Sunday, April 13, 2014

Pledge to Fledge - Every Day!

The weekend of April 25th-27th is Pledge to Fledge weekend. P2F is a grassroots movement by the Global Birding Initiative (GBI) to inspire experienced birders to take non-birders out on a birding excursion. Through these introductions, people will develop an appreciation for birds and nature, with many of them becoming casual birders. And we all know what happens to casual birders - they become serious birders, who then become whatever we call birders who drive 150 miles through raging blizzards to see a "possible" Slaty-backed Gull.



Here's the actual pledge:

"I pledge to actively share my enthusiasm for birds with non-birders by taking them into the field to show them birds and foster their own appreciation for birds whenever possible. I will strive to be friendly, patient, helpful, and welcoming when approached by ‘non-birders’ or asked about birds by acquaintances.  I believe that individual birders, as part of an international grassroots movement, can effect positive and profound change for our shared birds and their future."

That's good stuff. And it works. I'd encourage everyone to check out the P2F website for ideas. The key to the pledge is that "whenever possible" part. It's nice to have an official weekend, but we should be taking non-birders out birding whenever we can. We should be friendly, patient, helpful, and welcoming to non-birding strangers we encounter every single time we go birding. For me, one of the great pleasures of birding is that moment when a stranger walks up and asks if I'm looking at birds. I reply that I'm checking out a Sandhill Crane. The stranger gasps, saying she's never seen one. I point over her shoulder and tell her she walked past one within 30 feet of the boardwalk 90 seconds ago. 
Sandhill Crane, Lake Lansing Park North, Ingham County, Michigan
That's a true story from several days ago, and things like that happen all the time. 

I was interviewed on a local radio program last weekend about birding. It's a pet talk show, but they do a wild bird show every spring. One of the points I stress every time I'm on that show is how many different birds are right here in Ingham County, Michigan. Ask a non-birder with a very casual appreciation for nature how many birds can be seen in a year in your local area. The answers will probably vary from a dozen to maybe 40 or 50. Depending on where you live, the actual answer could be almost ten times that number.  


Red-bellied Woodpecker


Here in Ingham County, the Big Year record is 228. That blows non-birders' minds. With very little effort and a cheap pair of binoculars, anyone could get a hundred birds in a suburban yard with a wooded area around here. For someone who thinks the only birds in the neighborhood are "crow, chickadee, robin, cardinal, woodpecker, sparrow, and blackbird," hearing that is a challenge. A casual birder is born.

With the whole P2F thing in mind, I want to stress one other thing. When taking a non-birder out, remember that you don't need to make it an excursion that would impress the likes of the late Roger Tory Peterson. Pick a spot with a lot of charismatic and fun birds. I call them ambassador birds, because they're good ambassadors for the hobby. A vagrant sandpiper or a very early sparrow may be the stuff that gets birders' blood flowing, but those aren't the kind of birds that rock the worlds of the non-birder. By all means, if there's a vagrant sandpiper, scope it and tell its story. Talk about wrong-turns in migration, climate change, random chance. Just make sure you show (and allow) that same excitement for a close up of a Yellow Warbler. 
Yellow is a happy color, so use an Evening Grosbeak as an ambassador. (Hartwick Pines State Park, Michigan)
I've been using Hooded Mergansers as ambassador birds around here lately. We have a trail system that runs along two local rivers connecting downtown Lansing, our zoo, a couple parks, and the Michigan State University Campus. It's heavy walked/jogged/biked. No one stops to look at the river. No one notices the absolutely absurd-looking duck floating by. At least not until they run past when I'm there. A weird guy staring intently through binoculars at the river causes a percentage of the trail joggers to stop and inquire what I'm all about. Most of them have no idea what a Hooded Merganser is and are flabbergasted such a creature is commonplace on these streams. 
I've seen hundreds of Hooded Mergansers and I STILL think they're crazy!
Herons make great ambassador birds as they tend to stay in one place long enough to show them off. Warblers don't share that trait, but if you get one in the open, use that bird to recruit! And then there's the ambassador of ambassadors:

Bald Eagles are one of the most "in" of our inside birding jokes. Strangers love to come up to binocular-toting folks like us and tell us about a place we can go to see real live eagles. They aren't aware that Bald Eagles are conspicuous and easy to find over much of North America. So we smile and pretend to be excited about the information. At least I hope we do. Dismissing a non-birder's enthusiasm about an eagle with a lecture on how common they are to birders is precisely the opposite of what we should be doing. Embrace eagle enthusiasm! Dare I say, take a non-birder out to see eagles. It is shocking to me how many people live near me in Michigan who have (as far as they know) never seen a Bald Eagle. Some of them have surely seen immature eagles and not known it. Most have just never looked in the right place at the right time. Namely, "up" and "whenever".

We all know how we can chase a nemesis bird for years, and then, after finally finding it, you start to see the bird regularly. The same thing happens with eagles. Show a newbie an eagle, and suddenly they notice them everywhere. Then a magical thing happens. That person starts caring more about pesticides in lakes, toxic lead shot, wetland destruction, and anything else that might hurt the beautiful birds turning up everywhere.

It can all start with an eagle. Or a duck. Or a warbler. Or a heron. It starts when we let someone into this world of ours and show them that birding is fun.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Thing with Feathers: A Bird Book Review by Laurence Butler


Only last month a very intriguing book hit the market. The Thing with Feathers, enjoyably written by renowned ABA contributor, birding guru, and ecology expert Noah Strycker, hit the market (Amazon retail $20) with relatively little fanfare (what bird-centerred book doesn't, except To Kill a Mockingbird? We birders are a quiet lot.but with a bold, even discomforting mission: to examine, "The surprising lives of birds and what they reveal about being human."

I found the overall structure of the book to be delightful, both easy to read while simultaneously stimulating and intellectually provocative. It is neither field guide, biology manual, nor simply a birding memoir or novella, and as such it occupies a more unique niche within the world of bird literature. It is, as one might guess, centered on the birdies, but it is also very accessible to muggles (non-birders) and many of the superlative bird characteristics will impress the neutral reader in their own right. They might even prompt him or her to start scanning the tree tops.
Mr. Strycker skillfully blends aspects of statistics, philosophy, the fine arts, and plenty of fascinating bird behaviors with his own personal anecdotes. The compilation of essays examine different remarkable, one might even say extreme behaviors of birds and their similarities to human behaviors, even behaviors once thought unique to people. These examinations run the gamut between existential wondering, love, dancing, and social hierarchies. They in turn prompt questions about natural selection and the development of these behaviors in the various respective species. I should mention right away though that this is no apologia for birds as being equals of human in sentience or emotion.
It is not a series of stances, but intriguing observations and postulations backed up with well-managed data and enjoyably communicated reasoning.


The first sense Mr. Strycker addresses is navigation, or homing, examining Pigeons and Shearwaters as some of the foremost and well known demonstrators of this uncanny skill. Even when removed thousands of miles form their homes, the birds can use magnetism, landmarks, the stars, polarized light, and even smell--physical senses that are not really accessible, or even relatable, to humans (for that matter, so is self-propelled flight) to find their way home.
In conjunction with these impressive navigational abilities, Strycker also examines the wanderlust of Snowy Owls, progenitors of a peregrinating complex much more complicated than a simple economic relationship to the population of arctic lemmings. Snowies have been all the rage these last two winters, but revealing data has shown that most of the vagrant birds captured are in very good health and have expanded their normal diet to include fish, birds, and other mammals (and whatever that bird in Hawaii was eating), and may be moving more so to find new territory and space farther south than to simply forage. This certainly is encouraging news to one such as myself, who has not been able to enjoy the Snowy irruptions yet.
Resilient people have their reasons for moving from place to place, and in the case of Snowies, this may be an essential trait developed in a capricious and merciless arctic environment.

Female Snowy Owl, courtesy of Wikipedia

While the rugged and relatable individualism of the wandering Snowy Owls has a clear 'wow' factor, Strycker also elaborates on some fascinating group dynamics seen in the bird world. And as much as we humans like to think of ourselves as unique, independent individuals, we must also conceded that a major portion of our existence is spent both seeking and trying to cooperate with human communities.

Strycker also discusses the fascinating studies behind massive and mesmerizing flocks of European Starling, the emergent, spontaneous order (or, as he concludes, not quite so spontaneous) that allows millions of birds to fly in such close proximity without colliding amid constant changes of direction and velocity. The Starlings, like Pigeons examined before and people too, are able to comprehend and orient themselves in relation to seven other bodies. Doing this while abiding by the other physical rules of their self-propulsion is something that is mathematically replicable, as it turns out, but no less beautiful. A big, floating, natural, free market or something...


Strycker's examination of chicken coup pecking-orders, a brutish reality of a social structure that's still better than all of its alternatives, and the much more amiable, cooperative nesting of Australian Fairy Wrens are equally well-researched and fascinating reads, be it from the statistician, naturalist, or trivial pursuit sort of perspective. 
The Fairy Wren section featured a very enjoyable discussion of the infamous economic "prisoner's dilemma" and the social merits of being abusive vs. charitable as a method for long term species survival. In the end, charity and cooperation seem to win out, especially if one can find somebody else to help take care of one's kids.

At the other end of the social spectrum, life is nasty, brutish, and often short for Hummingbirds, in large part because they live life on the edge, and not just in a catchy, take a long weekend and don't wear sunscreen kind of living life on the edge. No, their heart rates and metabolisms, when active, just as when sleeping, leave them so continually near death's doorstep such that if they stopped moving for more than a few minutes, they might just disappear altogether.

There are plenty of other enjoyable essays as well. The examination of fear in penguins, both learned and instinctual, will no doubt be a favorite of many readers, as may the investigation of resonating music with dancing parrots and other birds--a realm of boogying long thought reserved for only the most dignified of primates and bipeds. 
My personal favorite section involved the examination of self-consciousness (in the simple, literal sense of the word) with Magpies and their many other proofs of cleverness, including vocal mimicry as a seeming prerequisite in animals for self-realization and luring cats into oncoming traffic.  

A criminal mastermind, courtesy of wikipedia

Some of the essays, especially towards the end of the book, do not really follow through with the "what they reveal about being human" angle of the title. This does not make them any less fascinating to read, but the conclusions or applications of the exceedingly interesting studies are sometimes, by comparison, a bit mild or obvious. 
Consistently applying a myriad of different birds behaviors to human behaviors would always be the biggest challenge, especially because while not every reader has informed opinions about bird behaviors and their implications, we certainly all have opinions about our own. 
It must also be said that Strycker is very careful and considerate in his reasonings, trying to include as many possibilities or causes with behaviors, especially regarding natural selection, as can be manageably discussed.

With so many different topics addressed, it's almost inevitable that readers will take umbrage with some conclusion or evaluation at some point in the book, especially because birders, sociologists, scientists, and others who may be most interested in this read tend to be an eccentrically informed and opinionated bunch. In my opinion is all the more reason to give it a go since Strycker's arguments, even if contrary, are still informative and, at the very least, educational. 
My personal quibble came during his examination of the industrious Bowerbirds and the similarities between their creations, which are orchestrated for finding mates, and human fine art...which may well often be orchestrated for finding mates. 
To...err hem...illustrate the point, Strycker muses, "...then who are we to judge what is art and what isn't? It's just too hard, and probably hypocritical, to limit art to people...If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then art, by definition, is in the intention of its maker."
I'd quibble that the pleasure we get when enjoying a work of art comes from it being, by some general estimation, beautiful, but there is more to a work of art than that. We can call many things beautiful, like a car or a table or a pair of binoculars can be beautiful because they are well and skillfully made. This craftsmanship is one factor that enters into the estimation of a thing's beauty. We derive pleasure from recognizing the craft, and also purely from beholding it, from its aesthetic. However, a poorly made car, table, or pair of binoculars would not register with us as beautiful, both because it lacks craft and because we may additionally find it aesthetically unappealing. There should be a certain accounting for taste, of course, but also a recognition of the know-how, the skill and complexity involved in a work of art. The more we know about the difficulty and complexity of an art, the more we can judge it and appreciate it, it has an expanded capacity to be beautiful to be great, to be fine, and we judge it by its fulfillment of this capacity. As such, I'd say people can actually and with a fair amount of objectivity judge what is art and what is good art.
Intending something to be art does not make it art; it makes it an attempt at art.

Now perhaps what I enjoyed most about Strycker's book was it made me revisit and ponder many different enjoyable things--game theory, behavioralism, Aristotle, art--and while I did not always agree with his premises when the conversation turned farther away from birds, they still provoked a response, which is a high testament to the quality and interest in the stories. This is a book that, at times, may be disagreeable--though it is predominantly fascinating and a joy to read--but that is no way deters the reader from continuing. 
For its exciting story telling, careful and continually intriguing philosophical musings, and thorough attachment to the amazing and under-publicized abilities of birds, I highly recommend Noah Strycker's
The Thing with Feathers as a work of behavioral and social studies, as well as fun bird stories.  

Monday, April 7, 2014

Flyaway Home


Like a bird, can I fly away home, flyaway home again?


Is there a place where I can roam, where I can roam,



over a wooded glen?


Like a bird I search for a nest, I search for a place to be,


If I keep searching will I finally find, finally find



a nesting place for me?


If I try can I sing a new song, sing a new song of the sea?



From desert to ocean I've found a new home, found a new home,


found a new nest just for me.


~Kathie Adams Brown (April 7, 2014)



After driving 2700 miles from Tucson to Maine I am finally settling in to my new nest in Brunswick. Two weeks after arriving here I left to go to Florida with my mother where we visited my brother. Of course, while I was there I counted birds. I am still going through those photos while trying to stay current with blogging about all the new birds I am seeing. You can read all the latest updates on my blog, Kathie's Birds as well as read about my epic search for the Florida Scrub Jay while I was there. It was while I was in Florida that I missed my first ever BiF monthly blogpost. For anyone who was waiting for it, I do apologize. 

Migration has begun and new birds are arriving everyday. I've already counted 40 species of birds in my new yard and I am liking my new life so far. In the morning the song sparrows sing me awake and at dusk I watch the sky fade to darkness while American Woodcocks fill the twilight with a chorus of buzzy "peents!" I never thought I would have Woodcocks for yard birds! Thank you for reading my blogposts. I so enjoy reading your comments!

Canada Goose on nest at Great Meadows Wildlife Meadows, Massachusetts 2012

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Birding Arizona for the First Time

My last Snowy Owl of the invasion (at least for now as they are still here!)

Without the Snowy Owl invasion, this past winter would have been unbearable in Minnesota.  It has been the coldest winter in 30 years with no shortage of snow and blizzards. So my family welcomed the chance to go visit my snow bird parents in Maricopa, Arizona a couple weeks ago.  While I was looking forward to seeing my parents, I was really excited to go birding in Arizona for the first time.  Though I have visited the state numerous times in my life, this was the first time since I became a birder.

The top target for me was the Burrowing Owl.  I just had to see one.  Fellow Birding is Fun! contributor, Laurence Butler, guaranteed me I'd see one when I visited the Phoenix area.  I couldn't wait.  Though Arizona literally has over a hundred birds I have never seen, I also really wanted to see a Cinnamon Teal and a Vermilion Flycatcher among others.

Our flight got into Phoenix before 7:00 AM, and as we were driving to my parents' subdivision in Maricopa, we found one of my top targets on man-made pond - the Cinnamon Teal.

Cinnamon Teal
As we viewed the teal, I also picked up two other lifers: the Great-tailed Grackle and the Neotropic Cormorant.  When we finally got to my parents' house, I couldn't stand to be inside.  One, because the warmth felt amazing and two, because there were life birds to be found everywhere!  While standing in my parents' backyard and walking around their neighborhood I picked up Black-chinned Hummingbird, Say's Phoebe, Verdin, Gila Woodpecker, Northern Mockingbird, and Rufous Hummingbird.  It was phenomenal. Still, the one I was dying to go after was that Burrowing Owl.

About an hour before dusk on that first day we finally went for a drive to see if we could find one.  And find one we did.  My wife was the first one to spot a Burrower.  It was an exciting moment for the entire family to see this cool, little owl.

Burrowing Owl
And my wife kept finding more! Three more to be exact.




I could not believe our luck - 4 Burrowing Owls!  But it got better because then I spotted two more on another road, and my mom found a couple as well.  8 Burrowing Owls in all. It was absolutely crazy.






To top off such a successful night, I picked up my Black-necked Stilt and Swainson's Hawk lifers as well.

Black-necked Stilt
The Burrowing Owl fun didn't end on that drive either.  We ended up finding two pairs of them in the city of Maricopa, bringing our total to 12 Burrowing Owls for the trip - 11 more than I was looking for!  This one pair was pretty special as it was a short bike ride from my parents' house allowing us to visit it often.





A fellow I bumped into in the neighborhood had told me this pair of Burrowing Owls was always on this wall and that their burrow was right under the sidewalk by the stop sign.

Burrowing Owl burrow underneath the sidewalk


On one of the days we were checking out our Burrowing buddies, we bumped into another major target bird - the Vermilion Flycatcher!

Vermilion Flycatcher


Now all major targets had been achieved without looking too hard for them.  I did some serious birding when I teamed up with Laurence Butler to explore the Sonoran Desert in the Phoenix Mountains Preserve. It was a pleasure to meet Laurence in person and have this experienced birder show us his local birds.  I picked up numerous lifers with Laurence, such as this Black-throated Sparrow.

Black-throated Sparrow
It was also a treat to see the state bird, the Cactus Wren.

Cactus Wren
And this Phainopepla.

Phainopepla
But the best, and most memorable life bird of the desert excursion with Laurence was this Long-eared Owl.  Laurence had a plan to go after one that afternoon, and the plan was wildly successful.  It was a heart-thumping, high-fiving experience when we found this guy.

Long-eared Owl
We encountered many other lifers on that outing - Gilded Flicker, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Abert's Towhee, Curve-billed Thrasher, Costa's Hummingbird, and Anna's Hummingbird.  It was an unbelievably good time.

After hitting all three major targets and going birding with Laurence, the rest of the trip was anticlimatic.  I did pick up some additional lifers, including Inca Dove, Common Gallinule, and Snowy Egret.  All told, I had 28 lifers (I'm sure I'm forgetting to mention some in this post) for the trip!  

But then it was back to Minnesota and back to reality with an early April blizzard.

American Tree Sparrow

For more pictures and more stories about Arizona, head over to my blog A Boy Who Cried Heron.  Also, check out the blog for the story of the really rare bird I just found in Minnesota that has been submitted as a county first record to the Minnesota Ornithologists' Union.


Thursday, April 3, 2014

Clips & Crops: Brown Thrasher

It's best not to get too close the nest of a bird. There is the risk that they may abandon it or the nestlings may be frightened and leave before they are ready to fly. Your path may leave a scent trail or disturb foliage, inviting predators to explore your track. As a youngster already interesting in bird life I was not aware of these issues. However, I will never forget the fire in the bright yellow eyes of a Brown Thrasher that threatened me as I approached its nest in a low bush. It never touched me, but flew at me and really gave me a scare!

I'm not afraid of snakes or spiders or bats, but every time I see those thrasher eyes they threaten to rekindle an atavistic fear somewhere deep within me.

Brown Thrasher 20140212

On February 12, near the entrance to Chapel Trail Nature Preserve near our South Florida home, I heard the distinctive double phrases of a thrasher's song. Similar enough to that of the related mockingbird's, it might be overlooked, but this bird's song seemed to overwhelm the sounds of its much more common relatives.

If the 30-second video does not appear in the space below, follow this link



A few Brown Thrashers nest in our general area but so far they have appeared locally only during migration and winter. 

Brown Thrasher 3-20140212

Alert and often secretive, their brown backs sometimes look so red that when one flashes by I can mistake it for a cardinal.

Brown Thrasher 3-20100428

Thrashers are more often heard than seen, either because of their distinctive loud song and calls, or by the noise they create while "thrashing" about in leaf litter, scratching with both feet to uncover insect prey. It is nice to find one out in the open...

Brown Thrasher 2-20111107

...but in many of my photos they are obscured by foliage.

Brown Thrasher 20121009

Actually, the thrasher may have gotten its name, not because of any wild and violent movement on its part, but from an old English word, "thresher" or "thrusher," meaning a thrush. REFERENCE 

Indeed, mockingbirds, catbirds and thrashers are grouped in the family Mimidae, or Mimic Thrushes. Their body and bill profiles are all quite similar. 

Northern Mockingbird:

Northern Mockingbird 20121213

Gray Catbird:

Gray Catbird 20111024

Before I took up photogrpahy I saw Long-billed Thrashers in south Texas, Crissal and Bendire's Thrashers in New Mexico, and California Thrashers in (where else?) California. Here is a Curve-billed Thrasher photographed in New Mexico:

Curve-billed Thrasher 4-20111114

Sage Thrasher in the Texas Panhandle:

Sage Thrasher 2-20111112

I did bring a pocket camera to California, and though I did not capture any thrashers, my favorite shot was of two of our granddaughters checking out a Redwood tree in Muir Woods.

Muir Woods 20100624