Thursday, October 30, 2008

Political Carrion?

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

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

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

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

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

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

photo credit: Unknown, I presume Newsweek

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


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

7,257-Mile Marathon

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

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

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

Image courtesy of


Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A Perfect Chase

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, October 6, 2008

The Gran Pajonal Expedition

If you like reading about scientists exploring little-visited, remote areas then you'll love this.

This is the story of three undergraduate students turned passionate biologists, not to mention avid and talented birders, who mounted an expedition to a remote region in central Peru. It's the story of a region consisting of diverse forests and grasslands, to date largely ignored by ornithologists. It's a story where new discoveries could appear anywhere, anytime.

But it's not my story to tell. Instead, visit the Gran Pajonal Expedition web site to learn about the team, their goals, the importance of their work, and the latest reports from the field.

And live, as I do, in jealousy!

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