Thursday, January 31, 2008

Cool Owl Video

We're a wee bit embarrassed that it took a regular reader of our web site to point out that Warren's employer, McClatchy, has some interesting owl video posted on their website. This video actually comes from one of the McClatchy Newspapers, the Charlotte News & Observer.

Coincidentally (or perhaps not), the Birding Community E-Bulletin (link over there on the right) has an article on the increasing urbanization of Barred Owls, particularly in ... Charlotte, N.C.

Thanks, Dan. And Paul.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Hug a Hunter, (2)

BirdCouple has blogged several times before about hunters, and the useful role they play in wildlife and habitat management and conservation.

Recently, a member of the birding community had some rather negative things to say on our local email listserv regarding wildfowl hunters. He was angered and disturbed to hear hunters in the distance while he was participating in a bird count.

We'll simply reprint Warren's response below:

"I don't normally weigh in here on debates like this, but since I disagree so much with what you wrote, I feel I have to respond - politely, but passionately.

First off, I am an avid birder and nature-lover, and have never hunted or owned a gun in my life. That said:

1) Birding and hunting have gone hand in hand since the days of Audubon and before; the two have always been linked historically and in other ways.

2) The "Duck Stamp," which hunters have to purchase, has saved about 5 million acres of habitat since its inception in 1934. The refuges we love most - like Bombay Hook and Blackwater - were purchased almost ENTIRELY with duck stamp funds. Lisa and I wouldn't dream of going birding without our duck stamp along. I hope everyone on this list has purchased theirs. (Although I do wish they would issue a version that had neotropical migrants on it for us non- hunters).

3) Ducks Unlimited and other such groups (like those for Pheasants and Ruffed Grouse) do play an important role in habitat and species conservation. Do they over-hype their achievements and role? Probably, but what group doesn't?

4) Responsible - repeat responsible - hunting of non-endangered species actually helps save and manage species. In a perfect world, yes, man's fingerprints would be completely off nature. But that world doesn't exist anymore. "Going Wild" by Jan Dizard is a great book about this tension.

5) I think the decision not to include hunters and reach out to them was one of the main reasons the environmental movement that began in the (1970s) stalled out. We should actually be lamenting the decline of hunters (there was an article about this in the November National Geo), which is happening along with other losses of rural America.

When I go out birding (or hiking the Appalachian Trail), I feel I have a lot more in common with a hunter who knows the land, the weather and the species he's after than I do with someone whose entire world consists of asphalt, Starbucks, Wal-mart, the office, video games and the local gym. Thanks for listening.

Friday, January 25, 2008


So were we! .... to find this amazingly cute little owl, a Northern Saw-whet Owl, so close at hand. (Actually, we didn't "find" it ... and we are deeply indebted to Paul O'Brien for sharing directions to the spot).

This guy? gal? is roosting in a spruce tree, on a branch about 8 feet up, that extends over a suburban sidewalk in Rockville, Maryland. It's almost literally right outside someone's door.

Warren did a little research and discovered that Saw-Whet Owls are actually more common than generally believed, and sometimes roost in parks and gardens, as low as 5 feet off the ground. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Saw-Whet Owls eat mice, especially deer mice, and they "usually are eaten in pieces in two different meals."

These pictures are not as good as they might be because a) Warren did not want to disturb the bird, as an earlier photographer had done, b) it was overcast and the bird was in a tree, c) Warren's fingers were so cold that his hands were shaking and d) he is not as good a photographer as he wants to be. Excuses!!!

What a rare treat to see an owl this close:

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Quick Blog(s) Notes

We've added the eBird Google Gadget to BirdCouple, now visible on the right sidebar, and set to show notable sightings from our home state of Maryland. Many thanks to A DC Birding Blog for showing us the way to the directions to do this.

Meanwhile, our good friend Dan Haas has updated his blog with a great new header and lots of cool pictures of Merlins, owls and more. ..

Monday, January 21, 2008

It isn't Easy Being Female

It is for me!
No complaints from the gal side of BirdCouple.

But female Ring-Necked Ducks may disagree.

On a recent birding jaunt with Paul Baicich, our dear friend pointed out that the male Ring-Necked Ducks outnumbered the girls by at least 4 to 1.

We noticed the same disproportionate number of males vs females in Ring-Necks while birding this weekend in Prince George's County.

Photo: Dave Herr

So, my first thought, naturally, was ....

Wow, with that ratio I defiantly want to come back as a female Ring-Necked Duck!

Until Paul pointed out that there was probably a pretty good reason that there aren't as many gals in the flock.

One of the reasons could be brood parasitism. Brood parasitism is when one bird lays her eggs in another's nest and leaves the chick hatching duties to someone else.

Cowbirds dumping their eggs in warbler nests is probably the most well known of brood parasitism. But, it is also quite common in ducks.

While checking Wood Duck boxes at Huntley Meadows Park last year, we noticed some boxes literally crammed with eggs, most likely dumped by one or two females who are not into doing the nest sitting duty.

The more eggs to hatch, the more bills to feed, the more at risk the female is to predation.

Perhaps, but I found nothing that suggests Ring-Neckeds have a more common rate of hosting parasitic eggs than Mallards.

The nests of the Ring-necked Duck are built on floating islands or in open marshes, close to water. Maybe females are more at risk from general predation during nesting than Canvasback females who prefer to nest in marshes above shallow water or on dry land.

According to The Boreal Songbird Initiative , "Ring-necked Ducks are more generalized feeders than other diving ducks. They eat mostly plant matter like seeds and tubers of submerged vegetation, but also feed on snails, insects, leeches, and other aquatic invertebrates. The diet varies for females during high energy cost periods, such as egg production and nesting, when they will consume more protein rich invertebrates."

Is something in the protein rich invertebrates toxic to females?

Ring-necked Ducks also have one of the highest lead shot ingestion rates among North American waterfowl. Lead shot has been banned in North America for several years, but pre-ban lead pellets can still be found in many wetlands.

Perhaps, females are more at risk to lead poisoning because she, potionally, ingests more sucken lead pellets as she raises her young in the marsh.


But for now, the male Ring-Necks hanging in our local birding lakes, look like they face something similar to human males living in Alaska .

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Cruisin' for Chicks

Lisa and I spent a lovely Saturday morning birding spots in Prince George's County, including a lovely place near the University of Maryland called Lake Artemesia. There's always some action there...

Apparently this Hooded Merganser was hoping so, too. When we first saw him, he was cruising down the pond, trying to look all sleek and calm. Well, things changed fast when three female Hooded Merg cuties popped into the bar - I mean, pond. Our little friend here turned around and headed toward the nearest babe, looking more like this:

Photo couretsy of Abilene, Texas zoo
According to the Smithsonian National Zoological Park's website, Hooded Merganser "male courtship behavior involves a number of elaborate displays featuring the erectile crest and distinctive vocalizations. One of the most common is the "Head-Throw". A male raises his crest and swims parallel to a female. He throws his head back sharply until it touches his back and then brings it forward slowly while emitting a rolling frog-like croak. Other ritual displays include wing flapping and stretching, shaking, or pumping the head. The female may bob or pump her head in response to the male's overtures."
Well. We'll stop right there, because BirdCouple is a family blog. Suffice to say (and unlike BirdCouple!) Hooded Mergansers do not bond for life. Pairing ends once the female starts incubating her eggs.
And our friend may not have gotten lucky yesterday. A few minutes later, we saw the three girls fly and land in another part of the pond.
Whether it's looking for love or finding food, it's a jungle out there. This American Coot found something green and yummy to eat, but soon found himself attracting other hungry Coots. Lisa said they are not a particularly attractive-looking bird. She's right (as usual). They can even look sort of fierce viewed head-on.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Caught in the Act

It doesn't look like he figured out the peanut machine.... yet...

And, Goldfinch-a-rama during a quick snow last week.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Quote of the Day

I've been enjoying a pre-publication copy of The Life of the Skies by Jonathan Rosen. Due out next month, the book is a mixture of birding history, natural history and philosophy.

Some passages will really strike a chord with any devoted birder. Like this one:

"During spring migration, every day I fail to take my binoculars and go to the park I feel a sense of deep loss, and recall Hemingway saying that every day he failed to write was a day closer to death. My wife has often heard me moan, when I'm overwhelmed with work and responsibility, "I'm missing migration!" as if I were somehow part of the flock."

ARRRRG. Is it April yet?

- W

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Big, big listers

Birdcouple likes to keep tabs on our good friend Peter Kaestner, diplomat and birder extraordinaire. Peter and family are currently posted at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, India.

Peter got his first lifer of the year on January 12, an Indian Scops Owl.

That was life bird # 8,142. Yes, you read that right. 8, 142.

Peter, who has found most of his birds by himself and discovered a new species of antpitta in Colombia, is believed to be third among all living birders in his life list......

While we're on the subject of worldwide bird listing, two British birders, Alan Davies and Ruth Miller, are trying to break the record for the most birds seen in a calendar year, which stands at 3,662. Check them out at The Biggest Twitch. (They are currently at 487). Oops, make that 708, now. ...We wish them well, and are glad they are also raising funds to support conservation. (We are also very, very jealous).

Monday, January 14, 2008

What are we feeding them?

Kay Charter, Executive Director of Saving thru Habitat and author of For the Love of Birds emailed us yesterday regarding our efforts to fend off the ravenous raccoons in our back yard.

Our squirrel/raccoon proofing of the bird feeders has consisted of filling them with seed or suet loaded with hot pepper.

Kay pointed out that although there are no studies that show that eating pepper infused birdseed or suet is necessarily bad for birds, there are also no studies on the effects of birds eating pepper infused seed.

Hmm... we did do some research before tossing out the hot stuff and found that sure, birds will eat it, they don't have any taste buds. Mammals will not eat it, they can taste it. Or, at least they learn that hot pepper is not so tasty after they try a few bites and run panting to the bird bath.

Kay's point was that although the birds are digging the seed, it doesn't necessarily mean that introducing a hot pepper into their diet is a good thing. Birds in our neighborhood aren't scavenging off pepper bushes. Pepper is not part of their normal diet.

Kay, DANG! We had the certain solution and now you got us thinking about the proper method of minimizing raccoon/squirrel damage.

Bring the feeders in at night.

Oh, I can just hear Cute Husband. "Thanks, Kay. More chores"

Friday, January 11, 2008

BirdCam suffered no damages....

Our neighborhood raccoon has become quite a connoisseur of suet.
Fruit and nut flavor.
Peanut delight.
Berry infused high energy.
Raccoon has tried them all.

In fact, Raccoon can eat an entire 11 oz block of suet in one evening.
Raccoon illustration only. This is not the actual thief.
Racoon's nightly adventures on the deck involve transgressing a series of birdfeeders to get to his beloved rendered fat.
Shimmy past the pepper infused seed. Negotiate around the peanut feeder. Avoid the birdbath. In the midst of bird heaven, exists our Wingscapes Birdcam. Raccoon cares not about Birdcam. As he waddles toward his lard dinner, he pushes BirdCam off the deck where it hangs by bungee cords slamming against the deck railing.

But, BirdCam can take a beating. Along with the all the other great features of this cool device, BirdCam was meant to last.

Raccoon indestructible.
Raccoon broke the deck railings on his last visit, but not BirdCam.

The following day, as BirdCam lay on its back, it produced some interesting pictures and perhaps some new ideas to use our coolest toy.

In the meantime, we are stocking up on pepper-infused suet.
If Raccoon develops a taste for the spicy stuff, we have either fattened him up for a Great Horned Owl, or we have contributed to the obesity epidemic in the raccoon population.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Don't Worry. Bee Happy.

Oh, all the nights I have fallen asleep wondering how my little bees are doing.

The rainy chilly days when I thought of them clustered shivering in the cold.

The windy days I worried that I had not thoroughly protected them from the elements.

All the brisk days that I wandered out to their little home and pressed my ear against the hive in hopes of hearing a faint buzz.

And, the times I seriously considered purchasing a stethoscope so that I might, perhaps, hear the faint beating of their little wings.

Perhaps you can see how all my insect related stress would drive Cute Husband a little crazy...

Well, finally on Saturday I got some peace of mind. The weather warmed to almost 60 degrees and the back yard was a regular party!

Bees flowing out of the hive, buzzing like crazy, as they stretched their wings for the first time in weeks.

It was such a grand celebration that I just stood in the middle of it as bees poured out of the hive.

Most likely I was getting splashed with a big dose of bee poop, as bees are quite fastidious and will not defecate in the hive.

Warm days in the winter also allow the hive to remove some of their sisters who have died in the hive since the last break in the weather. This gal was just hanging on the tree soaking up the warmth.

Normal Maryland January weather is expected to return tomorrow, but in the meantime, they are enjoying some sugar water and a slightly expanded entrance to the hive.

When I close them up tonight, I will set myself a-worrying again for a couple more months.

March is typically the the hardest month for bees as the winter honey stores are nearly depleted and there is very little nectar for them to forage.

But for now, my girls look healthy....

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Every Bird is a New Bird

One thing Birdcouple loves about the New Year is that we get to start identifying and counting birds all over again. That makes us take a second look at every bird we see, and appreciate even the most humble, common birds (like this Ring-Billed Gull) all over again. Perhaps we might even learn something new about old friends.

Well, it's the 6th day of the New Year and we have already seen 42 species, a lot of common ones, but a few treats as well, like a pair of immature Bald Eagles and some Cedar Waxwings that Princess Lisa saw near her work.

We spent a lovely Saturday morning in Howard County, Maryland with our good friend Paul Baicich. Columbia, Paul's town, is known for its lakes and trails, so we did some fun, low-key birding as we walked around Lake Elkhorn and Centennial Lake. The waterfowl was especially good -- and the temperature had warmed up -- at Centennial Lake.

The Ring-Necked Duck is one of Lisa's favorite ducks. We rarely see them here except in winter. They look both beautiful and fierce at the same time.

Lisa will have more to say about Ring-Necked Ducks in a future post. So stay tuned...

Warren's favorite birds of the day were a pair of Canvasback. They look sleek, like a racing hound..

So bring on the House Sparrows, Goldfinches, Great Blue Herons. We may tire of them in July and yearn for something rarer, but in January, every bird is a new bird.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Happy New Year!

Looking ahead to a whole lot of fun (and birds) in 2008! (BirdCouple's first bird of '08 was a Blue Jay at our feeder this morning).
"I can't think of any activity that more fully captures what it means to be human in the modern world than watching birds."
- from the soon-to-be-published "The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature," by Jonathan Rosen.