Saturday, 31 March 2007

Must Read - Must Link To

I - am - amazed!

Two old friends of mine, Axel Bräunlich und Konrad Schleicher, excellent birders and conservationists who moved from Germany to Mongolia recently have started a blog!

Here is the link to it!!

This is so great, bird blogs are starting to cover the entire planet, but I still haven't heard of a German bird blog . . . sigh.

Friday, 30 March 2007

Short Report: the Arb at the Moment

Spring is all over us and I can barely manage to keep up the pace, trying to not lose my grip on birding, blogging and ... I forget, there was something else, just give me a minute to think about it ... yes, work, that's it.

I know I am waaaaay behind blogging and still have to write a nice report on last - I think it was - Monday when I went birding at Gallup Park and the Arb with Laurent. And then the next day, there were the Pine Warblers and then I went again to the Arb to see if I could find a Screech Owl which yet again is a different story and then I went again today and before I get all exhausted, here's a short summary of today's birding at the Arb.

It is so nice. Spring has really hit our coast now and I can't even remember if we had many days with such a beautiful weather like now in May 2005. Indeed one tends to find the birding quite disappointing because the weather really makes you feel like the End of May and there's not enough Warblers around for that time of year.
So where are they?

Honestly, I think spring was so fast in its northward movement that the birds just didn't manage to keep up, they just fell behind because there's only a certain amount of miles a bird can fly per day.
Some migratory birds did make an appearance however and some of today's highlights were my first Eastern Towhee of the year - that's a very neat highlight - and the Pine Warblers still being around - and - a fly-over Red-shouldered Hawk - and - quite a few Fox Sparrows - and - a female Yellow-bellied Sapsucker - and - a Peregrine chasing a few migrating Turkey Vultures - and - Eastern Phoebes - and - an Albatross.

Well, I am not entirely sure about the last one, but today sure felt like an Albatross could have crossed the sky above the Arb.

I also met Andreas for the first time at the Arb today (easily recognized: a genius in photography who from a distance looks like a huge photo lens on legs) and he said he had seen a Chipping Sparrow which I did not relocate. Mind you, I still have to find my first Butterbutt of the season, so a missed Chipping Sparrows is not one of my major worries at the moment.

But despite the weather: spring has just begun and the best of times are yet to come!

Come on, you warblers, get going and speed up, will you?!

So Many Raptors - So Many Books

I enjoy watching raptors. Anyone who knows me would have easily guessed so as raptors are birds and I like or sometimes even really like birds.
But raptors are special: big, impressive, diverse, migrating around and showing up where you don't expect them to, some are easy to identify while others are a challenge, there's much we still need to find out about their identification, ...
In short: they offer everything one happy birder could ask for from a group of birds.

It is therefore not surprising that I am in good company regarding my relationship towards raptors and where there's a marked, there are products.

And frankly, I am surprised about the number of raptor-specific products, in this case books, that are out on the marked.
Having just shifted my roost site from Germany to the US, I didn't take many books with me and don't own too many books on North American birds just yet. However, I have a nice book store just across the street with a fine selection of bird books which I sometimes visit and use as a library, so I do feel a small obligation of mentioning it here: hurrah to Borders and their nice little cafe where you can drink some coffee and actually read in the books they have on stock.

With so many books on North American raptors around, it sure is difficult to decide upon which book to get and so I thought I might try and write some useful lines about the different books, what I think their respective qualities are and what I would think is the appropriate book for the different "interest groups" within the birding community. The following lines therefore are not really reviews, more a few thoughts.

A Field Guide To Hawks of North America by W. S. Clark and B. K. Wheeler

This is the classic identification guide for the Hawk enthusiasts and a standard reference written by two of the leading experts on the subject, so the content in itself, the knowledge which is conveyed, is very good.
It is a small volume that is easy to carry around out in the field and the binding seems to be robust enough to allow for frequent and rough use outside.
Even though it is a standard reference, I was not very happy with it in several respects. Most importantly, I am not very impressed with the colour plates. The birds seem rather chubby and somewhat compressed along their middle axis, and the plates appear as if they were drawn on a square sheet of paper and then squeezed into the rectangular shape of the book. Wheeler is an amazing photographer and surely a top ace in raptor expertise and his bird drawing abilities are also very good, but the plates just don't completely satisfy my expectations in what is supposed to be a leading book on Hawk identification. Furthermore, the whole layout of the book - like in the other books in the series - is not very attractive or pleasing to the eye. It is small and appears crowded, which is surely a big advantage when carrying it around in the field, but makes for difficult reading and is not nice when looking at the plates or photographs.
In my opinion, this book therefore is for someone who already is really into raptor watching and doesn't need to have his enthusiasm increased by a nice-to-look-at book, who is simply interested in facts that go beyond the standard Sibley guides but does not want to work their way through the extensive knowledge presented in the Raptor Guides by B. K. Wheeler (see below). But if you're just starting to develop an interest in raptors, this book might be a bit dry...

Hawks From Every Angle - How to identify raptors in flight by Jerry Liguori
I like this book quite a lot. Its layout is very nice and attractive, it is a pleasure to look at and browsing through the plates is a joy, especially the introduction is very neat.
The knowledge presented and the book's content in general is not as extensive as in the Clark & Wheeler guide described above, e.g. not all North American species are treated (only the 39 most commonly encountered species, which is fine in the East but may be a bit of a problem for birders in Arizona or southern Texas) and the information on subspecific identification and the variation of the species is more limited. A true and established raptor enthusiast might therefore see this book as a nice addition to their book collection but not as the one and only reference on raptor identification in North America. But this is a great book for someone who's just getting started on raptors and needs a little pleasure boost, a very nice book to read at home and gain an appreciation for raptors.
The format of the book however is not so convenient for use in the field as it is quite large and has a square shape, hence not easily fitting into a pocket. Also the binding appears to me as being a bit critical when using the book often.
All in all, this is a very attractive book for someone who is enthusiastic about raptors and likes reading a nice and very well layed-out book but doesn't need the complete set of what we know about raptors down to the variation of the smallest feathers. The really tricky species might still be tricky even when trying to identify them with this book as a guide, but if separating Zone-tailed Hawks from Turkey Vultures at long distances isn't your main concern (yet), this book is highly recommended.
Another short review of this book that basically reaches the same conclusions can be found here.

Hawks in Flight by Peter Dunne, David Sibley and Clay Sutton
This book has only one major problem: it was written in 1988. Its main focus is on the most commonly encountered migrating raptors (as with the book by Liguori described above, but only covering 23 species here) and not all the species found in North America are included. The black-and-white drawings by Sibley are very good and accurate but unfortunately - well - are in black and white which today is not what one expects in a field guide as humans tend to possess colour vision and want to see in a book what they can see in nature. Also included are many photographs but sadly, these too are in black and white and yet again not what today's raptor enthusiasts want.
The text however is very well written and focuses nicely on the identification challenges. It does not include descriptions of variation as long as it doesn't affect species identification and is therefore not as detailed as the guide by Clark & Wheeler.
I feel that with the publication of the Liguori guide, this book might not be an absolute necessity for raptor identification anymore as the Liguori guide appears in many respects like an updated version of this guide (and it might not be a coincidence that Sibley wrote the foreword). This book therefore is surely worth possessing as you can never own enough identification guides, but I would not rank it as a high priority book (anymore).

Raptors of Eastern North America by B. K. Wheeler
I have already written an extensive review on this book, which can be found here. I'll make it shorter this time.
This and its western counterpart must be the ultimate raptor guides to North America. Wheelers photos are stunning and the text provides an exhaustive or sometimes even exhausting amount of information.
This book however is aimed at the real passionate raptor watcher and is not an easy read for a couch evening at home or a companion for a nice birdwatching day on the weekend. This is heavy stuff that you need to dig into to understand, and I am not pretending I do, even after a few months of handling it frequently.
If you are a raptor hardliner, then this book is probably as essential as gills are to a fish. However, if you are relatively new to raptor watching and are about to develop your knowledge and enthusiasm, this might really scare you off a bit with all the discussions about colour morphs, sexual dimorphism, ageing criteria and subspecies. This is also not really a book you would consult out in the field while you are watching an as yet unidentified raptor. The detail requires a certain amount of time reading through, so it is more a volume to consult at home when checking your notes or going through the photographs you took of a mystery raptor.
So unless your next goal in raptor watching is finding the Krider's morph of Red-tailed Hawk or investigating the exact borders between the distribution of the different subspecies of Red-shouldered Hawks in the south-eastern US, this book might not make you entirely happy.
If this is where you want to be with your raptor watching, then this guide is essential.

There is yet another guide by B. K. Wheeler and W. S. Clark, A Photographic Guide to North American Raptors.

This is a book I have unfortunately never held in my hands so there's nothing profound I can say about it.
I only found these reviews on, and from these as well as the "look inside" function I gather that this is something like the condensed version of the two Wheeler guides, focused entirely on identification criteria and containing all the species of North America.
It is a bit unfortunate that the excerpts made available through amazon are the chapters on Turkey and Black Vultures as they are easily identified. I find them a bit short and the lack of distribution maps not nice, even though the range is described within the text. Maybe other species are treated in more detail.
As it is written by Wheeler and Clark, it must surely be a very good book, but I am not convinced by what I have seen. The concept of the book seems to hover between the exhaustive Wheeler Guide and a short practical field guide but its hybrid character may actually not satisfy in any of these two categories. But as I said, I have not really seen it and as it's been written by two fabulous authors, it is probably much, much better than my short and basic impression based on an Internet search might suggest. It might indeed be a very good photographic supplement to other field guides on raptors and best be used in combination with these.

These are the North American field guides I know myself or have heard of / read about.
There's another nice book on raptors for the enthusiast which covers all the species of the world:

Raptors of the World by James Ferguson-Lees and David A. Christie.
This is a book from the "What if" category:
You sit on your sofa one cosy evening, garb a book and go on a journey. "What if - I went to ... hmmmm, let's see, yeah, Costa Rica now, wait, make that Uruguay. What kinds of raptors would I see there and where else do they occur where I might one day want to travel to..." And so you start browsing through the pages and imagine you'd be at some remote jungle lodge in the Kongo (way past Uruguay) and would try and figure out what next to set out for to see. About 4 species of raptors are presented per double page, with the plates to the right and a few lines of text and a distribution map to the left. All species are shown perched and in flight and - mostly - immature and adult plumage is depicted. The quality of the plates varies a bit as different painters contributed to the book, but is pretty good in general. You will not want to rely on this book to identify a raptor in North America or anywhere on this planet because it is much too short and basic for this. This is more a book that demonstrates or rather celebrates the global wealth and diversity of raptors and offers a basic understanding of their biogeography by placing the maps besides the plates. If that's what you want, you'll be quite happy with this. If you really need an identification guide for North America, don't buy it for that purpose, you'll be disappointed.

OK, there you have it and to sum things up, my final recommendation:

Own them all, raptors are worth it!

Incidentally, as I am finishing this post, I have just gotten back from a short stroll through the Arb in Ann Arbor, with 5 Red-tailed Hawks, a Red-shouldered Hawk, a bunch of Turkey Vultures and a Peregrine.
Nice stuff...

Old turned into New

I have extended two of my former posts and added a few pictures, so you might want to (re-) read the following:

Superior Birding

Hunting for the Ivory-billed Woodowl

Wednesday, 28 March 2007

The First Warbler of Spring!

Oh, it has started, warbler migration is here, they're all coming back!

Warblers, or rather the New World group of Wood-Warblers (mind that dash or you'll end up here instead of e.g. here where you'd rather be) have been quite a common theme in the blogosphere lately, as can be seen here (longing sigh) and here (sigh that again).

So now I am very happy, and I mean very in the way that is used to define very, hence in a very very way, to announce the Bell Tower Birder's first WARBLER this spring.

While checking the Arb's conifers for - what else - owls, I came across an unfamiliar bird song reminiscent of a Chipping Sparrow which I followed and eventually I spotted the singing source, a full breeding plumage Pine Warbler high up in - yes, classic - a pine.
And incredibly, there was a second Pine Warbler singing in another stand of pines on the other side of the Arb.

This was more than unexpected. There had been a few Yellow-rumped Warbler sightings around Ann Arbor which is usually the last species to go and first to come back up here in Michigan and I had been starting to wonder why they had eluded me so effectively. I think they are amongst the most neat warblers but highly underrated by birders because of their abundance so - with me really promoting their looks amongst fellow birdwatchers - the Yellow-rumpeds should show some faith as well, don't you think? Well, I am still left wondering why Yellow-rumpeds still haven't revealed their presence to me yet, but have gained a great perspective upon this year's spring migration as the Pine Warbler had been amongst the rarer species I encountered during my birding trip to Michigan/Ontario in May 2005.
Here's my warbler statistics of back then - May 2005 - just to bore you a bit further:


total number

[%] of total

Yellow Warbler



Yellow-rumped Warbler



Common Yellowthroat



Nashville Warbler



Palm Warbler



Chestnut-sided Warbler



Black-throated Green Warbler



Magnolia Warbler



Black-and-white Warbler



Blackburnian Warbler



American Redstart






Black-throated Blue Warbler



Bay-breasted Warbler



Northern Parula



Canada Warbler



Blackpoll Warbler



Wilson's Warbler



Tennessee Warbler



Orange-crowned Warbler



Northern Waterthrush



Prothonotary Warbler



Pine Warbler



Yellow-breasted Chat



Cape May Warbler



Cerulean Warbler



Mourning Warbler



Blue-winged Warbler



Kirtland's Warbler

2 (same bird twice)


Golden-winged Warbler



Prairie Warbler

1 heard


Worm-eating Warbler (?)

1 possibly heard


Connecticut Warbler



Kentucky Warbler



Louisiana Waterthrush



Hooded Warbler






For those who skipped the chart: the 4 Pine Warblers I saw in 2005 made up only 0.28 % of the Warbler individuals I encountered, so seeing two yesterday does mean a more than good start into this year's warbler spring migration to me.

And to finish this post, here's a picture I have shown before on this blog but it is a Yellow-rumped Warbler, one of the few pictures I have at the moment of any warbler and I posted it way back in December 2005 when hardly anyone was reading this blog:


Tuesday, 27 March 2007

The ThickBirder

One thing reconsidered.

I haven't quite sold as many books as Roger Tory Peterson (RTP), neither have I had an even remotely similar impact on the birding society (yet...).

The advantage of it?
Well, I am still fine reconsidering one thing whereas RTP wrote a whole book about all things reconsidered.

So here's the one thing I recently had to reconsider:

Remember the sad story about the Eastern Screech Owl at the Arb?
Stupid Bell Tower Birder, thick, thick, thick...

It is spring.
It takes two to Tango.
I only found the remains of one owl.

Yesterday afternoon, I spent a couple of hours birding the Arb and Gallup Park with Laurent.
I will write a full report soon as I have a few pictures that I want to add but still need to have developed, but most importantly, we heard one short calling sequence from Rhododendron Glen that sounded suspiciously like the screech of an Eastern aptly-named Screech Owl.


Now we only heard it once and in this case without a confirmation once is no-once, but maybe, just maybe I should yet again pay this area a visit soon and really check those hollow trees and thickets.

Friday, 23 March 2007

The birding year 2006: March

March last year was dominated by two bird species.
The first one was a Great Grey Shrike that had been staying in a relatively small area of bushes and single trees in a vast expanse of fields and meadows east of Jarmshagen, which is close to Greifswald, North-East Germany.
The image below shows the area where it could be seen frequently, and where I also watched it with Charlie Moores during his short visit (see, yet again, his report here).

Although this looked like an ordinary Great Grey Shrike at first, there were certain characters that struck me as peculiar: first up, it was very approachable and mostly allowed observers to get as close as 15 metres without getting too nervous. Considering that a Great Grey Shrike usually prefers to have an area the size of a small country between itself and any human being, that was indeed unusual.
Furthermore, certain plumage characteristics were at odds with the Great Grey Shrikes I had studied before, although I must confess this had never happened with such scrutiny as on this bird:
- The white wing patch was restricted to the primaries and extended up to about one third of their length.
- The primary projection beyond the tertials looked rather large.
- The tertials showed only a limited amount of white on the tip.
- The lores were slightly pale, more dark grey and not as black as the mask.
- The rump appeared clearly white when seen well or at least very pale grey and much paler than the back.
- The tail showed an extensive white area, with the outer-most tail feather being completely white and the next one about one third of its length.
- The breast was pale grey and in slight contrast to the white throat.

Here are a few images I got, not very good but as I always say, a picture is better than not a picture.

Some of these characters, like the paler lores and the longish primary projection, pointed to the bird belonging the the distinct form pallidirostris, which would have been a first national record for Germany (especially with the form mostly recognized now as a separate species and not just a subspecies), while other characters clearly contradicted any tentative identification approach in this direction.
Most pictures of pallidirostris you will find in identification articles or galleries are of vagrants to Europe and show birds in juvenile plumage. These look very different from the bird shown above which is why many fellow birdwatchers shook their head quite sternly when I mentioned I was not quite willing yet to entirely drop this possibility (even though I gave it a very small chance of turning out to be that species), but a short glance at potential - or rather quite certain - adult pallidirostris here demonstrate that things were not so easy after all and needed to be investigated further.
An extensive search of online pictures and articles as well as the reading up on most of the relevant books and articles on Shrike identification finally - and definitely as predicted - helped to rule out pallidirostris and showed the bird to be a (probable) female nominate bird possibly from the far North-East of the species' breeding range (hence the longer than usual primary projection) where birds look different from what we normally see in central Europe.

Even though it turned out to be not a rarity at all, this nevertheless was a very special bird that really boosted my interest in the variation and identification of all forms of the Great Grey Shrike complex, which is part of the reason I got so excited about my encounters in North America.
I love birds that teach you a lesson on bird ID.

The second bird species that got me entertained throughout the winter but for which my excitement reached unprecedented heights in March was the Arctic / Hoary Redpoll.

From December 2005 onwards, the birders in neighbouring countries, like Denmark, Poland and Sweden, were more than happy to welcome a significant amount of Arctic Redpolls during a no less significant invasion of Mealy Redpolls. Arctic Redpolls are a first degree national rarity in Germany and are not even recorded every winter, and with birds showing up all around us, even in the Netherlands where they must have presumably crossed German territory to get to from Scandinavia, I set out to find one or maybe even a few myself.

So when everyone else was concentrating their birding time on waterbirds at the coast I was driving through the fields and meadows of the hinterland in search of Redpolls. Quite a different winter experience.
The problem was apparently not finding one as there were Redpolls all over the place and it was not difficult to find a daily total of several Hundred to scan through. The problem was recognizing an Arctic Redpoll when looking at it.

The Redpoll complex is almost as notorious as the Crossbills and this post is not intended as an identification article because frankly, who am I to write anything about Redpoll identification?!
See, that's right, all I have done is read up a lot in birding magazines and look at a multitude of photos on the Internet, and then of course I have looked at very well over 1.000 Redpolls in the winter of 2005/2006 but unless you have handled, photographed and measured each individual Redpoll on this planet I am sure you have only a faint idea how much their plumage can vary.

The "classic" field marks to separate an Arctic Redpoll from a Mealy Redpoll can basically be summarized as follows:

Arctic shows...
...(almost) white undertail coverts whereas Mealy shows mostly prominent dark arrow marks,
...a thin and faint streaking on the flanks reminiscent of very fine lines drawn with a pencil whereas Mealy shows broad streaks that often melt into two or three parallel stripes down the flanks,
...only a faint shade of rosy in adult males whereas Mealys are often bright red,
...a fine and delicate bill whereas the culmen is much longer in Mealy, almost unmarked pale brown head, laking Mealy's supercilium and dark markings on the ear coverts,
...a paler mantle,
...a bright white rump roughly the size of a piece of lump sugar,
...and finally has slightly different, higher calls.

This is very likely all true as it comes from people who unlike me have a lot of field experience with Arctic and other Redpolls. However, I have found many of these characters to be either subtle, too relative to be assessed with certainty or overlapping with Mealy Redpolls to such an extend as to render them quite useless when trying to identify vagrants that have to be documented and submitted to a critical committee for acceptance.

Bill size for example appears to be a really good feature until you stumble across this rather obvious Arctic Redpoll. The paler mantle sounds good as well until you take a look at this Mealy Redpoll and compare it to this Arctic Redpoll. Oh and while we are checking the latter, just glance quickly at its head colouration and judge for yourself how uniform and pale brown its head is.
And the tale goes on and on and on and on....

Eventually, after much reading, looking and dropping what had appeared to be a bunch of good ideas, I came up with the following key criteria that a bird I was going to call Arctic Redpoll had to show:
A) Completely white undertail coverts (some Arctics have thin stripes there which overlap with Mealy whereas Mealy apparently never shows completely white undertail coverts)
B) A completely white rump
C) Very fine thin stripes at the flanks (some Arctics resemble Mealy in this respect but apparently no Mealy shows the very few, very thin and delicate streaks of an Arctic).

I knew I would probably miss out on a few Arctics using these criteria but then again, knowing they are a very rare sight in Germany and considering it unlikely to get an accepted record with a less stringent approach, I thought that was OK.

Using these criteria in the field however proved to be very difficult. They were good to discern on the birds and all the Redpolls I met were rather tame and easily approached, so that was not the problem. You see, the problem was that one field mark could only be seen from below (undertail coverts) while the other one could only be seen from above: the rump.
Now, Redpolls usually were seen feeding somewhere near the ground in high grass or low in bushes until one of the flock got nervous or maybe bored and decided to cause a bit of a stir, so the whole flock flushed and flew around for a few seconds just to settle down at roughly the same spot again. If this happens every minute you have a very hard time checking all these field marks: 30 seconds to find a potential Arctic, 15 seconds to triple check for the one field mark you are able to look at depending on the bird's relative position to you, 15 seconds to wait and hope the bird would turn around so you could check the other key field mark ... Whoops, sorry, 60 seconds are over and the cards get shuffled again.
30 seconds to find a potential Arctic, 15 seconds to triple check for the one field mark you are able to look at etc.

This can get frustrating.

But I am in no position to complain. Using these rather strict criteria I was able to track down at least 6 different Arctic Redpolls during the winter of 2005/2006, far, far more than I had hoped for.
But why did I get so excited in March, after I had already found 4 different Arctic Redpolls in North-Eastern Germany?
Because it is so nice to find such a rare bird on your home patch, the surroundings of Geifswald, and that's what I did. Finally, after many searches around the city throughout the winter, I was able to locate a flock of around 200 Redpolls just a bit to the North of Greifswald and after roughly 2 hours of observation I managed to identify 2 Arctics amongst the Mealys. This was brilliant, the great price after so much hard work over the winter.
In addition to being a rare bird found on my home patch, this was also I flock I could get fellow birders onto and in the next couple of days quite a few went out to search for the Arctics, and a few of them found them as well.

Here are a few pictures I managed of those two Arctics. The first bird is an adult male. They are of a poor quality but by looking closely and showing some good will, you can see the fine, pale grey streaks on the flanks that are so indistinct they are barely visible, the nice shade of rosy on the breast, a relatively uniform warm buffy head colouration and if Blogger wouldn't mess up pictures so badly you could clearly see the completely white undertail coverts on the second, heavily cropped image.

The following pictures probably show the immature or female Arctic within the same flock, although the pictures were taken on another day. I am actually not entirely sure it shows the right bird. I was checking the flock perched on a fence and found the female-type Arctic which I clearly identified using my three key criteria. The moment I had brought the digital camera to the scope the flock flushed however and landed in a nearby bush. Knowing I had only around 60 seconds until the flock would flush again, I just roughly checked the Redpolls and as soon as I had found a potential Arctic fired away with the camera. Then, after only 2 pictures (talk about "firing away"), the flock flushed again and I never managed another picture.
Now, the following image shows a bird with a white rump and - on the second picture - finely striped flanks. I never got a decent look at its undertail coverts though, so I won't identify it. But it seems likely this really is the Arctic I was able to identify on the fence.
What you can also see on the bird to the right is that Redpolls often fluff up some white feathers on their back, a little bit like an Olive-sided Flycatcher, giving the impression of a white rump. The second picture however clearly reveals that the rump on the bird is pale brown, clearly identifying it as a Mealy Redpoll.

Those were the most memorable birding moments of March 2006. There were more, like the flocks of 30.000 Greater Scaup and the omissus-type Herring Gulls, but that's another story.

Two reasons why I don't want to be an Owl

Shy, elusive, nocturnal and as a general rule no friends of Bell Tower Birders.
Not very cooperative, not very nice.

Nevertheless, they still deserve my sympathy because they have a rough life and as I will show below, I am quite happy about not having to live and owl's life which often - apparently - tends to be shortened rather unpleasantly.

You certainly still all remember the Snowy Owl Laurent and I went to see at Allen Park. If not, here are the two links, links to my blog posts.
Or marvel again at the incomparable pictures Andreas Kanon took (follow this link, go to Galleries / Avian Galleries and click on Owls).
Now, this was one friendly dude of an owl, obedient, showy and sticking around for a while allowing many, many birders to see it repeatedly and very nicely indeed.

Well, what can I say: it is dead now.

What remains of it was brought to the Rouge River Bird Observatory (cool site, well worth a good look) where it was examined by Julie Craves who wrote the following short report on the local birders email forum (reproduced here in part with her kind permission):

Someone found the carcass of the Snowy Owl
at Fairlane Green shopping center in Allen
Park that was present earlier this year.
I examined the bird and while there was some
minor animal damage the wings, legs, and
skull appeared unbroken/intact. The various
small wounds did not appear to be bullet
wounds, and I found no pellets or shot when
I probed, nor was there much blood. The inner
tissues were still somewhat frozen, but the
smell indicated that it probably died around
when it was last seen in early February.

What I didn't find was any fat; the breastbone
was easily felt and prominent, typically a sign
of emaciation. I will be taking the bird to
the MDNR for a necropsy, but if I had to guess,
this bird starved to death, despite the
impressions of many observers that it appeared
healthy and not under any duress.

All of a sudden, it doesn't appear to be so desirable anymore to be a Snowy Owl, to spend the summer in one of the most amazing landscapes up North and travel around a bit during the winter.

So, that's reason No. 1 for me not wanting to be an Owl: you'll have to eat mostly rodents and if you can't bear the taste anymore, you starve to death on a construction site besides an Interstate close to Detroit. Not quite the classy or heroic end one would expect for such a fabulous creature.

Now to reason No. 2: the life of an Eastern Screech Owl.
I had asked around a bit for possible sites to find Screech Owls around Ann Arbor and was told that there used to be one very dependably at the "Beach" section of the Arb but that the owl had to give up this roost site when some shrubbery was removed during park maintenance. But sure enough, there should still be a pair around at Rhododendron Glen, a swampy part of the Arb next to the Beach.
However, Rhododendron Glen received much attention - yet again? - by park maintenance this winter and now they are even building a new path there with a small bridge. This is surely going to be a very nice path once warbler migration sets in, but I can't help but wonder just what a resident pair of Eastern Screech Owl would think of all this human activity. I still checked the many hollow and old trees there regularly and last Sunday, during a pleasant walk through the Arb along Rhododendron Glen with my wife, I looked down onto the forest floor besides the path and spotted a few brown feathers. Closer inspection revealed them to have belonged to an Eastern Screech Owl and judging by the number of feathers, this one particular individual would never need its flight feathers again because inside of a Great Horned Owl it is too dark to fly.

This was basically the end of my hopes of seeing an Eastern Screech Owl at Rhododendron Glen. It was also the end of what must have been an owl's stressful life of constantly shifting roost sites and it was surely hard for the owl to not take all the park maintenance personal.

So there you have it, reason No. 2: You get pushed and shoved around by human interference and have to move your bedroom constantly, with all the lack of sleep during the day due to the time needed to adjust to new roost sites and in the end, when you are so tired you can barely stay alert anymore, you get eaten by another Owl.

At least we now know there's a Great Horned Owl at the Arb.
Laurent has actually heard it calling lately and will probably look for it today during a short lunch break. Even though the Screech Owl seems to be a bit of a problem to find and see, we should at least manage to find a Great Horned Owl soon.
And if we do, then we know at least where not to search for Eastern Screech Owls...

Thursday, 22 March 2007

Birds I really like: The Redwing

There are some birds I like and some birds I really like. Whether a bird species is grouped with those I like or those I really like is dependent upon me having seen it or not. Basically you can say that I like a bird species as long as I have not seen it. As soon as I do, the species is upgraded to the small (but growing) elite of those species I really like.
I recently spent some time figuring out if there is a particular bird species I have seen but don't get very excited about. There was one until recently, as a matter of fact, and that species was the good old Mourning Dove. It is nothing personal but somehow I just couldn't really get that certain hurrah-feeling I usually get when spotting a bird (any one bird really) whenever I found a Mourning Dove.
Luckily - for me at least as it enhances my pleasure of birding, I don't think the Dove itself really cared that much about my affection - this has changed. The last few times I saw Mourning Doves, they were not just sitting around somewhere on a branch or a wire minding their own business with their own business being to sit somewhere minding their own business which in this case means just to sit somewhere. No, they were walking around on the ground in some brushy rural open area with a few trees, high grasses and bushes and really looked very much like a Sharp-tailed Grouse. So there it was, the special aspect of the Mourning Dove: the Grouse resemblance.

A few days ago Michael Luhn, a birder and bird photographer from "my" part of Germany, posted a few photos of a Redwing on the local email forum. He took the pictures on March 19th at Kieshofer Moor (visit here and scroll down or rather read the complete post to get an impression of the place) and I really, really like them a lot. In a remarkable twist of fate, I also happen to really, really like the Redwing as a species and am always excited when I see them, so I just had to ask Michael for a permission to use his great pictures for a post on my blog.
Yet again, incredibly, he agreed and I am very proud that this site now is host to the following pictures of a Redwing. Of course I would like to kindly ask any reader to respect Michael's copyright. It is very nice of him to let me use his pictures and if you violate his copyrights, be assured I will send a few friends to your place.

Here now are the pictures of a Redwing enjoying a well-deserved petite snack.

What makes this Redwing a Redwing?
A question easily answered: the combination of red flanks, a broad supercilium and stripes on the breast. In a North American context one could say it resembles a Waterthrush with red flanks.

The Redwing is a rather common breeder in Northern Eurasia that only very occasionally breeds in Germany. On the German Baltic Sea coast we mostly encounter it on migration.
In autumn, the sharp calls of a flock of migrating Redwings echoing down from the black nightly skies are a sure sign that winter is approaching or that you are once again returning home late from the pub. They barely stop over though on their southward migration and the real Redwing season is from late March to the middle of April when they return North. During this time, you can often find a few Redwings scanning through the large flocks of Fieldfares and at times they can be quite common, with several Hundred being encountered in one flock spread out over a large meadow or field. Even though we usually watch them out in the open, like on preferably moist grasslands, it is also very nice to find a flock of Redwings in the forests of spring. The Redwing is a species that starts singing on migration and the chorus of 50 or 100 birds in full song within a small patch of forest is a more than memorable encounter, it is breathtaking.
But to really, really like a bird, one has to look beyond beautiful. And here the Redwing also provides us with a multitude of possibilities.
First of all, the Redwing - like all thrushes as far as I know - can be aged even in spring. Let us take a look at one of Michael's pictures again:

The magic is in the Greater Coverts of the bird: most Turdus-thrushes show pale tips to their Greater Coverts in juvenile plumage and retain a few of these coverts until the next spring. On the bird above, the inner coverts have already been exchanged for adult-like feathers but the outer coverts still show the pale tip. This bird therefore is approaching its first breeding season.
This character is also fit for ageing most North American Catharus-thrushes with the exception of the Hermit Thrush which also shows pale tips on its adult Greater Coverts. In this case, we must shift to another field character of the Greater Coverts that allow us to even age the Hermit Thrush, and this additional character is the length of the feathers. Adult-like coverts are distinctly longer than juvenile coverts, as can also be seen above, and this is also the case in the Hermit Thrush as can be seen here and here. It seems the pale wing bar in adult Hermit Thrushes is most pronounced in fall/autumn and much less so in spring, but I don't know enough about this yet, so this is only a wild guess.

So now we know that the Redwing is a sign of autumn/fall, a sign of spring, is pretty good at pulling worms out of firm soil and can be aged. Is there anything more we need to know?
Yes, the subspecific identification of the Redwing.
The Redwing occurs in two distinct subspecies. The nominate form, Turdus iliacus iliacus, occupies basically the whole breeding range from Northern Europe all the way to the North of Asia. But there is a distinct race on Iceland (with a few on the Faeroes) referred to as Turdus iliacus coburni, and it is this form that mostly occurs as a vagrant in North America.
Good pictures of Turdus iliacus coburni can be found here, here, here, here and here. A short discussion on the Redwing's subspecific identification can be found at Birdforum here.
In comparison to nominate iliacus, coburni is
- larger,
- darker in general,
- shows a more heavy spotting on the breast with single spots often "melting" into stripes,
- has a more distinct head pattern
- and darker legs.

These are all characters that are difficult at best to assess in the field unless you are lucky to spot a single bird of one form within a flock of the other. I have searched for coburni on the German Baltic sea coast for the last few years (in vain) and have found most of these characters to be of only limited use because iliacus is - surprise, surprise - quite variable.

Characters like "darker", "larger" and so on are all relative and even if we find a "larger" bird, how can we know it is not a large extreme of iliacus?
The only (almost) "absolute" character I have found to be probably useful is the rather dark colouration of the legs. I have yet to see an iliacus with dark legs (haven't found one within a couple of Hundred birds I checked but am not saying it is impossible) and even though a few photos from Iceland show birds with rather pale legs, the leg colouration seems to be dark on the majority of the Iceland population and hardly ever / never as bright pink as on nominate iliacus.
Another character that might be useful is the dark colouration of the upper flanks, between the red flanks and the neck/head. In coburni, this area often appears as a solid brown extension of the brown back colouration whereas in typical iliacus this area is patterned like the rest of the breast: pale with dark stripes and spots. But this is also a rather tentative approach that probably doesn't work on all birds and needs to be tested more extensively in the field - should occasion occur.

I am now at the end of my little excursion into why I really, really like the Redwing and I hope you have also started to take a liking for this little bird of almost unlimited possibilities.

For an interesting gallery, visit Surfbirds, click on "Search Galleries", type in "Redwing" and see what happens. Most of the pics were taken in the UK and North America, so the subspecific identification is quite a hot question to investigate!