Saturday, April 29, 2006

Garlic Mustard? Yuck.

I love garlic. I love mustard. But, I HATE Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata)! On a recent jaunt through our neighborhood, I couldn't help but notice the prevalence of this invasive plant.

What is it?
Garlic Mustard is an invasive, exotic herb introduced from Europe presumably for its supposed medicinal properties and for use in cooking. It is widely distributed throughout the northeastern and Midwestern U.S. from Canada to South Carolina and west as far as California. Habitat areas include forests, forest edges, open spaces, and disturbed fields. It is 12 to 48 inches tall and has triangular or heart-shaped leaves that are scalloped and deeply veined. The leaves smell like garlic when they are crushed. Flowers are small, 4-petaled, and white. They occur in small clusters and bloom throughout April and May.

So why do I hate it so much?
Garlic mustard poses a threat to native plants and animals in forests throughout its range. Many native widlflowers that complete their life cycles in the springtime (e.g., spring beauty, wild ginger, bloodroot, Dutchman's breeches, hepatica, toothworts, and trilliums) occur in the same habitat. Garlic mustard aggressively outcompetes native plants for light, moisture, nutrients, soil and space. Wildlife that depend on these native plants as food sources for pollen, seeds, foliage, etc. lose out.

Darn, I have some in my yard. Help!!!
Unfortunately, garlic mustard is a pain in the butt to control and manage once it is established. There are various schools of thought and several ways to control it. Control methods range from simply pulling out the plants to controlled burning of infested areas. More info and detailed steps can be found here and here.

But the news is not ALL bad. The plant can even be cooked or eaten raw for a tasty (?) treat. It also has some funny alternate common names such as sauce-alone, jack-by-the-hedge, poor man's mustard, and jack-in-the-bush. Ok, so that's the only good news. If you have this plant in your yard, local park, or other natural site, please inform people about it and please help control its spread.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Most Beautiful Birds Meme

John over at DC Birding started this post. This is my first "meme" and I don't have any blog friends that haven't already been tagged, so I will refrain from that. I've hit up Laura to help my brain process the whole tagging and meme thing.

Rules: Post a list of the 10 birds you consider most beautiful on your blog; you may limit the list to the ABA area (continental United States and Canada) or use a geographic area of your choice. Mark birds you have seen with an asterisk. Tag 3 bloggers to keep it going.

My list (ABA only):

Harlequin Duck*
Scarlet Tanager*
Violet-Crowned Hummingbird*
Prothonotary Warbler*
American Kestrel*
Vermillion Flycatcher*
Mountain Bluebird
Green Jay*
Stellar's Jay*
Elegant Trogon*

This was off the top of my head. Too many to choose from...

Thursday, April 27, 2006

A little evening birding with a surprise!

This evening, Beth and I took a walk on the Delaware & Raritan Canal in Franklin Township, NJ. While crossing a footbridge, I heard a distinct sweet, sweet, sweet song. I had a hunch as to what it was, but it just didn't seem right. A few seconds later, a shocking golden-colored bird flew over my head and into a nearby tree. I knew what it was as soon as I saw it - "Prothonotary Warbler!" I shouted. Beth and I both got wonderful looks at the bird they call the "Golden Swamp Warbler".

There was a Prothonotary at this exact spot last spring and it even created a nest in a pipe. Alas, no potential mate ever showed up. I wonder if he's the same bird. There's a good chance, since this area is not traditional Prothonotary Warbler habitat. Unfortunately, he probably won't have luck finding any love this year either. Other firsts of the spring for me included Warbling Vireo, Baltimore Oriole, Common Yellowthroat, and Gray Catbird.

On the wildflower front, Beth found Downy Yellow Violet and Morrow's Honeysuckle (or maybe Lonicera x bella - an invasive Honeysuckle nonetheless). These were among the Henbit, Spring Beauty, Garlic Mustard, Celandine, and Winter Cress.

I and the Bird #22 - My first appearance

It's time once again for everyone's favorite blog carnival "I and the Bird". This 22nd installment takes us on a tour around the US and the world looking at the experiences of many different birders. This marks my first appearance in the carnival, with hopefully many more to come. I may even host it someday! Thanks so much to Home Bird Notes for hosting the carnival! Great job!

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

White-Tailed Hawk in NJ?!

I just got a rare bird alert email saying that a White-Tailed Hawk was spotted at the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge about 30 minutes from my house! Holy smokes!

This extreme rarity is usually found only as north as Texas and is considered non-migratory. There was one seen in western Massachusetts as late as Monday afternoon. The Mass. hawk showed asymmetrical wear on its primaries, so we'll have to see if this is the same bird. Wouldn't that be something?

I've seen White-Tailed Hawk in the Rio Grande Valley where it is frequently found. It was actually my 400th ABA bird. If it sticks around until tomorrow, I will definitely take a stab after work. It would be a nice addition to my NJ list. Unfortunately, I won't be able to make it tonight. The swamp is going to be a zoo of birders!

Monday, April 24, 2006

The World Series of Birding - one of my favorite days of the year!

It's hard to believe that we're only 3 weeks away from the granddaddy of all Big Days, New Jersey Audubon's 23rd World Series of Birding. Saturday, May 13 is the day and let's all hope for glorious weather like we had last year!

So, what is this World Series of Birding?
The World Series of Birding (WSB, for short) is part fundraiser, part competition. Teams or individuals compete to tally the most species within NJ's borders over a 24 hour period. You can compete across the whole state or in a limited geographic region such as a county, National Wildlife Refuge, or other local site. There's even a category for a "Big Stay" in which you stand in a small designated circle and only count birds within that area. This year, they've also added a digiscoping category where you only count birds that are digiscoped during the day. There are lots of detailed rules that I won't cover here. Note: You can also participate as a non-competing team or individual.

All of this is in the name of conservation and fund-raising. Participants collect money from Corporate sponsors, friends, relatives, whoever! Pledges can be per bird or a lump sum. Each year, the WSB raises about $500,000 and it ALL goes to conservation. Every penny!

Since 1984, participants have seen 321 species of birds (the rarest probably being Fork-Tailed Flycatcher). Amazing. The average # of species seen is 165, but teams have reached as high as 229. Again, amazing.

Am I participating?
Heck yeah I am! This is my 4th WSB and I wouldn't miss it for the world. The first year I participated alone and tallied 80 species at the Great Swamp. The next year, I participated on the Sandy Hook Bird Observatory (SHBO) team that anyone can participate on for a $1 minimum per bird donation. That was great fun and we had a nice group. We birded only on Sandy Hook and tallied 136 species including Anhinga and King Eider that year.

Last year, I was asked to be on a team by my good friend Pete Bacinski, director of SHBO. Now let me tell you, this was quite an honor. You see, Pete was on the first winning WSB team in 1984. His teammates included a few guys you might have heard of: Pete Dunne, David Sibley, and Roger Tory Peterson. Umm, hello?!? I couldn't pass that one up. Pete went on to win 2 more WSB's and I've learned a lot from birding with him over the years. His birding stories are legendary.

Our team is the SHBO Ocean Wanderers. Pete, Don Sutherland, John Holinka, and I compete in the "limited geographic area" category in only (very large) Ocean County. Last year we had 135 species and it was a blast. We didn't win, but that's ok. We'll try again this year. I'm still honored that he asked me to participate. It's the closest thing I get to birding with Roger himself.

Final Thoughts
One of my favorite things about the WSB is that every bird is equal. They all equal one checkmark on a piece of paper. See that House Sparrow over there? CHECK! Oh wait, is that a Cerulean Warbler? CHECK! Oh wait, it can't be... an Ivory-billed Woodpecker! CHECK again. Ok, so maybe the last one would go in the "write in" box.

Many other interesting facts and figures about the event are here. I'm going to bring my camera this year and I will be sure to post some pictures. If you're interested in donating, please contact SHBO.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

My Blog's Namesake

Beth and I didn’t go to our NJ Audubon volunteer potluck lunch* and field trip today due to our insanely bad allergies, so I figured I’d write an entry. After naming my blog “The Hawk Owl’s Nest”, I figured I would write an entry about… well, what else but the Northern Hawk Owl and its nest!

I remember seeing my first Northern Hawk Owl (Surnia ulula) during the Minnesota invasion of winter 2004/2005. I was traveling with some friends that I’d met on a message board down a county road near Duluth. There it was… perched on top of a telephone pole scanning the landscape for prey. I screeched to a halt, jumped out of the car, and beckoned my companions to do the same. We watched it for a few moments and then it took off, accipiter-like through a small patch of woods. I would go on to see 20 or so of these awesome birds on my trip. Unfortunately for them, they were mostly starving due to the absence of food further north (the reason for their invasion in the first place).

The Hawk Owl is a rather unique species and the only member of its genus. It’s crow-sized owl and tends to behave and look more like a hawk than an owl. It has a long, pointed tail and hawk-like shape. Unlike most owls, it is diurnal, which means it hunts during the day. Basically non-migratory, they inhabit muskegs, wooded swamps and coniferous-deciduous boreal forests year round.

They eat mostly small mammals such as mice and voles, but will also eat birds. They hunt by swooping down on prey and then returning to a perch such as the top of a spruce or a pole. They fly low, swift and straight, alternating between flapping and gliding. Northern Hawk Owls also are known to hover during flight like Kestrels.

Hawk Owls begin nesting in April or May. They build their platform nests in enlarged Northern Flicker or Pileated Woodpecker holes, tops or hollows of tree stumps, and even occasionally in old nests of raptors, crows, or squirrels. They have even been known to use nest boxes. Wood chips are molded into the nest cavity to cushion the eggs.

The female lays 3 - 10 eggs and in good vole years can lay as many as 13. The eggs are incubated for 25 - 30 days. While the female incubates the eggs, the male feeds her. They are fearless and aggressive against nest intruders and will defend their nests vehemently. After the young hatch it takes another 25 - 30 days before they leave the nest. They remain near the nest for about 2 months but are not fully independent until they are about 3 months of age. The family group is maintained until the following spring.

Two cool facts I found during my research:
-Great Horned Owl and the Northern Goshawk prey on Northern Hawk Owls! Crazy!
-According to Holloway, the scientific name Surnia ulula comes from the Greek, surnion, meaning a bird of ill omen, and ulula, Latin for an owl.

Thanks to these sites for valuable info and some pics:

We made some excellent Mango Salsa for the potluck lunch!

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Can this be MY backyard? - A Review of Rancho Naturalista, Costa Rica

Rancho Naturalista... the name just flows off your tongue... kind of like the drool that flows off my tongue every time I think about this amazing eco-lodge in Turrialba, Costa Rica. Rancho Naturalista is owned by an American family who arrived in Costa Rica for religious purposes and ended up discovering eco-tourism. Last November, I had the pleasure of spending 3 days seeking out as many of the over 400 species of birds that have been seen there that I could find.

Rancho sits at 3000 feet in the pre-mountain rain forest in the Caribbean zone. The property is surrounded by a network of well-maintained trails that climb through the surrounding mountains and pastures. Resident guides (who are only paid in room, board, food, and tips) are available to take you on the trails. These guides are amazing and are here truly because they love birding and want to learn the birds of CR. While I was there, our guide was a Dutchman named Vincent who had experience birding in Europe, Israel and briefly in the US. He was friendly and very knowledgeable even though he'd only been there 2 months.

If you have never birded in the rainforest, it's very different than birding the typically more open woods of the US. Birds tend to feed in small flocks. Tanagers, flycatchers, and manakins quickly move through the tops of trees, so you really have to be on your "A" game to be able to get on the birds and pick out the field marks. It doesn't help that a lot of the time they are backlit, behind a tree, or behind a leaf. It takes some getting used to, but makes for a fun challenge.

The trick to finding the greatest diversity of species on the trails (and birds lower to the ground) is to locate the army ant swarms that move up and down the mountain. No, the birds don't eat the army ants, but they do eat all the insects that are running for their lives from this war machine. Army ant specialists such as the Antbirds, Ant-thrushes, Antwrens, Ant-Tanagers, and Antshrikes are mostly found around these swarms. At times, there can be 20-30 species of birds attending one swarm. So, you will spend a lot of time walking the (sometimes muddy) trails in search of these swarms. You won't always find the army ant swarms, but many birds can still be found away from the swarms.

There are also two special treats within the forest. The first is a group of hummingbird feeders with lovely canopied viewing benches. These attract Violet-Crowned Woodnymphs, White-Necked Jacobin, Green Hermit, Red-Footed Plumeleteer, and... oh yeah... SNOWCAP! This is one of the best places on earth to see the dainty, gorgeous Snowcap.

The other treat is the hummingbird pools. These are a series of small pools where many hummingbirds come to take a dip in the water. Snowcap frequently visits along with Purple-Crowned Fairy and many other birds. It's very cool to see a hummer take a plunge into one of these pools! This is the only place our group saw Purple-Crowned Fairy.

But wait, there's more! My favorite part of Rancho Naturalista is the balcony. With a wonderful scenic backdrop, you have a clear view of fruit feeders and hummingbird feeders. Over 200 species have been seen from this deck alone. Amazingly comfortable chairs, a coffee pot, and a nearby beer fridge make this the place to be. Each morning, I woke up and immediately went to the balcony. It was also the place where I saw last light each night. This is the ultimate backyard birding. The hummers, such as Green-Breasted Mango, Green-Crowned Brilliant, and Rufous-Tailed Hummingbird, allow you to get inches away from them. This makes froms ome great photo opportunities - see below. Collared Aracaris, Montezuma and Chestnut-headed Oropendulas, Gray-headed Chachalacas, Hoffman's and Black-Cheeked Woodpeckers, and a plethora of tanagers visit the fruit feeders. Migrant warblers, flycatchers, and many other birds feed from the surrounding trees and ground as well.

The Balcony
A tree of fruit
Hummingbird feeders
View from balcony w/ Great Kiskadee
Violet-Crowned Woodnymph
Collared Aracari

The gardens around the buildings also attract some hummingbirds that don't use the feeders such as Black-crested Coquette, Green Thorntail, and Little Hermit.

At night, Mottled Owl can be heard and in the early morning the other-wordly sounds of Great Tinamou, Little Tinamou, and Rufous Motmot (my favorite call) can be heard. I've only scratched the surface of the birding opportunities on the grounds of the lodge. They also offer day excursions to other nearby areas such as Rio Tuis and CATIE that host species not easily seen at Rancho. These excursions are usually taken in an older jeep or truck, but a little discomfort and a bumpy ride is worth the wonderful birds.

Ok, so it's clear there is great birding here. But what are the facilities like? The lodge is made of several buildings. Some are divided into 2 separate rooms, each with 2 beds, 2 dressers, and a bathroom. Others are small cottages with 1 queen-sized bed, a dresser, a couch, and a bathroom. All buildings have a hammock and 2 lounge chairs on their deck. I stayed in one of the 2-bedroom buildings.

The rooms are not air conditioned or heated, but they do have ceiling fans. It gets moderately cool at night, so this is usually not a problem either way. The floors are not carpeted due to the high humidity. The bed was comfortable. The rooms were very clean, although the very high ceilings attracted some spider webs (with residents!) and moths.

The one strange thing about staying at Rancho is the bathroom situation. You are not allowed to flush toilet paper - period. Each room has a small wastebasket next to the toilet for used toilet paper. It takes a little getting used to, but it's not really that bad. Just make sure you wrap it up real good and it won't smell. The wastebasket is emptied every day.

The showers are roomy and have good water pressure and temperature. The sink is fine and gives you a great place to fill a water bottle (yes, water there is safe to drink, regularly tested, and quite tasty).

Each room has a laundry basket too. If you fill the basket, your laundry will be washed and folded at a cost of $10 a load.

Special note: They recently built a new cottage that is gorgeous. It's made of beautiful lacquered logs. It has a close view of the rainforest and its own set of hummingbird feeders.

Your stay includes 3 meals a day. Meals are eaten family-style in the main building and all guests eat together. The breakfasts usually feature eggs, some type of meat, gallo pinto (rice & beans), fresh fruit, and fresh fruit juice (papaya, guava, and other local fruits - amazing!). Costa Rican coffee is always available. Lunches include some type of local or Americanized entree, soup or salad, more fresh fruit, and wonderful cookies and breads for dessert. Dinner is similar to lunch, but usually has a more special dessert like flan or tres leches. Being a bit of a foodie, I was amazingly surprised with the quality of the food. It was delicious and truly home-cooked. If you're a very picky eater, you shouldn't have too much trouble finding something since there are usually multiple items on the table.

The wait staff is very friendly, although many do not speak English. There is usually a bilingual staff member around to translate for you. You can always use it as an opportunity to practice your Spanish with the amazingly friendly Ticos.

We did not have a repeated lunch or dinner meal while there. In fact, our guide told us that he'd been there 2 months and hadn't had the same dessert twice! This was truly a welcome treat because I didn't know what type of food to expect. When you hear the food bell ringing at Rancho, you will definitely be running for the food.

Beer, soda, and bottled water are available in a fridge near the balcony. There's a list where you log your beer purchases and square up at the end of your stay.

Other than the toilet paper thing, there aren't a whole lot of negatives. One complaint I have is that it is very difficult to call to the US from here (and maybe CR in general). They have a regular phone that I could not get to work with my phone card. The only other option is a phone that you swipe a credit card in. I talked to my girlfriend in NJ for about 10 minutes and it set me back around $50!!! Be wary.

Other Highlights
At Rancho, I was able to satiate my interest in all things natural. Many species of butterflies and moths can be found there. We spotted several Blue Morphos in the forest, among the many unidentified butterflies. At night, I found great fun walking around with my flashlight seeking strange insects and moths under the eaves of buildings. I found huge crickets (the one below is about 6 inches long), katydids, interesting spiders, millipedes, and other unique insects. Snakes, including the deadly Fer de Lance and Eyelash Viper, can be found in the forest if you're (un)lucky.

If you're used to the Hilton and the Marriott, this may not be the place for you. But, if you're ready for a true taste of tropical birding with wonderful staff, amazing food, and some of the most comfortable birding around, this is an amazing place to stay. I understand that getting reservations during the dry season (Dec. - Mar.) can be difficult. Tour groups like Field Guides or VENT may be your best option for visiting here. So, lace up your boots and enjoy the trip.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Biking around the neighborhood

My girlfriend Beth and I took our new bikes out for an initial spin last evening. We biked around our suburban hood for 45 minutes or so. Beth has a fascination with wildflowers and she's wearing a hole in our Newcomb's with her enthusiasm. I love it. Along our drive through suburbia, we did manage to find a few spring wildflowers. We located some lovely shades of purple in Ground Ivy, Common Blue Violet, and Henbit.

From my research, it looks like Henbit and Ground Ivy are considered weeds for the most part. One man's weed is another man's wildflower I guess.


Yummy... tastes like chicken!

I picked up a copy of the NY Times to read on my way home from that debacle of a Rangers game yesterday. I came across an interesting article on Caecilians in the Science section. Now, I had never heard of these strange worm-like amphibians until I read about them in a Costa Rica wildlife guide last year. Little is known about them despite the fact that there are probably millions of individuals on at least 4 continents.

The Times focused on one species: Boulengerula taitanus. "Hatchlings of the species [...] have special teeth that enable them to peel the skin off their mothers. The hatchlings eat the skin, which is thicker than normal, swollen with fats and other nutrients. It's their only source of food during their first days." Wouldn't it be something if humans shared that same behavior?

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Birding Message Boards - Check them out!

There are tons of birding mailing lists out there - some for novices, some for specific regions, and some for people who can tell you the color of the individual barbs on "P9" on a 2nd-winter Herring Gull passing by at 80 miles an hour. Another means of online communication are message boards. These are a little more informal and make it easier to post pictures in a nice friendly (for the most part) atmosphere. I find them a great place to meet good people, test my ID skills, and share experiences. Here are a few that I frequent. Please share more in the comments.

GardenWeb's Bird Watching Forum - Recently plagued by pop-up ads, but still has many great members and good activity. They also have gardening-related forums and many other natural history topics.

Feathered Friends - Relatively new, but has many active members who fled from GardenWeb due to pop-ups and some old technical issues. They also have a butterfly forum and an excellent hummingbird forum. This and the above earn my frequent visits.

Birder's World Community - Not as active as other forums, but fun to read through.


This Rail got railed...

I had to drop off some training manuals at our sister building next door early this morning. I arrived at 7:15 or so to the lovely glass entryway to this Corporate building in a very Corporate part of town. I noticed something beside the doorway. Upon a closer look... lo and behold it was a poor dead Virginia Rail. Without a doubt, it never really saw the lovely two story glass front of the building. It probably saw the lovely two story Ficus trees and sailed clear into the window. Poor little fella.

So how did it get there? Virginia Rails are not year-round residents in this part of NJ. They are short-distance migrants. There's a small freshwater marsh down the road and a small creek next to the office building. I'm thinking he most likely spent yesterday or maybe the past several days hanging in one of these places dining on insects, larvae, and frogs while getting ready for the next leg of his journey to a much nicer large marsh. Rails migrate at night, so that's when he probably crashed.

This isn't the first dead bird I've found here at my office. I've seen dead Cardinals, Titmice, Catbirds, and even a Nashville Warbler. So what can I do about it? There are lots of ways to prevent window strikes at home or in corporate settings. I'm planning on asking our building maintenance people to put up bird deterrent stickers or something like CollidEscape. Hopefully, if there is no aesthetic impact, they will be willing to do it. I do work for a company that is very pro-environment, so that's a good thing.

Why bird?

Someone recently asked me this question... why bird? There's generally a slight disconnect between birders and non-birders. Non-birders think that birders sit in one place and wait for a bird to appear and when it does, they ogle it and then wait for the next bird. While this may be true for some people (and for Big Sits), birding generally involves a bit more muscular effort than that. Non-birders also seem to always ask me the same question, "Ok..... so after you see the bird, what do you do next?" Inevitably, I give a dumb response like, "Well, you look for another bird." They just don't seem to get that this can be a fun activity.

I've tried comparing birding to treasure hunts, collecting, fishing, hunting, reading a book, and many other analogies. The best way to get someone to understand and appreciate our hobby is to actually bring someone out with you. They will understand the fun and magic of it all. They will see the beauty of nature, the wonder of being outside, and the great feeling of finding the birds. They will realize that it doesn't just have to be about listing or walking around in goofy clothes.

So did I really answer the question of "Why bird?"??? It's hard to give a firm answer. I have many different reasons, but everything about it just gives me satisfaction. Comraderie, learning, teaching, traveling, competition, etc. It's all fun. It's a hobby that can be taken almost anywhere and shared with people. You can get as deep into it as you want or you can barely skim the surface. There's never a dull or uninteresting excursion. That's why I bird.