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Friday, February 25, 2011

GBBC's Fat Lady

Last weekend was the Great Backyard Bird Count, but the GBBC fat lady hasn't sung yet. If you saw birds last weekend, you have until March 1 to submit your sightings to the GBBC website. So make sure to get last weekend's bird sightings reported to the GBBC website this weekend. As they say, it ain't over 'til it's over, and the fat lady won't sing until after March 1.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Pennsylvania Barnacle Goose

At 11:30 this morning Paul Guris sent out an alert on the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club email list that Anita Guris and Marty Dellwo were looking at a Barnacle Goose in a flock of Canada Geese across from the high school in Red Hill, Pennsylvania near the north shore of Green Lane Reservoir. I was able to get there by noon and shoot 15 minutes of video through my scope and HTC Incredible phone over the next hour. Frustrating shooting again through the camera phone, I've got to figure out what I did with my Canon PowerShot camera! But at least the goose is identifiable. Nice to spend an hour with this bird since the only other ones I've had in PA was a flyby at Peace Valley after hours and hours of searching, and a clearly banded and escaped aviary bird at a roadside pond several years ago.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Eurasian Wigeon Digiscope Fail

This afternoon I abjectly failed to get an identifiable photo of a Eurasian Wigeon on Green Lane Reservoir, Montgomery County,Pennsylvania. The bird has been on the water and ice there for the past two days, but I waited until the Junior Birdchasers got home from school so I could take them to see this bird which was a lifer for them (state bird for me). The light was harsh, the bird was far away. We all got to see it, but the best I could do digiscoping with my Android phone on video was this crummy shot showing (if you trust me) the reddish head of the drake Eurasian Wigeon. For most of the video I had trouble keeping the image in the camera or the bird wasn't visible. So--Lifer (yeah!), Lifer (yeah!), State Bird (yeah!), photo (fail!).

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Crossley ID Guide: Image Number Comparisons

So, in line with my comparison of text between the new Crossley ID guide and recent field guides, here's a comparison chart showing number of birds illustrated for the same species:

Again, note how Crossley ID stacks up to the others.

103 Big Sibley
84 Crossley ID
54 Stokes
37 National Geographic
33 NWF
31 Smithsonian
26 Kaufman

Again, note how well Big Sibley does in comparison. Book jacket claims 6,600 in Big Sibley, compared to 10,000 images claimed for Crossley ID (and 3400 photos in Stokes). As a direct comparison, many of the Crossley ID images are small and distant birds, especially distant flocks of birds--which is useful in itself, but not always the same way as illustrations showing additional variations.

I'm also impressed with how well Kaufman stands up, compared to the others in the middle of the pack--very respectable for such a trim guide (and he manages to show a juvenile Saw-whet Owl, which even Crossley ID doesn't pull off)!

So that's how the numbers stand in this comparison. But there are probably even more than 10,000 birds in Crossley ID--just check out his shot of the Black-legged Kittiwake colony, and it's anyone's guess how many birds are in there! For the record, here's the number of illustrations claimed for these guides:

10,000 Crossley ID (combined photos--who knows how many birds that really is!)
6,600+ Big Sibley (illustrations)
4,000+ National Geographic (paintings)
3,400 Stokes (photos--some are of more than one bird)
2,100 NWF
2,000+ Kaufman (photos)
2,000 Smithsonian

Friday, February 18, 2011

First Morning of the GBBC

The Great Backyard Bird Count is here! I took my kids out birding this morning, we checked out the duck migration at Peace Valley for 20 minutes or so. Lots of turnover from yesterday, and the highlight was 350 Snow Geese flying north in formation. Temps are in the 60s today, snow continues to melt. Spring is in the air! In addition to the geese, we had a large (for here) group of 27 American Wigeon, and 3 Hooded Mergansers with the more regular ducks. Also good looks at a Lesser Black-backed Gull eating a fish on the ice. Lots of fun, and the kids enjoyed posing for their birding photos!

Nothing like a good case of scope eye to cure the late winter blahs!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Crossley ID Guide: Text Too Short?

So in my initial review of the Crossley ID Guide, I mentioned that the text for each species account seems shorter than found in most field guides. But the more I read, the more I wondered. There seemed to be a lot more there than I had originally thought. So I had to break out some other guides and do a comparison. As I suspected, there was a lot more in the Crossley ID Guide than I had originally given it credit for. Here's a comparison word count for each species account in Crossley ID and several recent field guides, including the new Stokes guide, the original Big Sibley, Kaufman's guide, the Smithsonian guide, NWF guide, and 5th edition National Geographic Society guide.

As this comparison should make it clear, the Crossley ID guide holds its own against the other guides, with only the Stokes guide coming in with a consistently higher word count per species, and Kaufman coming in almost always below Crossley ID in word count.

Here are the rankings by total word count for these hopefully representative species accounts:

Stokes 2811
Big Sibley 1591
NWF 1191
Nat Geo 1141
Smithsonian 1093
Crossley ID 1014
Kaufman 611

So while Crossley ID does come in below most of the other guides, the text isn't that much shorter. And since Crossley ID spends almost no words on descriptions of vocalizations, the amount of words spent describing the behavior and plumage of each birds is very similar to that found in most of the other guides. Note that though this count is skewed by the Red-tailed Hawk account, which is probably the longest in the Stokes guide, even without it the rankings remain about the same.

One finding of this quick comparison that shocked me was how much text is actually in Big Sibley--which I've also thought in the past was a bit spare on text. Turns out it has more text per species than almost all the other guides. Of course, the new Stokes guide is the most wordy. And I have to say, actually counting the words in the Kaufman guide made me like that guide even more--nothing like a spare, beautifully executed format and design to warm the heart--at least the part of my heart that I inherited from several Danish ancestral lines :-)

Ducks on Ice

Ice is starting to melt here in SE Pennsylvania and ducks are on the move! Spring is in the air! I spent a half hour at Peace Valley this morning, and saw several groups of Northern Pintail arrive or take off heading north. Most of the Lake Galena is still frozen, but the area near the dam has several acres of open water that had a lot of ducks:

Common Merganser 80
Northern Pintail 64
Ring-necked Duck 58
Mallard 25
American Wigeon 7
Black Duck 5
Greater Scaup 1
Bufflehead 1

Also lots of gulls--mostly Lesser Black-backed Gull (45) and Herring Gull (30) but a few Ring-billed Gull and a couple of Greater Black-backed Gulls in the mix, out on the ice itself.

(Photos shot with HTC Incredible phone, close up through my old Balsch & Lomb Discoverer scope)

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

GBBC This Weekend

It's that time of the year again, time to head out and count the birds in your yard or your favorite birding spot. Or spots. You can bird as much or as little as you like. Just make sure whatever you do that you report all the birds you find this Friday-Monday. It's easy as pie, just head over to the GBBC website to enter your bird sightings. Shout out to everyone who is working behind the scenes reviewing submissions, promoting the count, and especially teachers and parents who are taking kids out this weekend. Never leave a kid behind! It's the Great Backyard Bird Count!

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Crossley ID Guide

At long last The Crossley ID Guide is here! I'm not sure we've waited for this as long as we waited for the Sibley guide, but once word got out about Richard Crossley's project, we've been looking at his sample guide images online and wondering what the final book would look like. Well, it is finally here and there is a lot to talk about!

If you haven't already, you might want to watch Crossley's own intro video, where he explains what this book is all about.

So where to begin? Best to just jump in!

Size Matters: This is the largest "field guide" format yet. In fact it is closer to Audubon's Birds of America than it is to the old Peterson or Golden field guides in size. At 9.8 x 5.9 x 4.5 inches it is bigger than Big Sibley. Crossley ID seems almost designed to be impossible to carry into the field. In fact, it was. As Crossley notes in his Introduction, he "grew up in a British birding culture where you didn't take a guide into the field--only a notebook. You focused on the bird and wrote notes. This was the 'law' and, if you wanted to be taken seriously as a birder, you simply didn't carry a guide." Crossley's not about to encourage breaking that law. So this is an ID guide, not a field guide. Don't even think about putting it in your day pack. Leave it at home where it belongs. OK, maybe you can carry it in your car.

Format: As shown in the video, Crossley ID utilizes a different format than past field guides. Perhaps the best way to sum it up is in the Crossley's first statement in the Introduction: "I DON'T LIKE TEXT." In fact, the Crossly guide probably has less text per species than many other recent field guides (see how it stacks up in an actual comparison here). In this way it is the Anti-Stokes guide. Where the new Stokes guide has so much text that my eyes tended to roll back in my head, the species accounts in Crossley ID are so brief as to be almost sparse. But again, this is by design. This is an ID guide--a resource to teach birders how to see and identify birds themselves, rather than a compilation of field ID tips. This may be the most frustrating thing to some birders, but there is a method to the madness.

According to Crossley, what we all need is to become more adept at looking at birds. Not just memorizing or looking up field marks on birds after we've seen them, or as mentioned above, even worse, in the field. So what Crossley ID does is present the birds themselves. Lots of images of the birds--close up, far away, in good light, in bad light, sitting, flying, in all kinds of positions and in their native habitat. Then you, dear reader, are encouraged to explore the images on your own. Look closely and compare the photos, and become so familiar with the birds that you can identify them no matter where or how you see them. The ID approach isn't about field marks so much as it is about familiarization. You don't need field marks to identify a cow or a horse. Likewise, if you spend enough time looking at birds, you will be able to identify most of them just as easily. In fact, the plates in the book are set up to encourage you to spend time with the book, and it is probably more useful to do this before you go birding than it is using Crossley ID as a reference to look something up after you've been out birding.

I love this aspect of the book. I'll admit my bias here and say I'm not one to spend a lot of time reading field guides. Field guides are good for looking stuff up, but not necessarily great for studying. I especially don't like most photo guides for this--as the format of multitudinous and disparately colored background boxes with birds in them just puts me off. And long written descriptions just put me to sleep. Just get me the field marks and get me out of there, as clearly and quickly as possible!

But with the Crossley ID guide we can linger on each picture, read the brief captions which make up most of the text, and really get to know the birds.

In many ways, the Crossley ID guide is a throwback to the days when birders learned to identify birds by studying museum skins. But in this case, instead of rows of specimens to look at, what Crossley had presented are more like 2D versions of old museum dioramas, with each species getting its own diorama chock full of individual birds. If perusing the Crossley ID guide is by design more like birding than reading a book, it is even more like visiting a museum and checking out the dioramas. But instead of creepy looking stuffed birds, we get great images of living birds. Crossley has revolutionized museum dioramas as much as he has ID guide plates!

Most species get their own full page--but for less common birds, or birds that don't s how as much variation (or maybe birds Crossley doesn't have as many photos of?), several species share a page--but each with their own species box or diorama and accompanying photo caption. For the most part this works well, and is orders of magnitude more attractive than photo field guides that offer rows and rows of boxy pictures.

Photos: OK, so how are the photos? Amazingly, Crossley took over 99% of these photos himself (and we can all be jealous for how much time in the field that represents)! So there are more than 10,000 photos of over 640 species in the guide. Most of them are good to great. A few are only so-so. At least by conventional bird photo standards. But the brilliant Crossley has pulled a jujitsu move on us! Even the "bad photos" are illuminating! I was especially struck by some of the alcids and other water birds that appeared underexposed. The photos of Eastern Whip-poor-will are also so dark as to be almost ridiculous. But that is the beauty of it! How well are you really going to see that Whip-poor-will in real life? And how do you ID seabirds in bad light? Especially if you are like me and you use a vintage spotting scope rather than a newer scope that costs more than a used birding mobile?

So this is a book that has to be judged by a completely different standard. Instead of how beautiful are the photos (a standard the Stokes guide explicitly adopted), how useful are they? Since the Crossley ID format allows for so many more images, the sheer number of images makes this guide much more useful than a standard photo field guide. Since the photoshopped images allow the birds to be seen in closer proximity to each other, and in one continuous scene rather than in chopped and vignetted scenes from separately cropped photos, the eye and mind can much more quickly and easily and pleasurably examine all the birds. This makes the Crossley guide something completely different--a photo guide that is fun to look at for long periods of time. The Crossley guide is to old photo field guides what a top of the line roof prism binocular is to an old out of alignment pair of Tasco brand binoculars. You can use one of these all day, but the other one will eventually give you headaches!

One of the limitations of past photo guides is that there just isn't enough room to have enough photos to show birds in all different plumages or poses. Crossley ID goes a long ways towards rectifying that, though there are still some serious limitations based on space or, probably, the number of photos Crossley had available. For instance Crossley ID is just the latest photo guide to not show a young Northern Saw-Whet Owl, and we can never get enough shots of songbirds in flight. Hopefully future editions of this guide will get even better as Crossley gets more photos to fill in the missing shots we might want included.

Finally, it has to be said, that the habitat shots in these photos/dioramas are unique and deserving of comment. Most are fantastic (waterfowl, shorebirds, seabirds). Some seem strange (hummingbirds look like they are in miniature Victorian glass cabinets for sure!). Only a few seem to not work at all for me (not a fan of the Anhinga plate). Most are beautiful. Birds are tucked away everywhere, making an exploration of Crossley ID a birding version of Where's Waldo? Or wait, makes it actually a lot like birding! And there are so many crazy things tucked into the backgrounds. This has to be the first bird ID guide with habitat shots that feature girls in bikinis, fisherman, and grumpy old men! It would be fun to see how many of the actual landscape shots are identifiable by knowledgeable birders--especially those shots that don't feature the Cape May lighthouse (anyone count how many times that shows up in Crossley ID?).

Text: As I mentioned before, the text here is pretty spare. Not as spare as the Kaufman guide--but probably more spare than many birders may be used to. And there is almost no mention of bird vocalizations--which may frustrate some birders, but I found it refreshing for a field guide author to admit that written descriptions of bird vocalizations are almost worthless in most cases. There also aren't a lot of distracting bolded words in the photo captions--just a bold "ID" to separate the intro portion that discusses mostly behavior notes from the text focusing on plumage marks.

Did I say that Crossley hates text? He's not just saying that for effect. Even the ID portions of the species accounts are spare. Very spare. No list of field marks. Only the briefest of description. No going into inordinate depths about aging or geographic variation. This is not the book to get if you want to try and identify every bird you see down to the subspecies level (a tricky and usually not even feasible goal in most cases). But that said, the ID sections of each species often have more jewels per word count than many other guides.

The writing itself is fun. I really appreciate a guide that allows me to vicariously bird with the author. I've only seen Crossley in action once, back in the mid-1990s on Higbee Dike at Cape May. But reading Crossley ID is like joining him for an extended romp through the field. At random, I open Crossley ID to the Carolina Wren page where I read this--
Common and would be very familiar if it allowed itself to be seen. Usually found in dense tangled vegetation and trees, particularly near homes, but also more extensive woodlands. It's amazing how something so small can make so much noise you are sure to have heard it. A large repertoire of songs, calls, and scolds, cheery, cheery, cheery perhaps the best known. If you are not sure of a sound, it's probably this species. Skulks around, on or near the ground, tail nearly always cocked (straight when singing). Climbs trees nuthatch-like, often hanging pside down and entering holes. Inquisitive, it goes to odd places--garages, through the open window, under the car, in plant pots, and just about any nook it can get into: perhaps you have found one stuck somewhere. Sometimes bobs up and down. Hops rather than walks. Very aggressive, the yard boss.
How's that for character? This is just the first part of the species account, not the ID section. It is fun writing, but it also gives you a good feel for the bird itself--and for Crossley, behavior and personality are as much of a field mark as anything. So don't skip the text, even if you don't get a long list of field marks. If you get a sense of what the bird is like, that may be as useful as anything (just like Pete Dunne's species nicknames and descriptions of how each bird flies may have been the most valuable part of his Essential Field Guide Companion).

Parting Thoughts: There is a lot more to say about this guide, so I will have additional posts here for sure. In the meantime, a few random comments:

--Paper: I'm not a book engineer, but the pages seemed overly stiff in my copy, making it a little bit awkward to open and thumb through the guide. Not sure how much of this is paper vs. binding issues. Maybe something for the publisher to look at in future printings.

--"The Line Up": Inside the front cover there are small images of birds lined up in groups to help birders find them in the book. I like the idea, but somehow these birds look like they were cut out and pasted in rows by a school kid. I like how Kaufman has his intro birds visually grouped into different colored backgrounds--perhaps something like that could help out here as well. The 16 page visual index in the Introduction is similarly challenged--not as visually interesting or even useful as the old Golden guide sparrows or confusing fall warblers plates. Perhaps a redesign could make these pages more useful and interesting--though that is probably tougher to do with photos than paintings where birds can be posed more similarly.

--Maps: The maps seemed to be accurate and are another Paul Lehman production, so they are mostly pretty good. They use the old Golden guide color scheme, though the red for summer distribution is a bit too red for my taste--too ketchupy! Some of the maps seemed small or cramped (they are literally thumbnails), and visually I don't think anyone has surpassed the map scheme in the Kaufman guide. I particularly miss seeing migratory routes, as well as areas where each bird is more common or uncommon.

In conclusion, I think all birders would benefit from making a regular study of Crossley ID. Get a copy and start having fun with it. I'll have more to say about that later!

More Crossley ID Posts:
Crossley ID: Text Too Short?
Crossley ID Guide: Image Number Comparisons

(This review was based on a complimentary review copy provided by Princeton University Press)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Bird Man Cometh

If you read birding magazines you've seen this image before in Nikon optics advertisements. It's an iconic representation of Birder as Cosmic Hero. Hoisting his trusty optics as if mighty weapons, striding confidently on the edge of The Deep, The Bird Man--in this case Richard Crossley--might just well have come from slaying Leviathan.

It's an inspiring image for those of us who grew up in an age when birding wasn't cool, when we had to hide our bins when we went to the beach. But that's neither here nor there! As this image has been showing us in Nikon ads for a while, better times are here.

The Bird Man Cometh!

In this case, we are hailing the arrival of Richard Crossley's long awaited new field guide--The Crossley ID Guide. Crossley has been offering us glimpses of this work for over a year, and we've all been waiting expectantly. My review copy arrived in the mail today. So I anticipate having plenty to say over the next few days. Stay tuned. It's going to be fun. If you haven't ordered your own copy yet, you're going to want to for sure. There's a lot of field guides out there. I don't always say this, but this is one you aren't going to want to miss.

Hold onto your optics boys and girls. The Bird Man Cometh!

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Bird People

Do you remember back to before you were a birder? To before you were even a birdwatcher? Here I am with my sister on my way to grandma's house, feeding ducks at the city park in Bend, Oregon. I'm three years old. Not a birder. Not a birdwatcher. Let's call me a bird person. There might still have been hope for me back then. I probably liked my box of animal crackers as much as I liked the ducks--I actually probably thought more of the cookies!

Were you ever just a bird person? Did you like birds, but maybe didn't even think about them in any special way? You didn't try to identify them. You didn't make great efforts to watch them. But you liked them?

Did you go down to the local park to feed ducks?

If you did, you were a bird person. Actually, some folks would already call you a birder. When the 2001 U.S. Fish and Wildlife report on birding came out, it found 18 million Americans that year who had traveled a mile or more away from home to see birds and labeled them birders. What kinds of birds where they watching?

That's right, most of them were watching ducks and geese. Probably feeding them old bread, too!

But rather than call these folks birders, lets call them what they are. Regular folks who like to play with ducks. If they ever do more with birds, we might call that phase their protobirding phase. Someday. Meanwhile, we might call them bird people.

So when you see a line of geese headed through your neighborhood supermarket parking lot, like I did this afternoon, what do you think? Which of these are you?

Not a Bird Person: "Look at all those geese, somebody oughta get rid of them"
Bird Person: "I should run home and get your old bread"
Birdwatcher: "What are those geese doing?"
Birder: "Look at those #$%!@ feral geese. Stupid trash birds"

Now ask yourself--of these four folks, who's enjoying birds the most?

Ah to be a regular bird person or at least a protobirder again!

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Birds on Mars?

NASA image S13-01480 (original above, colorized below)

Some people see this as a giant geoglyph--a carving of a parrot--on the surface of the Argyre Planitia area of Mars. Proof of previous life on Mars, or just wishful thinking? Before dismissing their hypothesis outright, check out the serious work of the Cydonia Institute which is exploring this formation as well as other similar ones on Mars.

Kestrel Hunting Voles in Ultraviolet

Starts at about 4:45--watch how kestrels use their ultraviolet vision to track and hunt voles.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Name that Bird

Check out these bird head profiles on a building at the Late Classic Mayan city of Uxmal (about 850-1100 AD). You can see the long beaks (looks like trunks), as well as the eyes and mouthes (below the beaks). There are a lot of speculations about these birds, but we still struggle to know exactly what they are or what they represent. Scholars call this bird the Mayan Principal Bird Deity. Which just mostly means we are still trying to figure it out.

Birdchaser on

For the next little while I'm going to be a featured guest blogger over at birding social media site hosted by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the NRDC. You can check out my posts here, of course, but head on over to for more videos, photos, blogs, and other tools to help you enjoy and share your love of birds.
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