Don’t you want to participate in a spring birdathon?

In April and May we can witness a great migration as songbirds stream north in rivers of life, so numerous weather radar sees clouds that are not storms but birds. These birds feather their way north to thawing breeding grounds leaving their tropical homes to eat and feed their young on the tender caterpillars feasting on delicate new northern leaves. Birds fly night and day, but above all in the night. They concentrate after crossing the Gulf of Mexico from Yucatán in places like Sabine Woods and High Island, both in Texas.  They stop in Point Pelee, an Ontario finger into Lake Erie. They pause before crossing Lake Michigan at Chicago’s Montrose Point. And these are only a few of the natural concentrators that make the birds easy to find and watch.

Reddish Egret

In April and May Audubon Societies all across the US and Canada stage their biggest fund drive, the birdathon. And it is just what it sounds like: a team event where instead of miles the metric is bird species seen. So find your local Audubon Society and see if it has a birdathon. It is easy to put together a small team, embarrassing to ask your friends and colleagues to support your efforts, but it is for such a good cause: preservation of habitat, conservation education, and whatever else your Audubon society has found helps. When we make the world safer for birds, all natural life benefits.

This year I participated in two birdathons, one with the Houston Audubon Society and one with the St. Louis Audubon Society. The birds reach Texas before they reach Missouri, so birding my former home and my current home was feasible.

American Avocets at Bolivar Flats

My husband and I rented a Bolivar beach house so we could enjoy the Texas migrants for several days. On the birdathon day we chose, Sunday, April 24, 2022, we were joined by our son Philip and met my sister Diana and colleague, friend, and star birder, Cin-Ty Lee at the ferry landing from Galveston. Our team was the Thieving Magpies. Here is our trip report, public on eBird. We checked out the pier and then went to a few places nearby. We walked out on the North Jetty watching the shorebirds and at a clump of vegetation, Cin-Ty knew to look for Nelson’s and Seaside Sparrows, both new birds for me, or lifers as the birders say. Some people eat blueberry pie when they see a lifer. I guess from that trip I have four pies coming to me.

We went on and watched the Reddish Egrets do their seemingly drunken dance in the water to fool the fish. We saw lots of Forsters Terns, Laughing Gulls, and an Iceland Gull only Cin-Ty could identify though we all spent a lot of time staring at it. There were two Red Knots and Cin-Ty soberly told us they may disappear in our lifetime. Perhaps you have heard of them and how they depend on the eggs of horseshoe crabs in mid-journey for their epic 10,000 mile south of South America to Arctic journey. The Brown Pelicans framed the view looking indestructible, though we nearly killed them off too with the pesticide DDT.

Royal Terns courting with onlooker

Finally it was time to go to the jewel of the coast, High Island, not an island at all, but an oil-rich salt dome rising just enough above the coastal marshes for oaks, pecans, mulberries, and other trees. It is the first place a bird crossing the gulf could land, should they need to. Best weather for birders lures the birds off Yucatán with east winds and then drops them if they face a punishing north wind as they hit the coast. But I never wish for those north winds, worrying about all the birds that never make it to land.

There are many places you can read about the sanctuaries of High Island, preserved by Houston Audubon and Texas Ornithological Society. And sanctuary is the right word, for if anything to me is holy, it is these scraps of woods preserved for migrating birds, as a shrine that provides food to refugees might also do. I could tell you a lot about High Island, but I want to leave you with just one image. It is that of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak. This male sat medium high in a leafing out pecan, its colors heart-stoppingly brilliant. Grosbeaks have large bills, as their name implies, but it is the heart-shaped vermillion-red badge on its chest that stops my own heart. A black head, Black and white wings and other colors complete this tuxedo-with-a-splash pattern. About 12 birders were arrayed under these trees right around the corner from the famous Boy Scout Woods bleachers, naming birds as they came in. There were other grosbeaks, male and female, Chestnut-sided Warblers, Baltimore Orioles and so many more. But this one grosbeak kept my eye, not because he was so perfect, but because he was not. His feathers were unkempt. He had not reached back to his preen oil gland with his bill and smoothed it on his feathers after the long flight. He was not feeding. But he did not otherwise look ill. I imagine him sitting their thinking with wonderment about the crossing, about flying all night and into the next day and then encountering a mild north wind. Perhaps he had some close calls on the journey. He certainly knew he had farther to fly, at least to Missouri and most likely up into Michigan or Canada.

Birders witnessing the great migration at High Island

I wish I could say that while I watched this Rose-breasted Grosbeak shook himself and began the work of readying his feathers for the next journey. Or left his perch to begin foraging. But he did not. All may eventually be well with this bird friend, but all is not well with the birds. We are losing them by the billion. And habitat loss is the main reason. Loss in the tropics, loss on northern breeding grounds, and loss of stopovers all along the way.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

I hope the dollars I raised with this birdathon help slow this loss.

This post is long, so I will save news of the St. Louis birdathon for another day. Next year try to join a birdathon. Of course you are free to use your resources to support birds and all nature on any day of the year.

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Springtime brings new beginnings and death

Springtime. Have you been paying attention? What are your springtime rituals for this so short season? At our departmental celebration yesterday of Carlos Botero’s achievement of tenure all were full of hiking and canoeing talk. The Ozarks beckon, though the creeks are high. Which trail will I hike next weekend? Bell Mountain? Hickory Canyon? Hawn State Park? Down to the Johnson Shut-ins? Or just the nearby Lewis and Clark Trail? Will it be walking, camping or backpacking? What are your plans?

I hear the spring peepers. I wonder if the salamanders have made their nighttime journey to the mating ponds at Tyson Research Center. The redbuds are tinging with color, blooms not quite burst. The weather is deceptive, coaxing us out of our jackets one sunny day, then shoving our arms back into sleeves on a blustery one with a morning near freezing.

In Flynn Park I heard Chipping Sparrows for the first time in a while. A lone Ruby-crowned Kinglet hopped from branch to branch, with the look I think of as round-eyed and surprised, unlike the Golden-crowned Kinglets we have had all winter with their sharp looking white eye shadow and darker streak through the eye. I see from my bird guide that the Ruby-crowned Kinglet winters only a little south of St. Louis, so I might have seen it deeper in the winter, but I did not.

Carlos Botero celebrating tenure achieved at Washington University in St. Louis

A yellow-bellied Sapsucker also showed up in Flynn Park, pecking a methodical grid in a leafless treetrunk. It joined the woodpeckers I often see in Flynn Park, Downy Woodpeckers, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, and of course Yellow-shafted Flickers.

Walk a small park every day and the small changes with seasons will delight. I saw my first bird of the season carrying nesting material. It was a robin, a couple of days ago, April 3rd. At home I saw another, building a nest in the dogwood that shades our patio. Back in the park I saw a Common Grackle carry a beakful of something soft into the pines where they nested last year.

It is the small things that tell of early spring. I saw an Eastern Phoebe out here at Tyson and remembered a few years ago when I was challenged by the eBird monitor on an early phoebe sighting. I think I convinced him, though I did not have my trusty camera to photograph the truth. Who could mistake a tail-bobbing phoebe, perched above a rivulet?

Spring is also a time of death. Sometimes my first realization of nesting birds are tiny bodies on the sidewalk. Many more deaths will come as young birds fail to learn to survive in a hungry world.

It is still a time of Covid-19 death, striking close to my heart against the most active and adventurous and made no less painful for the ebbing of this virus. NPR tells me we are at a low not reached since July 2021, but what does that mean to me, one relative gone forever? Inside my mask stays on. I am ready to bare my arm when the next booster is offered. Even in springtime life can end.

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Why grasshoppers cannot poison Loggerhead Shrikes

I did a double take when a Loggerhead Shrike appeared before me on the barbed wire separating the parking lot from train tracks since I had just seen a pair of Northern Mockingbirds in a nearby live oak. Of course there is no mistaking a Loggerhead Shrike for a Northern Mockingbird. They may share a lovely pattern of whites, grays, and blacks, but that is it. Shrikes have a wide, black mask from their beak to past their eye. But it is what birders call their jizz, or aspect and behavior that make them unmistakable.

Loggerhead Shrike, Joan Strassmann CC BY SA 3.0

Mockingbirds are the singers of the bird world. They are slender as ballerinas while shrikes are chunky and seemingly neckless. Mockingbirds look up while shrikes look down.

I am in San Antonio in the part of town where I can see three bail bondsmen operations from the hotel. Freeway noise is incessant. On this early March day only the live oaks and palm trees still have leaves. Yet still I headed out, clicked eBird on to record anything I saw.

It was a breezy, overcast day, about 65F, just before 7 AM. The first 10 birds I saw were all House Sparrows, chattering and hidden in the live oaks and palms. I crossed W. Cesar E. Chavez and S. Frio and saw that the overpass we could see from the hotel went over railroad tracks. So I headed for the fence separating the back of the parking lot from those tracks. There would be the kind of scrubby vegetation that might have more than Rock Pigeons, White-winged Doves, Great-tailed Grackles, and House Sparrows.

And there, right on the wire was a Loggerhead Shrike. It sat there, watched me, then swooped low over the grasses and back up on the wire, trailing something in its bill. Had I witness the famous shrike hunting behavior? No, it simply had a piece of soft grass. When it flew off with it, I thought it probably had a nest over in the greater tangles of bushes and grasses under the overpass.

I love shrikes. They feel more accessible than other birds of prey since they hunt low, and cannot grasp their prey well in their talons, instead impaling it on spines or barbed wire. Maybe the barbed wire itself made hunting the railroad track verge attractive.

Loggerhead Shrike with nesting material. Joan Strassmann CC BY SA 3.0

Shrikes feature in one of my favorite evolution papers, How the Horned Lizard got its Horns (1). In this story Kevin Young and Butch Brodie and his dad, also Edmund Brodie, looked at horns on flat-tailed horned lizards, inaccurately but commonly called horned toads. In 1996 and 1997 they got access to the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Gunnery Range near Yuma, Arizona. There Kevin Young collected 29 skulls of dead lizards that shrikes had impaled, mostly on creosote twigs. For comparison they caught and measured 155 living lizards caught in the same area. They measured the pair of long horns on the top of the head, called parietal horns, and those on the side of the head, called squamosal horns.

This was field work at its best and worst, best because it was so cool, worst because it was on a bombing range. Butch said this about Kevin’s collecting: “He would cruise up and down the road just after dawn, picking skulls and carcasses from the trees and chasing live lizards into the bombing range. I remember that he developed a pretty uncanny tracking skill – when the sun was low, he could detect lizards’ tracks and follow them to where the lizards had buried into the sand to wait out the heat of the day!” That sounds wonderful, but this was along “ a narrow band of mesquite and other shrubs that grew between the dirt road and the bombing range.” That is the thing about field work. Our organisms are not always most easily studied in pristine habitats.

Their prediction was that the lizards that had been killed by shrikes would have shorter, narrower horns if horns had evolved to protect lizards from shrike attack. And this is exactly what they found. It is evolution in action, with the shrikes attacking those with shorter horns more successfully.

I took a look at Loggerhead Shrikes in Cornell’s Birds of the World and was stunned to see they are listed as near threatened (2). They have vanished in many northern places since the 1970s, so I guess I’m lucky to be in San Antonio (2). It is not entirely clear why this happened, but some likely reasons include the reforesting of New England with the failure of their rocky farms. In the south, fire ants compete with them for food. Loggerhead shrikes need open grasslands with enough trees or bushes for their nests, as might be the case with hedges between grassy fields. The situation is so bad that Loggerhead Shrikes are categorized as endangered in Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin, and my home state of Michigan.

Loggerhead Shrikes in Texas are quite sedentary, so I imagine this pair may stay their entire lives in this scrub land no one wants and few have access to. I wonder if it is part of a population that finds wildness in cities along tracks, extending out of town, just as prairie seeds are sometimes found along the tracks, brought in on muddy train cars. But it turns out that linear habitats are not necessarily good for shrikes (3). Reuven Yosef watched 27 banded pairs of Loggerhead Shrikes in 1992 at Archbold Biological Station in Florida. The part of the landscape he studied was a huge cattle ranch with lots of fencelines. He compared nest failure rates of nests along the fencelines to those in bushes and trees out in the pasture and found that predation was much more common along the fencelines, presumably because the predators learned to hunt for nests there. This made Yosef wonder if linear habitat preservation is enough to protect declining bird species.

I just have to tell you one more thing about shrikes that is too cool. It turns out they are good at avoiding toxins, either by eviscerating their prey or by aging it until the toxins denature and become inactive (4). The lubber grasshopper is big, flightless, and has bright yellow stripes on its abdomen which it shows off to potential predators. It squirts out a poison that it has sequestered from the plants it eats and it contains toxic phenols, quinones and allelochemicals. Most birds don’t eat these grasshoppers and one captive Eastern Meadowlark that did died three days after eating them. But it turns out that Loggerhead Shrikes have a trick that makes these big grasshoppers edible.

Reuven wondered about this after he saw that shrikes impaled lots of lubber grasshoppers. The first experiment he did was to offer the grasshoppers to juveniles. They started to eat them and then “disgorged and dropped prey, gagged (held mouth open), stuck out tongue, dripped saliva, squawked, and shook head back and forth (p. 531).” Then they did not try any more, so clearly grasshoppers were distasteful eaten straight up. In the second experiment, Yosef offered the grasshoppers to adults and found that they either ignored them, or impaled them on the barbed wire in their cages. Then they ate them only a day or two later when the dead grasshopper color changed from bright yellow to brown. They ate only the head and abdomen, always rejecting legs, wings, and the thorax, the latter being where the defensive glands were (4). In  the final experiment they gave the caged shrikes frozen grasshoppers, some of which had been frozen fresh and were still bright yellow and some of which were frozen after aging to brown. Again, shrikes only ate the brown ones and only the head and abdomen, unlike what they did with other kinds of grasshoppers lacking toxins.

There are so many interesting things to learn about Loggerhead Shrikes. Those involving predation are made easier to study because of the way they impale prey, allowing us to see it. If I were here a month or two later, I would look along the tracks and see if I could watch young shrikes learn to impale their prey, sometimes failing, sometimes wedging them rather than impaling, and sometimes feasting on a well-caught prey. I might even see them learn about the nastiness of unaged lubber grasshoppers if they occur in Texas.

1.         K. V. Young, E. D. Brodie Jr, E. D. Brodie III, How the horned lizard got its horns. Science,  (2004).

2.         R. Yosef, in Birds of the World, A. F. Poole, F. B. Gill, Eds. (Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, 2020).

3.         R. Yosef, The effects of fencelines on the reproductive success of Loggerhead Shrikes. Conservation Biology 8, 281-285 (1994).

4.         R. Yosef, D. W. Whitman, Predator exaptations and defensive adaptations in evolutionary balance: no defence is perfect. Evolutionary Ecology 6, 527-536 (1992).

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Bewick’s Wren – better than a Greater Roadrunner?

Roadrunners are great, that astonishing member of the cuckoo family. But there is something about smaller birds that I love. Bewick’s Wrens may not get much attention, but if we went by song instead of size, ignored the absolute winner, the Northern Mockingbird, then we might well celebrate Bewick’s Wrens. I won’t start a petition for San Antonio’s Government Canyon State Natural Area to change their cover bird from a Greater Roadrunner to a Bewick’s Wren because they already made a larger fail with the name of this lovely place. I suppose Dinosaur Valley is taken, but surely they could have done better than Government Canyon.

Carolina Wren photographed in San Antonio by me. A Bewick’s Wren would have a lighter belly

Last Sunday we hiked the Joe Johnston trail. Philip and Twila came down from Austin to join us on a rather late start since we had to get breakfast tacos from a place near Philip’s alma mater, Trinity University. When we hit the trail it was already after 10, in that sunny time when birds have mostly stopped singing and go about the business of staying alive another day. Northern Cardinals, Northern Mockingbirds, and a lone Common Raven colored our hike to the dinosaur tracks over a rocky limestone trail. It was still cool on this early March morning, cool enough to ignore all the warnings about how many liters of water we should be carrying per person, though two of us had full 3-liter bladders in our backpacks.

But it was not these birds that most enthralled me. It was the Bewick’s Wren back at the visitor’s center, singing from a juniper right above a small pond. It is a strong song, one the Merlin app readily identified. It shouldn’t have puzzled me, but it did. I knew it was a wren but I knew also it was not a bird that I heard in St. Louis, though it was one I had heard before. For me, auditory memories are both more intense and harder to place than visual ones.

There was nothing that seemed precarious about that loud male wren advertising his territory and himself that early March day. And there is nothing that says they are declining everywhere, but they are now rare east of the Mississippi.

It is an all-too-common story. In the decades that I have been going to scientific meetings, like those of the Animal Behavior Society, a change has happened in what people study, especially with birds. Where once one might have studied song, or mating behavior, or conflicts of interest among young and adults, or any of the myriad other individual choices animals make, something else has come to predominate. It is conservation. If we are to have anything left to study, to admire, to cherish, we need to conserve them. And this requires a particular kind of study.

Bewick’s Wren used to be common east of the Mississippi and now is gone. In the 1980s there were only 20 pairs found in Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia taken together [1]. The Appalachian population was listed as endangered. Why the abrupt decline? One reason appears to be the expansion of the House Wren to areas it did not inhabit historically [1]. Dale Kennedy and Douglas White even demonstrated a direct competition because House Wrens destroy the eggs of Bewick’s Wrens. Is it better to lose a species in an area because of a competitor than to lose it to habitat destruction? I couldn’t answer that but I like both species and can only wonder what we have done that causes the House Wren to be on the move. It must have been something.

It is interesting that it is House Wrens and not the Carolina Wrens that are displacing Bewick’s Wrens. After all, Carolina Wrens are closely related to Bewick’s Wrens. How close they are can usually be seen in their names. If they are in the same genus, they are close. If I want to understand the current consensus on a bird’s name, I look at two places. One is of course, eBird. There Carolina Wren is Thryothorus ludovicianus and Bewick’s Wren is Thryomanes bewickii, different genera. It is the same at Birds of the World, no surprise I guess since both come from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I suppose the place I should really look is the American Ornithological Society’s Checklist of North and Middle American Birds, http://checklist.americanornithology.org/. And there too they have these two different genera for these two wrens.

Why should I be particularly exercised about this? It is because they are sister species, forming a little monophyletic (single ancestor) pair if you count the White-browed Wren of Yucatan, Belize, and northern Guatemala as a subspecies of Carolina Wrens. They are each other’s closest relative, so how could they not be in the same genus? Well, it is because the last great study on this part of the Tree of Life had bigger problems to clean up in the wren phylogeny involving other species [2]. But at least according to the new phylogeny, evolutionary tree, that Nigel Mann and his team put together, Bewick’s Wren is the only one in its genus and is right next to its Carolina sister.

Bewick’s Wrens are common in brushy habitat, not minding the arid west. They are considered specialists in piñon-juniper, preferring forests with larger juniper and piñyon trees, especially towards the northern edge of their range in Wyoming [3]. If they were only in this habitat, that would be a reason for their decline, but they are also in other scrubby habitats.

In the months leading up to Pearl Harbor, Edwin Miller observed Bewick’s Wrens mostly in Strawberry Canyon at the University of California Berkeley campus [4]. He seemed to have a list of behaviors to look for that he ticked off. He did not find roosts, though I don’t know why he would expect them. He observed dust bathing only twice, but it must be common. In 50 hours of observation he saw preening only four times, with one time including reaching back to get oil from the preen oil gland. He heard males sing often, but noted that females also sang a brief call-like song sometimes. Miller did not band any of the birds, so he could not really document territorial behavior, though he found birds sang from specific spots. Some were accompanied by birds he assumed were the female by their proximity and lack of singing. A lot of the others sang without mates. The nests were in dense vegetation or hollow trees and could even be domed if they did not have a top. This early study lacked banded birds, lacked any DNA markers of parentage, and certainly lacked radio transmitters. But it shows that careful observation such as a Slow Birder might do, can certainly be worthwhile. Studies of banded birds with DNA samples for parentage as we have for House Sparrows have still not been done. I think I will simply see where they are and be a citizen scientist by recording my observations on eBird. And I will sit and listen to that marvelous song.

I could tell you more about my new favorite wren, but it is time for lunch. After the Texas hike we stopped in Helotes at Big Daddy BBQ and feasted on Texas brisket with tangy sauce, charro beans, and coleslaw. I hope you have a wren you love in your garden.

1.         Kennedy, E.D. and D.W. White, Interference competition from House Wrens as a factor in the decline of Bewick’s Wrens. Conservation Biology, 1996. 10(1): p. 281-284.

2.         Mann, N.I., et al., Molecular data delineate four genera of “Thryothorus” wrens. Molecular phylogenetics and evolution, 2006. 40(3): p. 750-759.

3.         Pavlacky Jr, D.C. and S.H. Anderson, Habitat preferences of pinyon-juniper specialists near the limit of their geographic range. The Condor, 2001. 103(2): p. 322-331.

4.         Miller, E.V., Behavior of the Bewick wren. The Condor, 1941. 43(2): p. 81-99.

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Is that a family? Northern Flickers in November

My daughter’s research has brought her to Grand Junction in November and I joined her, conducting my university responsibilities from afar for the week. Our AirBnB is a log cabin with a close view of the sandstone cliffs of the Colorado National Monument. When I step out the front door, I can wind around to the acres out back, mostly pasture but bordered in Russian Olives and antique farm equipment. The family that built this cabin after WWII first lived in a tiny russet shack still standing that now houses tools. There is a pond and below it an irrigation channel from the Colorado River.

Every morning I take a twenty minute bird walk around the edge of the pasture. Black-billed Magpies come first to my attention. Northern Flickers of the red-shafted subspecies are next. This morning there were four together in a bare-branched tree, silently greeting the morning, something rare for a flicker. I adjusted my path so as not to cause them to fling skywards. Then I stopped.

Who were these flickers? I had heard them on other mornings, one here or one there. But today they just sat together. I decided they were a family and then wondered if it was two parents and two young of the year, now able to find the ants they love on their own. Or it could be three young and the surviving parent. Or even four orphans, though I think parents are more likely to survive than first-year young. If it was a family, it encompassed death, for Northern Flickers usually lay about 8 eggs.

I checked in with world Northern Flicker expert Karen Wiebe to see what she thought my unbanded birds might be. She blunted even my soft hope that I was looking at a moment of family silence. This is because flickers can form flocks during migration and later and she has seen “fairly large flocks, groups of a dozen or more birds foraging on a lawn together…even during the breeding season, they readily forage with neighboring flickers and with other ground-foraging birds like robins and starlings.” After all there is safety from predators in numbers. If there is a group and a predator only takes one at a time, it is more likely in a group to be someone else unless the group itself attracts more predators.

I still hear the flickers flying around the pasture, calling and sometimes landing to pull out ants. And I know that I do not know who they are, just that it is marvelous they are here, flashing their russet under-wing feathers, so different from the yellows of my St. Louis home birds.

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Fighting for their corner: the ravens of the Island in the Sky

If you are fortunate enough to visit Canyonlands National Park in Utah, you probably noticed the ravens at each overlook. Pull up, park, walk a short distance to a view across time as the canyons of the Colorado or Green rivers slice thousands of feet through time. Identify the layers of Navajo Sandstone, Kayenta Formation sandstone mix, Wingate Sandstone, the Chinle Formation with its clay and conglomerate, down to Moenkopi, White Rim and more. Figure out the uplifts and marvel at what a river can do in a few hundred million years.

That is the view, but right here on top, on a juniper or pinyon, or sitting patiently on the jutting sandstone is a Common Raven. Not one, but usually two patrol the visiting cars and vans. There were two at Mesa Arch, two at White Rim Overlook and two back at the Visitor’s Center where we did not drive down the Shafer Trail. Why two, we wondered.

When we pulled out sandwiches, sardines, tangerines, and nuts at our White Rim Overlook picnic table, a raven joined us, watching from a boulder, her feathers shimmering in the wind. She lifted up, bracing against the breeze and hovered, perhaps to get a better view of our offerings. But we knew better than to offer. Wild animals do not need our food, even unprocessed, unsalted nuts from a Costco Heart Healthy bag, so we only watched.

My son tossed a pebble that landed far from the raven, but her immediate lift let us know that others had not been so kind with their pebbles. Not for an instant did she think it was an offering. But soon she landed back at our side.

I saw another jet black raven, most likely her mate watching from atop a pine a hundred yards away. Was he patrolling the other end of the parking lot? Of course I could not actually tell which was male and which was female, but they were certainly one of each.

I remembered that at Mesa Arch I watched a raven choke down a potato chip, its disk extending the raven’s bill until it was swallowed. Is such a food really worth their time? Are the parking spots islands in the sky for the ravens, with each pair claiming one and keeping all others away? After all, ravens are not crows. Ravens pair up and do not usually crowd together.

It reminded me of the street beggars where the exit from 610 joined San Felipe in Houston from back when I passed that intersection daily picking my son up from school. There was always someone at the corner, usually with a cardboard sign and a back pack and a plea for relief from a tragedy of some sort. They looked like the ravens, peacefully sorted out, one to a corner. But one time as I waited for the light to change, two little boys in the back seat, I saw a man come up to the beggar and slug him bloody in the nose. The victim picked up his pack and ran.

The aggressor pulled out his own sign and took over the corner. Only those of us there at that moment knew how this was decided. I then wondered if all over Houston the corners best for handouts are claimed and fought over, placing the operators at what an ecologist might call a hyper-distribution.

I never saw the ravens fight. But their sorting two to a parking lot made me think that there were battles or threats of them behind this distribution. It might seem like they had all Canyonlands for soaring, but the goodies, healthy and not, come in the shiny metal cars and campers and they are small spots on the most stunning landscape in America.

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Birding at home

Haven’t we all been birding at home these last couple of years? I think there is something special even at this quiet time of year when migration is diminishing. Here in St. Louis the Dark-eyed Juncos have arrived in number, making their sweet chips and flashing their white tail feathers. But I don’t see as many White-throated Sparrows with their four sexes as I will later.

There are Northern Cardinals hiding in the elderberry. As ever the Blue Jays call from high in the trees, catching a sleeping owl, or sounding so much like a Red-tailed Hawk that even Merlin is fooled. Merlin is wonderful and I hope you have this free app from Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology. But don’t always trust it. It did catch a Cedar Waxwing I did not see at first, but other birds it hears I have to skip, for I neither saw nor heard them.

It is already fading today, with the cloudy still light of autumn. I won’t go out til morning when I might see a flock of Common Grackles, or pick out the Golden-crowned Kinglets flitting faster than warblers in the pines. I might walk more slowly to appreciate the few autumn birds in my neighborhood park where I fear more than one tree has succumbed to the honey mushrooms.

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Two silent eastern phoebes in Burcham Park

Where is your patch, the place you bird every day you can? Mine in East Lansing is Burcham Park. I nominated it for a hotspot and so it is on eBird, though so far only I have recorded birds there, 16 times since 12 May 2018. I have seen 45 species there on those visits, with a high of 32 on 14 May 2018 at 7:55 AM and a low of 5 species at 15:38 on 14 November 2018. Yesterday I saw 15 different species. But this is about only one of them.

On 16 March 2019 there was a new sheen of snow on the ground, more like little round balls than soft flakes. The trees were bare, revealing an abandoned bald-faced hornet nest high in a neighbor’s tree carefully collected by my son. I will return it with a little note on these wasps for the neighbor’s grandchildren.

I walked down Walnut Heights Drive from my parents’ house and turned right on Timberside, heading due south towards Burcham and my beloved park, one that was once bordered by a  swamp on the north. Today that swamp is gone and the main field is a large solar park. But second growth remains, enough for some birds as I circle the field through the trees, ending on Park Lake Road before returning along the wet area across Burcham favored by the red-winged blackbirds, who are also back.

I heard a red-bellied woodpecker. I saw several dark-eyed juncos, flying from field to trees, one in pursuit of another, white tail feathers flashing. I heard a downy woodpecker, and the two note song of the black-capped chickadee. And then I saw them. First one then the  other, mid height in the trees. Two eastern phoebes. One flew from one branch to another a few yards away. The other followed. There they perched. I looked hard through my binoculars, but these phoebes are unmistakable with their dark heads, gray backs and pale belly. Their stance on the branch is more upright also.

(photo by Manjithkaini on English Wikipedia  CC-BY-SA 3.0)

I stayed a moment to watch those phoebes, then moved on as my feet crunched through the ice into the soft loam underneath. An eastern phoebe is not a rare bird. It is one of the earliest migrants north, as both my observation and a quick check of eBird and Birds of North America indicated.

But for me this pair of eastern phoebes were special. They are my first of the year in my favorite East Lansing patch. Keeping track of the birds of your area and delighting in the common species as they change from day to day can be as rewarding as a wild trip across the country to see a bird out of its provenance and out of yours.

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Birding the Western Ghats in Southwest India

The Western Ghats! A hottest hot diversity site recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site and known also poetically as Sahyadri. The trick is how to penetrate this land of elephants and tigers, past the pot-holed roads and shrines. To do this I recommend some focus. What better focus could there be than birds? The thing about birds is that you have some chance of seeing more than a few of the 508 listed species, for birds are mostly diurnal and active.dsc05620dsc05985

We asked Deepa Agashe to help us discover a local guide. We do not want our tourism dollars to go to foreigners less committed to place and preservation. She asked around, then pointed us to Eldhose K. V. and we are very glad she did. By the way, if you are wondering, people here just go by the one name. The initials indicate their place of origin and their father’s name. The colleagues I asked spelled them out only under protest. I suppose in a way it is like asking what high school you went to in St. Louis. It allows people to be classifies. But back to Eldhose. He runs an amazing bird lodge in the middle of the forest, with individual cabins and sublime food. We spent a lovely six days birding there at a slow vacation’s pace, with time to digest, to nap, to wonder. I highly recommend it. I would guess that even with the airfare from the US to Kochi, this trip would come out affordable compared to those in Central or South America.

dsc05976The misty drizzle brought a ridge into view, then concealed it. A tree stood up out of the canopy like a Japanese painting in the mist. Dhanesh handed us an umbrella, but we declined it, preferring free hands for the binoculars. He had borrowed it from a tribal family living in a lean-to covered in plastic with a small solar panel for the radio. Two Indian jungle crows flew overhead, followed by thirty cattle egrets, white even against the nearly white clouds. Malabar grey hornbills sounded like they were squabbling among themselves. At this time of year they do not have females and babies sealed into safe tree hollows. In the bare branches of a nearby tree we saw successively a Nilgiri flower pecker, a crimson-backed sunbird, a flame-throated bulbul, and a vernal hanging parrot. This was our last day of a week birding with Dhanesh and Eldhose (pronounce the last e) in the Western Ghats, a knife-edge of mountains in extreme southwestern India. Kerala is a magic state of Christians, coconut-based cuisine, small rubber and pineapple plantations, and many wildlife preserves.

dsc05675Eldehose K.V. is a famous birder who has four cabins for two or three people each, right on the edge of his rubber plantation at the end of a slough into the Periyar river, the largest in Kerala. Each cabin has a porch looking out over the trees. The large shower in each cabin is floored with river stones and showers a good spray like the fanciest yoga retreats. It is so refreshing one hardly realizes the water is not heated. The meals were cooked daily by Eldhose’s wife and served by Ashy, his daughter who was on vacation from her studies. Ashy told me she is named for a bird, the ashy drongo. The meals were sublime in a way I have seldom experienced. Delicate aroma and full flavors had me asking what went into these varied curries. The answers were simple, garlic, fresh turmeric, ginger, curry leaves, mustard seeds, chillis, coconut oil, and onions. I guess I’ll have to find a Kerala cookbook to better understand how they achieved such magic from these simple flavors. img_2394Maybe it was simply the extreme freshness of ingredients and preparation. I wonder if they ever use the wild green black pepper we saw growing on a vine? A couple of meals were themed around the wild honey they acquired, probably from the large high combs of Apis dorsata, though the smaller, rounder combs of Apis florea are also a possibility. One such meal had rice pancakes of various sorts over which honey was poured, as well as a sweet rice biryani with raisins, grapes, and cashews, and a slightly sweet cauliflower curry. Ashy’s shy explanations of the dishes made them even more delicious.

Our purpose on this trip was birding, slow birding where we take the time to get to know an area and its birds. We had downloaded the maps of the area on Google maps, so we could see them off line. Our cell phones could give GPS coordinates on the compass utility. We had the excellent Birds of India, by Richard Grimmett, Carol Inskipp, and Tim Inskipp, Princeton University Press. We could have done more. I would have downloaded some eBird checklists and printed some of the maps, but without these was more adventurous.dsc05635
Our guide, Dhanesh knew his birds. He knew every call. He knew every song. He could get a bird from the merest fly over. He knew the birds in a way hard to achieve without living in an area. He also knew how to find birds. He had a few Sri Lanka frogmouths and owls tucked away in his memory to reveal to us when we were at the right place, or when things got slow. In fact, the very last bird we saw was a little brown hawk owl. It peered down at us as they do, from its high perch. Follow the trunk to the second limb to the left. Take the higher branch, go to where it meets another. Look in the crotch of branches, partly behind and there it is. If you can’t talk like that, or follow instructions like that, it is hard to be a bird guide. Dhanesh also never gave up if he heard a bird he badly wanted us to see. Somehow, with patience and a bit of bushwalking, we always saw the bird.dsc05592

There is more to being a bird guide than knowing the birds. You have to care about the birds, care about showing others the bird, and know how to mesh seeing birds with travelling across the landscape. Dhanesh knew all this. He had a joy for birding. He had a quick giggle of pure delight when he saw something cool. It was only by his awe and love that we knew seeing a black baza was very special. It is a rare migrant from the Himalayas. If we had not seen it well, including the crest and the white patches on the back, we would not have been so sure. Our second to last day we saw three black bazas circling low before landing out of sight. By this time we had studied them and knew to appreciate the moment where our eyes had a connection with something that had come from the Himalayas and was headed here, or perhaps even down to Sri Lanka.

dsc05978This was the kind of birding with a lot of driving, but what made it slow in the good sense was we got to revisit sites. We saw most of our birds more than once. You can look at our checklists if you are on eBird. I don’t see easily how to put in a link to us directly. Our user id is jstrassmann. In fact, I spent more than a week uploading the list information and trying to get everything right. We birded on 6 days, 22 to 27 October 2016. If you count new birds, we saw 42 on the first day, 41 on the second day, 21 on the third day, 22 on the fourth day, 12 on the fifth day, and 7 on the last day. If you were a fast birder you might find these numbers low, and think we should have moved on aftdsc05630er either the second or fourth day. But by staying we got to see what organizers the drongos were. We got to figure out that the great tits we saw regularly were supposed to be rare. And on that last trip of the last day we saw the shikra land in the road, snatch up a squirrel and fly into a tree.

Western Ghats, a place of myths, we’ll be back!

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Birding as a world citizen: ten tips

My favorite way to bird is related to the slow food movement: stay local, stay focused, and stay appreciative. So how can I keep to my principles when I bird in places as far away as the Western Ghats in Kerala, on the southwest coast of India?

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Brahminy Kite

This is a legendary diversity hotspot and is near to a meeting I attended at NCBS in Bangalore, India. I try to bird as a world citizen, particularly in countries like India. I confess I did not exercise all of these tips this time, but will in future, and I hope this list helps you plan.

  1. Use a local birding company and guide. I really like to keep my dollars as much as possible with the people in the community. After all, they are the ones that will have the most impact on conserving the area. These local guides will know their birds. They will know where the Sri Lankan frogmouth roosts. They will be friends with the tribal people who show you how a different honeybee, Apis florea, nests. They will know where to walk in elephant country.
  2. Post to eBird and upload open access photos to Wikimedia. Ebird is a wonderful resource that only works if you post. Knowing I will post makes me take careful information. I get the GPS coordinates from my phone, either looking at the compass, or taking a photograph. Then I keep track of how far I walk with my Fitbit Surge which maps globally. I talk to the guides about local place names. I pay careful attention to how many of each species I see and what they are doing. I didn’t take photos of any note this time, but if I had, I would have uploaded them to Wikimedia with CC-BY-SA license. Please do this for at least one photo per bird.

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    Dhanesh A. T. our excellent guide

  3. Bring your own map and lists. Some of the big birding companies provide you with lists and maps. They brag about how many birds you will see. It can feel too automatic, like numbers and checklists are the goal rather than feeling the magic of being in nature, listening to the birds, and connecting with a very special place. Local guides are less likely to have either maps or lists, so if you want these, bring them. What you need the guides for is to take you to great places, and to identify the birds.

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    We try to be world citizens

  4. Don’t judge. You are in a different country with very different standards. Just remember they are likely to be using a fraction of the energy people in your home country use. The part of India I was in is very littered.  Leisure gatherings of people in public were nearly always only male. The dogs had their own people-free communities. Honking was a way cars, motorcycles, and trucks talk to each other. Some small trucks even have painted “sound horn” on the back. I have opinions on all these things, but I am a guest in their country. I can help only if I respect. I focused on listening to and inspiring young women.
  5. Try to learn about and understand local environmental issues. Our host had English language newspapers which made this easy. I could see that pollution of the Periyar river was a big problem, for example.

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    Sunset near the Periyar river

    Even if you are in a country with a language you don’t know, you are likely to be able to learn about issues from your travel guide or from Wikipedia.

  6. Find a local environmental group and donate. I haven’t chosen where to give for our latest trip, but the Thattekad Bird Sanctuary is a guess. Here is more info on Kerala.
  7. Bring an extra copy of that wonderful bird guide you just bought. Local bird guides are unlikely to have acquired a new bird book. In our case, we were using the excellent Birds of India by Grimmett, Inskipp & Inskipp, and many illustrators that just came out in 2011. I deeply regret not bringing another copy to give our guide.
  8. If you have spare binoculars or a scope and tripod you never use, bring them. If you are like me, you have some older binoculars at home that you  have outgrown. I even have a scope that fits that category. Our host, the incomparable bird guide, Eldhose K. V., birded entirely without binoculars for 16 years until Sir David Attenborough came to film the rufous woodpecker for the Life of Birds. He gave Eldhose his first pair of binoculars. Local guides might have their own good binoculars, but what child or colleague might change their life with your old binoculars?
  9. Publicize the local bird guide you found. Use social media, your home bird group’s newsletter or whatever outlets you have to let people know about your local bird guide. You have access to publicity they do not. Some people are less comfortable with local guides without an international endorsement. Our guides, housing, food, transport were fantastic. We were met at the airport, cared for fabulously the whole time, shown amazing birds, all for a fraction of the cost of an international birding group. I’ve mentioned Eldhose K. V. before and will write more later on our trip.

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    Eldhose K. V. Birding Lodge

  10. Tip and don’t haggle much. There is no good way to understand tipping around the world. I tend to decide on an amount per day with reference to various things I read. We tipped our guide about $30 USD/day, our driver half that, and our food providers and the organizer himself other amounts I don’t remember. If you visit a tribal community and they offer something for sale, there is no need to haggle.

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    Muthuvan tribal ladies

    We bought a couple of baskets at asking price. Even if everyone haggles, if you are buying from the maker, you do not need to. The amount you save does nothing for you and could help them a lot.

Have fun as a world citizen and responsible birder!

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