Wednesday, March 31, 2010

UK's Big Garden Birdwatch finds small garden/yard birds hit by cold weather

The UK's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) held its Big Garden Birdwatch (BGBW) on the last two days of January. Leading up to the BGBW, concerns were expressed about the impact of the UK's harsh winter on common garden/yard birds.

The results are now in from this year's BGBW, and it looks like those concerns were well-founded:

One interesting factoid, from the BBC News article, is that European Starling numbers have fallen by 79% since the first annual birdwatch was held thirty years ago.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

BIGBY highlights from 3/25-3/28

A few recent BIGBY highlights from 3/25-3/28

* Big mammal highlight Saturday morning (3/27). After about a week of coyotes I had a bobcat sighting! Maybe only the second bobcat sighting I've had in the past twelve months in this area. The bobcat was in a sassafras thicket to the east of the Indiana university cross country course. The only reason I saw it was because I saw three Blue Jays flying around among the sassafras saplings and looking intently at the ground. They weren't making any noise, which made me curious. Having the good fortune to see a bobcat around here is an unbelievably cool experience! Makes me feel like I'm somewhere out in the wilderness.

* On Sunday I saw two singing Brown Thrashers! My first-of-year *singing* Brown Thrashers. And two of them in one outing means spring is finally here!! An aside: I think I like Brown Thrasher songs a lot better than Northern Mockingbird songs.

* There were several Eastern Phoebes flycatching on the XC course one sunny morning. First time I've seen more than one Phoebe this year! And it was also heartening that they were finding insects on what seemed like a very chilly AM.

* Several singing Eastern Towhees. Hearing the "drink-your-tea" song from multiple birds really sounds like spring.

* There's been at least one Northern Mockingbird regularly on the XC course. They're usually scarce there. I'm hoping there will be a nest.

* There were two Field Sparrows singing one morning. I managed to get really close to one of them. Great views of him tilting his head way back and singing lustily. Seeemed very full of himself. :-)

* A Northern Harrier flew over the Indiana University golf course one afternoon. (The golf course is immediately to the west of the cross country course).

* Finally, I've been seeing and hearing lots of Juncos. I note this because the Birds of Indiana departure date for Juncos in southern Indiana is April 6. This means that in a week 90% of the Juncos in southern Indiana will be gone. I've seen several flocks of Juncos on the XC course this week. And I had record numbers of Juncos at home on Sunday. At one point, counting the birds under the feeders in the back, and the birds in the side yard where I'd spread feed in the grass, there were 100+ Juncos. I'm assuming these birds were migrants moving to the north. They're still pretty common today. Interesting to think they should be UNcommon here in just one week.

Enter your 2010 BIGBY counts at Surfbirds

Surfbirds now has a page where you can enter your 2010 BIGBY totals and highlights. You can update them as the year progresses:

Note that they call it "2010 N. American Local Patch Year List" rather than "2010 N. American BIGBY Year List". I believe the BIGBY web site uses the term "local patch" occasionally.

As of today's date, the page only has three entries, so I encourage everyone to enter their 2010 BIGBY data, and keep it updated.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

“Birdemic: Shock and Terror”

The NY Times has profiled an inexpensively-made cheesy bird-themed horror movie that has become a big cult hit:

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

BIGBY species #80 for 2010

Here's a capsule summary of recent BIGBY activity and other Indiana University cross country course highlights...

The big highlight was some *very* closeup views of a displaying American Woodcock last night. I had a lot of success last week over in Illinois in Urbana's Meadowbrook Park, where the woodcocks were going off like fireworks. That experience let me refine my technique for sneaking up on the birds while they are displaying. And I was rewarded there by my first ever sighting of a peenting woodcock on the ground, maybe 40 feet away! Last night I decided to try my luck on the IU XC course. When I got there I heard two woodcocks peenting, but only one was displaying. When the woodcock started his display flight I would walk quietly towards the source of the "peent" call. When the woodcock started coming down from his display I would stand stock still, until the woodcock took off again, and then I would once again walk towards the source of the "peent" call. After I repeated these steps several times, I was rewarded when the woodcock landed in the grass ten feet in front of me and started peenting!! Very cool!!! At one point there was still some light left in the western sky, so it was possible to watch the woodcock begin his display flights, silhouetted against the pale baby-blue sky. For a few short minutes there was enough background light to discern the blur of the woodcock's wings as he climbed up into the sky, looking for love. If anyone is interested in where this woodcock was starting his display flights, check out this map of the south section of the IU XC course:

Another highlight was yet another appearance by the "blasé coyote". This morning the coyote stood 75 feet away from me for at least five minutes, long enough for me to point it out to three different runners on the XC course. Eventually it started to look annoyed by the attention and walked leisurely away to the north. Jonathan Bauer also reported seeing it this AM. I don't recall seeing a coyote before that was so obviously unfazed by the presence of humans.

Finally, I had four first of year BIGBY species over the past several days, bringing my BIGBY total to 80 species for 2010::

* Osprey - flyover, headed in the general direction of Griffy Lake
* Wilson's Snipe - flushed from a wet area on the southern edge of the XC course
* Louisiana Waterthrush - walking along the edge of a small creek in a wooded area
* Tree Swallow - one bird, foraging for insects low over the XC course

Monday, March 22, 2010

Brown Thrasher vs Chicken (as Georgia's state bird)

More on the campaign to dethrone the Brown Thrasher as Georgia's state bird and replace it with the "Cornish Chicken":

The "Flip the Birds" website has a faux-political-campaign video promoting the chicken as Georgia's new state bird:

And another video proclaiming why the Brown Thrasher is "wrong for Georgia":

And the Georgia Conservancy has launched a counter-campaign:

Local Grassroots Bird Conservation in India

"From a village of bird hunters, Mangalajodi in Orissa is now a village of bird protectors. A story of how the transformation happened."

Interesting story from The Hindu ("India's National Newspaper"):

Proposed Legislation Would Prevent Millions of Bird Deaths

"American Bird Conservancy (ABC) applauded legislation introduced by Illinois Congressman Mike Quigley (D-IL) that will help prevent the deaths of millions of birds that collide with windows at thousands of federal buildings across the country. The bill, HR 4797 calls for each public building constructed, acquired, or altered by the General Services Administration (GSA) to incorporate, to the maximum extent possible, bird-safe building materials and design features. The legislation would require GSA to take similar actions on existing buildings, where practicable. "


Sunday, March 21, 2010

Woodcocks - Speed-daters of the avian world?

I spent several evenings this week observing the courtship rituals of American Woodcocks in Urbana's Meadowbrook Park. Each evening the display flights lasted maybe 15-20 minutes. If they display this way at dawn, as well, it means they spend maybe only 30 minutes a day in courtship/mating rituals.

Contrast this with most other birds who are on the go for hours a day during mating season...singing continously, claiming territory, etc. Think Red-winged Blackbird, for example.

I'm thinking that woodcocks might be one of the most efficient of birds when it comes to the time invested in mating/breeding. Sort of like the speed-daters of the avian world. :-)

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Woodcocks galore

I attended the Urbana (Illinois) Park District's "Woodcock Walk" Wednesday evening in Meadowbrook Park.

I also did a preview walk on Tuesday evening. There was still some light left in the western sky, so it was possible to watch the woodcocks begin their display flights at 7:28PM, silhouetted against the pale baby-blue sky. For a few short minutes there was enough background light to discern the blur of the woodcocks' wings as they climbed up into the sky, looking for love.

After the Tuesday night woodcock show I started to head home in the dark from the southeast corner of Meadowbrook Park. A lone coyote howled nearby, just across the eastern fence, on the other side of a tall row of evergreens. It was the loudest and most deeply pitched coyote howl I've ever heard. The sound was almost wolfish. It made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Needless to say, it also quickened my step. :-)

There was a good turnout for the Wednesday "Woodcock Walk" event, co-sponsored by the Champaign County Audubon Society (CCAS).

There were at least 25-30 people present for the walk. There were also a few other groups of people operating independently, also looking for woodcocks, including one group with a powerful flashlight that illuminated a flying woodcock at least one time.

At one point early in the evening I broke ranks with the UPD/CCAS group and went with my gut instinct, heading towards the southeast corner of Meadowbrook Park...the area that worked for me on Tuesday night. I wasn't disappointed.

I ran into two nice young women who said they'd had good luck, so I stuck with them. There were woodcocks displaying all around us. While the birds had started their "peent" calls a little earlier than on Tuesday night, interestingly enough they started the display flights at the exact same time Wednesday (7:28PM) as Tuesday night.

And I had a personal life birding first tonight! I actually SAW a woodcock on the ground doing its "peent" call!! This happened on several occasions this evening. The first time, the bird was only about 50 feet away on a wide mowed path, and there was still enough light for a really good view through my new Nikon ATB binoculars. Very interesting sight (and kinda comical)! I've forgotten the names of the two young women there, but many thanks for pointing this bird out to me.

A final highlight. On Wednesday night, while looking to the sky trying to follow woodcock display flights, I saw what looked like a really odd airplane flying high overhead, reflecting the late evening sunlight. I learned the next day that it was actually the International Space Station. Cool!

Illinois wolf sighting

Today's Chicago Tribune has an article about what appears to be the first photograph of a wild gray wolf in Illinois (Ogle County). It was taken by a trail camera.,0,2590276.story

According to the article, Illinois Department of Natural Resources biologists believe it is a wolf.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

More on chickadee/titmouse hybrids

Here's another photo of the same sort of chickadee/titmouse hybrid that Matt Fraker recently photographed in central Illinois.

The bird in the following report was photographed in Indiana:

Some recent BIGBY highlights

What's a BIGBY? See:

Here are some highlights from the past several days from the Indiana University cross country course...

* Today I encountered BIGBY species #76 for 2010 - two Chipping Sparrows. I now need 24 more BIGBY species on or before April 28 to set a new record for my earliest date to log 100 BIGBY species. Interestingly, the Chipping Sparrows were in the same general area as a small flock of American Tree Sparrows. I don't think I've ever seen both of these species on the same outing. It was interesting to be able to compare and contrast these two superficially similar species.

* Three weeks ago Dawn Hewitt wrote a column in the Bloomington Herald-Times noting the scarcity of Eastern Towhees in the Bloomington area this winter. I only had three sightings in November through February, with my last one during the Great Backyard Bird Count. But I've been hearing/seeing them over the past several days, and today I encountered five of them. It's good to see them coming back from wherever it was that they went. I'll chalk it up as another sign of spring. :-)

* On Friday I ran across a mixed flock of chickadees and titmice mobbing an Eastern Screech-owl. Always entertaining to watch! Speaking of which, Matt Fraker over in Illinois has some photos of a mixed "flock" of chickadees and titmice that consists of only one bird...yep, a hybrid...see:

* Saw maybe 10-12 White-throated Sparrows on Thursday after not seeing any in a while. Two of them were singing their hauntingly beautiful songs. That might be the last time I'll hear that song until next winter.

* Saw a Rough-legged Hawk on the XC course on Thursday. The first one since February 8, and probably the last one for me until next winter (maybe, since I don't see them all that much). Most likely a migrant heading north.

* On Friday I saw a strung out flock of 45-50 Blue Jays, heading north. Migrants, no doubt.

* Also on Friday, I saw some Sandhill Crane slackers. Five of them, headed north, most probably the last I'll see/hear this spring.

* And the Red-winged Blackbirds continue to sing just about everywhere except the IU XC course. They used to be common there before the last time IU mowed the XC course in May 2008.

New green birding category - incidental birding

I've come up with an idea for a new BIGBY/green birding category: incidental birding.

Basically, it's keeping a list of birds seen while traveling for non-birding purposes. Say you are going to visit family on a holiday, or are required to travel somewhere for business, etc.

Once you get to your destination, you can only count birds according to the usual BIGBY rules, but it's OK to plan the trip itself so that your route takes you past birding areas along the way.

For those of you unfamiliar with BIGBYing and green birding, here's some info:

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Big Year - The Movie?

"Steve in negotiations to go bird-watching in 'The Big Year' alongside Jack Black and Owen Wilson.

The comedy (is) based on a 1998 book "The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature and Fowl Obsession," by Mark Obmascik...It is about three men who try to outdo each other in a bird-watching competition to spot the rarest birds in North America. The rivalry is an allegory for the challenges each faces in his own life."

The Hollywood Reporter article is here:

Thursday, March 11, 2010

My local Wild Birds Unlimited store is closing

Today's Bloomington (IN) Herald-Times reports that our local Wild Birds Unlimited store will close this month (article on page E4). Another victim of the recession. :-(

I'll miss the place. I've been a customer for the five years I've lived here. I bought all my feeders (at least a half dozen) and feeder stands there, as well as a steady supply of bird feed, and a couple of pairs of binoculars.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Recent BIGBY Highlights

It's been fun being out on the Indiana University cross country (XC) course lately...

I'm seeing more and more signs of spring with each passing day. This is a wonderful time of year, as our dark snowy winter gives way to the sights, sounds and smells of nature slowly renewing itself. The usual suspects continue to sing loudly and often, providing the background chorus: Eastern Bluebird, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Chickadee, Song Sparrow, House Finch, and Northern Cardinal. Tiny shoots of green have started to poke up through the dead XC course grasses that were matted down by this winter’s prolonged snow cover.

I heard my first XC course Eastern Meadowlark song of the year on Saturday! Yesterday there were several singing and calling on the XC course, and I flushed 9 meadowlarks while walking through one small area. To me, these birds are the IU XC keystone species. Meadowlarks are what inspired me to lobby Indiana University to stop unnecessary mowing on the XC course two years ago. It’s really uplifting when these birds return in full force each spring. Makes me feel like I’ve done something positive for at least one small patch of this Earth.

Some additional highlights from the past 4-5 days:

* One very big highlight would have to be the Sandhill Cranes. See:

* I found BIGBY species #75 for the year on Saturday...a Savannah Sparrow singing in a 20 acre meadow immediately adjacent to the XC course. It took me a while to locate the bird for a visual ID, but I eventually did. I now need 25 more BIGBY species before April 29 to set a new record for my earliest date to get 100 BIGBY species. I think I can do it!

* I heard my first Field Sparrow song of the year on Saturday. Same meadow as the Savannah. Not a new BIGBY species for the year, just the first *singing* FISP. Heard another FISP singing yesterday, as well as this morning. I really like this song. Not cheerful like some birds...more of a melancholy plaintive air to it.

* I watched a Pileated Woodpecker fly across a quarter mile stretch of grassland. I love to watch Pileateds fly out in the open. They have a really unique flying pattern...almost like they’re swimming or rowing through the air. This bird flew into a 5-6 acre patch of mostly pole-sized timber. Apparently it found one of the best woodpecker drumming trees in the world. The drumming was loud. It sounded like a cross between a jackhammer and the noise a semi-trailer truck makes when it’s engine-braking.

* Late yesterday afternoon there were two White-breasted Nuthatches on the same feeder. One bird gave the other a sunflower heart from the feeder. A mated pair? I’ll have to keep my eyes peeled for a nest cavity.

* The American Tree Sparrows and the White-throated Sparrows were conspicuous by their absence this morning. Their numbers have been dwindling, but today I didn’t see any. I guess winter sparrows moving on is a sign of spring. :-)

* Lots of smallish flocks of Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds flying overhead, heading north. The Red-wings are flying closer to the ground now, and quite a few have been heard singing in the neighborhood. Interestingly, I haven’t heard any Red-wings singing on the XC course.

* Finally, this morning, there were a half dozen Red Slider turtles basking in the sun atop rocks in an apartment complex pond on 10th Street. The pond was completely covered with ice last week. That’s gotta be a sign of spring!

Monday, March 8, 2010

Lots of Sandhill Cranes

One very big highlight over the past four or five days would have to be the Sandhill Cranes.

It seems like every time I’ve been outside I’ve heard them. Quite often they are faintly in the distance, heard but not seen. But sometimes they are overhead, where I can clearly see and hear them. I don’t remember having the good fortune to encounter so many Sandhills before in the spring. I feel blessed this year.

Today I could hear three flocks overhead at one time. I could see the closest two flocks, each about 15-20 birds. They approached each other and spent some time circling around in a disorganized fashion for a few minutes. After getting acquainted, they reformed into a “v” of 30-40 birds and headed off to the NNW.

But my favorite Sandhill highlight was today on the Indiana University cross country course. It was the smallest, quietest, lowest-flying flock of Sandhills I’ve ever seen. Three birds came in at a height of about 50 feet, flying slowly past me. They were in a “v” formation...technically the fewest birds possible to form a “v”. :-) For a couple of seconds they looked like they were coming in for a landing on the XC course. But I think I spooked them. They continued on over the treetops in the general direction of Griffy Lake.

Got some very nice close up views with my binoculars. I really love these birds! It was very cool to get such a close view...

Woodcock extravaganza

I decided to try my luck again tonight on the Indiana University cross country (XC) course, looking/listening for American Woodcocks. I wasn't disappointed.

I left home at sunset, about 6:45PM, and walked over to the XC course. By the time I got there (around 7:00PM), the display flights were already underway!!

I didn't hear many "peent" calls, but there were lots of display flights...the most I've ever experienced on the XC course! One bird coming down from its display flight landed almost at my feet!!

I had another close encounter even before I got to the XC course. I was walking down Range Road when I heard a very loud "peent", and then a display flight, not 20 yards away. This was in a relatively small patch of grass just to the east of IU's Ruth Lilly Auxiliary Library Facility. It's basically a construction zone, so the woodcock's display there really took me by surprise.

The birds were still displaying when I left, but I had to leave the XC course earlier than I wanted to, because I could hear someone running their dog in the dark on the XC course. Last thing I need to do is come between a protective dog and its owner in the pitch dark! Bummer!!

One other note. While I was listening to woodcocks displaying, I could hear Killdeer migrating overhead. Interesting to hear two "shorebirds" vocalizing at the same time. :-)

Sunday, March 7, 2010

BIGBY species #75 for 2010

Yesterday I encountered my 75th BIGBY species of the year - - a Savannah Sparrow singing in a 20 acre meadow immediately adjacent to the Indiana University cross country course.

My main goal for 2010 is to break my personal record early date for reaching 100 walking BIGBY species. The earliest I've tallied 100 walking BIGBY species is April 29, so I need to hit 100 species before that date this year. I now need 25 species over the next 7+ weeks. I think I can do it!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

BIGBY (green birding) newsletter

Richard Gregson of Montreal has just published a great issue of the BIGBY (green birding) newsletter:

http://www.sparrowo ing/downloads/ Bigby_newsletter _1_pdf.pdf

OK, maybe I'm biased...I have an article on page 2. :-)

Friday, March 5, 2010

Touched by the sounds of Sandhills

I was awakened this morning (about 7:30) by the loud clamor of Sandhill Cranes flying relatively low over my house. God how I love that sound! It's one of my favorite sounds of nature!! Way better than any alarm clock. :-)

I was out quite a bit today. It seemed like every time I was outside I would eventually hear Sandhills somewhere in the distance. It must have been a good day to be on the move.

In some respects seeing/hearing Sandhill Cranes gives me the same feeling I used to get from migrating Canada Geese when I was younger. It was invigorating to see the high flying v-shaped skeins of geese, up so high that their raucous honking was barely audible on the ground. The geese would inspire a sense of wanderlust.. .coming from who knows where, heading to who knows where, making only a brief appearance in my world. But the presence of year-round resident Canada Goose flocks has undermined that earlier sense of wonder. I think my earlier fascination with migrating geese has been replaced by the joy I feel when I hear the bugling calls of migrating Sandhill Cranes. Like the geese of my youth, the cranes pass over unexpectedly, spending very little time in my world.

I'll be listening again tomorrow for the sound of Sandhills... a real tonic for the soul.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Caterwauling Barred Owls and other noteworthy birds from this week

I was out on the Indiana University (IU) cross country (XC) course Monday evening listening for American Woodcocks. I was standing at the edge of the woods, facing the IU XC grasslands. While listening for the woodcocks I had the good fortune to experience a rare treat: a pair of Barred Owls caterwauling, not too far away in the woods! This is quite different from the usual semi-spooky and sedate "who-cooks-for-you" call. It is an unearthly, raise-the-hair-on-the-back-of-your-neck, ghostly caterwauling. I'm glad I knew what it was ahead of time, or else I might have chickened out and headed home post haste and missed the woodcocks. The owls' caterwauling really does sound that spooky!! :-)

Some other highlights from the IU XC course this week, in no particular order:

* Several Rusty Blackbirds on the IU XC course today, perched in a tree. They didn't stick around long...they were gone when I passed the area on the way back...must have been just passing through. BIGBY species #74 for 2010. Second first-of-year BIGBY species this week (Monday's woodcocks were #73 for the year).

* Had a Peregrine Falcon flyover on Tuesday, heading in a southerly direction. Might have been the same bird that occasionaly harrasses the K-Mart pigeons on Bloomington's east side. Only my second Peregrine sighting of the year.

* Yesterday I saw a Northern Mockingbird actively trying to find insects. It would perch on an IU XC course sign and abruptly drop down into the grass. It would sometimes run through the grass, occasionally flapping its wings, as if in pursuit of some snack. This is the first time this year that I've seen this behavior from mockingbirds. Up til now they've been forlornly eating unappetizing-looking dessicated fruits. Gotta be a sign of spring!! :-)

* Yesterday morning there was a large flock of Blue Jays on the IU XC course mobbing, well, nothing. Maybe 20 Blue Jays, racously loud, in one tree. It was typical mobbing behavior, except there was nothing there but Blue Jays. They even flew away in a group as if chasing something, but there were no birds/animals trying to elude them. Maybe it was the Blue Jay equivalent of a fire drill?

* Today while returning from the XC course I heard one or two Red-winged Blackbirds singing their "konk-a-ree" songs as if claiming territory. This was in the large overgrown field at the southwest corner of the intersection of Pete Ellis Drive and East 10th Street on Bloomington's east side. That's the first time I've heard that song this year...a sure sign of spring!!!

* Flyover Killdeers have been pretty much of a constant the past couple of days (and evenings). Not a lot of them, but I will hear them every couple of minutes. Haven't seen any on the ground yet, but they are definitely on the move...another good sign of spring.

* Finally, Common Grackles, Red-winged Blackbirds (and possibly other "blackbirds") were moving overhead this morning to the north. Not huge flocks, but I was hearing their calls on a regular basis. One more good sign of spring!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

American Woodcocks

On Monday evening I walked over to the IU cross country course to (once again) listen for American Woodcocks. I was on the XC course in the damp chill for 40-50 minutes, pretty much standing in one spot the whole time. A glutton for punishment, I guess.

At one point I heard a "peent" call in the distance off to the north, from a 20 acre field that isn't part of the XC course. Then I heard one closer to me, out towards the middle of the lower section of the XC course. I forgot about the cold as I waited for the dazzling aerial display flights to begin. One display flight in the distance, and then the birds were done. Kinda anti-climactic, but at least I'd finally found them!

On the way home, I was walking past the field at the southeast corner of 10th Street and Pete Ellis Drive (the field is part of the old John Hinkle farmstead). I was surprised to hear a woodcock "peent" twice from the general direction of the trees along the railroad tracks. I was surprised because this area is in town, and I'd never heard woodcocks there before.

For some reason I love hearing woodcocks in the spring, probably because it takes some effort on my part (stumbling around, alone, in the cold, in the dark). And I think it’s pretty cool to know enough about a bird that I can go out looking for it and find it doing something special...a bird doing something that most people don't get to experience. I guess it makes me feel more in touch with the natural world.

I think I'll go out looking for woodcocks again in a couple of days. Especially since the weather is supposed to warm up a bit!

Monday, March 1, 2010

Green birding category at Southern Illinois Birding Blitz

The 9th Annual Southern Illinois Birding Blitz Competition will be on Saturday, April 24th, this year. There are five competition categories this year, one of which is a green birding category:

"Muscle-powered - Teams cannot use any motorized form of transportation in their pursuit of a Big Day."

For more info on the Birding Blitz: