Friday, March 11, 2005

March Birding

Dear Readers,

This morning we had Fox Sparrows (Passerella iliaca) at our feeder which is always a harbinger of Spring for me. I have also been hearing Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia) singing and establishing territories. March is upon us and with warmer days and cool nights the sap will be flowing. Along with maple syrup aficionados, look for Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers (Sphyrapicus varius) tapping trees and making their way north. We are all seeing American Robins (Turdus migratorius), Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) and Common Grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) in large numbers. Other land birds that will begin to sporadically appear this month are Rusty Blackbirds (Euphagus carolinus), Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna), Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus), Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater), Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) and Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura).

With all the thawing ponds and lakes all types of ducks, geese and swans are showing up and something fun or unusual could pop up anywhere. I read today that in southern Illinois Great Egret (Ardea alba) and Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca) have been spotted already. Shorebirds will not likely be seen here in Northern Illinois until April.

See you out and about.


Sunday, February 27, 2005

Red-winged Blackbird and American Woodcock

Dear Readers,

I missed last weeks entry. Was busy on a little birding trip. Will elaborate on this in an upcoming entry. Over the last week and a half the Red-winged Blackbirds (Aeglaius phoeniceus) and the American Woodcock (Scolopax minor) have returned to northern Illinois. Red-winged Blackbirds are generally found in wet areas around marshes and fields. They usually feed and roost in large flocks. The red-shouldered male can only be confused with the Tricolored Blackbird (Agelaius tricolor) which is found locally in the central and western California. Females are very different than males and can be initially hard to identify. They resemble large sparrows, but are dark above and more heavily streaked below and have longer spiky bills and a buffy eyebrow. The Red-winged Blackbird’s song is an energetic conk-a-ree and when singing are heard usually 4 to 9 times a minute. Aeglaius is Latin for gregarious. Phoeniceus refers to deep red in reference to their wing patches. They are among the most numerous land bird in North America.

The American Woodcock is most easily seen at dusk on the edges of fields or other open areas near thickets, swamps or wet woods. They are a master of camouflage. When walking through wet woods I have almost stepped on woodcock without seeing or flushing them. To find them listen carefully for their “peent” or “beent” call while on the ground and the unusual musical twittering of their wings while in their high, corkscrewing, mating display flight that goes on until well after dark. A flashlight can be used to see their eyeshine when on the ground. They probe the wet ground with their long bill with a flexible tip in search of earthworms. They generally feed until daybreak. Scolopax is Greek for “woodcock”. Their former name, Philohela, is Greek for “bog loving”. Their species name “minor” refers to it being smaller than it’s Eurasian counterpart, S. rusticola or the European Woodcock.

American Woodcock and Wilson’s Snipe (Gallinago gallinago) are the only members of the Sandpiper family that are legally hunted in North America. The woodcock is identified by it’s long bill, short legs and plump rounded body and rounded wings. It’s back is mostly grayish and the belly is a buffy orange. There are three horizontal black bars on the crown. The large eyes are set extremely far back on it’s large head which allows it to vigilantly look for danger while feeding.

Next week I’ll be out one evening listening and looking for American Woodcock. I may just see you out and about.


Sunday, February 13, 2005

Destination - South Coast Maine

Dear Readers,

The southern coast of Maine is an amazing place to bird in winter (as is the whole coast). This week I will focus on the town of Ogunquit( and the surrounding areas.

A quick trip to this time of year will make many a birder drool with envy over what is being seen. The town of Ogunquit not only has varied coastal habitat, but also has incredible public access to the water. Ogunquit is about 19 miles from the Maine/New Hampshire boarder at Kittery/Portsmouth. There are three major airports nearby. Logan Airport( in Boston places you about a 90-minute drive north away. Better yet is the airport( at Manchester, New Hampshire, which is one hour away. Closest is the Portland International Jetport(, which is only 45 minutes from your destination.

Ogunquit is a busy tourist town with many places to stay and several restaurants. It has one of the nicest sandy beaches in the state. This time of year tourism slows which means there is more room for the birders. If you are driving from the south be sure to stop at the Maine Tourism Association(MTA)( information center in the southern Maine town of Kittery that is accessed from Route 95 North or from coastal Route One. The MTA number in Kittery is (207) 439-1319. There you can get info on lodging, restaurants, other amenities and professional help with directions including a complementary state map. Use your new maps to find the Shore Road, which runs from York to Ogunquit. Head north on the Shore Road until you reach the Cliff House Resort and Spa( Drive carefully and slowly. Most folks will not be used to this twisty, narrow road, especially with beautiful glimpses of the Atlantic Ocean distracting you along the way. The Cliff House is PRIVATE PROPERTY so PLEASE be respectful. They tolerate birders coming there – so far. The resort is perched on rugged cliffs overlooking the ocean. I like to park in the northern most lot closest to the cliffs. This area can be extremely difficult and dangerous walking if it is icy or there is a lot of snow. Pack your snow boots, warmest clothes and wind blocking gear just in case.

After scanning the area near the parking lot you can walk south along the cliffs behind the resort. Bring your spotting scope to view the large groups of Common Eider(Somateria mollissima) and try to pick out a King Eider(S. spectabilis). Almost every winter there is a male hanging around the area. There currently is one being seen about five miles north in Wells Harbor. Close to the cliffs there are usually a small group of Harlequin Ducks(Histrionicus histrionicus) to be seen. I have seen up to 60 individuals. With patience you should see Red-necked(Podiceps grisegena) and Horned Grebes(P. auritus), Red-breasted Mergansers(Mergus serrator), and possibly all three local scoters – Surf(Melanitta perspicillata), White-winged(M. fusca), and Black(M. nigra). Will diligence you may pick out a Razorbill(Alca torda), a Thick-billed Murre(Uria lomvia), or the elusive Dovkie(Alle alle). This is where I spotted my one and only Dovkie about 15 yards off shore! You should expect Herring(L. argentatus) and Great Black-backed Gulls(Larus marinus) and others might show up. I have even seen Snow Buntings(Plectrophenax nivalis) in the parking lot.

Just north in Perkins Cove is a paved, public walkway called the Marginal Way. Wear rugged shoes and expect slippery and tough walking this time of year. I would guess that it is about a mile long and runs toward town. This little cove is a phenomenal place to view all the above-mentioned birds. I once had a King Eider standing 15 feet away on a rock here. In summer you will be charged to park in Perkins Cove (if you can get a spot). Usually there is no problem in the winter, however, on a nice, weekend day it can be crowded so get there early.

The beach in Ogunquit is worth a walk if you get there early. The town of Wells has several beaches to the north, as does York to the south. You may like to check out the beautiful Nubble Head Light( at York Beach. This is also a great place to bird.

If you don’t mind the cold or wind the rewards along the southern coast of Maine can be great in winter. Who knows, you might even see me out and about. Hope one day you get to enjoy this little piece of heaven.


Sunday, February 06, 2005

Bird Recap January 2005

Dear Readers,

This week I’ll review the birds I’ve spotted so far this year and share the highlights of the exciting moments. I began with a New Years Day bird walk with Kane County Audubon( We had a nice, but cold walk around Nelson Lake. There was minimal open water so we were lucky to see Herring Gulls(Larus argentatus) and Ring-billed Gulls(Larus delawarensis). We had a total of 27 species for the trip, the “best” bird being a Common Grackle(Quiscalus quiscula).

At the end of our walk we met another birder on the trail. He invited me to look for a Lark Bunting(Calamospiza melanocorys) at North Aurora Forest Preserve that he had recently observed, about three miles away from Nelson Lake. After only about ten minutes we found our target bird despite the strengthening wind. It was hunkered down with a large flock of White-crowned Sparrows along a field edge in the brush.

Of course you read my first entry about the trip to Wisconsin and Minnesota. Aside from that, all my birding has been in DeKalb County, Illinois. I have seen a total of 57 bird species this year; 34 in DeKalb County and 21 in our back yard.

Most exciting was the discovery by my wife of a Greenfinch(Carduelis chloris) at our feeders. After consulting with members of the Illinois Ornithological Society (IOS) ( and an ornithologist at the Illinois State Museum ( in Springfield we discovered that an “unscrupulous” bird dealer released a number of birds last year or the year before in northern Illinois. Two Greenfinch were seen near Lake Michigan last Spring. “Our” Greenfinch stayed around for more than a week and seemed to be traveling with a flock of House Finches(Carpodacus mexicanus). It was quite aggressive and drove Dark-eyed Juncos(Junco hyemalis) away that strayed too closely. Greenfinch are native to Europe.

We have had a moderate warm-up in the weather this week so our back yard is not being visited so heavily. Another reason that the birds may be staying away is the Sharp-shinned Hawk(Accipiter striatus) that is making a few daily visits to our back yard. My wife and I have both observed it hunting and feasting (usually on Dark-eyed Juncos) several times.

Hope to have more stories from February. If you are out and about, I may see you on the trail!


The following is my year list to date.

Great Blue Heron Ardea herodias
Canada Goose Branta canadensis
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
Lesser Scaup Aythya affinis
Bald Eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus
Sharp-shinned Hawk Accipiter striatus
Cooper’s Hawk Accipiter cooperii
Northern Goshawk Accipiter gentilis
Red-tailed Hawk Buteo jamaicensis
Rough-legged Hawk Buteo lagopus
Golden Eagle Aquila chrysaetos
American Kestrel Falco sparverius
Wild Turkey Meleagris gallopavo
Ruffed Grouse Bonasa umbellus
Sharp-tailed Grouse Tympanuchus phasianellus
Ring-necked Pheasant Phasianus colchicus
Ring-billed Gull Larus delawarensis
Herring Gull Larus argentatus
Rock Pigeon Columba livia
Mourning Dove Zenaida macroura
Great Horned Owl Bubo virginianus
Great Gray Owl Strix nebulosa
Northern Hawk Owl Surnia ulula
Boreal Owl Aegolius funereus
Red-headed Woodpecker Melanerpes erythrocephalus
Red-bellied Woodpecker Melanerpes carolinus
Downy Woodpecker Picoides pubescens
Hairy Woodpecker Picoides villosus
Northern Flicker Colaptes auratus
Horned Lark Eremophila alpestris
Bohemian Waxwing Bombycilla garrulus
American Robin Turdus migratorius
Black-capped Chickadee Poecile atricapillus
Boreal Chickadee Poecile hudsonicus
Red-breasted Nuthatch Sitta canadensis
White-breasted Nuthatch Sitta carolinensis
Northern Shrike Lanius excubitor
Gray Jay Perisoreus canadensis
Blue Jay Cyanocitta cristata
American Crow Corvus brachyrhynchos
Common Raven Corvus corax
European Starling Sturnus vulgaris
American Tree Sparrow Spizella arborea
Lark Bunting Calamospiza melanocorys
Fox Sparrow Passerella iliaca
Song Sparrow Melospiza melodia
White-crowned Sparrow Zonotrichia leucophrys
White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicollis
Dark-eyed Junco Junco hyemalis
Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis
Common Grackle Quiscalus quiscula
Pine Grosbeak Pinicola enucleator
House Finch Carpodacus mexicanus
Common Redpoll Carduelis flammea
Pine Siskin Carduelis pinus
American Goldfinch Carduelis tristis
House Sparrow Passer domesticus

Sunday, January 30, 2005



Hello Readers,

Even though we are approaching the “dead of winter” with substantial snow cover and frigid temperatures, the longer days signal the stirrings of new life. Great Horned Owls will begin their mating rituals in January and begin nesting in February. Listen on nights with strong moon light for the familiar, “Who’s awake, me toooo” call. Great Horned Owls (Bubo virginianus) generally lay two to three eggs in an old nest built by another species such as a crow, osprey or squirrel. Both parents incubate the eggs that hatch in about four weeks. The parents protect and feed their young until they are ready to leave the nest at approximately 2 months of age. If you have heard their calls recently, they are probably nesting nearby and should now be on their eggs.

In northern states as natural food sources begin to wane, you may find more birds coming to your feeders. We certainly have! Now is the time to be watchful for those harder to find species such as Redpolls (Carduelis flammea), Crossbills (Loxia), and Pine Siskins (Carduelis pinus). I have had each of these species at my feeders in Maine and in Northern Illinois in February in the past. In snowy areas also look for Snow Buntings (Plectrophenax hyperboreus), Lapland Longspurs (Calcarius lapponicus), and even Horned Larks (Eremophila alpestris) gathering grit on road edges or in large, mixed flocks in fields. Birds this time of year don’t have it easy with the stress of the cold temperatures and trying to locate food. If you feed the birds, keep feeders clean and well stocked. Suet is a high-energy food that attracts woodpeckers, nuthatches and others. We purchase inexpensive beef suet from the supermarket and put in an old bait bag. Black sunflower seeds are always popular as are peanuts or peanut butter. Peanut butter can be smeared on a branch or a tree trunk. Water is most valuable at this time of year. We utilize a heater to keep our birdbath clear of ice.

As rivers and lakes freeze solid it is a good time to search for concentrations of wintering ducks, gulls and eagles anywhere there is open water. Below dams, in cooling ponds for some industry, and occasionally in wastewater treatment plants are good places to try. Along the coast it is still a good time to get out the spotting scope and scan for alcids, wintering ducks, loons and grebes as well as Purple Sandpipers (Calidris maritime) at the end of breakwaters and jetties.

This is also a good time of year to search large grasslands, fields, coastal marshes, airports or blueberry barrens for Shrikes (Lanius) or Snowy Owls (Nyctea scandiaca).

When birding try not to “stress” birds by approaching too closely, pishing, or by playing tapes. Your presence may keep birds from feeding or cause them to burn important calories flying toward or away from you. I am always surprised and delighted to see so many birds in winter. You may find our usual winter friends or something uncommon if you get out and look. Winter birding is great fun. Hope to see you when I’m out and about!


Sunday, January 23, 2005

Black-capped Chickadee

Hello Readers,

This weeks column will discuss one of my favorite birds, the Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) and it’s family, the Paridae. Paridae and Parus are Latin for Titmouse and atricapillus is Latin for “Black-capped“, formed from atris – “black” and capillus – “hair of the head”. Worldwide there are 55 members of the Paridae family that include Chickadees, Titmice and Tits. In North America there are 7 species of Chickadees (excluding the Titmice and Tits). They are: Black-capped Chickadee, Carolina Chickadee (P. carolinensis), Boreal Chickadee (P. hudsonicus), Chestnut-backed Chickadee (P. rufescens), Mountain Chickadee (P. gambeli), Mexican Chickadee (P. sclateri) and the Gray-headed Chickadee (P. cinctus) which was formally known as the Siberian Tit. The word Chickadee derives from the sound that they make.

Male, female and immature Black-capped Chickadees all have similar plumage.
They are busy little birds that have dark caps and throats with white on their cheeks and a variable amount of buff on their flanks. Their backs olive-gray. Chickadees range from 4.75 inches in length in the Carolina Chickadee to 5.5 inches long in the Boreal Chickadee. The Black-capped Chickadee (which from here out I will abbreviate as BCC) is generally 5.25 inches in length. Over most of their widespread range the BCC inhabits a mixed deciduous and coniferous forest. They are found at forest edges and deep in the woods. They are also common in suburban areas at feeders, field edges, parks and anywhere there is cover. In the Appalachian and northern part of their range they prefer conifers. BCC’s are generally lowland birds, but in the southeastern part of its range where the Carolina Chickadee is prevalent they are found above 1,800 feet in winter and 3,600 feet in summer where they replace the lower altitude Carolina Chickadee.
In the area where the ranges of the Carolina Chickadee and BCC overlap they do interbreed, but it is thought uncommonly.

Differentiating the Carolina Chickadee and the BCC are often done by ear, but this is not always reliable as they can learn each other’s songs. More reliable differences are in plumage. The BCC is has sharper, more contrasting colors than it’s drabber cousin. The cheek patch is bright white in the BCC and is grayish at the back of the Carolina Chickadee. The bib of the Carolina Chickadee is more neatly delineated, whereas the BCC’s bib looks ragged. Their voices are different. The BCC’s “chikadee dee dee” call is slower and deeper than the Carolina’s. In addition to the above call, BCC’s also have the common “fee beee” or “fee bey ee” calls. These are more commonly heard in the spring. BCC’s also have many different vocalizations that have been found surprisingly similar to language. In the fall the BCC’s adds neurons to the hippocampus, which is the portion of the brain responsible for memories and spatial learning. It is thought that this extra brainpower increases their ability to locate caches of food. They have sophisticated spatial orientation that allows them to recover cached food that was stored up to 28 days in the past. Other vocalizations include a “gargling”, an alarm “teeteeteeteetee”, and a sharp “hiss” when on their nest.

Chickadees have specialized leg muscles that allow them to hang upside down and glean food from trees and foliage. Their diet consists of insects and spiders and their eggs, caterpillars, snails, seeds and berries. They enjoy suet and have been known to eat fat from carrion. They will also hover to feed or hawk insects. BCC’s usually don’t fly more than 15 meters at a time. Flight speed is up to 20 meters/hour.

Chickadees are usually monogamous, although many Chickadees die in winter. The average lifespan is 2.5 years. The record for the oldest known BCC is 12.5 years. They are territorial in the breeding season and form flocks of up to 12 in the winter with adult pairs and immature birds. When in flocks you can definitely observe dominance hierarchies. Many other species loosely associate themselves with these winter flocks. It is thought that the complex communication of Chickadees helps them find food and avoid danger. This could be why other birds stay nearby. When you discover a flock of winter Chickadees be on the lookout for nuthatches, creepers, and woodpeckers.

Chickadees also demonstrate mobbing behavior. When there is a perceived treat, they often flock toward it to badger the intruder. Who was it that said, “Keep you friends close and your enemies closer.”? He may have learned this from Chickadees. (I think this quote was attributed to Sun Tzu??? (

BCC’s are cavity nesters and often excavate their own holes that may take 10-12 days. Both male and female usually excavate a rotten birch stump 5-15 feet off the ground. They also will nest in boxes, natural cavities and old woodpecker holes. The female lines her nest with moss, plant down, and hair and cover their eggs up when they leave their nest. The female incubates the eggs and both parents provide food. Egg laying can begin anytime between April and early July and usually occurs within two days of nest completion. The female will lay about 6 eggs – one per day. The eggs are dull, small and pinkish white with flecks of brown or purplish red. Incubation is 12-13 days. At 16 days they fledge the nest but are usually fed by the parents for another 2-4 weeks. They usually only have one brood a year, but they will attempt a second brood if the first attempt fails.

There is no formal migration, but in winter flocks can be nomadic and irruptions south do occur, especially the first year birds. My faithful year round friend has given me many hours of fun. I can never resist a flock of BCC’s in the winter. I have to stop and listen and see what other birds are traveling with them. I’ve been surprised to find birds like Pine Siskins (Cardulis pinus), White-winged Crossbills(Loxia leucoptera), and Yellow-rumped Warblers(Dendroica coronata) with them. I even have been lucky enough to have one land on me. They visit our black oil sunflower seeds and suet feeder often. I guess they remind me of my home since the BCC is the state bird of Maine (also Massachusetts).

In my next article I’ll talk about what to be looking for in February. Until then, keep an eye on what’s out and about.


p.s. Here is a list of the world’s Paridae:

Marsh Tit

Black-bibbed Tit

Sombre Tit

Willow Tit

Carolina Chickadee

Black-capped Chickadee

Mountain Chickadee

Mexican Chickadee

White-browed Tit

Pere David's Tit

Gray-headed Chickadee

Boreal Chickadee

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

Black-breasted Tit

Rufous-vented Tit

Black-crested Tit

Coal Tit

Yellow-bellied Tit

Elegant Tit

Palawan Tit

Crested Tit

Gray-crested Tit

White-shouldered Black-Tit

White-winged Black-Tit

Southern Black-Tit

Carp's Tit

White-bellied Tit

White-backed Black-Tit

Dusky Tit

Rufous-bellied Tit

Cinnamon-breasted Tit

Red-throated Tit

Stripe-breasted Tit

Somali Tit

Miombo Tit

Ashy Tit

Gray Tit

Great Tit

Turkestan Tit

Green-backed Tit

White-winged Tit

Black-lored Tit

Yellow-cheeked Tit

Yellow Tit

Blue Tit

Azure Tit

Yellow-breasted Tit

Varied Tit

White-fronted Tit

Bridled Titmouse

Oak Titmouse

Juniper Titmouse

Tufted Titmouse

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Northern Minnesota and Wisconsin Trip to See Owl Invasion


Dear Birders and Fellow Naturalists,

Welcome to the first edition of my web page for birders. I plan to write a weekly article on items that I hope will interest my readers. Each week I will offer a different general topic on a four to five week rotating schedule. Week one will discuss birding destinations. Week two will cover back yard birds and I.D. tips. Week three will be on birds to be watchful for in the upcoming month and week four will delve into miscellaneous areas of interest.

I am originally from the coast of Maine and I have done most of my birding and naturalizing there. I am a Registered Maine Guide ( and I have run several birding field trips on foot, in sea kayaks and in canoes. While in Maine I was active with Mid-Coast Audubon ( as a director and as the field trip chair and organizing one of our Audubon Christmas Bird Counts ( I am now living west of Chicago. I also have birded extensively in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Illinois, Arizona, Southern California, Washington and the mountains and rain forest of Ecuador. I am not an expert or an ornithologist. I do have a passion for birding and I would like to share with my readers what I have learned and what I think may be interesting.

Today I would like to relate some of the details of my recent trip to Northern Minnesota and Wisconsin to see the unprecedented owl invasion first hand. I participated in an organized guided trip originating in central Illinois which left on Saturday, January 8th. On our way toward the Duluth area we stopped at Crex Meadows ( in Western Wisconsin. There we had wonderful views of a Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) and also saw a flock of 16 Sharp-tailed Grouse (Pedioecetes phasianellus). The grouse were “budding” in small birches and shrubs.

On Sunday the 9th we arrived at our destination north of Duluth. We birded the back roads in boggy areas around the towns of Cotton and Virginia. Heavy afternoon snow slowed our birding significantly that day but we did manage to see 15 Great Gray Owls (Strix nebulosa) and five Northern Hawk Owls (Surnia ulula). Other northern birds that day included 30 Rough-legged Hawks (Buteo lagopus), three Northern Shrikes (Lanius excubitor), 82 Bohemian Waxwings (Bombycilla garrulous), Boreal Chickadees (Parus hudsonicus), Pine Grosbeaks (Pinicola enucleator), and Common Redpolls (Acanthis flammea). On Monday the 10th we again birded the area around Cotton and Virginia and then north to Zim-Sax. From there we headed east to the shore of Lake Superior at Two Harbors. We then headed to Duluth were we saw our best birds of the day. We found not one, but two Boreal Owls (Aegolius funereus). One Boreal Owl was seen very near the lighthouse, the other in a nearby town park. We ended our day in Superior, Wisconsin. Our day owl tally was amazing! We saw a total of 94 owls including 78 Great Grays, 14 Northern Hawks and the marvelous afore mentioned Boreals.

I saw 40 species on the trip. This very well could be a lifetime chance to see these owls in these concentrations. If we purposely had gone out to try and see how many owls we could see on Monday I’m sure we could have topped 200.

If you enjoy this blog then please click on the ads posted here. Until next time . . . I’ll be out and about.