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Monday, February 27, 2012

The blackbirds cometh!

Here at the end of February, flocks of blackbirds are beginning to show up in the yard for the first time this winter. Mostly Brown-headed Cowbirds and Red-winged Blackbirds. I haven't seen a single grackle so far.

That's odd, really. A few years ago, one of the things that we could count on in winter was that huge flocks of Common Grackles would invade our street in mid to late winter. It was not unusual to see flocks of several thousand covering three or four front yards at a time as they made their way down the street. But for the last couple of years, the grackles have been mostly absent and this winter there have been none so far.

There are plenty of Brown-headed Cowbirds around though and that's not necessarily good news for the birds whose nests they parasitize, chiefly warblers. They are handsome birds, but it is hard to enjoy them when one realizes the misery they can cause.

Cowbirds and Red-winged Blackbirds often travel in mixed flocks in winter. Here, there are three male cowbirds in back with one lighter-colored female. In front are four female Red-wings. The female Red-wings look like big sparrows with their striped appearance. I quite like them. I think they are very attractive birds, as pretty in their own way as their more dramatically colored mates.

A group of female Red-wings feed peaceably with a female Northern Cardinal.

While the females like feeding in a group on the ground, the male Red-wings often visit the feeders, especially the one containing sunflower hearts.

It won't be long now before the blackbirds and the other birds in the yard will begin pairing up and settling down for the nesting season.

Many people disparage and dislike blackbirds, but I find them very interesting birds. Although you could never tell it from their voices, they are first cousins to orioles. You can see that in their body shape and posture and in the shape of their beaks. But in the extended family, the orioles got almost all the musical talent. I do like the conk-a-ree song of the Red-winged Blackbird though. It's a very pleasant background music for a late spring afternoon.

Friday, February 24, 2012

This week in birds - #10

Overwintering female Rufous Hummingbird at one of my feeders this week.


The little American Kestrel, smallest and prettiest of all our native hawks, is declining in numbers in some parts of its range. One reason may be an increase in Cooper's Hawk populations. The Cooper's preys on the kestrel.


This is Leap Year and so we have an extra day coming up next week. Amphibian Ark suggests that we spend that extra Leap Day celebrating frogs. Seems appropriate, doesn't it? 


The American Bird Conservancy is advocating the use of a newly-developed translucent adhesive tape on large windows to warn birds away from them. It is believed that this could significantly reduce bird deaths from crashing into those windows.


A recent study shows that tree cover has declined in 17 of 20 urban centers surveyed in the United States. The three urban areas with the most decline, according to the study, were Houston, New Orleans, and Albuquerque. Cities with the greatest annual increase in "impervious covering" - AKA concrete - were Los Angeles, Albuquerque, and Houston. Thus, Houston made its way onto two negative lists.


The state of New Jersey has recently updated its endangered and threatened lists. This has resulted in the addition of three birds to the endangered list: Black Rail, Golden-winged Warbler, and Red Knot


Swallows usually fly south for the winter, but in recent years, a flock of Northern Rough-winged Swallows has been wintering at a sewage plant in Philadelphia and they have become a magnet for birders. The draw for the birds seems to be that there are plenty of flying insects in the area on which they can feed.


A new species of blind wingless insect, discovered living in complete darkness in a deep cave near the Black Sea in the Caucasus, may be the deepest dwelling animal on the planet. 


Increasing temperatures due to climate change are causing migratory birds in eastern North America to migrate earlier and earlier. This is confirmed by analysis of data from eBird. I can offer some anecdotal evidence in support of that, since American Goldfinches have left my yard en masse earlier than ever before this winter.


The increase in Red-tailed Hawks may be pushing Rough-legged Hawks out of some areas where they were previously found. David Sibley ponders in his blog whether the two species coexist in any areas.


The UK Ministry of Defense will declassify some of its data gathered by submarines so that it can be utilized by scientists doing research on the climate.  


Here is a photo gallery of extinct birds with information about the reasons for their extinction.


Around the backyard: We've had small flocks of Cedar Waxwings in the yard all winter but this week the numbers have gone up dramatically. Yesterday, I saw a big flock of more than 200 in my trees. I think they may be "staging," getting ready to head north, although waxwings usually stick around until pretty late in the spring. Maybe they are one of those species that are migrating earlier because of global warming.

Such pretty and entertaining birds. I will be sorry to see them go.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Summing up this year's GBBC

So the big weekend of counting birds is over. My final species total for my yard was thirty-two, not the best year that I've had but not bad, particularly considering that the weather was not that cooperative. These are the birds that showed up for the count:
  1. Black Vulture
  2. Turkey Vulture
  3. Red-tailed Hawk
  4. Red-shouldered Hawk
  5. Killdeer
  6. Eurasian Collared-dove
  7. White-winged Dove
  8. Mourning Dove
  9. Rufous Hummingbird
  10. Red-bellied Woodpecker
  11. Downy Woodpecker
  12. Eastern Phoebe
  13. Blue Jay
  14. American Crow
  15. Carolina Chickadee
  16. Tufted Titmouse
  17. Carolina Wren
  18. Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  19. Eastern Bluebird
  20. American Robin
  21. European Starling
  22. Cedar Waxwing
  23. Pine Warbler
  24. Yellow-rumped Warbler
  25. Chipping Sparrow
  26. White-throated Sparrow
  27. Northern Cardinal
  28. Red-winged Blackbird
  29. Brown-headed Cowbird
  30. House Finch
  31. American Goldfinch
  32. House Sparrow 
My most surprising visitor of the weekend was the White-throated Sparrow. I really hadn't expected that. 

White-throated Sparrow, February 20, 2012.

Of the ten or so species that I know are here but that didn't turn up for the count, perhaps the most disappointing was the Northern Mockingbird. Four whole days of intensive birding and not one single mockingbird showed up in my yard!

Late this afternoon I walked out to my backyard to put my gardening tools away. When I opened the back door, the first thing I heard was a mockingbird singing. I walked outside and there he was at my back fence, singing his heart out, mocking me! He might have been saying, "Nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah! Can't count me!"

Darned mockingbird! 

Monday, February 20, 2012

GBBC - Day 4

The final day of this year's Great Backyard Bird Count was gray, overcast, and chilly, not really the most pleasant day to be outside counting birds. As it turned out, we only had one pleasant day in this year's count and that was yesterday. Still, today actually had plenty of birds to offer. I ended the day with twenty-six species, only one less than yesterday, and I had three previously uncounted birds today. That brought my overall total for the weekend to thirty-two.

Today's new species were:

  1. Red-shouldered Hawk
  2. Eastern Bluebird
  3. White-throated Sparrow
Here are a few pictures of birds from today's count.

A pair of House Finches enjoys a late afternoon snack at the front yard feeder.

The male Northern Cardinals are obviously ready for spring. Their bright new feathers almost glowed on this gloomy day.

The smallest and cutest of the sparrow family, the Chipping Sparrow has been an infrequent visitor to my feeders this winter. Yesterday, I was happy to see a flock of a dozen at my front yard feeder. That was the biggest group I had seen here this winter. Today, I only saw two.

I was surprised to see a single White-throated Sparrow in the backyard this afternoon. These pretty little sparrows are not often seen in my yard.

A pair of cute little Downy Woodpeckers flirted around my backyard today. I tried to get a picture of them together but I could only succeed in getting the female to pose. 

It's been a fun and exciting four days in spite of some dreary weather. Tomorrow, I will sum up the weekend and give you the final total species list for my yard for this GBBC.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

GBBC - Day 3

The yard was filled with sunshine and with birds on this third day of the Great Backyard Bird Count. I spent much of the day outside, working in my garden and counting birds, and I ended the day with twenty-seven species on my list!

The birds that turned up for the first time today were:

  1. Red-tailed Hawk  
  2. Eurasian Collared-dove
  3. Mourning Dove
  4. Downy Woodpecker
  5. European Starling
  6. Cedar Waxwing
  7. Chipping Sparrow
  8. Brown-headed Cowbird
  9. House Finch
This brings my total for the weekend to twenty-nine species, but there are several that are still among the missing: Brown-headed Nuthatch, Eastern Bluebird, Orange-crowned Warbler, Purple Martin, and Northern Mockingbird just to name five. One more day - maybe some of them will show up tomorrow.

One of the two Rufous Hummingbirds wintering in my yard enjoyed the sun today.

The male Red-winged Blackbird from yesterday showed up again today and brought along his mate and several of his friends. 

The Red-bellied Woodpecker didn't make an appearance yesterday but he was back today.

Best of all, the dapper little Cedar Waxwings came to visit.

I love watching these beautiful birds. They never fail to entertain me.

I wonder who will turn up to be counted tomorrow?

Saturday, February 18, 2012

GBBC - Day 2

Heavy rains this morning made this an even poorer day for viewing and counting birds than the first day of the Great Backyard Bird Count. We had 1.6 inches of rain in my yard today and have had almost four inches this week, so conditions are not optimal. Even so, any day of watching birds, even under less than ideal conditions, is a good day.

My species count for the day was a paltry 14, even less than yesterday, but I did manage to add one species to my overall total for the weekend.

A male Red-winged Blackbird hung around the backyard feeders all day today. Every time I looked, he was somewhere in the area.

He spent much of his time exploring the vines and shrubs along the back fence. He seldom showed his epaulets except when flying. Here you can see just a bit of the yellow on the wing but none of the red.

Most of my watching and counting today was done through my study window which looks out on the front yard bird feeder.

The Northern Cardinals like this feeder a lot and can be seen there throughout the day.

Here, a pair of them share a mid-afternoon snack.

The cardinals also share the feeder with the Carolina Chickadees.

Meanwhile, in the backyard...

 A female cardinal shares the platform feeder with a White-winged Dove.

This is the only American Goldfinch I saw in the yard all day. Most of them really are gone!

I also saw this pair of UFOs (Unidentified Furry Objects) in my front yard today. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a place for them on my day's checklist.

With the addition of the Red-winged Blackbird, my species count for the weekend now stands at twenty. There are at least a dozen more species that visit my yard. I hope to see some of them tomorrow when the weather promises to be more friendly to bird-counters. (Fingers crossed!)

Friday, February 17, 2012

This week in birds - #9 (GBBC edition)

Here is this week's recap of news stories from the worlds of birds, science, and Nature. Click on the highlighted links to read the entire story.


Plans are well under way to establish wind farms off the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts to produce energy for the country. Although the turbines are designed to withstand high winds, a recent study indicates that hurricanes in some areas could present a high risk to the farms. The area that would be most at risk, according to the study, would be off the Galveston coastline.


A wind farm already in production, the Pine Tree site in the mountains of California, has had an unusually high mortality rate for birds. Golden Eagles have been the species most affected. Officials are trying to figure out why this is happening and how the situation can be ameliorated.


The extreme drought which Texas has been experiencing has degraded the winter habitat of the Whooping Cranes at Aransas, causing them to be more widely dispersed in the area than they have been in recent history.


The H5N1 virus, sometimes called bird flu virus, has been floating around as a concern for public health officials for several years now. Much research has been done on the virus, some of it has modified the virus and potentially made it even more dangerous. That research has now been suspended, but the World Health Organization has made the decision to release information regarding the research so that it will be available to other scientists. This is being done in spite of objections from the United States. 


The little Northern Wheatear makes a remarkable migration from its breeding grounds in Alaska to wintering grounds in East Africa. 


The Heartland Institute is a non-profit organization with a distinctly right-wing political bent. A cache of documents from the organization secured by an investigator shows that they are conducting a stealth campaign against the science of global climate change, including trying to influence how schools teach the science. Before Heartland became involved in denying that the earth is warming, they spent two decades denying that tobacco has any negative health effects and fighting against any government regulation of the substance.


Idaho is looking for ways to protect its population of Sage Grouse. Officials are in the process of writing new and stronger regulations for the bird's protection.


A new lizard species has been discovered in the Peruvian Andes. The lizard is very brightly colored in hues of red, yellow, and blue.


Bitterns are "booming" again in the United Kingdom and so is their population. The birds are recovering due to the protection and enhancement of their wetlands habitats.


About one-third of counties in the United States are expected to be suffering water shortages by the year 2050 because of the effects of global climate change. 


Just to prove that all is not negative when it comes to exotic invasive species, the giant apple snail, which has become endemic in the Everglades because of the aquarium trade, is being eaten by an endangered bird, the Snail Kite. The new food source is helping to increase and stabilize the population of the threatened kite.


Around the backyard: This was the week that the goldfinches left! I had not been able to spend much time observing the birds this week but I had noticed that the thistle seeds were not disappearing as fast as they had been. Today, I was able to observe and count birds for a couple of hours before the rains started in the afternoon and it was clear to me that most of the goldfinches had moved on. I was only seeing one or two of the birds where previously there would have been twenty or more.

Today, of course, was the first day of the long-anticipated Great Backyard Bird Count. It was a gray, overcast day, not the best conditions for viewing the birds. At least the rain held off until late afternoon.  My species tally for the day was nineteen:

  1. Black Vulture  
  2. Turkey Vulture
  3. Killdeer
  4. White-winged Dove
  5. Red-bellied Woodpecker
  6. Rufous Hummingbird
  7. Eastern Phoebe
  8. Blue Jay
  9. American Crow
  10. Carolina Chickadee
  11. Tufted Titmouse
  12. Carolina Wren
  13. Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  14. American Robin
  15. Pine Warbler
  16. Yellow-rumped Warbler
  17. Northern Cardinal
  18. American Goldfinch
  19. House Sparrow
Here are a few of the pictures I took of visitors to the backyard feeders today.

This was the first year I've had a Rufous Hummingbird to report on my GBBC.

There were at least half a dozen Carolina Chickadees visiting the feeders at once.

There were a number of noisy Blue Jays at the feeders throughout the day, as well.

I never saw more than two American Goldfinches at the feeders at a time today.

There are always plenty of Pine Warblers at my feeders in winter.

And, of course, Northern Cardinals are abundant in my yard year-round.

That was day one. Tomorrow we are supposed to have some heavy rains again, but I hope I'll be able to count some of the birds that I missed in today's tally. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Getting ready for the big count

I got an email from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology today reminding me that the Great Backyard Bird Count begins in just two days. As if I could forget! I've had my countdown clock going for weeks.

Their email offered a few suggestions for optimizing the count experience.

  • You can go to the website and access a printable tally sheet which will show you which birds would be expected to be seen in your zip code.
  • This might be self-evident, but if you are planning to count birds at your feeders, be sure to fill the feeders in advance.
  • Make sure your camera batteries are fully charged and ready. You can submit your pictures to the website and enter their photography contest.
  • Invite friends and family to count birds in their yards or in some public space. The more data, the better.  
It will be very interesting to see what this winter's count shows. It has, after all, been a relatively mild winter throughout the country and one might expect that spring migrants will be reported farther north than usual this year.
  • American Robins are usually the most frequently reported birds by observers. There have been literally hundreds of them in my yard recently. But will they be reported much farther north than they normally are at this time of year?
  • What about other migratory birds like Eastern Phoebes and geese? What will be the farthest north that they will be seen this year?
  • Cornell says that eBird reports recently have shown fewer Blue Jays in the Northeast than usual. Will the GBBC observers confirm this?
  • Where will the Snowy Owls show up on the count?  
  • And what about hummingbirds? This has been such an unusual season for overwintering hummingbirds. I have two in my own backyard. It will be very interesting to see what other observers in my area - and indeed throughout the country - report. 
This year's count will have a lot to tell us. I can hardly wait!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Birds of India by Richard Grimmett, Carol Inskipp, and Tim Inskipp: A review

The full title of this book is Birds of India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives. In other words, it is a field guide that covers the birds of the entire Indian subcontinent, a mind-boggling 1375 species.

The amazing variety of colorful species represented in this field guide are a feast for the mind and the eye, even if one is not planning on boarding the next plane for a birding trip to the subcontinent. I just find it interesting to contrast and compare the bird life of our continent with that faraway place. Our continent, for example, has some 854 bird species, and that includes rarities, some of them very rare indeed. Of course, that number is growing yearly as the climate changes and birds of Central America move their ranges farther north. Will there come a time when we can claim 1375 species?

But I digress.

This field guide utilizes the tried and true Roger Tory Peterson method. There are lovely drawings of the birds, male and female, and sometimes juvenile and in breeding and non-breeding plumages. The drawings emphasize the field marks of the birds in a way that actual photographs are not always able to do. The drawings appear on the right side page. On the left side are the text which describes the bird, its status, its voice and habitat, and a small map which shows the location of the bird. The map is color-coded for permanent resident, former range, summer visitor, winter visitor, migratory visitor, and "known to be occasional, scarce or erratic." Thus, on two facing pages, the reader gets a view of the bird and a very succinct written profile, as well as a visual representation of the bird's location in the world. It is a remarkably effective and efficient way of presenting a large amount of information in a relatively small space, and it has scarcely been improved upon, although often refined, since Peterson's first guides.

The book also has much useful information in the mandatory "How to use this book" section. As in most such field guides, there is a schematic drawing which shows and names the different parts of birds and their plumage. There is also a glossary with explanations of terminology that is used in describing birds, and there are sections about the climate, the main habitats and bird species.

There is also a fascinating section on conservation. It includes such topics as religious attitudes and traditional protection. It delineates current threats to the various habitats and some of the conservation measures that are being taken to try to ameliorate the situation. I found this section to be among the most interesting parts of the book because it gives a picture not just of the bird life present but of the human culture and how the world of Nature relates to that culture.

The authors of this book obviously know their subjects well. Richard Grimmett is head of conservation at BirdLife International. Carol Inskipp and Tim Inskipp are freelance wildlife consultants. All three have traveled widely in Asia and have written a series of books on the continent's birds.

If you are planning a birding trip to the Indian subcontinent, you would do well to make room in your luggage for this terrific field guide. Even if you are mostly an armchair traveler like me, this book offers a wonderful view of the world of birds and the challenges they face in that important part of the world.

(An advance review copy of this book was provided to me at no cost by the publisher for purposes of this review. The book will be published on March 7.)        

Friday, February 10, 2012

This week in birds - #9

Here is a roundup of stories about birds and the worlds of Nature and science that were making news this week.  Follow the highlighted link to read the entire story.


Countdown to the Great Backyard Bird Count: One week! Counting begins on Friday, February 17. Get ready!


For those gardeners among my readers - and I know there is a lot of overlap between gardening and birding - the blog Wild About Ants had an interesting post this week about gardening for pollinators. Specifically, it addressed how to garden for bees, an important topic these days when bees face so many challenges. 


It seems that old male White-crowned Sparrows feel more threatened by other old males than by young males. The young and inexperienced just don't get as much respect.


Peru has created a 970,000 acre ecological preserve in the Amazon rainforest. The preserve will protect not only the rainforest habitat but also the culture of the Maijuna people, a tribe of some 200 individuals that live in the area. Good for Peru! 


A new study has shown that more than two-thirds of all deaths of the severely endangered California Condor are caused by lead poisoning. This comes from the birds ingesting lead shot while eating from carcasses that have been killed by hunters and left to rot in the wild. Why is lead shot still legal when alternatives that could save the lives of many non-game birds - eagles, hawks, vultures, as well as condors - are available?


Scientists are attempting to reintroduce the Bay checkerspot butterfly, a threatened species, into grassland areas around San Francisco where it was formerly endemic.


Extreme winter weather in the United Kingdom is driving more songbirds into backyard gardens seeking shelter and food.


Contamination of the area around Fukushima, following last year's earthquake and tsunami, has damaged bird populations even more severely than the comparable leak of radiation at Chernobyl several years ago. Some bird species have been virtually wiped out in the area around the leaking reactors. 


The constant noise of motors in commercial maritime lanes causes increased stress in whales, a new study has shown.


A small seabird, the New Zealand Storm-petrel, was thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered in New Zealand's Hauraki Gulf Marine Park in 2003. Now scientists believe that the bird may actually be nesting in the park.


A nasty bacteria that affects finches, particularly House Finches, in this country and leaves them with swollen red and crusted eyes that can imperil their survival has been shown to be evolving rapidly. It evolves so rapidly that it is able to overcome defenses that the birds develop against it. But scientists believe that the rapid evolution may have left the bacteria itself vulnerable to some viruses and they are hoping to use this weakness against it.


A population boom among ravens and crows has been going on in the San Francisco area for the last twenty years or so. The reasons probably have to do with increased food supply from human garbage and fewer predators such as Great Horned Owls in the more urban area.


Around the backyard: The high point of my week was the visit by a Great Horned Owl which I blogged about here earlier in the week. A close second was the large flocks of American Robins that kept turning up in my yard all week. Their numbers ranged from perhaps fifty to upwards of a hundred and all week long I've been serenaded by their melodious songs.

The week has also seen flocks of twenty to thirty Brown-headed Cowbirds, sometimes accompanied by a few Red-winged Blackbirds, showing up at my feeders. In past years, I've sometimes had huge flocks of Common Grackles marching across my lawn in February, but I haven't seen any this year so far. Nor did I have any last winter.

Elsewhere around the yard...

Male cardinals are singing their spring courting songs in an attempt to woo pretty females like this one.

Pine Warblers have been plentiful, as always, in the yard this winter, but the other two warblers that usually visit me in winter have been much scarcer. I sometimes go for days without seeing or hearing a Yellow-rumped Warbler or an Orange-crowned Warbler.

The White-winged Dove flocks are getting bigger as they always do when winter lengthens into mid-February and March.

The most abundant birds at the feeders are still the American Goldfinches, but no Pine Siskins this year. The siskins, too, were abundant here during the last two cold winters, but I guess the mild weather this winter was not enough to push them this far south. I miss the busy, noisy little birds. Maybe next winter...

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The owl in the oak tree

Last night around 11:15, I was in my bathroom just about to step into a steaming tub of deliciously hot water for my bath when I heard a sound in my yard. I stopped and cocked my head toward the window, not sure at first just what I had heard. Then it came again - a soft hoo-hoo-ho-ho, hoo-hoo. An owl! But it wasn't the owl I was expecting.

A few days ago, I reported on hearing a sound just at dusk that came from the trees behind my yard, a sound that I was sure was made by an owl. But the sound was not definitive. It was just a single hoot, and I thought it had probably been made by a Barred Owl since they do live in my area, although I almost never see or hear them.. But although I waited for the bird to make further sounds or to move so that I could get a look at it, it did not cooperate. Now here it was - most likely the same bird - calling from my front yard.

I eased my bathroom window open as silently as possible. The owl continued to call, but even though February's full moon, the Snow Moon, was lighting up the yard as bright as an overcast day, I could not see him from my position. He was in the big red oak tree in our front yard and with the window open, I could hear his calls even more clearly. Definitely not a Barred Owl.

Barred Owls are very raucous, noisy birds, with a fairly large repertoire of sounds. Many of their calls sound almost like dogs barking. The owl in my yard had a soft voice, almost as if he were whispering and his call was always in a series of six syllables rather than the eight or nine typical of a Barred Owl.

By now, my bath water wasn't steaming any more and I decided I had better get on with it before it was icy cold, but later I checked my field guide to be sure and then went to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website to listen to owl calls. And there it was. No doubt about it - I had a Great Horned Owl in my yard!

This was the very first Great Horned Owl I had ever observed or heard in my yard. They may have been here before but they had escaped my notice. Now that I know I have one in the neighborhood, I'll be on the lookout for it. And during these moonlit nights of the now waning but still almost full moon, I'll be out and about, looking and listening.  

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Robins, robins everywhere!

I went outside around mid-day today and stopped in my tracks with my mouth hanging open. There were American Robins everywhere in my yard! There must have been more than a hundred of the birds. I noticed there were also a few Red-winged Blackbirds and Brown-headed Cowbirds, but mostly there were just robins, robins everywhere.

I've been seeing a large flock of robins around the neighborhood for a while now, but I had only been having a few in the yard at a time until today. I'm not sure what attracted the birds. Perhaps something to do with the heavy rains we had yesterday. The ground is completely saturated and that may have driven ground-dwelling insects like earthworms to the surface. Whatever it was, they were certainly finding something to consume.

I didn't get to spend much time observing because I had to fix lunch for the family, but I thought that when I do my Project FeederWatch report for this weekend and report the number of robins in my yard, the FeederWatch folks are never going to believe me!

Friday, February 3, 2012

This week in birds - #8

Here is a roundup of the week's new stories from the worlds of Nature, science, and birds. Click on the highlighted links to read the full story.


Countdown to the Great Backyard Bird Count: Two weeks.  That's right - the big four-day weekend count begins on February 17. If you haven't participated before, visit the website and get your instructions, register your site, and get ready to count birds! 


There are several blog entries on The New York Times website from scientists who are doing a study of the moose population at Isle Royale National Park. This is an area where gray wolves roam as well and much of the information gathered relates to the interaction between the two species. This particular project has interested me since I read Nevada Barr's book, Winter Study, a few years ago. If you are not familiar with Barr, she writes a mystery series which is located in various national parks and features a ranger named Anna Pigeon. Good stuff if you like that kind of stuff, and I do.


And speaking of wolves, a litter of four rare maned-wolf pups have been born in Virginia as part of a captive breeding program.


Snowy Owls continue to irrupt southward and make their way into the headlines; however, according to eBird records this is not a record event for much of the Northeast and Northwest, although it may be for parts of the Mid-West. 


NASA's climate studies have confirmed that current climate change on Earth is not being driven by solar activity because the planet has continued to heat up at a time of low solar activity. The scientists continue to believe that the warming of the planet is due almost entirely to the accumulation of greenhouse gases which human activity is sending into the atmosphere.


The Southern Environmental Law Center, an advocacy group, has ranked the ten most endangered habitats in the southeastern United States. 


Operation Migration, the project which leads a flock of juvenile Whooping Cranes on their first flight from their birthplace in Wisconsin to Florida, using an ultralight, has had all kinds of problems during this migration season. They have been delayed repeatedly by inclement weather and once they reached Alabama, they were stymied by legal issues. The project managers have concluded that they will not be able to reach Florida by air, and the decision was made to take the nine young cranes overland to Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama and release them there. 


While North America has been experiencing a relatively mild winter, Eastern Europe has recently been suffering extreme cold which has killed dozens of people.


A huge and ancient fish, sometimes described as a dinosaur with fins, the Atlantic sturgeon is being listed as an endangered species.


Two populations of humpback whales, which live on opposite sides of the southern Indian Ocean, sing different songs. Scientists conclude that this means that the two populations do not mingle.


Road salt which gets into pools and wet areas where amphibians breed can harm those creatures. Road salt also has been found to be harmful to birds.


Vital areas of biodiversity in the Andes are unprotected. Upwards of 80% of these hotspots have no protection.


I bet you thought yesterday, February 2, was Groundhog Day. Well, it was, but it was also World Wetlands Day, a day to celebrate these important habitats around the world.


Around the backyard: Around my yard this week, one word will serve to describe it: wet! We've had intermittent rain virtually all week. The result being that I haven't spend much time out there, but I have been outside enough to know that at least one of the Rufous Hummingbirds is still here, the White-winged Dove flocks are getting bigger, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers really, really love peanuts!

Mr. R.B. Woodpecker grabs a snack.

And so does Mrs.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

I thought I heard an owl...

I was in my backyard at dusk yesterday when I heard a single deep "whooo" coming from the trees behind my yard. I stopped in my tracks and stared in that direction. I stood stock-still for a few minutes but neither heard nor saw anything else that might indicate the presence of an owl. Finally I went and sat in one of my lawn chairs for several more minutes and perused the area from which I thought the sound had come. After a bit though, the ravenous mosquitoes drove me inside.

I was excited to hear that sound. It was a sound I remember well from my childhood which is filled with memories of the nighttime sounds of Barred Owls that populated the bottomlands around our house and I was almost certain that's what I was hearing yesterday, but, of course, I was not able to confirm that. The bird, if that's what it was, never gave the distinctive eight syllable call of the iconic owl of Southern swamps, so it could have been something else altogether.

Barred Owls do live in my neighborhood although it has been a very long time since I've actually seen or even heard one. Several years ago, one perched in the magnolia tree outside our bedroom window one moonlit spring night and serenaded us. On another occasion, one perched on a utility pole near our house in broad daylight. But even though I know they, as well as Eastern Screech Owls and the occasional Great Horned Owl, do live in the area, I almost never catch a glimpse of one of the secretive and stealthy birds. The potential sound of one so near my house was enough to make me sit up and take notice.

Owls have a special claim on the human imagination. Maybe it's their ability to hunt and find prey in almost complete darkness or their ability to fly silently on soft wings. Or maybe it's just their appearance - the broad face with the front-facing eyes so much like our own that give the birds an expression which we interpret as wisdom. They are linked in folklore to stories of wizards and magic. And the real-life owls do seem almost magical in their abilities.

An owl for a neighbor would be a wonderful thing, indeed. I'll be listening and hoping to hear that call, hoo hoo ho-ho, hoo hoo ho-hooooooaawr, which will confirm for me that I have such a magical neighbor.