Wednesday, December 31, 2008

End-of-year memories

Yes, as a matter of fact I DID start this post on New Year's Eve and didn't finish and publish it 'til today so I back-dated it. Why do you ask?

It's been a topsy-turvy year for this birder. I've had some great highs--birding in Cape May with the Flock and meeting new Flockers Lynne and Katdoc, birding the marsh with Susan and Laura, seeing some great lifers like my first wood duck (finally)--and some crushing lows. All in all, it's been a year of evolution, of spreading my wings and taking risks.

For this last post of 2008, I went through my archives and found some moments that I thought you might enjoy reliving with me:

January--birding and observing the locals in the Big Valley of Central Pennsylvania

February--in an especially lucky convergence, a raptor lands right outside the window at work AND I have my camera with me

March--an April post covering my March 30th marsh birding trip with visitors Susan Gets Native and Laura from New Jersey, including an episode of CSI: Bird Dorks

April--in which I discover a new place to bird that yields some great sights

May--a tie between this big birding day afield and the next big birding day on the marsh, both featuring a lot of photos

June--my first-ever owl heard in the wild!

July--we all go camping and fishing, featuring lots of photos including a pretty decent one of an Eastern Towhee

August--in a non-bird-related post, we meet Dr. Matty McMatterson, best friend and confidante of the beginning birder, the Watson to my Holmes (only I'm not addicted to drugs)

September--I get my first-ever photos of an accommodating bald eagle

October--my crazy-ass trip to Cape May to meet the Flock during the Autumn Migration weekend

November--in which the vegetarian beginning birder ponders the Thanksgiving turkey tradition

December--the beginning birder finds out she's going to need a field guide for Western birds. . .

It's been a long year, and a long winter (and it's only just started!), but 2009 promises to be a much warmer and more bird-filled year. Not to mention the fact that we're getting a new president! I wonder if Barack Obama is a birder? I bet Michelle Obama likes birds. She's probably cool like that.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

David Attenborough's The Life of Birds

If you haven't seen at least a few parts of David Attenborough's BBC series The Life of Birds, you're really missing something. I realize this series is years old, but you may have missed it.

Through the magic of Netflix, I've been slowly watching the DVDs of the series. So far I've seen the first two discs, which included chapters like "Fishing for a Living," "The Meat Eaters," "The Mastery of Flight," and my favorite so far, "Signals and Songs." Attenborough's fact-filled narration alone is brilliant and insightful, to say nothing of the endearingly hilarious sound of his accented voice saying, "THE Life... of Buhds." LOVE IT. I love him!

He is always sure to identify every bird he shows us (though not necessarily by specific type; for instance, he'll talk about "grebes in North America" without telling us that they're Western Grebes. But this is an anal-retentive birder's complaint). He travels through tropical rainforests in his cute little jungle khaki outfits and roams the icy coasts in sturdy outerwear, sits on the windy tundra getting his hair blown all over the place, gets attacked by a VERY territorial bird who knocks him over at one point, feeds bunches of hummers with a hand-held feeder, lies on a darkened beach watching shorebirds eat--you name it. For an older guy, he's in great shape and he hikes and climbs and crouches with the dexterity (and dirt-under-his-fingernails abandon) of a much younger man. He's like a hipper and soothing-voiced version of Marlin Perkins of Wild Kingdom fame (though I have to credit Perkins and of course Jim Fowler for kindling my absolutely psychotic love of nature and nature shows).

The birds themselves are spectacular: the lyrebird that can mimic a camera shutter sound complete with motordrive, the cock-of-the-rock and its spectacular plumage, sunbitterns and their crazy wings-out threat display, fieldfares who dive-bomb a raven and try to cover him with their poop (which could ground him and get him killed, BTW) to get him to leave their area. Attenborough covers the evolution of birds, mating, raising young, flight, eating, behavior--in short, everything you want to know about birds in general as well as specifics about a huge number of birds the world over.

If you haven't seen this series, WATCH IT. Especially if you've always dreamed of going to Peru or Costa Rica or Africa but couldn't afford it.

WARNING: the following is only for extreme bird-nerds and avian-kooks like me; You know who you are. I have to confess that I've been watching the episodes while holding my Birds of the World and both my eastern and my brand-new western Peterson's field guides; each time Attenborough mentions a new bird, I look it up, figure out specifically what type it is, note its geographical range, and read more details about it. (I warned you.)

Best yet, I checked it out on Amazon and it's only $34! Add to cart, baby. Add! to! cart!

I leave you with a completely unrelated photo: I saw these beautiful clouds while I was out this afternoon and couldn't resist. They almost look like lenticular clouds that form over mountaintops.

Note: More New River potential lifers posts coming up. Been kinda distracted of late, and my mind's just not fully on the birds.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Cool clouds on a sunny day

The temperature warmed up yesterday to a balmy 45 degrees, though it's a little cooler today. I didn't go birding, but I did find some cool clouds:
A fine example of melting butter clouds. In this next photo, I'm hoping you can see that it kinda looked like a bunch of little scoops of clouds, little swirls. My phone's camera didn't do too good a job of capturing it, but try to use your imagination and click for huger:

On this same road today at lunchtime, I saw a pretty red female American Kestrel. I loves me some kestrels.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Happy Birdday, Mary!

My sister Mary turns 43 today, so I thought I'd embarrass her by publishing this photo again:

That's her on the right, pointing to her dolly. This was probably a newly opened Christmas present, I'm guessing.

Mary had a series of dollies as a kid (surprisingly, I was not the dolly type). I'd give anything right now to have a scan of this one photo of all my siblings and me on an Easter day, waaaay back when. Mary and were probably 5 and 6, respectively. In a bunch of photos, Mary had her "naked baby" dolly, whom she held by the head in all the pics taken that day. In this one photo, however, you can see that someone has taken away Naked Baby and Mary's crying her little eyes out, holding out her hands to someone off-camera -- probably my mom.

Actually, Mary cried in almost all her baby and young tot pics -- it's sort-of a family joke. The rest of us were always smiling and laughing, even in the photo that was taken when I had German measles.

Mary, however, was always wailin'. She sings now, a benefit of all that lung exercise, no doubt.

Back to this photo--she had that blue sweater for YEARS. (We were both a size 6X for years too, saving my parents a lot on clothing, I'd bet.) I remember borrowing the blue sweater one day because I had to go outside to feet the kitty. I tipped the box of dry catfood to pour some out, and a little baby roach crawled out of the box and up my arm, into the sweater sleeve! I ran around screaming and flailing the box (catfood flying), trying to tear that sweater off. I can still remember it like it was yesterday. *shudder*

Anyway, happy birdday, Mary, aka Hairy Mary, aka Wolf Hand, aka Mareeeeeeeeeeeeeea!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Birding yesterday?

Compute the following:
Temp: 15°
Wind: gusting
divided by
Precip: snow

So did I go birding yesterday morning as planned?

You do the math.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

New River Wish List, Post #2: Common Raven

the not-so-Common Raven

In which I continue my series of posts potential lifers (for me, anyway) I might see in Virginia at the New River Bird and Nature Festival in April 2009. Much of the Flock will be staying the entire week of the festival; I will do only the second half of the week, arriving on Wednesday night in time for dinner, then birding Thursday through Sunday morning.

It’s likely that I’ve already seen many ravens up here in PA, but I never learned to tell them from plain old American Crows before now. I’ll frame my ID tips in terms of telling a raven from a crow.

The first ID clue is that ravens are much larger than crows, a fact that right away frightens the bejeesus out of me. I didn’t grow up with crows in South Texas; we had grackles, which are much smaller and aren’t nearly as bloodthirsty as the crows I’ve seen here. (Remember when that crow ate the starling's head?) The Common or Northern Raven is 22–27 inches from beak to tail—like a small cropdusting plane—while an American Crow is “only” 17–21 inches. Cornell describes the raven as “the largest of the songbirds.” *shudder*

Raven on top, crow on bottom (all photos shameless stolen from other sites which I am too lazy to go back and get the links for)--
The raven’s call is also distinct from that of the crow. Ravens make what Peterson calls a “croaking cr-r-ruck or prruk” or “a metallic tok” as opposed to the loud and clear "caw" of the American Crow. While I’m at it, I’ll add that a Fish Crow’s call is a “short nasal car or ca.” (Like it’s an American Crow hailing from Bah-ston?) You can hear the raven, the crow, and the fish crow at Cornell’s site.

Ravens, according to Peterson, tend not to congregate in the huge (and poopie-stinky) groups that crows do. (I suppose that’s why Edgar Allen Poe quoted but one raven telling him “Nevermore” as opposed to a whole bunch of crows screaming "caw" at him.) So I guess I won’t have much luck if I look for murders of crows and try to spot the bigger ones as ravens. Still, there are other differences.

When they are perched, ravens have what Peterson refers to as a “goiter” look on their necks, with “shaggy throat feathers” that pooch out a bit. Crows are sleeker in the neck area. Ravens also have slightly chunkier beaks than crows.

Perhaps the easiest way to tell a crow from a raven is during flight. The crow’s tail is squared across, while the raven’s is wedge-shaped. (A Fish Crow’s is also squared across.)

Again, raven on top (with distinctly curved-across tail), crow on bottom (with squared-off tail)--
Further, ravens fly in more of a hawklike manner, flapping and gliding on flat wings; crows hold their wings in a slight dihedral, almost like a turkey vulture (though not as pronounced of a “V”). Most all the crows I’ve seen pretty much flap all the time and rarely glide, but maybe they’re just all in a big hurry to go eat another starling.

I happened upon another page that discusses the differences between crows and ravens here.

Next time, we’ll look at a smaller songbird: the Blue-winged Warbler, a pair of which our host Dave Pollard guaranteed we'd see outside the Farmhouse in which much of the Flock will be staying at New River. Until then, I'm hoping to go birding this Sunday morning with Gretchen, my new birding pal Cari and her boyfriend, and perhaps Laurie--all of which (with the exception of the boyfriend) you can see and read about here on my curse-filled political bloggy.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Go west, young birder


What do this book

and this school

have to do with this birder?
Here's a hint:
That's Dr. Matthew Callahan (aka Matty McMatterson) and our friend Christine, who lives in San Francisco, who gave me the field guide pictured above because . . .

Matty got the job at Sonoma State!

He got the call yesterday, and we'll be leaving in July 2009. It's hard to believe; it all seems so far away. But sure enough, we're packing up and moving to California.

Being the live-in-the-moment person that I am, it's hard to be sad now about leaving this place and all my friends. I'm so excited at the thought of a new beginning that I can't feel sad or wistful right now. I'm sure, however, that will come once the departure nears.

In the meantime, however, I sure do have a lot of new birds to learn. It'll be "beginning to bird" all over again! Varied thrushes, weirdo chickadees, no more Eastern bluebirds -- wow.

I'll be in the land of Earl Cootie and Matty Boy, trolley cars, and fog fog fog.

I'll be twenty minutes from Bodega Bay, the setting of Hitchcock's The Birds and an incredibly beautiful coastline, judging from the photos.

I'll see John Muir's redwoods and the Pacific Ocean.

Arnold Schwarzenegger will be my governor.

oh my god...

Monday, December 15, 2008

Check it out now, funk soul brother

Frequent commenter EHunter of The Bufflehead Birder has announced a pretty cool competition for all you birders who have bird ornaments on your Yule trees. If you have a few birdy ornaments, be sure to pop over there and let her know.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

New River Wish List, Post #1: Pied-billed Grebe

And now we begin looking at potential lifers (for me, anyway) I might see in Virginia at the New River Bird and Nature Festival. First, let's look at their list from this year's fest:

Common LoonPied-billed Grebe Great EgretGreen Heron Black VultureTurkey VultureCanada GooseMute SwanWood DuckMallardBlue-winged TealLesser ScaupOspreySharp-shinned HawkCooper’s Hawk Red-shouldered HawkBroad-winged HawkRed-tailed HawkAmerican KestrelMerlin Peregrine FalconRuffed Grouse Wild TurkeyKilldeerLesser YellowlegsSolitary SandpiperSpotted SandpiperAmerican WoodcockRock DoveMourning DoveYellow-billed Cuckoo Eastern Screech Owl Great Horned OwlBarred OwlCommon NighthawkWhip-poor-willChimney SwiftRuby-throated HummingbirdBelted Kingfisher Red-headed WoodpeckerRed-bellied WoodpeckerDowney WoodpeckerHairy WoodpeckerNorthern FlickerPileated WoodpeckerEastern Wood PeeweeAcadian flycatcher Least Flycatcher Eastern Phoebe
Northern Rough-winged Swallow Bank SwallowCliff Swallow Barn Swallow Carolina ChickadeeBlack-capped ChickadeeTufted Titmouse Red-breasted Nuthatch White-breasted Nuthatch Brown CreeperCarolina WrenHouse Wren Winter WrenRuby-crowned KingletBlue-gray GnatcatcherEastern BluebirdVeery Swainson’s ThrushHermit ThrushWood ThrushAmerican RobinGray CatbirdNorthern Mockingbird Brown Thrasher European Starling Cedar Waxwing Blue-winged WarblerGolden-winged Warbler Tennessee WarblerNashville Warbler Northern Parula Yellow Warbler Chestnut-sided Warbler Magnolia Warbler Cape May WarblerBlack-throated Blue Warbler Yellow-rumped Warbler Black-throated Green Warbler Blackburnian Warbler Yellow-throated Warbler Pine WarblerPrairie Warbler Palm WarblerBay-breasted Warbler Blackpoll Warbler Cerulean Warbler Blue-headed VireoWarbling VireoPhiladelphia VireoRed-eyed Vireo Blue JayAmerican Crow
Black-and-white WarblerAmerican RedstartWorm-eating WarblerSwainson’s WarblerOvenbirdNorthern WaterthrushLouisiana WaterthrushKentucky WarblerMourning WarblerCommon YellowthroatHooded WarblerWilson’s WarblerCanada WarblerYellow-breasted ChatSummer TanagerScarlet TanagerEastern TowheeChipping SparrowField Sparrow Savannah Sparrow Grasshopper SparrowSong SparrowLincoln’s SparrowSwamp Sparrow White-throated SparrowWhite-crowned SparrowDark-eyed JuncoNorthern CardinalRose-breasted GrosbeakIndigo BuntingBobolinkRed-winged BlackbirdEastern MeadowlarkRusty BlackbirdCommon GrackleBrown-headed CowbirdOrchard OrioleBaltimore OriolePurple FinchHouse FinchPine SiskinAmerican GoldfinchHouse SparrowArctic TernMandarin DuckGreat Crested FlycatcherEastern KingbirdWhite-eyed VireoYellow-throated VireoCommon RavenPurple MartinTree Swallow

Holy mishmash, that's a lot of birds! Too many to format into a single-column list. Sorry! Anyway--you get the idea. We can pretty much expect to see everything but an emu down there!

So let's start with a water bird: the Pied-billed Grebe
Weird-looking duck, in my opinion. Not a whole lot of field marks, save that stubby little bill. Let's see what Cornell has to tell us: "A small diving bird with a chicken-like bill, the Pied-billed Grebe is common on lakes and ponds across North America. It is rarely seen flying and prefers to sink out of sight when danger threatens." Interesting. So we're likely to see this guy on the water. Good! Easier to spot with a scope.

Wait a second! "Although it swims like a duck, the Pied-billed Grebe does not have webbed feet. Instead of having a webbing connecting all the toes, each toe has lobes extending out on the sides that provide extra surface area for paddling." So it's not a duck! A quick check on the Animal Planet site for this bird tells me it is not a duck. The toes are weird-looking--but I can't find an illustration on-line.!

You can hear the call on the Cornell link above; it's described as "kuk-kuk-kuk, kaow, kaow, kaow, kaow, kaowk, kaowk, kawk." Check. It's on my fabulous BirdJam software on my Ericsson-Walkman phone. Sweet!

My Peterson's guide notes that the little stubby chicken-like bill is different from the longer pointy bills of the grebes; it also has no wing patches like the other grebes do. So why the differences? Why is this even called a grebe? DNA, I guess.

Peterson also notes that the breeding birds will have "a black throat patch and a ring around the thick whitish bill[s]." Good to know. Here's a photo by Jeff Foott/DCI showing both the black throat patch and the black ring about the little chicken-beak:
Seems like this bird ought to be easy to identify in the field. What looks like a smudgy brown duck could be a female mallard, for instance, unless it has the little stubby beak of the pied-billed grebe. Grebes are also smaller than the mallards, about the size of a pigeon.
That's one bird down, many more to go! If you see anything about these Wish List posts that can be improved, please let me know in the comments. I'm trying to pack as much info on here as I can, commenting on the things that stand out in my mind as ID tips.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Finally, an application I like!

I just got on Facebook about two months ago, I guess. Matty McMatterson convinced me that it wasn't just for the younguns anymore, and that I'd enjoy it. He was partly right. I have enjoyed reconnecting with old friends, seeing what current friends are up to, and so forth.

What I hate is the application. You know--the "pass a drink" or "throw a snowball" or "I nominated you as the cutest person on Facebook!" or "little fish" or whatever. I just don't have the patience for all that.

HOWEVER.... today, I saw an application that instantly caught my attention! has a bird ID quiz! And check me out:

I had to ID the following birds (one at a time, multiple choice),

I must confess that I just guessed on the Green Hermit and the Spruce Grouse, never having seen nor heard of either bird. The grouse one was fairly easy to guess, as the other choices were Willow Ptarmigan and some other smaller birds. The hummer one, however, was tough. Still--good guessing!

I figure this can be another way for me to get more practice IDing birds. If you haven't tried it, check it out!

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Blackburnian orange sunset

Last night, the sunset's colors reminded me of the flaming orange on a Blackburnian warbler, my favorite warbler.

photo taken with my phone cam, while driving about 65mph. so pardon the poor quality.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The coolness to come

So the Flock -- let's see if I can remember to include everyone here --
is busy sending emails to each other, coming up with silly nicknames, and in general cluttering up the Intertubes with flockiness about the New River Birding and Nature Festival in West Virginia in April 2009. What with all the talk of overpacking, shortstacking, lipsmacking, Zickattacking, needleclacking, talkbacking, nutcracking, superstacking, and paddywhacking, we're getting ourselves all a-flutter for the excitement of the spring migration!

I've decided that I'm going to do a series of posts over the coming months highlighting the potential lifers and other birds of note we'll likely see in West Virginia. I'll try to get these going in the next few days. I want to feature a bird, show a photo of it (probably not mine, because let's face it -- my photography skills are lame), and link to a recording of its call. I'm hoping to learn more about the birds we're likely to see so that I just might be able to get some decent looks and photos of them.

Birding's "first family," if we may be said to have a birding first family, Julie Zickefoose, Bill Thompson III, their kids and Chet Baker will be there!

If we're lucky, we might even get to see the strikingly perfect hair of ace birding guide Jeff Gordon!
If you're interested in the festival, click on the link on my sidebar. There are even different registration packages for almost every budget, including "dirt-poor" like me!

Monday, December 01, 2008

New Niblet Photos!

We haven't seen the Nibble on the bloggy for a while, and last night he was posing ever so winningly:
Love that badonkadonk! He's been so relaxed and happy lately, binkying around the apartment like the king of the world.

I sometimes wonder if I should get him a companion, but I worry about them not getting along. And about how it might change his personality. And about how his self-esteem might be bruised by an eared bunny. So I probably won't get him a friend. I'll just have to give him as much lovin' as I can! But then--that's not hard. Who couldn't just love him to pieces!?