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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!).

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Evening Grosbeaks

This afternoon I was fortunate enough to see a pair of Evening Grosbeaks at a private residence near my home.  I had a couple of birds flyover in 2012, but these were the first I've seen at a feeder since 2007.  Lots of fun!


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
Amazon


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.


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