Thursday, July 31, 2008

Bobwhite Returns

Today was a pretty good day for Northern Bobwhite viewing at the Lab. It has been seen off-and-on this summer, enough to make the case this bird is hanging around. I had an out-of-the-blue, mood-enhancing encounter one evening as I walked to my car, unfortunately sans camera. This morning I had my camera in hand when I tracked it down.

Technical blogging aside: these photos are embedded a bit differently, clicking on them will take you to a web album of photos. I'm deciding if I like that approach better than the way I've been uploading images; let me know what you think.

Back to the guest of honor. It's not a shy bird by any stretch. Both times I've seen it perching visibly, if not prominently, and no demure singing here. No, the call pierces the atmosphere, head tossed back and cutting loose.

Of course, any written description doesn't do the bobwhite's enthusiastic vocalizing justice. I wanted to post a clip but it ran over what Blogger allows you to upload - once I find some free-but-good video editing software I'll post a shorter version. Of course, you can head over to Slybird's Biological Ramblings where you can see what the bird was up to this evening.


Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Brown Out and Day Jobs

Upfront let me apologize if you experienced a brown out today. I was sucking up most of the electricity in the northeast U.S. this afternoon. If I affected whatever you happened to be doing, I'm sorry.

Maybe this is an appropriate time to explain what I do when I'm clocked in at work. As stated in "About Me" over there in the side bar, I'm an ornithologist, meaning I'm paid to study birds. I do realize how absolutely, phenomenally lucky I am to have a job that greatly overlaps with my hobbies and my passions. I also realize how exceedingly fortunate I am to work at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (aka, "the Lab"; aka, "CLO"), an institution with not only a rich history, but staffs the most creative, intelligent, curious, and passionate people I've ever met, people who merely want to learn and to understand.

Without getting too deep into it for the moment, my role is in the Conservation Science department where I'm a "Research Biologist." At least that's what I've designated myself because my official title, sanctioned by Cornell University, is something unintelligible outside of the Human Resources office. Currently I work in the general field of acoustic monitoring -- not part of a governmental wire-tapping program, though I suppose I'm now qualified to do that. Instead we listen in on natural places to monitor target species.

So, how did I wind up using almost everyone else's share of electricity today? Well, over the last three years we've been placing microphones in various spots in the northeastern U.S. down to the mid-Atlantic states to record migrating birds. Many species are nocturnal migrants, and many of the birds passing overhead in darkness can be identified by a species-specific flight-call. Our goal is to record whatever passes by in the night, then scour the recording with software that detects flight-calls, allowing us to discover which species are migrating past these locations, when they migrate, under what weather conditions, and a host of other questions.

Today I had four computers running the detection software, which isn't uncommon. What was different was the number of detections the program was logging and how that affected the computer's performance. The program was flagging over a million hits per three week period (they're not all flight-calls), causing the program to crawl along towards the end. You could practically hear gears groaning inside the computer towers. You could feel the little hamster's thighs burning to keep the wheel spinning, you could see sparks and smell the smoke drifting out of the back, and you could watch the progress bar inch slower, and slower, and slower.

But they kept going, much like John Henry and his hammer, finishing and slumping against the wall, panting and sweating. At which point I archived the results, set up the next detection run, and they started all over again. And again, and again . . . we have a lot of recordings to analyze. Maybe the computers are more like Sisyphus than John Henry.

More on these exploits later, I'm off the clock now so I'm hoping to make it home and have a walk before it rains.


Monday, July 28, 2008

Weekend Mash Up: Nature, Kids, and Bloggers

If you dropped in on this post expecting conference proceedings in which bloggers save the world by turning kids on to nature you'll be disappointed. This was a much more informal experience, though it was educational on a number of fronts (but, really, what experience isn't?), and ultimately a lot of fun.

A last minute change-of-summer-plans (again) found my daughter, Reina, and I off to Rochester to visit my folks. Schedules were created (ultimately to be ignored) and play dates were hastily arranged, including an attempt at a birding trip with Mike of 10,000Birds. He was in the same boat I was: single parenting for the weekend but wanting to get out a bit. We arranged to meet at Mendon Ponds Park, kids in tow, to see what birds we might stumble across.

Mike tries to keep up with the young explorers, patiently
instructing the next generation of naturalists.

Those were the best laid plans, and as the saying goes, they went somewhat awry. We were the ones in tow, and though we paid some attention to the birds there were no stealthy glances at skulking individuals, no pishing to stir up hormonally-charged parents, no calling for rails or any other hardcore attempts at compiling a good day list. But it didn't matter that the list was small and unremarkable, we found lots of nature to excite the kids and had a good time in the process.

Looks like a good crop of crows this year, but that wasn't
one of the sightings that engaged the younger hikers.

We started on Bird Song Trail, locally famous for the overly-friendly chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, and (for the lucky few) perhaps a Downy Woodpecker that come to your hand for sunflower seeds in the colder months. Tangentially, that always makes me wonder what birds have come to people's hands over the years. Anyone ever get a Hairy or Red-bellied Woodpecker interested? A hungry Golden-crowned Kinglet after an ice storm? A curious Carolina Wren? If you've got a story, please drop a comment!

Back to our journey, which then ventured on the Swamp Trail. Somehow we never skirted any of the numerous ponds that give the park its name, but we did bushwhack along a boardwalk through the swamp, spying a pair of Eastern Garter Snakes while hearing Swamp Sparrows trill in the background.

Nice day to catch some sun. The smaller snake disappeared
with too many eyes on it; this one was more accommodating.

Ants were a nuisance, often crossing the line and becoming a problem. Standing around to watch for birds probably wasn't going to happen even if the opportunity arose. There was some time for photography, though I now believe most acclaimed nature photographers do not have kids. Can you imagine a shooting all of your images like this?

I don't know what the subject was, but I hoped it
stayed still! Ivy keeps an eye on it while Mason looked for
other creatures of interest. Reina never looked back.

All in all, an extremely successful trip, at least through the lens of my parental eyes. Mike and I did get to catch up (about what I can't remember!), the kids had a long morning not in front of a TV or being overscheduled with Toddler Fencing, Chinese for Tots, Cooking With Kids or whatever else their overstructured lives contain these days. No, just plain wandering, exploring, and ant-avoiding fun.

Best of all, the kids hit it off - Ivy and Reina stayed
together for much of the return walk.

I'm looking forward to future trips, and though I love hanging out with the younger generation, I'm hoping we get back for a good morning of listing, pishing, and chasing. Thanks to Mike, Mason, and Ivy for a wonderful outing! Mike's account of the trip is available at


Thursday, July 24, 2008

Midsummer Doldrums

Our summer continues at a blistering pace, at least relative to earlier, more innocent seasons. It has, at best, been a trying summer, with more weighty matters than we'd prefer occupying our lives. Such is life, as they say, and as they also say, this too shall pass.

Eastern Phoebe nestlingsWitnessing parental care at its finest by spying on the phoebes
has been an amazing experience. Not that my wife and I don't
try, but I don't know that I'd forage for insects in the rain.

I'm not out birding much, just taking in whatever winds up in the yard. The Tree Swallows and Red-winged Blackbirds that nested by our pond haven't been seen for a couple of weeks, today the Eastern Phoebe's second brood fledged. They were there this morning, teetering over the sides, but gone when I returned home after work. We did see the parents foraging around their usual hunting grounds as we picked blackberries so we figure the young aren't too far away. Empty nest syndrome is settling in fast.

Common Yellowthroat, maleThe most cheer-inducing summer resident in our yard. Watching
a yellowthroat do almost anything, even if it's nothing, lifts my spirits.

The only other evidence of birdlife are the periodic songs of a Common Yellowthroat and a couple of Song Sparrows, and who could neglect to mention the ever-present Black-capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmouse, and Red-breasted Nuthatch.

Song SparrowDuring the quietest times of day you can count on the Song Sparrow to
suddenly break the silence with a reminder that there is life out there.

My only other birding takes place during my car-to-desk (and, obviously, the reverse in the evenings) walk in Sapsucker Woods. The hands-down highlight was a Northern Bobwhite perched on a power line as I headed home last night. First one I've ever seen in New York, completely unexpected. An nice reminder that sometimes surprises are a good thing, I needed that right about now.

Another surprise was that the latest Birding (American Birding Association's magazine) arrived this week, giving my mind somewhere to wander when preoccupations weren't taking over. I guess I lost track of the months, I didn't realize a new issue was due. One article engaged me such that I've now read through it twice: Cameron Cox's "A Different Approach to an Old Problem" (PDF, though unless I'm mistaken there is this online version on the Surfbirds website).

Least Sandpiper, post-bathingNot sure who this is? Check out Cameron's article
for pointers on why this Calidris is minutilla!

The problem is familiar to most birders: the identification of the five common North American Calidris shorebirds: Least, Semipalmated, Western, Baird's and White-rumped Sandpipers. With shorebirds already passing through on their way south Cameron's insights are well worth studying and applying in the field. I'd be interested in hearing from anyone, experienced shorebirders to the uninitiated, who has thoughts on his approach: do you think it will help in the field? Have you tried it, or something similar; what are your experiences?

Finally, if you have a hardcopy of the magazine be sure to take a moment to read a letter to the editor penned by N8 of The Drinking Bird regarding the Internet and Birding (in formal print you'll find him listed as "Nathan"). If your online-only, check out N8's blog post, aka "rant," that turned into the printed word. Of course, you should also read Rick Wright's original piece that started it all, I haven't found an online version (maybe that's intentional, given the topic!) but here's the reference:

Wright, Rick. 2008. Birding Alone. Birding, Vol 40 (1), p. 64.


Thursday, July 17, 2008

From The Cornell Lab: Art Opening

If you've visited Sapsucker Woods you very likely stepped inside the visitor center. And if you've stepped inside the visitor center, you very likely noticed the artwork that adorns the walls.

The "resident" art, of course, belongs to Louis Aggasiz Fuertes, but is periodically augmented with displays of more recent artists. Recent shows, for example, include paintings by Julie Zickefoose and the photographs of Floris van Breugel.

Yesterday a new show opened, "The Bird Artwork of Benjamin M. Clock." Paraphrased from the invitation, Ben's watercolors and drawings feature vocalizing and displaying birds in their habitats. Many of the works feature scenes from recent travels to the arctic tundra and the Caribbean hardwood hammocks while others were inspired from his work archiving and shooting natural history video for the Macaulay Library at the Lab of Ornithology.

If you are in the area, be sure to drop by to see Ben's work live and in person, and (or) check out his blog, Natural History Artworks.


Tuesday, July 15, 2008

They Will Come

I'm so excited I have to share a non-bird, but nature-oriented, surprise. We've reached a new benchmark of success with our landscaping endeavors, specifically our addition of a Spicebush to our yard three years ago. Spicebush was one of the species that topped the list of "must have" plants, as their ripe-in-the-fall berries have that high lipid content migrant birds crave. And, widening my bird-centric view of nature, the spicebush is a larval host plant of the Spicebush Swallowtail, one of my favorite butterflies.

Our spicebush is part of a larger garden that is
protected by deer netting to keep out the varmints.
We decide who gets to nibble on the leaves!

During a recent after dinner, after-the-rain walk through the yard my daughter and I were surveying the Japanese Beetle damage to various plants. The spicebush appeared fairly untouched, except for two rather large bird poops, er, excreta, on a couple of leaves. Not overly surprising as our nesting phoebes frequently perch in that area. Surely they poop, er, evacuate, while stalking the insect population.

Brown-and-white blotches on the leaves,
probably left by an inconsiderate yardbird.

Upon closer inspection (a phrase I probably use more often than I should when discussing poop, but everything is a teaching moment with a four-year old) we discovered it wasn't excrement at all. They were caterpillars.

What appears to be the tongue emerging from the mouth is really
the caterpillar's head. If I were a predator, I'd think twice!

Caterpillars? Looking like bird droppings? On a spicebush? That all adds up to what we've been hoping for over the past three years: Spicebush Swallowtail larvae! Eating our spicebush! A feeling of euphoria settled in when I realized our plans worked, we attracted what we were hoping for. A grove of dreams, if you will: plant it, and they will come. Now I get what Kevin Costner's character felt like when Shoeless Joe Jackson walked out of the corn field to play ball.

All told, we counted three caterpillars. Butterfly Gardening and showed the two poop-mimics were likely fourth instars, judged by the size and the prominent eye spots. Second and third instars, while similarly patterned, are smaller and lack such obvious eye spots.

The third was a fifth instar, boldly patterned and gaudy, admittedly a bit frightening. My rudimentary knowledge of caterpillar anatomy didn't convince me it wouldn't lock its jaws on my finger, but I pretended to be brave in front of my daughter.

Possibly shedding the green skin for the
prepupal, bright yellow-orange coloration?

We're hoping to find the bright yellowish-orange prepupal caterpillar (check The Hawk Owl's Nest for Patrick's beautiful image from a recent trip), and then a chrysalis. Apparently we were lucky, as the caterpillars spend the day hidden by folding over a leaf, then emerging to forage after dark. Perhaps the rain brought them out early? We did find several folded over leaves, which we'll be investigating as we continue to check the spicebush daily!


Friday, July 11, 2008

From The Cornell Lab: Living Bird, Spring 2008

The latest issue of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's quarterly magazine, Living Bird, is now available online. The spring 2008 issue features Tim Gallagher "Birding the Northern Route" in Peru, Marie Read's portrait of Common Loons with "Spirit of the North," and Charles Eldermire pondering interactions between humans and birds in "Of Oystercatchers and Kayakers."

If that doesn't entice you, regular columnists Pete Dunne, Mel White, and Jack Conner contribute by focusing on needing new binoculars, Southeastern Arizona, and chickadee songs, respectively.

As always, along with the superb writing you'll find breathtaking images, and if you've read the hard copy version don't miss the web-only extras. Enjoy!


Thursday, July 10, 2008

Nest Cams Feature: Chimney Swifts

My favorite type of post: brief and to the point! Very uncharacteristic for me, yes, but I'll try.

Just wanted to call attention to a very cool nest cam: an active Chimney Swift nest from near Buffalo, NY. The parents are busy feeding four fledglings that hatched on 04 July. Check out the streaming video, highlights, commentary, and join in the discussion at the NestCams website.

To whet your appetite, no pun intended (OK, yes it was!), here's a clip of feeding time from the video highlights.

Locations of visitors to this page