"For the Birds" Index

New!  Jim B has opened a message board dedicated to the sharing of information about wild birds and the hobby of bird watching. Birders of all levels of experience and any location are cheerfully invited to join in:

For The Birds (vol 4)


June 06, 2002 - For the Birds originally appeared as a series of posts on the Cape Ann Online message board. It was aimed at the audience who sees birds in their day to day life and is curious about them rather than the hardcore or even intermediate bird watcher.

Any word in blue can be clicked on for more info.

What’s Happening

June is the transition month between May, the best month for birding, and July and August, the "horse latitudes" of birding. The trees have leafed out making birds harder to see. Birds are loud and conspicuous while claiming territory and trying to attract a mate. As birds settle into the serious business of reproduction and raising young they become quieter and reclusive to avoid unwanted attention.

Now is the time most folks start making trips to the beach. There, amid the trash and the dogshit, thrive some very hardy and very small birds known as peeps and plovers. Many of these birds push through our area in a big wave in the beginning of June and are seen again migrating back south in the fall. Most are headed far north to breed. A few individuals will summer over.


Peeps are small sandpipers of the Calidris family. There is a whole bunch of them but here we are concerned with two – the Sanderling and the Semipalmated Sandpiper].


The Sanderling is THE small shorebird people think of when they think beach / small bird. They gather in small flocks and run back and forth just before the incoming waves as if they are afraid to get their feet wet. Sanderlings, like most birds, don’t waste energy. Next time you see them, watch the way they run closely. Their legs move a mile minute but there is no up and down motion in the body. All of the leg energy is used to move forward – a marathon runner’s dream form.

These small flocks of sandpipers have an open membership policy. Some birds join in while others drop out as the flock zigzags its way down the beach. Feel free to join them sometimes. It is fun.

The Semipalmated Sandpiper is another small peep. Semi means half and palm means, well, palm. Birds with the semipalmated bit in their names have half webs between their toes. Semipalmated is a big word for such a small bird but it is not the least desirable modifier among the bird names. How would you like to be a Lesser Yellowlegs or a Least Sandpiper?


First, for you "hooked-on-phonics" types, let’s get the pronunciation straight. It is plover as in lover, not as in clover. Plover is from the Latin pluvial meaning rain. What that has to do with this family of birds, no one remembers. Someone made up an explanation that these birds are easy to catch in the rain. Hey, next time it rains, go try it, report back.

Black-bellied Plovers are the quick change artists of the local mudflats. As they pass through in late May and early June you may see flocks of about a dozen birds each with each individual bird looking remarkably different from its neighbor. In full breeding plumage, this is a handsome bird. In winter plumage, Black-bellied Plovers are so bland even some experienced birdwatchers get fooled into thinking they are something else.

The Semipalmated Plover has a neat dark stripe around its neck and face. If it has two sets of stripes, it is a Killdeer . Both the Killdeer and the Semipalmated Plover will do a distraction display if you approach the nest too closely. They sort of jump up and down and make like they have a broken wing while moving away from the nest. The idea is to fool you, the predator, into following this "crippled" bird (easy prey) moving away from the nest and once you are far enough away, BANG, the bird experiences a miracle cure and flies off. The Semipalmated Plover do not nest here but the Killdeer do. Please do not disturb the Killdeer just to see this behavior – take my word for it.

The bumper sticker "Piping Plover tastes like chicken" is not very common in Gloucester but I see it every now and again. This is the most controversial bird on the North Shore and maybe in America. They are protected and can be found on Crane Beach and Plum Island. They are seen migrating through Gloucester. About 25% of the east coast breeding population is found here.

Piping Plover

Piping Plovers have the misfortune of choosing to breed in prime real estate between the wrack line and dunes on barrier beaches. Next time you are on one of these beaches think this – hurricanes can have 100 mph winds and thirty foot waves. Bye Bye Birdie

Notice I did not go into a whole lot of detail describing the differences between these various shorebirds. Therein lays madness. These are some of the most common birds to see at the shore. Learn them, enjoy them and be happy! I am sure that, with all this running with the Sanderlings and trying to catch Plovers in the rain, some of you are beginning to suspect the truth. Birding is a way of expressing our inner madness without running the risk of being drugged or locked up.


Bird Books as Art

I know birds. I don’t know art. I know what I like. One of the "arty" things I like most is old books that contain drawings of birds. Most of these bird books come from an era before color film cameras and good binoculars. The birds were shot and painted "in hand." (This explains some otherwise incomprehensible names like the Ring-necked Duck. Anyone can see the ring is around the bill and not the neck. It is only with the bird in hand that you can see there really is a ring around the collar.)

So much has been written about Audubon that I am not going to bother. Do a search if you are interested – it is fascinated stuff.

Today’s featured artist is Louis Agassiz Fuertes. The following list of books all feature his artwork and the first two written by Forbush are serious reference works containing the history of bird movements in our region. These books are often referred to in posts on Massbird and provide a historical perspective whenever one is considering the sighting of a rare bird.

Birds of Massachusetts and other New England States, (three volumes) published in 1925, 1927 and 1929 by the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture

A Natural History of American Birds of Eastern and Central North America], published in 1936 by Bramhall House

The Book of Birds, published in 1927 by the National Geographic Society

Portraits of New England Birds, published in 1932 by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts

Birds of America, published in 1936 by Garden City Publishing Company

I bought all of these books on eBay – most for under ten dollars each. You can buy individual prints if something suits your fancy to frame, but why bother when, for a few dollars more you can get the whole book. Folks looking to make a profit buy the books and break them to sell individual pages. These books may be available in local libraries.


Cradle Will Fall

I remember being ten years old and walking home from school one day with all the joy and excitement June holds. I saw a little blue egg cracked open on the sidewalk with a baby bird halfway out of it. I poked it with a stick and thought it look like something from War of the Worlds.

The "I found an abandoned baby bird" syndrome is one of the disagreeable things about being a known birdwatcher. Folks come to you looking for advice and do not want to hear what you have to say. Be that as it may, here goes.

The best thing you can do if you find a baby bird is leave it alone.

There are many reasons why this is so. Here are a few.

The bird might not be abandoned. Many birds, while clearly young and looking lost are encouraged by the parents to explore and forced into freedom. Often the parents are nearby and just out of your sight.

Birds may be thought of as being precocial or altricial. (Note I did not say accurately thought of ….) In fact, birds run the gamut between these two extremes. Precocial (think precocious) means the bird is able to get out and about soon after hatching. Altricial means it is dependent on help for nourishment. Humans are altricial. A precocial bird, such as a Wood Duck, will kick its young out of the nest (in this case eight to twelve feet above water) and the young either sink or swim, right off Jump Street. In altricial birds, such as Robins, the young get to lay around the nest for a bit while at least one of the parents caters to its every need. Often the bird you "find" is precocial trying to make in a cold cruel world. Don’t add to its problems.

Then there is the case of the Brown-headed Cowbird.

Brown-headed Cowbird

This little gem has a child rearing strategy I admire but many despise. They practice brood parasitism. The female will lay its egg(s) in the nest of another species and leave it to be raised by a warbler or Robin or such. Some species are hip to this trick and toss the interloper out of the nest. Other species will build an entire new nest over the egg of the Cowbird. Still, some birds raise the Brown-headed Cowbirds as their own. I have seen a Vireo feeding a young Brown-headed Cowbird that was twice as big as the Vireo! Sometimes you will find a Cowbird that got tossed. Leave it there.

Warning – off on a tangent! A recent study has fascinating results into the question how these brood parasite Cowbirds learn to sing the Cowbird song if they are raised by another species. Birds sing for one main reason – to attract a female. Almost all birdsongs you will hear are sung by males looking for what males always look for. Now many of the skills needed to be a successful bird are hardwired into the brain at birth. Birds raised in one nest can build an identical one next year having never seen the process. Not so with song. Songs must be learned. There are even local accents and dialects. So how do Cowbirds learn? Females tell them what they like. That’s right. The male makes random noises. She likes it / she moves closer. She hates it/ she moves away. What she like is hardwired into the female’s brain. All Brown-headed Cowbirds sound the same after having gone through this process.

O.K. back to the bird that fell from the tree. Look, even if you decide to care for it AND you could figure out what to feed it, you cannot provide the care its parents can. If you still want to try, well, here is the feeding schedule, every fifteen minutes/ 24 / 7. Good luck!

On bird feeding


On binoculars and spotting scopes


What’s happening, a daily compilation of observations by local birders


The local bird club


An on-line field guide


Jim B’s Online Bird Photos