Wednesday, May 18, 2022

A Pileated Woodpecker Poses for My Camera

 Yesterday I took my big dogs Rosie and Henry out for a swim on Marsh Creek here in Gettysburg. (I won’t say exactly where because we’ve adopted the area .) Though I call myself a “birder,” I suppose I’m first a dog-walker and then a birder since I never go walking or hiking without the dogs. That said, birding isn’t easy with dogs along. 

Even so, I was lucky enough to spot an obliging Pileated Woodpecker who posed for at least two minutes while I fumbled with my camera. Most birds take flight as soon as you “eye” them, but not this crow-sized woodpecker, the largest species of woodpecker in North America if you don’t include the Ivory-billed, deemed extinct by most authorities but not all. (In fact, though no birding authority, I belong to the hopeful group, the one that insists that . . . the “The Ivory-bill is out there.” In fact, I even wrote about this elusive bird in book two of my trilogy Of the Wing.)


But back to the Pileated. This woodpecker is conspicuous for his large size and flaming red crest. The male (pictured here) also has a red cheek stripe that the female lacks. Otherwise, white facial stripes run down their necks. When hugging a tree trunk, the Pileated appears mostly black, but in flight the underwings are mostly white while the upper side of the black wings are traced with white moon-shaped crescents.


Pileated Woodpeckers pound the trunks of dead and dying trees with their thick pointed bills in search of hollow cavities containing carpenter ants and other insects, but they also eat fruit and nuts. You can identify a Pileated’s handywork by the size and shape of his/her holes—large and rectangular. Otherwise, these woodpeckers drill circular openings with deep holes for nesting. Then, after the kids “leave the nest,” other birds . . . or even bats . . . can move in! That’s what I call hospitality.


Until next time . . . Keep birds in your heart . . .  and check out my middle grade trilogy Of the Wing at  . . .

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Ring-necked Ducks Searching for a New Name


This morning I took my two dogs out for a walk on the Emanuel Harmon Farm where we spotted four Ring-necked Ducks (three males and one female). These ducks are notorious among birders for having the wrong name. For instance, can you identify a ring around the neck of males pictured in these photos? True, the photos are a bit fuzzy (I'm not a photographer), but trust me, you'd be hard pressed to find the chestnut or cinnamon band even in a sharp image. The light and angle of such a photo has to be just right.

 If one marking IS conspicuous with these ducks, it's the white ring around their bills, in both male and female. (In recent years, the American Ornithological Society reviewed a proposal to change this species name but declined.) But enough on this rant--ha!

The drake has a glossy black head and back and handsome gray sides, punctuated with white shoulder patches. A real classy guy. What lady (or hen) could resist such a fellow, especially with his dreamy deep golden (or orange?) eyes. However, the hen has her own bragging rights with burnished brown sides nicely contrasting her grayish brown back. And who doesn't love white eye rings? 

Ring-necked Ducks are diving ducks, but this species doesn't plunge too deeply for their meals. In shallower ponds, just a few feet will take them down to where the leeches hide in the murky mud and submerged vegetation. They also like snails, earthworms, dragonfly nymphs--you name it! Most aquatic invertebrates will do. They also snack on submerged plants and tubers of various kinds, including water lilies. 

Ring-necked Ducks are mostly migrants, flying through Pennsylvania to their breeding grounds throughout Canada and northern North America and then flying south to winter in our southern and western states as well as Central America and the Caribbean. That said, you'll find Ring-Necked ducks wintering in a few southeastern counties of Pennsylvania as well as Erie,  our state's most northwestern county. Go figure.

As I live in Adams County, I think myself lucky to have spent some time with this migrating  band of diving ducks. Good luck on your journey!

Until next time . . . Keep birds in your heart!

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Close Encounters of a Blue Heron Kind

This is an image taken by me (April 2011) of a heron at my pond.

About 10:00 am this morning, I was driving home with my two dogs after a good walk around the 100-acre tract of what used to be the Gettysburg Country Club and is now a part of the Gettysburg Battlefield. Along Mummasburg Road to my right, I spotted a Great Blue Heron who appeared to be hunting fish in a roadside culvert. On approach of my car, the heron flew up and over the road before veering back to the pasture, where he flew low to the ground directly alongside us.  The heron flew for such a good stretch, maybe a hundred feet, that it seemed we were being escorted. When the long-legged wader finally settled to the ground, my sense was of an old, hunched man, cold and hungry. 

Once home, I visited my ‘go-to’ web site for information on the birds of Pennsylvania to see if this heron had “missed the bus” in heading somewhere warmer for the winter.  That site is


and hosted by the Pennsylvania Society for Ornithology. There I followed the menu tab for ‘Birding’ with a dropdown menu that takes you to a running list of all the birds of Pennsylvania, including resident birds (year-round), breeding birds, wintering birds, and those migrating through. A color-coded map is provided for each bird, and here’s a screen capture that tells the story of my cold and hungry heron. 


While most of the state welcomes heron for breeding (red area), apparently a few southeastern and southcentral counties (including Adams) host herons in the winter! I didn’t know this but am glad to know it now, because it means that this heron most likely knows what he’s up to, after all.


Till next time . . . Keep birds in your heart.

Saturday, January 1, 2022

Belted Kingfisher: Punk Rocker of Birds

I have a confession. (What a way to start the New Year!). I am reporting today, January 1,

2022, on a bird that I spotted on 12/10/2021 (three weeks ago). Also, the images presented here were taken of a kingfisher that I photographed more than ten years ago. What can I say? That I’m a procrastinator? True. Maybe I can work on that in 2022. That I’m not a photographer. True. I’m more a dog walker than a photographer. I sometimes carry a camera but seldom catch the image of a fast-moving bird and this kingfisher was fast as he/she flew from the bank of the pond to a bush. By the way, I did get the bush—ha!


But enough of me. What about this Belted Kingfisher?


Even though I couldn’t get a good look, I knew the bird by his/her vocalizations, to my ear, a clicking rattle sound reminiscent of an antique tin rattler (look it up on Google). But louder, much louder, which is part of the rationale for my heading: “Punk Rocker of Birds.” You can say that a kingfisher makes a lot of racket. (Please forgive me, punk rock fans). The other rational for my “punk” label is this bird’s “rad” crest (am I using this adjective correctly?).


The admittedly dark photographs
are of a male (who has a blue-gray breast band) while the female has both a blue-gray breast band AND a chestnut belly band. You can see good images at allaboutbirds . . . and while you’re there, check out the audio to see if my interpretation rings true.


If you take the time to review all the information provided, you’ll find more than one interesting fact, but here are two in case you’re too lazy to bother. Belted Kingfishers catch fish by diving headfirst into the water and grabbing their prey with that super big bill. Another use for his bill is to help prod the ground that he burrows out with his front claws to create an underground nest, usually within the bank above a pond or creek. But you can get all the details at the link above. 


Here’s wishing you all a Happy New Year in 2022!


Until next time . . . Keep birds in your heart.

Thursday, December 2, 2021

I Happen by a Northern Harrier

To start, let me say that the photo presented is not mine but one by 
Walter Siegmund (C) 2006 and used with permission.* I was driving south on Mummasburg Road (Gettysburg) past fallow farm fields when I spotted her, a bird of prey that breeds in Canada and in northern parts of the US, wintering in much of Pennsylvania. Each year, as the weather gets cold, I've spotted the Northern Harrier flying over these same fields. It's always a thrill because although their occurrence in my area is "regular," sightings are "uncommon."

The harrier is dimorphic, the male being of a slate gray (even bluish color) and the female, brown. Both have white rumps (a distinguishing field mark) and black tipped wings. This bird of prey has long, wide wings and I can usually distinguish it from hawks by its flying habit low over the ground, whereas certain hawks perch atop poles or dead tree limbs and swoop down upon their prey once sighted. The harrier, instead, flies over in reconnaissance mode.

The harrier will often hover over its potential prey,  treading air, before making the plunge. If you're wondering what makes a harrier a harrier and not a hawk . . . I too wondered about that at some past point and learned that the harrier has a facial disc much like an owl (which the hawk hasn't). This facial disc captures sounds from the ground that  helps the harrier locate his or her prey.

I've had several intriguing sights of this impressive bird, one that I reported on in this blog back in 2010. That sighting of a beautiful male so impressed me that his description and behavior found its way into the third book of my middle grade  trilogy Of the Wing titled The Shining Swan. You can learn more about ti and me at

Until next time . . . keep birds in your heart.

Friday, November 12, 2021

Mallards Undercover

A few days ago, the dogs and I headed out to one of our favorite walking locations, the Emmanuel Harmon Farm, now part of the Gettysburg National Military Park. In year past, these 100 acres hosted the Gettysburg Country Club with a 9-hole golf-course. But, happily, nature and local wildlife have reclaimed these grounds, which also provides walking paths for people (with or without dogs).

A central pond, installed for the golf course, provides a layover for various waterfowl, including the Mallard. Easily the most recognizable and common duck in Pennsylvania, Mallards might be under appreciated by some, but not by me. The breeding male mallard is simply stunning to behold with him iridescent green head (which can appear purple under certain light conditions) and bright yellow bill. Too, he wears a tidy white collar that contrasts beautifully with his chocolate breast—a very dapper dabbler!


The female, though not so showy, is also quite beautiful under closer inspection, her plumage a weave of buff, browns, and cream—a lovely tapestry of color. Too often, the female is dismissed with descriptions of “mottled brown” or “drab,” descriptions to which I take offense!  Consider the beautiful iridescent blue speculum patch, trimmed in white, within the secondary wing feathers (also an ornament of the male).


So . . . next time you see mallards on a pond or lake, show them some respect. Take a longer look. I wasn’t lucky enough to capture photos displaying their glory. Perhaps they weren’t in the mood to pose that day.  More likely I was too distracted with Rosie and Henry, per usual. Whatever the case . . . there’s always tomorrow.

Finally, if you love birds and want to read a middle-grade trilogy about a adolescent girl with a mystical tie to birds, then check out my web site:

Until next time . . . Keep birds in your heart!

Thursday, October 21, 2021

The Yellow-billed Cuckoo: A Long Time Coming to Me

The last time I saw a yellow-billed cuckoo was many years ago when I lived in Clearfield County, Pennsylvania. I was a fledgling birder out with a few experts who were conducting a bird count. One of the birders identified the call of the yellow-billed cuckoo, who was quickly spotted. And we all focused our binoculars on the sleek, graceful bird known for eating the “hairy” caterpillars unappetizing to most birds. Knowing little at the time on the populations of birds generally, I imagined that cuckoos were rare, exotic birds and counted myself lucky to have seen one.

 Since then, I’ve not seen or heard another cuckoo . . . until two weeks ago. And it took me some seconds to translate his image into one I recognized from so many years before. Wow! I thought—and hurrying home checked the web site of the Pennsylvania Society of Ornithology ( to check on the status of this bird. I was amazed to find that the yellow-billed cuckoo is a “fairly common” breeder (summer resident) and migrant of not only Adams County but the entire state. Who knew? Certainly not me.


I believe that you can’t see what you’re not looking for. In other words, because I never expected to see another cuckoo, I never did. But on October 6, 2021, I saw one! And perhaps both my eyes and mind opened to their reality because, just six days ago, I saw another.


This second sighting was on (in) Marsh Creek, where I take my two dogs for

creek-walking and swimming.  This yellow-billed cuckoo allowed me a good, long look, so long that I almost—almost—got my camera in position to take a photo. But at the critical moment, my two dogs came splashing up the creek and scared him or her off. So, I offer you these two beautiful public domain images, one from wildlife painter and illustrator Robert Bruce Horsfall (1869-1948) and one a public domain photo. Oddly enough, “my” cuckoo was similarly posed as in the illustration. I clearly saw his yellow bill, cinnamon “wash” of his wings, and the conspicuous yellow circles of his tail. 


Here’s hoping that next time, I’ll hear his or her distinctive song or calls. Listen to them at  Finally, if you love birds and want to read a middle-grade trilogy about an adolescent girl with a mystical tie to birds, then check out my web site: