Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Citizen's Guide: Guidelines for Migratory Birds in Forested Areas [I'd Love to Save the World]

Next up, guidelines for protecting forested areas as migratory bird habitat.

The Citizen's Guide to Migratory Bird Conservation
Guidelines for Protecting Migratory Bird Habitat:
Guidelines for Conservation of Migratory Birds in Forested Areas

1. Avoid fragmenting forested areas.

2. Maintain a well-developed understory, including woody and herbaceous vegetation, to provide resources to a diverse set of woodland bird species.

3. Minimize the amount of edge habitat by managing generally circular- or square-shaped forests.

4. Protect or restore forests along streams, wide stream bottoms, and ravines -- they can be crucial to migratory birds.

5. Remove nonnative plant species, such as kudzu and salt-cedar.

Peter Dunne, Richard Kane, and Paul Kerlinger, New Jersey Audubon Society,
P.O. Box 693, Bernardsville, NJ 07294

This section has been excerpted in its entirety. Author information and article text current as of 1995.

Dunne, P., R. Kane, and P. Kerlinger. 1995. Citizen's Guide to Migratory Bird Conservation, Bonney, R., S. Carlson, and M. Fischer, eds. Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Citizen's Guide: Guidelines for Migratory Birds on Grasslands [I'd Love to Save the World]

The next set of guidelines for protecting migratory bird habitat focus on grasslands. As Nate pointed out in an earlier comment, grassland habitats (and therefore the birds that utilize them) are often overlooked as a habitat to protect. Our focus often turns to wetlands, forests, riparian zones, and coastal areas; thankfully, the Citizen's Guide leaves no stone, or blade of grass, unturned. As always, your thoughts and suggestions welcome and encouraged.

The Citizen's Guide to Migratory Bird Conservation
Guidelines for Protecting Migratory Bird Habitat:
Guidelines for Conservation of Migratory Birds on Grasslands

1. Avoid fragmenting existing grassland tracts. The larger the grassland, the greater the number of area-sensitive species, such as Upland Sandpiper and Henslow's Sparrow, that will be able to nest successfully in the area.

2. When restoring grasslands, minimize the amount of edge habitat by designing roughly circular or square plots. Such programs should use native grasses and local seed sources. Determining the species that should occur at a given site may require research.

3. To benefit area-sensitive birds, we believe that plots should be no smaller than 125 acres, and preferably 250 acres or more. Fifty acres or less will benefit birds that are the least sensitive to area size (such as Dickcissel or Red-winged Blackbird).

4. If plots smaller than 50 acres are the only option, we recommend that they be as numerous as possible and no farther apart than one mile.

5. Monitor grass height. Eliminate woody vegetation that grows higher than native grasses.

6. Grassland evolved with regular burning. Learn about prescribed burns and evaluate the possibility of instituting this practice.

Peter Dunne, Richard Kane, and Paul Kerlinger, New Jersey Audubon Society,
P.O. Box 693, Bernardsville, NJ 07294

This section has been excerpted in its entirety. Author information and article text current as of 1995.

Dunne, P., R. Kane, and P. Kerlinger. 1995. Citizen's Guide to Migratory Bird Conservation, Bonney, R., S. Carlson, and M. Fischer, eds. Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Citizen's Guide: Guidelines for Backyard Habitat Conservation Projects [I'd Love to Save the World]

These first guidelines for protecting habitat are geared towards backyards. They may be the most direct action we can take: within reason, we can choose how to maintain our property. The guidelines presented here are straight-forward and effective ways to improve your backyard for the birds. My comments follow.

The Citizen's Guide to Migratory Bird Conservation
Guidelines for Protecting Migratory Bird Habitat:
Guidelines for Backyard Habitats

1. Grow native plants that provide fruit or seeds.

2. Woodlots with fallen limbs and leaves, dead plant material, and other woodland debris harbor the insects that migratory birds thrive on. Leave as much dead plant material as possible on the land (without endangering your home, of course).

3. Seek alternatives to chemical pesticides. Use biological controls for unwanted insects and vegetation.

4. Reduce the risk of bird predation by keeping pet cats indoors. Refrain from putting out table scraps, which will attract predators such as raccoons.

5. Invite neighboring landowners to join your backyard effort. Plan cooperatively!

Peter Dunne, Richard Kane, and Paul Kerlinger, New Jersey Audubon Society,
P.O. Box 693, Bernardsville, NJ 07294

This section has been excerpted in its entirety. Author information and article text current as of 1995.

Dunne, P., R. Kane, and P. Kerlinger. 1995. Citizen's Guide to Migratory Bird Conservation, Bonney, R., S. Carlson, and M. Fischer, eds. Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

My comments: the first four guidelines are fairly well known these days, and they do two things essential for migrating birds: provide a safe place to forage for safe foods, steps that are pretty easy to implement. In fact, we've been improving our 4-acre lot ever since we bought it in 2002, adding berry-producing shrubs like spicebush, winterberry, and serviceberry and seed-producing flowers Purple Coneflower, Labrador Violet, and Helianthus. And it's working, we see sparrows foraging in the flower beds and songbirds in the branches of the shrubs. We don't use pesticides. If weeds are removed, it's by hand. Insects, with the exception of Japanese Beetles, are welcome to forage. We do periodically put out hormone traps, and we hand-pick them when they're out of control (fun activity for kids!).

Our two cats are entirely indoor cats, except that one time a visitor let Tazzie out because "he looked like he wanted to go out." Every once in a while we get a black-and-white visitor who camps out by the pond, and I never have figured out where it comes from. I've also never succeeded in catching the thing (and I'm not sure what I'd do if I did). To date, as far as I can tell, it's been focused on insects in the tall grass.

Anyway, it's the fifth guideline that I find fascinating. Though we do have neighbors, none are really close by. Our hill is pretty well forested and I'm not entirely sure that persuading our neighbors to landscape differently, if needed, is the best use of my time, there's probably only so much of me they can stand (more on that in a future post).

But I did talk with two landowners who had undertaken a cooperative effort. It was all relatively new at the time so I can't comment on how successful their project was. Maybe, eventually, their small island in Suburbia will become an oasis to passing migrants. But I was really impressed with their cooperative spirit. Isn't the stereotype that neighbors argue and bicker over . . . I don't know, borrowed tools? Length of the grass? Dog poop in the yard?

Not these guys, they were working together. Well, not really together, but using compatible methods to reach a common goal. Though there was no clear division between their yards, you could see the different approaches. One was more controlled and focused on shrubs and trees, the other more flowery and wild looking. Two unique approaches, each allowing their individual personalities to shine through, and both focused on birds and wildlife.

What do you think, would you try a multifamily effort in landscaping? Would it work in your area? As always, your thoughts and suggestions welcome and encouraged.


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Citizen's Guide: Guidelines For Protecting Migratory Bird Habitat [I'd Love to Save the World]

OK, we're through the introduction of the Citizen's Guide; now we get to the action items. Following this introduction to the importance of habitat we will, in upcoming posts, learn how to protect migratory bird habitat in our backyards, on grasslands, in forested areas, on farmlands, and how to plan for conservation-oriented land-use.

The Citizen's Guide to Migratory Bird Conservation
Guidelines for Protecting Migratory Bird Habitat

To survive, birds need habitat. Exactly what type and how much depends on each species' food preferences, foraging strategies, and nest site requirements. Some kinds of birds do fine in suburban and even urban areas. But species whose habitat requirements are specific -- in particular, birds that require large tracts of woodland or grassland - are having more difficulty. For example, the Swainson's Warbler, a bird of southeastern bottomland hardwood forests, requires about 25 acres of habitat per breeding pair. And a single pair usually will not nest unless other pairs inhabit the area, too. Maintaining a viable population of these birds requires a forested tract of perhaps 5,000 acres.

For species with specific habitat requirements, we must maintain suitable habitat in the face of human activity. And the challenge is heightened by the fact that unlike humans, birds do not pay attention to land ownership. Because their habitats cross legal boundaries, habitat protection plans must too.

Is protecting habitat for migratory birds a realistic goal for the 21st century? You bet! Many amateur birders, conservationists, agency personnel, and private landowners support conservation of bird populations and their habitats before species reach critically low levels -- at which point intervention becomes expensive and controversial. Maintaining habitat can and does occur on the local, state, regional, national, and even international levels.

To be successful, habitat maintenance should follow several guiding principles. These can be applied to conservation of breeding range, wintering grounds, and migratory corridors. All land managers, public and private, should find these principles helpful in guiding their thinking about how to enhance habitat.

As you go about your migratory bird conservation projects -- whether in your own backyard or in a wider community - review these principles from time to time. They will help keep your project on track.

Peter Dunne, Richard Kane, and Paul Kerlinger, New Jersey Audubon Society,
P.O. Box 693, Bernardsville, NJ 07294

This section has been excerpted in its entirety. Author information and article text current as of 1995.

Dunne, P., R. Kane, and P. Kerlinger. 1995. Citizen's Guide to Migratory Bird Conservation, Bonney, R., S. Carlson, and M. Fischer, eds. Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

As always, your thoughts and suggestions welcome and encouraged.


Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Citizen's Guide: The Solution: Partners In Flight [I'd Love to Save the World]

And so we come to the end of the introduction, happily on a high note: although there are numerous challenges that face migratory birds on their Latin American wintering grounds, on their migratory routes, and on their breeding grounds, there is a massive effort underway to keep common birds common. My comments about this 1995 document follow.

The Citizen's Guide to Migratory Bird Conservation
The Solution: Partners in Flight

But here is the good news. Most species of neotropical migrants are still common, and very few species are endangered or even threatened. We are concerned about declining species because we want to avoid reaching a crisis situation -- we want to maintain populations while they are still healthy. We therefore have the opportunity to conserve bird diversity in North America without putting an additional strain on our economic and social institutions.

Recognizing that conserving neotropical migratory birds is too big of a problem for any one agency, organization, state, or even country, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation launched a new program in 1990 called Partners in Flight. This massive program is not an organization. It has no single address or employees. Rather, it is a cooperative effort among numerous state and federal government agencies, non-governmental conservation organizations, and private industry. The goal of Partners in Flight is to improve our understanding of neotropical migrants, identify species most at risk, and develop and carry out cooperative plans to protect their habitat.

Already great strides have been made in identifying the bird species needing the most help. A species prioritization scheme, available from the Colorado Bird Observatory, has shown which species are at greatest risk in every part of North America. This complex scheme takes into account many factors, including global abundance, breeding and winter distributions, and threats to habitats on wintering and breeding grounds. Identifying the species that are most vulnerable shows conservationists which habitats most need protection or restoration.

Progress also has been made toward developing regional and national migratory bird habitat conservation plans. These plans are based on the concept of management at the landscape level. In this context, "landscape" refers to a large area such as you might see while flying in an airplane, an area with a mosaic of habitat patches. Each of these habitats predictably harbors certain bird species, and individual birds of each species use habitat not just within their own breeding territory, but also in neighboring habitat patches. So the spacial arrangement of habitat patches, as well as the quality of the habitats, is important to birds.

Because landscape-level management crosses political and economic boundaries, the plans call for public, private, and intergovernmental cooperation. Indeed, Partners in Flight is a model of partnerships for conservation. Participants include more than 15 federal agencies, over 60 state and provincial agencies, 16 companies representing the forest products industry, and more than 30 private conservation groups.

There is one more important partner: you. As someone concerned about birds and their habitat, you can make a big difference. This booklet explains exactly how you can become involved in Partners in Flight -- because every activity descried will lead toward migratory bird conservation.

Many Partners in Flight contacts are listed on page 32. For an even more complete list of contacts, write for a copy of the Partners in Flight newsletter (ordering information is on the inside back cover). The newsletter will also keep you up to date on all Partners in Flight activities.

Russell Greenberg and Susan Lumpkin, Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, National Zoological Park, Washington, DC 20008

Arthur Weissman, Green Seal, 1250 23rd St. NW, Washington, DC 20037

This section has been excerpted in its entirety. Author information and article text current as of 1995.

Greenberg, R., S. Lumpkin, and A. Weissman. 1995. Citizen's Guide to Migratory Bird Conservation, Bonney, R., S. Carlson, and M. Fischer, eds. Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

As always, your thoughts and suggestions welcome and encouraged, but here are a few of mine, which are naturally open to your comments, too.

I believe this document is extremely well written, and this piece concentrates on several powerful messages. There's the proclamation of a broad, collaborative effort. There's the direct appeal for individuals to accept their role in conservation. There's the complex methodology used to identify focal species. There's the recognition of the necessity of landscape-level management, and the acknowledgment of imperative cooperation across multiple boundaries. And it's presented in a manner fitting the target audience: anyone who expresses an interest in birds, whether they're trained ornithologists, a novice bird-watcher, or anyone in between.

Of course, edits need to be made here, mostly updates -- surely PIF has changed since '95. How many organizations, and from what sector (not-for-profit, industry, government, non-gov, etc)? Are the same common birds in '95 still common in 2009, or are some now listed as threatened or special concern? I realize this is an intro piece, but perhaps a progress report, in the form of a line or two where appropriate, would be useful.

What say you?


Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween, Y'all! [Season's Greetings]

I feel guilty about it, but I have to come clean. We actively participated pumpkin-top removal to create three jack-o-lanterns to celebrate the season.

But we offset our footprint by using locally grown, organic pumpkins. Very local, in fact, all three came from our garden. We've tried in the past but never had a pumpkin survive until Halloween, but this year we had a more robust crop, due to their organic situation: they grew in our compost pile.

Happy Halloween!


Thursday, October 29, 2009

Learn More About Birds [Double Your Pleasure]

Here's another FYI post to announce a new online course offered through the Cornell Lab, especially great for those who want to increase their knowledge about the birds they're watching.

Enhance Your Enjoyment of Birds with Our New Online Course

Why does a Red-winged Blackbird flare its colorful wing patches? What does it mean when ducks bob their heads? Explore the meaning behind fascinating bird behaviors with the Cornell Lab's newest course, "Investigating Behavior—Courtship and Rivalry in Birds."

"It's packed with multimedia and interactive activities that make this course unlike anything else available," says course instructor and author Colleen McLinn. "We wanted to create a learning environment that's friendly and accessible to everyone."

“You get the whole gamut—from birds you might see in your backyard to the most spectacular birds on the planet,” says course coauthor Kevin McGowan.

The five-week course begins on November 11 and will be offered again on January 6. The course is $255 for Cornell Lab members ($295 for nonmembers), plus a $30 registration fee. You can watch a 2.5-minute video about the course at http://www.ecornell.com/birds. To receive the member discount, sign up by phone at (866) 326-7635 and mention that you are a member. Enrollment is limited, so sign up soon!


A Golden Opportunity! [Working for a Living]

Here is an amazing opportunity, perhaps the chance of a lifetime: you could come to Ithaca and work with me! And a bunch of other people who love birds, of course. Good luck if you apply!

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is seeking a programmer/analyst to work as part of a terrestrial acoustic monitoring initiative to monitor the flight-calls of nocturnally migrating birds. This position had a primary emphasis on creating user interfaces for automated detection, classification, and visualization systems. We are seeking someone with a passion for studying bird migration and flight calls, someone who is excited about developing cutting edge tools that will be a cornerstone of the next generation, state of the art acoustic monitoring of migrant birds.

This position is available in the Bioacoustics Research Program - it has been posted on the Jobs at Cornell on-line posting and application system at http://www.ohr.cornell.edu/jobs/ - if you know of anyone that might be interested in this position, please have them apply.

BARN Software Developer
Programmer Analyst II - Band E
2 positions available

· Contribute to the development and maintenance of web-based sound analysis software tools and support ongoing and future research in the field of animal bioacoustics at the Bioacoustics Research Program at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Current scientific research projects supported by our software involve the study of communication systems and behavior in whales, elephants, migrating birds, endangered birds, and other birds.
· Under guidance of project lead, perform tasks to help move forward the overall set of tools provided by the group through the BARN project, http://barn.xbat.org. The BARN project develops tools to support the creation of networked annotated sound libraries. Our web-based tools allow users to maintain and richly annotate sound collections in support of their research.
· Collaborate with local and remote end users to answer questions, investigate and recreate problems, and recommend resolutions.
· Meet with team to discuss solutions, take advice from lead regarding the implementation of solutions.
· Implement data conversion utilities, user interface features, and other software features designed by self or others to fit into established architecture.
· Develop features to facilitate the acquisition, curation, scanning, review, and reporting of acoustic data and metadata to support the field of bioacoustics research.
· Tasks may include but are not limited to file upload methods; metadata manipulation and storage; web browser-based user-initiated scan, review, and reporting; integration of signal processing components into a workflow; and development of tagging and filtering schemes.
· Develop software using a variety of technologies (Ruby, Javascript, RDBMS, MATLAB, LAMP, others as needed) to stretch the possibilities of the system for the research community.
· Collaborate within a team environment to provide documentation to developers and end users for the best ways to use the software.
· Provide consultation and training to staff, faculty, students, and visiting research colleagues to use the innovative technologies available.

Required Qualifications:
· Bachelor's degree with three to four years relevant experience or equivalent combination.
· Experience maintaining source code using version control.
· Experience with software design and development using two or more of the following technologies: Ruby (various frameworks and tools: Rails, RSpec, Sinatra, Capistrano, gems), Javascript (jQuery, JSON, Processing.js), RDBMS (SQL, MySQL, SQLite, JDBC), MATLAB (signal, image processing, data-visualization), LAMP maintenance and administration.
· Proven ability to learn new programming languages quickly.
· Experience with web-design for data-driven and/or multi-media applications.
· Must be able to communicate technical language clearly in layman's terms.
· Demonstrable skills in problem solving, critical thinking, and clear written and oral communication.
· Ability to work well with a diverse group in a professional and respectful work environment.

Preferred Qualifications:
· Master's degree desired in computer science, computer engineering, or related field preferred.
· Coursework in statistics, machine-learning, data-mining or database systems.
· Experience applying and developing data-mining strategies and systems; knowledge of analytical and statistical tools, as well as general tools for graphing and figure drawing.
· Experience performing independent literature searches and scientific research.
· Experience writing software in Python, Java, and/or PHP.
· Experience working on software projects outside a classroom environment.
· Knowledge of and experience using XML.


Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Citizen's Guide: Obstacles in Temperate North America [I'd Love to Save the World]

Previous entries to these updates to the Citizen's Guide to Migratory Bird Conservation highlighted challenges to migratory birds that occur on their Latin American wintering grounds and on their migratory routes. Next, challenges birds face in temperate North America. My comments follow.

The Citizen's Guide to Migratory Bird Conservation
Obstacles in Temperate North America

Migrant birds face tremendous threats on their breeding grounds. Only 250 years ago, the forests of North America provided ideal habitat for many migrants. By 1920, however, much of the landscape had been deforested. In recent decades, many of the forests cut in the 19th and 20th centuries have regrown or been replanted, especially in the Northeast. But problems for forest-dwelling birds remain.

Why? Much of the forest that does remain has been fragmented, that is, parceled into small blocks by urbanization, agriculture, timber harvesting, and other human activities. Such fragmentation seems to be a serious problem for some neotropical migrants. Unlike large forest tracts, small, scattered woodlands present numerous edges -- boundaries created by roads, fields, housing developments, and possibly clearcuts. these edges can allow open-land predators such as jays and crows, which feed on songbirds and their nestlings, to intrude into the forest. Creeping urbanization has also allowed increases in predators that live and thrive around humans, such as raccoons, opossums, and cats.

Fragmentation is a particular problem for neotropical migrants because of their nesting habits. Most neotropical migrants build open, cup-shaped nests that are relatively easy for predators to spot. They also tend to lay only a few eggs each year. Many nest on the ground, making them susceptible to predation.

Edge habitat and open-cup nests also cause birds to be susceptible to cowbird parasitism. Unlike most other birds, Brown-headed Cowbirds do not build their own nests; instead, they lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, sometimes destroying the eggs of the unwitting host. And even if the host eggs are not destroyed the cowbird eggs generally hatch first and the large, aggressive cowbird checks crowd out the host young, killing them directly, or killing them indirectly by eating all the food brought by the parents.

At the time of European settlement, Brown-headed Cowbirds lived in the Great Plains of North America. in the past 150 years, however, as forest has been cleared for agriculture, cowbirds have expanded their range dramatically. The number of cowbirds has skyrocketed, and so has the number of bird species they are known to parasitize -- now over 200. In central Illinois, where very little forest remains, cowbirds parasitize 75 percent of the nests of some species of migratory birds, such as the Wood Thrush.

Forest fragmentation seems to be less of a problem in western North America, where migrants face a different set of challenges. The West is made up of diverse habitats -- montane forest, riparian (streamside) habitat, desert, grassland, and shrubsteppe, to name a few. Neotropical migrants live in all of these habitats at some time of year, but most species nest in montane forests and riparian areas, which make up just a small percentage of western lands. Consequently, populations of western migratory birds may be smaller than those of eastern species.

As in the East, habitat degradation is a key factor in the declines of some western species. For example, disruption of riparian habitat by cattle grazing and agriculture has enabled cowbirds to take advantage of several species of migrants that nest in these areas. As much as 95 percent of the riparian habitat has been lost in many western states. As a result, populations of species that depend on riparian habitat, such as the southwestern Willow Flycatcher and Yellow Warbler, are in trouble. Riparian woodlands in California have lost most of their bird species.

Declines of grassland species, such as Grasshopper and Lark Sparrows, are also cause for concern. According to Breeding Bird Survey data, grassland bird species are showing steeper and more consistent declines over the past 25 years than are other birds. While these trends are not entirely understood, biologists suspect that changes such as the disappearance of the great bison herds from the Great Plans and habitat loss due to agricultural activity are factors in teh declines. In many states grassland habitat has nearly vanished. In others, grasslands have become fragmented, a process analogous to forest fragmentation, so bird species that require large areas of this habitat are unable to nest successfully. the growing body of scientific research will shed more light on grassland birds and their populations changes in the years to come.

Russell Greenberg and Susan Lumpkin, Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, National Zoological Park, Washington, DC 20008

Arthur Weissman, Green Seal, 1250 23rd St. NW, Washington, DC 20037

This section has been excerpted in its entirety. Author information and article text current as of 1995.

Greenberg, R., S. Lumpkin, and A. Weissman. 1995. Citizen's Guide to Migratory Bird Conservation, Bonney, R., S. Carlson, and M. Fischer, eds. Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

I'm going to let this one go right to the comments: your thoughts and suggestions welcome and encouraged!


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Citizen's Guide: Obstacles Along Migration Routes [I'd Love to Save the World]

In the last entry to the Citizen's Guide to Migratory Bird Conservation we learned about challenges to migratory birds that occur on their Latin American wintering grounds. Next up, the trials and tribulations of migration. My comments follow.

The Citizen's Guide to Migratory Bird Conservation
Obstacles Along Migration Routes

During migration, birds use an astonishing array of habitats, from boreal coniferous forests and temperate-zone deciduous forests to grasslands, scrublands, and tropical rainforest. All these habitats must support the birds' need s for food and protection from weather and predators. Clearly, the presence of suitable habitat along migratory routes is crucial to the birds' ability to survive and reproduce successfully each year. The longer a bird must search for a satisfactory stopover area, the less time and energy it has to complete migration, set up and defend a territory, and raise young.

During spring and fall, neotropical migrants funnel through small areas where they rest and feed before beginning nonstop flights over land or water. Many species make 20-, 40-, and even 80-hour nonstop flights over water, so coastal habitats are particularly important stopover zones. Unfortunately, these areas are disappearing under a welter of condominiums and vacation homes. Other prime stopover sites, such as those along rivers, are being destroyed as well.

Greenberg, R., S. Lumpkin, and A. Weissman. 1995. Citizen's Guide to Migratory Bird Conservation, Bonney, R., S. Carlson, and M. Fischer, eds. Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

Russell Greenberg and Susan Lumpkin, Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, National Zoological Park, Washington, DC 20008

Arthur Weissman, Green Seal, 1250 23rd St. NW, Washington, DC 20037

My comments:
As all previous sections, this one has been excerpted in its entirety. Author information and article text current as of 1995.

When thinking about migration and stopover habitats I'm immediately reminded of an article David Sibley wrote that appeared in an airline magazine. The analogy he creates that sticks out is that of our own travel:

You travel for a reason, and with some assurance that your travel will be successful, but what if you flew from Portland, Oregon, to Springfield, Missouri, only to find that the Springfield airport had been turned into a shopping mall and there was nowhere to land? What would happen to the Baird’s sandpipers if that lake in Ecuador was drained for agriculture?

Clearly, the major issue is habitat loss, not being able to find suitable stopover sites to rest and refuel. But I suspect in our 2009 world it would be worthwhile to highlight that just getting to stopover sites is a becoming a challenge. The problems created by the myriad of communication towers has certainly increased since this article's publication in 1995, and the construction of the myriad-squared wind turbines that are underway should be included as a prevailing concern. Development of strip malls and condos should in no way be lessened, but hopefully we can have an impact on how wind farm development evolves and how communications towers are lighted.

What other migratory issues should be highlighted in this section? Your comments and suggestions are not only welcome, but encouraged!


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Birding Tales [A Bird in the Hand]

I love reading birding email lists, and from time to time there are really great stories that come through. The following post, a rare bird report submitted to the New York State Avian Records Committee (NYSARC), came across Cayugabirds-L this weekend. It's a fascinating encounter with a bird seldom-seen anywhere, and just about never in New York. It's also a call to expect the unexpected.

It also serves up some food for thought that has been bandied about for a long time: how many birds go undetected by observers on migration? How many species go undetected?

17 October, 2009
From: John L. Confer
Biology Department
Ithaca College,
Ithaca, NY 14850


Yellow Rail (Coturnicops noveboracensis) report.

On the afternoon of 17 Oct, 2009 I was walking through a ~60 acre hay field that was mowed this past July. This site is adjacent to the Goetchius Preserve, owned by the Finger Lakes Land Trust, about one mile west of the eastern edge of Tompkins County, NY and bordered to the east by Flatiron Rd, in the Town of Caroline. The coordinates are N42o, 25’30”, W76o 17’42”.

The mixed vegetation averaged about a foot high with patches of taller goldenrod and some areas with shorter vegetation. My dog, Belle Flower, began pouncing in the grass with stiff front legs and then grabbed something in her mouth. I fully expected the creature to be a dead vole, as has happened in the past. I pried her mouth open and was shocked to find it was a bird. I opened my hand and rolled the bird over for a better look. I was actually flabbergasted when it started to move. I’ve banded thousands of birds, but having just gotten it from Bell’s mouth, I was certain this one was dead and left my hand open. In a few seconds, this creature, which I had thought was certainly dead, flew out of my hand.

Frankly, I could have gotten a much more detailed view of this hand-held bird if I had anticipated it was well enough to get up and fly a few seconds after I removed it from the jaws of death. In fact this observation might be the shortest view of a potential NYSAR bird on record. Nonetheless, some of the features were seen in hand with complete certainty, enough so that I offer this report. I am quite certain of the features I saw, which I think are sufficient to definitively identify the bird. However, I know that there are features that you might well expect, which I did not have the time to observe. Please don’t pillage me too harshly for not noting several other features.

Note that this is only the description of the encounter, though the Cayugabirds-L post did include Dr. Confer's responses to the NYSARC's Rare Bird Report questions (such as description of the bird's appearance, flight pattern, and how it similar species were eliminated in the identification process).

So, have you had any crazy encounters like this? Or know of any great stories like this from your area?


Monday, October 19, 2009

Change of Plans [Turn and Face the Strange]

My 40th birthday trip was coming together. We picked a destination and our itinerary was taking shape. The twin themes of this trip, Balance and Change, were emerging quickly, with a third soon to appear.

The Balance challenge was clear: how to spend as much time as possible seeing new birds while keeping a 5-year-old entertained? Reina is perfectly happy on nature walks and birding stops, but up to a point. Anyone with kids, or socially maladaptive non-birding partners, knows how unpleasant it is for everyone involved (or just nearby) when disinterest sets in. My hardest challenge was scheduling our trips with Reina's threshold in mind.

Change, of course, is inevitable, the best laid schemes and all that. Almost immediately we found our plans had to change: Asa Wright Nature Center, heralded as Nirvana on earth by every birder that sets foot on Trinidad, wasn't available as our primary lodging. The vast majority of trip reports and trip itineraries always stayed at AWNC, but when we found out kids under eight weren't welcome for overnight stays we had to regroup.

I couldn't think of any alternative mentioned in those reports. Images of settling for a Trinidadian Holiday Inn or Super8 in the bowels of Port of Spain, far from any birding site we'd want to visit, crossed my mind with pangs of nausea. This trip wasn't shaping up the way I expected.

I freely admit to quoting wisdom from wherever I find it, including old Monty Python skits. "Adapt, adopt, and improve" became my mantra as I searched for alternate accommodations, and a wonderful things started to happen. Maybe deviating from the standard T&T birding trips that every other birder experiences was a good thing.

Yes, I'm talking additional blog fodder! Clearly, the birds were going to be front and center, but now, instead of copying the same "rum punch on AWNC's verandah" theme as everyone else, I could offer potential T&T visitors insights to other options. I could compare my bird lists and experiences from locations I ferreted out to the standard package they signed on to. Perhaps I could score some free lodging or excursions in exchange for publicity!

That's my lemonade making attempt. Yes, I can offer a differing view to the standard AWNC package, but I didn't score anything free. (Note to self, work on the marketing power of this blog.)

So, here is an overview of the secondary itinerary we created. I will be writing in more detail about each stop, including informal reviews of the lodging, the birding; the whole roti (we didn't see enchiladas anywhere, but rotis are a reasonable substitute).

  • Day 1: Arrive late, stay at Pax Guest House, Tunapuna, Trinidad
  • Day 2: Bird Mt. St. Benedict, coasts and wetlands, and Caroni Swamp.
  • Day 3: Bird savanna and grassland sites, stay at Laguna Mar, Blanchisseuse, Trinidad.
  • Day 4: Bird in the forests of the Northern Range.
  • Day 5: Fly to Tobago, stay Naturalist Beach Resort, Castara, Tobago.
  • Day 6: Bird Tobago: Main Ridge Forest Reserve and Little Tobago Island.
  • Day 7: Tobago birding in the morning, then fly to Trinidad, returning to Pax Guest House.
  • Day 8: Early flight back to U.S.
Up next, the trip! And photos, I swear. Oh, and I'll get to that third theme I hinted at but didn't identify. Maybe you can guess?


Friday, October 16, 2009

More Vacation Planning [What We Gonna Did]

Now that the hard part of picking a country to visit was out of the way (by a process delineated earlier) I could get down to the serious business: the itinerary. That may sound somewhat benign, but only until you realize that beneath my mellow and laid-back exterior lies the intensely anal-retentive persona of recidivist OCD patient. I would now need to chart out every minute of every day, knowing where we'd be, give or take a square meter or two. Maybe two. And layered on top of those parameters, what birds would be there? What birds would be likely, what would be within the realm of possibility but in the don't-hold-your-breath category?

Time to dig out the books and scour the Internet reports.

First task, figure out what birding areas Trinidad has to offer. Not unexpectedly, rainforests. But also dry forests and savannas. Obviously wetlands and coasts. Plus a whole sister island called Tobago.

To check off as many species as possible we'd have to spend time underneath the multiple-canopied habitat to find forest birds, in grasslands for birds adapted to open habitats, on rocky coasts scoping for pelagic species, beaches and mudflats for shorebirds, inland wetlands and/or rice fields for rails, crakes, blackbirds, and others, and we'd have to pull the car over to examine any raptor we came across, perched, soaring, or otherwise . . . man, this could be dizzying.

But Trinidad birding is weighted towards the central and northern regions, likely due to the industrial presence south side of the island. I can't say first hand, but it sounds as though it's pocked with oil wells and refineries. In fact, every gringo we met on Trinidad was affiliated with the oil industry, the exceptions were those that were tourists or owned a guest house.

Either way, given our time frame we opted not to route in the south side of the island. Given more time we would have explored the southern sites outlined in Murphy's Birdwatchers' Guide to Trinidad & Tobago and what turned up in Internet searches, but for this trip our choice was clear: stick to areas on the northern side of the island. Options we focused on included:
  • cruising Blanchisseuse Road for forest birds at a variety of elevations,
  • joining an evening trip to Caroni Swamp to see the Scarlet Ibises come in to roost and, hopefully, find a few specialty mangrove-affiliated species,
  • scoping Waterloo for shorebirds, gulls, and terns
  • surveying the Caroni Rice Fields for rails and other freshwater wetland species,
  • visiting Waller Field, Aripo Savanna, Aripo Livestock Station, and the Arena Forest for low-elevation and grassland birds,
  • exploring Nariva Swamp on the east coast for a different suite of coastal wetland birds,
  • and, naturally, staying at Asa Wright Nature Center - its reputation alone made that decision a no brainer.
Oh, and Tobago. Not a twin sister of Trinidad, but completely unique avifauna. Reading through the distributions in the field guide I was surprised at how many species are on one "T" or the other, but not both. The phrases, "Absent from Tobago" and "No records for Trinidad" showed up more frequently than I expected. Clearly we'd have to get over to Tobago for a couple of days, but should we take the cheaper, but 5 and a half hour, ferry? Or splurge on the 20 minute plane ride? We'd deal with that later.

Our Trinidad plans changed almost immediately. It turns out that staying at Asa Wright would be prohibitively expensive on our budget, even in the "off" season (aka, the low-, rainy-, or the more euphemistic-sounding "green"-season). But more to the point they have a policy that disallows children under eight staying at the center, so it wasn't really an option anyway. After flirting with the idea of letting five-year-old Reina get her own lodging somewhere else we thought about staying at Simla, aka the William Beebe Tropical Research Station,, the neighboring facility that houses researchers. I had been considering doing some sound recording anyway, and Donna is collecting slime mold samples this semester while on sabbatical. Sampling a few sites in the mountains of Trinidad would surely be novel for slime mold research.

We ultimately decided this was vacation, we didn't want to be tied to anything, so Simla was out. We started to re-evaluate our options, where could we set up base camp where we'd be lulled to sleep by Tropical Screech-owls, Little Tinamous, Ferruginous Pygmy-owls, hopefully a nightjar or two, and still make all of the relevant day trips we had planned?

Hmmm, maybe this wasn't going to be as straight-forward as I originally thought.

What's next? Find out here!


Thursday, October 15, 2009

Vacation Planning [Where the Birds Always Sing]

For those with short memories (like me), or those that don't read everything I post here (also like me), I offer this background to our recent trip to Trinidad and Tobago. You can also read about our then-far-off trip in a post from last April. - Mike

It's not often you find yourself on a tropical island after making an offhand comment. Well, unless you live on a tropical island, then you can't really help it. But my point is I've never found myself on a tropical island because of something I tossed out without really thinking.

Last autumn, long before I thought about staring my 40th birthday squarely in the eye, my wife asked, "So, what do you want this year? I mean, 40. It's a big one. Maybe a new guitar?"

I'm satisfied with my current stringed instrument status and there wasn't anything else really on my wish-list horizon. It wasn't until December, probably while enviously reading about someone else's exotic birding trip, I mused, "You know what? I want to travel. Somewhere new. Where there are lots of new birds to see. Lots of birds. I want to be overwhelmed, reduced to weeping and cowering at the sheer volume of new species. New genera . . . no, new families of birds."

I guess I said it out loud, and within earshot of Donna's bat-like hearing, so we discussed the options. After a few days of financial analysis, some debate, a touch of arguing followed by copious amounts of begging and pleading, my logic finally prevailed. "All right, we can make that happen," spoken with just the right amount of resignation. This would be a birthday to remember.

Now, where to go? Initial thought: Peru. I'd been talking with colleagues at the Cornell Lab (including Tom Schulenberg, author of The Birds of Peru) and Peru kept coming up, usually instilling a faraway, dreamy look in everyone's eyes. But that's just one possibility. What about Ecuador? Chile? Brazil? Panama? Belize? Mexico?

I had already ruled out trips to Africa, southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and others, I felt those are more in line with the half-century mark. Staying within my home hemisphere was more of a 40-ish celebration.

But in there lay a rub: I didn't want a trip just for me, I wanted to go with my wife and daughter. I love birding pre-dawn to after-dark and racking up lifers as much as the next lister, but I wasn't anxious to spend 3,000-plus (after travel) of our well-saved US dollars so I could be led around a new country, bird by bird. Well, I was anxious, but it wouldn't mean as much. Of course I wanted to see lots of birds, but I wanted my family to experience the vacation. I would have my cake and I would it eat it, too, dammit.

The question became whether my target countries offered enough to entertain a birding-friendly spouse and a five-year-old. She's great on hikes and experiencing nature, but to a point. What about a place that offers new birds, interesting hikes and critters, and beaches? What about the Caribbean?

I'll spare you the island-by-island evaluation, but by early spring we ultimately, and happily, settled on twin Caribbean islands that lie on the South American plate. Not a big endemic list (one: Trinidad Piping Guan), but a reasonable species list (467, according to a recent check on Avibase), lots of interesting families represented, easy to get to, and travel domestically once there. Perfect. And T&T is a well-established birding destination, meaning lots of information available about where to stay, when to go, what to do.

The "when" question was answered by the other obligations already on the calendar, which whittled away at dates until we were left with the beginning of October.

The next phase of research was set to begin. Where do those 467 birds spend their time when they're on T&T? And how do we route them into our vacation? That turned out to be a fairly easy question to answer.

At least in theory.


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Citizen's Guide: Obstacles in Latin America [I'd Love to Save the World]

When we left the introduction we were about to learn why population declines in neotropical migrants are occurring. The first focus is on challenges on the wintering grounds. My comments follow.

The Citizen's Guide to Migratory Bird Conservation
Obstacles in Latin America

Throughout much of Latin America, tropical forests are rapidly being converted to cropland and open grazing land by slash-and-burn agricultural techniques. Such forest destruction obviously creates problems for migrant birds that depend on forests for winter habitat. Another problem is geographical. The land mass inhabited by migrants in winter is much smaller than the vast breeding area -- all of North America. this means that wintering areas are often packed with five to eight times as many birds as are found in the same area on the breeding grounds. Therefore, the destruction of just a small amount of tropical forest can have a huge effect on some bird populations. Species restricted to a small wintering range, such as the Cerulean Warbler, are at the greatest risk. And areas with the greatest concentrations of migrants - Mexico, Central America, the Greater Antilles, and portions of the Andean mountain range in South America - also have some of the highest rates of deforestation.

Neotropical migrants wintering near cropland area are also threatened by pesticides, because the toxins concentrate in the birds' fat reserves. Some pesticides, including chlorinated hydrocarbons such as DDT, have been outlawed for use in the United States but are still used legally in Latin American and Caribbean countries. U.S. companies supply these pesticides.

Greenberg, R., S. Lumpkin, and A. Weissman. 1995. Citizen's Guide to Migratory Bird Conservation, Bonney, R., S. Carlson, and M. Fischer, eds. Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

Russell Greenberg and Susan Lumpkin, Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, National Zoological Park, Washington, DC 20008

Arthur Weissman, Green Seal, 1250 23rd St. NW, Washington, DC 20037

My comments:
As the first two entries this section has been excerpted in its entirety; the author information and article text current as of 1995.

When we hear about the effects of deforestation we almost always, if not completely always, consider the straight-up loss of habitat: less habitat means less birds. The ideal, of course, is to keep the habitat contiguous; if it must be degraded, keep the patches as large as possible, and joined to allow movement of individuals.

But what I find often escapes the general public's notice is that equal patch sizes are not equal in bird density. George Orwell might have said all acres of suitable habitat are created equal, but some of those acres are more equal than others. As the author's point out here, an acre of habitat in Latin America is more equal than an acre of habitat in North America. By highlighting the density difference in geography, that removing a hectare in the neotropics has a much more far-reaching effect than cutting a patch the similar size on the more-spread-out breeding ranges, they drive home an important aspect that reaches beyond mere habitat loss - it's a loss for far more birds than elsewhere in the Americas (this is not making the case that it's OK to cut larger swaths of the boreal forest).

Pesitcide-wise, I'm not sure where we stand these days. Are Latin American countries still using chemicals outlawed in the U.S.? I find myself wondering what improvements have been made in land use in Latin America, and what has deteriorated over the past 15 years.

Similarly, what about including recent results from studies on patch sizes, using familiar birds as specific examples? What's the critical size where you lose certain at-risk and common species? Or if clutch sizes or breeding success varies with the number of individuals in a patch?

Or do we start to lose the forest and only see trees wit specific details like these?

Back to:


Monday, October 12, 2009

A Walk in the Woods [Put the Lime in the Coconut]

The woods in our region are bursting with color, an event that shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who has spent an October in the northeastern US. The air is crisp and cool downright cold, the sky a swath of pale blue above that darkens towards the horizons, punctuated by dozens of airy, aimlessly wandering clouds.

I haven't posted about any bird sightings or movements from our area as I haven't paid attention to what's been going on in our yard, or our region, for the first 10 days of October. Yeah, it's kind of tough to do when you're offline and 2,300 miles away. Not that it's tough to find an Internet connection on Trinidad and Tobago, they're there if you really want one, it's tough to be distracted from what's all around you.

blanchisseuse-Arima Road, TrinidadThe view along Blanchisseuse-Arima Road, Trinidad.

The woods we've been walking through aren't the temperate maple-oak assemblages we call home, but tropical mash-ups that include teak and nutmeg covered with hundreds of epiphytes and wrist-thick vines. We hunted among the foliage for glimpses of trogons, bellbirds, and manakins in the rainforest. Tropical Kingbirds, Great Kiskadees, and Ruddy Ground-doves lined the streets while Magnificant Frigatebirds, Brown Pelicans, and Brown Boobies soared above rocky coves as well as those lined with sandy beaches and palm trees.

Castara Bay, TobagoCastara Bay, Tobago.

I'll be recounting our trip over the next few weeks, narrating our adventures, giving recommendations based on our experiences, and of course presenting as many sights and sounds as I can. Stay tuned, but please be patient: I have lots of pictures and eBird checklists to process!


Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Citizen's Guide: Introduction [I'd Love to Save the World]

Here's the beginning of the introduction to the Citizen's Guide. My comments follow.

The Citizen's Guide to Migratory Bird Conservation

The tools and techniques for bird conservation described in this booklet can be applied to just about any kind of bird. The impetus for this book, however, came from a particular group of birds known as "neotropical migrants." Indeed, concern for these birds is so great that an entire program to conserve them was initiated in 1990. It's called Partners in Flight, and is described on page 5.

What is a neotropical migrant, anyway?

Quite simply, neotropical migrants are birds that spend their summers in Canada and the United States and their winters in Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America and South America (the region known as the New World tropics, or neotropics). Although the name "neotropical migrant" sounds exotic, we're actually talking about common birds, and lots of them -- at least 250 species, nearly one-third of the birds that breed in North America (see the list on pg. 31). These include many familiar birds such as warblers, tanagers, thrushes, and orioles.

Why the concern about neotropical migrants?

Because in recent years, some have declined in numbers. To understand why it helps to know a little about the birds' complex life cycles. First, migratory birds require summer habitat in temperate North America where they can nest and raise their young. Then, during spring and fall they need stopover habitats on their migration routes -- places that are safe to rest in and rich in insects or berries to fuel their long-distance flights. Migration routes run for hundreds or even thousands of miles, crossing numerous political boundaries, until the birds reach their destinations -- the wintering grounds. There, they must identify new food sources in unfamiliar surroundings and compete for food with residents such as White-tailed Trogons and Broad-billed Motmots.

It's a complicated scenario, one that can be easily disrupted by human activities. Indeed, some species of neotropical migrants have shown significant declines. Consider the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS), a volunteer bird-counting effort conducted by about 2,000 birders each June (see page 16). In eastern North America, where some of the best information is available, the BBS suggests that 75 percent of populations of forest-dwelling neotropical migrant species declined between 1978 and 1987. More recently, several of these species increased in number, but some, such as the Cerulean Warbler, have not recovered. And woodland birds are not the only species experiencing declines. Grassland birds such as the Grasshopper Sparrow, which declined 4.5 percent each year between 1966 and 1991, are also in trouble.

Further concern arises from the work of Sidney Gauthreaux, an ornithologist who studies bird migration with radar. His research suggests that the number of birds migrating over the Gulf of Mexico in spring has decreased by half since the mid 1960s.

Let's look at why the declines are occurring.

Greenberg, R., S. Lumpkin, and A. Weissman. 1995. Citizen's Guide to Migratory Bird Conservation, Bonney, R., S. Carlson, and M. Fischer, eds. Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

Russell Greenberg and Susan Lumpkin, Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, National Zoological Park, Washington, DC 20008

Arthur Weissman, Green Seal, 1250 23rd St. NW, Washington, DC 20037

My comments:
As before, this section has been excerpted in its entirety. Author information and article text current as of 1995.

The content, again, seems timeless, a broad-yet-succinct introduction to neotropic migrant birds. My first thought is much of the content works today as it did in the mid-'90s, though the trends and examples from the BBS should be updated with the most recent analyses. And what about other population studies? Do any come to mind that would be appropriate here? Other thoughts or comments?

Back to:


Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Citizen's Guide: Preface [I'd Love to Save the World]

Below is the preface from the Citizen's Guide that I wrote about previously. I have some comments at the end.

The Citizen's Guide to Migratory Bird Conservation

Birds are important in many ways. From an ecological point of view, they are a vital component of the web of life. For example, they keep insect numbers in check, they serve as food for other predators, and they disperse pollen and seed.

Birds also occupy an important place in our culture. they hold us enchanted as objects of beauty: watching a bird inspires us, in our minds, to spread our own wings.

And birds are important for moral reasons. As humans we are endowed with a conscience that asks us to address the needs of species other than our own. Caring about birds -- small and large, drab and gorgeous - reflects a full appreciation of the of life and a love for the whole of life.

Most ecological processes cannot be altered without serious consequences. All components of an ecosystem exist for some purpose -- some may be vital to the ecosystems survival, while others may be ecological equivalents. Often, however, we do not know what the true function is or how important a given component or process may be. Therefore, the prudent course is to assume that all components are important and to strive to conserve them all.

How do we do it? It's actually quite simple: to ensure the future of migratory birds, the human planning process must provide for their needs. We must learn their requirements for suitable habitat and then maintain it for them.

This Citizen's Guide to Migratory Bird Conservation can get you started as a partner in this endeavor. It provides tips on things you can do, from writing action-inspiring letters on bird-related issues, to habitat conservation or information-gathering projects that you can do in your own backyard or neighborhood, to involvement in regional and national land-use planning. It describes the role of state and federal agencies and other organizations in the effort to conserve birds. And it delineates methods for maintaining goal-oriented conservation groups. The methods included have all proven effective in obtaining valuable results.

As concerned citizens, we seek to save birds because we believe they are important to the ecosystems upon which we and all living things depend, because they have made our lives richer, and because we have learned to care about them.

Editors' note: The issues and methods of bird conservation described in this Citizen's Guide will change. We look forward to updating this publication periodically, so please send us your suggestions and comments.

Greenberg, R. and S. Lumpkin. 1995. Citizen's Guide to Migratory Bird Conservation, Bonney, R., S. Carlson, and M. Fischer, eds. Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

The authors are: Russell Greenberg and Susan Lumpkin, Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, National Zoological Park, Washington, DC 20008

My comments:
First, note that this section has been excerpted in its entirety. The author information and article text current as of 1995.

So, what do you think? Any suggestions to improve this preface? Personally, I find it a compelling and well-written piece, the content is timeless. It certainly sets the stage and primes you for preserving these wonderful creatures. Fifteen years later, how can we improve it?


Friday, September 25, 2009

You Gotta Go Outside! [It Is On]

Quick post to say there are a bazillion (give or take a kajillion) birds moving tonight. Here's the radar map from midnight EDT, note the depth of the dark blue doughnut-shaped circles. Light blue means birds are moving, dark blue means even more birds are moving. Green centers of those blues, like Homer Simpson's desired bowling ball with the liquid center, indicates heavy migration. Twenty minutes in the backyard was filled with more calls than I typically hear, almost exclusively thrushes and other low-frequency calling birds (that is, no sparrows or warblers that I could discern).

Be careful not to confuse the blocky green-with-yellow over Ohio and West Virginia with migration, that's rain. But the greens that show up encompassed by blue, hold on to your hats: lots of birds overhead.

Birding may be worth a few extra minutes in the morning!


Thursday, September 24, 2009

Citizens of the Natural World [I'd Love to Save the World]

My thoughts about savoring the world often intertwine with thoughts concerned with saving the world. Sometimes these bouts of synaptic co-mingling lead to something productive, I'm happy to report.

One f'rinstance happened this summer at the annual meeting of the American Ornithologist's Union (an event I have yet to finish blogging about, I know, I know . . . ). Stemming from a conversation with fellow birder, educator, ornithologist and former-Cornellian Dan Lebbin I found a topic I'm excited to present on a regular basis, right here on this blog, as best I can.

In the proverbial nutshell: how can the average citizen, if there is such a thing, play a direct role in conserving our natural world? In addition to the mantras of indirect participation like, "reduce, reuse, recycle," "buy organic," "buy local," and "carry your own shopping bag," how can that average citizen become truly empowered for more direct action? (But seriously, now. Are any of us average? Except that one guy from Iowa who sits at the very top of the meaty part of the bell curve?)

Maybe, for the sake of argument, it could be something like a guide that highlights conservation issues and illustrates what citizens could do in their yard, in their community, or even from their desk to address them. It might list conservation programs and give guidelines to protect habitat, even list projects that welcome participation in scientific studies.

Maybe I can present something like that here. And maybe I'm cheating because it already exists!

Cast your mind back, if you will, to 1990. Joe Hazelwood goes on trial in Anchorage Alaska, Germany reunites, Microsoft releases Windows 3.0, and Partners in Flight, a hemispheric venture also called CompaƱeros en Vuelo and/or Partenaires d’Envol, is launched. This supraorganization that I'll simply call PIF was created "in response to growing concerns about declines in the populations of many land bird species, and in order to emphasize the conservation of birds not covered by existing conservation initiatives."

And in addition to a world of promising and realized ventures, in 1995 they released this:

Citizen's Guide to Migratory Bird ConservationI haven't been able to find it on the web anywhere, which is both frustrating and unfortunate. One of my first tasks at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology was to create a web version of this hardcopy document. Somewhere, somehow, it dropped off of the Lab's web site, likely because it needs a major update.

In spite of its datedness the basic ideas and suggestions are timeless, much like '60's pop music or '70's sitcoms. It's something that should be available to everyone and anyone. And I don't even have to worry about whether it's in the public domain or has the proper Creative Commons license. The very last line (SPOILER ALERT!) reads, "Partner's in Flight encourages reproduction of this Citizen's Guide or any part thereof." There you have it, folks, a direct mandate to get the word out.

And a direct plea for you: when I upload a portion, please drop your suggestions for updates, current links or programs, and anything else that may improve the document. Who knows, I may be one of those lucky bloggers who turns their blog into a book!

Well, that's not likely, but someone might. And I'll make sure to incorporate them so it will once again be suitable for the Lab's web site in its entirety. Please tune in for my first installment next week.


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Where You At? [Soul Searching]

I hear you, that near-constant clamoring outside the gates, wondering where I've disappeared to, just how far underground have I gone?

Well, my overactive, co-dependent personality hears it.

I'm here. Same Bat-place, same Bat-channel. Things have been busy. Fall migration is the high season for migration studies, you know. End of summer gardening and landscaping, teaching a five-year-old to ride a two-wheeler, camping trips, an end of the summer trip to the Eastern Shore. Processing the photos from the end of the summer trip to the Eastern Shore.

And I know all of those are lame excuses. "If you loved it, you'd make time for it" I hear you (or someone in your general direction) say, voice shrill, finger wagging.

You're right. Maybe I'm coming to a realization that I simply don't have that fire about blogging that some of you do. That I don't really like monitoring unique visitors and page views or checking in on the toplist once a day. That there are things I love more than blogging. I've felt bad about the ethereal nature of this blog, honest. That it doesn't have a theme that's deeply meaningful or universally important, that I sporadically update, if that. What's one step below "sporadic"? I feel bad that I don't follow all of those rules I keep seeing in the webosphere, those "10 Things Bloggers Have to Do!"

I read those and get depressed. First, I go through the "I'll never be a real blogger" blues, the sad realization I'm over here on Blogger with a "blogspot" thing in my domain name (hell, it's not even mine!) while the real bloggers have their own domains and use Wordpress. Real bloggers religiously self-promote (because they have something to promote) and go to conferences to learn how to become better bloggers. Then I move to something broader and deeper, something more universal. That not too long ago blogging was fun, spontaneous, free-spirited endeavor. That it's becoming organized and controlled, creating a sense that if you're not in, you're out.

But I've made my peace with all of that. Some people need the structure and methods, they're promoting themselves, their talents, their skills. Maybe re-inventing themselves, maybe hoping to make a living blogging. Blogs are a viable and valuable marketing tool, and to use them as such you need appropriate strategies and tactics on top of what we all bring to the blogosphere. But not all of us are trying to make a living through blogging, which is perfectly fine, too.

And what do we all bring? A myriad of experiences. Unique perspectives. A mesh of styles and opinions, a breadth of knowledge and humor. And a willingness, if not a passion, to put them out there and (maybe, just maybe) have them read.

I'm giving away something Wren might ask if I ever get interviewed on the Nature Blog Network, but I intended to maintain a blog primarily as a repository for trip reports and birding experiences, photos I took (or made, if you're from the south) from those expeditions. A journal I could digitally flip through in my golden years as I fawned over the way it all used to be.

I suspect that changed when I realized someone other than me read my terribly dry posts. When you know someone else is looking, everything changes. Now I wasn't writing for myself, but for you, Gentle Reader. As is wont to happen, communities formed, something I didn't expect: I made friends, many still unmet. Now is a good place to say thank you to all of you who read, and especially those who comment. I hope we'll meet for coffee or a beer someday.

Whether you noticed or not I strived to be more entertaining while providing something interesting to take home. I don't know exactly what I've morphed this blog into, other than I still enjoy writing about my birding local birding and distant trips. I like showcasing photographs (hopefully they're getting better), trying to wrap them with infotainment. I especially love picking fodder based on what excites my daughter. About nature, that is, I spare you the daily tea parties and faux jewelery dress-ups. But if it's in the natural world and gets a five-year-old jazzed it must be good.

So I've made my peace with you, World Wide Blogosphere. If you're blogging for yourself, enjoy your time here and have fun. Relax, let yourself come through your posts, let us get to know you. Visit when you can, stop in when you're in the neighborhood. For those who live here, driven by stats and page views, power to you, too.

Oh, and to make sure I include some eye candy here's an image from earlier this summer. I call it "Two Insects That Chose to Have Sex on Our Patio." That should get some additional Google-search traffic. When do I get to review books and score free trips to birding hot spots, anyway?

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Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Skies at Night

The skies at night certainly are big and bright on the radar screen, and not just in Texas. Last night's radar, Friday, September 04, was simply hopping here in NY.

Above is the radar from about 10:00 PM (EDT), which shows some intense dark blue across the north side of Lake Ontario and into the Adirondack mountains. The western sides of Massachusetts and Connecticut are also showing some serious airborne activity.

The time I spent outside, intermittent periods between 9:00 PM and midnight, were not throbbing with avian sound as I hoped. A few calls here and there, mostly warblers and sparrows but a couple of Swainson's Thrush mixed in, and they fought to be heard through the din of insects and my neighbor's affection for .38 Special.

Moon watching, on the other hand, was spectacular, at least in my limited experience. All told it averaged about a bird per minute, all small, all transiting the moon to the south. At least two bats danced independently in seemingly random directions. It's not like they were waltzing with one another, they'd appear from below, slow and graceful, and seem to hover. A few beats of the wings would take them higher, into the Sea of Tranquility, past the Sea of Crisis, and out past the edge of the moon. Or towards the crater Copernicus, through the Ocean of Storms and back into invisibility. By now you may be guessing I dug out my college astronomy text. Busted - you're right.

Near Full Moon
The cold front that prompted these birds to take flight will hopefully open another door of migration tonight. I'll be out again, listening and watching.

What are you seeing/hearing in your neck of the woods?


Friday, September 4, 2009

I Wear My Sunglasses At Night

Last night was slow for nocturnal migrant watching on our hill, I never did see anything fly past the face of the moon. Others reported seeing a few birds here and there from sites nearby and far away, but all I noted were the flight calls of a few warblers and sparrows, and they only came after midnight.

Maybe I missed the silhouettes while my rods and cones were recovering from the brightness of the moon. I wore sunglasses while staring through the scope which helped a lot, but not enough. After staring for a few minutes I would turn and look at a patch of wildflowers in our yard, illuminated by moonlight to show white flowers as white, purple and red flowers as black, and yellow flowers as pale yellow. I could actually make out the yellow flowers with my non-scope eye. But if I covered my left eye and stared at the flowers with my right eye? They disappeared. It was an blind spot in my vision, a scotoma.

Which can't be good. But I'm seeing fine again now, so I'll be trying again tonight. Maybe I need darker shades?

David La Puma of Woodcreeper fame, a site dedicated to tracking migrating birds with radar, uploaded digiscoped clips of birds flying by the moon:





Don't blink while you watch!


Thursday, September 3, 2009

Watch the Moon, Count the Birds

Mike Lanzone, flight-call guru (among other things) from the Powdermill Avian Research Center, is loosely coordinating a moonwatch tonight. The moon will be nearly full tonight, and if the weather cooperates migrating birds should be visible as they wing their way south.

Mike recently posted to the new Nocturnal Flight Call listserve (NFC-L),

A number of you have indicated that you would like to participate so I am just sending some very brief instructions for anyone that wants to participate. I am thinking that if possible between 10-11 and 11-12 we could watch at least 2 times during the hour for 5 minutes. Only count birds that actually go through the lighted part of the moon, but you can note others that you see in your field of view. I will be doing this 4 times per hour 5 minutes each time, starting at 9:00 pm. If you can only do this once for 10 minutes that will be ok too. This is fairly informal now, hopefully in the future it can become more. You should record the time(s) you begin and end, your location- closest town or lat/long, # birds that pass the moon (and bats too if you see any), other observations, and optics used. Send me your results and I will post to the list once I compile. Possibly in October we can get more people to join in!

Original email here. And if your concerned about identification, don't be! No need to ID species down to . . . well, species.

Why wait for October? If you've got some time tonight, wander outside and have a look. Or use tonight as a practice run for a wider effort in October. Or just got out and enjoy the night sounds, and take in Jupiter - with decent optics you can see at least four moons!

Of further interest:
Subscribe to NFC-L
Info about NFC-L
NFC-L archives


Monday, August 31, 2009

Return To The Blogosphere

I'm back from vacation, where we were (happily) offline most of time. Not enough birding, but lots of photos taken and lots of blog fodder spinning in my head. I'm hoping to translate them into actual blog posts in the next week or two, once the pile on my work desk has cleared a bit. Wish me luck.

Tonight looks good for migration, especially in our area. I stepped outside during the last throes of the fading light and almost immediately heard flight calls from at least two Veeries. The skies are clear, the waxing gibbous moon on the rise, and the radar is popping.

Migration appears along the eastern seaboard, especially in eastern Virginia.
Radar image captured at 8:36 PM EDT from NCAR's RAP Real Time Weather Data.

Helpful hint to generate your own up-to-the-minute map: click on the link in the caption, then click on the words "Contiguous US" at the top of the map on the page that appears. If you're more daring, click on a specific radar site for a more detailed view of that area.

Alternately, if you get a chance, step outside (bundle up a bit if in the northeast!) and turn an ear skyward, and check out your favorite migrant patch tomorrow morning.


Friday, August 21, 2009

Have You Seen These Birds?

BirdLife International is launching a quest to find 47 "lost" bird species, some of which haven't been seen for 184 years. Marco Lambertini, BirdLife International's chief executive, says

History has shown us that we shouldn't give up on species that are feared to have gone to their graves because some, such as the Cebu flowerpecker, have been rediscovered long after they were feared extinct, providing hope for the continued survival of other ‘long-lost' species.

Who is on the list? Everything from a petrel (Jamaican) to a duck (Pink-headed), a woodpecker (Ivory-billed) to a quail (Himalayan), a seedeater (Hooded) to a curlew (Slender-billed).

Can you pick out which is the Slender-billed Curlew?
Image from Wikipedia.com.

See more of the species, and the Cebu Flowerpecker (emblem of the program), on the BBC's web site, and read the full story at BirdLife International. Then grab your camera and go birding!


Thursday, August 13, 2009

On The Whole, I'd Rather Be In Philadelphia

And I am. In Philadelphia, that is, on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, attending the 127th stated meeting of the American Ornithologists Union.

It's been a while since I've attended a scientific meeting and I'd forgotten how exhilarating they can be. Yeah, I know that sounds dweebish, but you know how it is, or at least I hope you do: when you're amongst your own chatting about everything and anything that relates to your passion you can't help but be energized. It's like a positive feedback loop that spirals into exciting ventures with old friends, newly-made acquaintances, and newly-minted ornithologists.

It's hearing the stories about major events in your field from the people who were at the center of those events.

It's discovering what we've recently learned about the subjects we're most interested in, what questions we've addressed and plugged those answers into the general body of knowledge . . . only to uncover more questions that need attention.

Good stuff.

Today started with Scott Weidensaul, author of absolute-must-reads such as "Living on the Wind" and "The Ghost with Trembling Wings" and others, presenting our host city as the Ornithological Cradle, a historical perspective how ornithology in the New World is all about Philadelphia. Bartram, Wilson, Audubon, and many more; the first banded birds, the horrific scenes from the Kittatinny Ridge that lead to the establishment of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, and so much in between.

We all listened to Bob Ricklefs illuminate what he's discovered about Bird Comings and Goings in the West Indies. I listened to researchers present results of their long-term studies (still in progress; shouldn't they always be that way?) that showed effects of weather and habitat on a species or a suite of species. I learned what recent research is saying about bird collisions with windows, communication towers, and planes.

Unfortunately too many other sessions ran concurrently; I couldn't hear everything - I hope others are blogging about their sessions! Or at least there are some web archives somewhere.

Tomorrow will come too early - thankfully the coffee is free and bird-friendly.


Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Rising of the Moon

Two important things about tonight, as far as I'm concerned. First, it's late and I'm tired so this won't be as detailed as it deserves. Heck, it probably won't be as focused as it deserves. Second, tonight's moon is beautifully full and worth spending a few minutes gawking, or at least staring, at it.

Full moon by Luc Viatour, courtesy Wikipedia.com.

Take some time to watch the moon, preferably through a scope so you can watch for birds flying across its face, though let me say this up front: WARNING: a full moon is bright, especially through a scope! Don't damage your retinas!

Here in the northeast, it looks like a good night for migration and a good night for observing it. Under a full moon you can observe migrating birds not only by ear as many give a characteristic flight call, but by sight, too, as they pass in front of the full moon. I spent some twenty minutes outside photographing the moon (not my image above, though, they're still on the camera). To be perfectly honest, I didn't see anything cross the moon as I stared through the camera, which wasn't optimal but I was too lazy to swap the camera for the scope on the tripod.

I did hear several flight calls, and by mid-morning tomorrow I'll know what my roof-top microphone recorded. I've been testing a new recording unit since early June, and I've impressed myself by analyzing each and every recording within a day or three after it happened. Things I've learned:
  • I record a lot more cuckoos, both Black- and Yellow-billed, during the breeding season than I see.
  • The local Ovenbirds give a beautiful flight song pre-dawn on our hill.
  • A Dark-eyed Junco likes to perch on the microphone.
  • Northern Cardinals are the earliest songsters.
  • Migration has already started. So far I've recorded American Redstarts, Yellow, Canada, Black-throated Green and Magnolia Warblers, Northern Waterthrushes, Chipping and White-throated Sparrows, and several yet-to-be-identified species. That's off the top of my head, not a complete list.
  • My neighbor's dogs bark a lot.
  • The resident coyotes howl a lot.
  • We have several vocal amphibians in our pond, and they have the stamina of a Tour de France competitor.
  • My other neighbor likes to blast classic rock every Friday night and occaisionally Saturday.
More to come as the migration season continues.


Friday, July 31, 2009

Japanese Beetles and Silver Linings

Whenever our daughter is within earshot we really watch our Ps and Qs. So when we discovered Japanese Beetles covering every surface of every plant in our yard I refrained from doing what I wanted to do, which was to let loose a string of profanity not heard since Al Pacino ripped it up in Scarface while taking a flame thrower to the yard.

Rather than curse our darkness of the infestationpalooza I lit a candle of discovery. The part of my brain that creates "teachable moments" (a term I don't want to hear again after this past week's "beer summit" thing) came up with a game of collecting as many Japanese Beetles as we could, and watching for other, less prolific, organisms. We'd rid ourselves of at least one wave of invaders while learning about ecology - you can see the first showcase, the butterfly and moth edition, here.

While patrolling the yard we discussed how everything has its place in the grand scheme of nature, why these insects were "bad" while others were "good," and how arbitrary it is when assigning those categories. Along with the JBs we found several insects and spent some time watching them, trying to figure out what they were doing and why.

Unfortunately, many went unidentified in spite of my attempts to navigate through BugGuide.net. I used my old point-n-shoot's macro setting to snap some up-close, and in some cases personal, shots. Here is a sampling of insects from our yard, of the bee, wasp, fly, and/or dragonfly variety. If you can identify any, or know a good resource to assist, please let us know!

Click on images for larger versions.

Maybe a worker Honeybee, Apis mellifera?

Common Eastern Bumble Bee, Bombus impatiens?

No idea, but these are common in our garden, you can see why.
We think it's a fly (Diptera) and not a wasp. Another view below.

I'm frustrated I haven't figured this one out, maybe the female
of something common? My best guess is one of the darners. Thoughts?
UPDATED: Identified as Blue Dasher, Pachydiplax longipennis.

Coming up, beetles and whatnots.

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