Friday, November 19, 2010

And Now for Something Completely Different [Dispersals]

All right, it's time I did something I should have done a while ago: close down this blog. Maybe "close down" is misleading as I'm not stopping, just moving elsewhere. Come check out my new blog, Feathers and Flowers.

Best bet, check out my first post there, "New Place, New Stuff" to understand why I'm relocating and what the new blog is all about. Thanks for dropping by here, and for those who returned regularly, I hope you'll stop by my new digs.

- Mike


Sunday, May 9, 2010

Biggest Week in American Birding [Alternatives]

It's almost here, the biggest week in American birding! Migrant songbirds have been flooding into the region, birders will be descending into the state to find them, and I will be spending a week searching out the most reliable places to locate dozens of different species. It's going to be awesome!

Yes, this afternoon I'll be heading east on I-86 to . . . what's that? Ohio is west of New York? Right, I'm not that geographically challenged.

Anyway, I'll be heading east . . . what? No, I don't mean west, that'd take me out on to Pennsyltucky. I'm heading to northern New Jersey.

Oh, I know there's a festival where everyone-who-is-anyone will be migrant watching, but I'll be at the original biggest week, that granddaddy of competitive birding: that week-long run up to the World Series of Birding in New Jersey.

I won't be blogging, possibly I'll throw a tweet out now and again, or maybe a facebook update. I will be out at all hours noting any newly-arrived songbirds, pinpointing territories of breeders, staking out any lingering winter birds, searching for raptor nests, listening for what may be lurking in various wetlands, chasing a vagrant or two . . . a little bit of everything.

I've done this before, but this year already feels like a whole new ball game. The "Big Day" is late (mid-May!) and spring came early this year (not astronomically, but ornithologically). Usually we're scrambling to find the newly-arrived warblers, hoping the Canada Warbler is back on its territory before Saturday, hoping the Tennessee, Bay-breasted, and Blackpoll Warblers (the harbingers of "the end of spring migration") will have reached this far north. This year, they're already there! Leaves are out, Blue-headed Vireos have already quieted down, replaced by their ubiquitous Red-eyed brethren.

It's not all fun-and-games, sleep-deprivation, and supplementing our year lists. You can read how we use the competition to fund conservation work (and meet the team, hear additional stories, and more) at the Lab's web site.

Finally, you can follow my tweets (no promises, I may need those precious seconds for quick cat-like naps), as well as those from the Sapsuckers through the week and especially on the Big Day, which runs on Saturday, 15 May this year.

Wish us luck!


Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Blue Birds [Unexpectations]

George Carlin famously asked, "Where is the blue food?" something that has nagged at me for years. Blueberries? "Blue on the vine," he points out, "purple on the plate."

Blue birds, however, are easy to come by: here in the eastern U.S. we've got our Eastern Bluebirds, Indigo Buntings, Blue Grosbeaks, Cerulean Warblers, and Blue Jays to name a few. Other regions around the world have their share as well. You'll find Pinyon and Stellar's Jays in the western U.S., Red-legged Honeycreepers in the neotropics, House Martins in Europe and tropical Africa, the Common Peafowl from the Indian subcontinent and aviary collections everywhere; the point being blue isn't uncommon in the bird world.

But what you don't find are Blue Storks, because generally you don't find storks that are blue in the wild.

Until now.

The BBC reports here on an oddly colored stork that appeared in a small town in Germany, one that is attracting quite a bit of attention and, in turn, tourism. Not to mention speculation, what turned this bird blue?

Bonus link: watch Carlin's "Blue Food" routine on Youtube.


Thursday, March 11, 2010

2010 State of the Birds Report on Climate Change [Extra, Extra!]

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar today released the 2010 State of the Birds report, the first assessment of the vulnerability of our nation’s birds to climate change. The analysis of nearly 800 bird species shows that climate change is predicted to disrupt birds in every habitat, with seabirds and Hawaiian birds among the most vulnerable.

“Birds are excellent indicators of the health of our environment, and right now they are telling us an important story about climate change,” said Dr. Kenneth Rosenberg, director of Conservation Science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “Many species of conservation concern will face heightened threats, giving us an increased sense of urgency to protect and conserve vital bird habitat.”

The report highlights conservation initiatives and partnerships needed to advance conservation efforts, and discusses how climate change affects birds in every habitat, based on an analysis by a team of scientists from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Audubon, The Nature Conservancy, American Bird Conservancy, and others.

Visit for the full story, or jump right to the News Release for the key findings.


Thursday, February 25, 2010

Young Birder's Event at the Cornell Lab [Gatherings]

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is excited to host The Cornell Lab Young Birders Event, which will be held August 12‐15, 2010 in Ithaca, New York. The Young Birders’ Event aims to bring together teenagers with a passion for birds and interested in pursing a career in the field. You’ll meet people who have successful careers that involve birds in a variety of ways from ornithological researchers to tour leaders, to audio specialists and computer scientists. High school aged young birders are invited to fill out our application form and return it for review by April 15th 2010. Ten young birders will be selected and notified in late April.

The Young Birder’s Event will feature:
    • two days of field trips
    • presentations by Cornell Lab of Ornithology staff including professors, researchers,
    and students who will share various ways to incorporate birds into a career
    • eBird and field notes workshop
    • specimen preparation workshop
    • sound recording workshop
    • tour of Cornell Lab including the Macaulay Library and Museum of Vertebrates
    • dinner with Cornell Lab Directors and Staff
Read more about this year's event, and check out a recap of last year's inaugural event. Be sure to spread the news, especially if you know or work with young birders!


Sunday, February 14, 2010

My Dog is a What? [Survey Says!]

Today is a significant milestone. Barron, among the best friends I've had in my lifetime, turns fifteen years old today - Happy Birthday, good buddy!

I recently gave an overview of his personality where I wondered about his lineage. I didn't know his parents, so I've only been able to wonder what breeds co-mingled to create such a mild-mannered but energetic, mellow but attentive, focused but aware, loyal but social companion.

Recently we sent a vial of blood to the Wisdom Panel lab for a DNA test. And now the results are in.

The picture below shows the breeds detected in Barron. The relative size of the breed image shows the amount of each breed detected in our analysis. There are also signals from other breeds which are not strong enough to identify with confidence. How can these faint signals occur? There are two possibilities. First, your dog could have mixed-breed ancestors beyond three generations back. A second reason is that our test may not yet cover one of the breeds in your dog’s ancestry.

When reading your report, keep in mind that all physical traits of the breeds found may not always be apparent in your dog. Why? Because a mixed-breed dog’s appearance varies depending on the overall mix of breeds found. When dominant and recessive genes combine from the different breeds across the generations, unique and unpredictable combinations can occur. This is a big reason why your dog may not exhibit the physical traits of each breed we found.

  • Significant Breed - At least 50% of your dog’s DNA comes from this breed, so you are likely to see some physical and behavioral traits from this breed represented unless some of the genes are recessive.
  • Intermediate Breed - At least 25% of your dog’s DNA comes from this breed, so you may see some physical and behavioral traits represented in your dog.
  • Minor Breed - At least 12.5% of your dog’s DNA comes from this breed, so it is unlikely that this breed’s physical traits are visually represented unless some of the genes are dominant.

The vast majority of folks trying to identify him by phenotype alone picked Chow Chow, and if you guessed Chow, pat yourself on the back! He's got blue-black pigment on his mostly-pink tongue, he's got the lion-like ruff of fur, he's got the very straight rear legs and the stilted gait of a Chow. But, clearly, he's not pure Chow. The real guessing game began with German Shepard Dog or another of the Chow-like spitz types, Akita, Elkhound, and Keeshond, topping the list.

Those guesses were obviously (in the 20/20 hindsight kind of way) wrong, wrong, and wrong. No one ever, ever, suspected a representative from the mountain dog group. Let alone one called a . . . a what? Entlebucher Mountain Dog? Turns out, if you're not from Switzerland you have no chance of saying that properly.

Regarding the classification into "Significant Breed" and "Intermediate Breed," I simplify it this way: one of Bear's parents was a Chow Chow, descended from Chow Chows. The other parent was a mix, the offspring of an Entlebucher Mountain Dog and another that was either a mix itself, or a breed not yet entered in Wisdom Panel's database. I hope they kept some blood on ice for a retest in a few years.

Chows are fairly well known. The report gives a brief summary that reads,

The Chow Chow is a venerable breed dating back at least two thousand years. Many believe that the breed originated in China, but there is some evidence that indicates the Chow Chow actually migrated to China from Mongolia and Manchuria. While no one can say for sure from which breeds the Chow Chow has descended, it is believed that the breed has Tibetan mastiff and Samoyed in its bloodline. The Chow Chow served a dual purpose in China. Some were used for hunting while others were used to guard the sacred temples from evil entities. The East Indian Company brought the Chow Chow to England in 1781 and Queen Victoria received Chow Chows as a gift in 1865. During the 1880’s, the numbers of Chow Chows imported increased drastically. The Chow Chow is one of the oldest known breeds, recognized by the American Kennel Club in 1903.

The report asks, "Do you recognize any of these Chow Chow traits in Barron?"

  • Reputation as a loyal family dog. -- Most definitely.
  • Independent spirit, but responds to reward-based obedience training. -- Not really. I wouldn't call him an independent spirit, but he certainly responds to reward-based obedience training.
  • Reserved and wary with strangers. -- Nope, not even close.
  • May require socialization to reduce defensive aggressive tendencies. There have been reported incidents of Chow Chows being aggressive with other pets or people. -- Nope, friendly with anyone/everyone, though he snaps at the cats once in a while. When they're too close to his food.

And what about an Entlebucher Mountain Dog? (Gallery of images)

The Entlebucher Mountain dog, also known as the Entlebucher Sennenhund or Entlebucher Cattle dog, is the smallest of the four Swiss Mountain dogs. It is a dog native to the Entlebuch district in Switzerland, near the city of Lucerne. The breed originated from the large Molosser breed that was introduced into Switzerland by the Romans during the 1st century BC. The Entlebucher was first recognized as a separate breed in 1869 and the first breed club was founded in 1926. The Entlebucher Mountain Dog is extremely popular in Switzerland but is rarely seen in other countries. At one point, they were in danger of becoming extinct. The first Entlebuchers were kept for their herding and guarding skills. However, nowadays they are kept as family dogs. The breed has been a member of the American Kennel Club’s Foundation stock service since 2000.

These are the traits typical of Entlebuchers:

  • Requires regular physical activity and training, excelling in competitive sports. It is intelligent and responds well to obedience training using a reward based system. -- Definitely intelligent and food-motivated as a reward system. He never minded physical activity and training, though panosteitis, arthritis, and hip dysplasia limited what we did.
  • Large, active, gentle, loyal, working dogs. -- Most definitely.
  • This breed is loyal and protective of its family and property. -- Loyal, for sure. Protective, not really. I always thought if someone broke in our home, rather than chase them off he'd help them carry stuff out to the van.
  • Requires early socialization with other dogs and people. -- I don't know about this, but if he required it, he must have had it.
  • May be wary of strangers. -- Again with the wariness? Nope. And the Entlebucher Sennenhund WWW site claims the opposite: "Friendly, with pleasant personalities, Entlebuchers enjoy being around people, and other dogs." I suppose this is where he gets his, "I never met a stranger" attitude.

Now, having read up on Entlebucher Mountain Dogs, I see him differently. Some things he does we just look and say, "What an Entlebucher!" And physically we can see some mountain dog features, from his coloring to his muscular build. But many features appear to be intermediate between Chow and Mountain Dogs, such as his muzzle, which is shorter than the Entlebucher but not as short as a Chow. His ears are longer than a Chow but shorter than a Entlebucher, and his tail is fuzzy and set high like a Chow, but not held close to the back. It's longer and carried higher than a Chow, I presume like an Entlebucher.

Though I wonder what the "Intermediate Breed" might be and how that is expressed in his physical traits and behavior, I am excited to have a mostly complete picture of his ancestry and watch him in that context.

Barron, it's great to re-meet you!

More images in my previous post.


Thursday, February 11, 2010

Counting Crows . . . and Jays and Chickadees [Fun & Games]

The annual Great Backyard Bird Count is on, let the games begin! Every day there are thousands of people watching birds across North America. Over the next four days (Friday, February 12th through 15th) there will be thousands of people watching and counting birds across North America, some for the first time, all to create a snapshot of where the birds are spending their winter. It's simple: observe birds; track a few necessary details (like when, where, and who); and upload your list on the easy-to-use web site.

Well, check out this video, it's worth a thousand-word blog post all on its own. You'll learn the whats, wherefores, and how tos. But also explore the web site to learn about birds, to see how your submissions are used by scientists, to see photos from past counts, and especially to get ideas on how to involve beginning birders and kids - from past experience I can tell you, it's great for kids!

The GBBC is a great excuse, if you need one,
to get your kids involved with nature.

Granted, watching birds is the best part. But it's a real trip to watch the map as it regularly updates throughout the weekend in near-real time with the most recent submissions, to track how many checklists come in from your town, and to see what birds are being seen where.

So, if nothing else, try and get out and collect a few checklists. Even better, attend a bird walk or workshop at a local nature center, or just get a few others out with you and introduce them to nature and citizen science. I'll be covering where I can in my county, will you do the same?

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