Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Under the Wire

Well, it's getting down to the midnight hour. A new year just around the corner, the wife and I are having a quiet evening home, and I'm not ready to flip on Dick Clark or Carson-whoever just yet. That usually happens 15 seconds to midnight so we can watch ball drop and celebrate at the same time as everyone else.

When I said a quiet evening home I meant really quiet. Reina was tucked into bed around 9:00, the wife fell asleep on the couch so I'm taking advantage to squeeze in one last post for 2008. I expect it will be different than my past posts, no images, no recounting of a specific birding trip.

Nah, since I've got some unexpected free time and I'm not sure where my head's at right now I'm not sure exactly what'll come out, but I am looking for some closure on 2008. And to upload my 100th post for 2008, I just can't leave it at 99! (Note to Mike at I feel for you with your year list halting one shy of 400, I hope you can retrofit one more bird!)

I don't really feel like clicking through the through the 99 posts I published in 2008 (though you are more than welcome to, they're all over there in the right-hand column in the archives), but I'll offer a few highlights from the year. In complete candor, I'm not sorry to see this year end, it was pretty much a downer on several fronts. But there were highlights:
  • I became an uncle back in April when Maddie Rose was born. That's my sister's first, so it's my first time being genetically uncled. I have many other nieces and nephews (and grand-nieces and grand-nephews!) on my wife's side so I've had some practice at playing the cool older relative.
  • Trips to Delaware/Virginia, Washington state, and Arkansas were the chances to see something new and different from our homestead. There were a lot of local trips through the western side of NY, meaning more time than usual to delve into our local flora and fauna.
  • I scored two "life birds," both within our region, a Slaty-backed Gull in Ithaca and a Curlew Sandpiper near Niagara Falls. There is a definite satisfaction in seeing new things where you are, but I am overtly jonesing for a trip somewhere exciting in 2009. I'm thinking South America -- Peru, Brasil, and Ecuador are jumbling in my brain, but for no real reason - if you have suggestions, please leave them in the comments. Requirements are lots of amazing birds to be found without hiring a tour guide or armed sentries, relatively cheap travel, lodging, and food, and reasonable entertainment for a bird-friendly wife and daughter.
  • Gardening and landscaping hit new highs and lows: we pushed hard to convert as much lawn as possible to gardens and native plants. We did well, but got burned out by mid-summer. Just as well, really, other things occupied us for the latter half of the year, from work (finishing up one grant and applying for others) and persronal (I won't go into those details, this isn't that kind of blog).
  • Oh, and there was that political election. Remember when Barack was elected? That was pretty cool.
There's more, to be sure, but those are the activities that stick out in these waning minutes of 2008. One applicable regret: the state of this blog. If I was the type to make resolutions I'd resolve to get on a specific schedule instead of the when-I-fit-it-in updates I tend to do. I suspect I should work on my time management for that, we'll see how that plays out (if the upcoming funding doesn't pan out I may be posting a lot more than I want).

Also, why am I here? Not in the metaphysical sense, which I've already figured out*, but here in the blogosphere? My intial impetus for starting a blog was an outlet, somewhere I could write (hopefully) creatively, have some fun, document some of the activities and experiences that occupy my time. Since not a lot of interesting things happen to me these days, at least compared to the young-birder-will-travel adventures I started highlighting in my "Flashback Friday" series, I've started to wonder, what is my point here, anyway? It's not a secret, but probably something I haven't openly shared with the general public, I always wanted to be a science writer. I'm not exactly sure how I wound up in pure research, but at least the blogosphere provides a (nonprofit) outlet.

Given the majority of topics are more "what my 4-year-old and I did outdoors," maybe that's the tack I should focus on. Maybe highlighting things going on at the workplace (lots of new initiatives at the Lab of Ornithology going on) and presenting natural history, distribution/abundance, and so on about local and exotic species and our natural world? Providing a window in the world of ornithological research, specifically remote monitoring of birds and migration? Regular pictures and stories of my dog, family, and our four acres?

Here's what I know: I will keep blogging until I figure out a direction (hold the phone, Chuck, maybe my direction is to be directionless?). I plan to post more regularly, especially to resurrect the Flashback Fridays and show more images from here, there (provided travel comes through), and everywhere. The Nature Blog Network blog stole a couple of my ideas (thankfully, as I never did anything with them), specifically introducing folks to blogs they may not be familiar with (and why I like them) and interviewing interesting bloggers, allowing folks to get to know them outside of their blog personalities. I may still run with that, I have different questions in mind, those that enquiring minds (at least mine) want to know.

Huh, so that's where my head is at this evening. That and wondering if Facebook is really worth the time and effort (if you're already there and we're not "friends" yet, hollar at me!).

OK, off to pour a drink, turn on some music (Dylan, Beatles, and old school classics? The Killers, Kings of Leon, and other new sounds?), and say farewell 2008, hello 2009.

A heartfelt thanks to you for reading, whether you're here by accident or you're a regular. Oh, and if you're wondering, what's the most fulfilling side of maintaining this blog? The friendship I've encountered, a totally unexpected side effect. I hope to meet many of you, face to face, in the near future. I'll even buy the first round.

May you all have a wonderful 2009!

* No I haven't.


Monday, December 29, 2008

Home Again, Home Again

We're just back from yet another inadvertent vacation from the blogosphere. Just as well, I'd rather be spending time with family, friends, and birds than the computer (though I did spend more time than I planned on a final report for work).

More to come shortly, in the meantime here's a typical scene of eastern Arkansas birding. What waterfowl can you identify?

Waterfowl flight in eastern ArkansasEastern Arkansas in flight. What are they?


Thursday, December 11, 2008

Seattle Dawn

23 November 2008 - Daybreak over Seattle

Waning CrescentA waning crescent moon in the cloudless, pre-dawn Seattle sky.
Where were the expected fog, rain, and clouds?

The downside of flying from the east to the west coast: morning comes a lot quicker than you're used to. We were up late the night before, the equivalent of 3:00 AM for us easterners. Reina, unfortunately, had slept quite a bit on the plane, and her four-year-old body was up and ready to go by 8:00 AM. But that's Eastern Standard Time, it was only 5:00 AM locally.

My wife entertained her for an hour, then it was my turn. We put on jackets and headed outside for a walk. The upside of flying from the east to the west coast: morning comes a lot quicker than you're used to. The sky was clear, the temperature crisp, and we watched the neighborhood come alive.

Cascade SunriseReady to start the day.

On our way back to the house we looked over our shoulders and caught the sun's glow over the Cascades and light fog rolling in from the north. In addition to the crow we found House Finches, Black-capped Chickadees, and Bushtits working over the neighborhood trees. The start of a beautiful day!

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Pacific Northwest Thanksgiving

We spent Thanksgiving week in the Pacific Northwest with friends and family. Birding, as others have noted, takes a backseat on these visits since many involved haven't transformed from "bird-friendly" to "birder" (yet). But for some of us the birding never really stops, especially when you're 3,000 miles from the typical birds of your own backyard. Instead, the birding is whatever you can squeeze in during or surrounding the family time.

Spotted TowheeThe neighborhood Spotted Towhee.

Happily, there is a lot surrounding my sister's place in Gig Harbor, just north of Tacoma. Their neighborhood is hilly and covered in conifers. The highlights of the neighborhood walks, for an easterner, were Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Varied Thrushes, Spotted Towhees, "Oregon" Dark-eyed Juncos, and more Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets than I've stumbled across back east.

Pelagic CormorantsPelagic Cormorants resting on a buoy above two
lolling pinnepeds (California Sea Lions, maybe?).

Nearby parks allowed views of Puget Sound so scoping for waterfowl didn't disappoint. Pacific Loons and Surf Scoters floated with Red-necked Grebes, Pelagic and Double-crested Cormorants raced across the water. Marbled Murrelets and Pigeon Guillemots added to the excitement of seabirding. I didn't have many views of sheltered coves so ducks weren't easy to come by; those I did see included Barrow's and Common Goldeneye, Red-breasted Merganser, Bufflehead, and the ubiquitous Mallard.

Tufted PuffinThe only puffins seen were at the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium.

The weather was great, with only a couple of the days flouting stereotypical clouds, rain, and fog. It's no wonder local birders spend much of their time scoping open water. It's tough to see the canopy of those tall conifers, especially on mornings with fog. Birding by ear must have developed in this area.

The most surprising bird was the first bird encountered on the trip. We landed at night so we didn't see any city-dwelling Rock Pigeons, House Sparrows, or European Starlings on the drive to my friend's place in the University District. Near midnight, local time (3 AM for us) I stepped on to his balcony so I wouldn't wake his daughter with my sneezing fit. The backyard slopes away so during the day you have an amazing view of a fairly large park and, in the distance, the Cascades. As the distant lights played across the waters of Lake Washington a medium-sized bird made its way through the darkness, first moving north over the neighbor's yards, then circling a large tree, finally heading south on completely silent wingbeats, almost lazy flight, head swiveling right, then left, repeatedly back and forth.

I've only seen the graceful hunting of a Barn Owl twice in my life, and it was possibly the same individual bird. My sister and I happened upon a single bird patrolling the park below my friend's house in the fading light back in August of 2007.

Cascades ViewThe view from the balcony during daylight.

Ironically the birds I spent the most time watching were ones I'm not comfortable identifying. The first group: gulls. I'm happy to watch gulls, I like sort through huge congregations trying to pick out the oddball and examining the various cycles (plumages) to identify what I can, but around Puget Sound? Forget it. The field guides will show you Glaucous-winged and Western Gulls are both present and relatively common, but a third type may be the most encountered: when those two hybridize you wind up with intermediate forms that have their own name, the "Olympic Gull." Here are a couple of the individuals I saw, please feel free to leave your identifications in the comments, preferably with some reasoning how you got there, and don't forget about Glaucous-winged x Herring Gull or any of the other possible gulls.

Gull speciesGot a guess? Click for larger image.

Gull speciesGuesses? Click for a larger image.

Finally, the crows. Are Northwestern Crows a "real" species or merely a race of small American Crows? More on these two dilemmas at another time, they both deserve more space and thought than I can provide tonight.

Crow speciesCrow species at the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium. This
one was wild, no convenient sign to help with identification.


Monday, December 8, 2008


Briefly off topic, but I want to share my annual December 8th tradition of remembering John Lennon. His assassination in 1980 left me shaken. I was 12 when it happened, at the height of my "Beatlemania." In reality, that "height" has been more of a permanent plateau than a temporary spike, The Beatles remain among my all-time favorites (later joined by Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, and a couple of others).

The real impact came from the fact it happened on my birthday, obviously inflicting a measure of sadness during what is a time to celebrate. Over the years I've come to think of the anniversary of John's assassination less as a morbid and sad occurrence, though it clearly is, but a heartening one in that his ideals and causes live on. That can't be said about everyone. John joined a prominent group that includes naturalists and conservationists like John James Audubon, Roger Tory Peterson and Aldo Leopold (among many others). Sure, different causes and ideals, but alike in that they've left a legacy to inspire and build upon.

Strawberry Fields, December 2001.

I finally made it to Strawberry Fields, a memorial to John in Central Park, in December 2001. Coincidentally it was shortly after George Harrison died (I must be cursed). To include some semblance of birding here I will admit to paying attention to the birds, hoping for some sign or totem. We found the usual Central Park chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatch, Downy Woodpecker, Rock Pigeon, starlings, crows, jays, Canada Geese, and Mallards, as well as a Red-tailed Hawk (not Pale Male, maybe a mate or descendant?) and Hermit Thrush. Maybe there's meaning in there. Or maybe it just is.

So, if you hear radio and television take a moment to remember John today I hope you'll join them.


Friday, December 5, 2008

Honduran Emerald Rediscovered In Western Honduras

I just got this in my inbox.


December 2008


Last month a team of American and Honduran researchers and conservationists traveled to western Honduras to search for the Critically Endangered Honduran Emerald Hummingbird in the Department of Santa Barbara. The Honduran Emerald (Amazilia luciae) is a critically endangered bird species restricted solely to the country of Honduras. The principal cause of its decline is habitat destruction, with approximately 90% of its original habitat lost, and the remaining habitat occurring in isolated patches of arid thorn-forest and scrub of the interior valleys of northern Honduras. Based on specimen data, the species was originally known to occur in four Honduran departments, Cortés and Santa Barbara in western Honduras, and Yoro and Olancho in northeastern Honduras. Despite efforts to find the species in western Honduras, it has not been detected there since 1935 (Underwood). Because of its status as critically endangered and “Red Listed” by The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the fragmented nature of its habitat, finding any additional populations is of major conservation importance.

The team’s searches were directed by over-flights and brief visits of the same area in February of 2007 and a report from a contractor working on an environmental mitigation plan that an Emerald was seen. In November of 2008 the expedition team conducted searches in Santa Barbara and Cortés and were able to find six sites inhabited by the Emerald, all in the department of Santa Barbara. They found the Emerald in patches of forest measuring 5 to 60 hectares along a 33-km long transect. As in northeastern Honduras, its remaining habitat is highly fragmented. Finding the species in western Honduras gives hope for the conservation of the species, because the rediscovery increases both the known distributional range and population size of the species. However, due to the highly fragmented nature of its habitat, the species definitely warrants its status as critically endangered.

The team included ornithologist David L. Anderson of Louisiana State University, Honduran biologists Mario Espinal & Leonel Marineros, hummingbird specialist H. Ross Hawkins, Ph.D. and conservationists Deborah M. Atwood, Fito Steiner and Robert E. Hyman of The Explorers Club.

For more information please contact Robert E. Hyman (robertehyman AT gmail DOT com)

Image from Wikipedia
Read more about this species at BirdLife International


Thursday, December 4, 2008

Conjunction (Alpine) Junction

01 December 2008 - Celestial Triangle

I grew up with Schoolhouse Rock as background music to my weekends, making me incapable of hearing the word "conjunction" without automatically adding "junction." So it was fitting that I witnessed the recent conjunction of the crescent moon, Venus, and Jupiter at a pull off in the town of Alpine Junction, NY.

Conjunction over Varney HillThe celestial triangle over Varney Hill in the fading light.
Click the image for a larger view.

To orient you, that's the moon on the left (though you probably figured that out), Venus is the brighter and lower of the two "starry" objects, Jupiter is fainter and higher in the sky.

Crescent moon, Venus, and Jupiter in conjunction
This is the write up from (thanks, Aunt Janet!)

Space Weather News for Monday, Dec. 1, 2008

When the sun goes down tonight, step outside and look south. Beaming through the twilight is one of the prettiest things you'll ever see--a tight three-way conjunction of Venus, Jupiter and the crescent Moon. The event is visible from all parts of the world, even from light-polluted cities. People in New York and Hong Kong will see it just as clearly as astronomers watching from remote mountaintops. Only cloudy weather or a midnight sun (sorry Antarctica!) can spoil the show.

The great conjunction offers something extra to Europeans. For more than an hour on Monday evening, the crescent Moon will actually eclipse Venus. Astronomers call such an event a "lunar occultation." Venus emerging from the dark edge of the Moon is a remarkably beautiful sight. Sky watchers across Europe will be able to see this happen.

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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

White-winged Crossbill Irruption

A write-up of our Thanksgiving Trip is coming, but first I have to mention what happened upon our return. We arrived in the Southern Tier Friday night, under the cover of darkness, fairly well exhausted and fairly well under the weather. Colds, coughs, sniffles, the usual late fall maladies all around. Because of that, and our bodies were still operating under the Pacific Time Zone, Saturday wound up a fairly low key day.

In catching up on emails I discovered the majority of bird posts piling up in my inbox revolved around a specific winter finch: the White-winged Crossbill. This is a favorite . . . no, I'll go out on the limb and say it's the favorite winter finch of birders and naturalists everywhere. That's because of their odd-but-effective bill structure, adapted for prying open cones to extract the seeds, and their nomadic lifestyle which keeps birders guessing if they'll be absent, uncommon, or (rarely) common across the northern U.S. in most years.

WWCR Distribution - Nov 2007 - Feb 2008An eBird map of reported WW Crossbill sightings from last
winter (November 2007 through February 2008). Reports
were relatively few and spread across disparate locations.

When their preferred cone crops, hemlock, spruce, and larch, fail in one area they irrupt elsewhere, gracing the newly-found conifers along with birder's lists, delighting nature watchers, at least for a season. Then it's back to their seemingly erratic wandering (see the Kaufman's excellent post for more about their habits).

According to the local bird lists it seemed every conifer with cones (and it's a good year for many species, particularly several spruces) had crossbills. Sightings were rarely of one or a pair, almost always it was dozens or even hundreds, in one case thousands: Rochester birder Dave Tetlow recorded over 1,700 while conducting the sea watch count for two and a half ours at Hamlin Beach State Park, Monroe Co., NY. Obviously, it's shaping up to be an amazing year for WW Crossbills in the northeast and parts of the upper midwest.

WWCR Distribution - Nov 2008WW Crossbill sightings reported to eBird in November,
2008. Lots of birds, and frequently encountered.

Saturday morning, while filling the feeders, I was reflecting on this, mentally mapping all of the possible conifers I encounter in our area and on my drive to Ithaca. I admit I'm a crossbill junkie, I could watch them for hours as they worry a cone, prying open and excavating the seed with their specialized bill. Had I paid attention I would have noticed the litter of cone debris covering the snow in our yard, something I've never noticed in our yard but I would notice later that afternoon. Turns out our spruces were the ones I should be eying!

White-winged CrossbillsClick on the images for larger versions and better viewing.
Note the crossed bill tips and the colors: males are red, females are
yellowish and streaky. Both sport white patches in the wings.

While FeederWatching a bit later I saw a small flock of finch-like birds land on a spruce. Crossbills! I relinquished the binoculars so Donna and Reina could watch, figuring the birds would stick for a while. No luck. Donna had excellent views, Reina had trouble with the bins but did finally get an eyeful, then the birds flew.

White-winged CrossbillsCrossbills continued to stream into the yard, swelling
the numbers from a dozen to nearly a hundred birds.

Later that afternoon they returned. I bolted outside, no jacket and only Crocs on my bare feet but with the necessary optics. I followed a group moving from tree to tree, picking through the cones with amazing grace and speed. They were joined by more crossbills, a few Pine Siskins mixed in, and still more crossbills arrived. All told I had about ten unadulterated minutes with them before they moved on. Quickly counting the flock as it headed west I estimated 90 - 100 birds. The siskins didn't feel the same urgency, they stuck around the yard awhile longer.

Pine SiskinsTwo of the half-dozen siskins that joined the crossbill flock.

There are still plenty of cones on our trees, and the conifers on my commute are heavy as well. I'm driving slower than usual now, hoping for another encounter.

White-winged CrossbillA male crossbill works a spruce cone.

Read the eBird article to learn more about this irruption along with strategies to find them. And if you do, be sure to contribute your sightings!


Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Have You Checked Your Hard Drive?

You may remember the famously spooky line, "Have you checked the children?" from "When A Stranger Calls," the 1979 thriller that scared the bejeebies out of millions of folks, especially me - and I only saw the preview (I was in 5th grade). A couple of days ago I had a similarly scary experience.

After returning from an amazing week in the Pacific Northwest I copied the four-plus gigabytes of photos we took to our external drive, then opened Picasa to look at them on the larger monitor. Not only were they not found, four months worth of photos were gone. If a CSI staffer was examining the drive they'd conclude the camera was broken, or the photographer had disappeared, on or about July 27th, 2008, the date of the last photo. Oddly, all photos prior to the 27th are fine, as was the entire iTunes library.

Gone were the photos of our saw-whet owl visitor, the Ring-necked Pheasants, the out-of-range/date Little Blue Heron, the lifer Curlew Sandpier, the rare-in-the-Basin Hudsonian Godwits, the ultra-rare Magnificant Frigatebird . . . but at least those (and others) are immortalized here on recent posts on The Feather and the Flower. Gone are hundreds of other pics: family outings, family at home, landscapes, macro shots of insects and plants, images for work, and who knows what I'm forgetting.

Obviously it could be a lot worse. I know too many folks that have lost their entire photo collection - years of images, gone - or all of their personal financial files. Too many that have lost data for their research projects, too many that have lost their Master's thesis or doctoral dissertations. I've never known anyone who lost The Great American Novel, but I'm sure that's happened, too.

Happily, I was able to recover all the photos. I'm in one of those, "Aww, lawdy, lawdy! I've been given a second chance!" modes, I'm sure I'll be one of those annoying types back from the brink. I'll be completely anal about backing up more often. Weekly, like I originally planned before I got lethargic about it. I'll be proselytizing the virtues to everyone I meet, at least for the next few weeks.

So, how about you? Have you checked your hard drive?

Regular posting to begin again tomorrow.


Sunday, November 30, 2008

Where I Was

Mt. Rainier
Mt. Rainier, as seen from the Seattle - Bremerton ferry.

Jan M got it, based on the birds (and weather!) she figured we were in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. We were in Gig Harbor for the bulk of the trip; more coming soon!
Posted by Picasa


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Where I'm At

I'm not at home in the Southern Tier of New York, but maybe you can guess where I'm spending Turkey Day tomorrow. This doesn't factor into the location, but I'm unable to upload photos so it'll be a text only challenge.

The birding trips have been fairly local, just neighborhood birding with the occasional local park. On my walks I commonly see Red-breasted Nuthatches, Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned Kinglets (in good numbers!), Black-capped and Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Brown Creepers, American Robins and Varied Thrushes. When I say "commonly seen" I really mean "frequently hear" since getting binoculars on them in the trees and in the weather has been tough.

When I find a patch of open water to scope I frequently spot Horned, Red-necked, and Western Grebes, Common and Pacific Loons (I have my eye out for Yellow-billed), and gulls. Weird gulls, not quite Western, not quite Glaucous-winged. I sometimes find a Pigion Guillimot and/or Marbled Murrelet, and Bald Eagles aren't as forthcoming as I suspected.

Any guesses? Leave them in the comments, and let me know how you arrived at your conclusion!


Thursday, November 20, 2008

Little Blue Persists

20 November - Snow, Clouds, Sun, and a Little Blue

Today was actually a pretty good day, even if it was a work day. I don't mean to imply that I was slightly depressed. No, I actually like the winter weather, it keeps the bird feeder visitors interesting. The "Little Blue" is a Little Blue Heron, Egretta caerulea, a surprise visitor that has been hanging around Sapsucker Woods Sanctuary since November 7th (I wrote about this bird and its unexpected status in an earlier post). Since its arrival the weather has turned decidedly more wintry.

Little Blue Heron in the snow, center stage in the
little open water left on Sapsucker Woods Pond.

Many of us have been checking to see if the Little Blue is around each day, wondering when the weather will finally drive it to warmer temperatures farther south.

The sky cleared later in the day. Though not
seen directly, the sun made its presence known,
casting a cool light across Sapsucker Woods.

The Little Blue spent the late afternoon
perched on a snowy log
after a successful day
hunting in the shrinking patch of open water.

As I was photographing the bird from inside the Cornell Lab of Ornithology the clouds allowed a burst of sun light before sundown. With views like this, is it any wonder we spend so much time watching out of the staff lounge, birds or no birds?

Read more about Little Blue Herons at the All About Birds website.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Antarctica, Penguins, and a Blog

Do you love exotic locations? Penguins? Reading nature-oriented blogs?

If so there's a new (at least to me) blog that is worth adding to your reader, "Antarctica: Life Among the Penguins."

It's written by Noah Stryker who is spending this season at Camp Crozier, Antarctica with a few research scientists and thousands of Adelie Penguins. Noah, an associate editor of Birding (from the American Birding Association) and columnist from WildBird Magazine, is an excellent writer and photographer. Couple that with his curiosity, attention to detail, and passion for birds and you've got a recipe for an outstanding vicarious experience.



Thursday, November 13, 2008

A Scene From the Finger Lakes

12 November 2008 - Finger Lakes Scenery

Recently I spent a morning retrieving the recording units we use to study the flight calls of nocturnally migrating birds from various spots surrounding Ithaca, NY. Unlike last year's adventure it was a fairly leisurely exercise, one that begs you to slow down to enjoy the scenery. While I'm more inclined to photograph specific subjects (mostly birds and family) I was inspired to shoot a few "scenes from the Finger Lakes" as I drove through the countryside.

This shot, in my mind, typifies fall in the Finger Lakes. The pale blue sky, thin clouds, and still standing corn seems to be a repeated theme between the lakes (closer to the lakes you get the same sky but vineyards instead of corn). My bird-oriented mind doesn't so much see the dying corn stalks, but the promise of Wild Turkeys, American Crows, deer, and more turkeys through the winter months. I know deer aren't a bird, but anyone driving needs to watch out for them in these parts!

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Unexpected But Not Surprising

Whew, meant to post this earlier but got distracted. A Little Blue Heron, a Presidential election, a saw-whet owl, and a pesky thing called a "day job" all conspired to keep me from finishing this recounting of a couple of unusual encounters.

On Sunday, November 2nd, while other birders were racing to see the first recorded California Gull in the Cayuga Lake Basin, Reina and I were heading to Corning, NY to help Donna manage the annual Red Baron Half Marathon. We had just reached the bottom of our hill, for some reason discussing the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz, when an oddly-shaped animal crossed the road a few cars in front of us. Not the expected cat, dog, deer, possum, or coyote shape, not quite turkey. Besides, it ran across the road; turkeys seem to take their time, except when they're bee-lining to our feeding station during the winter months.

Because the bird had paused in the middle of someone's yard we had plenty of time to pull on the shoulder to watch and photograph a Ring-necked Pheasant, one of the most colorful birds.

Ring-necked Pheasant, maleAfter running across the road this handsome
male Ring-necked Pheasant loitered in the shade
before disappearing in an overgrown field.

It wasn't overly surprising, like picking out a California Gull loafing with a flock of Ring-billed Gulls in the Finger Lakes, but it was unexpected. I have heard pheasants calling in the fields surrounding the airport but was the first I actually saw. This was the first pheasant Reina had seen, she loved its clown-like coloring, so out of place in western NY where the leaves have mostly faded to a mostly homogeneous hue of brown. I did have to explain why the bird did not have any pink feathers.

By itself that sighting was mildly interesting, but it became more interesting on Tuesday morning. After I voted and dropped Reina at school I traveled my Blue Highway towards Ithaca. As I meandered along a gaudy, colorful patch caught my eye. What I first mistook for someone's discarded trash turned out to be a pheasant partially hidden on the side of the road.

Ring-necked Pheasant, maleMale Ring-necked Pheasant, obscured by roadside vegetation.

Incidentally, doesn't that usually work the other way? At first glance you find an unusual bird, which then morphs into something completely different upon closer inspection (witness Jack Conner's classic "Crested Caracara turned trash bag" story in The Complete Birder*)?

Regardless, what started as a single pheasant wound up being no less than five male pheasants, perhaps more, hiding in the underbrush. I've never seen more than one at a time, and eBird reports the average sighting in the Finger Lakes region of New York is two birds (my six bird report spiked the high count).

That's why I found this grouping, this nye of pheasants, noteworthy. Did you know a group of pheasants is called a nye? According to the Palomar Audubon Society you can also use a nest of pheasants, a nide of pheasants, or (if they're in flight) a bouquet of pheasants. Apparently a covey of pheasants also works, but that's so conventional.

Regardless, it prompted me to wonder if they all hadn't been on the shoulder of the road, how many would I have seen? How many additional birds might have been there, completely hidden by the vegetation? How many have I missed in the past?

The topper was a single hen. I would estimate 99% of the pheasants I've seen are males, the odd female was one I flushed years ago while walking through a former corn field turned old field (various grasses, forbs, and shrubs) behind my parents house. This was the first I've seen close enough to study.

Ring-necked Pheasant, femaleFemale Ring-necked Pheasant, much more patient than the males.

The birds were quite accommodating. I had time to stop, throw the car in reverse, back up, grab the camera and shoot a few shots. The female was the last to leave, perhaps more secure with her more camouflaged plumage.

Ring-necked Pheasant, femaleI'm happier with this shot, no grass shielding her face.

Ring-necked Pheasants must be one of those species that drive field guide map-makers and demographers nuts. They're not native to North America, but they're established coast to coast in agricultural lands. Not only are they maintaining a relatively stable population on their own, their popularity with hunting clubs and private collections augments their numbers, both within and outside their expected North American range. eBird shows a more widespread distribution than the field guides, likely representing these escaped or intentionally introduced populations, including a population on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska.

What do you think? Given the amount of human assistance they receive are pheasants, along with other stocked game birds (Chukars, for example), more likely to surprise birders than vagrants that wander under their own power?

* Though published 20 years ago The Complete Birder remains among the essential books everyone interested in birds should have on their bookshelf.


Monday, November 10, 2008

Northern Saw-whet Owl, Up Close and Personal

Sunday morning started normally enough, with two slow-rising parents having coffee while an already wound-up child was running wild with her imagination in the living room. But then we heard a light "thump" against a window from the other side of the house. I figured I'd search under the windows later, when my eyes were a bit more open, to see if a junco or goldfinch met with some bad luck. That would be unusual, window strikes almost always occur on the south side of the house.

A few moments later we heard a scraping, fluttery sound from just down the hall from the living room. It continued long enough that I was able to peek around the corner to see the south-facing windows, expecting to find a junco chasing its reflection.

Nope. Clearly a bird too big to be a junco, and not black/white but whitish, brownish, and streaky. Sharpie pinning an unfortunate junco? The bird seemed to be looking to perch on the ledge and finally succeeded. Not a Sharpie, it was a Northern Saw-whet Owl!

We all got amazing close-up looks of the owl, the owl had amazing close-up looks at us. We stared, it stared. I ran for the camera, it flew. Luckily Donna and Reina watched where it landed, in a line of spruce trees not too far from the house.

There's an owl in there somewhere. You can actually see it, look closely!

Armed with binoculars, a scope, and camera we headed out into the yard a reasonable distance from the line of trees so we wouldn't spook it further. It didn't take long to find, though it did relocate a bit farther back in the tree as we watched. We tried not to stare too long, we tried not to point and make it obvious we were gawking.

Hunkered down next to the trunk, this bird settled in for the day.

Ultimately it did what saw-whets do when encountered by people: they sit stock still and wait, giving the very-wrong impression that they are tame. This one perched fairly high so there was no temptation on Reina's part to try and pet it (which we would have stopped, don't worry). I've seen folks of all ages consider that option - let's face it, and I understand the temptation: saw-whets are arguably the cutest owl ever.

Reina gets an eyeful, hopefully ending her saw-whet phobia. When she
was two I whistled one in, which flew a little too close for her liking.
To think, I could have ended a potential birding career with that!

Scopes are invaluable in getting folks excited about wildlife. The "Wow!" factor jumped by an order of magnitude when all the neighbors we could muster took a peek. The funny paradox with the scope: we had to step back a ways to get a closer look.

Eyes mostly closed, but still keeping an eye on us. I thought
the chickadees, Blue Jays, and crows would have been a
bit more wary, but they ignored the owl completely.

We left the bird alone for the day, though I checked on it periodically. It roosted, seemingly content. I opted not to run the lawn mower at all, even though grinding up leaves to cover our gardens was on the "to do" list. Hopefully the weather will hold and we can do it next weekend.

Though it may be just passing through we're hoping this bird will stick around. We often hear them in during the winter months, maybe our yard is part of its wintering grounds. Come to think of it, we found quite a few mice in our yard this year, nesting in some of our nest boxes and even nesting in a small divot in our garden. Seems like a reasonable food supply this year.

Read more about Northern Saw-whet Owls.


Friday, November 7, 2008

Little Blue Heron

I find the phone calls I get at work can be divided into a few general categories. In order of declining frequency, my categories are: 1) computer help request (though I'm not an IT person), 2) approval to use the University's logo request (though I have no authority to grant approval), 3) shopping list requests (Hi Donna!), and 4) actual work-related calls.

Recently I can add a fifth, one that I hope becomes more frequent: 5) rare bird sightings.

I was at my desk Tuesday morning when Tom Johnson, who normally calls me at home about birds I can't get away to chase, called to tell me a Little Blue Heron was standing a couple hundred yards away from my desk. That I can chase.

I grabbed my bins and my camera and joined a handful of other Lab employees watching the snow white heron forage at the edge of the Fuller Wetlands in Sapsucker Woods.

Little Blue Heron, immatureImmature Little-blues are white while adults are slate-blue.
This distinct difference in color morphs makes it unique among
heron species, and it leads to easy misidentification of young ones.

Though a bird typically found in the south-eastern and south-central parts of the U.S., Little Blue Herons are no stranger to our area. They make appearances well away from their breeding grounds, mostly during bouts of post-breeding dispersal. From the BNA Online:

Postbreeding dispersal of nestlings and adults from colonies is relatively random; movement initially is in all directions, but frequently northerly. Some birds disperse northward, especially along the Atlantic Coast, before they move south during migration.

Birds may wander quite a distance away from their breeding areas as shown below. While not expected, it's not uncommon to find a bird anywhere south of the dashed line.

Little Blue Heron distributionExpected distribution of Little Blue Heron. Source: BNA Online

What makes this one extra-special is its November appearance. Wandering birds typically start heading south in mid-September and mostly depart their northern range by mid-October. Since its discovery it's been observed at Sapsucker Woods daily, including this morning. If you are in the area, swing by for a look!

Little Blue Heron, immatureThe yellow-ish legs and thicker bill separate
this bird from Snowy and Little Egrets.


Thursday, November 6, 2008

Sapsucker Woods Sunset

05 November 2008 - Sunset over the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY.

Sunset over the Cornell Lab of OrnithologyClick the image for a larger version in new window.

Now that the clocks have fallen back an hour I'll wind up leaving work in the dark for the next few months. For the time being it's only almost dark, meaning we occasionally witness a sky painted with broad strokes of orange, red, violet, and pink as the sun sets over Sapsucker Woods. An additional benefit: I watched a Northern Saw-whet Owl fly across the road as I left the parking lot.

That meeting of light and dark is truly a magical moment.

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Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Revolution Starts Now

One last non-birdy post on this historical and uber-important evening. Watching the election returns come in has not disappointed. The past two elections have shown how polls and conventional wisdom can be misleading, so to see this one come through was a relief. Positive change is on the way, can you feel it?

Yesterday I posted
about patriotism, and tonight's victory speech by Sen. Obama was a moving promise to reunite our country. I'm hopeful he can succeed.

Today I'm thinking one thing: the revolution starts now. OK, really, probably 23-odd months ago when Obama first announced, but now there is really a new day dawning. And tomorrow, another new day dawning, I'll be back to talking birds. There have been some good ones lately!

The Revolution Starts Now
I was walkin’ down the street
In the town where I was born
I was movin’ to a beat
That I’d never felt before
So I opened up my eyes
And I took a look around
I saw it written ‘cross the sky
The revolution starts now
Yeah, the revolution starts now

The revolution starts now
When you rise above your fear
And tear the walls around you down
The revolution starts here
Where you work and where you play
Where you lay your money down
What you do and what you say
The revolution starts now
Yeah the revolution starts now

Yeah the revolution starts now
In your own backyard
In your own hometown
So what you doin’ standin’ around?
Just follow your heart
The revolution starts now

Last night I had a dream
That the world had turned around
And all our hopes had come to be
And the people gathered ‘round
They all brought what they could bring
And nobody went without
And I learned a song to sing
The revolution starts now


Monday, November 3, 2008

I Am A Patriot

Election Day Eve, 2008
Years ago, four to be precise, my sister sent me a couple of CDs. One was filled with "kid friendly" lullaby type songs, and though specifically for our newborn daughter it's still a favorite among all of us.

The other she simply called, "VOTE". It's election-themed so I pull it out every two years a few weeks before election day. One song has stuck with me this election cycle, more so than the past two: an Eddie Vedder solo version of "I Am a Patriot," penned by Steven Van Zandt.

When it comes to politics (which I rarely address here, but catch me outside of this blog . . . ) there are plenty of things to complain about. The generally apathetic and uninformed electorate and the lies, corruption, and greed at every level are two that bother me. But this year, more than anything else, I'm absolutely sick of the partisan bullsh*t, the false idea that some Americans aren't real Americans, that one party is more patriotic than the other party, that one party doesn't get the concept of country, freedom, apple pie, and baseball. The people who try to propagate this should be simply ashamed at what they've become.

I'm so glad people are standing up to these false dichotomies this year, rightly pointing out we are all Americans cherishing life and liberty and pursuing happiness. No one party has a monopoly on that idea, no one party can claim to "get it," referring to how to protect our shores along with our inalienable rights, while the other is completely ignorant. (I get that some individuals, members of all parties, may not "get it,"and that an uninformed or easily persuadable electorate can elect these folks and set back forward strides. But generally speaking I think most Americans, right or left of center, are all after the "American Dream.")

So, this song has been my anthem this year. I'm encouraged by what we've been seeing this cycle, I'm hopeful we'll see a fundamental change in how politics is played, regardless of who wins tomorrow. Something inspiring has been stirred up, and I'm hoping it's something contagious, unstoppable, and deep rooted. We can be the change we want to see in this world.

I Am A Patriot
And the river opens for the righteous, someday

I was walking with my brother
And he wondered what was on my mind
I said what I believe in my soul
It ain't what I see with my eyes
And we can't turn our backs this time

I am a patriot and I love my country
Because my country is all I know
I want to be with my family
With people who understand me
I got nowhere else to go
I am a patriot

And the river opens for the righteous, someday

I was talking with my sister
She looked so fine
I said baby what's on your mind
She said I want to run like the lion
Released from the cages
Released from the rages
Burning in my heart tonight

I am a patriot and I love my country
Because my country is all I know

And I ain't no communist, and I ain't no capitalist
And I ain't no socialist
and I sure ain't no imperialist
And I ain't no democrat
And I ain't no republican either
And I only know one party
and its name is freedom
I am a patriot

And the river opens for the righteous, someday


Thursday, October 30, 2008

Political Carrion?

In a Newsweek Online piece entitled "McCain: Bad Metaphor Watch" columnist Holly Baily writes,

. . . you can only imagine the jokes when, later that afternoon, reporters were sitting at another (McCain) event in West Palm Beach and looked up in the sky to see a pack of hundreds of giant birds circling the perimeter above.

This was the third event that day in Florida where "buzzards" were circling (note: I presume she meant "vultures" because technically buzzards don't occur anywhere near Florida). When she brought this up with Mark Slater, longtime McCain aide and speechwriter, she was assured they were hawks, not vultures, as in "Hey, nothing to mavericky worry about here! Our maverick campaign is alive and well, and what do we really know about Obama, anyway?"*

Being a generally cynical person, especially when it comes to politics, I'm not convinced Mark really knew, he was merely spinning a potential story away from the circling-vulture cliche (whether it's newsworthy or just silly is up to you to decide).

Without getting into the politics of how the campaigns are going, I am wondering what these birds are. The accompanying photo isn't great, but the birds should be identifiable.

So, what do you think? Turkey Vultures? Black Vultures? Hawks? Mixed species assemblage?

photo credit: Unknown, I presume Newsweek

* I've been loving Tina Fey's appearances on Saturday Night Live, it's rubbed off a bit.


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

7,257-Mile Marathon

Bar-tailed Godwit from wikipediaNot my marathon, of course, I don't think I'd finish the 26 mile version in under a week. But a Bar-tailed Godwit affectionately known as "E7" completed the journey, tracked by satellite and watched by researches in Alaska and New Zealand.

DiscoveryNews has an online report, while a more detailed article titled, "On Scimitar Wings: Long-distance Migration by the Bar-tailed Godwit and Bristle-thighed Curlew" appears in Birding. (Edited to add: "On Scimitar Wings" is only available in the dead tree issue, hopefully it will be in the online archives in the future).

For the record, I'm no longer dreading our impending eight-hour drive, which we're spreading over two days.

Image courtesy of


Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A Perfect Chase

Listing, or tracking the first time you see a new bird, is a series of plateaus connected by rapid bursts of adding "lifers." At first everything is new, you're adding new birds to your life list daily, and sometimes by the score. Then the flow of new birds slows to a trickle until migration ushers in those that pass through, those that winter, or those that breed in your area and you've got another burst of new birds to add.

Then it trickles again, with periodic spikes as you visit new habitats. Then your trips range farther from home, into new bioregions, but these spikes are fewer and spaced farther apart. (This is when you start playing other listing games: year lists, county lists, yard lists, bathroom window lists . . . ).

And then there's the chase. It's not a rapid burst of dozens of birds, but a single, very-specific addition. A rare bird shows up within a reasonable distance, bringing the chance to add a new bird to your life list. And your year list, and your state list, but that's all gravy - it's the lifer you want.

Shorebirds Rock! There are three species here,
can you pick out the Curlew Sandpiper?

And, I freely admit, I got bit recently. Badly. I have been jonesing for a new bird, though I can't complain. It was just 10 months ago, in January, I added Slaty-backed Gull to my list. But it was also 10 months ago I dipped on a Ross's Gull (along with hundreds of other "chasers").

Two weeks ago a chase-worthy bird settled down within my chase-appropriate radius: a Curlew Sandpiper at Fort Erie, Ontario, near Niagara Falls. I figured I had no chance. Gone are my days of dropping everything and bolting (witness my frigatebird non-encounter). Well, maybe not gone, hopefully just on hiatus. Regardless, this bird would likely move on before I could make the trip.

Juvenile Curlew Sandpiper, probably male based on the bill:
it's not as long and slender as a female would show.

For two weeks I read about this bird as it stuck around, reliably found at the same location, and for two weeks I didn't have a window to make the trip. Until this morning. I happened to be relatively nearby, closer than the Finger Lakes, anyway, so I tacked on a side trip.

It really was the perfect chase. Weather, border guards, gas prices, satellite radio; everything cooperated, including the bird. It wasn't sitting on the side of the road waiting, there wasn't a line of scopes already boring into the bird, which is good. I like the search and the satisfaction that comes with finding and identifying it unaided.

When I arrived I was the only birder in the area. Because the bird wasn't in plain view I set out to find it (armed with reports from other successful sightings, which isn't really cheating). Pretty soon another couple arrived, but they were on a severe time limitation. They were headed back to their car as I continued down the beach. When I passed the point I found a trio of non-Killdeer shorebirds. A quick check: Dunlin-like birds, that's good.

The sandpiper has been associating with two Dunlin, the two front
birds. They show a more "messy" breast with some coloring extending
onto the belly. The Curlew Sandpiper is much cleaner underneath.

A more thorough check: two were definitely Dunlin, the other . . . was not. That's very good. Overall structure not quite Dunlin-ish, bill more slender, clean upper breast, crisp face pattern with distinct and bright eyebrow; that's excellent.

This one (or "that one"?) stood a bit taller, not as slouched
as the Dunlin. Maybe it is more presidential?

I called for the couple, who came running back. I studied, they shot pictures, looked through the scope, and had to leave. That left me all alone with the birds, plenty of time to really take in the sandpiper, comparing it to the Dunlin. And time enough to gingerly sidle closer to try a few photos of my own.

Incredibly cooperative bird, slowly moving back and forth
as it foraged among the rocks. It only flew three times
but was easily relocated after each movement.

Another couple came, I was able to get them on the bird, too. That's also part of the perfect chase: sharing what you find.

Enlarge this image and you can (kind of) see the "anchor pattern"
on some of the scapular and wing coverts. Dunlin don't show this.

The birds were a bit skittish, but they always returned to the rocky beach. We were able to watch the birds in flight, spying the clean, white rump separating it from the Dunlin, and then watch them again as they foraged, preened, or just stayed still.

The first part of the search was under clouds and steady winds.
After finding the bird the weather cleared. And angels sang.

The last time they flew I watched through binoculars where they settled but didn't follow. That's the last part of the perfect chase: they leave you. I hate walking away from a bird.

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