Monday, December 5, 2011

On My Nightstand: National Geographic Field Guide to Birds of North America, 6th Edition

My first-ever birding guide was the National Geographic guide. Well, it technically wasn’t mine – I “borrowed” it from my (non-birding but inquisitive) parents when I first took an interest in identifying birds several years ago.

At the time, (around 2003), I had no idea how dynamic and fast-changing birding knowledge was, and I figured the dog-eared book that my parents had picked up on a whim many years earlier – which I now realize was the inaugural edition of the National Geographic guide from 1983 – was, like my high school algebra texts, a source of immutable truths. Little did I know that everything from the genetic relationships among birds to their common names to their ranges and populations was in constant flux.  I was puzzled as to why people called those gorgeous white raptors in our area “White-tailed Kites” when the guide said clearly that they were “Black-shouldered Kites.” 

I still have that guide, along with many other, newer ones – Kaufman, Sibley, Crossley, and several other, more specialized guides.  So when I was given the opportunity to check out the newest update of the National Geographic guide, I couldn’t resist comparing it to the original – the book that helped launch my life as a birder.

Both the similarities and differences between the original and latest update are striking: the same signature Bald Eagle on the cover, quite a few of the same illustrations, and even same descriptions. Both list the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker as “probably extinct,” but for strikingly different reasons. (The description of its range and distribution in the new guide will be heartbreaking to anyone who rejoiced at its putative rediscovery a few years back.) But new illustrations, very much in the same style as the older ones, also abound, as well as significantly expanded or revised descriptions of certain birds. (The description of White-crowned Sparrows in the 6th edition, for instance, goes into helpful detail about their various subspecies, their songs, and distribution, which the original, shorter description lacked.)

Another useful detail the guide includes is an index of subspecies range maps – this can be a great benefit to those who spend a lot of time birding on the road.

More striking to me was the extremely liberal definition of “birds of North America” used in the book. Flipping through it, one sees dozens of accidental and even extinct species not found in other North American field guides.  I personally appreciated these graphic reminders that North America (or parts of it, at least) is closely linked, biologically and geographically, to the far corners of Asia and Northern Europe, and for any enthusiastic birder, this feature will be a tantalizing reminder that any trip to the field can bring unexpected surprises. But for beginners or others looking for a straight-ahead quick reference to birds one is likely to encounter on a typical trip, this expanded inventory could be a needless distraction. 

A characteristic feature of any field guide is the front matter – all the stuff the guide presents before actually getting to the birds themselves. Kaufman’s useful pocket guide, for instance, has a friendly, simple preface that captures a “birding for everyone” vibe, and the first words in the preface of Crossley’s graphically rich guide are “I don’t like text,” which tells you everything you need to know about the orientation of the rest of the book. The National Geographic guide strikes an accessible, yet serious tone in its front matter: the brief descriptions of bird classification, ranges, and field marks are written to be understandable to beginners, but include enough information (such as a two-page illustrated spread of labeled head, wing, and body feather tracts) to be a useful reference for more experienced birders as well.

 Any review of a field guide is supposed to end up with the answer to the question “so, how does this rank among the other guides for the same area?” I really hate answering this question because I don’t have a single favorite North American field guide – like many birders, I like having an assortment of them for different purposes: Kaufman to keep in my back pocket for quick reference, Sibley to keep in my car for more comprehensive ID checks, and Crossley to keep at home to study before and after looking for a new bird. Also, I often find myself needing more than one set of illustrations to ID a bird definitively, especially if it’s molting or in some transitional plumage. The new National Geographic guide, for me, falls into the “keep in the car” category – a great combination of quick reference and comprehensive description that will be a useful addition to my arsenal of references.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

How the Rose-Breasted Grosbeak Got His Chest

Once upon a time, long before you or I were born, the Rose-breasted Grosbeak wasn’t called that. Back then, Giorsbeaks’ chests were snowy white. And Grosbeaks were very proud of their looks.

At that time, there was one particular Grosbeak who loved two things: (1) berries and (2) himself. All the other birds said his egotistic, gluttonous ways would eventually come back to bite him in the vent.

One October day, this Grosbeak was feeling both unusually hungry and unusually proud of himself. He had planned his southward journey to go through the verdant land now known as Florida, which he knew was filled with berries in October – bright red magnolia berries, fat clusters of tiny, lavender-colored beauty berries, and big, juicy purple pokeberries. The very thought of them made him swoon, and he was very pleased with his itinerary.

He was pleased with himself for another reason, too: while the other Grosbeaks changed into modest brown plumage for their trip, he had decided to keep most of his snappy black-and-white spring feathers.

“You’re being an idiot,” the other Grosbeaks said. “That outfit’s too worn to make it all the way down south."

“What’s the point?” a disapproving Magnolia Warbler scolded. “Seriously. You’re going to be too busy eating and flying to check out any ladies with that getup of yours, and they'll be too busy to notice you.”

The Grosbeak didn’t listen. He know they were only saying that stuff because they were jealous.

That October day in Florida, things started even better than he expected. Almost immediately, he spotted shiny red clusters of ripe berries. Then he did what any discerning epicure would do when presented with nature’s bounty at its finest: he stuffed his face.

OMG those berries were amazing. Best of all, he hardly needed to move to gobble down one cluster after another, each more succulent than the next. Reddish juice dribbled down his snowy white breast, of which he was very proud, but he was too hungry to care.

“Look at you! You ought to be ashamed of yourself.” It was some Grosbeak he didn’t know, who was dressed in an old man’s brown-and-beige fall outfit. “Show a little class. Look at all that crap you’re dripping on yourself!”

“Yaah pal? Well check it out, I’VE got this bush full of berries and you don’t.”

“That’s because I’ve already had my share. And look at me, I managed to keep myself clean. Mark my words, kid, no gal’s gonna want to nest with a slob like you.”

Whatever, Gramps, the Grosbeak thought. He kept eating. When he was too full to move, he decided to preen himself – not because he cared what the old guy thought but because he wasn’t sleepy or hungry and couldn’t think of anything else to do. Yeah, and it had been several hours since he’d cleaned himself. Okay, maybe more than that.

This was weird. No matter what he tried, the juice stains just wouldn’t come out. -- they were stuck to him like the black on his wings.

He panicked. He began to peck harder at his chest. Nothing. Still bright red, like a cowboy’s bandanna hanging in front of his breast. His beautifully pristine white breast was ruined, and it was all his own fault.

In South America, he made a point of hanging with birds who didn’t know him. But when it was time to go back north again, he know he’d have to face the music. Nesting season was approaching – how would he explain this to the girls?

The flight back to North America was the most depressing trip of his life. The breeding grounds were a playground of happy activity when he arrived. He saw a lot of familiar birds, but didn’t want to face any of them.

“Hey there!” It was the prettiest, fattest female Grosbeak he had ever seen. Great, she’s just here’s to taunt me, he thought.

“Did you just get here?” She was still talking to him,. “Mm, look at you! Pokeberries?” She was staring at his chest, cocking her head. “I like a man with a good appetite.” She hopped towards him. Startled, he hopped backwards.

“What’s the matter? Have you already got a mate?”

“N-no! I –“

“Well, if you don’t have anyone lined up, I’m here – unless you’d prefer me to spend the summer with him.” She turned her head towards a loudly singing voice nearby. “But I kind of like your looks.”

His heart felt as though it would burst. “I do, too,” he said.

Soon, word got out among the male Grosbeaks that the dork with the juice stuck on his chest had scored the hottest female Grosbeak in North America. Grateful and chastened, our Grosbeak built his pretty mate the biggest, nicest nest in the area. The other females eyed that nest and the happy couple from a distance, then gazed at their own dumpy nests and plain black-and-white mates and sighed. No, they’d say to their mates. Nothing’s wrong! What makes you think something’s wrong?

Miraculously, the guys got the hint. The next spring, when they returned to the nesting grounds, all the men were sporting handsome red bibs. And with all the time saved from not having to preen their breasts so much, they had the time and energy to build bigger nests and take better care of their chicks than ever before.

And that’s how the Rose-breasted Grosbeak got its chest.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Summer Flies

Where has the time gone?

I took a break from blogging (about birds, anyhow) with the intention of focusing on my paid writing assignments. The summer doldrums seemed like a good excuse. What's the point in writing about birds when there are no birds of note worthy of writing about?

But there were. Weirdly, just after our nearly warbler-less spring migration ended, all sorts of interesting things somehow ended up passing through Gainesville and surrounding areas. Late in May, a sighting of a white-morph Great Blue Heron (a.k.a. Great White Heron) brought birders from all around to Camps Canal, a tiny tributary south of Paynes Prairie State Park. When Glenn and I drove down to see it, we found it waiting for us in the shallows of the canal, right near where we parked.

Nearby was an immature Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, a bird unusual in our area.

A fairly new tradition among Gainesville-area birders, which has just started to spread to other areas, is the June Challenge. This is a friendly competition to see who can get out and bag the most birds in our county (Alachua County) during the month of June. It was designed as a fun way to keep birders motivated even during the slowest, hottest, most mosquito-plagued time of year. I wasn't feeling terribly ambitious this year (did I mention it was REALLY hot out? And mosquitos are everywhere?) so I sat it out. Officially, at least: I did go out and look for goodies that other, braver birders had previously discovered. The best thing about the June Challenge is that it is an oddly non-competitive competition: anyone who sees something interesting is supposed to report it so others can find it too. Among the interesting things discovered were a Common Loon who somehow ended up in a fountain at a busy intersection in the middle of town:

Towards the end of June, some local birders discovered a spot on the shore of Orange Lake filled with shorebirds, including numerous Roseate Spoonbills, which are locally uncommon. Even though this little point on the shore is in the painfully cute town of Macintosh, in Marion County, the lake itself is considered part of Alachua County, so birds found within are fair game for Gainesville's June Challenge. This made me wonder if one could count birds on the shore of the lake for the Alachua County June Challenge, which in turn made me glad I wasn't doing the challenge officially!

Orange Lake has proven to be a fun spot, and Glenn and I have returned several times since. This week, migrating shorebirds have started showing up there, including several Stilt Sandpipers (a life bird for me).

This week reports of southward-bound warblers have started trickling in, and this morning, I saw some: a couple of American Redstarts, a Black-and-white Warbler, and a few Prairie Warblers.

Meanwhile, the summer class I'm teaching is about to end, and students are already trickling back (however reluctantly) for fall semester--the other, bigger fall migration in Gainesville.

Where has the summer gone?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Birding at the End of the World

On Saturday, the world was going to end and the righteous among us were to ascend bodily to Heaven. Since we figured we wouldn't be going, we decided to try birding at Cedar Key instead.

It's a good thing we did, too: the birding was great. Not amazing fallout day great, but quite good for a day at the tail end of an unusually slow spring migration.

We weren't expecting much. But we did know of a spot where a good sighting was almost guaranteed: the Cedar Key Scrub Preserve, where we found three Florida Scrub-Jays in the exact same place where we saw them (or their cohorts) on our last few visits.

It would be more precise to say the Scrub-Jays found us. "Isn't that a Scrub-Jay?" our friend Elizabeth asked, pointing at a backlit bird on top of a tree about 50 feet away. Before we could answer, the bird swooped down--and landed on a bush right by the trail! His friends soon followed. Yup, it was a Scrub-Jay!

We spent about half an hour enjoying their company (and not seeing much else) before taking off to Shell Mound, part of the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge. I brought my spotting scope in hope of getting some good shorebirds, but we only saw the usual suspects: Willets, Semipalmated Plovers, and Ruddy Turnstones.

Once we got to Cedar Key proper, we noticed a Kingbird working the trees and utility poles right by the lot where we parked. I figured it was just an Eastern Kingbird -- I haven't seen one in a while and even "easy" flycatchers throw me -- but I never remembered them having such large bills:

Elizabeth pulled out her ever-present Sibley guide and I was happy to realize I was wrong: it was a Gray Kingbird, a bird that almost never appears in Gainesville, but does show up occasionally at Cedar Key. Even better, we soon found, there were TWO of them.

We saw both of them dash repeatedly in and out of a tree in the parking lot, which led to another discovery: they weren't only hanging out there, they were NESTING there! It was a life bird for Glenn, and a very cooperative one at that.

While in the parking lot, we ran into a birder who said he had seen a family of Great Horned Owls roosting in the cemetery a few weeks earlier. After a break for (a very tasty) lunch, we headed there and started looking into the trees.

No owls. But Elizabeth spotted a late Blackpoll Warbler, and we watched flocks of fledgling Northern Cardinals chasing their parents around the headstones, begging for food. We stood there and considered the striking juxtaposition between those energetic new little lives and the silence of the long-gone ones memorialized just underfoot.

Our best sighting came near the end of our day. While on the boardwalk overlooking the water by the cemetery, we saw a large vulture fly by. Only it wasn't a vulture: it was flying fast over the water, rising higher into the air until it disappeared over the cemetery. Its flight and wing shape and color were wrong for a vulture, it had the head and beak of a hawk, but it wasn't one of our usual suspects--what was it?

Glenn managed to get off a quick documentary shot:

Elizabeth pulled out her Sibley guide again, and then we had an answer: the closest thing our bird resembled in the book was a dark-morph Short-tailed Hawk -- an uncommon bird for this area. Back home, we e-mailed the picture to some expert local birders who confirmed our guess and told us that a pair of them had been nesting nearby at Shell Mound. Our third great hyper-local bird of the day.

It was too good a day for the world to end.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Eat Like a Bird!

(Cross-posted at my cooking blog. Because I'm too lazy to put up two separate posts.)

This Northern Parula flew 1,000 miles or more across the Gulf of Mexico – without stopping, eating, or sleeping – before landing in Florida during spring migration. This grueling flight took him somewhere between 18 and 25 hours.

Before setting off on this flight, he spent some serious time fueling up. In the days leading up to his trip, he piled on the calories, ballooning from a lithe 1 ounce or less to a staggeringly obese 2 ounces – virtually doubling in weight. Wired graphically described this phenomenon of avian gluttony as “the equivalent of having a hamburger for lunch on Monday, and 100 hamburgers for lunch on Friday.”

When Mammy told Scarlett O’Hara to eat like a bird, this probably wasn’t what she had in mind.

Those of us who enjoy watching birds also pick up strange eating habits during migration. These usually involve consuming large quantities of coffee before sunrise, feeding from ziplock bags filled with trail mix, and toting energy bars bent and flattened from hours in our back packets. Like our avian quarry, birders focus on high-protein, high-energy natural food sources when on the road. Birder snacks of choice usually involve nuts, seeds, whole grains, and/or fruit, often scented with hints of bug spray, sunscreen, and car exhaust. On the other hand, migrating songbirds – even some that typically eat seed – favor the high-calorie goodness of insects and their larvae, food sources most birders tend to avoid.

Still, our eating habits can be frighteningly similar. When shopping for bird seed for my backyard feeders recently, I saw a shiny little bowl filled with freshly shelled Brazil nuts, peanuts, sunflower seeds and unusually fat raisins. I was about to help myself to few bites when I realized it was sample of one of the store’s specialty birdseed mixes.

And it looked better by magnitudes than most of the cheap-ass trail mix I’ve lugged around on birding trips. The woodpeckers around here eat better than I do.

My husband and I joke that someday, we’ll have to buy a bag of that super-fancy fruit-nut mix, pour some into a pretty bowl, and feed it to our birder buddies. My prediction is that they’ll think it looks familiar, but assume it’s that pricey brand of organic snack mix they never quite felt like splurging on.

And since it’s near the end of another spring migration season and my Audubon chapter is holding its annual end-of-the-birding-year potluck soon, the occasion for our little experiment is now upon us! MWAAHAHA!

Seriously, I’m not going to do it. But I will do something very much like it. As a tribute to those hard-working birds and my friends who love them, I devised a munchable treat with the same base ingredients as that fancy bird mix – peanuts, raisins, sunflower seeds, and bigger, blingier nuts of some kind. And millet, because almost all birdseed mixes contain copious amounts of it. But being a good citizen, I resisted the urge to take these from a 25-pound bag with NOT FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION printed on it.

Because just plain old nuts and raisins mixed together seem kind of abstemious, particularly for a festive occasion, I spiced them them up and converted them into a sweet-salty-tangy-spicy cocktail nibble. I’ve always been addicted to Indian snack mixes – exhuberently spicy blends of fried grains, nuts, dried fruit, and spices – and I’ve modeled the seasoning in my mix after these. The recipe on which I base my spice mix comes from Madhur Jaffrey's World-of-the-East Vegetarian Cooking.

Friday, April 29, 2011

The Unbearable Cuteness of Being

Oooh! Cute!

Spring migration has been a bust. My little corner of Florida has been blessed with calm, sunny weather for the past month, which is great for people and birds -- but not for people who want to look at birds. As one of my more knowledgeable birding pals told me, migrating birds want to get to their breeding grounds fast, and if the weather is clear, they're not going to stop. And in my area, not that many migrating birds have seen a need to stop.

Last week, Glenn and I went on Alachua Audubon's annual pilgrimage to Fort DeSoto, and scored a couple of Cape May, Black-throated Blue, and Blackpoll Warblers -- but no other migrants. Last night, a powerful thunderstorm hit Gainesville, and as I lay in bed watching the lightning flash across the sky, I wondered how many migrants might have chosen to spend the night in town rather than fly through the storm.

The answer: not many. A quick early-morning trip to Bolen Bluff revealed a single migrant warbler -- a male American Redstart -- and dozens and dozens of squirrels. Oh boy.

Still, the transition from winter to spring still shows itself in the changing inventory of birds. Local summer breeders such as Summer Tanagers and Blue Grosbeaks have started showing up, and rumor has it the Purple Gallinules have arrived on Paynes Prairie, just in time for breeding season. I haven't seen one locally yet this season, but on a trip south about a month ago, we got to see a particularly pretty one at the Orlando Wetlands, where they occur year round:

Luckily, when there's nothing else to look at during the hot season, there are always babies. Like the one above. He/she was one of four we saw peeping and sort-of walking in the underbrush at Lettuce Lake Park, in Tampa. Holy cow. Cutest. Thing. Ever. Times four.

All of us who watched the little family were enthralled. We figured the babies must be really young, given there were still so many of them (and there were a large number of hungry alligators nearby). We marvelled at how different they looked from their parents. The little puffballs made me wonder if there's some kind of universal template for all precocial chicks, and at some point in their fuzzy little lives a program goes off to turn the little things into chickens, or Mallards, or whatever.

I certainly wouldn't have been able to tell whose babies these were had the parents not been nearby: we heard them calling loudly and flying low over the lake all afternoon. One was always with the babies, never more than a foot or two away.

It still amazes me that in only a matter of months, those tiny little balls of fluff will turn into this:

Not just any old babies, but Limpkin babies -- a vulnerable Florida specialty. To see four of them being so well cared for was just as good as seeing some random migrant just passing through.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

On My Night Stand: The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds

Cedar Waxwings from The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds.

Shortly after we first started birding, my husband and I saw an unusual hummingbird. It was mostly green and grayish underneath, like an immature Anna's Hummingbird (an expected and common species in southern California, where we lived at the time.) But unlike an Anna's, this bird had a distinctive golden crown, utterly unmistakable.

We didn't have a field guide with us, so we just stared at it for a few minutes, took several photos, then went home to figure out what its story was. And we drew a blank.

No hummingbird in either or our guides looked anything like our bird. There was an illustration of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird in one of them that showed some yellowish stuff on its head, but the build seemed wrong. Flummoxed, I posted the photo and a query on the Orange County Birding listserv. And the verdict was unanimous:

It was an immature Anna's Hummingbird. With pollen on its head.

Duh. It was, after all, feeding in a goldenrod bush, clearly visible in the photo.

The moral here is that birds don't always look like the canonical illustrations in field guides. This drove me nuts when I first started birding. (Sometimes, it still does.) Birds have an annoying tendency to move around, hold themselves in weird positions, or transition s-l-o-w-l-y from one plumage to another. They're no more likely to stand around all day in full profile view wearing canonical secondary plumage than are female homo sapiens to look like cover models in Vogue.

But for the past year or so, word was out that a new guide would change that. A few weeks back, I got my very own review copy of The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds in the mail and eagerly tore into it. Whoa.

Many, many far more knowledgeable birders than I have already reviewed Crossley's book, so I'll keep my comments fairly brief. As most have noted, Crossley deserves major props for originality--his is a bird ID guide that looks like no other. While most guides contain an illustration or two of each species, always in that nice full profile view or a top-down flight shot, Crossley dedicates a full page montage of half a dozen or more photographed birds (all from his own photos), each in a different position and plumage, to all but the rarest species.

If his plate of Cedar Waxwings doesn't give you a pretty good grip on what the bird can look like, both close up and at a distance, in flight and standing still, nothing will.

I field-tested the book once. (More precisely, I brought it with me in the trunk of my car to show off to a friend during a recent sparrow-hunting trip to La Chua--the book is way too large and heavy to be carried into the field.) Shortly past the trailhead, we saw a flock of sparrows we were unsure about--Vespers, perhaps, or maybe something else? In a winter sparrow hunts, it's way too easy to turn any expected bird into some exotic rarity. And the individual birds that gave us the best views, weirdly, posed themselves directly facing us so all we could see were their faces and bellies--were Vespers supposed to be that pale underneath? I honestly couldn't recall from any of my other field guides.

So we went back to my car, flipped open the Crossley guide to the sparrows and started looking. Almost all the plates showed frontal as well as side views of the birds, which was enormously helpful. One shot showed a bird that looked exactly like the puffed-up frontal view of the bird we just saw--a Vesper. Mystery solved.

Helpful and beautiful as the book is, it's not one I'd recommend as a sole resource for a beginning birder, although I'd definitely recommend it as a supplement to more accessible works such as the Kaufman guide. Because the photos take up so much space, there's little room for explanatory text. The ages and sexes of birds are labeled on some, but not all, of the plates--in his introduction, Crossley says this is intentional, so the reader can figure it out on his or her own. Much of the concise but useful explanatory text under the plates, as other reviewers have noted, contains banding ID abbreviations of bird names. For instance, part of the description under "Harris's Sparrow" reads "song like WTSP at one pitch." Aren't most newbies self-conscious and confused enough without having to figure out what WTSP means? Even experienced birders can get thrown by these--a local master told me he once spent hours staring at his list from the previous day, trying to figure out what the hell kind of sparrow a ROSP is. (Hint: he was birding in Florida.)

Oddly, even the labels under the individual birds shown in the comparative size guide at the beginning of the book -- a very useful feature -- are reduced to four-letter codes, even through there's more than enough space under each photo to print out the full common name. I can just picture some poor novice flipping through this, saying, "Honey, you know that pretty duck we saw at Kanapaha Gardens yesterday? It's called a Wodu!"

So what good is this book? If I had to carry something in my back pocket for quick reference on a day in the field, I'm sticking with my Sibley or Kaufman guides. But if I'm chasing something new, I'll be sure to get a good look at it in Crossley before setting out. And I'll be sure to keep Crossley in the trunk--or close at hand when I get home--for further study.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Backyard Birds (A GBBC Retrospective)

I didn't do the Great Backyard Bird Count this year for the simple reason that I spaced out and forgot it was taking place. But I've been thinking a lot about my backyard birds and the pleasure they give me. I work at home, and as I type away at my laptop, I can look out my window at just about any time and see a Northern Cardinal or even a Baltimore Oriole flitting around my feeders. What's not to like?

But the best thing about backyard birding is the sense of place it gives me. The inventory of birds in my yard reminds me of where I am in time and space, and connects me to the physical world in an intimate and tangible way. When I see Yellow-throated Warblers on my feeder in January, I am reminded that I am now in Florida, not back in California, nor anywhere else in the eastern U.S. The birds tell me this is home now. This is where I am, and where I have to make all the new connections in my life.

The birds tell me not only where I am now, but where I've been. As a thought experiment, I've compiled cumulative bird lists for the last few places I've called home, and I'm giving them below. The differences among them are stunning.

My Current Backyard Bird List (Gainesville, Florida)

Birds seen or heard in my back yard, or seen or heard flying overhead:
Northern Cardinal
Tufted Titmouse
Carolina Chickadee
Carolina Wren
House Finch
American Goldfinch
Indigo Bunting
American Crow
Fish Crow
Boat-tailed Grackle
Baltimore Oriole
Pine Warbler
Yellow-throated Warbler
Palm Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Myrtle)
Blue Jay
American Robin
Cedar Waxwing
Red-shouldered Hawk
Barred Owl
Mississippi Kite
Swallow-tailed Kite
Downy Woodpecker
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Mourning Dove
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Eastern Phoebe
Brown-headed Cowbird
strange greenish thing that may or may not have been a female Painted Bunting

Bonus birds: Seen or heard within 100 yards of home:
Sandhill Crane
Whooping Crane (no, really!)
White Ibis
Cattle Egret
Northern Shrike
Northern Mockingbird
Summer Tanager
Eurasian Collared-Dove
Pileated Woodpecker
Northern Flicker

Where I hang out on vacation: Bird list for my parents' place in Los Angeles:

Birds seen or heard in or flying over their back yard:
Mourning Dove
California Quail
House Finch
Lesser Goldfinch
Anna's Hummingbird
Rufous/Allen's Hummingbird
California Towhee
Spotted Towhee
White-crowned Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
California Thrasher
Western Scrub-Jay
American Crow
American Raven
Red-tailed Hawk
Cooper's Hawk
Great Horned Owl
Hooded Oriole
Bullock's Oriole
Mountain Chickadee
Greater Roadrunner
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Audubon's)
House Wren
Bewick's Wren
Black Phoebe

Bonus Bird: Seen or heard within 100 yards of the house:
Zone-tailed Hawk (seen by my husband)

Bird list for my last home: Costa Mesa, California:

Birds seen in the public areas immediately adjacent to our apartment, or seen flying overhead:
Mallard (wild)
Mallard (domestic)
Great Blue Heron
Black-crowned Night Heron
Black Phoebe
Mourning Dove
American Crow
Townsend's Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Audubon's)
House Finch
Black-headed Grosbeak
Western Tanager
Tree Swallow
Great Horned Owl
Red-tailed Hawk
Cooper's Hawk
Anna's Hummingbird

Bonus Birds (seen or heard within 100 yards of the apartment complex):
American Wigeon
Double-crested Cormorant
Downy Woodpecker
House Sparrow
Northern Mockingbird
Rock Pigeon

What's in your back yard?

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Good Birds, Near and Far

Usually, when I don't post for a while, it's because I'm either too busy or haven't seen any birds worth writing about. But lately, I've found myself in a novel predicament: I've been too busy to blog but have seen TONS of good stuff -- way more than than can be done justice in a single post.

But some sightings are too fun not to share. So here is an abbreviated highlight reel of my last few weeks of birding.

1. Do You Want To Get Bitten by an Endangered Bird?

So said the conservationist leading our Alachua Audubon field trip through the Tall Timbers Research Station and the nearby Wade Tract, near Tallahassee, last Sunday morning. It was just after sunrise, and he had just caught and banded a very grumpy female Red-cockaded Woodpecker, which people couldn't resist trying to pet:

We had arrived at Tall Timbers on Saturday afternoon, just in time for a miserable downpour. This didn't stop us from our planned afternoon bird walk through the reserve, where we saw and heard two kinds of nuthatches: Brown-headed and White-breasted. The former are rare in Gainesville and the latter have long been extirpated, so this was worth getting wet. After a cozy night in Tall Timbers' very rustic bunkhouse (as a veteran of last year's trip told me, "it costs five dollars a night and is worth every penny") we got up way before sunrise, waited for the world's slowest drip coffee maker to do its job, then took off to the Wade Tract, just over the Georgia border, for a morning of sparrow and woodpecker banding.

Besides the RCW, our wrangling and banding efforts yielded a surprisingly colorful Bachman's Sparrow:

Worth getting up at 5 a.m. and slogging through the woods in 30 degree weather? Absolutely.

2. Snow Day in Florida

Yesterday's Alachua Audubon field trip was also to an out-of-town destination: Matanzas Inlet, near St. Augustine. One of the things Glenn and I have missed since moving to Gainesville is regular access to shorebirds -- back in California, we hit the beach just about every weekend to look for and photograph sandpipers, ducks, and waders. So we were looking forward to the opportunity to walk around on a real beach once again.

We also learned in the days leading up to the trip that a couple of rarities had been lingering there: a Snow Bunting and an Iceland Gull, which would be lifers for both of us.

We were SO there.

So we woke up at 5 a.m. yet again, joined up with the rest of the group at a local meeting spot, and carpooled to St,. Augustine -- where it was, once again, way colder than anyone had expected.

After half an hour checking out gulls and terns (including several Greater Black-backed Gulls and Herring Gulls) we saw something promising: another group of birders about 100 yards from us staring intently at something nearby .

"They must have the Snow Bunting!" someone said, and we moved towards them as quietly and discreetly as a dozen really hyped-up people possibly could. Glenn was photographing gulls a distance away from us and I wondered if I should fetch him to find the Snow Bunting.

"Guys, watch where you're going; from where they're looking, the bird must be really close to you!" our trip leader yelled.

"Omigod, there it is!" screamed someone just in front of me.


"THERE!!" She pointed at a cream-colored pouf that shot into the air, fluttered across the beach -- and landed right in front of Glenn!

A few minutes later, we all the bird in our sights. We explained to a curious bystander that the bird we were looking at normally lives in the far north, and rarely appears in Florida. "You guys drove 90 miles to see a bird?" he asked.

Hell, yes.

3. The Orange Revolution

I love my backyard birds, but I always thought my visitors were kind of boring. Lots of usual-suspect birds: Northern Cardinals, Tufted Titmice, Carolina Chickadees. I always envied my friends who regularly got cool and locally rare birds at their feeders, such as Painted Buntings and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks.

But over the past two years, I've noticed that things tend to pick up in my back yard in the winter. Then, we get flocks of American Goldfinches, Pine Warblers, and a persistent Palm Warbler and a Yellow-throated Warbler.

Two weeks ago, we had a new visitor: a large, dusky orange bird lighted on our peanut feeder, and I realized it was a juvenile Baltimore Oriole! They winter here, but are extremely local and not often seen outside a few privileged neighborhoods -- and ours, until now, wasn't one of them.I told Glenn, who immediately set out an orange half impaled on an old chopstick. We waited a few days, but the bird didn't return. Then, early last week, I heard unfamiliar chattering outside and saw flashes of orange by our feeders: not one, but THREE Baltimore Orioles -- a juvenile and two adults!

The next day, I saw yet more orioles: an adult male and three female/juvenile birds. And they have been sucking down oranges and chomping on peanuts in our yard ever since. I love how they really get into fruit that's the exact same color they are.

The best part is I don't have to leave the house to see them.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Birding Is a Front for Something (We Just Don't Know What)

Birders get a bad rap in the public mind. Most people think we're senile, pith-helmeted dorks -- annoying, embarrassing to be seen with, but basically harmless.

Then this article in (by Nathan Heller), comes along with its own strange view of what we do. This piece is so peculiar I couldn't help sharing it with the other birders in my life.

Here are some of the salient passages:

"...a bird-watcher's motives can seem puzzling, if not downright suspect. Rising at vampiric hours, these people leave polite society behind to spend long stretches staring not at dazzling vistas or strange beasts but at birds—and often unexotic ones at that. They pack enough high-end equipment and field expertise to undertake a hunt but never touch their prey; the consummating act of birding is, at most, a picture snapped for private use and from a distance, in the manner of a pervert with a beach pass. Birding is the sort of hobby that seems like a front for something."

I'm not clear what kind of mental leap was necessary to go from a fundamental misunderstanding of the pleasures and virtues of birding to an insinuation that birders are a bunch of perverts or worse. I could go on and on about his out-of-hand dismissal of "unexotic" birds -- which, to Heller, probably means anything smaller and less colorful than the Froot Loops toucan. But the bigger point is this: just because the pleasures of someone else's hobby are lost on you doesn't mean that hobby is somehow sketchy or evil. Seriously. If I lived in fear of everyone with a pastime I considered pointless and stupid, I'd never leave the house.

"...there are four species of birder at large in the world. The first and least intimidating group includes those who see bird-watching as an endeavor roughly equivalent to Tuesday-night poker, volunteer gardening, or mah-jongg—an open-access hobby and a chance to connect regularly with friends. These people are frequently novices... a second group, an autonomous cadre of enthusiasts who set their own schedules and often dwell on single bird groups or locales for stretches, like a book critic taking a month to read an author's full oeuvre. Then there are the specialists. These people focus on one kind of bird obsessively and always, often with accompanying Web sites. Fourth are the listers, who chase birds to check them off a list. Some keep life lists (birds they've seen in their lives);* some keep year lists (starting anew every January); and others make up to-do lists by country, state, and so forth (certain New York City listers work by borough). There is, possibly, something compulsive in this approach...."

There's perhaps some truth about the first and fourth categories -- but I don't think I've met anyone in the two middle groups. The only people I've met who systematically bird only one place are biologists who are paid to do so. And if there are serious birders who pursue only one kind of bird to the exclusion of all others, they are rare birds indeed. And many birders I know, myself included, fall into more than one category -- I love birding as a social activity, and I also like keeping lists of my sightings.

And what about the bigger, unspoken, fifth category that almost all birders fall into: people who enjoy birding as an opportunity to commune with nature and be reminded of the fundamentals of how the world works?

To his credit, Heller does actually follow a few birders into the field (he says nothing about whether he enjoyed his search for American Coots or not). But strangely, nowhere in his article does he ask any of them WHY they got into birding what they hope to gain from it, or how birders contribute to society as a whole. Instead, he wastes numerous column inches verbally scratching his head over why we're out there or trying to posit birding as a complicated metaphor for something related to environmental angst in the post-nuclear age.

Dude. If you want to know why we bird... just freaking ask.