Saturday, January 29, 2011

Special Feature: National Geographic on evolution of feathers

Tail feather, assists in climbing.
Institute of Zoology and Zoological Museum, University of Hamburg

We birders see feathers all the time, but how often do we really stop and think about them? We may notice a few feathers on a bird when we're trying it. Does that chickadee have enough white on its cheek and nape to make it a Black-Capped? Is there any black in that gull's primaries? Could it be an Iceland Gull? And we may notice a pile of feathers on the ground and try to decide what it was that Mr. Cooper's Hawk had for lunch. Tufted Titmouse? Mourning Dove? Sparrow?

But what about feathers themselves? Where did those wonderful devices come from? How do they work? Why do they come in such a dizzying array of shapes, sizes and forms?

Carl Zimmer answers a lot of those questions in the latest issue of National Geographic magazine, in an article illustrated with eye-popping photographs by Robert Clark and art by Xing Lida.

Disk tail-feather tip, wobbles during display.
Courtesy Peter Mullen, Ph.D.

As he traces the evolution of feathers, as scientists now understand it, Zimmer shares some surprising conclusions. Among them: "Scientists now know that feathers evolved long before they were used for flight." They are still struggling to understand how the transition to flight happened. But feathers were probably first  used for insulation, help with running and climbing, and attracting mates.

First Came Fuzz
Birds evolved from dinosaurs, but the origin of their feathers may trace back even deeper in time, to the common ancestor of dinosaurs and pterosaurs, like the fossil at left. These flying reptiles were covered with thin filaments that may have looked something like the down on this pheasant chick.
Jeholopterus ningchengensis
168-152 million years ago, China
At Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and PaleoanthropologyBeijing

The article also tells how new fossil finds have changed our understanding of feathers and dinosuars. It was once thought that feathers were only found on a group of dinosaurs called theropods, to which birds are closely related. But they've now been found on other classes of dinosaurs as well, suggesting a common feathered ancestor far back in time. Paleontologists have even been able to recreate the color of one dinosaur's feathers, thanks to fossilized pigment sacs. Too, too cool.

   You can find the full gallery of Robert Clark's photographs right here.  They are in the February 2011 issue of National Geographic magazine, on newsstands January 25. 

    Birdcouple loves this magazine. Warren got Lisa a subscription as a present years ago, and we have been subscribers ever since.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Our Big January is not complete without...

A trip to the Maryland Eastern Shore! 
We started the weekend with a goal in mind, to hit 110 species for the month of January.  We discovered our first of the year American Wigeon at the Cambridge Waterfront.  Cute Husband captured this female showing off her assets.

With a strategy in mind, we headed to Blackwater NWR in search of a white pelican who may have been hiding behind snow geese, but he/she never showed for us.

We then met up with Peter Kaestner and his wife Kimberly and zoomed off to Assateague Island in search of this!

After about a 1/2 hour of searching treetops, Peter discovered droppings and a pellet from this Northern Saw Whet Owl.  Not only was he extremely cute, but he was a life bird for me!  I could have looked into his eyes all day, but it was flipping freezing and... there were more birds to see (hopefully, by the heat of the car).

The sun made us a spectacular sunset to enjoy, as we headed in for the day, with more birds needed to make our weekend goal.

A chilly morning at the Ocean City Inlet produced Black, Surf and White Winged Scoter along with Common Eider and a fly by Bonaparte's Gull.  
Ruddy Turnstones and Purple Sandpipers were added to the list along with a random Eastern Meadowlark sighting when Cute Hubby and I returned to Assateague Island. 

Did I mention it was cold?
 Luckily, an assortment of sparrows were enjoying the roadside brush, which allowed for plenty of car birding and sparrow practice.

An American Woodcock sat by the roadside and he became our 110 bird of the year!   Goal met!  Unfortunately, he didn't appear well and was waddling slowly with a drunken swagger.  

The Cute Guy and I then headed to one of the many romantic spots my guy likes to take me, a landfill.
  In search of a Glaucous Gull.  No luck, but we did see lots of garbage.

The perfect weekend!

Friday, January 21, 2011

Good nesting news

     L & W are headed "downy oshen" - that's Maryland talk for "down the ocean," i.e., to the beach, to do some major-league birding this weekend. Northern Saw-Whet Owl? Clay-colored Sparrow? King Rail? Snow Bunting? We're chasing 'em!

    We wrap up the week with some potentially great news about the endangered Short-Tailed Albatross. As noted in this month's Birding Community E-bulletin, the bird was once the most numerous North Pacific albatross, before being decimated by feather hunting and feared extinct. World population is estimated at about 3,000. Recently, a Short-Tailed Albatross nest and eggs were discovered on U.S. territory, on Midway Atoll in the Pacific.

Now the good news: according to an Associated Press report, an egg hatched last Friday, Jan 14. The nest is being monitored remotely by video camera.

Closer to home, at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, a Bald Eagle laid the earliest egg ever recorded by the refuge's Eagle Cam. The egg-laying date was January 13. You can check out the live Eagle Cam right here. (This news came to us via Dan Haas, a veritable font of bird news and info).

That's it for now. Time to head downy oshen.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

2011, a banner birding year!?

If you'd told Birdcouple on Christmas Day that by the 16th day of January, we already would have seen a mega-rarity (for Maryland) like White-Winged Dove, as well as such unusual treats as Iceland Gull, Rufous Hummingbird and Harlequin Duck (that's a Harley Duck up there), well .. we probably wouldn't have believed you one bit.

But it's all true! 2011 is turning out to be a year for the record books for Maryland birders like us, with new and exciting avians popping up seemingly every day.  There's still a rare Golden-Crowned Sparrow hanging out over on the Eastern Shore, and Orange-Crowned Warblers seem to be hiding around every turn.

Birdcouple is trying to eat it up, especially in the first month of the year, and perhaps even break some of our Maryland birding records, while of course continuing to promote conservation and the environment. We've notched 78 species seen in Maryland as of today, January 19.

Bill Hubick and Dan Haas have some lovely, captivating photos of the recent rarities, and other birds being seen in our region.

The way we figure it, if a rare or special bird shows up, you should not dally in trying to see it.

It may be there....

It may be leaving...

It may be gone.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

How very Sibley of Me....

Among my many bad birding habits is the one where I (in the heat of an exciting moment) will call a bird by one name when clearly it has another name. 

This proves to be very frustrating to Cute Husband.   For example, once when we were on a field trip with our bird club and I called out "Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker!"  As the entire group scanned the area, Cute Hubby says, "Is it to the left or to the right of the Red-Bellied Woodpecker?"

Ummm.... maybe he is hiding directly behind the Red-Bellied Woodpecker....

Or the time during spring migration when we were at the famous Maintenance Yard at Rock Creek Park, when I said (very softly), I think I just heard a Yellow-Breasted Chat.  Of course, my little whisper was overheard by one of the best birders in DC, who said, "A Chat, wow, I'm not sure we ever get them here...." Complete disbelief was written all over his face and the next year, during spring migration, he actually remembered me as the "Chat Girl". 

Or, take for example, today.  Cute Husband and I made a second go for a Harlequin Duck.   We drove up and there it was!   All these birders had just walked away and my Darling Husband ran after them to inform them that the duck was showing.  I set up the scope and informed everyone that the bird had just dove, but was to the right of the rocks.   Cute Husband says, "Well, I see a female Ruddy Duck.....".

We did get the Harlequin (and have the pictures to prove), but there are two ducks I can always ID (beside Canada Goose and Mallard!).  In fact, Cute Husband never trusts my sense of direction (if I say, I think we should go right here, he knows we must go left or be hopelessly lost), but he does trust by ID of Lesser vs. Greater Scaup.  

The two ducks look almost identical and in fact, they often like to swim together.  But, for years, I have always been able to tell them apart.  For me, it is the Lesser Scaup's Ring-Necked Duck peaked looking head that makes them stand apart. 

See my sloping non-peaked head?  I am a Greater Scaup!  Lisa proclaims confidently!

See my peaked head?  I am a Lesser Scaup!  Lisa proclaims confidently! 

From this picture, I am not completely confident if this is a Lesser or a Greater Scaup, so I will choose to remain silent on the matter.   

And, just call him a Scaup with an itch.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Steve Martin: The Big Year, and now Rare Bird Alert

As most of our readers surely know by now, actor-comedian-author-musician Steve Martin is starring in the upcoming movie production of The Big Year, which hilariously recounts three birders' competition to see as many bird species as possible in North America in a single year.

Now, Martin is about to release (in March) his second bluegrass album, entitled Rare Bird Alert. Guest stars on the album include Paul McCartney and the Dixie Chicks. Think we'll be buying it. Martin's website has an image of the really cool Album cover.

Thanks to our buddy and fellow Maryland birder Dan Haas for alerting us to this one.

... speaking of fellow Maryland birders, we are pleased as punch that Rob Ostrowski has been named eBirder of the month by the folks at eBird.

   "Not only has Rob been a devoted eBird user for his entire birding life, but he also has been instrumental in wider promotion of eBird within his home state of Maryland. Even better, he is spearheading an effort to capture historical data, which might otherwise be collecting dust in a long-forgotten notebook or in some antiquated computer files," say the eBird folks.

   Maryland - not the largest state by size or population - is No. 5 in eBird checklists submitted for January 2011, behind only California, Texas, New York and Florida.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Ski Birding

     Before we talk about what we did this weekend, we want to give a big shout-out to friend Paul Baicich and all the others who helped organize the New Year's Bird Count for Kids in Washington, DC. The Washington Post ran a nice feature article on the event, along with several pictures of you-know-who. Nice to see some young minority birders out there.
    Birdcouple would have joined the fun, but we were out in far, far western Maryland with the boys (OK, young men) for a ski-ing and winter sports weekend at Deep Creek Lake. No ski-birding was done - in fact no skiing was done by W &L - but we did do a little bit of birding in and around the other fun, and in between the near-constant snow.    

Black-Capped Chickadee

This is your classic Black-Capped Chickadee, with bright white in the face, a somewhat ragged black "bib" and extensive white in the wings. A good identification lesson for us. 

This Tufted Titmouse was waiting out the snow.

A closer look.

These photos were taken at the feeders at Deep Creek Lake Discovery Center, a really nice environmental interpretative center at the local state park.

After watching our favorite non-avian birds, the Baltimore Ravens, crush the Kansas City Chiefs, we began the drive home to Annapolis - and were delighted when three Wild Turkeys crossed the road right in front of us. 

Thursday, January 6, 2011

New Middle East conflict: 'spying' vultures

Warren, who has spent a fair bit of time in the Middle East and South Asia, is all too familiar with this sort of silliness...

Seems that Saudi Arabia has "detained" a Griffon Vulture on suspicion that it was spying for the Mossad, Israel's secret service. The evidence? It was carrying a GPS transmitter bearing the name of Tel Aviv University. Sigh. Sigh. Sigh.

The story, originally reported by Israel's Ma'ariv newspaper, was picked up by the BBC:

Saudi Arabia 'detains' Israeli vulture for spying

Griffon Vulture Griffon Vultures can soar at up to 11,000 metres (36,100 ft) above sea level. A perfect vantage point?
     Saudi Arabian officials have "detained" a vulture on accusations of being a spy for Israel, media reports say.
     The griffon vulture was carrying a GPS transmitter bearing the name of Tel Aviv University, prompting rumours it was part of a Zionist plot.
     Israeli wildlife officials dismissed the claims as ludicrous and expressed concern about the bird's fate.
     Last month, Egyptian officials implied the Israeli spy agency Mossad was to blame for shark attacks off its coast.
    The vulture, which can have a wing span of up to 265cm (8ft 8in), was caught after it landed in the desert city of Hyaal a few days ago.
    When locals discovered the GPS transmitter, they suspected the worst and handed it over to the security forces, said Israel's Ma'ariv newspaper.
    Conspiracy theories quickly began circulating in Saudi newspapers and on websites that the bird was involved in espionage.
     Israeli officials told Ma'ariv they were "stunned" by the allegations and concerned that the bird could meet a horrible punishment in the notoriously severe Saudi justice system.
     "The device does nothing more than receive and store basic data about the bird's whereabouts, and about his altitude and speed," a bird specialist at Israel's Park and Nature Authority told the newspaper.
     The data would be used to improve understanding of the endangered species' behaviour.
     "Now, this poor bird is paying a terrible price. That's very sad," said the unnamed expert.
"I hope they release the poor thing."
    The vulture is the latest animal to be accused of being an unwitting Mossad operative.
    In December, the governor of Egypt's South Sinai province, Mohamed Abdul Fadil Shousha, suggested the spy agency may have had a hand in a string of deadly shark attacks off the coast of the Sharm el-Sheikh resort.
     He said it was "not out of the question" that Mossad had put the killer shark in the area.
     The Israeli foreign ministry dismissed that allegation, saying the governor "must have seen Jaws one time too many, and confuses fact and fiction".

   Here's a bit more from National Public Radio.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Jonathan Franzen's Freedom...

Santa was over the top generous to me this year... undoubtedly because I was such a nice well behaved girl all year. 

But, my all time favorite gift was this book:
When I opened this gift, Santa tells me, "Yes there is a Cerulean Warbler on the cover, but it is not about birds..."

And, no, it is really not about birds.  But for a non-birder or even for birders who are only interested in ticking a bird and could care less about conserving them, the book is an excellent education on the many threats birds face and the many trade offs involved in modern environmentalism.  

But, the book is not about birds.

But, I loved that as a by-product of the story (which I can tell you no more about, as Cute Husband has not yet read), Franzen's character, Walter, recognizes not only the need to preserve habitat in the U.S., but also in the Cerulean Warbler's wintering grounds in South America. 

But, the book is not about birds.

But, the bonus is that by enjoying the tale that is not about birds, devoted fans of Oprah's book club and even President Obama are learning that free-roaming outdoor cats kill at least a million birds a day in America alone and that natural gas drilling fragments habitat, making it unusable to the most sensitive species.

I was struck that this guy Franzen must be a birder.    Which became completely clear when I also discovered an essay he wrote called "My Bird Problem".  And, as it turns out, he is quite the birder, with an ABA list now topping 630.  

Again, not to give anything away for Cute Husband, but with Freedom, Franzen becomes for birds what Walter hopes Katz will become for the issue of overpopulation... the cool popular guy that people will listen to now that he has become famous.

For an amazing honest read, buy a copy for yourself.  To spread the bird word, buy a copy for your friends.

Thanks, Cute Santa!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Dead blackbirds in Arkansas ... and elsewhere?

If you're into birds, you've probably been following the story of the estimated 3,000 blackbirds that fell, dead, from the sky over Beebe, Arkansas. Most were Red-Winged Blackbirds.

The latest news, from the BBC, is that the birds may have been startled or traumatized in some way by exploding fireworks from the town's New Year's Eve display. Another theory is that the flock could have been disoriented by major thunderstorms that occurred on Dec. 31. Poisoning apparently has been ruled out as a cause of the mass avian mortality.

There are now reports of 500 dead red-wings and starlings in Louisiana. And a smaller incident in Kentucky.

Worrisome. Is something bigger going on here? We need more info.

More at on Aflockalypse Now..

And a New York Times article this week on what makes birds such fabulous flying machines...

Monday, January 3, 2011


You know you're a cute little heartbreaker


You know you're a sweet little lovemaker

I wanna take you home

I won't do you no harm, no

You've got to be all mine, all mine

Ooh, fox sparrow...

Clearly I have had too many days off work...

Enjoy this lovely Fox Sparrow photographed by Peter Kaestner on the 2011 Christmas Bird Count.

Sunday, January 2, 2011


Hi First of the Year Yellow Bellied Sapsucker...

First of Year!
And, the Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is the perfect way to start our year list.   We spent most of today with Peter Kaestner doing our citizen science thing in the same CBC territory we have enjoyed for the past four years.

And, we are really proud of your yearly Christmas Bird Counts because the information we and all other observers collect from December 14 to January 5th allows researchers and conservation biologists to study the long term health of bird populations across North America.  The data is used to show how bird populations has changed over the past hundred years.

It is also always a treat to bird with Peter.  Being the 8th birder in the world, discovering a new species and seeing over 8,000 birds takes dedication.  It takes standing out in the pouring cold rain, pishing until your lips are chap and walking through acres of brambles to get a bird.

And, that is what we did. Or, I should say, that is mostly what Cute Husband and Peter did.  As, I took a couple of powders to remain in the car, as they pished up the 80th White-throated Sparrow or a nice flock of number Cedar Waxwings... which remain off my 2011 year list due to my enjoyment of car heat.

I did see this gorgeous FOY Red-Shouldered Hawk enjoying a road side meal...  

  The best bird of the day (although, truthfully, they were all most excellent, due to the majority of them being NEW YEAR BIRDS)   was a heard Virginia Rail.  Cute Husband and I heard a tink-ingly sound and stopped  to investigate, while Peter forged ahead in search of the day's elusive Mourning Dove.  After a few minutes we heard "kid dik"  and called Peter for a re-hear.

Of course, this Virginia Rail remained hidden and silent,  but it was a lovely way to start the birding year....

2011 year goal 450.  As of today 41!  

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Happy New Year! (And what you can do for conservation in 2011).

      HAPPY NEW YEAR to friends, readers, fellow birders!

      That Red Knot up there was one of the last birds that Warren and buddy Dan Haas saw in 2010, down at the Ocean City, Maryland, inlet.

     Like too many bird species, the Red Knot is in serious trouble, thanks to over-harvesting of the horseshoe crab eggs it depends on to fuel it on its migration from the tip of South America to northern climes. With that in mind, here are a few things we can all do promote birds and conservation in the new year, while we enjoy and chase birds. Many of these come from a list developed by our dear friend Paul Baicich.

   1. Buy the federal "duck stamp." It costs $15, and almost all the proceeds go straight to purchasing more land for federal national wildlife refuges. That means more birds, and places to see them.

   2. Contribute time and effort to a Christmas Bird Count, or other bird and wildlife survey.

   3. Vote the environment. And bug your congressman, senator, governor and other elected officials on environmental and conservation issues.

   4. Take steps to prevent bird strikes at home and, if possible, at the office. Hundreds of thousands of birds die each year from such collisions, especially during migration.

   5. Feed the birds. It's cheap and fun!

   6. Buy organic, shade-grown coffee. It protects the wintering habitat of neotropic migrants like warblers, thrushes, vireos and tanagers that we enjoy here in North America from late April until October.

   7. Reduce your carbon emissions to help Mother Earth. Turn off unnecessary lights, use public transportation, and consider making your next car a hybrid.

   8. While we're on that subject, consider ways you can offset the carbon emissions (and we're all guilty of this) from thousands of miles driven each year chasing birds.

   9. Join (and/or donate to) a conservation or environmental education organization of your choice. Some of our favorites (links are over there on the right) include the American Bird Conservancy, Optics for the Tropics, and Saving Birds Through Habitat.

  10. Become more knowledgeable on conservation and environmental issues by reading up, attending meetings, etc.

  11. Talk about birds and the environment with non-birding friends. You'll be surprised at how interested they often are.


  12. Keep those cats indoors!

HAPPY NEW YEAR, and Good Birding!
Warren and Lisa