Thursday, April 23, 2009

... maybe that should be Saffron Oklahoma Bustards

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher: the classy State Bird of Oklahoma

From home base in Ohio, Kenn writes: In a previous post (April 16) I mentioned that two friends and I were planning to try to break the Big Day record for Oklahoma next week. On either April 26, 27, or 28, depending on last-minute decisions about weather, we hope to find more species of birds in one day within the state boundaries than anyone has before.

As I write this, my friends Jeff Cox and Jim Arterburn are driving from Tulsa down to Lawton, in southwestern Oklahoma, for final scouting of the area. Soon I’ll be getting on a plane to go join them. I’ll be flying into Dallas - Fort Worth, not into any Oklahoma airport, and that’s an indication of how far south our route will be. The last two times that Jeff and Jim and I broke the state record, we were birding the northern tier of counties, very close to the Kansas state border. This time we’re doing a southern route, barely north of the Texas line. That option gives us a whole new set of possibilities.

When I was a rabid kid birder in Kansas, I acquired a book on Oklahoma birds by George M. Sutton, and I spent hours poring over its detailed accounts. It was amazing to read about all the birds that could be found in the southern counties of Oklahoma. McCurtain County, down in the southeastern corner, was like a chunk lifted straight out of Louisiana, with resident alligators and with southern birds like Brown-headed Nuthatch, Swainson’s Warbler, and Bachman’s Sparrow. Even White Ibis, Purple Gallinule, and Anhinga were possible. Then in the southwest part of the state, around the Wichita Mountains and farther south, there were all these birds that seemed like reminders of west Texas or New Mexico: Rufous-crowned Sparrow, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Rock Wren, Canyon Wren. Back in those days I marveled that all those birds could be in the same state, just a few counties apart. But I didn’t connect the dots and think about doing a Big Day that took in all these birds of the east and west.

In a few days, I guess we’ll find out whether or not it’s really possible. Naturally, now that we’ve committed to that series of dates, the weather forecast is calling for scattered thunderstorms across southern Oklahoma on all three days. But Jim and Jeff and I had to dodge rain showers the last two times we tried this kind of crazy stunt, in northern Oklahoma in 1996 and 2001, and we set records both times. Maybe we’ll get lucky a third time as well. But we could use positive thoughts and good wishes from anyone reading this!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Great News About Young Birders

From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kenn and Kim write: This past weekend, the Ohio Young Birders Club -- a group that has been very important to us since its inception -- had a fine field trip, seeing a wide variety of early spring migrants with the bonus of some rare Smith’s Longspurs. The bad news was that both of us were swamped with work (preparing for the month of May, which we call May-hem around here) so that we personally couldn’t go on the trip. The good news was that the field trip went fine without us, since the Club has a lot of adult support now, and a lot of keen young members.

At the end of the weekend, we had another piece of most excellent news from another state: our friend Kevin Loughlin wrote to tell us about the successful second meeting of the new Pennsylvania Young Birders Club. Kevin, who runs Wildside Nature Tours, is a world traveler, professional photographer, and accomplished birder and naturalist. It’s inspiring to see that someone of his stature is taking the time and effort to help organize and run a birding club for kids. Well done, Kevin! You can read about the new Pennsylvania club by going to and reading the entry for April 19.

The next generation of birders is coming along, and they’re the most outstanding young people you could ever hope to meet. Any time we start to feel discouraged about something, we just think about all the young birders we know, and that's enough to restore our hope for the future.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Bio-Man and the Saffron Bustards

From an airport someplace, Kenn writes: Okay, I’ll give you a million dollars if you can figure out what this post is about, just from the title.

Ha. I didn’t think so.

To explain it, I have to give some background. First, you have to know that there’s a phenomenon known as a "Big Day" among birders, an attempt to identify as many different bird species as possible in one calendar day. It’s purely a game, with no scientific value or other redeeming quality whatsoever, producing a score which is of interest to no one except the participants. It’s also a heck of a lot of fun. I tell people that Big Days are my one vice: I don’t smoke or gamble and I almost never drink, but I do enjoy the rush of that 24-hour race against the clock to find as many birds as possible.

Second, you have to know something about Oklahoma. It’s a great state for birds, since it straddles the center of the continent and it gets birds typical of both the east and the west within its borders. But in terms of Big Day totals, Oklahoma has lagged behind its neighbors to the south (Texas) and north (Kansas). Texas is, well, Texas, and Big Days of 200-plus species are commonplace there. Kansas has the benefit of a great east-west highway, Interstate 70, connecting the woodlands on the eastern edge of the state with some fabulous shorebird refuges in the center of the state, and many Big Days of 200-plus have been done in Kansas as well. But so far no one has come close to 200 in a day in Oklahoma yet.

Third, I have to tell you that some of my earliest Big Days were done when I was a kid in Kansas, birding with my pal Jeff Cox. Jeff and I were in some of the same classes in school, he had become a rabid birder as well, and we often joined forces to comb the good habitats in the southwestern part of Wichita. We thought it was pretty good that we could run up one-day lists of over 100, traveling entirely by bicycle in our limited sphere. And maybe it was.

These days, my pal Jeff is now J. A. Cox, Ph.D., and living in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but he’s still a highly skilled birder. In 1996 I joined him and another sharp birder, Jim Arterburn, and we did an Oklahoma Big Day that tallied 177 species -- a new record for the state. Somebody came along a couple of years later and tied that record, so we went at it again in 2001, and pushed our total up to 180. But in the years since, other teams have had totals of 182 and 186 species. So we’re going to give it another shot. On April 26, 27, or 28 (depending on last-minute judgments on the weather), Jeff Cox, Jim Arterburn, and I are going to try to break the Big Day record for Oklahoma once again. We need a solid 187 species, although, of course, we’d be glad to see more.

So that’s the story. All I ask is that you send positive thoughts in our direction.

What? Oh, you’re still wondering about the title!

Okay, well, bustards are large birds of open country in the Old World (southern Europe and Asia, Africa, Australia). They’re sort of shaped like turkeys but they’re much stronger fliers. A Saffron Bustard, if there were such a thing, presumably would be named either for its flavor or for its color. "Bio-Man" is the nickname given to Jeff by his co-workers, presumably because of his Ph.D. in biology. Jeff has a tendency to come up with inventive names for things. In 2001, he referred to our Big Day attempt as "2001: A Bird Oddity." That wouldn’t work for 2009, so he suggested we call our team "Bio-Man and the Saffron Bustards."

I am not making this up.

By the time you finish reading this, I suspect you will have thought of the close alternate name that has already occurred to Jim and me. We WILL be sufferin’ during the event, no doubt, from the clash of our senses of humor. But with luck we’ll survive long enough to find 187 species. Wish us good fortune, please, won't you?

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Along the Oregon Trail

From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kenn writes: The last few days were like a blur, almost, inspiring me to think of a new title: "Blur-ding with Kenn and Kim!" Friday night our band played at Mango Mama’s in Port Clinton, and it felt like one of our best performances yet, but we didn’t have time to bask in the afterglow of a rocking fine time: I had to hurry home, in most un-rockerly fashion, and sleep for a couple of hours. At 3:45 a.m. I was leaving the house to drive to the Cleveland airport so I could fly to Boise, Idaho, get into a rental car, drive three and a half hours west into Oregon, and arrive in the town of Burns in time to set up and give the Saturday evening keynote talk at the 28th annual John Scharff Migratory Bird Festival.

If you’re familiar with the concept of bird festivals, that figure will have caught your eye: 28th annual? Has any bird festival been around that long? There are now hundreds of bird and nature festivals all over North America, but most of them have sprung up within the last decade or two. A couple of the long-standing events, the Festival of the Cranes in Socorro, New Mexico, and the Hummer/Bird Festival in Rockport, Texas, are now about twenty years old. But the festival in Burns, Oregon, preceded them. If I’m counting correctly, they would have held their first event in 1982, years before most of the current festivals got off the ground.

Burns is the largest town in Harney County, a huge county (larger than Massachusetts) with a population of only about 8,000. Birders know Burns for the proximity of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, a fabulous area for huge numbers of waterbirds, and for the wealth of raptors, sagebrush country species, and other wonderful birds in the surrounding area. The Harney County Chamber of Commerce, working with the refuge staff and with other biologists in the area, have created one of the finest bird festivals anywhere. For several days each spring, the festival takes over the local high school and the local fair grounds, local businesses roll out the welcome mat in an obvious way (see the sample signs to the right), and hundreds of people come from all over the northwest to attend.

After my marathon of rock concert / air travel / long drive, I arrived in somewhat woozy state, but the organizers made me feel welcome and at ease immediately. Jessica Boone, director of the Chamber of Commerce, and Carey Goss, the energetic Visitor Services Manager from the Malheur refuge, were in the final stages of setting up inside a huge building at the fair grounds, with a dozen young volunteers from the high school softball team helping out. In no time I had my laptop hooked up to a projector, and I had an hour to relax before the crowd started to arrive. So of course I went outside. In the parking lot I ran into my longtime friends Harley and Karyl Klein, who had come down from the Portland area, but our conversation was constantly interrupted as we paused to stare at the waves of Ross’s Geese and Snow Geese flying overhead. Literally thousands of white geese streamed over the parking lot as we stood there. What a way to welcome people to a bird festival!

In conversations later that evening and the following morning, I talked to dozens of people who had come from several hours’ drive away to attend the festival, and who had been coming annually for many years. And I could understand why. Aside from the fact that I was missing sleep somewhat and missing Kim very intensely, this was one of the most delightful bird festivals I had ever attended. We’ll certainly make a point of coming here together in some future year.

For more infomation about this festival, visit

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

That Time of Year

From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kenn writes: For several years now I've been very interested in the whole subject of molt. This is the process wherein birds develop a new coat of feathers, generally by dropping a few feathers at a time, with new feathers growing in their place. Birders may not notice the molt unless they look closely, but it's a universal phenomenon among birds. Especially among smaller birds, it's generally true that a healthy wild bird will replace every one of its feathers at least once a year. Birders may not notice, though, unless the new feathers are strikingly different in color from the old ones.
The timing of the molt for most species is quite predictable. Right now, for example, here in northern Ohio, the American Goldfinches are starting their spring ("prealternate") molt. It's most noticeable on the adult males, who molt from very dull to very bright colors. This bird was outside the windows at the Black Swamp Bird Observatory yesterday, the last day of March. The occurrence of molt is one of the reasons why we have to look at the calendar when we're considering the identification of an unknown bird: it may be some familiar species in the process of going through a change.
People sometimes ask us why this bird is called the "American" Goldfinch, when it also occurs in Canada and locally in Mexico. Why not just "Common" Goldfinch, or "Yellow" Goldfinch, or something like that? Well, there's a good reason. Remember, I said that the bird shown above was just starting to molt. When it finishes the process of molting into its full summer plumage, usually around July 4, it will look like this:

As I said, we have to look at the calendar when we're considering an unknown bird; for some reason, April 1 produces more than its share of weird reports.

All seriousness aside (as the saying goes), the molt really IS going on right now, and it's affecting the appearance of many birds. The American Goldfinch is a great example to watch because it may come to feeders right outside your window and because the change of color on the males is so striking. But a high percentage of our small songbirds are going through some kind of molt of their head and body feathers at this season, and with a close study, you may be able to see the contrast between the crisp new feathers and the slightly older, worn, faded feathers. It's a part of the survival strategy of the birds and it's something we can witness for ourselves with just a little extra attention.