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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Birdchaser at University of Pennsylvania

My upcoming talk to the Precolumbian Society at the University of Pennsylvaina Museum on October 9

The Woodpecker is a Witch! Birds among the modern and ancient Maya

Birds have played important roles in Mesoamerican cultures for thousands of years. Rob Fergus explores the connections between birds and various Mayan cultures and presents results from his ongoing field work with Kerry Hull among seven different Mayan language groups in Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. Bird names and bird lore--including notes about birds as social and environmental prognosticators--shed light on modern Mayan world views as well as scenes involving birds in ancient Mayan art and ethnohistoric accounts of later historic Mayan societies.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Best Bird Guide for Beginners?

So yesterday I spent an hour with my Rowan University students teaching them how to identify birds with a field guide. We did it as a game, with each team having two field guides to use, and each team getting points for how fast they were able to identify each bird slide using their guides. I had the teams switch field guides several time, so the students got to try out different ones.

So the exercise served two purposes--the students learned how to identify birds with a field guide, and I got to see how they did it and which guides they liked and why.

I was surprised on both accounts. These students, who have had just one lecture on SPASTIC bird identification and one half hour bird walk, were remarkably quick at finding the birds in the guides. And it didn't seem to matter which bird book they used. I definitely had prejudices about which guide I thought would be easiest for them to use, but they surprised me. Here's a few comments:

Old Peterson: Most didn't like it, mostly because of the black and white plates.
Little Sibley: They liked it a lot, especially the quick index in the back.
Kaufman: They liked it, especially the onces who figured out how to use the quick index.
Smithsonian: Several students really liked this, and they were able to get on birds as quickly as with the other guides.
NWF Guide: Again, like the Smithsonian Guide, the students seemed to do find with this one too.
Nat Geo: A bit too much for them, not preferred.

Overall, there weren't too many strong feelings expressed one way or the other (they are college students and not always the most forthcoming!). But they had fun, and watching them, they seemed able to use all the guides fairly well, though Nat Geo and Old Peterson were the least preferred and students using them were never the first to ID any bird.

So, not a scientific focus group, but fun and interesting. Makes me want to do more field testing of field guides with absolute beginners. Anyone else out there put field guides head to head in field trials with beginners? What makes a good field guide for beginners? Which ones do you recommend and why?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Global Birding

Birding, more than anything, is characterized by dreaming. While birdwatchers may be satisfied to enjoy the birds they happen to see in their yard or wherever they may be, birders are always seeking and dreaming about birds unseen. If you have birds that you want to see, but haven't--you are a birder.

Global Birding, the latest National Geographic book by Les Beletsky fans the fuel of such dreams. Written primarily for North American birders with dreams of shiny exotic birds, each chapter of its 320 pages introduces the reader to the birds and birding possibilities of a continent, with sections on regions within each continent of special interest to birders--and since this is National Geographic, the requisite gorgeous photographs of birds and landscapes, as well as basic maps for the geographically challenged. Global Birding provides tips on traveling in each region, as well as an overview of the significant bird families and species in each region. This makes Global Birding useful to would be travelers, as well as arm-chair travelers who may never save up the serious coin that it takes to reach some of the more exotic birding destinations. You may never actually get to see a Helmeted Vanga, but after spending some time with Global Birding, you will at least know what it is, where to find it, and what it might take to find one.

In thumbing through Global Birding, I was glad to see that Beletsky provides the names of the local birding and conservation organizations in each region--along with web addresses. Sidebars provide recommendations on the best field guides and site guides for each region. There are also dozens of sidebars with information on birding unique locations or tips on spotting high profile species like Gray-necked Rockfowl or Dwarf Jay.

As a geographer, I really enjoyed the introductory chapter on The Geography of Birds, with its review of bird diversity by country and bioregions. Tables provide information on Endemic Bird Areas within each country, as well as how many restricted-range species occur there. Sidebars also show the reader which countries have the most endemic species, as well as the most globally threatened species. All the while stoking the fire of bird lust with gorgeous photographs of birds you may never even have heard of--like Peruvian Plantcutters, Upland Goose, or the Coral-billed Ground-Cuckoo.

Now the sad part, where I complain that I wish the book were bigger. I wish there were more info on more birds--but of course, that itch can never be fully scratched. I'm a birder. I always want more. More pages. More birds. But lets not get carried away. There have to be limits. But when it comes to the maps, I think the book could have done more with what it already had. The maps are pretty basic, and could have provided so much more information on birding locations, endemic bird areas, etc. For example, major rivers are often depicted but not labeled. The map of Asia doesn't even have political boundaries. We know National Geographic can make some sweet maps, but the ones here aren't anything to write home about.

Other than that, my only other concern is that this book is dangerous! You can't just show a birder pictures of exotic birds and landscapes without fueling a desire to get out and see those places and birds--which in this case involves considerable expense. So be forewarned. The more time you spend with Global Birding, the more you will want to be a global birder. The book is a call to adventure, the adventure of birding on a global scale. It is not for the faint of heart. Peruse at your own risk!

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Monday, September 20, 2010

Name that Peep

A nice morning walk around the reservoir at Pine Run this morning.

Not a huge amount of shorebird diversity (see list at end), and didn't get any great digiscope shots. For example, name that peep!

Best birds were two lingering Stilt Sandpipers. Mostly it was just fun to be out and walk in the mud. Brings back memories of shorebirding on the coast of Oregon as a kid before I had a scope and I had to wade out into the estuaries to see my first Semipalmated Sandpiper. Here's where I had to turn around this morning because I sank up to my knees in mud. Fun.

Location: Pine Run--Bucks Co.
Observation date: 9/20/10
Number of species: 29

Canada Goose 25
Mute Swan 2
Mallard 8
Green-winged Teal 4
Double-crested Cormorant 2
Great Blue Heron 3
Great Egret 2
Bald Eagle 1
Red-tailed Hawk 1
Semipalmated Plover 3
Killdeer 4
Spotted Sandpiper 2
Lesser Yellowlegs 9
Semipalmated Sandpiper 12
Least Sandpiper 74
Stilt Sandpiper 2
Ring-billed Gull 2
Mourning Dove 3
Belted Kingfisher 1
Red-bellied Woodpecker 1
Blue Jay 12
American Crow 30
Carolina Chickadee 1
Tufted Titmouse 2
Carolina Wren 2
American Robin 6
European Starling 35
Song Sparrow 5
House Finch 6

This report was generated automatically by eBird v2(

Friday, September 17, 2010

Let's Go Birding!

Last night at the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club meeting I was able to hang out with Ted Floyd and pick up a copy of his latest Let's Go Birding! booklet published by the American Birding Association.

While the 32 page booklet was written "with the modern beginner in mind," it is probably more useful for someone who is off to a decent birding start already. For instance, there are no tips about how to choose or use binoculars, or even much about the specifics of identifying birds. What Let's Go Birding! delivers is more of an extended essay on what makes a good birder. And we're not talking Kenn Kaufman's "Birding is something that we do for enjoyment, so if you enjoy it, you’re a good birder" kind of good birder. What we are talking about here is a serious, or maybe better yet, a more detail oriented birder.

What Floyd is urging beginners, and all of us really, is to take up a regimen of more rigorous bird study. Floyd wants us to slow down, spend more time looking at individual birds, and study their every move, feather, habit, and song. He wants us to really know our birds, and he offers plenty of thoughts about how to do that by keeping a notebook, learning bird songs, and regularly birding a local patch.

The booklet features photos by Bill Schmoker. They are mostly decent, but I did wonder why were are given a fuzzy Long-tailed Duck image on page 16. And the printing quality of the copy I got seems dark and muddled--for instance the cover shot looks nowhere near as clear as the image online here.

In the end, I enjoyed the booklet, and it did inspire me to take a look at my own birding. I too frequently fall into the "identify everything that moves" groove, where I dart from looking at one bird to the next, rather than spending much time looking at any individual bird. After reading Let's Go Birding!, I did follow Floyd's instructions to go outside and really look at a robin. Fortunately there was one on the power line along the alley behind my house. It was fun to just watch the robin, and I think I will start sketching birds again--something I've let slide for the past few years (except when I see a rarity). I fully expect my own birding skills will improve as I take Floyd's message and methods to heart.

So while you can be a good birder (ala Kaufman) without following the path of a good birder (ala Floyd), it is nice to read one very dedicated birder's take on how to be a better birder. I also enjoyed musing about Floyd's encouragement to "think of this little book as your personal guide for exploration and self-discovery." Birding as self-help. But in a nice way.
"Our basic human nature endows us with the skills, the wisdom, and most of all the mindset to become expert birders. All we need to do is turn off the television and power down the computer. All we need to do is step outside, smell the flowers, and look for robins."

And there you have it. Let's Go Birding! is a guided meditation on birds and how to be with them in a way that you will become more intimately acquainted with them, and hopefully, derive more enjoyment from the deeper acquaintance. The Way of Birding outlined here isn't the only way to bird. But it does represent one path to development as a birder. And maybe even enlightenment and freedom:
"We live in a land of plenty, but our lives can be empty and unsatisfied. We crave beauty, but sometimes we don't know where to look for it. Do yourself a favor. This weekend, head out into the woods or off to the shore. Take a young birder with you. Together, you will rediscover beauty, abundant and free."

What's not to like about that?

I think this would be a great little book to give someone with a casual or growing interest in birds. Backyard birders especially, who regularly watch birds, but are perhaps open to developing a closer connection to the birds in their yard and neighborhood. It might be a good tool to help some of the tens of millions of casual birdwatchers become a more serious or committed birder. I would think wild bird feed stores would be a good place to sell these booklets, and it might be nice to pick one up for your local public or school library.

As Paul Baicich told us Wednesday night in his talk to the Delmarva Ornithological Society meeting (it's been a full week of bird meetings for me!), bird conservation depends on growing the number of people connected to and supportive of birds. Let's Go Birding! is a fun little tool that will surely inspire some folks to take their enjoyment of birds to a deeper level. Again, what's not to like about that!?!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Eagle Grabs Dog

Here's another email I get all the time over at
I live in a residential city area. I often have my 2 small dogs, a West highland Terrior and a King Charles Cavalier in the yard. Recently my neighbor noticed a hawk flying over my yard and sitting in a large tree in the back neighbors property. How do I deter this hawk from coming and killing my dogs? Is there a fake wolf or something I can put in the yard? Will it swoop down with me back there with the dogs? The dogs love to romp around in the yard. Thanks for any information you can provide.

Fortunately, eagles (let alone hawks) are not much of a threat for dogs. This is one that lives more in the realm of urban legend than reality. I have to wonder how much this Sandra Bullock film has planted fear in the heart of small dog owners. There have probably been a few dogs snatched by eagles over the years, but it has to be a very rare occurrence and not something most dog owners should worry about. So just for the record, in case you are wondering--your dog is safe!

Stilted Birding

This morning I went out for some stilted birding. The standard definition of stilted is "stiffly or artificially formal; stiff." Well, that doesn't describe my morning at all. I heard there was a good shorebird movement over at Pine Run--where I had been on Friday but hadn't seen too much. So I headed back over there and ran into local bird photographer Howard Eskin. I'm always happy to run into Howard, especially since he survived a scary incident on the jetty at Barnegat. We're lucky to still have him around.

Anyway, I spent a fun morning chasing shorebirds around the edge of Pine Run with Howard as he snapped away with his giganormous telephoto lens and I scanned the roving flocks for a Baird's Sandpiper that was reportedly limping around the lake with a stick and fishing line wrapped around one of its legs.

We eventually did see the Baird's when a flock of Least Sandpipers and Semipalmated Sandpipers flew by, that's when it was easiest to see the bigger bird in their midst. But we spent most of the time chasing around a small group of five Stilted Sandpipers (hence the "stilted" birding). I don't get to see too many of these birds here in Bucks County, so it was fun to have them feeding in the water almost at our feet. Here are some of Howard's shots. I tried to do some digiscoping with my HTC Incredible phone, but had a tough time of it.

Anyway, great to spend an hour at the shorebird flats on a Monday morning. Man I love shorebirds!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Birding & Being

My wife is not a birder. She is a runner. Even when she isn't running, when months or years go by without a good run, there is a core part of her that can only be understood when you take into account what it means to be a runner.

For my wife, and many other runners, the magazine Runners World is their lifeline and George Sheehan, who wrote a regular column there until his death in 1993, was their inspiration. His Running & Being, a book length collection of his columns and thoughts is a classic. Not just a classic, but THE classic running book. The bible of runners. As one reviewer at Amazon wrote, Sheehan
tells running as it is, as he is. You'll read this book and continually say, "My god, that's it, that's what I feel, that's how I am too." Soon, things you'd suspected about yourself, become clearer. Questions like, "Why do you run?", begin to have meaningful answers.

Running is more than strapping on special shoes and jogging off down the road. There is a spirit to it. Running takes you to mental and spiritual places you can't get to otherwise.

The more I think about it, birding is the same. Birding isn't just strapping on binoculars and heading out to look at birds. It is a journey that takes you to hidden worlds--worlds that only exist for birders.

Like the world of the Golden-crowned Kinglet. Unless you are a birder, that bird doesn't even exist. I know, because I remember when that world opened up for me. In eighth grade, when the birding bug bit me hard and I started birding every day after school, I remember pouring over my Golden Guide and being amazed at the kinglets. Could such creatures really be out there? How could there be something so amazing out there and nobody I knew had even heard about it? Finally, on 7 Oct 1981 the Ruby-crowned Kinglet appeared in my neighbor's oak tree. Two months later, I was ushered into another new world when the Golden-crowned Kinglet showed up.

Every time you go birding, you enter, like a shaman, into worlds unseen by the uninitiated--the non-birders. Then, even when you aren't technically birding, you may pop in and out of those worlds as you drive down the road or walk down the street. You can't ever not be birding. Birds show up, and call you away, to follow them as they soar over freeways or flit across your path. You are a new kind of being. Once the birds show up for you, you are a birder. Like it or not.

In a world full of interwebs, cable television, and online everything, there is a crying need for more birders--people who can see and enter otherwise unseen worlds. Birders, herpers, fisherman, hunters, gardeners, farmers. Without these spiritual sojourners, the worlds of birds, lizards, fish, elk, and trilliums disappear. Vanish. Perish. This planet is a multipurpose earth. Not Google Earth, to be summoned at will on our laptops. But a living vibrant globe filled with overlapping and interwoven worlds of myriad beings that we barely know exist unless we venture out into their realms.

Life is good. There are birds out there. They call to us and we respond. We are birders.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

What would you say?

Some people just don't like birds. Here's an actual email I got as part of my work helping people with their bird control issues at Bird-B-Gone.

I am interested in your sonic system to rid my home property of birds. It is less than an acre with trees all around on the block. My little dog is terrified of the birds going off every morning singing and talking outside my bedroom window. It sounds like a symphony is playing on the other side of the wall and it is driving me crazy. The birds I see are the blue jay; a bird with a white body and black wings; and, of course, the black crow that seems to lurk everywhere. I am sure there are other breeds mixed in; but, these are the big culprits.

I think the sonic system will be the easiest and the quickest way for me to solve the problem. What do you think based off of the birds I described? Will it send the neighborhood birds around me to the next block? I look forward to your recommendations. would you respond to a situation like this? (Be nice!)
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