Sunday, November 30, 2014

Winter Berries 3

My wife and I live on a "flag lot," which builders in this area design so that maybe ten or twelve driveways radiate off a cul-de-sac. The ones close to the road will be regular looking lots, but the ones in between, like ours, set way back off the road so that all you see is the driveway, the "flag pole" as it were.

At the entrance of our driveway is a small area that was ideal for planting some shrubs and flowers. There was already a small shrub or tree growing there "wild," called a Winged Sumac. I knew sumacs to be a fruit-bearing plant, so I left it for the birds despite the fact that I knew it isn't a particularly good looking tree. It is actually a member of the cashew family. Sumacs do turn a beautiful red in the Fall. (Photo tip: When photographing leaves like this, take the time to try to find some order in the chaos.)

Over the years, I have had two different neighbors actually suggest I should remove the sumac because it is so "ugly." I pointed out to both of them that Bluebirds had an affinity for eating sumac berries.

I was rewarded this past winter with visits from the Bluebirds. They turned to eating the berries when the ground was mostly snow covered. They may have come other years too, but I don't spend a lot of time at the top of the drive in the winter, so I may have simply missed them. The only reason I saw them last year was because I had walked up to the mailbox and saw them flitting around the sumac.

Bluebirds were once in serious decline, but have enjoyed strong population growth as a result of programs to erect nesting boxes in the wide open areas they favor. I have a bluebird nest box, but I don't have the large lawn area they prefer. The only time I had a nest box used by Bluebirds was during an extremely cold period one winter. As the sun was disappearing below the horizon, three nights in a row, a flock of Bluebirds piled into a box for warmth. We counted seventeen birds entering the box! The following spring when I cleaned out the box, I found the body of one of the birds that either smothered or was culled by disease.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Winter Berries 2

The beautiful Cedar Waxwing is another bird that gathers in small flocks to eat berries in winter. They are a year-round resident in this area, but I usually only see them over the winter months when they gather in flocks.

They are a beautiful bird, named for the red waxy tips seen on their secondary flight feathers on their wings. They eat the small cones of the Eastern red cedar from which it's name derives.

This particular Fall, the waxwings were traveling with a sizable flock of American Robins and you can see how large they are in relation to a Robin in this photo. They have a particular fondness for Holly berries. If the berries have had time to ferment, however, they can actually make themselves drunk eating them.

Cedar Waxwings have a distinctive vocalization which, for some reason, my wife often hears before I do. She has pointed them out to me on several occasions. This is a pretty typical-sized winter flock. If berries are scarce, they will begin traveling in much larger, wide-ranging flocks.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Winter Berries

The last time I was at the river, there was a murmuration of starlings that kept landing, flying, disappearing, and reappearing in the trees behind me. Looking at the photos zoomed in at 100%, I could see some of the birds had berries in the mouths. It reminded me of something I saw a couple of years ago.

We have a dogwood tree that had a particularly abundant crop of berries in 2011. Over the course of two days, we were invaded by a flock of Robins that completely stripped the tree of all it's berries. They were insatiable, spending the entire daylight hours eating berries.

We just have the one tree, but a neighbor down the road has a line of about eight or ten dogwoods lining the roadside on his property. At the same time the robins were stripping our tree of berries, part of the flock was also eating them from his trees. After two days, all the berries had been harvested and the birds had moved on.

Robins do not migrate in this area. They gather into flocks, but do not leave the area. Despite this, I hear people every year talk about how spring is just around the corner because they saw their first Robin.

Thursday, November 27, 2014


Murmuration may not be a familiar word, but it describes the low, continuous, indistinct sound large flocks of birds make either with their voice or the sound of their wings flapping. The word is most often associated with starling flocks although there are plenty of other birds that do the same thing. Think enormous flocks of geese in places like the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, or the sandhill cranes that gather on the Platte River, or Flamingos in Africa. If you would like to see some amazing footage, google "starlings," "YouTube," and "Rome" or "Italy."

On the vast majority of mornings at the Patuxent, there is very little noise. You might hear a cow lowing in the far distance or a boat engine down river somewhere, but for the most part, it is very quiet. A couple of year ago in the Fall, I was filming from a dock when all of a sudden there was a startling noise coming from the direction of the marsh across the river. Part of what was so startling was that it could be heard from a distance of about a quarter mile away. I had never heard anything like it. It was nothing less than the sound of a million wings; wings in such numbers that they could be heard from that distance. I had been there for more than an hour and there had been almost no noise in that time, so I had no idea that flock was even present.

These two pictures do not do this flock justice. I had a telephoto lens on the camera which only covers a very narrow 6-7 degrees (holding your arms straight out from your sides covers 180 degrees). There were probably ten times or more birds than can be seen in these two images. The sound was not their voices, but the beat of their wings and it became thundering when they flew directly over me. It was incredible! I have never experienced anything like it.

In a murmuration, the flock responds almost as a single organism within a split second, changing directions and often having exactly the same body attitude as all the others. How the flock communicates when they are flying like this fascinates scientists.

When I was a kid, my family had a flock of ducks. They were species known as Muscovy's and they didn't quack. They had kind of a breathy whisper. We lived on a dairy farm and every evening the family would lead the ducks down to the pond to swim. They would be scattered all over the pond but at the same split second (I mean like snapping your fingers), they would all dive below the surface (without having made a sound) and race around underneath the water for half a minute or more. Then, in the same split second again, they would pop back up on the surface. How they communicated their intentions was a mystery, but it was fascinating to watch. It happened every evening.

One longstanding question that I have had and have never seen addressed is, Why do birds (especially blackbirds) gather in large flocks over the Fall and winter? This photo was taken at a different time over the marsh at North Beach. It seems counter intuitive to me to be gathering into huge flocks where competition for food is enormous at a time when resources are at their most scarce.

Just a few decades before the passenger pigeon was declared extinct, a single flock would darken the skies over the course of several days over cities in the south. They numbered in the billions with a "B!" How incredibly sad that our race wiped them from the face of the earth, largely because of greed. They were once thought to be the most numerous bird in the world, making up one quarter of all birds. The flocks I have seen are nothing by comparison. How awesome it must have been to see such an event.

A typical flock of mixed species on our lawn

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

So Happy Together

When you see most flocks of birds, you have no idea whether they are related to each other. That isn't true of Belted Kingfishers, though. They are pretty much loners except during breeding season and a short period of time afterwards when they are teaching their offspring how to survive.

That is why I am pretty sure these two are related as parent and offspring. They both appear to be females, so it would seem that momma is teaching her daughter to fish.

There have only been a couple of times over the years that I have seen more than one fishing together. They are very fast, exciteable birds and are fun to watch. It isn't often you get the chance to film two of them hitting the water at the same time, even if it was at a pretty good distance. (That is also why image quality isn't very good.)

I don't know who puts up the bamboo poles. There is one out there almost every year. There wasn't one this year, but a couple years there were two stuck in the mud along the shore across the river. The birds love them. Certain birds like to be at the highest point in the area and seek out places like that. Ospreys, hawks, Red-wing Blackbirds and Kingfishers are among them. You wouldn't think an osprey could perch atop a pole like this, but I have seen them stand there for a couple hours.

The Double-crested Cormorant seems to be watching the Kingfisher. They use different means to the same end.

The Kingfisher was successful in catching a minnow and happily flies off with it. They are a fun bird to watch and if you happen to see one fishing, take the time to watch. It is amazing to see them plunge dive.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

We are Family

You can see from this photo and a similar one yesterday that kingfishers have weak, undersized appearing legs. There are a few bird species like this, including hummingbirds and the common loon. Despite this physical feature, kingfishers most often nest in small caverns which they burrow out of cliffs using their bill and their feet. The tunnels can be anywhere from three to ten feet in length ending in a slightly larger chamber, sloping upward so rainwater cannot accumulate.

I don't know of any place on the river where the bank is cliff-like, so I have no idea where they would go to raise their young. Pairs a monogamous for the length of a breeding season. Once in a while I will see them flying in groups like they are doing in this photo.

Their most frequent rattling call is easily mistaken for a Downy or Red-bellied Woodpecker and I have to consciously think about what I just heard to tell which is which since I hear both on the river. A "flock" like this is almost certainly made up of the parents and new offspring. They can have a clutch of as many as eight eggs.

When breeding season is over, they become loners. These two females flying together are almost certainly a female and her offspring. A characteristic of their flight is their affinity for staying just above the water. When you see one in flight, it will almost always be flying just above the water.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Belted Kingfisher Prey

This is the kingfisher shot I am most proud of having captured. I was surprised this female landed so close to where I was standing. She caught a juvenile blue crab. Some birds like the double-crested cormorant, for instance, swallow their catch alive. I can't imagine how that must feel, kicking all the way down.

Kingfishers, though, beat their catch on something hard to either stun it so they can swallow it or kill it outright. She beat the crab against the branch before she ate it.

Here is a comical picture of another kingfisher beating a minnow into submission on a dock piling. Okay, maybe it wasn't comical for the minnow, but we all have to eat.

The dock where I film is also a favored overnight roost of a kingfisher and, when I arrive at dawn, it often flies off protesting as it goes. This image might be a little much for some, but it reveals a couple of things I wanted to make points about. First, from the white "spots" you can tell it spends a lot of time on that dock. The photo is actually a picture of the bench on the dock. Secondly, it shows a number of pellets. The spots (and you could only know this if you saw the entire bench) indicate the kingfisher faces the shoreline where it is more likely to see minnows.

I'm not sure how many birds have the ability to do this, but kingfishers can regurgitate the undigested remains of their food in the form of a pellet. (Owls also do this and it is a good way to discover where one spends a lot of time by finding pellets beneath trees.) The pellets represent the part of the prey that can neither be digested nor continue to pass through the digestive tract. As you can see here, the pellet consists of both fish bones and scales. I knew owls regurgitated pellets, but I discovered this fact about kingfishers on my own after seeing these numerous times.

Sunday, November 23, 2014


No bird common to the Patuxent has been more difficult for me to film than the Belted Kingfisher. They are forever sneaking by me behind my back, and laughing about it once they are safely past. I just happened to spot this one coming straight at me through the fog the other morning. When he spotted me, he let out with a maniacal laugh, turned inland, then doubled back and decided to race by between me and the shoreline. He laughed again after he was certain he had made it safely past me.

When kingfishers are on the move, they strike me as having ingested waaay too much caffeine. Their flight, the attitude they display, vocalizations - everything appears sped up. They are one of the few bird species I know of where the female is more colorful than the male. The rusty colored belt marks this bird as a female. Males do not have the orange coloration on their chest.

Their favored way of fishing is to find a high, open branch overlooking the water where they can spot small fish. When they spot one, they plunge dive, usually chattering as they do so. Their heads appear to be slightly too large for their bodies, giving them the impression of being a little top heavy.

I have seen few birds (other than, perhaps, the pileated woodpecker) with wing beats as deep as a kingfisher. You can see the wings nearly touch beneath them as they fly.

This muffed shot represents the best chance I ever had to film a kingfisher actively fishing. Unfortunately, the camera was not up to the shot, although this lens on my current camera would have been adequate. But, I also got excited when I pressed the shutter and jiggled the camera slightly. It is something you have to consciously tell yourself in these situations - to control your movements - especially the little finger on the shutter button.

I was surprised when this female started fishing so close to where I was standing. She was aware of my presence. They are usually a little more shy. The open river does not provide a good stage for filming their diving. A more confined location on a pond or small creek would furnish the opportunity to take better diving pictures.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

American Eel

I recently related how I discovered the elver stage of the American Eel in a local stream I had been exploring. I thought I would do a blog on eels because they are more interesting than you might think.

Eels are a catadromous species. We are more familiar with anadromous species, such as the rockfish which travel from salt water to fresh to reproduce. A catadromous species travels from freshwater to salt water to reproduce. Until very recent times, it was not known where or how eels reproduced. They are considered to be a fish and have scales so minute, most people don't realize they have them.

The elvers I saw are actually the third stage of the life cycle of an eel. Life begins in a great spawning event of all adult eels in the Sargasso Sea, located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The eggs drift slowly towards the coast, transforming into a stage known as leptocephali. It is a larval stage looking much like a leaf. As the eels near the continental shelf, they transform into glass eels containing little pigment. As they near coastal streams and rivers, they enter the next stage of life which is the elver stage I saw in the stream.

Elvers become yellow eels over the course of the next fifteen to twenty-five years during which they attain adult size.

This photo shows an adult eel my brother was unlucky enough to catch a couple of summers ago while he was fishing in the Patuxent. He accidentally got some of it's slime on his shoe which never did come off, even after a couple of years. He also nicked himself. That isn't eel blood.

Yellow eels become silver eels in the final stage of their life cycle. The changes they go through at this point are astounding, but are too involved to detail here.

The last time I was at the Patuxent filming, the river was dotted with buoys. I thought they might be crab pots, but it seemed a little late to still be crabbing.

After a while, a commercial fisherman appeared and began pulling up the pots. Once I saw them, I realized they were eel pots. It was hard to tell if he had any luck catching them.

He continued to pull up pots over the next couple of hours from the stretch of river out in front of me as I reflected on what a hard living that has to be. I hope he was at least enjoying the scenery. As usual the adult eagles were in the trees watching. They also have white heads like the lepto (white) cephali (head) stage of the eels.

Eels are an endangered species, mostly as a result of damming rivers, which prevents them from migrating to the stream environment they require to reach adulthood. While Americans mainly use eels as bait to catch other species, some European and Asian countries consider them a delicacy, so there is continual pressure on the species even here in the U. S., where they are harvested and shipped overseas.

There is a lot more to learn about this complex species than I can relate here, but if you are interested, I would encourage you to google the words "American eel" and "Wikipedia" and explore them further.

Friday, November 21, 2014

And More Fossils

This represented one of the most interesting finds to my mind. It appears to be the foot of a bivalve, possibly a razor clam. This is not an impression, but is the actual fossilized flesh of the creature. For it to be preserved like this, it would have to have been quickly buried in an anaerobic environment as a result of some catastrophic event like, for instance, the flood of Noah's day.

Another common fossil were these pieces of finger coral.

Some fossils were more difficult to imagine how they were formed, like these three "rocks" which appear to be good sized mussels of some kind. They do not appear to be the actual shells of the creatures, but an impression. If you look closely at the "shell" on the left where it is broken off, you see there is no evidence of an actual shell. On the other hand, I cannot imagine the mussel filling up with mud, displacing the live animal, hardening and shedding the shell itself. All I know for sure is that these are not ordinary rocks.

Another sample of a similar "rock." It has the same general shape as the previous picture, but this view shows it from the end.

I got pretty excited about this find. Whatever these little sea creatures were, they were not fully fossilized, but were flexible, meaning they still had some organic proteins. Turns out they weren't fossils at all, but were the nymph stage of a caddis fly or May fly. Who knew?  I have been fly fishing, but I never got into the identification phase that some individuals do. I can't remember how I learned this, but I think I may have sent the photo to the same person I contacted at the DNR who identified the otter tracks. Apparently, it just provided a good site for the insect to deposit it's larvae.

I could go one showing fossils for several more days. If it has whetted your appetite and you live in the Calvert County area, you may want to see the collection of fossils at the Calvert Marine Museum that were (mostly) found at Calvert Cliffs. This is one last "cave painting-type" image of the stream bed. Who knows how many fossils are yet to be revealed there.