Aug 152017
 

In the past I have described the pleasure derived from reporting the banded Tundra Swan T207 and from reporting banded Snow Geese. Yesterday Jeanine and I took a long yet delightful walk in the North Brigantine Natural Area located just north of Atlantic City. The beach was full of birds. Here’s a view of a small part of the shoreline to give an idea of how packed it was, and this was fairly typical of what we saw along much of the shoreline. Only the southernmost part of the beach was open to vehicles, so once we got past the vehicle barrier, the beach was all ours. Well, ours and the birds. It was a wonderful feeling.

8 14 n brig 4

Here’s a view that was not unusual today: a shoreline full of birds. Most of them are Semipalmated Plovers, with good numbers of Sanderlings and Red Knots, and a smattering of Semipalmated Sandpipers.

We didn’t find any rare or unusual species today, but the sheer number of birds overcame the lack of rarities. Highlights were 170 Royal Terns, 450 Red Knots, 9 Piping Plovers, and a conservative estimate of 3,000 Semipalmated Plovers.  Near the end of the day, as we were scanning the flock, we started noticing a few banded birds. Then more. And then more. Eventually we tallied eight banded Red Knots and four banded Piping Plovers. The birds have different bands, depending on where they were banded. Five Red Knots had green flags with white codes, and three had orange flags with black letters. The Piping Plovers had either an alphanumeric flag or a series of color-coded bands. Examples of these banding strategies are shown below.

Plover 85

Here’s a nice Piping Plover with an alphanumeric band (85).

Color banded plover

Here’s a Piping Plover that has only color bands, without any alphanumeric flags. The bands are not always easy to see. This bird has a yellow band above a silver band on its upper right leg and a blue band can be seen on its upper left leg.

NKN

We saw five Red Knots with green flags and white alphanumeric codes. Here’s Red Knot NKN.

E6 tag

Three Red Knots had orange flags with black lettering. This bird (E6) has supplementary color-coded bands on its lower left leg and a federal metal band on its upper right leg.

As soon as I returned home I assembled the information and reported it to the US banded bird website, which allowed me to access the banding location and where the birds subsequently were re-sighted. So what did we learn from reporting this information?

Let’s start with the Red Knots. The flags indicate the country where the birds were banded. Green flags with white lettering indicate that they were banded in the US. Birds with orange flags with black lettering were banded at sites in Argentina!! Unfortunately, the researcher who banded the Argentinian birds doesn’t share her information, so we don’t know precisely where and when in Argentina those birds were banded, but the likely banding site is at least 5,600 miles away from where we spotted it. Wow! But it does serve as a great reminder of the distances that these birds migrate. Four of the US-banded birds were banded in the Delaware Bay region, perhaps not surprising based on the importance of that stopover site for their migration strategy, while the final Knot was banded in Massachusetts.

E6 copy

Here’s an example of the report showing the history of sightings of Red Knot E6. This bird was banded in Argentina, and over the past 10 years has been sighted in NJ, Georgia, and Brazil. It’s quite the traveler.

The Piping Plovers all have a rich New Jersey history too.  Two plovers bred in the Holgate division of the Forsythe NWR (which is across the channel from where we spotted them), and two others were just fledged from that region. One of our breeding birds was initially banded in Andros Island in The Bahamas, which is an important wintering region for these plovers.

Greg N Brig

An intrepid birder / photographer trying to capture photos of the banded birds. I love barefoot birding!

We’ll be heading back to North Brig very soon to enjoy the fall shorebird migration up close and personal, and you can bet that we’ll be looking for more banded birds there too.  Keep an eye out for any banded birds when you are out on the beaches or mudflats this fall and get good documentation of their banding pattern. Photos are best, but note the alphanumeric codes (if present), which leg the bands are on, what color the lettering is, and whether the bands are on the upper or lower legs.

Plover key

 Posted by at 6:31 PM
Jul 052017
 

Today I joined my friends Bob and Jeanine for a ‘Poor man’s pelagic’. Instead of signing up for a previously scheduled pelagic tour, complete with guides and spotters and chum and a boat dedicated to chasing birds at sea, and hoping that the weather and seas are favorable, we simply picked a day with great weather and a calm ocean and hopped aboard a local fishing boat that was scheduled to go as far as 20 miles away from land. We were hoping to see Wilson’s Storm-petrels and a variety of shearwaters, some of which were being spotted even from shore by landlubbers with scopes and skilled eyes. I am not that good at identifying sea birds at a distance, so we were taking the easy route by going out to get closer to them.

Leaving

Leaving Manasquan Inlet.

It was a great trip. The fishermen remained on the bottom level while we were up alone in the penthouse suite. On the trip out we were looking at every bird, hoping that it would turn into something ‘good’, but ultimately they were the familiar Laughing and Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls. Eventually we learned to look for something that was not gull-like, and Jeanine spotted our first tiny Wilson’s Storm-petrel, looking like a swallow dancing above the water’s surface. During the course of the trip we were able to spot at least 15 of them, almost always as singletons. When we were only six miles or so from shore the captain dropped anchor and gave the fishermen the signal to drop their lines. It was a nice diversion for me to watch them haul in fish (mostly Sea Bass and an occasional fluke) at a fairly high rate when I wasn’t scanning the horizon for birds. Eventually the captain decided to move on to another site where they were expecting to catch some tasty Ling, and as we approached the 10 mile area, Bob spotted a pair of large brown birds on the water being flushed by our boat. Our first Shearwaters of the day! With their yellow bills the identification was clear that these were Cory’s Shearwaters. This was a bit unexpected for me because both Sooty and Great Shearwaters were being spotted by others from land, so I thought that they would be our most likely sightings. I guess nobody told the Cory’s. We eventually went up to 16 miles from shore, and spotted a total of at least a dozen shearwaters, although we could only identify half of them with any confidence. One turned out to be a Great Shearwater, but unfortunately my camera shifted to a 1/30 sec shutter speed at that point, so the documentation shot was less-than perfect. (in other words…trash) We never did find a clear Sooty, so perhaps a return trip is in our future.

Shearwater

A gliding Cory’s Shearwater.

Two Cory's

A pair of Cory’s Shearwaters. We saw pairs of shearwaters a few times during the trip, but Wilson’s Storm-petrels were nearly always solo birds.

degas

Here’s what a shearwater and a gull look like at 1/30 sec exposure from a bouncing boat. I should teach a course: How to photograph like Monet.

If you are in the mood for seeing some pelagic species and there are not any scheduled trips, consider using the poor man’s option. Contact the captain of a local fishing boat, ask how far they plan to go out and if they accept non-fishing passengers. He might even be able to tell you if they have been seeing any interesting birds. Since we weren’t taking up fishing space on the railing, we got a reduced rate as non-fishing passengers. The advantages of this approach are that you can pick a day with great conditions and that the cost is minimal. On the negative side, there is no expertise on board to help with identifying the birds, and they don’t chum to bring the birds in or chase them across the water. I’ll take that trade-off once in a while.

Flounder

A happy fisherman lands a fluke.

 Posted by at 8:22 PM
Mar 082017
 

We birders live in an age of lists. For better or worse. Life lists, state lists, county lists, ABA lists, year lists, month lists, photo lists, big day lists, yard lists. We all keep them to varying extents.  I even met one famous birder who keeps a list of how many birds he photographs with each camera. (yes, he really does!)  Sometimes I get asked by beginning birders: what is the best way to keep track of your lists?  My answer is not simple, because it depends on how committed you are to your lists, and for most of us, that evolves over time.  It is likely that my history with listing parallels that of many other birders, so I will share my experiences here.

I suspect that many birders begin by using the checklists at the back of our field guides (especially those of us who grew up in an age less dominated by hand-held  electronic devices).  When we see a new species, immediately we check it off, either in the actual checklist or by putting a mark or some notes next to the image of that species. That’s as simple as it gets.  The problem that eventually occurs using this system, is that first of all, you don’t know exactly how many species you have seen unless you religiously keep a running tally, which is hard to do (did I remember to include the Iceland Gull that I saw last week in the running total?).  Secondly, at some point you will travel outside of the boundaries of your local field guide and will be seeing a whole new group of birds that will require a whole new field guide and a whole new checklist. For me, this first happened when I took my first trip out west, bought a Sibley guide of western US birds, and now was seeing Elegant Trogon and Painted Redstarts and Spotted Owls that were not in my Sibley Eastern Birds field guide. And when I traveled outside the US you can imagine that keeping a life list in this way became untenable. A final problem is that if you want to keep year lists or state lists, using the standard field guide checklist system just won’t work.

Sibleyguidelist

A page from my Eastern Sibley Guide index. It worked well as a checklist for a while, but after I started seeing Horned and Tufted Puffins in Alaska and other species not in the Eastern Guide, it became clear that this system was too limited.

A major improvement for keeping track of bird sightings came with the advent of eBird. If eBird is used to keep track of your sightings, eBird will do all of the record keeping for you.  Up-to-the-minute lists are generated for all your sightings, they are archived, and you can even look up how many species you have seen in any location within any timeframe (How many species have I seen in Sandy Hook since 2010?)  As a ‘bonus’, you can look up how your sightings list ranks compared to other eBirders (Hey, I have the sixth highest list for the state for this year!). So eBird is great for keeping track of multiple lists, with the only limitation being your willingness to enter every trip into the database.  From my perspective, I used to put all my sightings into eBird, until it felt more like work; it became a task that I really didn’t want to do yet felt compelled to do for completeness and it eventually detracted from the overall birding experience. Perhaps more importantly, I felt the inevitable competitive juices flowing and started birding just to climb higher up the county or state lists instead of going places that I simply enjoyed birding regardless of whether I was likely to see a new bird for the county or state.  A final minor complaint about eBird is that I like having my records in my own possession, and with eBird the records survive somewhere on the Cornell campus computer system. It might be possible to download them to my own computer, but that is beyond my abilities.  Nonetheless, eBird has grown immensely popular and will remain the keeper of records for the near future.

eBird ranking

NJ eBird top 100 rankings for 2016. eBird top 100 rankings can be generated easily, selecting for specific years (or for all time), and for a series of different geographical locations (world, country, state, county, and even for specific birding hotspots).

All of this begs the question of how I maintain my records.  I decided long ago to simply keep an Excel checklist file of my first records. I have separate columns for the bird’s name, the location where it was first sighted, the date, and two additional columns, where I add a ‘Y’ in one column if the bird was photographed and a ‘Y’ in the second column if it was seen in the ABA area. In this way, this single file keeps track of all of my lifers, ABA birds, and photographed birds. It is easily searchable (have I seen a Black-throated Sparrow, and if so, where and when?) and sortable (how many wren species have I seen?). By sorting on the dates, I can see what my 500th or 1,000th or 1,500th species was in the event that it becomes important.  I realize that my system is not for everybody, but it works well for me. It gives me the satisfaction of knowing how many birds I’ve seen and photographed without feeling drawn into competitive birding and excessive recordkeeping.  I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point in the near future that even this relatively simple method comes to a screeching halt too and I reach a stage where the numbers won’t matter at all.

List

A screen shot of part of my Excel file. So, for example, I know where and when my first Gyrfalcon was sighted, that it was lifer #1272, that it was seen in the ABA area, but I didn’t get a photograph.

 Posted by at 10:52 AM
Sep 192016
 

OK, let’s start off this way: pelagic trips and pelagic birding are not for everybody. But are they for me? Are they for you? I just returned back from a 20-hour pelagic birding trip yesterday, so I’ll share some thoughts and experiences from that trip here.

unboarding

Birders unboarding after a successful pelagic.

First of all, why would anybody want to go on a pelagic trip? From a birding perspective, that’s not too hard to understand: there are plenty of species that are difficult or impossible to see from land, and thus to find those birds we need to go where they live…out to sea. Secondly, it’s a great change of pace to be in a completely different environment out on the ocean, away from those nasty biting insects, as you relax on a boat with cool ocean breezes wafting through your hair as you spot new birds, whales, dolphins, sharks, and other sea life.

After painting that idealized picture, why aren’t we all going on pelagics? Well, I like to think of myself as having a positive attitude, so I won’t dwell on the potential negatives, but they include unreliable sea or weather conditions for boating, the potential for seasickness, the cost, and distant birds. I’ll return back to these items after describing how this trip fared.

scanning

Pelagic birding: part of our group scanning the open seas from the bow of the boat.

This excursion out of Wildwood NJ was organized by See Life Paulagics, a company run by Paul Guris. It was scheduled as an 18 hour overnighter, leaving dock at 10:30 PM, sailing out 90 miles to the 6,000 ft deep waters of the offshore ocean canyon. Paul explained that the water here was ~76 degrees, around 6 degrees warmer than the near-shore ocean temperatures. That temperature differential and the currents that bring the warm water here is the magnet that attracts interesting birds. Considering that you lose sight of land at around 18 miles from shore, much of our sailing was well beyond sight of land. Target birds included four species of storm-petrels, four shearwaters, three jaegers, and a petrel or two if we are lucky, most of which would be lifers for me or birds that I have only seen once or twice.

Immediately after boarding our 110 ft vessel, the Atlantic Star, we selected sleeping arrangements on benches or on the decks and within an hour or so tried to catch some sleep. It was not easy for me. Despite being quite tired and having seas that weren’t really that rough, the constant up-and-down motion of the boat made it tough to get much rest. Somewhere around 4:30AM we arrived at our destination, and I was glad to hear the engines finally slowing down. Then we started rocking side-to-side, and that didn’t help me at all. Since I had only been on one previous pelagic (in Westport, WA), where I had no problems whatsoever, I didn’t take much precaution other than packing the suggested non-greasy foods. In retrospect, that wasn’t a great move, and taking some Bonine or Dramamine would have been a wise decision. It was still dark, but the mates started laying out a chum line, and within another half hour or so it was light enough to start seeing some birds. I was feeling a bit queasy and didn’t want to be hanging over the railing, but I was not the only one having problems, as another passenger was adding his previous meal to the chumline and others (but not all) clearly were affected. That didn’t help. For the first few hours the uneasiness continued, but by getting out in the open air, concentrating on viewing the birds and watching the horizon, and eating small amounts of dry food (breakfast bars, pretzels), eventually I was able to eliminate the queasiness and feel comfortable again.

inside-the-cabin

Inside the main cabin, with part of the group either recovering or resting during a long day.

The problem was that when the birding was probably the best in the early morning, I was at my worst and not in much of a mood for sorting through tough-to-ID birds through unsteady bins. Still, good birds were there. Wilson’s Storm-petrel was a nemesis bird for me, one that I have attempted to see from land, but with no success. Out here they were the most numerous species, with frequent groups of these dainty birds touching upon the water with their long legs. Unfortunately they were often too distant for great photos, but they were fun to see. Two other storm-petrels that are much tougher to find in NJ waters (Leach’s and Band-rumped) occasionally were found in the mix during the first hour or two, but at that point it was tough for me to focus on the birds. Later in the trip a fourth storm-petrel, White-faced Storm-petrel, was seen momentarily by a few passengers before it disappeared into a wave trough.

wilsons-storm-petrels

A flock of Wilson’s Storm-petrels. This species has been a nemesis bird for me. It can be seen from land, but I hadn’t seen them before today.

wilsons

Cropped shot of a Wilson’s Storm-petrel.

The second most abundant bird today was Cory’s Shearwater. This is the largest shearwater in the world, with a wingspan of 44 inches. By its size, on this trip it could only be confused with the slightly smaller Great Shearwater, which was also present in decent numbers today. Cory’s has a gray hood, all-white undersides, and yellow bill, while Great Shearwater has black cap, black bill, and black streaks near the axillaries. Eventually I was able to ID them fairly easily. It was fun to see why they are called shearwaters, with amazing ability to fly low to the water, tilting occasionally to gain a bit of lift. The third shearwater that we saw today was the smaller Audubon’s Shearwater, a species that I saw last year in Tobago.

corys-shearwater

Cory’s Shearwater. It’s the largest shearwater in the world, best identified by its gray cap-and-neck combo and its yellow bill.

corys

A Cory’s Shearwater on the water. From this angle you can see why they are in the tubenose family.

great-shearing-water

Here’s a Great Shearwater showing how they earned their name, with its wingtip actually in the water. It is distinguished from the similar-sized Cory’s Shearwater by its black cap, thin black bill, and narrow white rump band.

great-shearwater-undersides

Undersides of a Great Shearwater. The marked underwing contrasts with the clean white underwing of Cory’s. Look at the length of those wings relative to the body!

The birding highlight of the day was seeing two Black-capped Petrels. In both cases the petrel was originally found on the water, mixed in with shearwaters. When Paul excitedly screamed out “Black-capped Petrel…second bird from the left”, anybody would recognize that it was a ‘good bird’ just by the volume of his voice. This was a well-behaved bird, flying left, then right, then back again, ensuring that everyone aboard had plenty of satisfactory views. Like a classic diva bird that knows it’s the star of the show.

black-capped-petrel

Black-capped Petrel. This bird of the day put on a great show. It’s a tough bird to see in NJ, as it’s a southern species that likes warm water. We saw two on this trip.

black-capped-petrel-uppersides

Soaring Black-capped Petrel. Note the large white rump patch that easily distinguishes it from the larger Great Shearwater.

As the trip progressed, the leaders occasionally would shout out ‘sky bird’. This was a sign that something different was being sighted, as the shearwaters, petrels, and storm-petrels tend to fly close to the water. Any bird flying high enough to be seen against the sky had a chance to be something else, with terns, gulls, and jaegers being on that list. In fact, the group did see eight distant Bridled Terns on this trip, a Parasitic Jaeger, and two Long-tailed Jaegers. One Long-tailed Jaeger must have taken cooperativity lessons from the Black-capped Petrel, as it sailed towards us and then continued directly over mid-ship. Nice.

long-tailed-jaeger

An immature Long-tailed Jaeger.

In addition to the birds, we were fortunate to see other types of sea life, including a Hammerhead Shark, a few Portuguese Man-o-Wars (or is it ‘Men-o-War’?), a flock of acrobatic Spotted Dolphins, a few Pilot Whales, a pair of likely Gervais’ Whales breaching, a Mola, and a few turtles. All great to see.

As we were returning back to port, the inevitable question returned: would I do it over again? And if so, what would I change? Or would I recommend this kind of trip to others? I think that any serious birder needs to try a pelagic to see if it is their cup of tea. To put this trip into perspective, four NJ review species (Black-capped Petrel, Leach’s Storm-petrel, Band-rumped Storm-petrel, and White-faced Storm-petrel) were seen on this outing. On the other hand, I would probably not recommend starting with an overnighter. The spring and fall warm-water trips in NJ need to get out to the canyons to reach the warm currents that the target species love, but for winter pelagics it is not necessary to go as far out to reach the target alcids and winter gulls. I’d definitely recommend starting with a shorter trip. And by all means take simple precautions and Bonine or Dramamine to avoid seasickness. The See Life Paulagics web site has suggestions for preventing seasickness; I should have heeded all of their advice instead of just some.  Paul’s outfit is essentially the only option for pelagic trips in the NY/NJ/PA area, and they run a great ship, complete with multiple highly experienced leaders who are spotting and calling out tough birds, communicating with each other using a wireless microphone system. They lay out a chum line to try to draw birds in towards the boat, but will chase good birds (and mammals) when necessary to get better views. So will I become a regular member of the pelagic group? I doubt it. Will I go again? Yes. Maybe I’ll see you there at the dock.

 Posted by at 4:37 PM
Mar 272016
 

We modern birders have been spoiled by Sibley. And Peterson. And NatGeo. And whatever other bird guide or app that you use. And today I’m thinking that maybe it’s not completely to our benefit. Imagine for a moment that you are a birder in 1999, a year before The Sibley Guide to Birds was published. Or better yet, in 1933, a year before The Peterson Guide to Birds of North America first saw the light of day. As a birder in those times, if you saw a bird, how would you identify it? If you were lucky, you would be birding with a mentor who has lots of experience, and they would share their accumulated knowledge of the birds that you were seeing and hearing. Or more likely, you would sketch an unfamiliar bird and take notes so that you could remember all the details of its plumage, structure, habitat, and behavior. In other words, you would have to make observations yourself, since there was no authoritative field guide to help.
Fieldguides
That would be terrible, wouldn’t it? Well, today I’m not so sure. I have all of those books and a couple apps that are chock-full of information about all of the bird species found in North America, along with a smattering of guides depicting South America and Central America species. Yet here I am once again returning to my Sibley Guide and once again looking up something that I’ve looked up before. Let’s see…are the legs of a Piping Plover yellow or black? Is that a Common Tern or a Forster’s Tern? Do all adult Pileated Woodpeckers have that much red on the head, or is it just the males? And on and on. So what’s the problem? Why can’t I remember a bird after I’ve seen it? Either my memory is terrible, or I’m expecting myself to remember too many facts, or I’m trying to learn the wrong way. Yes, my memory is fading and I have high expectations of myself. But let’s consider for a moment the third possibility; that we are trying to learn birds in an inefficient way.

Let’s pause for a moment and look in the mirror. I suspect that we all have multiple field guides or apps to help us with identifying birds. But how do we use them? My experience is that very few birders even carry field guides into the field (think about the irony there!), and even fewer use them while birding. Novice birders tend to rely upon the experts in the group to tell them what birds they are seeing, and more advanced birders typically are trying to see as many species as they can, not learning more about the birds that they are seeing.

I’ll readily admit that the abundance of birding books and electronic resources can be extremely helpful; it’s empowering to have all the collective knowledge of any species at our fingertips. But is all of this information a learning tool or a crutch? There is a world of difference between having a book or app that contains information about birds and knowing those birds. Most of us need to develop habits that will help us to really see and remember the birds. In other words, we should be trying to learn the details of birds the way that Sibley learned them, by looking carefully at individual birds or groups of birds and asking questions. What are the distinguishing characteristics of this bird? How do I know what species this is? How can I distinguish it from any potentially confusing species? Are any secondary characteristics inconsistent with our identification? Does it have any distinctive behaviors? Is it an adult or an immature bird? Is it a male or a female? Is it molting or has it recently molted? If so, what is the molt pattern? Asking these types of questions will force you to look more closely at the bird, essentially teaching yourself. And if you can’t answer all of those questions for any bird, even the common ones, then watch it longer. You can try to rely upon your memory, but other options might help: take photos to analyze later, sketch the bird if you can, or write field notes of your own observations. At some point, look into your field guide while the bird is still there and see if there are any other traits that you might have missed.

Screen Shot 2016-03-28 at 11.15.33 AM Mar 28, 2016

Simple field notes from Roger Tory Peterson.

So my advice for today: (1) slow down and observe the bird carefully, taking note of its structure, behavior, and plumage, and (2) bring your field guide with you and use it in the field, not afterward. The major point is to force yourself to look closely at the bird first, and not leave it to Sibley or Peterson or Nat Geo to do all the observations for you. Try this approach. Enjoy the process of learning the birds with your own observations, supplemented by the field guides, instead of rushing from bird to bird.

 Posted by at 8:22 PM
Apr 282015
 

For the past two days I temporarily moved out of strict birdwatcher mode and decided to do something a little different. Why not?…although migrants continue to trickle in (first-of-season Brown Thrasher appeared for me today), the big push of spring migration has not yet happened, so it seemed like a good time to take a break. On Monday I participated on a survey route of 24 Eastern Bluebird nest boxes. It was quite a treat that started out by viewing examples of nests of some of our cavity-nesting birds; the Bluebird’s neatly woven cup of dried pine needles, the moss-lined cup of Carolina Chickadee, the Carolina Wren’s soft dried grass cup overlaid on a platform of twigs, and the taller fluffy nest of the House Sparrow. When we ventured out to examine the boxes, at least 4 boxes contained delicate blue eggs in a cup of pine needles: Eastern Bluebird eggs!

Bluebird eggs2

Four gorgeous clear blue Eastern Bluebird eggs. Note the finely interwoven nest of dried pine needles.

A few boxes showed early signs of being occupied, including several that contained mossy deposits indicative of Chickadee occupation. Thankfully there was no evidence of House Sparrow nests in any of the boxes. It was a great experience seeing the nests close-up.

Today was a continuation of the same theme. Amazingly, the person who took care of the bluebird boxes in our village decided to relinquish her post as of yesterday. With a grand total of one day experience, the responsibility of taking care of our own boxes fell upon my shoulders (the birding gods must be laughing with glee at this ‘coincidence’ that they arranged). The ‘route’ in our village is much smaller, with only nine boxes, two of which are in dire need of repair. Despite a lack of care so far this year, two of the boxes already were occupied by Bluebird nests, with 4 eggs in each box. That is great news. I’m looking forward to watching the progress of the nests and the young, repairing the damaged boxes, reporting the results on-line, and perhaps even expanding the number of nest boxes in the village. It’s my small attempt to move beyond being simply a birdwatcher. Its a great feeling already, and I highly recommend that all birders out there find their own analogous project.

 Posted by at 8:42 PM
Jan 302015
 

It’s my favorite phrase when birding: “Geez, you don’t see that every day!”.  Today I uttered it once again while biking to the local beach.  As we often do while commuting, I was scanning the birds along the side of the road, on the fences, and on the power lines. For the most part it was the usual suspects:
Starlings:
Starlings wire
Mourning Doves:
Doves wire
Fish Crows:
Crow wire
Mockingbirds:
Mocker wire
Grackles:
Grackles wire
White Ibis:
Ibis wire
WHITE IBIS?  On power lines?   Geez, you don’t see that every day. At least not where I live.

 Posted by at 4:52 PM
Jan 182015
 

We tend to take our local patches and our common birds for granted. One of the pleasures of birding while traveling though is that we get the opportunity to experience the common birds of another location that might be difficult to see in our own patch. This happened to me this morning as I was birding a small community park. Actually it was more of a recreation complex, consisting mostly of tennis courts and ball fields, but bordered by a small waterway and scrub area along a power line cut. It’s not a destination that traveling birders flock to. Few people outside of the neighborhood or the county visit here. But it struck me how the birds that we saw in a mere 30 minutes with very little effort can be seen here nearly every day of the week, yet they would have filled the rare bird alerts back in New Jersey. Imagine a day in NJ with Anhingha, Loggerhead Shrike, Common Gallinule, Wood Stork, Sandhill Crane, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Nanday Parakeet, Monk Parakeet, Red-shouldered Hawk, and Tricolored Heron. But here in this simple local patch in Florida its just another day. Here’s a few photos from this morning’s walk:

Anhingha

An adult male Anhingha posing.

Wood Stork railing

A Wood Stork perched behind one of the neighborhood homes.

Loggerhead

One of the two Loggerhead Shrikes hunting around the ball fields. Or maybe its waiting to play soccer?

Monk

Monk Parakeets were feeding and gathering nest material here.

Common Gallinule

A Common Gallinule (formerly Common Moorhen)

 Posted by at 11:07 AM
Jan 082015
 

I am a big fan of surprises in birding. Usually the best surprises are seeing unexpected birds…rarities or out-of-season birds. Today involved a surprise of a different kind. In preparation for this month-long trip to Florida I did a bit of pre-trip investigation, looking up the birding hotspots and trying to get an idea of the species expected to be seen at those locations during this time of year. Today, while roaming around the neighborhood by bike here in Florida, I spotted a break in the mangroves with a Reddish Egret hunting in the shallow lagoon. Great. When I parked the bike, the surprises kept coming. A Roseate Spoonbill. Fly-by Wood Storks. More Roseate Spoonbills. A few Tri-colored Herons. I sat down on the bank with my camera, and then 20 or so White Ibis appeared from out of nowhere. Little Blue Herons approached almost too close to focus. From that one unnamed spot I had a total of nine species of waders within 50 yards (and usually much closer) behaving as if I wasn’t there, plus flyover Glossy Ibis, making it a 10-wader stop. All unexpected. I love surprises when birding.

Group photo

A sample of the group. Can you name the five species present here?

Tricolored

A Tricolored Heron in the mangroves. Natural lighting looking un-natural.

Reddish hunting

A Reddish Egret in its hunting pose. It chases its prey, often with wings raised, unlike more stationary hunters like Great Egret.

Little Blue Heron

A trusting Little Blue Heron investigating the strange photographer on the shoreline.

 Posted by at 5:45 PM
Apr 302014
 

Its springtime here in the northeast, and the migrants are coming through and filling the air with song, bringing us to today’s topic. When searching for birds, most beginning birders focus on the ‘watching’ part of birdwatching; looking for bright colors and trying to spot movements that reveal the presence of a bird. That is a very reasonable place to begin, but perhaps the main difference between novice and experienced birders is that skilled birders are much more attuned to finding birds by using their ears. We birders are fortunate that birds often make sounds that reveal their presence, unlike animals like deer, reptiles, butterflies, etc. that typically remain silent to avoid detection. This is incredibly valuable because evencupped ear the most colorful birds can be very difficult to find when they are not moving. Bird sounds can range from full-scale songs intended to advertise territory or to attract a mate, to contact calls for communicating with their partners or other members of their flock, to warning calls signaling that danger is near, to begging calls from juveniles to their parents. Many of these sounds are distinct for a particular species and can even be used to distinguish species that are outwardly very similar.

It is intuitive that using the two senses of sight and hearing to finds birds will result in greater success than using only one of them, but it is perhaps not so obvious that birding by ear often is actually more productive than using vision. This is due to the fact that we can hear all around us while our vision is restricted to just a portion of the view in front, so birding by ear enables detection of birds in all directions. Moreover, sounds travel around obstacles, so a bird that is obscured by a leaf or a branch might not be visible, but can still be heard. Thus, under the most difficult viewing conditions, such as when birds are singing from within thick foliage, or from the dense reeds of a marsh, or even at night when we can’t see them at all, they can still be identified if they are vocalizing. As a gauge of its importance, I estimate that when I am birding for spring migrants, perhaps 70% of the birds are located and identified first by sound, and only subsequently by sight. That means that if you are only birding by sight, then you are missing well more than half of the birds in the area.

Assuming that you now are convinced that birding by ear is a useful skill that can bring your birding to a new level, how then do we go about developing that skill? I pass along two suggestions that I found helpful. First of all, birding by ear is a skill that does not just happen because we want it to happen. It is something that we need to develop actively. Although it is theoretically possible to download recordings of bird songs and attempt to memorize them one by one, in practice this is not a realistic goal. Most of us simply do not have the ear to distinguish and memorize hundreds of songs without first learning HOW to do it. Fortunately, instructional series exist that teach the songs of many bird species, and it is well worth the investment to Petersonsacquire these lessons. I highly recommend the Peterson Field Guides Birding By Ear and More Birding By Ear discs. These lessons teach bird song brilliantly using a few simple techniques. First, the bird songs are placed into logical groups (Warblers with simple songs, Warblers with complex songs, Thrushes, Vireos, Woodpeckers, etc.) that typically consist of four to seven species, thereby simplifying the process. Thus, even if we can’t at first identify the species, at least we can narrow it down to a small group of possibilities. Second, within the groups, the songs are repeated and compared to each other, stimulating the learning process. Finally, the methods used in these lessons train us to listen to the structure of the song, its length, its volume, and its tone. The same methods can be used to analyze the songs of any new species that might be heard. For example, if I travel to a foreign country and hear a song for the first time, I immediately take note of whether the song consists of simple repeated notes or has a more complex structure, whether the song changes in volume or pitch, and whether it has multiple parts. Similar to the way we learn key identification points when birding visually, these lessons teach the audible clues that are diagnostic for common bird species.

Learning all the bird songs, however, is only part of the story. A second step is to develop techniques that make it possible to hear and register as many sounds as possible. Of utmost importance, birding ideally should be done quietly to enable hearing weak, high-pitched, or distant sounds. But even moreso, we need to train ourselves to immediately connect that sound with the correct species. I have found it an extremely helpful exercise to walk through the woods, consciously (and quietly) saying the name of each species that I hear. As this process is repeated, I find that it has enabled me to recognize more sounds or deeper layers of sounds than I had recognized previously. It is as if by the act of saying the birds name, your mind actively registers for example that there is a Cardinal on the left and an Ovenbird is ahead and a Black-throated Green Warbler is directly above, and then it starts listening for more. If you hear a sound and can’t say the name of the bird, then it is time to stop and figure it out before moving on, since you will likely meet that species again later in the day. This skill is probably analogous to listening to a complex piece of music, where a casual listener upon first exposure might hear only the most obvious parts of the piece, whereas a trained musician immediately hears the deeper layers created by the strings, horns, vocals, and percussion lines.

Now a few parting thoughts. Don’t expect birding by ear to be a simple process, but do expect it to be very rewarding as your skills improve. Consider it a long-term goal that you will not achieve in a single year. It is not necessary to know every song of every bird. Focus first on the sounds of your local resident species; anticipate what will be the most abundant 10 or 20 species in your area, learn their songs, and then you simply need to listen for new songs when birding, which will result in finding new birds. Don’t be surprised if you will need to refresh your memory of the songs and calls of migrants every year when they come through. Above all, hang in there and enjoy the process. Take joy and satisfaction from the new songs that you have learned rather than becoming frustrated because you don’t yet know them all. It will come with time. It is a great feeling to reach the stage where you can walk through the woods confidently knowing which birds are making those beautiful sounds without even raising your binoculars.

More advice can be found HERE in part 2 of this series, or go back to part 1.

 Posted by at 3:50 PM