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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Best Birds of 2009

I've already come up with my best birds of the 2000s, but here's my quick list of my best birds of 2009:

1) Whooper Swan--great to chase this bird in Idaho when I was out doing some consulting on eagles and a transmission line right of way back in February.
2) Aplomado Falcon--stopped by border patrol agents because of my suspicious birding activity right along the Mexico border in New Mexico, but got this beauty and some spectacular scenery.
3) Snail Kite--great to watch this one catch and eat some snails in Florida.
4) Short-tailed Hawk--after missing this one a couple times in Florida and Arizona, finally got it on my North American bird list when one flew low overhead as I pulled up to look for one on the Peace River in Florida.
5) Hawfinch--missed this one in England on my last trip to Europe, so good to see a couple in Germany this April.
6) Allen's Hummingbird--should be on the West Coast, but the one here in Pennsylvania was a treat to see earlier this month.
7) Horned Puffin--we only saw one on our Alaska cruise, but it was great to see floating on the ocean as our Cruise West ship passed through Icy Straight on the way to Glacier Bay.
8) Oahu Amakihi--took several hikes up the mountains near Honolulu, but finally got a good look at a female high up in the native forest above the ecological nightmare that passes for modern Hawaiian countryside.
9) Bristle-thighed Curlew--great to see in Hawaii.
10) Hawaiian Duck--nice to see with Hawaiian Stilts, Moorhens, and Coots.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Wild (Pink-footed) Goose Chase

So last night after I got offline word went out about a Pink-footed Goose in Allentown about half an hour away. I saw the note this morning and got there as soon as I could, but the bird was already gone. I spent the day driving around checking out several ponds where it had been seen, and waited until foraging birds came in at dusk to roost on the ponds, but ended up empty-handed. Here's hoping it shows up again!

Original notes on this bird here, map here

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Search for the Slender-billed Curlew

This winter, there will be an extensive search for the possibly extinct Slender-billed Curlew across its previously known and presumed winter range around the Mediterranean and across the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. Formerly abundant, no sightings of these birds have been confirmed since 2001, though when I was in The Netherlands last month I heard reports of birds still occasionally being offered for sale at Middle Eastern markets. Here's hoping there are still Slender-billed Curlews out there somewhere, and not just in museum drawers and shelves--like these photographed in the Naturalis Museum in Leiden, The Netherlands.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Best Birds of the Decade

Hard to believe that I've lived in Pennsylvania now for half a decade! In response to a thread on the PABIRDS email list, I've compiled my Top 10 PA Birds of the 2000s. I suppose it's time to start getting more serious about my PA bird list, since as an expat Westerner I've let a lot of good state birds slide by without a chase. At any rate, here's my Top 10 PA birds for the past decade:

1. Fork-tailed Flycatcher (made up for the one that spent a month at my local patch in Texas a couple months after I moved up here)
2. Yellow-billed Loon (missed more than half a dozen times growing up out in Oregon)
3. Long-billed Murrelet (10 minutes from the time I saw the email to the time I saw the bird at Nockamixon. Sweet!)
4. American Oystercatcher (fun to find this one at Nockamixon)
5. Allen's Hummingbird
6. Barnacle Goose
7. Lazuli Bunting (one of only a few Western birds I chased in PA, 'cuz it's so beautiful)
8. White-winged Crossbills
9. Snowy Owl ('cuz I got to show it to my kids our first week in the state)
10. Swallow-tailed Kite ('cuz I got to show it to my sister visiting from Utah)

As far as ABA birds go, the past decade was a lot of fun, and I added 62 new ones to my ABA list. My favorites:

1) American Flamingo (6 Jul 2000--TX with my global listing friend the late John Gee)
2) Blue Mockingbird (1 May 2001--TX)
3) Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush (24 Jul 2004--TX)
4) Lawrence's Goldfinch (11 Apr 2005--CA, unforgettable enchanting area up Mines Rd out of Livermore)
5) Atlantic Puffin (17 Aug 2005--ME, Eastern Egg Rock thanks to Steve Kress and my time at Hog Island Audubon Camp)
6) White-eared Hummingbird (10 Sep 2005--AZ, playing hookie from an Audubon meeting with Sheri Williamson)
7) Ivory Gull (26 Feb 2007--NY, got to show it to my oldest daughter playing hookie from school)
8) Western Reef-Heron (6 Aug 2007--NY, after three failed chases in three states, got to see it with all three of my kids on the fourth try)
9) Whooper Swan (18 Feb 2009--ID, fun chase after spending a weekend with relatives in Idaho)
10) Kittlitz's Murrelet (22 Jun 2009--AK, my first trip to Alaska, a ten day wildlife cruise with my sweetie)

Globally, only six short trips outside of the ABA birding area, but some highlights:

1) Oahu Amakihi (2009--my first Hawaiian Honeycreeper--now to get to the other islands and see some more!)
2) Totoweh (2008--Mopan Mayan for Barred Antshrike--love the onomatopoetic name and my time doing ethnoornithology in Belize)
3) Hawfinch (2009--fun to find this one while playing with my kids in the forest in Germany)
4) Bristle-thighed Curlew (2009--don't know when I'll see this in the ABA area, but great to see in Hawaii)
5) White Stork (2009--a pair on a light pole over a freeway in Rotterdam on an urban birding conference field trip)
6) Black-and-White Owl (2008--a great night in Belize)
7) Black Hawk-Eagle (2006--fun day trip to the Tuxtla Mountains in Veracruz)
8) Waco (2006--Ch'orti' Mayan for Laughing Falcon--an omen of rain in eastern Guatemala)
9) European Golden Plover (2009--thousands in fields in southern Holland in the yellow light of late afternoon)
10) Fairy Tern (2009--the prettiest urban bird ever in beautiful Waikiki)

Here's to more PA birds, ABA birds, and global birds for everyone in the next decade!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

PA Allen's Hummingbird Chase

So last weekend the Pennsylvania birding community was excited to learn that Scott Weidensaul had banded an Allen's Hummingbird--normally found in California--in a Lancaster County backyard. The bird is a female, and only identifiable for sure by measurements in the hand. So even though nobody can identify the bird themselves, dozens of birders have been going to see the bird for the past few days.

This morning after getting the kids off to school, I jumped in the car and headed over to Leola about an hour and a half away to see this little jewel, the first Allen's Hummingbird ever identified in Pennsylvania.

A good map of the neighborhood where the bird is found is online here.

Instructions are to park in the visitor parking spaces of the townhome community, walk back between the end towhhome unit and the low white fence, turn and walk between the arborvitae bushes and tall white fence, and stand behind the arborvitae bushes where you can see the feeder on the back deck of the second townhome from the end.

Here's the layout of the place with notes and directions:

I got to the scene about 10am, and after 20 minutes the bird flew in from a neighboring yard, landed in a small tree for a few seconds, then went to the feeder for maybe 15 seconds before zipping off again. In the hour I stayed there, the bird visited the feeder 3 times.

Each time it came from a neighboring yard where it was not visible, and the first sign of it coming was the chittering hummingbird noises it made. Or by looking down the path between the fence and the arborvitae, you could actually see it zip across that opening a few seconds before you could hear it arrive.

In a new low for rare bird documentation, here's the best photo I could get on my camera phone through my Zeiss 7x42s (don't laugh, there really is a bird there, hovering to the right of the feeder).

Much better photos by Geoff Malosh are online here.

So while I didn't get good photos, couldn't technically identify it from the very, very similar female Rufous Hummingbird, the smile on my face is the result of yet another fun and successful bird chase.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Owling with kids

Wednesday night I took a dozen kids from church on an owling expedition. We only had an hour, which was about enough time to hit three wooded areas near the church. At the first, where I've had very good close looks at Eastern Screech-Owl in the past, we got nothing. Second stop, same thing. We spent a few extra minutes showing the kids some constellations in the clear December skies, but I was getting nervous. SE Pennsylvania is crawling with screech owls. Where could they be?

Finally our two vans had to blitz down to another spot 10 minutes away where I've had owls in the past. After five minutes of playing the tape, a lone Eastern Screech-Owl answered the call. We couldn't get it to come in close where we could spotlight it, but all the kids got to hear it trilling off in the darkness.

Mission accomplished! Sort of. Most of them still haven't seen an owl, but now they've at least talked to one in the night!

Monday, December 07, 2009

Birds 1, Feral Cats 0--Court Orders LA To Stop Controversial Feral Cat Program

The songbirds of Los Angeles may get a reprieve from feral cat predation. Six conservation groups won a lawsuit on Friday against the City of Los Angeles and its Department of Animal Services to stop the practice of encouraging feral cat colonies until the legally required environmental impact reviews are performed.

The Los Angeles Superior Court found that the City of Los Angeles had been “secretly and unofficially” promoting “Trap-Neuter-Return,” a controversial program to allow feral cats to run free, even while the Department of Animal Services promised to conduct an environmental review of the program. The Court ordered the City to stop implementing TNR. The plaintiffs, The Urban Wildlands Group, Endangered Habitats League, Los Angeles Audubon Society, Palos Verdes/South Bay Audubon Society, Santa Monica Bay Audubon Society, and the American Bird Conservancy, sued the City in June 2008 to ensure that the controversial program to sanction and maintain feral cat colonies was not implemented before a full and public environmental analysis.

The groups decided legal action was necessary after their investigation revealed that the City had been unofficially implementing a so-called “Trap-Neuter-Return” program and the City repeatedly declined their request to stop implementing the program until environmental review was performed.

Although the City insisted that no such program existed, the Court concurred with the conservation groups and concluded in its Friday ruling that, “implementation of the program is pervasive, albeit ‘informal and unspoken.’”

“Our goal was to see that the City follows the California Environmental Quality Act by thoroughly assessing the program’s impacts on the environment and considering alternatives and mitigation measures before making specific programmatic decisions,” said Babak Naficy, attorney for plaintiffs. “Feral cats have a range of impacts to wildlife, human health, and water quality in our cities. The impacts of institutionalizing the maintenance of feral cat colonies through TNR should be discussed in an open, public process before any such program is implemented,” Naficy said.

In June 2005, the Los Angeles Board of Animal Services Commissioners adopted TNR as the “preferred method of dealing with feral cat populations as its official policy.” Thereafter, the Board directed the General Manager to prepare an analysis of the program under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). This analysis was never completed but the Department implemented major portions of the program anyway.

The Department issued coupons for free or discounted spay/neuter procedures for feral cats being returned to neighborhoods and open spaces, including parks and wildlife areas. It also began refusing to accept trapped feral cats or to issue permits to residents to trap feral cats. The Department assisted outside organizations that performed TNR by donating public space, advertising their services, and referring the public to their TNR programs. The Department even encouraged and assisted in establishing new feral cat colonies at City-owned properties.

The Superior Court recognized these actions as illegal implementation of the TNR program that could have an impact on the environment and enjoined the City from further pursuing the program until it complied with CEQA. Dr. Travis Longcore, Science Director of The Urban Wildlands Group, said, “Feral cats are documented predators of native wildlife. We support spaying and neutering all cats in Los Angeles, which is the law, but do not support release of this non-native predator into our open spaces and neighborhoods where they kill birds and other wildlife.”

Even when fed by humans, cats instinctively hunt prey, including birds, lizards and small mammals. Colonies of feral cats, often thriving with the aid of handouts from humans, harm native wildlife and contaminate water bodies with fecal bacteria. Longcore continued, “TNR is promoted as a way to reduce feral cat populations but scientific research shows that 70–90% of cats must be sterilized for cat populations to decline. This is virtually impossible to achieve in practice, but population reduction can be achieved with only 50% removal.”

The City must now stop its TNR program and any further proposal to implement such a program must undergo objective scientific review as part of the CEQA process. This will ensure that the public has adequate opportunity to comment and that significant impacts on parks, wildlife, water quality, and human health are avoided.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Find more birds with BirdsEye

I haven't had a chance yet to check out BirdsEye, the latest iPhone app from Birds in the Hand LLC, but sounds like an amazing concept--getting all eBird sightings from your local area, including directions to how to get there, and pointers from Kenn Kaufman on how to find each species once you get to the right area. If you get a chance to check it out, let me know how it works for you.

Monday, November 30, 2009

10,000 Birds Conservation Club

I started out as a birder, chasing birds, always looking for rare birds. Birdwatching was not cool. Bird conservation wasn't a priority.

Then I chased the last of the California Condors back in 1985. I saw three of the last nine wild condors soar close overhead, wind whistling through their wings. I was never the same again.

After college I decided birding wasn't enough, I wanted to help birds. I went back to grad school. Got a couple more degrees. Started a nonprofit to study and help birds in Austin. Worked for another one. Spent almost five years working for National Audubon.

Now I'm proud to support a new effort to help birds, the 10,000 Birds Conservation Club set up by my buddies over at the 10,000 Birds blog. For just $25 a year you can support bird conservation causes around the world. With almost no overhead. That's not something you can say about your membership in other organizations that have big fund raising staff budgets and accounting departments.

So by all means support the big NGOs if you want. But support the lean and mean (OK, not so mean, they're really nice guys) 10,000 Birds Conservation Club. And do it for the birds, not just the chance to win some nice prizes!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Dutch Urban Birding

What better way to celebrate my 1,000 Birdchaser post (yeah!) than a recap of a day of urban birding in Holland!

On Saturday 20 of us from the first meeting of the BirdLife International Group on Urban Birds spent a very wet and rainy day visiting urban bird project sites in The Netherlands.

Here's our group with our local leader in a city park in Leiden.

Lots of good birds in the trees, including Short-toed Treecreeper and Firecrest. Redwings were migrating and flying over, as well as hanging out in fruiting trees. Rose-ringed Parakeets flew through frequently. Lots of fun, but wet!

The park has a little visitors center (behind us here) with lots of info on local birds.

A poster of local park birds in Leiden.

Part of the urban birds campaign info that won Leiden the annual award at this year's Dutch Urban Bird Conference (Stadsvogelconferentie) for best urban bird project.

After an hour birding and visiting this park, we took off to tour a new development where the planners are working to create habitat for 50 breeding species in the 4 square kilometers of the project.

Here's the group looking over the plans.

The long gray things between the windows on the upper floor of this building are boxes for nesting Swifts.

The developers are leaving the reeds in the canal here, not a common sight in Holland, where most of the canals are mowed to the edges. This can provide habitat for reedlings and other birds.

After a very wet and rainy hike through this housing and commercial development, we headed in the bus to visit a project in Amsterdam where they are building floating planter boxes to provide habitat for nesting coots, grebes, moorehens and other birds in the canals.

A skittish moorhen, not used to so much attention.

Of course, being that this is Amsterdam, the new habitat is floating in a canal right in front of a red light district. Coots and prostitutes. Only in Amsterdam!

After this eye-opening excursion, we headed out to another urban site, where a toxic dump has been capped and now forms part of a wetland greenway complex on the outskirts of Amsterdam. Lots of gulls, grebes, waterfowl, and other birds in the river and canals. It started raining again, so we ended the day quite wet, but with over 50 species of birds seen in and around several Dutch cities.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Worthless Rain

I thought the rains last night might have dropped some waterfowl onto the local lakes, but Lake Nockamixon and Peace Valley were both eerily quiet this morning. Best birds were a flock of 20 Wild Turkeys right off the highway. Sadly as I was returning home I saw a crippled deer unable to get up over the curb after just being hit by a van.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Art Book or Biggest Field Guide Ever?

Americans have enjoyed large format bird art books since Audubon came out with his huge double-elephant folio sized The Birds of America starting in 1827. Most of us don't own anything that large, but many of us own Audubon's folio-sized reprint volumes that have almost always been in print since then. After Audubon, Louis Agassiz Fuertes and others have given us additional bird portraits, though after the success of Roger Tory Peterson's books, bird illustrations from field guides have become perhaps the most popularly viewed bird art in North America.

The worlds of bird art as illustration and bird art as portrait have finally come together again in the release of the National Geographic Illustrated Birds of North America, Folio Edition. This book is essentially a large-format hard-cover version of the latest 5th edition of the popular National Geographic field guide. National Geographic bills it as "both hard-working reference and sumptuous art book" that "schowcases the more than 4,000 original, full-color, meticulously rendered bird paintings--by 20 contemporary bird artists--in striking detail and scientific accuracy."

So, is this really a "magnificent and highly collectible" bird art book, or just an attempt to sell us a Biggest Field Guide Ever version of the book we already have in our backpacks or on the seat of our car?

For me, I actually agree with the marketing description of this book and enjoy it as both reference and art book. First most intermediate or more advanced birders, who don't carry field guides in the field anyway, so-called field guides are really mostly desk references anyway. So the size of this book doesn't detract from its use in that way. In addition, after buying multiple copies of previous editions of the National Geographic guide, I was slow to consider even picking up the latest 5th edition. Sure there were some nice changes, but if you have a couple previous editions of this book first published in 1983, there's little incentive to go out and add the latest edition to the line up on your field guide shelf. So while I passed on the original 5th edition NGS guide, when this version came along it offered something new.

That something new is a whole new appreciation for the heft of this book. We've been spoiled over the years in seeing thousands upon thousands of bird field guide illustrations and hundreds of thousands of bird photographs. Increasing the size of this book helps us appreciate just what a monumental book it really is and has been since the 1980s. Think about it--over 4,000 original bird paintings. We used to just carry that around in our large coat pocket and not think much more about the paintings except for their use-value in helping us identify birds. While we would never use original Audubon prints for dinner table placemats, we've been undervaluing the artwork of the NGS guide by treating it as mere illustrations for helping us answer our mundane bird identification questions.

But no more. When you hold the National Geographic Illustrated Birds of North America, Folio Edition in your lap, the sheer weight of the book shatters that mindset. As you leaf through the pages of this volume, you start to see the illustrations for what they are--amazing and "meticulously rendered bird striking detail and scientific accuracy."

I'll admit that when I first heard of this project, I had my doubts. While the text and illustrations of the original NGS field guide sent shockwaves through birding communities and immediately replaced the Peterson and Golden Guides as the guide of choice when it came out in the 80s, I thought that some of the illustrations had become a bit stale in the intervening years. For example I had never really warmed to Donald Malick's Great Horned Owl plate (p.257) and H. Douglas Pratt's jay plate (p.321) had grown a bit stale after more than 25 years of exposure.

Happily, even these plates take on new life in the larger format. As field guide illustrations, they may have lacked a certain spark, but as bird portraits, they unquestionably rank with the works of previous grand masters. They may never be my favorites, but seeing them closer to how they were originally painted, rather than scrunched into a more compact format, seems to release them from bondage and bring them alive again.

So the art work is wonderful, and it is a joy to peruse the plates as art rather than mere illustration.

That said, here's what I'd like to see in a second edition of this book:
1) There's a lot more room here, so perhaps we could expand the text of the species accounts a bit? Give us a little extra something that wouldn't fit in the original smaller format guide?

2) Since this version is billed as an art book as much as a field guide, how about printing the signatures of the artists on each plate so we can appreciate them without having to search out the credits in the back of the book.

3) If we left the species accounts as they are, how about giving us a section at the bottom of each text page with notes on the art from the original artists? Sort of like the director's commentary on a DVD? I'd love to have more info on what went into painting each of these 4,000+ masterpieces.

But even without these extra features, the National Geographic Illustrated Birds of North America, Folio Edition deserves a place in the house where it will be picked up and enjoyed--and not just a space on the shelf next to your similarly-sized Audubon reprint. For a North American field guide, the text of the 5th edition reproduced here is still a fantastic and valuable reference, and the artwork is worth seeing and lingering over in this larger format. It isn't just the Biggest Field Guide Ever, this book is something more. If nothing else, the artists who's illustrations have helped us identify birds for so many years, deserve for us to appreciate their works as the first-rate bird portraits that they truly are.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Hornsby Bend Survey--10 Oct 2009

Over 10 years ago we started a monthly bird count at Hornsby Bend in Austin, Texas. It's still going strong, and here's Eric Carpenter's recap of the survey I helped with last Saturday. I personally saw the Kentucky Warbler (locally rare) and found the only Ring-billed Gull and saw over 1280 of the over 4,000 Swainson's Hawks that went over in the morning. A great day at a great birding spot!
Saturday's (10 Oct) monthly survey was the best-attended of any survey and yielded the most surprising number of birds. As part of the weekend-long celebration of 50 years of birding on the property, there were at least 50 people for the morning survey and we were able to split into 6 groups to cover virtually the entire property. Peg Wallace also manned the hawkwatch all day and was able to enjoy the large groups of Swainson's Hawks that had over-nighted just northwest of the property. In addition, several folks stuck around most of the day and picked up several species missed during the morning. The afternoon survey at 4pm was also well-attended with over 25 folks present. A big thanks to Claude Morris et al for kayaking along the Hornsby portion of the Colorado River in both the morning and afternoon sessions to give us complete coverage of the property.

Conditions were quite ideal for this time of year. A cool front had passed thru Friday morning with rains much of Friday. Saturday was quite cool and cloudy all day and there were likely a number of birds on the property that had come down with the front.

There were many highlights lead by a heard-only Lesser Goldfinch in the northwest fields area, one of very few reports for the property. The second highlight had to be the 4000+ Swainson's Hawks that were enjoyed by virtually everyone during the morning. The overall total number of species was a hard-to-believe 124, though it was pretty evenly spread amongst the different groups of birders, as the morning group that did the ponds had the highest group species count with only 61.

Hats off to everyone that participated. The full day list follows:

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck 17
Greater White-fronted Goose 1
Wood Duck 30
Gadwall 3
American Wigeon 13
Mallard 3
Blue-winged Teal 69
Northern Shoveler 460
Northern Pintail 2
Green-winged Teal 114
Redhead 4
Ring-necked Duck 6
Lesser Scaup 1
Ruddy Duck 9
Least Grebe 1
Pied-billed Grebe 14
Eared Grebe 5
American White Pelican 42
Double-crested Cormorant 6
Anhinga 1
Great Blue Heron 3
Great Egret 4
Snowy Egret 15
Little Blue Heron 1
Cattle Egret 102
Green Heron 1
White-faced Ibis 10
Black Vulture 65
Turkey Vulture 1310
Osprey 6
Northern Harrier 1
Sharp-shinned Hawk 6
Cooper's Hawk 13
Red-shouldered Hawk 8
Broad-winged Hawk 4
Swainson's Hawk 4000
Red-tailed Hawk 6
Crested Caracara 13
American Kestrel 14
Merlin 2
Peregrine Falcon 4
Virginia Rail 2
Sora 1
American Coot 700
Killdeer 23
Black-necked Stilt 1
American Avocet 11
Spotted Sandpiper 8
Greater Yellowlegs 3
Western Sandpiper 2
Least Sandpiper 124
Pectoral Sandpiper 1
Stilt Sandpiper 1
Long-billed Dowitcher 18
Wilson's Snipe 1
Franklin's Gull 1
Ring-billed Gull 1
Rock Pigeon 320
White-winged Dove 65
Mourning Dove 40
Inca Dove 1
Common Ground-Dove 2
Greater Roadrunner 1
Great Horned Owl 2
Barred Owl 2
Chimney Swift 19
Ringed Kingfisher 1
Belted Kingfisher 3
Red-bellied Woodpecker 21
Downy Woodpecker 7
Northern Flicker 2
Least Flycatcher 5
Eastern Phoebe 24
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher 163
Loggerhead Shrike 3
White-eyed Vireo 3
Blue Jay 4
American Crow 20
Tree Swallow 6
N. Rough-winged Swallow 9
Bank Swallow 7
Cliff Swallow 8
Cave Swallow 335
Barn Swallow 275
Carolina Chickadee 45
Tufted/Bl. Crested Titmouse 7
Carolina Wren 35
House Wren 44
Marsh Wren 3
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 9
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher 49
Eastern Bluebird 8
Gray Catbird 2
Northern Mockingbird 4
European Starling 1500
American Pipit 6
Orange-crowned Warbler 15
Nashville Warbler 66
Yellow Warbler 1
Black-throated Green Warbler 2
Black-and-white Warbler 2
Kentucky Warbler 1
Common Yellowthroat 41
Wilson's Warbler 3
Clay-colored Sparrow 3
Vesper Sparrow 2
Lark Sparrow 3
Savannah Sparrow 5
Grasshopper Sparrow 3
Song Sparrow 1
Lincoln's Sparrow 19
Northern Cardinal 131
Blue Grosbeak 1
Indigo Bunting 15
Dickcissel 12
Red-winged Blackbird 1700
meadowlark sp. 7
Yellow-headed Blackbird 3
Common Grackle 73
Great-tailed Grackle 450
Brown-headed Cowbird 1200
House Finch 2
Lesser Goldfinch 1
House Sparrow 15

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Join me at Hornsby Bend

This Saturday we're celebrating 50 years of birding at Hornsby Bend, an Austin wastewater facility that is the best birding spot in all of Central Texas. We'll start the morning with our monthly bird survey (which we started more than 10 years ago and is still going strong), followed by a lunch and afternoon programs on the birds, and capped off with an evening program celebrating decade by decade the history of birds and birding at the facility. If you've ever birded Hornsby Bend, or just want to hear what it was like to be a birder 50 years ago, come down to Austin and join in the fun!

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Join the Birdchaser at DVOC

On October 15 I'll be doing the following evening program for the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club (DVOC) in Philly:

Birds of the Ancient and Modern Maya

Birds have played important roles in Mesoamerican cultures for thousands of years. Rob Fergus explores the connections between birds and various Mayan cultures as revealed in their ancient art and his ongoing field work with four modern Mayan communities in Guatemala and Belize. In addition to reviewing the songs and calls of Central American birds, if you want to know how the Turkey Vulture got its red head, which bird you can burn to a crisp to make into a love potion, why you can't have sex before you plant your corn crop, or how to cure warts, this is the program for you!
So if you are in the Philly area, stop on by for a fun evening of birds and birdlore!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Birdchaser on Martha Stewart radio tomorrow

Tomorrow morning at 7:10EDT I will be on Morning Living, a Martha Stewart Living Sirius Satellite Radio show talking about bird migration and what birds people can see in their yard this time of year. If you have satellite radio, tune in for a few moments of fun bird news!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Seasons of the Robin

I'm a sucker for animal biographies. As a kid I loved Ernest Thompson Seton's Wild Animals I Have Known and still remember finding Fred Bodsworth's Last of the Curlews in junior high school. A while ago I was asked to be a reader for the manuscript of The Seasons of the Robin, the latest addition to this genre by Don Grussing. It tells the story of a robin as it migrates south, overwinters, and heads north to breed. The book is now out, and if you've ever wondered what it is like to be a bird, The Seasons of the Robin provides a well-written and informative insight into the life of one bird and its incredible life.

Ancient man-eating eagle in NZ

Check out this report about Haast's Eagle, a huge bird with a 9 foot wingspan and talons like tiger paws. Could easily have carried of children of the first Maori inhabitants of New Zealand, just as the legends say.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Mayan Deer Dance in Belize

Here's video of the Mayan Deer Dance I got to observe and help document in Belize last year.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Owl Workshop at Hornsby Bend in Austin, TX

I'm heading to Austin next month to lead a workshop on the ecology and life history of the six owl species that regularly occur in Central Texas: Great Horned, Barred, Barn, Short-eared, Burrowing, and Eastern Screech. The workshop will also review methods of finding, attracting, and managing your property for these owl species.

Thursday evening will focus on the ecology and life history of each owl species. Friday evening participants will learn how to attract owls to their rural or suburban property, learn how to build owl boxes, and learn about proper placement and installation of owl boxes and platforms. Optional owling excursions after the workshop each night will search for the owls found at Hornsby Bend.

Date: Thursday, October 8 (7-10:00pm) and Friday, October 9 (7-10:00pm)
Location: The Center for Enviornmental Research at Hornsby Bend in Austin
[see map on HBBO website]
Cost: $60, includes evening snacks and owl life history/box design information packet.

Attendance is limited.


David Sibley on Tree Watching

Lots of info and more links to videos about Sibley's new tree book.

Virginia Sand Plover Video

This is Robyn Puffenbarger's video of a Sand Plover recently found in Virginia--believed to be a Greater Sand Plover (3rd record for the Lower 48 states).

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

fLaPpY bIrDdAy!!!

Today's my birthday, so I've gotta get out and see some birds. If you get out you can have a fLaPpY bIrDdAy too!

Feral Cats and Birds

Ted Williams has a succinct article on the conflict between feral cat management advocates and wildlife issues in the most recent Audubon magazine. I'm sure he's going to take some flack for this, but it had to be said, and Audubon magazine should be commended for wading into the fray--it's a very emotional issue for so many people. But lets just get this out of the way--TNR (trap, neuter, return) is based on junk science. It actually promotes feral cats rather than reduces their number and impact on the environment.

We need a better option to protect birds and other wildlife. Feral cats need to be removed from the environment. If the animal welfare folks don't want these cats to be killed, than they need to foot the bill to have them taken care of on their own properties and be licensed for the killing of wildlife that will take place on these "cat ranches". Sure it will be expensive to set up cat ranches for all these animals. But that's the only way to manage them so that they aren't killing wildlife.

Feral cats should not be roaming around in public. They are a hazard to wildlife and human health.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Gulls are Back

OK, here in Bucks County, PA I don't think we ever lose the gulls entirely--you can see a few Ring-billed Gulls up at Lake Nockamixon even in summer. But the wintering gulls are starting to trickle back in. Today I had 3 Lesser Black-backed Gulls and one Great Black-backed Gull. We still don't know where these lessers go for the summer, which as far as we know aren't nesting in North America.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

When is an NBS really an NBS?

Today while canoeing with the family, my NBS (non-birding spouse) said "is that a sandpiper over there?" and sure enough it was a Spotted Sandpiper bouncing along on a a log. So if she can identify a sandpiper, is she really still an NBS? Or do I have to break the news to her that she is really a birder now?

International Vulture Awareness Day from Mayaland

In honor of International Vulture Awareness Day, I thought I'd share this little story we picked up from some Ch'orti' Maya in Guatemala:

One day the chakoroch [turkey vulture] was siting in a tree watching a cow that was sleeping. A hawk spoke to the vulture and told him to go down and begin to eat it because it was dead. Finally the vulture was convinced that the cow was dead, flew down rapidly, and stuck its head in the cow's anus. Unfortunately the cow was still alive, and the vulture was barely able to withdraw his head, which emerged without feathers, and turkey vultures have had bald red heads ever since.

And here's another explanation:
El Kumix, who was the young maize god among the Ch'orti', was tryhing to go to heaven to see his mother, the goddess of the moon. Kumix asked a hawk to carry him to heaven, but he wasn't able to. Then Kumix asked a vulture to carry him. The vulture made a valiant effort using a mexapal, but halfway to heaven he dropped the mescapal and the two fell to earth. When the mecapal broke, it shaved the head of the vulture, leaving it bald and red. Some say that this was a curse that Kumix put on the vulture for not being able to carry him to the sky.

Whatever you think about vultures, they are an important part of our world and deserve our support!

Stories reported in “Los p├íjaros y el progn├ístico en la vida diaria de los Ch’orti’ Maya de Guatemala (Birds and Prognostication in the  Daily Life of the Ch'orti' Maya of Guatemala),” Kerry Hull and Rob Fergus, in Proceedings of the XVIII Coloquio Internacional  LAILA/ALILA, March 10-14, 2008, San Cristobal, Chiapas, Mexico, in review.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

New Words for Old Birds: Barred Owl

(photo: wikipedia)

For years we've all been told that the Barred Owl says "who cooks for you, who cooks for you all."

Is that really what it says? First of all, it's pretty much a Yankee description (no self-respecting southern Barred Owl would say "you all"!). It also seems to imply something about servants (or worse?), I mean, you can't even ask who cooks for someone unless they are obviously not cooking for themselves.

So on the grounds that it is regionalist, classist, and antiquated, isn't it time to find some new words to describe the Barred Owl call?

So if they don't say "who cooks for you, who cooks for you all" what do Barred Owls say?

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Swallow-tailed Kite in PA

There is a Swallow-tailed Kite that has been hanging around the Militia Hill Hawkwatch and the adjacent golf course for the past week. This afternoon I got to take my sister (visiting from Utah) and my kindergartener over to see it. We got distant views through the scope as the bird soared and swooped around over the golf course. This bird is normally only found in the SE US and points south, so not a bird I was expecting to see in PA (past records are few and far between-see here--and usually birds seen just flying past). Sweet! (photo: wikipedia)

Monday, August 31, 2009

Biggest Threat to Birds?

When I was at Audubon, I frequently had to deal with statements along the lines of "Global Warming is the greatest threat to birds and biodiversity in our lifetimes." Most of the time that would leave me scratching my head. How do we know if this is true or not? What about habitat destruction or modification? These are complex issues that leave most of us concerned but feeling helpless and wanting to just turn off the computer and head go birding.

What should we do about global warming when the issue seems to be so complex scientifically that it is hard to know what is really happening, let alone what we should do about it? How would we know if it is a bigger threat than habitat destruction or modification?

We've been trying to save birds for over 100 years and the news seems to just keep getting worse (a few bright spots like Kirtland's Warblers and California Condors--which we will have to manage forever--aside). Have the issues become so complex scientifically, politically, and culturally that all we can really do now is just enjoy the birds and hope for the best?

Not a Knot?

There's a bird out in California right now that was originally identified as a Great Knot, an Asian shorebird never before seen in California. Now folks are starting to look more closely at the bird and wondering if it really is a Great Knot or maybe a hybrid sandpiper--maybe part Surfbird. Take a look at some of the photos and see for yourself. The bird is molting, so doesn't look like a classic anything. Sometimes birds aren't what the first seem.

Monday, August 24, 2009

21st Century Bird Collectors

I'm bugged about the bird surveyors in Louisiana that shot the first Crowned Slaty-Flycatcher ever discovered in North America instead of alerting the U.S. birding community.

(PS I'm in personal communication with folks from LSU and those involved in collecting this bird. We clearly disagree about the merits of collecting vagrants but we aren't going to change each other's minds through online debate. I'm not accepting further comments on this post since I'd prefer to disagree without being disagreeable and would rather not risk flaming the fires online where passionate words often miss their mark. These are discussions more suited to personal communication, preferably while out in the field enjoying the birds we all love.)

Friday, August 14, 2009

New Words for Old Birds: Carolina Wren

For years we've been taught that the Carolina Wren sings:

teakettle teakettle teakettle (listen here).

That's all well and good, but who in the upcoming generations has any connection to teakettles? Can't we come up with a new up-to-date mnemonic to help us remember the voice of this original Mouth of the South?

I'm leaning towards something like
Braves baseball, Braves baseball, Braves baseball

Any other suggestions?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Birding in the Rain

Been laying low a bit lately, but ventured out for a couple hours in the rain today and found a few fun birds. Best was an adult Black-bellied Plover at Lake Nockamixon. It came in during a shower and landed next to 15 Ring-billed Gulls in a marina parking lot.

At the next boat landing up the lake, three Snow Geese were unexpected by me--two adults (one with a lame leg) and a juvenile. Apparently they've been around for a couple months (like I said, I've been laying low lately!). No bands on these birds, so not sure if a wild (injured) pair or escapes. But apparently breed locally.

At another small local lake (Lake Towhee) I found a Solitary Sandpiper--one of the more regular migrant shorebirds in the county.

Not a whole lot of birds around, but still a better than average day.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Celebrity Birder: Neil Peart

Neil Peart isn't just the drummer and lyricist for the band Rush, but also a birder. Check out his recent recounting of an attempt to find the Island Scrub-Jay. Sweet!

Spirits of the Air

For many of us, it is almost impossible to imagine traditional Native Americans without thinking of feathers, but only rarely, if ever, do we stop to ask why feathers? What is going on with the connections linking birds and traditional cultures? In Spirits of the Air, Brown University professor of anthropology Shepard Krech III explores the relationship between birds and American Indians in what are now the southern United States.

Upon initial inspection, Spirits of the Air is first and foremost big and beautiful; lavishly illustrated with color reproductions of bird illustrations by early naturalists and ornithologists such as Catesby, Wilson, and Audubon as well as portraits and paintings of Native American cultures, Spirits of the Air showcases these wonders in 264 8x11 inch pages.

The text is a thorough compilation of what we know about how Native American cultures in the South talked about, used, and understood the many different birds which shared their world. Chapters include discussions of birds as food, and symbols of power, war, peace, and spirituality, as well as Native American impacts on bird populations. A 16 page bibliography highlights the richness of resources that Krech has drawn upon to weave together a rich tapestry of traditional birdlore. Fortunately a thorough index is included, as references to individual bird species or traditions may occur scattered throughout the book's thirteen main chapters.

I found Spirits of the Air to be a true monument to the connection between Native Americans and birds. Big, beautiful, and informative; a real treasure trove of historical, archaeological, and anthropological information.

However beautiful and exhaustive, Spirits of the Air still left me wanting more. It is hard to criticize a book for what it isn't, but here are some things I would like to see in a future treatment of this topic (a second volume perhaps?):

Historical and Geographical Context: Unless one is an expert on Southern Indian cultures, it may be tough to keep track of where and when each of the many cultures discussed here lived or interacted with each other. While one map shows the location of archaeological mounds, and another shows the 16th to 19th century location of many of the tribes, it isn't always clear what the connections are between the various archaeological, historical, and current Native Peoples.

Cultural Diffusion: While dozens of cultural traits are described and tied to birds (such as the use of feathers for ornamentation or fletching feathers), there is little discussion of how or where these traits developed and spread through the various cultures. This leaves one closing Spirits of the Air still wondering about some of the big and obvious questions such as--why feathers? We are given many, many examples of Indians using feathers, but we are left wondering how this attachment to feathers came about.

Native Perspective: Spirits of the Air more often than not comes across as "a view of Indians using birds, from the perspective of white people." Only rarely do we hear the voices of real American Indians. While much of this may be due to the nature of the historical sources Krech has available to draw upon, I would like to see the incorporation of perhaps more contemporary Native American voices. What echoes of the past birdlore still resonate with the descendants of the people we are reading about?

Again, these perhaps overly critical points are less a criticism of the work Krech has admirably done in this volume, and more a wish list of where I hope he or others will take us in the future. Krech has mined a rich vein here, and there is much more to do to help us better understand, and celebrate, the connections between birds and people. Only then will the true spirits of the air fully capture our imagination, as they apparently did within Native American cultures.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Culling Canada Geese?

Today on the NPR show Radio Times:
New York officials began culling resident Canada geese last month because of concerns over aviation safety. Public reactions were mixed. While some protested the killings, others were happy to see growing geese populations reigned in. This hour, a conversation about how Canada geese became so maligned with waterfowl biologist BRYAN SWIFT of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and JOHN HADIDIAN with Humane Society of the United States.

Listen to the podcast here.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Seriously Funny Bird House Video!

Best Ways to Keep Birds from Hitting Windows

We've all seen birds smack into windows, and now there are several products on the market that are supposed to help birds avoid window collisions. But do they work?

Dan Klem, an ornithologist at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania conducted experiments to find the best ways to stop birds from hitting windows.

The results?
Window Alert Decals: Ineffective when used alone, but effective if almost completely covering the windows.

FeatherGuard: Ineffective unless enough are used to almost completely cover the window

CollidEscape: Mostly effective, though one bird did hit it during trials.

Other useful treatments included glass with a ceramic frit pattern and glass with alternating strips of UV reflecting and absorbing film.

The published study results are online here:

Preventing Bird–Window Collisions. The Wilson Journal of Ornithology 121(2):314-321. Daniel Klem Jr.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Birdchaser on Martha Stewart radio

I'll be on Martha Stewart radio tomorrow morning 8:15 EDT to talk about summer birds and birding. Call in number is 866-675-6675 if you want to chat about birds!

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Still in Top 10

Surprisingly, I'm still one of the Top 10 eBirders in North America (by species), though not even in the Top 500 for number of checklists submitted. Looks like we still need to get a lot more folks to submit their bird sightings to eBird!

Monday, June 29, 2009

Baked in Alaska

Sometimes life events shatter your psyche, leaving you to pick up the pieces. Other times, they melt your brain, leaving you with a gooey mass and nothing to do but wait for it to recongeal. 11 days in Alaska have fully baked my brain (photos here).

Endless hours of sun, seawater, glaciers, mountains. Too much to absorb.

And hundreds of humpback whales! Sometimes breaching completely out of the water. Often so close you could hear them spout, and once so close you could smell their briny breath! I saw a dozen feeding together, and heard them bugle a trumpeting call that echoed across forests and snowfields.

I saw Orcas! Killer whales! A pod of these black and white beauties surfacing again and again alongside our ship, while a larger cruise liner sailed on by without taking notice. I now live in a world where these beasts aren't just Discovery channel features or performers at Sea World. They seem to have taken part of my heart with them as they slipped below the icy gray waters of Glacier Bay.

And then there were the birds. THOUSANDS of Marbled Murrelets. We called them Bloop Bloop Birds. While a birder is lucky to see more than one or two in a day in the Lower 48, we saw hundreds every day, reminding us constantly of how important it is to protect the Tongass National Forest for these tree-nesting seabirds.

On the upper reaches of Glacier Bay, where trees for nesting Bloop Bloop Birds are scarce, they are replaced by the even rarer Kittlitz's Murrelets--pale versions of their darker cousins that nest on the bare rocky ground around the glaciers. I watched dozens of these swim, dive, and careen across the blue waters of the icemelt. A week later their little feet are still pattering across the surface of my feelings.

Other birds came and went as we cruised over 1300 miles across Southeast Alaska with Cruise West and Audubon Odysseys on the Spirit of Discovery, a small expedition vessel that was our home for the week as we explored the native Tlingit village of Kake, sea kayaked and hiked in Sitka, and wound our way in and out of dozens of mountain-lined fjords carved out by the glaciers. We counted dozens of Arctic Terns, and were visited by an Aleutian Tern as we watched a glacier calving in Glacier Bay. I glanced out the window as we crossed Icy Strait and saw a Horned Puffin on the water. We later saw dozens of Tufted Puffins in Glacier Bay. And on our final night home, in a raging storm in the pale evening light, both Parasitic Jaeger and Pomarine Jaeger sliced through the wind in pursuit of dozens of wheeling Black-legged Kittiwakes.

How do you recover from a week of this? And the hours watching sea otters and brown bears? Take the Grand Tetons, stretch them out over thousands of miles, add the ocean and wildlife and take away any sign of human habitation for days on end, and try to absorb that a week later.

My mind is melted. Baked in Alaska. Not sure how my soul will recongeal, but know that part of it will forever be trying to get back to the whales and wilderness and Bloop Bloop Birds irrevocably forged into my being by a week and a half on the Spirit of Discovery.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Birding Juneau

I'm in Juneau getting ready to board our cruise ship for exploring the Glacier Bay and the Inside Passage. Here I am with a native Tlingit building, raven pole, and a raven on the roof.

Birds right in town are the Common Raven, Bonaparte's Gull, Mew Gull, Herring Gull, Glaucous-winged Gull, Bald Eagle, Swainson's Thrush, and Pigeon Guillemot.

More from the trip when I get back!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Common Myna

Probably the most abundant and ubiquitous bird on Oahu, the Common Myna was introduced to Hawaii from India in 1865 by Dr. William Hildebrand to combat invasive Army worms. Hawaii has never been the same since. These birds nest in trees but also on buildings and bridges, and are found walking on parking lots, lawns, and beaches all over Oahu.

In the United States, the only other place to see them is in south Florida, where they have become more and more common since first reported in 1983.

I took these shots on Oahu with a Canon PowerShot through my 7x42 Zeiss binoculars.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Birding Oahu

Oahu is covered with birds. That said, birding Oahu can be a challenge!

Upon arriving in Honolulu, one quickly sees Spotted Doves and White Terns (Fairy Terns) all over the city, as well as the ever present Common Mynahs and Red-vented Bulbuls. Birding any of the parks or open areas around the city quickly gets one several other non-native birds (including Zebra Doves, Japanese White-eye, Red-billed Leiothrix, Common Waxbill, and Red-crested Cardinal).

Last weekend I was on Oahu to present a paper at a conference, and spent four days exploring the island. Beyond the common birds mentioned above, most other birds, especially native birds, were few and far between.

To find native wetland birds, I had to journey to the Kahuka area at the far northern tip of the island. The James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge and adjacent sewage treatment facility are gated and closed to the public, but by standing on the sign pictured here, I was able to see some ponds as well as all four of the native birds pictured on the sign (from left to right Hawaiian Stilt, Hawaiian Gallinule, Hawaiian Duck, and Hawaiian Coot). I was also lucky enough to spot three Bristle-thighed Curlews that hadn't yet departed for their Alaskan breeding grounds.

Seabirds were easily found at many rocky headlands--though usually in small numbers. The most plentiful by far were Red-footed Boobies. I only saw one Brown Booby (a flyby at China Walls in Hawaii Kai), and a couple of Red-tailed Tropicbirds and one White-tailed Tropicbird near Makapu'u Point. The picture above is from La'ie Point, where within a few hundred yards of shore I was able to spot Wedge-tailed Shearwater, Christmas Shearwater, and a single Bulwer's Petrel. By keeping my eyes open, I was able to see a Great Frigatebird (while body surfing at Waimanalo Beach Park) and a small flock of Grey-backed Terns (again at China Walls), but around most of the tourist beaches seabirds were few and far between.

The forests above Waikiki (above) are mostly made up of non-native trees brought in to control erosion after the island was mostly deforested in the past century. The birds there are almost all introduced as well. The common birds listed above are also joined by the melodious White-rumped Shama and a small handful of other birds. One is almost continuously haunted by the specter of missing native plants and birds. To think about the dozens of native birds now missing is heartbreaking. It took two hikes up Mt. Tantalus to finally find a single native forest bird (another story completely, and coming soon!). A couple of hours looking for the Oahu Elepaio near Hawaii Kai were singularly unproductive.

A visit to the picturesque Byodo-In Temple (above), a replica of a 900 year old Buddhist temple in Japan, illustrates the sad state of Oahu's birdlife. The place is crawling with birds--but they consist of a dozens of individuals of only a handful of introduced birds, including Common Peafowl, Black Swan, Cockatiel, Red-crested Mynah, and Common Waxbill. Most of the birds are actually the abundant Zebra Dove (below), Spotted Doves, and Common Mynahs that are ubiquitous in the settled parts of the island.

So while Oahu is a fantastic vacation spot, and crawling with birds, it is a challenge to see more than just a couple dozen introduced land birds and the most common seabirds (boobies and fairy terns). To see native wetland birds requires a bit of a drive, and finding native forest birds is probably best accomplished on some of the other Hawaiian islands.

More photos from my trip on Facebook.
Nature Blog Network Fatbirder's Top 1000 Birding Websites