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Friday, December 30, 2005

Birds as Individuals

Julie's Hummingbirds have me thinking a lot more about birds as individuals. Check out photographer Harri Vainola's meditation and photos on this theme, as well as the classic Len Howard book Birds as Individuals (scroll down for discussion here). Makes me wonder, who exactly was that Carolina Wren tossing leaves on the ground behind my new house this morning?

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Julie's Hummingbirds

If you haven't heard the story of my friend Julie Zickefoose's hummingbirds, check it out at NPR. First, listen to the story of how she raised three baby hummingbirds here. Then, listen here to find out how they came back to her yard again the next spring. These are great stories illustrating just how close of a connection some people are able to make with some birds. After listening to Julie's stories, you may have a lot more questions about the birds in your backyard!

New Yard Birds

Over the past year, the birds that I've called new yard birds have been those sighted for the first time at my office on 160 acres of field and forest near Ivyland, Pennyslvania. Today, I my 14 new yard birds are actually my first sightings of birds at my new yard, a tiny lot behind a townhome that we are going to buy in Perkasie, Pennsylvania.

While getting the townhome ready for an appraisal tomorrow, I noted over 70 American Robins coming to a holly tree in the backyard. They were joined by a couple dozen Cedar Waxwings. When I stepped out onto the porch to see them, I noted several other species, including a Song Sparrow, Downy Woodpecker, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Northern Cardinal, and Mourning Dove. Its a tiny yard, but this new yard is adjacent to a wooded alley and a park on Perkiomen Creek. Lets hope these new yard birds are the first of many, many more to stop by our new home.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Five Crows

What kind of day is a five crow day? Today, five crows were the only birds I saw. They flew past this morning as I said goodbye to my inlaws outside in the driveway. The rest of the day I spent inside with the kids, recovering from the overstimulation of the holidays.

Most "real" birders probably wouldn't consider five crows a notable sighting. Crows are common. You could see five crows without even trying (like I did today). There is nothing sporty about finding five crows. Nothing worth noting at all.

Except when you start to wonder about those crows. Most likely, a group of five crows is a family group--probably two parents and their young. This time of year, the family group may consist of young from this year as well as a couple older young birds from last year--birds spending their last few months with the family before heading out to find their own territories.

Whether I know it or not, there is something going on with those five crows...they have a history, one that continues each day when they awake. The adults will probably spend the rest of their lives in short flying distance of my driveway. I may see them from time to time and just note two crows, three crows, or even five crows. My life may intersect with them at odd points in time as I happen to be in the yard as they fly by.

For most of us, these five crows could well symbolize our relationship with birds. Distant. Impersonal. We see them, and note them. Or not. But we really don't know them.

The sighting of five crows is an indictment. An admission that I don't know my local crows. A friend at work knows her crows. She can call them and they will come. She feeds them. Talks to them. Knows where they go and where they spend the night.

But for me, I merely note that five crows flew across the road and through the trees behind the row of townhomes on the other side of the street. They called...or at least one of them called...but I don't know what it was calling for.

Five crows. Living an ancient crow lifestyle amidst 21st Century humans and their technology. Knowing their business perhaps better than we know theirs. And for all I know, we may be less anonymous to them, than they are to me. Perhaps they know me as the guy who leaves early each morning in the red Mazda Protege, often returning after the sun has gone down.

Many of us barely know our human neighbors, let alone our neighborhood crows. But I, for one, vow to do better. To know my crows. And to be known by them as more than a passing figure in their life.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Holiday This and That

With family here for the holidays, birding has been spotty the last few days. Yesterday I did take off for an hour and hit Peace Valley. Over 7,000 Canada Goose and two dozen Lesser Black-backed Gulls were the highlight in the cold windy afternoon.

I went back there this morning with my brother-in-law from Dallas to show him his lifer American Black Duck. We dipped on the owls near the nature center, and didn't have enough time to pin down an American Tree Sparrow. Birding with time limits is a drag!

This afternoon, we caravaned down to Valley Forge and Amish country. At Washington's Headquarters, a nice Brown Creeper was working the lower trunk of a sycamore tree. While their habit of creeping up a tree and flying down to start over again has been much noted, the thing that struck me today was how insect-like the flitting flight was--almost like a moth as it flicked itself down the trunk and along a few branches. It's been a long time since Brown Creepers have been a regular part of my birding fare--they were hard to come by in Central Texas--so it was nice to watch one for a few minutes today before it moved on to another part of the park.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

One More to Go

This afternoon, as I took my bird walk at work, I saw a long-tailed rufous-brown bird fly low across an open space and land in a low tangle. Not much of a look, but good enough to identify it as a Brown Thrasher--a bird that should have migrated south earlier in the fall, and a new yard bird that I had just about given up on. That makes 109 for the year...with just one more work day left in 2005, can I find another new bird to reach 110?

A Two Owl Morning

Took the four year old and one year old birding this morning for a couple hours before work. At the bird blind at Peace Valley, a grey-phase Eastern Screech-Owl was sunning itself in the entrance of a wood duck box back by the pond. The four year old was able to get spectacular looks through the scope. The one year old...again, hard to tell!

Then we went for a walk to look for Long-eared Owls at a traditional roost site near the lake. Unfortunately, wasn't able to see the birds before two of them flushed from the pine trees and flew off, giving only fleeting glimpses as they winged off to another grove of trees. Not wanting to stress the owls anymore, and getting tired from carrying both a scope and the one year old, we moved on. The kids loved the dozens of birds at the feeders. Besides the owls, my favorite birds of the morning were two Horned Grebes diving in the distance at Lake Nockamixon.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Cold Morning

This morning I stood around waiting for a White-winged Dove to show up at a feeder here in Bucks County. For the last ten days, it has shown up at dawn to feed in someone's backyard. Today was the first day that local birders came to look for it (after the initial small party of confirming viewers), and the first day that it didn't come in for its morning feeding. Hard to know if it has moved on (its far, far away from its usual Texas and southwestern US range), shifted its routine, or succumbed to either the Cooper's Hawk or Sharp-shinned Hawk that we saw patrolling the yard this morning. A Red-breasted Nuthatch was working the trees in the yard, along with the more common juncos, cardinals, sparrows, chickadees, and finches. I wasn't ready to spend 2 hours in the cold, so got a bit more chilled than I was prepared for. Oh well. Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Arctic Ghost

This morning I kept my kids "home" from school to go searching for a Snowy Owl (that's Hedwig for all you Harry Potter fans) first found on Sunday about an hour away in Berks County (important for parents to instill a proper sense of priorities!). After driving around snow-covered fields for a couple hours, my four year old was getting hungry, pulled out a clump of my one-year-old's hair, and the subsequent screaming almost bagged the search right then.

After threatening to cancel our Burger King lunch plans if they didn't start behaving, we drove around some more. The four year old was really suffering, but he did suggest that God might be able to help us find the owl. So he said a little prayer, and we drove back to the place where the bird was last seen. Another searcher who had been there before us decided to call it a day and head back to Lancaster County. I scanned the fields one last time, then took a look at my map and noticed an area we hadn't covered yet on the way back to the main highway, and told the kids we were heading home.

Just as I was losing hope and looking for a place to turn around and head back up to the highway, I spotted the young Snowy Owl on the ground about 75 yards off the road. The eight year old and four year old were able to get great scope views of the bird. The one year old may or may not have seen the bird. Hard to tell with toddlers.

All in all a great morning with the kids, who can add Snowy Owl and Horned Lark to their life lists. That and the Burger King chicken strips make three good birds for the day!

Monday, December 19, 2005

Yard Bird #108

My friend Steve sighted a Red-breasted Nuthatch at one of the feeders here at work this morning. That makes it yard bird #108 for 2005. Interesting to note, is a cosmic kind of way, that yard bird #108 is the topic of birdchaser blog post #108. Freaky!

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

WatchList Bird

Audubon has a WatchList, a list of birds that are of greatest conservation concern. This morning, while driving over the bridge on the edge of our land at work, I saw what looked like a duck in the creek. After I pulled into the parking lot, I walked back down there and found four American Black Duck and two Mallard swimming with two Canada Goose in the unfrozen section of the creek. American Black Ducks are native to the Eastern United States, and have been declining in numbers for decades. Nice to see them this morning as 2005 yard bird #107.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

New Yard Bird

At the office this morning, my friend and associate Steve called up from downstairs that an American Tree Sparrow was at the feeders. I ran downstairs with my binoculars and got excellent close looks at an adult sparrow feeding on the ground in the snow and at the feeder. This is yard bird #106 for the year--and a beautiful rufous and brown bird that I don't get to see all the time. A good way to start the morning.

Saturday, December 10, 2005


Started driving up to Ithaca, New York in the dark on unplowed roads yesterday morning. Quite a harrowing experience! Eventually, the roads cleared up some. About 20 minutes out of Ithaca, a snow covered corn field held a flock of 45 crows, a couple dozen Rock Doves, and as they took off, I noticed a pair of Horned Larks in with them. Sapsucker Woods around the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology building were pretty quiet in the snow. Did see a couple nuthatches, chickadees, and a Sharp-shinned Hawk.

When I got home, I had a copy of Marjorie Adams' new book Bird-Witched waiting for me in the mail. Marjorie is a grand old lady birder down in Texas. I had reviewed her manuscript for UT Press, and she very graciously thanked me in her acknowledgement section. Glad to see your book finally in print, Marjorie. It was worth all your hard work!

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Bird Flu and Chicken Manure

Latest buzz in the bird conservation community monitoring bird flu is the possibility that the H5N1 virus is being spread to wild birds through the practice of feeding farmed fish on chicken manure. Apparently, this "integrated fish farming" is a fairly common practice promoted by the UN FAO, and could be a significant risk-factor in spreading viruses from poultry to wild waterfowl. There is a large state-owned fish farm on the south shore of Qinghai Lake in China, where there was a large bar-headed goose and other bird die-off due to H5N1 avian influenza this year. Researchers are trying to find out more about the aquaculture practices there to see if there might be a link between the farming operation and the local bird flu outbreak.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Merlin Monday

While taking my stroll through the woods and fields at work this morning, a nice dark Merlin came cruising in along the tree line, broke up a flock of Mourning Doves, and then perched on the top of a distant tree for 20 minutes to preen. A very nice welcome back to work present for a Monday.

Tree Sparrows with H5N1

According to a new paper in the Journal of Virology, H5N1 avian influenza viruses may be widespread in Tree Sparrow populations in Asia. Just goes to show that we should be testing more than just waterfowl for the presence of avian influenza viruses. There are thousands of different variants of the hundreds of different HN subtypes in thousands of different bird species. If we are to ever really understand these viruses, we'll need widespread testing of as many species as possible.

Anyway, the Tree Sparrow article is:

"New Genotype of Avian Influenza H5N1 Viruses Isolated from Tree Sparrows in China" by Z. Kou, F.M.Lai et al, published in the Journal of Virology, December 2005, p. 15460-
15466, Vol. 79, No. 24.

The 2004 outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 disease in China led to a great poultry loss and society attention. A survey of avian influenza viruses was conducted on tree sparrows (Passer montanus) collected in China in 2004. Four viruses were isolated from free-living tree sparrows. The results of the whole-genome analysis indicated that an H5N1 virus with a new genotype is circulating among tree sparrows. The hemagglutinin and neuraminidase genes of the new genotype were derived from Gs/Gd/96-like viruses and the nuclear protein gene descended from the 2001 genotype A H5N1 viruses, while the other inner genes originated from an unknown influenza virus. In experimental infection, all four viruses were highly pathogenic to chickens but not pathogenic to ducks or mice. The four tree sparrow viruses were different from the 2003 tree sparrow strain (genotype Z) in Hong Kong. The results suggested that H5N1 viruses might be distributed widely in tree sparrows.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Turkeyless Turkey Day

Last year for Thanksgiving, I took my kids out to see wild turkeys west of Austin. This year, we're visiting family in Lexington, Virginia. We took a drive in the long-shot chance that we could find a turkey (its open season on wild turkey here in VA, so the birds should be pretty much hunkered down). We drove up to the Goshen Wildlife Management Area and there were hunters all over so we didn't do much more than drive around. Dropped back down to the Douthat State Park, where we did get out and we all got pretty good looks at a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers working the trees near the lake. Not exactly a wild turkey day, but a nice sighting to be thankful for on this Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Global Bird Flu Tracking?

A new system was announced by the UN Convention on Migratory Species this week, but details so far seem to indicate that it is really just tracking migratory birds, not the viruses that they carry. We still need a solid plan for global monitoring of avian influenza viruses. The announcement this week that some of the ducks in Canada do have a low pathogenic variant of the H5N1 virus is more evidence that we have a lot to learn about the distribution and potential for spread of all of these avian influenza strains.

Meanwhile, there are also reports that live birds are regularly smuggled out of China into the United States. Smuggled domestic birds are probably a greater risk for spreading the highly pathogenic form of H5N1 than wild birds, both here in the United States as well as in Asia and Europe.

Great Office Bird Rush

On Friday, I took my normal bird walk a little later than usual...but as I got down to the corner of teh corn field, a small flock of blackbirds flew up. I followed them to their perch in a nearby tree, and noticed that there were three Rusty Blackbirds in among the Red-wings. Several folks at work had never seen Rusty's before, so for the first time since I got it last month, I found a good use for my cell phone!

Half the office were able to come down to the field and see the birds before they flew off. A couple other folks were on a conference call and couldn't make it out until later. Sometimes there just isn't enough time in a day of bird conservation planning to actually go out and see a good bird!

Don't Fear the Creeper...

So for the past month I've been looking to add Brown Creeper to my yard list at work, but these little guys can be hard to find. Yesterday, I went out to get something from my car, and on the way back to the house, a small bird flew onto the trunk of a nearby tree. It moved up the trunk in characteristic creeper fashion, and I got close enough to see that, yes, it was the little brown bird I had been seeking. Birds are great, often showing up at just the right moment!

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Birding Slow

Migration of land birds has really tapered off at work...morning walk today came up with 25 species, but nothing unusual. A Fox Sparrow was nice, and there are lots of chickadees and nuthatches using the feeders. Yesterday there were dozens of Bufflehead on Lake Galena at Peace Valley, so waterbirds are moving in. All the leaves are brown, skies are gray, and birds are moving on...

UK bird flu testing SNAFU

According to the BBC, last month's report of a parrot in the UK with H5N1 virus was a mistake. The positive bird flu virus test came from a mixed sample of tissue from a South American blue-headed pionus and a mesia from Taiwan. Apparently the mesia had the virus, not the parrot. More mesias from the same shipment ended up dying of bird flu in quarantine.

We've really got to do a better job of being careful with testing for H5N1 and other avian influenza viruses. Standard protocol right now is to mix samples from several birds--which can help identify if the virus is present, but doesn't give a precise (or in this case accurate) picture of virus in the bird population. If we are to figure out exactly which species has a particular bird flu virus, and how common infection is in a population, we can't be using pooled samples this way.

Monday, November 14, 2005

More H5N1 news from Kuwait

I've seen a private report out of Kuwait that the flamingo found there with H5N1 was one of several flamingos being held at a farm, and that the birds were imported ornamental birds rather than free-flying wild individuals. I'll report more on the origin of this bird if more news comes the meantime another reminder to be careful with media reports--in this case, hard to make a direct implication of wild birds in the transmission of H5N1 avian influenza to Kuwait.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Caution About Bird Flu from Korea

Birds Korea, the main bird conservation organization in Korea, is a source of interesting commentary on the current bird flu situation in Asia. Basically, there is just a lot that we don't know about the spread of H5N1 avian influenza, and these statements by Birds Korea highlight some of what we know and don't know about the virus--and makes the point that there are many other ways that the virus may be spread than through the migration of wild birds.

LPAI H5N1 in Italy

A report to the ProMed email list indicates that the wild duck that tested positive for H5N1 in Italy was carrying a low pathogenic variety of the virus, apparently not closely related to the highly pathogenic strains found to be killing domestic and wild birds in Asia. The duck was a young wild Mallard, killed and eaten by a hunter in the municipality of Mirandola, province of Modena, in the Emilia-Romagna Region.

This may indicate that low pathogenic (LPAI) versions of H5N1 are circulating in wild birds without causing illness in either wild or domestic birds. Widespread global testing of birds is needed to help determine the range of viruses and their effects in wild birds.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Lieberman's plan to monitor wild birds for avian influenza

Senator Lieberman has a proposed bill to create a Global Network for Avian Influenza Surveillance. It was included in the Harkin-Specter amendment aimed at combating the growing threat of bird flu to Americans. The Senate passed the amendment, and if it makes it through the conference committee, the bill will:

• Increase the efficiency with which we can detect, verify, and report on the presence of deadly viruses and other infectious diseases in migratory birds,

• Create a database that identifies the avian flu and other viruses of interest in migratory birds so that they can be shared in as close to real time as possible.

• Track mutations or changes in the virus in wild birds,

• Utilize virus tracking information to guide domestic and global preparedness.

This looks like just the kind of start we need to be able to monitor avian influenza and other viruses that may impact the health of people and birds.

H5N1 bird flu strain confirmed in Kuwait Canadian Television is reporting that a wild flamingo found on a Kuwait beach has tested positive for H5N1--the first confirmed case of H5N1 avian influenza in the Persian Gulf.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Bigger Avian Influenza Threat?

The widespread practice of reusing chicken manure as a fertilizer for fish farms, a practice promoted by aquaculturalists, may be responsible for transmitting H5N1 virus from infected poultry to wild birds. While we don't know enough yet about how widespread this practice is, and have mostly circumstantial evidence to support the case of viral transmission this way (the Mute Swan that died of H5N1 avian influenza in Croatia was found at a fish farm), there does seem to be a viable risk here to wild birds.

Again, there is a lot we need to learn about this virus and how it is transmitted. For now, transmission from wild birds seems to be the least of our worries (there haven't been repeated huge die-offs of wild birds in Asia, and no confirmed cases of domestic birds getting the virus from wild birds). Meanwhile, several outbreaks in wild birds may be caused by exposure to infected poultry, so poultry raising and marketing practices need to be more closely studied so we can get a better idea of what is really going on.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Sentries in U.S. Seek Early Signs of the Avian Flu - New York Times

A New York Times story from yesterday discusses plans to monitor wild birds for avian flu in the United States. We still don't have the full plan yet, but the article has a photo of researchers in California taking a sample from a Yellow-billed Magpie. Also mentions thousands of birds sampled in Alaska, including species not previously mentioned as test subjects, including owls.

Bald Eagle at Green Lane

This morning I went in to work late after accompanying my son on a nursery school field trip to Green Lane Nature Center in Montgomery County outside of Philadelphia. Lots of fun walking around in the woods, learning about traditional Lenape native culture. Mostly just the common forest birds in the area, but I did get to see one of the lake's breeding Bald Eagles fly overhead at one point. Its always a good day when you get to see an adult Bald Eagle.

H5 Wild Bird Flu In the United States?

The Recombinomics website reviews the latest info on the Canadian H5 avian influenza detections in wild birds, and speculates that H5N1 may be in the U.S. already. The crippling final line of the status report is:

"Based on the data from Canada, it seems likely that H5 is well represented in the wild bird population in the US. It is unclear why such infections have not been detected and reported."

While it is probably more likely that the H5 influenza found in Canadian birds is H5N2, which is a fairly common LPAI H5 virus in Minnesota.

The answer is, because we're not really looking that hard for avian influenza viruses. If we were taking thousands of samples from birds all across the country, who knows what we'd find. The question really is, how badly do we want to really know how widespread these viruses are in wild birds? Is it enough to just wait for sick or dead birds to start turning up in parks and golf courses?

While we wait for the U.S. national surveillance plan, we can only hope that we will be offered a long-term, widespread system to detect and track all avian influenza viruses in wild birds--not just a short-term H5N1 detection sytem that will only tell us, too late, that the a dangerous virus has already arrived.

Friday, November 04, 2005

New H5N1 monitoring suggestions from Israel

Dr. Reuven Yosef, Director of the International Birding & Research Centre in Eilat, Israel posted a note yesterday to the Pro-Med email list, with commentary on proscribed schemes for avian influenza virus monitoring in wild birds. The article reviews the migration pattern of bird species that may bring H5N1 bird flu to the Middle East from Central Asia. Most importantly, it recommends more widespread testing of apparently healthy wild birds:

"Further sampling should not be restricted to birds found dead or freshly hunted as suggested by existing action plans [WHO, EMPRES, EU surveillance guidelines, etc.], but instead be performed on a daily basis, from a wide range of species."


Thursday, November 03, 2005

Late Birds

This morning there were 25 species in the woods near my office--including a late Palm Warbler and Eastern Phoebe. The warbler was feeding on the ground in the short mowed grass near the corn field, bobbing its tail up and down in characteristic fashion. Little guy should be headed for the West Indies, I'd think.

More wild bird monitoring... be started in Indonesia after a pigeon tested positive for H5N1.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Hawk Induced Silence

This morning it was very quiet in the woods outside my office, probably because a beautiful adult female Sharp-shinned Hawk was on patrol, cruising up and down the tree line and over the fields. On most mornings lately, I've been seeing over 20 species of birds. This morning, only a dozen or so were out, and the woods were almost completely silent--only a couple of Golden-crowned Kinglets were calling and one Winter Wren was singing deep in a tangled thicket.

More H5 Bird flu in British Columbia

Yesterday, news reports indicated that officials in British Columbia had found H5 viruses in 24% of 704 samples from wild ducks. Further testing will be conducted to find out if these viruses are the HPAI H5N1 virus, or some other H5 virus. Since these samples were taken from healthy birds, it underscores the importance of monitoring healthy birds for flu viruses, and we have to remember that without testing, we have no idea of the true situtation in respect to the circulation of avian influenza viruses.

The San Diego Union-Tribune has a good news story on this, with more details about the testing of young ducks in Merritt, BC.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

President Bush on Monitoring Birds for Bird Flu

Today President Bush held a press conference to announce the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza.

The plan states that the government will "expand our domestic livestock and wildlife surveillance activities to ensure early warning of the spread of an outbreak to our shores" (p.7).

To do this, President Bush announced in his speech that "to strengthen domestic surveillance, my administration is launching the National Bio-surveillance Initiative. This initiative will help us rapidly detect, quantify and respond to outbreaks of disease in humans and animals, and deliver information quickly to state, and local, and national and international health officials. By creating systems that provide continuous situational awareness, we're more likely to be able to stop, slow, or limit the spread of the pandemic and save American lives."

Hopefully, this will be a long-term plan to monitor birds for more than just the current H5N1 strain of avian influenza, and will become a system for tracking the spread and evolution of all avian influenza viruses. But it probably won't.

In fact, this National Biosurveillance Initiative has been announced before (see overview here), but as part of the War on Terror. So, it remains to be seen how serious, comprehensive, and long-term this monitoring scheme will be. So far, no details about The Department of the Interior - H5N1 National Surveillance Efforts have been released.

Bird Flu Monitoring efforts in Africa

The Financial Express today has a story on African efforts to monitor for H5N1 bird flu virus--including efforts in South Africa and Egypt.

In South Africa, the paper reports that "agriculture officials have been conducting random sampling of wild birds along the country's coastline and monitoring the health of domestic poultry."

In Egypt, "George Majid, Egypt's environment minister, said the government had been taking measures in co-operation with the American Navy Research Centre (Namro), based in Cairo, to take samples from migrating birds and conduct laboratory checks to ensure Egypt was free of the H5N1 virus."

News services are claiming that H5N1 may already be in Africa (something I pointed out here earlier). The most recent statement to this effect is in this Financial Express article and comes from Bernard Vallat, director general of the World Organisation for Animal Health.

Of birds and memories

This morning, while taking a bird walk break at work, there were over a dozen White-throated Sparrows in the woods. Where I grew up in Oregon, White-throated Sparrows are rare winter visitors; most people would be lucky to see one at all, and active birders may see only a few each winter.

While watching the birds this morning, and listening to them sing their whistled song, I got thinking about the first one I ever saw. It was the day that my grandfather died. He had been in the hospital for a few weeks after suffering a heart attack, when he died on my grandmother's birthday. It was the middle of October, and the family gathered at my grandmother's house to celebrate her birthday and mourn the passing of my grandfather.

At some point, the whole scene was a bit too much for a teenager, so I went for a walk down to the creek with my grandparent's dog Poco. Some sparrows in the brush caught my eye, and I quickly saw that it was a White-throated Sparrow. Up until that time, it was one of the rarest birds I'd found on my own--a bitter-sweet moment on a day of tender emotions.

I don't think of that day every time I see a White-throated Sparrow, but it is always there, just beneath the surface. Every bird that we come to know has a wealth of associations attached to it...just waiting for us to enjoy if we take the time to remember. Just another way that birds enrich our lives, by connecting us to the important people, places, and events of our personal histories.

Bird Flu in Canada

A recent report out of Canada found 33 cases of H5 avian influenza in a national survey of wild ducks. Further tests will be conducted to identify the exact strain. Since the birds were healthy, researchers reported that they do not think the birds are carrying the highly pathogenic strain of H5N1. However, it is a misconception that ducks carrying H5N1 will appear sick.

While we will have to wait for further testing to see if the birds are carrying H5N1 for sure, H5 viruses of any type were previously thought to be rare in Canada. According to the Recombinomics website, "In Canada, there have been about 120 deposits at GenBank and only two are H5. One (H5N2) was detected in 1980 and the other (H5N9) was detected in 1966. Thus, there have been no H5 isolates reported in the past 25 years, although that is when most of the deposits from Canada were collected."

This nation-wide survey found 28 infected ducks in Quebec and 5 in Manitoba, and "will serve as a benchmark in future years". More information about the Canadian monitoring scheme can be found online here. . According to the operational proposal, so far the testing is just of Mallards and other wild ducks. Hopefully, future testing will include a wider range of wild bird species.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Wild Bird Monitoring Schemes for Europe

The October 21 issue of Science has a good news article highlighting continued debate about the role of wild birds in carrying and transmitting H5N1 avian influenza virus. The article refers to a proposal by Erasmus University of Rotterdam virologist Albert Osterhaus to create networks in Europe and elsewhere to test wild birds for the virus.

A related story in the same issue (subscription required) describes the work of virologists monitoring birds in the Netherlands, including Vincent Munster at the Erasmus Medical Center and Ron Fouchier. The story reports that the researchers have "applied for European Union funds to expand the network across Europe."

These researchers published an outline of this approach earlier this year in the journal Nature. They argue that,

"To obtain a better global picture of the threat posed by avian flu, it is imperative to investigate the virus in wild bird populations. Wild birds, particularly migratory ducks, geese and shorebirds, are the natural reservoir of influenza A viruses, which can infect other avian and mammalian species7. But information about flu in wild birds is still limited. A widespread and integrated approach is needed to understand the dynamics, epidemiology and pathogenesis of these virus infections in wild birds, and the potential routes of virus transmission."

They propose that
"the immediate duties of our proposed task force are fourfold. First, to gain insight into the global picture of flu, taking into account temporal and geographical variation of the virus, in the different species involved (wild birds, poultry, humans, other domestic animals such as pigs, horses and cats, and other wild animals such as seals, cetaceans and tigers). Second, to prioritize research and integrate knowledge of different disciplines on influenza virus infections. Third, to advance intervention strategies for animal outbreaks and human cases. And fourth, to translate knowledge into policy advice, emphasizing the integration of human and animal health strategies."

The also argue that surveillance and monitoring can help reduce not only the threat of an avian influenza pandemic, but also save millions of dollars, with an estimated cost of $1.5 million/year to establish and run the network, as opposed to the hundreds of millions of dollars spent each year to combat the spread of H5N1 in several Asian countries.

Wild Bird Monitoring In Singapore

According to the Gulf Times, agencies in Singapore are monitoring wild birds for H5N1 bird flu viruses. The story reports that the state-run Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA), as well as the National Parks Board "have an ongoing surveillance programme to test for avian flu in wild birds at reserves. Nets are set about at various locations in the early morning and late evenings. The AVA said it then collects blood and stool samples from the birds and tests them for the deadly H5N1 strain.
The tests have turned up negative to date."

According to the Wild Singapore Website, the AVA "now tests migrating birds twice a month instead of once during the migratory season of September to March."

The reports do not indicate which species are being monitored.

Africa Bird Flu in Financial Times

University of London Professor E.G. Nisbet commented in the Financial Times this weekend about the likelihood of waterfowl carrying H5N1 avian influenza to Africa. He mentioned Garganey as a possible carrier and transmitter of the virus, a possibility I mentioned here last week.

Friday, October 28, 2005

H5N1 High Risk birds in Europe

An EU press release from last month suggests that member states should enhance surveillance for avian influenza viruses in wild birds this winter. States are requested to identify species of wild birds presenting higher risk based on--
a) origin and migratory flyways,
b) numbers in the EU, and
c) likelihood of contact with domestic poultry

A provisional list of higher risk birds included the following 15 species: White-fronted Goose, Bean Goose, Mallard, Gadwall, Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler, Eurasian Wigeon, Common Teal, Garganey, Common Pochard, Tufted Duck, Northern Lapwing, Ruff, Black-headed Gull, and Common Gull.

As many of these birds are occasional vagrants to Eastern North America from Europe, if H5N1 becomes endemic in the European population of any of these species, there is a remote chance that one of these birds could carry the virus to North America during fall migration.

However, if H5N1 is to be carried to North America by wild birds, it is still more likely to arrive via Alaska, where populations of many more Asian birds cross over to nest in Western Alaska, and where populations of a few North American species (such as Sandhill Crane) cross over into Siberia during the breeding season.

Additional monitoring of live and apparently healthy birds is needed, and though this provisional list of higher risk European birds is a good initial guide for testing, the announcement today of H5N1 in a heron in Romania underscores the need to test additional wetland birds for the virus.

Mallards and Avian Influenza Viruses in Northern Europe

A study recently published by the CDC examines H5 and H7 influenza strains found in Mallards in the Netherlands and Sweden. Since many of the strains they found in Mallards were closely related to more pathogenic strains that caused outbreaks in Europe, the authors claim that "the minor genetic and antigenic diversity between the viruses recovered from wild birds and those causing HPAI outbreaks indicates that influenza A virus surveillance studies in wild birds can help generate prototypic vaccine candidates and design and evaluate diagnostic tests, before outbreaks occur in animals and humans."

Since low pathogenic avian influenza (LPAI) strains can become precursors to more dangerous HPAI strains, a proactive approach to avian influenza management would involve widespread testing of birds for all avian influenza A viruses, not just testing of sick birds for H5N1.

Monitoring for H5N1 in Israel

A USA Today story from yesterday has Yossi Leshem, an ornithologist and director of the International Center for the Study of Bird Migration at Latrun, claiming that their six banding stations are not enough to effectively carry out surveillance for avian influenza H5N1 virus in Israel. According to the article, Leshem stated that "at least a dozen additional banding stations are necessary."

If at least 18 banding stations are needed to keep an eye out for H5N1 in the small state of Israel (20,840 square miles), how many stations would be needed to find and track the virus in the United States (3,537,441 square miles)?

The pressing need for widespread and extensive monitoring of avian influenza (and other zoonotic viruses) is a challenge and opportunity. Will we build a one-time wind-gauge to find and identify H5N1 when it comes to North America, or will we create a system of continual, long-term monitoring that will help us track emerging viral storms for years to come?

Avian influenza stories

I've recently been quoted in a couple avian influenza stories, the latest on the National Geographic website.

That article slightly overstates the risk of H5N1 transmission from wild birds in Africa by stating that "many" birds that may carry H5N1 are now arriving in Africa. More correctly, "some" birds that may carry H5N1 are now arriving in Africa. While many birds "may" have the virus (we need more testing), only a few birds nesting in central Asia (where the virus was found in wild birds this summer) make it all the way to sub-Saharan Africa. Of the species found infected in Asia that make it to Africa, the most likely candidate for virus transmission may be Garganey (see my post below)--though still no direct evidence that this species is carrying the virus out of Asia.

At the end of this article, Gary Allport did a good job describing the migration and potential threat of transmission from wild Mallards.

The second article is a press release put out by the Wild Bird Feeding Industry. Lots of interesting info there for people worried about getting bird flu from bird feeders or birds in their backyards. The skinny on that is: no real threat right now, but wash up after potentially coming into contact with bird droppings.

Bird Flu test results from Alaskan wild birds

According to the latest report, no H5N1 found in Alaska. But only 290 of 4,500 samples have been screened so far. Lets keep our fingers crossed.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

H5N1 bird flu already in Africa?

An interesting report from last year found that ostriches in South Africa were testing positive for antibodies to H5 virus. However, apparently the virus they had been infected with was H5N2, not the H5N1 virus that we are currently worried about birds carrying to Africa. How many other birds in Africa have already experienced H5N2 infections, and how will that impact their ability to withstand potential future H5N1 infections? Have birds with H5N1 already reached Africa in past years? Unfortunately, we know very little about the extent and distribution of H5 infections in birds. Since the first H5 virus to be detected (H5N3) was from a tern in South Africa in 1961, some forms of H5 virus have apparently been in Africa for as long as we've known about them.

With media speculation about H5N1 being carried to Africa by migratory birds, there has been little discussion of the exact mechanism for this to take place. Mallards, which have been shown in the lab to be able to harbor and transmit some H5N1 genotypes without showing signs of infection, are found in marshlands in North Africa, but are not as common throughout the continent. Most Mallards in Africa are also probably from Western Europe, where the virus is not yet thought to be widespread.

Garganey, a small Asian teal, may be a more likely candidate to carry H5N1 to Africa. While the virus has been found in a Garganey in Russia, it is not known how extensive the virus is in Garganey populations, or how well these birds are able to withstand, carry, and transmit H5N1. If these ducks are able to carry and transmit the virus along their migratory route, they may carry it to Africa, where large flocks spend the day on large lakes and move into rice fields to feed at night. Garganey in Africa reportedly stay well clear of human settlements, so they may not pose an immediate health risk to people, but if they can transmit H5N1 to other local birds, there may be a greater risk of the virus spreading to other birds and even humans.

These are a lot of ifs, but in order to gauge the possibility of H5N1 spreading in Africa, monitoring of Garganey flocks might be a good place to start.

But for real effective virus monitoring, we need a global commitment to widespread surveillance of all wild birds.

Goose and Gulls

Last night I stopped by a pond near my home to see a Greenland race Greater White-fronted Goose in a flock of 60 Canada Goose. This is a fairly rare bird in this part of the world, and has arrived a bit earlier than most reports. The bird is smaller than a Canada Goose, with bright orange legs and beak. Fun to see something walking around your neighborhood that spent this past summer in Greenland.

At work this morning, I finally found 2005 yard bird #103--three Herring Gulls flying over with a flock of 86 Ring-billed Gulls. Still hoping to have a Lesser Black-backed Gull fly through sometime this year. The best place in North America to see Lesser Black-backed Gulls, an uncommon bird in most of the Northeastern United States is Peace Valley Park a few miles from here.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

US Plan for Bird Flu Testing

Bloomberg has a story about the U.S. plans to monitor birds for the arrival of H5N1 in North America. The article reports that ten species have been tested in Alaska--Pacific Black Brant; Emperor Goose; Northern Pintail; Steller's Eider; Rock, Dunlin, Western and Sharp-tailed Sandpipers; Black Turnstone, and Bar-tailed Godwit. Birds considered for testing in the Eastern United States include Canada Goose and Snow Goose.

While its good that a range of birds are being tested, the testing may not be wide enough to find other avian influenza strains in other species--a concern since the virulent strain of H5N1 probably developed in the bird markets of Hong Kong when genetic material from a quail virus combined with material from a duck virus. If other bird species carrying other virus strains become infected with the current H5N1 virus, further mutations may arrise that prove deadly to additional species.

The UN Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (Bonn Convention) has called for
--global surveillance of avian influenza in wild birds,
--regulation of animal markets--
--suspension or restriction of the global wild bird trade
--improved standards in poultry farms
--identification of precise migratory routes of waterbirds and the highest risk locations along different flyways

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Bird Flu in Wild Birds

I've been working overtime trying to keep up with the latest news about H5N1 bird flu in Asia and Europe. The latest updated statement from National Audubon is here.

More and more evidence is coming in of wild birds being found infected with H5N1, increasing the possibility that wild birds may be spreading it from Central Asia to Europe. However, since domestic ducks can also transmit the virus without showing signs of infection (see abstract of latest study here), legal and illegal movement of domestic ducks is another potential source of virus transmission that we may not have a good handle on.

Latest reports of wild birds with H5N1 include Mallard, Garganey, Great-creasted Grebe, Green Sandpiper, and Coot in Russia, Bar-headed Goose and Whooper Swan at Erhal Lake in Mongolia, and a boat intercepted off the coast of Taiwan held an illegal shipment of cage birds out of China that included mynahs, a black-naped orioles, and Chinese nightingales infected with H5N1. Whooper Swans have also tested positive for H5N1 in Croatia and Romania. Right now, most testing for H5N1 occurs when sick birds are found. That's a good way to help confirm H5N1 outbreaks, but does little to help understand where the virus is, the full range of species it is infecting, and the risks of transmission to other domestic and wild birds.

What we really need is a comprehensive, systematic, and long-term program to survey avian viruses in multiple species across the globe. Checking for viruses only when we find sick birds is like taking a wind speed reading during a hurricane--valuable info, but not as valuable as the ability to track, predict, and prepare for a hurricane when it is still at a distance. Right now, there is a potential hurricane of avian influenza--but we don't have a good idea of when and where it might strike. We don't know how many bird already have H5N1, where those birds are, and what other avian influenza strains are out there that it might swap genes with.

Imagine hurricane predictions without doppler radar. That's just about where we are at with avian influenza tracking right now. Researchers in Alaska are testing waterfowl for the virus, including Steller's Eider, Emperor Goose, and Northern Pintail. Canada has started a system to survey mallard flocks for avian influenza viruses--but what about other waterfowl and shorebirds species? With more reports of Passerines (song birds) testing positive for H5N1, maybe we should be testing more widely? A United States Interagency Working Group is working on a plan to test for H5N1 across the United States in response the the current threat--but what is needed is a longer-term plan to not only test for H5N1, but to track all avian influenza strains. We don't just need a way to track this influenza storm, but future storms as well.

More New Yard Birds

A Palm Warbler, an Orange-crowned Warbler, and a White-crowned Sparrow were new yard birds at work on Thursday. Lots of migrants were found in the region, with heavy movements caught on radar each night this week. Rain this weekend is keeping me in, but should be good time to look for migrant ducks--including scoters--on local lakes. Winter is coming, but lots of birds on the move.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Bird Flu

One of the fun things about living with birds is that sometimes we even share the same germs. In the case of avian influenza, this has become somewhat of a problem, with millions of people around the world starting to wonder, in some sort of Hitchcockian fashion, if birds are going to kill them.

The good news is that so far, most people are at very little risk from avian influenza or "bird flu". While the virus is spreading towards Europe, there is little evidence that wild birds are spreading the virus. And the virus is not easy to catch from birds, and is even harder to catch from other humans.

For a statement on the relationship between wild birds and avian influenza, with some good links, see this statement by the National Audubon Society.

New Yard Birds

After a week of rain, it let up a little this morning so I took a walk around the office (160 acre farm) and found a couple new birds for my 2005 yard list. The most expected was a Great Blue Heron. These are common in the area, and we even have a creek on the property, but so far this is the first one I've seen here this year. It was merely flying overhead and didn't stop.

I also found a Winter Wren down in a tangle of multiflora rose, but the best bird was a single Rusty Blackbird. These birds are becoming much more rare, they're population has plummeted. According to recent analysis of Christmas Bird Count records, Rusty Blackbirds have experienced a 5.2% annual decline, a total decline of 86% over 39 years, a loss of nearly 13 million Rusty Blackbirds since 1965/66. They breed in the boreal forests up north, and winter in the SE United States. This one was probably just moving through. Nice way to start the day.

Rusty Blackbirds have a variable plumage depending on age, sex, and time of year. A photo of a bird that looks like the one I saw this morning is online here.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Pine Run

Stopped by Pine Run on the way to work this morning. 23 species, including a nice juvenile Bald Eagle. Otherwise just the common local stuff, though Canada Goose numbers are increasing as we get closer to winter (over 500 there this morning). Still 11 Pectoral Sandpipers on the mudflats. For gull fans, 2 Lesser Black-backed Gulls were joined there this morning by 9 Ring-billed Gulls.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Honey Hollow

This past weekend I took my three kids for a morning of salamander catching in the creek at Honey Hollow Education Center here in Bucks County, PA. The kids enjoyed turning over rocks and catching larval red-backed salamanders and small crayfish--as well as the green frog I caught. For me, I also enjoyed my first Pileated Woodpecker I've seen in Pennsylvania, as well as a furtive Winter Wren. The woodpecker let out with its insanely wild call (listen here) from nearby as we were playing in the creek, and I got a fleeting look as it disappeared through the trees. Not a great sighting, but a neat wild experience nonetheless.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005


This weekend I had the feeling that I should finally check out Pine Run, a small pond east of Peace Valley that attracts shorebirds. Monday morning, on the way to work, I stopped by and found a juvenile American Golden Plover and a few other shorebirds. When I got to work, I saw on the Pennsylvania birding email list that a Red-necked Phalarope (12th record for the county) was seen there all weekend. Ouch! I would have spent more time looking there if I had known it was there. Apparently it was seen later in the day yesterday as well.

This morning, on my way to work, I spent an hour scanning the mudflats and didn't see the phalarope. The plover was still there, as were 29 Pectoral Sandpipers, 3 Semipalmated Sandpipers, 8 Least Sandpipers, 1 Greater Yellowlegs, 1 Lesser Yellowlegs, 24 Killdeer, and 2 Spotted Sandpipers. One of the Semisands looked suspiciously like a juv. Red-necked Stint, but got away in the early morning light before I could get the best look. Sometimes, birds get away.

I didn't check the very northernmost part of the lake because it was muddy and obscured by trees--if the bird is being seen up there, I'll have to go back and risk the mud.

There are some great grassy areas above the pond, with lots of sparrows. Walking through it, I couldn't help but wonder if it might be a good place for a Northern Wheatear to show up. I look forward to getting to know the place much better.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Deep Twitching

Last week, Sheri Williamson and I slipped out of an Arizona Audubon meeting for a couple hours so I could go see my first White-eared Hummingbird at Beatty's Guest Ranch near Sierra Vista. While discussing stereotypical bird listers that don't care about conservation (we both emphatically denied being such crass listers), Sheri mentioned that what we needed was some new concept of Deep Deep Ecology, something that gave more conservation substance to our love of chasing after new birds.

This past week I've thought alot about Deep Twitching, and maybe something like Deep Listing, or even Deep Birding. Towards that end, I propose an initial rule for Deep Twitching:

Only birds reported to a larger citizen science bird conservation project can be counted.

That goes for life birds, state birds, county birds, yard birds...whatever. They only count if they are entered into a bigger data set that can help guide conservation planning. If you just write them in your book, the birds don't count.

And the good news is that with the brand new release of eBird 2, Audubon and Cornell Lab of Ornithology have just made it easier than ever to Deep List. You can now keep track of your Life, State, County, and Yard (or any other location) lists online at eBird. Just go to

enter in your location, click a couple boxes, and in less time than it takes to read this message, you can report all the birds you've seen so far this morning.

The new, improved eBird2 lets you see all your sightings, all your lists, as well as maps of everyone else's sightings. By reporting all your sightings here, your data isn't lost in your notebooks, it goes towards helping chart the distribution and abundance of the birds in your yard, county, state, and the whole country...

..which makes your sightings eligible for Deep Listing!

And here are some great ways to encourage Deep Listing with eBird:

--Get backyard birders to enter their backyard sightings.
--Get nature centers or refuges to keep their sightings online
--Have all competitive state, county, or ABA listers submit their lists
--Have a contest to see who in your Audubon chapter or birding club can submit the most lists in a year...the most sightings...visit the most places in your area, etc.
--See how many of your club members can submit the most historical sightings from their old notebooks

Use your creativity. Get folks fired up. You don't have to have an ABA list of 800+ to be the best Deep Lister. But you do have to enter your bird sightings.

Check out the new eBird 2. Its fantastic. And can be a great tool for your local bird conservation efforts.

What if everyone in your local area regularly reported to eBird the birds in their backyard? The interesting birds they see on the way to work? All the birds they see at the local state or city park? You could then use eBird to generate maps of bird distribution in your area...and seasonal abundance checklists, or...

What if when the next Big Real Estate Development comes to your community, and you want to do something about it--and you actually have real data on local bird abundance and distribution from eBird to back you up in your attempts to influence a zoning board, county board of supervisors, developer, etc.

Let me be the first to take the Deep Twitching pledge...
I will only count bird sightings that are entered into eBird or some other citizen science database!

While that means that my ABA list has just dropped down to 206 species and my Texas list has only 1 (shameful!!) species (as of this morning)...its just a matter of time before I get my old sightings entered into eBird so my Deep Birding lists will grow.

Deep Twitching...more than just an obsession!

Friday, September 16, 2005


In Mexico, the Chupacabra ("goatsucker") is an evil monster stalking the night. In reality, goatsuckers are a family of nocturnal birds that include the Whip-poor-will. Out west, the most common urban goatsucker is the Common Nighthawk--when I lived in Austin, Texas, these birds were commonly found hunting for insects by flying around parking lot lights in town. Out here in Pennsylvania, they are much less common and mostly seen during migration, so I was pleased to see one flying over the fields behind my office after work earlier this week.

September in Arizona

Southeastern Arizona has some of the best birding and most wonderful scenery in the United States, so I didn't complain when I had to attend a couple meetings there earlier this month.

Driving from Tucson to the Audubon Research Ranch near Elgin, I was able to pick up a couple new birds--Rufous-winged Sparrow and Botteri's Sparrow. While most people aren't interested in little brown birds, these are some very cool creatures. Rufous-winged Sparrows live in the Sonoran Desert, and are threatened by habitat destruction. I was able to find three of them singing in a dry wash off a dirt road, but road equipment and the sound of nearby housing construction made me wonder how long the birds would be able to persist in the area.

Another fun sighting were the pair of Burrowing Owls sitting on the top of tombstones in the cemetery next to the San Xavier del Bac Mission on the Tohono O'odham Nation just west of Tucson. This is a well-known location for seeing these birds, but while I was walking along the road there, a couple tribal policeman told me it wasn't allowed, so I wasn't able to stay long. I had been told not to enter the cemetery, but apparently birders shouldn't even walk the area.

The Audubon Research Ranch is a great place where I was able to spend the night. Acorn Woodpeckers, Botteri's Sparrows, and Cassin's Kingbirds were some of the fun birds there, and I was able to start my morning off there with a nice male Vermilion Flycatcher. Hundreds of studies have been published from research conducted here on the ecology of desert grasslands--its a fabulous place where I was also able to see a stock tank filled with tadpoles and emerging baby spadefoot toads.

I was able to slip out of meetings in Sierra Vista for an hour to visit Beatty's Miller Canyon Guest Ranch, a well-known hummingbird Mecca, where the high-point was a stunning male White-eared Hummingbird, a Mexican species that can regularly be found here but almost nowhere else in the United States. Thanks to Sheri Williamson of the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory for accompanying me to this place and introducing me to the hundreds of hummingbirds swarming about the feeders there.

Another highlight of the trip was spending my birthday on the top of the Chiricahua Mountains near the New Mexico border--pretty much the only place north of Mexico where the Mexican Chickadee lives. I was able to find several of these little gray, black, and white birds in the Douglas-Fir forests 12 miles up a dirt road in country that looks a lot more like Montana than typical conceptions of Southeastern Arizona.

But my happiest birding moment came on my last day in Arizona. On my way back to the airport in Tucson, I stopped for a couple early morning hours in Scheelite Canyon on Fort Huachuca, where I hoped to find Mexican Spotted Owls. This is the best-known place to search for these birds, and since I had missed Northern Spotted Owls several times as a kid in Oregon, I was really hoping to find these birds. After hiking almost a mile up the canyon, the guidebook said that the birds most often roost in the righthand canyon fork, and only infrequently use the left fork. However, I had a strong feeling I should take the left fork, and after a couple hundred yards, I was rewarded with a sighting of two Elegant Trogons--a very cool tropical species that nests in the mountain canyons here and throughout Southeastern Arizona. I hadn't seen these birds yet on this trip, so I thought I was getting a great reward for following my hunch to take the left canyon fork.

As I started back down out the left fork of the canyon, I suddenly looked up towards the canyon wall and there was a gorgeous Spotted Owl sitting in the open about 30 yards away. It sat there for 10 minutes, mostly sleeping but occasionally looking around, until I had to leave it there in the early morning sunlight. It was a magical moment in an enchanted place. The drive back to the airport and the plane ride back to Philadelphia were merely a blur after finally seeing one of these great threatened birds.

Hither and...Yawn

For the last few weeks in August I traveled to meetings in Midland, Michigan, where I pretty much didn't see any birds. Then I flew to Utah to pick up my family and drive to my sister's wedding in Oregon. The week in Oregon and Utah was mostly for family, without any real serious birding. However, it was good to see a few birds from my childhood, including a pair of Vaux's Swifts--small aerial insect eaters closely related to the Chimney Swifts of the Eastern U.S.--that buzzed over my parent's garden while we were setting up for the wedding reception.

In Utah, I mostly spent time with family and helping on the farm, but did get up Logan Canyon for an evening hike with the family, where we did see a pair of American Dipper--a great little bird that feeds on insects it catches while walks underwater along the bottom of fast-moving mountain streams. They are named for their habit of bobbing or dipping up and down as they stand on rocks above the water.

Another fun bird to see were the flocks of White-faced Ibis all over Cache Valley. these long-legged wading birds nest in the Great Basin and spend their winters farther south in Central America. In late summer, flocks of adults and young birds are all over Cache Valley feeding in wet fields and the marshes west of Logan.

August in Maine

For a week in August, I helped put on an Audubon Chapter Leadership Seminar on Hog Island, Maine. Very cool place, with lots of Common Eider and Black Guillemot swimming around the numerous lobster traps in the bay. The highlight of the week was a daylong boat trip out to Eastern Egg Rock, where Stephen Kress (head of Audubon's Project Puffin) first restored populations of Atlantic Puffin by bringing young birds down from Canada and placing puffin decoys on the rocks to lure adult birds back to breed.

We got great looks at about 40 puffins as they swam around the island, perched on rocks, or flew right past us on the boat. It was late in the season and we were worried about missing them before they head out to the North Atlantic for the winter, but these birds looked like they weren't going anywhere. Very enjoyable to watch as we circled around and around and around the island--getting greener and greener bobbing up and down while trying to look through binoculars. We also saw may terns on the island, and I got a pretty good, though distant, look at one flying Roseate Tern--an endangered species that nests on the island.

Heading back from the island, I told some folks that I really wanted to see a storm petrel, so despite being a little bit queasy from bobbing up and down on the water, I started scanning the water. Within a couple minutes, I was able to spot a small bird flying low over the waves in the distance. It turned just right so I could see the oval white rump on the otherwise dark bird, as well as the characteristic storm petrel shape--a nice Wilson's Storm Petrel.

Great birding, great food (lobster, duck, clam pasta sauce...), good company--a fantastic week.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Dog Days of Summer

Birding has been a bit slow these last couple of months, as I've been focussed on work and writing my doctoral dissertation on urban bird conservation. Most days, I only manage to see a couple bird species as I go to and from work...or more likely, I just see Mourning Doves on my commute, and am lucky to hear a couple other species as I get out of the car at work. This morning, several American Robins flew up out of the lawn as I got to work, and a White-breasted Nuthatch was calling behind the building.

However, the most important observation this morning was that first slight cool scent of fall in the morning air. I'm sure there are many hot days ahead, but that first feeling of fall came today...meaning autumn is just around the corner. Shorebirds have been migrating south for over a month, and landbirds are starting to move as well.

And they aren't the only ones on the move. I'll be doing a lot of traveling in the next month myself--Maine, Michigan, Utah, Oregon, Arizona, so birding opportunities are looking up.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Birding With Cub Scouts

This past Saturday I took two dozen cub scouts and parents birding at Peace Valley Nature Center in Doylestown. The kids had to find 10 species for their scout requirement, and we started off packed into the bird blind. In the 45 minutes we were there, almost everyone got to see at least 10 species, including American Goldfinch, Northern Cardinal, Mourning Dove, Red-winged Blackbirds, Common Grackles, Brown-headed Cowbirds, Downy Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Gray Catbird, Blue Jay, House Finch, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, and Tufted Titmouse.

Then we walked down to the bridge at the end of Lake Galena and found another 10 species or so...including great looks at Great Blue Heron, Green Heron, Mallard, Barn Swallow, Bank Swallow and flyby Turkey Vulture, Cooper's Hawk, and Red-tailed Hawk.

The kids had a good time, as did the adults. I don't think most kids these days get to see this many birds in their entire time growing up, unless they can get someone to show them around. Hopefully the kids will go back and see more with their parents, or pay closer attention wherever they go. You never know what will happen when you open someone's eyes to nature. At the very least, they had a good time, learned a little about the world they live in, and found something interesting that didn't have a computer chip in it. Not bad for a morning of birding. I also had all three of my kids there, and it was a reminder that I need to take them out more as well.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

This and That

Saw a nice female Wild Turkey on the bypass access road on my way into work early one morning this week. Otherwise, pretty quiet. An American Robin is nesting in a tree outside my office. I could hear baby Blue-gray Gnatcatchers calling from another tree during lunch today.

While birds have been fairly quiet here in PA, I've been having good bird conservation discussions at work...but have been struck recently by the irony of spending all day in meetings or at a computer, creating strategies and programs to save birds--talking about birds all day--but not actually seeing many birds or being in regular contact with them.

For me, and many others, the primal experience of watching and interacting with birds is the most important and valuable experience. However, seeing birds doesn't save them and doesn't protect their habitat. My work, while not always placing me in close contact with birds (though often closer than if I was working in an office park cubicle), actually helps save birds and their habitats. That in itself is also enjoyable. But not as much as being with the birds themselves!

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Goose on the Loose

The past few days, a Barnacle Goose has been hanging out at a pond in a housing community a few miles north of my work. I stopped by on my way home from the office yesterday, and the goose was easily seen in company with two Canada Goose. Unlike the bird at Peace Valley this past winter, this bird clearly had a magenta plastic aviary band on its right its an obvious escape and uncountable by ABA birding rules.

Despite its origins, a neat little goose. Easy to see why someone would want to own one. Harder to imagine how anyone could let one get away.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Screech Owl Webcam

This morning I watched a family of Western Screech-Owls from West Lynn, Oregon (across the river from where I grew up as a kid) on a webcam. Best times to watch are at night (Pacific Standard Time). This morning, an adult came in and fed the young, then a nestling poked its head out of the nest hole and called for several minutes. It is a new era for natural historians, as technology like this provides unprecedented access to the family lives of birds.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Orchard Orioles

Lots of good birds going through my area. This morning there were over a dozen Orchard Orioles in the trees along the creek behind my office. Also singing was a migrant Alder Flycatcher and several Wood Thrush. Nothing like birds singing to make one happy to be alive.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Artificial Bat Cave

Lots of Eastern Kingbirds and vireos moving through the yard at work today, but the star was a Little Brown Bat hanging from the ceiling of our little portico. We have a bat house up on a tree, but this little guy seemed to prefer the roomier comfort of the yard fixture.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

New Yard Birds

Migration is starting to ramp up, and this morning I got several new birds at the office, bringing the 2005 yard list there up to 67 species. New this morning were Philadelphia Vireo, Yellow Warbler, Spotted Sandpiper, and American Redstart. Gray Catbirds were everywhere--calling, singing, chasing each other through the tangles and underbrush. Fun to see them so abundant--growing up in Oregon, these were more secretive and local breeders along mountain streams in Eastern Oregon. In Central Texas, these guys were fairly secretive migrants that could be easily overlooked most years if you didn't spend enough time along brushy creeks or rivers. Fun to see these guys in top form.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Kenn Kaufman interview in Grist

Birding hero Kenn Kaufman gives a great interview with Grist magazine about birds, birding, and our efforts to protect them. While I'm typing this, Wood Thrushes, Baltimore Orioles, and Warbling Vireos are singing outside my window here at the Audubon Science Office in Ivyland. Dozens of Blue Jays are moving through as well and there are warblers down along the creek. Hope everyone has a chance to follow Kaufman's advice and get connected to the real world as birds are streaming north across the continent!

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Its Alive!

Scientists shocked the world this morning with the announcement that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, presumed extinct for decades, has been rediscovered in the forests of eastern Arkansas. When I heard the news on the radio on the way into work this morning, I started to tear up. This is the biggest news in American bird conservation in my lifetime. As one of my friends commented to ABC News, "its like finding Elvis".

Science Magazine article, including video documentation of the bird, online here. Additional info about the continuing efforts to save the birds are at

Friday, April 22, 2005

A Good Walk Not Spoiled

During lunch this morning, I found another new yard bird for the year--a couple of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, tiny little birds that flit around in the trees constantly hunting for small insects.

Lots of birds were singing today, and I heard far more birds than I saw. To give a taste of the diversity easily found in half an hour within 1/4 mile of my office, here's the list:
Wild Turkey
Canada Goose
Mourning Dove
Belted Kingfisher
Northern Flicker
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Carolina Wren
American Crow
Carolina Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Northern Cardinal
White-throated Sparrow
Chipping Sparrow
Red-winged Blackbird
Brown-headed Cowbird

However, the star of the day wasn't a bird at all, but a little guy who is often eaten by Wild Turkeys, owls, hawks, and crows--a Red-backed Salamander that I found under a rock. Since it was a cooler day, with a bit of a drizzle, I thought it would be a good salamander finding day, so I started turning over logs and rocks and found this guy under a hefty 30 pound rock in the woods along the creek.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Redcoats and Red-tails

This weekend we drove up to Boston for Patriot's Day. During the re-enactment of the Battle of the Bridge at Concord, a Red-tailed Hawk flew up into a tree above the minutemen at their end of the bridge. I wasn't the only one who noticed, as several nearby brought up their cameras to get shots. Interestingly, Red-tailed Hawks are probably more common now than they were during earlier eras, as farmers shot them as vermin for many, many years dating back to colonial times. Other birds seen during the re-enactment include a pair of Mallard and a lone Herring Gull.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Birds and Windows

What kills 5% of the bird population (1 billion birds) in North America each year? Plate glass windows. Birds see trees and sky reflected in them or a possible opening through which to fly, and crash into the glass and die of brain injuries (more here). It's a very serious problem, and today I had two experiences with the issue at work.

Last week I noticed a dead Mourning Dove on the window sill inside the barn where I park. I thought someone had found it and placed it on the ledge, but today I went and looked and could see the impression of feather dust on the window where the bird crashed into it. Apparently, the bird had been feeding in the open barn and tried to fly out through the bright window, only to crash and die on the spot.

Sometimes birds see their reflections in the window, and when they are feeling territorial, may attack their reflection. This afternoon a co-worker called me down to watch a Northern Cardinal repeatedly crash into the window of her office. The bird would perch in a bush near the window, look at the window, and fly directly at its reflection, falling to the ledge before hopping back into the bush and starting over again. While I'd heard about this behavior for years, this was the first time I'd actually seen it.

Both these behaviors can be reduced by cutting down the reflectivity of glass windows. It can easily be done with screening or by placing dots every 2 x 4 inches across the outside of the window (hawk or falcon shapes on the window don't really do it unless covering the window every 2 x 4 inches like the recommended dots). However, as long as people enjoy their clear window views, anything to break up the view is hard to sell. Interestingly, if bird populations were the stock market, how long would we accept 5% declines each year? Indeed, how long can we?

Birding as Performance

One of the difficult things to convey through a blog is the performance aspect of birding. We all love to watch people who really know their stuff and can perform, whether through sports, the arts, etc. It is fun to marvel at their skill and enjoy their prowess.

When I grab a photo of a bird I've seen off the web to display and link to on this blog, I get the nicest one I can quickly find. The bird often fills the frame and gives a good sense of what it looks like. When I'm birding, its fun to get a killer look like that. But part of the fun of birding is to be able to identify a bird when you get nothing like a good view. To a novice, it can be simply amazing to see someone identify bird after distant bird by sight or even sound. As an expert, it is fun to do perform in this way.

Case in point was my latest yard bird yesterday, the cheeky little Ruby-crowned Kinglet. This is a tiny little bird with a huge red patch on the top of its head that it can hide or flash at will--usually when it is agitated. The photo you see here shows the patch well. However, the bird I saw today was 50 yards away, high in a tree, and I couldn't see much of it at all. I barely saw the white bars on the wings and the general size and shape. I was only able to identify it because I've seen thousands of them and know how they move and act. Its fun to be able to identify birds by these brief glimpses (more fun than writing about it!).
(photo:© Chris Carvalho

Thursday, April 14, 2005

The Quest

Not totally satisfied with my looks at Lawrence's Goldfinch earlier in the week, I tried a couple more times to get a better view. On Monday, I didn't have time to drive all the way up Mines Road, but stopped at numerous places along the lower portion of the road. I didn't find any Lawrence's Goldfinch, but lots of Lesser Goldfinch. Also many Golden-crowned Sparrow (photo left), a bird I hadn't seen the day before. These small birds nest in the Pacific Northwest and winter farther south, so these were winterers. At one point I had almost a dozen sparrows in one bush.

Tuesday afternoon I had a little bit more time, and drove up all the way to The Junction on Mines Road where I had seen the goldfinches earlier. While I was walking around the small volunteer fire department building, a small bird flew up into a bush from a wet spot on the ground--a nice female goldfinch. Then a gorgeous male bird flew up from the water as well and I watched them for a few minutes as they preened, stretching their yellow-barred wings. Killer looks from less than 20 yards away! Mission accomplished!

Also near The Junction, at the sage flats near a cattle guard, were at least 4 Sage Sparrows. These are Bell's Sage Sparrows, a subspecies that some authorities consider to be separate from the more interior Sage Sparrows. The birds were chasing each other around and singing from the tops of the bushes. Very cool. I also got good looks at Nuttal's Woodpecker, another California specialty, and heard its almost kingfisher-like call once as a bird flew in to a nearby tree. What a great area for birding, awesome birds and wonderful scenery.

Monday, April 11, 2005


I'm at a conference in Pleasanton, CA for a few days, and took a few hours after the conference this evening to bird Mines Rd south of Livermore (birding guide and map here). Absolutely beautiful drive on winding roads through the foothills.

Nice to see some birds that I haven't seen for many years, including several species that only live in California--Yellow-billed Magpie, California Thrasher, and California Towhee. Oak Titmouse and Acorn Woodpeckers were additional treats, as was a female Phainopepla.

The real object of my search was Lawrence's Goldfinch (photo above), a small seed-eating bird that breeds only in CA and Baja California. Very cool little bird, and one I've never seen before. Finally, at The Junction, I got a look at three of these birds in flight...not the great look I'd like, so will probably try to make it back up there to get better looks, but my first sighting of these great birds.

California poppies are blooming, and meadows are covered with small yellow flowers. A thirty mile drive on a winding mountain road was just what I needed today to rejuvenate the soul.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Bird Stroll

This afternoon during my lunch I added three more office yard birds for the year--Black Vulture, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, and Chipping Sparrow. Birds are really on the move in this nice 70+ degree weather. Fun to watch this afternoon was a female Eastern Bluebird checking out the nest boxes in the yard. Sparrow numbers were way down today, wonder how many of them have headed north in the big migrations seen on radar the last couple nights.

Birds and Radar

David La Puma has a great website up charting bird migration as seen on NEXRAD Radar. Flocks of birds heading north show up on this radar, and one way of enjoying bird migration is to watch how the flight varies across the country and from night to night. There have been some great flights the last couple nights in the Eastern US. David has links to sites so you can do your own "radar ornithology" or you can just check out his daily updates. Very cool. For more info on "radar ornithology", check out the Radar Ornithology Lab at Clemson University.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Birding with The Force

Sometimes things happen that make you feel like you are actually in tune with the world around you. This morning, as I drove over the bridge that crosses the creek on the border of our office property, I thought I saw a Wood Duck floating in the water. When I got down to the creek with my binoculars, I could see that it was really just a stick. However, just as I got back to the office, I happened to turn around and see a male Wood Duck circle overhead and drop down to the creek. No way to explain how that happened, but somehow, something amazing allowed me to connect with this stunning bird.

The Wood Duck was a bird I had expected to see on the property, and was 2005 yard bird #39. Later, during lunch, I went for a walk along the creek and found 2005 yard bird #40--a lone Yellow-rumped Warbler. Been a long time since I've seen one of these by itself, usually wintering birds are found in small flocks.

A beautiful day with temps in the low 70s. Flowers are starting to bloom. Spring is in the air.

Fish Hawk Comeback

Last Thursday I had to go to DC for some meetings and afterwards we went out to several spots along the Potomac River, where Ospreys were visible at almost every stop. At Occaquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, which is just over one square mile in size, we saw 7 Osprey at the same time, and four nests. Amazing since only a few decades ago, these birds were almost wiped out by DDT.
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