Friday, December 25, 2009

A Special Gift: Wildlife at the Bird Feeder

From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kenn writes: I don’t often blog about bird feeder happenings, but in honor of the holiday season, I wanted to let all of our friends know about a major triumph at our feeders. Kimberly and I are interested in all wildlife, of course, and sightings of wild mammals can be particularly exciting. What a treat, then, to actually attract one of these elusive wild creatures into our own backyard, where we can observe it and begin to learn about its habits.

Imagine how thrilled we were when we looked out the window on Christmas morning and saw this:

Yes, it’s a squirrel. If you have spent any time in wild habitats with tall trees, you may have seen these wary acrobats climbing about in the branches, far above the ground. Getting a good look at one, though, that’s another story.

Kimberly and I had glimpsed these wily creatures around Oak Harbor, but we had hardly dared to hope that we could actually attract them to our own yard. But here was one of these elegant wild animals right outside our window.

Of course I should have been satisfied just to watch from indoors, but I couldn’t resist trying for a closer view. When I eased out the door, the squirrel was instantly on the alert:

These wary creatures are endowed with keen senses, with sharp eyesight and with hearing and sense of smell far superior to man’s. I had taken the precaution of eating some salted peanuts before I walked out the door, to try to mask my human scent, but the squirrel detected me immediately anyway.

It was thrilling to be able to observe this shy treetop creature without even using a telescope, but I knew I could not push my luck too far. The squirrel undoubtedly would flee if I approached any closer than about 13 inches.

Friends of ours have put out feeders and have failed to attract squirrels, even after trying for five minutes or more. So in the spirit of the season, we should share the secret of our success in attracting this wild animal. After much experimentation, we have found that squirrels are only likely to feed on items that have some animal or vegetable components. They seldom eat pure plastic or concrete or metal, although they may chew on these materials. Even some items with an organic basis, like wood, may be only chewed up and not actually eaten by these picky and fastidious creatures. So the items placed in the feeder should have some resemblance to something edible. Price has an impact as well; somehow these amazing animals can detect the relative cost of different bird feeder items, and feast upon only those that are most expensive. Finally, squirrels seem to require a certain level of irony in their diet. A so-called squirrel "baffle," or one of those feeders jokingly labelled as "squirrel-proof," may bring them in from miles away to sample your most expensive sunflower seeds or suet mixtures.

Alas, I must have approached too closely, or perhaps the squirrel noticed that I was banging on the side of the feeder with a large stick. Fleeing on the wings of the wind, the shy creature sought refuge up in tree branches at a dizzying height, a full four feet above my head.

I had violated that boundary between man and wild beast. The squirrel was truly terrified. It would not come back down to finish scarfing down all the black oil sunflower seeds from the feeder until I had been back inside the house for a full fifteen seconds.

Whether or not you are blessed with a visit from a wild creature such as this, Kimberly and I both wish you all the joys of the holiday season and a healthy and prosperous new year.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Riding the Edge of Winter

From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kenn writes: In fall, most birds migrate south before they would have to. Most migratory birds in North America leave their northern nesting grounds and start southward long before the weather begins to turn bad, long before the food supply begins to dwindle. The birds apparently are keyed to changes in the length of the day, not to local conditions, so they fly away from their summer homes while resources are still abundant.

But there are exceptions. Not surprisingly, one of the exceptions is the surprising Sandhill Crane. Cranes are different from most birds in the nature of their migration anyway: their routes are learned, not instinctive. A baby Indigo Bunting, to cite an example of a typical migrant, is born with an instinct to migrate to Central America in fall without any help. A baby Sandhill Crane is born with an instinct to follow its parents in the fall. Cranes learn their routes and their stopover sites and their wintering sites, and they can change these traditions over time to cope with changing conditions on the ground.

The eastern population of Sandhill Cranes, nesting in the upper Midwest and around the western Great Lakes, has greatly increased in recent decades, with much larger numbers now nesting in states like Wisconsin. These birds traditionally migrated southeastward across a fairly narrow corridor to winter in Florida. But in recent decades, some of these birds have been wintering farther north -- regularly as far north as southeastern Tennessee -- and migrating both later in fall and earlier in spring.

Apparently in fall, many of the Sandhill Cranes don’t migrate until they have to, and this fall they didn’t have to go until December. It was an exceptionally mild season here in the Midwest. In northern Ohio, we had virtually no freezing temperatures before December 1st, and there were still dragonflies and butterflies on the wing in late November. Things changed abruptly in early December with the arrival of a powerful cold front. Temperatures dropped to the single digits, howling winds put the wind chill far below zero, deep snow covered parts of the upper Midwest, and most open waters froze quickly. And after the worst of the wind abated, Sandhill Cranes started to pour through the region, heading southeast.

Traveling by day in flocks, giving wild guttural cries as they pass overhead, Sandhills are likely to be noticed. And during the last few days they have been noticed all over Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee, as their flocks head south to warmer climes.

One of the best things about this era of internet communication is that it allows us to track such migrations as they are happening. Twenty years ago, even for a determined person making lots of phone calls, it would have been hard to guess the magnitude of this flight. Now we can look at the state birding listserves and see dozens of reports of flocks, totalling thousands of birds altogether, scattered over a broad swath between Wisconsin and Georgia. And if we live anywhere near the path outlined by the reports we can head outside, eyes and ears to the sky, hoping to catch our own glimpse of this great passage.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

iPhone Users: The App Is Out There

From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kenn Writes: It’s finally out. We had a last-minute conference call yesterday afternoon -- involving Ithaca, Charlottesville, Philadelphia, Monterey, Singapore, and me in Oak Harbor -- making sure everything was set up, and then Todd told Apple to release it to the App Store. Within a couple of hours the app was available online, and reviews of it were appearing here and there on the internet.

If you’re just joining us -- if you have been out paying attention to birds, for example, rather than the latest in tech toys -- "app" is short for "application," but the millions of people downloading these applications for use on their iPhones just call them "apps." An iPhone -- well, that’s like a supercharged combination of a cell phone and an iPod, and it can do everything from place calls to navigate cross-country, to check the stock market, to send e-mail, to store photos, to play games, to play music (of course, just like an iPod). And an iPod is -- well, it’s a good demonstration of how fast the world has been changing recently.

But anyway, with the new app for iPhone, you can instantly find out what birds are being seen in your area, how recently, and exactly where, and you can go straight to the spot and see them for yourself.

The new app is called "BirdsEye," and it was developed by three certifiable geniuses named Todd Koym, Pete Myers, and Carl Coryell-Martin. Pete happens to be an old friend of mine (and a top-notch bird expert), which is why I got invited to take part in the project. Todd and Carl are relatively new to birding. But Todd had gotten the bug for birding in a big way, and he wanted to find new birds for his life list. He knew that he could report bird sightings to the big Project eBird, an online database (run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society) that collects millions of sightings monthly. But Todd wondered: could he turn that around, extract recent sightings from eBird in a well-organized way, so that the information could become a powerful tool for bird-finding?

As it turned out, the people at eBird were all in favor of the idea, and they worked with us to develop the necessary software to pull reports out of eBird in real time and straight into the BirdsEye app. My role in the project was to write short species accounts for 847 species of birds -- not how to identify them, but tips on how to find them, in terms of their behavior and where they would be in the habitat. I also had some input on the overall design, with the occasional conference call involving Todd in Charlotteville, Virginia, Carl in Singapore, and Pete bouncing all over the map. It was a great privilege to be in on these discussions, to hear how these brilliant tech-savvy guys discussed what was possible in programming the application. I think it turned out great, and while I can’t take any credit for that, I’m happy to tell my friends all about it.

It’s not a field guide -- that is, not a guide to identifying birds, it’s a guide to finding them, and it runs on an iPhone or on an iPod Touch. I’ve got it on an iPod Touch in front of me right now as I type this. When I turn it on and open up BirdsEye, the opening screen gives me a number of options. Say I go into "Find Nearby Birds" -- it calculates my location (built-in GPS, you know) and takes me to a list of birds found near Port Clinton, Ohio -- I can look either at the 308 species reported to eBird from this immediate area so far, or just the 80 species reported recently. (Remember, this is winter; it would be a lot more species in late spring.) Say I go to the recent birds, and note that one of them is Lesser Black-backed Gull, and let’s say I want to go look at that species. I tap on the species name, and it takes me to a map, with pointers that indicate that the Lesser Black-back has been found recently at Huron Harbor, Findlay Reservoir, New London Reservoir, and several points farther east. Say I don’t know anything about the birding at New London Reservoir, so I tap on the name of that site, and it takes me to a list of birds seen there recently, including Northern Harrier. Let’s just say I don’t know anything about Northern Harrier -- I can follow the link from that and see a number of sites where harriers have been found recently, or I can go to three photos of the species (beautiful photographs from VIREO, the scientific collection of bird images at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia) and a recording of its voice (from the Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology). There's also a concise paragraph on the behavior of the harrier so I’ll know where to look for it once I get to the right spot.

Oh, yeah: that concise paragraph, I wrote that. I wrote such accounts for 847 species of birds, a total of more than 60,000 words, and I hope they’ll make the app more useful and more enjoyable for anyone who uses BirdsEye to find more birds.

For a link to the official BirdsEye web page, which has links to the App Store where you can get the app if you want it, click here.

For a press release about the app, which went out to thousands of media outlets and other contacts earlier today, and is also reproduced on the eBird website, click here.

Matt Mendenhall from Birder's World magazine interviewed me about the app; Matt is pretty tech-savvy himself and he was one of the beta testers for BirdsEye. You can read the full text of the interview here.
And if any of our readers try out BirdsEye, or have any questions about it, I hope that we'll hear from you!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

All I want for Christmas is...a Winged Journey

Kim Writes: Several months ago, one of my dear friends, Sally Deems-Mogyordy, came to me with an idea. Actually, it was more like a dream, and when she revealed that my beloved Black Swamp Bird Observatory was a part it, I was more honored than she will ever know.

The dream:
Sally was teaming up with her friend, Bryan Holliday, to create something that would combine their astounding talents and celebrate their mutual love of birds. And, whatever the vision grew into, they wanted to include some way to use a portion of the proceeds to benefit BSBO. Sally and Bryan are both BSBO members and they have witnessed, first-hand, the dramatic impact that the Observatory's work is having.

The Reality:
Fast forward to present, and the dream is now a stunning and inspiring reality called, Winged Journey: A 16-Month Calendar of Birds.

Positively maxing out the high-end capacity on the gorgeous meter,
the photos in this
calendar are courtesy of the incredibly talented,
award-winning photographer, Bryan Holliday!

Each image is enlivened and enriched by the beautiful
haiku of writer and poet, Sally Deems-Mogyordy.

Here's a sneak peek in to the winged journey you experience
when you hold this work of art in your hands.

Please share this celebration of birds and verse with everyone on
your holiday gift list and help support the Observatory's
research and education efforts with every gift you give!

Order your copies today by clicking here:

Sally will be making an appearance at the Observatory's Holiday Open House, taking place Sunday, December 6th, from 11:00 AM - 5:00 PM. She will be autographing copies of the calendar from 2-4 PM. Click here for more details: Holiday Open House!

Thank you, Sally and Bryan, for finding a way to combine your passion for birds and nature with your amazing talents, for sharing it with the world in such a beautiful and useful way, and for allowing BSBO to be a part of the adventure!