Friday, March 30, 2007

On Vacation...

Beth and I are going on vacation tomorrow until next Saturday, April 7. It's Beth's spring break (she's a teacher). We're heading up to Lake George, NY and then over to Ithaca to hit up all the wineries. Then, it's over to Niagara Falls and, finally, Toronto. I'll of course have my binoculars and camera along to record anything neat for the blog. I'll see you all when I return.

Birdsong Soundscapes for the Concert Stage and Lecture Hall

At last night's monthly meeting of the Urner Ornithological Club, one of the oldest birding clubs in NJ, member Andrew Lamy gave a wonderful presentation on a project he's working on. Andy is an accomplished clarinetist and ornithologist. He studies bird song using his knowledge of music and birds. He's particularly focused on Africa and has done many recordings there. Most recently, with the help of a grant, he and a team of scientists and musicians went to South Africa and recorded the songs of many birds. They also recorded a dawn chorus from the overgrown sand dunes of the Saint Lucia area of South Africa. Andy's goal is to present the bird song "in concert, artfully adding layers of musical interplay by instrumentalists positioned around the audience in unobtrusive ways." He played samples of the songs for us yesterday on CD and also played along with a multitude of instruments. His ability to mimic bird song with a variety of whistles, percussion instruments, his clarinet, and even his voice was astounding. I'm sorry I didn't have my camera with me. He's adapting the program to be presented to children as well as adults. Check out his web site if you get a chance.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Update: Ban on bird feeders in Long Branch, NJ

Yay! Reality outdoes stupidity.

The Asbury Park Press 03/27/07

LONG BRANCH — The City Council will vote down tonight two proposed ordinances regulating how people could feed and care for animal life, said Council President Michael DeStefano.

The measures, based on model ordinances provided by the state Department of Environmental Protection, were proposed two weeks ago when DeStefano was absent.

"I just can't believe what happens when I'm gone,'' DeStefano said during a workshop meeting prior to the regular council meeting tonight. "Obviously,there was a law of unintended consequences here.''

City Attorney James G. Aaron will seek clarification from the DEP on the model ordinances. Questions have been raised whether the measures would require pet owners from cleaning up urine after walking their dogs, and would ban backyard birdfeeders.

Said DeStefano, ". . . we'll move on to something more sensible and less injurious to wildlife.''

"Planet Earth" - Birds of Paradise

Did you watch "Planet Earth" on the Discovery Channel on Sunday? The photography on this special about our planet is amazing. The BBC-produced documentary was 5 years in the making and includes many never before filmed natural events like African Dogs hunting Impalas and some never filmed birds-of-paradise doing their courtship rituals. Here's a clip of the birds-of-paradise. The Superb Bird-of-Paradise is unreal. This clip is narrated by David Attenborough, but the US version of the show is narrated by Sigourney Weaver. Now, I know she can kick alien butt, but she's no David Attenborough.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Our Mockingbird

For the past month or so, we've had a Northern Mockingbird visiting our yard and our feeders. At first, he (let's call it a "he" for now) would come and check out the heated bird bath and maybe take a sip or two.

Then, he started picking at the seed I threw on the porch. Lately, he's taken to standing guard over the suet feeder. He seems to let the Downy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers have their share, but when a Starling comes by, all hell breaks loose. He seems to know that they're not wanted and swiftly dispatches of them. Even if he's not visible, he seems to materialize when the Starlings appear.

I've decided to name the mockingbird "Michael Winslow" due to his mastery of mimicry. I hope he sticks around and raises a family in our neighborhood.

Review: An Inconvenient Truth

Beth and I finally saw An Inconvenient Truth last night. This much talked about documentary has raised awareness about the climate change that is occuring due to global warming. Of course, it's not without controversy and the movie tries to address the skeptics as much as possible. I don't consider myself an expert on both sides of the issue. My view on global warming is that whether or not this is happening, the changes that are being suggested are just good for the environment in general.

As for the movie, I enjoyed the film and thought that it got its point across very well. I would have liked to have seen a lot less focus on Al Gore and his past because I don't think it added anything to the film. Also, the visuals, which added a lot to the message, were tough to view sometimes. For example, the labels on the axes on some of the graphs were difficult to read which meant that the scales of some of the graphs were difficult to read. Scales on graphs can be manipulated to make changes in data look more extreme and I wanted to be sure that this wasn't happening. My biggest complaint, though, is that Al Gore does not know how to say "ARCTIC." He continually said "Artic" and "Antartic" which, to me, hurt his credibility. Couldn't someone tell him how to say it?

Even with these flaws, the movie is required viewing for everyone.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Up, Up, and Away!

On my first trip to a hawkwatch, I was surprised when I heard someone call out a "mylar." I was a new birder at the time, but I had been looking at bird books all my life and had never heard of a "mylar." It turns out that they were keeping an unofficial count of loose mylar balloons. As you probably know, balloons (both rubber and mylar) are a threat to wildlife, especially sea creatures that might mistake a balloon for a jellyfish. Three cheers to New Hampshire for trying to implement a $250 fine for the intentional release of balloons. I understand that people like to release balloons in honor of an event or a person, but there are many other ways to honor someone that cause less impact to the environment.

PS: It turns out that mylar balloons aren't really made of mylar. They are really just foil.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

No bird feeders allowed?

The city of Long Branch, NJ, a stone's throw from Sandy Hook, is contemplating an ordinance against the feeding of all wild birds and feral cats. The ordinance is based on recommendations from the state DEP. I was able to find the state's model ordinance online. At least, I think this is it. It only refers to feeding of animals in public places and any places owned by the municipality, so I'm not sure where the Long Branch folks are getting this from. Although I would love to see a global ban on feeding feral cats, I hope this ordinance doesn't turn into a fiasco that leads to a statewide ban on feeding birds.

Monday, March 19, 2007

A Few New Yard Birds

Well, the northeast took a hit from a lovely snow and ice storm on Friday. It started out as sleet in the morning and quickly began to accumulate into a mushy mess. As the day went on, it got colder and icier. It stayed steady until after midnight and we ended up with 3-4" of hard-as-steel ice with snow packed on top. It's the kind of stuff that you break your back shoveling. Lucky for me, we live in a condo where I pay someone good money to do that for me.

The snow attracted a ton of birds to our feeders including at least a dozen each of White-throated Sparrows and Juncos. Our local Mockingbird, who does a heck of a job chasing away the Starlings, feasted on suet and seed repeatedly. We also had a new yard bird on Saturday - a Carolina Wren who also loved the suet. I had heard one singing in the past in our neighbor's yard, so it was only a matter of time before he/she found our suet.

All weekend long, reports of Fox Sparrows at feeders in NJ were coming across the email list. There must have been a big migration of them that got knocked down by the storm. People were reporting much larger than normal numbers. I looked outside every 20 minutes or so, hoping and praying to see one. No luck. Unfortunately, Beth was very sick at home today. Fortunately, I stopped home to make her some lunch. She was peering out the window when she shouted that something "different" was at the suet feeder. I was "indisposed" at the time (aka, in the bathroom!), so I missed it. When I looked outside a few minutes later, I saw a flash of a rufous tail fly from under the feeder into our neighbor's yard. Jackpot! I grabbed my bins and spied the first Fox Sparrow for our yard list scratching under my neighbor's cedar tree.

Pics to come tomorrow...

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Signs of spring and gulls

What a gorgeous day here in NJ! It was in the mid to high 70's and I even saw some dude walking around town without a shirt on. As for signs of spring, our juncos have begun singing and, as I write this, I hear my first robin singing outside. Spring is here!

After work, I stopped at a park along the widest area of the Raritan River. This area of the river always has tons of gulls gathering there. Seeing as its only 10 minutes from my house, I really should bird here more. I was hoping to maybe find an Iceland Gull, Glaucous Gull, or a Lesser Black-backed Gull. As I sat there and sorted through the various plumaged Herring and Ring-billed Gulls, I wondered how people learn about gulls. The little knowledge I have of gulls is limited to what I've learned while on field trips. I purchased Jon Dunn's two videos on gulls. There is obviously a lot of care put into these videos and a lot of knowledge can be gained by studying them, but Dunn's monotone voice is enough to drive you nuts. I don't claim to be even an intermediate larophile, but I plan on continuing my learning. How have you learned about gulls? Please share.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Do other animals go bald?

The Bald Eagle, although spectacular, is not really bald. The Northern Bald Ibis (pictured) is not really bald either. It's baldness is more an extension of its facial skin. I, on the other hand, am really bald. After having Beth give me my monthly buzzcut today, I pondered, "Do other animals go bald like humans do?"

Male pattern baldness is triggered by DHT, a powerful sex hormone (booyah!) and hair growth promoter that can adversely affect the hair and prostate. The mechanism by which DHT accomplishes this is not yet understood. In genetically-prone scalps, DHT initiates a process of follicular miniaturization. Through the process of follicular miniaturization, hair shaft width is progressively decreased until scalp hair resembles fragile vellus hair or "peach fuzz" or else becomes non-existent. Onset of hair loss sometimes begins as early as end of puberty, and is mostly genetically determined (NOT necessarily from the mother's side, I'm proof).

I did discover that a number of other primate species also experience hair loss following puberty, and some primate species clearly use an enlarged forehead, created both anatomically and through strategies such as frontal balding, to convey increased status and maturity. This made me recall seeing chimpanzees and gorillas with receding hairlines on TV documentaries. They are usually the older, more dominant males.

Alas, I could not find any information about other mammal species having any form of pattern baldness. Are there balding tigers running around the forests? Are there folicly-challenged shrews scurrying about? What about cueball whales swimming in our seas? If anyone has any info on this, please let me know.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Book Review: Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America

I recently picked up the much anticipated Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America by Kenn Kaufman and Eric Eaton. Since the book can't obviously show the 1000's of insects in the US and Canada, it aims to show all of the orders and families of insects and some of the more common species you might see. Each section gives a description of the order and then more detailed descriptions of each family within that order. The descriptions include general shape and physical characteristics, lifecycle information, food preferences, environmental impact, and the number of species that occur north of Mexico. Unlike the Peterson Field Guide to Insects, this guide does not provide a key for identifying a given insect to the family level. The individual species that they chose to highlight are described with some generic descriptions, usually including details on broad range, behavior, and feeding habits. Fun facts and tidbits are included when possible. While interesting to read, these descriptions don't give much in the way of identification. The identification aspect of this guide is left up to the photos. The photos are the bread and butter of this guide. They are crisp, gorgeous, and sufficiently sized for use. Similar to Kaufmann's other guides, a silhouette is printed on each page to act as a scale for size comparisons.

The biggest complaints that I've heard from others is the lack of distribution maps and definitive information on how to find different species. I can understand why the authors didn't include distribution maps. They wouldn't have added much value since this is not a true "field guide" in the sense of the term. As the authors mention several times, there are guides dedicated to the individual orders and families that can provide this information. As far as information about how to find some of the species, the authors mention things like "may come to lights at night" or "found in moist deciduous forests". Again, this information can be found elsewhere.

For someone interested in identifying their backyard insects or for someone looking to learn more about insects in general, this guide is sufficient. If you're interested in identifying every insect you find to the family-level, the Peterson guide is the way to go because it includes a key. Your best bet would be to use this guide as a supplement.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Boreal Forests Need Help!

For all you scientists out there, please take the time to fill out this petition in support of conservation of the Canadian boreal region. There are an estimated 2 billion birds that are hatched in the boreal ecoregion of Canada and Alaska and winter in the Neotropics. This habitat is in danger by development, clear-cutting, and other industrial uses. Be sure to check out the whole Boreal Songbird Initiative site to learn about the birds that breed there, the state of their habitat, and how to help conserve them. While you're there, be sure to download their bird-friendly paper products shopping guide. Shame on you, Kimberly-Clark! Also, see how many boreal birds you can find in your area.

And finally... Harry Potter fans... be sure to buy the 100% recycled version of the new book in July.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

New information on how birds sing

After discovering that my blog is not censored in China, I was even happier to come across this article from LiveScience discussing how songbirds make their beautiful songs. "X-ray movies of a singing northern cardinal reveal that the bird rapidly changes its vocal tract shape—from the simple shape of a drinking straw to a voluptuous flower vase—to give the song some flavor". The article also includes a video of a 360-degree view of a cardinal's vocal tract while singing. Now there's something you don't see every day.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Your Daily Distraction

Distract yourself with some amazing flora and fauna photos from Australia by David Kleinert.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Search for Smitty

A Smith's Longspur has been hanging around at Jones Beach on Long Island for about 3 weeks now. After getting lucky with the Ivory Gull last Monday, I decided to try my luck for the Smith's on Saturday. Well, I guess lightning doesn't strike twice. The bird was not seen during the 2.5 hours or so that I spent there. When I arrived, I saw a group of birders with their scopes all pointed in the same direction and thought I would get lucky. They were just scanning for the bird. The habitat, which I guess would be considered sand dunes and tufts of dune grass, made it really difficult to see the birds. Flocks of buntings and longspurs would flutter into the air and circle for a while, then you would hope that they would touch down someplace where you could see them. Sometimes they would be close and sometimes they would disappear for a while behind the dunes. And when they did land, you hoped and prayed that they didn't hide behind the tufts of dune grass. Despite the failed search, I did get to see lots of Snow Buntings, a handful of Horned Larks, and a spectacular almost-breeding-plumage Lapland Longspur. And, of course, the bird reappeared in the afternoon after I had left. Corey, from Lovely, Dark, and Deep who I had the pleasure of meeting and chatting with for a while, has some great pictures of the day on his site.

Friday, March 02, 2007

While searching for where to see White-headed Woodpeckers in California, I came across It's an interesting site that used Google maps to record the sightings of rare birds. This site may be familiar to some of you, but it was new for me. This seems like a potentially useful tool. Right now, they seem to use only the state/regional weekly rare bird alerts as a starting point to finding birds in a specific area. For example, the state-wide NJ report is linked when I click on NJ, but locations for specific birds are not pinpointed. There is a form for entering specific bird sightings, but it doesn't seem to have too much usage yet. Check it out if you have some time.