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Nov
04

A Ross Goose in Oregon!

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Seventy-two years ago today, northeast Oregon’s first record of the sweet little Ross goose was obtained when I.S. Surber shot a juvenile in Wallowa County. Reporting on the remarkable find, Stanley Jewel noted that

recent known occurrences of the Ross Goose outside of its regular winter range have been few and far between and should be placed on record.

Fast forward three quarters of a century: How many counties in the United States have not recorded the species?

How things change — and sometimes for the better, at least from the point of view of certain tiny white geese.

Ross's Goose

(The photo is from central New Jersey — ho hum, almost.)

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Oct
31

Martin Luther, Bird Conservationist

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Screenshot 2017-10-30 11.19.42

On the five hundredth birthday of what one has come to think of as the start of the Reformation, a letter from the birds of Wittenberg to Martin Luther:

We, the Thrushes, Blackbirds, Finches, Linnets, Goldfinches, and all other righteous and honorable Birds wishing to migrate over Wittenberg this autumn beg to inform you that as we have ourselves been credibly informed, a certain Wolfgang Seyberger, your servant,  has undertaken to purchase several old worn-out nets at considerable expense, in his great hatred and anger at us, in order to create a finch trap, to deprive not only our dear friends the Finches but all of us of our God-given freedom to fly through the air and to collect seeds from the ground, and that he is plotting against our lives, though we have caused him no harm and done nothing to merit such severe and ill-considered actions on his part.

Because all of that is, as you yourself can imagine, poses a great and dangerous burden to us poor free Birds, who have neither houses nor barns and no possessions, our humble and amiable plea to you is that you will discourage your servant from such presumptuous actions, and if that is not possible, then urge him to spread grain on the ground for us in the evening and then to stay away from the trap before eight in the morning, so that we can elude him.

If he refuses, then we shall pray to our Lord God that his traps capture nothing but flies, midges, and slugs, and that at night he is so plagued by mice, fleas, lice, and bedbugs that he forgets us entirely and does not deprive us of freedom and flight.

Why does he not direct his wrath and efforts against Sparrows, Swallows, Magpies, Jackdaws, Crows, Mice, and Rats, which do harm you by stealing and robbing wheat, oats, barley, and so on from the buildings? We do not do this, but merely seek tiny crumbs and single dropped seeds. We submit our case to all righteousness and reason to determine whether it is not unjust that we are so severely persecuted by him. We hope to God that as so many of our brothers and friends have escaped him this fall that we too can fly through his lax and rotting nets that we saw yesterday.

Given this day at our sky seat in the trees and under our common seal of feathers.

Suppose Luther showed this letter to Seyberger?

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Oct
31

Halloween Pie

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common magpie France

Crows and ravens have it rough this time of year. Their deep voices, intimidating intelligence, and simple blackness have made them among the most halloweenish of birds.

Another, more colorful corvid has an equally ominous reputation. In eighteenth-century Sweden,

many believe that magpies are the attendants and instruments of the devil, and it is said that when the witches and bloodsucking sorceresses set out for their assemblies, they change themselves into the form of a magpie. And when in August the magpies molt the feathers of their necks, the common people say of this molt that “the magpies have gone to the witches’ assembly, and when they helped the devil carry his hay, the yoke rubbed the feathers from their neck.”

Naughty birds.

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Oct
30

When Playback Goes Bad

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“Playback” — the use of recordings and imitations to elicit responses from otherwise secretive birds — will always be a matter of controversy. Most of the debate has focused on the effect on the birds, which generally have better things to spend their time on than frantically trying to drive off phantom competitors.

But it’s also worth asking how playback alters the experience for birders. Yes, it can be annoying. Yes, it can be disturbing. But most of all, it can be dangerous.

Don’t take my word for it. For more than a century and a half, we’ve known what happens to those who use calls to lure owls.

It is not a good idea to imitate their vocalizations, as when you do, they come closer and closer and finally punish the offending party. Once, when a tawny owl was calling not far from a house, a boy imitated the call. The owl came in and shook the iron bars protecting the windows so vigorously that the entire house shook.

Happy Halloween.

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Sep
15

East on the Pine Ridge

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Chadron State Park morning

It was a good plan, nearly a failsafe plan, to hit Chadron State Park pre-dawn to look for poorwills on the roads. What I hadn’t counted on was light rain, heavy fog, and a marathon. We did manage to see one common poorwill come up off the gravel, but when the sun came up and failed to come out, I urged breakfast and a museum visit to while away the rainy hours.

Black Hills Overlook, Chadron State Park

I hadn’t been to the Museum of the Fur Trade for many years, and was impressed by how well the many, many, many objects were displayed. I was less impressed, or at least less favorably impressed, by a short and placatory video claiming that the fur trade served to harmonize racial differences on the nineteenth-century frontier. But we saw some neat stuff, including, bizarrely enough, Haitian army surplus buttons once used in the trade.

phoenix buttons for fur trade

By the time we stepped out of the museum, the rain had stopped, and there were hints of blue above. We headed back to the state park, where the truly marathon marathon was still going on, dozens of pheidippidoids of various ages (mostly advanced) and physical conditions trudging the trails. All the same, we had good looks at mountain and eastern bluebirds, spotted towhees, red crossbills, pine siskins, a western tanager, hairy and downy woodpeckers, pygmy nuthatches, chipping and clay-colored sparrows, and other common species before deciding to head for lunch and a site even farther east.

Lunch at the J-Bar in Hay Springs was outstanding as usual, and the weather and the birds continued to smile on us as we moved on to Walgren Lake.

birders birding Walgren Lake

The roadsides were covered with vesper sparrows; scattered through the flocks were clay-colored, chipping, and Savannah sparrows, too, and one little assembly also included three blue grosbeaks. A scrubby ranch yard was watched over by a merlin, looking smug and chubby with sparrow on the breath.

By the time we arrived at the lake, skies were blue and spirits were high. A flock of a couple score ruddy ducks and a dozen western grebes was accompanied by a few eared grebes, a ring-necked duck, and a canvasback. Goodly flocks of barn swallows were passing through, and we finally got good looks at a bank swallow that hugged the far shore for several minutes. Three common nighthawks joined in the insect feast, while closer to the ground we saw more bluebirds, sparrows, Audubon’s warblers, another western tanager, and a slightly westerly Baltimore oriole.

Walgren Lake

We have an early morning to look forward to tomorrow, so I pushed us a bit to leave the lake and get back to Chadron. There was plenty of time, though, to stop at yet another prairie dog town for a scan — and for several minutes’ watching three burrowing owls bobbing out on the mounds. A full and varied day indeed.

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