Saturday, March 17, 2012

Last Weekend: Listing Birds via eBird and Two Birds of a Different Feather

             I confess to listing birds and to being an eBirder.  eBird is an online service offered by  the National Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for tracking your bird sightings wherever you go in the world.  It was first launched in 2002 and I have been a user since 2005.  It is becoming more and more popular in its use among birders and is becoming an invaluable tool to the science community for tracking bird populations world-wide.  Personally, one of the features that I like to use, is the Top 100.  It lists the top 100 eBird listers in your area for the year in real-time.  A couple of years ago, I ran neck to neck with a naturalist friend of mine for the first 2.5 months of the year for the top spot in Charleston County.  Eventually, I had to give up the race.  This guy works outdoors.  He essentially birds for a living.  And I work indoors....  Now many more expert birders in my area have begun using eBird tracking  and so I am very happy just be able to remain in the Top 10.  Also, trying to maintain a Top 10 status helps me to become a better birder as I learn more about different species, how and where to find them, and the timing of their migrations.  It also keeps me from being lazy.  Sure enough, I may already have a species on my life list.  But if I do not have it on my year list, then out the door I go to find and study another bird.  The Rare Bird Alerts and Species Alert features on eBird also help me to know when, where and by whom new birds have been seen.  It is such reports as these that pulled me out to find two birds of a different feather (in other words, 2 rare birds for the area) last weekend to add to my year list.

               My first quarry is a bird that does winter here in South Carolina in certain limited-access locales such as the Santee National Wildlife Refuge and Murphy Island (part of the Santee Coastal Reserve (a Department of Natural Resources property).  By the time these properties have re-opened to the public in February or March, the Snow Goose, my quarry, has already begun its migration north.   I was able to see the Snow Goose on Murphy Island during a Christmas Bird Count last December when access was granted to the island specifically for the bird count.  But of course, I was interested now in seeing the bird for my 2012 list.  This solo bird had first been reported in February in the community of Meggett, SC by a fellow birder.  It had begun to hang out with some resident Canada Geese in a family's large yard complete with ponds.  The birder had also reported that the goose appeared to be mostly blind in one eye.  This would explain potentially why the goose had not migrated.  Thus I tried to find the goose -- another wild goose chase for me! (reference to a previous post on my chasing the Greater White-Fronted Goose at Charleston Southern University).  And sure enough -- he was NOT there!  He had disappeared from the community of Meggett for awhile.  Yet, 2 or 3 weeks later, he reappeared in the same yard and was reported again.  Last Saturday, because apparently the bird has decided to stay put, I found him.  He was easily viewable from the roadside and I was able to obtain these pictures with the big lens!  I have wondered if this bird will indeed attempt to stay throughout our hot, humid summer.  Can it even survive what must be extreme heat?  I hope that if it stays, that it will fare well. 

Snow Goose -- Meggett, SC -- March 9, 2012
Snow Goose -- Meggett, SC -- March 9, 2012

             Here are a few interesting facts that I have learned about this goose from the All About Birds resource site of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  Two morphs exist: the white and the blue morph with the dark color of the blue morph  controlled by a single partially dominant gene. Snow Geese pairs mate for life and nest on arctic and subarctic tundra.  Family groups migrate together to the southern coastal marshes, bays, grasslands and agricultural fields.  The range map  from this site shows more precisely where these birds may be seen in the winter.  These family groups remain together through the winter months and travel together during Spring migration only to separate once they reach the tundra.  Hunting of the Snow Goose was suspended in 1916 due to low population numbers.  However, the species had recovered significantly enough that hunting was once again allowed in 1975.  Today, it appears that their numbers continue to increase rather dramatically in certain areas in spite of hunting.

Snow Goose --Meggett, SC --  March 9, 2012
             My second rare bird quarry for the weekend was the Rufous Hummingbird that has been wintering since early January in Jack and Pat Eckstine's yard in Hanahan, SC.  Having visited the Eckstine's last winter to see their over-wintering Anna's Hummingbird, I located their contact information and asked to come see their Rufous.  Now exactly what do the Eckstine's have to bring these rare hummers 2 years in a row to their yard? -- A fabulous wildlife habitat!  They live close to the Goose Creek reservoir, they maintain feeders, birdbaths, snags and cover.  It is indeed prime birding real estate!  They have even had a pair of bald eagles nesting the last few years within sight of their back deck.  This year's Bald Eagle chicks had already fledged and though they do hang out with their parents in the neighborhood, I missed seeing them on this visit.  Still, a rare species of hummer two years running for the Eckstine's -- I am jealous!  Both birds have been banded by Doreen Cubie, our local hummingbird bander and researcher.  And the Eckstine's have very generously "shared" their hummers with the Charleston birding community.   I heard from Pat yesterday that we may have been the last ones to visit this Rufous as they have not seen it since Sunday or Monday.  Of course, being busy precludes long-term views of short visits to a feeder.  She said that she would let me know if she sees it again.  I am just very glad that I saw this beautiful little fellow before he left!

          So here are a few photos of the young male Rufous Hummingbird taken on Sunday.

Young male Rufous Hummingbird -- Hanahan, SC -- March 10, 1012
Young male Rufous Hummingbird -- Hanahan, SC -- March 10, 2012

He was rather shy and he never hovered near his feeder unlike last year's female Anna's Hummingbird whose photos are below. 

Female Anna's Hummingbird -- Hanahan, SC -- December 22, 2010
Female Anna's Hummingbird -- Hanahan, SC -- December 22, 2010

          The eastern United States is the land of the Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds primarily.  Yet, in recent years, many of the typical western species of hummingbirds have been found to winter more and more in the eastern United States.  Many Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds also over-winter in our area which is why we keep our feeder up year round.  We usually have one or two Ruby-Throats use our feeder throughout the winter and we even had our own male Rufous Hummingbird visit our feeder for a few hours one Christmas Eve.

          Here are some interesting tidbits of information on the Rufous Hummingbird that I have garnered from the All About Birds site.  The Rufous nests farther to the north, even in southeastern Alaska, than any other hummingbird species!  As measured by body size, it has the longest migration of any other bird species -- 3,900 miles one-way from Alaska to Mexico, it flies 78,470,000 times its 3 inch body length. Also, this hummer is the most common of the western species that winter in the Eastern United States and is known to be extremely territorial at feeders.

          Since I mentioned last year's Anna's Hummingbird, here are some intriguing facts about it.  During the first half of the 20th century, this hummer was known to nest only in Southern California and Baja California.  But with more and more plantings of exotic plants occurring throughout the more northern and central parts of California, so too has the Anna increased its nesting range.  The range map also shows that some Anna's move northward in winter migration.   The Anna's thrilling courtship display involves sharp dives from 130 feet in the air towards the ground with its heads directed towards the light so that it reflects the bright iridescent pink of his head and throat.  The male also make a sharp curious noise with his tail feathers during these dives.  On rare occasions, Anna's have been found dead with an impaled bee or wasp on their beaks, which caused them to starve to death!

            To conclude this post, I am happy to say that last weekend's quest for new birds for the 2012 list resulted in the successful addition of these two birds of a different feather: the 'Meggett' Snow Goose on Saturday and the 'Hanahan' Rufous Hummingbird on Sunday, as well as four other more common birds: Seaside Sparrow, Nelson's Sparrow, Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher and Northern Parula.  This brought my total count to 141 birds so far this year and gives me the rank of 7th in the State for eBirders.  Still the top 10!  If you visit the links above for different species on the All About Birds pages, you will find under each range map, the option of clicking on an additional link to a dynamic map of eBird sightings.  You can then change the dates to see where the birds have been sighted at different times of different years or multiple years.  Pretty cool!  eBird is indeed a useful tool for those of us who want to list birds, keep track of our sightings and learn when and where to find different species! 

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