Monday, December 31, 2007

Winter Coastal Birding on New Year's Eve

After an uneventful day yesterday at the Raritan Estuary CBC, I decided to do some birding along the NJ coast today. I started at Manasquan Inlet near Point Pleasant, NJ. This is a great spot in winter for loons, gulls, and alcids. A few Black-headed Gulls had been seen here recently and I wanted to see one. Unfortunately, today would not be my day. One had been seen around 8:00 AM, but had flown far away by the time I got there. As a nice consolation prize, there were quite a few Bonaparte's Gulls in extremely close as well as many Northern Gannets and loons.

From there I headed north to Sandy Hook to look for some rarities that had been hanging out since late November - a Townsend's Solitaire and a Western Kingbird. Neither of these are life birds or state birds for me, but I thought they'd be nice to see. The Hook was extremely windy. I looked in vain for the Solitaire for quite a while, but I didn't manage to find many birds at all. The only thing I scared up was a few Golden-crowned Kinglets and a Brown Creeper. I then moved to the North Beach pavilion to look for the Western Kingbird. As I stepped out of my car, a bird alighted on a perch to my right and, sure enough, it was the Kingbird!

One out of three ain't bad. I ran into another birder who had been looking for the Kingbird for a while and I was able to get him on it. The wind and the cold were beginning to get to me. I made a few more stops along the way out, but then headed home. Not a bad morning out birding on New Year's Eve. Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Meme: What did you do?

My lovely fiancee, Beth, has started a meme over at her blog. List one thing that you or your have family did during this holiday season to lighten your environmental impact. Then, tag some people to do post their "one thing." Here's mine:

Beth and I purchased two cheap sets of forks, spoons, and knives to use at our parties. This way we can reduce the amount of plastic utensils that we use because plastic utensils stink.

I'll tag Susan, Delia, and the Birdfreak crew.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Great Swamp Birding

As I've mentioned on here a few times before, I spent some time birding as a kid at the Great Swamp NWR with my family. When I picked up birding again 7 or so years ago, it became a regular stop for me. I took a drive down the main access road, Pleasant Plains Road, today to look for some previously reported Rough-legged Hawks.

At the heron rookery parking lot, I observed a dark bird fly and perch on top of a lone snag. Upon closer inspection, it was indeed a dark morph Rough-legged Hawk. I don't think I've ever seen a dark morph perched and I was surprised at how dark it looked - almost black. Unfortunately, a young Red-tailed Hawk came by and chased it away to claim the perch. I got to see the shape and field marks in flight.

I ran into a friend who pointed out an immature Red-headed Woodpecker working a group of distant dead trees. The Great Swamp is one of the best spots to see these in NJ. I spent a short time looking around for other birds and found some Black Vultures, more Red-tails, three more species of woodpecker (Red-bellied, Hairy, and Downy) and a group of Eastern Bluebirds. The local parking lot Mockingbird made his presence known too.

I needed to head home from my short trip but not without first finding a group of about 25 Rusty Blackbirds sitting in some trees close to the road. I think this was a year bird for me and I know the Rough-legged Hawk was. The weather couldn't have been better for a day in late December. It was almost balmy. Happy New Year and Happy Birding!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Thank you Santa!

Santa Beth gave me a lovely Charley Harper print of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker among many other wonderful gifts for Xmas. Scroll down for a picture of me rocking out with one of my other presents, Guitar Hero for my Playstation 2. It's almost as addictive as birding!

Friday, December 21, 2007

Happy Holidays!

Happy Holidays and a Happy New Year to all! It's been a great year of meeting new people, reading many wonderful blogs, and experiencing nature. I've enjoyed sharing it with everyone. Thanks for reading.

This picture has not been modified in any way. I swear. Even Hawk Owl's need to keep warm sometimes.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Top 10 Nature Moments of 2007

Tai Haku of Earth, Wind & Water had this great idea for a "Top 10 Nature Moments of 2007" meme. Here are mine. I included a few pics I've never used before. Thanks to my friend Tina for the pics!

10. Watching White-faced Capuchin monkeys eat bananas and other fruits right next to our breakfast table in Costa Rica.

9. Riding on a boat through the mangroves of Costa Rica. I had never been in a mangrove before and they are truly special.

8. Dawn at Bosque del Apache NWR - hundreds of geese, cranes, and a lone Bald Eagle.

7. Getting my 500th ABA life bird - MONK PARAKEET!

6. The World Series of Birding is always an awesome time...

5. Watching Planet Earth

4. Waking up to a Swainson's Thrush singing outside our window
2. Hiking up Wakely Mountain with Mike, Corey, and Will to see a Bicknell's Thrush. Good companionship, great birds, and beautiful scenery.
1. Seeing an Ivory Gull in Piermont, NY

Bird of the Year

Members of the BIRDCHAT mailing list have been sharing their "Bird of the Year." It can be anything - a great yard bird, an outstanding rarity, a long-sought-after species, or just a really nice look at an everyday bird. I have had an amazing year of birding including getting my 500th ABA bird, seeing a Western Reef-heron, making some new friends in NY state, and doing some travelling.

It's tough to choose my "Bird of the Year". After some debate, the Ivory Gull that I saw in NY on February 26 is the winner. Bicknell's Thrush was a tough competitor because of the fun we had finding it, but the Ivory Gull wins because it was such an amazing view of a bird that I thought I would have to travel 1000's of miles to see (and still need some luck). I'm looking forward to some more great birding in 2008! Please share your "Bird of the Year" in the comments or on your blog.

Photo problems

Please pardon the broken photo links. I had stored a bunch of photos on an old web server I'm no longer using and now need to move them to my new domain. In the meantime, check out the large number of articles about Christmas Bird Counts on Google!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

More on that darn Murrelet

The Philadelphia-area newspaper, The Intelligencer, has a nice article on the Long-billed Murrelet that was found in PA on Friday.

Also, here are some photos of the bird including one of it in flight. Pretty cool!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Random Facts and New Domain!

Beth got me my own domain name for Xmas! will now point you to this blog. Please update your links. Also, I was tagged by my buddy Delia for this 7 random facts meme.

The rules:
Link to the person who tagged you and post the rules on your blog. Share 7 random or weird things about yourself. Tag 7 people at the end of your post, and include links to their blogs. Let each person know they have been tagged by leaving a comment on their blog.

1. Beth and I met on She "winked" at me and the rest is history.

2. I was a founding member of a mock religion based around SPAM (the meat product, not the email stuff). At one point we had over one hundred "members" and were even mentioned in a published book about the history of SPAM. My friends and I had a lot of free time in high school! :)

3. I am a huge hockey fan. I follow the New York Rangers.

4. I can link myself to Kevin Bacon in 5 links.

5. I spent way too much time in college playing Magic: The Gathering.

6. My father is a very active Vietnam Vet. He has 3 Purple Hearts and has been featured in books, magazines, and TV shows. He also does a slide show program at schools and other organizations. He's done it over 200 times. Check out a picture of him from Vietnam. I look a lot like him.

7. I only type with 2 fingers, sometimes 3, yet I have a degree in Computer Science and spent 4-5 years as a (quite efficient) computer programmer.

I will tag Beth and no one else because everyone else is probably tagged. If Will, Mike, Corey, and Paul O. haven't been tagged, then consider yourselves tagged.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Chasing a Murrelet

For those who haven't heard, a Long-billed Murrelet turned up in PA at Lake Nockamixon on Friday - an hour's drive from my house. For those of you who aren't listers or chasers, a Long-billed Murrelet is a pretty big deal. An interesting auk that nests in trees far from the water, it should be spending its winter somewhere near Japan or South Korea. Incredibly, these birds have turned up several times in the US on large lakes or along the cost. Unfortunately, I was working from home on Friday and decided to not go chase it.

Saturday morning came and I booked over to PA to look for the bird. Unfortunately, luck was not on my side and the bird was not found again. I searched every access point of the lake along with throngs of other birders to no avail. It's a big lake with lots of little nooks, so who knows if this 10" bird is still there. Although I missed the murrelet, I did see more Lesser Black-backed Gulls in one place than I ever have. There were over 50 of them there. Incredible!

This is actually the second time I've missed a Long-billed Murrelet due to work this year. There was one at Sandy Hook back in January. I assure you that there won't be a third time!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

That's a lot of geese!

Snow Geese (and maybe a Ross's Goose or four) at dawn at Bosque del Apache in New Mexico. It was really dang cold. Too bad our handwarmers didn't kick in until we got in the car to leave.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Trip Results: NJ Reservoirs and Alpha Grasslands

On Sunday, I led a group of hardy, friendly birders to Hunterdon and Warren counties to explore three of NJ's reservoirs and the Alpha grasslands in western NJ. Our first stop was Merrill Creek Reservoir. Although the weather was quite cold, the wind was down so the water on the reservoir was like glass. Waterfowl materialized as our time there progressed. We were treated to nice views of Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, and a very distant Long-tailed Duck. A few Common Mergansers and a Pied-billed Grebe also made an appearance. A fly-over Purple Finch didn't stick around for the group to see unfortunately.

In an effort to warm up, we hopped in the cars and headed to the Alpha grasslands. These preserved farm fields are a haven for threatened grassland nesting species including Vesper Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, and Eastern Meadowlark. When the fields are cut, they provide a wintering ground for Horned Larks, Snow Buntings, Lapland Longspurs, and various raptors. As we turned onto the famous (in NJ anyway) Oberly Road, a huge flock of gulls was loafing in a farmer's yard. Now, I don't claim to be a "larophile" by any means, but I picked out a nice adult Lesser Black-backed Gull in with all the Ring-billed Gulls. We were lucky to find the big flock of Horned Larks and Snow Buntings which were nice and close to the road. A "Grey Ghost" Harrier was also a feast for the eyes.

The next stop was Spruce Run Recreation Area, about 20 miles from Alpha. The reservoir here held a very large raft of Common Mergansers swimming along in unison - about 150 birds. Hooded Mergansers added a new species for the day and a flock of Cedar Waxwings (I searched for Bohemians!) delighted our group. With Spruce Run relatively quiet, we headed over to Round Valley about 10 minutes away.

We had our lunch at Round Valley, which seemed pretty quiet. A Common Loon and a ton of Coots were about it. A Red-breasted Nuthatched tooted from a pine, but didn't show. After lunch we moved to the "scuba diving area" where an adult Bald Eagle soared past us and perched next to its (potential) mate in a tree. It's never a bad day when you see a Bald Eagle. We searched the nearby pines for finches and owls, but were only blessed with a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. A trip to the nearby swimming beach held a nice selection of ducks: Lesser Scaup, Ring-necked Ducks, Hooded Mergansers, and a solo Common Goldeneye. We wrapped up the trip here and got back into our warm cars. Thanks go out to a super group of participants.

KAW: The Movie

I saw the movie Kaw for sale on DVD the other day. Here's the ridiculous trailer. Since it's about ravens and not crows, I think the title "KROAK" would've been more appropriate. Who wants to star in my movie "Three Beers" about a group of killer Olive-sided Flycatchers? I can hear the trailer voice guy now, "They've gone from catching flies to feasting on eyes!"

Friday, December 07, 2007

And the winner is...

For those who forgot about my little contest from last month, the winner was Chet G. from Evanston, IL. Thanks to everyone who participated! Here are the answers.

1. Which bird was once known as Coues' Flycatcher?
Answer: Greater Pewee

2. If I told you that I saw a Blue Grouse in Colorado in 2005, what would that species be called today?
Answer: Dusky Grouse

3. Match these birds to their current names:

a. Duck Hawk (Peregrine Falcon)
b. Sparrow Hawk (American Kestrel)
c. Pigeon Hawk (Merlin)
d. Marsh Hawk (Northern Harrier)

4. What famous ornithologist once had a captive Ivory-billed Woodpecker wreak havoc on his hotel room?
Answer: Alexander Wilson (story here)

Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Holiday Hawk is Back!

Check out this Sierra Mist commercial featuring one of my favorite actors/comedians Michael Ian Black (Anyone remember The State? Awesome show.) and the hilarious Jim Gaffigan. The species appears to be an Augur Buzzard. I think this was posted by some other bloggers last year, but it deserves to be shown again.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Birdorable (TM)

I discovered the web site Birdorable recently. The artists create awfully "birdorable" and quite accurate portrayals of many species around the world. You can get the drawings printed on all sorts of merchandise. Here's an example of their MySpace graphics:


Monday, December 03, 2007

Circus of the Spineless #27

When I first heard of Circus of the Spineless, the mental imagery was quite interesting. Worms on the trapeze. Jellies on the trampoline. Slugs crammed into a tiny car. Since my discovery, I have come to learn so much about the vast invertebrate world, while only barely scratching the surface. For my "theme," I decided to see if I could summarize each of the wonderful posts I received in just six words. Why onl six? I have no idea. Maybe because insects have only 6 legs... yeah that's it! Enjoy the posts. I have read each of these and each is worth your time.

Literary blog-zine looking for submissions: Insecta at qarrtsiluni

Unreal, exquisite moths in Mindo, Ecuador: Festival of Moths at Gossamer Tapestry.

A very interesting little house guest: An unusual house guest by Andrea.

Lovely spider haiku with a photo: Eriophora at Ben Cruachan Blog.

Ever heard of a "water bear"? Slow-walking masters of stress resistance at Ouroboros.

A storm rocks the WhiteRock Beach: Wind and Water and small stuff at Wanderin' Weeta.

Large mite seeks single fuzzy mite: Photo essay on rain bugs at Sibley Nature Center.

How tasty is an old leaf? Stick insects stick to their diets at Seeds Aside.

What exactly is a yellow fluff? Yellow Fluff at Naturalist Notebook.

Webspinners are amazing, interesting, unique insects. Embioptera at Catalogue of Organisms.

What a rare order of insects! Strepsiptera at Catalogue of Organisms.

An inchworm makes its way inside: Hitch Hiker at The Other 95%

Preserving snail shells with explosive results: Exploding Shells at The Other 95%.

Singapore birds love to eat caterpillars: Caterpillars: Food for Birds at Bird Ecology Study Group.

Artificial flowers stop mosquito-spread diseases: "Just blame it on the Americans" at Sisu.

An orb weaver enjoying its web: Orb Weaver at A DC Birding Blog.

A Poster of Pelagic Realm Creatures: A Better Deep-Sea Poster at Deep Sea News.

One-spotted Prepona discovery video - breathtaking! We Interrupt This Program... at Jeff Gyr Blog.

Get to know your winter moths: Motherland at Invasive Species Weblog

Photo of female fall cankerworm moth: Photo by Invasive Species Weblog

Thanks to all for their contributions! It's been fun! Circus #28 will be at Catalogue of Organisms - send your submission by December 30 to gerarus(at)

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Funny Bat Falcon Story

Doesn't everyone have a funny Bat Falcon story? Ok, maybe not. Rick's recent post about Bat Falcons in Guyana reminded me of a funny experience I had in Costa Rica.

Our group had been there for a few days and had looked for Bat Falcons in a few known spots with no success. While driving along in our van, we were talking about how we would love to see one. Crossing a bridge, the van suddenly slammed to a halt. The minimal-English-speaking, non-birder driver threw the van into reverse and backed us up about 100 feet. "Uno momento," he said as he stepped out the van. He walked to the edge of the road and peered into the distance. Then, he slid open the van door and in a thick accent pronounced in a most non-chalant way, " 'is dee Bat Falcon." Our jaws dropped and we all piled out of the van. Sure enough, way in the distance and at the limit of conjecture was a tiny Bat Falcon perched on a lone snag. I don't know how he saw it or how he knew what it was, but Pablo the van driver is a legend amongst my birding friends.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Had Enough New Mexico Yet?

Have you had enough yet? I wanted to make sure we highlighted the fun of our last full day in New Mexico. Even though we just got back last night, I would love to rewind the clock just 48 hours and be back birding with the sandy, rocky peaks as a backdrop.

We woke up bright an early on Tuesday for the morning flight. It was COLD! The sunrise and birds were worth it.

We spent the rest of Tuesday birding in the area of Truth or Consequences (formerly known as Hot Springs) or "T or C" as the locals call it. "T or C" has several notable birding areas nearby: Elephant Butte Reservoir, Caballo Lake, and Percha Dam State Park. We started at Percha Dam, birding in the shade of beautiful cottonwood trees. The suite of species here was different than those at Bosque del Apache. They included birds like Phainopepla, Verdin, and Pyrrhuloxia. A gorgeous Ferruginous Hawk was a treat for the eyes. Sorry, it flew before we could get pics. Percha Dam is a great park and lived up to the hype I had heard from fellow birders.

Next, we made a brief stop at Caballo Lake State Park. A wrong turn dumped us into a campground that I had not intended on visiting. I decided to hop out to see what was around anyway. A nearby tree housed a Red-naped Sapsucker (a lifer!) and a Brown Creeper. Another Sapsucker drew my attention to a nearby tree. A large lump in the tree turned out to be a wise old Great-horned Owl staring down at me. I called Beth over to see her first wild owl.

Caballo Lake itself held a ton of Western and Clark's Grebes, a few Ring-billed Gulls, but not much else.

We then headed up towards Elephant Butte. A Mockingbird, more grebes, but not much else graced our presence at the reservoir. We finished up the day back at Bosque del Apache in order to take in the evening flight again. We didn't add any new species, but enjoyed the scenes and the gorgeous sunset nonetheless.

If you're ever in Socorro, be sure to visit the Socorro Springs Brewery - great food and beer. We finished the trip with 108 species and 11 life birds for me and MANY for Beth.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Visiting Bosque del Apache NWR

We spent yesterday visiting the very cool city of Santa Fe. It's very artsy with lots of craft vendors and people peddling their wares on the street. Last night we arrived in Socorro, our launching pad to the famed Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. This morning we made our first trip out to the refuge.

On the road into the refuge, every telephone wire had a bird on it - shrikes, kestrels, doves, Western Meadowlarks, and Red-tailed Hawks. A beautiful Harlan's Hawk (dark-morph red-tail) was a sight to behold.

The refuge is simply beautiful. The sky was constantly filled with birds - thousands of ducks, geese, cranes, and crows. In fact, there was a constant stream of crows and ravens at one viewing platform that didn't end in the 30 minutes we spent there.

We drove the 12-mile auto tour, stopping along the way to take photos and see what new birds we could find. We were treated to all types of ducks from the diving Hooded Mergansers to dabbling Northern Shovelers. We also saw Eared Grebe, a distant "Western"-type Grebe, and more coots than I've ever seen. You couldn't throw a rock without hitting a White-crowned Sparrow too. You also couldn't throw a rock without hitting a photographer. When they say that Bosque is one of the most photographed refuges, they're not kidding. Photographers outnumbered birders 20-1.

We went to lunch at the famous Owl Bar & Cafe where we had great green chile cheeseburgers. Outside of the refuge, I had been tipped off to a spot to find longspurs. I found a Chestnut-collared, but no McCown's.

We finished the day back at the refuge where I finally found a Sage Sparrow along the Canyon Trail. We closed the evening on the "flight deck" watching the cranes and ducks come in for the night while trying not to step in the way of a photographer. I made that mistake once and got a very rude "EXCUSE ME" from the photographer.

We had dinner at the other famous eatery in San Antonio - the Buckhorn Tavern. GQ Magazine rated their green chile cheeseburgers as the #7 burger in the country and it didn't disappoint. More birding tomorrow!

This short write-up doesn't do the refuge justice, but enjoy the pictures below.

This is me scrambling up a dirt hill to look for some longspurs in a "dirt livestock tank"

Buckhorn Burger

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Hello from Albuquerque

I think this may be the first time I've "blogged from the road" on a vacation. Beth and I are here in Albuquerque and we're having a blast. Wonderful food, extremely nice people, great arts and crafts, and some fantastic birds. We had a little snow yesterday but today was lovely.

This morning we birded the Rio Grande Nature Center where we saw lots of ducks including tons of Wood Ducks, Ring-necked Ducks, a few Greater Scaup, lots of Shovelers, and several other species. An extremely cooperative Roadrunner allowed Beth to take a ton of pics. A large flock of Cackling Geese was a nice sight along with our first Sandhill Cranes in a nearby field. This nature center is very well maintained with fine trails and blinds. White-crowned Sparrows are definitely the easiest bird to find here. There were dozens upon dozens. Here are some pics thanks to Beth. Be sure to keep reading after the pics.

We then headed over to nearby Petroglyphs National Monument. Our target birds were Rock Wren and Sage Sparrow. Despite the place being a feast for the eyes, it was pretty birdless. On a 45-minute hike we literally saw one bird - a Rock Wren.

Then, we headed up to the famous Sandia Crest at 10,000+ feet. The drive up was a bit treacherous due to the 6" of snow they had received yesterday, but it was also phenomenally beautiful due to the snow clinging to the pines, firs, and aspens along the road. It was an amazing sight. Bird-wise, we found Stellar's Jays, a Golden Eagle, and Mountain Chickadee along the way up. We also saw the quirky Abert's Squirrel (see below) known for it's tassel-like ears. At the top of the crest, we saw our quarry - the 3 species of Rosy-finch in all their glory. While enjoying the birds, we also enjoyed a green chile cheeseburger and some Frito pie (it's a local thing - very tasty).

We finished up the day with one of our favorite non-nature activities - wine tasting! New Mexico has some great wines and we sampled a bunch. Stay tuned for more postings over the next few days! (All pics courtesy of Beth)

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Turkey Day and New Mexico

Beloved readers, I want to wish you a happy Thanksgiving or a wonderful Thursday for my non-US readers. Beth and I are headed to New Mexico on Friday morning for some birds, green chile burgers, biscochitos, and general good times. I'm going to try my best to blog from there, so be on the lookout.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

New US Butterfly Sightings in TX

Besides the Green Jays, Chachalacas, and other great birds, South Texas is also rich with many special butterflies that barely cross the US/Mexico border. The last week has seen two new US records and a bevy of other beautiful and rare butterflies for the US. Check out the highlights:

Monday, November 19, 2007

Silly Book Meme

I borrowed this one from Susan Gets Native. Go to Amazon's Advanced Search, type in your name under "title" and find the most interesting book cover. This was the first book listed for me:

"Patrick is unfailingly sympathetic and believable..." I like to think of myself that way.

Snow and Finches

I got my first real taste of winter yesterday. I headed up to NJ Audubon's Scherman-Hoffman Sanctuary to pick up a book and a nyjer feeder. I also wanted to see the groups of Purple Finches and Pine Siskins that have been visiting their feeders. On the way there, the light rain that was falling turned into a light snowfall! Sheesh!

The feeders are Scherman-Hoffman were hopping with a few Purple Finches, tons of goldfinches, and several Pine Siskins. They have a great setup of feeders there with a nice big window to view them from. I actually saw my first White-crowned Sparrow and Pine Siskin at these feeders when I started birding.

Purple Finch

You can see some snow behind these goldfinches.

I picked up Howell & Webb's Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America, a book I've always wanted and now I have a reason to use it (more on that in a future post). I also finally bought us a nyjer feeder for our yard. Siskins have been all over NJ the last week or so and I want some for our yard.

I put up the feeder as soon as I got home, then made us some PB&J. Lo and behold, by the time I was done making the sandwiches, we had 6 goldfinches on the feeder! Wow... now those are some quick results. Actually, I think they had been visiting our sunflower heart feeder since a few were hanging on that. Now, let's see some Siskins!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

A Contest!

While at the scary library book sale the other day, I picked up an extra copy of one of my favorite birding books: Jack Connor's The Complete Birder. Now, I offer it to you my humble readers. But first, you must pass several trials. Send me the answers to the questions below via email (pbelardo _AT_ by Wednesday, November 21. I will choose a winner randomly from those who get the correct answers.

1. Which bird was once known as Coues' Flycatcher?

2. If I told you that I saw a Blue Grouse in Colorado in 2005, what would that species be called today?

3. Match these birds to their current names:

a. Duck Hawk
b. Sparrow Hawk
c. Pigeon Hawk
d. Marsh Hawk

4. What famous ornithologist once had a captive Ivory-billed Woodpecker wreak havoc on his hotel room?

Not too hard at all I would think. Good luck!

Note: This is a used copy of the book.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Louis Agassiz Fuertes Artwork

If you love bird art, then you will want to check out this online collection of the artwork of Louis Agassiz Fuertes, one of my favorite artists. You can also read an online version of a journal he kept during an 1899 expedition to Alaska. Here's his bio if you're interested too.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Fun with Scientific Names

The etymology of bird names is a favorite subject of mine. Head over to The Drinking Bird for a fun quiz on scientific bird names. Do you know which bird's scientific name translates to "Alpine Desert-lover"?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

A Frightening Library Book Sale Experience

So our local library, which is reasonably large, has a book sale this weekend. They do these a few times a year and it's a great way to get some nice books for around $1 each. Tonight was the "Friends of the Library" pre-sale. Beth and I are "friends", so I got to see what birding and nature books I could get being there before all the good books are gone for once. I got there about 10 minutes before it started and was shocked to see at least 30 book-thirsty "friends" waiting to get in. I expected a handful of people at best. They had a checklist of names and special wristbands to wear, along with a 10 book limit! Clearly, these pre-sales are a hotter ticket than I thought.

The doors opened and I was carried into the room by the crowd like a 60's teenager at a Beatles appearance. I immediately headed to the nature section and picked up some nice books including A Sand County Almanac (sadly, I haven't read this classic), A Field Guide to the Atlantic Seashore, and Noah's Garden among others.

I immediately noticed a gentleman to my right just shoveling books into a huge canvas bag. What happened to the ten book limit??? Then I noticed something else rather strange. Several people had handheld computers and were vigorously typing in the ISBN's of the books they were looking at. Like madmen, they flipped open the book, typed the number in, and then either threw it to the side or took it. Of course, I had to figure out what was going on. I pushed my way through the throngs of people and asked one of the friendlier looking gentlemen about it. It turns out that he had the whole database in his little computer and he was looking up the prices of the books in hopes of re-selling them later. Well alright! I looked around and there were quite a few people with these devices. The people who had loaded bags of books were tucked into corners scanning all of their books to see which were the keepers. Their frantic pace made it clear that this must be a cut-throat business. Now you know where all of those Amazon booksellers come from!

Oh yeah, there's a new I & the Bird! Check it out.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Jim Stevenson Bird Saving Story Update

For those of you who have been following the story about Jim Stevenson, the Texas birder who killed someone's "pet" cat, the trial began this week. The NY Times has the story.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Book Review: National Geographic's Birding Essentials

National Geographic's Birding Essentials by Jonathan Alderfer and Jon L. Dunn bills itself as having "all the tools, techniques, and tips you need to begin and become a better birder." This book is in the same vein as Sibley's Birding Basics and Jack Connor's The Complete Birder.

From a design perspective, this book differs from Sibley and Connor by the use of photographs, as opposed to Sibley's drawings or Connor's limited sketches. The photos, provided by some of the best bird photographers around, are outstanding and, for the most part, convey the material in the book effectively.

"Essentials" is broken down into 8 major sections "Getting Started", "Status & Distribution", "Parts of a Bird", "How to Identify Birds", "Variation in Birds", "Identification Challenges", "Fieldcraft", and "Taxonomy & Nomenclature". These basically cover all the bases of the other books mentioned above, in some cases as an equal and in others not as much.

The "Getting Started" section covers the bases such as optics, field guides, and note taking sufficiently. "Status & Distribution" is pretty straightforward. It defines these terms and discusses how they can be used while birding to learn what to expect where and when and also what may be rare.

"Parts of a Bird" really gets down into the nitty gritty. The authors do a terrific job showing and explaining the parts of various different birds including gulls, ducks, shorebirds, sparrows, and raptors. This was a strong point of Sibley's book and tough to top. I prefer the line drawings that Sibley used because they allow you to truly see the different groups of feathers. Although, I prefer the detailed explanation of Birding Essentials.

"How to Identify Birds" takes you through the steps of identification through specific case studies. Topics include judging size, shape, plumage, behavior, and vocalizations. The case studies chosen are perfect. For example, Blue Grosbeak vs. Indigo Bunting is used as an example for judging size and Swainson's Hawk vs. Red-tailed Hawk is used for shape. Some topics include multiple examples. This section of the book really shines and I can see a beginner birder gaining a lot of insight from it.

Next is the "Variation in Birds" section which covers some of the more confusing areas of birding, namely molt, age variation, and feather wear. I've spoken to many advanced birders who tell me that they use Sibley's Birding Basics as a reference for molt and age variation. Birding Essentials does a comparable job explaining these topics, but could use a few more pictures for examples.

"Identification Challenges" discusses the challenges that many other books have tackled before such as terns, female mergansers, and pewees vs. empids. They are brief, to-the-point explanations that don't include photos in all instances. While these will introduce a beginner quickly to some of the challenges they can expect in the field, they are better covered elsewhere in books like The Complete Birder and Identify This.

The "Fieldcraft" section discusses the "how," "where," and "when" of birding. It's well-written, but perhaps should have been placed earlier in the book. The same goes for the "Taxonomy & Nomenclature" section. One big complaint I have is that the authors frequently use family names like "Alcid" and "Emberizid" freely before even covering them in this last section of the book. I fear that complex terminology like this can push away a beginner.

Even as an experienced birder, I enjoyed reading Birding Essentials. I learned a few things and found the photos outstanding. While the book doesn't have the casual and accessible language of Jack Connor's classic or the artistry of Sibley, Birding Essentials makes a perfect gateway for a person who is looking to go from a casual bird observer to a full-fledged birder.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Slowed Down Bird Songs

Beth downloaded some cool audio software that allows you to very easily slow down a song and still keep the same pitch. After trying it out with some songs from Bob Seger, Metallica, and Modest Mouse, I moved on to bird songs. By slowing down the complex songs of some birds, you can really see how truly unbelievable they are. Harmonies, slurs, and lightning-fast pitch changes show how impressive an organ the syrinx is. Here are a few samples. I had some problems with the volume and the length of the recordings. For some reason, the end of the recordings got cut off a bit. I'll figure it out and post more soon.

(I had originally embedded these files, but some folks had problems loading them. You should be able to click on the links to play the files.)

Hermit Thrush


Winter Wren

Friday, November 09, 2007

Another Late Season Dragonfly

On Sunday, spurred on by Will's recent post on local birding, I asked my friend Susanna to give me a tour of some local birding spots that I had been meaning to visit. We visited Griggstown Nature Preserve, Six Mile Run State Park, and Hutcheson Memorial Forest. While not the birdiest of days, we had some nice sightings, great weather, and we saw some lovely places. I can't wait to go back to these places later in the winter and in the spring.

The surprise find of the day for me was a dragonfly. The only dragonfly I usually expect to find this time of year is the gorgeous red Autumn Meadowhawk. This dragonfly was not a meadowhawk, but a darner. I'm not very experienced with darners, so I snapped a few photos with my cruddy phone and looked it up when I got home. It turns out that the Shadow Darner (Aeshna umbrosa) is also a late season odonate. I had always wanted to see a Shadow Darner, which typically flies through in open woods or along streams. This individual was uncharacteristically perched in a sunlit meadow.

Sorry, I'm too cheap to pay the $5 to email myself the photo from my phone. So, here's someone else's.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Free book! - Well, sort of.

I find that birders love books almost as much as they love birds. And who wouldn't love a free book about birds? It may take a little work, but BIRD: The Definitive Visual Guide can be yours! The 10,000 Birds crew is hosting an essay contest and is giving away a brand-spanking-new copy of the book to the lucky winner. Check out the rules and get writing! Keep tabs on 10,000 Birds for additional giveaways of this lovely book.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Local Club/Organization Newsletters Online

I posted this to BirdChat this morning:

As I browse around the web, I often find that many state/regional clubs or organizations publish their monthly/quarterly/etc. newsletters or journals online. These publications contain great information on local birds, bird identification, conservation issues, and many things that could be of interest to people outside of those organizations. Is there a web site somewhere that lists links to these publications? If not, do you think a list like that is something that people would find useful? Here are a few examples:

LA Audubon

Tucson Audubon

Point Reyes Bird Observatory


Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Full Review: Wingscapes BirdCam

If you've been keeping track of my recent posts, you've seen several posts with the tests of my newly acquired BirdCam manufactured by WingScapes (retail price: $250). As promised, here is a full review of the device:

Initial Observations
The box is very appealing including pictures of birds and a nice fold-out cover. The contents include a USB cable for connection to your PC, a detailed manual, a remote control, and a pair of bungee cords for hanging the BirdCam on a tree or other large pole. A mounting arm for hanging on smaller feeder poles is sold separately. From an environmental standpoint, I would prefer the use of cardboard vs. plastic packaging.

The BirdCam itself has a front door that opens to reveal the controls inside. The controls include a small display screen for changing settings, menu buttons, a focus setting wheel, a button to turn on the laser aiming, and an on-off switch. There is also a slot for an optional SD memory card (not included) and a place to plug in a DC adapter if you have one. The door snaps shut with two latches. A thin rubber gasket around the perimeter of the device makes it weather-resistant. The back of the device is dominated by the battery door which holds four "D" batteries (not included). The top of the device has an eye hole that can be used to hang it from a hook.

The BirdCam is usable "out of the box." A few simple instructions written on the inside cover of the device will have you taking photos in minutes using the default settings. You need batteries of course. The laser aiming device is an excellent feature and makes it a snap to point the camera at your target.

Customizing settings is done through the simple menu system. The key settings are the sensitivity of the motion sensor (high, medium, low) , the time interval for activating the sensor (the sensor goes into a sleep mode after it takes photos/videos), and the number of photos/videos to take per activation of the sensor. You can also set the size of the photos (up to 3.1 MegaPixels) and videos (up to 640 x 480). A large dial sets the focus distance for the camera. There are four intervals of settings from 8 inches up to infinity.

A "manual mode" allows you to take photos/videos through the push of a button on the front of the device or via the included remote control. Actually, the remote control can be used at any time to trigger a picture and the device will automatically return to whatever mode it was set in.

As mentioned, it does not include a memory card, but has 32 MB of internal memory which will hold a bit, but not a day's worth of photos. I've been using a 512 MB card (pretty cheap these days) which is sufficient for several day's worth of photos or a day's worth of videos, depending on your settings.

One complaint I have about the setup is the use of the laser aiming device. The laser aiming is extremely useful, but it can only be used when the door is open. This can be problematic depending on where you are placing the camera. For example, I had placed the camera in a flower pot, but the lip of the flower pot forced me to have to lift up the camera to close the door, thus messing up my aiming. (Note from Wingscapes: This is actually a safety feature common to all game cameras (that I know of). There are many regulations concerning laser usage and we try to prevent the user from turning it on or leaving it on unintentionally.)


Click here to see samples of photos and videos.

Although it might take some trial and error to get the ideal placement, lighting, focus distance, and sensitivity for your yard, the photo and video results are excellent. You're obviously not going to get SLR-quality photos from this specialized device, but the quality is very good. Objects within the focus range are very clear and colors appear accurate. The camera uses a variable exposure speed that is supposed to allow the capture of birds in flight. I have not had much success with this yet. The few flight photos I have managed to take have had some blur in them.

Some have complained that the BirdCam does not take pictures well when placed in a shadowed area facing a lit area. I'm no expert photographer, but I think this is true for any camera that doesn't use a flash. The "blank" pictures that the camera takes can be annoying. These are usually the result of a bird flying by too fast for the camera to react or from some other object (a branch or leaf) falling too close to the camera. The falling objects have to be pretty close to set the camera off it seems. This is a minor inconvenience and can usually be resolved through the sensitivity setting.

The video picture quality is sufficient enough to know what you're seeing and quite good in clarity, but the frame rate is low causing the video to look choppy. It's still great fun to watch videos of the goings-on in your yard.

On a typical day, you're probably going to only get 15-20 usable photos or 5-10 usable videos. Let's face it, birds and other creatures are very mobile. Many times you will get photos of tails, heads, wings, SQUIRRELS, or nothing at all. This is no fault of the BirdCam itself. It's simply the reality of using this type of device.

The battery life seems excellent. A battery meter shows the percentage of battery life remaining. After taking approximately 150 photos and 40 videos, I still have 98% battery life. A light sensor will put the device into "night mode" to reduce unnecessary battery use when it is too dark to photograph. If I could have one wish for this device, it would be for it to be able to take photos at night. I understand that this would take a big change in technology and is probably outside the designated purpose, but it would be an excellent feature.

At a cost of $250, the BirdCam may be a bit out of price range for many. I feel that the technology and the quality of the results warrants the cost, but may prohibit casual backyard birders from buying it. To me, the real appeal of this device is the thought of capturing something new in your yard or observing some interesting behavior. You're not likely to be entering these photos into a photo contest any time soon, but the results are more than sufficient to share with others, stick on your refrigerator, or post on your blog. If you want to see what's lurking under your bushes, who is visiting your feeders while at work, or who has been stealing your mail, give the BirdCam a try. It would also make an excellent gift for any backyard bird lover.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Pica - Eating Weird Things and Magpies

I was watching CSI yesterday and they referred to a person suffering from pica - a disorder in which the person eats non-traditional things like dirt, plastic, coins, raw ingredients, and other strange things. If you saw the series premiere of Grey's Anatomy, you would have seen a patient on that show who was eating large amounts of coins. So how does this tie into birds? Pica is the genus name for the Magpie family (Black-billed and Yellow-billed in the US). The disorder is named after the magpie because it is thought that the magpie has a very non-discerning diet.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

I'm hosting Circus of the Spineless

I'm hosting Circus of the Spineless #27. Send your invertebrate-related posts to me at pbelardo(-at-)yahoo by November 29. And no, I'm not referring to posts about your husband who won't stand up to his boss.

And while you're at it, check out the Nov. 1 edition at The Other 95%.

Also, be sure to check out I & The Bird #61!

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

BirdCam Videos: A New Yard Bird!

I'm really having a lot of fun with my BirdCam. I swear a full review is pending! In the meantime, I tried out the video capabilities the last few days.

The first day I had it on the ground and captured mostly House Sparrows, squirrels, and a couple Black-capped Chickadees. The videos are only 10 seconds, so enjoy the first one.

I moved the camera to point to the feeders today. I caught the squirrels raiding my easily accessible peanut feeder. See below.

And finally, behind the squirrel tail wagging in front of the lens, is our long-overdue, first Red-breasted Nuthatch in the yard. Does it count as a yard bird if you don't actually see it? My answer is "Yes!" (It may help to click on this video to view it larger)

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Birding History: Lichtenstein's Oriole

I've been browsing through a 1966 printing of Golden Books: Birds of North America. I think this was the first printing of this sometimes underrated guide (I'll save that for another post).

It's interesting looking through this guide and seeing the former names of some species and the past status of many splits and lumps. You can learn a lot from knowing some of these old bird names. Some of the historical name changes make perfect sense, but some don't. I'm going to do a series of posts on some of the less familiar bird name changes and the history behind them.

The first bird I'd like to start with is a name I'd never heard before - Lichtenstein's Oriole (Icterus gularis). This yellow-orange oriole with a black throat was named after German zoologist Martin Henrich Lichtenstein (1780-1857). Lichtenstein was a well known ornithologist and held positions as a professor of zoology at the University of Berlin, as well director of the Zoological Museum of Berlin. I can't find information on whether he actually described Icterus gularis or if it was just named for him. I did find that he described 5 species of North American birds including the Kelp Gull and many others around the world.

The common name of Lichtenstein's Oriole was changed in the 1970's (probably 1974) to Altamira Oriole. Altamira is a city in the state of Taumalipas, Mexico. The Altamira Oriole is widespread along the Mexican gulf coast, northern Central America, and into the extreme southern tip of Texas - where I had the pleasure of viewing one in 2005. Interestingly, from what I can gather from my online research, it seems this bird was known as "Alta Mira" Oriole prior to the 1940's. So, the AOU essentially changed the name back to a former name. As far as common name changes go, this one doesn't help the observer any, but it does help place the distribution of this species to its Mexican roots and eliminates any possibility of thinking this bird has its origins in a tiny European country.

Blurry pic I took at a trailer park in southern Texas

Monday, October 29, 2007

Now here's something you don't see every day...

What happens when a birder lays out some seal meat on his stomach?

Apologies to those who've seen this before, but it was just brought to my attention over the weekend. This is Bruce Mactavish, an avid field birder from St. John's, Newfoundland with a gorgeous Ivory Gull perched on him. He is a regional editor for North American Birds and is a birding tour leader for WINGS.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Cape May Weekend Recap

Hawk watch platform at Cape May Point State Park

Let's just say that it took a few days for things to get going at Cape May... Friday was a wet mess and basically a bust bird-wise. Saturday was equally wet and dreary, but cleared up nicely in the afternoon. And Sunday was a stellar full-on Cape May experience. In addition to the good birding, Beth and I got to meet some cool fellow bloggers and birders. Here are some highlights and lowlights:

THE Bird Show, as they call the vendor exhibits there, was an awesome time. It featured some great industry representation, some amazing artists and carvers, and a really cool live raptor exhibit. We met up with Birdchick and Wildbird on the Fly working there, as well as the Born Again Birdwatcher schmoozing with some old friends. I passed out some blog business cards too!

"Birds and Beers," our evening of drinking and socializing, was a blast. We hung with birders, many bloggers, and industry reps. Conversation ranged from birding to blogging to cats to eco-living to publishing... a little bit of everything. Good beer selection too. I can't wait to do this again.

The Sunday birding was amazing! There were raptors everywhere, hundreds of short-distance migrants, and gorgeous weather. I got to bird with Laura, Delia, Susan, and Susan. Beth and I even took some time to taste wine at the Cape May Winery. We finished up the day with a Red Crossbill at a feeder near Middle Township, NJ. That was my 298th state bird.

On a lowlight side... We got soaked a few times. Also, my pal Mike from 10,000 Birds didn't get to feel the full Cape May experience that I previously "sold" to him since he was only able to stay until Saturday (and the birding stunk until Sunday). Hopefully next year will be better weather-wise!

I'm psyched to do this all again next year. I'm going to try my best to get a trip leader position there for next year, but we'll see how that works out. It was great meeting everyone and I hope to meet some more bloggers next year (you know who you all are!)

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Off to Cape May

Beth and I are off to Cape May tomorrow morning to meet up with some other bloggers and celebrate the Cape May Autumn Weekend. It's not too late to come down!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Bird Cam: Take 2

I'm going to do a few more days of testing this thing. For some reason, it only took 6 pictures today. I moved it to a new area pointing at my feeders, but I think the sensitivity was set too low. Here are some pics from yesterday. This thing is FUN!

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Viva New Mexico!

As the eloquent Homer Simpson once said, "There's a NEW Mexico?" Indeed there is and Beth and I will be there in late November. Our goal: Birds, scenery, wine, Mexican food, and other cool stuff. We'll be visiting Bosque del Apache NWR, Elephant Butte, Petroglyph National Monument, and, of course, the famed Sandia Crest. If you have any tips, must-see places (nature-related or otherwise), or anything else to say, please leave a comment.

Monday, October 22, 2007

BirdCam: Take 1

The folks over at Wingscapes were generous enough to send me a BirdCam to play with. It's real easy to set up and I had it going in no time. Here are a few sample shots for what I've gotten so far. I'll come back with a full review after I try it out for a few more days.

For now, I have it mounted on the ground to see what birds and other critters are hanging out down there. The spot I put it in is a bit dark, so I moved it tonight.

I got a bunch of squirrel pics!

The House Sparrow party is well-attended. They're on the perimeter and it's a bit dark. I got a few shots of these too.

I got a few nice Blue Jay shots, again a little dark due to how I positioned the camera.

Umm... who the heck is this? This was a bit of a shock. No clue who this kid is. We also had some pics of two other kids playing in the yard.

The camera has been fun to play with. The "unknown" factor of what you'll see is great. More to come this week!