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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!

Jocotan Birds

Tuesday, September 5, we headed out early to walk around the aldea above Jocotan. We concentrated on finding the birds that our informant knows--and found about twenty species in a couple hours of walking around the milpas (corn and bean fields) and patios (yards). Very cool to see Turquoise-browed Motmot, Spot-breasted Oriole, Cinnamon Humminbird, and an immature Gray Hawk. Walking back down to town, we heard at least three quail and managed to flush one in an abandoned field--a Spot-bellied Bobwhite. We spent the afternoon going over stories and beliefs about local birds, as well as trying to identify several more that we had names for, but only in Ch'orti' and Spanish.

Ch'orti' Birds

Monday, September 4 was my first day of ethnoornithology field work in Jocotan. I had come down to Guatemala to help Kerry Hull, a linguist from Reitaku University in Japan who studies Ch'orti' Mayan, identify the birds that he had collected Ch'orti' names and stories about. We spent each morning hiking around with Kerry's informants, and the afternoon trying to figure out the identification of other birds known by the local people, but that we hadn't seen yet.

The first morning we went up to an aldea above Jocotan, and found Clay-colored Robins, Social Flycatchers, Rufous-naped Wrens, Stripe-headed Sparrows, as well as vultures and doves in and around the yards or patios in the aldea.

As we were sitting in the patio of our main Ch'orti' assistant, he heard two wakos calling. They flew by, and we got a quick look--two Laughing Falcons. We collected some good stories about these birds, and recorded them in Ch'orti' and Spanish in the afternoon.

Swifts in Jocotan

After five hours on buses and vans, we arrived at Jocotan (about half an hour from the Honduras border east of Chiquimula) in a pouring thunderstorm. Fortunately, the rain dropped several species of swifts down from their normal foraging areas higher up in the mountains. From my window at the hotel I was able to identify two Great Swallow-tailed Swifts, two Black Swifts, two smaller White-chinned Swifts, as well as 20 additional Cypseloides sp. swifts flying about in the rain before dark. 30 Lesser Goldfinches came in to roost in a tree near my window, and I was also able to spot two Blue-gray Tanagers, one Yellow-winged Tanager, a Great Kiskadee, two Tropical Kingbirds, and a male Purple Martin with a couple other Progne (probably Grey-breasted Martins) martins roosting on the cell tower in front of the hotel. Finally, some real Central American birds!

Birds at Kaminaljuyu

From the hotel, we took a taxi over to the Pre-Classic Mayan ruins at Kaminaljuyu--basically an archaeological park smack dab in the middle of Guatemala City. Here I am standing in front of one of the archaeological mounds. Not a lot of birds here, but did enjoy seeing three Eastern Bluebirds among the ruins. Interesting to wonder how they might have visited the site when it was inhabited 2,000 years ago. Also saw some Black Vultures and a Rufous-collared Sparrow...two more typically urban birds.

Back in the day, Kaminaljuyu was an important city, and one of the first places that we have record of rulers dressing up as bird gods to help legitimate their rule. Today, birds rule there again, as its parklike setting provides space for birds otherwise surrounded by the concrete jungle of Guatemala City.

First Birds in Guatemala

After arriving after 10pm the night before, the first bird seen from the balcony of the Guatemala City Marriot was...Lesser Goldfinch. Followed shortly by Great-tailed Grackle and Clay-colored Robin. Off in the distance, a Leptotila dove--probably a White-tipped Dove--flew across the city. Great. All this way to see four birds easily seen in Texas!

Latest Info on Wild Birds and Bird Flu

A new paper to be published in the October issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases (and available now online ahead of print) reviews recent outbreaks of H5N1 HPAI, the species of migratory birds infected, and the potential for wild birds to spread bird flu to new areas.

The authors conclude that:
HPAI H5N1 spread rapidly across Eurasia during 2005 for reasons that are not entirely understood. Despite this rapid movement, effective introduction (i.e., under conditions allowing its spread) of the virus to the New World through migratory or vagrant birds seems unlikely. Few individual members of few waterfowl species migrate between hemispheres, and should a bird make the journey while shedding sufficient active virus to infect birds in the Western Hemisphere, newly infected birds would probably die before being able to transport the virus from the entry site. If spread of HPAI H5N1 to the New World occurs in its current form (e.g., through domestic or pet bird trade or smuggling), it should be readily detectable because of the large number of dead native birds likely to result.

Reference: Rappole, J.H. and Hubálek, Z. (2006) Birds and influenza H5N1 virus movement to and within North America. Emerging Infectious Diseases, October 2006 issues, available online at:
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