Archive for the ‘education’ Category


My New Thing

October 24, 2010

This falls under the not-exactly-timely category of postings, but I wanted to finally talk about “what I did this summer”. Way back in January, I wrote about signing up to attend the Macaulay Library Sound Recording Workshop held annually at the Sierra Nevada Foothills Campus (SNFC) northwest of Lake Tahoe in California. The workshop was held in mid-June, and I made it there.

And let me tell you, it was awesome. So awesome that I had to italicize the word “awesome”.

The workshop is run by Macaulay Library curator Greg Budney, who has held it I believe every year since 1986. He has a small staff of about 5 people from the library and elsewhere helping him run the thing, and it is a truly outstanding opportunity to learn about the art and science of nature recording. As I mentioned in my January post, I went into this not knowing thing #1 about nature recording. Well, I suppose that’s not entirely true, as I have spent the better part of the last 5 years listening assiduously to bird song recordings, and last year I did use my old Sony cassette recorder to take voice notes while hiking in Costa Rica. I know, that’s not much of a recording resumé, but it gives you an idea of how little experience was actually required to attend this workshop. The reality is, all you need is the enthusiasm to learn about it, and a willingness to drag yourself out of bed in the wee hours of the morning every day of the week. They take care of the rest.

If you are interested in reading a very well-written description of what goes on the workshop, I recommend reading “Birdsong” by Don Stap. The middle chapter of the book is devoted to following Greg Budney during one of his summer sessions in California, and the account is very close in its description to my own experience. Although the names of workshop participants aren’t given, I was actually able to recognize one of the people mentioned, just by his description of her background – one of the great people I met there has attended most every workshop offered in the last decade.

But back to my own experience. Again, it was phenomenal. Outstanding. Terrific. Really, it was perfect in just about every way. Just a couple days in, it really began to sink in just how perfect it was. I immediately likened it to Birder Summer Camp, if there ever was such a thing. So just how was it perfect? Let me recount the ways:

Staff. Greg Budney is a remarkable, experienced, super-smart, super-affable, organized, laid-back, and helpful workshop leader. Along with Randy Little and Bill McQuay, they were able to instruct 20 of us with our wide range of previous experience in a clear, organized fashion.

Location. The Sierran foothills in mid-June is an excellent place to learn how to record birds. We had ideal weather virtually every day, with little wind and no threat of precipitation. It made getting up early as easy as it can be, and it was nice to learn the nuts and bolts of recording (which are tricky enough) without having to deal with the elements. Of course, doing real nature recording will involve learning how handle less-than-ideal recording environments, but it was great to not have to worry about that as a beginner. In addition, the foothills provide several different recording environments that are easy to reach on subsequent mornings, so that you can get a good sampling of varying bird life and habitat on successive days, thereby expanding your recording experience very quickly. Greg and Randy now know the area inside-out, and make it easy for newbies to get a handle on what to record where.

The Field Campus. We stayed at the SNFC, about a 90-minute drive from Reno. The site is located around 6000 feet amid Jeffrey and Ponderosa Pines next to the churning Yuba River, and is enchantingly quiet at night but rife with singing birds like Evening Grosbeaks and Western Tanagers during the day. We slept in large tents situated on wood platforms, and in the tents were cots that we put our sleeping bags on. In this way, it was very simple, rustic accommodation but also quite comfortable.

The Food. Our meals were ably prepared by a staff of a great chef and several amazingly friendly summer interns. I’m really not exaggerating when I say that the food was some of the best I’ve eaten anytime, anywhere. It was so good that our workshop class made a point of it to acknowledge their cooking prowess with applause every night, and at the end of the workshop we even chipped in to a kitty to give them all one enormous, well-earned tip.

The Birds. Hermit Warbler. Mountain Quail. Pileated Woodpecker. Sandhill Cranes. Gray Flycatcher. Calliope Hummingbird. Evening Grosbeak. Sage Thrasher. Fox Sparrow. These and many more species were regular staples in our daily outings. I was very impressed with how vocal and numerous the birds were.

The Workshop Itself. I learned the proverbial “ton” about sound recording. On the first day those of us lacking our own equipment were able to borrow some from their collection of loaners, and Bill McQuay got us up to speed very quickly on how to use the rigs. The very next morning we went at it, and every day thereafter. Nothing beats actual field experience and just plain practicing on your own, and that was the main component for learning how to record. This field experience was augmented with afternoon classes and sessions focusing on the equipment itself and how it works, how to organize your recordings, listening to our work.

The Participants. You know how in any group of at least 5, 10, or 20 people there’s always bound to be one person who is a downer, or weird, or who you just can’t really talk to without getting at least a little annoyed? I do. But in this workshop, I can honestly say that I liked absolutely everyone. I have no idea how that happened, but we all got along. I don’t recall a single awkward moment, or wishing I was talking to someone else. When it was time to socialize or talk about the day’s recording, I felt like I could talk to any of the other participants. We came from very different places and backgrounds – a couple women came from Mexico, one guy from Argentina, one from Peru, one from Bhutan. We had people with lot of recording experience who are professional ornithologists, and a few people who hardly knew any birds. But we all had an interest and a need to do nature recording in some way, and if nothing else, that bound us all together very strongly.

Because my intention was to focus on sound recording, I opted not to bring my digital SLR for photography. That just would have been distracting, and inconsistent with my focus. I did bring a point-and-shoot, but even for that I was too much immersed in my daily recording efforts to do much in that regard. However, you can browse some workshop photos taken by one of the staff. In the second-to-last photo in the set you can actually see me attempting to record an American Dipper.

I won’t be able to go to the class next year, as I will be in South America virtually all year. But I will make every effort to go to the class in 2012. Hopefully by then I’ll have contributed a whole slew of new recordings to the Macaulay Library. Oh yes, I guess I should update you on the whole contributing-the-recordings thing next….


A Time For Turkey Vultures

September 3, 2010

In the same vein as last week’s offering, I’d like to expound stream-of-consciousness-style on the topic of Turkey Vultures.

Tomorrow, September 4th, is the Tour De Fat (TDF) in Fort Collins, an increasingly popular bike parade put on by the increasingly popular New Belgium Brewery. In it virtually all the riders wear costumes or other unusual adornments, thereby making it a spectacle to behold. Now, it also happens to be International Vulture Awareness Day (IVAD), which is a very recent addition to the calendar initially created a couple years ago for the preservation of threatened Old World Vulturine birds. The stars were thus aligned, and all I needed was a reason to conjoin these two disparate occasions.

I learned of an outrage in Sterling Colorado last July, where some cowardly stain on the human race decided to shoot Turkey Vultures there on three successive days and thus have three individuals sent to the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program (RMRP) to remove the shot and undergo chelation treatment to ease the lead poisoning. Maybe I was in a vulnerable moment – I have a lot of those lately it seems – but because of my interest in conservation and humane treatment of animal life, I am put on edge when I hear stories like the above, and something in me then clicked when I learned of the congruence of IVAD and TDF. Like the cosmic pas de deux of a solar eclipse, I realized that this was an opportunity to both participate in TDF as I had always wanted, and to do so serving a higher purpose – communicating the greatness of birds and in this specific case, Turkey Vultures. TuVus lack a syrinx and therefore are unable to speak for themselves in Northern Colorado – but you can bet your ass that I’ll be there to speak up for them tomorrow, in front of thousands of people in a way no one has ever seen before. I will be dressed up as a Turkey Vulture and ride in the parade along with 3 other similarly-bedecked companions, spreading the good word about TuVus as we make sure that at least in Fort Collins, these birds will continue to have a safe place to roost and forage every year.

So what is it with me and Turkey Vultures? When I first brought up my desire to participate in the TDF at a rounds meeting several weeks ago, I think people got the impression that I was a longstanding vulture afficionado, and that like some people I know, they were really my “thing”. It’s reasonable to think that, although I wouldn’t characterize myself that way, especially now that I know several people who in my estimation are true full-on, hardcore vulture-philes.

For me, my interest and appreciation of vultures stems largely from a couple personal relationships I have with vulture individuals, namely the “Old Male” and “New Male” educational Turkey Vultures at the RMRP. I’ve been a handler for the Old Male for over 5 years now, and the New Male for 3 or 4 (I’ve lost count). Before I handled either of these birds I used to think of Turkey Vultures as rather ugly creatures, much in the same way that the people I greet in public when I am handling will often tell me outright. I’d have thus agreed with them 5 years ago, but now when I hear those words, like say, “My god what an ugly bird!” I actually react in a bit of shock and revulsion. It crosses my mind that if I didn’t have that vulture in my care at that moment, I just might pop that knucklehead, be it man or woman, right in the jaw for saying that, as if they’d addressed that sentiment to a child of mine. Of course, in actuality I show much more restraint than that and merely offer a polite verbal counter to that suggestion. But now you know what I’m really thinking when I am responding so diplomatically.

So what changed between 5 years ago and now? Maybe it was just getting to know these birds not just as representatives of their species, but as individuals with distinct personality (or  bird-onality?) traits. I can assure you that these birds are distinct from one another, and that even if their feet were obscured from view (the Old Male is missing a couple toes from an ancient bout with frostbite) I could tell them apart from a distance based on just their posture and body language. Over time I watched them closely, and noticed them noticing me in kind. I can’t say what it is they notice or remember about me from one time to the next, but the way they cooperate with me, respond to my voice and actions, and offer me those charmingly quizzical looks, suggests to me that their vulture minds are just as active and curious as my human one. I find myself simultaneously enchanted with both the things I know intellectually, abstractly about TuVus in general, and with these particular birds with their droll characters. Whatever ugliness they have has become invisible to me. The smell of their barf, well, that’s another matter, but in no way do I see anything hideous in these creatures anymore.

Turkey Vulture, in Key West, Florida, 16 December 2005.

A few taxonomic and natural history notes: Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) are members of the rather small avian family known as Cathartidae. This strictly New World family also includes the Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus), commonly seen in the southeastern US and in southern Arizona, as well as the condors, the endangered California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) and the South American specialty Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus). There is also the King Vulture (Sarcoramphus papa), a strikingly plumaged and strictly tropical species, and two other less well-known close cousins of the Turkey Vulture, the Greater and Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures (Cathartes melambrotus and Cathartes burrovianus respectively). Greater and Lesser Yellow-heads are in fact so similar to Turkey Vultures structurally that you really need to get a decent close-up view of their heads in order to tell the difference. You will only find the Yellow-heads in the tropics and subtropics however. For example, I had the pleasure of seeing a number of Greater Yellow-heads in the Manu Biosphere Reserve in Peru back in 2005.

All the Cathartes vultures possess extraordinary olfactory powers, and experiments have shown them capable of locating hidden carrion from miles away. The other vultures are not thought to have as much ability in this department, and instead probably rely more on visual location or just looking for where the Turkey and Yellow-headed Vultures are going to find food.

On a naming note, local naturalist Kevin Cook has said the Cathartids should commonly be referred to collectively just as “condors,” to distinguish them from the Old World Vultures. Confusingly, the birds we call “vultures” here in the states include both the Cathartids and the Old World Vultures, with the latter being closely related to hawks and eagles and are thus Accipitrids. In the Old World, Accipitrids are sometimes referred to in the common vernacular as “buzzards”, which here in the US is a term applied to, yes, vultures. Clear as mud, yes?

But anyway, back to Turkey Vultures and Tour De Fat. I hope to have some photos to post in the coming days of my costume and participation in what I’ve christened Tour De Vulture. I don’t know if this will be an annual phenomenon, although I hope it will. During my travels next year, I hope to photograph all the aforementioned Cathartids, and help further the enlightenment of the world about these essential and fascinating birds.

The Old Male Turkey Vulture and me at a recent exhibit in Fort Collins


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.