Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Bird of the Year, 2013

It's a couple hours past sundown on New Year's Eve, so I think it's safe to say I won't be seeing any more birds this year. This raises the question of what the best bird of the year was. I don't have a clear winner this year. It was undoubtedly the Black-backed Woodpecker last year. There were so many good birds this year, but nothing with as compelling of a backstory as last year's woodpecker. But I have to pick one, so...

There are three things that consistently raise my birding passion to it's highest level: visiting new places, seeing birds with unique habitat and niches displaying typical behavior, and woodpeckers. Those three converged with several birds this year, but the one that comes to mind first is the Acorn Woodpecker. Yes, that'll be two years in a row for the Picids. (If I get that White-headed Woodpecker next summer, it might be three.)

View of the Santa Catalina Mountains on the way up Mt. Lemmon. My lifer Acorn Woodpecker crossed my path around the next bend.

Making my first-ever trip to southeast Arizona, one of the first lifers I encountered was an Acorn Woodpecker flying across the road in front of our car on the way up Mt. Lemmon. It was a good bird, but didn't linger for the kind of lengthy view I wanted.
Acorn Woodpecker guarding a cavity that appeared to belong to a pair of Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers.
Two days later, we were rewarded with a pair of Acorn Woodpeckers in Madera Canyon, fighting with a pair of Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers over a cavity. Both the flycatchers and the woodpeckers were entering and exiting the same hole.  

Cave Creek Canyon - with a view like this, every bird is a great bird.

The day after that, I went to Cave Creek Canyon and got to see an Acorn Woodpecker retrieve a stashed acorn and feed it to a juvenile. In hindsight, that interaction sealed the deal. Those two Acorn Woodpeckers on a dead snag along the creek in Cave Creek Canyon in the Chiricahua Mountains, are the birds of the year. 

And I managed to get a photo of my bird of the year this year!

Monday, December 16, 2013

My Hero - Herbert S. Zim

There was a post at the American Birding Association blog recently by Frank Izaguirre taking up the issue of "spark" books. That would be akin to the "spark bird" that birders speak of - the bird that triggered their interest in watching birds as a hobby. I was going to comment there, and I may still, but I can't really associate a single book with my dive into birding.

I'm a bibliophile. My personal library is hovering around 1,100 volumes right now, give or take 50, depending on how you define "book." I grew up in a home that was essentially a library, so books are air and water to me. When I think back on my most treasured possessions as a young child, they're always books.

My original copies.

As a youngster I would have had an avid interest in nature with or without good books. My dad was a naturalist and we lived in the rural mountains of western Pennsylvania. But there were good books, and as a kid nothing caught my attention like the Golden Guides. The spark books for my life as a naturalist were in my hands when I was seven years old: Non-Flowering Plants and Pond Life.

I found a wonderful collection of Golden Guides on a visit to Harris Nature Center's library here in Michigan.

The Golden Guides were intended for primary and secondary school level readers. The beauty of them is that they were not dumbed-down in the slightest. There was nothing cutesy about them, nothing flashy, just good drawings, figures, and facts. Scientific names were used, technical terms were explained - and then used. These books presumed - correctly, I believe - that children's attention could be held by fascinating facts about nature without resorting to a clown-and-flashing-light show. It's hard to find nature books for kids that take that route these days.

The passion and force behind the Golden Guides was a man whose name appeared on the spine of many them, Herbert Spencer Zim.

The one and only photo of the one and only Herbert S. Zim

We don't know a whole lot about Mr. Zim, but a few facts are floating around. He had a PhD from Columbia, taught in public schools for thirty years, and wrote or edited over 100 science books. He introduced laboratory science into the elementary school curriculum. He founded the Golden Guides in 1945 and continued working with them until he began to suffer from Alzheimer's disease around the age of 80 (1990). He died in 1994.

There was a Golden Guide for any topic that could capture a young mind. Reptiles & Amphibians, Landforms, Mexico, Tropical Fish, Cacti, Indian Arts. There were others that were introductions to entire disciplines, rather than just guides. Ecology, Botany, Evolution. Evolution? Yes, Herbert Zim deserved to have a medal pinned on him for that single act - he produced a Golden Guide to evolution! (Credit is due to Frank T. Rhodes who wrote the evolution book as well. Zim was editor-in-chief at the time.)

Just look at the cover art for Ecology and Botany! Is it any wonder I developed a passion for both? The new printings have photos on the front, which is disappointing to me. 

The small guides directed at school children weren't the only popular books to bear ZIM on their spines. The field guide Birds of North America by Robbins, Bruun, Zim, and Singer first appeared in 1966. Back then, Peterson was pretty much the only game in town when it came to bird field guides. I remember the Golden Guide being the official bird guide in my house for feeder watching. While it doesn't measure up to most modern guides, it's still a pretty good book. After not looking at it for more than two decades, I picked one up a couple years ago as my birding hobby was becoming rabid. I'd seen a new birder carrying one at Magee Marsh in Ohio. I tactfully suggested some options for more modern and serviceable guides to the man, but if the Golden Guide is what got him out in the swamp with some dime-store binoculars, who am I to do anything but salute? He'll have a Sibley guide and Zeiss bins in a year or two. And more importantly, he'll care about preserving birds and habitat. Pin another medal on Herb Zim.

The art of Arthur Singer was a staple of any bird books Zim edited or wrote.
 It doesn't take much to capture the imagination of a school kid. Pond Life and a dip net likely got at least a couple wetlands ecologists on their life's path. Kids don't need flashing images. They don't need the smallest words possible. And, guess what! Adults don't either. Here's a toast to folks like Herbert Zim who recognized that. He respected young minds and impressionable minds of all ages. And he nurtured them.

In the preservation and proliferation of any craft, discipline, or passion, the highest calling is to teach.

Herbert Zim taught.

A battle-scarred copy of Birds of North America from the collection of my wife's late grandfather. Today it resides with exalted company - where it absolutely belongs. 

Monday, December 9, 2013

Random(ish) Thoughts on Snowy Owls

I had a thought about this unpredicted Snowy Owl irruption.

Muskegon County, Michigan, November 30. Phonescoped by hand.

Let’s get the background that we’re all familiar with out of the way first.

The primary driver behind Snowy Owl (SNOW) irruptions well south of their range is an abundance of owls caused by a highly successful breeding summer. A good crop of lemmings to eat leads to lots of surviving hatching-year owls. When winter comes, the owls move to pack ice and islands to spend the winter eating ducks and waterbirds (primarily, not exclusively). As this territory is limited, the extra juveniles are often forced out of range and they head south. These are the owls (usually juvenile and usually in poor health) that we see in the United States during a SNOW irruption. (For purposes of clarity in this post, “United States” refers to the contiguous 48 states.)

The winter of 2011-12 saw a major irruption of Snowy Owls across much of the United States and Canada. It was widespread from coast to coast and particularly stunning in the interior where the invasion pushed all the way into Texas. Two places that did not see an irruption of SNOW in 2011-12 were Newfoundland and the Atlantic coast south of Long Island.

2011-12 Irruption. Note that Newfoundland and south of Long Island are sparse in owls.
The winter of 2012-13 saw a predictable echo irruption covering the core of the 2011-12 area minus the extremes of the range. Echo flights involve left over birds that survived their winter in the south, returned north, and head south again. It's common after a major irruption. 

2012-13 Echo Irruption

With those data in hand, we could predict that lemming numbers would not have recovered by now and most of the owl abundance from the productive breeding season of 2011 had died off. There shouldn’t be any “extra” owls to invade southward, therefore it would be a very weak year for SNOW in the United States.

2013 so far. Notice the purple in Bermuda!
Obviously that prediction went down in flames. For reference, the map below shows what an "off" year should look like.

2010-11 The winter before the huge irruption.
We’re seeing a massive irruption of SNOW again, with numbers rivaling or eclipsing 2011-12, except this time there is a significant irruption in both Newfoundland and the Atlantic coast as far south as Cape Romain, SC, but almost nothing is happening in the Plains or West.

As the action in Newfoundland heated up, I picked up this anecdote from a conversation online: SNOW irruptions in Newfoundland have not historically correlated with the widespread irruptions elsewhere in eastern North America.  Keep that in mind, and let’s get back to this current event.

My North Carolina birding friend (and ex-patriate Michigander) Cody Porter and I were dishing wild speculation about Snowy Owls at each other and he pointed me to the folks at eBird suggesting invasions from different parts of the arctic lead to different irruption patterns. In particular, they were wondering about Greenland, given all of the birds on the Atlantic coast and that one in Bermuda. (If you fly south from Greenland and miss Newfoundland, Bermuda might be the next interesting thing you see.)

The problem I saw with that was that if Greenland lemmings follow a different cycle than those in arctic Canada (which is a reasonable assumption), then why have SNOW irruptions always followed a very typical 4-5 year cycle with little variation. You’d think these back-to-back irruptions would happen more often.
One possibility is that oddly-timed irruptions DO happen frequently and it’s just legend that the irruption cycle is so regular. I read it plenty of times in 2011 and filed it away as gospel. Perhaps a dig through Christmas Bird Count records could color this picture up a little.

Snowy Owl in Gratiot County, Michigan, December 8, 2013. Photo by Lansing, Michigan birder Greg Smith. Check out his other stuff here.

There’s another possibility that I came up with which may be a brilliant idea, the rantings of an ignorant dolt, or something that’s already known.

Perhaps Greenland has an independent lemming cycle and the owls from there do fly south at regular intervals. Most of the time they all end up on Newfoundland, because that’s pretty much the first place they’d hit, and there are generally plenty of good ducks for eating there. That explains the Newfoundland irruptions that tend to not correlate with the continental irruptions. This year, perhaps, was such an exceptionally good season in Greenland, that Newfoundland has overflowed (200+ owls in a 40km strip on the Avalon Peninsula!) and they’re headed down the eastern seaboard. And thus, no owls in the Plains or West.

This would require several things for further investigation:

  • CBC data for a century’s worth of SNOW irruptions. (Time consuming, but it’s there.)

  • Knowledge of lemming populations in Greenland. (Someone has to know this.)

  • Whether a preponderance of the owls on the Atlantic coast right now are Greenlandish in origin. (No way of knowing this that I’m aware of.)

Still, speculation is fun and exciting. It gives you something to do while cruising ag fields looking for white bumps.