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Monday, January 21, 2019

BCDC Field Trip--January 19

Last Saturday I led a morning field trip for the Birding Club of Delaware County.  We hit the main vantage points along the Delaware River here in Delaware County, looking for wintering waterfowl and other winter birds.  Highlights were Great Cormorant (locally uncommon) and 61 Tundra Swans.  I also found a couple American Tree Sparrows right before the trip started, but we didn't see them when were were all together.  It was cold, but the weather was fine and we managed about 30 species in a couple hours.  

Friday, July 27, 2018

Birding in a van, down by the river

My name is Rob Fergus.  I'm an ornithologist.  I am almost 50 years old, and I bird in a van, down by the river.

With fall migration well underway, the best place in my county for shorebirds is a small tidal flat on the Delaware River behind the Philadelphia airport.  Several times a week I try to hit there at low tide to see what comes my way.  Half a dozen Bald Eagles patrol this area and like to land on the spit as well, so oftentimes they spook birds that have landed there.  Which means you have to pay attention, because the shorebirds you want to see may only get to land for a few minutes before they get flushed and take off.

This morning a nice flock of 3 Short-billed Dowitchers, 3 Lesser Yellowlegs, and 4 Pectoral Sandpipers landed on the spit.  The pectorals were a county year bird for me, so that was great.  What wasn't so great was 1) The birds are over half a mile away out on the river, so this was the best shot I could get before 2) the eagles flushed all the birds, and the shorebirds disappeared.

At half a mile away, the best shot I could get of the dowitchers and Pectoral Sandpipers (with a Ring-billed Gull)

So its the middle of summer break.  I'm trying to get some writing done.  I'm not headed off to any exotic locations to see new birds in Australia or Nepal.  I'm birding in a van, down by the river.

But life is good.  I'm on track to become only the third person to report 200 species in this county in a calendar year.  And things could be a lot worse.  I could be eating a steady diet of government cheese, thrice divorced, and actually living in that van.

With the world going crazy, I'll take the birds!

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Adventures in Birding: A Book, A Culture, A Life

As a teenage birder growing up in Oregon, my favorite book to check out from the Clackamas County Library was Adventures in Birding, by Jean Piatt.  Published in 1973, Adventures in Birding chronicled the adventures of Piatt and his wife Marybelle as they made journeys around North America trying to find 600 species of birds to join what was then called the 600 club--an informal group of the continent's top birders who had each seen that many species in North America north of Mexico.  I loved reading of these birders and their travels, and dreamed of someday seeing the same places and same birds.

Fast forward 30+ years and many birds later, and I was pleased to recently find a first edition copy of Adventures in Birding (were there actually other printings?) at a used bookstore.  I scooped it up, and after getting it home I got a big surprise.  Unbeknownst to me, all these years later, I had actually moved to within just a few miles of where Jean Piatt started birding!

Piatt mentions three local birding sites where he got his start here in Delaware County, Pennsylvania--Furness Upper Bank Nursery in Media, Springton Reservoir, and Tinicum wildlife refuge.  Tinicum is now the Heinz National Wildlife Refuge--a large wetland area near the Philadelphia airport that I've birded many times since moving to Pennsylvania in 2004.

The Upper Bank Nursery was more of a puzzle, a couple local birders I asked about it didn't know where it was.  Some Googling led me to find it just south of Media, less than three miles from my home.  This is where Piatt first started birding--in his first chapter, he describes seeing an Eastern Towhee there as the spark bird that got him first interested in listing the birds he found, and the desire to find more.  What used to be a local nursery well known for growing many types of bamboo, is now private property, but I was able to find it and take a few pictures.

Site of the former Furness Upper Bank Nursery on South Ridley Creek Rd in Media, PA
Site of the former Furness Upper Bank Nursery in Media, PA less than 3 miles from my home.
Springton Reservoir is where some Buffleheads fanned the spark for Piatt into a full-fledged birding flame.  I've birded there a few times over the past year--if you take a left out of my driveway it is just a 15 minute drive down my road to the reservoir.

Springton Reservoir just 5.5 miles straight down the road from my home.
The irony of my having unknowingly or perhaps subconsciously moved to my old birding idol's own stomping grounds has caused some reflection on my own journey, my own adventures in birding and North American bird listing.  From my own spark on 10 August 1981 on a week-long school outing to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon and the state and county listing of my youth--to the fanning of the flame after my wife and I moved to Washington DC in 1994 and I met some of my first big North American chasers at a Yellow-legged Gull stakeout at Georgetown Reservoir.  By this time, 600 was small potatoes, and the top listers had seen well over 700 bird species in North America.

So 700 became my goal over the next decade as we moved to Texas and eventually back out to Pennsylvania.  Working for Audubon, I was able to see more and more birds in my work travels around the country, putting me closer and closer to 700 as the club moved on and the top listers started shooting for 800+ species.  Then when my Audubon job evaporated in 2009, my travel schedule changed and my North American listing started slow-walking, even as the top listers started hitting 900+ species for the continent.  This past year, I finally saw my 700th species in North America, just before the American Birding Association officially added Hawaii to the North American listing region, making 1000+ the new benchmark for top North American bird listers.

Sitting here now, with Adventures in Birding in hand, and looking back over my own adventures, I am happy for all the birds and places that I've seen over the years, and the wonderful people that I've met.  But my own listing goals have come smaller--county and yard listing have become more of my passion the last few years.  I can't imagine spending the money required for the multiple Alaska trips necessary to get to 800, let alone 900 or 1000 species for North America.  So I don't have a North American listing goal to motivate me beyond the occasional chase for a new bird near me, or perhaps trips to see some of the scattered other species I haven't seen so far.

Over the past decade I've enjoyed more and more foreign research and conference trips--and the birds I've been able to see outside of North America.  I've only seen about 14% of the bird species in the world, so there are many more to enjoy--but I currently don't have a listing goal for my world list either, but I do expect to make many more trips and see more birds, countries, and cultures.  The world is a very big place for hopefully many more adventures in birding!

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Back in the NFC saddle

This week I finally got my OldBird21c microphone back up and running for the first time after moving from NJ to sePA this past year.  It has been raining most nights this month, but with clear weather forcast it seemed like a good night for migration.  And it was pretty decent.  Here's the NEXRAD radar showing the bird movement.

NEXRAD radar showing decent density of birds moving on the night of May 21

NEXRAD radar showing northerly movement of birds towards (green) and away (yellow) from the radar station.

Here's the NFC protocol eBird checklist from 9:25pm to midnight.

Only 16 species confirmed so far, several unidentified--but I was able to add 12 new species to my yard list:

I love radar ornithology and NFC birding with my microphone.  It is still very humbling and a challenge for me to ID many calls.  But that's probably a good thing :-)

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Philadelphia Airport Snowy Owl

On Jan 5, the weather was turning bad with a week of subfreezing temperatures forecast.  Birds were few and far between at my backyard feeders, so I wanted to make a quick drive to see what I could find down by the river in order to get my #20BirdMDR.  Since this has been a big Snowy Owl year in the East, for the past month I've been regularly driving the road behind the Philadelphia airport hoping one would show up there.

This time, as I pulled over to scan the westernmost part of the airport, I noticed a yellow operations vehicle out on a service road near the runway.  As I put my binoculars up to check it out, I saw something white flying.  Away.  Through the snow.  150 yards away.  For about 5-10 seconds.  Then it was gone.

 The bird was white with dark flecks, big headed, and long heavy-winged.  Fortunately, I've seen Snowy Owls in flight at a great distance before--in the 1990s.  I knew that's what it was, even though it was the worst look in the world, so I called it in.

The next day, local birder Al Guarente relocated it, and soon others were getting great looks at it--as it regularly landed on the airport fence or on light poles over the road.

I was super jealous of the good looks they got over the weekend, and finally on Jan 8 I was able to see it on the ground about 80 yards from the road, and get these shots through my scope (iPhone 6 with Kowa 883 scope).

Rare birds are rare, you don't always find rare birds.  But it pays to regularly go birding, and even to look for hoped for rarities.  Sometimes it pays to make yourself go birding in bad weather.  It pays to go out and make sure you find your 20 species for the day.  It pays to let other folks know what you see, so they can further verify it and enjoy the bird themselves.

And it's just nice to spend some time with visitors from the far north or other distant realms.

It's a cool world out there.  Go see for yourself.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

My Top 10 Birds of 2017

So by the numbers, 2017 was better than average for me, though not particularly stellar.

I did manage to get my official (old) ABA area list to over 700, just before the area was expanded to include Hawaii.  This normally would be a huge accomplishment that I would celebrate, except that I feel like I should have hit this milestone about 10 or 15 years ago (My ABA #600 was Kirtland's Warbler way back in 1997).  I guess I just haven't traveled as much this last decade as I did in the past.  Oh well!  I'm an official ABA 700 club member now, when all the big boys are now in up in the 900s!

I also got to bird in Spain, The Netherlands, and Mexico this year.  These were all work trips, with a little bit of designated birding, mostly on my own.

All in all, I added 4 birds to my ABA area list (Cassia Crossbill, White-winged Tern, Common Greenshank, and Corn Crake).

I was able to add 23 additional birds to my World list--8 in Mexico and 13 in an eight hour layover in Madrid.

Here are my Top 10 favorites for the year:

10) Eurasian Penduline Tit
When you start flipping through European field guides, this is one of those cool birds you hope to see.  I finally ran into a troop of them in Madrid on a whirlwind 6 hour layover trip out from the airport on my way to The Netherlands.

9) Spotless Starling
OK, its just a starling without spots.  No big deal.  But growing up prejudiced against starlings in the US, it was fun to start seeing other starling species.  I never did see one close enough to get a good photo.  And there really isn't much to see.  But it was fun to see anyway!

8) Spanish Sparrow
Growing up in the US, was also prejudiced against House Sparrows.  My friends in Europe love them, and are working tirelessly to stop their precipitous population declines, and I've learned to love them for that.  But these fancy House Sparrow cousins were a must see bird for me on my layover in Madrid.  Fortunately I came across a bush full of these bad boys and was glad to see them.

7) Cassia Crossbill
I've been a big fan of the crypto-species crossbills ever since learning about their diversity back in the early 1990s.  When this form was declared a good species by the AOS this summer, and learning that I had just lost Thayer's Gull to lumping with Iceland Gull, I made a detour up into the hills of southern Idaho to search for this bird on my way from Utah up to Oregon this summer.  I wasn't able to get very satisfying looks, but had at least one flyover calling this call type.  I look forward to going back up to this beautiful area again (I saw four moose up there in just over an hour) and getting better looks someday.  Looking for new birds takes you to great places you'd otherwise maybe never visit.

6) Eurasian Griffin
Another favorite from my Madrid layover.  I scanned dozens of these guys looking for a Spanish Imperial Eagle that never showed up.  But these crazy looking Old World vultures were great to see in and of themselves.

5) White-winged Tern
I moved to the East Coast for the first time in 1994, when this bird was almost annual in the DelMarVa area, so it was on the top of my most wanted birds list.  Then it pretty much stopped showing up.  I was out West this summer when one showed up in western PA, then one showed up during the Big Sit at Tinicum NWR 10 minutes from my house.  I was there early the next morning and got to watch it for 20 minutes or so before torrential rains set in and the bird disappeared, never to be seen again.  Unfortunately, it was too far away for photos, but great to watch as it patrolled back and forth along the back edge of the main impoundment on the refuge.  Super bonus to this bird for being my official ABA Bird #700!

4) Gray Silky-flycatcher
My favorite bird from my Mexico archaeology trip this summer.  I wasn't able to chase any of the ABA area record birds over the years, and am usually too far south in Mexico to see it.  But they were all over at several sites I visited this year, including the great pyramid at Cholula.

3) Eurasian Hoopoe
I must have first seen a picture of this crazy looking bird shortly after I started birding.  During my layover in Madrid this spring, I heard distant hooting and was able to track down this guy calling in a tree off in the distance.  Not the best digiscoped pics, but really happy to see this beauty.

2) Corn Crake
When I bought my first field guide back in the early 1980s, this bird was a dream bird illustrated in the old Golden guide.  There had been records up to the 1960s in the Eastern US, but then nothing.  I hadn't had a chance to look for them in Europe, and when one showed up on the side of the road on Long Island this fall, I dropped everything and took off to chase it.  It turned out that the drive was the hardest part about seeing the bird, as it was spectacularly easy to see parading around on the shoulder of the highway.  Bonus points on this bird for being able to show it to my teenage son, who joined me for the chase.

1) Smew
I've wanted to see this stunning merganser ever since I probably first saw it depicted in the new National Geographic field guide in 1983.  My trips to Europe have always been miss-timed to see this bird, but this past March there were still a handful around in The Netherlands when I traveled to speak at an urban nature conference there.  I still hope to see one in North America someday.  But in the meantime, I've bonded with these beauties in their native land.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

May Update 2017 Project 25/50/100/200

As of the end of May, my photo standings for the year are:

  • Mammals   6/25 
  • Herps         8/50
  • Moths       0/100
  • Birds     118/200

I'm doing OK on birds, but way behind on the others.  Since moving from NJ to PA, I need to find a new source of moths, as my yard here is not attracting them as much as our old NJ yard.  Also depending on a trip out to Utah and Oregon to get me more mammals and herps this summer.

A few photo highlights from May:

Snapping Turtle, John Heinz NWR, PA

Musk Turtle, John Heinz NWR, PA

Pileated Woodpecker, Home, Wallingford, PA

Semipalmated Sandpiper, Spruce Run, Hunterdon, NJ

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