Yellow-billed Magpies, native only to California, have proven extremely vulnerable to West Nile Virus infections. An article in the latest volume of the Auk (see abstract here) estimates that almost half the population of these birds died between 2003 and 2005. Previously, I'd speculated on this decline based on results of the latest Great Backyard Bird Count. While I usually like being right, I hate to be right when it comes to predicting bad news for birds.
I'm off for two weeks of collecting Mayan bird names and folklore in Belize and Guatemala. I've got some fun posts ready to go live while I'm gone, and will update when I can. Think happy thoughts of tinamous, guans, and hummingbirds for me--and I'll do the same for all y'all!
According to this story, magpies share the ability to recognize themselves in a mirror--a trait thought to be shared by relatively few species, including humans. The part of the story that didn't make it into the papers: magpies spending hours in front of the mirror putting on their "game face" before a job interview!
So, I was driving to work this morning when a police car pulled in behind me. After a couple miles and a couple turns, it was still behind me. Five minutes later he was still there. I was starting to get nervous, wondering if I had put my latest car insurance forms in the glove compartment. I might as well have been a common criminal for how nervous I was getting.
Looking in the rear-view mirror, I could see him making a call on his radio.
Just then we went around a corner and started down a long hill.
At the bottom of the hill I could see a couple Turkey Vultures on some roadkill. Soon I was only fifty yards away and the birds were still in the middle of the road.
Just before I got to them, the birds took off. One got away clean, but the other one flew up into my path and whooshed right over my hood, across my windshield, and over the top of my car.
Looking back in the mirror, I saw the bird come crashing down onto the windshield of the police car.
The officer quickly threw on his lights, pulled me over and proceeded to give me a ticket.
Here's a shot of me and some birding trip participants out in Salt Lake City for the Outdoor Retailers show last week. Gotta love driving that 15 passenger van. Growing up as the oldest of 10 kids, I had lots of practice driving a van. Who knew it would come in so handy. Lots of fun!
Leading the morning bird walk at Hog Island again this morning, we finally had a very birdy time. In fact, it might be the birdiest morning I've had on the Hog--literally dozens of birds around all the time, you couldn't really look at the trees without seeing movement. Unfortunately, at first it was so foggy you couldn't really see the birds all that well. Even when they were in the open, you couldn't really see colors or patterns, so it was tough going.
Finally, as the light got better, we got many Blackburnian Warblers, Northern Parulas, Black-throated Green Warblers, and American Redstarts. A few Black-throated Blue Warblers were around as well. Cedar Waxwings flew in and out of view, and a tantalizing flock of White-winged Crossbills kept flying over and landing...somewhere.
Followed up with a nice fresh fruit and French toast breakfast, it was a nice start to the day at the camp.
In leading a workshop session today at the Hog Island Audubon camp, I had to keep some people inside during the small group breakout activity because of their Bird Induced Attention Deficit Disorder (BIADD). Of course, I suffer from this myself. Even during part of my own talk I saw a small Buteo circling around outside the window. Someone who was outside was able to ID it as a Red-shouldered Hawk. I was distracted. At least a little bit. It is hard to focus when there are so many birds to see!
Do you suffer from BIADD too? Do birds make it hard to drive? To work on the computer? To listen to your spouse, kids, or friends? Are birds ruining your life?
After five days of birding the Great Salt Lake, I'm now back on Hog Island at the Audubon chapter leadership workshop. Today we cruised out to Eastern Egg Rock to see the Atlantic Puffins. We also enjoyed some White-winged Crossbills, which have staged an invasion of Maine this Summer.
An afternoon scouting trip and another evening trip that I led to the south shore of the Great Salt Lake netted some fun birds including a spectacular look at an adult Golden Eagle less than 30 feet away on a pole, a baby American Avocet, and a quick look at a Sora as it scurried into the marsh.
As usual, my trip participants were taken by the Snowy Plovers running around out on the otherwise barren alkali flats. The starkness of such a cute little bird running around such an apparently inhospitable place seems to grab people. We saw half a dozen of these guys, including a couple chicks that are almost in full juvenile plumage (but not quite yet).
On a logistic note, after three trips to the airport, this afternoon I was finally able to get the full-sized passenger van I had reserved. Glad to not have to worry about that anymore. Now to just figure out where to park it in the tiny parking spaces around here. Also, our birding excursions are being sponsored by Swarovski and Filson, and its nice to be able to have folks see birds through some of the very best binoculars available! As for my modeling of the latest Filson shirts--I'm not exactly Models.com material. But its great to be birding in style!
On my first (of eight) birding trips to the Great Salt Lake for the Outdoor Retailers show this weekend, the highlights were two baby stilts with a parent on a pond right off the freeway, a couple of pronghorn antelope--including one running right alongside our van at 23mph--and two Barn Owls. With a lot of rain moving in and around the area, it will be interesting to see how the birds will respond. Its always somewhat different each day when I'm out there.
I've always wanted to see one of these babies in North America. Apparently one was kicking around Louisiana last week--see the Washington Post story here, and original email announcement here. Congrats to the finders, that's one sweet bird!
I'm packing my bags for my trip out to Utah in the morning. Look forward to seeing old friends again--birds and humans. I'm leading two birding trips a day during the big Outdoor Retailers Expo, including one Saturday evening with Audubon president John Flicker. Then on Monday night at midnight I take a red-eye flight to JFK and a hopper up to Maine to spend the rest of the week at the Audubon chapter leadership camp at Hog Island. I won't get up there in time for another puffin cruise (darn it!), so it'll probably be mostly eiders and guillemots for me. And lobster dinner of course! After that comes the long drive back to Pennsylvania. Maybe some rarity I can chase will show up on the route. If not, I'll blitz back home to spend as much time as I can with my family before heading off to Belize and Guatemala for the rest of the month. I'll see a lot of birds this month, but not a whole lot in Pennsylvania. By the time I'm really back, school will have started up again and the summer will be over. Oh well, such is the life!
The other day while hanging out on my back porch, I was startled to see a sandgrouse--native to the deserts of the old world--fly past my green (if only weedy) Pennsylvania yard! I only saw it for a couple seconds, without binoculars, and as it flew off, but that's sure what it looked like. In reality, the only thing wild about this sandgrouse was probably my imagination. It was probably just a beefed up superhero version of a Mourning Dove, looking odd in the evening light. So much for quick views of distant birds without binoculars!
It might be easy to dismiss these ubiquitous birds outright, but in my daily quest to see at least 20 species, few native birds are as obliging as the MODO (Mourning Dove). Their plaintive whooo-whoooo-whhoooo calls are easily picked out on a walk of any duration, or even from bed as I lay there thinking about getting up in the morning. They perch out in the open on powerlines, so they are easy to see on my commute into work. They fly around and are easy to identify (unless you have sandgrouse on the brain) at even freeway speeds. In short, if you need a quick bird fix, MODOs are the birds for you!
And surprisingly, this common yard bird is also the source of a multimillion dollar hunting enterprise--hunters kill upwards of 45 million of them each year! While I'm not a hunter myself, I'm not anti-hunter by any means. In fact, I have to wonder, if hunting can help keep a species as common as are MODOs, I might be inclined to supporting expanded hunting on several other species!
Bird rehabilitators have long known that baby birds often become imprinted on humans. It can be a problem when birds think they themselves are humans. But sometimes by living closely with humans, the birds are able to still live as birds, but come to know, trust, and perhaps even prefer interacting with their human companions. Julie Zickefoose has one touching tale of baby hummingbirds that came to be part of her life (read and listen to the NPR story here, with a follow up here).
Perhaps we are missing out on how much we really can come to know and interact with wild birds. British author Len Howard opened up her cottage to birds, coming to know them as individuals as they interacted with her daily. One time a bird came in and tried to get her attention. According to Howard, the bird's nest was being threatened and the bird wanted her to come out and help defend the nest.
Its hard to know what to make of these animal stories, but one thing is for sure. The world of birds and animals is much bigger than we normally imagine, and by spending all of our time in human-centered pursuits, we only see the tip of the iceberg (if that!) of how we might better come to know, interact with, and perhaps even share our emotional lives with birds.