Monday, November 29, 2010

Whooping Cranes' progress in Operation Migration

Weather in Hardin County, Tenn., has grounded the 10 young Whooping Cranes migrating from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin to Chassahowitzka NWR in Florida. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

With guidance from three ultralight aircraft, the birds will fly more than 1,280 miles to reach their wintering grounds. This year's flock began their journey on October 10, and as of today, migration day 51, they've flown about 646 miles. You can compare their progress to previous years' timelines.

Why do ultralight pilots help these captive-bred cranes travel south? Look here for details about Grus americana, North America's tallest bird, and its struggle to return to a healthy population from an all-time low of 15 birds in 1941. You can learn more about Whooping Cranes and hear their calls here.

If you want to increase your odds of seeing the big birds along their migration route, look at this list of flyover locations. The OM crew stresses that their movements depend on the weather, so watchers need to remain flexible and understand that the birds might have to sit tight for a day or more if winds and other factors prove inhospitable.

Those of us who can't see the flock in person have another option: CraneCam. The site says:
Please note the camera will be broadcasting a LIVE feed while airborne with the young Whooping cranes. Best viewing time is (weather permitting) each day beginning at 7am Central and ending at approximately 9am. On days when weather is favorable, we will also set up the camera near the travel enclosure at each of our stopovers.

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Sunday, November 21, 2010

Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival: Saturday

Did you catch the five previous posts? If not, go here, here, here, here and here.

Saturday -- our last day together at Harlingen's annual birding festival -- brought a definite change in the weather: much cooler, brisk, even chilly. My roommates, Catherine and Sharon, teased me for my Southern Californian intolerance for cooler temperatures, so I wore layers before we made another pilgrimage to Alicia's Mexican Restaurant. Behold, my chilaquiles!


Then we set off east for Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge -- and the promise of Green Jays. I have no shame in declaring a fondness for these colorful birds that keep me riveted to the refuge's feeding station.

See the small sign about paying the visitor fee? You can forego that fee if you show a Duck Stamp to the ranger inside the visitor center. That $15 stamp allows for free access to NWRs across the United States between July 1 and June 30 -- quite the deal... and an excellent way to fund habitat conservation for waterfowl and other species.

As I sat on the bench facing the feeding stations and the water feature...

Catherine and Sharon aimed their optics at the birds and clicked away. The Great-tailed Grackles did a superb job of shooing the jays from the feeders, much to my chagrin. As much as grackles amuse me, I wanted to focus on the Chara Verde, thankyouverymuch.

After a stint at the feeding station and a stroll around the grounds, we opted to drive around the refuge and then take the Bayside Drive, which begins with a very cool sign:

Endangered and thought to be down to 50 animals, ocelots desperately rely on the habitat at and around Laguna Atascosa. During the festival, some very lucky birders saw an ocelot at the refuge, and the rangers wisely restricted access to the area for the small cat's protection. If the ocelots' status piques your interest, consider attending the Ocelot Conservation Festival in May 2011 or adopting an ocelot.

As we slowly drove the asphalt, we occasionally stopped to peek more closely at the birds. Sometimes optics sufficed for the closer look, and other times, a stretch of the legs yielded better views.

Some birds posed next to the car, such as this Common Yellowthroat photographed by Catherine.

Courtesy of Birdspot

The other species I enjoyed seeing include Pied-billed Grebe, Northern Harrier, Osprey and Crested Caracara -- a good number of 'em. Sharon digiscoped one atop a palm as it preened.

Courtesy of

Harris' Hawks, spied along the drive west to Harlingen, served as my final species during this visit to the Rio Grande Valley. The trip ended too soon for my taste, so I left on Sunday still with an appetite for more birds, birders and Alicia's food. My next visit can't come too soon!

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Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival: Friday

Did you catch the four previous posts? If not, go here, here, here and here.

Friday's birding began a bit earlier. Catherine departed before dawn for a shorebird field trip with WildBird contributors Kevin Karlson (of "The Shorebird Guide" with Michael O'Brien and Richard Crossley) and Jessie Barry of The Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Our recently arrived roommate, Sharon -- also known as Birdchick -- wanted to see Ruddy Ground-Dove and Common Pauraque at Estero Llano Grande State Park, so that's where she and I went. Even though I'd been to the park the day before, I wasn't going to complain about another visit -- plus, Sharon had an experiment in mind.

The experiment involved the Internet and our friend in Michigan who'd planned to attend the festival but was thwarted. Mark Robinson, aka Blobbybirdman, sadly remained in Michigan while we three attended the festival and provided updates of our adventures.

Re the experiment: Estero offers free wireless Internet access near its visitor center (thank you very much!). Combine that with a laptop, a webcam and a video chat website -- and you have birding by Skype, or Skyrding or birping or something.

At the visitor center, Sharon connected online with Mark -- who's not birded yet in south Texas -- and started sharing the sights from the visitor center's observation deck next to Ibis Pond...

and the Texas Wildscapes demonstration site...

and the feeding station with a water drip tucked behind the visitor center. With Sharon's laptop on the ground, seed sprinkled in front of the computer and water dripping into the rock feature, Mark awaited the appearance of Plain Chachalaca, Inca Dove, anything that would thrill a Brit who hasn't set foot in the valley.

I couldn't help but chortle when my ears caught the sound of Mark pishing via the webcam. Actually, after a few pishing sessions, some Orange-crowned Warblers and doves ventured closer to the computer, but they didn't come into full view.

Mark didn't receive a clear view of any species, but we enjoyed showing him around and introducing him to other birders, such as field trip leader Michael O'Brien. I like the idea of more visitor centers offering wireless Internet access for more virtual birding.

Then Sharon and I set off for Common Pauraque near Alligator Lake. Just past Grebe Marsh, though, we encountered a soft-shelled turtle in the middle of the road. Sharon picked it up...

and let me get a good look before setting it next to the marsh's waterline. When we returned later, it was gone, so we crossed our fingers and hoped for the best.

I led Sharon to the spot where we saw the pauraque on Thursday, and after we marvelled at the bird, Sharon spotted another camouflage artist next to a tree.

Then she spied another hidden among some branches -- a hat trick of nightjars! (Can you pick it out at the top of the greenery?)

You can read Sharon's account and enjoy her photographs here. As Sharon worked on taking those pictures, we had the pleasure of pointing out the three birds to another birder -- and sharing the birds always makes birding more fun.

Then our stomachs said lunchtime had arrived, so we returned to Harlingen to pay homage to Alicia's Mexican Restaurant on North Commerce Street. I leave you with a photo of "Big Quesadilla."

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Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival: Thursday

Did you catch the three previous posts? If not, go here, here and here.

Thursday got off to a leisurely start. My roommate and I hadn't signed up for field trips on this day, so we took our time before driving to Estero Llano Grande State Park in Weslaco. We'd heard at Wednesday night's reception about the rarity identified by Jon Dunn -- a Ruddy Ground-Dove -- so the possibility of seeing that bird determined our destination.

When we arrived at the park, we didn't have to wait long before learning the ground-dove's location: to the left of a hanging platform feeder in sight of the visitor center's deck. Of course, we weren't the only birders aiming our binoculars at the Mexican visitor, news of its appearance having been spread far and wide via Texbirds, North American Rare Bird Alert, Facebook, Twitter and blogs with photos.

Turning away from the star performer, we began looking elsewhere and then wandering deeper into the park. This visit to the Rio Grande Valley marked my fifth time to the festival and maybe my 12th to the region, counting WildBird's Birder of the Year trips as well as the Great Texas Birding Classic in which WildBird sponsors a team each year. The great weather -- cool but not cold, breezy but not windy, almost lacking in flying biting insects -- added to a delightful morning.

Along the trail next to Grebe Marsh, we encountered Jim and Cindy Beckman again with friends. They invited us to follow them and see Common Pauraque. We gladly accepted since the species appears nowhere else in the United States.

That species stands out fondly in my memories of a Birder of the Year trip with 17-year-old Leigh Johnson Lindstrom and her mom. We met with Sheridan Coffey and Martin Reid to search for pauraque near our lodging, Alamo Inn. Leigh's mom, a nonbirder, had not planned to bird with us every day, but she opted to join us on this nighttime scavenger hunt -- and she came back bug-bitten but intrigued enough to go birding each day. The search for that species sparked a better understanding of birding and added to Leigh's relationship with her mom, which still makes me smile.

Back at Estero, the trail adjacent to Alligator Lake yielded a cryptically colored nightjar in close proximity to the dirt path. We felt ecstatic to enjoy such great looks at the cleverly camouflaged bird.

My friend Catherine -- also known as Birdspot -- set to creating photos while I enjoyed peering at the bird's incredible plumage. Mother Nature never fails to amaze me, particularly when we got to see the flashy green gorget of a male Buff-bellied Hummingbird as he visited a sugarwater feeder just a foot from us at the visitor center.

Next on our itinerary: Frontera Audubon, also in Weslaco. A hop, skip and jump away from Estero, Frontera offers a more intimate setting to wander trails and watch feeders.

Catherine and I saw few birds along the trails, and a flycatcherlike sprite caused some I.D. questions. When the birding's slow, my point-and-shoot camera focuses on other bits of nature.

We eventually found ourselves at the feeding station and settled into two of the many chairs. There, we enjoyed the Plain Chachalacas, Inca Doves, White-tipped Dove, Black-crested Titmouse and Blue-headed Vireo.

I also enjoyed seeing Father Tom Pincelli again. Four years ago, I had the pleasure of serving as part-time driver for the Swarovski Roadside Hawks in the Great Texas Birding Classic, the team consisting of John Arvin, Nick Block, Father Tom and Clay Taylor. It was a distinct treat to see and watch those knowledgeable birders in action as they tried to I.D. the most species in 24 hours in the competition's lower coast.

The agenda then turned to lunch, followed by ice cream and a visit to the municipal auditorium to roam Birder's Bazaar. For many years, The Raptor Project has brought various birds of prey to the festival, and Catherine delighted in posing with a Crested Caracara while a Burrowing Owl scowled nearby.

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Friday, November 19, 2010

Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival: Wednesday

Did you catch the two previous posts about the festival? If not, go here and here.

With much anticipation, I boarded a 12:30 a.m. flight from Los Angeles International Airport to Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. This journey to southern Texas marked my fifth year as an attendee at Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, and I knew that incredible birds, wonderful people and tasty vittles awaited me in Harlingen and other nearby cities.

After landing in Houston, I followed the earlier advice of online friends and found Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen in Terminal E. The vanilla latte tasted delicious.

While walking toward the boarding area for the 9:30 a.m. flight to Harlingen, I spied two familiar faces: Jim and Cindy Beckman. We'd traveled to Costa Rica after Cindy received the 2007 Birder of the Year award from WildBird's readers. It felt great to catch up with them.

Before walking through the boarding gate, I heard "Hoooop. Hoooop" very quietly, and there was Jen Brumfield, an enthusiastic character with incredible skills. What a treat to see her before finding our seats on the commuter plane -- which happened to contain even more birders on their way to the festival.

While Jen and Julian Hough immediately set off to find Sprague's Pipits, I had other quarry in mind: food, specifically from Alicia's Mexican Restaurant on North Commerce Street in Harlingen. That authentic food proved to be perfect fuel for a red-eyed sleep-deprived traveler. If you crave filling and inexpensive meals for breakfast and lunch, keep that spot in mind.

Feeling more functional, I drove a couple blocks and then walked into Harlingen's municipal auditorium on Fair Park Boulevard, also known as festival headquarters. Vendors were beginning to arrive and set up their booths within the Birders Bazaar area, and the entire facility seemed abuzz with activity. It felt wonderful to see familiar faces and then buy a pink festival hat (having left mine at home).

The sunshine lured me across the street to the park, where I found a shady spot to listen to and watch birds. The sliced half of an orange on a signpost lured a Northern Mockingbird and a Golden-fronted Woodpecker into sight, but the woodpecker proved to be very skittish.

Great-tailed Grackles seemed to be everywhere, and that suited me just fine. Their odd calls amuse me, and when they gather to roost in the evenings -- seemingly coating entire trees and telephone lines -- they amuse me even more. Listen to the recording of their "typical voice" at the link above; aren't they wild?

That evening, a friend and I joined the festival's opening reception at the Harlingen Arts & Heritage Museum. Local culinary students provided a smorgasbord of appetizers and beverages for the festival attendees, speakers and field trip leaders.

One of the great pleasures of birding festivals is the opportunity to gab with so many wonderful people who live around the country. I had so much fun catching up with friends and colleagues that I forgot to play paparazzi and don't have any photos to share now. The reception ended too soon, and I looked forward to revelling in the festival's activities for three more days.

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Thursday, November 18, 2010

More news of Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival

While birders who cannot attend bird events -- like the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival on Nov. 10-14 -- can keep track of the field trips, presentations and other activities via newspapers' websites, they have other online options, too. Many birders attending festivals -- and even the festivals themselves -- now use Twitter, Facebook and blogs to relay information, providing another way for those at home to follow along.

Many festival attendees with Twitter accounts used a hashtag to mark their festival-related 140-character updates during the RGV festival. #RGVBF yields a stream of attendees' tweets and retweets, revealing various birders including Chip Clouse, Catherine Hamilton, Laura Kammermeier (shown right), Tom Kuenzli, Justine Riegel, Sharon Stiteler and me. Other festival attendees posted tweets but opted not to use the hashtag, such as Steve Ingraham and Clay Taylor.

The more widespread use of smartphones makes it easy for birders to use Twitter and other websites while in the field, sharing their whereabouts and sightings, and folks at home as well as other festival attendees can keep tabs and interact in real time. Plus, with many newer smartphones featuring better digital cameras, birders can snap photos -- even through their spotting scopes -- and upload them to Twitter, Facebook and other sites.

If you're Facebook friends with birders attending a festival, you might receive a very good glimpse of the various events. Last week's Facebook roster of RGVBF updaters entails two hands (according to my count), and the group offered a nice selection of photographs and words to their friends.

Lots of birders who tweet and use Facebook also blog. Based on personal experience, I admire folks who create good blog posts during a festival; we're so often busy enjoying the birds and people that we reserve little time to sit at a laptop and craft a coherent post with words and photos. Photo-heavy posts, like this one from Birdchick and this one from Dave Dolan, provide a nice option.

Short-and-sweet posts are the norm, as Laura Kammermeier demonstrates while pointing out a post by Antshrike with more details. Some of us work on our blogs after the festivities cease, as Birdspot did, drawing on her previous tweets. If you know of other bloggers who posted festival entries, kindly let me know.

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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

News of Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival

The Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival took place last week, Nov. 10-14. I was fortunate enough to arrive in Harlingen on Wednesday morning and remain until Sunday morning. Having missed the 2009 festival, it felt especially delightful to return to the valley.

Even when birders can't attend birding events and festivals, we can keep tabs of the goings-on and the bird sightings. It seems as if more newspapers recognize the potential human-interest stories -- plus it doesn't hurt them to highlight the influx of out-of-town visitors who bring their disposable income to the festivals' locations.

View Larger Map

During this year's Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, the two local newspapers -- The Brownsville Herald and Valley Morning Star -- shared coverage of the event's field trips and other attractions. The first article, Birders see 151 species in eight hours, focused on the friendly-competitive nature of birding when four teams fanned out and tried to identify the most species. Among the folks highlighted in the article are Michael O'Brien and Louise Zemaitis of West Cape May, N.J. -- known by many as birding tour leaders, artists and authors.
O’Brien, of Cape May, N.J., and his wife, Louise Zemaitis, led one of the teams on Wednesday.

Zemaitis walked ahead or behind the group to spot for desirable birds and then O’Brien would bring the other seven birders to see what she had found.

O’Brien listened carefully to the bird calls before pointing out a species that might be new to the visitors.

“That kingbird, by the way, just called and gave its twittering call, which is a really diagnostic way to tell them apart,” he said.

Another thought about keeping tabs on online coverage of birding events: We might counter stereotypes and other negative comments. Did you see the comment at the end of the article? "They forgot two birds. They gray tufted geezer and the blue haired bitty." We can kindly put the kibosh on those comments if we monitor newspapers' websites.

The next day's article, Dream comes true for birding festival participant, highlighted a common reason for attending a festival: the probability of seeing a regional specialty.
For about 20 years, Patricia Wing has been on the trail of the green jay.

“Two of the things I want to do in my life is go to Australia and see a green jay,” Wing, a retired editor who lives near Santa Fe, N.M., said Thursday morning. “Some people want to have a convertible. I want to see a green jay.”

At the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, Wing’s dream came true.

Green Jay courtesy of

Friday's article, Birders see raptor action, highlighted one of the specialized field trips, led by author and researcher Bill Clark. If you are a raptor aficionado, you likely know about his contributions to the Peterson field guide about North American hawks and a photographic guide of the same species.
Swooping, circling raptor action is what birders signed up to see with Bill Clark’s “Valley Raptors Field Trip.” And that’s what they got.

A busload of participants from the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival on Friday completed a big circle through Willacy County and eastern Cameron County, taking advantage of dozens of chances to observe and photograph many species of raptors, including American kestrels, aplomado falcons and Cooper’s hawks.

Bonus sightings included sandhill cranes and longhorn cattle.
Friday's coverage, Birding 101 introduces newbies to a popular hobby, focused on a reporter's introduction to this pastime/sport/lifestyle. I like the article's last graf.
The words “Parrots! Parrots!” were the first exclamation I heard just before 8 a.m. Saturday as a woman pointed excitedly to a group of nearby palm trees.

The words left no doubt in my mind as to what the focus of the day would be, as I sat waiting to play my part in the Birding 101 Field Trip of the 17th annual Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival.

In the van outside Municipal Auditorium in Harlingen, this true blue birding newbie did not know what adventures awaited her in the world of bird watching, save the silly exaggerations of it she had seen in pop culture.

But, those exaggerations were challenged as a group of about 20 or so people of different ages, 20s through 80s at least, set off to explore the Rio Hondo area and the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge.
If you worry that birding festivals offer a very narrow agenda of only birds-birds-birds, then you needn't feel concerned about this particular event. It touches on other wildlife, too, as Saturday's article, Butterfly viewing joins RGV Birding Festival tradition, points out.
“Green-backed ruby-eye! Oh, that’s a good one!” exclaimed Derek Muschalek as he ran towards a row of low-lying bushes at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park near Mission on a cool and grey Saturday afternoon.

Muschalek, a naturalist who has served as a birding guide for 13 years, explained how important such a sighting was. “In the fall, to find Mexicans (butterflies) like this, it’s one of the things we hope to see,” he said.

The 1-inch long insect with mottled brown wings and large ruddy red eyes is only spotted about three times a year in the United States, and then only in the Rio Grande Valley. It’s this chance to see rare species that brings the guide to the Valley from Yorktown, Texas, during the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival every year.
Green-backed Ruby-eye courtesy of NABA/B. Bouton & K. Davis

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Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Could birdscaping attract or deter criminals?

A study about the effect of urban trees on crime rates poses the possibility that trees can reduce the incidence of certain crimes. Covering a three-year period, researchers looked at 431 crimes reported among a sample of 2,813 single-family homes in Portland, Ore.

The abstract for the study's article in Environment & Behavior says:
In general, the authors find that trees in the public right of way are associated with lower crime rates. The relationship between crime and trees on a house’s lot is mixed. Smaller, view-obstructing trees are associated with increased crime, whereas larger trees are associated with reduced crime.
Geoffrey Donovan of the U.S. Forest Service's Pacific Northwest Research Station and Jeffrey Prestemon with the Southern Research Station obtained crime data from the Portland Police Bureau from 2005 to 2007 and grouped the incidents into seven categories. They examined only crimes for which a physical address was given and paired this information: 394 property and 37 violent crimes.

The researchers examined the relationships among crime and more than two dozen variables they compiled, including the number and size of trees on a lot and the size of trees on surrounding areas. Large trees were associated with a reduction in crime, while numerous small trees were associated with an increase.

“We believe that large street trees can reduce crime by signaling to a potential criminal that a neighborhood is better cared for and, therefore, a criminal is more likely to be caught,” Donovan said. “Large yard trees also were associated with lower crime rates, most likely because they are less view-obstructing than smaller trees.”

In contrast, their analysis suggested that small yard trees might actually increase crime by blocking views and providing cover for criminals—an effect that homeowners can mitigate by keeping trees pruned and carefully choosing the location of new trees.

Photo courtesy of Geoffrey Donovan/US Forest Service