Monday, July 30, 2007

Snowbirds in July

Long time, no blog. BirdCouple has been busy, busy, busy! (Seeing our first ever Wilson’s Phalarope among other things!)

Warren is posting this from Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, where he is travelling with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in the Middle East. He’ll also touch down in Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Palestinian territories before heading home in four days.

But, back to the birds…

This is a thought for the dog days of July. And also an illustration of one of the reasons I really love birding: there is always something more to learn.

Even the most casual backyard birder is familiar with the “snowbird,” those little chappies with the slate-gray coat, white breast and pinkish bill (that’s on the U.S. East Coast—there are subspecies with different plumages elsewhere in the U.S.) They are called Dark-Eyed Juncos. They appear at suburban bird feeders late each year (hence, the terms “snowbirds”) and disappear in the spring.

They all head north once the weather warms.

Well, that’s what we thought we knew. We were wrong.

Lisa and I were hiking earlier this month in the Appalachian Mountains in Georgia – Georgia! – and saw a small flock of birds down by a stream. You guessed it – Dark-Eyed Juncos. Although this is not exactly a rare bird we’ve never seen before, it took us a few moments to convince ourselves of the evidence right before our eyes. Dark-eyed Juncos. In Georgia. In July.

We figured that they must be some kind of rogue, isolated population, marooned down there while the rest of their bretheren were cooling their heels up in Canada. Quite a discovery!

Then we took a closer look at the population distribution map for Dark-Eyed Juncos in our Sibley’s bird guide. There it was – a pencil-thin line of purple stretching down the Appalachian Mountains all the way to Georgia. (Purple denotes where the bird can be found year-round). Apparently, there is an Appalachian population of juncos that lives up in the mountains all through the seasons, never migrating.

And lest we thought it was a fluke, we were on another hike just 10 days ago in the mountains of Virginia. There they were – more juncos.

Snowbirds in July. Who knew? Always something more to learn.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Great Place to Get A Life Bird

In the tent. Seriously. Lisa and I had just seriously crashed out at Pinefield Hut, a shelter on the Appalachian Trail, in Shenandoah National Park, after hiking 17 miles over hill and dale - a new personal 1-day best. It was a great hike, but we had to move too fast to do any serious birding - just the usual, like Indigo Buntings, Red-Eyed Vireos and Towhees.

As our eyes clamped shut and our brains began to shut down with the last light fading from the sky, and a crescent of moon showing, we heard a call not far off in the distance: Whip-purrrr-will! Whip-purrrrr-will! A Whip-poor-will!! This was a sound I have always wanted to hear! (Lisa now recalls hearing it as a young Princess, growing up near Annapolis).

Just in case you are wondering, idenitfying a bird by its call, even if you haven't seen it, is legitimate, according to the American Birding Assocation's rules, which state that "identification may be by sight or sound." I feel that his is particularly legitimate for nocturnal birds, such as the Whip-poor-will.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology says that Whi-poor-wills are believed to be declining in population, although good census data is hard to come by.

We've seen birds in strange places before. Like the Great Horned Owl hanging on for dear life to a lamp post in the parking lot at Corpus Christi, Texas, airport, after we had landed there in a stiff wind. Or the Eastern Kingbird I once saw on a bush just yards away from Merchant's Tire & Auto in busy downtown Annapolis.

Birdcouple's reminder to self: Always keep your eyes (and ears) open!

Friday, July 20, 2007

Weekend in the Mountains

BirdCouple will be out hiking the Appalachian Trail this weekend. We're trying to knock off 28 1/2 miles, and do a little (well, a LOT) of birding as well.

We've seen 80 species of birds along the A.T., a 2,175 mile path that mostly winds through the woods and mountains, but also carries us through small towns, along rivers and across fields, from Maine to Georgia!

There was that Wild Turkey in Shenandoah National Park. And the Green Heron along a riverbank in Pennsylvania. And a Blue-Headed Vireo in Maryland. And....

Stay tuned!

Meanwhile, the big news locally is that a White Ibis has been seen at Merkle Wildlife Visitors Center. This is a mostly a southern bird, seen in Florida, and Texas. Very rare for these parts, and normally not seen north of North Carolina.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

8 Random Facts about BirdCouple

Ten days ago, we got "tagged" by Birdchick with the "8 Random Facts Meme." This is a bloggers game, and here are the rules:

Players start with eight random facts/habits about themselves.

People who are tagged need to write their own blog about their eight things and post these rules.

At the end of your blog, you need to choose eight people to get tagged and list their names.
Don’t forget to leave them a comment telling them they’re tagged, and to read your blog.


1) Lisa and Warren met in a bar on a blind date. Really. Right here. The holy date was Feb 19, 2002:

We love the Rams Head Tavern.

2) When we were married a little more than two years later, one of our wedding vows was to finish hiking the Appalachian Trail together. You can check our progress on our AT Blog.

3) We've birded and birded and birded. We've seen some fairly spectacular birds, like the Black-Chested Snake Eagle, the Resplendant Quetzal and the Dusky Sunbird. But we've never, ever seen a *(#$#(*)$)#($)(# American Bittern or a *#$(*#$)(*#U$)# *&&* American Pipit. These are called NEMESIS birds.

4) We used to be birders and listers. The day we met Paul Bacich - was it less than a year ago? Is that possible? - we became dedicated conservationists. Or rather, found the conservationists within us. Paul is the coolest. And thanks to him we learned about...

5) The DUCK STAMP! If you are a birder, and are reading this, you've bought your duck stamp, right? RIGHT? The Duck Stamp costs a mere $15 - most of that goes for buying land to preserve and expand National Wildlife Refuges across the nation. Which do what? PROTECT BIRDS. So buy yours now.... (It's also a free pass into any NWR across the country).

We were reading DC Birder yesterday, and saw that he had a picture of the new duck stamp - you're going to buy it, right? -- right here:

He also has a nice link to a new site,, where you can buy it. SO DO IT.

6) We both went walking in the woods and enjoying nature with our fathers when we were kids.

7) We're birders, mainly. But we're curious about the moths around our house at night, the trees over our driveway, the bugs that sneak into our house, the tree frogs that we hear croaking as we write this from our back porch. Too much to learn. So little time!

8) Lisa would come back in the next life as a Ruby-Throated Hummingbird, small, delicate and fast. Warren would come back as a Peregrine Falcon, strong, keen-eyed and FASTER.

Well.... we have to tag eight people. For some reason, the our little laptop on the porch (we were listening to katy-dids) bombed while developing our 8 links to tag.....

MID-WEEK UPDATE: We are going to tag...

_ Dan Haas, the hero of the Severn River peregrines.

_ The Brownstone Birding Blog.

_ Paige, Avery and Jeff, natch.

_ A DC Birding Blog.

_ The Woodcreeper.

_ The Backyard Birder.

_ Bill of the Birds.

AND The Egret's Nest.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

A Night Heron in DC

I checked. A Yellow-Crowned Night Heron is on the official checklist of birds of the District of Columbia (which, amazingly for DC's small size, lists 325 species). So this is not a rarity.
Still, this is not a bird you see in the nation's capitol every day, so I was shocked, pleased and amazed to find one hanging out at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, which is a beautiful place to walk and visit if you ever find yourself in Washington at any season.
Not sure what this bird was doing here, especially at the top of a pine tree (lower picture) where I first found her (him?) I don't think it was part of a nesting pair, and looks to me like a young adult bird.
Seeing it was a great way to start the day. I can now add Yellow-Crowned Night Heron to my list of birds seen in DC. And, er, to my list of birds seen *pooping*

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

An Oldie is not a Goodie for Male Sparrows

If this White- Crowned Sparrow wants to make it with the ladies, he won't be singing "Free Bird".

This from

For male sparrows looking for a mate or trying to defend their turf, it pays to keep up with the times and latest musical hits.

A new study finds that female white-crowned sparrows pay more attention to new bird songs than vintage tunes, and that other males find the oldies much less threatening.

Previous studies have shown that the bird songs of a single species can vary population by population. The new work, detailed online in the journal Evolution, shows the songs can vary significantly over time as well. It might also show how, across evolutionary time, one bird species becomes two.

Duke University graduate student Elizabeth Derryberry played two versions of male songs to other sparrows: One was a recording made in 1979 and the other was a more modern version from 2003.

Differences between the two songs were subtle: the 1979 recording starts out with a higher pitched whistle and ends with rapid trills. The newer song starts with a lower whistle and has extended trills at the end.

But the female sparrows clearly preferred the newer version of the birdsong and would do a little “dance” after hearing it. They arched their backs, raised their tails and beaks and performed a come-hither flutter with their wings. If they really liked it, the female birds would begin to dance before the song was even over.

Reception of the old song was less enthusiastic. “It’s not that they don’t respond at all,” Derryberry said. “It just isn’t as interesting to them.”

Monday, July 9, 2007

Box Stores = Bird Habitat

Here is a phenomenon that we are already familiar with at our own local Home Depot: house sparrows finding a place to live in big box-type stores. And why not? As the article notes, these places give a few bird species all they need - food (in the form of bird seed, etc.), water, nesting areas and few predators.

One thing that surprised me about the story is the accompanying box of text that says House Sparrow populations are declining. Wonder what this is based on? I had assumed that House Sparrows, as well as other urbanized birds such as European Starlings, were and are expanding rapidly as urban and suburban habitats provided by humans expand.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Peregrine Rescue

An amazing tale (and cool photographs!) from local Annapolis musician and birder Dan Haas of his rescue of an immature Peregrine Falcon from our own Severn River Bridge. (That's about 1 mile away from BirdCouple's lair as the kayak floats...)

Check it out...

UPDATE, July 12: Our local paper has an article today about Dan and the Peregrine's rescue...