Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Falcon Cam: "Tower Girl" Thrills

Photo collage courtesy of UT-A
Check out the newest "Longhorn" at the University of Texas! "Tower Girl" swoops around campus before returning to her nesting box where she can be viewed by the world thanks to the school's falcon cam. The fastest bird, and one of the fastest animals, on the planet, Tower Girl feasts on the many doves, pigeons, and grackles on campus. Austin, TX is at the outer edge of peregrine falcon breeding territory. The male falcon visits in late winter and early spring so we may see some action here. Click the link to open the cam: Falcon Cam

American Kestrel, a small falcon
(Photo by Jeanette Larson)
Read other Bird Brainz posts on falcons by clicking: Peregrine Spring and The Hawk of the Castle

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Warbler Wave

Warblers are amazing little birds. They comprise one of the largest groups of birds in North America, with more than 50 species identified and considered common to the United States and Canada. They are perching songbirds with plumage that can range from browns and grays to rich yellows, oranges, and greens. While they are found in almost every habitat, they can be difficult to identify because of the color variations, their size, and their swift flitting from branch to branch, often in dense foliage. Because of their size and coloring, birders often refer to them as LBBs (little bitty bird or little brown birds), or, with disappointment, "gone bird."

In Warbler Wave, April Pulley Sayre shares the wonders of these tiny birds with young readers using over-sized photographs composed to give the reader the feeling that they are actually out in the field birding. With the photographs Sayre adds poetically phrased information about the warbler's habits, plumage, diet, and song. The book opens with photographs from the middle of the night, letting the reader know that tiny wings are migrating to find food. With daylight, the reader enjoys seeing these birds in various situations until, as night falls, the birds continue on their migration, "Surfing rivers of wind way up high.../calling zeep, zeep, zeep in the sky."
(Inside page, copyright April Pulley Sayre)

Sayre acknowledges that the photographs are not intended to be of the type used in field guides (where illustrations clearly show markings and features that distinguish one species from another), but the crisp, clear photographs will help armchair birders feel inspired to go outside and find these birds. While guides help with identification, they are usually drawings as it is almost impossible to get photographs that perfectly whos all the important features. In that way, Warbler Wave is also closer to the real experience faced by birders--trying to identify from a wisp of color, a side view, and the tail shape as it flits away.

Four pages of back story provide plenty of additional information about warblers and their habits, as well as information on the Spring migration, which generally begins in late March and runs through May. Her website, http://www.aprilsayre.com/2018/01/06/warbler-wave/ provides specific identification notes and discussion for the birds included in the book. But don't let the simple format fool you; while the book is great for young birders, it is packed with enough information to appeal to birders of any age.

Black-throated warbler
My photos don't begin to compare with those by April Pulley Sayre but I did want to share one from Rockport. These LBBs are hard to find and birders love to share a good catch!

Friday, January 12, 2018

Birds: Discovering North American Species

This very educational book provides an up-close look at 13 different North American birds. For each bird, Raines provides a poem, some facts, and descriptive information about the birds habits and behavior. Some poems are simply melodic while others add to knowledge of the particular bird or offer insights into the bird's personality (Blue jay, blue jay / strut your stuff!) The photographs are clear and near-life size or over sized. The book itself is large and square, making it easy to share with groups of children. The last three pages of the book are devoted to "story stretchers" designed to provide lessons and activities about birds in general or specific species. For example, a science stretcher asks children to explore the habits of hummingbirds while a listening stretcher explorers bird sounds.
American Robin

The birds covered are the American Robin, Blue Jay, Carolina Chickadee, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Downy Woodpecker, Northern Mockingbird, Red-Winged Blackbird, Eastern Bluebird, Brown Pelican, Great Horned Owl, American Crow, Canada Goose, and Northern Cardinal. While several are found across North America, a few will be unfamiliar in some areas or are migratory visitors. This book doesn't take the place of a field guide but serves to introduce the birds, and the crisp photographs provide a good up-close view that will greatly help with identification in the wild. Additionally, most of the birds are ones that can be easily seen in backyards and fields.

Red-Winged Blackbird
Although the publisher is not well-known, the book is widely available through online bookstores and libraries and will be useful for elementary school birding groups and science classes. And hopefully the introduction leads to further investigation and research.

Note: I received a free copy of the book from the publisher. It will be donated to my local public library.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Best Bird Books of 2017

I don't usually post two days in a row but the start of the new year means it is time for all of the "best" lists to come out and I wanted to share this list of the top twelve bird books of 2017. The list was developed by Forbes and, as I have learned being on many book awards and best lists committees, is very subjective. The books are all non-fiction and memoir, although I've noticed a lot of birds in fiction this past year. They are also all for adults so the list doesn't consider the many really good books for kids that came out in 2017. Only Mozart's Starling is on my Kindle but I hope to read, and review, a few others from the list. And it will be interesting to see what books come out in 2018. I already have a few lined up! (Note also that one of the books, The Seabird's Cry, includes puffins, which I blogged about yesterday.) Happy reading!

Click on the link to go to the article and read the synopses but here are the titles:
  1. Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird by Katie Fallon 
  2. The Seabird's Cry: The Lives and Loves of Puffins, Gannets and Other Ocean Voyagers by Adam Nicolson
  3. How to Speak Chicken: Why Your Chickens Do What They Do & Say What They Say by Melissa Caughe
  4. The Robin: A Biography by Stephen Moss
  5. Mozart’s Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt 
  6. The Wonder of Birds: What They Tell Us About Ourselves, the World, and a Better Future by Jim Robbins
  7. Birding Without Borders: An Obsession, a Quest, and the Biggest Year in the World by Noah Strycker
  8. Birds Art Life: A Year of Observation by Kyo Maclear
  9. Flock Together: A Love Affair with Extinct Birds by B.J. Hollars
  10. One More Warbler: A Life with Birds by Victor Emanuel and S. Kirk Walsh 
  11. As Kingfishers Catch Fire: Birds & Books by Alex Preston and Neil Gower
  12. The Curious Bird Lover’s Handbook by Niall Edworthy

Twelve Best Books about Birds--2017

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Porgs are Puffins!

The cutest creatures in The Last Jedi are the Porgs. Personally, I thought they looked a bit like my cat, Maggie and I was repulsed by the idea that Chewie had barbecued one. He eats one and then is friends with the others! The Star Wars films are filled with odd aliens but Porgs don't seem to serve any purpose. So why are they there? The reason they exist is really pretty practical. Skellig Michael, also known as the island where Luke Skywalker lives, is over run with puffins! Since the filmmakers couldn't get rid of the puffins (even though they do actually hunt and eat puffins in Iceland and some other areas, Skellig Michael, off the coast of Ireland, is a wildlife preserve so the puffins are protected) and it would have been near impossible. and unbelievably tedious, to digitally remove them. So puffins became Porgs!

Tufted Puffin (Alaska)
Puffins are tiny and elusive and hard to photograph. Although we saw some in Alaska, this is the best photo I could get. I had hoped to see many in Iceland but Hurricane Harvey canceled that trip so I have to be satisfied for now with my far off sighting. Some aquariums, including Biodome in Montreal, have puffins, like the one I was able to photograph in captivity (but that doesn't count for birders). Still, they are interesting to watch up close.

Atlantic Puffin in captivity
There are four species of puffins: Atlantic, Tufted, Horned, and the Rhinoceros Auklet which is anatomically a puffin, although it looks quite different. Porgs are based on Atlantic Puffins. They dive for fish, using their feet as rudders so that it looks like they are flying underwater. They burrow between rocks on sea cliffs, using their bills to cut into the soil and their feet to push it away. Puffins don't begin to breed until they are about 5 years old and can live to be 20 years old. They use body movements to communicate and the wider their beak is open the more upset the puffin is. In addition to Wookies and humans, their greatest predators are Great Black-billed Gulls. (Just kidding about the Wookies.)

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Turkeys are Birds, Too!: Thomas Turkey's Terrible Tricks

After all of the other turkeys on Felicia's farm have disappeared, Thomas is afraid he is about to become Thanksgiving dinner. To distract the farmer from adding him to the meal, Thomas resorts to tricks and enlists the help of his barnyard friends to drive the Felicia away from the farm. Reed's art is whimsical and a little quirky, almost childlike, and very colorful. The humor in Thomas Turkey's Terrible Tricks, and the ingenious animals, will appeal to readers who love Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type by Doreen Cronin.

After being out of print for several years, Lynn Rowe Reed is reissuing a new version of her Thanksgiving book. The art work was totally redone for Thomas Turkey's Terrible Tricks but the text is virtually the same as in Thelonius Turkey Lives! Although Thomas is a domesticated turkey, readers do learn a bit about the bird in Reed's story. One reason I especially like the story is that it has a compassionate ending. Jim and I are vegetarians. I stopped eating birds when after someone pointed out that we kill a million birds a day; but we call them chicken or turkey. We haven't eaten turkey at Thanksgiving in over 25 year so it's great to find a book that shares what we know:it's the friends and the side dishes that really make the meal special!

(Copyright Lynn Rowe Reed; used with permission)
Benjamin Franklin wanted the turkey to be our national bird instead of the bald eagle because they are intelligent. Their heads also can change colors varying between red, white, and blue, when excited. Wild turkeys are upland ground birds that are very different from the bird that most Americans eat on the 4th Thursday in November.  Easily recognizable by their distinctive plumage and bare heads, their gobbling call is also very familiar to anyone who spends time in the habitat. They travel in flocks and roost in trees at night. Although hunted to near extinction in the 1930s, more than 7 million wild turkeys now roam throughout North America.

(Copyright Lynn Rowe Reed; used with permission)
Fun Facts to Consider:
  • The average wild turkey has 5,500 feathers.
  • 18 feathers give the male his distinctive tail.
  • Their powerful legs allow them to run up to an average speed of 25 mph.
  • Turkeys are omnivorous but mainly eat grains, mixed with a bit of berries, insects, and small reptiles.
  • The average wild turkey lives 3-5 years.
  • The wild turkey is one of two birds native to North America that has been domesticated for food. The other is the Muscovy duck.
  • Although native to North America, the turkey probably got its name because the British confused it with an African guinea fowl that made its way to Europe via Turkey; hence called a  "turkey bird."
  • Wild turkeys were domesticated in Mexico and exported to Europe before being brought back to North America for our tables.
Wild Turkey, Choke Canyon, 2016

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The Hawk of the Castle: A Story of Medieval Falconry

Although I admit to never having watched a single episode of Game of Thrones, I know that its hunk star carries a falcon around. That has to have increased interest in falcons and falconry! Falconry is also popular in a lot of other fantasy novels and young readers might like to know more about how hawks and falcons have been used historically.

Hawk of the Castle is a sophisticated picture book that follows a young girl as her father trains the bird of prey that lives in their castle. The story line is featured on one page, with each short stanza ending in "castle" to create a lyrical pace. Inset boxes provide factual details about the birds, the time period, and hunting with falcons and hawks on the opposite page. Beautiful realistic illustrations have the feel of architectural renderings. A two-page author's note explains that the author's father was a falconer and provides some history of falconry from China and the Middle Ages to the present. Suggestions for further reading for both children and adults, along with appropriate websites, provide for additional information on falconry. This is a fine example of informational picture books that are intended for older children and adults to enjoy.

Note: I received a free copy of the book from the publisher. It will be donated to our local kid's birding team for their classroom collection.