Sunday, December 29, 2013

Christmas Bird Count...25 Behaviors for Success

Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Just finished another Christmas Bird Count (CBC); our "team" established another record species total for our piece of the Circle. Nope, the total is nowhere close to what south Texas or California CBC's get. Doesn't matter, as the greatest conservationist President said: "Do what you can with what you have where you are" (Theodore Roosevelt Autobiography, Chapter IX, page 336). The longer I go at this birding thing (or wildlife-watching in general), the greater pleasure I get from doing it close to home. But, no matter how close to home, you should be prepared not to double-back for something forgotten, misplaced, unstudied, etc. Here are 25 actions to embrace for present and future success:

  1. Keep celebration of key finds short-lived
  2. Resist assumption of identities; remain mindful
  3. Use your ears
  4. Look up frequently
  5. Get everybody on the bird
  6. Find the feeding it thoroughly
  7. Don’t be embarrassed with initial misidentifications; it happens
  8. Insist on securing documentation (audio, written, photographic)
  9. Record notes/sightings/numbers to the best of your ability
  10. Have a smartphone or tablet with loaded “apps”
  11. Birds may not respond vocally to playback, but can approach stealthily
  12. Know your habitat, know the expected bird your homework
  13. Dress warm in layers, snack often
  14. Have a zoom point and shoot at hand for documentation
  15. Know how to digiscope
  16. Cover everything (habitat) once not too fast or slow, then go back for misses
  17. Not all human development is “bad”, think plantings and water features outside of feeders
  18. Have multiple spotting scopes available for waterbodies; the more the better
  19. Be aware of weather forecasts...especially predicted, dramatic changes in wind, temperature...plan accordingly
  20. Have vehicle thoroughly prepped
  21. Peruse Count Area during Count Week
  22. Remain optimistic and intuit strategy
  23. Working hard is the basis for serendipity and the unexpected
  24. Keep looking when other team members are distracted, eating, or whatever
  25. Give your all though you will never find everything; try to relax and have fun

Oh, find something great!!!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Mistletoe...About It

I've been working on my photo collection and came across this mistletoe image (below) I'd taken about a year and half ago. It took quite a while to identify this plant (had some help). Since I know of, but never decorated with mistletoe during the Christmas season, I did some investigating to discover some natural history and culture behind this plant.
American Dwarf-mistletoe (Arceuthobium americanum)

My photo is of an American Dwarf-mistletoe (Arceuthobium americanum); it's not the species that folks traditionally associate with Christmas. In Europe, it's European mistletoe (Viscum album...the only species there) or here in North America, American Mistletoe (Phoradendron one of ~240 species in North America!). Tropical and subtropical areas of the planet have many more "mistletoe" species. All mistletoe species are parasitic on shrubs and trees; they are dependent on moisture and minerals from the host. They are photosynthetic and produce seeds. Many species are specific to a certain species as host.
The species I photographed is usually only found on Lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta). The four species of Dwarf-mistletoe in Montana are all very small, only 1-8 cm in length, as the name implies, and each occur on different species of conifer (USFS publication on conifer mistletoes). Conversely, American Mistletoe is not tied to a specific species of deciduous or coniferous plant for a host and it is much bigger, basketball sized in some cases. It can really be evident in winter when going through a leafless, oak forest. In cases it looks very unhealthy for the tree. According to references most trees are not killed outright by mistletoe, but productivity of the tree suffers. A pdf leaflet from the University of Georgia Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources has extensive information on mistletoe infection in trees.
David M. Watson (publication title: MISTLETOE—A KEYSTONE RESOURCE IN FORESTS AND WOODLANDS WORLDWIDE) found that mistletoe may in fact be a keystone species: "Species from 66 families of birds and 30 families of mammals have been recorded consuming mistletoe, spanning 12 and 10 orders..."  Over 240 species of Australian birds nest in mistletoe. So, it does not appear to be so bad ecologically.
For people, mistletoe has real and/or mythic properties. According to Wikipedia, herbalists use mistletoe for circulatory and respiratory ailments. Vitality and fertility are ascribed to the plant because it was once not understood how the plant spread, i.e. it would "magically" sprout on different trees without a seen process. It is guessed this is how the cultural tradition of "kissing" under the mistletoe evolved...this behavior noted in a 1808 newspaper ad!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Winter Power Pole Birding...How-to and Photo Salon

Nothing beats a winter drive in the country, especially with the goal of hawkwatching in mind. Driving "backroads" in the warmth of your vehicle and leisurely scoping out the high points of the landscape in anticipation....well of whatever is not on your checklist or the spectacle at times. High populations of small rodents are the determinant for hawk density; I've seen over 100 hawks over a 50 mile circuit.
The habitat for mice and voles can be a mix of CRP (farmland set aside for conservation), cropland (plowed and unplowed), ranchland and hopefully some native sod. Just as important as habitat are power poles along the roadside; most buteo's are perch hunters and these provide the perch substrate. For you beginning birders, these perches will allow you excellent, numerous views to study the birds and photograph at times.
Sometimes having poles and habitat in abundance (think North Dakota) is not a good thing because bird distribution can be very spotty due to immense amount of habitat available. Then again, that is exactly what a Gyrfalcon (Falco rusitcolus) requires. Perhaps most of you reading this live in large urban areas; a day trip of several hours (guessing 70 miles or so one way) should get you into some kind of promising habitat. I remember taking a day trip downstate with several Chicagoland birders many years ago to see Prairie Falcon (Falco mexicanus) at the Lawrenceville (believe that is correct) airport. It was successful!!
Being a good birder means homework and preparation (excuse the preaching, experts). Embedded are several photos for you to identify and age; hands-on work usually equates with better learning and retention. In fact, it may be a cake walk with the wide spectrum of field guides, hard coy and digital, (think Crossley and Sibley guides) available. Oh, there are 2 photos of birds not on a pole...uncooperative for a photo and a bit of a bonus :-)

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Technology and Birding

Nicholas Lund, in an online Slate post (The High-Tech Future of Staring at Birds in the Woods), overviews wonderfully in both serious and tongue-in-cheek tones the evolution of birding field guides. Have you noticed the recent published offerings, e.g.The Warbler Guide and The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors. Wow...great visuals, incredible pieces of work. Both have taken field guides to a new level thanks to technology, specifically digital cameras.
My real concern, as strange as this may sound is, the 'language of birding'. The language I refer to is loosely based on the Peterson identification system of how big, what shape, what behavior, and what field marks? Birding (really, all kinds of wildlife watching) it seems is really about the underlying process and joy of learning.
Nicholas Lund thinks there are no worries:..."the actual business of birding remains between you, the bird, and your binoculars. That is until our Google Glass can ID birds on the wing or our phones can scan a molted feather and report the subspecies. I give it a year." Great take, isn't it? Now find something great...digitally or otherwise :-)
Digital photo (what else?) of Steller's Jay