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Wednesday, June 05, 2019

Arrival of Fat White Jowled Americans

What is big, fat, white, American with big jowls?

Last night my friend Sheryl Johnson was watching the sky over Haverford College, hoping to catch sight of the shorebird flocks that pass over SE Pennsylvania at dusk on late spring days with south winds.  While watching the sky, she and her daughter and friends were surprised so see five American White Pelicans flapping south in the fading light about ten minutes before sunset (eBird report).

I lives about eight miles away and dashed outside on the outside chance that they might pass by my house.  But no dice.  Sheryl speculated that they might stop at nearby Springton Reservoir, or perhaps on the Delaware River.  I hoped they would put down at dark and that somehow I might be able to see them--since they've never been reported in the county before.

With sunrise at 5:30am, I was at Springton Reservoir at 5:20.  I scoped it out, but no dice.  By 6:20 I was at my usual vantage point on the Delaware River behind the Philadelphia airport.  Nothing was on the river close by, but then scoping downstream, I spotted five large white birds about 2.5 miles downstream!  I quickly threw my scope in the car and dashed down the the western end of the airport to get a better look.  Sure enough, there they were, our five American White Pelicans sitting pretty on the water in the early morning light!

First documentary shots of birds half mile away on the Delaware River behind PHL airport.

I had to get home to get my kids to school, but I grabbed a few quick documentary digiscoped shots and put word out on the local birding text alerts.  After other birders arrived, they reported that the birds were slowly drifting downstream, so on my way back to the river I decided to check out a downstream vantage point near Governor Printz Park in Essington.  Sure enough, there the birds were, much closer and in excellent light.  I put word out and several birders joined me to enjoy watching them float towards the western end of Little Tinicum Island.

Pelicans lounging on the river near Governor Printz Park in Essington, PA

Eventually they waddled up onto the shore, occasionally flapping wings and giving great looks until they were buzzed by a young Bald Eagle and took off heading downstream.

We watched them rise higher and higher, up over the Commodore Berry, heading west and out of sight.
American White Pelicans heading west about 9:20am after being buzzed by an eagle.

Up, up, and away!  Heading to Delaware downstream.

So great to be able to relocate these fat, white, jowled American birds--the first to be seen in Delaware County, PA--and to share the sighting with friends.  Life is good!

Saturday, April 06, 2019

Early Philly Migration on NEXRAD

So far there have been a few nights with birds on the NEXRAD.  Tonight is another night of light migration.  A few birds on the radar, but not hearing any on my microphone.  Still waiting for nocturnal migrants to make an appearance here at my listening station.

Light nocturnal migration over Philly

Monday, March 18, 2019

Kōlea--Hawaiian urban bird

On a recent trip to Oahu to present Mayan ethno-ornithological results at an endangered languages conference, I enjoyed spending time with the kōlea, otherwise known as the Pacific Golden Plover.  While I tend to think of these as breeders in the arctic wilderness, in Hawaii these guys are running around in people's lawns, roadsides, and even forests.  They are common everywhere, and a lot of fun to watch.  If you get to Hawaii during the winter months, you are sure to see them running around everywhere.  Enjoy!

kōlea or Pacific Golden Plover

kōlea on a rooftop

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 :-)

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