Warrior Gems

In the South American tropics, where hummingbirds must compete for food, evolution has drastically reshaped their bills. Credit Christian Irian

Hummingbirds are some of the most gemlike and visually striking birds in the “new world”, but those who have spent any time watching them know that striking can also be used as an apt verb to describe their behavior. Fiercely territorial, it’s not surprising that scientists are making more and more discoveries related to the evolution behind their development. (Click on image above to view the video)

The Hummingbird as Warrior: Evolution of a Fierce and Furious Beak

Winsomely captured in poems and song, the birds are yielding new secrets about their astounding beaks and penchant for violence.

If you want to know what makes hummingbirds tick, it’s best to avoid most poetry about them.

Bird-beam of the summer day,

— Whither on your sunny way?

Whither? Probably off to have a bloodcurdling fight, that’s whither.

John Vance Cheney wrote that verse, but let’s not point fingers. He has plenty of poetic company, all seduced by the color, beauty and teeny tininess of the hummingbird but failed to notice the ferocity burning in its rapidly beating heart.

The Aztecs weren’t fooled. Their god of war, Huitzilopochtli, was a hummingbird. The Aztecs loved war, and they loved the beauty of the birds as well. It seems they didn’t find any contradiction in the marriage of beauty and bloodthirsty aggression.

Scientists understood that aggression was a deep and pervasive part of hummingbird life. But they, too, have had their blind spots. The seemingly perfect match of nectar-bearing flowers to slender nectar-sipping beaks clearly showed that hummingbirds were shaped by co-evolution.

It seemed clear that, evolutionarily, plants were in charge. Their need for reliable pollinators produced flowers with a shape that demanded a long slender bill. Hummingbird evolution obliged.

But hummingbirds also heard the call of battle, which demanded a different evolutionary course. Some of those slender, delicate beaks have been reshaped into strong, sharp and dangerous weapons.

In a recent paper organizing and summing up 10 years of research, Alejandro Rico-Guevara and his colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley, shared evidence gathered by high-speed video about how the deadly beaks are deployed in male-to-male conflict.

Like the horns of bighorn sheep or the giant mandibles of stag beetles, hummingbird beaks are used to fight off rivals for mates. This is sexual selection, a narrow part of natural selection, in which the improvement of mating chances is the dominant force. Continue reading

Livestreaming Conservation

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A northern royal albatross inspects the New Zealand Department of Conservation’s ‘Royal Cam’, a 24/7 livestream that documents an albatross nest in breeding season. Photograph: Department of Conservation

The revolution may not be televised but conservation may be livestreamed from time to time, conditions permitting. Thanks to the Guardian for this story from New Zealand:

On a wing and a player: hopes webcam can save endangered albatross

Footage of tiny colony of birds on the southern tip of New Zealand captivates millions around the globe

nzalbMillions of amateur naturalists around the world have been tuning in to the secret lives of albatrosses as New Zealand rangers employ YouTube in a bid to save the mysterious giant sea birds.

New Zealand conservation teams set up a 24-hour live-stream of an albatross nest at Taiaroa Head on the Otago peninsula in 2016. Three years on, the feed has become an unexpected global hit, with 2.3 million people from 190 countries tuning in to watch the endangered birds rear their chicks on a frigid peninsula at the bottom of the world. Continue reading

A Photographic Big Year

It’s a relatively small world among the birding /photography community in India, and once I saw Gururaj Moorching’s photographs I reached out for an introduction to ask him to contribute to our Bird of the Day series. He started his own birding journey in 2012 after a trip to Kaziranga and another trip to the Rann of Kutch where he came across the two books “Birding on Borrowed Time” and “Lifelist” by the late Phoebe Snetsinger. We’ve been publishing his gorgeous photos for over 3 years, and I was thrilled when he shared his plan for a Photographic Birding Big Year.

In our own way we’ve documented his birding travels within our series, and we applaud this amazing achievement of photo-documenting 951 of India’s 1,317 species of birds in just one year (2018).

Gururaj is currently working on a book expected to be published this spring, but he recently spoke with Deepthi Sanjiv from the Bangalore Mirror about his experience.

“When I had a chance meeting in April 2015 with naturalist Marmot Snetsinger in Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary, Arunachal Pradesh, I was elated. Her mother, the late Phoebe Snetsinger, was a legend in birdwatching circles. She was the first person to have crossed 8,000 birds on her Life List in 1995 and watched 8,398 species of birds across the world.”

When Phoebe took up bird watching, she had a rare type of melanoma and the doctors had given her a year to live. She defied death for another 17 years since her diagnosis. I was inspired and I could especially relate to her as I faced a similar health predicament. Phoebe’s book “Birding on Borrowed Time” inspired me to take up birdwatching and photographing birds with intensity and a sense of urgency…

…Ornithologist Shashank Dalvi, India’s first birder to complete one ‘Big Year’ and record 1,128 species of birds in 2015, mentored Gururaj. He helped Gururaj list out travel plans to get maximum results and devised a calendar plan, based on the seasons and locations across India.

“It is not a mean task to chase 1,317 species of bird found in India, including Adaman and Nicobar Islands. My love to travel, food and meeting new people made the journey interesting in this amazing country of huge diversity. Birding community in India is a well-knit family. I received great support from birders, guides and naturalists who were eager to share any information on bird movement and even opened their homes, kitchen and hearts to me. Rofikul Islam, a gifted naturalist from Kaziranga, stood by me throughout the year, and was the inspiration behind my decision to pursue a Photographic Big Year, which was the first of its kind,” said Gururaj.

“A deep sense of contentment comes over me at the end of this sojourn,” he said.

The entire article can be found here.

 

Birds, Beacons Of Good Fortune

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Necklace, designed by Tone Vigeland (Norwegian, born 1938)

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Book, Histoire naturelle des oiseaux de paradis et des rolliers: suivie de celle des toucans et des barbus (Natural History of Birds of Paradise and Rollers: Followed by that of Toucans and Barbets), Volume 2; 1806; Written by François Levaillant (French, 1753–1824); Illustrated by Jacques Barraband (French, 1767–1809); Smithsonian Libraries, QL674.L65 1806

An exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt comes to my attention thanks to Dylan Kerr, whose essay The Mandarin Duck and Avian Art at the Cooper Hewitt makes an interesting link between the choices Rebeca Mendez made as a curator and a recent unusual bird sighting in New York City:

For the past several weeks, New Yorkers have been abuzz over a mysterious visitor. A mandarin duck, an intricately colored waterfowl native to East Asia, has taken up residence alongside the mallards in the Central Park Pond, drawing crowds and inspiring memes, dog costumes, and a Twitter account (bio: “I’m not from around here”). Pundits have argued that the frenzy betrays a desire for good news. But perhaps, the Mexico City-born designer Rebeca Méndez suggested the other day, something deeper is at play. “In our own normal life, we have patterns that we are so used to.

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Sidewall; 1905–13; Manufactured by Zuber & Cie (Rixheim, Alsace, France); Block-printed on paper; Gift of James J. Rorimer, 1950-111-10

My immediate reaction is yes. We are bombarded with more negative information more quickly, more constantly than ever in my lifetime. We need relief, and nothing like an exotic bird coming to town to bring it:

When something”—an anatine interloper, say—“comes in and breaks that, it’s incredibly exciting,” she said. “The world suddenly collapses—it’s like a wormhole from far-east Asia to Manhattan.”

Méndez recently curated an exhibition of avian art at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, across the street from the Park. It’s part of the “Selects” series, in which the museum invites a guest to put together a show from objects in its collection. Continue reading

Franzen, Watching Out For Birds

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Freedom … Jonathan Franzen (left), birdwatching with Guardian writer Oliver Milman (right) at Natural Bridges Farm, Santa Cruz, California. Photograph: Talia Herman for the Guardian

Thanks to Oliver Milman writing for the Guardian from Santa Cruz, California with someone whose concerns about the intersection of books and technology, combined with his interest in birds and the art of watching, have led to us featuring him more frequently in these pages than most other people:

Jonathan Franzen: ‘Climate change isn’t the only danger to birds’

‘The two things I love most are novels and birds, and they’re both in trouble,’ says The Corrections author, one of the world’s most famous birdwatchers

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Illustration: Sarah Mazzetti

Birdwatching was once an activity that elicited a sense of mild shame in Jonathan Franzen. The author stalked New York parks with binoculars in hand, rather than on a strap, carefully hiding from view the word “birds” on his field guide. Debonair friends in London recoiled in horror when told of his pastime. Franzen was furtive, almost embarrassed. Now, he is one of the most famous birdwatchers in the world.

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 Author and birdwatcher Jonathan Franzen, at Natural Bridges Farm where he goes to birdwatch in Santa Cruz, California, September 30th, 2018. Photograph: Talia Herman for the Guardian

“I totally let my freak flag fly now,” Franzen says as he scans for birds at a community garden near his home in Santa Cruz, California. His phone has an app that deciphers bird sounds. He travels the world to see recondite species. He has written about birds in essays, op-eds and novels.

“I was so socially unsuccessful in my youth and such a pariah in junior high that I really didn’t want to look like a dork,” says Franzen, the 59-year-old author whose best known works include The Corrections and Freedom. “I got over that. The success started to make me think: ‘Hey, it’s not me who’s got the problem.’” Continue reading

Conversations Between Birders

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Christopher Skaife Illustration by João Fazenda

Thanks to Sarah Larson for this:

Bird-Watching with the Ravenmaster

The yeoman warder charged with caring for the ravens of the Tower of London hikes along the Hudson.

When he’s at work, at the Tower of London, Yeoman Warder Christopher Skaife typically wears a uniform featuring a royal-blue tabard with scarlet ornamentation, a brass-buckled belt, and a bonnet. (Formalwear involves stockings and a ruff.) Skaife lives at the Tower, too, with his wife, in a house with forty-foot walls and arrow slits for windows. Skaife is the Tower’s Ravenmaster—his new book, “The Ravenmaster,” just came out—and in that role he cares for its most famous current residents, Merlin (a.k.a. Merlina), Erin, Rocky, Jubilee II, Gripp II, Harris, and Poppy, and gives tours to some of the Tower’s three million annual visitors. Recently, while vacationing in Manhattan, Skaife, who is Beefeater-shaped, with a bristly beard, was incognito, dressed in a zippered jacket and cargo shorts. He has tattoos on his calves depicting ravens, as well as, he said, “the skulls of those who were executed on the Tower Green.” On a crisp Friday, Skaife met up with his friend Gabriel Willow, a trim man in a cap, who works with New York City Audubon, to embark on a raven quest.

After a long absence, ravens have returned to the metro area: about six pairs nest in or around New York City. Willow and Skaife visited three potential hot spots—Pelham Bay Park, in the Bronx (mallards, cormorants, egrets; no ravens), far West Twenty-third Street, and Inwood Hill Park, at the northernmost tip of Manhattan. At West Twenty-third and the Hudson River, Skaife and Willow peered through binoculars. “I did see a raven this morning up in Central Park—a big flyby,” Willow said. “I heard cawing and calling, and a murder of crows swirled around, chasing a raven.” Continue reading

Avian Adaptation in the Face of Climate Change

 

A Mariposa fox sparrow in its nest in 1925, observed during Dr. Joseph Grinnell’s surveys of California fauna. Credit Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, University of California, Berkeley

Accentuate the positive…

California’s Birds Are Testing New Survival Tactics on a Vast Scale

Retracing the steps of a century-old wildlife survey, ecologists find that birds are making remarkable adaptations to climate change.

More than a century ago, zoologist Joseph Grinnell launched a pioneering survey of animal life in California, a decades-long quest — at first by Model T or, failing that, mule — to all corners and habitats of the state, from Death Valley to the High Sierra.

Ultimately Grinnell, founding director of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California, Berkeley, and his colleagues produced one of the richest ecological records in the world: 74,000 pages of meticulously detailed field notes, recording the numbers, habits and habitats of all vertebrate species that the team encountered.

In 2003, museum scientists decided to retrace Grinnell’s steps throughout the state to learn what changes a century had wrought. And that’s why Morgan Tingley, then an ecology graduate student at the university, found himself trekking through the Sierra for four summers.

Dr. Tingley wanted to know how birds had fared since Grinnell last took a census. Years later, the answer turned out to be a bit of a shock. Continue reading

Audubon’s Reasonable Request

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Northern Harrier. Photo: Diana Whiting/Audubon Photography Awards

A message from friends:

NEW YORK — “Audubon is committed to protecting birds and the places they need — and the greatest threat to birds and people is climate change,” said David Yarnold (@david_yarnold), president and CEO of National Audubon Society.

“While some may be holding out for a perfect solution to climate change, we know that it will take an array of approaches to reduce planet-warming pollution.

“The Carbon Capture Coalition is pursuing many avenues—including a market-driven approach that has deep bipartisan support. Audubon is excited to be at the table with a range of voices exploring policy options that accelerate a reduction in carbon pollution,” Yarnold added.

The Carbon Capture Coalition is led by the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions and the Great Plains Institute. With over 50 members ranging from the energy industry, agriculture, labor unions and conservation leaders, the coalition is non-partisan and solutions-oriented. Recently, the coalition successfully advocated for improving and extending the carbon capture tax credit, known as the 45Q tax credit, led by Senators Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), John Barrasso (R-WY), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV). Continue reading

Can You Top This Birding Experience?

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A Canada warbler. Credit Ian Davies

We have wow posts about birds all the time, but this one will have to take the cake, for now:

A River of Warblers: ‘the Greatest Birding Day of My Life’

At an observatory in Quebec, they were hoping for a 50,000-bird day. They saw more than half a million.

By James Gorman

Ian Davies got hooked on birds when he was 12. He went to a site near Plymouth, Mass., where volunteers were putting bands on migrating birds.

“They let me release a Canada warbler,” he said, “and that was just game over.”

On Monday, he saw an estimated 700,000 warblers and set the birding world all atwitter with a posting on the site eBird describing the astonishing event. Continue reading

Concrete Jungles, Habitat For Humanity, Parrots

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The state’s ecology is a kind of urban legend come true—the old alligator-flushed-down-the-toilet story, with a thousand species. Illustration by Charles Burns

When I first read this article about the downstream problems of the pet trade, I was living in India and learning about efforts to reduce the poaching crisis of wild animals being transported eastward as well as westward. Florida seemed a long way away and the problem Bilger described was a crisis, for sure, but it bordered on sounding, for lack of a better term, exotic. And maybe worthy of closer observation?

The Atlantic’s Emily Buder offers this post that includes an 8-minute video by Neil Losin. It immediately takes me back to the big picture:

The Legal ‘Pet-Poaching’ Problem

It’s easy to spot a wild parrot in Miami, as in San Francisco, San Diego, and several other metropolitan areas in the U.S. But in Florida, “technically, it’s not illegal to take wild parrots, according to Florida Fish & Wildlife,” says Daria Feinstein, a parrot conservationist, in Neil Losin’s short documentary, Parrots in Peril. The film examines the threat that poaching poses to Miami’s wild macaws. Continue reading

Big Day 2018 at Costa Rica’s Carara National Park, And Nearby At Los Suenos Marriott

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The first lucky bird of the day, a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron at Marriott, which I hadn’t seen yet on property

Almost four years ago, James and I took a day trip to Carara National Park, on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica where the tropical dry forest meets the moist rain forest in a transition zone that provides a great mix of habitats for all sorts of birds and other wildlife. On eBird, Carara’s Hotspot has over four hundred species, which made it a natural place for me to spend part of my Global Big Day this year, since I was already documenting the avian life on the property of the Los Suenos Marriott in Herradura, just half an hour south along the coast. These photos are from my May 5th efforts!

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The Turquoise-browed Motmot is a regular at Marriott and one of my favorite “common” birds in the country

I started the morning at 5:30am, heading out onto the perimeters of the forests surrounding Los Suenos Marriott and its golf course. Continue reading

Global Big Day 2018

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Last year at this time, I was in Belize hosting a team from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I had known of the Lab starting 30 years ago when we moved to Ithaca for me to start graduate school at Cornell, and had known the Lab’s backyard, Sapsucker Woods, since Seth was born and we walked him through in a stroller from time to time. But I did not really know much about the Lab’s work until Seth started working there in 2011, during his sophomore year of college. And then in 2012 we had another young Lab worker join us in India.

We have been celebrating Global Big Day ever since, in India and Costa Rica, then last year in Belize. This year Seth is in Costa Rica, where he will be in a national park with a very high bird species counts. I hope we will hear from him about that experience. For now, may we recommend you click the button above to learn more?

The Luck of the Draw

Me (left, obviously) with my Costa Rican non-birder friends in Río Celeste, Costa Rica

We’ve discussed eBird countless times here in the past, but I don’t think I ever mentioned their monthly challenges, which are designed to encourage eBirders to contribute some extra element of data to their usual checklists in a given month, with the chance of being randomly selected from the pool of people who satisfy the challenge requirements. If you’re chosen, you’ll receive an excellent pair of binoculars from Zeiss Optics!

In the past there have been challenges related to adding breeding codes to checklists (for example, noting if a species was observed carrying nesting material, or displaying, or feeding a juvenile); noting flyover species; going out birding with someone else and sharing the checklist; using the eBird app; and more! I think I remember a challenge from 2015 that involved checklists including raptors and vultures, and I recall being frustrated because it came a month after I’d been in Jamaica reporting Turkey Vultures several times a day. Continue reading

What Is It With Pigeons?

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Photographs courtesy Rorhof / Stadtarchiv Kronberg

Thank you Andrea DenHoed. We did not know how much we should appreciate them:

The Turn-of-the-Century Pigeons That Photographed Earth from Above

_3.jpgIn 1907, just a few years after the Wright brothers lifted off in Kitty Hawk, and while human flight was still being measured in metres and minutes, Dr. Julius Neubronner, a German apothecary, submitted a patent application for a new invention: the pigeon camera. The device was precisely what it sounds like—a small camera fitted with straps and equipped with a timer so that pigeons could carry it and take photos in flight. Neubronner first used the device on his own flock of homing pigeons, which he sometimes employed to deliver prescriptions. In the following years, he showed his camera at international expositions, where he also sold postcards taken by the birds. Additionally, he developed a portable, horse-drawn dovecote, with a darkroom attached to it, which could be moved into proximity of whatever object or area the photographer hoped to capture from on high. Continue reading

A Step Up for Bird Migration Maps

Image © National Geographic

In 2016 I wrote a couple times about eBird’s data––the observations contributed by citizen scientists––being used for migration maps, among other things. Those posts included animated gif images that illustrated the flow of thousands of birds across the Western Hemisphere at different times of year, which could be used in a casual setting to predict when to go out looking for a target species one wants to see in the wild, or in a conservation setting to know what time of the year is best to enforce certain environmental regulations, like open hunting or hiking seasons in sensitive areas. The moving maps also served as a mesmerizing graphic to simply astound us with the magnitude of travel these birds are undertaking.

Continue reading

Writers, Thinkers, Birders

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A proposed Republican amendment threatens to weaken the protections in the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Photograph by Ernest Manewal / Camera Press / Redux

Thanks to writers who become birders, and this one in particular:

Don’t Mess with the Birds!

By Amanda Petrusich

Catskill, New York—the small Hudson River town where the American painter Thomas Cole lived and worked, from 1825 to 1847—is also home to the RamsHorn-Livingston Sanctuary, which contains four hundred and thirty acres of tidal marsh, upland forest, and fallow farmland, and is presently occupied by common loons, great blue and green herons, wood ducks, mallards, a pair of bald eagles, northern harrier and red-tailed hawks, ruffled grouse, merlin falcons, eastern screech and great horned owls, belted kingfishers, pileated woodpeckers, warblers, scarlet tanagers, blue-gray gnatcatchers, a tiny and nervous-looking thrush known as a veery, and various other species of birds whose names, I will admit, are perilously delightful to type. There is also a beaver. Continue reading

Coffee, Birds & India Forever

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Ah, our favorite trifecta of the 2010-2017 era: coffee and birds and India! (Not to mention that the 2 species of birds featured in the article have graced this site in our Bird of the Day feature!) Just because we are back in Costa Rica does not mean the topics covered in this article are any less important to us. Thanks to Karen Weintraub for this:

Coffee Beans Are Good for Birds, Fancy Brew or Not

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Left, a heart-spotted woodpecker. Right, a coppersmith barbet bangalore. Credit Left, Ramki S.; Right, Shashank Dalvi

Birds are not as picky about their coffee as people are.

Although coffee snobs prefer arabica beans to robusta, a new study in India found that growing coffee does not interfere with biodiversity — no matter which bean the farmer chooses.

In the Western Ghats region of India, a mountainous area parallel to the subcontinent’s western coast, both arabica and robusta beans are grown as bushes under larger trees — unlike in South America, where the coffee plants themselves grow as large as trees, said Krithi Karanth, who helped lead the study, published Friday in the journal Scientific Reports. Continue reading

Snowy Owl Zen

Every now and then, it is good to stop and smell the roses, which if you are a snowy owl looks like the scene above. Thanks to National Public Radio (USA) for bringing this to our attention:

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Facebook | Gary Cranfield

Gary Cranfield recorded the video last weekend while he was out on a walk with his girlfriend, Betsy Waterman, along Lake Ontario near Oswego, N.Y.

“There are usually sightings this time of year and historically there have been snowy owls in this place for years and we decided to check it out,” Cranfield, 69, told Syracuse.com.

You can watch the results of that wintry expedition above. And for those of you out there worrying, Waterman assures us the bird was not stuck — they watched it chill for 30(!) minutes on the floe before it flew away to another one.

And to David Figura for this original report:

Continue reading

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