30 April 2010, Friday
"We learn hawks by their shapes — first and foremost," said a trip leader once (and too often). But all kinds of hawkwatchers who might know better, if they thought about the next steps in the ID to awe process just for a moment, might begin with something else.
In the same situation, I always talk about the bird (first and foremost), what we can see... in patterns and in colors. Shape? Sure. What I never want to do is place the hawk in shadow; block it in the mind of the observer, by placing a cardboard cut-out in between bird and birder.
When you compare/contrast the HMANA guide to the Sibley fold-out for hawks, you see this approach. Blue Jays and Cardinals would be a tough problem in ID, if, we made it (first and foremost) about shape... setting the obvious aside.
When hawks are high and detail disappears, I talk about the migration... from the bird's point of view and wait out for something lower to discuss, always making it as open-ended as possible. I think it's tempting and certainly human nature to single-out one thing that makes the bird, or makes it one thing only by reduction. But there is always one more thing to see.
Now this works well with both kids and adults: focusing on just what's in view; seeing all we can see... and making it clear, by example, that there is plenty to see. Hawkwatching is moving, maybe in fits and starts, but moving away from the its old ways and toward birding... as if hawk ID were like learning and enjoying any other group of birds. Again, today, in light of the knowledge and the optics: this is the path to take.
And last — for this quick "master class" — the serious downside of the big three silhouette lesson plan is, not only doesn't it work well within and between A, B, F (accipiter, buteo, falcon), but there are as many other raptors in the air that are not ABFs! So after laying the groundwork for the big three, when the first non-ABF appears, the explanation as to why this is like and/or not like a _____________, well, you can just see the body language in the group (of birders) going haywire, and heading off in many other directions: lunch, shopping lists, etc. Away from the hawk and away from awe.
29 April 2010, Thursday
The new and improved HMANA silhouette hawk guide kinda sucks. In the original version, none of the species looked much like the thing in flight, but spread uncomplicated over the page, none of them were really that wrong either. Now, with the addition of inaccurate noise, shape tweaking, and a bad design decision to eliminate white space between birds... well, they all look alike: accipiters, buteos, falcons, and the rest!
The "and the rest" part is the problem when you stick with the simple-tone approach. Emphasis on silhouette with today's knowledge and optics is such a waste, and so not the reality; the state of the art.
Even a quarter of a century ago, Pete Dunne found the flaw when he penned an article discussing the problems telling Sharp-shinned Hawks from American Kestrels... accipiters from falcons. And I've mentioned here before that I've observed distant adult male Red-tailed Hawks were being regularly counted as Sharpies at an established hawkwatch... a buteo recorded as an accipiter.
On another front, David Sibley has a new series of rugged folding bird guides, and this includes one for the hawks (in color, and priced very favorably to the HMANA product). Of course, it's well-designed — note how he uses the blocks of text as white space to make the images stand out.
Now, I think you should cherish the oldie, moldie version of the hawk silhouette guide with the three black and whites on the cover, but then, turn the page into the 21st Century of hawk identification.
28 April 2010, Wednesday
A documentary about the people, the place, the players, and the bird in question if having its NYC premiere. Online late Tuesday, but dated for Wednesday (print edition?), the review is shorter than the trailer... and, of course, a certain snippet of video is way shorter still.
The film, showing as part of a weeklong series called For the Birds at Anthology Film Archives (Hitchcock fans: Friday’s your night), focuses on Brinkley, Ark., a tiny town in the eastern part of the state that went woodpecker crazy after one of the birds was or wasn’t seen there in 2004. An inconclusive bit of video helped start the mania, and the scruffy town did its best to capitalize, with a woodpecker gift shop, a woodpecker hamburger and so on; a barber shop even offered a woodpecker haircut.
The film's trailer has a great look and feel to the potential content, with the central sound bite going to David Sibley and Richard Prum (with the Where's Waldo award to a glimpse of Pete Dunne). The New York Times review offers a big city take on a familiar tale known to just about every birder, while the official website for the movie provides more info including past and future showings.
27 April 2010, Tuesday
Anu Garg sends me an email every morning. Well, me, and a half a million other people around the world. The NYTimes calls his A.Word.A.Day email, "The most welcomed, most enduring piece of daily mass e-mail in cyberspace." That sums it up!
I try to do a.hawk.image.a.day, and I've averaged out to get that done. I try to remember to toss in some other things to look at. Today's Turkey Vulture made a semi-distant passage, in a Spring where few, high and far describes things. But the TV was molting: might be last of his kind in the migration marathon, but first to be seen molting. Other TVs are doing the same right about now, but on the breeding grounds.
When I receive Anu Garg's email, I check out the word, but I then move quickly down the message to the quote of the day. I've stockpiled many, many of these over the years as email signature material. Since I write few emails to listservs these days, I have a few new quotes to share today. Words to live by... maybe.
"News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress;
all the rest is advertising."
"Only by going alone in silence, without baggage,
can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness. All other travel
is mere dust and hotels and baggage and chatter."
"A couple of months in the laboratory can save
a couple of hours in the library."
26 April 2010, Monday
Every morning a couple of different food for thought doses — one art & one science — get the day started. These come in in the very early morning hours, along with some other news summaries (NYTimes, LATimes, WashPost...). I can check them out even when the birds are up early, like right at this time of the year. I've got a bit of a backlog of some tidbits that I found interesting.
In addition to birds, likely all kinds of life have their prime. Including us. Another study has found it in deer. In my science archives you can find other bird life history studies of late that parallel this work, also using vocalizations.
The vocalisations or 'groans' of male fallow deer
provide rivals and potential mates with an honest account of the emitting
animal's competitive abilities. A study, published in the open access
journal BMC Biology, describes how the acoustic qualities of a deer's
call change year by year and reflect changes in status and age.
We all know a very basic, but only rudimentary, story of flocking behavior. Whether pigeons, ibis, blackbirds forming a ball to evade a hawk, and maybe Broadwing kettles or even Kestrels when the are in good numbers and moving low along the coast. Choices and decisions are made to make all manner of behavior more efficient... for better survivorship. Pigeon-thinking has been looked at and this study takes us deeper.
Pigeon flocks are guided by a flexible system of
leadership in which almost every member gets a 'vote' but the votes
of high-ranking birds carry more weight, a new study has shown.
"Think Big." This food-for-thought dino study in North America updates the meaning of this catch phrase, big time.
Researchers at McGill University are unlocking the
mysteries of the little-known habits of dinosaurs in discovering that
the entire western interior of North America was likely once populated
by a single community of dinosaurs. According to a statistical analysis
of the fossil record, dinosaurs were adept at coping with all sorts
of environments, and not as restricted in their geographic ranges as
And The Writer's Almanac with Garrison Keillor, tells us in this morning email, it's John James Audubon's birthday. GK reads this mornings on many NPR affiliates.
It's the birthday of wildlife artist John
James Audubon, born in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) (1785). He
was raised in France, and when he was 18 he took off for America,
under a false passport, to escape being drafted into Napoleon's army.
He ended up at a rural estate not far from Philadelphia, and spent
his days bird-watching, fishing, hunting, drawing, and making music.
So in his honor, go forth and shoot something... with a camera dude.
23 April 2010, Friday
At first glance this accipiter, from a couple of days ago, might generate a bit of controversy, by way of debate, and then it is gone, so mis-ID maybe. But accipiter ID is not controversial, just tricky at times. One builds a case — on the fly, so to speak — adding one working fieldmark to the next and next until a clear picture comes into view.
This includes surmising when one point of ID isn't working right... on this day, under these conditions, or just for some reason, on this bird. We know this, having not stopped at one fieldmark, and it is contradicted by the next thing we look at (in building a bird... to species). Toss it quickly, as we have many more colors, plumage features, etc. to apply and confirm/deny. Identification of hawks is best done without gestalt, potions, spells or silhouettes.
Sticking with the thumbnail, at the right, for a moment, we have a bird with a head not hidden/retracted in a tuck of the wing; a bird with a long-look, both in the wing and tail; maybe "a flying cross" describes; the bird looks pretty pale too, awfully gray(?). In conclusion, having made a vague case for this bird being a Cooper's Hawk or Northern Goshawk, what is there about this bird to say it is a Sharpie?
Lanky look aside, even deploying old school chestnuts like straight leading edge, long tail and even rounded tail (based on the spread and those central bumps), this still isn't a Coop. The leading wing edge is bowed forward, in a soaring posture, not held straight out in a glide. And while you can't always slow the image down in flight (you can work on that though), here you can actually see that the outer tail feathers — even when spread — match the rest in length. So, still not a Cooper's Hawk.
If you've been taking some New School of Accipiter courses, it looks like this bird must have a long hand, but in this still image, we can count in from the outside (to 10, primaries) and see that the hand is actually small (accounts for maybe, and only, the outer quarter of the overall wing chord). Alternatively, you can judge the placement of the wrist another way and come to the same conclusion: small hand; not Coop. On the leading edge first, we can see a subtle "knuckle" or small bump at the wrist; on the trailing edge — on both wings — we see a bright "pointer" cutting into the shadowed underwing coverts. Either or both of these mark the location of the wrist, and again, the hand portion is a very small percentage of the overall wing length. This long hand is an optical illusion that you can train yourself to dismiss, and get the bird right... Sharpie.
Both in the thumbnail here and upon clicking the image, for the three pict collage, this Sharp-shinned Hawk displays a killer ID feature to culminate our look: this bird lacks a final sharp dark band along the trailing edge of the wing. On the one hand, a backlit bird shows us less color and detail, but here it highlights the presence (Coop) or absence (Sharpie) of this fieldmark. Now the band is technically there in both species, but it is a blur in Sharpies and sharp in Cooper's Hawks. One can also start out in the open hand and see that final band there in both species, but then note that while there is room for it, it's not visible inward on the Sharpie. Use Google or your hawk field guide (Wheeler, with photos) to see it in the Cooper's Hawk. At this date, a single Coop in a day of Sharpies is often this bird... just too many compact mini-accips, then this bird.
One last thing: the head. Is it large or is it small? Old School would, at this point when their Coop has been cooked, claim it is not large enough to make this bird a Coop, knew it all along. But those too cool for school might point out that a small head — actually a small face in the context of the neck and body at length — tells us nothing about the species of raptor, but it indicates, quite reliably, that this bird is a female.
22 April 2010, Thursday
Where were you and what were you doing on the first Earth Day, 1970? I hope at least half of those reading this weren't alive yet... hope v. history.
I was a student-teacher at Ithaca High School — Regents Biology and AP Botany — who, as the ecology major, was assigned to the faculty member coordinating this first Earth Day. We thought it would be an annual "teach-in" (like a sit-in, but with teaching) , and more. Of course it was. Later that year the EPA was instituted to clean things up a bit, the passage of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act came in then too under one of the country's most Earth-conscious presidents, Richard M. Nixon... a Republican, by the standards of that time.
A decade before Earth Day, Rachel Carson explained the difficult concept that there was more to the clean up than cleaning up what looked and smelled bad (and there was plenty of that with rivers catching fire and yellow air that stung your eyes). She said the unseen could be deadly too. And that, odorless and colorless, death might come through a compounding of things... she was describing the problem with oh so effective, but persistent, pesticides like DDT.
For the earliest human beings everyday was Earthday, but this began dying a slow death when we invented a god that, well, was us. And, of course this god always wants us to do what we think we should do, having made us separately and superior to not only other species, but other humans who are not into our god. But I digress.
For this 40th Earth Day, comments, reflections and other reports have varied widely, but I found a couple worth the Day, or not.
Steward Brand is known for the first, and many editions of, the Whole Earth Catalog. He was an innovative thinker for his particular view of our Earth-relations. I think he likes being different for difference sake nowadays. But as a "where are we now" summation, here's the useful part of Mr. Brand's view for Earth Day.
On the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, is the middle-aged
green movement ready to be revived by some iconoclastic young Turqs?
This should not be a shocker, but this just in: Earth Day has been commercialized.
So strong was the antibusiness sentiment for the
first Earth Day in 1970 that organizers took no money from corporations
and held teach-ins “to challenge corporate and government leaders.”
Last, but seriously and therefore not least, over at Slate.com — where most staffers consider wilderness as being more than thirty minutes from a Starbucks — I found some pretty good advice for the individual life. Instead of debating wind versus nuclear energy (neither of which we really want or need!), we can make and even legislate some personal choices.
Arnold Tukker of the Dutch research organization TNO laid out his top recommendations[for the individual] thusly: Insulate your home, choose energy-efficient appliances, drive a fuel-efficient car (if you must drive at all), moderate your meat and dairy consumption, eat what's in season, and avoid food that's been air-shipped.
On the automotive front, the US and Canada recently agreed to better fuel mileage standards... there's a liberal (Muslim) idea... working together across boundaries.
21 April 2010, Wednesday
In a March 22nd post here, I essentially said, "Flying out over water is a really big deal for migrating hawks, so, they don't do it.... and that's why the very best hawkwatch sites get a concentration of birds."
For example at the end of the Cape May mini-peninsula during the Fall flight, plenty of birds U-turn and head back North for a while then turn South and continue. Water-crossing (and water-loving) species, like the Osprey and Bald Eagle approach the Point, then break off their first water crossing by going into a soar. Now this will sometimes carry them out to sea, but once they have shifted gears from a rhythmic and regular wing beat — the determined/focused behavior of "going" — to a soar and even a soar plus some flapping and even drifting out to sea, they will be back to their starting point. A young Golden Eagle will drift in and out of view from the platform to the North, until it no longer comes within sight, or it approaches close. Even then, it may soar and glide overhead, but this is not crossing-thinking. When the young eagle drifts back North, turns, and engages with a steady and even flap, often over a mile from the terminus of the land, only then, has the GE got going on the brain.
Very high and very engaged, one time at Cape May, were a group of four birds. They looked like they were rowing crew, in unison, but without a boat. But they were all onboard for a water crossing. Identification of the four crew members was in question... hell, under debate by the various factions of visiting hawkwatchers and birders: ibis, but which species; pelicans, maybe; the very odd of oddities were called; and so on; these four birds were pretty high. They are now overhead and soon will be headed away and out over the bay. So hawk counter Jerry Liguori, while enjoying the mayhem, makes a (non-verbal) request that the crowd be returned to quietude. "Northern Harriers," I say.
On Martha's Vineyard, I was told a fascinating story about Merlins leaving and flying directly to the OBX (current and popular oval marketing slicker, and short for Outer Banks of the Carolinas). I was really and truly looking forward to seeing this for myself, so I parked the MassAudubon pickup at the SE corner of Chappaquiddick Island and waited. And off they went. The first two Merlins I had flew off, damn-near straight South with only a touch of West, and nearly out of sight. But that's why I carry the Zeiss 10x56 Body Builder binoculars... they were just dots, when they began swooping up and down in a vertical and tandem maneuver. Up. And down. And up.
These Merlins were out there hunting Red-breasted Nuthatches, that day. And since the prey can't dive into a bush, out there, it's only a matter of time before a Merlin gets lucky. It was often the bird coming up from underneath... as I observed this operation many times. Within, ten to fifteen minutes, both Merlins were back at their starting point: two happy raptors; one full crop. Then out they would go again, presumably to fill up the other crop.
Observing Peregrines over on Nantucket Island, at the height of the early October flight, the time out to sea would be closer to an hour. And here the act was a singular one. How did I conclude it was the very same bird returning?? I would find a perched Peregrine, as they would build up on the island post-frontal ahead of the next wave to move on, set up and watch it for several hours. Not every bird would stay in the same area, but I was able to stay with many birds over a couple of weeks of this. I would note their age, size, plumage, perch selection (as they would also move around eyeing the prey items around them in the vegetation and nearby beach environs). Then when a bird came back in from a trip offshore, with a full crop, and the same plumage, landing on a familiar perch... I made my educated assumption.
20 April 2010, Tuesday
Well he doesn't, as far as I know. But he does play a pretty terrific game of golf, along with a hundred or so other top pros on the PGA Tour (and by all means, let me include all the pros on the LPGA Tour too).
So. In what universe would amateur golfers not watch in awe as these accomplished men and women do their thing? Who, amongst those golfers, wouldn't stand on line to get a spot along the course, just for a glimpse, while these pros play through? And given the opportunity by miracle or lottery, perchance to maybe play a round or just putt with any one of these professionals, let alone Tiger himself? The dream is respect enough.
But what if Tiger Woods was a professional hawkwatcher? Or — and here's where I'm going with this if you're not already there— are there professional hawkwatchers who an everyday observer shouldn't want to stand nearby? Because, afterall, these young men and women excel at their game and are in their prime too.
But comments, like this one composed in a kind of Tea Party English, get posted within a hawk report. This one recently:
The worst I can think of is being told I am not a very nice man by an irate, uninvolved paid counter.
What did ya thing there fella, the pro doesn't draw the line at , "Hey Tiger, wanna watch me hit one?" Or, "Tiger, have I got a suggestion to improve your game... wanna hear it, right now while you're playing?"
Note: Yes I know Mr. Woods has crashed and burned, fidelity-wise. He has children and needs to fix things in his personal life (understatement). But he's a great player... and not Pittsburgh Steeler quarterback and sicko predator, Ben Roethlisberger. No reference or offense to professional predators everywhere.
19 April 2010, Monday
From late February, through March, into April and finally May, the progression from adult males to the last of the immatures can contain an age, sex or combo thereof inserted and out of place in that generalized scheme of things — the bell curve; the textbook.
But now, when the juvenile Rough-legged Hawks should be coming by in some numbers, we are getting the other non-breeders for the species, but essentially no juvs. Today's bird is a young adult male, moderately-marked for his kind [click on the image for more detail].
Even though my angle on this guy was backlit in a hazy sky, you can see an interesting feature: bright LED-type lights (or little stained glass windows) way out in the primaries. This can be seen in both Redtails and Roughlegs and indicates the presence of a retained primary or two, unmolted, that's faded and become very translucent at the base. It also stands out when the bird spins and shows the upper wing surface [image inset shows this].
As we go into May, it will be interesting to see how many true juvenile birds — '09 hatch class — we see. Each will be a find!
16 April 2010, Friday
The Rough-legged Hawk migration is a Spring delicacy served up buffet-style (from the Roughleg's point-of-view anyway), at just a few establishments: Derby Hill and Braddock Bay (NY), Duluth (MN), and Whitefish Point on the UP of Michigan... hold the whitefish, please. And these sites all have professional counters, useful when looking at ages of birds and not just marking them down, as present.
As April winds down, we can take a look at this movement and see what we can see. Beyond the beauty of each and every bird, I'm actually going to compare last year with this year! Yes, a one-year study. Now I do tend to contort and kvetch against one-year, and most certainly, one-site conclusions... or even discussions, as they are a waste of time and at the center of the failure of hawkwatching to tell us anything about the birds. But, if we keep it science-simple and on one point — the breeding season of '09 — we can add something to the knowledge.
In addition to the numbers of a species seen at one site (no matter how good), or the cumulative numbers from a couple of close watches, or the totality of the season, or year, or time itself... there are other things to think about. Like the success of the breeding season, just past. This kind of little study (or science, by its definition), focuses on one thing and works to simplify, control or eliminate as many variables as possible to get to the one thing that might matter. Or be discovered.
So, we'll keep it simple.
While Whitefish Pt. is the king of the Roughlegs, the May numbers (all non-breeders of course, but mostly juveniles) are amazing, and not just in '09. We can watch the rest of this season unfold for what should be a very low number from there, for May... if we've trying to prove/disprove the failed eastern breeding season of 2009 for the species.
They've got the urge
for going, and
Original recipe Hawksaloft.com
Not everything that
counts can be counted