Birding Field Guides, Rated

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Photo: Kyle Fitzgerald

We are constantly on the lookout for information useful to birders, for birding. Clara Chaisson made some choices for Wirecutter on which field guides to rate and which was best, and she had us at methodology:

Birding together is a bonding activity in my family in the same way that game night is in other households, so I’ve been casually birding for most of my life. Since studying ornithology in college, I’ve had opportunities to make my enthusiasm for bird observation more than just a hobby; I’ve done seasonal fieldwork that required me to know how to identify all Northeastern birds by sight and sound. Even now that I have a desk job and live in a city, I still get out as often as I can.

field-guide-to-birds-top-2x1-lowres1024-1702I spent a week testing nine of the most-recommended and best-selling bird guides at Mount Auburn Cemetery—the first garden cemetery in the US—and Fresh Pond in Cambridge, Massachusetts, both of which are hotspots, or popular public birding locations, on the online birding database eBird. Continue reading

Whispering In The Interest Of Nature

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Barred owl, Maryland Credit Noah Comet

The birders among us say thank you, Noah Comet (and to the New York Times for providing the valuable real estate for this informative, charming essay):

The Delicate Politics of Chasing Owls

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Eastern screech owl, Ohio. Credit Noah Comet

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Owls tend to be secretive. While there are a few American species that enjoy the daylight hours, most are nocturnal and spend their days behind thick greenery or uncannily blending into the bark of the trees they nestle against. Once they’ve found a secure place to snooze, they are likely to return to that spot daily, but even if you find evidence of their presence — scat and regurgitated pellets — good luck seeing the clandestine culprits.

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Northern saw-whet owl, Ohio. Credit Noah Comet

I’m a seasoned birder with a particular interest in owls, and on my ventures to find them, even when I have specific information on where they’ve been seen just minutes before, I’ve failed to find them more often than not. Such elusiveness makes “owling” one of the great birding challenges. Being the first to find a particular owl is regarded by some as a badge of distinction, and those who find them regularly are viewed with awe-struck reverence. Continue reading

Undoing Dams, Animals Pitch In

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Since 2014, Washington’s Elwha River has flowed freely through what once was Lake Mills and the Glines Canyon Dam. But the site still leaves a barren scar in Olympic National Park. Now, a human- and bird-led effort is turning it green again. Photo: Elaine Thompson/AP

Conservation is sometimes in the hands of animals, as this story in the current Audubon magazine illustrates:

Birds Are Helping to Plant an Entire Lost Landscape in Olympic National Park

After the largest dam removal in U.S. history, scientists, Native Americans, and wild animals are working together to restore the heart of the Elwha.

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The Elwha Valley and Glines Canyon Dam prior to demolition. Photo: Elaine Thompson/AP

It’s a scorching August day in the Elwha Valley, and it only feels bleaker as we peer into the 200-foot void of Glines Canyon Dam. A sputtering trail of water marks the concrete lip where, for nearly a century, two hulking braces trapped logs, rocks, and sediments as they washed down from the mountains of northern Washington, forming a reservoir that was six times deeper than a competition-diving pool. At its height, the dam churned out 13.3 megawatts of hydroelectricity, enough to power 14,000 homes and a local paper mill. But it also seriously altered the Elwha River’s ecology, along with that of surrounding Olympic National Park. Endangered chinook salmon were cut off from their spawning sites; fish-eating birds and otters suffered; and estuaries became more brackish and shallow. Finally, in 1992, the U.S. government issued the order to destroy Glines Canyon Dam and the nearby Elwha Dam. Yet it wasn’t until two decades later when the water was completely freed. Continue reading

Precious Plumage

From left, the feathers of an opal-crowned manakin, a snow-capped manakin and the golden-crowned manakin. Credit University of Toronto Scarborough via NYTimes

Out of the roughly 250 bird families in the world, manakins (Pipridae family) are probably my favorite, because they’re like birds of paradise (Paradisaeidae family), except you don’t have to take a helicopter to remote areas of Papua New Guinea to see them. Almost all manakins are colorful––or at least the males are; females normally being a drab green––and they often have interesting behavior as well. I saw my first manakins in Ecuador, where two flashy species had some fun sounds to go along with their calls, but most of my exposure to the family has been in Costa Rica, where I did my best to record a Long-tailed Manakin lek.

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Paying for the Birds You See?

Can we put a price tag on birds we see?

Image by the author

I recently came across an Oxford professor’s blog that revolves mostly around conservation and birding, and one of his posts was particularly interesting to me. In it, Professor Paul Jepson discusses the increasing presence of photography in the British birding sphere, and what bird photography means for the hobby of birding/birdwatching. I encourage you to read his article (I’ll put a link below), but will first share one idea that Jepson brings up toward the end of the piece, and which was very thought-provoking:

Bird photography is part of the socio-technological assembly that is shaping futures. If birdwatching is to be a cultural force in the twenty-first century, our bird reserves will need to embrace developments and directions in digital technologies. … My thought experiment imagines a system of pay-for nature hides with an observation tower, like the one in Muritz National Park outside Berlin, as its centre piece. Birding has a strong ‘nature as a public good’ mentality. While many bird photographers agree with this principle, they are also willing to pay for entry to the facilities and special places that enable them to get the shot they desire. Nature hides are popping up across Britain and 2017 hide day rates are £75 for the opportunity to photograph Common Kestrels Falco tinnunculus, £99 for Kingfishers and £150 for Black Grouse.

Although I enjoy taking photos of birds and sharing them online, I do not consider myself a bird photographer, partly because I don’t have the specialized gear (my camera is a point-and-shoot model, though its exceptional 65x optical zoom is useful for bird photos). That being said, Continue reading

Cross-Chasm Communities Collaborating

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Felisa Rogers at the Guardian provides some much needed late 2017 perspective on opportunities to collaborate for the common good:

How the fight to save a bird species shows how to bridge the red/blue divide

A plan to save the sage grouse was a rare instance where ranchers, the timber industry, scientists, landowners and environmentalists all agreed on something

At 5am, the day is black, and resounds with the steady drum of rain. My husband Rich is getting ready for work. He oils his leather gloves and fills a Thermos. He’ll spend a 10-hour day in the downpour: tramping through thorny salmonberry and wading through the roaring creeks. Continue reading

Penguins Once Had Awe On Their Side

Ancient Penguins Were Giant Waddling Predators

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An artist’s rendering compares Kumimanu biceae, an extinct giant penguin, to a human diver. Kumimanu stood 5 feet 7 inches and weighed 220 pounds. It is among the earliest known penguin species. Credit G. Mayr/Senckenberg Research Institute

The 57 million-year-old fossil is both fearsome and comical: a long-beaked penguin that stood 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighed about 220 pounds.

“It was as tall as a medium-sized man,” said Gerald Mayr, a paleontologist at the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt, Germany, and lead author of a report in Nature Communications on Tuesday announcing the discovery.

By comparison, the tallest living species, the emperor penguin, reaches about four feet in height. Kumimanu biceae, as the fossil was named, would have towered above the emperor, and above just about all other known ancient penguins. Continue reading

“Birds & the Bees”: More Than a Metaphor

Scientists say that studying bee behavior could help them understand hummingbird behavior, too. Credit DansPhotoArt on flickr, via Getty Images

Members of our team have long been fans of bees and all bird species, with a particular soft spot for hummingbirds in particular. With their gemlike plumage and engaging personality, what’s not to love?

You Should Think of Hummingbirds as Bees With Feathers

What’s small, buzzes here and there and visits flowers?

If you said bees or hummingbirds, you got it. And you wouldn’t be the first if you mixed the two up. In Medieval Europe, some called bees the smallest birds. In Chinese and Japanese, the words for hummingbird translate into “bee bird.” Today we call the smallest hummingbird — weighing less than a penny and only a bit larger than the biggest bee — the bee hummingbird.

And now a group of researchers say we should embrace our history of lumping the two together. The way scientists study bees could help them study hummingbird behavior, too, they argue in a review published Tuesday in Biology Letters. Continue reading

Hastening Evolution

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A North American snail kite in Florida. Researchers say the bird species has rapidly evolved larger beaks and bodies to eat a larger, invasive snail. CreditRobert Fletcher/University of Florida

Things Looked Bleak Until These Birds Rapidly Evolved Bigger Beaks

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The invasive snails are two to five times larger than the native species, and young kites with larger bills that were able to feed on them were more likely to survive their first year. Credit Robert Fletcher/University of Florida

Conservationists have been sounding the alarm over invasive species for years, warning of the damage they can cause to habitats and native animals. But in Florida, an invasive snail might be helping an endangered bird species come back from the brink, researchers say.

The population of North American snail kites — birds that use curved beaks and long claws to dine on small apple snails in the Florida Everglades — had been dwindling for years, from 3,500 in 2000 to just 700 in 2007. Things began to look particularly bleak in 2004, when a portion of the Everglades was invaded by a species of larger snail that the birds had historically struggled to eat. Ornithologists assumed the shift would hasten the snail kite’s decline. Continue reading

Birds + Artists + Spraypaint = Audubon Murals

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A swallow-tailed kite and 12 other birds painted by Lunar New Year.

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Tricolored Heron by Federico Massa a.k.a. iena cruz. Photo: Mila Tenaglia

Murals with birds always capture our attention; we cannot resist linking to such initiatives when they are cleverly conceived, elegantly executed, and perfectly placed. Enjoy this epic series, a fitting tribute to the National Audubon Society:

Where Birds Meet Art . . . After Dark

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Photo: Mike Fernandez/Audubon

The Audubon Mural Project is a collaboration between the National Audubon Society and Gitler & Gallery to create murals of climate-threatened birds throughout John James Audubon’s old Harlem‐based neighborhood in New York City. The project is inspired by the legacy of the great American bird artist and pioneering ornithologist and is energized by Audubon’s groundbreaking Birds and Climate Change Report, which reveals at least half of all North American birds are threatened by a warming climate. The project commissions artists to paint murals of each of the report’s 314 species, and has been widely covered in the media, including most recently by The New York Times.

Thanks to the Editorial Board of the New York Times for reminding us of this:

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Louise Jones, with her husband, Gabe, working on a mural of an evening grosbeak. Credit Photographs by Karsten Moran for The New York Times

In his final years, John James Audubon, the celebrated 19th-century painter of bird life, lived in rustic uptown Manhattan in a house by the Hudson where some of his final paintings were of urban rats that caught his eye. Continue reading

Peregrines Make for Better Starling Murmurations

Image via Audubon.org, by Nick Dunlop

We last mentioned murmurations about three years ago, linking to slideshows from the Guardian that covered European Starlings in the UK. And in our Bird of the Day feature we have shared photos of seven different species of starlings from around Europe and Asia, but somehow none of those species was the European Starling, which is an invasive species in North America (and at least some of Central America as well), but still a good-looking bird.

In this video, there are fantastic moments where the enormous flocks of European Starlings in Napa Valley, California form incredible shapes, largely because they’re being chased by Peregrine Falcons and other raptors.

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Environmental Progress Seen Through Bird Specimen Collections

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Grasshopper sparrow specimens from 1907, top, and 1996. Credit Carl Fuldner and Shane DuBay

A fascinating story appears in the Science section of the New York Times this week. It is a reminder of the progress made over the last century in cleaning up the air in North America. Birds are key to the evidential trail in telling the story. The title is one of the most unappealing we have seen in ages, but science is not all sweetness and light:

The Dirty Secrets Saved in Dead Birds’ Feathers

Tucked away in the drawers of natural history museums across America’s Rust Belt, thousands of dead birds carry dirty secrets from America’s polluted past.

The specimens that were put away around the start of the 20th century are far grimier than the ones from more recent decades. And now, climate scientists and historians can thank museum curators for not having tidied them up before storing them. Continue reading

Fall Migration

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Green roof on the entrance building at TNC’s South Cape May Meadows Preserve. (Cape May, New Jersey) Sep 2017 © The Nature Conservancy/Cara Byington

Thanks to Cool Green Science for this story from a migratory birding hotspot:

Give Me Shelter

BY CARA BYINGTON

I’m climbing a somewhat rickety ladder when it occurs to me (not for the first time) that I really shouldn’t be doing this.

It’s September. Fall migration is getting underway. And I am in the very heart of one of birding’s holiest of high holy places: Cape May, New Jersey, that small curve of land between the Atlantic Ocean and the Delaware Bay where millions of birds spend at least some part of their lives, year over year, season over season. Continue reading

BirdsCaribbean Hurricane Relief Fund

Over the last month or so I’ve been helping to copy-edit articles submitted to the Journal of Caribbean Ornithology, which is where our findings on the Golden Swallow in Jamaica will be published soon. The Journal of Caribbean Ornithology is run by BirdsCaribbean, an NGO dedicated to the study and conservation of birds in the Caribbean basin.

After the catastrophic winds and flooding that occurred throughout the Caribbean in the last month, island natural habitat has suffered greatly, and not all birds were able to weather the storms, or if they did, they may not have the shelter and food needed to survive. But there is something you can do to help them!

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Respect For The Praying Mantis

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A praying mantis outfitted with 3-D glasses during an experiment to determine whether the insects see in three dimensions. The conclusion: absolutely. Credit Newcastle University

Audubon’s 2017 Photography Awards Winners

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Gentoo Penguins. Photo: Deborah Albert/Audubon Photography Awards

Thanks to the judges who chose the Grand Prize Winner (above) in this year’s contest, among an impossibly great selection:

The more than 5,500 photos entered in this year’s contest, our eighth, show birdlife at its most vivid, vulnerable, formidable, and elegant. Photographers from 49 states and eight Canadian provinces submitted images in three categories: professional, amateur, and youth. While it wasn’t easy whittling those down, the following seven images proved exceptional. The category winners, in addition to garnering cash and trip prizes, are being displayed within the 2017 Nature’s Best Photography Exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.  Continue reading

Clay-Eating Is Not Just A Bird Thing

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Parrots at an exposed cliff in Peru, where they gather to eat clay, which is richer in sodium than plants in the area. Frans Lemmens/Getty Images

Thanks to Carolyn Beans and the salt colleagues at National Public Radio (USA) for this:

Why Do Parrots (And People) Eat Clay?

The parrots of Southeastern Peru crave an earthy delicacy: dirt. At the Colorado clay lick, a cliff face rising above the Tambopata River in the western Amazon Basin, parrots — often hundreds at a time from up to 18 species — gather each day to feast on sun-hardened clay. Continue reading

Habitat Conservation via Travel Choices

The greater sage grouse is a favorite among birders. Credit Rick McEwan

 

As protected areas and wildlife come under threat through lessening of restrictions on invasive oil and gas exploration, the importance of proving the economic value of conservation tourism become more and more evident.

Birders and Naturalists Ponder the Fate of the Greater Sage Grouse

Evan Obercian says it is the highlight of his Colorado birding tours every spring, even though he has to wake his clients up before 5 a.m. to be in the sagebrush flats before the sun comes up. And there they wait in Mr. Obercian’s van, listening to strange whoops and popping sounds that float magically from the predawn darkness.

The first rays of a new day’s sun reveal what is making the noise: large brown birds more than twice the size of a barnyard chicken, strutting and shaking while thrusting bulbous yellow air sacs out of their chests, and fanning a fantastic spread of pointy tail feathers. The bird is the greater sage grouse, and the sight is their spring mating ritual on their dancing grounds, called leks.

“It’s profoundly moving for me, and my clients,” said Mr. Obercian, “watching this ancient nuptial dance that’s been performed since way before there were any people on this land. It’s something way beyond just checking another bird off a list.”

The van acts like a blind, so the sage grouse do not notice that people are nearby, watching. Sometimes the grouse will dance right up to the tires. Birders are under strict orders not to get out, because as Mr. Obercian says, sage grouse “are very sensitive.” Continue reading

Weather Waves and Habitat Changes

This animation shows where the 21 species in the study occur during each week of the year. Brighter colors (yellows) indicate more species are present than darker areas (blues and purples); overall, the species spend more time in Central American wintering grounds than on their northern breeding grounds. Map and animation by Frank La Sorte.

Once again eBird data and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology studies highlight the importance of forest conservation for species survival, as seen in Climate Change Or Habitat Loss? Study Weighs Future Priorities For Conserving Forest Migrants:

Birds are among the first to let us know when the environment is out of whack. But predicting what might happen to bird populations is tricky. Studies often focus on a single issue or location: breeding grounds or wintering grounds, changes in climate, loss of habitat. But in the real world, nothing occurs in isolation. A new study just published in the journal Global Change Biology pulls the pieces together. Continue reading

Entomological Wonders Will Never Cease

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Galápagos finches, which helped inspire the theory of evolution, are under urgent threat. Will a controversial scientific technique be their deliverance? Photograph by Mint Images Limited / Alamy

Thanks to Brent Crane writing in the Elements section of the New Yorker’s website:

A Tiny Parasite Could Save Darwin’s Finches from Extinction

Five years ago, George Heimpel, an entomologist at the University of Minnesota, travelled to Trinidad in search of insect larvae. He was after several kinds in particular—Philornis downsi, a fly whose parasitic young feed on the hatchlings of tropical birds, and various minuscule wasp species whose own offspring feed on those of the fly. Continue reading