Friday, September 30, 2011

More clips from "The Big Year" movie

<a href='' target='_new' title='&#39;The Big Year&#39; movie clip' >Video: &#39;The Big Year&#39; movie clip</a>

Bird Funnels

There are places on earth that just have the perfect combination of geographical features and habitat that make them exponentially more birdy than other places and we appropriately call them "Hotspots".  Many of them, like Magee Marsh, OHHigh Island, TX, and Fort Jefferson on the Dry Tortugas are legendary hotspots during migration.  

A birder's local patch may not have the volume and intensity of those internationally known hotspots, but over time we come to know our birding haunts intimately and appreciate the subtleties of bird patterns and movement within them.  Within my own lunch-hour birding patch (and within all my former patches) I have come to discover that there are certain locations that are much more consistently birdy than others...micro-hotspots if you will.  Even though the terrain and habitat appear to be equal, some spots simply have more birds than others.  Recently, I've been pondering "Why?"

My conclusion is that there naturally exist "bird funnels" - places where birds coming from wide and far are narrowed into a concentrated smaller area for we birders to enjoy.  A bird funnel, especially on the micro level may be different than a known fly-way or even than an island of habitat in which birds abound.  These bird funnels may occur for a variety of reasons and the theory I think applies to both the mega-world-hotspots as well as the micro-hotspots within our local patches.

Allow me to use my lunch-hour birding patch as an example.  Below are satellite images of both the north and south portions of my patch.  I have indicated the consistently birdiest sections in orange.  The yellow lines show the perceived funneling that I am talking about.  At the tip of each funnel is where I see the most birds on a regular basis, no matter the season.

My Lunch-hour birding patch - north of 4000 S.  

The larger funnel is created by a ridge that runs along its eastern side below those apartment buildings.  The wide end of the funnel where some orange micro-hotspots are indicated is a natural landing pad as birds following the Jordan River cross the road and then typically funnel into the point.  At the point, are three russian olive trees not immediately connected to the larger chain of cottonwood trees.  It always amazes me how many different species I have found, sometimes at the same time, in those three little trees. 

The smaller funnel shown on the top of the satellite image may in reality be an extension of the larger funnel, rather than its own little funnel.  It is sort of a hopping off place as birds decide whether to forage here a bit more or cross the river.  These funnel areas shown above are dense with trees and brush, but not unlike the areas in the river bends to the west.  Those groves of trees in the river bends hardly ever have any birds.  That twenty foot high ridge seems to be the main factor creating the bird funnel.
My Lunch-hour birding patch - south of 4000 S.

In the southern portion of my lunch-hour birding patch, the river and the golf course combine to create a spectacular bird funnel.  I may not see a single bird in the rest of this area, but right at the funnel point I hit the jackpot every time.

So, dear readers, taking a look at your own micro-hotspots within your local patch, does the bird funnel theory hold true?

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The ABA Pass-along Card

I attended President Jeff Gordon's presentation on "What's new with the ABA?" at the Midwest Birding Symposium.  He handed out ABA pass-along cards, which were discussed on the ABA Blog and ABA Facebook page.  For the rest of the symposium, I carried my ABA cards in my name badge holder, which perfectly exposed the awesome Louise Zemaitis rendering of the ABA Bird-of-the-Year, the American Kestrel.  Several other birders asked me what that card was, so I gave them one...a little invitation to learn more about the ABA and to consider joining.  This was very effective ABA marketing in the bird festival setting.

Perhaps Jeff's presentation was intended only to give us a sneak-peek of these pass-along cards...I'm not sure though.  I thought I'd see something about these awesome cards on the ABA website or in a publication by now, or somewhere else on the web.  But I haven't sorry if by my sharing these here I am stealing any ABA thunder.

President Gordon also mentioned that if you were serious about being an ABA advocate-recruiter-missionary-ambassador-promoter, then you could email the ABA and request some cards printed with your information in the customize-able section on the back of the card.  Below is a mock-up I made for myself.  I don't know that the ABA would have the budget to print color logos and whatnot, but wouldn't this be a nice card to share with other birders and non-birders alike.  What a great way to share the message of the ABA, invite folks to become new members, and provide a communication link between you and the people you meet while birding.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Big Year Movie: Promotional Clips

RARE BIRD ALERT: Harlequin Duck - Antelope Island Causeway

Bryant Olsen, along with Norm and Gail Jenson, while on a Great Salt Lake Audubon Society trip today discovered a Harlequin Duck along the Antelope Island Causeway.  This will be the 13th record as noted on the Utah Bird Records Committee's website and likely only the 7th officially accepted and documented.  The Antelope Island Causeway has also been the site of three previous records, though only one has been accepted.  Another great bird sighting in Utah!  Great job Bryant, Norm, and Gail.

By the way, Paul Higgins, a great Utah bird photographer that I've featured on this site was there at the bridge when I arrived.  He had discovered the Harlequin Duck on his own without knowing it had been reported.  He has some incredible close-up photos here.

Yes, I am a bit of a parasite twitching other people's great birds.  Maybe one day I will find a Utah rarity myself.

eBird Sightings Map for Harlequin Duck

Swainson's Hawk Love

Adult Male Swainson's Hawk - Boise, Idaho
The Swainson's Hawk and I have something in mainly in western North America for most of our lives, occasionally showing up as an eastern vagrant, and spending a critical time of our lives in Argentina.  Perhaps that is why the Swainson's Hawk has a special place in my heart.  I lived in the provinces of Santa Fe and Entre Rios, Argentina from October 1996 until Sept 1998.  Unfortunately, I wasn't a birder then.  I remember seeing all kinds of cool birds, but keeping a list was something I had never heard of, nor thought of.  Oh well.  All the more reason to go back again some day.

This time of year, as the Swainson's Hawks prepare to head to our southern home, I get a little nostalgic for Argentina and wish I could hitch a thermal and ride along with them.

Not only do they have that sentimental value for me, they are also just really cool hawks.  I've watched them hunt and kill.  I've seen them seemingly play on the wind.  I've observed them mate, build nests, have failed nests, and have successful nests.  I've even seen them squirt their pooh...they can really get some distance.  It is not unusual this time of year to find an agriculture field full of them perched on the ground, but usually I see them on a power pole.  They come in all shades of color and even sizes...I'm assuming larger females and smaller males as in most of the birds of prey.
Dark Morph Swainson's Hawk - at my lunch-hour birding patch in Salt Lake City, Utah
Doesn't he just look tough?!
Dark, adult Female Swaison's Hawk - I'm pretty sure I had her nest near my home in the Boise foothills in 2009 and 2010.  In 2009, the nest failed, but in 2010 they successfully fledged at least two.
Swainson's Hawk being harassed by a Red-winged Blackbird.  This in-flight shot shows one easy way to identify this hawk.  Notice the large white patches on the front of the wings, with the wide dark trailing flight feathers.
free gif maker
New eBird range map - I animated it to show the migration pattern.  

It appears that some Swainson's Hawks might be wintering in California, the Gulf of Mexico, and in Mexico and not making it all the way down to Argentina.  Can any experts out there confirm this?  I had been under the assumption that all Swainson's Hawks made their way to Argentina.  One thing this map proves is the need for more eBirders in South America!  If you look at the purple site markers right on the border of Argentina and Uruguay...that is were I spent quite a bit of my time in Argentina and I'm glad to see some eBirders in that region.  It looks like it is November by the time any Swainson's arrive in Argentina and they clear out in March heading north to the breeding grounds.  Amazing how a few Swainson's Hawks make it all the way up to Alaska.  That is some serious mileage if they go from Argentina to Alaska.  Their spring migration northward also seems to be at much faster clip than their much slower trip south.  It must be the raging hormones driving them to find nesting grounds and mate, while the trip to Argentina is their vacation from all that family business.

One of the Swainson's Hawk kids in my neighborhood - Boise Idaho 2010.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Review: Binoculars

Eagle Optics Ranger ED
Just before the Midwest Birding Symposium, I had come across an advertisement for the new Eagle Optics Ranger ED's.  Knowing that Ben Lizdas of Eagle Optics would be at the symposium manning their booth, I figured I drop by and test out these new generation Rangers.  Friday afternoon, I got to meet Ben and try 'em out.  These Rangers with ED glass are really cool binoculars.  They are a great quality step up from what I've been used to.  This step up in quality is a great value for the small step up in price.  They are a bit heavier than the SRT's and I found that turning the focus wheel took me just a tiny bit longer than I was accustomed to, but barely worth mentioning here. I tried to work out a trade-in and upgrade deal and maybe a little internet marketing deal, but they don't have a program for that.  Darn!

Saturday morning at the Midwest Birding Symposium found me at Meadowbrook Marsh with a group of eager birdwatchers.  Clay Taylor and Bruce Webb of Swarovski Optik were also there and passed out demo binoculars to any in the group interested in trying them out.  I opted to test out two pairs, EL 8.5x42 Swarovison and the CL Companion 8x30, while at the same time I had my Eagle Optics Ranger SRT 8x42's harnessed to my chest for comparison. 

We started scanning the open marsh and pond in the twilight; perfect conditions to put these binoculars through their paces. A Black-crowned Night Heron was seen perched on a snag across the pond.  I took the opportunity to glass the heron alternating between all three binoculars.  A Swamp Sparrow and a Marsh Wren flitted in the reeds nearby.  Again I switched back and forth between binoculars.  As the sun rose higher and the light conditions improved, we enjoyed a Caspian Tern repeatedly diving and eating fish.  I think I saw the tern catch three fish, each time viewed through a different pair of binoculars.  Wood Ducks and graceful Great Egrets flew over the pond giving us great looks.

The CL Companion 8x30's were exceptional optics.  They surpassed the image quality of my trusty and beloved Eagle Optics Ranger SRT 8x42's in spite of the Ranger's larger objective lens and light gathering potential.  To be honest, I was really bummed out by this observation.  I have been a huge advocate for this particular binocular from Eagle Optics and had proclaimed them to be almost as good as Swarovski and for much less money.  Eagle Optics Ranger SRT's are still dang good binoculars for the budget price a guy like me can afford, but after a side-by-side comparison with Swarovski in the field, I can no longer make the claim that they are almost as good.  Swarovski optics are simply better...much better even!  So if you are ready to make the jump from the $300 optics, the relatively affordable Swarovski CL Companion may be right for you and is now available for purchase thru Eagle Optics for $929. 

By the time we had finished birdwatching from the Meadowbrook Marsh deck, and determined that it was light enough to find us some warblers in the woods, I had decided that I absolutely loved the EL 42 Swarovision and handed back the CL Companion.  The EL 42's with the larger objective lens and higher quality parts were all the more superior to the CL Companion, especially in the low-light conditions.  I pretty much used the EL 42's the rest of the day and racked up seven life birds using them.  Wave after wave of autumn warbler came into the little corner of the woods and I was grinning from ear to ear enjoying everyone of them through the crisp image coming through this amazing glass.  

Now the EL 42's run $2,349 at Eagle Optics, but they are worth saving up for.  Although it pains me to say this, I think these high-end binoculars actually helped me enjoying birding more and even helped me to be a better birder.  I can say this honestly because it happened before when I first upgraded from $50 optics to my beloved Ranger SRT's.  Now I've been spoiled and exposed to a bird viewing pleasure beyond my current means.  While I save up my pennies for high-end optics like Swarovision, I'll just keep on enjoying my Ranger SRT's.

Monday, September 26, 2011

While I was birding...

More cool bugs...

If you know your dragonflies and butterflies/moths, maybe you can help me identify these:

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Recent Happenings at Birding is Fun!

I was reading the most recent issue of Bird Watcher's Digest and saw the Princeton University Press advertisement (I do enjoy reading all the ads in all my birding magazines...strange I know 'cause I never read ads anywhere else).  I was surprised to see my own name on the page.  Turns out they extracted a quote from my review of Avian Architecture.  Kinda cool to see your name in print unexpectedly.
BirdWatching, the magazine, has a blog called Field of View.  Every Friday they post thematic photos submitted online by readers.  The recently featured silhouetted birds and while I was scanning them, I saw one photo that looked a lot like one photo I had taken.  Turns out it was one of my photos! ...a Gray Catbird I had photographed singing early one morning in Garden Valley, Idaho.

Thanks to Bill Thompson III's visit to the Great Salt Lake Bird Festival last May and his personal endorsement of my blogging efforts, and a second endorsement from Bill Fenimore, I am now participating with the extremely dedicated and wonderful planning committee for the 2012 Great Salt Lake Bird Festival.  I'm honored that they'd be interested in my ideas and I hope to be a good contributor.  You can count on me posting about the activities I may have a part in!  Time for all you birders outside of Utah to start planning for your trip to Salt Lake in mid-May!!!  Think of the life birds you could add!

On the main page of also quotes a line from my review of The Crossley ID Guide.

If you didn't know me any better, you might think my opinion was worth a grain of salt.  I think its pretty dang cool that even though I'm not an expert birder - just a guy with a lot of passion and enthusiasm for birds, birding and bird blogging - that others within our small eccentric world might care what I have to say about stuff.

There are some other adventures in the works, especially a big one related to this blog, so stay tuned!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Bird Photo ID Contest revisited!

The day I left for the Midwest Birding Symposium I had posted this bird photo contest.  I've only had one brave soul attempt it, and he got six of them correct.  I attribute the lack of enthusiastic participation to the post being buried in the deluge of posts about the Midwest Birding Symposium.  So I'm going to re-post it, but this time with a few more hints (just in case the lack of participation was due to the difficulty and time it might require to complete.)  The first person to identify all the species correctly can have their choice of either The Atlas of Birds or The Birds of New Jersey.  Enjoy!

You can click on the photos to enlarge them for more detail.  Reviewing past blog posts may also give you clues to some of the birds.  Each photo should have enough clues for you to make a positive identification.

I have disabled comments on this particular post so that you can't "cheat" off other people's guesses.  Please number and email me your best educated guesses!

Blurred in Flight
1.  Hint: Photographed in Farmington, Utah.  The background is the roof of an LDS Church building.  Photo taken when I saw the vagrant Dickcissel.
2.  Hint:  Photographed in Mill Creek Canyon, Salt Lake City, Utah - Two of these birds are featured in this photo i.d. contest.
3.  Hint: This should be easy as its not too blurry.  Photographed at Maple Dell Scout Camp
Butt Shots
4.  Hint:  Photographed at my lunch-hour patch
5.  Hint:  Photographed in my backyard
6.  Hint:  Photographed at my lunch-hour patch very recently
7.  Hint: Photographed at my lunch-hour patch - the tell-tale is in the tail.
8.  Hint:  Its a hummingbird. Duh! Photographed at Maple Dell Scout Camp.
Chest Shots
9.  Hint:  Photo taken in Mill Creek Canyon, Utah in a Scrub-Oak tree.  Two of these birds are featured in this photo i.d. contest.  Both photos were taken of the same bird actually within minutes of each other.
10.  Hint:  Photo taken at my lunch-hour patch.  I'm gonna leave this one as a challenge for ya.
Bonus:  The Shadow Knows
11.  Hint:  The shadow reveals a lot about this bird, but if that doesn't help ya, other clues are in the photo, especially if you are a regular reader of this here blog.
Email me you best guesses for a chance to win your choice of either The Atlas of Birds or The Birds of New Jersey.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Birder Profile: Jeff Bilsky

Jeff Bilsky
Salt Lake City, Utah
How did you get into birding?

I’ve been noticing wildlife my whole life. As a kid I was into Bald Eagles and had one that I adopted/sponsored for years that was at a rehab center in Florida. It was an Audubon program that my parents paid for so I definitely give them credit for encouraging my interest in nature. When I moved to Salt Lake City about 6 years ago my girlfriend at the time got me a bird feeder. One day I noticed a crazy “zebra-headed” bird that I had to research to find out was called a white-crowned sparrow. That pretty much started me down the path towards deciding I wanted to learn how to identify different species. I also have to give a ton of credit to Tim Avery, Colby Neuman and Carl Ingwell for birding with me so much; I’ve learned a lot from them and by birding with them.

How often do you go birding? And where do you regularly go birding?

I am always watching for birds so in a sense I am always birding. In terms of going out with binos in hands it varies depending on time of year and how busy I am but at least once a week. Since my job takes me to Utah County so much, I spend a lot of time around the Utah Lake at places like River Lane and Swede Lane. I also love getting into the mountains and some of my favorite spots include the Little Dell/Mountain Dell area, Lamb's Canyon, and Big Cottonwood Canyon.

Where is your favorite place to bird in your state/province? In the U.S.(or your country)? in the world?

My favorite place to bird in Utah is the Kolob Reservoir Road in Zion National Park. In the U.S., I've had some great birding trips in Florida. One time I took a weekend and just drove around to various hotspots in Central Florida; It was amazing. I've yet to do any international birding.

Do you have any local birding hotspots that may be yet unknown to other birders that you would be willing to share with us?

I recently found a singing Pacific Wren (in the summer) with Carl Ingwell at Smith and Morehouse Reservoir - I had never heard of anyone birding there before. Honestly my advice to other birders is to get out and explore. Any patch of trees can be a hotspot. Across the street from my office, in a single day during spring migration a few years ago I located a Nashville Warbler and a Northern Parula along with other, more common migrants for that time of year.

Where in your state/province would you say is the most under-birded place that may have great untapped potential?

I usually do a Utah west desert trip every year that includes stops like Fish Springs, Callao, Lucin etc. This can be a ton of fun to do during the height of migration and I don't think a lot of people do it. On these trips over the last few years I have seen a Wood Thrush, American Redstarts, Black and White Warblers, and a Baltimore Oriole. If you're looking for less common migrants passing through Utah I think the west desert can't be topped.

How would you describe yourself as a birder? A “watcher”, a “lister”, a “chaser”, “ticker”, “twitcher” all of the above, or something else?

I enjoy birding because of the depth of the experience. When you see a bird you're seeing something alive. To me, it is usually so much more than just getting a bird on your list. I see a bird as part of a greater story that is going on all over the planet and to be witness to that and knowing that you're of the same processes that created that bird is awe-inspiring. It invokes a kinship with nature.

What kind of birding equipment do you use?

How do you keep track of your bird observations?

I use eBird because it seems to be the standard for collecting data. It is also user friendly and becomes quite an educational tool for learning about bird patterns and locations. Ideally I'm doing at least a small part for science and ultimately conservation causes by using it.

What is your favorite bird sighting and what is the story behind it?

I have a lot of great stories making it very tough to pick a favorite. However, seeing a Wood Thrush with Colby Neuman at Lucin in 2008 was pretty amazing. I remember after he found it he pretty much ran around jumping up and down with excitement. One memory that also sticks out is that I once located a Northern Saw-whet Owl at eye level approximately 5 feet in front of me and calling. It was a lifer look and truly incredible.

What is your favorite backyard bird?

Any time an unusual bird comes to the backyard I am always amazed to think about the story of that bird and where it came from just to be at my feeders. I had a flock of Red Crossbills in my yard for a week or so as well as annual visits from Cassin’s Finches; I’ve had as many as 50 at a single time. It’s cool when birds that have traveled so far spend time in the yard. Other memorable ones include a Lincoln’s Sparrow and the Black-chinned Hummingbird that returns to the same spot every year.

Which birding publications and websites do you read and recommend?

I subscribe to Birding Magazine and Bird Watcher's Digest. I regularly visit eBird and of course the blog that I write on: Utahbirders. Our affiliated website, is just in its very basic development stage but we have a whole lot of amazing ideas on how we can make it a great resource for the community and I'm looking forward to being a part of that.

Which is your favorite field guide and why?

For just general bird identification, I find the Sibley Guide to Birds of North America be the most useful and comprehensive.

Which books from your personal birding library would you recommend to other birders?

For reference/ID:

Jerry Liguori's books are the standard for Raptor Identification.
Gulls of the Americas (Peterson Reference Guide: Howell/Dunn)


Kingbird Highway (Kaufman)
Thoreau On Birds (H.D. Thoreau)

If a fellow birder had a question about a bird, do you consider yourself an expert (or at least proficient) on any specific family of birds?

No, I don't consider myself better with any particular family - my strength is usually in spotting the birds and then I try to gather as many details as I can about behavior, habitat and appearance and draw my conclusions from that.

What future birding plans do you have?

I'd like to help lead some more field trips around Utah for the Utah Birders including some big weekend trips across the state. For example, southern Utah hotspots and a reservoir hopping trip. These and others should be happening pretty soon. I also would like to combine trash clean up at local hotspots with birding and have discussed plans to roll that out as a recurring event as well.

Are you involved with any local or national birding organizations?

I write for Utahbirders and am working with Tim Avery and Carl Ingwell on building up our website ( and organization as a resource for the state birding community. I also support the Great Salt Lake Audubon and the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah.

What is your nemesis bird?

I have never seen an Acorn Woodpecker and it is a running joke with some birders - specifically Steve and Cindy Sommerfeld who seem to see one hours before I try in the same spot and miss it. I think it is pretty funny and figure I'll eventually see one but I don't get too worked up about chasing birds very often.

Any birding related pet-peeves you’d like to vent about here?

Anytime in my very much acknowledged subjective opinion people put their desire to see a bird, photograph a bird etc. ahead of the needs and wellness of the birds, I feel they are missing the true greatness and depth of what birding can be all about. I’ll quote another here to help illustrate how I feel:

"All men are brothers, we like to say, half-wishing sometimes in secret it were not true. But perhaps it is true. And is the evolutionary line from protozoan to Spinoza any less certain? That also may be true. We are obliged, therefore, to spread the news, painful and bitter though it may be for some to hear, that all living things on earth are kindred." - Ed Abbey

Anything about your family you’d like to share with us?

My parents live in the Chicago area and have gotten very into birding around their yard and neighborhood. Even my sisters have started taking notice in the last couple of years. My younger sister lives in downtown Chicago and photographed a window strike Woodcock in front of her building last spring.

Outside of birding, what are your other interests or hobbies?

I play guitar. I love watching baseball (Chicago White Sox) and hockey (Chicago Blackhawks). I’d like to spend more time camping, reading, and writing.

Any funny birding experiences you could tell us?

Pretty much every time I go camping with Tim Avery, Carl Ingwell, and/or Colby Neuman I have incredibly funny experiences. We always mess with each other and try to trick one another into believing that there is a bird there that isn't and stuff like that. It's all in good fun. The main thing about camping and birding and being out in nature for me is that I feel so alive and it's hard not to be a bit of a goof ball when you feel like that.

One funny story was when I was camping with Carl and Colby and a car came up and I thought it was going to run over us and I jumped out of my sleeping bag waving my arms like a madman and screaming, "There are people camping here, watch out!" Turns out it was Colby's dad and he knew exactly where we were. Someone forgot to tell me he was coming. He tells the story great if you ever meet him.

Your mission in life as birder?

I’d like to contribute to conservation in some small way. If I could ever own a piece of land and save it from development - making it a bird sanctuary - that would be awesome.

Birder Profile is a weekly blog segment at "Birding is Fun!" spotlighting a fellow birder.  If you would be interested in sharing a little about yourself and your birding experiences, please send me an email.  Is there a birder you'd like to see featured?  Please nominate that person by sending me an e-mail too.  Enthusiasm for birding is the only prerequisite!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

One-a-Day eBird Challenge

Are you ready to take the challenge!

Click on the gold medallion for details.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

I've been fortunate enough to see and hear about ten of these little fellas in my few years of birding experience.  I've seen them in Arizona, Idaho, and Utah.  These are a pretty tiny birds, similar in size to a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and flit about the mid-sized bushes near water stirring up bugs to eat with flicks of their tail.  They are very responsive to pishing and will make a close approach to investigate.

While reading up on this cute little gnatcatcher, I noticed that most all the drawings and photos showed a dark bill, not the yellowish bill with dark tip as seen in my photos.  The Stokes Field Guide and Crossley do show the winter plumage bird and it does have that lighter colored bill.  It looks pretty gray most of the year, but I did once see this bird with a blue hue at the Juniper Rest Area right near the Idaho-Utah border.

Animated map of eBird sightings showing annual migration pattern.