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Friday, December 29, 2006

My Local Patches in Birder's World

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

The Other Guys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Rarest bird I've seen all year

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Keeping hummingbird feeders from freezing

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

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

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

Monday, December 18, 2006

Christmas Bird Count

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

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

Saturday, December 16, 2006

New eBird mapping tool rocks!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 15, 2006

Conservation Through Birding

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

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

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

NPR on Bird Flu

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

Wild chickens. Now that's scary!

Birdchaser on Audubon Website

Links to my blog posts about the Hog Island Audubon Leadership Camp are online here. I'm planning on another great week in Maine this summer. Great food, great birds, great place! If you are an Audubon chapter leader, why don't you join us?
Nature Blog Network Fatbirder's Top 1000 Birding Websites