Monday, November 23, 2009

backyard hawk watch

This weekend I heard a bang on the glass sliding door. I ran to go look and see if a bird had tried to fly into our kitchen and saw a quite large bluish bird flying away from the porch. Not what I was expecting to see. What's big and blue.. but definitely not a Blue Jay..

The bird settled on the ground a few feet away from my window. It was a beautiful adult accipiter! I'm guessing the hawk was not the one who flew into the window, but its unfortunate victim. I'm sorry that the Robin tried to seek shelter in our kitchen and was quite unlucky in that regard. But on the other hand, I think it is still pretty cool to see a beautiful predator in action!

When it comes to accipters, I am still learning my fieldmarks. The differences between the Cooper's Hawk and Sharp-shinned Hawk are not always very clear. They have almost identical colorations and even their sizes can overlap. When it comes to birds of prey, the male is usually smaller, giving it an advantage when doing aerial displays to impress the larger female. Cooper's Hawks are generally larger than Sharp-shinned (Crow sized vs. Jay sized), but the male Cooper's Hawk can sometimes be similar in size to the female Sharp-shinned (or sharpie)! I am starting to get a better "feel" for Sharpie vs. Coop's, so I decided my backyard predator was a Sharpie.

See if you can tell for yourself..
WARNING: Upcoming photo not suited for all animal lovers and/or Robin enthusiasts

See how this hawk is not even that much bigger than its prey? And the head looks small compared to its body. These are important features I used to decide this is indeed a Sharp-shinned Hawk.

The next day I saw more feathers on my porch. Bluish brown. One with black spots. Definitely not Robin.. Signs point to Mourning Dove. It seems like our predator has found a pretty decent meal-zone. Maybe I will see the sharpie again!

Friday, October 30, 2009

halloween raven

Happy Halloween!

Common Ravens at Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona

Thursday, October 29, 2009

friend on my doorstep

I moved this month and although I'm still in suburbia of Madison, we do have a few nice birdy visitors every once in awhile. Yesterday I saw some big flocks of Cedar Waxwings and a few late migrating Red-winged Blackbirds just in our front yard. I was surprised to hear the blackbird "o-ke-lee" song that I definitely only would associate with summer. We have a nice little courtyard that is visited by a whole host of Juncos now. When it's junco season, you know it's winter. But birds are definitely still migrating. I've seen a few Ruby-crowned Kinglets in our yard and right now, there is a little thrush on the porch! He seems pretty content just sitting on the concrete slab, but hopefully he is finding food too.

ZOOM in!

Tail looks more reddish & contrasting with body plumage, plus the thin eye-ring + lack of the noticeable "buffy spectacles" over the bill are all leading me to believe it is a Hermit Thrush, but otherwise possibly Swainson's. They are tricky ones to ID.

(Update: he did eventually find a tasty bug to eat and flew away.. but was sitting on the porch for maybe an hour)

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Madison migrants

The last few weeks in Madison have been dreary and wet. Not the best weather to go birding. But the migrating birds are definitely flowing through right now.

A few weeks ago I was able to do some banding at Biocore Prairie again. The fall colors were just beautiful because of all the late blooming prairie plants.

We got quite a few migrants and young birds like this juvenile Red-eyed Vireo. It was neat to see the difference in eye color with the young vireos. Their eyes are dark brown and will turn red next year.

We caught this little guy, a Tennessee Warbler which can be very easily confused with another bird that we catch a lot of. Below is a picture of a female Common Yellowthroat. You can see how the Tennessee and the Yellowthroat both have whitish to buffy eyerings and yellow bellies! The biggest difference here though is size. The Tennessee Warbler is a very tiny warbler whereas the Yellowthroat is a bit more robust. It's too bad we didn't catch these two at the same time so I could have gotten a side-by-side comparison. But you'll also notice that the Tennessee has yellow all the way down its breast while the Yellowthroat has more yellow on the throat (surprise!) and is whiteish below.

Female Common Yellowthroat

Oh yes, we got another confusing Empidonax Flycatcher, similar to all the ones we were catching in Texas. Based on our many measurements, this guy ended up being a Traill's Flycatcher. The Traill's Flycatcher does not count as its own species, but it refers to both the Willow and the Alder Flycatcher. Apparently, there is just not enough information out there to completely tell the difference between these two in the hand. It is kind of scary how similar this guy looked to the Least Flycatchers I had banded before. There were differences in size though, with this one being a little bit too big to be a Least. Also this empidonax flycatcher had a less visible eyering, which is something to look for in the Traill's flycatcher.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Raptor Banding at Stevens Point

OK, I'm a little behind in updating my blog! But a week ago I had the great opportunity to learn about raptor research techniques at the Linwood Springs Research Station in Stevens Point, Wisconsin.

It was a 3 and a half day class and it covered everything from trapping & banding raptors to ascending tall trees to performing habitat surveys. Above pictured is our group for the September 2009 session (Me & Red-tail, Tim, Dave, Walt & Cooper's Hawk). I was the youngest there and the only girl. At first I wasn't too surprised about that since raptors are kind of macho birds. But our instructor, Gene Jacobs, actually said it wasn't too typical, and usually they get more women and more college-age participants in the classes. Either way, being the only girl definitely didn't mean I had to be protected from the fierce, taloned birds of prey. I got hands-on experience with two Red-tailed Hawks and an American Kestrel. Oh, and this was my absolute first time working with raptors!

My favorite was the Kestrel (an adult female). I love the falcon "helmet" or "side burns," that they have, very cute.

We almost caught a Merlin as well, a larger bird also in the falcon family. That would have been pretty neat, but the Merlins were not as interested in our traps. In order to trap birds, we used two methods: finding the raptors first and setting a trap or setting the trap first and then waiting for raptors to fly in. The first method used a type of trap called a "bal chatri," which is a cage covered in tiny nooses that get caught on a predator's feet. The cage has the bird's lucky prey item, usually a mouse from a pet store. Really, the mice are hardly ever harmed by the birds, but I wouldn't worry about it since most pet store mice end up being snake food or something of the sort anyway!

Another type of trap is a bow net, as pictured above. We used a live pigeon as a lure in this case. The pigeon was harnessed so it could not escape, and once again was unscathed by the raptor. We can use pigeons as bait since they are invasive non-native species and are not protected by federal law as most other birds are. Since pigeons are not protected, you could even keep one as a pet if you wanted to!
Anyway, once the hawk goes after the pigeon, it is lured into the area where the bow net is, and then we pulled the trigger to release the spring and the net captures our raptor. It's all a little like the boardgame, mouse trap. There are some great engineering minds behind all this raptor trap business. And it's a little more complicated than using the typical mist nets for songbirds, but it gets the job done.
Here I am with a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk. Notice that the tail is brown rather than reddish.

And here I am with an adult Red-tailed. This guy took a little longer to come to our trap. They get a little smarter with age and more suspicious of prey inside of a funny cage.

In order to calm the raptors and keep them from flapping while we band and take measurements, we would use coffee cans to secure them. Just look at those tail feathers. This hawk had two generations of red feathers, meaning it was at least 3 years old.

Overall we caught four birds, 2 Red-tails, a Kestrel, and Cooper's Hawk. After the banding, weighing and measuring, we let them go! It was definitely a fun time, and working with raptors was an awesome experience. Even though they are powerful birds perfectly designed to tear open flesh with razor-sharp talons and bill, they really are not all that scary. I hope I get a chance to work with raptors again, we'll see!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Wisconsin Idea

I wanted to post a link to an article from the UW Madison "Wisconsin Idea" website,

It's a profile on my bird banding mentor, Mara McDonald, and about the work we do at Biocore Prairie. It's a lovely article!
I have to make a correction though, the author (not a science guy I presume) writes that we measure the femur of the birds, but it should say tarsus. Time to study up on your bird anatomy...

The tarsus (same as tarsometatarsus) is the foot bone, but many people call it the bird's "leg," since it is the most visible part of the bird leg. As you can see though, birds walk on their toes rather than their feet, just like cats and dogs. The femur and often the fibula & tibiotarsus disappear within all those feathers. So if you ever say someone has "chicken legs" you're probably comparing the person's legs to a bird's skinny feet. But if you ever eat a chicken leg, you're most likely eating the meaty area that makes up the thigh of the bird.

That's all for now for the anatomy lesson, I'll be back later so I can post some pictures from my most recent excursion to a Raptor Banding Class.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

American Dipper

I saw my first American Dipper while at the Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, North America's only songbird that can swim!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

10 Things I Learned in Texas...

I'm finally settled in at home in Madison after spending the summer banding in Texas. It's good to be back! Mostly though because the temperature right now is only 73F (instead of 103) and it's the middle of the afternoon.

To sum up my experience with the MAPS program in Brownwood Texas, it was all I anticipated and more. So much fun! And really excellent people! I learned SO much and I would definitely do it again.

And here are some of the things I learned while I was in Texas...

1. Learned I can go an entire summer without using a microwave! (and oatmeal cooked on the stove top is 100 times better than microwave cooked!)

2. Learned how to age a Painted Bunting (PABU!)

3. Learned that the Carolina Chickadee sounds like it says, "I will kill you" and the Summer Tanager says, "Pik a chu.. pika chu chu chu!"

4. Learned how to spot the difference between a Bewick's Wren and a Carolina Wren

(Bewick's on the Left, Carolina on the Right)

5. Learned that Mourning Doves shed a lot of feathers when they EXPLODE! (see image at the top)

6. There's no pain quite like a Cardinal biting your cuticles

(Don't ever get too close to that beak!)

7. A lot of people in Texas have never seen a Painted Bunting, or if they have they think it's an escaped pet! They are all over the place, you just have to look!

8. It is OK to only check email 3 times a week

9. Learned how to do the Texan "two-step"

10. Learned so much about extracting and aging techniques for all birds!

Monday, August 3, 2009

wrapping up in Brownwood Texas

We only have 2 more days of banding left in Texas! Then the MAPS 2009 season is officially over. Sad, but also sweet since I'm excited to go back home! Luckily there's plenty of time to enjoy the fall migration once I get back to Madison. Hurray for getting to identify fall warblers and sparrows.

This past week so far has been a little bit crazy! If it hasn't been one thing it has been another. We have been getting a lot of empidonax flycatchers lately (basically the hardest birds in North America to identify in the hand, or the hardest birds to identify ever as far as I can tell!) The best way to identify them is by sound, and birds don't sing in your hand. Mostly they have ended up being Least Flycatchers which have already begun their migration south for winter.
Here are the feisty flycatchers making flycatcher faces:
Along with the crazy "empids," today we got a crazy flock of bushtits. On our first net run of the day, I stumbled upon a net with no fewer than 10 bushtits caught in it and chirping their little tiny heads off. (If only I had a photo of this!! But I don't bring my camera with me on net-runs) Luckily I was able to call for back up and we managed to get them all out, plus a bonus female Black-and-white Warbler. We only lost one bushtit in the process and got them all banded and on their way. At the end of the day we banded 19 birds (Bushtits, Warbler + juvenile Cardinals, Rufous-crowned Sparrows, Painted Buntings and a Least Flycatcher). Definitely a high number for us, but we'll see what tomorrow brings. We will be going to our overall most productive site.
So on to the birdy whims like I promised. Exciting news, I finished my owl sweater!
Yes my Brownwood bedroom came with some nice fake wood paneling

Ta-da! According to the pattern, I'm supposed to add little buttons to complete the owl eyes. I don't have any buttons right now but maybe sometime later after I get home I will find some owl-eye buttons. I'm really happy how it turned out though. I will have to wait awhile to wear it though, not much use in the 100 degree Texas heat!!

Friday, July 31, 2009

The beginning of the end for Texas banding

It has all come down to this, Week 10 of the 10-period banding season in Texas! Today was our first day of the 10th period. A slow start because of thunderstorms yesterday morning. Followed by more thunderstorms this afternoon and hopefully not any more this week. I've scheduled myself to hit the road by next Thursday night so I'm hoping everything can be wrapped up by then.

Back to the last period, Phase 9, we had quite a bit more success than the week before. We ended the week with a 15-bird day, which is pretty decent. Including one CRAZY "net-run." We typically check our nets for any birdies every 40 minutes and it's one person per five nets. Usually I can handle that. But at 6:40 I went to check the nets and I had a bird in every net except one which only had 2 fat cicadas which I also had to extract. I was extracting my fifth bird on my fifth net, and another bird flew right in. Total of 6 birds in one net check. I ran out of birdy bags to transport the birds back so I just held on to the poor little wren. So I ended up with a Carolina Wren, 3 Cardinals (including 2 juveniles), a Mourning Dove and a Bewick's Wren. I was pretty exhausted after extracting all those birds! At least it made for a fun day.

In contrast, today was mostly dull since we were at our slowest site. I spent most of the time reading a new book that was a gift from my aunt Leslie (Thanks Leslie!), Life List by Olivia Gentile. The book is a biography of Phoebe Snetsinger, a record-holding life lister, meaning she had seen and kept records of over 6,000 birds in her lifetime. So far it is an interesting read about a woman who begins birding as a hobby to escape her life as a 1960's housewife. But after being diagnosed with melanoma, her time is cut short. She vows to spend her remaining days birding all over the world with help from an inheritance after her wealthy father's death.
Today when I got to extract a bird that looked like a mysterious warbler I couldn't immediately identify, I definitely felt a rush of excitement. And I can see how identifying birds can turn from passion to obsession and fanatacism. According to the biography, Phoebe Snetsinger definitely crossed that line. It came to a point where she was rarely ever at home with her family and she was putting herself in very dangerous situations just to see birds. For instance, she was raped and almost killed during a trip to Papua New Guinea.

I can see why she would pursue a hobby so much, since she was given a short time to live and she didn't have any other outlet or career, but I wouldn't choose it for myself. I have to wonder if she would have enjoyed banding though. I find it much more rewarding than just birding, since you are doing something to help monitor bird populations rather than just trying to see them.

Also, I have to note, it is not always very helpful for birds when birders get excited about seeing a rare bird. Birders will flock to the rare bird's location and may disrupt it or call attention to predators. Most birders, of course know that there is a birders' code of ethics though, and they know not to harrass birds or have an overabundance of people trying to view an endangered species.

Although I'm not a fanatic, I do absolutely love watching birds and seeing a new species I have never seen before. I have already seen several new ones this summer including the Worm-eating Warbler, Blue Grosbeak, Green Jay and Olive Sparrow- just to name some of my favorites! I have some kind of life list but it is very casual and I'm sure it has huge holes in it from birds I have seen in Costa Rica, Florida and Arizona, my checklists and notes are somewhere at my parents' house. Anyway I have been using a great website,, that allows you to list all your birds and where and when you've seen them. My list just has some of what I have seen but doesn't go into detail. So far my number is 332! If you use the site, my username is SongbirdSpiffy if you care to track what my favorite birds are or whatever!

Wow, this has been a wordy post so I'm sure you're looking for the birdy part of it. Remember I said something about a mysterious warbler that I got to extract today? Ah yes my favorite part of today, aside from being out for 12 hours, 2 hours of taking down net poles, another flat tire etc.
Well here is the lovely warbler. Like pretty much every bird we've been getting lately, she was molting like crazy too. All the more helpful for people trying to identify it (not quite).
Despite having no clue while extracting this bird, it was fairly easy to identify once I brought it back to our banding station. Blueish color with white wingbars? Incomplete eyering? Yellow breast with a reddish bar? Yellow lower mandible? Yellow feet and black legs? All fieldmarks for the Northern Parula.

Northern Parula

OK, I have words and birds, so next time I update I promise whims aplenty.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

How to age a PABU!

PABU (we pronounce it pah-boo) being short for Painted Bunting of course. All birds have official four letter codes like PABU, and bird banders end up memorizing lots of them and using them in place of the bird's actual common name. Like MODO instead of Mourning Dove and HOFI instead of House Finch. Sometimes the four letter code is just more fun to say! Just a little bird nerd tidbit for you.

In general, when it comes to age and sex, birds can be rather difficult. The best way of knowing for sure what a bird's sex is, is by getting a DNA sample. And the best way to determine age is if you capture a bird when it's born and then recapture it in successive years. But when it comes to Painted Buntings, there are a lot of clues that you can look for. For instance, we know the above picture is an adult male. In the bird world, it's typical for males to be bold and bright.

And we know for sure this picture above is a female Painted Bunting. Or is it? Males in their second year of life actually look a lot like the females. They don't molt into their full breeding plumage until their third year!
The best way to tell apart a second year male or female Painted Bunting is to look at its nether regions. The male will typically have a swollen "cloacal protuberance" during the breeding season. In Pabu's, females are the only ones that develop a brood patch, a loss of feathers on the breast and expansion of blood vessels in contact with the eggs during incubation. Sex can be determined in lots of other birds this way, while others don't even give such obvious physical clues that they are breeding.
For even more fun ways to determine age in a Painted Bunting, meet the PABU family...!

We happened to catch a male, female, and baby all around the same time a few days ago. I'm sure you can tell them apart.

This is the smallest babiest of baby buntings!! It doesn't get much fresher from the nest than this. This baby is still growing in all his feathers and doesn't even have a tail yet! Of course, the first thing he does is fly into one of our nets. But his mom was close by his side and they both flew away together just fine.
And now a little bit about bird wings. If you really want to know your stuff about how to tell the age of a bird in hand, feel free to buy a Pyle guide. If you don't want to spend the money though I'll give a little introduction. Bird wings can be great for telling the age of the bird since a lot of birds follow a specific pattern in how and when they molt their wing feathers. For PABUs, we look at the coloration on their feathers since it varies by age. Look at the differences in the below picture.

All painted buntings are born with brownish gray wing feathers. Over time, the females grow in all green-edged flight feathers and the males get bright green and red feathers. Birds in their second year keep some of their old baby feathers while they are growing adult feathers.

The more accurately we are able to determine age in birds gives us more information on just how long wild birds live. So it's good to have these skills. But while it may be relatively easy to do for Painted Buntings, it is a much different story for a lot of other birds! This summer I have definitely learned a lot, but it still takes a lot of training to know your bird molts.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

nighthawk ...dayhawk

The other day I found this very cryptic bird roosting in a tree outside the Camp Bowie security office..

It was a Common Nighthawk! Indeed these birds are quite common, and you can find them all throughout North America, but you rarely ever see them while they are perched on a tree. That is, unless you are always on the look out for bird-shaped silhouettes everywhere you go...

Common Nighthawk

For the most part, these birds are active during the night as you could probably guess. We usually hear them doing their "peent" call right before dawn while we are setting up our mist nets. And they also seem to like to sleep in the road while I'm driving up to our banding sites. (Don't worry they always fly away when they hear the car) Once in awhile we also see and hear them well into the daytime. Then they transform into Common Dayhawks, of course.

If you are enjoying a summer evening, remember to look for the nighthawk's long dark wings with white central spots. Or listen for the nasal "peent peent" call coming from the sky. Or I suppose just look out for any bird shaped tree branches during the day.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

brownest of little brown birds...

Bewick's Wren

I mentioned last week that we got 10 Bewick's Wrens in one day. But I realized that I have never taken a photo of one! I'm sure they are our 2nd most common species that we catch out here in Brownwood, right after Painted Buntings. We get them at all six of our sites and they just love to fly into the nets. They are tiny, but feisty and a whole lot of fun to extract from a mist net. One time, I had one go completely through a hole in the net (the holes are tiny half-inch squares) and was only caught by his little foot. I'm still not really sure how that happened!

Here is the little Bewick's Wren in all his glory. They look similar to House Wrens except for the white eyebrow and the black and white tail feathers and they sound remarkably similar to Song Sparrows. I'm sure if there were Song Sparrows singing here I would never be able to tell the difference, but luckily there are thousands of Bewick's Wrens and no Song Sparrows so I never will get them confused!

And now for the brownest of all little brown birds and the new species of the week...

Huh.. I'm sure I'm not the only one that would look at this bird and think "it looks like a sparrow" and then not really know much more than that! When trying to identify bird species, birders usually look for distinguishing features, like Does it have a colored bill? Does it have markings around the eyes or face? Does it have a reddish cap? Wingbars? Spots or streaking on the breast? In this case, this bird really doesn't have any of those markings, so what am I to do?

Well the field guide wasn't especially helpful but we were able to narrow it down based on the pictures and range maps. Then we could refer to the Pyle guide for bird banders. One species had faint white wing bars, black "anchor-shaped" spots on the back and white tips on the outer rectrices (tail feathers).

So our mystery bird must be... a Cassin's Sparrow! Haha, is that what you guessed too? This is the picture in the Sibley field guide :


Cassin's Sparrow

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Phase 7 Summary

Yesterday we finished phase 7 of banding in Brownwood. Since I still haven't gotten my car back, we had to park and walk a couple extra miles to our banding site when the roads got too muddy. But we ended the day with 10 birds and 68 total birds for the phase. And finally at one of our sites this week, we beat our record for # of birds in one day. We got 21 birds (including a Cardinal that escaped from the net) at a site called Stonehouse. Most of those birds were Bewick's Wrens. We had 10 wrens, mostly fledglings. Bewick's Wrens are a little more difficult to age, but usually you can tell the hatch-years by their fresher plumage, dull colors and loosely textured (fluffier) feathers.

Dickcissel juvenile

One of my favorite fledglings this week was a baby Dickcissel. He was still growing in all his juvenile feathers so we had to release him close to where we found him, so he could find his parents.


A funny story is that we caught a few female House Sparrows last summer in Wisconsin, and we sort of guessed that they were Dickcissels at first since we had never caught a House Sparrow before. Sure, there is no question what's a House Sparrow when you see one on a city block, but a bird in the hand can sometimes be deceiving! If you look at the below picture of a female House Sparrow, you can see that they do look a little similar. Oh, the joys of little brown birds..

Female House Sparrow

This week, we got to band our first woodpeckers at Camp Bowie!

Ladder-backed Woodpecker, juvenile

We actually got two Ladder-backed Woodpeckers (mother and juvenile) in the same net at Stonehouse and two again the next day at Mesquite.

This is a juvenile because of the red tipped feathers on the head. The adult male has much more extensive red on the head.

From the back, you can see the woodpecker's pointy tail feathers. These feathers are much stronger and stiffer on woodpeckers than for other birds so they can use them to balance on the side of a tree.

We had another new visitor to the nets this week which was a complete surprise. It was a female black-and-white Warbler! We thought we were completely done banding warblers for the season, but I guess not. For the most part, warblers that we had the chance of seeing only migrate through Texas on their way much further north. But according to the B&W Warbler's range map there is a little spot in central Texas where they breed.

Female Black-and-white Warbler (photo taken during training)

For now, I have a couple days off, but hopefully there will be some more new birds next week!