Thursday, July 31, 2008

My CIA bird list

My job, covering foreign affairs and occasionally national security for McClatchy Newspapers, sometimes takes me to very interesting places where I get to do quick bits of birding in place most people never get to go.

My Iraq bird list, for example, stands at two: House Sparrow and Mesopotamian Crow, a subspecies of the Hooded Crow which is likely to someday be recognized as its own seperate species. (Since the Iraq War, I've been there twice, on quick in-and-out trips with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell, but not as a war correspondent. I was in Iraq four times before the war began, when Saddam was still in power, but that's a different story).

Today, my job took me to the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia .... for reasons I am not at liberty to describe here. The campus is actually a large tract of land (albeit heavily protected) with lots of leafy trees and even running trails for employees.

While I couldn't exactly mosey around, when I left the Original Headquarters Building (picture above, courtesy of the agency's public website) and walked to my car, I figured it couldn't hurt to put my eyes and ears in birding mode. Sure enough, I heard a Blue Jay's call not far away. So there it is, I've started my CIA bird list. I'll head back soon with bins and scope. NOT.

No jokes, please, about robotic spy Blue Jays.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Birds. But, not Birding.

Warren and I have been trying all summer to escape with Mitch and Adam.

But, since both are handsome guys with girls, cars and summer jobs... finding a weekend has been difficult.

We marked our calendars and came up with July 25-27 at Deep Creek Lake.

And, Cute Husband and I decided that we would make every attempt to not turn this weekend into a birding bonanza.

We were not getting up at 5AM, dressing and putting on binoculars for the day.

We were going to sleep in like teenagers and stay up late with the boys.

Look! BirdCouple without binoculars!

We were not going to check out every Natural Resource Area, every Wildlife Management Area, every National Wildlife Refuge, every pond, every lake, every swamp within a 20 mile radius in search of birds.

We were going to cook huge meals and sit around for hours talking about the happenings in the lives of two young men. We were not going to stop everywhere we heard bird song or slam on the brakes, put the car in reverse when we saw the faintest wing beat.

We were not even going to ask Mitch and Adam to play Name that Bird or work on any bird related jigsaw puzzles.

Warren and I love full on, hardcore, bird 'til you drop birding. We never find it stressful, in fact we love a couple of days of hunting and searching.

But, intense birding can be demanding.

Demanding on time and energy which we desperately wanted to savor with Mitch and Adam.

And, Cute Husband and I ate up every second with this two young men.

And, you know, we also saw a lot of birds.

We noted the guys that flew over as we passed on our way to Western Maryland: the Turkey Vultures, the Red-Tailed and Red-Shouldered Hawks.

We counted the city birds as we stopped for groceries: the Starlings, House Finches and Rock Pigeons.

The Chipping Sparrows who sang as we soaked in the hot tub. The Scarlet Tanager who hunted for insects while we lounged on the deck. The Eastern Wood Pewee who called from deep in the woods when we hiked.

The Mallards we flushed as we tubed by. The Pine Warblers singing and the Cedar Waxwings picking off bugs as we admired Sparrow Falls.

The Osprey that Warren pointed out to Adam as we swam in the lake.

To two of the finest gentlemen we know: Thank you for a crazy happy couple of days that went by way too fast....
Makes us (almost!) wish they never had to leave the nest....

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Louis the Woodworker

Our friend Louis Peterson only recently got into working with wood, but he is already turning out some bueatuiful pieces.

This is his representation of Birdcouple! Louis and Vencka invited us over for dinner a few weeks ago and completely suprised us with this gift for our 4th wedding anniversary. We are too lucky to have them as friends and neighbors.

Louis, we still think you should go into business with this!
-W and L

Friday, July 25, 2008

Maxin' and relaxin'

We're hanging out until Monday at lovely Deep Creek Lake, Maryland. Birding will be done, but at a slooooooooow pace. Sigh. Adam and Lisa are rocking and reading this afternoon. Warren has added some birds to his new Garrett County, Maryland list. A male Scarlet Tanager dropped in to a tree, about 15 feet away from us at our weekend cabin. Double sigh.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Keeping up with the Big Listers ... and some news

Quick post today. Time to catch up with BirdCouple's favorite big listers. At the top of our listers' list, of course is our dear friend Peter Kaestner. Peter saw a Great Indian Bustard on July 5, putting his life list at an incredible 8,189. It's an almost unimaginable feat, given that there are roughly 10,000 bird species in the world-- many in remote and dangerous places.

Peter has done a lot more than tally birds. Among his accomplishments (including a succesful diplomatic career and a lovely family) are his discovery some years ago, of a previously unknown species, the Cundinamarca Antpitta.

Meanwhile, as BC's regular readers know, two British birders, Alan Davies and Ruth Miller, are trying to break the record for most bird species seen in a year. We're having trouble accessing their site, , this afternoon, but according to Surfbirds, they are currently at 2,809. Oops - now make that *2,829* The single-year record is 3,662.

To put these numbers in perspective, with all their birding, Lisa and Warren have world lifelists in the 500-600 range. In North America, Warren is at 398, closing in on the big 400!!

Listing is fun, not that the birds care...


Warren's employer, McClatchy Newspapers, has been doing a bunch of interesting "bird journalism" lately.

* Here is an arresting article by South American correspondent Jack Chang about the endangered Andean Condor.

* Jack did another piece recently on hundreds of Magellanic Penguins that have turned up on the shores of Brazil, far from their home in Patagonia.

* And the Raleigh News & Observer, one of our 31 daily newspapers, did a story recently on how North American birds sing with regional accents. Most birders know that, but most of the general public probably didn't.

Good writing! Good birding!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Bird Wordl and other Fun...

This work of art or "word cloud" was generated from a fun program called Wordl that we found via The Backyard Birdman

It is a fun toy where you enter text and it randomly draws word clouds.

The above work of art was generated from the last couple of posts on BirdCouple.

Art from random musings... love it!

And, if you are looking for additional non-bird related fun, check out the News Quiz on Cute Husband's alternate ego blog Nukes and Spooks.

I got an A+.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Proof that Birding is Fun... even without birds...

Cute Husband and I had the pleasure of being invited by one of our Keswick Hall birders to Wintergreen Resort for a weekend of birds, great company and too much fun.

We met Eric and his wife MaryBeth on one of our bird walks at Keswick. We were immediately charmed by their enthusiasm (and the fact that their children joined us on a bird walk), so Warren and I were really looking forward to spending time with them and their friends at this picturesque mountaintop retreat.

Eric helped connect us with the Executive Director of The Wintergreen Nature Foundation, Doug Coleman. Doug is a renowned field botanist in the Mid-Atlantic Region. His work at the Foundation has helped protect and preserve over 6,000 acres of the 11,000 acres that encompass the Wintergreen Resort.

The Foundation's mission is to encourage the understanding, appreciation, and conservation of the natural and cultural resources of the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia.

The Foundation's premier event, the Spring Wildflower Symposium, offers over 50 programs that include bird and bug watching, recognizing natural ecosystems, native landscaping, forest ecology and the geology of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

BirdCouple kind of stuff! We can't wait for this event next May!

We then hit some of Wintergreen's trails for some late afternoon birding before joining this lovely group of aspiring birders:

Brian, Jean, Kim, Eric, Phil, MaryBeth and Cute Husband.

Wine and birding.... a great Virginia combination!

This looks to be a Poplar Hawk Moth that was hanging out while we were owling off the deck.

Eric had already purchased a pair of Alpen Shasta Ridge binoculars, but we were eager to show off the Alpen Apex, which we love for its sharp image and light weight.

These bins were a big hit... even though the birds were playing hide and seek all weekend.

We had great looks at Scarlet Tanager, Indigo Bunting and Goldfinch. We heard the sweet song of the Louisiana Waterthrush and had quick looks at American Redstart, but otherwise, the birds were just being shy.

Ah, the challenges of July birding on the East Coast....

And, you know, it didn't matter one bit.

We talked and laughed and shared experiences. We discussed golf, tennis, teaching and teenagers. We learned about horses, hay, valves and civil war history. We wondered about blue colored eggs, the proliferation of deer and Canada Geese and cooking for vegetarian children. We celebrated starting and selling businesses, the joys of traveling and Animal Planet story lines.

We ate like kings at the Copper Mine and laughed hysterically when we confused our waiter by telling him we were birders and he thought we said we were murderers....

So, all of this proves what Warren and I always say. Birders and those that appreciate birds are just really wonderful, imaginative fun people.

Thank you for sharing an unforgettable weekend with us!

Friday, July 18, 2008

Friday Fun

Warren's Dad, also known as Papa Carl and "the old Aeronaut," passed these photos on some weeks ago. These hand paintings look *incredible* and take hours and hours to do. The person who does these also does beautiful hand paintings of tigers, dogs and such. But hey, we're a birding blog.

We wish we had more information about the artist, but we do not. Maybe someone out there can help?

Enjoy, and have a good weekend.

- W and L

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A Handful of Rusties...

Russell Greenberg, head of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center at the National Zoo, recently wrote this interesting article on his studies of the Rusty Blackbird.

Greenberg's description of troops of Rusty Blackbirds "...diligently marching around the edges of leaf islands and wading the puddles, methodically searching the mud, flipping leaves, vigorously shaking wet green globs of vegetation in their bills, then pecking madly for any exposed invertebrates" instantly brought me back to one of the few times Warren and I have seen these elusive birds.

And, according to the USGS and Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS) statisticians, the reason we don't see many Rusties is that their numbers are decreasing rapidly: 12% per year.

A profound decline that "surpasses almost all other North American birds in the steepness of its descent"

What causes such a catastrophic decline in a bird that was so numerous 130 years ago that their flight would cause a dense black cloud?

Greenberg describes Rusty Blackbirds as "forest shorebirds", mucking about in shallow surface water beneath the forest canopy. During the winter, Rusties like bottomland hardwood forests and much of this habitat has been converted to agriculture or other uses or bound and controlled by levees.

There are also troubles on the Rusty Blackbirds' boreal breeding grounds. As subarctic temperatures increase, wetlands dry up and permafrost melts in boreal wetlands. These changes could impact the food chain that Rusties depend on to raise young.

Acid rain, mercury and other pollutants on breeding grounds may also be taking their toll on Rusty numbers.

Greenberg suggests habitat restoration of bottomland hardwoods and managing water levels in Rusty Blackbird preferred haunts would be useful first steps.

Continuing research is also necessary to understand the causes and ecological significance of the Rusty Backbirds' decline.

You can help the International Rusty Blackbird Technical Working Group with this research by submitting any migration or winter Rusty sightings here.

You can help the Rusty Blackbird and many other bottomland hardwood forest dwellers (possibly the Ivory Woodpecker) by supporting habitat conservation organizations such as Ducks Unlimited.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Babe in the Woods

Quick post today.... we're thrilled that lil' birds are being born and raised in our woods. The LoveNest's newest arrival is this immature Red-Bellied Woodpecker.

Lisa observed the young one's mother teaching it how to feed - using our peanut feeder as a training device! The little one still has a lot to learn, however. It stays at the feeder, chowing down, even when we walk by the window or snap a picture. A bit too trusting. Mommy needs to tell (him? her?) that there are dangers out there...

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Book Review: Smithsonian Field Guide

Does the world need another field guide to the birds of North America? It's a reasonable question, and one BC asked ourselves as we read through the lovely pages and looked at the excellent photographs in the new Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, authored by the well-known Ted Floyd, editor of the ABA's flagship Birding magazine.

Ever since we picked up the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th Edition a few months ago, it's been our field guide bible. We think the illustrations are second to none, and we love the bird descriptions and layout, which has a nice roomy feel to it.

Coming in a close second, in our field guide library, is of course The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America. It was our main field guide for the past 3-4 years, and still accompanies us on virtually every outing.

Both Lisa and I still own copies of our first field guides, The Golden Guides. Mine is a 1983 edition (I believe), so old that it doesn't reflect a lot of the species splits and name changes of the last generation. But it's still where I write down my life birds when I see them.

So what of the Smithsonian Field Guide? The first thing of note is that it is a photographic guide. This is edgy in the birding world, given the tradition of illustrated field guides that goes back to the landmark first Peterson guide of the 1930s. We'll put this plainly: the photographs are excellent, superb even. They show great views of live birds, with the important features clearly visible. This is the best photographic guide we've seen. But that's just it--it is still a photographic guide, and we're unconvinced that photos are superior to good illustrations with references to important field marks, the basic innovation that Peterson made 75 years ago.

That said, there are a lot of other things that Lisa and I like about the Smithsonian Field Guide:

* The range maps are updated and seem to be more detailed than in some other guides (although the colors used for breeding range, year-round range, etc., are different from what most birders are used to).

* Ted Floyd makes an important step toward bringing field guides into the Internet/iPod age of birding by including 587 high-quality MP3 audio files of 138 major species, that are easily uploadable to your audio player. (Some day soon, we will have electronic field guides that can be hooked into a computer and will download updates on range information, species nomenclature, etc. And why not?)

* There's good detail about different species' molting strategies, important information for both beginning and advanced birders.

And the downsides?

* The book has a little bit of a crammed feel to it, no doubt due to the decision to use photographs (all, of course, are rectangles, which can take up extra space) rather than illustrations. Lisa found it a little bit confusing when trying to search quickly for a bird. Some of the photos are portrait-style, others landscape-style, and of necessity, many are different sizes.

* Most of the photos are excellent, as we said, but a handful are too dark to aid as much as they should with identification.

* The book also omits some of the rarities and vagrants that we are used to seeing in field guides. For example, a Little Egret was spotted in nearby Delaware a few weeks ago (this being a Eurasian species that is an occasional vagrant to eastern North America). I checked--the Smithsonian Field Guide doesn't show it.

Our final verdict? Well, our final verdict was made a few weeks ago, in mid-June, when we were walking along the Appalachian Trail and heard what we were certain was an Olive-Sided Flycatcher calling. This is not a bird we had a lot of experience with, although the bird's call seemed diagnostic. Our other field guides didn't help much, and we thought it might be a bit late in spring to encounter the bird. Then we turned to Ted Floyd's new book. The Olive-Sided "migrates late in spring, very early in fall," it noted.

So that answers the question: you can NEVER have too many field guides. The Smithsonian Field Guide will be an important and permanent edition to our library, but not our birding bible.

- W and L

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Dangers of Birding with Dan

We love birding with Dan Haas of Nervous Birds.

Dan is entertaining. He has loads of corny jokes which make hot July days when no birds are singing still fun.

Dan is fearless. He has no problem entering dump sites, tick infested fields or scary neighborhoods to fetch out a bird.

Dan has an amazing voice and leads the hottest band in Annapolis. You should hear him do the theme to the Love Boat.

Dan has a wife and baby boy that are crazy wonderful.

Dan does need to get himself a pair of Alpen Bins, though.

So, on Sunday, we were super excited to spend a few hours in the Annapolis area checking out the nesting birds and what-have-you in the woods and fields around our town.

We found this crazy plant springing out of the ground next to the old dump.

This is Indian Pipe, Monotropa uniflora, otherwise known as the ghost plant.

Please don't call Monotrop uniflora a fungus, because it is not. Note how Dan fearlessly touches the (then unknown) creepy thing with his bare hands.

It is actually a flowering plant related to the dogwood. Finding the ghost plant means that the soil is super rich. It also means that there are decaying tree roots around, because that is what this plant feeds on. We also found this cool hatched egg. We were searching for a wild turkey family that Dan had found waddling about last week.

No luck on the family, but we did find evidence of their existence.
The best birds of this hot July day were at least eight Grasshopper Sparrows singing and several Meadowlarks protecting their nests.

The worst part of the trip was when I found a deer tick feasting on my scalp the next day.

It is somewhat strange when you remove a parasite from your body at work and all your co-workers want to check it out.

Dan, hope your NC vacation is the tops and may the shorebirds all be identifiable!

Yellow Jacket Update: Here is the bowl.

They dug an escape route out. I moved the bowl over the escape route. They are still active and this contraption looks somewhat like a popcorn maker when they are trying to get out.

Is that sad or what?

Friday, July 11, 2008

Adventures of Bird Girl

We recently happened upon a great birding blog we weren't aware of before, Adventures of Bird Girl. It's run by Helena, a 14-year-old and fellow Marylander.

We like a lot of things about her site, but what we liked best is what she said in her profile:

"I am a 14 year old bird-watcher, or birder. I often have had to deal with adults (birders) assuming, because I am young, I don't actually know what I am talking about. I proved with my old website that, if I kept my age anonymous, people took me seriously and actually found me quite knowledgeable about birds, even after knowing my age. I have also had to deal with people telling me how geeky or nerdy birding is. I will tell you right now not to waste your time because there is no way I will ever be convinced that birding isn't cool. Here is my blog about my birding adventures and the cool and beautiful things I find out in nature."

For those of us fast-approaching middle age--Okay, okay, for those of us who are already there--we say: There's hope for the future!

You go, Bird Girl.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Birdcouple Day

Photo: Brian Currie

Let me be the tree you lean on,
The song that you dance to,
The shady spot you rest in,
Your companion for all of the days of my life....
Happy Anniversary, Cute Husband!

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Louis in the Yard

Our pal, Louis, who is recovering from surgery on an over-used knee, helped me inspect the bees this weekend.

Louis captured some lovely pictures of the girls in action along with some mouth watering images of the capped honey. This is the Athena hive that overwintered successfully and hit the ground running this spring. She looks like she has one full super full of excess honey that I plan to harvest this weekend. The honey looks perfect, but I am concerned about the general lack of bees in Athena. I know they swarmed at least once, but I'm not sure if the new queen is actually laying.

I made the mistake (one of several thousand) of adding a full size super (rather than a smaller, more manageable one), which they promptly filled.

It now weighs about 70lbs.

I hope to get more of an idea of what is going on in the lower 3 supers once we (yes! me and you - Cute Husband!) wrestle this top super away from the hive. This is a picture of the Diana hive. I am also concerned about her.

There were numerous bees, but not much honey. This is Diana's first summer, so I hadn't planned on taking any honey from her, but I may need to feed her to ensure she has enough to make it through the winter.

After Louis checked out the honey bees, the Shutterbug moved to the front yard to capture these images. Bumblebee (I think) covered in pollen deep in the blooms of a non-native plant -Hosta.
In our yard.
Great, Louis.... More beautiful pictures of the invasive species that Cute Husband and I are cultivating in the yard.

Bumblebee on Coneflower. (Native!)Louis even made a Japanese Beetle look beautiful. Louis, you are hired!

Just keep the photos focused on all the native stuff we planted this year...

I wonder if I could teach these beetles to attack the Yellow Jackets? It could be a war of the garden pests....

Yellow Jacket update: As of 6AM this morning, still pounding on the top of the glass bowl looking for an escape. Ugh! I'm starting to feel really sorry for them....

Monday, July 7, 2008

Other Things with Wings....

Great Spangled Fritillary enjoying coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) at the Love Nest. We have a large patch of coneflower in the yard. The nectar attracts loads of butterflies and hardworking bumblebees. My honey bees are not so interested in these blossoms. I have only found a few even trying them out.

The blooms started about a week ago and along with this fritillary, coneflowers attract Eastern Tiger Swallowtail and the occasional Red-spotted Purple to the yard.

Cute Husband and I are making an effort (it will take years) to remove invasive and non-native plants from the our domain.

Eastern purple coneflower is native to Maryland, although I can't say it is a plant we have found growing wild on any of our birding adventures.

Our friend Kay Charter, who runs Saving Birds Thru Habitat has really raised our awareness in the need to plant and protect native plants.

Native plants are critical because they are the best hosts for the native insects that birds, amphibians, reptiles feast on.
Kay's organization does wonderful educational stuff along with habitat restoration and enhancement, so check out the website if you are looking for a way to give back.

Our yard also supports some things with wings that we are not so fond of.

See this evil hole? It used to be one the numerous exits for our growing chipmunk population until some Yellow Jackets decided to take it over.

See the guard bee at the entrance? Yellow Jackets bite and sting repeatedly.

Cute Husband's right ankle is proof that these guys are not to be messed with.

Warren accidentally stepped on the nest Friday and was stung several times. Days later, his ankle is still swollen with visible bite/sting marks.

We are all about letting the yard creatures exist in peace, but these guys made their home directly in a path we take around the garden.

Web searches contained several ideas for removal. Some included use of moth balls, gasoline and napalm.


Last night we tried the "cover the hole with a glass bowl and run away as fast as you can" method of removal.

We'll see...

Sunday, July 6, 2008

When do you count a bird?

Before today's essay, here's an update from some of our favorite fellow birding blogs:

Birdchick has been out at the ABA National convention, looking for ABA life bird #500. ... Dan Haas is out this morning helping clean up the Severn River and environs. He is keeping close watch on the Peregrine Falcons that have returned to the Severn Rive bridge. .... John from DC Birding Blog makes his first visit to Cape May County, NJ, as a birder! He also passes on some sobering news about the state of Magellanic Penguins, and the fact that one California Condor chick has been killed in the big fires out in California. ... Larry from Brownstone Birding Blog has been searching for flycatchers and suffering (like the rest of us!) through miserable summer humidity....

So, now to today's question. When does a birder get to count or "tick" off a news species as part of his/her lifelist? Is just hearing its call OK? (American Birding Association rules say, yes). What about just getting a tiny glimpse of it? What about seeing the bird, but having someone else who knows the species -- a field trip leader, say - clinch the identification? Did you see the bird good enough so I can count it? goes the old joke.

What threshold do you have cross to say you have "experienced" the bird? It's a very personal question, in some ways. Your life list, after all, is your own, no one else's. Lisa and I confronted this question yesterday, after tromping through hot, muggy, insect-ridden fields for several hours at mid-day in nearby Calvert County. The birding wasn't bad at all, but our real target was a Barn Owl - a lifer for both of us - that inhabits a barn at a location we shall keep secret.

We approached the barn quietly, or so we thought, but the moment we entered, a large silent form exited the other end of the barn. I merely saw some shadow moving. Lisa got a slightly better look at the bird from behind, enough to confirm it was an owl. We followed outside. Wrens and other birds were mobbing something (no doubt the owl) up in the tree, chattering like crazy. We looked all around. No owl. We returned to the barn and waited for 15 minutes. There were owl feathers, owl droppings and signs of owl's dinner. But no Barn Owl.

As 4 p.m. approached, we had to leave, and started the hike back to our car. Did we count the owl as "seen"?? No, we didn't. I don't think anyone would have criticized us if we had. And I had no doubt we were in the presence of said owl. But we can't really say that we saw the bird well enough to make a conclusive identification. It didn't call or screech in any way. As disappointing as it was, we'd rather not add this magnificent hunter to our life list until we get a real good look at him.

Which is another way of saying, we'll be heading back to that barn soon.

We'll close with a few pix that illustrate how summer is in full swing here in the mid-Atlantic.

Indigo Buntings were singing everywhere yesterday. This one flew to investigate when we played his song with our National Geographic Handheld Birds gizmo.

I'm just not too hot on dragongly identifications. And there were LOTS and lots of dragonflies all around us yesterday. Probably some species never before seen by man....

Here's another one....

And finally, a male Box Turtle crossed our path.