Friday, December 30, 2011

Commentary on Winter Birding

If you asked birders when their favorite time of the year to go birding is, they will likely say spring or fall migration, or perhaps the summer season when most birds are in their finest form and singing beautiful warbling songs. Very few birders will answer with "winter." Nevertheless, winter is the time when one of the largest organized bird counts takes place--the Audubon Christmas Bird Count. Every year thousands of birders head to their local birding spots to scour the bushes and roadsides for winter birds. What draws all of these birders (especially those in the northern regions) out into the frigid temperatures? Perhaps it is the chance to meet up with other birders, an excuse to go birding in a normally "slow" season, or is it something else entirely?

Over the past several years, I have helped out with two Christmas counts in the area. For me, they each have a unique social aspect. The Lehigh Valley Christmas Bird County is a gathering of birder friends that I have known for many years. My mom has always helped with that count as well, so it is an opportunity to bird with her. At the end of that count, the Lehigh Valley Audubon Society hosts a count-off dinner where teams meet to share their checklists and experiences from the day while socializing and enjoying warm food in a heated building (all of which feel extremely nice after a day of winter birding). The second count I do is the Wild Creek-Little Gap count, which I have done with my dad for the past few years. Although it is only the two of us and not a big group, we always have fun searching for those elusive Horned Larks out in the frozen corn fields (we finally got one this year, but in a wheat field... guess we were looking in the wrong places) or counting ducks and geese gathered at a nearby lake.

In Pennsylvania, winter is a slow time for birding. After being outside several times today, I managed to find 23 species in the yard, but back in May I was able to find 77 species in a few hours in the same area! The scarcity of birds and unpleasant weather during the winter often keep birders indoors; they would rather watch the birds that come to the feeders than go out and search for birds like they would in the warmer months. The Christmas count manages to drag these birders outside; it gives them an reason for enduring the cold, wind, birdlessness, and frozen precipitation. Perhaps the knowledge that other people are out of their minds and are doing the same thing encourages the otherwise lazy birders to step out the door.

Birding may be slow, but maybe this is the factor that draws the birders to a Christmas Bird Count. Instead of finding warblers dripping off the trees, winter birding often requires a bit more searching through brush and walking through fields to get a reasonable percentage of the present bird species checked off the list. Personally, this added challenge is extremely exciting and helps me reassure myself that winter birding is a fun activity as I am putting on my wool socks at some horrid hour of the morning before an owling trek. Most normal people will probably never understand, but there is nothing like the rush that I feel when that emberizid finally responds to my distressed pishing or when I manage to discern the distant white speck as a raptor and not one of the local plastic bags.

Because birds can be so hard to find during the winter, when a rarity does show up on the Christmas Bird Count it is cause for celebration. Every year a few rarities show up for the count. A few years ago, during a major winter finch irruption winter, I found a big flock of Common Redpolls. Mixed in with the Commons, an uncommon species in its own right, was a single Hoary Redpoll, a rare visitor from the north that only shows up in the occasional winter season. Sometimes birds that are not even true rarities, but rather simply uncommonly encountered species, are exciting as well.

So why do birders go out and look for birds in the freezing weather? Maybe it's because of the social aspect. Birds of a feather do indeed flock together. Possibly it is a reason to go birding when birders would normally be enjoying the warmth of a heated building but are beginning to feel guilty about those few birds missing from their county year lists. Perhaps we go birding in the winter for that added excitement of finding an unusual species in a time when birds are generally scarce. Maybe it is a combination of all of the above.

Or maybe birders are just crazy.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Trail Camera

Trail cameras are small, motion-activated cameras that are primarily used for hunters looking for the best place to find a good deer population. These cameras are also useful for naturalists who are interested in learning about the wildlife that would normally be scared away by a human presence. Over the past year, I have set up a trail camera on my property in hopes of spotting wildlife that I don't often see. Here are a few of the animals I've captured on the camera:

Wild Turkey

White-tailed Deer at Jacobsburg State Park (for the 2011 BioBlitz)

White-tailed Deer

Red Fox

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Young and Future Generations Day

Today, December 1, was Young and Future Generations Day (YoFuGe Day) at COP17, which is a day to create awareness for the youth involvement in the fight against climate change. Throughout the day, youth were involved in several side events, high-level briefings, and actions that focused on the importance of youth constituencies at UNFCCC as well as youth participation in climate action around the globe. Below are a few examples of youth activities at the conference today.

As with every day at COP, the Youth Non-Governmental Organizations (YOUNGO) started off with a meeting to discuss the upcoming events, make decisions, and work on other youth-related activities.

Some of the youth at the morning YOUNGO meeting
The meeting consisted of a lot of discussions and decisions including the addition of three new working groups to the constituency: adaptation, biodiversity, and Rio+20. Adaptation refers to changes people will have to make if climate change does occur and causes alterations in the environment. In terms of climate change and related issues, biodiversity refers to how organisms and ecosystems will respond to ecological changes that occur as a result of climate change. Rio+20 is a meeting that will occur in June 2012 to mark the twenty year anniversary of the Earth Summit in Brazil. This summit developed three conventions, one of which is the UNFCCC. As a result of the major climate change aspect, YOUNGO will be working towards attending and becoming involved with the Rio+20 convention.

Biodiversity is important to solving climate change
Soon after the morning meeting, several young people "actions" took place. At a COP meeting, observer organizations can organize actions that often are designed to highlight a specific topic or idea. Often times, if an important decision is being made in the plenary sessions of the COP, concerned organizations will perform actions to show which side they are on and which decision they support. Other times, actions can simply be intended to reinforce an idea that is important for the organization or the conference as a whole. Many youth organizations (and YOUNGO as a whole) had actions today for YoFuGe Day. The World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts performed the "cha-cha slide" to express support for taking "one step at a time" towards a maximum temperature increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius. YOUNGO also supported an action involving 1.5 degrees, where youth handed free neck ties to negotiators in an attempt to bring awareness to the 1.5 degree campaign. The ties, which state "I <3 1,5" (for you Americans, the comma is commonly used for the decimal separator in other countries), were a big success. Many negotiators were interested, including the delegates from small-island states that will be the nations most heavily affected by a temperature rise of over 1.5 degrees.

"I <3 1.5" Ties

YOUNGO member with a tie

Later in the day, the chairs of the Subsidiary Body for Implementation and the Subsidiary Body for Science and Technological Advice held a briefing specifically for youth. Each chair gave an overview of key issues being discussed and then opened the floor to questions about the current negotiations.

Right afterwards, the executive secretary of the UNFCCC held an "Intergenerational Inquiry," where youth and negotiators discussed the role of the youth constituency at the COP. Christiana Figueres, the UNFCCC Executive Secretary, spoke about the importance of youth becoming involved now, so that in the future, when the "hot potato," as she put it, is entirely in the hands of today's youth, it will not come as an unexpected and unfamiliar burden.

Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary UNFCCC

 The next speaker was a teenage girl from South Africa. She shared a story of how she traveled to the city with her father when she was younger, and loved to see the farm animals along the way. It became her dream to one day show her own kids these animals and see the expressions on their faces when the witnessed the beauty of these creatures. Unfortunately, the stream that provided drinking water to these animals dried up as a result of anthropogenic environmental changes. Her dream was destroyed. She then turned to the negotiators and begged that they develop steps forward that do not crush the dreams and hopes of today's younger generation. This inspiring message finished the day of youth celebration with a feeling of hope for the youth, who are not only the leaders of tomorrow, but the leaders of today.

Reading a poem to start the Intergenerational Inquiry

The girl on the left gave a tremendous speech that moved everyone in the room

The use of social media to spread messages from the youth became extremely important at this year's COP. Within minutes, the video of the side event was online and shared with the world.

Monday, November 28, 2011


Today marked the beginning of the UNFCCC COP17/CMP7, which stands for the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the 7th Session of the Conference of the Parties serving as the Meeting of the Parties (CMP7) to the Kyoto Protocol. The convention is being held in a convention center and exhibition hall in downtown Durban, South Africa.

Bikes available free-of-charge for delegates
After riding the conference shuttle to downtown Durban this morning, I headed to the meeting of the Youth Non-Governmental Organizations (YOUNGO). YOUNGO's governing body is a "spokescouncil" that meets at these morning meetings. A spokescouncil meeting consists of the attending youth organizations each of which is represented by a single spokesperson or "spoke." The spokes sit in a circle and the rest of the organization sits directly behind this front person. The spokes are the representatives of each group or organization who suggest ideas, ask questions, and vote throughout the meeting. During the meeting, the various youth groups discussed briefings to the negotiators as well as various actions and programs throughout the day. At this particular meeting, about 15 organizations with a total of close to 100 youth were present.

YOUNGO Spokescouncil meeting 

"Spokes" discussing a vote with their groups
After the meeting, the youth involvement continued. At a side event discussing the politics of the parties negotiating at Durban was well attended by the youth constituency. Later on, the Canadian youth climate delegation held a press conference to present their new jackets (in the style of NASCAR) sporting the logos of oil and gas companies to the Canadian negotiators. None of the invited negotiators were in attendance. Although this press conference was mostly a joke, the youth highlighted an important issue slowing the climate negotiations: nations like Canada are working to do what is best for the oil industry and other powerful and rich corporations rather than working to protect the people and environment.

The press conference held by the Canadian youth delegation was poking fun at the Canadian negotiators, but was treated as a legitimate press conference at the UNFCCC

The "big oil" jackets
As a result of Canada's work against the climate negotiations, this country was awarded both first and second place in the Fossil of the Day award, a prize given to the countries that have had the greatest negative impact on the progress of the climate talks. Although Canada received the award, other countries such as the United States and Japan also made statements that they will not agree to a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol (which expires in 2012). Unless these countries can realize that they should be focusing on what is best for the people they represent rather than the large, profitable industries, the climate negotiations in Durban will not develop agreements necessary to effectively continue international discussions on climate change.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

First Days in South Africa

I am currently in Durban, South Africa for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. My mother and I are attending with the Moravian College delegation, but I am also representing the Inconvenient Youth. The conference begins tomorrow (November 28) in downtown Durban. For the past few days, I was in the Cape Town area, where my mom and I were hosted by the former president of the Moravian Church of South Africa and her husband, both of whom showed us around the city and local attractions within the Western Cape region.

We arrived in South Africa at the Johannesburg International Airport. As the plane landed, my mom and I spotted our first bird of the trip, the unmistakable Long-tailed Widowbird. As we sat in the airport waiting for our flight to Cape Town, we watched through the windows for any new birds. Despite the fact that we were overlooking a sea of concrete, we saw a tremendous number of "life birds." Flocks of twenty or more African Sacred Ibises and several Hadeda Ibises flew overhead. Little Swifts and Rock Martins flew around, while Cape Sparrows and Common Mynas hopped on the ground.

When we arrived in Cape Town, the weather was gorgeous. The sun was shining and there was a nice breeze that cooled that warm air. As soon as we left the airport, we headed to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Swart, but soon headed out for a walk through a canal park in the nearby town of Pinelands. This was my first time to do some birding in a fairly "natural" place on the trip. The park is a small open area with houses on both sides that has a small canal running through the middle. This park gave excellent views of the mountains that lie in the distance. Many of the trees held the tiny Cape White-eyes, while the canal edge was home for small groups of Egyptian Geese and Cape Wagtails. Pied Crows played along the water's edge and flocks of Laughing Doves and Speckled Pigeons wandered through the weeds. Later in the evening, we went to the walkway along the ocean, where we watched the sun set over the water. I managed to find a few new birds here as well, including Cape Cormorant, African Oystercatcher, and Hartlaub's Gull.

Cape Town

The park in Pinelands

Cape Town after sunset
The next morning, we headed to the Cape Town seaboard, where we boarded a ferry to Robben Island. This island was home to a high security prison that is most famous for holding apartheid opposition leaders like Nelson Mandela. For many years, the South African government banished people to this island who hoped to end the strong discrimination against the non-white population of the country. Fortunately, in the 1990s, much of the violence ended and the prisoners were released from the island, ending what was termed the "white regime" of South Africa. Today, the island is a museum that shares the story of the apartheid struggles and the discrimination. The guides, one of whom was a former political prisoner on the island, made a clear message that the museum is not meant to place blame on the white leaders who caused the suffering, but rather to share a message of peace and the importance of treating others with love and respect regardless of skin color and culture.

View of the mainland from Robben Island

The island is also an excellent place for birding, and the ferry ride to the island also produced a good number of exciting bird species. As we pulled out of Cape Town on the boat, Hartlaub's and Kelp Gulls were all over the water's edge and several White-throated Swallows glided low over the water. Soon after pulling into the open water, we began seeing Cape Cormorants flying in long lines low over the water. About 15 minutes into the windy boat ride, I spotted a group of small, white birds flying towards the boat. My first guess with only a quick glimpse without binoculars as that they were terns, but when I finally good a look, I realized that this was a flock of 20 Sabine's Gulls! This is an unusual species near home, so it was treat to see so many of these birds.

Sabine's Gulls
As we approached the jetty near the dock on Robben Island, the overwhelming smell of bird droppings filled the air. Thousands of cormorants (many of which were nesting) lined the jetty. Scanning the flock, I picked out three species. The majority of the birds were Cape Cormorants, with several Bank Cormorants, and a few, scattered Crested Cormorants. As we walked along the dock, I spotted an African Penguin swimming along the beach. Having never seen a wild penguin before, this was pretty exciting! Other birds included Greater Crested Tern, Common Fiscal, and Chukar (there is an established breeding population on the island). 

Cape Cormorants and the globally endangered Bank Comorants

African Penguin
After a few hours on the island, we headed back to the mainland for lunch. As with any outdoor restaurant that I have been to, pigeons, starlings, and sparrows wandered around the ground in search of food scraps. However, these were Speckled Pigeons, Red-winged Starlings, and Cape Sparrows, which made the dining experience a bit more exciting.

After the meal, we made our way to Table Mountain, which was recently named one of the "New Seven Wonders of Nature." This beautiful mountain is covered with a habitat known as fynbos, a fire-dependent shrubland unique to southern Africa. This park is an extremely popular destination, so the area was loaded with people in line to take the cable car to the very top of the mountain. When we parked the car, we immediately heard birds around us. We spotted a Karoo Prinia building a nest near where we parked the car. We also saw a beautiful Cape Canary singing in the pine tree over the road.

As we traveled up the cable car, we had incredible views of Cape Town and the surrounding landscape. The view from the top was unbelievable in every direction. We decided to hike out to explore the top of the mountain. As with many parks in the United States, very few people venture outside the sight of the visitor center, so we had the trails more or less to ourselves. The farther we got from the building, the windier it became. Before long, it was impossible to wear a hat without it soon blowing off. The wind brought in the infamous "tablecloth," a thick layer of fog, that often covers the top of Table Mountain. The weather conditions kept many of the birds away, but we spotted several Orange-breasted Sunbirds fluttering in the shrubs, although they stayed sheltered and hidden for most of the time. Before we went back down the mountain, we spotted an African Rock Hyrax (also known as a Cape Dassie) on the cliff edge. We soon found several more of these small mammals lounging on the rock ledges

One of many spectacular views from the top of Table Mountain
African Rock Hyrax
On Saturday morning, we got an early start and headed east to the village of Genadendal, a former Moravian Church mission in the mountains of the Western Cape. The small town holds many old buildings that were built by the Moravians in the 1730s. The site now holds a Moravian museum that holds many pieces of history from the village as well as information about the Moravian Church as a whole. Much of this information was very interesting to learn, as I attend a school that was founded by the Moravian Church. We also had a small amount of time to bird around the Genadendal gardens, where birds seemed to be everywhere. Showy birds like the African Paradise-Flycatchers and Yellow Bishops were common, as were smaller, drabber species like the Spotted Flycatcher. Malachite and Greater Double-collared Sunbirds visited the flowers in the gardens and were constantly flying through the dense rose bushes and other vines.

The church in Genadendal
The drive to and from Genadendal was beautiful. Close to Cape Town, the landscape looks very green, as the natural areas are mostly covered with fynbos. Once we crossed the mountains, the hills were covered with apple orchards and vineyards. A bit farther down the road, the primary crop is wheat, so the landscape was covered with various shades of brown. Southern Red Bishops lined the fence wires and several Steppe Buzzards patrolled from the utility poles along the highway. My favorite sightings along this route were the small groups of Blue Cranes feeding in the wheat fields. This beautiful bird is the national bird of South Africa, so it had particular importance for me as well as the South African residents in the car. 

After Genadendal, we headed to the coast along the town of Hermanus, a famous location where whales congregate to breed. Along the windy coast, Kelp Gulls were flying around, while the Hartlaub's Gulls, Greater Crested Terns, and a single Grey-headed Gull were perched on the rocks. While I was taking photos of the landscape, my mom spotted a seabird headed towards the coast. I got on the bird and watched it as it approached the point on which we were standing. As the dark bird came close, I got a good look, then quickly switched lenses and photographed the bird as it turned back around and headed back towards the ocean. Based on the views that I did get, I am pretty sure that this bird was a Northern Giant Petrel.

As we started to leave without having seen a whale, my mom wanted to check the bay on last time. Several Greater Striped Swallows circled over the parking lot while we scanned the water. Within a minute, I spotted the tail of a whale on the other side of the bay! For several minutes, the whale (or whales) were visible above the surface of the water. This area is well-known for the breeding population of Southern Right Whales that breed in the sheltered bay east of Hermanus.

Southern Right Whale at Hermanus
After Hermanus, we headed back to Cape Town along the ocean route, where we were greeted with fantastic views over the ocean. We stopped at a few places along the way to take pictures, and we also managed to see a few birds. The highlight was a small group of Cape Sugarbirds that were perched on the shrubs in a roadside fynbos habitat.

The endemic Cape Sugarbird

Today, we flew from Cape Town to Durban, where we will spend the next week at the UNFCCC COP17. So far, the weather has been hot, humid, and rainy. Hopefully the rest of the week will bring nicer weather!

Monday, October 31, 2011

Raptors and Sparrows

While birding around the yard this morning, I found a surprising number of species for this late in the season. Around sunrise, the field was filled with a flock of sparrows that consisted mostly of Dark-eyed Juncos, but also held White-throated, Song, Field, Chipping, and Fox Sparrows. The Fox Sparrows are some of the first I have seen this season, as their migration through the region is just beginning.

Fox Sparrow

White-throated Sparrow

Yellow-rumped Warblers were everywhere along the field edge and in the yard itself. Every vine, bush, and tree with berries along the field edge held at least one Yellow-rump this morning. The Poison Ivy vines seem to have a tremendous amount of fruit this year, so several birds including the Yellow-rumped Warblers, sparrows, and Hermit Thrushes have been taking advantage of this excellent food source.

Yellow-rumped Warbler on a Poison Ivy vine
The best birds today were the migrating raptors. Although the sight of a kettle of hundreds of Broad-winged Hawks in September and the constant stream of Sharp-shinned Hawks in October are exciting to watch, I particularly enjoy the migrants that move through in late October and November. Species like Golden Eagles and Northern Goshawks are always amazing to watch as they fly over. Even watching a Red-tailed Hawk, another primarily late-season migrant, move down-ridge is an impressive sight. While hawk watching from my deck around noon today, I spotted several Red-tailed Hawks, three Red-shouldered Hawks, and a single, gorgeous Golden Eagle that flew directly over where I was sitting.

Golden Eagle

Red-tailed Hawk

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Big Sit report

On Sunday, October 9, 2011, I conducted my annual "big sit" in my yard. The Big Sit! is a birding event run by Bird Watcher's Digest, where people from around the world each pick a spot, set up a circle, and stay within that circle for 24 hours and count birds. I have participated in this event for a few years now, and set my personal record of 70 species in 2009. Here is my report from this year's big sit:

A little before midnight, Stephen Kloiber arrived at my house and we headed out to the sitting spot. The air was fairly warm, and several katydids called from the trees behind us. As midnight arrived, we stood silently, pointing our ears towards the shining moon and listened. For a while, we heard nothing. Finally, about half-an-hour into the day, we heard a call from the valley below. The call was distant, but it was clear that this was a Barred Owl - our first species of the day. A little while later, a startled mockingbird called from somewhere along the field edge, but soon quieted down once again leaving us in the dark.

As the morning progressed, the air became colder and damper. The hope of a flight call from above kept us outside, and we were rewarded. Between one and two o'clock, we heard a fairly regular, but sparse flight overhead. The first calls were from Swainson's Thrush. Next the short, lisping call of a Savannah Sparrow, then another. More Swainson's, a Chipping Sparrow, an Indigo Bunting. Somewhere between flight calls, Stephen and I heard a distant call from the west. A few seconds later the bird called again, this time the hooting was cleared: Great Horned Owl, check.

Much of the pre-dawn morning was very, very slow. We heard a few more of the previously mentioned species. Around 4 o'clock, I picked out a high, slightly rising call of a Grasshopper Sparrow. By 4:30, we were shivering, so we headed inside for a quick break. We warmed up with warm apple cider, then headed back out for more birding.

As the sky began to brighten, our list stood at 11 species. Soon, however, birds began waking up all around us. White-throated Sparrows chirped and sang from the treeline across the meadow and a couple of towhees called along the forest edge. Stephen ran up to his car to grab his scope and binocular, and as he did, an Eastern Screech-Owl (a species that we had somehow missed earlier in the morning) started calling. The bird was near his car, so I could see him rushing back to try and get the bird from the circle in case I hadn't heard it. Luckily, I was able to hear the tremolo even from across the field.

The sun continued to rise into the sky and birds became more active. Yellow-rumped Warblers, American Robins, and Blue Jays flew overhead, both kinglet species called from the woods behind the sitting spot, a House Wren chattered from a patch of goldenrod, woodpeckers (in the form of Pileated, Hairy, Red-bellied, and Northern Flicker) called from all around. Sparrows gathered in the goldenrod patches in front of us. At one point, a Swamp Sparrow popped up fairly close allowing great looks.

Numerous Yellow-rumped Warblers flew overhead in the morning

While scanning the skies for new birds, I spotted a fast flying bird headed towards the Kittatinny Ridge. I watched the light-colored bird as it turned around - Rock Pigeon! Most birders would probably not find this species particularly exciting or worth an exclamation point, but this is an uncommon species in the yard, so an important species to get on the big sit.

A little before eight o'clock, we had our first Sharp-shined Hawk of the day. This species, the mascot for our big sit team, The Shadow Mountain Sharp-shins, would turn out to be the most abundant raptor of the day with a total of 89 seen over the course of the daylight hours. While I was watching a Sharp-shin overhead, Stephen spotted a Nashville Warbler on the other side of the field. Soon after Stephen got the warbler, I spotted a Lincoln's Sparrow that had popped up in the goldenrod patch near the circle. The sparrow chipped a few times before disappearing into the dense grass and weeds.

One of two Lincoln's Sparrows on The Big Sit! This one never left the cover of this shrub.

Dan Kunkle arrived around 10:30am while were were experiencing somewhat of a late-morning "lull." We had a few raptors on our list at this point, but hoped that Dan could help us pick out a few more from the deep blue sky, and that he did! With his help, we added several new raptors to the list including a fast-flying Peregrine Falcon. Dan also managed to spot a Red-breasted Nuthatch that zipped overhead flying north.

Sharp-shinned Hawks, the bird for which the Shadow Mountain Sharp-shins are named, passed overhead all day long

After Dan left, I spotted a group of about 30 Turkey Vultures to the south. Stephen got on the group and we watched as the birds moved north. These vultures seemed to mark the start of a raptor rush, because soon after we watched an adult male Northern Harrier fly southwest past the circle and after that, two immature Bald Eagles flew directly overhead. Not long after the eagles circled overhead, I heard a Common Raven croaking from somewhere to the west and Stephen and I spotted a Red-shouldered Hawk circling over my house. Just after the "flurry" of activity dissipated, Terry Master and my mom came down to the circle. Although they had just missed an awesome show of birds, we soon found two more Bald Eagles, several Black Vultures, and more Common Ravens than I have ever seen from my yard at once!

One of four Bald Eagles for the day. Two flew directly overhead!

Unfortunately, by 2:30pm, I was the only one left in the circle. For the rest of the afternoon, Sharp-shinned Hawks streamed overhead, but no new birds appeared. Later on, as the sun was setting, I kept an eye out for any new birds in the final burst of avian activity for the day. Groups of robins and crows gathered in the sky and in the trees, and small flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds passed overhead. One of these blackbird flocks held a Rusty Blackbird, the first new species since about one in the afternoon. Unfortunately, it soon became too dark to see anything and the katydid chorus was too loud to hear any owls or flight calls, so I headed inside for some much needed sleep.

Moon rising not long after sunset

Around 10:30pm and after a three hour nap, I headed back out to the circle for the remainder of the day. The cold air had quieted the insects, but the birds were not calling. When my watched beeped at midnight, the day's list stood at 68 species, two less than the record set two years ago, but two more than last year. Even though we didn't break the record for my yard, everyone who came saw some good birds and certainly had fun!

The List:

Canada Goose  34
Black Vulture  24
Turkey Vulture  87
Osprey  1
Bald Eagle  4
Northern Harrier  1
Sharp-shinned Hawk  89
Cooper's Hawk  5
Red-shouldered Hawk  1
Red-tailed Hawk  17
American Kestrel  8
Merlin  2
Peregrine Falcon  1
Rock Pigeon  2
Mourning Dove  3
Eastern Screech-Owl  2
Great Horned Owl  2
Barred Owl  2
Red-bellied Woodpecker  8
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker  1
Downy Woodpecker  2
Hairy Woodpecker  1
Northern Flicker  8
Pileated Woodpecker  3
Eastern Phoebe  3
Blue Jay  65
American Crow  207
Common Raven  9
Black-capped Chickadee  6
Tufted Titmouse  4
Red-breasted Nuthatch  1
White-breasted Nuthatch  2
Carolina Wren  2
House Wren  1
Golden-crowned Kinglet  3
Ruby-crowned Kinglet  4
Eastern Bluebird  4
Swainson's Thrush  12
Hermit Thrush  8
Wood Thrush  1
American Robin  222
Gray Catbird  8
Northern Mockingbird  2
European Starling  34
Cedar Waxwing  78
Nashville Warbler  1
Blackpoll Warbler  1
Yellow-rumped Warbler  36
Black-throated Green Warbler  4
Eastern Towhee  3
Chipping Sparrow  9
Field Sparrow  3
Savannah Sparrow  5
Grasshopper Sparrow  1
Song Sparrow  11
Lincoln's Sparrow  2
Swamp Sparrow  2
White-throated Sparrow  10
Dark-eyed Junco  1
Northern Cardinal  2
Indigo Bunting  1
Bobolink  1
Red-winged Blackbird  12
Rusty Blackbird  1
Purple Finch  1
House Finch  8
American Goldfinch  7
House Sparrow  3

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Big Sit! 2011

Once again, I will be counting birds in my yard for The Big Sit!, an annual birding competition organized by Bird Watcher's Digest. In this event, birders sit in a spot for 24 hours and find as many species of birds as they can. For the past few years, I have birded from the corner of the field on my property. My record, set a few years back, is 70 species. With several observers this year, I hope we can break this record!

I will be out at my "sitting spot" at midnight and birding throughout the day on Sunday.

If you are interested in last year's results, check out my report.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Fall Migration

After a few weeks of slow migration, the past two nights have been excellent for bird movement. Although I have not seen a tremendous number of birds in the mornings, I have certainly heard huge numbers of thrushes migrating overhead and seen masses of birds on the radar map. While out birding this morning, Scarlet Tanagers were the most numerous migrant. Over the course of the morning, I saw more tanagers than warblers, which is unusual for this time of year. Of the warblers I did see, Black-throated Blue Warblers are the only real "migrant" species, for Ovenbirds, Black-and-white Warblers, and American Redstarts frequently breed around my property.

 Even the male Scarlet Tanagers are plain this time of year. I managed to photograph this individual as it flew overhead.

While watching tanagers fly from tree to tree, I spotted a bird darting over the yard. As it flew, I recognized the bird as a cuckoo by the long tail and wing shape. The reddish color on the wings and the yellow on the bill identified it as a Yellow-billed Cuckoo. It is unusual to observe this species flying in the open, so I was extremely lucky to have the opportunity to watch and to photograph this bird!

 Yellow-billed Cuckoo in flight - note the reddish patches on the wings. This field mark distinguishes this species from the Black-billed Cuckoo.

 If the lighting is good, the yellow on the bill can be very obvious in flight.

Tonight is shaping up to be another great night for migration. A quick look at the NEXRAD map shows a lot of birds moving in the eastern United States, so if you can get out to do some birding tomorrow, there is a good chance there will be migrants around.

Finally, next weekend is Migration Fest at the Lehigh Gap Nature Center. The weekend will be filled with various programs about the annual migrations of our native wildlife, including bird research presentations, Monarch butterfly tagging demonstrations, a hawk identification workshop, and an evening presentation by Pete Dunne. For more information on this event, visit the Lehigh Gap Nature Center website.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Meet Leonard

On Friday, butterfly enthusiast Billy Weber visited my property in search of a locally uncommon butterfly--the Northern Crescent. There are very few places this far south where this species can be found. However, there is a population in the field across from my house where I find them almost every year. Although the Northern Crescent is currently recognized as a separate species from the very common Pearl Crescent, the two are very similar and extreme caution is necessary when identifying these butterflies in the field.

Northern Crescent
note the large amount of orange on the forewings and hindwings

Pearl Crescent
the pattern is similar to the Northern Crescent, but the orange is more reduced in all four wings

While visiting the property, Billy did not find the crescents for which he came looking, but he did find another cool butterfly, a Leonard's Skipper. This butterfly is a robust, fast-flying skipper of late summer and early fall. This is the only butterfly in this region that has only one brood that comes out late in the season. In eastern Pennsylvania, the first Leonard's Skippers appear in August and continue through September. The phenology of this species is particularly interesting, as it emerges earlier in the northern latitudes to avoid the early frost.

Leonard's Skippers are not particularly rare, but are localized to large fields with their larval host plants. The caterpillars commonly feed on Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), but will also feed on other grasses. Apparently Leonard's Skippers are especially attracted to pink and purple flowers, including Phlox and joe-pye-weed (Eutrochium). Unfortunately, meadow habitats with these requirements are declining in this region due to development. As with most species, once the habitat is destroyed, the population begins to fall. It is becoming harder and harder to find this species for this reason.

 Leonard's Skipper
the pattern on the underside of the wings is unique among skippers in this region

This afternoon, I went searching for a Leonard's Skipper in the field where Billy had one a few days before. After searching through large patches of blooming flowers, I finally found on nectaring on goldenrod (Solidago) flowers. This individual allowed me to take a few photos before it flew off into the center of the field.

 Leonard's Skipper

The Leonard's Skipper belongs the to genus Hesperia, a genus of skippers that are usually marked with a distinct chevron-shaped pattern of dots against a brown or orange background color. They all live in grassland habitats, and their caterpillars likely feed on the same or similar grass species. In Pennsylvania, we have three Hesperia species (in order of flight time): Cobweb Skipper (Hesperia metea), Indian Skipper (Hesperia sassacus), and Leonard's Skipper (Hesperia leonardus). Cobweb Skippers appear in early spring as the warm-season grasses are beginning to pop up from the ground. This species is declining rapidly across its range and is a real treat to find.

 Cobweb Skipper

Indian Skippers are the next to appear, usually around the end of May. This species will live in the same habitats as the Cobweb Skipper, but is more of a generalist, so it will inhabit a wider variety of habitats. Despite the wider habitat diversity, Indian Skipper populations are also declining. In late May, I have seen Cobweb and Indian Skippers flying together in a relatively undisturbed upland bluestem meadow.

 Indian Skipper