Sunday, October 31, 2010

Eurasian Magpie and Magpie Lore

A Eurasian Magpie at Regents Park, London, UK; 4/10/10.

A Eurasian Magpie strutting its stuff in Regents Park, London, UK; 4/10/10.
After seeing many Magpies in Colorado, I was surprised to see several of them in London last Spring. But I should have known this would be the case, as Magpies (Above) like Jackdaws are abundantly referred to in British Literature dating all the way back to Shakespeare's days. Magpies were especially thought to be a mysterious bird and were regarded with superstition. So this is the perfect bird to blog about on Halloween.
The term “pie” is French and comes from the Latin word “pica”, meaning black-and-white, or pied. The modern name of Magpie became established from about 1600 in England and is derived from “Magot Pie”, which first appeared in Shakespeare’s MACBETH , Act IV, scene iii.

"Augurs and understood relations, have
By magot-pies and choughs and rooks brought forth
The secret’st man of blood."
In this scene MacBeth was shocked to see the ghost of Banquo whom he had just ordered to be murdered, and he calls the witches who predicted this 'magot pies.'

And again, in HENRY VI. Part III (Act V, scene vi):
"Chattering pies in dismal discords sung." King Henry names Magpies as being present at the birth of his murderer Gloucester.

There are numerous rhymes relating to the Magpie:
"One is sorrow, two mirth,
Three a wedding, four a birth.
Five heaven, six hell,
Seven the de’il's ain sell."

In Devonshire, in order to avert the ill-luck from seeing a magpie, the peasant spits over his right shoulder three times. It is a common notion in Scotland that Magpies flying near the windows of a house portend a speedy death to one of its inmates. The superstitions associated with the Magpie are not confined to the British Isles. In Sweden it is considered the witch's bird, belonging to the evil one and the other powers of night. In Denmark, when a Magpie perches on a house, it is regarded as a sign that strangers are coming.

I saw two Magpies in London, so that must mean I am mirthful.

Saturday, October 30, 2010


A Jackdaw hanging around the Hampton Court grounds, London, UK; 4/5/10.
Another black bird that is commonly referred to in Shakespeare's writings is the Jackdaw, which is one of the smallest member of the Crow family. It is a black bird with grey nape and distinctive white irises. It is omnivorous and eats a wide variety of plant material and invertebrates, and scavanges on food waste from urban areas. The Jackdaw has benefited from clearing of forested areas and is found in farmland and urban areas, as well as open wooded areas and coastal cliffs throughout Europe, western Asia and North Africa.
A Jackdaw, Hampton Court grounds, London, England, UK; 4/5/10.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Eurasian Blackbird

Female Eurasian Blackbird, Regents Park, London, UK; 4/10/10.
The Eurasian Blackbird is common and widespread in woods and gardens over all of Europe and much of Asia south of the Arctic Circle. Populations are resident except for northern birds which move south in winter. There are now records of breeding Eurasian Blackbirds in Iceland. The Blackbird has been introduced to many parts of the world outside its native range and in Australia and New Zealand it is considered a pest and has an effect on natural ecosystems. Here in the U.S. there have been sightings in the Northeastern regions, but these are considered accidental, as the birds may have been blown off course by storms.

The male is completely black except for its bright yellow beak and eyering (Below), while the female (Above) has brown plumage and beak and does not sport the yellow eyering. Since I didn't have a good photo of the male, I pulled the photo below from Google Images.

A male Eurasian Blackbird; Photo credit to Robert Scanlon, 2005.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Ring-necked Parakeet

Another surprising find while exploring the grounds of the Hampton Court Palace, was the Ring-necked Parakeet (Below). Upon seeing a pair of them perched in a tree in the garden, I assumed that they were domesticated birds that were released on the grounds for tourists. However I learned that they were indeed wild. These bright green birds with a black ring around its neck and a bright red bill were easy to spot in the trees. The European populations of the Ring-necked Parakeet became established during the mid to late 20th Century from introduced and escaped birds. In Britain: the largest population is based around south London, and by 2005 consisted of many thousands of birds. The winter of 2006 saw three separate roosts of circa 6000 birds around London. It has been suggested that these feral parakeerts could endanger populations of native British birds, and that the Rose-ringed Parakeet could even be culled as a result.

A feral Ring-necked Parakeet on the grounds of Hampton Court, London, UK; 4/5/10.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Great Tit

A Great Tit, Hampton Court, London, UK; 4/5/10.
While exploring the grounds around the Hampton Court Palace, London, UK, I was specifically looking for birds that I would not be able to see in the States, and lucked out when I saw this distinctive bird with a black head and neck and prominent white cheeks, olive upperparts and yellow underparts. The Great Tit (Above) is related to the Chickadee family and is well distributed over Europe and north Africa through all of Asia, India and Sri Lanka to Japan and south to parts of Indonesia. The Great Tit has adapted well to human changes in the environment and is a common and familiar bird in urban parks and gardens.

A Great Tit, Hampton Court, London, UK; 4/5/10.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Common Moorhen

Common Moorhen, Regents Park, London; 4/10/10
The most widely distributed member of the rail family, is the Common Moorhen (Above and Below), which inhabits marshes and ponds from Canada to Chile, from northern Europe to southern Africa, and across Asia to the Pacific. We saw the Moorhen in several places while visiting London last April. It is similar to the Coot (Blog post 10/17) as it is a ducklike bird with chickenlike bill and feet. Its bill is a striking red with a yellow tip and possesses a white stripe along its flanks which contrast to its dark body. Most of the Moorhens I observed stayed near the shore of ponds but weren't in the water, but this gave me the chance to see their yellow legs with a spot of red just above their inverse knee joints which made them look like they were wearing knee stockings.  Their funny long toes  are used for digging in the mud and to walk atop floating vegetation in marshes.

Common Moorhen, Regents Park, London; 4/10/10

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Eurasian Coot and American Coot

We saw lots of Coots while in London last April: on the Hampton Court grounds, at Regents Park and St. James Park - the three areas where we saw the most birds. The Eurasian Coots are very similar to our American Coots. Coots are often mistaken as ducks, but they have more of a bill like a chicken than a duck, and do not have a duck's webbed feet. They possess lobed toes which are very long and used as a defense weapon.

Eurasian Coot, Hampton Court, London, UK; 4-5-10

Eurasian Coot, St. James Park, London; 4-8-10

As the photos suggest, the Eurasian Coot is a squat marsh bird found in slow moving fresh or coastal waters. They are all black with a white bill and frontal shield. Its eye-rings are red and legs are yellowish-gray. As I stated above, their toes are long and lobed, not webbed like other water fowl. Coots are very aggressive towards other water birds. They are common in Europe and if they appear at all in the Western Hemisphere it would be rare occurances in the islands off of Alaska or on the far Eastern coast of Canada - Newfoundland and Labrador.

American Coot, Saguaro Lake, Arizona; 12/26/08.
The American Coot (Above) is very similar to its Eurasian counterpart. Some of the differences appear in its bill and facial shield. The American Coot's upper facial shield often is red, but sometimes can be white or gray. The tip of its white bill has a dark ring.  When I visit Arizona in the Winter, Coots are anywhere there is water: large lakes, small ponds and even golf course water hazards (Below). The Coots I see in winter have gray legs, but when they are in their breeding plumage, the legs turn yellow. In summer they breed from throughout Canada to Northern Midwest and from upstate New York to the Northeastern states. In winter they will stay southward down the western and southwestren U.S.  In a rare sighting this past April, 2010, I spotted a Coot on our own lake in Rock Cut State Park near Rockford, IL (Bottom), probably on its migration northward.
American Coots on the ocotillo Golf Course, Phoenix, AZ; 12/29/09

American Coots taking flight; Phoenix, AZ; 12/29/09
A lone American Coot resting on Pierce Lake, Rock Cut State Park, Rockford, IL; 4/18/10.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Grey Heron

While exploring Regents Park near Buckingham Palace in London, we saw lots of water fowl in the many ponds, mostly of the duck and goose persuasion. However, to my surprise, I saw what I thought for sure was a Great Blue Heron sitting near a bridge. Having enough photos of a Great Blue, I almost didn't take the photo, but because I was surprised to see one in such a heavily populated area, I took the photo (below).
Grey Heron, Regents Park, London, UK; 4-10-10.
Upon further research, unless I'm mistaken (and I'm certainly no expert), it seems that Great Blue Herons are very rarely if ever found across the great Atlantic Pond.  However, the Grey Heron which looks very much like the Great Blue, but with less of the reddish/brownish hues in the neck, is not found in North America, but is fairly common in Europe and the British Isles. My conclusion? It's a Grey Heron. Yeah!

Friday, October 15, 2010

European and American Robins

American Robin, Bauman Park, Rockford, IL; 5/16/09

Young American Robin, Rockford, IL; 6/15/07

The next few weekends I'll highlight a few birds that Val and I saw in London, England, while visiting there last Spring of 2010, with a group of high school Theatre students from Guilford High School in Rockford.

While most of my photos of Great Britain mostly dealt with Historical Places and Architecture, I did manage to get a few pics of birds - some that we find in North America and some that are unique to England and Europe. I'll start with the European version of the Robin. We of course have the ubiquitous American Robin (Above) that can be found almost anywhere from the center of major cities to the deep woods and mountains, from Alaska (summers only) to the tip of Florida (winters only).  The European Robin is much smaller and has less red on its breast, but is very pretty (below).

European Robin, Regents park, London, UK; 4/10/10.

European Robin, Regents Park, London, UK; 4/10/10

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Trumpeter Swan

While exploring the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore on  Lake Superior off of Upper Michigan, we decided to take a side trip to the Seney Wildlife Refuge.  While there, we saw Cranes, Geese, and the rare Trumpeter Swan (Below).  The Trumpeter Swan is North America's largest waterfowl and one of its rarest native birds.

A rare Trumpeter Swan at the Seney Wildlife Refuge in Upper Michigan; 5/27/07.
 In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Trumpeter Swan was hunted heavily, both as game and a source of feathers. This species is also unusually sensitive to lead poisoning while young. These birds once bred in North America from northwestern Indiana west to Oregon in the U.S., and in Canada from James Bay to the Yukon, and they migrated as far south as Texas and southern California. The Trumpeter was rare or extinct in most of the United States by the early twentieth century. Many thousands survived in the core range in Canada and Alaska, where populations have since rebounded.

Early efforts to reintroduce this bird into other parts of its original range, and to introduce it elsewhere, have had only modest success, as suitable habitats have dwindled and the released birds do not undertake migrations. More recently, the population in all three major population regions have shown sustained growth over the past thirty year period. Data from the US Fish and Wildlife Service show 400% growth in that period, with signs of increasing growth rates over time.

One impediment to the growth of the Trumpeter Swan population around the Great Lakes is the presence of a growing non-migratory Mute Swan (see 10/9/10 blog) population who compete for habitat.

The Toronto Zoo started a conservation project in 1982, using eggs collected in the wild. Live birds have also been taken from the wild. Since then more than 180 have been released in Ontario. Despite lead poisoning in the wild from shotgun pellets, the prospects for restoration are considered good. (Information came from the Trumpeter Swan Society)

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Mute Swan

While staying in Kauai, I saw a Mute Swan for the first time in the wild. It made its home on a nearby pond (Below).

A Mute Swan at a pond in Kauai, Hawaii; 7/6/08.
Mute swans can grow as large as 5' long with a wing span of over 6'. They are unique in the swan family with its orange bill.  I also saw one while in London during a Spring Break trip last April (Below).
A Mute swan in a St. James Park pond, London, UK; 4/8/10.
My most surprising sighting of a Mute Swan came in the spring of 2009, when I saw a small flock of three at our own Rock Cut State Park (Below), here in Rockford, Illinois. They make their summer homes in small lakes in the Northern lakes of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Canada, and around the Great Lakes: Superior, Michigan and Ontario.

Three Mute Swans resting at Pierce Lake at Rock Cut State Park, Rockford, IL; 5/10/09.

Sunday, October 3, 2010


We visited the Haleakala National Park on the Island of Maui and hiked down the celebrated "Sliding Sands Trail." When we started the hike we were in a cloud (as parts of the National Park is as high as 10,000 feet above sea level) and had very little visibility. But as we hiked to a lower altitude we emerged beneath the cloud cover and enough sunlight passed through the cloud to give us a glimpse of the beautiful landscape, which gave us a feeling of being on the moon or some unearthly planet (Below).

A view from the "Sliding Sands Trail", Haleakala National Park on Maui, Hawaii; 7/14/08.
 While on this trail we were hoping to see the rare Hawaiian Goose, the Nene, but instead several times we ran a cross a chicken-like bird called a Chukar (Below). I have never heard of a Chukar before this. The Chukar was introduced to the U.S. (and Hawaii) from the Middle East for sport hunting, but never really established any kind of large flocks. When they are seen, they are usually found on arid rocky slopes, which is a perfect description of the terrain surrounding the "Sliding Sands Trail. "
A Chukar on the sliding Sands Trail of Haleakala National Park, Maui; 7/14/08.

Chukars are chunky and medium sized birds (like chickens) that have a pale grayish brown body with very bold black bars on its flanks. It has a black band across its eyes that extends down behind its cheeks and across its throat, which gives it the impression of being a bandit. It has a red beak and a red eye ring sets its eyes off from the black mask.

Another pair of Chukars in Haleakala Nat. Park, Maui, Hawaii; 7/14/08.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Brown Noddy

While we were taking a boat trip around the beautiful NaPali Coast of the island of Kauai, we passed some cliffs with a colony of Brown Noddies (Below). The Brown Noddy is a tropical seabird in the tern family which is mostly brown except for a white forehead blending into a gray nape, and small white half-eye ring. It has a wedge-shaped tail with a small notch at the tip. It has a long slender black bill and black legs and feet. .

A colony of Brown Noddies on a cliff edge; NaPali Coast, Kauai, Hawaii; 7/9/10.

The Brown Noddy is colonial, usually nesting on elevated situations on cliffs or in short trees or shrubs. It only occasionally nests on the ground. A single egg is laid by the female of a pair each breeding season. I feel fortunate to have spotted these because its only breeding colony in the contiguous United States is in Dry Tortugas at the tip of Florida, about 70 miles west of Key West.