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.

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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:

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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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