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

Life List Birding

Jabiru Stork by Richard Kostocke - La Paz Group

Jabiru stork taking flight from the Blue Creek rice fields, Orange Walk District, Belize

The name “Jabiru” is derived from the Tupi–Guarani family of languages from South America and means “swollen neck”; an apt description. This is the tallest flying bird in South and Central America and is second in wingspan (excluding pelagic flyers like albatross) only to the Andean Condor.  This denizen of wetland habitats is a voracious, opportunistic forager on a wide variety of animal matter, living or dead.  Needless to say, an impressive bird and I was ecstatic to see it!

It was past the mid-point of our Belize vacation, and as good and enjoyable as the birding had been, life birds (new species that I had never seen before) were fewer and farther between than I had anticipated/hoped.  I guess that was to be expected given that I have visited the Neotropics several times previously.  I had already seen many of the common, easy, widespread species (e.g., many if not most of the hummingbirds, parrots, motmots, etc.) that make birders new to the Neotropics giddy.  After talking to the local guides, apparently most of my desired life birds were the tough ones (hard to find, rare, skulky, etc.).  As I went through my list of target birds, they just kind of smiled and shook their heads. Continue reading

Laying Eyes on the Ocellated Turkey

Ocellated Turkey Details Photo Credits: TL: Leander Khil, TR: Seth Inman, BL & BR: Richard Kostecke

When we first met recent guest (and now contributor) Richard Kostecke at Chan Chich Lodge he shared that the Ocellated Turkey was a life list bird for him. Like many birders we’ve met here, he was thrilled by the fact that this near-threatened species is so prevalent around the lodge and throughout our 30,000 acres.

This is especially true during the past several months, when we see the parades of chicks running behind the attendant adults throughout the property.

As a parting gift Richard had sent us a link about the species from Cool Green Science, a site we frequent ourselves.

Found only on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, the ocellated turkey (Meleagris ocellata) certainly bears a resemblance to the American wild turkey.

But it’s a different species. It is smaller and lacks the “beard” typical of the more familiar wild turkey. Its mating call is higher pitched than the usual “gobble.” The most striking difference, though, is the color.

The vibrant, almost unreal color: iridescent feathers, large spots on the tail, a bright red ring around the eye and a blue head covered with red and yellow nodules (nodules that swell and become brighter in males during the breeding season).

It’s a turkey as conceived by Dr. Seuss. Or perhaps Alexis Rockman. Continue reading

Yellow-bellied Slate-colored Dark-eyed Junco

 

On a trip to Acadia National Park, I photographed this unusual  Dark-eyed Junco. It had a very distinct yellow belly and yellow up into the chest.  I showed the photo to the Park Ornithologist, Seth Benz, and he had this to say about it.

“It is an oddly colored Dark-eyed Junco. The yellowish underside is unusual.
I don’t know of anyone marking juncos using picric acid (which turns white feathers yellow).

Continue reading

Rich Versus Ostentatious

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Ocellated turkey / Pfauentruthuhn (Meleagris ocellata) | Detail of the side of a male individual.

I am not even a novice birder, which is strange considering that my work is primarily dedicated to birders. But birds are well placed in the pantheon of natural wonders that I worship, and a photo that I just received from a recent guest of Chan Chich Lodge (a photo similar to the one above, which I have commented on before) helps explain why. During seven years in India, where the peacock is the national bird and so is in its natural habitat, I got accustomed to their ostentatious display.

Peacocks are often awkward animals, noisy and bumbly in places and at times (as when in the habitat of tigers) I have wished for silence. Those otherwise annoying behaviors are compensated for by their plumes. The colors in the image above, belonging to the ocellated turkey, are rich but only during mating would these birds ever be described as ostentatious. The more time I spend in Belize, and specifically at Chan Chich Lodge, the more I see the beauty in humble display of rich color.

Birds Banging On Drums

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A male palm cockatoo, right, drumming with a stick for a female. Credit Christina Zdenek

Todd Rundgren, a musical talent better known to an earlier generation, had an oddball hit song about banging on drums. It came to mind immediately when reading this oddball story about cockatoos. If you do not already know the song, you might want to find it to accompany your reading of this story:

Whales and songbirds produce sounds resembling human music, and chimpanzees and crows use tools. But only one nonhuman animal is known to marry these two skills.

Palm cockatoos from northern Australia modify sticks and pods and use them to drum regular rhythms, according to new research published in Science Advances on Wednesday. In most cases, males drop beats in the presence of females, suggesting they perform the skill to show off to mates. The birds even have their own signature cadences, not unlike human musicians. Continue reading

Laguna Seca

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Yesterday afternoon, Emily and I went on a walk at Laguna Seca with Luis, the nature guide who picked me up from the airport on the first day. This experience is one of many guided walks offered at Chan Chich Lodge.

The tour started as soon as we hopped into the truck. Throughout the 25-minute drive to Laguna Seca, Luis would stop whenever he saw a bird among the trees along the road. He would intricately describe what and where he was looking, because to the untrained eye, it seemed like he stopped the vehicle for no reason.

How he can spot an olive-colored parakeet in olive-colored vegetation in his peripheral vision I will never know, but he – along with the several other guides at Chan Chich – offers an invaluable skill to the property and the nature surrounding it.  Continue reading

Cactus Tales

On Seth’s invitation, I am honored to have a chance to contribute to the group. I have a biology background, but am now retired and have an interest in photographing birds. I use point and shoot cameras, starting two years ago with a Canon SX60HS, graduating to a Sony RX10iii this year. I teach classes in bird photography with these cameras. My interests are in telling a story of birds in a small ecotype such as a pond, or in this case one plant species, a cactus, the cardon of the deserts of Northwest Mexico. These photos were taken over two trips to the Baja California Sur Cape Region, and the majority were on one cardon that was outside the bungalow I was staying at in Cabo Pulmo, Mexico while having my morning coffee.

Pachycereus pringlei, also known as Mexican giant cardon or elephant cactus, is a close relative of the Saguaro of the desert southwest. It is the tallest cactus in the world, lives for several hundred years, and has a fungal-bacteria symbiotic relationship that allows it to grow on bare rock. For birds, it is the perch of choice for everything from hawks to wrens, a source of abundant food,  a prolific producer of fruit and used by all woodpeckers for their nesting holes. On larger cardons it is not uncommon to see several bird species on a cactus at once and most birds whose territory includes a cardon will touch it several times a day for a song, a snack, and good luck.

 

 

Gallon Jug’s Bird Friendly Coffee

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This other post today reminds me of the value of geeking out from time to time. Most of my attention to coral reef comes from Phil Karp’s posts on this platform and I admit to preferring stories featuring real people and their entrepreneurial approaches to conservation. But science is the other best friend of conservation. Today my attention is turning to coffee, in advance of the arrival this week of an intern coming from Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Just one of the many topics for an intern, with science and research on her side, to help us tackle over the next ten weeks, bird-friendly coffee has been on been on my mind in the last year but I have been waiting for the perfect moment to focus. Nothing like the arrival of an intern to focus your mind. And so today in my task-oriented wanderings I came across this website (click the banner above), which I loved immediately for sharing this news on capsules, but the rest of the site is a great resource for present purposes as well:

A short round-up of coffee news.

Longform Escape & Corrections

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There are two dynamic illustrations in this piece by David Samuels that cannot be replicated here, but are worth visiting the website of The Atavist for, so the images above and below are placeholders. Anyway, the words are the thing so I take a paragraph from near the end as an example of why to read this:

…In the 1970s in Brooklyn, where I grew up, pigeons were everywhere, which is probably why I am here. Some of my earliest gray-scale memories include pigeons, which fluttered and occasionally nested on the windowsill of the first place I was aware enough of to call home, a housing project near the Brooklyn Bridge built for working families like mine. There was a bona fide pigeon coop on the roof of a building nearby, like in the famous scene from On the Waterfront. Sometimes I could see a man on the roof waving a flag, which in my imagination was red but in fact could have been any color. The pigeons he guided back to their loft every night were a promise of safety that New York City in the 1970s was obviously unable to keep, which is why my parents moved to the suburbs, where the birds in the trees outside my window twittered and cooed in foreign tongues that signified nothing…

I am not surprised that this is the article on their website that I gravitated to. The author wrote an item in the New Yorker at a time when I was just completing many years of work in Montenegro and Croatia, and I knew the landscape he was describing well, and still he brought the place alive for me in a way that living there had not. He does not need photos, gifs, or other illustrations to make his words dance better. And in this piece he does something even more magical, providing a correction for me.

Seven years in south India had at least one unexpected effect on me, and it is embarrassing. I developed a passionate dislike for pigeons. Pigeons caused continuous problems in one of the properties we developed and managed, an urban location pigeons loved as much as people. And pigeons express their love in messy ways, so they became my bane. At our home, pigeons would coo on the window sill and I remember that at the time I posted this, which was peak pigeon problem, my enthusiasm for conservation was red hot but I had an unwanted, guilty ability to imagine why passenger pigeons disappeared. Reading David Samuels just now, I have snapped out of that.

pigionssa-1436823680-87 Continue reading

Naming For The Sake Of Conservation

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The Helmeted Honeyeater, a subspecies of the Yellow-tufted Honeyeater and the state bird of Victoria. Photo © Dylan Sanusi-Goh / Wikimedia Commons

Thanks to the Nature Conservancy for its conservation and scientific work in Australia, and for this finding shared on Cool Green Science:

…Recognizable common names are often critical for species protection, but subspecies miss out on this public perception benefit. A new paper argues that standardized English names are key to conservation success for Australia’s fantastic avifauna, and creates a definitive list for every subspecies on the continent. Continue reading

Strengthening Our Birding With Citizen Science

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Team Belize finished with 242 species. From left: Roni Martinez, Andrew Farnsworth, Steve Kelling, Brian Sullivan.

Seth, since his time working for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and even after his time in Ithaca, has helped me to see how important the Lab’s work is to what our company has been doing since he was an infant. Citizen science is an essential component, and at Chan Chich Lodge guests have responded to the passion the guides have for eBird, which is why we put so much attention into this year’s Global Big Day. And it is why we are already planning the next collaboration with the Lab, a collaboration Seth will lead on our side. For now, a final roundup of stories from last weekend, starting with our favorite team:

…After pooling their lists, the teams ended the day with a whopping 327 species combined—reflecting not just great birding but the region’s importance to an immense diversity of birds. Team Belize topped the friendly group competition with 242 species (including 40 species the other teams didn’t find); Team Mexico found 224 species (with 43 unique to their list); and Team Guatemala tallied 213 (with 23 unique)…

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Flame Robin by John Cantwell/Macaulay Library, taken on Global Big Day

Also, the final numbers are in and news published late yesterday confirmed what I suspected as day was breaking in Belize, titled Global Big Day 2017: birding’s biggest day ever:

…On 13 May 2017, almost 20,000 birders from 150 countries around the world joined together as a global team, contributing more than 50,000 checklists containing 6,564 species—more than 60% of the world’s birds. This is a new record for the number of bird species reported in a single day, Continue reading

The Bells & Whistles Of The Forest At Daybreak

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We post a few times a day, sharing information about initiatives in our own realm of work and frequently observations on news links that we find interesting. For the record, here is a bit of news worth celebrating. As I type this at 5:30a.m. Belize time, the Global Big Day page on eBird shows the latest tally of the species count as seen above. At the same time, on the eBird Facebook page I am looking now at the last post, dated May 15 midday, that says:

The #GlobalBigDay total is now 6,255, less than 100 away from a new record for a single day of birding!

Looks to me like a new record has been set. Where are all the bells and whistles? They are outside my door right now, where the wildlife is whirring, cling-clanging, whooping and shrieking as the forest lights up…

Sticking To Mission & Unintended Consequences

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In recent months, as we prepared to host Team Sapsucker Belize at Chan Chich Lodge, our goals were focused on the citizen science mission. Using a couple simple metrics, the event was a clear success, comparing the number of species counted in Belize this year versus last year, and especially looking at the number of checklists submitted.

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If you look at this as the third iteration of an event that we hope to grow in future years, the progress from beginning to present is promising. As I type this there are still more than 40 hours of data entry remaining for this year’s event, so the increase in this year’s participation and species identification will likely grow larger by this time Wednesday.

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