Friday, February 29, 2008

Flashback Friday: Where Are the Birds?

A central tenet of birding is you never know what you're going to find, whether you have a target in mind or not. If you have a target you might successfully find it, such as this Great Gray Owl experience. If you miss your target you might still hit upon something completely unexpected, such as my experience missing an Eurasian Wigeon. And if you aren't searching for something specific, if you're just out birding for the sake of birding, something unexpected may appear with each raising of the binocular. That scenario was driven home one afternoon on a birding trip to southern California in a way I wasn't prepared for.

Dateline: 28 March 1996, Torrey Pines State Reserve, California
As luck would have it, spring break 1996 at the University of Arkansas roughly coincided with the Cooper Ornithological Society's meeting in San Diego, California. Donna and I checked our calendars and realized we could spend a week camping through the desert southwest, ending up visiting friends in Tucson, Arizona. From there, Donna would head back to Fayetteville and I'd parade onward to SoCal for a bit more birding and then attend the 66th annual COS meeting. Of course, the binoculars would rarely leave my neck for the entire trip.

As it turned out, a (non-birding) friend from school was in San Diego attending a molecular biology conference. Through him I met a birder from Scotland who had never been to the States. A match made in birder heaven: Ian desperately wanted to go birding but had no car; I had a car, a copy of "Birdfinding in Southern California," and was psyched for some birding company.

A colony of Black Skimmers was almost the best
sighting of the day. Photograph taken by Googie Man.

We went out birding the next morning, making a long day looking for California Gnatcatchers,
Light-footed Clapper Rails, Wandering Tattlers, Black Skimmers, Wrentits, and whatever other North American west coast specialties Ian was interested in. After a morning of scoping, pishing, and otherwise raising the Border Patrol's curiosity between San Diego and the Mexican border we headed north of La Jolla, targeting Torrey Pines State Reserve as our next stop. This location came highly recommended, though exactly why escapes me now. Probably less for the birds and more to experience the rare Torrey Pine trees and the unique chaparral habitat, described as a remnant of wilderness amidst constant development.

A Torrey Pine in its native habitat, rare to see in
the wild. Photograph taken by Rsduhamel.

Unfortunately, our directions were a bit sketchy. We eventually found a sign for the reserve but were too cheap to pay for parking, so we wound our way north looking for a suitable, and free, parking area. We did eventually find an area filled with folks flying kites and model airplanes, or just hanging out in the afternoon sunshine. Most importantly, it had a place to park and places to easily watch the Pacific from the cliff we were perched on. We unloaded our scopes and field guides and found a spot to scope out the ocean and the beach below, our minds filled with images of shorebirds, gulls, terns, and perhaps a pelagic species or two.

A Wandering Tattler, one of the shorebirds I
was hoping for. Photograph taken by Tom Tarrant

I don't remember if we identified or even saw anything, but at one point I heard Ian's lilted, "Hullo, what's this?" which I learned was his way of saying he's got something interesting. I glanced over to see where he was looking, beach or ocean, but it turned out neither. Instead, he's got his binoculars pointed a couple of hundred yards away from where we stood on the cliff, but not focused on a bird, but on a guy in a baseball hat and beige birding vest looking through a scope: a birder in the know! We decided we should stand near him rather than on our own, much like a migrant passerine joining a resident chickadee flock.

The view from Torrey Pines State Reserve. It looks like a great spot to
take in the ocean and, hopefully, a few ocean birds. Taken by Xiao Li.

On our way over we noticed a couple other birders, all peering through scopes . . . jack pot! This must be a hot spot, tide must be low, must be some good shorebirds since they're all peering down on the beach rather than out at the ocean. Turns out there were more than a dozen folks with scopes, all focused on a stretch of sand below.

Ian and I set up our scopes, casually looking over to see if we could catch someone's eye to engage in some typical birder dialouge. What are you finding? What "good" birds might we keep an eye out for? Where else we should go this afternoon, is there a good spot for . . .

"HUL-LO, what's THIS!" I jumped to my scope, watching Ian to figure out where he's looking. My hands are somewhat fumbling, it's gotta be an amazing find, judging by the excitement and surprise in his voice. When I finally get my scope focused and start searching the sandy beach I find no birds, only breasts. And other private parts that will make the blog censors blush.

Yep, the "birders" we hastened to join were actually peeping toms spying on the nude beach below. Had we watched more carefully before joining them we would have noticed a few taking some rather amazing liberties in such a public place, treating their bodies "like an amusement park" is how a famous Seinfeld episode described it.

Now a quandary. Do we stay and pretend not to see the nude bodies but keep on birding? Or pack up and run, dissociating ourselves from this crowd? We don't know this place, was it possible there would be a raid any moment? Would we be spending the next few days in a California jail?

We ended up packing up and leaving, but at a casual pace and talking a bit too loudly about Calidris sandpipers, shearwaters and storm-petrels. I'm sure the peepers were looking at us like we were nuts. I would be remiss if I didn't point out that at least this was California, the nude sunbathers (and swimmers, beachcombers, joggers, and volleyballers) were in excellent shape and attractive in that girl-in-a-Beach-Boys-song way.

That is my birds-and-nudity story, the only one I have (to date). I'm sure many, many birders have something similar, I (and others, I bet) would love to hear them, if you're willing to share. One recounting can be heard by Bill Thompson's presentation at this years Space Coast Birding Festival (podcast available, look for Episode #6, "The Perils & Pitfalls of Birding").

Incidentally, in searching out some potentially useful links and some eye-candy for this Flashback I found results from monthly bird surveys at Torrey Pines. I bet they get a lot of volunteers.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Back Road Pay Off?

I recently wrote about some paths, those less traveled, that I'm taking to work these days. Well, except when I'm running later than usual, which is about half the time. Because they are lightly, if at all, traveled back roads I can drive slow, stop when I want, and take in the bird life as it comes. Nothing really unusual has appeared, no longspurs, larks, crossbills, or the like. Until today.

In last Sunday's post, Signs of Spring, I'm afraid I left the impression spring was pushing winter out the door with a swift kick in the pants, then slamming it shut for the year. It was a valient effort, but around here we know winter always gets a foot in the door and rages back. This back and forth goes on through March, often into April, once in recent memory to May (the Great Mother's Day Blizzard, where you could watch all sorts of neotropical migrants foraging on the snow within a couple of feet of you, so I'm told). But I digress.

Today the weather turned back to winter, unleashing conditions that would prompt normal people to leave the back roads in favor of those that get the attention of plows and salt trucks. Not being normal (I'm a birder!), I figured the trusty Subaru and I might score some good winter birds through the agricultural lands. A flock of Pine Grosbeaks, anyone? I've spied a few fruiting trees that look like candidates.

I found nothing along the first five or so miles, literally. Not a single bird was in sight, not the usual flock of Rock Pigeons, no bluebirds on the wires, not even a crow or Mourning Dove on the wing. As I came over a small rise I saw one of the sights I was hoping for: a flock of birds eating grit in the road. I stopped, not needing to pull over, and got the bins on them. Redpolls, about 80 of them. A quick scan showed half a dozen were House Finches, a more focused scan showed one interesting redpoll. Larger than the rest, smaller than the finches, and paler. Frostier. Could it be a Hoary?

All of the discussion this year about redpoll identification has prompted me to look carefully at these birds, but I'm convinced this was a Hoary Redpoll. The birds were fairly skittish, flying into the neighboring tall grass and shrubs, then back to the road, then back into the vegetation, and so on. I had about ten minutes with them before the entire flock took off to the west, and during that time I wasn't able to get a single photo, poor or otherwise. From the AllAboutBirds website:

Similar to what I saw today, little-to-no streaking, pale breast
(no pink wash), comparatively stocky-necked and short-billed.
The bird I saw was even frostier on the wings and head than this bird.

Here is the day's checklist, with comments, I submitted to eBird. Note that I did not see two of the three key characteristics Jochen relies on. I could only consistently view the breast and flank streaking, no views of the rump or undertail coverts (in the above picture you cannot see the rump or undertail coverts. In spite of that, would you be comfortable calling it a Hoary?). We'll see if my paltry description, sans photographic evidence, is enough to be accepted.

Location: Terry Hill Road, North
Observation date: 2/27/08
Notes: Conditions: 100% clouds, 0 wind, light snow, T= ~20*F. Slow drive along Terry Hill Road, stopped to study a flock of approx. 80 finches eating grit off the road. The flock flew back-and-forth between the road and scrubby bushes and tall grass during the 10 minutes I watched.

One redpoll stood out as larger than rest, but smaller than the House Finches. Overall it looked lighter with very faint streaking on the breast/flanks and an all-white breast. The bill didn't appear as long as neighboring redpolls, giving the "pushed in" look. I did not see the rump or undertail coverts, and was not able to get a picture. The flock eventually flew off to the west, I did not relocate it in the evening.
Number of species: 5

Red-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensis 1
Mourning Dove - Zenaida macroura 3
House Finch - Carpodacus mexicanus 6
Common Redpoll - Carduelis flammea 75
Hoary Redpoll - Carduelis hornemanni 1

Note that I did finally find a Mourning Dove and a Red-tailed Hawk.

/Update, 02 March 2008
Adding in the post I sent to the Cayugabirds-L listserve. Thanks to Nick and mon@rch for alerting me that it never made it (via the comments), I resent it today. I should have included this in my original blog post as it has more detail than the eBird submission.

Shortly after 8:00 AM this morning (Wed, 27 Feb) I observed a possible HOARY REDPOLL out of the Basin, on Terry Hill Road near the border of Schuyler and Chemung County. I was able to watch the bird off-and-on for about ten minutes. The conditions were not great, with 100% cloud cover and steady snow.

Slowly driving north I had stopped to watch a flock of birds eating grit in the road, approximately 80 redpolls and six house finches. While watching from my car I noted a single redpoll that stood out in size and paleness, appearing larger than the rest of the redpolls and lighter on the back, wings, face, and flanks. From my viewpoint (mostly through a windshield, periodically through my open driver's window) I noted that streaking on the sides was minimal and very faint and I did not discern any pink on the breast. It looked to be very white in the wings, reminding me somewhat of the white edgings on the coverts and flight feathers on a Black-capped Chickadee's wing. I did not see a clear view the rump or undertail coverts, though the streaking on the upper back seemed less pronounced than the surrounding birds. In profile this bird's bill appeared shorter than that of the neighboring birds, giving a "pushed in" look.

The flock was a whirlwind of activity, sitting still for maybe 30 - 45 seconds before wheeling into the surrounding shrubs and tall grass, then returning to the road to start the cycle again. I had no trouble re-finding the bird on the road, but was unable to keep it in view when it disappeared into the surrounding vegetation.

Unfortunately, I was unable to get a photo, when I tried to lean out of the car to try the flock flushed, headed west, and disappeared out of sight. I'll be traveling this road again to see if I can re-find the flock.
/End update

Resources I've been reading and re-reading about redpolls:
Perhaps needless to say, but I'll be taking that back road and watching for redpoll flocks for the next couple of weeks!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Signs of Spring

Author's note: I just discovered this post disappeared after originally publishing it on 24 February. I'm reposting it so it's in the archives. - Mike

Right on time, we're seeing our first signs of spring. They came this weekend not so much in the arrival of new species for the year, but in other subtle ways. First sign: the light. Since I've been trying to take more and more pictures I've really noticed how cloudy it is around here throughout the winter. It's been tough to get really snappy images, and like every other frustrated amateur photographer I blame the environmental conditions, particularly the lack of enough natural light ("if I only had a better lens!").

Good light, but cold temps: 15 degrees F. Our female
Downy Woodpecker gorged on the energy-packed suet.

So, after finishing a second cup of coffee while performing our weekly FeederWatch count I finally noticed we had cloudless and bright conditions, perfect for trying to do justice to our resident birds.

The first candidates for profiles were Dark-eyed Juncos, not surprising because no less a source than J.J. Audubon himself said, "there is not an individual in the Union who does not know the little Snow-bird." They are nothing, if not ubiquitous. They breed here, but not even close to their winter numbers. We see two dozen under our feeders, hunkering down in our butterfly bushes, and taking advantage of our brush piles. Today they provided a transitional sign: high numbers, indicating winter, but the yard was filled with their ringing trill.

A Dark-eyed Junco perched among Autumn Olive branches. One benefit
of cutting down a lot of this invasive plant: they make great brush piles!

When non-birders think of harbingers of spring, the American Robin is the one and often only bird that comes to mind. What I find interesting, and what eBird data from our area seems to show, is that except in the harshest of conditions they are usually around all winter, and can be found in pretty large numbers. Dozens at a time, sometimes hundreds at a time, some occasions you can find thousands. You don't find numbers like that during the breeding season. But it's the frequency of encounters that messes with our perceptions. In the spring-summer you can't escape their cheerful song or whinny, but you only find a few at a time. Bottom line: breeding season, they're spread out more uniformly across the landscape of the southern tier. Winter season, they're all gathered in a few select spots, some birds likely have moved farther south to escape the snow cover. Lately on our hill we've been seeing a dozen or more mixed with a flock of Cedar Waxwings. Though the waxwings didn't show this weekend, the robins "chupped" incessantly from our conifers.

One of a dozen robins that spent the day in our yard, in spite of the snow cover.

The hardy Black-capped Chickadee provided another sign of spring. As you'd expect, they're ever-present in our yard, and all winter long we are serenaded by "chick-a-dee-dee-dee" of varying intensity. You're likely to hear this call from both sexes and throughout the year. It's given by birds separated from their flock, by birds mobbing a would-be predator or other threat, by a bird that discovers a new food source, even as an "all-clear" signal after a predator departs.

This weekend we started hearing a constant "fee-bee" from all directions. These calls are most often given by males, and most commonly in spring and summer. Among other things, these calls serve to advertise territories and repel rivals - clearly a sign of spring. [Aside: why do some use "fee-bee" as a onomatopoetic device for chickadees, I thought it was "see saw"? I would think that would be relegated to a name-sayer like the Eastern Phoebe. Or is that too logical?]

One of dozens of chickadees staking out territories in our neighborhood.

Later in the afternoon a rafter of Wild Turkeys descended on our feeding station. Yes, this too does constitute a sign of spring for us. Turkeys are non-migratory, and we do see them throughout the year in fits-and-starts, but over the past few years we've noticed they only arrive with regularity in late February. Not sure what it coincides with, perhaps they've finally exhausted food sources elsewhere. Maybe they have some weird walking-migration route (a smaller version of the migration of the Porcupine Caribou herd, for instance). Whatever drives it, it seems to hold year after year. [Except now that I've jinxed it, we'll see them all year except next February and March.]

Two-dozen turkeys feasting on what the jays threw down. They
may be the best squirrel-restricting device I've ever seen!

Reina and I went exploring, unfortunately flushing the turkeys which had gathered around a small opening along the edge of the ice-covered pond. I think flying turkeys are about as close as we can get to experiencing the skies from the late Jurassic period: they look prehistoric when launching themselves in the air.

You can see a couple of the slow-to-flush turkeys in this
hastily grabbed shot. Click the image for a larger version.

We did stroll through the woods, briefly, but spent most of our time playing on the frozen-over pond. We checked out the nest box we erected last November, which I'm happy to report is still standing (I don't have a great track record with handyman skills, never did well in shop class). We're hoping a Wood Duck or Hooded Merganser will take up residence, as both species do investigate our pond come April. Obviously, it won't be so easy to check once the ice melts. Good thing for any species that moves in!

Reina checks the nest box, a view we'll only enjoy for a couple more weeks.

And here is a final bit of evidence that spring is encroaching: a singing Northern Cardinal staking out his territory. This male flew tree top to tree top, firmly announcing his worth and his intentions with scarcely a pause, additional birds were counter-singing from other areas. Spring is certainly in our air!

16 seconds of cardinal song, with lots more to come. This may be old
news for you more-southerly bird watchers, but it's new for us this year.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Flashback Friday: Wintery Gray Is Beautiful

Birding, especially when "chasing" a specific bird, is very much hit-or-miss. You might find exactly what you are looking for, or you might come up empty. I accept that in birding, it's part of the challenge. I have a hard time accepting that, however, when looking for files on our computer. They should be there, it shouldn't be a crap shoot whether they appear or not. I only mention this because I spent much of this week drafting a Flashback, and now I can't find the images from that trip anywhere on our hard drive. So, I'm putting off the post I prepared and will go with another trip, a search that did not come up empty.

Dateline: 12 February 2005, Enterprise, ON, Canada
My wife is not a birder. She is a botanist by training, an ecologist at heart, and loves the outdoors as much as the next naturalist. Don't get me wrong, she likes birds, and our arguments over what are more important, plants or birds, are mostly minor. She's more than happy to go on a bird walk, but we hear that term differently: I hear "bird walk," she simply hears, "walk."

But that all changes when it comes to a chase. Donna is nothing if not tenacious, and thrives if there is a specific goal, an identified target. In these situations she's all in favor of an outing. Dilly-dally along a trail to sort through warblers and vireos? Not her style. Identify a target bird a hundred miles away? Let's go!

Which is what we decided to do in late winter 2005. Things aligned well for us: Great Gray Owls were being reported in huge numbers in southern Ontario, including near Kingston, a mere three hours from Ithaca. We had some time off so we could make it a long weekend rather than a long day cooped up in the car. And Reina, just shy of 11 months old, traveled well. Bonus: she couldn't yet walk off while we were stalking our target, and she napped a lot in her car seat.

So, Friday evening we drove to Kingston. A nice dinner out, some time in the motel's pool, a little bit of studying the map Brian Sullivan highlighted for us, and an early morning on Saturday. Brian's directions were extremely simple: drive north out of Kingston on 38 for about fifteen miles, turn west on 7 towards Enterprise, and keep your eyes open. A Cornell group had gone up the week before and counted dozens of Great Grays using this strategy.

Very simply, it worked. When we turned off of 38 towards Enterprise the first bird we spotted was:

Perched a few yards off of the road, a Great Gray
Owl scans the open field for rodent activity.

What luck! We had slowly driven for about a minute through some heavily wooded areas. Suddenly the woods faded back and we were among pastures. Almost immediately Donna spotted a large bird perched on a fence, "What's that?" At first glance it was clearly a raptor, it actually looked like a Northern Harrier. It wasn't. The fence was just a few yards off the road, I eased the car on the shoulder (although we didn't see another car all day) and took in my lifer Great Gray. Donna took some pictures out of her window.

Preparing for take off: we were a bit too close for comfort.
The mottled brown, gray, and white make a beautiful pattern.

That first bird stuck around long enough for some photos and some stellar looks through binoculars. Even Reina, strapped in her car seat, not only noticed but appeared to be taken with this bird. Eventually the owl gracefully flew to a line of trees at the back of the pasture on a couple of slow wingbeats, landing less than 100 yards away. We continued on, driving various back roads that criss-crossed the area, but we did not find any more owls. Granted, we didn't get out and walk the roads, nor did we pause and scan the far ends of the pastures, so we probably missed seeing some that were seeing us. We did look for other birds, of course, and wound up with 10 species for the day. We scoped two different Northern Shrikes which flew off as soon as the camera was pointed at them.

One hour and 20 miles later we were heading back the way we came. The owl was perched in the same spot, and because we hadn't found any others we spent some time admiring her again. Happily, I was able to digiscope at will (during periods where my hands were warm enough to work).

The eyes seem a tad small for a bird this size, and combined
with the white lores (feathers between the eyes and the bill) she
appears to be frowning. The white "bow-tie" is just classy.

First she just a stared us down to see what we were going to do. I'm assuming this is a female, larger in size than the male. Of course, not having seen another owl all day and having no other direct experience I can't say that for sure. Referring to a bird like this with a disengaged "it" doesn't do the experience justice.

Taking some time to preen. The underparts are boldly
streaked over fine barring - exquisite!

Apparently unfazed by our presence, perhaps too hungry to care, she went back into what she was doing. She preened most of the time, periodically swiveling her massive-looking head right and left, as though she heard something coming. She probably did, just nothing that our comparatively weak vision or hearing could detect. And although she certainly looks massive, this species actual body mass is actually 15% less than that of a Great Horned Owl (according to the Birds of North America Online). That means a large female weighs in at a mere three and a half pounds! Much of their size is due to plumage, allowing these birds to withstand the cold winters of the far north.

"Turn to the right!" I've always wanted to say that. Even in profile you
can see how the fine barring in the facial disc forms concentric circles.

Irruptions like the one Ontario was experiencing are usually due to lack of food on the normal wintering grounds, it's suspected the birds that irrupt like this are starving. Although there wasn't too much snow on the ground during our trip, Great Grays are able to hear prey under snow, plunging through to grab the unsuspecting rodent. According to the BNA Online, they can break through snow crust thick enough to support a 175-pound person.

After a few minutes of communing with her it was time to go, partially to give her peace and solitude so she could continue to hunt, partially because it was wicked cold, partially because the other residents of the car were getting restless. We stopped at a small park and pulled out the sled, the "green" version of a snow machine, I suppose, for some winter fun.

Where to, majesty? Oh, donuts on the street again? OK . . . .

The drive home was pleasant, fueled with hot chocolate and the peaceful satisfaction of a successful weekend trip. Even those who don't keep lists marked the event, Reina received a Great Gray Owl plush-animal that resides in her bedroom to this day, a totem of the actual individual and the brief bonding experience that I hope resides deep in her memory. Sometimes you catch what you chase.

I and the Bird #69

When people ask me why I like birds I used to be at a loss. Not of what to say, but where to start. And when I understood that, I had a revelation. Now the first thing I highlight about why I watch, observe, list, experience, and try to "grok" birds is that there are so many ways to experience them, and no two experiences are alike.

That's a rich topic, and more than I want to get into here. What I want to do is announce the new I and the Bird is available at Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted). Grrlscientist has grouped the contributed essays into various headings, from "Ornithology" to "Bird Watching Trip Reports" with a few stops along the spectrum, you can witness first hand how various bird aficionados are affected by birds.

And, if that alone doesn't get you to check out her presentation, there's a quiz . . . with prizes! Enjoy, and good luck.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

GBBC: Wrap up

And here is the finally tally from my 2008 Great Backyard Bird Count. In total, I submitted six checklists over the four day period, two from our place outside of Horseheads, NY, one from Mendon Ponds Park in Mendon, NY, and three from my parents place outside of Rochester, NY. My grand total this year was 28 species, ten below what I recorded on the 2007 GBBC, even though last year's count included observations from our house, my folks place, and Mendon Ponds. Why such a big difference? A single 15 minute stop from Seneca Lake State Park, where I stopped en route to my folks place last year. This site on the northern end of Seneca Lake yielded waterfowl and gulls not found this year. If only I had timed my trip differently this year.

Anyway, here are the birds from this year's count.

Canada Goose - Branta canadensis
Red-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensis
Mourning Dove - Zenaida macroura
Red-bellied Woodpecker - Melanerpes carolinus
Downy Woodpecker - Picoides pubescens
Hairy Woodpecker - Picoides villosus
Northern Flicker - Colaptes auratus
Blue Jay - Cyanocitta cristata
American Crow - Corvus brachyrhynchos
Common Raven - Corvus corax
Black-capped Chickadee - Poecile atricapillus
Tufted Titmouse - Baeolophus bicolor
Red-breasted Nuthatch - Sitta canadensis
White-breasted Nuthatch - Sitta carolinensis
Eastern Bluebird - Sialia sialis
American Robin - Turdus migratorius
Northern Mockingbird - Mimus polyglottos
European Starling - Sturnus vulgaris
Cedar Waxwing - Bombycilla cedrorum
American Tree Sparrow - Spizella arborea
White-crowned Sparrow - Zonotrichia leucophrys
Dark-eyed Junco - Junco hyemalis
Northern Cardinal - Cardinalis cardinalis
Brown-headed Cowbird - Molothrus ater
House Finch - Carpodacus mexicanus
Common Redpoll - Carduelis flammea
American Goldfinch - Carduelis tristis
House Sparrow - Passer domesticus

Monday, February 18, 2008

GBBC: Days Two - Four

I could have just as easily called this "GBBC Wrap-up" as the Great Backyard Bird Count officially ends today and I just submitted my last checklist. Hmmmm, unless I go out for a bout of owling. Nah, I'm feeling pretty beat. Well, it is just 15 minutes, I could be back before anyone really misses me . . . all right, I'll go. Hang on.

Will I be able to add Eastern Screech Owl to my GBBC
lists this year? Stay tuned to find out!

OK, I'm back. Beautiful night, with the bright moon occasionally obscured by clouds, giving a lights-on, lights-off effect. I walked our quarter-mile loop, listening for any spontaneous owl calls, then tried tooting for a Northern Saw-whet, whinnying for an Eastern Screech-owl, and hooting for a Great Horned. No response, except a dog in the distance. At least my other counts were more successful. That is, I at least found some birds, though diversity and numbers were fairly low relative to previous years (I think). I suspect weather conditions played a big role as several took place in some form of precipitation, from light snow to rain.

Photography-wise, this weekend was a bust. I hoped
for a bright, clear shot of a White-crowned Sparrow,
but I got a cluttered American Tree Sparrow.

My GBBC weekend was bracketed by recording the birds in our yard, the middle counts took place near Rochester, NY. We visited my parents for the weekend where we counted their yard birds. I did find a few new year birds, like Red-bellied Woodpecker, Brown-headed Cowbird, and White-crowned Sparrow.

Isn't it funny how first-of-the-year birds instill excitement? Later
this spring I probably won't give a Brown-headed Cowbird a
second glance, but on this trip I made an effort to find them.

The highlight was a trip to Mendon Ponds Park where we walked part of the Bird Song Trail, a short loop on which you are trailed by tenacious birds that presume you are a walking feeder. I used to love this trail as a kid because the chickadees would come to your seed-filled hand, and on rare occasions a White- or Red-breasted Nuthatch, Tufted Titmouse, or possibly a Downy Woodpecker would visit. In fact, this trail may have sparked my interest in birds. I'm trying to make it a tradition that we walk this trail when we visit my folks, hoping to provide a similar spark for Reina, who is almost four. This year she was enthralled with the birds coming to my hand, and she wanted to try. What success! She was visited by chickadees, titmice, and both species of nuthatch. The descendants of the birds that visited my hand decades ago are much bolder than their ancestors!

Watch a short video (8 seconds) chickadee
accept a sunflower seed from Reina.

We'll keep our GBBC enthusiasm going through eBird, I hope you all enjoyed your weekend whether you counted for GBBC or just enjoyed some time appreciating the outdoors.

Friday, February 15, 2008

GBBC: Day One

I make it a point to collect and submit at least one checklist per day during the Great Backyard Bird Count, and usually I can squeeze in a couple. One from the yard, one from work, one from a stop on the way home, anywhere I've got 15 minutes and some daylight.

Not today, I spared the minimum 15 minutes to count birds in our yard after dropping Reina off at school. Nothing for the record books, a modest 17 species including a couple not-typical-for-our-yard species, like Red-tailed Hawk, Eastern Bluebird, Cedar Waxwing, and European Starling. The full list is below.

One of dozens of Cedar Waxwings counted on my GBBC list.

Can't wait for tomorrow, I plan a couple of counts with a bit more effort.

Locality: Horseheads, Chemung County, NY
Observation Date: FEB 15, 2008
Start Time: 8:30 AM

Red-tailed Hawk - 2
Mourning Dove - 6
Downy Woodpecker - 2
Blue Jay - 7
American Crow - 6
Black-capped Chickadee - 27
Tufted Titmouse - 8
Red-breasted Nuthatch - 1
White-breasted Nuthatch - 4
Eastern Bluebird - 2
American Robin - 18
European Starling - 11
Cedar Waxwing - 45
Dark-eyed Junco - 8
Northern Cardinal - 3
Common Redpoll - 4
American Goldfinch - 5

Flashback Friday: Another Time, Same Place

Given the ice, cold, and dropping temperatures of late my mind has been wandering back in time, but not wandering far in place. To be sure, I like seasons. I like the contrasts of summer against winter, shorts and lemonade against long underwear and hot chocolate, singing breeding birds and blooming native plants against chipping boreal visitors and standing dead seed heads. Last July we ventured out to a local nature center before it got too hot. As evidenced by my posting lately, even though I'm loving the winter finch irruption and the plethora of wintering gulls, I'm starting to long for the neotropical migrants to come back north!

Dateline: 08 July 2007, Elmira, NY.
Typical July morning: clear, warm, slated to turn hot in the afternoon. Looking to get outside while it was still tolerable, we decided to head up to Tanglewood Nature Center in Elmira. It's not too far from us, boasts a great visitor center, and offers lots of trails and habitats. We haven't explored it as much as we'd like because they don't allow dogs on the trails. Our dog, Barron, has been a constant on all of our trips, large and small, for the past 12 years. Because he gets around so much slower now we decided to let him have a break.

Tanglewood Nature Center's visitor center -
unfortunately, I cut off the Northern Mockingbird
welcoming us from his perch atop the flag pole.

The visitor center was open but we skipped going inside, preferring to check out the trails. We don't really get very far now that our three-year-old prefers to do her own hiking, but we experience more in those short-distance, long-duration explorations than we imagined we could. I wasn't expecting much bird-wise given the time of year and time of day, but some birds were still singing. For the most part it was fairly quiet. That sticky, oppressively heavy-air kind of quiet.

Brown Thrashers can be found in shrubby
areas, this one was posing rather boldly
alongside the trail as we approached.

We chose a short trial, a loop roughly a quarter of a mile long that wound through shrubby fields on a hillside, then back down through shady woods. Flowers were in full bloom, most notably the Asclepias (milkweeds). Butterfly wings, in near constant motion, provided the only semblance of a breeze.

A Great Spangled Fritillary probes the inflorescence of a
bright Butterfly Weed plant, not quite blending in
(gotta keep still if you're going to go unnoticed!).

An unidentified skipper on Common Milkweed.
I'd love to know who this guy is! I'll get better
at close-up photography this year, I hope.

A Baltimore Checkerspot perching in
the middle of an open lawn.

Reina kept us on our toes, either with deep questions we tried to postpone ("Why is that bird standing on top of the other one?") or wandering off to explore whatever caught her eye. She did follow me while I stalked a pair of Eastern Bluebirds, trying for an intimate close-up.

An Eastern Bluebird keeps one eye on the lawn
below for insects, the other on Reina and me.

We loved watching the Eastern Towhee singing non-stop,
although he never did the classic, "Drink yer teeeeeeee".

Have you ever told someone what a bird is "supposed" to say? Works great when the bird cooperates. "Oh, now I totally hear, 'Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody'! It's so obvious!"

But what happens when that bird doesn't say it? In polite company no one points it out, they just let it go. And when your company is an emperor-has-no-clothes toddler? Trust me, terms like individual variation and primary and secondary songs will not help. Enter the art of distraction: "Well, it's like this . . . hey! Is that a pond?"

A Bullfrog sits motionless among the
cattails, until too many eyes rest on it.

And were off to watch dragonflies and the fish slipping below the duckweed. The excellent view of a Bullfrog tabled the towhee song for a later discussion.

Bee Balm, a favorite of Ruby-throats.

The last stop was to watch a Ruby-throated Hummingbird patrolling a patch of Bee Balm. We didn't actually see any bees, but we did watch one male hummingbird protect his patch from a rival, chasing the intruder off every time he approached.

By now it was mid-morning, temperatures moving towards dog-days of summer. The birds that sang earlier were replaced by pure stillness, save the occasional buzzing wings of an insect rocketing by. At the time we were wishing for the more tolerable temperatures of winter - you can always put on more layers, but you can only strip down so far (we don't have air conditioning, so we're limited in our options). Right now we do have moments where we're eagerly anticipating those summer days, the grass being always greener. But I suspect that come July I'll be excited to sit in our stifling office and flashback to these gray, cold, winter-finch laden days.

Imagining that scenario lets me more deeply appreciate the conditions and birds we have now, which will be important standing outside in snow and cold while I count for the Great Backyard Bird Count for the next couple of days.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Land of Ice and Snow

This week our region has certainly been the land of ice and snow - but no midnight sun, and no hot springs flowing. Just cold, steady below-freezing temperatures.

For several years I've followed a relatively mindless path as I commute back and forth to Ithaca on a near-daily basis. During that time I'm usually preoccupied with a combination of things: reflecting on the upcoming/just ended workday, listening to music and/or NPR (depends if we're in an election cycle), haphazardly noting the "road birds," and/or just zoning out (especially at the end of the day).

Scenic view from following the ridges, not the valleys.
Sometimes you just have to stop to take it all in.

Recently I've branched out, trying various back roads for at least part of the journey. I have a couple of goals, such as stay on roads where it's easier to pull over without getting hit, trying to stay higher on the ridges rather than follow the valley, partially for the view and partially to pass through more habitats where I can stop and maybe stumble across some birds I would ordinarily miss. Flocks of Horned Larks, Snow Buntings and perhaps a Lapland Longspur in a field come to mind, along with the possibility of winter finches (especially Red and White-winged Crossbills) in some conifer stands, or Evening Grosbeaks and redpolls coming to feeders. Northern Shrikes and raptors patrol the open areas along these roads.

Covered in glistening ice for now, I wonder what migrants will
be found at some of these road-side stops
when spring arrives.

The most beneficial aspect, though, is that this drive is so much more relaxing. I'm zoning out less, keeping in a more mindful state, more like focused meditation. The birding so far hasn't yielded anything of note, but the scenery more than makes up for it. I make regular stops to enjoy panoramic views of the rolling hills, to listen for birds singing from the wooded areas, to actually pay attention to the region where we live instead of focusing on the taillights in front of me. The roads, it turns out, are fairly easy to navigate in snow and slush, I'm more worried about "mud season" when these roads may be impassable.

This morning included heavy snowfall along
with the layered ice. This Red-shouldered Hawk,
regular at the Lab, didn't seem bothered.

Given the current conditions (the hawk photo was from this morning), it's hard to believe the first migrating Red-winged Blackbirds and Turkey Vultures are due back in another week or so. Spring, in one sense, is in the air!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

New From The Cornell Lab

Two big events to pass along from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. First, the Lab's quarterly magazine, Living Bird, is now available on-line at

Did I mention it's an award-winning magazine? It's no wonder, with regular columns by the likes of David Wilcove, Jack Conner, Mel White, and Pete Dunne - all four among my favorite writers, especially when it comes to all things birds. Feature articles that take you around the world, not just through the lyrical writing, but images that leave you speechless, placing you right in the action. All future issues will be archived for easy access, and all future issues will include web extras, additional images that wouldn't fit in the print version, and video (video!) from the Macaulay Library.

Second, a couple giant leaps forward from eBird: bulk uploading of past observations and the addition of checklists from the entire western hemisphere. Yep, you can submit your historical observations in a few relatively easy steps, increasing the usefulness of observations collected by birders from the past decades, not just the past few years. And they can be submitted from everywhere in the New World, everywhere between the Arctic and Antarctica.

Read more about the Data Import Tool and South America beta-testing, dig out those old notebooks and checklists from wherever you have been birding, "on the world's birdiest continent (South America) or its most birdless (Antarctica)," and let the fun begin!

Exciting times we live in, with these Internets. Enjoy!

Monday, February 11, 2008


With few exceptions, bloggers are writers. One non-birding blog I like, Whiskey River, involves no original writing, just quotes. Very novel, and if done well (which it is), the quote says all that is needed.

But the rest of us express ourselves through a combination of words and images, and, stating the obvious, no two blogs are alike. Similar, yes, but not alike, and that property leads to the singular question, "What are the different types of nature-blog writing and, by extension, the writers? Can we all be pigeonholed?"

It'll take someone with more insight and experience than me to do this. That, and to a degree it's already done. Nature bloggers are very much like travel writers, and Tim Patterson has already defined the six personalities of travel writing. Why not piggy-back on his observations?

While there is little I enjoy more than opining and compartmentalizing others, I won't. Not here, anyway. Check out his article and classify yourself, and feel free to report back and comment on your "writing personality." Hey, it's just between us, so invent a new one if needed.

My self-analysis: personality-wise, I've been called a "Naked Introvert" on more than one occasion. I suspect that carries over to my writing, too.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Great Backyard Bird Count

It's that time of year again: the Great Backyard Bird Count is just around the corner. It seems obvious as to what it is, counting birds you see in your backyard. When deconstructing the name we find that's almost what it's all about.
  • It is "Great," especially talking about the fun you'll have, the importance of the data you're collecting, and the effort that comprises the count (81,003 checklists submitted last year).
  • It does not have to be your "Backyard." Count wherever you happen to be: I've submitted checklists from our yard, my parent's yard, local parks, work, and overnight trips to birding hotspots.
  • It is all about the "Birds," which you're almost guaranteed to see anywhere you go.
  • You do have to "Count" what you identify, and hopefully that will keep you counting on future checklists you keep, improving the value of your observations for science. For your observations to "count" towards the greater good, though, you do have to make sure you follow the protocol and are submitted to the analysts at the Cornell Lab and Audubon.
It really is simple. To get started, check out the GBBC website, where you can learn how to participate, get ideas on involving kids, view previous years' stats and maps and what scientific stories they tell, find participant photos, read this years' behind-the-scenes blog, and more.

And while you're at it, chime in on 10,'s new promotion: vote on your favorite backyard bird and be eligible to win a copy of Audubon's Backyard Birdwatch by Steve Kress. In a nutshell, this is the must-have guide for the common backyard birds you're likely to encounter - why leaf through all 900+ species that occur in North America when Steve can focus your attention to the most likely candidates? Not sure you want this book? Read more here, at 10,'s review of Audubon's Backyard Birdwatch.

The promotion entails, and I quote, "naming the bird that you most enjoy seeing in your backyard. Feel free to briefly state why you favor that bird over all others."

I'm sometimes accused of being too literal, alternately a smart-ass, but here's my answer:

Our favorite backyard bird: this specific
Black-capped Chickadee, named PBlu--RX

Yes, this individual, whom we know as Pink-Blue-Red-Silver, was banded in our yard three years ago and is a regular visitor to our feeders. In addition to being taxonomically assigned to our favorite species (Black-capped Chickadee), we are happy this specific one continues to grace our yard with his (or her) presence. Like all chickadees, not only does he (or she) come across as friendly and happy-go-lucky, their antics are bound to brighten the darkest winter day, their happy "dee-dee-dee"-ing a welcome upbeat chorus in the silence of winter. And, truth be told, in fall and spring they can lead you to amazing mixed species flocks of migrating passerines. And all they want in return: some sunflower seed and maybe a nest box. What more can you ask for?

Finally, keep up with the Birdchaser. He's a coordinator of the event and has lots of great info, reports, and updates on his personal blog. I'll leave you with a few images from a couple of our past Great Backyard Birds Counts. Happy counting to you and yours!

Reina's first GBBC, 2005. I helped count the Wild Turkeys
at our feeder. Come to think of it, I helped identify them, too.

GBBC 2006. Purple Finches are present in our area throughout
the winter, though hit-or-miss on any particular day. That's why
the count lasts for four consecutive days: to get an accurate
representation by counting several times over the count period.

GBBC 2007. If you're having trouble counting
distant birds, bring them closer! Look carefully,
there are two chickadees in this photo.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

I Will Survive

We had a backyard "Survival of the Fittest" episode a couple of weeks ago. I was working at home late in the week when there was an urgent shout from the living room, "Hawk's got something! Hawk's got something!"

Reina, my almost-four-year-old daughter, and I barely looked at each other, not interpreting, just knowing we needed to go now. We ran until we reached the living room window, slowed and peered around the curtains. I immediately looked into the trees where the regular-Sharpie and irregular-Cooper's typically perch. I assume that one day a goshawk will perch there, but it hasn't happened yet.

We were looking too far. A Cooper's Hawk was at the base of the feeders, barely 30 feet away, mantling over something we couldn't see but knew was there. "It grabbed something off the ground. Maybe a Mourning Dove?" offered my wife, who had witnessed the attack, and was now watching a wide-eyed Reina. "Umm, so what should we do?" After teachable moment about the circle of life and a raptors-have-to-eat-too explanation of what was happening, I reached for the camera . . . which I had left in the kitchen.

The luckiest Blue Jay in the world?

By the time I got back the Cooper's had disappeared, leaving a screaming Blue Jay on the ground. The attack had lasted about a minute, we had assumed the powerful talons of the Cooper's were puncturing the jay, but after a few minutes the jay half-lurched, half-flew across the yard to a Boxus shrub next to the window where we were watching. The squat, thick, branch-heavy evergreen plant would protect it in case of a follow up attempt, which did come. The Cooper's abruptly appeared, choosing to perch in the expected spot across the yard, not coming near the now-silent jay.

The Cooper's makes a second trip through our yard,
perhaps looking for the prey lost in the earlier attack.

The hawk disappeared, peace descended on our yard, but only for a short while. Then the hawk bombed through again, scattering Dark-eyed Juncos from under the feeder.

We assume the jay survived, at least through the afternoon. Reina and I went out to check on it, perhaps to collect it if it hadn't survived, but it flushed somewhat unsteadily to a brush pile across the yard. We sprinkled sunflower seeds and shelled peanuts around the base of the pile so it wouldn't need to come into the open while the adrenaline subsided. We then saw it fly from the brush pile to a tangle of Multiflora rosa.

Although there were snow impressions of the attack and the path the jay took to the shrub I didn't find any blood, and hardly any feathers. We've been watching for a bedraggled jay at the feeders but we haven't seen any battle-scarred individuals. In fact, we've noticed our jay numbers have decreased since this attack.

The Cooper's is making regular sweeps through our yard. When I started writing this post a couple of days ago it was perched in a backyard tree, seeming to scope the feeders.

This afternoon Reina and I were reading on the couch. Some motion outside the window caught our attention, something was different in the oak tree. It was the Cooper's again, nearly upside down on a relatively thin branch, flapping furiously. It disappeared as suddenly as it arrived, leaving a snowfall of feathers.

"Whoa, didn't miss that time." Reina turned to look at me, nodding. "The hawk needs to eat."

She learned that lesson, but we're still watching the feeders for the surviving Blue Jay.

I and the Bird #68

Whatever gets you through the night, John Lennon sang. For those who aren't yet aware, Slybird of Biological Ramblings has released the latest I and the Bird, and as always, it's a must read. I identify with Nick as the long, dark of winter around here can be likened to a long, dark (and cold) night (readers from more northerly latitudes, your situation is not only duly noted, I sympathize).

As I continue fight the "winter doldrums" Nick describes, reading collections such as I and the Bird #68 is a must. Enjoy!

Friday, February 8, 2008

Flashback Friday: Right Here, Right Now

Whether it's finding the usual suspects at local hots spots or discovering a vagrant outside its expected range, birding is all about timing. Being at the right place at that right time can be immensely rewarding, leading to a 20-plus warbler day, a dozen gull species at one location, or a singular vagrant, whether it's a one-day wonder or a "continuing" individual. There is one such alignment of time, place, rarity, and me that stands out in my mind more than any other.

Dateline: 02 January 1997, Cape May County, NJ
After spending Christmas and New Years with my family in upstate NY I was on my usual trip to visit a few college friends in D.C. before heading back to grad school in Arkansas. As a full-fledged birder, and being full of vim and vigor (assuming "vim" means a thirst for knowledge and "vigor" means increasing the life list) I took advantage of every traveling moment during these trips to bird somewhere, especially in locations that harbored species that don't regularly occur in Arkansas.

The famous Cape May lighthouse overlooks
one of the many ponds I visited that day.

My stop on this trip was specifically chosen. I needed, er, wanted, a Eurasian Wigeon for my life list. Because my parents, casual birders at best, had seen one, my non-birding sister had seen one, my parent's dog had seen one, I figured I should catch up. And it should be easy, there was a Eurasian Wigeon reliably and easily seen in Cape May, NJ. With a little planning I arrived late morning in Cape May.

My target bird for the trip: the elusive (to me, anyway)
Eurasian Wigeon. You will be mine. Oh, yes, you will be mine.

Image © J.M.Garg

Then the chase began. Turns out, easy, lengthy, and luxurious views of this bird was not going to be as straight forward as I thought. All the birders I encountered had seen it, and I heard a familiar refrain for the next hour. "Oh, we were just looking at it on the other pond, over there." When I got to that pond, "Oh, it just flew with a small flock of American Wigeon, headed that way," the direction I had just come from. And back at the first pond, "Yeah, it just landed over . . . oh, there they all go again . . . . "

The closest I got to the Eurasian was the Yankee
counterpart, the American Wigeon. Close, but no cigar.

Then I caught a lucky break. An hour later I still hadn't found the bird, nor had anyone else. Why, I hear you ask, was that lucky? Because I headed to the Cape May Bird Observatory's headquarters (the old one on Lake Road, not the new one out towards Goshen). The volunteer told me, "Yeah, the wigeon was just here this morning, but I haven't heard anything recently. But I assume you're be interested in the lapwing."

I responded, "Well, that depends. What's a lapwing?"

In this case it turned out to be a Northern Lapwing, a European version of a Killdeer with a pointy mohawk-like hairdo. Typically found in Europe and Asia, one had been found right off of Rte. 47 near the town of Goshen. But I tenaciously stayed my course and kept focused on my target bird for another hour. I never saw it.

A Northern Lapwing, irregular visitor to the
New World, and a very chase-worthy bird.
Image © Marek Szczepanek

My map showed Goshen right on my path heading out of southern Jersey. Since I had some vague idea of where to look, I decided I'd stop and have a look. What the heck, I'd be passing the right place, and apparently I'd come at the right time.

Again, I thought it would be easier (damn those expectations!). I assumed I'd drive along the rural road, scan the fields, and stop when I saw a line of people with scopes exchanging high fives. I never came across a group of birders, so when I thought I was in the right area I pulled on the shoulder and got out to take a brief look for a bird I had now seen once in my National Geographic (2nd edition) field guide. After walking up and back for maybe 10 minutes, all the while under the careful gaze of some land owners who acted more like they were some militia group and that I was a government representative sent to collect their taxes, I started collapsing my tripod back at the car.

I had just slammed the trunk when another car screeched to a halt 5o yards ahead of me. The door opened, we both stared at each other, then the newcomer flashed his binoculars, signaling a brother in arms. I never got his name, but we headed back down the road together, scanning both sides, while he issued a vitriolic diatribe against whomever had left the bird. "You gotta stay on birds like this! Someone should be watching until it goes to roost, and someone should be back before dawn to follow it when it leaves! Man, I can't believe this."

Two more cars arrived, then a couple more, soon we were an even dozen fanning out. Within minutes, "Got it!"

We all hustled to the east side of the road, eagerly unfolding our tripods, trying to determine the direction of the scope that held the bird. Now it was easy to find, a decent-sized bird continually moving in a pasture of close-cropped grass, that spiked headdress prominently displayed. My interaction didn't last as long as I wished. A few minutes after the re-finding, the bird wandered over a small rise to the back of the pasture, out of view. After a few more minutes I realized how low the light was, and I was supposed to be in D.C. for dinner. Hopefully someone was watching where the bird went to roost and that it would be watched in the morning (according to archived Rare Bird Alerts, it was, at least until January fourth).

Yeah, it's all about the timing. And expecting the unexpected. You'd think I'd learn something about expectations somewhere along the line.
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