Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The new Labrador Duck theory: Unlikely

John James Audubon's portrait of female and male Labrador Ducks.

From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kenn writes: A scientist recently published a new theory about the Labrador Duck, and it's drawing a lot of attention from birders and from the general public. 

The interest is understandable. Labrador Duck is one of the most mysterious North American birds. Never a very common bird, it has been considered extinct since the late 1800s, and very little is known about it. There's no doubt that it existed at one time: there are still specimens in various museums, all from birds shot along the northeastern coast of North America during the fall, winter, and spring seasons in the 1700s and 1800s. But we don't know where it went for the summer (the name "Labrador" is just conjecture) and we don't know why it became extinct. 

Adding to the general interest in the Labrador Duck, a possible sighting of this legendary bird is a plot element in the new feature A Birder's Guide to Everything, opening in theaters next month. 

Now, Dr. E. H. McCarthy has come out with a startling suggestion. He says that perhaps the Labrador Duck isn't extinct, because maybe it never existed as a full species in the first place: It may have just been a hybrid between Common Eider and Steller's Eider. 

Currently, McCarthy's paper can be reached through this link, although there have been multiple changes / additions to what is posted online within the last two days, and I'm not sure that the link will continue to work. 

At first glance, the idea seems worth considering. The plumage pattern of the male was similar to that of both eiders, and the odd bill structure was similar to that of Steller's Eider. And if it had been a hybrid, that would explain why its nesting grounds were never found, and why it always seemed to exist in only small numbers. 

But the more we look at the idea, the more problems arise. 

1. Appearance. Hybrids don't always look intermediate between the parent species, but usually they do, and Labrador Ducks looked different from either eider in a number of ways. Its bill pattern - pale base and broad black tip - was unlike that of any eider. So was the male's wing pattern, with white secondary feathers, and its head pattern, with a large black spot on top of the head. The female also showed important differences from female eiders, including a pale throat and whitish secondaries in the wings. It would be very hard to explain all these differences if these ducks were hybrids. 

2. Distribution. Common Eider and Steller's Eider do overlap in breeding range, so it would be possible for them to interbreed. However, the known areas of overlap (currently and historically) are in Alaska and northeast Russia, with some possible areas of overlap in northwest Russia. All of these areas are a long distance away from all of the sites where Labrador Ducks were found, in eastern Canada and the northeastern United States. The map below may help to put this in perspective. Some species of birds migrate long distances, of course, but eiders are not among them. It doesn't seem plausible that the hybrids between two short-distance migrants would fly all the way from Alaska or Siberia to New Jersey every year.

3. Current rarity of hybrids. More than most groups of birds, wild ducks do hybridize at times. In fact, I've tracked down information about a couple of birds that were thought to be Common Eider X Steller's Eider hybrids, one seen in Norway and the other in Germany, probably coming from contact in northwestern Russia. (They weren't described as looking like Labrador Ducks, incidentally.) But if the Labrador Duck was a hybrid combination, it doesn't make sense that it would have been found dozens of times in the 1700s and 1800s, and only a couple of times in recent years, despite the vast increase in numbers of people looking closely at birds. 

Of course, none of these points actually disproves the theory. For that, we would need DNA testing of feathers from Labrador Ducks and both eider species. Actually, some DNA testing has been done already, and from that we are pretty sure that the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) of Labrador Duck doesn't match that of Common Eider. Since mtDNA is inherited from the mother, this only gets us halfway there. If it can be determined that it doesn't match the mtDNA of Steller's Eider, either, the theory can be laid to rest quickly. 

From A Birder's Guide to Everything: Katie Chang, Alex Wolff,
Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Michael Chen, hot on the trail of a
possible Labrador Duck.
That will still leave us with many, many questions about the Labrador Duck, and it will continue to intrigue us. If I thought I had spotted this near-mythical duck, I certainly would pursue it, just like the kids in the forthcoming movie. 





Thursday, September 12, 2013

Why Birders Buy the Duck Stamp


From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kenn writes: A big event is coming to northwest Ohio at the end of September, and local birders are excited about it.

That in itself is not unusual. Northwest Ohio is no stranger to birding events. One of the largest and most important bird festivals on the continent, The Biggest Week In American Birding, makes a huge impact here every May. Another notable festival, the Midwest Birding Symposium, is held here in fall every other year. But the event in late September isn’t a birding festival. It’s the contest to choose the artwork for next year’s Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp—better known as the Duck Stamp.

The Duck Stamp program dates to 1934, a time when waterfowl populations in North America were in serious trouble because of habitat loss. The federal wildlife agencies needed a way to raise money to purchase or restore wetland habitats. By producing the stamp and requiring hunters to buy it, they were able to immediately start raising funds to protect habitat for nesting, wintering, and migratory stopovers for waterfowl. The program has been a spectacular success, having raised many millions of dollars and having led to the protection of over 5.3 million acres of quality habitat.
The first Duck Stamp, from 1934
At first, artists supplied each year’s stamp design by invitation. Starting in 1949, the stamp design has been chosen by a contest each year. The winning artist is not paid for the artwork, but the prestige of winning can provide a huge boost to any wildlife artist’s career, so hundreds enter every year. The contest is administered by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and judged by five independent experts appointed by the Secretary of the Interior. Some talented artists have won the contest more than once, but being a judge is a coveted, once-in-a-lifetime honor.

Who buys the stamp? Waterfowl hunters are required to purchase one—and I think most would do so willingly, because they believe in supporting the resource. Many stamp collectors also buy these little works of art every year, adding them to their collections. And many birders also buy the stamp. I’ve been buying it for many years now. But why?

Why do birders buy the stamp? Because we like ducks too, and we recognize that the stamp supports many kinds of wildlife. Wetlands for ducks are also ideal habitats for rails, gallinules, bitterns, grebes, terns, various marsh-loving wrens and sparrows, and many other birds.
White Ibises (juvenile and adult): they're not ducks, but they have benefited greatly from the habitat protection made possible by Duck Stamp sales.
But proceeds from stamp sales don’t just buy duck habitat. This money goes into the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund (MBCF), and then it is used to add to the National Wildlife Refuge System, through either purchase or lease of land. Consider these popular birding refuges, and the percentage of their total area paid for with MBCF money:

Bombay Hook NWR, Delaware  95%
Forsythe NWR (Brigantine), New Jersey  84%
Bosque del Apache NWR, New Mexico  99%
Pea Island NWR, North Carolina  99%
Ottawa NWR, Ohio  86%
Anahuac NWR, Texas  87%
Santa Ana NWR, Texas  94%

Birders who travel will know that all these refuges support many kinds of birds besides ducks. Santa Ana NWR, for example, does have a couple of small lakes that host a few hundred ducks at some seasons, but most of the refuge is subtropical woodland, home to Green Jays, Hook-billed Kites, and other specialty birds of the border region. Ottawa NWR, near my home in Ohio, does host large numbers of waterfowl, but it’s also prime habitat for Bald Eagles, and its woodlands swarm with warblers and other migratory songbirds in spring. Birders and wildlife-watchers get far more use out of these refuges than hunters do.
A Cape May Warbler, migrating north in spring toward its summer home in the Canadian spruce forests, pauses at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge in Ohio. About 86 percent of the habitat on the Ottawa refuge was purchased with Duck Stamp funds.
As a serious birder, knowing that Duck Stamp sales have provided habitats like these, I have plenty of reason to buy the stamp every year. But I’ve had some additional involvement with the stamp. In October 2004, I flew to Washington to serve as one of the judges for the contest to choose the 2005-2006 Federal Duck Stamp design.

My fellow judges were John Tomke, president of Ducks Unlimited; Dr. Tom Hutchens, immediate past chairman of Delta Waterfowl Foundation; Rich Smoker, a renowned carver of waterfowl; and Michael Jaffe, a leading philatelist and expert on conservation stamps. Of course, I’m not a hunter or a carver or a stamp expert. I was there to represent the birders.

That could have been a recipe for tension. In some parts of North America there is a deep divide, or at least a sense of wariness, between birders and hunters.  But my relations with hunters always have been cordial, because I’ve always recognized how much they contribute to conservation. As a kid, reading Roger Tory Peterson’s Birds Over America, I was impressed at how the great birdman gave credit to sportsmen’s groups for protecting duck habitat. He wrote about the Duck Stamp, about the National Wildlife Refuges, about private organizations like Ducks Unlimited. He wrote that there was a huge difference between the market gunners of former times, who wiped out wildlife for sheer profit, and modern sportsmen, who worked to maintain healthy populations of wildlife so that hunting could continue.

So even birders who don’t hunt recognize the conservation work done by hunters’ groups. In speaking to bird clubs and bird festivals, I have made this point many times over the last 25 years: “I’m concerned about bird conservation. I worry about what will happen to populations of shorebirds. I worry about what will happen to populations of hawks, woodpeckers, warblers. But I never spend a minute worrying about ducks, because the duck hunters are taking care of them. If duck hunting ever fades away, we will have to scramble like crazy to find a way to protect that whole group of birds and their habitats."

Most birders understand that, so I rarely get any flack for saying it. And having said this to birding groups hundreds of times, it was no sweat to say it to the hunters on the judging panel. We got along fine for our two days of discussions and deliberations, we chose a beautiful painting by Mark Anderson for the 2005-2006 stamp, and I was never made to feel that I, as a birder, was out of place.

Mark Anderson's artwork graced the 2005-2006 Duck Stamp, and I was proud to have played a part in selecting this striking and beautiful design for the stamp.
So if birders are being included as judges in the contest, does that mean that the birding community at large is recognized for its support of the Duck Stamp program?  Well—sort of. There are steps in that direction. Federal wildlife agencies are paying more attention to birders than they used to. For the last few years I’ve been on an advisory panel on “Birding on the National Wildlife Refuges,” and some of our recommendations have gained some traction. But a high percentage of employees at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service still come from a hunting and fishing background. Thinking about birders and nongame birds may be a stretch for some of them.

Whatever the reason, birders sometimes feel oddly left out by the policies of some National Wildlife Refuges. And some birders use that as an excuse for not buying the Duck Stamp. “Why should I buy it,” they say, “when the hunters will get all the credit for supporting the program?” I have argued that the Duck Stamp is a powerful force for bird conservation, and that we shouldn’t care who gets the credit. But at some level, I can see their point. If birders aren’t recognized for supporting the stamp and the refuges, won’t it be harder for us to influence the refuges to help the nongame birds?

For the birders who raise that objection, here’s a suggestion: support the program and make your voice heard by buying the Duck Stamp from a birding organization. There are more and more opportunities to do this. The Georgia Ornithological Society and Wisconsin Society for Ornithology are among several state bird clubs that sell the stamp. Here in northwest Ohio, the Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO) started selling the Duck Stamp several years ago. It’s important to note that selling the stamp is not like selling regular merchandise: there is no profit. If BSBO sells a book for 15 dollars, they probably will make 6 or 7 dollars on it. When BSBO sells a Duck Stamp for 15 dollars, the profit is zero. There is no markup. The money all goes straight back to the program.

So why does the Black Swamp Bird Observatory bother to sell the stamp? Because they are committed to conservation. They are committed to supporting habitat for all birds.

Northwest Ohio just might be the best place to build better relations between the communities of birders and hunters. After all, the birders who live here realize that some of our very best birding sites, places like Magee Marsh Wildlife Area and Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, were saved from development by private duck-hunting clubs. The duck clubs kept the habitat in good shape until the time that the land could be sold or donated to the government wildlife agencies. Even today, some of the most productive bird habitat is managed by private duck clubs. So all the birders here know that we owe a debt of gratitude to the hunters.

And the birders here already support the Duck Stamp. Look at the Black Swamp Bird Observatory, which not only sells the stamp but actively promotes it. On their website, in their nature shop, at their huge Biggest Week In American Birding festival, BSBO urges the birders to buy the stamp and protect habitat.

There are other connections, too. At the end of the month, when the judging for next year’s Duck Stamp takes place in northwest Ohio, the contest will be held at the Lodge at Maumee Bay State Park. This is the same lodge that serves as headquarters for The Biggest Week In American Birding each spring. We birders are very familiar with this place, and many of us will come to the lodge to witness the Duck Stamp contest. We’ll look at the art, pick our own favorites, argue about relative merits of the different pieces, and await the decision of the judges. And when the stamp is issued next June, we’ll be among the first in line to buy it.

Why? Enlightened self-interest. We know that our birding in the future depends on saving habitat today. We know that the Duck Stamp is a highly effective program for saving habitat. So we’re really just helping ourselves.

The duck hunters recognize this principle. Ducks Unlimited, one of the most effective conservation groups in the world, recently started a campaign to urge their members to “Double Up For Ducks,” to buy two Duck Stamps per year instead of one. The hunters don’t have to buy a second stamp—but many of them do.

By the same token, the people at the Black Swamp Bird Observatory don’t have to sell the Duck Stamp—but they do. And the birders don’t have to buy the stamp—but we do.

Do I wish that birders got more recognition for supporting the program? Well, sure. It’s nice to get credit. And we'll keep working on that. But in the meantime, we need to save habitat, and this is one of the easiest, most direct ways to do it. If you like birds and you haven't yet bought your Duck Stamp for this year, why not click this link and buy the stamp right now? 


Helpful links for more information:






Monday, September 9, 2013

Random Bird: South Georgia Pipit

South Georgia Pipit (Anthus antarcticus)
From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kenn writes: According to the International Ornithological Congress, there are over 10,480 species of birds in the world. According to us, every single one of those species is fascinating in its own way. 

Take this one. It's not large, it's not colorful, it doesn't have the most interesting song. But it lives in an amazing place. This is a South Georgia Pipit. It isn't found in the state of Georgia in the U.S., and it isn't found in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. No, this bird lives only on South Georgia Island, out where the South Atlantic meets the Antarctic Ocean.

South Georgia is huge, wild, remote. About 100 miles long and up to 23 miles wide, it is crowned with snow-capped peaks that rise as much as 9000 feet in the air. The island and the surrounding waters are home to many large and spectacular creatures: seals, whales, penguins, albatrosses, various other seabirds. This is also home to the small, inconspicuous South Georgia Pipit, which lives nowhere else in the world. The pipit is the only songbird on the island. 

I have been lucky enough to visit South Georgia four times, as a lecturer on expedition cruises. Kimberly and I both visited there in January 2009, helping to lead a cruise for Victor Emanuel Nature Tours. Of course we spent much of our time admiring the Wandering Albatrosses and King Penguins, but we also watched the small, drab South Georgia Pipits.
South Georgia Pipit. It may not look like much, but it's amazing that this bird even exists.
The fact that the bird is there at all is a testament to the powerful flying abilities of pipits in general. Members of this group are found on six continents, and some of them are very long-distance migrants. At some point in the past, the ancestors of this species arrived on South Georgia, probably in a small flock, perhaps coming from South America. They survived, and evolved over time into the distinct species that we see today. 

Historically, the pipit probably was abundant all over the lowlands of South Georgia. Today it is confined to a few tiny offshore islets and to a few small bays surrounded by ice or sheer cliffs. Why? Because rats have colonized most of the main island. Rats, coming ashore from early sailing vessels, have spread over most of the island, wiping out all but the largest birds. I have thought about this while hiking around South Georgia, across hillsides that once rang with the flight-songs of pipits. Today there is no sound but the wind sighing through the grass. It's like a land of ghosts. Go to a small offshore island like Prion Island, where we took these photos, an island teeming with pipits and with all kinds of seabirds, and you get a glimpse of what the main island would have been like at one time.

There's a project now under way to try to eradicate the rat population from South Georgia. I don't know if it's even possible; we're talking about an island with a surface area of more than 1,300 square miles. But if the project succeeds, the South Georgia Pipit, now hanging on by a thread, may become numerous again in its remote and limited range. 

South Georgia Pipit: Will it have a brighter future?

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Letting Go of the Curlew

Eskimo Curlews, as painted by John James Audubon in the early 1800s.
From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kenn writes:

Fifty years ago today, on Sept. 4, 1963, an Eskimo Curlew was shot on the island of Barbados.

Many migratory shorebirds were shot every fall on islands in the Lesser Antilles. It was almost a fluke that this small curlew was recognized as something unusual and that the specimen was given, many months later, to an ornithologist from Philadelphia. And in another fluke, as a little kid and beginning birder, I heard about this only two years after the curlew was shot. I had joined the National Audubon Society at the age of nine, since it was the only bird group that I'd heard of, and one of my very first issues of Audubon Magazine carried the sad news about the curlew. 

At that point the Eskimo Curlew was already a bird of legend. It had been abundant at one time, migrating north through the Great Plains in spring, nesting in the Canadian Arctic, migrating out over the Atlantic in fall in a great arc that took it to southern South America for the winter. But its abundance was no shield against the market hunters who shot shorebirds by the hundreds of thousands in the late 1800s. By early in the 20th century, the curlew had been pushed to the edge of extinction, and years at a time would pass with no sightings at all. 

Miraculously, one or two migrating individuals had been found on the upper Texas coast in spring in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and had even been photographed. But after the lone bird was shot on Barbados, the spring sightings in Texas ceased. 

The year that I turned nine and joined the Audubon Society, my family moved from Indiana to Kansas. I was now positioned directly on the spring route that the Eskimo Curlew once had followed. Great flocks of the curlews, along with American Golden-Plovers, Upland Sandpipers, and other "shorebirds" of open fields, traditionally had touched down in the area where I was now living as an avid, intense kid birder.  

So of course I looked for them. Throughout my teenage years, the Eskimo Curlew was on my mind. After all, I reasoned, it would be too bizarre a coincidence if that gunner on Barbados had connected with the very last curlew. If there had been one or two in Texas in 1962, if there had been one in Barbados in 1963, there had to be a few still out there. So every spring I would search in what seemed like the right habitats. I saw plenty of Upland Sandpipers, lesser numbers of American Golden-Plovers and Buff-breasted Sandpipers and Baird's Sandpipers, all species that would have used the same stopover sites as the mythical curlew. And I kept believing that I would find the curlew itself: After all, I kept telling myself as the years went by, we know the species was still alive five years ago... seven years ago... ten years ago... fifteen years ago...

Hope dies hard, and some people continue to believe that some Eskimo Curlews might be making the long journey from the Arctic to Argentina and back, every year, undetected. Indeed, there continue to be a few claimed sightings. But none has been documented since 1963. And in the meantime we have an army of skilled birders scouring every shorebird habitat, telescopes and cameras in hand. Let a Black-tailed Godwit from Europe touch down in Florida, let a Red-necked Stint from Siberia land in California, and it is immediately documented in a thousand photos. If any Eskimo Curlews survived, wouldn't someone have taken a photo of one during the last fifty years? 


The year that I turned nine and joined the Audubon Society, I also discovered an amazing book in the local library. Last of the Curlews had been published in the mid-1950s, before the spate of spring sightings in Texas. A small gem of a book by Canadian author Fred Bodsworth, it told the fictionalized story of an Eskimo Curlew, perhaps the last of its kind, migrating alone toward the Arctic. The book was beautifully written, and it had a powerful impact on me as an impressionable boy who loved birds. I learned early on to hate the idea of extinction, to mourn the loss of any species.  
Fred Bodsworth, author of Last of the Curlews
Mr. Bodsworth was a kind and generous man, and a fine naturalist as well as a gifted writer. He passed away a year ago, in September 2012. More than a decade before, however, I'd had the chance to meet him, and I feel fortunate that I was able to tell him how much his Last of the Curlews had meant to me. But as the calendar clicks past the fifty-year mark since the last of the certain, definite, confirmed curlews died, I may finally have to let go of the idea that I will ever see that bird in life.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Panama Adventures: Part I, Sloth Rescue

From Homebase in Oak Harbor (but still dreaming of Panama), Kimberly Writes: It's been quite some time since we last posted to our poor neglected blog, and we've had some pretty amazing adventures since then. For instance, we just returned from a sensational trip to Panama with our friends Jim and Cindy Beckman and their birding tour company Cheepers! Birding on a Budget. Traveling with Jim and Cindy is like an extra insurance policy for having a great time on a trip. Their attention to detail, their fun loving spirit, and the fact that they travel along with their customers on every trip ensures a positively wonderful experience! To add to the supreme quality of this trip, our local guide in Panama was Carlos Bethancourt. We'd birded with Carlos in Texas a few years ago so we knew how great he was. We'd heard many testimonials of his skills as a guide in Panama, and now that we've birded with him on his home turf, we can testify that every great thing we heard is totally true!

We knew we were in for an amazing trip, but it exceeded our expectations on every level.

During the trip, one of the places we stayed was the elegant Canopy Lodge. Turns out, our room was the same room that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie stayed in during their visit to the Lodge a few years ago!
Pretty cool, for sure, but as amazing as the Lodge was, the centerpiece of our trip was the time we spent here...
The Canopy Tower. 
Originally designed as a radar tower and used by the United States Air Force from 1965 through 1995, the Tower took on a rather unique new life in 1997 when Raul Arias de Para had the courage and the vision to purchase this stack of metal and turn it into one of the most extraordinary bird lodges in the world. 
The stunning tower sunrise...
...rivaled only by the tower sunset
And in between the glorious arrival and departure of the sun are experiences with wildlife
that leave you feeling blessed and breathless. 
Collared Aracari so close that you could count its eyelashes.
Keel-billed Toucans cavort among the Cecropias all around the tower. 
A Mantled Howler with her baby, just a few feet from the tower. 
Geoffroy's Tamarin slurping Cecropia fruit near the tower.
And then there are the sloths.
In the area near the Tower, they come incredibly close.
Three-toed Sloth See how the fur grows in the opposite direction? Since sloths spend so much time with their legs above their bodies, their hairs grow away from the extremities in order to provide protection from the elements while the sloth hangs upside down. Their fur also hosts two species of symbiotic cyanobacteria which provide camouflage. Because of the cyanobacteria, sloth fur is a small ecosystem of its own, hosting many species of non-parasitic insects.
Those are some impressive toes, aren't they?!?! 
We had close looks at a few Three-toed Sloths that live in the Cecropias right next to the Tower. I think on some level we all want to see wild animals up close and personal, on our own terms, of course. But on our first morning walk along the road to the Tower, we came close to a little sloth under very sad circumstances.

It appeared that this baby sloth had fallen from the tree during the recent storms that had battered the area. When we first spotted it, we thought it was already gone. Upon closer inspection, we were delighted to find that it was still alive. But it was clear that it was gravely wounded and we knew we had to try and get it some help. 

Fortunately, Summit Park, a wildlife rescue facility, is only a short drive away.

Carlos has some training in handling injured animals and he knew what to do. So we picked it up and gently swaddled it in a birder's bandanna and rushed the little sloth to Summit Park. While it was depressing to find it in such dire condition, it was amazing to see this animal up close.  I mentioned earlier that sloths are often home to other organisms, and out little sloth was no exception. There were tiny moths crawling around its fur, and even a tinge of greenish algae on its chin.  

Nestor Correa, Director of Summit Park, assessed its condition. There were life-threatening injuries, but we'd at least given it a fighting chance. We had plans to visit the park a few days later for the official tour, and we were anxious to learn the fate of  our little sloth.  The news wasn't good, and we were all saddened to learn that it had slipped away the night we brought it in.  In a very sweet gesture, the park staff arranged for us to meet some of their more fortunate patients in an effort to make us feel a little better about the loss of our little sloth. 

The Park employees the assistance of several volunteer "Wildlife Mothers" who care for the Park's orphaned animals. Turns out, Nestor's wife is one of these angels, and she brought two of "her" babies to meet us during our visit.
 This sweet baby is a Three-toed Sloth.  You can tell by the lighter color of its face. It was found clinging to a fallen tree and the mother couldn't be located, so they had to bring it in to be raised by a human mama.
Look at the way it watches its "Mama."
It doesn't seem to mind that she has more than three toes.  

And here is a tiny, ridiculously adorable Two-toed Sloth, with its darker face. 

This baby is perfectly healthy, but it was abandoned because it has one white foot, something the staff at Summit Park has seen before. It doesn't seem like a big deal to us, but to a mama sloth, this is apparently an unacceptable flaw that causes them to leave their babies behind.

Sloths, toucans, and howler monkeys...
As a kid, I never dreamed I'd see these exotic creatures in real life. To say that I hadn't traveled much before I met Kenn is a real understatement, and I am deeply grateful to him for giving me the courage to travel and to experience the world and the miracles of nature that our planet plays host to. 

Our sincere gratitude to Jim and Cindy, Raul and his lovely wife Denise, and Carlos and the entire Canopy Tower Family for making this trip possible! 

More on our Panama adventure coming soon. (pssst...there's a Harpy Eagle involved!)  :-) 

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Next Birding Movie, Part 5: from Director Rob Meyer!

Filmmaker Rob Meyer in action, on the set
From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kenn writes:  Okay, here's the deal about being the director of a film.  It's like being God.  Only better, because people actually do what you tell them to do.

Or at least, that's what I would have told you a couple of years ago.  That was just based on impressions from things I'd read.  Cecil B. DeMille demanding that Victor Mature wrestle with a real lion during the filming of Samson and Delilah.  James Cameron screaming at the extras bobbing around in the water during the sinking scenes in Titanic.  And so on.  But until I visited the set of A Birder's Guide to Everything, I wouldn't have guessed that a movie director could be the most decent, kind person you could hope to meet.

I first connected with filmmaker Rob Meyer by way of an email introduction from our friend, the great nature writer Scott Weidensaul.  Scott told me that Meyer had a screenplay that involved birding, and he wanted some expert birder to read it over to see if it sounded plausible.  Of course I was intrigued enough to say yes.  

It quickly became obvious that this was no amateur with a pipe dream about making a movie.  Rob Meyer had solid credentials.  He had worked as a producer at Nova and National Geographic, and had received his MFA from the graduate film program at New York University.  He had already produced a short film, Aquarium, that had received awards at film festivals all over the world.

And the screenplay that he sent - coauthored with his friend Luke Matheny - was amazing.  Yes, it had birding as a central plot element, but it also had a wonderful story, well-defined characters, superb dialogue.  I was captivated.  (And I wasn't the only one: Oscar-winning actor Sir Ben Kingsley had read the script, and had tentatively agreed to star in the film.)  I promised to help in any way I could.

So over the next few months, as Rob and his colleagues worked to pull together the funding to produce the film, I had occasional email contact about bird-related elements in the screenplay and in the plans for the set designs.  And finally in August 2012 I traveled to just north of New York City, to meet Rob Meyer in person and to watch a few days of the filming of A Birder's Guide to Everything.

As I mentioned in a previous blog post, it was amazing to watch all the dedicated professionals working on myriad details on the movie set.  And it was impressive to see Rob's directing style.  The director is the person in charge, of course, but this director wasn't acting like a dictator - more like a "first among equals."  Rob is a young guy, and some members of the crew probably had been working on films before he was born, but he had earned their respect and he in turn respected their experience.  A powerful collaborative energy pervaded the set, everyone striving together to make the film as good as it could be.  


On one day we took over a local school, where the principal let us convert his office into the offices of the fictional "Birder's Way" magazine.  Here, Rob Meyer pauses to check out the monitors while several members of the crew are setting up the next shot. 


Working on a tight schedule and tight budget, working very long days, dealing with a billion pesky details, Rob obviously was under an extraordinary amount of pressure.  But it didn't show in his interactions with people: he was phenomenally courteous, thoughtful, and considerate to every single person involved, at any level.  In the innumerable discussions about how to set up each shot, he was respectful of every opinion, even if he ultimately wound up going a different way.  Whenever anyone helped out with anything - people delivering supplies, people serving as extras in the background of a scene - he made a point of personally thanking them.  When someone new arrived on the scene - even a birding consultant from Ohio - he went out of his way to make them feel at ease.

In short, Rob Meyer is a brilliant writer and director, but he's also the most thoughtful, courteous, considerate, kind person that you could imagine.  He's talented enough that he wouldn't have to be as decent as he is, so it's just a reflection of his genuinely good character.  That's part of the reason why I'm sure he's going to be hugely successful.  In the movies, you know, you want the good guys to win.  


Rob Meyer and Kenn Kaufman on the set of A Birder's Guide to Everything

I'm sure some of my birding friends are still waiting for birding content in this post (and more than the fact that I'm wearing a Black Swamp Bird Observatory T-shirt in the photo here).  Okay, consider this.  Rob Meyer himself is not a birder - or at least, he didn't become one until he started developing the film - but he takes this hobby seriously.  In a recent interview in IndieWire, he said that one theme of the film was "an ode to birding and the restorative power of nature."  In answer to a later question, he said, "I'm hoping everyone who sees the film wants to go birding."  When I read that, I thought, Wow!  What a great idea!  When the film The Big Year came out in 2011, its portrait of extreme birding may have seemed out of reach to the average person.  But in A Birder's Guide to Everything you have appealing characters going birding on a local level, in a way that should be accessible to audiences.  This film might make a lot of people decide that "Hey, I could do that!"  


Regardless of how it impacts the birding scene, I think this film will earn a lot of kudos and recognition for the talented young Rob Meyer.  Of course, I haven't seen the film yet!  But Kimberly and I are heading off to New York to attend the premiere, and we will report back after we see it!


As a final note, I enjoyed a longer interview with Meyer in which he talks about writing, acting, birding, and a wide variety of other things.  Clearly this is an individual who is thoughtful, original, and talented, someone with a brilliant career already under way.  
The link is here.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Next Birding Movie, Part 4: Meet Kodi Smit-McPhee


Kodi Smit-McPhee, who stars in the forthcoming film A Birder's Guide to Everything, is a young actor with phenomenal talent and a brilliant future.

From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kenn writes:  Last August, as I described in a previous post, I spent a few days with the crew that was shooting Rob Meyer's forthcoming film, A Birder's Guide to Everything.  I was involved as a consultant on the film, which has birding as a major plot element.  But while I was there, I enjoyed the opportunity to learn more about the craft of filmmaking.

A movie looks very different when you see it from that perspective.  When you're in the theater, the actors and actresses loom larger than life, occupying all your attention.  On the movie set, there may be dozens of people hurrying around, focused on dozens of important tasks - lighting, sound, backgrounds, props, script details, makeup, costumes, and so on.  Everyone is a professional, everyone's work is essential.  When the cameras are not rolling, the actors almost disappear into the background, waiting to contribute their part.  

Personally, I was interested in every aspect of how the film was made, but I think most members of the public focus on the actors, the people that they see on the screen.  It occurred to me that the second-most-important person (after the director) in the creation of a film might be the person in charge of casting all the actors.  In the case of A Birder's Guide to Everything, that would be Avy Kaufman.  She's no relation to me, as far as I know, but she's a brilliant casting director who has assembled the casts of actors for scores of major films, including the 2012 blockbusters Lincoln and Life of Pi.  Ms Kaufman obviously knows what she's doing, and the people that she found to star in A Birder's Guide to Everything are remarkably talented.  

Undoubtedly the best-known actor in the film is Oscar-winner Sir Ben Kingsley, who plays an expert birder, author, and editor.  I may write about him in a separate post; for the moment, suffice it to say that it was astonishing and inspiring to see him at work.  James LeGros, a well-known film and television actor, plays a major role as the father of the main character.  I had a chance to talk with him and found him to be funny, intelligent, with wide-ranging knowledge and interests; for example, we had a great conversation about water policy issues in the western states.  


The young stars of the show: Katie Chang, Alex Wolff, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Michael Chen
But the main characters in the film are all teenagers, and the teens that play those parts are all exceptional.  Katie Chang is just as poised, smart, and independent in real life as the character she plays in the movie.  Alex Wolff is a talented musician as well as an actor, and also a practical joker, making things a little too lively around the set at times.  Michael Chen can play a slightly nerdy character if he has to, although he's a cool kid in real life. 

The central character in the film, a 15-year-old birder named David Portnoy, is played by the remarkable Kodi Smit-McPhee.  When I met him last August, Kodi had just recently turned 16, but I was powerfully impressed by his level of maturity and professionalism.  He was courteous, friendly, and totally focused on the craft of acting.  The screenplay for A Birder's Guide to Everything places a lot of demands on him: he has to convey a wide range of complex and subtle emotions.  For the scenes that I saw being filmed, he totally nailed it every time.  Even when the same scene was being shot over and over and over - because the director wanted to try different camera angles or lighting, because someone else flubbed their lines, etc. - Kodi came through with a stunning performance every time.  It was a striking confirmation, if I had needed one, that acting is a true art.

Of course, even at the age of 16, Smit-McPhee is already a seasoned professional.  He had already had many roles in television series and small films before his breakout role in the post-apocalyptic drama The Road in 2009, where he starred alongside such heavies as Viggo Mortensen and Robert Duvall.  He has been very busy since then, starring in Let Me In (2010) among other films, and landing major roles in several others that are now in the works, including the next installment in the Planet of the Apes franchise.  I predict that it won't take long for Kodi Smit-McPhee to gain the recognition he deserves as a major talent in acting.

At one point while the cast was waiting for the crew to set up the next shot, Kodi spotted a distant Red-tailed Hawk.  He was watching it through binoculars, and wanted to know more about it.  That was the extent of the birding that we did together.  With his busy schedule of film projects, I doubt that Kodi will have time to take up birding as a hobby.  But in A Birder's Guide to Everything, I think he's going to make birders look very appealing to the general public. 

In just over a week, Kimberly and I will be attending the premiere of the film at the Tribeca Film Festival, and we can't wait to report back to you about our reactions to the film!





Friday, April 5, 2013

Introducing, "The Kids’ Outdoor Adventure Book"


From homebase in Ohio, Kimberly Writes: The Destination Nature team of Stacy Tornio and Ken Keffer are celebrating the release of their new Falcon Guides book, The Kids’ Outdoor Adventure Book: 448 Great Things To Do In Nature Before You Grow Up.
The cover alone makes this book worth owning! 
Since a lot of our time and energy is devoted to getting young people interested in spending more time outside, Kenn and I are SUPER excited about this fabulous book, and we're honored to be a part of its official launch! 

To let people know about the book, we invited our friend Ken Keffer to do a guest post. He is writing about Mothing, which is summer activity #21 in the book. We hope you enjoy the post, and if you want to win your own copy of the book, visit Stacy and Ken’s website.

MOTHING! by Ken Keffer 
Moths are the new birds. All of the reasons people love birds apply to moths, too. Plus you get bonus fun with moths, including fermented bananas and black lights! Mothing can be an especially appealing activity to do as a family, which is why we put it in our book as one of the essential checklist items. Here are some tips for getting started.

MOTHS ARE EVERYWHERE
People enjoy birding because birds are widespread. During the warm summer months, moths are everywhere, too. Don’t believe me? Leave you porch light one night. It won’t take long before you’ve got more flying action than your bird feeders have seen all month.

While some moths will have certain habitat requirements, many species are abundant in neighborhoods and backyards across the country. A few are downright striking, and many have a subtle beauty, similar to sparrows. My personal favorites are the underwing moths. A mix of gray and brown above, they flash brilliant pinks, yellows, and oranges when they spread their wings.

Kimberly likes to call them "Underwear" moths
MOTH BAITING & BLACK LIGHTING
You might casually encounter a few months from time to time, but using attractants is far more satisfying. I’ve hung a small window feeder filled with fruit in the summer to attract moths as well as butterflies. Then a few times each summer I’ll bust out the moth bait and the black light for a full-fledged night of mothing.  
            
All the moth baiters have their own secret recipe. The basic ingredients usually include mixing smashed bananas (the browner the better), canned beer (the cheaper the better, although microbrews can be used to bait additional moth watchers in), and sugar (I like brown, others use white, I’ve even heard of people using molasses). Once you have the recipe mixed, just paint the bait on bark in the early evening and you’ll be set for the night.
            
You can also use black lights projected on a light colored sheet to bring in the moths from near and far. Here’s a little trick—if you use a paisley patterned sheet, you’ll have a built in scale for your photos, plus it’ll be easier to ID. And remember it’s not just moths you’ll attract. You can see tons of cool night life.

Backlighting with Kenn and Kimberly and friends! 
Remember, mothing is a leisurely activity. The kids can run around and frolic outside as the sun goes down. Then they can pop in and out as their interest desires.
            
CHECK IT OFF YOUR LIST
Despite the vastness of moth diversity, there are a few all-stars. The Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North American  has a solid selection of moths represented. Pick out a your favorites. It might take you years, but someday you could be rewarded with seeing the moth of your dreams. One of my favorite Biggest Week in American Birding memories was when a Cecropia Moth showed up. This thing created as much buzz as any of the warblers that year. After laying binoculars on it, numerous people exclaimed it was a lifer moth for them.

So set a goal of spotting a few moths this year, and then check them off your list. By the way, it’s okay if it takes you a little while to ID moths and have success attracting them. I hear Kenn Kaufman has a certain month that eludes even him. (Psst—it’s the Harris’s Three-spot.) Good luck mothing this summer, and to you too, Kenn!.

For 447 other great things to do in nature before you grow up, pick up a copy of The Kids’ Outdoor Adventure Book

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Next Birding Movie, Part 3: World Premiere Coming!

Katie Chang, Alex Wolff, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Michael Chen starring as young birders on a quest in the new Rob Meyer film, "A Birder's Guide to Everything."


From out on the road, Kenn writes:  It's official!  The next birding movie will have its world premiere next month in New York City!

You may recall that I've previously written about A Birder's Guide to Everything, the feature-length film-in-the-making by Rob Meyer.  Last July I introduced the film in this blog post.  Later I visited the set while the film was being shot on location north of New York, and I wrote about the experience (and about the amazing amount of hard work involved in movie-making) in this post.   Since that time I've been following the progress of the post-production work, as Rob Meyer and his team have worked through massive job of editing, mixing, and turning all the raw footage into a finished film.  Of course, I still haven't seen the finished product, but I'm excited and optimistic about it: the screenplay was outstanding, the actual shooting of the film involved hugely talented people both behind the scenes and in front of the cameras, and birding was treated as a central element in the story.  Best of all, the main characters are teenaged birders, and they are treated respectfully by the screenplay.  What's not to like?  

And now there is serious news: A Birder's Guide to Everything will have its premiere in April at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival in New York!

This year's Tribeca Film Festival runs April 17-28.  There's more information here, but it's a challenge to dig out; at first glance, the website may seem a bit obscure to outsiders.  But don't be put off: search around and you'll find that this birding movie is indeed one of the features included in the "Viewpoints" section of the festival (linked here)

The schedule of screenings for the entire festival can be found here, but to cut to the chase, these are the times and places for A Birder's Guide to Everything:

Sunday April 21, 6:00 p.m., AMC Loews Village 7
Monday April 22, 6:00 p.m., Clearview Cinemas Chelsea
Wednesday April 24, 3:00 p.m., AMC Loews Village 7
Friday April 26, 6:00 p.m., Clearview Cinemas Chelsea

Buying tickets may be something of a challenge - right now only full ticket packages are available, and single tickets for individual screenings apparently won't be available until April 14 or 15 (more information here).  Regardless, if you're anywhere in or near New York, I urge you to make the effort to go and see this film!  I'm willing to bet that it will be extremely good, and that it will help to improve the overall public image of birding and birders.  Kimberly and I are betting on it - we're going to New York (in the middle of a very busy time for us) to attend one of the first two showings.  Maybe we'll see you there?



Saturday, January 26, 2013

Snowbird 2.0

American Tree Sparrow: Always at home in the snow.
From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kenn writes:  When I was a kid, first learning about birds, I read that "snowbird" was the Dark-eyed Junco's nickname.  Juncos are easy to recognize, and for many people in the eastern U.S., they are characteristic birds of winter.  But for me, the real "snowbirds" are American Tree Sparrows.  Strictly winter birds anywhere south of the Arctic, they arrive with cold weather, and they visit Kimberly and me only when the snow flies.  

American Tree Sparrows belong to the genus Spizella, which makes them relatives of familiar birds like Chipping Sparrow and Field Sparrow.  The main difference is that Tree Sparrows have their center of distribution at least a thousand miles farther north.  Indeed, "Tree Sparrow" is a misnomer:  many spend the summer far north of treeline, on the tundra, where the largest willows are only a couple of feet tall.  In winter, flocks range through brushy fields, marshes, and open country.  Trees aren't really important to them at any time of year. 

Range of the American Tree Sparrow. Red represents the summer range; dark blue is the main winter range, while pale blue shows where it is less numerous in winter. The gray area in between shows where the species passes through in migration.

For years I lived in Arizona, where it was a major challenge to find American Tree Sparrows at all.  If we searched hard enough in the northeastern part of the state in winter, we might eventually find a flock of three or four.  Here in northern Ohio, though, we are blessed with an abundance of these beautiful sparrows in winter.  On Christmas Bird Counts, we tally them by the hundreds.  Flocks move ahead of us along the hedgerows, across the weedy fields, making a soft, musical tinkling chorus as they go.

American Tree Sparrow: soft colors, musical callnotes, active flocks in the brushy fields of winter.
Where Kimberly and I live now, in the country north of Oak Harbor, flocks of Tree Sparrows are nearby all winter.  They're half a mile away, in the willows along the canal, along the edge of the woodlot, in the overgrown fields.  But they don't come to our yard except under certain conditions.  We have more than a dozen bird feeders out, and lots of birds visit every day: goldfinches, cardinals, House Finches, Downy Woodpeckers, Blue Jays, and more.  But the American Tree Sparrows don't come to the yard - until it snows. 

Whenever it snows, American Tree Sparrows move in from the surrounding countryside to feed on birdseed in our yard... at least until the snow melts.
Every time it snows, the number of Tree Sparrows in the yard goes from zero to 20 or 25 within a matter of hours.  They'll be all around the house, hopping on every feeder, sitting in the tops of the shrubs outside every window, taking advantage of our generous supply of birdseed.  (It's almost enough to make me look forward to snow!)    

American Tree Sparrow posing outside our window.  Like all of our native North American sparrows, it shows beautiful feather patterns if we take the time to look closely.
One of the most appealing things about these little visitors from the Arctic is that they do, in fact, leave the yard each time the snow melts. It suggests an admirable level of independence.  Other birds stick around the yard for easy pickings, but the Tree Sparrows only drop in briefly, and they will soon head out to wilder pastures again.  In a few months, when spring comes, when other sparrows come back from the deep south, the American Tree Sparrows will fly away, far to the north, to lands farther north than any junco would go, to lands where it might snow even in summer.  Yes, these are snowbirds, all right. 

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