Sunday, September 30, 2012

Review: HAWKS in Flight

I just read the entire sections on Accipters and Red-tailed Hawks. This guide to hawks in flight is awesome! For one, it is very readable. The tone is such that it makes you feel like you're standing there with the authors as they describe the various hawks and falcons. Their golden nuggets of wisdom are shared in a mentor-like manor rather than forcing you to swim up stream against a current of boring stats. All of their combined years of experience, and apparently a ton of consultation with other birds of prey experts, make this the most thorough treatment on the subject. Plus twenty additional years of knowledge and experience between the first edition and this second addition was certainly aided by technological advances in digital photography and improved optics. This is hawk study distilled from the minds and experience of the greatest hawk-watchers. Awesome!

This guide takes advantage of illustrations and photographs, so we get the best of both worlds. I appreciate that each photo is accompanied by explanation as well the state/province and month in which the image was made. Each North American species is given its own section within its family chapter. Each selection is really a celebration of each bird. This wonderfully readable guide is a book worth reading cover to cover, then you can use it for future reference. I give HAWKS in Flight one of the strongest recommendations I can possibly give. It is a must-have and must-read for every birder. Congratulations to Pete Dunne, David Sibley, and Clay Sutton and all their expert friends on this amazing accomplishment.

List Price: $26, but as low as $14 from online retailers. Buy it here.

A review copy of this book was provided to me by HMH.

3 Simple Pieces of Advice for Newer Birders

1. Go birding as much as possible

Pihea Trail
Pihea Trail - Kauai, Hawaii

If you want to improve your birding skills—bird finding, bird identification, bird behavior studies, etc.—then the easiest and most effective way is to be out in the field as much as possible. You can study hundreds of books, listen to hours of sound recordings, and attend amazing lectures on specialized identification topics, but the only way you can put your knowledge into practice is to be exposed to where the birds are. This doesn't mean you need to be hiking in the best birding locations or even during the best time of day. I have had some highly memorable and learnable birding situations just by walking around the industrial park where I work at lunch time. Take every opportunity that arises to hit the trails or backroads with your binoculars in tow.

2. There will not always be lots of birds

Blue Mockingbird
Blue Mockingbird in Texas a few years back

This is probably the most frustrating thing when you're a new birder (at least from experience birding with newer birders). You get up early, drive for 2 hours to a great habitat, one where just the previous day someone found a bird you really want to see. When you get there you hike for 3 hours and NOTHING!
It is just part of the process. There will be times where there just aren't that many birds at that given time and place. I've seen this happen on organized hikes as well and this is usually when everyone resorts to one or more of the following: insect study, tree identification, or talking in great detail about trips to far away places that had lots more birds. Try not to get frustrated!

3. Find a mentor or "expert"

Kenn Kaufman
Birding with the one and only, Kenn Kaufman!

I love to go birding by myself. I find it relaxing and a great escape from work and other pressures of life. But if you can find a great birder who you can tag along with on bird hikes your skills will improve dramatically. I have had the benefit of going on numerous hikes with several truly expert birders and it is amazing how much I've picked up just from being around them and paying attention. A mentor has the experience and has been birding a lot (see point #1) so they can tell you what trails are often productive, what season yields more rarities, or where that hidden grove of trees that occasionally has a roosting owl is. Not only have I gained more knowledge from my mentors (I've had several ongoing ones) but I've discovered new haunts to explore and new techniques to identification; nuggets of information not easily found elsewhere.

These are just 3 simple pieces of advice that will hopefully help out newer birders.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Radar Ornithology Made Easy

I remember when I first tried to understand radar ornithology.  I heard radar ornithology guru Sid Gauthreaux give a presentation at the 2001 ABA conference in Beaumont, Texas.  It was exciting.  Then I went home and tried to read the online radar on my own.

I was completely lost!  It was hard to wrap my head around it all.  Fortunately, now it is even easier and more fun to enjoy observing bird migration by radar, and this post can help you get started.  Just wait until after dark (when the birds are moving), and follow these steps.

Step 1--Find your NEXRAD radar site
A) Go to's NEXRAD site.  You should see a map of the U.S. like this:

B) Each plus sign is a radar station, click on the one closest to your location.  That will show you a NEXRAD image like this:

That's it!  You're all set to start watching bird migration!  

Step 2--Read the radar map
The map shows how much reflectivity (water droplets, birds, insects, etc.) is in the atmosphere.  This is measured in dBZ (decibels).  For our purposes all you need to know is that the higher the dBZ, the more water, birds, or bugs are being detected.

So for the radar image above, you can see that reflectivity is from 8 to 24 dBZ across most of central Pennsylvaina.  Here's a chart to help you determine how many birds may be represented by each dBZ level shown on the map:

Of course, big birds will reflect more than small birds, and these are just ballpark figures, but it does give some idea of how many birds may be going over at any given location.  So in the image above, the dBZ ranging from 16 to 24 over Central PA would represent a moderate to heavy migration event, with hundreds of birds in every cubic kilometer of sky.

But that is only if the radar is really showing birds, and not just water or bugs in the air.  You are ready now for the next step:

Step 3--Make Sure You are Seeing Birds, not Bugs or Water
A) At the top right of your radar image, click on the Select Radar Type button (see red arrow below).

That will take you to an options screen like this:

Notice that you were previously seeing Base Reflectivity 0.50 Elevation.  That is just showing how much stuff is in the air.  What you want to do is check out the movement of that stuff.  To do that...

B) Click Base Radial Velocity 0.50 Elevation (circled in red).  That will give you an image like this:

Bird migration over central PA, early evening 28 Sep 2012. 

This is showing the movement of the water, birds, or bugs in the atmosphere, relative to the radar station in the middle of the circle.  
Green = Movement Towards the Station
Yellow/Orange = Movement Away from the Station  

So in this image, things are moving north to south.  At the top of the map they are moving at 10-35 knots towards the station, and things at the bottom are moving 10-26 knots away from station.  White is showing movement parallel to the station.  When you see a green, white, and orange image like this in the fall, good chance you are looking at migration.  In the spring, migration is going the other way so you will see an image with green on the bottom, like the one at the top of this post.  Having fun yet?  You're almost home, just one more thing.

Bugs usually move at the same speed that the wind does, so if this movement is faster than the wind speed, you can be pretty sure you are seeing birds!  So that just leaves one step to make sure:

Step 4--Check Wind Speeds
Go to the Intellicast Current Winds Page.  That will get you a map like this:

Wind directions are shown by arrows, wind speed by the color on the map.  So for Central PA, you can see that the winds are from the north or west at less than 10 knots.  Since the movement in the radar is much faster than that, you can be pretty sure you are seeing birds.  

BTW, if this wind map is hard for you to read, you might enjoy this animated map showing wind directions and speed.

One last thing.  If you want to see migration happening all across the Lower 48, check out the live and archived animated radar loops on the Birding by Radar site (scroll to bottom of the page).  You can see storms (which will show a heavier dBZ pattern) moving across the landscape, and then the explosion of bird migration after dark each night.  It's mind blowing!

Bird migration across the Eastern U.S., with storms over West Texas.

While this is just an introduction to radar ornithology, this is pretty much 90% of it right here.  If you go to these sites and follow these steps, you are doing radar ornithology! Now you can keep your finger on the pulse of bird migration (and moving weather systems) and be even more in tune with the world around you. Enjoy!

If you want to go beyond Radar Ornithology 101, you can take your enjoyment to the next level and find more info here:

Friday, September 28, 2012

My Love Affair with a Playground

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Northern Parula
There's a little park near my home called Central Winds Park.  You wouldn't think much of it to look at it.  There are soccer fields to the south and Lake Jesup to the north. There's a dog park to the west and a high school to the east. When you drive in, all you see is an open grassy field, and tucked away nearly out of view is a little gravel road that takes you to a playground.  But during spring and fall migrations, this little playground becomes a pretty good birding hotspot.  There have been some wonderful warblers passing through here, and we've seen over 20 come through in September.

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Prairie Warbler
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Tennessee Warbler
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Yellow-throated Warbler
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Black and White Warbler
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Cape May Warbler
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Yellow Warbler
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Prothonotary Warbler
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Northern Parula
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Blackpoll Warbler
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American Redstart
But it's not just warblers that make this place so fun.  There are also raptors here, with many Ospreys, and Bald Eagles are frequently seen as well. And occasionally you might find an American Kestrel.

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Bald Eagle
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American Kestrel
Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers are seemingly everywhere here right now, and if you look in the open areas you're likely to see a Loggerhead shrike or two.

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Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher

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Loggerhead Shrike
And then there are herons and egrets.  There are many here, especially at a little pond and by the shore of Lake Jesup.

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Great Egret
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Cattle Egret
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Snowy Egret
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Tricolored Heron
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Green Heron
Oh wait.  There's woodpeckers here too.

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Red-bellied Woodpecker
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Red-headed Woodpecker
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Downy Woodpecker
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Pileated Woodpecker
This is becoming my go-to place when I have just a little time for birding.  And it reminds me that fun birding can be had in unexpected places, even a little playground with a lot of trees.

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Black-bellied Whistling Ducks
Scott Simmons

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Whooping Crane Tour

We are having a magnificent September in Alberta. We haven't seen a cloud for a month, and daily temperatures have been in the 20’s C (80's F). Evenings are warm enough to sit on the deck.

Fall migration has been in full swing for the past few weeks. Shorebirds, warblers and other songbirds have moved through, with a few stragglers still hanging around. Northern sparrows are here in good numbers now. On the flip side, there have already been a few reports of Common Redpolls, Purple Finches and crossbills, which only visit here during the winter months.

With all this feathered activity, have I spent all my time in the field? Unfortunately, no.

Running a small business plus a non profit organization, and moving our niece into the house to attend university took care of that. My birding time has sadly been spent reading the local bird alert and birding blogs.

Frantically casting my thoughts around for a topic to write about this month, I remembered a tour we had taken last year at this time, and decided fond memories were better than no post at all!

North America’s largest bird, Whooping Cranes stand about 5 feet (1.5 m) tall. Their wingspan is 6.5 ft (2 m) or more between the tips of their long black flight feathers. At close range, adult whoopers are imposing birds, with snowy-white plumage, black bristle-like feathers on crown and face, a small black patch on the back of the head below the crimson crown, and bright yellow eyes. They get their name from a distinctive whooping call that carries over long distances.

Located half an hour south of Calgary, the Devonian Wildlife Conservation Centre (DWCC) has been breeding Whooping Cranes since 1993, when the entire population was estimated to be 150 birds. Owned by The Calgary Zoo, this half-acre facility is not open to the public but occasionally they allow limited tours through the local naturalist club. Captive breeding at this facility and subsequent reintroduction of the birds has played an important role in the recovery of the whooper population.

At the DWCC, the Whooping Crane enclosures are isolated from the other animals, and surrounded by an electric fence with a locked gate.

To keep coyotes from digging their way to these highly endangered birds, wire has also been buried to a depth of four feet (122 cm).

The DWCC houses about 20 whooping cranes. When we walked down the road towards their enclosures, we could hear loud alarm cries echoing from bird to bird, announcing something unusual in their world. We did not go in with these giant birds - these photos were taken through doors briefly held open by the crane keeper to allow photo opportunities.

The centre also houses a few Sandhill Cranes that are used to incubate Whooping Crane eggs. One of the sandhills was rather obvious about what he thought of the intruders. Meet Doofus.

There was a female and juvenile sandhill in this enclosure, but there was no way Doofus was allowing anyone to get close enough to get their picture. That bill makes a formidable weapon, and he knew how to use it.

The creation of Wood Buffalo National Park near the border of Alberta and the Northwest Territories was instrumental in preventing the extinction of Whooping Cranes, even if unintentionally. The park was established in 1922 to protect the wood bison herd, and at the time, no one realized Whooping Cranes nested there. Today, this 17,300 square mile (44,807 sq. km) park is the only place where a self-sustaining breeding population of wild Whooping Cranes exists. Access to the park is limited to water routes in summer and ice roads in winter.

Map courtesy of Canadian Wildlife Service

The breeding population of Whooping Cranes is now on the move to their wintering grounds. Whoopers don’t migrate in large flocks like Sandhill Cranes. They trickle out of the breeding grounds in family units, or small groups of sub-adults and non-breeders. By the end of September or early October the young birds are ready to try their wings on the 2,485 mile (4,000 km) migration to their Texas winter range. On the way south, the birds spend one to five weeks feeding in their staging, or stopover, areas in Saskatchewan. In these areas, undisturbed whoopers may spend the entire staging period on the same quarter or half-section of land. Here the birds fatten up on waste barley and wheat in stubble fields, and roost during the night in nearby wetlands.

I count myself amazingly fortunate to have seen these glorious birds in the wild. I grew up in northern Alberta, and twice a year we were privileged to have small groups fly over the house. We could hear their haunting whoops long before we saw them, and those long-ago flights remain among my most treasured birding experiences.