Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Birding the north Mississippi Delta

Last year, my first after grad school, I took a year-long position in Oxford, Mississippi.  A (mostly) life-long New Englander, my knowledge of north Mississippi was shaped primarily by O Brother, Where Art Thou? and a handful of William Faulkner stories.  I figured the place to be bleak and desolate, and I expected the birding to be the same.

Quite to the contrary, I absolutely loved birding in north Mississippi, and especially in the delta.  The state is split pretty much in half down the middle, the eastern half comprised of hills and forests while the western half leading to the Mississippi River is a flood plain, flat as a pancake.  The river is a natural highway for birds migrating southward, and most birders have heard about the Mississippi Flyway.  Heard of it, but maybe not so many have seen it.  I certainly wasn't prepared for the numbers of birds that I found in the delta and how fun it was to be one of the few birders there.

Here is a map of some of my favorite spots (click on the blue pins for details):

View Mississippi Delta Birding Spots in a larger map

Catfish Farms

It's too hot to do much of anything in the middle of the summer, but that's ok because the birding doesn't really start to get good until August.  That's when the shorebirds start coming, and when it's time to visit the catfish farms.

Catfish farms, like these near Tunica as seen from Google Maps, are huge manmade ponds in the delta.  There are dikes built up to keep the water in, meaning that you can't see what's in the ponds until you drive up onto the dikes.  I loved that moment of anticipation of climbing the up the dike road, hoping for a giant wader-covered mudflat to be uncovered. 

Many of the catfish farms in the delta are no longer operational or are, for whatever reason, pumped clear of most of their water by August.  The resultant mudflats are rich with shorebirds: stilts, avocets, sandpipers, plovers, willet, yellowlegs, and occasional godwit.  In the winter, ducks and geese can be found in the ponds that hold water all year around.  

Access to catfish farms is sorta weird.  Some have "no trespassing" signs, so don't trespass.  Others don't have anything: no nearby houses, no one working there, no nothing.  Twice I was approached by people while birding catfish farms: one just asked if I was fishing and when I told him I wasn't he left me along, the other gave me a bunch of crap about being on private property without permission (there was no indication anywhere of how to contact the owner) and told me to leave.  Birding catfish farms is fun, primarily because there are so few birders and so many birds - the potential for discovery is high - but do so courteously and cautiously. 


In winter, the desolate-seeming delta comes alive with wintering birds.  Almost the instant you make the abrupt shift from eastern hills to the floodplain, you start to see large flocks of blackbirds (rustys, red-winged, cowbirds, grackles, etc) and geese (snow, ross' and greater white-fronted, primarily) in the air.  The area is also a wonderful place to see wintering hawks, especially red-tails.  It's common to see Krider's, Harlan's and eastern subspecies of red-tailed in a single day.  

The flock above is part of a massive snow/ross' flock near Tunica, MS.  Such flocks are common in winter at the north Mississippi delta. 

Also a surprising number of gulls can be found in the delta.  A careful search of gulls wintering near Tunica (especially if you've got Gene Knight or Jeff Wilson helping you out) can turn up Thayer's, California, Franklin's or Iceland gulls.  I found one of the state's few records of black-headed gull on nearby Sardis Lake this past year.  If you happen to bird after a hurricane has swept up from the Gulf (harmlessly to humans, I hope), everything from frigatebirds to storm-petrels to skua are possible. 

I wasn't sure what birding north Mississippi would be like, but I got out nearly every weekend and enjoyed every minute.  I hope it someday gets the recognition it deserves for being such a hotspot. 

Monday, November 14, 2011

Birds at Large: The Big Bang Theory

Welcome to the return of Birds at Large, the hard-hitting series where I ridicule the non-birding world's failed attempts to talk about birds and birding. I do it for three reasons: 1) how hard is it for these producers to just get the right birds? 2) things like this are what nerdy microgenre blogs like this are meant for, and 3) it's fun.

Today's installment comes via John at A DC Birding Blog and involves the popular comedy show The Big Bang Theory. A subplot of the episode involves a bird landing on the windowsill of one of the main characters - who just happens to suffer from (the real affliction) of ornithophobia. The guy identifies the bird as a Blue Jay. It isn't.

It's a Black-throated Magpie-Jay, a Mexican species that is sometimes kept in captivity (and apparently available as animal actors).

There's a twist here, though. Normally I would throw petty insults at the producers of The Big Bang Theory for the incorrect ID and then congratulate myself with some Mountain Dew Code Reds in my parent's basement, but I've been beaten to the punch. Soon after the episode aired The BirdChick tweeted to Bill Prady, the show's producer, about the misidentification. Mr. Prady responded, admitting the bird was actually the Magpie-Jay and claiming that its misidentification was due to the character being unfamiliar with bird species due to his phobia. An after-the-fact rationalization though it is, it's perfectly plausible and shows either some quick thinking from Mr. Prady or some commendable foresight on the part of the show.

Unfortunately, the video of the show expired (?) before I was finished watching it, so I don't know how the episode ends. Thanks to John, BirdChick, Bill Prady and the rest of the outraged online bird misidentification culture (who've already updated the Black-throated Magpie-Jay's wikipedia page about the error) for this one.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Virginia's Warbler in Maine

Monhegan Island is very well known as a migrant trap and rarity hotspot. In May and late September, during peak migration, you can't round a corner without running into a birder. The problem is hardly any birders get out there in late October and November, mostly because the stores and hotels shut down. But this is when Maine usually gets its oddball migrants.

During a weekend trip in late October we were even told by an island resident, "You're too late, all the birds are gone." The hundreds of warblers moving through daily were gone but we topped that: Ash-throated Flycatcher! These were being reported around New England (esp Massachusetts) so it actually wasn't much of a surprise when we found one in the yard at the Trailing Yew. This was only Maine's 9th record for this species.

I just spent 11/7 to 11/9 on the island and still can't believe everything that happened. Winter birds (Snow Bunting, White-winged Crossbill, etc) had started to show up but a few unusual birds were still around. A late Black-throated Green Warbler was exciting but a Red-headed Woodpecker (rare in Maine but near annual in fall on Monhegan) stole the show, especially when we found it in our house!

The real story came when on the 8th I was birding near Burnt Head and a skulky warbler caught my attention. I spent a few minutes working that bird before it finally showed and turned out to be a Common Yellowthroat. While taking photos, another warbler flew in. My thinking went something like: "Huh, that's pretty gray but yellow under tail... Funky Orange-crowned Warbler? Wait, why does it have an eye-ring?" Click click click:

8 seconds later the bird was gone. Virginia's Warbler was no where on my radar but it had to be... I eventually took a photo of the screen on my camera with my phone and sent it to a few people who would have had experience with the species. First response was: "Dude its a Virginia's!!!"

Overall gray color, full white eye-ring and yellow on the rump all sealed the deal. The bird had no sign of yellow on the chest which likely makes it a first year female. Unfortunately I wasn't able to relocate it.

There have only been two prior records for Virginia's Warbler in Maine and both of the come from Monhegan! The first was May 21, 1998 by G. Dennis; check out his photos! (NAB V.52 n.3) and the second from September 28 & 30, 2006 by V. Laux and L. McDowell (NAB V.61 n.1)

So if we went out for a few random days in the end of October and found Maine's 9th Ash-throated Flycatcher, then I go for a couple days in November and find the state's 3rd Virginia's Warbler... what was out there in between? What is out there now?

Monday, November 7, 2011

More Successful Birding Movie: The Big Year or The Starling Murmuration Video?

A blurry, rain-soaked video about a flock of starlings titled "Murmuration" has been making the rounds on the birding listservs. According to Vimeo it has been viewed 3.6 million times.

According to Box Office Mojo, the start-studded Hollywood blockbuster The Big Year, which was supposed to invigorate a whole new generation of birders, has made $7,013,887 since it was released four weeks ago.

The National Association of Theater Owners says that the average price for a movie ticket in 2010 was $7.89. Doing the math, that would mean that about 889,000 people have seen The Big Year - about 1/4 of the number that have watched a flock of starlings fly in the rain.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Eye Witnesses and Listserv Suggestion

The Supreme Court heard a case a few days ago that I think is of special relevance to birders. It's about the unreliability of eyewitnesses and the power of suggestion.

One early morning in New Hampshire, a woman looked out her fourth-floor window and saw a "tall black man" breaking into a neighbor's car. While talking to a police officer in her apartment later that morning, the woman pointed from her window to a tall black man who was standing in the parking lot speaking with another police officer, and identified that man as the robber. When asked to select the robber's photo from out of a lineup, the woman could not do it.

The impact of eyewitness testimony on a jury is strong and well documented. Equally as well documented is the unreliability of witnesses. Lawyers in this New Hampshire case argue that the woman's testimony be thrown aside, claiming her identification was based upon the fact that tall black man was talking with a police officer when the woman identified him as the robber. The mere fact that the cop and the man were talking, it's argued, was enough to "suggest" to the woman that the tall black man was the tall black man.

Does this have anything to do with birding? No. Haha I mean yes, this is a birding blog of course it does.

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