Tuesday, January 29, 2008

I Can See Clearly Now

Last Wednesday (23 January), on my way out of Ithaca, I made a last minute decision to try and glimpse the Slaty-backed Gull again. Previous observations of other gulls showed the birds typically forage among Cornell's compost piles, where the Slaty-backed was initially discovered, then roost on the ice off of Stewart Park at the south end of Cayuga Lake until morning. The Slaty-backed followed this pattern. This would be perhaps my last chance to see it since I wouldn't be in Ithaca until after the weekend. Who knew if the bird would stick around?

My first encounter, Tuesday morning when it was discovered by Jay McGowan, was exciting, but the looks at the bird were unsatisfying. I didn't see some field marks, the bird essentially slept for the 20-or-so minutes I was there. Also, I wanted to meet the challenge of finding the bird without being pointed to a scope that was already trained on the bird -- not that I'm looking a gift horse in the mouth or anywhere else, I really appreciate the camaraderie birders exhibit.

So, last Wednesday I noticed two things while driving down the hill into Ithaca, overlooking the lake: there were a lot of gulls on the ice, and there was a small group of people on the ice with them. Birders, no doubt, but that didn't mean the gull was there. I figured I'd give it a go and made the detour into Stewart Park.

A mixed flock of gulls, including Herring, Ring-billed, Great-black
Backed, and a single Slaty-backed Gull. It's in there, I swear!

I made the mistake of first scoping out the birders, subconsciously noting which direction their scopes were pointing, cuing me to the likely direction of the bird. (Updated to add: among the birders is Nick Sly of Biological Ramblings; check out his encounter with the "Bird of the Day" - it includes much nicer photos!). Sure enough, within a few minutes, I had found the Slaty-backed, and mostly on my own. It'd be a lie of omission if I didn't say the hint provided by the unknowing birders was appreciated.

A group of Cornell students getting a better look at the
Slaty-backed (the gull in the foreground is a Ring-billed).
Ah, to be young and invincible again.

Unfortunately for me, this was about the time I discovered the status of our old Nikon Coolpix, the camera I use for digiscoping. I'm sorry to report that the status was, in hospital lingo, critical, the prognosis, negative. The batteries were charged, but the camera's controls are essentially shot. I could only choose aperture or shutter-speed priority (or auto, but that never works for digiscoping), but I couldn't actually change the settings. I had to shoot with the default settings. If you didn't notice from the above images, they were a bit "off." So, I present here, possibly the worst picture of a great bird you'll ever see, and hopefully that I'll ever take.

It's like one of those 3-D art posters, isn't it? Stare past the picture,
unfocus your eyes (or do you have to deeply focus?),
and that standing bird should turn into a Slaty-backed.

Though not captured on film, I did get to study the field marks I missed before: deep pink leg color, deeper than the Great-black Backeds; large head with more brown streaking that is concentrated around the eye; pale yellow iris; stout bill with dark smudging along the commissure. I could finally see them all clearly.

Now I need a new camera to capture what I saw. I'm open to suggestions - what do you all use for hand-held digiscoping?

Friday, January 25, 2008

Friday Flashbacks

Like almost anyone who blogs about birding and/or nature, I spend some time reading blogs by other birders and naturalists. I like getting to know the person through their experiences and their art (writing, photography, drawing, what have you), I enjoy learning something new or re-learning something I've forgotten, I like to be entertained with excellent writing, adventure, and humor, I like to be brought along on a journey.

Twelve-spotted Skimmer at our pond. I never
really paid them any mind until after becoming a "dad."
Great summer entertainment!

If you've read any past posts here you'll notice a loose-but-persistent trend: my topics are pretty location-specific, focused in my yard most of the time. The subject matter is, to an extent, broadening to include more ecosystem-wide observations. The folder of plant photos on my hard drive rivals my bird folder, as does the insect folder. While birds will always be my primary fodder for posts, I anticipate writing more about these other taxa in season.

A fall Ovenbird in our yard - worth getting to know
deeper than just a yearly "tick." I may delve into
other taxa, but birds will always be my primary focus.

A little over a month ago Mike at 10,000 Birds wrote a piece exploring the nadir of his birding career. His reflection resonated with me because, like Mike, my focus shifted sharply towards family with the arrival of our daughter a few years ago. I'm happier being around the house observing what happens here, not out there, especially as my daughter continues to explore, learn, and experience with every turn. Oftentimes I find I'm living vicariously through her new, wide-eyed observations rather than my own. Still, it's always reassuring to find another soul in your situation.

That's me on an outing with my youngest
birding buddy, she keeps me (mostly) close
to home, but is almost ready for longer trips.

Exploring and making observations closer to home is never a bad thing. In fact, when starting the eBird project, this was an aspect of birding we hoped to promote: birders (or bird watchers, if you separate the two) censusing the birds at a single location day by day, week by week, season by season, ultimately year by year. Those are the data that are really valuable for spotting trends; all those snapshots make a very interesting moving picture.

An unknown-to-me hymenoptera at the Lab - I plan
to do more lunch-time nature walks at Sapsucker Woods.
No reason I should restrict myself to a single location, or taxa.

Finally, a blog post titled "Closing 2007," written by another Mike at Mike's Birding & Digiscoping Blog, also struck a chord. That Mike reflected on his list numbers, past "big years" and bird chasing, and convincingly concluded that local birding can be as, if not more, rewarding. Sometimes it takes someone else to translate those feelings to reinforce what you already felt.

An American Lady in our yard. Another
summer tenant worth keeping an eye on.

Unlike Mike (the 10,000 Birds one, not the Digiscoping one), whose birding career began very close to the arrival of his first child, I had a good 15 or so years of relatively little responsibility, just enough money, and and a handful of buddies in the same boat to facilitate a lot of birding and travel.

So I'm undertaking two-folded proposition.

I will continue to happily explore our four-acre plot of land, and airspace above it, and continue to narrate the ebb and flow of what the seasons bring.

Frequently heard, seldom seen during the summer months,
American Toads are welcome to our garden anytime!

But I'm also going to dig into my notebooks, photo albums, listing software, and whatever working memories I can muster and relive some of my own birding escapades. In addition to reliving those trips through the writings and experiences of others, I'm going to revisit my own trips and relive them directly.

"Friday Flashbacks," or "Flashback Fridays," or some derivation blatantly borrowed from every radio station with a classic rock format, will highlight experiences like driving my car into the Salton Sea, sliding off a snowy road in the Chiricahuas while searching for a Mexican Chickadee, almost stepping on a Short-eared Owl in Oklahoma, watching a Wallcreeper fly below us in the Swiss Alps, encounters with naked people, and so much more.

Ah, good times. I wish I was posting these in real time, as they happen, but I'll settle for a days-gone-by feel. And, to a degree, they're timeless. These are stories much like the ones I enjoy from the likes of N8 at The Drinking Bird, Corey of 10,000 Birds, Patrick of The Hawk Owl's Nest, and the many others who take us on their journeys. I hope I can bring you along on some of mine.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

I and the Bird #67

It's holiday time, and what better time for a long, extended birding trip? Starting point: Trevor's Birding, located in the land down under. Destination: all around the world. Trevor introduces us to some of the most entertaining, informative, and competent guides you'll encounter on this side of the cyberhighway. Good Birding on this Birding Holiday!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

In the Mood

Here we all are, some 22 days into 2008, and I'm already in the mood. Not for a melody like the song says, but for something new, for something big. OK, that's a half truth: I'm always in the mood for a melody. But my various bird lists (Bigby list, yard list, year list) are growing ever so slow. Ever so slow? Wow, that just slipped out. We watched a ballet performance of "The Wizard of Oz" last week and I've got that 1940's lingo and cadence in my head.

Regardless, after dropping my daughter off at school this morning I wound my way back home to pick up a few things for work. A quick walk around the yard to lighten my melancholy yielded dozens of waxwings (none Bohemian), two laden crab apple trees (no Pine Grosbeaks), and mostly filled feeders (no redpolls to be confused with Hoary). Sigh.

The daily commute was just as uneventful. No shrikes, no Rough-legged Hawks; nothing, really, but starlings and pigeons. Long sigh.

Nothing new while walking through the parking lot into the Lab - until I saw four hardcore birders racing to their car and peeling out. Something was up, so I raced upstairs to check the listserve. There, after booting up the computer, I discovered . . . nothing. "Connection not found." Sheeesh (confession: I didn't really say "sheesh," but something a little more R-rated). Deal with that later, off to a different computer on a different network. Start Firefox, head to Gmail . . . username . . . password . . loading . . .still loading . . . and there it finally was, right in the subject line

"Probable Slaty-backed Gull at compost pile."

Simple, straight-forward; the next post was better: it dropped the "probable."

So, off I went (after using eBird to find out where the compost pile was, I'd heard of this place but never been there). Upon arriving I found six or so birders, dozens of crows, hundreds of gulls to sort through . . . Great Black-backed, Herring, Ring-billed, a single Lesser Black-backed . . . and a scope set up, pointed at a sleeping Slaty-backed. In the twenty minutes I stayed I didn't see the bill or the legs, but you could note some characteristic features: the overall size, the blocky head; the fact that some of the best birders already identified it.

Later, pictures began to surface from Kevin McGowan, Tim Lenz, and Tom Johnson (click on their names to view their galleries). Tom followed up with a careful analysis posted on Cayugabirds (our local listserve), where he noted, "Everything is great for a subadult (likely 3rd cycle) Slaty-backed Gull with the possible exception of the relatively pale upperparts."

He continued (lariphobes may want to skip this part),

I was able to directly compare the bird to an adult graellsii Lesser Black-backed Gull (LBBG), and noted that the Slaty-backed Gull (SBGU) generally appeared lighter than the LBBG, though this varied. Occasionally the Lesser Black-backed Gull and Slaty-backed Gull appeared to have identically shaded mantles, but this varied with the angle at which the birds were standing relative to the light and me. Variation in upperparts shading has been a subject of debate and study for a while now, and two articles are particularly relevant (citations below). The first is a 1994 article in Birding by Gustafson and Peterjohn that suggests wide variability in upperparts coloration in Slaty-backed Gull.

However, in 1999, King and Carey suggested in Birder's Journal that the Gustafson/ Peterjohn assessment of variability was not accurate, and that overall, Slaty-backed Gull upperparts are somewhat uniform in coloration, with a small degree of variation ranging between the coloration of graellsii (lighter end) and intermedius (darker end) Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus). They suggest that Slaty-backed Gulls with upperparts paler than graellsii should be examined for signs of hybridity and that the paler specimens examined for the Gustafson/ Peterjohn article likely represented hybrids.

Slaty-backed Gulls have been found to hybridize with Glaucous-winged and Vega Gulls in northeastern Asia. Anyway, aside from pale upperparts, I found nothing on the Ithaca bird today consistent with a hybrid. The small apical spots on the outer primaries combined with dull, somewhat brownish greater and primary coverts and the dark bill suggest a third (or possibly) fourth cycle gull.

Here are the citations for those articles:
  • Gustafson, Mary E. and Peterjohn, Bruce G. 1994. Adult Slaty-backed Gulls: Variability in Mantle Color and Comments on Identification. Birding 26(4):243-249.
  • King, Jon R. and Carey, Geoff. 1999. Slaty-backed Gull hybridization and variation in adult upperparts colour. Birder's Journal 8(2):88-93.

The bird was watched for a couple of hours by various birders, then it headed off to who knows where.

Until it was discovered in the late afternoon at Stewart Park (Ithaca), south end of Cayuga Lake, where hundreds (if not more) gulls roost every night. This is a daily pattern: the gulls roost on the lake, head somewhere to feed during the day, often the compost pile, and then back to the lake in the evening.

I'm anticipating a stop on my way in tomorrow, at the lake or the compost pile; this time I'll plan some digiscoping of my own.

I'm definitely in the mood.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Freeze Frame!

"This freeze frame moment can't be wrong" goes the song. Right. As anyone who's tried to capture something that moves on film (or other media), it's hard to get a decent finished product. Couple that with being on the low end of the photography learning curve, then throw in a subject that does nothing but try not to be seen and you've got a recipe for clogging up your hard drive with pretty shoddy pictures. A lot of shoddy pictures.

At one point I decided to quit frustrating myself with little, skulky, dickey birds that hang out in the low light of a forest and go for big, well-lit, sedentary birds. That turns out to be just as frustrating, as my recent collection of hawk photos demonstrates.

A Red-tailed Hawk doing what it does best: perching
above an open field, but defying a decent photograph.

Driving around with the camera set to go is a great idea. If I see something perched alongside the road, like a raptor, I'm ready to pull over and "shoot" the bird. I figure my pulling over on a busy road is no more annoying than people pulled over talking on their phones (credit where it's due: at least they pulled over!).

This Red-tail was perched relatively close to a
cloverleaf interchange, I could see it from the highway
. . . but as soon as I aim, vamanos!

That happens way more than I expected. I mean, members of the genus Buteo are notorious sit-and-wait predators. They just sit and wait, you can look at them all day long. Except when you've got a lens that starts to move. Then, they're off!

Not moments before this bird was perched on
a road-side tree limb. At least I captured
one identifiable field mark!

Every so often on cooperates and sits still while you're re-setting your camera, which conveniently lost all of the default settings you programmed. OK, shutter-speed priority, check! ISO 80, check! Continuous shooting, check! Spot-meter . .. is the bird still there? Good! Spot-metering, check! Now, where can I go where those branches aren't in the way??

Well, clearly a Red-tail, and almost a nice shot.
Why do trees have so many tiny branches?

Solution: find a tree without any branches! Fence posts and telephone poles, it turns out, aren't necessarily an eyesore, as long as a eye-catching bird is perched on top.

Ahh, a close, non-flitty individual that's not obstructed
by branches. Now I remember why I keep trying!

Yes, sometimes it does work out. I can't wait to move on to the next group . . . maybe ducks!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

I and the Bird # 66

The latest addition of I and the Bird is up and ready for your reading pleasure. John of Born Again Bird Watcher has discovered a way to legally publish a playwright of clearly questionable moral fortitude (in my humble opinion), but richly talented in word craft.

Embedded in the script are . . . you guessed it, links to essays also well crafted, but likely authored by persons of questionable character (at least one, anyway: I have a submission in there). John's selection is something every birder should have on their night stand, be sure to get your copy of "The Importance of Being an Ornithologist."

Nicely played, John, a high bar set for "I and the Bird" in 2008!

Peace and good bird reading.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

If I Had a Million Checklists

Milestone alert: in December eBird, the online checklist program run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, received its one millionth checklist. As this press release notes, it wasn't that long ago when the project was receiving 5,000 checklists per month; now it's up to 50,000 per month.

This milestone is great news for a lot of reasons, but one of the serendipitous sides was who entered the checklist: none other than the author of one of my regular stops in the blogosphere, John of "A DC Birding Blog." You can read how surprised he was to find out the news, and that a new pair of Zeiss was on its way, on his blog post.

Congrats, John! Now, when will checklist 2,000,000 come in (and who will submit it)? You've got to play to win! Visit eBird and contribute, no checklist is too small.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Tell Me, Who Are You?

If only all birds said their names (think "Kill-deer"). I mean, if the tricky identifications had vocalizations that somehow gave it away, saving you from recording "possible" or "probable"; a chattering "Ka-MUN red-pol, ka-MUN red-pol" as opposed to a clear, whistled "OR-eeee red-pol, OR-eeee red-pol."

But that's part of the allure of birding. Separating the tiniest of differences to correctly assign an individual to a species, or, even better, subspecies. Sometimes it's just fun to figure out that puzzle that others have laid out for you, that rush of self-satisfaction when you defeat the challenge. By "fun" I mean the mental equivalent of self-flagellation.

By now birders across the continent (and thanks to the web, the world) know there is a major irruption of winter finches in the northeastern US this season. Discussions have popped up on blogs and listserves, and in hallways and lunch rooms at my workplace, about redpoll identification : when is a Common Redpoll large, pale, and/or frosted enough to be called a Hoary Redpoll? When are the undertail coverts sufficiently reduced, when is the profile "smushed" enough, when is the rump white enough?

I'm finding all that discussion, while helpful, is also distracting. I'm spending much, much longer sorting through the 50-odd redpolls at our feeder to find the Hoary, as I'm convinced there must be one, everywhere else there seems to be one (or more).

Two redpolls on the thistle feeder. The bird on the
right seems larger (I think), and paler than the one
on the left. Click the picture for a larger image.

The closest candidate I've found seems to fit some of the characteristics: an overall larger, frostier bird that sticks out of the flock. The face kind of has a "smushed" appearance, where the bill looks stubbier and as though it has been pushed back into the bird's head (relative to the neighboring Common Redpolls under the feeder, that is). I haven't seen the undertail coverts or the rump, so I can't comment on that, and (worse!) can't pose a remotely convincing argument to call it "Hoary."

No nearby bird for comparison, but seems
to be paler than an "expected" redpoll.
Click the picture for a larger image.

Incidentally, David Sibley has been poring over these identification issues, recently creating a "Characteristic Index for Redpoll Identification" (read more of his thoughts here, here, here, and here). How about you all? Any thoughts, based on a couple of mediocre photos?

To put a real frustrating, er, challenging, point on it, a second bird utilized our feeding station, trolling for food. Not the food I offer directly, but the kind I attract: it interrupted a Mourning Dove's millet snack, chasing it through the yard, but came up empty. I spent some time poring over Wheeler's "Raptors of Eastern North America" to compare traits on this bird with the diagnostic field marks.

I know what I think of this bird, and I had the unfair advantage of seeing it in various poses and actions, but what do you think? Sharpie or Cooper's? We've had both in previous winters. Click the pictures for larger images.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

This One Goes to Eleven

Top Ten Nature Moments, 2007 Edition

Nature is around all the time, and I try to pay attention as often as I can. Here I list the the ten most memorable events from 2007 that strengthened my connection with the natural world. In many instances it was an opportunity rather than a singular happening (mostly because I'm wishy-washy), so I typically chose the situation rather than a moment.

01. 17 Mar - starting this blog.
While you could argue sitting inside in front of a computer is the antithesis of "experiencing natural moments," I'd argue the process of writing reinforces the experience. In writing I'm forced, or better, allowed to relive those moments, reminiscing over the details while putting them in context of a greater scheme. Hopefully sharing some of these moments allows others to join in.
Read my first, out-of-the-blue, non-introductory, post here.

02. 30 Mar-02 Apr - a late winter (early spring?) trip to Vermont.

An American Robin perches on a very thin
headstone in a historic cemetery in Stowe, VT.

The wife and I dropped off the child with the grandparents and headed to Stowe, VT for a long weekend. During our trip we not only indulged in excellent Thai food, browsed local art galleries, visited Ben & Jerry's and the city of Burlington, but we spent a considerable amount of time snowshoeing up Smuggler's Notch and cross-country skiing on some groomed (some ungroomed) trails, always birding and nature-watching.

03. Spring and Summer (various dates) - landscaping our yard.
During the winter months we start preparing our gardening and landscaping activities, but it's the getting-down-and-dirty aspect that really ties us to our land. It's especially rewarding when we see the birds and insects using the native plants for food and shelter (not so much when the deer, rabbits, and groundhogs eat the plants).
Read some descriptions here, here and here.

04. 26-30 May - Summer trip to Arkansas.

A foggy view from the top of Mt. Magazine,
the highest point in AR.

Annual Arkansas trips are a must to visit family, but it's also a great place to be to get outdoors. From the Ozark Mountains to the Gulf Coast Plain, it's no wonder it's called "the Natural State." This summer (and coming from NY, May in AR qualifies as "summer") trip included a trips to a couple spots I'd never visited before.
Read about my trip to Bald Knob NWR here.

05. 10-11 Jun - camping in Stony Brook State Park.
A birthday camping trip, the first camping trip for our three-year-old, was long overdue. Falling asleep to a bubbling stream, waking to a bubbling Louisiana Waterthrush, and spending all day with nothing to do except hike through a deep gorge, watch the birds, butterflies, caterpillars, fish, and mammals interacting in their environment, and identifying all the plants we could was a great way to "Simplify, simplify, simplify."

Stony Brook boasts numerous waterfalls and
swimming holes. Added perk: they're dog friendly!

Read more of the story here.

06. 14-21 Jul - vacation in Chincoteague, VA.
Trips to Chincoteague Island, VA and the nearby Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge have been part of my annual cycle since I was about six years old; this year was no exception. A wonderful place to reconnect with the barrier island ecosystem (this year's undertaking: Forster's vs. Common Tern identification).

Assateague Island's ecosystem: classic barrier island.

07. 15-18 Aug - trip to the Pacific Northwest.

The Pacific Coast Rainforest, on Whidbey Island, WA.

Work-related, but happily for me that means it's related to the natural world. Two extremely different habitats in the same day (Great Basin Desert and Coastal Rainforest), clearly too short to really immerse oneself in anything, but a chance to appreciate wondrous diversity.

The Great Basin Desert, near Yakima, WA.

08. 28 Oct - First winter finch arrival in this (possible) superflight year.
A couple of days after putting out the feeders and who shows up? An Evening Grosbeak! An amazing way to revitalize "yard birding." Incidentally, this was my first submission to "I and the Bird."
Read the post here.

09. 18-23 Nov - Fall trip to Chincoteague, VA.
This time I was meeting my folks and sister alone, my wife and daughter headed to visit her family. Without toddler obligations I had more time to get out and bird, which was stellar. Highlights were a flock of White Ibis and a huge number of Red-breasted Nuthatches, which is related to the winter finch irruptions mentioned above.

A flock of White Ibis hanging out with Great Egrets
(they're there, I swear!) at Chincoteague NWR.

Read more about the Red-breasted Nuthatch invasion here.

10. 27 Dec 2007 - chasing birds with friends.
What started as a "routine" plan to try and find some winter specialties turned out to be much more, at least in an internal, reflective way. We dipped on some, or more accurately, most of the target birds, but the birds aren't necessarily what birding is all about.
Read more here.

And a bonus event:
11. 31 Dec, 11:40 PM - hand-entering my 2,500th checklist into eBird.
I had already compiled my Top 10 before this happened, but this may be my proudest "natural moment" of the year so I had to add it. I've been entering eBird checklists since before "eBird" existed (at least in a public venue), but I have yet to take advantage of uploading batches of "old" checklists. Instead, I've hand entered checklists regularly, some collected much less formally than others, but useful sightings nonetheless. I spent a few extra minutes on New Year's Eve to enter a couple missed ones from the year when I realized I was a couple shy of 2,500.

And why is entering data into a computer a natural connection? Because every one of those checklists was gathered from time spent observing and appreciating nature, either alone or with friends, either formally or casually, either from my living room window or in the field. Wherever, whenever, and however, nature is there for observation and appreciation, and that is what I'm pursuing - at work, at home, and here, online.

Best wishes for 2008!
Locations of visitors to this page