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Thursday, November 30, 2006

I and the Bird #37

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

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

To Bird, or Not to Bird

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Turkey Day with the kids

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

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Extinct Bird Rediscovered

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

Bird is the Word

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 20, 2006


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

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

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Brant at Peace Valley Park

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

Project Feeder Watch

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

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Did I ever mention my book?

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

Sonic Bird Telescope

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

Monday, November 13, 2006


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 10, 2006

Marbled Murrelet at La Jolla Cove

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

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

California Gnatcatchers in San Diego County

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Red-vented Bulbul in Houston

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Off to Houston...and San Diego

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

Monday, November 06, 2006

All Hands! Rare birds need help this week!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Senator Allard:

Senator Salazar:

Friday, November 03, 2006

More low pathogenic H5N1 bird flu in USA

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

November First Friday

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

Your Kindness We Praise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rusty Blackbirds

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

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

(photo: Brian Boldt)

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Birding Bling

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

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