Saturday, January 23, 2010

Changes at National Audubon

From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kenn writes: It’s not easy being the president of the National Audubon Society (NAS). This is a very large and very decentralized organization, with hundreds of local chapters that often act autonomously. Many of these chapters have been in existence for a very long time and have developed very strong personalities, so to speak, and in some cases there has been friction between the chapters and the national office for decades. Then there’s an identity problem: the media may think of Audubon as a birdwatching organization, but the birdwatchers think of it as an environmental organization. The truth is that it’s somewhere in between, an environmental org focused on birds, wildlife, and their habitat. The president of this group has to juggle all kinds of conflicting personalities, and at the same time, try to save the world.

I have worked for National Audubon (not as an employee, but continuously on contract) for 25 years now, first as associate editor of American Birds (which they published until the late 1990s) and more recently as a field editor for Audubon Magazine. For the last 15 years of that time, the president of Audubon has been a dynamic, hard-working individual named John Flicker. Despite being named for a bird, he’s not mainly a bird person. He was trained in law and he did impressive things with The Nature Conservancy before coming to NAS. But when the situation called for it, John would get out there in the field with the Audubon troops, pursuing bird sightings with zest and energy. He did everything with zest and energy, and he accomplished a lot in his time at Audubon.
Left: John Flicker. Right: Northern Flicker. Illustrations not to scale.

The news this week was that Flicker is stepping down as NAS president, going on to do different things. Already, some people are offering assessments of his term. John was a major believer in the value of Audubon Centers, and he pushed an initiative called a “2020 Vision” that aimed to open a thousand such centers by the year 2020. I don’t think the initiative is on track to hit that one thousand mark (after all, that would be about one per week for 20 years), but many Audubon Centers have opened and they are already having a fabulous positive influence -- for example, here in Ohio, the Grange Insurance Audubon Center, right in the heart of Columbus, is perfectly situated to reach a large urban audience and teach them about nature. Many other centers are also up and running. So even if the effort falls short of 1,000 by 2020, it would be totally wrong to call it a failure.

I’ve heard a few people comment that NAS lost members during John Flicker’s term. That’s true in a narrow sense, but the fact is that the majority of membership organizations and publications have declined in the last 15 years, as people have gotten more and more of the same benefits from joining online communities. I think it’s a credit to Flicker that Audubon is still as strong as it is.
National Audubon is launching a search for the next president. But in the meantime, big news for birders is that the interim head of NAS will be Dr. Frank Gill, Audubon’s senior scientist. Frank is a world-class ornithologist and a remarkable dynamo who has done so many things that it’s hard to keep track of them all. Like some of the very best ornithologists, he started off as a rabid kid birder, and he went on to do research that took him all over the world: studying sunbirds in Africa, white-eyes and seabirds on islands in the Indian Ocean, hermit hummingbirds in South America, as well as landmark studies of warblers and chickadees in North America. He headed up the bird department at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia for several years before going to Audubon as senior vice-president for science. While at the Academy, he started project VIREO (the world’s foremost scientific collection of bird photos) and launched the Birds of North America project (now online at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology). He was responsible for the worldwide list of standardized bird names of the International Ornithological Congress. His textbook on Ornithology, now in its third edition, is a standard college text.

I could go on about what he’s done. But mainly I wanted to add a personal note. Frank has been a friend of mine since the late 1980s, when I worked for him at the Academy for a couple of years; and in addition to being a great ornithologist, he’s also a great birder, and tons of fun to hang out with. At the Academy and later at the Audubon offices, a familiar sound was Frank’s booming laugh echoing down the hallway. Conversation with him is always a dizzying experience; he comes up with enough new ideas in a day to keep a normal person occupied for a year. A day in the field with him is a combination of perceptive birding, deep insights, and crazy jokes, in about equal measures. Frank Gill is brilliant, dynamic, down-to-earth, and totally dedicated to birds. He’s only the interim president of Audubon, but while he’s in charge there, the organization is definitely in good hands.

The press release from NAS is here:

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Thanks For The Mammal Reads

From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kenn writes: Way back last year -- on December 25th -- I wrote a post about a wild animal that we observed at our bird feeder. In case you don’t remember or didn’t see the post, here’s another picture of this wily creature:

Actually, if you didn’t read it, I’d like you to scroll back to Dec. 25 and read that post and tell me: could you tell that I was trying to be humorous, or was it just too subtle?

The reason I ask is that, in that post, I didn’t mention what kind of squirrel it was. I was trying to strike a familiar chord with all those people who have had their bird feeders emptied by voracious squirrels. This has happened to a lot of people, but it isn’t always the same kind of squirrel. In the U.S. and Canada there are at least eight species of tree squirrels, plus various ground squirrels and chipmunks, that will come to bird feeders at least occasionally. If I had started to get technical about the particular type of squirrel that was chowing down at our feeder, the post would have bogged down in detail.

It was sort of like saying: "Don’t you hate it when your neighbor’s dog barks all night?" instead of saying, "Don’t you hate it when your neighbor’s three-year-old female beagle-spaniel mix with three white paws and one brown paw barks all night?" If your statement is more general, it’s easier for people to relate.

Anyway, after that blog post was published, I got three anonymous comments -- one mild, two (not published) pointedly snarky -- taking me to task for not identifying the species of squirrel. "Do you think all squirrels are the same kind?" "Are you so narrow-minded that you can’t even identify the squirrels in your own yard?"

So -- okay, the animal at our feeder was an Eastern Fox Squirrel. Our area of northwest Ohio also hosts Eastern Gray Squirrel and Red Squirrel, as well as Southern Flying Squirrel, but the Eastern Fox Squirrel is more common out in the farm country with scattered towns and scattered groves of trees.

To quote from published information: "Very common in many areas east of the Rockies, in open woods and parklike areas with large scattered trees and an open understory. It is often found in the same forests as the Eastern Gray Squirrel, but because it favors more open habitats, it is more numerous in the midwest ... Less arboreal than some of its relatives, this squirrel spends a lot of time foraging on the ground ... Like most tree squirrels, Eastern Fox Squirrels have a varied diet. Acorns and other nuts are staple items, but they also eat flowers, buds, seeds, bark, fungi, birds’ eggs, insects, and sometimes carrion. They also raid bird feeders, but because they are not as agile as Eastern Gray Squirrels, they are more easily foiled by strategic placement of feeders in places they can’t reach."

I’m happy to say that the source of that information is the Kaufman Field Guide to Mammals of North America, written by Nora Bowers, Rick Bowers, and myself, published in 2004 with a slight update in 2007. So, um, to answer the question from one person who commented on the Dec. 25 post: Yes, I do know what kind of squirrel it was.

The book’s treatment of Eastern Fox Squirrel includes a full page of text, a range map, a diagram of the tracks, and six color illustrations. That’s more detail than some species receive, but every North American mammal is treated in the book. I hope I don’t sound too horribly conceited in mentioning this book, but I'm proud of the way it turned out. It’s an excellent guide -- not because of me, but because of hard work by Nora and Rick Bowers as writers and photographers, by Stacy Fobar as managing editor for the project, by Eric Powell on digital graphics, by expert consultants Christine Hass, Nancy Mann, and Ronnie Sidner, by my editor Lisa White at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and by more than 50 photographers who contributed to the book. If you’re interested in wildlife, I would encourage you to consider picking up a copy.

Okay, enough of this. Who cares about mammals, anyway? Let’s get back to birds!

Monday, January 11, 2010

This sounds interesting...

Some friends of ours are partnering to present a REALLY cool birding event for beginners! The festival is a partnership between U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, American Birding Association, and Tropical Birding Tours, and ALL EVENTS ARE FREE!!

Here's the Festival 411:
Great Logo too, btw!!

Saturday & Sunday, February 20-21, 2010
7:00 am - 8:00 PM each day.
Location: Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge

If you have an interest in birds and have wanted to learn more but felt intimidated we have created the perfect event for you. Winter is a great time to see some amazing birds such as large groups of eagles, flocks of beautiful tundra swans and owls.
Bundle up, bring lots of questions and discover the amazing world of winter birding.

An amazing array of birding professionals will be on hand to answer questions and share their knowledge of these fascinating animals. Avid birders also come along share your experience and passion and let's make this a great weekend. Sign up for one, or all, of the events.
Call 734-692-7649 for information and registration.

Due to size restrictions and to accommodate as many participants as we can, programming is identical for Saturday and Sunday.

Identical for Saturday & Sunday:

7:00 a.m. - 8:00 a.m.
Program Title: Sunrise on Lake Erie
Program Description: Bring a hot drink and watch the sun rise over Lake Erie.
This is a great opportunity to see ducks in flight as well as gulls found in this area only in winter.
Location: Lady of the Lake at Consumers Energy J.R. Whiting Plant

8:30 a.m. - 10:30 a.m.
Program Title: Eagles and More Viewing Tour
Program Description: The warm water discharged from the plant keeps the water free from ice and provides great fishing opportunities for eagles as well as other waterfowl. Tour is limited to 30 participants.
Location: DTE Monroe Power Plant (limit 30 participants)
Details: Registration required.

11:00 a.m. - 12:30 p.m
Program Title: Winter Visitors
Program Description: Pointe Mouillee, a premier birding location, is a great spot this time of year for many birds that can be found in the Arctic during the summer such as snow buntings, horned larks, and possibly the snowy owl.
Location: Pointe Mouillee State Game Area.
Details: Registration required.

***** LUNCH BREAK *****

Time: 2:00 p.m. - 4:00 p.m.
Program Title: Long Way from Home: Tundra Swans
Program Description: Large flocks of waterfowl can often be found in the river this time of the year. Learn where they are from and why they are here. Meet at the Marshlands Museum.
Location: Lake Erie Metropark.
Details: There is a $5 entrance fee, free with a Metroparks Annual Pass.

Time: 5:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.
Program Title: Dinner and Evening Presentations:
Presentations: "Best Birding in the United States" Josh Engel, Tropical Birding"
"Getting the Most Out of Our Planet" Iain Campbell, co-founder of Tropical Birding Location: Hotel Sterling in Monroe, Michigan.
Details: Limited to 40 participants; Programs are free; dinner is additional cost;
Registration required.

Call for price details. For registration or more information call: 734-692-7649.
Don't have the right supplies...we do! Binoculars and bird field guides are available to borrow upon request.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Answers to the Birdly Abodes Quiz

From Home base in Oak Harbor, Kim writes: Thank you all for taking the bird nest quiz. The answers are revealed below each photo.

Nest Number One:
A couple people guessed, Rufous Hornero, and they were correct! This nest was photographed at Costanera Sur Ecological Reserve in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
It was pointed out to us by a guy I jokingly referred to as, "The Naked Naturalist." I wrote a blog post about this several months ago. If you missed the story the first time, here's a link to it. The Naked Naturalist

Nest Number Two: This one stumped everyone.
It's the remarkably beautiful nest of the Hermit Thrush.
The photo was taken at one of my all-time favorite places,
Hog Island Audubon Camp, off the coast of Maine.

Nest Number Three:

I used photoshop to take out the little "Strause Wren"
er,...House Wren, : ) as he left the pocket of t
his pair of
jeans hanging on a clothes line.
Here's the original photo, taken by Tim Daniel.

Nest Number Four:
Okay, truth be told, I'm not 100% sure what this nest is, but I'm fairly certain it belongs to a Least Bittern(?) The eggs in the photo look pretty white, but they are actually tinged a very soft greenish blue. The photograph was taken deep within Metzger Marsh Wildlife Area while doing surveys for ODNR, and as we approached in the punt boat, a Least Bittern flushed from the exact spot.
BUT...there were also American Bitterns in the area. Any thoughts, now that you know the whole story?

Nest Number Five: Once again, Metzger Marsh Wildlife Area provided the setting,
and this photo of a Black Tern nest.

Nest Number Six: We banded several nestlings during our survey at Metzger Marsh that day. All baby birds are not exactly cute, but these tiny fuzzy Black Tern chicks were heartmeltingly adorable. I even heard a hard-core wildlife biologist say, "Awwww..." when we came up on this nest.
Gratuitous close-up of the adorable Black Tern nestlings

Nest Number Seven: Operating MAPS stations (Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship) can present researchers with battles with summer heat, bugs, thunderstorms, and smelly bird banders. My MAPS station, in Sandusky County, Northwest Ohio, tested the grit, determination, dedication, and intestinal fortitude of many a volunteer. What kept us coming back to this remote, deer fly / mosquito infested, insanely hot and humid wildlife area, year after year? The challenges paled to insignificance under the summer morning serenade of bird song, and discovering the lovely nest of the American Goldfinch.

Nest Number Eight:
Lined with the softest down on the planet, and cast in the shadows of a tangle of coastal plants, this Common Eider nest looked like a tiny piece of heaven to me. I was deeply moved by the discovery, and to this day I remember how touched my heart was to be there for that ever-so-brief moment,
looking into this beautiful nest.

Nest Number Nine:
Everyone who took the quiz got this one right! Some of you even pinpointed it to species. Hummingbird nests are the most amazing structures, aren't they?! This Ruby-throated Hummingbird nest was discovered by an Amish family in their yard in Central Ohio. It was in a maple tree, right along their sidewalk, and they had walked passed it day after day before one of them got "buzzed" by Mama as she left the nest, leading to the discovery.

Nest Number Ten:

As a volunteer Bald Eagle Nest Monitor for the Ohio Division of Wildlife, it was my duty to stare at masses of sticks, like the one shown above, through a spotting scope for hours on end, watching for a head, or a wing, or a butt, or ANYTHING to poke out, shift, move, or flutter, in or around the nest. I'm making it sound pretty boring. IT WAS! But I also got to witness some of the absolute coolest bird-related things I've ever seen. On the good days, I'd watch as the birds stood up, rolled the eggs, and waddled back down to incubate tiny potential National treasures; or the pair as they delicately exchanged places on the nest, as one relieved the other of incubating or brooding duties. I watched as adults shifted nervously as eggs hatched beneath them; fed shredded groundhog, fish, turtle, and all manner of dead things, to tiny babies whose massive bills made them look utterly ridiculous; and cried as "my babies" took their first short, but oh-so-brave, flights away from the nest.

I refer to Bald Eagles as "Every Day Birds." If I were to see a Bald Eagle every day for the rest of my life, I would never get tired of seeing them. They will always solicit that intake of breath, that silent, "Ohmygod, look at that," response.

Thanks for taking the quiz, and for sharing our love of birds.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Ice Ice Baby...

From toasty Oak Harbor, Kim Writes: January 2nd, 2010. The forecast: temperature 17 degrees (windchill made it feel like 3), winds NW @ 15-25 mph, scattered flurries... Whew, sounds like a great day to stay inside, right?!


We didn't just go outside--we went WAY outside. Kenn and 40+ of our closest friends pushed the limits of sensibility clean over board and took a little winter cruise to look for birds on the good ship Holiday.

A few people who registered for the trip changed their mind at the last minute, and, trust me, I completely understood! I have to admit that there was a point, as the boat left the protection of the channel and headed out in to the open waters of Lake Erie, that I thought, THIS IS FREAKIN NUTS! But, it was actually a pretty cool experience; literally and figuratively!

This is the third of three trips that we (Black Swamp Bird Observatory) have done in partnership with Inside the Great Outdoors Radio, and Discovery Tours of Cleveland. The weather for the first two trips in November was downright balmy. There were people on deck in T-shirts.

Check out Andy Jones rockin the
BSBO T-shirt on the first trip:

However, today Lake Erie gave us all a good dose of Northern Ohio winter weather. Nothing like a little hardcore, extreme birding. You just have to know how to dress for it!

Please read this in your best Robin Leach voice!
Meet Ohio Young Birders Club member, Lukas Padegimas. Lukas is wearing the latest in crusty winter birding fashion.

Please note the way that Lukas, ever the fashion risk taker, accessorizes his look with an icy-cool fur cap and face mask.
And of course, no birding ensemble would be complete without optics.
Lukas stuns with the very best in " fully coated" glass.

And next we have Ohio Division of Wildlife biologist, Keith Lott. Keith is sporting the latest in "cool" birding fashion trends for 2010.
Nice look, Keith. Indeed, that is a "lott" of ice you're wearing there, Sir.

And finally, on the icy runway of the Holiday, it's John "The Ice Man" Pogacnik, modeling a bit of the Lake himself. Nice look, Ice Man!

In case the photos don't make it clear, the fine sheath of ice that Lukas, Keith, and John are wearing is the result of Lake Erie lapping up over the bow and into the laps of the brave birders who opted to ride the rail as we navigated a particularly rough stretch of Lake Erie.

17 degrees + Lake Erie waves + brave birders = Birdercycles!
Until you've experienced it you can't fully appreciate just how cold it gets this far out into the Lake in winter.
Or the amazing diversity of species seen this far off shore!

Just kidding!
These are shots from our trip to Antarctica last year.

But here are some real, honest-to-goodness, shots of the Lake Erie scenery.

We really did see some cool birds on the trip. There was one very late and very Great Egret, and an almost equally late Dunlin. A lot of the birds were seen along the shoreline from the boat. Birds like: Belted Kingfisher, at least 78 Black-crowned Night-Herons, a couple Great Blue Herons, a few Northern Mockingbirds, and a few people even people spotted a Gray Catbird.

We were in almost constant company of tens of thousands of gulls...
(mostly Ring-billed and Herring), but a few Bonaparte's, several Great Black-backed Gulls, at least one Lesser Black-backed, and John Pogacnik even had a quick look at a Thayer's Gull.

We had pretty good duck diversity with lots of adorable Buffleheads (except for one that really got its head buffled...I'll tell ya later), Green-winged Teal, Ruddy, Mallard, Redhead, Canvasback, Lesser and Greater Scaup, American Black Duck, Goldeneye, Northern Pintail, Red-breasted Merganser, Common Merganser, and Hooded Merganser. We also had several American Coots,

But there was a real show stopper that, in spite of the rather graphic nature of the scene, captivated everyone on board. When somone shouted, "Peregrine," everyone on board piled over to the starboard side to get a look. The bird was on the ground and in its clutches was a female Bufflehead. I felt sorry for the duck, but, WOW, what a gorgeous bird that adult female Peregrine was. We got killer looks at this killing machine. Here are a couple really bad photos:

It was a great way to spend an early January day in Northern Ohio, and I'm so very grateful to all the brave souls that joined us today. I especially want to thank our leaders, Paula Lozano, Robert Hershberger, John Pogacnik, and Kenn Kaufman, for their time and expertise and hardiness and bravery today. And to Bob Faber, and the crew of the Holiday, thank you SO much! We can't wait to do it again!