Ring-necked why?

Every birder in North American asks the same question: If the duck has a bright ring around its bill, why is it called Ring-necked?


I don’t see any ring there!

I’ve heard lots of theories – it’s a hunter’s bird-in-hand fieldmark, some other duck was already called Ring-necked – but no one seemed to know the truth. Until now!

In an article in Birding, the ABA journal, Rick Wright solves the mystery*. He dug through obscure volumes in dusty libraries until he found Edward Donovan’s early-1800s description of the type specimen, the bird from which the species description is derived, and discovered…

…nothing about the bill. The hard-to-see chestnut collar is the only good distinguishing mark. So what happened to Donovan’s duck’s bill? He painted and described the bird from a poultry market specimen, not a live bird, so it might have been damaged either in hunting or on its way to market. Not knowing any different, he depicted it with a plain blue-grey bill.

Here it is, in all its dull-beaked splendor:


Poor Edward Donovan. Scoffed at for centuries as fabulously unobservant, vindicated at last.

Last week at Vischer Ferry, I saw something amazing. A small flock of Ring-necks preened and displayed close to shore and in perfect light. And believe it or not, one male with his head held high and neck fully extended actually had a clearly-visible contrasting dark red collar between the glossy purple neck and his black chest. It was probably a once-in-a-lifetime sight, and of course I didn’t have my camera!


Top photo via WikiMedia Commons.

*Birding, Vol. 46, May/June 2014. Sadly, visible only to ABA members.



Categories: Bird photos, vischer ferry, waterfowl | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

We are all impatient.

The problem is (not that I’m complaining), it’s felt like March for most of this winter. Warmest and least snowy winter on record in the Albany area. When it’s 60F and sunny, how can we help expecting spring birds?

But I look out the window and see Dark-eyed Juncos and American Tree Sparrows. Red-breasted Nuthatches have only just abandoned my feeders for the Rensselaer hills, and the Spring Peeper chorus, while loud, hasn’t reached its ear-shattering peak yet.

Some things have certainly been earlier than in other years. The big Spotted Salamander migration (down a hill and across a road) happened two weeks ago. Usually it’s not until the end of March at the earliest. They’re responding to local conditions, though. The ground is soft, the rain is warm, and that’s all they need.

Birds migration is triggered by day length among other things, and as a wise man said today, they don’t know what the weather’s like 1500 miles to the north. They don’t outfly their food supply. If we keep having these mild winters, though, and bugs hatch out earlier before the birds are here for the feast, will they find enough food to reproduce and feed their young ones?

So we miss you, spring birds. But take your time. We’ll be waiting for you.

Categories: bird behavior, First of season, Why? | Tags: | 1 Comment

Return of the Blog

It lives! No, I haven’t given up on blogging. And I certainly haven’t given up on birding!

A few months ago, the hard drive on my computer failed catastrophically. Fortunately, we’d learned from the last time that happened and ran a continuous backup. Dragged a ten year old PowerMac out of the closet and we were set… except for one problem. It can’t run any updates after, oh, 2013. So no iTunes, no Firefox, no Netflix, no iPhoto, no WordPress – the list goes on.

And I have so many birds I want to share, but the pictures are stuck in my camera! I decided I’ll write posts and store them as drafts until I get technologically caught up. Or should I publish them, and add photos later?

What do you think?

Categories: Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Local surprises

I didn’t always have to travel to find cool birds this year. Some of the most unexpected were just a county away!

This first lifer has a kind of morbid backstory. We were traveling to Pennsylvania for a funeral, and my husband asked if I wanted to break up the drive anywhere. Well, I said, there’s this Acadian Flycatcher in Middleburgh… We followed directions, drove past floodplains and into the hills, and right on target we hear the bird loudly ordering ‘Pizza! Pizza!’ Not a big rarity for our area – Region 8 is just a bit north of where Acadians are comfortable. I wonder if they’re a species like Carolina Wren and Black Vulture experimenting with expanding their range.

The Lark Sparrow up in the Fort Edward grasslands last Christmas was the subject of my most frustrating search ever. So when reports came in of one at the Wilton Wildlife Preserve, I had to go for it. It took some patience, but finally emerged so we could admire its striking facial markings.


The Preserve is very similar geologically to the Albany Pine Bush and hosts a population of the endangered Karner Blue Butterfly. A major hatch was underway as we walked the sandy trails.


Alert birders at Thacher Park noticed something odd about a Mockingbird – its wing patches were buffy instead of white, and it had a distinct eyering. That meant it was another western vagrant, Townsend’s Solitaire.   These thrushes frequent canyons and cliffs, eating juniper berries. I guess cedars at the edge of the Helderberg Escarpment felt just like home.


At a suburban Albany bird feeder someone different came for dinner. Another sparrow that’s unmistakably different! Why can’t they all be this easy to pick out? Harris’s Sparrow is, for a change, a mid-continental bird that rarely roams, and this one drew admirers from all over the state. The homeowners patiently put up with gear-laden hordes roaming their back yard, but I’m sure they were grateful when the bird finally disappeared after Thanksgiving.


‘The Patagonia Picnic Table Effect’ is a well-known birders’ phenomenon.

Basically, it means when birders turn out for a rarity, the concentration of skilled eyes tends to pull out more notable birds. In a fine example, the Harris’s wasn’t showing itself so we poked about into other promising tangles. One of the party urgently whispered and gestured towards a clump of multiflora rose where we saw… yes… a Bohemian Waxwing! The bird I’d hunted for three years, driving hundreds of miles in vain, right in front of me!


After last winter I swore I’d never chase them again, that the damned bird would have to come to ME.

And it did.

In the end, the one lifer that I didn’t chase was the most satisfying of the year.

Categories: Bird photos, Field trip, Life bird!, OMG bird | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

I know. At least I can do a year’s-end wrap-up.

In several parts, so I’ll have something to post for a few days…

Part one: Extralimital chases!

I always gripe about missing birds that everyone else saw, so this year I’m happy to say I had several successful long-distance expeditions! First, of course, was the glorious Gyrfalcon in Wallkill, told in more detail here. In late December a very similar bird showed up in the same location. A return visit? Nobody knows — this time it was a one-day wonder.


In April, in roughly the same area, a much weirder wanderer dropped in. Crested Caracaras are not migratory birds – they aren’t expected north of central Texas and Florida. So what was this one doing in Orange County, New York? Mostly hanging out at a small golf course, eating roadkill possum provided by the owners. It looks like an attenuated Bald Eagle with a bad toupee, and walks like a Secretary Bird. This one was was especially interesting, because it was missing its left eye. That didn’t seem to interfere with its scavenging or flying: it was seen a few months later in Massachusetts. I hope it finally figured out where South is…

IMG_2456 6.17.36 PM


In June I added two species to my ‘Heard Only’ life list (yes, I have multiple subcategories of life list, don’t we all?), both skulky birds with fortunately distinctive songs. Yellow-breasted Chat is a large unwarblerish warbler with a Catbird-like jumble of song fragments and noises. Some observers were lucky enough to see it perched high and displaying, but when I was there it never came out of dense tangled cover.

Henslow’s Sparrow, searched for on our annual club trip to Perch River WMA, was even more frustrating. We stood by the roadside in the drizzling rain and maybe saw a wingtip flash by. I suspect the bird doesn’t fly, but rather crawls on its belly like a reptile. An Amish family on their way to Sunday service just shook their heads: “Crazy English.”

Many years ago, before eBird, listservs, or the all-knowing internet, I tried to find a Painted Bunting in Florida based on a location in a birding guide that had last been updated… when? No luck that day, so when I heard a spectacular male was hanging out in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, it was time to revisit The City for the first time in years. Things sure have changed, especially bird-finding. GPS to find our way, eBird to check it was still present, and a whole network of cooperative birders to get to the exact spot. And there he was:


We ran out of adjectives. Technicolor! Luminous! Tie-dyed!

Media coverage was non-stop. Not just the bird, but vagrant birders got a moment of fame. If you’re curious what I look like when geeking out, here you go.

So that’s the year in out-of-town lifers. Tomorrow, local surprises!


Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Ubiquitous Yellowthroat

For all that their wicheta-wicheta-wicheta is unavoidable all summer, it’s surprisingly hard to get a picture of a Common Yellowthroat. This little female was cooperative, for a change.IMG_3058.

Categories: Bird photos, five rivers | Tags: , , | 4 Comments

Hooray for the Redtail white and blue…


I don’t know what the ethical status of Red-tailed Hawks is compared to Bald Eagles (which Ben Franklin considered ‘a Bird of bad moral character’) but this guy at the Albany Pine Bush knew just what what this flagpole needed.

I looked up the quotation, and the whole passage is so delightful I had to copy it here. In a letter to his daughter, Franklin said:

“For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.

With all this injustice, he is never in good case but like those among men who live by sharping & robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district. He is therefore by no means a proper emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our country…

“I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”
Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/american-myths-benjamin-franklins-turkey-and-the-presidential-seal-6623414/#BKU4Qei2PYMQ18Io.99

Categories: Bird photos, raptors | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Things are buzzing

It’s going to be an exceptional year for apples. All our trees are loaded down and a few apples are starting to fall to the ground. I see a lot of applesauce in my future.

The goldenrod is attracting many varieties of pollinators, from fat bumblebees to tiny glossy metallic critters that hover and dive like dragonflies. Even the yellow jackets aren’t aggressive while feeding. The whole patch is in a constant state of whir and buzz. Maybe they sense the days growing shorter, adding urgency to all they do.

I haven’t seen any Monarch caterpillars in the milkweed patch, though a few butterflies have visited it.

Despite the unseasonable heat this week, fall is coming fast. I’m starting to see the first color in the sumacs and in the swamp maples across the pond. My favorite season is almost here!

Categories: apples, flowers, insects | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

King of the Pond vs the Demon Duck

I don’t visit Vischer Ferry much during the summer. But as the days get shorter the clouds of mosquitoes thin out, and once again I can check the paths for migrating birds.

It’s not just that fall plumage warblers are harder to tell apart, but the thick foliage only allows frustrating brief glimpses of birds in quick motion. Nevertheless I was able to find a half-dozen warbler species: Black-and-white, Canada, Magnolia, American Redstart, Blue-winged, and Common (should be Ubiquitous) Yellowthroat. And for all the pictures I took, I don’t think I got one feather in focus…

Some people say Roger Tory Peterson’s one error was labeling that plate ‘Confusing Fall Warblers.’ It sets up an expectation of difficulty that is, with a few exceptions, exaggerated. It might have been more accurate to say ‘Fall Warblers: Easier than silent sparrows!’ Or ‘You want confusing? Check out shorebirds!’

Waterfowl are a lot more cooperative. This Great Blue Heron stood like a sculpture framed in green.


At a nearby reservoir, male Wood Ducks were transitioning into nuptial plumage. This fellow’s blue-green iridescent wings caught my attention, but it’s his eye that makes the picture.


I’d never noticed that furious crimson eye so clearly before. Probably because full breeding plumage is so stunning!


This was taken a bit later in the season last year, in October. For some reason he had formed an attachment to a female Mallard and escorted her all around their little pond.

Categories: bird behavior, Bird photos, ducks, herons, vischer ferry | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Owl right

I moaned a bit late last year about not being able to find a Screech Owl locally. This year I’ve had better luck, having heard one call a few times (though not close enough to count as a yard bird!). Then there were these guys…

You see a bird somewhere once, and every time you pass that way you check the same dead snag or lucky tree. Years ago, before I was seriously birding again, someone saw an Eastern Screech Owl in a roost box in Saratoga. And religiously, every time I passed by there I’d give it a peep. I have no idea how many times I checked — it’s on my regular route up to the grasslands — but it must have been upwards of one hundred. Then one sunny morning in February I looked up to see this sleepy face.


At Five Rivers in April, this little owl chose to roost in a hollow tree not 15 feet off a busy trail, and if you weren’t looking for it you’d pass right by.



So that’s Screech, Great Horned, and Barred for the year. We didn’t have another arctic invasion of Snowy Owls, and the deep early frozen snowpack may have sent the Short-ears south to more hospitable hunting areas. I’ll see what the winter brings!

Categories: Bird photos, owls | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.