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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Snow day in Estes Park

We arrived in Estes Park, Colorado just in time for their first winter storm.  We had fourteen to sixteen inches of snow in the area overnight and today everything looked like a winter wonderland.

The limbs of all the evergreen trees were weighed down by the heavy load of snow.

A Clark's Nutcracker hunted for morsels amid the limbs of one such tree. 

Dark-eyed Juncos, the little birds that were the "snowbirds" that I knew as a child, were everywhere today.

A little Downy Woodpecker explored the trunk of a small tree.

Mountain Chickadees, the ones with the white eyebrows, are fairly common here.

So are these critters.  Elk wander around the town of Estes Park as well as Rocky Mountain National Park.  They are not very wary of humans.

This big bull elk led a small group of twelve cows.

It is very beautiful here and the snow makes it even more beautiful.  Tomorrow, I hope to visit the national park again, and, if I'm lucky, see some more birds.  

Wordless Wednesday: Cheeky magpie!

Friday, October 21, 2011


I thought all my hummingbirds had moved on.  Imagine my surprise when I looked up today to see not one but two still in the yard.

This one, which I believe is another female Rufous although I didn't get a really good look at her, was feeding from one of the feeders that I had just cleaned and refilled yesterday.

This Ruby-throat was visiting a shrimp plant.

Perhaps the change in the weather brought them to me, as it also brought several Monarch butterflies to the yard this week, as well as the Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers that I told you about earlier in the week.  No matter the time of the year or the weather, there's always something interesting happening in the backyard.  Today it was hummingbird stragglers and a little green and black garter snake sunning itself on the rocks beside the fish pond.  What will it be tomorrow?

Whatever it is, I won't be here to see it because early tomorrow, I'm heading out to Colorado for ten days.  I can't wait to see some mountains again and maybe some new birds.  Blogging may be sporadic during this period, but, rest assured, when I see something really interesting, I'll report it to you here!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Big Year, the movie

"The Big Year" starring Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson opened last Friday to moderately positive reviews, but over its first weekend in theaters it didn't make as much money as its backers were hoping and so the entertainment media immediately branded it a flop.  Now, I read and enjoyed the book last year and I had been looking forward to the movie, so I decided I had better hurry on out and see it before it disappeared from my local theater.

I went to the earliest showing of the film today, certainly not the most popular time for movie-going.  There were less than ten people in the theater which seems to confirm the public's lack of interest, although there could well have been more for later screenings.  I settled back in my comfortable rocking chair to enjoy the film - and I did!  It was a very entertaining movie.

The movie does not condescend to birders or portray them as the hopeless dorks and dweebs that we usually see when some moviemker wants to show us what our hobby is like.  These are normal, everyday people who might be your neighbor.  Or you.  The only difference between these characters and the average birder is that they were totally obsessed with birds.

We have three grown men of various ages and stations in life who decide, individually, to try for a "big year," seeing the most birds that they can possibly see in that year.  One of the rules of a big year is that it must have a geographical dimension and theirs was North America.  Their obsession soon brings them in contact with each other and two of the men, the characters played by Jack Black and Steve Martin, develop a friendship.  The character played by Owen Wilson is the reigning big year champion with 732 bird species and he is totally focused on birds to the exclusion of anything else - including his marriage and normal human relationships.  The storyline of the film is the competition among these men to break the record and become the new big year champion, or, in the case of Wilson, to retain his crown.

The photography of the film, especially of the nature scenes, is quite beautiful.  The birds are shown in all their glory, including an amazing scene of the courtship flight of a pair of Bald Eagles.  Some of the sites shown will look very familiar to Southeast Texas birders, even if you are not a person who travels around the world to see birds.  There's a scene at Boy Scout Woods on High Island, for example, that looked very familiar indeed.

This is a gentle comedy.  It's not just about birds and not just for birders.  It's about people and what makes them tick, what gives them satisfaction, and what they are willing to sacrifice for that satisfaction.  It could just as easily be about any human interest other than birding.  It's a story for people-watchers, as well as for people who watch birds.  I hope it finds its audience.

I would give it three-and-a-half out of five stars and I would certainly recommend it to my fellow birders.  Even if, like me, you are not a competitive birder, I think you'll relate to these guys and that you will enjoy the film.

Showing at a theater near you, now!

Wordless Wednesday: Pied-billed Grebe

Monday, October 17, 2011

A winter visitor checks in early

Sitting under the sycamore tree in my backyard, I heard a faint tapping and looked up to see a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker exploring the trunk of the tree.  As usually happens at these times, I didn't have my camera on me, but I watched the bird as it went round and round and up and up the tree.  Then, suddenly, another bird joined the first one and there were two sapsuckers checking out my tree.

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are winter visitors to our area, but it's not every winter that I have one in my yard, much less two, and even when I do see them, it is normally well into December.  I've never recorded one in my yard this early before.  I'm not sure what the early arrival of sapsuckers portends, if anything.  Will other winter birds be early this year?  Time will tell.

Although I didn't have my camera to get a picture of the birds, after they flew away, I went to examine the tree and there I found evidence that they had likely been here for a few days at least.

See all the parallel lines of tiny holes in the trunk of the tree?  They were made by sapsuckers.  This is how the birds got their name.  They create the tiny holes (which do not harm the tree, by the way) and sap runs from the holes.  The sap attracts insects and the woodpeckers come and eat the insects and also sip the sap.  Thus, "sapsucker"!

Here is a closer view of some of the holes.  The birds will return to the holes again and again to feed, possibly throughout the winter.  Maybe on one of these feeding trips, I'll be lucky enough to have my camera in hand!

UPDATE:  Tree owners sometimes worry unnecessarily about these holes in their trees.  I should probably have made the point in my original post that the tiny holes do not really pose a hazard for the trees.  They heal over very quickly unless the bird returns to them to keep them open and the sap flowing.  Once the birds leave, only the scars of the old holes are left.  This relationship has been going on for millenia and the birds and the trees have thrived.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Season of the doves

The White-winged Doves are back.  They've been mostly absent from my yard for the past several weeks.  They disappear like this every year in late summer and fall.  I'm not really sure where they go but I have a theory that they are off gleaning from fields that are being harvested.  When those resources are used up, they return to the feeders.

They are not here in great numbers yet, like they will be later in the fall and winter.  I see perhaps five to ten during the day on most days now.

At the same time, I continue to have a few Eurasian Collared-doves and my resident Mourning Doves visiting daily.  Happily, I am also getting a few Inca Doves now.  They are a bit like the White-wings in that they tend to disappear from the yard, sometimes for quite long periods.  But then one day I'll hear that distinctive call, the one that some people say sounds like "no hope" but to me it always sounds like "whirlpool," and I'll know that our cutest little dove has returned once again.

A shy Inca Dove hides among the foliage.

And so, it is now dove season in my yard, but no hunting allowed!  Anyway, who would want to kill a creature this beautiful?

 White-winged Dove waiting its turn at the feeder.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Be a FeederWatcher!

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada jointly operate one of my favorite citizen science projects each winter.  It is called Project FeederWatch and it enlists birders around North America in a winter-long survey of birds that visit backyard feeders, as well as nature centers and other public spaces.  The survey runs from the second Saturday of November through the first Friday of April and reports from participants provide valuable information about the movements of bird populations throughout the continent during the coldest months of the years.  It also gives clues as to the health and numbers of those populations.  All of this information is collected and provided to ornithologists who can evaluate it and plan ways to better protect and assist birds in their fight for survival.

FeederWatchers agree to periodically count the birds that they see at their feeders or other designated sites and report their findings through the website.  There is also provision for participants to report using manual forms if they don't have access to a computer or if they just prefer to do it that way.  Participants do not need any particular skill level.  People of any age, children through retirement, can participate.  All it takes is an interest in birds and a willingness to record and report what you see.

FeederWatchers count birds that appear in their designated site because of something that is provided there.  It may be plantings or water, as well as a bird feeder.  One reports the highest number of individual birds of any given species that one sees at one time during the count period.  The count period consists of two consecutive days once every two weeks (or you can do every week if you are reporting online and wish to do so).  You select the days when you want to count and you can spend as much or as little time as you want during those days doing the count. Sound simple?  Of course it is!

There is a participation fee of $15, or $12 for members of the Lab of Ornithology (CAN$35 for Canadian participants).  This fee pays for the materials, staff support, web design, data analysis, and a year-end report. The project is paid for almost entirely with participation fees.

FeederWatch results are shared with ornithologists and bird lovers throughout North America and they are regularly published in scientific journals.  And you can be a part of all this!  If you haven't already done so, go to the Project FeederWatch website (link in the first paragraph) and sign up.  It is fun, it's easy, I guarantee you'll learn a lot about the birds in your yard, and, most importantly, it is for the birds.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The cranes are coming!

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo of Whooping Cranes taking off.

It's that time of year when we start seeing reports in the news about the Whooping Cranes heading south once again.  The Texas/Canada, or Western,  flock that winters at Aransas will soon be winging our way again. Some have already started.  Unlike many migrating birds, though, these big birds do not migrate in large flocks.  Instead, they travel in family groups, usually parents and one chick, sometimes two.  The birds mate for life and those family ties are exceedingly strong.  Adolescent birds that are not yet mated sometimes gather in loose flocks to migrate.

As I've reported here in the past, conservationists have been working hard to establish other viable flocks of Whoopers so that we don't have all of our evolutionary eggs in one basket, just in case a disaster hits that basket.  One of the most successful endeavors to date has been the establishment of a captive bred migrating flock which travels between Wisconsin and Florida each year.  The unique feature of this flock is that the eggs are hatched in incubators and the chicks raised by humans (dressing in crane costumes) and when it is time to migrate in the fall, the flock of chicks is led to Florida by an ultralight.  And now it is time to make that trip once again.

There are 10 cranes in the 2011 flock, five male and five female. This year, the birds were trained how to follow the ultralight planes at a new site, the White River Marsh State Wildlife Area, which is southeast of Necedah, Wis., where earlier flocks have been trained.
The endangered birds are part of an effort by the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, a consortium of government and private agencies from Canada and the United States that works to ensure the crane's survival.
Before the whoopers are born, the sound of ultralight aircraft is played near the eggs. After they are born, the birds are fed and cared for by people dressed in whooping crane costumes carrying whooping crane puppets. No one ever speaks near the birds to prevent them from bonding with humans.
The birds imprint on the ultralights and their costumed pilots, and are trained to follow the aircraft to learn how to migrate.
The program is designed to create a second migratory flock of whoopers in the event members of the only existing wild migrating flock, which flies from Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast, get sick or die off. The goal is to have 125 individual birds, including 25 breeding pairs, in the Eastern Migratory flock.
Once the birds finish their southern migration, they fly north on their own in the spring. The first year of the program, 2001, was also the migration that took the least amount of time, only 48 days. The longest migration was 97 days in 2007. The length of the trip depends on weather conditions. For the safety of the pilots and their precious charges, they only fly in favorable weather.
You can follow the progress of this Eastern migratory flock at the website Operation Migration.

The population of Whooping Cranes in the wild stands at its highest number in several years.  The success of the Eastern flock plus the establishment of  non-migratory flocks in Louisiana and Florida offer more hope for the the bird's future survival.  This is balanced by the challenges which the Western flock will face as they come home to the arid landscape that is Texas this fall.  Will there be enough water in the wetlands and enough blue crabs to see them through the winter?  For a wonderful bird that has inched ever so slowly away from the brink of extinction, it would be a tragedy to see a slide back.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

"The Big Year" is coming to a theater near you!

A little over a year ago on the blog, I reported about a book called The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession by Mark Obmascik.  It was a book about an obsessed birder's attempt to see as many birds as possible in one year - a "big year" in birding parlance.

I read the book.  It was interesting and funny. I subsequently offered it as a giveaway on the blog and one of my readers claimed it.

At the time, I told you that the book was being made into a movie starring Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson and that it would be released sometime in 2011.  Well, ta da!  That "sometime" is almost here!

The movie will be in theaters a week from tomorrow, on Friday, the 14th.  I assume that some of those theaters will be in the Houston area, and I plan to see the movie.

I don't have any great expectations of "The Big Year."  I don't imagine it will be on the list of Oscar nominees come next spring.  But the three men starring in it are generally reliable performers and it is a fun story, so I think it should be entertaining.

Besides, how often do we get to see a movie about birding?   Especially one starring "A" list movie stars?  It's worth a look, I think.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Birds of North America and Greenland by Norman Arlott: A review

Birding field guides have been getting bigger and heavier and more complicated recently, e.g., The Crossley ID Guide and Stokes Field Guide to the Birds, both of which have been previously reviewed here.  Now comes a book which bucks that trend and returns to the smaller, simpler format pioneered by Roger Tory Peterson in the 1930s and 1940s.

Birds of North America and Greenland by Norman Arlott does not actually claim to be a field guide. Instead, it is billed as an "illustrated checklist" of the more than 900 species of birds which occur in the Nearctic region which spans most of North America, including Canada, and Greenland.  It is a small book, 5" x 7 1/2", containing just 239 pages.  It will easily fit into a birding vest pocket or a backpack and will not weigh you down, as many recent so-called "field" guides will.

The bird drawings (and he does use drawings, again bucking the popular trend toward using photographs) are very simplified affairs and include, generally, at most two views, one of the bird in breeding plumage and one in non-breeding plumage.  The range maps that are included are described as "thumbnail" maps, an apt description indeed.  At first, I didn't even see them!  It was only when I flattened the pages out that I could see the little maps near the right-hand side of the left page, along the spine of the book.  All the bird drawings are on the right-side page and the descriptions and maps are on the left page.

As noted, the book includes over 900 species, many vagrants, accidentals, and introduced species, as well as the native species.  One egregious omission which I noted was the Nutmeg Mannikin, an introduced species which has established itself in some areas of the country, including Harris County, Texas.  This made me wonder if there might be other omissions, but all the other species that came to mind were represented, so perhaps this was a single oversight.

I think this book's greatest usefulness will be for beginning birders in the field.  It is easily handled and easily referenced.  Several related species of birds are shown on each page, making ready comparisons an uncomplicated exercise.  The simple bird drawings are easy for the eye to take in and, for the most part, I think, would be useful to a new birder in identifying what s/he is seeing in the field.

The range maps, on the other hand, are pretty useless, but perhaps that is of less concern to the neophyte birder than having accessible and understandable bird drawings.  I would hope, though, that such a birder would have a Sibley, or a Crossley, or a Stokes, or a Kaufman, or even an old Peterson guide back home to refer to and match this illustrated checklist against when s/he returns from the field.

(An advance review copy of this book was provided free of charge by the publisher for purposes of this review.  The book will go on sale to the public on November 2, 2011.)