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Friday, July 28, 2006

Hawk with arrow

OK, this is getting rediculous. After last week's story about the ibis with an arrow in it, now comes this news of a Red-tailed Hawk with a similar injury here in Pennsylvania. What kind of poor blighted soul would get enjoyment out of shooting at a big bird with a target arrow? Hope they can catch the bird...if only to get finger prints off that arrow!

Update: The bird has been captured and is doing well in rehab (see story here)

Monday, July 24, 2006

The Shorebird Guide

As a young birder growing up in Oregon, shorebirds were some of my favorites. They migrated through in fair numbers, but mostly through out of the way habitats that most people didn't even know existed. I remember some of my first attempts to observe and identify sandpipers, like the time I walked out through knee-deep mud into Siletz Bay, and was rewarded with my first ever views--very close views--of such gems as Black Turnstone, Ruddy Turnstone, and one of my first "rarities" a Semipalmated Sandpiper. The smell of the mud, the blinding sun, the close connection to exotic arctic-breeding birds...all hooked me on shorebirds for life.

Learning to identify shorebirds was a challenge. Many of them look very similar. After years of puzzling over them, mostly identifying them through trial and error (oh, and the errors there were!), it got easier until now, most of the time, I can identify most shorebirds I see quickly and at great distances.

Now, Michael O'Brien, Richard Crossley, and Kevin Karlson have made it easier for most birders to feel comfortable identifying shorebirds in what Houghton Mifflin is billing as The Shorebird Guide (and yes, the italics are in the original title). And you know what, it clearly is the best shorebird guide out there--and there have been some fabulous shorebird titles come out over the past 20 years.

At over 460 pages, its impossible to do a thorough review of this book. It isn't one to be picked up and read through all at once; it is more appropriately a useful tool and study guide. The first section contains almost all of the identification material, with hundreds and hundreds of photos illustrating every shorebird species known to have occurred in North America. The photo captions explain how to identify each species as they change colors throughout their lifetime--which gives the reader the best idea ever of what the birds look like. The second half of the book contains more detailed description of the behavior, migration, molt, and vocalizations of each species--which helps the reader better understand the birds themselves.

Much is made about this book's (along with Pete Dunne's recent book's) attempt to teach the skill of identifying birds by their General Impression of Size and Shape (GISS). While Dunne's book tries to do this through words, this book mostly does this through stunning photographs which--while they do illustrate size and shape very well--also undermine the emphasis on those points by drawing more attention--through their absolute beauty--to the feathers and markings of the birds. Perhaps more "bad" photos of distant birds or silhouettes might have provided more useful here (though there are a fair number of shots such as these to look tantalize the reader). But hey, how often is your harshest criticism of a book that its illustrations that are "too" good?

And now a brief word of caution for the shorebirding tyro heading out to the mudflats with this book. While it contains most of the information you will need to identify these birds, it can't give you the skill and wisdom needed to actually do so. That will take some time and effort. By relying on size and shape, you may make snap decisions that are incorrect. I still mess up sometimes on distant Pectoral and Least Sandpipers when they are far away and I can't get a good size comparison to gauge their true size because these species look very similar to me without looking at plumage details. So, while using size and shape is a good first step in identifying these birds, don't be fooled into thinking that this will always be enough. Most of the time you'll need feather patterns and colors to back up your GISS identification. Especially if you think you are looking at an exciting vagrant shorebird from the Old World. GISS identification, while a skill of advanced birders, can wreck havoc on the intermediate and beginning birders, and can even throw an expert when used carelessly.

GISS is of greatest use in situations where lots of distant birds need to be identified and counted quickly without being able to see nuances of plumage--such as at a hawkwatch or while doing shorebird surveys (and if your going to take the time to find and identify shorebirds, you might as well count and report them so we can better track their movements and populations). But most of the time, wisdom will lead an experienced observer to use both GISS and careful feather inspections to confirm their ID. So, if you live in most of the country away from the coast, don't immediately think that the dowitcher you are looking at is a rare Short-billed because it looks too flat-backed and not round like it swallowed a grapefruit. If the bird gives you that impression, make sure you get confirmatory plumage marks and vocal clues.

That said, I absolutely love this book. Few observers will be so familiar with all shorebird species to not learn something new from this book, while the beginner will encounter an embarrassment of riches. It will still take a lot of field work to really learn to identify these birds out in the elements, but that chore is made much easier with this book. Some of the photos even serve as photo quizzes, which make readers really work out the identification for themselves--a very useful approach. Puzzling over one such photo, I learned more than I ever bothered to learn before about the differences between young and adult Black Oystercatchers. These birds are a cinch to identify most of the time, so the temptation is to pay them little mind, but this book brought me closer to appreciating them than I've felt for a long, long time. So, if you love shorebirds, you'll love this book. If you struggle with identifying shorebirds, this book will help you with that, while instilling a love for them in the very core of your soul.

Friday, July 21, 2006


Several big trees were cut down yesterday behind our house in the lot across the alley. While I hate to see trees come down (and I think the Carolina Wrens that hang out down there hated it even more than me, they were singing up a storm this morning, probably readjusting their territories), it does open up a wider view of the skyline and the creek down in the park--so maybe it will slightly improve some bird viewing from my back porch.

One of the tricky contradictions between birding and conservation is that many of the best places to see birds are actually not that great as bird habitat, and some of the best bird habitats provide horrible bird viewing. If all you want to do is see lots of birds, there are plenty of places to do that, and many people go birding without thinking much about conservation as long as they have their favorite couple of birding spots to go to regularly. it more important to provide habitat for birds (like the trees in my alley) or to provide bird viewing opportunities (like my wider view of the creek and skyline)? In the bigger scheme of things, bird habitat has to be more important. Now the trick is to get people to understand the habitat value of land and landscaping. Just because you have a bird feeder and 20 species of birds regularly visit your yard, doesn't mean that you have great bird habitat there. The problem isn't that such yards are a glass half full or empty as bird habitat, its that most people with a couple birds in their yard will think everything is hunky dory and not realize what they are still missing.

As for me, I hope that my wrens are able to remain in my neighborhood now that some of their favorite trees are gone--and I need to make longer-term plans for attracting more species to my own yard.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Life in the city

Here's something you don't see every ibis on a power line. Then again, you don't usually see young White Ibis with arrows through their chest either. Apparently, somebody in Florida shot this bird with a practice arrow, and authorities spent two weeks trying to capture the bird to give it medical attention. When those efforts failed, they called off the attempt. Seems the bird is doing OK, hanging out with other birds, and can fly. But what an urban bird horror story!

Besides stray arrows, urban areas pose some of the greatest hazards faced by birds in North America. Fully 10% of all the birds in North America are killed each year by a combination of feral and outdoor house cats (1 billion killed each year) and plate glass windows (another 1 billion killed). That doesn't even count the tens of millions killed by collisions with cars or poisoned by pesticides, or any of the other urban hazards. Is it any wonder that many songbird populations are declining?

So, while bird feeders and handouts from people may encourage some species to hang with their human homies, the hood can be a dangerous place for many birds. One of our biggest challenges of the next century will be to find a way to co-exist with more bird species as the rate of urbanization and exurban residential development continues to escalate. One way to think about this is in terms of win-win or reconciliation ecology.

Can we create cities and suburbs that are as good for birds--even those that usually don't do well in urbanized areas--as they are for people? Can we envision housing developments or commercial districts with Sage Sparrows or Golden-cheeked Warblers living on the roof? Buildings that look more like shrubby or forested hillsides--both to us and to the birds (like the ACROS building in Fukuoka, Japan pictured here)? What is it going to take to start creating habitat, rather than just destroying it, every time we want to "develop" a piece of property? Yeah, baby! That's the kind of progress I'm willing to support.

Ann Coulter, if you really want to be smart...

May I recommend James Downard's excellent review (Part I and Part II) of Ann Coulter's latest anti-evolutionary arguments. The world is a complex place, and it takes some time and effort to wade through the evidence supporting evolutionary theory. In other words, not a task that should be trusted to a political pundit and NY Times best-seller writer without the requisite education.

Friday, July 14, 2006

This is how bird flu will get to the USA

Smuggled poultry products, not wild birds, are probably the greatest threat. Read this story here. Very few wild birds from infected parts of China will ever fly on their own to North America. Meanwhile, thousands of possibly infected geese, ducks, chickens, and pigeons are potentially smuggled into the US each year.

Baby Towhee

On my way into work this morning, I stopped at the bird blind at Peace Valley Nature Center for a little relaxation. 22 species of birds were at the feeders, including something I'd never seen before--a juvenile Eastern Towhee (see photo by Birdfoto). It spent most of its time on the ground in the bushes or grass below a couple feeders, but a few times it flew up onto a feeder or into a pine tree. In flight, huge white patches in the wings and white outter tail feathers might remind one of a mockingbird. Eastern Towhees are a species of conservation concern, as they nest in shrubby understory of forests that are the favorite food of the overabundant White-tailed Deer in the East. The nature center here has a deer exclusion fence around the bird feeding area...good to see that at least one baby towhee made it out of the nest there.


Finally, a new yard bird. While eating breakfast this morning, I caught a glimpse of a hummingbird flitting up into a tree on the back end of our lot. I got out the binoculars and was able to watch the immature Ruby-throated Hummingbird get chased around a dead tree by a female House Sparrow. Since our pet goldfish died this week, maybe a new hummingbird feeder is in order to take my kids' mind off the loss of Leoptodon the pet goldfish (named by my kids after the huge prehistoric sea reptile Liopluerodon).

Thursday, July 13, 2006

When birds were gods

There is a long American tradition of rulers or priests pretending to be birds in their rituals--going back at least to the Izapan culture in southern Mexico before 300 BC. These and similar rituals continued through Mayan and other cultures, including the birdman cult of the Mississippian cultures in Eastern North America up to nearly the time of European contact. Birds, with their ability to fly, seemed to represent many divine powers to these peoples. Some people still believe that the Mesoamerican Principal Bird Diety is important, and that it figures into prophecies concerning cosmic changes to occur in 2012. Apparently, the mystery of living with birds continues, with the bird symbols of the Ancients encouraging additional ways to experience birds beyond the evolutionary ecological paradigm of Western science.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Grassland birds

We've all seen it. A grassy field with a muddy track through it, surveyors tape, and nearby construction equipment. For most people, a grassy field probably looks like a perfect light industrial or residential development site. But many of these apparently empty spaces are actually great bird habitat.

I visited one of these this morning. Three Grasshopper Sparrows were singing their high pitched trills in the grass (listen here), and at least half a dozen Savannah Sparrows were flitting about. Both of these birds are increasingly hard to find here in SE Pennsylvania, as their grassy habitat gets bulldozed to make way for sprawling development. A couple of Killdeer were running along the muddy construction road, with their fluffy babies, and an Eastern Meadowlark (another declining grassland bird) flew over as I was getting ready to leave. (Grasshopper Sparrow photo credit: BLM)

As I walked back to my car, I couldn't help but dream of light industrial development that protected grassland habitat--maybe huge low-slung buildings with grassy habitat actually growing on the roof. For a fleeting moment I envisioned myself as a commercial real estate developer struggling to create awesome bird habitat on the rooftops of my buildings. It sure was a better vision than the impending habitat destruction that was actually in front of me.

Brand new species

The latest edition of the American Ornithologists' Union bird checklist is out, announcing a new species of grouse for North America--the bird formerly known as Blue Grouse is now two species, Dusky Grouse and Sooty Grouse. Actually, these two birds were considered separate species by the AOU in the 1920s, but were lumped together as Blue Grouse in 1944. New DNA evidence suggests that they really are separate species, with the Sooty Grouse living in the coniferous forests of the coastal Pacific Northwest, and the Dusky Grouse living in montane forests of the Rocky Mountains.

So, for a while at least, all the field guides to North American birds will be out of date.

I first heard Sooty Grouse while searching for Spotted Owls near Mount Hood in Oregon as a kid, and saw my first Dusky Grouse sitting in a tree in Memorial Cemetery in Salt Lake City in 1993.

The new checklist supplement also makes a lot of rearrangements and changes to scientific names, based on latest research on relationships between species. So, lots of changes reflecting our growing understanding of the world of birds. Pretty fun stuff!

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Birdchaser on Space Shuttle Poop

You can read it all in the AP story here. For better or worse, my little comment is getting picked up everywhere.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006


Took the family to Gettysburg this weekend to see the battlefield, and was struck by the Oak Tree monument to the 90th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, featuring a nest with a mother and baby birds on a snag. Apparently, the tree was mostly obliterated and a robin's nest fell down during the battle, and a member of the 90th climbed the tree under heavy fire to replace the nest in the embattled tree. Even during war times, the best of human nature sometimes emerges to help birds placed in harms way by our own actions (photo credit: here).
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