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Friday, March 31, 2006

Down By the Creek

At work this afternoon, I took a walk down by the creek and found a new yard bird (Common Merganser) and new 2006 yard bird (Wood Duck). Since most of the mergansers have left Peace Valley, I was worried that I'd missed this bird for the season, but a nice drake sitting on a rock in the middle of the creek was yard bird #106 and 2006 bird #44--a nice way to end the month.

Bird Flu Misinformation

Let me just say it like this...our political leaders and many in the media are either sadly misinformed, or they are playing politics with bird flu. Latest Reuters story (here) continues the mistaken notion that H5N1 avian influenza is inevitably going to come to the US via migratory birds this year.

If you ever hear this reported in the news, or from your political leaders, you should ask them:

1) What evidence do you have that wild birds are carrying this virus and spreading it to each other? Which species and in which locations?

2) Which birds that cross over to America from the Old World are carrying this virus?

3) How easily can wild birds spread the virus to each other?

4) Can birds migrate thousands of miles while carrying this virus?

5) Why is it more likely that wild birds will bring the virus here, than the possibility that it will come in on the shoes, luggage, or baggage of one of the millions of travelers who fly to America after having spent time in infected countries--or through legal or illegal shipments of poultry or poultry products?

H5N1 is potentially a major threat, but for now, it is mostly a threat if you are a chicken or a chicken farmer who could lose your livelihood. Its good to be following the spread of this virus, but we have a lot more studying to do before we can make any categorical statements about it--like that it is coming to America on wild birds and there's nothing we can do about it.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Healthy Yard Pledge

Something I've been working on for quite awhile is now online. Take the Healthy Yard Pledge to help create a healthy environment and protect birds and wildlife where you live--and then get all your friends and neighbors to pledge as well. Its free. Its easy. Its cool. Just click here.

Free Bird Videos Online

Back in 2001, some friends in Austin were planning to set up a website where you could pay to watch bird videos, with the proceeds going to support bird conservation. They gave me a top-of-the-line video camera to use, and encouraged me to go out and shoot footage of local birds. One of my biggest disappointments is that between working on my PhD, working full-time, and juggling three small children, I never really got to become the bird videographer that I might have hoped, and when I moved from Austin, I gave up the video camera.

Well, my friends finally have their website up--and good news is you can watch the videos for free! Right now there are over 200 high-quality bird videos to watch; everything from Andean Cock-of-the-Rock to Yellow-eyed Junco.

Check out the cool videos at

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

New Yard Bird--Snow Goose, and signs of spring

Yesterday as I was taking out the trash, I heard a gull overhead. Looking up as the Ring-billed Gull flew over, I noticed a flock of Snow Geese flying high overhead. A nice addition to the yard list--guess I need to spend more time doing work in my tiny urban yard!

Today on the way to work, a lone Snow Goose as at Peace Valley, as were a pair of Hooded Mergansers. Spring is coming, but birding has been slow at work--with no new migrants yet, but chickadees, nuthatches, and cardinals singing.

We slept with the windows open last night, and this morning I awoke to the pre-dawn chorus of American Robins.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Birdchaser in the New York Times

I'm quoted briefly in a New York Times article on bird flu that came out today. If you want to read the whole thing, go here (its a decent article). Otherwise, my meager quote is:
"It's hard to know what's going on," said Rob Fergus, science coordinator for the National Audubon Society. "But we're not seeing many wild birds dying nearby every time we find outbreaks in poultry."

I spoke with the reporter for over half an hour. If this was my best quote, I suppose I'm just lucky to have been quoted at all!

Last of the Parakeets

Sunday morning, I joined birding friend, Florida bird distribution guru, and birdfinding guide author Bill Pranty in searching for the last of the Budgerigars that have been established north of St Petersburg, Florida since the 50s. Once numbering over 20,000 birds in the 1970s, these parakeets are now restricted to a population of less than 100 birds in two locations.

The short of the story is that these birds seem to be on their way out. We drove around the same roads in Hernando Beach for almost 5 hours without seeing or hearing any of the small green birds. They are apparently loosing the nest boxes that they depend upon--both to rising House Sparrow populations, and to removal by new residents.

Finally, when we were about to give up, we spotted three birds flying into a tree in a front yard on Gulf Winds Circle (check out Bill's photo of the "last" three wild budgies in America). While 38 Budgerigars were reported here on the last Christmas Bird Count, it didn't bode well that it took us so long to find the birds, and that there were only 3. For all we know, we could have just seen the last of the parakeets. If you haven't seen these birds, now is the time to go. They could disappear at any time.

As an introduced exotic species, probably nobody is going to lift a finger to save this population--which is really a shame. I'm usually not one to advocate supporting exotic bird species, but driving around the suburban neighborhood where they live, its clear that they would add much to the otherwise unremarkable urban avifauna of House Sparrows, European Starlings, Brown-headed Cowbirds, and Eurasian Collared-Doves. The budgies nest together in small bird houses--like miniature Purple Martin colonies. With a coordinated effort, maybe we could see large flocks of budgies once again lining the power lines on US Hwy 19 like migratory swallows.

Later in the day, we were able to find only one budgie in the territory of the Pasco County flock--the only other known location for these birds. Flying back to Pennsylvania on Sunday night, I had visions of a great community project, with scouts and others making attractive little budgie boxes and educating people about how to help the budgies by removing House Sparrow nests. I could see thousands of budgies once again roaming these neighborhoods, which can never be what they were eighty years ago (coastal saltmarsh), but could well regain what they had thirty years ago--flocks of perky green Australian birds bringing joy to residents and visiting birders alike. It was a much more pleasant vision than the more likely scenario, where nobody does anything for these birds, they disappear, and nobody ever bothers to fly down to Florida to go birdwatching in Hernando Beach again!

Introducing--Black-hooded Parakeet

In case you haven't heard, one of the next species to be added to the ABA Checklist of North American birds is likely to be the Black-hooded Parakeet, also known as Nanday Conure or Parakeet. Over 800 of these birds are breeding in and around St Petersburg, Florida. On Saturday morning, I was able to see several of these birds on trees and power lines on my way back from an Audubon bird walk to Fort De Soto Park.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Exotic Miami

After drinking in the sights of the Everglades for a few hours, I headed back to “civilization” to search the urban jungles of Kendall for exotic Red-whiskered Bulbuls and Spot-breasted Orioles—birds that have made this part of Florida home for decades, and which are “countable” according to the rules of the American Birding Association (ABA).

First stop was the Royal Palms Tennis Courts—where bulbuls are supposed to be found on the wires and trees in the adjacent neighborhoods. After over an hour of driving and walking around, I started wondering if the day is getting too late and the wind is keeping birds quiet. While searching, I did hear parakeets, and looked up to see two birds flying overhead. Unfortunately, they were Yellow-chevroned Parakeets—birds that are not fully established in Florida, and hense “uncountable” according to the listing rules. I drove to a couple more places where the birds are supposed to be found, but (say it with me now)—no birds. I headed over to the Kenwood Elementary School—another known site for the birds, but nothing. I dropped by the offices of the Tropical Audubon Society in south Miami, another bulbul and oriole spot—but nothing.

I needed to be at a meeting in St. Petersburg by 7pm—a five hour drive with traffic—so just after 2pm I had to call off the search and head back across the Everglades and Big Cypress on the fast-moving I-75 (Alligator Alley). After two days of birding, I’d seen only a couple of my target species, started making plans to return some other time to search for the birds I couldn't find this trip, and started wondering about the sanity of a person who would drive hundreds of miles to see a few birds. While I had Bill Pranty’s A Birder’s Guide to Florida to tell me where to look for birds, I didn’t have much time to prepare for this trip and I’m feeling a bit frustrated by not having as much info as I would normally have before heading out to bird unfamiliar territory. Note to self—do more homework before your next birding trip and learn a bit more about the habits and habitats of the birds you are looking for!

Everglades...glades that go on, forever!

Waking up before sunrise on Friday morning, I had a choice to make—head to Miami to look for exotic Red-whiskered Bulbuls and Spot-breasted Orioles, which I’ve never seen, or head out to Everglades National Park, where I had less chance of seeing anything new. I took off my bird listing hat for a few hours, put on my conservationist hat, and headed out to the Everglades.

Just outside the park, I stopped to look for a Shiny Cowbird that was reported last week. No dice on the cowbird, though I did see a six foot long iguana sitting in a tree, and on a tip I drove down to the end of the road to look for Limpkin. No Limpkin at the end of the road, but as I was driving back, I saw a couple unusual birds on the power line. They flew down and landed near the car, hopped down onto the road, and started walking away. They were two Common Mynas—birds introduced to Florida and first noted there in 1983, but which don’t “count” for birdwatchers because nobody has done the study to determine exactly how well they are established.

As I pulled away from the mynas, a large bird flew up into a tree along the canal—finally, a Limpkin! I’ve seen these large brown wading birds in Central America, but this was the first one I’ve seen in North America—so it was a first for my ABA (American Birding Association) list.

Inside the park, I drove the 30 plus miles down to Flamingo, hiked a few trails, and scanned the trees around the ponds for White-crowned Pigeons. No dice on the pigeons, but did see lots of Wood Storks. At one point, I was staring into the eye of a Wood Stork only 50 feet from the car, when I realized that I have usually seen these birds in flight. This was the first time I’d actually been able to look one of these prehistoric-looking beasts in the eye—a very alien experience!

Two cottonmouths were additional highlights, while a low was seeing hundreds of exotic anole lizards on the Snake Bite Trail. South Florida is a veritable zoo, with dozens of exotic reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals taking over landscapes that are also changing due to large numbers of invasive exotic plants that crowd out the native vegetation. It’s a Disneyesque landscape—completely altered by humans. Even the Everglades, that endless “sea of grass,” thousands of square miles of sawgrass and water, are altered by the water control projects that have deprived the area of the water it needs to sustain its natural processes.

However, altered or not, the Everglades are still amazing. Even Great Blue Herons—birds commonly seen along waterways in even the most urban areas—take on a new majesty when seen in a marsh that stretches out of sight to the horizon.

Tamiami Trail

U.S. Highway 41, the Tamiami Trail, crosses the Big Cypress National Preserve and the Everglades as it runs from Napes to Miami. I spent all afternoon on Thursday listening to 30 minute nature programs on the Everglades Radio Network while searching this area for Limpkins, Snail Kites and other interesting Florida birds. It’s a sad day when Wood Storks and Swallow-tailed Kites (check out this USFWS photo, its such a cool bird!) just aren’t good enough—but it was a bit frustrating to search all the known locations and come up short on Snail Kites and Limpkins. The afternoon did produce some cool reptile sightings—including a glass lizard, American alligators (hundreds), and huge female soft-shelled turtle crossing the road.

For over an hour before dusk, I drove back and forth on Hwy 41 near the Muscogee General Store looking for the Snail Kite roost. Again, nothing. With only a couple of days to try and blitz the birds of Florida, and many cool birds not yet back from winter haunts to the south, I know I’ll have to come back if I want to see these birds in the U.S., but its frustrating to search and search and come up short.

By the end of the day, I was camping in Homestead south of Miami with over 400 miles on the car and only having seen one of my target birds. Note to self—next time you go to Florida, spend more time birding and less time driving!

First Blood

Thursday, I was up at 3am for the drive to the airport. By 9am, I was in Tampa, and half an hour later, I was in my rental car speeding south to Oscar Scherer State Park south of Sarasota in search of Florida Scrub-Jay.

At the park entrance, the attendant indicated that the jays could be found on the Yellow Trail at the end of the pavement. Walking down the trail, all I could hear were Blue Jays and I was starting to worry that this would be a long search. About 300 yards down the trail, I heard the familiar ruck-ruck-ruck-ruck call of a scrub-jay, and suddenly three birds appeared less than ten feet away in the low bushes.

I had heard that the jays at another location were tame and would come to your hand if you had peanuts for them (check out this photo by Joel Sartore). Feeding is not allowed at Oscar Scherer, but I held out my fist as if I had something hidden in my hand. In an instant, one of the birds flew up and landed on my hand and started trying to pry my fingers apart. When that didn’t work, the bird started pecking vigorously on the knuckle of my hand (I suppose a clenched finger must look a bit like a giant acorn to a scrub-jay)!

I opened my hand, the bird looked at it for a moment, and then flew away. As I was watching it, another jay scared me when it tried to land on my head. I watched the three birds for a few more minutes, and then, just as suddenly as they appeared, they were gone.

I’ve had close encounters with some amazing birds, but this was the first time a life bird (one I haven’t seen before) has drawn blood!

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

NYC Crows

Yesterday I was in meetings all day at the National Audubon Society headquarters at 700 Broadway in New York City. The heavily built landscape view out of the 5th story window there didn't provide for much birding--just the regular flybys of Rock Pigeons. Finally, at a low point in the afternoon, four American Crows flew lazily over the NYU buildings. Six hours, two species. Now that's slow birding!

The other disappointment of the day was that I missed Ivory-billed Woodpecker searcher Bobby Harrison's visit to the Audubon magazine staff--I was in other meetings and didn't get to hear his story. Apparently he gave a good presentation, sorry I wasn't able to catch it.

Monday, March 20, 2006

The OTHER Merganser

After months of seeing thousands of Common Mergansers almost every time I go to Peace Valley, this morning I was able to find three Red-breasted Mergansers in among the 80 or so Common Mergansers remaining on the lake. I really like these birds, with their rakish manes. While Common Mergansers look like something that a craftsman could create in their shop, Red-breasted Mergansers look more alien and wild. Here's a nice painting of them by Trevor Boyer.

Bird Flu and Poultry Trade

Great op-ed in the International Herald Tribune.

Why can't we get more news stories and investigative reporting about legal and illegal poultry shipments? Check out this news story about poultry smuggling into Vietnam (presumably) from China. Hard to control H5N1 avian influenza with such free-flowing movements of birds from potentially infected areas.

And here is a horrific story of the result of poultry smuggling from Israel into Palestine:

"Near the West Bank city of Hebron, Palestinian customs officials intercepted two trucks carrying poultry which had entered illegally. Palestinian officials said they would kill the 2,600 chickens in the trucks.

Palestinian workers later started burying the chickens alive in a pit by dumping soil on them with bulldozers.

“We want to get rid of these chickens because they came from Israel, which is an infected area,” deputy Hebron commander Musbah Al Baba said. “We do not know for sure they are infected, we are just taking precautionary measures.” Smuggling into Palestinian areas has grown due to demand for cheaper supplies of livestock."

Many officials claim that poultry or bird smuggling in the US is such a small enterprise, that it doesn't constitute a major pathway for H5N1 into the country. However, based on how few overseas shipments are actually inspected, and that bird shipments are not unheard of, such claims seem as at least as premature and irresponsible as statements indicating that wild birds are the primary pathway by which the virus will arrive in the US.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Ivory-billed Woodpecker ID hits ID Frontiers Email List

Today Kenn Kaufman sparked a round of discussion about the Luneau woodpecker ID on the ID Frontiers email list. Check out his post here, and the continuing discussion here. When this discussion has died down, you'll be able to find an archive of it here. We might all just learn a little something from this discussion, and I look forward to keeping tabs on it!

More Ivory-billed Info in Science Magazine

If you read the Sibley Article and the Cornell Rebuttal Article, you've only seen half the evidence they draw on to make their case. Don't forget to check out the supplemental online information--here's the supplemental Sibley info, here's the Cornell extra info.

These articles seem to underscore the fact that reasonable people can disagree about the identification of the bird in the blurry video. If there is disagreement, then we don't have conclusive evidence for Ivory-bills. Frustrating as this may be (who's eyes aren't bleary after trying to figure out what these blurry video images are really showing?), perhaps Nuthatch (a blogger and bird researcher I greatly respect) best sums it up with this statement:

"In the Sibley paper, similar analytical tools were used to reach a different conclusion than in the original paper, akin to two researchers performing the same experiment and getting different results. Nor have the "results" presented in the first paper been replicated in two years of herculean effort. In the world of science, a situation of this nature would generally be considered to be at the "back to the drawing board" stage. And I think that's where the IBWO is at. Still awaiting rediscovery."

Others will disagree, and the video will remain a Rorschach Test in which people will see what they want to see.

Media Coverage and Lame Bird Puns

Why is it, that whenever a bird story hits the news, reporters can't seem to avoid using bad bird puns? In the most recent CBS story about the Ivory-billed Woodpecker debate, entitled "Feathers Fly in Woodpecker War", the problem extends beyond the headline to include the following bad bird references:

"top bird expert is pecking away"
"controversy took wing"
"Gov. Mike Huckabee flew into the fray in a bid to ground Sibley"

Is anyone else out there sick of the tired, lame bird references that slip into news stories about birds? Tired of stories of birders "flocking" to see rare birds. Of bird controversies causing a "flap"? Of bird conservationists "getting their feathers ruffled"?

While bird stories may provide a lighthearted break from otherwise grim news reporting, here's my plea to journalists:

Lay off the lame bird references. Just because it's a bird story, doesn't mean that people want you to try and be cute. If you want people to enjoy your bird stories, just make sure you spell the names of the birds correctly, and get your facts straight and the story will take care of itself. No need for tired old bird puns. We are not amused!

More Ivory-billed Woodpecker Video?

Ivory-billed Woodpecker searcher Bobby Harrison claims to have additional video of a distant Ivory-billed Woodpecker visiting one of his woodpecker decoy sites in the Big Woods of Arkansas. Listen to him describe it here (click on the 2/28/06 podcast). Why hasn't this video been made public, if it offers additional evidence for the continued existence of these birds?

Sibley essay on The Nature Conservancy Site

The Nature Conservancy has put up a fine essay by David Sibley detailing his views on the Ivory-billed Woodpecker search, conservation of the Big Woods, and why he came forward with his recent article questioning the video evidence for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker's existence. I've only birded with David a couple of times--twice on a dike at Cape May in 1995 where he amazed me by calling out the ID of warblers as they streamed by overhead, and once at Hornsby Bend when he came to Austin on a book tour. In person, as well as in writing, he is soft-spoken and very careful. I'm glad his article and essay are out, and hope that they inspire us all to be careful, but also to take appropriate action, as we move forward in trying to protect the birds that we have in our care. If Ivory-bills still exist, they deserve all we can do to keep them around. Their current or former habitat--whatever the case may be--also deserves protection.

Ivory-billed Woodpecker Story on NPR

Morning Addition has a story today (here) on the Sibley paper, including quote by Birding magazine editor Ted Floyd.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Ivory-billed Woodpecker Doubts Explode

The Sibley Science article has finally appeared online, and the media frenzy has begun (Sibley article here, Cornell rebuttal here. News articles about Ivory-billed skepticism have already appeared in the New York Times, National Geographic News, Nature, and the Associated Press. Other stories are due out from NPR and others. The blogosphere is also lighting up. Tom Nelson is following this closely at the Ivory-bill Skeptic, but GrrlScientist has also posted a long lament entitled "Goodbye, Beautiful Dream".

Its a sad day, but hopefully one that can help us refocus our efforts and help us figure out where we're really at with the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and bird conservation in general.

Birdchaser in the Wall Street Journal

I'm quoted in a bird flu Q&A in the Wall Street Journal online. Not sure how much I add to the discussion here, but the piece does raise some good issues.

Tooth Fairy Bird

A lighthearted jab at speculation about the role of migratory birds in spreading HPAI H5N1 bird flu virus is Martin Williams and Nial Moores' online article describing the illusory Tooth Fairy Bird. The authors conclude that:

"The Tooth Fairy Bird is clearly an intriguing scientific and social phenomenon – never yet found, existing most strongly in the brains of certain virologists, officials and journalists (and, of course, some bloggers, bless ‘em), and with a strong and widespread hold in the popular imagination. Like the mythical bogeyman that some parents find convenient, the Tooth Fairy Bird is ever ready for blaming when bird flu strikes, always available for helping sound dire warnings of doom."

A fun read, with some good information on problems with the "Wild-birds-are-spreading-bird-flu Theory".

Kenn Kaufman Weighs in on Arkansas Ivory-bills

Birding luminary Kenn Kaufman posted this on the OH bird email list yesterday:

Subject: Woodpecker behavior
Date: Wed, 15 Mar 2006 09:58:51 -0500

The reported rediscovery of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in Arkansas has been mentioned on ohio-birds many times over the last 11 months, which suggests that this is an acceptable topic for this forum.

Last month in Ecuador we caught up with a related species, the Powerful Woodpecker (Campephilus pollens). I'd missed it on previous trips to South America -- not surprisingly, since it's rather rare. In The Birds of Ecuador, Vol. 1, Robert Ridgely says that it's "rare to uncommon and perhaps local." In Vol. 2, he expands on this to say that its habits are "similar to other Campephilus woodpeckers, though Powerful's home range seems exceptionally large and as a result the species is encountered only infrequently." We found a family group in forest on the east slope. The birds were wary, as one would expect with a large woodpecker, and they were in dense forest, but we were able to follow them at a respectful distance for a long time, and Kim even got decent photos with her small digital camera.

The encounter got me to thinking about our North American species of Campephilus, and I went back and reread Roger Tory Peterson's account of seeing the Ivory-bill in 1942. (This was in RTP's wonderful book, Birds Over America, published in 1948.) He had sought the bird in South Carolina on the basis of rumors there in the 1930s, but finally he went to the Singer Tract in Louisiana, the last place where there were still known to be any living Ivory-bills (two adult females had been seen there a few months earlier). The Singer Tract was big, 80,000 acres, and there were no stakeouts such as roost sites, so Peterson and his companions knew it wouldn't be easy. It wasn't: it took them a whole day and a half to find the birds. Once they found them, though, they were able to follow them for almost an hour.

Now, about these freakishly elusive, supernaturally un-photographable birds in Arkansas... Once you look at the only "proof," the famous four-second video, and realize that it actually shows a Pileated Woodpecker, you have to wonder: What's really going on there?

Kenn Kaufman
Rocky Ridge, Ohio

Wednesday, March 15, 2006


A day at the office spent fielding bird flu media queries, and working on urban bird conservation guidelines was happily interrupted by a Fox Sparrow under the feeders. First one of these we've seen here this year, and a reminder that spring is on its way!

Final GBBC Results

GBBC reviewing has pretty much concluded. When the count period ended, we had 585 accepted species records. The final count is now up to 623 species. Some of these came in through normal channels, but probably at least half of these came in as a result of scouring the internet and emailing researchers and bird tour leaders for additional observations during the count period. I'm pretty happy with the totals from Hawaii--we got many more native Hawaiian species than we have in the past, including the incredibly rare Maui Parrotbill. Very cool. Hopefully next year we can do even better.

Here is the actual GBBC summary press release from Cornell and Audubon:

"Extreme" Bird Count's Fascinating Findings
Record-breaking Great Backyard Bird Count results

New York, NY & Ithaca, NY, March 9, 2006—The ninth annual Great Backyard Bird Count, which took place February 17–20, set new records as participation soared across the United States and Canada. From backyards to wildlife refuges, bird watchers tallied a record-breaking 623 bird species and 7.5 million individual birds during the four-day event, coordinated by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society. Participants sent in more than 60,000 checklists, providing a wealth of information unmatched in previous years.

The flood of reports yielded what would have been otherwise impossible—a comprehensive snapshot of the continent’s birdlife. “With more people watching birds, together we discovered amazing things,” said Paul Green, director of Citizen Science for National Audubon Society. “In some places, observers described flocks of robins so large their combined calls were louder than jetliners, and good seed crops in northwest Canada caused several species of seedeaters to remain in sub-zero northern Canada rather than move to warmer areas further south.”

American Robins are typically reported in greatest number by observers in the balmy southern states, but they inundated the Northwest this year, including Washington State, where flocks of 40,000 or more were seen and totals skyrocketed to 96 percent above last year’s count. In contrast, tallies of robins were down to less than one-half of their 2005 numbers in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi for reasons that are as yet unclear.

Although most insect-loving birds travel south of the United States in winter, warm weather may also have enticed some swallow and warbler species to stay farther north than usual, living on a partly vegetarian diet. The number of bird watchers who reported Orange-crowned Warblers rose by more than 50 percent compared with last year and they reported twice as many birds, some of which were eating suet and nectar from feeders. Tree Swallows, which can feed on bayberry berries during winter, have broadened their distribution from 11 states in 2001 to 20 states in 2006. Adjusted numbers were up by 134 percent compared with last year.

Complete tallies and maps are available at the Great Backyard Bird Count web site, along with photos and narratives about other birds—including species in southern states hit by hurricanes, the stunning invasion of Snowy Owls in the Pacific Northwest, migratory pathways of Sandhill Cranes, regional rarities such as a Black-throated Blue Warbler in Connecticut, and continued drops in counts of American Crows, which have been plagued by West Nile virus.

The web site also announces winners of this year’s contests for localities with the highest participation, and features some of the more than 3,000 bird photos sent in for the photo contest.

“The success of citizen-science projects such as the Great Backyard Bird Count is built upon the generosity, skill, and enthusiasm of our participants. It was incredibly exciting to watch the number of checklists climb this year,” said Janis Dickinson, director of Citizen Science for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Next year’s Great Backyard Bird Count takes place February 16–19, 2007.

Checklist Champs for 2006

With more than 60,000 checklists submitted, the 2006 Great Backyard Bird Count ranks as the second-highest ever in participation, up 15 percent compared with last year and up a whopping 40 percent from two years ago. Three Canadian provinces and fifteen states set new records for checklists submitted. The following are the checklist champs for this year’s competition:

Top 3 Provinces:

1) Ontario (1,309)
2) British Columbia (424)
3) Alberta (317)

Top 10 States:

1) New York (3,978)
2) Pennsylvania (3,173)
3) Virginia (2,863)
4) North Carolina (2,847)
5) Ohio (2,833)
6) Texas (2,754)
7) California (2,550)
8) Georgia (2,507)
9) Florida (2,263)
10) Michigan (2,071)

Top 5 U.S. communities:

1) Fultondale, AL (505)
2) Charlotte, NC (362)
3) Mentor, OH (340)
4) Cincinnati, OH (287)
5) Richmond, VA (262)

Top 5 Canadian communities:

1) London, Ontario (86)
2) Calgary, Alberta (69)
3) Saskatoon, Saskatchewan (47)
4) Winnipeg, Manitoba (45)
5) Campbell River, British Columbia (40)

For a complete list of top communities in their states and provinces, and recognition for “most improved,” please visit our contest results page.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society thank Wild Birds Unlimited, sponsor of the Great Backyard Bird Count.

Audubon is dedicated to protecting birds and other wildlife and the habitat that supports them. Their national network of community-based nature centers and chapters, scientific and educational programs, and advocacy on behalf of areas sustaining important bird populations, engage millions of people of all ages and backgrounds in conservation.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a nonprofit membership institution interpreting and conserving the earth’s biological diversity through research, education, and citizen science focused on birds.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

New Yard Bird--Fish Crow

Before I tackled the plumbing this morning, I actually had another nice bird sighting at my house--a Fish Crow being chased by four American Crows. Fish Crows are slightly smaller cousins of American Crows, and in this part of the world they wander about a bit early in the spring before settling into their more riverine nesting areas. As I was taking out the garbage this morning I heard the lower, harsher call of a Fish Crow, and looked up to see it call again, while being chased by the American Crows. I can only suspect that the local American Crow family wasn't too thrilled to have this interloping cousin cruise through their territory. I, on the other hand, was more than happy to see it in my yard and to add it to my growing new yard bird list.

Swan Lake

Most days I stop by Peace Valley on my way to work and scope out Lake Galena. Today I got there a bit later than normal and the water was choppy. From the road, I usually see a flotilla of over a thousand Common Mergansers, but they weren't there this morning. From over a quarter mile away I could see several large white birds floating in the middle of the lake, and guessed they were swans. Driving closer, I got out the scope to see if they were roving Mute Swans, or perhaps a group of migratory Tundra Swans heading north.

Luck was on my side, as the scope revealed them to be six Tundra Swans, necks bowed, facing into the wind. Graceful and sharp-looking, a nice view after a frustrating morning struggling under the kitchen sink with leaky plumbing. Though they didn't soothe all my jangled nerves, they did provide a measure of peace, and greatly improved my mood. It isn't every day that I get to see a lake graced by swans. Fortunately, it isn't every day that I so desperately need their stately grace to brighten my morning. But today, I took the swan sighting as auspicious, and was glad that Peace Valley truly lived up to its name.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Argh! Mickey Mouse Bird Flu Reporting

The latest from Disney owned ABC News is just plain crazy! Despite all we know, US officials are still waving their arms and saying wild birds will bring H5N1 avian influenza virus to the US. This is still pretty much just speculation, and shame on ABC for not digging in to any of the real stories here (international poultry industry, bird smuggling, official scare-mongering, etc.)! Good to know US officials have a Mickey Mouse rubber stamp!

Or maybe this reporting is just a response to the widely circulating photo gag entitled "Bird Flu Strikes Disney"?

UN Officials Backing Off on Wild Bird Flu Claims

In the past, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization has been one of the leading proponent of the view that wild birds were carrying and spreading the H5N1 avian influenza virus. A new 24 Heures interview (in French) with Samuel Jutzi of the FAO shows that UN officials are beginning to question the role of wild birds in carrying the H5N1 bird flu virus around the world, and is now looking more seriously at the role of the global poultry industry.

Here's a slightly edited English Babel Fish Translation:

The H5N1 will support the chicken factories

INTERVIEW Switzerland Samuel Jutzi is one of the directors of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). It analyzes the consequences of avian influenza for the poultry producers and consumers.

Published on March 13, 2006
(Photo caption: Samuel Jutzi, economist trained with l’EPFZ, joined the FAO in 1999)

At the head office of the FAO in Rome, Samuel Jutzi, directs the division of livestock health and production, which is on the front lines of the battle against the H5N1 virus that FAO is carrying out on the ground, mainly in countries deprived of effective veterinary services.
- How did this epidemic become so extensive?
- It is still a mystery! Frankly, when the disease was recently first discovered in ten countries at practically the same time, it was a surprise. One thought of the migratory birds but, at the time, their routes did not correspond to the expansion of the disease. Today, it is supposed that it is the poultry trade which propagated the disease at its beginnings in Asia.
- And elsewhere in the world?
- last year, we again assumed that migratory birds were extending the disease towards the west, but there are still many uncertainties. As for the arrival of the disease in Nigeria, the most probable assumption, it is that of illegal poultry imports, even if the migrating ones perhaps also played a part.
- Why does trade play does such a part in the propagation of avian influenza?
- Quite simply because the poultry sector became a sector globalized par excellence! Over the last twenty years, in the whole world, the industry has seen spectacular growth and become incredibly industrialized. The volume of global trade continues to increase. For this reason the poultry trade explains in good part the expansion of the disease, in spite of strict medical rules on a world level.
- And its origin? Does mass production offer a ground favorable to the virus?
- Not. It is necessary to distinguish between the density of poultries in an area and the number of poultries in the industrial companies. These last can be protected effectively from the viruses. Actually applied, the safety requirements of these complexes offer a high degree of protection. For a virus, the best conditions of development they are the family breedings with a strong density of poultries.
- A to hear you, the future they are the chicken factories…
- There is D E any manner a tendency to industrialization encouraged by the economy. In Europe, the near total of the production is done already in an intensive way, the developing countries follow the same evolution. The current bird flu outbreaks will accelerate the movement since poultry can be better protected in these protected artificial environments. Other side of the coin: there will be fewer bird breeds and that will lead to the standardization.
- And farm chickens? Will they soon be nothing more than a pleasant memory?
- No, but this type of production will be a small minority. The poultries of great quality, raised in the open air and nourished with grain will become niche products. In Europe, one wants to continue to produce them, but for that it is necessary to find the means of protecting them from disease outbreaks. This is one reason why France is trying out targeted vaccinations in certain areas. Because it is known that after this bird flu is spread across the planet, there will be other disease outbreaks. In a globalized world, it is difficult to escape from it.

While this interview shows the FAO considering poultry shipments as a greater risk than migratory birds, it also shows the agency as hesitant to take on industrial poultry production. Their claims that backyard poultry production may be at greatest risk fly in the face of the recent GRAIN report. So, while this seems to be a step in the right direction, agricultural experts still seem unwilling to question the true nature of the H5N1 threat as a disease created and propagated by the globalization of the industrial poultry industry.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Birdchaser in the Reading PA Eagle

The Reading Eagle ran a story on bird flu, and I was featured in the accompanying sidebar article.

Some doubt wild birds a threat
By Dan Kelly

Not everyone agrees that avian influenza will be carried to Berks County on the wings of a migratory bird.

Experts at the Audubon Society and the Pennsylvania Game Commission said that man and not wild birds will be a more likely culprit.

"If bird flu ever does get to North America, it will probably arrive via illegal poutry sumggling from infected countries," said Rob Fergus of the Audubon Society's Philadelphia office. "There are very few birds that cross the Atlantic--possibly a few greater white-fronted geese from Greenland, and an odd gull or other bird here or there.

"Wild birds from the Old World do nest in Alaska, and they are being monitored for bird flu virus, but so far nothing has materialized."

In addition, Fergus said the bird flu is found more in waterfowl and pooutry flocks and not in most wild birds.

Fergus agreed that backyard poultry will be the first birds at risk of infection [note: not sure where this came from, maybe industrial poultry a more likely first infection possibility]. However, he said other infected domestic birds and not wild birds will be the disease carriers.

"Wild birds in turn will be most at risk of infection from mingling with backyard poultry stocks or from infected poultry waste that is disposed of as fertilizer in fields or discharged into waterways," Fergus said.

Dan Brauning, a wildlife diversity coordinator with the Pennsylvania Game Commission, said wild birds mainly migrate from north to south and not east to west.

"The way it has spread from Southeast Asia to Iran, Turkey and so on has been tied to the transporation of captive birds and not to wild bird migration," Brauning said.

He said he believes captive poultry and caged exotic pet birds imported sometimes illegally from lands where the bird flu already is present likely will be the source of infection in the U.S.

As far as wild bird migration carrying the flu here, Brauning siad only a small number of species travel between continents.

"Most of U.S. birds that migrate do so within the U.S." he said: "I think the oceans will protect us."

Funny to see how you are quoted, and though I might quibble with a thing here and there, that's what you get when you talk to the press. But the main message is here, wild bird migration is probably not the most likely way that H5N1 avian influenza will get to the United States.

Birds in the Political Winds

I don't usually comment about political news here, but have to wonder how the resignation of Interior Secretary Gale Norton will impact birds and bird habitats. The Interior Secretary oversees huge amounts of public land including the National Parks, as well as the United States Fish and Wildlife Service that is charged with protecting the our nation's birds. Regardless of where you fall on the issues that Norton has been involved with, including increased drilling for oil and gas on BLM land, the ANWR drilling controversy, or shifting conservation funds from other projects to fund Ivory-billed Woodpecker recovery efforts (mentioned in Jackson 2006 and Dalton 2005--see some of the programs that were cut to help fund IBWO recovery work in the proposed budget justification here), the Interior Secretery has an impact on birds, and this resignation will have an impact, though it may take us a while to figure out exactly how.

Crazy Bird Flu Articles

I'm really getting tired of non-bird experts talking about how they expect bird flu to get to the US. The most rediculous statement I've seen recently was this line by David Nabarro in a CBS story online.:

"Birds carrying the virus along the West African-Atlantic flyway will move into the area of Greenland and Northern Canada and then, probably towards the latter parts of this year, move down into the American continent."

This is just plain crazy. The most abundant migrant from Europe to Greenland are Pink-footed Goose, Barnacle Goose, and Greater White-fronted Goose. None of these birds normally travel from Greenland down to North America in the winter. There are less than a dozen accepted records of Pink-footed Goose in eastern North America, and only a couple dozen Greenland White-fronted Goose found in eastern North America each winter. And geese have not been shown to be effective long-distance carriers of H5N1--as shown by the huge die-off of 10,000 Bar-headed Goose in the China outbreak last year. So, for H5N1 to get to the US via Greenland, it'd have to get into a European goose at just the right time for it to migrate north to Greenland, and then it would have to transfer it to a North American Snow Goose, Cackling Goose, or Canada Goose in Greenland. Then one of those American geese would have to be able to carry it south four months later. Not a likely scenario, by any means.

The chances of a bird from Asia bringing it to Alaska are probably only slightly better. There is a chance that this would happen, but as Pete Marra of the Smithsonian stated in the latest USA Today story, it is more likely that H5N1 avian influenza will get to the via the pet trade or poultry shipments.

Despite the crazy map that USA Today put out, seemingly showing a migratory pathway crossing the Atlantic (one good way to lie with maps, is to show something really small with a big line!), this latest article is a bit better than we've seen lately, tempering concerns about wild birds with statements by actual ornithologists, and pointing to other more likely ways that bird flu may come to the US.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Ivory-billed Woodpecker Science Article Delayed

This afternoon I heard that the Sibley article is now going to come out next week instead of this week. Apparently there will be additional materials accompanying it--including a rebutal by Cornell. Should be interesting, so stay tuned.

Ivory-billed Woodpecker Science Article

Word on the street is that the Sibley article questioning the identification of the bird in the Luneau video will be out this week. New issues of Science are dated on Fridays, so stay tuned! Folks involved with the IBWO search are scrambling to have their press statements ready.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

When Grackles Rock

Most people don't like grackles. They are common, loud, and can clean out a bird feeder in no time flat. But today, I love least the three Common Grackles that flew over my new house, becoming the first grackles for my yard list. Same for the 15 Red-winged Blackbirds that flew over. This morning, while cleaning off my new back porch, I had 16 species in my tiny little rowhouse backyard. I'm already dreaming of putting in a small stream, more native bushes, and maybe some raspberries. Birds and raspberries, yum!

More Behind the Scenes at the GBBC #3

OK, for most people, the GBBC came and went back in mid February. But not for me! I've been getting lots of emails all through February, asking what ever happened to their lost bird record (it was still under review by a local reviewer), what can they do about the mistake they made on their report (enter a new one with the good info, and give us details on the bad info so we can delete it), etc.

But most of all, I've been scrounging up bird records. When the count period ended, we had 585 species reported. I've been contacting folks who were out birding in far-flung places to get reports of other birds seen during the GBBC period, and now we're at 623 species and counting! Its been great to connect with people who were out on boats off the coast of Alaska (somebody had to see Crested Auklets!) and on the mountains of Maui and Kauai (we got the first GBBC record of Maui Parrotbill, a gravely endangered native Hawaiian species--along with a half dozen other native Hawaiian birds).

I'm wrapping up my GBBC efforts here this week. Still hoping to dredge up reports of a few more species (somebody had to have seen a Yellow-billed Loon or a Northern Fulmar!), but mostly just editing people's mistakes and doing some last report reviewing. Lots of much fun that its hard to see another one come and go already! But, we're already making plans for next year and next month I'm heading up to Cornell for a meeting to start planning the 2007 GBBC.

Most states did fairly well this year, averaging (mean) 82% of the species listed on their February eBird checklists (with a mode of 88% and a median of 86%). So, congratulations to everyone who submitted sightings, giving us a new all time species high, a new total birds counted high, and many more checklists submitted this year than last year. It was a great success, hopefully setting the stage for an even bigger showing next year!

Friday, March 03, 2006

Fighting Eagles

Got headed in to work late today (i.e. the sun was up), so had time to swing by Peace Valley park where up to 10 Bald Eagles have been hanging out lately. It was great to watch two young eagles fighting. One swooped down and caught a fish in the middle of the lake, and the second bird flew after it. The second bird swooped on the first, and pulled up to grab at it with its talons. The first bird dropped the fish and flew off, coming back around to try and get the fish back from the surface of the water. On the second try, it got the (same?) fish back, and the second bird started chasing it again. The birds locked talons briefly at one point.

The whole time, dozens of gulls were flying around and hundreds of mergansers were floating on the water below. At one point, one of the young birds flew right over my car about 30 feet up. Amazing to watch these huge birds, and to know that there are now over 7,000 pairs of them nesting in the U.S., up from under 450 pairs in the mid-1960s. Very cool detour on my morning commute.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

I and the Bird #18

Perkasie, PA (March 2, 2036)--30 years ago this week, George W. Bush was president of the United States, a few crackpots were still questioning global climate change, and birding was very different than it is today. Before bird banders routinely used RFID chips on their bands, and public websites allowed birders to get real time coordinates for RFID banded birds, bird watchers had to actually depend on skill and luck to find the birds they wanted to see. Of course, there were more birds back then, but birding was still more challenging, and in many ways, more rewarding.

A review of bird-related blog posts from 30 years ago provides a window into birding and human-bird relationships at the dawning of the 21st Century:

For a look at the pure joy of an early 21st Century birding trip we can take a look at an account by John at A DC Birding Blog of his trip to the beach. While some birds were declining even then, a birding trip could still produce sightings of dozens of species, without the use of RFID technologies.

Another interesting account of birding in the early 21st Century is B and B's narrative of a cold Great Backyard Bird Count and an unexpected bird of prey. The GBBC was still less than a decade old, and fewer than 70,000 people participated each year...a far cry from the 15 million birdwatchers who participated in the recently completed 2036 GBBC.

For birders interested in the social aspects of enjoying birds, birding festivals and birding celebrities were becoming more popular in the early 2000s. Before Pete Dunne retired from heading up the Cape May Bird Observatory and became the first birder to list over 10,000 species on his world list, he was already a popular speaker at birding festivals. 30 years ago, Amy at WildBird on the Fly made a video of Pete Dunne pishing in Arkansas.

This was back when the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology was furiously trying to follow up on birder reports of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in the Big Woods of Arkansas. As Rob of The Birdchaser noted, by late winter of 2006, the case for Ivory-bills in Arkansas was beginning to come apart. Later commentators were tempted to see these Ivory-bill searches as a fin de si├Ęcle phenomenon, a grasping for good news at the dawning of a new Millenium ushered in with terrorist attacks and consequent U.S. military responses. For a few brief years, we all hoped for a re-appearance of the Lord God Bird.

Home Bird Notes gave evidence of how some how people in the early 21st Century were seeking positive interactions with birds and nature in what she described as "a little good news".

Other signs of birds as important in American culture at the turn of the 21st Century, include Dave Bonta's vision of Black-capped Chickadees as genius loci at Via Negativa.

In 2006, penguins were popular icons in American culture, following their visibility in the animated children's feature Madagascar and the breakout documentary March of the Penguins. Tai Haku at Earth, Wind, and Water commented about Penguins and People as revealed in tourism to a colony in South Africa.

However, birds were already slipping from the popular consciousness in other areas, as demonstrated by this story about The Euphemisms of Life from Angie at Premenopaws.

30 years ago, nature enthusiasts were increasingly turning to urban birds to get their nature fix close to where they lived. Red-tailed Hawks nesting in Manhattan provided this fix for thousands of Big Apple residents, and in early 2006 Trout Grrl at Science & Sarcasm wrote a review of a popular book about Pale Male.

Others found inspiration in the mysteries provided by birds, as did Pamela at Thomasburg Walks, when she reported on a nocturnal visitor to her yard.

Biotechnology was in its infancy in the early 21st Century, and researchers were still learning some of the basics of avian physiology. The prolific blogger Bora at Circadiana wrote about Persistence in Perfusion, the struggles to better understand vision and circadian cycles in quail. For a less technical view of quail, see his post at Science & Politics.

Birders in 2006 were still behind their hunting and fishing neighbors in effective support of wildlife conservation, though writers such as
Birdchick encouraged birders to join with hunters in supporting bird conservation through the purchase of Duck Stamps.

Charlie Moores wrote on Charlie's Bird Blog about Blue-winged Pitta he observed at the Singapore Botanic Gardens. Looking back at Charlie's stunning photos now, we should count ourselves lucky that this beautiful bird survived the rampaging of Southeast Asian forests that fueled China's wooden furniture export markets in the early days of the 21st Century. Many other species weren't as lucky.

Dave at the Bird Treatment and Learning Center in Anchorage, Alaska wrote about preparations to protect the ravens in the Tower of London. This was written as the H5N1 bird flu was exploding across Western Europe, and before governments had learned to take effective measures to prevent the spread of the disease in shipments of poultry and poultry products. While the H5N1 bird flu never became a human pandemic (that didn't happen for another few years with another flu strain out of China), it was a wake-up call for the poultry industry and governments around the world.

In 2006, the American Bald Eagle was well on its way to full recovery from its pesticide-induced decline in the mid-20th Century. With over 10,000 pairs of eagles nesting along rivers all across the United States and Canada now, its hard to remember that this magestic bird was once down to 450 nesting pairs in the 1960s. In February 2006, photographerMike Blair got a great shot of an eagle flexing its muscles to intimidate a crow.

The nests of other common North American birds was celebrated in the Roundrock Journal. Fortunately, many of the same birds that commonly nested in and around human habitations in the early 21st Century, persist in their neighborly habits today, wherever people make space for them in their yards and urban planning.

This includes non-native species in North America, such as the House Sparrow, which Carel at Rigor Vitae wrote about In Support of Sprugs, as well as native species like woodpeckers, such as these Pileated Woodpeckers that Bev at Burning Silo got some great photos of in early 2006.

In the early days of the 21st Century, it was still fairly easy to see many of the colorful birds of the American tropics, such as the Black-faced Dacnis celebrated by GrrlScientist at Living the Scientific Life. However, as economic development and population pressure in South America (currently at over 700 million, up from 540 million in 2000) fueled increased forest clearing, many of these birds have become harder to find. Others are easier to find now, but restricted to small remnant populations in isolated forest reserves.

In Australia, bird conservation has been difficult due to continuing struggles with invasive exotic species, though few birds have actually disappeared entirely since Duncan at Ben Cruachan Blog wrote about his garden birds back in February 2006.

Meanwhile, in North America, we get some interesting views of bird populations at the turn of the 21st Century. Gwyn at Bird Brained Stories! captured some beautiful images of some common North American birds--including a rare shot of a Brown Creeper on the ground in the snow. 2006 was a banner year for Brown Creepers, with twice-the-normal numbers of birds reported that year on the Great Backyard Bird Count. As with many annual fluctuations in bird numbers, this historic creeper influx was never explained. Meanwhile, creepers have maintained their turn of the century hemispheric population trends by increasing in areas that became reforested, and declining in areas cleared for urbanization.

Other species have also not fared as well, including the Painted Bunting, like this one photographed by Kevin at NaturalVisions. These birds need expansive shrubby areas for nesting, and declined as urban areas expanded across their range in the American South. Fortunately, some neighborhoods and communities banded together to form neighborhood wildlife co-ops, and jointly landscaped adjoining yards and parks with native shrubs to attract and conserve these beautiful birds in their communities--so while Painted Bunting numbers have declined, they still persist thanks to the work of these grassroots bird conservationists.

One bird that has increased in numbers over the past 30 years is the Pied-billed Grebe. When Mike of 10,000 Birds reported a Pied-billed Surprise in 2006, the species was declining throughout much of the Northeastern United States, but with the creation of artificial wetlands and improved water quality, the grebes have become much more common.

Since Tucson has grown from a population of 485,790 to over 630,000 in 2036, its interesting to get a glimpse of the birdlife there in early 2006, when Rick at Aimophila Adventures wrote about Verdin songs as a sign of spring in Tucson. Thanks to an emphasis on native landscaping, and the establishment of habitat protection measures in Pima County, Verdins are still commonly heard there as harbingers of spring.

With all the changes in birding and birdlife that have occurred in the past 30 years, these views from the past provide both cautionary tales and hope for the future. Humans have managed to help some birds, while others have become less common or disappeared due to our neglect. Birding is still enjoyable, though technology has changed how many birders interact with birds.

One of the things that has changed the most is how bird enthusiasts communicate with each other. In 2006, birders had to manually type messages to each other and send them via wired computer systems that were usually larger than books, and sometimes not even portable. But even then, just as now, bloggers posted their comments and views of birds and birding.

Back in March 2006, bloggers were urged to submit their latest bird-related posts by March 14 to Mike or Bora for inclusion in I and the Bird #19, hosted by Science and Politics.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Goodbye Old Yard List--Hello New

This morning as I was doing the final cleaning out of our old townhouse, I heard a Red-bellied Woodpecker calling from across the street--yard bird #29 and my last yard bird for this place. Over the past two crazy weeks, while I've been totally swamped with GBBC and the explosion of bird flu into 13 new countries, we've refinished floors, painted, and moved into a new rowhouse in Perkasie. Despite the small yard, it is next to a park along Perkiomen Creek (the same creek that Audubon lived along at Mill Grove), and has a lot more habitat potential than the almost sterile new townhome community we just moved from. The new yard list is already up to 18 species and we've just moved in. I fully expect to get over 50 species there this year if I can get some migrants coming through the neighboring trees.
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