Thursday, September 28, 2006

Book Meme

Laura from Somewhere in NJ posted this meme. I really like it and I'll do my best to answer it. I'm a slow reader, so my library of nature books that I've read isn't emense. I might have to intersperse some non-nature books in here.

1. One book that changed your life: Strangely, it's the National Audubon Society Field Guide to Birds. While notably not the best field guide in the world, this book was always on my parents' shelf when I was growing up. My dad took us birding sometimes when we were young. He would put a black "X" next to every bird he saw. I remember thumbing through this book a lot when I was young and wondering, "I wonder where could I see a warbler?" or "I hope I can see a Great Gray Owl someday." The photos of the birds still stand out in my mind. They stand out so much that I recognize them when they're used in other publications. This book is by no means a good field guide, but it was my introduction to birds and the first one that I really used while birding.

2. One book that you've read more than once: I'm sorry to say that there is no book that I've read more than once. There are just too many books in the world to read. Ask me again in 20 years.

3. One book you'd want on a desert island: This one.

4. One book that made you laugh: Most nature books arent very funny. Pete Dunne has some funny moments, but Down and Dirty Birding by Joey Slinger is really funny.

5. One book that made you cry: No nature-related book has made me cry, yet. But Tuesdays with Morrie really gets me...

6. One book that you wish had been written: Another tough one... how about a book about environmental protection that really appeals to the masses. I'd like one that everyone would talk about and read. It seems that many great books about our environment are only read by people who already know the deal.

7. One book that you wish had never been written: I'm going to go out on a limb here and say The Big Year. I actually enjoyed the book and I'm a "lister" myself at times. My problem was that it really left a bad taste in my mouth about birders who have the resources to go anywhere at anytime. It kind of took the fun out of the adventures of the players in the book and added to the questionable public image that birders have. To me, birding is like a treasure hunt where you're rewarded once in a while with a new treasure. This book took the "hunt" aspect out of it.

8. One book you're currently reading: Wild America by Peterson and Fisher - FINALLY! It's great.

9. One book you've been meaning to read: To See Every Bird on Earth - the story of a father and son relationship where the father is an emphatic world lister.

10. Now tag five people: Whoever wants to join in can do so! It's a great way to learn about great books.

I & The Bird #33

A new edition of the bird blog carnival known as I & The Bird is up at

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Wild America

I’m finally reading Wild America by Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to read this legendary story of the two naturalists’ journey across North America. It’s one of those books that every budding naturalist is almost required to read. I have wanted to read it for a long time but for some reason my local library and all of its “sister” libraries don’t carry it. That’s a travesty if I’ve ever seen one.

Being only 100 pages into it, I can’t comment on the whole book, but what I’ve read so far has been really great. I’m a sucker for travelogue-type books, especially when they involve nature. For those who haven’t read it, the book is told from both Roger’s and James’s point of view at different times. Sometimes Roger is speaking and sometimes it’s James. Peterson gives his thoughts on the birds, the landscapes, and the characters they encounter while Mr. Fisher, being from the UK, gives his views on the many new birds and experiences he’s having. It’s wonderful to hear him recount his experiences of first seeing and our Wood-Warblers and their comparison to the cryptic Old World Warblers he is familiar with. His sense of wonder at the natural world is contagious and it takes me back to some of my first birding experiences. The two are clearly fond of each other and James’s perceptions of Roger give us an inside look into the life of the father of modern birding.

So far, Roger and James have visited the Cape St. Mary’s gannet colony, Maine, Washington, DC, Shenandoah National Park, the Great Smoky Mountains, and the southern swamps of Georgia and northern Florida. The sights and sounds they’ve encountered still exist to this day in most respects, but I have a feeling of dread as to some of the adventures coming up in the next several hundred pages. I fear that a lot of what they see has probably changed immensely in the 50+ years since the book’s publication. I’m sure some of it has been saved for posterity, but I fear that others have been developed or changed in a negative way due to invasive species or other changes. Scott Weidensaul addresses these fears in his Return to Wild America, which I will read immediately once I’m finished with it’s predecessor.

I’m looking forward to finishing this book over the next few weeks (I’m a slow reader). I welcome any readers comments about this wonderful and historical book.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Ivory-billed Woodpecker Rumors

Since the announcement of the re-discovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, birders, ornithologists and nature-lovers everywhere have been holding their breaths for some indisputable evidence that these ghosts of the swampe do indeed still exist. The 2005 search didn't turn up any hard evidence and the skeptics have been adding to their case even further. I am not one of those skeptics. I believe. (It probably doesn't hurt that I just read Tim Gallagher's Grail Bird, a wonderful and highly recommended book.)

In any event, skeptic or not, some new rumors have surfaced about our Elvis with feathers. Rumor has it that a major university has been documenting a population of as many as 9 pairs of Ivory-bills on a river system in western Florida. It's an area that was never explored by James Tanner. It's expected that there will be an announcement about this at the AOU meeting next month in Veracruz, Mexico. Apparently, this discovery was made over a year ago and the proper authorities are at work trying to preserve the land. After all, we don't want something like THIS happening here.

This information comes from multiple postings on mailing lists as well as a radio interview from a well-known Virginia birder. We can only hope and pray that these rumors are true.

UPDATE: NY Times has an article about these rumors. It sounds like there may not be much concrete evidence this time either. We need the folks from Law & Order on this case.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

In Search of a Gray Kingbird

I had already planned on birding Sandy Hook today, but when a report of a Gray Kingbird came in on Saturday night, my plans went from casual birding to rarity chasing. Reports of possible bad storms couldn't stop me from chasing this ninth sighting of Gray Kingbird in NJ.

I met some friends at the northern-most parking lot at Sandy Hook at 7:00 AM, which meant I had to leave my house at 6:00! The north lot (known as K lot) leads to a number of good birding areas on Sandy Hook including the famed "Locust Grove" which is a migrant trap, the hawk watch platform, and the "Fisherman's Trail". The "Fisherman's Trail" is a half-mile long trail north to the beach overlooking Sandy Hook Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. The trail is notoriously referred to as the "death march" due to it being made up of soft sand. The end of this trail also leads to a salt pond that attracts shorebirds. West of the pond is a large wooded area of cottonwoods, poison ivy, bayberry, and beach plum. This is where the Gray Kingbird had been seen. Here's a map of the salt pond.

We trekked our scopes out to the area where the bird had been seen. Mosquitos were AWFUL! We had been warned by the people who found the bird that they had been bad, but I wasn't expecting to be eaten alive. Deet wouldn't stop them one bit. Luckily, I wore my rain jacket as an extra bit of protection. All for a lifer I guess!

We arrived to find another birder already searching. He hadn't been successful. Instead of a Kingbird, we found several Merlins, a Kestrel, and a Cooper's Hawk perched on various snags out in the dunes. Could one of these birds be full from a Kingbird snack? Let's hope not!

We set up our scopes and continued to search diligently for the bird. A "Who's Who" of local birders showed up, all with a single intention. We searched up and down the dunes for several hours. Flickers were everywhere and a fly-by Phoebe led to a few gasps from the crowd after thinking we'd found our bird. Other birders were looking elsewhere on the Hook. The birder cell phone network was primed for a sighting.

Historically, Gray Kingbirds are notorious for staying briefly and moving to a new site. This bird was adhering to that traditional MO. Twenty-five birders had arrived by this time and no one had found the bird yet. After several hours, our group gave up the fight and decided to bird elsewhere. "There are other birds to see" was our attitude. We ended up birding some other areas and found some nice birds. At this point, the Kingbird has not been refound.

Interestingly, a Gray Kingbird had been found in Martha's Vineyard on September 7. Could this have been the same bird?

Friday, September 22, 2006

Vesicare Commercial - The Pipe Birders

I don't know if anyone has seen this commercial for Vesicare - a bladder control drug. In the commercial, you see a guy made of pipes driving around in his little pipe world. You notice a book titled "Birds" on his car seat next to him. A bird pops into frame and the driver chases the bird down, only to be foiled by an overactive bladder. In comes Vesicare to save the day! He and his friends are able to re-find the bird and get some photos to boot. By their excitement, I think it was a lifer. Sorry that I couldn't find a full video of the commercial.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

More from Belgium

Sorry that the nature-related posts have been slow. I've been recovering from our vacation. If you want to see some pictures, go here.

But check out this guy... he was playing blues in the Brussels "Grand Place". He sounded great and put SO MUCH energy into his performance. I loved this guy!

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Back from Belgium

Well, we're back from Belgium. Brussels was awesome. We drank plenty of beer and ate more chocolate and frites than any human should be allowed to. From a birding standpoint, I decided to pass on the birding in favor of the wonderful sightseeing. I did manage to get a few pictures of birds and butterflies.

This European Peacock butterfly was found on a butterfly bush in a park. Butterfly bushes are EVERYWHERE in Belgium. I guess it's considered invasive in parts of Europe. This is very possible since it was seen growing in many cracks and crevices, as well as in many open places.

This is a juvenile Eurasian Blackbird (Turdus merula) - more related to our American Robin than to our blackbirds. The calls of the bird were immediately recognizable as a Turdus thrush.

Carrion Crows are the replacement for our American Crow in Belgium.

Overall, I saw only 20 species of birds in the 30-40 minutes I spent birding in the park in Antwerp. 10 of those birds were lifers. I'd love to go back to Europe someday and see more of their birds.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Views of Antwerp

I've been staying in Antwerp the last few days. It's a wonderful city with interesting history and more restaurants and bars than I've ever seen in one place. Rumor has it that Belgium has over 10,000 restaurants! I walked around the city a bit yesterday evening. Here are some of the highlights.

This status is in the center of the Groenplats (main plaza) and in front of city hall. It depicts the hero Brabo throwing the hand of the evil giant, Antigoon, into the river. The name "Antwerp" means "hand-throwing".

These 16th-century guildhouses are now storefronts. They are decorated with brilliant gold status.

The Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal, or Church of Our Lady, overlooks the main plaza of Antwerp. The inside houses three pieces of artwork by Peter Paul Rubens, the famous Antwerp resident.

Mussels are a popular meal in Belgium. They come in a black pot accompanied by frites and optional sauces. They go wonderfully with a Belgian beer (in this case, the local De Koninck). Strangely, my mussels had a few friends along for the trip - three tiny, dead crabs. They were maybe 3/4" long. One was actually inside the meat of the mussel and it popped out as I stabbed it with a fork. I ate around them. :)

Now that you're done reading, head over to the Sand Creek Almanac for the current installment of I and the Bird. It's a great place to read A LOT about birds.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Belgium Birds

I'm in Belgium for work this week. I'll be in Antwerp and Brussels until 9/18. I had a chance to bird a little yesterday afternoon in the local park across from the hotel. There are huge Wood Pigeons everywhere. I also saw Blue Tit, Goldcrest, and Great Tit (get those minds out of the gutter). The tits were easy to find because their calls are very chickadee-like. The Goldcrest's call is almost identical to the call of our Golden-crowned Kinglet There are also lots of Rooks (like our crow) and Eurasian Blackbirds. The highlight was seeing a Eurasian Jay which is a really cool bird. It has some blue irridescent feathering on its wing which is pretty neat. I'll try to get some pictures of the birds.

I also got the see how the other half lives by flying first class. Very cushy.

Monday, September 11, 2006

This Warbler doesn't live in Connecticut

I've been trying to find a Connecticut Warbler for many falls now. This funny warbler doesn't migrate through NJ in the spring. Instead, it prefers to migrate more in the interior of the US, just east of the plains. The fall is a different story. It migrates along the coast towards in South American wintering grounds. This notorious skulker usually appears in small numbers at places like Sandy Hook and Garrett Mountain. It seems that in the last week, there have been an abundance of Connecticut Warblers in NJ (or "possible" sightings as some would argue - not me).

I had my once-a-month volunteer duty at the Sandy Hook Bird Observatory (aka the book store) yesterday. Lucky for me, 4(!) Connecticuts had been seen there on Saturday. Woo-hoo! I woke up early Sunday, hoping at least one had stuck around. I ran into some friends who had the same thoughts. In fact, there were a ton of birders around. I think we all had similar thoughts. My friends had seen about 15 species of warbler by the time I got there, but no CT. We birded around for a while and we found an uncommon Yellow-bellied Flycatcher which was nice. We found several other species of warblers, but no luck on the skulker yet. I ran into my buddy Pete (who runs SHBO) and his lady friend. They too were in search of the CT Warbler. Unfortunately, my 10:00 volunteer starting time quickly approached and I was off to the book store one warbler short. I had searched every spot they were sign previously, but no luck! There were fleeting reports from other birders, but my morning was done.

The store was hopping and I made a bunch of sales and had some nice conversations. Around 11:30, a fellow birder called to report a confirmed Connecticut on a trail we had previously checked. D'oh! I'd have to wait until 3:00 and then get EXTREMELEY lucky to find the bird on the mosquito-ridden trail where it had been found. Ugh.

At lunchtime, the friends who had found the CT showed up for lunch at the center. We chatted for a moment and then I tended to some customers. A bit later I went to grab my lunch. I noticed that my friends were now standing outside staring at a small pine tree next to the building (actually, the ONLY tree next to the building). I walked to the backdoor and opened it. "THERE'S A CONNECTICUT WARBLER HERE!" shouted one of the birders. Now, you've never seen birders move this fast in your life. I bolted for my bins and the three customers and I ran out the door.

The bird had been flushed into a high patch of grass on the lawn next to the building. As we approached, it took off and landed low in a sycamore tree for us all to get amazing looks! We saw all of the field marks, especially that bold white eyering and dark gray hood. This was an adult bird. Everyone was so elated. It was just amazing that this bird appeared right next to the center. What a yard bird! The bird flew off into the distance never to be seen by our eyes again. It was one of my more memorable birding moments (and I didn't have to go out to the trail at 3:00!).

Friday, September 08, 2006

Moth Night

Tonight I attended a "Moth Night" at the East Brunswick Butterfly Park hosted by the East Brunswick Environmental Commission. They had one a few weeks ago that I unfortunately missed, so I was excited when they scheduled this "encore".

The concept of a "Moth Night" is to set up a mercury vapor light with a large white sheet to attract moths. In addition to the sheet, they painted several trees with a "delicious" mixture of beer, rum, sugar, and rotten fruit. You can find a recipe here.

I arrived at 9:00 to find the light already set up and several people looking at the sheet. The sheet was covered in many tiny moths and several larger ones, about 1" in width. The sheet also attracted crickets, a tiny moth caterpillar, katydids, beetles, and wasps. There was a surprising lack of mosquitos, although I did get a few bites.

We hit the trail to see the baited, or "sugared", trees. These usually attract a different set of species than the light. We found some larger species on these including a very large member of the "Underwing" group (genus Catocala). Unfortunately, I did not get to photograph the species and all of the photos I took of the sugared trees came out awful. Other species we saw on the trees (that I can remember) include Copper Underwing and Yellow-striped Armyworm.

The night was a great experience and something that I wanted to do for a long time. I'm glad that a local group has finally done something for the moths. It was also great to see a lot of families bringing their kids to see the moths. This is probably the last one for this year, but I look forward to next year.

A parasitic wasp

This Monarch Caterpillar was on some Swamp Milkweed

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Mispronounced, but Funny, Bird Names

Some fellow birders and I were chatting the other day about how people sometimes butcher bird names. I'm not talking about the mispronunciation of "Pileated" or "Parula". I'm talking about the people who refer to the Glaucous Gull as the "GLACIOUS" Gull. Granted, it is a very white gull and "Glacious" does conjure thoughts of white things. It's still a funny thing to hear though.

Upon the sighting of a thrush in the woods, a fellow birder shouted, "Look! A VERY!" A very what? A very confused bunch of birders looking at a Veery, that's what.

Nancy from the Feathered Friend forum mentioned a story of someone who refers to the "Great Blue Herring". I even found a picture of it.

A fellow birder claims to have seen a "Swanson's Hawk" out in the midwest. He even got a picture of this rare bird. Rumor has it that it likes to hang out around microwave towers:

A birder who caught my ear the other day mentioned "Kirkland's Warbler". This must be the generic version of the endangered "Kirtland's Warbler" as sold by Costco.

And I'm sure everyone knows someone who has seen "SCOOTERS" on the ocean. These Scooters have wings and no wheels.

Bob from Feathered Friend forum mentioned the sighting of a "Western TEENAGER". That gave me a chuckle. I miss being a "Summer Teenager", but I'm not sure I was ever a "Scarlet Teenager". Maybe when I spent too much time in the sun...

These are the ones that we came up with. Have any to share?

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

10 Things...

John at A DC Birding Blog continued a thread asking people to name 10 things they did to further their interest in birding. Here's my list. It's somewhat chronological:

1. Watched birds at my parents' feeders
2. Met fellow birders who introduced me to the NJ Audubon Society
3. Accidentally attended my first NJ Audubon trip during a spring fallout (40 lifers!)
4. Bought a pair of nice binoculars
5. Bought several field guides
6. Visited all of the local hotspots many times
7. Went to Southeast Arizona with VENT (and several other trips thereafter)
8. Became a monthly volunteer at the Sandy Hook Bird Observatory
9. Participated in Grasslands Breeding Surveys
10. Started leading my own field trips

Please post your own list on your blog and let me know!

Monday, September 04, 2006

Birding after the Storm

First off, I was so sad to hear about the untimely passing of Steve Irwin. My heart goes out to the family of this wonderful ambassador of wildlife.

The remnants of Ernesto dumped a ton of rain and heavy winds on NJ on Saturday. Birds normally found out at sea were blown or carried inland, even as far as the Delaware River. Cape May hosted Sooty Terns, Bridled Terns, all three Jaeger species, and scores of Red and Red-necked Phalaropes, among other pelagic birds. Some friends of mine even spotted a Bridled Tern sitting side-by-side with a Roseate Tern on a picnic table at a nearby coastal lake! I didn't brave the weather and stayed home for the day. Sunday morning I decided to head out to see what I could find.

I quickly discovered that the seabirds had departed. I ended up at Sandy Hook and ran into 3 fellow birders. We headed to the far north end of the Hook. There we found lots of terns and tons of shorebirds. The terns were all Common Terns and Forster's Terns, with a few Black Terns thrown in. Shorebird diversity was great. We found 18 species of shorebirds including 2 American Golden-Plover, Piping Plover, a ton of White-rumped Sandpipers, and my first Buff-breasted Sandpipers (pictured). I was thrilled to find the "buffies" because I had originally planned to go to a nearby sod farm where they had also been seen. Most shorebirds have a subtle beauty, but the Buff-breasted Sandpiper is extra beautiful.

The super high tides at Sandy Hook also washed up a ton of wildlife on the beach. There were literally thousands of Common Starfish stranded on the beach for a several hundred yard stretch of beach. Gobs of Horseshoe Crabs, Spider Crabs, and Blue Crabs had also washed ashore. We found a dead Dogfish and the parks service has found and buried a dead young Minke Whale.

Although the day didn't turn up any pelagic species blown in from the storm, it was still a great birding day with great weather and a gorgeous new bird!

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Rare bird in suburbia

Anyone who lives in the suburbs is familiar with the huge shopping centers that pop up every 2-3 months in any open space available. How much shopping can people possibly do? Well, in nearby Bridgewater, there's a huge center with a Target, Home Depot, Costco, Michael's Crafts, Marshall's, and Bed, Bath, & Beyond among others. Strangely, this very shopping center recently was home to a Northern Wheatear, a very rare bird in NJ. This mostly European thrush breeds in Alaska and parts of northern Canada, but nowhere near NJ. A well-known birder was shopping and found it among some House Sparrows right in front of his car. He got several looks at it too. Unfortunately, the bird was never re-found. I looked twice myself yesterday. It's a huge shopping center and worthy of another check over the next few days.

It's nice to know that some bird life finds these shopping centers adequate, but I'd still much prefer it to be actual bird habitat like a forest or marsh.