Wednesday, December 28, 2011

My 2012 eBird Challenge!

I've got a challenge for all you birders out there that involves nothing more than you, your binoculars, your favorite field guide, and eBird.

This Hairy Woodpecker is listening...

What is this eBird thing, you ask. Let’s allow the folks at eBird themselves to answer:

“A real-time, online checklist program, eBird has revolutionized the way that the birding community reports and accesses information about birds. Launched in 2002 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society, eBird provides rich data sources for basic information on bird abundance and distribution at a variety of spatial and temporal scales.

Some ducks from my life list. A life list is like a collection of awesome memories, isn't it?

Reduced to its most basic utility, eBird is a fun and convenient way to maintain your personal birding lists. Your life list, year lists, month lists, and numerous geographic lists are there for your perusal and updated automatically every time you enter a bird sighting. Have you seen more birds in Comnache County, Oklahoma or Grand Isle County, Vermont? eBird can tell you in a second, as well as every sighting you’ve ever had at specific locations in those counties.

My county lists. County birding is soooo much easier with eBird.

That can be a lot of fun, but it’s also a treat to use eBird to help locate birds. Let’s say you find yourself in southern Arizona in September of 2011 and you want to add a Lucy’s Warbler to your life list. Have any been seen in the area this month, and if so, where? A quick check of eBird reveals the answers.

Lucy's Warbler sightings in south-central Arizona in September 2011. (eBird screen shot)

If all of that isn’t enough, consider that every sighting you enter at eBird is a contribution to science. Ornithologists use the data collected there for myriad reasons, not the least of which could be in studies to determine migration and nesting patterns and the need to protect vulnerable habitat. It’s one of the finest examples of citizen science you can find. If you’re a birder, you are a citizen and a scientist already, you know.

Happy Scientist.

Consider this: You’re on a leisurely sea kayak trip on an early fall day. You’ve paddled out to False Cape State Park in Virginia and put-in for lunch on the barrier island’s beach. There you spot a pair of Buff-breasted Sandpipers. No other humans are in sight. You are now the sole possessor of some data. The species of bird, number of individuals, precise location, and time and date of appearance are all data that you, and only you, possess. Feeling some responsibility to share this newfound treasure? You should be! When those data are entered at eBird along with all the other sightings of Buff-breasted Sanpipers for the fall, a picture (literally!) of that species’ fall migration appears. Your sighting alone may seem insignificant, and it’s true that the vast majority of bird observation data are not very valuable in a vacuum. But combine those with millions of other records and the existing data become stronger and stronger with every new entry.

"Here's what I want you to do..."

So, here’s my challenge to you. If you haven’t signed up at eBird or haven’t used it much, I’d like you to become an active user and try to enter at least 365 checklists in 2012. But that’s a checklist for every day of the year, you cry! Yes, but it’s not as difficult as you’d think. (For one thing, there are 366 days in 2012, so it’s not even one per day, but that’s splitting hairs.) With jobs and kids and life and weather it’s impossible to go birding every single day of the year. But 365 checklists doesn’t mean 365 days. I entered twelve checklists for one 6-hour birding trip in November this year. These aren’t day lists, but rather checklists of sightings at fairly specific locations for relatively short periods of time.

Here are some tricks to easily get to 365.

One way is to enter Sunday yard birds. Spend 15 minutes counting birds in your yard every Sunday morning. Who doesn’t love relaxing like that? And with virtually no effort, you have 52 checklists for the year without leaving the house.

Birding doesn't have to be an adventure every time.
aka Gratuitous Angelina Jolie picture to generate blog visits.

You also have to start appreciating, and recording the seemingly mundane lists. Do you pass a pond on the way to work every morning? On most mornings does it have a few Mallards and a Great Blue Heron? In most of the country that would be something to yawn at. At eBird, that’s valuable information. Stop for five minutes, see what else you see, and enter the list! Who cares if the ducks and heron are all that’s on the list? Those are data that serve to make the entire body of data more valuable. A five or ten minute observation is all it takes. Two hundred of those counts may total about 20 hours of your entire year.  Is 20 hours spent watching birds in nature all that bad?

Common as dirt...and you should count 'em and list 'em!

And now you only need about a hundred more lists to hit the goal. If you go out actually birding once a week, and enter an average of two checklists for a morning bird walk, you’re going to hit the goal. If you take a weekend drive, ten lists in a day isn’t uncommon.

And we haven’t even added in the incidental sightings while driving or looking out the window of a restaurant. We birders like to say that we’re always birding, at least while awake. If that’s the case, 365 lists at eBird in 2012 should be a piece of cake.

Do it for the ornithologists. Do it for you. But most importantly, do it for the birds. Are you up for this challenge?

Comment below and let me know if you're in!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Grebe Feet!

ed. note: Today, we have a guest blogger from the land of Florida, David Peterson. I invited him to join us after he showed me the coolest photo of grebe feet in action I've ever seen!

Horned Grebe in winter plumage (Photo by David Peterson)
After running a few errands today, I stopped at a local beach, called Hudson Beach (officially Robert J. Strickland Memorial Park). I wasn't really expecting much more than to relax and enjoy the day, when a walk along the seawall gave me a very pleasant surprise. A little horned grebe was fishing right along shore, and did not seem to mind me walking up and down the seawall trying to get a couple pictures of it. I must have taken about a hundred photos, but I missed at least that many opportunities for more because I simply enjoyed watching it and forgot to point the camera. I was enthralled for over an hour.

Horned Grebe (Photo by David Peterson)

Then, while in pursuit of some small silvery fish, it came quite close, and I snapped a bunch of photos while it was diving underwater. When it went further away from shore again, I stopped and checked to see if any had turned out, you should have seen me—I literally jumped and gave a hoot, with the fist-pump and everything! A couple people looked at me like I was weird and one guy just chuckled away at me but gave me a thumbs-up. What can I say? I like grebes! And Grebe-Feet are just so cool!

Grebe Feet!  (Photo by David Peterson)

David Peterson hails from Port Richey, Florida, though he is quick to point out he's originally "from Wisconsin."  He sits on the board of the Nature Coast Chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society.

Best Bird of the Year

The good folks at 10,000 Birds are soliciting stories about everyone's "best bird of the year". That gave me a good excuse to avoid more productive work and relive a great twelve months of birding. Best Bird is quite an honor and not to be bestowed lightly.

Was it the Black-crowned Night Heron in Big Cypress National Preserve on the third day of the year? I'd been oddly missing that relatively common heron from my life-list. (And he had only one foot - a sentimental favorite.) Likewise I finally got an incredible Snowy Owl at Tawas Point State Park in Michigan just last week. Then there was the life Mourning Warbler at Magee Marsh in Ohio during the holy season of spring migration. Who could forget the Bobolinks lining the fence posts in Canaan Valley in West Virginia, singing like an army of R2-D2's? Even the Black Vultures in Everglades National Park that seemed intent on eating our windshield wipers were pretty special.

But I think the "best bird" is the one that stirs the birder's heart the most. In that case, the choice is clear.

McCormick Tract (Photo: Sue Wolfe)

On a cold November morning a few weeks ago, the western Upper Peninsula of Michigan had just received its first snow of the year, and it was a good one. The North Country Trail was covered with 18 inches of white powder as it sliced through the wild McCormick Tract, an hour west of Marquette in some of the UP's most beautiful, if not wholly pristine wilderness.

The North Country Trail (Photo: Sue Wolfe)

Here we found Gray Jays. Some folks call them Canadian Jays. Others call them "camp robbers" with good reason. Many northerners know them as the Whiskey Jack. This is an  Anglicized form of the name Wisakedjak, who was a trickster god of Algonquian mythology. (Supposedly Wisakedjak caused a flood that destroyed the world, which seems like more than an annoying prank, but who am I to judge?)

My name is Perisoreus canadensis. (Photo: Sue Wolfe)

Gray Jays are well known for being quite friendly around humans, particularly those who offer crumbs of blueberry muffin.

Sarah and a new friend. (Photo: Sue Wolfe)
Spotting a Gray Jay or two on a snowy morning in Northern Michigan is nothing out of the ordinary, but it brought back memories of my life Gray Jay.

 It was the summer of 2010, and my wife Sarah and I were exploring Newfoundland, which was becoming our favorite spot in the world. Having boned up on the potential new birds we'd see, we both reacted excitedly when something looking like a giant chickadee appeared in a spruce in Terra Nova National Park. A Gray Jay! We'd just nabbed our life Boreal Chickadees and were about to cavort with whales and icebergs. We'd spent the previous day watching thousands of Northern Gannets plunge-diving among spouting fin whales off of Cape St. Mary's. Life was good.

The lifer Gray Jay in Terra Nova National Park, Newfoundland. (photo: Kirby Adams)

Newfoundland was all about wonder. A new place to explore, new birds to see, new oceans to smell. A sating of the wanderlust, if such a thing is possible.  Life and its cohorts (time and money) conspired to keep us away from that rocky island in the North Atlantic this year.

Then a Gray Jay landed on Sarah's hand and for just a moment we were back in Terra Nova. I couldn't help but thank him.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Beaver Activity Ramping Up

There's a beaver pond not far from our house that provides a tranquil spot to enjoy nature on most days. It's surrounded by some ancient red pine and beds of fabulous moss. The pond itself is home to Great Blue Herons all summer. But now that fall is looking to turn into winter, the beavers have turned some areas a hundred yards away from the pond into construction zones. I haven't had the pleasure of actually seeing a beaver at work here, but the evidence of their nightly engineering is fascinating.

The pond with primary lodge back in September.
Now, in late November, dam and lodge winterizing is in full swing.

The bark is often eaten.

Sawing the log into manageable (and edible) pieces.

At first glance, you'd swear a lumberjack had done this.

A log slide down to the pond. There are more than a dozen of these around the pond, all leading to a lumbering site on the elevated area far from the pond.

Beavers are legendary for their ability to react to the sound of running water and immediately patch a breach in their dam. At one point some researchers put a tape recorder with running water sounds in the middle of a field. Some nearby beavers quickly covered it with mud and bark. Does this prove you don't have to be bright to be a good engineer?

Castor canadensis. Photo by Steve.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Birding and more on the Mission Peninsula

[It's been way too long since I updated this thing. I hope to correct that by being less of a perfectionist about long, involved posts, and just tell you about some cool stuff I've found. I know I shouldn't sacrifice quality for quantity, but I'm guessing you'd like to have at least some quantity!]

Ask a Michigander where he lives and he’ll proudly use the palm of his right hand as a map to point out the location. The lower peninsula of Michigan is shaped remarkably like a hand, with Saginaw Bay the opening between the thumb and index finger and the tip of the middle finger the spot where the Mackinaw Bridge crosses the straits to the Upper Peninsula. If we take the hand/map analogy a bit further, we could imagine a bay between the pinky and ring finger slicing due south into the west coast of Michigan. This is Grand Traverse Bay.

Jutting out from Traverse City at the base of the bay is a thin sliver of land that extends northward for 18 miles, splitting Grand Traverse Bay into two arms. This is the Old Mission Peninsula, a cluster of small farms, vineyards, and wineries. At the very tip lies a largely undeveloped area, Lighthouse Park. Two sand spits extend several hundred meters north from the end of the peninsula. The spits and the surrounding shallow water and mudflats make for excellent birding in almost any season.

Looking through my lists, I’ve nabbed my lifers of Greater Yellowlegs, Pectoral Sandpiper, Solitary Sandpiper, American Golden Plover, Least Sandpiper, White-rumped Sandpiper, and Orange-crowned Warbler here over the last few years. (eBird makes looking these things up so easy!)  My skills and ambition for birding are greater than for photography (so far), thus you’re stuck with more scenics than birds for the photos here.
Looking south from the tip of the eastern spit.

If you put your face really close to the screen (or click on it to make it bigger), you'll spot a Greater Yellowlegs.
I love the varied habitat here.

Killdeer nesting among the rocks.
(This was taken at a respectful distance.
Nesting birds should never be approached.)
Walking the spits in the spring is a delightful stroll as you’re serenaded by song sparrows, yellow warblers, and red-winged blackbirds, all the while scanning the mudflat for nearly invisible shorebirds. Invisible, that is, until you get your eyes in “shorebird mode” and realize there are dozens or hundreds of the little characters walking around. The path through the woods between the two spits passes some enormous oak, pine, and spruce. There’s lots of good woodpecker and forest bird action here, not to mention tons of moss, ferns, and lichens for the botanists.


The Mission Peninsula makes a great day of adventure. Bird the sand spits in the morning, do some wine tasting at stops like 2Lads Winery, grab a lakeside dinner, and return to the point for sunset. Just be careful of the zebra mussels. Bare feet and sharp mollusks are a bad combination.

Yay for imaginary lines!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Birding Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge in West Virginia

Thoughts from the Canaan Valley Birding Festival

Canaan Valley State Park

By the first week of June the songbird migration is wrapping up across most of the Great Lakes region where we happen to make our home. The birding festivals have mostly come and gone. Famous migrant-traps like Magee Marsh in Ohio have a scattering of nesting Yellow and Prothonotary Warblers where just two weeks earlier there had been 20 or more species of warblers cavorting along every hundred yards of the boardwalk. Having not had enough birds or birding yet, Sarah and I stuffed the Prius full of gear and headed to West Virginia for the Canaan Valley Birding Festival.

I guess this fest used to be called the Southern Boreal Birding Festival, but changed its name this year. I like the new name better as it's more representative of the area. The Canaan Valley is one of those spots that defies description with mere words. Just north of the highest peaks in West Virginia, there's a flat plain nestled between Canaan Mountain to the west and Cabin Mountain to the east. This is Canaan Valley (pronounced ka-NANE). In this region of the Appalachians, the mountains are long ridges running north/south with various peaks and saddles. Elevations of the ridges are roughly 4,000ft, give or take a few hundred. The valley floor is about 3,200ft.

Canaan mountain from the Canaan Valley floor

We pulled into Canaan Valley State Park and were immediately offered an auspicious sight: a gorgeous Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus) sitting beside the park road. We'd go out the next morning and get to watch him hunt over an open field for a while before a couple crows drove him off. The festival began in earnest the afternoon of Friday, June 3rd, so we took the opportunity of a morning off to head north 10 or 12 miles to Blackwater Falls State Park. The scenery was stunning as usual. The dead and dying hemlocks a sad sight, the birding difficult. Having just watched the spectacle that is May migration, it's tough to start looking for warblers hiding on territory in dense deciduous vegetation. Nevertheless, we did get a great sighting of a Blue-headed Vireo (Vireo solitarius) that posed for us under a red spruce near Blackwater Falls.

Blackwater Falls, Blackwater Falls State Park

Friday's afternoon walk back at Canaan netted another awesome Blue-headed Vireo as well as a Black-billed Cuckoo. All the other usual suspects were present, including birds we in Michigan consider northern species like Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hymenlais). After watching the Juncos move north out of lower Michigan in April, it was weird to drive south to West Virginia and find them nesting. That's the beauty of a varied elevation. We also got to spot some nice fern diversity in the forests on the plain of the valley.

Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hymenalis)

Saturday morning's excursion took us to the Stuart Recreation Area of Monongahela National Forest. (That's ma-NON-ga-HEY-la, a really beautiful word to say once you get used to it!) We climbed up to about 4,400 feet and heard many warblers, but had trouble actually spotting any. There was great open habitat for Golden-winged Warblers on the side of the mountain, but we only heard them and failed to see them. A beautiful Chestnut-sided Warbler did show himself, as did a nice Brown Thrasher and Scarlet Tanager. We heard a Blue-winged Warbler as well, but failed to find him - what would have been a lifer for Sarah and me as we count only birds that are visually confirmed. At the very top of the mountain, I did get a fleeting glimpse of a Mourning Warbler and managed a long look at a Red-eyed Vireo while waiting for the warbler to reappear. On the way down the mountain we saw the day's first Cerulean Warbler after hearing several as we went along. Frustration at hearing so many fine birds and seeing so few was setting in, but the view from the mountaintop and the glory of being deep in the Appalachian woods more than made up for it. (I mentioned too many birds in this paragraph to insert the scientific names of each one without making difficult to read. Ditto for the rest of the post. Forgive me!)

Climbing up the Stuart Rec Area

Birders search in vain for a singing Golden-winged Warbler

As afternoon rolled around, we were back in the valley to find some grassland birds. We toured a couple sites in the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge where Bobolinks, Eastern Meadowlarks, Grasshopper Sparrows, and Vesper Sparrows were common. The Henslow's Sparrow eluded us. After this tour we struck out on our own to see what we could see. Dinner was the first stop, but my delicious roast beef at Big John's Family Fixin's was interrupted by Sarah yelling that a Bittern was outside the window. Sure enough, an American Bittern had landed at the pond behind the restaurant and was commencing to hunt for whatever fish or frogs might be in there. Rejuvenated by the bittern and the roast beef, we headed back to a spot we'd spent only a minute or two at during the afternoon tour. This turned out to be our favorite spot of the trip, an iconic location in the Canaan Valley (in our opinion), and a candidate for being one of those places where your natural spirit knows it's found holy ground.

Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge - The Freeland Tract: A Very Special Place

Freeland Tract - Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge

The Freeland Tract of Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge is specially designated to be managed for the benefit of American Woodcock. While June is not a good time to find woodcock, we did see plenty of grassland birds, as well as a conglomeration of others among some withered pines surrounding some natural springs and pools. Cedar Waxwings adorned virtually every branch of some of the skeletal pines. Eastern Kingbirds and Willow Flycatchers flitted among the waxwings and the occasional Yellow Warbler made an appearance to sing about how sweet something was. We ended up seeing 16 species from one spot in the last hour before sunset.

Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus)

Sunday morning found me riding a chairlift to the top of Cabin Mountain, eyes tightly closed as I battled my rather severe acrophobia. It was raining and glorious atop the mountain as we walked the saddle over to a peak known as Bald Knob. (There's another Bald Knob, the second highest point in WV, but this is a different one.) After looking out over the Canaan Valley, we descended by foot, counting birdsong as we went. As had been the trend all weekend in the woods, many were heard, few were seen.

All-in-all it was a wonderful trip, as any trip to the highlands of West Virginia usually is. If you're content with hearing a lot more than you see, the Canaan Valley Birding Festival is worth a visit. We met some great birders from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and California. And even if you didn't see or hear a single bird, how can you not enjoy a view like this:

Freeland Tract - Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge

As with any post, click on the photos to see a larger size.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Kirtland's Warbler: Not Michigan's State Bird

The state bird of Michigan is the American Robin (Turdus migratorius). That’s all well and good, but a lot of bird admirers in this state think it would make more sense to bestow that honor upon the Kirtland’s Warbler. After all, the vast majority of these birds choose Michigan – and nowhere else - as the site for their summer nests. A handful (almost literally) call Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Ontario home, but those numbers are negligible compared to Michigan. That’s not to say there are millions of them here. Last year’s census counted only 1773 singing males in the jack pine forests of the northern Lower Peninsula of Michigan. Kirtland’s Warblers are protected under the Endangered Species Act, and with the assistance and cooperation of several agencies, the bird has recovered from a population of only a couple hundred pairs in the 1980’s.

Young Jack Pine habitat in Huron-Manistee National Forest, Michigan

Kirtland’s Warbler utilizes the Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana) forests as nesting habitat. Pure stands of young jack pine are essential, as the warblers sing from atop trees that are between roughly 5 feet and 15 feet tall. The nests are built on the ground near the base of a tree, log, or other debris. Loss of habitat has been devastating to Kirtland’s Warblers, particularly that caused by suppression of wildfires that lead to a constant supply of pure stands of young pine. Today the US Forest Service manages for proper warbler habitat by planting Jack Pine plantations, conducting prescribed burns, and clear-cutting of selected mature pine forests. The warbler nesting grounds are closed to entry during breeding season, though the USFS and US Fish and Wildlife Service provide tours that virtually ensure a good spotting of a Kirtland’s Warbler.

Kirtland's Warbler (Dendroica kirtlandii)
Kirtland's Warbler (Dendroica kirtlandii)

An actual good picture of a Kirtland's Warbler courtesy of Bmajoros under a Creative Commons License.

Take a Tour
On a Kirtland’s Warbler tour you can expect to walk along a sandy forest service road listening for the melodic call of the warbler. Nashville Warblers (Vermivora ruficapilla) or Canada Warblers (Wilsonia Canadensis) may give a false alarm, but sooner or later, you’ll spot a Kirtland’s happily singing from atop a tiny pine. Like all warblers, they have a tendency to bounce around, but on the nesting grounds it’s not unusual for one to sing in one spot for several minutes. On our excursion this week we had plenty of time to point the scope at one male and watch him for a few minutes. Binoculars will be fine for most sightings, but if you have a scope, by all means take it along. The guides will often have scopes, but it never hurts to have your own equipment. As with any warblers, good photography will require a very long tripod-mounted lens and a bit of good luck. My shots are serviceable but certainly not quality.
The Dreaded Cowbird
One other threat to Kirtland’s Warblers is the expanding populations of the nest parasite Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater) that lays eggs in other birds’ nests after which the hatchling cowbirds overpower and kill some, if not all, of the resident hatchlings. In its traditional range, this parasitism is of little consequence to native birds. Cowbirds, however, are a recent addition to the forests of northern Michigan, having taken advantage of the massive clear-cutting of the last century. In order to manage for survival of the Kirtland’s Warbler, the US Fish and Wildlife Service traps Brown-headed Cowbirds at more than 50 sites throughout Kirtland’s habitat in the Huron National Forest. The cowbird removal appears to have helped warbler populations significantly.
Ecology, Ecology, Ecology

As with everything in nature, there’s more to the story than just the pines providing a spot for the warblers to live. The Jack Pine forests harbor a pine predator, the Jack Pine Budworm (Choristoneura pinus), a needle-eating Lepidopteran (caterpillar). During their breeding season, Kirtland’s Warblers have been shown to eat enormous quantities of these caterpillars, particularly when feeding their young. As Bay-breasted Warblers (Dendroica castanea) are known to do across the north with Spruce Budworm, it seems D. Kirtlandii is a natural control for Jack Pine Budworm.

Tours can be arranged through the US Forest Service from Mio, Michigan or the US Fish and Wildlife Service from Grayling, Michigan. On my tour, I was graced with guides from both of those agencies as well as the Michigan DNR. Thus I can’t speak to which tour would be better, but I doubt you can lose either way.

In Grayling you can even stay at the Warbler's Way. (I haven't stayed there; can't offer a review.)
In the interest of not ignoring the home of the Kirtland’s Warbler for most of the year, the Bahamas are a fairly nice spot to visit in January! Just as their summer breeding range is severely limited compared to that of most wood warblers, they winter only in the Bahama Islands, primarily on Eleuthera Island.  Eleuthera is over a hundred miles long and never more than a few miles wide. What “interior” there is has some pine forests and deep within these trees is where you’ll find (if you’re really looking) the Kirtland’s Warbler in winter. Eluthera is not as heavily developed as the inner Bahamas and makes for a great nature escape in winter.
Below are links to two great books and a nifty stuffed warbler (not a real one!)