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Friday, July 27, 2018

Birding in a van, down by the river

My name is Rob Fergus.  I'm an ornithologist.  I am almost 50 years old, and I bird in a van, down by the river.

With fall migration well underway, the best place in my county for shorebirds is a small tidal flat on the Delaware River behind the Philadelphia airport.  Several times a week I try to hit there at low tide to see what comes my way.  Half a dozen Bald Eagles patrol this area and like to land on the spit as well, so oftentimes they spook birds that have landed there.  Which means you have to pay attention, because the shorebirds you want to see may only get to land for a few minutes before they get flushed and take off.

This morning a nice flock of 3 Short-billed Dowitchers, 3 Lesser Yellowlegs, and 4 Pectoral Sandpipers landed on the spit.  The pectorals were a county year bird for me, so that was great.  What wasn't so great was 1) The birds are over half a mile away out on the river, so this was the best shot I could get before 2) the eagles flushed all the birds, and the shorebirds disappeared.

At half a mile away, the best shot I could get of the dowitchers and Pectoral Sandpipers (with a Ring-billed Gull)

So its the middle of summer break.  I'm trying to get some writing done.  I'm not headed off to any exotic locations to see new birds in Australia or Nepal.  I'm birding in a van, down by the river.

But life is good.  I'm on track to become only the third person to report 200 species in this county in a calendar year.  And things could be a lot worse.  I could be eating a steady diet of government cheese, thrice divorced, and actually living in that van.

With the world going crazy, I'll take the birds!

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Adventures in Birding: A Book, A Culture, A Life

As a teenage birder growing up in Oregon, my favorite book to check out from the Clackamas County Library was Adventures in Birding, by Jean Piatt.  Published in 1973, Adventures in Birding chronicled the adventures of Piatt and his wife Marybelle as they made journeys around North America trying to find 600 species of birds to join what was then called the 600 club--an informal group of the continent's top birders who had each seen that many species in North America north of Mexico.  I loved reading of these birders and their travels, and dreamed of someday seeing the same places and same birds.

Fast forward 30+ years and many birds later, and I was pleased to recently find a first edition copy of Adventures in Birding (were there actually other printings?) at a used bookstore.  I scooped it up, and after getting it home I got a big surprise.  Unbeknownst to me, all these years later, I had actually moved to within just a few miles of where Jean Piatt started birding!

Piatt mentions three local birding sites where he got his start here in Delaware County, Pennsylvania--Furness Upper Bank Nursery in Media, Springton Reservoir, and Tinicum wildlife refuge.  Tinicum is now the Heinz National Wildlife Refuge--a large wetland area near the Philadelphia airport that I've birded many times since moving to Pennsylvania in 2004.

The Upper Bank Nursery was more of a puzzle, a couple local birders I asked about it didn't know where it was.  Some Googling led me to find it just south of Media, less than three miles from my home.  This is where Piatt first started birding--in his first chapter, he describes seeing an Eastern Towhee there as the spark bird that got him first interested in listing the birds he found, and the desire to find more.  What used to be a local nursery well known for growing many types of bamboo, is now private property, but I was able to find it and take a few pictures.

Site of the former Furness Upper Bank Nursery on South Ridley Creek Rd in Media, PA
Site of the former Furness Upper Bank Nursery in Media, PA less than 3 miles from my home.
Springton Reservoir is where some Buffleheads fanned the spark for Piatt into a full-fledged birding flame.  I've birded there a few times over the past year--if you take a left out of my driveway it is just a 15 minute drive down my road to the reservoir.

Springton Reservoir just 5.5 miles straight down the road from my home.
The irony of my having unknowingly or perhaps subconsciously moved to my old birding idol's own stomping grounds has caused some reflection on my own journey, my own adventures in birding and North American bird listing.  From my own spark on 10 August 1981 on a week-long school outing to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon and the state and county listing of my youth--to the fanning of the flame after my wife and I moved to Washington DC in 1994 and I met some of my first big North American chasers at a Yellow-legged Gull stakeout at Georgetown Reservoir.  By this time, 600 was small potatoes, and the top listers had seen well over 700 bird species in North America.

So 700 became my goal over the next decade as we moved to Texas and eventually back out to Pennsylvania.  Working for Audubon, I was able to see more and more birds in my work travels around the country, putting me closer and closer to 700 as the club moved on and the top listers started shooting for 800+ species.  Then when my Audubon job evaporated in 2009, my travel schedule changed and my North American listing started slow-walking, even as the top listers started hitting 900+ species for the continent.  This past year, I finally saw my 700th species in North America, just before the American Birding Association officially added Hawaii to the North American listing region, making 1000+ the new benchmark for top North American bird listers.

Sitting here now, with Adventures in Birding in hand, and looking back over my own adventures, I am happy for all the birds and places that I've seen over the years, and the wonderful people that I've met.  But my own listing goals have come smaller--county and yard listing have become more of my passion the last few years.  I can't imagine spending the money required for the multiple Alaska trips necessary to get to 800, let alone 900 or 1000 species for North America.  So I don't have a North American listing goal to motivate me beyond the occasional chase for a new bird near me, or perhaps trips to see some of the scattered other species I haven't seen so far.

Over the past decade I've enjoyed more and more foreign research and conference trips--and the birds I've been able to see outside of North America.  I've only seen about 14% of the bird species in the world, so there are many more to enjoy--but I currently don't have a listing goal for my world list either, but I do expect to make many more trips and see more birds, countries, and cultures.  The world is a very big place for hopefully many more adventures in birding!

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Back in the NFC saddle

This week I finally got my OldBird21c microphone back up and running for the first time after moving from NJ to sePA this past year.  It has been raining most nights this month, but with clear weather forcast it seemed like a good night for migration.  And it was pretty decent.  Here's the NEXRAD radar showing the bird movement.

NEXRAD radar showing decent density of birds moving on the night of May 21

NEXRAD radar showing northerly movement of birds towards (green) and away (yellow) from the radar station.

Here's the NFC protocol eBird checklist from 9:25pm to midnight.

Only 16 species confirmed so far, several unidentified--but I was able to add 12 new species to my yard list:

I love radar ornithology and NFC birding with my microphone.  It is still very humbling and a challenge for me to ID many calls.  But that's probably a good thing :-)

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Philadelphia Airport Snowy Owl

On Jan 5, the weather was turning bad with a week of subfreezing temperatures forecast.  Birds were few and far between at my backyard feeders, so I wanted to make a quick drive to see what I could find down by the river in order to get my #20BirdMDR.  Since this has been a big Snowy Owl year in the East, for the past month I've been regularly driving the road behind the Philadelphia airport hoping one would show up there.

This time, as I pulled over to scan the westernmost part of the airport, I noticed a yellow operations vehicle out on a service road near the runway.  As I put my binoculars up to check it out, I saw something white flying.  Away.  Through the snow.  150 yards away.  For about 5-10 seconds.  Then it was gone.

 The bird was white with dark flecks, big headed, and long heavy-winged.  Fortunately, I've seen Snowy Owls in flight at a great distance before--in the 1990s.  I knew that's what it was, even though it was the worst look in the world, so I called it in.

The next day, local birder Al Guarente relocated it, and soon others were getting great looks at it--as it regularly landed on the airport fence or on light poles over the road.

I was super jealous of the good looks they got over the weekend, and finally on Jan 8 I was able to see it on the ground about 80 yards from the road, and get these shots through my scope (iPhone 6 with Kowa 883 scope).

Rare birds are rare, you don't always find rare birds.  But it pays to regularly go birding, and even to look for hoped for rarities.  Sometimes it pays to make yourself go birding in bad weather.  It pays to go out and make sure you find your 20 species for the day.  It pays to let other folks know what you see, so they can further verify it and enjoy the bird themselves.

And it's just nice to spend some time with visitors from the far north or other distant realms.

It's a cool world out there.  Go see for yourself.
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