Archive for November, 2005

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Classy Birds

November 30, 2005

The deeper one delves into the study of birds, the thornier (and more intriguing) the issue of bird taxonomy becomes. My own interest in birds began over a decade ago, but only in the past year have I made a concerted effort to learn about family relationships and overall classification – before that, my lack of bioscience background inclined me to stay away from such topics, which appeared to me to be merely academic. (Bear in mind that my own science background has an adage, only semi-joking, that “all science is either physics or stamp-collecting”!)

Once I realized how much understanding bird relationships could help me be a better birder, I started to take the topic far more seriously. I took the trouble to classify my whole life list, so that I could figure out which families I’d seen in my travels. Traveling abroad definitely gives an impetus to studying these things, because it is when you see birds that don’t fit at all into your previous experience (or better yet, you see birds that do resemble those you see at home), it is natural to wonder if they are relatives. Also, learning family relationships allows one to consider morphology and behavioral differences between species, especially the subtle ones, and those often are key to making proper identifications on hard-to-see birds. Besides, learning all these things turns out to be quite rewarding in its own right – having context for your observations makes the experience in the field all the more enjoyable. And, it allows you to recognize when you’re actually seeing something unusual, if the bird happens to deviate from its usual appearance or actions.

I’ve been using several resources so far to gain knowledge on bird families, but the main two at my disposal are Don Roberson’s Creagrus website, and my copy of Firefly’s Encyclopedia of Birds, edited by Christopher Perrins. The Firefly series may be familiar as one popular for getting kids more interested in science, especially animals, as they have similar books to this  on insects, the human body, mammals, and the earth. But this book, despite its supersized photography and eye-candy layout, is hardly a book just for the younger set. The articles are written by the world experts on each bird family (or grouping, strictly speaking), and are quite detailed. Of course, it is only meant as an introduction to the field, and isn’t as in-depth as the Handbook of the Birds of the World series, the 16-volume set that covers every single species in the world. But the Perrins’ book does its job well, and makes the continued study of bird classification very fun.

And thorny, as I mentioned at the outset. I’ll post more soon about some of the more difficult problems of classification, because even to a neophyte like me, it is clear that there are plenty of deep mysteries in bird relationships.

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Bird handling

November 29, 2005

I’ve been volunteering at the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program for about 9 months now. One of the chief reasons I started there was to handle birds for programs and exhibits for the general public, so that I could share my enthusiasm and conservation concerns for these creatures. I have been in training for handling the birds the past couple months, which takes a while, but is thoroughly engrossing. So far I’ve trained with several approved educational birds (nonreleaseable birds which have been trained for regular human contact):

  • Merlin
  • American Kestrels (Blind, and the Fractured Humerus)
  • Burrowing Owl
  • Swainson’s Hawks (Male, and Female)
  • Red-tailed Hawk (Blind)
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Great Horned Owl (Light-phase)

The parenthetical descriptions are there to distinguish one particular ed bird from another of the same species. (Pet names are not given to any birds, the idea being that doing so might give the general public the impression that they are pets, which they are not. It helps retain a respect for the animals.)

There are several other ed birds I’ve yet to handle. It’ll probably be another couple months before I’m fully evaluated as an “E1” (educational bird handler, for all birds except eagles). But when I’m finally legit I’ll try to post a pic or two of me in action. Also, I’ll be commenting on other personal issues as they pertain to my work at the RMRP in later posts.

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Best Backyard Bird (so far)

November 25, 2005

Late one afternoon back in late September, a fluttering bird caught my eye through the kitchen window to our backyard. We have a finch feeder back there, and I’m accustomed to seeing House Finches and House Sparrows frequenting it, but something told me right away that this bird, furtively moving around the ivy, was different. I waited for it to move again, and muttered “Oh oh oh oh oh oh !” while scrambling to find my binocs and my camera. Cindy wondered what the hubbub was, so I told her it was a migrating thrush, the first one I’d ever seen in our yard.

We’ve been here for about a year, and we generally don’t get too many really interesting birds back there. The highlights so far have been Townsend’s Solitaires, a first-year male Black-Headed Grosbeak, Pine Siskins, a short-lived invasion of Common Grackles, and an inquisitive scolding flock of House Wrens. But this handsome Hermit Thrush was a welcome addition. I photographed it with my Canon XT Digital Rebel with 300mm telephoto, through a glass door (not what I’d have liked, but I didn’t want to spook the bird – thrushes are easily disturbed).

This bird hung around for about 15-20 minutes, looking around curiously, and remaining wonderfully calm. That helped because I did have to spend several minutes studying it with Sibley in hand, making sure it was indeed a Hermit and not a Swainson’s (or even some unlikely variety like Gray-Cheeked) Thrush. I based my ID on its reddish-tinged tail (not seen in this photo, but in others), the lack of buffy wash on the breast, an overall squat appearance (Hermits are slightly chunkier-looking than Swainson’s), and that the breast marks are sharper and not as smudgy as other brown thrushes.

It’s nice when you can add a Colorado Life bird and a Year bird without leaving your house.

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The Birder I Am

November 24, 2005

I recently went on a birding trip with my neighbor Nick and a few other area zealots. We drove down to the southern half of the state, to Pueblo, Cañon City, and South Park, looking for Red-throated Loon, Red-necked Grebe, scoters, and swans. Lots of birding chatter in the car all day, and often in scenarios like that, I get a little introspective. I found myself a little envious of these other guys and their exploits, and their bird ID knowledge. And in my usual self-deprecating way, I began to compare myself to them, unfavorably. I wondered when my skills would ever be as well-honed as theirs, and to have the confidence to call in an ID on virtually any bird I saw, and not be afraid of being wrong.

But later it occurred to me that my evolution as a birder is such that I will probably never feel “comfortable” or “adequate” in this way. The confidence I refer to above is one borne of complacency, of thinking that I will get to a point where I know all that I’m interested in knowing. And that doesn’t describe my approach to birding or birds at all. Every year or 2-3 year period of my birding life has been markedly more intense than the period before it, which leaves me with the feeling of being far more interested and focused on birds than I was just a couple years before. For example, back in 1999, I bought a Kowa spotting scope (with a fluorite-coated objective) for the purpose of IDing wading birds in the marshes of San Francisco Bay and around Pillar Point Harbor in Half Moon Bay. My life list reflected the purchase too, as I found my first Brant, Long-tailed Duck, Red-breasted Merganser, and Pelagic Cormorant with its help. For me, this was a statement of how serious of a birder I was becoming, and that I wanted to be able to pick out those birds way out on the water. I didn’t think along those lines back in ’97 or ’98.

In 2002, I went to Costa Rica for the first time. I bought the Skutch and Stiles Field Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica and studied it in preparation. I read the bird descriptions, habits, and distribution info intensely when I was there, which helped me in many cases, like in nailing down the Green Shrike-Vireo, Red-faced Spinetail, and Yellow-bellied Elaenia. And even though I got frustrated at times with the challenges of birding in tropical forests, I realized I was taking a step forward in my birding life. I just felt so much more…serious, and intent than I did just a couple years before.

Now, in 2005, with all the free time I’ve had, my birding life grew again by leaps and bounds. My life list finally grew up, and I took the time and trouble to learn bird taxonomy and sort all my lifers appropriately. For the first time I actually did my birding with other people, which gave me a chance to see how confident I was in IDing around others. I went on frantic bird trips with Nick and others, and my life list grew substantially. Cole inspired me to start other lists, like a Colorado list and a year list. Trips to Peru and Costa Rica had me starting lists for those countries as well. And I’ve joined two different local mailing lists to share and get info on local rarities that pop up and now and again. I just feel so much more…serious, and intent than I did just a couple years before.

So the cycle continues, and I now think that in a couple years, I just may feel the same way then as I do now. In any case, even if I’m not quite as astute and sure of myself as those other guys I went with a few weeks back, I’m probably the kind of birder now that 5 years ago, I’d have been fairly impressed with. For a normally self-deprecating guy, that’s a welcome admission of self-esteem.

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The Inaugural Post for Feather Weather

November 24, 2005

Birds have come to mean so much more to me than I would ever have imagined. I have created this site to explore the depth of my interest, and hopefully to share that interest with like-minded individuals. Welcome!