Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Birding and Iraq

OK. Two pieces of full disclosure here.

First, I've been to Iraq six times. Four of those were before the war, when Saddam Hussein was still in charge. Remember when President Clinton almost bombed Baghdad in November 1998, but pulled back when Iraq let UN weapons inspectors in? I was there then. Remember when Clinton did bomb, a month later, in Operation Desert Fox? I was there then, too. (Thanks, US Air Force, for missing my hotel). I've also paid two brief post-invasion visits with Secretary of State Colin Powell and current SecState Condi Rice. But I can't say I've covered the conflict as a war correspondent...

Second, my Iraq bird list stands at exactly two: House Sparrow and Mesopotamian Crow (a subspecies of Hooded Crow, which may someday be split into its own species).

It might seem odd or even selfish to write about birding in Iraq with all the carnage there, and the suffering of both Iraqis and Americans. But I got to thinking about this issue with the announcement that BirdLife International and an Iraq nongovernmental organization have published a field guide to Iraq's birds in Arabic. (For you listers, it covers 387 species recorded in Iraq).

A few thoughts come to mind: War, as terrible as it is on humans, ravages the natural environment as well. And Iraq and its environs have had their share of ecodisasters, from Saddam's draining of the southern marshes, a unique and historic habitat, to his dynamiting of nearby Kuwait's oil wells, which burned for months (I know - I saw them).

That's sad, because nature humanizes us, makes us whole. One thing I've learned about conflict is that even amid chaos and violence, life goes on. Life can be perfectly normal one minute, and horrifying the next. And vice versa. People still try to raise children, shop, go to school, and even, in places, do normal outdoor activities. Hunting with birds of prey is an ancient tradition around the Persian Gulf, for example.

Whatever happens in Iraq, it will some day be peaceful again. And traditions like that will start up. And wildlife - including birds - will be around to make life better.

Even in wartime, they can make life a teeny bit better. At least they did for one U.S. soldier, who chronicled his off-duty birding in a lovely little book, Birding Baylon.

Comments welcome. But please not about the war. There's plenty of other places to debate that and, as a professional journalist, I have to stay objective. - W

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Birding and Learning

Warren, Adam and I had the honor of birding Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge with Paul Baicich, author of A Guide to the Nests, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds . Paul currently consults for the the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on visitor issues at NWRs.

Paul is a not only a talented birder but also a dedicated bird conservationist. Oh, we saw some wonderful year birds, but the real highlight of the day was Paul's knowledge and enthusiam for birds and their habitats. Each time we meet Paul, he makes us aware of a small change in our buying behavior that can make a big impact on conserving bird habitat.
Paul is the bomb!

Eastern Neck is a 2,285-acre island at the mouth of the Chester River. The refuge boasts a bird list of over 240 bird species that are attracted by habitats ranging from open water and tidal marshes to forest and farmland. The entire island was purchased in 1962 by proceeds from the Duck Stamp.

We saw about 40 of the possible 240 birds, which was a good birding day for late January in Maryland. Highlights included Canvasback, American Black Duck, Tundra Swan, Northern Pintail, only one Kestrel and Bald Eagles galore. I also finally nailed in my head exactly what a Swamp Sparrow looks like without thumbing through Sibley's.

Eastern Neck has over 600 acres of cropland, which should have been perfect habitat for the elusive American Pipit. Here's what we found when we went looking for them:

This confirmed that the American Pipet does not actually exist. It is simply a figment of some birders imagination.

Meet one of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources biggest invasive species concerns: Phragmites

Eastern Neck National Refuge sports over 1000 acres of brackish marsh. Phragmites, AKA common reed, loves to live in brackish marsh. Phragmites is a tall, tough grass which is found worldwide, but is an introduced species to North America. Phragmites have been harvested for roofing material and used to make boats, spears, baskets and paper. The problem with Phragmites (and all invasive species) is that without the disease and predators in their native lands, invasive species spread in epic proportion and compete against native species for food, shelter and other resources. Phargmites reduce the diversity of plant species and provide little value for wildlife.

We found little to no bird activity in the large clumps of phargmites that dot the island.

All day we wondered where the snow geese were. On our way to lunch, we found a couple thousand in cornfield outside Chestertown. I'm not sure if our attempt to read the number off a banded bird scared up the flock or the Red-Tailed Hawk that loomed in a tree to the right of the field.

Birds, great conversation, a beautiful winter day, a cool refuge and three cute gentlemen.

What more could a girl ask for? Thanks, guys!

Friday, January 26, 2007

Note to Our Readers...

This blog is just 2 months old, but already we've developed a small, but loyal, following, for which we're extremely grateful.

Over the next 6 weeks, we plan to unveil significant upgrades to the site, including a new design, more features, more links and (we promise!) better photos.

So please check back with us in the days ahead. And feel free to forward your own ideas and wishes to birdingcouple@yahoo.com

Thanks for stopping by
Warren & Lisa
"The BirdCouple"

PS - Coming soon, BirdCouple birds Maryland's Eastern Shore in January...

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Hot Stuff

The little plot of woods behind our house has an assortment of deer, snakes, raccoons and an unknown creature that apparently enjoys hot pepper suet. The last two suet treats that Warren put out were ripped off the tree, basket and all, and are still MIA.

Suet, a raw hard fat found around the loins and kidneys of beef or sheep, is high energy winter feed which attracts a variety of birds that normally feed on insects. Suet is often mixed with berries or nuts to make it even more appealing to feathered friends.

In our yard, we only offer suet blended with red hot chili pepper extract. Researchers at Cornell University discovered that mammals have the ability to feel the effects of capsaicin, the heat producing chemical in hot pepper, where birds do not.

We (or I should say Warren) adds hot pepper to the variety of seed we use. We found that the squirrels in our neighborhood don’t come back for seconds.

The raids on our suet feeder occur at night, so perhaps it is a possum with an appetite for habanero and an extraordinary tolerance for heat.

Or maybe this guy is down by our creek sweating and panting each night.

If you care to render your own suet, the Nutty Birdwatcher has some lovely recipes.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Right Whale, Right Place

Two Northern Right Wales, very rare species, have been spotted at the Indian River Inlet in Delaware, a popular birding spot for Delmarva birders:

From the Wilmington News Journal

Monday, January 22, 2007

Ducking in the cold

Warren and I joined our local birding club for an outing to several spots along the South River and the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. The weather has been crazy warm through most of December and January, but Sunday was cold and you could almost smell the snow in the air.

Highlights included small rafts of Common Goldeneye, Surf Scoters, Lesser and Greater Scaup and being close enough to over 100 Tundra Swans to hear their quavering "WOO-OO-WOOO".

The snow started at our second to last stop where a group of about 25 Black Duck were congregating. Black Ducks in that number were quite a treat because the number of breeding pairs in the Chesapeake Bay continues to decline. Unlike their close relatives, Mallards, Black Ducks are shy and wary and require isolated marshes safe from predators and human disturbance to nest. Unfortunately, along the Chesapeake Bay, only a few, small, nesting islands remain.

As we shivered in the snow at our last stop, we nabbed our final species of the day, a small group of the duck formerly known as Baldpate, the American Wigeon. The lighting was not great, but we did hear the males' whistle, which sounds very similar to a squeaky toy.

The grand finale of the day was soup and chili at the home of our generous group leader and his lovely wife, who put up with a bunch of birders tracking snow and mud in her home. While the fire was stoked and we warmed up, the discussion revolved around the lackluster numbers of ducks seen this year versus last. The Northeast's warm winter seems the blame for our lack of visiting ducks. Why travel farther if the weather is cooperating further north? One of the many fine birders who joined us filled us in; duck migration is largely due to the influence of colder weather, whereas, songbird migration is triggered by increases/decreases in daylight.

The final bird sighting of the day was a lone silhouette of a Great Blue Heron standing in the dark on the dock as the snow came down. Nice!

Photo Quiz: Who am I dropping shellfish on the pier to crack them open? Or maybe the question should be.... why would anyone post such a cruddy picture?

Hovering Nuthatch

A White-Breasted Nuthatch checks out our new feeder. Warren thought this looked kind of cool and ghostly. But next time he'll use a faster shutter speed!

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

In the summertime...

I am a yellow warbler. I am very bright and I can sing. Ladies, here I am....
Photographer: Dave Herr

The second season of Miyoko Chu's Songbird Journeys: Four Seasons in the Lives of Migratory Birds was just as crazy enjoyable as the first section.
Chu begins the summer with the story of Wally, a nine year old banded yellow warbler who returns each summer to Lake Erie. Wally travels over two thousand miles for the chance to mate and raise young. He spends the first part of summer using his voice to entice females and protect his territory. Researchers found that not only is the repertoire of songs important, but also the way the bird sings. If a song sparrow wants to duke it out with another male song sparrow, he matchs the song type of his rival.

Wally is also wearing his most colorful plumage of the year, which is vital to Wally's chance of spreading his genes. Females prefer the brightest, most colorful males as these traits are often tied to the males who find the choicest diet. Some birds such as cardinals and finches get their bright colors from the pigments in the fruits and seeds they digest.
Once Wally finds a mate, she will build a nest and Wally will bring her food several times an hour as she warms the eggs. Once hatched, Wally and his mate will devote themselves to the feeding (hundreds of time a day) and protection of the brood (cowbirds delight in dropping their eggs in nests to be raised).

Wally might be surprised to find out the not all of the nestlings he is tending are his own. However, there is a pretty good chance that Wally spread his genetic material to another nest around the corner. DNA studies have shown that only 14% of songbirds are monogamous. Bad Bird Couples!

Chu then takes us to the New Hampshire summer. Dick Holmes, a Dartmouth College biologist, has studied songbird population fluctuations for over 35 years. "The story that Holmes and his colleagues have unraveled is complex; the fortunes of birds are governed by local, regional, and global factors that are constantly in flux."
Bird populations vary due to the abundance of caterpillars, deciduous tree seed production, wind changes over the oceans, acid rain and landscape change due to our alterations.
Whatever the cause, Holmes' studies show that songbirds have decreased almost 60% over the past 30 years.

Chu ends the summer with instructions on how to find and watch breeding birds and where to report your findings. There are also some wonderful illustrations with notes on where songbirds breed and winter.
Note to Cute Husband - our Wood Thrushes are either in Mexico or Central America right now!

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Old Birds, New Birds

Here's a 4,000-year-old heiroglyph from the Temple of Luxor, one of the most important religious sites in ancient Egypt. Birds played an important role in life even way back then.
Fast forward four millennia: on Monday, I saw a couple of Eurasian Kestrels floating on the wind a few yards from the Nile. A very common bird in Eurasia, but I think a lifer for me.
Birdcouple says: Every day you see a new bird is a good day!

Monday, January 15, 2007

the birds and the BEES

Dad asked me over today to help strain the honey we had extracted from his hive this fall. Big Fun!

We started with the raw honey which had settled since extraction last fall. Yup, it was sitting around for months in a bucket. However, one of the many wonderful things about honey is that it doesn’t spoil and it’s a preservative. In ancient times, the dead bodies of kings were put up in vats of honey for safe keeping.

No dead kings here, but defiantly a few dead bees.

The bucket to the left is covered with some heavy duty cheese cloth for the first straining. The bucket on the right is a delicious mixture of raw honey, bees, wax and pollen.

At this point I realized why hair nets are important in food establishments.

Wow, straining honey is messy business. I'm sure glad Dad wanted to do it at his house and not mine.

This is the raw honey after the first straining and prior to heating. In the spring, Dad's bees feast on pollen from Popular and Locust trees which explains the honey's rich amber color.

The strained raw honey is then heated to 120 degrees and strained once more. This is also the last time the thermomotor worked, because I dumped it in the gallons of goo right after I took this.

Dad' bees live in this lovely tri-color townhouse. Inside this magical house, about 40 thousand bees commingle and do their prescribed work. The worker bees clean, collect food, care for the queen and defend the colony. The drones only work is to mate with the queen. Yes, but because they are useless for anything else, they live very short lives. And finally, the Queen, whose sole duty is to lay eggs. The crazy January weather reached 70 degrees today and Dad's bees were out and about. Not gathering any pollen (as there is none to be found) but rather out to take a frass. In the winter, bees leave the hive in warm weather to defecate outside the walls of their home.

This guy was still not happy we took the honey in the first place. I have no idea why he is complaining. The average bee colony produces 60-100 lbs of honey per year.

And, here is the final product. About 3 gallons of glorious honey!

Hey Dad, we really should be celebrating! Why, there's honey beer, honey wine, honey grog , mead, a Bit of Russian Honey ......

To my jet-setting Cute Husband somewhere in Saudi Arabia, I am missing you, Honey.

Birds seen while straining honey: Kingfisher, Mallard, Downy Woodpecker, Carolina Chickadee, Pileated Woodpecker, White-breasted Nuthatch, Titmouse, Cardinal, Black Vulture, White-throated sparrow.

Alright, I gotta go get all the honey out of my hair.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

While the cat is away....

Hey, doesn't the cover look familiar? A bit like Sibley's Field Guides..... hmmm....

With cute husband off globe trotting, I spent Saturday night lounging and reading.

I swear, Honey, that is exactly what I did! :)

Songbird Journeys: Four Seasons in the Lives of Migratory Birds by Miyoko Chu was my Saturday night date. I am loving it. The book is divided into the four seasons. The Spring section details the study of the trans-Gulf migration, the 15 hour, 600 mile nonstop flight that migrant songbirds undertake to procreate. We have learned a lot about migration since the early 40's when George Lowery pointed his telescope at the moon searching for silhouettes of birds. With the help of technology, we now know significantly more about how birds navigate, how fast they travel and where exactly they are going.

Interesting stuff. So, why is the study of migration important? "Understanding the connectivity of birds - the connection between all the places they inhabit throughout the year has tremendous implications for the conservation of birds." Knowing where birds are coming from, traveling over and resting in helps us identify the areas that need protection.

The Spring section ends with a list of birding hot spots and info on reading weather and radar images to predict migration. Very cool!

Summer to follow..... Missing you, cute husband...


SHANNON, Ireland--The uglier half of BirdCouple (that's Warren, natch) is off on a 7-day, 7-nation trip with SecState Condoleezza Rice. Trips like this don't leave much time for birding, what with country-hopping airplanes, crazed, sleep-starved schedules and cities seen from a careening motorcade...

But, the Birdcouple has 400 bird species to see this year... Perhaps W can add a few?

* UPDATE: Warren had 5 birds on the Condi trip, 3 of them (Cattle Egret in Egypt, Wood Pigeon and Eurasian Magpie in UK), seen through the windows of a bus. Also had Hooded Crow in Jerusalem and Eurasian Kestrel (LIFER!) in Luxor, Egypt.

Bird Flu may save some birds from extinction....

From BirdLife International:

The EU Commission has announced that the ban on imports of birds caught in the wild is to be made permanent throughout the European Union later this year.
The move comes after a temporary ban was imposed within the EU in October 2005, after birds in a UK quarantine centre were found to have avian influenza.

"We fully applaud the decision made by the EU Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health." said Dr Clairie Papazoglou, Head of European Division at BirdLife International.

"Banning the imports of birds caught in the wild is great news for bird conservation, even though the ruling has been made to limit the spread of disease, and not to conserve species. Only if laws are made on the basis of conservation can we have more confidence in protecting those species that are threatened by trade."

You can read the rest of the story here

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Minorities and birding

Why don't more minorities engage in birding and other outdoor activities? A touchy subject. Interesting column here, passed on by Paul Baicich.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Shop (and speak) for the trees!

Yellow Warbler. Photographer: Dave Herr

Canada’s Boreal Forest hosts close to 3 billion birds each spring and is crucial to the survival of almost half of the bird species in North America. The Boreal Forest habitat is being ravaged to produce a host of paper products used daily by households in the United States.

The Boreal Songbird Initiative (BSI) is a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the Boreal Forest of North America for migratory birds .
BSI supported the recent campaign to push Victoria Secret to use recycled paper to produce their catalogs.

According to BSI, if every household in the U.S. replaced one roll of virgin fiber toilet paper with a 100% recycled one, we could save 423,900 trees. Here is BSI’s list of paper products that meet NRDC environmental criteria and a list of products that should be avoided.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could make "Fluff Out" the generic name for facial tissues?

Good News for Asian Vultures

Endangered species has breeding success.

(Courtesy of BirdLife International)

Monday, January 8, 2007

Buy a stamp, save a bird pit stop

Paul Baicich, author of A Guide to the Nests, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American spoke out our local bird club meeting last week on the history and current status of National Wildlife Refuges. One of Paul's discussion points was how birders tend to spend thousands on optics, guides and travel to see birds yet, as a group, we have a certain sense of entitlement to the habitat that allows birds to exist. Whereas, hunters, who are used to paying a fee for the right to use a resource have little problem putting out the money to sustain it.

The Duck Stamp is where we, as birders, can make a difference. The most wonderful part of this program is that it has been effective! In the past 72 years, the proceeds from Duck Stamp revenue purchased over 5.2 million acres of wetland habitat. Not only that, but the vast majority (ninety-eight cents on every dollar) goes directly to habitat protection within the National Wildlife Refuge System.

So, until the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service takes my Cute Husband's idea to market a Bird Stamp where can you find this year's Ross Goose? Supposedly at your local post office, but I had no luck at ours. However, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service website has some links with shipping costs or try the kind people at The Georgia Ornithological Society who will send you the Duck Stamp at cost plus a self addressed stamp envelope.

On top of all that, the Stamp gets you free admission into NWRs!
And, maybe a little piece of a some future wetland.

Sunday, January 7, 2007


That stands for National Wildlife Refuges! Lisa and I attended a fascinating talk Friday at our local bird club by Paul Baicich, a veteran birder (and former editor of Birding magazine) who currently consults for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on visitor issues at NWRs.

In addition to an elegant presentation that intertwined the history of birding, refuges and conservation, Paul made some points that really made Lisa and I stop and think.

For those who don't know much about NWRs, two quick bits of background: the first one was begun by President Teddy Roosevelt (of course!); and unlike National Parks, which are meant to serve people, National Wildlife Refuges are meant primarily to protect wildlife and habitat.

As Paul spoke, I got to thinking how often The Bird Couple visits an NWR. Probably once a month, at least. We are frequent guests at some of the fine refuges along the mid-Atlantic, including Blackwater NWR, Bombay Hook NWR and Eastern Neck NWR. Last month, we blogged about our first visit to John Heinz NWR, squeezed between an airport and an industrial wasteland right outside Philadelphia.

These places are amazing, and many of the 500+ refuges provide critical habitat for threatened or endangered species....

Like all things having to do with conservation, they are grossly underfunded. Some refuges, Paul says, have no staff biologist, or have to rotate staff among several nearby refuges.

Guess how they get their funding? Most of the funds for purchasing additional land for refuges come from the "Duck Stamp" - the stamp hunters have to buy each year. It costs $15 annually. Hunters buy the lion's share of the stamps. Birders, where are you? Get out and get your stamp!

How? Lovely Lisa will tell you how in our next post.