Monday, March 2, 2015

"The Dress" and bird colors

"The Dress." The center photo is the version that went viral.  On the left and right are how that photo appears when "corrected," with the light balanced toward white and gold, and toward blue and black.
Last weekend, after a wedding on Colonsay, a Scottish island, the bride posted a photo of the dress her mother wore. One of the members of the band noticed that most of her friends seeing the photo online thought the dress was white and gold. People seeing the actual dress at the wedding itself knew it was actually deep blue and black, but most people seeing the photo, including me, were certain it was white and gold.

“The Dress” is not the kind of optical illusion someone can stare at and eventually see both ways—most people seem to see it one way or the other, and that’s that. The reasons it appears white and gold to most people are complicated—the digital photo was badly overexposed, and thanks to some graphics algorithms that set up white balance, the resulting photo colors don’t look anything like the dress itself would in most light. And somehow our eyes seem to pick up cues from the background to add another layer to the potential for getting the color wrong.

 One would think bird colors would be more straightforward than that, and they usually are, but sometimes bird colors are tricky. Most plumage colors are produced by pigments within the feathers. The main pigments in bird feathers produce shades of yellow, red, and brown to black. Pigments absorb specific wavelengths of light, and our eyes see the colors the pigments don’t absorb. A crow’s feather pigments absorb all the colors, so all we see is black. Pure white feathers have no pigments, so all the colors are reflected back as white. If you find a pigmented bird feather, such as one showing yellow, red, or black, it will look that color no matter how you hold the feather, whether light is bouncing off it or going through it.

Blue Jay
This Blue Jay really is blue, along with black, white, and gray.
Some plumage colors are not produced by pigment. Not one American bird produces blue pigment, yet the feathers of Blue Jays, bluebirds, and Indigo Buntings are truly blue, thanks to their feathers’ structure. If you’ve ever zipped feathers together, you’ve noticed that they’re made of tiny branching structures, which are beautifully patterned when seen with a magnifying glass, and even more amazing under an electron microscope. In blue feathers, the beta-keratin that gives feather barbs their strength is arranged in an intricate nanostructure with air pockets that are exactly the diameter of the wavelength of blue light. So blue light is reflected while all the other colors simply pass through or bounce off and cancel each other. If you look at a Blue Jay feather from most angles, you see the blue wavelengths that are bouncing off it, but if you hold it so light passes directly through it, you don’t see that blue reflectance. The dark pigments absorb most colors, allowing the brownish gray to bounce back to our eyes.
Eastern Bluebird
Eastern Bluebird
Some people misunderstand the issue of structural vs. pigment colors, and so I frequently hear people saying there are no truly blue feathers in birds, when of course there are. The color of anything is due to nothing more than how light bounces off it to our eyes, whether that is due to structure or pigment.

Melopsittacus undulatus -Fort Worth Zoo-8a-4c
Photo by Melopsittacus_undulatus_-Fort_Worth_Zoo-8a.jpg: Jerry Tillery derivative work: Snowmanradio [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The best example of the combination of color types is in the body feathers of pet budgies. Wild budgerigars are mostly green. The green is caused by yellow pigments absorbing all wavelengths of light except yellow, and by the blue structure of the feathers bouncing back blue while allowing other wavelengths to pass through. We see both blue and yellow in balance, making them appear green. Some budgies are selectively bred to lack the yellow pigment. They still have the blue structure, making them appear true blue. Some are bred to lack that arrangement of the beta-keratin and air pockets, and no colors are reflected by the structure. If they still produce the pigment, they appear yellow. (The head feathers of wild budgies are yellow for this reason.) Some are bred to lack both the yellow pigment and the blue structure: they appear pure white. The areas of the feathers that are black have a dark pigment (melanin) that absorbs all the wavelengths of light.

Mallard
Iridescent feathers on Mallard drakes usually appear green, but can take on blue or turquoise shades in some light.
  Mallard  

Iridescent feathers may have a simple dark pigment, but the brilliant color we see is due to structure. Unlike blue, though, we see most iridescent colors reflected only when light bounces off in a specific direction, so even the tiniest hummingbird sitting in one spot can show lots of changes in the amounts of color in the gorget as it moves its head.

  Anna's Hummingbird Iridescence 

Fortunately, internet photos of hummingbirds don’t go viral, setting off flurries of people passionately arguing about what color they are. No matter how persnickety a birder is about bird colors, we save our passionate arguments about them for dresses.

Here's a good more in-depth explanation of structural colors in nature, from The Scientist.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Red Slough birding festival

I keynoted at this great festival in 2013. Best looks EVER at Swainson's Warblers!

Stupid Is as Stupid Does

Pine Siskin
Pine Siskin
2015 is one of the magical years when lots of us are seeing gregarious winter finches that spend most of their lives in the northern reaches of Canada, Eurasia, Iceland, and Greenland, such as redpolls, or at least in the boreal forest of Canada and the northern reaches of the US, such as Pine Siskins. People notice them by their frequent, almost continual calling as they seem to be invisible within dense conifers, by how they congregate at feeders, and by how they gather at the salt and grit on country roads, barely taking off in time as we drive through. Finches feed almost entirely on seeds, and the grit they eat both helps their gizzard grind down seeds so they can extract as much food value as possible, and provides minerals that their simple diet lacks. Winter road salt lures them in even more than bird feeders do.

Pine Grosbeak
Pine Grosbeaks on road.
It seems to me a no brainer that when flocks of birds are on the road, people should slow down, not just because of the immediate danger to the flock right there but because there are so many flocks all along. But our mindset gets so locked into human concerns, even as we drive through the most hauntingly beautiful northern forest habitat, that most people don’t even notice the enormous Great Gray Owl or the exquisite Northern Hawk Owl perched atop a tree right in the open near the road, much less the hundreds of little brown birds that look like leaf litter until they flutter off as we get too close. I see so many of them dead on the roads, and sometimes stuck onto car grilles—including those of birders who were in such a hurry to see the next new bird that they plowed right through the ones right there.

Common Redpolls and Pine Siskins
Pine Siskins and Common Redpolls
When we see these finches in their big flocks, it’s easier to see them as aggregations rather than individuals. Of course, birders carefully scrutinize each individual in hopes of picking out a possible Hoary Redpoll among the Common Redpolls, or to find other outliers, but once our list needs are served, we all at least occasionally look at these flocks as undifferentiated winter finches rather than breaking them down into individual species. And even when we do that, we seldom pay the kind of attention to individuals that we do when we encounter an owl or shrike or curious chickadee.

The more scientists reveal about bird intelligence and individual variation, the more strenuously people seem to grab onto that popular meme that individual animals don’t matter—only populations. I’ve always found that a depressing concept, because it’s so egotistical. In terms of wildlife management and conservation, of course the focus must be on populations, but within these two disciplines, our sense of the appropriate size of populations is informed not by what is best for the larger world but by what will serve a given human “user group.” Red-winged Blackbirds are slaughtered by the millions in western Minnesota and the Dakotas every spring to appease sunflower growers. Cormorants are slaughtered in many areas to appease sport and commercial fishing interests. Meanwhile, white-tailed deer and Canada Goose numbers have been “managed” to bring them to unsustainable levels over decades, to please hunting interests, even after it was obvious that their numbers were growing too large for the health of major habitats and competing species. Now we’re watching that exact same ecological disaster slowly unfold with Wild Turkeys. Meanwhile, I hear the same delight in shortsighted people seeing turkeys in their area for the first time that I heard back in the 70s when people were so thrilled to see Canada Geese raising young in places they’d never before bred.

 We are supposed to be the smartest species on the planet. We could use our intelligence to look at the Big Picture of population levels even as we see the Little Picture—the value of individuals of all species. We could learn from our mistakes. We could use our supposedly superior awareness to notice the beauty all around us. And we could use our supposedly superior ability to plan ahead so we’d leave early enough to drive a little slower during times when birds gather on our roadsides. Forest Gump famously said “stupid is as stupid does.” The same also could be said of human intelligence.

Common Redpoll
Common Redpoll

Saturday, February 14, 2015

How did you spend your Friday the Thirteenth and Valentine's Day?

(rewritten for my radio show script Feb. 16)

I managed to find a unique way to combine both bad luck and the heart to mark this year's back-to-back Friday the 13th and Valentine's Day. Thursday night I had a mild heart attack. Friday, after everything was stable, they did an angiogram, which indicated that I have a congenital enlarged artery. Apparently a clot developed there and then got blocked from passing into a more normal artery. I've been on blood thinners since as soon as I was admitted, so am entirely out of danger. I didn’t need a stent or any surgery at all. I'll be taking medications and use one of those days-of-the-week medicine things now, so can officially feel old and decrepit with a minimum of actual problems associated with it. This was pretty much a best-case scenario for a heart attack. It was indeed scary, but after receiving excellent care at the hospital and now some follow-up appointments and 36 sessions of cardiac rehab, I’ll be entirely in the clear.

Usually at this point in a radio program, I’d talk about whether or not birds have heart attacks, and get into lots of cases. I’ll just say, yes they do—both from clots and from other causes, especially associated with their high blood pressure. Fighting males rarely have keeled over dead from their heightened blood pressure actually blowing out a hole in the heart or a coronary artery. 

But I’m going to break my normal pattern this time because I’m extremely lucky that I realized I was having a heart attack. Symptoms in women are way different from those we usually hear about. I did not feel ANY pain or tightness or heaviness in my chest when I decided I was probably having a heart attack. I just suddenly, after getting ready for bed about 10 pm, had a fuzzy, weird feeling in my chest, a sensation that was running up my neck to my jaw. The sensation itself made me feel a little panicky, so when I climbed into bed, I kept sitting up and thinking I just felt wrong.

The possibility of a heart attack was on my mental radar screen because in the past couple of months or so, I’ve had four or five dizzy spells that lasted only a few seconds. They felt weird and nothing like anything I've felt before, but I couldn't see making an appointment unless it got worse. Also, for two or three days before the heart attack, my face looked paler in the mirror to me. My father died early one morning when he was only 50 from a massive heart attack, and my aunt, his sister, died this summer after waking up, getting out of bed, and simply dropping dead. In my last photos of both of them, their faces seemed unusually pale.

I’m not particularly superstitious, but it did occur to me that, uh oh—if this was an actual heart attack, there was a pretty good chance I’d climb out of bed on Friday the 13th and keel over dead. And that made me think of the puppy I’m getting in 5 weeks—how much I want to be healthy to train and play with her, and how she deserves a healthy owner.

I still thought if this was a heart attack, I should be experiencing some actual pain, so I opened my iPad and googled heart attack symptoms. They all started with descriptions of massive chest pain radiating down the left arm, but then got into more vague symptoms, and all specifically mentioned jaw pain, especially in women. I wasn’t having pain, but my neck and jaw as well as chest had that fuzzy, weird sensation.

So Russ ushered me to the hospital. The guy at the door admitting patients looked rather skeptical, but the moment he let me through, I was ushered away, with a whole team wiring me to an EKG machine and an IV and taking blood tests and I don't know what else.

 My EKG was slightly abnormal. The first blood test for a protein called Troponin that is released into the bloodstream after a heart attack was negative, but they were concerned about the EKG, and the next time they did the blood test, an hour or so later, it was, indeed positive. Six hours later, it had risen even more. So the event was an actual heart attack, and it turns out that it was very lucky I went in before it became a massive one. Those strange symptoms women tend to show, which often do not involve pain, are too often not taken seriously until it is too late.

So there you have it. I guess I dodged a bullet. But really, if I had to have a heart attack, could the timing have been better than the weekend when Friday the 13th and Valentine’s Day collide?  

**I don't want to be answering everyone's questions about this ad infinitum. This was not an aortic stenosis, I have no problems with valves, and virtually no plaque buildup. And I do not need anyone's suggestions for or critiques of my treatment. I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing and thinking about my puppy.

Laura meets Pip!

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Why I'm Not a Birding Guide

Snowy Owl

This past weekend, a birding acquaintance of mine from Florida came up to Duluth to celebrate what I’ve long called Superb Owl Sunday. He arrived on Friday afternoon, and we birded steadily during daylight hours until he left on Monday afternoon. He added three lifer owls—Snowy Owl on Friday at the Superior Airport, Great Gray Owl on Saturday in the Sax-Zim Bog, and Northern Hawk Owl on Sunday on Jean Duluth Road north of Duluth, so both Superb Owl Sunday and the rest of the weekend lived up to the hype. We also saw lots of other northern birds that were new for him. So all in all it was a wonderfully successful weekend.

Superb Owl Sunday Northern Hawk Owl
Superb Owl Sunday Northern Hawk Owl

But it was also an exhausting one. I put over 700 miles on my car, making it expensive and energy-intensive as well—much more than if I were covering the same area on my own, not feeling like I had to go back repeatedly to spots where we missed a single “target bird.”

Boreal Chickadee
Boreal Chickadee: One of the target birds we got skunked on
Maybe that sense of targets is the trick for me. I have a genuine antipathy for wasting fuel, so I don’t bird far from home without serious thought about the energy costs, but I do love occasionally getting up early and setting out for the bog, or for the Superior National Forest along Highways 2 and 1 north of Two Harbors, in hopes of seeing cool birds. It’s fun to be open to all the possibilities without specific goals, and my birding virtually never holds any disappointments—heck, even when I went to Quincy, Illinois on a failed effort to see an Ivory Gull, my lasting memory is more of what a fun experience that was than of disappointment.

Eurasian Tree Sparrow
My first Illinois Eurasian Tree Sparrow--bonus bird when I was in Quincy, Illinois.
You win some, and you lose some.
When I do come upon something interesting, which may be something as universally thrilling as a Great Gray Owl or as simple as a chickadee taking a sample bite out of a shrike’s cached mouse impaled on a thorn, I don’t enjoy jumping back in the car to move on to the next target. If I really want to see a specific bird that is supposed to be in one area, I prefer staying there as long as possible, enjoying everything else there in the interim, to moving on and coming back repeatedly so I can get a whole panoply of “target birds.”

When it comes down to it, I’m a moseyer. Like any other birder, I love having as long a list of species as possible for a given jaunt, and measure my skills by the birds I pick out by sight and sound. When I started birding, before I'd brought my life list to over 600 for the Lower 48, I was pretty intent on that milestone, but even when I was most acquisitive, except on specific "Big Days," I've never enjoyed birding just to have a long list of species.

Florida Scrub-Jay
The Florida Scrub-Jay was #600 on my life list. I saw my first, with my whole family, in 1999, at Lake Kissimmee State Park. My kids and Russ were all charmed by these friendly birds--the PERFECT milestone species for meeting my ultimate birding goal of 600 species in the Lower 48. 
Looking back on most birding jaunts, I remember specific cool experiences with individual birds and other critters far more than the final number. And I especially don’t like feeling responsible for what other people see. I do enjoy leading birding field trips—those experiences helped improve my own birding skills when I was starting out, and I love sharing my knowledge of places and birds with others. But leading field trips never feels anywhere near as intense as showing someone who has come a long way all the birds that person "needs” to see to make the trip worthwhile.

When I was amassing my own life list and Russ and I took trips to new places, I loved exploring on my own. We covered all the best spots in Florida, southeastern Arizona, the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, Florida, and California following instructions in birding books and checking out spots that looked interesting or just happened to be near where Russ had to be for something else, as well as the spots pinpointed in the birding books. The pleasures came from getting a feel for different habitats and how to find different birds in new places entirely on my own.

Even when I did my Big Year, when part of the whole point was to amass a big list, I did most of the birding by myself—somehow birds feel more earned and “mine” that way. I did have some special target birds for which I spent an inordinate amount of time searching, like the Colima Warbler for which I hiked twelve miles, alone in the rain, in Big Bend National Park, and the Hermit Warbler for which I went to San Lorenzo Park in Santa Cruz, California, three times before I finally got the bird--though each time I went there, I had plenty of other wonderful experiences, as well.

Hermit Warbler
Crappy photo of a Hermit Warbler--a target bird I specifically searched for three times before I finally saw. 

Anna's Hummingbird
Anna's Hummingbird: One of the bonus birds I saw one of the times I was missing that Hermit Warbler.
On my Big Year, I relished getting to spend days of intensive birding with a few close friends, such as Paula Lozano in Ohio, and Eric Bowman, Larry Foard, and Ali Sheehey in California. I also participated in a few birding festivals for which I was a speaker and so got to attend the field trips. I thoroughly enjoyed the Space Coast Birding Festival in Florida, the Red Slough Birding Festival in Oklahoma, the Biggest Week in American Birding in Ohio, the Rio Grand Valley birding festival in Texas, and the Monterey birding festival in California (I wasn't a speaker at the last two), and I took two guided tours with Kim Eckert, to Texas and Colorado. I was invited to be the keynote speaker at Kansas's Wings N Wetlands Birding Festival; when that was cancelled because of the drought, I still got to go and was taken around to great places by Curtis Wolf and Robert Penner. I spent a couple of weeks in Delaware, being escorted to splendid birding spots by Debra Chiczewski. To see a Bicknell's Thrush, I went on the auto tour up Mount Washington, so I wouldn't enter and risk disturbing more pristine habitat. I heard and saw Kirtland's Warblers on my own, knowing how to find them without going off roads (they're loud singers!), but I also went on the public tour to support the best way for anyone to add this splendid bird to their lifelist.

Bicknell's Thrush
Bicknell's Thrush seen on the Mt. Washington Auto Road tour.
When I was headed to the Southwest, I learned that a Rufous-necked Wood-Rail had just been found at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, so I made that my first stop. Hundreds of birders descended on the refuge for that first U.S. record bird, and since the only vantage point to see it was from a specific boardwalk, birders gathered with lawn chairs and cold drinks for what felt more like a social event than a birding jaunt. It was wonderful fun, and most of us got to see a really cool bird, to boot.

Rufous-necked Wood-Rail
Rufous-necked Wood-Rail
So I do enjoy all kinds of birding experiences. But on my Big Year, I was very pleased to see every species of North American warbler entirely on my own at least once, except for the MacGillivray's Warbler that I only saw one time, with Eric Bowman in Yosemite. That one we both picked out simultaneously, so we both earned it. It was fun to see a Swainson's Warbler—a North American lifer—with Mia Revels, the researcher who is the expert on the Oklahoma population, as well as hearing them and getting one quick glimpse entirely on my own. Spending time with experts and local authorities provides a wealth of information impossible to get entirely on our own, and can be darned fun as well.

Swainson's Warbler
Swainson's Warbler found by Mia Revels in Oklahoma.
My friend Heidi Trudell told me exactly where to go to get my North American lifer Golden-cheeked Warbler at the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge. The birds were silent—I got there in late afternoon in mid-July—but it was thrilling to find them entirely on my own.

Golden-cheeked Warbler
Golden-cheeked Warbler in Balcones Canyonlands.
I sat on my good friend Susan Eaton's deck eating lunch while watching Eurasian Tree Sparrows in comfort at her feeders for my Big Year. So it's hardly that I object to easy birds or birding with pleasant company.

Eurasian Tree Sparrow
Eurasian Tree Sparrow in my friend Susan's backyard.
I enjoy being a participant on birding tours, too. They allow us to see more species than what we could find on our own in an unfamiliar area, plus we don't need to drive or figure out logistics—that's all taken care of. But except when I’ve birded outside of the country, I’ve virtually always birded a new area on my own before going out on an organized tour—it makes me appreciate the leader’s added knowledge and local experience more, even as I recognize many of the birds from having figured out their habits in that habitat on my own.

But I'm really too much of an introvert to enjoy large group birding too often. And there is no way on earth I'd be good at actually leading an organized tour. I forget about food and am perfectly content to sleep in my car when I'm having fun birding. You can't hear a Flammulated Owl calling all night long from even the finest motel, while I got to do just that when sleeping in my car in Water Canyon in New Mexico. Normal people expect meals and a bed to sleep in and have other needs I just don't want to deal with. And I'm completely out of my element at explaining what expenses and responsibilities other people should take care of themselves when birding with me, so I'm easily taken advantage of as well.

I read a lot of posts by birding guides on Facebook, and am always impressed by how they can go out, day after day, week after week, showing each individual of each group a huge number of birds. They earn their pay with their skills, ability to juggle logistics, and unflagging focus and ability to keep moving on to the next bird while ensuring their participants all have a satisfying experience. It was fun for me to get out for one weekend for the first time in years to show someone around the north woods. But the experience reminded me that at heart, I really am an introverted moseyer.

Recently I discovered that a few bird guides and photographers up here have been publicly ridiculing me, claiming that all my knowledge comes from reading about birds rather than going out and actually experiencing them. That's hurtful, of course, as well as patently false, but I don't even know how to begin to answer that kind of silliness. Fortunately, most of the birders up here, like everywhere else, don't need to cut down anyone else to carve their own place in the birding world. As Robert Frost might have put it, birders work together, I tell you from the heart, whether we bird together or apart.

I can’t wait to get my new puppy. I’ll take Pip everywhere birding with me. I may have named her for a character in Great Expectations, but the great thing about puppies is they don’t have any expectations. For her, our tracking down every pigeon and nuthatch will be an adventure, and when we don’t see the birds I want, she’ll be perfectly content with what we do find. That, for me, is what the funnest birding is all about.

Pip at four weeks
My future little birding companion, Pip

Friday, January 30, 2015

Birding in the Sax-Zim Bog

Great Gray Owl
Saving dessert till last!
On January 28, I went out to the Sax-Zim Bog with my friend Bruce Pomeroy. We both wanted to see some northern specialties for the new year, plus I was scouting out the area because I’ll be taking a friend from Florida there this weekend and want to find as many northern birds as I can for him. The temperature was mild—it stayed at exactly 27 degrees during the 5 hours we were there—but it was windy and murky all day. Except at or near the main bird feeding stations, we didn’t see all that many birds, but the ones we saw were wonderful and we had a splendid day.

Usually I drive into the bog via Highway 133—the road into Meadowlands—but you can’t drive very slowly because traffic is pretty steady. So this time I followed the winter driving tour route that my friend Ben Yokeldeveloped and posted on the Friends of Sax-Zim Bog website. That route brought me in via Lake Nichols Road, a mile or so north of Hwy. 133. Along that road we had a nice flock of Pine Grosbeaks and Purple Finches, and got into the spirit of winter bog birding.

Evening  Grosbeak and Purple Finch
Purple Finch and Evening Grosbeak
A few people who live in the bog have been maintaining splendid bird feeding stations open for public viewing, volunteers maintain a few roadside feeders, and there’s a fantastic station at the new Friends of the Sax-Zim Bog visitor center on Owl Avenue. Most of these are clearly marked on the map available for free at the visitor center. The feeding station there was the best we saw all day. We had at least 150 Common Redpolls and a pair of Gray Jays as well as the usual winter birds. We went inside to warm up and visit with Frank Nicoletti, who is the host on Tuesdays and Wednesdays through mid-March. Frank is a professional owl bander and bird guide, and is exceptionally generous with information, so he’s an amazing resource. Frank sat down with me and went over all the hotspots he’s been bringing people to this year. Since I’ve spent so little time in the bog in the past few years, his advice was especially welcome.


Common Redpoll
Common Redpoll
A few deer hunters donate rib cages to the Friends of the Sax-Zim Bog organization, and some of these were set up near the visitor center, to draw in special birds. Two Gray Jays spend a lot of time feeding on and even inside the ribcage closest to the windows. Some of the carcasses in the bog also have attracted ermines this year—these weasels in their pure white winter pelts are especially beautiful, but it takes patience and time to see and photograph one. I’m still waiting for that.

Looking out the windows from the center, we not only got great looks at those Gray Jays and Blue Jays, but also enjoyed a constant flurry of activity by redpolls at the feeders.
Evening Grosbeaks are far rarer than they were in the 1980s, but have been showing up in more places this winter than in the past few years. We didn’t get all the way to the area shown in the northwestern corner of the bog map, so missed what’s called “Mary Lou’s Feeders” which are supposed to be a grosbeak bonanza, but we’ll certainly get there this weekend.


In mid-afternoon, we headed down Admiral Road to check out the birds at the feeders along the road. It was quiet—I didn’t bring peanut butter, and the Boreal Chickadees and Gray Jays in the area only seem to come in for that—but our biggest treat of the entire day came on that stretch of road, even before we got to the feeders. A Great Gray Owl sat in a tree.

Great Gray Owl
Great Gray Owl

Three or four birders were photographing it when we got there, so we couldn’t have missed it, though it was sitting in some spruce branches at exactly the height I was searching trees as I drove, so we probably would have seen it even without them. The bird glanced our way a few times. A Great Gray’s glittering eyes make even the most casual glance seem far more intense and meaningful than it probably intends, and it was mostly looking this way and that, actively hunting. It moved down the road, and after a few final photos we left it to hunt in peace. Bog birding always provides a splendid feast, but the memories are somehow even more satisfying when we save the dessert for last.

Great Gray Owl
Final shot of Great Gray Owl

Thursday, January 29, 2015

New Year's Resolution: eBird!


Every year at the end of January I start considering whether I made the right New Year's resolution, and how well I’m sticking to it. Last year I decided that this would be the year I committed to using eBird—a wonderful program created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon designed to help birders keep their own personal records while sharing their data with scientists, conservationists, and the larger birding community.

Unlike other bird-listing programs, eBird is free, and anyone can access it to contribute their data online at eBird.org. Getting started on eBird is a little tricky, because for our data to be valuable, we have to keep track of a lot of details, including not just which species we saw on a particular day but how many individuals of each species we saw, and exactly where and when we saw them.

I’m nowhere near as disciplined at keeping a field notebook as I used to be, so it’s very hard to come home and remember all these details. Over the past couple of decades, when I'm out birding I've become more focused on fun interactions with birds, photographing them, explaining identification and behavior to field trip participants, and thinking about story ideas.  Fortunately, the eBird team developed a really slick app for iTunes and Android called BirdLog for adding our sightings as we go, using our phone’s GPS and clock. The North American edition is $9.99, and the edition covering the entire world is $19.99.

BirdLog is quick and easy to use, after a minor learning curve—the trick is getting into the habit of using it. I wanted to make every sighting of a bird this year 100 percent accounted for on eBird, so last fall I started, in a rather haphazard way, to start keeping a daily checklist of the birds I see out the window while I’m working at home, using the BirdLog app.

Hairy Woodpecker
A male Hairy Woodpecker

I am mostly staring at a computer all day, and so I hardly notice every bird in my yard, so my daily working-from-home checklists fall in the eBird category of “Incidental.” When I start in the morning, I note whatever birds are out there. If I start out with 8 redpolls and 3 siskins, I mark them in. Later I may see 5 redpolls and 9 siskins. I have no way of knowing whether these include the same birds from earlier, so I keep the redpoll total at 8, but now I know the smallest number of siskins I’ve seen is 9. When I spot a single Hairy or Downy Woodpecker, I record whether it’s a male or female. Later that day, if I see a bird of the opposite sex, I know I had at least 2. When I see 4 Purple Finches, all females, at one point, any males I notice later will add to the total. I keep the day's checklist open, and at the end of the day, I press enter. [**My friend Steve Holzman commented that I should be posting stationary-count checklists a few times per day rather than one incidental checklist per day, so already I've changed my method!]

Black-capped Chickadee
My little chickadee missing the front toes on his or her right foot.
The trickiest birds to count are of course chickadees. They come in one by one, grab a seed, and fly off to eat elsewhere, so we never have the whole flock in one spot to count easily. I must have at least two different winter flocks visiting my yard—I recognize one individual chickadee who is missing his or her front toes on one foot. When that bird's flock arrives, that individual chickadee alights on my window feeder and makes various calls to get my attention. When chickadees arrive and that bird isn’t with them, I know it’s a different flock. I may actually have two or more flocks that don’t include that individual—there’s no way of being absolutely certain—and once in a while I have so many chickadees at once that I figure I must have both flocks at the same time. My best guess is that the individual flocks have 7 or 8 members, so I usually estimate my chickadee total for the day at 15.

As we approach the end of January, I’ve only missed recording birds two days all month—both days when I was so busy that I hardly looked out a window at all. I am still working on my eBird skills out in the field. When I’m at the Sax-Zim Bog, for example, it’s far more valuable for researchers to know exactly where in the bog each bird was, so entering the data on separate checklists for each specific area is better than just entering one checklist for the whole bog. Thanks to the BirdLog app, keeping track of all that is much easier, as long as I stay reasonably focused.

I’m working on a couple of big projects right now, but when I have them out of the way, I’m going to start entering data from previous years. This data will be entered in eBird’s “historical” category. Back when we were living in Madison Wisconsin in the 1970s, I kept fairly good records, including the number of individuals of many species seen on many days—that data will provide valuable comparisons with numbers being seen nowadays.

It’ll take a long time to enter 40 years of bird sightings, but meanwhile, I now seem to be in the habit of entering my eBird data as I go. It's still going slower than it should, but my skills are steadily improving, and this year’s New Year’s resolution turned out to be easier than I expected.

Great Gray Owl
Great Gray Owl in the Sax-Zim Bog. I've seen lots of these over the years, but this is only the second one I've entered into eBird.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Driving slower is for the birds

Bald Eagle
Bald Eagles attracted to any form of roadkill are more vulnerable to being killed by cars, too.
When I was researching 101 Ways to Help Birds, I grew increasingly discouraged about the many, many ways our civilization harms birds. People have been abysmally slow to do anything about even the most obvious causes of avian mortality, such as how very many birds and other wildlife are killed in collisions with automobiles.

Young Tree Swallow killed by car on Goose Pond Road.

How many birds are killed on our highways each year? David Sibley, using fairly old figures from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, has an estimate on his webpage that cars may kill 60 million birds per year.  He notes, “Of over 8 million lane miles of roads in the US, 6.3 million, or over ¾, are in rural areas where most birds are presumably killed. So this is a significant problem.”

Cedar Waxwing killed by car on Goose Pond Road.

My daughter and her partner Michael got gruesome confirmation of the magnitude of the problem when they bicycled from San Diego to the Florida coast in 2008, photographing all the roadkill they came across. They wrote about it, and the photos are available at http://roadkill.michaelgeraci.com/.

In May 2014, researchers of an important study assessing the death toll published their findings in The Journal of Wildlife Management. They reviewed the literature and used 20 mortality rates they’d extracted from 13 studies to more accurately quantify the mortality. They determined that the estimated bird kill in car collisions is much higher than previously believed, with a lower limit of at least 89 million, and as many as 340 million birds per year.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

To me, it’s always been rather a no-brainer why birds get hit. No natural predators achieve the speeds that many autos do, at least not in most areas, and of course na├»ve birds would have no clue what cars even are. And whether it's the noise or sight of a car, the reactions of other birds, or simple random chance that makes a bird fly off in time to avoid a collision, it isn’t necessarily a learning experience in and of itself that can easily be generalized.

It’s not as if birds are the only wildlife that are killed by cars. Intelligent mammals, including mountain lions and foxes, are also killed by moving vehicles, as indeed are humans—and we’re the ones who from infancy experience and learn to understand cars.

Scientists have been trying to work out the exact reasons why birds so often are killed in collisions with cars and airplanes. In one study for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds released in December 2014, scientists set up Brown-headed Cowbirds in a virtual reality set-up, with a projected virtual car approaching at various speeds. They found that avoidance behaviors of the cowbirds were based on the birds’ distance from an object rather than its speed, so as the speed increased, the birds didn’t initiate flight soon enough and would have collided had the vehicles been real rather than virtual.

Yellow-throated Vireo

A somewhat similar study published in PLOS ONE in February 2014  used Turkey Vultures lured to roadsides with bait carcasses and real vehicles to establish that the birds flew off fairly easily in response to approaching vehicles going 37 miles per hour or slower, but when vehicles approached at 55 mph, the vultures didn’t take off in time 17 percent of the time.



One thing that does affect how quickly birds react to a vehicle is the speed limit on that stretch of road. A 2013 study conducted in France found that birds do adapt somewhat—the higher the speed limit, the sooner they take flight as a car approaches.  Even here, the birds may not be directly responding to a particular car’s speed, but to their distance from the car, or their “Flight Initiation Distance.”

On his webpage, David Sibley writes, “There’s not much we can do about this source of bird mortality short of changing our driving habits, but landscaping the roadside to discourage birds from congregating there is helpful.” But his “short of changing our driving habits” is the operative phrase. One of the simplest yet most effective ways we can help birds is to drive at the slowest speed that is safe, courteous, and convenient. That little change both gives birds and other animals more of a chance to react and gives us more of a chance to adjust our driving to safely accommodate them. Slowing down also significantly improves our fuel efficiency, saving us money, reducing emissions, and conserving natural resources. When everyone slows down, it’s also safer for people, so it’s win-win on every front except for alleviating that infernal need to speed that every element of our modern world fosters.

Good mileage day
My Prius gets its best mileage when I can drive 42 mph on country roads. Unfortunately, that's neither safe nor courteous on stretches where other cars are going faster.
Right now, as Wisconsin debates raising its highway speed limit to 70, I fervently wish our country had the same sense of urgency to conserve natural resources—for environmental, economic, and national security reasons—that Congress and President Nixon did with the 1974 Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act that prohibited speed limits higher than 55 miles per hour. David Sibley may be right that the American people will never be willing to change our driving habits, no matter how compelling the reasons. But I can only speak for myself—and that is why I always try to drive at the slowest speed that is safe, courteous, and convenient. It’s the right thing to do.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Western Scrub-Jay Funerals

Western Scrub-Jay
Western Scrub-Jay
Back in 2012, a paper in the journal Animal Behavior presented a study about Western Scrub-Jays titled “Western scrub-jay funerals: cacophonous aggregations in response to dead conspecifics.” Researchers placed several objects, including pieces of wood, stuffed scrub jays, stuffed Great Horned Owls, and dead scrub jay carcasses, into people’s backyards to observe how the neighborhood scrub jays responded. Jays are naturally curious, and they discovered and inspected all the objects, though spent very little time checking out the wood. 

Dead scrub jays that had been stuffed and mounted in life-like poses elicited aggression. I’ve often noticed that sociable birds seem more distressed and aggressive toward a bird of their own species when that bird looks or acts different from the others. When I rehabbed, I could never let an injured crow out in my yard, because neighborhood crows would attack it. Intriguingly, many published observations as well as my own find that when a crow is injured or has a physical deformity, its family and neighborhood flock mates do not attack it, but often actually provide help, bringing it food and protecting it from nearby predators. But the combination of being a stranger and acting odd elicits aggression in crows, much as many of our own species have trouble dealing with people who look or act different from them. Something that looks like a perfectly normal jay but doesn’t move or react to others would seem pretty odd to jays who have never experienced such a thing before.

Great Horned Owl
Great Horned Owl
A stuffed and mounted Great Horned Owl elicited “hundreds of long-range communication vocalizations.” Squawking to beat the band calls in squads of other scrub jays, as the birds alert one another to the danger and work together to drive the predator away. Intriguingly, the researchers found that a prostrate dead jay also got a similar response, both in the high number of calls and in drawing in other scrub jays from afar. I noticed something similar with Blue Jays, back in the days when I was an occasional counter at Hawk Ridge. If a hawk nailed a Blue Jay out of a flock of migrants, the whole group remained in the area, often for 45 minutes or longer, yelling their heads off in what I called an Irish wake.

Both the mounted owl and the dead scrub jay caused the other scrub jays to decrease their foraging for food in the area for over 24 hours. The authors concluded in their abstract, “Our results show that without witnessing the struggle and manner of death, the sight of a dead conspecific is used as public information and that this information is actively shared with conspecifics and used to reduce exposure to risk.”

For some reason, a story about that research paper went around on Facebook last week as if it were new information, and several birders quickly started criticizing the authors’ use of the word “funeral.” That and my own use of “Irish wake” naturally smack of anthropomorphism. 

We humans can’t help but compare animal behaviors to our own. It is completely unscientific to draw a conclusion that animals grieve the loss of individuals or recognize death in the same way we humans do, but it’s equally unscientific to state that they don’t. In the study, those Western Scrub-Jays were hardly grieving the loss of one of their own—the authors didn’t kill a local jay for their dead specimen, so of course the jay wasn’t recognized as a particular individual, and the jays’ reactions almost certainly couldn't be called grief. But the ways we humans announce and gather after the deaths of our own conspecifics suggest that our funerals may serve the same purpose as the gatherings of those scrub-jays. We can’t yell as loud as they, but we ring the alarm far and wide in the obituary pages of our newspapers and on the news. Our own funerals involve family and close friends grieving for the loss of someone they love, but also include the wider community, many who are not grieving at all. If you listen in on conversations at any wake or funeral, you’ll hear people, including genuinely grieving loved ones, talking about the cause of death in ways that suggest we’re all using that information in hopes of forestalling our own deaths, just as the scrub-jays of the study apparently did. Some people pooh-pooh the idea that animals are capable of understanding death or envisioning their own. But we have plenty of evidence that a lot of humans, and not just reckless teenagers, can’t envision our own mortality or wrap our own heads around the concept of death, either.

Lots of data affirm that some species of birds and mammals suffer physiological stress after the death of a mate or young similar to the physiological stress of grieving humans. It’s fun to think we’re superior to animals and capable of deeper love than they, but considering the high murder and divorce rates between family members in our own species, that superiority is pretty questionable. Every species reacts to different things in different ways—including us—but we share a lot of common ground. Dismissing the term “funeral” for the scrub jays in this study seems to deny that truth. If we ever came upon intelligent life forms in outer space, there is no way we could hope to communicate with them until we figure out how to better understand and communicate with the intelligent life forms right here on earth.

Western Scrub-Jay

Friday, January 16, 2015

Wild Gull Chase: No Show

My trusty Golden Guide, which made me lust to see an Ivory Gull.
On Friday, January 2, there was a post on the ABA Rare Bird Alert on Facebook that an adult Ivory Gull had been seen down in Quincy, Illinois, over 650 miles away. I had just had some basal cell carcinomas removed from my face and plastic surgery to close the wounds a few days before, and couldn’t go anywhere while the stitches were still in, and then wasn’t supposed to be spending time in the cold or sun for a few weeks. I consoled myself with the thought that it probably would have moved on by the next day anyway. But it didn’t. Hour after hour throughout the weekend, and then every day the following week, people added photos and jubilant posts to the rare bird alert. By Friday the ninth, my frustration level was at the boiling point.

Only two weeks earlier I’d chosen not to drive a mere 50 miles from New York City to see two potential lifers—Pink-footed and Barnacle Geese—and didn't feel the least bit cranky or deprived about them. What was the difference? 

I’d been fixated on the Ivory Gull since first looking through my field guides in 1974. The pristine whiteness of the plumage, contrasting beautifully with the black legs and feet, the dark eye ringed with red in breeding plumage, and the improbably yellow-tipped beak were cosmically appealing to my eyes. Most of these birds never move south of the Arctic Circle, yet one or two individuals may wander south to show up in the US like unexpected grace notes. Their mysterious habits and allure somehow filled me with a deep longing from the time I started birding. Seeing an Ivory Gull would be far, far from a mere entry on my lifelist. It would be experiencing genuine magic. And throughout the week, as I read Facebook posts by more and more people experiencing that magic, I was feeling increasingly trapped and frustrated.

Then on Friday afternoon, one of my birding acquaintances from the Twin Cities, Tony Lau, posted on the Minnesota birding page that he was interested in driving down to Quincy at about 5 o’clock the next morning, and wondered if anyone wanted to carpool. He was hoping to make the trip in one day. Even as I impulsively emailed him right back, my brain was calculating the 155 miles in my car to Otsego—I’d have to leave by 2:30 to get to his place in time for us to start out on the 532 mile trip to Quincy. Tony’s round trip would be 1064 miles—a long day not even counting birding time. And my trip would be 1374 miles. The longest “chase” I’ve ever made for a single rare bird before this was to East Grand Forks in 1988 to see a Brambling that had turned up at a feeder—that trip was about 265 miles each way, with four of us carpooling. I’d not have driven to Quincy, Illinois, to see a Brambling. But this—this was an Ivory Gull.

I have a personal rule about chasing rare birds—I hardly ever do it at all, but when I do, I need to be sure the experience of traveling and looking for the bird will be reasonably satisfying even if I don’t see it. It’s always a crapshoot—if you absolutely must see a particular bird, you’re wisest visiting a zoo or museum. The hope of seeing a new bird provides the motivation to get going, but if that hope morphs into need or expectation, you’re doomed. The delight of finding it is lost when you expect it, and the disappointment if you miss it is worse. Some birders do have a sense of entitlement about seeing every good bird, but most of us accept the risks of chasing like any good poker player. And if you like seeing all the other birds along the way, you win either way.

From the start, this particular chase looked like a good idea. Tony’s a nice guy, so I knew I’d be in good company, and since it was only the second week in January, I knew I’d be seeing plenty of new birds for my 2015 list, including some I’d not likely see for months in northern Minnesota. Because we came up with this plan late Friday afternoon, I didn’t have time to think much about it before heading to bed early, my alarm clock set for 2 am.
My drive to the Cities in the dark was uneventful, and utterly devoid of birdlife. When Tony and I got on the road just after 5, it was still too dark to see any birds until we’d reached the Iowa border. We saw a flock of Snow Buntings mixed with other birds—either longspurs or larks, but I didn’t get a long enough look to be sure. We saw lots and lots of Bald Eagles, and our first American Kestrel, too—we added another in Missouri. I was trying not to jinx us by checking Facebook on my phone, but when I finally checked the postings at mid-morning, the news wasn’t good—no one had found it yet, though at least 200 birders from all over the country were searching.

Eurasian Tree Sparrow
My first Illinois Eurasian Tree Sparrow!
We made it to Quincy around noon, and birded every spot we’d read about, checking Facebook every few minutes to see if anyone else had found it. At one spot by a marina on a small island where people were staring out so hopefully, we took a short walk to a brushy area where we saw White-throated, Fox, and Song Sparrows, along with several unexpected Eurasian Tree Sparrows. I was thrilled—that was the first time I'd ever seen them in Illinois. We kept scanning every gull, and going back to good spots, and checking Facebook in case anyone else had seen it, but no luck. Birders had seen the last of the Quincy, Illinois, Ivory Gull the day before. We had dinner before we cut out, and drove and drove and drove back to Tony’s place, getting there just after 2 am. I slept on his sofa and drove the rest of the way home Sunday morning, adding a pheasant and a couple of Rough-legged Hawks to my year list on the drive. 

In one day I’d more than doubled my 2015 list, added Eurasian Tree Sparrow to my Illinois list, and spent several hours in exactly the places where for over a week an Ivory Gull had flown and rested and fed. During those few hours, I may have been breathing in molecules of air that that Ivory Gull had breathed out. If I’m lucky, some day I’ll have another chance to chase another Ivory Gull. But I’m sure glad I at least tried to see this one.