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, 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.