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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Review: How to Be a Better Birder

Unfortunately books have become like movies.  They appear, make a splash, then largely disappear from the public.  Only a few live on in the active life of most readers or movie watchers.  Books sit on shelves, movies show up in Netflix or on cable.  But many deserve a second look after the buzz has died down.

Derek Lovitch's How to Be a Better Birder (Princeton 2012) is worth a second look.  I had meant to review it when it came out, but somehow life got away from me and the review didn't happen.  But the book has been on my mind a lot, and so now is as good a time as ever to revisit it!

Lovitch grew up in New Jersey, and How to Be a Better Birder is a good introduction to what might be termed the Cape May school of birding.  His first six chapters introduce important concepts that can help birders find and identify more birds, while his final three chapters show how all of these concepts work together in real life birding situations.

The six main topics highlighted in How to Be a Better Birder are:

  • Advanced Field Identification--a review of the "whole bird" school of bird identification, as well as a discussion of taking notes and useful books for a birding library.
  • Birding by Habitat--the importance of learning local plants, and using habitat to help find and identify birds.
  • Birding with Geography--why maps are important for birders, and how to identify and find birds using geography as a tool.
  • Birding and Weather--a brief review of how weather impacts migrating birds, with several case studies including weather grounding shorebirds and weather systems in the Bering Sea driving Asian birds to Alaska ("The Siberian Experess").
  • Birding at Night--tracking migration on RADAR and with nocturnal flight calls.
  • Birding with a Purpose--citizen science programs including the Christmas Bird Count and eBird that allow birders to contribute to our understanding of bird distribution and abundance.
These chapters offer good introductions to all of these themes, with personal examples that help to see how these principles can guide and improve our regular birding--by improve it is understood throughout this book that this means finding and identifying more birds.  Including rarities.  And that's how Lovitch rounds out this moderate (192 pages) tome, with chapters on:
  • Vagrants--how the above principles influence the movement and finding of rare birds.
  • Birding in New Jersey--a review of one of Lovitch's recent birding trips to Cape May and elsewhere in the Garden State, showing how using these principles influenced and improved the birding on that trip.
  • Patch Listing--a plea for birders to pick a local spot using these principles and to bird it regularly.

All of these chapters are worthy of review.  Many of these topics are covered in more detail elsewhere, and Lovitch is quick to provide references and suggestions for those wanting more information.  If you haven't read How to Be a Better Birder yet, you owe it to yourself to take a look. It is informational, but also inspiring.  We can all be better birders, and most birders will probably find something here to spark their imagination or help them take their birding to the next level.

While most of Lovitch's examples are based on his own birding in the Eastern United States, there are references to how these principles play out in other parts of North America, improving the book's usefulness beyond the shadow of Cape May.

And you don't have to be a wide-ranging birder to take advantage of these better birding principles.  In fact, I've been thinking about these themes a lot recently as I undertake my Backyard Big Year.  For more thoughts on how these principles play out for a dedicated yard lister, check out my post on How to Be a Better (Backyard) Birder.

Disclosure: This review is based on a review copy provided by the publisher.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Slo-Mo Mourning Dove


I shot this slo-mo video of a Mourning Dove in the snow on my patio. I like how it gives the bird a totally different feel than we are used to seeing.

The funny thing is, this may be more how Mourning Doves experience themselves.  Pigeons and presumably doves have a much faster flicker-fusion rate than we do--the number of discreet moments that they can perceive before they start to blur together.  This probably means that they experience more moments/period of time than we do--or in other words, they probably experience the flow of time differently than we do.  While they may seem all sped up to us normally, this video may show more of how the world is for them.

Watching a Mourning Dove at closer to their own speed, doesn't it look more like a grazing cow.  Or perhaps a distantly related herbivorous dinosaur?

Anyway, the world is a cool place.  Even at dove speed on your patio!

Thursday, January 01, 2015

2015 Backyard Big Year Kickoff

12 hours of birding in the cold got me more than just frozen toes--I was able to find 36 species in the yard, including 3 new for my yard list.  See a more detailed report here.  I'll be posting daily updates on my Backyard Big Year blog and Backyard Big Year Facebook page.

Most of the more unusual yard birds were too far away to get photos, but I did get images of a lot of the more common bird residents.

Carolina Wren on my patio--Day 1 of the 2015 Backyard Big Year

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

2015 Backyard Big Year

Join me in 2015 for a hard-core birding adventure right in my own backyard!

For 2015 I'm bringing hard core birding home in an all-out, high tech blitz to see how many birds I can detecting in my yard during the year.  I'll be watching the sky for flyovers, recording at night with a microphone to catch the birds migrating over the yard, and will have trail cams set up to detect birds trying to sneak a drink out of my water features.

I'm really excited about this Backyard Big Year and have created a Backyard Big Year blog just to keep up with all the birds and birding that will be involved.  I'll post highlights here, but otherwise for 2015 my Birdchaser blog here will focus on my other birding adventures as well as equipment and book reviews.

So look forward to seeing you over at the Backyard Big Year blog or on the Backyard Big Year Facebook page.  We're going to learn a lot about how to see more birds in your yard, so it won't just be about me and my backyard adventure.  I'll be exploring the cutting edge of bird detection, identification, and birding technologies.

It's going to be great!  See you there!

Monday, December 29, 2014

My Top 10 Birds of 2014

So the year isn't quite over, there are still a few days left to find something to add to this list.  But barring a last minute birding surprise, here are my best birds of 2014.

10)  Calliope Hummingbird--a first state record found at my friend's feeders, this bird was a first Hunterdon County record and lingered for a week giving many folks a chance to see it.  One of 7 new birds I added to my county list this year.

1st Hunterdon County Calliope Hummingbird, Holland Twp.

9) Sanderling--After missing this bird in the county for the past two years, I was happy to finally see one at Spruce Run this fall.  One of the 7 birds I added to my Hunterdon County list this past year.

Sanderling, Spruce Run, Hunterdon, NJ

8) White-tailed Wheatear--This bird is a first record for The Netherlands if accepted as a wild bird.  I twitched it on the way to the airport on my way home, and got some distant digiscoped shots (below) of it sitting on an apartment building.  A great rarity and urban bird, and one of the 11 life birds I saw this past year.

7) Arctic Loon--A flyover on a jetty in the North Sea of The Netherlands was one of only 11 life birds I saw this past year.

6) Caspian Gull--I hiked over 8 miles down a beach in the rain and got totally soaked to see this bird, but it was one of the 11 lifers I saw this year.

5) Great Skua--I got a very distant look at this bird during a storm from a jetty in The Netherlands.  One of the 11 life birds I saw this year.

4) Whiskered Tern--I drove down to Cape May, my first trip down there in 19 years, to see this bird that spent a week flying around the hawk watch platform.  One of the 11 lifers I saw this year.

3)  White-tailed Eagle--I've dreamed of seeing this bird for a long time, and finally got to see several of them--if distantly--on my trip to The Netherlands in October.  One of the 11 lifers I saw this year.

A crummy digiscoped shot, but that large-headed, short-tailed blog on the post is an adult White-tailed Eagle :-)

2)  European Golden Plover--found by my local birding friends while I was in New York, I drove through the night to see it and was the first to get video (below) or photos confirming the identification by showing the white underwing.  This is a first state record for New Jersey.

1)  Neotropic Cormorant--I found this bird, a New Jersey first state record, at one of my local patches on the way home from the grocery store back in April.  It lingered until early July, giving hundreds of birders a chance to add this to their state list--and since it is a regional first, folks even came from out of state to enjoy it.

Neotropic Cormorant
First NJ record of Neotropic Cormorant, Clinton, Hunterdon, NJ
 I ended the year within a stone's throw of an ABA milestone, and may take some time out next year to chase a couple more birds for my North America list.  I ended the year with 240 species on my 2014 Hunterdon County list, ending in the top 3 again for the third year I lived here.  I didn't do as good a job of taking my kids birding as I had anticipated back in January, and my Holland trip was the only foreign trip of the year.  So not a big listing year outside of the county, but finding a 3rd third NJ record in 15 months was nothing to complain about!

Hope everyone had a fun time birding in 2014.  Feel free to share your own bests in the comments.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

North Pole Birding Fail

I spent most of the day playing Santa's helper.  Not a lot of good birding on a drizzly overcast day on the North Pole.  My usual stops on the way to Philipsburg were pretty much dead.  I did have a flock of Snow Geese on the side of I78, but not much else.  I had one 3 minute point count with no birds.  None.  By the time I got home I had only 16 species for the day.  I spent an hour in my yard during the late afternoon trying to get my #20BirdMDR, but ended up with only White-throated Sparrow, Mourning Dove, and Carolina Wren new for the day. So I ended up with a 19 species day, a #BirdingFail.  I could have taken another quick trip into town and picked up a few more species at Demott Pond, but didn't feel like spending gas money just for that. I tried to string a distant calling Song Sparrow, but it just wasn't to be. Oh well. Santa got a lot of work done today :-)

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Best view of bird evolution yet

A series of articles published this week (see overview here) provide the best view of bird evolution yet. Based on the complete gene map of over 40 species from all the recognized bird orders, and taking over 400 years of computer computation time to calculate, this is a real thing of beauty. Here's the tree--

Source Jarvis et al 2014

Interesting evidence that many of the landlords we know of may have descended from the lineage of some sort of raptorial bird that lived through the asteroid impact that destroyed the rest of the dinosaurs--with one group evolving in Africa (Afroaves--woodpeckers, hawks, etc.) and another in Australia (Australaves--falcons, parrots, songbirds, etc.).

There's a lot to digest here, but it's definitely a golden age of bird taxonomy with the technology we have now giving us a much better view than ever before of how our world came to be inhabited by our feathered friends (and everything else, for that matter!).
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