The Tinicum Tattler

Hello, my darlings! C’est moi, Madame Catbird, gossip maven extraordinaire! I’ve got all the latest celebrity dish from John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge for you, right here on KRTR 99.9 FM, Critter Radio.

It’s the season for love, and all that results from love, and don’t I have the juiciest tidbits for you today!

Everyone, simply everyone, is talking about the handsome young Prothonotary Warbler laying it all out for romance in the impoundment. He’s doing everything right, dearies! He’s found the most-coveted property in town, and decorated with the best moss.

Look at him singing his blessed little heart out.

It’s not all about home decor and show tunes, though, and he isn’t afraid to show his masculine side! He’s carried on a relentless aerial battle with the local tree swallow families in the vain hope of having the tony neighborhood of Horseshoe Cove to himself.

The paparazzi have been camped on the doorstep of our golden boy for weeks. Who will be first to get that money shot of the lucky Mrs. Prothonotary? Only time will tell… but time is running out if Mr. P. hopes to hear the patter of tiny feet in his waterfront mansion this summer!

Guess who else was caught on film this week, my lovelies? Yes, those reclusive songsters, the Marsh Wrens.  We are frequently graced with their operatic voices, but not their feathered fabulousness. They much prefer the quiet life at home in their posh upscale development, The Reeds.

Not so now. The Wrens are busy, busy, busy, plucking bugs from the spatterdock and carrying them off to The Reeds. Why, could it be? Do they have a bun in the oven – or chicks in the nest? Madame Catbird thinks so!

Surprising to hear that the Least Bitterns have been out and about in public recently. They are notoriously camera-shy, don’t you know, dearies.

They’ve taken the art of dodging the flashbulbs to new lengths.

“You can’t see me,” says our plumed contortionist.

“You can’t see me!”

“Can you?”

Let’s leave them their little illusions, shall we?

Rumor has it the Least Bitterns are also raising a family in the oh-so-exclusive conclave of The Reeds.

Madame hears that a few very lucky fans have caught glimpses of the bouncing baby Bitterns!

There’s a new star in town, my darlings, and he’s got the Missus and the little ones in tow. It’s been many a year since the Common Gallinules saw fit to raise a family in our neck of the woods. Why, back then they were known as the Common Moorhens, mere hoi polloi.

Yet, here they are now, with a distinguished new name, mingling with the beautiful people. Perhaps there’s a little scandal lurking in the Gallinules’ family tree, no?

Clearly Mr. Gallinule now has exacting standards, and this elite community has met them. He’s made sure to show off his lovely mate and their four fabulous offspring frequently, parading them past the persistent paparazzi at every opportunity.

Ah, a little escargot for the little cherub. Parents may crave the spotlight, but the little ones are little ones, after all, and their needs must be met.

Mother and father alike see to it that the youngsters experience only the finest haute cuisine. Aren’t they just adorably ungainly at this age?

Madame Catbird has many, many more delicious morsels to dish about. You say you must have more celebrity goodies? Now, now! Patience, darlings! Moderation in all things, don’t you know?

Do tune in next time to find out just who has all the bees abuzz, won’t you? Madame Catbird awaits! Until we meet again, on KRTR 99.9 FM, Critter Radio.

Au revoir!

Extraordinary Birds, Woodland Edition

Extraordinary (adjective): 1. beyond what is usual, ordinary, regular, or established. 2. exceptional in character, amount, extent, degree, etc.; noteworthy; remarkable. SYNONYMS: uncommon, singular, rare, phenomenal, special. (Dictionary.com)

If the commonplace birds that frequent our everyday world are “ordinary”, then “extraordinary” birds must be those that are unusual or rare visitors in our lives.

What’s ho-hum to one birder might be remarkable to another, however. Here are a few of the extraordinary birds I saw in the woods this spring, each one more special than the last.

I see Yellow-rumped Warblers like the one above all the time. Common, yes, but far from ordinary.  Because there’s no such thing as an ordinary bird. Yellow-rumps in breeding plumage are quite striking.

Yellow Warblers are also at Heinz NWR in large numbers in the spring. They’re plain, but very bright. And they are always cheerfully singing their little heads off.

In the Pine Barrens, a Prairie Warbler spent a long time perched  at the top of a pitch pine in the sun.

Then he started caroling. Prairie Warblers are more frequently heard than seen, for me at least.

Back at Heinz, an Eastern Kingbird at the water’s edge.

I see Baltimore Orioles from time to time in the spring. If one oriole is good, two must be better!

Spring migration brought the warbler hit parade to Heinz. Magnolia Warbler.

I don’t see Black-throated Green Warblers too often, and had never photographed one before. Catching this one was tough. It hung around for a long time, but like most warblers, it never stayed in one place, and was always just a little too far away.

Canada Warbler. Another bird new to my photo collection, though not my life list.

I can’t show you my favorite warbler of the spring. There was a brilliant Blackburnian Warbler in a treetop at Heinz. I’ve only caught brief glimpses of Blackburnians in Michigan. This time I got a good look at the bird, but you’ll have to take my word for it. He didn’t come close enough for a portrait.

Rarer still was this bright confection in Higbee Beach WMA in New Jersey. It’s a Yellow-breasted Chat, only the second one I’ve ever seen. I was shooting here from a tall observation platform at treetop level, the perfect perch from which to watch this warbler sing and dance.

Walking along the path at Cape May Point State Park, I spotted a flash of bright blue. Bluebird? Blue Jay? Tree Swallow?

Nope!

At the edge of the woods, a Blue Grosbeak was feeding on grass seeds. I’ve never seen one before. That makes this a life bird, the first one of its species I’d ever spotted.

Warblers to orioles, kingbirds to grosbeaks, there’s no such thing as an ordinary bird. They’re all special in their own way.

How extraordinary!

The Turtle 200

Critter Radio Logo v3Welcome back, race fans, to the annual Turtle 200! It’s been a year since the armored beasts took to the track. We have a good lineup of reptilian racers for you today, all tuned up and ready to roar down the track at a breakneck quarter-mile an hour. You can hear all the action right here on KRTR 99.9 FM, Critter Radio. Tension is mounting!

160526_PA HNWR Morning Turtles_8388acaThere’s quite a crowd watching the action from the turtle bleachers. They crane their necks for a better view as the competitors plod past.

160526_PA HNWR Morning Turtles_8379Every stadium has that one guy, right? Big, pushy, late to the party, he has to climb over everybody to get to his seat. Today it’s a Red-bellied Turtle throwing his weight around amongst the smaller patrons.

The Red-bellied Turtle, sometimes called a Red-bellied Cooter, likes deep water with a sandy or muddy bottom and lots of aquatic vegetation. They sometimes hang out in the sun with Painted Turtles and Red-eared Sliders, but they are much larger. They are distinguished by their reddish plastron, the lower shell. Red-bellied Turtles are listed as a threatened species in Pennsylvania. Loss of habitat is taking its toll, as is nest predation, road mortality when females come on land to lay eggs, and competition with the exotic Red-eared Slider.

140926_Forsythe NWR_3589acsHere we go, fans! Coming into the first turn is an Eastern Box Turtle. Surprising to see him in the lead. Box Turtles are known to be particularly slow, which is saying something when you’re talking about turtles. Look at the domed carapace (upper shell) on this guy!

140926_Forsythe NWR_3606acsLooks like he’s made the turn safely. He was really pulling those Gs though!

140926_Forsythe NWR_3618acsThe look on his face says it all.

160531_PA HNWR Evening_9169acsThis Painted Turtle shows some uniquely beautiful markings as he strains his neck going around the curve.

FUN FACT: A few species of turtles have an eye stripe like this. A fellow photographer pointed out that, no matter what angle the head and neck are, that eye line is always parallel with the horizon.

Wait! The Caution flag is up!

160526_PA HNWR Morning Turtles_8341acsSeems we’ve got a three turtle pileup of Red-eared Sliders on the track.

Red-eared Sliders look quite similar to Painted Turtles, and the two species frequently sun together. The red stripe on the side of the Slider’s head gives it away. They don’t belong here; they are native to the Mississippi River Basin. But they are popular pets, and frequently released into the wild, so that they have become established throughout the country. They often out-compete other turtles, the hallmark of an invasive species.

HNWR Snapper_6644 ASNow we’ve got a green flag, we’re back to racing. A snapping turtle has lumbered into the lead.

This is one BIG turtle! They can reach 60 pounds. Everything about them, from their heads to their claws, is huge. You don’t want to get near their powerful jaws.

HNWR Snapper_6657 aThe Snapper meanders on down the track, dragging his very impressive tail behind him.

06222016_DE Bombay Hook Terrapin_2130acsThe White flag is up – it’s the final lap. A Diamondback Terrapin moseys toward the finish line.

She’s almost there…

06222016_DE Bombay Hook Terrapin_1481acs…AND she’s pulling over for a pit stop. In an actual pit, which she’s digging herself to lay her eggs. Right in the road. Track managers frown on this type of behavior; it makes a mess for the grounds crew to clean up. In the meantime, this beautiful female has cost herself the trophy.

Diamondback Terrapins are turtles of brackish estuaries, tidal creeks and marshes. They are the only turtles in the country that live in water with a salt content between that of fresh and salty seawater. Population numbers are dropping due to habitat loss, and predation. Females crossing roads to lay eggs are killed by cars, they are collected illegally for the pet trade, and frequently drown in commercial crab traps. Numerous conservation programs are trying to help these beautiful turtles.

160526_PA HNWR Morning Turtles_8110acsNow another Snapper is gliding toward the finish line…

Oh, the drama! The Snapper had the finish line in his sights, only to be passed by a Painted Turtle in the last few yards as the checkered flag waves.

140926_Forsythe NWR_3555acsThere’s your winner, folks: the Painted Turtle has taken the coveted Turtle 200 Cup!

That’s another fine race in the history books. Don’t miss next year’s competition, brought to you by KRTR 99.9 FM, Critter Radio. It’s sure to be another nail-biter!

We leave you now, as always, with the words of the incomparable Ogden Nash:

The turtle lives ‘twixt plated decks

Which practically conceal its sex.

I think it clever of the turtle

In such a fix to be so fertile.

My Big Day

160531_PA HNWR Evening_9311acsA “Big Day” in bird-watching parlance is a day when a group of birders try to see as many different species of birds as they can. Recently, I had a different kind of Big Day.

My life list on May 13 consisted of 211 different bird species. On May 14, it was up to 217. That’s a big jump. How?

I saw six new birds in ONE day, that’s how. My BIG DAY.

But do I have photographic evidence? No!

Murphy’s Law of Bird Photography: Go out, camera in hand, in search of stunning photographs of the brightly colored migratory warblers that appear like magic every May, and either:

a) there are no birds, or

b) there are plenty of birds, but they are moving so rapidly deep in the dark treetops that all of your images are rubbish.

160526_PA HNWR Morning Birds_8263acsLike this Common Yellowthroat, so buried in the foliage that its light underparts look green from the reflection of the leaves.

Common Yellowthroats, as their name implies, are pretty common. One hopped across my porch while I was reading one evening. I enjoy seeing them each year, but this was not a new species, a “life bird”, for me.

160428_PA HNWR Warblers_6824acsHere’s a bird in the open, an American Redstart. Great bird, horribly distracting background, too bright. Another common warbler I’ve seen before this year.

John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge is a hotspot for migrating warblers, flycatchers, vireos and other birds in the spring. Many of the local birders said this was the best spring migration we’d had in some years.

Murphy’s Law of Bird Photography, Corollary #1: Go birding WITHOUT the camera, and the birds will sit in the open in beautiful light, singing their hearts out.

See the above incident on the porch. Great bird, really close, no camera.

160515_PA HNWR Warblers_7779acsHere’s the one life bird I saw this spring I managed to capture, a Cape May Warbler. I first saw it the day before at eye level, in the sun, singing away. But, alas, no camera. I found it again the next day with camera in hand; this time it was hidden in the trees. I finally caught it in a blur of motion. This nicely illustrates one of the habits that make warblers so difficult to photograph: they never stay still!

Murphy’s Law of Bird Photography, Corollary #2: Have a Big Day, in which you see SIX new species of warblers, and your only passable images will be of the ubiquitous Yellow Warblers. All thanks to Murphy’s Law of Bird Photography or Corollary #1.

160428_PA HNWR Warblers_6688acsHere’s that ubiquitous Yellow Warbler. Notice how all of my images are of the birds’ tummies? Another warbler habit: Most species like to hang out high in the trees. To see many of them you need to tilt your head way, way back. There’s a reason warbler fans complain of “Warbler Neck.” Most of my images are of birds that hang out a little lower in the canopy.

For those curious to know, my new birds this May were the Blue-winged, Cape May, Wilson’s, Blackpoll, Chestnut-sided and Canada Warblers and the Northern Parula. All but the Blue-winged seen in one day.

Murphy’s Law of Bird Photography, Corollary #3: Have a bird pose in the open for you to photograph, and that’s the bird that might have been a lifer, but you’ll never know for sure what it was.

160515_PA HNWR Warblers_7861acsI was with one of the Refuge’s finest birders, and she wasn’t willing to say definitively which flycatcher this was without hearing it sing. Despite posing for a long time in the open, it never opened its mouth.

It was a real treat to bird with Edie, though. Birding with friends was the only reason I was able to add so many new life birds to my list. I wouldn’t have found some of them if other pairs of eyes hadn’t been searching too. I wouldn’t have been able to identify some of them if others hadn’t helped me out.

There are other birds at the Refuge that are easier to see and photograph.

160516_PA HNWR Oriole_7952acsBaltimore Orioles are stunning at this time of year.

160428_PA HNWR Swallow_6499acsBarn Swallows are everywhere. Trying to capture them in flight is nearly impossible. But they’re not shy when they’re sitting on the boardwalk railing.

160526_PA HNWR Morning Birds_8554acsRed-winged Blackbirds are another common bird that I keep hoping to capture in flight. Sitting among the cattails will have to do.

Speaking of common birds in flight at the Refuge, that’s a Great Blue Heron at the top of this post.

160531_PA HNWR Evening_9265acsI’ve been trying to photograph male Wood Ducks in their elaborate breeding plumage for a long time, not particularly successfully. I’ll take the ducklings any day of the week, though. They’re hot on Mama’s tail as she paddles for the safety of the spatterdock.

Every day’s a Big Day for Mama Wood Duck.

Every day that I am outside observing and enjoying Nature is a Big Day for me.

Feeling Like a Million Bucks

Horned GrebeIt was a beautiful day yesterday at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum.

HNWR Dogwood_0569 acs2Not just because the weather was warm and dry, and the birds were singing. Because it was raining – money!

MuskratIn a ceremony outside the Visitor’s Center, attended by Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and other dignitaries, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe announced that the Service will invest an additional $1 million annually in the Refuge.

Green-winged Teal“That’s not a one-time grant, that’s $1 million that will be here this year, it will be here next year, and it will be here the years following that,” he said. “And that money is going to support additional work here, it’s going to support additional work in educating young children, it’s going to support additional work in connecting the surrounding communities to the refuge.”

Tinicum_7427acs2Three years ago, recognizing that 80% of Americans live in urban and suburban environments, the USFWS launched the Urban Wildlife Conservation Program. Yesterday, Heinz Refuge – America’s First Urban Refuge – became its latest Million Dollar Refuge.

Garter SnakeThe money will allow the Refuge to continue and expand the environmental education program it started last year in three Philadelphia schools. Other priorities include working with surrounding communities to promote conservation and nature, connecting them with green spaces.

BAld EagleOn the Refuge, the grant will make possible new signs on the trails, new displays for the Visitor Center, and a host of other projects. The small staff – dedicated, talented and enthusiastic, but undermanned and overworked – will be getting much needed reinforcements in the form of additional personnel.

BeaverIf you’ve followed my blog for any time, you know that no matter how far I wander, I always come back to Heinz Refuge. In the past years I’ve made friends here, volunteered here, and gotten involved with the Friends of Heinz Refuge who do so much to support the Refuge. I’ve made my own investment of time, and actual blood, sweat and tears, to make my home-away-from-home a better place. Which is why I can’t wipe the silly grin off my face.

1 HNWR Landscape_7409 acs2All of us who love Heinz Refuge are feeling like a million bucks!

Early Green

160322_PA HNWR Early Spring_3075aI’m not fond of the color brown. In fact, I don’t even think it’s a color. It’s more like a background, and one I’m tired of. For most of my life I lived in a beige house, which is brown in a wishy-washy mood. With apologies to my U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service friends in their brown and tan uniforms, the only good brown thing is chocolate.

As mild as this past winter was, I really have no cause to complain. But since the trees and shrubs lost their leaves in November, life outdoors has been a sea of brown bare trees and beige dried foliage. Now, I admire the structural bones of a single bare tree as much as the next person, but this is too much of a good thing. Momentary escapes to the Pine Barrens and Jersey Shore offered only momentary relief from the monotony. After five months, I am ready for change.

Nothing says “change” like green. Pale yellow-green. Bright kelly green. Deep forest green. The green of Nature. The green of Spring.  The green of New Life.

160322_PA HNWR Early Spring_3126acsWhat a relief to see green in all its variations on a recent evening walk at John Heinz NWR, and soak in the sights and sounds of the new arrivals early Spring brought with it. Like the willows dancing in the breeze while a jet contrail slices the clear blue sky.

160322_PA HNWR Early Spring_2573acsSpring greens are subtle. Pussy willow along the water’s edge.

160322_PA HNWR Early Spring_2492acsSometimes the green is the canvas on which other colors are painted. Just the carpet of green leaves would be welcome sight. The golden flowers add that touch of flair.

160322_PA HNWR Early Spring_2779acsSometimes spring greens are red! At this time of year, many of the trees are bright crimson, as the red maples burst into bud…

160322_PA HNWR Early Spring_2699acs…And flower.

160322_PA HNWR Early Spring_2716acsSometimes the green is not so welcome, like new shoots of Phragmites, an invasive plant found throughout the Refuge that a friend and I are trying to eradicate from a small plot. We knew it would come back. The fight is renewed for another growing season.

160322_PA HNWR Early Spring_3198acsThe greening of the land brings with it new arrivals freshly returned from their wintering grounds. Red-winged Blackbirds have been back for a few weeks. Their CONK-ER-REE calls are anything but musical, but nonetheless music to my winter-weary ears.

The air is filled with the songs of birds. Song Sparrows, Carolina Wrens and Cardinals join the blackbird chorus. There’s an amphibian choir singing as well, as frogs have come out of the mud where they spent the winter to look for mates. The aptly named Spring Peepers make a surprisingly loud, high-pitched PEEP continuously. These are tiny frogs, no bigger than a fingernail. In all my searching, I have never seen one, though I have been nearly deafened by their noise. Singing tenor to the peepers’ soprano are the Wood Frogs, who sound more like ducks, with their ragged QUACK call.

160322_PA HNWR Early Spring_3106acsSnapping turtles have also come out of the mud, and cruise along at the water’s surface.

160322_PA HNWR Early Spring_3230acsTree Swallows came back recently. Now the sky over the impoundment is filled with the little blue jewels hawking insects. Which means, of course, that the insects are back too. The marshy environment of Heinz Refuge would be miserable with mosquitos were it not for our swallow friends. Which is why we have nest boxes for them.

160322_PA HNWR Early Spring_3263acsFrequent squabbles break out over those nest boxes. This is prime real estate.

160322_PA HNWR Early Spring_2560acsGreat Egrets arrived last week. This one was enjoying an hors d’oeuvre, hoping for a more filling main course.

160322_PA HNWR Early Spring_3031acsHere’s the greenest photo of all. Yes, I know – there’s no green, just the dreaded brown. This is one of our Bald Eagle pair sitting on its nest. Inside that nest are one or more eggs. Any day now (it might already have happened) a tiny, fluffy eaglet will break its way out of the shell and start its new life.

New life. It just doesn’t get any greener than that.

Finding Refuge in the Snow

160126_PA HNWR Snow_7764This has been one weird winter. December and January were abnormally warm. Philadelphia set a new record for latest first snow.

Then the meteorologists started beating the drums for a winter storm of near-blizzard proportions, a full week in advance. When it finally came, it was a doozy, dumping 30″ of snow in some locations, and 22″ at the Philadelphia Airport. It took two days to clean up.

Finally, I escaped to John Heinz NWR to enjoy it.

160126_PA HNWR Snow Tracks_7740acsLooked like we weren’t the first to venture out.

Who goes there?

Great Blue Heron, definitely.

Red fox, perhaps. Or maybe one of the feral cats that hang out at the Refuge.

160126_PA HNWR Snow_7733acsWe weren’t the first humans out either, judging by the well-beaten path.

160126_PA HNWR Snow_7781aEverything looks new in the snow. Darby Creek was frozen on a gray day…

160126_PA HNWR Snow_7864acs…and the impoundment wore a mantle of white.

160126_PA HNWR Snow Ice_7853acsThe snow storm brought strong gusty winds, which created some intricate patterns on the surface of the impoundment.

On this walk we had one destination in mind, and we were going to reach it, no matter what. And what, pray tell, was the object of our desire?

160126_PA HNWR Snow_7869acsThe Refuge’s big pride and joy – our new Marsh Boardwalk. A year in the making, it extends hundreds of feet into the freshwater tidal marsh, and gives visitors and schoolchildren an up-close look at the ecosystem. This was the first time I’d seen it in snow.

160126_PA HNWR Snow_7917acsThis is the marsh in winter. Because it’s tidal, the water rises and falls beneath the ice, and the ice rises and falls with it, fracturing into frozen plates. No smooth skating rink here!

160126_PA HNWR Snow_7885acs160126_PA HNWR Snow_7915acsDarby Creek flows through the marsh in braided channels. Where water ran, the ice yielded to its passage.

160202_PA HNWR Downy_9311acsOne week later, the sun was shining. Another oddity. We’ve had more than our share of blue-sky days this winter. This Downy Woodpecker was busily looking for something yummy to eat.

160202_PA HNWR Ice_9423acsThe impoundment was peppered with little balls of snow. Or so I thought. On closer inspection, I discovered they were balls of air bubbles that had puffed out of small holes in the ice.

160202_PA HNWR Ducks_9381acsThe duck icebreakers were hard at work. This Mallard hen was determined go somewhere new. She would try to climb up on the ice to walk, only to break through to the water. Rinse and repeat. After a while she had opened up quite a channel.

160202_PA HNWR GBH_9535acsA Great Blue Heron fished in the golden glow of sunset.

160202_PA HNWR Geese_9557acGeese streamed in with the dying light, ready to call it a night.

Two weeks after the Big Storm, the temperatures have rebounded. The snow is all but gone. Darby Creek is ice-free. The trails at Heinz Refuge are clear. People were seen in shirt-sleeves. One weird winter!