Archive for January, 2010

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The Cornell course: unleashing the inner nerd

January 31, 2010

After three years of hemming and hawing over whether I would get something out of it, I finally caved and decided to enroll in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s home study course. This is the course where you basically read the entire Handbook of Bird Biology, cover to cover, and take open-book written exams on it after each chapter and send them in to be graded and discussed by the course staff. You can take the course as fast or as slowly as you like, and when you’re finished they’ll send you a certificate of completion. There’s no automatic college credit given for completion, although with some finagling and persuasive argument you may be able to bargain some credit from an institution.

The Handbook of Bird Biology is big textbook. The creators seemed to know that, and to make the book slightly less intimidating they don’t even number the pages in typical fashion. The pages are numbered separately in each chapter, so the reader can’t just thumb to the back and say “Good grief, this book is a thousand pages!” or whatever it is. Subtle, but oddly effective.

The book is also quite expensive. To enroll in the course with the book is about $300, but if you already have your own copy it’s only $200. The book retails for a little over a $100, but I’ve borrowed mine from the CSU library for 3 years now, and I just renew it electronically every month. No one else at CSU seems to want to check it out, so this system works for me.

Bridled Titmouse (Baeolophus wollweberi)

Bridled Titmouse (Baeolophus wollweberi), Madera Canyon, Arizona © 2008 Eric DeFonso

I’m also “augmenting” my taking of the course by creating my own syllabus where I do supplementary reads to the chapters in the Handbook, in other ornithology text books or on web sites. I’m an information packrat, and I have the Gill as well as the Proctor & Lynch textbooks on ornithology, and I’ve planned out which chapters to read in those books along with the chapters in the Handbook to improve my contextual understanding of the topics covered. Another highly detailed resource I’ll be using is the Ritchisong ornithology syllabus from Eastern Kentucky University. I’ve found that I learn things really well this way, when I can see the same information but presented in different ways or formats. I think it’s called synthesis. It makes for more work for me I suppose, but my goal is to learn the stuff in and out, and well, if this is what it takes for me to get the most out of it, that’s what I’ll do. It’s fun for me anyway, so I don’t really mind.

So what changed my mind to make me want to take this course in the first place? Well, you may have read about my recent decision to take the Macaulay Library Workshop on Recording this June, from an earlier post. This decision is obviously related to that. I’m really going to take the plunge, and I mean plunge headlong into ornithology. I have another announcement in the coming weeks about things I’m going to do soon that will really put all this into perspective.

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The Denver Museum collections tour, or, Dead Birds R Us

January 28, 2010
Museum trip participants

Some of our happy participants at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science

I led a field trip today for Fort Collins Audubon down to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science to take a special behind-the-scenes tour of the specimen collections with Jeff Stephenson, the zoological collections manager. We had a terrifically fun and animated group (in contrast to the rather unanimated specimens) of 11 participants most of whom carpooled down from Fort Collins, with the remainder coming from Loveland and Aurora.

I became aware of the value of specimen collections a few years ago, but only in the past several months did I figure out that having a field trip down to the museum to see one could be quite popular. And this one was – we actually had more interest in the trip than our capacity would allow, so I have to think that we could run a similar trip next year.

Anyway, a few of the highlights:

  • The museum currently contains about 864,000 total zoological specimens, of which nearly 50,000 of those are birds.
  • About 1% of all the bird specimens are on display at any time in the museum, while the rest are in storage downstairs.
  • The oldest specimens date back to about the 1870s.
  • Albert Bailey went on several expeditions to bring specimens to the museum from around the world, and the museum in general has often finagled and made  deals to secure interesting and valuable specimens from other museums and collectors.
  • The museum hopes to create a new storage facility in two floors to be built underneath the current floor, to improve temperature control and insect infestations
  • They also hope to replace many of the antiquated storage cabinets, many of which suffer from problems ranging from outgassing to not having properly “gasketed” doors.

The bird tour began with Jeff showing us the “stacks” in the main storage room, and going to the cabinet with the heaviest flying birds in the world. He showed us a couple Kori Bustard (Ardeotis kori) skins, as well as an Australian Bustard (Ardeotis australis) skin.

Jeff showing the Kori Bustard skin, with Ann looking on

The Australian Bustard, subdued

Here’s what a live Kori Bustard looks like, by the way – this is from the Denver Zoo, just next door to the museum.

Kori Bustard (Ardeotis kori)

Kori Bustard, February 2009 (© Eric DeFonso)

The American Kestrel tray

Jeff then proceeded to show us some American Kestrel (Falco sparverius) skins. This was particularly fascinating, since many of the kestrels in the tray he showed us came from decades ago, and some of them from Guatemala. In discussing the AMKE skins, Jeff explained the value having skins from any species distributed broadly in space and time, to allow researchers to have samples and hard data for birds that have different diets or other traits that are still in the process of evolving, even if they are of the same species. For that reason the museum is still interested in collecting specimens even from “common species” like American Robins and Blue Jays and the like. He encouraged us to bring down any specimen regardless of quality or species, as long as we know when and where it was collected.

It was also interesting to see how the museum has to keep track of the latest taxonomic news, by updating their specimen tags where needed. For example, he showed us a Gunnison Sage-Grouse holotype specimen that had its tag updated a couple times, by having the original genus name crossed out. Heck, I didn’t even know what a holotype was until today.

A tray-full of tanagers

Jeff then pulled out a few trays of tanagers and talked for a while about the kinds of expeditions that the Denver Museum used to run back in the day. Most if not all of these tropical tanagers were obtained during those old expeditions, and you could see that from looking at the tag data. In the first tray you can see some Bay-headed Tanagers (Tangara gyrola) on the far right, some Speckled Tanagers (Tangara guttata) in the middle row, and Saffron-crowned Tanagers (Tangara xanthocephala) just above them. After I got home to look at the photos it occurred to me that it looks like Jeff is offering hors d’oeuvres to everyone. “Try the Saffron-crowns, they’re to die for!” (Sorry, I couldn’t resist the morbid humor.)

There was also a tray of Blue-necked and Golden-hooded Tanagers. Just awesome.

More tanagers from Peru

Everything was building up to the end where Jeff showed us the trays with Several extinct North American species. The first tray had the Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius), and Jeff explained for the group what led to the demise of this once outrageously abundant bird. It was a poignant reminder of what used to be, and how wasteful, stupid, and greedy some people were and how the effects of that continue to this day.

Jean and Ann looking on to the Passenger Pigeons

Passenger Pigeons, closer up

We also got to see a couple extinct subspecies. The first of them was the Dusky Seaside Sparrow of central Florida. We then saw a few Heath Hens (Tympanuchus cupido cupido), a subspecies of  Greater Prairie-Chicken that used to live on the eastern seaboard.

Heath Hens

The Carolina Parakeets (Conuropsis carolinensis) were spectacular. Like the Passenger Pigeon these birds were heavily persecuted and therefore hunted into oblivion.

Carolina Parakeets in repose

Of particular interest was seeing this specimen, gathered in 1892 in Cherokee Nation/Indian Territory, as indicated by the original tag. This location is now better known as Oklahoma. Jeff commented that there were anecdotal reports of birds quite similar to Carolina Parakeets in the Arkansas River Valley in SE Colorado around that same time – it’s plausible then that even Colorado saw at least a few of this stunningly beautiful species sometime in the 19th century, although no hard evidence exists to prove that.

I finally got to see my first Bachman’s Warbler (Vermivora bachmanii) too.

Bachman's Warbler

The "Lord God" bird - the Ivory-billed Woodpecker

At last Jeff brought out the big guns, the Campephilus woodpeckers. First was the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis), seen here. The museum does have a mounted Ivory-billed on display in one of the dioramas, I believe on the third floor. But it was very exciting to see this study skin up close. Interestingly, one of the 3 IBWOs they had in the drawer was collected from St. Louis, Missouri, although I don’t know when. Jeff also explained the origin of the previously common name for this bird, the Lord God bird.

In the tray I photographed the other remarkable Campephilus specimen, the Imperial Woodpecker (Campephilus imperialis), formerly from central Mexico. This was the largest of the genus, and the largest woodpecker in the entire world. Sadly, this species was last documented in the wild in the 1950s, and like most extinct species it suffered from extensive habitat destruction by deforestation.

The Imperial Woodpecker

A pair of mounted Huia, from New Zealand

Two more highlights were shown after this. The first was a pair of mounted Huia specimens, showing a male (right) and female (left). The Huia (Heteralocha acutirostris) was one of the three wattlebirds endemic to New Zealand, and was last documented in the wild in 1922. It too suffered from habitat loss, although the introduction of mammalian predators was also a huge factor. New Zealand has no native or natural mammal predators, and all its bird species evolved in an ecosystem without them and therefore suffered greatly as they had no natural defense or instincts against them. Note the highly dimorphic bill sizes!

The last highlight was a pair of eggs from the Aepyornis, or Elephantbird, and extinct ratite from Madagascar. The egg is slightly larger than a basketball, and belonged to a bird that stood nearly 12 feet tall.

A semifossilized egg from Aepyornis, or Elephantbird

Jeff showing us a photo of the Elephantbird posed with its egg. The egg looks small only because the Elephantbird stood nearly 12 feet high.

As Jeff led us out of the main storage hall, we made one last stop at the room where they prepare specimen skeletons using dermestid beetles. I didn’t take any pictures in here mostly because the room was small and I didn’t think the photos would really be all that illuminating. However, you can read a little more about how the beetles are used here. Jeff explained to us how it works, and we were all fascinated, although not all of us were in the room for the explanation. Consider that the room is used to strip the last remnants of flesh from the carcasses of dead animals ranging in size from small birds to ram skulls, and you can maybe imagine that it isn’t the most pleasant smelling place. Because a few of us on the trip are regular volunteers at the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program where we frequently work with things that don’t smell nice, I guess we were more accustomed to it.

All in all, a truly fascinating excursion. The rest of the trip was spent perusing the displays in the museum, having lunch in the food court (watching the dermestid beetles made us all hungry), or taking in an IMAX show or the special Genghis Khan exhibit. Thanks to Jeff Stephenson for offering the tour and his many entertaining and illuminating stories and explanations of what goes on behind the scenes at the museum!

Update (1/28/10, 11:10am): I can’t believe I totally forgot to mention that at the end of the tour, I gave Jeff a new museum specimen. Denise B of Loveland had called me a few weeks before the tour and said that although she was unable to take the tour herself, she had a dead Swainson’s Thrush in her freezer, and wanted to donate it to the Museum. It had collided with her patio door last October. She dropped it off one day and I kept it until the field trip, where I was able to donate it then in a very timely and instructive way for our field trip participants. All I needed was a reasonably approximate date of collection and location.

The museum is always interested in specimens like this, so keep that in mind the next time you come across one. It doesn’t matter how common the species is, it’s still useful. And even if it isn’t in the best appearance or shape, they can still use it as a skeleton or tissue sample. So if you can overcome any personal revulsion at seeing dead birds, please consider doing something like this if the opportunity arises.

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Macaulay Recording Workshop

January 22, 2010

Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush, at Cabañas Valle Campanas, Santa Elena, Costa Rica. © Eric DeFonso

A few weeks ago Nathan Pieplow explained on his excellent blog Earbirding how he got into recording bird songs. In his post he also put out a call to arms as it were to his readers to go out and get more involved in recording as a means of making real contributions to the science of ornithology, and a couple weeks later he provided a short, off-the-cuff sample of the myriad of topics and areas of research that are still essentially wide open to study.

I took the posting very seriously, and almost personally. If you know me you know that I’ve been immersing myself the past few years in bird song, studying it continuously and spending more than just a few dollars on CDs and a few hours organizing my iTunes library to do my own systematic study of bird vocalizations. And I definitely have contemplated getting into recording. Every time I did though I tended to dismiss it however, thinking that people like Nathan and Andrew Spencer and the dozens of other regular contributors to xeno-canto.org basically have the situation covered, and that I’m just a little too late to the game to contribute all that much. I’d enjoy it as a personal pastime, sure, but I wasn’t sure I could rationalize the initial expenditure on recording gear, and then later the other time and money expenditure on ‘support infrastructure’ needed to do justice to the pursuit. Think of it this way — when you buy a nice new digital camera, say a Canon Digital Rebel XTi, you are effectively buying more than just the camera itself. You are also buying into batteries, memory cards, a laptop, a storage system, maybe a website subscription for posting your photos, basically all the things such a camera needs if you are going to use it on a regular basis. I just figured that going into sound recording would entail a similar approach, and although that itself doesn’t scare me, it seemed like that wasn’t something I should distract myself with right now as I am trying to finish my ongoing book project.

Well, I finally changed my mind, and have since reserved a spot in this year’s Macaulay Library Recording Workshop out in the northern Sierra Nevada’s in June. I didn’t come to the decision easily, but I figured that it’s an excellent deal, and if I ever do want to get into recording on a larger scale, I shouldn’t just assume that this workshop will be around forever, at least not with this level of accessibility and affordability. Also, I’ve been toying with the idea of going back to graduate school (again), this time in something ornithological; if I ever do that, I’m definitely going to do something with bird vocalizations, ethology and field work. It’d be silly for me to pass up this opportunity to get some hands-on training and explanation from experts. Greg Budney helps teach the class, and he’s a celebrity in the admittedly small circle of bird sound people.

Thanks Nathan for your encouraging words on your blog, and showing someone like me the way. I’m really excited about this class!

(By the way, this photo is me with my ancient Sony cassette recorder, which I used only to make verbal notes of sounds that I was hearing in the Monteverde cloud forest in Costa Rica. I’m all aglow because I had just heard, then seen, my lifer Resplendent Quetzal.)

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Brushes With Greatness: the Snowy Owl

January 17, 2010

On Monday the 11th I left the house at 4 am and made the 2 1/2 hour drive from Fort Collins down to El Paso County, to search for the recently reported Snowy Owl that had been seen frequently in a subdivision northwest of Falcon, CO the day before. I was not sure of my prospects, knowing that this species can be quite hard to chase because of their nomadic qualities. Nonetheless, I felt that leaving so early would give me the best chances of seeing it if it were anywhere in the area.

I had wondered what the feeding habits were of the Snowy Owl, if these birds hunted at night. If they did, I felt like my chances were reduced, as the bird would likely forage away from this accessible area and head towards who-knows-where. My book “North American Owls” by Paul Johnsgard made no mention of their foraging styles, and the Birds of North America Online entry for Snowy Owl plainly states that it is “[n]ot known if these owls hunt at night, or even by moonlight, during winter darkness.” Fascinating – and this is in fact typical of a fair number of species even here in North America, in that there is still a lot we don’t know about how birds actually live.

I arrived at the subdivision (which I later learned is technically part of Peyton) around 6:40am. The eastern horizon was getting light, and I began my search in earnest. My plan was to go to the western portion of the network of accessible roads and scan the rooftops and antennas for large birds perch atop them, and hope to find silhouettes while scanning with my spotting scope. To my utter amazement my plan worked brilliantly, as I found a suspicious-looking character on a chimney/stovepipe vent some distance away within just 5 minutes. He didn’t stay put for long, but he also didn’t go far, as after a few minutes watching it became apparent that what he was doing was moving around from one perch to the next trying to improve his vantage points for finding prey in the open grassy fields surrounding the widely-spaced homes.

Eventually he found a nice TV antenna to search from.

After I took this shot, he launched again into a distant field, and for a moment I lost track of him. But he emerged again a minute later, and as I followed his flight in the scope I could see that he had something underfoot. I never got a clear look at it, but it was fairly large and dark, like a rat perhaps. That’s all I could tell as I watched him start to tear into it from quite a distance. The light was increasing, and I set up my rig for digiscoping, which I hadn’t tried doing for nearly two years. I hoped that I could just remember how to do it!

The light grew brighter as the sun finally peeked up from the horizon. I realized I could probably swing around and get a better-lit vantage point, and perhaps be a little closer. These digiscoped shots were made from about 250 yards if I had to guess, in very suboptimal light.

These next shots were made from the other side of the cul-de-sac, and the bird is in the same spot as before. I snapped about 2 or 3 dozen digiscoped shots, the vast majority of which were blurry. I blame the camera for most of that, but user error certainly played a part too. Still, a couple images came out ok. This time I was closer, and I estimate the range of these shots to be around 75-100 yards.

The next photo was taken with my handheld SLR and gives you an idea of what the actual distance between me and the bird was. This is fully zoomed out (300mm).

The bird had stayed put in this spot for over 40 minutes. Apparently after eating that large rat, he was fat and happy, and just digesting. A few other birders had arrived and all got terrific looks and photos from here as well. Finally, the bird flew a bit further westward to another grassy spot closer to a house and the road, and the several of us scooted the couple hundred yards along to follow. He perched with a residence in view behind him, which belonged to a fellow who later emailed me and asked for a copy of some of my photos.

At this point my remote shutter-release for my digiscope camera (an ancient Nikon Coolpix 995) had stopped working presumably due to the cold, so the only way I could take steady pictures with it was to use the timer. And that worked fine, although it also meant waiting 10 seconds every time I snapped a picture, and also not knowing where the bird would be looking when I snapped it. But then, as is the case with digital under any circumstance, just snap the hell out of it and see what comes out. Eventually I got a couple real winners:

After a few minutes here the bird flew across the road and into the field just south of us. It was quite a bit further away and in poor light, so my bird photography was done for the day. I needed to head back north to Fort Collins anyway, but I was thrilled about having seen this lovely animal under good light and mild weather. Here was the birder scene as of 8:30am:

The last photo actually has the bird in it too – you might zoom in though. Look for the small white dot in the middle of the field.

Heading back was the happiest 2+ hour drive I’ve had in quite a while. Not even the Denver traffic got me down. How many of those schlubs on I-25 had seen a Snowy Owl that morning? Not many, not many at all.
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Trashing my ABA list

January 8, 2010

I’m about to do it. Yep.

I’m going to give up and throw away my ABA lists. I’m not going to maintain them any longer. I’m going to take the data contained therein and transfer them where applicable to other lists. But I will no longer recognize the “ABA area” as one worth keeping a list for.

I dunno. Is this a big deal? Seems like it. The ABA is a pretty big, established, prestigious organization, with a storied history. I’ve never heard of anyone else doing something like this – forswearing the bird checklist for the ABA. Or at least, I’ve never heard of anyone being as theatrical about it as I am. Still, the point stands – it’s rare to trash one’s ABA list, perhaps unheard of, except maybe by those who give up birding altogether.

So what brings this on? What’s my story? Why am I pursuing this seemingly radical track? If you’re thinking that maybe I have a beef with the ABA, you’d be right.

Well, let me temper that a bit. I don’t really have a beef with the ABA per se. Actually I like the ABA. I’m a dues-paying member, and I eagerly await every issue of the magazine. What I don’t like anymore is the ABA listing area. I’ve never really understood it, and I’ve reached a point in my birding and bird study that the more I think about it, the more ridiculous and nonsensical it seems. And in light of the ABA’s recent decision to keep the ABA area as it is currently defined for no other reason than historical consistency, well, I feel the need to take up arms against a sea of troubles the only way I can and rage, rage against the dying of the light. Or at least breath life into mixed literary allusions.

Once again, I need to temper my rhetoric. Calling it an act of rage really overstates the case. I’m not really angry. I’m not really angry at all. But I do finally feel like I understand the situation well enough, and that I don’t feel the need anymore to simply follow along just because it’s easier, if I perceive something as redundant or overly contrived. In the case of the ABA area list, I definitely find it overly contrived, and essentially uninteresting. That many thousands of birders will certainly continue to keep an ABA list fascinates me, in the way that a slow-motion train-wreck is fascinating. Sure, you can’t take your eyes off it, but you sure as hell don’t want to be a part of it if you can help it.

About 5 years ago the only list I ever kept was a life list. Most of my birding had been pretty solitary, and I liked it like that. I never even thought of things like state lists or year lists even. I just figured that all there really was were life lists. But when I moved to Colorado and got to know other birders better, I came to understand the appeal and utility even of keeping many more lists. I joined the ABA, and of course started keeping an ABA-area list. After all, I wanted to fit in with the kool kids and be able to measure my progress as it were against other ABA members. I did note the ABA area definition at the time, but didn’t really think about it much.

The ABA area is defined as follows:

The geographic area covered (sometimes referred to as the ABA Checklist Area) is essentially North America north of Mexico. Specifically, the area encompassed is the 49 continental United States, Canada, the French islands of St. Pierre et Miquelon, and adjacent waters to a distance of 200 miles from land or half the distance to a neighboring country, whichever is less. Excluded by these boundaries are Bermuda, the Bahamas, Hawaii, and Greenland. A subarea of the ABA Checklist Area, or other prescribed area, is as defined by its legal boundaries. If not legally defined otherwise, it includes adjacent water (rivers, lakes, bays, sounds, etc.) out to half the distance to a neighboring area, but not beyond 200 miles. Birds observed on or over an ocean are counted for the area having jurisdiction over the nearest land, if within 200 miles.

Basically, this boils down to saying the area includes mainland Canada and the continental USA (49 states). And that’s it. Nothing south of the Rio Grande, no Hawaii (even though Hawaii is part of the United States of America, last I checked, unless the anti-Obama birthers recently took over the country), and no Greenland for that matter. But it does conveniently include any ridiculously remote islands that happen to be politically connected to a mainland continental political entity, like a US State. In other words, if a Eurasian vagrant like, say, a Common Nightingale lands in Kap Farvel in Greenland, that’s not countable, but if one lands on Attu on the very end of the Aleutian Island chain off Alaska, then break out the champagne, we’ve got ourselves a new bird for our lists! Never mind that Kap Farvel is closer to Labrador and the Canadian mainland than Attu is to the Alaskan mainland. For the purposes of the ABA list, political boundaries are paramount, as is the peculiar artifact of Attu being not just US territory but technically part of the United States proper.

Which is fine. As part of the United States, Attu should have the benefit of having its bird list included with that of the rest of the country. In this way, what you see birdwise in Attu is as countable as what you see in Central Park in Manhattan. But what about Hawaii? What if that White-tailed Eagle leaving Kamchatka takes a wrong turn and instead of landing in countable Attu, it lands on Kauai? Sorry, as far as the ABA is concerned, a bird in Attu is more important than one in Hawaii, even though Attu is practically as far from North America as Hawaii is.

OK then, so we’re keeping to islands that are at least connected geologically (if not so much geographically) to mainland North America. I get it. Attu is OK, but Bermuda is not. But then why is it that if I travel north of the border, I can count a Boreal Chickadee in the heart of British Columbia, but I can’t count that Hook-billed Kite on the other side of the Rio Grande riverbank at Santa Ana in Texas? What is so magically important or different to the ABA about birds in Canada as opposed to birds in Mexico?

I certainly believe that people and even institutions are free to create and adhere to lists of whatever nature they like. That’s our prerogative, one for all of us. But that prerogative says nothing about whether or not it makes any sense to follow it. And the more I think about the ABA area as it is currently defined, the less and less sense it makes. And to have an institution like the American Birding Association continue to ignore rather conspicuous parts of America, defined either geographically (Mexico) or politically (Hawaii) when it had the choice not to, makes me think that it’s not worth keeping up a list for the birding area that they most proudly lay claim to. (note – link requires ABA-member password to access) The continuing insistence of allowing freaky Attu birds to count on an ABA list just because Attu has had some awesome vagrants just by conveniently being downwind of Asia, while the Bahamas are likely excluded because they will never be able to keep up with the Attu’ses birdwise, shows me that the ABA doesn’t really have its priorities straight. But just because they don’t doesn’t mean I have to follow suit.

So instead, I’m going to convert all my ABA lists to AOU lists, and USA lists. I’m also going to integrate my Hawaii and ABA lists to create a USA list. (This won’t be too hard for me, since I’ve not yet been to Canada or Mexico anyway.) I’m also going to forget ABA year lists, and convert those to US and North America lists. My ABA lists will be dismantled and forgotten, and I will instead focus on lists that make more biogeographic or more political sense. Continent or biogeographic regions, like say, North America, the Western Palearctic, or Australiasia make sense to me. Country lists make sense. State lists make sense. County lists make sense. Yard lists make sense. But does the ABA list make sense? Nope, not really. It never could decide whether it’s a political or a biogeographic list, so it tries instead to be a mysterious hodgepodge of both. It’s just there anymore because some people (OK, lots of people) are stuck in the past, and don’t want to lose whatever sense of prestige gained from keeping a list based on such a strange definition.

And again, that’s fine if that’s what they want. They’re allowed. But I’m allowed to call that kind of thinking ridiculous, and move on to something that makes more sense.