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Thursday, March 29, 2007

Birds out my window

This week I moved to a larger downstairs office at work, with a fireplace, some nice plush chairs and more space for my books. But the best amenity is the birdfeeder right out side the window where I watch a steady stream of White-breasted Nuthatches, Carolina Chickadees, Dark-eyed Juncos, White-throated Sparrows, and Downy Woodpeckers and a dozen other species jostle for seeds all day. Right now, early spring has brought roaming Brown-headed Cowbirds, and a pair is gobbling up seeds at the feeder and keeping the smaller birds from getting much more than the spilled seeds on the ground. Cowbirds have a bad reputation amongst descriminating nature lovers--since they leave their eggs in the nests of other birds, sometimes outcompeting and hastening the demise of native nestlings. But these birds are still striking--males with shiny black bodies and coffee-colored heads. The females have subtle brown feathers with delicate paler feather edges. This morning I'm enjoying seeing something I haven't seen a lot of--head-on views of the cowbirds. Their eyes seem remarkably close-together and forward-facing for a bird, giving it a stern or intent look. Who needs television with this kind of spectacle going on mere feet away. I may have to close the curtains if I want to get some work done!

Turkey Walk

This morning a friend saw 14 Wild Turkeys crossing the driveway when he pulled into work. When I arrived a half hour later, I decided to take a stroll down into the woods to see if the birds might still be around. Moving slowly, I was able to find at least 11 hens and 2 tom turkeys walking single-file through the trees. Then the males stopped to display, puffing up their feathers and fanning their tails. I didn't grow up with turkeys, so its always fun for me to see this. For a moment, the woods at work were a primordial forest, with a troop of ancient lifeforms moving through a parallel universe that I was priviledged to visit. I love that.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

What happened to Birderblog?

So, you tried to go to Laura Erickson's and it was gone? Thanks to Google caching, you can still read why its gone, even though Laura took down her original post about why she quit her dream job of blogging for Google caching is a great tool to help you find stuff that people have taken off the web, but it really can work against you if you are the person trying to retrieve something you've sent out into cyberspace! So, bloggers beware!

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Merganser copulation display

Yesterday and today there was no sign of the Long-tailed Duck at Peace Valley, but I did get a chance to watch a pair of Common Mergansers in their copulation display. The female was prone on the water with her neck outstretched and her chin touching the water. She faced the male as he circled, dipping his bill in the water then raising it up pointed to the sky in a ceremonial drinking display, mixed with occasional brief preening of the back feathers. This went on for more than ten minutes as I watched yesterday before I had to leave. Never did see if they actually did the deed. I couldn't find any photos of this behavior online, though it is described briefly in the Birds of North America account online (subscription required). I sure need to get that camera!

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Long-tailed Duck

This morning I stopped by Peace Valley Park on my way to work and was greeted by a stunning winter-plumaged male Long-tailed Duck floating in the middle of the lake with the large Common Merganser flock. This is mostly a coastal bird, so not one you see very often here inland. Also present were three Northern Pintail, and half dozen Ruddy Ducks and Ring-necked Ducks, also a lone male Bufflehead. Birds are on the move! (photo: Indiana Audubon Society)

Thursday, March 15, 2007

More bad news for Ivory-billed Woodpecker searchers

A new study with more evidence that the famed video of a bird in Arkansas is probably not an Ivory-billed Woodpecker (read it here).

Here's the abstract:
Background: The apparent rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker Campephilus principalis in Arkansas, USA, previously feared extinct, was supported by video evidence of a single bird in flight (Fitzpatrick et al, Science 2005, 308:1460-1462). Plumage patterns and wingbeat frequency of the putative Ivory-billed Woodpecker were said to be incompatible with the only possible confusion species native to the area, the Pileated Woodpecker Dryocopus pileatus.

Results: New video analysis of Pileated Woodpeckers in escape flights comparable to that of the putative Ivory-billed Woodpecker filmed in Arkansas shows that Pileated Woodpeckers can display a wingbeat frequency equivalent to that of the Arkansas bird during escape flight. The critical frames from the Arkansas video that were used to identify the bird as an Ivory-billed Woodpecker are shown to be equally, or more, compatible with the Pileated Woodpecker.

Conclusions: The identification of the bird filmed in Arkansas in April 2004 as an Ivory-billed Woodpecker is best regarded as unsafe. The similarities between the Arkansas bird and known Pileated Woodpeckers suggest that it was most likely a Pileated Woodpecker.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Timberdoodles with the kids

This evening I took my family to Sailor Point at Peace Valley Park at dusk to see the American Woodcocks (Timberdoodles) come out for their evening display flights. When we got there, we heard a half dozen woodcocks making their "pzeeeent" calls off in the woods and in the brushy field near the boat launch parking lot. Then, a couple bird zipped close by overhead. As it was getting harder to see, the birds started flying high overhead making their squeaky conveyor belt noises in the dark. The kids were tired, and it was a little chilly out there, but still lots of fun.

Getting inside the bird's head

This past weekend, while waiting for the Lazuli Bunting to show up, I was entertained by numerous observers offering conjectures about the hidden habits and activities of the wary bird. One man who had seen it briefly two days earlier, elaborated at length about how it always hung out with White-crowned Sparrows, hid behind a certain bush, and always came in between 9 and 10 am. Another speculated that the bird roosted nearby, but then disappeared to spend the rest of the day living in luxury eating seeds from a backyard feeder somewhere. In a total absence of real information, people were stringing together all kinds of speculative ideas based on the tiny bits of information gleaned from the past sightings of others.

I spent a lot of Friday morning engaging in this myself, wondering where I would go if I were a lone bunting, and wandering the neighborhood in search of the bird, and an explanation for its behavior. Saturday morning, as I recounted all of the available information to a newcomer, another birder quipped, "you're never going to get inside the f%*#in bird's head--it's either here, or it isn't."

In chasing birds, it is interesting to see how speculation goes wild when people are trying to find a bird but it isn't making itself available. The last few years of Ivory-billed Woodpecker searching are full of this kind of speculation. Lacking any real solid evidence, many wild and fantastic stories have been put forward about Ivory-billed Woodpecker ecology and behavior. But when you really get down to it, the bird is either there or it isn't. So far, there isn't convincing evidence that it's still there.

But that's just a side note--an interesting example--of this general practice of creating wild speculative stories about the comings and goings of rare birds. We try to find meaning, even when we don't have real information to do so. And when we finally see a bird we've been seeking, we like to think that somehow we've mind-melded with it, that we've somehow put ourselves into its world in order to connect with it on its own terms. Maybe we have, or maybe we haven't. How far do we really ever get into the bird's head?

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Good things come to those who wait

I woke up before 5am and drove over to the Lazuli Bunting spot before dawn. The sun wasn't even up and I was still not the first birder there. Others started to roll in and we all stood on the side of the road waiting and hoping for the bird to reappear. While we waited, I walked over to the creek and was excited to see a pair of Mink loping across the ice along the far bank. Its been over 10 years since I've seen Mink, so that was pretty cool.

Finally, after almost two hours of standing in the cold, I glanced at my watch. 7:49 am. I turned to some of the guys I was with and said, "this is about when the bird showed up yesterday, so its about time." Just then, the bird appeared behind us and we all got good looks as it sat in a tree for a few moments, then flew across the road, scuffled with a few other birds, and after a few more moments flew off and disappeared down along the creek. Perfect.

Except for one guy who was just walking up as the bird disappeared and a couple more birders who arrived in the next fifteen minutes. Since the bird is only seen briefly in the morning as it makes its rounds, and disappears for the rest of the day, things didn't look good for those who arrived late.

However, luckily a couple of kids fishing down along the creek spooked up the bird and at 8:15 it flew up and perched for several minutes in the top of a bare tree. Almost everyone got decent looks, especially those with scopes. The bird is freshly molted, with buffy tips to the feathers that are gradually wearing off to reveal the striking red, white, and lazuli plumage. Since these birds are supposed to be in Western Mexico this time of year, it isn't a plumage that most of us get to see. After a few minutes in the top of the tree, the bird buzzed off with its rapid bunting flight and disappeared back into the cedars and bushes behind us. (photo: Howard Eskin)

The bird didn't show up again before I had to leave about 9:15, to the chagrin of those who arrived after it disappeared. If it holds true to form, it won't appear again until tomorrow morning. Those who show up late will have to be satisfied with some of the other birds in the area--Hooded Mergansers, Sharp-shinned Hawk, and a host of sparrows including White-crowned, Field, American Tree, White-throated, Song, Swamp, and at least one roaming Fox Sparrow.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Lazuli Dip

For most folks, dip is a tasty concoction you eat with chips. For birdchasers, a dip is when you chase a bird but don't find it. This morning, I dipped on Lazuli Bunting twenty minutes from my house.

Lazuli Buntings should be in Mexico right now. But apparently one is in the next county over (see photos here).

I got there at 8:30 after taking my kids to school. The bird had shown up for a mere 2 minutes at 7:45. Apprently, it is only seen in the morning, and disappears for the rest of the day. Nobody knows where it goes.

I wandered around the area hoping to discover its hidden daytime haunts, but no luck. However, it wasn't a completely wasted morning, as I was able to get some really close looks at two American Woodcocks--including a great look at one bird on the ground. These secretive nocturnal sandpipers are usually only seen in the dim light of evening when they fly around displaying over open brushy areas in the woods. Today it was great to get up close and personal with a couple of these amazing birds.

Since I've seen dozens of Lazuli Buntings before, but had very few good looks at woodcocks, I think I got the better end of the bargain. Of course, that won't stop me from making another trip to look for Pennsylvania's third-ever-reported Lazuli again this weekend!

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Latest I and the Bird

I and the Bird #44 is up at The Greenbelt. Check it out for the latest best thoughts on birds from the blogosphere.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

GBBC Wrapping Up

Public data entry for the Great Backyard Bird Count ended last week, but behind the scenes there is still a lot of work to do. We have over 90 regional reviewers sifting through the unusual records and trying to clean up the data. We are still missing reports of many species, especially in Hawaii--so we're contacting observers there who might have additional species to report. We're also starting to look at the results from this year--including some interesting trends. Northern Pintail numbers are down, which may be further evidence that this species is continuing its precipitous population decline. Hooded Merganser numbers are way up this year, so there might be something intersting going on there. American Crow numbers are down a bit on a per checklist basis, perhaps indicating continued problems with West Nile Virus mortality.

The GBBC is an imperfect instrument, but by creating a snapshot of bird populations during mid February each year, it gives us a first look at how birds are doing across the continent. Sometimes, as in the cases mentioned above, we see things that make us look more closely at how some species are doing to see if we can otherwise verify trends that show up on the count, and perhaps identify the causes of the trends.

The fun thing is, anyone can take a look at the maps and the data for all of the past GBBCs. By exploring the maps, or the yearly counts, maybe you can spot an interesting trend that nobody has noticed yet!

Friday, March 02, 2007

Ducks on the move

As the ice melts off the lake at Peace Valley Park, small flocks of ducks are dropping in as they make their way north. Yesterday I saw 12 Ring-necked Ducks, 10 Northern Pintail, a dozen Green-winged Teal, and 1 American Wigeon with the more regular Black Ducks, Mallards, and hundreds of Common Mergansers. Today, there was only one Northern Pintail, but six American Wigeon, two Bufflehead, and several hundred more Common Mergansers.

Yesterday I also saw my first Fox Sparrow of the spring, and others are reporting Tree Swallows arriving in the state. Spring is in the air!

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Owl Love...or Lust

This morning at 3:30 a pair of Great Horned Owls apparently hooked up for a duet in my neighborhood. While I've previously seen and heard the one owl, there are definitely two now. Its prime breeding season for these guys here in Pennsylvania, so love is in the air. Or at least the hormonal and social activities that we associate with love in our human world. Bird love may be different in many ways, but to the extent that human couples and bird couples share hormonal sexual responses to each other, birds and humans may have a lot in common. So if it ain't love, maybe its at least lust.

We still have a lot to learn about bird feelings and emotions.
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