May 28th, 2010

Birding Slump

With the end of May, spring migration is petering out here in the South. But for me, it never really began. It feels like I’ve barely seen any migrants this year. That would be understandable if I hadn’t been birding at all this season, but that’s not the case, though I may not have been out as much as I have in past years.

There’s a ten acre “nature preserve” in our neighborhood with fairly good habitat and a nice trail running through it. Every spring and fall during migration, I try to take a stroll through it on weekdays before work. I usually end up birding it 10-20 days per season, for about an hour at a time.

Understand, it is no migrant trap. Five species of warblers is a very good day. But what it lacks in sheer numbers (other than cardinals, they’re all over the place), it makes up for in diversity. In six years, I’ve recorded over 30 species of warblers there. And day-to-day, you can almost count on seeing something different. I may have a slow day, but it was always enjoyable.

But not this year. I don’t know where the birds were, but they weren’t here. Sure, the “usuals” showed up: several White-eyed Vireos on territory, a Kentucky Warbler singing most every day (but haven’t seen him this year), Northern Waterthrushes bobbing along the water-filled ditches beside the trail. But there were very few days that I encountered anything different. And some days the place seemed devoid of birds altogether.

I don’t know why this spring was so different. The preserve hasn’t changed in any appreciable way that I can tell. Are there simply fewer birds? I know that most neotropical migrants are declining, some severely, but you wouldn’t expect that to manifest itself in the numbers at just one site in a single year. Maybe it was simply an off year?

I hope so, because otherwise I would have to entertain the possibility that it was me. Were the birds still there, but I wasn’t able to find them?

One result is that I didn’t enjoy my time birding nearly as much as I usually do. I appreciate any time that I’m able to spend in the field, and I still enjoy the “usual” birds. But I just couldn’t help but be disappointed most days. Enough so, that after several slow days in the middle of the month, while seemingly everyone else in the area was finding Connecticut Warblers, I was wondering what the point would be of going back. I lost the will to bird. And that bothers me immensely.

Has anyone else ever felt this way? And more importantly, how do you get over it?

May 23rd, 2010

Preparing for Peru

In December I’ll be heading to Peru for a birding tour with Kolibri Expeditions. Obviously, I’m very excited! But also more than a little daunted. This will be my first time in South America, and my first birding tour ever. So I’ve got a lot to prepare for. I need to figure out what to pack, what to wear, what medicines and immunizations I need, and many other things that I probably haven’t even realized I need to think about. Oh, and then there’s the 800-1000 bird species that I need to study.

I’ll post about the actual trip itself when I get back, of course, but I thought the preparations beforehand also deserved to be discussed. After all, there are plenty of trip reports on the web, but not many resources to tell you how to prepare for a trip. So over the next few months I’ll be posting about the preparations as they are made. Hopefully, it will be helpful to others, just as I hope it will keep me from forgetting something important!

If you have a suggestion of topics or tips that should be covered, please let me know.

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May 23rd, 2010

Too Close an Encounter

It was a gorgeous day: clear blue skies, no wind to speak of, and temperatures hovering around freezing. These conditions could be considered balmy, given that we were in northeast Minnesota in February. We were lucky; just a few weeks before it was in the -30’s, before wind chill. When informed of the pending trip, non-birding friends and relatives wondered what could draw a cold adverse, lifelong southern boy like me to such northern latitude in the middle of winter. Other birders, of course, already knew the answer – owls.

Owls, and one in particular, are the reason my wife and I are staring intently out the windows in the backseat of Mike Hendrickson’s SUV this beautiful day. Along with some birders from Florida, we have engaged Mike, a fantastic bird guide, to help us find some birds that we missed during the festival.

That would be the Sax Zim Bog Bird Festival. The Sax Zim Bog, 45 minutes northwest of Duluth, is one of the best locations in the lower 48 for winter birds. And we have encountered many of those fantastic winter birds while on field trips the past two days. Common Redpolls were all over the place, and there were even a few Hoarys among them. At the various feeding stations in the bog we found a Boreal Chickadee, Gray Jays, and both Pine and Evening Grosbeaks. White-winged Crossbills proved to be very common this winter, and we found them at many stops.

The non-passerines were also well represented by Ruffed and Sharp-tailed Grouse, Bald Eagle, and a fortuitously re-found drake Barrow’s Goldeneye. We even enjoyed the gulls along the shore of Lake Superior, picking out Great Black-backed, Glaucous, and Thayer’s from the crowd of Herring Gulls.

Northern Hawk-owl in the Sax-Zim Bog

A horrible picture of a Northern Hawk-owl, perched in its characteristic fashion.

But the highlight had to be the Northern Hawk-owls. We had great looks at several of these atypical owls, characteristically perched on the tip of a small branch as if impaled. But, alas, the other three hoped-for owls – Great Gray, Snowy, and Boreal – did not cooperate.

We were hoping that would change today, with Mike’s help. And it did in Duluth when Mike picked out a tiny spot of white that differed from the surrounding white vastness of the lake ice. My first Snowy Owl! At full zoom on the scope, the owl was clearly identifiable, but less than satisfactory. Luckily, we were able to drive around to a spot much closer to the bird. From there we got our fill of this marvelous creature that was just standing there, looking around, and waiting for night to fall.

Snowy Owl

A distant Snowy Owl on the frozen lake. This bird is sporting a wing tag and black paint on its forehead, courtesy of a field researcher.

I have wanted to see a Snowy Owl for as long as I can remember. But this day there was another bird that I wanted to see even more.

We have driven along miles of back (and some not-so-back) roads, eyes strained trying to pick out a small blob in a tree that doesn’t quite belong. Finally, Mike’s sharp eyes spot something. There, on the snow-covered bank. Our target – a Boreal Owl!


We stop to get a better look. From the location of the body, it was clear that a car must have hit it. From a closer examination, Mike determined that it hadn’t been doing too well even before its demise. He could feel the keel of the breast, which meant that it had not been hunting very successfully.

One can learn much from a corpse such as this, besides the bird’s condition at death. You can better understand the physiology, such as the way the wings work and the arrangement of the feathers. You can also study the field marks at leisure, ensuring that when you come across a live bird you can identify it. Even the best field guide or photograph can’t beat the real thing!

Knowing this, I want to examine the bird for myself. Mike, who assists Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory and is thus permitted to salvage dead birds, was able to afford me a closer look. But I couldn’t do it. Not because I am grossed out; there was no blood, no mess. In fact, it appeared as if it had been killed that very day, or the night before at the earliest. Further, with the cold temperatures there seemed to be very little risk of infection by disease or parasites.

At the time, I didn’t fully realize why I couldn’t take it, or hardly stand to even look at it. The bird’s demise, especially in such an unnatural manner, saddened me. But it was more than that. Now, I think that I just couldn’t bear my first encounter with this bird occurring in these circumstances. It’s not supposed to happen this way! It should have been a long, difficult search (well, it was that) that ended with me staring into yellow, fierce, intensely alive eyes. Not these dull, lifeless orbs.

Someday, after finally seeing this owl in the manner that it deserves, I will be free to examine a fallen bird. With a mixture of pity, respect, and curiosity, I will feel the softness of the feathers, study the special adaptations that permit silent flight, and experience the sharpness of talon and bill.

But not until then.

This article first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2010 issue of Bird Watcher’s Digest.

Jan/Feb 2010 issue of Bird Watcher's Digest

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May 22nd, 2010

Welcome to Birds on the Brain

Back in 2006 I created The Birder’s Library so that I could review and write about bird books. But over time I found that there were other things that I wanted to write about – trip reports, conservation, and other things of a personal nature – that didn’t really fit in with the theme of the site. Thinking that I didn’t have enough time to write a personal blog as well, I kept pushing the idea aside. Well, I’m still not sure if I’ll have as much time as I’d like for it, but I can’t put it off any longer.

So, I’d like to welcome you to Birds on the Brain, another blog about birds and birding.