Thursday, February 28, 2008

11 Planets? Who knew?

I'll admit that I'm not as into astronomy as I'd like to be. So I was surprised to discover that there are 11 planets! Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Ceres, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto and Eris. Last I heard, Pluto had been downgraded to a chunk of space rock (ok, a dwarf planet). It seems that the 11 member list includes both planets and dwarf planets. A 10-year old girl recently won a contest to create a mnemonic (one of my favorite words!) to learn the names of the 11 planets. Here it is:

My Very Exciting Magic Carpet Just Sailed Under Nine Palace Elephants.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Venomous Spiders Lurking in Your Home

I found this critter on our bathroom wall a few weeks ago.

It's a Yellow Sac Spider, aka Black-footed Spider, of the family Miturgidae. They are very common in US households. Their bites are venomous and cause localized tissue necrosis which basically means an open wound that can take several weeks to months to heal. Yellow Sac Spiders are not aggressive. They typically bite in defense. Their commonality and the tissue necrosis effect is believed to be the cause of many spider bites being blamed on the Brown Recluse. Brown Recluse bites have similiar (and worse) effects, but are much less common.

These spiders don't build a web per se, but a "sac" of silk that they use as a lair. If you've every lifted up an old picture on your wall and found a little web "pouch", it is likely made by this species. I have had encounters with these guys in many places including my car. On several occasions I've been driving along and one crawled across the inside of my windshield out of my defrost vents! Arachnophobia + venomous spider + driving = potential disaster!

Wordless Wednesday

Monday, February 25, 2008

Voy a Guatemala!

This Saturday I'm off to Guatemala for the IV International Birdwatching Encounter sponsored by the Guatemala Tourism Board. The goal of this event is to "promote Guatemalan locations that have birdwatching potential, so that Guatemala can be positioned as a worldwide birdwatching destination, generating the interest of new international markets (for example, Europe), and to favor alliances and businesses between national and international enterprises interested in this activity." In a nutshell, the event will host representatives from bird tour companies, ornithologists, writers, artists, and me in an effort to promote eco-tourism in the country. Pretty darn sweet. We will be visiting some incredible areas over 8 days including Tikal and Yaxha National Parks. One day will even be devoted to a "Birding Challenge" (think Big Day). Birding and camaraderie will be plentiful. Food will be interesting. Photos will be more than abundant. I will post extensively on my return and you will get to see the full cast of characters who attended and all the beauty of what is sure to be an exciting trip.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Java Logs

Beth purchased an interesting product the other day - Java Logs. These are non-wood logs for your fireplace made out of used coffee grounds. They are more environmentally friendly than Duraflame or wood logs in that they divert waste products from landfills and use 100% renewable products in their creation. Check out their website for the full list of environmental facts. We've tried one so far and were very happy with the fire it produced.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

New Jersey GBBC Observations

The Great Backyard Bird Count has come and gone. Weather-wise, we had a pretty great weekend with some rain but generally temperatures above freezing throughout most of NJ. This meant that there was more open water for waterbirds and easier viewing conditions for observers. On the other hand, a little snow never hurts for attracting birds to the feeders which helped my personal count last year. Here are the highlights:

  • As of today, New Jersey has submitted 2516 checklists with potentially more to come as the March 1 deadline approaches. This puts us 10th overall. Being the most densely populated state in the US, I think we can do better with more promotion. Then again, we didn't even crack the top 10 last year.
  • We reported 162 species so far, more than any of the last 10 years.
  • Looking at the distribution map for the state, it's clear that the # of checklists submitted is proportional to the # of people in that area of the state. The densely populated areas like the northeast, central NJ, and northern shore contributed many checklists while the pine barrens area and the coast of Delaware Bay contributed very little. While these areas are obviously less populated, they also include much more birding habitat and offer an opportunity for some promotion next year.
  • Like many states, the most numerous birds reported were Snow and Canada Goose. In fact, we reported over 300,000 Snow Geese helping us be #1 in the total individual birds reported. The species reported most often were common yard birds like Mourning Dove and Northern Cardinal.
  • Interestingly, out of 2500 checklists, only 966 reported House Sparrow and 766 reported European Starling. Does that mean that people are ignoring them? not able to identify them? just not seeing them?
  • Once again we had tons of Red-headed Woodpeckers reported which mostly turned out to be Red-bellied Woodpeckers. We also had tons of Purple Finches reported. In this invasion year, it's been tough to filter through those records.
  • We had some nice rarities and semi-hardy birds including 2 Baltimore Orioles, Barnacle Goose, Townsend's Solitaire, both Crossbills, Evening Grosbeak, 2 Osprey, Eurasian Wigeon, Northern Shrike, Palm Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Clay-colored Sparrow, and Yellow-headed Blackbird. Nice!
  • I've looked at many of the checklists that are submitted and I was disappointed to not see the names of many of the birders I know in NJ. We had tons of reports over the weekend on our listserv, but few of those people reported birds for the GBBC. Does the term "backyard" make them think it's only for yard birds? Do they just not want to participate in another count?
  • My town, Piscataway, submitted 20 checklists vs. 13 last year. But my original hometown submitted 0 this year and 7 last year! I really want to do more promotion next year. I think the GBBC is such an awesome way to get people looking at birds.

Did you participate? What observations do you have?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Total Lunar Eclipse Tonight

Be sure to get outside tonight if it's clear in your area. There will be a total lunar eclipse visible in most of North America and South America. NASA has lots of info on it including maps for each timezone. For the eastern US, the partial eclipse will start at 8:43 and the total eclipse will occur between 10:00-11:00.

Monday, February 18, 2008

A GBBC Kingfisher

The last day of the 2008 GBBC was full of some interesting weather - balmy temperatures and on and off thunderstorms. The only new species I recorded in my casual birding of the day was a Belted Kingfisher in the wastewater pond across the parking lot. This is the 3rd winter in a row that we've had one here. I was taking out our old dishwasher and range to be freecycled and waiting for our new appliances to arrive when I heard its distinctive call. I grabbed the camera and got a few nice shots of him.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Martha Stewart Show Video

Sorry the video is a bit low-budget. I don't have my DVR hooked to my DVD recorder, so I couldn't transfer a real version of it. I just used our camera to record it. Ignore our parakeets towards the end there. You may want to click on the video to view it larger.

A State Reviewer's GBBC Observations

Our sickly Nuthatch twisting his head around... see below.

I have the honor of being the official NJ Great Backyard Bird Count sighting reviewer. This involves reviewing reported sightings that flagged by the data entry system for various reasons. It may be an unusual high count of a regular occurring species, a vagrant sighting, or a very unusual sighting. The system is "smart" in that it automatically flags these records because it "knows" what species are likely to be seen on the GBBC in each state. I then get to follow up with the observers to check their sightings. In some case, the birds are rarities that have been around or just a nice sighting of 200 Horned Larks for example. In some cases, it is observer error. So far, I've only had 4 sightings to review. One was a Barnacle Goose that has been seen recently in Califon, NJ. I accepted this record for the GBBC, but it may not be accepted by the NJ Records Committee. I also had a report of 30 Little Gulls. The review site allows me to easily email the reviewers. I'm thinking this was either observer error or a data entry error. One Little Gull would be a nice sighting! I've also had a report of Yellow-bellied Flycatcher which is likely an Eastern Phoebe (not a bad GBBC bird itself) and a report of some Western Sandpipers which occur in small numbers on the coast in winter.

We had originally planned to go away this weekend, but passed on it in exchange for buying new kitchen appliances. So, we've been watching our yard birds. We've had the usual birds so far. We have a White-breasted Nuthatch hanging in the yard that isn't looking too healthy. He's spent a lot of time sitting in one place, but he moves along when approached. I hope he's ok because he's the only nuthatch we ever see in our yard and we've grown fond of him.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Martha Stewart Recap & GBBC

Thank you to those who had a chance to watch us on Martha! I haven't had a chance to put a clip on YouTube yet, but I will in the next week or so. It was a great time. We originally thought that we'd be with several other couples, but it turns out that they only chose one couple and it was us. Before the show, we got our make-up and hair done. Well, Beth got her hair done. They couldn't give me any! :) Then, we rehearsed a bit with one of the staff members of the show. We were then given microphones and brought to our special seats. I was pretty nervous, but I think it turned out pretty well. Did you hear her mention the GBBC? She sounded like she was really going to do it. An audience member even asked her about bird feeders and she mentioned the count again. She said that she has 40 feeders in her yard in NY! I wonder if we can get a report of her sightings. I'd like to say that we got to meet Martha and hang out with her, but we didn't.

After the show, we visited the Chelsea Market which was pretty awesome. We chowed down on some great Thai food and lots of snacks along the way. We had dinner at a restaurant in the East Village called Counter that serves mostly organic and locally-grown food. All of their booze is organic too. It was most excellent.

My GBBC is off to a good start. I had a big Sharpie fly through the yard this morning. All the Blue Jays were freaking out, then I noticed every bird in yard dive for cover. This was followed by the Sharpie flying over. Enjoy your weekend everyone!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

See us on The Martha Stewart Show!

In a bit of non-nature-related news... Beth and I are going to be interviewed on the Martha Stewart Show tomorrow for their Valentine's Day episode. They are featuring couples who met online (which we did) and they found our story interesting. It should be fun! The show's web site has a zip code lookup on the left side of the page so you can find out when it's on in your area. For NY area folks, it's on NBC at 1:00.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Sending Letters to Local Politicians

A few years ago I signed up for the Action Network. Through this service, environmental organizations like NJ Audubon and the Sierra Club can send alerts to interested parties about key issues and upcoming legislation. Through a simple form and the click of a button, I can send form letters to key officials/representatives who have influence with the issue at hand. I have the ability to customize the letter or write all of my own text. It's an excellent facilitation tool. On the other hand, I wonder how many people just click the "Send" button and send the form letter. I also wonder what the representatives who receive these form letters think. For example, say that 2000 people send letters, but only 50 of them customize the letter. It tells the representative that 2000 people care about the issue, which is great. But, do you think that 2000 custom letters would have more of an impact? Are the reps "on to us" regarding the use of this system and perhaps we've lost a little clout by using the form letters? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Bad News for Red Knots

In case you haven't heard, the NJ Marine Fisheries Council voted to not extend the moratorium on horseshoe crab harvesting. The full story is here courtesy of the Philly Inquirer.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

MEGA: White-crested Elaenia in South Texas

A (probable) White-crested Elaenia is being seen in south Texas. Follow the story here. Pictures are here. This will represent a first US record.

Update: Martin Reid has compiled a nice little web site about this bird including audio recording comparisons and more photos.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Robins Partying Hard

There's a story from the Portland area about a group of robins that when on an all-day kegger at their local holly stand. They drank to their heart's content, beat up a chickadee and a varied thrush, then pooped all over Mr. McGregor's new Corvette. The end result was tragic and many of them died from getting "drunk" on the berries. The story and a photo are here.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

I & The Bird #68

Seriosuly, what month is it? The temps climbed above 60F here in NJ yesterday. I walked around with no jacket in what is typically the coldest month of the year. I should have kept track of how many times I've had to scrape frost off my car windows since November. It's easily under 10 times. On the flip side, Nick has compiled a "Winter Doldrums" edition of I & The Bird. Check out the plethora of great bird posts there.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

PBS Programs on Birds this month

Keep an eye on your local PBS stations. They are running several bird-related programs on our local Ch. 13 this month:

Sunday, Feb. 10 @ 8:00pm: The premiere of Nature's Crash: A Tale of Two Species about horseshoe crabs and the red knots

Sunday, Feb. 24 @ 8:00pm: A rerun of Nature's Raptor Force - cameras on raptors in flight

Tuesday, Feb. 26 @ 8:00pm: Nova: The Four-winged Dinosaur about the four-winged dinosaur and the origin of bird flight

And might I add that PBS has a pretty nice web site. Thanks to my friend Janet for bringing these programs to my attention.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

2/3 Sandy Hook Walk Results

I led the "Beginner's Birding Walk" Sunday morning at Sandy Hook. Like last week, we had phenomenal weather. It was windless and mild. What month is it??? Our first stop was Spermaceti Cove where there were hundreds of Greater Scaup. Last week, our group had found a Redhead and two Canvasback in with the Scaup. They weren't there this week, but I did manage to find a male White-winged Scoter hidden among all of the Scaup. Talk about a needle in a haystack! Scoters are pretty unusual on Sandy Hook Bay and White-winged is the most unusual. We also saw a distant Peregrine Falcon perched on a sand bar. Later, I was able to show the new birders the Townsend's Solitaire that's been there for 2 months now. Beth took some terrific photos. Enjoy!

Clouds of Greater Scaup flew into the bay from the ocean. You can see the long white wing-stripe which is one way to separate Greater Scaup from Lesser.

A very cropped picture of the White-winged Scoter.

We saw quite a few Harbor Seals today. This one was real close to shore.

A nice shot of a Cedar Waxwing!

A much better photo of the Townsend's Solitaire than the one I took last week.

Here's a complete species list for those participants who are accessing my blog (thanks for coming!):

Red-throated Loon
Horned Grebe
Great Cormorant
Canada Goose
American Black Duck
Greater Scaup
Long-tailed Duck
White-winged Scoter
Red-breasted Merganser
Peregrine Falcon
Ring-billed Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
American Herring Gull
Rock Pigeon
Downy Woodpecker
Cedar Waxwing
Carolina Wren
Northern Mockingbird
Townsend's Solitaire
American Robin
Black-capped Chickadee
American Crow
European Starling
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Song Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
House Finch
House Sparrow
-------- STATISTICS --------
Species seen - 32

Eagle Fest Results

The 2008 Cumberland County Eagle Fest was a great success this year. The last two years have been plagued by bad weather, but you couldn't ask for a better day than we had yesterday. I don't know total participant #'s, but I know some of the walks had 50-60 cars and I talked to countless people. The eagles put on a show all day long and there were many other great birds around. They had an excellent vendor exhibit hall set up at the local fire house too. Cumberland County really appreciates their eagles. They have 20 nesting pairs within the county, the most of any county in NJ. Sadly, the hot topic of the day was the recent local cutting of a tree in with a nest by some unknown idiot. Here are some pictorial highlights from the day:

A good ol' Turkey Vulture

This was a sight that didn't get old... an eagle would periodically stir up the Snow Geese. They truly looked like snow out there.

There's expansive habitat down in Cumberland County. Many of our sightings were of distant birds. This one, though, was a real crowd-pleaser.

A Red-tailed Hawk soaring overhead

Publish PostAs early as 3:00 we saw our first Short-eared Owl of the day. Around 5:00, his friends showed up and we had 4-6 of them around at different times.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Busy tomorrow? Cumberland County Eagle Fest

If you're not busy tomorrow and happen to be near the southwestern portion of NJ, head over to the Cumberland County Winter Eagle Festival! There will be 4 viewing sites, plus a morning walk, and evening owl walk. I'm one of the volunteer leaders for the day. I will be stationed at the Beaver Dam Boat Rental property from 10-11:30 and at the famous Turkey Point from 1-5. I will also help lead the owl walk from 5 to sundown. I'll be bringing my new camera and lens and I hope to get some nice shots of eagles and other birds. Hope to see you there!