Saturday, February 21, 2015

Mammals and Reptiles of 2014

I don't care what you think.  I don't even. I know it's almost two full months into 2015.  I know this is a birding blog. Deal with it. There are lot of cool living things out there, and birds are just the best way to get to them all.  Plus, if you're going to lug a heavy camera around all day you might as well point it at stuff, you know?

Here are cool non birds I saw in the two-thousand-and-fourtteenth period that the Earth made one full rotation around the sun, counting from the time that a certain magical baby was born in a stable in Bethlehem (Judea, not Pennsylvania).


5. Richardson's Ground Squirrel - Fort Union Trading Post NHS, North Dakota

These cool little guys were cruising around the grounds of the Fort, whistling and running and just being cool animals that we don't have out East. My Peterson Mammal Guide says that this fella "Often stands bolt upright to survey for danger, hence the name "Picket Pin." That's cool I guess.

4. Arctic Ground Squirrel - Arctic Valley Ski Area, Anchorage, Alaska

What's up homeboy? Just hanging out in the tundra, trying to look like a rock so Golden Eagles don't eat you? Respect.  Good luck with that. 

3. Sea Otter - Homer, Alaska

I mean, this guy was just chilling on his back RIGHT offshore the whole time we were there.  Like ten feet off the beach, rolling around, lounging, eating whatever he was eating, being warm.  I still managed to not get a good photo. 

2. Bobcat - Lake Apopka, Florida

This pic is technically from the first days of 2015, but I started the trip in late December so I'm counting it.  It's my blog I call all the shots. Plus, look at this guy!  I'd never seen a Bobcat before, and this dude just sat there while we walked past, with murder in his (her?) eyes.  Stay gold, Bobcat.

1. Musk Oxen - Nome, Alaska

Easily the best mammal encounter I had all year. If you can't really decipher the photo, it's two Musk Oxen at the moment of head-to-head, face-destroying impact. Oh man. We had been watching this group of Oxen across the hillside while we were looking for Bluethroats, and I saw this pair start backing away from each other, swaggering their butts and generally looking like something was about to go down. They sprinted at each other and smashed their heads and it was loud and awesome. 


5. Southern Prairie Lizard - Big Bend NP, Texas

There are tiny little lizards scurrying everywhere in Big Bend.  It's great. I am no pro at identifying herps, but I think this is the southern subspecies of the Prairie Lizard. Lookin' tough.

4. Texas Spiny Softshell and Big Bend Slider - Big Bend NP, Texas

Softshell turtles are insane looking. Unsettling. Peterson calls them "animated pancakes," which fits pretty good. Based on range, this guy is of the Texas subspecies of the Guadalupe Spiny Softshell.  Behind him is a Big Bend Slider, a range-limited cousin of the more common (to me, anyway) Red-eared Slider.

3. Southwestern Earless Lizard - Big Bend NP, Texas

The ID was simple once I saw that it didn't have any ears.  Haha jk do lizards even have ears? It's like calling a bird a Many-fingernailed Duck or something. I don't know. Either way, I've also ID'd this guy based on range, with Peterson telling me Southwesterns live along the Rio Grande while Texas Earless live in the eastern part of the state.  OK.  Either way, this lizard was doing that cool thing lizards do where he lifts his belly up to the side to flash his colorful underside but then hides it back down to remain camouflaged.  Cool.

2. Bullsnake - north of Theodore Roosevelt NP, North Dakota

Yeeeahhh.  This fella was huge.  Peterson tells me that Bullsnakes are "one of the few kinds of North American serpents that can hiss loudly," and boy did this guy, as he pushed himself off into a ditch. Scared the pants off me. Also, "serpents." Awesome.

1. Blacktail Rattlesnake - Big Bend NP, Texas

My first rattlesnake! This guy is a tiny little baby, but there he is.  Almost stepped on him as I was walking down the long hot dusty trail from the Colima Warbler walk. He was in no hurry to get off the trail, and a bunch of other hikers piled up and watched him.  Rattlesnakes are captivating, and no one minded waiting in the heat. 

Monday, February 9, 2015

Thoughts on the Mercenary Ornithology State Birds Post

I am pretty confident at this point that the What The State Birds SHOULD Be post I did a couple years ago will be the most-read thing I ever write.  I'm OK with that; it's had a life far beyond what I expected and as been a lot of fun.

An though it's just a little article, I feel a little paternalistic to the topic of fixing the state bird situation. There's a lot of room in the debate, of course, and a few days ago the folks at Mercenary Ornithology weighed in.  WITH SCIENCE.

Mercenary Ornithology used mathemagics to figure out which bird should be the state bird for each state.  They used some formulas to figure out a bird's Outlier Value, basically how much more likely you are to see a certain bird in one state compared to all others.  The results are great, and much more specific than most of the choices I slopped together. There are blue-winged teal involved now, and red-cockaded woodpeckers and upland sandpipers. It's a much more diverse list, weighted towards state-specific birds, with nary a cardinal in sight.

But it ain't perfect.  What's the problem? Well, at the risk of sounding exactly like old fogey baseball writers railing against the influx of so-called "advanced stats" like WORP and PECOTA: This list ain't got no heart! Where's the human touch? While some of the results of the mechanical approach are perfect, other results range from awkward (a Kentucky warbler for Arkansas?) to depressing (European Starlings shouldn't be a state bird anywhere, even a place as boring as Indiana [j/k Indiana I love you]).

Ya gotta leave some room for debate, and you've got to embrace quirks. Let Rhode Island keep their dumb chicken, it's their thing. Let Maryland keep the's a Baltimore Oriole! There's fun in the details, and room for states to pick birds that aren't very common or easily found in their states.

No matter what other lists people come up with, everyone can agree on one thing: the current lineup of state birds is a national shame, and we gotta do something about it.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Important Answers to Major Questions: What Kind of Binoculars Was Robert Kraft Using During the Super Bowl?

Needless to say, as a lifetime fan of the New England Patriots, I enjoyed this weekend's Super Bowl. For those of you non-sports-types that might be reading this, the Patriots defeated the Seattle Seahawks (props for the bird-themed name, though) thanks to a miraculous goal-line interception. It was fantastic.

During a cutaway shot of the Owner's Box, Patriots owner Robert Kraft lifted binoculars to his face to look, presumably, at some action on the field. As a birder, this was an extra little bonus, as I enjoy seeing what looks like people birdwatching. I jumped to Twitter to register my delight:

However, the binoculars were only on screen for a moment, and my screenshot wasn't detailed enough for me to see what kind of equipment Mr. Kraft was using.  Again, Twitter was my ally (this is the next morning, as I was too busy celebrating the win that night):

I got a couple responses.  Some were of the wiseacre variety:

Others were actually helpful, and illustrated a good birder's attention to detail:

Finally, there was confirmation, in the form of #BrandInteraction:

Yep, Kraft is using Swarovski's CL Companion binoculars, which received an "Outstanding" mark from the Best Binocular Reviews website. They retail from Swarovski online for a cool $1,110.  A little out of my price range, but pocket change for a guy who is literally wearing Super Bowl rings as cuff links.  Go Patriots.  Go Birders.

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