Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A Big Year

Since I started birding, Jim keeps asking me if I plan to do a Big Year. Like every hobby, sport, or avocation birding has its own vocabulary and competitions. For birders the ultimate extreme sport is a Big Year. Casual birders and non-birders may have never heard this term, or even considered that birding could be a competitive sport--but it is.

During a Big Year, birders compete to see who can spot the most species of birds in North America during a yearlong quest that starts on January 1. The concept started in the 1930s and, while there are a few rulesthe only referee is the ABA checklist (although there are often arguments among birders). Birders compete using the honor system and, according to some sources, can spend around $10,000 a month getting to birding locations to add species to their lists. This is different from life lists, the very noncompetitive activity where birders keep track of species they encounter over a lifetime.

With only 675 or so indigenous species of birds in North America, beating the record requires chasing rarities and vagrants--birds that show up where they don't belong or normally wouldn't be found. In the movie The Big Year, which stars Steve Martin, Owen Wilson, and Jack Black (and first brought the concept of extreme birding to a wider audience), it was said that winning was possible primarily because of a strong El Niño weather pattern that pushed birds off course from Asia, Europe, and South America. However it gets here, once the bird is in North America, it counts! 

Because of the weather pattern, and the fierce competition of 1998, some birders thought Sandy Komito's record of 745 species would be impossible to break, but don't tell that the the 2013 competitors. Birds have to be listed on the American Birding Association's checklist of 976 accepted birds (Sandy Komito claims his record is 748 because he also recorded 3 birds that were not, at the time, on the ABA checklist but now are). The list includes species that breed in North America, regularly visit here, stray here from other regions, and introduced species that are now part of the avifauna of North America. In the ever-changing world of birds, some species have been split and a couple of species have been added to the North American lists. 2013 competitor Neil Hayward recorded 746 birds plus 3 provisional birds as of December 29. He's waiting for a definitive ruling on his Big Year but regardless of how the ABA counts, it sounds to me like he broke a 15 year record! This is a big deal in the birding world.

Amazon Kingfisher
Photo used under Creative Commons license.)
Not having the money, time, or "fire in the belly" to do a Big Year, I do still admit to feeling the lure of an exotic species that has shown up when I see posts on the Rare Bird Alert sites (see below). Could I rush down to the Rio Grande Valley to see the Amazon Kingfisher reported to be hanging out at a rest stop? It would only be a four hour drive each way. Gas up the car, Jim!

Then again, it's probably easier (and less expensive) to experience a Big Year vicariously by reading (or viewing) about other people's experiences. In addition to the film, a few good books include:

  • The Big Year stars Owen Wilson as the all-time Big Year champ who sets out to beat his own record. A retired CEO (Steve Martin) and a "everyman" techie-type (Jack Black) are just as determined to kick him out of the nest. The movie is based on The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession by Mark Obmascik.
  • Wild America: The Record of a 30,000 Mile Journey Around the Continent by a Distinguished Naturalist and His British Colleague by Roger Tory Peterson is not, per se, a Big Year story but it may have started the challenge. During a 100-day tour of America's wildlife refugees in 1953, Peterson and a friend observed 572 species. Three years later an Englishman broke that record following the same route and the competition began. 
  • Kingbird Highway; The Story of a Natural Obsession That Got a Little Out of Hand  is Kenn Kaufamn's story of his Big Year. In 1973, at the age of 19, he headed out hitchhiking around the country to try and break a birding record that had stood for 15 years.
Two Grackles at Central Park, Austin
  • Lynn E. Barber did a big year totally in the state of Texas and was able to count 522 bird species. In Extreme Birder: One Woman's Big Year she tells the story of doing the full Big Year and finding 723 species. 
A Big Year starts on January 1 and birders generally try to start the year with an exotic or hard to find bird so that you are off to a good start. No one wants to start their Big Year with a grackle. Me? I'm off to see Whooping Cranes and Sandhill Cranes to start my Big New Year. Happy New Year to all!

Note: Rare birds are reported on www.narba.orgwww.narba.org. A sub-site tracks rare birds in Texas http://www.narba.org/default.aspx/MenuItemID/105/MenuGroup/Home.htm.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Whoop it Up!

Recently Jim and I splurged and chartered a boat to go out to see Whooping Cranes. I admit that although we have lived in Texas for almost 35 years and have been visiting the Gulf Coast for almost that long, I only discovered this Texas treasure a year or so ago. Wow! What an experience to see these magnificent

Whooper and egret
Photo by Kevin Sims
Nearly five feet tall, the whooping crane is the tallest bird in North America. Their wings span 7.5 feet across. (The photo by Capt. Kevin Sims shows a whooping crane with a great egret for size comparison.) They are white with reddish-rust patches on the top and back of their heads. Black areas on their primary feathers are visible only in flight. But the most amazing thing about them--well, one of the most amazing things--is the migration. These magnificent birds spend the summers in northern Canada and migrate 2,500 miles to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge near Rockport, TX for the winter. This is the only wild, self-sustaining migratory population of whooping cranes in the world! (There are occasional "vagrants" that show up elsewhere along the Texas coast. One was reported in Brazoria NWR in mid-November and caused quite a stir while he played with the sandhill cranes in the area for a few weeks before moving on.) They migrate during the day, stopping at night, so they may also be seen briefly along the migration route. 

Photo by Jim Larson
By the 1940s the population of whooping cranes had decreased almost to extinction. There were only 15 cranes left when conservationists stepped in to try and save the cranes. A massive effort between the US and Canadian agencies led to captive breeding programs, that, with protection and conservation, have increased the population to about 600, half wild and half captive, in a couple of different locations. All of the whooping cranes alive today are the descendants of the 15 cranes that were found in the Aransas refuge in 1941. From those 15, there are currently two migrating population--the one in Texas and another in Wisconsin--and two small non-migratory populations in Florida and Louisiana.  These birds are highly monitored, and in fact we saw the monitoring plane flying over Aransas National Wildlife Refuge counting cranes during our visit.

The cranes mate for life. Since the female lays 1-3 eggs and generally one chick survives, growth in the population is slow. The juveniles have a cappuccino color to them for about the first year; by the time they
Family of whoopers
head back to Canada, the juveniles are all white. The family unit stays together and requires about one square mile of territory for feeding. They are tolerant of other birds, including herons and egrets, but will fiercely fend off other whoopers. We watched a fight when a pair of whooping cranes got too close to another family unit. They are big and noisy! They survive 25 years in the wild and about ten years longer in captivity.

Visit the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge--from some of the observation areas you can see the whoopers in the distance. Or better yet, take one of the boat trips to get closer. The Jack Flash, owned by Kevin Sims, is smaller and can go right up to the edge of the refuge (we were close enough to hear the calls they make--hear a sample at Cornell's site) but you book the entire boat for up to 6 passengers. The Skimmer, out of Fulton Harbor, is a larger boat but you buy just the seats you need. We took this boat in 2012 towards the end of the whooping bird season so only saw a few. Thanks to all of the conservation efforts, we have the luxury of watching the cranes year after year and I'm looking forward to seeing  them again on our next trip to Rockport.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Books Take Flight: Gift Ideas

Librarians are fond of saying that books help readers fly to new heights and explore new worlds. And I believe that is true. Books can help readers discover new worlds and new interests. They also make great holiday gifts. While books may not always garner the oohs and aahs of the latest Playstation, they last a lot longer. So consider some of these bird books for those on your holiday lists. Bird Brainz will love 'em!

Ok, I'll start with blatant self-promotion. Hummingbirds: Facts and Folklore from the Americas has sold well as a gift not only for young people but for adults who enjoy discovering the cultural background to some of the hummer information. Folktales from cultures across the Americas are retold along side facts that relate to the stories. 

Another favorite of mine is Birds of a Feather by Jane Yolen. Actually Yolen has several books about birds but this one stands out. Combined with a beautiful photograph by Yolen's son, each poem is followed by a few facts about each bird.  

Although there is little or no factual material in Mr. Popper's Penguins, I can trace my fascination with penguins back to reading this classic book. This book is a chapter book for elementary aged readers, although it is also a good family read-aloud. Pair it with One Cool Friend, a picture book by Toni Buzzeo about a child who is drawn to the Magellanic penguins he sees at the aquarium.

Budding birdwatchers will appreciate Look Up!: Bird-Watching in Your Own Backyard, which I reviewed earlier this year. Pair the book with a beginner field guide like Backyard Birds (Field Guides for Young Naturalists) and your young birder will be good to go.

And just for fun, if your young reader loves the game Angry Birds, check out National Geographic Angry Birds: 50 True Stories of the Fed Up, Feathered, and Furious. The book is a hilarious look at real birds who are annoyed, testy, outraged, or furious! Mixed in with funny comments related to the game are photos and facts about real birds and the behaviors that classify them as angry.

These are just a few of my recent favorites and I have mentioned other books in this blog. I hope you will add your favorite bird books for kids in the comments. The birds--and readers--are depending on you.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Parrots Over Puerto Rico

(Copyright Susan L. Roth)
As birds go, parrots seem to have a very special connection with humans. We are charmed by their colors, intelligence, and voices. The broad order that includes parrots contains over 350 birds but I suspect most of us think about parrots as pets more than wild birds because they have shared our lives and been popular companion animals for centuries. Some imitate human speech and a few, like the African Gray Parrot (see the October 22, 2013 post about Alex), are so good at mimicry that they seem almost human. In the wild some birds live up to 80 years! But some wild parrots are endangered and although it is illegal to sell wild-caught parrots, the popularity of the birds continues to drive illegal trade that further decimates some populations. For example, there are fewer than 500 Blue-throated macaws, while there are less than 50 mature orange-bellied parrots in Australia. Fortunately some efforts to save  parrots, like the kakapo, the world’s heaviest parrot and one that is also flightless, are working.

Parrots Over Puerto Rico by Susan L. Roth and Cindy Trumbore tells the story of the fight to save another breed of parrot. Their story is about the birds that have lived on the island of Puerto Rico for millions of years, but it is also a history of Puerto Rico and the impact that population growth has had on the birds. Also called Iquaca, the Puerto Rican parrot is the only bird unique to Puerto Rico. (Iquaca is the onomatopoeic name that mimics their flight call.)

Before the island was settled, it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of Puerto Rican parrots lived in the area. As soon as people arrived on the island, beginning with the Tainos around 800 CE, the parrots were hunted for food, to keep as pets, or to use the feathers for decoration. As sailors landed ships at the island, black rats began to take over the nesting holes and ate the parrot eggs. Since each pair of parrots usually mates for life and  produced only one nest of chicks a year this took a serious toll on the parrots. By 1937 there were only about 2,000 parrots in the mountains of Puerto Rico and in 1954 only 200 parrots were left. By 1967 only twenty-four parrots remained. Unless something happened quickly the Puerto Rican parrot would be extinct. 
Puerto Rican Parrot
 ( USFWS Photo; licensed by Creative Commons)

This is becoming an all-too familiar story. Hunting, environment and other factors decimating a population. Sometimes scientists and concerned individuals are able to step in and help before it's too late. Fortunately this is one of those stories with hope for a happy ending. 

Concerned scientists started to raise chicks raised in captivity using Hispaniolan parrots, their less rare cousins, to nurture the babies. By 1979 the first aviary-raised chick was released back into the wild. By 1999, one of the two aviaries had 54 parrots. Ten captive-bred parrots were released in 2000. People taught the birds to hide from hawks and avoid becoming prey. Dozens more birds were raised and released. Perhaps these birds will not disappear after all. An Afterword details more about the Parrot Recovery Program with photographs of the birds and the aviary staff and a look at how the history of Puerto Rico is intertwined with the history of the birds.
Hispanolian Parrots
(Licensed by Creative Commons)

The picture book is arranged vertically, rather than horizontally, allowing a spectacular view that runs from the ground level, high up into the tree tops. The story is beautifully illustrated in collage by Susan L. Roth. I had the opportunity in April 2013 to watch Susan work her magic. By only ripping or cutting pieces of paper, including take-away menus, into shapes, Susan forms pictures that are then positioned and held with tape and glue.  She takes pride in the fact that no other media are used--no pens, pencils, paints. The book offers a great story for bird-loving young readers and will inspire them learn more about endangered birds and maybe try their hand at collage art.

A copy of the book was provided by the publisher, Lee and Low Books.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

May I See Your I.D.?

As an undergraduate student in anthropology, many years ago, I signed up for a primatology class. I love non-human primates and thought the class would be a blast. Then I discovered that not only were we expected to sit for hours studying the gorillas and chimps at the Albuquerque Zoo, but we had to be able to identify more than 100 different non-human primates from pictures. Not only did that sound like too much work for a last semester senior who didn't need the elective, the catch was that some were so similar looking that the only real difference was chemical. So I dropped the course faster than a monkey eating a banana.

Fast forward about 40 years and I'm facing the same issues with birds. Not only are there hundreds of "little brown birds" (LBB), but it can be nearly impossible to identify the specific species. Case in point. I was
recently thrilled to find a little bird at Cape Valero in Rockport. Well, really I think Jim spotted the bird. It looked like "just another" LBB until I got out the binoculars. Then I started to see some yellow. I snapped a couple of photos, trying to get different angles. And then I set out to figure out what bird I'd seen. Was it a new one to add to my life list?

I posted the best of the photos to two of my Facebook birding groups, not only to share the photo and record the sighting, but also hoping someone would say, "What an amazing shot of _________________." Only no one did. They said "amazing shot" and "nice capture" but no one mentioned the type of bird.

So, pull out the field guides. I noted the small size and the short tail. I noted the field marks like yellow-orange throat and supraloral (the area between the eye and the beak). I noted the striped feathers on the flanks and belly. And of course the brownish eye stripe should help. Another shot of the bird showed me a white crown stripe. Of course I also took into consideration the area (South Texas) and the terrain (scrubby trees and grass near water). Based on the size, I started looking at wrens and sparrows. .

Le Conte's Sparrow (USGS photo)
Ah, ah....it's a Le Conte's Sparrow! One of the most easily identifiable birds, according to Audubon. But wait, the beak is wrong. Sparrows have conical beaks while the bird I saw has a longer dagger-like beak. So I'm pretty sure this is not a Le Conte or any other sparrow. Back to the guide books.

Eastern Meadowlark
Warbler's have stripes. But it's not a Pine Warbler (long-tailed). Maybe a Cactus Wren? Nope. They have rounded tails and don't have yellow. Consulting my Sibley Guide to Birds left me seeing so many different birds that I threw up my hands in despair.

Distraught, I posted the photo to Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Facebook page and begged for help. What did the experts conclude? Eastern Meadowlark. Immature.

Trying to learn, I looked at images of the Eastern Meadowlark. Field marks include a black patch or V on the breast, which if it appears on my bird is very very faint and streaked (indicating a juvenile bird). The illustrations in Sibley's are more similar to my bird than I see in the photographs on websites like WhatBird.com, where the birds look brighter and more yellow. To add further to the debate, given the region of Texas where this bird was seen, it could be a Western Meadlowlark. The only discernible difference is their song. The Eastern Meadowlark trills, "see-you-see-yer" while the Western croons "shee-oo-e-lee shee-ee-le-ee." Got it? Me neither. This isn't much better than chemical differences between monkeys!

I don't know how some birders can identify "on the fly." I'm not giving up but I have to have a photograph and even then it really would be a lot easier if the birds wore identification cards!

Friday, November 8, 2013

Backyard Birding: Mourning Doves

When I walked out to my yard at the house in Rockport I saw a bird sitting under a bush. I
watched it, assuming it might be hurt, and also kept the dogs away from it. After getting a photograph and watching the bird, I realized it was an immature bird and could fly but was content to stay under the bush and in the rocks. The next morning the bird wasn't under the bush and I figured it had flown away. But then I walked into the far back of the yard and two birds were sitting near the tool shed. They've been hanging around for several days now, clearly feeling safe in spite of Daisy and Indigo's curious looks.

These two are mourning doves, one of the most common birds in North America. Their long pointed tails are unique among North American dovesof which there are about 15 species. The mourning dove is the only native Texas bird that occurs in all 254 counties and, interestingly, is the only dove species found in Canada, although there are 300 species world-wide. Hunted for sport, more than 20-45 million are killed annually, although they reproduce enough that they are not in danger of disappearing. More than 350 million are estimated in the US population. (I learned how scientists count birds and it's very interesting but that will be another posting.)

Mourning doves are sometimes confused with common ground doves, but the easiest field mark for distinguishing the two types is the beak color. Ground doves normally have an orange/pinkish beak. As mourning doves mature they also get blue "eyeshadow" on their eyes. They are fascinating to watch and are not especially skittish, remaining close even as you approach them. When they fly it can be an explosive burst and they are fast flyers, going up to 40 mph. Their name comes from the drawn out call, a soft coo-oo followed by two or three louder coos that can sound like an expression of grief.

By the way, doves and pigeons are members of the same family, Columbidae, and the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. Pigeon often is used to refer to the larger birds in the family and, in fact, the plump "pigeon" seen in city parks begging for food is really a rock dove.

Who knows how long this pair will stay in the yard. But I'm enjoying the close up look at nature while they are here.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Alex The Parrot No Ordinary Bird: A True Story

Alex the Parrot by Stephanie Spinner has been sitting on my book cart (yes, I have a personal library style book cart) for a year (almost exactly--it was released on October 9, 2012). I couldn't give it up by donating it to my local library but I hadn't found time to read it. Glad I held on to this book! It's a great example of an illustrated book for readers who are older than the "typical" picturebook set as well as a nonfiction picturebook. It's also definitely NOT a cute bedtime storybook about a parrot. Too much detail and information and a lot of fodder for discussion that would keep the kids awake. So. Who was Alex?

"One June day in 1977, Irene Pepperberg walked into a pet store looking for an African grey parrot." Of the several available, she singled out one bird to be part of an experiment--the Avian Learning Experiment--at Purdue University. Through her work with Alex, scientists learned that, far from being barely intelligent creatures, some animals, including parrots, are highly intelligent and capable of understanding the words they hear--and in the case of parrots and mynah birds--those they say.

Interestingly the genesis of Irene Pepperberg's interest in animal intelligence started in 1974 when she saw a
television show about a new science--the study of animal language. In 1974, while an anthropology student at the University of New Mexico, I learned about the current research teaching chimps to communicate using ASL. Years later, I met one of the subjects of that research, Nim Chimpsky, at Cleveland Amory's Black Beauty Ranch in East Texas. Believe me, that chimp knew how to tell you what he wanted you to know! Studying chimps and gorillas, like Koko, or dolphins was where the grant funds went because those creatures have brains more like human brains. No one other than Irene was especially interested in "bird brains."

Alex was in many ways an ordinary parrot. He imitated noises he heard but spoke as clearly as a person, something not possible for a chimp or a dog or a dolphin. Budding scientists will appreciate following the processes and methods Irene used to teach Alex and her attempts to discover whether he really understood what he was saying. Like a petulant toddler "no" became one of his favorite words. Importantly, the book also explains why the research had to be meticulously document so that it would not be dismissed as operant conditioning like "Clever Hans," a horse who performed math problems by picking up cues from his handler. Eventually Alex could understand and say hundreds of words, many more than Washoe, a chimp who could sign 130 words, or Koko, who could sign 200 words. Alex even understood concepts like bigger or smaller and the concept of zero--something children don't grasp until they are about four or five years old. Alex even became an avian celebrity, appearing on television shows.

Alex at work (photo from Brandeis University
In the lab Alex "ruled the roost" and started teaching a younger bird words and even would tease his young pupils. Regrettably Alex did not live the normal life span of an African grey parrot. In his short life he taught the world that being a bird brain is a good thing and his groundbreaking work, and Irene's, continues with Griffin, one of Alex's students. African Grey Parrots are known as the "Einsteins" of the parrot world. In the wild they live in the rain forests of  West and Central Africa and importation of wild-caught parrots into the US has been prohibited since 1992.

The illustrations by Meilo So, who also illustrated Pale Male: Citizen Hawk of New York City, shows Alex in exquisite watercolor detail with sketchier 1970s style scenes around him. So used colored pencils and ink to provide additional illustrations. The hand-letter type uses the same shaped letters Alex used in his testing and cartoon-like bubbles show his dialogue.

Adults or teen readers who want to know more can read Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Discovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence--and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process, Pepperberg's book about her life with Alex. Readers from about third grade through middle school will learn a lot about African Grey Parrots and animal intelligence and this is a great companion book for a longer fiction book like The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate, about a gorilla that communicated with people.

I received a review copy of this book from the publisher, Alfred A. Knopf.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Look Up!: Bird-Watching in Your Own Backyard

When I talk about birding or my book, Hummingbirds: Facts and Folklore from the Americas, I am often asked for suggestions to help young birders get going on this hobby. Unlike a lot of hobbies, birding takes little or no equipment and can be enjoyed almost anywhere (it's a little harder to bird-watch from the middle of the ocean but even there you may see a few gulls and distance flying birds).

Look Up!: Bird-watching in Your Own Backyard by Annette LeBlanc Cate provides a humorous
introduction to birding for young readers, approximately 8 to 12 years old. Beginning with the inside cover papers and fly leaves, the book is packed with information, facts, and trivia. Birding etiquette and advice is outlined with whimsical asides and comments ("Don't put yourself in harm's way, ever! It's only a bird. Really." Cate became interested in birding as part of doing nature sketches and encourages kids to also draw what they see outside. The focus on the book starts in your own backyard and places close to home. Even in pretty urban settings there are a lot of birds to watch!

Chapters focus on color, shape, behavior, and details (field marks) that offer clues to identification. Even all those little brown birds have distinguishing characteristics! The cartoon-like illustrations and dialogue bubbles make the book fun and enjoyable as well as informative. A two-page map shows the geographic diversity of some of the more than 800 species that call North America home and the book ends with a good look at classification ("Classification Class!") and naming of birds. A bibliography suggests a number of guide books and websites to further help with identification of birds.

Sure, you can buy some fancy stuff for birding but in actuality you don't even need binoculars to start this hobby. But this book sets young birders on the right flight path.

(Note: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher, Candlewick Press.)

Friday, September 27, 2013

Birding and Business

Anyone who travels for work knows that it is not at all glamorous. You arrive, usually late at night, after a day of negotiating airports, rental car counters and shuttles, luggage carts, and hotel reservations. You eat something on the run and try to get a good night's sleep. Exhausted after working all day, you head back to the airport, rarely getting any time to see the city you are visiting.

Last week I traveled to Orlando and Central Florida. Whenever my travel arrangements are such that I have to add a day, I try to include something fun or touristy in the area. Concerned that a Sunday flight might arrive too late to allow me to drive 90 minutes north of Orlando and not be exhausted on Monday, I added a day to the trip.  We've been to visit The Mouse, so I decided to schedule birding time instead of doing the usual things in Orlando.

Arriving late on Saturday night, I got up early on Sunday and drove to DeLand, a small town off of Interstate 4. My destination was Blue Heron River Tours. Driving through the sub-tropical landscape along the winding river, I admit to thinking I heard echos of "Dueling Banjos" playing. After a while, and after dodging a suicidal Muscovy duck, I arrived at Hontoon's Landing. I was a little early and the captain told me he was expecting three more people so the tour would be a very small group. By 10:00 a.m. no one else had arrived so the tour was a private one. Kudos to the captain for not cancelling!

A lot of the birds were the same birds we see along the Texas coast and inland waters--herons, ibis, and such but I was able to see an Anhinga. We do have this bird, related to the cormorant in Texas but I'd so far not managed to actually see one. This one preened and posed very nicely for the camera! Some of the heron were similar but different, like this
Little Blue Heron
Immature Little Blue
Little Blue Heron who was so blue it was almost unreal. Young Little
Blues are white and frequently mistaken for young Snowy Egrets.

Meandering along the river, the boat actually made a big circle and we encountered an alligator basking on a tree trunk, as well as turtles and many other birds. Lazing down river was an old-style paddlewheeler. These old steamers were the only way to navigate the St. John's River in years bygone and they played an important role in the economic development of Florida.

Florida Scrub Jay
After the 2-hour cruise, I headed to Deltona and the Lyonia Preserve. This preserve is actually part of the Volusia County Regional Library where I was going to be speaking the next day. It's open on Sundays from 1:00-5:00 p.m. so the birding was not as good as I had hoped due to the later time and higher temperatures. Actually, after walking for about 30 minutes I had heard a few birds but not seen a single one! Disappointed, and sweaty, I was about to give up when this Florida Scrub Jay started dancing in front of me. I sat on a concrete wall next to the walkway and waited for this bird and a buddy to come back so I could get photos! Restricted to the rare oak scrub areas of Florida, this bird is the only Florida bird found only in Florida so it made the trip really worthwhile. One of their favorite foods is the acorn.

I sometimes take photos even when I'm not sure what the bird is or if the photo will even be viewable. The wonder of digital photography is that I can take 20 shots and it's okay if only one is good. Thankfully I decided to take a photo of a bird I could barely see in a tree. Turns out it is a Loggerhead Shrike. This amazing bird is small and hardly looks like a predator. Actually it is quite ruthless, hunting lizards, insects, mice, and other birds. It stabs its prey on its hooked beak and then impales the meal on thorns that hold the unfortunately creature while the shrike rips it apart. Nature is not always pretty!

There were many other birding areas in Central Florida but this was all I could fit in for one day. Thankfully, I had that day because shortly after I left the Lyonia Preserve monsoon rains started and continued through Monday. If I had not come in early, I would have missed so much beauty.

Monday, September 16, 2013

You Might Be a Birder If...

I've struggled about referring to myself as a "birder." And, by the way, there is a huge difference between being a birdwatcher and being a birder. Entire articles have been written about the differences and some true birders take exception to being called birdwatchers!

But you might be a birder if you get up at 5:00 a.m. to go on a birding field trip. I did that last Friday. Along with a busload of people with binoculars, scopes, cameras, and guide books, I headed out to Fennessey Ranch in Bayside, TX. The ranch offers 3,500 acres of land for birding. I had seen many photographs of the various birds and other critters on the ranch but this cool morning was not as productive. We saw some great birds but I was not able to get photographs of some of the best ones.

Green Jay (photo from Creative Commons)
Black Vulture
The most exciting bird we saw at Fennessey was the green jay. We saw several, or maybe it was the same bird flying back and forth. He rarely stopped long enough to focus a camera (photo from Wikipedia, licensed under Creative Commons). This was exciting because the green jay usually remains in the Mexico and South America, although it is starting to show up in Brownsville and the tip of Texas. More commonly we saw a lot of vultures, turkey vultures and black vultures. I actually kind of like vultures. They clean up dead things so disease doesn't spread. The black vultures is considered almost dapper compared to his companion, the turkey vulture, who is lanky and less elegant in flight. Both vultures were sitting on water tanks, poles, and towers around the ranch and about two dozen were circling over something that was dead or dying.

Golden-fronted Woodpeckers
We saw a number of golden-fronted woodpeckers. The light was all wrong so this is not the best photograph but take my word for it. This beautiful bird is found only in the brushland and open wooded areas of Texas and Oklahoma so it was a great catch for the trip. Less rare but still new for my photo collection was the killdeer. Killdeer are a shorebird, one of the most familiar, but they spend a lot of time away from the beach. If threatened while nesting they may feign a broken wing to lure predators away from the nests.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird
You might be a birder if you spend the day going from house to house looking at hummingbirds. During the Rockport HummerBird Festival people with great gardens and lots of feeders. Jim and I visited about eight homes plus a park and a hospice. The hummers were staying up north a little later so there were not the swarms but quality is more important than quantity. Many of the hummers were quite happy to pose and do acrobatics for the photographers. I got some ideas for more plantings to attract more birds at our house as well. But the best part of hopping around to hummer homes was the reports from other birders.

Calliope Hummingbird
You might be a birder if you drop everything to run out to a location where a calliope hummingbird was spotted. Why all the excitement for this little guy? (He is a male juvenile.) Calliopes are
rare in South Texas (and most of the US). They are the smallest bird north of Mexico and are generally only found in the mountains, preferring to be in areas above 11,000 feet, from El Paso west and north. This little guy liked to pose, and valiantly defended his magnolia tree, returning to the same spot over and over, making it pretty easy for photographers to get some good shots.

Double-crested Cormorant
You might be a birder if you get excited and pull over and back up when you see birds on a golf course. In addition to the "normal" herons, ibis, roseate spoonbills, I was thrilled to see this double-crested cormorant "posing." Cormorants are a common sight in beach areas but I loved watching this one standing by the water feature, looking like he was conducting an orchestra. They pose because their wings don't have the waterproofing properties of most water birds. When the cormorant is out of the water it must dry its wings out. The double-crested is the most common cormorant in North America and the one mostly likely to be seen at freshwater spots.

Finally, you might be a birder if you plan to spend your birthday birding. The best present I could get today is finding a painted bunting.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Blame it on Rockport

Rockport, TX, the "charm of the coast," is known for many things but possibly the best of their many festivals is the HummerBird Festival. The first thing a lot of people notice is that this festival is not called the Hummingbird Festival, although much of the festival does focus on the fall migration of Ruby-throated and other hummingbirds. But the festival also features activities and opportunities for novice and experienced birders who have an interest in the many other birds that live year-round or migrate through the Coastal Bend of Texas. And there are hundreds of species in the area!

My first experience with the festival was also my first experience with Rockport. Jim and I took a short vacation to this coastal town we had heard so much about during our early years in Texas. We were charmed by the town. Then I walked out of the hotel to be surrounded by hummingbirds! I was amazed. I had no idea that we had decided to visit during the height of the fall migration. Nor did I know that it was HummerBird Festival weekend.

As it happened, I was fortunate to have an editor at Charlesbridge who wanted to publish my book when I wrote one. And I had a friend who illustrated children's books with beautiful fabric art and the editor wanted to work with her also. We just needed to come up with a topic. After pitching around a few ideas, we weren't coming up with anything.

Then I walked out of that hotel on that weekend in 2007. Surrounded by hummingbirds, I could actually see the light bulb go off over my head. Hummingbirds were interesting and beautiful and colorful and they were a perfect match for fabric art. But I didn't want to write a book that was essentially just another biology of the birds book. While pondering what could make my book different, I remembered from my anthropology classes that the Hopi, Zuni, and other First Nations people had stories and mythology about the hummingbird. So I set out to match facts about the birds--what they eat, where they live, their migration, etc.--with pourquoi stories that explained the same facts from a cultural perspective. That idea, germinated in Rockport during the HummerBird Festival, became Hummingbirds: Facts and Folklore from the Americas. So blame this publishing event on Rockport!

Back to the Festival. 2013 will be the 25th year for the festival. Last year I was delighted to be invited to be a presenter. I don't consider myself to be an expert by any means but it was a lot of fun talking about mythology and symbolism of hummers with avid birders. The other highlight of the festival is being able to go to private homes with gardens that attract a lot of hummers. I was able to take photos up close as dozens of hummingbirds hovered and whirred nearby. A few locations also have banders catching hummingbirds in order to attach very tiny bracelets on their legs so that scientists can study migration patterns and other factors.
We are learning more about hummingbirds all the time. This bander was checking the gender and age of the hummer he's holding, giving us a great view of the southbound end of the bird. Yep, that is a hummingbird hiney!

This year I'm volunteering in the HummerMall, a huge area with vendors selling everything hummingbirds and birding. I've got my eye out for a good pair of binoculars and a sign that says "Hummingbird Way" for my garden. I'm also planning to attend a couple of sessions on birding on the coastal bend and developing a hummingbird garden. But the thing I'm most looking forward to is the field trip to Fennessey Ranch. I'm so looking forward to this that I'm willing to be up and at the bus site by 6:00 a.m.! The ranch has over 3,500 acres devoted to birds and birding with blinds set up for photographers. So expect photographs in the next blog posting. Lots of photographs!

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Gardening for the Birds

Mockingbirds like cacti
I've never been a big gardener. Actually I've never been much of one for the outdoors. The mid-century modern home we owned in Austin for sixteen years had a lush backyard and a side yard off the master bedroom that was full of interesting and exotic foliage, including a banana palm. The joke was that I only ventured outside once or twice a year.

That all changed when we moved to a new house with nothing but a few bushes, the requisite builder-supplied three trees, and grass. A lot of grass. One of the first things we did was plan for some garden areas to fill some of the huge lawn space and we wanted the gardens to be attractive to hummingbirds and butterflies.

House Finch on Photina
I wish I'd had a book like Gardening for the Birds by George Adams to consult back then. I have finally overused my renewal privileges at my public library so have to return it but I've been making notes about good plants to add to the yard. I'm especially interested in adding some new plants that attract birds we haven't seen before.

Wildflower Garden
Why do I like this guide? After providing general tips about creating bird-friendly environments, the author offers a very detailed calendar, divided by region, for which plants flower in which months and which like different degrees of sun or shade. One of the things we've tried to do with the gardens is have something blooming all the time to provide color and nectar at varying times throughout the year. While in Central Texas it is probably still not possible to have something flowering every month, this guides will be very helpful for filling in some gaps. With a little planning we can have almost year-round blooms. We've also put in a wildflower zone and the author deals with native flowers, as well as useful weeds that are good for birds. A huge section, over 100 pages, is devoted to a plant directory. For each plant, information is supplied about the birds that are attracted to it, along with details about the plant. Close up photographs of the plants and the birds have me drooling at the possibilities.The final section is a directory of birds, also taking up about 100 pages. Each double-page spread provides information about the bird, including its habitat and range, along with feeding habits and plants for food and shelter. Photographs and drawings help with identification.

At over 425 pages there is way too much information to digest, even after borrowing the book for six weeks. So I guess I'll be buying a copy before planting season starts.

Gardening for the Birds: How to Create a Bird-Friendly Backyard by George Adams (Timber Press, 2013)

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Duck, Duck, Goose

Ducklings hatched near our home
For some reason I've always been intrigued by ducks. Maybe it's the same reason so many children's books feature ducks and ducklings: they are accessible in the wild but are also often very approachable and can be tamed. They make great onomatopoeic sounds (Quack!) and most are really cute.

Peabody Hotel Ducks, Memphis

When Jim and I were first married, long before I became interested in birds and birding, I took photographs of ducks everywhere we vacationed. Somewhere in a box of pictures I have ducks from San Francisco, ducks in New Orleans, and ducks in Florida. The epitome of ducks on vacation are the Peabody ducks. Living in the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, those ducks are always on vacation! And they get the Penthouse Suite.

Jim teased me about taking those photographs; they usually included nothing to distinguish the area where these ducks were living, so what was the point? Back then I had to pay to have the film developed and printed, only to toss the photos into a box, rarely to be looked at again. So I stopped taking photographs of ducks.

Fast forward to my new found interest in birding .... and the ducks are back, along with some geese and many other birds. The amazing thing about ducks is the sheer variety of them, and interestingly few actually have the word "duck" in their name. Not counting hybrids, there are over 100 species of ducks and they are found all over the world, except in Antarctica. Their compact bodies look sleek in the water but oddly funny as they waddle on land. They waddle along for awhile but when they take to the air, they can take off almost vertically without any "runway" build up. 

So, here are a few of my favorite ducks... Bob the Duck is a Muscovy duck, one of only two species that have been domesticated, and the presumed father of the ducklings that hatched at the pond near our home in Pflugerville. Male ducks have nothing to do with caring for babies and the mother duck only leads the ducklings around. She disappeared, with all that remained being feathers, leaving the ducklings to fend for themselves. Ironically, right after I put up Duck Crossing signs, most of the ducklings were gone. The remaining two were taken to Wildlife Rescue to be raised in the safety of a farm. Sadly, Bob disappeared a few months later, most likely also having fallen victim to our local coyotes. 

I have a fondness for the all white Pekin ducks, especially those that are experiencing a bad feather day, like this one in the lake at Murphy Park in Taylor, TX. An old breed, they date back at least to 2500 BC in China and introduced in the US in the 1870s. Pekins are a type of Mallard, the other species of domesticated ducks. 

I'm starting to notice, and identify, wild ducks but will explore those at a later time. Oh, and I'll get to the goose later, too.