Monday, May 18, 2009

Did You Know?

On May 18, 1929, a Song Sparrow, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and House Wren made history as they sang. Their songs were captured in the first-ever audio recordings of North American birds. The Fox-Case Movietone Corporation preserved the songs on film using an optical technique to record sound waves, with help from Cornell Lab of Ornithology founder Arthur Allen and colleague Peter Paul Kellogg in Ithaca, New York's Stewart Park.

Read the full story and hear the songs at All About Birds.


Tuesday, May 12, 2009

I Came, I Saw, I Scouted: Wrapping up the World Series

The World Series of Birding (WSB) is more than a birding competition. Well, at its basest level it is merely a contest to see which team can observe the most bird species in a single day within the state of New Jersey.

New Jersey, map courtesy of Nations Online ProjectIt's a small state, but I wouldn't want to paint it. Birding it is fine.
Map courtesy of Nations Online Project.

Dig deeper and it's a pretty daunting undertaking requiring stamina, knowledge, and more than a little strategery. Developing a strategy that allows you to find 220-plus species is mind bending, a task that employs all the little grey cells you possess. Managing your time diligently requires discipline envied by the most pious of Buddhist monks (if Buddhist monks were given to envy). The extended sleep deprivation and malnutrition would make David Blaine weep. And the skills to identify all of those birds, some by sounds less than a half-second long or by a profile on the edge of visibility, takes the eidetic memory of a Good Will Hunting. And in spite of, or because of, those factors, it really is fun.

I guess -- I didn't actually compete. When you work at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a place with dozens of world-class birders, you can bet only the best of the best are invited to join the Sapsuckers. But I can tell you this: it's flattering to be asked to give up a few days of computer work to travel to the wilds of Jersey to help the team scout.

Dawn in High Point State ParkI'm not being facetious when I say "the wilds." Northwestern New Jersey
contradicts the strip-mall-covered and urbanized stereotypes from movies.

Scouting is an essential part of the competition. It turns out you can't just show up and expect to make a 200 species-plus run through the state. I mean, you can have that expectation, but it's a bit naive. You'd be fooling yourself. There is a lot of preparation involved in tracking every bird in the state and determining how to visit them all, or at least one of each species. It means studying New Jersey, committing to memory the variety of habitats throughout the state, then coupling that knowledge with a thorough understanding of which birds use those habitats. Then, couple that with the phenology of bird movements -- when are those birds are actually in Jersey? When do the snowbirds head north, when do the neotrops return? Oh, and remember, you only have a single 24-hour period, so you need to know the best time of day to find them.

Black-throated Blue Warbler, maleMany Black-throated Blue Warblers pass through the state, but some breed.
You have to know where if you want to be sure to add them to your list.

That's why you scout. The mission, which I chose to accept: descend on New Jersey and stake out as many birds as you can.

So, what do you stake out? Ideally, everything. Some birds you simply shouldn't worry about. American Robin, drive by any lawn and there you go! American Crow? C'mon. They're everywhere. Northern Cardinal? Please, missing these guys is impossible, right?

Blue-headed Vireo nestFinding a Blue-headed Vireo nest may be the difference between
adding this species for the day or missing it altogether.

But there's a lesson many teams have learned over the years: take nothing for granted. What if it's pouring rain and no bird is calling? How do you efficiently find birds that were singing loudly a day or two before, but are hunkered down and silent? You don't have time to traipse through the woods looking for them, hoping to cross paths. You need to know precisely where to look. And even if it is amiable weather, you need to know what time to be at each location. Birds aren't signing all day; when does each species start? When do they quiet down? What locations are active early, which ones come alive late? It pays to know when the birds are most active, singing and calling without restraint.

Canada WarblerCanada Warblers often return to New Jersey shortly before the Big Day.
Visiting their territories lets you know exactly when they return.

I had some specific tasks, I had some general assignments. The weather was a mixed bag. I listened for saw-whet owls in the pouring rain, I watched migrant warblers in a sunny park. I spent hours by myself, not coming in contact with another person. I fought traffic on the Jersey Turnpike and sought much-needed birds in the middle of Newark. I had some successes and some complete failures. All of that information, merged with reports from other scouts, was fed to the Sapsuckers who incorporated it into their Big Day strategy.

More on the day-to-day activities of a scout to come, but how did it all work out for the Sapsuckers? The "tweet" came in on Sunday morning at 12:07 AM (you know I was still up, anxiously awaiting the results): their final tally was 221 species. I'd have to wait until late Sunday morning to hear how that stacked up against the other teams. Pretty well, it turned out, but not well enough to win.

More to come . . . .


Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Gone Birding: World Series of Birding

As of tomorrow I'll be out of the office, offline, and out of touch for a couple of days. My waking hours, and some sleeping hours, will be spent scouting for the Cornell Lab's "Sapsuckers" as they ready themselves for the 26th annual World Series of Birding (yes, there's a Wikipedia entry for it, how mainstream!).

I scouted for the Sapsuckers between 2000 and 2004, always in the wilds of northern New Jersey, and I'm excited to be going back again. I'm not being facetious, the northwest corner is absolutely beautiful. I happily spent many (many, many) hours walking many (many, many) miles through High Point State Park, the Delaware Water Gap, and various unnamed areas trying to pick out a bit of everything: lingering winter species (Dark-eyed Junco, White-throated Sparrow), returning breeding birds on territory (Canada Warbler, Black-throated Blue, Ceruleans . . . ), nests of any kind but especially species that are likely to be proverbially "too quiet" on the Big Day (raptors, woodpeckers, early-nesting songbirds like Blue-headed Vireo), habitat patches that look ready to host a flock of migrating songbirds, the timing of when the pheasant calls, the Vesper Sparrow sings, and so on and so on.

You know, the usual Big Day requirements.

Palm WarblerPalm Warbler - will any be left in New Jersey on the Big Day?

It's always a challenge to describe what a big day is, particularly the Big Day, to non-birders -- for a f'rinstance, check out team-member Brian Sullivan's "World Series of What?" Birdscope article from a few years ago. Regardless of whether people "get it" or find it "quaint" (among other affectionate terms), I'm glad the contest has come to highlight conservation issues. The Cornell Lab takes pledges and the money raised is put towards conservation programs, such as atlas projects focusing on species like Cerulean and Golden-winged Warblers.

Blue-headed VireoBlue-headed Vireos will certainly be present, but will they be counted?

If you care to pitch in, please visit my donation page, and thanks in advance for your contribution. And on the Big Day please throw some good vibes the Sapsucker's way, they're on target to raise $200K for conservation again this year. And if you're into the social networking scene, follow them on their Twitter page throughout the week and especially during the event.


Monday, May 4, 2009

New at The Cornell Lab: Inside Birding and A New Neighbor

Something new on the revamped All About Birds website: Inside Birding, a video series hosted by renowned birders, and Cornell Lab staffers, Chris Wood and Jessie Barry.

Whether you’re new to birding or a seasoned expert, interested in sharpening your identification skills or wondering how to clean your binoculars, you’ve come to the right place.

On Inside Birding, hosts Chris Wood and Jessie Barry share all of the tools, tips, and techniques that will allow you to start birding like the pros. From where and when to find birds, to the clues that will help you identify them, Inside Birding provides the information that you need to make the most of your birding experience. So check it out and take your birding to the next level.

Check out the first few episodes on the Inside Birding website.

Jumping out the virtual world and back into the real one, we have new residents moving into the Sapsucker Woods neighborhood. A pair of Great Blue Herons spent much of today fashioning a stick nest in the middle of Sapsucker Woods. The snag sits in the middle of Sapsucker Woods Pond and often serves as a perch for Osprey, hawks, Red-winged Blackbirds . . . too many to list, really. It even hosted a Western Kingbird, nearly a decade ago when I first started working at the Lab.

Friday morning a pair of herons was observed "being amorous" on the snag, the male offering the female a long, multi-pronged branch, which she placed on the snag. Today, Monday, the birds were in full nest-building mode, it seemed the male flying in with a new stick every few minutes. He transferred them to the female who placed it on what seems as stable as a deck of cards: one wrong move, the whole thing comes tumbling down.

The male watches as the female places a stick. I'm no
architect, but I'm thinking vertical isn't the best orientation.

I spent a few minutes towards the end of the day watching what promises to be a fascinating breeding season. Here is a sequence of shots of a stick transfer, click on an image for a larger image to see the details.

The male heron arrives with a suitable stick for the nest. In the
background USAir flight 4685 arrives (early) from LaGuardia.

The male heron transfers the stick to the
female, who accepts it in a bowing posture.

The female heron places the stick in the nest as the male watches, then . . .

. . . the male is off to find yet another stick.

To be continued . . . .

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