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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Birdchaser 10th Blogiversary

Today is the tenth anniversary of my first post here on the Birdchaser Blog.  Back on this day in 2004, I had just accepted a job with National Audubon in Pennsylvania, and was getting ready to move my family out from Austin.  I didn't know how much time I was going to have for birding at the new job, so I thought a birding blog would give me an excuse to go birding regularly so I'd have something to post.

Remember the early blogging days when we all had light text on black backgrounds?  And there weren't very many pictures?  Been there, done that!  Here we are ca. 2006.

Turns out there was a lot of birding over the next five years I worked at Audubon.  I was posting a couple times a week during my heyday, and when birding blogs were sparse, Birdchaser was one of the top 10 birding blogs by traffic.

After I left Audubon and started teaching, the blogging started to subside.  The last couple of years my posts have been far less frequent.

Black on white, still just one sidebar, ca. 2008.

So, is there a future for the Birdchaser blog?  Will it make it through its tween years and into a more robust teenage stage of blogging life?

Here's what I have planned:

More posts.

More book reviews.

More photos.

More NFC recordings.

More birding humor.

More fun.

More bad photos of good birds--Juv. Greater White-fronted Goose, Cushetunk Lake, Hunterdon Co, 20 Nov 2014

I've got a birding project coming up in 2015 that will be a lot of fun.  More on that later.  It will have its own dedicated blog, but I'll post highlights here, as well as posts of other travels and the books I'm reading.

I'm also revamping my Urban Birdscapes blog and will have some fun stuff to point to over there soon.  So while I have other projects going, the Birdchaser will be my blog focussed on my own birding trips and bird books.  And who knows what else.

Thanks for sticking around, and I look forward to sharing more adventures in the coming blog tweener years!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Review: The New Birder's Guide to Birds of North America

There are a lot of field guides out there.  Including guides aimed at beginners.  Each guide claims its own unique features.  Some are great, some are OK, and some are frustrating.

Bill Thompson III's The New Birder's Guide to Birds of North America may not make this claim for itself, but it may be one of the most fun field guides to come out recently.  It is a publisher's and reader's delight, with a tight and beautiful layout that makes it very fun to peruse.

In short, this is the book form of Bill Thompson III leading beginning birders on an extended cross country trip to see "300 of the most common birds in the United States and Canada."  In doing so, he shares what to look for, listen for, and remember about each bird.  He also shares a nugget of trivia about each bird--just as if we were on a birdwalk together.

In addition to one or two photos of each species, each one page species account features a black and white illustration (by Julie Zickefoose or Michael DiGiorgio) of the bird in action.  A full color range map, and notes on how to find each bird are also included.

Great layout, fun illustrations and facts.  Unfortunately in this case the photos don't show what they say they do, or help very much if you live in the West.

This well-chunked and informative layout makes this book fun and easy to use.  Thompson's prose is light and engaging.  I especially enjoy his descriptions of bird vocalizations--something that isn't easy to do, making it the hardest section to read in most field guides.  Not so here--as when we are told that the Common Moorhen "sounds like someone is torturing a frog" and the Cactus Wren "sounds like someone trying to start a car."

As befitting any guide for beginners, there are plenty of other extra features here to get one started on the road to enjoying birds, including instructions on birding gear, how to use binoculars, info on birding manners, and helpful lists including Five Outside the Box Tips for Improving Your Birding Skills and Be Green: Ten Things You Can Do for Birds.

It's also very cool that Bill Thompson wrote this book in collaboration with his kids and their schoolmates.

So what's not to like about this guide?  It's a delight to read.  A lot of fun.  Beginning birders, and even more seasoned types, will find fun and memorable facts to increase their enjoyment of birds.  But since it has only 300 species featured, it obviously isn't going to help identify every bird--including "red-shafted" Northern Flickers, immature gulls, and the domestic waterfowl that they are most likely to see at their neighborhood park.  There isn't a good way around that limitation.  Readers are even promised in the introduction that they will see birds not found in this book--and that they should have a more comprehensive field guide to help them with those identifications--useful advice for sure, but also begging the question of why such a limited guide might be needed at all.

But since there aren't easy answers to that question--it's best to just enjoy this well written and put together guide for what it is--a fun introduction to North American birds and birding, with text and illustrations almost as lively as the birds themselves.  During this holiday season it would make a good stocking stuffer for the beginning or causal birder, or if you've been birding with Bill Thompson III out on the birding festival circuit, this encapsulation of his birding spirit is a must have as well!

Disclaimer: review based on a library copy.

Additional Reviews:
Birder's Library

Friday, November 14, 2014

Review: Field Guide to the Birds of New Jersey

I've only lived in New Jersey for three years, but New Jersey is a great place to bird, with so many birds in such an easily traversed state.  Every where I go, people stop me and seem to want to talk about the birds they see.  Most of these folks probably don't consider themselves birders--though many know quite a bit about the local birds.

These may well be the perfect audience for Rick Wright's new Field Guide to the Birds of New Jersey--the first in what appears to be a long line of state guides to be sponsored by the American Birding Association.  The Field Guide to the Birds of New Jersey (henceforth FGBNJ) is an attractive and well produced book that aspires to spark "a lifetime of enjoyment of birds" in NJ.  I hope it succeeds.

As is obvious from the title, this guide is focused on a small geographic area--just one U.S. state.  Since it is aimed at new or beginning birders, it does not cover every bird found in the Garden State, but does a good job of representing the most common 255 birds that folks are bound to find--including some tough to find birds such as Connecticut Warbler and Northern Saw-Whet Owl that will take some diligent searching to actually observe.

FGBNJ is a photo guide.  I'm not a huge fan of photo guides--usually preferring the synthetic abstraction of an artists rendering to the misplaced concreteness of a photo--but for its purpose, this one does a good job.  The photos--over 600 in all--are almost universally excellent.  Their large format provides good looks at the birds covered.  The photos are beautiful.

With beautiful photos, FGBNJ does a good job of staying out of their way.  The layout is simple, with one species to a page or even a two page spread.  The text for each bird is one big paragraph, written to be actually read rather than skimmed.  Identification tips are usually kept to captions inset into the photos.

My favorite part of bird guides is to hear the voice of the author.  In this case, my friend Rick Wright's polished writing is a joy.  His summary of each species is a good introduction to the bird, and will be very educational for those learning about each species for the first time.  As a clever writer, Rick has tucked away little Easter eggs here and there that will delight.  I've never read about a bank collapse in a field guide before!  And the imagery is often a joy to read, such as an "ocean sprinkled with the silvery dots of roosting and feeding loons."  Such spare but delightful prose hearkens back to the species accounts written by Roger Tory Peterson, the grandfather of all field guide authors.  Wright's prose is a fitting and worthy perpetuator of that grand tradition.

In addition to the species accounts, FGBNJ provides a full checklist to the birds of New Jersey, tips on good birding locations around the state, and the obligatory sections on the parts of a bird and how to identify birds--all geared to the beginner in a clear and concise manner that minimizes jargon--you will find napes, primaries, and secondaries, but as far as I can tell, no tertials.  Perfect for beginners.

There are many challenges to writing and producing a guide for beginners, but FGBNJ and presumably the rest of the American Birding Association series of state guides do provide a good introduction to the birds of the state, and hopefully will provide inspiration to those with casual birding interests to join the ranks of those who start wandering farther and farther afield in their search for avian treasures!

Disclaimer: this review based on a library copy.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Quest for 700 ABA Birds

The other 700 club!
It's been a long time since I hit a birding milestone in the ABA area.  In fact, I haven't really hit one since I started graduate school.  Back in 1997 we had just one small baby in the family and during the summer before starting graduate school I made an effort to get a special bird for my #600 ABA species by flying up to Michigan to see a Kirkland's Warbler.  

Since that time we've had two more kids, moved five times, and the birds haven't come as fast as I might have hoped.  I only got 19 new birds while getting my MA and PhD degrees in Austin.  After leaving Austin, I was able to do some traveling for my work with Audubon, and picked up another 53 species in my nearly 5 years there.

In the past few years, the additional new species have come much slower.  There were a couple years were I only got one new bird for the ABA area.  This year so far I've seen three (European Golden Plover--see my video below of first NJ record bird, Bar-tailed Godwit, and Whiskered Tern).  In doing some record-keeping house cleaning today, with all the splits over the last few years and a new listing rule giving me back the African Collared-Dove from Los Angeles that I saw in 1985 (thank you ABA!), my ABA list spreadsheet shows I'm now at 696 species for my North America list--a good handful closer than I anticipated to the 700 ABA milestone.

Once upon a time 700 was considered a very respectable ABA list.  In fact, the first person to reach 700 species sightings in North America was Joe Taylor in 1972.  Before that, birdwatchers who had seen 600+ species in North America were considered elite members of a prestigious 600 Club.  In 1973, Jean Piatt wrote Adventures in Birding, a now classic account of his and his wife's quest to join the 600 Club. Nowadays, dozens of birders report lists over 800 species, and at least one is claiming to have seen over 900 species in North America north of Mexico.

But I'm still poking along slowly as I approach 700.  I'm heading to Florida in December for a family vacation to Orlando, but don't expect any new birds.  Unless I take a few days away from the theme parks and cruise down to south Florida, where a few other possible new birds for me are in the offering, such as the introduced Egyptian Goose (established Florida birds were recently added to the ABA checklist), Red-cheeked Bulbul, Spot-breasted Oriole, and Purple Swamphen.  Now that I realize how close I am to 700, I may have to make some new travel plans here soon!

Since I can't imagine ever spending the kind of money that it takes to get to 800 for North America (multiple Alaska trips, and chasing rare birds wherever they appear across the lower 48), this may be my last ABA milestone.  I'm looking forward to seeing what my next four new birds will be!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

American Woodcock Wing Sound

I recorded this American Woodcock wing sound yesterday morning when a bird flew over my NFC microphone in my yard.  I usually hear these guys when they are displaying in April, so who knows how often they are actually flying over my yard.  I intend to record all through the winter this year, so who knows what kind of fun stuff I will find.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Rare Birds of North America

When I was in high school, one of my favorite books was Don Roberson's Rare Birds of the West Coast.  The only copy available to me was in the Portland Public Library, and I would have to ride the bus downtown to check it out on a special out of county loan.  I would then spend hours looking at all the vagrants recorded in Oregon and nearby states, and dream about what it might be possible to find.  When I got kicked out of my Junior year English class for being obnoxious and had to come up with a self-study unit to pass the time, Rare Birds of the West Coast was my principle source in compiling a paper on which birds were most likely to be added to the official Oregon state list.  Roberson's book, though very dated now, is still one of my favorite bird books of all time.

When I heard that Steve Howell, Ian Lexington, and Will Russell were coming out with Rare Birds of North America (Princeton, 2014), I was very excited to get my hands on the definitive guide to rare birds of the whole continent!

The book has been out for months now, and there have been many excellent reviews (including BirdGuides, Birder's Library, Birdwatch, and ABA).  These reviews are all pretty much glowing, and I recommend going there for more details that I may skip here.  Most reviews come out when a book is released.  Now that I've lived with and used this book for a few months, perhaps I can offer a different perspective.

Rare Birds of North America has a lot going for it.  Let's start with the illustrations.  For me, the gouache paintings by Ian Lewington are the best thing about this book--and blow the socks off the color plates in Rare Birds of the West Coast and they pretty much trump any current field guide illustrations found in North American guides. The illustrations--from the accentor on the cover, to the very last of the 275 color plates--are stunning.  They are clear, large, and a joy to behold.  They've got my mouth watering for the future publication of a field guide to North American birds that will feature Lewington's work.  These illustrations have made this book my second stop (after my trusty Sibley) when considering the identity of a possible vagrant bird.  I even carried it around in my car for awhile.  I expect I'll be using and enjoying these illustrations for a long time.

Sample plate from Rare Birds of North America

The text of Rare Birds of North America is exhaustively researched and documented and the format and layout is fantastic, with great introductory sections on vagrancy as well as molt and topography of bird plumage (but what else would you expect from the author of Peterson Reference Guide to Molt in North American Birds?).  The species accounts are also well thought out, with information on occurrence, possible patterns of vagrancy, and identification and habits of each species covered.    In summary here's what works best for me:

  • Discussion of vagrancy--good review of literature and speculations
  • Molt and topography section--concise review
  • Species accounts organization and layout, especially the--
  • Comments section--where we get the clearest access to the authors's thoughts on these birds and their occurrence, including fun speculations about how, why, and where these birds might possibly turn up next.
In living with the text of this book, there's a few things that have been a little irritating for me:
  • Division of the species accounts based on geographic origin of vagrants.  For each taxonomic group of birds, birds of New World and Old World origin are split from each other, sometimes them harder to find in the text.
  • Field Identification section--generally good information, but sometimes vague and frustrating.  Many times I'm left wondering what field marks are really diagnostic, or if I would be able to really identify one of these vagrants based on the information provided.  A case in point from an actual frustrating ID I faced here is Yellow-legged Gull.  This is a real possible vagrant where I live (and I had a candidate bird last year), but one that might be impossible to distinguish from a hybrid Herring x Lesser Black-backed Gull.  The text mentions this challenge without really providing a good discussion of how to actually make the distinction.  Granted this may be a frontier of bird identification, but I was hoping for some more clarity here from the founder of the Bird ID Frontiers listserv!  Likewise, when a possible New Jersey first European Golden Plover showed up in a sod farm field a few miles from my house, the ID text offered some hints (underwing pattern and body structure), but left me hanging in describing the plumage.  In fact there aren't detailed plumage descriptions here--just comparisons between the vagrant birds and more familiar North American species, or between the ages and sexes of the vagrant species.  So where I would hope a book like this would provide the definitive descriptions and field identification discussions, after using this book a few times I feel like it is a good reference, but not the final word, and that more research in other references will often be needed to actually identify a vagrant.
  • Summaries of vagrant records are generally good, but when I found that the 1996 Common Crane record from Nebraska that I and many other North American listers twitched (this was the first twitchable Common Crane in 20 years) was not included, it made me wonder how exhaustive these summaries actually are.  I suspect they are pretty thorough, but you hate for there to be a doubt.
That said, and my petty quibbles aside, Rare Birds of North America is an impressive book.  While I may not actually work as the best source of ID info on some of these birds, it will still be helpful, the illustrations will be very useful, and the summary of bird records will still inspire the imagination.  If it helps birders find and recognize more of these mega vagrants, than it will have fulfilled its purpose and provided a lot of enjoyment to twitchers across North America.  I personally look forward to spending additional time with this book, and using it to help me when I'm birding on my own or twitching somebody else's good find.

As I mentioned, most bird books arrive with much aplomb and online reviews, then you don't hear much about them later.  I'd be curious to hear how Rare Birds of North America has lived up to its initial reviews, or what other thoughts folks have about it after living with it for half a year?

(Review based on a review copy provided by Princeton University Press).

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Pre Dawn Thrush Flight 30 September 2014

I recorded over 310 thrush calls between 5am and 6:35am at my home in Hunterdon County, NJ this morning.  Here's the eBird checklist.

As always, there are many calls that I'm still puzzling over.  Here's a spectrogram of a call sequence from 6:09am:

You can download the audio of this clip, and follow any possible discussion of it from my post on the Nocturnal Flight Call Facebook group.

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