Thursday, March 26, 2015

Birds at Large: The Maine Sportsman

My grandfather and dad are the editors of a newspaper called the Maine Sportsman. It's a fantastic publication, covering outdoor issues all over the state. Want to know which lakes near Sebago are good for smallmouth? Want to learn about riding snowmobiles in Aroostook County? Where to find the best spots for stripers? It's all in the Sportsman.

It's a labor of love for them, and I know my family and the rest of the staff bust their butts all month putting together each issue. As careful as they are, though, mistakes are sometimes made. It's that way in every publication. However, looking through the Sportsman's April issue, which arrived in my inbox today, I found a mistake that is, frankly, inexcusable. It came in the "Maine Wildlife Quiz" section, purportedly about Maine's state bird, the black-capped chickadee.

Do you see it?  The photo accompanying the article isn't a black-capped chickadee at all, but a European great tit.

My own flesh and blood! What betrayal!

Of course I immediately called my dad to express my outrage. He hemmed and hawed and eventually said that it was part of an elaborate April Fool's plan to get the two of us to have a conversation about great tits. Well, as an ad-lib that's pretty funny, but it's also a sign of great disrespect of one of Maine's iconic symbols. If I can't win a battle for State Bird respect against my own family, who can I win it against?

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Cracking the Nut

I'm fascinated by the story of the chestnut blight, which killed an estimated four billion American chestnut trees in the first half of the 20th century.  Four billion!  Thousands and thousands of trees dying across the landscape each day. This disease had a transformative effect upon the American landscape, but it's largely forgotten today.

I wrote about the chestnut blight, and some inspiring efforts to replant blight-resistant trees at Flight 93 National Memorial in western Pennsylvania, for the magazine of the National Parks Conservation Association.  Here's a link if you'd like to take a look.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

All The Times My eBird Observations Have Been Questioned by Reviewers

Misidentification is a sensitive topic for birders. Birding is a hobby with a heavy reliance on people's word, and if your word is wrong - or if you gain a reputation as someone whose word is wrong - it's not much fun.

But bird identification is hard! All these goddamn things look exactly alike, and they don't usually just sit there and let you look at them.  At the same time, thanks to online listservs, eBird and BirdLog, submitting sightings is easier than ever.  Beginning birders who could once work through their identifications at home in their own notebooks are now tempted with going "public" with their sightings, perhaps earlier than they should.

Birders are confronted with their own misidentifications most commonly through the dreaded "Question about your" emails from eBird reviewers. You hate to see one of these in your inbox. These'll come after you submit an atypical record to eBird but don't provide enough documentation (photos or notes) in the observation to satisfy the reviewer that you had the ID correct. It's not confrontational, but the burden is back on you to convince the person that you saw what you saw.

It's not pleasant when someone tells you that you're wrong. Some birders, I've heard, respond quite negatively to the idea - just the idea - that they were mistaken. We've all got reputations to maintain and self-confidence to massage.

But birders shouldn't be offended by eBird review emails. It's OK to be wrong, and you're not an idiot for misidentifying something. To try to help remove the stigma here, I want to show the world the lots of eBird review emails I've received, letting you know that even a birder who writes on THE INTERNET makes mistakes.

My Report: 3 Cassin's Finches, Lane, Oregon - Feb. 27, 2009
The Problem?: Birders need to be extra careful when they're traveling. I was in Oregon for the first time, and just assumed that all the reddish finches would be Cassin's, because I thought of them as the "Western" finch. I didn't look closely enough, and didn't realize that Cassin's were "exceptionally rare" (reviewer's words) at the elevation I was at.
Was I wrong?: Yeah probably.

My Report: 1 Nashville Warbler, Violette's Lock, MD, April 23, 2006
The Problem: April 23 is a pretty early date for Nashvilles on the East Coast, but I didn't know that, and didn't take any field notes.
Was I wrong?: I don't know

My Report: 1 Say's Phoebe, Lane, Oregon - Feb. 28, 2009
The Problem?: Another example of not being aware of the particulars in a new spot. This is an early date for Say's at this location. However, this was I think my first Say's, and I remember looking carefully. The reviewer said it's not too uncommon to have early birds here, and I think the observation was accepted.
Was I wrong?: No, I don't think so

My Report: 2 Black Vultures, Washington, Illinois - April 9, 2011
The Problem?: It helps to bird with other birders. These birds were not particularly rare at this location, and we both remembered seeing them clearly.
Was I wrong?: Nah.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Honored to Have Been Featured in the ABA Milestones Column This Month

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Time My Scientist Cousin Randomly Texted Me A First State Record

I live somewhat vicariously through my cousin, who had the good sense to pursue ornithology.  I'll be  sitting at my dumb desk on some sunny day, feeling myself get old and fat, and then she'll post some pictures of herself out in the field banding birds and smiling and, man, I tell ya, it's really just enough to make a guy go crazy.

Anyway, she's been working in Mississippi for the past couple of years but she's coming to DC and we've made plans to hang out. We were texting back and forth about it and she - impromptu of nothing other than a shared love of birds - sent me a picture of a yellow-rumped warbler. But not just any yellow-rumped warbler:

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Long Live #WeaselPecker

I've got a new post up at Slate today about the PHENOMENON known as WeaselPecker.

One million thanks yous to the photographer, Martin Le-May, who graciously and quickly responded to my inquiries, and who provided crucial back-up photos when the original came under question as a photoshop job (you can't be too careful these days).  I hope he's enjoying his moment of viral insanity!

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. 

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