Friday 23 November 2007

A Liddle Riddle

Today's inspiration courtesy of the weather...

Here are two versions of a picture showing a European Oystercatcher in flight, taken on what was surely not the brightest of days about two weeks ago.

One is the original colour version, one was transformed into a black-and-white image.

Version A:

Version B:

Can you tell which is which?

In hopes for better weather over the weekend, especially in New Mexico,

Yours truly

Another Peregrine, another bird's neck gone

Okay, here's the next chapter of our continuing Saga about the Neck-Eating Peregrine.
It's only one picture and not quite as disgusting as the series I linked to recently, but again:

Warning, not a pretty sight during a meal.

It is so easy to forget this fierce side to the falcon's nature when we see one perched on a fence pole in the light of the setting sun.

Happy Thanksgiving or just happy birding trails to non-US readers!

Tuesday 20 November 2007

Bad Idea, but Nice Birds

The initial idea behind this post was some sort of competition, something like a rumble in the jungle and a beauty pageant, a duel between two species I wanted to use to clarify once and for all which continent had the better birds, Europe or North America.
However, upon choosing the pictures I couldn't help but feel the subjects of my initial idea, the two species involved, were just far too cute for anything competitive. So here I am now, ready and motivated to write a post but deprived of an idea.

Well ...

I suppose I just move on to the pics then.

First up, one of our surely most amazing birds - and by "our" I now mean Europe - the breath-taking Long-tailed Tit.

Even though they breed commonly in this part of Germany - and the species is widespread throughout the continent - we mostly see and notice them in winter when they move around in small yet noisy flocks. The birds seen below are of a North-Eastern race as can be seen by their purely white heads. Other subspecies - and there are plenty of them - show a more stripy head and if science and taxonomy were based upon intuition, I'd say the Long-tailed Tit was ripe for a few splits. Well, for the time being there's only one, but frankly, we don't care too much as long as we get to see them often.

Oh, and in case you were wondering: we're not too sad that Giant Pandas don't occur here naturally...

The North American species I wanted to toss into the ring is none other than the Black-capped Chickadee.

Actually, "the Chick" shares quite a few things with its European relatives, I mean beyond taxonomy: it is simply too common to be noticed and truly appreciated by birders.
Which is a pity, it really is!
It might not have the delicate blue of a Blue Tit or the fine pattern of a Crested Tit but it beats the European Marsh's and Willow's and would surely have been a fierce opponent had I stuck to my initial plan with this post.

Honestly, could you easily decide which one of the two is the cutest, the nicest or most beautiful?

Go on, comment, but provide reasons if you can!

Now, looking at the pictures again, I suppose a simple line of text would have been sufficient:

Beauty is in the eye of the birder

Monday 19 November 2007

Stunning in a Very Disturbing Way

If you thoroughly enjoyed the Texas Chainsaw Massacre movie and think CSI doesn't show enough "forensic details", you might want to check out this link here.
You probably won't be able to understand the text, but you don't have to, just look at the series of pictures on the right and scroll down.
Be warned however, this is really stunning but in a very, excessively disturbing way.
You might not want to follow the link if you are eating, if you have a weak stomach or if young children or your non-birding spouse are around you.

Wednesday 14 November 2007

Birds 'n' Apples

The letter 'N' is one of the more peculiar of the alphabet's letters in that it is a very social one. It is used - at least in English - to form a connection between things that are either dear to us or go together well.
Oh sure, you need a few examples or you won't believe me.

No problem.

Okay, we all remember that the slogan "Sex 'n' legal Drugs 'n' Rock & Roll" has shaped the lives of a whole generation and that "Sex in addition to legal drugs when combined with Rock & Roll" would not quite have had the same effect.
Or - to stay in the same basic area - the best band in the world surely owes part of their success to the fact that they combined two things that go together well with an 'n': Iro'n'Maiden!!
Very smart!

Ha, ha, you think these examples are a bit far off reality? Then look closer, you won't even have to go beyond your local bar or rather pub:
We all know that Pi equals 3.14159 and that 't' is a very birdy letter (as seen in Tufted Titmouse, Gray-tailed Tattler etc.) but rarely realize that a combination of the two by the letter 'n' will lead not only to a very enjoyable means to measure volume that shouldn't be sported on a car's license plate...

...but is also connected to one of the most pleasurable ways to enjoy our hobby: Birds'n'Beers.

And what's a beer to a birder is an apple to a bird.

Yes, indeed, birds generally enjoy a good and decent apple once in a while, as I was able to witness during my last days in Michigan's Ann Arbor at the nearby Briarwood Mall National Parkinglot.
This in itself might not be so interesting, but Bell Tower Birding always thrives to provide a perspective upon bird life beyond the obvious, and the way birds approach the eating of an apple is a means to take a closer look at bird evolution.

We start with the Anatidae (the family of ducks, geese and swans) and observe the way a Canada Goose tackes an apple:

A Canada Goose will first push and roll the apple around a bit and it looks as if it was making a smart plan on how to best eat it with such a flat and funny bill...

... but I think it simply has no clue how on earth this thing can be eaten.

So the goose just tries to grab any part of the apple...

...which incidentally happens to be the least edible one and we can even see the steam from the upcoming inner rage escape its nostrils.
Now, however, the goose is given a well-meant clap on the back by natural selection as the anger and frustration about the uselessness of its own bill regarding apples will lead it to take the apple and shake it until the edible part breaks open.

Well, neither a smart nor an elegant way but successful in the end, as was to be expected from such an old and ancient group of birds. After all, had the Anatidae been as stupid as we initially thought, they wouldn't still be around, right?

The Laridae however are a more flexible and adaptive group of birds. It seems they have evolved beyond the clueless state of the Anatidae by approaching an apple with direct aggression. Their bill is adapted to effectively eating an apple as the hook is suited to run it through and pick it up ...

... while the sharp mandibles are brilliant to just tear the fruit apart. Notice that the bird above preferred the apple over a pink barrette, clearly identifying it as a young male.

The remains of the apple then get a little toss, a free flight ...

... and down it goes. This is surely a more effective way to eat an apple, but it is still far from stylish.

An inconvenient truth some gulls find hard to swallow.

If then however we turn to one of the more recent bird groups, the songbirds, we will find the highest adaptation to using apples as food. Not only have they discovered that apples on trees are fresher than those below them, they have also developed the most intelligent method of eating an apple.
This is nicely demonstrated by the House Finch seen below.

"If Pi = 3,14159 and its volume is 4/3 r³ times Pi, how long will this apple last if I place my next bite further to the upper left?"

"Well, not very much longer..."

It is generally thought that the songbirds have adapted best to using apples as food.
In my opinion however, this is a mistake.
I give you one word: Raptors.

Oh, yes, we all think raptors are greatly adapted to hunt down meat and will not readily take to eating any vegetable matter. One example are the Ann Arbor Peregrines, shown well in this nice gallery. Their food has been investigated thoroughly by collecting all avian remains from the bottom of Burton Memorial Tower and the results of this study can be found here.
Oh, you only find birds on that list and no fruit?
You think that proves they don't eat veggies?

Ha, to my eye, this whole approach is tainted by our expectations and the results thus cannot be taken as representative of the species' ecological range. I have - naturally - conducted my own bit of citizen science on these falcons and here is what I found.

Way up on the tower is a majestic Peregrine, the fierce male of the pair.

Way down below are what remains of a good Peregrine snack. Whitewash, a feather of an unlucky Yellow-billed Cuckoo and ...

... an apple.

Thursday 8 November 2007

Catharus Wings

I had mentioned before that I felt this was an age of re-inventions and that I, too considered it necessary to frequently take a critical look at my blog's content and direction and see what could be changed and improved.
This post is an attempt to provide my dearest readers with yet another fundamental change, a true Bell Tower Birding revolution:

I have decided to write something useful.

Oh, please, remain fair, I didn't say this post was going to be useful. I wrote it is meant as an attempt!

Get on with it, I think I hear you, so here goes the birding part.

The identification of Catharus thrushes (including the Wood Thrush as it sometimes is included in the genus and sometimes not but is a bird too neat to be left out) is simply a superb task:
challenging and interesting yet not impossible.

The differences between the species, most of which have several subspecies, are quite subtle and I have often asked myself how one could possibly ever identify a hybrid in the field and if such hybrids are known to occur.
The most recent case in which I considered the possibility of a hybrid was a strange immature thrush Charlie observed in New York.
I am sure you know the story and even though Wood Thrush was to be considered, the bird was widely thought to be a Hermit Thrush of a more Western origin.
One thing that finally convinced me that the bird was a Hermit Thrush was its wing pattern.

Wing pattern?

But aren't the main field characters the exact head pattern, the amount of spotting on the breast and the colouration of the tail?
Yes they are, but there might be more.

I am aware that I will venture out upon thin ice now and I am neither an identification expert nor someone with excessive field experience or access to a multitude of museum skins. Nevertheless, I have come to notice something that might work as an additional identification character for Hermit Thrushes and that as yet I have not found in any of my bird guides.
Surely I am not the only one who's noticed it and the reason for not finding it in any of the guides is that I have only the "rough" and general guides and no special identification literature.
I expect this to be yesterday's news really, or rather "cold coffee" as we say in German (I told you: the culture thing), but I hope some blog visitors might get a chuckle out of reading it and that'll be good enough for me.
Oh, and before I start: this whole post is only about the thrushes one might see around the Great Lakes, no idea how it would work out in the West!

The wings of most Catharus thrushes are quite uniform and show the same shade of brown as the back and mantle.

Here, for example, we have a nice and lovely Swainson's Thrush.

See what I mean? No contrast on the wing at all. Okay, if we look closely, we might notice that the tips of the primary coverts are slightly darker, forming a miniature dark wing bar, but this is nothing obvious or striking.
This uniform colouration is even more apparent in the Gray-cheeked Thrush (presuming it is not a stray Bicknell's we're looking at, a rather safe assumption around the Great Lakes I shall say)

Just a brown bird, no contrast, not much pattern at all.
Hey, this is still a very nice bird!! Just thought I'd mention it, in case anyone got a different impression.
The Wood Thrush is right on the other side of the scale of different shades of brown, but nevertheless shows a very reduced pattern on the wings. Basically the whole wing looks like the back and mantle, with only a slight dark bar formed by the tips of the primary coverts.
Here it is, my only picture of a Wood Thrush, and that stick right across the tip of the primary coverts, well, very useful indeed ...

Now we get to the equally lovely Veery and hurray, some form of pattern starts to show on the folded wing. The Veery also shows the aforementioned dark bar across the primary tips but there is also a slight pattern at the tip of the primaries! The tips of the reddish brown outermost primaries show a decreasing (towards the body) amount of dark brown which produces a distinct pattern at the tip of the folded wing, beyond the tertials. Furthermore, the secondaries are slightly duller than the bases to the primaries, producing yet another slight contrast on the folded wing.
Here are two rather bad pics of Veeries to demonstrate my point, the best I got in 2007, and please no complaints here in public.

Still unsure as to what I am talking about? Yes, this primary pattern is pretty hard to see on a Veery, so never mind.
But now finally we get to the Hermit Thrush, which has mastered this pattern to the fullest. Here's a cropped version of a Hermit's wing, and the red lines and arrows indicate all those neat contrasts I was trying to convey before when I was writing about the Veery.

A rather distinct patterning of the folded wing seems to be unique to Hermit Thrushes around the Great Lakes and might serve as yet another supportive character to identify tricky individuals as Charlie's bird from New York City's Central Park.
To sort of prove my point, I have added 4 images of Hermit Thrushes taken last May at Crane Creek, Ohio. All show the contrasting wing pattern quite neatly. The last two pics are of a bird Laurent and I had struggled with for quite some time as it was unusually dull, the reddish tail wasn't as reddish as one might expect, the spots on the breast seemed rather strong and an eye ring was basically lacking. Nevertheless, we were finally able to confirm the bird's identity as a Hermit Thrush by - amongst others - the tail movement and the wing pattern.
Of course, it could have been some crappy hybrid or Western form, who knows, but that's beyond the scope of a blog post anyway.

Enough said now, here are the pictures.

Feel free to comment or point out images of other thrushes that also show such a pattern to the folded wing.
Birding is one huge process of constant learning. Please, provide!

Monday 5 November 2007

I Now Know How Sibley Knows

This post is dedicated to Peter, a friend's friend!
Keep up the fight!!

You can't escape it, you can't avoid it and even though you can't know when, what and why, you've got to have an opinion on it: the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.


Don't worry, this won't be about what I think of the current discussion or even the status of the bird. Instead, it's all about what Sibley says.

Apparently, he's quite a smart guy, that David Sibley.

How do I know?

Well, he's sold a lot of books and - something that must rank even higher - Nuthatch is fond of a lot of the things he said, but most of all he just published two remarkable posts on his blog that I'd like to refer to today, to show you that David Sibley is a guy that can apparently be trusted when he's talking about birds and birding.

Mr. Sibley recently wrote a well-balanced and rather neutral essay on the current discussion of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, as can be seen here. Possibly the most interesting lines, as they reach beyond the woodpecker, are his comments on the value of sight records and how easily even the most cunning and experienced observers can ... well, simply ... be mistaken and fooled.
To make his point more clearly, he wrote a nice follow-up here in which he demonstrates by his own example just how unbelievably wrong one can sometimes be.

Of course something like this has NEVER happened to me.
I have never mistaken a Grey Heron for a Peregrine Falcon, or a Great Grey (Northern) Shrike for a Hoopoe and certainly never identified a piece of candy wrapping as a Black-eared Wheatear.
Nope, that was the other guy who just happens to look very much like me.

My absolutely brilliant and perfect and clean birding record however got its first major scratch last Monday, the day I learned that Sibley knows...

It may be interesting to note that I am in a good position to judge upon Sibley's expertize as up here, along the Baltic coast of Germany, we have quite a similar issue to solve: the Black Woodpecker!

Okay, as with the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, we at least know it once existed up here. We have museum skins, old photos and so on. But recent records? Well, a few birders claim they have seen one, some even say they know of breeding areas. Heck, our breeding bird atlas even estimates that this part of Germany holds a healthy population of up to 1,700 breeding pairs.
But whenever someone comes up with such a claim, I ask: where's the proof? Where are the pictures, the video sequences, the recordings? Where the hay are the birds??

The problem with these records is that I even managed to have two birding experts flown in from abroad to do a thorough follow-up search on such claimed sightings, and both searches came up empty-handed (the reports are here and here).

Now, who do you trust? The claims of single observers, mostly based on fleeting glimpses of "large black birds flying off the back of a tree trunk", or do you feel that all those fruitless hours of searching sum up to form evidence of absence?

Well, I still do trust myself - incredibly - so I took and still take every chance I get at looking into the Black Woodpecker saga myself by looking into the forests of my home patch.

As you may remember from reading my last post, I spent my lunch break in the pine forests of Peenemünde a week ago. This area is known to be within the (former, claimed or whatever) range of the Black Woodpecker. This is always good to know, and I fear the possibility - no matter how massively unlikely - of an encounter was there in the back of my mind.

And then it happened, the moment that changed the way I look at bird identification.
While I was following a small path along the forest's edge as seen below...

...I caught a fleeting glimpse (!!) of something large and black moving amongst a few tree trunks not too far off.

I turned my head, something inside my head screamed "Black Woodpecker", then it got quiet again and I stood there and watched, observed, every nerve cell of my body programmed on visual perception.

There!! On the tree trunk facing me ...

... a huge black woodpecker with a red partial cap! This just HAD to be a Black Woodpecker, there's no mistaking such a unique and impressive bird!

Of course I immediately knew of the importance and significance of the observation and got all excited about the perspective of fame and fortunes, but in a sudden moment of sanity I remembered to re-gain my calm, concentrate and look again at the bird critically to make sure the important field characters are verified.

So I rubbed my eyes, cleaned my binoculars, aimed them well, focused and to my utter surprise...

... Not a Black Woodpecker after all, just some common forest bugger you see all over the place up here.

Gosh, the disappointment!!

It had happened. To me: the one immune to failure and mistake, the beast of birding!

This was the moment I fully appreciated the knowledge of Sibley. He is right:

"Such is the Power of Suggestion"

Cheers, Peter! Get well soon!

Friday 2 November 2007

I and the Bird # 61

I and the Bird #61 is up at the Drinking Bird.

It is brilliant.

Go read it right now, right here.


The Absolute Hammer

In an age of re-inventions, I have decided to add another aspect to my bird blog, and as a matter of fact, it's all about building metaphoric bridges and tearing down language barriers, so it's a culture thing.
I thought it would be neat to use birds and birding to introduce my inclined readers to the fine art of speaking German. Of course I am not going to teach you German bird names (who needs them but us Germans, and the Swiss, and the people from Austria, and a handful of people in Namibia).
You are also unlikely to learn here how to politely ask for the rest room in a German restaurant (but now that you're wondering: we're rather direct. "Wo ist die Toilette bitte?" Where's the toilet please?).

Nope, not like that.

Instead, it's all going to be about some typical German proverbs and the things we say that don't make sense but are in wide use anyway.

How often have you been scratched and bitten when you walked outside while it was raining cats and dogs?

You see, that's the kind of thing I am going to tell you about.

Like the word "Hammer" which translates to - and this will be difficult to memorize - hammer.
We like a good hammer once in a while here in Germany.
Certainly this might pertain to the old Germanic god and avid craftsman Thor and as such would make for a cool story, but I am afraid it has nothing to do with it. Hammer is just a cool word, and that's all there is to it.

We use it in a variety of situations:

Hammerhart - "hammer hard" or "as hard as a hammer" is used when something is really hard to do (and not hard as in not-soft).
Hammer used by itself means "amazing".
And when we say something was "the absolute hammer", it was something that completely blew our mind and knocked us off our feet.

Like last Monday.

It is now official, and this is how the birding part begins: Geese don't like me this year.
They really don't.
I have no idea why this is the case, but they do all they can - and quite successfully as well - to avoid being seen by me. I mean, I do see them reasonably well from a distance. Like during the morning of last Monday when my job assignment was to record their daily flight path over the small city of Wolgast.

This was quite a nice morning thanks to the geese, although that particular morning was so cold that my kidneys still hurt somewhat today.
But then I set out to follow them to their feeding areas, to count them and scan their flocks for rarer species. Here along the Baltic and amongst the Anser geese, we have Greylag, Greater White-fronted, Tundra and Taiga Bean Geese on a regular basis. If you get a chance to scan through a few 1,000 you are likely to find a Pink-footed Goose as well, and if you are extremely lucky or show extreme endurance, you might find a Lesser White-fronted Goose, with the latter not having come my way yet. Not really at least. But to find these two rarer species, you've got to get decent looks at the flock, so it shouldn't be too distant and a free view is desirable.

And this latter aspect, the distance and the unobscured view, are just not working this year.

This below was the only "flock" I found that was close enough and out in the open enough to potentially allow me to find one of the rarer species. But at a flock size of less than 100 birds, it was no use anyway. Still, it contained all of the 4 regular forms, so I was not completely frustrated.

Finally I found a somewhat larger flock of possibly 2,000 to 3,000 birds. This flock can be seen here if you take my word for it.

For some reason that might make sense when you're a farmer but is a nightmare when you're a birder, the farmers this year cut the corn stems quite high above the ground during their harvest. The geese still like it, obviously.
But you don't even want to know what I think about this!
Thanks, guys!

I then remembered the lessons I learned in North America: go for songbirds!!
And so I did.

And I liked it very, very much more.

Let me demonstrate to you why:

On the way up to the Northern tip of the island of Usedom, still in a desperate attempt at finding a few identifyable or even countable goose flocks, I came across a small group of songbirds feeding right besides the road.
I stopped the car around 50 metres away and looked at them through the windshield.

Nice! A small flock of 8 Twite, or is it Twites? Anyway, of 8 Scandinavian birds that are not rare here in winter but still uncommon enough to appreciate every single sighting. Of course I wanted to take some pictures for the blog, but they were too far away and seemed to flighty to be approached any closer. Then came another car that passed me, flushed the group and guess what happened?
Had it been geese, I am sure they would have flown all the way to the Netherlands.
But these were - YES!! - songbirds, so they were flushed, flew around a bit and landed ... right besides my car!
So here they are, my pictures of the brilliant Twite: brown and plain, yet neat!

The neatest thing about those brown jobs is their rosy butt in breeding plumage. When they are here in winter, they mostly don't show this unexpected addition of colour to a somewhat drab
appearance. I have actually only seen it maybe three or four times in all those years, so the bird on the right of this picture below was hailed with exaltation.

I then decided to spend my lunch break at the beach and in the pine forests of Peenemünde, where I had been a few days before with Hendrik and Corey.
This is the beach at Peenemünde, a good spot for watching shorebirds/waders, gulls and terns.

Despite the extensive mud flats, there was nothing to be seen but Herring Gulls and Black-headed Gulls. The most exciting sight therefore was of two nutcases with suicidal tendencies who were looking for amber along the beach.

Amber in itself is a nice thing to find. But then, the word Peenemünde might ring a bell or two, and indeed, it is the very same Peenemünde where the Nazis built their V1 and V2 rockets, a place that was subsequently very heavily bombed during the war.
Quite a few of those bombs were accidentally dropped into the Baltic just off the coast of Peenemünde and some of these bombs contained phosphorus. So every once in a great while, one of those old bombs breaks open, the phosphorus escapes its rotten tomb and gets washed ashore, just to be picked up by some naive amber searchers who all of a sudden find their jackets or pants on fire after the phosphorus is ignited by their body heat!
Honestly, Peenemünde must be the last place on earth anyone should go looking for amber.

Expecting to see more birds away from shore, I ventured into the pine forest.

And as this was not goose habitat but the realms of songbirds, my expectations were exceeded.
Certainly I didn't find any Siberian vagrants, but a mixed flock of Great, Blue, Marsh, Coal and Crested Tits, Treecreeper, Nuthatch, Great Spotted Woodpecker and Goldcrests were a pleasant sight. Of course the light was lousy and this shot of a Crested Tit was the best I achieved, but it was still better than trying to spot a goose among a sea of corn stems.

Every lunch break comes to an end eventually and I ventured out again to search for more geese.
Ha, ha, very funny, I know, but I had to try, it was my job assignment after all.

And then something remarkable happened, although I don't really have a picture to come along with the story, and this will bring us back to the hammer aspect of the introduction to this post.
I drove by a small sandy field on a hill, a field that often held roosting songbirds in the past few years and was frequently checked by me for some special species. Of course, I never saw anything special there during the 20 or so visits, so I wasn't really expecting anything while I scanned through the skylarks, linnets, meadow pipits and corn buntings that hopped around on the ground. Here you can see the field with a skylark in the centre of the picture.

And then all of a sudden, this one particular bird hopped into view. It took me a second to identify but about two hours to comprehend: I was looking at a Little Bunting!

Now, this was the absolute hammer!!

The Little Bunting is a Northern species that breeds right across Siberia and reaches West into Northern Finland, with a few pairs in the far North of Norway and possibly Sweden. It is quite uncommon though in Scandinavia and as it migrates to South-East Asia, it must be considered a vagrant to the rest of Europe. However, it is one of the more regular vagrants to Germany, with roughly 5 sightings or so each year, but of course these sightings occur mainly on the off-shore islands along the North Sea coast, mostly Heligoland which must surely rate as one of Europe's best birding places.
But seeing a Little Bunting on some field in the "Hinterland" was completely amazing and unexpected, like seeing an Asian Phylloscopus warbler not on some island off Alaska but a hedge row in a backyard of Washington or Oregon.

The Songbirds delivered!!

As it was getting late and the light started to fade, I decided to call it a day (and what a way it was to end a day's birding) and drive back home to Stralsund, but of course not before I had checked the parking lot of a nearby shopping mall for the Bohemian Waxwings that had been recorded there for the past few days.
Sure enough (the songbirds delivered), they were there. And even though the light was lousy and the ISOs high, I enjoyed watching them and even took a few pictures.

I really like songbirds, I honestly do. I also like watching geese, but if they don't comply, I'll always be happy with finding a Siberian vagrant and watching Twite and Waxwing instead.

Good things come to those who bird.