Thursday, May 31, 2012

Recent Birding Pics

Ruddy Turnstones have been seen recently in the Salt Lake area, but this is one I photographed at the Crystal Coast in North Carolina last month. I think their color pattern is among the coolest of the shorebirds.
Cliff Swallow nests under the bridge of the Jordan River at my lunch-hour birding patch.
I caught this female Brown-headed Cowbird scoping out nests in which to deposit its eggs.
I've been hoping for some good Bullock's Oriole photos this year, but they're not cooperating too well. There do seem to be a lot of them this year and dang, they're beautiful!
Red-winged Blackbird on the wing over a marsh at Farmington Bay.
Lots of ducklings and goslings around these days. I have three of four neck collar numbers to submit to the USGS and find out where and when they were banded.
Western Kingbird at Farmington Bay - I have never noticed the green-yellow feathers on the back before. Kinda cool!
Back in North Carolina, we spent some time checking out the Beaufort historic cemetery. It was fascinating and I got to enjoy birds like the Northern Cardinal and Brown Thrashers that I don't get to see where I live. How many Cardinals do you see in this image?

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Dickcissels of Deer Run

Deer Run Forest Preserve is an unassuming natural area that over the years has become one of my favorite places to bird. With nine and a half miles of trails and nearly 600 acres, it takes some time and effort to cover all the different habitats.

Coneflowers at Deer Run

My focus on an after work hike was to find Dickcissels and Orchard Orioles to photograph. I struck out on the Orchards but found seven Dickcissels all singing on territories.

Dickcissel Dickcissel Dickcissel

I did find the brightest Baltimore Oriole I think I've ever seen.

Baltimore Oriole

The prairie habitat at Deer Run is some of the best in northern Illinois and always provides fun finds. In past years I've photographed Henslow's Sparrows (state endangered) as well as many other species (145 in one year of surveying).

Deer Run Forest Preserve

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Boosting Your Yard List

Migration is a great time to boost your yard list.  With birds moving around, you can find birds that you might otherwise never see in your yard.  Keeping your eyes and ears open is the first trick, but there are a couple strategies that can improve your odds of finding even more unusual birds.

Some of the birds added to my yard list this spring migration.
Bird Magnets--Traditional birdscaping strategies can help you attract more migrant birds to your yard.  Native trees and shrubs will draw in the native birds, and a water drip can also serve as a bird magnet.  There are plenty of resources out there to help you learn how to improve your yard for birds, so just pick some up from the library or grab them online.  In my case, we just moved to a new house last fall, and this spring I put up a hummingbird feeder and within a week had added Ruby-throated Hummingbird to the yard list.

Flyovers--This is the key to boosting your yard list.  Most of us will never have shorebirds, gulls, or most water birds landing in our yards.  But these birds are going over, and so you need a strategy for seeing them.  For many songbirds, early morning may be the best time to be out looking for flyovers--as many birds are flying around in the morning looking for good foraging habitat after migrating all night.  Keep your eyes open scan the skies.  If you can get some elevation, that can help.  I can't tell you to get up on your roof--that may not be safe--but finding a way to see more of the sky can help you see more birds going over.  Evening is also a great time to look for birds flying over--especially gulls or wading birds going to roost, or migrating shorebirds heading out at dusk.

American Bittern call recorded 13 May 2012
Nocturnal Flyovers--Most birds migrate at night.  If you really want to boost your yard list, you need to catch them going over your house at night.  If you live in a quiet neighborhood, you may be able to hear them going over.  Otherwise, you may need to get a microphone setup to better hear them going over.  I posted about my own setup last month.  Recording is advisable, since the calls are often short and confusing, but if you record them you can look at them in software that creates a spectrogram of the call, as well as share them with others, and get input on call identifications that are new for you.  I'm still recording the tail end of migration in my yard, and puzzling over some calls I still haven't identified.  But here are some of the more unusual or hard to find birds I've added to my yard list by recording them going over my house these past two months:

Black-crowned Night Heron call recorded 16 April 2012 (Hunterdon County, NJ)
Black-crowned Night Heron
American Bittern
Virginia Rail
Least Sandpiper
Short-billed Dowitcher
Solitary Sandpiper
Black-billed Cuckoo
Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Swainson's Thrush
Gray-cheeked Thrush
Alder Flycatcher
Acadian Flycatcher
Canada Warbler

I've added at least 29 species to my yard list this way in April and May, and the list is bound to climb as I continue identifying additional calls that I've recorded.  In most cases, I don't have good habitat for these birds in my yard, so they it might be tough to actually ever see them here.  But by birding at night, and recording their calls, I can experience a much bigger percentage of the migration going over or through my yard.

Spring migration is winding down, but some birds will still be moving over much of North America for the next week or two.  Then fall migration starts for some birds as early as late June.  So plan to be outside as much as you can, especially early and late in the day.  Get some comfy yard chairs and perch yourself with a good view of the sky, and don't stop birding when it gets dark.  There are hundreds of bird species flying over your county each year.  With some planning, luck, and a lot of fun, you can find a much larger percentage of them from your yard, even if you don't think you have a very birdy yard!

Monday, May 28, 2012


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Northern Parula
Now at the end of May, migration is winding down here in Florida. The last time I visited Mead Gardens by my home, I found only 26 species.  But even with these low numbers (compared to a month ago), I had one of my favorite mornings at the gardens.  I found a Northern Parula fledgling sitting perched in a tree.  It could fly, but was still dependent on a parent for food.  Then I found a pair of Downy Woodpeckers flying from tree to tree, and the fledgling was being fed by the adult.

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Downy Woodpeckers
On the same day, I dropped by nearby Lake Lotus Park, and a Red-shouldered Hawk fledgling was out branching in a tree

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Red-shouldered Hawk
Generally speaking, a fledgling is a young bird that has acquired the muscle development and flight feathers required for flight. However, in some cases, young birds can be considered fledglings when they leave the nest, even if they are not yet able to fly.  There was a pair of Sandhill Cranes in a park near my home with to chicks.  As they were growing, I visited the park from time to time to see how they were doing.

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Sandhill Cranes
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Sandhill Cranes
By my office there's a little pond, and it's been so dry lately that the water levels are way down, leaving a nice, brown, mucky mess.  So about a week ago I found a Killdeer with two little fledglings

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And every year during the spring I go to Merritt Island's Blackpoint Drive and find Green Heron fledglings.  They are always a big attraction to visitors, both birders and non-birders alike.

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Green Heron
But my all-time favorite moment was seeing a Least Bittern who came out close to the open in search of food.

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Least Bittern
When keeping a safe distance, seeing fledglings is one of the experiences that makes birding so fun.

Scott Simmons
Learn Outdoor Photography

Sunday, May 27, 2012

A Northern Drive

Earlier this month, my husband and I had occasion to drive nearly 500 miles up the province to northwestern Alberta where we grew up.  We have family and friends scattered throughout this area, and familial duties kept us very busy. Birders, however, always manage to sneak in some viewing even during a weekend of planned events.

We traveled through a variety of ecosystems, and once we left the prairie grasslands where we now live, two words became prominent - trees and water. 

A large portion of the trip took us through a thick band of boreal forest, where birding is more than a challenge. I could hear a pileated woodpecker calling in there, but wasn’t about to go in looking for him.

Driving along the highway is not really conducive to bird watching, but if you know where to make a quick stop you can fit it in. There are numerous little fens along the road, and our first stop produced a photogenic group of Ring-necked ducks tucked away in the forest.

After driving through this long stretch of closely packed trees, the landscape relaxes into parkland, and some of Canada’s most productive farming country. Dotted in and around the farms are a large number of lakes, and 505 square miles (1308 sq. km) have been identified as an Important Bird Area for Trumpeter Swans and other waterfowl. The largest lake in the area is 6.5 miles (10 kilometers) long.

This area is the main Trumpeter Swan breeding ground in Canada. Every year when they came back we had to share our local parks with swans, and it became habit to just take a few side steps to go around these big birds and continue walking. This is why I've been known to say "oh it's just a swan" when other birders are doing back flips at seeing one of these graceful birds.

Whenever we make a trip north, I make it a point to stop at this well known swan breeding lake. On this visit though, the wind was whipping up whitecaps and there was not a swan in sight. We had to settle for huge numbers of Lesser Yellowlegs and Semi-palmated Sandpipers hugging the shoreline. 

And of course the ubiquitous...

One of the most productive swan breeding lakes does not allow public access to the shore for the birds’ protection, but we could see several hundred of them, all out of camera range. Knowing my way around the area however, meant that I knew of several smaller lakes and we finally managed to find pair close enough for my camera. This particular lake also produced a raft of Ruddy Ducks in their magnificent breeding plumage, as well as Red-necked Grebes and a huge variety of other duck and gull species.

This lake was also home to the old man of the cattails...:)

Along with the larger water bodies, the area is dotted with smaller, bug-infested muskeg and bogs that are extremely popular with birds and amphibians. As well as Northern Shovelers, Gadwalls and American Wigeons, this particular patch contained Spotted Sandpipers, Rusty Blackbirds and a cloud of Yellow Warblers.

Our trip took us across many rivers both large and small. The trees on the banks were decked out in their new spring finery, showing off uncountable shades of green. A quick stop to stretch our legs brought a curious Swainson’s Thrush out of the undergrowth, and I wasn’t quick enough to get a photo of the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in the trees above.

We made one last quick birding drive on the morning we headed home, still looking for those amazingly elusive swans. As so often happens on birdwatching drives though, we got a wonderful surprise on a farm near one of the lakes. You probably heard me when I yelled stop.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Birding Apps Revisited

Birding apps are constantly updating. I thought it was about time to give a quick run-down and update of the apps I use and discuss their advantages and disadvantages. Also, I've had an iPhone for a few months now and so I've been able to enjoy the apps for iOS, which seem to me to run more smoothly than they ever did on the Android platform.

BirdLog is easily now my favorite and most used birding app. These are the same folks who developed BirdsEye which uses eBird sightings to help people find birds. This awesome app allows us to enter eBird checklists easily and efficiently in the field. The more I use it, the more and more I love it! I've discovered many of the built-in short-cuts for entering checklists quickly that I probably would have learned by reading more about it, but whatever. I'm now Lightning McQueen in the field and can enter most any bird sighting (including the count number) with about four taps on my iPhone. That's way faster than writing it in my note pad and then duplicating the effort later on my laptop. I also feel like my bird counts are more accurate because I simply enter them as I see them. Just as I encourage every birder to be an eBirder, this is a must-have app for every birder. $9.99 in the iTunes App Store.

Bird Codes has become even more important to me now that I am using the banding codes to enter my sightings into BirdLog. If I can't figure out the banding code within a couple of tries in BirdLog, I quickly jump into the Bird Codes app and learn it. Simple and sleek. Perfect for my needs. Looks like it is free in iTunes right now. Not yet available on Android.

The Sibley eGuide to the Birds of North America works way better on iPhone for me than it did on my Android phone. I still prefer the Sibley drawings to help me identify birds, but the biggest strength I find in using this amp is the ability to compare two similar species. I also like that when playing the bird sounds, you can select the option to loop the sound or just play it once as needed. I also like that it indicates where the sound was recorded as it does make a difference from region to region. This is still one of the most expensive birding apps out there at $19.99 in the App Store. But this app is also available for many other smartphone platforms including Android, Blackberry, Kindle Fire, and Windows Phone 7.

Audubon Birds is still a favorite of mine too. Like Birdseye, you can use this app to find birds nearby using eBird sightings. This app uses photographs rather than illustrations which has its advantages and disadvantages. The latest update seems to have more images showing a variety for gender and age. The sound clips are very short and do not loop which may be intentional. Sound recording location is also shown. $2.99 in the App Store. UPDATE: Last night's update added the feature of field marks being pointed out on some of the images. Very cool!

iBird Pro still remains the most comprehensive of the digital birding field guides. Again, this app works better for me on iPhone than it did on Android. This app uses both illustrations and several photos to help you identify birds. The illustrations are stylistically "different" and may not look exactly like what you would see in the field, but the renderings do seem to key in on the field identifiable traits. iBird lets you loop the bird sounds if desired, but it is the only app I've seen that can boast having spectrograms giving you a visual image of the sounds which is pretty cool. At $2.99 this is probably the best bang-for-your buck app out there.

The truth is I just don't use Peterson Birds of North America. The interface is mostly icon based, so its just not that intuitive. Every time I open it, I feel like I have to relearn how to use it. I think it has tons of potential and some cool functionality in it, but it needs to be more like the other apps as far as how it is used so that it gets used. At $0.99 in the App Store, it's a bargain.

NatureTap is fantastic app that helps you learn bird sounds and the birds themselves through games. I really enjoy it. It has some features similar to a digital field guide, but not as extensive as the Audubon Birds app made by the same developer. It has more than just birds too. The main download is free and you can buy additional packs for $0.99/ea.

Chirp! Bird Songs USA is an app new to me that I just downloaded and will review soon. It is another app designed to help one learn bird sounds. At first glance it appears user friendly and fun! I'll review it in more detail soon. $2.99 in the App Store.

By the way, Larkwire is beta-testing their bird sound learning tool as an app now, so stand by for info about that soon too.

Search features using physical characteristics of birds seen in the field in all of the digital field guides I find to be pretty much useless. They still all seem to use the filtering system for searching. So if you don't see the bird the exactly as the app developer does, it filters out your birds, and you won't find it. I'm still encouraging digital field guide app developers to change their search programming to be based on probabilities or percentages of field marks you've entered as compared to what they have in their database. Wouldn't it be nice if the search results came back and said "4 of the 5 traits you entered match the following list of birds..." rather than filtering them out.

Coffee Kills

Coffee Consuming Countries - from NatGeo
Reading my June issue of National Geographic, there is this two-page map spread showing coffee consumption across the globe, artistically created from coffee beans. Knowing that coffee plantations are typically found in the tropics, I thought it was interesting that the most consuming nations of coffee are outside of the growing regions. There is no question that a lot of deforestation is caused by coffee growers in order to obtain higher yields. Shrinking forests mean less bird habitat. In effect, drinking coffee kills birds.
Coffee Growing Countries - courtesy of Wikipedia

Now I am not a coffee drinker. The faith I practice strongly discourages drinking coffee, among other things. While I don't partake, I've never judged others that do. And I don't consider it a "sin" unless you've committed not to. I used to think that the reason behind my religion's prohibition was strictly a principle of health and know...if you are addicted to and therefore controlled by a substance you are in fact surrendering your own free will. However, after learning about the impact on the rain forests of coffee plantations, I'm wondering if God did not have a greater purpose in the proscription of coffee - saving the planet!

There are a lot of things that our modern society overindulges in that negatively impact the environment, and not all are traditional "vices" in the religious sense. Just think about beef, sugar, and beer to name a couple. Look at the impingement on the land required to grow, process, and supply these items at the unnecessary levels of demand we human beings have created. Surely we can all be more temperate in our consumption of such things for both our own health's sake and for the earth's sake.

What about the millions of folks in developing countries who depend on coffee growing to feed their families? Ecotourism may be part of the solution for them. What if every coffee drinking birder ditched the habit and saved their daily coffee money and put it toward a birding trip in Central America? That would have a significant economic impact. But would it be enough? Probably not. Hard working coffee growers would have to transition to new industries. I'm not calling for a complete ban on coffee...just a simple reduction in consumption and demand so that more rain forest and therefore birds can be saved from obliteration. At the very least responsible birders and the environmentally-conscious should be drinking certified shade-grown coffee. As for me, I'll continue to abstain.