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Monday, December 22, 2008

Join me in Alaska--June 6-14

In June I'll be leading an Audubon Odyssey cruise out of Juneau. Come join me if you like whales and seabirds! Details here.

Magpies, etc.

I made a quick trip out to Utah and Idaho last week for my grandfather's funeral. Not much time for birding, but did get to spend some time watching magpies. I love those birds. So social. Stunning black and white pattern. I know farmers don't like them...but taken on their own terms, they are great birds.

I also saw several Rough-legged Hawks on my trip. I don't get to see these birds here in PA, so that was nice.

Mostly I just saw a lot of snow and sage. I nice tonic to the overdeveloped landscape I live in here in the East.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Pie Birds

OK, not sure why I never knew about this one, but just found out about the tradition of placing ceramic birds as steam vents on baking pies. Pretty cool. Two of my favorite things. Birds and Pies. Awesome!

Image: Wikipedia

FeederWatch Day

Thursday and Friday is Project FeederWatch day at work. Most days I can see 15-20 species at our feeders, but FeederWatch days are a nice excuse to pay a little more attention and try and see even more birds coming to the feeders or hiding in the bushes. A Downy Woodpecker (the official PFW bird!) just showed up with my House Finches, Tufted Titmice, Carolina Chickadees, Dark-eyed Juncos, White-throated Sparrows, and White-breasted Nuthatches. Will today be a four or even five woodpecker day? Every FeederWatch day is an adventure--its exciting to see what shows up. You don't have to be a crack birder to participate. If you know the common birds in your yard that's enough to get started. So, if you need a little excitement in your life, check out the Project FeederWatch website and give yourself a FeederWatch day every week to add a little spice to your routine.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Sungrebe in New Mexico--anything is possible!

In case you didn't hear, a Sungrebe (a tropical water bird never before seen north of Mexico) was photographed in New Mexico last month. Almost nobody ever guessed that this bird would show up north of the border, let alone in central New Mexico. If you haven't seen the photos of this bird yet, wander over to the Sungrebe page on the Arizona Field Ornithologists website for a treat. Keep your eyes open out never know what you may see!

Methane Burned Kestrel

Still collecting info on birds of prey killed or injured by methane burners at landfills. Here's an American Kestrel from Illinois:

The kestrel didn't make it--too much permanent tissue damage.

Here's a Red-tailed Hawk with a melted beak and singed face. Fortunately, it was able to be released, but only after 5 months of rehab:

For more info on this problem see Audubon Birdscapes.

Photos and info courtesy of Bernadette Richter, SOAR.

Baby Nighthawk Hors D'oeuvres?

Pennsylvania Game Commission biologist Tim Hoppe has been studying roof-nesting Common Nighthawks for the last couple of years in and around Erie, PA. Of the four rooftop nests he found last year, none were successful--all babies disappeared from their roof gravel nests soon after they hatched. We don't know yet what is taking the babies, but crows may be the culprits. Further studies are needed to figure out what is taking these baby birds, and if this is a significant problem for these birds across their range. Nighthawks have declined in numbers by 51 percent over the last 40 years. For more info on how Tim and other biologists are trying to help nighthawks, see Audubon Birdscapes.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Keep your eye out for banded Savannah Sparrows

Folks conducting Christmas Bird Counts this year have a chance to help us better understand the distribution of Savannah Sparrows.

A group of biologists are working with a heavily studied Savannah Sparrow population that breeds on Kent Island, Bowdoin College's scientific field station (Nat Wheelwright, of Bowdoin College, is the head of this effort). They band all Savannah sparrows that breed, hatch, or are found on the study site as juveniles with at least two bands; juveniles receive two bands (an aluminum USFWS band on one leg, a plastic color band on the other) and adults receive four bands (an aluminum USFWS plus a color band on one leg, two color bands on the other).

We know that the birds, both adults and first year, return each year to the study site to breed. One part of the project centers on song development, and it is clear that some of that process occurs before the young birds return to the study site for their first breeding season. It would be very useful to be able to find their wintering grounds so as to determine what effects the winter environment has on song learning in this philopatric population. However, we have no idea where this population winters (except that it is likely to be in the southeast US).

Christmas Bird Counters should be on the lookout for these banded Savannah sparrows? A simple report of their presence would be very valuable, and if the colors on each leg could be ascertained, that would be an amazing bonus. In the absence of tiny transmitters with GPS units (which may come our way eventually), the only chance of finding the wintering location of these birds is to disseminate the question and a heads-up to watch out for and notify those interested of banded birds to a community such as the CBC participants.

If you see a color-banded Savannah Sparrow during the Christmas Bird Count, or any other time during the winter, please contact

Heather Williams
Biology Department, Williams College
Williamstown, MA 01267
hwilliams AT williams DOT edu
(413) 597-3315

More information about the study is online at

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Birding for Everyone

One of the best things I did when I was working for the Travis Audubon Society in Austin was help with a birding class that took two dozen mostly Hispanic and Black at-risk 6th graders, gave them binoculars, field guides, and notebooks, and taught them how to identify and enjoy birds. Half the kids were from the talented and gifted program, and the other half were "resource" kids that needed academic help.

After the first session, it was clear that some of the dyslexic and other "resource" kids were much better at finding and identifying birds using the Ken Kaufmann's field guide. One kid named George clearly excelled at this--perhaps the first academic activity he had ever been good at. It was great to see him light up. At one point he boasted that if he could do this, he could do anything--he could even be president of the United States someday!

We took these kids birding once each month during the school year, and had a great time. During the second session, I saw that one of the kids had drawn a bunch of Mexican birds in his notebook. I asked him if he had been just copying birds out of the book. He said no, he had taken his book on a visit to his Grandparent's house back in Mexico and had drawn the Green Jays and other birds he saw there. Pretty cool, huh?

These kids had a great time while the class lasted, and sometimes I wonder what happened to them afterwards. Without a community of friends and family to support their interest, did it just eventually die?

In a brand new book, Birding for Everyone, John C. Robinson--an African-American and birder for nearly 30 years--discusses the challenges of engaging minority audiences in birding. The biggest problem seems to be, like we found in Austin, that there isn't a lot of support for birding in these communities. They aren't anti-birding--the kids we took out loved it--but there just isn't a tradition of birding and birders in place in those communities to foster and support birding activities.

So how do we share the joy of birding with more of our neighbors? Robinson offers a number of suggestions--most of which will involve birders taking a greater role in actively encouraging our minority friends to take up birding, and working through the schools and other institutions in minority communities to create a network that can support those kids and others who might enjoy birding, but who don't do it because they don't see it happening around them and don't have anyone to go birding with.

Robinson has a lot of good ideas about this, so take a look at Birding for Everyone and think about how you can be a better ambassador for birding in the communities around you. While it may seem like a lot of work--sharing birds with others is always a joy, and unless we want these minority communities--who are soon to outnumber the rest of us--to not care about birds and the environment, the future of birds and birding may depend on it!

(See a more detailed review of this book at Audubon Birdscapes)

Monday, December 01, 2008

Birding Lenapehoking

Lenapehoking is the homeland of the Lenape (Delaware), where I live. On Saturday we went to the Penn Museum and saw the exhibit Fulfilling a Prophecy: The Past and Present of the Lenape in Pennsylvania.

I enjoyed this from the Prophecy of the Four Crows:
Netami ahas kenthu li guttitehewagan wichi Kishelemukonk.
The first crow he flew the way of harmony with Creator.
Nisheneit ahas kwechi pilito entalelemukonk, shek palsu ok ankela.
The second crow he tried to clean it the world, but he became sick and he died.
Nexeneit ahas weneyoo ankelek xansa ok koshiphuwe,.
The third crow he saw him dead his brother and he hid.
Neweneit ahas kenthu li guttitehewagan lapi wichi Kishelemukonk.
The fourth crow he flew the way of harmony again with Creator.

According to the interpretation of the prophecy at the exhibit, we are living in the time of the fourth crow, when the Lenape and others will live in harmony again with all of creation.

I signed the Treaty of Renewed Brotherhood at the museum, and look forward to doing my part to promote Lenape culture and environmental stewardship here in Lenapehoking.
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