I and the Bird

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Friday, April 28, 2006

Beauty Contest

There has been a meme being passed around birding blogs recently (I didn't know what it was either, but check out this heavy definition) where birders chose their Most Beautiful Birds.


Here's my list (note: I'm only including birds I've seen...):
1. American Oystercatcher
2. Baltimore Oriole
3. Glaucous Gull
4. Long-Tailed Duck
5. Common Loon
6. Bonaparte's Gull
7. Red-Headed Woodpecker
8. Black-Capped Chickadee
9. Wood Duck
10. Sorry...but House Sparrow

Well there you have it. I've stayed away from warblers, which are too gaudy most of the time. Showoffs. I like a little class. It's like wearing a nice black tuxedo vs one of those Dumb and Dumber suits that always look wicked lame in person. But that's just me.
Let me try to pass this to: Birdchaser, Nature Kate and Mike's Digiscoping Blog

I and the Bird News

The latest edition (#22) of the bird blogger carnival, I and the Bird, is up (as of yesterday) on Home Bird Notes. I did not submit anything this time around, but it's still fantastic.

In other news, I have elected to be the host of the next edition of I and the Bird, coming up on May 11th. I've already got one submission, and am taking all comers (I won't be refusing many, unlike some people) so get your submissions to me (nicholas.lund@gmail.com) or Mike soon.
Thursday, April 27, 2006

Interview with Kathy Brader of the National Zoo

The National Zoo is on a roll. Last July the city of Washington had their hearts melted by Tai Shan, a baby Giant Panda. In February, the city welcomed another youngster to the Zoo's collection: a North Island Brown Kiwi. Like the panda, the birth of the Kiwi outside its native country is very rare (the last Kiwi born at the National Zoo was in 1975). Also, like the panda, the bird is extremely cute.
I recently swapped emails with Kathy Brader, the Senior Bird Keeper at the Zoo, and she was clearly very proud of her new charge. Like all new mothers, Ms. Brader was eager to swap photos, share the baby's milestones and discuss efforts to preserve the species in its native land (OK, most new mothers don't usually do that last one...). The chick is named Manaia, a Maori work meaning 'Guardian of earth and sky', and is, I repeat, very cute.

birdDC: If you might, give us a little background on Kiwis and the Island Brown Kiwi. How are they doing in the wild? Why is the Island Brown the only Kiwi that can be seen outside of New Zealand?

Kathy Brader: Wow start with a big one! Here goes. Kiwi are one of the most ancient species of birds, they go back about 39 million years and have only ever been found in N.Zealand. They are flightless with small wings, small eyes (though they do see okay), solid bones and two functioning ovaries. They are called the honorary mammal of NZ. They are the only bird with nostrils located at the end of their bill, and the second best sense of smell of any bird.

NZ is about 89 million years old and the only mammal species that occurred there naturally are 3 species of bats. Man has only been on the islands about 1000 years and they are the ones that introduced mammals.

In 1994 DOC (Dept. of Conservation) finished up with the some DNA work on Kiwi and has discovered that there 5 distinct species of Kiwi and two varieties. This may not be the final word on this, more work needs to be done.

North Island Brown Kiwi (Apteryx australis mantelli) is the only species found in collections outside of NZ. When NZ was “giving” out birds as gifts to various governments and zoos the NI Brown Kiwi was the most numerous and most known. When I started working w/Kiwi about 19 years ago there was an estimated 64,000 birds (NI Brown Kiwi) left in the wild, today it stands at about 24,000. They are losing about 4-6% of their population every year and that doubles every decade. Although habitat loss is a factor the biggest problem is the introduction of mammals to the islands.

Kiwi have no defense against mammals, feisty as they are. Dogs are the number one killer of adults, Stoats and cats take the #1 and #2 spot for killing juvies. 90% of all kiwi chicks left in the wild with no protection are predated by 6 months of age. Of the remaining 10% only 5% will make it to two years.

All 5 species (and the 2 varieties) are protected. NI Brown Kiwi are an endangered species. Our recent hatching brings the number of kiwi in the US to 17 birds.

Only 3 species of Kiwi are kept in captivity in NZ zoos. There is a tremendous amount of conservation work going on in NZ to protect all the species.

bDC: Is there anything being done to protect Kiwi on islands with an established population of introduced mammals? Can anything be done? Or perhaps should efforts focus on small, mammal-free islands - as has been the case with conservation efforts for another famous NZ flightless bird, the Kakapo.

KB: Yes the Kiwi has several programs in place including release onto cleaned out islands off shore. There are also large areas on the mainland islands that are fenced in, or areas where intense trapping/poisoning are carried out. Also the program called Operation Nest Egg started in 1994 has proven to be a good booster for populations. This was begun by Dept. of Conservation (DOC) and several zoos (both private and public), local Iwi tribes and paid for by govt funds, private funds and gets a large boost from the Bank of New Zealand (who have the best web site, check it out: (http://www.kiwirecovery.org.nz/Home/). The program removes eggs or chicks from the wild and rears them in captivity to a certain size/weight and releases them back in safe areas, always back to the same area to ensure the genetics are not messed with. This program has been extended to other NZ birds. There is a place in Wellington that was an abandoned water works area (right downtown, built on an earthquake fault line, not a good idea for a dam :) ). Anyways there was this huge area with wonderful trails, woods, ponds, etc, now being farsighted they fenced it in, removed all non native species, except for mice and introduced birds, invertebrates etc back. Lots of native birds came back on their own. They introduced the Little Spotted Kiwi and are now up to over 90 birds, this the first time little spots have been back in the wild on the North Island in 100 years. They have a 500 year plan in place. Its terrific place to bird, local schools use it for nature walks, talks etc. Wonderful place. (http://www.sanctuary.org.nz/ )

Kiwi are used as a flagship species, what ever you do to help them help everyone.

There are captive and wild programs for kiwi. They receive a lot of private support and work very hard to involve local communities in various projects including the local Maori (who consider the Kiwi an elder brother and is revered), remind to dig out the story on how the Kiwi lost his wings.

I am the kiwi advisory to the newly formed Ratite TAG (Taxon Advisory Group, for the AZA). I spent 5 weeks in NZ last year working at zoos, private and public and with DOC regarding different Kiwi issues. It has been very helpful to jump start the overseas group into a more pro active movement to keep Kiwi alive and well for the future in the overseas collections.

bDC: It sounds like the right steps are being taken. It's wonderful to hear promising news on any bird species, especially one as iconic as the Kiwi. Switching gears to the Manaia, the new chick, how did the birth go? Who are Manaia's parents?
KB:The male is named Maori and a wild caught bird that came to us in 1991 from NZ est. to be about 21 years old. The female is Nessus a San Diego hatch bird (1996) about 9years old. This is the first living offspring for both birds. Manaia is the first kiwi in this country (on her mothers side) that is now a 2nd generation bird.

The hatch was early only 64 days. So a big surprise to us all, and it went like clockwork. The chick must have read the protocol, because she does everything right on schedule (thank goodness). We couldn’t have asked for a better incubation (except for the hatch being early) and the chicks growth. This morning she was 541grams.

bDC: You say that Manaia is the first living offspring for both of her
parents, yet they are both quite old. Is it common for kiwi to wait so
long to lay eggs?

KB:Kiwi females usually begin to lay about 4-5 years old, males can start
breeding about 2.5 years, though some females have begun to lay about
3.5 years and some males about 2 years. Kiwi live (we believe, time will
tell us more) to about 60 years. This pair has been together for about
3.5 years and in captive situations nott's unusual not to have
fertility till the 3 or 4th season, this seems to be a captive problem,
but not enough research has been done (though research is adding every
year to what we know) yet to tell us about the wild situation. This
female has been laying eggs since she was about 5 years, though the zoo
she was at thought they were all infertile, but again one of the things
I learned last year in NZ was that a lot of good eggs get tossed by
people who do not know enough about Kiwi eggs. In NZ they actually have
two different kiwi incubation classes that they teach(its taught by Dr.
Bassett who is doing a lot of research into kiwi incubation techniques,
egg problems, etc). My goal is that in about 2-3 years to have a US Kiwi
Workshop and to bring in some people from NZ to get us up to speed. They
learn stuff every year over there, but a lot of times publications are
years behind.

bDC: What's the future for the chick? Is she going to stay with her
parents at the zoo or is she destined for somewhere else? and;
Who got the choice job of picking the chick's name?

KB: Her name represents a 1/2 bird 1/2 man spirit being who is a messenger to the gods. I picked out a bunch of Maori names and we (with input from the very top) picked that one. Some NZ friends of mine touted it around to some Maori friends of theirs and they all thought it was a great name. They thought what a great name for a bird that is representative of her species to our species. We are eventually go to set her up at the Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal VA (its the zoos offsite area for different endangered species). Eventually when she is at least 3 years old we will introduce a male to her (and hope they like each other). And no problem with all the questions, I do LOVE talking about Kiwi and esp. our newest special girl!

National Zoo's Kiwi Update Page
Bank of New Zealand Kiwi Recovery
Homepage of the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary
National Geographic Photo in the News
Monday, April 24, 2006

Kenilworth Park

I've read several times in MDOsprey posts about people seeing birds in something called Kenilworth Park. For awhile I figured that they were talking about the grassy areas at the entrance to the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, one of my most frequently visited spots. When a Grasshopper Sparrow, Vesper Sparrows, Orchard Orioles and Blue Grosbeaks were reported from the park, by the 'football fields' no less, I knew I was missing something.

A quick email to Gail Mackiernan straightened me out. It turns out there is a large, grassy park just down the road from KAG, about a 5 minute drive from my house. I took advantage of the cloudless afternoon to go check it out, and hopefully catch a glimpse of some of the aforementioned birds.

I quickly found the park (thanks for the directions, Gail), parked in the first dusty lot and took a look around. The place is huge. On the right side of the road are football fields, probably 5 total, alternating with un-mowed sections of tall grass and shrubs. Behind the tree line, presumably, is the Anacostia. On the other side of the road is carefully mowed grass that leads down to more trees and a small stream. Outstanding habitat all, especially for openfield birds like prairie warblers and savannah sparrows, both of which had been recently reported.

I, unfortunately, wasn't so lucky. I arrived at the park around 630 and the long shadows peeling off the trees must have indicated to the birds that it was time to quiet down. I had hoped to catch the park's residents in full afternoon song, but there was almost no birdnoise apart from a few Canada Goose honks, the Cardinal's droning siren and the melancholy whistle of White-Throated Sparrows.

Off the back of the second parking lot I cornered a group of Savannah Sparrows between myself and the river. The Vespers were reported as being in a group of Savannah's and I was certain I was in the right place, but the birds were just not cooperating. They were overly shy and would flit into the deep woods whenever I tried to get closer. Finally they shot out of the trees and across the park and I lost them. I had IDd three Savannahs, no Vespers.

I continued through the park and to the walk-only area behind the barriers. It looked like superb habitat, but I saw nothing aside from Cardinals, Barn Swallows and a few Grackle flyovers. I headed back to my car a bit disappointed but excited about finding such good habitat so near my house. Maybe it's better in the mornings...
Sunday, April 23, 2006

Super Sunday

Got up excited to look for some birds, but unsure of where to go for them.

Money's tight as an intern, and so gasoline is a serious consideration. I wanted to go to Lilypons to look for the Anhinga, but the drive from my house is over an hour and I didn't want to go all the way up there if it was just going to rain on me. I decided to stick around the DC area.

When I got to my car, though, my earlier decisions (I thought my mind and body had agreed...) meant nothing, and I quickly found my way to the George Washington Parkway towards Potomac. Somehow I had reasoned to myself that going back up to Violette's Lock would be a happy medium, but after about an hour in the car I was forced to get gas anyway. Whatever.

I pulled into Violette's Lock and took stock. The trees were swarming with birds, but almost everything I got my binoculars on was a yellow-Rumped Warbler. There were tons of them. In fact, I was getting pretty frustrated that they were hogging my binocular space all the time. Nothing personal, I was just looking for some new birds. I did see a nice Nashville Warbler feeding in the brushy area between the lock and the river. Besides the Nashville, a couple Parula, some Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers and Brown-Headed Cowbirds it was the only Yellow-Rumps before the rain started.

And it rained hard. I was a little disappointed that I hadn't seen any life birds but had driven all the way up to Potomac instead of going for the Anhinga. I left Violette's and fully intended to come back home out of the rain and watch the NBA or something. It was working, too, until I came to a sign that said <-- FREDERICK-BALTIMORE / WASHINGTON -->. I suddenly remembered that Lilypons was just off the road to Frederick and yanked the steering wheel into that lane. Screw it, lets go.

About 20 minutes later I was pulling into Lilypons Water Gardens, a sprawling complex of ponds and wetlands...perfect for an out-of-place Anhinga. I didn't know exactly where to go to find the bird, but I figured there would be a bunch of birders that I could just follow. Whelp, after walking around for 40 minutes on muddy roads without seeing another birder I was ready to admit that I might have to go ask someone. I was a little worried, actually, that the bird had left. My luck turned, though, while I was stumbling back toward the office. I heard an unusual call from some dense vines and eventually saw it's singer: a White-Eyed Vireo, a lifer for me (believe it or not). Moments later I saw three people (one with a scope over his shoulder) tramping down a road I had yet to take...and I knew I had my Anhinga-ers.

The group said that the bird was seen "just a few minutes ago" (phew!), but was flying around and so could be anywhere. We watched and waited until, sure enough, the bird flew into view just over the treetops in front of us. I knew immediately that it was a not a DC cormorant, as it is sometimes confused with, as it's wings were set much more forward than cormorants. It looked almost like a large falcon with a pencil neck. Regardless, it was pretty radical. The bird soared, alternating flaps with glides, round and round over the pond, gaining altitude until it was nearly out of sight. I lost the bird in the clouds and sun and decided to head back, very satisfied.

Buuut I wasn't done. Getting back into DC the weather turned very sunny and I couldn't figure out what I would do at home so I decided to go check out the Arboretum for some warblers. I stuck around the Capitol Columns parking lot (well, I parked there and walked down through the orchard thing and to the pond and back) and saw a great many Yellow-Rumps (again!) as well as my year's first Pine Warblers and a surprising Eastern Kingbird. I've always wanted to see a Hooded Warbler, but apparently I should have been up by the Azalea Gardens since John from A DC Birding Blog had some good looks at one there. I've said it before and I'll say it again, maybe next time.
Saturday, April 22, 2006


I've complained a lot about how the weather over the last few months has been beautiful during the work week and lousy on the weekend. Well I've finally decided to stop trying to fight it and start living with it. Last night I waited out the rain delay at RFK instead of assuming the game would be cancelled, and was rewarded with 3 Soriano homeruns and a 7-4 Nationals win. This morning looked equally grim, but I decided that the lure of White-Faced Ibis (which were, contrary to my post, reported at Huntley Meadows yesterday afternoon) was too much to let pass. Cloudy but not raining, thinking the birds were there but without confirmation, I packed up and headed for Alexandria.

The weather turned bad as soon as I pulled into the parking lot. It was not looking good. I made the hike through the woods (which seemed longer than usual thanks to the rain) and made it to the boardwalk. I was hoping that around a bend I would see a cluster of birders with their scopes pointed at the Ibises...but there was no one in sight. I walked to the edge of the pond and saw lots of Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Snipe, Rusty Blackbirds, Tree, Barn and Northern Rough-Winged Swallows and a Great Egret. Nice, but I didn't see what I was looking for, plus I was soaked. I thought about turning around, but decided instead to hike over to the two-story observation tower where I could maybe keep dry and keep looking for the Ibis.

Turns out that this is where the birders were keeping themselves, their scopes at the ready. To my surprise (and delight) one of them said that the Ibis were indeed out on the pond. The rain was heavy, and the birds were taking cover in the reeds at the far side of the pond, not being seen for the last 20 minutes or so. In addition, the birds could only be seen from the angle provided by the top of the structure, where the rain was pounding down. I resigned to the relative comfort of the bottom deck and hoped someone would shout if the birds emerged.

Luckily, I kept my binoculars trained on the area where the birds were last seen and sure enough I was the first of the bunch to re-sight them, from the bottom deck no less. A couple had set up their scope next to me and kindly let me have a look at the birds after they got it sighted. White-Faced Ibises, here in Virginia. Success.

The birds provided a few glimpses after the initial ID, but stayed mostly behind the swamp-grass. When the rain slowed a bit most of the birders took the opportunity to start the walk back to the parking lot. Back on the boardwalk, the man who let me use his scope reminded me that an American Bittern had been seen nearby. I was wet and cold and wanted to keep moving, but I told him I'd keep my eyes open. Sure enough, about 5 steps later I spotted the Bittern about 10 feet off the boardwalk in the reeds. Unbelievable looks. The bird moved slowly through the reeds, posing every few steps and giving great looks. I had only seen this bird once before and only for a moment at that. I trudged back to my car wet and happy.

The rain let up completely by the time I made it back to the lot and I decided to look for some warblers on the trails near the welcome center. My binoculars were wet (and I dont think they're waterproof...) and so I couldn't ID some of the birds I saw, but I had good looks at a Hermit Thrush and my first-of-the-year Ovenbird, one of my most familiar birds from the NY woods.

Instead of sitting on my butt all day and complaining about the weather I rolled the dice and went to Virginia...and had a great day. Maybe I'll keep this lucky streak going and check out the Anhinga in MD tomorrow...
Friday, April 21, 2006

Re: Carpe-ing the Diem

Well I balked yesterday at my attempt to find the White-Faced Ibises at Huntley Meadows and it's already biting me in the ass. The birds are MIA from the swamp today and it's not likely that they'll return once they're gone. Awful. John of A DC Birding Blog left an ominous message about the fickle habits of migrants like the WFI, but I hoped he would be proven wrong this time. In my defense, though, there's no way I would have made it down to Huntley before, say, 7:30. I promise.
It's shaping up to be a lame weekend all around. I was planning on going to Nationals games both tonight and tomorrow night (growing up a baseball fan in Maine didn't provide much opportunity, aside from yearly Fenway trips, to see Major League ball so now I'm grabbing as much as I can like a guy in one of those flying-money booths), but the forecast is set to THUNDERSTORM both nights. Thanks, thanks a lot. So no birding and no baseball. Fantastic.
In slightly better news (or maybe nature just rubbing it in) it appears that waves of migrants are swooping into the area. Some 8 warbler (and 1 tanager) days are already being reported...and this rain will only serve to ground the birds around us. I'll plan on hitting up the Arboretum and KAG, storm or no storm. Migrant targets: Hooded Warbler, LA Waterthrush, prairie Warbler, Summer Tanager. Wish me luck.
Thursday, April 20, 2006

Ibis Attempt...Thwarted

Got out of work a little early today and made an attempt at getting down to Huntley Meadows to see the White-Faced Ibises. I made it as far as 395 South. As soon as I saw the bumper-to-bumper traffic on the highway I took the first exit off and came home. There's no way I would have made it by 7:15. No worries, I'm confident the birds'll stick around til Saturday morning. Fairly confident.

Anhinga Update

The Anhinga spotted in Maryland yesterday has been sighted again at Lilypons Water Gardens in Buckeystown, MD (40 miles from DC).
Looks like I have a destination for the weekend.

Also, the White-Faced Ibises are still hanging out at Huntley Meadows. I'm going to try to find them tonight or tomorrow afternoon.
Wednesday, April 19, 2006

District Patrol

Keeping you posted on the latest sightings and buzz in the DC Area.

Ibises? Ibisi?
I don't know how you spell the plural, but 4 individuals of the White-Faced Ibis have been seen at Huntley Meadows Park in Virginia (a mere 25 minutes from DC!). The birds flew in yesterday, the 18th, and returned this morning...and area birders are hoping that they will stay even longer (til the weekend at least so I can get down there...). VA-Birders report that seeing more than one WFIbis at a time is very rare (hence my trouble with the plural...). Some fantastic pictures taken by Paula Sullivan can be found here. See you there this weekend.

Awful. Puns are the devil's vomit.
Anyway, two species of Kite have been seen in Virginia in the past week. A Mississippi Kite was seen cruising (but not stopping) over the Metz Wetlands Bank in Woodbridge, VA (35 minutes from DC. The bird has not been seen again.
A Swallow-Tailed Kite was also briefly seen nearby in Fairfax, VA (37 minutes from DC). This bird was also only seen once.

And Anhinga
Another addition to the crazy migrants this week, an Anhinga was seen soaring over Lilypons in Frederick Co. MD (1 hr 13 minutes from DC). Like everything else, this bird has so far been a one-time only sight. I'll keep you posted.
Monday, April 17, 2006

Killing Cormorants

I read an article on Yahoo! News the other day titled: Mich. Tries to Clamp Down on Cormorants and was pretty disappointed. It seems that Double-Crested Cormorants, which were down to 89 nesting pairs on the Great Lakes in the 70's, have responded to tougher pollution standards and now number more than 100,000 nesting pairs.

Their rebound has not been celebrated by everyone, however. Sportsmen in the area are up in arms about the number of fish these birds are eating and have begun efforts, with federal funding, to kill, scare away or oil the eggs of the birds.

The issue has once again inflamed the conflict between conservationists and sportsmen. The irony of this situation, though, as I discovered on several websites including this messageboard, is that the cormorants seem to be helping the fisherman instead of hurting them. Cormorants have been feeding most heavily on alewife, a small baitfish not native to the great lakes. It seems that the decline in alewife population has been beneficial to populations of gamefish that people actually want to catch, especially walleye.

The fact that so much federal action has been undertaken without, obviously, an effective study of whether or not these birds are actually hurting the fishing industry, is unfortunate. I wonder what would happen if such an immediate and lucrative response from Congress could be given to people who wanted to protect species instead of 'control' them?

The worst part of the whole article is the opening quote from Jimmie Miller, a 67 year old man who was probably interviewed while sitting on his JetSki on his lakeside cabin with a freshly-paved driveway:

"We're taking our lake back."

Yeah. Take that, nature.
Saturday, April 15, 2006

Violette's Lock

Straight up gorgeous day. GORGEOUS.

I was taking a flight out of Dulles a couple weeks ago and as we gained altitude over the DC metro area I noticed lots of wooded areas along the Potomac that, I assumed, would be good for birding. Although I thought I was the first person to discover these areas, it turns out that I was looking at a very popular, very beautiful national historical park: the C&O Canal. So today I took the quick trip up to Violette's Lock and walked the path between the canal and the Potomac.

What a paradise. The first thing that struck me about the area was the clean smell of the river. Living in the city you're subjected to a lot of smells and only a few of them are pleasant...even less of them are 'clean'. But that's exactly what violette's lock smelled like. Fresh water and wind and blossoms. Awesome.

The second thing that struck me was how many birds there were. The air was filled with songs...most of which I hadn't heard since last summer. Almost immediately I head the whurr-pop of a Northern Parula, my target bird for the day and No. 207 for me. Nice. I walked about 2 miles down the path encountering 10-15 Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers, lots of Yellow-Rumped Warblers, woodpeckers, Turkey and Black Vultures, singing Cardinals and Chickadees along the way. I also saw a water snake (or a regular snake swimming down the canal...) and another snake, which means I saw more snakes in 1 hour than my entire summer in the woods of NY. I also saw a large brown lizard on the far side of the canal...but I haven't been able to figure out what it was. It was probably a foot long and looked all brown without stripes or anything. I think it must have been a female Five-Striped or Broad-Headed Skink, but I didn't get a picture and don't know for sure. No matter.

I had heard Northern Parula but wasn't able to see any, which isn't a very satisfying feeling. I mean, it's still legal and all, but not the same. I had resigned to this until I was about 10 steps from the bridge across the lock and to the parking lot when I heard the whurr-pop startingly close to my head. Looked up, Northern Parula. Done and done, satisfied. (Except with the picture that didn't turn out...).

Made a stop at KAG before getting back to my house. Compared to Violette's, KAG was desolate. Very little singing, very little activity, smelled like muddy crap. I still love the place, though, and it still turns up some nice sightings. Two hunting Osprey made circles with big fish in their talons. Beautiful birds. On the way back down the river trail I saw my year's first Lesser Yellowlegs (although its legs were blatantly orange...Ruff? Huh? Again, the pictures didn't come out.)

Here are the only pictures that did come out:

Thursday, April 13, 2006

I and the Bird #21 and I

Put on yer Sunday britches, gather up yer nickels and help Uncle Dennis into the backseat: it's Carnival Time! Well, maybe not that kind of carnival, but the 21st Edition of the 'I and the Bird' birding blog carnival. Actually, it's probably better than an actual carnival...where growth-stunted Deliverance extras fight one another to shuffle through puke and discarded fried dough plates so they can catch a glimpse of Otis The Fattest Cow Ever.
Nevertheless, included in this (month's?) edition, among other fantastic posts, is my recent interview with digibirding pioneer Norm Saunders. It's a fantastic piece of journalism that will some day undoubtedly win me a Pulitzer. So, in conclusion, check out I and the Bird #21. Discounted admission for seniors and vets.
Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Mall Shopping

Trying to find a place to look for birds after work while the sun is still out has so far been a problem. The two most reliable locations, the National Arboretum and Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, close before I leave the office. I thought all was lost until I saw a message on VA-BIRD that someone had seen (among other birds) a Northern Parula and a Palm Warbler right on the Mall. The Mall! That's right near me!

So at 6 I took off toward the Washington Monument scanning the trees as I went. Let me tell you, it looks promising. One of the reasons I like DC so much is that it's a very green city, especially the Capital Hill area. The Mall is lined with large trees on both sides. On the other side of the street are sculpture gardens, fountains and intricate arboreal displays (like at the National Gallery). Aside from a Cardinal, there were no extraordinary birds, though.

After the Washington Monument is where things really get good. I'm not sure if it's called Constitutional Gardens or the German-American Peace Gardens or what, but the area between the reflecting pool and the Vietnam Memorial is great habitat. I believe this is where the warblers were seen today, and I kept my eyes open (all I had was my eyes, unfortunately, no binocs). Two American Coots were in the pond. Three Chipping Sparrows by the woman's military statue (I'm not sure what it is exactly). A ragged blue jay. Several times I saw warbler-shaped birds passing through, but a combination of sharp light and lack of binoculars prevented ID.

The best bird of the day was a mistaken ID. Walking towards the reflecting pool from the women's statue I just mentioned I saw a flash of rusty red. The bird landed on the ground in front of me, partially obscured by a tree, but giving a nice view of a streaked breast and a red back. Finally I've seen a Fox Sparrow, I thought. Nay. The bird hopped forward and revealed itself as a Brown Thrasher. Still a good bird, and my first of the year, but not what I had hoped.

Regardless, the place looks promising. I'm glad I've found such good habitat so close to my work. I'll be back.
Monday, April 10, 2006

Finally Sunday

After a rainy, windy Saturday (and a long and hazy Saturday night) I woke up on Sunday ready to get outside and find some birds. Reports of spring migrants were fresh in my head, and I planned to hit the best three local DC spots to find them: Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens for Northern Rough-Winged Swallows, the Arboretum for Palm Warblers and Huntley Meadows to find the Little Blue Heron that was seen there.

Since it was about noon before I actually left the house (c'mon I was out late...) I figured I would wait until dusk to look for warblers at the Arboretum and instead headed across the river to KAG. It was a gorgeous day: bright sun, easy breeze and not a cloud in the sky.

The parking lot was loud with bird activity, but nothing out of the ordinary save a few late cedar waxwings. Wandering through the ponds I watched a Belted Kingfisher hunting from a tree. A Great Egret, my first of the year, flew lazily overhead. In fact, the laziness of the park affected me...so did my headache...and I relented to the warmth by taking a nap on the boardwalk steps overlooking the cattail marsh.

A half-hour later, somewhat refreshed, I woke up and walked to the main pond. Just as I hoped, swallows were everywhere. Trees were most common, but I easily picked out my first ever Northern Rough-Winged Swallows and a single Barn Swallow (John from A DC Birding Blog was apparently also at KAG that day and picked out some Bank Swallows in the mix...). There were some waders I could at the far end of the pond, closer to the end of the river trail, but I wanted to see the Little Blue Heron at Huntley Meadows so I cut short my trip and headed out.

It took me forever to get there. Forever. I was in the wrong lane on Route 1 when it split off without warning and shot me across the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. Because I don't know the roads I had to do a big loop all the way back to East Capitol Street...a nice solid hour of driving. Afterwards the brutal traffic on lower Route 1 and a sign reading mistake (I thought "next signal" meant "next as in the one after this" not "immediately next") left me a screaming menace on the road (I get pretty frustrated when lost...).

Finally I got to Huntley Meadows and all was well. I didn't get the Heron I was looking for, but I did spot a Yellow-Crowned Night Heron, a new bird for me, cowering in the reeds at the start of the boardwalk. Also off the main pool were close-up looks at a Snipe, some GW Teal and my third new bird of the day, a Pectoral Sandpiper.

Satisfied and tired, I headed back home to watch the Masters finish. I once again forgot that the Arboretum closes at 5 and so missed out on the chance to see warblers singing at dusk. Oh well, it'll give me a goal for next weekend.

New life list: 205 Year: 115 Times I've tried to go to the Arboretum before remembering that it was closed: 4
Saturday, April 08, 2006

The Most Remarkable Thing I Have Ever Seen

Randy Johnson is a major league baseball pitcher. You may also know him by his nickname, the no-less-unfortunate "Big Unit." He is famous for his intimidating stares, his tall awkward ganglieness and, most important, his ferocious fastballs.

In 2001, while in spring training with the Arizona Diamondbacks, Randy was part of the most amazing confluence of circumstances in, I believe, the history of the universe. Watch it HERE. Note: There are other versions of this video on YouTube.com, but I think this French version, with its slow-mo and lack of babbling meathead commentators (at least English-speaking ones), is the best.

Can you believe that? I saw this video in 2001 and I am just as amazed now as I was then. I think about it all the time. How many things had to come together for that! That bird decided to fly at that specific altitude, at that specific moment, on that particular day, in the middle of a baseball game (when have you ever seen that?) and the sum of those decisions put the bird in an exact 3 square inch location in space-time THAT WAS ALSO OCCUPIED BY A 95MPH HEATER FROM THE HARDEST THROWING PITCHER IN BASEBALL. Unbelievable.

What does this have to do with birds, you ask? Well one thing I've never been able to figure out about that video is just what species of bird is the one to meet its incredible demise. Most all of the stories written about the incident refer to the bird as a generic 'dove.' Is it? The size of the bird and the uniform whiteness of the feather explosion rule out pretty much everything Sibley's got for me as far as doves go. Mourning and White-Winged Doves (and pigeons) are about a foot tall, while the video bird is probably half that. The smaller Arizona doves, Inca and ground-doves, have red wings. The video bird clearly is all white.

Upon further internet research (no need to call in Mr. Luneau...) I suspect that the dove killed by Mr. Johnson was an escaped White Dove, the kind that is usually released for weddings and other lame events. Apparently these birds are used to meeting hilarious deaths, as they were the same species that, after being released during the opening ceremonies of the 1988 Olympics in Korea, promptly flew into the olympic flame and were burned to death.

One question is raised, though. You can clearly see another dove flying in the top right of the video, making this a pair of birds. If these are wild birds living in the stadium and presumably reproducing, doesn't that qualify them as a new ABA list species? I think we should look into it. I know it's just a short, blurry video, but it's way better than this or this.
Friday, April 07, 2006


Black-Capped Chickadees are the state bird of Maine, a fact that was drilled into me in elementary classroom after elementary classroom. As a kid this fact was always kind of a let down. Chickadees were small and wimpy and kind of annoying-sounding, couldn't Maine have picked an eagle or a hawk or a sweet talking parrot or something? And, to make things worse, Maine's state flower is A PINE CONE.
"Hey sweetheart I brought you a lovely bouquet of pine cones."
"Oh, can I smell them?"
"They don't smell like anything except wood and sap and dirt. Plus they'll probably cut your nose. I love you."
So, Maine is pretty lame when it comes to picking it's official things:
Flower:White Pine cone. Nice.
Tree:White Pine. There's a shocker.
Nickname: Pine Tree State. These state lists brought to you by the Maine State Pine Tree Board.
Song: "State Song of Maine" by Roger V Snow. Are you kidding me? It's called the "State Song of Maine?" What kind of balls does this guy have to come right out and name it "The State Song of Maine"? The real winner: "Maine" by They Might Be Giants singer John Linnell. Awesome song where Maine is a giant crushing evildoers.
State Soil: Chesunkook. Oh I totally thought it was gonna be Tunbridge for state soil but then BANG Chesunkook! What an upset! I guess the voters were really looking for more of a classic Spodosol that typifies the northern temperate regions. We'll be talking about this one for ages.

And don't get me wrong, here. I'm not trying to talk trash about my beloved home state (check out the tattoo on my right arm...), I'm just saying that as an elementary school student it wasn't exactly a thriller learning about the official Maine state stuff. Even the flag is boring.

So this is all a long way of saying that it took me a while to figure out just how cool Black-Capped Chickadees are. It wasn't until this past summer, in fact, when I was working in the state forests of south-central New York state.

I'm really big into David Attenborough-narrated documentaries (ie, Blue Planet, Life of Birds...) and I remember something on one episode of the Life of Mammals. There are these monkeys in East Africa that travel in groups with other monkeys and mammals. Some of the animals are near the forest floor, some are near the tops of trees, some are at the front and some are at the back. See, there are a lot of predators in the forest: jungle cats and hawks especially. The monkeys have found, though, that traveling in groups with many animals acting as lookouts on different levels of the jungle offers them a lot more protection coverage than otherwise.

Chickadees, I found, do the exact same thing. They are very garrulous, active birds and travel in small flocks (eh...15?) through the woods. I would usually encounter them while standing in a silent part of the woods. I would hear a peep or a twitter in the distance, and then it would get louder and more voices would join and all of a sudden I was in the middle of a boisterous swarm of jumping and yelping birds that would depart in the same fashion, leaving me in the same, silent spot.

As the summer went on I noticed that other birds (always nuthatches and titmice, often warblers) would tag along with chickadee flocks and form roving gangs of songbirds, often the only birds in the forest. I suspect (with no scientific base) that after mating was finished and once the leaves begun to thin, the other birds found it advantageous to travel with the chickadees for protection (as the monkeys) and to exploit the reliable food sources that the year-round chickadees knew. As a wildlife photographer, I learned to love the sounds of chickadees. They are friendly, trusting and always presented themselves nicely for pictures.

I guess Maine knew what it was doing on that particular selection. Pine cone, though? LAAAMMMEEE.
Thursday, April 06, 2006

District Patrol 4/6/2006

It's been a long week...and boring work days are only aggravated by listserv emails that taunt you with fresh spring arrivals. Deep breath. OK all this means is that one day this weekend I'm going to have to get out and make a day of it. Not sure when, though. I really want a nice morning of late sleeping, but birders make it their passion to get up at some ungodly hour (although, this has never really paid off for me. Kate and I got to Point Pelee at like 6 am but hardly saw any birds until 10ish...). So I'll probably just get up around 10 and spend the day at the Arboretum (looking for warblers, especially Palms), KAG (looking for: late Fox Sparrows, Marsh Wrens, Snipe and waders) and Anacostia Park looking for LBB Gulls and Peregrines. I'm siked already. See you out there (I'll be the guy with his hair cut too short).

Getting the Worms
Some new birds spotted in the area include an Eastern Wood-Pewee at a gold course in(as far as I can tell) Catonsville, MD (47 minutes from DC). This bird is about a week ahead of schedule.
Yellow Palm Warblers have been turning up just about everywhere, Prarie Warblers and Northern Parula were found at First Landing (a brutal 3 and a half hours from DC) and a black and white warbler was spotted at Rappahannock (1.5 hours).

Grackles: They're GRREEEEAATTT!!
Discussion is being...discussed on the MDOsprey board about a possible Boat-Tailed Grackle that was seen in Towson, MD (1hr from DC). If verified, it would be a county record, as the species doesn't usually travel far inland. Some think the bird is a large Common Grackle or a Great-Tailed Grackle, while the ones who've seen it are holding their ground. I'll keep you posted when some harder information arrives.
Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Interview with Norm Saunders

Anyone who uses a computer to find information on birds or birding (including reading this blog) owes a lot to Norm Saunders. For nearly 20 years Norm and his wife Fran have been dispensing information on bird sightings, trips and news in the DC area using digital technology. It all started in 1987 when Norm (I tried calling him Mr. Saunders but he wouldn't have it) created The Osprey's Nest (TON), a computer bulletin board system that allowed users to telephone in and listen to messages posted by other callers. It was the first system of its kind in the country dedicated to birding and began what must be called a revolution in birding, where sightings from all over the country can be shared almost instantly through a listserv like Norm's successor to TON, MDOsprey.
I recently asked Norm a few questions about the early days of digital birding, and what the use of digital technology has meant, and will mean, to birdwatching.

bDC: In terms of reporting and sharing sightings, what options were available to a DC-area birder in the days before the start of TON?

NS: There was always the MD Ornithological Society, with its many chapters (most of which maintain loosely-defined phone trees to notify folks of good sightings) and the Northern Virginia Chapter of the Virginia Society of Ornithology (ditto). But if you were a serious up-and-coming birder there was really only one source: the Audubon Naturalist Society’s Voice of the Naturalist.

When I was getting started in birding in 1981, Claudia Wilds was compiling and recording this tape. It was released at 10:00 am every Tuesday morning from Woodend, the ANS Headquarters in Bethesda. One had to make the call (usually more than once) and then take notes like crazy to make sure every last bit of information was wrung out of the week’s recording. Later, as I recall, Claudia had help from Erika Wilson (now retired and living in Arizona), and now a number of people still take on this burdensome task. It was *THE* way for birders who weren’t “connected” to get the necessary information about the really good sightings of the week.

Of course the very best way to get the timeliest information is to be part of the inner circle of birding. There is still a loosely-defined group of 25-30 birders who get the news before everyone else of a rare bird and who get invitations to see birds that are never reported in a public forum, usually because they are on private property or located where hordes of birders simply wouldn’t be welcomed. Most of the birders out there looking for news of good birds have neither the time nor the skills to penetrate this coterie. I suppose this group is necessary to insure that really rare birds get properly validated and recorded, but it’s a fact of life about birding that has never sat well with me and one of the primary reasons I got involved with providing a public birding forum.

bDC: So, once you recognized the need for a better system of reporting birds, how did you chose a computer bulletin board system (BBS)? Home computers and the internet were certainly not as prevalent as they are today, was finding a 'market' for TON a problem?

NS: Oh, that was the easy part. I'm an economist by trade and I always felt the best part about this job was the chance to fool around with the heavy iron of the big mainframes. So I was a sucker for personal computers when they first started appearing in the early 1980s. I wanted to know them inside and out and I wanted to push them to their limits. Shortly after buying my Kaypro II I read an article about BBS's where I could talk to other people and get free software and generally hang out with other computer weenies.

I had to teach myself enough Z80 assembly language to write a simple download routine for the Kaypro. That enabled me to get my first real communications package, and that opened up the whole world of bulletin boards. After a few years searching for other online birders, I realized that there were no birding-related bulletin boards (keep in mind that this was well before a viable, useful internet had arrived) so the idea of BEING the first hit me between the eyes like a freight train (how's that for a mixed metaphor?).

I wanted to aim at people from the DC area, primarily because it was a local call for them to reach The Osprey's Nest (TON), the bulletin board I began in 1987. Getting the word out was simple--I was a regular BBS'er on about 4 or 5 local bulletin boards, so I posted messages there letting people know about TON. I started to get new users almost immediately and by the end of the first few months we had about 50 or so periodic users. After that it grew slowly but steadily until we peaked out at about 150 or so local birders. Even though we had had over 2000 individuals call in from all over the U.S. to see what it was about, it wasn't practical for most of these folks to call often because of long-distance charges. This was the great limiting factor of BBS communications. Nonetheless, it gave a lot of locals a taste for what was possible. Many of these early subscribers remain my friends to this day!

bDC: For those of us who aren't familiar with a BBS, can you explain essentially how it worked?

NS: An individual would call the phone number (a dedicated telephone line) and my computer/modem would answer the phone and query the caller for their name and password. If they were a new user they would have to go through a registration phase where I gathered information about their name, address, phone, e-mail, etc. Once past the login process the user could elect to go to the message section of the bulletin board or to the files section.

The message section was a sequential set of messages posted by other users, just like a listserv, but without the re-distribution to all subscribers. People would post sightings reports, ask questions about equipment, flame some other user (which I tried to keep to a minimum), etc. You know, all the stuff that goes on in listservs and, I suppose, in blogs today.

The file section contained material I thought would be of interest to birders and other amateur naturalists. I posted weekly transcripts of the Voice of the Naturalist, of Armas Hill's Philadelphia Bird Line, of the weekly Cape May Bird Tape, etc. There was really quite an accumulation of freeware software, birding checklists, transcripts, and other goodies, including field trips scheduled from a variety of around-DC organizations, birding clubs, and the like. I put up most of this but a significant proportion came from users of the BBS.

bDC: The internet has allowed people who share an interest but live far apart to create a sense of community. TON and the listservs that came in its wake have certainly had the same effect. Do you think that birding is "better" now?

NS: Well, yes! We hear of sightings from around the state almost instantaneously now. We meet like-minded folks on-line and that leads to widespread networks of birders of all skill levels around the state. This mix of expertise flattens the learning curve and eases the formation of mentoring relationships. It is this mentoring which has led to the current bunch of "young Turks" now moving up the ladder to the top levels of birding in Maryland and elsewhere. People get over the many beginner's mistakes faster and amidst, generally, a supportive and well-informed commentary.

bDC: Are there people, perhaps from the group of elites you mentioned before, who don't approve of the access amateur birders have?

NS: There will always be a few, I suppose, who enjoy that sense of being in the inner sanctum and who resent the wide distribution bird sightings get today. I know a lot of birders in Maryland though and I can't really think of any who don't see forums such as MDOsprey as a tremendous boon to this insane fascination with birds that we share with each other.

bDC: Where do you see the future of digital birding?

NS: Cornell Labs and others are moving more toward online electronic reporting systems for their various citizen science exercises. To the extent that this gets more people involved and aware of environmental issues, I applaud their efforts. To the extent that people use this data to draw their own conclusions about birding issues, I am increasingly concerned.

However the use of electronic media evolves, though, it will continue to be with us and we should all work to make it a valuable adjunct to the spread of birding knowledge.

Birder Profile: Norm Saunders

Name: Norm Saunders
DC Location: Postal Square Building, between Union Station and North Capital St. at Mass Ave NE
Profession: Economist
Years Birding: 25
Organizations: MD Ornithological Society, American Birding Association
Lists: North American Life List-669; MD Life List-363; Worcester County, MD Life List-300, DC Life List-166 (gotta work on this one!)
Field Guide: prefer National Geographic Society for field use, Sibley and others for home references
Optics: Bausch & Lomb Elites, 8x42; Leica Televid 62mm w. 30x eyepiece (my wife uses the Leica Televid 77mm scope, but then she's stronger than I am); Canon 10D w. 100-400mm zoom for bird photography

Favorite Bird: Northern Mockingbird--this bird's antics first got me interested in birding, lo those many years ago.
Least Favorite Bird (C’mon we’ve all got one): Rock Pigeon
Bird You’d Most Like to See but Haven’t: any tropicbird species, anywhere
Wish You Were Better at Identifying: gull hybrids

Favorite DC-area birding location: Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens and the Arboretum, across the river from KAG
Favorite non-DC location: Assateague Island, Worcester County, MD
Best DC area Sighting: Peregrine Falcon at KAG, 20 years ago
Missed Opportunity: Long-billed Curlew in Southern Maryland, back in mid-1980s
Fondest Remembered Single Day: trudging through the boneyards on a brisk May morning in Gambell, AK
Monday, April 03, 2006

New Michigan? More like 'No Michigan'!

Hilarious joke! What kind of comic genius could dream up such a pun? The kind of genius who isn't distracted by looking for birds all the time. So, yes, for the second time in a row, my visit to New Michigan SF turned up nothing. And, like, not even no new birds, but hardly any birds at all. During my visits this summer, while not turning up crossbills, at least offered a lot of other birds to look at. On Sunday I saw ZERO birds. ZERO. Without a few calls from American Crows and BC Chickadees I would have come away completely empty-handed. Oh well. I'll be back.

Hot on the heels of the latest I and the Bird carnival, I have offered (and been accepted) to host the event in May. See you then.

California Condors, America's largest and one of its most rare birds, are making progress. A pair of birds have begun nesting in Big Sur for the first time in over 100 years.

The local listservs reports (MDopsrey and VA-Bird) are full of spring migrants. Early April has brought with it Broad-Winged Hawks, Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds, Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers, Yellow-Throated Warblers, LA Waterthrush, Northern Parula, Palm Warblers and more.

Location: Portland, ME

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