Friday, August 31, 2012

Harnessing Our Birding Energy

Kenn and I are constantly getting asked about birding gear.  Most questions are about what binocular or scope to buy, but more and more we're getting asked about binocular harnesses versus neck straps.  If you've spent a long day (or a series of long days) birding, then you know that a neck strap can get to be a real, well, pain in the neck.  (I had to say it!)  Several years ago a new harness style binocular strap hit the market and lots of birders were eager to try it out.
A conventional binocular harness.
I tried the harness and it just did not work for me.  It was way too bulky and hard to get on and off.  In the heat, it pressed my clothes against me, making me feel even more sweaty and icky.  Another problem for me was that I sometimes like to wear my bins sort of slung across one shoulder, especially if I'm also carrying my camera.  Trying to wad up all of those wide straps to wear my bins that way just didn't work. And then.... well, then there's the whole boobies thing.  (Hmmm, I wonder if I can say "boobies" on this blog??  I should be able to. After all, it IS an ornithological term!) For the ladies, this original style harness begs the question, "In or out?"  And, even if you start out with them in, by the end of the day the straps have a tendency to "migrate," often resulting in one of each, which is not cool. 

After a few weeks of struggling with it, I finally gave up on the harness and went back to the neck strap.  Then, about eight years ago, someone gave me the Link.    
For me, the Link harness system is much better.  It's made of lightweight, narrow, nylon cord, so it reduces all that bulk of the old style harness...  
...which makes your bins much more portable when you've got the strap all coiled up to put your bins in the case or carry-on for travel.  It's a breeze to get on and off, and I really like that the Link allows me to wear my bins slung across one shoulder, like this...
The Link harness has proven to be comfortable in any birding situation. Even when you're dressed in your most formal attire the Link performs like a champ! 
Yes indeed, that's me on our wedding day.  We got married in McAllen, Texas, and no matter what else is happening, when you're in the Rio Grande Valley you need to be ready to get your bird on at any moment! But seriously, see how narrow the straps are?  This really is a fabulous piece of gear!  
If the situation calls for it, you can also shorten the straps and wear it as a conventional neck strap, as I am in this picture.  This is helpful if you're wearing bulky outerwear and carrying lots of other gear; however, the Link is also easy to get on over even a bulky parka. I love that it's so versatile. I also love that the nylon cord is round, so you never have to worry about the straps being flipped upside down and going all wonky when you put it on.  If you ever struggled into the old style harness, you'll know what I mean. 

I've had the same Link harness for more than eight years and it's still in great condition with no fraying or worn out parts.  And here's the best part: it cost less than $10.00!  I loved the product so much that we started selling it in the gift shop at Black Swamp Bird Observatory.   We sold hundreds of them -- but then the company went out of business, egads!   We were really disappointed to lose this great product because nearly everyone we suggested it to loved it.  Fortunately, the Link was recently purchased by a new company and is available again! 

If you'd like to try it out for yourself, you can get one from the BSBO online Swamp Shop, HERE.  (You'll need to scroll down a bit to get to it.) They're just $9.95 + tax and $4.50 for shipping and handling.  And all of the proceeds benefit BSBO's research and education programs.  

Thanks for reading, and Happy Birding!



Birder Personality Profiles: Celebrity Birder Follow-Up

In a previous post unveiling the Birder Personality Profile, I set up a little game for us to determine the personality type of a dozen celebrities in the birding world. This can be quite a challenge if you haven't spent any amount of time with them personally, but based on what we know of them, I think we can get pretty close.

First, as a reminder, here is the chart:

Below are the birding celebrities and my thoughts on their personality types. If you think differently based on your experience, or you are one of these people shown below, we'd love for you to weigh in.

Eagle: To me there is no question that Richard Crossley is an idea guy, a birding industry leader, and is driven to execute his ideas. All traits of an Eagle.
Richard Crossley
Parrot: Sharon's personality shines through her writing and her podcasts. She even admits to her messy car. The real question is, what is Non-Birding Bill? Based on his podcast persona I think he's a Shorebird-Owl.
Sharon Stiteler
Eagle-Owl: Just look at the leadership Pete has provided in the World Series of Birding, Cape May Bird Observatory, his books, etc. This a hard-driving man. He is also an expert on bird identification which shows some strong Owl tendencies.
Pete Dunne
Parrot-Owl: This is a tough one for me. His book Kingbird Highway reveals a young man caught up in the fun of birding and abandoning all normal responsibilities. He is now known as a bird I.D. expert. I can't help but wonder if his birding celebrity status has forced him into the Owl type of work required to become an I.D. expert and if this is contrary to his very being.
Kenn Kaufman
Parrot: Watching Birding Adventures TV reveals James as a Parrot. It's all about the excitement and adventure of birding for him. I like his Crocodile Hunter type approach to birding and James is the kind a guy it would be fun to enjoy a refreshing beverage with at the end of an epic day of birding.James Currie
Owl-Shorebird: to be a computer programmer almost demands you have some strong Owl tendencies. Having enjoyed Greg's company on a couple of occasions, I know him to be a sensitive and caring person too, hence the Shorebird aspect of his personality.
Greg Miller
Shorebird: her strong penchant for lyrical writing and illustration and her heartfelt care of critters easily reveal her birder personality type.
Julie Zickefoose

Owl-Owl or Owl-Shorebird: I've never heard David speak, so I'm judging simply on his field guides and his blog. Extreme attention to detail, yet art plays a major role in his life. Hmm...what do you know him personally think?
David Sibley

Eagle: Though Lillian writes for this blog and we've interacted by email regularly, I've not had the pleasure of meeting her yet. I suspect that she is the driving force behind "Stokes Birding" as she is the most conspicuous online, hence my reasoning for her Eagle tendencies.
Lillian Stokes

Parrot: I've met Bill a couple of times and found him to be a remarkable person. I see him being the life of the party wherever he is, so I lean toward classifying him as a Parrot. If I am accurate, writing the books he does must be a painful and tedious process for him.
Bill Thompson, III

Parrot-Shorebird: Jeff kind of self-identified himself in the comments on the original post. Based on his leadership style, I can totally see he has a high level of social proclivity. He also works hard on being a good listener, which a typical Eagle-style leader does not. I've found him to be quick to laugh, which is a nice Parrot quality.
Jeffrey A. Gordon

Eagle: Based on his biographical sketch in The Big Year (book)and his interview with Greg Neise at North American Birding, it seems pretty obvious that Sandy Komito is an Eagle. Hard driving, strategic, perhaps lacking a bit of tact. Because he was also a great salesman, he may have some Parrot as great sales people often are.
Sandy Komito

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Late August Birding in Northern Illinois

In an attempt to find some migrating birds, I visited a couple local parks in northern Illinois with my dad. Our first stop was Rock Cut State Park, one of the largest State Parks in Illinois and usually a great place to find a wide diversity of birds. Unfortunately, we didn't find too many migrating birds other than a lot of Empidonax flycatchers and two beautiful Ospreys.
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Eastern Wood Pewee
The other park we visited is a Rockford Park called Anna Page. The temperature was really starting to rise but we trekked out by the dam which is usually good for vireos and some open country birds. We found several Eastern Bluebirds and I thought I heard a White-eyed Vireo but couldn't locate him. This park can be quite productive because of the wide range of habitats, especially the mixed floodplain by the dam.
I have been noticing quite a bit more hawks and vultures on the move, probably taking advantage of the hot air of the dwindling summer.
Turkey Vulture in Flight
Turkey Vulture
Next month I will make a short trip to Ohio and take a ton of photos at Magee Marsh! I can't wait!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Extreme Pelagic Birding: No Pain, No Gain

On a typical 12 hour pelagic trip, my scopolamine patch works just well enough to keep me from blowing groceries over the side of the boat.  I soldier on, enjoying the great birds, but feeling slightly queezy at best, and full on sick at worst. Pitching and rolling, pitching and rolling.  It's both fun, and nauseating.  Literally.

But what do you have to do if you want some really good pelagic bird sightings?  In some cases, you have to go way, way far offshore.  That turns the trip into a two day affair--which obviously involves spending a full night on board a boat, tossing and turning with 50 of your closest friends.  Enter Extreme Pelagic Birding.  Sort of like the ultramarathon of ocean birding events.  We'll get back to the tossing later!

My first Extreme Pelagic Birding adventure started last spring when my buddy Mike from Montana invited me to join him for a Brookline Bird Club pelagic trip off the coast of Massachusetts on August 25-26.  Mike has 797 birds on his North American bird list, and this trip promised him his best shot at White-faced Storm Petrel.  If he could get that in the bag, he'd be in good shape to hit 800 right after the trip while birding for three weeks in Gambell, Alaska with Paul Lehman.

So last Friday I picked Mike up at the Newark airport, and we drove through Connecticut and Rhode Island rush hour traffic up to Hyannis, Massachusetts.  At 5am Saturday morning we were on the dock, and by 6am we were loading ourselves onto the 100 foot party boat the Helen H.  I had my scopolamine patch behind my ear, and my fingers crossed for a fun trip.  Once we got underway, life was fun.  Real fun.  Right away we had flocks of Red-necked Phalarope, and a couple of Red Phalarope mixed in with them.

Red Phalarope (front) and Red-necked Phalarope (back)
One of the first pelagic birds we had was a nice young Long-tailed Jaeger.  Followed by a Northern Gannet, and dozens of Wilson's Storm-Peterels.  Then there were dozens of Great Shearwaters, as well as some Cory's Shearwaters.  Did I mention that we had pelagic birding expert Steve Howell on board?  As well as birding superstars Marshall Iliff and Tom Johnson.  So we didn't just see Cory's Shearwaters, we found a couple of Scopoli's Shearwaters.  If you don't know what a Scopoli's Shearwater is, you need to read Steve Howell's brand new seabird book (I got my copy signed by Steve on the boat)!

So far so good.  Great birds.  Stomach feeling fine.  Even had a burger cooked in the boat's galley.  Then things got even better when we started finding sea turtles!  We had two Loggerhead Sea Turtles and one big old Leatherback Sea Turtle--an animal I'd wanted to see for most of my life.  Way cool!

Loggerhead Sea Turtle, one of two we saw on our first day out.

Leatherback Sea Turtle, one of my favorite animals. I finally got to see one on this trip
The reason we were on such an Extreme Pelagic Birding adventure was to find White-faced Storm-Petrels, birds that breed on islands in the southern Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and found in North America in deep warm waters way off shore.  In this case, out at the edge of the Continental Shelf.  That's like 100 miles offshore!

Sure enough, once we got out that far, we started seeing a few of these amazing little birds jumping along the tops of the waves like little kangaroos.  Or to my mind, more like little kangaroo rats.  Very cool.  Unfortunately, did I mention the waves.  While I was still able to hold my lunch down, the waves made it tough for me to get any kind of images.  Just to show you what I mean, take a look at this video of this little beauty.

Tough to see with all the pitching and rolling, pitching and rolling?  Here's the best video grab I could manage.  Of course, guys with more expensive Canon cameras and lenses got some great shots.  More on that (with links) later.

Video capture of White-faced Storm-Petrel

White-faced Storm-Petrel was my buddy Mike's #798 ABA area bird.  So mission accomplished.  All was good.  And I was betting him the fun wasn't over, and he would get a couple more birds by the end of the trip.  As night fell, we were happy.  It had been a great day.

What the heck is this?  Oh yeah, bonus Bridled Tern on flotsam at dusk, last bird before dark.
But then it was dark.  HO-LEE-CRAP!  No more horizon to watch to help keep your equilibrium.  Finally, about 9:15pm, I knew I wasn't going to make it.  I ran down to the back of the boat and let out a glorious technicolor yawn!  Followed by a generous liquid laugh!  Yes, I gave my offering to Neptune.

After that, I felt better, but I knew I had to sleep.  The breeze on board was refreshing, but I knew I had to lay down at some point.  And that meant crawling down into the bottom of the boat, where a warm, dank room held 30 bunk beds, including my bunk down at the very bottom.  What would happen to me down there?  What if I had to puke in the middle of the night?  Would I be able to sleep?  I avoided going down there as long as I could, but at some point I knew that it would be much better if I could sleep, rather than fight my stomach all night.

So I crawled down into the belly of the boat, squoze myself into my bunk, and amazingly, fell fast asleep.  I woke up a couple times, briefly, but thank goodness I was able to fall back to sleep quickly each time--even with the rocking of the boat, and the sound of waves crashing against the hull as we pitched and rolled anchored at the edge of the Continental Shelf.  It sounded and felt like sleeping inside a washing machine.  But it wasn't the most uncomfortable night I've spent, though I was happy to get up at 5:30am and get some fresh air.

Extreme Pelagic Birders on deck

While I was sitting, resting, enjoying the early morning light, all of a sudden I heard Tom Johnson and others yelling:

"Barolo Shearwater, Barolo Shearwater, Barolo Shearwater!"

I ran to the back of the boat, even quicker than I had run there the night before, and got a great quick look at a small dark backed and white-bellied shearwater.  If you don't know what a Barolo Shearwater is, you need to buy Steve Howell's new seabird book :-)

Little (Barolo) Shearwater
In short, Barolo Shearwater is classified by some as one of the North Atlantic subspecies of Little Shearwater--a bird that for most North American birders is just a small illustration in the back of the National Geographic Field Guide (see on right).  It is a bird seen only a few times in North America, and one that you might think you would never see--and you probably would be right.  But here was one criss-crossing the chum slick behind the boat!

My buddy Mike was still in bed.  Sleeping through his ABA bird #799!  I ran down into the bowels of the boat, going against the stream of birders madly dashing towards the back of the boat, and woke Mike up.  By the time I got back topside, the bird was much farther out.  By the time Mike got up there, it was gone.

Oh the agony of missing a bird.  On a pelagic trip, that agony is all the worse because you know the bird is right out there, somewhere.  There are no trees to hide in, or coves to disappear in.  Just a vast expanse of water and waves.  The bird you miss is right out there, somewhere, just galling in its invisibility!
Where do you hide a bird on the open ocean?  Answer: practically anywhere!
With such a great bird sighting, and since we were already out in the warm deep water where we wanted to be, we decided to just hang out there for a few more hours and see what would come in to the chum slick behind the boat.  We hoped the Barolo Shearwater would return.  Meanwhile, I steeled my mind and prepared for a couple hours of pitching and rolling, pitching and rolling.  There were always Great Shearwaters and Wilson's Storm-Petrels to watch, when I wasn't sitting with my eyes closed trying to stay alive.  There were also occasional Leach's Storm-Petrels, and a few Band-rumped Storm-Petrels to enjoy.  By enjoy I mean try to find in the swarm of almost identically plumaged Wilson's Storm-Petrels.  Wilson's fly like butterflies.  Leach's are like nighthawks.  Band-rumps are something in the middle, maybe like a Spotted Sandpiper.

Right in the middle of the storm petrel show, people started screaming again:

"Tropicbird!  Tropicbird!  Tropicbird!"

A white bird flew up high and behind the boat, like a bat out of hell.  OK, more like a giant white parrot, with strong quick flapping.  It would cruise down one side of the boat, then disappear over the top of the boat, then reappear again.  Once more, hard to get video or a picture of.  But here's what I got.  

Sadly, the best tropicbird video grab I got.
At first the leaders thought it was a White-tailed Tropicbird, but on further review of their digital photos (much better than the ones I got, with those giant Canon lenses) it was determined that this was a young Red-billed Tropicbird.  Very cool!  Mike didn't need this bird for his ABA list, but I did.

After this guy showed up we saw a couple of Audubon's Shearwaters, and more of the same storm petrels.  And then the screaming began again:

"Barolo Shearwater!  Barolo Shearwater!  Barolo Shearwater!"

This time my buddy Mike was right there, and got great looks.  We all did.  Sadly, I didn't get a good shot, but everyone with big Canon lenses seemed to.  So everyone was happy.  Since Tom Johnson had seen four Barolo Shearwaters from a NOAA vessel off Nova Scotia the week before, I had told Mike we had a chance for this bird, but it was still a not-to-be-expected bonus bird for the trip.

After a few more hours of searching in the deep water, we saw a many more petrels, but no more surprises.  I was really tired from all the pitching and rolling, pitching and rolling, and spent a lot of time sitting with my eyes closed.  Meditating.  Praying to die.  Or at least hoping to survive the rest of the day without puking in front of everyone in broad daylight.

Finally it was decided that we needed to head back for the 7 hour ride back to harbor.  There was a constant stream of birds, most of the same few species we'd seen before, but we did pick up a few Manx Shearwaters on the way back in.  I spent some of that time sleeping on a bench with my floppy straw hat from Walmart over my face.  Maybe I didn't look great, but I'd had great looks at some awesome birds, including three new birds for my ABA list!

More Extreme Pelagic Birders
It has taken me a couple days to recover from the long boat ride and all the pitching and rolling, pitching and rolling.  Eventually, I expect my disequilibrium will subside and I'll mostly be left with great memories and a few crummy shots of these great birds.  I heartily recommend this grueling Extreme Pelagic Birding adventure to others--even if you don't have a big Canon lens.  The birds are great, and you will survive the pitching and rolling.  You may have to sacrifice some dignity, and stomach contents, but the birds are awesome!

Here's one last video clip to give you a taste of the pitching and rolling of Extreme Pelagic Birding.  Pitching and rolling, pitching and rolling.  Remember, this only lasts for two days straight.  No pain, no gain!

For those who want better looks at the birds we saw on our adventure, check out some of these from fellow trip participants with big Canon lenses.  And start making arrangements to take your own Extreme Pelagic Birding adventure!

More at:
Jeff Offerman's Flickr Page
Shorebirder's shots
Naturescape Images
Birdchaser--links to the trip's consecutive eBird checklists

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

My Favorite Day at the Beach

Royal Tern
On my favorite day at the beach I didn't even have a swimsuit.  Don't take that the wrong way.  I had long pants, shirt, shoes, hat, camera, and binoculars, but this past Saturday I had a fantastic time at the Canaveral National Seashore.  Even though I was only there a couple hours (I went elsewhere on Merritt Island too), it's probably my favorite two hours of beach birding, rivaled only by beautiful Ft. De Soto.

Eastern Kingbird
Upon arriving I was greeted by two Eastern Kingbirds.  A Loggerhead Shrike was also there west of the parking lot, and I heard the beautiful call of an Eastern Towhee, though I never saw it. I walked to the beach to find very few people there, and it felt like I had the beach to myself.  Shortly after beginning my walk, I began seeing small shorebirds along the shoreline.  Semipalmated Plovers were there, and I enjoy watching them hunt for food.  But then I saw one plover that was much lighter in color.  Could it be?  Yes, a Piping Plover was there  keeping company with the Semipalmated Plovers.

Piping Plover
Semipalmated Plover
As I continued northward, I saw a cluster of Terns.  As I approached, I noticed that most of them were Royal Terns.  One was being rather noisy.  I located it, and it was an immature Royal Tern begging mom for food.  Mom would not hear anything of it.  She was content to preen herself.  I think at one point I heard her say, "You're big enough, get your own food!"

Royal Terns
There was a Sandwich Tern there too, the first I've found on the east coast of Florida.  Then a couple Black Terns presented themselves.

Sandwich Tern
Black Tern
 A couple Black-bellied Plovers were also there, both in different stages of returning to their basic plumage.

Black-bellied Plovers
Black-bellied Plover
Did I mention that the immature Royal Tern wanted to be fed? The silent treatment / stare down tactic wasn't working.

Royal Terns
I also found a couple Sanderlings.  One of them still had the remnants of his alternate plumage.  They were not happy with each other either.  I loved watching them interact.

Often when I see a Common Tern, upon closer inspection it turns magically into a Forster's Tern.  This one was kind enough to remain a Common Tern for me, and I was grateful.

Common Tern
A Willet was also nice enough to pose for me. This one walked by me not much more than 12 feet away.

And another Sanderling found some food.

Of course, the Royal Tern was still very interested in being fed, but trying from a different angle just wasn't going to work.

Royal Terns
After all, what would the neighbors think?

Royal Terns
Scott Simmons

Monday, August 27, 2012

Birds In Control

This month has not been a kind one for my birding tendencies. It's been a series of revolving out-of-town visitors and/or house and yard projects. One of those projects that has been dragging on for awhile is a new deck.

We've had a deck in our backyard for over 20 years, and it has provided a wealth of bird sightings in all seasons. With feeders fastened to the railing, it was easy to spot the visitors and quickly grab a photo.

This summer, we finally reached the point where we could no longer ignore the aging structure, so we bit the bullet and decided to upgrade the bird platform. I mean deck.

First the old railing came down, and the birds did a lot of mid-air fluttering when there was nothing to land on. I felt horribly guilty. As soon as I could, I set the old feeder down at deck level, which soothed some ruffled feathers.

Designing and building a deck yourself is complicated enough, but trying to work around the birds added a new wrinkle. Our original plan was to use aluminum railings, but rejected that idea when we discovered they have rounded tops. What good is a railing that won’t hold a bird feeder?

After untold discussions which would have sounded ridiculous to a non-birder, we came up with a solution. We would build a separate bird feeding shelf.

The planning began all over again. What would we use for materials that birds would accept, could easily be cleaned of their droppings but wouldn’t cost a fortune? How would we feed both Mourning Doves, that  need room to fly in horizontally, and woodpeckers, that fly in vertically?

We are now familiar with every hardware and lumber supply store in the city. All those miles we should have put on strolling down nature trails, were instead spent clomping down long aisles looking for deck components to satisfy birds. At this point, even my bird-centric self was feeling a bit ridiculous, not to mention manipulated, by something we already spend hundreds of dollars a year on to feed. 

We have yet to install the railing, and the stairs still need to be rebuilt, but hey, we’ve got a bird shelf. (Skewed-Priorities-R-Us). The feeding station has lots of manoeuvring room for the doves, and plenty of space for two feeders. This isn’t to provide a variety of foods - it’s an attempt to allow the birds to eat when the rodent has planted itself at the feeder. 

A high post that was supposed to be temporary will now become a permanent place for two suet feeders, suitable for woodpecker and nuthatch fly-ins. It apparently makes an excellent landing spot to scope out the food table as well.

I was initially worried that the new shelf might be too close to the house, but I was soon proven wrong on that count.

Once we got the shelf up, three things immediately became apparent:

  • I will no longer need binos, as the birds are 9 feet from my face. Zoom lens? Pfft.
  • The location of the new shelf means I can see the birds while (supposedly) working on the computer at the kitchen table. I’ve already decided the head-twitching has great ergonomic value. I considered and dismissed the idea of moving the computer.
  • The eye-level twittering and flapping of birds has proven to be too much temptation for my cats. Knowing full well they aren’t allowed up there, we are working out a system of mutually ignoring each other when the feeder is busy.

The Mourning Doves have found the new food station, although it took this one a good few minutes to figure out the changes. Once he started feeding though, he proceeded to chase away all the smaller birds.

The ultimate seal of approval has come from the Black-capped chickadees that have shown no hesitation in using the new shelf, so now we can relax. Oh, and we can finish the deck.