Monday, December 19, 2011

Twas the Night Before the Christmas Bird Count

From Homebase in Oak Harbor. Ohio, Kimberly Writes: My friend Katie Andersen is so creative. She wrote this great poem about the joy and insanity of doing Christmas Bird Counts to the theme of Twas the Night Before Christmas. I think you'll like it as much as I did - and I hope you'll share some of your favorite CBC stories with us!

Twas the Night Before the Christmas Bird Count
by Katie Andersen

‘Twas an hour before the Christmas Bird Count, when we left our warm house;

Not a songbird was stirring, not even a Titmouse.

Binoculars were hung over downy vests with great care,

In anticipation of the birds that would soon fill the air.

While our neighbors were still snug in their beds,

To the count circle we birders did head.

And I in my hoodie and my friend in her Tilley Hat

Had just hiked to the spot marked on our count map

When, alerted by a Winter Wren’s scolding chatter,

We snatched up our optics to see what was the matter.

Quite annoyed by the Wren, the Screech Owl flew off in a flash;

Both species’ numbers I noted with a quick, inky slash.

The rising sun glinted off the pale frigid snow,

And we searched for more birds as our toes slowly froze.

Then, what to our wondering eyes should appear,

But an unseasonably late flock of eight flying Killdeer!

She documents their presence with a quick camera click,

While I mark up the notebook with another scrawled tick.

More rapidly now with the dawn the birds came,

And in hushed tones we consulted, counted, and call’d them by name:

“Tree Sparrows – Twelve! No, wait, add seven more,

Oh! Grackles! Oh! Red-wings! Oh! Juncos to the fore!

Check the tops of these sumacs; I hear a Cedar Waxwing’s call!

Hey, don’t miss those Butter-butts, our only warblers since Fall!”

These small flocks suddenly took to the sky,

And off to new destinations they all did fly.

Our wind-swept field was now quiet and we both knew

It was time to head back to the car - and grab some coffee, too!

We remember not to leave field guides or optics on the car’s roof,

It’s a past lesson not soon forgotten - that’s the truth!

As we called our count leader and were assigned to new ground,

In the distance I thought an amazing bird my eyes had found.

It was dressed all in white, from its head to talon’d foot,

With dark breast markings, like smudges of soot!

We jumped from the car and she pulled out the scope from its pack;

Seconds later, she laughed as I gave my head a smack.

My brow – how it wrinkled! Then our laughter became merry,

And that silly moment we always will carry.

My prized Snowy Owl - can you guess? Do you know?

‘Twas an old rotten tree stump, covered in snow!

Back to the warm car to still our chattering teeth,

Before reaching our next spot, where we find a flock at a feast.

Flitting Kinglets and Yellow-rumps with round little bellies,

And White-breasted Nuthatches who ate sap as though it were jelly.

Look, there was the Sapsucker, himself;

Squawking at the raiders as he guarded his wealth.

With a glare of his eye and a jab of his head,

He told the free-loaders to go find their own food instead.

We spoke not a word, but went straight to our work,

Identifying and counting, this task we won’t shirk.

Species and hash marks in quickly scribbled rows

Noted a Red-tailed chased by some Blue Jays and Crows.
At day's end, we turned in our lists and wet our parched whistles,

While with the other birders we flocked, like Finches upon thistles.

And we exclaimed to each other, as we heard Tundra Swans overhead in the night –

“It’s not midnight, yet – we can still count those guys… right?!”

Happy Birding to All! ^_^

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Hotel Birding - Fueled by Bird Friendly Coffee

From a hotel somewhere in Harlingen, Texas, Kimberly Writes: Kenn and I are in Texas for the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival where Kenn will be leading several walks and giving a special presentation tomorrow night. 

We arrived yesterday afternoon, made a brief stop at the convention center where the festival headquarters are located, and headed for our hotel.  As we were unpacking the second load from the car, I noticed a couple birds perched atop a smallish shrub in the vacant lot beside the hotel.  As we stepped off the pavement to get a better look, we were stunned to see that they were two White-tailed Kites!  Well, we took our white tails right back in to our hotel room to fetch optics and cameras, and when we came back there were THREE circling above the hotel.  I managed to shoot about 30 seconds of video of one of the birds as it "kited" in one spot. 

Wait for the 13 second mark and watch as the bird cuts out and heads for parts unknown.  Look at those long, slender, powerful wings.  What a gorgeous bird!

Not a bad way to start, eh?!  We also had Yellow-throated and Orange-crowned Warblers in the trees in front of the hotel, too!

Kenn is out leading a six hour Advanced Birding workshop today, and I opted to stay at the hotel to try and get some work done.  I decided that I would take frequent breaks to wander around the hotel grounds and see what birds I could add to our hotel yard list!  First of all, it's chilly in South Texas today!  The wind was really whipping and the temp is barely 70. It was 92 when we arrived yesterday, so a cold front is obviously passing through.   

Here's what the habitat around the hotel looks like.

Yeah.  Not exactly inspiring, is it?  But I did find some decent birds.  Of course there were Great-tailed Grackles, Northern Mockingbird was no surprise, and I saw a few Chipping Sparrows.  A few Laughing Gulls flew over, a Loggerhead Shrike showed up in the same shrub that the Kites were in last night, and I saw another Yellow-throated Warbler (always a treat!).  I was delighted when a Kingbird came in and landed on the wire right above me and I snapped a couple shots of him before he flew off. 

I'm fairly certain this is a Couch's Kingbird (Tyrannus couchii). The yellow goes way up the chest; the tail is notched and dusky gray-brown rather than black; and it has a heavy-ish bill.  Admittedly, I don't have much experience with kingbirds other than Easterns, so I could be wrong. I would normally ask Kenn for confirmation, but he isn't here, and I'm not afraid to misidentify something.  So, here it is.  Let me know if you agree with my indentification.

As I was standing there admiring the Kingbird, I was daydreaming about how cool it would be if I found some really awesome bird at the hotel while Kenn was away today.  And no kidding, just as I was smiling at the thought, I heard these raucous calls coming over the hotel. I spun around just as 17 "something-or-others" came rocketing past. I was totally unprepared (and so was the camera!), but I couldn't resist firing off a few quick shots to see if I could figure out what they were. 

Now, please promise not to laugh at how crappy this photo is.  

Image Number One:

I know what you're thinking. "Uh, Kim, we hate to tell you, but you really suck at photography!" But wait. I've managed to learn a thing or two from Kenn as he works his magic in Photoshop.  So I blew the photo up, cropped the image to focus in on one bird, and pumped up the light.

I don't expect to get any calls from Birdwatching or WildBird Magazine asking me to be their official bird photographer or anything, but you can at least see a bit more detail. I noticed that the bird appears greenish-yellow overall, has yellow undertail converts, and a smallish beak.  After looking through the field guide and doing some research online, my guess is Green Parakeet (Aratinga holochlora).  Do you agree?

If you'd like to see some truly spectacular images of Green Parakeets, here are some AMAZING photos by the supremely talented Greg Lasley.

I'm proud of the fact that I had a great time birding and the only fuel it required was some Birds and Beans - Bird Friendly Coffee that I packed in my carry-on (they also have it for sale at Festival headquarters!). All-in-all, not a bad day of birding for a person stuck in a hotel for the morning.  


Saturday, October 29, 2011

Bird Research - Point // Counterpoint

Kimberly Writes: I've received a tremendous amount of feedback on my last post about bird research.  I wanted to share a particular comment, because I think the points are so valuable.   The following comment was made by by "Jude," and I thought it was important enough to share openly on our blog in order to generate some good, healthy dialogue about this subject. 

The comment from Jude:

"I don't know the birder who sparked your response, but I'd be very surprised if their call to re-examine banding came from a place of not understanding the critical importance of the data being gathered. As a novice birder, I've already seen distressing examples of geese with overly tight neck bands, smaller birds with too tight leg bands, and birds with too many bands altogether. I imagine you have to have seen way more than I. Understanding the value of data gathering in conservation efforts and advocacy can and should be accompanied by compassion and a very high standard of performance for the practices that allow the data-gathering to happen. There is nothing wrong and everything right about not remaining complacent about the data-gathering practices currently in place. Wanting to lessen the impact of banding/collaring/etc. on individual animals increases the quality of the data returned and has nothing to do with not understanding that there are always trade-offs and imperfect decisions to be made in approaches."

Truth is, Jude, that if I had been responding to just one comment put in the context that you describe, my thoughts would have been different.  I wholeheartedly agree that all methods of research on / with animals should be constantly, carefully, critically, monitored and reevaluated to ensure the safety of both the animals and the volunteers these projects frequently rely on.

In my blog post, I was responding specifically to those who make sweeping statements about how banding (and other methods of tracking / tagging birds) is bad, based solely on emotion, without any thought to the value of the data these studies provide. If there were any scientific evidence to back up the idea that these methods do more harm than good, I assure you that it would be considered very seriously.

Check out the rictal bristles around the bill on this Chuck-Will's-Widow.
Can you believe those are actually feathers?!

---and its specially adapted rear toe for cleaning the rictal bristles. 
Rather than just let this balance on my opinion (even though my thoughts are based on years of actually conducting these kinds of studies, and also, I might add, being a soft-hearted animal lover, too), I thought it would be good to provide some additional insight. 

In a recent issue of The Wildlife Professional, the journal of The Wildlife Society, they offered the opportunity to discuss the value of continuing to band birds in the [Point // Counterpoint] column. Marlene Condon, a natural-history writer and photographer, took up one position, commenting that. "At a time when nearly a third of the 800 bird species in the United States are threatened or in decline (The state of the Birds 2009), scientists should ask themselves: Is banding worth the stress it places on birds?" 

Taking up the alternate view was Bruce G. Peterjohn, Chief of the Bird Banding Labaratory at the USGS Patuxtent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland. Bruce stated, "Despite the obvious benefits of bird banding, the practice has its critics. Recent studies show that most annual mortality in bird populations occurs during migration (Sillett and Holmes 2002). Some critics fear that migratory birds may be imperiled by carring a band, which typically weighs less than 1 percent of the total body weight. Yet that claim has never been substantiated." 

Read the [Point // Counterpoint] in its entirety, HERE.

Any bird bander who's used mist nets was eager to learn the findings of a recent study on the threats of mist netting to birds. When the findings were released, bird banders were sincerely thankful to have this burning question answered with sound scientific answers. 

The research, led by Erica Spotswood from the University of California at Berkeley, used data from organizations across the United States and Canada to assess the risk factors which could increase rates of injury or mortality including bird size, age, frequency of capture and the role of predators.

The results revealed that birds are rarely injured or killed by mist nets. Of 620,997 captures the percentage of incidents of injury amounting to 0.59% while only 0.23% of captures resulted in mortality. The authors then began to analyse risk factors which could lead to increased incidents. Read more about the study, HERE.

Watching birds: studying them through optics, or simply using the bird watching tools built conveniently into our own heads, will never go out of style or be replaced by mist nets, bands, neck collars, radio telemetry, or color-marking.

There will always be incredible value to the power of bird observation. If for nothing more than the way it enriches our lives- which leads to a deeper level of understanding - and ultimately, to a deeper level of caring and commitment to support bird conservation. There is room on the bird boat for everyone who wants the habitat that birds depend on to be here for generations to come.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Banding Together for the Good of the Birds

From Homebase in Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kimberly Writes:  Recently a well-known birder, admired by many (including yours truly), spoke out publicly about her belief that banding and color-marking is bad for birds. Of course this is not the first time these research methods have been criticized. Humans have active minds and diverse interests and beliefs; we are always going to disagree on some things, and that’s okay. But this particular situation felt like a blow because it drew such an emotional reaction from people who, I believe, actually know better.

Whether the topic at hand involves birds or some other issue, when emotion overrules facts it is cause for concern. This is a delicate issue, and to be honest, I’m not sure I’m the right person to take this on. Truth is, I would rather just ignore it and focus on things like the upcoming Ohio Young Birders Conference and all the other positive things BSBO has going on. But part of what creates this problem is the fact that we need more and better communication. If I simply walk away from this issue, I become part of the problem. So I’m going to share some thoughts and hope they will help people come to terms with the ongoing necessity for bird research.

You know, now that I think about it, maybe I am the right person to tackle this issue. This is as much about people and emotion as it is about science. I may not be a Ph.D. ornithologist or biologist. But, I have been a volunteer bird bander for more than 12 years and have assisted with many kinds of bird research, banding, color-marking, radio telemetry, and others. But I am also a passionate birder, and I’m not afraid to say that I love birds and that I get pretty emotional about it sometimes. I’m not going to talk to you like a scientist, throwing around terms like spatial movements, site fidelity, or functional connectivity of habitats. Instead, I’m going to share my thoughts about the merits of research in my own plain language.

I have been blessed as a woman and as a birder. I am married to the love of my life and together we have traveled the world to study birds. I have been moved in ways I could never have imagined by our experiences with birds of every size, shape, and color. Birds inspire our emotions. There is a strong visceral response to birds that can be powerful enough to change the course of peoples’ lives. I know. It happened to me.

On a trip to the Antarctic, I knelt on the damp, spongy soil of South Georgia Island and wept as a yearling King Penguin waddled up within a few feet to investigate this strange creature that had suddenly arrived in his land. I felt a surge of overwhelming joy at my first glimpse of parrots in the wild – a flock of Maroon-fronted Parrots - gliding against the backdrop of a lush green mountainside in Mexico.

And I have been driven to my knees in astonishment at the sight of a Sword-billed Hummingbird in Ecuador. But some of the most amazing moments I have experienced with birds have had nothing to do with observations. They had to do with discoveries about the lives of birds, and these discoveries came through research.

Research is about learning. About gaining a greater understanding of what birds do, how and why they do it, and monitoring population trends. The more we know, the more insight we gain, the better our chances of helping birds. When something goes amiss on the wintering grounds or the breeding grounds, banding stations will be among the first to sound the alarm call. And let’s face it: some of this information is more inspiring, more fascinating, more moving, than any mere sighting could be. For example…

Think Northern Cardinals don't migrate? Think again.

On June 1st, 2009, BSBO banded a female Northern Cardinal at the Navarre Marsh Banding Station near Oak Harbor, Ohio. Ten months later, on April 28th, 2010, BSBO volunteer bander Julie West recaptured the same bird at her banding station at Shaker Lakes Nature Center, in Shaker Lakes, Ohio, 94 miles away!

At 60 years old, Wisdom, a Laysan Albatross, is the oldest wild bird known in the U.S.
Photo courtesy of USGS
First recorded in 1956 as she incubated an egg, Wisdom was wandering the Pacific when the first human was launched into space, when the Berlin Wall came down, and when the Black Swamp Bird Observatory was founded.  Her most recent, and perhaps most impressive accomplishment, was surviving the tsunami that hit Midway Island after the massive 2011 earthquake struck Japan. How do we know that Wisdom is 60 years old? Because Wisdom is wearing a band.

Blackpoll Warblers make a mind-boggling journey each fall in route to their wintering grounds. These tiny birds, weighing less than an ounce when they’re all fattened up and ready to go, will make an 80 hour, nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean to reach their wintering grounds in South America.  This fall, BSBO is smack-daddy in the middle of Blackpoll Warbler migration. We have banded a record number so far, and the season isn’t over. More importantly, we have recaptured seven Blackpolls banded in years past, including one that was banded as an adult in 2006. This tells us that for at least six years this tiny bird has been making a journey that we can scarcely even imagine. Also remarkable is the fact that the bird was recaptured within a few hundred feet of where it was originally netted in 2006. There are no magic optics that could tell us something as extraordinary as that. No expert observer could have recognized this bird as an individual and documented just how critical this habitat has been to this bird and millions of others just like it. Now, thanks to a tiny, virtually weightless band of aluminum, we know this to be fact.

There are still so many questions about birds and many ways to gather this data. Yes, we can (and do) stand on the edge of a flooded field observing shorebirds every day, for the same length of time, from the same location, and count the number of birds we see, documenting their presence / absence. But when that flock of 500 Dunlin takes flight and whirls out of sight, where do they go? Why do they move from one habitat to another? How long do they stay? What is their energetic condition (in other words, how much fat do they have) when they get there?  How much fat do they need before they leave our area to continue their migration? How long does it take them to build up these reserves? These are questions no binocular on the market can answer. We’ve got to have the bird in hand to get at these details, and we need these details to garner support for habitat conservation, and to assist with managing these habitats.

With the battle for funding hitting everyone hard, we cannot simply say that there are “a lot” of birds in this area; that we need to draw down more of these diked impoundments because there are “a lot” of shorebirds depending on these mudflats during migration. Anecdotal observations will not cut it. We need documentation of these needs. We need science.

In a similar vein, if I walk into our congresswoman’s office and tell her that there are “a lot of birds” in this region, or that “a lot of birders” are visiting the area and spending “a lot of money,” how far do you think I’ll get in convincing her that conserving bird habitat is important? But when I present more than 500,000 banding records—more than 10,000 from last spring alone—it is irrefutable evidence.
When I can show her the results of our 2011 Biggest Week In American Birding post-event economic impact study, indicating that birders spent approximately 29 million dollars in her district, then I have more than just her attention. Now I have her district’s best interests on the table.

Learning is something that I love, and I especially love learning about birds. When we stop the learning process at the point where we can pin a name on a bird, then we do a great disservice to ourselves and to the birds. If we approached our interactions with humans in the same manner, we wouldn’t be much of a society, would we? We fall in love as we get to know something, and at BSBO we are as much about helping people fall in love with birds as we are about answering research questions. In fact, we use those detailed answers learned through scientific studies to help build that initial curiosity about birds into a passion. And it works. I’ve seen it happen, over...

and over...

and over.

It’s undeniable.

Bird banding is an invaluable tool for learning and for inspiring people to care more deeply about birds. As a teacher, as a bander, as a dedicated bird conservationist, I hope no one—especially those with big voices in the birding community—ever tries to take this powerful learning and teaching tool away from us.

We live in an age where with the click of a mouse, we can find a staggering amount of information on just about everything. The one answer that isn’t out there is the solution to these human dilemmas. Perhaps the best answer lies within us. Is it impossible to think that we could learn to respect one another, in spite of our differences, and do our best to achieve the highest level of understanding that we possibly can - before we send our opinions out into the ether? With bird conservation as our common ground, surely we can arrive at some level of compromise. When thousands of intelligent people who love birds enough to dedicate their lives to bird conservation all agree that research is necessary and that banding is safe, perhaps it is not out of the question to ask for a measure of faith and trust. Perhaps we can all work together for the good of the birds and all that they add to our quality of life.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Big Year: and hopefully beyond

From homebase in Oak Harbor, Kimberly writes: Last night, Black Swamp Bird Observatory loaded a bunch of birders into our awesome Bird Bus and went to see the movie The Big Year.  I was excited to go to the movies with Kenn and a bunch of friends no matter how good or bad the movie turned out to be. To be honest, I was more than a little concerned that Hollywood would simply adopt the model perpetuated by the media for decades and cast us in the same stereonerdical role.

I was wrong.

Steve Martin's character, "Stu Preissler," is a powerful, wealthy, executive who is obsessed with birding. His colleagues all bow to his executive prowess and on more than one occasion, they actually beg him to rescue them in challenging business negotiations. He's a hero. But here's the beauty. He's also a really nice guy.  He loves his family, and while on occasion (with some gentle admonishment from his loving and supportive wife) he skips a few family moments to see great birds (sounds familiar, doesn't it?), he's still a great guy.

To me, it was a spot on portrayal of the "friendly umbrella" that birders around the world always seem to be under. With a few exceptions, birders are just a nice bunch of people, and I thought the movie did a wonderful job of portraying that. Sure, the "Kenny Bostic" character played by Owen Wilson made some rather edgy choices. But even he had moments of sincerity.

And the Greg Miller character portrayed by Jack Black? Well, of course he was my favorite. I'm an intelligent woman, but I do love some crazy, slapstick humor, and Black happens to be one of my faves. I suppose the fact that we know and adore Greg Miller introduces at least some bias. But, Greg'll do that to ya. He's a pretty great guy. Black's character in the movie was that of the lovable underdog, and he even looks a bit like Greg, which is fun! 
Jack Black and Greg Miller
Brothers separated at birth?
I'm going to be careful not to spoil it for you, so if you haven't seen it, GO! See the film, represent birders, drive the box office ratings up, and help send a message to the world that we are a mass consumer market and that what we want really matters. Maybe then, they'll start to hear our cries for conservation-minded products like certified bird friendly coffee.

Moving forward...
A question I've been hearing about The Big Year is, "Sure, birders will enjoy it. But will the general public, the non birders, get it?  I don't think they have to totally "get" the whole idea of birding from the film. I think seeing three popular Hollywood actors obsessed with birding (and not looking like total dorks doing it) will be enough to pique the interest of some people. I think the real question is - how will we know? Will they become members of the American Birding Association? Will they buy Swarovski Optiks? Will they subscribe to WildBird magazine? All of which made appearances in the film.

At some point it would be good for "the powers that be" in the birding community to put their heads together and work on a collective marketing campaign. Make an effort to carry the movie's momentum beyond the initial surge of its release. National Audubon reportedly invested six figures in marketing the film. But what now?  I believe there's an opportunity here, but we have to be proactive about it. I hope we will.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Her Majesty's Army

From home base in Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kimberly writes: To say that I hadn't traveled much before Kenn and I got married would be a serious understatement. A lifelong Ohioan, I come from a family perfectly happy to set their roots deep in northwest Ohio and keep them there forever.  The idea of living any place else or traveling the world was something that had never entered my mind. 

All that changed when Kenn and I were married in 2005.  Suddenly, I found myself in love with a world-traveler who had experienced some of the most extraordinary places on earth.  In terms of deciding where we should make our home together, the world was on the table.

If you read this blog or know anything about me and Kenn, then you probably know that the bird migration here in NW Ohio is pretty phenomenal. I'm sure most people just assume that birds are the reason we decided to live in Ohio, and of course that's a big part of it.  But, the main reason we decided to live here--of all the places in the world we could be--has nothing to do with birds.   ---It's the people.

NW Ohio is a great place to live. The people here are warm, friendly, caring, and fun. They'll also help a person in need --- even a complete stranger with a completely strange problem. 
I can think of no better example than an incident that occurred recently when old friend of mine needed some serious help.

Working for a nonprofit is not without challenges.  I've been involved with Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO) for more than a decade, so I know by direct experience.  BSBO has developed a very big reach, but in terms of bricks and mortar, we're still very small.  Our building is modest, to say the least.

Black Swamp Bird Observatory Headquarters
This poor old building has lots of issues. But, two highly redeeming characteristics help make up for a lot of what it lacks.  These two "old friends" have stood like sentinels, welcoming me each and every day, reminding me that there is beauty in all things, if we just look deeply enough.  

The first friend hugs the southeast corner of the building. In spring she spreads herself across the front of the building like a lovely cloak, welcoming visitors with an eruption of beauty that holds the promise of all that spring in NW Ohio holds in store.  
BSBO's Eastern Redbud Tree
No one can seem to agree on just how old our Redbud might be. 
But everyone agrees that she is a glorious thing to behold.

Not to be outdone, the northeast corner of the building is graced by the
skyscraper that nature built.

Her Majesty: the Trumpet Vine

When Her Majesty is in full bloom, she is a towering inferno of orange-red blossoms that sets the landscape on fire.  She is irresistible. Hummingbirds swarm around her, drinking nectar from her fluted trumpets like guests sipping champagne from the finest crystal.  People love her, too, traveling from near and far to pose for photos in front of her majesty.  

The fluted flowers of the Trumpet Vine
She has stood, grand and tall, for as long as any of us can remember.  But, when the northeast winds blow fierce and strong off of Lake Erie, even the mightiest of warriors can grow weary. And sadly, I arrived one recent morning to find that my old friend had surrendered, and gently, ever so gently, laid herself down softly along the roof, coming to rest just as gracefully as she had stood. 

Strongly she stood.  Gracefully she rested.
I was devastated. When I arrived, a few of the BSBO staff were already huddled together trying to decide how to deal with me when I found out.  They promised me that she would grow back quickly and that they'd cut her down when I wasn't there so I didn't have to hear the chainsaw.  My reaction to all of this?

Uh, No.

Giving up on this old friend without a fight was unacceptable.  I launched into action, taking everyone outside to assess the situation. Okay, she was not on a wooden utility pole as we thought, she was growing on a metal tower, much like the towers used to mount TV antennas.  Okay, all we needed to do, I reasoned, was dig a hole, station a wooden utility pole near the base of the old tower, stand her back up against the new pole, and chain her to it.  Simple! 

The look on the faces of my rescue team revealed thoughts that bordered on "She's clearly lost her mind!"  But, they loved Her Majesty, too, and they didn't want to have to deal with a sad and dejected director, so they allowed themselves to be convinced that it was worth a try, and we sprang into action to save our friend.

With Phase I (convincing the BSBO team this was necessary) complete, we moved on to Phase II: Convincing others that they should help.

Call after call after call was made looking for a pole; looking for someone to deliver it; looking for someone to bury it; looking for someone to check for buried power lines before we dug, and on and on and on.   Eventually, help came in the unexpected form of public servants with big-big trucks!

First on the scene were the guys from Oak Harbor Public Power.

Without a moment's hesitation (or a single questioning glance in my direction),  and with a really cool truck and a 35 foot pole, they sprang into action.  
Phase III: My heroes from Oak Harbor Public Power delivered, set, and buried the pole.
They were so proud to be a part of the rescue operation that they agreed to pose for a photo!
The guys with soul and a pole: the Oak Harbor Public Utility Dudes!
 Next on the scene were the guys from Magee Marsh / Ohio Division of Wildlife.

I was moved to tears at the extra time and consideration
they put into hooking the chain and lifting her as gently as possible. 
Phase IV: My heroes, BSBO's Research Director Mark Shieldcastle and the guys from
ODOW hooked a heavy chain ever so gently around the vine and the old tower
Then, ever so carefully, they began to lift. 




Until she stood
just as elegant and proud as she'd been before. 

When I thanked the ODOW guys for going way above and beyond the call of duty, one of them turned to me and said, "Hey, Our job is to manage habitat for wildlife. This Trumpet Vine is habitat for hummingbirds, so we're really just doing our job."   The next time someone tells me that the wildlife agencies only care about game species, what a story I'll have to share!

Thanks to some pretty remarkable people, my old friend is more beautiful to me than ever before. When I look at her now, I see more than just a gift from nature, I see a gift from caring, compassionate people. Heroes come in many forms. For some, they are NASCAR drivers, sports stars, movie stars, or the uber-rich. For me, the greatest heroes of all are everyday, real life people who will go to great lengths to help the natural world. I hope you'll come visit BSBO someday and see what heroes like mine can do.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

MBS: Use Your Birder Power, part 3

From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kenn writes: With the Midwest Birding Symposium (MBS) only a couple of days away, here are some final suggestions for how to make the most of the experience, for yourself and for the birds.

All too often, when birders are asked to support conservation, we are just asked to send money somewhere. Of course, that’s often a good thing to do; but I prefer to focus on approaches that represent an actual, personal involvement.

So, in a post on September 10, I recommended that you should connect with Birds & Beans Coffee. That’s a personal commitment: if you’re going to drink coffee, why not go for the type that protects bird habitat, not the type that kills birds? In a post the next day, I suggested picking up the Duck Stamp and the Ohio Wildlife Legacy Stamp. This is a personal involvement also: we’re not just sending $15 off somewhere, we’re buying a stamp that we can show off in public, to demonstrate that birders are stepping up to the plate and supporting conservation in a visible way.

Those were suggestions 1 and 2. The following are four more suggestions, numbers 3 through 6. I hope we’ll see you at the MBS! And if you can’t attend, think about trying to adapt these ideas to your local situation, wherever you might be this month.

3. Let people know you’re here. When thousands of birders come to northwest Ohio in spring, local business owners (hotels, restaurants, stores, etc.) are all reminded of the major economic value of protecting bird habitat. During the MBS, we’ll be more concentrated within the confines of Lakeside, so we won’t be so obvious on the local scene. But you won’t spend ALL your time in Lakeside. When you’re out, when you stop at gas stations, convenience stores, restaurants, etc., let them know that you are birding. Wear your binoculars, mention birding, or hand out “birders’ calling cards.” You can get these cards from Black Swamp Bird Observatory, or print out your own from the BSBO website.

4. Support the Carbon Offset Bird Project at the MBS. Purists might say that this isn’t exactly a carbon offset program, since that would mean taking some specific action to counteract the CO2 emissions created by our visit (such as planting a certain number of trees to remove that amount of CO2 from the atmosphere). Instead of doing that, the program at the MBS will raise money to protect more bird habitat. But that is a tremendously important goal also, and indirectly it accomplishes the same amount of good.  It also helps to make us all more aware of the carbon footprint of our actions, so that maybe we’ll do something about it. For example, we can reduce our per-person carbon footprint by carpooling, finding ways to drive shorter distances, or driving more fuel-efficient vehicles, and we can conserve energy (and thus cut down on CO2 emissions) in other ways. 

However we define it, this is a very exciting pilot program.  Only a few bird festivals have even attempted a carbon offset, and this is arguably the first time that such a program has had such a high profile.  I hope all birders will get behind this project!  I've been keeping track of the miles I've driven while scouting out the birding sites for the MBS, and I will dutifully go make my contribution to cover that carbon footprint.  If we can make this a big success, other festivals may follow this example.

5. Contribute to Birders’ Exchange. This program of the American Birding Association does a tremendous amount of good by providing much-needed equipment – binoculars, spotting scopes, tripods, cameras, reference books, etc. – to researchers, birding guides, and others involved with conservation in the developing nations of Latin America. If you have recently upgraded your optics, why not bring your used optics to the MBS and contribute them to Birders’ Exchange? Please note that they can’t use junk – they don’t have the capacity to repair broken or poor-quality optics. But if you have some decent equipment that you don’t need any more, it could increase the effectiveness of a biologist, park ranger, interpretive naturalist, etc., somewhere in the American tropics.

6. Join the Black Swamp Bird Observatory. BSBO is recognized as the premier birding authority in northwest Ohio, but it’s more than that, too. For more than 20 years, the Observatory has been conducting essential research on all aspects of migration through this region, and for more than ten years it has been a major force for nature education as well. BSBO is the main sponsor of the Ohio Young Birders Club (inspiring and empowering the next generation), and also provides free programs for thousands of school students every year. BSBO is also a strong voice for conservation, speaking out on critical issues, and working with scores of businesses and agencies to highlight the economic value of protecting bird habitat. What’s more, it’s local: BSBO is headquartered in the very same county where the Midwest Birding Symposium is taking place! If you enjoy the birds at MBS, consider giving something back to the local area by joining Black Swamp Bird Observatory. Not only will you be kept up-to-date on all the local bird happenings, you’ll also be helping to preserve the quality of the local birding for your next visit!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

MBS: Use Your Birder Power, part 2

The current Ohio Wildlife Legacy Stamp: not only is it one key field mark of a good birder, it can also help to get you a significant discount during the Midwest Birding Symposium.

From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kenn writes: This is a continuation of yesterday’s post about how to make the most of your visit to the Midwest Birding Symposium (MBS), in Lakeside, Ohio. But as I’d like to point out, you can take advantage of some of this advice even if you DON’T get to attend the MBS.

Yesterday, I wrote about how you could do yourself (and the birds) a favor by visiting the booth of Birds & Beans – The Good Coffee. Today, here’s another kind of approach:

2. Get Your Stamps On. Everyone who goes birding in Ohio should be a stamp collector to some extent, collecting at least two per year: the “Duck Stamp” and the Legacy Stamp.

This year's Migratory Bird
Hunting and Conservation
The Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp, popularly known as the “Duck Stamp,” represents one of the most wildly successful conservation programs in history. Since its inception in 1934, money from Duck Stamp sales has allowed the purchase of nearly six MILLION acres of prime habitat to add to the National Wildlife Refuge system, providing a priceless resource for populations of birds and wildlife of all kinds. Right here in northwest Ohio, most of the land in Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge was paid for with proceeds from Duck Stamp sales! If you have enjoyed birding on the refuge itself, or on any of hundreds of other National Wildlife Refuges, you obviously have benefited directly from this stamp program. But even if you never set foot on a National Wildlife Refuge – which would be a sad thing for you! – you have probably seen birds that were hatched on a refuge, or that made essential migratory stopovers on refuges.

So the Duck Stamp is not just for ducks; it benefits most birds and all birders, and I believe that every birder should buy this stamp every year. At the moment it’s only $15, and 98 cents of every dollar goes straight into buying bird habitat!

The Ohio Wildlife Legacy Stamp is a newer program, but it holds tremendous promise. Unlike the Federal Duck Stamp, which is based on paintings, the Legacy Stamp features a photograph. In its first year it portrayed a Baltimore Oriole, photographed by Russell Joseph Reynolds; this year’s stamp features an Eastern Amberwing dragonfly, photographed by Sharon Cummings. The photo for next year’s stamp, chosen in a contest just a few days ago, is a Spotted Salamander taken by Nina Harfmann.

The Legacy Stamp costs only $15, and at least $14 of that will go straight into supporting the work of Ohio’s Department of Natural Resources – Division of Wildlife. This Division is a leader among state agencies in paying attention to the whole spectrum of wildlife and plants, not just game species. They publish very popular little field guides to many groups of living things in Ohio – butterflies, reptiles, spiders, owls, and many more – and they have active programs for the conservation of everything from salamanders to Sandhill Cranes. And let’s face it: Magee Marsh Wildlife Area, one of the greatest warbler-watching sites on the planet, is administered by Ohio’s Division of Wildlife! That in itself is a good reason for birders to buy the Legacy Stamp.

So – if you buy these two stamps, what’s in it for you, aside from ensuring that we’ll have birds to watch in the future? Well … at the Midwest Birding Symposium, these stamps are good for MAJOR DISCOUNTS!

That’s right. During the Symposium, September 15-18, 2011, come to the Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO) booth at the Symposium vendor hall or to the BSBO Center and Gift Shop at the entrance to Magee Marsh, and show that you have both stamps, and you’ll get a 15 percent discount on purchases!

Come to the booth or the shop and BUY both stamps during the event, and you’ll get a whopping 25 percent discount on your other purchases!

(And, hey – if you already have both stamps for yourself, wouldn’t it be good to buy them as gifts for someone else, and collect that discount?)

For more information on this program, see the Black Swamp Bird Observatory website. 

A point I want to emphasize is that BSBO does not make any profit by selling these stamps. They sell them at cost. Therefore, by offering a discount on other purchases to stamp holders, BSBO is actually losing out on a chance to raise much-needed funds for their organization. Why would they do that? Because everyone at BSBO is passionately dedicated to conservation. The Observatory is putting its money where its mouth is, supporting these conservation programs in a concrete way, and hoping that you will want to do the same.

So come visit Black Swamp Bird Observatory at the vendor hall or at the entrance to Magee, show your stamps with pride, get a great discount on quality items for yourself or for friends, and help us prove that birders really will step up and support bird conservation!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

MBS: Use Your Birder Power, part 1

From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kenn writes: In a few days, the Midwest Birding Symposium (MBS) will roll into Lakeside, Ohio, for the fourth time.  I spoke at the first one there, in 1997, and Kimberly attended the one in 1999, but we didn’t know each other then.  We were both involved when the MBS came back to Lakeside in 2009, and we’ll be even more heavily involved this time: for example, we’re giving a keynote talk together on Friday morning, September 16th.  And Black Swamp Bird Observatory and Kaufman Field Guides are sharing one of the major booth spaces in the vendor hall.  We’ll hope to see many of you at the Symposium!

If you attend, you’re bound to have a good time, no matter which of the many alternative activities you choose. But there are a few simple things you can do that will make your visit good for the birds, as well as for you. I’ll describe a few of them, in separate posts.

1. Go talk to Birds & Beans. This company is a sponsor of the Symposium, and will have a presence in the vendor area. But their impact is felt throughout the Western Hemisphere, because what they’re “selling” is the concept of helping birds by drinking the right kind of coffee. (The “beans” in the name are coffee beans.) In the American tropics, organic shade-coffee plantations that have been certified as Bird-Friendly by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center support tremendous numbers of birds, both residents and wintering migrants from North America. Factory farms that grow coffee out in full sun support essentially no birds at all, and they’re also far less healthy for the workers and local communities. Switching from standard grocery-store sun coffee to Bird-Friendly coffee is one of the most powerful, yet simple, things that you can do to ensure that we’ll see migrating birds in the future.

So – check out all the fine vendors and exhibitors at the MBS, but make a special point of going to the Birds & Beans booth.
Also, be sure to catch Bridget Stutchbury’s keynote talk on Friday night. Bridget is a talented ornithologist and conservationist (she wrote the compelling book Silence of the Songbirds), and she’s also a major advisor to, and spokesperson for, Birds & Beans. (By the way, Birds & Beans is also strongly supported by famed nature author Scott Weidensaul, by Wayne Petersen from Massachusetts Audubon Society, by Ken Rosenberg from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and others. And the American Ornithologists’ Union has just come out with a strong endorsement of the Smithsonian’s Bird-Friendly certification. This stuff is seriously important!)

Also, go to the Rhein Center “travel talks” from 4:10 to 4:30 pm on Friday or Saturday, to hear Jefferson Shriver talk about a wonderful Bird-Friendly coffee plantation called the Gaia Estate, in Nicaragua. Jefferson is a friend of ours, Gaia Estate is one of the most inspiring places that Kimberly and I have ever visited, and their coffee is delicious!

And if you can’t attend the Midwest Birding Symposium this year, be sure to check out Birds & Beans online to find out more. Please do this for the birds, and do it for yourself!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Roseate Terns

Adult Roseate Tern on Eastern Egg Rock, Maine, in June 2011.
From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kenn writes: Terns may be the ultimate summer birds. They are related to gulls, but gulls thrive in cold weather, some even spending the winter north of the Arctic Circle. Terns, by contrast, love warm climates. In much of North America, they are most prevalent during the summer.

About ten days ago, thanks to the generosity of Dr. Steve Kress and his highly successful Project Puffin, Kimberly and I were able to visit Eastern Egg Rock, in the Gulf of Maine. We did see puffins there, and many other birds as well; maybe Kim will blog about the puffins (hint, hint). But I was most pleased by the opportunity to look closely at Roseate Terns.

Some treatments of tern identification focus on bill color. The mostly-blackish bill of Roseate Tern can be useful for quick ID, but it’s tricky, too: other terns have blackish bills for part of the year, and in transitional stages they can show color patterns much like that of the Roseate’s bill. The SHAPE of the bill is a better confirming point. It’s relatively long, thick at the base and tapered to a fine tip, with the gonydeal angle on the lower mandible located fairly close to the base of the bill.

Wing pattern is one of the best ID points.  Summer adults typically have dark outer vanes on only the outer three primaries.  When the wing is folded, this shows up as a limited dark area on the wingtip.

Here’s a closeup of the wingtip from the previous photo.  Looking at the top of the near wing (the one on this side of the bird!), we can see dark gray on the three longest feathers, while the rest of the primaries (stacked up toward the left) are paler silvery gray.

The wing pattern can be even more obvious when the wings are spread.  In this photo, on the far wing, the dark gray is clearly limited to only the three longest primaries.  On the nearer wing, we can see that there is no dark trailing edge to the wing at all.

Compare that underwing pattern to the one shown by this Common Tern, photographed at the same place and date.  The black trailing edge to the outer primaries is obvious at a glance.

Adult Common Tern in flight, Eastern Egg Rock, Maine, in June 2011.
Roseate Tern also has a noticeably long tail, and lacks any black or gray on the tail (Common and Arctic terns both have narrow black outer vanes on the outer tail feathers, and Forster’s Tern shows some gray on the inner vanes).   The faint rosy blush on the breast feathers, the source of the bird’s name, is a fleeting phenomenon of spring, and barely a hint of it shows in our photos from late June.  Regardless, Roseate Tern is still a beautiful bird, and well worth the effort to find and identify!  For those with a keen interest in the subject, more information on identifying terns can be found in two chapters of my new Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding. 

Roseate Tern is a widespread species, found from the North Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, but it is not abundant anywhere.  Its North American populations have declined seriously, so it is now listed as Endangered in the northeastern USA and eastern Canada, and as Threatened in the southeastern USA.   The nesting Roseates on Eastern Egg Rock (along with about equal numbers of Arctic Terns, and many more Common Terns) are closely monitored and protected by Project Puffin, a great program that deserves the support of birders everywhere.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Every Warbler Tells A Story

From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kenn writes: Here in northwestern Ohio, “the Warbler Capital of the World,” the warblers are just beginning to show up. They will be flooding through here, in dizzying numbers and variety, in just a couple of weeks. Right now, we’re in the peak stage of eager anticipation for these tiny, active, colorful birds.

Our friend Liz McQuaid recently had a Yellow-throated Warbler in her yard in the Cleveland area, a little east of here. (Not this one; the bird in the photo above, poking about in Spanish Moss, is one that Kimberly and I photographed in Texas.) Yellow-throated Warbler is mainly a southern bird, uncommon this far north, but what was really fascinating about Liz’s bird was that it was coming to her suet feeder. Warblers in general are not feeder birds. Although Pine Warblers often come to suet feeders, especially in winter, this is not a well-known behavior for the Yellow-throated Warbler.

Hearing about the feeding behavior of this individual set me to thinking about warblers in general, and about how each species has its own distinct personality. When I was a kid, struggling to learn the warblers, I somehow got the idea that they were all pretty much the same aside from their markings – as if Nature had taken a basic warbler outline and filled it in repeatedly with different colors. Once you get to know them, though, you realize that’s not the case. Each warbler is unique, with its own surprising life story.

Take a good look at a Yellow-throated Warbler and ignore its yellow throat, and you’ll notice that it has a long, strong bill for a warbler. That bill shape is a key to its feeding behavior. On the nesting grounds, it spends a lot of time poking into crevices in bark, or into clusters of pine needles, in search of insects. And on the wintering grounds it searches in a wider variety of locations.

When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I spent a lot of time in Mexico every winter: travel there was cheap, the weather was warm, and the birding was superb. So a lot of my early experience with Yellow-throated Warbler was on the wintering grounds. This bird spends the winter in various habitats, including some areas of upland pine forest, but the situation where I found it most reliably was in palm trees. Whenever I checked out a grove of coconut palms or other palms, as likely as not there would be a Yellow-throated Warbler poking about among the bases of the fronds.

But the other typical location for it was more surprising. This was far and away the most likely warbler to be seen foraging around manmade objects. Once when friends and I were in Catemaco, Veracruz, for the Christmas Bird Count, we would see a Yellow-throated Warbler foraging around the street lights outside the hotel every morning, no doubt finding insects that had been attracted to the lights overnight. On other trips, I’ve seen these enterprising warblers searching around the light fixtures at gas stations in Yucatan and Tabasco, and around the edges of hotel windows in Chiapas and on Cozumel Island. Plenty of other warbler species were wintering in these same regions, but the Yellow-throated was the only one exploiting these manmade bug-attractors.
So the Yellow-throated Warbler at Liz’s feeder may have just been exercising the natural propensity of the species to check out human artifacts. Or maybe the other warblers just sent it on ahead to remind us that every warbler is different, every species deserves to be appreciated for its own unique character.