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Saturday, March 31, 2012

How To Be a Better Birder by Derek Lovitch: A review

(Cross-posted from The Nature of Things.)

Birders, even non-competitive backyard birders like myself, are always looking for something that will give them that extra edge as they pursue their winged quarry for the purposes of identification and listing. Because, let me tell you, birding is hard. Birds almost never cooperate. They flit around, constantly in motion, as you try to follow them with your binoculars, and just when you get focused in, zip! They're gone. Frustrating little critters. Warblers are the worst. 

But help is on the way. Derek Lovitch has written a book which is useful for birders at any level of proficiency from the beginner to the obsessive lister. 

It is a short book, only 179 pages in the edition which I read, and very accessible. He explores best practices and gives tips on advanced field identification, birding at night, birding and habitat, geography, and weather. He writes about how to anticipate vagrants, those birds that show up in wildly out-of-range places where they really shouldn't be. Understanding the area that you are birding and knowing what is likely to be found there, as well as having some idea of what might turn up unexpectedly, is more than half the battle in this hobby. 

One thing that I particularly liked about Lovitch's book was his emphasis on "birding with purpose." He is (as I am) an enthusiastic proponent of citizen science projects. He argues for the importance of birders of all levels participating in events such as the Christmas Bird Count, Great Backyard Bird Count, and Project FeederWatch and he strongly advocates for birders contributing checklists to the online data collecting resource, eBird. The data collected by all these citizen science projects are important to the efforts of conservationists to protect and defend birds and their habitats. 

Lovitch has a clear and readable style of writing and he includes links to additional resources for readers who want to learn more about a specific subject. No matter what being a "better birder" means to you, this is a book that can help you reach your goal. 

(A free copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher for the purposes of this review.)

Friday, March 30, 2012

This week in birds - #15

Long-billed Curlew on a beach on Bolivar Peninsula.


I've written here several times about the two Rufous Hummingbirds that spent the winter and part of the spring in my yard, but would you believe that one of the birds also spent the winter at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan? It was indeed a mild winter in North America.


The American Bird Conservancy is trying to stop the expansion of the airport in Lake Apopka, Florida, because they fear it would be devastating to migrating birds.


Reports by the World Wildlife Fund and others who are tracking them indicate that the population of Monarch butterflies continues to decline because of adverse weather and the loss of stands of milkweed across the country because of the use of herbicides. Experts estimate the population is down by 30% this year.  


The Big Garden Birdwatch began in the U.K. in 1979. Since then, records for the yearly survey (which is similar to our Great Backyard Bird Count) reveal that the population of House Sparrows has fallen by 55% in British gardens and European Starling numbers have fallen by 79% . I don't really have a problem with starlings in my yard, but I would surely like to see the sparrow population fall, preferably by 100%!


Environmentalists believe that as many as 20 million birds may die needlessly in this country each year after consuming lead shot left in the field by hunters. They are pressuring the EPA to try to get lead banned from the production of shot. There are other alternatives for the shot which would not be toxic to a bird that accidentally consumed it. 


It isn't only Monarch butterflies that are declining. In Europe, at least seventeen species of butterflies have declined by as much as 70% in the last 15 years. Scientists believe that part of the answer to their survival may be the protection of habitats - or even the construction of habitats - that contain more open, meadow-like areas.


The beautiful Golden-winged Warbler is one of the most rapidly declining species of birds in the country. It's all because of development and habitat loss. The key to saving the bird, scientists say, is the protection of appropriate habitat areas. That could be said of so many endangered and threatened species.


The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation has issued a report which implicates a particular type of pesticide - neonicotinoids - in the die-offs of bees. Such pesticides are absorbed into plant tissue and may then be present in pollen and nectar which could be toxic to pollinators.


Studies in Australia reveal that birds flee from areas where mining occurs and they do not necessarily return to the areas even if they are later replanted and rehabilitated.


It's a familiar story here and in many parts of the world but now it is happening in Turkey. A development boom there is posing a serious threat to the biodiversity of the country. The challenge, as always, is to balance development with the protection of the environment.


Around the backyard:  Last week I told you about the ongoing battle in my yard between the Carolina Chickadees and the Eastern Bluebirds over one particular nesting box. I watched every day as the drama played out, but by the middle of the week, it appeared to me that both sets of birds had abandoned the box. Finally, on Thursday, I decided to check it. There was the chickadee nest of moss with a bluebird pine straw nest on top and in the pine straw were two speckled eggs! Well, bluebird eggs are blue, so they definitely were not bluebird. Chickadee eggs are speckled but I thought these looked too big for a chickadee and I worried that they might be House Sparrow eggs. Today, though, I saw a chickadee flying into the box, so maybe they have won the dispute after all. I believe the bluebirds have moved on to occupy a box in my next door neighbor's yard.

Meantime, on the other side of my backyard, another pair of Eastern Bluebirds is checking out the old nesting box where bluebirds have raised families in each of the last two years. I don't know, of course, if this is the same pair that has nested there before, but maybe.

I checked the box this afternoon and it was still clean. They haven't started building a nest yet but I am hopeful that they will.

It is really gratifying to see the increase that has occurred in the bluebird population in our neighborhood in the past few years. Even five years ago, they were almost never seen in my yard. Now, not a day goes by that I don't see them and hear their voices. Happiness is a warbling bluebird!   

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Swiftly they fly

The Chimney Swifts are back in town. As I was working in my front yard this afternoon, I heard their distinctive twittering and looked up to see two of the small black cigar-shaped birds barreling around the sky over my yard.

I had been expecting them and was on the lookout for them. They normally arrive in my yard about the same time as the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, around the first week in April. This year, of course, the hummingbirds were early, arriving a couple of weeks ago. It stood to reason that the swifts might be early, too, and indeed they are, at least by about a week.

The swifts truly are one of my favorite summer visitors. I love their voices. I love their hyperactivity, the way they are always on the move and they have only one speed - fast!

They usually nest in the chimney of my living room fireplace and I expect they will do so again this year.

I went to the website Chimney to report my first sighting. I hope you will, too, when you see swifts in your area.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

This week in birds - #14

I thought all the American Goldfinches were long gone from my area, but this week a least one of the little birds, apparently a female, has been hanging around and visiting the thistle feeders. I had been intending to take them down. Now I'm glad I waited.


The American Bird Conservancy's "Bird of the Week" is the beautiful Bahama Oriole, recently given full species status. The bird is critically endangered.

I think you'll agree that this beauty is a bird worth saving.


Birdchick's fabulous birding blog has a post about the early migration of birds this year - especially that of hummingbirds.


The dolphins in Barataria Bay off Louisiana's coast are seriously ill and their ailments are believed to be related to their exposure to the BP oil spill in 2010. That area was one of the hardest hit by the toxic oil.


The sex lives of penguins in the Antarctic are being affected by the warming global climate. The Adelie and Chinstrap Penguins are being adversely affected and their populations are dwindling, but the Gentoo Penguins have been able to adapt their breeding cycles to the warmer conditions and they are thriving.


Last Monday was Swallows' Day in San Juan Capistrano, California, the day that the Cliff Swallows of legend traditionally return to their homes at the mission there. This weekend there is a big festival in the area to celebrate the event.


Queens in a honeybee hive are notoriously promiscuous, but it seems that there are benefits to this behavior.


There is plenty of research to establish that noise pollution has a deleterious effect on birds, but studies now show that those effects extend to plants as well, because birds play such an important role in their reproduction.


The survival of the endangered shorebird, the Red Knot, is closely tied to the population of horseshoe crabs on whose eggs they feed after their long flight from their wintering ground. Conservation organizations are lobbying states along the East Coast to do more to protect the crabs and thereby to protect the birds.


The uber-adaptable coyote is colonizing the streets of New York City and its presence there may be having the effect of reducing the overpopulation of rats and raccoons in the city. The coyotes prey on these animals, but also they are competitors for food with the omnivores and they reduce the food that is available for them.


Hoverflies cannot sting but they put on a great acting job to convince would-be predators that they can. They mimic wasps and bees in order to deter critters that might eat them.


Male Nightingales sing their territorial songs more aggressively when they are responding to another male that is at an equal height to theirs.


Most of the Monarch butterflies that migrate north from Mexico in the spring are hatched and mature along the way, but at least 10% of the migrants fly all the way from Mexico to their final destination.

A female Monarch visiting the milkweed in my yard this week. She left several eggs that will, with any luck, become the next generation of migrants.


Around the backyard: The White-eyed Vireos started arriving this week. I heard their distinctive song in trees all around the yard all week.

And yes, at least one of my wintering Rufous Hummingbirds is still here. I saw her at the feeder today. There was also a male Ruby-throated Hummingbird there. I don't believe this is the same one that I'm seeing over several days in the yard. I think they move on rather quickly, but there always seems to be another to take the place of the one who's just left.

The territorial dispute between the Eastern Bluebirds and the Carolina Chickadees continues. There are two other perfectly good nesting boxes that are empty that either of the two could easily claim, but noooo! It has to be this one particular box. Sigh.

Friday, March 23, 2012

What would you do?

There is a battle going on between birds in my garden and for once it doesn't involve House Sparrows. No, this time, it's two of the good guys who are going at each other.

Early on the Carolina Chickadees claimed this nesting box and started building their nest in it. They worked hard and filled the box about two-thirds full with moss to be their nest where they would raise their young. But the Eastern Bluebirds decided this week that they want that box and they've been jousting with the pair of chickadees over it. Finally, they just decided to go ahead and build their nest on top of what the chickadees had done. They worked steadily at it today and have almost completed their pine straw nest. It seems, perhaps, that they have won the battle, but now I'm wondering if I should remove what the chickadees have constructed, so that the bluebird nest can rest on the bottom of the box where it should be. As it is, it will be too close to the entry hole and it is possible that very young chicks might accidentally fall out. Under ordinary circumstances, I would never dream of interfering between these two much-loved birds, but I am in a quandary. What should I do?


I didn't have a chance to do my research for my "This week in birds" post today. Check back tomorrow when I hope to have it completed.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

It was a record-breaker!

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has published its report of the highlights of this year's Great Backyard Bird Count. The biggest highlight of all is that it was a record-breaking weekend!

First of all, participants submitted an amazing 104,151 checklists with 17.4 million individual bird observations. New records for the number of checklists were set in 22 states and in 6 Canadian provinces. Throughout the North American continent and in Hawaii, participants identified 623 species of birds. It truly is wonderful what citizen science can accomplish.

The bird that was reported on more checklists than any other was our old friend, the Northern Cardinal.

This is the eighth consecutive year that the cardinal has appeared on the most checklists.

Following closely in second place was that loveliest of doves, the Mourning Dove.

The most numerous bird reported during this year's count, though, was the Snow Goose.

These two geese were not photographed during GBBC but were at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge earlier this year.

One of the most astonishing counts was the one for Tree Swallows. They had never before appeared in the top-10 of the most numerous birds reported, but this year, they were number two, right behind the Snow Goose. This was due to a massive flock of the swallows, estimated at some two million birds, that were roosting in Ruskin, Florida.

Another highlight of this year's count, of course, was the irruption of Snowy Owls. They were reported throughout the Great Plains and south to Kansas. The owl's main prey in their Arctic home is lemmings, and in years when the lemming population crashes, the birds are forced to move farther south in search of prey. That is apparently what happened this winter.

Likewise, a crash in the production of seeds favored by redpolls brought the Common Redpoll and Hoary Redpoll farther south than they are normally seen. Some Common Redpolls were reported as far south as California. Moreover, the numbers of both Common and Hoary Redpolls that were reported in Canada were down significantly this year because the birds had moved farther south.

You can read all about these stories and others in the highlights report itself. And if you participated in the big count, give yourself a pat on the back. You were a record-breaker!

Friday, March 16, 2012

This week in birds - #13

They're back! The male Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are now passing through our area.


New York City is giving away treesSome 5,000 trees will be given out this spring, including such varieties as Japanese maple, Eastern redbud, flowering cherry, Carolina silverbell, blackgum and fruit trees — cherries, plums, apples, pears, peach, fig and persimmon. The trees’ retail value is said to run from $50 to $100 each. It's all part of the city's effort to offset the effects of human-released greenhouse gases by planting a million trees in the city by 2017.


What's up with that "dawn chorus" anyway? Why do birds wake up singing every day? The Safari Ecology blog speculates on the answers to those questions. 


Poisoning of birds of prey in Scotland has been a continuing problem of concern to conservationists and all who love birds. The government and conservation agencies have been trying to educate people about the importance of these birds and it may be having an effect. The good news is that the number of birds killed was reduced by more than 50% in 2011


The Wisconsin Assembly has approved a bill that would allow the hunting of wolves in the state. The bill, which is opposed by most conservationists who say it is "anti-science", is on its way to the desk of Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who is almost certain to sign it.


Wind turbines continue to pose a danger to many birds but particularly so, it turns out, for vultures. This appears to be true because of unique blind spots in those birds' field of vision


Did you read about the discovery of a previously unknown species of frog? It was found in New York City, of all places! The still-unnamed species looks a bit like a leopard frog and apparently had gone unnoticed because people thought that is what it was. Turns out it is a whole 'nother kind of leaper.


According to new research, about 3.7 million Americans live within a few feet of high tide and risk being hit by more frequent coastal flooding in coming decades because of the sea level rise caused by global warming. The most vulnerable state is Florida, but also in danger are Louisiana, California, New Jersey, and New York.


Recent research has shown that fully 47% of the world's seabird populations are declining.  Furthermore, at least 28% of the species are endangered.


Producing oil from tar sands in Canada has been shown to be particularly destructive to the environment. But now research indicates that it is even more destructive than previously thought, when the ancillary destruction of peatlands is taken into account.


BirdLife International's report on "The State of the World's Birds" has been published online. It makes for interesting, if often depressing, reading.


Scientists are trying to understand the history and causes of drought by interpreting tree rings. Most people learn in grade school that concentric rings in the stump can tell a tree’s age and that wider rings can indicate times of vigorous growth and that narrow rings  indicate slower growth and possibly times of difficulty in the tree's life. This branch of science is called dendrochronology, and it’s focused on reconstructing the history of environmental and climatic change. By understanding the past, scientists hope to be able to find ways of dealing with the present and planning for the future. 


Around the backyard:  Most of the permanent resident birds are now busily building their nests or looking for places to build their nests.

This Northern Mockingbird and his mate have been inspecting various shrubs around the yard.

The Eastern Bluebirds are looking at potential homes, as well. Unfortunately, they have to battle with the dratted House Sparrows in order to stake their claim. I'm not sure how this will turn out but I'm doing all I can to discourage the sparrows. 

The Carolina Chickadees appear to have settled in a box they have used in the last two years.

The wrens and the cardinals and the Mourning Doves, too, have been house-building this week as well. The doves almost always nest in the big pine tree just on the other side of the fence in my neighbor's yard. I look forward to the return of these birds, iconic emblems from my childhood, in the spring. I love to sit in the backyard in the late afternoon and listen to their sweet voice. Funny how just that sound can bring back so many memories.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Ruby-throat checks in

I've been expecting it for days and today it finally happened. The first male Ruby-throated Hummingbird turned up in my backyard.

Okay, I cannot tell a lie. This is not actually the bird I saw today but a visitor from last year. I didn't have a camera in my hand when I saw the bird today. But he looked just like this!

I was on one of my frequent breaks from pruning the thorny hedge along my back fence, and, seated in my favorite chair, I was gazing at my little redbud tree that is in full bloom just now, when the little bird darted in to visit the feeder hanging from one of the tree's limbs. He took a good long drink and then flew away to a limb to preen. After a bit, he came back for seconds. While he was visiting that feeder, I noticed that the Rufous Hummingbird that has spent the winter here was visiting her favorite feeder which is hung next to a crape myrtle tree about 25 feet away from the redbud. I didn't witness any hummingbird disputes while I was watching. Each bird seemed content with its own feeder. Since I have confirmation that the Ruby-throats have arrived now, I may hang my third feeder in the front yard.

I checked the migration map for the Ruby-throats and saw that there are sightings reported in six southern states now. I also checked back over my own eBird records, because I couldn't remember ever having seen a Ruby-throat quite this early. Sure enough - March 13 is my earliest yard record for the bird. My previous earliest record was March 17, 2006.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Just passing through

Slogging through the swamp that is my backyard this afternoon, after almost three inches of rain over the weekend, I sensed movement on the trunk of my magnolia tree and looked to see a small brown bird with a slightly curved bill making its way up the tree, looking for insects. It has been a while since I've seen one of these birds in my yard, but I recognized it immediately. It was a Brown Creeper.

The creeper is a winter visitor here. I have sometimes seen them in my yard in the fall, but I've never recorded one at this time of year. That doesn't mean they haven't been here. This is a very cryptically-colored bird which can be totally inconspicuous against the bark of a tree where it is usually found. In its coloration and the shape of its beak, it might be mistaken for a wren, but on second look, you would never make that error. The posture of the two birds is entirely different. Wrens are very perky birds, quick in their movements, and they most often carry their tails pointed jauntily toward the sky. Creepers, on the other hand, carry their long tails on a plane with their bodies, very much as woodpeckers do, and, in fact, they use them the same way that woodpeckers do, to brace their bodies as they creep up the trunks of trees.

This little bird has a very thin and high-pitched song appropriate to its size. It reminds me a lot of another tiny bird that is visiting just now, the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. It also sounds a bit like one of the kinglets and might be mistaken for them if you couldn't get a good look at the bird.

The Brown Creeper is normally a solitary bird, but like many of the other small birds, in winter it will sometimes travel in flocks with chickadees, kinglets, and titmice. The one that I saw today, though, was on its own.

It's likely that my visitor is just passing through on its way north. These birds nest along the far northern tier of states and up into Canada, as well as along the West Coast. Spring has come early this year and the migrants seem to be moving on quickly as they hurry to get to their breeding grounds, so I may not see this bird again. Still, I'm very glad that I got a glimpse of it. It brightened what had otherwise been a rather gloomy and soggy outlook around the old backyard today.

Friday, March 9, 2012

This week in birds - #12

The Carolina Wren, along with all the other permanent resident backyard birds, is singing its spring song to define its territory and attract its mate. Carolina Wren pairs often sing a duet of call and response. The tiny bird has a prodigious repertoire of different songs and sounds.


You will perhaps not be surprised to learn that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has announced that the winter of 2011-2012 is the fourth warmest on record. A look at the maps which can be seen at the link paints an interesting picture of which states have had normal winter temperatures, which are above normal, and which are far above normal.  Texas is merely above normal. There is also a map there which shows rainfall for the winter, and, luckily, parched Texas has been above normal in that category as well.


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is seeking answers to the question of how an unusually warm winter affects the behavior of certain animals.


The United Kingdom is seeing record numbers of colorful European Goldfinches in home gardens and backyards.


The Obama Administration is considering a reinterpretation of language in the Endangered Species Act. The effect of that reinterpretation would be to reduce the number of animals that would qualify for endangered or threatened status.


Scrub Jays are canny birds which hide and then constantly re-hide their food - acorns and the like. It is an activity that is called recaching. Scientists who have studied them believe that the behavior may be triggered when the bird observes that it has been seen hiding food by another jay. It seems there is little that a jay likes better than stealing food from a neighbor!


Peru has undertaken a massive tree-planting program in the hope of providing appropriate habitat for and thus saving certain endangered endemic birds.


The City of Los Angeles is creating a new park on land that was previously a brownfield, part of a bus storage area. The new park will include a 4.5 acre wetland


An underwater oil seep off the coast of Santa Barbara is creating misery for seabirds in the area. Dozens of the birds have been coated in oil.


The U.S. Senate has passed the RESTORE act which would require that at least 80% of fines levied against BP as a result of the Gulf oil disaster of two years ago would be used to restore ecosystems in the area. The  measure has yet to be taken up in the House of Representatives. 


One country's native birds are another country's invasive species. The United Kingdom is in the process of culling Ruddy Ducks and Canada Geese, North American species that have expanded their ranges into that country.  


The observations and documentation of citizen scientists are revealing the shifts in seasons and particularly the early arrival of spring in the migration of birds and the earlier flowering of plants.


Around the backyard: I haven't seen or heard an American Goldfinch all week. I think they are completely gone now. I am still seeing plenty of Cedar Waxwings. Also, at least one of the Rufous Hummingbirds is still here. I haven't seen two at the same time in a few days so one of them may be gone.

According to the hummingbird migration website, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are crowding along the Gulf Coast now and should soon be in our area. Have you seen one yet?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Still here!

I've been wondering how long I would have my Rufous Hummingbirds with me. Every day when I go outside, I half expect that they will be gone. But not yet!

There's No. 1, sitting in her favorite spot, sunning herself. While I was watching her, I sensed movement at the feeder.

No. 2 is still accounted for.

It won't be long now before the migrating Ruby-throated Hummingbirds begin to arrive. I usually see the first one in my yard around the last of March or first of April, but considering how the season is going, I wouldn't be surprised to find one earlier this year. Will the Rufouses still be here when they arrive?

Friday, March 2, 2012

This week in birds - #11

Blue Jays were turning up in noisy flocks of 10 - 15 birds in my yard this week.


The big irruption of an Arctic bird, the Snowy Owl, into the lower 48 states has been the big news in birding this winter. As far as I know, none made it as far south as we are, but at least one did make it to Dallas and caused quite a stir


I always like looking at the data from the Great Backyard Bird Count, especially all the "top ten" lists. If you participated in the count and haven't yet entered your data, you have until March 5 to do so.


A new report which analyzes water availability and usage indicates that water scarcity affects 2.7 billion people around the world for at least part of each year.


A new protected area has been established in Colombia for an endangered bird, the beautiful and colorful Gold-ringed Tanager.


A very rare and reclusive bird, the Junin Rail, has recently been seen and photographed at a high Andean lake in Peru. The bird is sometimes called the "Holy Grail of birding" because of its reclusive nature and the fact that it is so rarely seen. 


The largest sea turtle in the world, the leatherback, is a threatened species and a recent study of the turtles' migration routes indicate that there are places in the Pacific where additional protection may be needed for the ancient creature.


There's been a lot of excitement in Southeast Texas over all the overwintering hummingbirds this season. Imagine the excitement in New Jersey when a Broad-tailed Hummingbird turned up there! It was the state's first recorded and confirmed visit by the bird.


And in other news from New Jersey, wildlife officials are hoping to buy up more high ground in Cape May County to provide protected areas for the salt marshes to expand as the earth warms and sea levels rise.


Studies have found that deer ticks, which carry Lyme disease, are more prevalent in areas that have a lot of an invasive plant called Japanese barberry.  Scientists theorize that one key to controlling the ticks and the disease may be to control the exotic plant. 


The survival of the Northern Spotted Owl continues to be problematic. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is designating more old-growth timber areas for the protection of the owl, and they may take a more proactive role in controlling the Barred Owl, a more aggressive owl which is expanding its range into areas where the Spotted Owl lives. These control measures may include killing some Barred Owls.


The wild parrots of Telegraph Hill in San Francisco were made famous by a book and a television documentary about them a few years ago. The flock has thrived to the extent that some of the birds have split off into a satellite flock that has moved to the suburbs.


Scientists doing the wolf study at Isle Royale National Park have noted some interesting interactions at moose carcasses between the wolves and Common Ravens.


Around my backyard: This week, I've noted a few new birds around the yard. I heard my first Purple Martin of the year flying overhead on Wednesday.  Earlier in the week, I had noticed that the beautiful little Blue-gray Gnatcatcher was back as well. I haven't been able to catch one with the camera yet but I'll keep trying.

Another bird, which hasn't been entirely absent from my yard but is often scarce, is my favorite dove, the Mourning Dove. I see it in my yard much less often since the advent and dominance of the White-winged Dove in recent years. It's always a treat for me to see one here. 

The beautiful dove often comes to the feeders late in the afternoon to feed on the ground beneath them.

I love the song of the Mourning Dove, a sound I remember well from my childhood. For me, it is not a mournful sound at all. Rather, it is peaceful.

Now if I could just get the little Inca Doves to return to my yard.