Sunday, 31 December 2006

Farewell 2006, WELCOME 2007

So this was 2006, as always an action packed and frankly also pretty amazing birding year!

As a last post of this year I had planned a nice and short summary of my birding adventures and encounters but soon noticed the year was just far to great to be summarized "in short". So as soon as business is back to usual and the Holidays/New Year busy times are over, there will be a short series - possibly a monthly round-up - of the then "last year".

Until then I wish each and every one a Happy New Year and - as we say in German -


Oh yeah, and just in case anyone has tried a guess with the Golden Plovers, the flock on the image is roughly 3200 birds strong.

Here's a new link to Andreas Kanon's site, for those in need of good photography. And just in case you don't feel the need now, look at this and then seek shelter on Andreas' site!

Thursday, 28 December 2006

The little known Passion of Edgar Allan Poe

I got "The Complete Tales & Poems" by Edgar Allan Poe for Christmas.
Apart from providing a few links which I have already done I am sure there is no further need to introduce the inclined reader of this blog to Poe's person or his work. He surely has to be recognized as the single most influential literary genius ever, along maybe with Goethe who rocks, too.
What only few realize however is that Poe was also the first real birder ever (whereas Goethe wasted his Natural History talents mostly on Botany, the fool) and if you carefully read Poe's Tales and especially his early poetry this is actually quite apparent.
Here is a brilliant example of Poe's little known affiliation to birdwatching:

A (Birder's Winter) Dream

In winter's long and dark night
I have dreamed of birds departed;
But a waking dream of song and flight
Hath left me broken hearted
Ah! what is not a dream by day
To him whose eyes are cast
On birds around him, with a ray
Turned back upon the past?
That holy dream of birds in spring
While all the world were chiding,
Hath cheered me as a lovely beam
A lonely spirit guiding.
What though that light, thro' storm and night
So trembled from afar -
What could there be more purely bright
Than watching a Prothonotary Warbler

Even though it seems he got carried away writing the last verse, he's got a point there and I think this is a great piece of the kind of birding poetry that we need more of.

I am not a poet, I am not a good photographer and the following image is not of a Prothonotary Warbler, but it's a Yellow Bird and it's from spring and I don't have anything better at the moment, so it'll have to do!

There's even more to the picture: someone recently observed a Yellow Warbler close to Detroit, a Ray of Hope returned from the South?
I'll be off to the Arb and Furstenberg Park as soon as possible, so stay tuned for more...

Wednesday, 27 December 2006

Fighting PCS

Most of us suffer from some form of PCS, though often we are not aware of it. Many of my readers will indeed not even know that there is such a thing as PCS, let alone know what it means. Well, it is an abbreviation for "Post-Christmas-Syndrome" and as light-hearted as one might notice that this is a neat abbreviation and smile, it is in itself a rather serious thing.
Tom McKinney for example recently fell victim to PCS and we can only hope he will recover to his former self soon.

PCS describes a terrible derangement of mind that often befalls birders directly after Christmas:
they are stuffed full of excellent food, have their beloved family around them (or are glad they left to have the house to themselves again), got used to the comfort of the sofa and the warmth of the stove, sit wrapped in blankets in their armchair reading their Christmas gifts (bird books, what else?!) and well, leaving the house to get some real birding done is as far away as can be.

You see, that's all fine for December 24th and 25th, but then the hideous PCS strikes. You don't notice it at first, but comments from the always oh so active birder in the direction of "Weather's crap, I'm staying indoors", "No bird movement at the moment anyway" or even the infamous "Been there, seen that" are the first alarming signs of PCS. Soon the birder will get moody and miserable and bellow and swear as soon as they detect movement around them. Why? Simple: The victim is torn between their newly acquainted habit of staying indoors with sofa and fridge within easy reach and their desire to get on with the adventurous yet often hardy way of an outdoors life. That conflict just turns their whole perspective on life itself very dark indeed and as a consequence their attitude towards those around them just plain nasty. And that's not nice, nope Sir, not at all.

Today, on the 26th, my wife and I decided to start with our work again. Now, that moment after the Holidays is always met with great joy and enthusiasm by both of us as you will surely understand.
And while I was sitting at my apartment surrounded by the smiling faces of our home-made cookies, and noticing the clouds and the rain, and with the warmth of the heater upon my back, I decided to NOT go to the Arb today. Maybe tomorrow, unless there's cookies left. If that's the case, maybe I'll see what I can find at the Arb on Friday,...
HA, there it was, a darn and cowardly attack of PCS. Luckily I noticed it at this very early stage and just about in time managed to pack my bag and drag myself out of the apartment and through the cold and lonely streets of Ann Arbor all the way to the Arb.
And a good thing I did, because it was fun, and there's nothing better to get rid of a PCS attack than a Northern Cardinal at close range. Bird numbers were somewhat down, jogger numbers as well but dog walkers were plenty and many suddenly had two or even three dogs around them. Maybe I do get more readers than I am aware of and are good for me?

Here are a few of the highlights, nothing unexpected but enough fun to get over my rush of PCS anyway:
Red-bellied Woodpecker,
Tufted Titmouse,
Golden-crowned Kinglet,
very close looks at a Carolina Wren,
nice flocks of Dark-eyed Juncos and White-throated Sparrows,
a large flock (140 birds) of American Robins,
immensely beautiful Northern Cardinals, and a
Hermit Thrush again!

Nothing short of classy. Glad I made it, and if I can beat my PCS, so can you.

Sunday, 24 December 2006

A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Saturday, 23 December 2006

White? I don't think so!

Here's a flock of Taiga Bean Geese in the snow on the Baltic coast.

They sure don't approve of a white Christmas. And it sure looks as if Christmas isn't going to be even half as white this year in Ann Arbor. In fact, the way it's looking now it will be much more like the following picture here.

Well, maybe such a flock of White-fronted Geese and Tundra Bean Geese would be a very nice avian Christmas Present for us birders around here.
I'll be on the look-out over the Holidays.

Friday, 22 December 2006

No mass, just mess

Today is the 22nd of December and if I had any regular readers, they 'd remember that I had a literally huge birding plan for today (well, actually for two days ago but I didn't manage any birding then) : I had planned to set out and see 50.000 Long-tailed Ducks on the Huron river at Barton pond. Why? Because the Birdchick calendar said I could and you don't want to disagree with the Birdchick, she might disapprove.
So I was all set and ready to go this morning and then I looked out of the window.
Here's what I saw looking up:

And here's what I saw looking down from the 7th floor of the high rise building I am living in:

Man, the Birdchick was right: lots of rain overnight and conditions ideal for Long-tailed Ducks in downtown Ann Arbor.
Problem was: I couldn't leave the building with both the stairway and the elevators impassable or out of order due to the high water levels.
So there was no watching the Long-tailed Ducks today. I sure hope at least a few remain in the general area once the water levels drop.

Meanwhile, a little game for those also stuck at home and missing to watch the bird masses outside due to today's weather-related mess. Here's a picture of a flock of Golden Plovers I took last fall on the Baltic.

(click on the image to see a larger version)

How many birds do you estimate can be seen on this picture?

OK, there's no price to be won, but maybe it gives you something to do over the Holidays. Or at least until the weather improves and we can all go outside once more for some good and solid birding.

Thursday, 21 December 2006

Anyone seen Winter lately?

Yesterday I went for yet another nice short bird walk through the Arb on a sunny afternoon, jacket over my shoulder and enjoying the sun.
Something was funny though (non-laughter funny): where were all the warblers ?
Man, according to the weather I should have scored well over 15 warbler species yesterday but got none, nada, nix, zero?
Does anyone out there know what's going on? Has the long feared "Silent spring" come at last?

I also met a few people out there in search of "Winter", at least many were wondering where he was. I have no idea who this Mr. Winter is and have never met him, but apparently he must be quite an important guy who has an appointment here in Ann Arbor, some major meeting with basically everyone it seems, to which he is late.
Apparently, this "Winter" is also somehow interested in birds, at least he always has a few species at hand that he is taking with him where ever he goes, like Crossbills, Waterfowl and partridges that got lost on a pear tree.
Winter also seems to enjoy Catharus-Thrushes, just like I do, and it is a pity we didn't meet yesterday. I could have shown him the nice Hermit Thrush I was watching, and as far as I know, Winter thinks a Hermit Thrush is a pretty good species for December up here in Michigan.

I don't have a picture of a Hermit Thrush but (as always), Charlie Moores has even two galleries, so click here or here to enjoy what Mr. Winter would be enjoying if he was with us today. All I can offer is a picture of a Veery from May 2005. Come to think of it: strange thing no Veeries were around yesterday...

Tuesday, 19 December 2006

Gulling around

As I was merrily writing up my CBC account on Monday very much minding my own business and being content with me and the world surrounding me, an email by Curtis Powell arrived which included a word that I - as a European birder - was conditioned to recognize immediately even if it was muttered silently in a bursting football arena during the last minutes of a world cup's final (and forget this year's final, it was crap, Germany should have won the cup):

Thayer's Gull

He had seen a nice assembly of Gulls quite a bit east of Ann Arbor containing amongst others Lesser Black-backed, a possible "Viking's" and ... that gull, an adult Thayer's!
For anyone Gulling around Europe, finding a Thayer's must be like (to stay within this context) wining the football world cup, or the super bowl for that matter. Well, an adult Great Black-headed Gull in breeding plumage might get very close to a Thayer's, but the thrill about Thayer's is that it is such a tricky beast to identify in any plumage, so it really is regarded by many as the "creme de la creme" of Gulling.
Of course I was all excited about this and immediately asked around if anyone from the Ann Arbor area would be after the gulls in the next few days and wouldn't mind some company. My pleas for a lift were rewarded and I was fortunate to team up with Bruce Bowman today!

Bruce had corresponded with Curt and had a few likely spots for Gulls on today's agenda around the area where Curt had seen them. The first place we wanted to check was Grace lake, also known as Tyler Road lake, which is an artificial reservoir and usually has a lot of gulls resting on it. Before we got there, we spotted quite a large flock of Canada Geese east of Haggerty Road but scan as much as we might, there was - as I had anticipated very much - not two, not three, no, an incredible zero Snow Geese mixed within! However on returning to the car, a small group of geese came in to land and amongst them was one tiny little Cackling Goose! Now, I have seen two Cackling Geese on a small reservoir south of Ann Arbor a few weeks ago and the much smaller size was obvious on those swimming birds as well, but in flight the difference is enormous, it appeared just like a Mallard amongst Swans.
Arriving at the lake, we were relieved to see that there were well over a thousand Gulls present and started scanning immediately. Unfortunately the distance was quite significant. This didn't matter much when it came to picking out a few adult Greater Black-backed Gulls amongst the American Herring and Ring-billed, but finding a Thayer's was going to be one hell of a challenge. Finally our scrutiny was rewarded and we were both looking at a very nice and crispy clear adult Glaucous Gull. What can you say, this species doesn't really make your day when out to add Thayer's to your life list, but it was still a great bird, a good find and we enjoyed it quite a lot, especially as I have only seen very few Glaucous in the last couple of years and now that I think of it, this was possibly my first ever adult bird!
After having looked at this flock of Gulls for what must have been an hour or more, we decided to try the other spots on Bruce's route that usually also host gulls in their thousands and would allow for better views as the distance to the birds wouldn't be so large.
We therefore proceeded to Edison lake, Belleville lake and eventually Ford lake but were a bit disappointed at finding these almost devoid of birds. A few Common Mergansers, Gadwall and a handful of Gulls here and there, but no major Gull roost.
We then tried a few good Gull sites south of Ann Arbor, like Avis Farm ponds and the Ann Arbor landfill, but also found these areas largely devoid of Gulls and eventually returned home around 2 in the afternoon.

So there was no Thayer's today. Surely it would have been nice, but a day you get to go birding at some interesting spots you have never been before and find a Cackling Goose and an adult Glaucous Gull is nevertheless very far from being just another dull thayerless day and of course Bruce was excellent company and I was very happy to finally meet him in person after such a long email exchange.

Actually I am quite content we missed out on Thayer's today.
You see, it is too much of a special, meaningful bird to get right on your first and easy try and it will be more appreciated when I find it here in Ann Arbor flying along the Huron river next week. And while I am at it, anyone else but myself in need to be fooled right now?

Here are some images of a second winter Glaucous Gull I found at Sassnitz Harbour/Germany in March 2005. I was going to claim this was taken on a birding trip on the Bahamas but unfortunately I have never been there and I also suppose the Sea and Coastal Fishery of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (the most north-easterly state of Germany) doesn't have too many of its boxes laying around the Bahamas. But it was a very nice find even outside the Caribbean.

I wonder if they left anything in there.

Nope, just another empty box.

Greedy bunsh...

Monday, 18 December 2006

The CBC last Saturday

The CBC was, as I mentioned in my previous post, a huge and complete success and here is the story in short:
I was supposed to meet with Jerry, Will and Mike at Furstenberg Park around 9:00 am. After the whole team had assembled, we worked and counted our way through Furstenberg, and then followed the Huron all the way down to South Pond. Mike later drove around town with me a bit in search of Crossbills or Trumpeter Swans, neither of which we found.
Here are the highlights amongst the NCBs (Non-Christmas Birds) we saw:
Shoveler and Gadwall
Red-breasted, Common and Hooded Mergansers
Red-tailed Hawks
a Cooper's Hawk that reminded me to learn the field characters of juvenile Accipiters here because general impression won't work in North America
Mourning Doves (hadn't seen those for a while)
and many American Robins and Goldfinches.

It is a pity we didn't count all the NCBs as well but hey, this was a Christmas Bird count after all, so there was no kidding around but complete dedication and concentration on our target. And of course I was overwhelmed by the large number of Christmas Birds we found. A very special day indeed! Here is our official CBC list of Christmas Birds encountered:
Belted Singfisher (only flushed and we were not treated to one of its diagnostic Carols)
Fairy Woodpecker
Blue Joy
Tufted Giftmouse
Caroling Wren
Christmas Tree Sparrow
and as the single most spectacular find amongst the many Christmas Birds, quite a large flock of
House Grinches

But what was it that was so spectacular and never seen before on any CBC that even Cornell got all excited and had me writing reports and answering annoying questions again and again all weekend long?
I know you won't believe it at first, so read twice, but as a matter of fact and beyond any doubt there was actually a flock of Easter Bluebirds!
Isn't that exciting, Easter Birds on Christmas? I mean, Easter Bird species are only supposed to occur here after the first Sunday following the first full moon of spring! What the heck they were doing here now in the midst of winter I have no clue, but of course this observation adds fuel to the discussion on global warming, no doubt about that.
The problem is that we were not able to document it by video or sound recording, so the record's acceptability is in the balance. To supplement for this lack of photographic evidence, I have uploaded a picture of another Easter Bird species I encountered here in May of 2005. Of course they are not that special in spring, but that one was a bit late and a very nice and somewhat unexpected addition to my trip list back then. Hope you enjoy it.

Due to the cold spring of 2005, this Bunny Tanager was belated on its way through Michigan and was seen in early May well after the normal Easter Bird migration period.

Why blogging Rocks

Well, what can I say, the CBC was just amazing. It is not often you find something that has never ever been recorded before on any CBC worldwide! Seriously, I'll get a full report online as soon as I can get rid of those buggers from CLO that have been hanging 'round my flat questioning me for the last two days. Oh, and it is not THAT woodpecker.
OK, maybe the delay in posting is due to all hell breaking loose at the office and me working all through the weekend, but I like the first version much better and it is true, too!

Why does blogging rock?
In the comments section I found a message from this site which I think is very good fun to read and look at. Hey, he's even got a picture of a Cardinal in a Bush with Snow, and birding can't get any better than this...

Friday, 15 December 2006

Getting prepared for my first ever CBC

Tomorrow is the 60th Ann Arbor Christmas Bird Count!
Coming from Germany, I have obviously never participated in this mostly North American tradition. I mean, I have counted millions of birds on various occasions, but the proximity of Christmas has never been the initial idea behind going out to count birds. Now, being the new guy here, I had no interest in conjuring a massive embarrassment, and so I decided to scan the Internet for information on Christmas Bird Counts, or in short: CBCs.
And of course the Net never fails to inform. For those interested, a few important links are here and here, or you might want to check out this and if you need more specific help, maybe this or even this will be of interest to you. However, while surfing the net I couldn't help but notice that a lot was written about the "count" part of the CBC, but there was a distinctive lack of information on Christmas Birds. This is very bad because what good is counting if you don't know how to recognize what you're supposed to be counting.
Unfortunately, I am of no big help here. Christmas Birds reside mostly in North America and are a rare sight in Europe or other parts of the world. I can therefore only provide a limited number of photographs of Christmas Birds as examples but hope nevertheless that these will help in the birding endeavours ahead of us until January 5th.
So here goes, to those birders who don't want to let a whole day's counting go to waste, a few images from Germany as an introduction to the principles of Christmas Bird identification.

The following image is of a Rudolph Wagtail. They are quite regular in southern Scandinavia in winter but only a handful reach the German coasts, mostly in irruption years. The dominant males of each flock can be recognized by their red nose and make it easy to locate their night time roost particularly after dusk.

Here you can see both a Santa Swan and an Elf Swan on the Baltic coast. They don't visit often, but when they do around Christmas, it is usually in mixed flocks. You can easily tell the two apart: Santa Swans are considerably bigger with a white rim to their hat while Elf swans have elongated feather ears.

And here is a really rare sight along the Baltic coast, a flock of migrating Rein Geese.

Observations of these flocks are barely annual, mostly occurring around the 24th or 25th of December. There is an ongoing debate about their geographic origin. Experts have analyzed the dates of the few observations and speculate that those seen on the 25th may be true Nearctic vagrants whereas those observed on the 24th could possibly be stray flocks of Palearctic migrants. Well, unless one lucky bander/ringer manages to shoot a cannon projected net over a roof with a roosting flock, we're not likely to ever know for sure.

After this short and somewhat basic repetition of the identification criteria, I am sure tomorrow will lead to a multitude of Christmas Bird observations and I am all excited, geared up and ready to go!

Thursday, 14 December 2006

A more personal note

Today is national Iron Maiden day in the UK. Tom McKinney gets to see them play in Manchester.

I don't.

Tom sometimes gets to see single Greater Scaup around Manchester.

I don't.

Where I come from, we usually see them in flocks like this:

(click on the image for a larger and more impressive version)

Ever wondered why there's no record of Lesser Scaup from this area along the Baltic coast? Neither have I.

Proof at last?

I am not sure, but could it be someone finally managed a decent video of an IBWO?

Why it never worked out...

Ever wondered why our birding somehow never seemed to work out the way we had planned? Like the numerous days I went out to get Snow Goose on my life list and found these instead?
Here's the answer to why our hobby was oh so frustrating for all these years: we all just didn't know how to do it properly!
Have you decided to quit on crappy bird watching today? Are you daring enough to take a huge leap forward, break through that final door and become a real birding wizard?
Well, then check out this video and watch your life list soar!

Cheers, Bob!

Wednesday, 13 December 2006

A day along the River

Oh, I know what you are thinking: what good can a day's birding be nowadays along a North American river if its name is not Bajou de View or Co... you know which one I mean, some Florida river anyway, but I disagree: I also had fun today along a river named Huron. As a matter of fact, this post is even interwoven with the previous one, by pure coincidence of course unless the birding gods are reading Bell Tower Birding which I still doubt.

With the weather suddenly turning nice and sunny this afternoon, I decided to forget about work and go birding instead. Now let me repeat this: I decided that I had been so incredibly creative and effective and had worked so tremendously much that I needed a few hours outside to get new inspiration and ideas on work projects and regain my focus on current issues. I therefore jumped onto Bus No. 3 which dropped me off close to the Huron River at Gallup Park. I then walked along the Huron, passed South Pond and finally crossed the Arb on my way back home. Here are some of the birding highlights:
Great Blue Heron
Mute Swan
Canada Goose
Common Merganser
Red-breasted Merganser
Hooded Merganser
Pied-billed Grebe
Belted Kingfisher

Doesn't that list ring a bell? Of course: yesterday's post on what species to see on the Baltic Sea coast. Man, this could have easily been a day back home or not?
I have to admit that a few species would stand out within an average Baltic day list, like a Hooded Merganser (although there really has been one male wintering on the island of Rugia for the last couple of years and I saw it there nicely, no kidding), a Pied-billed Grebe or a Belted Kingfisher. And if I am to blog in total honesty: the day I get to see 4 Great Blue Herons at some Baltic wetland is the day I'll tell no one about it and quit drinking beer instantly, which is why I hope this will not happen any time soon.
Here are some pictures to show just what a decent Heron on the Baltic coast is supposed to look like:

The Belted Kingfisher was quite a sight of course and a worthy distraction from the two male Eastern Bluebirds I was watching at close range. I normally don't go for showy unless it is a Cardinal in a bush with snow, but these Eastern Bluebirds are slowly starting to pick up speed on their climb up on my list of favourite North American birds.

It was already getting dark when I crossed the Arb and there were almost no birds around. I took this opportunity to carefully inspect some of those dog walkers. Most dogs are pretty big, I must say. I am now convinced I should focus my educational conversations about bird disturbance at the Arb on joggers.

Tuesday, 12 December 2006

No heat, no time, no post...

It's been quite a weekend: on Friday night, all of a sudden the heating system in our flat broke down. This is bad news in a season when a birder doesn't only feel every White-throated Sparrow could be a McKay's Bunting but actually fears turning into one himself the moment he gets out of his cosy bed. And with this thing happening on Friday night, there was no way it could be fixed immediately, oh no, not over the weekend, only on Monday. So on Saturday we went to get some small portable heating systems and the security guy down at the entrance of our high rise building mentioned that we may want to consider pasting some special plastic foil to our windows to avoid losing heat through these 1960ies windows with metal frames and only one single window pane.
To be honest, putting plastic up on the window was something I thought only existed in the slums of Sao Paulo but with ice forming over night on the inside of our window over the weekend, Monday saw us getting a special "extra large window insulation kit" and I spent half of today putting the plastic up. OK, the windows are turned into "double pane" windows now and the heating got fixed.
All is fine again, yepp, and the bloggin's back.
Needless to say, I didn't get to go birding at all recently and since Monday night it is relatively mild again (aaargh!) and raining cats and dogs. I'd opt for a rain shower of Snow Geese and Gray Jays instead, but unfortunately I am not the one who's being asked here.

Anyway, I still think I owe my one or two faithful readers a few nice bird pics and have therefore asked a friend of mine from Germany if he'd mind me putting up some of his. I think they're great and he's great too because he didn't mind.
So here's the story to accompany the following pictures:

The German Baltic Sea coast comprises a whole chain of so called "Bodden" which are very shallow and often huge bays. These harbour a tremendous variety and number of waterbirds mostly during the migration periods or in winter and at the right time of year it is more difficult to go birding along the coast and not see at least 100.000 waterbirds than to go out and see that many or even more. The largest concentrations are of geese in autumn (I'll get to that in a later post) and of diving ducks and mergansers from autumn all the way to spring. In severe winters these Bodden freeze over forcing many waterbirds to move on south. However, there are always a few spots of open water that remain and are a refuge for all the waterbirds that somehow failed to catch the last breeze south. It is not unusual then to see 10.000 Common Mergansers with a few thousand Smew and Red-breasted Mergansers in one tight flock, sometimes so concentrated that you can't see the water anymore. And when there's a tight flock of waterfowl, there will be White-tailed Eagles near by, no doubt. Very often, the eagles (up to 60) can be seen perched on the surrounding ice and as soon as one of them decides it is time to eat, the whole waterbird assembly just explodes into a huge cloud of whizzing bird bodies, an incredible experience!

The following pictures of a White-tailed Eagle hunt (on Mallards with a few Mute Swans watching) were taken by Rainer Bendt and the copyright remains with him. If you have any other plans with these pictures but to look at them on this site, ask or else get in trouble!

Here's a cropped version of the first image. The Eagle is an adult (white tail) bird and probably a female (more rounded wings, relatively large bill etc.). And have you noticed the Curlews on the first picture?

Incredible birds... No matter how many you have seen, each and every observation is a memory.
Thanks, Rainer!

Monday, 11 December 2006

Common, Mew or Ring-billed?

TWO bird identification problems connected to European species here in south east Michigan on the same day: A possible Mew Gull and a potential Greater White-fronted Goose! I didn't get to see these birds, but still there's plenty to write about...

OK, first things first and this post will contain a few remarks on the Common - Mew Gull problem and also a little bit of Common - Ring-billed Gull talk will be included. It is not intended as an identification article, I'd just like to point out a few things and difficulties that I stumbled across in the past few years birding along the Baltic coast of Germany, trying to find a Mew or Ring-billed Gull amongst the many Commons.
The following remarks about the Common - Ring-billed problem therefore are sort of the wrong way around for Michigan: I am NOT investigating to what extend an ordinary Ring-billed can show characters of Common but - maybe a bit less useful in a North American context - how often Ring-billed Gull characters can be shown by Common. I really hope this post will not be used to "string" a Common Gull here ("sure, it's not really typical, but Jochen said..."), but it might be of some help nevertheless to demonstrate that by far not all the Commons look the way they are depicted in Sibley...
The last remarks on Common / Mew are hoped however to be not completely useless here as I suspect the probability of a Common is not significantly lower than of a Mew.

The first step in identifying a Common (and Mew as well) here in Michigan is to exclude Ring-billed. The most important identification criteria are on the wing and the head (OK, that was dumb: where else on pretty much any gull?) and can be summarized as follows:

a) The eye is pale on Ring-billed and dark on Common and also Mew.
b) The bill is bright yellow with a broad black ring close to the tip in Ring-billed, whereas it is paler yellow on Common and Mew and shows a weaker, often incomplete black ring.
c) The bill is much stronger in Ring-billed with parallel edges at the base whereas the bill of Common and Mew Gulls seems to narrow rather evenly towards the tip.

As a matter of fact, all but one or two of the Common Gulls I studies in Germany in the last few years showed a rather bright yellow bill and a complete black ring. Even though this ring might not be as pronounced as on Ring-billed Gulls, it is still rather obvious and in my opinion close enough to Ring-billed in some cases to render this feature pretty much useless for separating the two. Here is an example of a Common Gull from Germany with a very pronounced black ring on the bill, this kind of yellow is very much the norm though.

Here is a very heavily cropped section of the head, showing the broad and complete black ring on a bright yellow bill.

The dark eye however and details of the wing clearly identified this bird as a Common Gull.
The following image (again followed by a cropped section of the bill and eye) shows the typical bill structure of Common Gulls nicely, with the upper mandible narrowing very evenly in a nice and smooth curve from the base to the tip. This bird also shows a dark eye typical of Common.

The bill structure might really be the single most definite feature of a Common. In other words: if your potential Common Gull has parallel upper and lower edges of the bill (reminiscent of Herring Gull), it very, very likely definitely will NOT be a Common (or Mew) Gull! Do not be discouraged if your potential Common shows a complete black ring on the bill because a whole lot of them regularly do.
The pale eye is also a good identification mark as the vast majority of Common Gulls show dark eyes. If you are very close to them (e.g. hand feeding them in winter) in bright sunlight that's shining directly into their eyes, they might appear to have somewhat paler (olive green) irides. But these are far from the bright yellow staring eye of the Ring-billed. There are however examples of Common Gulls with more bright paler eyes but these can be considered exceptional. If therefore your Gull shows a pale eye, chances are it is NOT a Common...

a) Ring-billed has a small white mirror on P10 (the outermost primary) and occasionally an even smaller one on P9, Mew and Common have much larger white mirrors, Common sometimes even one on P8.
b) Ring-billed has no white between the black tips and the gray bases of the outermost primaries, Common and Mew do to a varying extend.
c) The mantle in Common is darker than in Ring-billed.
d) The white trailing edge on the secondaries is broader on Common and Mew than on Ring-billed.

If a bird shows all of the characters mentioned for Common it is very likely a Common, but it should be stressed that I have found ALL of the Ring-billed characters mentioned above occasionally on Common Gulls along the Baltic coast, so each character in itself is far from diagnostic.
The following image is of a typical western Common Gull (Larus canus canus). It shows three white spots on the outermost primary tips, white between the black and gray on the central primaries and a rather broad white tip/trailing edge to the innermost primaries. If your Gull shows these features, I suppose you're doing well on your way to identify a Common Gull and all you have to do then is eliminate Mew (see below). If one of these features is missing, it might still be a Common, but of course it makes it much more difficult to get to a certain (and credible) identifiaction.

Many Common Gulls, presumably of a more eastern origin or even of the Asian subspecies heinii, show white spots on only the two outermost primaries and these white spots are also smaller. The white trailing edge on the primaries (not the secondaries) is more narrow and the white between the black wingtip and the gray base is more restricted (sometimes even missing!) and shaped like a narrow half moon. These are more likely to be mistaken for Ring-billed, but this is also a form with a very dark mantle, so that should be rather obvious amongst a flock of Ring-billed (but hard to assess on single birds in bright sunlight). The following image shows such a potentially eastern Common Gull. Note that the black area on P8 is far more extensive on this form than on classical western Larus canus canus.

One of these presumable eastern Commons once almost lured me into identifying it as a Ring-billed (see image below): There was only one white mirror on the outermost primary, no white between the black wingtips and the gray base and a very narrow white edge to the inner primaries. The white edge to the secondaries however was very broad and checking the gull carefully e.g. for characters on the head, it was apparent that this was an ordinary Common Gull whose outermost primary was missing (probably broken off) hence creating this misleading Ring-billed like pattern.
So, even if this is very unlikely, if your gull looks very good for a Common but shows only one white spot on the primaries, make sure it really has all its 10 primaries!

The Mew Gull problem
All of the above was jut a little bit of random thinking, but the following might be interesting regarding the Mew Gull from Port Huron:
Occasionally western Common Gulls can show a pattern superficially similar to Mew Gull.
First of all, here is a link to an identification article on, where all the important features to look for are mentioned. The problem with these features is that they require a very careful analysis of plumage details that are very likely impossible to check on a flying bird in the distance. One of the most useful characters to generally (not definitely) separate Mew from Common therefore appears to be the impression that the white trailing edge of the inner primaries crosses the black area of the central primaries to connect with the white spots on the outer primaries, producing a "string of pearls" effect. In Common Gull, the white "tongues" on the central primaries are usually less pronounced and do not connect with the white spots on the outermost primaries, so the latter will always appear isolated and completely surrounded by the black wingtip.
This general approach to separate a Mew from a Common might be true for the very vast majority of Common Gulls but once really got my pulse going for a few days on the Baltic coast. It was not until I got a few digital shots of the birds (allowing for a detailed analysis of its primary pattern) that I was able to definitely identify it as a Common with an unusually large amount of white on its wing. The more useful images of this strange bird are shown below.

Now, what was so unusual and lured me into believing it might be a Mew?
The white mirrors on P10 and P9 were very extensive and even P8 showed an unusually large white spot. The white "tongue" between the black tip and gray base of P7 was unusually extensive and connected to the white spot on P8, hence creating that very same "string of pearls" effect assumed indicative of Mew Gull.
The key to identifying it as an unusual Common was the pattern of P8 alone: Mew Gull should not show such an extensive black tip with a white spot but show a large white tongue at the base that goes all the way up to where the white spot on P9 is. The black on P8 should only be around the tip on Mew Gull.
Below are two heavily cropped images of the normal presumed western Common Gull (top image) already shown above and the strange Common Gull. Unfortunately I do not have a picture of a Mew Gull to complete this comparison. As a matter of fact, I have yet to see a Mew Gull (can you believe it?). But nevertheless, here's the comparison:

What can be seen with copious amounts of good will on these horrible images is that the basic pattern is essentially the same (hence very unlike Mew) but that the bird shown below simply has quite a lot of white where the bird above shows only some white.

To conclude this very long post:
According to my limited experiences along the Baltic coast, very few Common Gulls can show a wing tip pattern reminiscent of Mew if not seen clearly (e.g. on a distant bird in flight), and to secure any identification of a bird (be it as a Common or a Mew) one should focus strongly on the pattern of P8.
Isn't it amazing what a difference an inch of black on a single feather can make? What I would have done if this bird had a broken-off outermost primary I do not know... Stayed calm, counted the primaries and noticed the mistake? Yeah, I suppose so.

Friday, 8 December 2006

What I like about Snow and don't like about Joggers

I am aware that you guessed where I just got back from, but I'll still tell you: from the Arb.
Today was a bit different from yesterday however in that the snow was largely gone. And with the return of friction on the roads came the return of the joggers and dog walkers.
It is always a big issue about nature conservation and human recreation but this is actually not one of these issues: it is about my hobby and theirs! Well, you see, I am a calm and peaceful person and I don't really mind others enjoying themselves outside as long as they don't get between me and a bird! But what if they do without me noticing it? This interference is easily investigated when it comes to waterbirds and, say, surfing: either the ducks fly or they don't. So my attitude towards surfers is well defined and founded firmly. But joggers? What do I, as a birder, think about joggers? Nothing much really, I was birding at the Arb for weeks now minding my own business with them minding theirs and all was peace and harmony. But was it really or had I been a victim of some fierce betrayal?
Today I decided to find out and settle my relationship towards joggers and dog walkers once and for all. I counted my birds today with all those joggers around. Just as I counted yesterday with all those joggers not around.
And the results, to be honest, are rather disturbing:

Yesterday (quiet) Today (crowded)
Canada Goose 20 1
Mallard 5 7
Red-tailed Hawk 1 0
Cooper's Hawk 1 0
Sharp-shinned Hawk 0 1
Ring-billed Gull 1 1
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 1 1
Red-bellied Woodpecker 2 3
Downy Woodpecker 3 7
Hairy Woodpecker 1 0
Blue Jay 3 0
American Crow 5 11
Black-capped Chickadee 8 15
Tufted Titmouse 2 1
Brown Creeper 0 6
White-breasted Nuthatch 5 4
Carolina Wren 2 1
Golden-crowned Kinglet 2 1
Hermit Thrush 1 0
American Robin 80 140
Cedar Waxwing 25 0
European Starling 30 2
Northern Cardinal 8 7
American Tree Sparrow 3 4
White-throated Sparrow 12 10
Dark-eyed Junco 5 4
House Sparrow 2 0
American Goldfinch 3 3
Bird total 231 230
Species total 26 21

Now there's clear proof: joggers and dog walkers make birding less classy by chasing away some bird species and lurking in more of the ones that are already there to keep the number of birds at a constant level, hence fooling birders and making them believe all is fine when really the birding is only second class! How sickeningly unfair and dishonest is that?
That's what I mean: I don't mind anyone practising recreation where I do my birding as long as they are open about what they do and play by the rules. But this cheating is just ridiculous and childish and next time I am at the Arb, I'll confront a few of those dog walkers and tell them to just speak out loud if they have anything to say or else get out of my birding terrain!

On a more serious note, this most recent post of Charlie Moores is really quite disturbing. Maybe birders should stand up and make themselves heard much more that the conservation of species is not only an ethical duty but that it is also a necessity for a society to preserve what a not so small percentage enjoy for recreation as much as this same society allows the construction of golf courses, yacht harbours and ski resorts!

The felt Species

I just got back from another enjoyable afternoon's sparrow hunt at the Arb. It was pretty cold, very much so thank you. On the German weather forecast, they always have "felt temperature" which is derived from combining the actual temperature with humidity and the wind chill factor. Or the "felt time" on the radio shortly after the alarm clock went off: "It is now 6:30 a.m., felt time 4:45 a.m."

I think birders should introduce a "felt bird ID", especially in this kind of weather.
"This is a White-throated Sparrow, felt species: McKay's Bunting."
I had quite a few felt McKay's today.

This whole "felt ID" could then be extended to, say, habitat:
Some of the American Tree Sparrows at the Arb for example have a rather annoying feel to them. A few of them always hang around a patch of high grass amongst a few pines. Grass amongst pines? Hello! Another felt Bachman's Sparrow anyone?

Despite the very cold wind it was good birding. I saw 4 species of Woodpecker, Hairy (which is quite nice), Downy, Red-bellied and a sparkling Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, very neat. Two remarkable things about the woodpeckers:
a) I am now only seeing male Red-bellieds, no females,
b) I think the Sapsucker really seems to link the Jynx-Wrynecks to the woodpeckers.

Other nice birds were Cardinals in bushes with snow, a lone Hermit Thrush, a Red-tailed and a Cooper's Hawk.

In Germany, we also have a few "felt species".
Like the Yellowhammer in winter. When the bird is facing you or you can see its head all is fine and it is easily identified as a Yellowhammer, shown on the picture below (from Germany in April 2005 and sadly not from today's trip to the Arb).

However, the moment it turns it back on you, it feels suspiciously like a Pine Bunting from Siberia, a first degree national rarity in Germany.
The following image is of a female Yellowhammer from behind (again from Germany, April 2005):

And this here is a nice Pine Bunting observed in Finland (where also very rare).

You see? There's just no escaping the felt ID, and I can't wait to go for those felt wintering Prothonotary Warblers next weekend...

Wednesday, 6 December 2006

What were they thinking of?

With Blogger still giving me a few problems and with work being as fundamentally exciting as ever, I decided to reflect upon the names we give to birds. Another reason for doing so is that I have a few pictures of a Blackburnian Warbler (again of May 2005) I want to upload to the blog, pushing me to think of something to write around the pictures.

Bird's Names. They are sometimes rather strange and one often wonders if it was a mistake to let the naming of newly described species fall prey to scientist and not ... well ... florists or maybe cooks. It takes a lot of creativity to name an ordinary pie "Quiche Lorraine", and look at the result: it sells!
Seriously, let us take the poor old Blackburnian Warbler as an example. This is a bird so incredibly bright orange that you could immediately spot it in a sea of orange trees amidst a mass of ripe fruit and they named it "Blackburnian". Who in his right state of mind and allowed the privilege of naming a bird this amazing would come up with such a boring name? Karl Lagerfeld? Surely not! Look at this image: does this look like a bird you'd name "Blackburnian Warbler"?

Ok, point taken, the picture is rubbish. But then look at these images of the species commonly referred to as "Blackburnian Warbler" and you'll agree the name's a disgrace!
Its scientific name "fusca" is even worse, meaning "dark" or "dusky"! Can you believe it?
What were they thinking of?
I actually found the following statement here and since I could not possibly have put it any better, I took the freedom of citing it word by word: "He [the guy who named it] must have been looking at a particularly drab specimen since the plumage is so spectacular that other locally-common names are Fire-throat, Fire-brand, and Torch-bird."
Now, who is responsible for this?
Thomas Pennant is the one to be blamed partially. He named the species in honour of an English botanist, Anna Blackburne (1726-1793, the times of Linnaeus). She had a brother living in the eastern US (interesting time period to be living there) who supplied her with skins of North American bird species, and amongst them was the poor warbler. She eventually loaned a few of these skins to Pennant who showed his gratitude to her by naming the bird "blackburniae". It was later found that a Dutch scientist (Muller, 1776) had already described the species for science ("fusca") just a few year before Pennant, so it was bad luck for Anna. Well, at least her loan to Pennant is still honoured in the bird's common name, so there's no need for Anna to complain.

But just take another look at the poor warbler:

Well, frankly, wouldn't your world be upside down if you were called "Blackburnian" simply because someone shot one of your kin almost 300 years ago and sent the dried corpse to his sister who couldn't think of anything better to do than forward it to some scientist?
Why was the species not named in honour of its own beauty and in remembrance of the poor warbler that gave its life (surely not volunteering for it) to science?

This whole issue really isn't only about what's described in the bird's name, it is also often horrible just how long certain names are. Many bird species indeed were given so ridiculously long names that no birder would even think of pointing them out to their fellow birders just to avoid having to pronounce their name. Every German birder for example will have to rely on their own experience to find a Mourning Wheatear because no one else will ever bother to tell them "Oh look, on that bolder over there, that must surely be a "Schwarzrueckensteinschmaetzer".
I know what you are thinking now: Germans have a tendency for long words and as long as you don't have to learn German bird names, why should you care?
Then you've never been to southern Africa and done some road side birding from a car travelling at 60 miles an hour. One of the common birds on the wires along the roads is this, but just try telling the birder in the seat next to you: "Hey, there comes another Swallowtailed Bee-eater" without adding "a mile ago" right away. And would you book an expensive flight to Cape Town if you were told it was possible to see Southern Double-collared Sunbirds there? Of course not. If however you were shown these images (scroll to the bottom), would you reconsider it? Of course you would, you're probably doing it right at this very moment. But a Pink Pigeon on Mauritius will get you all excited even without a nice picture. Oh well, here's the usual link to Charlie Moore's gallery anyway.
See what a big difference a bird's name can make?

This has been a lot of complaining, I know. Maybe some of it can simply be attributed to my gloomy winter mood and I really should focus more on the bright side of things. We're hopefully already through almost one quarter of this winter and some bird species were given common names so nice that they spread hope and comfort wherever they are seen. Like the one shown below:
it will all be fine soon.

Summer Tanager, southern Ontario in May 2005

Tuesday, 5 December 2006

Snow and a Memory

Today was the first day of this winter with a bit of snow cover on the ground. I therefore decided to spend an extended lunch break at the Arb - again - which proved to be an excellent idea - again.
It has been a while since I saw that many birds at the Arb. Sure, the snow made it much easier to locate ground-dwelling species, but I suppose it was more the slippery than the optical aspect of it that made it so rewarding: no joggers and no one to walk his dog, I was basically alone! I was also delighted to find that there are bird feeders on three properties that can be viewed from the park and I could already smell the Golden-crowned and Harris' Sparrows.
Fine, no rarities today, but a very neat selection of basically all the birds one might hope to see at this time of the year in a downtown park. Personal highlights were a Brown Creeper, a large flock of over 80 American Robins, killer views at American Tree Sparrows, Carolina Wrens and a single Hermit Thrush.
But then I saw something that made my heart skip a few beats and brought back a memory from almost 20 years ago: an adult male Northern Cardinal sitting in a snow-covered bush.

I suppose looking back, every birder has a selection of observations that have somehow changed their way of looking at their hobby, some landmark encounters with birds or adventures connected to birding that pop up immediately when asked: what was your most memorable bird observation ever?
I am lucky that I got to travel quite a bit, and there were some birding days in my life or single observations that stand out clearly as some of the best moments of my life: watching thousands of Albatrosses on a pelagic tour off Cape Town, finding Black Stilts in New Zealand, standing one foot besides a wild Kiwi probing the forest floor for earthworms, a Bearded Vulture that flew right above me in the Spanish Pyrenees, one morning on the Baltic Sea coast when we counted 120.000 Greater White-fronted Geese at their roost and - maybe a bit surprisingly - a single Northern Cardinal.
When I was 16 years old I spent a year in a small town in Ontario, Canada on a school exchange. One of these winter mornings I got up, went to the bath room and when I looked out of our small bathroom window, there was this single male Northern Cardinal sitting on top of the conifer hedge right in front of the window, maybe a metre away and wouldn't move. I watched it for at least 5 minutes and the combination of colours, the dark green of the hedge row, the white of the snow and the bird's vivid red plumage felt to me like the most beautiful sight I had ever seen. I was completely amazed and speechless. Surely, I had seen a few Northern Cardinals before that encounter, although they weren't as common then as they are now - but I had somehow always failed to notice the immense beauty of the birds.
Since then, I've had many more encounters with Northern Cardinals, especially in May 2005, but none of these encounters could rival the one from back then.
Until today.
Maybe winter isn't all that bad after all.

Testing the Birdchick

Last Sunday, I did not only go to the Arb to check for rarities but also to check on the quality of the Birdchick's calendar.
Why's that?
Simple: I recently got sent a copy of Sharon Stiteler's Birds of Michigan Calendar by the Birdchick herself, and I must say that I like it quite a lot.

The pictures from Stan Tekiela are very nice. Of course, only the showy birds are included, not a Fox Sparrow or a Tennessee Warbler, but I maintain that it is a nice selection of pictures. The content of the calendar is surprisingly interesting (having the usual quality of comparable calendars in mind):
For each month there are a few "bird notes" mostly in the form of technical advice on how to keep birds on or attract them to your property, there's a bird list of species likely to be encountered during the month and there are a few notes on selected dates to keep you motivated or inspire you to a field trip, e.g. December 20th: "50,000 Long-tailed Ducks were counted in Manistee County in 2003". Well, maybe I should visit Barton Pond in Ann Arbor on the 20th of December then to check for Long-tailed Ducks! See, it is working well!

But how do you know if you can rely on the Birdchick's calendar? Naturally by looking for 50,000 Long-tailed Ducks in Manistee county on December 20th, but aren't there other, less time consuming options? Yes, there's the monthly check list, so I went out on Sunday to see how many of those I could find at the Arb. The December list is 30 species long and of these I saw a bit more than one third. Hmmmm, not so good. But then, this list possibly wasn't intended for someone to test in a city park and it would also be unfair to blame the Birdchick for my inability to locate even the common birds, like the oh so secretive American Tree Sparrow! So, as this wasn't going to work, I compared her list to my observations from late November (close enough) when I temporarily had a car and drove around a bit. With a few short trips to some wetlands and the countryside I recorded 22 of her 30 species, which is more than two thirds. And the rest? Well, these are birds I would have likely seen in more northerly parts of Michigan (Pine Siskin, Common Redpoll,...) or species that have a strong personal dislike for Bell Tower Birders (owls, or why else do I never get to SEE them??), so fair enough: the list is good and the Birdchick really knows what she's writing about.

Now that the calendar is tested, I have no hesitation to recommend it as a nice Christmas present to others, even to Non-Birding-Friends. This calendar is actually so much of a nice Christmas present that sadly my wife has decided so send it to a friend in Germany. I should probably have lied to her and told her it's crap, and I disapprove of calendars that are so good you never get to keep them for yourself. But the 50,000 Long-tailed Ducks I'll get to see at Barton Pond on the 20th will surely brighten me up again.

Monday, 4 December 2006

Cold Weather and the Arb

Blogger's editing tools are back, fabulous!

Ever since I arrived here in Michigan, which was around the end of October this year, the birding wasn't what you would call dynamic or surprising. Migration was basically over, and what was left had already settled in nicely for the winter. It was and is fun, no doubt, but rather predictable. A stroll through "the Arb", a great local park for watching spring migration, would produce a few Blue Jays, Northern Cardinals, Black-capped Chickadees, a Tufted Titmouse or two and a few sparrows, mostly White-throated or these chaps (taken again from the Godfather's blog), and the local ponds and rivers would harbour Canada Geese and Hooded Mergansers as well as an occasional Snow Goose which I would habitually miss. So when the weather forecast predicted a heavy snow storm for the weekend, I was all excited about the northern specials it would bring with it and couldn't wait to get outside.
The snow storm never really came, but I still went to the Arb on Sunday afternoon full of expectations.
It was possibly the nicest day ever at the Arb and if I'd had a camera, this would be far less of a boring post and you would probably agree that it was wonderful: the sun was shining through the remains of the autumn leaves and the dry grass was glowing in the brightest shade of gold. Even though the sky was of a deep, bright blue, the wind carried a thick flurry of snow flakes all the way from wherever they were produced to where I was, so to me they were falling out of a blue sky. Amazing, honestly.
And the birds?
Of course the usual suspects were there, but I also found two species I hadn't seen at the Arb before. A Horned Lark and - quite surprising - a Field Sparrow. The latter was a very cool observation. I mean, it is not a particularly rare bird here and even though it apparently isn't precisely as common in winter as it is in summer, it still is not too unusual to see one now. What made it so special to me was its secretive behaviour and skulking motions. It was so easy to stand there in the December cold and imagine it was May and this was finally the Nelson's Sharptail, or a LeConte's. Sigh, the time will come...
which leads us directly to today's "pic from the past" to compensate for the lack of pictures. I don't have a picture of a Field Sparrow, actually not a singe picture of any sparrow species, so it will have to be a warbler:

Here's a picture from May 2005 of a Yellow-rumped Warbler. During that trip, I saw around 298 Yellow-rumped Warblers and it was second only in numbers to Yellow Warbler (493), but despite its abundance, I must say it is probably my favourite warbler species. I know, the rule that "the favourite warbler is the one I am looking at now" also applies to me, but I really enjoyed the omnipresent Yellow-rumped Warblers in May 2005.
I have seen a few Yellow-rumpeds here in Michigan this autumn (a total of 9 birds on 4 occasions) and some are said to winter here, even at the Arb. My last Yellow-rumped was on November 6th and none were found at the Arb, which reflects badly on their cooperation, but here's hoping for a winter bird!
If I am really honest: I like birds. And I want to see they're well. I don't want to see the snow that's currently falling outside my window. And if I were a Yellow-rumped and saw that snow, I'd probably get the hell out of here down to join the 'peckerhunters in Florida. So I don't blame them, as long as they promise to get back here next May.