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Macaw Messiah

Thursday, January 29, 2015

I am delighted to say that, in February, I will be returning with a group of about 15 people to Costa Rica. Guiding trips is a brand new thing for me, but I find it suits me pretty well. Why wouldn't it? I guess it's obvious that I love showing people amazing places and creatures.

 It helps to work with Holbrook Travel, which owns a lodge (Selva Verde) along the Pacific coast, and specializes in thoughtful, sustainable eco-tourism worldwide. I respect and like the people I work with very much, and our Costa Rican guide, Mario Cordoba, is the bomb. He's promised to work some more bats into this trip. Squeeee!!

After last winter's trip, I did several posts about Don Alvaro's macaw and wildlife sanctuary on his finca not far from Holbrook Travel's proprietary lodge, Selva Verde. And you, gentle readers, surprised me yet again by asking where and how you could donate money to help him keep these magnificent birds in the manner to which they have become accustomed. I didn't have an answer for you then. Still don't have proper contact information for Don Alvaro. But I'm headed back there in February 2015, and I would be delighted to bring along a gift from you. (Probably ought to have donations in by Feb. 19 at the latest). A recap:

This is not an ordinary man-and-macaw story. The afternoon we visited Don Alvaro's finca in the rolling countryside near the Rio Sarapiqui was one of the most magical and moving of our trip.

This gentle man rescues macaws. Caged, lonely, abused macaws, macaws coming from all over. I saw one with only half a beak, and one that, in its misery in solitary confinement, had plucked itself all the way to fuzzy gray down. Don Alvaro has 19 in all. That's a LOT of macaws. (Just having one around frequently got on my last nerve). But "has" isn't quite the right verb here. 

Because it's what he does with them, how he keeps them that moved me so. These birds are free, flying all over the farm. Flying many kilometers up and down the river, voicing harsh shrieks that, in their harshness, still sound joyful.

Ruckus on the finca! RAAAAWWWK!!!

Great green and scarlet macaws, free flying in the riverine gallery forest, which connects directly to the enormous and well-studied La Selva Bioreserve.

Shots of scarlet and electric blue arrow overhead

But they come back to Don Alvaro for peanuts and a little loving. 

Having lived with a captive chestnut-fronted macaw for 23 years, I could immediately see that this was a much, much better way. Perhaps the only way to "keep" any parrot. Free.

I embrace this concept so fully that I had tears rolling down my cheeks for much of the visit, just watching these birds living as they were meant to live. Well, panhandling peanuts isn't quite their natural state, but it's a lot closer than moping on a T-stand,  wings clipped, in somebody's dark living room or den.

Macaws are widely perceived as so valuable that very few people would dare to release them into the garden, much less the sky.

But Don Alvaro relies on their native intelligence and their attachment to the only home they know. And he hopes they will breed, make more macaws, perhaps in time even repopulate some of the area, perhaps La Selva Biological Reserve, which after all isn't too far away.

As a trained observer can see, one pair has already bred. A great green macaw paired with a scarlet, making some lovely hybrid babies--four in one clutch!

You can't tell someone whom to love.  Mama and Papa, likely the birds to the right in the photo below. Great green x scarlet macaw gives you three sunny rainbow babies. And two full-blooded scarlets to the left. So it can happen, and these birds can multiply in this setting.

Even though this pairing was a bio-misfire, it was encouraging to see that macaws could so successfully breed. I hoped hard that some same-species pairs would follow suit. Don Alvaro has huge nest boxes in the trees around the place, also hoping. The world desperately needs more macaws. Everywhere they once were, they are disappearing.

I've seen so many macaws languishing in iron cages, sitting still and mopey, their colors and eyes dull with boredom. Seeing them swooping and bickering and yelling here, their feathers smooth and in jewel-toned perfection, was a tonic I sorely needed. 

Oh, they were saucy and loud. Yet their screams fit this vibrant place, were part of its music. They dissipated into the open sky. Having to hear macaws screaming indoors is nothing but painful. Even if they weren't as intelligent as a two-year-old human, their screams alone should rule them out as appropriate pets. But outdoors? 

 It's music, parrot punk. Macaw emo.

These macaws have found a friend, someone who understands and trusts them.

Who believes in them enough to set them free.

Though he has very little English, and his Spanish was far too rapid for me to understand, Don Alvaro's kindness and love permeates this place. Just being there with him among the birds, all of them rapidly switching places and flapping from tree to tree, changed me forever.

I believe that this is the only way for macaws to live--together, full-flighted, and free.

 If you agree, please consider a small gift for Don Alvaro, that he may continue to provide a beautiful life for these incredible, but so often abused higher beings.

See the DONATE button on the right sidebar of this blog. In the comment box, be sure to specify that it's for the macaws. Thank you so much. I'll take your gift to him (LUCKY ME!!), and I'll be sure to post pictures from our 2015 visit. With your help, I think I'll be able to get a smile out of him this year.  :D

¿Quién es esta mujer, y porqué ella está llorando?

What the Willet Does

Friday, January 23, 2015


I've been busy in Florida, working at the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival. The weather's been sunny and in the 70's. Liam's with me. We're in heaven. 

This afternoon we raced over to Canaveral National Seashore and watched birds. 
I watched a willet looking a little full in the crop. I don't have time to crop or edit these photos, but I wanted to toss them out to you. Maybe someone out there knows what's going on here. 

It began gagging

and it brought up a disorganized bolus

which dropped on the sand. The willet contemplated this

and then began re-ingesting the bolus, bit by bit.

It ate pretty much the entire thing, in little pieces.

I got the feeling that this is something willets do, because I saw another bird do exactly the same thing on down the beach.

Hmm. I wondered if it was like rabbits, who eat the droppings they excrete soon after a meal, and essentially digest the meal twice. Yuck, but it works for rabbits.

 So the next bird I saw doing this, I apologized to and interrupted.  I ran over and picked up the bolus.

And it was made entirely of tiny perfect baby bivalves, pasted together with willet goo. I don't know enough about bivalves to know what they are, but I run their names: coquinas, tellins, clamlets (I made that one up) around in my head.

I would love to know what's going on here. How does a bird crush and digest these things in its gizzard? It would seem to me to take an enormous amount of pressure to crack and extract the meat from such tiny closed bivalves. Does regurgitating them and re-ingesting them somehow help the process? Is it regurgitating the things it found and ingested blindly in deep sand, then coughing them up to pick the real food (clamlets) out and leave the indigestible rocks and sand behind? 
(I kind of like the feel of this theory in my brain). 

 For that matter, how does it find all those perfect baby bivalves? It probes blindly deep in the sand, picking up what it can feel. It must be able to tell a clam from a rock with the tip of its sensitive bill. How?

The willets aren't talking.

Sharp-shin Vs. Cooper's: Wrong Again, and Happily So

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

When we last left our heroine, she was flying through the air at a high rate of speed on her way to Orlando to give three talks and accompany (I won't say lead) two field trips in five days at the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival in beautiful balmy Florida.

I left this...this...crapola... just this morning...

for this...

don't miss huuuuuge gator with nose on shore...

with my best boyfren Liam at Blue Springs State Park, Orange City, Florida. We watched the sun go down to the gentle exhalations of about a dozen of the 300 manatees parked there in the 72 degree crystal clear water. It is a wonderful world. You can fly two winter weary people to Paradise in just under three hours. 

Just as I went to turn my phone off just after noon today, a private Facebook message came in from none other than Kenn Kaufman, field guide author (birds, mammals, butterflies), writer and naturalist supreme. I'm taking the liberty of copying it here. After a friendly salutation, he wrote:

I looked at your blog post on Accipiters this morning, and just between us, I feel uneasy about the ID. I'm not an expert but I did spend a lot of time looking at plumage characters when I was working on Advanced Birding; I never saw a Sharp-shin, in a museum or in the field or in diagnostic photos, that had such a blackish cap. Just looking at the head in your photos - the blackish cap, pale nape, mauve-gray auriculars, and position of the eyes on the face - I would have been confident in calling it a Cooper's. I know about the leg shape difference and I've tried to illustrate it in the past, but to me the bird in your photos looks inconclusive in that regard.

I didn't want to start a public debate, but I thought it would be worthwhile to contact you privately about this. If the bird is indeed a Sharp-shinned, it totally alters my concept of head pattern on the species. At the very least, it would be far from typical, and it might be good to tell people that. But I'd encourage you to look at those characteristics of head and face pattern and reconsider this bird.

I think my favorite line is "I'm not an expert..."

Nah. You're not. Then, um, who is?? I chuckled and made a few quiet squees to myself, turned off my phone, and settled into my crappy airplane seat with a happy sigh. So it's a Cooper's after all. Well, dangit, my first thought was that it was a Cooper's, but then I talked myself into sharp-shin. Go with your first gut's rarely wrong.

And when we landed and I turned my phone back on, there was another Facebook message from none other than Keith Bildstein, Sarkis Acopian Director of Conservation Science at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. Dude has seen and ID'd a few hundred thousand accipiters in his time. He wrote, 

Julie, looks like a Coops to me. White band prominent on rounded tail tip, but the relative closeness of the eye to the bill (versus the back of the head) is a dead giveaway. I hope this helps. In AZ now chasing TVs.

I. LOVE. IT. I'm leaving the original post just as it is, with a little addendum to point people to this one for, as Paul Harvey used to intone, "The Rest of the Story."  Because like paint thrown at a wall, the erroneous post has a beauty all its own. And for me, the beauty is that this is subtle stuff.  Even as I'm watching it down the last of its starling, this bird is morphing before my eyes. One moment it looks like a great big female sharpie; the next it looks like a small male Cooper's. One moment its bill looks delicate; the next a bit large for a sharp-shin. I just could not decide. And then I saw what looked like spindly legs, and I thought I had it nailed. Not so fast, Zickefoose.

photo by Diane Husic

I've been known to make a bad call from time to time. I think I was making one just last September when this photo was taken, in fact, and Keith Bildstein, who is perched on the rock above me, turned around and corrected me. Heh. Heh. It was a broadwing, and I was calling it a sharpie. Duh. Outta shape, Zickefoose? Well, on your bird ID you are. Besides. Who wears pants like THAT at South Lookout??

And it's clear from what I wrote that I was cornfused. I even  mentioned the dark cap as being atypical for a sharpie, but I didn't know it was contraindicated. 

And those spindly legs? Well, I guess it's a Cooper's with spindly legs. What do I know? Not much. Relative closeness of eye to bill? So a Cooper's hawk's eye is closer to its bill than to the back of its head? Ohh kay. Now that you say it, I guess I can see it. And I love it. Who knew? Not me. Others. 

I warned you that I was paddling around the shallow end of bird ID. And now two great big sharks have cruised in to set me straight, and I couldn't be more pleased about it.

Because for me, and for any naturalist who is driven by curiosity and the desire, above all, to get it right, the point of all this is to ferret out the truth. And the truth is out there. And I've got two nice private messages from two experts to prove it. That feels good. Knowing what the bird is feels even better.

Me and Keith at Hawk Mountain's South Lookout, September 2014
Photo by Diane Husic

Thank you, Big Sharks! It's a Cooper's hawk. Well, dip me in chocolate. 


The End.

Humblest thanks to Kenn Kaufman, Keith Bildstein, and gardnie 07 (comments section of the original post), all of whom set me straight and taught me a thing or five.

Sharp-shin or Cooper's?

There's been a hawk strafing our feeders this winter. I'd seen enough of it to know it was an adult: gunmetal blue above and rust below, and it was in that gray area of size that makes its species really hard to call. It's the size of a small male Cooper's, or a big female sharp-shin.

That's what makes this ID conundrum (sharp-shinned vs. Cooper's hawk) so devilishly difficult for all but the bird ID oracles. Plumage coloration isn't a whole lot of help, as we'll see below. You've got to go on structure and proportion. On how big the head and bill are relative to the body. And then you have to consider that there's a continuum of sizes that goes from 

small male sharp-shin (barely larger than a mourning dove)
to large female sharp-shin
which is about the size of a small male Cooper's hawk
which is much smaller than a big female Cooper's hawk.

Phew. The overlap zone is tough.

So when I spotted a medium-sized accipiter sitting placidly back in the trumpetvine tangle just off our bird feeding area, I started collecting images of it. At first glance, I thought it might be a Cooper's hawk. When it sleeked down, it seemed to have that hatchet-headed look, and the sooty well-defined cap that often characterizes an adult Cooper's hawk.

And then it raised its crest and I vacillated back to sharp-shinned. 

When its head was puffed up, its bill looked small in proportion to its head. That made me lean toward sharp-shinned, too. As did Corey, who was already calling it a sharp-shinned. :)

I wasn't sure what it was doing there--basking in the sun on this frigid day in the teens? 
until it leant down and picked at something in its talons. Ah! You have prey!

It was so interesting to see the feeder birds going about their business as if there were no hawk there at all. They didn't waste any time. Knew the hawk was at rest and well-fed and thus no danger to them.

As Corey said, "Too bad for Joe, there, but we've got things to do."

 The confounding thing for me was that I couldn't see its legs or feet. And this was a problem because oddly enough, I use those to clinch ID on ambiguous birds on the sharp-shin/Cooper's spectrum.  I decided to settle in with my camera (I'm shooting from inside the studio) and wait until it moved, and I got a glimpse of those legs.

I didn't have to wait long. The bird decided it didn't appreciate being stared at by me, Phoebe and Corey, and it picked up its prey and hopped quickly into deep cover. Oh yes. It was watching us just as closely as we were watching it.


I pressed the shutter as fast as I could, hoping I'd get something on both legs and prey.

And this is the shot that clinched the ID for me.  Funny shot, actually, of an awkwardly running, heavily laden hawk. Hard to run on those Dolly Parton claws. 

Those are the spindly legs of an adult female sharp-shinned hawk! Wahoo!

But what did she have in her bill? She'd plucked it practically naked, and eaten more than half of it.
I hoped hard it wasn't my beloved hermit thrush, who spooks around in just that part of the border.

Very impressive black cap for a sharpie. But sharpie she is. See how her legs are pencil-thin when viewed from the front? Those are the sharp, blade-like "shins" of the tarso-metatarsus of a sharp-shin.

The best view. Now her bill looks dainty; her head smallish in relation to her body. It all falls into place as soon as I can see her legs. 

We were itching to know what bird had gone down for her midday meal.
Clearly, it was big enough to give her a Mae West crop!
And it was all but gone, just a few bones left.

I always love to see a hawk get a nice meal. I was hoping hard she'd snagged one of the dozen starlings that have been crapping all over our deck and gobbling down almost every bit of my Zick Dough since the big freeze clamped down. 

We were all heading into town, so we crept out the front door to the garage so as not to frighten her off. She was still eating when we left. We got home around 9 PM and Corey and I went out with his flashlight. She must've plucked it wherever she initially killed it, and brought it to this tangle to eat it in peace. Couldn't find a durn feather, until Corey picked up a couple little bunches of dark greasy green breast feathers, edged in buff. Starling!!

Thank you. Please come back soon and grab as many starlings as you can.  

Here are a couple of my photos of Cooper's hawks, to show their more substantial legs:

A Texas Cooper's, showing sturdy legs, large deep bill, and hatchet-head.

A  juvenile Cooper's from West Virginia. Big ol' feet, strong legs, nicely graduated almost cuckoo-like tail. Head in good proportion to its body. Sharpies often look pin-headed and goggle-eyed to me, especially the little males.

Just for fun, and to illustrate how subtle this stuff can be, I've asked permission to post some of my friend Ellen Pemrick's photos of a bird, almost identical in plumage to ours, in her yard not far from Schenectady, New York. She had decided it was a Cooper's hawk.

 photo by Ellen M. Pemrick

I stared at these photos for a long time, perhaps seduced in part by its similarity to "my" sharpie. I was going back and forth in my mind, but in the end the bill looked too deep and heavy, the head too angular to be a sharp-shin's.

 photo by Ellen M. Pemrick

The Cooper's head has a more angular, hatchet-like quality, and is larger in proportion to its body than a sharpie's. 

When I asked, Ellen provided another shot, that shows a nicely rounded tail, with marked gradation in the lengths of the feathers. Though Corey tells me that this rounded tail can be seen on female sharp-shins, the features I can see on this bird add up to Cooper's, at least for me. Would have loved to see its legs, but we aren't always granted the look we want.

 photo by Ellen M. Pemrick

I hope you've enjoyed this little diversion into accipiter ID, and found it helpful.  Thanks to Ellen Pemrick for loan of her photos!

Disclaimer: By and large, I stay away from thorny ID problems. Although a lot of people send me photos of mystery birds, and I can usually help, I don't consider myself an ID oracle. If bird ID is an Olympic swimming pool, I'll paddle around in the shallow end, thank you. Leave the tough stuff to the big sharks. Who are welcome to cruise in and add to the discussion. I've found it helps a lot to be open to learning from people who know more than I do; to check one's ego at the door in any discourse about bird identification. Tall order for a Leo, but I try.

       UPDATE! UPDATE! Hit "Newer Post" for 
                       The Rest of the Story
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