Mission Statement

There are 969 species of birds listed in taxonomical order on the ABA Checklist, v. 7.2.
My goal is to write a blog post about each species starting at the top and working my way down.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


It's spring! The Red-winged Blackbirds announced their arrival with gusto from the tree outside my window. That's the sound that woke me up this morning. Konk-a-REEEEEE! They weren't here yesterday. I've heard reports of them in the Pioneer Valley for the last two weeks, but they didn't make it up onto our hill until today. 

©2008 ~hey-man-nice-shot
Konk-a-REEEEE! I stayed snuggled in the covers listening to the chorus, the first real chorus of the new spring. Chiming in with the Red-winged Blackbirds there were Starlings, Blue Jays, and a Crow or two calling from across the way. I could hear American Goldfinches, a Tufted Titmouse, Chickadees, a Downy Woodpecker, House Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos and White-breasted Nuthatches. All of the other species singing were here all winter. I've heard them tuning up in the mornings, but it's as if the arrival of the Red-winged Blackbirds was the cue for the dawn concerts to begin in earnest. And, oh, what a glorious sound it is!

After laying there for awhile, listening, and picking out voices and numbers of voices from the chorus, I began to reflect upon the presentation Lang Elliott gave at the Hoffmann Bird Club meeting last night. Lang has spent his life recording bird song, among other sounds from nature. Most birders are familiar with his recordings on Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs, but his work is extensive.* Last night he talked about the way we listen to the sounds of nature, and because we were all birders, he spoke about the way we generally listen to birds. Some of us are more analytical and scientific, and others of us listen more for aesthetic and artistic reasons. I tend to be one of the former.

Birders often listen to recordings of bird songs  so that we can find and identify birds in the field. We hone into one song, "slice" it out of the rest of the chorus, and identify it. "Zee zee zee zoo zee:" Black-Throated Green Warbler. "Che-bek!" Least Flycatcher. We wander through the woods or fields or along the river's edge straining our ears to catch the nuances of a new or unique song through the chatter of chipmunks, frogs and abundant birds. "What's that?!?! Sh! Behind the sound of the Chickadees. No, not the White-throated Sparrow. Under that layer of sound and in that direction. Hear it? I know; the Red-winged Blackbirds are very loud. There it is again! Hear it? There! Northern Waterthrush! I know it's in there! Right back there. It sounds as if it's coming from down low. Can you see it?"

Once we hone in on the direction of the sound, we're now straining our eyes, waiting for any hint of movement, binoculars at the ready to catch at least one tantalizing glimpse of the singer. Triumph! We found it! We follow it with our eyes, chasing it visually and aurally through the swampy tangles of brush and forest edge, pointing it out to one another, until it has melted from sight into the habitat. We move on into the woods. Then, "There! Do you hear that?!?!? It's really loud! What is it? Sounds like a Red-eyed Vireo: 'Here I am. Where are you? Here I am. Where are you?' There, up there on the branch at 11 o'clock in the birch next to that clump of new leaves!" And so it goes... one bird after the other gives away it's location and it's name with it's song, and we dutifully record it's presence on the earth.

That's what Lang refers to as the Analytic/Scientific end of the spectrum. You can delve very deeply into birdsong, indeed. You can record it, and plot it in sonograms. You can analyze the frequencies of different portions of the song, or the pitch and speed of the song sung at different times of day. You can try to understand the evolution of song and how and why birds sing by comparing the songs of the same species from different geographic locations. The list of questions to ask, and things to learn goes on and on and on.

The other side of that spectrum is Aesthetic/Artistic. This is when people listen to bird song and its entire soundscape, including the insects and frogs and common birds and wind and water, perhaps while meditating, for pleasure, to relax, to feel it, to heal stress, to lose oneself in the sounds and to reconnect with nature. That's the part of Lang's presentation that I was reflecting upon this morning as I lay snuggled in bed. The reconnecting with nature bit. I haven't done a lot of connecting with nature this winter. I am easily intimidated by large amounts of snow.

"I want to blog about his presentation and what he conveyed about listening to the music of nature for aesthetic reasons, but I don't know how to describe it. I don't do it often enough," I think. "I'm becoming more skilled at analyzing the sounds around me. I am able to name all of those birds singing outside my window from my cozy nest under the covers behind closed curtains. I can pick out this or that and add it to the list. I should listen to more of his recorded soundscapes," I analyze. "I should go out into the world and take the time to close my eyes and lose myself in the sound and not think about it," I remind myself. "When do I have time?" I ask myself.

It's really early in the morning for all of that thinking. My dogs adjust themselves and snuggle in a bit closer. I can feel their warmth. The drowsiness of comfort begins to creep over me. My mind relaxes. The dawn chorus gently lifts me up and out through the window. Now I'm in the tree. The chill wind with a hint of spring softly whistles as it tickles my nose. The sun warms my face through the chill. I am singing in harmony with the world around me, announcing the arrival of spring. I lose myself in the sound of the world only to find that I am not lost; a part of me has been found in the dawning of spring. I am the world around me , and it is me. "Konk-a-REEEEEEEE!"

*You can find Lang Elliott's work at these websites:  

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Black-bellied Whistling-duck

There are 969 species of birds listed on the ABA Checklist version 7.2, and the species are organized taxonomically. That means that all of the birds are listed in the order that they are most closely related, although that order sometimes changes. The checklist used to begin with loons and grebes, but those in the know have learned that the loons, grebes and all the birds in the list up to flamingos somehow belong between quail and osprey. So who am I to argue? Now the checklist begins with Whistling-ducks, Geese, Swans, and Ducks; so, that’s where I’ll begin.

 If you get lost in the description of the plumage, you can locate
the appropriate part on the diagram of the female mallard above.

The first species on the ABA list is the Black-bellied Whistling-duck (BBWD), Dendrocygna autumnalis. It’s one of the 700+ species I haven't seen yet, so I’ve spent a good chunk of the last 36 hours looking at pictures of and reading about them. I’ve come to the conclusion that they’re right up there near the top of my "must see" list.
Credit: Alan D. Wilson, www.naturespicsonline.com
The adult Black-bellied Whistling-duck is about 19" long and weighs an average of1.8 lbs.. It has a gray face and throat with brown eyes and a white eye-ring. Its bill is the color of smoked salmon with a yellow patch above and behind the nostrils. It makes me think of bagels with lox and cream cheese. The hooked tip of the upper mandible, referred to as the ‘nail,’ is blue gray. I love their smiles. They look happily amused with a mischievous twinkle in their eyes as if they just heard a good joke.

There's a rich, chestnut brown racing stripe that begins on its forehead then runs over its crown and down its nape. Its long neck, breast, mantle, back and scapulars are all lighter shades of that same chestnut brown as the racing stripe.

As its name clearly states, the Black-bellied Whistling-duck has a black belly. It also has black flanks, a black rump, a black tail and black upper-tail coverts. Its under-tail coverts are mottled black and white. The white secondary coverts and white bases of the black primaries and secondaries create a long white wing patch in flight and a visible pale patch when its wings are folded. Its wing linings are black, and the leading edge of its wing is chestnut like its body. It has long and fairly thick pink legs with webbed feet. Males and females have the same plumage. They only molt once a year during breeding, and are unable to fly for 30 -40 days. The immature birds have a similar plumage, but they are duller than the adults, and their bills, legs, and feet are gray. They get their adult plumage at 8 months old.

Credit: Alan D. Wilson, www.naturespicsonline.com
Black-bellied Whistling-ducks whistle. They make a noise that sounds a bit like my Boston Terriers' squeaky toys. And you know what else they can do? They can perch. They perch and roost on low branches and snags around mud flats, swampy forests, wooded marches, and shallow ponds along the coast of Texas, Mexico, Central America, and in South America. There is a resident population in Florida, and there have been occasional vagrants reported across the southern US, as far north as Minnesota, and as far east as Pennsylvania. They aren’t long-distance migrants. The northernmost population will move south during winter, but many populations stay in one place all year round. When they fly, their necks, tails and legs droop slightly below their bodies, and their feet trail out behind their tails.

Black-bellied Whistling-ducks are nocturnal. They feed mainly at night and sleep or rest during the day. I don’t know about you, but somehow I find the thought of nocturnal whistling-ducks funny. (Whistling in the dark anyone?) They’re primarily vegetarians and forage for grains, seeds, shoots and leaves on the ground or by dabbling in shallow water. (How 'bout dabbling in the dark?) They eat some mollusks and insects, but those make up less than 10% of their diet.

Have I mentioned their chicks yet? Oh my goodness, they're, well... just as cute as cute gets; and I don't use the word "cute" lightly. They are all fluffy down with gray bill, legs, and feet. But their down is a fantastic study of black and pale lemon yellow.  It looks like they're wearing little black and yellow striped football helmets and wearing some sort of black harness with multiple straps. In the pictures I saw, it looks like they were born knowing the same joke their parents are smiling at.

I want to put a picture of  a Black-bellied Whistling-duckling 
and one of a juvenile in here, but I'm waiting for permission to use them. 
In the meantime, if you have a picture I could use, holler.

Adult Black-bellied Whistling-ducks are monogamous. They prefer to nest in the cavities of oaks, willows and mesquite trees. The female lays 12 to 16 eggs at the rate of one per day. The male and female share incubation and chick care. Their happy little football players hatch out sometime between 12 and 16 days, and are ready to go play outside within 48 hours. The ducklings are able to fly by the age of two months, but they often stay in family groups for up to 6 months. They are ready to have their own little downy football teams by the time they reach 8 months. 

So there. That's what I learned about Black-bellied Whistling-ducks. It's a little more than a paragraph. I hope you don't mind. In fact I hope you'll come back for more. There are a total of eight species of whistling-ducks in the world, but only two of them live in North America. My next post will be about the Fulvous Whistling-duck, then we'll be ready to move on to geese.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Pondering Phoebe

Phoebe Snetsinger

For the last couple of months I’ve been wanting to start writing again. I didn’t know quite where to begin, though. Then I saw the movie, Julie & Julia, and it gave me an idea. If I could find some interesting goal oriented activity, it would give me something to practice writing about, and I could write it in a blog. So here it is. I’m going to write about my favorite topic: Birds and birding.  But first I want to tell you a little something about Phoebe Snetsinger.

Phoebe Snetsinger was an extraordinary woman. I’ll start her story in May of 1965 when she was 34. At the time she had three young children and was a stay at home mother craving intellectual stimulation. One day, her neighbor Elisabeth, handed her a pair of binoculars and pointed out a brilliant, male Blackburnian Warbler. One glimpse and Phoebe’s whole world changed. Shortly afterward, she acquired a pair of binoculars and a field guide, and over the next two years Elisabeth taught her about the world of birds.

In 1967, Phoebe’s husband took a job in Missouri, and they moved to Webster Groves, a suburb of St. Louis. She joined the Webster Groves Nature Study Society and began to take birding very seriously. Over the next few years, she became quite a respected birder in the St. Louis area and held the local area record list of 275 birds in 1978.

At the age of 49 Phoebe’s life list in North America below Alaska had surpassed 600 and her youngest child was on the verge of fledging. She had just returned from Panama in February and had signed up for a trip to Alaska for that summer. She was beginning to plan a future of birding the world. That’s when she discovered a lump under her arm and was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma. The cancer had spread to her lymphatic system. The prognosis was three months of good health, a rapid decline, further metastasis, and death within a year.

Phoebe was devastated. Her first thought was, “Oh no – there are all those things I haven’t done yet, and now will never have the chance to do.” Since she only had three months of good health left, Phoebe decided not to waste a moment of it. She chose to go on the trip to Alaska. She figured if she got sick and had to leave, then that’s what she would do. If she died there, so be it. But she didn’t. In fact the blow never came.

After this episode in her life, Phoebe studied and traveled and pursued birds at a fevered pace. She became a super lister. She recorded seeing 8400+ species by the time she died in 1999. She held the record for the highest number of species recorded, and until recently was only one of two people in the world to have seen over 8000 species.*

Not only was Phoebe a super lister, but she was also a super birder. Phoebe had her own set of rules when it came to her list. While most birders will count heard birds, Phoebe would not. She also did not like to count birds that she was unable to identify on her own. This dedication is what set her apart from the majority of other competitive birders.

Although I have been interested in birds all of my life, I didn’t start really learning anything about them until the spring of 1997. I was 31 years old with three young children and starving for intellectual stimulation. One afternoon, my infant son, Galen, pulled himself upright using the low kitchen window sill and looked out upon the moist, sun lit world beyond. The new green of the grass was poking through the mud in patches interspersed with bits of gray-brown snow that still lingered in the shade. A flock of shiny black birds with a glossy brown heads landed in the middle of the yard. They were bowing and strutting and seemed to be bickering among themselves.  Galen began to bounce in the way that excited babies bounce. His tiny body was electrified beyond his control, his eyes shining with awe and wonderment. He pointed and told me, “buh, buh, Buh, BUH!” We stayed by that window together for a long time watching them. We watched them until they flew out of sight. He doesn’t remember it, but I do. Of course, the next step was to look up those birds, to find out what it was that had so excited my son. I found an Audubon’s Field Guide to the Birds amongst our collection of books and searched through it until I found something to call them – Brown-headed Cowbirds -- and so it began.

We hung feeders and suet cages. We put out a bird bath. We accumulated bird books. We pored over them together. Over the next 11 years Galen and I became avid backyard birders. We kept yearly species lists for our yard and watched birds where ever we happened to be. But… we had never been birding. Then in December of 2008 I purchased The Big Year by Mark Obmascik. ** On New Year’s Eve, at the age of 12, Galen announced, “Mom, tomorrow I am going to start a Big Year.”  That was another beginning

So what does that have to do with my writing and my blog?

In the fourth chapter of her autobiography, Birding on Borrowed Time, Phoebe goes into great detail about her preparation for her birding trips; her meticulous record keeping; her world list and her back up lists. She had a card catalog of all of her sightings -- a card for every bird she saw, and each card color coded with felt-tipped markers -- a color for every geographical region. She created charts by photocopying the pages from Monroe and Sibley 1993 checklist on 11x17” paper and meticulously drawing in the horizontal lines to create grids.

A typical birding trip would start with signing up for the trip months, and sometimes a year or more, in advance. She would gather field guides and checklists for the region that she was planning to visit. Beginning at the top of the checklist, she would study the birds on it in taxonomic order. She wrote a paragraph in her own words about each bird on the checklist including distinguishing field marks, habitat, distinguishing behavior, and their Latin names. She was often able to identify most of the birds on the list on her own, and by their Latin names, before she ever started out for her destination. Did I mention that she was extraordinary?

OK… I have a list, and listing is fun, but it's not why I bird. I have been out on day long listing competitions, and while they're fun, I'm always left dissatisfied at the end of the day. There is no time to get to know the birds I am listing. I bird because I am fascinated by them, because I want to get to know them. I want to be a good birder - a very good birder. I want to be a super birder! And being able to identify birds is what it takes to be a super birder.

I read field guides all the time. I have one in the car, one in my pack, three by my bed, a whole bookshelf full. A day doesn’t go by that I don’t crack one and try to transplant the information on the page into my brain. However, when I get out in the field, all of that information seems to have slipped into a dark corner to hide. While I was reading Phoebe’s memoirs, I was struck by her method of learning to ID birds. She wrote a paragraph about each bird starting at the top of the checklist and worked her way down. That’s it. I learn things best if I write them down. And it would be a brilliant goal oriented topic for a blog! So that’s what I’m going to do.

My goal is to write a paragraph about each bird starting at the top of the ABA Checklist and work my way down, including the process of learning to identify each species and a sprinkling of stories about our birding experiences. We’ll see how this goes.

*There are only seventeen people who have seen 8000 species of birds. Tom Gullick currently holds the record for world lister at 8811 species out of an approximate total number of 9500.

** A Big Year is an attempt to see as many bird species in one year as possible. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_year#Recent_notable_attempts