Throwback Thursday: Armchair Lifers

In October of 2012 Jaime and I spent 10 days in Europe by way of London and Paris. It was the best trip I have ever been on. It also happened to coincide with the point in my life where I was making that awkward transition from “bird-watcher” to “birder,” so I was aware of all of the new and exciting birds around, but I was poor at actually knowing what they were (original blog posts here and here). Today I had to dig up an old tax return, and the flash drive that I needed to use had our vacation photos on it. I looked through them to reminisce, but instead I ended up with some armchair lifers that for whatever reason I couldn’t or didn’t identify at the time.

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Egyptian Goose

The bulk of my bird photos come from Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park where exotic waterfowl abound. At the time, I had a hell of a job trying to discern the domestic from the truly wild, and I think my caution was well-founded. However, Egyptian Goose is one that I have since learned is all over the UK. This one doesn’t have any bands and has both halluces present, so there is no reason to think it isn’t one of the established population. If you look closely, you can also see some pigeons in the photo. Armchair lifer!

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Ruddy Shelduck

The next in line are this pair of Ruddy Shelducks. eBird has a smattering of sightings across the London area, but most of them seem to indicate that these birds are introduced and kept as part of a collection. Sorry Ruddy Shelduck, you look cool but you are not getting counted!

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Mandarin Duck

Mandarin Duck is a bird I specifically remembered seeing, because, honestly, look at it. However, I had somehow not featured it on my initial write-up. I put it on my list from the 2012 trip, and 2017 research shows that large populations are also well-established on Britain. Not an armchair lifer, but validated countable bird!

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Red-breasted Goose

Red-breasted Goose is native to Europe, including the UK, but their numbers are seriously low. A chance encounter with tame, grazing birds like these certainly means they are part of a collection. Not countable!

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Combo!

Here is a cropped combo shot showing Mute Swan, Greater White-fronted Goose, Bar-headed Goose, Rock Pigeon, and Tourist. I don’t even think I noticed the geese in the background at the time, and the internet tells me neither Greater White-fronted nor Bar-headed are countable anyway. I like the swan though, especially because it’s not an invasive species in this photo!

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Lesser Black-backed Gull

I have a few photos of gulls from the trip, including lots of the ubiquitous Black-headed as well as a few immature Herring that I didn’t want to ID at the time. But the most surprising shot was this decent photo of what is very obviously a Lesser Black-backed Gull, a bird that I have chased and dipped on twice in Indiana thinking that it would be a lifer. But it wouldn’t have been, because this bird represents my armchair lifer! The best field mark for this bird is the half of a pigeon hanging out of its mouth. I have come to learn that LBBGs are famous for hunting them at Hyde Park.

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Tower Raven

Next up is a raven I shot at the Tower of London. These birds are obviously kept, but they are cool anyway, so here you go. eBird shows that their wild counterparts are abundant in the UK but with a gaping hole in their distribution over London city proper. I suppose it would be tough to substantiate a wild bird appearing in the city when these guys are so famous.

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European Goldfinch

Hopping the Eurostar to Paris, I had this photo mixed in with all of my others from Jardin des Tuileries. I distinctly remember trying to get a photo of the House Sparrow because I thought it was cool that they were in their native range, and indeed I have a bunch of blurry photos to prove it. This one, however, also has another bird in it that I have no memory of seeing at the time, and judging by my lack of other photos of it probably didn’t notice at all. My House Sparrow got photobombed by a European Goldfinch. Armchair lifer, and perhaps a bird even more embarrassing than my CBC Sharp-shinned Merlin.

I thought I would feel bad about retroactively counting birds this way, but I thought it was actually kind of fun. Does anyone else admit to doing this?

Feederwatching

Steady rain all weekend made it so that the birding was effectively feederwatching. First, the highlight:

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Red-breasted Nuthatch

For the second year in a row, my feeder has hosted a Red-breasted Nuthatch. Or in this case, three Red-breasted Nuthatches, which is a pretty neat trick.

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Red-breasted Nuthatch

Helping more than my one meager feeder filled with sunflower seeds to attract these stellar irruptive visitors is the row of 50 foot spruce trees along the edge of our backyard. I do what I can.

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Combo!

Feederwatchig is a technique I am not ashamed of, especially when it is the only way to get two species of nuthatch in the same shot. It also provides some interesting drama as you observe the power struggles between the same individual birds over the course of a couple of days.

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A not atypical situation

 

Each bird has its own unique way of using the food source, and species seem to dominate and yield to others in not quite truly hierarchical fashion. To start, there are three main styles of bird feedering:

The Traditionalists fly in, eat some seeds for a while, then fly away to go do other bird things. Adherents to this style include Northern Cardinal, House Sparrow, and Blue Jay.

The Gluttons fly in and stay put eating as much as they can until they are forced off. American Goldfinch, House Finch, and Mourning Dove are Gluttons.

The Dart-and-Runners fly in, take a single bite, and fly away to finish or stash it somewhere else. Time on the feeder is minimized to the greatest extent possible, and practitioners include Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, and both White- and Red-breasted Nuthatches.

This is only part of the story, though. Each species also seems to have an unspoken relationship with all of the others.

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The struggle is real

We will start at the top of the food chain.

Blue Jays have a bad reputation, but in my yard they have only shown aggression to raptors. They don’t get pushed around by anybody, but they also don’t push others around. They also aren’t very frequent visitors to the feeder, so that may be why.

Northern Cardinals, on the other hand, are the usual owners of the joint. They will not be moved by anyone, plus they show extreme aggression toward House Sparrows. They will tolerate other birds only until they get too close, and then anything is fair.

House Sparrows are despised by all, and for good reason. They will swarm in numbers making their presence impossible to oust from the feeders, plus they are aggressive to most other manner of bird. When I was observing, the most frequent target was House Finch.

House Finches didn’t take it lying down, though. These birds will not start a fight, but they will fight back if pushed.

Tufted Titmice for the most part seemed to attack each other.

Meanwhile, Carolina Chickadees were the most peaceful species. In addition to showing no aggression, they also were infrequently if ever targets of bullying themselves.

White-breasted Nuthatches don’t pick on anyone, and they also don’t stick around long enough to get picked on themselves. Their strategy is to fly in, perch on the pole or baffle, and wait for an opening. Then they seize the opportunity.

Red-breasted Nuthatches operate largely in the same way, but instead of hanging around close by, they will fly in from literally out of nowhere to grab an empty seat at the table. They are also ridiculously tolerant of close approaches by humans. At one point I stood a foot away from the feeder and they still came and went as usual.

And finally, American Goldfinches come in big groups, hang upside-down, eat forever, and generally have a good time. All species seem to like them except House Sparrows.

Of course, birds are not the only ones using the feeders.

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Dare to dream

My set-up is largely mammal-proof (see: raccoons), but the furry ones have lofty goals.

European Birding – Part One

Jaime and I recently got back from a two-week European vacation in London and Paris. Long story short, it was an amazing time and highlights of most of what we did are available on Facebook. Highlights of the rest of what I did are available right here!

Because there was so much to do and see, Jaime and I didn’t really go on any true birding excursions, so all that I ended up seeing were the most common city birds where we were. But the birds of Europe are vastly different from what you can get in North America, so I had 19 lifers! And in addition to that, I was able to see three birds in their native ranges that are considered invasive species in the United States, plus one that makes its home naturally on both sides of the Atlantic. Oh, and there were also pigeons. To make this easier to digest, I now present to you my first in a two-part series of European birds:

European Starling

European Starling

If you see a nebulous black cloud of birds in the fall in Indiana (or elsewhere across the US, for that matter), it’s a pretty good chance that they are European Starlings, a pest bird and invasive species that was brought to America by some fool who wanted the birds of Shakespeare’s plays to live here. Its population exploded and got us where we are today. In Europe, though, the bird is actually a part of the natural biosphere and not nearly as common, so I was excited to see this one by the Tower of London!

House Sparrow

House Sparrow

Now, take everything I said above about the Starling (including the part about Shakespeare) and apply it to the House Sparrow, except this one was seen at Tuileries in Paris!

Mute Swan

Mute Swan

Now, take everything about the Starling and House Sparrow, substitute the Shakespeare parts for people just thinking it looked pretty on park ponds in the US, and you have the Mute Swan.

Northern Shoveler

Northern Shoveler

The Northern Shoveler is also regularly seen in North America, but unlike the last three birds, it exists there naturally. Still, I was excited to see this one at Hyde Park in London because I had only ever seen one before, and I didn’t have a picture.

Common Blackbird

Common Blackbird

Now on to the life birds! The Common Blackbird is not closely related to American blackbirds, but it is a thrush like the American Robin. This one was running around the Tower of London’s moat.

European Robin

European Robin

And unlike the Common Blackbird, European Robins have pretty much nothing in common with American Robins except for their color pattern, which is how the Yankee version got its name. This one was seen at Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London.

Carrion Crow

Carrion Crow

Another bird with American dopplegangers is the Carrion Crow, which as far as I can tell is only differentiated from the American Crow by the fact that it doesn’t live in America. This was another bird seen at Hyde Park.

Common Wood Pigeon

Common Wood Pigeon

The Common Wood Pigeon seems to be quite similar to the feral Rock Pigeons of every city in the world, but they are actually different. The first difference, which can’t be seen from this photo, is that they are about the size of a chicken. The second is that they have a big white spot on the side of their necks. The third is that they are much more likely to be hiding up in tree canopies than foraging for trash in the street, even though this one was perched on the Tower Bridge in London.

Black-Headed Gull

Black-Headed Gull

Probably the most numerous bird I saw in all of Europe was the Black-Headed Gull. In winter, they lose their black heads which is why the bird above does not seem to fit its name. In any case, these animals choked the Thames and the Seine in equal numbers. Oh well! Lifer anyway!

Eurasian Magpie

Eurasian Magpie

Another ridiculously common bird of Europe, but much more interesting than the others above, is the Eurasian Magpie. They are related to crows but are prettier to look at and seem to be much more clever.

Stay tuned, more to come tomorrow!