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Tuesday, March 29, 2005

New Yard Bird

This morning as I arrived at work, a flock of 40 Snow Goose flew over with a lone Canada Goose. This is 2005 Office Yard Bird #37. Since there is a little yard list competition going on in Pennsylvania this year, I've started going out for a little while each day during lunch to see how many birds I can find at work. While such birding games may seem trivial, they do provide extra motivation to get out and commune with nature.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Birding with the Boy

On Saturday I took my three year old birding for a couple hours. Only thing better than birding is birding with the kids. You don't see as many birds, but its great to get out with the kids. First we went to Quakertown Swamp and walked the railroad tracks above the swamp. Not a lot of birds around, but there is a colony of Great Blue Herons that nest there, and several herons were in the swamp and others were standing on their nests in the bare trees.

Then we headed over to Lake Towhee. Lots of birds there, including the first Tree Swallows I've seen back from wintering in warmer climes. Among the 100 or so Common Mergansers was a nice male Hooded Merganser--stunning with its black and white hood. Not the most uncommon bird, so not one that gets a lot of comments, but absolutely beautiful. It was a bit too far out to show my son, so he's got something to look forward to when he gets a bit older and can really use binoculars and the spotting scope.

Last stop was a quick look at Lake Nockamixon. Only different bird there was a very distant Common Loon--another bird to show the kids when they get bigger.

Spring is in the air, even if it is still a bit nippy and there aren't any leaves on the trees. Birds are moving back to their breeding areas and moving out of wintering haunts. Lots of wrens and other birds singing.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

White Crane

Last weekend in Nebraska, the Rowe Sanctuary got a call about a possible Whooping Crane sighting. We went out to check it out, and it turned out to actually be a partial albino Sandhill Crane. True albinos are pure white with no skin or eye pigment. This bird was almost all white, with the red skin on the top of the head and dark bill and legs. The photo here is of a similar, or possibly even the same bird, seen in Arizona a year ago.

While it is always great to see a Whooping Crane (there are just over 200 of them left in the wild), an albino Sandhill Crane is actually a much rarer sight, there are probably only one or two in the wild. Some people consider white birds to be good omens. Whether he brings good luck or not, this is one cool bird and I'm glad I got to see him.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Smarter than your Average Bird

Anyone who has doubts about the intelligence of birds should watch this video of a New Caledonian Crow making a tool out of wire to retrieve food (read more here).

The bird is one of a group of crows being studied at Oxford University. In the wild, the crows make a wide variety of tools. In captivity, the researchers have shown that this is an inherited trait--the captive birds are able to make unique tools without ever being exposed to other tool-making crows.

Here in Pennsylvania, American Crows are setting up territories. Driving around in rural areas, you can see single birds perched high in trees, staking out nest sites. As perhaps the smartest birds around, when you watch them, you can be sure they are watching you back. Ever feel like you were being watched? If you were outside you probably were!

Turkeys in the Morning

This mornining as I pulled into work, 15 wild turkeys were feeding in the field behind the office. As I got out my binoculars, the birds moved deeper into the tall vegetation. I tried to sneak up on the birds from behind a row of trees, but the birds were just too wary. Turkeys are notoriously alert and often resist approach. The birds slowly moved off and disappeared. Not a bad way to start the day.

In the early 1900s, after centuries of mostly unregulated hunting, there were only about 30,000 turkeys left in the wild. Today, thanks to the efforts of groups like the National Wild Turkey Federation, there are more than 6.4 million birds running around across the country. If it weren't for the effort of hunters, we might have lost these birds forever. However, as it is, these birds are increasingly taking their place in our yards, woods, and imaginations.

Another cool thing about hunters is that they pay closer attention to animal behavior than many birders do. As an example, here is a fascinating essay about how weather conditions may impact daily turkey movements. This morning was wet and drizzly, and as I write this, the wind is really blowing. Makes me wonder where the birds are now...hunkered down in a protected area in the woods? Could they sense how long this rainy spell will last and eat as much as they could in order to wait out the blustery weather? Turkeys, the stories they tell, and secrets they keep...another example of the mysterious world all around us.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Feast of Cranes

Saturday night I was able to be in a blind at the National Audubon Rowe Sanctuary outside of Kearney, Nebraska as over 20,000 cranes flew in to spend the night roosting in the shallow river. The incredible sound of adult Sandhill Cranes (listen here) was occasionally joined by the high shrill calls of young cranes who's voices hadn't changed yet. As night fell, the cranes bustled in the gathering darkness, giving us glimpses of crane sociality.

While the American imagination was being hijacked by the tragic Terry Schiavo story, it was great to be elsewhere, letting the sounds and sights of crane society shape my thoughts and feelings. What is it like to be a crane, spending days in fields with your family and other cranes, sleeping at night in a larger flock in the middle of a river? How do cranes recognize each other? What would it take to be able to read crane behavior?

Cranes communicate with a wide range of calls and intricate body movements that convey emotional states and other information. The red patch of feathers on their head can be manipulated to send a wide range of signals. They communicate. They live in family units. They teach their young. They are a nation of cranes, seasonal nomads ranging from Mexico northward to Alaska and across the Bering Strait to Russia. They meet here along the Platte River once each year in a celebration, a feasting on waste corn. The feast, the festival, of the cranes.

Turn off the TV melodrama and find a festival near you. Maybe its a crow roost. Maybe the territorial battles of cardinals. Maybe the courting habita of ducks. Somewhere, not far away, is a hidden world of immense meaning and value. If only you know where to find it.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Out on the Lek

Started this morning at a Greater Prairie Chicken lek (dancing ground) 40 minutes sw of Kearney, Nebraska. As the sun came up, 15 male grouse were dancing, inflating their orange neck sacks, flaring their "ear" feathers, and running at each other, all while making some of the most amazing sounds in the bird world (listen to prairie chicken sounds here). An amazing spectacle. The birds were dancing on a ridge top across a large gully, maybe 1/4 mile away, but still visible with a scope and easy to hear. At one point a male Northern Harrier (Marsh Hawk) chased several birds closer to us for a better view.

There are about 600,000 Greater Prairie Chicken left in North America. They used to range from Long Island west to the Rockies and from the southern prairie provinces to the Gulf Coast. The Texas population, Attwater's Prairie Chicken, is almost extinct (about 40 birds left in the wild), the eastern Heath Hen population is extinct, and the great plains population is declining (see current map here).

In a world of big grain fields, the native grasses that the chickens like just aren't around as much as they used to be. If you want to see these birds, go now, while they are still findable. And support agricultural programs that preserve habitat, like the conservation reserve program. The Farm Bill, its not just for farmers!


Today I flew to Omaha and drove out to Kearney for the 35th Annual Rivers and Wildlife Celebration--a birding festival celebrating the 500,000 Sandhill Cranes that stop along the Platte River on their way north each year. There were hundreds of cranes in the fields off I-80 as I drove out, and I saw flocks of Snow Goose and a few Canada Goose. This vast agricultural land is full of birds right now. Check out a map of Sandhill Cranes migrating up through the Great Plains and North from Florida during the Great Backyard Bird Count last month(here).

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Liberty, thy name is...Brant

Took the kids out to see the Statue of Liberty yesterday. Lots of fun riding the ferry out from NJ to Ellis Island and then to Liberty Island. Had a couple nice Red-throated Loons in the harbor, but the stars were the flocks of Brant everywhere. There were small groups of 40-75 birds all over Liberty Island and at the boat landing at Ellis Island. Kids were chasing them around like pigeons. Very attractive geese, at one point I watched a pair nibble on an algae-covered rock as they floated past us.

Monday, March 14, 2005


This morning I couldn't sleep so I headed over to work early. When I arrived at 5:30 it was still dark and I was excited to be greeted by the sound of displaying American Woodcocks (bog suckers or Timberdoodles). These dumpy round birds with long bills only call and display at night. One was calling down by the creek, with its high nasal "bzeent" call like a nighthawk. Another was flying around overhead making the display that sounds like a small conveyor belt coming apart. (Listen to sounds here, here, here, or here.)

Very cool way to start the day, with the pre-dawn calls of the Timberdoodle.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Do Birds Have Feelings?

This morning on the National Public Radio show Living on Earth, I heard an interview (listen here) with Lisa Couturier, author of The Hopes of Snakes: And Other Tales from the Urban Landscape. (Listen to Jan 25 interview with Diane Rehm here). A work of nature essays dedicated to urban wildlife, the book challenges us to see animals as having hopes and feelings--not human hopes--but desires for food, shelter, and other needs that we can relate to.

I've felt this for a long time. Part of the joy of birding is to get into the world of the try and understand and appreciate each bird's desires and motivations--to try and figure out why the bird does what it does and to appreciate its view of the world. This morning at the bird feeder, a male Red-bellied Woodpecker landed next to a Mourning Dove and opened its mouth and lunged at the dove until the dove flew away. Then the woodpecker got up higher onto the platform feeder to eat cracked corn and other seeds. As I watched this I had to wonder, what was up with that? What would make the woodpecker threaten the dove? Surely it could have shared the platform with the dove? But it didn't. Fascinating to speculate about the motivations of a woodpecker...and worth spending some time looking watching to try and understand.

The answer to the question raised by this post. Of course they have feelings. They can be mysterious and hard to understand. But birds have complicated emotional lives...with hopes, fears, and desires. If you can tap into that, you can start to experience if only distantly, the world as lived by birds. Ancient traditions structured by their physiology and learned customs of behavior. You don't have to fly to a distant planet to encounter strange exotic beings...they are right here among us. Just step outdoors and see what your bird neighbors are doing. It will make your life richer.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Day of the Grackle

This morning while I was watching a couple Mourning Doves at the feeder, a large flock of Common Grackles flew in to the trees near the house. Within 15 seconds there were 2,500 grackles at the feeders and covering the lawn! They stayed for half an hour and then they were gone. Common Grackles are one of the earliest migrants to come north here in Pennsylvania. It may be snowing outside, but Spring is in the air!

The other sign of Spring today was a new high count of three Fox Sparrows at the feeders after the grackles left.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Life is Good

All is well in the world. After several lame attempts, one narrow miss, and many hours in the cold, I finally saw the Barnacle Goose at Peace Valley. While I don't usually bird on Sunday--my day for family and church--I hadn't seen much of my kids this week so decided to take them for a Sunday morning walk. To Peace Valley of course.

While the kids built rock and stick houses on the dam, I managed to see the Barnacle Goose fly out with a flock of Canada Goose about 8am. Not a great look. Not a long look. But very gratifying nevertheless!

I also saw two Greater White-fronted Goose (locally rare). I went back this morning, but the geese were already leaving the lake to forage in area fields when I got there at 6:30am. This morning there were five Canvasback (locally rare) and an American Wigeon and three Common Goldeneyes. As well as the 50,000+ Canada Goose flock leaving in groups of 50-100 every few minutes.

Nothing like a good rarity sighting and the sound of goose music to get you going in the morning!

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Strike Three

So, Thursday after work I stopped by Peace Valley and there were tens of thousands of geese on the lake, but I didn't have my scope. Friday morning I stopped by on my way to work with my scope, but didn't have time to scope the whole lake...the Barnacle Goose was seen later in the morning near the dam, which was 1/4 mile from where I was looking. This morning I got to the park at 9am, and a bunch of birders were leaving. They had seen the bird down near the dam, so I drove around to a better vantage point. While I'm doing so, a large group of geese flew out...including the Barnacle Goose. I also missed a Snow Goose, a couple of Greater White-fronted Goose, and a couple Cackling Goose. Did see a nice adult Bald Eagle fly over the lake, and yesterday I did see three Iceland Gulls and some good ducks, but no consolation prize for missing the Barnacle Goose three times now. My problem is I've been breaking all the birdchasing rules, which are:

1) Follow your stated in my earlier post, I didn't follow up immediately on my impression that there was a Barnacle Goose in that flock.
2) When you hear about a rare bird, chase it immediately. This morning I had family stuff to do for a couple hours and it cost me the least temporarily.
3) Give yourself enough time to find the bird and give it as much time as it takes. My last two trips to the lake were quickies...not nearly enough time to find one lone rare goose in a flock that numbers in the tens of thousands.

So, this afternoon, I'll be back. Hoping the bird flies back in and that I'll have enough time to find it before it gets dark. It has been nice to get to know Peace Valley better, and I'm sure there will be lots of good birds and birding to be had their in the future.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Peace Valley Strikes Again...

Yesterday driving home from work I saw flocks of Canada Goose returning to Peace Valley for the evening and thought, one day we're going to have a Barnacle Goose appear in the flock here. Just a thought. And I kept on driving.

This morning when I got to work, I found that last night I had narrowly missed an email saying that two days earlier there actually was a Barnacle Goose in that flock. Ouch! After feeling impressed to look at the robin flocks last month--only to find out later that a Redwing was in that flock at Peace Valley--this month I had another impression that could have led me to a good bird at Peace Valley. While I'm encouraged that I'm in tune enough with the call of the wild to get these impressions, I've got to learn to start following up on them more!

So, today or tomorrow I need to go on a wild goose chase. Or semi-wild goose chase. Barnacle Goose is a European species. Sometimes they are kept in captivity in the U.S. and some people think that the birds seen in the Eastern U.S. are merely escaped birds rather than true wild vagrants from Europe. While that may be the case, it is curious that almost all the Barnacle Goose sightings in the U.S. are in the East, with SE Pennsylvania hosting sightings almost every year. If the birds were merely just escapees, it seems like they should show up in a more random manner across the country--like Egyptian Goose.

Anyway, learning to follow the call of the wild is a lifelong challenge. The legendary Pine Woods tracker Tom Brown claims to be able to sense were animals of any given species are by tuning into the universe somehow. I'm not sure how far you can take this, but I do find that you can get into a groove where you are more in tune with what is out there. The trick is to learn to follow those impressions to get to the birds!

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Fox Sparrows

This morning two Fox Sparrows came with the juncos and White-crowned Sparrows into the feeder at work. We've had eight inches of snow in the last day or so, and the birds are really coming in for food. These are probably early migrants on their way back north, as they are harder to find earlier in the winter. So, Spring is on its way--hard to believe with all the snow, but the birds know!

Fun to see something different at the feeders. I've been so absorbed in editing reports for the Great Backyard Bird Count that I haven't seen as many birds as I need to. I don't much care for a lifestyle governed more by computer screens than by the coming and going of birds. Taking some time out of every day to throw yourself into the world of birds is a good antidote for the abstract thinking that governs so much of our daily activities--especially at work.

Unlike most of the objects in our world, birds are animals--animated beings--filled with anima or the breath of life. Just being around other breathing beings is cathartic, but bird breathing is incredible. Read about it here.

Basically, because of their complex respiratory system, birds are breathing in and out at the same time. They also have air sacks throughout their bodies. In some ways, birds are like living balloons. The "breath of life" in birds, that which animates them, makes them essentially part of the wind. As they fly they are both moving through the air, and moving air through them. For millions of years, our ancestors have watched our feathered neighbors, these small packets of the atmosphere, and marvelled at their mobility--their animations. Today, I marvelled at the two Fox Sparrows. They were a "breath of fresh air" to my normal work routine.
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