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.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

What Are Snowies Up To This Winter?

Snowy Owl, Chippewa County, Michigan, February 2013
Here's an interesting look at Snowy Owl (Bubo scadiacus) reports for November of the past seven years. 2011 was the greatest Snowy irruption in many birders' memories. I'm curious what the distribution this year means. A higher-than-usual amount of sightings, but much more clustered on the Atlantic coast. This is more reminiscent of 2008. The 2011 irruption appears centered on the Great Lakes, with a lot of that spilling over into fall of 2012 - an echo of the great irruption? So, what's going on this year, and why?

All images are screen grabs from eBird

2007 - November

2008 - November

2009 - November

2010 - November

2011 - November

2012 - November

2013 - November

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Sunset at the Sewage Pond - Willcox, Arizona Style

“As long as we’re passing through town, it would be silly not to stop at the sewage ponds.”

That’s the kind of sentence that makes perfect sense to birders and none at all to our friends with less eccentric hobbies.  Those of us who chase birds know that nutrient-rich sewage effluent leads to lots of aquatic life which in turn attracts a plethora of birds. It doesn’t always smell so great, but it’s not toxic and the trend these days is increasingly to create artificial wetlands with it. Nature does a phenomenal job of purifying water and birders get to reap the rewards if the wastewater authorities are friendly enough to allow visitors. I’m lucky enough to have the Muskegon County Wastewater Management System 90 minutes from my home. I think most birders in Michigan have gotten at least a handful of lifers at that massive facility. When you go into the office to pick up your visitor pass, you’ll notice the walls have framed photographs of birds from the property. How cool is that?

With all of that in mind, it made sense that the wife and I took time on our recent trip to Arizona to visit Tucson’s effluent, the cheekily-named Sweetwater Wetlands. There was plenty of good stuff there, but our best wastewater experience of the trip was yet to come.

Lake Cochise - Willcox, Arizona (Chiricahua Mtns. in the east)
At the end of a short week of extremely intense birding, we were returning to Tucson from the Chiricahua Mountains, ready to catch an early flight home the next morning. Our path necessarily passed through the town of Willcox, and with about 50 minutes of light left in the day, I suggested a stop at the effluent pond. It's a known spot to birders, and Willcox itself hosts the annual Wings Over Willcox Birding and Nature Festival every January. 

We turned the down road past the golf course and followed the arrowed “birders” signs to Lake Cochise (aka Cochise Lake). I’m not sure how the great Apache warrior would feel about having his name applied to such aromatic water, but after signing in at the guest book, I knew we were on some serious birding ground.
 Lake Cochise is what we’d call a pond back in Michigan, but in the desert I suppose “lake” is an apt title. I wasn’t expecting any earth-shaking birding. Our shorebird, wader, and waterfowl needs are minimal and highly unlikely to be filled in Arizona. I actually couldn’t think of a lifer we’d be likely to get there, other than maybe White-faced Ibis. That bird was rapidly approaching nemesis status for Sarah and me. We’d chased it multiple times in Michigan to no avail, and somehow managed to escape North Dakota and Texas without seeing one. We’d gotten a Glossy Ibis in Michigan, yet not the more commonly encountered White-faced. I figured Lake Cochise would be just a short change of pace from the desert birding we’d been doing, and a good opportunity to pad the Arizona state list.

Avocets, stilts, and phalropes
The first thing I saw was a line of American Avocets sprinkled with Black-necked Stilts, two of my top five favorite birds. This was an auspicious start and was already reducing my annoyance at the decidedly distasteful odor. The next thing my eyes were drawn to was the spinning. Lots and lots of spinning. The spinning of a few hundred Wilson’s Phalaropes. Phalaropes do this to create an upwelling that delivers food to the surface. The hilarious thing is that you can see them doing it in ankle-deep water as well. Check out the guy in the upper left of the first video.

Supposedly each individual will consistently spin in one direction only. There are clockwise and counter-clockwise phalaropes like there are right and left-handed people.

Seeing all of this spinning was so hypnotizing I almost missed the Black Tern standing by his lonesome on a rock and the two Long-billed Curlews that flew in. Light was fading fast. There was barely time to give the assembled peeps more than a passing glance. (Western and Least for sure…possibly others.) I wanted to snap a few sunset pictures before we left. The sun had just dipped below the Dragoon Mountains in the west.

Black-necked Stilts and sunset behind the Dragoons
It was then that my peripheral vision caught four blackish shapes coming in from the north. My mind ran through a few questions in the fraction of a second it took me to raise my binoculars. Geese? Herons? No, when I finally got on them I saw the long, decurved bills, not of more curlews, but of White-faced Ibis. Four of them landed in front of us and began their pre-slumber preening as phalaropes mindlessly spun in circles nearby. Our final lifer of a hyper-productive trip to Arizona – after sunset on our last birding day at a place we stopped at on a whim. A nemesis slain.

We watched until the darkness swallowed the peeps, the tern, the avocets, and the stilts. We drove slowly past the east side of the lake, admiring the last pink in the western sky. As we pulled away and said goodbye to Arizona, all I could still see were dozens of tiny spinning shapes and the silhouettes of four tall, dark waders with delicate, decurved bills. Life was good.  

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

A Hot Afternoon at the Moo

Pointe Mouillee State Game Area, administered by the Michigan DNR, is billed as one of the largest freshwater marsh restoration projects in the world. (Mouillee is pronounced MOO-yay, hence birders calling it “Point Moo” or simply “The Moo”) It’s a massive area of dikes, marshes, and bayous on the west end of Lake Erie. During fall shorebird migration, this is THE place to be in the Great Lakes area.

Great Egret (Ardea alba)

Heavily worn Solitary Sandpiper (Tringa solitaria)

Sarah and I headed out there last Sunday (July 14, 2013) to catch up with a report of a Glossy Ibis in breeding plumage. The Plegadis sp. ibises have been giving me fits with White-faced Ibis making a run at becoming my nemesis bird.

Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) still singing in mid-July

It was hot and humid, and there is no shade at Pointe Mouillee, but thankfully a constant breeze kept it from being too stifling.
Yours truly on a lonely road at Point Moo. (Photo by Sarah Adams)

The Odonate action was pretty intense. Halloween Pennants and Common Pondhawks were everywhere. The Common Pondhawks are one of the most ferocious hunters you’ll ever encounter. They will take down anything they see up to their own size and sometimes including their own kind. Beautiful dragonflies, but I’d not want to be two inches tall and see one coming. Watching pondhawks hunt always makes me want to go back in time to the Carboniferous period (300 million years ago) when “dragonflies” of the Meganeura had wingspans of over two feet. My housecats wouldn’t be safe around those things.

Female Common Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis)

Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis)

Female Black Swallowtail (Papilio ployxenes)

Monarch (Danaus plexippus), a rare sight this year
The birding was so-so. Shorebird season is just starting to warm up. We did get the Glossy Ibis. Quite a beautiful bird. I’m looking forward to seeing one a little closer on our next jaunt through Florida.
Glossy Ibis (Plagedia falcinellis) among some Canada Geese

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Tree Swallow Yoga

Found a gorgeous Tree Swallow (Tachycineta biocolor) enjoying a hot spring morning at Fenner Nature Center.  I offer some screen grabs from a video showing the latest in Yoga poses and stretches the trendy and healthy Tree Swallow practices.

Count Dracula

The Flag

Regal (like an Eagle)


The Front Stroke

Landing Gear

Situation Normal

The Flare

Hand Behind My Back

The Twist

The Pretzel

Caped Crusader

Iron Man

The Angel 

Rocket Launch
Here's the whole video: