Archive for December, 2005

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The Birding Year in Review

December 31, 2005

It’s the last day of 2005. What a great birding year I had – I learned a ton and spent more time than ever in the field actually birding. Imagine that! So what all happened?

By far, the most important aspect to my birding year was that I just had more time to do it. With the luxury of tiempo libre, I began to take birding more seriously than I ever had any previous year. Sure, I’d kept a life list and read bird books, but I never went out with anyone, attended functions with other birders, or even organized my efforts to look for new birds in any way. For various reasons I had done birding more as a personal therapy than as any contribution to the field at large. But with all the new-found time I had this year, I devoted much more to birds, and did it more socially and more academically even. I’ll explain what that means toward the end of this post.

This was a big year for listing. With the help of trips to Peru and Costa Rica, my Life List grew by 213 birds, by far my best Life year ever. It easily beat out my 2002 total (which included my first trip to Costa Rica) of 163. But what really made this year stand out was the number of new birds I saw right here in Colorado. 40 of my new lifers were seen in CO.

Back in April, I was inspired by Cole Wild to start a separate Colorado life list, my first state list. (This link is from my other blog, which I started long before FeatherWeather, and is now reserved for non-bird topics.) Already, it’s clear that the impetus for this kind of listing is from my increased social activity with other birders, through Audubon, etc. – I think that as long as it’s done in the spirit of increasing knowledge and fostering interest in conservation, it’s fine to compare lists and engage in the ‘sport’ of birding. For me this was a revolution in my approach. Oh, and the totals for 2005? 225 Colorado birds. Not quite the 350-400 achieved by Nick and Cole, but a good start, better than I expected early on.

I’ve even started other lists, which you can see here. One important development with my basic life list was to take the time to make a taxonomic version of it as well. In years past I was reluctant (and well, too lazy) to learn the orders and families of birds, but finally this year I came to understand the insight that can be gained from learning bird classification, in all its idiosyncrasies and controversies. After a couple months of family-name immersion, I felt like I’d really learned something substantial about birds – their origins. What a great way to feel closer to them.

Another inspiration I got from Cole was to buy a new SLR camera in early September, a Canon Digital Rebel XT. I’ve already posted several shots from it here on FW, and am very happy with the results so far. It makes for a nice complement to digiscoping, which can be quite difficult and hard to do alongside regular birding (at least with my current digiscoping setup). Bird photography as a whole really took off for me this year, and I’ve renewed my interest in expanding my ‘portfolio’. My goal isn’t so much to take publication-quality shots (although I try to take as many quality art-ful shots as I can), but just to document what I see and have a nice collection for the sake of remembrance. What’s really great is that I can now find enjoyment in going out birding even if I don’t see anything new or interesting, as long as I come away with a few new pictures. It makes every trip feel rewarding and worthwhile, and that’s always a Good Thing.

Chestnut-mandibled Toucan, Rara Avis, Oct 2005Peru in May was a great experience too. Even though that wasn’t specifically a birding trip, I picked up another 120 life birds there, 134 total. I did however make a birding-specific trip to Costa Rica in late September, my first such trip ever. I went for a week to Rara Avis, a private forest reserve on the Caribbean slope. For the trip I saw about 48 new life birds, 104 total, and increased my Costa Rica life list (another new listed started this year!) to 228, which yes, is still larger than my Colorado list.

More importantly though, that Costa Rica trip was a great chance for me to feel better about my abilities in birding tropical rainforests. The first couple times I’d ever done it proved frustrating to me, for it was very different from how I’d imagined. This time I went in with better preparation and expectations, and I found it much more rewarding and enjoyable. And by the way, anyone interested in the topic of Neotropical birds is encouraged to read Hilty’s Birds of Tropical America, which I discovered during my trip. It was so great to read something that validates all my experiences in tropical birding – his descriptions and experiences are just spot-on and quite informative.

Trips to Florida were fruitful. I visited my Dad 3 times this year, in February, October, and December. I was able to make excursions to the Everglades and the Keys, and saw a number of new birds on these trips. 20 of my lifers this year were seen in Florida.

I participated in my first-ever CBC, for Loveland, CO, on Jan 2. It was organized by my neighbor across the street Nick Komar, a well-known name in Colorado birding circles. (I have to mention that we had no idea in buying this house who our neighbors were – that one would be a big-time birder as well as a great guy was a fortunate occurence.) Through this experience I got an introduction to great birding locations in Larimer County and southern Fort Collins, with all its lakes and prairie. I also learned what it meant to do a ‘census’ of birds, which was something I’d never done before.

Mississippi Kite, Cottonwood Canyon CO, June 2005In late June I went on a crazy 36-hour trip to northeast and southeast CO with Nick, his son Nick Jr., and Cole, looking for a variety of migrants and other rarities. I got quite sleep-deprived, but I saw a lot of cool birds, including 9 lifers. One of them was this Mississippi Kite, digiscoped at left. That trip served as the inspiration for another shorter one I did in mid-September on my own to Prewitt Reservoir, to look for the Curlew Sandpiper (which I did see). That trip was another first – it was the first time I’d gone on a trip on my own to look for a recently reported rare bird.

Now, to the academic approach. In June I did a 4-day course with the Rocky Mountain Nature Association, on Rocky Mountain birds, led by Dr. Richard Beidleman. In November I took a 2-day class offered by the RMRP on raptors, taught by Program Director Judy Scherpelz. That was also excellent, and will be a class worth repeating in the future. Having these occasional seminars which take a somewhat more formal tack toward bird-learning was a nice addendum to all the self-learning that I usually do.

Speaking of self-learning, I’ve recently been reading Gill’s Ornithology, a common intro-level ornithology textbook that I checked out from the CSU library. Reading a textbook on birds – now that’s something I wouldn’t have done just a year ago. It epitomizes the way my interest in birds seems to be heightening (or in Cindy’s opinion, careening out of control). To me though, it’s all good.

And wouldn’t you know, just as I wrap up this post, I can hear a Townsend’s Solitaire outside our family room, my first (yard) one of this winter season. What a wonderful and welcome bird. I already am very excited about 2006, about the birds I’ll see, and the things I’ll learn about them. Isn’t that what this is all about?

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The Peabody Ducks

December 27, 2005
March of the Peabody Ducks

The famous ducks of Peabody Hotel, Memphis TN

Happy Holidays to everyone, by the way. I hope you’re all as fat and happy as I’ve become these past few days. I’ve been in KC visiting my folks, getting ready to head back to Colorado tomorrow on the 10-hour drive. Not much birding lately, although I did see a nice Carolina Wren on my mother’s back deck, presumably the same bird I saw here last summer.

During dinner tonight I learned the story of the Peabody Ducks, from my mother who herself heard the story on recent trip to Memphis, Tennessee. It’s a funny thing, I think, just in that it sorta goes to show how bemused we humans can be when seeing birds (in this case, ducks which are already rather comical) do what we do. Check it out.

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Florida Epilogue

December 20, 2005

The wife and I returned to Colorado from Florida last night. We had a nice time – and I managed to squeeze in some birding into what was really just a short getaway vacation for my hardworking spouse.

The bird stories, summarized:

  • No Pileateds, like I was hoping for. We were at my Dad’s for two days, but the weather was lousy. We biked through the woodsy area where I’ve seen them before but no dice.
  • Shark Valley birds were OK, but very sparse. Damage from Wilma certainly must include more than just park infrastructure. The flooding is very extensive, and wetlands which normally are just marshy are now under a foot or two of water, way too deep for waders (and apparently still too shallow for divers or dabblers). It was kinda scary actually, looking out to the horizon for long stretches and seeing virtually no birds anywhere. Overall I counted maybe a dozen Ibises, no ducks, and one sandpiper.
  • When we did see birds in the Everglades, many of them were Anhingas. The wife got very good at spotting them. In general she also enjoys birdwatching when the birds are large and easy to see, without optics. Otherwise she feels left out, and impatient.
  • Oh, a Green Herons too. I’ve never seen so many Greens so easily. But no Night-Herons, either Black- or Yellow-crowned.
  • One particular Black Vulture we saw in Shark Valley had no tail feathers. None. I wish I’d gotten a photo of it. Its legs stuck out behind it, and even my wife noticed it.
  • Birds elsewhere, including my Dad’s, were also pretty sparse in general. Curiously though, when I visited in October, they had a pretty nice selection of migrants there. Maybe it’s just some mid-December doldrums? I’m curious to hear how their CBCs turn out.
  • At Bahia Honda State Park in the Keys, I saw a visitor report in their nature center of a Bald Eagle in the park last fall. I wasn’t sure if I believed it, thinking that Balds would be pretty uncommon down there, which is probably true. I also imagine that many casual observers can confuse Osprey with Balds, if they’re not familiar with both birds. However, on our drive back to the mainland, we did spot a Bald Eagle perched high on a power pole in the Keys. I was convinced that the visitor report was likely legit. Who am I to doubt?
  • An hour after we left my Dad’s for the airport, he took this photo of one of his feeders. Having never seen the male Painted Bunting, I’m kicking myself for having missed it by such a small margin.
  • I picked up one more Year Bird on the trip – Royal Tern.
  • I got close to getting a Barred Owl too – we heard two of them at Mahogany Hammock in Everglades NP in late afternoon, calling to each other. But they never showed themselves, and my wife tugged on my sleeves to get us over to the Pa-hay-okee Overlook for the sunset.
  • I did get some nice bird shots overall for the trip. Yes, I will post a couple more soon.

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On the Road

December 17, 2005

Live from the Super 8 in Florida City…a little mid-trip update. We’re having a great time, and although this isn’t really a birding trip, I do manage to sneak in a fair amount of bird photography. From earlier today, at Bahia Honda State Park halfway down the Florida Keys, is this shot of a Great White Heron hanging out on an old seawall. Note the thick light-colored legs and the particularly heavy-set bill. Kudos to my wife Cindy for spotting the bird for me, as I was somehow oblivious to it as we were walking along the old Bahia Honda bridge way above the bird.

I also have some nice shots of Magnificent Frigatebird, Common Ground Dove, Eurasian Collared-Dove, and Wood Stork, which I may post at some later time. Tomorrow we’re off to Shark Valley and a bicycle ride around the big loop there.

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Ivory-bills in Florida?

December 14, 2005

I’m off to Florida to visit my Dad again for the next several days. I’ll have my laptop handy (and my digital camera), but I don’t know if I’ll have a chance to blog. If I do you’ll see an update here.

This trip is my last chance to pick up some warm weather birds for 2005, and to study Ivory-bills. Well, not Ivory-bills directly, but their cousins, the Pileateds. My Dad gets them around his yard every so often, and if I get a chance to see them I’ll be looking very closely at their flying gait and color flashes.

I’ve seen Pileated many times before, but I admit I’ve not paid enough attention to details like this. It’s all part of my effort to “look at every bird”.


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My Ivory Tower

December 12, 2005

Like most birders I was thrilled to learn that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker had been re-found in the US after nearly 60 years. I read the accounts from the Cornell Lab teams and watched the now-famous Luneau video, all 10 seconds of it. I pretty much took everything I read at face value, and was reassured by the authoritative voice coming from CLO.

But I’ve recently come across a few blogs and other statements expressing some concerned skepticism towards the identifications, and the subsequent efforts toward conserving the believed habitat of the remaining Ivory-bills. I admit that I was a little surprised to discover this skepticism, but after reading about the basis of it, I’ve had to rethink my own ideas on the whole matter.

I’ve only read up on the Ivory-bill marginally, and I make no pretense at expertise. I will say however that while I consider the video to be compelling evidence, I don’t consider it definitive, unassailable proof of the existence of the species. For such an extraordinary claim, it just isn’t extraordinary evidence. Not yet.

Now, the Luneau video shows a large black woodpecker with a remarkable amount of white in the wings – way more than any Pileated I’ve ever seen. But the video is grainy and I’ve also now heard of stories of ‘abnormal Pileateds’, which presumably can have much more white in them than usual. I’ve not investigated those claims, and I need to. In either case though, there is just no prima facie logical basis for claiming this bird is either a Pileated or an Ivory-bill.

All this motivates me to read up more on the “controversy”, because in the absence of any clear photography showing this bird, we may well be stuck in this limbo state of having to treat the actual scant data as a Rorschach test that ends up saying more about our own standards of evidence and desire to believe than it does about the bird we all want to save. Because so much in the way of public and private resources are about to be committed here, there needs to be transparency and honesty as to what has actually been observed.


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Cool Birds 2: the Great Horned Owl

December 10, 2005

We are blessed here in North America with one of the most fearsome as well as evocative birds – the Great Horned Owl. It is a familiar bird to most people, and yet probably only few have ever had the opportunity to witness them in closer quarters. They are by no means rare, but they are rarely seen or heard by the population at large – in most cases you do have to go looking for them to see them, often at night. The good part is that when you do see them, you will be enchanted by those huge forward-facing yellow eyes staring at you. And even if you don’t see them, just hearing their hoots, especially if you’re camping in the woods and you wake up to hear them at 4am as I have, can be just as exciting. There’s something inexpressibly haunting about knowing there are highly skilled hunters prowling the tree canopy in the dead of night.

The Great Horned Owl belongs to the Family Strigidae, the “typical owls”. This is a fairly large family, consisting of over 160 species worldwide, of which 18 live in North America. The Great Horned is not actually the largest North American owl (Snowy and Great Gray Owls are larger), but it is pretty large as owls go. They are most familiar for their resonant low-pitched hoot calls, which are what most people imagine owl calls to be – usually, two rapid hoots, followed by 2-4 slower hoots. They are nocturnal hunters, preferring to feed mostly on small mammals like rodents ands rabbits; passerine birds and sometimes game birds like quail or pheasant; and other small critters like lizards or scorpions. However, they are also capable of taking down even larger prey like skunks – at the RMRP we recently admitted a GHOW that anyone with a sense of smell would know had just been feeding on one. Great Horneds will also prey upon other birds of prey, especially their nestlings. I’ll discuss shortly how they manage to do that effectively.

Great Horned Owl, Oct 16 2005First, a couple images I’ve captured. Last September I snapped this shot of a GHOW at Cottonwood Hollow, just off Prospect Rd in Fort Collins near the Poudre River. It was kind enough to light onto a branch only yards from the trail, but as you can see it gave me the evil eye as I edged gingerly toward it for a closer look. Even though they are largely nocturnal, Great Horneds can be active during the day too, as this one was. One possibility is that this one was looking for a new nest site. GHOWs don’t build their own nests, but rather seek abandoned ones belonging to other large birds. They can also nest in tree cavities, crevices, or stumps.

Great Horned Owl with 4 chicks, April 17, 2005Speaking of nest sites – earlier in April while on a trip with the RMRP, I got this unfortunately blurry shot of a nesting GHOW in Frank State Wildlife Area, east of Fort Collins. Not easy to see, but there are 4 nestlings being watched over – an unusually high number for the species, which normally raise no more than 3 at a time. Our trip leaders remarked that this wasn’t the only fruitful nest they’d seen recently. Apparently last spring was a good one for Great Horneds here.

The definitive outward physical feature of GHOWs is their ear tufts, often called horns, but technically referred to as plumicorns. They are the source of this bird’s common English name, but these tufts are not actually associated with its ears. Owl ears are located on the sides of their heads, asymmetrically, so that they are better able to pinpoint sound direction with utmost precision, especially at night. The tufts, on the other hand, serve as both mood communicators to other owls (they can be erected or lowered), and as “shape interruptors”, a useful adaptation that makes it harder for prey to identify them as a predatory bird. The idea here is that the “horns” make it more likely that a prey item will not recognize the body shape of the owl, if, say, it is perched nearby in low light.

One of the reasons GHOWs do as well as they do is that their nesting cycle starts considerably earlier than many other birds – some breed as early as January. Their thick plumage and diverse feeding habits allow them to overwinter in colder climes, and to survive late winter freezes. This basically gives their young, who are fledged by March or April, a head start on any other nesting birds in their area, making it all the easier to prey on them and especially their young. Their prey list includes not only small owls, but even the young of other birds of prey like Osprey or Red-tailed Hawks. This early breeding is a remarkable adaptation which helps us understand why their range is as large as it is – an expansive diet increases options especially in places where specific food sources are highly cyclical.

Another reason GHOWs do well, and one reason they are such a cool bird, is that their feathers come with an amazing feature whereby the barbs on the leading edge of the flight feathers are especially long and well-separated. This serves to reduce turbulence and therefore wing noise while in flight – a silencer, if you will. The reduction in flight noise is dramatic – while tending to GHOWs in the large flights (cages) at the RMRP, I’m stunned by how silent those that fly overhead from one high perch to the other are, even while flapping. Not only does this allow them to hear their prey more easily, it gives them an extra stealth factor while honing in on their target. This feature isn’t unique to Great Horneds – in fact it is present in many owls, and even some nightjars – but it is one that for them has evolved to perfection.

Just because a bird is familiar doesn’t mean it can’t also be a cool bird. The Great Horned Owl is a perfect example of that – we in North America should be thrilled to have them right here lurking in our own neighborhoods.