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home : birding w/don reimer : birding w/don reimer
January 29, 2020

11/13/2013 1:30:00 PM
Watching Birds Being Birds-
Grappling Starlings - Photo by Don Reimer
Grappling Starlings - Photo by Don Reimer
Herring Gull with mouse, top; Bald Eagle and Osprey, bottom
Herring Gull with mouse, top; Bald Eagle and Osprey, bottom

Birding field guides provide the framework of identification through two-dimensional depictions that highlight general shape, size and distinctive feather patterns of a bird. And, of course, species identification is an essential step in learning to enjoy birds. Sometimes I strive to sharpen my personal birding skills while driving by identifying road-killed birds strewn upon the highways. I am usually able to sort quickly through the broader species categories: "it's a thrush, warbler, sparrow, shorebird or a raptor." Finer details, such as the defining black facial mask on a Common Yellowthroat or the dark brown central breast spot of a Song Sparrow, often lead to species confirmation. Positive identifications that are easily made at 10 mph get tougher at the limits of road speed. (Please do not ever attempt to text or make mobile phone calls from your car while focused on birds.)

In photographing live birds, it is more satisfying and informative to portray birds engaged in activities related to their daily habits and survival routines. As a former Boy Scout, I try to be prepared for any photo opportunity that might present itself by keeping a camera readily accessible in my vehicle.

For example, I recently encountered a queue of Starlings perched on a Thomaston utility wire. Although I intentionally tune out Starlings much of the time, two scrappy individuals began vigorously pecking and wing-batting each other. Grappling with their feet, the pair spiraled onto the roadside below, crash-landing a few feet from my stopped vehicle. The battle royal continued for a couple of minutes, as cars passed within mere feet of the grounded combatants. I was left to ponder the source of their mutual agitation. Was it related to a food dispute, a turf squabble perhaps?

Viewed from close range, the Starlings' handsome speckled winter plumage and rufous feather edgings were evident. Their sharply pointed bills and aggressive demeanor may also help to explain the species' successful transition from Europe.

Another photo situation involved an opportunistic Herring Gull that had snatched a breakfast mouse from a grassy meridian. The gull grabbed the scurrying rodent, slatting it roughly and dispatching it with forceful blows to the head. Lacking the talon strength of a raptor, the gull's sturdy beak is a formidable weapon nonetheless. We tend to view gulls as scavengers, not hunters. In truth, gulls are omnivores whose meaty diet includes insects, earthworms, nest eggs at breeding colonies, marine organisms and, yes, small furry creatures that cross their path.

Each spring birders enjoy the spectacle of Osprey and Bald Eagle interactions as the two species compete for migrating river alewives. Of the two raptors, the Osprey is the slightly more proficient due to its highly specialized gear for the job. Ospreys approach the water in nearly vertical dives. Their relatively long legs and hooked talons permit the "fish hawk" to plunge well beneath the water surface to extract a wriggling alewife.

Bald Eagles are also skilled fishers, approaching from a more horizontal plane and skimming the water surface. Eagles are well known for the pirating tactics they use to steal Ospreys' catch away. There is no predictable outcome with these random robberies. The eagle's odds seem to improve when they initiate an attack before the Osprey fully gains altitude. If the Osprey drops the fish, the bulky eagles are remarkably agile in retrieving their prize in mid-air.

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