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Thursday, July 29, 2021

Great White Heron Chase in Philly

 For the past week or so, a Great White Heron has been hanging out on the Manayunk Canal in NW Philly about a half hour from my house. This morning I braved the traffic on I-76 and headed up there. I shouldn't have worried about parking, there was ample 2 hour street parking nearby, and I took the stairs down to the canal to look for the bird. I didn't have to even look for the bird, it was standing right there at the bottom of the stairs, twenty feet out in the canal, with a couple people standing their looking at it already.  Beautiful bird!

This is the presumed sixth occurrence of the Great White Heron in Pennsylvania, and a first for Philadelphia. Since 1973 it has been considered a subspecies of the Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias occidentalis), but many consider it to be a valid species (see note here). It is normally restricted to south Florida and the Keys, so a great bird to see up here in Philly.

So a great bird, but also in a great spot. The steps down to the canal were covered in mosaics and murals, and the canal itself is a scenic pathway next to the Schuykil River. A great spot to spend a few moments watching a great bird.

Back up in the neighborhood, I spotted a sign for tomato pie, which induced me to stop at Marchiano's Bakery. A half pie (an enormous 12x18 inches) was $9.25 so I was helpless to resist. Love me some tomato pie, a great Philly and NJ dish if you haven't had it, well worth a stop!

Good bird, scenic neighborhood, great food--makes for a nice urban birding adventure!

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Birding Providence

My house is right on Providence Rd, in the township of Nether Providence in Pennsylvania, so when I am yard birding, I am literally birding Providence.
Birding Providence

But that's not the Providence I'm thinking of this week, after some interesting birding experiences.  For centuries, Providence has been used as a name for Deity, or for the foresight or beneficial intervention of God.  No matter your theology about Providence (there are even naturalistic or atheist traditions addressing it), it is fun to ponder and consider the magic that sometimes happens in birding.  Here are two examples from just one day this week.

1) My wife woke me up at 12:30 in the morning because she needed help with something.  While I am a Latter-day Saint, I am no angel, and am especially grumpy after being awoken from a deep sleep.  But after I composed myself, I got out of bed and helped her for half an hour.  After that, since I was already awake, I decided I would listen to my NFC microphone recording in progress, to see what might be migrating over my house.  I fell asleep with the earbuds in, but was awoken again just after 3am by the distinct loud churr call of a King Rail migrating over my house.  This is a very rare bird in my county, with very few records after their local breeding habitat was mostly destroyed by a Philadelphia airport expansion project over 20 years ago. If I hadn't gotten up to help my wife, I wouldn't have put in the earbuds, and I wouldn't have heard this cool bird and added it to my year and county list. So that was very Providential!

King Rail CHURRR call, Nether Providence, PA

2) Later that day several of us were social-distance birding together at the Delaware River behind the Philadelphia airport.  One of my friends went home for lunch, and missed a pair of Least Terns, rare for the county, as they flew past us.  We commented on how sometimes we make the wrong choices.  He texted us a few minutes later, with cell phone pics of a Mississippi Kite, another rare and hard to find migrant in the region, that had just flown over his house while he was doing yard work! Maybe he didn't make the wrong choice after all!  Forty-five minutes later, I had the thought that I should let my friends in Haverford know about the kite sighting.  They went outside as soon as they got my text, and almost immediately saw and photographed a Mississippi Kite flying over their yard!  This was ten miles away from where the bird was first seen, and its impossible to know if it is the same bird--what would the chances be? And what are the chances that I would think to text them at the exact moment they would need to go outside to see the bird--a lifer for one of them?  And my birding friend that missed the terns?  He later rejoined us just in time to see a second pair of Least Terns fly by. Amazing! Providential!

Of course it doesn't always happen that way.  Sometimes we don't see the bird.  Sometimes we barely miss it.  But it happens often enough that whether you call it God or karma or whatever, magic like this happens.  Sometimes you think of an unlikely bird, and then see one shortly thereafter. Or bizarre "coincidences" happen to put you in just the right place at just the right time to have a completely unexpected, yet providential, bird sighting. That's one of the things that I love most about birding--the skill, hard work, luck, and dare I say Providence, that has to come together to find a bird you are looking for, or to discover one that you couldn't expect.

Birding Providence.  One of my great joys of birding.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

In Praise of the Sun

The sun, dominating the horizon during my first hour of Outdoor Church
I missed sunrise this morning, as I didn't get outside until 45 minutes later.  But during my 4 hours of Outdoor Church in the yard, I became increasingly cognizant and appreciative of my relationship to the sun.

During the first hour, with the sun low on the horizon, the local weather station was showing a temperature of 36F, but there was still frost on our cars.  I was constantly dancing with the sun, to get warm, to position my body so that I could better see the birds in my yard.  Eventually, the sun climbed higher, as did the temperature.  But I was constantly looking around the sun--avoiding looking directly at it, yet looking to see where its light was most effectively making it possible to see and identify the loons, cormorants, and other birds as they passed by (see my eBird list here).

It was a perfect Sun day.  And though we still have one day of the week that carries its name, we are a culture committed to severing ourselves from the sun.  We use subterranean fossilized sunshine for most of our energy needs.  We are Hadean, rather than Celestially oriented. Our daily cycle, dominated by artificial lighting, is less and less tied to the sun.  Even our calendar, once dominated by Moonths and the passage of the sun, is now more dominated by fiscal years and quarterly financial forecasts.  Past societies literally built their most prominent buildings to line up with the passage of the sun.  The sun is shining, but we mostly just use it as a light source for our outdoor entertainments.

But sitting in my yard, I ponder all the ways the sun still sustains us--all the plants in my yard, also dancing to best catch the sun's rays, all the birds, all the other life forms, moving in daily and seasonal cycles with the sun.  All my food that needs the sun to grow. Light, warmth, and comfort. As a birder, I dance with those birds, as they dance with the sun.

It was a perfect Sun day, as should be they all!

Thursday, April 09, 2020

Birding the COVID-19 Shutdown

The COVID-19 pandemic has killed many people and disrupted the lives of many more.  While it is a terrible tragedy and scary for all of us, I've been birding a lot from my yard as well as local hotspots I can get to without having to bump into too many people.  I've got my NFC station up and running, and have already had a couple of Virginia Rails caught on tape.  I am currently #1 on eBird for the Delaware County this year, and my yard list is currently #1 in the county and #6 in Pennsylvania.

Today I was looking for Horned Larks and American Pipits--two tough birds to get in my county.  No dice in a field where they were seen yesterday (and missed by me later in the afternoon), but I did manage to get a photo of a Vesper Sparrow that has been hanging out there.  And just as I was going to leave, a Wild Turkey wandered across the field--my first for Delaware County and my overall county bird #235.  So, yay!

Vesper Sparrow, Glen Mills, Pennsylvania

After the fields at Glen Mills, I headed down to check my local patch, the Delaware River behind the Philadelphia Airport.  My first Forster's Terns of the year were hanging out on the low tide sandbar until the local Bald Eagles put them up.  21 Wilson's Snipe in a ditch, and 13 American Kestrels hunting on the airport runways were high counts.  On my way home, an American Coot--surprisingly tough to see in the county, was bird #128 for me in the county this year.

My heart goes out to everyone who is suffering.  For those who are able, enjoy your yard birds or birds close to home.  Be safe, be healthy, be well!

Saturday, February 08, 2020

Ornitheology Seminar

Looking forward to my latest five lecture series coming up next week at Widener University--Ornitheology: Birds as Symbols and Messengers of the Divine.  Lectures will include:

  1. Introduction and Birds in Australian Dreaming and African Animism
  2. Birds in Shamanic Cultures
  3. Ancient Middle Eastern and European Gods and Birds
  4. Birds in the Abrahamic Religions
  5. Eastern and Southeast Asian Religions and Birds

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

My Top Birds of 2019

As we wrap up another year, time to take a last look back at my birding for the year.  I had some great birding in my home county, but other than that, I didn't get a lot of birding in elsewhere this year, ending with a very meager 282 species for 2019 (my worst total in recent memory).  But here are my Top 10.

10. Harlequin Duck--rare in Pennsylvania, a very enjoyable sighting of a continuing female bird up in north central Pennsylvania when I had to drive up to give a talk in Williamsport in November.

9. Black Scoter--rare for the county, was able to find a beautiful pair on the river behind the Philadelphia airport during spring migration.

8. Least Bittern--pretty easy to find at the John Heinz NWR within a hundred yards of Delaware County, was glad to finally get one on the Delaware County side.

7. Red-headed Woodpecker--not seen in the county every year, I was happy to find a nice adult bird at Heinz NWR in early May.
Worst shot ever of Red-headed Woodpecker, John Heinz NWR

6. Yellow-throated Warbler--at the top of my wish list for the year for Delaware County, after missing a few in 2018.  A singing bird was found at Ridley Creek State Park in the spring and I was able to relocate it and enjoy it singing one Saturday afternoon in May.

5. Ross's Goose--rare but regular in the region, managed to get one for my yard list by scanning huge flocks of migrating Snow Goose that I was able to see one day after hearing that birds were moving through the area.

4. Blue Grosbeak--after missing this new bird for me for the county a mile from my home while sick this spring, I managed to find a nice male myself behind the Philadelphia airport later in the summer.
Not easy to shoot a Blue Grosbeak against a blue sky!  PHL airport, Delaware County, PA

3. American White Pelican--another first for me for Delaware County, seen the evening before flying south over the county, hoped they might have put down on the river for the night and was fortunate to find them down there the next morning.

More bad shots of good birds, American White Pelicans on the Delaware River

2. Brown Booby--probably my best solo find of the year, a review species for the state, a bird flying up the Delaware River behind the Philadelphia airport back in the spring.

1.  Laysan Albatross--a bird I've wanted to see since I was a kid in Oregon.  Finally got several from land on the north shore of Oahu in March.

I managed to squeak out 201 birds for Delaware County this year, passing 200 for the second year in a row.  But after hitting 200 in September I just saw one more for the year.  Too much attention to other things in my life, not enough birding.

As far as life birds, I only got four new birds for the year, thanks to a quick conference trip to Oahu in March--Laysan Albatross, Sooty Tern, Japanese Bush-Warbler, and Yellow-fronted Canary.

Looking back on the decade, some modest but good birding across the country and around the world, with trips to the Netherlands, Spain (long layover), Germany (airport birding on a layover), the United Arab Emirates (so great), Mexico (several research trips), Canada, and New Zealand (gotta get back!).  I only got 160 new birds this decade.  I would like to be getting at least that many, if not ten times as many, each year!

So for the coming decade, I would like to do much more overseas birding, and see most of the scattered regularly occurring birds I haven't seen yet in North America.  I've been to almost 40% of U.S. counties, and would like to boost that up to over 60% as well (maybe more).  And I'd like to hit all the Canadian provinces and territories--especially Nunavut.  If we stay in Delaware County, it would be nice to get over 275 on my county list, I doubt we will live here for me to get to 300 (Al Guarente is the only person with that total for the county in eBird, achieved this year after a lifetime of birding hear--congratulations Al!).

Best birding wishes to all for 2020 and for the 2020s!

Monday, December 16, 2019

100th Glenolden Pennsylvania Christmas Bird Count

When you are supposed to be birding the river for waterfowl, and all you get is this.
Saturday was the 100th Glenolden PA CBC.  I woke up very excited to try and help the count get to 100 species for the day.  It was a little wet and drizzly, but I left at 5:30 to look for owls.  Long story short--after 17 miles of driving and playing owl tapes, no owls.

I started the day up by the PHL airport to check out the river on that stretch, and wait for low tide at 9:00am to see if any good gulls showed up on the tidal flat.  But the birding was very slow, there wasn't anything around, and after an hour or so fog rolled in and I couldn't even see the river.

That was the theme for the day.  Fog and no birds.  By 11:30 without being able to see the river, I was only at 31 species, far below the 50+ I was hoping for in my area, and ten below my best morning of scouting last week.  Since I couldn't see the river, I took a longer lunch break than I otherwise would have.  It was really pretty pointless.

In the afternoon, the fog continued, then about 2:30 it finally lifted.  I hurried to Marcus Hook to look for swans, geese, and ducks--got the geese but no swans and the wind and heat shimmer off the water made it impossible to identify most distant ducks on the water.  By this point I was racing the sun to scour the 10 miles of river back to the airport.  No real surprises, most of the river was bare, making me wonder if I should have just stayed at Marcus Hook and prayed for better looks at the ducks there.

I ended the day where I started, at my favorite spot behind the PHL airport.  60 Brown-headed Cowbirds flew in at dusk, and as I refused to give up scanning the river after sundown, I was able to see a Wilson's Snipe flying over the river in the gathering darkness to end the day at 44 species.  Much lower than I had hoped.

If I do this area again, depending on the conditions, I would probably start at Marcus Hook for the waterfowl first thing (the fog killed me!) and work my way upstream, rather than the other way around.  But the possibility of owls or other grassland birds at the airport is alluring as well, though a much longer shot.  Oh well, the joys and travails of a CBC birder!  I've been doing Christmas Bird Counts for over 35 years.  Each one is a challenge.  And a memory.  This won't be one of my best, but I put in my best and learned a lot more about the fragmented urban habitats in Delaware County outside of Philly.  This count has experienced several years of bad weather lately, better luck next year!
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