Hiding in Plain Sight

Common Potoo 02-23-2016-3934

The bird above is a sleeping Common Potoo, a nocturnal species. Now see if you can find the bird in the photo below.

Find the Potoo 02-23-2016-3922

How our guide ever saw the bird in the first place is beyond comprehension. But the same day, one of our net-tending participants found the practically invisible hummingbird nest below. The only way I could find the spot with my camera was to look for the orange leaf.

Hummer on Nest 02-23-2016-4173

The birds at the lodge feeders were much easier to spot. An Inca Dove and a Rufous-Naped Wren.

And birds in the hand, as always, were the easiest to see. Except you hardly ever see the whole hummingbird. Below, a Stripe-Throated Hermit and a Blue-Throated Goldentail.

Below, a Yellow-Bellied Flycatcher on the left and a female Painted Bunting on the right.

The bird below found its way into my net. It is a Yellow-Billed Cacique.

The Ivory-Billed Woodcreeper below was on a tree near my net. Much more common than an Ivory-Billed Woodpecker!

Below, a Tropical Kingbird and another Black-Headed Trogon.

There is nothing new about a Turkey Vulture but it’s nice when you can see the field marks.

Turkey Vulture 02-23-2016-4217More photographs to come from my trip to Nicaragua. Below, one of many stunning overlooks.

Landscape 02-23-2016-4224


Blizzard Preoccupations

It’s snowing and blowing, travel is forbidden, and after two energetic attempts today, I am not going back outside to move any more snow until tomorrow. So I’m using the storm as an excuse to get caught up with a few loose ends.

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Below is a link to the YouTube videos, for those who are interested in what came of my first choir participation in the St. Odilo Festival Choir. I sang in the alto section. We all started together and ended together even if there were a couple times we lost it in between… At least we lost it all together. Maybe it’s just as well as there were only four of us. I had an epiphany about this phenomenon while listening to parts of the concert on my way in to work Friday morning. You know how birds all take off together at once as if responding to a single cue out of nowhere? That’s kind of how it was when we all forgot to come in. Nevertheless I think we sometimes sounded quite good; in particular I was pleased by the a capella piece, which was Bruckner’s “Christus Factus Est.”


Also new and exciting, Bill Hilton has posted a complete play-by-play annotated write-up of Operation Rubythroat’s last bird banding expedition in Costa Rica, and you can read all about it at this link.

And now a little word from The Chicago Blizzard of 2015. (These pictures are in color, in case you’re wondering.)

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Juncos actually seem to be enjoying this

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After taking fuzzy pictures through the screened porch windows, I decided a fuzzy video of the birds braving the snow and wind at the feeders might be even better. The snow started out thick and wet and it’s still snowing as I write this.

Dudlee Ann was monitoring the whole weather event from her newest favorite place, the window over the kitchen sink.

IMG_1165And thanks to recent comments on my last post about vultures, I went looking for pictures of a Ruppell’s Griffon Vulture, which I had seen several times in East Africa in November of 2013. I found a couple pictures taken on November 22 in Tanzaniya:

Ruppell's Griffon Vulture 11-22-2013-6822

Ruppell’s Griffon Vulture

Ruppell's Griffon Vulture

Ruppell’s Griffon Vulture

In the process, I realized that I had never finished going through all the pictures from that trip, so I look forward to revisiting those images at some point in time. Not that I’m wishing for another blizzard anytime soon…

Vultures & Storks at Zebra Kill 11-24-13 8529.jpg-2Incidentally, the bird completely covering the kill with its wings spread in the picture above is also the Ruppell’s Griffon.

This excerpt from a webpage of facts about the Ruppell’s Griffon from the National Zoo:

“Ruppell’s griffon is the highest flying bird on record, once spotted at an altitude of over 37, 000 feet in the skies of Africa. From a standing start the Ruppell’s vulture can fly over three miles in six minutes. They can cruise at over 22 miles per hour, and will fly as far as 90 miles from their nest in search of food.”

Maybe now I can try to dig out the car a bit more…so I can move it to the other side of the street tomorrow.

A Bird in the Hand

Mourning Warbler

Mourning Warbler

As I start to go through the pictures from Costa Rica, some of the best bird images are invariably closeups of birds shown to us by Dr. Bill Hilton Jr. These were invaluable teaching moments on the part of Bill and the birds themselves.

Female Indigo Bunting

Female Indigo Bunting

Although the focus of the Operation Rubythroat trip to chayote fields in Ujarras Valley, Costa Rica, was ultimately to trap, band and release as many Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds as possible over six days in the field (more about all this in a future post), invariably, other birds sometimes got trapped in the nets. Any bird trapped was a potential teaching opportunity. Neotropical migrants were retained for banding. But after we had seen a species native to Costa Rica once at the banding table, which is where we gathered for these demonstrations, all future caught birds of that species were immediately released.



With field guides in hand, we studied the birds until we were able to identify the species. Bill would only help by pointing out various field marks, but he also elaborated on other features you might never see unless you had the bird in your hand. Some species were familiar, but the opportunity to study them so closely was absolutely phenomenal. For those who are squeamish about the trapping and handling, I admit I once was too, but Bill treats the birds with the utmost respect and care. You can go to a museum and study skins, but for color and presence there is nothing like a live bird.

Blue-Grey Tanager

Blue-Grey Tanager

I have seen Blue-Grey Tanagers virtually every time I have visited the American tropics. They are ubiquitous and easy to identify. But I have never seen a Blue-Grey Tanager like this before.Blue-Grey Tanager 11-10-14-9026

The afternoons invariably turned cloudy and sometimes rainy, which made taking pictures of other birds anything from challenging to impossible. Nevertheless I managed to get some good photographs, and I will be back with many more.

These are just a sampling of some of the earliest birds we saw in the hand, and I will be back with others, as well as eventually adding pictures to my flickr page.

House Wren - the same species, but not the same population we have at home

House Wren – the same species, but not the same population we have at home

As for the timing of this post, I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about the past week. Sleep has been erratic at best, and I’ve been emotionally exhausted. I went to bed early last night, so I guess it’s not altogether strange that I am awake at 3:00 a.m. Trying to go back to sleep I started reviewing the past week, and that wasn’t all good, so I shifted my thoughts to things I want to accomplish, which woke me up even more. When I started thinking about this post which I started to work on last night before I conked out on the futon, it seemed prudent to just wake up and finish the post. I apologize for any detectible grogginess. I think I’ll grab a drink of water and go back to sleep for a couple hours.

Yellow Warbler

Yellow Warbler

Yellow Warblers and Tennessee Warblers were the most-frequently-caught neotropical migrants. At some point, we had caught so many Tennessee Warblers, we released them from the nets without banding them.

Tennesee Warbler

Tennessee Warbler

Tyrant Flycatchers can be confusing.

A Yellow-Bellied Elaenia, looking every inch the Tyrant Flycatcher it is

A Yellow-Bellied Elaenia, looking every inch the Tyrant Flycatcher it is

Yellow-Bellied Elaenia

Yellow-Bellied Elaenia

One more of the Blue-Grey Tanager, up close and personal.

Blue-Grey Tanager 11-10-14-9068


Coming Soon to a Hummingbird Feeder Near You

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Male Ruby-Throated Hummingbird

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are the most numerous of the neotropical migrant hummingbirds. If there is anything you ever wanted to know about Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds, all you need do is visit Dr. Bill Hilton Jr.’s Operation Rubythroat pages on the Web.

Having said that, after following Bill’s posts from time to time on another of his main pages, This Week At Hilton Pond, for years through the Birdchat Listserv and then directly to my email, I became intrigued when I realized that he was leading trips to Costa Rica for volunteers to help with his bird banding project which specifically targets Ruby-Throats (“RTHU”).

Female RTHU 3-10-14 3489.jpg-3489

Female RTHU

Bill’s last Costa Rica trip coincided with my safari last November, so I explored his other options, and was intrigued by the idea of going to Nicaragua this spring. I signed up, paid for the trip, and then unbeknownst to me, the moment I landed in Nairobi I got a call from Holbrook Travel in Florida. My brain was not ready to process who I knew in Florida when I was trying to figure out Nairobi, so I didn’t return the call until I got back to the States. As it turned out, I had a delightful conversation with Debbie Sturdivant Jordan who inevitably told me that the Nicaragua trip was being canceled due to lack of participants, and would I be interested in Belize?

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Bill Hilton teaching visiting students

I had been in Belize before, but I said yes, because by this time I was simply intrigued by the whole idea of what it would like to assist a bird-banding operation and get to stay in one place, soak up the birds around the lodge and learn a few things. And the thought of seeing some birds again is very attractive to me: I am not obsessed with building my list. Maybe I’m becoming even more philosophical about this direction… (“How many birds have you seen?” “I don’t know, how many books do you own?”)

It’s a short trip by comparison to a birding tour, and just as you’re beginning to get the hang of it and start feeling like you could do it every day for the rest of your life, it’s over. I am not trying to sugarcoat it: it’s work getting down to breakfast every morning at 5:30 and onto the vehicle by 6:00 to drive to the banding location and start setting up nets. You’re out all morning monitoring or helping at the banding table. But you’re back for lunch and after that there are planned activities or you can relax.

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At the banding table

I have never been much of a spectator. I like to be doing things. So maybe from that standpoint this is a natural thing for me to be doing. But the other thing that really intrigued me was feeling like I was getting to know some birds really well, better than I ever could by simply going out and looking at them. It’s more like hanging out with birds to me, which is what I’m used to anyway at home, where they are my companions. Multiply this feeling a million times and you might know what Bill Hilton must feel like by now with all the intimate experience he’s had with birds literally in his hands.

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After-Hatch-Year RTHU

Suffice it to say that I learned more than I ever expected, and that left me only wanting to know more, and to be a better participant next time. I still have to get the hang of taking down the nets…

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Attaching the band…the feet are so small, and the bands so tiny, the only way to handle these birds is to stuff them in a little cardboard tube!

I could go on, and from time to time I will try to write more about other facets of the trip, but I do want to leave the presentation to William Hilton Jr. who has just published a wonderful and detailed recap of the entire trip to Belize, as only he can, at this link. And while I’m a bit embarrassed seeing all the pictures that have me in them, it’s not deterring me from going on Operation Rubythroat’s trip to Costa Rica this November.

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Bill is a born educator. He is a former high school biology teacher, and he has never stopped teaching, going on to win awards and an honorary doctorate. I learned so much in one week I am compelled to go back to learn more. Perhaps the biggest impression I got from the entire experience was the importance of the data that he collects from banding the birds. You might think he’s keeping track of individuals for purposes of counting or aging re-caught birds, but it goes far beyond that.

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Bill with the local school kids, at a net

Bill is on a mission to get local students interested enough in birds to become guides, so that they will have employment and in turn, habitat will be preserved for the birds. His data prove that birds have site fidelity and return to the same place year after year after year. If you have sometimes wondered whether certain individual birds that visit your yard every spring or fall are the same ones, your hunch is probably correct.

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A sheet of bands for RTHUs – each band has a different number, and the bands have to be cut separately, filed down, and bent into shape to fit onto the birds foot.

Bill told a story about going back to Belize one year and all the trees had been cleared from a particular location where he had banded the previous year, near the hurricane shelter. Loss of habitat is devastating to birds. Whoever cleared the lot probably thought they had a good reason for doing so, but loss of habitat due to human activity probably has the most negative impact on birds, particularly during migration when they need to fuel up for long flights. Bill has found another location (“Hurricane 2”) and he hopes to instill the importance of preserving it in the hearts and minds of the local students.

After the rigors of banding, which include weighing, sexing, assessing feather molt, measuring wing length, judging for fat deposits…

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Bill offers sugar-water to the Ruby Throated Hummingbirds before he releases them.

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I leave you with this thought: two male Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds weigh about as much as a nickel. And yet they migrate hundreds of miles every spring and fall. It boggles the mind. This is what keeps Bill going. And will keep me going back.



A Bird in the Hand…

White-Eyed Vireo

White-Eyed Vireo

If anyone knows how much birds hate to be handled, it’s me. My indoor birds remind me of this constantly, and I don’t pick them up unless I absolutely have to. I’m not trying to offend anyone by posting these pictures.



But before I get on to writing in a future post about the primary reason for why I was in Belize–which was to be part of a group of 7 volunteers that helped Operation Rubythroat set up mist nets to catch and band Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds and transcribe banding data…and all the reasons why they are doing this…

Black-and-White Warbler

Black-and-White Warbler

I wanted to share some pictures of other birds banded that I never could have seen so closely.

Hooded Warbler

Hooded Warbler

Suffice it to say I learned a lot in 8 days.

Northern Parula

Northern Parula

For those of you still uncomfortable with the handling of the birds, we checked the nets constantly, moving birds still captive and waiting to be banded or shown out of the sunlight, and they survived well. I believe there was one casualty in a net on our last day, which was cut short due to inclement weather. I suppose the biggest testimonial to survival was the birds, already banded, recaptured from previous years.

Northern Waterthrush

Northern Waterthrush

Louisiana Waterthrush

Louisiana Waterthrush

The Northern Waterthrush was one of perhaps three or more we banded, but the Louisiana Waterthrush was the first one ever seen at Crooked Tree in Belize. See if you can tell the difference this close up. The distinguishing features are still subtle, but the Northern looks more “yellow” than the Louisiana and has denser streaking.

Tennessee Warbler banded 3-9-14

Tennessee Warbler banded 3-9-14

Tennessee Warbler banded 3-10-14

Tennessee Warbler banded 3-10-14

Compare the difference between these two Tennessee Warbler individuals. The one above is a male not finished with his molt and the one below is most likely a female. Banders can consult The Identification Guide to North American Birds: Part 1 and Part 2 by Peter Pyle to help distinguish between the sexes by length of the wing and tail feathers.

Male Yellow Warbler

Male Yellow Warbler

You may have noticed that all the migrant warblers are not quite as decked out as they will be by the time they reach us. This Yellow Warbler was just developing his rufous streaks.

Clay-Colored Thrush, National Bird of Costa Rica

Clay-Colored Thrush, National Bird of Costa Rica

The last bird on this post is not a neotropical migrant and therefore was not banded. But I thought it best expressed any indignation at being handled, for all the other birds banded on this page. And I probably never would have seen the beautiful streaking on its throat, in the field.