Thursday, February 21, 2008

I and the Bird #69

The 69th edition of the I and the Bird carnival is now available, hosted by Grrlscientist at Living the Scientific Life. Take the quiz and you might win a free book.

Forthcoming Book on Audubon

The book—scheduled for publication by the LSU Press in April—is A summer of birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House, by Danny Heitman.

As described by the LSU Press:
As the summer of 1821 began, John James Audubon's ambition to create a comprehensive pictorial record of American birds was still largely a dream. Then, out of economic necessity, Audubon came to Oakley Plantation, a sprawling estate in Louisiana's West Feliciana Parish. Teeming with what Audubon described as an "almost supernatural" abundance of birds, the woods of Oakley galvanized his sense of possibility for one of the most audacious undertakings in the annals of art.

In A Summer of Birds, journalist and essayist Danny Heitman sorts through the facts and romance of Audubon's summer at Oakley, a season that clearly shaped the destiny of the world's most famous bird artist. Heitman draws from a rich variety of sources—including Audubon's own extensive journals, more recent Audubon scholarship, and Robert Penn Warren's poetry—to create a stimulating excursion across time, linking the historical man Audubon to the present-day civic and cultural icon. He considers the financial straits that led to Audubon's employment at Oakley as a private tutor to fifteen-year-old Eliza Pirrie, Audubon's family history, his flamboyance as a master of self-invention, his naturalist and artistic techniques, and the possible reasons for his dismissal. Illustrations include photographs of Oakley House—now a state historic site—Audubon's paintings from his Oakley period, and portraits of the Pirrie family members.

A favorable combination of climate and geography made Oakley a birding haven, and Audubon completed or began at least twenty-three bird paintings—among his finest work—while staying there. A Summer of Birds will inform and delight readers in its exploration of this eventful but unsung 1821 interlude, a fascinating chapter in the life of America's foremost bird artists. It is an indispensable pleasure for birders, Audubon enthusiasts, and visitors to Oakley House.
This book would appear be of interest to all Audubonophiles.

Hybrids or Distinct Species?

Christopher Taylor’s interesting review and commentary on Errol Fuller’s The lost birds of paradise (1995) ponders the difficulty of determining with certainty the taxonomic status of forms known from very few specimens.

As an aside, he offers this observation:
a major factor in the decline of popularity of plumes [in the U.S. fashion industry] was actually the rise in popularity of the motor-car - ornate plumed hats being decidedly impractical for wearing in open-topped cars.
Whether this is speculation on Taylor's part or is attributable to Fuller, I don't know, but I found it interesting as I don't believe I have ever before seen a claim made for this association. But it does seem to make logical sense.

Melvin A. Traylor--Obituary

Noted ornithologist Melvin A. Traylor Jr. (1915-2008) has died at age 92. Traylor was long associated with the Chicago Field Museum, for whom he conducted collecting expeditions to Africa and Latin America. Traylor specialized in flycatchers of the family Tyrannidae.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Nature Blog Network—Popularity vs Quality

Billed as The Toplist for Every Species of Nature Blog, the Nature Blog Network (NBN) sees itself as “a resource for the very best nature blogs on the net—based on actual page views.” Simply counting page views is a great way to indicate the popularity of a blog, but popularity does not necessarily correlate with quality.

My fear is that people who use the NBN will tend to focus only on the top blogs (i.e., those that appear at or near the top of the list), thereby missing blogs that may rival the top blogs in quality, but which for various reasons have not achieved the popularity of the “toplist” blogs.

I pride myself in maintaining an extensive list of bird blogs on my blogroll. I currently feature some 313 active blogs (221 North American, 70 European, 13 Asian, 5 Australian, 3 African, and 2 South American). Of the 60 bird blogs listed on the NBN today, nearly half of them (29) are not now included on my blogroll (in most cases, because I was unaware of their existence).

My conclusion is that the NBN is a great resource for locating and accessing bird blogs, but if you just focus on those at the top of the list you’ll be missing out on some high-quality writing and photography. In reality, the NBN will never replace the Google blog search in utility (i.e., ability to readily access blog posts on topics of interest). And finally, your bird blog won’t appear in the NBN at all unless you take the time (just a few seconds, really) to join. So get busy!

The Other “C-Word”

Most of the mainstream news media were atwitter over Jane Fonda’s use of the "c-word "on NBC’s Today Show last week while explaining her involvement in a performance of The Vagina Monologues. More enlightened (and, I must say, much more interesting) commentaries are found here and here. And if you haven’t figured it out yet, the “c-word” is a four-letter derogatory name for vagina.

This whole silly episode reminded me of the other “c-word.” Cock is one of those intriguing words in the English language that, depending on the context in which it’s used, can be considered either acceptable or obscene. A quick check of any dictionary reveals that cock has many definitions.

Cock frequently crops up in the vernacular of birders, ornithologists, and wildlife biologists when referring to a male bird, especially one of the gallinaceous variety. For example, make reference to a cock pheasant in mixed company and no one is likely to raise an eyebrow. Cock also appears in the common English names of a few species (e.g., cocks-of-the-rock, snowcocks, and woodcocks).

There are many other acceptable uses of cock, such as ballcock, cockpit, cocksure, cocktail, cock-and-bull, cock-eyed, poppycock, and shuttlecock, to name but a few, and (most incredibly) as a surname.

Cock is also a slang term for penis, of course, a usage which is considered an obscenity never to be used in polite company. Thus, unlike that other unsavory “c-word,” cock is a word that can be socially acceptable or obscene, depending strictly on usage and context. Strange, eh?

Monday, February 18, 2008

Great Backyard Bird Counting in Michigan

I was looking forward to the opportunity of doing the GBBC in my new backyard in southwestern Michigan this year, but circumstances demanded that I return to West Virginia to attend to some personal affairs. Fortunately, best birding-buddy Marj was kind enough to do two counts for me. Here are her results:
Locality: 49107, Buchanan, Berrien County, MI
Observation Date: FEB 15, 2008
Start Time: 9:00 AM
Total Birding Time: 1 hour
Party Size: 1
Skill: fair
Weather: excellent
Snow Depth: 8 - 10 in (20.3 - 25.4 cm)
- deciduous woods
- suburban
- freshwater
Number of Species: 15
All Reported: yes
- Canada Goose - 5
- Downy Woodpecker - 2
- Blue Jay - 2
- Black-capped Chickadee - 6
- Tufted Titmouse - 2
- Red-breasted Nuthatch - 1
- White-breasted Nuthatch - 1
- American Tree Sparrow - 12
- Song Sparrow - 2
- Dark-eyed Junco - 30
- Northern Cardinal - 5
- Purple Finch - 2
- Common Redpoll - 30
- American Goldfinch - 4
- House Sparrow – 2

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Locality: 49107, Buchanan, Berrien County, MI
Observation Date: FEB 16, 2008
Start Time: 8:30 AM
Total Birding Time: 1 hour
Party Size: 1
Skill: fair
Weather: excellent
Snow Depth: 8 - 10 in (20.3 - 25.4 cm)
- deciduous woods
- suburban
- freshwater
Number of Species: 14
All Reported: yes
- Cooper's Hawk - 1
- Red-bellied Woodpecker - 2
- Downy Woodpecker - 2
- Blue Jay - 2
- American Crow - 1
- Black-capped Chickadee - 5
- Tufted Titmouse - 2
- Red-breasted Nuthatch - 1
- American Tree Sparrow - 4
- Dark-eyed Junco - 8
- Northern Cardinal - 2
- Purple Finch - 2
- Common Redpoll - 5
- American Goldfinch – 1
All together, a total of 144 individual of 18 species were recorded in our yard over the course of the two days, most of them visiting the feeders.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Sunday Great Backyard Bird Counting in West Virginia

I managed to get out for two counts today, with the following results:
Locality: 25401, Martinsburg, Berkeley County, WV
Observation Date: FEB 17, 2008
Start Time: 9:00 AM
Total Birding Time: 1 hour
Party Size: 1
Skill: excellent
Weather: excellent
Snow Depth: No snow was present
- deciduous woods
- scrub
- rural
- freshwater
Number of Species: 17
All Reported: yes
- Canada Goose - 6
- Mallard - 12
- Killdeer - 1
- Rock Pigeon - 3
- Mourning Dove - 5
- Belted Kingfisher - 1
- Downy Woodpecker - 1
- Hairy Woodpecker - 2
- American Crow - 5
- Carolina Chickadee - 2
- Tufted Titmouse - 1
- Carolina Wren - 2
- European Starling - 4
- White-throated Sparrow - 5
- Dark-eyed Junco - 1
- Red-winged Blackbird - 5
- Common Grackle - 1
- Site was Poor House Farm Park.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Locality: 25401, Martinsburg, Berkeley County, WV
Observation Date: FEB 17, 2008
Start Time: 2:15 PM
Total Birding Time: 15 minutes
Party Size: 1
Skill: excellent
Weather: good
Snow Depth: No snow was present
- urban
Number of Species: 5
All Reported: yes
- Rock Pigeon - 39
- American Crow - 2
- Northern Mockingbird - 1
- European Starling - 1
- House Sparrow - 15
- Site was my backyard.
All told, I tallied 115 individuals of 19 species. As of 10:15 PM (EST) my Belted Kingfisher is the first reported for Martinsburg by GBBC participants.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Robins and the Great Backyard Bird Count

In recent years, it has dawned on me that the first American Robins (Turdus migratorius) of the year appear in my backyard sometime during President's Day weekend, coincident with the Great Backyard Bird Count. Is that merely because I spend more time in the backyard on the alert for whatever birds might be about, or does it reflect an actual influx of robins into the neighborhood. This graph from ebird (which shows the frequency with which American Robins are reported in West Virginia) indicates a major influx of birds into the State between mid-February and the first of March. This trend leads me conclude that these are not birds that have lingered undetected in the neighborhood all winter, but are in fact early-arriving migrants that have wintered further south.

Surrounded By Aliens

I did a quick Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) this morning in my very "weedy" (i.e., alien-infested) urban backyard in downtown Martinsburg, West Virginia. Here are the results:
Locality: 25401, Martinsburg, Berkeley County, WV
Observation Date: FEB 16, 2008
Start Time: 8:30 AM
Total Birding Time: 15 minutes
Party Size: 1
Skill: excellent
Weather: excellent
Snow Depth: No snow was present
- urban
Number of Species: 8
All Reported: yes
- Rock Pigeon - 25
- Mourning Dove - 2
- Blue Jay - 3
- Fish Crow - 1
- European Starling - 30
- Dark-eyed Junco - 1
- Northern Cardinal - 3
- House Sparrow - 20
I take solace in the fact that my lone Fish Crow is the first to be reported from West Virginia by GBBC participants as of 5:45 PM (EST). The Fish Crow has become a fairly common year-round resident in the Eastern Panhandle.

Friday, February 15, 2008

My Friday Great Backyard Bird Counts in West Virginia

I got out briefly today to conduct two counts in Martinsburg, West Virginia. The results follow:
Locality: 25401, Martinsburg, Berkeley County, WV
Observation Date: FEB 15, 2008
Start Time: 12:30 PM
Total Birding Time: 30 minutes
Party Size: 1
Skill: excellent
Weather: excellent
Snow Depth: Less than 2 in (5.1 cm)
- deciduous woods
- suburban
- freshwater
Number of Species: 8
All Reported: yes
- Wood Duck - 1
- Yellow-bellied Sapsucker - 3
- American Crow - 1
- Tufted Titmouse - 4
- White-breasted Nuthatch - 3
- European Starling - 1
- Northern Cardinal - 2
- House Finch - 7
- Site covered was War Memorial Park and adjacent
Tuscarora Creek.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Locality: 25401, Martinsburg, Berkeley County, WV
Observation Date: FEB 15, 2008
Start Time: 1:15 PM
Total Birding Time: 15 minutes
Party Size: 1
Skill: excellent
Weather: excellent
Snow Depth: Less than 2 in (5.1 cm)
- urban
- freshwater
Number of Species: 2
All Reported: yes
- Hooded Merganser - 8
- American Crow - 1
- Site covered was an abandoned quarry now filled
with water.
In total, I tallied 31 individuals of 9 species. At the time I submitted the checklists in late afternoon, I had seen two species that had not yet been reported from West Virginia by other GBBC participants: Wood Duck and Hooded Merganser.

Ivory-billed Woodpecker Documentation in Arkansas

In November 2006, I expressed surprise that the Arkansas Bird Records Database (as then available, including records through December 2005) made no mention of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (IBWO). That apparent oversight has now been rectified.

The current version of the ABRD (as downloaded on 2/14/2008) includes one record for the IBWO that has been recognized as valid by the Arkansas Bird Records Committee (ABRC), that being the single bird observed by Tim Gallagher and Bobby Harrison at Bayou de View, Monroe County, on February 27, 2004. This report is assigned “RecNo” 11744 and the “Comment” column contains the following brief remark:
David Luneau submitted a Verifying Documentation written [emphasis added] on 4/25/04. Ver. Doc. #961.
Astute readers will recall that the Luneau video, Fitzpatrick et al.'s (2005) (.PDF) piece de resistance, was filmed on 4/25/04, the same date on which his “verifying documentation” is said to have been written, but was not received by the ABRC to review until June 17, 2005. The news release announcing the decision of the ABRC to change the status of the IBWO in Arkansas from “extirpated” to “present” mentions review only of evidence gathered in the Cache River in April 2004. Which leaves me to wonder which record of the IBWO is it that the ABRC has accepted, Gallagher and Harrison’s February sighting or Luneau’s video? Am I being overly critical of the ABRC’s documentation, or are there inconsistencies with this record ("RecNo" 11744) that need to be explained in greater clarity?

Great Backyard Bird Count 2008

Today's the day, folks. The first day of the 2008 Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), an annual four-day citizen-science event to identify, count, tabulate, and map the birds frequenting backyards, neighborhoods, parks, and refuges across the continent. You don't have to be an expert birder to participate. The only qualification is that you have an interest in birds and some basic knowledge of bird identification and familiarity with the birds of your neighborhood. It's a great way to bring excitement to what could otherwise be a cold, snowy, and dreary February weekend. It's a great way to introduce your friends, spouse, or kids to the joys of gold old-fashioned bird watching. Need a little extra motivations? Just check out the GBBC Blog (new this year). That should get the adrenalin flowing. Then grab your binoculars and start counting the birds in your backyard! Oh yeah, don't forget to submit your results online at the end of the day.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Black-footed Ferrets and Steamy Romance Novels

What could be more appropriate for Valentine’s Day than a discussion of romance novels, especially when that discussion involves plagiarism by a romance novelist of text from an article in a natural history magazine?

Our juicy tale begins with nature writer Paul Tolme’s revelation that significant portions of his story about Black-footed Ferrets, published in Defenders Magazine in summer 2005, subsequently appeared (without attribution) in a romance novel by Cassie Edwards called Shadow Bear, in which the main characters engage in some remarkably unromantic post-coital discussions about the lives of ferrets. A 17-minute interview with Tolme on NPR’s Talk of the Nation can be downloaded here.

Ms. Edwards’s egregious transgressions were first brought to light in a 5-part series by Smart Bitches Who Love Trashy Books. PodBlack Cat later expanded upon this story to produce a fascinating essay about the psychology behind the massive romance novel genre. After briefly reviewing the incredible array of sexual behaviors found in the animal kingdom, she suggests that “we should encourage more animal-related stories in general as material fit for encouraging a love of reading and science… er, as well as learning about how love is really a fascinating topic and not something to be fearful of discussing in a rational, informed way.”

For those of you eager for still more, a blogsearch reveals a ton more of stuff about this tawdry affair. What fun!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Floyd Hayes—Birder and Ornithologist

Here’s a nice profile from the St. Helena (California) Star. Hayes is a biology professor at Pacific Union College and an intrepid birder.

Florida Records of Ivory-billed Woodpecker Rejected

Meeting at the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida in Gainesville on January 27, 2007, members of the Florida Ornithological Society Records Committee (FOSRC) voted 0-7 to NOT ACCEPT reports of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker along the lower Choctawhatchee River, 2005-2006.

The relevant portions of the FOSRC’s April 2007 report reads as follows:
RC 06-610. Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Campephilus principalis. 21 May 2005- 26 April 2006. Choctawhatchee River, Washington/Bay/Walton cos. A population of unknown size has been reported by a team from Auburn University from the lower Choctawhatchee River. There have been a few sightings but no photographs, some interesting recordings of “kent” calls and of double rap drums, and photographs taken of cavities and bark scaling. These observations were made on the heels of the much-publicized “rediscovery” of the species in Arkansas (Fitzpatrick et al 2005). The species had not been documented to occur since 1944. The video documentation of the bird(s) from Arkansas, however, has been debated by many, although the record was accepted by the Arkansas Bird Records Committee. Our Committee felt that given the controversy of the Arkansas evidence, the species is best considered still extinct. Therefore only evidence that undoubtedly showed a living bird would be considered sufficient to accept a report.

The last specimen taken in Florida was in 1925; there have been numerous sight reports of varying credibility since, and one record of a feather found in a nest cavity in 1968 that was identified as an Ivory-billed Woodpecker inner secondary by Alexander Wetmore.

Woodpecker – The Film

Alex Karpovsky’s film, Woodpecker, will premiere at the SXSW Film Festival in March in Austin, Texas. Excerpts from the film's Web site:
Fanatical birdwatchers have descended upon a small town in the Arkansas bayou in hopes of finding the celebrated Ivory-billed Woodpecker. . . .

Much like the bird itself, Woodpecker explores the intersection of fact and fiction, manipulating our notions of documentary and narrative techniques within a tragic comedy about hope, perception, and some very very strange birds.
No matter on which side of the Ivory-bill debate you find yourself, this looks like it should be a very entertaining film.

Southwest Michigan Team Birdathon

The 20th Annual Southwest Michigan Team Birdathon will take place “Saturday, May 17, in Berrien County, the southwestern-most county in Michigan. Berrien’s Lake Michigan shoreline, wooded dunes and parks offer scenic and productive spring birding opportunities.” For additional information about this event, click here (.PDF).

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

New IBWO Poll

Just for the halibut, I encourage you to go the Owl box and participate in the Owlman’s poll on the status of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis). Voice your opinion on whether you think the Lord God Bird is extant or extinct.

Blow Dealt to the Red Knot

Caption: The “Red Knot” photograph is by kingstonmike, as downloaded from
As if to rub salt in an open wound, the New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council voted 5-4 on Monday (2/11/2008) to reject a ban on the harvest of horseshoe crabs to protect migratory birds that feed on the crab’s eggs. Ironically, the vote came less than 24 hours after the airing of Crash: A Tale of Two Species, a documentary in the PBS series NATURE that investigated the impact of declining populations of horseshoe crabs on shorebirds, such as the Red Knot (Calidris canutus), that depend on the availability of horseshoe crab eggs to replenish fat stores at migratory stopover sites on the Atlantic Coast.

Stealth Woodpeckers

Despite all the publicity generated by reported sightings (a few even supported by video or audio evidence) in Arkansas, Florida, and Louisiana since 2004, the elusive Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) continues to elude one of North America’s largest and most extensive bird-monitoring databases: eBird, “North America’s destination for birding on the Web” and one of the lynchpins of the Avian Knowledge Network.

More than 11 million bird observations currently populate the eBird database, but none of them are of Ivory-bills, which is especially curious considering that eBird was the brainchild of John Fitzpatrick and is maintained at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (CLO). And it was investigators associated with the CLO, of course, who made seven independent sightings of Ivory-bills in Arkansas. Why doesn’t the infamous Ivory-bill of the Luneau video (the one accepted as evidence of the continued presence of Ivory-bills in Arkansas by the Arkansas Bird Records Committee) or any of the seven associated sightings appear in the eBird database?

I understand that eBird is a citizen-science database, and as such contains only the observations submitted to it by willing volunteers. Okay, so maybe the 14 sightings reported by the Geoffrey Hill’s Auburn team in the Florida Panhandle and the untold sightings claimed by Mike Collins (aka Fishcrow) in the Pearl River Basin of Louisiana have never been submitted to eBird. I can accept that. But what of the seven sightings associated with Cornell’s 2004-2005 search effort in Arkansas? It seems to me that CLO would have a vested interest in ensuring that those sightings (if considered valid) became part of eBird. I’m curious as to why they have not.

Monday, February 11, 2008


Recently launched by Steve Moore, BirdwatchRadio is “an audio podcast about birds & birders.” His initial offering is a winner. Broadcast from the floor of Birdwatch America in Atlanta, Georgia, it features smart and interesting interviews with representatives of companies that design products for birders (with a heavy emphasis on optics).

Interviewees include Jeff Bouton (Leica), Joe Hamilton (Vortex Optics), Clay Taylor (Swarovski Optik), Betsy Puckett (Droll Yankees), and Bart Stephens (Wingscapes). But my favorite by far (surprisingly to me) was Monteen McCord, the outspoken owner/operator of Hawktalk, a local Georgia nonprofit rehabilitation facility. Watch for additional BirdwatchRadio broadcasts to appear at the rate of about one or two per month.

If subsequent programs are as good as the first, you’ll want to become a regular listener or subscriber to BirdwatchRadio (click here to view your listening options).

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Flying High

It’s truly amazing what one can find on the Internet these days. Thank you, Al Gore!! As I was saying, I just stumbled upon this cached text version of an article (scroll up to start at top) that briefly describes my wonderful adventures some 30-plus year ago while working on the (ultimately successful) project to recover populations of the then-endangered Aleutian Canada Goose (Branta canadensis leucopareia). Written by Doreen Cubie, it was originally published in Islands Magazine on November 20, 2001.

IBWO Toots: An Archive of Ivory-billed Woodpecker Blog Postings

I well remember the excitement I felt when I first heard rumors, back in April 2005, that there would soon be a major announcement coming out of Arkansas about the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis). Someone must surely have discovered a breeding pair, I thought. My greatest fear was realized when what was reported was not a breeding pair, but the sighting(s) of a single individual. And when I viewed the blurry image that was presented as purported documentation, my heart sank. In subsequent months and years I found myself inexorably drawn into the IBWO debate, growing ever more skeptical of the “evidence” being put forth claiming the continued existence of IBWOs in the southeastern U.S.

Caption: This ghostly image of the skull of Campephilus principalis is from the University of Texas.
As someone with a definite opinion on the subject, I found it impossible to resist occasionally offering up my own comments. In the 34 months since the announced “rediscovery,” I have written no fewer than 65 blog-posts relating (directly or indirectly) to the IBWO; some are whimsical or frivolous while others are more serious and ubstantive in nature. They’ve all been fun to research and write. My IBWO blog-posts are listed here in inverse chronological order:

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Towhee Madness

This story begins in a most unlikely way. Standing by the dining room window and looking out at the usual assembly of birds gathering at the feeders on the morning of January 31, I said to Marj, almost in jest, “I want to see something new.”

Those words had barely escaped my lips when Marj said, “Oh! What’s that bird?”

To which I replied, “Where? What bird?”

“There! Right there on the ground beneath the feeders.”

Just at that moment, my eyes spotted the unmistakable profile and jizz of a towhee. The black head and breast, rusty sides, and white underparts were enough for me to identify it at a glance as an Eastern Towhee, a bird I had known in my youth as the Rufous-sided Towhee. This was very exciting, as southwestern Michigan lies north of the normal wintering range of the species. A quick glance at the Niles Christmas Bird Count showed just one record of this species in the last 10 years.

That evening, I sent the following post to the BBCLIST (the listserv of the Berrien Birding Club):
A gorgeous adult male Eastern Towhee has frequented our feeding station at 4776 Erie Drive throughout the day today. He makes brief appearances to feed on the ground beneath the feeders before disappearing again in nearby shrubbery.
Later that evening, I received the following response from Jon Wuepper (one of Berrien County’s top birders and winter-season compiler for the Michigan Audubon Society):
Thanks for the report! I'm always on the lookout for the similar-appearing Spotted Towhee of the west. It's turned up 2-3 times in Michigan, I think all were during winter. It's just a thought.
My first thought was, “Oh, shit!” I hadn’t even considered the possibility of Spotted Towhee! Having just returned to southwestern Michigan to live after a 43-year absence, I took a few quick field marks and instantly jumped to the conclusion that the bird was an Eastern Towhee, the familiar Rufous-sided Towhee of my youth. Having never seen a Spotted Towhee before in my life, my next thought was, “Okay, how does one differentiate a Spotted Towhee from an Eastern Towhee?” To resolve that question, I grabbed the Sibley field guide off my shelves. And then I started kicking myself, “My God, how could I fail to notice whether or not the bird had prominent white spots on its back? What kind of birder am I, anyway?” About all I could do at that point was hope and pray that the bird again put in an appearance at the feeders the next day.

Caption: Spotted Towhee on left, Eastern Towhee on right, both by Kent Nickel, and downloaded from
As fate would have it, the weather gods were on my side, with temperatures dipping down close to zero overnight and the forecast calling for additional heavy accumulations of snow. Dawn arrived reluctantly the next morning: cold, overcast, and snowy. It would have been dreary-looking were it not for the fresh coating of white snow covering the ground and tree branches. The feeders had all been replenished, ready to lure in any towhees lurking in the neighborhood. There were many chores to be done around the house that Friday morning, so I didn’t spend huge blocks of time sitting in front of the windows in anticipation of the bird’s arrival, just frequent casual glances throughout the day as I went about my business.

My “egg-on-my-face” message to the BBCLIST the evening of February 1 read as follows:
It turns out that the towhee frequenting feeders at 4776 Erie Drive in Buchanan is a SPOTTED TOWHEE, not an Eastern Towhee as reported yesterday.

First noted yesterday, the bird was observed briefly this morning, then again for extended periods of time between 4 and 5 pm this afternoon. The white spotting on the scapulars and lack of white at the base of the primaries clearly identifies the bird as an adult male
SPOTTED TOWHEE, making this apparently just the 3rd or 4th record for Berrien County [Actually, this will be the 5th documented record for the entire State of Michigan, if accepted].

Many thanks to Jonathan Wuepper for alerting me to the possibility of SPOTTED TOWHEE. Birders wishing to see this bird are welcome, but please call in advance
(269-697-xxxx) for permission to visit as the bird is quite flighty and best observed from inside the house.
The first to show up at our house the next morning (February 2) were Kip Miller (founder of the Berrien Bird Club and naturalist at the Love Creek Nature Center) and 15-year-old ace birder Alison Village and her father and younger sister. The towhee, of course, did not make an appearance. Of course not. Neither did it put in an appearance in the afternoon, when Jon Wuepper and Dave Vinnage visited the house looking for the bird. In fact, the feeders were strangely silent all day, with even the juncos and redpolls seeming to scorn the seeds we were offering, the same seeds that they had wolfed down eagerly in previous days.

As the day gradually turned to dusk my excitement turned to frustration over the failure of the bird to show up so that my report could be independently verified by other birders. As a relative "newbie" to the area, local birders had no basis on which to judge my qualifications for identifying such a rarity. The only documentation I had been able to obtain was an extremely poor-quality snapshot that showed a tiny image of a dark-colored bird on a snowy background, and on the back of which one could almost make out—with the aid of a magnifying glass—what appeared to be white spots.

About noon the next day (February 3), Jon Wuepper called to say that he had relocated the Spotted Towhee in a brushy area a short distance from our house. And incredibly, it was associating with a male Eastern Towhee!

Shortly thereafter, Kip Miller reported the news on the BBCLIST thusly:
Today Jon Wuepper was able to successfully relocate the male Spotted Towhee reported on Friday by John Trapp in a neighborhood in Buchanan. It was not found in the yard where it was originally located, but nearby in a small neighborhood park. Ironically, a male Eastern Towhee is also present at the same location! (Which means John could have had both towhees in his yard….) Alison Village and I saw both towhees at about 3:30 p.m. today in the park where Jon saw it earlier today.
Following is an excerpt from the report I prepared for the Michigan Bird Records Committee on February 5:
The bird appeared huge in relation to the juncos and tree sparrows with which it was feeding, but in reality was probably robin-sized or slightly smaller. The entire head, neck, throat, upper breast, back, and bill appeared black, in stark contrast to the orange on the flanks and sides of the breast and the white of the lower breast and belly. Leg and feet coloration were not noted. The tail appeared quite long in relation to the size of the body and was held in an upright posture when on the ground. The size, proportions, posture, and color patterns of the bird led me to instantly ID it as an adult male Eastern Towhee, and I reported it as such on the BBC listserv. Only after Jon Wuepper alerted me to the possibility of Spotted Towhee did I check the bird closely for the presence of dorsal spotting when observed again on the afternoon of Feb 1. The bird had prominent white spots on the scapulars and wing coverts. I could also clearly distinguish a very thin horizontal white line that was apparently formed by the tips of the folded primaries. I looked closely for a white spot at the base of the folded primaries (said by Sibley to be characteristic of Eastern or Eastern x Spotted hybrids) and could see none. On several occasions the bird was noted “scratching” the surface of the snow with both feet at the same time to uncover seeds. The best views of the bird were obtained on the afternoon of Feb 1, when the bird was observed feeding beneath the feeders on several occasions between 4 and 5 pm.
In subsequent days, the Spotted Towhee was seen by numerous other birders. And Kip Miller's patience was finally rewarded with an identifiable photograph of the bird. That photograph was used to illustrate an the following article on the bird that was published in a local weekley, the Berrien County Record written by Dennis Cogswell, outdoors editor of the daily Herald Palladium (and appearing 02/08/2008 on Page D04):
Spotted Towhee Makes Rare Appearance in Berrien County

When John L. Trapp of Buchanan looked out his backyard window last week, he found something that had never been reported in Berrien County before.

It was a male Spotted Towhee, a western species which has been recorded in Michigan only four times. Once considered a subspecies of the Rufous-sided Towhee, the Spotted Towhee was determined by scientists in 1995 to be a separate species.

When Royalton Township naturalist Jon Wuepper investigated last weekend he found the bird had moved from Trapp's feeder to a neighborhood park. It was hanging out with an Eastern Towhee. Love Creek Nature Center naturalist Kip Miller snapped several pictures of the Spotted Towhee on Tuesday.

As its name suggests, the Spotted Towhee has white spots or streaks across its wings and back. Males dark black heads, backs and wings, while females are a lighter brown.

Wuepper said the sighting caused quite a stir among local birders.
For me, the object lesson of this amazing adventure is this: Always be on the alert for the unexpected, especially when you least expect it.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Osprey Landing

Sitting and chatting on a sofa in the living room of the house that would, less than six months later, become our home, MF and I were delighted one day last summer by the sight of an Osprey perching and sunning itself on a snag overhanging the lake adjacent to the property. Because of the paucity of breeding season (June-July) records of the Osprey in southern Michigan (see map from ebird), it is one of several species for which the Michigan DNR solicits online reports. Herewith is the full text of the report I submitted of our Pandion halieatus sighting.


County: Berrien
Town, Village, or City: Buchanan Township
Township: T7S
Range: R18W
Section: 36
Description of Location: Northeast corner of Crescent Lake (as known locally) opposite 4776 Erie Drive in the Crescent View subdivision, a location about 1 mi SE of downtown Buchanan, Michigan, and 1 mi S of the St. Joe River.
Water Type: Lake
Name: Crescent Lake

Features/Characteristics used in identification: Raptorial bird with light (white) head, chest, and underparts contrasting with prominent dark eyestripe and dorsal surface. Smaller than an eagle.
Number: 1.
Distance from Observer: 100 yards.
Rank Your Confidence in this Identification: Extremely Confident.
Weather Conditions: Clear.
Behavior of Osprey: Perching, sunning, flying.

The bird was perched in the top of a dead snag, where it sunned itself and preened for some time, then circled the lake several times before disappearing to the north, only to reappear over the lake a few minutes later.
In commemoration of this memorable event, we plan to call our newly-purchased property Osprey Landing.

Ornithologists Unite (Historical)

The formation of the American Ornithologists’ Union on September 26, 1883, by 20 “distinguished ornithologists” known collectively as the “founders,” at a meeting held at the American Museum of Natural History, was deemed newsworthy enough to warrant coverage in the New York Times. Would a comparable event (i.e., the formation of a scientific organization with 20 founding members) generate the same media coverage today? Sadly, the answer is, "Not very likely."

Got Pecker?—Classy Thong

Even classier than the woodpecker boxer shorts, these thongs are just the thing for your woodpecker-loving wife or girlfriend. What better way to show your support for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker? Order today for Valentine’s Day!

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Ivory-bill "Boom Goes Bust"

The temporary economic boom created by the so-called “rediscovery” of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, which was highlighted at the time on NPR (see here), has come to a screeching halt following the failure to prove the existence of a population in the Arkansas swamps, leaving the entrepreneurial souls who jumped on the Campephilus bandwagon out of business and broke, as reported here (registration my be required) by the New York Times. Excerpts follow:
“It has been kind of a disappointment,” said Penny Childs, owner of Penny’s Hair Care and creator of the “woodpecker haircut,” which she does not get many requests for anymore. “The delta could use millions of dollars to build up our lives, but instead we struggle.”

Mrs. Childs, 43, is still cutting hair, but just down the street from her small one room salon, an empty brick building is all that remains of the Ivory-Bill Nest gift shop, which closed last January. Down the street, the former Ivory-Billed Inn and R.V. Park is now a Days Inn.

“I did invest a lot of money in stuff to sell, and I didn’t even break even,” Mrs. Childs said. “I have got a whole yard full of wooden woodpeckers right now.”

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

My January BiGBY List

This expands on an earlier preliminary list of birds recorded on a Walking BiGBY (Big Green Bird Year) count that I am conducting in Buchanan Township, Berrien County, Michigan. The following list represents the results of 11 days of incidental birding (January 4-7 and 25-31), with all species except Mallard being recorded in my backyard:
Canada Goose
Great Blue Heron
Red-tailed Hawk
Cooper’s Hawk
Ring-billed Gull
Mourning Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Blue Jay
American Crow
Tufted Titmouse
Black-capped Chickadee
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Eastern Bluebird
European Starling
Northern Cardinal
SPOTTED TOWHEE (4 previous confirmed Michigan records)
American Tree Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
House Finch
Common Redpoll
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow
January BiGBY list: 27 26 25 species.
January Backyard list: 26 25 24 species.

The map associated with the BiGBY Website shows a total of eight BiGBY’s being conducted in the State of Michigan as of the end of January, including one other in Berrien County. It would be interesting to know what species are being seen on the other counts.