Archive for February, 2009

How hummingbirds
It’s all in the tail
Patricia Yollin, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, February 8, 2008

Christopher Clark went to Strawberry Canyon in Berkeley and got a bad case of poison oak. Then he tried a shoreline park in Albany, where his camera was stolen and sopping-wet dogs covered his field notes with muddy paw prints.
Those […]

Read Full Post »



174 N. 600 W.

Valparaiso, IN 46385-9233



For reservations


Read Full Post »

Ice, Snow, & Critters, Oh My!

Hi everyone,

Can you believe it’s February already? Winter began right on schedule and we haven’t seen bare ground since the snow began to fall. It’s been a very cold winter here, but maybe not as humid because I don’t seem to be feeling it as much as I normally do.

We’ve had some good sized snow storms and a couple of ice storms, as well. With the cold temperatures, the ice stayed on the trees for quite some time, keeping many of the branches at critical breaking stage.

This week, it has warmed some. The icicles are gone and some of the snow has melted.

The groundhog predicted another six weeks of winter. I expect an early spring. I’ve noticed some of the branches around here are looking a little reddish, and this weekend I spotted a weeping willow tree that was looking very yellow. A sure sign that the trees know that something is up!

Another indicator is the picture above. We have a very fat mama squirrel preparing a nest. This will be the fourth generation since I began observing this family of squirrels. With such an early start, I wouldn’t be surprised if we enjoy a second nesting in the autumn.

(You can click on the pictures to see them larger.)This is one of the babies we watched last autumn. Still that cute little turned up nose! I’m constantly grateful that we saved some of the tree during last year’s cutting of the tree. It may look unsightly, but it gives me endless hours of pleasure to watch these cute little critters.


Scratch, scratch
Another squirrel looks at me through the window, while I am watching the Mama work on her nest

A first time visitor to my garden. A Red-Shouldered Hawk. We have seen Red-Tailed Hawks, Merlins, Sharp-Shinned, and Cooper’s Hawks, but never a Red-Shouldered in the yard. They really don’t belong here at this time of year, but there it was, big as life!

Another even more surprising visitor – HOLY SMOKES! Is that really a Great Blue Heron down in the gorge behind my house? Yes, it really was. Not the best picture in the world, but I’ll take it! If you could see the terrain behind my house, you would be amazed that this bird was down there. It was snowing that day, so the picture is a little “murky”. The bird slid down a hill, balancing itself with its beautiful large wings, and then waded in the brook, coming close to my house, and eventually, it flew off, with a whoosh of its wings. I don’t think there are fish in the brook, but I remember the kids next door catching crawfish there.

We actually had another “first” this week, too. I have waited since 1997 to see a deer in my yard. Finally, yesterday, I saw tracks and scat, so we did have a visitor. Leave it to me to miss the deer, but catch the poop! 😉

Last weekend, I decided to try and walk on one of my favorite trails. As luck would have it, cross-country skiers had opened a nice path to walk on. The light was beautiful, casting some great shadows on the forest floor.

A little chickadee walked on the snow in front of me
And more chickadees were in the trees alongside the trail
More light and shadows

On a recent drive on a road nearby, I passed by a farm and of course had to stop for my favorite scene. 🙂

Digging in the snow. “I know that there are sunflower seeds down there SOMEWHERE!”
Tracks in the snow.

The light was a little better in this direction

Ice encrusted branches after an ice storm
Taken with flash, this one shows the ice better
A typical winter scene while on the road – no, I wasn’t driving, but you never know with me. I’ve been known to put the camera on the steering wheel. 😉

Sunset  near the Inn

A little friend watching me

Dawn outside my window

Shadows on the snow

And that’s about all I have for now. Just a combination of pictures taken over the past month.

To those who have enquired, Mom is doing better. Thank you for asking. Her health has improved somewhat. She is no longer bleeding internally, but she is still unable to walk on her own. It is looking like she may have to stay at the nursing home. I am not qualified to take care of her in the way she needs, so the options are limited. It still means hours of driving each week to visit her and do errands for her.

I hope all of you are well. I am healthy, but a little burned out, so I’m just doing what needs to be done and taking one day at a time.

Take care and I’ll see you when I can.
Big hugs to all of you.

Hybrid Mallard

Hybrid Mallard


Snowy Egret

Snowy Egret


Canada Goose Family

Canada Goose Family



American Goldfinch

American Goldfinch

Snowy Egret

Snowy Egret




Yellow Swamp Iris

Yellow Swamp Iris

Read Full Post »

How Many Birds Are in Your Backyard?


It’s the weekend of the Great Backyard Bird Count – four days dedicated to counting as many birds as you can in your backyard. Enter your counts on our simple, free online forms, and you’ll be helping Audubon and Lab scientists see an up-to-the-minute picture of wintering bird ranges. And collecting this kind of data year after year is key to tracking long-term changes in bird numbers and distribution. It’s a great way to share in the scientific process.

Lab writer Pat Leonard sent out an e-mail with more information about the event. In case you didn’t get it, have a look at what she has to say here. Then grab your binoculars – we’ll see you at your feeders!

plWe just want to remind you that the 12th annual Great Backyard Bird Count starts Friday and runs through Monday the 16th. As you know, both the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society host this event, which has broken participation records for each of the past several years. We hope to do it again!

In 2008 we took in more than 85,700 bird checklists–compare that to the 11,700 collected in the first year of the GBBC back in 1989. The explosion in Internet use is one big reason for that growth and we’d like to harness its viral nature.

We hope you’ll forward this message to all your friends and family asking them to pass it on–who knows how many people we can reach?!

There are other great reasons for participating, in addition to the information gathered for science about the distribution of birds at this time of year:

  • We take in thousands of images each year for the photo contest and post hundreds of them in the photo gallery–these are really beautiful.
  • For the young birders, we have a kid’s page with games and quizzes to try.
  • Read the GBBC blog and leave a comment
  • Each participant is eligible to win great prizes donated by Audubon, the Lab, Wild Birds Unlimited, and Droll Yankees. (Sorry, staff is not eligible, but your friends are!)
  • You can explore sightings being reported from your state, province, or all over the continent as they come pouring in.

There seems to be quite a buzz going this year about the GBBC. The list of local GBBC events being held at parks, nature centers, zoos, aquariums, refuges and other locations is amazing–the most we’ve ever posted on the web site!

As of this morning, a Google blog search finds 22,606 hits for Great Backyard Bird Count. Here are links to just a few of them:

Birds in Your Backyard

Birding Maine

Green Daily

Birds O’ the Morning

Audubon’s Steve Kress also appeared on the Martha Stewart Show February 6 to talk about bird feeders and gave the GBBC a big plug as well. You can watch the segment here.

So it feels like something big is building and we hope you will not only help spread the word but take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count yourself! Visit www.birdcount.org.

Thank you for all you do for the birds each and every day,

The Great Backyard Bird Count team

UPDATE: As of 3:00 Friday afternoon, we’ve already had more than 1,800 checklists filed! Our combined species tally is 314, and people across the continent have counted a total of 126,343 backyard birds so far! Follow the progress all weekend here.

Go here to sign up for e-newsletters that will keep you up to date on Lab-related events and happenings.

(Image: Eastern Bluebirds by GBBC contributor Frank Ripp of Whispering Pines, North Carolina. Enter your pictures from this weekend in our photo contest.)

40-Year Study Shows Birds Feeling Climate Change Effects


Perhaps you’ve already heard news of a National Audubon Society report about climate change’s effects on North American birds. Audubon announced on Tuesday that some 177 species of North American birds have shifted their range northward over the last 40 years, during the same period that average January temperatures rose by 5 degrees Fahrenheit across the continent.

The Audubon scientists found the pattern in data collected by volunteer birders on yearly Christmas Bird Counts. The consistent northward shift in so many different species – among them forest birds, feeder birds, ducks, and seabirds – points to a single, powerful cause: our warming planet.

Audubon describes their findings as part of the “grim reality” of global climate change, pointing out that more local or species-specific explanations simply wouldn’t be evident in so many species or so much of the continent. But the really frightening part is that this evidence is nowhere near the first of its kind.

Back in 2002,  an article in the premier journal Nature began bluntly: “There is now ample evidence of recent climate change, from polar terrestrial to tropical marine environments.” It went on to warn that “although we are only at an early stage in the projected trends of global warming, ecological responses to recent climate change are already clearly visible.”

What kinds of changes? The authors offered a sampling: Earlier leaf-out and flowering of plants across Europe and North America, frogs breeding earlier in England, migrant birds breeding earlier in Europe and North America, northward shifts in the ranges of northern plants, treelines moving higher up mountains in Europe and New Zealand, red foxes moving north and replacing arctic foxes in parts of Canada, lowland birds moving to higher elevations in Costa Rica, northward shifts by 39 American and European butterfly species, and the appearance of warm-water species in the cold waters of California and the North Atlantic.

And that was 2002. In 2007, results very similar to the Audubon study were reported in the journals Conservation Biology and Ecology (one for birds’ summer ranges, using the Breeding Bird Survey; the other for winter ranges, from Christmas Bird Counts). And if you don’t happen to have those journals on your coffee table, you can read climate change summaries in special online reports from the World Wildlife Fund and the American Bird Conservancy.

Does all this prior evidence diminish the Audubon report at all? Of course not – but it should draw our attention back over to the 7 billion ton gorilla in the room. Seven billion tons is how much carbon we as a species are pulling out of the ground every year and putting up into the sky. It’s hard to imagine an invisible gas like carbon dioxide weighing anything, but that’s roughly like digging a three-foot-deep hole the size of Vermont and transferring all that dirt into the air. Every year.

Even as scientists toil over ever more convincing examples of climate change’s effects, we as a global society have yet to get started on changing the bad habits at the root of the problem. Climate change will continue to worsen as long as we are putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (actually, it will worsen for several decades after we stop.) The numbers are so large that it’s easy to feel swamped, but Audubon has some great suggestions for how you can help. (Number one is to support the transition to clean energy – a move that could just save our economy, too.)

But back to bird watching. If there’s anything to feel good about from this new report, it’s a reminder that your efforts as bird watchers really do count for something – particularly if you make your sightings part of a collective effort to gather data in projects like the Christmas Bird Count and the Breeding Bird Survey.

Here at the Lab of Ornithology, we specialize in the field of citizen science. We encourage you to join one of our projects – you’re sure to find one that matches your ability and interest level. Choose from projects like the once-a-year Great Backyard Bird Count (happening this weekend!), May’s International Migratory Bird Day, the all-winter-long Project FeederWatch, summer’s Project NestWatch, Celebrate Urban Birds! for the city-bound, or the 24-hour-a-day eBird project, which gathers several million bird observations each year, no matter what time or season you’re out bird watching.

The world is changing, and it’s up to bird watchers and naturalists to notice. Keep up the good work.

(Thanks to Lab scientists Wes Hochachka, Kevin McGowan, and Ben Zuckerberg for advice about this topic. Image: Purple Finch by Project FeederWatch participant Gord Belyea)

Health Update: Peanuts, Salmonella, and Backyard Birds


Bird watchers across the country are concerned about the recent outbreak of Salmonella from contaminated peanut products, and we’re getting several calls and e-mails per day asking us what it means for the birds at your backyard suet and peanut feeders.

Birdchick has already begun an investigation of her own by asking suet manufacturers how safe their products are. But one of the first things she discovered was that the manufacturers themselves aren’t sure – a consequence of how deeply buried in the supply chain the outbreak is. (Update: see more of Birdchick’s findings in her latest post. Update #2, Feb 18, 2009: Birdchick reports on suet recall by Scott’s. Read the recall press release.)

So I consulted the Centers for Disease Control and Food and Drug Administration websites, and talked to a few of the Lab’s Project FeederWatch folks to give you a brief synopsis of the outbreak, offer a few basic tips to go by, and point you toward more information. Here’s what I learned:

Salmonella is a virulent disease that can afflict humans, their pets, and wild birds. Between September 2008 and January 2009, a total of 529 people in 43 states became sick because of contaminated peanut products (plus one person in Canada). So far, 116 have been hospitalized and the disease may have contributed to eight deaths, according to the CDC.

The outbreak stems from a single peanut processing company. It’s the Peanut Corporation of America, located in Blakely, Georgia. Many kinds of peanut products may be contaminated, including whole, chopped, and ground-up peanuts in addition to peanut butter. The Peanut Corporation of America supplies peanuts to many food manufacturers across the country. More than 180 brands of food may be contaminated, including items you buy at the store and dishes you order in a restaurant.

Between 2007 and 2009, the Peanut Corporation of America went ahead with several shipments of peanut products after they had tested positive for salmonella. Many products made between January 1, 2007 and the present have been recalled. Here’s a list of items that have been recalled, searchable by brand name.

Peanut butter from major manufacturers is safe. Major supermarket brands of peanut butter are safe to eat, according to the CDC. That’s because those large brands process their own peanuts, whereas other food manufacturers buy their peanuts or peanut products from a supplier.

It will be difficult to be completely sure whether purchased peanut-containing suet or seed mix is safe. The list of recalled products includes some pet foods. Unfortunately, products intended for feeding wild birds are tracked and regulated separately from human and pet foods. Without knowing in detail where a bird food manufacturer purchased its peanuts or peanut butter, there’s no way to be sure it didn’t come from a tainted source.

Keep your feeders – and your hands – clean and healthy. It’s good practice to clean your bird feeders periodically, anyway. Lots of birds perch on your bird feeders, so they’re like doorknobs during a flu outbreak. Wash your feeders with a 10% bleach solution to kill any bacteria that may be present (that’s a cup and a half of bleach mixed into a gallon of water). After handling your feeders, scrub your hands with soap and water to keep from transferring any bacteria.

Here’s Project FeederWatch leader David Bonter with advice in a bit more detail:

Salmonellosis is caused by a bacteria belonging to the genus Salmonella. It is a common cause of mortality in feeder birds, particularly siskins, goldfinches, and redpolls, but the symptoms are not always obvious. A sick bird may appear thin, fluffed up, and may have fecal material on its vent and swollen eyelids. Infected birds are often lethargic and easy to approach. Some infected birds may show no outward symptoms, but are carriers of the disease and can spread the infection to other birds.

Salmonellosis is primarily transmitted [from bird to bird] through fecal contamination of food and water. It may also be transmitted through bird-to-bird contact. Occasionally, outbreaks of the disease cause significant mortality in certain species.

Disease transmission can be reduced by 1) cleaning areas that are contaminated with the bacteria, and 2) discouraging large flocks of birds from gathering in one location.  With respect to bird feeding, we recommend the following if you live in an area experiencing a salmonellosis outbreak:

– Clean your feeders and birdbaths with water and a 10 percent bleach solution to kill the bacteria.
– Clean your bird feeding area by washing all structures holding your feeders and raking the ground surrounding the feeders.
– Do not reinstall your feeders for a few weeks (or until sick birds are no longer being reported in your area).

If you do continue to feed birds:
– Place your feeders in new locations around your yard.
– Vary your feeding locations so that birds do not concentrate in one location.
– Remove feeders that allow contact between fecal material and food (such as platform feeders).
– Clean your feeders with a bleach solution several times a week.  Be sure that feeders are dry before filling them with seed.

The Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration have much more information about salmonella. See a summary of the outbreak, the FDA’s searchable list of recalled foods, and the CDC’s background information on salmonella and its effects. There’s also a CDC podcast that explains the situation for kids, and a video on peanut do’s and don’ts from the FDA.

The bottom line: the chance of you – or the birds in your backyard – becoming sick from tainted peanut products is small, but real. It is definitely not safe to feed birds any of the human foods included in the CDC’s recall – you should throw those products away without opening them. And it’s always a good policy to keep your bird feeders clean, and to stay on the lookout for sick birds around your backyard.

Birdshare Wish List Part Two


While I was busy last week working on the new All About Birds species profiles, the Birdshare crowd got down to brass tacks with part one of our photo wish list. The response was wonderful – our photo holdings for each of the 10 species we asked for doubled, tripled, quadrupled, or better! We started the week with zero California Towhee photos and ended with more than a dozen. Your contributions will make our new species accounts come alive with detailed photos.

I was glad to see more representation for some common, if not exactly beloved species: We had only three European Starling photos before we put them on our wish list, and now we have 30. I, for one, am glad to see them. I know starlings are unpopular birds. They’re not native, they clutter up the skies, and they chase bluebirds and Tree Swallows out of their nest boxes. So yes, they could work on their social skills. But don’t we all have at least one friend who’s a little like that? Take a look at a starling up close – or listen to them chattering from a telephone pole – and there’s plenty to admire (for examples, see photos by Birdsharers JoanGeeAZ and Sam Wilson, among others).

So I scanned down our list to see what other species our Birdshare archive is weak on. Topping the list is Brewer’s Blackbird, itself no slouch when it comes to prettying up a sidewalk. A few other surprisingly common birds made the list, too, like Hairy Woodpecker and Chipping Sparrow. I kept Rock Pigeon on the list for a second week because, despite last week’s appeal, we still have only 11 photos – of what has to be the easiest-to-photograph bird in the nation.

We’d love some photos of the heroic little Rufous Hummingbird – a unanimous choice over Black-chinned Hummingbird during a recent discussion on our Twitter feed. We’ve even got a supervillain for you: Brown-headed Cowbird. Anyone have any good shots?

Birdshare Wish List (Part Two)

Brewer’s Blackbird
Eastern Towhee
Hairy Woodpecker
Brown-headed Cowbird
Chipping Sparrow
California Quail
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Rufous Hummingbird
Common Raven
Rock Pigeon

Thanks once more to all 401 of you Birdsharers out there. See you next week!

Don’t know what Birdshare is? Read a description here – then grab your camera and head on over!

Image: My personal best when it comes to Brewer’s Blackbird wildlife photos. Can you help?

Calling Birdsharers: We’ve Got a Wish List (Part One)

mountain_chickadee1Since we started Birdshare in late July it’s taken on a life of its own. We now have nearly 350 members and more than 4,300 photos, with more streaming in every day.

Birdshare members sometimes ask if we’re looking for any species in particular. And now, as we start to put together new species account pages for All About Birds, that answer is an emphatic (and grateful) yes – see our Top 10 Most Wanted list below.

Our new wireframe design calls for a much greater emphasis on photographs than the current All About Birds species guide. Having more and better photographs means you’ll be better able to identify birds and compare different plumages. The only catch, of course, is that means we need lots of pictures.

So I’ve checked Birdshare to see how many photos we have of the birds on my species account to-do list, which is made up of 100 of the most common birds across the country. The results are pretty encouraging – 93 Red-tailed Hawk photos and counting, 64 cardinal shots, and a dozen more common species represented in 40 or more photos – nice work, Birdsharers!

Our list does have some surprising gaps, though – so please check your photo archives for any of these species:

Top Ten Most Wanted Birds on Birdshare:

1. California Towhee
2. Mountain Chickadee
3. European Starling
4. Common Grackle
5. Rock Pigeon
6. Chestnut-backed Chickadee
7. Gray Catbird
8. Spotted Towhee
9. Purple Finch
10. House Wren

This is just Part One of our Most Wanted List – we’ll roll out the next installment in a week or so. As always, thanks for Birdsharing, and enjoy your photography! The rest of us certainly do.

(Don’t know what Birdshare is? Read a description here – then grab your camera and head on over! Image: Mountain Chickadee by Robinsegg.)

Autumn Living Bird Now Online!


If you’re looking for a good read, head over to livingbird.org, where you can now read the entire Autumn issue of Living Bird magazine for free. In this issue we take you to central Florida’s gnarled scrublands, where genetic analyses have recently revealed just how tenaciously the Florida Scrub-Jay inhabits its diminishing habitat.

Tour the vast Tejon Ranch wilderness, where a landmark conservation deal has set aside some 400 square miles of pristine Southern California landscape containing Spotted Owls and California Condors. And follow Marie Read’s heartfelt remembrance of the gifted wildlife photographer Tom Vezo, who passed away suddenly in 2008, leaving a life’s work packed with photographs both breathtaking and serene.

Mel White suggests the days of endless gas-fueled road trips may be drawing to a close, and Jack Connor pauses to appreciate the way birding plugs us in to rhythms that city-bound members of society often miss. We’ve also got reviews of books, DVDs, and a great little birding spot nestled in bustling South Florida. Pete Dunne notices a subtle change in birding’s public image, and artist John Schmitt catches some California Thrashers having a territory dispute.

Lab members should be receiving their Winter 2009 copies of Living Bird any day now. I’ve said it before, but I’ll just mention again for new readers how important – and easy – it is to join the Lab. We’re a nonprofit organization that’s financially independent from Cornell University. Memberships, along with research grants and donations, form a major part of the funding that we depend upon to keep going. Thanks to everyone who supports us – and enjoy the new issue.

(Image: Tim Gallagher)

Sneak Peek: New All About Birds “Wireframes”

Click for full-size view of entire wireframe

Click for full-size view of entire wireframe

Happy 2009! Here at Sapsucker Woods, we’re starting the new year deep in thought about our redesigned All About Birds website, set to debut in the spring. Here’s a little something called a “wireframe” to give you an idea of what we’re cooking. We’d love to know what you think.

For anyone not fluent in web lingo, a wireframe is a schematic of a page that’s used to focus on organization and layout, before we spend time designing pleasing colors, graphics, and fonts. (It’s sort of the same idea as drawing up a dinner party seating chart before choosing details like tablecloths, flower arrangements, and flatware.)

So, bear in mind that the final product will look a bit nicer than this wireframe. A few examples:

  • we will be using more colors than just gray
  • we will be using more fonts than just Myriad Pro
  • the blank “placeholder” boxes will contain pretty graphics (including Birdshare photos)
  • the buttons and tabs will actually work

The wireframe we’re showing you here is one page in the All About Birds online bird guide, which is redesign priority No. 1. These species profiles get a huge portion of our site’s traffic, so we know it’s critical we get them right. We want to make them more comprehensive, use more pictures, sound, and video, and give you more help in identifying and learning about the species.

Now, here’s lead web designer Alex to walk you through some of the features of the wireframe:

acThe first thing you’ll notice is that we’re adding an identification section to help you figure out if you’re looking at the right bird. We’re taking a slightly different approach from a typical field guide that focuses on field marks straightaway. We start by briefly covering four keys of identification – size/shape, color, behavior, and habitat – to help you make sure you’re in the right ballpark. Then when you look at field marks they serve as a way to fine tune your identification.

We’ll also provide photos of similar species so you may compare them against the species you’re currently looking at. The working version of the page will let you click on the photos to zoom in to a larger version and then flip through other photos. Clicking on a similar-species photo will place enlarged versions of the primary species and similar-species photos side by side for easier comparison.

The “Life History,” “Sounds,” and “Video” tabs above the ID section will display cool facts, species details, and multimedia players for you to learn more about the species. We’re finishing up those wireframes, too, but we haven’t posted them yet for fear of overwhelming you.

Please have a look at the large version and let us know if we’ve got it, what might be missing, and any other thoughts you may have. If you’d like to see wireframes for the rest of the species account tabs, just let us know and we’ll post them. Have fun!

The Ones that Got Away


In Nate Senner’s last post about his work with Hudsonian Godwits in Chile, he winds up with an unexpected problem that came disguised as a stroke of good luck. Read on to hear him explain how he and the shorebird research team solved it.

nate_sennerSometimes there are just too many birds

Can you have too much of a good thing?  When you’re banding birds you can.  I remember one cold morning in Denali National Park, Alaska. Unexpectedly, a huge push of migrating Wilson’s Warblers and Ruby-crowned Kinglets had come through, with seemingly dozens of birds in each net on every check. Since it was cold, we had to untangle the birds and get them banded as quickly as possible to ensure they didn’t lose too much weight or freeze to death.  So my two colleagues and I ran around and around our set of 12 nets like madmen (and women) the whole day.  By the time we closed our nets that afternoon we were all exhausted and wondering why we ever wished for days with lots of birds.

The same thing can happen in cannon netting.  Because our goal is to keep captured birds for as short a time as possible – hopefully never longer than a few hours – on some big catches we sometimes end up with so many birds that we have to immediately release some before we can even put a band on their legs. This is always heartbreaking, especially because the first thing they teach you in “How To Be a Scientist 101” is never to throw away data. Better safe than sorry though.

On our last day on Chiloé with a full crew, we had an even more unusual problem: we had so many birds that we couldn’t even catch them. That’s right, they were just sitting there, all in front of the net, but we couldn’t catch them.

We had decided to return to Bahía Pullao for one last shot at a “big catch.” We had caught about 50 birds there the day before, but we thought we could get many more if we moved the net to the edge of a tidal creek on the other side of the bay.

We set up there the next day and sure enough, as the tide began to rise, birds piled in front of our net. First 500, and then as the tide rose even higher, 800 birds – mostly godwits – nearly standing on top of each other, crammed in between the tide line and our net.  This was just too good to be true, we thought.

But then, before pulling the trigger, we thought a bit more. With the water just barely eight yards below our net, many birds would be pushed into the water as the net launched over them. And with so many birds, there was nowhere for the cannon projectiles to fall without harming some of the birds. All things considered, we felt there was too high a chance that birds would get injured. Very reluctantly, we decided to wait for the tide to crest and begin to recede, hopefully allowing the birds to spread back out a bit and giving us a more manageable catch.

The godwits had other ideas though. Shortly after high tide came and went, so did the godwits. In one mass they picked up and took off for other parts of the bay, leaving behind only a few stragglers aligned perfectly around the perimeter of the capture area.  No amount of twinkling or bobbing polystyrene foam could get those birds back into the catch area. Maybe God felt we had already caught enough birds. Maybe the godwits were just playing a joke on us. Whatever the reason, we could do nothing but dejectedly pack up the nets and head back to Castro, to be consoled by some seafood and a couple of bottles of wine.

The next day, Larry Niles and his crew flew back to the U.S., carrying their nets and cannons with them. The rest of us spread across the island, looking for some of our newly banded birds. My group found three in the northwest corner of the island at Bahía Quetalmahue, about 100 miles from where we had banded them. Jim Johnson of U.S. Fish and Wildlife and his crew stayed on in Castro for another week to check up on the birds at Bahías Pullao and Chullec and to make sure that all is ready permit-wise for our return next year.

We cannot call our campaign anything other than a success though. We caught 204 godwits, 66 Whimbrels, and one Red Knot, and, because of decisions like the one that we made at Bahía Pullao, we released all of them as healthy as when we first caught them. We placed a satellite transmitter on a Whimbrel (maps will be posted on the Internet shortly, stay tuned) and resighted hundreds of birds that we had banded in the past couple of years and that have already made multiple 9,000-mile trips back and forth to the Arctic, each time returning to this same island.

We met with school children from around Chiloé, made the front page of the local paper, and told our story to readers like you.  Undoubtedly the disappointment of this last day will soon fade and we’ll get to work analyzing our data and raising awareness about shorebird conservation. And, with any luck, we’ll be back on Chiloé again next winter to search for our birds, continue to help our Chilean colleagues – and maybe even place satellite transmitters on some Hudsonian Godwits. Until then, ¡Hasta luego y buena suerte! (That’s “See you later, and good luck.”)

(Image: Nate relaxes near Santiago, Chile by trying to get some audio recordings of Black Rails for the Macaulay Library’s archives. Photo by Thomas B. Johnson.)

Thanks to everyone for reading; we’ll check back in with Nate this summer during fieldwork in Canada.

Adventures in Spanish

Comparing godwit molt patterns during banding. In Chile, godwits depend on the same tidal flats as commercial seaweed collectors. Photo by Thomas B. Johnson

Comparing godwit molt patterns during banding. In Chile, godwits depend on the same tidal flats as commercial seaweed collectors. Photo by Thomas B. Johnson

Nate Senner is back from his godwit research in Chile, but this week he’s finishing up his reports with two final tales. In today’s post, he describes some familiar conservation issues on beautiful, remote Chiloé Island – and shares a laugh with a group of Chilean fifth-graders.

nate_senner“You Are a Lomo!
One of the reasons we come back to Chiloé every year – besides the birds of course – is to support our Chilean colleagues in their efforts to conserve the coastal ecosystems of the island. While Chiloé looks beautiful and pastoral, and is far less developed than the Chilean mainland, it is rapidly changing in its own right. Even in the four short years since I first came to the island, much has happened. The aquaculture industry, focused mainly on farmed salmon, mussels, and oysters, has taken over most of the bays around the island. Salmon-processing plants line many of the roads near Castro and Quellon. While the industries bring jobs, many fear that they also bring changes to the intertidal habitats that may adversely affect the functioning of the ecosystem, although this has yet to be fully documented.

One industry – seaweed production and collection on the island’s mudflats – has a direct effect on shorebirds. Though it sounds like an odd way to make a living, seaweed collection sustains the immense international appetite for algae extracts that are used as additives and softeners in everything from medicine to ice cream. Hundreds of people, along with their trucks and dogs, comb the intertidal areas that godwits and whimbrels rely on to feed. And in the island’s wider society, Chileans are no different from people in the U.S. and the whole world over. They often have yet to learn about the ecosystems surrounding them and their importance for birds, dolphins, otters, and fish.

Leading the charge for conservation on Chiloé is Jorge Valenzuela, who works for the local nonprofit CECPAN (the Center for Study and Conservation of Natural Heritage), and recently started the Chiloé Bird Observatory in his “spare” time. He and Luis Espinosa Gallegos, a longtime local schoolteacher and biologist, are our main contacts and invaluable resources in our navigation of the Chilean bureaucracy.

During this trip, Jorge organized a full itinerary for us. He organized local news and TV reporters to cover our first day catching birds (see Twinkling the Whimbrels).  More exciting for me was our time with a local school group during one of our last godwit captures. The small group of fifth-graders was initially quite shy around us. But after Jorge’s presentation about godwit and Whimbrel migration and a quick tutorial on how to properly measure and band shorebirds, they grew wide-eyed when we gave each kid a chance to hold and release a godwit after we were done banding the birds. After each had had a turn handling a couple of birds, the students started to open up and talk with those of us who could speak Spanish.

Speaking Spanish didn’t necessarily mean we understood each other though.  One excitable student’s outbursts led our colleague Bob Christensen, a freelance conservationist from Alaska and all-around handyman, to remark (just as the hubbub of conversation was dying down), “¡Tu estás un lomo!” We all turned to look at him, wondering “¿Un lomo?” Bob had meant to say, “You’re hamming it up.” But what he actually had said was “You’re a thin slice of meat.” Luckily, after a brief pause, everyone broke into laughter and Jorge tried to explain the situation in more articulate Spanish.

Beyond helping us avoid language mix-ups, Jorge’s efforts have gone a long way toward making our expeditions to Chiloé a success and hopefully ensuring that we, and the shorebirds, can continue to return to Chiloé each year. Within the coming year, we at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology plan to do our own part, releasing a documentary that our multimedia department has put together that focuses on Chiloé and the mystery surrounding the migration of Hudsonian Godwits. Hopefully the piece will be a start towards educating the broader public not only about godwits and Chiloé, but about shorebird conservation in general. Stay tuned!


Read Full Post »

Bandit at the window


As illustrated in yesterday’s post, we’ve had a few visitors coming around at night for the last week or so. Coons spend most of the winter holed up in a cozy hollow log or other niche (your attic will do just fine), in a state called “winter rest”. It differs from hibernation in that the metabolism is suppressed a little, but not nearly as far as in true hibernators. This allows them to save energy during times of heavy snow cover, when food is harder to find, but also means they can reenergize quickly when snow melts and there’s the opportunity to get some foraging in before the next snowfall. I guess the thaw last week prompted these two to come out of the hole where they’d been snoozing.


It didn’t take them long to find the stale bag of dog food we’d set out on the deck. We hadn’t seen a raccoon around the area since we’d moved in, and with them hidden away for the winter anyway they weren’t really on my mind. The dog food was some old stuff we’d had for a couple months and decided to replace. We thought we’d maybe toss a handful or two out for the multitude of jays as a treat, so it was sitting on the deck where it was easy to access. Not just for us, but for the coons, too, it turned out. They had the bag tipped over in no time, and crawled right in to better enjoy the feast. I didn’t have the heart to shoo them away from it. I figured there were worse things, nutritionally speaking, that they could get into. Raccoons are the quintessential omnivore, eating whatever they can get their little human-shaped hands on. Most frequently this is invertebrates, which comprise about 40% of their diet, but about a third is plant matter, including such things as berries, acorns and other nuts, and some 27% is vertebrates. They prefer vertebrates that are easy to catch, like nestling birds and eggs, or frogs. Fatty foods such as fruits and nuts are the preferred diet in the fall, since they allow the coons to build up a fat layer for the winter.


They seem to both be youngsters, judging by their size. Either that, or they grow them smaller up here than I’m used to. Not having seen many raccoons here, it’s hard to judge. They always come around together, and I presume they’re likely siblings from the same litter last summer. Recent research suggests that related female raccoons live in “fission-fusion societies”, where they inhabit the same general area and periodically come together at common locations such as popular foraging areas or night-time roosting sites. These could be two sisters, snoozing together during the day and visiting our feeders at night. Come spring, once mated, they will likely split up to birth and raise their kits, but may come together again once their kits are independent. Males will sometimes form groups of three or four during the mating season in order to protect their territory against intruders (strength in numbers), but are often unrelated to one another.

This one flattened herself out in the platform feeder when I stepped outside for a photo, and didn’t budge, perhaps hoping I might not notice her and would go away. She would have had to expose herself awkwardly in order to climb down from the platform – given the spindliness of the supporting pole, it’s somewhat amazing that she got up there in the first place.

Raccoon and Raven

At the point that Raven and I stepped out (Raven to pee, me to get photos), they decided it might be wise to move off to the trees temporarily. Here Raven watches as one climbs over the deck railing and down to the ground. They are remarkably agile creatures, given their large, bulky shape. This shouldn’t be too surprising, I suppose, considering that they spend so much time in trees.

When I was in late high school, at some point after obtaining my driver’s license, I was returning home from a year-end band party at one of the band members’ homes out in the country, via country roads to my own parents’ home in the country. Along the way I encountered a tiny little raccoon staggering about the middle of the road. I stopped the car and, not spotting any relatives, gathered it up in a blanket. In retrospect there may have been a mother hidden somewhere I couldn’t see, and it may have been better for me to move the kit to the ditch, out of harm’s way, and just leave it there, but I didn’t. I brought it home, and we raised it. Come fall we started letting it outside at night, and it would go out and explore but return home to sleep for the day, climbing in behind the kitchen cabinets where there was a cozy narrow space.


That coon was an experience. We named him CoonBaby, in an effort to not get too attached (it didn’t work). He was messy, but in a predictable way – once he had settled on a couple of corners to defecate in, he was reliable enough in using them that you could put down newspapers and not have too much mess. Around his food dish was always a huge mess. In that way that coons do, he would pat his food with his hands before eating it, which, with wet dog food, meant that he would leave little pawprints all around his dish. The habit of feeling their food is a hardwired behaviour for raccoons. In the wild, the routine is intended to identify and remove unwanted bits of their food item before they eat it. This tactile sense is heightened when they’re feeding at the water’s edge, as the water softens the calluses on their paws. Raccoons don’t “wash” their food, but captive coons might still dunk their food in their water either in order to feel it better, or simply as an instinctual behaviour, mimicking foraging at the water’s edge.


Eventually that fall he stopped coming back in the morning, which was just as well as the nights were getting colder and it was important for him to find a place to hole up. For a while he would return in the evenings, looking for a handout. Fig Newtons were his favourite. He made some friends, quite possibly joining a group of other males, and it didn’t take long for them to start coming by the house in the evening, too. Fig Newtons became everyone’s favourite. CoonBaby taught them to grab the edge of the storm door with their paw, and let it bang, to alert the food-dispensers inside that they had arrived. Even during the winter, when they would disappear for spells and then periodically show up looking for food, we always knew when they’d come by. Raccoons have unique (albeit subtle) mask patterns, so we could identify CoonBaby from the bunch of them (it also helped that even after he started to go wild, he was still always the most willing to come and take a newton from our hands). We saw him again the following winter, but the third winter he didn’t come back. Although a captive raccoon can live more than 20 years, wild raccoons average only about 2-3, eventually either being predated, hit by a car, or dying due to starvation or exposure over the winter. Distemper can also be a frequent cause of mortality.


Right now we would just be getting into the time of year where coons would be starting to feel a bit horny. Depending on latitude, mating can begin anywhere from January to March, with later timing occurring further north. Females are only in heat for three or four days, so males roam large territories during the spring, hoping to come across a receptive female. Once a male finds a female, he’ll woo her over the course of several nights, spending up to an hour in bed with her each evening. Gestation lasts about two months, so females who mate in March will give birth in May. The kits are about 4 inches long when born, and are naked and blind, and very much helpless.

It was a cold night in late April or May during CoonBaby’s first winter that we went out to answer the door for the coons and discovered something on the porch. Closer inspection revealed it to be a newborn baby coon, no more than a day old, with umbilical still attached. It was cold and very likely near death. It is hard to say how long it had been there, or even how it had come to arrive on the porch. Did a first-year female have an “accident” there and not recognize it as a young she should take home? Or was the kit intentionally brought and left at our door? Of course, we would never find out the answer, but the reason for the kit’s appearance was of only secondary importance. We brought it in and warmed it up, and offered it some milk. The next day some baby formula was purchased, and Mom took on the daunting task of raising this tiny creature.


She survived, and not only that, she thrived. Mom named her Lily. Having already gone through the chore of raising one coon the previous summer, and knowing how much attention they desire, Mom located a raccoon rescue in a nearby town that fostered out baby coons over the summer. We adopted a second one, who was named Camomile, or just Cammy. The idea was that they would entertain each other, but it didn’t exactly work out as planned, and instead they just became double trouble. They were still lots of fun, however, and, just like CoonBaby before them, would come and sit with you while you were reading, let you pick them up and carry them around, and play with them. They had sharp little teeth, but so do cats, and though they played rough it wasn’t all that different from roughhousing with a cat. It was hard not to get quite attached to them. That fall, instead of joining the local coons at the house, they were taken back to the rescue organization, where they were gradually habituated to a wild existence, and then released in a forest tract about an hour away. Of course, we have no idea of how they fared after that, but I hope they both at least lived long enough to raise their own families.

Seeing these two cuties visiting our feeders brings back memories of those couple of summers we spent living with raccoons, most of them good. Of course, despite my fond recollections of the experience, I think I would turn down the opportunity to do it again – just too messy, and too much work, requiring constant attention, like living with a little toddler!

Read Full Post »

Valentine’s Day is a wonderful Hallmark holiday, with 60 percent of Americans celebrating in one form or another.

It remains one of the busiest days of the year for florists — roses being the flower of choice. But, alas, these cut beauties are not the best way to symbolize undying love; blooms fade and fall dead away. What message does that send?

How about dragging home an Eastern red cedar, juniper or perhaps a serviceberry? They’re not practical as a centerpiece, unless you have something akin to King Arthur’s famed round table.

Impracticality aside, time-tested plants say “I care” by the way they attract birds to your suburban nest, including wrens, finches and chickadees. Sorry, we can’t call them lovebirds, that moniker refers to nine species of parrots.

Home inspection: A Downy woodpecker eyes a birdhouse gourd for a possible nesting site.

If your sweetie wants instant gratification, stick with roses. It’s tough to find nursery stock in mid-February and tougher still to plant in frozen ground. But a picture speaks a thousand words; a photo tucked inside a Valentine’s Day card generates anticipation similar to Groundhog Day.

Outdoor smorgasbord

Whether you’re into perennials, annuals, shrubs or trees, there are myriad plants that benefit songbirds. A shade garden planted with hosta and impatiens is a haven for hummingbirds.

Others appreciate perennial favorites including bachelor’s button, black-eyed Susan, coreopsis, goldenrod and purple coneflower.

If you really want a good show, plant sunflowers. Black-capped chickadees hang from massive flower heads and peck away at the seeds well into winter, provided squirrels haven’t gotten there first. Sunflower seeds also are favored by tufted titmice, northern cardinals and blue jays.

Ornamental grasses serve a dual purpose in the winter landscape: They give you something to look at other than a snow-covered trampoline, and its slender, airy seedheads keep birds fed. Little bluestem, prairie dropseed and sea oats are favorites.

CONNECT American Beauties LLC specializes in native plants for birds. Visit www.abnativeplants.com.

The National Wildlife Federation, a conservation organization dedicated to protecting wildlife, has information on creating backyard habitats. Visit nwf.org/backyard/.


Some summer berries are a boon for birds. They include blackberries, black raspberries and red raspberries.

Unfortunately, gardeners who find a role model in Felix Unger are too quick to cut back sources of winter food, lest their yard appear unkempt.

Do so at your own peril. Birds that feed on plant-ravaging insects may, instead, settle in the Bumpuses’ unkempt yard, despite the hound dogs.

Bark for birds

Birds depend on many native trees for food, even though tree fruit can be a nuisance by staining driveways and clogging downspouts.

It’s a symbiotic relationship: You put up with the mess to benefit birds, and they return the favor by eating insects in the garden.

Maples, oaks and birches are among the most prolific trees that afford food and shelter for birds. Smaller birds pick away at small insects living in the bark.

Evergreens, such as pines, junipers and hemlocks, provide food and shelter year-round and are of particular benefit in winter when other food sources are scarce. Hawthorns and dogwoods are bird-friendly trees suitable for small yards.

Inhospitable growing conditions are little deterrent to Eastern red cedar; it is resistant to extremes of drought, heat and cold. Pale blue fruits on female plants are wildlife favorites.

Eastern hemlock provides outstanding nesting sites for warblers, robins, juncos, American goldfinches and bluejays. American larch, also called tamarack, is a nest magnet and its seeds attract crossbills and purple finches.

Need more suggestions? Bayberries, cotoneasters (a member of the rose family), elderberry, hollies, mountain ash, American persimmon and sassafras are a few landscape-eligible plants bearing fall fruit to help birds lard up for winter.

Downy serviceberry is a popular choice for part shade. It is a multistemmed small tree with white flowers in early spring followed by purple fruit.

If your yard provides wildlife with the four elements needed for survival — food, water, cover and places to raise young — have it certified as a Backyard Wildlife Habitat.

The National Wildlife Federation began the program in 1973 and has certified more than 70,000 yards across America. You even can order a plaque to hang on a tree.

It will surely last longer than a bouquet of roses.

Read Full Post »

  • John Wall\
  • New Environmental Study: Over Half of New York State’s Birds Have Seen Dramatic Population Changes Since 1980 Ithaca, NY (1/07/2009) — A new atlas on the birds of New York reveals that during the past two decades over half of New York State’s bird populations have seen dramatic changes in their distributions, with 70 species experiencing significant increases, 58 species experiencing serious declines, and 125 species maintaining relative stability. Among the birds showing the largest increases in New York State are Canada Goose, Wild Turkey, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Carolina Wren, Peregrine Falcon, Osprey, Cooper’s Hawk, Bald Eagle, Common Raven, Turkey Vulture, and Merlin. Those showing the largest decreases are Henslow’s Sparrow, Red-headed Woodpecker, Brown Thrasher, Common Nighthawk, Purple Martin, and Canada Warbler. Resident woodland birds showed the greatest increases as a group, and grassland birds showed the greatest declines. These new findings, published this month by Cornell University Press in The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in New York State, are the result of over 140,000 hours in the field by nearly 1,200 volunteers across New York State. The atlas, edited by two prominent figures in the field, ornithologist Kevin J. McGowan of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and wildlife biologist Kimberley Corwin of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC), was initiated by the New York State Ornithological Association and implemented by the NYSDEC, which provided the funding, management personnel, oversight, direction, and data capture and management. The majority of the funding came from the state tax check-off program, “Return a Gift to Wildlife.” “This new atlas was truly an incredible team effort by the citizens of New York,” said Kevin J. McGowan. “From those who funded it with small donations via their tax returns to the impressive volunteers who collected the data, the atlas is an inspired monument to the dedication and love New Yorkers have for their wildlife.” Added Kimberley Corwin, “And what’s more, New Yorkers have considerably helped bird populations by planting trees and shrubs that provide food and cover, supporting conservation organizations, and participating in cutting-edge programs such as the Landowner Incentive Program, which we think is outstanding.” The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in New York State will be an invaluable resource for the DEC and other state agencies involved in land management and conservation, as well as counties and towns who make management decisions on smaller scales. Data will also be used at the national level by federal agencies, non-governmental agencies such as the NY Natural Heritage Program and Audubon, as well as universities across the country.
  • Birds in Art/Art in Birds Challenge
    Ithaca, NY–People of all ages are invited to go outside and look for Birds in Art/Art in Birds for a contest sponsored by the Celebrate Urban Birds project at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Celebrate Urban Birds is a free, year-round citizen-science project focused on birds in neighborhood settings.
    For the Birds in Art/Art in Birds challenge you can take photos, do some painting, write a story, create a sculpture. What do you see in a bird that is beautiful, stirring, or inspirational? It could be a broken-down nest in winter, a song recording, video of a bird perching on your window, something that makes you stop, look twice, laugh, cry.
    Prizes include bird sound recordings, books, gift certificates, “green” products, and more. We’ll send the first 50 entrants a copy of our “Doves and Pigeons” poster by Julie Zickefoose. Selected images will be posted on the Celebrate Urban Birds website.
    How to enter:
    1. Email your photo, art, or video entry to urbanbirds@cornell.edu. Links are acceptable for videos.2. Write “Art in Birds/Birds in Art contest” in the subject line. 3. Include your name and mailing address 4. Tell us why you submitted your entry to the Art in Birds/Birds in Art contest.
    Deadline for entries is February 28, 2009
    Visit the Celebrate Urban Birds web site for more information.Contact: Karen Purcell, Project Leader, (607) 254-2455, urbanbirds@cornell.edu
    The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a membership institution dedicated to interpreting and conserving the earth’s biological diversity through research, education, and citizen science focused on birds. Visit the Lab’s web site at http://www.birds.cornell.edu/
  • www.songbirdprairie.com

Read Full Post »