Sunday, November 30, 2008

Where I Was

Mt. Rainier
Mt. Rainier, as seen from the Seattle - Bremerton ferry.

Jan M got it, based on the birds (and weather!) she figured we were in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. We were in Gig Harbor for the bulk of the trip; more coming soon!
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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Where I'm At

I'm not at home in the Southern Tier of New York, but maybe you can guess where I'm spending Turkey Day tomorrow. This doesn't factor into the location, but I'm unable to upload photos so it'll be a text only challenge.

The birding trips have been fairly local, just neighborhood birding with the occasional local park. On my walks I commonly see Red-breasted Nuthatches, Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned Kinglets (in good numbers!), Black-capped and Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Brown Creepers, American Robins and Varied Thrushes. When I say "commonly seen" I really mean "frequently hear" since getting binoculars on them in the trees and in the weather has been tough.

When I find a patch of open water to scope I frequently spot Horned, Red-necked, and Western Grebes, Common and Pacific Loons (I have my eye out for Yellow-billed), and gulls. Weird gulls, not quite Western, not quite Glaucous-winged. I sometimes find a Pigion Guillimot and/or Marbled Murrelet, and Bald Eagles aren't as forthcoming as I suspected.

Any guesses? Leave them in the comments, and let me know how you arrived at your conclusion!


Thursday, November 20, 2008

Little Blue Persists

20 November - Snow, Clouds, Sun, and a Little Blue

Today was actually a pretty good day, even if it was a work day. I don't mean to imply that I was slightly depressed. No, I actually like the winter weather, it keeps the bird feeder visitors interesting. The "Little Blue" is a Little Blue Heron, Egretta caerulea, a surprise visitor that has been hanging around Sapsucker Woods Sanctuary since November 7th (I wrote about this bird and its unexpected status in an earlier post). Since its arrival the weather has turned decidedly more wintry.

Little Blue Heron in the snow, center stage in the
little open water left on Sapsucker Woods Pond.

Many of us have been checking to see if the Little Blue is around each day, wondering when the weather will finally drive it to warmer temperatures farther south.

The sky cleared later in the day. Though not
seen directly, the sun made its presence known,
casting a cool light across Sapsucker Woods.

The Little Blue spent the late afternoon
perched on a snowy log
after a successful day
hunting in the shrinking patch of open water.

As I was photographing the bird from inside the Cornell Lab of Ornithology the clouds allowed a burst of sun light before sundown. With views like this, is it any wonder we spend so much time watching out of the staff lounge, birds or no birds?

Read more about Little Blue Herons at the All About Birds website.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Antarctica, Penguins, and a Blog

Do you love exotic locations? Penguins? Reading nature-oriented blogs?

If so there's a new (at least to me) blog that is worth adding to your reader, "Antarctica: Life Among the Penguins."

It's written by Noah Stryker who is spending this season at Camp Crozier, Antarctica with a few research scientists and thousands of Adelie Penguins. Noah, an associate editor of Birding (from the American Birding Association) and columnist from WildBird Magazine, is an excellent writer and photographer. Couple that with his curiosity, attention to detail, and passion for birds and you've got a recipe for an outstanding vicarious experience.



Thursday, November 13, 2008

A Scene From the Finger Lakes

12 November 2008 - Finger Lakes Scenery

Recently I spent a morning retrieving the recording units we use to study the flight calls of nocturnally migrating birds from various spots surrounding Ithaca, NY. Unlike last year's adventure it was a fairly leisurely exercise, one that begs you to slow down to enjoy the scenery. While I'm more inclined to photograph specific subjects (mostly birds and family) I was inspired to shoot a few "scenes from the Finger Lakes" as I drove through the countryside.

This shot, in my mind, typifies fall in the Finger Lakes. The pale blue sky, thin clouds, and still standing corn seems to be a repeated theme between the lakes (closer to the lakes you get the same sky but vineyards instead of corn). My bird-oriented mind doesn't so much see the dying corn stalks, but the promise of Wild Turkeys, American Crows, deer, and more turkeys through the winter months. I know deer aren't a bird, but anyone driving needs to watch out for them in these parts!

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Unexpected But Not Surprising

Whew, meant to post this earlier but got distracted. A Little Blue Heron, a Presidential election, a saw-whet owl, and a pesky thing called a "day job" all conspired to keep me from finishing this recounting of a couple of unusual encounters.

On Sunday, November 2nd, while other birders were racing to see the first recorded California Gull in the Cayuga Lake Basin, Reina and I were heading to Corning, NY to help Donna manage the annual Red Baron Half Marathon. We had just reached the bottom of our hill, for some reason discussing the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz, when an oddly-shaped animal crossed the road a few cars in front of us. Not the expected cat, dog, deer, possum, or coyote shape, not quite turkey. Besides, it ran across the road; turkeys seem to take their time, except when they're bee-lining to our feeding station during the winter months.

Because the bird had paused in the middle of someone's yard we had plenty of time to pull on the shoulder to watch and photograph a Ring-necked Pheasant, one of the most colorful birds.

Ring-necked Pheasant, maleAfter running across the road this handsome
male Ring-necked Pheasant loitered in the shade
before disappearing in an overgrown field.

It wasn't overly surprising, like picking out a California Gull loafing with a flock of Ring-billed Gulls in the Finger Lakes, but it was unexpected. I have heard pheasants calling in the fields surrounding the airport but was the first I actually saw. This was the first pheasant Reina had seen, she loved its clown-like coloring, so out of place in western NY where the leaves have mostly faded to a mostly homogeneous hue of brown. I did have to explain why the bird did not have any pink feathers.

By itself that sighting was mildly interesting, but it became more interesting on Tuesday morning. After I voted and dropped Reina at school I traveled my Blue Highway towards Ithaca. As I meandered along a gaudy, colorful patch caught my eye. What I first mistook for someone's discarded trash turned out to be a pheasant partially hidden on the side of the road.

Ring-necked Pheasant, maleMale Ring-necked Pheasant, obscured by roadside vegetation.

Incidentally, doesn't that usually work the other way? At first glance you find an unusual bird, which then morphs into something completely different upon closer inspection (witness Jack Conner's classic "Crested Caracara turned trash bag" story in The Complete Birder*)?

Regardless, what started as a single pheasant wound up being no less than five male pheasants, perhaps more, hiding in the underbrush. I've never seen more than one at a time, and eBird reports the average sighting in the Finger Lakes region of New York is two birds (my six bird report spiked the high count).

That's why I found this grouping, this nye of pheasants, noteworthy. Did you know a group of pheasants is called a nye? According to the Palomar Audubon Society you can also use a nest of pheasants, a nide of pheasants, or (if they're in flight) a bouquet of pheasants. Apparently a covey of pheasants also works, but that's so conventional.

Regardless, it prompted me to wonder if they all hadn't been on the shoulder of the road, how many would I have seen? How many additional birds might have been there, completely hidden by the vegetation? How many have I missed in the past?

The topper was a single hen. I would estimate 99% of the pheasants I've seen are males, the odd female was one I flushed years ago while walking through a former corn field turned old field (various grasses, forbs, and shrubs) behind my parents house. This was the first I've seen close enough to study.

Ring-necked Pheasant, femaleFemale Ring-necked Pheasant, much more patient than the males.

The birds were quite accommodating. I had time to stop, throw the car in reverse, back up, grab the camera and shoot a few shots. The female was the last to leave, perhaps more secure with her more camouflaged plumage.

Ring-necked Pheasant, femaleI'm happier with this shot, no grass shielding her face.

Ring-necked Pheasants must be one of those species that drive field guide map-makers and demographers nuts. They're not native to North America, but they're established coast to coast in agricultural lands. Not only are they maintaining a relatively stable population on their own, their popularity with hunting clubs and private collections augments their numbers, both within and outside their expected North American range. eBird shows a more widespread distribution than the field guides, likely representing these escaped or intentionally introduced populations, including a population on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska.

What do you think? Given the amount of human assistance they receive are pheasants, along with other stocked game birds (Chukars, for example), more likely to surprise birders than vagrants that wander under their own power?

* Though published 20 years ago The Complete Birder remains among the essential books everyone interested in birds should have on their bookshelf.


Monday, November 10, 2008

Northern Saw-whet Owl, Up Close and Personal

Sunday morning started normally enough, with two slow-rising parents having coffee while an already wound-up child was running wild with her imagination in the living room. But then we heard a light "thump" against a window from the other side of the house. I figured I'd search under the windows later, when my eyes were a bit more open, to see if a junco or goldfinch met with some bad luck. That would be unusual, window strikes almost always occur on the south side of the house.

A few moments later we heard a scraping, fluttery sound from just down the hall from the living room. It continued long enough that I was able to peek around the corner to see the south-facing windows, expecting to find a junco chasing its reflection.

Nope. Clearly a bird too big to be a junco, and not black/white but whitish, brownish, and streaky. Sharpie pinning an unfortunate junco? The bird seemed to be looking to perch on the ledge and finally succeeded. Not a Sharpie, it was a Northern Saw-whet Owl!

We all got amazing close-up looks of the owl, the owl had amazing close-up looks at us. We stared, it stared. I ran for the camera, it flew. Luckily Donna and Reina watched where it landed, in a line of spruce trees not too far from the house.

There's an owl in there somewhere. You can actually see it, look closely!

Armed with binoculars, a scope, and camera we headed out into the yard a reasonable distance from the line of trees so we wouldn't spook it further. It didn't take long to find, though it did relocate a bit farther back in the tree as we watched. We tried not to stare too long, we tried not to point and make it obvious we were gawking.

Hunkered down next to the trunk, this bird settled in for the day.

Ultimately it did what saw-whets do when encountered by people: they sit stock still and wait, giving the very-wrong impression that they are tame. This one perched fairly high so there was no temptation on Reina's part to try and pet it (which we would have stopped, don't worry). I've seen folks of all ages consider that option - let's face it, and I understand the temptation: saw-whets are arguably the cutest owl ever.

Reina gets an eyeful, hopefully ending her saw-whet phobia. When she
was two I whistled one in, which flew a little too close for her liking.
To think, I could have ended a potential birding career with that!

Scopes are invaluable in getting folks excited about wildlife. The "Wow!" factor jumped by an order of magnitude when all the neighbors we could muster took a peek. The funny paradox with the scope: we had to step back a ways to get a closer look.

Eyes mostly closed, but still keeping an eye on us. I thought
the chickadees, Blue Jays, and crows would have been a
bit more wary, but they ignored the owl completely.

We left the bird alone for the day, though I checked on it periodically. It roosted, seemingly content. I opted not to run the lawn mower at all, even though grinding up leaves to cover our gardens was on the "to do" list. Hopefully the weather will hold and we can do it next weekend.

Though it may be just passing through we're hoping this bird will stick around. We often hear them in during the winter months, maybe our yard is part of its wintering grounds. Come to think of it, we found quite a few mice in our yard this year, nesting in some of our nest boxes and even nesting in a small divot in our garden. Seems like a reasonable food supply this year.

Read more about Northern Saw-whet Owls.


Friday, November 7, 2008

Little Blue Heron

I find the phone calls I get at work can be divided into a few general categories. In order of declining frequency, my categories are: 1) computer help request (though I'm not an IT person), 2) approval to use the University's logo request (though I have no authority to grant approval), 3) shopping list requests (Hi Donna!), and 4) actual work-related calls.

Recently I can add a fifth, one that I hope becomes more frequent: 5) rare bird sightings.

I was at my desk Tuesday morning when Tom Johnson, who normally calls me at home about birds I can't get away to chase, called to tell me a Little Blue Heron was standing a couple hundred yards away from my desk. That I can chase.

I grabbed my bins and my camera and joined a handful of other Lab employees watching the snow white heron forage at the edge of the Fuller Wetlands in Sapsucker Woods.

Little Blue Heron, immatureImmature Little-blues are white while adults are slate-blue.
This distinct difference in color morphs makes it unique among
heron species, and it leads to easy misidentification of young ones.

Though a bird typically found in the south-eastern and south-central parts of the U.S., Little Blue Herons are no stranger to our area. They make appearances well away from their breeding grounds, mostly during bouts of post-breeding dispersal. From the BNA Online:

Postbreeding dispersal of nestlings and adults from colonies is relatively random; movement initially is in all directions, but frequently northerly. Some birds disperse northward, especially along the Atlantic Coast, before they move south during migration.

Birds may wander quite a distance away from their breeding areas as shown below. While not expected, it's not uncommon to find a bird anywhere south of the dashed line.

Little Blue Heron distributionExpected distribution of Little Blue Heron. Source: BNA Online

What makes this one extra-special is its November appearance. Wandering birds typically start heading south in mid-September and mostly depart their northern range by mid-October. Since its discovery it's been observed at Sapsucker Woods daily, including this morning. If you are in the area, swing by for a look!

Little Blue Heron, immatureThe yellow-ish legs and thicker bill separate
this bird from Snowy and Little Egrets.


Thursday, November 6, 2008

Sapsucker Woods Sunset

05 November 2008 - Sunset over the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY.

Sunset over the Cornell Lab of OrnithologyClick the image for a larger version in new window.

Now that the clocks have fallen back an hour I'll wind up leaving work in the dark for the next few months. For the time being it's only almost dark, meaning we occasionally witness a sky painted with broad strokes of orange, red, violet, and pink as the sun sets over Sapsucker Woods. An additional benefit: I watched a Northern Saw-whet Owl fly across the road as I left the parking lot.

That meeting of light and dark is truly a magical moment.

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Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Revolution Starts Now

One last non-birdy post on this historical and uber-important evening. Watching the election returns come in has not disappointed. The past two elections have shown how polls and conventional wisdom can be misleading, so to see this one come through was a relief. Positive change is on the way, can you feel it?

Yesterday I posted
about patriotism, and tonight's victory speech by Sen. Obama was a moving promise to reunite our country. I'm hopeful he can succeed.

Today I'm thinking one thing: the revolution starts now. OK, really, probably 23-odd months ago when Obama first announced, but now there is really a new day dawning. And tomorrow, another new day dawning, I'll be back to talking birds. There have been some good ones lately!

The Revolution Starts Now
I was walkin’ down the street
In the town where I was born
I was movin’ to a beat
That I’d never felt before
So I opened up my eyes
And I took a look around
I saw it written ‘cross the sky
The revolution starts now
Yeah, the revolution starts now

The revolution starts now
When you rise above your fear
And tear the walls around you down
The revolution starts here
Where you work and where you play
Where you lay your money down
What you do and what you say
The revolution starts now
Yeah the revolution starts now

Yeah the revolution starts now
In your own backyard
In your own hometown
So what you doin’ standin’ around?
Just follow your heart
The revolution starts now

Last night I had a dream
That the world had turned around
And all our hopes had come to be
And the people gathered ‘round
They all brought what they could bring
And nobody went without
And I learned a song to sing
The revolution starts now


Monday, November 3, 2008

I Am A Patriot

Election Day Eve, 2008
Years ago, four to be precise, my sister sent me a couple of CDs. One was filled with "kid friendly" lullaby type songs, and though specifically for our newborn daughter it's still a favorite among all of us.

The other she simply called, "VOTE". It's election-themed so I pull it out every two years a few weeks before election day. One song has stuck with me this election cycle, more so than the past two: an Eddie Vedder solo version of "I Am a Patriot," penned by Steven Van Zandt.

When it comes to politics (which I rarely address here, but catch me outside of this blog . . . ) there are plenty of things to complain about. The generally apathetic and uninformed electorate and the lies, corruption, and greed at every level are two that bother me. But this year, more than anything else, I'm absolutely sick of the partisan bullsh*t, the false idea that some Americans aren't real Americans, that one party is more patriotic than the other party, that one party doesn't get the concept of country, freedom, apple pie, and baseball. The people who try to propagate this should be simply ashamed at what they've become.

I'm so glad people are standing up to these false dichotomies this year, rightly pointing out we are all Americans cherishing life and liberty and pursuing happiness. No one party has a monopoly on that idea, no one party can claim to "get it," referring to how to protect our shores along with our inalienable rights, while the other is completely ignorant. (I get that some individuals, members of all parties, may not "get it,"and that an uninformed or easily persuadable electorate can elect these folks and set back forward strides. But generally speaking I think most Americans, right or left of center, are all after the "American Dream.")

So, this song has been my anthem this year. I'm encouraged by what we've been seeing this cycle, I'm hopeful we'll see a fundamental change in how politics is played, regardless of who wins tomorrow. Something inspiring has been stirred up, and I'm hoping it's something contagious, unstoppable, and deep rooted. We can be the change we want to see in this world.

I Am A Patriot
And the river opens for the righteous, someday

I was walking with my brother
And he wondered what was on my mind
I said what I believe in my soul
It ain't what I see with my eyes
And we can't turn our backs this time

I am a patriot and I love my country
Because my country is all I know
I want to be with my family
With people who understand me
I got nowhere else to go
I am a patriot

And the river opens for the righteous, someday

I was talking with my sister
She looked so fine
I said baby what's on your mind
She said I want to run like the lion
Released from the cages
Released from the rages
Burning in my heart tonight

I am a patriot and I love my country
Because my country is all I know

And I ain't no communist, and I ain't no capitalist
And I ain't no socialist
and I sure ain't no imperialist
And I ain't no democrat
And I ain't no republican either
And I only know one party
and its name is freedom
I am a patriot

And the river opens for the righteous, someday

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