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Friday, December 29, 2006

My Local Patches in Birder's World

Birder's World this month has guides to two of my local birding patches--Hornsby Bend near Austin where I wrote my master's thesis on the birds and sewage ponds, and Peace Valley Park five miles from my house here in Pennsylvania. These are two hot spots where I've spent a lot of time. Does that make me hot?

The Other Guys

Birder's World has just published The Other Guys, Auburn University ornithologist Geoffrey Hill's report of his Florida Ivory-billed Woodpecker search. I heard Hill and Mennill give their presentation about the search at the North American Ornithological Conference in Veracruz this past October.

A couple of notes on this article:
Hill reports on the Arkansas search started when "a kayaker spots a woodpecker in Arkansas in the inter of 2004." While this has become the official story, others have noted that Gene Sparling, the kayaker, was aware of an earlier report of Ivory-bills in the area by 1999 Pearl River IBWO searcher Mary Scott. So, the Arkansas report is not an independent report out of the blue by an anonymous kayaker, but the continuation of a crusade to find IBWOs that started in the Pearl River.

It's also clear that Hill was looking for IBWOs in Florida because he had just heard a few weeks earlier about the Arkansas sightings and he was "longing for an Ivory-bill search" of his own. So again, the Florida sightings are not independent, but rather came from a search inspired by reports from Arkansas, that fueled expectations that IBWOs were in Arkansas and perhaps elsewhere, just waiting to be found.

Their first sighting was of a flying bird by "novice birder" Brian Rolek. An hour later, Hill alone heard a double-knock. While Hill writes that "I left the area that weekend intrigued but a long way from convinced that we had found Ivory-bills." OK, that may be the official story, but as a birder, I wonder if there was more going on. We've all had the experience of missing a rare bird seen by others. This is frustrating, but never so frustrating as when someone you are with sees the bird and you don't. When that happens, your brain gets a little crazy. You really, really want to see the bird. Does that impact your judgement? Fuel your expectations? Did that impact this search in Florida? Hard to tell, but you have to wonder.

At the very least, Hill and Hicks were back the next weekend. What were they expecting to find? How anxious were they? Did they have cold clammy palms? Having chased lots of rare birds, I can only imagine how keyed up I would be if I really thought there was a bird as rare as the IBWO out there, and that I had almost seen it the week before. I would be very, very determined to get the bird!

So Hill and Hicks are out looking for the woodpecker that their associate saw the week before, and Hill thinks he may have heard. Hicks sees a bird fly. He describes it as a picture perfect IBWO--except he didn't see the bill. Its perfect. Is it too perfect? It sounds good. But brief view, with high expectations, can be a recipe for disaster when looking for a rare bird.

At this point, the whole team is surely convinced that IBWOs are there on the Choctawhatchee. Everything now becomes a search for evidence to support their claim. All doubt seems to have vanished. Was enough critical judgement expended to judge those two quick sightings?

The rest of the article goes on to detail their continued search for evidence of the woodpeckers. Not really a search for evidence, because they already think the birds are there, but a search for proof that the birds are there. We all know what they came up with...some interesting sound recordings, a couple more quick glimpses of birds that look like IBWOs, some large holes in trees, and bark scaled from trees. Lots of trees have large holes in them, and Pileated Woodpeckers are known to scale trees. The sound recordings? Who knows what are making those? But its impossible to prove that they were made by IBWOs. The thirteen sightings are all brief glimpses of flying birds--a tough sell to birders critical of brief rare bird sightings.

"The Other Guys" are out there again this year, with help from Cornell. Hill is "confident that we will succeed" in finding the IBWOs. It won't be long before the whole world will be able to judge that confidence for themselves.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Rarest bird I've seen all year

Today I was able to see a bird that has a wild population of less than 300 birds, a pair of Waldrapp or Northern Bald Ibis. This isn't a North American bird, its a North African bird. Today I saw a pair when I took my kids to the Philadelphia Zoo. According to BirdLife International, there are an estimated 227 individuals in the wild, though there are over 1,000 in captivity.
This species has undergone a long-term decline and now has an extremely small range and population. Numbers are currently increasing, partly due to management actions and consequent improved breeding success. However, this improvement in its status in Morocco is very recent and the species may still be undergoing a continuing decline; in Syria its population appears to have declined dramatically in the past 20 years. The species is therefore retained as Critically Endangered because of its extremely small population undergoing continuing decline.

While I prefer birding to looking at birds in the zoo, zoo's are great to get you close to some very unusual birds and other animals. Today we got to hear the howl of a Humboldt Penguin. My kids got to race back and forth with five giant otters. We watched an American Crocodile slowly exhale bubbles through its nose underwater, a very active beaded lizard stretch and display, and have a king cobra follow our moves through the glass of its cage, and interact with dozens of other species. I've never been so close to a two-toed sloth (two feet, with no intervening glass, I could have touched it!)

The Philadelphia Zoo is great in that it has displays that allow you to get very close to many animals, including within inches of great cats. A small group of us were gathered around a Mountain Lion today when all of a sudden it perked up and totally fixated on something outside of its cage. We turned around to see what it was looking at, and there was my two year old playing in the bushes twenty feet away. Wow! We'll have to watch her when we go camping out west!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Keeping hummingbird feeders from freezing

The following tip comes from David Tracy, posted to the OBOL email list. David has a rare Costa's Hummingbird coming to a feeder in freezing cold Bend, Oregon. So, if you live where it gets cold, but want to keep a hummingbird feeder out (because who knows what kind of rare hummer you could get in the winter), here you go:

If you want to keep your feeder defrosted like one of the pros, go to
the local plumbing supply store. Not Lowes or Home Depot, they will only give you a blank stare. Here in Bend try Searing's on N.E. 2nd street. Invest the $8-10 for a clamp-on light fixture that looks like this (photo here).

Plug in a 125 Watt Infra-red light bulb, but don't get the red-glass type. Get an I.R. bulb with clear envelope, it casts a more natural light. Hang it using the adjustable, integrated clamp so it points at the feeder from one or two feet away. This is the way plumbers defrost frozen pipes. I plug mine up to a timer so it comes on an hour before sunrise and clicks off an hour after sunset.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Christmas Bird Count

Yesterday was the Upper Bucks Christmas Bird Count. I had a challenging area to cover--basically 5 miles of a major road between Quakertown and Coopersburg, with a mile of farm roads, commercial development, and subdivisions on either side. It was a beautiful day, sweater weather, but the birding was slow. I ended up with only 36 species after driving 82 miles and hiking about 2 miles. With no really accessible public land in this area, it was mostly roadside birding. Highlight was probably a Marsh Wren in a small cattail marsh behind a movie theatre, and American Tree Sparrows and Swamp Sparrows in an abandoned field/stormwater detention basin next to a Kmart. Not exactly a day in the wilds, but fun to explore birdlife on the urban fringe.

Postscript: I just got an email from Bill Etter, the count compiler. Turns out this is only the second Marsh Wren to be reported on this count since it started in 1968, the only other sighting was in 1992. So, looks like my strip mall birding really paid off this time!

Saturday, December 16, 2006

New eBird mapping tool rocks!

If you haven't seen the new Google mapping tool in eBird, its time to give eBird another look.

In the past, it was fairly easy, but still a bit cumbersome in eBird to add new sightings from new locations. Either you had to use the slow mapping tool, or open up something like Google Earth and toggle back and forth to add latitude and longitude readings from Google Earth into eBird.

No more. Now you can add new sighting locations very quickly using the new Google mapping tool directly in eBird.

The other day I had a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker fly up onto a tree while I was in my car sitting at a light. I never reported it to eBird, even though it was my first of season sighting, because it was just a little bit inconvenient to go through the three minute process to set up a new sighting location in eBird.

But yesterday, with the new mapping tool, I was able to add the new location and report my sighting in less than a minute.

So, if you've struggled with adding new locations in eBird in the past, give it another look. Its fantastic and easier to use than ever.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Conservation Through Birding

I've recently taken on the ownership/moderation of the Conservation Through Birding email group. There have been a lot of good discussions there over the last few years about how to get folks interested in conservation through their interest in watching birds. Check out the archives for lots of good ideas from some of the best birders and bird conservationists in the country, and join us for future discussions.

Has it really come to this? has declared the Ivory-billed Woodpecker "rediscovery" in Arkansas as one of its Top Ten Junk Science Moments for 2006. CBS has picked up on the theme, listing the Ivory-billed debate in its story on feuds and frauds in recent science. Perhaps this isn't the best day for my friends at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

NPR on Bird Flu

An NPR story today reviews the latest paper indicating that poultry may pose the greatest risk of transmitting H5N1 avian influenza to the United States. While NPR usually does a decent job of reporting, this bit had me in stitches:
If the avian flu did reach the United States through wild birds, some say the virus wouldn't necessarily devastate the poultry industry, because chickens are usually raised in sealed barns. But growing numbers of chickens are now raised as free-range poultry. By law, free-range birds must spend part of their lives outside, where they can mingle with wild chickens.

Wild chickens. Now that's scary!

Birdchaser on Audubon Website

Links to my blog posts about the Hog Island Audubon Leadership Camp are online here. I'm planning on another great week in Maine this summer. Great food, great birds, great place! If you are an Audubon chapter leader, why don't you join us?

Thursday, November 30, 2006

I and the Bird #37

For the latest best posts in the world of bird blogging, I and the Bird #37 is online here.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

To Bird, or Not to Bird

This weekend, birders found a LeConte's Sparrow in a weedy field near my house. Dozens of birders have been there each day since then. Everyone has seen it. Except for me. So far, I have chosen not to chase it (photo:Howard Eskin).

Moment of full disclosure. I've seen hundreds of LeConte's Sparrows in Texas--so I do not need to see this as a life bird. Also, though I've lived in Pennsylvania for almost two years now, I am not actively pursuing a Pennsylvania State List. And though I do keep a Bucks County list, I haven't had a desire to really given it as much attention as it would need to be taken seriously. So, my bird listing interests are not as high as they have been at other times and places in my life. Given that, any other reasons I may give for not chasing this LeConte's Sparrow may be suspect to anyone who has other birding priorities.

That said, my biggest concern about chasing this bird is that it is a small shy bird that feeds on the ground in tall grass. The only way to see it is to stomp around in its habitat until it flies, and hopefully lands where you can see it. If it flies and lands on the ground again, you have to keep chasing it and making it fly until it lands up on top of a weed or somewhere else where you can get a good look at it. While I don't have a problem with doing this to a bird once and a while, with dozens of people chasing this bird every day, I have to wonder about the negative impacts that chasing this bird might have.

According to the American Birding Association code of ethics, the primary concern of birders should be the promotion of birds and their environment. Birders are to "avoid stressing birds or exposing them to danger" (1b). Birders are also supposed to "stay on roads, trails, and paths where they exist; otherwise keep habitat disturbance to a minimum" (1d). While it isn't my job to be the birding ethics police, I do not think that it is possible to see this bird without violating these two parts of the birding code of ethics.

Some have told me that, what the heck, the damage is already done. Others are already stomping around in the grass. The bird is already being chased. We might as well all get in on the fun. This is the tragedy of the commons, the idea that as long as a resource is being exploited, we might as well get our due share. The "everyone is doing it" defense doesn't make me feel very good.

Others are claiming that the bird isn't being disturbed too much. Maybe just for a few minutes at a time over the course of the day. While the bird is only being seen that often, I'm not so sure that that it isn't being disturbed more often.

After the furor dies down, I'll probably wander over to this place to see if the bird is still around. I'll be interested to see how much habitat damage has been done, and will continue to puzzle over the ABA birding code of ethics. While its not easy to sit out a bird chase in your own neighborhood, its a bit easier to do when you aren't too worried about missing a bird for a precious list. Would I be so hesitant to chase a bird and join in a group habitat trampling exercise if the bird were an Arctic Warbler or Painted Crake, rather than a bird I've seen hundreds of times?

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Turkey Day with the kids

Thanksgiving morning we were busy getting ready to have company over, so we had to postpone our annual Wild Turkey search until Friday. Last year we dipped on Wild Turkeys near Lexington, Virginia, but this year, with some local knowledge, we did much better, finally coming across fourteen Wild Turkeys foraging in the woods off 3 Mile Run near Lake Nockamixon. We also found a Gray Fox out in another field. The three kids all got good looks, so it was another satisfying Turkey Day. (photo:Michigan DNR)

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Extinct Bird Rediscovered

It isn't the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Its a duck, the Madagascar Pochard. Pretty exciting news if you're into rare birds.

Bird is the Word

When you say "bird", does it sound rhyme with "word" or does it have another sound? You can take a nifty quiz to distinguish what kind of American accent you have. I took it and the results came out spot on for this native Oregonian:

What American accent do you have?
Your Result: The West

Your accent is the lowest common denominator of American speech. Unless you're a SoCal surfer, no one thinks you have an accent. And really, you may not even be from the West at all, you could easily be from Florida or one of those big Southern cities like Dallas or Atlanta.

The Midland
North Central
The South
The Inland North
The Northeast
What American accent do you have?
Take More Quizzes

Funny how we can pick up our favorite actor's voice on television from two rooms away in the house, but sometimes we still struggle with the voices of common birds. More on how to become a better bird listener later. Meanwhile, what kind of American accent do you have?

Monday, November 20, 2006


We're coming up on one of my favorite holidays--Thanksgiving, or better yet Turkey Day. I love that we have a holiday that features a bird as a central feature. I'm not a big fan of domesticated turkeys, but really love to watch Wild Turkeys. I haven't seen any for several months, so maybe its time to go on a turkey search.

Meanwhile, not many people know that cranberries were originally called craneberries, because their flowers look like cranes and early English settlers to North America also saw cranes feeding on the berries. We really ought to make more of these bird connections to Thanksgiving--a national day of thanks, and birding!
(photo:David Foster)

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Brant at Peace Valley Park

On my way to work this morning, I finally saw the Brant goose that has been hanging out at Peace Valley Park for at least the past week or so. This coastal goose is a rare but pretty much annual visitor to this part of Pennsylvania--not easy to find, but something to look for each fall and winter. The bird at Peace Valley was all by itself swimming in the water off one of the boat launches at the park. Smaller than the abundant Canada Geese that spend the winter here in huge flocks, this sharp little goose is a lot of fun to see. A small goose I saw in a very distant flock of flying Canada Geese at Peace Valley about a month ago was very probably this individual. (photo:Dave Saunders)

Project Feeder Watch

Its that time of year again, time to start counting the birds at your feeders for fame and fortune...or at least for science. Brought to you by Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Audubon, Bird Studies Canada, and Nature Canada, Project Feeder Watch has helped us gain a better understanding of birds at feeders across the country, and gives everyone a chance to contribute meaningful observations towards creating this larger picture of how birds respond to our efforts to help and attract them. I started out the morning with just a Carolina Chickadee, Blue Jay, and two House Finches at the feeders. I'll watch the feeders off and on today and tomorrow, finally reporting the highest number of each species seen at one time. I'll do this every other week until April, reporting the numbers to the online database, and having a blast at the same time. Join Project Feeder Watch, and help us keep track of the birds that we all enjoy.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Did I ever mention my book?

I'm fascinated by the relationships that people have with birds. Purple Martin landlords, folks that put up and maintain those Purple Martin houses across the country, have some of the most interesting experiences and relationships with their birds. A couple years back, I wrote a book about these birds and the people who care for them with Robin Doughty, my graduate work advisor at the University of Texas at Austin. Its a fun little book. See if your local library has a copy, or get one for yourself (and other copies for your friends!). You can read a review by Ro Wauer here.

Sonic Bird Telescope

How about a way to identify birds by sound as they pass high overhead? New Scientist reports that researchers are experimenting with this technology to help them identify distant flying birds that might pose a threat to aircraft. Sounds like another good tool for bird observatories. Can I get one for my yard?

Monday, November 13, 2006


I've found a new stress management tool. I close my eyes. I'm standing on the rocks overlooking La Jolla Cove. The waves are crashing below me. A couple hundred yards out, Black-vented Shearwaters are streaming past just over the waves. Heaven.
(photo: Henry Detwiler)


One of the worst things you can do as a birder is to report rare birds that nobody else is able to find. Sure, it happens some times. But if it happens all the time, people will start thinking you are making things up. As a birder, all you really have is your reputation. And you just can't survive as a birder with a reputation for making up rare bird sightings.

So, after I alerted the San Diego birding community to my Marbled Murrelet sighting, a bunch of folks showed up the next day to look for it. They found a lot of birds there that I had missed (especially since I didn't have a scope), but no murrelet. The next day, they were out there looking again. I was planning to be there too, but was up to late working on a presentation, and skipped out. The birders there were able to find a Brown Booby, which is a rare bird that was on many San Diego County birders's most wanted list, but no murrelet.

Sunday was my last morning in San Diego, so I joined a half dozen or so birders back at La Jolla. We saw lots of Black-vented Shearwaters offshore, a close Sooty Shearwater, and many other birds, but by the time I left just after 8am to catch my flight back home, there had been a distant Common Murre flyby, but no murrelet.

Fortunately, just after 9am the remaining birders were able to see my bird, as the Marbled Murrelet flew close by the point! They were also treated to several other good birds, including a Craveri's Murrelet.

While I wish I could have seen the booby and the other murrelet, I am really happy that others were able to see refind the Marbled Murrelet I reported. I was starting to get worried that San Diego birders might think I was all wet. Whew! Thank you bird, for finally showing up again! And if my sighting helped spark a memorable week of bird sightings from La Jolla Cove, that just makes it all the sweeter.

San Diego, I hope I can get back there soon. You have some great birds, and patient birders. Thanks for sharing. You gotta love it!

Friday, November 10, 2006

Marbled Murrelet at La Jolla Cove

Driving back down to San Diego from San Elijo Lagoon, I stopped off to look for seabirds at La Jolla Cove. Lots of pelicans and all three local cormorant species on the rocks. I spent maybe 45 minutes scanning the water offshore, hoping to see a shearwater or some other sea bird. At one point I was enjoying the sparkling green eye of a distant Pelagic Cormorant, when on the edge of my view through my binoculars I saw a black and white bird dive. I was a bit frustrated, since the bird had been clearly visible but I hadn't noticed it while looking at the cormorant.

Eventually, the bird surfaced, and I was able to watch it on and off for about 15 minutes. It was a couple hundred yards offshore, and all I had were my Zeiss 7x42s, so I didn't get killer looks, but it was good enough to get the basic pattern of black above, white below, with white patches on each side of the back over the wings and side of rump. Also, the white of the face met a black cap at the eye line, with white extending back onto the neck as a collar. All of this pretty much added up to Marbled Murrelet. After double checking references back at my hotel room to make sure it wasn't something even more exotic (like Long-billed Murrelet from Asia or Kittlitz's Murrelet from Alaska), and realizing that this is an unusual bird in San Diego County, I emailed the local birding community. I grew up with these birds in Oregon, but don't get to see them much any more, so this was a nice treat. (

California Gnatcatchers in San Diego County

If you Google California Gnatcatcher, you can find lots of information about this endangered species, including that there are about 2000 pairs of these birds left in the United States. What you can't find as easily online, are directions for how to find these birds in San Diego County. If you find yourself flying into San Diego, and want to know where to go find California Gnatcatchers, here's the post for you.

After landing in San Diego, I got the rental car and cruised north on I-5. I had read that San Elijo Lagoon north of San Diego had lots of gnatcatchers, so that's where I headed first. Turned out to be the right call, as I was able to find several California Gnatcatchers within 20 minutes of arriving at the lagoon about lunch time.

Directions: Exit I-5 at Lomas Santa Fe Drive in Solana Beach. Head west towards the beach and turn right onto Rios Avenue. Drive just over half a mile to the end of the road and park. There is a trail heading down towards the lagoon (map here). After maybe a quarter mile, the trail splits. Stay straight (don't turn left). I had four California Gnatcatchers in the short coastal sage shrub between the trail split and the large dead-looking tree 100 yards down the trail.

Lots of other birds in the area, including Cassin's Kingbirds, Wrentit, Bushtits, California Quail, and Western Scrub-Jay. Had to whisk the Audubon's Warblers away with a stick. Same with House Finches. All in all, I was there for maybe 45 minutes and saw 50 species in the brush and on the lagoon. Looks like the gnatcatchers are pretty easy to find there, I just walked slowly until I heard a gnatcatcher like call and waited. Eventually at least four of them were busy feeding in the bushes near the trail. I had them in sight for maybe 15 minutes before they moved on. If you are looking for these guys, just walk slowly and enjoy the trail and the lagoon while you wait for them to appear.

I really enjoyed these little tail-wagging birds, and got great looks at the mostly dark under tail, as well as the dark slate gray plumage. These are amazing little birds, well worth the effort to go out and see. (photo: David Nelson)

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Red-vented Bulbul in Houston

Finding myself with a couple hours to spare today before my talk at Houston Audubon, I decided to go on another exotic urban bird quest. After picking up a rental car at Hobby Airport, I cruised over to The Heights, an early 20th Century neighborhood of cottage style homes just north of I-10 in search of Red-vented Bulbuls. Birders have reported these Asian birds in Houston off and on for about 10 years. These birds have a reputation for being very aggressive invaders in new settings, but so far we don't know a lot about how they are doing in Houston.

On a tip from a local birder, I drove to the corner of E 5 1/2 Street and Frasier Street (map here), and sure enough almost immediately I saw a single Red-vented Bulbul in a tree. It flew back and forth across E 5 1/2 street several times, eating berries from one of the trees near the lumber yard. After I parked the car, I walked back and got closer looks before it flew off behind the house north of the road and disappeared.

Questing for exotic urban birds isn't for everybody, especially when they aren't considered established or listable by the American Birding Association, but exotic urban birds are a part of our American avifauna now, like it or not, so we might as well start keeping track of them.

Bulbul hunters should be advised that these birds may be scattered over 100 square miles of the Greater Houston area, though The Heights seems to be one area where they are more often reported (other recent Heights locations include 7th and Arlington). Check the TEXBIRDS email list archives (here) for any recent sightings, and please report your sightings online as well. No matter how you feel about introduced exotic urban bird pests, its a good idea for us all to keep track of the strange birds in our midsts--if only to know if they are causing problems with our native birds.


Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Off to Houston...and San Diego

I'm heading down to Houston tomorrow to present at talk on how birds see the world to the Houston Audubon Society. Then I'm off to San Diego to give a talk on avian influenza and other emergent diseases to the Wild Bird Feeding Industry Annual Meeting. Hope to see some old birding friends and some birds I don't get to see much of these days, and make some new birding and bird friends as well. Stay tuned for updates.

Monday, November 06, 2006

All Hands! Rare birds need help this week!

Habitat for two of the rarest birds in North America, Gunnison Sage Grouse and Lesser Prairie Chicken, is under threat. Here is notice from Audubon Colorado conservation chair SeEtta Moss:

Last week Audubon Colorado, a few Audubon Chapters and individuals filed formal "protests" on the scheduled oil & gas drilling lease sale for parcels that have Gunnison Sage-Grouse and Lesser Prairie-Chicken leks and habitat. So far these parcels have not been withdrawn from lease sale eligibility on November 9.

Please take 20 minutes to send a fax/letter/email to the person in charge of this gas & oil lease sale, Sally Wisely who is the state director of the Bureau of Land Management (tho some parcels are on Forest Service land, the BLM does the oil & gas leasing for all federal and some private lands). We need to let Ms. Wisely know that there are many Coloradoans who are concerned about our Gunnison Sage Grouse and Lesser Prairie-Chicken populations.

It is best to send a fax, but if not convenient then send either a letter or an email to the addresses below. Be sure to put your full name, street address and city on your comments and sign those comments you fax or send by letter. If you have ever viewed either Gunnison Sage-Grouse or Lesser Prairie-Chickens, or intent to do so, please note that. If you are a birder, please note that and add info about your traveling to see birds.

I think it is helpful to copy your comments to both Senators Allard and Salazar, but you have to fill in their online webforms as noted below. And please copy your text and send it to me as I will use the summary information (ie, you have received comments from X number of birders, and X number of persons who still want to view X) in the comments I send to her.

Points to make (please rephrase in your own words as they devalue form letters):
--You strongly oppose the lease sale of parcels with Gunnison Sage Grouse and Lesser Prairie-Chicken leks and habitat.
--Keeping these parcels, identified in the protest filed by Audubon Colorado, in the lease sale is jeopardizing the existence of populations of these species.
--That Gunnison Sage Grouse is listed as a Species of Special Concern by the State of Colorado.
--That Lesser Prairie-Chicken is listed as Threatened by the State of Colorado and has been granted Candidate status under the Endangered Species Act.
--Colorado Division of Wildlife is putting a lot of time and effort into protecting existing populations of both Gunnison Sage Grouse and Lesser Prairie-Chicken.
--Gunnison Sage Grouse is a very imperiled species with fewer than 3,500 birds teetering on the brink of extinction.
--Lesser Prairie-Chicken—parcels in this lease sale encompass 6 active leks that account for the majority of the known birds on the Comanche National Grasslands. Lesser Prairie-Chickens have been declining on these public lands since 1989 with only about 38 males counted in 2006.
--Relying on a 1991 Oil & Gas Leasing EIS for Lesser Prairie-Chickens and a 1993 Oil & Gas Leasing EIS for Gunnison Sage Grouse violates NEPA regulations. These old and outdated EIS’s do not include current information of species populations and risks, nor recent research on the impacts of oil & gas drilling on these species.
--The parcels that have leks or habitat for Gunnison Sage Grouse and Lesser Prairie-Chicken must be withdrawn from this and future lease sales

Thank you in advance for helping protect Gunnison Sage-Grouse and Lesser
Prairie-Chicken in Colorado.
SeEtta Moss (email copy of your comments to

FAX: 303-239-3799
Attn: Sally Wisely, State Director

Sally Wisely, State Director
Bureau of Land Management, Colorado State Office
2850 Youngfield Street
Lakewood, Colorado 80215


Senator Allard:

Senator Salazar:

Friday, November 03, 2006

More low pathogenic H5N1 bird flu in USA

Tests of wild ducks from New York state provide the latest evidence of the low pathogenic form of H5N1 avian influenza in the United States. Again, with increased testing of wild birds, we should find many more cases of these relatively harmless strains of bird flu.

November First Friday

Amy at Wild Bird On the Fly has a birding short fiction contest each month. Its a good opportunity to get the creative juices flowing. While I didn't win, here's my submission for this month.

Your Kindness We Praise

Pumpkin John thought the small wispy clouds in the otherwise piercing blue sky looked like down feathers. Maybe goose feathers. As he started back to the house, he watched his son emerge from the corn field, head down, his mind obviously somewhere else. Mose would be sixteen next month. Was he already making rumspringa plans? Pumpkin John stared at the clouds, willing himself not to think of the latest whisperings.

Halfway across the pasture, he turned quickly upon hearing the soft explosion of wingbeats from almost underfoot. Oddly, the bird landed in the open, not far away, staring intently at the bearded bear of a man in the wide-brimmed straw hat. Happily, Mose had also seen the bird, and only needed half a whisper and a nod to take off for the house.

Within minutes, dark dresses emerged from the house, straw hats ran from the barn, some coming directly, while others sped elsewhere before returning with others. Boom Amos, Balky Ike, Annie, Rebecca, and Chicken Dan. All with binoculars. Yonnie, Mary, Samuel, and Butcher Joe trailing closely behind.

From State Highway 39, a passerby who took the wrong exit off I-77 could only wonder about the dozen Amish men, women, and children gathered in a wide circle in the middle of the field. Within the circle, binoculars were shared, as the small buffy striped bird stared back intently from behind its dark mask. It shouldn’t be here, out in the open, away from cover. But here it was, surrounded, revealing no emotion, nor anything else. An October surprise.

Finally, the bird answered the intent stares by uttering a short, mechanical tic-tic-tictictic, tic-tic-tictictic.

Pumpkin John, under his breath, almost instinctually responded:
O Gott, Vater, wir loben dich und deine Güte preisen wir.

The rest of the circle replied in kind, singing Das Loblied quietly, in unison, the bird motionless in their midst.

After a final glimpse through binoculars, the circle dispersed into the chill autumn breeze, hearts lifted, as the Yellow Rail looked on.

Rusty Blackbirds

This morning felt like a Rusty Blackbird morning so I checked out the corn field and woodland edge behind my office. Sure enough, two Rusty Blackbirds flew up out of the field into a tree where I could get a good look before a flock of Red-winged Blackbirds all flew up and the birds moved off. Nice time of year to get out and look for these birds, which we all know are slipping away with huge population declines of over 80% over the past 30 years.

I absolutely love these birds. They have such great plumage this time of year, with the rusty feathering and the wild yellow eyes look like they are glaring, just challenging any and all comers to deny their blackbirdness. I just can't get enough of them. They are hard enough to find that they are a treat to see these days. A good way to start out the day.

(photo: Brian Boldt)

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Birding Bling

Today I found the perfect birding accessory in the leftover trick or treat candy bowl at work--a strawberry Ring Pop. For an adult sized mouth, it is hard to suck the Jolly Rancher style candy jewel on the ring without making those squeaking noises that songbirds really love. While birding with my Ring Pop this afternoon, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet came in to check out the noise was. Remember, you read it here first. Pretty soon, everyone will be birding with these babies.

Birding has actually been pretty decent the last few days. Saw a female Redhead with the migrant ducks at Peace Valley on Monday. A stop at the fields at Sailor's Point at Peace Valley yesterday netted lots of sparrows, including two Fox Sparrows and fifteen Savannah Sparrows. This morning at Pine Valley on my way in to work I had two Vesper Sparrows with dozens of Savannah Sparrows and Swamp Sparrows in the meadow restoration area (but no sign of the Yellow Rail reported from there yesterday). The temperature has been pleasant the last few days, hopefully it will stay this way for awhile before winter moves in.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Birdchaser in Birder's World Magazine

Check out my latest book reviews in the brand spanking newly designed and even cooler Birder's World magazine. Pretty sweet cover of a Northern Hawk Owl, eh?

While I wouldn't go so far as to call Birder's World the Playboy of bird magazines, the new look is pretty sexy.

Birdchaser caught on film

Earlier this month on my trip to the Tuxtlas in Mexico, I was caught on film by 101 Ways to Help Birds author and birderblogger Laura Erickson. While most of the birders in the four vans were busy looking at a Red-billed Pigeon, I was hobnobbing with Purple Martin Conservation Association founder Jamie Hill. That's us over there on the right side of the building. Not a great photo? Can't tell its me?

OK, here I am at lunchtime, obviously having too good of a time on my Columbus Day vacation jaunt through Veracruz. Actually, I wish I could remember what I was chuckling about. Must have been good though, because normally I just have a twinkle in my eye, rather than a full blown belly laugh thing going on. But oh, its so great to be out birding!

Say hello to my leetle friend

OK, he isn't exactly little. And if he were still alive, he probably wouldn't be my friend. He's a 10 foot tall bird with a horse-sized head sporting a giant eagle beak. He could gulp down giant possums in a single gulp. He's a 15 million year old species of phorusrhacid--large flightless birds that roamed the Americas after the dinosaurs were wiped out at the end of the Cretaceous. See here for more details of the discovery of the skull and foot bones of this bird in Argentina.

Birdchaser in I and the Bird blog carnival

Check out the latest I and the Bird for the best recent bird and birding blog posts.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Audubon Backyard Birds FAQ

Audubon has just posted a new backyard bird FAQ page. Perhaps a good resource for a bird club or anyone else who gets frequent emails about the following:
--Why does a male cardinal continuously bang against the windows of our house?
--What kind of hawk is this in my backyard? Should I stop feeding the birds?
--Can you recommend a squirrel-proof feeder?
--When is the best time to hang a nesting box? How big should it be?
--I found a baby bird out of its nest and hopping around our backyard. What should I do?
-- An ugly, bald bird just showed up at my feeder. It resembles a cardinal but it has a blue head. What is it?
--There is a white bird in my yard. Is it an albino or some kind of rare species?
--I live in Massachusetts and saw a small black and white woodpecker in my backyard. Could it be a baby Ivory-billed Woodpecker?

The answers to these questions are online here.

33,850 birds tested in USA for H5N1 bird flu

Based on the latest numbers posted by the National HPAI Early Detection System (HEDDS), researchers have tested over thirty thousand wild birds in the US for dangerous H5N1 avian influenza viruses. So far, no signs that HPAI H5N1 has crossed over to the US with migrating birds from Asia or Europe. You can see a breakdown of how many birds have been tested in each state here.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

UGA study identifies North American wild bird species that could transmit bird flu

The following news release comes from the University of Georgia provides interesting information on how various North American species respond to HPAI H5N1.

Athens, Ga. – University of Georgia researchers have found that the common wood duck and laughing gull are very susceptible to highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza viruses and have the potential to transmit them.

Their finding, published in the November issue of the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, demonstrates that different species of North American birds would respond very differently if infected with these viruses. David Stallknecht, associate professor in the department of population health at the UGA College of Veterinary Medicine and co-author of the study, said knowing which species are likely to be affected by highly pathogenic H5N1 viruses is a vital component of efforts to quickly detect the disease should it arrive in North America.

“If you’re looking for highly pathogenic H5N1 in wild birds, it would really pay to investigate any wood duck deaths because they seem to be highly susceptible, as are laughing gulls,” said Stallknecht, a member of the UGA Biomedical and Health Sciences Institute. “It was also very interesting that in some species that you normally think of as influenza reservoirs – the mallard, for instance – the duration and extent of viral shedding is relatively low. This may be good news since it suggests that highly pathogenic H5N1 may have a difficult time surviving in North American wild birds even if it did arrive here.”

Working under controlled conditions in an airtight biosecurity lab at the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s Southeast Poultry Research Laboratory, the researchers determined how much of the virus was shed in the feces and through the respiratory system of several species of wild birds. The work was jointly funded by the United States Poultry and Egg Association, the Morris Animal Foundation and the USDA.

“We chose birds that, because of their behavior or habitat utilization, are most likely to transmit the virus or bring the virus here to North America,” said lead author and doctoral student Dr. Justin Brown.

The species studied were: Mallards, which are often infected with commonly circulating, low-pathogenic avian influenza viruses in North America and Eurasia; Northern pintails and blue-winged teal, which migrate long distances between continents; redheads, a diving species; and wood ducks, which breed in Northern and Southern areas of the United States. The laughing gull is a common coastal species ranging from the Southern Atlantic to the Gulf Coast.

Stallknecht explained that in low-pathogenic avian influenza, most of the virus is shed in the feces of birds. The virus then spreads as other birds drink from contaminated water. The study found that in highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza, however, the birds shed most of the virus through their respiratory tract.

Stallknecht said that with this knowledge, scientists can detect the virus in live birds more effectively by swabbing the birds’ mouths and throats.

“Doing avian influenza surveillance is pretty tricky because there are a lot of species differences and there are also seasonal differences,” he said. “So you’ve got to pick the right species at the right time and you’ve got to collect the right samples.”

In a related study scheduled to be published in the December issue of the journal Avian Diseases, the researchers have quantified how long the virus persists in water samples. They found that highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza viruses don’t persist as long as common low-pathogenicity strains. In some cases, persistence times were reduced by more than 70%. This could affect transmission and supports the idea that these viruses may not have much of a chance of becoming established in North America.

Stallknecht said the finding is encouraging, but cautions that it’s difficult to put it into context without results from a study his team is currently working on that will assess the minimum amount of virus it takes to infect a bird.

This month, the researchers also received the first $875,000 of a planned three-year grant totaling $2.6 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The grant will be used for an ambitious project that will take a broad look at the possibility of human contact with avian influenza viruses.

In the first phase of the project, the researchers will examine the prevalence, persistence and distribution of the viruses in various environments. In the next phase, they’ll work with state public health departments to determine the groups of people who – by virtue of their occupation or recreational activities – are likely to come into contact with the viruses. The researchers then will assess the ability of low-pathogenic avian influenza viruses to infect mammals so that the risk of human contact can be put into perspective.

“With this information, public health officials will be able to better understand the human health risks associated with both low-pathogenic and highly pathogenic avian influenza viruses in both domestic and wild bird populations,” Stallknecht said. “Many of these potential risks are not very well understood or even defined, and it is possible that they could be very effectively controlled with simple preventive measures.”

Monday, October 23, 2006

More H5N1 bird flu in US

With increased testing of wild birds in the United States, we shouldn't be surprised to find more avian influenza viruses. However, so far all of the H5N1 viruses found have been low pathogenic forms that do not pose a risk to poultry or humans and are unrelated to the virulent asian H5N1 bird flu. The latest positive results of low pathogenic H5N1 come from Green-winged Teal in Michigan.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Report Sick or Dead Birds

Thanks to concerns about avian influenza, there is now a website telling you where to report sick or dead birds in each state. So, next time you find a dead bird, here's where to go.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Lark Sparrow, kaching!

During my lunch break today I joined Paul Green for a quick dash over to a local farm where a Lark Sparrow has been making an appearance. We quickly found the weedy draw where the bird is hanging out, but the bird didn't show itself right away. Did see three Palm Warblers and my first-of-season Ruby-crowned Kinglet, along with a half dozen other species. Finally, I found a big flock of sparrows, but they flushed down to the other end of the draw. Within a few minutes, a couple birders down there started waving us over...there it was, a juvenile Lark Sparrow with all the trimmings. This is the fifth county record, and the first to be photographed. A nice Western US bird for my Bucks County list.

Plastic Flamingos Faced with Extinction

According to this LA Times story, the factory that has produced 250,000 plastic pink flamingos a year for the last half century will close its doors next month. Don't know what more to say about this one. R.I.P.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Bank Swallows and Common Loons about to disappear

In case you haven't heard this yet, there is a proposal to get rid of the common names of some familiar North American birds, including Common Loon, Eared Grebe, Ring-necked Pheasant, Dovekie, Rock Pigeon, European Starling, Bank Swallow, White-winged Crossbill, and Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow.

In Frank Gill and Minturn Wright's new book Birds of the World: Recommended English Names, the names of these birds are replaced by Great Northern Loon, Black-necked Grebe, Common Pheasant, Little Auk, Common Pigeon, Common Starling, Sand Martin, Two-barred Crossbill, and Saltmarsh Sparrow.

So what are the chances that these names will be adopted by the American Ornithologists' Union Committee on Systematics and Nomenclature, the group that decides on the names of birds? Well, Frank Gill was the head of the International Ornithological Congress committee that worked through regional sub-groups to come up with all these names. The current AOU committe members that will have to vote on these recommendations are Richard C. Banks, Carla Cicero, Jonathan L. Dunn, Andrew W. Kratter, Irby J. Lovette, Pamela C. Rasmussen, J. V. Remsen, Jr., James D. Rising, and Douglas F. Stotz.

Keep your ears to the ground, but English bird name changes appear to be on the horizon. There are even more changes than those I listed here.

Other bloggers with thoughts on this include:
Birds Etcetra
Aimophila Adventures

Frank Gill on Ivory-billed Woodpecker "Rediscovery"

I was able to get a copy of Frank Gill's brand-spanking-new Ornithology text book (3rd edition). Here's what he says about the Ivory-billed Woodpecker:
Even more encouraging are the rediscoveries of species thought to be extinct (Table 21-1). Among them, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker has by far the highest profile. Last seen for sure in 1944 in the Singer tract of Louisiana, the majestic Ivory-billed Woodpecker, or Lord God Bird, is the signature species of the old-growth bottomland forests of the southeastern United States (Figure 21-7). One of the largest woodpeckers in the world, the Ivory-bill first was hunted by Native Americans and then was collected as a desireable rarity by early ornithologists. Critical bottomland forests were cut. Despite regular reports of sightings of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, in teh absence of any confirming photograph, Ivory-bills became as legendary and elusive as Elvis himself.

Then, a report by a kayaker in southeastern Arkansas on February 11, 2004, followed by 4 seconds of video, sparked fevered excitement, renewed hope, and led to a public media blitz in April 2005 (Fitzpatrck et al. 2005). Field teams searched the bottomlands. Additional land was secured to protect the ecosystem. Local entrepreneurs and townships profited from the rush of ecotourism. But the woodpecker disappeared, prompting professional debates and doubts (Sibley et al. 2006; Fitzpatrick et al. 2006; Jackson 2006). This spike of rediscovery, however, revitalized the hopes of conservationists everywhere. Other lost species also might survive if such a large and dramatic species as this one could persist undetected for 60 years (pp. 651-52).

Interestingly, there is a questionmark next to the rediscovery year in the table of rediscovered birds thought to be extinct for at least 50 years.

Friday, October 13, 2006

I saw an Ivorybill!

Maybe only 30 feet away, great looks as it hitched its way up a tree. Even saw the large whitish bill! It was an unmistakable Ivory-billed Woodcreeper in the Tuxtla Mountains of Veracruz. Perhaps the only real ivorybill species left on the planet?

I was able to attend the Auburn Ivory-billed Woodpecker talk at the North American Ornithological Conference in Veracruz last week. While I'd like more than anyone to know that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers are out there somewhere, the Auburn team still doesn't have any confirmatory evidence that the birds are really there in their Florida study site. A couple brief sight records--with one or two that initially sound better than the Cornell sightings in Arkansas--that are by themselves not sufficient evidence. Some sound recordings of kent calls and double knocks--which could be explained by lots of other things like deer and other woodpeckers out in the swamps. Large holes in trees and trees with bark stripped off--who knows what else can do that to a tree.

While I wish the Auburn team luck, I was concerned that they:
A) Tried to pull off this search all by themselves, which means it was usually just one grad student sleeping in a tent in the woods for months at a time wandering around in the swamp. I guess they thought they had a slam dunk case and that it wouldn't be so hard to get a photo of the birds they thought they were hearing all the time.

B) At the NAOC talk Hill made it clear that they rejected the possibility of using tape playback to attract the birds. I just don't get that. While I can understand not wanting to disrupt the routine of what might be the most endangered bird in North America, if it still exists, what the world really needs is a good video of the birds so we can all agree that they are still out there. Tape playback is not THAT disruptive. Any serious birder knows that, and should know that it is the best way to get a good look at a bird. For what some are claiming is the most secretive bird in North America, if you really think you have one in your area, play the darn tape to make it come in so you can get video footage! Otherwise, you just won't have the evidence you'll need.

C) Some of the published sight records in this published study are just awfull. A big bird flying through the swamp? No color, no field marks, just size (which is impossible to judge accurately all the time) and shape (which can be subjective, especially when you have ambitions to get a sighting of a rare bird). Some of these "sightings" should have been rejected by the initial observer and not included in the paper. While I applaud the Auburn team for publishing "everything" they have, I have to question the judgement about some of what is included as "evidence".

D) While there was a question and answer session at NAOC after the talk, nobody really asked any hard questions of the Auburn team. Me included. Somebody asked why they hadn't climbed up to look into some of the large tree cavities for feathers (answer: it was scary to climb up there, and they're just starting to do that now). Others asked why the tone of the kent calls seems to vary so much in the different recordings (answer: we don't really know enough about the calls of these birds to answer that). Another asked why they think they couldn't get photos (answer: we didn't really search that big of an area, only maybe two square miles and we didn't have enough people on the ground to find the birds). The more these guys answered questions the more it seemed like they were really just not that prepared for their search. Maybe they thought it was going to be easier to find the birds than they first thought, since they thought they were hearing the birds almost as soon as they started looking. I heard their presentation described as Amateur Night at the Ivorybill Improv. While that may not be the most charitable way to describe it, it sure was easy to get the impression that the Auburn team hadn't really done what it takes to deliver the goods.

E) These guys had Ivory-bills on the brain. They weren't just out for a kayak trip down the river. They were motivated by a desire to find "their own" ivorybills the weekend right after the Cornell announcement. With a full belief that Cornell had proved that ivorybills were still "out there", maybe it was a bit too easy for them to convince themselves that the quick looks at birds and strange sounds in the swamp were indeed the birds they really wanted to see. While the Auburn team admits that they can't yet prove that the birds exist, I didn't see much sign of their being skeptical about the birds really being there. They really believe it. If they can eventually prove that the birds are there, then great. If not, we'll have to find another explanation. Some already believe that these guys just got caught up in an ivorybill hysteria and convinced themselves that they had the birds.

Without a photo, or better yet, a video, there's plenty of reasons to be skeptical about the continued existence of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and about the claims of those who think they've seen them. While there is plenty of room for hope and giving people the benefit of the doubt, we should still closely examine all the "evidence" on both sides. The birds are either out there, or they aren't. While it may be too early to determine that ivorybills are actually extinct (long overdue searches are ongoing), when you really look at the evidence, there's a lot of reasons to doubt that anyone has actually seen one of these birds in a long, long time.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Macaw Mountain Bird Park, Copan, Honduras

Last month when I was in Honduras, I was able to tour the incredible Macaw Mountain Bird Park in Copan. Macaw Mountain hosts dozens of Central American parrots in outdoor flight cages along a scenic creek valley in a tropical forest. The birds are mostly abandoned pets that are too acclimated to people to be released into the wild. It was great to see these birds, and to at the conclusion of the tour to interact with some of the birds as well. You can feed toucans and aracaris, as well as hold parrots and macaws. Its like a petting zoo for adults. Macaw Mountain does a valuable service in educating Hondurans about their local birds, and they provide a home for birds in need. If you are lucky enough to make it to Copan, swing by for a nice tour and enjoy the birds.

Mystery Birder

OK, kudos to whoever can be the first to identify this mystery birder and blogger who I met up with on my birding trip to the Tuxtlas. A field guide won't help you, but maybe surfing my blogroll will?

Birding the Tuxtlas

At 4:30am on Monday I joined these hardy souls for a two hour van ride from Veracruz to the Tuxtla Mountains for a day of birding.

With four vans of birders, it was a bit of a zoo, but most of us were able to see over 75 bird species, including such beauties as Keel-billed Toucan, Collared Aracari, Montezuma's Oropendola, and Red-fronted Amazon. We also heard Howler Monkeys. Very cool.

Some of us were lucky enough to see such goodies as Black Hawk Eagle and three out of range Black Swifts. The Tuxtla Mountains are an isolated low mountain range on the Gulf Coast just north of the Isthmus of Tehuantapec (where Mexico gets skinny in the middle), and they were pretty birdy. Lots of Olmec ruins in the area, including artifacts with some of the earliest ancient writing in the Americas. Birds, beautiful scenery, ancient just doesn't get much better than that.

Birds on the Beach

Laughing Gulls, Brown Pelicans, and Reddish Egrets are pretty common birds on the Gulf Coast. You could probably see them every day of the year. But what you might not see all the time, is large numbers of these birds running around right at your feet. On the beach outside my hotel in Veracruz, a large flock of these birds would gather every morning as the fishermen hauled in their gill net and sorted their fish. The gulls were everywhere, the pelicans were bobbing in the surf just a few feet offshore, and an egret ran between the fishermen working the net. Birds and humans, living together, sharing the beach, and making it work. Wish it were so easy to accomodate all bird species.

Friday, September 29, 2006

If Weird Al were a birder

Sometimes we birders take ourselves too seriously. Perhaps if Weird Al were to present at the next ABA conference in Quito, Ecuador, he might parody us with something like this (below). With warmest regards and respect for the master, shake it with Al and Donny now! If you need a reminder of how the tune goes, and want to see Donny as a backup dancer, check it out here.

Uptight N Birdy!

They see me birdin’
With my bins on
I know they’re all thinking I’m uptight and birdy
Think I’m just uptight and birdy
Think I’m just uptight and birdy
Can’t you see I’m uptight and birdy?
Look at me, I’m uptight and birdy
I wanna roll with
The gangstas
But so far they all think I’m uptight and birdy
Think I’m just uptight and birdy
Think I’m just uptight and birdy
I’m just uptight and birdy.
Really really uptight and birdy.

I count all the birds that I can see
Audubon member since I was three
Sibley and Kaufman are the guys for me
What you lookin’ at, a chickadee?
I don’t use playback, to the contrary
Using tapes in the field makes birds too wary
Empids and jaegers, to me ain’t scary
Got Pete Dunne’s books in my library
I blog all day when I’m not birding
Sprint through big days like they was races
Been to a million hot birding places
You see me at all the rare bird chases
I’ll drive all night, then bird for three straight days
I know ten thousand birds, and all their ways
I can find all the regulars, and most of the strays
The way I pish up vagrants, you’d be amazed
I’ll stare at hawks all day in the sun
Til my eyes are bleary, just for fun
I don’t give up when the day is done
I spotlight nightjars, I’ve seen a ton
Short-eared Owl is my favorite bird song
I could band jays and warblers all the day long
I’ll ID any bird that you can bring on
Separate Semis and Leasts from across a big pond

They see me birdin’
With my Swarovskis
I know in my heart they think I’m uptight and birdy
Think I’m just uptight and birdy
Think I’m just uptight and birdy
Can’t you see I’m uptight and birdy
Look at me, I’m uptight and birdy
I’d like to roll with
The gangstas
Although it’s apparent I’m too uptight and birdy
Think I’m just uptight and birdy
Think I’m just uptight and birdy
I’m just uptight and birdy
How’d I get so uptight and birdy…

Dunno what this is about? Start here...

To understand where that came from, you probably have to start here...

Or not!

Birdchaser at NAOC in Veracruz

I'm off on Monday to attend the North American Ornithological Conference in Veracruz, Mexico. If anyone else is down there, look me up for birding or bird conservation talk. I'm presenting a paper at 2:30pm on Saturday:

Fergus, R., T. Present, G. Butcher, P. Green, J. Cecil


While integrated bird conservation can become an agency-driven exercise in top-down planning and management, effective conservation needs public buy-in and participation to produce meaningful results in human-dominated landscapes. By encouraging individuals and communities to target their conservation efforts to species of local, regional, and global conservation concern, National Audubon Society programs promote an integrated all-bird approach at a grassroots level. Our aim is to address the needs of these species across a gradient of urban, suburban, and exurban habitats through conservation actions, and to monitor the impacts of these efforts on the species of concern. We integrate these activities with site-based conservation at Important Bird Areas, and bird monitoring efforts such as Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count, and cooperative programs including the Audubon/Cornell Great Backyard Bird Count and eBird. These home- and community-based bird conservation planning, habitat management, and bird monitoring activities are creating a grassroots network of people working to conserve birds in urban, suburban, exurban, and rural working lands in ways that are integrated with regional and global all-bird conservation efforts.

Indigo Buntings

This morning, after heavy rains last night, there were quite a few Indigo Buntings in the fields and woods behind my office. In 20 minutes or so, I found 30 buntings, as well as 3 Chipping Sparrows, 4 Common Yellowthroats, 1 Black-and-white Warbler, and 1 Black-throated Blue Warbler. Surprisingly few migrating warblers brought down by the rain...maybe the landed elsewhere.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Too White and Nerdy?

Is this the problem with birding? We've seen active birding and backyard birdwatching numbers declinging for a decade now. Is birding just too white 'n' nerdy? What would a culture be like where birding was cool? Where people of all backgrounds were more interested in birdwatching or hanging out in nature, than in this? Or is birding destined to remain 2Y-10-UR-D?

Birdchaser in IATB #33

Check out the latest I and the Bird blog carnival at Don't Mess with Taxes. While my own blogging has been a bit telegraphic lately, but Kay from Austin graciously included a link to a post from one of my days in Guatemala.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

H5N1 Avian Influenza in Pennsylvania

But not the dangerous kind. More details here. Remember that there are highly pathogenic forms of H5N1 and low pathogenic forms that do not pose a risk to wild birds, poultry, or humans. So far, nobody has found the highly pathogenic H5N1 in North America.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Archaeopteryx had four wings

According to this recent study, Archaeopteryx had feathered hind limbs that helped it glide from tree to tree, adding evidence that bird flight evolved from the trees down, rather than from the ground up. The article is available by subscription only, but the abstract is here.

Longrich, Nick, (2006) "Structure and function of hindlimb feathers in Archaeopteryx lithographica", Paleobiology 32(3):427-431.
Abstract.—This study examines the morphology and function of hindlimb plumage in Archaeopteryx lithographica. Feathers cover the legs of the Berlin specimen, extending from the cranial surface of the tibia and the caudal margins of both tibia and femur. These feathers exhibit features of flight feathers rather than contour feathers, including vane asymmetry, curved shafts, and a self-stabilizing overlap pattern. Many of these features facilitate lift generation in the wings and tail of birds, suggesting that the hindlimbs acted as airfoils. A new reconstruction of Archaeopteryx is presented, in which the hindlimbs form approximately 12% of total airfoil area. Depending upon their orientation, the hindlimbs could have reduced stall speed by up to 6% and turning radius by up to 12%. Presence of the “four-winged” planform in both Archaeopteryx and basal Dromaeosauridae indicates that their common ancestor used fore- and hindlimbs to generate lift. This finding suggests that arboreal parachuting and gliding preceded the evolution of avian flight.

Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in Florida?

After months of rumor, we finally can see the evidence that Auburn University researchers have for believing that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers still live in the Panhandle of Florida (see website here). So far, the evidence consists of some sitings (brief but including multiple field marks), lots of recorded double-knocks and "kent" calls, as well as bark scaling and large potential roost or nesting cavities. In short, perhaps better evidence than Cornell was able to get in Arkansas, but far short of proof. While critics at The Ivory-bill Skeptic are having a heyday with this, I'm glad this is all out in the open for everyone to see and hear. For one thing, the complete sound recordings are available online (here)--and though they may turn out to be the largest assembled collection of Blue Jay "kent" calls ever collected, if they can be proved to come from Blue Jays, or nuthatches, or whatever, they may have value at some point as conservationists and birders continue to deal with these unverified Ivory-billed Woodpecker reports.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Eiders and Loons

My family and I spent a couple days last week on Hog Island at the Audubon camp. Last month the Common Eiders were molting and looking mostly brown. Now the males are almost entirely in alternate (breeding) plumage, and much sharper. Of course, last month most of the Black Guillemots were in alternate plumage, and now they are in basic (winter) plumage. Most of the Common Loons are now in basic plumage as well. Fun to see the changes in these birds through the seasons.

Double Dip

A week ago I took the family up for a working vacation to Maine and we stopped by a couple spots to look for rare birds. First stop was a Toys R Us store in Salem, New Hampshire, where a Northern Wheatear had put in a couple days performance hopping around on the roof top and the alley between the store and a Kmart. By the time we got there, the bird was gone. Strike one. Second stop was New Castle, NH for the Western Reef Heron. By this time we were running late and I only had an hour to scan the usual places where the bird had been seen. No luck. The bird was still around, someone found it that day at one of the locations I didn't have time to scan. By the end of the week the bird had disappeared, so hopefully someone in the Mid Atlantic states will find it closer to home and I can chase it again. But for now, that was strike two. Its been awhile since I double dipped (ie missed the birds) when chasing rarities. But its hard to look for birds when you are pressed for time.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Antigua, Guatemala

After a week and a half of work, we ended up our trip at Antigua, Guatemala for an evening and morning of walking around the colonial city before flying back to the states. Not a lot of birds right in the town center, but did see a Beryline Hummingbird in the courtyard of our hotel. Driving back down to the airport in Guatemala City, a Bushy-crested Jay flew across the road, as did an Acorn Woodpecker--as if to send me on my way with a flash of color. We're already planning additional ethnoornithology research in the Ch'orti' and Q'eqchi' areas, and I'm hoping to find a way to support and expand the bird monitoring and conservation activites of Proeval Raxmu and the Ornithological Society of Guatemala. Guatemala has some spectacular birds, as well as some huge conservation and other social challenges. Many North American birds winter or migrate through Guatemala, further linking it to Canada and the United States. Its one big world, and we're all in it together.

Birding on 9/11

Monday, September 11 found me high in the mountains above the highland Guatemalan town of Cobán. After hours of bus rides from Copán, Honduras to Guatemala City and then to Cobán, I hooked up with some researchers from the Proeval Raxmu project that trains Q'eqchi' Mayan villagers to monitor bird populations at several sites in the Alta Verapaz. By the time we got up to the monitoring site about an hour from Cobán, it was late in the afternoon. Resplendant Quetzals are in the area, but they were quite in the late afternoon rain. We did manage to find Barred Antshrike, Plain Wren, Slate-colored Solitaire, Chestnut-capped Warbler, Common Bush-Tanager, and Chestnut-capped Brushfinch. We heard lots of Plain Chachalaca on the way out. Driving back down in the dark, we stopped to watch a Mexican Whip-poor-will hunting from a perch near the road. As I got out of the car, I heard a Vermiculated Screech Owl and a Mountain Pygmy Owl calling up the slope in the twilight. A magical place! I look forward to going back!

Birds of Hacienda San Lucas, Copán Ruinas

We spent the night at Hacienda San Lucas, a great place just across the river from the ruins at Copán. After a great five course dinner (the best food I had on the entire trip), we retired to the guest rooms and a great night listening to the rain on the roof. In the morning, we hiked over to a nearby archaeological site Los Sapos, named for large toads carved into boulders on a hillside. Lots of good birds there, and around the hacienda. From the new yoga pavillion overlooking the river, we found dozens of species, including White-throated Magpie Jay, Oranged-chinned Parakeet, Orange-fronted Parakeet, Azure-crowned Hummingbird, Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, and Blue-crowned Motmot. My favorite were the pair of Collared Aracari--red, yellow, and black toucans--that came through right before breakfast.

Hacienda San Lucas was a real treat--with great birds and accomodations. We met some great people there, including owner and manager Flavia Cueva. If you can swing it, this would be a great place to spend some time if you are in the Copán area.

Birds of Copán, Honduras

Saturday morning we loaded up our stuff and headed over to Copán Ruinas, Honduras. A Cinnamon Hummingbird and a White-collared Seedeater greated us in the town square. After dropping off our luggage, we headed over to the Copán ruins. Fantastic imagery of birds there, including macaw heads as the ball court markers, and a wild sculpture of a fish-eating water bird--maybe a cormorant.

Real birds were pretty common too. Several Masked Tityra called from trees in the site, and we were able to see Squirrel Cuckoo, Linneated Woodpecker, White-fronted Amazon, Orange-fronted Parakeet, Brown Jay, Streaked Flycatcher, Montezuma Oropendola, Rufous Mourner, and dozens of other species in and around the ruins and the picnic area just outside the gates. All in all a fantastic place, with great birds and great Mayan ruins.

Last day in Jocotan

Friday morning we walked along the river west of Jocotan and found additional species including Black Phoebe, Green Kingfisher, Black-necked Stilt, Spotted Sandpiper, and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. Three males and a female Shiny Cowbirds were a bit of a surprise along a fenceline back near the main highway. Then we took a truck up to another aldea and found additional species including Ferruginous Pygmy Owl and Yellow-throated Euphonia. While I'd seen a couple Empidonax flycatchers each day, most were quick looks at silent birds. Today I was finally able to get good looks at a vocalizing bird--a White-throated Flycatcher.

More Good Birds above Jocotan

On Thursday, we learned our lesson--ride a truck up the mountain and hike back down. Still, we walked a long way and I went through water like it was going out of style. We took a truck up to an aldea way above Jocotan and found some new birds including Orange-fronted Parakeet, White-collared Swift, Black-headed Saltator, and Black-vented Oriole. Ended the morning with about 30 species again, and more good info on Ch'orti' bird names.

Not a lot of forest in the Jocotan area. Most of the land is cleared and planted as milpa. Birds are fairly common around aldeas where there are more trees in the patios, and where there are trees along the edges of the milpas. While birding is undoubtedly better at higher elevations where there is still forest, our main assistant is more familiar with the birds around the milpas and patios where most people spend their time. Next time we'll have to go to additional aldeas farther out where the people may be more familiar with additional forest birds.

Birds of San Juan Ermita

Wednesday turned out to be the best birding yet. We took a bus to San Juan Ermita, a municipio west of Jocotan, and hiked about 5 miles straight up a mountain above the caserío Miramundo. Great looks at a family of Bushy-crested Jays at a spring near Miramundo. We hiked around in the milpas and the lower reaches of the forest, and didn't have a lot of luck. Then we hiked up even higher along the road to where the road meets a creek. Here we finally found some interesting birds, including Prevost's Ground Sparrow, Grayish Saltator, Rusty Sparrow, and Yellow-faced Grassquit. Hiking back down the mountain, I ran out of water, tripped and lost my sunglasses, and was pretty parched by the time we reached the bottom at about 4pm. A long day, about 30 species. Note to self--carry more water!
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