Saturday, February 09, 2008

Visitors from north and south

I went on my first "bird chase" today, and it was quite successful! Lots of fun, in fact, despite the weather, which was (surprise!) cold and gray. A friend of mine from work and I went out after two rare visitors - a painted bunting and a white-winged crossbill.

Painted buntings live considerably south of Maryland - not the tropics or anything, but the Carolinas and Georgia and along the Gulf Coast. They're quite gorgeous little birds (see that Audubon shot to the right), and there is an illegal traffic in them; whether this one escapedpainted bunting from a cage or just wandered too far north who can say? But here he is, and has been for a couple of weeks now, in Arnold, which is close to Annapolis. We pulled up and walked a short way along a trail. There were quite a few people out running the trail, even at 7:30 in the morning; I almost said "crazy people" but of course, they'd probably reserve the term for the folks standing around with binoculars and scopes, peering into a backyard. Several of them stopped and asked what we were looking at. We told them, but since when they asked he wasn't actually there, they didn't hang around. Kurt and I got there, as I say, about 7:30, maybe a little later. A woman he knew, named Nancy, was already set up when we arrived, but she hadn't seen the bunting yet. We kept watching the feeder, where a female cardinal was displaced by a male, and the holly bush behind it, and then, at 7:45 (real birders keep notes), Nancy said, "There he is!"

And indeed, there he was, sitting in the holly bush just behind the squirrel-guard cylinder on the feeder. He was looking right at us, and his red breast almost made Painted Bunting, 9 Feb 2008, Arnold, MD (C)Kurt Schwarz
him look like a huge clump of berries. He sat there, fluffy and cold-looking, until the cardinal left, and then flew at the feeder, turning away at the last second when the female cardinal came back. After a few minutes he got onto the feeder and ate away, but of course on the wrong side of it, so Kurt didn't get a really good picture of him. Nancy did - but Kurt took too long trying to find the perfect shot. Still, here he is in the holly.

Then he vanished. We waited around for almost an hour, with more birders arriving, and were rewarded by his return, though he stayed in the holly this time before disappearing again.

While we were waiting we saw a lot of other birds - chipping sparrow, nuthatches, a sapsucker, and a gang of bluebirds (whose blue heads and red breasts made us, for just a moment, think they were buntings; they weren't, but they were wonderful little things just the same).

After a while it became apparent that Kurt wasn't going to get a good picture (I certainly wasn't, not at that distance). One of the other birders commiserated with Kurt - "You can't do both," he said, "watch and shoot. I don't know how many times I haven't got the picture because I was staring at the bird - and then it was gone." The bunting might have come back in another hour, but Kurt was going on a owl hunt (with cameras!) in the afternoon, so we left. And anyway, since Silver Spring is practically on the way home from Annapolis, we thought we'd swing by there and look for the other visitor: a white winged crossbill USDA photowhite-winged crossbill all the way from Canada. Unlike the bunting, the crossbill was probably here on his own; they eat pine cone seeds and Canada's eastern pine cone crop pretty much failed this year. Many birds that eat them have been scattered around the eastern US. This one showed up around a week before Christmas, stayed a couple of weeks, and then disappeared; he came back about two weeks ago and is a regular at a feeder. Dan at Nervous Birds has a good post with some nice shots; take a look. This shot is from the US Forest Service. (Kurt got a couple of pictures himself; I'll post one when he sends it. He has, and I have, plus one he got the week earlier.)

So we came back across the Bay and drove up to the Sligo Creek Parkway. We pulled into a side street to park (the park police have been understandably annoyed at the gangs of birders parking along the road itself; there are lots of joggers and bikers here, too). There were five orWhite-winged crossbill and goldfinches, 9 Feb 2008 Silver Spring MD (C) Kurt Schwarz six folks there when we got there, and as we walked up one said the crossbill had been there for a few minutes just then. I looked through the binoculars Kurt had lent me and there he was! "He's there now," I said, and Kurt hurriedly finished setting up his scope. The sock feeder was swarming with greyish, winter-clad goldfinches, and there amongst them was a larger, very red bird with black and white wings. He fed for about five minutes (this is when Kurt got his pictures), quite easily seen by the group down next to the road. And then a 'sharpie', a sharp-shinned hawk, came by, and the area emptied of birds, except three mourning doves who didn't seem that bothered. (Sharpies feed at bird feeders, too, just one step up the food chain from the rest of the birds who gather there. In fact, it's suggested that the decrease in sharpies at the southern end of their range may be due to bird feeders in the north providing the hawks with a regular, dependable food supply that reduces their need to migrate!)
White-winged crossbill and goldfinches, 9 Feb 2008 Silver Spring MD (C)Kurt Schwarz

We waited around a while longer because Kurt was hoping to get a better picture. Eventually birds came back: house finches, various sparrows, a red-bellied woodpecker, a nuthatch, and (another first for me!) a kingfisher (not to the feeder, of course; he was across the road by the water) ... and finally the goldfinches. But the crossbill didn't come back - at least not before Kurt and I decided to leave.

But we'd seen them both. It was a great day.

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