Sunday, December 4, 2011

Essential Reading on the Species Concept

Ted Floyd has put up an absorbing (and challenging) article on the limits of the species concept at the ABA Blog.  This is essential reading, especially for birders interested in evolution, regional variation, and identification to sub-species.  Among many other things, Floyd discusses Darwin at length, talks about Arnold Shoenberg and atonality, and defends David Sibley's decision to use regional names for sub-species in The Sibley Guide to Birds.  Make sure to read the comments!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Nuttall makes the NYT

There's a nice article in the New York Times on the Nuttall Ornithological Club ("the nation's oldest birding group") featuring a visit to Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology and view of many very famous skins, such as a trio of large woodpeckers.

From top: Imperial, Ivory-Billed, Pileated Woodpeckers (Photo: MCZ)
Several local birding notables get a mention:  my neighbor Peter Alden, MCZ bird collection manager Jeremiah Trimble, and some hot young birders.  I did not know this, but the MCZ has skins of 7, 000 species.

Monday, November 14, 2011


As my son said about making 250 lifers this week, "now all you need is 50 more!" And then 50 more ...

My three readers have been on the edges of their seats since my riveting Oct. 22 post, Nearly 250, where I began the countdown.  One reader cast her vote for ducks comprising 249 and 250.  Safe bet.  So without further ado,

249. Canvasback (11/10, Fresh Pond, Cambridge)
250. Northern Shoveler (11/13, Arlington Reservoir, Arlington)

Coincidentally, the Shoveler brings my 2011 count for Massachusetts to 200, which was my goal for the entire year.

With December ahead, I need to make a concerted effort to get to the coast for ocean birds, which remain a huge hole in my birding experience.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Windfarm Warbler Deaths

Nothing stirs up angst like mass deaths of birds, whatever the cause.  The recent news that 484 Blackpolls had died at a the new windfarm on Laurel Mountain in Kentucky had my state listserve, MassBird, all in a knot.  Comments rapidly turned to the fraught Cape Wind project, and solar, and general angst.

Now some facts are emerging that complicate the issue, namely that the deaths were not due to turbine collisions but due to lights left on at the adjoining power substation.  Birds, attracted to the lights on a foggy night, collided with the building.  The difference between this event and routine deaths at skyscrapers in, say, Boston, is that Laurel Mountain in on migratory flyway. (Critics rightly point out that Cape Wind will be on the flyway of wintering ducks such as scoters, which migrate in huge numbers.)

There is a good round-up of the issue and associated reading by Dave Irons at Birdfellow.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Tips: Chipping or Clay-Colored?

I confess that I remain stymied by most sparrows. So, I'm doing some serious time at my local community gardens simply looking at sparrows. Especially Chipping Sparrows, not only because they are charming but because large flocks of them often hold a Clay-Colored.  So I read with interest a recent exchange of ID tips on Clay-Colored sparrows on the MassBird list-serve.  One authority weighing in was David Sibley, and he has kindly summarized his remarks (including some not in his guide) at his blog.  Another commentator, Phil Brown, has updated his blog with some side-by-side diagnostic shots to illustrate Sibley's tips.

Now that Sibley mentions it, I noticed a fine partial eye-ring on a cooperative Chipping. I'd never seen that before.  Time to get back out and look again.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Nearly 250

Lifers, that is! I started counting (using eBird) in Nov. 16 of 2009 and 250 is looming.  I bird primarily in Massachusetts (221 are state birds), and primarily in Middlesex County (196 are county birds), so it is a pretty local number.  Count down with me:

245 Lincoln's Sparro (9/29/11)
246 Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker (10/17/11)
247 Sora (10/21/11)
248 Pectoral Sandpiper (10/22/11)
249 ?
250 ?

Stay tuned!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

"The Big Year": Behind the Scenes

Very nice radio special by Tom Ashbrook on WBUR Boston interviewing Mark Obmascik, Greg Miller, and Lynn Barber.

Monday, October 17, 2011

"The Big Year" Review Round-up

In anticipation of actually seeing it myself, The Big Year movie has been getting a lot of attention, mostly positive.  Here is a sampling of reviews:

Jeff Gordon, pres of the ABA, gives the film a thumbs up and argues that it is a reason for celebration, and that the birding community should embrace it "as our own" and dance with our Swaros on.

Dave Irons reviews it on BirdFellow.

Kim Kaufman sees that it promotes a generally positive image of birders.

BirdChick thought it was a "pleasant surprise."

Robert Mortenson on Birding is Fun really enjoyed it.

Corey at 10,000 Birds found it lacking.

And of course, A.O. Scott reviewed it in the Times.

I'll try and see it soon, if it lasts in the theaters!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Fall Birding: Looking for Skulkers

With the start of the new semester, I've had no time to post, and little time to bird.  This past week I decided, in my limited time, to focus on thickets near water and look for skulkers. Fall birding can be hit-or-miss, but with the recent weather change conditions were right for migrants, and I located two Canada Warblers, one at the famous Wayland Community Garden in the buckthorn/grape thicket, another along the Edge Trail at Great Meadows Concord.  While Canadas do breed in Massachusetts, they are rarely seen in Spring, so these might not be true migrants but post-breeding-dispersal birds. I find warblers in any season challenging, and these were only the second and third Canada's I'd ever seen.  The learning curve (about which I hope to write soon) continues!

Meantime, on the subject of Fall birding, eBird has posted a great primer on how to understand weather and migration patterns to anticipate Fall migrants.  Essential reading!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Sausage Dogs

I love Richard Crossley's off-beat descriptions of birds in his fascinating new guide.  Pithy, colorful, and often a hilarious break from the clinical precision of Sibley and Nat Geo. Here's what he calls the Ruddy Turnstone:

"A bird with real character:  the 'sausage dog" of shorebirds.  Walks quickly, seeming to sniff around like a terrier, head close to the ground, looking for anything edible. ... Pocket battleship ..."

Sausage Dogs, Halibut Point State Park, Cape Ann, MA (Aug. 26, 2011)

Looking for anything edible
Good birding!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

How Well do you Remember Bird Colors?

As it turns out, I have lousy visual memory for colors.  That is, when I compared my color recall to that of others in the Bird Color Challenge at Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  As part of the development of its Merlin Project, an impression-based bird ID tool in the works, the CLO is asking birders to take a simple quiz on what colors they recall after seeing a picture of a bird for 5 seconds.  The quiz is addicting, and it builds a database of color associations for Merlin.

Have fun!

Monday, August 15, 2011


After the recent AOU shakeup in nomenclature, including the end of dendroica, comes the news that the AOU itself might be no more. Actually, any change that involves the inclusion of South American ornithological societies is a good one.  A new society with hemispheric oversight is being tentatively called the Society for Ornithology, or SFO. 

Meantime, we are on vacation in Maine at a pond with at least six loons (including one juvenile) but few other birds.  Perhaps because it has been raining for two days?  Once the rain stopped, though, a family group of Blackburnians began showing up regularly in the morning and early evening; very hard to see, but I did get one good look at an adult female feeding a juvenile.

Cedar Waxwings seem to love this area. Here's one shot from a nearby marsh.

Cedar Waxwings, Raymond Pond marsh, Cumberland County, Maine (full frame, click to enlarge)
There is no such thing as boring August birding!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Pelagic Birding

I'm new to pelagic birding, having been on a total of two, count them, two whale watching trips to date. Last Friday on what is now a summer tradition my family took the Seven Seas Whale Watch out of Gloucester. Like last summer, the whales were nearly 30 miles southwest, off Provincetown, which meant a long cruise and, hopefully, lots of birds. Well, we did have the long cruise, but it was overcast, windy, and choppy, with virtually no surface feeding going on, if the whales were any indication.  But they played by the boats and offered easy pictures.  Truly charismatic megafauna. My daughter just hung at the rail in silent awe. 

Have I mentioned that taking decent shots of whales by the boat is not hard?

All shots of a 30-year-old Humpback (click for full size)

What few birds we had (scarcely a dozen Great Shearwater, two Gannets, three Laughing Gulls, a Common Tern, a couple Cory's Shearwater, the usual gulls, and about a hundred Wilson's Storm Petrel) were maddeningly hard to photograph, as no one was feeding.  I got off with a couple half-way decent exceptions out of nearly 400 shots (half of them attempts to catch a WISP in flight).  It was my first pelagic with a longer lens, so a learning experience. Click all for full size.

Probably a first-summer Greater Black Backed, with missing P10

Great Shearwater

Herring Gull
Good birding!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Camp Birding

What was it like to be outside before I began birding?  I often forget, but one measure is how much the simple pleasures of car camping have changed.

Last weekend my family met friends at Lake Dennison Recreation Area in Winchendon. Lovely lake, nice campsites, pretty quiet.  That is, until a thunderous Ovenbird woke me at 5am.  I wonder how many times I've heard Ovenbirds while camping but not really "heard" them? Here are some of my notes:

Setting up camp: hmm, two pine warblers, red-eyed across the street. Ah, ovenbird very nearby.

Fetching fire wood: red-eyed while driving out, another across the road from where we always buy wood.

Dinner: three pine warblers, actually. Fly-by hairy, distant redbelly.

Next morning, early: teacher-Teacher-TEACHER! Cardinals, a downy rattle, chickadee.

Later, making coffee: the red-eyed is trying to get me to think its a yellow-throated; might have to investigate.  White breasted (with all the pines, there might be red breasted about).

Late morning, we hiked up Mt. Watatic. Lovely hike, pretty quiet, until midway: Black Throated Green. Higher: Wood ... no, listen to the ending and cadence ... Hermit!

And then, what you're waiting for, something you don't know. My notes read "tee-tee-[long warble]-trill, a bit buzzy-[shorter warble]-trill-warble.  Hmm ... file that away in memory to research later (yes, it was a Purple Finch; mature mixed pine and hardwoods at about 1200ft)

Then, something else I didn't exactly recognize, although it was certainly a warbler: rising zee-zee-tee-tee-zee. That didn't take too much work—it's the alternate song of the BT Green, and there were at least three singing this version (one seen).

Then, before the trees opened onto the summit, another Hermit, close by.

On the summit, kids madly scramble for blueberries, and not a raptor in sight.

Yes, birding changes things.

And as we were packing up, a tiny, nasal toy horn tooted just twice in farewell.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Birds of Summer

My family and I were visiting friends in Southampton, Mass, and they live in a lovely, birdy hollow.  On a warm, humid afternoon we could hear, but never see Wood Thrush, Veery, Red Eyed Vireos, several Scarlet Tanagers, and of course, the classic bird of summer, the Ovenbird.  There were two holding their territories on either side of the stream. One stepped out to see what we were up to.

click to enlarge

Happy Fourth!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

What's in a name?

It's this bird's fault.

American Redstart, Setophaga ruticilla, Oxbow NWR (May 2011)

Every summer the American Ornithologists' Union announces changes in classification and naming in the July issue of its journal, The Auk. The most anticipated change this July is an overhaul of the Parulidae, the wood warblers. Based on DNA analysis by Irby Lovette (interviewed in Birding), his proposal calls for radical changes to both classification and nomenclature which have been summarized by Kenn Kaufman and David Sibley (see especially his useful visual summary). Let's consider the most interesting change. Here is where our friend Setophaga ruticilla comes in.

A name is an arbitrary signifier; it does not "point" to anything in nature which "requires" that name.  But what happens when names change? What happens, as Lovette is proposing, when the Parulas, Hooded Warbler, and American Redstart join the venerable genus Dendroica, which contains everything from Yellow to Kirtland's to Cerulean? This new, expanded grouping would seem to recognize the genetic filiation of these warblers, but are they really closely related? Do they naturally form a genus? As David Sibley comments, "DNA evidence and the resulting 'tree' gives us a fairly objective picture of the relationships within the family, but it’s a complex picture of repeated branching. Converting that information into a few simple categories like families and genera is subjective. Even with all of this data, the decision about where to draw the line when lumping and splitting genera is still arbitrary." American Redstart and Hooded Warbler are not suddenly revealed to be lost cousins, only that they represent, along with the existing members of Dendroica, a grouping of parallel branches of similar "genetic distance" in the family tree of the Parulidae (see Sibley's version of the tree in the AOU proposal).

But the genetic insight of this regrouping is not what's getting all the press. It's the wholesale renaming caused by the inclusion of Northern Redstart. By the rules of priority in nomenclature the inclusion of Setophaga ruticilla, which was named before the genus Dendroica, requires the renaming of the new grouping, the Setophaga. Thus, in one stroke Dendroica is no more. It's a similar story in Wilsonia; having lost Hooded, Wilson's and Canada now join Red-faced, Cardelina rubrifrons, which (you guessed it) also has naming priority. Wilsonia is also no more. All but Bachman's, Blue-Winged, and Golden-Winged leave Vermivora to form a new genus, Oreothlypis. And so on. It's breathtaking.

What's in a name? Everything and maybe nothing. But of course, a warbler by any other name still sounds as sweet.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Photo Quiz 0

Every blog begins somewhere. This one begins with a lousy picture (get used to them) that I'm deviously turning into an ID stumper. Surely it is right up there with the tricksy ones the ABA posts. My nine-year-old (who appears to have memorized Sibley) nailed it and named two field marks in 5 seconds. Have at it!

Shot from the hip, Great Meadows NWR, Concord, MA (June 24, 2011)