Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Off to the White Continent...

From--Home Base (for a few more minutes): Kim writes: Well, folks, this is it. Kenn and I are on our way out the door, onto a plane, and off on the adventure of a lifetime--ANTARCTICA! I got two words for ya ~
BABY PENGUINS! woooo--hoooo!!!!

We'll make every attempt to stay in touch during the trip, but just in case we can't, my techno-savvy husband has some surprises lined up for readers of this blog that you will not want to miss--so keep checking in!

Here's a link to our trip itinerary, so you can at least "follow along" if you'd like.
http://ventbird.com/system/tour_departure/legacy_itinerary/904/509AN.pdf

And here's a link the the trip writeup from the Victor Emanuel Nature Tours website to give you an idea of what this trip will be like:
http://ventbird.com/birding-tour/2009/01/05/antarctica-south-georgia-the-falklands

We wish you all the happiest, healthiest, birdiest New Year, and look forward to sharing it with you!

I am soooo excited! I can't wait to tell you all about it!

Wish us luck---and a buoyant boat!

~Kim

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Extreme Bird Feeding

From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kim writes: While the weather here in northwest Ohio the last few days has been downright balmy, we suffered through a stretch of incredibly brutal weather for several days. Temps at or near zero, 25+ mile per hour winds, and everything was coated with a thick layer of ice. It was really hard to force ourselves to even go outside. Several Christmas Bird Counts scheduled for last weekend were canceled. You KNOW it's rough outside when birders decide not to do CBCs.

As a result of the weather, I spent a great deal of time last weekend keeping the feeders filled at the Observatory. Turns out, that can be interpreted in a couple of ways, depending upon your perspective. What I meant by "filled feeders" was this....


A human's idea of "bird food"...



And, here's what "filled feeders" means from a different perspective...
Oh yeah! Look at all that bird food...


This immature Red-tailed Hawk must be really desperate. It was haunting the feeders all weekend, making pass after unsuccessful pass at the starlings and Mourning Doves at the feeders. The poor thing finally took a break on top of one of the feeders. What a contrast in style from the accipiters that often stalk the birds at our feeders. When a Cooper's or Sharp-shinned Hawk makes a pass it is with such swift precision as if to almost seem like it happened in your imagination. A feathered arrow, swift and true. But, this poor Red-tail was more like a lawn jart (remember those?!) and it came flopping in like a sumo wrestler arriving at a tea party.

Here's a closer look at this magnificent animal.

Note the brown tail that helps to identify it as a young bird.

Here in northwest Ohio we see Red-tailed Hawks on a daily basis, and we sometimes get a little jaded. "Oh, that's just another red-tail," you'll often hear people say. But, encounters like this one, up close and personal, remind us of just how blessed we are to have these creatures in our world.

I feel really bad for the bird. I know that it's hungry. And I know that the mortality rate in young raptors is high. If I can find some road kill, I'll scrape it up and toss it out near the Observatory and hope that the bird finds it. I've done this kind of thing before with great success.

Believe it or not, I once convinced a friend to help me lift and load the carcass of an eight-point buck that I found lying in a field (it had been struck by a car) into the back of his pickup truck. We hauled it to my house and dragged it out into the field about 300 yards from the house. This was late fall / early winter, and 300 yards seemed like plenty of cushion between the house and the large dead rotting thing.

The first birds to discover the prize were 13 American Crows, and I had an absolute blast watching these amazing birds feeding on the carcass. The hierarchy was immediately evident. The entire group would come in and roost in a large dead elm tree about 20 yards from the deer. After much calling and jostling, a small number of the birds (usually just 3) would come to the buffet to feed while the others kept watch. Once the first group was finished, they would return to the elm tree while another group came to dine, and so on, until all the birds had had a chance to feed. It was great fun observing the group dynamics of these incredibly intelligent birds.

Next to dine at the Road Kill Cafe was an immature Bald Eagle. He approached with extreme caution, using the crows' trusty dead elm as an observation deck to get the lo-down of the situation before finally deciding it was worth it and getting down to business. Eventually an adult eagle arrived and the youngster was driven out of the area.

Here's a terrible photo of the adult Bald Eagle that visited the carcass.

(Now, be kind about the quality of this photo! This was pre-digiscoping revolution!)

Early spring arrived, and with it, the Turkey Vultures. It was icky and gross, but at the same time, strangely captivating to watch them stick their heads way up inside the remains of the deer and get the goodies that were out of reach for the feather-headed feeders. That naked red head may be short on looks, but it sure comes in handy for extreme feeding conditions like a dead rotting deer carcass!

Okay, I know these photos are getting progressively worse, but if you squint your eyes, tip you head to the left, and now close your right eye part way, you can see that the fourth dark blurry lump from the left is a dead rotting deer carcass being visited by hungry Turkey Vultures!

Now, as I mentioned earlier, my friend and I drug the carcass about 300 yards away from my house. That was great during the winter, but then suddenly it was July. P--and might I add--U! If you decide to try out my extreme bird feeding method, please make sure that you select the location and distance of your feeding "station" with the thought that it might very well persist until those steamy 80+ degree days! You (and your neighbors) will be thankful for the consideration.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Holiday Gift Guide: Binoculars the day after

Second sight: binoculars from your past might be able to see into the future.

From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kenn writes: Holiday gift-giving this year may have been less splendiferous than usual, but it’s a safe bet that some birders received high-quality binoculars. Maybe these were gifts from partners or parents or friends, or some birders may have decided to splurge on gifts for themselves. One way or another, right now some birders will be looking at birds through brand-new lenses.

Kim and I have some important advice for you. It’s not about what kind of binoculars you should have bought; we have our favorites, of course, but there are many great optics available today. No, this is advice about what to do AFTER you’ve tried out your new binoculars, gotten used to them, fallen in love with them. At that point, ask yourself: What are you going to do with your old binoculars?

That’s assuming that you had old ones. If these are your first, congratulations! Just file this advice away for future reference. But if your new optics represent an upgrade, then they’re replacing old ones that served you to some extent. If your old bins were just awful, you should throw them away. But if they’re in good shape, those old optics could be a tremendous help to someone who has no binoculars at all.

Maybe you know some local nature center with a limited budget that could really use "loaner" binoculars for field trips. Or a camp or a school where the nature programs would benefit from having optics available. But if not, there’s an organization that can help deliver used optics directly to the people who need them most.

The Birders' Exchange is an ingenious program that gathers used (but still useful) binoculars, telescopes, and other items of field equipment and delivers them to people who can least afford them but who can make the best use of them: biologists, naturalist guides, park rangers, students, and others in the developing countries of Latin America. Deserving individuals in no fewer than 29 countries have already received the benefit of such donations. It’s safe to say that the program is making such workers more effective throughout the American tropics, thus contributing to education and research and bird conservation in a huge way.

The Birders' Exchange was started in 1990 by the Manomet Bird Observatory (now Manomet Center for Conservation Science) and is now administered by the American Birding Association. Sharp birder and all-around wonderful person Betty Petersen has managed the program for years and has made it into a terrific success. She and her colleagues run a very economical and efficient operation, and they don’t have time to deal with repairs or replacement parts -- so we shouldn’t ever send them junk. But if you’ve got some good-quality used optics to donate, go to their website and check it out. Your old favorite bins could have a second life looking at tropical birds and helping to make a difference.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Happy Holidays from Kenn & Kim

From "Home for the Holidays", Kenn & Kim write: Please accept some of our favorite nature photos as our gift to you this holiday season.


Blue-footed Booby feet




Clay-colored Sparrow




Sharp-shinned Hawk





Cardinal Flower




A tiny seed that looks like a ballerina




Connecticut Warbler








A lovely American Goldfinch nest



Pied-billed Grebe




Blackburnian Warbler




Blue Cohosh




IO Moth


Cape May Warbler


Wishing you peace and joy this holiday season ~ and always,

Kenn & Kim








Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Ice, Ice, Baby

From Port Clinton, Ohio, Kenn writes: We braved the intense cold and the ice-covered roads last night to go to band practice, and then the weather socked us anyway: Sully, our lead guitar player, was called away for an emergency having to do with pipes freezing and bursting. The rest of the band spent a while working out chord progressions of new material anyway before calling it a night.

At some point, messing around, I started playing the famous bassline from the hit "Under Pressure" by David Bowie and Queen -- the same bassline that was lifted, essentially note for note, by Vanilla Ice for his hit single rap classic "Ice Ice Baby." Kim had performed this song a couple of times with her old band, Four Thorn Rose, not as a planned part of the show but to fill in time while someone changed a broken guitar string. Sure enough, as soon as I started playing the bassline, Kim jumped in with the lyric, delivering it with tons of rapper attitude: Will it ever stop, yo -- I don’t know ... Deadly, when I play a dope melody, anything less than the best is a felony ... Girls were hot wearin' less than bikinis, Rockman lovers drivin' Lamborghinis ... ice, ice, baby ... On and on, a rap anthem, all the more authentically gangsta-ish because it’s based on a stolen bassline. Fletch jumped in on drums, and the handful of other people hanging around at Mango Mama’s watched in awe as Kim rapped out this long long song without missing a beat.

We can’t help thinking about ice right now. It has been wickedly cold the last few days; on Sunday, when we had expected to do the Fremont Christmas Bird Count, the temperature went down to 4 Fahrenheit with wind chills of 25 below zero. The ice storm that we had Friday morning -- the last time the temp was barely above freezing -- coated everything with thick ice that’s still there. In a separate post, we’ll talk about how the birds are faring in this weather. But for anyone who keeps bird feeders, this is the weather in which the birds need help the most. They can find food under snow, but when ice locks things up, the birds can be in serious trouble.


After all this cold weather, we’re looking forward to going away -- to Antarctica! I know from previous experience that the weather is surprisingly mild at this season. We travel by ship along the coastline, and the temperature rarely gets much below freezing. It would be different, it would be unimaginably cold, if we went to the Antarctic interior, but we wouldn’t be seeing birds there. So we’ll explore the islands and the coast, and we’ll see lots of ice, but we won’t encounter the kind of intense cold that has hit the American Midwest the last few days.

Coronation Island, in the South Orkney Islands, off the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Kenn took this photo on his third Antarctic trip in 1992.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Seriously Buzzed

From Home Base, Kim Writes: I know that in the dead of winter in Ohio the last thing you'd think I'd be thinking about are hummingbirds. But yesterday, while looking through my collection of bad fuzzy videos, I found one that I thought I had lost.
You can't imagine how happy I was to find this, in spite of its entry into the bad fuzzy video vault. I know the video is tiny on the screen (if anyone has suggestions on how I can make this work more effectively, please share!) it's sort of out of focus, and in general, kind of crappy, but please take a look at it anyway. I hope that as fellow birders you'll understand how blessed I felt as I witnessed this tiny creature growing, learning, and ultimately striking out on "his" own.

video
Buzzed on sugar water delivered by his Mama, who took advantage of the feeder in our yard, "Junior" tests his wings. He would sit quietly for long periods, but, as soon as Mama brought him some sugar, he would become very animated, moving about the nest, and testing his tiny wings in the most adorable way.

Just to clarify: I don't actually know if the bird in the video was a male or female. With youngsters of the small "gorgetted" hummingbirds (of which there are 8 species in North America), sex cannot be reliably determined without having the bird in the hand. At that point, it comes down to things like: the shape of the outer primaries, width and shape of the rectrices (tail feathers) and the shade of white coloration in the throat. All that aside, the first day that we discovered our little treasure, I dubbed him Junior. I know, I know,---kinda lame and unoriginal, but it was the first thing that came to mind as I watched him that first day, and it just sort of stuck.

Since I first became fascinated with birds, one thing I always hoped for was to find an active hummingbird nest. Here in the east, we have only one breeding species of hummer, but it's a good one! Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are real charmers. Loads of attitude and charisma make up for their diminutive size and the lack of hummingbird diversity in our part of the world.
When Kenn and I got married and moved into our first home, it didn't seem likely that there would be many birds nesting in our yard, let alone a hummer. We were in the country, but surrounded on all sides by the monoculture of farm fields: Mostly corn, wheat, and soy beans. Our yard had a few mature trees, mostly Maples and Pines, but not much else to recommend to the discerning bird looking for a place to raise young. But, we hung our feeders with hope and the bird gods delivered.

We noticed hummers coming to visit our feeder and were thrilled. But, to be honest, we never even thought of looking for a nest. One afternoon we were out in the backyard when a hummingbird buzzed past and into one of the pines. We stood in utter astonishment as she began to work on what appeared to be the makings of a nest! Kenn dashed for the scope and we spent the next 4 hours watching this industrious little fairy as she labored to create her haven.
And here it is! What an amazing example of miniature architecture. From the day we discovered it, it took her 6 days to construct this masterpiece and lay 2 eggs.

The list of building materials sounds more like a spell from a Harry Potter book than nest material: Spider's silk and thistle down. A bit of lichen all around. Weave a cup and make a wish. Fairies fill this tiny dish....

After watching for many hours, I finally surrendered to the call of duty and went into the house to get some work done. About a half an hour later, Kenn comes rushing into the house with this dazed look on his face and says, "You've got to come out here and see this."

Back outside, and in the front yard this time, and, you'll never believe this....ANOTHER HUMMINGBIRD NEST. Less than 30 yards from the one being constructed in the backyard, our little overachiever had herself another nest, (Yes, it was the same female hummer!) and this one was filled to capacity with two stubby-billed little imps. I am not afraid to admit that I cried. It was just so spectacularly magical to have not one, but TWO hummingbird nests in our tiny, postage stamp yard, and to discover them on the same day! The realization that this tiny bird would be actively building one nest, while raising two demanding "kids" at the same time was just emotional overload for me.

After studying her behavior very closely, and getting her timing on and off the nest worked out, I waited until she had left the nest to forage, and I snuck in and took this photo. I stood on the tippy top of our ladder, and still had to hold the camera up as far as I could reach, try to aim as best I could, and then hope that I had gotten something....

Aren't they beautiful? They look so big on the screen, but in life they were so tiny: about the size of your average kidney bean.

All this intense hummingbird action filled our life with high drama! On the very first day, we watched in horror as Junior's sibling decided that "he" was ready to face the big bad world, and launched himself out of the nest. Calling it a launch is perhaps a bit generous, and he didn't make it far before crash landing into a big clump of thistles. We rushed to his rescue, and after holding him for a few minutes to make sure that he was intact, he buzzed out of Kenn's hands and up into our Mulberry tree.

Check out that stubby bill. I was shocked at how rapidly their bills grew as we watched them visit our feeders.

Once he was safely in the Mulberry, he began calling, and Mama came to the rescue, feeding him for the rest of the afternoon before he disappeared. He returned the next day to visit the our feeder, and returned every day for about two weeks, eventually joined by Junior after he too made his brave exit from the nest.

I have a banding permit, and I would have banded him, but my gear was at the Observatory, and I didn't want to hold him long enough to go get it. Hummingbird bands are, of course, very tiny, and made of incredibly light weight aluminum, pressed into sheets, and stamped with the band number. The material is so thin that we cut them out with scissors.

Here's one compared to a Great Horned Owl band.

I have had close encounters with thousands of birds at the Observatory's songbird banding station. I have banded dozens of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, and my fascination with these tiny dynamos increases with each individual whose life I "touch" for a few moments. But, I will never forget this little feathered family and they way that they touched us for a few magical weeks.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Bird Photo Quiz Quiz

From Birding Central, Kenn writes: Back when "publishing" always involved ink and paper, a Photo Quiz was popular in various bird magazines. A challenging photo (or two or three) would be presented in one issue of the magazine, with the answer(s) to be revealed in the next issue. Birders would study the photos and their field guides, discuss the quiz with their pals, then wait a month or two or three for the next issue to see if they’d gotten the answer right.
Today, in the age of online publishing, photo quizzes are legion. There are literally dozens of "mystery bird" photos posted every week on websites and blogs. Followers of these quizzes wait only days for the answers, not weeks or months. Other things have changed as well: birders researching a tricky photo today are more likely to look for pictures on the internet, and a fair percentage of those online photos will be misidentified or mislabelled. And when the online quiz posts its answer, there’s a chance that the answer will be wrong. So there’s a new kind of edgy challenge to the game.

Quizzes in print have a longer history. In the 1970s (when I was a rabid kid birder) we got our photo-quiz fix by looking at British Birds, a fine monthly that was then publishing more on identification than all the North American periodicals put together. A few of us crazed American and Canadian birders pored over every issue of British Birds, tried to work out the photo quiz, and then eagerly read the detailed answer to the previous month’s quiz. It was such an educational feature that we wondered why North American bird journals didn’t follow suit. But not until 1980 did Birding, the magazine of the American Birding Association, begin to run a regular photo quiz feature (a feature that continues today, by the way). I have warm feelings about the Birding photo quiz because I was in charge of it, writing the answers for almost every issue, for ten years, starting in the mid-1980s. But that wasn’t my first experience with writing photo quiz answers.

We’re not going to add one more online mystery photo to this week’s crop. Instead, we have a different kind of challenge, one that will test your knowledge of photography, publications, and the history of the birding community.

Here’s the question: What was the first publication in North America to run a regular bird photo identification quiz?

If you think you know the answer, or if you want to guess, send us a comment. If no one gets it, we’ll post the answer in a week. (Of course, a week from now is the 24th, and the guys will all be out doing their last-minute Christmas shopping, but ... ) The answer is sort of surprising. To entice you to enter, we’ll offer a prize (perhaps an autographed copy of a rare historical birding publication!).

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The CBC Shuffle

From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kim writes: We had a great time on the Toledo CBC, which is run by the Toledo Naturalists' Association, a group that can make any experience fun.

Case in point... Check this out. I know it's kind of dark, but just look at my CBC Comrades as they seek to rid themselves of a "sticky" situation that we found ourselves in after we took a wrong turn down a VERY muddy road.

video

Don't they look like some strange species dancing on a lek? * Note - There are a few females in the video, but they seem pretty unaffected by the displaying males.

Hey Kenn, maybe next year we could do a CBC in, ohhh..I don't know...Key Largo?!

Monday, December 15, 2008

I'll be CBC-ing you ...

From under a pile of blankets, Kenn writes: Okay, picture this. It's Sunday morning -- yesterday morning, and we're out before it's fully daylight, standing in the soggy weeds along the edge of a soggy woods. The temperature is above freezing, but the only way we know that is because the wind-driven precipitation hitting our faces is rain, not ice. And my thoughts are running something like this:

- According to a US Fish & Wildlife Service survey in 2006, there are approximately 81,400,000 bird watchers in the United States.

- If that's true, then last year, there were 81,353,380 bird watchers in the United States who did not take part in the Christmas Bird Count (CBC). But last year set a new high record for participation!

Standing there in the freezing wet night and thinking about it, I'm reminded of the late lamented Rick Blom, who might have commented that "no one does this, and if you try it, you'll understand why." Still, we are out there doing it. Kim and I were out all day yesterday on the Toledo CBC, and we actually had a great time and saw a lot of birds, but I'm pondering two rhetorical questions:

1. If we must have a Christmas Bird Count, why couldn't Jesus have had the decency to be born at a warmer time of year?

2. Given the evident popularity of birding, why doesn't the CBC draw more participants than it does?

Those are, as I said, rhetorical questions, though I'd love to hear from anyone who has an answer. But I'm trying to formulate a more serious question about how bloggers relate to the reality of the birding community and how the CBC relates to both. That question isn't in coherent form yet, so please check back for it when you can.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

"Owl" be seeing you in all the old familiar places...

From home base, Kim writes: Yesterday I spent a wintery day with a bunch of friends and colleagues at Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area (KPWA) in Central Ohio. We were meeting to discuss plans for our Ohio Young Birders Club (more on that later) and we used the excuse to get out and do some birding.

We were hoping to locate the White-winged Crossbills that had been reported in the area, but missed them. They're such nomads. I really admire that about them in spite of the fact that it makes them so darn hard to see. One neat thing we did see yesterday was a group of 20+ Eastern Meadowlarks. (These were the Eastern-Eastern Meadowlarks, not the Southwestern-Eastern Meadowlarks that Kenn discussed in an earlier post.) KPWA is one of the few places where you can reliably see them in Ohio in winter. They hang out near a barn that's used to stable horses, and roost inside the barn when the weather gets really rough. Really cool to see that splash of sunshine-yellow against a pretty bleak and wintery landscape.

"Killdeer" is my favorite birding spot in the world. Big words, eh? Especially when you consider that, thanks to Kenn, I've been blessed to travel to some pretty far-out and birdy places. So, what’s with the bold statement about KPWA?

When my interest in birds started to get a little out of hand and beyond my backyard, someone suggested I go to this place called “Killdeer Plains” to see the Bald Eagles that had a nest there. They had read something about it in the local paper, and since I had become a bird-crazed maniac, they thought I might want to see something like that. I was like, “WHAT? No way are there Bald Eagles in Ohio.” Crazy, right? How could there be Bald Eagles in Ohio without me knowing about it? But, off I went to check it out.
Sure enough, about a half a mile beyond a “cars with scopes cluster” was a big black mass in a sycamore tree. The folks behind the scopes were thrilled to show a newbie the ropes and I got the lo-down on Bald Eagles and KPWA from that great bunch of birders that day. The KPWA Bald Eagle saga is a story to be told, and I’ll share it with you soon.

Over the next few years KPWA became a place of refuge for me. I was birding alone at that point, and that’s exactly the way I wanted it. I was searching my soul for answers to some pretty tough questions and “Killdeer” provided a place of solace for me at a time when I desperately needed it. I could spend hours out there without seeing another soul, save the occasional fellow birder, and I could lose myself in this prairie paradise until the sun started to slip away and remind me that it was time to return to “reality.”

My first visit to Killdeer was in early winter, which was perfect, since winter is a great time to bird the 8000+ acres of prairie that spreads itself out in central Ohio and gives you a tiny taste of what wilderness might have felt like. Spectacular birds spend the winter here, and I got acquainted with many life birds during my early visits.

When you’re wrestling with life challenges, what better way to clear your mind than to stand in all-out, jaw dropping awe as 42 Short-eared Owls engage in little dog fights 8 feet away from you?

Or, looking up along the trunk of a gnarly old cedar tree and staring straight into the glaring eyes of a Long-eared Owl as it casually sizes you up and dismisses you from its twisted fortress?

Perhaps searching for the elusive little sprite of the forest, the Northern Saw-whet Owl. In the midst of a small group of pines, I came face to face with this adorable creature for the very first time. Searching in vain from the outside of a small stand of white pines, I eventually crawled up into the center of the branches, and in the instant that I stood, I locked eye-to-eye gaze with what is arguably the cutest bird in the world. In a moment that I pray I will never forget, this astoundingly sweet little bundle of feathers simply tucked its face into its wing, closed its eyes, and went back to sleep. Pure magic! I stood there until I couldn’t feel my feet any longer before prying myself away.

Kenn and I are poised to depart on what I'm sure will be the trip of a lifetime for me, ANTARCTICA! In spite of hours spent studying the field guides, searching the internet, and picking Kenn's brain (he's been there 4 times leading tours), in my mind I still can't really imagine what it will be like there.

Not like Killdeer ~ All I have to do is close my eyes and I can see that Saw-whet tree; I can smell the sweet tang of pine needles under my feet and feel the sting of winter on my cheeks; I can hear the soft sweet notes of the tree sparrows in the hedge along CH 71, and experience the same sense of comfort that this place has always given me. All I have to do is close my eyes....

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Two New Birds

From Rocky Ridge, Ohio, Kenn writes: If you’ve traveled much in North America, especially in the West, your life list may soon go up by two species.

Something to sing about: we may have three meadowlark species.

The October 2008 issue of The Auk, the scientific journal of the American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU), was mailed late, and I just received my copy. But among the technical papers in this issue were two that could affect how some birds are classified. One study presented evidence that North America has three species of meadowlarks, not two. Another paper gave evidence that the Western Scrub-Jay should be split into two species.

Changes like this won’t become official until they’re voted on by the AOU’s Committee on Classification and Nomenclature (more affectionately known as the AOU Check-list Committee). This is the committee that establishes the standardized names and species limits that we see in field guides and bird checklists for North and Central America. But with the publication of these two new studies, it becomes likely that the committee will split these birds, perhaps as early as next July.

Meadowlarks in North America have long been divided into two species: the Western Meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta) in the West (naturally), and the Eastern Meadlowlark (Sturnella magna) in the East as well as in desert grasslands of the Southwest. Many experts have already pointed out that the desert-grassland "Easterns" look and sound somewhat different from those in the East. It had been suggested that they might represent a separate species. Now there’s good evidence for that: Keith Barker, Arion Vandergon, and Scott Lanyon studied mitochondrial DNA and other genetic markers for meadowlarks from all parts of their range, and found that the desert-grassland population was very distinct. Sturnella lilianae would be the scientific name of the "new" species; its English name might be Lilian’s Meadowlark, but the AOU will have to decide. Whatever it’s called, if you’ve seen "Eastern Meadowlarks" in southern Arizona or New Mexico or far western Texas, you can count them as this new species as soon as it’s officially "split."

Western Scrub-Jay: scrub that name, replace it with two others.


As recently as the 1980s, we had just one species of "Scrub Jay" in North America. Then the Florida Scrub-Jay and the Island Scrub-Jay (of Santa Cruz Island, California) were classified as separate species. Now there’s good reason to say that the remaining population, currently called Western Scrub-Jay, is really two species. Kathleen Delaney, Saba Zafar, and Robert Wayne studied the DNA of these jays and found that they divided into two groups that probably have been isolated from each other for more than 300,000 years. These authors suggest dividing Western Scrub-Jay into two species: California Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma californica), a more richly colored bird found from extreme southern Washington south to Baja, and Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma woodhouseii), a duller and grayer bird found from Nevada and extreme eastern California east to Texas. (Brian Small and I will be talking about this split in our "I.D. Tips" column in the March-April 2009 issue of Birder’s World.) There's a messy spot in western Nevada where the two may be interbreeding, and there's a population in southern Mexico that may be yet another separate species, Sumichrast's Scrub-Jay. But the split of the Western looks likely.

Again, neither of these splits will be official until the AOU's committee votes on them. But if you’ve seen them, you can count them as soon as the split is formalized -- so don’t pass up a chance to see birds like this and, so to speak, "put them in the bank." Or just enjoy such subtle variations, whether they count for any kind of list or not!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Old Friends New Again

From Home Sweet Home, Kim writes: I've spent the better part of the last two days preparing a presentation about the trip we took to the Galapagos last November. Kenn and I will be giving the talk together (which is so fun!) tomorrow night at the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge (ONWR). ONWR is the Observatory's neighbor, just a half mile west of the marsh that BSBO lives in. We have a very strong working relationship with the refuge staff, and we partner on many projects and programs. They're a great bunch of people and do amazing work maintaining habitat for thousands of migratory birds. I feel so blessed to have a refuge in our area, and most of 4500+ acres were purchased with Federal Duck Stamp monies! Every birder should be buying the stamp!

My office chair kind of sucks, so as I was putting the talk together, I'd get up and check the feeders every once in a while just to move and stretch a little.


Who thinks Kim should get a new office chair for Christmas?!

Kenn and I have only been in this house for about 5 months, so we're still working on our yard list. The most recent addition to the list was Pine Siskin--very cool! But yesterday, an old friend showed up and really made my day. There, in the midst of the usual gang of House Sparrows, was a female Red-bellied Woodpecker! I ran for the camera and got a few crappy shots of her before she took off.
She was a bit shy about her first few visits, but she came back today and seemed a little more relaxed about the whole thing. Kind of like me when I first arrived here.

All my life I've lived in the country, so I really had mixed feelings about living in town. Well, okay, Oak Harbor is a bit more like a village than a town. But still. Since it's become an "indicator species" perhaps it would help you picture Oak Harbor if I told you that there's not even ONE STARBUCKS in Oak Harbor. Nope. Not one. Nada. That's right, here in Oak Harbor we still drink good-old .99 for the big cup, gas station coffee. And, surprisingly enough...we’re okay.

Oak Harbor's proximity to the bird observatory and Magee Marsh (less than 10 minutes away), and the fact that the house was perfect for us, had been the deciding factors in our move, but I was a little uncertain about it. Having lived in the country all my life, I was apprehensive about living within the confines of even a small town. I mean, I knew I’d be happy--I’d be happy anywhere as long as I’m with Kenn--but within the first few days, I knew I was going to love it here. Our neighbors have kids that--get this--PLAY OUTSIDE! We like to play outside too. So, of course, Kenn and I have spent time with the kids looking at birds, bugs, trees, bats, the night sky. So yeah, having kids nearby that actually like to be outside was definitely a good start.

And then my old friends started to come around. First it was the trusty, dependable goldfinches. They arrived on our second day in the house as if to say, “No matter where you go, we'll be with you!" Next came the Northern Cardinals, Blue Jays, and Mourning Doves. It took a bit longer, but eventually the White-breasted Nuthatches dropped by, and not long after, we were thrilled to see Red-breasted Nuthatches too!


Yes, all these old friends quieted the tiny doubts in the back of my mind about my ability to adjust to life in the "big city." But, there’s just something about woodpeckers--you know?! When the first Downy showed up, I was at the bird observatory, and Kenn called to share the news with me. I’m not afraid to admit that I rushed home so I could see it too.


Kenn has taken me all over the world and showed me some of the planet’s most amazing birds. I can still recall the intense emotions that I felt when he showed me Blue-footed Boobies in the Galapagos; Honey Buzzards in Sweden; Maroon-fronted Parrots in Mexico; and Plate-billed Mountain-Toucans and Sword-billed Hummingbirds in Ecuador. Those experiences have shaped my life and made my world so much more three dimensional. But, I know Kenn will understand when I tell you that yesterday, when “our” Red-bellied Woodpecker arrived for her first visit, home was the only place in the world I wanted to be.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Antarctica vs. Galapagos: clash of claims

Adelie Penguins: Cool birds, but they're not in a biodiversity hotspot

From Birding Central, Kenn writes: If you follow news of the natural world online, you’ve probably seen the stories within the last week: "Antarctic islands surpass Galapagos for biodiversity." The headline has been repeated on dozens of websites and blogs. Everyone is marveling at this news because the Galapagos Islands lie on the Equator, and the generally accepted wisdom has been that biodiversity is greatest in the tropics and decreases toward the poles. That the South Orkney Islands, near the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, should support more species than the Galapagos Islands is an idea that seems totally amazing.

It would be amazing, if it were true. But it isn’t true.

We live in an era when information can be flashed around the globe in an instant, perpetuated and multiplied a millionfold, whether it’s accurate or not. If it’s a remarkable piece of information and it seems to come from a reliable source, it will be repeated verbatim forever.

Here’s the background. Researchers from the British Antarctic Survey and the University of Hamburg carried out a detailed study of life on the South Orkney Islands and in the surrounding seas, down to a depth of 1500 meters. Between their own findings and a search of published records, they documented 1224 species of animals in the area, including five species new to science. All of this is very impressive, and the researchers are to be congratulated for their discoveries. It’s important for us to know that biodiversity at the edge of the Antarctic is higher than previously believed.

However, there was a problem with a press release from the British Antarctic Survey on December 1, 2008. This press release mentioned the Galapagos comparison just as a brief aside, but other news stories made this the headline. NewScientist presented it this way: "Antarctic islands surpass Galapagos for biodiversity." PlanetEarth Online said: "More Biodiversity in Antarctica than the Galapagos." Science Daily and LiveScience both said: "Antarctica Has More Species Than Galapagos." Dozens of websites, blogs, and newspapers repeated variations of the same.

It simply isn’t true, and I’ll give you the data in a minute, but it’s odd to me that so many news outlets repeated this uncritically. Certainly any birder on the news desk would have questioned it. After all, birders tend to be more aware of the realities of the world than most nonbirders. And I know I’m not the only birder who has been to both the Galapagos and the Antarctic.

Yes, the Galapagos Islands are arid and isolated. Diversity is not overwhelming there. Putting aside migrants and strays, the number of nesting bird species on the Galapagos is only about 60 -- but on the South Orkneys, the number is fewer than 20. What about insects? Birders often notice insects, if only for the fact that they’re often good bird food. The Galapagos have only about 400 species of beetles, to mention one insect group, but I guarantee that the South Orkneys have fewer than that. What about plants? After all, biodiversity involves all living things, not just animals. I don’t have figures for the South Orkneys, but it sticks in my mind that the number of flowering plant species on the Antarctic Peninsula is two. The Galapagos, arid and isolated though they are, have at least 550.

In fact, the figure given for the South Orkney Islands study, 1224 species of animal life, falls far short of what’s on the Galapagos. A study by Stewart B. Peck published in 1997 listed 1859 species of marine invertebrates in Galapagos seas, 2257 species of invertebrates on the islands and in fresh waters, and 431 species of vertebrates, for a total of over 4500 species. With new discoveries in the last ten years, the current number would be even higher. Add in the 1467 species of plants, fungi, and lichens listed in the Stewart Peck study, and the Galapagos are home to over 6000 known species of living things. The 1200-plus species around the South Orkneys are impressive, all right, but they don’t surpass the Galapagos.

Please understand that I’m not trashing the Antarctic region. The South Orkneys may have fewer than 20 species of breeding birds, but these probably add up to well over a million nesting pairs. Kim and I are leaving for the Antarctic in less than a month, and we’re insanely excited to be going. But I predict that ten years from now, people will still be repeating this false idea that the Antarctic has more biodiversity than the Galapagos, and I’ll still be wondering: How could so many news outlets repeat this without checking its accuracy?

Monday, December 8, 2008

I wonder if Jimi Hendrix was a birder?.....

From BSBO, Kim writes: One of the best things about working for a bird observatory (my Dad used to call it the Bird Factory.... isn't that funny?!)... anyway, one of the best things about working for BSBO is, of course, the birds! Our office is nestled just along the southern edge of Magee Marsh, and WOW, we get some cool birds coming to our feeders and water garden.

Case in point, check out today's special guest.
Ka-POW!!

Aren't Fox Sparrows amazing? Like some fairy waved her magic wand and out pops a bird that's a combination of a Song Sparrow, Hermit Thrush, and Towhee. I'll never forget seeing my first one. I had been feeding and studying birds in my backyard for awhile, when late one fall I noticed a bird scratching on the ground and thought, Oh cool, a thrush! I grabbed the bins and was shocked to see that, no, it wasn't a thrush. It was some super-sized sparrow and it was rusty red, red, red, all over. It was a life bird for me, right there in my own backyard. I really love when that happens!

Gratuitous Fox Sparrow Photo

Here's another shot of the same bird. There have been two hanging around the feeders at BSBO for a couple of days now. Note the poor, sad looking American Goldfinch in the bottom left corner of the photo. Wouldn't it just suck to be a winter-plumaged goldfinch when the Fox Sparrows are around?

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Finch Forecaster

From northern Ohio, Kenn writes: This Common Redpoll was outside our window a year ago, in December 2007. It was one of dozens that came to our feeder that month, and one of hundreds that we saw in the general area. This month, we haven’t seen a single one.

Redpolls are in the "winter finch" group, and they were the headliners last year. Common Redpolls (and a few of their pale high-Arctic relatives, Hoary Redpolls) were all over the central and eastern U.S. and southern Canada in the winter of 2007-2008. Pine Grosbeaks also moved south in good numbers. So did Red-breasted Nuthatches and Bohemian Waxwings, which are not finches but which are similarly erratic in their winter occurrences.

We used to talk about winter finch invasions being "unpredictable," but that’s not accurate. These invasions are caused by changes in the supply of natural wild food in the boreal forest of Canada and Alaska, and if we knew enough about what was happening there, we could make predictions about which finches would invade in a given winter.

In fact, there is someone who knows enough, who researches the situation every year and makes predictions about the finch flight. The dynamic duo of field ornithology in Ontario, Ron Pittaway and Jean Iron, are very well connected with scientists and birders all over the north. Every year in early fall, Ron Pittaway collects info about seed crops in the boreal forest and writes a prediction, focused on which birds will have a flight in southern Ontario and adjacent regions. All of us in the surrounding states and provinces wait eagerly for Ron’s forecast.

Knowing how tricky it is to gauge these things, it’s amazing how often Ron Pittaway is right on the mark. For the 2007-2008 winter, he predicted the big redpoll flight and the movements of Pine Grosbeaks, Bohemian Waxwings, and Red-breasted Nuthatches. For this winter, he predicted that Pine Siskins would mostly leave Ontario, and indeed we had a flood of them coming south through the Midwest this fall. He predicted the possibility of a widespread southward flight of White-winged Crossbills, and we’re all enjoying the reality of that now.

Does Ron have mystical powers? Well, yeah, but this is mostly just a result of detailed understanding of the birds and their food supply. This year, for example, Ron predicted that Pine Grosbeaks would stay in the far north because the mountain-ash berry crop was good there. He predicted that Pine Siskins would leave Ontario because the spruce cone crop was poor in that province. He predicted the White-winged Crossbill flight because spruce cone crops over much of Canada had fallen off from previous highs. It’s fascinating stuff; you can read the whole thing on the Ontario Field Ornithologists site here.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Keep on Rockin in the Bird World!

From backstage : ) Kim writes: I wanted to add a bit to Kenn's post about our Friday night gig. The funkiest, most far-out part about our band is the way we came together and got this community ROCKED on to the fact that birds are a major driver of ecotourism dollars in northwest Ohio.

Get this. In addition to me and Kenn, our 6-7-8-OH Band members include:
On drums - Larry Fletcher, Director of the Ottawa County Visitors' Bureau;
On rhythm guitar and vocals - Bob Hille, Ottawa County Treasurer;
On rhythm guitar, keyboards, and vocals - Ron Miller, Lake Erie Vacation Rentals;
On lead guitar - (and layin it DOWN, brotha), Pat Sullivan, a local entrepreneur

How we all came together is a trip.
Last spring I launched the “BSBO Business Alliance” initiative. For the most part, the local business community had no idea of the numbers of birders that are starting to pour into our Magee Marsh / Crane Creek area to witness the all-out binocular-burning migration sensation that pumps through here during the month of May. So, with help from one of the most dynamic volunteers on the planet, Delores Cole (who I affectionately refer to simply as, D), I put together a very simple plan to connect the dots for the local business people.

The plan was indeed simple. Kenn had put together the Kenn Kaufman’s Best Bets for Birding blog that offered updates on migration, weather, and sightings for the Magee Marsh / Crane Creek area. To that, D & I added a series of links to local hotels & restaurants in the area, focusing on those within a half an hour from the major birding hotspot, Magee Marsh Wildlife Area, which is where the Observatory is located. And finally, we designed “Birders' Calling Cards” and handed them out to every birder who came into the Observatory, asking them to leave them with the businesses they visited during their stay.


Within 4 days I started to get phone calls from business owners who were absolutely blown away at the number of birders in their establishments! Now that I had their attention, I selected several well-connected business owners and invited them on a tour of the marsh. We did two trips. The first was a few days before International Migratory Bird Day (IMBD), and the second was actually on IMBD, which is typically celebrated on the second Saturday in May. I loaded everyone up in the BSBO Bird Bus and drove them back to the boardwalk to see the spectacle. I arranged for Toledo’s Channel 13 News to cover the story.

IMBD at Magee is probably the largest bird festival--that isn’t called a bird festival--anywhere in the world. It has never really been promoted, and it isn’t called a “festival,” but, it IS a festival. There are vendors, field trips, and bird banding demonstrations, a Big Sit fundraiser, and BIRDS! If the weather isn’t a total washout, you can see 20+ species of warblers. Oh, yeah, we also have BIRDERS! We can have more than 10,000 people come through Magee on IMBD weekend, and more than 50,000 during the month of May. (Or May-hem, as I often say.)

BLOWN AWAY….is all I can say. When the tour rolled up to the east end of the parking lot and an ocean of cars and people came into view there were audible gasps from everyone. I’d say there were at least 400 cars in the parking lot. The camera man nearly went berserk. He kept saying that he had no idea this was so huge, and almost before the bus stopped he was bailing out to run through the parking lot to get shots of all the state license plates. (At one point during the second week in May last spring we counted 24 different state license plates in the parking lot---in one day!) Believe it or not, most of the tour participants had never even been to Magee Marsh. Oh, they'd heard of it, sure. But they had no idea what was really going on out here.

The tour was a smash success! Channel 13 did a great job of capturing the essence of the experience in a segment, titled Bird Migration boosts local economy.
The best part for me? The fact that NOW the local business community has a vested interest in preserving these wildlife areas.

Ecotourism is alive and well in northwest Ohio.

On our first tour was Larry Fletcher (aka...our drummer), invited, of course, as the Director of the Ottawa County Visitors' Bureau, and not for his mad thumping drum skills! At that point, I had no idea that Larry was a musician, but for people who love music, it eventually finds its way into any conversation. A few weeks later, in a follow up meeting about the birding tour, we discovered our mutual music madness.

Larry was telling me that, yes, he was a drummer, but the band he’d been playing in was on hiatus because they had lost their bass player and lead vocalist. He jokingly says to me, “You don’t know any bass players or lead singers, do you?” You should have seen the look on his face when I said: “Ummm….Yes. I sing and Kenn plays the bass.”

History is of that which happened next, as they say. : ) The local papers have all been running stories on the band, and Kenn and I have gotten extreme kicks out of the fact that they introduce us as: Kenn Kaufman, bass guitarist and bird expert, and Kim Kaufman, lead singer and Director of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory.

Smashing stereotypes never sounded so good.
Rock on…

Rocking With The Mayor

From Port Clinton, Ohio, Kenn writes: A few years ago I was the keynote speaker at the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival in Homer, Alaska. It was in May, before the rush of tourists that flock to Homer in summer but at the peak of the shorebird migration. The crowd at the festival was getting an eyeful of huge numbers of birds, in addition to educational programs, the spectacular scenery of the surroundings, and the hospitality of the locals. In the spirit of America's last frontier, that was the first time I recall giving a keynote talk wearing jeans, sweatshirt, and hiking boots! But another thing that struck me about the festival was that the mayor of Homer recognized the value of having all these visiting birders in town. The mayor came to my keynote talk, said a few words of welcome to the crowd, and he even came out birding with us the next day.

I concluded, right then and there, that it's a good thing if you can get the mayor to attend your special events.

Tonight our band rocked the walls at Mango Mama's, the big party hall at the Kokomo Bay Restaurant here in Port Clinton. A good crowd braved the cold to come out and hear us, which was a doubly good thing because this gig was a fund-raiser for the Salvation Army. A contingent from the fire department showed up, and fire chief Kent Johnson got up and played guitar with us on a couple of songs. And the dynamic mayor of Port Clinton, Debbie Hymore-Tester, was there for the entire evening -- mingling with the crowd, supporting the cause, moving on the dance floor. Her Honor The Mayor even got on stage with us and sang lead on a couple of songs, rocking out in duets with Kim. After the show was over, of course, Kim and I spent some time talking with the mayor and her husband about the importance of birding to the local economy. Port Clinton is catching on to the fact that thousands of birders come here in spring and fall, but we've been able to draw attention to that in a completely unexpected way through this musical connection.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

These are a few of my favorite things....

From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kim writes: As the Director of Black Swamp Bird Observatory, a fair portion of my job falls into the "slightly less than fun" category. Budgets & spreadsheets, policies & procedures, and so on. But, one part of my job that I really enjoy is "shopping" for cool new bird and nature related items to offer in our gift shop. I've been working with Hugh Rose, our gift shop manager, for months planning our holiday strategy, and we found some neat stuff that I wanted to share.

A bit about my shopping strategy...
One very cool way that I prowl for new stuff is traveling with Kenn. Being on the road with Kenn is more fun than anyone should be allowed to have. I get to meet so many wonderful people, see amazing birds, and spy on other organizations' gift shops. ; )

This fall we were in Cape May, New Jersey for Cape May Bird Observatory's Autumn Weekend. This is a killer event! Absolutely flawlessly organized, (Sheila & Marleen--you rock! Pete had better be showing you the love all the time or I'll steal you away to Ohio!) and filled with the most positive energy that stays with you even after you leave. We always have a blast when we visit Cape May!

Kenn gave a workshop, led field trips, and delivered a keynote on Saturday night. On one of Kenn's field trips, I spent some time talking with this really nice guy about our mutual love of birds and nature. At the end of the trip, he presented me and Kenn with this beautiful carved and painted Cape May Warbler ornament.



"Really Nice Guy"turns out to be Gary Starr, and he owns Starr Decoys in Weybridge, VT. I came back to Ohio and immediately placed an order for our shop. Here are a few of my faves...



The White-throated Sparrow
The bird that sings for me, thanks to Kenn!






And, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird
This has been a hot seller in our shop.




Another product that I really like are these lovely bee's wax luminaries. The Bee Natural Company offers a variety of bee related products, but this is my favorite.



And finally, if you really want to change someone's life this holiday season (or any time, for that matter) consider putting one of these into their hands.


A way to really embrace the spirit of giving is to consider purchasing your nature related books and gifts from a nature center, refuge, or bird observatory. In most cases, 100% of the proceeds from your purchases go straight back into supporting the organization.

Enjoy~

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Feeder Highlight Reel...

From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kim writes: In Kenn’s last post he offered great information about White-winged Crossbills, including areas to focus your search for them in the field. I just wanted to add that you shouldn’t rule out a visit to your feeding station! Several years ago a White-winged Crossbill visited one of my feeders (in central Ohio) for a couple of days. This individual went strictly for sunflower seeds, and had no trouble using that wicked-cool bill to reach through the screened sides of the feeder to pull out seeds, which it scarfed down like a champ!

The feeder was a large hopper-style with plastic-coated wire sides. I actually got a photo of “my” bird, and--if you stop looking at the cool bird for a second--you can see the type of feeder I’m describing so rottenly.

Aren't they just the coolest birds?!

Kenn and I don't keep life lists, per se, but we do keep a list of birds that we see in our yard. Ahem...Okay, we also count birds that we see FROM our yard. In fact, full disclosure here, there have been a number of times that we were out running, spotted a bird that we thought we could see from our yard, and sprinted all the way home to get it for the yard list. Crazy? Yeah. But hey, wouldn't you race home to get a Bald Eagle or a Trumpeter Swan on your yard list? Be honest now....

We've had some really great birds on our yard list, (and lots of good exercise racing home so we could count some of them too...) but the crossbill remains one of my all-time “yard bird” highlights.

If anyone else is willing to share their own favorite yard birds, I'd love to hear about them.

Happening Right Now: Crossbill Invasion

From Birding Central, Kenn writes: In the northeastern quadrant of the U.S. and adjacent southern Canada, this is shaping up to be a huge winter for northern invaders. I’ve written already about Pine Siskins invading southward, and that push is continuing, with flocks reported all over the east. Northern Shrikes have appeared in unusual numbers, and so have Snowy Owls, with many around southeastern Canada and the Midwest. Flocks of Evening Grosbeaks have put in brief appearances in several places. Now, just within the last few days, flocks of White-winged Crossbills have set the hotlines buzzing all over Ohio.

Of all the "winter finches," White-winged Crossbills are the most nomadic. They specialize on cones of spruces, hemlocks, and tamaracks, using their trademark crossed bill tips to pry open the cones and get to the seeds. The map here shows their overall range in North America -- but they are never present throughout this range at once. They concentrate where there are bumper crops of cones, nesting and raising their young where the food is abundant at practically any time of year. When the cone crop fizzles and the food supply declines, flocks of crossbills fly fast and far in search of the next good feeding area. The purple area on the map shows the limits of their year-round range; within those limits, the same birds might nest in Quebec one year, Alaska the next, Ontario a few months later, sweeping back and forth across the continent to find the cones.

The dashed blue line on the map shows the (very approximate) southern limit of their winter wandering. They certainly don’t come south to this line every year, or even once every five years. The classic setup for an invasion is to have a huge crop of spruce cones in eastern Canada, so that the crossbills nest and raise lots of young, followed by a crash in the cone crop in fall. When that happens, White-winged Crossbills may suddenly appear all over Ohio and surrounding areas -- as they have in the last few days.

A birder who knows the callnotes might detect these birds anywhere, the flocks passing overhead in rapid flight. To get a sit-down look at White-winged Crossbills, birders are seeking out places where northern evergreens have been planted. Parks and cemeteries with lots of hemlocks have been productive here. The crossbills appeared in the Cleveland area last Saturday, in Toledo on Monday, in Columbus today. There are probably hundreds more flying around that no birder has seen yet.
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