How did a professional chef become an avid bird watching photographer? How did the pandemic fuel Brian’s passion for birds? Which birds depend upon Willistown’s conserved open spaces during migration? Brian shares many of his photos of Willistown birds while answering these and many more questions in this wide ranging interview hosted by Blake Goll, Willistown Conservation Trust’s Education Programs Manager.
Watch the video of the interview and see many of Brian’s photos or, if you prefer, scroll down to read the transcript.
TRANSCRIPT OF INTERVIEW WITH BRIAN STOREY
BLAKE: Hi, Brian. Could you introduce yourself for those viewers who may not know you? And I’m Blake, Education Programs Manager for the Williston Conservation Trust. And this is Brian’s story. Local chef, friend and neighbor.
BRIAN: My name is Brian. I have lived in Willistown since 2012. I started birding in 2012. I just really enjoyed living in this community and utilizing all of the preserves and parks that we have and on my free time, when I’m not cooking and working with the camera, I’m trying to capture some local nature photography and a lot of birds and some animals. So it’s me in a nutshell.
BLAKE: And can you briefly explain how you got involved with the Willistown Conservation Trust?
BRIAN: So I guess the first time that I got involved with Willistown Conservation Trust was actually as a chef. They had contacted me to do Barns and Barbecue, which I did for two years, probably – 2014, 2015. I did that for them and did a couple other dinner parties and fundraising events and stuff like that, and that’s how I first kind of got into it. And then from there, I’ve just participated in different things here and there and still help out, still do some fundraisers and do some Trust events through the new Rushton Conservation Center.
BLAKE: I think a lot of people will find it fascinating that your main job is a chef. You don’t hear many headlines. Chef goes birding. So I think it’d be interesting if you just sort of explain what your typical day is as a personal chef. And then how things are different under quarantine.
BRIAN: Typical day is you go out with the dog, you know, between seven and nine in the morning and then I’m on my way to work. I work in Haverford and I’m typically at work at least five days a week, if not six or seven, between 10:00 and probably nine o’clock at night. And then in the summer, I can commute. I work up in Long Island, so I’m up there four or five days a week and I come home usually late Sunday night. I had Monday and Tuesday off, which typically I’m out and about birding and hanging out in the parks. And then I’m back on the on the road and back up to Long Island Wednesday morning.
I had a big spring because I’ve been working from home and had the ability to get my work done and have half a day or a whole morning or, you know, skip out early and do a whole afternoon of birding almost every day. So it’s been kind of great. Yeah, well, awesome.
I guess when it all went down, the first thing was the first reaction was most parks were closed like Leigh Creek was closed. Valley Forge is still closed. I got to really create all the time. I am an avid runner. And so the moment everything closed there was nowhere to run. I started running in our back yard, which links up to other properties. I’m typically out with the camera almost every day. And so I guess just staying at home and not having this distractions of getting out in the car and going to different places, just staying local and staying home certainly gave me the opportunity to make the most of the time. Kirkwood Preserve was open. And what a gift that that Covid 19, you know, as terrible as it is and as much of a disruption as it is to our daily patterns, it’s such a gift that it did fall during spring migration. I think a lot of people started getting out more and enjoying birds and, you know, a lot of people.
BLAKE: Did your followers increase on Instagram because you were posting a different beautiful bird every day?
BRIAN: People definitely latched on to it, but I probably gained, you know, maybe 20 new followers. And I feel like they all live in the community. I think they’re all local and everyone really sort of appreciated it. And the feedback has been great. So I had fun with it. I kind of started doing it as a joke and really quickly, I got serious with it. It became a challenge to find new content every day and to get a good picture, a good image.
BLAKE: Awesome. And before we start looking at your beautiful pictures of your birds, I think birding is an overwhelming hobby to a lot of people.
BRIAN: It’s hard to get started because there is equipment and you don’t know where to go to see the birds. If you’re not tuned into the songs of the birds, it’s hard to find birds.
BLAKE: So who did you have a mentor that started you with birding? Or what initially fueled this passion? I know it was long before Covid19, but was there something that that hooked you or helped you get interested?
BRIAN: Two things. I started because of my passion for photography. There’s only so many images of trees or skylines and old barns that you can do, but shooting wildlife, especially birds, is really challenging. You have multiple layers of foliage or branches and sticks that you have to manually focus through. These birds are fast and they’re skittish. They don’t want you to be close to them. And so they’re constantly moving and you’re constantly trying to focus in on it. And that really helps the muscle memory of just being in tune with yourself, with the camera and the lens. And so for me, I started doing it as an exercise just to be a better photographer. But it really all started when I moved to Willistown in 2012.
My lovely girlfriend’s family are all birders. Her grandfather was a serious, serious ornithologist, and that kind of trickled down to her father, who is a great birder. They had a fantastic property here in Willistown that was really magical when it came to birds. So moving here in 2012, that kind of opened my eyes to things. We moved into a great little house off Goshen Road and it was walking distance to Kirkwood Preserve, and that year I put out a feeder trying to get purple finches, and we never got purple finches. But that year, we got a ton of incredible birds. One of which was the Dickcissel. And, you know. I thought it was wild because when we reported it all of a sudden we had like 15, 20, sometimes 30 birders showing up in our driveway. I thought it was ridiculous, but now I understand.
And then over the course of that year, we had a nesting pair of red shoulder hawks that were right outside of our bedroom window. We had northern harrier going across the fields. We had common nighthawks every night. We just had all these cool, memorable experiences through birds. And, you know, I think that’s what kind of propelled and hooked me. I remember running through Kirkwood Preserve on an evening jog and startling Eastern meadowlarks. I didn’t realize how special Eastern meadowlarks are at the time. And I took that for granted at the time. But all those kind of life experiences in 2012 really propelled my interest in not only the neighborhood, but but also into birds.
BLAKE: Very, very cool. I always say that when you start tuning into birds it just adds this whole other dimension to your life and allows different ways of seeing joy, experiencing joy every day. It’s just like a like walking into another dimension. So I always told people that it’s great to get into birding, especially if you have any loneliness, sadness, any of that stuff that people may be experiencing now, I think birding can really, really be transformational.
BRIAN: So going through this spring migration and Covid 19, one of the things that I thought back on is that every kid enjoys a scavenger hunt or an Easter egg hunt. Birding is like one big scavenger hunt. You know, whether you’re keeping records of what you’re seeing or whether you’re tracking different things or whether you’re even keeping up on daily reports and who’s been seeing what. After a while you’re constantly going after new species and new birds and it becomes one big scavenger hunt. I hate to say that it’s competitive, but we all have a competitive drive. And even in a time like this where the world slows down and stops, it’s definitely been fun to get out there and get after a great big scavenger hunt and find that needle in a haystack.
BLAKE: That reminds me. Did you participate in E-bird? How did you keep track of the treasures that you found besides your photos?
BRIAN: I’m an avid E-birder and I belong to a few social media clubs and pages, and I’m a member of the Delaware Valley Ornithology Club. Through E-bird I get daily emails of rare birds in Chester County and Delaware County. I also keep track of what I’ve had and what I need for my year list and I shoot from there. The first couple weeks of Covid, I really didn’t want to use the car to travel, so I really just focused in on birding in Willistown. As things have opened up I’ve started venturing off and traveling more and doing more parks of Chester County just to try to get this bird or that bird, like shorebirds and waterfowl that we don’t necessarily get in Willistown. E-bird has been a great asset and a great tool.
BLAKE: Name your favorite apps that are most useful for birding in the field.
BRIAN: Aside from E-bird itself, I really utilize I Bird Pro, which is kind of just one big reference guide. You type in whatever bird that you’re looking for and up comes images, photographs, verbal descriptions, maps, migration maps, all kinds of useful tools and audio calls, chirps, things like that, that will also help you to identify what bird that is. Also Merlin Bird ID. That’s a really useful tool. Basically, it works two ways. There’s a photo way that you could upload an image or take an image of a bird and it will give you a good reference guide as to what it thinks it is. That will help you whittle down what you think you have. Or the second option is it determines a G.P.S. location and given your location, the time of day, the time of year that it is, it then asks you a series of questions. What were the colors of the bird? What were the general sizes of the bird? Did you see the bird in the air or on the ground on a fence? And all of those tools help the app whittle down what it thinks that it should probably be on. So I think those are my two favorite apps.
BLAKE: Let’s get into your photography. How about you share your screen and start rolling through some of your spring quarantine birding highlights.
BRIAN: I tried to make it chronological, so I started in late March. In late March, migration had really just slowly been starting. And so this first image is an image of the tufted titmouse, which is not a migrant. We have them all year long in and on the edges of our woods. This image was taken at Kirkwood Preserve around the third week of March. I really think that these birds are super cool with that huge, massive tuft of of feathers on the top of their head. They’re just a fun bird. So I wanted to start off with that.
BLAKE: I had an ornithology teacher and professor in college who said that their stomachs, that white and cream combination, reminded her of the Cadbury creme egg on Easter.
BRIAN: All right, so let’s get into migration madness. One of the first warblers, actually the first warbler, that passes through here along with pine warbler is the palm warbler. And that’s this guy right here. I took this picture on April 2nd in Kirkwood Preserve. As you can tell the foliage is not around yet. The trees are just starting to bud. So this is a great time to bird, before the foliage starts to creep in. You can see birds much more easily than you can now. Now that the canopies are totally grown in, they have a lot of places to hide. But palm warblers hang around for about 3-4 weeks before they exit our area. Just a beautiful bird. Beautiful yellow chest. And I love that little top of the crown of his head, that buff brown color.
So moving on. Eastern phoebe. I just I think phoebes are so cool. They’re really elegant and sleek. They have that distinguishing call that just basically says they’re name, Phoebe. So when you’re out there and you’re birding, you can easily distinguish them by their call. It’s not super complicated. And this was taken in our backyard just along one of the horse pastures in in Willistown. This was taken on April 12th. So still early in migration. These guys are one of the first birds to pass through, and these birds, they actually don’t pass through. They do come here to nest and spend the entire summer here.
BLAKE: Some of these will nest quite close to houses. Sometimes people will get them on lamp posts or under bridges. So this is one a lot of people probably have seen.
BRIAN: I love chipping sparrows. To me, they’re one of the soundtracks of summer, is what I would say. They had that distinguishable shift, that rattle that you hear kind of all summer long. They love this area because we have a ton of open fields and a lot of tall pines and that’s perfect habitat for them. They love to nest in pines. They are an early spring arrival and they hang with us through the summertime. I remember this picture was taken on April 12th and around that time we had hundreds and hundreds of shipping sparrows behind our house. Now we don’t. Now we have a dozen or so. But these guys are here to nest. They’re here to hang for the summer before they go back down south. I love their chirp. They’re probably the smallest sparrow that I can think of. They’re just generally a cool bird.
BLAKE: Brian, you mentioned their distinctive call. For finding birds, do you feel like you use your eyesight more or are you more tuned in to audio? So for me, I’d say over 90 percent of my birding is just from hearing and knowing the calls. I often don’t see them. But I was wondering how it is for you.
BRIAN: I would like to think of myself as an amateur birder. I have a lot to learn and the calls are the most challenging for me to learn at this point. I’m probably 50/50. In terms of more complicated migratory birds, warblers and stuff like that, I know about half them. I do rely on my eyes for about 50 percent of the time walking around, walking the dog. I could probably pull 20 or 30 species, just via call. But I know some birders, they just know every call, they know everything. I’m not there yet.
BLAKE: Well, you’re definitely there with your photography. That’s not amateur work. What kind of camera are you using for any photographers that may be listening?
BRIAN: I was a Canon guy forever. Within the last two years I had made the switch to Sony Mirrorless. Right now I shoot on a Sony a7. It’s a pretty serious camera. It’s about forty two megapixels full frame. The lens that I use is a Sony fe 100-400mm. So it’s a pretty big lens. It allows you to get cropped images from very far away, from up to 400 meters away. But overall, it’s a smaller, more lightweight camera than a lot of the bigger Nikon and Canon DSLRs that are out there. And the technology has just been great.
BLAKE: It’s incredible how close it seems that you are to the birds. Do you also use this camera as your binoculars or are you walking around with this big camera and binoculars?
BRIAN: I definitely use binoculars as my number one tool. To use the camera as an all around tool is really hard. It takes a lot of practice to manually focus. And like I said, to get through those different layers of foliage and sticks to get what you’re trying to shoot and binoculars are right there. They give you a really quick reference point. You’re able to focus in and zoom in real quick. But whatever tool you’re using, the more practice, the quicker you are, the better you get at it. A lot of my friends, a lot of birders that I know, their number one tool is their scope. A lot of people do digi-scoping, which is putting their iPhone to the scope. That’s something that I’ve also been using. And we’re going to actually have some digi-scope pictures coming up. But that’s also really hard and takes a lot of practice. I would say bird first with binoculars and pick your poison in terms of what types of cameras you want to use and just start practicing. The more you bird, the more you practice, the more images you take, the better you get at, the more familiar you are with your camera and with your tools and the easier it becomes.
BLAKE: Awesome. Very inspirational for anyone just getting started. So I’m excited to continue our journey through spring migration.
BRIAN: Another early migrant to the area is the Yellow-rumped Warbler. This guy was also at Kirkwood preserve. You can tell why they’re called the yellow rumps from this big patch of yellow right on their rump. They also have two big yellow shoulder blades. So they’re easily distinguishable. They don’t hang long. They were probably here for two or three weeks. You might have a real rarity, a straggler hanging around now. But for the most part, they’ve moved up north and moved to Canada by now. They are just another cool migratory bird that passes through in April and will be back here again, probably early October for fall migration.
BRIAN: Moving on. Eastern towhee. Another bird that has a great, easily distinguishable call. A bird you don’t often see that much. They like to hang on the ground level under leaves and shrubs and on the ground of the forest. But they have that distinguishable “drink your tea” call that sounds like they’re telling you to drink your tea. Overall, just a cool bird, a bird that hangs here all summer long as you’re walking through the woods. You will always hear them. They’re one of what I would call members of the of the symphony of the woods. We’ll get to some other members of that symphony in a little bit.
BRIAN: This is a bird that probably everyone’s seen around Willistown, the Eastern bluebird. They are not really a migrant. They are here all year long. They are currently nesting, they are sitting on nests. Most people in Willistown will have seen the boxes. If not I don’t know where they’ve been because Eastern bluebird boxes are everywhere. They’re all over our preserves. They’re in most people’s yards. If they’re not filled with bluebirds, then they’re probably filled with tree swallows. They’re just cute, stunning birds. They have a distinguishable call that’s hard for me to describe but once you hear it, you know that it’s an Eastern bluebird. I just enjoy them. They’re all over our county. Just a cool bird.
BLAKE: Beautiful. I always describe their call as a very sweet chortling. Speaking of the bird boxes, our [Willistown Conservation Trust’s] home owner bird box program, we’ve probably installed three to four hundred boxes in our Willistown program area over the past seven years. People are really loving it, especially now that everybody’s stuck at home. We’ve had some really great comments from people just enjoying having the nesting bluebirds in their yards.
BRIAN: Yeah, they’re terrific. If you see one, their partner is probably not far behind them. So you typically see two at a time and they stick with their partner. They’re just really stunning, good looking birds that have that sweet little chortle of a call. It’s hard to hate these birds. They’re pretty adorable.
BRIAN: Walking around the woods of Willistown you never know what you’re going to find. This was in the woods on a property that is part of Natural Lands in Willistown. This is a fledgling great horned owl. I was actually back there on the trail foraging for ramps when this guy flew over my head. So luckily I had my camera on me and was able to take this picture. But let me dial it back. I had my scope on me. I did not have my camera. So this was not taken with a Sony. This is actually a digi-scope. This is the iPhone to scope. It was a really windy day. The bird was kind of clumsy. So luckily, he finally found a branch to perch on and hung tight for a while and I was able to get some pretty good images of him. That was cool.
BRIAN: Now, getting back into the crazy warblers. The yellow warbler, this is now pushing through mid-April. April 23rd I took this shot and you can see now that foliage is starting to come in. So as the foliage comes in, it’s just another layer that you have to work around and work with. But with that being said, it’s a layer that for photo images, adds a lot of depth and adds color. So it’s a secondary pop to what your primary focus point is, which is great. Yellow warblers are here. They are a migrant that actually nests here and stays here for the majority of the summer. So you can go out and enjoy them today and next week and the week after next. They’re everywhere right now. Kirkwood preserve and Okehocking are flooded with them. They’re everywhere. They have a kind of a distinctive call that I like to say is like a ” sweet, I’m so sweet”. If you hear that, if you see a little bright yellow flash across your eye, it’s most likely a yellow warbler. They are frenetic. They bounce around. They move pretty quickly and they’re tiny. They’re one of the birds that when you’re trying to photograph will make you go crazy. But man they are stunning.
BLAKE: Many of these warblers are insect gleaners. So like you said, they’re so hard to see sitting still because they’re always gleaning insects off the leaves and hopping all around. And some of them are coming out and hovering and grabbing the bug and coming back. So super active little guys.
BRIAN: Super, super active. This is another yellow warbler. Just a really cool image. This was taken around April 20-23rd. So on these twigs that it’s posing on you can see there are some buds that are starting to bud out. But the foliage is not moved in yet. So it was a really kind of open, clear opportunity to to get this great image of this stunning bright yellow bird.
BRIAN: More warblers, Common Yellow Throat. These guys are here for the summer. They’re here to nest, they’re here to stay. They have another distinctive call that can get confused with the yellow warbler. These guys are super tiny, very, very tiny. For the most part, I always find them in low lying shrubs, in undergrowth. They are easily startled. So if you think that you saw one, or you think that you heard one you can do a “tsss, tsss, tsss” with your mouth and that will startle them and get their attention; they’ll pop up and they’ll give you an instant second or two to get a good shot of them. But they are super tiny, super hard to photograph, but really cool, really stunning birds. It’s just amazing that these tiny, tiny birds can move all the way up here, fly from Ecuador and Central America and western Mexico to get here to nest. It’s pretty remarkable.
BRIAN: For reference, Blake. What would you say the size of a common yellow throat is? A little larger than a golf ball?
BLAKE: Like a chickadee, most people know chickadees. I think it’s about the size of a chickadee. A different body structure, but about that size.
BRIAN: These pictures, by the way, were taken at Ashbridge Preserve in Willistown. Another great, great local resource that we have to bird and to hang out and even just walk around and hike. I really like Ashbridge because it has so many different levels of habitat. You can walk along the creek and get everything from shorebirds to Kingfisher’s and see hawks and foxes and all kinds of stuff in the open flats there. And then all of a sudden you walk into deep deciduous woods and you have tons of woodpeckers and raptors and owls. It’s a great place.
BLAKE: It’s been great to see the increase of use at the preserves with so many people getting outside. Did you often feel when you were birding at our preserves like you were alone or were there a ton of people looking at you, giving you weird looks? What’s that guy doing? What time did you usually get out?
BRIAN: It all depends. Sometimes I’m out first thing in the morning, sometimes I’m out late afternoon. Sometimes I’m out right in the middle of the day. I would say most of our preserves, even if the parking lots look full, they’re so large that you generally don’t come across many people. And even when you do, everyone is really cognizant of social distancing and wearing masks. So there really have been no issues. I think, if anything, when you do come across people, I always look goofy because I might be in muck boots and shorts and a t shirt and have three cameras hanging off the side of me and binoculars. But I think in general, people are really curious. And they know that they’re in a preserve. They know that they’re out in nature. And so they generally want to know what what you are looking at, what brought you here, have you seen anything cool? Should we be looking somewhere? I think especially in this community, I think we’re all a little bit more aware of everything. I would say Okehocking has definitely been the mad house of Covid19 park frenzy. But even at Okeocking, it’s so big, it’s so vast that you don’t really come across too many people.
BLAKE: Right. That’s great. If you watch the Central Park Effect and if any birder or any beginner birders or whoever is watching this, it’s a really great hourlong documentary you have to watch. In it Jonathan Franzen, he’s an author, he says whenever you’re birding, you have to just accept that you look like a total dweeb. Anyone walking by you, you’ve got to just let your guard down and realize that you look dorky. It’s a very humbling hobby.
BRIAN: Yeah. After a while I was like, whatever. I was I was on a trail in southern Chester County right along the Maryland border the other day. I was there two days in a row. This guy the second day looked at me and he goes, “you got a different hat on”. So clearly, you know, I stand out. Moving on to black-and-white warblers. Awesome, cool birds. These are both females. The males tend to have more dark striping on the chest. They look like referees in their football referee uniforms. Really cool warblers. Really cool birds. Of all the Warblers, they have a behavior that’s more like a nuthatch. A lot of times you’ll see them upside down and walking tree branches and tree trunks vertically or are upside down because they’re pruning and they’re looking for insects. They’re just picking insects out of tree bark. Very cool warblers. One of the early warblers to start pushing through here in the Warbler madness of migration. Some of them hang around here and nest, but for the most part, they move through. Others still hanging around today. They’re still here in and around the neighborhood. So if you get out and you see a cool black and white bird, this might be your guy.
BRIAN: Eastern Kingbird, very cool bird. They’re pretty common in and around Willistown. You’ll see them at Okehocking. This picture was taken at Kirkwood Preserve. You’ll see them in and around creeks, open fields, farm pastures, and horse pastures. You’ll see them hanging on fences. You’ll see them hanging out on tree branches like this. Also on wires. I’ve also noticed that there’s a lot of Kingbirds over at Serpentine Preserve in Willistown. They kind of look like a swallow but this distinguishable white lining of the tail feathers is what gives them away. I think they’re awesome, cool birds. They make some cool sounds as well. But I just loved how he was staring at me, like, wondering what the hell I was doing. I probably dressed really wacky.
BRIAN: More cool birds that are here to stay for the summer. You’ll see them in all of our preserves, but this one was taken at Kirkwood. Baltimore Oriole. Awesome loud call, distinguishable. You’ll see patches of yellow and orange buzzing through. Right now, they’re chasing each other, they’re mating, they’re building nests. They are very vocal. They can be confused with an orchard oriole that is a much deeper orange, like a basketball colored breast instead of this yellow orange breast. No matter where you go, you’ll see them. Okehocking, Ashbridge, Kirkwood, Rushton Farm. They are here. They’re here in the masses. They’re here to stay. They’re just so colorful. Really cool. Not not as tiny as a warbler. Larger. More like a robin sized bird. One of my favorites.
BRIAN: I want to talk about some houseguests. You had asked me what my typical schedule is like. During Covid 19, I’ve been working from home as a private chef. I’ve been cooking out of my home, and then at some point every afternoon driving over to get to where I normally work, delivering food already prepared. This was on May 1st and we had this mature bald eagle grace us with his presence. Sometimes when you’re in your home, if you hear a large cluster of of crows going crazy, they’re typically alarming you that something is there that shouldn’t be whether it’s a hawk or an owl or a bald eagle. So I was working in the kitchen probably around noon and the crows just started going crazy right outside the window. Stepping out on the back porch of our house directly above the horse barn was this guy just hanging out, staring at the crows, wondering why the crows were hating on him. But totally cool. Stunning image. Great bird. Unbelievable. Bald eagles nest in Willistown, all around. If you get out into the parks, you will you will see a bald eagle. They’re not super duper rare anymore. But just stunning in every way. It just goes to show you don’t even have to leave your house sometimes to see incredible, incredible birds and have incredible images.
BRIAN: So the next one is a little graphic. Another houseguest is the Merlin. These guys are not as common. They are sort of rare. Each birder will tell you that they are rare for this area or uncommon, but we have had a Merlin all season long. And this guy, again, off the back porch of our house, came outside one morning and thought that it was a mourning dove up in the tree. But it turns out, no, it was this Merlin, which is the size of a mourning dove, more or less, eating what probably is a mourning dove. Again, just another another example of how you don’t even have to leave your backyard to enjoy birding and sometimes see really incredible rare birds because of the fantastic landscape that we live in. It’s just a great area to for birds to prosper.
BRIAN: Let’s talk about gnatcatchers. Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are very tiny, again, really small birds. You will hear them in the treetops. They do have a distinguishable kind of sound that you would attribute to a gnat or a buzzing sound.
BLAKE: Or like a mouse sneezing.
BRIAN: Yeah, definitely. So these guys, I’d like to think that they work in pairs a lot, kind of similar to a blue bird. If you see one, their partner is probably not far behind. They’re just really, really cute, really cool birds. This was taken in mid April on one of our unseasonably chillier days. He’s all puffed out because he’s trying to keep warm. It’s very hard to photograph. But in early migration in early spring when there’s not a lot of foliage, you get clear open shots. It’s a good opportunity to get out there in early spring and get some of these tinier birds that you will not see right now.
BRIAN: So working with the Trust, I do some migratory bird counts, seasonal bird counts. This was on our spring count, which took place on May 5th. And this is on a private property in Willistown. And these are really cool, really cool birds. Very rare. These are bobolink. I wish they nested here, but they prefer a little bit more of a cooler climate and a little bit more altitude. So you’ll start to see them nesting in the Poconos, in New York State and Vermont. They definitely do push through and pass through here. They have this metallic robotic trill of a voice that is really unmistakable and really cool. They can be kind of loud and obnoxious, but a very special bird. They are kind of a threatened and endangered bird. But it’s really cool to see these birds passing through Willistown.
BLAKE: They need wide open grasslands. Even our grassland preserve, Kirkwood, doesn’t offer them the big expanse of grassland that they need. But, definitely great, great passerby’s to see.
BRIAN: So spotted Sandpiper. You know, just because we are not on water doesn’t mean that we don’t get shorebirds and and waterbirds. This was taken at Kirkwood Preserve, of all places. These guys are passing by. And it’s cool to see our habitat attracting so many different diverse species of bird.
BLAKE: Where where did you see that one?
BLAKE: Oh, wow. Beautiful.
BRIAN: Close to the creek. You know, sometimes the fields there flood. As you see, there’s definitely a good amount of flooded water there. That was taken on May 9th. Also on May 9th. Also at Kirkwood, Louisiana Water Thrush. These guys are a migrant water thrush warbler species that are nesting here now. They’re probably most likely sitting on nests, so they’re not as vocal and you’re less likely to see them. But they moved in here in early May and have established nests and are breeding. Aside from the Louisiana water thrush there’s also another similarly common bird, the Northern Water Thrush. But you can tell the Louisiana with pink legs, it’s kind of a telltale. Cool pretty bird. You’ll see them creekside at any of our preserves for the most part.
BRIAN: More Warblers – Magnolia Warbler on May 9th. This was taken also at Kirkwood. You’ll see now we’re into May. Foliage is really starting to push through. Magnolia warblers are probably a bird that is no longer around. They stopped here as a pit stop to eat some more insects before heading to Canada. But just really cool, really great colors. Really great contrast of colors. So I thought I would include that.
BRIAN: This is a bad image of a black throated bluebell warbler. I wanted to include some what I would call misses because warblers are so difficult to take photos of sometimes between the layers of foliage, between your lighting and between their colors. Sometimes it’s just impossible to get that perfect shot. They get their name because they’re all black in the throat and in the face and they have blue on top. And in a minute, we’re going to get to a really tricky bird, which makes birding sometimes difficult because the female black throated blue could be anything. You’ll see.
BRIAN: My favorite bird is the barn swallow. Some people might think they’re pests. You’ll see them all throughout Willistown. If you have eaves or underhangs or front porches, back porches or barns, they might be a pest to you because they’re nesting on your house or in your barn. But these guys will eat hundreds and thousands of insects a day. The reason why they’re buzzing around in our backyards and over our horse pastures is because they are just collecting insects. I think that they’re really cool, fascinating birds. And another really tiny swallow species that that migrates and travels here to nest here and to breed here from thousands and thousands of miles away. Just pretty cool.
BRIAN: Field sparrow. Another really cool bird just taken at Serpentine preserve. Field sparrows have a really unmistakable kind of trilly voice. They get their name because obviously they like open expanses and open fields. And that’s something that we have plenty of here in Willistown. So a really cute sparrow, that pinkish rose colored beak stands out.
BRIAN: Another bird of serpentine preserve and a common bird, not a migrant, is the Pileated woodpecker. Really cool bird. You never know when you’re going to find one or see one or stumble across one. And this was just walking along the trail at Serpentine. And this guy was working the ground, pecking away at the wood. I just had a great opportunity to be really close up and get really precise imaging on that bird. Just thought it was pretty cool.
BRIAN: So this is kind of a bad image. But I just want to show different types of ways that you could capture birds when you’re out and about. This is a black billed cuckoo. This is a special bird for Willistown and for Chester County. They are around, there’s just not that many of them. And some years they’re here, some years they’re not. This was taken again at Serpentine Preserve. He was really far away, kind of up in the tree tops. You can tell that now we’re in the mid-May and the foliage is really coming in. This was taken with my field scope on a tripod with my iPhone up to the scope. So it’s an iPhone image through the scope. It’s hard to tell, but you can see the red eye that they have and the black bill. You never know what you’re going to find when you go out on a hike. So I just thought that was pretty cool.
BRIAN: One of the members of the Woods Symphony Orchestra that I was talking about earlier is our wood thrush. This time of year, walking through the woods, you’ll hear that constant trill and symphony of the Eastern towhee, the wood thrush, oven birds, vireo. These guys are not often seen, but often often heard. They have kind of a beautiful flute like song that is unmistakable. You’ll hear them in any dense, deciduous wooded area.
BLAKE: I just learned recently that another old folk name for this bird was Swamp Angel. I think that’s so fitting because you hear it and it’s just very angelic. Their song.
BRIAN: It is. Yeah, it’s very cool. I’ve always loved thrushes. My mom lives in Vermont and the state bird is the hermit thrush. They’re just really cool. Angel’s a good way to put it. Angels of the Woods. So it’s spring and spring is time for breeding and nesting in Willistown. These are two fledgling Red Tail Hawks on a nest behind our house. This is on private land, but is part of Natural Lands. You never know what you’re going to find when you go on a walk and walking through some of the trails of Willistown in early spring, I noticed that these red tail hawks were really agitated and really alarmed whenever I would walk through the trails. And so, lo and behold, you keep your head up and once in a while you’ll find something cool. I found this nest, and then just periodically came back and kept checking on it and checking on it. And eventually we got some fuzzy heads to pop up. So nature can be really freaking cool. This was taken around mid-May. It was May 15th. So here we are now a couple weeks later and these guys are testing their wings now. They are hopping out of the nest and taking their first strides of flight. They haven’t left the tree. They haven’t left the nest yet. But they are definitely growing and getting stronger day by day.
BRIAN: One of the most beautiful, stunning birds that you’ll see on our tree tops right now and for the most part, all summer long is scarlet tanager. Again, this was taken mid-May. So you can see the foliage is starting to creep in and crop in. You have to work through the layers and manually focus to try to get images like this. Scarlet tanager have a beautiful, loud song. It sounds somewhat similar to an American Robin. But when you hear it, you miss you unmistakably know that it’s them. This time of year, you’re lucky to see them. They hang at the tops of trees. They’re in with the foliage. But once in a while they show themselves and they show their beautiful red imagery. This was taken at Okehocking Preserve in mid-May.
BLAKE: They nest in our Rushton Woods Preserve. So if you go there in the summer, you’ll definitely hear them singing, but they’re way up in the canopies so you might not hear them. But I always describe their their song to people, it’s a robin with a sore throat.
BRIAN: That’s good. I like that. All right. This is another warbler. Sometimes warblers can be real hard to identify. This is actually a black throated blue warbler that I showed a male version of earlier. The male has a distinct black throat, black face, blue feathers on top, and white breast.. The female, as you can kind of tell and notice, doesn’t have a lot of coloration. It’s kind of a pale olive green. There is a little bit of an eye streak over the eye and a little bit of eye ring underneath the eye, which can help you identify it. But this black throated blue warbler, man, it took me for a trip. I photographed it for 30 minutes or so on and off, kind of chasing it, trying to figure out what it was. And so sometimes trying to get pictures of warblers can make you go nuts, trying to figure out what they are can also make you go nuts. So I just wanted to throw that in there.
BRIAN: Red-Eye vireo. We have a few types of vireos that are in the area that are here nesting that will be here for the majority of the summer. Red Eye is one of them. This is a great image, but it’s not a great image to show it’s red eye. But you can tell that the red eye vireo because most likely, if you even see it with your common eye, you’ll get that glimpse, that flash of red eye. This was taken only a few weeks ago. This was at Marsh Creek State Park on May 18th. But we had vireo behind our house. You’ll also hear warbling vireo. Warbling vireo sound like themselves. They are warblers. They’re, warbling away and you can totally tell what they are, they’re smaller in shape and size. And now that the foliage has really started to grow in, they can make you go crazy trying to find them. But if you walk along Kirkwood Preserve along the creek, you’ll hear tons of warbling vireo. You’ll see Red Eye vireo, just another type of warbler species. They are working the trees, working the leaves, the branches, trying to eat insects along the way.
BRIAN: Flycatchers are another migratory species that has moved in and are really imminent right now. You can hear and see a lot of flycatchers in the neighborhood. This is an Acadian flycatcher that I took last week. They are cool and they have this kind of raspy chip alarm that lets you know that you are getting close to them and they’re pretty easy to see. They like to hang at the tops of bushes and trees. They kind of like to pop their head out to keep their head on guard. So flycatchers are another cool migratory species that you can enjoy now and you can enjoy in the summer.
BRIAN: American Redstart. One of my favorite warblers, one of my favorite birds. They’re just so beautiful. The males are all black with these bright orange notes on their chest. And then they have these bright blotches of orange on the tail and the tail will fan out when they are making their way around. Sticks and shrubs, they’re everywhere. They’re still everywhere right now. Go out and enjoy them. They’re just so cool. The females are sometimes called yellow starts because they have a little bit more of a tan body with with bright yellow instead of orange. But just a cool member of the Warbler family that you can still get out there and enjoy and see them. They have a distinctive call, if you can hear that, if you listen to the call and you get to know it, you’ll be able to find them pretty easily.
BRIAN: Cedar Waxwing, another very cool migrant that has just made its way into the area. I think I saw my first waxwing maybe 10 days ago. They are birds that are stunning. They’re just absolutely stunning. They have this kind of shiny, silky coat of very smooth feathers, yellow on the underside. They have these really interesting tip of the wings, red, and they also have a bright yellow tip of the tail. They have this very cool coif of feather plumage off the top of their head. They work in schools. They move in schools. You’ll see sometimes in schools of 20, 30, 40 or more. I was leaving Serpentine Preserve the other day and thought I was done my bird count when a flock of 35 or 40 wax wings just flew right over my head and took over this tree to prune for insects. They’re here to stay. They’re here to enjoy all summer long. Most likely you’ll see them along creek sides working around water, because generally that’s where a lot of insects are.
BRIAN: All right, here’s another shot of a red eye vireo. I just think that this is a really cool image. This is working through multiple layers of sticks and shrubs and leaves and foliage. And that’s why you kind of get this green hue. As we’re moving through the spring season now you’ll start to see a lot of the backgrounds of all the images have changed. Now it’s just being overwhelmed and overtaken by deep greens because the foliage has just right through. This red eye vireo was taken at Hibernia Park in western Chester County. You can see, I think, that she’s gathering nesting material to build a nest and to hang out and stay for the summer.
BRIAN: So, Blake, as you were saying over at Rushton Farm, you get nesting scarlet tanager and they’re kind of here all summer long and you get to enjoy it. You also get to enjoy Indigo Bunting. This was taken at Rushton Farm on a cold, cloudy, rainy day about a week or so ago. You know, indigo bunting are really cool, really stunning, stunning birds. The males are just completely blue, just this iridescent beautiful blue. And the females have this brownish blue, patchy kind of featheration. I think this is a female. Blake, you might to help me out with this. I think this is a female or this is an immature molting male
BLAKE: This is a very, very messy little boy getting into his breeding plumage. Looks like he’s molting..
BRIAN: Yeah, that’s right. So that’s what I thought.
BLAKE: Was that a few weeks ago?
BRIAN: Yeah. That’s like 10 days ago, actually. Cold day 10 days ago. This is in the corner area of our bird banding area at Rushton. Kind of where the yellow breasted chat had been seen last summer. So I just wanted to include that Ruston Farm is a great, great, really cool place to not only bird, but to see all kinds of different stuff and forage for mushrooms, etcetera.
BRIAN: These guys are northern rough winged swallows. They’re another one of three common swallows to the area. Tree swallows, barn swallows, and northern rough winged swallows. You can enjoy these guys at Okeocking Preserve, you’ll sometimes get Northern rough winged swallows over at Kirkwood along the creek and sometimes at Ashbridge along the creek as well. I took these images again at Hibernia State Park in western Chester County about a week ago. Just really cool, really fluffy brown swallows. They stand out against tree swallows and barn swallows because tree and barn swallows have this oily, shiny kind of silhouette to their to their plumage, whereas the northern rough winged swallow are more feathery, pale brown.
BRIAN: So, you know, our area is very diverse and we not only get migrating warblers and songbirds, but we also get migrating waterfowl. And this is a green heron. This was shot at Exton Park in Chester County about a week ago. I just think they’re so cool. These guys are tiny. They’re not like the great blue herons that we see in our creeks and in our parks right here. These guys are about the size of a crow. They are masters of disguise and they love to hide in underbrush and along the edges of marshes and creeks and ponds. They are common in our area. You will get them at Ashbridge Preserve. Possibly in the marshy area at Serpentine Preserve. If you have a pond on your property, you might have one. They are here for the whole summer. They’re here to nest. Also, I like to go up to Reservoir Road. There is a little dam that’s right over there and it creates an interesting habitat for shorebirds. You can get great egrets, snowy egret, green heron, black crowned night heron over there as well as great blue heron and there’s ducks and waterfowl. So it’s an interesting place. You’ll also get sandpipers and killdeer over there. So it’s a nice little space that’s in our backyard that we can go and enjoy some shorebirds and some waterfowl.
BRIAN: So like the swallows, Purple Martin, for me, are one of those birds that I just don’t see that often. They’re not all that common anymore, unfortunately. They’re a bird that is on rapid decline. They’re stunning, beautiful birds that are in the swallow family. For some reason or another, they seldomly nest here anymore. This is at Sugartown, Strawberries. It’s a great place to go and see the purple martin, and to see them flourishing. All of these gourds are filled with Martin that are nesting and breeding right now. There’s four or five of these posts. So you can go over there and you can just enjoy up to one hundred purple martin. It’s one of the only places in the area that I know of that successfully is hosting martin. I know that we tried at Okehocking and I don’t think that Okehocking has successfully had Martin move in. I will let you know that there is a Martin house on the new preserve behind Episcopal’s campus that does have nesting Martin in it this season, which is a great sign and which is really cool. But get over to Sugartown strawberries and check out these Martin. They’re awesome. Sugartown Strawberries is also selling fresh produce out of their stand, which is great at a time like this to just go over and get some local asparagus or strawberries. When you’re there, just circle around and go through Serpentine Preserve and you’ll get some great habitat.
BLAKE: Shout out to our friend and neighbor farmer Bob, who owns Sugartown Strawberries. That’s really a historical population of purple Martins that he’s fostered. It takes a lot of maintenance of those boxes to keep the birds there to start the colony. So he’s really been a great nurturing landlord for the birds.
BRIAN: It surely is incredible. I was over there taking pictures of those images a week or so ago and this lady looked at me like I was crazy. But there’s just not that many places that you can go and see a colony of that size of purple Martin. It’s something that used to be really, really common 20, 30 years ago. And unfortunately, it’s a bird of rapid decline. And it’s really, truly special that that farmer Bob and Sugartown Strawberries has that going on over there. It’s awesome that it’s in our backyard.
BRIAN: Again, at Serpentine Preserve, in Farmer Bob’s backyard. Spring is a time of nesting. Spring is a time for breeding. This is not a migrant. This is a year long favorite of mine. And that’s our little cute Downy Woodpecker. This is a fledgling downy woodpecker that is now growing up. I stumbled upon this nest the other day. Mama woodpecker was out foraging for more food and little baby woodpecker was popping its head out of the hole wanting more food.
BRIAN: So I am wrapping up with images, but I just wanted to say real quick, now that migration is dwindling and slowing down and we’re feeling like it’s coming to an end; I was feeling that way this past weekend and I was walking through Serpentine Preserve and I had a down day as I thought I would have had a bunch of warblers and a bunch of different migrant species, and I had missed out on a bunch of different opportunities that day. But just when you think that you’ve had a down day and you’re not seeing the birds you want to see, you never know what you’re going to see. This is a prairie warbler. Prairie warblers have, to me, one of the coolest songs and sounds of any bird out there. The best way I can describe it, it’s like the Jetsons rocket ship taking off, like charging up and shooting out. This was walking along Serpentine Preserve the other day. I just heard very faintly that sound of the rocket ship taking off and this guy was more than more than willing to kind of come out from under the shrubs and brush and show himself and be available for a few shots.
BLAKE: That’s an awesome shot. Is that your grand finale then, your grand finale moment of this spring?
BRIAN: Very close. We should have made it the grand finale. Just when you think that migration is ended and all the great birds have come and gone, you get rewarded. Nice surprises. So just other birds of Chester County in spring, talking about rewards and surprises and talking about crows alarming you to things. This was walking along a trail the other day. Before the crows had alarmed me to his presence, I just saw this big mound on a tree branch from across the creek, two hundred yards away. And I thought to myself, that’s too big to be anything natural. But it was this great, big, mature, great horned owl. And you just never know what you’re going to find when you get out and enjoy some natural space. So that was a nice little pleasure.
BRIAN: This is the last shot that I have to share with you guys. This is a bird that I love. It is probably one of the most colorful, beautiful warblers that I can think of that’s out there. And that’s Northern parula. This is one bird that has tortured me all spring. I have had plenty of parula. They are still here. This picture was taken this past weekend, on Saturday. This is the best image that I’ve been able to capture of a northern parula because they have tortured me all season long.
BLAKE: Your nemesis. Everyone has a nemesis bird.
BRIAN: All I want to do is capture it and get really stunning images of it, because it is such a colorful, beautiful, cool, little cute bird. Man, has it been my nemesis. It pops around. It’s so fast. It just goes to show that we all have our nemesis. Practice makes perfect. The faster you are with manual focus, the faster you are with your camera and your camera settings will make you more prepared to get better images, and so I think that through this spring migration and through Covid19 I have had a lot of practice and I will be a much better bird photographer for fall migration. And then for next year’s spring migration. So now my goal is to conquer my nemesis and to capture great, great images of more northern parula and other rare warblers of the area.
BLAKE: Well, thank you so much, Brian. What a treat to take a trip through your spring migration exploration. The beautiful pictures. So many different species. Just incredible. And such determination on your part to get out there every day and document these birds, which is so important now, more than ever. You touched a little on the decline of purple martins, but I’m sure many who are listening have heard about the general decline in all birds that they’ve discovered in the past 50 years. It’s so important to document what we have now. And you’ve been integral to that. And of course, spreading your joy of birding. Thank you, you are an asset to our community.
BRIAN: For anyone that’s watching, even if you don’t have a camera or you don’t like photography, especially now in the world that we live in, having all of these preserves in our area, these parks that are here, this preserved space that will never go to mass housing developments and shopping centers, that it’s not only a great habitat for all these birds that, like Blake said, is on decline, but it’s a great habitat for us. It’s great to get out. Even if you’re walking around and you see a bird, you might see a bird that gets you generally excited, which makes you want to go see more birds. So get out there and enjoy our natural space because it’s an asset that we’re lucky enough to have in our own backyard.