Thursday, August 28, 2008

A Few Scarborough Marsh Photos

A couple days ago I birded the pannes off Eastern Road, in Scarborough (Maine) Marsh with my friend Doug Hitchcox. It was an absolutely stellar day, highlighted by three Stilt Sandpipers (life bird for the both of us) and three Northern Shovelers - a bird that is uncommon in Maine. Doug was nice enough to send me a couple pictures he took, and I'll share them with you.

Although there are hundreds of fish-filled ponds in the Marsh, all the herons (and other large waders) congregated around one at a time. Doug and I assumed that this was either for social reasons or because it somehow made catching fish easier. Here is a shot of one of those ponds and its birds. I see Great Egret, Snowy Egret, juvi Little Blue Herons (they're white with blue/black bills instead of Snowy's yellow bills) and some dark birds that are either adult Little Blues or Glossy Ibis.

Here are those same birds in flight. There were a lot of birds-of-prey around: Doug and I saw Cooper's and Red-tailed Hawk, Osprey, Bald Eagle and Northern Harrier. When the smaller raptors (Cooper's and Harrier) would buzz the marsh it was mostly sandpipers and other waders that would take to the air. When a pair of Eagles came into view, however, it was the herons that got spooked. The sight of nearly a hundred giant herons in the air above our heads was really something. Note the four Glossy Ibis in this shot (not sure what the dark bird in the back is...). Below the treeline I can see a Yellowlegs sp. (white rump, middle of the photo) as well as a bunch of smaller birds.

Here's a shot of one of those Northern Shovelers. We were also pleased to identify a whole bunch of Green-winged Teal in the Marsh - birds we assumed to be first-of-years for the area. Thanks to Doug for the shots.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Capitalization of Bird Names

I've never quite known what the proper format was for capitalizing the names of bird species. I was under the impression that no species were capitalized, unless the word was a proper noun, i.e. Baird's Sandpiper or American robin. From looking at my post below, I can see that I have been inconsistent. I capitalized "Black-legged Kittiwake" in the second "St. Lawrence at Tadoussec" paragraph, but kept "semipalmated sandpiper" and "semipalmated plovers" in lower case.

Thanks to this site from Audubon, now I know that the formal rule is that all species names should be capitalized. Therefore, my below post should read "Semipalmated Plover" and "Semipalmated Sandpiper." I was correct, however, in keeping the "legged" in "Black-legged Kittiwake" in lower case.

I will try to follow this format from now on.


Thursday, August 21, 2008

Birding on the St. Lawrence

It always kinda weirded me out that there exists an entire civilized country north of Maine.  In the States, Maine is thought of as the Great White North, all frigid and isolated.  That there was a country that didn't even begin until after the most northern of Maine's northern forests had passed just seemed illogical.  But exist it does!  And, as proof, my girlfriend and I spent a couple days there, along the St. Lawrence River.

Now, this wasn't a birding trip, but of course I took every opportunity to find birds wherever I could.  I really had no idea what I was in for: there aren't a lot birding websites for the St. Lawrence and very few eBird locations on the St. Lawrence east of Quebec City.  [Aside #1: eBird, I love you but you need to make it easier for me to search birds by location.  When I am preparing for a trip I want to be able to easily plug in my location and see what other people have seen there.  I could just be an idiot, but I can't figure it out.  Aside #2: How did Maine sneak into the top spot for Checklists Submitted in August? What's up with that?]

So we left from Portland and headed north.

Interesting stop: Mars Hill Wind Farm in Mars Hill, Maine.

It's no secret that I love wind power, and I have to say that I was filled with pride at seeing Maine's only (for now) large-scale wind farm in full glory.  Mars Hill, the hill, seems to rise out of nowhere (this is flat potato country), and really towers over the Mars Hill, the town.  The 28 turbines were spinning like mad.  I took these pictures at a gas station in town and while I was there I asked the woman at the counter how she felt about the project (some people living close to the turbines have complained about the noise):  "Doesn't bother me, I don't live close to them."  

"Where does the power go?" I asked.  "Canada."  She replied with a smirk.

[Aside #3: While in Quebec I saw another set of turbine rotors (4 total) and a nacelle traveling from east to west.  I wonder where they were made and where they were going?  Starting a wind turbine construction company would really help Maine's economy...]

Riviere-du-Loup, Quebec

One reason we wanted to go to the St. Lawrence was for the epic whale-watching.  At a certain spot on the river, where the warm water of the Saguenay River meets the cold subarctic water of the St. Lawrence, science happens and lots of delicious shrimps and krill are created.  Whales love it, and people love to look at whales.  Done and done.  Usually, people drive to Quebec City and then up along the north coast of the St. Lawrence to the town of Tadoussac, where the whale-watching is easier, but we decided to stay on the south coast and take a trip out of Riviere-du-Loup.

While we waited for our boat to leave, I scoured a gigantic mudflat between The Point and the town.  See photo below:

Though the birds were very far away, there were thousands of peeps out there.  Only a few groups came into range where identification was possible, and they were all semipalmated sandpipers.  A small number of semipalmated plovers walked on the beach much closer to me.  With some planning, and on the right day, this mudflat most likely produces some spectacular shorebirds.

St. Lawrence River at Tadoussac

The wind was ferocious during our few days in Quebec.  Unrelenting and intrusive.  The wind made birding difficult (very hard to keep a zoomed scope steady) and our whale-watch uncomfortable.    

But there were birds.  Specifically, there were Black-legged Kittiwakes.  I had never seen a kittiwake before the trip, but then the boat returned to Riviere-du-Loup I had seen probably 15,000.  And Minke Whales leaping out of the water.  And Finback Whales, the second largest animal in the world.  

Here's a picture showing how rough the seas were.  Those are kittiwakes, identifiable from, say, ring-billed gulls by the jet black wing tips lacking any white and yellow unmarked bills.  There were very few other species out there: a few black guillemots, herring and black-backed gulls and an odd flyover greater yellowlegs.

Also missed were cooler whales.  Blue, Humpback and Beluga are all quite possible here, but the combination of rough seas and the necessity for a long haul back across the river to Riviere-du-Loup cut the trip a bit short.  I would advise anyone looking to whale-watch on the St. Lawrence to make the trip around to the north side of the river at Tadoussac instead of trying to go from the south side.

Parc National du Bic

An absolutely beautiful little National Park on the St. Lawrence just west of Rimouski. Mountains really come out of nowhere and form huge cliffs at the riverside.  The wind, again, was ferocious, and it hindered birding to a large extent, but I was able to see quite a few species.

That's a shot of the muddy beach in the Baie du Ha! Ha! (Yes, that is what it's called.  Translated into English it's Ha! Ha! Bay.  I don't know what to tell you), which probably hosts lots of shorebirds when the wind dips below gale force.  Around the rest of the park I saw the usual seabirds, gulls, black ducks, a single juvi kittiwake and a thousand or so of the park's famous eiders.  Inland, I managed to avoid most of the boreal species I was hoping to see in Canada, but I saw a few more boreal chickadees and heard a small group of red crossbills at a treetop.  A pair of nashville warblers were a nice surprise.  I'd love to bird this place again, with more time.


Rimouski is a very nice little city just a few miles from Bic National Park with a big ol' mudflat out front.  I got there just as the tide was rising, but still caught over 30 great blue herons (the largest number I've ever seen at one time), 1000+ American black ducks (ditto), thousands of gulls (nothing unusual, however), red-breasted mergansers and a smattering of semipalmated plovers.  I was a bit surprised that there were no other peeps out on the flats but, like at Riviere-du-Loup, things were pretty far away.  

Whelp, that does it.  I had an absolute blast in this part of Canada and would love to return with less wind and more time to bird.  Au revoir!  

EDIT: Here's a nice little Quebec RBA website I just discovered (plus it's in English): Recent Bird Reports from Quebec

Friday, August 15, 2008

Field Guide Review: The Shorebird Guide

Maine's coast is currently packed with shorebirds. I've been down to Pine Point in Scarborough three times this week to scan the flocks (Marbled Godwit? Check). The problem is, identifying shorebirds is hard. How hard? Let me count the ways:

Everything looks exactly the same
Birds of different molt, age, sex, species and subspecies in one flock
They're tiny
They're far away
They spook easily, and don't stay in one place
They're usually in a place that smells bad

There are more, but you know. Every birder knows. This year, though, I've come prepared. I got The Shorebird Guide.

Look, I know I'm not exactly breaking new ground by writing about this book, but I'm justified by the excitement of being able to better identify a whole new group of birds.

The book details about 75 species of shorebirds that are possible in North America. It uses photographs: lots of big beautiful photographs. Each species gets a full treatment, with photos of juveniles, breeding, nonbreeding and male/female plumages. Most helpfully, many of the photos include several species, mimicking the mixed flocks that are most often encountered out on the mud flats. Special attention is given to species that are likely to be mixed up most often (dowitchers, yellowlegs, etc).

In short, I love it. The photographs are much more helpful than paintings for the detailed challenges that shorebird identification present. The GISS method provides probably the easiest framework for tackling a daunting flock. I'll be at several shorebird spots in Maine, Mass. and New Hampshire in the next day or two, and this book will be at my side the whole time.

Here are a couple picture I took at Pine Point on Tuesday:

Black legs? Plump body?  Straight, blunt bill? Short primary projection?  I'm gonna go with a molting juvenile semipalmated sandpiper.

Dark back? Single breast band?  Half-orange bill?  Breeding semipalmated plover.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Interview with Jonathan Meiburg of Shearwater

The shared area in the Venn-diagram of "cool rock stars" and "avid birdwatchers" is pretty thin. In fact, it may be occupied by just one man: Jonathan Meiburg.

Since I am not a music critic - and therefore not qualified to use terms like "heartbreaking" and "narrative acuity" - I will try to define the music of Meiburg's band, Shearwater, in birding terms: Think of a cross between the spiraling hymns of a Wood Thrush song and the lonely insistence of a Broad-Winged Hawk. Got it? It's fantastic, and the band is considered one of the most exciting acts in indie rock (if that's the proper term...I don't know).

Mr. Meiburg also loves birds. And not just the animals themselves, but the idea of birds, the world of birds and their history and evolution. His admiration comes across in the lyrics and imagery of Shearwater's new album, Rook, as well as in an incredible series of videos chronicling Jonathan's return to the Falkland Islands to study the Striated Caracara (aka the Johnny Rook).

As a big fan of Shearwater's music, I am beyond delighted that Mr. Meiburg was able to answer some questions I had about his dual life as a musician and a bird-lover.

Birdist: At what point did you realize you'd spend the rest of your life looking for birds?

Jonathan Meiburg: Like a lot of birders, I had a conversion experience, though I was lucky enough to have it in a really exotic place. After I finished college, I won a strange grant from the Thomas J. Watson Foundation to study human communities 'at the ends of the earth' for a year, and one of the places I ended up was the Falklands. I'd been there for about two weeks when I met Robin Woods, a British ornithologist who's been studying birds in the islands since he first traveled there in the 1950s. Our meeting was completely by chance - we were staying in the same little boarding-house - but when Robin told me that he was there to lead a survey of Striated Caracaras in the outermost islands of the archipelago, I started trying to convince him to take me as an assistant. Eventually I wore him down, though I hardly knew anything about Falkland birds, much less birds anywhere else! But the six-week crash course in field ornithology that followed beggared all description. When we weren't at sea, we were walking the coasts of wild islands, covered in giant native grasses and huge colonies of albatrosses, penguins, burrowing petrels, and some odd endemic waterfowl like the flightless Steamer Duck or the curious little Cobb's Wren.

And then there were the caracaras themselves - crafty, charismatic, social raptors with very little fear of humans, equally at home walking or running on the ground ('very much like pheasants', as Darwin says) or soaring on the never-ending westerly gales that buffet the islands.Needless to say, I had no idea that the world contained places like this, and I was completely bowled over by the experience. As I kept on traveling to other remote places throughout the year, like the far north of Australia's Cape York, the Chatham Islands of New Zealand, or the Inuit settlement of Kimmirut in Baffin Island, I kept encountering more strange birds (and people who cared about them), and I came home a year later with my circuits blown wide. I'd bought some binoculars and an NGS field guide within weeks.

But the caracaras in particular - and the mystery of why their range is so small compared to the ranges of their close relatives - were stuck in my mind, and I went off to graduate school with the idea of trying to find out more about them. I was delighted to find that one of the best early accounts of the species comes from Darwin - he wasn't especially enamored with the Falklands in general (they paled after the tropics), but he paints an endearing, bemused, and altogether lifelike portrait of Striated Caracaras in the Voyage of the Beagle, along with a line in one of the notebooks he kept on that trip that I took as a challenge: "This species, doubtless for some good reason, has chosen these islands for its metropolis". That sounded like a glove hitting the ground to me, so I spent six years writing a thesis about it.

How would you describe yourself as a birder? Lister? Scientist? In your Falkland videos you appear to have more of a scientific interest than most casual birders...

JM: How many ways can I fall in between those categories? I love seeing new birds, of course, but I've also been resistant to keeping a list. To me, listing can be a way to turn the momentary and ephemeral appreciation of an animal for its being - my very favorite thing about birding, and one of the most pleasantly egoless experiences there is - into a sort of acquisitiveness that can be pernicious. But my aversion may be because I know how easy it would be for me to go down that path...really, I just love birds for what they are, and I'm grateful that I'm able to be here on the planet while they're still here, too. We came too late to see so many incredible animals! I love seeing live birds in the field, I love seeing dead ones in museum cabinets, I love watching the feeder and I love reading about the evolution of the different avian families. I also enjoy standing on a beach with a spotting scope trying - and failing - to tell small shorebirds apart at a great distance. I'd say I'm an average birder, trying to improve. Songs and calls are my weakest point right now.

Touring with a band seems like an ideal life for a birder. How regularly do you bird while on tour? Do you find yourself scheduling an unreasonable number of shows in Portal, Arizona and Attu, Alaska?

JM: Sadly, touring often means long drives between cities where you see great birding spots only as you pass them at 70mph. That said, I always have my binoculars close by, and you'd be surprised how productive rest stops can be. I like pointing out raptors to the rest of the band since they're big and exciting, but for smaller birds I usually keep my mouth shut. On tours this year I saw my first Brown Creeper up in Vancouver, a Calliope Hummingbird in San Francisco, and a White-Throated Swift at a rest stop in Arizona.

In the liner notes for Rook you thank, among other creatures, Turkey Vultures. Why?

JM: There was a night roost of TVs near the studio where we made the album, and in the evenings there'd be huge columns of vultures circling in a thermal above the studio. One night I counted 65. We took some pictures of them and posted them on our web site - it was really spectacular. I should have thanked the Barred Owl that lived in the ravine behind the building, too - after a long night's work I could step outside and call to it, and it usually answered.

How did the Striated Caracara trip to the Falklands come about? Are those islands really as eerie as the videos make them seem?

JM: The first survey that I mentioned, which was my real introduction to the world of birds, was in 1997, and in 2006 Falklands Conservation did a repeat survey. Robin led it again, and I did my best to make sure I could be involved. It was wonderful to re-visit the islands and to see how the caracara populations had - and hadn't - changed, and we also made it to some new islands we hadn't managed to get to the first time around. I felt very, very lucky to be able to return, especially with a broader understanding of the birds and their world.As for the second question, I don't know about 'eerie'... I'd guess I just say 'wild', with all that word implies. There are islands in the outer Falklands that feel as if they've never known human presence, where the animals aren't afraid of you since they have almost no experience with you and your kind. To be there is humbling and strange. Those places are some of the last, tiny remnants of the pre-human world, which is fast disappearing, never to return. I think of Rook as a kind of meditation on that disappearance. By the way, the URL for the "Looking for Johnny Rook" videos is

How do you approach the use of birds in your lyrics? Is there a struggle in your writing process between thinking of birds scientifically and thinking of them in an artistic or archetypal sense?

JM: Actually, I'd rarely used birds in my songs until Rook, when I figured that I should probably throw some of them in so that I could have a better answer to just this kind of question. But no, there's no dissonance for me between thinking of birds artistically and scientifically, just as I think there's often not really as much of a difference between art and science as people suggest. Art and science both rely on using your intuition to cast your line into the great's just that you use different techniques once there's a tug on the hook. Ø

Monday, August 4, 2008

Delaware Wind Project

State officials in Delaware gave the OK to a plan between Delmarva Power and a wind farm developer that may lead to the first offshore wind farm in the USA. Great news, I say.

But, just to get the ol' brain juices flowing, here are some lists of birds and sea mammals found off the coast of Delaware at different times of year (Look under "Lewes").

The Lewes pelagics usually head for the Baltimore Canyon, which is about 30 miles offshore, and the proposed wind farm would be 11.5 miles offshore. I'm not really sure what that means, but certainly a farm too close to shore or too close to New Jersey could effect birds migration to and from Cape May. Based on the map below, however, it doesn't look like that should be a problem.

About Us | Site Map | Privacy Policy | Contact Us | Blog Design | 2007 Company Name