Saturday, December 31, 2005

The Birding Year in Review

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?


Monday, December 26, 2005

The Peabody Ducks

Peabody DucksHappy 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.


Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Florida Epilogue

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.


Friday, December 16, 2005

On the Road

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.


Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Ivory-bills in Florida?

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".


Monday, December 12, 2005

My Ivory Tower

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.


Friday, December 09, 2005

Cool Birds 2: the Great Horned Owl

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 2005
First, 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, 2005
Speaking 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.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Interview with a Penguin

Don't let their cuteness fool you - they're testy, aloof, and have stubborn PR handlers. Check it out.


Tuesday, December 06, 2005

A Winter Sampling

I made my first-ever venture down to Chatfield Reservoir south of Denver today. My hope was to get there before the bad weather set in, and try to re-find the Yellow-billed Loon and Black Scoter seen there last Sunday. But I was too late, and not bundled up enough, and the bitter cold wind kept me from doing a real search of the water. Bummer.

Still, I got a couple decent bird photos out of it, so it wasn't all for naught. Here's a bird that I first thought was a "bluish" Snow Goose, but may actually be a partial albino or a mystery hybrid. (Any thoughts? Feel free to comment, I'm open to suggestions.) I found it hanging with some Canadas in a field west of the reservoir. Mystery Goose amid Canadas, Dec 6, 2005 While driving to the boat ramp on the north end, I spotted a California Gull hunkered down alone in the middle of a parking lot. Wouldn't have been my first choice for roosting spot, but hey, it's not my call. California Gull, Dec 6, 2005 I headed home not long after that. When I got there, I came upon a grateful Northern Flicker at my suet feeder, on the coldest day we've had so far this season. Northern Flicker, Dec 6, 2005Memo to myself - next time I want to do cold weather birding, wear thicker gloves. Fingers that get numb after 5 minutes do not help you find rare birds.

Update (8:20pm): I removed the "Snow Goose" ID in lieu of something more indeterminate for the time being.


Monday, December 05, 2005

Fish Crowing

While perusing that Snowy Owl link mentioned earlier, I soon discovered some other nice pages on the site concerning crows. One question in the FAQ archive asks, how do you tell a Fish Crow from an American Crow? An excellent question.

His site offers the definitive breakdown of the situation, but I thought I'd recount my own experience too. I ID'ed my first Fish Crow last February on a trip to Florida to visit my Dad, who lives in Highlands County in the central part of the state (about 90 miles south of Orlando). While biking around his neighborhood (which is in a relatively rural area with new housing developments), I saw a number of black birds which I simply called "crows", meaning American Crow, until they spoke up. I heard the nasal caw-caw, just as depicted in this audio file, and once I heard several individuals with the same tonality, I felt confident that it wasn't simply a begging call from an American. The timbre just wasn't right for an American - more than just nasal, actually, it's...well, I call it "constricted", as if the bird almost sounds like it's being choked. Once I heard it, I actually found it quite distinct, and will never confuse it with any American call again.

I got another chance for skill reinforcement in October on another visit to see my Dad. This time the Fish Crows were all around his backyard, which was quite convenient since I now had a nice digital SLR with telephoto handy. As you can see, they are very similar looking at first blush to American Crow, and without their frequent calling, it would be very hard to separate them. McGowan cautions on discerning the species based on physical characters in the field given their subtlety, and based on my own experience I would have to agree. As much as I wanted to, I was not able to use size difference at all - it is just so difficult to judge that in the field, especially if the birds aren't side-by-side. I mean, sure, sometimes they do kinda look a little small, but that's in no way reliable. Even looking for the "shorter legs" was more problematic than I would have thought, just from consulting Sibley.

Another difficult character McGowan mentions is the relative lengths of P5 and P9 in the Fish vs. the American. I have a couple photos of the bird in flight, and offer one here. Stills of birds in flight must be carefully interpreted, since the appearance of feather length can be distorted by momentary flexure of the wing and the observer's viewing angle. Those caveats aside, both my pictures show P9 to be at least as long or much longer than P5. (I know that P9 isn't actually significantly longer than P5, but I would submit that it is much more likely to appear so, and to appear lengthier in a Fish Crow than in an American, under similar flight postures.) By comparison, this photo by Bill Schmoker of an American with wings outstretched suggests P9 to be about the same length as P5.

Another piece of supportive circumstantial visual evidence was the ruffling of the throat feathers during calling that McGowan mentions. You can see that in my pic on the left of another Fish Crow individual, taken shortly after the one above. Also note his bent-over posture - again, not exactly diagnostic, but given the other data, at least supportive of the Fish Crow ID.

In the end, the calls are always your best bet. Thankfully, crows are rarely bashful or reserved, and can usually be counted on to give themselves away without much cajoling. May your Fish Crowing be as educational as mine.


Sunday, December 04, 2005

Snowy Owls

Via BirderBlog, Cornell has posted a page describing Snowy Owl identification (aging and sexing). Very nice - I can't wait for a chance to actually see one of these gorgeous birds.

Snowys are rare winter visitors to the northeast part of Colorado.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

A Lesser would have been more

I got excited for a moment this morning when I saw this bird at my feeder:
American Goldfinch (F)
The Lesser Goldfinch is a very rare occurrence in Colorado in the winter. But when I lived in California, goldfinches of either type were ho-hum birds even in the winter. I never spent much time trying to learn the subtle differences between Lessers and Americans when I lived there.

But this time, I had to school myself fast on the subject, at least until I remembered to get the camera. I wanted so much to make this female into a Lesser, but after a while I had to admit that the darkish bill wasn't enough to overcome the light undertail coverts, the prominent wing bars, and the largish size for a goldfinch, all of which point strongly to American. Still, occasions like this are good exercises for me, forcing me to crack open Sibley (and Petersen et al.) and really learn the birds. I've now taken to heart an adage I overheard last September at Prewitt Reservoir, while among birders looking for a Curlew Sandpiper amid a slew of Stilts: "Look at every bird."

Excellent advice.


Friday, December 02, 2005

Listing Surprise

Back in April I decided to let my inner Lister go wild, so I expanded upon my Life List (which I have ordered chronologically and taxonomically), and added the following:
  • A year list (2005, and every year going forward)
  • A state list (Colorado)
  • A state-year list (Colorado 2005, currently the same as the CO state list
  • An ABA-area life list
  • A Costa Rica life list
  • A Peru life list
Tonight I decided to create a "retro-list" for California. In all my years living there I never had one, but now that listing is important to me, I went through my ABA-area list and filtered out the non-CA birds, but I did leave in those which I know I've subsequently seen in CA, even if I don't have a date or location for the sighting yet.

To my surprise, my all-time CA life list, which includes birds I saw over a 10-year span, is only 10 better than what I've seen here in CO in just one year (235-225). Goes to show what some time off and living across the street from a list-crazy neighbor can do for you.

Now if I could only count those exotics I saw at the Denver Zoo last September....


A Day in the Life at RMRP

Rocky Mountain Raptor Program, main treatment center, CSU
So what exactly do volunteers at the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program do? Well, here's a quick rundown of what goes down at a typical morning treatment:
  1. Initial bird check. Someone looks in all the bird flights (cages) and checks to make sure all the birds are accounted for, and appear to be alive. You never know what happens overnight.
  2. Pulling SOAPs. SOAP is an acronym for Subjective, Objective, Assessment, and Plan, and it is basically the official report and a record of all human interactions with the bird, and a description of how the bird is to be treated on a daily basis. This last part is also called the PPP, or Pre-Printed Plan. Some birds' PPP has them getting fed and having their cages cleaned in the morning, making them a so-called 'AM' bird, while others are 'PM' birds. Owls are generally PM birds while all others are 'AM', but exceptions occur.
  3. Food prep. Birds get fed fresh raw meat, usually prairie dogs (referred to in the center as p-dogs), mice, rats, and sometimes venison or red meat like deer or beef. Occasionally we get duck, goose, or turkey. Food prep involves determining how much each bird gets fed, and butchering however much it needs (as written in the PPP). This is usually the grossest part of the treatment - I make sure never to breath through my nose at this point. P-dogs are the worst.
  4. Cage cleaning. In the summer we can use hoses, but in the winter we have to use water buckets. Because the cages are outside, standing water can freeze, so we have to reduce the overall water usage that time of year, while still cleaning as much as possible.
  5. Meds. While the cage cleaning is happening, an "M1" or medical volunteer begins going through whatever specific regular medical treatments that certain active case birds require, like applying topicals, injecting fluids, inspecting wounds, etc.
  6. Food drop. This occurs after a cage is fully cleaned, and is usually done by the same person. The food is left on a small mat or other surface. Water in the bowl is also replaced.
  7. Special handling birds. These are usually educational birds, the nonreleaseables that are now trained to make public appearances. It also includes nonreleaseables in training, or other special cases which regular 'H' level volunteers are not allowed to be close to, for whatever reason. Sometimes it's because the bird is especially afraid of humans, other times it's because the bird has delicate bandaging on its wings or elsewhere, and needs to be closely monitored by professionals to make sure they don't get damaged.

    This also includes the educational birds that have to get fed on the fist. In this case, a qualified 'E1' or ed bird handler can take the bird out its flight, fully jessed (leashed), and personally feed the bird.

  8. Cleanup. All the aforementioned usually creates a mess in the main treatment room, so we do sweeping, mopping, utensil cleaning, and garbage removal. There's also the nasty bit called 'necropsy', in which biomaterials like uneaten food, feather clumps, and discarded butchering remains have to be disposed of properly.
  9. Final bird check. This ensures that all the birds have water, are where they should be, etc., before all us humans go off and do our thing.
Osprey in training, RMRPDepending on the active case load and how many volunteers are helping in a session, this can take anywhere from 2 to 4 hours. Winter is usually quicker, due to a smaller case load, despite the slowness of bucket cleaning. Summer can be extremely busy, and if only a few volunteers are present for a treatment, it can take up to 7 hours to finish, like it did for a couple times last July.


Thursday, December 01, 2005

Bird Morality

From bootstrap analysis:
Cowbirds have an undeserved poor reputation as being lazy or immoral. Of course, the attitude that birds, or any other animal, can or should follow human expectations of ethical or moral behavior is illogical and unreasonable.

Certainly true, although I hasten to add that a fair number of those concerned with the actions of nest parasites base that concern more on conservation issues. Nevertheless, it is not always easy for us to separate out that visceral response to witnessing what would be an atrocity in its human representation.

I don't intend this to be a lengthy exploration of bird morality, but the topic is interesting. Curiously, though, this isn't the case only with those who react negatively to cowbirds and other nest parasites, but also to certain groups in reaction to March of the Penguins. Roger Ebert:
The stupendous success of “March of the Penguins” this summer has led some political and religious agenda-promoting scalawags to paint weird and disturbing parallels between penguin behavior and human behavior, and to draw insupportable conclusions that do not exactly square with zoological reality.

He's referring to media critics like Michael Medved and Maggie Gallagher. And let's not even mention penguin homosexuality. OK, I change my mind, let's:
Every day at Manhattan's Central Park Zoo the two males entwine necks, vocalise to each other and have, er, sex. When offered female companionship, they decline.

Roy and Silo have even displayed urges to procreate, and once tried to hatch a rock. Finally their keeper, Rob Gramzay, gave them a fertile egg from another brood. Tango, their chick, was born later. The pair raised it lovingly. 'They did a great job,' admits Gramzay.

I believe there's nothing wrong with finding character traits in birds that help us appreciate them more. As long as it remains clear that bird morality is not something we humans are privy to understand - in this we can only gaze from afar.

Back to cowbirds though. If it cannot definitely be shown that cowbird range expansion is causing population drops in host songbird species in these newly penetrated areas, then from a conservation perspective the cowbirds are cleared of their "responsibility", and we can resume concern for decreasing populations of host species due to more direct human causes like habitat destruction and collisions with transmission towers, etc.


Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Cool Birds 1: the Hoatzin

Welcome to the first installment of a new feature for Feather Weather, a regular series on Cool Birds. These posts highlight birds which possess outstanding traits, sometimes beautiful, sometimes scary, sometimes just outright peculiar. These birds surprise and inspire us, and help us appreciate the grand biodiversity of our planet. Our inaugural feature today will be for the very distinctive Hoatzin, a bird that some consider the strangest bird in the world.

I was fortunate enough to go on a 5-day trip to the upper Amazon basin last May, specifically to Manu National Park in Peru. Tropical South America is the only place in the world where you can find the unique Hoatzin (pronounced "waat-zin"). Hoatzin, May 19 2005, Otorongo Lake, Manu National Park, Peru This photo was taken by me on our last day in Manu, on Otorongo Lake (an oxbow lake near the river, a common place to find Hoatzin). We plied the calm lake waters in a small catamaran, and came across a half dozen individuals on a snag over the water. The other 4 left, but this character (and the one in the photo below) hung around to see what we were on about. I only had my Nikon point-n-shoot, but we got close enough for me to get this decent shot. It was a memorable moment, drifting as close as we did, all the while hearing the hiding birds perform their enigmatic wheezy whine calls.

The Hoatzin has a very primeval appearance - a blue patch of featherless facial skin, an upright spindly crest, and bright red eyes. The nestlings also possess something extremely rare among living birds - hooks at the elbow on either wing, to help them clamber back up logs or branches, in the event that they fall to the ground or into the water below. With age these hooks disappear, but their resemblance to fossilized features on Archaeopteryx adds to their prehistoric cachet.

The Hoatzin's digestive system is also highly peculiar. Most birds have a system involving a crop, a gizzard, and the stomach - the Hoatzin's crop instead has evolved into a foregut, making it more similar to a cow than to virtually any bird. (Only the Kakapo of New Zealand has something similar.) It needs this foregut because it digests leaves and other vegetable matter which require an area to ferment. The fermenting process takes on quite a stench though, and sure enough the bird is sometimes colloquially known as the "stinkbird". This foregut adds considerably to the weight of the bird, making it something of a clumsy flier, which was apparent when we saw them flutter into the brush in Peru. (Fortunately we didn't have to experience their stink!) It also means they have to spend some time digesting, which makes them relatively sedate while roosting and not so hard to see for interested birders. As to why the Hoatzin has this bizarre system, researchers remain uncertain.

The Hoatzin has also been difficult to discern taxonomically. Early systematists placed it among the Galliformes, which include birds like quail, grouse, turkeys, chickens, and pheasants. This made some sense, given the unclear relationships between these groupings of birds already - the Hoatzin was yet another mystery set among them. Hoatzin (2), May 19, 2005, Otorongo Lake, Manu National Park, Peru However, with more advanced biochemical and genetic methods, as well as continued anatomical and morphological study, the distinctiveness of the Hoatzin increased, and the closest relatives to the Hoatzin were determined to be the Cuculiformes, the Cuckoos. But including the Hoatzin among cuckoos is problematic not only because of the its aforementioned digestive system, but also unlike any cuckoo, the Hoatzin is anisodactyl, meaning that its feet have 3 toes forward and one pointing back, like many birds. All true cuckoos are zygodactyl, with 2 toes forward and two back. Thus, the Hoatzin is placed in a monotypic family (a family of one species) called Opisthocomidae. A few researchers then go further and place it in its own Order, Opisthocomiformes, while other more cautious types leave it among the Order Cuculiformes.

Regardless of whatever becomes known about the Hoatzin's lineage, it certainly qualifies as a unique and remarkable creature. The Hoatzin is definitely a cool bird.


Classy Birds

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Bird handling

I've been volunteering at the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program for about 9 months now. One of the chief reasons I started there was to handle birds for programs and exhibits for the general public, so that I could share my enthusiasm and conservation concerns for these creatures. I have been in training for handling the birds the past couple months, which takes a while, but is thoroughly engrossing. So far I've trained with several approved educational birds (nonreleaseable birds which have been trained for regular human contact):
  • Merlin
  • American Kestrels (Blind, and the Fractured Humerus)
  • Burrowing Owl
  • Swainson's Hawks (Male, and Female)
  • Red-tailed Hawk (Blind)
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Great Horned Owl (Light-phase)
The parenthetical descriptions are there to distinguish one particular ed bird from another of the same species. (Pet names are not given to any birds, the idea being that doing so might give the general public the impression that they are pets, which they are not. It helps retain a respect for the animals.)

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

Friday, November 25, 2005

Best Backyard Bird (so far)

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 24, 2005

The Birder I Am

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The Inaugural Post for Feather Weather

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