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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Best Birds of 2011

2011 started a bit slow for me, and I only had four trips that required air travel--2 weeks and 2000 miles driving the entire coast of Texas in May, a conference in Ohio, a quick family wedding trip to Oregon, and a conference in New Zealand in December.  Since I didn't enter all my Texas trip sightings into eBird (ooops!), I'm not sure exactly how many birds I saw this year (that's why you have to enter everything you see into eBird!).  eBird has my total as 250, so I probably saw something over 400.  Not a huge number.  But having moved to NJ this fall, I've already wracked up 127 species in my new home county, and 67 species in my new yard in the past three months.  So some fun birding at home, nearby, and on some good trips this year.

That said, here were my best birds of 2011

10) Gray-hooded Gull.  I got to chase this unexpected vagrant on Coney Island with my kids.  One of only two new birds for my North American bird list this year.

9)  Wrybill--a cool New Zealand shorebird with a bill that bends to the side.  I was able to get distant looks at three of these on muflats out near the Auckland Airport.

8)  Tui--one of the more common native New Zealand land birds, seemingly doing fairly well even in city parks and yards.  Think of a crow-like bird with white chest tufts and a iridescent lacey shawl.  Very loud and cool.  And New Zealand even has a ketchup named after it--Tuimato Sauce!

7) White-faced Storm Petrel--Still haven't seen this one out in the Atlantic off the East Coast, but when I was in New Zealand I got to see over 500 of them out in the Hauraki Gulf.  Very cool sea bird that skips across the waves.  Hopefully this summer I can connect with one on a pelagic trip here in North America.

6) Kokako--I hadn't even heard of this rare bird before preparing for my New Zealand trip.  Turns out they are extremely endangered, and only maybe 1500 are probably left.  I was able to see a handful of these gray crow-sized birds with blue wattles on Tiritiri Matangi Island across the harbor from Auckland.

5) Little (Blue) Penguin--My first penguins!  I saw two of these birds huddled in a specially made penguin nesting burrow on Tiritiri Matangi Island.

4) Pink-footed Goose--after chasing this one a few times over the years, I finally got one on one of my old stomping grounds in Bucks County, PA.  Thanks to August Mirabella for finding the bird and the internet for getting the word out quickly so I could drop everything and get this bird!  My only other new ABA bird for the year.

3) Brown Kiwi--I didn't see this bird in the wild, but did get video of one in the Auckland Zoo.  I have to go back down to New Zealand to see these guys (and their two or four other related kiwi species, depending on which expert you believe).

2) New Zealand Storm Petrel--last observed in 1850 and thought extinct, a few of these birds were rediscovered in the Hauraki Gulf near Auckland in 2003.  We were able to see at least 3 of them on a pelagic trip there on December 10.  It was worth getting seasick for!

1) Takahe--There are less than 300 of these large flightless New Zealand rails alive in the world.  I saw Greg the famous tame Takahe on Tiritiri Matangi island, but also several more of his more wild cousins there as well.

Honorable mentions--Snowy Owl with my kids, White-collared Seedeaters on the banks of the Rio Grande in Laredo, Red-cockaded Woodpeckers in the Piney Woods of Texas, displaying Buff-breasted Sandpipers on the Texas coast.  Too many to mention, really.

So, while I may not have seen a huge number of birds this year, but I am grateful for all I did see, and there were some great ones.  What were your best birds of 2011?

Here's to an awesome year of birds and birding in 2012!

Yard Birds Update

This past week as I was driving home I saw a Great Blue Heron in my neighbor's pond.  Pulling into my driveway, I walked down to the far corner of my yard and I could barely see the heron standing on the side of the pond.  Bingo!  In three months of living in our new house in New Jersey, the heron was the 67th species for my yard list.  That ties the number of species I was able to see in five years of living in our row home in Perkasie, PA.  Ah the joys of exurban living!

Friday, December 30, 2011


What the heck is birdaoke?  Find out at my post For those about to bird, we salute you! over at Birding is Fun!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Jinx Birds at Birding is Fun!

I have a new post up at Birding is Fun about jinx birds.  Check it out and share your own jinx bird stories!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Pine Run Pink-footed Goose

Can you find the rare goose in this shot?  Me neither!

Fortunately I was on my computer this afternoon at 2:30 when word went out about a Pink-footed Goose found by August Mirabella at Pine Run Reservoir, one of my old stomping grounds an hour away over in Bucks County, PA.  Dashing to the car I was there by 3:30, where I met August and Ron French, who had the bird in the scope.  Over the next hour up to a dozen birders rushed over to see the bird, which spent the whole time floating out in the middle of the small reservoir with over 800 Canada Geese.  Having chased and missed this rare European goose several times over the years, it was great to finally see one in North America!

At over 100 yards distance in the fading light, I was lucky to get these poor shots through my scope.  Just happy to have been there!

I won't inflict you with the shaky and blurry video shot through my scope, though it was nice to see the bird flap a couple of times and do some bill dipping.

More photos from others:
August Mirabella's photos

Monday, November 21, 2011

Hunterdon County Brant

After chasing and missing Brant at Spruce Run for the past two weeks, I finally ran into one this morning at nearby DeMott Pond in Clinton.  The young bird was there all day yesterday, and still there when I checked late this morning, and tame enough to walk up and take a picture of with my phone camera.  Other new arrivals and good birds for me this morning were Red-throated Loon and first of season Fox Sparrow and Hooded Mergansers at Spruce Run.  At home, a singing male House Finch was a new bird for the yard.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Snowy Owl with the Kids

This morning the kids were out of school, so we headed over to Merrill Creek Reservoir near our house to see the Snowy Owl that was found there on Wednesday.  After hiking almost a mile out onto the dam, the bird was easily seen perched on a rock out of the wind below the dam.

Here are my kids looking down at the owl.  See it?  Right there on the rocks to the left of the dark bush?

Does the red arrow help?

OK, how about this?

Not a great shot, but I am amazed that I could get an (almost) identifiable shot of a Snow Owl at 200 yards with my camera phone!

Actually, its not all that much better shot through my scope...

I shot several videos with my phone, but the owl ended up overexposed on all of them.  Bummer.

Kids really enjoyed watching this guy, even though it was quite cold and windy on the dam.  So not a great photography experience, but a great birding with the kids moment.  This wasn't my first Snowy Owl experience with the kids, or even the second, but it is the first one my youngest will remember, and a great day all around.

Note: For those who just can't read a bird blog without awesome bird photos, check out images of this Snowy Owl over at The Nemesis Bird.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Spruce Run Snow Buntings

Had to take my car for a spin after getting it back from the shop (still trying to get it to pass NJ inspections) and ran into ten of these great birds at the Spruce Run Reservoir boat launch parking lot.  I haven't seen many Snow Buntings over the years, so nice to get reacquainted.  At first the birds flew in and were resting in the shade, then they flew out into the open gravel parking lot. Photos shot with my HTC Incredible Android phone through my old Zeiss 7x42s.  

No other real surprises, other than these beauties it was a slow morning taking longer than expected to get my 20 Bird MDR, but any day with Snow Buntings is a good day in my book.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Got It!

I've managed to get my 20 Bird MDR each day this week, despite some heavy travel days and lots of driving to campus and back.  Today my best birds were Rusty Blackbirds at Assiscong Marsh on my way down to a faculty meeting at Rowan University.  While I haven't had time for hard core birding, by making the effort to get my daily bird MDR I have seen Merlin, Palm Warbler, and several other birds that I for sure wouldn't have seen this week without the extra effort.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Birding Shabbat

Getting your 20 Bird MDR is important, but what if you suffer from Bostick Syndrome?

In order to encourage birding-life balance, some folks may consider the value of taking a day off from the 20 Bird MDR as a birding shabbat.  Personally, I usually take Sundays off.  I still try to identify every bird I see, and I may even write them down, but I take a rest from the relentless birding drive for the daily 20.

LDS Temple in Lake Oswego, OR--nice to be able to get birds at a wedding, in this case Anna's Hummingbird, Song Sparrow, Northern Flicker, Black-capped Chickadee, Western Scrub-Jay, etc.

For example, on Friday I got my MDR in Camas, Washington while helping my sister and new brother in law tow a truck and on a walk with my brothers around my folks's neighborhood in Oregon (highlight a Merlin in a nearby subdivision where I used to deliver newspapers as a kid).  On Saturday, I got most of my 20 while standing around taking pictures at my sister's wedding.  Yesterday, I drove down to Dayton, OR to visit a cousin with my mom, and I just took it easy.  I still looked at birds, and noted the Eurasian Collared-Doves (still crazy to see these birds in Oregon, since I found the first accepted record over a decade ago while on a similar wedding trip home to visit the family).  But I didn't keep a list.

We all need balance.  The 20 Bird MDR is a tool to help you to keep birds in your life if you tend to get caught up in other things.  If you lean too far the other way, consider a birding shabbat.  You can still watch birds, but you don't have to go crazy. By all means bird, but bird responsibly!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Birding is Fun!

I'm now part of the group blog Birding is Fun!  Check out my latest post there on Bostick Syndrome, A.K.A. Obsessive Compulsive Birding Disorder.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Birds of New Jersey: Status and Distribution

I just moved to The Garden State, so William Boyle's The Birds of New Jersey: Status and Distribution (Princeton, 2011) has appeared just in time to help me get up to speed on the birds in my new home state!

The Birds of New Jersey is an annotated checklist to the 465 bird species recorded in New Jersey through mid-2010.  Each species account features a paragraph outlining the seasonal status and distribution of the bird within New Jersey.  For birds reported fewer than five times in the state, the account lists the locations and dates of occurrence.  A large color-coded seasonal distribution map (showing county boundaries) is included for each bird.  Rare birds on the New Jersey Bird Records Committee review list feature dots showing the location of every accepted record.  Finally, The Birds of New Jersey also showcases 200 photos of New Jersey birds, including documentation shots of rare birds.  All in all this is a great book, and since I'm new to the state, I find myself referring to it all the time.  Even when I'm more up to speed on local bird distribution here in NJ, I can see myself keeping it handy for quick and frequent reference.

A few more thoughts:
Species Accounts--Worth their weight in gold.  Short but detailed, with discussion timing and distribution of migration, breeding, and wintering birds.  The Birds of New Jersey tells you when and where each bird is to be expected.  It frequently provides numbers or trend data from statewide Christmas Bird Counts, as well as notes on historic change in range or status.  For rare bird fans, the discussion of accidentals is fun and juicy, often providing notes on individual birds including their behavior and how many hours they were observed--for instance you can read about NJ's first Green Violet-Ear, found on an August afternoon, and "present after dawn the next morning , to the joy of many observers, but departed before seven a.m., never to be seen again."  It is great to see the individual records listed for birds seen fewer than 5 times, but I would have loved to seen the full list of records for those found fewer than 10 times--but I'm just a rare bird data fan, so that's just me!  I'm always looking at these records and frequently thinking it must be about time for another one of these birds to show up.  I'm also finding lots of fun trivia--for instance I was surprised to read that the Brambling that showed up in 1958 just a few miles from where I'm now living was the first record of that bird for North America.

Maps--Very detailed and useful, showing distribution at a very detailed scale--useful especially for birds with limited distribution in the state, and detailed enough to show, for example, the local boundaries between Black-capped Chickadee and Carolina Chickadee distributions.  As a geographer, I love the detail, but am a bit put off by the color scheme.  Having grown up with the old Golden Guide, I find the color scheme in The Birds of New Jersey to be somewhat counter-intuitive  Blue for winter and purple for year round distribution are familiar and make sense, but green for summer?  I'm still trying to get used to it.

Photos--Kevin Karlson served as the photo editor, and many of the shots of more common birds are his.  The photos are all fantastic, including a 14 page center spread of photos that showcase common as well as rare species.  For casual birders or even backyard birdwatchers, there are lots of beautiful photos of common birds.  For rare bird chasers, the photos of rare birds are simply there to stimulate birdlust!  Flipping through the book, it is hard not to stop and just stare at the photos (there is at least one on every open two-page spread)--I don't know how many times I've found myself staring at the Large-billed Tern photo (the first documented record for North America), or the Little Stints, or Yellow-nosed Albatross soaring over Reeds Beach.  But even the photos of common birds are delicious.

Basically, if you bird in New Jersey you should have this book. If you bird in a nearby state, you should have this book.  If you enjoy great bird photography and discussion of rare bird sightings, you should have this book.  The Birds of New Jersey is currently living on the nightstand near my bed and I expect it to live there for a long time to come!

(Disclosure: Review based on a review copy provided by Princeton University Press)

How I Get My 20

In order to make sure I get my 20 Bird Minimum Daily Requirement, I start each day by marking out 30 hash marks, in three columns of 10, on a small piece of paper.  That way, every time I see or hear a new bird for the day I can record it on my tally sheet using the standard 4 letter banding codes.  Since my tally is grouped in columns of 10, I can quickly see how many species I have for the day.

Here's my completed tally sheet for today:

I started the day kind of slow with a few Blue Jays, American Crows and White-throated Sparrows calling behind my house.  I was busy so I didn't go out and find anything else, but I did hear Song Sparrow and Black-capped Chickadees as I got into my car to run some errands.

Driving around town I got Turkey Vultures, Morning Doves, and European Starlings.  So far nothing to write home about.  So I decided to check out Assicong Marsh, a nearby spot I hadn't visited yet.

At the 24 acre marsh north of Flemington, I got Downy Woodpecker, Canada Goose, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Carolina Wren, Red-bellied Woodpecker, and Red-winged Blackbird.  I was hoping for some new ducks for my county list, and was happy to find Wood Ducks, American Black Ducks, and a pair of Gadwall with the Mallards.  By this point I only needed a couple more to reach my 20 Bird MDR, and I heard a Swamp Sparrow and saw a pair of Northern Cardinals as I walked back to my car.  Then I remembered I had also seen a Red-tailed Hawk back in town, so I really had a comfortable 21 species.

On the way home I stopped at the county Arboretum for a few minutes and picked up Cedar Waxwings, American Robins, Tufted Titmice, Black Vulture, and my FOS Hermit Thrush.

After getting home, I saw that I was just 4 species away from reaching 30 for the day, so I spent 10 minutes on my patio, netting Eastern Bluebird, Chipping Sparrow, Northern Mockingbird, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Gray Catbird, and White-breasted Nuthatch.

With my tally sheet I was able to see where I was at with my tally at any point, and I could also record numbers and locations of birds seen.  Ideally, I will spend a few moments in the evening to submit my sightings to eBird--giving my sightings more value as they contribute to our greater knowledge of bird distribution.

So--what did I gain from playing the 20 Bird MDR game today?  Playing gave me a little more incentive to check out a new spot for me and led me to stop for another few minutes at the arboretum, where I noted two juvenile Cedar Waxwings among the 40 or so birds there that were about 80% young birds without red waxy wing feather tips.  When I enter those age rations into my eBird checklist, it will help track timing of molt and population dynamics of these wandering birds.  By playing the game I saw way more birds than I would have if I hadn't been playing or paying attention.  So no huge discoveries, but with 32 birds for the day I had fun, it flexed the birding muscles, and made for a nice addition to my day!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Focus on Diversity Birding Conference Video

Yesterday I got to spend the day with some quality folks at John Heinz NWR as we discussed how to promote birding among traditionally non-birding ethnic groups in the U.S.  It was a great event, and I've got more to say on this later.  But you can enjoy the event yourself right here on this blog, since the USFWS filmed the whole thing!

(BTW, I show up briefly on camera at 23:43 in the first video, warning panelist Paul Baicich on the left that his chair is about to topple off the stage!)

Morning Session

r5broadcasts on Broadcast Live Free

Afternoon Breakout

Watch live streaming video from r5broadcasts at

Second Afternoon Breakout

Watch live streaming video from r5broadcasts at

Afternoon Wrap-Up

Watch live streaming video from r5broadcasts at

At the very end of the last video I make a final brief appearance at 1:00:47 at the back of the room, walking to the right.  Since I'm stealthy and hard to spot, here's a screen shot!

While I've been promoting birding in Hispanic and African-American populations since at least 1998 starting with my work out at Hornsby Bend, I was here mostly just to listen.  And there was a lot of great stuff to hear.  Thanks to Dave Magpiong and The Fledging Birders Institute for putting this on, and John Heinz NWR for hosting us.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Big Year Movie Top 10

Fox really dropped the ball on marketing The Big Year, and it tanked at the box office opening weekend.  This is a shame, as The Big Year is an engaging and fun look at the world of birds and birding.  I watched it with my kids and they loved it.  We laughed, we cried.  I've seen hundreds of movies that left me shrugging with a meh? But this one was a winner.  

You can go to IMDB or Rotten Tomatoes for plot summaries and more reviews.  Some reviewers got it, some complained.  Here's my Top 10 reasons why I think this is a worthy film that I plan to see again in the theater and own when it comes out on DVD (SPOILER ALERT: I am going to talk about specific plot elements here):

1) Magical birds.  Some folks complained about the cg bird closeups--but to me they added a sense of magical realism to the film, which I thought was a great way to depict that magical moment when you connect with a bird.  Steve Martin connecting with the Xantus's Hummingbird in British Columbia, Owen Wilson and Tim Blake Nelson connecting to the Great Spotted Woodpecker.  Jack Black and Brian Dennehy connecting to each other and the Great Gray Owl.  No, this isn't photo realism.  This is magic!

2) Obsessive Compulsive Birding Disorder (OCBD).  Owen Wilson's character is something we've not really seen depicted in film before--a birder so obsessed with his bird chasing quest that it destroys his marriages.  This is powerful.  I'll admit to my heart breaking when he throws his wife down on the leave and chase a bird.  I was a wreck when he left his wife in a hospital gown at the fertility clinic when to chase another bird. While some may complain that this is over the top, it was a fitting characterization of something many of us birders are afflicted with perhaps on a less disastrous level.  If you are a birder, and you don't think you suffer from this, take your nonbirding friends and relatives to a screening and see what they have to say about your own OCBD!

3) Family First.  I love that Steve Martin started his own Big Year, not by leaving his family to chase the latest rarity, but by spending New Year's day skiing and being with his family.  Ultimately, as with director David Frankel's other films The Devil Wears Prada and Marley and Me, the message of The Big Year is all about how our wants and desires can enhance or damage our personal relationships.  

4) Attu.  I never made it to Attu.  I paid my deposit one year when I was planning my own North American big year as a starving Jack Black type of birder right out of college, but I had to let it go when I couldn't come up with the cash for the most expensive trip in North American birding.  So watching a depiction of the legendary Attour style birding on Attu was amazing!  Birders may complain about some of the birds referenced on the island, but that is missing the point.  Attu is magical, pulsing with the possibility of rare birds.  You may never make it to Attu either, and the old tradition of staying together in quonset huts is no more.  So enjoy that birding tradition by proxy.

5) Pelagic Birding.  One of birding's greatest traditions, depicted here in all its glory--including the seasickness and excitement of pitching to and fro on the waves in hopes of albatross, shearwaters, and petrels.  If you haven't been on a pelagic trip, this will push you to sign up.  If your family wonders why in the world you might do such a thing, take them to the film and let them see for themselves.  

6) Other birders.  Not all birding characters are as obsessed as Jack Black, Owen Wilson, and Steve Martin.  We are treated to seeing (albeit mostly in the background) dozens of other birders--including an African-American birder.  These birders might look a little goofy to nonbirders, but to be honest, they aren't nearly as goofy-looking as real life birders!  If The Big Year doesn't make birding cool, it at least makes it look more normal than possibly we deserve!

7) Ruby Mountain Snowcocks.  My kids and I laughed the hardest during this scene where Jack Black and Steve Martin chase Siberian Snowcocks by helicopter over the Ruby Mountains in Nevada.  People really do this, and it shows how crazy dedicated birders can really be.  

8) Apologies.  The scene where Steve Martin apologizes to Jack Black for not telling him that he is also doing a big year was one of the most honest depictions of an apology I've ever seen on film.  Think about it, when was the last time you saw a character in a film apologize this honestly?  A wonderful moment of film.

9) Buddies.  By the end of the film, the chemistry between Jack Black and Steve Martin is wonderful.  As a birder who spends too much time birding alone, I really appreciated how these two characters connected through birding.  

10) Music.  While there could have been much more bird music--or even characters engaging in the venerable birding tradition of creating their own bird-inspired lyrics to popular tunes--there were some great uses of music to highlight appropriate moments of the film.  Will have to get the soundtrack.

Final Thoughts: While this is a movie that birders can really enjoy, it is actually probably a better movie for non-birders.  While Fox obviously didn't know how to market a film about birds and birding to nonbirders, I think this light and heartfelt comedy is actually good entertainment.  Are there better movies out there?  Sure.  But there are also many more movies out there that will make much less of a lasting impression. It is a movie for birders to celebrate and share with their nonbirding spouses, family, and friends.  For nonbirders, it is a decent film with engaging characters providing insights into a unique subculture, as well as the ups and downs of following your bliss.

20 Bird Minimum Daily Requirement

The former Bird RDA is now the 20 Bird Minimum Daily Requirement.  This new designation more clearly states the purpose of the distinction--that birders need to see a minimum number of species each day in order to stay sharp.

The 20 Bird Minimum Daily Requirement is useful as a prescription--say you are a bit glum, feeling isolated from the natural world--nothing like a month of making sure to get your 20 Bird Minimum Daily Requirement to boost your spirits.

The 20 Bird Minimum Daily Requirement also helps you better get to know the birds and bird distribution in your local area.  In order to get your 20 Bird MDR on your most busy days, you will have to know where to quickly pick up the most common birds in your area.

An effort to get your 20 Bird MDR will also encourage you to more frequently bird your local patch, and even birdy but not spectacular birding spots that are convenient to your home, work, or along your daily commute.  With more time in the field, even if just for a short time to get your 20 Bird MDR, your chances of finding unusual or rare birds is increased.

The 20 Bird MDR will also help you better identify the most common birds in your area, as you learn to identify them at 65 mph on the freeway, or by their various calls or songs as you sit in traffic or on your back porch.

If you would like to promote the 20 Bird MDR for birding health, feel free to steal the official 20 Bird MDR image, either in the full or this smaller size, and post them on your blog or other social media site.  This is your prescription for more consistent fun and better birding!  Enjoy!

You can also like the Facebook 20 Bird Minimum Daily Requirement page.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Like Mozart? Really?

In one of my favorite scenes from The Big Year, Owen Wilson's character, competitive top birding lister Kenny Bostick explains his birding compulsion to his frustrated wife by declaring that he is "like Mozart". 

What might that mean?  I find a lot of richness in that claim.  For one thing, it speaks of having a driving passion.  But for me, it also speaks to birding as a performance art.

Back in 1996, I worked with Texas Parks and Wildlife to start up the Great Texas Birding Classic.  I put together the organizing committee and the first proposal for the competition.  As part of my research, I looked at golf and bass fishing tournaments.  I made the claim to the committee that we needed to have real prize money at stake, in order to generate the media attention we would need to take birding competitions to the next level of fundraising possibility.  As part of this way of packaging the competition, we needed to turn birding into a spectator sport to generate a media audience.  My proposal was quickly voted down by the leaders of the Texas birding community.  They said it would ruin birding.  One said that the day he had to bird with a television crew following him around would be the last day he ever birded.

Fast forward 15 years and birding has increasingly become a spectator sport.  While we have limited televised birding, the Internet has spawned a host of online birding personalities--bird bloggers and Facebook friends whose birding exploits we follow daily.  Used to be you could just head out by yourself with your binoculars and scope for a nice day of birding.  Now, unless you take pictures and post them somewhere, you aren't really birding.

In The Big Year, Kenny Bostick regales Attu birders with his birding exploits.  Here online, we all do that every day.  Birding is a spectator sport.  A performance art.

Maybe we don't offer anything as profound or lasting as Mozart.  But here we are.  Watching birds.  Taking pictures.  For all the world to see.  

Were those Texas birders right back in '96?  Has it ruined birding?

Monday, October 17, 2011

Kids review The Big Year

For family night the kids and I went to see The Big Year.  We had a great time and all the kids liked it.  My 10 year old "loved it" and gave it 5/5 stars.  My 14 year old gave it 3.5 stars, and my 7 year old gave it 4 stars.  While it was rated PG, my kids thought maybe it should be almost PG-13 for the mild language and a few sexual situations.  But they especially liked Jack Black, and he did a great job as a birder contending to see the most birds in North America, competing against Steve Martin and Owen Wilson.  My 10 year old thought the first part was the best and funniest, and the second half was more serious--as the costs of hard-core birding take their toll on the characters.  The kids were sad how much one of the characters in particular was willing to give up in his single-minded pursuit of birds.

I was happy that the kids enjoyed the funny parts, but also responded to the more serious side of the film.  We all laughed hard during Jack Black and Steve Martin's were crazy helicopter ride chasing Himalayan Snowcocks over the Ruby Mountains of Nevada, but our hearts also warmed when Jack Black and Brian Dennehey go owling in the snow and several other tender family moments.  All in all The Big Year has a very pro-family message that nothing is more important than our loving relationships and family.

So my oldest now wants to go to Attu (better start saving those pennies--it's not an inexpensive trip!).  My ten year old thinks a big year would be fun.  My youngest not so much--"all that searching!" seems like too much for her.

I'll write my own review later, but it was great for me to be able to share this with my kids.  There were only three other people in the theater with us, so sadly this may not be a film to last long in the theaters.  As others have said, it isn't Citizen Kane--but it does have a number of touching and even subtly profound moments.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Birdchaser at Huntington-Oyster Bay Audubon

Tomorrow night I'm giving a talk on The Personality of Birds at the Huntington-Oyster Bay Audubon meeting in Northern Oyster Bay and Huntington Townships out on Long Island, NY.  

Early 20th Century naturalists were quick to describe birds in human terms, including characteristics such as shyness and mischievousness that we would consider aspects of personality. Was this merely anthropomorphism, the misplaced attribution of human characteristics to birds or animals, or do birds actually have personality? While we should rightfully avoid anthropomorphism, the latest research suggests that birds and other animals do indeed have personality--including many of the same characteristics shared by people. By reviewing the findings of the latest research, and showing how you can explore bird personality on your own, this program opens a door into this exciting inner life of birds.

So if you are in the NYC area tomorrow, come join me for a wild ride into the inner life of birds!

Friday, September 30, 2011

Makeup Birding

So yesterday was the first day the kids rode the bus to school from our new house in Hunterdon County, New Jersey. As we waited for the bus, we were treated to Palm Warbler and seven other species flitting around the yard. Then I had to book it down to my classes at Rowan University. Over an hour and a half later, as I walked inside, my day list was only up to 16--4 shy of my needed Bird RDA. At 6pm I started the long drive home in the gathering twilight. Bad traffic had me birding with the windows down as I crept along I-295. A pair of ducks flying over quickly got me Mallard (17). No sign of House Sparrows on any of the gas stations I passed. Getting late to try for Red-tailed Hawks on power poles. Finally a small flock of Common Grackles flew over the highway (18). Two more to go. As I approached the Delaware River it was almost dark. Fortunately a pair of Canada Goose (19) flew over.

And that was it. A group of ducks flying over after sunset looked small and might have been Wood Ducks, but hard to tell in the near dark at 65 mph. I didn't hear any nocturnal migrants last night. I missed getting my RDA by 1 species!

But I came up with a new plan.

I decided that if I missed my Bird RDA on any given day, I could make it up the next day. Only it would have to be a two-for-one deal. I would have to find 2 additional species to make up for each species missed the day before. And make up birding has to take place the very next day. No rollover birds or escrow accounts. No extensions.

So this morning I did a little better at the bus stop and had 11 species by the time the kids got on the bus--including another Palm Warbler and a pair of Red-eyed Vireos. A quick drive around Spruce Run Reservoir netted me an Osprey and several other species including a couple distant Sterna terns, taking me up to 24 species before I had to head in to work.

So I got my Bird RDA and was able to make up my count from yesterday. I'm feeling healthier already!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Morning Walk in Hoffman Park

Nice morning getting close to some common birds.

Hoffman Park, Hunterdon, US-NJ
Sep 19, 2011 9:00 AM - 10:00 AM
Protocol: Traveling
0.5 mile(s)
18 species

Red-bellied Woodpecker 1
Downy Woodpecker 1
Northern Flicker 1
Pileated Woodpecker 1
Blue Jay 8
American Crow 5
Tufted Titmouse 4
House Wren 3
Eastern Bluebird 1
Wood Thrush 1
American Robin 2
Gray Catbird 6
Brown Thrasher 1
Common Yellowthroat 3
Eastern Towhee 1
Field Sparrow 1
Northern Cardinal 2
American Goldfinch 2

This report was generated automatically by eBird v2

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Puddles USFWS Blue Goose Sighting.

Anyone who has seen a National Wildlife Refuge sign has seen the "Blue Goose" logo.

But did you know that the Blue Goose is actually the mascot of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service?

And not just any Blue Goose, but the mascot has a name. Puddles.

This weekend at the Cradle of Birding Wildlife and Conservation Festival at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge I had a brief and distant Puddles sighting. Definitely a Better View Desired (BVD) type of sighting.

Fortunately I later got a much better view.

Rosemont College Fall 2011 Diversity of LIfe Course

This semester I'm teaching a Diversity of Life course for nontraditional students at Rosemont College in Philadelphia. Highlights so far include learning to identify trees with a key (see the Arbor Day Foundation online key--great tool) as well as SPASMATIC bird identification.

On Saturday we attended the Cradle of Birding wildlife festival at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge in Philadelphia--including a bird and plant walk. We had Sharp-shinned and Cooper's Hawks soar directly overhead, and had a flyby young Bald Eagle. Later an adult Bald Eagle flew in and landed on a distant power pole. We also got great looks at Caspian Terns diving for fish in front of us. I was hoping for more warblers, but only got a quick look at an Ovenbird running through the woods.

For part of an exam this weekend they had to use the Kaufman Guide to identify bird slides.

Great group of students, I'm enjoying exploring the diverse world of plants, animals, and other organisms together.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Glassboro Woods

Stopped by Glassboro Woods on my way to campus this morning. Very, very quiet. Only 7 species in 20 minutes there before the boredom and mosquitoes chased me away. Highlight was a nice male Hooded Warbler.

Last night was great, driving over to give a Mayan bird talk to Monmouth County Audubon I had one (and possibly three--two birds didn't show well) White-winged Dove flying over the Garden State Parkway. Flyby vagrants are not good for establishing your reputation in a new area, but what's a guy to do when they just show up like that?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Bare Naked Birding Hoffman Park

I birded without binoculars for about 20 minutes in Hoffman Park after dropping my kids off at school. Nice close looks at several Common Yellowthroats, a Wood Thrush, and Northern Parula. But best birds were locally uncommon Blue Grosbeak seen closely but briefly, and a male Orchard Oriole seen in a distant oak tree. While I would have preferred to have my binoculars with me, I was surprised how much I was able to see without them--and only had a few birds slip away without my being able to identify them. Bare naked birding makes you pay more attention to the birds close by, which was good, and helped me to slow down and not try to cover too much ground (I only walked a quarter mile at the most). What with the Baltimore Oriole seen from my hotel this morning, and several other birds seen driving around, I'm well over my minimum 20 species Bird RDA.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Birding RDA Fail

A few years ago I hit upon the idea of a Recommended Daily Allowance of birds--something to make sure that even busy people get enough birds into their day to stay sane and healthy. The number I hit upon was a minimum of 20 bird species a day. Lately with everything I've got going on I've been a bit enemic in the bird department, so I'm making a bigger effort to make sure to get my Birding RDA.

Today I failed. Badly. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I drive from my new home in North Jersey down to Rowan University in South Jersey. I was only able to get 12 species on the two hour drive. As I got out of my car in Glassboro, I heard a couple of Fish Crows on campus for number 13. When I got done teaching class and headed out on the road it was already 6:30 in the evening and getting dark. I was able to see some Mallards flying along the Delaware River, for number 14. At dusk, where I-295 and I-95 meet, I got my last and best bird for the day--a Common Nighthawk winging over the freeway.

I'll do better tomorrow!

(photo: wikipedia)

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

New County List

Now that I'm (almost) officially in New Jersey, it's time to start my new Hunterdon County list. This morning I birded Spruce Run Reservoir--NJ's third largest reservoir, about 3 miles up the road from our new home. Not a lot of bird activity in the rain, but did manage to get the list started. It all gets better from here, right?

Spruce Run Reservoir, Hunterdon, US-NJ
Sep 7, 2011 9:50 AM - 11:20 AM
Protocol: Traveling
2.0 mile(s)
Comments: Slow drive around Spruce Run, stopping wherever small bird activity noted.
24 species

Canada Goose 10
Common Merganser 2
Double-crested Cormorant 1
Osprey 1
Mourning Dove 1
Ruby-throated Hummingbird 1
Belted Kingfisher 1
Downy Woodpecker 1
Eastern Wood-Pewee 1
Willow Flycatcher 1
Least Flycatcher 1
Red-eyed Vireo 3
American Crow 3
Carolina Chickadee 1
Tufted Titmouse 3
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher 2
Eastern Bluebird 3
American Robin 2
Gray Catbird 9
American Redstart 7
Black-throated Green Warbler 2
Chipping Sparrow 15
Northern Cardinal 9
American Goldfinch 11

This report was generated automatically by eBird v2 (

Thursday, September 01, 2011

After the Storm

Hurricane Irene was supposed to lash us with borderline hurricane-force winds. We did get over 6 inches of rain, but I watched the wind gauge for most of the night and never saw a gust of more than 30 mph. And sometimes the winds were below 10 mph. So that was the good news.

Bad news was that the storm didn't bring me any good birds. I went to Lake Nockamixon in the morning and apparently missed a pair of Sooty Terns by minutes. I spent over five hours waiting for seabirds to show up and all I got were 2 Caspian Terns, 9 Common Terns, 1 Forster's Tern, and 6 Black Terns--none of which are impossible to find in the county normally. Other birders found extraordinary sea birds--such as White-tailed Tropicbirds in NY, MA, and NJ as well as Sooty Tern, Bridled Tern, Band-rumped Storm Petrel, Leach's Storm Petrel, and Wilson's Storm Petrel (see a summary from my eBird buddies here).

But nothing for me. Well, at least my house didn't flood or blow away!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Scientists Track Shorebird into Hurricane Irene

Here's a cool press release I just received.

(photo: Mike Baird)

(Williamsburg, VA)---Scientists have tracked a migrating shorebird into Hurricane Irene. The shorebird, a whimbrel migrating from Canada to South America left Southampton Island in upper Hudson Bay on Saturday, flew out over the open ocean and appears to have encountered the outer bands of Irene on Tuesday. The bird named Chinquapin flew through the dangerous northeast quadrant of the storm during the day on Wednesday. It is being tracked by a small satellite transmitter and is scheduled to transmit a new set of positions within the next day. In 2010 this same bird flew around Tropical Storm Colin while a second bird flew into the storm and did not survive.

The long-term tracking study has documented several previous encounters between whimbrel and major storms. Earlier in August one of the birds flew through Tropical Storm Gert in the North Atlantic. This bird encountered high headwinds for 27 hours averaging only 9 miles per hour. Once through the storm, flight speed increased to more than 90 miles per hour as the bird was pushed by significant tail winds and made it back to Cape Cod, Massachusetts. In 2008, a bird was tracked into Hurricane Hanna and landed in the Bahamas only to be hit later by Hurricane Ike.

Updated tracking maps may be viewed online.

How migratory birds navigate around and survive major storm systems has been an open question to science. Achieving an understanding of this process is important because the Caribbean Basin is a major flyway for many bird species moving from breeding grounds in North American to winter in South America and their migrations coincide with the period of highest hurricane formation. Changes in storm frequency, intensity, or distribution may have implications for timing and routes of migratory movements.

This tracking project is a collaborative effort between The Center for Conservation Biology, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, The Nature Conservancy, The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program, and Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences.

UPDATE: The Whimbrel made it safely through the storm!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Sample Nature Observation Blog Post

This fall I am teaching a Diversity of Life course at Rosemont College in Philadelphia. My students will each be required to create a Nature Observation Blog, where they will post their observations of at least 15 animals, 15 plants, and 10 other organisms that they can find, identify, and observe during September. I will post links to my student's pages once they are up. Here is a sample of the type of posts they will be creating for each observation:

Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina)

I found this turtle while birding at Peace Valley Park, Bucks County, PA on 27 April 2011. It was in the middle of a grassy trail through the woods--about 3 yards from the closest bushes on either side of the trail. When I first observed it, the turtle seemed alert, raised up high on its legs with its neck extended up high. I watched it for a few minutes through my binoculars, at about 15 yards away. As I got closer, it slowly pulled into its shell. It remained tightly pulled back into its shell as I picked it up. After I put it down, I walked off about 10 yards and continued to watch it for a few minutes, but it didn't come back out while I was still there.

What was the turtle doing out in the open? Why was it alert--had it already seen me before I had seen it? When do box turtles assume this alert position? What sensory methods (sight, vibration, etc.) are most important for box turtles? How do they use those methods to detect and interact with their environment? How old and what sex is this turtle? How does box turtle coloration vary by age and sex?

Scientific Research
Stickel, Lucille F. Populations and Home Range Relationships of the Box Turtle, Terrapene c. carolina (Linnaeus), Ecological Monographs, Vol. 20, No. 4 (Oct., 1950), pp. 351-378

Stickel found that the average home range for a male turtle was 330 feet in diameter, while that of a female was 370 feet, so looks like this turtle isn't going to be going very far--though she found that turtles do sometimes make extended trips outside of their home range. The ranges of turtles overlapped, so perhaps there are other turtles nearby, and they like to have a nice open spot for sunning themselves in their home range, so perhaps this turtle was sunning itself when I found it there in the open.

Further Information
Pennsylvania Herp Identification
National Zoo

Friday, August 12, 2011

How Long Do House Sparrows Live?

This morning while watching my House Sparrow nursery out back, I noticed the young out in the open on my patio. They are sort of watching the sky, but not really. More focused on their own little activities--crushing seeds, pecking at stuff, chasing each other, etc. Made me wonder how well these little guys survive.

The answer--not so well. According to Lowther & Cink (2006) only 20% of young House Sparrows survive their first year. So, if those young sparrows don't look like they are all that careful, guess what, they probably aren't! If they can make it through their first year, adult sparrows have a 57% chance of making it through the next year.

It's tough being a baby sparrow, though they don't look too worried about it!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Mysterious House Sparrow Calls

I made a more valiant effort today to get to know my bird of the week and actually spent some time out on the porch watching sparrows. I saw some quick indirect scratching, bill wiping, and other behaviors. But the more I watched, the more puzzled I became. It was clear that I had no idea what these birds are doing out there. At one point there was a male up in the top of a holly tree, calling fairly consistently with some type of a "cheep" call, while a female hoped around in a slightly lower branch making some kind of a lower pitched "churr" call. When I got a better look at the female it was clear she had something in her beak, so I thought she might be carrying food to young in a nest. But she stayed up there churrping and moving about repeatedly for over 15 minutes. Eventually the male flew off to land on the ground in a neighbor's yard. I never did figure out what the female was up to.

As I listened to the sparrow calls, I could tell that there were many different types of subtle differences in the calls, but it was tough to focus on them. Afterwards, I went to to listen to House Sparrow calls and the mystery deepened. Paul Driver's bird calls website gave me more samples to listen to, but I am still left scratching my head. I guess I've known forever that House Sparrows make a lot of different sounds, but I never paid them any attention. And now that I'm trying to sort them out, it is a bit bewildering. So much to learn, so much I don't know about these common little neighbors in my yard!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

House Sparrow Appreciation Take 2

Somehow I got all the way through the day without attending to my bird of the week, so after dinner I went out on the porch to see what I could find out about my local House Sparrows.

According to Lowther & Cink 2006, House Sparrows congregate for 30-60 minutes before heading to their roost, arriving at their roost 30-15 minutes before sunset. My local sunset tonight is 20:05 EDT, so I was out about an hour before that. There were a half dozen young House Sparrows on the utility lines behind my house and another couple birds chirping in the bushes. After about 5 minutes they had all dropped down out of sight except for one lone bird on top of a power pole. And the birds were quiet. After a few more minutes, as I was watching the last bird on the pole, it too dropped down. As I lowered my binocular I saw a Sharp-shinned Hawk swoop lazily past the pole. Had the other birds seen the bird approaching minutes earlier, or was it just a coincidence?

A few minutes after the hawk had left, 14 House Sparrows took off out of my neighbors bushes flying to the southwest fast and direct, about 50 feet up, down the alley and out of sight. Were they heading off to a congregations site in the neighborhood? Might be fun to see if I can find a local roost.

So I wouldn't say I was that diligent in my House Sparrow appreciation so far, but I'm getting better. I'll see how much better I can do tomorrow!

Other birds flying over my house this evening: Barn Swallow, Chimney Swift, Fish Crow, Canada Goose.

My 30th Birdiversary!

Thirty years ago today I became a birder! While I had been a casual birdwatcher for awhile, it was the junior high school trip to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge thirty years ago that, depending on our perspective, either came to define or ruin the rest of my life!

Who knew when the two vans full of kids and teachers pulled out from Oregon City for the five day field trip to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and Steens Mountain that thirty years later one of those kids would still look back on that day with such importance!

We stopped off at a cave near Bend on the way over, and by evening we were at the refuge field station. I still remember we had spaghetti with zucchini in it for dinner that night. Common Nighthawks were roosting on the utility lines as we waited for dinner to be ready. I still can't smell sagebrush without being whisked back there. Since this was the first day that I started keeping a real bird list, I can actually look back to see what birds we saw that day!

American Crow
American Robin
Western Scrub-Jay
European Starling
House Sparrow
Black-capped Chickadee
Turkey Vulture
Rock Pigeon
Violet-green Swallow
Western Grebe
Yellow-headed Blackbird
American Coot
American Kestrel
Barn Swallow
Black-billed Magpie
Burrowing Owl
California Quail
Canada Goose
Clark's Nutcracker
Common Nighthawk
Evening Grosbeak
Great Blue Heron
Great Horned Owl
Mourning Dove
Red-tailed Hawk
Red-winged Blackbird
Ring-necked Pheasant
Song Sparrow

It's been a wild and crazy ride since then! As a new birder, it wasn't easy to keep a mental picuture of all the new birds I saw that week. But some like the Burrowing Owl and the nighthawk are still fresh in my mind. Others like my first Western Grebe and Evening Grosbeak are way back in the musty recesses where they aren't readily available. I wish I could still remember my first coot, but I don't. It's like those first childhood memories--hard to really say why some stick and others don't. But even if I don't remember them, I have them written down, so I know they were there for my very first day or real birding.
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