Book reviews: Heinrich, Walden, bird i.d.

2018-04booksHeinrich_Naturalist-loEnjoy reading nature writing in three styles: essays, trail guide and guide to field guides

Also published at https://www.wyomingnetworknews.com/houghton-mifflin-harcourt-releasing-three-new-books.

By Barb Gorges

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has three very different new nature books out this spring: a compilation of nature essays; a cross between trail, travel, nature and history guides; and a guide to using field guides.

A Naturalist at Large, The Best Essays of Bernd Heinrich, 2018, $26, 285 pages.

I am a fan of this man who finds so many questions to ask and then looks for the answers, even if it means climbing a tree and waiting hours to see where the ravens come back from, or spending hours watching a dung beetle make its ball.

You’ll recognize Bernd Heinrich’s topics of interest if you’ve read his other books including “Mind of the Raven,” “Racing the Antelope” and “Life Everlasting.”

The essays in this new collection were published in various magazines, mostly in recent issues of Natural History Magazine. So, the book title also means the older Heinrich gets, the better his writing. I agree. If his subjects appeal to you, soil, plants, trees, insects, bees, birds, mammals and how living things cope with the universe, you’ll enjoy this book.

I especially liked his investigation of the mechanics of how yellow iris instantly pop from bud to bloom.

2018-04booksThorson_GuideWalden_loThe Guide to Walden Pond, An Exploration of the History, Nature, Landscape, and Literature of One of America’s Most Iconic Places, Robert M. Thorson, 2018, $17, 250 pages, full color.

This book won’t mean much if you aren’t familiar with Henry David Thoreau, essayist, poet, philosopher, abolitionist, naturalist, tax resister, development critic, surveyor, and historian. Or his two-year experiment begun in 1845 living in a tiny, bedroom-sized house he built himself at Walden Pond, outside Concord, Massachusetts. You may want to first find a copy of his book, “Walden.”

Thoreau’s fame helped the state set aside 335 acres as the Walden Pond State Reservation (see https://www.walden.org). And he has inspired many conservationists with words such as, “In Wildness is the preservation of the World.”

Robert Thorson sets up his book as a trail guide and while taking a Thoreau-styled amble around the pond the reader gets a mix of history, natural history, biography and lots of beautiful photography.

2018-04BooksHowell_12STEPS_cvr_choice_loPeterson Guide to Bird Identification—in 12 Steps, Steve N.G. Howell and Brian Sullivan, 2018, $18 152 pages, full-color.

This is a small book full of well-illustrated information that should be at the beginning of every bird field guide.

The intended audience is everyone, the authors say, “We include some things that may be challenging for beginning birders, and others that may seem too basic for those more advanced, but this is intentional.” And that’s why you’ll want your own copy to study over and over.

Step 1 – Make sure you are looking at a bird. What kind? Duck, hawk, songbird?

Steps 2, 3, 4 – Where are you geographically, habitat-wise and seasonally? Despite some birds getting spectacularly lost (and becoming the rarities birders dream of), you can assume a species of bird will show up when and where field guides say it will.

Step 5 and 6 – Is the lighting good enough and the bird close enough to identify?

Step 7 and 8 – Is the bird behaving as its presumed species does? What does it sound like? Getting a handle on birdsong will make you a terrific birder.

Step 9 – Structure–size and shape–makes an easy identifier for birds you already know. Think about those plump robins in your yard. But I would argue it is difficult to use on birds you aren’t familiar with.

Step 10 – Finally, plumage! What color feathers?

Step 11 – Be aware of plumage variations.

Step 12 – Take notes—and photos.

Howell and Sullivan’s book makes a good introduction or review as we fly into spring migration. And you can fit in reading it between field trips.

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Explore and enjoy Project FeederWatch

BobVuxinic-Project FeederWatch

A Dark-eyed Junco enjoys seed at a platform feeder. Because it shows no rust or “pink” coloration, no white wingbar and no pale head, it is the slate-colored subspecies. Photo by Bob Vuxinic/Project FeederWatch.

By Barb Gorges

Despite snow on the ground and pea soup fog at South Gap Lake in the Snowy Range (11,120 feet elevation), on Sept. 27 I saw a flock of dark-eyed juncos. They like snow. Usually I see the first ones down in my yard mid-October, when alpine winter conditions get too rough.

Juncos are those little gray birds that come in five subspecies and multiple hybrid colorations in Cheyenne, but they all have white outer tail feathers. They are my sign of the start of the winter bird feeding season–and the Project FeederWatch bird counting season.

Project FeederWatch is a citizen science opportunity for people with bird feeders to count the birds they attract as often as once a week (or less) between November and early April. Begun in Canada in 1976 and in the U.S. in 1987, more than 20,000 people participated last year. Data are used in scientific studies, many of which are summarized on the project’s website.

Participation costs $18. You receive a research kit, bird identification poster, the digital version of Living Bird magazine and the year-end report.

If you feed wild birds or are considering it, you must visit the Project FeederWatch site, https://feederwatch.org/, whether you register for the program or not. It is now beautifully designed and packed with information.

For instance, in the “Learn” section, I can find out juncos prefer black-oil sunflower seeds–and seven other kinds. I personally stick with black-oil because it’s popular with many species in Cheyenne. I also learned juncos prefer hopper-style feeders, platform feeders or feeding on the ground.

Seventy-one species are listed as potential feeder birds in the Northwest region, which stretches from British Columbia to Wyoming. However, about 15 of those species have yet to be seen in Cheyenne, so click on the “All About Birds” link to check a species’ actual range.

The Project FeederWatch website addresses every question I can think of regarding wild bird feeding:

–Grit and water provision

–Feeder cleaning

–Predator avoidance

–Squirrel exclusion

–Window strike reduction

–Sick birds

–Tricky identification, like hairy vs downy woodpecker.

In the “Community” section you’ll find the results of last season’s photo contest, participants’ other photos, featured participants, tips, FAQs, the blog, and the FeederWatch cam.

I find the “Explore” section fascinating. This is where you can investigate the data yourself. The “Map Room” shows where juncos like to winter best.

Based on last season’s data, in the far north region of Canada, juncos were number 12 in abundance at feeders. In the southeastern U.S., they were number 13. However, in the southwest, which has a lot of cold high elevations, they were number two, as they were in the northeast region, and number three in the central region, the northern Great Plains. Here in the northwest region, they were number one. We have perfect junco winter conditions, not too cold, not too warm.

However, looking at the top 25 species for Wyoming in the same 2016-2017 season (based on percent of sites visited and the average flock size), juncos came in fifth, after house sparrow, house finch, goldfinch and black-capped chickadee. Other years, especially between the seasons beginning in 2007 and 2013, they have been number one.

I looked at my own Project FeederWatch data to see if I could spot any dark-eyed junco trends.

I get in 18-20 weekly counts per year. In the past 18 years, there were three when the juncos missed none or only one of the weeks, in 2001, 2005 and 2008. Those seasons also happened to be the largest average flock sizes, 8.65 to 9.72 birds per flock.

Later, there were three seasons in which juncos came up missing six or seven weeks, 2011, 2013 and 2016. Two of those were the seasons of the smallest average flock sizes, 1.6 to 2.5 birds per flock.

It appears my local junco population was in a downward trend between 2008 and 2016. Let’s hope it’s a cycle. Or maybe our yard’s habitat has changed or there are more hawks or cats scaring the juncos away. Or some weeks it’s too warm in town and they go back to the mountains.

One yard does not make a city-wide trend, but we won’t know what the trend is unless more people in Cheyenne participate.

How many FeederWatchers are there in Cheyenne? We’ve had as many as four, back in 1999-2004, but lately there’s only been one or two of us. Statewide, Wyoming averages 25 participants per year.

If you sign up, you’ll have your own red dot on the map (but your identity won’t be publicized). I hope you’ll become a FeederWatcher this season.

 

2017-10 junco 1 by Barb Gorges

A photo taken through my Cheyenne, Wyoming, kitchen window shows a Dark-eyed Junco that is probably the pink-sided subspecies, or maybe a female of the Oregon subspecies–or maybe a hybrid. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Birding by app

img_5252Published Feb. 12, 2017, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Birding by app: new adventures in tech”

By Barb Gorges

Mark and I finally made the jump to smart phones last month. Our children are applauding.

What I was really looking forward to once I was in possession of a smart phone was eBird Mobile. My daughter-in-law, Jessie, was using it when we birded together over the holidays. It means that you can note the birds you see on your phone while you are in the field and then submit them as an eBird checklist.

The second day I had my phone, I went to eBird.org to find out how to downloaded it (in the Help section search for “eBird Mobile”). It’s free. If you aren’t signed up for eBird already, it will help you do that for free also. Then I prepared for a trial run birding out at F.E. Warren Air Force Base with Mark.

Because we are rather miserly with our monthly data allotment, I chose to use the app offline while in the field. But because I was establishing a new birding location for the mobile version, I established it while I was at home and could use our Wi-Fi.

The preparation for offline means you are downloading an appropriate checklist of birds possible for the area. Otherwise eBird Mobile will give you the world list, 10,414 species, to scroll through.

As we birded, I scrolled through the much shorter list of local possibilities and added the numbers of each species seen as I observed them. At the end of the trip, I hit the submit button.

However, on my next eBird Mobile attempt it was bitterly cold. Recording birds while holding a pencil in a mittened hand works, but it was too cold to risk a bare hand to manipulate the touch screen, though I have since invested in “touch screen” gloves.

The mobile app can’t do everything the regular checklist submission process does, like attach photos. But that upgrade may be coming soon. Meanwhile, you can edit your mobile-produced checklists on the eBird website whenever it’s convenient.

I’ve also downloaded the free Merlin Bird ID App, http://merlin.allaboutbirds.org/ and tried it. I told Merlin where I was, what day it was, how big and what color the bird was and where it was (ground, bush, tree, sky) and up popped a photo of the most likely candidate, other possible species, general information and bird song recordings.

Both of these apps are Cornell Lab of Ornithology projects. Both are designed to get more people excited about birds. More data collected means more understanding, and more understanding means better conservation of birds.

The lab has even more up its sleeve. At a recent meeting, staff from far-flung places gathered to discuss making animated migration maps that will allow zooming in on particular locations. Recently, Audubon and CLO announced eBird Mobile is available on the dashboard of select Subaru models. That’s an update I wouldn’t mind seeing the dealer for.

CLO employs a lot of tech people. Job openings on the eBird website list required technical qualifications. Preferred qualifications include “An interest in birds, nature, biology, science, and/or conservation helpful.”

So maybe it doesn’t surprise you that our son Bryan, with a degree from the University of Wyoming in software engineering–and exposed to birdwatching from birth–has become not only a birder, but in October moved to Ithaca, New York, to work for CLO.

He can bird to and from work, walking through the famous Sapsucker Woods. He tells us the winter regulars include many of the same species we see in Cheyenne. However, he says he sees four kinds of woodpeckers: downy and hairy, which we see, but also red-bellied woodpecker and pileated woodpecker, eastern birds.

Surrounded by serious birdwatchers all week, perhaps on weekends you would be forgiven for picking up a different hobby. But no, on the Martin Luther King holiday, everyone from Bryan’s office went up near Seneca Falls and found snowy owls, a gyrfalcon, northern shrike and thousands of snow geese.

The next weekend Bryan and Jessie went back and found two more snowy owls and three kinds of swans.

eBird can help me predict the height of spring migration in Ithaca and I hope to time Mark’s and my visit accordingly. But we must fit in one last trip to Texas to visit our younger son, Jeffrey, before he and his wife move to Seattle for new jobs.

If your children aren’t moving back to Cheyenne, at least let them live in interesting places.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet breeding?

Ruby-crowned_Kinglet-wikipedia

Male Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle June 19, 2016, “New bird on the block singing, maybe breeding.”

By Barb Gorges

There is a new bird on our block. It’s a loud bird. That’s how I know it is here, even though it is tiny, 4.25 inches long, and prefers to hang out unseen around the tops of mature spruce trees while gleaning insects and spiders.

The ruby-crowned kinglet, despite its name, is not a brightly-colored bird. It is mostly an olive-gray-green, with one white wing-bar. Only the male has the red crown patch and he may show it when singing, but the red feathers really stand up like a clown’s fright wig when he’s around other male ruby-crowneds.

We get a variety of small migrating songbirds in our Cheyenne yard in May: lazuli bunting, pine siskin, clay-colored sparrow, and even our first ever yellow-breasted chat this year.

This isn’t the first time for a ruby-crowned kinglet in our yard. I recorded one at www.eBird.org on April 25, 2012, and another April 24, 2015. They are usually on their way to the mountains to nest in the coniferous forest of spruce, pine and fir.

The difference this year is that beginning May 8 I’ve been hearing one every day. My hopes are up. Maybe it is going to nest. My neighborhood has the requisite mature spruce trees.

I talked to Bob Dorn May 27, but he thought that it was still too early to suspect breeding. They might have been waiting out cold spring weather before heading to the mountains. Bob is the co-author of “Wyoming Birds” with his wife, Jane Dorn. Their map for the ruby-crowned kinglet shows an “R” for the Cheyenne area, “Resident”—observed in winter and summer with breeding confirmed.

The Dorns’ breeding record is from the cemetery, where they saw kinglet nestlings being fed July 18, 1993. They also suspected breeding was taking place at the High Plains Grasslands Research Station just west of the city June 2, 1989 and June 15, 1990.

For more recent summer observations that could indicate breeding in Cheyenne, I looked at eBird, finding three records between July 3 and July 7 in the last five years, including Lions Park. There were also a couple late June observations at the Wyoming Hereford Ranch and Lions Park in 2014.

I first learned the ruby-crowned kinglet’s distinctive song in Wyoming’s mountains. You’ve probably heard it too. Listen at www.allaboutbirds.org. It has two parts, starting with three hard-to-hear notes, “tee-tee-tee”, as ornithologist C.A. Bent explained it in the 1940s, followed by five or six lower “tu or “tur” notes. The second half is the loudest, and sometimes given alone, “tee-da-leet, tee-da-leet, te-da-leet.”

Those who have studied the song say it can be heard for more than half a mile. The females sing a version during incubation and when nestlings are young. The males can sing while gleaning insects from trees and while eating them. Neighboring kinglets have distinctive signature second halves of the song and males can apparently establish their territories well enough by singing that they can avoid physical border skirmishes.

Actual nesting behavior is not well documented because it is hard to find an open cup nest that measures only 4 inches wide by 5 to 6 inches deep when it is camouflaged in moss, feathers, lichens, spider webs, and pieces of bark, twigs and rootlets—and located 40 feet up a densely branched spruce tree.

The female kinglet builds the nest in five days, lining it with more feathers, plant down, fine grass, lichens and fur. She may lay as many as eight eggs. The nest stretches as both parents feed the growing nestlings tiny caterpillars, crickets, moths, butterflies and ant pupae.

Ruby-crowned kinglets winter in the Pacific coast states and southern states, but breed throughout the Rockies and Black Hills and in a swath from Maine to Alaska. If my neighborhood kinglet stays to breed, it will be one more data point expanding the breeding range further out onto the prairie.

While kinglets are not picky about habitat during migration, for breeding they demand mature spruce-fir or similar forest. Particular communities of kinglets decrease in the wake of beetle epidemics, salvage logging and fires. However, the 2016 State of the Birds report, www.2016stateoftheBirds.org, shows them in good shape overall, scoring a 6 on a scale from 4 to 20. High scores would indicate trouble due to small or downward trending population, or threats to the species and its habitats during breeding and non-breeding seasons.

As of June 13 [now June 19], the kinglet is still singing—all day long. If it is nesting on my block this summer, I must thank the residents who planted spruce trees here 50 years ago. What a nice legacy.

We should plant some more.

Bird book reviews: Weidensaul and Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle Jan. 31, 2016, “Two books suited for winter reading.”

“Owls of North America and the Caribbean,” by Scott Weidensaul. Part of the Peterson Reference Guide Series published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, hardcover, 333 pages, $40.

“The Living Bird, 100 Years of Listening to Nature,” by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Gerrit Vyn, photographer. Published by Mountaineers Books, hardcover, 200 pages, $29.95.

By Barb Gorges

Two bird books of note were released last fall because they would make perfect holiday gifts, and now I’ve finally read them.

“Owls of North America and the Caribbean” is by Scott Weidensaul, whose previous book about migration, “Living on the Wind,” was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

This book concentrates on a group of birds that he has spent nearly 20 years researching. Surprisingly, there are 39 owl species to write about. Half occur south of the U.S., in Mexico and the Caribbean. Twelve of the northern owl species are regularly seen in Wyoming.

The accounts of the Caribbean owls are each only three to four pages long since little is known about them. Our familiar, comparatively well-studied owls have 12-15 pages each.

This is not a field guide, though lavishly illustrated with wonderful photos. Instead, each account sums up what is known about a species: length, wingspan, weight, longevity, range map, systematics, taxonomy, etymology (how it got its name), distribution by age and season, description and identification by age, vocalization, habitat and niche, nesting and breeding, behavior and conservation status.

In a reference like Birds of North America Online, this information is reduced to tedious technical shorthand, but Weidensaul makes it readable, injecting his experience and opinion. Of the snowy owl’s description, he says, “If you can’t identify this owl, you aren’t trying.”

I’ll admit, I haven’t read this book cover to cover yet. I looked up the owls I’m most familiar with, learning new information, and now I’m curious about the others.

One drawback: there is a reference map naming the states of Mexico, but not the states of the U.S. or the provinces of Canada, or the Caribbean countries.

However, all the information presented makes owls more intriguing than ever.

The second book, “The Living Bird,” is a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and photographer Gerrit Vyn to mark the 100th anniversary of the lab.

In a 10- by 11-inch format, there is plenty of room for Vyn’s art, the heart of the book. Some birds portrayed life-sized practically step off the page. All of the 250-plus photos are available as individual prints through www.gerritvynphoto.com.

It would be easy to ignore text of this book, except for the name recognition of the contributing authors.

If you missed CLO director John Fitzpatrick’s inspiring presentation at Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society’s 40th anniversary banquet in 2014, you can read it here as the introduction, “How Birds Can Save the World.” The age-old human attraction to colorful creatures that fly makes us notice bird reactions to environmental degradation. And in Fitzpatrick’s additional essay, in stories of rehab success, we find that when we help birds, we help ourselves.

The essay by one of my favorite authors, Barbara Kingsolver, hit home. She was a child forced to accompany her parents on birding field trips. But despite her best efforts to rebel, birds have come to be important to her, as I hope they have to my children, who attended many bird events in their early lives.

Scott Weidensaul also has an essay, more of a golly-gee-whiz list of cool things you might not know about birds (including some I didn’t), titled “The Secret Lives of Birds.”

The other major essayists are Lyanda Lynn Haupt, a naturalist and author who examines how birds inspire us, and Jared Diamond, an ardent birdwatcher who is famous as the geographer and author who wrote “Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.” He projects what coming decades will hold for birds, after decades of population declines.

There are also three essays written by Vyn about his exhilarating photographic expeditions. Three short profiles include a citizen scientist, a researcher, and an audio recordist. CLO is known for its extensive library of recorded bird songs and other sounds of nature, thus the second part of the book’s title, “100 Years of Listening to Nature.”

After perusing the photos, I could still barely concentrate on the text. But afterwards I enjoyed the photos again and the photo captions. Written by Sandi Doughton, they add insight. The photos themselves are laid out in a thoughtful, coherent way.

Altogether, this is a book to enjoy, a book to inspire, and maybe it is even a book to cause you to take action.

Read now, before spring migration, when you abandon books for binoculars.

Bird of the Week: White-crowned Sparrow

01-08 White-crowned Sparrow by Pete Arnold

White-crowned Sparrow. Photo by Pete Arnold.

Well studied across the continent and first formally described in 1772, this bird is easy to tell apart from other sparrows. In Wyoming it nests in alpine meadows. The male does almost all the singing and sings year round, having learned its only song before 3 months of age. Listen for its sweet notes as it joins the juncos under your sunflower feeder any week now.

Published Jan. 27, 2010, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Text by Barb Gorges, photo by Pete Arnold.

Bird of the Week: Pine Siskin

01-07 Pine Siskin by Pete Arnold

Pine Siskin. Photo by Pete Arnold.

This unpredictable winter visitor goes where the food is. One individual banded at one location one winter was recaptured half a continent away the next. Related to goldfinches, and sometimes hanging out with them, it looks for seeds from plants of the sunflower and grass families and gleans insects and spiders. It nests in open stands of conifers (spruce, fir and pine). A study showed that in southeastern Wyoming, small clear cuts were beneficial to them.

Published Jan. 20, 2010, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Text by Barb Gorges, photo by Pete Arnold.