a slight breeze to glide effortlessly for hours.

Incredibly, this bird was molting flight feathers, yet it seemed to hang on this gale. Several inner primaries were growing. It also was replacing some of its coverts and maybe a few secondaries. All birds must replace their feathers each year to maintain their aerodynamics and insulation. The feathers wear with time and life’s actions, like our clothes. They are made of keratin, the same as our fingernails, and the complete plumage can weigh as much as a fifth or sixth of the bird’s weight. So, energetically, it is an expensive process, and they must keep their ability to fly throughout. Yet, it seemed to fly perfectly even with those new feathers growing.

Siggi called, “We need to move along now.” The others had walked a quarter-mile across the tundra toward the vehicle. Siggi stood not thirty feet from me, still watching the birds over the ocean. He was a big man, a good head and shoulders taller than me, with a build that looked more like a professional wrestler or defensive lineman in American football. When I’d seen him walk into the hotel lobby on that first morning, I’d dismissed him as someone not possibly interested in nature. I couldn’t have been more wrong. He walked through this natural landscape with reverence and freely shared his love of nature. He joked about being a Viking, and we all teased him about it too. But I’d follow this man into the wilds anytime. 

Right then, the Fulmar banked right, dropping below the edge of the cliff, and disappeared. Maybe I already had this species on my life list, but this sighting I’d never forget. My kites in Pennsylvania never quite flew like this bird. A master of flight had passed, having fun with the blow, not once flapping its wings.

A pair of Northern Fulmars nest on a narrow ledge on the cliffs of southwest Iceland.
Northern Fulmars nest on narrow ledges at Krysuvikurbjarg in Iceland.

A version of this essay first appeared in the Washington Ornithological Society Newsletter 193: 7-9.

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Mar 22

The Courtship of a Male Ruddy Duck

A male Ruddy Duck in full breeding plumage at Teal Lake in the Okanogan Highlands

Ch-chi-chuuruur came from my right, and I froze in my tracks, for I’d never heard that sound before. Coots, blackbirds, and Pied-billed Grebes had been calling since I arrived at Teal Lake twenty minutes earlier, and a Song Sparrow sang to my left. A scan of the lake had found Buffleheads, Lesser Scaups, and Blue-winged Teals. The Ch-chi-chuuruur drifted across the water as I crept toward it, binoculars ready.

Teal Lake
Teal Lake sits in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington. Numerous wetland birds nest there and many others use the surrounding habitats.

Teal Lake sits in a depression on the Okanogan Highlands, probably carved out by the Pleistocene glaciers. It is nestled between gently rolling hills covered with conifers. The blue water glistened on that June morning, and lush marsh habitat formed a wide literal zone around much of this fifteen-acre lake. The birds here always seem to put on a show.

Crouching down, I spotted the source of that strange sound, a male Ruddy Duck. Two females followed him as he swam right toward me, again doing that call. A second male lurked a dozen yards behind the three. This was the bubbling display that I’d read about. The male bobbed his head a few times and then dipped his bill while slightly extending his neck and head. The throat expanded while the sound radiated. He was courting the females. Then, with a sudden lunge, he ran across the water, wings flapping and hitting the surface, before settling back down and doing the call again. At first, I thought maybe I’d spooked him, but then it occurred to me that this was probably part of the display. A few seconds later, he did it again as he came closer and closer toward me.

Male Ruddy Duck on Teal Lake in the Okanogan Highlands.
A male Ruddy Duck sits in the Teal Lake in the Okanogan Highlands. They get a sky blue bill and red body plumage for the breeding season.

The male was in full breeding regalia. His bill was bright sky blue, an extra intense vibrance. The top of his head was black; he had a crisp white cheek patch and reddish back and side feathers. He held his stiff tail flat to the water. Ruddy Ducks aren’t like most ducks, acquiring their breeding plumage in the fall. Instead, these birds wait until spring, when they begin the courtship process to find a mate. 

This male ran across the water again, coming between a few cattails and the bank. He began to cruise along a channel coming even closer to me. The females seemed hesitant to follow, so I slowly backed away from the edge and gave them their space. 

As I strolled back toward my car, I continued to hear the Ch-chi-chuuruur from that male.

Female Ruddy Duck on Teal Lake in the Okanogan Highlands.
A female Ruddy Duck cruises at the edge of the cattails in Teal Lake in the Okanogan Highlands.

Listen to other bird songs from the Okanogan Highlands on Spotify:

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Feb 22

“Who cooks for you?” in the night

The Barred Owl began to call around 3 AM and sang for 5 minutes.

Barred Owl calls are eerie yet enchanting and downright marvelous. These birds are common in the lowland forests of the Pacific Northwest, but often go unnoticed because of their nocturnal habits. Their call rings through the woods sounding like “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?” Their song travels well through dense vegetation.

On June 17th, I stashed a sound recorder in the woods along Stossel Creek, just west of Carnation, Washington. Units from the stereo microphone were tied three feet off the ground and on opposite sides of a small vine maple. At the time, I wasn’t sure what I might capture. Perhaps, the evening chorus of birds or the dawn awakening, maybe frogs croaking in the wetlands that ran along the forest’s edge. I left the rig, climbing up the forested slope to my car and driving away.

During the middle of the next day, I came back to retrieve the equipment. To my delight, an owl called right near my setup a little after 3 in the morning. It sang for 5 minutes and then went silent. While listening to it the first time on my computer, I imagined the bird sitting on a western hemlock branch, maybe 20 feet off the ground while it called. The woods at this location were a mixture of hemlocks, Douglas firs, and red cedars. Along the edge were deciduous trees and bushes. A marsh began within a dozen feet of my recorder and extended for a hundred feet or more across the valley and up and down its bottom. Dense coniferous woods rose on a gentle slope away from my rig. Perfect habitat for Barred Owls.

On the second time listening, I realized that a young owl whined from up the hill. It was a ways off and the call is faint. Recent fledglings will constantly beg for food, and I wondered if the parent was calling the young to fly down near the creek where the hunting for frogs would be good.

Pacific cricket frogs and bullfrogs are abundant in the marsh system running along the valley bottom. Both these would be ideal food and by June, the parent owls were probably starting to teach their owlet to catch its own food. Perhaps, when the adult went silent, it had gotten the young to fly down near it and the two had started to hunt. The frogs were silent during this recording and on either side of the recording. Yet, earlier in the night, both cricket frogs and bullfrogs had been calling. I wondered if they knew the owl was on the prowl.

Although not there to hear this firsthand, I could imagine the scene. Magical!

More Sounds here:

Zumwalt Prairie SoundScape:

Or on Soundcloud:

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Aug 21

Zumwalt Prairie Soundscape

The Zumwalt Praire stretches over 300,000 acres in Northeastern Oregon. It is composed of native grasses and is home to many plants and animals. The Nature Conservancy has a large preserve there and is working with local ranchers to explore sustainable practices. Preserving these private lands is important for the conservation of native species.

A haunting, tremulous sound came from the sky above. A few white clouds dotted the blue, and that hu-hu-hu kept coming from right overhead, slowly circling, but I could see nothing. I’d just finished pitching my tent on the Nature Conservancy’s Zumwalt Prairie Reserve. I’d come for a writing workshop hosted by Fishtrap in Enterprise Oregon. The winnowing began again, but still no bird visible. It was a Wilson’s Snipe, and I knew it’d be circling, spreading its outer tail feathers. That sound comes from how the wind passes through those feathers while the bird descends a little. They use this call to court the opposite sex and to define a territory. I’d expected birds here this week but not a Wilson’s Snipe. There must be more wet areas than I expected along Camp Creek. No human-made sounds filled this remote landscape. This was the wilds and our home for the week.

The hills roll and twist, mostly are covered with grasses. Some north-facing slopes have conifers growing where the moisture stays longer and the valleys have willows and sometimes Ponderosa pines.

The Zumwalt Prairie is the largest remaining fragment of a native prairie known as the Palouse Grasslands. Now, 99% of the Palouse is gone. But, here, this chunk in Northeastern Oregon still has over 300,000 acres. Native grasses, such as Agropyron spicatumFestuca idahoensis, and Elymus condensatus, cover these hills and sway in the light breeze. This prairie would be our setting for the next week, our laboratory for writing. Each morning, we’d walk some of these rolling hills, looking for wildflowers, birds and studying geology.            

Grassland birds dominated the avifauna. Along Camp Creek, the Nature Conservancy has fenced-off sections to allow regrowth of the riparian habitat. Willows, marsh grasses, and little wetlands border this small creek, and trout spawn in it. The snipe must find sufficient wet areas to stick its long bill down into the muck to find worms. The birds and the night sounds provided the musical background for our workshop and writing endeavors.

Camp Creek has carved a valley through the prairie and along the stream grows willows and other wetland plants.

The following are nineteen sound recordings done during the week. They cover the gamut from coyotes howling at night, to the early morning chorus of birds, to individual bird species, as well as the rasping of crickets.  The first listing is for a playlist with all 20 tracks, and it should play continuously like an album. I’ve then listed each recording separately so you can find a particular species. Of course, if you listen with headsets, the stereo sounds come through better.

A few of the bird species that live on the Zumwalt Prairie. Going clockwise from the upper left: Wilson’s Snipe, Western Meadowlark, Barn Swallow, Song Sparrow, Willow Flycatcher, and House Wren.

The following are the individual tracks.

You can listen to them one at a time.

Coyotes Howl During the Night – It begins with one, and then the pack tunes up, too.
Barn and Cliff Swallows nest on the sides of the buildings on the Zumwalt Prairie. They were actively tending those nests, coming and going all the time. Two pairs of House Wrens had taken up residents and the males often sat in the open singing their hearts out. In the background, Western Meadowlarks call. This prairie is an active cattle ranch and you can hear them, too.
The main gate into the compound provides the perfect place to absorb the morning and the fresh air of the prairie. A willow Flycatcher gives its fitz-beu call and a Western Meadowlark sings its melodic tune. Brewer’s Blackbirds scolded that someone had disturbed their peaceful place. Black-billed Magpies call in the background as a small flock moves through the valley.
House Wren
House Wren, Western Meadowlark & Brewer’s Blackbird
Song Sparrow, Willow Flycatcher, and Yellow Warbler
Willow flycatcher with a Yellow Warbler and a Western Meadowlark in the background. Hear all the flies in this recording, too.
Wilson’s Snipe and an American Robin giving its scold note.
Song Sparrow and a Willow Flycatcher early in the day.
Western Meadowlark and Yellow Warbler
Willow Flycatcher, Wilson’s Snipe, Yellow Warbler, and Song Sparrow.
Song Sparrow and Western Meadowlark
Song Sparrow
Willow Flycatcher
Yellow Warbler
Western Meadowlark
Crickets with a Wilson’s Snipe, Willow Flycatcher, and Song Sparrow in accompaniment.
A Coyote opens up and is joined by its pack mates in a nighttime chorus.
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Jan 20

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.
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Jan 20

Purple Grenadier

A male Purple Grenadier picks at seeds in Nairobi National Park. (Thomas Bancroft)

A male Purple Grenadier picks at seeds in Nairobi National Park. (Thomas Bancroft)

A purplish-blue blob zipped across in front of us and landed on a twig. I yelled for our driver to stop. The road had been rough and the going slow in Nairobi National Park, but there was also so much to see. My binoculars found the small bird. It had stretched out, extending its head and neck as far as possible to strip small seeds from a stem. Some whitish seeds were already stuck to the bright red conical bill. The color was astonishing, like nothing I’d ever seen.

Leaning forward, this granadier shows its bright blue tail coverts that add a little grace to his black rectrices. (Thomas Bancroft)

Leaning forward, this grenadier shows its bright blue tail coverts that add a little grace to his black rectrices. (Thomas Bancroft)

A thin blue stripe ran from the base of the bill over the top of the eye, not quite meeting a slightly wider blue one that came from the lower mandible. A thin red ring of feathers circled the eye. In the subdued light at 7 AM, the pupil was wide open, but still, I could see a red iris that matched the feather ring. Its head, nape, and throat were cinnamon and graded into a belly of cinnamon and blue feathers. His back and flight feathers were brownish and covered dark blue tail coverts and the base of the black rectrices.

At only five inches long, this male Purple Grenadier was striking!

He looked much in body shape and size to a small sparrow or finch from North America, yet, I knew that this bird was not closely related to any of the ones in the United States. This grenadier was an Estrildid. A songbird family found in Africa, southern Asia, and Australia. They are often called waxbills because of the shine on their mandibles. I’d seen several species in this family when I traveled to Australia, but it still thrilled me to see this one. I’d gawked at its colors in the field guides as I prepared to come to Kenya. Now, one sat in front of me.

Stretching to the maximum, this Purple Grenadier finds just the right seed to crunch on for breakfast. (Thomas Bancroft)

Stretching to the maximum, this Purple Grenadier finds just the right seed to crunch on for breakfast. (Thomas Bancroft)

The resemblance to our small sparrows is an example of convergent evolution. Different, unrelated groups take on similar size and shape to exploit a similar resource. In this case, tiny seeds. Estrildids are thought to have evolved in India about 20 million years ago and then spread, radiating into additional species in Africa and Australia. Our New World sparrows are an entirely separate group that originated in the Western Hemisphere. At the same time, our finches are part of a northern Palearctic group that had expanded into North America and evolved into additional species. Birds are so fascinating to contemplate.

The grenadier shifted around, showing its other side and then flitted into the grass, disappearing. I stared for a moment at the twig where it had sat before thanking our driver, and we continued our search of these African plains.

Blue feathers dot the chest of this Purple Grenadier, giving it a beautiful look and complements the facial markings. (Thomas Bancroft)

Blue feathers dot the chest of this Purple Grenadier, giving it a beautiful look and complements the facial markings. (Thomas Bancroft)

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Nov 19

The Grace of the Trumpeter Swan

(Thomas Bancroft)

A pair of Trumpeter Swans fly overhead on their way to join a larger flock roosting on Fir Island in Skagit County. (Thomas Bancroft)

The low-pitched trumpet came from behind us. Turning, I spotted two large white birds that then flew right over us. Their translucent flight feathers glowed in the early morning sun. Their wingspan, more than 6-foot, created a moving shadow across Fir Island. Long white necks extended in front of solid bodies, and elephantine black legs and feet were tucked tight against their underside. More than 25 pounds each, these Trumpeter Swans flew with grace, style, and dignity.

The pair circled the field a quarter-mile east of our location, then set their wings, dropped their black feet, and landed without a stumble among several hundred swans. A few trumpets and calls drifted toward me from the crowd. Most of these largest of North America’s waterfowl seemed to be resting on the green grass.

The trachea in these birds is more than three feet long, about a half-inch in diameter, and has a volume three to four times what one might expect for a bird this size. The trachea folds back and forth in the chest and creates the resonating chamber for the beautiful call that caught my attention.

(Thomas Bancroft)

Four Trumpeter Swans bank to fly out from a roosting area on Fir Island in Skagit County. (Thomas Bancroft)

In the summer of 1968, I flew with my sister from Pennsylvania to Yellowstone National Park. Finding a Trumpeter Swan was a priority, I wanted to be able to brag to my high school birding buddies about the western birds we discovered, including this rare swan. In the 1800s and early 1900s, hunting decimated Trumpeter Swans populations. They were shot for their skins, flight feathers, and undoubtedly meat.

In 1935, only 69 birds were known to exist, although probably some undiscovered flocks occurred in remote parts of Canada and Alaska. In 2005, a continent-wide survey estimated that the population had grown to more than 34,000, a conservation success. Stopping the hunt and protecting habitat were critical, but also the birds adapted to wintering on agricultural lands, accessing novel food items. In winter, lead poisoning and collisions with power lines are now the major mortality issue.

These birds looked stunning through my spotting scope. Dirty-gray, full-grown cygnets accompanied many pairs. We had seen half a dozen flocks of similar size already that morning. In 1968, my sister and I searched Yellowstone for several days and found only two individuals. They swam on the far side of a small river, and our view was through thick vegetation.

Managers have introduced the species into several eastern states where they now breed. A few even winter in birding spots that I visited in Western Pennsylvania and Ohio as a high school student. Scientists at Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology have analyzed eBird data to provide a much more refined abundance map than are currently available in birding guides or on other websites.

It shows that the Salish Sea and south into Oregon are important wintering areas for our west coast population. These birds then migrate through British Columbia to breeding grounds in Canada and Alaska. The Central Rockies population had expanded substantially from the range in 1968, and birds are found in a band from the northern prairies across the Great Lakes.

A pair and two full-grown gray cygnets began running, head and neck extended while flapping their wings. They quickly became airborne, banking to the left while climbing up over the flock, before turning to fly north away from us.

See: Fink, D., T. Auer, A. Johnston, M. Strimas-Mackey, M. Iliff, and S. Kelling. Ebird Status and Trends. Version: November 2018. Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York.

A family of Trumpeter Swans rests on a green field.

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