Monday, April 21, 2008

A Visit from Ted Floyd

One of the greatest aspects of working at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is the near-constant flow of esteemed visitors that pass through. I've been fortunate enough to be in meetings with top ornithologists and birders; not necessarily (but including) the most recognizable scientists (some formally trained, others not), but all with obscenely inquisitive minds, horrifically deep intellect, and near-illegal tenacity. In addition, the Lab hosts Monday Night Seminars, a long-running series of presentations that range from the rigorously scientific to free flowing poetry, also entertainingly presented by deep thinkers.

When calls went out for suggested speakers I nominated a friend I met while developing eBird, whom I've stayed in touch with ever since, Ted Floyd. Since 2002 we've run into each other at various meetings, American Birding Association conventions, and even stood outside at 4:30 AM on a cool Colorado fall morning listening to nocturnal migrants. If you've interacted with Ted, either live at birding festivals, workshops, or conferences, or indirectly through his writing (primarily for Birding, the ABA's flagship publication, which he edits) I'm sure you'll agree that he is one of the most interesting people to engage with: you never know where the conversation will lead.

Ted suggested a talk that he had been ruminating on, which seemed perfect for the typical Monday Night Seminar audience. A combination of birding, birds, evolution, science, and philosophy entitled, "Charles Darwin, Roger Tory Peterson, and the future of birding."

The abstract read,
The year 2009 will mark the 75th anniversary of the publication of Roger Tory Peterson's Field Guide to the Birds and the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, arguably the two most important books in the history of birding. This seminar will identify a major conflict between Peterson's and Darwin's worldviews, then look at how tension between Peterson and Darwin was largely avoided in the 20th century, and finally examine how tension between Peterson and Darwin is inevitable in the early 21st century--with significant consequences for how we appreciate and understand birds and nature.
You can watch Ted's talk online (it runs about 45-50 minutes, if memory serves) along with other presenters from the Monday Night Seminar Series. If you do watch/listen, please comment - I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Birds at Home, Birds at Work

Today was one of those days. You know, those days where your wife's spring break schedule doesn't map with your daughter's and your usual child care (mom) isn't available to cover you so you creatively put together an off-hours work schedule for the week. You know what I'm talkin' about, yeah?

Happily, I found myself home for the morning with a rambunctious four-year-old who, also happily, is easily entertained when outside. We spent some time checking out the newly-emerging plants, listening to the singing birds, overturning rocks and logs to find insects, and even found a bit of time to photograph the birds that are around. Spoiler alert: I didn't get any amazing off-course migrants, but noted some interesting sights for our yard.

First off were a couple new visitors to the pond. The Wood Ducks from a couple of days ago, whom we hoped were scoping out the nest box we erected last fall, left. Maybe because of these visitors? Maybe because we were a little too interested in their comings and goings? Maybe for reasons we can't understand - they were committed to a walk-up in a neighboring village, maybe they were passing through on their way to some balmy northern areas. Maybe we only offered a smorgasbord of the right invertebrates, seeds, and vegetables, but not a permanent housing situation.

Oh, well, now we have Canada geese checking out our digs. They've been here before, they often spend time on our pond between March and May but never attempt nesting. That's fine, I assume most of what they have to offer would lead to algae blooms and generally foul pond water, as well as the suspicious disappearance of newly-added native plants. Like moderately-close relatives, it's fun to have them spend some time with us, but not to overstay their welcome.

More interesting was a bona fide visitor to the nest box. I assumed, since it was surrounded by water, it would remain empty (most likely), or attract some waterfowl (if not Wood Ducks, Hooded Mergansers). I entertained the outside possibility an owl wouldn't mind nesting over water. This morning, however, I watched Tree Swallows check out the potential.

All told I counted seven swallows monitoring the pond area, with at least four spending time on/in the box. Seems a little big for what they usually need, but we're not judgmental about upscaling if you can afford it, environmental consequences be damned! OK, not really. But their energy consumption better stay in line with what they truly need.

I also watched a group of Brown-headed Cowbirds interact under our feeders. I have to admit, probably tracing back to my chocoholic genes, I find cowbirds beautiful. Though they typically arrive in mid-March, their numbers peak in mid-April. Right on time.

Unhappily, all fun things must come to an end. My wife relieved me at lunch time and I made my trek to Ithaca to work the "B shift," hopefully getting out around 10:00. I took a dinner break and walked around Sapsucker Woods a bit, hoping to track down the small flock of Rusty Blackbirds that was seen earlier in the afternoon. No luck in seeing any, but at least one was still audible off the boardwalk somewhere. While staking out their favorite area I watched an American Robin forage in the small grassy islands and leaf litter.

A pair of American Kestrels is nesting in a box mounted on Kip's Barn, a historical structure neighboring the Lab building. I assume this is one of the occupants.

I was excited for the way home, driving my Blue Highway in the dark, stopping to listen for any nocturnal bird activity, especially owls and flight calls. But with the exception of a dog barking here and there, nothing. Clear night, bright stars, and very still, except for barking dogs. All in all, a wonderful day - but what day isn't wonderful when birds are involved?

Monday, April 14, 2008

Blue Highways in New Light

A few weeks ago I wrote about the back roads, or "Blue Highways," I periodically travel to Ithaca. While I did run through what I imagine the next couple of months will bring, I did not specifically mention how it would affect my commute time. I suspect you can figure out what'll happen: more birds, more stops. Longer commute. Longer time spent outside, walking a short stretch of road or merely standing by the car listening for new arrivals.

Not really prophetic, just logical, and now coming to pass. One of the first birds that caught my eye this morning was an Eastern Bluebird posing on a natural perch. I'm habituated to seeing them on fences, power lines, TV antennae, or other human-constructs, so seeing one on an actual tree, though disfigured by humans constructing something, was a nice change. And the morning's light added to the experience: soft, warm, more than just illuminating. This bluebird really was carrying the sky on his back.

A new arrival for the year came next. Driving with the windows down has the disadvantage of messing up your hair and blowing around the accumulated papers and leaves on the car floor. I don't much care about the former, and I just drive slower to compensate for the latter, and in doing so I heard the unmistakable song of a bird I hadn't heard since last year. With his back facing the road he energetically laid claim to a not yet flowering or leafed out row of shrubs as his own. I initially identified it by song, can you identify it by sight?

Facing away from me, surely not his only audience, the light of the
lengthening days highlights the rufous-brown of his back.

He eventually turned to warn away anyone encroaching from the road side, I assume including me. No worries, the "No Trespassing" signs are enough to keep me off.

This bird has one of the largest documented
repertoires of songs in North America.

New bird for the year, along with the first Song Sparrows, cowbirds, phoebes, Turkey Vultures, and harriers I've seen along this route. Plus a Ring-necked Pheasant, a bird I never expect though I stumble across them here-and-there. But perhaps my favorite sight was a Red-winged Blackbird, this time not perched on ice-covered branches like last time.

That's gotta feel better on his feet, though he didn't stick
around any longer than when perched on ice.

What a way to start a work day, and the work week. The increasing "trip list" is proportionally increasing my anticipation about the seasonal changes, the warmer temperatures, the changing light as the sun traces a higher path across the sky, all of which leads to the promise of longer-distance migrants on their way. No green yet, but at least no longer covered in white (though the threat still exists around here through most of May). I can't wait to see what the next trip brings.

Oh, and another hint about the accomplished songster I heard: the the Birds of North America Online account includes this description:

Burleigh quoted E. Murphy’s opinion of [this bird's] song: “Much of the reclame [sic] which has fallen to the Mockingbird is really due to the unperceived efforts of [this bird]. It is the opinion of many ornithologists that the song . . . is richer, fuller, and definitely more melodious than that of polyglottis .”

Something to ponder: based on "E. Murphy," is this bird Garfunkel to the mockingbird's Simon?

Sunday, April 13, 2008

New Neighbors?

I've neglected blogging for way too long, and as commitments seem to be lightening up a bit (where a bit equals a really tiny, minuscule amount) I'm going to try and update the past two months over the next week or so. Note that I'm actually writing this in mid-May. In any event, don't adjust your computer's date/time, I'm just back-dating posts so they fall in chronological order.

So, cast your minds back to the 13th of April. Here in the Southern Tier we got hit with snow. Not unexpected, and happily it didn't last long. Because of, or in spite of, the downturn in the weather we observed a couple of new species for the year, bringing the year list to 101. First, a Chipping Sparrow arrived at the feeders along with the usual suspects, and late in the evening a Great Horned Owl was calling from "over yonder" (my new way of saying, "somewhere not too close").

A male Wood Duck patrols the neighborhood. Hopefully he'll find it safe.

Even more interesting was a visit by some prospective neighbors. A trio of Wood Ducks were on our pond when we awoke, and like nosy neighbors everywhere we peered between closed curtains to assess these newbies. Would they fit in? Were they our kind of people? Any kids that could babysit, or arrange a play date? Any power tools we could borrow? Yes, yes, no, and no.

A male and female confer under the shelter of the well-weathered dock.

Obviously, the big questions were whether they'd put in an offer and would we accept. We probably would, once their credit checked out, so the ball is in their court. Incidentally, they're right on time. Wood Ducks appear on our pond between the last week of March and and the last week of April, so they hit right in peak season. Stay tuned to find out whether this was their dream home.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

New at the CLO: Right Whale Listenting Network

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is not only in the business of all things birds. For example, the Bioacoustics Research Program (BRP) develops acoustic technologies that are used to record anything that makes a sound. Current projects using these tools include monitoring birds (my project, for example), but also elephants and whales.

BRP has been working on a project to monitor endangered North Atlantic Right Whales off of the coast of Massachusetts, where the chances of a ship striking one is heightened. The whales use Cape Cod Bay, but so do ships. BRP has devised a method to find whales and alert any incoming ships so they can take necessary precautions to avoid a potentially devastating strike.

The green dots on this map (which I pinched from the web site, along with this text) show locations of buoys listening for endangered right whales. If you see a red whale icon instead, it means a buoy at that location has heard a right whale within the last 24 hours. This information is made available to ship captains, who can slow to 10 knots and post a lookout to avoid a collision. (Note the map I'm displaying here is accurate as of noon on Wednesday, 09 April.)

Check out the Right Whale Listening Network for more information about this project, the technology, and to learn about the whales, including listening to their songs.

Updated 11 Apr: Check out this article that highlights an extraordinary number of right whales seen in Massachusetts Bay recently: 79 of the world's remaining 350 right whales are feeding in the area.
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