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!