Thursday, February 16, 2006

Bird food

I had a dream last night that I went to a market somewhere and saw boxes of hummingbird filets in the frozen section. I remembered being initially shocked upon seeing it, and then thinking that, well, I guess hummingbirds must be the locally preferred birdmeat.

It makes you wonder about me - I mean, my brain actually invented this idea.

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Monday, February 13, 2006

Cleaning up a mess

State Senator Hanna recently put forward a bill regarding the feeding of "wildlife" which made it through committee in the Colorado State Assembly. Collective eyebrows were raised among the local birding community when the initial introduced version of this bill included the following:
Bill Summary
(Note: This summary applies to this bill as introduced and does
not necessarily reflect any amendments that may be subsequently
Punishes the offense of knowingly luring wildlife in urban areas with food or edible waste or allowing wildlife to establish housing on a person's property by a fine of $100 for a chargeable first offense, $500 for a second offense, and $1,000 for a third or subsequent offense. Exempts the feeding of songbirds, acts related to agriculture, and acts allowed by wildlife commission rule.

So it's OK to feed songbirds. Great! I wonder what they consider a "songbird" - this is the state legislature, after all. Section 1-4-c:

Hmmm. Well, that's almost a tautological definition. A bird that is "welcomed" is OK to feed, but perhaps not one that is not "welcomed"? In other words, you're not allowed to feed birds that you don't want around? Yeah, that sounds like useful legislation. And does songbird refer only to passerines? What about woodpeckers or doves? Are they not included?

Fortunately, this horribly written bill was greatly amended and clarified [UPDATE 2/13, 12:00pm: Jen Bolton, lobbyist for Colorado Audubon, apparently prevailed upon the bill authors to reword it], omitting the bulk of the confusion and replacing it essentially with this:

Much better. No more mention of any birds, just specifically the four main offenders. This version apparently passed through committee on a 7-0 vote. Now, whether or not this actually solves the given problem, I can't say, but at least it's no longer so broadly and poorly constrained. Kudos to the legislature for cleaning up this messy bill, before attracting the ire of virtually every birder and birdwatcher in Colorado! (It's been so long since I've actually praised any government body for doing something right, I'd almost forgotten how to do it.)

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Sunday, February 12, 2006


It was on my list for almost 12 years. But as of tonight, it has been removed. Cassin's Sparrow is no longer a Life Bird for me.

I've been doing some background prep for planning a trip to SE Arizona this coming May. This means creating a target list, as well as revisiting sightings on earlier visits. I have very good recollections of most of my sightings, but was piqued by Bird #83, a Cassin's Sparrow observed sometime in March of 1994 in Tucson. Unlike the other birds I recorded on that trip, I have no memory whatsoever of when exactly I saw that bird, nor where.

In the case of Cassin's Sparrow, I find that problematic. For a number of years after I began birding, I relied pretty heavily on bird range maps in Peterson's Guide to help me determine what bird I was seeing, in cases where there were 2 or more competing possibilities. That's not a practice I believe in anymore, but I have to admit that it played a fair part in several IDs I thought I'd made in years past. I'd already corrected most of those (e.g., Hutton's Vireo), but this one had remained.

I try to be very careful in tinkering with my lists when it comes to revisiting very old observations, and I am cautious not to overly second-guess my IDs. But I am aware of how my identification skills have grown over time, and I honestly don't think I could have truly known for sure that I'd seen a Cassin's Sparrow in lieu of, say, a Brewer's, based on the way I know I used the Petersen's Guide at the time, and my awareness (or lack thereof) of the likelihoods of seeing certain species in certain locations. It may well be, of course, that I did in fact see one, even if I don't remember when or where. But it troubles me that I supposedly made such a careful ID of a tricky bird at a time when I really wasn't attuned to such things, and that I remember nothing about the sighting; and knowing that I'd now have trouble picking one out of a sparrow lineup, I just don't feel comfortable leaving it on my Life List. So, I removed it tonight, lowering my Life, AOU, and ABA totals by one.

I do feel confident that I'll be able to put it back sometime this year. I just want it to count, to identify it from its characteristics, not from deductions or extrapolations from likelihood. Yet another manifestation of how I'm changing as a birder.

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Monday, February 06, 2006

Berlepsch's Six-Wired Bird of Paradise

I wanted to be the first person in the history of humanity to have a blog post with this title. This is the name of a recently rediscovered bird, found in a very remote and amazingly undisturbed rainforest in Papua-New Guinea, Indonesia. The bird was known previously from specimens collected well over a century ago, and unseen since, entirely because no one knew where the bird could be found.

Birds of Paradise are part of the aptly named family Paradisaeidae, which has between 38 and 45 extant members, depending on whichever taxonomy you prefer. Berlepsch's, once evaluated by ornithologists, will surely be added to this. Birds of Paradise are truly breathtaking creatures, in many cases ornamented in spectacular otherworldly fashion. And if that weren't enough, the courtship displays of some species are just as outrageous as their outfits.

Listers can be happy to know there is yet another bird to be seen in the world, without requiring some committee-decided species split. Conservationists can be happy to know that this bird, as well as a number of other newly discovered or rediscovered creatures, appear to be thriving in this untouched wilderness. And those of us who are both definitely enjoy the double-whammy.

tags: , , conservation

Pueblo-area Trip Report

I got back from Pueblo late Friday afternoon. Saw a lotta birds.

I've been participating in the RMBO's Winter Raptor Survey, having done a route in Logan County back in January, and this time doing one in Pueblo County down south. In these surveys, you basically count the number of raptors you see on a 24-mile long route, noting the particulars of the habitat you're in, and being careful of course not to double-count. You stop at specified locations on the route, and count for 3 and only 3 minutes. With a methodical approach it becomes possible to compare like with like and note changes in populations and distributions over time in a large swath of area like Colorado.

I did run into a hitch early on, however, as the route I was given ran through gated private property. Considering I was in the middle of nowhere, I had to improvise a detour for the route, and did my best to link up that detour with the remainder of the specified route. It wasn't perfect, but hopefully my data will still be useful. I did count 61 raptors on the route, including a few of the characters seen here...

I started off in rural central Pueblo County. The light was lousy (partly cloudy skies at 8am), but I couldn't pass up my first-ever opportunity for a photo of a Prairie Falcon, perched several phone poles ahead of me. For fear of spooking this skittish raptor I opted to stay further back and go for the digiscope shot. A little dark, yes, but a well-behaved bird. I ended up seeing 4 of them on the survey.

A bit further down the road, I spotted this little guy on my left. I was a little disappointed when I saw that it wasn't a Northern Shrike as I'd hoped (for adding to my photo collection), but rather a Loggerhead Shrike. Note the short bill, and very clean breast - Northerns have longer bills, somewhat streakier breast marks, and a thinner bandito eye-stripe. If there ever was a passerine (i.e., songbird) that deserved mention in the same breath as raptors, it would be a shrike. These birds are sometimes colloquially called "butcherbirds", and for good reason - they often cache their prey (insects, mice, small lizards) by impaling them on thorns or barbs.

Next up was a highly approachable Ferruginous Hawk, perched on a power pole. I also digiscoped this shot, and for this image I did something a little different, going more for a "portrait" than a full-body pic. Ferruginous Hawks have been wonderfully easy for me to come by so far this year, in contrast to past years where they've been quite rare. What a spectacular bird this is.

Most of the raptors were along the Huerfano River portion of the route, and those were mainly Red-tailed Hawks and American Kestrels. But I did manage to collect one Rough-legged Hawk circling overhead:
I've been trying to get a shot of one perched, but I've too often approached too closely for them to stay still. In any case, this was my only Roughie for the survey.

The survey had just ended 10 minutes previous, and I was steaming down Hwy 50 toward Rocky Ford, when something caught my eye out the passenger window. Flying parallel to me was a kestrel-sized bird, more or less, but this was no kestrel, and I knew it right off - no, this was a Merlin. In my excitement I quickly pulled off the road so I could follow its path into a field. I looked around, and a moment later I saw it perched up in a tree a little ways up the road. I scooted up into digiscope range, and got another bad-light falcon-photo. Again a bit dark, but I felt very gratified to have recognized the bird immediately while driving 70 mph in poor light.

The Rocky Ford trip was a bust unfortunately, with the weather turning sour in the afternoon. I retired to the motel in Pueblo that night, and on Friday I headed north in much calmer, clearer conditions to El Paso county, to look for a very special bird indeed - the Long-billed Thrasher*, which had been reported at a private ranch a few weeks earlier. This will likely be only the third recorded instance of this species in Colorado, with the first being nearly a century ago. I had to look for this bird.

* In rare bird alerts, the custom for listing extreme rarities is to capitalize all the letters in the bird name, which makes it very attention-grabbing. Really, it's not just a Long-billed Thrasher, but a LONG-BILLED THRASHER. You can practically hear the urgency as you read the report.

Anyway, when I arrived at the ranch I found neighbor Nick and Cole already there (those bums!), having seen it just moments earlier. But before we could talk much about it we found the Eastern Towhee hanging around. Unfortunately my angle here isn't so great, and it's hard to see the spotless upperwing coverts that make this an Eastern and not a Spotted Towhee. (These two species used to be lumped.)

Ah, a thrasher! But dang, it wasn't the one I wanted. This is the Brown Thrasher, a more common variety found in Colorado (although still pretty unusual in the winter months), and in the next couple hours this little bugger would play havoc with my sensibilities, pretending to be the Long-billed and doing a damn good impression of one. Note though, the very rufous coloration and the light brownish breast streaking. I'd also say to look at the relatively short straight bill, but the bird stayed hidden in the twigs, making a clear shot difficult. Hopefully come spring I'll have a nicer Brown Thrasher photo to show. The point is, Browns and Long-billeds look very much alike, but do have clear differences that are perceptible in the field.

Over there! Now there's a thrasher with a nice long curved bill, like the Long-billed. But no, that's not it either - the bill is actually too long and too curved, and the breast is dull spotted green-gray, not streaked. This is instead the Curve-billed Thrasher, a very nice bird in its own right, although again not uncommon for Colorado. This digiscoped shot was obtained after about 6 crummy attempts, where the bird hid in the branches and caused the camera to focus on twigs instead of the real subject. Patience finally paid off, and the bird obliged with a wonderful pose.

Nick and Cole took off for other locales, leaving me to find the Long-billed on my own. Fortunately, I didn't have to wait too long, and although it skulked in the brambles as advertised (something thrashers love to do in general), it peeked out enough for me to get a few good shots of it. Note here, the much grayer head, the browner back (as opposed to rufous), and the sharper, darker black streaking on the breast. Also, although not seen clearly in this pic, the bill is longer, and curvier than the Brown Thrasher's bill.

Southern and SE Colorado are great places for birding in the state. If this Long-billed is any indication, I can hardly wait for spring migration to roll around.

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Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Out of town

I'm heading out tonight to Pueblo to do a Winter Raptor Survey route for the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory, and will be back late Friday. I'll be squeezing in a little off-duty birding as well, and hopefully I'll have some interesting stuff to report when I get back.....