Jan
16

Upcoming Events and Tours

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Birders birding La Crau sheep barn

Read more about my tour program at the website of Victor Emanuel Nature Tours.

February 18-21, 2016: Field trips at the High Plains Snow Goose Festival.

February 19: “The Very Worst Bird Names Ever, and Why They’re Not So Bad,” a lecture at the High Plains Snow Goose Festival.

March 3: “Fire Under Glass: A Field Guide to the Hummingbirds of France,” a lecture for Delaware Valley Ornithological Club.

March 12-16: New Mexico field trip with Linnaean Society of New York.

sharp-tailed grouse

March 19-26: Nebraska: Sandhill Cranes and Prairie Grouse.

Sagrada Familia

April 14-22: Birds and Art In Catalonia.

Lammergeier
April 24 – May 2: Birds and Art in Provence.

St Trophime, Arles

May 24: “How — and Why — To Start Birding,” a lecture for North Shore Audubon Society.

May 25: “Made in New Jersey,” a lecture for Atlantic Audubon Society.

Ipswich Sparrow

May 29 – June 4: Birds and Art in Burgundy.

August 5: “Sparrow Tails,” a lecture at the Southwest Wings Birding Festival.

August 6: “A Day with Rick Wright” at the Southwest Wings Birding Festival.

August 7: Bird walk and book signing at Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park.

January 9, 2007, Boyce Thompson 024

August 11-14: Museum workshops and field trips at the Southeast Arizona Birding Festival.

August 15-20: Lecture and field trips at the ABA Birding Rally, Sierra Vista.

September 21: “The Very Worst Bird Names Ever, and Why They’re Not So Bad,” a lecture for Bergen County Audubon Society.

September 30 – October 8: Birds and Art in Berlin and Brandenburg.

Berlin Siegessäule

October 24 – November 1: Birds and Art in Venice and the Po Delta.

Sycamore-Rick.jpg

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Feb
06

Why Aren’t We Seeing More Siskins?

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Pine Siskin

It’s been a slim winter for pine siskins here in northern New Jersey, and I know why.

It has nothing to do with the food crop up north, the snow cover down south, or the curious biological clock that seems to govern these streaky nomads’ seasonal movements.

It’s because they’re invisible.

Siskins keep a stone in their nest that makes the nest invisible; you can only see the reflection of the nest in a bucket of water placed beneath the nest tree. Whoever can get such a stone and carry it will also be invisible. Or you can use the egg of the siskin, which also makes you invisible. You’ll be also be invisible if you carry the whole nest in a sack.

See?

Pine Siskin

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Jan
24

Overreacting

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I’m not a scientist, and I certainly wouldn’t play one on TV, but as an outsider and a layman, it seems to me that some Ontario birders are rolling over and playing dead for no reason at all.

In November of last year, a suspect oriole was discovered in the eastern part of the province. In the first, rather poor photos I saw — there are now much better ones out there — the bird was gray-bellied and dull-throated, with a clear black eye line. A perfectly reasonable consensus was reached that the bird was a Bullock’s oriole, a nice find indeed but hardly earth-shattering at the season anywhere in the east.

The story continued to unfold in the usual way: the exuberant posts from exuberant birders tallying a lifer, the inevitable accusations of harassment and bad manners on the part of photographers and those armed with audio recordings, the gradual settling down as the bird gradually settled in. And the “rescue.”

The absurdity of “rescuing” vagrant birds in the wintertime is something I’m happy to rant about any time you’re ready, but in this case, holding the bird in captivity provided an opportunity to conduct a little genetic analysis. As it turns out, material gathered from the bird’s droppings included mitochondrial DNA identifiable as that of a Baltimore oriole.

Meaning, of course, that among this bird’s female forebears was a Baltimore oriole.

Now come the retractions, the recantings, the regrets. You can almost hear the check marks being erased from birders’ lists. But why?

There is probably no Bullock’s oriole on the planet that does not have a bit of the Baltimore coursing through its veins. We know this, and we’re happy to ignore it when we identify birds in the field — just as we gladly ignore the fact that the family tree of nearly every mallard on the east coast is studded with black ducks, and that there isn’t a “black” towhee on the great plains that is not the product of repeated miscegenation. It’s biochemically messy out there.

For the past century and a half, we’ve known that there is no such thing as a species. For the past century and a quarter, birding in North America has been intentionally cast as an exercise in identification of species. If we want to keep understanding birding in that way — and many of us do — we have to both acknowledge and insist on the difference between what we do and what the scientists do. Our tools are our eyes and our minds, not blenders and litmus paper.

If I were in Ontario and cared, I’d count it. And I wouldn’t let a little thing like DNA get in my way.

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Jan
15

National Hat Day, Of All Things

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There are plenty of birds out there with caps and hoods and helmets, but precious few wear a simple straightforward hat.

Brazil’s white-vented violetear is one. Today it is classified once again in the humdrum genus Colibri, but for a while in the nineteenth century, it enjoyed the pleasing and mellifluous genus name Petasophora, the “hat wearer.”

Hector Bottai, wikimedia commons

Honestly, though: If you’d had that bird lying on your desk, would the crown have been the plumage character you’d have chosen to commemorate in the name?

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Jan
08

Malheur and the Plumers

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Snowy Egret

The print and online media, running out of things to say about this absurd “occupation,” have turned over the past few days to casting the confrontation as one between kooks and birders, an approach that may add a little bit of human interest but at the same time trivializes the matter: the struggle is one between armed insurrectionists and the principles of this country, not between one vaguely picturesque group of citizens and another. I for one will be happy to start reading essays and articles that frame the matter in those terms, rather than puff pieces worrying about Oregon birders’ year lists.

Meanwhile, the constant repetition of the same story of the refuge’s founding has started me wondering: was Malheur really created to protect the white herons of the desert marshes?

Kind of. Even in the late 1890s, plumers were shooting snowy egrets on Lake Malheur in horrific numbers; some claimed to have earned $500 a day from the feathers they stripped from the bird’s backs — and that in the long-ago time when a dollar was a dollar.

By 1908, though, when Roosevelt established the first wildlife reservations at Malheur, no one was shooting egrets, for their plumage or for any other reason: the birds were gone, nearly or entirely extinct in southeast Oregon. George Sizemore and Charles Fitzgerald, the first wardens appointed, were concerned instead with the water birds that persisted in the area: ducks and swans, shot “merely for the feathers, which are sold at so much per pound.”

And grebes.

Clark's grebe

It’s been virtually obliterated from birderly memory, but the plumers of the west probably wrought more havoc on western and Clark’s grebes than on any heron species. The first indictments filed against feather poachers in Burns, Oregon, cited the killing of hundreds of grebes, with one hunter responsible for a full thousand birds; one shipment, seized at the post office, contained eight hundred skins, destined for New York City to be turned into fancy capes, collars, and muffs.

Those days are over. But I can’t help thinking it’s even worse now: a hundred-odd years ago, they were stealing the resources of the land. Today, it’s the land itself.

 

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