Archive for the ‘trip reports’ 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….


Florida casualties

April 27, 2010

(Note: this was a note originally published to my Facebook page. I realize that it actually fits better as a blog entry. The original date of publication is preserved here. — Eric)

My Florida trip wasn’t all sun, sand, and Shiny Cowbirds. I did actually have some losses and damage. Here’s a quick summary.

1) Sunglasses. Unconfirmed, but probably went overboard on the trip back from Dry Tortugas last Friday. One minute I had them inside the cabin of the catamaran, the next, I was outside in very blustery winds and they were gone. Probably being submerged by sand at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico now. Damn.

2) SLR Camera lens cap. Could have been somewhere in the rental car or left in the Florida City hotel room. I looked both places repeatedly but never found it. Damn again.

3) Head pillow. Definitely left in the Florida City hotel room. I brought it mostly to help pack my enormous checked bag, to secure the contents inside, which included my heavy tripod. I left it on the unmade bed when I departed, which explains how I overlooked it so easily.

4) Spotting Scope! Actually, I didn’t lose it, but I thought I almost did at Dry Tortugas. I was observing the Sooty Tern breeding colony from atop the Fort wall, when I got distracted by a pair of Indigo Buntings that landed right near my feet. I began to take pictures, but then a gust of wind picked up and nearly blew my entire scope/tripod apparatus off the Fort wall. You can imagine how my heart sank, and many expletives immediately followed. Fortunately it fell only about 7 feet and only suffered slight dents to 2 of the tripod legs. When visiting my Dad in Avon Park, his neighbor turns out to be a skilled metal worker and even managed to smooth out the dents so I could collapse the legs of the tripod back to normal again. I definitely caught a break there.

5) Lost an important button on my shorts. As long as I wear a belt it’s OK, but it does pretty much rule them out for wearing to the airport. If I have to take my belt off going through security, it might cause a ruckus.

That pretty much covers it.


Florida Days 3 and 4

April 25, 2010

(Note: this was a note originally published to my Facebook page. I realize that it actually fits better as a blog entry. The original date of publication is preserved here. — Eric)

The Tern breeding colony on Hospital Key, Dry Tortugas, Florida

I didn’t have time to write anything for Day 3 when I got home. I was so exhausted all I could muster was a status update basically pleading for being allowed to go right to bed. That was necessary since I wanted to get up early the next morning again, although certainly not quite as early. See, I told you that I go wall-to-wall on these Florida birding outings…

Anyway, it’s too bad I wasn’t able to say anything sooner, since I was totally stoked after getting back from my Tortugas trip. It was fan-TASTIC. For all the trouble I went to, to make this ridiculous day trip happen, it was definitely worth it. I set the alarm for a little past 3 am Friday, and was out the door by ten past four. It’s 128 miles driving from Florida City to Key West, and although there was little to no traffic, it still takes 2 1/2 hours. If you’ve ever been down that way you’ll understand. I rode the “Yankee Freedom” catamaran from Key West harbor along with about 140 other people and the ride was about another 2 hours. I’d say that there were about 30 other birders on the boat, the rest being picnickers and snorkelers. Weather was fabulous with light winds and 78 degrees. You don’t see a whole lot of sea life on this trip, but you do see some, and we did see a fair number of flying fish as well as a couple surfacing sea turtles and dolphins. We also saw a few distant Brown Boobies.

We arrived at Dry Tortugas at 10:20am or so, and had a little over 4 hours to wander around. I got right to birding, and it was amazing. I mean AMAZING. It wasn’t even any kind of epic fallout day or anything, but I had never seen anything like it. First off, before you even arrive you can see the cloud of seabirds flying over the neighboring key that serves as their breeding colony. These are about 40,000 Sooty Terns, 6000 Brown Noddies, and maybe 2000 Magnificent Frigatebirds. So that was impressive. On the island itself are a few very small groves of West Indian hardwood trees, both inside and outside the fort that is the main attraction at Dry Tortugas for most non-birding visitors. These small groves were “dripping” with migrant landbirds. I’ve heard this expression “trees dripping with warblers” before, and wondered if that was just an exaggeration, and I now know that it is not. Again, my jaw was on the ground, as I wandered about and was seeing multiple warblers and other passerines moving around every tree every moment. You had to pick out which bird you wanted to look at. In about 20 minutes I had seen a dozen warbler species, and by the end of the outing I had even seen a new life bird, a SWAINSON’S WARBLER.

There were even raptors on the island, which to me is astounding – Peregrine Falcon and Merlin were moving around, and a few people caught a glimpse of a Short-eared Owl (although I missed it). All this on what is just a glorified sandbar with a few trees on it 70 miles from Key West and hundreds of miles from anyplace else that these birds could possibly survive on. In that way Tortugas is not only a birders delight but being there is a delight for the mind and the imagination.

And the pictures – holy shit did I get some kick-ass pictures. Did I mention the vireos? I have photos of Red-eyed, Blue-throated, and Black-whiskered Vireos. I have got a shot that has both Red-eyed and Black-whiskered in the *same frame*. I can’t wait to show these images. I even got 2 *killer* shots of the Swainson’s Warbler. Did I mention that I saw a freakin’ SWAINSON’S WARBLER? Oh, and I also got excellent photos of Indigo and Painted Buntings too. Forgot to mention that. I don’t usually characterize my own pictures so glowingly, but that’s how jazzed I am.

Anyway, we got back to Key West around 5:30, and I took an hour to bird Fort Zachary Taylor state park for any other interesting migrants. Didn’t see anything truly rare (like, say, a Loggerhead Kingbird or Yellow-faced Grassquit, both of which were seen there last year), but it’s still pretty cool when a casual 45 minute walk produces Gray Kingbird, Blue Grosbeak, another Painted Bunting, Indigo Bunting, Baltimore Oriole, and Ovenbird. At least it’s cool for a Colorado birder like me.

I tried for Antillean Nighthawk at the Marathon airport on Pigeon Key, but no luck. They’re supposed to be back now but apparently they’re a bit late. Oh well. I got back to the hotel after 10pm, and retired quickly.

For Day 4 (yesterday) I slept in til 5:30 the next morning, packed, and headed 20 miles back south again to Key Largo, this time for just one more bird, the resident Mangrove Cuckoo. There is some outstanding Mangrove Cuckoo habitat on Key Largo, arguably the best in all of south Florida, but good luck finding this bird. I looked for about 3 hours, played recordings (judiciously of course), but not a peep. I came across several Prairie Warblers and even a pair of migrating Bobolinks, but no cuckoos. I don’t feel too bad though, because this bird is legendary for being very difficult to find. I met a birder while there who was from Philadelphia, and on his 5th attempt of finding this bird. He was like me, armed with recordings and a camera and eager to look, but no dice. I read a report from a truly dedicated birder who has tried off and on over *30 years* to find a Mangrove Cuckoo, and still hasn’t succeeded. But the birds are definitely there, and are reported by lucky people every year. So I have a reason for heading back to South Florida again in the future.

I drove up to Avon Park/Sebring after that and am now with my Dad. We’re going to a Rays baseball game in St. Pete today, which should be great fun. I’ll be leaving the binos at home though, since the game is indoors. My understanding is that the Tropicana Dome is one of, if not THE ugliest ball park in the league, so now I’ll see for myself if that’s true.

And tomorrow I’m going birding with my old Raptor Center friend Angela Johnson, who’s going to take me onto the Air Force Bombing Range where she works and look for breeding brids there. Should be a ‘blast’!


Florida Day 2

April 22, 2010

(Note: this was a note originally published to my Facebook page. I realize that it actually fits better as a blog entry. The original date of publication is preserved here. — Eric)

The hotel internet connection is a bit cagey tonight, so I’m typing this fast and trying to summarize as much as possible.

It was a terrific birding day today, and it started when I woke up at 4am. I spent most of the day in the Everglades, and the park didn’t disappoint. Turns out this week is “free” week at all National Parks, so get thee to a National Park before the 25th if you want to take advantage of this opportunity. Anyway, Everglades was terrific, and esepcially the Anhinga Trail at Royal Palm was just phenomenal today – lots of great species seen and heard, including White and Glossy Ibises, Great Blue Heron, Snowy Egret, Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, American and Least Bitterns (I even have photos of the Least – I’ll post them later), Prothonotary Warbler, Barred Owl, and the personal highlight, Smooth-billed Ani! The birdwatching was just astounding and great fun, as the birds there seem to love mugging for the camera.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for me were the Green Herons though. They were definitely in a courtin’ mood, and were calling and displaying and were more ostentatious than I ever imagined they could be. They flew right up to me a couple times and called and preened, and I have some killer shots to show this later. I was just stunned. What a great Earth Day, to see these ordinarily shy and retiring animals strut their stuff so loud and proud, as if to remind everyone what an amazing gift life on this planet is.

I did a fair amount of driving to and fro between parts of the park, and did take the mother of all power naps this afternoon to recover. I spent 5 minutes after waking up from it, trying to remember where I was and what time of year it was. Or is. In any case, I was reminded how much Everglades stands out for me. It feels so primeval. Sure, rationally speaking every national park is primeval, but Everglades really touches on something that, say, Rocky Mountain lacks. It feels vaguely familiar, like my ancestors came from a place like that.

OK, I think I need to retire now. Oh yes. Tomorrow is Tortugas. I’m up again at 4am and driving to Key West, then getting on a boat for a 2.5 hour trip to the place. I’m hoping to see some tern breeding colonies, and who knows what else. Should be fun. I’ll let you know how it went.


Everglades sunset


Florida Day 1

April 21, 2010

(Note: this was a note originally published to my Facebook page. I realize that it actually fits better as a blog entry. The original date of publication is preserved here. — Eric)

My Dad lives in Florida. He and his wife Judy live in a retirement community in between Avon Park and Sebring, which is about 90 miles south of Orlando. I try to visit him every year, either in the spring or fall, and when I do visit, I try to shoehorn a birding trip into it, usually in a 3 day span before I drop in. Although Florida isn’t a place I myself would ever want to move to, I always have a good time visiting, and manage to see many parts of the state I otherwise might not. I’ve also managed to run up a list of well over 200 species, just by doing these short but intense outings.

I’m back in Florida today, and this is the first time I’ve done this trip since I joined Facebook. I’m going to try to document my visit, so you can keep up with what I’m doing while I’m doing. It’s an experiment though, so bear in that mind. It might just fail. It could be a very uneven and/or boring set of notes. It can be hard to keep a good record of what happened in a day, since I tend to go wall-to-wall. For example, I didn’t get a wink of sleep last night. I stayed up all night, mostly because I needed all that time to pack and prepare for this trip. Believe me, I wanted to take a nap, and sometime around 2:30 this morning I almost gave in.

Anyway, here’s what I’m doing. This time around I’m trying to see or hear some south Florida specialties that I’ve missed on previous visits. I’ve got a list of about 10 or species that I hope to get, as well as others which I have already seen but really want photos of. Today, I made a point to check out a Red-footed Booby that has been hanging around a seabird rehab clinic for most of the past 4 months or so. It didn’t take long to find him.

Red-footed Booby, Pelican Harbor rehab center, Miami

After that I headed toward downtown and on to Key Biscayne, to visit Bill Baggs State Park, in the hopes of coming across a La Sagra’s Flycatcher that has been hanging around there since February. This flycatcher is a Caribbean rarity that only occasionally shows up in south Florida, and I was afraid that my attempt to see it would come just a few days too late. It hadn’t been reported in over a week, and sure enough I was unable to find it. However, in the couple hours I was there I did see 10 species of warblers. After this long cold winter I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to see so many.

Prairie Warbler
American Redstart
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
Blackpoll Warbler
Northern Parula
Cape May Warbler (only the 2nd time I’ve ever seen one)
Northern Waterthrush
Palm Warbler
Common Yellowthroat

There were also Eastern Towhees, Northern Cardinals, Barn Swallows, Royal Terns, and a single White Ibis cavorting about. I have pictures of some of these birds, but I now realize it would take too long for me to post them in this note. I’ll get a gallery of them up when I have a bit more time to process them.

Other species I saw today which gladdened me immensely were Black Vulture, Fish Crow, Magnificent Frigatebird, Brown Pelican, a Merlin, and even the Boat-tailed Grackle.

Anyway, tomorrow I’m off to Everglades National Park. I’m specifically in search of Black Rail, Seaside Sparrow (Cape Sable form), Barred Owl, Smooth-billed Ani, and Shiny Cowbird. If I have time and inclination in the afternoon, I’ll drive back up to southern Miami and look for Red-whiskered Bulbuls and Spot-breasted Orioles. In the evening I’m going to go back into the park and look for Chuck-will’s-widows at dusk.

Friday I’m going to Key West and doing a Dry Tortugas day trip. I’ll tell you more about that tomorrow night.

Saturday I’m going to make a concerted effort at long last to find a Mangrove Cuckoo.

But before any of that can happen, I really really need to get some sleep. Good night.


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.


Blogless in Las Vegas

March 23, 2006

I got back a week ago from a 3-day trip to Las Vegas with my wife, and I’ve been delinquent in writing anything new here since. Part of it is because as you might expect it wasn’t really a bird trip, and as you may have noticed I’m slavishly devoted to bird-only content here. Yes, we did go for a hike one day at Red Rock National Conservation Area, and I even got a few good pics while there. But there was plenty else going on in more urban settings, which was really the point of the trip.

I think the other reason I’ve not been writing is to save some ‘birding’ energy for the upcoming migration season. I want to make the most of this coming spring, and with a planner full of scheduled activities already, I expect that I’m going to be in the field a lot the next two months. So instead I’ve been distracting myself with other interests like watching movies and, oh yeah, doing my taxes (which are horrendous enough, and not very blogworthy). Not that that’s an interest of mine…I guess that came out funny.

In any case, onto the wildlife.

The first critters we came across were actually a pair of Desert Cottontails. As I prepared to get a photo of one, it darted out of view but was conveniently replaced by its buddy, who ended up in the exact same pose and position as the first.

I also tallied my first hummingbird of the year, this Anna’s Hummingbird which perched nicely on the top of a juniper.

The real birdwatching highlight for the whole trip came when I heard some rustling in the ravine below the Keystone Thrust trail.

Following a dry rattle, this Greater Roadrunner emerged, enchanting both me and my wife. She likes birdwatching as much as I do, as long as the birds are big enough to be seen without the need for optics.

Lastly came this Western Scrub Jay, which I took as we were heading out of the park around noonish. It was perched on a yucca so close to the road I couldn’t resist.

And lastly, not a bird, but rather a birds-eye view of Las Vegas at sunset, as seen from the top of the Stratosphere tower on the Strip: