Saturday, September 25, 2021

Frugivorous birds plundering southern trees


A Fringe-tree (Chionanthus virginicus) heavily laden with ripe fruit. This shrubby (small treelet, at best) member of the Olive Family (Oleaceae) is a close relative of ashes. It flowers in spring, and produces pleasing bouquets of stringy white-petaled flowers. Come fall, the blue drupes (as the fruit are called) also create an aesthetically pleasing appearance. With the added - and more important - benefit of feeding long-haul migratory songbirds.

While the somewhat similar Chinese Fringe-tree (C. retusus) is sometimes used in landscaping, the one featured here is the native. In the interior, it occurs as far north as southern Ohio. The trees in my images were planted at Inniswood Gardens, a metropark in Westerville, Ohio, only 15 minutes from where I live. This site is probably about 80 miles north of Fringe-tree's native range, but who are we to split hairs. The tastiness of its drupes are certainly well known to songbirds engaged in long migrations between Neotropical wintering regions and northern breeding grounds. These birds have undoubtedly long known and utilized this plant's autumnal bounty.

A Swainson's Thrush (Catharus ustulatus) with a freshly plucked drupe. Larger birds like this swallow the drupes whole. Many of these speckle-bellied thrushes were present on this mid-September day. Swainson's Thrush is the most common of our highly migratory thrushes, and they breed across the great expanse of North American boreal forest, from Alaska to Newfoundland, and south at high elevations in the west. Most birds winter from Central America south to western South America, all the way to Peru.

A Cape May Warbler (Setophaga tigrina) perches briefly in a nonnative Norway Spruce (Picea abies) near the Fringe-trees. This warbler is another boreal breeder, and intimately linked to spruce on the breeding grounds. Even migrants seek out spruce, including the nonnative species. Cape Mays breed in a fairly narrow belt of boreal forest, from Alberta to Nova Scotia, and most winter in the Caribbean and the western coast of Mexico and Central America.

Come fall, Cape Mays often become frugivorous, plundering the bonanza of berries to be found in autumn in the eastern deciduous forest region that blankets much of eastern North America, as far north as southern Canada. Unlike the larger thrushes, warblers such as this typically puncture the skin of fruit with their sharp bills. They then drink the juices and perhaps eat some of the pulp. Many Cape May Warblers regularly visited this small Fringe-tree planting.

The most frequent frugivorous warbler at the Fringe-trees was the Tennessee Warbler (Leiothlypis peregrina). This one strikes a pose amongst some drupes, all of which bear the tell-tale evidence of feeding warblers.

While warblers are highly insectivorous during the breeding season, some add much vegetable matter in migration and winter. Tennessee Warblers winter throughout the Caribbean, much of Central America, and well into South America. I have seen them by the score in winter in Guatemala, where they avidly take nectar from the flowers of various trees. So much so that their faces are often stained bright colors courtesy of the nectar.

As a bonus, a stone's throw away was a gorgeous Sweetbay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) loaded with ripe fruit. Birds galore were taking advantage, including many Swainson's Thrushes, occasional thrushes of other species, especially American Robins (Turdus migratorius), Gray Catbirds (Dumetella carolinensis), and most surprisingly to me, lots of Red-eyed Vireos (Vireo olivaceus, pictured).

Vireos are notorious for the number of caterpillars they take. The raptor-like hook at the bill tip is an adaptation for seizing and tearing open larvae, or so I assume. Vireos are closely related to shrikes, which are highly predatory songbirds and sport even more of a hooked raptor-type bill. In the case of the vireo, this bill also works well when plucking fruit.

A Red-eyed Vireo, caught in the act of fruit plundering. This does not take long. As soon as a bird freed one, it quickly swallowed it. Something about Sweetbay Magnolia fruit is very attractive to this species, which I did not know prior to this experience. At times there would be perhaps a half-dozen vireos in the tree together, and a few times they were joined by a Philadelphia Vireo (Vireo philadelphicus). As with the Fringe-tree, Sweetbay is a southerner not occurring until 100 miles or south of central Ohio. But in the south and in the Atlantic states it can be common and birds have undoubtedly long used it as a food source.

A juvenile Red-eyed Vireo (brown eyes) watches a pugnacious Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris). A number of hummingbirds had staked claim to the nearby gardens and flowering plants. When they weren't trying to drive each other away, they'd occasionally fly high into the magnolia to have a go at the vireos.

The Red-eyed Vireo is a true long-haul migrant. They breed over a massive swath of eastern North America and extend into northwest Canada and the U.S., mostly using caterpillar-rich deciduous forests. The wintering grounds encompass most of the northern half of South America. Some vireos probably fly 5-6,000 miles, one way. It is fascinating, to me at least, to learn about the intimate connection migrant songbirds have with plants, and to think about the role of native plants and their fruit in helping to stoke these long, hazardous journeys.

Friday, September 17, 2021

The Art of Conservation: Gallery exhibition and talk, October 1, Columbus, Ohio

I am pleased to collaborate with wildlife illustrator Juliet Mullett on a mixed medium exhibition featuring her original watercolor artwork, and my photography. The exhibit showcases 25 species of animals featuring a diversity of creatures including amphibians, birds, crayfish, fish, insects, mammals, and reptiles. Each species is depicted by one of Juliet's illustrations, and one of my images, accompanied by brief text explaining its significance and conservation issues, pro or con.

This Gray Fox image, presented at 16 x 24 dimensions, will accompany Juliet's fox kit artwork as seen in the previous image of the exhibition postcard. Many of the images in the gallery are printed in large scale.

It has taken us the better part of a year to prepare for this show. I had it much easier. Juliet created nearly all of the pieces just for the show, and her detailed watercolor pencil illustrations take some time to create. While it does take me effort, expertise, and field craft to make my images, once I'm in position and my quarry is in range, a click of the shutter and it's mostly done.

The exhibition is at the Grange Insurance Audubon Center just south of downtown Columbus, Ohio, on the banks of the Scioto River. It opens Friday, October 1, with a reception, and I will give a brief presentation on how and why this conservation art show came to be, and natural resources conservation in general. It is free, but registration is required. CLICK HERE to register, and see more details about the exhibition and the October 1 event. We would love to see you there, and please pass the word!

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Hummingbird confronts fly!

On the long-term bucket list is photographing Ruby-throated Hummingbirds at every major native plant nectar source with which the birds have an intimate co-evolutionary history. Thanks to a friend who lives nearby, I was able to obtain images of this female/immature male Ruby-throat at the beautiful flowers of Trumpet Honeysuckle, Lonicera sempervirens.

NOTE ABOUT NATIVITY: Trumpet Honeysuckle is a southerner, and reaches its northern limits in southernmost Ohio. In my opinion, there is only one indisputably native Ohio population, in Scioto County (and not all botanists would agree with my opinion of that site, but that's another topic). So, this planted honeysuckle patch in Columbus is clearly beyond the species native range, but the hummingbirds don't care.

Anyway, it didn't take long after I set up my rig for the hummers to start hitting the flowers. There was also an adult male, but he didn't visit as often and never gave me a good shot. This bird was pretty easy to work, and I obtained a number of nice images. Of them, I liked this one the best. As I waited for its visits, I noticed that the "greenbottle" fly favored this group of flowers as a perch. When the hummer came in and I made this particular shot, she/he took umbrage at the fly, confronted it accompanied by loud chitters, and sent the fly packing. The bird then proceeded to plumb the deep floral nectaries with its long bill and tongue. While perhaps some larger sphinx moths might visit Trumpet Honeysuckle at night, and be effective pollinators, it's hard to think of pollinators that would be more effective than a Ruby-throated Hummingbird.

Because of their relationship with flowers, hummingbirds come into confrontations with large insects constantly. Bumblebees in the genus Bombus are common rivals, as are larger species of wasps. Sometimes big insects clearly win out, as when a large bumblebee is working a flower - the hummers usually wait for it to depart. This fly was no match though, and the bird quickly drove it away.

PHOTO NOTE: I generally do not like the look of flash on birds, and rarely use it on the feathered crowd. Hummingbirds are an exception. The flash does not seem to bother them at all, and the light makes the feather iridescence really pop. However, on this day light was abundant and well situated, so I did not use flash. This image was shot at 1/6400, f/8, and ISO 3200. While the ISO is beyond what I would prefer, the camera is the (fairly new) Canon R5 mirrorless, and it handles higher ISO ranges pretty well. I made a series of shots - since my little subject was so cooperative - ranging from shutter speeds of 1/1600 clear up to 1/6400 (maximum shutter speed for the R5 is 1/8000). When a hummingbird is really working those wings hard to maneuver around flowers, a speed of at least 1/5000 is necessary to mostly freeze the wings.


Sunday, September 5, 2021

Shorebirds, including the fantastic Wilson's Snipe


I made a trip to the St. Marys Fish Hatchery last Wednesday, September 1, a place I have birded myriad times for many years. The hatchery is in western Auglaize County, Ohio, along the eastern shore of massive Grand Lake St. Marys. The hatchery is a magnet for migrant birds, and many a rarity has been seen here over the years. The site's reputation as a bird magnet goes way back. In 1970, Clarence Clark and James Sipe published a booklet, Birds of the Lake St. Marys Area. It's a gem, although tough to lay hands on now.

Hatchery staff obviously have fish production as their major goal, but as part of operations they routinely draw down impoundments. When draw-downs coincide with shorebird migration, birding can excel. The staff is birder-friendly, just stay out of the way of hatchery activities.

Several ponds have been recently lowered, including one of the large ones, and shorebirding has been interesting of late and should remain so for a while.

A Wilson's Snipe (Gallinago delicata) strikes a pose. This one was foraging out on the open mudflats; normally they are more reclusive and lurk in vegetation. And thus are easily overlooked. Dozens or even triple figures sometimes haunt wet meadows in migration, but remain largely out of view. Snipe come out of their shells on breeding grounds, where they engage in fantastic aerial courtship flights accompanied by a surreal winnowing sound produced by their tail feathers.

A beautiful little Semipalmated Plover (Charadrius semipalmatus) in its favored milieu, a rich mucky mudflat. Several of these elfin "killdeerlets" with the single band were present. Like most of the shorebirds - plovers and sandpipers - that appear in Ohio during migration, this species nests FAR to our north, across the upper reaches of the Canadian and Alaskan tundra regions. Like most of our plovers, Semipalmated Plover winters mostly along coastal zones: Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf coasts, and coastal zone of much of Central and South America, as well as throughout the Caribbean.

A trio of our other "half-webbed" shorebird, the Semipalmated Sandpiper (Calidris pusilla). Semipalmated refers to the partial webbing between the toes. If you enlarge the Semipalmated Plover shot you can see this webbing. While the scientific epithet pusilla means "tiny", the Semipalmated Sandpiper is not the smallest of the five species of "peep" sandpipers that pass through Ohio. That honor goes to the Least Sandpiper (C. minutus). The latter was the most frequent of the peeps at the hatchery on this day.

I was especially pleased to encounter two Baird's Sandpipers (Calidris bairdii). This is one of our larger peeps, although we're not talking eagle-sized here. A hefty Baird's stretches the tape to about 7.5 inches in length and weighs little more than an ounce. But those wings! They span a whopping foot and half! You can see how the wingtips project beyond the tail in the photo. This is a bird meant to fly, and fly they do. Baird's Sandpiper is one of the world's great long-haul migrants. They breed in the northernmost reaches of the North American tundra. This incredible sandpiper winters along the Andes in Ecuador, all the way south to the southern tip of the world: Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. Some of these animals probably fly 9,000 miles - one way! - between breeding and wintering grounds. Rich mudflats where they can rest and refuel along this long journey are vital, but mudflat conservation for shorebirds seems to get little conservation attention in this region.

The Baird's Sandpiper is named for one of North America's great scientists and educators, Spencer Fullerton Baird. He was instrumental in the establishment of the Smithsonian Institution, and was widely regarded as one of the country's leading naturalists. He richly deserves having this bird named in his honor, as well as the Baird's Sparrow and at least 14 other animal species.

A quartet of Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) rests on a mat of desiccated Chara algae. This was the most common shorebird on this day - perhaps 150 yellowlegs were present. Only perhaps five of their rank were the much larger Greater Yellowlegs (T. melanoleuca), but they generally are greatly outnumbered by their lesser brethren.

A Lesser Yellowlegs shows off its namesake legs. In the olden days of unregulated market hunting (late 1800's, primarily), this species along with many other shorebirds was shot in large numbers. The Lesser Yellowlegs recovered well following establishment of wildlife conservation laws, but not all shorebirds did. The Eskimo Curlew, which may be extinct although there are glimmers of hope, is a sad case in point.

 Finally, here's a video of that Wilson's Snipe putting its LONG bill to work, probing the mire for invertebrate animals. Note its gait: bouncy coolness that verges on avian nerdiness. Maybe there should be a national Walk Like A Snipe Day, and we'd all have to mimic that walk everywhere we go. Probably take our minds off all the STUFF going on, temporarily.