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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

New Rare Bird WatchList for the US

At noon today Audubon and the American Bird Conservancy held a joint press conference (audio here) to announce the release of the new WatchList of rare birds in the United States. The latest analysis draws upon the last 40 years of Christmas Bird Count and Breeding Bird Survey data to identify the 178 most imperiled birds. You can read the technical report here, or visit the new WatchList 2007 website here.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

More Siskins

There was another Pine Siskin at the feeders at work this morning with the American Goldfinches. When I got to work I thought I heard Common Redpolls up in the trees, but I couldn't find them. I walked the edge of the woods hoping to see something, and had a pale white-rumped finch fly in a strange twisting flight over the field and through a tree. But nothing I could be certain of. Sometimes the birds just get away, leaving behind only a mystery!

Monday, November 26, 2007

Turkey at the Drive Through

Even Wild Turkeys sometimes get caught up with the conveniences of modern suburban life, according to this story from Maryland.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Long-tailed Duck flock

Instead of shopping today, I did what every red-blooded American birder does with a day off of work--I headed out for at least a little while to see what birds may have come in with the cold front that blew through late yesterday. On Peace Valley at dusk, I had a flock of 13 Long-tailed Ducks. I don't think I've ever seen that many together--usually they come through in ones or twos. It was great to see them actively bathing, flying around, and interacting--very lively little ducks!

At the bird blind at Peace Valley, I was disappointed that there weren't more winter finches. One Black-capped Chickadee with the Carolina Chickadees, a female Purple Finch, and one Fox Sparrow were the highlights. Then all the little birds flushed up, and half a second later the Mourning Doves flew up, just as a Cooper's Hawk flew in low and fast and nailed one of the Mourning Doves that was a hair slower than its companions. The hawk killed the bird, leaving a pile of feathers under the feeders, then flew off carrying its quarry. Another fun taste of Wild America!

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Turkey Day

We upheld our family tradition today by driving around all morning looking for Wild Turkeys. We covered both sides of Lake Nockamixon 15 minutes north of our place, without any luck for over an hour and a half. On our third pass along the road where we found the birds last year, I was disappointed to see a man walking his dog and a couple other people walking on the road. No chance of seeing wary turkeys with that many people around, I thought. Then I saw that the man with the dog was looking at something off in the woods. As I pulled up I saw that he was looking at the local turkey flock, walking across an opening about 25 yards from the road. My kids all got some quick looks as a dozen birds lurked off into the woods. Another successful Wild Turkey chase. We're batting .750 for the past four years. A great way to start our Thanksgiving festivities. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

In a Flash

Last week while I was sitting at my desk I saw a huge flash of white out of the corner of my eye as a couple of Mourning Doves flew down to the base of my feeder. Since White-winged Doves can show up anywhere in the US, I'm always half-way looking for them. I rushed to the window to check out the dove only to be confronted by this guy (on left).

A Mourning Dove with white tail feathers. Just goes to show you have to double check those field marks when you get a quick look at a bird--and need more than one field mark to ID a bird. In this case a bird with a few white feathers can superficially mimic a well-known field mark of another species. According to the Birds of North America account, partial albinism like this is rare in Mourning Doves and usually involves wing feathers.

(photo:Don Ekstrom)

Monday, November 19, 2007

Humble Pie?

I stopped by Peace Valley this afternoon to take another look at the loons. As reported earlier on PABirds, in the same general area where I reported a Pacific Loon there was an obvious adult Red-throated Loon. After taking a good look at this bird, I really don't think its the same bird I saw this morning. The bird I saw this morning looked darker on the neck including at least a partial necklace below the throat, and this morning I didn't see white above the eye on the face or white on the sides of the body. I didn't think the bird this morning held its bill at as elevated an angle as the bird this morning, and (this is pretty subjective and subject to change based on a bird's mood) seemed to have a differently proportioned and rounder head with a steeper angle between the bill and forehead.

However, as a member of the "reality-based community", I'm really uncomfortable with the "two bird theory" that the Pacific Loon flew off after I left to be replaced within the hour by a Red-throated Loon. Is it possible that earlier this morning in the snow and poor light that I didn't get as good of a look as I thought? While I don't think so, I would be an idiot not to at least consider it a possibility. Viewing conditions were admittedly not 100% ideal, so I have to at least accept the possibility that my eyes, brain, and/or optics could have failed me.

Since I have to acknowledge even the slightest possibility of observer error, I can't be 100% certain about my sighting this morning, and humbly accept that the ID failure theory probably seems more plausible to most folks. Without a photo or multiple observer confirmation, I'm left without satisfaction and only an increased desire to get my hands on a workable digiscope setup--and the hope to redeem myself with a truly verifiable rarity sighting next time!

Pacific Loon in PA

On my way into the office this morning I found a Pacific Loon out in the middle of Lake Galena at Peace Valley, visible from the boat launch parking lot on the south side of the lake. Bird has a solid dark gray/brown back so probably an adult. Smaller looking head, thinner neck, smaller more slender and daggerlike bill than Common Loon, straight demarcation between darker back and white front of neck, dark face above white chin and throat. No white visible around eye at my distance (200 yards with 40x scope). Dark back all the way to water line (no white flank patch). Hint of faint chinstrap, at least on right side.

Pacific Loons are only rarely found in Pennsylvania, so this was a great way to start the short work week. Also on the lake were Common Loon and Bonaparte's Gull.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Project Feeder Watch

Back in the office its the first week of our annual participation in Project FeederWatch. We count the highest number of each species we can see at any given time during the two day count period every other week, and report the results to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. During the count today I was rewarded with our first ever for our office count Pine Siskin. Last Sunday when I stopped by the office to grab some stuff, I'd seen twelve of these guys on the feeder, but apparently they hadn't come back this week. Nice to see at least one of them stop in for our count. For more information on how you can participate in the count, check out the Project FeederWatch Website. Guaranteed to bring you good bird karma!

Colorado Rocky Mountain High

Just got back from a couple days in Colorado, where I was attending meetings about how to protect birds from collisions with windfarms. The meetings were great, but it was also great to get out and do some Rocky Mountain birding.

Monday afternoon I drove up from Boulder to Allenspark. It was too early in the year to see the rosy finches that come to the feeders there (no snow on the ground yet) but there were some great birds there--including my first ever White-winged Junco. Since 1973 this bird has been considered just a subspecies of the widespread Dark-eyed Junco, but these guys only breed in a small area centered around the Black Hills of South Dakota and winter a little more widely in the central Rockies. I was able to get good long looks at one of these guys--with its white wingbars and much more extensive white tail feathers. I also got to see at least one Gray-headed Junco--another subspecies from the central Rocky Mountains that looks a lot like a Yellow-eyed Junco with dark eyes. Pretty cool little birds!

At one point along the road, I was watching a Common Raven chase a Golden Eagle when the eagle did a full 360 degree roll. Very cool!

And as if the birds weren't enough--at one point I spent 20 minutes watching an enormous bighorn sheep ram staring down at me from a pinnacle of rock just 100 feet above the road. Not to mention the dozen elk feeding on another hillside, and the five mule deer bucks with seven does feeding in another field just off the road at dusk. Its nice to be back home now, but getting out into the mountains was also good for my soul.

Turkey Day is Coming

Next week is a bird-related holiday that we often don’t take full advantage of—Turkey Day!

For the last couple of years I’ve started a tradition of taking my kids out to look for Wild Turkeys on Thanksgiving morning. I’m not always successful at finding the birds, but I have a good time taking my three kids out. You can read my last three Turkey Day expedition reports here on my blog:



So, if you have turkeys in your area, or even the possibility of turkeys, consider taking out your kids, grandkids, family, friends, or whoever on an annual Turkey Day expedition. A great way to spend time together and enjoy our natural and cultural heritage.

David Sibley is a God

We all love David Sibley for how much his books have helped us with bird identification. Now, with a simple experiment he and his kids conducted at home, he may have single-handedly done more to protect birds than any of the rest of us will do in our lifetimes. Granted, we'll have to see if his method pans out after more testing. But if the Sibley method turns out to really work, we'll all be singing his praises for many years to come. To read about Sibley's new way to protect birds from getting killed, check out his blog.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Good Day For Birding

This photo is circulating around through emails. Don't know where it comes from, bit it brings a smile. Good birding!

Friday, November 09, 2007

Feeders At Work

We've got the birdfeeders up at work again now, and the birds are swarming in. With the usuals today were a couple nice northern birds--Purple Finch, Black-capped Chickadee, and Red-breasted Nuthatch. A Brown Creeper was a first of season bird for me hitching along the bare tree limbs just outside my window. Still waiting for more northern finches!

Advanced Bird Language

What is the difference between birdwatching and birding? At least for me, birdwatching involves, well, watching the birds. Enjoying and trying to figure out what each bird is doing. Birding, on the other hand, is more about roaming across the countryside to find and identify as many birds as possible--and especially to find rare and unusual birds not regularly seen in the area. Birders, in their quest to find more birds, often only watch birds long enough to identify them--which can be mere fragments of a second when it comes to the more common birds.

Moment of truth here: I'm a birder. I try to spend time actually watching and enjoying birds--but sometimes I get carried away in my quest to find more birds and have to consciously remind myself to spend more time watching each bird I find. On my way in to work this morning, I saw 12 Ring-billed Gulls at my local birding spot. It took me about 5 seconds to look at each bird to make sure that's what they really were. In maybe another two seconds I noticed how they were each perceptibly unique, with slightly different patterns of brown markings on their mostly white heads. But then, I moved on to scan the lake to see if there were other, more unusual, birds to be found.

As part of my therapy, to help me slow down and appreciate birds a bit more, I got a copy of Advanced Bird Language, a series of lectures on eight CDs by tracker and environmental educator Jon Young. In over nine hours of material, Young shows his listeners how to understand the ways that birds communicate to each other through their body movements and calls. Its hard to briefly describe what this is all about, but you can get a quick introduction to this conception of bird language here.

These teachings come out of the tracking tradition of Tom Brown Jr., who has spent a lifetime teaching people how to track and enjoy watching animals--so a lot of the emphasis here is on how to tune into the alarm calls of birds that might lead you to find and follow the movements of weasels, foxes, deer, and other animals. But there is a lot here on these CDs that are useful even if that isn't your primary goal.

More than anything, these CDs are a mind-opening and expanding tool, helping us consider the world from the perspective of the bird, and showing us how we can tune into that world. That can be useful if you are a birdwatcher, and want to better understand the birds, or even a birder, and just want to find more birds. By learning to watch how birds respond to other birds, animals, and humans in their environment, it can help you be a better birder. A couple examples from my recent birding as I've been thinking about these concepts:

1) One day I'm birding at a local lake. There are a couple dozen Ring-billed Gulls on the lake. I'm walking around looking for sparrows, not paying them much attention, when all of a sudden they all take off at once. OK, I think, something has alarmed them. Was it me? Since I'd been walking back and forth in the same general area for half an hour, I kind of doubted it. So I thought, what might alarm a flock of gulls? Well, birders who have spent much time out there already know the answer. Unless a dog is running through the flock, most loafing gulls aren't alarmed by anything less than an eagle. So I start scanning the skyline. There's a vulture flying in, but that doesn't seem quite right, so I keep watching it until it turns just right and I can see that it isn't a vulture, it is indeed a Bald Eagle. By being alert to the gulls and their alarm, I was able to see a bird that I might have not have otherwise paid attention to.

2) At another local spot, I was looking for sparrows by walking along the edge of a field. By moving slowly, I could see lots of sparrows fly up out of the grass into the bushes along the edge of the field. But how many was I missing? By looking out farther, I could see the birds flushing and flying off in a rolling wave about 40 yards ahead of me as I walked. It was amazing to watch this. By slowing down, I could get closer to the birds. But if I just walked normally I would flush a lot of birds before I was close enough to really see them well. Again, by paying attention to these sparrows flushing in response to my walk, I was able to adjust my walk to get closer to them, and I also learned where to look to see more birds. I can only wonder how many birds birders miss by not paying attention to the ring of birds flushing around them as they move through the woods or field.

3) Just the other day I was at the local nature center on the paths. I was moving slowly, paying attention to the birds flushing off the ground. I got great looks at some Rusty Blackbirds that flushed up and by not moving too quickly I got to stare into their piercing yellow eyes. Very cool. Then I could see and here American Robins flushing all around me. They were calling and flying off all around me. Having listened to these CDs, I had a guess as to what was about to happen, so I just froze and watched. Sure enough, here came another person shuffling along one of the paths. Not being loud. Not being especially offensive or moving especially fast. But still flushing all the birds a minute or two before passing by. How many birds and other animals was this person not seeing? We were having two completely different experiences in the same woods.

So, this Advanced Bird Language stuff has given me lots to think about and continues to enhance my birding and birdwatching experiences. And, if you believe some of the comments on these CDs (and I do) my spiritual and emotional life is enhanced as well as my brain rewires itself to pay attention to more of what is going on around me.

So, if you are a birdwatcher and want to better understand the behavior of birds, these CDs will give you a lot to think about. Even if you are a die-hard birder, these CDS will give you cause to pause and can help you adjust and enhance your birdfinding skills. And if you are just a nature lover or a poet or an eco-mystic, there is plenty here to help ground and enhance your enjoyment and appreciation of nature. And for librarians, I suggest that local libraries get a copy of Advanced Bird Language so that these messages can be more readily available to everyone in our communities.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Win a Free Book

My blogging buddies over at are giving away copies of a spectacular new book. Check out the rules and instructions for details on how you could win a copy of BIRD: The Definitive Visual Guide.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Morning Walk

Took a morning walk this morning at Peace Valley Park. Best birds were 3 Rusty Blackbirds (uncommon migrant), 7 Purple Finches, 2 Red-breasted Nuthatches, and 1 Black-capped Chickadee (all irregular winter visitors). Other folks have seen Evening Grosbeaks across the state, so may be a good winter for northern finches and other birds to visit us here on the East Coast.

Kitchen Window

Surveys have shown that most bird watching in America takes place from the kitchen or dining room window. Interestingly, kitchen windows really weren't a part of American culture and homebuilding before the early 20th Century. But now, most homes are built with a kitchen or dining room with windows looking out onto the backyard--and that's the window that most popular window to watch birds from in America. This morning, while doing dishes at my own kitchen window, I was able to watch the common Mourning Doves, European Starlings, and House Sparrows in my small row house yard. Blue Jays and a Northern Mockingbird were flying around as well--then the prize, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker landed on a the trunk of a shrub on the edge of my yard. I don't have any big trees in my small yard, so this was the first sapsucker I've seen from my yard in almost two years of living here. Nice yard bird from the "most popular birding location" in America.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Bird Lovers, or just Bird Users?

Roger Tory Peterson is perhaps justly considered the patron saint of bird education, but he also stated that he was not a bird lover.
I don’t love birds. I am obsessed with birds. I have always been obsessed with birds. But I don’t love them. Loving demands reciprocation, or at least the promise of reciprocation. Birds simply do not reciprocate. We might enjoy them, watch them, and study them, but to “love” them--that is being too anthropomorphic.

--Devlin, John C. and Naismith, Grace, The World of Roger Tory Peterson. (New York, Times Books, 1977), p.152.

While we can perhaps just chalk this one up to Roger being an unsentimental man of his times, maybe there is something more at play here. While I don't agree that "loving demands reciprocation" I might more closely subscribe to a definition of love by the late psychologist M. Scott Peck in his book The Road Less Traveled:
Love is the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.

Perhaps this is still a bit anthropomorphic. I'm not sure you have to be concerned about the "spiritual growth" of a bird to care for it enough to give of yourself in order to ensure that individual birds or bird populations are able to thrive. But I do think if you do put yourself out to help birds that way, that you can consider that a form of loving birds.

But here's the real question. For the millions of birders or birdwatchers, those of us who are "obsessed with birds" and who enjoy watching or studying them, do we really love birds, or are we just a bird users?

In environmental education, it is common to believe that if we can just get people to enjoy watching birds, they will love them and want to help them--we can turn people into bird lovers by getting them to be bird watchers.

But I'm not so sure. For many birders and birdwatchers, birds are just a means to an end--something to chase during our free time, something to dream about, something to enjoy with our friends. Just because millions of people enjoy birds enough to take time off to enjoy them, does not mean that they love birds--that they are willing to "extend oneself" for the purpose of helping those birds.

Sometimes I have the sneaking suspicion that birdwatchers and birders are really mere users of birds, rather than real bird lovers. How many birders will drive overnight to see a rare bird, but won't take the time to become involved in the political process that can determine if bird habitats and populations are protected or destroyed? While I'm not here to oppose anyone's hobby--be it stamp collecting, rock climbing, or birding--I am wondering about the moral implications of using birds for our own enjoyment without "extending ourselves" to make sure that those birds are able to persist and enjoy whatever measure of pleasure they merit within their own sphere of creation.

Perhaps if we want people to really love birds, to be willing to "extend" themselves to help them, we should focus our efforts on teaching people how to actually help birds--rather than how to just enjoy them. While everyone who helps birds probably enjoys them as well, the arrow doesn't always (or even often) go in the other direction.

But enough from me. What do you think? Are we bird lovers or mere bird users, and if so, is that a problem?

Over the Top?

In my post on why cats shouldn't be allowed to roam outdoors, I took some heat for posting this image. My point was that if you really care about cats, you shouldn't want to see this happen, so you should keep your cats indoors and oppose efforts to maintain colonies of feral cats outside where they are in danger from cars, diseases, and inclement weather.

So, you tell me. Was posting this photo over the top? Or is it important to really see what is at stake in this discussion?

What do you think? Should the Birdchaser have posted this picture?
Awesome, bird wins! Feed the vultures, man!
Way to go, thank you for really showing us why we should keep cats indoors.
Maybe its true that outdoor cats risk a horrible death, but its just too gross to look at. You're an idiot for posting that.
I love cats and this just shows that you hate cats. You're an idiot for posting that.
I don't care about the photo. You're an idiot!
Free polls from

Hat Tip to David Sibley

If you ever wondered why great birders should take up blogging, check out David Sibley's latest post on perception and mistakes in birding. The kind of situations David reports happens all the time in birding. Anyone who claims otherwise is either a) inexperienced or b) not very self aware; either condition in birding leads to errors. Part of the fun of birding is celebrating the uncertainty and vagaries of our own perceptions. Sometimes a flicker is a bird, sometimes its the play of shadows, and sometimes its just a flash of random neurons. Wisdom comes in recognizing the possibilities and potentials for all of these possibilities to present themselves in our birding explorations.
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