Friday, January 2, 2015

Miscellaneous birds

This old farm in Adams County, Ohio was where I started my New Year's Day, bright and early. My primary intent was to submerge into the vast Shawnee State Forest, which is in neighboring Scioto County, and shoot (with camera) birds. But when word got out that a Loggerhead Shrike had been frequenting this farm, I had to start here.

Looking every bit El Bandido, the Loggerhead Shrike glares at the camera. If you are nearly any animal smaller than, or even up to the size of a shrike, you do not want to be affixed with this gaze. Our most predatory songbirds, shrikes capture, kill, and make mincemeat of other vertebrates.

The only person there when I arrived was the ubiquitous and widely traveled Carlton Schooley. He had seen the shrike from afar before I arrived. I hadn't been there but ten minutes or so when the cooperative bird flew right in, and landed on a wire close at hand. It was almost as if it wanted to be admired, and admire we did.

Loggerhead Shrikes were once fairly common and widespread in Ohio, but now are among our rarest birds. Only one or a few are reported annually. Adams County produces the most reports, and insofar as I know, the only recent breeding records have come from this county. I hadn't seen a Loggerhead in the state for a number of years, and needless to say was quite pleased to share this animal's company for a bit.

After some time spent communing with the shrike, it was eastward bound and into Shawnee State Forest. My game plan was to look for mixed flocks of wintering songbirds, infiltrate their edges, and try for photos of whatever I might find.

I was not alone in this game plan. This juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk was watching over a weedy, temporarily drained lake bed that was full of sparrows. I suppose the big raptor was lusting after sparrow meat, but it'd probably be a fat chance that this hawk would fly down a nimble sparrow. The raptor didn't much object to me, and distance was no problem for making images. Obstructions were. It would be nice if all of those intervening branches weren't in the way, but there was nothing to be done. The best that I could do was move until the raptor's eye was free and clear, which improved the shot. With animals, always shoot for the eye.

This Song Sparrow is one of dozens that fed on an abundant seed crop on the lake bed below the hawk. Also mixed in were Swamp and White-throated sparrows. Sparrows are habitually inquisitive, and it took just a few pishes and squeaks from me to send many of them to lookout perches.

Rather than take just a plain mug shot, it is best to wait until a bird shifts into a more interesting posture, if possible. Finally this sparrow looked over its shoulder, giving me a better pose, and I fired away.

This is a case where knowledge of your quarry helps immensely. Just heading afield, camera in tow, will probably yield some opportunities. But by knowing your prey and its habits, one greatly ups the ante in regards to capturing more subjects.

I got out of my car near a small meadow surrounded by forest, and was greeted by the soft warbles of Eastern Bluebirds. Very good, I would be happy to make bluebird images. However, their presence also likely meant fruit was at hand, and sure enough there was a bunch of fruiting staghorn sumac at the back of the field. I worked my way back there, and it wasn't long before I heard the soft chuck note of this Hermit Thrush. A few imitations of his call, and the thrush came out to investigate.

Flocks of fruit-eating birds are always worthy of a closer look. Often, other frugivorous bird species, like this thrush, will be amongst their ranks.

Much easier to detect than the thrush was this little motormouth, the Carolina Wren. It and its mate made no secret of their distaste at my intrusion, scolding, making their incredible rattlesnake imitations, and even occasionally breaking into a loud clear Tea-Kettle Tea-Kettle song.

Wrens are busybodies, and quick to chastise anyone or anything that displeases them.

At one point I heard the thin lisping tsee-tsee-tsee of Golden-crowned Kinglets, and of course instantly braked. I brake for kinglets. Hopping from the vehicle, I realized that a platoon of four kinglets were working the trees and shrubs.

This is a truly elfin songbird; at only 6 grams, it is our smallest (in Ohio) passerine. A kinglet weighs less than two Ruby-throated Hummingbirds (which is not a songbird), and that's really small. What's more amazing is that kinglets are almost entirely insectivorous, but they ride out winters in Ohio, and even points well to our north.

A kinglet's bright little eye reflects the life of a creature filled with the energy and inner fortitude to survive brutal winters. I was flattered to be the object of its attention, fleeting as it was.

Kinglets have no time to trifle with foolish humans. It is work, work, work. Golden-crowned Kinglets must harvest a considerable percentage of their bodyweight in tiny invertebrate prey each day in order to stoke the fires and keep up their metabolism.

Where, you might rightly ask, are all of these insects in winter? How do the kinglets, clever and industrious as they may be, find them?

I'll delve more into that mystery a bit later. Suffice to say that our trees and shrubs are not lacking in spiders, caterpillars, stoneflies and other insects, even in the dead of winter. Kinglets are extremely adept at finding them, and thus reduce the need to make perilous long distance migrations as nearly all of our other highly insectivorous songbirds must.


Sue said...

Nice post--you got some wonderful shots.

On one of my walks last week, I saw a caterpillar crossing the road. There was snow and ice. I can't imagine what he was doing out , and he was very sluggish, but it is amazing what is out even in the midst of winter.

Jim McCormac said...

Hi Sue, good chance it was the cat of a large yellow underwing, Noctua pronuba. They can be active in amazingly bad weather.

c5e8749a-8cac-11e4-b9e8-db41b3a5c79d said...

Nice find on the shrike. I have only seen a couple of them over the years, and they can certainly earn their nickname of 'butcher bird'. I located one on my farm a few years ago by finding mice and small birds impaled on the thorns of an Osage Orange along my fence row. Very interesting behavior.