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Thursday, August 20, 2015

Lacandon Maya Birds in Metzabok

We originally planned to spend a week in the Lacandon Maya village of Metzabok and a few more days in Naha, but we had a medical emergency and had to return to Palenque and Villahermosa for treatment, so we were only able to spend just over 5 days in Metzabok.  We stayed in some nice cabins that they have on the edge of the village, and ate meals with a local family.  We spent our mornings hiking around the village, and afternoons reviewing bird books and recordings with members of the community.  We saw or heard almost 100 species near the village, and recorded the names of many more.

Juan showing us his milpa--this one has 10 days of corn growth.

Lacandon Maya selfie with our friend Juan in his milpa

Reviewing bird illustrations with Juan.

Tourist cabin compound in Metzabok--nice rooms with double beds, running water, and electricity.  

Many Maya families enjoy having pet parrots

Chicken soup and tortillas.  Very good food with a family in the village.

Digi-binned shot of an Ornate Hawk-Eagle near Metzabok.  Apparently not the day to leave my good camera in the cabin.

Tarantula in Juan's milpa--showed up less than 5 minutes after we asked about tarantulas in Lacandon culture.

With Juan on Lago Metzabok.

We hiked up to the lookout on this hill on the far side of Lago Metzabok.

View from the lookout, looking across the lake towards the village.

Happy to be on top of the hill--it seemed higher than it looked!

Ancient temple ruin on top of the hill overlooking the lake

Juan with traditional Lacandon Maya god pot at the temple ruins

Lacandon Maya god pot, used for offerings in traditional ceremonies

Pulling faces with our Mayan buddy

Cave offering pots and skull

Cave opening, with offering pots

Another view of the cave offering pots and skull

Fish dinner in Metzabok.  Perhaps the boniest fish I've ever eaten, but very tasty with black beans, salsa, and tortillas.

At night on Lago Metzabok, looking for owls and cayman

Professor Kerry Hull being schooled on Lacandon Maya ethnobotany

Hummingbird nest on the trail near Lago Metzabok

Our time in Metzabok was too short, and we look forward to returning--perhaps next Spring when more birds are singing.  We also look forward to visiting the other nearby Lacandon community of Nahรก.

More information about how to schedule your own visit to Metzabok (in Spanish) here.

Classic Maya Birds, Ruins and Museum at Palenque

Palenque is one of the most spectacular and easily accessible Classic Maya ruins.  I first visited the site in 1991 and a lot has changed--many more visitors and vendors, and more of the ruins have been excavated.  We got there during the heat of the day, so birds were quiet and few and far between, but we did see some Keel-billed Tucans as well as a Bat Falcon harassing a Short-tailed Hawk.  The museum was closed the first day we were there, due to a power outage, but when we returned a week later the museum was open and we enjoyed seeing more of the artifacts from this site.  For more on the birds of Palenque, check out this paper.

Here are a few shots of the ruins as well as some Classic Maya bird imagery from Palenque.  Birds were an important part of Classic Maya communities and culture.  They continue to be important in many Maya communities today, making our research into modern and ancient Maya bird connections a lot of fun.

White Palace at Palenque Ruins.  Most Classic Maya architecture was probably plastered and painted red, but this palace was white and would have made an imposing sight. 
Birding above the White Palace

Great tacos al pastor in the city of Palenque.  Best tacos of the trip.

Classic maya often pictured their gods and leaders as taking on the form of a bird.

The mat bird glyph, part of the name of an important site or precinct at Palenque.  We don't know for sure yet which bird this is, but we did recover a water bird name with mat in it among the Chontal Maya this trip, so maybe we're close?

Presumed screech owl head in a belt decoration.

An undeciphered Maya glyph, presumably a royal name or title.  Because the bird is holding a fish, has a crest, and a black line through the eye, I think it is an Osprey, but so far we haven't found a Maya name for the Osprey that ends in N, which it would need to have in order to match the phonetic complement attached to it in another inscription.

Birds often decorate headdresses and incense burners.  Sometimes they are real birds, and other times they may be the bird form or representation of a divine being or ruler.

Another bird presumably as part of a god's headdress on this incense burner.

An explanation of the sarcophagus cover of Pakal, perhaps one of the most famous Classic Maya carvings.  At the top is the major Maya god Itzamnaaj in the form of the bird.  

Classic Maya glyph with the phonetic reading of "I"--a bird perhaps a vulture eating the eye of a jaguar.  Interestingly we got a cool story about this from a Chol Maya village in Tabasco.

Another Classic maya "bird man"

Saturday, June 06, 2015

Backyard Big Year Update--May 2015

Least Flycatcher--the only Empid seen in my yard this spring--though a Willow Flycatcher was picked up by my OldBird21c microphone one night.
Usually by the end of May I've seen well over 200 species for the year in my county, and driven almost 10,000 miles looking for birds.  This year I've only birded outside my yard a few times, so my mileage is way down.  And I've found 138 species for the year in my yard.  Not bad considering my overall yard list previous to starting this Backyard Big Year was only 156 species.  But I've still got a long ways to go to reach my Backyard Big Year goals.

I spent a lot of time in my yard in May, trying to get the migrants as they go through.  But it was a slow spring across most of New Jersey, and birds were few and far between.  One indicator of how bad it was--I only saw one Yellow-rumped Warbler in the yard all spring!  This is normally the most common migrant warbler, and a few even winter in the county.

Fortunately, I'm doing a bionic big year, so I can include birds recorded by my OldBird21c microphone at night while I sleep.  It's bitter-sweet to get new birds this way, since they don't count on my personal eBird checklist, but I report them on my NFC station eBird checklist and they count towards the overall Backyard Big Year total.  So far my NFC additions include such hard to get local birds as American Bittern, Black-crowned Night Heron, and Dickcissel (the only ones reported in the county so far this year).  It takes a couple hours or more to review an overnight recording, and there are many calls that I can't ID.  So I've still got a lot of work to do, and hopefully even more goodies tucked away in those recordings.  So stay tuned.

More May 2015 summary including photos at the Backyard Big Year Blog.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Backyard Big Year--March 2015 Update

February about killed me with the sub-zero temperatures, and March was also very cold.  But it did start to warm up later in the month and I was able to add 20 new species to the Backyard Big Year list--including new all time yard birds Common Redpoll, Tundra Swan, Mute Swan, Green-winged Teal, American Wigeon, and Northern Pintail.

See a more complete report on the Backyard Big Year blog, as well as photo highlights at Birding is Fun!

As a special early spring bonus, at the Backyard Big Year blog you can also hear audio recordings of American Woodcocks displaying in my yard.

Hunterdon County Thayer's Gull

On March 30, Frank Sencher Jr. sent out a text that he had a probable Thayer's Gull at Spruce Run.  I took a quick break from my Backyard Big Year and was the first additional birder on the scene.  Frank quickly got the bird in my scope and sure enough it looked really good for an adult Thayer's Gull--a bird reported but never confirmed with photos for the county.  So I got out my iPhone 6 and trusty PhoneSkope adapter and started shooting video of the bird.

In these stills you can see the dark eye, bright raspberry pink legs, roundish head, smallish greenish bill, and most importantly the wing pattern--mostly white primaries underneath with small dark tips, and much reduced black on wingtips--mostly just tips and leading edges to the primaries.

Several other birders were able to get to the bird over the next few hours, and it was relocated again on the afternoon of March 31.  There are over 2000 gulls in the area (I counted over 2400 streaming by from my yard this morning), so hopefully it will stay around for a few more days and return in the evenings for more to enjoy.

Underwing with narrowly dark-tipped white primaries.  And doing the Can Can with those amazing raspberry pink feet.

Crucial shot of underwing, note white primaries with dark tips.

Dark eye, rounded head in this profile shot, and smallish greenish bill are all consistent with Thayer's Gull.

This shot makes the bill look heavier, but note the pale reddish gonydal spot, dark eye, and the mostly white primaries with dark tips.  And you gotta love the bright raspberry colored legs and feet.

In this side view the primaries are clearly dark above with large white spots, and the underside of the primaries (on the folded hind wing) is mostly white with a small dark primary tip visible.  Also note greenish small bill with a faint reddish-orange gonydal spot on lower mandible.  

This is a crucial shot of the upper wing pattern--note the reduced black mostly on the tips and leading edge of the primaries.  Also dark iris and bill without much patterning.

Sitting in front of a Herring Gull, unfortunately this view doesn't allow a good comparison of size differences, but the bird consistently looked a bit smaller than a Herring Gull.  Here you can see the brown streaking on the head and dark eye.  And brighter pink legs than the Herring Gull behind it.

In this shot you can see a better size comparison with the adjacent Lesser Black-backed Gull.  Also note smallish bill with small reddish gonydal spot on lower mandible.  And those bright pink legs are pretty obvious!

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!
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