Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Interview with Waterfowl Breeder Rosemary Miner aka Hey, Is That Your Smew?

Escaped waterfowl might be an even more difficult ID challenge for birders than cage birds.  Strong fliers and long-distance migrants, it can be easy to imagine one being blown off course over an ocean onto a far shore.  Indeed, many types of waterfowl have strong patterns of vagrancy to both U.S. coasts: including geese (barnacle, pink-footed, emperor) and ducks (Eurasian wigeon, tufted).

At the same time, raising exotic wildfowl is a common practice.  I got in touch with Rosemary Miner from the Gooseneck Hill Waterfowl Sanctuary in upstate NY - home of the the two largest covered aviaries in the world - and asked her about some of the issues she deals with raising waterfowl.

I found Rosemary through her website, which I noticed lists 'Smew' among the ducks she keeps at her sanctuary.  This caught my eye because in December a young smew spent several days in Whitby Harbor, Ontario, not too far (as the smew flies) from the Gooseneck Hill Sanctuary in Deleven, NY.  I asked Rosemary several questions about this bird, not because I wanted to be a spoiler for anyone's bird, but because I'm not sure how much direct inquiry of breeders goes on when a record committee makes a decision on the provenance of a bird.  It turns out that the smew is not likely hers, and those lists are safe.  Here's the interview, thanks so much to Rosemary for agreeing to answer my questions!

Smew at Gooseneck Hill Waterfowl Sanctuary, photo Rosemary Miner

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

How To Find A New State Record

Step 1: Drive to a birding spot you haven't been before.

Step 2: Miss the turn for the parking lot you were supposed to get to.

Step 3: Turn down some random road to make a U-turn.

Step 4: Pause on the random road to scan a flock of geese.

Step 5: Make sure a pink-footed goose is the first bird you look at. 


There will be some more posts about this bird later, including one on whether or not I screwed it up!  I'm so glad it decided to stick around so others in MD could find it.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Birds at Large: Star Wars

I was watching Return of the Jedi the other day and heard something sort of familiar in the background of the early scenes on Endor.  It was a soft "poot poot" call reminiscent of something in the Nightjar family.  The rhythm of the call was, being unfamiliar with the calls of non-North American nightjars, most reminiscent of a Chuck-will's-widow.  I googled around and quickly found this, posted by Greg Eddy of the Brooks Bird Club in West Virginia:

Then at our 1982 Foray in Hampshire County a Chuck-wills-widow was found by Bill Wylie.  As many as three birds were heard one night.  The first bird was heard by the entire camp and seen by most of us.  That bird was recorded by Dr. Ben Burtt.  He gave the tapes to his son Ben Burtt Jr.  Ben Jr. was the sound director for the Star Wars movies.  He used the tape in the forest scene in one of the films.  The bird song in the background is that Chuck-Wills-Widow played backwards and slowed down.
Great story! I'm sure we could find out more about the species if we could only find a copy of The Ewok's Field Guide to the Birds of Endor.  All I could find was this group picture from one of their bird walks:

Friday, February 17, 2012

My Favorite Bird Book

It can sometimes be lonely being a non-scientist birder. I try my best to keep up with all the species splits and range data and technical identification points, but it frankly isn't my primary interest in birding. I'm in it for the adventure! For the sightseeing! To laugh about how funny everyone dresses!

So I'm always on the lookout for birding books that aren't about identification or impending extinction. That's why I love Whose Bird? by Bo Beolens and Michael Watkins.

This book is 378 pages of stories about the men (and women, but mostly men) for whom birds are named. Kirtland's Warbler? Named for Cleveland-area naturalist Dr. Jared Potter Kirkland. Ross' Goose? For the Irish-born administrator of the Hudson Bay Company named Bernard Rogan Ross. Heermann's Gull? I'M NOT GOING TO TELL YOU BUY THE BOOK.

It's a fascinating read, full of stories that would otherwise be lost to history. These people often are only tenuously connected to the birds they're named for, the product of some previous inspiration or financial support. It always struck me as incredible that what most of these people are best remembered for is something they sometimes had so little to do with during their lifetimes. At the same time, I'd love to be read about a century after my death for anything.

If you like birding - all facets of birding - you'll love this book.  Here it is at Amazon

Thursday, February 9, 2012

My 10 Least Favorite Birding Listserv Posts

10. The Ramble

From: Birder Birderson
Subject: A lovely day in the deep woods

My husband and I took our car - a late 80's Honda that we've kept up in wonderful shape (it's really a pleasure to drive, and it's older than our kids!) - out for a day in the woods near Miggicanoe Neck State Park this past Sunday.  We had a lovely breakfast of coffee and toast and jam and eggs all on the clean china we got for our wedding (so long ago now!).  The sun was warm and bright and made the prettiest shadows along the road as we traveled north.  We paused at the intersection of Route 34 and noticed that Harold's is gone!  When did that happen?  Now it's a Wendy's...I remember when it was all fields back in that part.  Alas.  Anyway, we made it to the state park around 9 but didn't have money for the entrance fees.  So we had to turn around and go back to - guess where - the Wendy's to get change!  I ended up getting a spicy chicken sandwich (it really was spicy!  But the lettuce was too wet) and my husband got one of those chocolate shakes, I forget what they're called.

We got back to the entrance and put our money in the little paper envelopes they had.  The parking lot was not too full, but also not too empty.  I'd say there were about 7 other cars there, but it was spread out over a big parking lot.  We parked and decided we'd just stroll around and see what birds we saw.  My husband and I both got our binoculars from the backseat, but realized we forgot our camera!  It's OK, it's a pretty old camera anyway and doesn't take the best pictures.  I have such a hard time with the little focus-thingy!  I want to get a new one but they're just so complicated.  And I hate going to those big stores by the mall with all the kids with blue hair that smell like cologne and are always doing horseplay.  Maybe I'll put one on my Christmas list!  Anyway, then we saw four Canada Geese.
9. The Link
From: Birdy McBirds
Subject: FWD: mallard cam

Hi all-
I know this is out of state but my boss forwarded my a link to an internet camera that you can see mallards swimming on a pond in Canada!
Good birding! -Birdy

8. The Forwarded eBird Checklist With No Summary or Interesting Birds
> From:
> Date: Feb 9, 2012 7:36:36 PM EST
> To:
> Subject: eBird Report - Town Park State Forest - Feb 9, 2012

> Feb. 9, 2012 7:30 AM - 11:30 AM
> Protocol: Traveling
> .5 mile(s)
> Comments:     Alone.  It was cold.  Big trees, mostly.
> 34 species
> Canada Goose  140
> Mallard  2
> Turkey Vulture  1
> Red-shouldered Hawk  1
> Ring-billed Gull  3
> Mourning Dove  5
> Red-bellied Woodpecker  18
> Yellow-bellied Sapsucker  3
> Downy Woodpecker  14
> Hairy Woodpecker  4
> Northern Flicker  12
> Pileated Woodpecker  3
> Blue Jay  40
> American Crow  12
> Fish Crow  12
> Carolina Chickadee  50
> Tufted Titmouse  40
> White-breasted Nuthatch  28   
> Brown Creeper  1
> Carolina Wren  23
> Winter Wren  5
> Ruby-crowned Kinglet  1
> Eastern Bluebird  25
> American Robin  7
> Northern Mockingbird  3
> European Starling  6
> Yellow-rumped Warbler  24
> Eastern Towhee  3
> Song Sparrow  15
> White-throated Sparrow  19
> Dark-eyed Junco  19
> Northern Cardinal  12
> House Finch  3
> American Goldfinch  10
> This report was generated automatically by eBird v3 (
7. The Activist
From: Birdsly Birdman
Subject: Must Support Carbon Tax!

Hey you guys this isn't really birds or birding-related but it's important anyway and I think you all should know about it.  Did you know that Governor Politician is proposing to do MORE drilling in Montana?  This is not the right path for our country!  Click on THIS LINK to contact your senator!

Monday, February 6, 2012

Interview with Tiffany Park, Gouldian Finch Breeder

--> Still stewing thinking about my recent Common Chaffinch dip, I'm looking to learn more about birds that we might see as "escapees."  I got in touch with Tiffany Park, a private breeder of Gouldian Finches and owner of Gouldians Galore.
For those who - like me - had never heard of Gouldian Finches, they're gorgeous finches native to north Australia.  They're listed by the IUCN as "Endangered in the Wild," but are extremely popular throughout the world as a pet.  Tiffany specializes in Gouldian genetics, and is a member of the National Finch & Softbill Society and other regional show organizations.

Tiffany was gracious enough to talk to me a little bit about raising finches, and also about the likelihood that birds escaping.  The picture she painted was at points comforting and more complicated: competent breeders hardly ever have birds escape, but the lack of enforcement of exotic bird registration laws and the potential number of bird-owners outside the show circuit world means that an escaped bird could really come from anywhere.

Birdist: How did you get into finch breeding? 

Tiffany Park: I have always had birds but almost always had companion birds...Cockatiels, a conure at some point, etc. When I was in college, my cockatiel of 12 years passed away and because I was a Bio major my coursework occupied most of my time but I still wanted birds in my home. So, I went to a pet store and they had a single pair of Gouldian Finches and I saw the male doing his courtship dance and I literally burst out laughing in the store because it is such a ridiculous display. So, I bought the pair with no real intention of breeding, but just so I had birds in my home and they wouldn't require my attention in terms of companionship.

Well, I started reading and reading and reading and I joined a few forums on them, and I started learning that there were mutations, and I became obsessed. I am a bit of a genetics dork and when it comes to the Gouldian genetics I'm sort of a sick savant at it. That's what got me breeding them. I was absolutely hooked on the way the genetics worked and I spent the next 4-5 years breeding and photographing and noting visual cues in the hatchlings/nestlings to aid people in early mutation identification, which is what I am probably best known for (besides the whole genetic savant bit. :) )

Birdist: How often are birds banded and are there requirements to do so? 

Tiffany Park: I can't really answer the question of how often birds are banded - it depends on the individual. I find value in banding a bird because it proves age and that band is also tied to me, as the breeder, which means that if I sell the bird and then it is sold two or three other times the owner can always track me down if they have questions. I belong to National Finch & Softbill Society and they are one of the few (maybe only?) in the US that provides traceable aluminum closed bands for captive finch and softbill breeding.  [American Federation of Aviculture, Inc.] might, but I'm not entirely sure?  [Note: They do.] With NFSS, you have to be a member to get the closed bands, but anyone can join.

Certain states have pretty strict regulations (NJ being one) about keeping exotics and banding them, the problem is, they're not enforced at all. I lived there for a year, and they consider Gouldians (or anything other than pretty much Zebra & Society finches, Canaries and Parakeets) to be "exotics" which means that if you are breeding and selling you have to have a "Pet Shop Permit" which is $100 a year, and you have to provide them a list of all of your birds, their band information, blahblahblah. But they never sent any inspector to my home and they never questioned anything sent in so it's sort of a, "Hey, give us your money but we don't really care what you're doing" situation.

Birdist: How widely do you think state laws like those in NJ are being abused? 

Tiffany Park: I can't comment on the whole abuse situation either because I am not quite sure what the other laws are or how strictly they're adhered to. In MD, an exotic permit is optional, not required, and I got one and in order to have it issued they actually sent an inspector to my place.

It was a little depressing to hear him comment on how clean my breeding room was, as in obviously most of the other places were just total dumps or something but yet they almost always get approved for a permit if the birds at least appear to be healthy.

Birdist: How often to birds escape?

Tiffany Park: I think most escapees probably happen when transporting birds or birds that are kept in outdoor enclosures that somehow become compromised - either broken into by people or animals, or maybe because the enclosure doesn't have a safety door like the bigger aviaries do to try to prevent escapees.

A breeder I know was attending a show and was carrying cages from her car to the facility when she lost her grip and dropped some of the cages and the doors flew open and she lost quite a few of her birds that way. Most recently a guy in CA apparently didn't latch the door completely closed on an outdoor aviary and he had a bunch of society finches escape and he got all of them back except one I believe.

Birdist: It sounds like from your information that if I am going to find Chaffinches it is going to be outside the traditional "breeders and show birds" system that you are a part of (for example, I was in Miami one time and I saw a Yellow-faced Grassquit in a rickety cage on the side of a house - a bird that if it were to escape and show up at a feeder would be a real quandary for birders like me). 

Tiffany Park: The problem is importation - it's expensive and time consuming. You can't just bring birds over from Europe, there is a huge protocol involving quarantine and it's pricey. Unless you have a big broker bringing in hundreds of birds at a time who is in cohorts with the quarantine facility and has the wholesale and retail buyers to back it, the investment is simply too high. I know a breeder who imported birds recently and there was a minimum order associated, so a group of local breeders got together in order to get the shipment in from Canada.

Like I said though, it's expensive, so if you're only getting one pair, it's simply not worth the financial risk as a private breeder. Also, most people who are importing from Canada or Europe are importing birds that are currently not in high circulation (or potentially new mutations). I.e.,: White Hooded Nuns, or any of the munias really (Tri-Color, Black head Nuns, etc), Strawberry Finches, and some of the other asian species like Pekin robins that are virtually impossible to locate any more because of the ban on Asian imports due to Bird Fluu. So - long story short, MOST of the big importers are bringing in more of the African species which are probably less expensive at a higher number. The more expensive species probably find themselves spending much more time "on the shelf" so-to-speak, which is money out of the importers/brokers pocket(s).

I've seen Bananaquits and Blue Black Grassquits offered on an almost weekly basis by both Singing Wings and two of the brokers in CA. I think the coolest birds I have ever seen at a show were Red Legged Honeycreepers that were being shown in NJ. She also had a few Tanagers and some other really cool softbills.

Birdist: Can you tell me more about the quarantine facility you mentioned?

Tiffany Park: I can't really say anything about the quarantine facilities because I've never used them myself. I've never imported any birds or purchased birds that were imported, I've only purchased domestic bred birds.

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