I and the Bird

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Thursday, October 26, 2006

New IATB and some Maine Birding

The 35th edition of I and the Bird Blogger Carnival is up at Migrations. My recent interview with Brian Walton of the Santa Cruz Predatory Research Group is up there for all to enjoy, as are a ton of other posts from birding blogs around the globe.

No word yet on a new blog...my laptop power cord is shot and I'm waiting for a replacement before I tackle anything else.

I've been birding in Maine for the last couple days, and it's been great. On Monday I got a new pair of binoculars, and it's like a whole new world out there. My previous pair, some Nikon Owl IIs from, like, the 1970s, crapped out during my pelagic trip (how do binoculars stop working?! I dunno they wouldn't focus...). Based partly on a recommendation from Paul Guris and largely on some testing at the Wild Bird Center of Yarmouth (a great store), I am the proud owner of a spanking new pair of Nikon Monarch 10x42 binoculars. Great stuff.

My first stop with the new glasses was Falmouth Town Landing, right near where I grew up. The difference between the new goggles and my old Owls was amazing, and I could pick out detail and color that I never would have been able to before. As sort of a welcoming gift from nature, I saw two lifers right off Town Landing, a red-necked grebe and a blue-headed vireo.

The next day I trekked out to Dragon Fields, a famous local sparrow hangout. I had never been to Dragon Fields before (named after the neighboring Dragon cement plant), and was amazed at the habitat potential. The 'field' is in fact a large capped landfill that is excellent for sparrows, hawk-watching (it appears to be one of the highest points in Falmouth), and other open field birds like longspur. The sparrows weren't cooperating, but I did get a glimpse at what I think was a mourning warbler (brown/gray above, strong yellow below, white eye ring). It didn't stick around long enough for a good ID, though. In any case, I'll be back to Dragon Fields for sure.

Finally I made the trip down to one of my favorite places in the world, Fort Williams State Park in Cape Elizabeth. Just a beautiful spot. I saw two Ipswich Savannah Sparrows, along with about 1500 common eiders, just beginning their molt.

More Maine news as it comes, I'm going with some family members up to our hunting camp at Shirley Bog near Greenville, and there's a possibility of some gray jays, spruce grouse and other crazy species. I'll keep you posted.
Monday, October 23, 2006

Did I See A Cape Verde Shearwater?

A full report on my pelagic trip off the coast of Maryland and Delaware will come soon, but first there's some controversy. About midday, and close to the farthest offshore we traveled, our boat spotted 3 shearwaters cruising the waves ahead of us. I saw one of the birds clearly but, not having any previous experience identifying shearwaters, was unable to identify it to species. Several other observers stated that the birds looked like greater shearwaters, but Paul Guris, the leader of the trip and a man who's identification skills I would come to respect as the day wore on, immediately called out that the bird did not look to him like a greater but could indeed be the much more uncommon Cape Verde shearwater. There are photos taken (thankfully) by George Jett and posted on the on the See Life Paulagics website. See for yourself.

Here are some other pictures of the Cape Verde Shearwater for comparison:

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Interview with Brian Walton, coordinator of the Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group

The other morning I got off the Metro and watched a large flock of pigeons graze lazily in Farragut Park. They were joined on the ground by bold, well-fed house sparrows and European starlings. As I watched these birds lounge through the grass I thought: where are the predators?

It seems to me that cities are the perfect place for birds of prey. There is an abundance of food in pigeons and house sparrows, and there are plenty of concrete ledges for nest-building. Why, then, don't we see more birds of prey in DC?

My working theory was that crowded cities don't meet the territorial needs of raptors. Birds of prey can wage some epic battles over territory (ask Martha), and perhaps cities just don't provide enough room for the birds to...wait for it...spread their wings.

But I needed an expert opinion. I managed to get ahold of Mr. Brian Walton, one of America's foremost experts on birds of prey. Mr. Walton has a long history of protecting birds of prey, and has been the coordinator of the Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group since 1977 and is a lecturer at the University of California - Santa Cruz.

I asked Mr. Walton specifically about Peregrine Falcons, here's what he had to say:

bDC: What are the territorial requirements of Peregrines?

Walton: "No specific requirements, they need a nest ledge, and abundant food which seems to be occurring in virtually all major cities. In places where food is extremely abundant they may nest as close as a hundred yards apart (in Long Beach Harbor there are 6 pairs less than a mile apart), and in some places they now nest on ground (saltmarshes) or even emergent tree snags in re-growing forests to exploit abundant food in those locations. "

bDC: Why more falcons haven't moved into cities like DC, despite the fact that there is an ample food source (pigeons and house sparrows by the thousands) and lots of buildings and ledges for nests?

Walton:"Many places where peregrines nest in cities, the original birds were released there. In other places peregrines have moved in and I do not think anyone knows why they have moved into those cities and not others. It may be a matter of time. I would expect some of the birds that nest on bridges around DC to move into the city soon, however the amount of human activity on some buildings can limit use by falcons. There are definitely many buildings of the type that one would expect peregrines to occupy in DC. There is definitely food and other needs."

"Peregrines are doing a pretty good job of occupying cities, they can because they only eat birds and bats that they catch in the air. Their prey seems to be vulnerable moving through the cities where there is no natural cover. Peregrines catch birds and bats at twilight and even after dark in city lights. Add to normal prey items is the abundant pigeon and other bird populations like sparrows, starlings and parrots. No other predatory bird can manage this lifestyle over the course of a year and most need very specific food items during the breeding season. Occasional red-tail, kestrel and in some areas merlins and coopers hawks can make a living but usually the prey for the types of other raptors is not sufficient or available in cities."

"One other thing to make clear about peregrines. They are not adapting to cities. They live and hunt in the air, they roost where it is safe, the buildings or bridges are just like cliffs, and in fact there are fewer eagles and owls to harass the falcons or eat their young in the city environment. They do the exact same thing in the city as their counterparts do in the wild areas. No other raptor could do the same in the city as they do in wild areas. "

So it sounds like once Peregrines and other raptors can develop appetites for city food, cities could be an ideal place for them to live. I hope that development comes sooner than later...those Farragut Park pigeons have had it too good for too long.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Book Recommendations

My office has an awesome library full of books on nature, parks, timber management, geography and other environmental stuff. Naturally, I find myself drifting to the Bird field guide and reference section, and I've discovered a few books that I like very much.

Seabirds of the World: The Complete Reference.
Jim Enticott and David Tipling

I've decided that seabirds are my favorite. They don't try to hide or force you to cover yourself in bug spray or get up at ungodly hours...they just sit by the beach and wait.

This book contains beautiful photos of every seabird in the world, with full descriptions. That said, this book is more useful as a 'wish list' than a field guide, as the large size, hardcover and dust jacket make it less than idea for carrying out to sea. The pictures are lovely, though, and looking through the book makes me want to venture to far-flung places to see these birds.

Top 5 seabirds I want to see after reading this book:
5. adult breeding Imperial Shag
4. White Tern
3. Pacific Gull
2. Ross's Gull
1. totally white phase Southern Giant Petrel

Here's a link for Amazon.com ordering information.

Jim Flegg's Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe
Jim Flegg, with photographs by Eric and David Hosking

I usually don't like field guides that use photographs instead of drawings...but I find that a good picture is often more helpful for giving a real sense of the bird. Photos give a better sense of size, color and for the way shadows play off birds in the wild. This guide to Europe has a lot of very clear photos (full photos, not cutouts...). More importantly, the descriptions and range maps are laid out very simply.

British and European birds I most want to see after looking at this book:
5. White-Breasted Kingfisher
4. White-Headed Duck
3. Bullfinch
2. Rock Thrush
1. Lammergeyer

Ordering information from The Birding Shop can be found here.

The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America
David Sibley

No offense to you, RT Peterson, but the Sibley guides are the best. More plumages, better descriptions, better range maps. I have the larger Birds of North America book, but these pocket editions are the best ones for bringing into the field. Each species is given it's own space with clear drawings of birds in multiple plumages, as well as range maps that include migration and rare sightings. This is the book I'll carry with me in Colorado.

Western birds I most want to see after reading this book:
5. Varied Thrush
4. American Dipper
3. Laysan Albatross
2. Montezuma Quail
1. Ferruginous Hawk

Click here for some Amazon.com ordering information.
Sunday, October 15, 2006

Maryland and DC Records Committee News

The Maryland/District of Columbia Records Committee is a branch of the Maryland Ornithological Society and has the final word on official sightings and birding records in the area.

Phil Davis, Secretary of the MDCRC, sent an email to the MDOsprey listserv with a summary of the Committee's recent activity. Here are some of the highlights.

The Official List of Maryland birds has grown by 5 species, up to 429.
-Neotropic Cormorant. This bird spent some time on the Potomac last October and November.
-Cave Swallow. A couple Cave Swallows were seen as part of last November's huge irruption.
-Calliope Hummingbird.
-Northern Lapwing. March, 05 in Frederick, MD
-Townsend's Solitaire. First Maryland record in the spring of 1996.

The Dusky Flycatcher was the only species added to the Official DC list, bringing it up to 326 (my DC list? 101).
Friday, October 13, 2006


I am leaving DC in a week. I have a job as a mountain photographer in Aspen, Colorado and I'll be driving out there after a couple weeks at home in Maine.

For many reasons, it will be very sad to leave this city.

From a birding perspective, the DC-metro area has provided me with habitats and encounters that I never would have expected. My favorite aspect of birding is that it takes you to some unusual places, and I feel that birding in DC has given me a perspective on the city that tourists simply do not get. It's been fantastic.

This isn't to say that this blog is going to go away. I am still going to be birding wherever I go, and I still want to write about my experiences. Although it's a pain to start from scratch, I think I'm going to get a new URL and design a new site (it'll be nice to make an simpler design...). I'll continue posting here until the new site is ready.

So stay tuned. I have some awesome trips coming up and I am excited to write about them. On Oct 21 I'll be taking my first pelagic off the coast of Delaware...and I'm still feeling like there'll be an albatross sighting.

After that, I'll be up and down the coast of Maine, then taking a monster road trip with planned stops at: Niagara and Montezuma in NY, Point Pelee ON, prairie chickens in the midwest, grasslands in South Dakota, Rocky Mountain NP in CO and I'm sure some interesting spots in between.

Stay tuned, and thanks for reading.
Sunday, October 08, 2006

Birding the Mall

Kate and I and millions of tourists strolled through the monuments on a lovely Sunday afternoon. I wasn't looking especially hard for birds, but I had no trouble seeing them.

One of the best things about birding is how accessible it is. If I want to go fishing, I've gotta get all my stuff together, drive to the lake or ocean, launch the boat, get it all set and finally I'm fishing. With birding, I can stroll along the FDR monument with a can of soda and see a Palm Warbler 5 feet from my face. Maybe that's why I like it so much. Not because birding's easy (it ain't), but because you've always got to be ready. You're not gonna catch a perch from your cubicle, but you might see a hawk or a falcon.

Back to the Mall...I saw my first Golden-Crowned Kinglet, Yellow-Rumped Warbler and Palm Warblers of the fall without much effort. The Kinglets and YR Wablers were near the Jefferson Memorial (my favorite DC monument. The rest of the List is as follows: Jefferson, Lincoln, Vietnam, Washington, WWII, Korea, FDR. Just so you know.) and the Palms were at the FDR.

In fact, there were YR and Palm Warblers everywhere. Good times. Other highlights included a Caspian Tern flyover and about 15 Laughing Gulls at the Tidal Basin.

Another note: Try the National Building Museum. Great exhibits, no crowds.
Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Piping Plover Video from StopExtinction.org


Martha, Beloved DC Eagle, Euthanized

As reported here in The Washington Post, Martha, one-half of a pair of Bald Eagles that nested for years near the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, has been euthanized after suffering a severe wing injury. Sad news.

The story emphasizes George and Martha's importance, both physical and symbolic, to the reintroduction of Bald Eagles to the DC area. George and Martha's longevity and success living in a semi-urban environment were a sign that humans and eagles could accommodate each other in DC. At the same time, George and Martha's 16 eaglets helped bring the DC-area eagle population to levels not seen in decades.

I also liked the bit in the article about how George and Martha turned grizzled construction workers into birders: "'Big tough crane operators, concrete guys, everybody just looked for the eagles,' said Jim Nichols, a tugboat operator for one of the project's contractors." It only takes one encounter for people to understand the value of protecting wildlife, hopefully Martha's offspring will continue to inspire DC citizens the way she did.
Monday, October 02, 2006

Sad Story from Korea

I'm behind the ball, but just today I stumbled across a tragic story from South Korea, where a gigantic land-reclamation project has killed off one of the world's most important shorebird habitats to make way for...no one knows.

In late April workers plugged the last hole in the Saemangeum Seawall, cutting off a 155 square mile tidal flat from the sea. The Sawmangeum system was the single most important shorebird staging area on the Yellow Sea and lies smack in the middle of the East Asian Australasian Flyway. The flat was the most reliable source of food for several endangered species, including the spoon-billed sandpiper, Nordmann's greenshank and the Great Knot.

A story on the seawall from Birds Korea writes that:

"By 25 April, 2006, only four days after seawall closure, shellfish beds in the enclosed area started to die. By the end of May, most were dead, and water quality was already deteriorating rapidly. 90% of Saemangeum's vast tidal-flats are now expected to be lost by 2007, either dried out or permanently flooded. Water pollution is expected to worsen dramatically. The area had enormous local and national importance for fisheries, supporting the livelihoods of an estimated 25 000 people." (emphasis in the original)

One of the saddest parts of this story is that there isn't a plan or necessity for the reclaimed land. The project was thought up in the 1950s when Korea needed farmland to feed its growing population. Today, though, hunger isn't such an issue in Korea and there are a lot fewer farmers...not even enough to farm the new land. In addition, the soil exposed by creating the seawall is too salty for crops. Now Korea's government is planning on building an amusement park or 'the world's largest golf complex' to lure tourists.

It is assumed that the creation of the Saemangeum seawall will "probably lead to the extinction of some bird species." It will also affect North American shorebirds who summer in Alaska and migrate along the Pacific coast of Asia. This is just a heartbreaking situation.
Sunday, October 01, 2006

Sabine's Gull on the Susquehanna

Anyone who has followed my every word knows that at one point I stated that the bird I would most like to see is the Sabine's Gull. I think it's beautiful. Bold wing markings with contrasting white triangles near the 'elbows'...it just looks exotic and oceanic.

There was a Sabine's reported in the aftermath of Ernesto, but I don't think many people got to see it. For the last day or two, however, a Sabine's has been seen reliably at the Conowingo Dam near the mouth of the Susquehanna River in northeast Maryland. Here are some directions.

As much as I would have liked to gone up and seen this bird...I'm not really in any rush. I've got plenty of birding years ahead of my and I know a Sabine's will cross my path again sometime. So, since I was busy and didn't really feel up to a 1.5 hour drive, I'll let the bird alone. If it wants to come perch in front of my window, though, that'll be a different story.

For those of you demanding photographic proof, here's a link to the photo site of extremely talented Maryland photographer, Mark Hoffman.

Window Birds

I played touch football with a bunch of friends yesterday and I am almost completely immobilized due to soreness. I didn't stretch enough, and I'm not used to sprinting and stopping and stuff...so my body isn't used to such punishment.

It's ok, though, becuase the birding from my window has been pretty solid of late. All I have to do is lay on my back from my bed and look out into the trees and wait. Yesterday was huge for window birding, with the appearance of a fall-plumage Northern Parula and a Broad-Winged Hawk in the sky. This morning brought my first Blue Jay. That brings my window bird list up to:
Redstart, Parula, BW Hawk, Blue Jay, House Wren, House Sparrow, Starlings, DE Junco, Chipping Sparrow, Least Flycatcher and Chimney Swift.

Location: Portland, ME

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