If at first you don’t succeed…

A. Quit.
B. Get reinforcements
C. Blame external conditions
D. Blame the gods
E. All of the above

These are the choices of a birder having a bad day.  How many times have you just decided to call it a day, asked another birder if they’ve had better luck finding the target, or blamed conditions?

Afterwards, you…. (select all that apply.)
A. Check ebird for more specifics on location
B. Verify field markings in a field guide/allaboutbirds
C. Call reinforcements
D. Go back again

The number of answer choices selected in question 2 indicates your level Birder Style.  (By the way, if you selected all of the above, you are an Obsessed Birder).

All of this leads me to my pursuit of George this past September.  (Can you tell what type of birder I am yet?)

So George is not a person, not even a birder.  The truth is George was a RBA celebrity.  George appeared in late July at the Meadowlands.  He was an overnight wonder.  The glossiest white feathers, a much bulkier frame; he put the egrets to shame.   And to every birder’s delight he stayed. and stayed. and stayed.

He wasn’t seen every day, but it was it was close.  Birders grew to know him on a very personal level.  They knew his favorite dinning locations at low tide; where he’d go when he needed a change of pace.  He was the celebrity that lived in your neighborhood, much like Mr. Rogers.

He was there throughout the summer, but I couldn’t get away to see him for myself.  15 minutes from my own apartment and I was house-sitting in another state!

Finally September rolled around and I was free to pursue George.  First we forgot to do our research before going.  That was that was Thursday.  So I returned at the next possible opportunity: Saturday.  Here’s what I saw:

Yellowlegs huddled on a distant shore. NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 6, 2014.

Yellowlegs huddled on a distant shore. NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 6, 2014.

Nope, no George slumbering here.

Snowy Egret and Yellowlegs size comparison. NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 6, 2014.

Snowy Egret and Solitary Sandpipers size comparison. NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 6, 2014.

No George here either.

Black and white. Cormorants and a white bird at a great distance. NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 6, 2014.

Black and white. Double-crested Cormorants and a white bird at a great distance. NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 6, 2014.

So a white bird at a far distance. Had its back toward me the entire time.  Visible from the New Jersey Turnpike, I’m sure, but not from my spot.

Conditions were not favorable. So home again I went. The new week began and reports of George’s habits continued. So the next Thursday rolled around. By this time, I was pretty sure I had the precise location of George’s favorite fishing hole.  Now for confirmation.

Solitary sandpipers aren't so solitary.  These solitary sandpipers look like they're skating on ice. NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 11, 2014.

Solitary sandpipers aren’t so solitary. These solitary sandpipers look like they’re skating on ice. NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 11, 2014.

Negative on George.

The Solitary Sandpipers now look like speed skaters in the mud. NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 11, 2014.

The Solitary Sandpipers now look like speed skaters in the mud. NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 11, 2014.

Still nothing.

Red-tailed Hawk. NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 11, 2014.

Red-tailed Hawk. NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 11, 2014.

Not George.

Hidden in the yellowlegs: Greater Yellowlegs and Lesser as well as Short-billed Dowitchers. NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 11, 2014.

Hidden in the yellowlegs: Greater Yellowlegs and Lesser as well as Short-billed Dowitchers. NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 11, 2014.

Finding George is like finding Waldo, or not.

A migrating Yellow Warbler passes through. NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 11, 2014.

A migrating Yellow Warbler passes through. NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 11, 2014.

Wrong color for George.

Conclusive proof as we're going to get: George the American White Pelican at the Meadowlands.  NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 11, 2014.

Conclusive proof as we’re going to get: George the American White Pelican at the Meadowlands. NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 11, 2014.


Trailblazing Turkeys

At work on Friday I was called into the museum room to witness an unusual sight. Gazing out the windows at the aviaries, we beheld a visitor. Not the usual red-tails that Ruby calls down, but a new species: turkeys. These turkeys decide to do a close inspection of the aviary.

Turkey stands on the aviary. Tenafly Nature Center. March 7, 2014

Wild Turkey stands on the aviary. Tenafly Nature Center. March 7, 2014

It was impossible to decipher what the raptors thought as first one turkey investigated the top of the aviary, and then a second. The turkeys initially kept to the wooden support beams, but soon braved the mesh, walking right over the owls. Initially the owls watched, then Mene coughed up a pellet and appeared to go to sleep.

Barred Owls receive a visitor. Tenafly Nature Center. March 7, 2014

Barred Owls receive a visitor. Tenafly Nature Center. March 7, 2014

After several minutes of running about and unsuccessful pecking at the air beneath the mesh, one turkey jumped off the roof. The other made a run for the edge and stopped short, thinking twice. We missed the second jump as we got distracted by work once again.

Haven’t done much birding or photo-editing lately. Waiting for warmer weather. Soon.

Trying to Cope

This post is not a lament of birding I haven’t done.

Disclaimer:  no bird was hurt in the processes described within.

Rather the title refers to the falconer’s definition of coping, to clip or dull the beak or talons of a raptor.  Although to struggle with is an apt description based on some of the stories I’ve heard.

As I’ve mentioned previously, the center I work for has two rehabilitated raptors: a Barred Owl and a Red-tailed Hawk.  Every season we have to cope the birds.  And they have to cope with us All The Time.  They dislike this process of coping immensely and who can blame them?  They are trussed like chickens and chopped at like suey.

For the owl, it’s a two person process.  Yes,  it requires two people because it involves wrangling.   My boss and I tackled the owl first.    The first task is to lay the owl on it’s back and then wrap a towel around the body.  Like a horse, if the raptor can’t see, then it’s less likely to make a fuss.  Also, so long as you have a firm wrap, the wings can’t get free and beat you.  Or worse yet, allow the bird to fly away.   Once the wings are secure, you need to readjust the grip of the feet.  This is where I came in: my responsibilities were to hold the feet and to keep the towel in place.  It may not sound like much, but if I failed, we would have had an owl on the prowl.

Once the owl was down, we checked the jesses and decided to swap them out for new ones.  A bold move because at this point should the owl break lose, it would truly be free – the owl will not step onto a glove for love nor money, nor mice.  The transfer went successfully, then we trimmed all four talons on each foot; inspected the feet for abrasions and treated them with a bit of vitamin E.   For trimming we basically use the same sort of nail trimmer you would use for a dog or cat.  Following this, Mitzi did get a wing free and made the rest of the process slightly more difficult.  The next step was to cope her beak.  Surely you know all the joy and excitement one experiences from a trip to the dentist.  Mitzi can empathize – especially that moment when the dentist approaches, the machinery is humming and you realize that thing is going into your mouth.  We do the same to Mitzi. For coping the beak, we use a dremel which files down the beak.  We also have a file and can use which ever seems more appropriate at the moment.  Beaks like talons grow continuously.  In the wild, most birds naturally wear this down.  Captive birds need a little assistance.

Before unraveling the owl, we checked her keel.  If you think of the keel of the ship – straight line down the bottom of the ship’s middle – lowest part – dead center, the keel on a bird is very similar.  It’s a large protruding bone from the chest – where our flat sternum is.  The keel is essential for flight as it’s what the flight muscles anchor to, allowing the bird to become airborne.   I got to feel her keel.  I had felt the feel of some small winter bird – titmice or chickadees back in 2010 during a visit to the School of Conservation, but it was definitely a difference experience to feel a keel on a raptor because it’s much harder to miss.

The last step is to weigh bird.  First one frees the bird.  She baits.  She settles. Baits again.  And then perhaps a person can convince her to step blindly backwards onto the perch screwed to the scale.  You then hope she perches long enough for the scale to get a read.  Then you return her to her box.  With relief, she dives in and proceeds to very audibly scold you for the torture season.

I don’t have any pictures of this process since it was a two person job and two people were present.

The Red-tailed Hawk comprised Act II.  As a larger bird, she requires three people.  In this case, one person to hold the towel over her and the other to worry about keeping the talons separated.  I remained on talon duty and we called in the front desk to hold down to fort over the wings.

She was very well behaved as we put her through the same processes of checking and caring for her feet, her beak, and then checking her keel and weight.  Her keel had a very different feel.  It was very…. plump.  Ruby’s not a lightweight.  In fact she clocked in at 4.6 lbs which is heavy for a Red-tail.  She put on 0.5 lbs since the last coping.    Imagine balancing 4.6 lbs on your non-dominant wrist/hand.   Mitzi remained at 1.6 lbs.

Interested in learning more?

The Bird Skeleton.  Avian Anatomy and Morphology.
.  The Modern Apprentice.
Foot Care
. The Modern Apprentice.
Falcon Beak Coping Part 4. Canadian Bird Nerd (note: we don’t sedate our birds)

Cure for the Birding Blues

The weather recovered quickly.  Two days above 50, most of the snow is gone and I may have my first sunburn of the year. So, highlights:

Got home from work yesterday, decided to walk to my favorite birding patch.  It’s a mile down the road all along one of the Hudson River Tributaries so the entire walk has the potential to be a lovely bird experience.  The walk goes nearly halfway across the Hudson River and is a bird mecca, or at least a frequently birded place by local Audubon outings. In the summer, with the shimmering heat, it’s like walking through VanGogh’s mind.

Birds at the Pier yesterday: Canada Goose, Canvasback, Bufflehead, Ruddy Duck, Ring-billed Gull Mourning Dove, Downy Woodpecker, Tufted Titmouse, Northern Mockingbird, European Starling, Red-winged Blackbird, Common Grackle, House Finch, House Sparrow.

A bit disappointing – normally there are more ducks… hello Mallard? There was a stiff wind.

So, I decided to head back there this morning.  The Pier is a lovely combination of woods, river, and wetland.  Watching ebird, I know people bird it in the morning and have fantastic luck (Iceland Gull, Common Goldeneye).  So I was out there, and, boy, was I surprised to find it was flooded.  The flood waters up to the road on the way in should have been an indicator.  Possibly some combination of high tide and wind.

So instead of walking the mile out and back, I contented myself with wandering past the dogpark and into the woods where I met a man walking his Napoleon-complex-dog.

Birds at the Pier this morning: Canada Goose, Mallard, Ring-billed Gull, Mourning Dove, Blue Jay, Black-capped Chickadee, Carolina Wren, American Robin, White-throated Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, Red-winged Blackbird, Common Grackle and others I couldn’t identify, including these:

Closer, closer, closer, but who are we?

Closer, closer, closer, but who are we?  Click on image for a closer look.

My guess is Red-tailed Hawk based on (1) size, (2) location – have personally seen Red-tails here although others have seen Bald Eagles, Coopers, and Marsh Hawks, (3) have seen Red-tails pairing up recently, and (4) they look just like the Red-tailed Hawks I photographed yesterday.  My biggest reason why I’m not confident on this ID is the pale rusty-orange tinge of the leg feathers.  It’s in multiple photos.  It could be a product of poor lighting – they were out where the water was and I couldn’t get to a better view despite my best efforts.

New visitors to the yard over the last few days have included: Red-winged Blackbird, Common Grackle, Wild Turkey, and American Tree Sparrow.


The turkey looks so majestic with those bold colors, and also, so reptilian.

As I was finishing up at work today, one of our members/volunteers stopped in to record a sighting on the grounds: Hermit Thrush.  So of course, once I locked up the building I had to go have a look-see.  While I was out there making my way around the pond, the Belted Kingfisher was going berserk.  Sounded like a bee in his bonnet.

TNC birds: American Black Duck, Mallard, Hooded Merganser, Northern Harrier, Mourning Dove, Belted Kingfisher, Downy Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Black-capped Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Wren, Red-winged Blackbird, and Common Grackle, and…. Hermit Thrush!

Now you see me! Now you don't! The Hermit Thrush bustled about.

Now you see me! Now you don’t! The Hermit Thrush bustled about, too busy for photographs.

The Moment You Knew

Everyone has that moment of clarity when they realize their calling to bird.  When I figure out what mine was, I’ll let you know.  (We all have those moments, we just don’t all remember them!)  What I wanted to recall today was watching someone else’s moment.

At work we will frequently all run to one side, not because the building is listing, but because someone has just spotted a noteworthy bird.    We spent nearly a week determining whether our visiting hawk was a Red-Shoulder or a Cooper’s Hawk.  Every time the bird appeared, there’d be a run to the windows and a phone call to the lower offices to alert them as well.  This is what happens when you work at a nature center.

The only avian activity this week has been the woodpeckers.  Apparently there was a false alarm a few days ago regarding a Pileated Woodpecker sighting.  We do have them, but bird in question happened to be a Red-bellied Woodpecker.    So today, when the real Pileated made an appearance close to the center my co-worker was elated.   He was the one to spot it and had enough time to run inside to grab binoculars for a better look.    Standing in the cold sans coats, we watched a Red-bellied and Pileated systematically climb up the snags searching for grub.  When he walked in well after the rest of us, he was glowing and not from the cold.  In his future he perceived making plans and investments for a continued search for feathered friends.

Another birder is born!  Trips to the Meadowlands are closer than they appear.  Then Cape May, Hawk Mountain, and then the world!

In other news, “thesis” outline submitted to adviser!

Better Late Than Never

So it’s the Great Backyard Bird Count this weekend!  Unfortunately, a combination of extra hours at work, exams and a baby shower has kept me away from windows and the outdoors this weekend so my participation has been limited.  But work was invited to help kick off the gbbc in a big way.

On Friday, Fox and Friends did a segment with Wild Birds Unlimited.  The Tenafly Nature Center, where I work, was invited to participate in this component by contributing two of our Animal Ambassadors: Mitzi, the Barred Owl, and Ruby, the Red-tailed Hawk.

Video: Fox and Friends Segment: February, 15, 2013.

More about our birds: Mitzi, gender unknown, was a wild bird who was injured as an adult.  The left wing was injured and s/he can’t sustain flight.  However, s/he gets great exercise whenever we enter the aviary as s/he practices evasion maneuvers.

Ruby, was injured as a juvenile, thus is more tolerant of human presence.  She dislikes being outdone by Mitzi and performs back flips for attention or to avoid annoying tasks.  Ruby is blind in her left eye.

And yes, we at the center immediately noted that Barred Owl was misspelled.  However, most important, I believe, is the exposure the gbbc, birding, and conservation had their 3 minutes of fame on Fox news.

Wild Goose Chase

Last Sunday, NJBIRDS reported Pink-footed Goose sightings in Bergen Co.  There have been 2-3 Pink-Footed Goose sightings confirmed in the NJ-PA region this winter. I was fortunate enough to see the first pink-footed goose early on when it appeared in Hunterdon, Co.  So, while I already have the pink-footed goose on my life list, I don’t have it on my 2013 list.  More importantly, being able to locate the pink-footed goose on my own, would further strengthen my identification skills.

The goose was spotted in Overpeck Park which I drive through on my commute to work.  Previously I thought it would make for some good birding, but hadn’t yet a chance to stop and confirm.  So following class on Monday, I headed over to the park. (The park is about a ~20 minute drive from Montclair).  I scanned the geese on the water and in the soccer field of the Henry Hoebel area, drove through “New Overpeck Park”, but no luck in spotting the goose.  When I got home and checked ebird, it turns out the goose had been there about 10 minutes before I reached the park, but was in a region I hadn’t known to check.

So on Thursday, having better done my homework, I returned to the park, beginning with “New Overpeck Park” and scanned every goose flock, every goose, every angle (almost) from the entrance to Challenger Road. I probably scanned between 400 and 500 ordinary geese.  When scanning large numbers of birds, looking for a rarity, I find it helps to count them… so I am more attentive in my scanning.  With the geese, I count the black necks.   If anyone knows other methods to improve scanning skills, by all means, please let me know!)

Nothing in “New Overpeck Park”, so I crossed the road to “Old Overpeck Park”.  This time there was no Red-tailed Hawk to entertain me with it’s landing approach in a snag while I waited for the light to turn.  I began at the soccer field where a large flock had congregated on Monday, but they weren’t present on  Thursday.   I saw a few fly in and land behind the construction. Thus, I got out my car and began walking the park.  There were a handful of geese in the water and a number on the baseball field.   I crept up to the hitter’s mound and crouched along the fence to scan the field. Walking up I had this feeling, “This time this is it! This is the time!”

No goose.  I returned to the river walk and continued toward the dog park.  There were 40-50 geese on the river.  It was difficult to scan due to the trees, but every few paces I would try.   I would also scan the sky as stragglers flew in.  Then I’d turn and scan the baseball field again from a  different angle.  I got to the bottleneck, and turned around.  Dejected I decided to scan the baseball field one more time from the bleachers.

Scan. Scan. Scan.  Finally, I saw a smaller, browner goose.  I “wooed!” and jumped for joy.  Both quite literally.  Then realized I lost sight of the goose.  I checked to see who witnessed my antics (no one) and settled to scan the flock again to find the bird.   Unfortunately I forgot to look for where the bird had been before I pulled my eyes away so I had to scan the entire flock again.  But I ultimately found the bird another 3 times.


Pink-footed Goose from behind. Note the white contrast along feather edges. Very striking in comparison to its larger brethren.


Pink-footed goose from the side. Smaller size is more evident. As are the pink-feet. Pink-feet! Do pink-footed goose have a preference for little pink socks?

Field Markers

  • smaller than the Canada Goose
  • pink-feet
  • back feathers appear white tinged along their edges

I found the last marker to be most helpful because how often are birds cooperative?

Species Spotted from Monday and Thursday’s Outings

    •  Pink-footed Goose
    • Canada Goose
    • Hooded Merganser
    • Common Merganser
    • Great Blue Heron
    • Bald Eagle
    • Ring-bIlled Gull
    • Herring Gull
    • Great Black-backed Gull
    • Rock Pigeon
    • American Kestrel
    • Fish Crow
    • American Crow
    • European Starling
    • Song Sparrow