Monday, March 31, 2008

Review: Kaufman's Flights Against the Sunset

I finished reading Kenn Kaufman's much-anticipated Flights Against the Sunset last night. Overall, it was an enjoyable book chock full of insightful and many times humorous stories set against the backdrop of him visiting his ill mother in the hospital. The book plays out in snippets of interactions with his mother, the history of Kenn and his family, and the birding-related stories. It's kind of a "Mitch Albom meets birding" right down to the small physical size of the book. As Kenn has shown us in Kingbird Highway, he's an outstanding storyteller. He makes you wish you were there with him experiencing what he's experiencing. He also makes you think with his insights on common birding discussions like listing and chasing rarities.

If you've followed Kenn's Birdwatcher's Digest columns over the years, you may see some re-hashed stories because I think many of them came from there. Since I haven't kept up with those, they were mostly new to me. I do have two minor complaints about the book. First, the parts where Kenn is interacting with his mother seemed a bit forced into the story. I had trouble making an emotional connection. But I'm sure this book is a tribute to the author's mother, and who am I to stand against that? My second complaint is not really about the story itself, but the price tag on the book - $24 retail for a small hardcover 240 page book! Yikes!

All in all, if you're a fan of Kenn's writing or just good birding stories, you'll definitely enjoy Flights Against the Sunset.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Some Saturday Birding

I joined some fellow Urner Ornithological Club members for a trip to the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge on Saturday. It was a nice sunny day, but much colder than expected! We had some nice birds including many Wood Ducks, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, and my first Pine Warbler of the year. Here a few pictorial highlights:

Tree Swallows were abundant and were scoping out nest boxes.

A young Red-tailed Hawk soars overhead.

A day when you see a Wood Duck is never a bad day.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Help Out Rusty Blackbirds!

From the eBird team:

With the help of Steve Matsuoka and the Rusty Blackbird Working Group we've initiated a pilot study of Rusty Blackbird migration through eBird. In this 'proof of concept' study, we hope birders will get out and look specifically for Rusty Blackbirds, and then report their observations to eBird between 1-7 April. You can read more about it here. If all goes well we can better tailor the survey for fall migration, and possibly do some target outreach during winter as well. Any help that you can provide getting the word out about this grassroots effort would be great. Local promotion on the listserves [and blogs] would be a huge help. There is little known about this species during migration, and we feel strongly that eBirders can help fill in some of the gaps in that knowledge. Please forward this information on to others who might be interested in this study.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Six Word Memoir

Thanks go out to the several folks who tagged me with this little meme. Here are the rules:

1. Write your own six word memoir

2. Post it on your blog and include a visual illustration if you’d like

3. Link to the person who tagged you in your post and to this original post if possible so we can track it as it travels across the blogosphere

4. Tag five more blogs with links

5. Don’t forget to leave a comment on the tagged blogs with an invitation to play!

Here's mine. I'm not feeling too profound.

Laughter and love pave the way.

I'll tag Beth and a few more later.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Cape May Skimmer Returns

For me, one of the big disappointments of last fall's "Bird Blogger Conference" in Cape May was that The Skimmer, the pontoon boat that runs nature trips into the salt marsh, was no longer running. Well, good news folks! The Skimmer has a new owner and is now up and sailing again. It began sailing yesterday from its new location across from the Two Mile Beach Unit of the Cape May National Wildlife Refuge, the Dolphin Cove Marina on Ocean Drive, at the base of the Toll Bridge. If you go to Cape May, be sure to check it out. While you may not see all the rarities that have people running all over Cape May, you'll get an extremely pleasant and interesting jaunt into the "backwoods" of the salt marsh where you'll encounter some fantastic birds and wildlife.

Friday, March 21, 2008

What's in your coffee cup?

I've mentioned it a zillion times here on my blog and I'll say it again... you need to be drinking sustainable, shade grown coffee. That means no Dunkin' Donuts, no Folgers, no Tim Hortons (for you northerners), and many other brands. When I tell people about sustainable and shade grown coffee, a few topics always come up:

  • "I don't know where to buy it." - You'll find a bigger variety if you order it online, yes. But, you can get it in most supermarkets nowadays too. The best selection is at stores like Whole Foods and other specialty food markets.
  • "Shade grown coffee is too expensive." - Is it more expensive than Folger's? Yes. Is it truly that much more expensive when you factor in the environmental impact? The great blog Coffee & Conservation has a "per cup" cost calculator so you can compare your coffee purchases to how much it costs to buy shade grown. It'll also tell you how much of a mark-up your paying for that cup of Starbucks.
  • "I don't understand the different labels on coffee - shade grown, fair trade, Rainforest Alliance, etc." - I get confused too. I'll turn to Coffee & Conservation again for the full scoop on certification labels. For the most bird-friendly coffee, look for the Smithsonian Bird Friendly Coffee logo.

I sometimes feel like I'm preaching to the choir here on this blog. Probably 90% of my readers already know what I wrote above. But, hopefully, the other 10% out there will learn something and hopefully the other 90% can pass along their knowledge to others.

Tundra Swans at Sandy Hook

Sorry for the lack of posts recently. Work has been a bit nuts. Put it this way, we're building about 100 training courses for 120,000 employees in 19 languages. FUN! I did get to do some birding last weekend and I saw a new bird for my Sandy Hook list. Three Tundra Swans, not an easy species to see at Sandy Hook, were hanging out at the far north end of the Hook. To get there it's a bit of a trek out on soft sand - locally known as the Death March. The weather was gorgeous so I took the walk out there and got a few nice pictures of the swans.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Monday, March 17, 2008

A Bird's Eye View

I frequently mention my very suburban neighborhood and some of the neat birds we see around our house. Microsoft's Live Search Maps has a neat bird's eye view capability and now, through the power of Bill Gates, I am able to show you the sea of townhomes and condos that is my neighborhood.

This is pretty much how everything within one mile of our house looks. The little arrow is pointing to our building and our house is right under the orange square. The strip of green in the bottom left corner is the retention pond where a Belted Kingfisher and Great Blue Heron hangs out sometimes. Lord knows what they're eating in there. I think that white circle is a fountain. I was actually pleasantly surprised by the number of trees we have in our area. If you're bored, post your map on your blog!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


Another shot from The Raptor Trust on Sunday - Eastern Screech Owl!

Monday, March 10, 2008

NY Times Talks Native Plants

There's an excellent article in the NY Times about the importance of native plants in your garden. Check it out here.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Raptor Heads

I visited The Raptor Trust today. I'm lucky to have this rehab center for birds of prey about 30 minutes from my house. I visited there many times as a kid with my dad who provided nuts and bolts for the cages there. Here are some shots of the captive birds.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Book Review: The Big Twitch

I recently finished reading The Big Twitch by Sean Dooley. In a nutshell, it's the Australian version of The Big Year except in this case it's one guy going for the Australian big year record. In fact, he's trying to shatter the record by seeing 700 species, about 40 more than the previous record. Overall, it was an enjoyable book with a lot of that complements of Dooley's humor (he's a TV comedy writer between birds). For an American reader, the language is interesting and you may find yourself looking up some of the Australian sayings. Dooley helps this out a bit by including a glossary in the front of the book.

The birds and locations will be exotic to any of us who haven't stepped foot down under. This had it pluses and minuses. On one hand, it was fun to look up the species to see what they looked like and to look up the locations and different habitats. On the other hand, it's a little more difficult to relate to Dooley's challenge when the birds and locations are unfamiliar. With The Big Year, you probably know what it takes to go to Attu and find a species from Siberia.

My biggest complaint is that the book spends an awful lot of pages just talking about chasing specific birds. It's like, "Now I needed to go see this bird and I missed it." or "Now I needed to go see this other bird and there it was." The anecdotes between these sections are where the real fun is had in reading this book. You may find yourself, like me, skimming through some of the chapters.

FINAL CONCLUSION: Borrow it, don't buy it, read it when you get a chance

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

A Moment for Geekiness

Sadly, Gary Gygax passed away today. In my non-birding years, I spent a lot of time sitting in my basement playing Dungeons & Dragons - the great role-playing game that he created. Similar to birding, D&D has a bit of a nerdy reputation. I had a lot of fun playing it back in the day along with games it helped inspire like Magic: The Gathering. I also spent a lot of time painting tiny lead alloy miniatures that will probably give me cancer. In salute to Gary, here's a hilarious clip from the extremely underrated TV series Freaks & Geeks that encompasses D&D pretty well:

For the record, I never dressed up in character except for Halloween one year. I sold off most of my stuff years ago and made a killing on eBay. I still have some lingering miniatures that I couldn't part with though.

White-winged Crossbill!

Today I found out a wonderful benefit of being the Great Backyard Bird Count state reviewer for NJ (Thanks Rob!). A woman in Long Branch (northern Jersey shore area) reported a White-winged Crossbill during the count. It was the only one for the state. I had written her for verification several weeks ago and I finally heard from her on Sunday. Sure enough, she sent along some fuzzy pictures of a female White-winged Crossbill. I spoke with her on the phone yesterday. She told me it's been coming to her feeder for two months now. I asked if she lived in a wooded area and she said she did not, but that she has several large trees in her yard. Then, I asked if I could come see it and she gave me permission. So, this morning I drove an hour or so down to Long Branch to look for the bird.

I pulled on to a somewhat busy street full of kids waiting for buses and parents waiting with their kids. Quaint older houses were lined up neatly with less than 20 feet separating each one. It was a typical suburban street with the bonus of having some wonderful, huge red cedar trees in many of the yards. The feeder was in the front yard hanging over a second floor balcony. With camera in hand, I waited and tried my best not to look like a pervert. A female House Finch scoped out the feeders for a minute. Then about 10 minutes after I arrived, the White-winged Crossbill flew in and began eating from a feeder suction-cupped to a window. This was both a life bird and my 300th NJ state bird.

She perched quite tamely there for quite a while. The way the feeder was hung, I couldn't get an angle where I could get a photo of the wing bars. Luckily, Susan, the kind woman who hosted the bird was home and she came to the window to let me in. I got some fuzzy pictures through the window with this one being the best one.

I was amazed at how tame it was. Susan spoke to me from a window not 5 feet from the bird and it didn't budge. This is a tough bird to come by in NJ, especially one coming to a feeder. Thanks to Susan for allowing me to come over. I apologize to the NJ birders reading this, but she doesn't want the location shared.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Black Vultures in love

Jack Connor, author of the oft-mentioned (on this blog at least) book The Complete Birder, posted some cool pics of Black Vultures courting and copulating. I didn't realize they had an interesting courtship display. Enjoy! Thanks to Jack for letting me post these.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

A "SNOWY" day

You can take a guess where I birded today by the picture below.

Yes sir, I joined my bird club at NJ's Liberty State Park for a chilly morning of birding. The highlight of the day by far was basically the first bird of the trip. While we were all milling about and chatting prior to the start of the trip, someone shouted "There's a Snowy Owl over here." Sure enough, there was a Snowy Owl over there. Well, it was pretty darn far, but that's what it was. Very awesome! I'd like to say that it's a bit of good fortune for me having not gone to Guatemala. I got a very distant picture of it with its head turned around.

This is the only sighting of one in NJ this winter to my knowledge and I don't recall any reports of birds further south. This is also the first I've seen in NJ since 2004. The rest of the day was nice, but uneventful. I hadn't birded Liberty State Park since I was a new birder so it was nice to learn some of the ins and outs from the local expert who guided us. I also got this sweet picture of a Mourning Dove. Beth says it looks like it has 6-pack abs. A few more pics below too...

Saturday, March 01, 2008

No Guatemala for Me :(

Due to some circumstances beyond my control, I was not able to go on my Guatemala trip. Rest assured that a few of the top bird bloggers around are on the trip and you will be blasted with amazing Guatemalan content upon their return. Now back to our regularly scheduled Hawk Owl nesting.