Wednesday 31 March 2010

Important Question!

I have a question that I kindly ask readers from Europe or with field experience on European raptors to answer in the comments:
Have you ever seen a Common Kestrel fly very, very high during migration? And if so: have you ever seen small parties or groups - 4, 7, 10,... - migrating together ?

I am talking about 500+ metres above the ground, so high that you could either only barely spot it with your unaided eyes - or - that you only accidentally discovered the bird waaay up high in the background of another soaring raptor/bird you were looking at with binoculars - or - in the middle of a kettle of soaring/migrating buzzards you check with your binoculars, so high the kestrel itself is not discernible by naked eye only?

I can't recall a single situation where this happened to me, but that could be old age or prolongued fatigue. Which is why the field experiences of others are important for me to find out.

The cast in alphabetical order:

Common Kestrel, Falco tinnunculus, Turmfalke [tower falcon]

Tuesday 30 March 2010

You are doing it WRONG, WRONG, WRONG!

* natural sausage casings; direct translation from German: natural guts. I don’t know about you, but I prefer not to be reminded by one metre high letters that the sausage casing I eat once held the stuff that makes a pigpen smell the way it does…

Monday 29 March 2010

Another bird's name finally makes sense

Bruce Bowman, of Bowman's Bird Stuff fame, has finally captured on film (as the old folks still call the process of taking a picture, digital or not) what was long suspected yet never proven, that the name "Sandhill Crane" can occasionally make sense:

Sandhill Cranes !

Monday 22 March 2010

Introducing "The Cast in alphabetical order"

Hilke of "One Jackdaw Birding" recently commented that she had trouble finding the bird species I mentioned in one of my posts in her German field guides as I only provided the English names.

This had me thinking, and even successfully so as I realized that she's got a significant point there:
Even though I blog in English, this is still a German bird blog (sometimes), so I really ought to also mention the German names in those posts that are about the birds of Germany, or more generally about European bird species.

Therefore, from this day on my blog posts (those with European content) will conclude with a list of the birds mentioned. Therein I will provide the English name, the scientific name, the German name and the English translation of the German name (as in this post of mine).

Wednesday 17 March 2010

Alpine Eye Candy: Snowfinches in Austria

Some may remember that I spent two weeks in Tirol (that's part of the Austrian Alps) last January.

On one of the finer days of this trip, I teamed up with Dale (or rather he took the risk of meeting me) to do some very fine birding after Dale was able to shake off his job duties Friday afternoon.

We drove up, up, up into the mountains to the small village of Kühtai, at a height of approximately 2,000 m above sea level (around 6,000 feet), for two reasons:

1) We were to attend the first international Austrian-German bird blogger convention.
It turned out to be the most successful bird blogger convention ever, anywhere, as definitely 100% of all the bird bloggers of Germany and Austria attended. A picture of the entire delegation (the complete German and Austrian bird blogger scene) and a few more details can be found here (yes, I had a good reason for looking that tired - check the comments there).

2) Dale wanted me to see Snowfinches. And I wanted me to see Snowfinches just as bad.

Snowfinches are a species of birds related to Sparrows of the Old World kind (yes, North America, rub it in some: here, we have some issues with common names not meeting taxonomic standards, too), and they occur up, up, up, in the highest mountains of Europe and central Asia. To give you a rough idea how much up I am talking about: they move down quite some ways in winter, and we were there in winter, and we were up at 2,000 m above sea level.

That's up.

I had seen Snowfinches twice before in the Alps, once in July or August of 1987 when a handful of birds quickly flew away from me somewhere around Switzerland's Matterhorn, and in February (or January?) of 1997 in the German Allgäu, where a small flock of around 5 birds would regularly fly away from me whenever I turned up at the peak of the Fellhorn during a week's trip there.

Yes, I wanted some better looks.

The first Snowfinch we saw at Kühtai ... er ... kind of flew away from me, so it seems it's some sort of a tradition thing. But then a few birds landed at a feeder nearby, and then more and more birds showed up, and then I got some amazing looks at the birds sitting, and then hopping, and then flying. Yes, away from me again, but also towards me, around me, and above me. Not below me, but one always ought to leave out one thing in order to have a reason for coming back, so I was fine with that.
And then I took some pictures:

A small group sitting amidst empty sunflower seeds on the roof of a ski-lift station

"We need to talk."

The marching bird.
I've never seen birds with such determined walking gaits. Not as goofy as the Ovenbird, but surely with a comparable mindset.

Best ... Feeder Bird ... Ever!

The Underdogs' feeding frenzy below the feeder.

And now the Eye Candy: the flock in flight.

We were there on a cloudy day, and the sky was as pale and uniformly white as the snow on the surrounding mountain slopes.

In theory this is bad. And it might be bad if you are trying to enjoy 9,999 of the world's 10,000 bird species.

But for viewing Snowfinches, this is perfect weather.

Against a white sky (or snow) the white in the birds' wings and tails merges in perfectly with the background and the Snowfinch has thus one of the most peculiar flight silhouettes I have ever seen (well, have ever partially not seen).

The following two heavily cropped images may convey part of it, but it is so astounding it needs to be seen in life to be appreciated.

Such marvelous avian wonders.

Wednesday 10 March 2010

So many names in the names

The following post was written quite some time ago but then got lost in the archives, half finished and half forgotten, until I stumbled upon this particular and peculiar post on Nate's incomparable Drinking Bird blog.

Bird names.
Oh, some might remember while others had hoped to forget, but this is a topic I am very fond of. I'll need to add tags to my posts one of these days - and this is not the one of the lot - but I can recall three posts on the subject (here, here, and here), with a few more surely buried in the archives.

Nate, inspired by a flaming and brilliant email from Ted Floyd (I'll have a lot of good to say about him soon) to a bird forum, writes about honorific names.
Well, I was about to look it up, but then quickly deduced that this had to mean bird species that were named in honour of a certain person by naming it after that certain person.

And as a matter of fact, this is something I had not failed to notice shortly after setting foot on North American soil for the first time in 1987.
I had bought myself a sweet little field guide - actually I had three, Peterson, the Golden Field guide and a third one whose name I can't recall, with photos instead of drawings.
Anyway, so I was trying to memorize the birds, their names and identification and struggled, because so many names were characterized by names. I'll let my comment to Nate's post do the fine tuning:
"... It is already difficult enough for a European birder to learn the identification of a few “difficult” bird species by heart before he visits North America, but to memorize in advance which warbler is from Connecticut, Kentucky, Tennessee, Nashville, Cape May, or is the sole property of Swainson, Townsend, Virginia (Virginia who?), Kirtland, MacGillivray, or Wilson, is a near impossibility, especially as the visiting birder has likely never been to any of these places, might have no idea where they are as he’s visiting Point Pelee in Ontario on his first trip to the continent, and has certainly never been introduced to the owners of the birds, let alone had a conversation with them. ..."

So quite a while ago, I started flipping through the pages of my trusty ol' Sibley and actually counted the birds named after names.

The result was impressive, as can be seen by the list at the end of this post. I am fairly sure the list is incomplete, but nevertheless:
The list contains 69 different persons, and 89 bird species are named after a person, which is roughly 11% of the bird species regularly found in North America. However, I should not fail to mention that the number of persons is likely larger than 69 as I have (for reasons of simplicity and because I just didn't want to freakin' google all the 89 honorific bird names) attributed all the Wilsons and Clarks etc. to the same person. I am fairly certain however that the two Clark birds (grebe and nutcracker) are named after two different Clarks and that this will likely be the case for a few more names.

And these are only the honorific bird names that contain a person's name. How about geographic names that honour or mention (or whatever it is that pleases) landscape structures or geographic entities, which in my honest opinion also fall into the same category?

Oh dear!

If we take geographic references and names of landscape elements into account as well, the number of birds named after a name increases by roughly 105 species to at total of at least 204 species or 25% of all the bird species of North America.

You doubt that figure?
If in doubt, think it out...

1. All the "Eastern"s and "Western"s and "Northern"s like Eastern Kingbird, Western Grebe, Northern Shrike, ...
Seriously, they may seem to make sense, but in reality they mostly don't. A few examples:
The "Northern" in "Beardless-Tyrannulet might make sense if you live somewhere in Mesoamerica but for citizens of the USA or Canada, it's a joke. And look at Texas recently, where birders were able to see a Northern Wheatear (a vagrant from the far North) and a Northern Jacana (a vagrant from the far South) at the very same time.
And last but not least, just picture Clare up at Arctic Bay. Northern Cardinal? Well, he must be chuckling all the way through his Sibley...

2. All the states and cities, e.g. California Gnatcatcher, Kentucky Warbler, Connecticut Warbler, California Gull, Florida Jay, Carolina Parakeet (oh dear), Baltimore Oriole, Virginia Rail, Savannah Sparrow, ...
All you have to do is ask birders in Connecticut if they have the namesake's warbler on their state list and you'll have to agree that it's all a bit less then perfect.

3. All the geographic areas: South-Hills Crossbill, Mississippi Kite, Gunnison Sage-Grouse, Laysan Albatross, ...

Ha! Look, while in St. Louis I never saw Mississippi Kites anywhere near the Mississippi, they were all in residential areas. The hawk might as well be called "University City Kite" if it was up to me.

And last but certainly not least, yes, you know it applies, no matter how much you may think it is unfair:

4. All the Americans: American Robin, American Crow, American Goldfinch, American Black Duck, ...
I am sorry but I just don't think that bird names were meant to sound patriotic, especially as American bird names just mimic European species that aren't even closely related to them, and I frankly feel the American Tree Sparrow and the likes deserves better.

Yet, worst of all:
5. All the Europeans or rather Eurasians: European Starling, European Tree Sparrow, etc.
Apparently, being invasive ecologically just wasn't enough.

Now, if you still disbelieve that 1 out of 4 species in North America is named after a name, go ahead: flip through your Sibley, page by page, and see for yourself.
I've been there, I've done that, and while the results were fun, the process wasn't particularly so.
I'll now leave you with the list of North American honorific bird names, the birds that were named after persons. It's a long, long list...

But rejoice: African birders must surely be worse off, but I am just not prepared to flip through my entire SASOL just yet...

Honorific Bird Names of North America

Abert (1): Towhee
Allen (1): Hummingbird
Anna (1): Hummingbird
Audubon (3): Shearwater, Oriole, Warbler
Bachman (2): Sparrow, Warbler
Baird (2): Sandpiper, sparrow
Barrow (1): Goldeneye
Bell (1): Vireo
Bendire (1): Thrasher
Bewick (1): Wren
Bicknell (1): Thrush
Bonaparte (1): Gull
Botteri (1): Sparrow
Brandt (1): Cormorant
Brewer (2): Blackbird, Sparrow
Brewster (1): Warbler (hybrid)
Buller (1): Petrel
Bullock (1): Oriole
Cassin (5): Auklet, Kingbird, Vireo, Sparrow, Finch
Clark (2): Grebe, Nutcracker
Cook (1): Petrel
Cooper (1): Hawk
Cory (1). Petrel
Costa (1): Hummingbird
Couch (1): Kingbird
Cravieri (1): Murrelet
Fea (1): Petrel
Forster (1): Tern
Franklin (1): Gull
Gambel (1): Quail
Grace (1): Warbler
Harlan (1): Hawk
Harris (2): Hawk, Sparrow
Heermann (1): Gull
Henslow (1): Sparrow
Herald (1): Petrel
Hutton (1): Vireo
Kirtland (1): Warbler
Kittlitz (1): Murrelet
Krider (1): Hawk
La Sagra (1): Flycatcher
Lawrence (2): Warbler (hybrid), Goldfinch
Leach (1): Stormpetrel
LeConte (1): Sparrow
Lewis (1): Woodpecker
Lincoln (1): Sparrow
Lucy (1): Warbler
Manx (1): Petrel
McCown (1): Longspur
McGillivray (1): Warbler
McKay (1): Bunting
Murphy (1): Petrel
Nelson (2): Gull (hybrid), Sparrow
Nuttall (1): Woodpecker
Ross (2): Gull, Goose
Sabine (1): Gull
Say (1): Phoebe
Scott (1): Oriole
Smith (1): Longspur
Sprague (1): Pipit
Steller (2): Eider, Jay
Swainson (3): Hawk, Thrush, Warbler
Thayer (1): Gull
Townsend (2): Solitaire, Warbler
Traill (1): Flycatcher (pre-split)
Vaux (1): Swift
Virginia (1): Warbler
Wilson (3): Stormpetrel, Plover, Warbler
Xantus (1): Murrelet

Monday 8 March 2010

Thrush Saturation Saturday

As every week has begun since the beginning of time, I went to visit the Best Bird of the Weekend post on 10,000Birds this Monday morning.
The problem is - as it is with every Monday morning visit since the beginning of time - that I seem to be the most trigger-happy commenting birder from the Olde Europe to do so, and as I am 6 to 10 hours ahead of North America the comments section is usually empty and I get to not read anything but write the first comment instead.
If I have something, or rather anything, to tell - a basic requirement only rarely met by myself not since the beginning of time but since moving away from the Baltic to shabby industrialized, built-up and crowded yet Central Park & Jamaica Bayless Heidelberg.
Not so this time, and after telling the world who wasn't willing to know what I wanted it to know on 10,000Birds, I found myself wondering why I didn't turn this comment into a post on my own blog.
So here we are now, not sure if being here was a smart decision in the first place but as we can always blame Monday morning, we might as well stay and see how things will develop.

I do realize that this blog of yours truly has been very rich in words recently and poor in pictures. Therefore, I'll just quickly copy and paste my aforementioned comment here and then follow up with the story in pictures.

What was your best bird of the weekend?
"I’ve had quite an interesting weekend around Leimen/Heidelberg, on my usual stroller stomping ground. We had a sudden re-emergence of winter Friday night with approximately 10 cm (4 inches) of snow, extremely unusual for March.
A lot of migrant songbirds in the surrounding mountains of the Odenwald got caught in this mess and decided to quickly dash down into the warmer valley of the Rhine. On early Saturday, during cloudy conditions and occasional flurries of snow, I watched a constant stream of small songbird groups making their way west, mostly thrushes (5 Turdus species, sadly no Ring Ouzle though) but also a few skylarks and - rarest of all - a Wood Lark. During the afternoon, conditions were better with blue skies and sun, but the entire landscape except for the roads and paths was still covered in snow.
Along my stroller route, I encountered more than 50 song thrushes searching for snacks right beside the road. This is great as I’d normally be happy to see more than 2!
On Sunday, the entire show was over with just 8 song thrushes during the morning walk and only 1 in the afternoon.

So, I guess Song Thrush, despite being a very common bird, deserves to take the cake as best bird of the weekend.
However, I’ve also had a fabulous observation of a Common Buzzard and found the nest of a Long-tailed Tit. The latter is good to know in case a certain birder from New York shows up with vendetta on his mind…"

This is not what one expects to be greeted by upon leaving their apartment in southern Germany around the middle of March, but it certainly wasn't enough to deter me from my plans of going for a stroller walk with my son - weekend quality time is weekend quality time and always will be weekend quality time until the end of time. According to this post, New Yorkers would have died left, right, and centre in such a "blizzard" just by looking out of their apartment windows, but Leimen is not New York. Definitely and clearly not.

I will freely admit there were times during the walk when I questioned my decision to just ignore the snow and literally push on.

Especially as the landscape did not specifically hold out the promise of many birds.
... of any birds.

This Great Spotted Woodpecker only gave its presence away by its pertinent scolding. No, I did not mean to write "impertinent".

Looking at the state of its habitat, I can't deny I had sympathy for the old grump, despite being of a more sunny inclination myself even on winter days in March. There was clearly spring in the air, okay? Even if there weren't any gulls around to set (purely potential) doubters right. Yeah, right!
And yes, the tiny spot up there, that's it. No, not spring. I mean the woodpecker.

Unlike the weather and conditions on ground and tree, the sky was on fire. Apparently the weather was even worse in the surrounding mountains of the Odenwald and was actively pushing migrant songbirds down into the Rhine valley. Well, it might not have been pushing them actively, but if ever there were songbirds on a mission to get from somewhere to somewhere else and get there fast, it was last Saturday and it was around Leimen. The majority of the fugitives were thrushes, mostly Fieldfares as in the picture above, but with plenty of Song Thrushes mixed in, a few Blackbirds, an odd Mistle Thrush or two and even at least one Redwing.

Stupid Fieldfares, mistaking Leimen for Lisbon and coming down to roost.

This all happened before the high noon nap of my son. However, dad's weekend quality time doesn't end there, it goes on until bedtime and specifically includes an extensive afternoon stroller tour as well. And sure enough, times had changed from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., as seen in the two pictures below. The small and lovely flurry of snow .... ahem, I mean the ferocious and totally deadly blizzard of the millennium, for potential New Yorkers reading this, had ceased to shed its white shroud over the landscape and a ricocheting spring had managed to at least reclaim the roadsides.

This is Thrush Heaven, South Central.

Suddenly, there was grass! And boy, were the thrushes happy to see it. The grassy sides of the roads were literally covered in thrushes, mostly Song Thrushes with over 50 recorded where I'd normally be happy to encounter two during migrational days of excellence, but there were also a few Eurasian Blackbirds and a single Fieldfare who had lingered long enough to notice that those Fieldfares pushing on towards Lisbon were indeed the stupid ones...

In the above pictures, you can see a Blackbird with three Song Thrushes and three Song Thrushes with no Blackbird. The second picture may help you in figuring out which is which in the picture on top. Kidding. Look, the thrush isn't called "BLACKbird" for nothing, right?

Same game again: two Song Thrushes (identical bird) and a Eurasian Blackbird. I love Catharus thrushes. That's why I love the Song Thrush. The Song Thrush is not a Catharus thrush. But it reminds me of one, and beggars can't be chosers. Particularly those beggars residing in the moldy hell of Leimen. This is why even Blackbirds are more than fine, too.

Aaaand, the grand finale of our little crash course to Thrush Identification! Yupp, Song Thrush and Blackbird. Note the differences in size and how utterly unimportant this is as a field mark.

But of course there were other species as well:

Eurasian Tree Sparrows searching the road for food. Notice the right bird hopping to attract earthworms. This is very unwise as a) Tree Sparrows don't feed on earthworms b) only thrushes are supposed to be doing this and c) it's completely pointless on a tarred road anyway.

I highly recommend looking at Tree Sparrows head-on. Few birds look that sharp when seen head-on. With the possible exception of the Wrybill.

Prime first-wave male Chaffinch, humiliated by having to feed in the mud. Thankfully, the females and male whippersnappers are still somewhere out of sight in southern France and Italy, busy avoiding lime-twigs.

And all this glory was brought to you courtesy of the towering heights of the frightening Odenwald. Migrant Songbirds, heed the warning: don't go there! Fly over Leimen instead.
My weekend stroller schedule is Saturday and Sunday, 09:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. to 05:30 p.m. or by appointment in case of true vagrancy.
See you there!