Friday, March 30, 2012

Summery Spring at Lake Shabbona

In northern Illinois, like other places in the Midwest, we are experiencing some unseasonably warm temperatures.

Daffodils at my parent's yard

Recently I went hiking at Lake Shabbona State Recreational Area in DeKalb County, Illinois and it was 80 degrees. The average high temperature is lower than what the recorded low was.

It felt so much like summer yet it "officially" wasn't even Spring (this was on March 18th).

Shabbonna Lake State Park

But despite quite a few early recorded dates of some species in the area, the bird diversity seemed fairly "normal".

The duck numbers on the large lake were good and diverse, yet mostly at the extremes of scope range. The warm temps brought out fishing boats en masse, forcing much of the waterfowl to the far end of the lake.

I managed to find a handful of Horned Grebes, one of which I digiscoped (poorly).

Horned Grebe

Among the ducks were scaup, Canvasback, Northern Shoveler, Ruddy Duck, Red-breasted Merganser, along with a fair number of coots.

Scaup and Canvasback

I was surprised by the lack of sparrows, not hearing any White-throated, White-crowned, or Fox Sparrows. There were plenty of Song Sparrows but it seems with the warmer weather, the other sparrows would be coming out.

I've found Tree Swallows and Eastern Phoebes already this season which definitely feels early.

Of course, this isn't scientific and just my casual observations. I personally believe that the warm weather and early feelings of summer are not having an adverse effect on the birds.

I do wonder what will happen if we get a sudden change of weather and it drops down below freezing. Our last frost date is around May 13th so it is likely we will be 50 degrees colder at some point in the next month and a half.

Regardless, I will continue to enjoy the warm weather and observe how nature reacts to it.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Band on the Run

This week at Demott Pond in Clinton, NJ (one of my local patches), I noticed a Canada Goose with a leg band.  While it is pretty easy to read neck bands on geese, it is a real chore to read the much smaller leg bands.

I couldn't read the band as the goose ran around on the side of the road with its mate, but I started snapping shots hoping to get one where the band was readable.

I managed to get over 50 shots.  And some you can almost make out.  Tantalizingly close.  But.Just.Not.Quite!  Ugh!  

I guess I'll just have to keep my eye out.  Most of the migratory geese are already gone, so this may well be a local nester.  Hopefully next time I'll have better luck!

by Rob Fergus

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Tragedy in a Barred Owl Family

Barred Owl, May 2010
Even though it's a small 50-acre park near the City of Orlando, Mead Gardens is one of my favorite places in Florida for birding.  I've found many "lifers" here, and every time I go, I'm always glad that I came.  On my first visit in May 2010, I stepped out of the car and immediately found a Barred Owl perched above the map display in the parking lot.  And it's not uncommon to see one of these lovely creatures when I visit the park.  Barred Owls mate for life and often maintain the same nesting sites year after year, and their territories cover at least 200 acres.  So it's likely that the owls I see there are from the same family group year after year.  They have few predators once they're grown; the most significant predator of Barred Owls is the Great Horned Owl.  In fact, Barred Owls will avoid portions of their territory inhabited by Great Horned Owls.  But owlets are much more vulnerable.  They face many dangers, not least of which is the possibility of falling from a nest.

Injured Barred Owl
At Mead Gardens this past Saturday, I came across a Barred Owl chick on the ground under a tree. This seemed odd to me, since he was in a high-traffic area of the park.  Picnic tables were very near by, and it's an area where people frequently walk their dogs, and it wasn't moving.  It then became clear to me that the owl had been severely injured, as if it had fallen from its nest.  Barred Owls nest in tree cavities, often in nests left by hawks, crows, or squirrels.  At about one month after hatching, the owlets begin to "branch"--that is, they climb out of their nest to test their wings to prepare for flight.  This owl was about 5 weeks old, so it's likely that that he was testing his wings when he fell to the ground. Another birder I had met that day called the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey, and they gave us instructions on how to bring the injured owlet to the center, so we carefully collected the bird to bring it in.

Barred Owl parents typically care for their young for four months, and sure enough, one of the parents was nearby keeping watch, so we were a little concerned about taking the little owl away.  My new friend watched the adult while I collected the owlet.  Thankfully, the adult didn't swoop me.

A Watchful Parent
We took the owl to the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey, which is about 10 minutes away from the park.  The nice people in the center allowed us to be there for the initial diagnosis.  His eyes checked out okay, and the break to the wing was not too severe.  But the bird had suffered spinal trauma, and that injury was life threatening.  We were told that if they saw no response to treatment in 3 days, the owl probably wouldn't survive.  He did have some pain response in his feet, which was a positive sign.  But sadly, I called the center yesterday morning, and I was told that his injuries were just too severe, and the owl did not survive.

Checking the wings for breaks
Checking his eyes for abrasions
It saddens me that this little guy didn't make it.  Despite the spinal injury, I was hoping to see the bird released and then "visit" him occasionally at Mead Gardens.  But I'm comforted that now it seems he has a sibling at Mead Gardens that is doing well.  I had shared my experience on an email listserve on Saturday, and on Sunday another birder posted that he saw a healthy owlet in the same location.  I returned on Monday evening and found him branching in a tree in the same area of the park. So the Barred Owl family will continue at Mead Gardens, and this little guy will likely grow up and live nearby. I hope to have the chance see the owl on occasion as he becomes an adult.  Already he seems to be doing pretty well.  And I must say, he's quite handsome.

Healthy Owlet
If you happen to find an injured raptor, there are some important things to keep in mind:
  1. Raptors are dangerous, and they will defend themselves, even if young or injured.  So call a rescue center before attempting to rescue the bird to learn the necessary precautions to take.
  2. Note the location where you found the injured raptor, and with baby raptors look around for siblings, parents and the nesting site.
  3. Use a box with holes for breathing, and if there's no box available, use a thick bag or blanket.  Make sure the container is secure.  You don't want the bird to escape its container when you're in your car.
  4. Do not give the bird food or water.  Take the bird directly to a rescue/rehabilitation center.
And on a related note, be careful not to approach an owl's nesting site.  When the fledglings are out, stay far away and photograph them with a telephoto lens, and don't be afraid to crop your photos to get a "close up look."  Birders and photographers that come too close to the nesting site may cause the parents to choose a different nesting site in the future.  And if you live in Central Florida , you may also consider attending the Audubon Center's annual "Baby Owl Shower" coming up on May 12, 2012 from 10am to 2pm.  They use this fundraiser to help feed and care for the raptors that are brought to the center.

Scott Simmons
Learn Outdoor Photography

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Bird Feeding On A Budget

The popularity of back yard bird watching has exploded over the past few years. With increased numbers of people searching for bird feeders, the retail industry has responded with a dizzying variety of options.

I was in a large hardware store recently, gazing at the wealth of bird feeders on display. A man standing next to me with a bewildered look on his face said his wife had sent him down to buy a bird feeder. Did I know which one he should purchase? Thus began a 20 minute conversation about what kind of birds were in his yard (he didn't know), the variety of bird foods, and why this particular feeder would work for finches, that one for jays, and so on.

While the number of available feeders can be overwhelming to a new birder, the prices can be equally daunting. Like Halloween and Valentine's Day, the retail sector has turned backyard birdwaching into a major industry. It has become more about filling their bank accounts than feeding the birds, and that is just wrong.

Birds want food. They don't need, or care about, pretty little ceramic daisies or feeders designed to look like mini-mansions, complete with windows (?) and high price tags.

As long as you don't mind the neighbors asking why you have a piece of wood hanging in your tree, we have a low cost bird feeding solution for you.

Walking the dog along the riverbank one day, my husband noticed a piece of firewood lying on the ground. By the time he got home, he had mentally completed his new bird feeder design. (I've long since given up trying to figure out how his mind works...)

The wood has bark on one side so the nuthatches and woodpeckers can hang on. He drilled a series of holes in it of different widths (1/4" - 7/32"), to a depth of not more than 3/4". (Bird feeding + power tool =  win win from his perspective.)

A trip to the local hardware store for some 1 1/4" screw-eyes ($1.29), and old piece of nylon cord, and we had a new bird feeder.

He then made a paste of chunky peanut butter and cornmeal, filled the holes with it, and smeared some on the bark. Designed for the birds and not its esthetic value, the birds absolutely love it.

Red-breasted Nutchatches in particular love this log, and one clever bird has even figured out how to pull the entire plug out at once, no doubt to cache it away in some other tree. I've seen up to three of them on the log at once, but wasn't quick enough with the camera.

Downy Woodpeckers are in love with this log too. They sit on it and nosh for about 10 minutes, moving from hole to hole, before flying away with undoubtedly full little tummies.

It took the squirrels a little longer to get used to this strange object in their tree. Soon however, they were quite pleased with their new dining centre. They lick the peanut butter off the surface in no time, and just look at all those hand/feet holds!

Happy birds and squirrels aside, we hadn't counted on having to refill the holes every few days. Since the nuthatch manages to pull the whole plug out, and the squirrels virtually park themselves on the log we need to do a bit of a rethink about what we mix with the peanut butter. Or we'll probably just get used to refilling it based on the requirements of the wildlife. Black-capped Chickadees are frequent visitors, and when the Northern Flickers discover this log, we may be looking at daily refills.

Even with the refilling demands we like this feeder. No more trips to buy expensive bird food, and just to be fair, we've hung a niger sock for the redpolls and finches on the back.  When the warmer weather gets here, we may even fasten an orange on the top for the orioles. 

Backyard birding doesn't get any better than this - a low cost feeder, adaptable for many species and cheap to refill. It also comes with the added benefit of dealing with a gooey mess on your fingers when filling the holes - a perfect way to get children interested in bird watching!

By Pat Bumstead

Monday, March 26, 2012

Review: BirdsEye BirdLog

Finally! We have an easy and smooth way of entering eBird checklists using our smartphones in the field. The creator of the popular BirdsEye app have recently released the BirdLog app. I've now used it a couple of times and my initial impressions are very favorable. I found BirdLog very easy to use for submitting my checklists. I like how it can use my current location and how it quickly pulls up my personal locations and eBird hotspots nearby. Entering the species and the numbers of birds seen is super easy. When I log into eBird on my laptop, the checklists I submitted using BirdLog are all they are look normal. It works great! Now if they can just add voice commands to enter sightings and counts. This app is available for iOS and for Android now for an introductory price of $9.99 (regular $14.99). A great value for the convenience.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Florida Blues...and greens...

I don't need a lot of words for this post. After all, there's nothing like a Florida Blue...especially when he's standing in front of a sea of green...

Greens and blues mingle in the background in ways found only on the gulf coast of Florida...

(This one really doesn't fit with the rich blue and green theme, but the feathers are just so cool!)

We just don't get these color combinations in Cincinnati (especially at the end of winter and beginning of spring)!

Florida birds are fearless. They let tourists (like me) creep around them with cameras in hand without batting an eye...and what an eye!

...hope to see you next spring, big guy. Until then, I'll have the Florida blues...

posted by Kelly

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Sharing Birding Enthusiasm

Sometimes I feel sorry for the people in my life that show any amount of interest in birds and birding. I tend to pounce on them at once and envelop them with my enthusiasm whether they like it or not. Kind of like the ol' Loony Toon's Abominable Snowman. I'm certain that it turns some people off. But other times that passion takes root and becomes a tree sharing its own fruit with others. I should be on the Christmas card lists for Eagle Optics and Sibley Guides for all of their products I have sold to the poor innocent people in my life that I have enlightened (or ruined) with birding.

Jason Talbot and I served together as adult advisers to a church group of young men and Boy Scouts when we lived in Idaho. As I live the mantra of "Always be birding", Jason, being an avid outdoors man, quickly displayed interest in the birds I was pointing out. I couldn't help myself. I pounced. Although he had had the sickness as a child, the antibodies in his immune system were not sufficiently strong to combat the strain of birding disease that I was spreading. The illness took hold of him immediately.

Anyway, I have since moved to Utah, but Jason's renewed passion for birding has carried on and we still stay in touch. He has seen several species of birds that I have yet to see. Jason writes for the website and he recently wrote about his birding adventures over the last couple of years. He shares several tales of birding with me and even one in which his eldest daughter pranked us. Jason oozes birding enthusiasm in his writing which I encourage you to check out here:

Friday, March 23, 2012

Birding a Rarely Birded Island

A couple of weeks ago I traveled to St John in the US Virgin Islands for a family vacation. I had never birded in the Caribbean so I was extremely excited to get to the island and find a few lifers. While St John has no endemic species, there were many Caribbean specialities for me to find. It was dark when we arrived on the island so my search for lifers had to wait until the next morning. I got up really early and decided to spend the morning birding around the hotel property. Right as I stepped outside, I noticed a hummingbird on the flowers just outside our door. It was an Antillean Crested Hummingbird and my first lifer of the trip. My next lifer came quickly in the form of the ever present Pearly-eyed Thrasher. This bird is everywhere on St John.
Pearly-eyed Thrasher
Those were my only lifers that morning but I was more than happy to spend my time watching the many Bananaquits around the property. Later in the day while we were walking around Cruz Bay (the main town on the island) my wife found me another lifer on a hummingbird feeder, a Green-throated Carib.

Green-throated Carib
Most of my birding over the next few days was just incidental while we were busy exploring the island. During this time, I was able to watch Brown Boobies quite closely while we were on a sailing trip to the British Virgin Islands. It was fun to watch the Boobies and even more fun to swim ashore in a few locations and have some rum drinks!

On Wednesday, I finally got out to do some real birding. My wife and I took a taxi from our hotel to the Francis Bay Trail. It turns out that this is some of the best birding on the island and was hosting a special visitor that we were unaware of. Almost immediately after starting down the trail I picked up my first lifer and a bird that I have looked for many times, a Mangrove Cuckoo.

Mangrove Cuckoo hopping from branch to branch
While we were standing on a platform overlooking a pond and watching my lifer White-cheeked Pintails, a man walked up and asked if we had seen "it". We explained that we were just visiting the island and had no idea what "it" was. he told us that there had been a single American Flamingo around the pond for the past week and that it had even made the front page of the local paper. We would be sure to keep an eye out for this bird!

We kept on birding around the pond and picked up a couple more lifer including Smooth-billed Ani and Black-faced Grassquit but still no flamingo. As we headed back towards the trailhead we stopped at an overlook that had a nice view of the pond below but part of the pond was still hidden by the trees. It looked like it would be easy climb down 15 feet to get a better view. I didn't even have to go that far before I noticed a huge pink bird on the far side of the pond. We moved back down the trail and took a small path through the mangroves to the waters edge. It turned out that this put us within about 25 yards of the flamingo.

American Flamingo

American Flamingo
On our last full day on the island, we went to the far eastern end of the island to try another birding location called Salt Pond. Unfortunately, this was not nearly as good for birding as the Francis Bay Trail. The birding highlight of the day was photographing a Black-faced Grassquit.

Male Black-faced Grassquit
I had a great time exploring a new area and learning a lot about some of the more common Caribbean species that I was not familiar with. While I would not travel to St John strictly for birding, if you are going there for vacation, you can definitely squeeze in some productive birding time.


Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Let people know you're a birder!

Haven't had much time to get out birding here recently. Work and other commitments getting in the way. The too few times I have been out, I haven't been seeing much bird wise. However, I have had a few encounters with non-birders that were encouraging to me.

I usually bird a local state park that has a whole slew of different types of people conducting all sorts of behaviors. One day, an older lady and her daughter slowly approached me. She looked worried, as if not knowing what I would do. She then asked me if I was watching birds. I told her that I was a birder. She then asked me if I could answer her natural history questions. She told me that she first went to the state department of natural resources office (park office) to inquire about what kind of bones she had found. She said that the lady at the desk told her "I am sorry, but I just sell boat registrations." So, you may ask what does this have to do with birding?

The conversation quickly turned to birds and to questions about them. She went back to her car and brought out her laptop to show me pictures she had taken on her local farm to see if I could ID them. She was very interested. I had found out that she was my neighbor in a sense, only right down the road. She asked me if I had a card. That got me thinking. I told her that I didn't have a card, but wrote down the URL to my blog and told her that if she had further questions, that she could contact me through it. I have since started working on a business type card to carry around that I can give to non-birders or other birders with my email and blog URL. Many birders already do this with birder patronage cards.

This also made me think of another way we birders can help bring birding more to the forefront. I have noticed recently a shift in natural resource management locally. Kind of like an outsourcing if you will, of public lands. I see that private interest groups such as mountain bike clubs, horse clubs, sports clubs, etc. have been able to manipulate the lands to meet their "needs". I got to thinking. If they can do this, why can't bird clubs do the same to create or improve bird habitat? Or even create a bird trail? While this is not a problem in National Wildlife Refuges, it is a problem in more local public lands. There aren't many NWRs close to me in SW Ohio, so I usually am forced to bird state parks and wildlife areas. I think we as birders need to do a better job at letting our natural resource agencies know that we exist, especially on the local levels.

And since I should have some bird pics, I will leave you with a pic of a nice looking adult Red-shouldered hawk that I snapped out of the car window recently.

Red-shouldered Hawk

And a couple of couples of Hooded Mergansers from a recent outing.

Hooded Mergansers

Spring is here! get out and see some birds and have fun!

ABA Bird of the Year!

This morning, Jeff Gordon, president of the American Birding Association, announced the 2012 Bird of the Year...the Evening Grosbeak. Check out his hilarious video unveiling as well as his post talking about the ABA Bird of the Year program!

Since last fall, I've had the honor of serving as the ABA Bird of the Year Coordinator. It has been a blast working with the awesome ABA staff to wrap-up the reign of the American Kestrel in 2011 and then to have participated in the selection of the new bird of the year.

Why the Evening Grosbeak? I'm glad you asked! Check out the ABA Bird of the Year website we put together for the reasons we chose this super cool bird.

We've put together a great line-up of activities and events tied to the Evening Grosbeak for the year. There will be radio spots, podcasts, blog posts, articles in magazines, contests and even ABA Bird of the Year merchandise! ABA members should be getting their new stickers any day now in their March issue of Birding. I've got my stickers and have already put them on my binoculars. The artwork on the sticker and on the cover of Birding magazine is all from the fabulous and amazingly talented Julie Zickefoose. The sticker layout was designed by ABA graphic artist Ed Rother.

I hope you'll have us much fun with the Bird of the Year program as I do this year. Please consider showing your support of birding by joining the American Birding Association.

Insider scoop for "Birding is Fun!" readers:

Evening Grosbeak Sticker on my binoculars
You may be wondering about how the ABA goes about selecting the Bird of the Year. Well, after spending tens of thousands of dollars on market research using focus groups around North America, we determined which bird species most appeal to...just kidding!

In reality, at Jeff Gordon's request, I simply prepared a list of a dozen or so birds that I felt would be great totems for the ABA. I shared my list with the ABA staff including my thoughts on the pros and cons of each species. I felt that the bird should be "possible" to see in most of the ABA area, that it should be striking and interesting in appearance so that it might spark the interest of non-birders, and that it have some aspect of conservation connected with the species. Everyone on the staff had a chance to weigh in by way of an email discussion and the Evening Grosbeak just seemed to quickly rise to the top of the list by general consensus. Looking back, I'm awed by how rapidly we came to this sense of unity surrounding a bird with a yellow unibrow. We also want to try and avoid predictive patterns in which species gets selected from year to year. We want the mystery of which species is going to selected to be tantalizing. If you are on pins and needles anticipating the Bird of the Year announcement, then I'm doing my job. It's all about fun and celebrating birding!

I've blogged about the Evening Grosbeak a couple of times before. If you're interested...
Love the Unibrow!
Are they really back?