Owls In the Family… part two… Eastern Screech-owls

In 1974 I received my Master Personal Bird Banding Permit.  I chose to research the breeding biology of Eastern Screech-owls (EASO).  For the next 28 years I was knee-deep in Screech-owls.

I began organizing Screech-owl counts associated with the Wheeling, WV, Christmas Bird Counts.  Every year that we counted, we had the highest EASO number in North America.

Later I began a trapping program using bal-chatri traps.  Through this I learned much about the secretive EASOs and also about myself:  I developed an awareness of nature in a new and peaceful way.  I became accustomed to being outside alone in what some would call horrible, unwelcoming weather.  It showed me how absolutely wonderful it was to be comfortable in creation in all circumstances.  Nothing compares to the quiet of cold, cold temperatures, treacherous roads and early morning hours.  It’s a quiet that few ever experience.  While everyone else was in bed, I was alone, outside, learning to be in touch with the very essence of life. I would gaze into the starlit sky and think about how I fit into the universe.  Then a Screech-owl would arrive and I would think about trapping Screech-owls.

Screech owl (Otus asio) and white pine tree H

Eastern Screech-owl called out from hiding in the boughs of a white pine tree. (photo (c) Bill Beatty)

Thinking back on my EASO research, I believe the alone times trapping owls in the winter along remote gravel-dirt roads were my favorite times.  I remember one night in particular.  The night was cold, about 20 degrees, with 4 inches of snow on the ground.  The snow was fresh and still covered the branches of the trees and bushes.  Before going about my business of trapping an owl, my mind studied the patterns and images in the dark, snow-covered branches.  If I looked for mountains, I saw them.  Thinking of animals, I found distorted shapes of animals — perhaps a long snake with contrasting black and white stripes running the length of its body — maybe a small squirrel-shaped stub of broken branch with a massive tail composed of a thick tangle of snow-covered wild grape vines.  There were partial faces, some friendly, but most contorted and fearful, as if ravenously protecting the forest from all unwelcome intruders.  I  valued these alone times immensely.  If I had been with someone we would have talked about a multitude of things, not allowing my mind to pause and glory in the wonder of the universe.  So often while alone in wild places I never noticed the cold, wind, rain and other elements that keep most people in the superficial comfort and apparent safety of their homes, but I was always sharply aware of the marvels of Nature that surrounded me.

Shortly after I began trapping EASOs I discovered something quite amazing about these little owls.  The first few times I wanted to set a trap I would first make Screech-owl calls until I heard a response from a distant EASO.  Then I would put the trap in a visible spot off the edge of the road and continue to call as I hid behind the car.  Soon the owl came closer and onto the trap.

But soon I discovered that all my careful hiding and trying making the owl think no one was there was totally unnecessary.  I found I could just stand in the open when I called the owl in.  We could easily see each other.  Most of the time the owl perched on a tree branch and watched me as I set the trap just below.  Before I could even get back to the car I would hear a “THUMP” as the owl hit the trap.

Sometimes an EASO even hit the trap while it was still in my hands.  The first time that happened, the shock seemed to stop my heart.  The owls were much more interested in getting the food from the trap than they were worried about my presence.

In 1988 my approach to EASO studies changed significantly.  The West Virginia Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Divisions Non-game Program awarded me a grant which allowed me to study EASOs in nesting boxes.  With the money I  bought climbing equipment to make it possible for me to “easily” get up to the nesting boxes.  The state constructed 30 EASO nesting/roosting boxes per my specifications.  West Liberty State College granted me permission to mount boxes in their 154 acre arboretum and in a wooded area on campus.  I also placed boxes in the 14 acres behind my house.  Two years later I left my job at the Brooks Nature Center in Oglebay Park.  I had enjoyed  working there but I wanted to be in the field more and still make a living at what I loved.  Working at the Brooks Center, I had been limited to mostly night-time owl work.  Now I was able to spend daytime with the owls.  Although the surveys continued, most of the trapping ended.

Using the nest boxes, I was able to monitor the owls’ nests and behavior during breeding season and their roosting activities the rest of the year.  Without injuring or disturbing the owls, I was able to watch and photograph many details of EASO life.

female eastern screech owl (Otus asio) incubating eggs

Eastern Screech-owl incubating 5 eggs (photo (c) Bill Beatty)

egg 1day old

Eastern Screech-owl egg hatching and the same owl 24 hours later (photos (c) Bill Beatty)

5 two week old screech owls (Otus asio)

Two-week-old Eastern Screech-owls – one of these 5 owls is the owl hatching from the egg in the above photo, but I do not know which one (photo (c) Bill Beatty)

For many years I held a Federal Bird Rehabilitation Permit specifically for EASOs.  It allowed me legally to keep and work with injured EASOs until the time they could be released back into the wild.  Most adult injuries were car-related as the owls seem to be attracted to small mammals crossing roadways.  The adult owls were ferocious and capable of significant scratches from their thin, but sturdy, sharp talons.  To me, the worst injury was a talon under a fingernail or cuticle.  This was painful and healed slowly.  The baby owls also had attitude, but they didn’t have the strength or determination to back it up.

My children sometimes argued over who got to care for a young or injured owl.  My son, Josh, was too young to care for an owl by himself, so he sometimes helped me.  Julie and Kelly were old enough to be assigned the duties of feeding, exercising, and cleaning the cage of a particular owl, most often a young one.

easo nest box

Gray phase Eastern Screech-owl looking from an owl box and red phase Eastern Screech-owl ‘apparently’ sleeping/roosting in a nesting box. (photos (c) Bill Beatty)

One day I received a call from a lady in Washington, PA.  She had been walking in the early morning and saw something unusual which she described as, “A pure white pile of feathers that moved.”

Upon closer examination she saw it was a baby bird unlike any she had ever seen.  “It’s bigger, has tiny white feathers covering the body, and long claws on the toes,” she said.  I suggested it might be a baby owl.

Once she knew I had permits to keep owls until they could be released, she was happy to bring the bird to me.  It was a baby EASO.  Unlike most other birds, newly-hatched EASOs have feathers covering their tiny bodies.  Attempts to stand the little owl upright caused it to wobble back and forth, then lean to one side, and finally fall over.  I guessed it was two days old.  My family just adored this tiny baby.  All other owls we had kept had been much older by at least by a week.  (For baby birds, a week is a very long time.  They change and grow up very quickly.)  Everyone wanted to be part of this tiny one’s care, but I decided I would be its primary caregiver for the first week.  Even so, when I fed or did anything with the baby, the entire family was present.  Although the baby owl didn’t realize it, it had five doting parents.

I had always been adamant that we not name the owls we cared for because they would eventually be released.  This little guy was different.  Secretly, he came to be called, “Archie.”  When I first heard the whispered references to “Archie,” I scowled (a little) but said nothing.  Soon it was all out in the open and ARCHIE was a major topic of conversation.  Unlike the other owls we had cared for, Archie had strongly imprinted on our family, and three young members of our family were strongly imprinted on Archie.  After school, I could usually find my children lying on the floor surrounding the tiny feather ball, just watching and laughing, gently touching his soft feathers.

Archie liked having the top of his head lightly scratched, leaning in to get more.  But he didn’t like our hands anywhere near his toes and feet.  He would become wide-eyed, dance a bit, clack his beak, and backup, with a look that seemed to say, “I don’t like that.  You should know better!”  Foot sensitivity seems to be typical for owls — other owls we cared for had sometimes reacted hostilely when their feet were bothered, too.

Within 10 days of Archie’s arrival, he could easily have been mistaken for any other EASO his age if not for his uncharacteristic behavior.  The door of his cage in the house  was kept open and usually he would just sit on top of the cage.  It was decided that Julie, my oldest child, would be Archie’s main caretaker, with Kelly’s help when necessary.  Josh became the official Archie observer.  Soon it was commonplace to see Archie on Julie’s shoulder being chauffeured around the house and yard.  Archie spent more time in Julie’s bedroom than at his cage, and so did Kelly.   I often saw all three kids playing outside with Archie perched nearby on a picnic table, on a low branch of a cherry tree, or even on a bicycle handlebar.   Archie followed their every move as they played and ran around the yard.  One day when we were all outside with Archie on the ground among us, a cat ran in and went right for Archie.  All five of us lunged for the cat.  It finally managed to escape with only a bruise or two and some well-deserved reprimands.

Julie Kelly and Archie Jul 1987 at West Liberty

Julie and Kelly with Archie (photo (c) Bill Beatty)

We decided that Archie needed a safer place to stay while outside.  I attached a roomy wood duck box to a porch support that faced out into the yard.  The box was low enough to allow us to reach it, but high enough to keep daytime marauding cats and dogs at bay.  The box had a flat roof so Archie could either sit in the entry hole or stand on the roof top.  Most of the time, he sat in the opening contentedly watching the other birds, visitors, and family activities.

12-year-old girl with 2-week-old screech owl (Otus asio)

Kelly with Archie (photo (c) Bill Beatty)

Archie was fed commercially formulated food known as “predatory bird diet” for about 3 weeks.  Then I announced it was time to introduce him to live mice for food to help him be ready to feed himself when he learned to fly.  In a period of 24 hours, we discovered two shocking things about Archie.  When I placed him on the floor and put a live mouse in front of him, instead of intently watching the mouse, clawing at it, or  pouncing on it like other owls did, Archie became wide-eyed, turned, and ran to the nearest corner of the room.  There he remained, cowering.  Archie was afraid of mice!  After supper that same day, we took Archie into the backyard for a flying lesson, as was our standard procedure.  The usual method was to toss an owl gently into the air.  Our rehab owls would spread their wings and gracelessly glide a short distance to  land awkwardly in the soft grass.  After repeating this process several times a day for three or four days, the owls made great progress in learning to fly.  When Archie, on the other hand, was gently tossed into the air, he opened his wings, and, in a panic, flew straight into the ground.  After several more attempts resulted in nose-dives straight into the ground I thought, “Archie is afraid of heights.  Now what?” Now we knew we had an owl who was afraid of mice and afraid of heights.

7 year old boy with 2-week-old screech owl (Otus asio)

Josh with Archie (photo (c) Bill Beatty)

His vulnerability made this young owl all the more endearing.  Another discovery that really surprised me was the range of foods he would eat.  One evening during supper, Archie was perched on a nearby cage while we were busily eating and talking about the events of the day.  One of the kids accidentally dropped a piece of a beet on the floor.  Archie jumped from the cage, ran over, picked up the beet, and swallowed it.

Archie likes beets!” Kelly said excitedly.

All of a sudden another small piece of beet was on the floor and Archie ate it, too.  “That’s enough,” I reprimanded.  “He may eat beets, but that doesn’t mean they are good for him.”

“Well, if beets aren’t good for us, why do we have to eat them?” Josh asked, thinking he had found a chink in the family rule that everyone ate anything we grew in the garden.

“Archie is not an us,” I answered, but someone quickly rebuked me:  “Archie IS one of us!”

The beet incident sparked a discussion which brought up a point that everyone needed to remember:  Archie, like every other owl we had helped, would one day be released back into the wild.  That sobering truth calmed everyone and we resumed eating.  Later we discovered that Archie would also eat green beans and watermelon.

Unfortunately Archie was not making good progress toward becoming releasable.  We were quickly approaching the 90 day point at which time, according to my rehabilitation permit, “Any owl not rehabilitated within 90 days is to be destroyed.”

Did Archie fit into this category?  Well, Archie had never been injured, so he wasn’t being rehabilitated from some kind of injury that prevented him from surviving in the wild.  So did that sentence apply to him?   I had never believed in keeping owls as pets, so I knew he would eventually need to be released when he had learned the skills to survive.  I didn’t want my children to view Archie as a pet and be emotionally crushed when the time came to release him.  I thought of this dilemma daily as we continued his survival skill training.

After a time, Archie would eat a dead mouse if it was offered in pieces.  Of course, it was my job to slice up the mouse.  Eventually, he learned to tear a dead mouse apart by himself, but he still ran away at the sight of a live mouse.  One morning I made a unilateral decision concerning Archie’s hunting skills.  Each morning before work I  placed Archie outside in the wood duck box.  Most days when I returned, he was just as I left him, comfortably sitting peering from the box.  I decided that this day would be different.  It was time for Archie to learn to deal with living prey.  One of my live traps had captured a short-tailed shrew, so I put the shrew in the bottom of the outdoor box, pushed Archie inside, and nailed a square piece of paneling over the entrance.  I told my wife what I had done and then left for work.  When I returned home that evening and saw the box with the covered entry hole, I remembered that this was Archie’s living prey day.   I put my ear near the box and even tapped the box several times.  There was no sound at all.  I was a bit concerned as I pried out the nails to remove the board.  The instant I removed the cover, a feathered ball of orange shot from the box as if fired from a cannon — it was Archie.  I picked him up and lifted him so he could sit in the entry hole, but he kept jumping to the ground.  I was certain he had eaten the shrew, but when I opened the front of the box, the shrew was running around inside, alive and well.

In a shocking moment of enlightenment I thought, “What have I done?  I put this poor owl through eight hours of its worst nightmare.”  Imagining myself locked in a darkened room for eight hours with a black mamba snake, I regretted what I had done.  More than a week passed before Archie would go into that box again.

Archie never cooperated in our attempted flight training exercises, but eventually he did begin gliding from his box to the ground every day about dusk.  He didn’t seem to mind when Bev scooped him up and brought him inside for the night.  Then he began to leave his box during the day and someone would find him on a nearby tree branch.  Bev called me at work one day and asked, “Archie’s on the neighbor’s porch roof.  What should I do?”

I replied, “Get a ladder and get him down or keep an eye on him and I will get him when I come home.”

Soon I regularly heard, Dad, Archie’s up in the tree,” or “Dad, Archie’s on the roof.”  Each time, I would retrieve him and place him back in the box.  Even though Archie frequently left the comfort of his box for a nearby lofty perch, we never did see him fly.

One day when we were all home, Julie said, “Archie’s out of the box again but I can’t see where he went.”  We all went out to search for him.  Finally, he was spotted high up in an 80-foot Norway spruce tree.

Kelly asked, “How are we going to get him down from there?”

“We aren’t,” I answered.  “He’s on his own.  We are going to have to say our goodbyes from here.”

Josh reacted by crying and yelling in despair over losing his companion.  We all were sad but had to accept the situation.  We were also glad, knowing that he was fulfilling the purpose for which he was created.  He had been with us for two years.  That was the last we would see of Archie.

Except, maybe, for me.  One day while checking owl boxes in the 14-acre woods, I was climbing a tree when a red phase EASO popped its head out and looked at me.

“That’s odd,” I thought, “That’s never happened before.”

Never before had an owl inside the box peered out at me.  As I climbed closer, the owl looked out at me again, then nervously looked around and flew out.  This happened one other time at a different box in the same woods.  Although I couldn’t be one hundred percent sure this owl was Archie, I thought, “Of course, it’s Archie.  He’s always been different.  He’s his own owl.”  I was able to reassure the family that Archie was alive and well, hunting and surviving on his own.

EASOs

Eastern Screech Owls (photos (c) Bill Beatty)

I studied these interesting and secretive birds for 28 years.  I learned many things about them and ended up with more questions to wonder about .  Now I monitor two nest boxes, occasionally do EASO surveys, and very rarely trap an EASO.  Eastern Screech-owls are my favorite bird.

In 2010 Jan and I did a Christmas Bird Count survey from midnight to dawn and found 27 EASOs in part of the count area.  In 2014 we were able to band our first EASO from one of the two nest boxes on our property and Jan was able to experience first-hand the amazingly soft feathers and the feeling of sharpened pins from the talons of an Eastern Screech-owl.

Eastern Screech-owl

Jan holding her first ever Eastern Screech-owl (photo (c) Bill Beatty)

North Bend State Park’s Winter Wonder Weekend… January 19-21, 2018

Special Fun for people who love Birds of Prey!!!

Join Jan and me for a fun-filled weekend of programs, hikes, activities and field trips.

North Bend State Park’s Winter Wonder Weekend is a wonderful tradition and a great way to have fun.  There are loads of indoor and outdoor activities for all ages to choose from.  The staff at North Bend always shows amazing creativity with decorations and activities related to their theme – I’m sure this year will be just as wonderful.  This year’s theme is the 1960’s:   Have a Blast from the Past.

Friday evening I will present the program, “The Sixties in West Virginia – A Blast from the Past“.

the sixties

My Sixties program will cover everything from “Zeke from Cabin Creek” (Jerry West) and wilderness in West Virginia to The Beatles (of course) – and so much more.  I bet you didn’t know……….

The presentation will be followed by an ice cream social by the fireplace and a performance by Stepping Stone Band…music to sing along with or even dance to.  The final Friday night activity will be a winter-night walk led by Jan and me.  We may even try to call in some owls and admire the brilliant constellations in that very dark area.

pho_ice_cream_sundae

Make your own sundae

 

owls

Left to right – Eastern Screech-owl, Barred Owl and Great Horned Owl (Eastern Screech-owl and Great Horned Owl photos (c) Bill Beatty – Barred Owl photo (c) Grant Hickey)

 

stepping stone band

Stepping Stone Band

This is a sample of the music from the Stepping Stone Band –   Jan and I always marvel at their talent.  “Our” music comes alive and we can’t help but dance.

During the day on Saturday, there are indoor and outdoor options in the park and at nearby locations…always something fun for  everyone.

Part of Saturday’s program will be presented by Wendy and Ron Perrone of the Three Rivers Avian Centerhttp://www.tracwv.org/

raptors

American Bald Eagle and Red-tailed Hawks, two of several raptors that will be part of the Three Rivers program.  (Photos courtesy of the Three Rivers Avian Center)

Programs on Sunday conclude the weekend.

This is something Jan and I always look forward to and would love to share with our friends.

Weekend description, prices and registration form: http://www.wvdnr.gov/Winter_Wonder_Brochure_2018.pdf

The Allegheny Front Migration Observatory (AFMO), Hiking, Wildflowers and More on Dolly Sods – late September, 2017

The AFMO has been operating each fall since 1958 and is the oldest continuously operating bird banding station in North America.  I have been visiting this bird banding station since 1972 and volunteering since 2004.  Jan has volunteered since 2007, the year she retired. We are both federally licensed bird banders, but at AFMO we volunteer as net-tenders removing birds from the 30 mist nets used for trapping migratory birds. The AFMO is located along the Allegheny Front (eastern continental divide) near the Red Creek Campground on Dolly Sods. Most of Dolly Sods is federally designated as Wilderness Area comprising 32,000 acres. The banding station is in the Dolly Sods Scenic Area.

Dolly Sods Wilderness fall scenic

Dolly Sods looking south from Castle Rock with the Allegheny Front to the left. (photo (c) Bill Beatty)

signs

photos (c) Jan Runyan

In late September this year, we spent 15 days on Dolly Sods working at the AFMO.  We stayed at Red Creek Campground.  Our days began at 5 a.m. when it was still dark.  Before 6, we walked to the AFMO to help open the mist nets at 6:15 a.m.  The thrushes began hitting the nets while it was still dark and we usually needed headlamps to take  them from the nets.

thrushes

Left – Gray-cheeked Thrush just banded;  right – Jan releasing a reluctant Swainson’s Thrush (photos (c) Bill Beatty)

Sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish a Gray-cheeked Thrush from a Swainson’s Thrush.  Having them side-by-side makes the differences easier to see.

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Left – Gray-cheeked Thrush;  right – Swainson’s Thrush (photo (c) Jan Runyan)

We also caught other thrushes:  Wood Thrush, Hermit Thrush and Veery.

veery

Veery (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

Being on the Allegheny Front, looking east toward the ridge-and-valley area and the piedmont, the views from the AFMO are spectacular. Each sunrise (or sometimes just sky-lightening) is different.

scenic 2

Dolly Sods sunrises (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

The following video is from the AFMO.  We see something similar almost every morning. (video (c) Jan Runyan)

 

During and after the sunrise we begin to catch other kinds of birds, especially warblers.

cape-may

Black-throated Green Warbler (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

palm warbler

Palm Warbler (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

black-and-white

Black-and-white Warbler (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

Sometimes we catch a bird that is uncommon at the AFMO and everyone stops what they are doing to get a good look. That was the case this year with this Mourning Warbler.  It was only the 34th of its kind banded at the AFMO since 1958.

mourning

Mourning Warbler (photos (c) Bill Beatty)

Many of the warblers we band are referred to as ‘confusing’ fall warblers due to the drastic color and pattern differences from their spring plumage.  This Chestnut-sided Warbler showed no signs of the beautiful chestnut colors it had during the spring, however the golden crown is a good indicator for identifying this species in the fall.

chest-nut-sided

Chestnut-sided Warbler (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

And this Hooded Warbler showed little or no indication of the black hood it will have when it wears its breeding plumage next spring.

hooded 1

Hooded Warbler (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

hooded 2

Hooded Warbler (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

Sometimes identification comes down to the color of the soles of the feet or of the lower bill.

IMG_3805

Cape May Warbler (photo (c) Jan Runyan)

One of the things the banders record is the age of each bird that’s banded.  Among other things, they examine the wear, molt limits and colors of the feathers.

molt limits

photos (c) Jan Runyan

Occasionally there is a bird who is so young that some of his feathers are still emerging from their sheaths.  Still, he is already in the middle of his migration flight.

IMG_3837

photo (c) Jan Runyan

After sunrise there is often fog or mist in the valleys or rising from them. (video (c) Jan Runyan)

 

Each day after the birds were done with their morning feeding flight, we helped furl the nets to keep them safe and out of the way until the next day when net-tenders would be back to monitor them.  The station is usually closed by noon each day which gave Jan and me time to see many of the other wonders of Dolly Sods and other nearby areas.  One of the hikes I led was on the Bog-to-Bog Loop Trail with Jan and two friends.

bog to bog 1

Left – In the Red Spruce woods adjacent to the the west side of the Alder Run Bog dog-leg;  right – eating lunch in the Red Pine plantation near the High Mountain Meadow. (left photo (c) Bill Beatty, right photo (c) Jan Runyan)

bog to bog 2

Left – Fisher Springs Run Bog in background;  right – a Christmas-in-September Red Spruce surrounded by Black Chokeberry shrubs. (left photo (c) Jan Runyan, right photo (c) Bill Beatty)

During our 15 days we were fortunate to see three species of gentian in full bloom including the rare Fringed Gentian (found only in one place in West Virginia).

gentian

Left to right – Narrow-leaved Gentian, Bottle Gentian and Fringed Gentian (photos (c) Bill Beatty)

Due to the dry conditions most wildflowers were in poor condition, but those associated with wetlands seemed unaffected by the lack of rain.

plants 3

Left to right – Nodding Ladies’ Tresses, Black Knapweed and Orange Hawkweed (photos (c) Bill Beatty)

 

plants 1

Left – Round-leaved Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia);  right – a mosquito trapped on a fleshy Sundew leaf (photos (c) Bill Beatty)

plants 2

Oblong-leaved Sundew (Drosera intermedia) (photos (c) Bill Beatty)

One afternoon we went to the beaver dam along Forest Service Road 75 just south of Bear Rocks Nature Preserve to photograph the beavers.  Fortunately on this particular day the beavers  were quite cooperative.

beaver 1

Left photo (c) Jan Runyan;  right photo (c) Bill Beatty

The following three videos show just how much fun we had watching the beavers. (all three videos (c) Jan Runyan)

 

 

 

The AFMO can be a busy place.  Sometimes groups from schools or other organizations visit.  Some individuals who know about the banding station stop by to see the birds, the scenery, and familiar faces.  Sometimes people just happen upon the banding operation by following the well-traveled trail east of the Blackbird Knob Trail parking lot.

groups 1

Left – LeJay talking to a group from the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy;  right – Carol showing a bird to a school group (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

groups 2

Bill showing a school group how the birds are captured at the demo mist net. (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

groups 4

Left – One of four groups from Marshall County Schools that visited the AFMO;  right – other visitors not with any organized group. (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

Giving people their first personal contact with birds is magical.  Young (and old) lives can be changed for all time.

groups 3

Jan putting a Ruby-throated Hummingbird in this young girl’s hand (photos (c) Bill Beatty)

chip

Left – Chip about to release a tiny Ruby-crowned Kinglet;  right – Jackie holding a bird against a young lady’s ear so she can hear the heartbeat. (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

jan lauren

Left – Jan with a Black-throated Blue Warbler;  right – Lauren with a Common Yellowthroat (left photo (c) Bill Beatty, right photo (c) Jan Runyan)

april jenny

Left – Apryl releasing a Swainson’s Thrush;  right – Jenny and Bill with one of her very favorite birds, a Mourning Warbler (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

33 IMG_3910

Girl releasing a Black-throated Green Warbler (photo (c) Jan Runyan)

Birds are not the only animals visiting the AFMO.

other animals

Clockwise from top left – Red-spotted Purple Butterfly, Steve with a Smooth Green Snake, and Green Darner Dragonfly (photos (c) Jan Runyan

On our second Saturday on Dolly Sods, after banding I led a 5 mile hike on some well-known and lesser-known Dolly Sods Wilderness trails.

hike 1

In the beginning at “the Rock” and hiking cross-country between Alder Run and Red Creek (photos (c) Bill Beatty)

hike 2

Crossing Red Creek and hiking cross-country on the NE side of Blackbird Knob (photos (c) Bill Beatty)

hike3

Left – Time for lunch and rest;  right – play time at the confluence of Alder Run and Red Creek (photos (c) Bill Beatty)

hike 4

Hiking upstream along Alder Run and crossing the Beatty Labyrinth rock field (photos (c) Bill Beatty)

9 hike IMG_3968

The end…the Rock where it all began (photo (c) Jan Runyan)

For two days while we were at the AFMO a tick researcher studying the occurrence of Lyme’s disease was taking ticks from around the eyes and mouth of birds that nest on or near the ground.  She was also taking blood samples.

tick 1

Amanda explaining her tick research to Bill and removing a tick from a Swainson’s Thrush (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

tick 2

Wetting the underside of the wing to make the vein more visible and piercing the vein (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

tick 3

Taking blood and then applying an anticoagulant (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

Each and every morning the bird banding research continued.

banding 1

photos (c) Jan Runyan

banding 2

photos (c) Jan Runyan

More and more birds were caught, removed from the mist nets, and taken to the ‘gurus’ in the banding shed.

BBWA BLBW

Bay-breasted Warbler (left) and Blackburnian Warbler (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

black-throated blues

Female (left) and male Black-throated Blue Warblers (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

OVEN AMRE

Ovenbird (left) and American Redstart (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

REVI PHVI1

Philadelphia Vireo (left) and Red-eyed Vireo (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

REVI eyes

Left – The reddish iris indicates this Red-eyed Vireo is an adult;  right – the brown iris indicates this Red-eyed Vireo was born this year. (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

SASP SWSP LISP

From left – Savanah Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow and Lincoln’s Sparrow (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

One day after banding was done, Jan and I decided to check the out-and-back Old Growth Forest Trail to see if we could make it into a loop trail.  Anytime we are on this short trail we are mesmerized by the variety of habitats and the beauty, especially of the mosses and the mature oaks at the end of the trail.  The magic of the Morning Star (the planet Venus) early that morning had seemed to be a good omen of how wonderful the day would be.

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Left – Venus, the Morning Star;  right – Jan beginning our hike on the little known Old Growth Forest Trail (left photo (c) Jan Runyan, right photo (c) Bill Beatty)

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Left – the verdant Old Growth Forest Trail;  right – Jan looking closely at a Red Spruce nursery (left photo (c) Jan Runyan and right photo (c) Bill Beatty)

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Bill found this Hen-of-the-woods fungus and took it back to the campground where our good friends and campground neighbors turned it into a delicious meal (which they shared with us). (left photo (c) Jan Runyan,  right photo (c) Bill Beatty)

We never did find a way to turn the out-and-back trail into a loop trail, but we had a great time trying.

One day we caught a bird with a bewildering difference.  A male Black-throated Blue Warbler had a red plastic band on his leg.  Researchers often use various colored plastic bands during research like nesting site studies so they can spot specific individual birds by sight.  But we were baffled because this bird did not also have a numbered metal band which would identify the bander and location.  That day’s AFMO bander put one of his numbered metal bands on the bird and made note of this anomaly in his records.

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Left – the Black-throated Blue Warbler arrived at AFMO with just a plastic band;  right – the warbler left AFMO with the additional aluminum numbered band (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

Always special at the AFMO are the larger and unusual birds, especially raptors.  There were two hawks caught while we were there.

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Station Manager Jeff with an adult Sharp-shinned Hawk.  Notice the red iris and orange-brown horizontal bars on the breast. (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

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Station Manager Shelia with a young Sharp-shinned Hawk.  Notice the yellow iris and brown vertical barring on breast. (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

Each year, for many years, I have spent 1 to 3 months on Dolly Sods taking photos, leading wilderness hikes and volunteering at the AFMO.  Each time I leave I feel as if I’m leaving a wonderful dear friend…sad to leave but so glad to have been there.  What a wonderful place!

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Two of the many moods of our friend, Dolly Sods.

A Grandkid Discovers the Nature of Dolly Sods

When each of our grandchildren reaches eight years old Jan and I take them on an eight day Dolly Sods Wilderness adventure.  This was Lila’s year.  Below are a few highlights.

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The only site open at the Red Creek Campground was No. 1 so we settled in for our stay.  Lila helped me install our solar panels so we could have power for charging camera batteries and using the computer for transferring photos. (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

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The next day, after filling water bottles at the spring, we hiked Northland Loop Trail and looked closely at the insectivorous plants along the Alder Run Bog boardwalk.  (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

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Left – Spatulate-leaved Sundew (not native, but showing up in several bogs in West Virginia); Right – West Virginia’s native Round-leaved Sundew.  Fortunately the habitat requirements are different enough to allow both of these insect-eating plants to thrive together in the same bogs. (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

Round-leaved Sundew pad with trapped cranefly.  (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

Jan and I always start with easier hikes for the grandchildren when we take them on their Dolly Sods adventure.  After the Northland Loop trail and lunch we hiked part of the Allegheny Front Vista Trail.  This trail is full of scenic overlooks and interesting rock formations.

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All along the Dolly Sods road we saw spectacular wildflowers.

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Turks Cap Lily  (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

On day two we did a more physical hike beginning at Bear Rocks and continuing out to Stack Rocks.

WV Nature Conservancy Bear Rocks Nature Preserve in the Dolly So

The Bear Rocks escarpment (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

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Jan and Lila on Pancake Rock (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

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Lila and Pap/Bill on the escarpment (Photo (c) Jan Runyan)

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Continuing to Stack Rocks (in background)  (Photo (c) Jan Runyan)

The next day one of the trails we hiked was the Rohrbaugh Plains Trail.

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Lila and Jan ready for another hike (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

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Hiking the Red Spruce/Rhododendron section of the Rohrbaugh, Lila found a snail and hummed it from its shell (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

Because of the moist summer, there were many colorful mushrooms and other fungi along most of the trails we hiked during the week.

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Left to right – American Caesar and Chanterelle mushrooms (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

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Left to right – Crowded Parchment, Chicken of the Woods and Artist’s Conk (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

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Left to right – Fly Amanita and Bleeding Mycena mushrooms (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

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Left to right – Turkey Tail and Violet Toothed Polypore fungi (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

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Left to right – Orange Mycena and Yellow Fairy Cup fungi (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

Besides our days on Dolly Sods we also took trips off the mountain to explore Canaan Valley and other nearby areas.  Canaan Loop Road offered a wide variety and abundance of wildflowers.

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Black-eyed Susans  (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

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Bee Balm  (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

On our last full day on Dolly Sods we hiked the Beatty Labyrinth.  We saw and heard many fascinating creatures.  Jan and I were surprised that we heard Hermit Thrushes (my favorite bird song) singing every day…every where.

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Hermit Thrush  (Photo (c) Laura Meyers)

Song of the Hermit Thrush –

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At the pond at the bottom of Blackbird Knob Trail we caught a Red-spotted Newt.  (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

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Lila along Alder Run Bog Run and crossing the rock field on the Beatty Labyrinth.  (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

Sadly, this was our 4th and last grandchild trip to Dolly Sods.  Luckily, however, one of our grandkids has asked if he could return to the wilderness with us and do some more hiking.  We are already thinking about Dolly Sods with him next year.

Great Birds, Wonderful People and Beautiful Weather at the 2017 Canaan Valley Birding Festival

DAY ONE:  Jan and I led an all-day birding trip along the 11 mile Stuart Memorial Drive (a.k.a. Bickle Knob/Bear Heaven) in the Monongehela National Forest.  We began along the Shavers Fork River (elevation 2240 ft.) and continued upward through mature deciduous forests, younger forests with shrubby undergrowth and meadows/farm fields with many wood edges.  At the top (Bickle Knob…elevation 4003 ft.) we were surprised to find six different singing male Mourning Warblers.  We all had a great view of one of the birds.

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Birding along the Stuart Memorial Drive  (all photos (c) Jan Runyan)

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Happy birders on the Bickle Knob Fire Tower Observation Platform  (photo (c) Bill Beatty)

We even got photos of a few of the beautiful birds we were fortunate enough to see.

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Left to right:  Eastern Towhee, Indigo Bunting and Rose-breasted Grosbeak  (first two photos (c) Jan Runyan, right photo (c) Bill Beatty)

We continued our journey occasionally encountering coniferous habitats, stopping often trying to spot singing birds.  All along the route we heard male Scarlet Tanagers singing their territorial songs.

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Scanning the trees for birds…male Scarlet Tanager  (both photos (c) Jan Runyan)

DAY TWO:  Another all day tour, this time to the Olsen Fire Tower area and Fernow Experimental Forest.  Our first stop was near Olsen Fire Tower.  It was difficult to see the singing Canada Warbler, American Redstart and Veery.  And although we didn’t see the Veery, it began singing its ethereal song loudly from a nearby hidden location.  Click the following link to hear this beautiful song:

 

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Left to right:  listening to the Veery…one of our group climbed just high enough to get a fantastic 360 degree view from Olsen Fire Tower…chasing birds at Mill Race Park in Parsons  (all photos (c) Jan Runyan)

After a lunch stop with lots of birds at Mill Race Park in Parsons, we birded the road on the way to Fernow Experimental Forest.  We didn’t have time to explore all the different habitats at Fernow, but we were treated to a wonderful look at a singing Mourning Warbler at eye-height, just a few yards away.

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Left to right:  Listening to a Hooded Warbler and American Redstart and hoping to get a good look at one of these bird…one of our group at the “Rose-breasted Grosbeak site” at the top of the Fernow Forest Road…the group looking at a Mourning Warbler  (all photos (c) Jan Runyan)

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The singing Mourning Warbler in Fernow (photo (c) Jan Runyan)

That evening I presented the keynote program, telling personal stories from my book, Rainbows, Bluebirds and Buffleheads.

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I ended the program with two stories about Pileated Woodpeckers  (photo (c) Jan Runyan)

DAY THREE: Jan and I led a 1/2 day tour in Canaan Valley called “From Floor to Ceiling” beginning along  Freeland Road at 3220 ft. and ending at the top of Forest Service Road 80 near the Dolly Sods Wilderness at 4000+ ft.

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The Freeland Boardwalk in the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge  (both photos (c) Jan Runyan)

I have been on this boardwalk dozens of times, but this morning was special.  Willow and Alder Flycatchers were singing constantly from all directions as we slowly made our way along the trail.  What a treat — their singing made it possible to tell what each of these look-alike birds was.

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Left, Willow Flycatcher…right, Alder Flycatcher  (both photos (c) Jan Runyan)

We also watched a Swamp Sparrow singing from a nearby shrub for a very long time.

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Swamp Sparrow  (photo (c) Jan Runyan)

See and listen to the following video of the Swamp Sparrow we saw and heard, with a Willow Flycatcher singing in the background, at the Freeland Road boardwalk.  (video (c) Jan Runyan)

 

 

This Yellow Warbler posed on a Balsam Fir tree for everyone to see and photograph.

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Yellow Warbler  (photo (c) Jan Runyan)

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We were surprised and delighted to find these Pink Lady Slippers still blooming in the valley  (photo (c) Jan Runyan)

The video below ( copyright Jan Runyan) shows how this wetland is a great example of “perched water”:  groundwater supported by a zone of material of low permeability located above an underlying main body of groundwater with which it is not hydrostatically connected.

 

We made several stops on our way to the top of the mountain and compared the difference in the kinds of birds we encountered based on habitat and elevation.

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This stop was to compare the wood edges and open meadows with the wetlands we had just left  (photo (c) Jan Runyan)

At the top of the mountain we found Magnolia Warblers, Dark-eyed Juncos, Hermit Thrushes and a Brown Creeper.

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Dark-eyed Junco (Northern race of the sub-species, Slate-colored Junco)… soon after this photo was taken we watched this bird feeding one of its young recently out of the nest  (photo (c) Jan Runyan)

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Listening to the Hermit Thrush…scanning the trees for a Magnolia Warbler that was singing its alternate song  (both photos (c) Jan Runyan)

The Hermit Thrush song is my favorite and all of us took the time to be still and listen to the beautiful music.  Click on the following link to hear the song:

 

Two of the birders opened the back of their car to offer us a spread of blueberries, red raspberries and blackberries and as we were standing there eating, a Brown Creeper sang its lovely song several times.  It was the only time this bird was encountered on any trip during this year’s Canaan Valley Birding Festival.  Click the link below to hear the beautiful airy song of the Brown Creeper.  https://download.ams.birds.cornell.edu/api/v1/asset/508341?__hstc=226533890.0540c3cdd0d4d15ded888b41495ced28.1496720896681.1496720896681.1496720896681.1&__hssc=226533890.1.1496720896681&__hsfp=4162655610

It was a beautifully fitting end to a great weekend of terrific birding with wonderful people in the West Virginia mountains.

Owls In the Family…Great Horned Owls

My first full-time job was as the Interpretive Naturalist at the Brooks Nature Center in Oglebay Park, Wheeling, West Virginia.  Many nature-related duties were required of me, but one job I took on that wasn’t required was raptor rehabilitation.  When someone brought in a hawk or owl that was ill or injured, I couldn’t help myself–I had to see what I could do to make the bird whole again.  I often had birds at work and at home in cages being rehabilitated from dehydration, gunshots, car encounters or other mishaps.

Great Horned Owls became my favorites perhaps because of their demeanor… always aggressive.   At the top of their food chain, they are the very powerful kings of the bird world.   I always had a great appreciation for their value in controlling rabies by preying on skunks.  I had an overwhelming desire to help these injured birds, but little knowledge and few tools to accomplish my goal–but I did my best.  Over time I learned much from visits to local veterinarians who often volunteered their expertise and time to help one of ‘my’ birds and to teach me some ways I could be a better rehabilitator.

One day I was working with a Great Horned Owl that had been shot through the foot by a hunter.  (Side bar: even though I occasionally received a bird apparently shot by an uncaring hunter, those same birds were always brought in by some other caring hunter who wanted to help it.)  As I worked, several men came into the nature center’s exhibit hall which also served as my rehabilitation facility.  One of the men noticed the owl and came right over.  Soon he was explaining and showing me things I could do to help the bird.  Right away I could tell he knew what he was talking about and I was very appreciative.  He introduced himself as Ron Austing.   I realized then how fortunate I was, knowing that he was one of the world’s best-known nature photographers, specializing in pictures of owls and falcons hunting their prey.  Soon I was asking all kinds of questions about owls and photography (this was about 20 years before I became a professional nature photographer).  Mr. Austing was very gracious and we talked for a very long time.

Great Horned Owl (c) Bill Beatty

A Great Horned Owl was the only animal that hurt me to the point that I had to go to the hospital – this story and many others are in my book, “Rainbows, Bluebirds and Buffleheads” (  https://wvbirder.wordpress.com/2016/08/06/rainbows-bluebirds-and-buffleheads/   )

I often used rehab or live-animal exhibit birds in my teaching at the Nature Center or at other venues.  One day I received a call from a teacher in Steubenville, OH.  She wanted me to visit her classroom to do a program about owls, including, if possible, bringing a live owl.  The Good Zoo at Oglebay Park had a Great Horned Owl being rehabilitated so I made plans to borrow it.  The day before my owl program, I put a cage and my owl gloves in the back of my car and drove to the Zoo.  The owl was alert and showed no signs of its previous injuries.  It was a very healthy specimen and seemed to have even more of an “attitude” than most Great Horned Owls.  I put on the gloves, grabbed the owl’s legs and transferred it into my cage.

The young lady helping me wondered where I got my owl gloves.  I told her they were specially made.  I bought them locally, had them reinforced with heavier leather and added the arm extensions myself.  They were designed to work specifically with Great Horned Owls.

“Do you think I could borrow them?” she asked.  “They would make my job so much easier with some of the animals we have to deal with today.”

“You can use them, but I have to have them back before the end of the day.  I have to work with this owl at a school tomorrow morning,” I answered.

She was very appreciative and promised to return them at day’s end.  At four o’clock when the Zoo closed, I began wondering about the gloves, but thought she still might deliver them before we closed at five o’clock.  At four thirty I phoned the Zoo but there was no answer.  I even drove over, only to find the doors locked and no one there.

Before I had created those owl gloves, I had used shorter, heavy-duty leather work gloves and still had several pairs, so I wasn’t too worried about not getting the owl gloves back.

At home I showed my kids the owl in its cage.  They gawked and watched the owl huffing and puffing, while bobbing and slowly moving from side-to-side.  My son, Josh, reached to touch the cage and the owl lunged toward him grabbing the thick screening on front with its talons.  All three kids fell backwards and stared at the owl with wide eyes.

“Don’t get too close,” I said, “Great Horned Owls are very powerful birds.”  After my children went back to playing I thought, “This owl could be a handful tomorrow morning at the school.  I better make sure I can adequately handle it with the shorter gloves.”  I was thinking about several years before when a Great Horned Owl I was working with held onto my hand so tightly that I couldn’t get if off.  After a while the bird on my hand seemed to get heavier and heavier and my arm had dropped lower and lower.  As my arm sank, the owl had slowly walked onto my wrist, up my arm and onto my shoulder.  Since that owl was used to being held and the trail of puncture wounds up my arm had been shallow, I hadn’t panicked.  I had been at the Nature Center at the time, so I had finally been able to get help removing the owl.  If the same thing were to happen  in front of a group of school children, it wouldn’t be good at all.

I put on the leather work gloves.  They looked so scanty compared to the gloves I had become accustomed to using.  I was reminded of information that I taught in my programs–owls have 200 to 300 pounds per square inch of crushing power in their talons.  An average adult human male has about 60 pounds per square inch in his hands.

When I opened the top of the cage to reach in, the owl was in a typical defensive position:  on its back with legs and sharply-taloned toes reaching for me.  It was prepared to defend itself.  If the owl grabbed a glove, it would take a while to unwrap those talons after I was holding its legs.  Wanting to avoid this, I just reached quickly for the legs as I had done before.  Something went terribly wrong–this time I was too slow.  And worse yet, the gloves were not thick enough.   One of the talons went through the glove and deep into my hand.  Even without being able to see my hand, I could tell the damage was substantial because of the intense pain.  Trying to keep the owl still only disturbed it more and it squeezed tighter sending even more pain through my hand.

“Now what?” I thought. “There is no easy way out of this!”

I managed to get the owl out of the cage and lying against the ground.  Right then, around the corner of the house, came Richard, a photographer friend.

“Richard!” I called, “I need help!  I have a talon in my hand!”

Richard smiled and answered, “Okay, but let me take a few pictures first!”

And he did take pictures…many pictures!

Finally Richard asked what he could do to help me.  I directed him to put on leather work gloves and take tight hold of the owl’s legs.  I took the glove off my good hand so I could feel my way through what I was about to do.  With my thumb and pointer finger I grabbed the talon and took a deep breath.  The talon was almost two inches long and curved, making it very difficult to pull straight out.  As I pulled as hard as I could on the talon, it scrapped the inside of my hand its entire length, but, finally, it was out.   I took the glove off.  The talon had gone all the way through my hand.  It had entered my hand between my middle and ring finger and had come out between the knuckles.

“Richard, I can’t believe you showed up when you did!” I said.  “I wouldn’t have known what to do.”

Richard responded, “It was perfect timing. I think I got some great photos!”

Even though the wound went all the way through my hand, there was little bleeding.  I washed my hand and put a band aid on each side.

When I awoke the next morning my wound didn’t look bad and there was hardly any pain so I went to the school with the owl.  This time I didn’t want to take any chances so I wore two pairs of thick leather gloves.  The program was a huge success even though the owl was quite rambunctious,  bobbing its head and looking from kid to kid as he refocused his eyes.  The kids were amazed.  That afternoon I delivered the owl back to the Zoo and retrieved my gloves.  The young lady who had borrowed the gloves had forgotten to deliver them to me and was very apologetic.  I didn’t tell her what had happened.

Back at the Nature Center I told my secretary, Dot, about my bad owl experience.

She asked, “Did you go to the doctor?”

“No,” I replied, “I’m fine now.”

When I was growing up, my grandmother was always the one who took care of all kinds of medical conditions that, for some folks, might have required a doctor, including delivering an occasional baby.  The only time I ever went to a doctor was for broken bones and for a nail through my foot.  My present injury seemed fine now so I hadn’t even considered medical help.  When Dot went to Oglebay Institute’s Administrative Offices to get the mail that afternoon she talked to others about my run-in with the owl.  Shortly after she returned I received a call from the head of the Institute.

“I want you to go to the hospital…now!” he said, “If you don’t go today and there are any future complications, they will not be covered under workman’s comp.”   So I agreed to go.

At the emergency room I told the nurse about the owl putting a talon through my hand.  She furrowed her brow and asked, “An owl?  You did say an owl, didn’t you?”

She was even more shocked when she asked about my insurance carrier and I answered, “It’s covered under workman’s comp.”

“You’re serious aren’t you?” she remarked.

“Yes I am.”

Soon a doctor pushed aside the curtain of my examining area, looked at my chart, glanced at me and then went back out.  I could hear him say, “You aren’t going to believe this!  I got a guy in here who says he has a puncture wound all the way through his hand from an owl!”

This seemed to cause a bit of a stir.

I thought, “It’s not as if I were in gun battle on the street or had crowbar through my skull.  It’s a little hole through my hand and hardly noticeable.”

Then I heard the doctor say, “And he also says it’s covered under workman’s comp!” which caused an even bigger commotion.

Someone said, “You know, we should call that guy at the Nature Center to see if an owl could even do that.”

I raised my voice and called out, “I AM that guy!

Without further discussion they treated me and sent me on my way.

 

Allegheny Front Migration Observatory (AFMO) on Dolly Sods – 2016

I have been visiting this bird banding station since 1972 and volunteering since 2004.  Jan has volunteered since 2007, the year she retired.  We are both federally licensed bird banders, but volunteer as net tenders removing birds from the 30 mist nets used for trapping migratory birds.  The AFMO is located along the Allegheny Front near the Red Creek Campground on Dolly Sods.  Most of Dolly Sods is federally designated wilderness comprising 32,000 acres.  The banding station is in the Dolly Sods Scenic Area.

In late September this year, we spent two weeks on Dolly Sods working at the AFMO.  At the banding station our days begin  at 6 am when it is still dark.  Being on the Allegheny Front, looking east toward the ridge-and-valley and the piedmont, the views from the AFMO are spectacular.  Each sunrise (or sometimes just sky-lightening) is different.  Click on photos to enlarge… use back button to return to blog.

Dolly Sods sunrises (c) Bill Beatty and Jan Runyan

Views from along the Allegheny Front at the AFMO. (c) Jan Runyan

Right away we are busy removing birds from the nets.  The earliest birds are mostly thrushes:  Swainson’s, Gray-cheeked, Hermit, Wood and Veerys.  It is usually still dark and head lamps are necessary.  Some of the other net tenders are also back-up banders.  If the day gets busy, they start banding, too, so that the birds are on their way as soon as possible. As the morning progresses we are mesmerized by the birds as well as the sunrise and other scenery.

Busy removing birds from the mist nets (c) Jan Runyan and Bill Beatty

Each bird is put into a separate brown paper lunch-sized bag.  Those small bags are collected in grocery store bags with handles.  Then they are taken to the banding shed where all the banding takes place.

Left – AFMO volunteers… and Right – some visitors observing and learning about birds and banding (c) Jan Runyan

All of the people who work at the station are highly trained volunteers who apprenticed at the station and return year after year to work.  They pay for their own training, equipment (except bands) and travel expenses.  Some help at the station for one or two weeks during the month and a half it is open (mid-August to early October) and several stay for almost the whole time.  The AFMO is funded completely by donations.

Visitors are always welcome and if the day is not too busy, we can teach about birds, bird banding and the science behind what we do.

Left to right – Banders checking a Lincoln’s Sparrow, Blue-headed Vireo and boy being handed an Ovenbird for release. (c) Jan Runyan

Most of the birds we catch are warblers (“fairly small, vocal, insectivorous, perching songbirds which vary widely in color and pattern”).   Some days we capture many hundreds; other days only a few.  The banding is weather dependent.  We do not open the station on rainy, foggy or very windy days.  Most birds are caught in the early morning hours, often before 10 am.  The banding is over by noon except on very busy days.  On October 26 of this year we caught and banded 829 birds and the banding (3 banders with several helpers) continued until 2:30.

Left to right… Connecticut Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Nashville Warbler and Hooded Warbler (c) Jan Runyan

On days with few birds the station closes earlier and we are able to take more time to appreciate Dolly Sods’ scenic beauty.  On slow days I often hike and sometimes Jan joins me.

Left to right… view from the AFMO and red spruce forest along the Bog to Bog Trail. (c) Jan Runyan

One day I led a group on a 4.7 mile wilderness hike for some friends. We traversed part of the Beatty Labyrinth, Alder Run Bog, several red spruce forests, a CCC red pine plantation, a high mountain meadow and Fisher Spring Run Bog.  Much of the hike involved bushwhacking into beautiful areas most hikers on Dolly Sods never see.

The wilderness hike and the Wilderness (c) Bill Beatty and Jan Runyan

On the hikes we see wonderful kinds of wildlife.  During any season there are many beautiful and interesting plants to enjoy.  The fall glows with Goldenrods and Asters accented by plants like Joe-Pye weed and different kinds of Gentians.

Left to right… Narrow-leaved Gentian, Bumblebee at Closed Gentian and Five-flowered Gentian (c) Bill Beatty

With the plants we often find an interesting variety of insects and spiders.  Some of the spider webs are spectacular, especially when wet with dew or fog.

Grass/Funnel Weaver Spider and male at funnel entrance (c) Jan Runyan and Bill Beatty

If we look fast, we might see several kinds of small snakes “running” away from us. Occasionally when the day is warm, we get to watch a Milk Snake sunning itself on a rock.

Left to right… Camouflaged Smooth Green Snake, holding a Smooth Green Snake and Red-bellied Snake (c) Bill Beatty

Because of its geology, the top of the mountain is dotted with bogs.  Some are small wet spots; others are huge open areas that take a long time to traverse.  In the fall, the Cottongrass spikes speckle the bogs and dance in the wind. In wetter parts, the bogs are filled with insectivorous Sundew plants–both the native Round-leaved Sundew and the invasive Spatulate-leaved Sundew.  In the fall the Sundews often have flower stalks above their insect-catching leaves.  Dolly Sods’ bogs are a moss lover’s delight.  Sphagnum can be found everywhere, but many other kinds entice us to kneel down and look carefully.   This year the Reindeer Moss (which isn’t a moss at all, but a complicated lichen) was very dry and crispy in exposed areas, but lush and spongy in the deep, moist woods.

Left to right… Sphagnum Moss, Cotton Grass and Spatulate-leaved Sundew (c) Jan Runyan

After our hikes or cranberry picking or photo expeditions or visits with friends, we savor an early dinner and fall asleep as the sun goes down.  Each morning while it’s still dark we are back at the banding station looking in awe at the Milky Way, watching the sunrise and, of course, catching more birds.

Left to right… Jan with Black-throated Green Warbler in mist net, Grace with a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Jan with a Ruby-crowned Kinglet (c) Bill Beatty and Jan Runyan

One of the very special things about being involved with bird banding is experiencing and examining the birds so closely.  We can see the subtle differences which give clues to the age and gender of each bird.

Left to right: Cape May and Blackburnian Warbler comparison; back and front of the Cape May Warbler (c) Jan Runyan

Of the 44 species of warblers listed in Peterson’s East/Central guide, the AFMO has banded 38 species.  The real challenge for fall banders comes because, of those 44 possible species, 24 species change their plumage, sometimes radically, after the summer breeding season.  In the species that do change, both the young and mature birds look very different in the fall than they do in the spring when most of us see them.  Of Peterson’s 24 “confusing fall warblers”, the station has caught all but one species.

In the spring most warblers look very different from each other.   In the fall their  different and muted colors can make us search for hints of washed-out color, faint streaks, a couple of different colored feathers or even the color of the feet to tell them apart.  Although we are sometimes left scratching our heads for a while, we relish the challenge.

Left to right… Bay-breasted Warbler with band, Bay-breasted Warbler head and Chestnut-sided Warbler (c) Jan Runyan

Although warblers are the most frequently banded birds at the AFMO, many other types of birds are also caught and banded.  From tiny Kinglets (both kinds) and Brown Creepers to Blue Jays, Hawks and even Northern Saw-Whet Owls, birds of all sizes leave the Allegheny Front with numbered aluminum bands on their legs.

Left to right… Brown Thrasher in the orange light of early morning sun, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and Gray-cheeked Thrush (c) Jan Runyan

No matter what we catch, it is always a thrill to release a bird.  Sometimes when the station is not too busy and we have the right kind of birds, we can teach a visitor how to hold and release a bird.  Usually the bird flies away almost before the person holding it opens their hand.  But occasionally a bird will stay on a hand for a few moments, not realizing that the covering hand has been removed.  That is always magical.

Lee releasing a Wood Thrush (c) Jan Runyan

Field markings which may be hard to see on a bird in the field become very obvious when the bird is in hand.  Even the almost-indistinguishable Flycatchers can be identified with the help of expert books (and expert banders).

Left to right… Eastern Phoebe, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and White-throated Sparrow (c) Jan Runyan

Hawks are always a rare and exciting event.  Because their feet and wings are so much larger than those of most perching birds, hawks have an easy time getting out of a net.  Most of our captures occur on the rare occasion when a hawk tries to go after a bird that is already in the net.  When a hawk hits the net, it usually bounces off and flies away.  But if it hits just right, it falls into the pocket of the net.  If there is a net tender close enough, he or she can gather the net around the hawk before it has a chance to fly away.  One morning Jeff was net tending on a nearby south net when some of us saw a hawk hit a net near the far end.  People yelled, “Run, Jeff, run!”  and he took off running toward the far nets, not knowing exactly where he was headed, but knowing exactly why we told him to run.

One day I was fortunate to remove a hawk that hit near where I was removing another bird.  I was able to reach it before it could fly away.  He was a beauty!

Juvenal male Sharp-shinned Hawk in the process of being banded, sexed and released (c) Jan Runyan and Bill Beatty

Note the difference in eye color between the young male Sharp-shinned Hawk above and the older female “Sharpy” below. The iris color changes from grayish-yellow and yellow to orange and reddish during the first couple years of life.

Some sparrows can still be difficult to identify, even in hand.  But being able to turn the bird around and see both the top and bottom makes it easier to see the finer points of identification.

Left to right… Lincoln’s Sparrow, Yellow-throated Vireo, Indigo Bunting and adult female Sharp-shinned Hawk (c) Jan Runyan

Jan and I always collect Dolly Sods spring water the day before we leave for home.  Because everything was so dry this year, the spring was running much slower than most years.  We usually bring home enough water to last us the entire year, but we didn’t think we would have the time or patience to fill all of our containers this year.   With the help of an old coffee pot and a beautiful day to distract us while we waited, it only took a couple of hours to gather a year’s worth (we hope) of water.  In the middle of winter, the taste takes us right back to the sunny, green warmth of the Wilderness.

Filling our water containers at the Red Creek Campground spring.  Jan fills, Bill carries. (c) Bill Beatty

There is always something new and special to discover when we are on Dolly Sods and at the AFMO.  At night, the stars or moon are so bright and close it seems that if you climbed to the top of a spruce tree you could reach out and touch them.  Bushwhacking in the forests, meadows and bogs brings unexpected discoveries, both natural and, occasionally, human-made.

On our last day on the Sods, we were pleased to realize that we had helped add a significant number of birds to the AFMO tally for the year.  We feel very satisfied to be able to help with such an important scientific endeavor and very happy to be able to spend time with such good friends in a place as incredible as Dolly Sods.

Left to right… the early dark sky greeted us with a beautiful full moon, a Dolly Sods Wilderness boundary marker and the daily tally of total birds banded and total species on our final day of net tending.

Battle of the Songs…….by Jan Runyan

The Crows were upset!  Well, that’s nothing new.  Crows love drama!

We know there was a successful nest of Crows down back this year.  The very strange sounds and un-birdlike calls we heard frequently in early July were eventually traced to young Crows.  By early August they had learned to sound more Crow-like.

crow

(c) Charles Tysinger

But today as I worked in the garden, all the Crows were upset and calling loudly and frequently in the back woods.  The cacophony carried on at such a level for such a long time that I began to rule out a cat or other ground dwellers as the cause.  Crows usually succeed in convincing them to move on fairly soon.

This noise kept going and going.  Maybe they had found an owl roosting in one of the tall trees and were calling all their friends within shouting distance to join the party.  Owls will often tolerate the Crow’s ruckus as long as the noisemakers don’t get too close.

GHOW

(c) Bill Beatty

As I weeded, I heard at least 4 or 5 young and old Crows yelling battle songs.  After more than an hour of the Crow serenade, I heard a Broad-winged Hawk call.

BWHA

(c) Judd Patterson

The Broad-wings had a successful nest down back, too, and this sounded like the not-quite-right call of the young hawk.  I looked up to see two large birds flying between tall locust trees beyond the garden.  One, the youngster, perched where I could see it.  It kept calling and calling.  Was it whining again?  “Mom, I’m hungry!”  Or was it shouting insults and dares at the crows?  “You better not fly past this branch or you’ll get it!”  The Crows moved closer to the young Broad-wing.  Back and forth they exchanged “words” for quite a while.

Then, all of a sudden, there was one scream from a Red-tailed Hawk.

RTHA

ninnescahlife.wichita.edu/node/618

Junior Broad-wing shut up and both large birds in the locust trees took off for the deeper woods.  The Crows continued to fuss until one more Red-tailed scream sent them all flapping their way south in silence.

Apparently the Broad-wing and the Crows agreed that the Red-tail had won the battle of the songs.  No broken bones or blood…but the battle was decided.

The woods were now totally silent…except for one sound.  The insistent call of a Tufted Titmouse which told me he thinks he chased off all of them.  Because, of course, he knows (and if you have ever seen one being banded, you know) he really is the toughest bird on the block.

TUTI

(c) Bill Beatty

Rainbows, Bluebirds and Buffleheads

MY NEW BOOK HAS JUST BEEN RELEASED!

When I teach, I tell stories about birds I’ve met and many of you have asked me to share my stories in writing.  I also am asked how I could manage to learn so much about birds.  Well, let me tell you a story…..

In Rainbows, Bluebirds and Buffleheads I share my favorite memories and stories about birds and how they changed my life.  You’ll meet the rainbow birds that started it all and some amazing people who helped me when I was a fledgling.  Midnight owl surveys…an avalanche of birds…Ralph-ael…bare-handing birds…pileated prowess…and so much more.

Finally I have answered your requests and am excited to share many of my birding life stories with you.

Enjoy!

6X9 inches 312 pages

Autographed copies are available for $18.95 plus $3.50 shipping.  West Virginia residents add $1.13 sales tax per book.  Not available outside the continental United States.  Mail check or money order to:  Bill Beatty, 540 Genteel Ridge Road, Wellsburg, WV  26070  Please make sure you include your shipping address.

Bill Beatty

Bill Beatty

 

Bluebirds and Blue Birds are not Blue!

Some may think, “If I see an Eastern Bluebird, I certainly see blue.”  Well, yes you do… and no you don’t.  It’s complicated!

Eastern Bluebirds nest on our property. We trap, band and release them. (c) Bill Beatty

My daughter, Julie, was active in Science Fair when she was in school.  In ninth grade her project was “Pigment and Structural Colors in Bird Feathers”.  Most birds’ feathers get their color from chemicals in the foods the birds eat.  Those foods provide different birds with different kinds of pigments in their feathers.  The pigments show color by absorbing some of the colors of the light spectrum and reflecting the other colors…we see the reflected colors.  Northern cardinals reflect red, therefore we see red; American goldfinches reflect yellow, Baltimore orioles reflect orange and so on.  The color blue is different, however.   Bluebirds do not reflect blue, yet we see blue.  There are truly no blue colored birds…anywhere.  The blue we see is not a reflective color from a blue pigment, rather a refractive color.  It’s physics and light playing tricks with our eyes.  For blue birds, instead of the light reflecting off the feathers and showing the color of the pigment, the light enters into the feather  and bends (refracts).  This refracted (not reflected) light is what we see.

Can you identify these ‘not really blue birds’ by their feathers? All are native to the United States. Answers are at the bottom of this page.  Click on the feathers to enlarge and then click again. (c) Bill Beatty

To study this, Julie gathered feathers from different kinds of dead birds we found along roadways.  Certain federal laws forbid collecting birds or any parts of birds, including feathers, but my Bird Banding Permit allowed me to salvage dead birds.   I already had several in our freezer.  With mortar and pestle Julie ground the red feathers of a cardinal with the resulting powder being a red color.  After grinding the feathers of a goldfinch, the powder was yellow.  The color resulting from oriole feathers was orange.  She destroyed the structure of the feathers but the pigments were still there and their respective colors did not change.  This showed that these birds’ colors resulted from the pigments in their feathers.  When she ground the eastern bluebird feathers into a powder, however, the powder was black.  This demonstrated that the bluebird’s color comes from the feather’s structure, not its pigment:  destroy the structure and the blue color disappears.

Every time I see a blue bird I’m thankful that nature has made a way for me to see the blue color that is not really there.  Nature is AMAZING!

For a more detailed explanation of how birds make colorful feathers, see – https://academy.allaboutbirds.org/how-birds-make-colorful-feathers/

Answers: Left-to-right… Bluejay, Blue-winged Teal, Cinnamon Teal, Eastern Bluebird, Mountain Bluebird, Wood Duck, Steller’s Jay

Hail, Hail the Gang’s All Here….Pine Siskins………by Jan Runyan

Raft of Ducks

Band of Jays

Vein, Treasury or Charm of Goldfinches (truly)

Exaltation of Larks

Murmuration of Starlings

Parliament of Owls (political commentary?)

Congress of Ravens (more political commentary?)

Siege of Herons

Ballet of Swans

Banditry of Chickadees

Herd of Wrens (really?)

Descent of Woodpeckers

Slurp of Sapsuckers

Asylum of Loons (yes, really)

Many kinds of birds have a special word to designate their flock, often a word that is appropriate in a subtle (or not so subtle) way. But for the species of bird Bill and I almost always see in flocks, there appears to be no group name. That’s a shame because on our property Pine Siskins are the ultimate flocking birds. There is never just one. If we think we only see one it’s just because we haven’t checked the bushes or trees nearby.

Pine Siskin (Carduelis pinus) (c) Bill Beatty

Siskins have been especially prevalent this late fall and early winter. We hear their rising “eeeeeeep” and chatters in the tops of the spruces along the driveway. We see the flock occupying every small perch in the top of the Black Locust. We futilely try to count the number of tiny black dots as they zip across the open sky. The count sometimes reaches two or three dozen before they are out of sight.

Pine Siskin’s yellow wing patch (c) Bill Beatty

Pine Siskin’s yellow tail flash (c) Bill Beatty

 

 

 

 

 

But we see the flocking compulsion most when we have the bird banding nets open. Just as they do everything else, Pine Siskins feed together. At times they almost cover our sunflower feeders. And they don’t seem to be net wary at all. So as the flock flies in to feed, many bounce off the nets and a few get caught. After a few moments in a tree or bush, the rest of the flock returns.

Pine Siskin in net (c) Bill Beatty

Some of the birds eat, but others just perch near their netted brothers and sisters. “I’m here for you,” the free birds seem to say. Some balance on the top string of the net. Others alight on the strings which run the length of the net forming the pockets. A few even grab hold of the netting near a captured friend and just hang there. Sometimes the net sitters will fly over to feed and then return again to sit watch near their buddies.

As the free Pine Siskins remain near the flock members who can’t fly away, it is inevitable that little by little more of the birds hit the net and fall into the pockets. So we also rarely band just one siskin. Sometimes the nets have more than a dozen at one time.

Pine Siskins in mist net (c) Bill Beatty

If you are a Pine Siskin, it’s a group thing. Fly together, perch together, eat together, watch over each other, get banded together! Like the three Musketeers, it’s one for all and all for one!

So for loyalty above and beyond just the usual hanging out near each other, I think Pine Siskins deserve to have a special name for their flocks. I have searched the thesaurus extensively to find the word that truly conveys the level of closeness and concern evidenced by these birds. A word that goes beyond “acquaintance”, “familiarity” or “relationship”.  I would like to make two suggestions for consideration by those who are fascinated with birds and who would like to see Pine Siskins get their own appropriate group name:

a Friendship of Pine Siskins                             an Alliance of Pine Siskins

What do you think?

 

 

A Bluebird Brings Happiness…..by Jan

This morning as we were banding, Bill showed me just the head of a bird he was about to band and asked, “What is it?”

(c) Jan Runyan

This is one of the tests a “sub” bander gets from time to time. I could tell it was in the Thrush family, but I had to admit in the dim light of the garage I couldn’t tell which one. Then he revealed the tail. The bold sapphire color made it clear he was holding an Eastern Bluebird.

(c) Jan Runyan

“Male or female?” was his next query. I smiled because that’s not hard to determine.

Then he showed me the back. Yes, the tail and rump were in-your-face azure like a male, but the back and wings….so much brown, so dull like a female.

(c) Jan Runyan

He definitely had me scratching my head over this ID. I felt pretty uneducated until Bill finally said, “I don’t know which it is, either!”

(c) Jan Runyan

We dove into the bird banders’ guides. The differences they wrote about sounded pretty clear for older birds—maybe this could be a young one? The key seemed to be working pretty well until we came to these two entries for young birds:

“5A Wings, tail, head and back bright blue or, in winter, tinged with brown…..Male*.”

“5B Wings, tail, head and back bright blue, or, in winter, tinged brown…..Female*.”

Yes, the difference is just the word “with” and a comma.

The asterisks took us to a note below: “Some birds may be difficult to sex and should be sexed U if plumage characters are doubtful.”

(c) Jan Runyan

I had to smile. We know so much information about birds. Sometimes the color of one tiny feather or subtle wear of feathers can speak volumes about a bird’s age. Sometimes the difference between deep black and brownish-black or between white and buffy-white tells the gender.

But yet there is still so much we don’t know. I am truly glad to live in a world where we don’t have all the answers and where there are still things to be searched for, studied and just plain wondered about. There is also happiness in not knowing…just enjoying the mystery.


 

Post Script: We finally labeled the bird as unknown sex, unknown age, which later caused the software which receives our bird banding data to say the electronic equivalent of, “What?! I don’t think so! Do you want to rethink this entry?”

 

 

Not GOLDFINCHY . . . . . . by Jan Runyan

“That bird doesn’t really look goldfinchy,” said a perplexed Bill.   “But I can’t tell what it is.” Bill had been keeping watch on the mist net near the back feeders as we swam and splashed in the pool with family members. Normally we just band birds in winter, so this was a trial to see what, if anything, we could discover by summer banding. It had been a good way to learn the looks of young birds and to get some practice at skulling—looking at the development of the skull bone as a way to identify hatch-year birds. Cardinals, Song Sparrows, Titmice, occasional Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds, lots of House Finches (banded and transported as part of our homing research), and Goldfinches had graced our nets and each one but the “hummers” left with a tiny numbered band on one leg.

All birders know the feeling of being able to identify some bird, not by seeing all the specific field marks, but by more of a gestalt–it just looks like that kind of bird. And more often than not, if we chase the bird to get a good look, we find we are right. Male American Goldfinches in their brilliant gold and black breeding plumage are some of the most beautiful and easily identifiable birds.

American Goldfinch in mist net

American Goldfinch in mist net (c) Jan Runyan

 

 

But this bird in the net, while it was a dazzling yellow and about the right size, just did not look “goldfinchy” to Bill. He left the pool-yard, dripping, to retrieve our puzzle.

 

“So what is it?” I asked when he had the bird in hand. “I don’t know!” This was not the answer I expected. Bill doesn’t know what it is??? I made a towel-wrapped dash through the house to get Peterson’s Warblers and Sibley’s. We had to ID the bird correctly before Bill could band it.

We turned page after warbler page in Sibley’s looking for a warbler-sized bird with plain yellow on the belly from beak to the tip of the tail and a darker “greenish” color on top from the bill to the tip of the tail.

Yellow underside, greenish top

Yellow underside, greenish top (c) Jan Runyan

 

 

The flight feathers of the wings and the tail feathers had multiple colors: pale black, yellow and “greenish”.

 

Wing and tail colors (c) Bill Beatty

 

It was strikingly colorful and plain at the same time.   Looking back and forth between several possibilities, we finally made a preliminary identification as a female Yellow Warbler although we could not see even faint rusty streaks on the breast.

Plain yellow breast (c) Jan Runyan

Then I remembered—under-tail coverts! Looking at the color of feathers that cover the base of the tail on the underside of a bird and looking at the color, pattern and shape of tail feathers is one way to differentiate warbler species. And the Peterson Warblers guide has two pages showing all of the possibilities.

Undertail coverts and tail (c) Jan Runyan

 

 

Scanning the 52 tail and covert feather options, it was clear that our preliminary identification was, indeed, correct. There wasn’t anything else with undertail coverts that looked like the bird in Bill’s hand.

 

 

 

Yellow Warbler female (c) Jan Runyan

So we formally said “Hello” to our female Yellow Warbler—the first Yellow Warbler ever banded on our property, in fact, the first Yellow Warbler Bill or I had ever held or banded.

She got her tiny band, posed for some photos and soon was on her way. And as she departed, she left us a little something which, thankfully, landed just outside the edge of the pool.

Welcome Home My Little Chickadee — by Jan

People often ask us how many years songbirds can live. Sometimes it is hard to know for sure…is the Northern Cardinal you see at your feeder this year the exact same bird as the one you saw last year? Unless there is something distinctive about the look or actions of the bird, it’s hard to tell. The bird banding we do on our property is beginning to give us some data about this question, however. Shortly after noon today Bill arrived in the sunporch with a bird in hand and he (Bill) was grinning from ear to ear. “You know what’s special about this Black-capped Chickadee?” he asked me. Although I thought most of the Black-caps had already traveled to their more northern breeding grounds, I could not spot anything out of the ordinary about this little guy. So I admitted I had no clue.

Bill grins at an old friend

Bill grins at an old friend (c) Jan Runyan

Bill announced, “We banded him on the very first day we ever banded here—December 10, 2010!” So that little bird is at least 5 years old…more if he was born before 2010! Although our place will not be his (or her?) summer home, it felt great to know that he had survived so long and that our feeders were part of his migration path…again. UPDATE:  Shortly after 3 on the same day, Bill again arrived in the sunporch with the same grin and a different bird. He was holding a Tufted Titmouse, all pecks and bites and tough-guy yelling (the bird, not Bill). We had also banded him on the first day we ever banded here, Dec. 10, 2010. This male is the first bird listed on the page of size 1B bands, so he might even have been the very first bird ever banded here! He is at least 5 years old, if not more. Titmice don’t migrate so he is one that we have been hearing year-round. And judging by the number of other Titmice we hear nearby, he is doing quite well at finding mates and providing new generations.

Jan with a Tufted Titmouse who shares their yard (c) Bill Beatty

That Bird Vanished!…a shrew-d sighting — by Jan

That bird vanished! I was sitting in my favorite place at the bird-feeder window. My eyes were drawn by the movement of the dark gray back of a junco under the hopper feeder near the house. Before my eyes could focus on the familiar shape, it was GONE! It didn’t fly away suddenly. Not caught by a diving hawk. Not even time for my eye to blink. Just VANISHED – like magic! Couldn’t have been a junco! I was starting to tell Bill about the bird that wasn’t there when I glimpsed it again a foot to the right in the grass. Again, before I could focus and analyze the shape – it wasn’t there!

Searching around I noticed a slight wiggle of the matted grass just to the right. Then a half-seen dark gray shape, not quite perceived before it vanished. More shaking of the tangled grass. Maybe a form. Movement closer to the house. More shaking. Another grass patch trembled even nearer. Then nothing. My eyes quickly scanned the nearby lawn, back and forth, feeder to house, hoping my peripheral vision could catch more action telling me where it had gone. But nothing. It was gone.

With Bill’s help, I put together the clues and then smiled knowing I had been lucky enough to see (sort of) a rare sight: the seed-gathering of a Northern Short-tailed Shrew.

Three things make this sighting especially notable. First, these shrews are primarily carnivorous, so seeing them gathering seeds is uncommon. Then, they commonly forage for a few hours after sunset or on a cloudy day. So spotting my feeder shrew just after noon on a sunny day was remarkable. Finally, actually seeing a shrew at all is extremely rare since most of their food (insects, earthworms, voles, snails, other shrews, salamanders and mice) can be obtained underground or at least under the cover of vegetation. They work hard to remain hidden and to avoid becoming food themselves.

I smiled and wished him (or her) well, knowing that just as it gathers seeds from our feeders, some of our birds gather shrews…hawks are part of the food pyramid of Nature, too.

Shorttail Shrew

Short-tailed Shrew (Blarina brevicauda) (c) Bill Beatty

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

View the comments to see another great shrew story by Gwen.