Birds and Beers

The next Birds and Beers is Tuesday, November 18, 2008 at 6pm at Merlin's Rest.

Birds and Beers is an informal gathering of birders of all abilities--if you're interested in birds, you're invited. You can meet other birders--maybe find a carpool buddy, ask about where to find target birds, share cool research projects you might be working on, ask a bird feeding question, share life lists, share some digiscoping tips, promote your blog--the sky is the limit. It's low key and it's fun.

Our Texas version of Birds and Beers turned into a blogging meeting. We had some of the guys from Round Robin, Born Again Bird Watcher, Flying Mullet, WildBird on the Fly (pictured above), birdspot, The Birder's Library, and Clay Taylor (also pictured above and who is working on a blog, but not quite ready to debut it).

In this photo we have a brother of a blogger on the left, The Birder's Library in the middle, and Amy on the right who is friends with Flying Mullet (who blogs some great birding down in her neck of the woods in Florida). Amy does not have a blog. We were trying to talk her into starting a birding gossip blog. The rest of us could feeder gossip and she could post it without it ever being traced to us. Due to the uninteresting birder gossip and her lack of interest, it was not started.

Above is Born Again Birder looking sinister next to a smiling bird spot. I told John to look a little more friendly (as I know him to be) and got this:

He looks a little less serial killerish, but birdspot's eyes are closed. Doh! Incidentally, Born Again Bird Watcher did a much better job of chronicling the Texas Birds and Beers, be sure to check out his photos. We had a great time laughing at the Lone Star and then we learned that birdspot is an award winning bird caller. Here is a video so you can hear her do a dead on rock pigeon:

Talented! I have to admit, birdspot and I must be connected on some weird level. We both have cool glasses and not the usual birder fashion sense. We are both on Twitter and she will often write a tweet that I was just thinking about. Before either of us knew each other I was doing Birds and Beers and was doing Birds and Beer (she writes Twitter updates about birds she sees when she's having a beer) Also, we both ordered the same beverage at Birds and Beers: single malt Scotch with water on the side. Freaky! Although, I am not the artistic talent she is.

South Padre Island Birding

Amy, Clay, and I had great looks at other birds besides the osprey starting a nest. We started the morning at the jetty where many fishermen gather, as do birders. We saw so many dolphins, it could have qualified as a starling flock. But we were not after marine mammals, we wanted to scan the birds. Now, here's an interesting trio. Three different birds, can you tell what they are? I'll save identifying them until the end of the post in case you would like to try and figure out the id yourself. These were three common birds loafing on the beach. Warning, clues will to the id are ahead, so if you want to try and figure out the id, grab you field guide before going any further.

While we were watching the birds on shore, Amy noticed a hitchhiker on my scope--why it was a honeybee. How fitting that she decided to hang on my scope. She was slow and lethargic. I was not sure if she was just at the end of her foraging life or chilled from the cool winds. If you look at the wear on her wings, I think she's old and at the end of her life.

Clay was very excited to see caspian terns (the tern on the right). They are big and flashy terns, with a noticeable red bill. We see them in Minnesota during migration. They are so large that even Non Birding Bill has commented on them when we saw some flying over nearby Lake of the Isles. This tern was next to a royal tern (the tern on the left), a slightly smaller tern compared to the Caspian. And if you ever are feeling bad about your bird id skills, take heart in knowing that even John J. Audubon himself had trouble telling these two species apart! According to Birds of North America Online:

"In his monumental Birds of America, Audubon depicted neither Caspian nor Royal, but instead what he called a Cayenne Tern, Sterna cayana — mostly Royal, but with some ad-mixture of Caspian features."

As we continued on, we found both brown pelicans and American white pelicans. I've seen both, but never together. I knew American white pelicans were huge, but it never occurred to me that they are twice the size of brown pelicans--crazy.

We headed over to the convention center where we found a fun little water feature. You might hear and read that moving water is the best way to attract birds to your yard, that is put to good use in many of the parks and more birdier areas you can visit in the Rio Grande Valley.

At one point, this little water feature had about a dozen orange-crowned warblers coming in for a bathe. They moved so quickly and were so spread out, I couldn't get more than three or four in my view finder at one time. I got a small video of the bathing warblers, it's best viewed at YouTube and if you click on the "watch in high quality" option.

And in keeping with my goal of showing that not every photo comes out great, I'm posting a rather out of focus shot of a black-throated green warbler. There were a couple who flew in to join the orange-crowned warblers, but they were too quick for me.

Just as I got the scope focused on the black-throated, the little terd hopped behind a rock to bathe. Grrr. Curse you, black-throated green warbler, and everything you stand for! I did manage to get the back of the bird's head in focus. Well, it's a start. No one ever said that digiscoping warblers was ever easy.

And now for the id of the three birds: royal tern, Caspian tern, and laughing gull. How did you do?

Arriving In Harlingen

The Harlingen Airport is happy to see birders in Texas--look at the size of that banner! I feel so welcomed for the Rio Grande Valley Bird Festival.

We had the opening reception last night, which is a great time to reconnect with friends and eat some fancy foods. There was a new addition to the table--live birds. A small cage full of parakeets was put out by catering company (cause see, we're bird watchers). They startled the dickens out of me, but the budgies seemed to be having a great time preening each other and chirping sweet nothings.

I tried to get a photo of birders using a pair of tongs to get a budgie, but to no avail. I asked Jim from Kowa (above). "No way," he said, "your just going to put it in your blog that Kowa eats birds." He then went the extra mile to put his arm around the birds to prove how much he LOVES birds.

Kevin Karlson walked by and I shouted, "Yo, Kevin, do me a favor, put some tongs to the birds."

He also resisted my request, "No, you'll put it in your blog."

I even offered to say nice things about his books in the blog, but he said that I already do say nice things about his books and he appreciates that.

They're on to me!

So, by the time you are reading this, I'll be a digiscoping fool on the Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park. Then I give my Blogging: The New Nature Journal Program, then do a book signing, and then its Birds and Beers. Such a wild and exciting Thursday.

I've already touched based with several bloggers including Flying Mullet, Round Robin, and one third of 10,000 Birds. Will Mike Bergin sway me to the power of The Nature Blog Network...we shall see...

Oh, and bird banders will get a kick out of this:

Bird bites the cover of the book that identifies, ages and sexes them! And it's a house sparrow too! This sparrow latched on to the corner an would not let go, taking out its frustration on being man handled on poor, poor, hard to read Pyle.

Speaking of the Pyle book, there's a second one out. Yes, the bird id book with no photos, that even uses math equations to id birds, and is the necessary evil of every bander's operation now has a part 2! Here's an earlier post I had about Peter Pyle's Identification Guide To North American Birds and I had to chuckle, Ian Paulsen posted a few months ago: "I think every birder will want Pyle's Identification Guide to North American Birds: part 2!!!"

I hope he was kidding. Pyle is NOT for every birder, it's only for the masochistic Jedi birders that use The Force to identify birds. It's this heavy little book that sits on your back when you're sweating over a flycatcher in your hand and asking yourself if you'll be able to try to identify, let alone age and sex it. Then the book says in a gravelly drag queen voice, "No! Do or do not, there is no try."

Scariest bird book out there, I swear.

Birds, Beers, Bald Eagles, Bees, and Rio Grande Valley Fest

Holy Buckets, I am in love with the boys at the Golden Valley, MN National Camera Exchange. My all-time favorite point and shoot digital camera to use for digiscoping is a Fuji FinePix E900. It's been discontinued and hard to find. They found one for me. I'm takin' that bad boy to Texas. The Canon A570 I'm currently using is okay, but the color quality is just not as good as the Fuji. Thank you National Camera in Golden Valley, you boys are the best!

Hey, here's some cool news from WFRV:

A bird that's believed to be the oldest banded bald eagle on record in the upper Midwest has been returned to the wild. The 31-year-old female was hit by a car on state Highway 47 near Fence Lake last month. After recovering, the eagle was released by wildlife officials in Lac du Flambeau on Friday.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the bird was among 6,000 eagles banded in 1977. The average age of adult eagles is 10-12 years old.

Before this bird, the oldest bald eagle according to the Bird Banding Lab longevity records was 30 years and 9 months.

So, I think I'm kinda grateful for my insanely busy schedule this fall. Mr. Neil wanted to move the Kitty hive so it would be inside the newly installed "bear proof fence" before the winter. This is our least friendly hive and the best time to move a hive is at night. I'm sure you can tell how fun and exciting this is just be rereading that last sentence. I alas could not go this week but you can read all about it over at Lorraine's blog. Of the four of us: Non Birding Bill, Mr. Neil, Me, and Lorraine, only NBB is not the bee sting virgin. Lorraine got her's last night.

Don't forget, we got a couple of Birds and Beers coming up. Birds and Beers is an informal gathering of birders of all abilities--if you're interested in birds, you're invited. You can meet other birders--maybe find a carpool buddy, ask about where to find target birds, share cool research projects you might be working on, ask a bird feeding question, share life lists, share some digiscoping tips, promote your blog--the sky is the limit. It's low key and it's fun.

Here are the dates and note that the first date is in Harlingen, TX--in conjunction with the Rio Grande Valley Bird Fest!

Thursday, November 6 at 7:45pm (or after the festival keynote speaker is finished that night). It will be held at The Lone Star, they are holding a table for us.

The next will be back in Minnesota:

Tuesday, November 18 at 6pm at Merlin's Rest.

If anyone is on a Texas birding listserv and wants to post the Harlingen Birds and Beers there, please do. It's open to anyone, even if you are not part of the bird festival.

Speaking of the RGV bird fest, if you are a bird blogger and are going to be there, we're going to have a formal Bird Blogger Meeting in the Alcove at 4:30pm on Friday. This is your chance to meet other bloggers, ask questions, share ideas and network. We're a fun group and we're happy to see you be successful. Please come!

AND if you are someone who has no clue what bird blogging is all about or even what the heck a blog is, I'll be giving a program called Blogging: The New Nature Journal on what bird blogging is all about, how to start one, ideas for what you can blog about, highlights of my blog and other great birding blogs you can find on the Internet. The program is on Thursday at 2pm.

If you're in Texas, I look forward to meeting you. It's gonna be a great time!

Monday Morning Carolina Wren

I dedicate the following video to Hasty Brook and hope that she got a Carolina wren before she left Cape May to return to Minnesota.

A posse of bird bloggers gathered again for the Cape May Autumn Weekend and since I ended up working the festival, I was able to see them. They had gathered informally and I didn't think I'd get to meet up with them, but when I ended up coming, they invited me along to a dinner for some hearty laughter. Some, I've met before like Hasty Brook, Somewhere in NJ, Susan Gets Native, and Beginning To Bird, but this time I got to meet KatDoc and DC Bird Blog (he's actually banding birds at Cape May this fall--sweet) face to face. Jay Davis from birdJam came along too.

We must have gotten quite rowdy at the table, I noticed that the bar kept turning up the ambient music to louder and louder levels. However, we were able to keep the talking and laughter to new ear splitting level.

A big bonus to this trip is that I hit my 500th bird--I didn't get to digiscope it but I got. And after I saw it, I saw them everywhere. I needed a black scoter, so after the first day of working the Optics Corner at the festival, Jim Danzenbaker, Jeff Bouton, Jeff Gordon, and Bill Stewart (that really cool guy who organizes the bird a thon to buy up migratory habitat to save the red knot). We watched for lines of scoters and after a few lines of surf scoters flying by--a flock that had both surf and black flew by and I could see the difference. Whew! That hump has been passed. Now to work on getting 600. Although, I suppose I should work on padding the 500 on the off chance the AOU is planning to lump some species together.

Oh, and while we were at the beach gettin' my life, a marriage proposal was finishing up. A man made a sand castle for his sweetie, asking her to marry him. There was a small sand treasure chest next to the sand castle that she apparently had to dig the ring out of the chest. It was very cute. We didn't hear what was actually said between the two, but considering they left hand in hand with smiles on the faces and a bottle of champagne, I thinking her answer was yes. Cute.

Skywatch Friday

Between the excitement of Peregrine 568s recovery and getting ready for tomorrow's book signing, I almost forgot that today is Skywatch Friday. You create a blog with photos of sky and then you add your link to the Skywatch site. While there, you should check out everyone's photos of sky. Some of my favorites this week are at Desert Observer, Jim's Little Photo Place, and Shimmy Mom.

My entry for this week takes us back to Cape Cod for the Swarovski Blogging Event. While we were getting photos of shorebirds, we could see fog approaching us. See the low darker clouds on the horizon?

The fog never overtook the beach, but seemed a sinister dream land just off the shore. It was strange to see it just sit there out of reach of the surf.

It crept in and touched the beach, the sky coming in to touch the sand. Gulls were loafing just inside the mist.

I tried to digiscope them and the black-backed gulls sat in the fog and looked a tad expectant. What were they waiting for? Or perhaps they wondered about the group of humans on the edge of the mist observing them, wonder what it was all about.

New Swarovski ELs & Contest

One of the things I wasn't able to talk about right away from the Swarovski Blogger Event (or Swarblogski as Non Birding Bill calls it) was that we got to see the new Swarovski ELs. They just debuted them at Bird Fair so now I'm allowed to talk. Honestly, I wasn't expecting that much of a change. Swarovskis are really great binoculars and I'm incredibly grateful for all the support they give my blog and I LOVE my 8x32s. Even when I worked for Eagle Optics and people would come up and ask me what the best bino is, I would say that if I were a woman of unlimited means, it would be the 8x32 EL. Optics are subjective and what works for me, may not work for everyone, but the clarity, ergonomics, and light weight of Swarovski really works for me.

The biggest difference that you can see besides the slightly different design is that the eye piece lenses are bigger--and the edge to edge clarity is superior to the current ELs (not that it's that bad anyway). Swarovski has also greatly improved the close focus ability of the binoculars. I was able to focus within about 5 and a half feet with the new ELs. They are coming out with new ELs in the 8.5x42 and 10x42 models, not the 8x32s or 10x32s. They will be available in the US early next year. They'll probalby be at Bird Watch America in January 2009. What does this mean for you? If you're probably going to see current models of ELs going on sale in the US (just in time for the holidays). So, if you've been saving for a great pair of bins, you have a choice: get the current model at a discount or keep saving and going for the new ones. I don't have exact pricing on what they're going to be at the moment.

I also got to hold the new 80mm scope--it's lighter than the current model. There's also a new eyepiece coming, a 25-50 zoom. I currently use a 20 - 60 zoom. I'm curious to play with that for digiscoping.

Also, Clay was telling me how surprised he was that not more people in the US entered Swarovski's Digiscoper of the Year Contest. Here are what the winners get:

The three entrants chosen as “Digiscoper of the Year” will receive the following products from Swarovski Optik as their prize:

1st Swarovski Optik ATS or STS telescope and eyepiece of the winner’s choice

Swarovski Optik binocular EL 8.5x42
3rd Swarovski Optik binocular SLC 8x30

The best 20 images (places 1 to 20) will be published with the photographer’s name in the Swarovski Optik Digiscoping Yearbook 2009. This will attract a publication fee of EUR 300 (that's like $600 in the US).

National Winners:
National winners will also be chosen from the five countries with the largest number of entrants (the number of images does not count). The five national winners will receive an award of EUR 200 for publication in the Swarovski Optik Digiscoping Yearbook 2009 in addition to the publication fee referred to above.

You don't have to be a Swarovski customer either. Check out the rules:

Any digital camera format - from a compact digital camera to a bridge or digital single lens reflex camera - may be used.

Field Spotting Scopes:
Any commercially available spotting scopes and eyepieces may be used, with or without an adapter.

The contest closes on September 30, 2008. Read the full rules here. I've seen some of the winning entries from last year, and there are some awesome digiscopers in the US that could totally win the contest. If you digiscope, go for it.

Getting To 499

Hey, on Monday at 3pm, I'll be on Twin Cities Live talking about attracting birds to your yard and the City Birds/Country Birds book signing on August 23, 2008 at Cardinal Corner:

August 23, 2008: Cardinal Corner in West St. Paul Store (651-455-6556) 10 a.m. - 12 p.m. Cardinal Corner in Newport (651-459-3880) 1 p.m. - 3 p.m.

Don't forget, Cinnamon fans, the Queen of Disapproval will also come and hang out at the signing too.

Okay, so I think I'm going to finally finish up my Swarovski Blogging Event posts...oh wait, no, I just realized there's one more thing I can talk about after this, but I have to wait a few days longer before I actually talk about what we got to play with. But back to Cape Cod birding--I gotta a couple more lifers bringing my list to 499. So close to 500, yet so far away.

One was a roseate tern--this very light colored tern with a mostly black bill. That was pretty exciting. Terns are amazing creatures. If I ever transition from point and shoot camera digiscoping to SLR digiscoping, I want to try and capture terns fishing. Terns are such dainty and elegant birds in flight and when they dive into the ocean, it's like watching a delicate piece of origami smacking onto the surface of the water. Loves 'em.

Nice scope posture there, Corey! Corey and I each had a few lifers to catch up on. We both needed roseate tern and we also needed arctic tern. The group watched for them, but at the same time we loved getting photos of all the birds on the beach--dead or alive. I was standing with Corey and Ben from 600 Birds. They had spotted something dead further down the beach. It first glance, we got the impression that it was a dead black-backed gull...but when you looked through the scope, the bill looked all wrong. I wondered if it was a dead gannet. All three of use lit up with excitement and hurried off towards the carcass. As we closed in, Clay called from off in the distance, "Aaaaaaaaartic tern!"

Corey and I stopped, Ben who already had an arctic tern said, "Uh-oh."

Corey and I wavered, we were so close to the gannet, could we get photos of the gannet and make it back in time for the tern, or would the tern take off.

Ben, sensing our indecision said, "Gotta make a choice, dead bird? Life bird? Dead bird? Life Bird? Dead Bird? Life Bird?"

Corey and I finally made a rational decision that between the two birds, the dead gannet was guaranteed to stay in one spot, while the tern was not.

So, here is an arctic tern (masked in some major heat shimmer and non breeding plumage). This is an intense little bird if you think about it. This species breeds around the Arctic Ocean--as far north as Greenland and then winters on pack ice in Antarctica. This bird is about the length of a blue jay and flies pole to pole--that's over 24,000 miles round trip. Then when you look at things like banding records and find that in ten oldest birds found on record--the arctic tern comes in at number seven--a bird documented to have lived for 34 years! Imagine living 34 years and making that trip every single year--that's insane. This may be a small somewhat blurry photo, but the amazing potential in this bird deserves a little attention and was well worth abandoning a dead gannet. It was a good thing too. Not long after Corey and I joined the group, a family coming down the beach frightened the flock of terns and the arctic tern disappeared from view.

And then we hightailed it back to the dead gannet. Based on plumage, it looks like a first year bid. You just can't get close to gannets--they're amazing to watch in flight, but this dead bird was a treat to really look at some of its features up close.

The feet were incredible. They were webbed like a duck but had large white claws on the tips--they nest on ledges of cliffs, in the direction of prevailing winds, perhaps that's why they need the claws for gripping?

Who knows how this bird died: disease, poor hunting, poisoning, eating plastic--tough to say but I appreciated the chance to admire that long, tough bill.

My Amazing Birding Morning At South Beach In Cape Cod

So, Swarovski took all us bloggers out to the remote South Beach section of Cape Cod for some birding and digiscoping.

The morning started foggy and chilly but warmed to a sunny day--a few times, it looked more like we were in a desert rather than the cape.

We saw some horseshoe crabs. They do look like some strange aquatic tank as they truck around.

Here we have the great blogger and science chimp Julie Zickefoose examining a horseshoe crab that young Dakota found--Dakota came along on the trip with Bird Freak and started his own blog this summer: Dakota's All Natural Experience--It’s like the “Jeff Corwin Experience”…Only Smaller. For Julie's wisdom on horseshoe crabs, check out her blog entry here.

And a mini Jeff Corwin he is! Dakota had a knack for finding horseshoe crabs of all sizes. For those curious, above is the underbelly of those funky lookin' crabs. These are also the horseshoe crabs that are central to the red knot debate.

I love birding along coasts on warm days. There's something about watching a bunch of crazy looking birds (like the willet and dowitchers in the above photo). Willets always throw me. I first saw them on the east coast, so I associated them with beaches, but we can see them in western Minnesota and the Dakotas. They always throw me when I see them in the prairie.

We did see an interesting short-billed dowitcher--that's typical coloration of a dowitcher on the left and an unusually light dowitcher on the right.

My buddy Clay zeroed in on the very light colored dowitcher above right away and I followed to digiscope it. At first we weren't sure if it was really light from wear on its feathers or if it's a leucistic bird. I sent the photo to Doug Buri who knows shorebirds better than I do and he seems to think it's a leucistic bird.

While focusing on the shorebirds, the tide quickly swept in. I was digivideoing these shorebirds (notice the different feeding techniques. The largest bird is a Hudsonian godwit and it's surrounded by short-billed dowitchers--note how both species use their incredibly long bill to probe deeply into the sand. You'll also see a colorful ruddy turnstone that has a smaller bill--note how it seems to skim the surface of the sand). Anyway, while filming, I felt a rush of water and the tide had come in. I turned around and many of the other bloggers were overcome with the tide.

Another interesting bird was this herring gull with a beak full of clam. This bird kept flying up in the air, dropping the clam, and then following it to the ground. It was trying to drop the clam to crack it open to have access to the gooey goodness inside. Alas, this is not the brightest gull on the string. Other gulls had figured out that parking lots accomplished this task quickly. This bird seemed intent on dropping the clam over the sand. I watched it drop the clam from high in the air and by the sixth attempt I had lost interest. Not sure how long the gull kept this up or if ever got at the desired insides.

I was trying to get a shot of the semi-palmated plover (the bird on the right) when I noticed the tired sandpiper behind it--the bird is so tired, it can't even tuck its bill into shoulder. I'm not sure of the species, if I had to guess based on size, I would say least sandpiper, but whatever it is, its too cute dozing on the beach.

More later.

Banded American Oystercaters

While birding at South Beach in Cape Cod last week, we found some banded American oystercatchers. Above is number 52. At first, I was going to enter its information to the Bird Banding Lab (where one typically submits found band numbers), but the yellow tags with fairly easy to read numbers usually means there's a specific study. Sure enough, I went to google, entered "banded oystercatcher" and found AMOY Banding--someone is doing a specific oystercatcher study! Based on the yellow bands, I was able to figure out that this bird was banded in Massachusetts. I submitted my siting and today got this info from Shiloh Schulte of the Zoology Department of North Carolina State University :

"The bird you saw was banded on South Monomoy as a chick in July 2004. This bird overwinters on the west coast of Florida near Cedar Key. This is the first report of the bird on the breeding grounds since the year it hatched. Reports like yours really help us understand how oystercatchers move and use habitat throughout the year. Please let us know if you see more bands!"

Looking over my photos, I now see that more oystercatchers were banded, but I'm not sure if I'll be able to read the bands--at least three birds in the above photo are banded. So, if you see any oystercatchers, double check to see if they are banded. The colors are not just yellow, there's green, blue, red, and black as well.