Thursday, December 30, 2010

LBJs - Who Am I? - Exercise #7

Little Brown Jobs gradually become less mysterious and confusing as one becomes more familiar. Then a new one appears. The possibilities are narrowed with the familiar ones eliminated. Habitat may give clues, as may range. Size and shape are examined. Finally a new bird is identified
LBJ #31
LBJ #32
LBJ #33
LBJ #34
LBJ #35
Good birding!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Portraits during a Blizzard

Individual portraits of a few feeder birds which visited during Monday's blizzard.

Common Redpoll
Evening Grosbeak
Blue Jay
Northern Cardinal
Red-breasted Nuthatch
Good Birding!

Monday, December 27, 2010

With the Blizzard came ...

I was preparing another Little Brown Job exercise this morning, when a grandson came up the stairs to tell me there were lots of birds at the feeders. Indeed there were!!!

Common Redpolls arrived with the blizzard in numbers I have not seen in almost four years. The flock numbers at least 50 birds.

A few days ago I extended the actual count of Evening Grosbeaks to 63. The flock feeding this morning could not be counted, but was 100+.

Early this morning, I swept 12 inches of snow off the platform feeder, shoveled the snow from the back porch and scattered seed there, and filled all the feeders. Soon after, the birds arrived ...

10 Common Redpolls (and one Dark-eyed Junco)

An additional 12 redpolls - still a small part of total flock, & only 1/3 of those feeding on porch

6 Redpolls feeding with 3 Evening Grosbeaks & 1 junco

Redpolls lining up on the bulk feeders

17 Evening Grosbeaks beneath bulk feeder
Red-bellied Woodpecker reluctantly shares feeder with Evening Grosbeak
I wish I could answer the inquiries as to why I have so many Evening Grosbeaks. Probably because I provide plenty of seed all year, and there are nesting pairs which feed their young here. Then add in the grosbeak communication network, and the result seems to be that most of southern Vermont's wintering Evening Grosbeaks are in my yard (judging from the lack of reports from elsewhere).

More blizzard/bird images soon.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Counting Birds

Rock Pigeon
Rock Pigeons came to North America with the early colonists. They swirl in clouds over towns and cities. They fill ridge lines and cornices of buildings. They find crevices and ledges for nests. Their highly acidic excrement hastens corrosion of metal and deterioration of stonework. They are viewed often as urban pests, rats on wings.

House Sparrows were released in New York City in 1850. By 1910 they had spread to California, filling empty spaces with their toneless songs, finding food in horse barns, feed stores, urban and town streets. Sometimes the only bird in a barren city landscape, these nondescript birds often appear as dingy as their habitat.

European Starling
European Starlings were released in New York City in 1890. An industrialist with too much money and too little sense wanted the city park to be filled with all the birds mentioned by William Shakespeare. Within thirty years, starlings were common throughout the eastern United States, and they kept spreading across the continent. Winter flocks fill trees, noisily clicking and clacking and rattling. They ball up in huge dark clouds over barren fields.

A few people like these birds. They throw bread crumbs to pigeons in parks or see the House Sparrow as the only bird which comes to their city bird feeder. Many more people do not like these birds. They are invasive exotics. Birders don’t like them. Public health officials and city building owners who must fight the effects of their guano don’t like them.

I confess to a grudging admiration for these birds. In North America, they have adapted, often to harsh habitats created by humans - like barren towns and cities where they survive by feeding on our garbage.

For the most part, they have also hit an ecological balance. Admittedly, the numbers of pigeons, starlings and House Sparrows often approach “hoard” status. But, the population of any species fluctuates, and over time that fluctuation is proscribed by what their habitat can support.

House Sparrow
If there were no controls on the population of these invasive exotics, I would expect that their numbers would increase year after year. But that is not happening. My evidence is the Christmas Bird Count.

In the Brattleboro area, the CBC for pigeons, starlings, and House Sparrows varies from year to year, sometimes dramatically. Nevertheless, over the last several years, there is some consistency. The pigeon count has ranged from a low of 133 to a high of 414 with an average of 282. Starlings have ranged from 165 to 640, with an average of 347. House Sparrows have ranged from 72 to 299 and average 199. Year to year differences might be explained by whether the counters saw the flocks during their count day and how adept they were at counting large numbers in flight or roosting. What is clear is that there is no upward trend, and for that matter, no pattern or trend of any sort that I can see or imagine. These invasive exotics are here to stay, but it also appears that they  have found their habitat balance.

This is a long introduction to the Brattleboro Area CBC which was done last Saturday. Looking at count results over a period of years shows that this not just a day long exercise by a bunch of bird nerds. As teams of counters cover the same area and employ consistent methods, data is gathered. That data can then be gleaned for information. I have just given an example of what the data might be telling us about the exotic species.

Red-bellied Woodpecker
The date also tells us that the Red-bellied Woodpecker which began to show up on CBCs in the early 1990s is now a well-established resident, on its way to becoming relatively common. The last three years have been the highest count years for this species, with this year the highest.

The Red-bellied Woodpecker is the most recent of the southern species to extend its range northward and establish itself as a year-round resident. It was preceded by the Northern Cardinal, Tufted Titmouse, Northern Mockingbird, and Carolina Wren. The data also suggests that the Carolina Wren is the most tenuous of these southern species that have moved northward.

The CBC confirms the success of some conservation efforts, habitat improvements, and species recovery.

Common Raven
“Cur-ruk, cur-ruk” from the Common Raven was silent 50 years ago in the West River Valley and surrounding hills. It reappeared on CBCs in the early 80s. Ten ravens were recorded on the CBC this year, a record.

The Bald Eagle, absent on CBCs prior to 2002, is now consistently observed. The breeding pair in the vicinity of the Vernon Dam have open water through the winter in which to fish, and remain on territory.

The Wild Turkey was extirpated from most of New England my the mid-1800s. In 1970 they were reintroduced in Vermont. Winter flocks are nomadic and CBC numbers fluctuate wildly, but they are consistently recorded.

Eastern Bluebird
The Eastern Bluebird were absent from the CBC until 1992. Since 2000, this species has been recorded every year on the count. It may not be common during the winter, but no one should be surprised to see a bluebird during any month.

Finally - American Robin. People are often surprised to see the robin in winter. Don’t be. They are present on the CBC every year, and may be seen any month of the year.

The Brattleboro Area CBC had 32 people in 7 teams doing the field counts. Additional people did feeder counts at their homes. Collectively, the seven teams drove 280 miles, walked an additional six miles, and logged 185 people hours. Unlike so many years, it was a delightful winter day, with brilliant blue skies,  pleasant winter temperatures, only a dusting of snow, and only a few icy spots when walking. It made for a day of good birding.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Holiday Greetings

May life treat you kindly during this season.
May all of life be treated kindly by you.
and may you always have a little chick-a-dee-dee-dee to remind you that peace and hope is a promise renewed as we turn from dark winter back toward the spring.
The Blessings of the Season be with you.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

LBJs - IDs for 5 & 6

 #21 Savannah Sparrow - a slimmed down Song Sparrow; this breeding adult show the yellowish lores very clearly - not always so obvious.
 #22 Song Sparrow - default sparrow - and one which we should learn to identify without reference to the "stick pin" on the breast.
 #23 - White-crowned Sparrow - adults are handsome birds! They look like they're dressed for a party. More common in the West; in my neighborhoods, a transient in spring and fall.
 #24 - White-throated Sparrow - here's an example of why we should ignore those breast spots, especially when identifying Song Sparrows - this bird has a breast spot. Stubby appearance, white throat, and (in this instance) bright yellow lores make the ID.
#25 - Swamp Sparrow - usually a helpful ID clue for this bird is its habitat - in marshes and swamps. But this bird was in a grassy field during migration. So you need to know about the gray collar, the buffy-brown flanks, the partial eye line, and the reddish brown crown (not the rusty- red of the Chipping Sparrow).

Now the reminder at the beginning of Exercise 6 - many Little Brown Jobs are sparrows, but not all LBJs are sparrows.

#26 - Brown-headed Cowbird, female - One of those birds we love to hate, and about as nondescript as any bird can be. Bigger than most sparrows.
#27 - Blue Grosbeak, female - A rich golden brown, big beak. Her mate is sometimes confused with an Indigo Bunting, but he's bigger and has more rust on the wings.
#28 - Indigo Bunting, female - a plain little bird, but with just a hint of blue in the wings
#29 - Rose-breasted Grosbeak, female - Her mate is so distinctive and so different, that she can be overlooked. Size, shape, bill, all take her out of the sparrow category. Bold head pattern is suggestive of the female Purple Finch, but much more striking.
#30 - Pine Siskin - but let's be honest, in this pose the plumage is very similar to that of the female House Finch, and the yellow wash on the wings is not visible. Plus the head shape is not that of the finch, and the the bill is pointed.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

LBJs - Who Am I? - Exercise 6

Little Brown Jobs are often sparrows - but not always!

LBJ #26

LBJ #27

LBJ #28

LBJ #29

LBJ #30
Good birding!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Little Brown Jobs - Exercise 5

Better to call this an "Exercise" rather than a "Quiz." Getting IDs on the Little Brown Jobs (LBJs) is a continual learning process. Most of us don't need tests, we need experience and observations. (If you missed the previous exercises, they began on December 6.) Enjoy.

LBJ #21

LBJ #22

LBJ #23

LBJ # 24

LBJ #25
Good birding!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Reviewing Field Guides

When I began birding 30 years ago, there were limited choices in field guides. There were a few guides which used paintings (e.g. Peterson, Golden) and a couple which used photographs (e.g. Audubon). I opted for the guides with paintings; it is what the experts recommended.

The popularity of bird watching as a hobby has exploded in the last 30 years. Paralleling that explosion has been an explosion in products and publications aimed at the bird watchers. There has also been a revolution in the quality, scope, and design of everything seeking to tap the birding market. The best binoculars of 30 years ago, for example, would be rated average today.

For 20 years, I cut my birding teeth with the Golden guide. My worn copy is now stuck in a back corner of the book shelf, a nostalgic reminder of youth.

Sibley revolutionized the Field Guide in 2000; multiple paintings conveyed the visual impressions, and included different ages, seasonal plumage, flight; the paintings were accompanied with succinct descriptions.

In the same year, Kaufman dealt a significant blow to the long prejudice against photographic guides. Digitally edited photographs, simple organization, and vivid descriptions pinpointed field marks, and described habits, habitats, and voice. When I factored in the size of Kaufman’s guide - it fit easily into the back pocket of my blue jeans - it became my favored field guide for many years.

There is no perfect field guide, and no perfect bird identification aid. But there is a tremendous market and that has inspired talented birders, gifted writers, creative designers, and market savvy publishers. They have combined to produce resources that can help bird watchers learn their birds, sort through the complexities, become competent in the field, and nurture their background and knowledge.

Among the creative endeavors is Pete Dunne’s “Field Guide;” it has no illustrations. It is a rocking chair resource for the evening before or after a day in the field.

Specialty guides focusing on a subset of birds (shorebirds, raptors, sparrows) are moving from the realm of the dull pedantry that can only excite the fussiest of the experts, to books that are helpful, useful, and practical to the broader birding population. Some of these are guides employ photographs. “The Shorebird Guide” (O’Brien, et al, 2006) is one of the most original and useful. With multiple photographs for each species, each shorebird is shown in habitat and with other shorebirds, allowing for side by side comparison of size, shape, and plumage. It is almost as though you were shorebirding with a shorebird expert at your elbow.

I just received a gift of the specialty guide, “Waterfowl of Eastern North America.” It not only is excellent for individual species, but also contains a section of “Comparisons.” For example, there is a page with photographs of 9 female dabbling ducks, and a chart on the facing page describing slope of forehead, beak size and color, face pattern, leg color, and other. Useful!

But to repeat, no field guide is perfect. If you are only interested in the birds in your backyard, then a “backyard guide” is probably best, since it will focus only the birds most likely to use feeders and save you from getting too confused. If you are going to the next step, actively birding in different habitats, then you need one guide for the field, and two or three additional guides at home, or in the back seat, that you can consult for more difficult identifications, to learn the many variations within species, and to garner information, ID tips, and comparisons.

In the past, for a complete field guide, I have recommended Sibley, Kaufman, and National Geographic. For the first time, I will also recommend a photographic guide.

The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America” (2010) is described as the biggest, most colorful, most useful identification guide to birds ever produced. It weighs in at 3 pounds, and so presents certain difficulties when birding in the field. But photographs are superb; they are clear, sharp, and useful. They almost always portray what you will see in the field. The text describes the seasonal, age, and sex differences which are evident in the photographs. For most species, there are four to six photographs; some species, such as the gulls, have many more photographs to show the many variations that occur in seasons and ages. The photographs also show the birds from different angles, thus conveying the shape and profile, a highly useful aid to improving one’s skills in the field.

I am currently engaged in an exercise on sparrows, and other little brown jobs. So I turned to the section in the Stokes guide on the sparrows. Turning the pages is a reminder that there is no substitute for careful observation. Superficially, the birds look similar. But they have included many variations for many species. On my blog I recently posted a photograph of a very young Chipping Sparrow, and identified it as such. Then I began to study it more closely, and doubts crept in. Stokes came to the rescure. One of the six Chipping Sparrow photos included a heavily streaked juvenile Chippy. Thank you.

So, which guide do I carry with me when I am out birding. For difficult Ids, I keep a couple of guides in the car, changing them from time to time. But I don’t carry a printed guide when I am birding. I carry an iPod Touch with several bird guide applications. It is small. It is light, and with just a few touches I can get help with what is still the most difficult part of birding for me - bird songs and bird calls. They are there is multiple and easily accessible forms.

Last January, I did an overview of electronic applications for bird watchers. The changes, improvement, and upgrades to these “apps” are many. I am comfortable with the new technologies, but not obsessive about their use, or about having the latest gizmo. However, I have had over a full year of birding with my iPod applications, and I find it very useful, although not a replacement for the guides in the car or home on the shelf. None of the applications are expensive, so you won’t be out much money if you buy them all.

I have found that iBird Pro is the best designed application, and packed with information. One of the most useful features is the quickly accessible lists of similar species (quicker even than thumbing the pages of a book). Even more useful is the list of similar voice/song. You can quickly hear and compare different species, and often multiple songs of each species. As the photo resources of this application grow, it will be even more useful in the field.

Late in the summer I added  “The Sibley eGuide to the Birds of North America.” With all of the illustrations from the Sibley guide, this app puts “big” Sibley in your breast pocket. Its touch design is somewhat awkward, and it does not have the “similar” features of iBird Pro, or the wealth of additional material, but otherwise it is an excellent adaptation.

The disadvantage of these applications with my iPod is that I cannot run more than one app at a time, and toggle back and forth. I consult one, then have to load the second, then go back and reload the first, and so on. Life is tough.

But birding is good. Even in the winter those little feather balls outside of the window entertain and amaze. I watch them while browsing one of the armchair guides during these indoor days.


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