Tuesday, February 26, 2008

No Bowax in the Snow

This morning, a Bohemian Waxwing was reported from the Arts Quad in a flock of Cedar Waxwings that feed on the crabapples around campus. I was sitting in Macroevolution with three other student birders when one got the email on his cell phone. The next hour and twenty-five minutes of lecture on speciation were pure torture. Afterwards we bolted out of the Atrium and down to the Arts Quad in the heavy snow, where we located the waxwing flock.

Only Jay among us four had binoculars, and he scanned the flock in the treetops while we listened and looked through the birds coming down to feed on the crabapples.

No Bowax could be found before we had to head to Ornithology. It snowed heavily all day, leading to a TA snowfight in the parking lot outside the Lab of Ornithology after class.


While checking out the news on msn.com, I saw this on the scrolling banner of headlines:

You can't tell me that's not a euphemism! Look how happy he is!

Monday, February 25, 2008

Press coverage

The Ithaca Journal covered Cornell Herpetological Society's latest education program, at the Varna Community Center. Check out the photos here. That's my Crested Gecko!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

So you think you know birds? (Quiz)

10,000 Birds and the Drinking Bird can't have all the fun. I decided to take my random assortment of pictures from Ornithology class and throw together one hell of a quiz. All specimens are either North American, or come from a family with North America representatives. Leave answers in the comments... I'll confirm them.

1) Identify the species that laid these eggs.

2) Who will I be when I grow up?

3) Whose feet am I (down to family)?

4) Species?

6) What awesome bird (down to genus) owns these ripping talons?

7) Who will I be when I grow up?

8) Species?

9) Genus?

10) Name a North American representative from the family of this beastly bird:

11) Whose foot am I?

12) Any guesses??
(Photo by Brad Walker)

No hay camping aqui

December 27th, 2007

After eighteen hours of travel and a tangle with the big city, I was finally on a bus heading for where the birds are. I tried to unwind a little as I sat in the last available seat in the back of the bus, balancing my pack in the aisle. This was my first experience with Latin American public transport, having only rented a car on my trip to Mexico a year and a half ago. This bus was dark, with many of the curtains drawn against the midafternoon sun. The guy next to me, who looked about my age, luckily decided to keep the window and shade open, giving me a view of the ride. He even tried to strike up conversation, an effort which quickly failed as soon as I opened my mouth and garbled a response. He dozed off and I enjoyed the ride.

We wound quickly out of the downtown area and I got my first feel for the Central Valley terrain - it's not flat. From the city it's hard to get a feel for the area, other than the fact that there are mountains and volcanoes in nearly every direction. Moving outward from downtown, the narrow twisty city streets transition to narrow, twisty suburb streets crossing deep wooded ravines and winding through smaller and smaller neighborhoods. The coils of razor wire are replaced by tall iron fencing, and then by living fences as we make the transition from urban to rural. Moving north out of San Jose to cross the Cordillera Central range, this transition happens startling quickly. Twenty minutes out of the city, we were in the rural foothills. In less than thirty minutes we were entering Parque Nacional Braulio Carrillo.

Braulio Carrillo is a huge, virgin tract of land across the Cordillera Central, stretching from La Selva in the north to Volcan Irazu near San Jose. It was created to offset the building of Highway 32 across the range to connect San Jose with the Caribbean coast. Access is limited to several ranger stations, two of which reside on the highway, the others in more remote areas to the north. The highway winds up from San Jose and crosses over the Cordillera Central in the dip between Volcan Barva and Volcan Irazu. The most popular access point for birders is the Quebrada Gonzalez station, on the highway very close to the Caribbean slope border of the park.

(Source: Taylor 2003)

There are only about three kilometers total of trail at Quebrada Gonzalez - not very many for four days of exploration. My hopes were buoyed by the older of the two birding guides I found. The older guide, Taylor (1993), showed many more older trail systems in the park (see map above). The newer guide, Sekarak, and the Lonely Planet guide only really mention Quebrada Gonzalez. All of the guides mention increasing amounts of roadside robberies due to the proximity to the highway and San Jose, so the decreased emphasis on trails away from the ranger stations seemed understandeable. I figured that, if I couldn't hire a range to drop me off at one of the longer trails, where I could hike well away from the road, then I would just loop out to the Barva station on the west side of the park where there are more trails, far from any major road. My main goal in birding Braulio, however, was definitely the Caribbean lowland slope bird fauna, a distinct avifauna I would not have access to anytime later in the trip. So, to Quebrada Gonzalez, the lowest point in the park along the highway, it was.

This map shows Volcan Barva in the lower left, and the highway through the bottom center of the park (black line). Quebrada Gonzalez is near the northern border of the park on the highway.

The highway wound rapidly up into the hills until we passed the park border and through the Zurqui tunnel, through a ridge and the highest point on the highway. The road was bordered here by incredibly steep, vegetation-laden cliffs. Seeing that wall of diverse vegetation (including epiphytes, bromeliads, ferns and many more plants that I don't even know), I first truly felt I was in the tropics. Visibility was reduced after passing through the tunnel as we crossed to the Caribbean slope and its heavier cloud cover. We passed the Zurqui station, which didn't look very inviting to the hiker. The station looked like it perched precariously next to the road, with impossibly steep slopes above and quite a descent below. Perhaps the quick glimpse from the road was deceiving, the guides say there are at least a few trails there. Some mention steep hikes.

Zurqui Tunnel

The next thirty minutes were spent slowly winding down from the cloud forest to the Caribbean lowlands below. The road twisted and wound along the sides of ridges, ducked back and forth between different river valleys as we made the slow descent. The clouds occasionally parted to reveal brief vistas of unbroken forested hills. It was all too soon (yet not soon enough) when we crossed the bridge over the flat valley of the Rio Sucio and reached the Quebrada Gonzalez station, and passed it on by. I began to panic again, grabbing at my bags and started to move to get the drivers attention. He must have just needed more room to pull off, though, as he did so a little ways down the road but still within sight of the station gate. I hollered a gracias his way and jumped out the back door with my packs. Hoisting my ridiculously heavy frame pack on, I trudged rapidly up the ditch back to the station gate as buses and trucks whizzed by on the highway.

The Quebrada Gonzalez station seemed a lot nicer than what I could see of the Zurqui station we passed earlier. Set back from the road, the station is nestled in the ravine of the creek that is its namesake. There is a short road up, a ticket stand, picnic tables and signs, a lush bromeliad-covered fountain, and several green station buildings. The hills on either side of the ravine loomed up around the station, and across the highway the forest led down to the flat river valley of the Sucio. It seemed like it could be quite a cozy place for a few days of birding if you learn to ignore the highway noise.

I walked up to the empty ticket booth, dropped my pack, and looked out of place until a guard came over from the station. The ranger, Sergio, seemed a little confused at my entrance to the park so late in the afternoon (after 3:30, when the park closes at 4). I began to explain that I wanted four nights when Sergio ruined my already poor day: No hay camping aqui.

I fumbled some spanish as I tried to figure out where I went wrong, and my mind raced to figure out what this would mean for the next few days, and most importantly, for tonight. The confusion emanating from me was enough for Sergio to head over to the station and return with an english-speaking Andrea. I explained my situation - I came here based on these guidebooks to bird. This oldest one, Taylor, says one can stay here. The others don't explicitly say you can't stay here. On account of my plight, and the late hour meaning it would be difficult to flag a bus and find a home for the night, Andrea graciously decided to let me camp for this one night. She directed me to a covered platform in the woods on the main trail where some students studying macroinvertebrates in the creek were camping.

I gratefully thanked Andrea and Sergio and walked a short way up the Sendero Palmas as directed and found the platform in the woods. It was a large square concrete platform with a tin roof. Most of it was taken up with tents and equipment from the (absent) students, but I found a corner with enough room to pitch my own tent. I dropped my stuff and headed out to bird for the rest of the afternoon.

I continued up the Palmas trail, which winds uphill parallel to the Quebrada. At 4:15 in the afternoon, the trail was largely quiet. A short distance uphill, I came across a small wooden mirador (overlook) that provided a view over the Quebrada and the far slope. I tried to spish in a skulking chip-note next to the overlook, and was overwhelmed when I pulled in a small mixed flock. At least half the flock moved rapidly past the overlook, not even giving me a chance to see them. What I did manage to identify in the less than two minutes the flock was present:

1 nonbreeding adult Chestnut-sided Warbler (Dendroica pensylvanica: Parulidae)
* 1 male White-shouldered Tanager (Tachyphonus luctuosus: Thraupidae)
* 1 male Tawny-crested Tanager (Tachyphonus delatrii: Thraupidae)
* 1 male Tawny-capped Euphonia (Euphonia anneae: Fringillidae)
1 Wedge-billed Woodcreeper (Glyphorhynchus spirurus: Furnariidae)

Best of all, though, was the 10-second look I got at my first-ever species of Tangara, a speciose radiation of small tanagers that sport a dazzling array of colors. I spotted the *Emerald Tanager (Tangara florida: Thraupidae) foraging in the interior of a nearby bush, where its brilliant green was subdued by shadow and it blended in quite well. I managed one quick shot before it too flew off with the flock moving rapidly along the Quebrada slope.

Emerald Tanager! Note the distinct black ear patch.

After that brief whirlwind of activity, the next half an hour was near to dead quiet. I continued uphill on the trail and heard nothing but a few distant unidentifiable calls. At one point I followed some high squeaky notes and was able to spish out another male Tawny-crested Tanager. It frequently kept its little crown (hardly a crest) raised, displaying a pale tawny crown patch, paler than that depicted in the new Garrigues and Dean guide. A second individual remained secretive, and the brief glimpses I got suggested it was the browner female.

By 5, not seeing anything, I decided to turn back and make camp before it got dark. On the way back downhill I stopped again at the mirador. Several birds were making quite a chattering fuss on the far slope, and were revealed as a group of 3 Band-backed Wrens (Campylorhynchus zonatus: Troglodytidae) when they flew across the ravine to my side.

I made it back to the platform, where the students had returned and were cooking dinner. I introduced myself and my situation, and they helped make sure I had enough room to pitch my own tent and such. None of the three students spoke English, so conversation was unfortunately limited. They seemed like an interesting group.

After I got myself set up and was munching on some bread and jam, a wren belted out a song close to the platform. I couldn't find it in the fading light, but it was clearly a Thryothorus song pattern of repeated rolling phrases, like our Carolina Wren. I would have to track it down in the morning. By 6pm, it was dusk, and the students set out a blacklight sheet across one of the platform's railings. I wanted to join them, but I was simply too exhausted from the last 24 hours. I briefly considered doing some owl calling, but a heavy downpour rolled in that nixed all night hike plans. I was grateful to have the tin roof of the platform over me. I decided to get to sleep, even though it was not much after 6.

The students sat around talking for several more hours. I listened to their conversations with only partial comprehension. The rain continued all night, drumming away. I thought about where I would go when my time at Braulio was up tomorrow. Late in the night, a chill set in. I waited for the pre-dawn gray.

* = lifer!

Previous post: The fine art of poor planning
Next post:

Garrigues, Richard and Robert Dean. 2007. The Birds of Costa Rica.
Lonely Planet Costa Rica
Sekarak, Aaron D. 1996. A Travel and Site Guide to Birds of Costa Rica.
Taylor, Keith. 1993. A Birder's Guide to Costa Rica.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

I and the Bird #69

I and the Bird #69 is now up at Living the Scientific Life. Check it out, this edition has prizes!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The best genus name ever

Paleontologists have unearthed a Cretaceous fossil frog from Madagascar that was twice the size of the largest living frog. What did they name it? Beelzebufo. Devil-toad. Kudos to those paleontologists for having the balls to get such a ridiculous name published - I'm still laughing! Unfortunately, the artist's illustration seems to have simply scaled up a modern-day Ceratophrys, the Beelzebufo's most similar modern equivalent.

Update: Pharyngula weighs in with some more info from the actual publication (which I couldn't find on PNAS, guess I didn't look hard enough).

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The fine art of poor planning

On December 27th, I flew down to San Jose, Costa Rica, to start my winter break three-week-just-for-fun-birding-herping trip a few days ahead of the arrival of my friends. The first entry in my trip notebook, written on December 29th, reads:

First few days have been a bloody fucking disaster. I think I am lucky to be sitting here in Alajuela at the Hotel with all my possessions and my body reasonably intact

I have a penchant for overstatement, but for all that went wrong before I met up with my friends I do still consider myself lucky. Here was my plan: camp at the Quebrada Gonzalez station of Braulio Carrillo National Park for four nights, then return to San Jose to pick up my friends then continue on to Corcovado National Park and the rest of our trip. What actually happened: several attempted thefts, twisting my ankle, only being allowed to camp for one night, and being soaked and shivering in the rain at the top of a volcano while begging for change.

December 27th, 2007

Getting to Costa Rica involved about 18 hours straight of travel. The day after Christmas, I left home and took a bus across the state from Buffalo to New York City. From there I hopped the train over to JFK and flew nonstop to Juan Santamaria International Airport in San Jose (the nonstop flight is only five hours!) overnight. The flight was very smooth, allowing me to sleep the best I could (flying stresses me out). It was cloudy the whole way, so I couldn't enjoy any scenery or get any bearings until we had already descended into the Central Valley. The landing was so smooth and I was so absorbed with my first views of the country that I almost didn't notice the landing.

I took an airport taxi to downtown San Jose for about $20. I shortly realized that was a stupid move as the bus costs $0.75. I had three goals: find some topo maps from the Instituto Geografico Nacional, find some groceries for four nights of camping, then get on a bus to Braulio Carrillo as fast as possible. I gave the taxi driver the directions I had to the Instituto and we spent 30 minutes wandering around the city streets looking for it. Calling in for directions twice was no help, so I finally gave up and had the driver drop me in the plaza area near Mercado Central.

Wandering into the Mercado Central with all my gear was the first big mistake of the trip. I later noticed in my Lonely Planet guide that the Mercado is "the number one place in San Jose to get robbed". I missed that the first time around. I criss-crossed the market area several times looking for a grocery store. The actual Mercado encompasses most of a city block, and is a large, bustling indoor area with many vendor stalls selling meats, cheeses, leather, and other supplies. The gloomy Mercado is set in an area of about 6 or 8 city blocks worth of plaza and shops. I wandered the whole area with my extremely heavy hiking pack along with my daypack slung across my front. I'm sure I looked ridiculous and overly touristy, which is the exact image to avoid downtown.

It wasn't long before I was hit. My pack, an external frame model, has a few external pouchs attached that make easy targets for the hit-and-run thieves of the market area. I first noticed a thievery attempt as a slight tug. I looked back over my shoulder, and a dirty, ragged-beard man turned half away with a sideways glare. On one hand I didn't think I'd be aggressively mugged due to the near-constant walking police presence in the crowded market area. I think this drives the thieves to hit-and-run snatches: they just grab something fast and disappear into the crowd. On the other hand, I have what Amy describes as people-phobia. I was already worked up over being cast into crowded downtown with no direction, realizing a thief may have just hit me pushed me closer to a panic state. A quick check though revealed that nothing was amiss. Maybe he just bumped me, so I zipped things up tighter and carried on.

I kept wandering around and found a panaderia (bakery). At about this time I was accosted by the first beggar. He was really nice and spoke excellent English. He told some story of being from California and getting mugged and losing his ID, so I caved in and bought him a donut as I bought some loaves of bread and donuts for myself. With my people-phobia and near complete lack of city experience, even a friendly, positive, clean beggar was a little unsettling.

Finally, after wandering this downtown area (and getting friendly advice from a passerby: 'this isn't a good area') I found a small grocery store. This type of store involves a counter where you can view all the shelves, and you order what you want with the clerk at the counter. I used my mangled spanish and a lot of pointing to end with jelly, tuna, Zucaritas (Frosted Flakes), and some cookies. Not really enough for four days, but I had had about enough of the city. I'd find a way to deal with lack of food later.

I walked out of the grocery store and around the corner, heading south to where I'd seen a bus stop with "Braulio Carrillo" on it. I knew I needed to take a bus to Guapiles and just flag a stop as we passed the park (a major highway to the Atlantic coast bisects the park; the main ranger stations are located here). I wasn't sure what a stop labeled Braulio Carrillo would get me but it was a start for investigation.

I never really finished those thoughts because the ragged beard man grabbed one of my side pouches and started ripping it open from behind. I whirled around to face him and he backed away into the crowd with a scowl, as a second thief grabbed at my pockets from behind (what had just been front). I whirled back around, he melted away into the crowd, and a third thief grabbed again from behind. This time I violently spun around, using the momentum of my pack to throw the guy at the wall. He didn't like this, scowled and muttered foul things, and disappeared into the crowd. I could see the bearded guy still lurking nearby, though. 30 seconds out of the store and I was ambushed! They must have seen me go in and simply waited. I panicked and moved as fast as I could without running down the street, keeping as much of a 360 degree watch as I could. I didn't even stop to zip my pockets back up until I was a block away. While I was booking towards the bus stop, I added injury to insult by tripping in one of the deep holes lining the sides of San Jose downtown streets, lightly twisting my ankle.

By the time I hobbled to the bus stop, I must have looked really panicked and disheveled because I get more than the normal number of odd looks. I shed my pack, now keeping even more of an eagle eye on my surroundings and the people in them. At least here I was next to a clean, safe-looking park/plaza and across the street from a decent bus terminal. I went through my external pockets and found, remarkeably, that the thieves hadn't gotten away with anything. The most they would have gotten, though, was bug spray, toothpaste, and a first aid kit. If they had grabbed at the other pocket, they would have had all my spare camera batteries and memory cards rendering my camera useless for the rest of the trip. Whew.

I took a few minutes to catch my breath. I watched the pace of people and traffic around the city streets. I tried to get a look at the birds in the trees in the park behind me, but there was no way in hell I was showing my binoculars. I did see my first trip bird: a Rock Pigeon, woo-hoo! When I got my wits about me, I fitted the pack on again and crossed the street to the bus terminal. It turned out that this was the terminal to the Airport and to Alajuela (the one I could take for $0.75 instead of $20). I never did find out what the "Braulio Carrillo" stop was, because asking around found me a taxi across downtown to the Terminal Caribe and buses to Guapiles.

By now I was so anti-city and anti-people paranoid that I was ready to jog out of the city if I had to. Luckily there are regular buses to Guapiles for just a couple bucks, and I was quickly on my way, out of the city, to the first real birding of the trip.

A little bit of birding

Yesterday I traveled around Cayuga Lake with Harvey, Tom, and Tim. It was only the third time so far this semester I've been able to really get out and bird heavily, so I was quite excited.

We started just before 8 at Stewart Park on the south end of the lake, to view the Slaty-backed Gull that has been a regular presence in Ithaca since January (See other Cornellian posts here and here). We picked out The Gull pretty quickly as it slept on the ice edge with all the others, occasionally preening or getting spooked around. We also picked out 2 immature Glaucous Gulls way out through the ice and heat shimmer, but the other Stewart regulars of Iceland and Lesser Black-backed Gulls were not present. Two vanfuls of Delaware birders showed up, and we scooted out as they got their taste of Ithaca gulling.

We began birding up the east side of the lake, hitting necessary stops such as Myers and Long Point. This area is largely agricultural, so we divided our time between driving around looking for flocks and scanning the lake for waterfowl. Two interesting finds in the hills included a small flock of Snow Geese in the fields, including at least one blue phase. They were close enough to the road to be able to hear their muttering, a very different goose honk than Canada, but not close enough for my camera to really capture their sound in video. Here's my best:

Another interesting inland find was a small mixed flock in the shrubberies near a house. Among such winter birds as Robin, White-throated Sparrow, and Goldfinch, we picked out three White-crowned Sparrows: two adults and one immature. One of the adults was even singing a few songs. The immature was interesting, and may have been a Gambel's race. I didn't get a detailed look at it and am not versed in the identification of White-crowned subspecies, so I can't really comment further there. One final inland bird before hitting the good scanning spots on the lake was an adult male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker - a pretty good woodpecker for the winter.

The lake was mostly empty, although it was beautifully clear and calm. It wasn't until we got fairly far up near Farley's Point that we got something besides geese. Hear was some of the lakes extensive Aythya rafts, tucked in close to shore where we could scope fairly easily. No super-unusual ducks: Redhead, Canvasback, Greater Scaup, Ring-necked Duck, Wigeon, Black Duck, Mallard, and Pintail were all present. There were also some scatterings of swan, including a bunch of Tundra Swan and 8 Mute Swans, a pretty high count for the Basin. The best bird on the lake was also present. An Eared Grebe has been on Cayuga Lake for several consecutive winters (just like Pacific Loon). It's been a little more difficult to find this year, being only occasionally reported from both the East and West shores, and there is some question as to multiple individuals being present. We were lucky, and the Eared Grebe was present at Farley's, swimming and diving just beyond the Aythya flock.

Farther up the lake, we passed the ice edge and waterfowl became restricted to the few open pools. More scanning revealed much the same as before, with added numbers of Tundra Swans and a few Trumpeter Swans as well, making for a perfect 3-swan day. On the ice-free ponds in Union Springs next to the lake, we did find some up-close Green-winged Teal, Gadwall, and Redhead. The pond's resident Eastern Screech-Owl was also basking in the sun from the hole of his duck box.

From here we headed up to the Montezuma wetlands complex. At some point earlier in the morning, we had started a raptor count due to the high numbers of hawks out in the beautiful February weather. Here at Montezuma we hit raptors in abundance. A quick check to see if the Wildlife Drive was open yielded a Rough-legged Hawk and Northern Harrier scuffling over the Main Pool. More Rough-legs and some Red-tailed Hawks were soaring in the distance.

A single field off of Route 89 held an incredible number of hawks in close proximity. In less than ten minutes at least three Red-tails, six Rough-legs, and three Harriers passed through this field. It must be loaded with voles! This same area yielded some half-hardy birds: Great Blue Heron and Northern Mockingbird.

From the Main Pool area we headed up north to the Mucklands area. These open expanses of agriculture, muck, and weeds have held reported Short-eared Owls recently. We of course had no luck in the middle of a sunny day (although one was reported that evening) but we did run into a flock of Redpolls. We searched the ~120 Common Redpolls but couldn't turn up a Hoary.

From the Mucklands we headed west, taking a short jaunt out of the Cayuga Lake Basin to bird the northern end of Seneca Lake in Geneva. Here we added Iceland Gull to our day's list, as well as an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull in Seneca Falls.

On the way back into the Basin, to bird down the west side of the lake, we ran into a Snow Bunting flock. Approximately 120 of them flew around from field to tree and back again. It was very odd to see a tree loaded with Snow Buntings, a typical open field bird.

One of our last birding stops was to stop at Sheldrake to scan the lake for the recently reported Pacific Loon. We couldn't find anything but Common Loons in the dying light, but we did see a male Long-tailed Duck and a male Red-breasted Merganser to make up for it.

The day concluded with a flat tire and ice cream at The Creamery (the ice cream is worth the inconvenience of having to put on the spare).

I think the highlight of our day was the sheer abundance of raptors. Here are our totals for our informal winter raptor survey:

66 Red-tailed Hawk (59 Cayuga Basin, 7 Seneca Basin)
15 Rough-legged Hawk (mostly at Montezuma)
8 Northern Harrier (mostly Montezuma)
2 Kestrel
5 Bald Eagle (all but one at nest: 1 at Mud Lock, 1 at Mucklands, 2 at Armitage)
1 Coopers Hawk
plus a Peregrine Falcon seen by Harvey on campus before the trip.

That's a pretty good day for the 'dead' of winter.

Bird family resources

If you are interested in family-level bird taxonomy, or even just want to view pictures and video of cool birds, here are two excellent resources:

Don Roberson's Bird Families of the World pages
Don does an amazing job summarizing the latest in family-level bird taxonomy. He has individual pages with information on almost all families, and includes a lots of information about changing taxonomic status (see the break-up of the Old World Warblers). Don is liberal with his family splitting, but this just serves to highlight diversity. This is the reference I use when I have any questions on bird families.

Handbook of the Birds of the World: Internet Bird Collection (IBC)
The Handbook of the Birds of the World is a series (still in progress) to illustrate and describe every species in the world. This amazing reference is, unfortunately, rather prohibitively expensive. If you want a taste, though, go to the Handbook site and view a healthy sampling of plates from each of the volumes. For example, check out Owl and Hummingbird plates here.
The really cool part of the Handbook online is the IBC. This is an extensive online collection of bird videos, some of which are really amazing. Here are some highlights:

Black Heron (Egretta ardesiaca: Ardeidae): displaying its unique feeding behavior. It folds its wings over its head to provide shade for poor, unsuspecting little fishies.

Hamerkop (Scopus umbretta: Scopidae): this unique African species, a monotypic family, destroys a Xenopus frog.

Sunbittern (Eurypyga helias: Eurypygidae): another monotypic family, this one from the Neotropics. Check out that display. And check out my close-up of a spread-wing of the species here.

Marvellous Spatuletail (Loddigesia mirabilis: Trochilidae): a male displaying its unique tail morphology. See my previous post on this species here.

Shoebill (Balaeniceps rex: Balaenicipitidae): monotypic families are cool. I'm pretty sure this one could kill you.

Kagu (Rhynochetos jubatus: Rhynochetidae): Run Away!

Note to students: If you use the resources to study, make careful note that the taxonomy of these sites doesn't always follow what we are teaching. Always refer to your Birds of the World handouts.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Living Bird Online

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology publication, the Living Bird, is now online! Check out the new site, which features the latest issue, a lot of photography and articles from Macaulay Library's Alaska recording expeditions.

When you need to find the daddy...

It's amazing what heating and cooling and heating will do...

Thursday, February 7, 2008

I and the Bird #68 - Winter Doldrum Edition

Welcome to the 68th Edition of I and the Bird! That is, if your flight over here wasn't delayed by "inclement weather" - the polite euphemism we use for blinding snow squalls. It is the deep of winter, folks, and that means radical changes in the way we interact with our feathered friends.

Gone are the days when 20+ species of warbler dripped from the trees. Sheets of snow and ice have blanketed the mudflats that once held hundreds of migrating shorebirds. You can spend hours slogging through snowy trails while barely hearing a single chip note.

This winter birding, or lack of it, can really get you down. Do you yearn for the spring to come? Do you grieve for the birds of summers past? The winter doldrums affect everyone differently. Let's see how they affect the birders on the blogosphere.


Birders are full of denial in the dead of winter, and will go to endless lengths to forget about the cold imposing winter around them.

Some, like Eva at The Flying Mullet go In Search of a Booby, and find one: "I paid the 50 cent fee and proceeded out on the pier. There were Rock Pigeons and Boat-tailed Grackles all around. At the end of the pier was my booby!". Unfortunately, chaos theory has yet to prove that tropical seabirds flapping in Florida can change the weather in New York.

Other birders, like Amila at Gallicissa, don't have to chase tropical vagrants, because they live in the tropics. In Birding with Malcolm and Duan, Amila gets out for a thorough birding trip in Sri Lanka. He's clearly just avoiding the New York winter.

Nowhere is denial more apparent than in Rick of Aimophila Adventures. His post, Mock Spring and an AZ BTB, describes his desperate attempt to turn an Arizona winter into a midwestern spring: complete with finding his first Arizona Black-throated Blue Warbler.

In another fit of denial, Charlie of 10,000 Birds abandons his homeland in the UK for supposedly sunnier grounds in California in Following in Corey's tyre tracks. Guess what he finds in California?
As utterly beautiful as the drive to Idyllwild was - and as startlingly bright and sunny once the clouds cleared - I have to say right now that from a birding point-of-view the next few hours were a touch disappointing. I spent most of the morning gripping the steering-wheel like my life depended on it (perhaps it did) which I’m sure didn’t help, and seeing vehicles coming back down the hill covered in so much snow that they looked like mobile snowdrifts did little for my confidence.
At least he did end up seeing good birds - check out the rest of his trip.

Then there are the birders who take their denial in another direction. They relax inside next to the warm fireplace, and ruminate on the latest ornithological findings.

Drew at The Nemesis Bird talks about varying female mate choice in Lark Buntings in The fickle females of the bird world.

Gavan from Gavan Central (Gavan) dreams of summer when he asks, Do birds get sunburn? The answer is far more complex than you might think.

When I am in full-blown winter doldrum denial, I have an outlet. I dive into the Cornell Museum of Vertebrates collections, and visit the wonders of the bird world via round skin with my Ornithology class. Along the way I hope I convey there are useful birding lessons in my Molt and Plumage Lab.


Nathan of The Drinking Bird in North Carolina doesn't deny that winter is in full swing. Tempers are short, however, and when he can't take anymore of the Scott's Oriole being seen by so many in NYC, he has to go out and see his own, along with other great western vagrants, in Great Scott!

Carrie of Great Auk - Or Greatest Auk?, writes a wonderful expose on Woodcock in Meetings with Remarkable Birds, but her prose can't completely mask the underlying tension:
Of course, that doesn’t mean you’ll see a Woodcock. What you’ll see, most likely, is absolutely nothing. Next most likely, you’ll see a feathery explosion of WHAT THE F*@! WAS THAT whistling rapidly away while you put your foot down in the spot where a Woodcock was.
With all this anger and unreleased tension going around, it's no surprise that bird bloggers are gravitating towards the lean, mean killing machines of the bird world: raptors.

Rob of Rob's Idaho Perspective discusses The Ways of Nature at his backyard feeders with the impact of a Sharp-shinned Hawk on other birds' behavior.

Trevor of Trevor's Birding captures great photos of an Australian raptor in Great Birding Moment #33: Collared Sparrowhawk.

Katie at bogbumper describes The Kill, in which a Sparrowhawk of a her own catches a meal.


Some birders deal with the winter doldrums with cooler heads.

Liza at The Egret's Nest believes it isn't too much to ask to get a beautiful picture of a corvid morning, even in the dull gray weather.

Katie at RSPB Notes on Nature, asks, Do you have a Swede in your garden?, because one day you might just find 16 imported Blackbirds in your backyard.

Behind the Bins knows winter drives a hard bargain, but is willing to pay the price with a Long Wait for the Hoary Redpoll, a life bird.


Sometimes there is nothing left after all the blustering and bargaining... sometimes you just have to except the fact that there are many more months of cold gray bird-deprived chill ahead of you...

Grrlscientist tries to stave off the depression by posting a video of The Tiny Secrets Inside of a Hummingbird's Nest, because: "it seems appropriate for today, considering that winter has closed her icy hand around us all."

The Ridger at The Greenbelt finds that when "it's cold enough to numb your fingers" you can still see Little gray birds on a cold gray day.

Sometimes it isn't the weather that gets you down, but the failures when you do get out birding. Mike at The Feather and the Flower describes an unsuccessful chase for a Ross's Gull that he shared with over a hundred of other birders around the northeast (myself included). Mike tried hard to remain upbeat in his post, Pretty in Pink, while I summed the trip up simply as:


Some birders quietly deny the icy grip of winter around them, others lash out by chasing birds or flying to faraway places. Eventually though, we all reach the point of acceptance, and get out and enjoy the winter birding to its fullest extent!

At Alis Volat Propriis, Leigh Kicks-off the year right, by getting out there and birding!

Tai at Earth, Wind & Water puts some additional observations into a previous sighting of an Ani in Carib specialty - redux.

Susannah from Wanderin' Weeta (With Waterfowl and Weeds) also gets out and about, in Birding in Three Stages. She even finds real glimmers of spring ahead!

The Wrenaissance Woman of Wrenaissance Reflections proves that even common feeder birds should never be ignored in her study of the finches at her feeder on a Finchy Friday

True acceptance of winter is mastered not when we just when we get out there and bird, but when we get out and bird for a purpose.

Birdfreak heavily promotes Citizen Science, while Island Rambles participates in the Yearly Bird Count for Victoria, BC and Patrick of The Hawk Owl's Nest joins in an Eagle Fest.

Sorry Duncan! Duncan's post at Ben Cruachan Blog slipped through the first pass. His post, A wander around the wetlands, goes to show that it ain't winter everywhere in the world.

Well, that about concludes this edition of I and the Bird! I hope you all have gotten over the winter blues and come to accept the fact that winter can be some really great birding! Now get out there and find some Snowy Owls or Gyrfalcons or Hoary Redpolls or refind that cursed Ross's Gull at Niagara!

All interpretations of people's moods are fictional (unless you guys really are angry and depressed?). Let me know if there are any problems/broken links/forgotten entries/questions/comments/hate mail at nds22 AT cornell DOT edu. Thanks!

The next I and the Bird, #69, will be hosted by GrrlScientist. Email submissions to grrlscientist AT gmail DOT com by Feb. 19th!

Molt and Plumage Lab

This week's lab in Ornithology examined plumage and molt patterns in birds. I took a ton of pictures and hope I can convey a few basic concepts.

Let's start by examining the four types of molt cycle. These aren't your "breeding/nonbreeding" or "summer/winter" plumages. It is more complex than that, but I'll try to keep it simple for both your and my own sake. It is easy to get confused.

First, the basics: molt is a replacement of feathers that produces a plumage. A bird changes plumages only through a molt (this will become important later). The vast majority of birds exhibit one yearly molt that is a complete replacement (body and flight feathers). This is called the prebasic molt and produces a basic plumage. Some birds undergo an additional molt per year (almost always only a partial molt) that is called a prealternate molt producing alternate plumage. These two cycles are the two most familiar molt strategies, called quite appropriate, simple basic and simple alternate strategies. Molts occur in cycles, defined by each year's prebasic molt. Basic strategies have one molt per cycle. Alternate strategies have the extra prealternate molt every cycle.

Got that? This is where it gets complicated. Some birds of both basic and alternate strategies add an extra molt during a bird's first cycle. The first cycle follows a bird's first prebasic molt: the molt from downy chick plumage to its first 'real' feathers. This plumage is termed both juvenile and, more appropriately and less confusingly, first basic plumage. If the bird molts again before its next prebasic molt (the molt that will produce second basic plumage), or in alternate strategies if the bird molts twice before the second prebasic molt, this is termed the preformative molt producing the formative plumage. This plumage only exists in the first cycle. The names for these modified strategies, because they add a level of complexity on to the two simple systems, are named: complex basic and complex alternate strategies.

Unless you have already mastered molt terminology (which I assure you not even the TA's in this class have yet, myself included), your head is probably spinning by now. Here are some figures from Howell et al. (2003) to help visualize these four strategies (click to view large):

Howell et al.'s figure demonstrates all of these concepts: the two strategy types of basic and alternate, the complexity of added formative plumages, and the alignment of molt cycles by the prebasic molt.

Now for some examples of the molt strategies outlined above. We'll start with simple basic. This strategy, despite being the simplest, is only used by a few groups of birds. These include pelagics (Procellariiformes) and hawks and falcons (Falconiformes) as well as a few other scattered groups. The example we pulled from the museum was Cooper's Hawk (Accipiter cooperii: Accipitridae):

The bird on the left is a fledgling. This bird is molting (the 1st prebasic molt) from its downy coat into 1st basic (juvenile) plumage. The center bird is an example of 1st basic plumage. Cooper's Hawks retain this "immature plumage" for the first cycle, before molting into "adult plumage" in the 2nd prebasic molt. This "adult plumage" on the right (I am using plumage in parentheses for everything but the specific plumages of molt systems to avoid confusion) is maintained for the rest of the birds life without variation. Each further cycle has one molt and one plumage. Once a bird has reached this adult stage where further cycles do not change in appearance, the molts are referred to as definitive. Thus, the right bird would be referred to as having a definitive basic plumage.

Now let's look at the simple alternate strategy. Recall that this strategy has an additional prealternate molt for each cycle. This molt is a partial replacement of feathers and is often the molt that produces "breeding plumage". Here are three examples:

Loons (Gavia: Gaviidae). The simple alternate strategy is displayed here. From left to right: 1st basic (juvenile), definitive alternate, definitive basic. A quick check of Sibley shows he illustrates both 'juvenile' and '1st summer' birds. These are not different plumages separated by a molt, these are one plumage, the 1st basic. The difference between the two is wear.

Another example of the simple alternate strategy are ducks such as these Blue-winged Teal (Anas discors: Anatidae). Both birds above are males. The bird on the left is the alternate plumage, the bird on the right is an eclipse (basic) male. The basic plumage in ducks is distinguished from regular basic by the name 'eclipse' because of its timing - this plumage and molt is for a short period during the summer when males become flightless (they molt all flight feathers simultaneously) and can use a more camouflaged plumage for hiding away.

Alright, that sums up the simple strategies. Let's get complex. Here is an example of complex basic strategy:

Good ol' Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum: Bombycillidae) demonstrate the extra Formative plumage inserted between 1st Basic and 2nd Basic. On the left is the 1st Basic plumage, recognized by the streaks. On the right is Definitive Basic, the adult plumage that is molted once a year. In the middle is Formative - much like Definitive, but duller and lacking any waxy wingtips. This plumage is referred to in Sibley as "1st Year".

How about complex alternate strategy? I give you two examples to ponder.

Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea: Cardinalidae). This is the most complicated molt yet. From left to right we have: a bird in 1st Prebasic Molt, Formative, Definitive Alternate, Prebasic Molt, Definitive Basic (all male specimens), and a Definitive Alternate female. The extra Formative plumage inserted in the first cycle resembles female plumages and may well be indistinguishable (specimens are sexed by gonads when they are skinned). Note that the male formative differs from later male Definitive Basic plumages by the lack of black wings.

Laughing Gull (Larus atricilla: Laridae). We were actually able to piece together almost a full series from the CUMV collections. From left to right: downy chick, 1st Basic, Formative, 1st Alternate, Definitive Basic, Definitive Alternate. The only distinctive plumage missing is 2nd Basic (2nd Winter in Sibley). I believe 2nd Alternate and beyond are Definitive plumages.

WHEW! That about covers the 4 molt strategies. But I'm not done. There is more...

Did you know there are birds out there that show very distinct seasonal "plumages" that result not from molt, but from feather wear? This process of wear creates two distinct aspects of one plumage. Three examples follow:

European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris: Sturnidae). This species has a basic molt strategy. Above are three males showing the progression from "nonbreeding" to "breeding" plumage. The bird on the left is a fresh basic plumage bird. The second and third individuals show the progression of wear that occurs over the winter to get the distinct 'plumage' we see in the early spring. This occurs along with the bare parts getting brighter, especially the yellow bill, but that is not part of plumage. All of these birds are still the same plumage: basic. On to more interesting species...

Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis: Emberizidae (for now)). Above you can see the same progression of fresh, winter male on the left to "fresh" (but worn) breeding male on the right.

Bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorous: Icteridae): Same progression as the above two examples, except with one addition on the left: a bird in prebasic molt. Compare with the bird in the middle of wear between the two aspects, middle right.

There is just one final detail on molt for today. Take a look at these spread wings. Can you tell which feathers are old, which are fresh, and which direction molt is proceeding?

The first example above is Northern (Eastern (Yellow-shafted)) Flicker (Colaptes auratus: Picidae). The left wing is in molt, the right is not. The outer primaries are very worn: look how brown and washed out they are compared to the relatively fresh primaries on the right wing. This wing is a very good demonstration of primary molt: it is beginning at the primary/secondary divide and progressing outwards.

The second example is Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus: Picidae). While there is no comparison to judge feather wear, this wing also demonstrates the outward progression of primary molt. Secondaries progress inward from the same starting point.

The rest of the lab consisted of examples of a little bit of polymorphism and aberrant plumage, as well as a bunch of really interesting specialized plumage and feather structures. Now that all the intellectual heavy lifting is done, kick back and relax.

Polymorphism - Some birds, in particular herons (Ardeidae) and raptors (Accipitridae) display marked plumage polymorphism. These are color morphs where a plumage abnormality such as melanism (dark morph), leucism (white morph), or erythrism (red morph) birds become a significant percentage of the population rather than just individual aberrations. These are usually defined as polymorphic if the different morphs are largely sympatric, and not attributed to geography, gender, or age. A great example of this is the Eastern Screech-Owl (Megascops asio: Strigidae) with red and gray morphs coexisting broadly across their range. Mon@rch has a good post describing them, with more lifelike pictures than I present here:

Leucism - Leucism is defined as any reduction or incomplete lack of pigment. This includes aberrations know as 'piebald' or 'partial albino', which is a misnomer. Leucism is actually a different type of genetic mutation from albinism, and it is incorrect to refer to leucistic birds as partial albinos. Anyways, check out this really fascinating Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata: Corvidae) that I found in the collections. It is lacking the majority of pigment, but retains blue coloration in the flight feathers because this structural, not pigment-derived. The intensity of the blue depends on the angle viewed. View the feather from underneath and it is not visible at all.

Diet-induced erythrism - this is a fairly well known example in Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum: Bombycillidae). Pigments ingested from eating too much fruit from certain Honeysuckles causes red pigments to overlay the yellow tail tips, creating orange. This specimen displayed appears to have grown in a single new feather in a honeysuckle-free environment, providing a nice contrast between the normal yellow and the aberrant orange.

Unknown plumage aberration -
I'm not sure what to call this one. While sorting through trays and trays of Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea: Cardinalidae)...

I came across this individual:

It is a perfect example of the aberrant tanager depicted in the Sibley Guide: orange instead of scarlet, with an orange wing bar. Too cool! I do wonder if this is in fact the bird that Sibley illustrated.

Iridescence - this is just too cool! Here's a single hummingbird example, the Fiery Topaz (Topaza pyra: Trochilidae) bottom and top views.

Here's a bird that makes me think I'm birding the wrong hemisphere: African Emerald Cuckoo (Chrysococcyx cupreus: Cuculidae):

Mechanical sound production - This bird, the Club-winged Manakin (Machaeropterus deliciosus: Pipridae) has a crazy feather modification discovered by Cornell's own Kim Bostwick. One modified secondary forms a hollow resonating chamber with ridges. Another modified secondary is bent and serves as a pick. The bird beats its wings extremely rapidly (100x a sec) over its back, where the pick rubs back and forth over the ridges with each beat. The resulting sound is strange and highly unique in the bird world. It is quite similar to the sonation produced by crickets and other insects. The modified secondaries are barely visible in this round skin and we didn't have a flat wing available for display. See Kim's site for more information and video of this neat feather modification.

Elaborate ornamentation - Total free-for-all of wild and wacky bird ornamentation. I love sexual selection!

Crowned Pigeon (Goura: Columbidae)

Magnificent Bird-of-Paradise (Cicinnurus magnificus: Paradisaeidae)

Black Sicklebill (Epimachus fastuosus: Paradisaeidae)

Resplendent Quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno: Trogonidae)

Black Crowned Crane (Balearica pavonina : Gruidae)
Sunbittern (Eurypyga helias: Eurypygidae): look at the amazing detail on each primary.

Check out amazing photos of the following two Cuckoos here.

Red-crested Malkoha (Phaenicophaeus superciliosus: Cuculidae)
Scale-feathered Malkoha (Phaenicophaeus cumingi: Cuculidae)

There aren't many birds in the world that exhibit the same wonderful powder-blue color as do Chlorophonias (Chlorophonia: Fringillidae). And that's on top of their already lovely green-and-yellow plumage:

I could fill pages and pages with examples such as these! But for now, this is all. Look for more in the future!


Howell, Steve NG. 2003. Understanding Molt: Part I. Birding. Oct. 2003.

Howell, Steve NG. 2003. Understanding Molt: Part II. Birding. Dec. 2003.

Howell, Steve NG, Chris Corben, Peter Pyle, and Danny I Rogers. 2003. The first basic problem: a review of molt and plumage homologies. The Condor. 105:635-653.