The Splendor of Birds


As part of Year of the Bird National Geographic released a book called The Splendor of Birds. It’s supposed to be a reflection of how we notice birds and how that has changed in the last 130 or so odd years. The book incorporates historic photos, illustrations and some amazing images from recent years. I had high hopes for this book, because coffee table books of birds sparked my imagination as a kid of what it would be possible to see one day.

But my overall feeling for it is…meh.

Albatross photo from 1922 vs 2007—what a difference from manhandling to a habitat shot.

Albatross photo from 1922 vs 2007—what a difference from manhandling to a habitat shot.

It is interesting to see how far we have come in grabbing images of birds both in the form of illustration and photography. I realize that early on bird painting and photography was dominated by men because they had the time and equipment and quite frankly, were the ones allowed to do so, but that’s changed so much in the last two decades.

I had hoped the part of the book that focuses on the last 18 years would incorporate lots of female photographers but…sadly, no. Yes there are a few women that have photos in the book book, but the illustrators are mostly absent. The only female illustrator shown is the 1880s couple Jonathan and Elizabeth Gould co-credited on a bower bird illustration. Counting the 198 contributors in the back revealed that 18 were women (roughly 9%). Which is incredibly disappointing considering that the birding population in the US is over 50% female. But hey, they had some so I shouldn’t complain…


That’s not to say there aren’t stunning images in this book. There are some beauts and as a strictly “bird porn” type of book it’s nice.

A bird with broken tail tips and wing feather tips is a sign of stress in captivity. Also I have questions about the toucan. Bird banding typically takes place outside so you see the vegetation in the background. This bird has a white background. Was it put int he nets just for a photo op?

A bird with broken tail tips and wing feather tips is a sign of stress in captivity. Also I have questions about the toucan. Bird banding typically takes place outside so you see the vegetation in the background. This bird has a white background. Was it put int he nets just for a photo op?

There are also many images of captive birds that are washed out in mid-flight. I’ve never been a fan of the method getting a bird frozen in mid flap. The motion is interesting, but the colors are completely faded out from the flash.

So the book is ok. If you’re a kid interested in birds, it might spark your interest to learn more about different species, but overall it’s underwhelming. I wouldn’t go out of my way to give this book as a gift to someone but if I found it at a use book store, I give it a consideration.

Birding Ethics When Abroad

There is quite a bit to debate when it comes to "ethical birding." You can practically make a drinking game out of arguments of taped calls and bird disturbances on  your state's birding group every winter.

While taking pictures of feeding American Flamingos in Cayo Coco in Cuba, our guides told us they would be happy to make noise so the birds would fly off and we could get flight shots of the birds. We declined. 

While taking pictures of feeding American Flamingos in Cayo Coco in Cuba, our guides told us they would be happy to make noise so the birds would fly off and we could get flight shots of the birds. We declined. 

I've thought of this numerous times when in Central America and a guide used a taped call on a bird that they presumably take people to on a daily basis--or multiple guides visit on a daily basis. 

I think there are times and places where taped calls can be effectively used. I would rather play a taped call for ten people who have never seen a yellow rail to get it to come out, rather than have ten people trample through rail habitat to see if one flushes. 

There's definitely technique to using recorded bird calls. I wouldn't necessarily play a territory song for a species during fall migration. What works with one species may not work with another. A study in the late 70s/early 80s on how taped calls didn't interfere with nesting trogons can't be applied to Kirtland's warblers.  

David Sibley was a wonderful and nuanced post on how to properly used taped calls for birds. Basically, go in with a plan and don't over use it.  

When we were in Cuba, we had one overall guide and in every National Park we visited, we were required by the government to also use one of the park guides to take us in the park. They are paid, but they rely heavily on tips. And they have been taught that if people get the bird or the exact photo they want, they get better tips. 

A Cuban Nightjar hidden in its roost in the woods around Soplillar. This and bare-legged owl were two big targets here. 

A Cuban Nightjar hidden in its roost in the woods around Soplillar. This and bare-legged owl were two big targets here. 

The birding we did around the Bay of Pigs was spectacular and we explored the woods and savannas around Soplillar. One of our targets was the Cuban nightjar and our guides had one staked out, tucked away in thick vegetation. I realized when I got back to the states that I had heard one at night...they just sound more like a frog than a nightjar. We were a respectful distance away, no effort was made to clear vegetation out of the way for photos. Sure my pictures isn't going to end up in National Geographic, but I like how the branches obscure the bird, it takes me back to the moment when I saw it. 

Just beyond those palms was a bare-legged owl.

Just beyond those palms was a bare-legged owl.

The other target was a bare-legged owl. The guides knew where one was in a nesting/roosting cavity. They set us up around the deal palm tree pockmarked with woodpecker holes. They told use to aim our binoculars and cameras at a certain hole and then they would get it out. I'm familiar with a survey technique at roost/nesting cavities where you lightly tap on the trunk of a tree like a woodpecker and an irritated owl will poke its head out. I assumed that was what would happen here. I was not prepared for what happened and quickly switched to video when I realized what they were doing. 

Yep, the local guide just started violently shaking the palm tree. The tree was in such decay that I was worried it would get pushed over. Sure I could have gone on a tirade, but white lady yelling at people in their own country about what they do is a role I never wish to have. I tried to offer some diplomatic advice as one professional guide to another.

"Hey," I said casually, "there's a technique that you can try where you just tap the tree lightly like a woodpecker. That might be a bit easier on the owl than shaking the tree."

The guide agreed and said that that is what he used to do and the bird stopped responding. Then they started to shake the tree a little and after awhile that stopped working. Now they have to shake very hard to get it to appear. Sigh.

I was amazed that the birds hadn't abandoned the cavity all together. Perhaps they had gotten used to some disturbance? Maybe cavities are so rare that they put up with it? The owl shared the tree with a nesting West Indian woodpecker as well. Based on the woodpecker behavior it clearly had a nest in the tree. There would be lots of noise and pecking that comes with a woodpecker nest that perhaps the owl is resigned to a life of daily disturbance?

There were times when other taped calls were used and I had to get the local guide to stop. Later in our trip we were out looking for a Key West quail-dove. When we arrived we heard a mangrove cuckoo--as species you can only get around Everglades or Biscayne National Park in the Unite States. Our guide of the day immediately started playing the call over and over and over. 

I calmly suggested that maybe he should turn it off for a minute--give the actual bird a chance to assess the situation. But he continued. And this went on for several minutes. Not only was I irritated that my request was ignored, but I could tell the rest of my group was uncomfortable with the relentless playing or just downright bored when there were other things to be seen. I finally went to our main guide and said, "Tell him to stop, that bird is not going to come out. They don't call over and over like that."

Sometimes when people play a call nonstop or play it too loudly, the target bird will clam up and hide. The bird may be confused or threatened by the sound, "What is with that crazy sound, I don't sound like that, is this dangerous?" Some birds will hear a call once and clam up. Then it's up to you to wait--sometimes as much as 15 minutes and the bird will come out when it sees the coast is clear. 

Key West quail-dove.

Key West quail-dove.

I suggested that we give up on the mangrove cuckoo, look at some other birds and maybe the cuckoo would come out while we focused on other things. Soon enough we found the original target of the day, the Key West quail-dove. And about ten minutes into enjoying that bird guess who popped out...

Mangrove cuckoo. 

Mangrove cuckoo. 

It was one of the best looks at mangrove cuckoo I've ever had. It casually fed in the tree, it preened--something birds only do when they don't feel threatened and are comfortable in their surroundings. Everyone had ample time for photos and video. The bird just needed time to get past all the calls. 

I don't blame the guides. Clearly what has happened is that people have come before us and pressured the guides with their tips to get them exactly what they wanted to see or photograph. The guides depend on those tips and will do what they need to do take care of their families. 

I referenced earlier that a guide offered to flush some flamingos so we could get flight shots and my group unanimously declined. We were content to watch and photograph them feeding. The birds were fairly close and comfortable with us. And they got so relaxed I got one of my favorite shots.

Look at that shiny flamingo cloaca!

Look at that shiny flamingo cloaca!

I don't mean to pick on Cuba. Birding tourism is relatively new for them. There hasn't been the decades of birding like there has been in the US or the UK. Some of the top guides in Panama, Costa Rica and Honduras have had the chance to come to the US and get to know more about birding ethics. But I do think it's up to us to help point this out politely. If there is something you're uncomfortable with on a tour, have a conversation about it. I don't mean yelling at a guide in the middle of a field trip, no one will listen to that, especially if their being taken to task in front of a group. But when you're sitting down with them at the end of the day and having a drink, engage in a conversation about bird behavior and share how birding happens where you live. If birders/photographers before us are setting a bad precedent, it doesn't hurt to share how birding is different in other areas. 

Noticing Birds

"I don't really notice birds."

This was a recent confession from a very good friend who I have known for decades. I was baffled, how can you NOT notice birds...especially after knowing me? Haven't I told them a ton of interesting factoids? OK, I may have traumatized them when they told me they thought ducks were cute and I told them about duck anatomy. But I really thought they could handle that information. 

How can someone not notice birds?

When I first started this whole bird writing stuff n 2004 I was used to people saying, "You watch birds? Huh, my grandmother does that." It was always said in way that was almost an apology, "oh that thing you love is boring."

And I've taken it as my mission to say, "Screw that, birds are amazing and we're all over here having an amazing time."

Over the years as all sorts of passions have come about, it feels like we share our passions. Though I may not get why my adult friends are obsessed with going Disney World every chance they get, I appreciate that they like it. When I'm watching that friend's third trip to Disney in a year on Facebook I realize, "Oh, I bet they watch my multiple trips to go birding in Texas with the same bewilderment." How many times do I need to see a green jay? Apparently as many times as my friends need their picture taken with Donald Duck. 

indigo bunting.jpg

On a recent evening I was still chewing on the "not noticing birds" conversation as I was participating in an Insect Safari as part of my job. Though the focus was insects, there were several birds around and I was watching them. One was a very obliging indigo bunting. I set my scope on it in case anyone wanted to take a peak as they paused in their insect hunt. One man put his eye up to my scope and was shocked. He insisted his wife and kids take a look too. As they did he said to me, "I gotta tell you, I never got birding, it just seems so boring. But that bird, that I can see why you do this." 

Not long after my phone buzzed with a text alert. It was my friend who was driving around and found a turkey in the road. They sent a photo.

"You noticed a bird."

"Yes," the replied.

I'll take my victories where I can. 

The "Famously" Inconspicuous Henslow's Sparrow

I've really been taking the "Year of the Bird" to heart. This year I decided to carve out some birding just for myself on top of the classes and events I host. It's been one of the best springs (of course, I say that every spring when there are great birds). This week has just been spectacular. 

I got my whole birding by ear class on this amazing Henslow's sparrow.

I wasn't going to post this part, but I feel like I should for the sake of new bird guides everywhere...sometimes bird guides make mistakes. Accept it, take responsibility for it, do your best to make it right, learn from it, but most importantly: get over it. In the last two years I have been experimenting leading birding by ear classes and field trips. From a guiding perspective these are great: I'm  not guaranteeing that we will see birds, but we will hear them--which is the case for a great many species! We usually see the birds on these outings, but I find this hits the sweet spot of under promise and over deliver. 

 I was loading my stuff into the car for my 8am birding by ear class. I was going to arrive at 7:30am so I was a half an hour early. As I loaded my car I got a text, "How close are you, everyone is checked in for the class."

"Wow," I thought, "that's great people are so early...oh wait..."

This was my brain:

Yep. I got the times for my class confused. I wasn't set to be early, I was set to be late. I think I need this to happen to me about once every eight years to keep me humble. I arrived and apologized for wasting people's time and promised amazing birds and a binocular cleaning if they needed it. 

However the group was forgiving and the weather was wonderful. The birds were incredibly obliging as we heard scarlet tanagers and recently fledged chickadees all around us. Someone even got great looks at their lifer common yellowthroat. When I do these sorts of classes, my brain is constantly listening for what's the next sound to talk about. I try to stick birds singing nearby and ones that I think people remember or have a chance to hear in your neighborhood.

Prairie area around Richardson Nature Center.

Prairie area around Richardson Nature Center.

Sometimes I can hear a "good bird" but if I know it's a long shot to get the group on it, I'll "pick my battles" and ignore it. If there is an easy to view redstart nest ten feet away and a black-throated green warbler singing very far away, I'll focus the group on the restart. I do sometimes ask the group what they want. I was doing a digiscoping workshop and as the group was practicing on a ring-billed gull, I heard a Le Conte's sparrow on territory. I announced, "Hey, gang, I should tell you, there's a really great sparrow singing behind me. They're really hard to see, super lurky in the grass and we will have to work for it, but if you'd rather do that than take pictures of a gull we can."

They looked at me like I offered them broccoli ice cream and so we ignored the Le Conte's. I, however, went back later and photographed the crap out of it. 

As we walked along I suddenly heard a faint and familiar sparrow sound. It was a Henslow's sparrow, a state-threatened species in Minnesota. Their call is not easy to discern if you aren't familiar with it. In fact, I always notice it because it's It's kind of like a half-assed house sparrow call. All About Birds notes that these birds are "famously inconspicuous."

I had the group listen and get familiar with the call. I offered to play a taped call once to see if we could get it to pop up, but I warned that they don't always respond to it. Sometimes Henslow's perch just below the grass and you can't see them. The group was curious and we tried it. The bird never popped up. But we got to hear it very well. We continued our way around the prairie and heard a second one singing. I'd never had a Henslow's at Richardson Nature Center, so to get two singing birds was amazing. This time we were able to spot the bird, I got in the scope and it did exactly what I said it would do, perch just below the tops of the grasses. Our binocular and scope views of the bird were obscured by vegetation but people got to see a really great sparrow for Minnesota.

We continued our way around the prairie, got some great looks at bluebirds and indigo buntings when we heard a third Henslow's sparrow. This one was really loud and sounded like it right in front of us. Sure enough someone in my group found it and it was 10 feet in front of us, teed up nicely on some vegetation above the grass.

Henslow's Sparrow.jpg

Everyone got a look and I was able to take photos of the bird for people with their phones through my scope and of course get the video that you see at the top of this post. 

I also cleaned a few binoculars as penance for being late.