Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Breaking Records or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Patch or: A Pedestrian's Guide to the Unspectacular Birdlife of Yards Park, DC

In patch birding, it's all relative.  You're not after huge numbers, you're not expecting rarities. Instead, it's about really knowing a place, and learning its rhythms.  When you're stuck with a patch long enough, you learn to love it no matter how few birds there are.

And there aren't a lot of birds on my patch, Yards Park along the Anacostia River in DC. It's where I walk my dog most every day after work. Despite running along a big ol' river and featuring at least some greenery, I've only managed 62 species despite visiting a few times a week for a year and a half.  I dunno, that's not a tiny number, but it's less than I could get on a decent spring day at a park just up the river. (Also, it's enough to make me the hotspot leader by about 30 species).

But it's what I've got, you know?  And I love it. I especially love it on days like yesterday, a gray and dreary afternoon where I somehow beat my previous dog walking record and saw 17 different species.  Check out that list!  The clincher was a solo mourning dove that cruised overhead when I was back on South Capitol Street, almost home. My dog had no idea what I was yelling about.

Anyway, in honor of my record-breaking afternoon I made a quick. annotated bird finding guide to Yards Park. It's oriented South to North, which is the way I walk it, but it's a little confusing that way. It's displaying small, but you can click to enlarge. Or you can just not do that, and go on with your life.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Black Skimmer and Wilson's Storm-petrel on Audubon Website

I recently posted a couple articles to the ongoing The Sketch series on Audubon.org highlighting quirky, cool birds, this time featuring the Black Skimmer (the only bird with cat eyes!) and the Wilson's Storm-petrel (fishes with its little feet!). Enjoy!

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Google Street View Birding: Antarctica Part III: Antarctica

Antarctica. The Great White Desert. The Tundra Down Under. The Big Ice Cube. The Cold-tinent. Ol' Snowyface.  We've finally made it.

Like the polar explorers of old, we've slowly made our way across the stormy seas to our destination. We've seen a lot of amazing things along the way, including endangered wrens in the Falkland Islands and nesting albatross (260 times larger than the wren) on South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands. We've seen adorable seals. And terns. And shags. And weird ducks and caracaras and oystercatchers and geese and vultures and a whole lot of penguins.

We start - led by our intrepid Google Street View friends - at the Antarctic Peninsula, that long point of land sticking out towards South America. We start on a small outcropping called Half Moon Island, just off the mainland of Antarctica. According to the informational overlords at Wikipedia, the 2010 images taken here were the first to put Google Street View on all seven continents. There to welcome them, of course, were penguins.

These are chinstrap penguins, named for the stripe running along their throat that looks like that bad haircut worn by the burnout kid in your 1995 high school class.

Friday, July 10, 2015

House Sparrows are Little Troopers

I did another piece for Audubon's The Sketch series, this time about the militaristic tendencies of house sparrows. Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Birds at Large: 2013 World Series

How did I miss this?

My favorite team, playing in a World Series game that I 100% watched, and I miss a bird clearly flying behind an outfielder on national TV? I missed it! I am slipping in my old age. I am slipping.

After splitting the first two games of the 2013 World Series, the Red Sox and Cardinals left Boston to play game 3 in St. Louis.  They played a tense game, eventually won 2-1 by the Cardinals after an unprecedented game-ending obstruction call on Red Sox 3B Will Middlebrooks. The Cardinals took at 2-1 series lead but eventually lost to my mighty Red Sox, 4-2.

But something interesting happened back in the third inning of Game 3, something that until now had eluded my knowledge. With one out in the inning, Cardinals outfielder Matt Holliday popped a fly-ball to shallow centerfield off of pitcher Jake Peavy. Red Sox centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury - soon to depart to the hated Yankees - charged in towards the ball but misplayed it - lost in the lights, most likely - and the ball dropped onto the field. The dutiful Holliday had run out the fly to first, and made a few steps towards second when he saw the ball drop. However, Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia fielded the carom and alertly threw the ball to first, picking Holliday off and rendering moot the error.

Thank you for indulging me in baseball talk.

Anyway, something extremely interesting appeared behind Jacoby Ellsbery in the FOX reply of his blunder: a dang ol' bird.  A bird - a passerine! - clearly flops to the ground right behind Jacoby. Weird, wild stuff.

What species is it, though?

Take a closer look at the GIF above, or go to the 1:30:21 mark on the YouTube video to see the bird flap awkwardly towards the ground and thump down, facing right.

A noted Cardinals fan, the ABA's Nate Swick noticed the bird during the live broadcast and quickly posted to Facebook that the bird looked like a yellow-rumped warbler. Nate was of course limited to the single replay on the live broadcast and didn't have the luxury of an endless looping GIF and YouTube. I don't think it's a yellow-rump.

I wanted to get some experts to weigh in, so I posed the question on Twitter.

Responses were all over the bird. Mockingbird? Redstart? Something?

It's tough to say. Let's think about what we know. First, it's October 27 in Missouri. That's late in the year, after the majority of migration is over. It's also fall, that time of year when migratory birds are drab and there are lots of youngsters around in whatever plumages they might have.

As for the bird itself, it's brownish above and, thanks for some clear image-grabbing from Nate, pretty solidly white below.

Just after this image, the bird banks back and its topside and tail are visible, as shown in the image at the top. The bird appears to have pale greater (and primary?) coverts - though I actually think it's just  a trick of the eye.  In some frames the bird appears to have a pale rump / upper tail coverts, in other frames there appears to be a dark center line to the tail with maybe pale sides, but in both cases the bird shows a very dark tail, even black in the early frames.

So, uh, what the heck is it?

My guess is (drumroll, please) Eastern Phoebe. It generally fits the patterning of the bird in the video: brown/gray above, white below, light throat (best visible in the video when the bird is sitting in the grass), and long, dark tail. It's common in the St. Louis area in October. Also, though I've never heard of this behavior, it's conceivable that, being a flycatcher, it could be attracted to the insects that congregate around bright stadium lights. Maybe?

I'd love to be proven wrong. Go for it. And, go Red Sox!

Monday, June 29, 2015

Audubon's The Sketch: Monk Parakeet

Hi Friends-

The first of a few pieces I am doing for Audubon's new The Sketch series is up, this one about the Monk Parakeet. They're little features about quirky birds, accompanied by a drawing from artist Jason Polan.  A piece on House Sparrows is coming soon, and I'm working on a couple more. Stay tuned, and enjoy!

Monday, June 22, 2015

Interview with Justin Hoffman, Wildlife Videographer Behind the Teaser Trailer for FX's Fargo

Everything about this is great.

The first season of Fargo on the FX network was a great watch, and a big hit (it won the Emmy for Best Miniseries, doncha know). Last week the network gave us its first glimpse of the show's second season, in the form of a twenty-second teaser trailer. Check it out:

Not only a great show and a creative trailer, but the star is a black-backed woodpecker! 

Exciting for a couple reasons. First, black-backed woodpeckers don't get a lot of love. Lots of birders have never seen one, and they've got virtually no name-recognition among the general public. I bet it was temping for the producers to go with a pileated or hairy woodpecker (the populist woodpeckers!), so it's nice to see the black-backed get some screen time.

Second, this is what I'm talking about when I talk about movie and tv producers doing a little bit of work to get something right. The folks who put this together didn't just choose some random bird, they picked a black-backed woodpecker, a perfect choice for the forests of northern Minnesota. It's an indicator of quality: if they made a thoughtful decision on this aspect, it leads me to believe that the rest of the show was crafted with similar care. Reading too much into it? Probably, but it's nice for someone to get it right for once.

Anyway, I saw the trailer and wondered where they got the footage. Easily enough, the first result found when typing "black-backed woodpecker" into YouTube's search engine is this video, shot in Ontario by Justin Hoffman.

Clearly, it's footage the Fargo folks used to make their teaser. Very cool. Seeing that Justin has his own website, Justin Hoffman Outdoors, I reached out to see if he wanted to talk about shooting the video and how it got into the hands of FX.  Turns out Justin is a great guy, and has experienced something that every wildlife photographer must dream about.  Here's what he had to say:

How'd you get the BBWP footage? Were you after those birds specifically?

Being a wildlife photographer and nature nut, I spend a great deal of time exploring the outdoors. Of course, my camera gear is always with me on these adventures. Earlier this past winter, I had found three separate black-backed woodpeckers in the Ottawa area. Although not a rare bird, they can be quite elusive to find. My only other spotting of a black-backed was in Algonquin Park a few years earlier. All birds to this point had been females. 

On the particular day I filmed the male black-backed footage (December 20) I was bush-whacking off a of a popular hiking trail on public NCC land; only ten minutes from my house in Ottawa. I wasn't necessarily looking for birds this day, but wildlife in general, as we had had fresh snow the previous evening. Approximately 1.5km's in, I heard the faint 'pecking' sound of a woodpecker some 30 feet from me and instantly recognized it to be a male black-backed woodpecker. This bird was very comfortable with my presence and I set up my tripod less than 15 feet away from it. 

I photographed the willing model before deciding to capture some video footage. I shoot a variety of wildlife and nature clips for my YouTube channel and the clip was posted there later that day.

How were you contacted by the Fargo people? Did they let you know what they wanted to use the footage for?

I received an email in late February from a promotional person that works for the FX US Network. He mentioned that he had found my black-backed woodpecker footage online and that it was the best they had come across to that point. They were interested in licensing the footage in order to use for a promotional teaser clip for Season 2 of the television show, Fargo. He went on to mention that they had a very short deadline on this and for me to give him a call.

I called later that day. The promotional person took my call in the middle of the California desert, as they were on a film shoot. He explained the concept of the promotional piece to me at this point, which revolved around a woodpecker in the woods and mysterious gunshots. Of course, I was intrigued and excited with the thought of my footage being used.

A fee was negotiated and within a day I had uploaded my footage to the FX/FOX Network servers. Three days later the crew traveled to Winnipeg to shoot the other footage to complete the project.

Were they looking specifically for a black-backed woodpecker?

I am unsure if they were specifically looking for a black-backed woodpecker. I believe it fit the criteria of what they wanted, in so far as being a close up clip, shot in HD, with a winter and 'cold' background. I was also told that the 'pause' that the woodpecker makes mid-pecking is exactly what they wanted to go with their concept. It should be noted that the black-backed woodpecker is found in Fargo, North Dakota - where the show takes place. The show is actually filmed in Calgary.


Were you able to see the teaser as it was being put together (I notice the color is a lot colder in the teaser than in your footage)

I was not able to see any of the teaser until early last week, when it was shown for the first time on FX US during the premiere of the show, Tyrant. At the time of negotiations, non-disclosure contracts were also signed, so I was not legally allowed to discuss any part of the deal, nor the concept or the fact that they had purchased my footage.

The colour is colder in the teaser clip than my original footage. I believe this was done to match the secondary clip and also to go with 'dark' theme of the show.

Anything else about the process you'd like to say?

It has definitely been a fun and exciting moment for me. When I originally filmed this footage, it was to add to my YouTube channel and share on social media. Never did I think Hollywood would be calling. It goes to show you that you never know who will see your work or when that phone call will come.

It was definitely hard to keep this secret for four months, but was great to finally be able to share it last week - and the response and exposure has been very positive and exciting so far!


Congratulations, Justin, and let's all watch Fargo when it returns to FX in September.

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