Wednesday 31 January 2007

Wheeler in the Sky

When you suddenly find something large turning like a wheel in the sky (OK, I admittedly had to stretch this a bit but this is a pretty good live version, so it was worth it), what do you do as a birder?
First, get your geographic bearings right and ask yourself where you are.
If it's Europe, consult the Forsman guide.
If you're in North America, grab your copy of the Wheeler guide.
If you're anywhere else, well, the thing might best be called a "seagull".

When I woke up this morning, I found myself once again in downtown Ann Arbor, which is Eastern North America. With no time for birding but an urge to put something useful on the blog, I therefore have descended like a pack of vultures onto a book review of the Wheeler guide, so Forsman just about got away through pure luck.

So here it is now, the book I am intending to discuss today. Raptors of Eastern North America by Brian K. Wheeler.

When I read a book review, there are basically two things I want to know or expect to learn:
A) What is the book about, what is its content and which aspects are being dealt with.
B) Is it good.

As before, this review might be a bit long and the description of the book's content a bit boring, but I feel that this information really should be part of a review. If you disagree, just scroll down to the judgemental section and skip the words about its content.
If not, here goes...

First, some words about its content:

The book covers the 26 species of Raptors found east of the Mississippi. Raptors here is not meant as a description of a taxonomic union because the author is also incorporating the two species of New World Vultures, which does make sense despite its rendering the book polyphyletic. He actually addresses the apparent polyphyly of the North American raptor species in his introduction to the New World Vultures, so he cleared out of that corner quite all right.
And now we also know a cool word with many "Y"s for our next round of Scrabble which adds meaning to the otherwise quite useless last few sentences.

In his introductory chapters, Wheeler gives basic hints as on how to identify raptors (most importantly: enjoy), describes the format for the Species Accounts, explains the concept behind the plates and captions and provides a few words on the range maps.
What follows is one of the more important aspects of the book as it goes beyond raptors: he provides extensive glossaries on the anatomy of raptors (birds), a "flying and perching displays glossary" (did you know what a "pothook" is or have heard of the wail-pluck display?) and also on general aspects ranging from albinism to wing chord.
Very important when dealing with raptors is a preferably profound knowledge on their moult and ageing and here, too we can find very useful and simple-to-understand (good, because I still struggle with my comprehension of moult) information. What I also found quite good is his description of the different perching and flying attitudes which are accompanied by nice photos (I'll talk about those later). Sadly, he did not include the "I'm gonna poop or maybe just turn around" perching attitude, but it's OK, we all know that one anyway.

Now, finally, we get to the species accounts! considering the book has a total of roughly 450 pages for 26 species, you'll have guessed by now that the species accounts are extensive.
And they really are.
Wheeler provides information on the following aspects:
Ages, Molt/Moult, Subspecies (listing also those found outside the East), Colour Morphs, Species/Adult/Subadult/Juvenile Traits, Habitat, Habits, Feeding, Flight, Voice, Status and Distribution, Nesting, Conservation, Similar Species and Other Names, so there's quite a few chapters to scan through.
Most extensively covered are the Colour morphs, Traits, and the Status and Distribution sections as seems most appropriate for a book that's primarily aimed at being used as a guide to identification.
Each species account is accompanied by a very detailed map showing its distribution in the Eastern part of North America for each subspecies (on some maps, several subspecies are combined) and a series of photos showing the plumage of all the major age classes or subspecies/colour morphs for both perched birds and birds in flight.
The captions to each photo highlight the traits shown (be it species identification or certain age traits) and also mention the month in which the picture was taken, but - a bit sadly - not the location. The latter lapse is not all that important however as the author always mentions the subspecies depicted.
The number of photos per species (4 per page) varies according to the variation in the species plumage and ranges from 7 (Black Vulture) to an incredible 82 (Red-tailed Hawk). I don't think I have ever seen a book with so many pictures of a single species!
The book ends with an extensive bibliography (and an index, of course).

Man, this has been a long text. I think I'll just include a picture of a raptor here before moving on to the real review, the ruling on the book's quality. To continue on the vulture theme, here's another TV from May 2005, this one captured on film at Point Pelee.

Is it good?
Yes, it is good. It is possibly amongst the best books on the identification of a group of birds, at least one of the best I've come across.
It is very important however to clearly have in mind the group of people this book was designed for!
This guide certainly requires an identification background or at least a basic knowledge on raptor identification. If you're still trying to figure out how to tell a Swainson's Hawk from a Red-tail, this guide might be exceedingly frustrating. The photos, as I have mentioned, are not grouped together but are attached to each species' account, making comparisons between different species or a quick glance at the most important general field marks very time consuming, if not impossible. For the basic identification of raptors, another guide co-written by Wheeler might be much better suited. I haven't gotten myself a copy of this book yet but had a quick look at it at a book store, and it seems much more user-friendly on a general species-ID level than the Wheeler guide.
The Wheeler guide however appears indispensable when e.g. confronted with identification problems like the separation of Krider's and light-morph Ferruginous Hawks or the subspecific identification of raptors (yes, yes, yes!). If these questions float your boat only half as well as mine, this is your book to get.
If now I am going to detail a few disadvantages of the guide or a few difficulties one has to cope with, this should therefore not deter anyone who's into raptors from purchasing it. Nevertheless, I'd like to mention them. Why? Because this is my blog and I want to.

This book is primarily aimed at being an identification guide, yet as such it is often difficult to use. As with gulls, one species of raptor is - when it comes to species ID - actually several species because its plumage differs with age and according to its morph or sometimes even (slightly) sex. Certain identification problems between two species for example only occur between certain age groups or with one single colour morph. It sometimes therefore appears that the identification criteria in the guide are scattered too much and can be found both in the "traits" section or in the section on similar species. That makes for difficult reading especially as one then has to switch between different species accounts as well. This problem mostly occurs with the Red-tailed Hawk, a species I have spent quite some time with reading about and watching out in the field. Especially concerning the Buteo-Hawks with their numerous colour morphs, a few charts highlighting the ID criteria for each problematic group (dark morph, pale morph etc.) or an extra chapter that only focuses on some of the problem cases would have been desirable.
Without this one is left with reading up a lot of the information, sometimes even copying some parts of the text with pen and paper and making up one's own identification article, using his descriptions to work out how exactly similar forms differ and on what part of the bird one should focus the attention when confronted with one of these problem cases out in the field.
And frankly, this is something I want to see spread out right before me when I open a field guide, not something I expect to do myself.

But I want to make clear that I regard this as a general problem with many, many identification books or articles, actually so much so that I have decided to write up an entry for this blog entirely devoted to this issue instead of misusing the poor Wheeler Guide to demonstrate why I am often left rather frustrated. All in all, this is one of the field guides that deals with the problem described above BEST, so this criticism is a little bit misplaced here. As I said, I'll write about it some more in an extra post.

And finally a word about the photos.
They are wonderful and stunning. It seems almost unbelievable that basically each colour morph or subspecies is not only depicted, nope, it is also shown on a crystal clear, razor sharp and just plain beautiful photo. And he isn't even taking digital images, which has facilitated especially flight shots of birds significantly. He is still working with the good old slide films.
I was only fractionally dissatisfied with the photos of Gyrfalcons because there is no photo that really shows the species in normal soaring flight with the wings fully extended (important for wing formula). But then this is a difficult species to capture with your camera anyway, so I really won't complain.

Tuesday 30 January 2007

A short excursion into Politics

I know this is off-topic for a birding blog, but I am just confused by this.
I always thought that in a democracy, the "decider" is or rather are the people.

Or not?

Did I miss anything?

Here are some picks of Politicians debating tax issues - from both sides of the Atlantic, they're (almost) all the same anyway, which partially explains why they don't really value biodiversity.

Yeah, I know this was particularly inappropriate for a birding blog, there was no need to insult the birds.

Monday 29 January 2007

Gaining Momentum

Apparently, after almost two months of blogging, the Bell Tower system is gaining momentum.

I like it and will continue blogging.
Apparently, I am also making some sort of impression on others. Some even say they like what I write but I think they just want to be nice. Nevertheless, I feel it is now the time to include some more links on my site, mostly other blogs I visit as often as possible and enjoy reading, without risking too much of an uproar in the blogging world.

OK, first up, there's "A DC Birding Blog". This site has a Cerulean Warbler as an emblem and the last post was about an "Arboretum Walk". That alone proves it: some of the best bird blogging!

Then I also once in a while check out "Birding is NOT a crime!!!!". They like birds, they listen to Iron Maiden, got a healthy sense of humour, ... they just don't write enough of the good stuff they're well capable of!!

Then there's the superior "Bootstrap Analysis", a really fine blog that puts the science into birding and blogging. Very nice reading, and the whole thing is happening around my current home patch of Ann Arbor / South-East Michigan!

And "The House and Other Arctic Musings" is great fun, too. It just adds to the global player feel to blogging when you can get the latest birding news from Australia and then quickly jump into the high Arctic for a few minutes.

The Norwegian site "Oygarden Birding" really captures the whole spirit and atmosphere of coastal birding in Norway, something I thoroughly enjoyed in the early 1990s during a couple of birding trips there. Sadly, the blog is currently documenting the disastrous oil "spill" (wreckage, carnage,...) .

And continuing on our Nordic theme, here's "blogbirder", a Swedish birding blog with loads of pictures and he's had quite a few of Redpolls recently which I am very fond of.

And finally (for now), "bogbumper" is not only a neat name for a blog, it is also a neat blog with some nice photography. Interestingly, as with most UK birding blogs, you shouldn't only go there to view pictures of British/European birds. Quite a few pics you'll see are of North American vagrants.

So, there you have it: enjoy (while I go back to work...)!

Look at this.

Saturday 27 January 2007

Ice and Light

Some snowflakes had come down the night after Ann Arbor had received its icy sprinkling and the next morning I was greeted by blue skies and a wealth of light.
After my prolonged lunch break the day before I was very tempted to stay at home and catch up with my excessively interesting computer work but finally succumbed to the begging and whinging of Nature to get outside and watch it shine.
So I eventually did, what can you do, the soft side of me.

I have mentioned in my previous post on the icy rain that it was remarkable how one suddenly noticed so many things as being extraordinary that were always missed or went unnoticed before. This was already obvious on my way through town towards the Arb.
Take this building for example.

What is so noteworthy about it?
Well, nothing of course, but have you noticed the shoes hanging off the power lines? Neither had I during all my walks to the Arb and back. Here they are cropped a bit :

Or this annoying branch that has always been blocking the sidewalk.
Suddenly not all that bad, this time, I shall think?

Well, the first sight of the Arb was more than promising, it was breath-taking. It hadn't been bad the day before without snow and a misty surroundings, as will be remembered:

But this time, it was just beyond anything:

Well, looking at the landscape with the sun in your back wasn't bad, but turning around and looking at the ice against the sun was not what one would call boring either:

The forests were almost deprived of birds (the creepy side to icy rain) but the trees just about managed to look good by themselves and without their usual avian decor.

I especially liked the sharp contrast of the black branches and the sparkling ice against the blue sky. Apparently I have always had a weakness for branches and my mom always told me that I would sit underneath a tree as a baby and just watch the leaves and branches for hours moving in the wind. It doesn't seem to have changed in the last 35 years because I still get the thrills out of sights like this one:

Even though bird numbers were low, with just a few species around like Northern Cardinals and American Robins, the local squirrels were putting on quite a show. There are three species of squirrels in addition to the vicious chipmunks at the Arb and it is great fun to watch them, I might write a bit about them at some point later. Meanwhile, here's a few picks:

Hey, man, where's the food!

Here below , the small tree on the left, that's Old Faithful, who faithfully kept all his branches.

There are quite a few American Robins still around, the most numerous species at the moment, and they just love to get a buzz feeding on the fermented berries. And as true gourmets, they surely enjoyed their chance to taste some selected berry sorbets.

The last few pictures are impressions from the Dow Prairie part of the Arb. There were still a few American Tree Sparrows around and to get an impression of how neat they can look under these circumstances, please visit the gallery of Andreas Kanon here. It is not possible to link to specific photos directly, so please go to his gallery, select "Sparrows" and then enjoy. Or just look through all of his pictures until you find the sparrow, you're likely to do so anyway...

Thursday 25 January 2007

Keeping an eye on Poe's "Tell-tale Heart"

I devoted some of my time recently to submerge further into the early writings of Edgar Allan Poe and discovered further proof of his connections to and profound knowledge of zoology, with a special emphasis on birds but also mammals.
Amongst a pile of old books and letters in the vaults of the library was this early draft of what was later to be acclaimed as one of his greatest, most haunting stories: The Tell-tale Heart.

I have taken the freedom of copying the relevant passages here word by word:

"It is impossible to say how first entered the idea my brain; but once conceived it haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old chipmunk. It had never wronged me. It had never given me insult. For its acorns I had no desire. I think it was its eye! yes it was this! Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees - very gradually - I made up my mind to take the life of the old rodent, and thus rid myself of the eye for ever."

As cute as your old average chipmunk may look, there are some amongst the leaves on the forest floor that do affect us with their stare, like this one I came across while wandering through the wilderness of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore early last November, and it is thus easily perceived why Poe ventured upon rendering this side of the chipmunk immortal.

Surely due to the pressure of selling more copies of his works to make a living, he later changed the subject of "the Tell-tale Heart" from a chipmunk to an old man.
A more interesting change however was an increasingly precise description of the old man's eye and the reference to a vulture's eye of a cold pale blue:

"One of his eyes resembled that of a vulture - a pale blue eye, with a film over it."

This comparison sent me on a wild journey towards the discovery of Poe's unexpected yet extensive knowledge on Neotropical birds.

Which vulture, I asked myself, shows a pale blue eye?

The first step towards the solution of this enigma was to refer to my photographic library in which I quickly found a picture I took of your average North American vulture, the Turkey Vulture (taken close to Ann Arbor in May 2005) which nowadays is the most common of North America's raptors and was surely comparatively common in the days of Poe.

Upon close inspection, I discovered that this vulture's eye certainly had no affiliation whatsoever to the colour of blue.
The same was soon found to be the case for Black Vulture, another bird likely to have been studied by the young and ambitious birder Poe, and even the California Condor.

I was thus at first left clueless in regard of the species Poe is referring to and - having his English roots in mind - turned the focus of my investigation to the Old World Vultures.
Amongst these species however, I equally failed in finding a species whose eye colour resembles the cold pale blue Poe is describing so vividly. It was only the Bearded Vulture that shows - as an adult - a pale eye that in some individuals may resemble a cold pale blue, but seems to lean towards a pale yellowish colour in most birds examined.
Furthermore, during his time in England from 1815 until his return to Richmond, Virginia in 1820, Poe is not known to have travelled to the mountainous regions of southern Europe in pursuit of Bearded Vultures and it is highly unlikely that during this time he had the opportunity to study a vagrant bird in the surroundings of London.

Having thus again utterly failed in identifying Poe's vulture, I turned my attention to the New World Vultures again, more precisely the purely Neotropical species as yet unexamined within my inquiry.
Here I quickly succeeded to my great astonishment and surprise, and the species now clearly identified as the vulture embedded in literature by Poe's "Tell-tale Heart" is no other than the King Vulture of South and Central America.
At first I was completely amazed by this unexpected discovery as Poe is not known to have ever travelled to the realms of this impressive beast. But then, gradually, a deep comprehension dawned upon me:
My discovery of Poe's vulture description referring to the King Vulture may indeed seem to add a significant piece to the puzzle regarding our understanding of the mysterious "Painted Vulture" described by William Bartram in the 1770s from Florida, not very long before Poe started his early work on the "Tell-tale Heart".
Bartram's "Painted Vulture", initially thought to represent a population of King Vultures in Florida or an unknown and now extinct species closely related to it, is nowadays generally considered to be attributable to the Crested Caracara. A quick inspection of the Caracara's eye colour however shows that it does not resemble Poe's pale blue, making it unlikely Poe was referring to this species.
If thus Poe is unlikely to ever have visited South or Central America to get acquainted with the eye colouration of the King Vulture, yet refers to this species in one of his tales, he might have come across a King Vulture on one of his travels through the South-East of the United States, supporting the identification of Bartram's "Painted Vulture" as a King Vulture.

Finally, a quick word on chipmunks: one day in the summer of 1988, during my year as a high-school exchange student, I was watching ducks on the shores of Lake Ontario's Presqu'Ile Park when I felt something touching my feet. Upon looking down I noticed that a tiny chipmunk had walked through the grass and was now standing on my left foot, looking up to me in a state of surprise before it made a quick retreat into the grass.
Back then I thought this was a wonderful and indeed cute event to have a wild and shy animal come up to you and stand on your shoes.
How wrong I was is only clear to me now after reading the early draft of Poe's Tell-tale Heart. The little bugger was probably trying to sneak up and tie my shoelaces together and then watch me fall over into the lake at my next attempt at taking a step forward.

Chipmunks, I tell you, the Evil Eye.

Wednesday 24 January 2007

Breaking a Habit

Some of the positive things about New Year's Resolutions is that apparently they are also common practice amongst birds.
Let me explain:
Most birders will have what they call a Nemesis Bird, a bird that everyone else gets to see before they've out-grown their first pair of binoculars but this one birder, amongst all the birding crowds of the world, will never manage a sight even if it was a matter of life and death!

I have two Nemesis bird groups: rails (shame on them) and owls.
Take my birding trip to Michigan and southern Ontario in May 2005 as an example. I recorded 230 species, saw all 5 regular eastern Empidonax-flycatchers on the same day, had a Black-backed Woodpecker and Spruce & Sharp-tailed Grouse on the Upper Peninsular, a Summer Tanager, Kirtland's Warbler, great views of Henslow's and LeConte's Sparrow but ... not a single owl, neither heard nor seen.
Or my European owl list: lousy and half of them heard-only's.

But this year - for a reason I will surely never learn - one single owl in Canada's far North decided to have mercy on my soul. It sat there, somewhere on the coast of Hudson Bay on the first of January and solemnly decided that some Bell Tower Birder had suffered long enough and that this year, this one owl would make a change and break a habit of all owl-kind, which is to avoid Bell Tower Birders.
It took off and headed south until it found a suitable construction site right between an Interstate and the parking area of a shopping mall in South-East Michigan. Here it presumed there was a good chance some birder would spot it while waiting in the car for his wife (who'd be shopping), and the owl was right!
A few days ago the News spread that right at the site described above, a pristine and wonderful Snowy Owl had been spotted (without doubt by a genius birder, I don't know though if this was done waiting in the car for their spouse or what other reasons lead to the discovery).
It entertained a huge crowd of birders over the weekend and was photographed wonderfully, e.g. here (click on "next" and next and next, then skip a great Cooper's Hawk pic and go on for a real photo feast) and here (also check his amazing gallery for more pics of the owl and other magic photography).
Man, it was even filmed and can be watched here, here, here and here.
Fame's easy if you're a Snowy Owl!

Well, but this site is 30 minutes east of Ann Arbor by car and car-less I had to wait completely calm and relaxed (no, I always bite my fingernails, thank you) until today when the one and only Laurent of Gallup Park fame gave me a ride. It hadn't been found the previous day so I was even more calm and relaxed when we got there today around 9:30 a.m. and full of my usual optimism when in search of an owl.
Laurent on the other hand is relatively new to birding and it was probably his untainted enthusiasm that allowed him to spot the owl even before he had stopped the car.
Yes, no typo: he - and eventually we - spotted, not dipped the owl.

It was still there.

For me (and others).

To see (not only hear).


It was at first perched on a street lamp looking around drowsily with eyes half closed and we watched until our feet got cold and - yet again - Laurent came up with a great plan to save the day:
Next to the parking area was a "Panera Bread" bakery with a large window front towards the owl. But this wasn't all, nope, they also had good coffee with free re-fills and a huge supply of great food and two comfy armchairs were placed right there at the windows.

Man, this must have been the most decadent birding I have ever done: watching a Snowy Owl through my scope from the comfort of an armchair with hot coffee and a supply of donuts.

Finally it flew around a bit and landed on the ground not far away, giving the whole observation a more wild and natural feel. Eventually, after two hours of owl-worshipping, we drove - make that levitated - back to Ann Arbor.

Birding just doesn't get any better than this!

Oh, but don't worry, that's not all, not over yet ...

This afternoon I had two hours to kill while my wife attended some seminar in the south of Ann Arbor. There's a Golf Course right next to the seminar building and a Merlin had been seen for a few days along the eastern edge of this golf course in December. It hadn't been seen for quite a while but with nothing better to do, I asked at the office building and was granted free excess.

"Well, the Greens,... are you a Golfer? Do you know what Greens are?"
"Errr, no, I am not a Golfer."
"Hmm, never mind, just walk around freely, no problem, just don't fall into one of the ponds."

And so I did and didn't.

OK, it is a golf course, not a wilderness area, so I didn't expect Great Grey Owls or an as yet undiscovered population of Bobcats, but it was pretty nice with my first Red-breasted Nuthatches since moving here last October (gosh, they were so common all over the place in May 2005, what happened?), a Cooper's Hawk chasing around the city pigeons and in the midst of a thick flurry of falling snow (yes, falling, not zipping through!), there it was, perched high in a tree and looking around like the lion king: the Merlin.

Life, not birding, I meant life in general: it doesn't get any better than this.

Tuesday 23 January 2007

Beauty and the Beast

Before I start, I'd like to mention that there are two sides of the story on icy rain.
There's the beautiful side which I have already talked about.
And then there's the destructive side (the title of this post). I am sure a lot of the birds I have enjoyed at the Arb before the rain crossed the river Jordan before being able to cross the Gulf, a few friends of mine were severely struck because they had no electricity for a few days (hence no heating, no warm water etc.) and a few trees at the Arb and elsewhere have suffered quite a loss of branches.

This young tree for example would have felt relieved at not having a central nervous system which would allow it to feel pain if it had a central nervous system that would allow it to feel relieved at not having... wait. Forget it.

You can see that the ice not only bent the tree down onto the ground (luckily not breaking it), it even pulled out the stick supporting the tree.

Now, here's the bright side of things, the beauty of icy rain.

Looking out of the window one morning I noticed that there had been a considerable amount of icy rain over night, coating everything in a few millimetres of crystal clear ice. I therefore decided to go and check the Arb in my lunch break to see if everything was OK and had survived the weight of the ice.
I was very glad to see that most trees were coping well, no serious damage done, and I failed not to notice the immense change in atmosphere that the ice had brought with it.
With the clouds still low, the Arb had turned into a misty fairy-tale landscape that Tolkien would have struggled to describe. Even the most ordinary things had turned into small wonders and the fascination that the Arb emits in its usual state was easily matched now by one group of trees, one single slope, in fact by every single twig alone.

This view towards the north is right at the southern entrance of the Arb at Geddes Road. This is the uppermost part of the small valley that forms the heart of the Arb and we are looking down towards the Huron. The section immediately to the left of this picture forms the border of the Arb with residential homes next to it, and these have a few bird feeders operating. Therefore one is usually greeted by a nice assembly of birds right after entering the Arb, often comprising of Black-capped Chickadees, Northern Cardinals, White-breasted Nuthatches, Downy Woodpeckers, Blue Jays and Dark-eyed Juncos. A bit of patience will almost always reveal the movements of a Carolina Wren under the bush seen on the left of this pictures and it is here that I got my best ever look at this species, approaching it without disturbance to within two feet.

From here I usually follow the path leading along the western slope of the valley which affords great views onto the open central part. The picture below shows the small ravine where "Old Faithful" is to be found and which is one of the most productive sites within the Arb this winter for birds. The bottom of the valley here is so wide that one small grassy hill is nestled within which I call "Philosopher's Hill" because in October and early November, before it got cold, one could almost always see people sitting on top of the small hill with a guitar or a book, once even a large wooden cross and so it seems that this small hill is an inspiring bit of landscape for those in pursuit of deep and important thoughts. I never ventured there but the grassy hill does inspire me to think of Sprague's Pipits. I wonder why...

This is just a random section of the forests within the Arb and they are just beautiful and incredibly varied.

I might have said it already, but the camera I was using is of the most simple kind, with no macro function, strictly auto focus and a built-in flash, so there was not much I was able to do regarding the details of the variety of miniature arctic landscapes that was to be found on each bush. As a matter of fact, this day at the Arb was not so much about binoculars than about magnifying glasses, and I hope the following images hold up to the richness of colours and shapes that unveiled itself before me that day.

This (image below) is the start of a trail along "The Ridge", a small ridge running parallel to the Huron River with a more open stand of mature trees. In spring this is a very good trail for watching warblers as one is at eye-level with the surrounding tree tops, but in winter it has been rather quiet. I did see a Fox Sparrow there once in November, surely one of my favourite - if not the favourite - North American sparrows and whenever a Hairy Woodpecker turns up at the Arb, it is mostly here.

This image below now finally allows the inclined reader a look at the famous Huron River, with "The Ridge" in the background. This area is called "The Beach" by locals - don't ask me why. There are usually a bunch of Mallards (real ones) hanging around the river and once in a while a few Canada Geese will test the acoustic of this area but it is generally also one of the more quiet areas regarding birds. On that particular day however a flock of 7 Eastern Bluebirds made an appearance and were another breathtaking treat in the white and misty trees of the Arb.

Here's an image of one of the Bluebirds. Oh, come on, show some good will, I don't have a fancy camera and they did look amazing in this kind of landscape, their blue backs being a reflection of their icy surroundings.

This section of the Arb (see below), which runs along the banks of the Huron river to the east, is called the Dow Prairie. I initially thought this name was chosen to encourage breeding Henslow's Sparrows to settle Dow(n) there, but it was probably named after Alden B. Dow.
This small patch of high grass prairie usually hosts a few sparrows, mostly American Tree Sparrows and White-throated Sparrows in the bushes along its edge. The most unusual bird species I have found here (in an Arb context) were Horned Lark and a Fox Sparrow. It is also not too unusual to hear the faint whispers of Golden-crowned Kinglets amongst the tall stems and bundles of grass, and trying to catch a glimpse is an excellent practice for secretive sparrows next spring.

I eventually returned home very happy and content.

Little did I realize what wonders the next day would bring...

Monday 22 January 2007

Pictures !!

Hurrah, I just picked up a few of the digitalized films and am actually able to put some relatively decent pictures up on my blog. What you are about to see is not from Germany back in 2006, it isn't even from Michigan or Ontario in May 2005, nope, it is amazingly recent for the scope of this blog: the following images are from November 2006, not even 3 months ago.
Can you believe it?
No you can't because most blog will usually contain pictures from the day the post was written, but hey, I told you I will improve and I am simply taking it step by step.
So, now for starters a few images of the Arb from early last November.

This (above) is one of the nicest views in the Arb. The Arb is basically a small park, well an Arboretum, surrounding a small and steep valley at the southern flank of the Huron River Valley. The bottom of the valley is an open meadow and the slopes surrounding this open space are filled with all kinds of trees. Here we are looking towards the north where the Huron river flows from left to right.
I called this fiery red tree "Old Faithful" because it was amongst the very last trees to lose its foliage, but of course by now it is just as completely stripped off its colours as the rest of the trees.
Here's another view at "Old Faithful":

This little ravine is usually one of the more productive areas of the Arb and here I have seen - amongst others - a few Hermit Thrushes, Carolina Wrens, a Sapsucker and as a real cracker a rather late Orange-crowned Warbler some day in November (if you want the precise date, leave a comment, I am not rushing for my note book now).

Well, Bell Tower Birding is always striving to provide new superlatives to its many, many readers and yet again, we have easily managed to produce something never seen before on the Internet. It really is a world record and we kindly ask you to not violate copyright regulations because I still haven't figured out just yet how to best make money out of this:

The worst ever picture of a Northern Cardinal!

I know what you are thinking: where's the ice, where the sparkling and the sun and all those great pictures we were promised recently.
Well, I have those tucked under my belt and will write up some more posts about the Arb in the next few days. I just got them late today and can't think of anything to do for the moment other than just posting them, for which I'd say they are too good (always having the usual quality of my photography in mind).
I therefore hope you were somewhat disappointed at these images and will be eager to return soon for much and many more.
Until then ... happy birding!

Saturday 20 January 2007

A New Link

I have added a new Link to my site, Dean Birders.

In the "about us" section, they write:

"This project was the result of two keen birdwatchers getting together and wanting to share their hobby with those that have difficulty getting out and about. We want to set up feeder stations and nesting boxes in the gardens of those people that are either elderly or have a disability and are limited to the house."

I think that is a very neat project and they have a great bird gallery, too!
Well worth checking out.

Friday 19 January 2007

Birding Bits

Yesterday was a very enjoyable day because I went birding with a French guy named Laurent. We met through the local birders email forum and decided to team up yesterday for some birding through the Arb and along the Huron at Gallup Park.
It was great fun birding with Laurent and obviously the birds thought so, too because quite a few goodies showed up, like a lone Hermit Thrush at the Arb, a whole bunch of Hooded and Common Mergansers, 4 beautiful Eastern Bluebirds up close, a Sharp-shinned Hawk attacking a flock of Starlings in midair and as a real price a Great White Egret amongst at least 2 Great Blue Herons.
This is apparently the first Great White Egret ever to spend the winter here around Ann Arbor and it was reported by numerous observers in the weeks before.
Today there is a harsh horizontal movement of Snow again, some of it even hitting the ground (presumably after a collision of two snow flakes one snow flake crashes to the ground while the other one gains speed, this way causing the whole snow storm to accelerate even more until it reaches Florida, melts etc.). Well, maybe if we went to Gallup Park today there would be two Great White Herons with the Great White Egret?

"Rant and Response"

I regularly visit a few blogs related to the Ivory-billed Woodpecker because - regardless of my point of view on its current existence or former extirpation - quite a few of them are very exciting and I have always had a certain affectionate weakness for the lush forests of the southern US, at least from what I have read about them, having never been there myself.
Yes, I like those photos of big old trees and silent backwaters with all their suspiciously big woodpecker holes and barkscaling and I don't care if anyone gets a picture of a certain woodpecker now or never as long as those forest pictures keep coming (but any birder would of course love to look at a recent picture of an Ivory-billed).
Well, one of those blogs is not so much about the forests of the south, it is more about judging (or was that condemning, man I have to work on my English vocabulary) the way people are trying to prove the woodpecker is still extant. And to be honest, if I am in the mood for sarcasm and nasty comments I visit this certain blog, just like watching an action movie after a really nice day at work. In one of the recent comments, I found this statement by Patrick Coin:
He rants a bit on his blog, but heck, that is what blogs are for! The format of a blog is basically "rant and response".

I disagree. But I had an interesting revelation today ("now to something completely different").
My job, writing environmental impact assessments, has much to do with predicting animal behaviour. If I am for example to estimate the impact of a road construction project on roosting geese, I ask myself "According to my own observations and the scientific data that's been published: If I was a goose roosting there and they'd build that highway, how would I feel, how would I react?"

I have been a birder for a quarter of a century and I should think I have a rather profound accumulation of experiences regarding bird behaviour towards human presence or interference. However, sometimes I have to take invertebrates into account as well, like bees and grasshoppers or butterflies. And that of course was always much harder to do.
Until today!
I looked at the pile of work on my desk, the time schedules for many of those studies and reports and with the emerging panic and headaches came a sudden comprehension:

"Man, the way I am feeling now, this must be just like a small bug feels when he's wiped off a leaf by a urinating cow!"

I actually think this break-through should earn me a raise.

OK, if you couldn't follow me on my way to understanding bug behaviour and feelings, leave a comment and I'll rephrase it.

Thursday 18 January 2007

Goodies from Back Home Courtesy of...

The sun came out yesterday, the sky was bright and blue and the ice everywhere was sparkling and shining as if Christmas had returned. And I went to the Arb!
Surely one of the most magnificent days out ever! I took many pictures (not of birds though, too few around, but a Sapsucker was a good find) and will write about the last two days on this blog later when I've had them digitalized, probably next week. Right now I am simply deprived of words at the sheer thought of yesterday's walk through the Arb, beyond beautiful.

Talking about beauty...
Just after I got here (Ann Arbor) from back home (German Baltic Coast) an email with a picture arrived through the local back-home-birders email forum.
There had been a Red-breasted Goose on the island of Hiddensee, found by Mr. Wollmerstädt and digiscoped beyond beautiful by Silke Fregin and Annett Kocum. The pictures were so great that I later asked them if I could use them for my blog, and I know it is hard to comprehend the beauty of icy rain when the sun is shining and to not lose your sense of gravity when watching the beauty of a Red-breasted Goose but can you believe this: they said yes, I could!
Wow, maybe they never looked at my blog?

Anyway, I am very happy that I can show these images here, so if you don't mind respect copyright regulations, these pictures are the property of Silke and Annett. You may look at them here, even repeatedly so, but that's it unless you ask!

Well, well, the Red-breasted Goose. Did you know why Poe never wrote a poem about the Red-breasted Goose? He wanted to but then realized he was such a gloomy old mess that there was no way he could have done that species justice in poetry. Yes, it is true, the Red-breasted Goose is one of the real Eurasian birding fire crackers.
Sure, it is rare in western Europe but so is Blyth's Reed Warbler, and frankly, looking for that species amongst these isn't a fraction of the fun you have scanning your ordinary goose assembly for the cuties.
The Red-breasted Goose is also a very birder-friendly species because a few decades ago it had decided to shift its wintering grounds from the rather difficult to access Caspian sea to the west coast of the Black Sea, namely Romania and Bulgaria. But one doesn't need to go there as well, and it is not really recommend because I know of no birder who has actually survived the sight of a flock of several thousand Red-breasted Geese. Those photos you may find on the Internet were achieved by applying remote cameras, you know, the Cornell trick, these guys had to learn it from somewhere... Gosh, I am being distracted yet again.
With this shift towards the west came a more frequent appearance in western Europe by single birds mixed in the goose masses migrating to the Netherlands and the lower Rhine valley and now one might consider the Red-breasted Goose a rare but rather regular migrant along the Baltic and North Sea shores, with maybe 5 to 10 records in Germany per year.
Here are a few great links, links and links for those interested in a bit of a background about this species. Those of you who now finally want to get over this written crap and move on to the pictures:
Go ahead, scroll down a bit!

As the following image demonstrates, it is often remarkably difficult to spot a cutie in a flock of other geese (in this case Barnacle Geese with a few Eurasian Wigeons and a Lapwing).

Haven't found it yet?
It's the white horizontal stripe on the upper left in front of two or three clustered Barnacles at the edge of the group.
Still can't see it?
Well, never mind, here's a close-up!

Yepp, the bird behind it is a male Eurasian Wigeon. Would this be a neat group of birds to see at Lake Erie Metro Park or not? Some distraction from the raptors I would think?
See, good they are not there because one shouldn't interfere with science in progress.
Just take a look at this bird, can you believe it?!

That's why I chose to publish these images today, the common theme between the Arb after icy rain and Red-breasted Geese:

Silenced by Nature's Wonders

Monday 15 January 2007


I just got back from a wonderful afternoon lunch break at the Arb.
The birding was not particularly different from what it was when I went there the 20 or so times before (as I said, wonderful) but a flock of 7 Eastern Bluebirds up close or 19 American Tree Sparrows were real treats.
Something was different though, and that was the landscape. The weather has been crazy here lately and as one of the results of last night's follies everything in and around Ann Arbor today was - and in fact still is - covered in ice and icicles, the magic of icy rain.
Yes I know, icy rain is pure horror for those who have to live in the outdoors permanently, like wild birds, and I do feel worried about them, but the trees and the forest and tall grass prairies are just wonderful when they are covered in ice and have a Northern Cardinal perched on them somewhere. I have to admit that things were not perfect because the sun wasn't out, the sky was of a monotonous but bright grey, almost white and blending with the landscape below it. But the atmosphere was just beyond description, so I'll stop and post some pictures soon.
How without a digital camera?
Well, I did take my ordinary old and trusty analog camera with me (for the youngsters: this is something where the light falls onto gelatin and some silver stuff that's pasted to a stiff plastic foil and then you have to send light through this to produce pictures on paper) and as soon as the film is used up I'll have it developed and the images digitalized for the blog.

But what inspired me to today's blog entry was not directly what happened outside but what happened inside once I was back at my apartment:
I was cold and wet (there was a constant slight drizzle of sleet or rain), my hands and feet were stiff and when I looked outside my apartment window I noticed it had started to snow and the wind had picked up.

[Now that I mention it: I now know why we still don't have a decent snow cover in Ann Arbor. Snow fall here is always associated with high winds and I have never seen snow actually fall, I only saw it rushing past in a horizontal line. So we do get lots of snow here but it just doesn't hit the ground, it gets blown all the way down south until it finally turns into rain and troubles the 'pecker searchers in Florida.]

Anyway, I got distracted there. I was cold and so on and now here's what I simply had to do to recover:

some Après-Birding.

Never heard of it and clueless how to do it in a decent yet proper way?
I thought so, so here is the remedy:

This is what you need:
- a few cinnamon sticks (don't worry, Sharon, not the furry one)
- roughly half a litre of water
- a cup of milk
- a teaspoon of honey (or a bit more)
- a teaspoon of instant coffee
- half a teaspoon of cocoa powder
- an armchair
- a window with a view towards a tower that's got some Peregrines on it.

Cooking directions:
- Place cinnamon sticks in pot with water and boil/simmer for a good hour or so (this can be done in advance and the concentrate kept in the fridge for a few days).
- Heat milk.
- Put honey, instant coffee and cocoa powder in cup.
- Add a shot of the cinnamon-concentrate according to taste.
- Add hot milk.

Serving Suggestion:
- Return from a bird trip through a magnificent winter landscape having seen a flock of 7 Eastern Bluebirds and 19 American Tree Sparrows.
- Feel cold and stiff and in need to warm up.
- Move an armchair or anything comfortable to sit in with a thick blanket in front of a window.
- Get your binoculars and the birder's winter drink as described above and have a seat.
- Look out of your window onto the snow and storm and feel happy to be inside.
- Watch a Peregrine Falcon watching the city life from its perch on top of a downtown Bell Tower.
- Enjoy life, it's great to be a birder.

Saturday 13 January 2007

Time Flies...

"Time flies when you're having fun!"
I am sure we have all heard that saying of old or even used it ourselves once in a while, casually in a shallow conversation and never really reflecting upon its meaning.
But look at it: it's not all there is to it, nope, yet again, let me repeat this: again, we are left there standing with a half-true, purely deceptive, lame and pretty much useless chunk of words that leaves us feeling as if we were putting on a trouser with only one leg or had just watched the Luneau video.
Surely time flies when you're out there enjoying yourself but it also flies when you are up to your neck in work!! And I don't mean this kind of work.
See, that's what happened: no post since last Tuesday because of work!

Lame excuse?

Well maybe, but I tried really hard to distract from this dumb excuse by writing about a lame saying.
I know it didn't work out too well, but like in birdwatching: it's the effort that counts, not the observation (yeah, right).

I like being a birder. And as a matter of fact, my work sometimes even includes birding of some sort. Now, I wouldn't go as far as saying I sometimes like my work, but it isn't all black and gloomy all of the time.

You see I was so busy because I had to finish a report on a Breeding Bird Survey I did last summer in this kind of landscape...

...where amongst many others I saw this kind of bird:

... a beautiful male Whinchat,
or saw numerous birds of this kind, the much-loved Yellowhammer:

Analysing numbers on density and relative abundance never matches the excitement out in the field, but the memories of Great Grey Shrikes, Ortolan Buntings, breeding Cranes, 5 species of Sylvia-Warblers, Red-backed Shrikes, Partridges and Quails all help to make it through a rainy Michigan day in front of your computer in January.

Well I wasn't being entirely honest here, I must confess: Wednesday was still rather pleasant weather-wise and as I had promised myself the day before, I went to the Arb, and from the Arb through Fuller Park back home.
Nice stuff.
Life can't be bad if you come home from a short walk, having seen
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker,
Hairy Woodpeckers,
Red-tailed Hawks,
Northern Cardinals,
Tufted Titmice,
Eastern Bluebirds,
White-breasted Nuthatches,
Blue Jays and
White-throated Sparrows
and basically can say to yourself that you haven't seen anything special.

Oh, and apart from Bluebirds, Sapsuckers and Sparrows, I also thought this was really a more than excellent find in the last few days (I can't link to it directly, stupid MySpace, but here's how to get there):
go here, scroll down to his "friends", visit "Bird Girl" and click on "You might be a birder if..."

OK, this was it for today. Not very thought-provoking but hopefully your time flew because you were having fun - somehow. If not, please come back later, I promise to write something more entertaining and possibly even - gasp - remotely intelligent soon.
Cheers and good birding over the Weekend!

Tuesday 9 January 2007

Searching for Thayer's, finding: Horned Larks

Today was our third try for gulls and my third go at finding a Thayer's Gull.
Bruce and I met downtown just before 11:00 a.m. and after picking up Jim Gruber we headed out again to the Salem Landfill where we got around noon.
On getting there, we could see that all the gulls were way up flying in a big whirl above the dump and on reaching the top, there was not a single gull on the ground and above us roughly a few hundred, much fewer than when we were there last Friday.
What we did encounter up on the dump right after opening the door of the car was a fierce and very cold wind.
Maybe the Red-tailed Hawk that flew around the slopes had flushed the gulls or they just didn't like the wind up there, but it took them quite a while to settle down again with us waiting patiently in the car.

Finally the gulls seemed to come in to land again and we ventured out on foot across the landfill to a good vantage point up on a small ridge. This time the ground was frozen making the walk across the mud much more pleasant and the smell wasn't as bad as last time either. I even managed to eat a chocolate bar on the dump, not something one would normally enjoy.
Shortly after we had started walking, we spotted movement on the ground and soon found ourselves standing just a few metres in front of a small group of 6 Horned Larks. Now, for someone who's got the insanity of enjoying subspecies, encountering Horned Larks delivers instant joy. North America alone is host to no less than 16 or even 21 subspecies (depending on who you ask or what you read), making this one of the most diverse species on the continent. An interesting link to the different subspecies is here and if that isn't enough, try also here.
In May 2005, I was somewhat disappointed at finding only the locally breeding subspecies which is called the Prairie Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris praticola). This subspecies is characterized by a very pale facial colouration with just a shade of yellow on the throat and an almost whitish supercilium. The breast and flanks are mostly white and don't show an obvious brown or buffy wash to them. Here's a picture of a Prairie Horned Lark I obtained in May 2005 on Gooding Road a bit south of Ann Arbor.

Today's birds seemed different however, with an overall darker colouration, obviously reddish brown or buffy breast sides and flanks and a few of them (presumably the males) showed a strong yellow tone on the throat and the supercilium very much reminiscent of the Scandinavian subspecies flava. After consulting a few birding sources on the internet, I am rather confident that the birds we spotted on the barren and frozen ground of a "mountain ridge" in the biting coldness of a northerly wind were indeed Northern Horned Larks of the nominate subspecies E. a. alpestris. At least the description fits well and this is the only other subspecies we can expect to occur here, so it's good enough. Well, of course they might have been a stray group of European birds but I didn't look that closely...
On reaching the ridge and scanning the surroundings we still found very few gulls on the ground and those we scanned through were mostly Ring-billed Gulls with only a few American Herring Gulls mixed in. Conditions were less than ideal with the gulls constantly taking flight again and facing away from us even in the air due to the strong and cold wind. After showing some good will and trying for 10 minutes or so, we finally decided that this was not the right time and place for finding Thayer's or California or Slaty-backed Gulls and decided to move on to another location, Grace Lake on Tyler Road.
Before we left, we did notice the amazing view that the clear and cold air afforded us from on top of the dump. We could easily spot the high rise buildings of Ann Arbor (12 miles/20 km away) and downtown Detroit seemed just around the corner (although roughly 30 miles/45km away).

Grace Lake was really good, I must say, with around 3.000 Gulls present. We had found a much better observation point than last time, and by much better I mean the reduced distance to the gulls and not the flock of Dark-eyed Juncos we saw at that particular spot.
A thorough scan of the gulls (with around half of them on the lake and the other half sitting on a slope on the opposite side) produced a few Ring-billed Gulls, around 15 Greater Black-backed Gulls, at least 2 adult Lesser Black-backed Gulls and one sparkling adult Glaucous Gull. Hmmm, I know that an adult Glaucous Gull looks far more cool than a Thayer's but I still couldn't really focus on it for long, scanning the numerous American Herring Gulls for some pale winged birds instead. A few of the adults showed a very reduced black pattern on their wing tips in flight and had me half excited but each and every one of those turned out eventually to be nothing but an ordinary American Herring Gull. The Sibley guide mentions that around 1% of American Herring Gulls in the East show a reduced amount of black on their wing tip and I had to face the barren truth: there was simply a slight accumulation of this 1% at Grace Lake today (comparable to northern populations of European Herring Gulls Larus argentatus argentatus whose wing tip pattern also resembles Thayer's, frighteningly so), but no Thayer's that we found.
We eventually gave up - of course still very happily so with Glaucous and Lesser Black-backed Gulls seen very nicely - and after checking a few spots south of Ann Arbor (American Kestrel, Canada Geese and Mallards being the only somewhat noteworthy species) returned home.

Well, Thayer's Gull seems to be one of the species I really need to earn myself for some reason. But I'm hanging in there, no reason to get doubtful just yet!

Today however I have noticed that my last visit to the Arb was one calendar year ago, so I am currently planning to go there next, possibly tomorrow weather permitting.
It has become cold at last.