The Coolest Birds on Earth

As Atlanta wakes to its first winter storm and I watch my backyard birds gathering at the feeder, I find myself reflecting on the ways that wildlife survives winter’s cold, harsh weather. Although I grew up in New Jersey and spent four years in college in Vermont (where winter temperatures often stayed in the single digits for several days straight), I’m now more acclimated to Georgia’s climate and inclined to put on a sweater when the temperature drops below 70 degrees. Some birds, however, feel right at home in the cold. In fact, roughly 200 species flock to arctic regions to breed and raise their young in the land of the midnight sun. Last July, a family trip to Iceland gave me a chance to witness some of these birds nesting and raising young in one of the coldest, harshest biomes on the planet, where even a summer day can feel wintery to a girl accustomed to Georgia’s climate. Average daily temperatures during our visit were in the 40s fahrenheit (colder with windchill), and we saw more clouds and drizzle than sunshine. Regardless of the weather, Iceland was one of the most amazing places I have ever visited. Our week-long adventure circling the country on the 830-mile Ring Road took us by vast lava fields, active volcanoes, massive glaciers, roaring waterfalls, and snow-capped mountains towering above slaty seas.

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Welcome to Iceland! 

The second largest North Atlantic Island (39,769 square miles), just south of the Arctic Circle, Iceland is one of the most volcanically active places on the planet, and glaciers cover 11 percent of the country. Frozen rocky subsoil combined with gusting winds prevent trees from taking root, and most of the interior of the country is tundra, a treeless polar dessert that supports only scattered low plant life like lichens, mosses, and sedges. In fact, the landscape is so barren and uninhabitable that the first American lunar astronauts were sent there for pre-mission training. Somehow, however, the birds carve out a living here, even in the most remote places on the island.

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The first bird we saw when leaving the airport was the Redwing , which we dubbed the Icelandic Robin. We saw them all over the island. 

One of the most common birds we encountered was the White Wagtail, easily recognized by its distinctive black and white plumage and characteristic habit of constantly bobbing its tail. Often seen running about in parking lots, parks, and other open areas in pursuit of insects, this is one of the most common birds of open terrain in Europe and Asia. The first wagtail we saw, true to form, was running in the gravel parking lot of our hostel catching moths. Like most birds in Iceland, for whom nesting in trees simply isn’t an option, wagtails nest in low crevices among rocks or cliffs and will readily nest in the niche of a building. Foraging on the ground and sometimes in shallow water, they eat mostly insects, as well as other small invertebrates. Watching an adult trying to satisfy the appetites of three hungry fledglings was a memorable birding moment of the trip. Iceland’s White Wagtails find the winters a bit too cold, however, and migrate to Western Africa in winter.

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This White Wagtail seemed to be finding food just fine in a gravel parking lot. 

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No rest for a parent with hungry babies!

The Artic Tern is, perhaps, the ultimate snowbird, spending summers in the arctic raising their young then migrating to Antarctica during the arctic winter. No other animal has a longer migration than the Arctic Tern, which makes a 22,000+ mile round trip journey between poles each year, spending the majority of its lifetime in the air. In Iceland, these birds are sometimes considered a nuisance, as they can be aggressive to humans coming near their nests. We saw them all over the country, inside national parks and alongside highway rest stops, and I can attest that they will dive-bomb you if you wander too close to a nesting area. (I crouched near a utility pole at a gas station to get my shot of a fluffy baby tern, which may be the cutest bird I’ve ever seen.) You can’t blame the terns for this defensive behavior when Glaucous Gulls and Parasitic Jaegers, both readily seen in coastal areas, pose a constant threat to their eggs and young. It’s remarkable to me that, in spite of their incredible pole to pole journeys, most Arctic Terns return to the area where they were hatched, often to the same colony.

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Dive-bombing adult terns keep predators (and photographers) from getting too close.

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Oh the cuteness!

Although they are common along the coastline in Iceland, especially in the summer, Common Eiders were the bird sighting that most surprised me when we first spotted them. We had just stopped for some hiking and birding at Jokulsarlon, a glacial lagoon that is one of the most spectacular, but barren landscapes I’ve ever seen. As luck would have it, the winds began to kick up and a cold drizzle started to fall as we set out. Undeterred, we were rewarded with two life birds almost immediately along the banks of the lagoon, Snow Buntings and Barnacle Geese, but after just 10 or 15 minutes of walking in the cold wind on exposed rock, we were ready to head back to the car. Every other sign of life had disappeared, hunkering down under what little cover could be found. Then we spotted some movement on the water. A couple of families of Common Eiders were diving and swimming among the icebergs, feeding on mussels and other hard-shelled crustaceans along the shoreline as if it were a lovely summer day, which I suppose to them, it was. Eiders, as you probably know, are the source of eider down, which is gathered by trained harvesters without harming or disturbing the birds. Those feathers have got to be warm to allow this bird to spend so much time in such icy waters! These hardy ducks winter largely in their breeding range, with only the most northerly populations wandering south.

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Eiders on ice

No summer trip to Iceland would be complete without seeing Atlantic Puffins. I planned a full day of our itinerary to enjoy these charismatic little birds. You can imagine my disappointment, then, when we arrived at the ferry terminal for our puffin excursion to learn that rough seas had cancelled the trip for the day. Although most of the world’s puffins are found in Iceland, where 60 percent of the population breeds, there are limited places to view them, and the only other colony in striking distance would take us 100 miles out of our way, much of it on a dirt road, on a day that we already had to drive 180 miles on winding mountainous roads to get to our next stop. Do you think we skipped the puffins? Of course not. When we arrived at the puffin colony in the Eastfjords, the wind was gusting and a cold mist was falling (surprise, surprise!), making the temperature seem much colder than the actual temperature of 45 degrees, but as soon as we climbed a few dozen stairs, we were looking out across a large colony of puffins standing guard at their burrows like soldiers and flying back and forth from their burrows out to sea to catch fish for their young. We were amused to watch a pair just 25 or 30 feet from us scuffling on the side of a cliff until one was knocked over the side and out of view. These amazing birds can dive for up to a minute and to depths of up to 200 feet, and the average catch is about 10 fish per trip. You have to give them credit for nesting in such harsh, remote places then spending the winter out at sea in the North Atlantic. I could have stayed and watched them for hours, but we had a long drive ahead and had to limit our time. In spite of the cold and wind, my husband and two teenaged children also counted the visit as one of the highlights of the trip, which made it that much sweeter for me.

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Silly and elegant at the same time!

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Puffin with feathers to line its nest

As we were leaving the puffin colony, my husband spotted a low bird flush from a rock along the side of the road—a Gyrfalcon. The largest falcon in the world, this year-round Icelandic resident nests on rocky cliffs in the open tundra where they frequently begin breeding and laying eggs while the temperature is still below zero degrees Fahrenheit. They also use these rocky ledges to scan for their primary prey, the Rock Ptarmigan (another year-round resident that eluded us). Fast and well-camouflaged against the cliffs, we had only a fleeting glimpse before it disappeared among the rocks.

During the course of the week, I added 36 life birds to my list, each one made memorable by the dramatic, beautiful, and harsh landscape around us. At one remote pull-off on our route, surrounded by black, basaltic rocks as far as the eye could see with only the sparsest covering of vegetation, I was astounded to hear a bird calling—a Common Ringed Plover. The birds that raise their young on the tundra have some incredible adaptations that allow them to live on a precarious edge in an often punishing environment. If you’ve never considered Iceland as a birding destination, add it to your bucket list. Just don’t forget your down coat!

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Common Ringed Plover among the lava fields

Empty Nest Syndrome

For the last handful of years, my family has had the good fortune to have a pair of Eastern Bluebirds grace the nest box in our tiny suburban backyard. When we set up a box this spring in our new backyard (a suburban oasis I wrote about here), I feared we might not see any action this year because several dead trees on our property provide natural cavities. Typically, we see males start to check out the box for a period of days beginning in February, perching on top, fluttering their wings, and flying in and out carrying nesting material. Once a female is sufficiently impressed, she takes over all of the nest construction and egg incubation, and the male delivers food to her while she is on the nest. I only saw a bird fly into the house once or twice after we set it up, and never with nesting material, so when I peeked in the box in mid-April, I was surprised to discover not only a nest, but five gorgeous blue eggs.

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Eastern Bluebirds generally lay four to six eggs which are incubated for about two weeks.

Every few days, I checked on the nest to monitor the progress of the clutch. Aside from my personal interest in the nest’s success, I had registered to monitor the nest with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s Neighborhood Nestwatch program, a citizen science program that provides scientists with hard-to-get data about the survival rate of backyard birds. Nestwatch scientists also visited my home recently to band some of my backyard birds so that I can monitor them and record sightings into their database. Participating in such programs is a great way to spark curiosity and excitement for birds in kids and adults alike, as well as a way to contribute valuable data that scientists can use to guide conservation measures. If you have an accessible, active nest in your yard, I encourage you to register with Nestwatch and record your observations, but do make sure to read the important nest monitoring guidelines first so that you don’t hinder the success of the nesting efforts.

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Scientists from the Smithsonian’s Nestwatch program visited our home in April to catch and band birds for us to monitor. The program provides valuable data for scientists about backyard bird populations.

Bluebird babies take about two weeks to hatch and just another two weeks to fledge. As with all babies, they grow up way too fast—in just a blink of their sleep-deprived parents’ eyes. Every three days or so, I’d watch for the parents to fly off, then take a quick peek in the nest and snap a photo.

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Newly hatched–5/3/15

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Five or six days old–5/8/14

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Getting bigger everyday–5/11/15

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“Excuse me, could you move over a bit. It’s getting crowded in here!”–5/14/15

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Last photo before they fledged. So shy!–5/16/15

Watching the adults bring food back to the nest was fascinating. Each afternoon after work, I sat on our front steps to enjoy the show from a distance. Mama bluebird brought back much larger prey items than Dad did, and she was also more reluctant to enter the nest box while I was watching than he was. I watched her bring various large flying insects or earthworms back to the nest on several occasions, but I rarely saw her go in. I’d take my eyes off the box for just a moment only to turn back and see her flying off out of sight. One afternoon she even brought a lizard back to the nest!

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Daddy Bluebird was an attentive father. He brought smaller food items to the nest, but seemed to make more frequent visits.

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The female pounded and pounded this hapless lizard on the top of the nest box! I didn’t notice until I cropped my photo that the lizard appears to have already dropped its tail—so much for that defense mechanism. I’m not sure, but I think she gave up and flew off with it rather than feed it to her young. It would have been quite a mouthful!

As the chicks neared two weeks of age, I frequently saw them poke their heads up to look out of the box.  I knew their time to fledge was approaching and hoped it wouldn’t occur the day I would be out of town for a work event. In spite of careful observation in past years, I’ve never seen the babies leave the nest, and I was hoping this year I might get lucky. When I checked the box first thing in the morning after my work trip, I was crushed to discover that the nest was empty. Not only had I missed their departure, they had chosen the first cool, stormy day in almost three weeks to do so. I looked high and low in all the surrounding areas. In my experience, baby birds typically hang around low to the ground for a day or two, or at least up in the trees in the area near the nest, but these baby bluebirds were nowhere to be found. I listened for their begging calls and could detect nothing, and I saw no sign of the parents. I worried that a snake had taken the whole clutch before they even left the nest (which is exactly the reason why birds leave the nest as soon as they are able, often when they haven’t mastered flying yet).  I worried that a predator had gotten them after they left the nest.  I worried that they had gotten wet or gotten lost and succumbed to chill. Feeling disheartened, I headed to work.

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The babies are almost ready to explore the world. Their heads popped up each time their parents visited. 5/15/15

When I returned home that afternoon, I immediately set myself on the front steps with my binoculars. After several minutes I saw the male fly in and grab an insect from the ground and fly off into some distant trees. Several minutes later I saw the female do the same, but I couldn’t make out where they had gone. Surely the babies weren’t that far away? Were the adults just returning to business as normal? The sinking feeling returned. Determined to know more, I watched several more minutes until the male returned to the yard again. This time as he flew off, I changed my vantage point and watched as carefully as I could with my naked eye as he landed at the top of a tremendously tall tree. I could just make out the fluttering of wings and distant begging calls. The babies were safe—and apparently very well equipped to get off the ground!  Phew!  As much as I had hoped they would hang around a little longer, I was relieved and happy to see them safe and sound—the best cure for empty nest syndrome. If I’m lucky, the parents may return to raise one more clutch before the summer is over!

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Empty Nester–Daddy Bluebird poses for the camera.

Note about bluebird conservation:

I’ve commented in the past that I must have walked through the first four decades of my life with blinders on not to have noticed the beauty and diversity of bird life around me, but I think that even had I been paying more attention growing up, I wouldn’t have been likely to see an Eastern Bluebird in my backyard. Eastern Bluebird populations steeply declined in the early part of the 20th century as habitat loss and competition from introduced species such as European Starlings and House Sparrows made nesting holes increasingly difficult for bluebirds to claim. Fortunately today, in spite of the tremendous pressures facing birds, the Eastern Bluebird seems to be doing just fine. The establishment of bluebird trails and other nest box campaigns beginning in the late 1960s helped Eastern Bluebird populations rebound by almost two percent per year between 1966 and 2010.* The success of these efforts is an important reminder that when we work collectively to make small conservation actions, we can effect significant change. So, leave those dead trees standing (60 species in N. America are cavity nesters!), or put up a nest box or two (make sure it is designed to keep out the larger non-native and more aggressive starlings). I’m doing my part!  *www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Eastern_Bluebird/lifehistory

The Right Place for a Robin

Today I had another one of those moments where the universe put me in the right place at the right time. I had spent the better part of the week conducting a professional development workshop for teachers, training them how to use birding and ornithology to teach science concepts and integrate them with other courses. These workshops, which take place over the course of four days and three nights at a North Georgia state park, are lots of fun, but intense, starting with a bird walk at 7:00 AM and ending with a documentary about birds at 8:00 PM. One of the highlights of the workshop was taking a bird walk with a few of the teachers during our afternoon break and seeing a fledgling Blue-headed Vireo hidden among some low branches, an unexpected gift we would have completely missed had we not heard its faint begging calls and paused to take a closer look. You’d think after four days of doing little but looking at and talking about birds, I would have had my fill of birds for a little while, but luckily for another little fledgling, this wasn’t so.

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Fledgling Blue-headed Vireo

At the conclusion of the workshop, I drove over to my parents’ mountain house about an hour away to spend the night with my parents and my two children, who were spending the week with their grandparents and attending day camp. The next afternoon, while running an errand with my parents at the grocery store, I noticed the sound of birds chittering above the parking lot. When I looked up swallows were circling. Nearby, more than 25 Barn Swallows were perched on the roof of the building, and several nests were tucked up under the eaves. Since we needed to hurry back to pick up the kids from camp, I couldn’t spend a lot of time observing, but I did snap a quick photo of some nestlings before leaving.

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Barn Swallow nestlings

In the evening, as I passed by the grocery store on my drive back to Atlanta, I decided to pull in for one last look at the swallows before making the drive home to go to work the next day. As I was pulling out of the parking lot, I noticed a small fluttering movement in the shrubbery along the side of the road. Unable to resist the temptation to have a peek at what I assumed to be a fledgling, I decided to pull over to have a look. A baby American Robin was flapping its wings while the parents circled and called anxiously, but the bird didn’t seem to be able to move. When I stepped closer to have a look, I saw that the poor bird had his foot tangled in some thread that was snagged on a bush.

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Fledgling American Robin caught on a bush

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Removing the thread

Fortunately, a nice clerk inside the grocery store loaned me a pair of scissors, and once I relocated the baby (who at this point must have been following his parents’ orders to stay stone still), I quickly cut the thread that was caught on the bush. Removing the tangled thread from the bird’s foot was more complicated as it was tightly wound around the bird’s ankle and toes, and I worried that the constriction may have caused injury. The bird’s parents flew about making a fuss, but the baby was quiet and didn’t struggle. I think he knew I was helping. Fortunately, once the baby was freed, he was able to perch in the nearby tree where I gently placed him. The parents immediately flew over, as did a Gray Catbird, who must have wondered what all the racket was about.

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Back where he belongs!

As I mentioned in my previous post, birding forces us to slow down and be attentive to our surroundings, be they nests hidden under the eaves of a grocery store or a small flutter or call from a nearby bush. Even when the birds aren’t cooperating, being outdoors with a birder’s frame of mind will bring unexpected and incredible discoveries and gifts. I guess you could say that baby robin was lucky that I drove by with my eyes open for birds, but I’m the one that was richly rewarded.

**This experience serves as a good reminder of the importance of not littering, even when we think that an item is small, harmless, and/or biodegradable. Sadly, far too many animals suffer needlessly or die slowly and painfully by becoming ensnared or stuck in our castaway items like six-pack rings, fishing line, aluminum cans, glass bottles, etc. Marine life suffers when they ingest trash like balloons, plastic bags, and other disposable plastic items. Please dispose of trash responsibly.

What Birding Has Taught Me

As I write this, I am flying back to Atlanta, having spent the weekend in Summit, New Jersey for my 25th high school reunion. Excited as I was to spend time with old friends and to visit old stomping grounds, perhaps the highlight of the weekend was escaping the dinners and the small talk and going birding with one of my oldest and dearest friends in our old neighborhood. Although I spent the first 18 years of my life in New Jersey, I don’t recall having any curiosity about the birds in my backyard. It must have attracted them, with its towering old trees and expansive lawn surrounded on all sides by thick tracts of rhododendron. Just beyond our fence lay hundreds of acres of woods, part of the Watchung Reservation. I suppose I could identify the pigeons and crows seen in town, as well as a few of the regular backyard visitors like cardinals, blue jays, robins, and mourning doves, but I certainly didn’t know about warblers or vireos. Visiting my hometown with a greater awareness of the birds around me was immensely rewarding. Strolling along the streets in my old neighborhood, I was treated to spectacular looks at Baltimore Orioles and Black-and-white Warblers. The Blue-winged Warbler at the nearby Audubon Sanctuary was a life bird for me. How fun to see Black-capped Chickadees and note their different song. By looking carefully for the birds, I also noted many other beautiful things about my hometown that I took for granted growing up.

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Baltimore Oriole–what brilliant color! How did I overlook this bird growing up?

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Blue-winged Warbler. Like many warblers, these insectivores are elusive and in constant motion. You have to look carefully and be patient to see them.

I only discovered the joy and excitement of birding a couple of years ago. Feeding injured and orphaned birds at AWARE Wildlife Center spurred me to want to learn more about them. I attended Bird Fest at Unicoi State Park in the spring of 2012, and I was hooked after the first bird walk. I was astounded that the small group of knowledgeable and convivial birders on that walk spotted 45 species in just one morning (and now realize that was a respectable, but not exceptional number). How could I have been so oblivious for so long?! Now I never leave the house without my binoculars, and my birding adventures have taken me from such birding hot spots as Dauphin Island in Alabama to Denali National Park in Alaska. I study my field guides and keep eBird lists. My yard list for my tiny suburban backyard in Tucker is currently at 50 species.

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Getting ready to release a Northern Parula (a warbler species) at a banding station on Dauphin Island. What a spectacular bird and memorable experience!

Birding makes life so much richer. It teaches us not only about birds, but also teaches us many other life lessons and skills. Birding teaches us to be in the moment and enjoy what is right in front of us. It demands us to slow down and pay attention to our surroundings–to notice the dappled sunlight in the trees, to hear the birdsong in the air, to feel the rustling wind on our face. It helps us to recognize the interconnectedness of all living things and the importance of protecting natural habitats. Birding also helps us to sharpen our observation and recall skills. In order to identify a bird, we must quickly process a lot of information–color patterns, call notes, the shape of the wings and bill, and so on. Such sensory workouts help develop mental acuity and keep our brains active. In addition, birding entices us to explore new destinations, from the park down the street to remote corners of the earth, enabling us to take in ample fresh air and beautiful scenery. From New Jersey to New Zealand and beyond, birds allow us to admire and enjoy all of the beauty and diversity of our remarkable planet.

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Looking for birds forces us to slow down and notice details about our surroundings–like the sunlight in the trees at my local park.

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This Pondhawk (seen during my recent trip to Dauphin Island) would have been easy to miss!

Having some reflective time during this trip to my childhood home reminds me how significantly my life has been enhanced since I really discovered the birds around me. I invite you to pay closer attention to the birds around you. I’d be surprised if you didn’t find that your life is enriched when you do.

Note: Earlier this year, I started working as the Director of Education for Atlanta Audubon Society, a dream job that allows me to share my passion for birds and nature with others. This piece was originally written to share in the AAS newsletter. I encourage you to find an Audubon chapter in your area and get involved. Audubon chapters often provide free bird walks and other opportunities to learn and to gather with fellow nature lovers, and they do important conservation and advocacy work.

A couple of great articles about the benefits of birds for further reading:

http://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/animals/blogs/can-bird-songs-boost-your-brain

http://us.cnn.com/2014/05/30/opinion/doherty-save-birds/index.html?sr=sharebar_twitter