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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!

Thursday, December 12, 2019

REVIEW: Field Guide to Bird Sounds of Eastern North America

So I've been sitting on this review for over a year--a very worthy title that I want to do justice to, but have struggled with how to review.  Here's the short of it--this is a pathbreaking book, representing an amazing new effort in birdsound identification that I want to be successful, but one that I am still struggling with.

Donna at 10,000 Birds has a great review of the book here.  If you haven't read that yet, it's a great place too start.

Take a look at the sample pages--they show what a great design this book has, with spectrograms of most of the bird sounds of the 520 bird species normally found east of the 100th meridian.  These are made from the 5400+ audio files that accompany the book, found online at www.petersonbirdsounds.com.  Checking out this excellent website, you quickly notice that there are more sounds here than included in the field guide.  That's one of the first difficulties of treating a subject like this--there just isn't room in a standard bird guide to cover every sound one might hear out there.

I am very intregued by the system that Pieplow created to classify bird sounds.  Unfortunately, I haven't put in the time to learn his nomenclature, so I'm not sure how useful it is.  So this book creates a whole new way to classify and understand bird sounds--which is great on one level, but seemingly requires significant time and effort to learn and use.  Time and effort I haven't been able to put in yet, and am not sure I will ever get around to.

So I recommend this as an amazing resource, but would like to hear more from folks who have actually used it to learn and identify bird vocalizations.  What is the best way to use this book?  How have you used it to actually learn and identify birds?


Scouting for Suburban Philly Christmas Bird Count

This year for the Glenolden Christmas Bird Count I've inherited a 10 mile stretch of the Delaware River downstream from Philly, from the PHL International Airport to Marcus Hook on the Pennsylvania/Delaware state line (see below).

My Glenolden CBC area from Marcus Hook, PA (left) to PHL International Airport (right)

Over the past week, I've scouted out more small urban woodlots, marinas, petrochemical complexes, and abandoned industrial landscapes than I have in a long time.  So far I've found 50 species in my area, and am hoping for more during the actual count on Saturday (though projected rain may hurt).

Abandoned industrial facility, Marcus Hook, PA
So far my biggest take away from scouting--there just aren't as many birds as I would expect for so m much open space.  Is it just a surfeit of exotic vegetation creating bad habitat, or is something else going on?  We hear about declines in bird populations, and it is a bit shocking how thin the bird numbers are.  In a half mile stretch of road near this abandoned complex above, there were only 41 individuals of 12 species--pretty much all urban adapters.  I would have thought there would be more sparrows in all the brush, but it was pretty slim pickings.  

I love this time of. year when I get to explore usually marginal birding areas for potential habitat and lingering migrants or vagrant wintering birds.  So far I've found a lingering (Western) Palm Warbler near the base of the Commondore Berry Bridge and three late Pine Warblers in Marcus Hook.  Hope they stick around for the count on Saturday, and that I can find a few more goodies tucked away here and there in the habitat pockets of Marcus Hook, Chester, Eddystone, Essington, and Tinicum Twp!

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

Arrival of Fat White Jowled Americans

What is big, fat, white, American with big jowls?

Last night my friend Sheryl Johnson was watching the sky over Haverford College, hoping to catch sight of the shorebird flocks that pass over SE Pennsylvania at dusk on late spring days with south winds.  While watching the sky, she and her daughter and friends were surprised so see five American White Pelicans flapping south in the fading light about ten minutes before sunset (eBird report).

I lives about eight miles away and dashed outside on the outside chance that they might pass by my house.  But no dice.  Sheryl speculated that they might stop at nearby Springton Reservoir, or perhaps on the Delaware River.  I hoped they would put down at dark and that somehow I might be able to see them--since they've never been reported in the county before.

With sunrise at 5:30am, I was at Springton Reservoir at 5:20.  I scoped it out, but no dice.  By 6:20 I was at my usual vantage point on the Delaware River behind the Philadelphia airport.  Nothing was on the river close by, but then scoping downstream, I spotted five large white birds about 2.5 miles downstream!  I quickly threw my scope in the car and dashed down the the western end of the airport to get a better look.  Sure enough, there they were, our five American White Pelicans sitting pretty on the water in the early morning light!

First documentary shots of birds half mile away on the Delaware River behind PHL airport.

I had to get home to get my kids to school, but I grabbed a few quick documentary digiscoped shots and put word out on the local birding text alerts.  After other birders arrived, they reported that the birds were slowly drifting downstream, so on my way back to the river I decided to check out a downstream vantage point near Governor Printz Park in Essington.  Sure enough, there the birds were, much closer and in excellent light.  I put word out and several birders joined me to enjoy watching them float towards the western end of Little Tinicum Island.

Pelicans lounging on the river near Governor Printz Park in Essington, PA

Eventually they waddled up onto the shore, occasionally flapping wings and giving great looks until they were buzzed by a young Bald Eagle and took off heading downstream.


We watched them rise higher and higher, up over the Commodore Berry, heading west and out of sight.
American White Pelicans heading west about 9:20am after being buzzed by an eagle.

Up, up, and away!  Heading to Delaware downstream.

So great to be able to relocate these fat, white, jowled American birds--the first to be seen in Delaware County, PA--and to share the sighting with friends.  Life is good!



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