The Tale Of Two Warblers

The Minister Creek Overlook – Allegheny National Forest

This past weekend I did a trip into the heart of the Allegheny National Forest (ANF). If you have never heard of this place it is located in north western PA and encompasses the counties of Warren, McKean, Forest and Elk. This forest is huge!! It is 513,000 acres (801 Sq. miles). You could easily spend weeks here and still not be able to explore all this place has to offer. This is a map showing where it is located in the state of Pennsylvania.

It is also home to many of the northern breeding birds. With such vast forest and pristine wilderness it has very high concentrations of many species of birds that call this place home for the summer. You can find close to 20 species of warblers that breed here along with many other birds such as Winter Wren, Northern Goshawk, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Swainsons Thrush, Hermit Thrush, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Blue-headed Vireo, Dark-eyed Junco, just to name a few. Some of these birds are super common here while others are quite rare. The birder that I am, I’m always on the lookout for those rare species. I came across tons upon tons of awesome warblers and birds, however only two cooperated nicely for pictures.  The one was a very common and abundant warbler of these forest while the other was a prized find! I’ll start with the one that is very common.

This is the very abundant Black-throated Green Warbler. Just because they are super common, doesn’t mean they are any less attractive. They are actually stunning birds. With an extensive jet black throat, a green back, a mostly Yellow head and bold white wing bars, they leave most birders in ooh and aahs at their beautiful sight.

This BTG posed nearly flawlessly for me as he hopped from one branch to another. These warblers prefer mostly coniferous forests but I will often find them in a mix of deciduous and conifers. They particularly seem to love the hemlock stands.

This is the kind of typical forest habitat where your likely to find one of these warblers in the ANF.

Like most of the song birds, it’s easiest to find these birds by first hearing and identifing their song. Their primary song goes “zee zee zee zo zay” which they usually sing when they are in the middle of their territory and trying to attract a mate. Their secondary song goes “zee zo zo zo zay” which they tend to sing more on the edge of their territory and sing it to defend against other intruding males.

If you don’t have the opportunity to get these guys on their breeding territory, don’t worry as they are also a very commonly seen warbler in both the spring and fall migration where you can find them nearly anywhere in woodlands during those times.

The other warbler I got that is much more rarer and difficult to find was the Mourning Warbler. It was by far my prized find for the day!

I’ve only seen these warblers a handful of times and this might be the best photo I’ve ever got of one. They prefer a very different kind of habitat compared to the BTG Warbler. They like clear cuts in the forest and need lots of thick brush where they like to keep under cover. They also love brushy areas that have raspberry and blackberry entanglements, so that is good to look for when trying to locate one of these warblers. This is the road where I found this one which you can see how much more of an open area it is.

I was driving down this road and it looked to me like prime habitat for the Mourning Warbler. So I pulled over to the side of the road, stopped the car and just listened from the window. Immediate I heard a Chestnut-sided Warbler singing along with a Catbird, Towhee and Rose-breasted Grosbeak. I gave it a little more time and all of a sudden down a little ways in the thick brush I heard the unmistakable song of the Mourning!! So now I knew one was there, now if I can only see him! I slowly approached where I heard the song come from and I spotted a little bird in the brush playing peek a boo with me. It was him!!!

They always seem like very shy birds so I gave him a little time and slowly he came out from hiding a little more.

This was the bird I had really been hoping for, over all the others so getting to see this beautiful bird was a pure delight. Eventually with a little patience he came out for an even better view.

It is estimated that only 10% of the total Mourning Warbler population breeds in the US, so the vast majority go further north into Canada. Needless to say it is a great bird to find breeding here in my home state of PA. Eventually this bird cooperated very nicely for me and I got him here pretty close!

This little guy was the highlight of my day. And it was another great day back into the north woods of the mighty Allegheny National Forest.

The Northern Shoveler

This is a male Northern Shoveler. I’ve been having great luck finding lots of these this past month as they have been migrating through, going onward to their breeding grounds of Canada and Western United States. They tend to be more common on the western side of the continent so some years they can be a challenge to find in my home state of Pennsylvania. If you read my previous post on my waterfowl bonanza day, you saw that I found lots of them up in Crawford County and in very good numbers, which usually from my experience doesn’t happen often. My luck finding more continued yesterday when I visited a local park nearby, Northmoreland, and found this nice male. When I first spotted him he was all by himself out in the middle of the lake. I got some distant shots of him out there and usually with highly skittish species such as the Shoveler, that’s about all you can hope for.

However this Shoveler seemed a little more tolerant to people than most. I watched as many people walking the park passed by him and he would only swim away causally, not franticly fly away like they usually do. So then I decided to spend some time and see if it was possible to get a little closer to this very handsome duck. With a little patience and slow moving I got the closest I’ve ever been to this species!

If you are familiar with other ducks you may notice his bill looks a little different than the rest. He has a large spatulate bill that is shaped very similar to a shovel, hence how they got their name. You can see the shape better if you see it from the top, such as in this picture when he was preening.

You can really see the difference when compared to a Mallard’s bill.

So if you’re like me, you may be wondering why is his bill shaped differently? Well like so many species, they are adapted to fit a special niche in nature. Here is a paragraph I took from Wikipedia that explains it all:

Northern shovelers feed by dabbling for plant food, often by swinging its bill from side to side and using the bill to strain food from the water. They use their highly specialized bill (from which their name is derived) to forage for aquatic invertebrates – a carnivorous diet. Their wide-flat bill is equipped with well-developed lamellae – small, comb-like structures on the edge of the bill that act like sieves, allowing the birds to skim crustaceans and plankton from the water’s surface. This adaptation, more specialized in shovelers, gives them an advantage over other puddle ducks, with which they do not have to compete for food resources during most of the year. Thus, mud-bottomed marshes rich in invertebrate life are their habitat of choices”.

Aren’t these ducks amazing!

I tried to get even closer to this bird that seemed very tolerant of me. However I approached a bit too quickly and startled him at one point and he took off. Luckily he didn’t go very far….only about 50 yards down the lake. Once he took flight however, it afforded me the opportunity to get a close flight shot.

I was about to go home at that point but I looked over and he was actually swimming back over to where he flew from. I then hunkered down low to the ground and tried to conceal myself behind a park bench. To my amazement he came right back over and swam so close to me I almost couldn’t fit him in the frame! And to add to that, he swam into a beautiful spot where the perfectly still water gave him a magnificent mirror reflection.

At that point, I had to say this was the coolest Shoveler I had ever encountered. If only all birds would cooperate this well for picture taking. I had to take just a few more photos before I called it a day and headed for home. What a beautiful, unique and stunning bird to be able to see at such close range!

A Waterfowl Bonanza!

There is a different kind of March madness that happens this time of year. No I’m not talking about college hoops but the massive waterfowl migration! Here in Pennsylvania ducks, geese and swans begin to move through the area heading north to their breeding grounds and the peak time is right around the middle of March. So the avid birder that I am, I always find time this time of year to hit some lakes and wetlands to see what I can find. One of the best areas in Western PA is in and around Crawford County. The places I really like looking around at are Geneva Marsh, Conneaut Marsh, Conneaut Lake and Pymatuning. So yesterday I decided to go and see what I could find. I got up at the crack of dawn and headed northward. By 9am I was at my first location at Geneva Marsh. This is an incredible birding place and sits right on I-79, a little south of Meadville. If you’ve ever traveled this stretch of I-79 you no doubt have seen this place because it is huge! The very southern tip of the marsh is known as Custards and what makes this spot really nice is that the road cuts right across it, so if you’re lucky the birds can be right out your car window. And yes I had some luck with these Ring-necked Ducks that were just 15 yards or so from the road. My first ducks for the day!

Just a little further down the road and I came across another fine looking pair….Mr. and Mrs. Wood Duck!

Like so many species of waterfowl, Wood Ducks are highly skittish and it doesn’t take much for them to spook. Within a minute they had about enough of me taking pictures from my car window and decided to leave.

Looking out across the marsh were hundred upon hundred of various ducks, geese and swans. Those white blobs in the back is a huge flock of Tundra Swans!!

And here is a more focused shot of the huge flock with I-79 in the background.

I looked back at the bridge where I had crossed and saw some American Wigeons swimming in close. I put the car in reverse and pull up slowly to them. They stayed for a little bit and here I caught them as they lifted off.

Then I spotted a Pied-billed Grebe swimming in close to the road. I waited for him to submerge and I got out of the car and quickly headed to the guard rail and waiting for him to come up. He eventually popped up but looked like he was trying to imitate the Lock Ness Monster…haha!

The morning was moving along so I decided at that point to go further north and hit some more spots. Next was to McMichael Road which is on the edge of Conneaut Marsh, just above Geneva Marsh. I found lots more waterfowl there including Mallards, Green-winged Teal, Hooded Mergansers, Wood Ducks, Northern Pintails and American Wigeons. However the only things close enough for decent pictures was this beautiful pair of Northern Shovelers! Notice their very uniquely shaped bill.

It turned out to be one of my best days for finding lots of Shovelers! At my next stop at the Pymatuning fish hatchery I found a huge flock of them huddled on the ice resting.

Just then I looked up in the sky and spotted yet another flock of Tundra Swans. I hoped that they might land nearby where I could get some shots of them coming down, however they continued on, eventually going out of sight.

At this point it was nearing the noon hour so I headed over to the Pymatuning causeway which goes across the Ohio border. I was getting hungry so I pulled into the parking area there and took out my sandwich for a bite to eat. All the Ring-billed Gulls in the area must know when people stop there, there’s a good chance they have food and before I knew it my car was surrounded by dozen of gulls. This afforded me the opportunity for a close up portrait. And yes I shared a little of my sandwich.

And then there they were….my best duck of the day! Two Long-tailed Ducks swimming out from the causeway parking lot. I sat there waiting, hoping and praying that they would come closer. But NO!! They were not in the least interested in being cooperative birds for photos, so all I got was this very distant shot. But hey, it’s an awesome bird to at least see.

I then swung over to the Millers Pond area but unfortunately with the bitter cold, 90% of the ponds there were iced over with not much in the way of birds. I did see a Rough Legged Hawk there flying off and did catch these two Sandhill Cranes as they flew over.

It was now nearing the 1 o’clock hour and I still had lots of hours of daylight left so as a spur of the moment decision, I headed to Conneaut Ohio along Lake Erie to see what else I could find. After the 30 minute drive I got to the Conneaut Harbor and the first bird I see is a Common Goldeneye swimming right next to the deck of the harbor. I waited for him to submerge and then quickly got out of the car and hoped for a nice shot as he surfaced. He popped up but as soon as he did, the little bugger spotted me hunkered down on the ground and just like that he was off.

I then continued around the Harbor and then spotted something I was not expecting. The rarest bird of the day! A juvenile Glaucous Gull!! What a treat and he was sitting with a group of Ring-billed Gulls not more than 20 yards from the harbor!

The marina area was loaded with more ducks, the most abundant being hundreds upon hundreds of Red-breasted Mergansers. This one looked like he was walking on water.

I then stopped back at some of the places I had been earlier in the day. The ducks were still abundant everywhere I went. Back at Conneaut Marsh the ducks were flying around in hysteria and then I saw the reason why when eventually a Bald Eagle flew over. This is a Gadwall with Pintails in the back.

More Northern Pintails.

And here’s what spooked them all…

My last image of the day came from the same spot where I got my first picture of the day, back at Geneva Marsh at Custards. Here another Bald Eagle looks over a lake full of waterfowl.

A Winter of Shorties!

I saw my first Short-eared Owls almost 10 years ago when I first got into birding. They quickly became, in my opinion, one of the most enjoyable birds to watch and take photos of. However 2008 was the last year I had good luck finding them and the last I had some decent shots of them. In the years since then I would be lucky to see one per year and it usually would be when there was virtually no light left. Short-eared Owls mostly breed up in Canada so I only see them in my home state of Pennsylvania during the winter season from about Decemeber through March. These owls like to inhabit various grasslands like old reclaimed strip mine areas or Amish farms. Like most owls they roost during the day but the best chance to see them is about an hour before sunset when they wake up and begin their hunting in search of a tasty rodent. Their favorite is the meadow vole and any place that has an abundance of them, then there’s a good chance they’ll stick around through the winter and get their fill. Finally this winter of 2017 they have been back in better numbers and I have seen them in several different locations. The reason could be, is that these areas have an abundance of rodents unlike years in the past.

Like a lot of birds, they don’t get spooked easily by just seeing a car, so the best way to get pics of them is to watch for one to land, drive up slowly and shoot from your car window. Such as how I got this shot which was one of my first from this winter.

These owls have a much different flight style compared to the Harriers that you also see in the same areas. Shorties have what is described as a very buoyant and floppy kind of flight which makes them look light as a feather when they are flying about.

They love to find a favorite perch where they can listen and look from. Many love the Amish corn stalks.

One of the coolest things to see is when they fly by and have their eyes locked on you. They have the most piercing eyes and such an expressive face.

Occasionally they will fly up fairly high but most often they really like to hug the ground and typically aren’t up more than 10 feet. This no doubt lets them hear and see a rodent they are trying to find much more effectively.

Some birds just know how to put on a good show for birders and photographers and these owls are one of the best at doing that. They love interacting with one another as they chase each other through the fields and often bark at each other in a very strange sounding call. In this shot I got three together.

One evening as it was getting a little too dark for pictures, I was heading out the road but found one sitting on top of a telephone pole. I slowly pulled up beside him, stuck the camera out the window and began to get some shots. I think he heard my shutter clicking away and turned his head to the side as to say “what’s that funny noise I hear” much like how your pet dog does when it hears something.

Since they begin to get active right around the sunset hour, if you’re lucky you can get them with some brilliant colors in the sky which were some of my favorite shots I got of them.

I very much hope these owls will be back next winter in good numbers like they were this year. Unfortunately their population numbers have plummeted in recent decades mostly due to loss of habitat. Hopefully they can find a way to bounce back. I could truly watch these guys every day and never get tired of it.

Osprey on the Hunt!

There are many reasons I am inspired by birds and wildlife, but maybe the biggest thing that I am awe-struck by is when I witness their absolutely phenomenal physical abilities they display just in order to survive from day to day. This past Saturday at Keystone Lake in Armstrong County I watched this Osprey for several hours on his hunting forays and he was a fine example of what I am talking about. First off, Osprey, like all birds of prey, possess out of this world eye sight. If they don’t have this, they will never find anything to catch. Secondly their flight skills need a combination of agility and power to go after what they find. In the case of Osprey they are always going after a fish in the water which requires tremendous precision and strength. This Osprey I found was a juvenile by his dark orange eyes. The adults will change into light yellow eyes.

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Osprey when they are hunting will typically fly up quite high and do a lot of circling while constantly keeping a watchful eye to the water.

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Often when they are eyeing up a fish, they will hover in one spot, as was the case here.

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I watched this Osprey in the couple hours I was there perform at least half a dozen dives. Only once did he come away with a little fish. Perhaps with his young age he still needs to perfect his hunting skills. Most of his dives ended with him coming up empty.

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Osprey catch fish much differently than how Bald Eagles do. Eagles will circle around and come in very low right above the water’s surface and when they come over the fish, they’ll just stick their feet into the water and grab the fish out with their mighty talons. The only thing they get wet is their feet. Osprey on the other hand will dive straight down like a missile, stick their legs straight down with their talons pointing towards the water and plunge their entire body in. Then they have to lift their wings out of the water and power their drenched body out. Then once air borne again they do a big shake to dry off their feathers. Here’s this Osprey doing the dive.

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Which ends in a big plunge into the water.

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If they aren’t successful in catching the fish they go back up high and begin another search. Here his watchful eye is looking just beyond his outstretched wing.

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Looking even harder.

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My money shot of the day is when I luckily caught this Osprey the split second before he impacted the water.

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And the second after impact. Unfortunately he came up empty after this spectacular plunge.

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I could’ve sat their all day and watched him. They are so fun to watch and you can’t be left but in total amazement with witnessing their breathtaking physical abilities. Here he flies off looking for another good spot to fish. Hopefully as this young Osprey ages he will perfect his hunting with great success!

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I’m so excited!!

I’m so excited, this is my first post on my first blog! Check back often as I plan to add all my latest outdoor adventures to this blog. For starters here is one of my favorite winter birds. An irruptive species that doesn’t migrate into PA every year. The Pine Siskin. I saw at least a dozen of them recently at Crooked Creek Lake.

Pine Siskin at Crooked Creek Lake.
Pine Siskin at Crooked Creek Lake.