The Georgia Wild newsletter last month highlighted some really great cams on the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ website that are getting better with each passing day. The Landings Bird Cam features a recently expanded family of great horned owls, who live in a nest that was originally built by bald eagles. The nest is occupied most of the day since great horned owls are primarily nocturnal. So there’s a good chance you’ll see a vigilant parent atop or beside the two growing owlets in the nest if you take a peek during EST daylight hours.Speaking of eagles, if you’re in the mood for dynamic and large birds of prey tending to their young and want a little more daytime action, you can go right to the bald eagle source. The Minnesota DNR’s EagleCam has plenty of action to satisfy any appetite. The dark, fluffy eaglets have very recently hatched, and they’re just about as cute as they come, especially when one of their parents is feeding or teaching them bird basics. For those looking to observe nesting habits from the beginning, the Falcon Cam run by the Nebraska Games and Parks Commission shows a fairly consistent peregrine occupant. The nest, perched a dizzying 18 floors up at the Nebraska State Capitol, is still awaiting its clutch! And still, if 24-hour streams of miniature yet budding sky predators isn’t your thing, the Bella Hummingbird Nest cam in La Verne, California may be the nectar to your cheery blossom. Bella, an Allen’s hummingbird, and her two roughly Tic Tac-sized eggs can brighten even an already sunny day. The eggs are expected to hatch within the next two weeks! Whew, technology is something! But it’s still a lot more than cleverly camouflaged cameras that let you keep an eye on and learn from birds and other animals anywhere there is a screen and an Internet connection. If you’re looking for more hands-on adventure, especially as the winter thaws, the Pocket Ranger® mobile apps have got the goods. Download and get out for some spring adventuring near you!
The Christmas Bird Count is an annual event for both recreational bird counters and those focused on the contribution it makes to our knowledge of bird life and wellbeing. The Christmas Bird Count takes place at over two thousand “count circles” across the Western Hemisphere, each with a diameter of 15 miles. Each year, tens of thousands of participants show up to lend their binoculars to the effort. The bird count contributes to the study of birds internationally and here in the United States, and is one of the best and longest-running examples of citizen science in action. But its origins are modest and fairly local to the Northeastern U.S.The Christmas Bird Count, or “census” as it was originally called, was the brainchild of Frank Chapman, an ornithologist, field guide author, and early-on member of the Audubon Society. In 1900, Chapman, along with 26 other observers at 25 sites across North America, set out on Christmas morning to make a list and tally of every bird species and specimen they encountered within a given area. The count was a response to the traditional Christmas “side hunt” where teams of hunters would compete to bring in the most trophies, but was also in conversation with the environmental changes that were apparent even 115 years ago. The point of the bird count was, of course, to count and record as many unique birds as possible and get the attendees out into the fresh air just like its hunting-based counterpart. The count also bears ties to the nascent conservationist and preservationist movements.
You may be wondering why we’re even talking about this, since Christmas has already fluttered past. Good news, everyone! The official Christmas Bird Count lasts through the holidays and wraps on January 5. There’s a map of this year’s counts in addition to organizer contact information available here.But if the ship has sailed or there just isn’t a Christmas Bird Count near you, you can satisfy your bird counting desires or add to your “life list” by grabbing your guide and heading out for a walk in your yard or around your neighborhood. Or perhaps even to a state park, like those you can find with our Pocket Ranger® mobile apps!
Bird watching has been a hobby for a few centuries now, though mostly for those in possession of time and enough resources to enjoy hobbies in the first place. In the last century, however, the pastime has become a lusty, serious affair for millions of self-identified bird watchers from all over the world. For millions of bird watchers in the United States, fledgling and established, there are hundreds of bird species to view and appreciate their wild splendor with the right tools in hand.
To be an effective bird watcher in the field (whether meadow or concrete jungle), one needs keen awareness, lots of patience, and a toolkit of sorts: a pair of comfortable shoes, a solid pair of binoculars, and an informative, intuitive bird guide. Since that last part is tricky, here’s a brief history and list of American field guides.
The Birds of America
It could be said that the first widely known North American bird guide was created by artist and naturalist, John James Audubon. His most famous work, The Birds of America, was released as a series of prints between 1827 and 1838. Made up of paintings and illustrations that shine with life and charge imaginations, Audubon relied heavily on wire- and thread-posed deceased specimens.
Birds Through an Opera-Glass
By the end of the 19th century, preservation of bird species had taken a more prominent role in what was becoming an enthusiastic birding community. Birds Through an Opera-Glass by Florence A. Merriam Bailey centered on bird identification from a distance rather than taking the birds from their environments. This reflected a trend toward nature observation, which was coming to the fore at the time. And while literally less hands-on, it helped bring in a generation of birders that were more concerned with environmental conservation than the exotic plumages they might collect from around the world.
Peterson Field Guides
Roger Tory Peterson, a renowned ornithologist, set out to make a field guide accessible to amateurs and laymen rather than just scientists concerned with the study of birds and other animals. The first of these, Guide to the Birds, was printed in 1934, and its initial run of 2,000 copies sold out within one week. This field guide, along with the Peterson Identification System, refined and made Bailey’s ideas of using field marks to identify birds in the wild and from a distance even more practical. This, in turn, helped bolster the cause for greater conservation and environmental mindfulness. His guides, now more than three dozen in number, remain indelibly relevant and useful today.
The Sibley Guide to Birds
The Sibley Guide to Birds is widely considered the most comprehensive guide to North American bird identifying ever created. Published in 2000, the guide includes illustrations of 810 avian species. While the compendium is undoubtedly built upon the shoulders of its predecessors, it soars above them—if you’ll pardon the pun—not least of all because of its illustrations depicting each species in flight, a thorough representation that had not been included before.
The Future of Birding?
All About Birds is an online bird guide offered for free through the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It is one of the best resources a bird watcher can ask for, and reasonably represents a possible future for birding. While you can’t exactly carry it along with you in the field—yet—it succeeds in blending the sport of birding with technology in its own way. You can search this guide with the touch of a few keys by describing a bird’s size, shape, or color. This guide also puts you in touch with the aural end of birding as the description of each species is accompanied by its call or song.
Choosing the right bird guide is not unlike picking a car insurance provider or deciding how you want your coffee prepared from a local cafe’s immense menu—there are many options, each performing the task in a different way. There are guides that pose deeper taxonomic questions or ones with detailed illustrations. Some offer a wealth of information about nesting, feeding, or other behavioral attributes while others elaborate less, so as not to overload a beginner—it’s really your personal preference and what information interests you that matters.
Most importantly, no matter your level of expertise or lack thereof, you can get out and enjoy a good bird walk today, even if winter is on its way—just remember to dress warmly and stay sharp. And feel free to add your own bird guide notes or advice in the comments!
On September 22nd, it was decided that the greater sage-grouse will not be protected under the Endangered Species Act. This news comes as a delight to ranchers, big industry leaders, and some conservationists while other environmentalists think this decision isn’t doing all it can for the sage-grouse.
These birds call eleven Western sagebrushes (the Sagebrush Sea, approximately 165 million acres) their home and are not keen to human development. They depend on the sagebrush for food, especially in the winter, and conservation of the sage-grouse would benefit many other species that also rely on the sagebrush for survival. Watching their unique mating ritual is a treat for visitors as well, one that shows the sage-grouse strutting and fanning their tail feathers about theatrically.As development continues out West, the greater sage-grouse suffer and have been steadily declining for decades. In 2010, their populations were low enough that they should have been protected under the Endangered Species Act, however, the federal government claimed to have other priorities that led to it not being added. Some environmental groups believe this was done out of economic pressure from the oil, gas, mining, and agriculture industries.
The greater sage-grouse avoided being added to the list again due to heavily managed land-use plans by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service, which ensure that public and private land will be protected and improved with the greater sage-grouse in mind. Again, however, there is a split on opinions with this ruling. Some environmental groups are saying that the ruling isn’t strict enough while big industries affected by these limitations are saying they’re too harsh. In the end, these big companies face less constricting restraints than what they would have had to endure if the bird had been listed as endangered.
In the meantime, both sides are threatening litigation to either reduce the limitations or have the sage-grouse be protected under the Endangered Species Act. The sage-grouse’s eligibility for being listed as an endangered species will be reevaluated in five years, in which time its population will hopefully start to grow regardless of what happens in court.
Why is the Prothonotary Warbler considered rare? It seems every time someone utters the magic word, Prothonotary (pro-THON-eh-Ter-ee), everyone goes a little bird crazy. The Prothonotary Warbler is a life bird for many birders; some have seen it only once or twice in their lifetime. Warblers in general are hard to spot, and have been known to cause serious next strains due to their minute size. The Prothonotary Warbler is no different, measuring at 14 cm, it’s especially hard to distinguish among branches and leaves. But more so, these warblers are threatened by habitat destruction, declining food resources, weather variations, and parasitic species. This warbler is listed as endangered in Canada. An estimated 2,000 pairs live in South Carolina’s protected, Francis Beidler Forest.
See my colors
Among a sea of green leaves, the Prothonotary Warbler’s deep yellow head and underparts stands out. The prothonotary has greenish upperparts, and unmarked bluish-gray wings, white belly and undertail. This helps distinguish it from other yellow warblers. Adults females and immature birds are of a similar shade but with a duller composition. Plumage stays the same throughout the year. If you hear a series of high-pitched tweet-tweet-tweet, sharp and loud, you’ve found it!
Where I call home?
The Prothonotary Warbler is a bird of the southern woodland swamps with a high concentration along the floodplain forests of Lower Wisconsin, Mississippi, and the St. Croix rivers (common to abundant). In the summer they range from southern New Jersey to north-central Florida, west to east-central Texas to southern Michigan. It’s also a visitor of the Appalachian Mountains, sparingly distributed in the northern parts of the states. Their winter range extends from Southern Mexico to Venezuela, and sometimes the warbler plays the role of the island bird in Puerto Rico and Bermuda.
This species breeds in moist bottomland forests either permanently or seasonally flooded with standing water such as sloughs, oxbow ponds and slow-moving backwaters. It tends to find safety above flooder water, which has less risk of nest predations by raccoons— their main nest predator. To defend their territories the tiny male warblers snap their bills and chase away intruders. Males keep watch while the female builds the nest and lays eggs—what a gentleman! To flourish these birds must find breeding habitats in overstay trees with the right kind of cavities for nesting. Typically low cavities such as old Downy Woodpecker holes. Some of the trees they flock to include the swamp white oak, silver maple, green ash and river birch, among others.
Why I’m considered rare?
The Prothonotary was included in the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List, due to its vulnerable nature and niche habitat. Prothonotaries are prone to suffer from unpredictable ecological changes. For example loss of wetland habitats affects both breeding and wintering grounds. Logging practices are specially harmful to these warblers, since it removes cavity trees. Also some plants like the Reed canary grass, which can dominate the ground layer, impede new trees from growing, thereby turning the bottomland hardwoods unsuitable for Prothonotaries to survive. They also face parasitism from Brown-headed Cowbird, who are known to abandon offsprings in foreign nests. This behavior ruins the warbler’s chance at hatching success, further increasing nestling mortality. In southern Illinois parasitism rates are as high as 50 percent for Prothonotaries.
Climate change is causing a decline in soil moisture, reducing the growth of bottomland hardwood forests, and in turn decreasing available habitat for the birds. Frequent summer storms and flood events also have a negative impact; they destroy low nests, as it occurred in the Wisconsin River in recent years. Extreme droughts dry backwater sloughs and ponds essential for the warbler’s survival against predators. The overall population is projected to dwindle as the southern part of its main range suffers.
Help a bird out
Now that you know about the wildlife at risk: Prothonotary Warbler, plan out some simple ways you can help out this species. During winter, prothonotaries live in mangrove forests; if you have one near you, be sure they’re kept healthy. One sure way to lure these sweet, yellow warblers is by offering a safe habitat for nesting in your backyard. They typically thrive in nesting huts and nest boxes, and are especially drawn to living near water, such a large garden pools, ponds, and marsh. Their favorite trees include willow oak, sweet gum, black gum, bald cypress, tupelo, elms, and river birch. Offer them fresh fruits like apples, oranges, and bananas to keep them around. As everyone knows with warblers, one minute you see them, and the next they’re gone!
This May, look to the skies! Springtime marks a massive migration for hundreds of bird species in North America. Why migrate? The birds migrated to warmer climates for the winter; in the spring, these same birds make their way back up north to their breeding grounds.The first groups of birds to start heading north are waterfowl (ducks, geese, swans). Some birds of prey, such as bald eagles and red-shouldered hawks begin moving north in early spring, as well as blackbirds and sparrows. In April and May, shorebirds (sandpipers and plovers) and songbirds (warblers, orioles, thrushes) begin their migration north. Warblers are a favorite of birders, and in certain areas of the country, you may be able to see more than 30 species of these colorful songbirds at one time!
The state parks are gearing up for this mass bird migration with plenty of events. Pack your binoculars, download the Pocket Ranger® Bird Feed app, and head to one of these great birding opportunities near you.
Wings Over Oak Mountain
May 1st – May 3rd, 2015
Oak Mountain State Park
Spend the whole weekend with fellow birders at the exciting Wings Over Oak Mountain event at Oak Mountain State Park. This three-day event’s itinerary includes live bird of prey programs, guided birding tours, and educational programs that focus on habitat diversity, bird adaptation, and more. Wings Over Oak Mountain is perfect for all levels of birders; on any of the guided tours, park staff will help birders beef up their avian know-how, from distinguishing bird calls to pinpointing key habitat. The event’s registration fee includes breakfast and a wine tasting from Alabama’s own vineyard, Vizzini Farms Winery.
Festival of the Birds at Presque Isle
May 8th – May 10th
Presque Isle State Park
Catch a multitude of birds migrating along the southern shore of Lake Erie at the weekend-long Festival of the Birds at Presque Isle State Park. More than 320 species of bird have been seen flying through the park, including warblers and other songbirds. At the park’s Gull Point, a sand plain sanctuary, look for migrant shorebirds and terns. George Armistead is this year’s keynote speaker, and every full-weekend registrant will receive a copy of his book, ABA Field Guide to Birds of Pennsylvania. To keep away the crowds, this festival is limited to 150 participants, so make sure to register soon!
Hungry Mother State Park Birding Adventure
May 1st – May 3rd
Hungry Mother State Park
Outfit your entire family with binoculars for the family-friendly Hungry Mother State Park Birding Adventure! Ready yourself for three whole days of birding activities and programs for all skill levels, including a live birds of prey show, guided bird hikes, nighttime owl prowls, avian arts & crafts, and kayak bird tours. Richard Moncrief of Carl Zeiss Sports Optics will lead an informative workshop about binoculars: how they work, how to use them, and how to choose the best model for where you go birding.
If you can’t make the entire weekend, but would still like to get your family out birding, join the Family Bird Hike on May 16th at Hungry Mother State Park. Bird enthusiast and master naturalist Randy Smith will lead an informative bird hike through the park. This is a great way for people of all ages to learn the basics about birding.
Camping is for the Birds
May 8th – May 10th
Caesar Creek State Park
Celebrate the annual spring migration at Caesar Creek State Park’s Camping is for the Birds! Camp at the Caesar Creek campgrounds, so you won’t miss any of the birding activities the weekend has to offer. Continuous bird banding demonstrations will take place at the Visitor Center, and park naturalists will lead guided birding hikes. See live raptors up close and personal at the park’s birds of prey program, and join in the “Build Your Own Bluebird Box” workshop! Space is limited, so call the Nature Center for reservations and more information: (513) 897-2437.
Biggest Week in American Birding (BWIAB)
May 8th – May 17th
Maumee Bay State Park
Designated the Warbler Capital of the World, witness the annual songbird migration at this year’s Biggest Week in American Birding! Northwest Ohio becomes a hub for birders every year because hundreds of bird species fly through the area on their journey north. If you are looking for birding heaven, Maumee Bay State Park is right at the heart of the migration route, and a great place to spend the day (and night!) ticking away some elusive species on your life-list. Over the course of the week, birders will see migrating shorebirds, cuckoos, hummingbirds, buntings, thrushes, flycatchers, up to 30 species of warblers and more! In addition to many guided bird hikes and kayak/canoe tours, there will be an optics exhibit, naturalist-led bird banding, a birder’s marketplace, nature photography programs, and a bird tattoo contest.
Looking for ways to help the birds migrating through your own backyard?
- Create backyard habitat for the birds by planting native grasses, flowers and shrubs.
- Refrain from using toxic pesticides outside. These pesticides pollute waterways and reduce insects that birds need to survive.
- Keep your cat indoors! Domestic cats have contributed to the extinction of 33 species of bird worldwide. The Fish & Wildlife Service estimates that free-roaming domestic cats kill billions of birds every year in the United States.
- Prevent birds from striking your windows by placing large stickers on them. The sticker breaks up the bright reflection of the sun, so the birds can see that the window is not a viable flyway.
- Drink bird-friendly coffee! By drinking certified shade-grown coffee you are ensuring conservation of vital bird habitat.
Want to keep track of your bird sightings using just your smartphone? Download your state’s free Pocket Ranger® app to easily locate birding locations, identify species, and send your saved waypoints via email, Facebook or Twitter to other birders. And don’t forget to document and share all of your birding discoveries via the free Pocket Ranger® Bird Feed app, a social network just for bird enthusiasts!
While Virginia Beach prides itself on having calm beaches, a lively boardwalk with restaurants and shops, we shouldn’t forget about the Seashore to Cypress Birding Trail! With 130,000 acres of natural land, this place draws in nature and wildlife lovers alike.
Among the cool nature spots within the Seashore to Cypress Birding Trail, First Landing State Park and False Cape State Park are prime areas for birding, hiking and biking. And what better companion than the Virginia Pocket Ranger® App to guide you along! With the app you can mark and record the coordinates of plant life, animal species, or landscape views with the photo waypoint feature. Make use of the advanced GPS Maps, which allows you to access trail data, record tracks from hikes, runs, or bike rides, and view elapsed time and distance traveled.
That’s not all! The Seashore to Cypress Birding Trail links other areas, including Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center, and the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. Start from the northern part of the trail at Chesapeake Bay where you’ll find thousands of sea ducks gathered around the rock islands. We hear winter is the best time to see them. Also be on the look out for scoters, long-tailed ducks, scaups, red-breasted mergansers, cormorants, and the rare harlequin ducks. And don’t be surprised if you see Northern Gannets driving for baitfish!First Landing State Park is definitely worth a visit. It’s both seashore and cypress, with ample birding, diverse habitats, from dunes to beaches. If you take the Cape Henry Trail, you’ll pass through the Cypress swamp and maritime forest, then the ancient dunes, and lastly the waters of Broad Bay. Want to do birding on a bike? Cape Henry is also a bike trail, so hop on. There are birding opportunities all year round, including warblers in the maritime forest and ospreys in the salt marsh near Broad Bay. They typically arrive in March and stay until fall. Tanagers, thrushes and other songbirds appear during spring and fall migrations.
Already feeling overwhelmed with the number of birds? Use the Pocket Ranger® Bird Feed App to keep track of bird sightings at Seashore to Cypress Birding Trail. Complete with advanced GPS mapping features, a photo/video sharing community, where you can post your findings, add notes, leave comments and tips, as well as view other users’ sightings on one map, record and share tracks of your favorite nature trails, and mark waypoints of locations.If you want to explore a remote public park in the state, False Cape State Park is the place! Head for the elevated platform to view waterfowl and songbirds in the myrtle thicket. Along the ocean coastal forest there’s a cemetery, church site, and remnants of a village from the early 1900s. This spot is also popular with waterfowl hunters. Picnic tables are also available here, so be sure to take a lunch break here.