Saturday, December 31, 2011

Review: NatureTap for iPad

NatureTap is a really fun app for kids as well as adults. Green Mountain Digital loaned me an iPad and asked me to have my kids test it out and review it. The app includes great profiles of birds, spiders & insects, reptiles & amphibians, and wildflowers.

Now its hard to get a professional review from elementary aged kids, but here ya go:

Anne, age 9 - "Tell everyone that I love it! My favorite game is the State Bird Game. I got 45 right and I kept playing it until I got all 50 right."

Victoria, age 7 - "I like the matching games. I'm really good at it."

Claire, age 4 - "My favorite is the matching game. Daddy, can I play the nature games on the iPad again."

Kyle, age 10 - "I want to play the games too, but my sisters are hogging it. Give it to me! It's my turn. Daaaaad! The girls aren't sharing."

Since that was so enlightening, let me share with you my observations of my kids using NatureTap:

Claire, my four year old and Victoria, age 7 were able to navigate their way around the app effortlessly. Watching them play the Bird Sound game was amazing. More often than not, she was able to intuitively select the right bird from four choices based on the sound alone...even some that I, the experienced birder, would have gotten wrong...all based on their gut instinct about the type of sound and associating it with a picture that just seemed right to the girls. Interesting that our brains have that ability, but perhaps get a bit clouded with time and experience. There is some human mind power I need to tap into. What a great learning tool the bird sounds game is too.

Anne, age 9, aside from the State Bird game, she also enjoyed browsing the spider pictures and showing them to their arachnophobic mom. She would curiously peruse the details profiles of the various species, she is after all, my super-reader child.

Kyle, age 10, seemed to enjoy all the games, but gravitated toward the game where you match the name to one of four images. He commented about how cool the different critters were and how he didn't even know they existed.

Dad, age 34, also enjoyed playing all the games. I can see that prolonged and regular playing would certainly increase the knowledge base of the amateur naturalist. The bird sound game had a lot of great potential to help birders tune their ears; strikingly similar to Larkwire, which I will also review in the near future.

I was most impressed with NatureTap due to its innate ability to engage users, both kids and adults. Learning by way of games is fun. The beautiful images of the sundry species are themselves captivating.

The app itself is free and it is currently only for iPad on iTunes. (Will it be available for Kindle Fire coming soon??? I got one for my wife for Christmas!) Once you have downloaded the app, you then purchase the additional features like more birds, and the reptile & amphibian pack, etc. The prices are very reasonable and very worthwhile.

Here are a couple more screen shots so you can see how cool and pretty this fun app is:

Bird Ventriloquism

posted by Heidi Ware

As an avid birder as well as a student at BSU, I always love it when something I learn at school relates to my birding addiction. Last semester, when taking a class called “sensory ecology” I got the chance to hear a lot of things about birds that I could apply to birdwatching, so I’ve decided to make this subject the topic for my next few blog posts. So, what follows is a bit more sciency than birdy, but I hope you guys will stick with me through this post, and I will try my best to make it make sense!
How are Robins such good ventriloquists??
Maybe you’ve heard this before (or maybe you haven’t) but a few times when I’ve been out birding with someone and we come upon a flock of robins, we remark on how they seem to be able to “throw” their voices. You can be looking at a few birds sitting together in the top of a tree, and when they make those high pitched calls, it sounds as if they are coming from a completely different place.  (listen to an example of the high pitch calls here, time 0:04-0:40). That’s not just a figment of your imagination; in a way, robins actually are able to throw their voices. Here's my take on these concepts based on the little I learned from my Sensory Ecology class. (granted not all these ideas have been tested scientifically, and some of this is just based on my own knowledge of how auditory systems work in general)
    We all know that birds have a variety of vocalizations. Of course there are the songs that most people think of, but then there’s the wide range of calls, each with a different function that is adapted for use in different situations. The particular high pitched call of a robin (and many other birds, such as sparrows, chickadees, Golden-crowned Kinglets, or waxwings) is a communication call meant for reaching other members of the flock.
But of course there’s a problem, because any sound a bird makes has the potential to be intercepted by an unintended recipient (like a sharp shinned hawk for example)….so how can robins and other birds communicate to their flock-mates without also alerting a predator to their presence? They take advantage of certain properties of sound to avoid detection. Birds communicate with high-pitched calls for a reason.
    First of all, their high-pitched calls don’t carry very far in the environment…high frequency sound attenuates more quickly, especially in vegetated habitats (so the call won’t reach that sharpie perched a few hundred feet away). Second, many raptors have the best hearing at low frequencies (to pick up rustling noises) but are not able to hear as well as you reach higher frequencies. And third, it is possible that these calls are more difficult to locate even if they are heard, especially for mammals with big heads….let me explain.
    When we hear a sound, humans use a combination of many methods to localize it. Just like using crosshairs to find a target (or a coordinate graph, if we want to flash back to 8th grade math class), we need to find where the sound is in the horizontal plane (was that sound from the left or the right?) as well as the vertical plane (was that sound above or below me?) in order to exactly locate it. Mammals use different techniques to find each piece of the crosshair.
      When either a bird or a human hears a sound, its brain uses what is referred to as “binaural phase comparison” to help calculate where that sound is coming from on the horizontal plane. Basically, the brain looks at how the sound waves entered each ear, and figures out which ear received the sound first….if the left ear received the sound first, then the sound was on the left, and vice versa. Here’s where we humans run into a problem. (Check out the figure below to understand this a little better)
    When a bird with a small head hears a high frequency noise, the sound wave hits each ear in a completely different way….the wave may be curving down when it hits the left ear, and “up” when it hits the right ear, so it is easy for the brain to tell which ear received the sound first. However, when a big-headed human hears the same frequency, the wave may be curving in the exact same way when it reaches both ears, making it seem like the wave hit both ears at the same time, so that it is very difficult to tell where the sound came from.
Not only do our big heads prevent us from locating a robin alarm call, but the fact that we are mammals also messes us up! We are different from birds in this way because we have these funny looking external ears. Those strange curves and spirals in our ears are actually there to help us localize sound in the vertical plane. When a certain frequency hits our external ear, it bounces off at a few different places...this tells our brain that the sound could have come from a number of possible locations. When a sound has many frequencies, each frequency reflects a little differently, giving us multiple clues to the sound’s actual location. Using these multiple frequencies, our brain uses “binaural spectral comparison” to calculate where the sound came from in the vertical plane.
     If this doesn’t really make sense, check out the picture below: When a bird sings, its song often has multiple frequencies (in this example the song has three). Let’s say one frequency tells us that the bird could be in any of three different locations (the blue circles), then a second frequency tells our brain that the bird could be in three more possible locations (the red squares), and so on…our brain can use all these cues to calculate where the sound is coming from because there is only one location where all three frequencies intersect.
But what happens when the sound has only one frequency? Mammals run into a problem, and here’s where robin ventriloquism comes in. Unlike its song, a robin’s high-pitched call is not composed of so many frequencies. So when birders are looking at the robin and we hear it call, our brain can’t calculate which location is the right one, making it seem like the robin can throw its voice.
So, now that we know this, how can it help us as birders? Well, first off it can maybe help us not feel crazy when we swear we heard the Golden-crowned Kinglet from that branch right there….it’s actually just as likely the kinglet has used its anti-predator adaptations to fool us!
We can also use some of our own adaptations to help us localize high-pitched bird calls better. See, while high frequency sounds don’t work so well for binaural phase comparisons, our big heads can actually help us out when we are trying to locate a sound, because we have a second method for determining a sound's location in horizontal plane: High frequency sounds have small wavelengths that are too short to travel around our heads. Instead, they hit our head, and create a “sound shadow” on the other side….this means that if a sound comes from the left it will seem loud in our left ear and much quieter in our right ear. By turning your head slightly sideways from where you think the bird is, you can create a sound shadow which will help you tell which side the bird is on.

Well, there you go! The first of my Sensory Ecology blog posts. I hope you guys enjoyed learning about the science behind some common birding conundrums!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

For those about to bird, we salute you!

Posted by Rob Fergus

Making up bird-related lyrics to popular songs is a venerable birding tradition (see for example Uptight and Birdy as well as the AC/DC song that is the title of this post).  I've never seen a name for this birding activity, so we might as well call it birdaoke.  For those of you who bird alone, or who haven't fully experienced this birding tradition, here are a few pointers:

1) Start simple--At its easiest, you can always use "bird" as a replacement for a one syllable word in a song lyric.  This often works best when replacing a word in the middle of a line rather than one that ends a line and needs a rhyming word to finish the next line.  There are only so many words that rhyme with bird, and they aren't all that useful.

2) Start small--You don't have to make up lyrics to a whole song--many birders don't get beyond coining a few choice birding hooks, such as the title to this post, or something like Twisted Sister's I wanna bird!

3) Start at home--While masters of birdaoke can make up new lyrics and rhymes on the fly while driving around in their birding mobiles, if you are new to the practice, you may want to start by preparing a few choice lines at home before your next birding trip.  Then when the birding is slow, or you are exulting in some birding moment with your birding buddies, you can let loose with your prepared birdaoke without having to make it up on the spot.

4) Practice--Once you are a bit more experienced, you can go as big as you want.  True masters can take any song playing on the radio (does anyone listen to radio while birding anymore?) or on their friend's iPod and turn it into birdaoke on the fly.  There is nothing like being in the presence of a true birdaoke virtuoso.  As with all birding skills, practice makes perfect.  So practice at home or on your own and soon you'll be able to birdaoke with the best of them and really impress your friends!

5) Go Big--When you find yourself turning all your favorite songs into birdaoke, you know you've started to arrive.  You can be the hit of any birding excursion, and may even be invited to host birdaoke at your local birding festival.  You could be birdaoke celebrity and record your own LP!

For a bit of inspiration, here's a classic 1970s birdaoke to get the juices going--Mega Rarity Rhapsody!

Is this a rare bird?
Is this just fantasy?
A glimpse of its back side,
Hard to tell in reality
Open your eyes, 
Look up to the skies and see,
I'm just a birder, I need no sympathy,
Because I'm easy come, easy go, 
Little high, little low,
Any way the bird goes doesn't really matter to me,
to me

Hey guys, 
I just flushed a bird,
Saw it fly out of a tree, 
then it flew away from me
Hey guys... l had just arrived,
But now the bird has gone and flown away
Hey guys oooh, 
Better post it on the net,
Hope it comes back again this time tomorrow,
Birders come, birders come, 'cause only Megas really matter

Next day, the time has come,
Sends shivers down my spine, 
body's aching all the time
Goodbye, ev'rybody, I've got to go,
Got to leave you all behind and find that bird
Hey guys oooh, 
I can't find the bird,
I sometimes wish I'd never been born at all!

(Guitar solo)

I see a little silhouetto of a bird,
Could it be?  Could it be?  It's a crazy freaking Mega!>

Flown in from Siberia, very, very exciting me!
It's a Mega!  It's a Mega!
It's a Mega!  It's a Mega!
It's a Mega! Eye-browed Thrush!  Magnifico!

I'm just a birder, rarities love me
He's just a birder from a birding family,
Just the kind of guy to find a mega rarity!
Easy come, easy go, now the bird has flown
Where's the photo? We'll believe it when we're shown
(Where'd it go?)  Where's the photo? We'll believe it when we're shown 
(Where'd it go?)  Where's the photo? We'll believe it when we're shown 
(Bird is gone!) Your birding cred is blown
(Bird is gone!)(Ouch!) Your birding cred is blown
(Bird is gone!) And now we'll never know (Where'd it go?) Ah
No, no, no, no, no, no, no
Oh mama mia, mama mia, mama mia, where'd it go?
Beelzebub has a Mega put aside for me, for me, 

So, birdaoke maniacs, what's your own favorite bit of birdaoke?

Flycatcher Fun

During my Christmas vacation I took my fiance on a 300 mile drive to the Lake Havasu area.  I convinced her to go with me by saying, "When else are you going to get to see the London Bridge?"  Ha!  Of course the real reason I wanted to go was to see a very rare Nutting's Flycatcher.

It was discovered by David Vander Pluym and Lauren Harter on December 18, 2011 in a riparian area of the Bill Williams National Wildlife Refuge.  At first, they heard the bird giving it's "wheep" call but were unable to find it.  They suspected Nutting's Flycatcher but wanted to make sure.  So they returned the following day with a recording of Nutting's Flycatcher.  The bird responded and some sound recordings and photos were obtained.  There are only four previous records of this code 5 bird in the ABA area, three in Arizona and one in California.  The most recent Arizona record was from this same location in 2008.  In 1998, Sandy Komito began his epic Big Year with a Nutting's Flycatcher at Patagonia Lake State Park.  This year John Vanderpoel will try to end his Big Year with the Arizona Nutting's Flycatcher.

Lauren tells me that a lot of bird research is done here including annual surveys for Southwestern Willow Flycatchers and Yellow-billed Cuckoos.  This area is also a big focal point for the Bureau of Reclamation's Multi-Species Conservation Plan.  They have been contracting the Great Basin Bird Observatory for projects that involve quantifying the density of breeding bird species in various habitats along the Lower Colorado River.  The Bill Williams NWR is very important for all this research because it is the healthiest and most extensive remaining cottonwood-willow habitat on the Lower Colorado River.  

The flycatcher was discovered in a riparian area 2.5 miles east of the south end of Lake Havasu.  We arrived here in the afternoon.  I ran into Clive Green who had seen the bird earlier and he pointed us in the right direction.
riparian area of the Bill Williams NWR
The directions said to look for saguaros growing out of a palo verde tree and head toward the riparian area.

This is where it got interesting.  We were supposed to look for pink and black flagging tied to a bush to find the trail through the tamarisk trees.  We couldn't see any path through the thick trees, but we finally found the marker.  So we made our way down the steep slope and into the brush.  The path was very narrow in some places and we had to duck down under branches four feet off the ground.  It's a good thing there were other markers in place because we took the wrong turn several times.  We finally made it through the brush and into the wash where the flycatcher was supposed to be.  After a few minutes we heard the "wheep" call but were unable to locate the bird.  After lots of searching, I decided to try again in the morning when most sightings had occurred.  So I took Gaby to see the London Bridge.  It was pretty cool, but it wasn't a Nutting's Flycatcher!

We arrived the next morning shortly after sunrise.  There were already two cars parked along the road.  This time Gaby decided to stay in the car and read.  When I got to the wash I was surprised to find it without any birders.  Where were they?  After a few minutes I heard the "wheep" call coming from the south side of the wash.  Yes!  I searched the cottonwoods and there it was flying to a new perch!

I knew I had to be careful when identifying this bird because there were a couple of Ash-throated Flycatchers in the area.  It called again and I confirmed it on my iBird Explorer phone app.  Amazing!  My next goal was to photograph the bird.  The wash was lined with bushes on both sides that made it difficult to get a clear shot.  In the next half hour I managed this distant not-as-crisp-as-I-would-like photo:

The bird flew across the wash and out of sight.  It turns out this wash is actually the county line that divides La Paz and Mohave County.  For the next half hour I didn't hear or see the bird.  Actually, I heard the sound of it's bill snapping quickly shut while flycatching, so I knew it was back there somewhere.

Just as I was thinking of heading back to the car, I heard someone making there way through the brush.  It turned out to be Gaby bringing another birder named Pat to the wash.  She had come all the way from Maine and had been looking for the area all morning.  I told them I had seen the bird earlier but hadn't seen it in the last thirty minutes.  I decided to play the recording to see if it would respond.  It called.  "Yes!" said Pat with an emphatic fist pump.  I spotted it land in a nearby cottonwood and got Pat on it right away.  We enjoyed obscured looks at it moved around the top of the tree.  Then Joan and Malcolm joined us just in time to get good looks of the bird and hear it call.  They had come all the way from Calgary!  We were all very excited.  Then Chuck joined us and was able to see the bird too.  He was from San Mateo, CA.  All of a sudden, the bird flew towards us and darted into some bushes fifteen feet next to us.  Wow!  I grabbed my camera and rattled off and few shots and Malcolm did the same.

We all had amazing looks at it until it disappeared to the south.  We all talked about what an incredible find this was considering it's similarities to Ash-throated Flycatcher and the hard-to-get-to location.  It turns out that David Vander Pluym saw the Irvine, CA Nutting's Flycatcher and has seen them in Costa Rica.  He and Lauren Harter have also both seen them in Sinaloa, Mexico.  David is no stranger to finding rare birds.  He co-found South America's first Eurasian Curlew in Argentina and discovered Chile's first Brown Pelican!  In September of this year David and Lauren found Arizona's second record of Little Gull at Lake Havasu.  Thanks David and Lauren!  Here we are enjoying our sighting:

from left to right: Chuck Prochaska, me, Joan and Malcolm McDonald, Pat Moynahan
UPDATE 12/28/11- While doing a Christmas Bird Count in the Bill Williams NWR, three birders claim to have seen, heard, and photographed a Nutting's Flycatcher about 0.75 miles from the original location.  After speaking with another birder who saw the Nutting's Flycatcher at the original location, it was determined that they were looking at the birds at the same time.  So it is possible that there are now two Nutting's Flycatchers in the area!  To follow this incredible new development, see the AZ/NM rare bird listserv

 Nutting's Flycatcher Range:
InfoNatura: Animals and Ecosystems of Latin America [web application]. 2007. Version 5.0 . Arlington, Virginia (USA): NatureServe. Available: (Accessed: December 28, 2011 )

-AZ Birdbrain

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Central Florida's "Best" Winter Attractions

by Scott Simmons
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Black-Bellied Whistling Duck
Orlando Wetlands Park
About a week ago I did a Christmas Bird Count near Cocoa Beach, and I met several birders that were vacationing here in Central Florida.  Several participants expressed interest in where to to find various species they wanted to see while in Florida. I've also begun receiving many emails from people coming down to Disney this winter, but wanting to "get away" from the Mouse for a day to find some nice places to go birding.  Robert Ripma has already written a wonderful post about Merritt Island's Blackpoint Dr here, but there are several places you can go that are about an hour's drive away from Disney, and some are even closer.  Here's a short review four great locations you may want to visit.  The titles have links to Google maps to help you easily find them.

Viera Wetlands
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Ritch Grissom Memorial Wetlands
The first Central Florida birding location I fell in love with is Viera Wetlands.  Because you stay in your car to view the wetlands, this may be a fun place to take your kids too.  My kids are not that interested in birds, but they do like to see alligators, and you're likely to see several here. There are three areas I visit when I go to here.  In each of these locations, I usually stay in my car to avoid spooking the birds.   On occasion, I'll leave my car and crouch down low at the water's edge for a better view of birds on the water.  
  1. Ritch Grissom Memorial Wetlands -- This is the place to begin.  It's located right next to a wastewater treatment plant, and they just recently created an entrance that allows you to enter without driving through the plant's parking lot.    If you want to see a Limpkin, this may be your best place to go.   The wetlands always have many herons and egrets, and if you look closely, you may be able to see American and Least Bitterns as well.  Right now, this is a great destination for viewing ducks.  In my last visit, I was able to view Hooded Mergansers, Nothern Shovelers, Blue-Winged Teal, Lesser Scaup and Ring-necked Ducks pretty closely. Also, look carefully in the taller trees for Crested Cara Cara.  Bald Eagles, Osprey and Northern Harrier are commonly seen  here too.
  2. Click Ponds -- N. Wickham Rd appears to dead end into the wetlands, but if you look to your right, you'll see that it jogs to the right as a dirt road where it continues farther west. Just after the "jog" in the road, you'll see a sign for the "click" ponds on the right.  I always drive around this loop when I'm here.  Sometimes there's practically nothing at the ponds.  At other times, you may find a flock of 50 White Pelicans waiting to greet you.  
  3. River Lakes Conservation Area -- If you continue farther west on Wickham Rd, it will dead end in the River Lakes Conservation area.  I usually drive this road slowly to see what I can find.  I frequently find American Kestrel and other raptors, Loggerhead Shrike, and toward the end of the road, Eastern Meadowlark.
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Red-Shouldered Hawk (First Year)
Viera Wetlands "Click" Ponds
Orlando Wetlands Park
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Little Blue Heron
Orlando Wetlands Park
Orlando Wetlands Park is my favorite place in Central Florda.  This is partly because it's relatively close to my house and partly because here you get out of your car and walk.  I walk an average of about 5 miles when I go (though you don't need to walk nearly that far to have a good time here).  It's made up of several impoundments with trails that surround them.  The Birding Loop is a 2.5 mile walk, but I recommend leaving the loop.  Some of my best finds have been off of the loop.

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Purple Gallinules
Orlando Wetlands Park
This location is where I've found many of my firsts.  Here is where I've seen my first Least Bittern, Sedge Wren, Fulvous Whistling Duck, Northern Waterthrush, Purple Gallinule, Yellow-Crowned Night Heron, Swamp Sparrow, Red-Eyed Vireo, and Painted Bunting.  Purple Gallinules are frequently seen here, as well as Black-Bellied Whistling Ducks and Bald Eagles.  Occasionally, you may see a Crested Caracara.  Be aware, the park closes between Nov. 15th and Feb. 1st every year.

Circle B Bar Reserve
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Savannah Sparrow
Circle B Bar Reserve
As you may have guessed from the name, the Circle B Bar Reserve is an old ranch that has been converted into a reserve.  It's a fabulous place to visit, especially if you want to get out of your car and hike around the impoundments.  You should be able to see Roseate Spoonbills, Limpkin, Wood Storks, and most of the herons and egrets.  But the reserve is also great place to find perching birds as well.  Look for Savannah Sparrows, Yellow-rumped and Palm warblers by the water's edge, as well as Marsh and Sedge wrens.  In the trees this past November, I found Yellow-belllied Sapsuckers, Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers, Eastern Phoebes, White-eyed Vireo, Tufted Titmice, House Wrens, Carolina Wrens, Black & White Warblers, Yellow-throated Warblers, and Prarie Warblers.

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Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker
Circle B Bar Reserve
Merritt Island NWR
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Roseate Spoonbills
Merritt Island Pumphouse Loop
It used to be that when I went to Merritt Island, my sole destination was Blackpoint Dr.  But some months ago,  we were having a drought here, and some of the impoundments on Blackpoint Dr. were drained to prevent them from becoming too salty. So I searched for other places on the island to go, and I found many.  So even though Blackpoint Dr is back to its usual form, I usually visit several destinations on the island when I go.  Here are my favorites:
  1. Pumphouse Loop -- Shortly after crossing the Max Brewer Bridge to put you onto the Island, you'll see a road to your left called Pumphouse Loop.  You can turn on that road and park, then walk the trails.  I commonly see Reddish Egrets, Roseate Spoonbills, American Avocet, Willet  and other shorebirds, many gulls and terns, and lots of Osprey.  I've counted 20 Osprey in this location in one morning.
  2. Blackpoint Dr -- From Pumphouse Loop it's a short drive to Blackpoint  Dr. There are two parking areas on the drive. I usually stop and get out of my car at each. At the parking area with restrooms, look carefully but cautiously into the bushes to your right.  Green Herons nest in there.  Bald Eagles, Northern Harrier, and Osprey are commonly seen on the Drive. Lately I've been seeing thousands of ducks, including Pintails, Shovelers, and Widgeon.  I've even seen as many as 3 Eurasion Widgeons mixed in with American.  On my last visit to Blackpoint Dr., I saw my first white morph Reddish Egret.  
  3. Scrub Ridge Trail -- If you want to see a Florida Scrub Jay, the Scrub Ridge Trail is a great place to visit.  Also, look for Eastern Towhee. Bring bug spray, and take it with you on the trail.  No joke, the mosquitoes here can be fierce.
  4. Biolab Rd --Just past the Scrub Ridge Trail, Biolab Rd will take you south toward Max Brewer Memorial Parkway.  Look for shorebirds, ducks and pelicans, as well as Cormorant, and herons and egrets. 
  5. Peacock's Pocket -- When Blackpoint Dr. was closed, this became my favorite destination.  This road goes predominantly east-west, so in the morning, I start on the eastern entrance (where the link to Google Maps takes you).  That way the sun will be behind you more of the time.  This is a relatively long drive, so give yourself lots of time to drive it slowly and get the most out of it.
  6. Visitor Center -- It's a great place to visit.  If you go in the morning, Painted Buntings often show up at their feeders.
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Marbled Godwit
Merritt Island Blackpoint Dr
If you decide to try all of these, it may take you the whole day.  If you can only take a morning, I'd choose Blackpoint Dr ($5 entrance fee per car--much cheaper than Disney!) and perhaps one or two other locations.

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White Morph Great Blue Heron
Merritt Island Peacock's Pocket
In the winter time, each of the above birding hotspots should provide very comfortable and enjoyable birding.  In the summer time, each of these can become excessively hot, so take care to bring water with you, as well as a hat to help with the sun on your face.  And don't forget bug spray, especially on Merritt Island.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

My Inexplicable Yard List

Posted By Pat Bumstead

Earlier this month I was standing at my kitchen window watching an out-of-season Common Grackle in the yard. Scanning the trees to see if he was alone, I was absolutely astonished when a Snowy Owl flew in front of my face. He flew towards me from the back corner of the yard and disappeared over the house. I quickly ran to the front windows just in time to see him continue his flight up the road, and out of sight. It probably took me no more than 15 or 20 minutes to close my mouth.

We have lived here since 1980, and have 5 mature conifers, 3 deciduous trees, 4 shrubs and an average of 11 bird feeders. An hour to the west are the Rocky Mountains and foothills, and just to the east and south are the prairie grasslands. Our location at the confluence of so many different habitats may help explain why my yard list contains 109 species, but does not explain the magical properties it occasionally assumes.

On Oct 3, 2004 (yes, I remember the date), I heard a new bird sound in the back. Going to one of the bedrooms where the window was open, I looked into a shrub and saw a Hooded Warbler. A call to the local rare bird alert resulted in at least 84 birders in my yard from dawn to dusk, as this obliging little bird stayed here for six weeks, and was a first for the province. We had birding visitors from as far away as the two neighboring provinces. We had naturalists, we had reporters, we had confused neighbours...

A small bird about 3,000 miles off course was exciting enough, but to add to the mystery, a Boreal Owl took up residence in the spruce trees at the same time. He was here daily for nearly a month. Round two of birder visits. My husband got up for work one morning, wandered into the kitchen in his housecoat, and was greeted by 8 birders standing on the deck, waving at him. He eventually found that funny.

Each February, a Great-horned Owl spends his days in my spruce trees for a couple of months. Last year he was here so long I decided he better have a name. Meet Buster.

The recent Snowy Owl fly by was the fifth owl species for the yard – Long-eared and Northern Saw-whet have also stopped by for a visit. Diurnal raptors on the list include Cooper’s Hawk, Sharp-shined Hawk, Merlin and American Kestrel. Osprey, Swainson’s and Red-tailed Hawks are common overhead during the summer months, and Bald Eagles can be seen from the yard year round. Both Peregrine and Prairie Falcons fly by on occasion.

The insect eaters are regular summer visitors:
Western Wood Peewee
Willow Flycatcher
Least Flycatcher
Eastern Phoebe
Eastern Kingbird
House Wren
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Tree Swallow
Tennessee Warbler
Orange-crowned Warbler
Yellow Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Cape May Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler
MaGillvray’s Warbler
Hooded Warbler
Wilson’s Warbler

I’m always glad when I get migrating sparrows in the yard, and I have a dedicated sparrow-feeding area at the back of the yard for these guys:

American Tree Sparrow
Chipping Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Clay-colored Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Grasshopper Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Lincoln’s Sparrow
Harris’s Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Golden-crowned Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco

I also have two species that some people might not count, but hey, it’s my yard list, so I choose to add Chukar Partridge and a free-flying Budgerigar!

Mourning Doves moved in a few years ago, and last year spent the entire winter in the yard – I nearly went broke trying to make sure they had enough food. This past summer was the first entry for Eurasian-collared Doves, but they’re getting fairly common in the city, and have been reported as far north as The Yukon. For some reason, (thankfully) I’ve never had Rock Doves at the feeders, although they do stroll down the sidewalk out front occasionally.

Regular year-round visitors include House Finches, Black-capped Chickadees, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, Northern Flickers (red or yellow shafted) and Black-billed Magpies.

The rest of my in-yard visitors:
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Pileated Woodpecker
Northern Shrike
Gray Jay
Blue Jay
American Crow
Common Raven
Mountain Chickadee
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
American Robin
Hermit Thrush
Swainson's Thrush
Gray Catbird
European Starling
Bohemian Waxwing
Cedar Waxwing
Western Tanager
Red-winged Blackbird
Yellow-headed Blackbird
Rusty Blackbird
Brewer's Blackbird
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
Baltimore Oriole
Pine Grosbeak
Cassin's Finch
Red Crossbill
White-winged Crossbill
Common Redpoll
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch

While we live in a city of 1.1 million people, we are located on the eastern edge, a block from the Bow River which is a major watercourse in southern Alberta. I also count birds flying over the house, and to date have noted 16 species:

American White Pelican
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Trumpeter Swan
Canada Goose
American Wigeon
Common Goldeneye
Sandhill Crane
Franklin's Gull
Ring-billed Gull
California Gull
Common Nighthawk
Bank Swallow
Barn Swallow

When I phoned a couple of birding friends to tell them about the Snowy Owl, they were only mildly surprised. Here I was, bursting with excitement, and their response was well yes, but it is your yard...

Monday, December 26, 2011

TogetherGreen Fellowship: Audubon & Toyota

Posted by John C. Robinson

Earlier this year, I was honored to receive a 2012 TogetherGreen Fellowship from the National Audubon Society. Supported by a conservation alliance between Audubon and Toyota, the TogetherGreen Fellowship offers specialized training in conservation planning and execution, the chance to work and share best practices with gifted conservation professionals, and assistance with project outreach and evaluation. Each Fellow receives a grant from Toyota that can be applied towards a community-focused project to engage local residents in conserving land, water and energy, and contributing to greater environmental health. I will be utilizing my TogetherGreen Fellowship to continue my quest to share my knowledge and love of nature and birds with inner city youth. I plan to do this by creating an environmental “Starter Kit” that will include, among other items, my book, Birding For Everyone.
I will also be working closely with Audubon Centers and leverage connections with other conservation organizations and agencies to expand awareness and effectiveness of this program. Our goal is to reach many thousands (if not up to one million) homes with my environmental message that birding is for everyone! To sum it up, this TogetherGreen Fellowship is an honor to receive and will enable the development of tools, and gathering of resources needed to help prepare our future environmental stewards.

Review: Wild About Birds (app)

This a nice little app for the beginning birder or for kids. The interface is very simple and intuitive. The $1.99 app comes with 40 basic backyard birds. It is expandable with 99¢ upgrades for every 20+ bonus birds by habitat.

Each species has a couple nice photos, usually of the male and female. Juveniles and variable plumage details are not dealt with in this app as it is meant to be simple for beginners. My favorite feature of this app is the built-in identification skills game. Touch the bird photo on the key field characteristics and see if you're right.

Once you've seen the species, you can "add" it to your interactive scrapbook and even share it with your friends on Facebook. You can play the bird call/song, pull up a description of its range (not a map), read some fun facts about the bird, and have the app tell you the key characteristics of the bird identification.

While this may not be "the" birding field guide app for the avid birder, it is an attractive and simple app to engage beginners and fuel their interest in birds and bird identification.

This app was developed by WildTones who provided me a review copy of this app.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Carol of the Birds

Posted by Kelly Riccetti (Red and the Peanut)

Wishing everyone a Christmas filled with love, peace and joy.

The Carol of the Birds
(a traditional Catalonian Carol)

When rose the eastern star, the birds came from a-far,
in that full night of glory.
With one melodious voice they sweetly did rejoice
and sang the wonderous story,
sang, praising God on high, enthroned above the sky,
and his fair mother, Mary.

The eagle left his lair, came winging through the air,
his message loud arising.
And to his joyous cry the sparrow made reply,
his answer sweetly voicing.
"Overcome are death and strife, this night is born new life,"
the robin sang rejoicing.
When rose the eastern star, the birds came from a-far.