Sam Crowe on October 15th, 2016

Woodpeckers offer an endlessly fascinating study in bird behavior and style. The more you watch, the more engaging they become. Part of it is anatomy. Their broad wings, stiff tail feathers, and unusual toe arrangement are ideally combined for maneuvering quickly through your trees and bushes, screeching to a halt, and grabbing onto the bark with their feet in a perfect, amazing vertical landing. Then, using their tail for counterbalance, they almost rappel down your tree, tail first, until they reach their goal.

Nuttall's Woodpecker

Nuttall’s Woodpecker. © Greg Lavaty.

There are 22 species of woodpeckers in the United States.  The new mini-guide to Woodpeckers features full descriptions  and images of 10 of the most common or unusual woodpeckers plus images of the other 12 woodpecker species found in North America.  The photographs feature the work of three of North America’s top bird and nature photographers.

Information includes tips on feeding woodpeckers and woodpecker fun facts.  A range map for each of the featured 10 species is included.

The guide is ideal for educators wishing to teach about these fascinating birds.  The downloadable file includes a printable PDF document along with the calls of five different woodpecker species.

The Guide is free to download.

Williamson's Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus thyroideus) perched on a branch in British Columbia, Canada.

Williamson’s Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus thyroideus) perched on a branch in British Columbia, Canada. Photo by Glenn Bartley.

Additional free materials for educations, including bird flash cards and a bird bingo game are also available on

Sam Crowe on October 10th, 2016

To answer the question of what makes a white bird white we first have to ask what makes a black bird black.   The answer to that question is a pigment called melanin.  Melanin is a black pigment that produces the black feather color in birds.

Melanin is an important pigment to birds, even those that are almost white in their normal plumage.   Melanin adds strength to the feathers.  Many gulls and the American White Pelican are mainly white, but tips of the otherwise white wings are black.  The wing tips have the most stress and the melanin provides greater strength.   Birds with less melanin in their feathers have weaker feathers that tend to wear faster.

Leucism is a complex condition that causes birds to have abnormally pale or white feathers.   The entire bird may be effected or just the feathers on certain parts of the bird.  In Leucistic birds other pigments, such as carotenoids, which creates yellow or orange colors, may still be present and active or may also be inhibited from some other cause.

Leucistic Red-tailed Hawk

Leucistic Red-tailed Hawk

The term leucism covers several different conditions that are difficult to distinguish.

In a leucistic bird or leucistic feathers, the melanin-producing cells are absent and melanin is not produced.

Another condition is sometimes referred to as Dilution.  In this case the chromatophore (pigment cell) is present but produces less pigment than normal, producing feathers with a washed-out look.

Leucistic grackle

Leucistic grackle

So what about an albino bird?

Technically Albinism is caused a genetic mutation causing an absence of tyrosinase in pigment cells, which means the bird can not produce melanin. As with leucistic birds, carotenoid pigments may or may not still be present.

While the root cause of the two conditions is very similar, eye color is way to tell the two conditions apart.   Albino birds have a pink eye, leucistic birds have a dark eye.

True albino birds are rare and seldom live very long in the wild. Poor eyesight is thought to contribute to their short lives.

With albinism, unlike leucism, there can not be a partially albino bird.

It’s confusing:
There is much conflicting information about the two conditions on the web.  The British Trust for Ornithology, a highly-respected organization, says this:

“As with leucistic individuals, albinos can retain carotenoid pigments if normally present in the plumage.”

The widely-read About web site has this conflicting, and inaccurate, information:

“Albinism, on the other hand, affects all the pigments, and albino birds show no color whatsoever in their feathers. Furthermore, an albino mutation also affects the bird’s other pigments in the skin and eyes, and albino birds show pale pink or reddish eyes, legs, feet and a pale bill, while leucistic birds often have normally colored eyes, legs, feet and bills.”

The most complete explanation that I have found is provided on the Sibley Guides web site.  It discusses both brown and black melanin and has illustrations of a normal cardinal, an albino cardinal, partially leucistic cardinal, leucistic cardinal, a cardinal lacking phawolwmanin, a cardinal lacking eumelanin and a cardinal in Dilute plumage.

Melanism is the opposite condition.  In melanistic birds more than a normal amount of melanin is present in the feathers and the bird is darker than normal.  This condition is generally rarer than leucism in small birds.  Several raptor species, however, have both a light color morph and a very dark color morph.

New research from the Nature Conservancy and university scientists revealed that only 41 percent of the natural land area in the United States retains enough connectivity to facilitate species tracking their preferred climate conditions as the global climate changes. As part of that study, scientists modeled the distribution and habitat needs of 2,903 vertebrate species in the Western hemisphere against land use and projected climate patterns.

The migrations in motion map provides a unique visualization of migratory patterns of birds, mammals and amphibians.

Conservancy cartographer and analyst Dan Majka brought this data to life in a series of maps that show what corridors mammals, amphibians, and other animals will use as they move to new habitats under projected climate change. Inspired by wind maps of the United States, and using code from Earth global wind map, adapted by Chris Helm, Majka’s dynamic map allows scientists and the public to see the continent-wide impact of climate change on animals and visualize corridors they will need to move.

The animated map and more information on the Cool Green Science web site.

Sam Crowe on September 26th, 2016

A widely used phrase for developing a bird-friendly yard is “habitat development.”  Plant a few trees, shrubs and flowers, add a water feature and you are done – habitat developed.

I prefer to think of my home, its two inhabitants and the surrounding yard, as a micro-ecosystem.   If a giant, and oddly shaped bell jar was placed over my home and small yard could I and the other creatures living there survive?  Obviously not, but I try to think along those lines.

To develop my micro-ecosystem I considered two things that work together.

1.  Use of safe, natural organic gardening products.  Avoid pesticides and harsh chemical fertilizers.
The most important part of my ecosystem starts underground.  Healthy soil is loaded with heaps of microbial life and critters like earthworms.  These underground denizens of my yard will do great things if I let them; as they feed on things like dead blades of grass and leaves.

And just as too much salt in the diet is not good for people, too much salt is not good for the those underground caretakers of the yard.  Chemical fertilizers act as a salt, either killing or driving beneficial underground life down deeper or away from where they can do the most good. Every good gardener knows good earth is the key to a good garden and that extends to the yard.

Pesticides are also a bad idea.  They kill good insects and have potentially bad effects on other wildlife.

I turn to Howard Garrett, AKA the Dirt Doctor for information on safe, organic gardening and yard management.  He has a great web site and his radio show is broadcast on over 200 stations across the country.

Howard Garrett the Dirt Doctor.

Howard Garrett the Dirt Doctor.

2. Native plants
For flowers, tress, shrubs etc I focus on the use of native plants.  I hired an expert on the native plants that do well in my north central Texas location.  He helped with the planning and selection of the plants and was able to supply many of the plantings.

Native species do well with less water and tend to be insect and disease resistant, helped along by the healthy soil in which they are grown.

Audubon has a great new web site for native plants.  Users enter their email address and zip code.  The results show  list of native plants for the area along with information on the birds attracted.

Audubon native plant database

Audubon native plant database


Audubon native plant database search results.

Audubon native plant database search results.

I am not where I want to be yet, but am always looking for ways to support my micro-ecosystem.  Composting is next on my list of things to do.

Sam Crowe on September 21st, 2016

One of the most interest facets of bird watching is studying bird behavior..  The behavior of a bird, including posture, the way they move, feed and fly can be distinctive enough to identify a bird just by its behavior.   Here are my five favorite bird behaviors, mostly learned early in my birding career, which is probably why I enjoy them so much.

1. Marsh Hawk
Many years ago I needed two hours to graduate from college. My botany professor, Dr. Bob Neal, offered to give me the credit if I would do some research for him and learn to identify 100 birds by sight and 25 by their call, and some more research.  I had never been birding before in my life.

On one of the first trips Dr. Neil identified a Marsh Hawk at a great distant, no binoculars needed.  It turned out the Marsh Hawk (now called the Northern Harrier) hunts by flying low over grassy fields.  I was impressed, also by the distinctive white rump of the hawk.  Of course I later learned that Short-eared Owls hunt in a similar fashion.

2.  Black Skimmer
An early trip to the Texas coast revealed a bird I had never heard of called a Black Skimmer.  Their unique bill and feeding style made this bird an easy ID for a beginner birder and a fascinating introduction into the world of unique bird behavior.

3.  Spotted Sandpiper
This bird stands out as a shorebird I identified by myself, far from the coast.  They are a rather plain looking bird when they visit Texas in the fall.   They bob as trey walk around but the more distinctive move to me was the way they fly.   Their seemingly stiff wings beat rapidly and show a thin white line across the back.  They seldom raise more than 3 feet or so when moving along a shore line or mud flat.

4.  Reddish Egret
Many years ago I was birding on the Texas coast in the company of a young lady,  She had been birding a few years but was not experienced with coastal specials.  She was trying to convince me that a Reddish Egret was really a Little Blue Heron.   I told her to be patient and watch the bird’s behavior.  If it started to hunt for food it would move around in what appeared to be a drunken, erratic manner.   It also might use its wings to shield light from the soon.  Right on time, the bird began to dance around in search of a fish.  That call paid dividends later that evening:)

5. Brown Pelican
Many years ago the Brown Pelican was almost extinct in the United States.  My first observation of this bird occurred on a lake near Dallas.  A very unusual inland record and at the time a very good record for the state.

Brown Pelicans have made a remarkable recovery and are one of my favorite birds to watch.   They will glide effortlessly along the surface of the ocean, sometimes seeming to fly in the trough between waves.  So smooth and graceful.

Their feeding style is what make them so spectacular.  As they soar high over the water in search of a fish that almost come to a stop before folding their wings and diving straight into the water.  A spectacular move i can watch for hours.

Sam Crowe on September 11th, 2016

Euphonias and chlorophonias are neotropical birds in the finch family.  They were previously placed in the tanager family.  DNA research has moved them to the finches but future research may change things again.

They are typically small, colorful birds about 4 inches long. They primarily feed on fruit and berries and will also take small insects. They have short tails and a chunky body.

Both groups are endemic to the Neotropics.

Chlorophonias are mostly green birds. There are only five recognized chlorophonia species.     The unusual bright green color make them one of my favorite, albeit very small, family of birds.

Yellow-collared chlorophonia
Blue-naped Chlorophonia
Chestnut-breasted Chlorophonia
Blue-crowned Chlorophonia
Golden-browed Chlorophonia


Blue-naped Chlorophonia


Golden-browed Chlorophonia

Golden-browed Chlorophonia

Male euphonias are often colorful, with dark metallic blue above, contrasting with yellows, and reds below.  Males and females are very different in appearance.  Females much duller.  There are 27 recognized species according to the 44th supplement of the AOU checklist.

Violaceous Euphonia

Violaceous Euphonia


Orange-bellied Euphonia

Orange-bellied Euphonia


Orange-bellied Euphonia female

Orange-bellied Euphonia, female


Chestnut-bellied Euphonia

Chestnut-bellied Euphonia

All photographs are by the outstanding nature and bird photographer Glenn Bartley.

Sam Crowe on September 5th, 2016

The path of Hurricane Hermine seems ideal for birders looking to discover birds far removed from their normal range.  As it moved through the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico the eye of the storm trapped thousands of birds that were then forced far north of their normal range.

As birds encounter rotating hurricane force winds they sometimes spiral inward into the eye of the hurricane.  The relative calm of the eye seems like a safe haven compared to the powerful winds outside the eye.  Many birds will find it easier to move with the eye of the hurricane than to try to force their way out.  As a hurricane moves inland, the winds diminish and the birds can escape the storm.

It is this forced movement of birds trapped in the eye of the storm that excites birders as they search for species well out of their normal range. Some birders will brave hurricane force winds in hopes of seeing a rare bird; perhaps adding a new species to the official state list or a new species for their own life list.

As Hurricane Hermine moved northward along the eastern coast,  it began to weaken and thousands of birds had the opportunity to escape.  Many may have been sea birds from the Caribbean, such as the Brown Noddy (a type of term) that is sometimes reported along the eastern coast after hurricanes.  The Brown Noddy is normally found in the Dry Tortugas and other Caribbean Islands.

Brown Noddy in flight

Brown Noddy

In September of 2008 I observed a Magnificent Frigatebird near Ithaca, New York, no doubt carried north by the winds of Hurricane Ike.  The Magnificent Frigatebird is a rare summer visitor to the Gulf Coast and east coast of Florida.  As with this sighting, it is sometimes driven inland by storms.

Magnificent Frigatbird in flight

Magnificent Frigatbird

Bad for the birds:
During September millions of songbirds are migrating south for the winter.  Some larger shorebirds may be able to fly through a hurricane but smaller birds, such as warblers and tanagers, are no match for a hurricane and are no doubt lost at sea.   Hurricanes can also damage prime nesting locations.

Birds moved by the hurricane may remain out of their normal range for several days.  Gulls and terns are powerful fliers with good homing instincts. They will have a good chance to make their way back to their normal, seasonal home.  Smaller birds that were migrating south may not have the energy to repeat their earlier migration path.

Weather radar:
In recent years weather radar has been used to locate and even monitor the movement of migrating birds.  Weatherman Brad Panovich posted this picture showing thousands of birds trapped in the eye of Hurricane Hermine.

Radar image of Birds trapped in eye of a Hurricane.

Birds trapped in eye of Hurricane Hermine.

There is now a lot of online information on the use of radar to track bird migration.  Three of the best are:

Badbirdz Reloaded
Clemson University

Fall is a great time to study migrating raptors.  Multiple hawk watch locations around the country are located where the geography funnels large numbers of hawks through the area.

Hawk Mountain, PA:
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary is a 2,600-acre natural area in southeastern Pennsylvania, about 30 miles west of Allentown, Pa. It is perhaps the best-known hawk migration location in the country.  Between August 15 and December 15 an average 18,000 raptors fly past its ridge tops, often at eye-level.

Corpus Christi, Texas
Many raptors migrate along the gulf coast as they head into Mexico and points south.  There are several hawk watch locations along the gulf coast.  The best may be the one located in Corpus Christi, Texas at Hazel Bazemore County Park.

Corpus Christi is the only HawkWatch in North America where you have a chance of seeing Swallow-tailed Kites, White-tailed Kites, Mississippi Kites, Zone-tailed Hawks, Short-tailed Hawks, White-tailed Hawks, and Harris’s Hawks.

Swallow-tailed Hawk

Swallow-tailed Hawk

Broad-winged Hawks typically comprise greater than 95% of the total count, but counts of Mississippi Kites, Turkey Vultures, and Swainson’s Hawks also typically total in the thousands.  Over 1 million raptors have been counted in one fall season.

All birders or even non-birders are welcome to visit.

Visit the Hawk Watch International web site to learn more about hawk watches and to find a hawk watch location.

Sam Crowe on August 28th, 2016

I may be in the minority of people that feed birds but I love Blue Jays.  Whenever a neighbor or birding buddy makes a disparaging remark about a Blue Jay I counter with this quote from the Bent Life History series.

Bl.ue Jay

Blue Jay

“The blue jay is a strong, healthy-looking bird, noisy and boisterous.  He gives us the impression of being independent, lawless, haughty, even impudent, with a disregard for his neighbors’ rights and wishes: like Hotspur, as we meet him in Henry IV, part 1.

To be sure, the jay has his quiet moments, as we shall see, but his mercurial temper, always just below the boiling point, is ever ready to flare up into rage and screaming attack, or, like many another diplomat, beat a crafty retreat. He is a strikingly beautiful bird: blue, black, and white, big and strong, his head carrying a high, pointed crest which in anger shoots upward like a flame. Walter Faxon long ago told me of a distinguished visiting English ornithologist who was eager to see a live blue jay because he considered it the finest bird in the world. He was surprised to find that this beauty, as he called it, is one of our common birds.”

Blue Jays readily visit feeders for sunflower and suet. They are more willing to share space at feeders than some give them credit for.   A family has been making regular visits to the feeders in my back yard.  They are adapt at using window feeders and an upside-down suet feeder.

Blue Jay at window feeder.

Blue Jay at window feeder. The tail makes a nice prop.


Blue Jay at suet feeder.

Blue Jay at suet feeder.


Young blue jay begging for food.

Young begging for food.


Adult feeding young blue jay.

Adult feeding young.

Blue Jays have a mixed migration pattern. Some Blue Jays in the northern United States are permanent residents, while other members of the same population migrate south in the winter.

Blue Jays are members of the Corvid family, which includes crows and ravens. Corvids are among the smartest birds and Blue Jays are no exception. Their intelligence supports a variety of behaviors.

The Gardener
Like many birds, Blue Jays will cache food for later consumption. Acorns are a favorite food.  Blue Jays will bury acorns for consumption at a later date.  A single Blue Jay may hide 3,000 – 5,000 acorns in a season.  Some of these hidden acorns are not eaten and grow into a new oak tree.

At the end of the last ice age, about 10,000 years ago, oak trees advanced north again at a faster rate than would have been expected. One theory is that the acorn-hiding Blue Jays accelerated the northward expansion.

The Mimic
Blue Jays are best-known for their loud “jay” call.  They also give soft, easy-to-miss notes when communicating with other nearby Blue Jays, especially when around their nest. A queerieup and many other often strange calls are in their standard repertoire.

They frequently, and quite accurately, mimic the calls of Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks.

The Hunter
While not a common behavior, Blue Jays will raid the nests of other birds, dining on eggs or young. They will rarely take small, adult birds.  I did once see a Blue Jay sitting on a large tree limb feeding on a Dark-eyed Junco.

The Protector
Blue Jays will loudly mob hawks or owls that invade a Blue Jays territory. Their loud calls announce to other birds in the neighborhood that a predator is in the area.

By the way, Blue Jays aren’t actually blue. The pigment in their feathers is brown. The feather structure causes light to refract, resulting in the blue color.

The next time you see a Blue Jay thank them for the all the oak tress they have planted, and marvel at their memory that can locate hundreds of buried acorns that were cached for later consumption.

Quote from the Bent Life History quote was written by Winsor Marrett Tyler.

Oak Woodland Management – University of California

Blue Jay: Acorn Planters – Loyola University New Orleans

Sam Crowe on August 21st, 2016

If you went on a birding trip to Melanesia, where would you be?  Any guesses?

Melanesia extends from the western end of the Pacific Ocean to the Arafura Sea, and eastward to Fiji. The region includes the four countries of Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Fiji, and Papua New Guinea. Now you know.

Each of these island groups has their own history and reputation.  Vanuatu is perhaps the least know of the group. It is also known as the New Hebrides and includes New Caledonia.

Fiji is known for its beautiful beaches and Papua New Guinea for its famous Birds-of-Paradise.

The Solomon Islands are best known to many from World War II and the Battle of Guadalcanal, one of the islands in the Solomon island chain.

All of these distant islands can be difficult to reach and are seldom visited by birders.  Rockjumper Birding Tours is one of the few companies that regularly provides birding and nature tours to the area. In October of 2017 they are offering tours to New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.  These are great trips that provide birders with the opportunity to see birds found no where else in the world.

Blyths Hornbill

Blyths Hornbill. © Markus Lilje

Their Secrets of Melanesia 2017 expedition features birding, wildlife and cultural tours as it takes birders into a world that few have ever experienced, including visiting idyllic islands and isolated villages.

Ducorp's or Solomons Cockatoo

Ducorp’s or Solomons Cockatoo

Commencing in Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands, the tour sets sail to discover the beauty of the outer Solomon Islands. Birders can relax as their ship glides into secluded bays. The trip extends into Vanuatu where birders will search for several endemic bird species.

In addition, the waters of the Solomon Islands provide some of the greatest diving in the world. The trip offers various opportunities for participants to snorkel and appreciate the beauty beneath the waves. An optional scuba-diving program includes an opportunity to explore wrecks from World War II.

This would certainly qualify as a trip of lifetime.

Rockjumper Birding Tours