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Thursday, December 31, 2015

Top 10 Birds of 2015

Most of 2015 was dedicated to my Backyard Big Year.  So I didn't chase many birds.  Or build much of a list outside of my yard.  But I did manage to get 14 lifers--all but one from my July research trip to the Lacandon Maya region of Mexico.  I also picked up 3 new Hunterdon County birds.  In line with my backyard birding emphasis, I also managed to add 30 new species to my yard list.  So this list may not be as exotic as past versions, but here it is, in totally subjective order, my best birds of 2015.

10)  Crested Caracara  When my friend David Harrison found this first Hunterdon County record, I was hanging out with friends at the Princeton University Art Museum.  By the time I was able to get to Holland Township to look for the bird, it was too late in the day.  Another all day search came up empty.  Finally on my third attempt, I was able to see this bird fly by in the fog and rain.  A great new addition to my county list.  Thanks, David!

9)  Barn Owl  At the start of the year this may have been my most wanted Hunterdon County bird.  I'd chased one a couple times and missed, and there were no publicly available sites to find these birds.  So in February when a pair were seen feeding over a field in Ringoes, I hoofed it down there and got some good looks at dusk.  Most daytime sightings are of birds at a nest or roost, or of a bird flushed from a roost.  So getting to watch them hunt was a really great.

8)  Peregrine Falcon  This isn't that rare of a bird, but I'd never seen one in my yard until this year when I saw two while conducting hawk watches in my yard.  The second one was a nice adult bird that soared directly over my house.  What a treat!

7)  Wild Turkey  Again, not a rare bird, but one that was on the top of my most wanted list for my yard this year.  I had seen them within a couple miles of my home, but never in my neighborhood.  One day as I was sitting working on my computer, I looked up and saw a hen turkey walking down along the edge of my yard.  Nice yard bird!
Not a great shot, but the best I could manage as the turkey walked away

6)  White Hawk  A stunning bird, one of my favorites from my Lacandon Maya trip in July.  Several of these birds were seen soaring around Metzabok, the Lacandon Maya village where we worked.

5)  Little Gull  A regular visitor to Spruce Run in April, I didn't think I could get it for my yard list but when I heard that there were a couple consorting with Bonaparte's Gulls I got out my scope and spent the day scoping the area I could see to the west of the reservoir and was able to pick out a small dark-underwinged gull with a distant swirling group of Bonaparte's Gulls.

4) Mourning Warbler  a new species for my yard this year, I was able to audio record a spring migrant bird and determine that it was from the Nova Scotia population.

Hear audio of the bird here

3) Common Redpoll  You can see photos and read how I used audio to attract this bird to my yard in a snowstorm here.

2) Thick-billed Murre  My only new ABA bird for the year, when one showed up close to shore on the Jersey shore, I took a break from my backyard big year to chase this alcid.  We got crummy looks at the bird as it moved farther offshore, so would definitely like to get better looks sometime.

1)  Ornate Hawk-Eagle  Perhaps my favorite new life bird from my Lacandon Maya research--I was able to snap this picture through my binoculars.  A huge forest hawk with long plumes on its head.  What's not to like?

Looking forward to a new year, to get out of my yard more, and to achieve some additional birding goals.  I'm close to the 700 ABA milestone, so need to finally take care of that this year. Who knows what else the new year will bring!?!

Thursday, October 15, 2015

2015 Machine Assisted Big Sit

Pre-dawn BigSit in the backyard
I love the Big Sit.  A few years ago I managed 47 species seen or heard from my backyard in one day.  So that was the bar to clear this year.

I was tired and didn't get up until 5:30, and started off the morning listening to my OldBird21c microphone for an hour.  No birds.  No nocturnal migrants calling overhead.  A stiff 9 mph north wind wasn't helping.  I was nervous, but headed outside to the 17 foot count circle when I started hearing

1.  White-throated Sparrow (calling at 6:35am)

On a good morning, I can get my 20 Bird Minimum Daily Requirement in under an hour.  But birding was slow and it took a long time to get new birds.  Slowly but surely, the birds started appearing:

2.  American Crow (calling at 6:36am)
3.  Northern Cardinal (calling at 6:42am)
4.  Blue Jay (6:43am)
5.  Carolina Wren (6:49am)
6.  American Robin (6:50am)
7.  Tufted Titmouse (6:57am)

In the first half hour that was it.  Super slow.  Painfully slow.  Not how you want to start a Big Sit!  Over the next hour I managed to find:

8.    American Goldfinch (7:08am)
9.    Downy Woodpecker (7:08am)
10.  Canada Goose (7:09am)
11.  White-breasted Nuthatch (7:11am)
12.  Morning Dove (7:14am)
13.  House Finch (7:15am)
14.  gull sp. (sadly, didn't see it better, distant flyby at 7:27am)
15.  European Starling (7:30am)
16.  Cedar Waxwing  (7:46am)
17.  Northern Flicker (7:49am)
18.  Brown-headed Cowbird (8:00am)

Forget blue screen, blue skies are death to birding
And that's it.  During what should be the busiest hour of the morning, that's all I could get.  Wind was blowing.  It was a beautiful day, with clear blue skies.  The worst kind of day for birding!    Over the next hour, all I could add was

19.  Pileated Woodpecker (distant calling bird at 8:17am)
20.  Chickadee species (probably most of what we have are hybrids here 8:44am)
21.  Turkey Vulture (8:58am)
22.  Cooper's Hawk (flyover at 8:58am)

That's a long hour with few birds.  Things picked up a little bit the next hour, but it was still too slow for what one would want on a record-setting Big Sit.

23.  Ruby-crowned Kinglet (first of the fall, singing at 9:11am)
24.  Red-bellied Woodpecker (9:15am)
25.  Yellow-rumped Warbler (FINALLY a warbler at 9:15am)
26.  Gray Catbird (where have you been all morning?  at 9:29am)
27.  Black Vulture (10 at 9:34am)
28.  Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (9:36am)
29.  Chipping Sparrow  (should have been around earlier, but appeared at 9:41am)
30.  Red-tailed Hawk (soaring in the distance at 9:45am)

Almost 4 hours to get to 30 species.  Horrible!  I limped along finding:
31.  Chimney Swift (getting late, distant soaring bird at 10:20am)
32.  American Kestrel (not an easy migrant to see from my yard, at 10:33am)

I was dying.  A long way from my goals for the day.  Then it got good with

33.  Cackling Goose (a locally rare flyover with Canada Goose flock at 11:30am)
34.  Golden Eagle (another hard to come by migrant here at 11:40am)
35.  Sharp-shinned Hawk (11:49am)

Reviewing NFCs in the field
Then things stalled.  I would say died, but I was trying to have hope.  While there were no birds in the yard, I called in my assist from my OldBird21c microphone.  While sitting in the yard I reviewed the overnight recording from after midnight.  What a disaster--Only 11 calls all night long--but I was able to add:

36.  Savannah Sparrow (NFC)
37.  Gray-cheeked Thrush (NFC)
38.  Swainson's Thrush (NFC)
39.  Common Yellowthroat (NFC)

And that was it until after almost two hours with no new birds I tried playing an Eastern Screech Owl call to see if it would pull in any migrants and got

Calling all migrants
40.  Eastern Bluebird (coming in to owl recording at 1:52pm)

I soldiered on for the rest of the afternoon, but ended with only a few more additions--

41.  Tree Swallow (4:05pm after a two hour drought of no new birds)
42.  Black-throated Green Warbler (getting my hopes up again at 4:26pm)
43.  Merlin (Yes!  bring on the birds at 4:42pm)
44.  Eastern Phoebe (5:17pm)

And then it got dark, with no new birds.  As it got dark, I got out my recording again and was able to call up

45.  Eastern Screech Owl (at 7:02pm)

OldBird21c microphone
And that was it.  Short of the record.  But all was not lost.  There was still hope.  Now it was up to my OldBird21c microphone.  If we could get a decent migration, with calling birds overnight, there would still be a chance to best my record.  And the birds and the microphone didn't disappoint!  After reviewing the recording I was able to add:

46.  Northern Parula (NFC)
47.  ZEEP call (a NFC that was probably a Blackpoll Warbler, but could have been something else)
48.  Palm Warbler (NFC)
49.  Black-throated Blue Warbler (NFC)
50.  Swamp Sparrow/Lincoln's Sparrow (NFCs are super similar and may not be separable)
51.  Dark-eyed Junco (NFC--making up for the one I thought I heard earlier in the day but never appeared)
52.  Ovenbird (NFC)
53.  Green Heron (NFC)

As usual, there were some odd and as of now still unidentified NFCs on the recording, so perhaps at some point I'll be able to add additional species, but for now, this is the official tally and new Big Sit record for my yard.  So after a miserably slow day of birding, persistence (and the assist from my microphone!) payed off.

I love the Big Sit.  I love sitting in the yard in one spot all day and watching the sun come up, move overhead, and then descend below the trees and set.  All while I'm sitting there looking for birds.  It's a great Zen type of exercise, which is good, at least it helps the blood pressure when the birding is as slow as it was today!

Can't wait for the Big Sit to roll around next year!

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

2015 Backyard Big Year--End of August Update

After a month of travel in Mexico and out to Utah, it was hard to get back in the Backyard Big Year saddle.  Hard to get excited about hardcore birding in 2.7 acres when there is the whole rest of the world to explore (and Noah Strycker is off doing that right now--thou shalt not covet, thou shalt not covet!).  Hard when your species count is behind where you had hoped to be at this point.  Hard when it's still over 80 degrees outside.

But jumping back in the last two weeks, the migrants are starting to come through and new birds are showing up regularly.  So it's getting fun again.

I'm currently at 143 yard birds for the year.  eBird has me at 133 species--that's missing the 10 species so far recorded only by my OldBird21c microphone.  That's several dozen birds down from where I had hoped to be at this point in the game, but I've still to review most of my night recordings from the spring, so hard to know where I'm really at.  Time to spend more time reviewing recordings!

North American eBird yard standings at the end of August
New birds for August include Yellow-bellied Flycatcher (Code 3), Warbling Vireo, Blackburnian Warbler, and Bobolink.  Lots of bird activity in the yard these last few mornings, with Scarlet Tanagers and Baltimore Orioles feasting on my wild grapes.

My photo big year seems to be off the rails at this point.  It's just super hard to get photos of flitting warblers with my Nikon Coolpix P500.  I need to go through my photos to see how many I actually have now and update the list, but my original goal of 150 seems...well, difficult!

Now that kids are back in school I can get some time to review recordings.  By the end of September I should have a much better handle on where I'm at with that--plus another month of migration recording done to hopefully boost the list.

So stay tuned.  I'm coming from behind, but plan to have a great fall!

More on what birds I'm still missing at my Backyard Big Year blog.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Lacandon Maya Birds in Metzabok

We originally planned to spend a week in the Lacandon Maya village of Metzabok and a few more days in Naha, but we had a medical emergency and had to return to Palenque and Villahermosa for treatment, so we were only able to spend just over 5 days in Metzabok.  We stayed in some nice cabins that they have on the edge of the village, and ate meals with a local family.  We spent our mornings hiking around the village, and afternoons reviewing bird books and recordings with members of the community.  We saw or heard almost 100 species near the village, and recorded the names of many more.

Juan showing us his milpa--this one has 10 days of corn growth.

Lacandon Maya selfie with our friend Juan in his milpa

Reviewing bird illustrations with Juan.

Tourist cabin compound in Metzabok--nice rooms with double beds, running water, and electricity.  

Many Maya families enjoy having pet parrots

Chicken soup and tortillas.  Very good food with a family in the village.

Digi-binned shot of an Ornate Hawk-Eagle near Metzabok.  Apparently not the day to leave my good camera in the cabin.

Tarantula in Juan's milpa--showed up less than 5 minutes after we asked about tarantulas in Lacandon culture.

With Juan on Lago Metzabok.

We hiked up to the lookout on this hill on the far side of Lago Metzabok.

View from the lookout, looking across the lake towards the village.

Happy to be on top of the hill--it seemed higher than it looked!

Ancient temple ruin on top of the hill overlooking the lake

Juan with traditional Lacandon Maya god pot at the temple ruins

Lacandon Maya god pot, used for offerings in traditional ceremonies

Pulling faces with our Mayan buddy

Cave offering pots and skull

Cave opening, with offering pots

Another view of the cave offering pots and skull

Fish dinner in Metzabok.  Perhaps the boniest fish I've ever eaten, but very tasty with black beans, salsa, and tortillas.

At night on Lago Metzabok, looking for owls and cayman

Professor Kerry Hull being schooled on Lacandon Maya ethnobotany

Hummingbird nest on the trail near Lago Metzabok

Our time in Metzabok was too short, and we look forward to returning--perhaps next Spring when more birds are singing.  We also look forward to visiting the other nearby Lacandon community of Nahรก.

More information about how to schedule your own visit to Metzabok (in Spanish) here.

Classic Maya Birds, Ruins and Museum at Palenque

Palenque is one of the most spectacular and easily accessible Classic Maya ruins.  I first visited the site in 1991 and a lot has changed--many more visitors and vendors, and more of the ruins have been excavated.  We got there during the heat of the day, so birds were quiet and few and far between, but we did see some Keel-billed Tucans as well as a Bat Falcon harassing a Short-tailed Hawk.  The museum was closed the first day we were there, due to a power outage, but when we returned a week later the museum was open and we enjoyed seeing more of the artifacts from this site.  For more on the birds of Palenque, check out this paper.

Here are a few shots of the ruins as well as some Classic Maya bird imagery from Palenque.  Birds were an important part of Classic Maya communities and culture.  They continue to be important in many Maya communities today, making our research into modern and ancient Maya bird connections a lot of fun.

White Palace at Palenque Ruins.  Most Classic Maya architecture was probably plastered and painted red, but this palace was white and would have made an imposing sight. 
Birding above the White Palace

Great tacos al pastor in the city of Palenque.  Best tacos of the trip.

Classic maya often pictured their gods and leaders as taking on the form of a bird.

The mat bird glyph, part of the name of an important site or precinct at Palenque.  We don't know for sure yet which bird this is, but we did recover a water bird name with mat in it among the Chontal Maya this trip, so maybe we're close?

Presumed screech owl head in a belt decoration.

An undeciphered Maya glyph, presumably a royal name or title.  Because the bird is holding a fish, has a crest, and a black line through the eye, I think it is an Osprey, but so far we haven't found a Maya name for the Osprey that ends in N, which it would need to have in order to match the phonetic complement attached to it in another inscription.

Birds often decorate headdresses and incense burners.  Sometimes they are real birds, and other times they may be the bird form or representation of a divine being or ruler.

Another bird presumably as part of a god's headdress on this incense burner.

An explanation of the sarcophagus cover of Pakal, perhaps one of the most famous Classic Maya carvings.  At the top is the major Maya god Itzamnaaj in the form of the bird.  

Classic Maya glyph with the phonetic reading of "I"--a bird perhaps a vulture eating the eye of a jaguar.  Interestingly we got a cool story about this from a Chol Maya village in Tabasco.

Another Classic maya "bird man"

Saturday, June 06, 2015

Backyard Big Year Update--May 2015

Least Flycatcher--the only Empid seen in my yard this spring--though a Willow Flycatcher was picked up by my OldBird21c microphone one night.
Usually by the end of May I've seen well over 200 species for the year in my county, and driven almost 10,000 miles looking for birds.  This year I've only birded outside my yard a few times, so my mileage is way down.  And I've found 138 species for the year in my yard.  Not bad considering my overall yard list previous to starting this Backyard Big Year was only 156 species.  But I've still got a long ways to go to reach my Backyard Big Year goals.

I spent a lot of time in my yard in May, trying to get the migrants as they go through.  But it was a slow spring across most of New Jersey, and birds were few and far between.  One indicator of how bad it was--I only saw one Yellow-rumped Warbler in the yard all spring!  This is normally the most common migrant warbler, and a few even winter in the county.

Fortunately, I'm doing a bionic big year, so I can include birds recorded by my OldBird21c microphone at night while I sleep.  It's bitter-sweet to get new birds this way, since they don't count on my personal eBird checklist, but I report them on my NFC station eBird checklist and they count towards the overall Backyard Big Year total.  So far my NFC additions include such hard to get local birds as American Bittern, Black-crowned Night Heron, and Dickcissel (the only ones reported in the county so far this year).  It takes a couple hours or more to review an overnight recording, and there are many calls that I can't ID.  So I've still got a lot of work to do, and hopefully even more goodies tucked away in those recordings.  So stay tuned.

More May 2015 summary including photos at the Backyard Big Year Blog.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Backyard Big Year--March 2015 Update

February about killed me with the sub-zero temperatures, and March was also very cold.  But it did start to warm up later in the month and I was able to add 20 new species to the Backyard Big Year list--including new all time yard birds Common Redpoll, Tundra Swan, Mute Swan, Green-winged Teal, American Wigeon, and Northern Pintail.

See a more complete report on the Backyard Big Year blog, as well as photo highlights at Birding is Fun!

As a special early spring bonus, at the Backyard Big Year blog you can also hear audio recordings of American Woodcocks displaying in my yard.

Hunterdon County Thayer's Gull

On March 30, Frank Sencher Jr. sent out a text that he had a probable Thayer's Gull at Spruce Run.  I took a quick break from my Backyard Big Year and was the first additional birder on the scene.  Frank quickly got the bird in my scope and sure enough it looked really good for an adult Thayer's Gull--a bird reported but never confirmed with photos for the county.  So I got out my iPhone 6 and trusty PhoneSkope adapter and started shooting video of the bird.

In these stills you can see the dark eye, bright raspberry pink legs, roundish head, smallish greenish bill, and most importantly the wing pattern--mostly white primaries underneath with small dark tips, and much reduced black on wingtips--mostly just tips and leading edges to the primaries.

Several other birders were able to get to the bird over the next few hours, and it was relocated again on the afternoon of March 31.  There are over 2000 gulls in the area (I counted over 2400 streaming by from my yard this morning), so hopefully it will stay around for a few more days and return in the evenings for more to enjoy.

Underwing with narrowly dark-tipped white primaries.  And doing the Can Can with those amazing raspberry pink feet.

Crucial shot of underwing, note white primaries with dark tips.

Dark eye, rounded head in this profile shot, and smallish greenish bill are all consistent with Thayer's Gull.

This shot makes the bill look heavier, but note the pale reddish gonydal spot, dark eye, and the mostly white primaries with dark tips.  And you gotta love the bright raspberry colored legs and feet.

In this side view the primaries are clearly dark above with large white spots, and the underside of the primaries (on the folded hind wing) is mostly white with a small dark primary tip visible.  Also note greenish small bill with a faint reddish-orange gonydal spot on lower mandible.  

This is a crucial shot of the upper wing pattern--note the reduced black mostly on the tips and leading edge of the primaries.  Also dark iris and bill without much patterning.

Sitting in front of a Herring Gull, unfortunately this view doesn't allow a good comparison of size differences, but the bird consistently looked a bit smaller than a Herring Gull.  Here you can see the brown streaking on the head and dark eye.  And brighter pink legs than the Herring Gull behind it.

In this shot you can see a better size comparison with the adjacent Lesser Black-backed Gull.  Also note smallish bill with small reddish gonydal spot on lower mandible.  And those bright pink legs are pretty obvious!
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