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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Birdchaser Videos Online

Audubon has posted a few short videos of me answering questions about the upcoming Great Backyard Bird Count. No cracks about keeping my day job, OK? We filmed these last week at the Prince William County School District offices near the Quantico Marine Base in Manasas, Virginia. Not a lot of birds in those woods--a few Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmouse, and Downy Woodpeckers. We did see a young Bald Eagle fly over the freeway heading out there from DC, and on the train back to Philly I caught sight of three Tundra Swans in Maryland.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Masked Eagle

This morning on my way to work, Lake Galena at Peace Valley was mostly frozen, and two immature Bald Eagles were showing at the south end of the lake. One bird, similar to the one shown here (photo: the bird guide) had a prominent dark mask reminiscent of an Osprey. It sat on the ice for the five minutes I was there, watching the hundreds of Canada Goose, Common Mergansers, and dozens of Great Black-backed Gulls and Lesser Black-backed Gulls. A pair of Hooded Mergansers and a half dozen other more common species rounded out the morning.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Great Backyard Bird Count is coming

The Great Backyard Bird Count is coming February 16-19. This is maybe my favorite time of year at work, as I get to help line up regional reviewers to help us review unusual sightings from around the country. This year I've found reviewers to covers some states and provinces where we haven't had reviewers in the past. The last two years that I've been helping behind the scenes with the count we've been able to break new records in the total number of species reported. So I have my work cut out for me trying to line up people to go out and make sure we see some of the more unusual birds in North America (and Hawaii) during President's Day weekend. If you know where you can see a Yellow-billed Loon or Gunnison Sage Grouse that weekend, make your plans now and you can be a hero! Or better yet, go birding in Hawaii and find us some of those great native Hawaiian forest birds!

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Peace Valley This and That

This morning on my way to work, I stopped by Peace Valley for a quick look at the lake. More Canada Geese and Common Mergansers are arriving all the time--over 5,000 geese and 700 mergansers there today. While scoping out the gulls, a nice second year Bald Eagle swooped down and caught a fish. Other less common birds there today included one female Ruddy Duck and a pair of Hooded Mergansers.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Owl in the hood

Early Sunday morning, a Great Horned Owl woke me up as it called from down the street. As I lay in bed, I saw it's shadow flash past my window, then it called from the other end of the street. I went downstairs and as I opened the door, it called from directly overhead. It must have been perched on top of our row house. When I stepped off the porch to look for it, I didn't see anything. I must have scared it off, as it called again but way off in the distance. I live on a block of row homes, a block from a park with narrow woods along a creek. Not what you would normally consider prime Great Horned Owl habitat, but you never know. Sometimes owls come to call, even in the most built up of neighborhoods.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Whooping Cranes on NPR

In case you missed it this morning, there was a great story about the Whooping Cranes on NPR. Its a great story of a remarkable come back for these birds. Though with just over 200 wild birds there on the Texas Coast, they're still just one really bad oil spill or other disaster away from slipping into oblivion. I sure miss seeing these guys.

Two birders on a train

I’m not sure what it is about me, but I’m always the one that the crazy people end up talking to on the bus. I’ve met a lot of interesting people while riding public transportation. The 250 pound ten year old that kept falling asleep and bumping into me one night on a Greyhound crossing Kansas was one unforgettable one. The guy with the big hair was another.

The other day on the train back from DC, I had my binoculars out. You can often see some fun birds from the train, since Amtrak trains pass through all kinds of swampy and neglected industrial areas between Boston and DC. So, I’m sitting there with my binoculars out and this guy with really big hair comes and sits down next to me. He’s got on these really retro style clothes, maybe 50s or 60s. I wasn’t around then, so I’m not too sure about the style.

Anyway, the guy’s got big hair. Not totally afro big, but getting there. And he’s a white guy. So, white guy, pseudo afro, strange clothes=what the heck is he sitting next to me for when there are plenty of empty seats in the car?

Good thing about binoculars is you can always just lift them up to your eyes and pretend to look at something if you don’t want to be bothered. I was a little tired, so up they came.

“What you see out there?” asked the afro man.

“Oh, not much,” I replied. “Just some birds.”

“Many Cooper’s Hawks?” the guy asked.

Wondering what this guy might really know about birds, I turned back to him and answered, “not today, but I did see three on the way down yesterday.”

“Seem to be more of them around than there used to be,” he said. “Back when I was young, you’d see ‘em, but not so much. Not in cities so much, anyway.”

“You a birder?” I asked.

“No, no…but I see ‘em sometimes. I’m a musician,” he replied.

“Oh yeah,” I asked, “what kind of music?”

“Little singing, a little guitar.” He said. “I once wrote a song about birds, after a cross country trip, back in the ‘40s.”

Now, this guy didn’t look like he was more than maybe sixty, so I couldn’t figure out what he was saying. Maybe he was older than he looked. Maybe I didn’t hear him correctly. At any rate, I asked about the song.

“Well,” he said, “I just really liked being out there. Seeing the birds. Flying free. Soaring around. Going where they wanted. I could really relate to that. So I wrote a couple verses of something. Then the song kind of went a different way. I stopped singing those first few verses after awhile. Nobody has probably heard them for a long time. Not sure I even ever wrote them down.”

“You still remember those verses,” I asked?

“Sure,” he said. “I never forget a song.”

“You ought to write them down,” I said, not really sure why. I mean, the guy was a little strange-looking, and for all I knew he was a songwriter about like my grandmother was a poet: earnest, but utterly unremarkable.

“You got a pen?” he asked.

“I think so,” I said, digging into my bag. “Here.”

As the guy started writing, I noticed that his hand kind of shook a bit. And he fidgeted more than I’d noticed. This guy was stranger than he first seemed. Maybe he’s off his meds, I thought.

After a few moments, he folded up the paper, handed it to me, and started to get up.

“Well, gotta get going. Back to the hospital. I haven’t been out in a long time. Nice talking to you. Good luck with the birds.”

And then he started off.

“Thanks,” I said. “Nice talking to you. Take care.”

I opened up the paper. The handwriting was a little hard to read, what with the train moving and his hand shaking. I read it, but didn’t know what to make of it at first.

In the great blue heavens, the eagle circles
His calling beckons, to the wandering stranger
And as I watch him, I can hear him crying
This land was made for you and me

In the marshy swamp lands, all across the nation
I can see the herons, with their keen eyes staring
And when they fly off, their squawking tells me
This land was made for you and me

On the highest mountain, in the lowest valley,
In the driest desert, and the ancient forests,
On the widest prairies, the birds are singing
This land was made for you and me

Maybe you know the rest—Woody

I quickly looked up, but he was already gone. I asked the woman behind me and the guy on the seat across the aisle if they’d seen him, but they hadn’t noticed.

When I got home I did some Googling, and found some photos that looked like the guy I talked to. But it doesn’t make sense. I mean, these were old photos of a guy who died back in 1967. So I don’t know what to make of it all.

You meet some strange people riding public transportation. But I suppose that’s the way it should be, since like the birds told Woody about this land, our public transportation system really is made for you and me.

I'm not sure why I always seem to attract folks like this. Maybe I'm a little crazy myself.

Open Letter to a Young Birder

During the summer of 1984, I was about to start my junior year of high school. I had been actively birding and chasing birds for three years, and had been a birdwatcher for several years before that. On August 11, I caught a ride to the Oregon coast with several birders. Of course, since I was a kid birder, I had to catch a ride, which was OK with me, since that got me out with some of the best birders in the state. It was a great time to be a kid birder, and I was starting to experience the rush of finding and documenting rare birds.

Sometime in the mid afternoon, several of us were looking for shorebirds on the edge of Lake Meares, which had been partially drained. I noticed a funny looking bird that I just couldn't place, since it didn't look like anything I knew. At first glance, it looked like a female Brown-headed Cowbird--with buffy edges to the feathers of the wings and back. But it was a shorebird. I only saw it for maybe 20 seconds, and it took me more than half that time to really understand that it was a shorebird, and not a cowbird.

Just as I was about to get someone else to look at it, the bird flushed. As it did, Jeff Gilligan, one of the best birders in the state, and the only one at the time with an Oregon list over 400 species, said excitedly, "did anyone see that shorebird when it flushed--it had really white outter tail feathers."

Of course, as a well-read kid birder, I knew what that meant. And that's when all the pieces came together in my mind. Buffy edges to feathers above, no breast streaks--just a buffy wash, plain face without noticeable supercilium, bright white tail feathers. Temminck's Stint!

I told Jeff and the others what I had seen before the bird flew off, thinking they would be really excited. This would be a first state record! "It was a Temminck's Stint!" I blurted out.

"No it wasn't," said Jeff.

"But I saw it clearly," I said.

"But," said Jeff, and this is what has since been burned into my mind, "you didn't see it long enough. You can't be totally sure of what you saw in that short of time. And you don't have any proof. It might have been something good. But it got away."

I wish I could say that I learned that lesson immediately. But I was a very active birder, with quick eyes, and a lot of skills. And I was seeing lots of rarities with other birders all across the state, especially at Malhuer National Wildlife Refuge during biennial trips to look for vagrants at the end of May and end of September. And I was out all the time, so I saw a lot of birds. And as you know, you don't always get the lingering look that you might want.

There was the female blackbird on the side of the road in Troutdale that had yellow eyes. YELLOW EYES! It HAD to be a Rusty Blackbird. I thought about that one for a long time before I decided, reluctantly, that I couldn't be totally sure of what I saw at 60 miles an hour. There was a Long-toed Stint, a Wood Sandpiper, and a Gray-tailed Tattler that I descovered and reported. Fortunately for me, I left the state eventually to go off to college, cooled off a bit, and Jeff's words of wisdom finally started to sink in to my rarity crazed mind.

Just because you are young, and the hottest birder around, doesn't mean that you can be sure of what you see in quick glimpses, especially when you half expect to see something rare at any moment. If you see something briefly, and it looks like an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, or a vagrant Yellow Wagtail, or a pteranadon--well, you know the pterandadon is a slip of the imagination. But what about the other two?

Quick glimpses of rare birds do not count. Period. Really, they shouldn't even be reported, except to your close friends, but even then as curiosities. What if tales. Fishermen call these "the ones that got away" and love to talk them up. Birders are usually more circumspect. Unfortunately, that means we often don't talk about our mistakes or relish those ones that get away. They don't count, and we don't want people to think we're rarity crazed, so we don't talk about them. If its all in good fun, it should be OK. But for most experienced birders, when they hear someone adamantly state that they were able to make out all the important field marks of a rarity in a split second, or in five seconds (which is often birderspeak for a split second), they just shake their heads. They may be respectfully quiet. But what they're really thinking is that you've lost it, crossed the line, slipped into a rarity-fever induced delirium.

Now I have no idea what's really going on down there in the Choctawhatchee. But when I read about a sighting of a bird flying through the trees for a few seconds, maybe flapping its wings eight times a second, and banking briefly to show the perfect Ivory-billed Woodpecker underwing, or flying quickly off a tree in the rain, the words of a much wiser and more experienced birder than myself come back to me: "You didn't see it long enough. You can't be totally sure of what you saw in that short of time. And you don't have any proof."

I know it isn't polite to say this. I was really ticked off that nobody believed my stint. Six months later I even put it on my state list for awhile. But if I'm thinking it, a hundred other birders better than me are thinking it. You're a bright kid. By all accounts a great birder. You could probably run circles around me on a big day. But do yourself a favor. Next time you see something flash by in the woods, and you think its an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and you don't get a photo. Take a deep breath. Swear if you must. But don't tell a living soul, unless you can laugh it off as "one that got away."

Good luck with your search and your birding. I admire your drive and ambition. You're welcome to crash at my place any time you're in or around Philly. I'd love to go birding with you anytime. You want to be a superbirder, and chances are you will be. But the sooner you learn that your brain is way faster than your eyes really are, the sooner you'll get the trust and respect that you crave.

Be safe out there.

How Many Birds Could We Save?

The New York Times has an article today by David Leonhardt (login required) claiming that the Iraq War is costing us $1.2 trillion dollars. Since that is a difficult number to imagine, he shows how much we could do with that money if we weren't spending it in Iraq.

There are currently just over 1,200 globally threatened bird species in the world. For the price of the Iraq War, we could spend $1 billion on each of these birds. That's enough for a nice endowment to fund full-time staff dedicated to protecting these birds, and to buy habitat. We can't even imagine how much money this is. Even at a thousand dollars an acre in developing countries, that $1 billion could buy 1 million acres. That's 1,562.5 square miles. For every single rare bird in the world.

Of course, there are other ways to spend that money to help people around the world. No matter what you think about the Iraq War, that's a lot of money. And a lot of good things that will not happen because we've committed so many resources there.

BTW, that $1.2 trillion dollars is $4,000 from every man, woman, and child in America. That's before we pay interest on it, which we'll have to pay, since we borrowed this money from overseas. If President Bush had to fundraise like bird conservation organizations do, how many of us do you suppose would send in our $4,000 checks in response to a direct mail appeal to fund a war in Iraq?

How many of us want our money back?

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Birdchaser Silver Medal

Well, the 2006 Pennsylvania yard listing competition results are out, and I won second place in my division (tiny urban yard) with 53 birds. Not bad for number of birds seen from the back porch of a row house. I should have done more hawk watching, and maybe more night time migrant listening (I did get some nocturnal thrush calls that way). The yard at work won 20th place overall and 11th in the "big ole yard" category. Not to as good as I'd hoped I'd do, but I didn't get out much at work this year and was traveling a fair bit.

Haven't really started my 2007 yard list yet. Been pretty busy with some writing projects. And I'm really itching for a good rarity chase. Maybe those Pink-footed Geese in Rhode Island???

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Do we care about pink flamingos?

A couple months ago I mentioned briefly the demise of the plastic pink flamingo. I can't think of these plastic waifs without thinking of an essay about these guys written by Jennifer Price. Price has written about some of the quirky off-beat ways that we Americans experience nature at the dawning of the 21st Century. Now, she has an article in Grist magazine asking why more nature writers aren't writing about nature in cities, where most of us live and experience nature.

While she makes some interesting points, its not like there isn't a lot of people writing about nature in cities. John points out that there are lots of bloggers writing about urban nature. There are lots of academic articles about urban birds and nature, a good number of books about the subject, and every year there are several books on the topic out by nature writers. Besides Over the Hedge and Hoot this year, we've seen several actual documentaries about birds in urban areas in the last few years, including Pale Male and The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. There's lots of media attention to birds and nature in cities.

I still have a question, though. With all the media attention to birds and nature in cities, do these stories and films really help people connect with nature in a meaningful way, or do they just re-enforce the distances that most people have between their daily lived experiences and the animals and natural processes around them? Does nature writing really bring people to nature? Or merely to a blog, an article, a book, or a film?

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Check out I and the Bird

The latest edition of I and the Bird is available online here. After taking a break from contributing the last couple of times, I managed to get a submission in for inclusion. Some great blog posts over there, check it out.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Something I miss about Austin

Last time I went canoing with my kids on Barton Creek in Austin, we enjoyed seeing turtles and ducks and this local Austin form of wildlife. He paddled over in another canoe, and seemed to be enjoying himself. Usually, we'd just see him on the side of the road pushing his shopping cart full of all his belongings. Ah yes, birding in Austin. You never know what you're going to see!

Best Ivory-billed Woodpecker Sighting Yet?

Auburn University researchers are reporting on a single-observer close-range encounter with a female Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Unfortunately, camera failure kept them from getting a photo. The sighting sounds very interesting. Here's hoping for more evidence soon.

Dead Birds in Austin

News story here. The city has closed down a large area of downtown Austin after "as many as 60" dead birds were found on Congress Avenue. This is a commercial area with few native birds, mostly Rock Pigeons, European Starlings, and House Sparrows. Great-tailed Grackles are the only native species common in this part of town, and often form large roosts in street trees. My guess, is that somebody got sick of the birds and put out some poisoned grain. That's the most likely way to kill a large number of ground-feeding birds in a small urban area. The hazard suits that workers are wearing and the street and building closures are perhaps an over-reaction based on bird flu and bioterrorism scares. A Google News Search is a good way to keep up to date on strange stories like this.

Size Matters...but so do the details

This morning, on my way to work in low light and in the rain and from across the lake, I was able to pick out a Cackling Goose mixed in with the large Canada Goose flock at Peace Valley. At first I thought it was a duck, then it turned and I could see that it was a tiny goose with Canada Goose like plumage. Head was more rounded and bill was also shorter looking than Canada Goose. Even though the size difference was considerable, it was important to double check that against the Canada Geese in the flock to be completely sure. If the bird had been all by itself, it might have been tricky to be completely sure just how small the bird actually was. (

Cackling Goose is a rare but regular bird here, a few show up almost each winter, so it isn't unheard of. While my views were good enough to substantiate this identification, as I drove away, I wondered if this view would have been good enough to convince others if it was of a rarer species. Just as size matters, in birding, rarity matters. The rarer the bird, the greater the number of details that are expected before others accept a sighting. For a regional rarity like this, that occurs regularly, I can just report the sighting with minimal details, and it will make it into the county bird records. If I had found a much rarer bird, I'd be expected to provide a complete written record of my observations. If the bird had never occurred in the state before, I might also be expected to provide a photograph, before the record could be completely accepted. Same goes if I reported a bird that hadn't been reliably reported in over sixty years and that some already consider to be extinct.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Trolls and Anonymous Comments

This is a public blog, and you can see my name over there on the right as the blog owner. I welcome any and all comers to comment here about any of my posts. But I will not be allowing anonymous comments, pseudonyms, or troll comments here. We are all free to disagree with each other here, but we will do so respectfully. If anyone wants to discuss something without making their name known to the world, send me a private email and I can keep things off the record. Otherwise, we all need to meet on the same ground, in the open, and open to the same level of public courtesy and scrutiny.

Now, back to the birds!

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Top 10 Birding Moments of 2006

Following the lead of Kris Purdy on the Utah Birds email list, here are my top ten birding moments of 2006. If you care to share a similar list, feel free to do so in the comments, or if you post it elsewhere, leave a link in my comments so we can all enjoy.

10) First Guatemala sighting of Shiny Cowbird. These aren't particularly spectacular looking birds, and we weren't sure exactly how rare this bird was when we saw them on the side of the road near Jocotan, but we got some really good close looks and that's what they were. I've submitted my sighting to friends in the Sociedad Guatemalteca de Ornitología.

9) Showing multiple hooting Barred Owls to my owl workshop participants at the Hornsby Bend Bird Observatory in Austin, Texas. The teenage girls from an afterschool environmental program were kind of freaked out, its not something that Tejana girls usually do. But it was cool, and the owls were very obliging.

8) The Barred Owl that I was able to see and share with others on the Wissahickon Valley Watershed Association birdathon. It was the middle of the day, we didn't think we had a chance of seeing the bird, but I was able to spot it high up in a tree and get it all riled up with some hooting. We didn't stay long, because we didn't want to disturb it too much, but it really put on a show for us once it got going.

7) Looking for, and finally finding, Budgerigars with Bill Pranty in Florida. These little birds are apparently disappearing quickly down there, where there used to be tens of thousands of them. We drove around for hours before we finally saw three fly onto a power line and then into a tree.

6) Seeing Red-vented Bulbul in Houston. Exotic introduced species are not high on most birder's lists, but I'm really interested in a) how these guys come to inhabit our cities and b) how they mostly stay under the radar of the birding community. These birds have been in Houston for over a decade, and we still don't know much about them.

5) Finding the Marbled Murrelet in San Diego county, and having other birders be able to relocate it later that week. Always nice to find rare birds while visiting a new area, and having the local birders be able to see them too.

4) Keel-billed Toucan in the Tuxtla Mountains. What more do I have to say, you don't see toucan's every day!

3) Fork-tailed Flycatcher fifteen minutes from my office. Having chased and missed this species before, and having one show up at my local patch at Hornsby Bend--and stay for over a month--within a year of my moving away from Austin, it was sweet to finally get to see this bird in North America.

2) Birding on Hog Island. Always good to go out to see the Atlantic Puffins and other birds on Eastern Egg Rock. Its just great to spend a week away from traffic noise, with birds I don't get to see every day. Everyone should treat themselves to a weeklong program out there. Very nice.

1) Soaring with Black-vented Shearwaters off La Jolla Cove, California. OK, I wasn't really soaring with them. But looking through the spotting scope, sharing the same wind off the ocean, it was almost like I was right there with them in another world. Peace.

2006 was a pretty good birding year, with more good moments than I can mention here. Not a huge species list for the year (just under 400 ABA area birds, and a couple hundred others in Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras). Besides those other countries, I was able to bird in seventeen US states. Hopefully 2007 will bring even more adventures.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Size Matters?

Some people have claimed that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers are so much larger than Pileated Woodpeckers that the difference is immediately obvious and that birds in the field can be identified almost by size alone, even when flying away quickly or through the trees. So, here's a photo of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker and a Pileated Woodpecker side by side, taken at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. You tell me, does size matter?

If you think that IBWOs are still so much larger than Pileateds, then you have to answer this--even if this Pileated is "overstuffed" and the IBWO is "understuffed" here, are the size differences so great that they would be immediately obvious in the field, especially under difficult viewing conditions, at a distance, without the ability to make an actual side by side comparison?

Here's some perhaps useless "facts" that show how problematic it is to depend on size to differentiate between these species. From the Birds of North America series, overall length of the two species is almost identical:
PIWO 40-49 cm
IBWO 48-53 cm

Northern Pileateds are the bigger ones, but still, this may not be a huge difference accurately observed on distant birds in flight.

As for weight, some have argued that IBWO is a lot heavier. Here's the "difference":
PIWO 250-350 g (248-297 g, mean 273 g for southern birds)
IBWO 454-567 g

While this might look like a big difference, here's the kicker. We only have three weight measurements for IBWO: "20 oz.", "1 lb.", and "weighed upwards of 1 lb." It is almost impossible at this point to know how accurate these measurements were, how they were made, or how precise. Even if these measurements were completely accurate and precise, with only three measurements we wouldn't have much to go on to determine what the true variation in size was with the species. So, without more information, it is best to take these measures with more than a grain of salt.

If this were a normal bird identification problem, we'd have many observers with experiece with both species in the field pouring over lots of photos of side by side comparisons to really show how different the two species are, and how reliable this feature is in the field. Right now we have none of that because we have no recent photos and no side by side comparisons of living birds. As with most everything else about IBWOs, their apparent size in the field is almost completely speculative at this point. If they really are bigger in Pileated in the field, then it still remains to be worked out how that really translate into a workable field character and under what conditions. We're a long way from having that, so any reliance on impressions of size (which are notoriously unreliable on lone birds anyway) as a field mark is completely premature in discussions of possible IBWO sightings.

Monday, January 01, 2007

First bird of the year

Perhaps in line with my thoughts about peace this New Years, my first bird for 2007 was a Mourning Dove sitting on the wires behind my house this morning. Hopefully, a token of peace. May we all find a measure of peace in troubled times this New Year.

Saddam, Birdwatcher

For whatever else he was, according to this story, Saddam Hussein also apparently fed and cared for birds. I think its important to see Saddam Hussein as more than a monster. In many ways, he is us, and we are him. While he may have ruled with incredibly harsh violence, he apparently also had another side. When he was hung this weekend, both sides were killed. Rather then celebrate the death of a thug, which is all to easy, perhaps we should mourn the passing of a man who for whatever reasons, chose to follow a violent path, rather than remain in his garden feeding birds. The United States paid an enormous price to remove him from power. Now that he's dead, will we take a moment to reflect on how we may be more like our enemies than we might care to admit...both in our weaknesses, and in our more graceful moments feeding birds in our gardens. Saddam, I'm sure you will reap your eternal reward, but I for one am saddened by your passing...saddened for the Saddam who might have been, and for how we might all have been different as well. For a world where we could be sharing backyard birds in Iraqi gardens, rather than fighting each other there. Peace.
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