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Thursday, May 25, 2006

Migration is Over

Well, its been three days of birding without seeing any migrants. So, while there are bound to still be some birds moving through, for the most part, the show is over. Amazing how quickly the birds come through this part of the world. Down in Texas, migration was a protracted endevour that lasted from February through the end of May and into June. Here, ducks are moving in February, but most of the land birds seem to move through more quickly after the leaves come onto the trees. A couple good weeks, maybe a month, and now its pretty much just summer birds everywhere. While I was out a fair bit this migration, I rarely saw more than a single individual of any given species...and never saw more than a dozen of any migrant species in one place (except for Yellow-rumped Warblers), making migration more of a whimper than a full-scale howl. Maybe bird numbers are declining, maybe I didn't get out on all the right mornings, or maybe this isn't the most birdy part of the world. While I saw thousands of individuals of over 100 species, it was sadly just not quite enough. Ah, the birder's curse...always wanting more!

Friday, May 19, 2006

No Ivorybills

The official word is out...searchers did not come up with any confirmed Ivory-billed Woodpecker sightings this year in Arkansas, despite spending over $1 million and thousands of hours in the field. Read the official Cornell statement here.

So, what does this mean? Only time will tell, but the polish is off the search for now. A riddle, inside a mystery, wrapped in the ghost of Elvis. One for the money, two for the show, three to get ready, bird.

An AP story (here) highlights problems and discontent with the ivorybill search and recovery efforts. Hopefully, this whole episode will eventually help, rather than hinder, bird conservation efforts. But for now, things look a little hazy.

Bird Flu Update

We are starting to learn a little bit more about the role of wild birds and farming in the spread of H5N1 avian influenza, but lots of questions remain. While New Scientist (see story here) sticks to their claim that wild birds are spreading the virus, others are less sure. The New Scientist line of reasoning hinges on the spread of a particular strain of H5N1 that was found in wild geese at Qinghai, China last year. This is the strain that spread last year to Russia and Eastern Europe, and now Western Europe. New Scientist claims that since it is the same strain as found in wild birds, it must still be in wild birds. There are some major problems with this:

1) Now we are getting reports that the "wild" geese that were infected at Qinghai may not have been so wild, as there are ongoing efforts there to domesticate the "wild" bar-headed goose (see Nature article here).

2) There are also fish farms on the lake that use poultry manures, which can carry the virus, as fish food (see latest article here).

3) The route that the virus took in its spread westward, despite New Scientist claims, does not match any known migratory bird pathway, but does follow major railways and highways.

So, the Qinghai to Europe spread can be more easily accounted for by trade in poultry or poultry products, rather than the movement of wild birds. That said, it is troubling that there are so many wild birds with H5N1 being found in Western Europe--including dozens in Germany over the past few months. We need to learn a lot more about how these birds are contracting and possibly spreading H5N1. This may be a new stage in the spread of this virus, so all eyes should be on Europe and how wild birds are getting and carrying it there.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

So as they don't waste away

Birders in the mood to buy a T-shirt should check out Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville website. Mr. Buffett is donating $1 to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation for the Puerto Rican Parrot Recovery Program for every t-shirt sold. Get your t-shirt and support the critically endangered Puerto Rican Parrot. Seems parrotheads know when to put their money where their mouths are.

Black and White

For me, black and white usually refers to a species of warbler. But after being profiled on The Cafes User Interface (thanks, I guess) and getting a couple comments from friends about how hard it is to read white text on a black background, I've switched to this black on white format. For now. It looks pretty boring, so I'm in the market for a new look. Feel free to comment or send suggestions on a new template. For now, here's hoping I'm easier to read.

Listing Report

Yesterday's mail brought the 2005 ABA Big Day Report and ABA List report--basically the equivalent of a birding orgy where everyone gets to compare whose bird list is bigger. Of course, the oversized lists at the top are always the most interesting. The biggest list in the ABA area (US Lower 48 plus Canada plus Alaska) is Macklin Smith at 873 species. An amazing 31 birders now report ABA lists higher than 800. When I was a kid, the ABA was still promoting the 600 Club as the birding big leagues for everyone who could manage to find 600 bird species north of Mexico. It wasn't that long ago that the first birder reported finding 700 species in North America. Of course, in the past 30 years, they've raised the bar.

The biggest world list reported was Tom Gullick with a whopping 8560 species, followed by Jon Hornbuckle with 8150 and Peter Kaestner with 8031. 17 birders report lists of over 7,000 species worldwide. That's some serious world travel.

So, what does all this mean? The sad fact is that for most serious list enhancement, the birder has to ask how big do you want it to be, how much are you willing to spend, and how much are you willing to be inconvenienced to get that big list. There isn't anything normal about these huge lists--they are a curiousity, if not a birding pathology. You don't get a size 86 DDD list without some serious cash and sacrificing of normal birding functioning. Just like the big cup size can chronically cripple your back, the personal lives of the big listers may become seriously distorted in their quest for the huge numbers of birds.

But while a huge list may not actually be much of an indicator of one's birding skills, it is an interesting curiousity--something to marvel at. Those big lists turn heads and provoke birding envy. While we might all fantasize about seeing that many birds, few of us can afford the cashola, time, or sacrifice of personal relationships that big listing can entail. So every year, most of us tune in to see what kind of list augmentations have been performed in the past year, shake our heads, and dream about someday getting to that far off place to see those birds that we can only dream about. But for a others, mostly near the top of the lists, the listing report is more than a birdwatching freak show--its a report card. You don't spend so much time and money on a big list without getting at least a little ego involved.

Monday, May 15, 2006


Sometimes, when all the stars line up, everything comes together and you get into the birding groove. Its almost magical.

Friday on the birdathon, my officemate Jim Sheehan picked up a Nashville Warbler singing in a mixed flock of warblers. The birds were impossible to see, but somehow, I managed to spot the bird singing from deep within a tree. Nashvilles often do this, and don't seem to move around as much as other warblers, so I was pretty happy to have been able to spot the bird.

An hour later, Jim's great ears picked up a singing Mourning Warbler. We rushed to the spot where the bird was singing from deep within a low patch of multiflora rose. These warblers often stay deep in the brush, and can be really difficult to see. I managed to spot the bird moving up into the lower branches of a tree. Or actually, I saw a small shape moving up that way. Then the singing stopped and the bird was gone. A few moments later, the bird sang from farther back in the woods. We searched for it, but couldn't see it. A few moments later, I spotted a Hooded Warbler pop up for a few seconds, but then it was gone before anyone else could see it. Turned out to be the only Hooded Warbler we found all weekend. Then, turning around, I happened to spot a bird 15 feet up in some vines--pink bill, gray hood with darker flecks on the gray bib, yellow underparts, no eye-rinig--Mourning Warbler. Unfortunately, it flew as I was trying to get the other guys onto it...but there it was as if by magic.

On Saturday, we went searching for a Barred Owl seen earlier in the morning by a birding team in Fairmount Park. We got to the spot on the trail where it had been seen, and it looked like it would be impossible to find the bird. But, I hiked off the trail up a small creek. The huge trees and dense leaves reminded me a lot of where I'd seen Spotted Owls in Arizona this past fall. And just like that search, I stopped for a moment and sat on a rock and just happened to look in exactly the right spot to see the Barred Owl 40 feet up near the trunk of a hemlock tree. No real reason I should have seen this bird at the distance it was, but that's part of the magic. I was able to get Jim onto the bird, but then it flew while I was trying to get another birder on it. So I hooted a Barred Owl call, and the bird flew in closer, perching 20 feet above us and calling vociferously. It was clearly agitated, so we the bird a sense of power in its ability to drive off three large and ugly rivals.

Sometimes it all comes together. For me, when I can slow down enough, I seem to be able to get into a grove where the birds just appear. Car birding, and rushed birding, often keep this from happening, so I cherish these magic moments--and scheme up ways to spend more time with the birds so that I can enjoy more of these experiences.

Birding with Bob Ridgely

On Saturday, legendary ornithologist and birding superstar Bob Ridgely joined our birdathon team for the morning. It was great fun to bird with Bob and hear the latest on his work to save several critically endangered species in Ecuador, including the Pale-headed Brush Finch and the Jocotoco Antpitta that he discovered. But since Bob worked at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia for over 20 years and conducted bird surveys in Philadelphia's Fairmount Park, this is his old stomping grounds. Birders hate to make a bad call and to look stupid in front of their peers, or in this case, their superiors...but I'll offer up my most unfortunate moment of the morning here:

Bob (hearing a bird call): Acadian Flycatcher
Birdchaser (seeing a bird quickly fly from where the call came from): There it is!
Bob (seeing the bird I pointed out): Uh...that's a House Sparrow.
Birdchaser (very red-faced, and not from the sunburn): Ouch!

So, it happens to all of us. Fortunately, I was able to help find some good birds a few moments later to help redeem myself. But it was a bad bird call to remember, for sure!

Birdchaser Birdathon

On Friday and Saturday I went birding to help raise some money for the Wissahickon Valley Watershed Association. This is the second year I've helped with this birdathon, and its a lot of fun. We found 80 species on Friday, and had some good birds including Mourning Warbler and Nashville Warbler. The Mourning Warbler was a first for the entire birdathon, and none of the other seven teams found a Nashville Warbler, so it was a lot of fun. Great to see 17 warbler species, as well as Scarlet Tanagers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, and other migrants. But, good to know that every species we found raised $30 for the watershed association and their efforts to protect land in these neighborhoods northwest of Philadelphia. We visited several properties that they have been able to protect, and the birds are obviously much better for their efforts.

Birdchaser in Science

On Friday, Science Magazine published the following letter to the editor. Some great folks co-authored the letter. Nice to be associated with such fine company.

Migratory Birds and Avian Flu
In his article "Evidence points to migratory birds in H5N1 spread" (3 Mar., p. 1225), D. Normile reports that "increasingly, scientists are attributing this remarkably fast spread [of H5N1] to migratory birds, but dissenters remain."

All agreed that wild birds have a role, but attributing the spread of HPAI H5N1 entirely to migratory birds overlooks evidence that is inconsistent with this conclusion.

One cannot ignore the apparent lack of previous outbreaks along migratory pathways. Birds have been migrating along these same routes annually since this genotype of HPAI H5N1 was first identified in Asia in 1997, yet there was no spread of disease to Eurasia or Europe in the interim years. Although fewer than 0.05% of more than 13,000 healthy waterfowl tested (1) were positive for HPAI H5N1, billions of birds have traveled to Eurasia and Europe for 8 years. It seems suspicious that none has managed to transmit this highly pathogenic virus until now. The introduction of HPAI H5N1 onto the continent of Africa, as well as the earlier outbreaks in poultry, notably in Russia and Turkey, could have been as easily accommodated by the movement of infected poultry, poultry products, or contaminated fomites as suggested for migratory bird routes. Meanwhile, Japan, with strong controls on poultry imports, has remained H5N1-free since early 2004, when infected poultry flocks were destroyed, despite the annual arrival of large migratory bird populations from areas with known H5N1 outbreaks.

Four pathways are most likely involved in the movement of HPAI H5N1: poultry shipments; the movement of contaminated equipment, materials, and waste products; migratory birds; and the wild bird trade. At most, the evidence suggests that wild birds may be responsible for short-distance, secondary movement of HPAI H5N1. Ornithologists, virologists, veterinarians, and others must work together, sharing their specialized knowledge to understand more thoroughly the movement of this virus.

Rob Fergus
National Audubon Society
545 Almshouse Road
Ivyland, PA 18974, USA

Michael Fry
Pesticides and Birds Program
American Bird Conservancy
1731 Connecticut Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20009, USA

William B. Karesh
Field Veterinary Program
Wildlife Conservation Society
2300 Southern Boulevard
Bronx, NY 10460, USA

Peter P. Marra
Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center
National Zoological Park
3001 Connecticut Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20008, USA

Scott Newman*
Field Veterinary Program
Wildlife Conservation Society
2300 Southern Boulevard
Bronx, NY 10460, USA

*Previously at Wildlife Trust,
460 West 34th Street, 17th Floor,
New York, NY 10001, USA.

Ellen Paul
Ornithological Council
1707 H Street, NW
Washington, DC 20006, USA


H. Chen et al., Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 103, 2845 (2006).

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Wednesday, May 10, 2006


According to eBird, I've recorded 196 species in five states so far this year. Not a huge number of birds by any stretch. I've seen 76 of these species this year at my office, and 34 at our rowhouse since moving there in February. I keep lists, because I'm a birder. Its just part of what I do.

Once upon a time, when I first used birdchaser as my hotmail address, back before hotmail was bought out by Microsoft, I did more than keep a list. I actively chased birds to add to my life list, and even thought about competing in bird listing competitions. I still dream about doing an ABA big year to see how many species I can find in North America (north of Mexico) in one calendar year. I used to bump into some of the most avid bird listers in North America while chasing such goodies as Common Crane in Nebraska and Siberian Accentors in Idaho. After I first moved to Austin, my wife and I would house sit for a couple while they travelled the world seeking new birds to add to their list. One of them, a retired oil executive, had over 6,000 species on his world list. While I may have thought about birdchasing at that level once upon a time, when my little ones started to arrive, my birding took a much more local bent...which is where I've been for the last few years. I had put birdchasing mostly to the back of my mind, where I could manage the obsession with brief excursions tied to work travel or to see rare birds appearing locally.

Then, I picked up To See Every Bird On Earth by Dan Koeppel, whose father Richard racked up a list of over 7,000 birds in a lifetime of birding and 59 major trips over 17 years before retiring from active birding after some serious health scares. Soon the floodgates were opened, and I found myself dreaming of trips to see exotic birds and wondering about some of the major bird listers that I had heard my friends talk about in the early 90s. Here in Koeppel's book, I got a glimpse of some of these characters--including the legendary Phoebe Snetsinger, who died on a birding trip to Madagascar a few years ago after racking up a still-record-holding list of over 8,500 species, and a current favorite Peter Kaestner, a diplomat for the US state department with a list of over 8,000 birds. (see a list of current global listing standings here)

Most of the book chronicles the struggles of Keoppel's father to find a footing in a world that undervalued his interest in birds, and seemed to have been stacked against a young birder seeking a fulfilling family and emotional life. The story is punctuated with bird sightings, but the hard-core bird listing doesn't enter into the narrative until rather late in the book. While Keoppel does a fair job explaining the global listing obsession, I was left wanting more in-depth coverage of this fascinating branch of birding. Keoppel mentions such infamous early 90s birders like Harvey Gilston--who reportedly couldn't identify hardly any of the over 7,000 bird species he had seen, and walked away from birding in 1991, or the British husband and wife team of Michael Lambarth and Sandra Fisher, who only counted birds they shared until Sandra died and Michael, too, walked away from the quest to see all the world's birds. While Keoppel spends a good chapter with legendary bird tour leader Bret Whitney of Austin, and birding with Peter Kaestner...these are the highlights of the book. I still want to see a juicy, down and dirty treatment of the world birding listing scene. Until that book is written, this will have to suffice as an intro into that world and some of the characters that inhabit it.

What drives people to spend hundreds of thousands and upwards of millions of dollars, not to mention years and years away from their families, to try and see so many birds? Koeppel declines to offer a reason, suspecting that any answer would involve complex personal psychological factors beyond his ken. After reading this book, I wonder about that myself. And to wonder how long I can stave off such madness in my own life. Can I be satisfied with yard and county listing and a handful of trips around the country each year to see some new birds, or am I teetering on the edge of a madness that few could fathom? I'm slipping off to Veracruz, Mexico this fall for an ornithological conference. Maybe, just maybe, I'll have to dust off the world bird checklist that has been languishing on my library shelf these last few years. If I dare!

Chimney Swifts

One of the joys I get from living in the city is the chittering calls and aerial acrobatics of the Chimney Swifts that nest on my block. I grew up with Vaux's Swifts in Oregon--birds that usually stay in the coniferous forests, unless they are drawn to urban roosts during migration. Living in the East, Chimney Swifts have been a lot of fun to hang out with, and I look forward to seeing them each year (photo:avesphoto).

In return for the enjoyment that they bring, there are things that we can actually do to help these amazing birds. My friends Paul and Georgean Kyle in Texas have a Chimney Swift conservation program that they run out of the Driftwood Wildlife Association. They encourage people to build artificial chimneys as roosting and nesting structures for the swifts, and to either clean and manage their chimneys for birds, or to cap them so the birds aren't trapped or tempted to nest in an unsafe chimney. This photo is of a swift tower that also serves as a nature kiosk just off the parking lot of the main building at Hornsby Bend near Austin, Texas. These tower kiosks make perfect mini-nature centers for parks or schools, where they can host info about local birds and nature, as well as serve as a landmark and meeting place for local bird walks or other activities.

Since wood-burning and chimney use and construction has declined, Chimney Swifts have declined in numbers across much of their range in the Eastern United States. They are considered a priority species for conservation and monitoring by Partners in Flight, the planning organization working to sustain populations of American land birds.

Some of the best info about the birds and what you can do to help them can be found in two Texas A&M Press books recently written by the Kyles. Chimney Swifts covers the biology, life history, and conservation of the birds, while Chimney Swift Towers provides more detailed instructions on how to build artificial structures to attract and help the birds. If you are lucky enough to live in Chimney Swift habitat--and most of us east of the Rockies do, enjoy their aerial chases and courtship flights this month, and take a look to see if there isn't more you can do to encourage "America's mysterious birds above the fireplace".

Monday, May 08, 2006

10 Most Beautiful Birds

Laura at Birder Blog tagged me with this meme, which was started by John at A DC Birding Blog. Here are the rules: Post a list of the 10 birds you consider most beautiful on your blog; you may limit the list to the ABA area (continental United States and Canada) or use a geographic area of your choice. Mark birds you have seen with an asterisk.

So, here goes...proving that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, here's my ABA list:

1. California Condor* (lifer 8/85--large, and rare, with whistling wings--awesome!)
2. Whooping Crane* (lifer 4/95--large, white, piercing eye)
3. Snowy Owl* (lifer 1983--white, alien-looking)
4. Greater Sage Grouse* (lifer 3/94--awesome when booming)
5. Great Gray Owl* (lifer 6/95--stunningly fierce eyes)
6. Long-billed Curlew* (lifer 1984--what a beak!)
7. Siberian Accentor* (lifer 1997--rare, dreamy subtle beauty)
8. Greater Flamingo* (lifer 1999--other-worldly-pink, with a wild bent snoz)
9. Bachman's Warbler (thought I saw one once, but of course, they are extinct...)
10. Ivory-billed Woodpecker (if not extinct, perhaps the most beautiful of all...)

Does this betray any kind of prejudice for the large, rare, and unusual? If so, what does that tell you about a birdchaser's psyche?

Most folks I know have been tagged, but I'd like to see a list from Julie Zickefoose and Jeff Gyr, and just for kicks from my less-bird-oriented-but-very-aesthetic-in-law Chef Messy.

Good Kid Bird Movies

Wouldn't it be great if we could get a bird conservation movie into the homes of millions of Americans? What if it were a kids movie from a major studio...something that taught people about the importance of taking care of birds and wildlife in the urban environment? What if somebody else made the movie and it didn't cost conservation organizations a cent?

Pretty much this very thing is happening this summer with the the theater release of two major motion pictures--Over the Hedge and Hoot. Over the Hedge
is a computer animated kids movie by Dreamworks that will premiere May 19. It features woodland wildlife surprised to find a new subdivision in their territory when they wake up from hibernating through the winter. Think of it as an environmentally friendly version of Shrek. Hoot is a live-action movie that premiered last weekend about some kids that try to save a neighborhood Burrowing Owl from bulldozers. Its brought to you by the same folks who made Holes--another recent classic kids movie.

How about partnering with a local theatre to have a kids showing of these films, starting out with a short talk about the importance of taking care of wildlife in our neighborhoods. Give out some backyard birding handouts. Make it a fun family event. Shoot, maybe your local birding club or Audubon chapter can even find a way to use this to raise some money.

If Hollywood is going to hand us this kind of gift, we oughta take advantage of it!

Peace Valley Migrants

Saturday I took my kids for a two hour expedition to Peace Valley. Lots of fun chasing frogs and picking up a few new migrants like blue-winged Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler and Yellow Warbler. Sunday afternoon I led a bird walk there and was surprised by the large number (over 60) of White-throated Sparrows in the woods. Also heard my first Great Crested Flycatcher of the year. Peace Valley remains a favorite with my kids, and with me too.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Yellow-throated Warbler

Just before noon, Jim came in to say that he had a Yellow-throated Warbler singing outside his window. We went out and heard it down by the creek. After a few minutes, two of us got quick looks as if flew up onto an exposed branch, before disappearing again. Great to work with birders, and to have migration fever hitting the whole office!


Took an hour stroll through the woods at work this morning and found 43 species--including nine species of warblers. Nice to see the Indigo Buntings back, as well as to hear Ovenbirds calling from the understory of the woods. Most of the warblers were Yellow-rumped, though I did hear Black-throated Blue, Black-throated Green, and Northern Parula. Wood Thrushes were singing, as was a Hermit Thrush. This time of year, the birds are moving through fast, and different birds are present every day. Its a magical time, so get outside and enjoy the spectacle!

Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow--1, Birdchaser--0

Tuesday I had to give a presentation down in Maryland, so I spent a couple hours driving the marshes at Elliot Island. Good looks at 32 species, including a few migratory shorebirds and singing Seaside Sparrows, but no sign of Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow--an Audubon WatchList species that I was hoping to get a peek at. Wish I had more time to look, and that I hadn't forgotten my birdsong CD in my early morning departure. I did hear two Virginia Rails in the marsh, a great sounding bird that I hadn't heard since last spring, so a nice treat. And it was also nice to hear Eastern Meadowlarks singing, since they are not very common in my neck of the woods.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Birding Gotham

Last Friday, I conducted a bird count as I walked the two+ miles up ninth street from my hotel near Penn Station to the American Museum of Natural History. This area is almost completely built up, with a few street trees, rooftop plantings, and a little bit of landscaping around near Lincoln Center. Here's the count:

Rock Pigeon--375
European Starling--60
House Sparrow--110
Herring Gull--2
American Robin--2 (flyovers)

Compare this to the birdlist I compiled in a couple of hours of birding later that day in the Ramble of Central Park--which included 171 individuals of 42 species, and you can see a pretty clear lesson from urban ecology:

Built up urban areas dominated by buildings and concrete may have more individual birds of fewer species, while parks and vegetated areas will usually have more species, but lower numbers of individual birds.

How does the urban area support so many birds? I saw an average of about 8 pigeons on each block...feeding on spilled food and other items in the early morning before traffic picked up. So, there's lots of human leftovers to eat. The most startling for me (OK, maybe I live a sheltered life) was to see starlings eating human vomit off the sidewalk!

Central Park was great by comparison. Lots of good migratory birds in the Ramble, including a couple of Veery's. I was also able to get Larry (a male Red-winged Blackbird back for his second Spring) to land on my hand and eat some seeds, and Lola (Pale Male's mate) circled over the trees off towards her nest on the Upper East Side. Lots of good stuff to see and gorgeous weather to enjoy them in.
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