Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Warbler Guide: Review and Reflections

My first field guide was Chester A Reed's 1923 Bird Guide: Land Birds East of the Rockies. This pocket-sized book helped me discover the names of common dooryard birds through toddlerhood and beyond. Regrettably, I defaced the little book, recording my sightings by scrawling "SAW" in big block letters across every bird I identified. Recently I purchased a clean copy, which rekindled childhood memories.  

Three warbler species are particularly hard to identify in the fall, when young birds and females predominate. The spring males of these species are quite distinctive.  

The first of this "Treacherous Triad" is the Blackpoll.  Sole reliance on Reed's color rendering would have placed a bird watcher who encountered an immature bird at a great disadvantage. No warbler looks anything like the one in the upper right in his illustration, described as paler than the female which is "greenish above streaked with black." 

ReedBlackpoll - Copy

Next, in describing the Bay-breasted Warbler, Reed mentions that the female and immature may show "a trace of chestnut on the flanks."

ReedBay-breasted - Copy

In the case of the Pine Warbler, Reed's illustration of the "duller and grayer" female would have been of little help, even at close range.

 ReedPine Warbler

In pursuit of a Boy Scout Merit Badge, I started keeping a Life List in 1948, relying on my copy of Roger Tory Peterson's 1939 Revised and Enlarged First Edition of A Field Guide to the Birds, a gift from my mother a few years before. As I noted in an earlier blog, Roger Tory Peterson Centennialshe paid $2.75 for a used copy in 1942 (before my breakfast CheeriOats were renamed Cheerios). It would have cost $38.22 in today's economy, according to this Inflation Calculator, quite a sacrifice in those days. 

Peterson provided better descriptions and awakened my interest in warblers, but was not much more helpful in addressing the differences between the three problem species as usually seen during fall migration. 

For each of the "treacherous triad" the images of "autumn birds" had pointers which called attention to field marks. 
  • Blackpoll: "Olive-green above, two white wing bars, dingy yellow below, faintly streaked." 
  • Bay-breasted: Same description, except that it is "dingy buffy-yellow below," adding that it has yellow undertail coverts instead of white as in the Blackpoll. 
  • Pine: Similar to the other two, dull olive above, with a plain, unstreaked back and white undertail coverts.
The Peterson Field Guide greatly improved my ability to recognize male warblers in the spring. All the warbler species were depicted in only two color plates; this one illustrated the three similar species.

Peterson Warblers 1939

In his 1947 Second Revised and Enlarged Edition Field Guide, which I acquired about a year after I started my Life List, Peterson published this plate that depicted the "Confusing Fall Warblers." 

Peterson Warblers 1947

I wish he had not used that term "confusing." Although Peterson's intent was to sharpen the reader's birding skills, the illustrations had the opposite effect upon me, leaving me more perplexed than ever. Peterson's characterization simply legitimized my own confusion, especially in trying to distinguish the more common Blackpolls from Bay-breasted Warblers weaving about in the fall foliage! 

 Like most beginners, I learned useful ID tips from more experienced birders, but the "Confusing" three species were often cause for disagreements, even between the experts. I could sometimes separate the Pine Warblers from the other two. Autumn Blackpolls seemed to be more abundant than Bay-breasted, but too many of these went unidentified. Over the years, I came to call them simply "Baypolls."

To my rescue, some 65 years too late, Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle's The Warbler Guide arrived on the birding scene. Before I received a copy, I expected it to be a rather slim publication. After all, the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America devotes a hefty 25 pages to the entire warbler tribe. Imagine my surprise to find that the massive Warbler Guide consists of 560 pages, packed with text, photographs and illustrations. 

The Warbler Guide cover

It arrived in time for our August through mid-September trip from Florida to our second home in NE Illinois. Before departing I read many of the 137 introductory pages. They dealt with such topics as warbler topography and what to notice about a warbler, including overall contrast and color, face and head patterns, size, shape, habitat, bill and leg color, breast, belly, back, rump, flanks, tail, wing and undertail coverts, aging and sexing, and seasonal and molt patterns. 

Although I skimmed over the rather technical (for me) discussion of sonograms, the section on how to listen to sonograms presented useful general information about patterns and qualities of warbler songs. 

Sixteen pages consist of about 80 thumbnail "quick finder" warbler illustrations on facing pages: side views, 45 degree views, under-views, faces, spring, fall and western regional comparative groupings, and finally unter-tail patterns. Toward the end of the book there is another "quick finder" for warblers in flight. This remarkable collection of photos and drawings, all sized proportionately and in full color, is worth the price of the book. I looked forward to applying what I learned during fall migration season in Illinois.

At the Fort Lauderdale airport, on our way to Illinois, our checked suitcase was two pounds overweight. I removed The Warbler Guide, thus reducing the weight by three pounds! Having cleared the luggage check-in without paying an extra tariff, I carried the book on the plane and immersed myself in the species accounts, jumping about, perusing those species I most expected (or hoped to see) during our stay in Illinois. 

Thanks to the Peterson plate, I had almost given up on the fall Pine-Blackpoll-Bay-breasted triad. Now, having read Stephenson and Whittle's book, I paid special attention to wing patterns and leg color.

The Warbler Guide, in a departure from traditional field guides, provides many species with more than one set of descriptions and illustrations. "Bright birds" and "drab birds" deserve separate four-page accounts, as if they were different "species."  

For example, the Bay-breasted Warbler has this second set of descriptions and comparisons for the "drab" form, particularly immatures, females and adult males in fall plumage.

Bay-breasted Warbler Drab

Bay-breasted Warbler Drab 2

This approach is very informative. One pearl that I harvested was to look for the high contrast black between the wing bars in the Bay-breasted, while the Blackpoll has more uniform dark olive wing coverts and flight feathers. 

With somewhat increased confidence, I headed out into the field. Migration was slow, but I caught sight of this warbler, definitely one of the "Treacherous Triad:"

Bay-breasted Warbler 2-20130910

Its streaked back ruled out Pine Warbler. Noting the dark primaries and unstreaked breast, I was quite confident that it was a Bay-breasted Warbler. It confirmed my impression by moving up to provide a better view of its buffy flanks, and the definite darker area between the white wing bars:

Bay-breasted Warbler 20130910

One of those "Baypolls" showed a rather pronounced eye-ring and streaked yellowish-olive breast and flanks. Its wings are more uniformly dark, and its legs are light colored, not black. I identified it as a Blackpoll:

Blackpoll Warbler 20130905

Another Blackpoll, with distinct yellow feet:

Blackpoll 20130906

Buffy undertail coverts and breast reveal this as a Bay-breasted Warbler:

Bay-breasted Warbler 20130911

Fall warblering is fun and challenging, but how much easier in the spring, when the warblers match my childhood mental images...

Bay-breasted male (Illinois, May, 2009):

Bay-breasted Warbler 20090502

Male Blackpoll (Illinois, April, 2011):

Blackpoll Warbler male 20110414

Pine Warbler (March, 2011, South Florida):

Pine Warbler 3-20110311

Not a field guide to fit into one's pocket, and not a cocktail table adornment, this is a book to be visited time and time again... at my age, perhaps even more frequently than for most. It exhaustively illustrates the fine points of warbler identification, whether by size, shape, color, habits or vocalizations, and is a worthy addition to the library of any serious students of birds.

Product Details

Thursday, September 26, 2013

This Week's Crops & Clips: Cooper's Hawk

Continuing the theme of featuring birds I have seen in our now-diminished Illinois"backyard," this week's choice is actually one that I photographed there for the first time only this past month. Mary Lou and I were on our way back home from one of our walks when I suddenly stopped the car only a few doors from our home. The camera was in the trunk, and I cautiously crept out the door and tried not to be seen. 

Keeping my head down, I made my way to the rear of the car. The trunk opened conspicuously, and I quickly set up my camera, not even looking up to see if my intended subject was still in view. It was, and seemed to regard me with only mild curiosity. My prior photo opportunities with Cooper's Hawks have usually been from some distance.

Cooper's Hawk 2-20130904

Although this immature bird lacked the red eyes of an adult, it looked fierce enough.

Cooper's Hawk 3-20130904

At first it tolerated my presence, but as I moved closer for a better shot, it departed.

Cooper's Hawk 20130904

When we first started spending summers in Chicagoland, there was a Cooper's Hawk nest in a small woodland near our daughter's home.  It was easy to see before the trees leafed out, but I have not been able to find it for the past two seasons.

Coopers Hawk Nest 20100319

The hen sat firmly during incubation.

Coopers Hawk 2-20100409

The adult's appearance is quite different from that of the streaked juvenile. The reddish streaks on the adult's breast are arranged transversely as opposed to the heavier longitudinal streaks of the immature bird, which may take two years to fully molt into adult plumage.

Coopers Hawk 20090128

Coopers Hawk 20100510

Cooper's Hawks characteristically roost on a tree or post, and then fly speedily to capture their prey, mostly smaller birds.

Coopers Hawk 20100824

Cooper's Hawks also hunt by circling overhead. I witnessed this one "kiting," stalling in one place while facing into the wind. The stable position surely helps them detect movement below. These poor photos were taken from a great distance.

 Coopers Hawk kiting 2-20111110

Coopers Hawk kiting 20111110

The hawk suddenly dove down into the high grass and successfully captured a bird.

Coopers Hawk with prey 20111110

Near our Florida home, this Cooper's Hawk hunted by flying along the trail at a very low altitude, using the element of surprise. This one flew off with its catch before I could get very close.

Hawk with prey 20121022

The smaller but similar Sharp-shinned Hawk has a proportionately smaller head and usually a squared-off tail.

Sharp-shinned Hawk 20091206

Monday, September 23, 2013

Waiting for blue skies and birds

During our last two weeks in Illinois we endured a heat spell. Daily temperatures exceeded those in Florida, and the humidity was almost as high. 

There were warnings about high ozone levels and a haze permeated the atmosphere. Most days the sky was fairly bright but generally lightly overcast, whether from the smog or clouds. This produced low light conditions requiring me to use a flash, but most of my latest Illinois photos turned out soft or harsh and grainy and were assigned to the recycle bin. Happily, there were some exceptions. 

A huge flock of Brown-headed Cowbirds (and a few European Starlings) settled down on the roof of this old barn at the sod farm where we saw the American Golden-Plovers.

Cowbirds on old barn 20130911

Cupola 20130911

The water tank has seen better days.

Water Tower HDR 20130828

A cold front rolled in just before we left and the skies turned blue, so all was not lost. Some parting shots from Illinois included an immature male Common Yellowthroat.

Common Yellowthroat immature male 4-20130912

Migratory Tennessee Warblers had moved south in good numbers.

Tennessee Warbler 2-20130911

Palm Warblers came in on the front. The eastern form, they are much brighter than the western race we have in Florida all winter.

Palm Warbler 2-20130911

American Redstarts moved erratically through the branches, and the poor light made it impossible to stop their action.

American Redstart 2-20130906

Swainson's Thrushes hid in the dark lower canopy, but I could not throw away this poor shot because I loved the bird's pose.

Swainson's Thrush 2-20130911

Sandhill Cranes, restless to start their southward journey, flew overhead.

Sandhill Crane 20130911

This immature male Rose-breasted Grosbeak was either lingering locally or transiting from the north.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak 20130911

Back home in Florida there was rain every morning for six days. It was too risky to walk the mile or two into our local wetland preserve. One morning we drove out to Chapel Trail Nature Preserve in the neighboring City of Pembroke Pines. 

We were able to walk the boardwalk for almost an hour before the clouds rolled in and we made a hasty retreat to our auto before the skies opened up again.

This is usually a good place to find long-legged waders, but the exceptionally high water levels have dispersed the schools of fish, causing the herons and egrets to hunt far and wide.

Indeed, we saw only a single Tricolored Heron, some distance away. 

Tricolored Heron 20130917

A lone Great Egret roosted in a tree on a small island in the middle of the greatly expanded lake.

Great Egret 2-20130917

There was evidence of migration, as small flocks of Eastern Kingbirds had gathered in the treetops.

Eastern Kingbirds 20130917

This is an immature kingbird, as evidenced by its yellow gape and gray on its upper chest.

Eastern Kingbird 20130917

The biggest treat before the rains came was a male Prairie Warbler right next to the boardwalk. The light was just perfect!

Prairie Warbler 2-20130917

Prairie Warbler 3-20130917

Then, on the morning of the Harvest Moon the forecast improved. Some of the stars were still shining as we walked out on the nearby wetlands, a quarter of an hour before sunrise.    We watched the huge moon sink into the Everglades. There must be some magic in Florida's early morning light, at least when the sun is rising in a cloudless sky. 

Harvest Moon setting 20130919

Brown Thrashers had moved in, probably beginning migration,...

Brown Thrasher 20130919

... as had Red-eyed Vireos.

Red-eyed Vireo 20130919

The local birds were done with their post-breeding molt, and that scraggly look was gone. This Blue Jay was in splendid fresh plumage.

Blue Jay 20130920

Loggerhead Shrikes were still on their territories. And, oh, what wonderful light!

Loggerhead Shrike 20130919

While we were absent, the Common Ground-Doves finished raising their families.

Common Ground-Dove 20130919

The butterflies were there, waiting for us, the Zebra heliconians...

Zebra heliconian 20130917

...this male Julia heliconian...

Julia male 20130917

... the White Peacocks...

White Peacock 20130917

...and of course the Morning Glories.

Morning Glory 20130919