Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Is The Ivory-billed Woodpecker Extinct?

For 61 years, the largest and most aesthetically awe-inspiring woodpecker of North America, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, was considered to be extinct. Although alleged reports persisted through the decades, it was only seriously thought to be "rediscovered" in February 2004, after a particularly compelling report came to light from the swamps of eastern Arkansas. Following this sighting, major organizations such as the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service funded expensive, large-scale search efforts in attempt to relocate the so-called "Holy Grail" bird. For three years biologists, birders, and other nature enthusiasts eagerly awaited the results of the multimillion-dollar hunt, but despite a number of sketchy eyewitness reports and a highly controversial video, no solid evidence for the existence of the species was provided. As much as birders and nature enthusiasts would like to say otherwise, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is almost certainly extinct. There is no point spending millions of dollars searching for a bird that no longer exists when that money could save other species headed in the same direction. 
The Ivory-billed Woodpecker had been headed towards extinction ever since the pilgrim settlers first arrived in the 17th century. Being strictly habitat-specific, the species was never abundant, and it was prized by hunters and bird collectors of natives and settlers alike for its rarity. Additionally, its stunning plumage and ivory-like bill were highly sought after items. The contrasting matte black and spotless, angel-like white on the wings and face, combined with the striking vermilion crest was too much for any hunter to resist. The bony, white bill was unique among American woodpeckers and admired by all who set eyes upon it. Some shot birds were stuffed and mounted and others taken apart for feathers on ladies’ hats and bills for necklaces. The stunning beauty of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker led to its demise.
This species inhabited cypress swamp woodlands of the Southeast United States with an isolated population in Cuba. Early nature enthusiasts such as John James Audubon would wonder at the large
Former Ivory-billed Woodepecker habitat in the Okefenokee Swamp
cavities the Ivory-billed pairs would excavate for nests in moss-draped Bald Cypress trees. The deforestation of these woods,
 along with the poaching from collectors, led to the extinction of the species. The last confirmed sighting of this woodpecker in the United States was a female in 1944 in northeastern Louisiana while the last known Cuban birds were seen until 1987. 
However, on February 11, 2004, Gene Sparling identified a large black-and-white woodpecker as an Ivory-billed while kayaking a bayou in the Big Woods area of Arkansas. This report spurred Ivory-billed searchers Tim Gallagher and Bobby Harrison to travel to this location in an attempt to see the bird. On February 27th, both observers caught a glimpse of "a large black-and-white woodpecker with the characteristic color pattern of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker [flying] across the bayou" (“Seven Sightings”). Despite their attempts, they were not able to relocate or film the bird. This brief glimpse was the only basis they had on their identification.
Despite this, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, with support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, launched a $1.6 million project to confirm the existence of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, based purely on these two reports. Over the course of 3 years, a total of 5 searches were conducted –two in Arkansas, two in Florida, and one in Louisiana– and millions of acres were covered. The search teams included paid field technicians as well as volunteers, which placed continually-running microphones and cameras throughout the swamps to document possible sightings. Despite this, very little evidence was located at the end of the 3 years. All the evidence that was found was highly controversial and in no way indicative of the presence of the Ivory-billed. 
Now although the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was the only member of the genus Campephilus found in the United States, there is a superficially similar woodpecker that dwells in the same wooded swampland the Ivory-billed once did. This bird, the Pileated Woodpecker from the genus Dryocopus, is a large woodpecker, slightly smaller than the Ivory-billed, and patterned in black, white, and red. Although the Pileated has more white patterning on the face and more black on the wings and back, a fleeting view of this woodpecker could easily be mistaken for an Ivory-billed. As a result, many alleged reports of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers are actually misidentified Pileateds. There are few reports of Ivory-billed sightings that are actually convincing.
The most promising evidence that supports the presence of this species includes ambiguous audio recordings and a highly pixelated, four-second long video. Ivory-billeds were known for their distinctive calls and double-knocks. The high-pitched, nasal “kent” toots were loud, echoing through the woodlands and the double-knocks, unique to the Campephilus genus, equally so. According to James Tanner in 1942, the Ivory-billed Woodpeckers were always "located first by hearing them call" (“Ivory-bill Acoustics”). The purpose of the microphones placed in the search areas was to document calls and double-knocks unique to the Ivory-billed's genus. Yet hundreds of hours of video and audio yielded little. If such a raucous species still existed in these wooded swamps, one would assume it would have been heard in at least one of the surveyed areas. Still, a handful of recordings were designated by Cornell to be suggestive of Ivory-billeds, but they admitted them to be "enigmatic" or difficult to interpret and far from conclusive. 
Similarly difficult to interpret was the four-second long video captured by David Luneau at the Bayou de View in April 2004. This particular video, depicting one flying bird and –some have
The Luneau Video, from CLO.
argued– one perched bird, gained popularity as the most credible footage for the existence of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. It is
 low-resolution, highly-pixelated, and four seconds long, but clearly shows a large woodpecker being flushed from a cypress tree. Those who support the Ivory-billed's existence claim there is enough detail to identify the bird as an Ivory-billed. The basis of their identification is mainly the amount of white located on the dorsal, or upper, side of the wing –one of the field marks that differentiate it from the similar and ubiquitous Pileated Woodpecker.  
However, skeptics such as David Allen Sibley, a renowned American birder, note that the video is too low quality to say whether the dorsal or ventral (lower) side of the wing is being seen and that there is no way to eliminate Pileated, which have a large white patch on the ventral side of the wing. The video simply does not contain enough detail to confirm the bird in question as an Ivory-billed. In Sibley’s words, “for something as rare as an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, there needs to be… some really solid evidence” (“Sibley on Ivory-billed Woodpecker”). Such evidence would include photos or videos undoubtedly depicting an Ivory-billed.
Because of the ambiguity of the Luneau video, many support eyewitness accounts as the most credible evidence of Ivory-billeds. There were a number of very brief eyewitness sightings of Ivory-billeds during the searches, but Sibley’s view is that “just like eyewitness testimony in court, [they are] inherently unreliable.” He further notes that the mind can play tricks on the eyes and when the eyes want to see something desperately, the mind will “create a memory.” Though he does not state the reporters’ memories were artificial, he implies it is a possibility.
What then causes the driving desire to see the Ivory-billed Woodpecker? Why are so many people spending their time and money to catch a glimpse of this bird? Part of it is likely due to the mystery
1935 photo of a male. Source.
surrounding the bird, the “Holy Grail” element. The idea of a beautiful, large woodpecker hiding in the forest, unseen for decades, really triggers imagination and awe. The thought of seeing something lost for so long fills the mind and heart with desire. From a scientific perspective, the responsibility to locate and recover a critically endangered species cannot be ignored. We humans made this bird a ghost and the wish to right our wrongs looms over our conscience.
The bottom line is that data and logic suggest the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is extinct. The vast majority of its original habitat has been destroyed. For three years, hundreds of biologists and volunteers searched what was left of the remaining habitat with equivocal evidence to prove the existence of the species. Yet still, organizations such as the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refuse to accept the absence of this species. Although they have run out of funds to continue their efforts, they still list the Ivory-billed Woodpecker as critically endangered, disregarding the fact that no indisputable evidence was found. They spent a total of $14 million between 2004 and 2010 and had laid out a $27 million recovery plan in 2007 before abandoning it due to lack of funds. There is too little evidence to qualify spending such a large amount of money. It would be more worthwhile to use these funds to rescue endangered species such as the Whooping Crane or Black-capped Vireo from the brink of extinction.
As of 2010, a recovery plan costing around $1.4 million has been implemented. What this recovery plan entails is discovering and analyzing existing populations, establishing new populations throughout the historical range of the species, and conserving, monitoring, and managing habitat where the birds may exist. Although this program will certainly help other species reliant on the wooded swamplands of the Southeast, all this money is being spent on a species whose very existence is doubtable. What about those birds whose numbers are plummeting due to cowbird parasitism and habitat loss? Why not put these funds towards programs that set up cowbird traps or conserve and manage oak and juniper riparian habitat in Texas? Such programs would greatly help reduce the threat of extinction looming over the Golden-cheeked Warbler and Black-capped Vireo.

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is extinct. It is time to accept that this glorious bird is gone. It was a riveting few years awaiting the official rediscovery of a lost species, but the results from these years only indicate the “Holy Grail” bird remains lost. We should shift our focus from retrospective to prospective. There are birds that still need saving and, unfortunately, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is no longer among them.

Works Cited
Bosak, Chris. "Sibley on the Ivory-billed Woodpecker." Youtube. Youtube, 4 Apr. 2014. Web. 3 Nov. 2014
Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “Final Reports.” Cornell University, n.d. Web. 12 Nov. 2014.
Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “Ivory-bill Acoustics.” Cornell University, n.d. Web. 12 Nov. 2014.
Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “Seven Sightings – April 2005.” Cornell University, n.d. Web. 12 Nov. 2014.
Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “Summary and Conclusions of the 2005–06 Ivory-billed Woodpecker Search in Arkansas.” Cornell University, Oct. 2006. Web. 12 Nov. 2014.
Dalton, Rex. “Still Looking For That Woodpecker.” Nature 463, (2010): 718-719. Web. 12 Nov. 2014
Hagner, Chuck. "An Ivory-Bill Skeptic Speaks Out." Birder's World 20.2 (2006): 13-76. MasterFILE Elite. Web. 3 Nov. 2014.
Lammertink, Martjan, Kenneth V. Rosenberg, John W. Fitzpatrick, M. David Luneau, Jr., Tim W. Gallagher, and Marc Dantzker. “Detailed analysis of the video of a large woodpecker (the "Luneau video") obtained at Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, Arkansas, on 25 April 2004.” Cornell University, 8 Feb. 2006. Web. 12 Nov. 2014.
Leonard, Pat. "In Latest Challenge, Researchers Stand by Ivory-bill Evidence." Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 17 Mar. 2006. Web. 3 Nov. 2014.
Poor, Allison. “Campephilus principalis.” Animal Diversity Web. University of Michigan, 2005. Web. 12 Nov. 2014.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Recovery Plan for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.” USFWS, Apr. 2010. Web. 3 Dec. 2014.
Weidensaul, Scott. “Ghost of a Chance.” Smithsonian Magazine. Smithsonian Institution, Aug. 2005. Web. 12 Nov. 2014.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Analysis of the Differences Between Birders and Birdwatchers

Birders looking for a Snowy Owl on Tybee Island
  According to a 2011 study, there are 46.7 million bird enthusiasts in the United States. Of these 46.7 million enthusiasts, 17.8 million are considered “birders.” Most people have no idea the term “birder” exists and furthermore, are unaware of how it differs from the more familiar word “birdwatcher.” To the bird enthusiasts, however, it is a way of differentiating two levels of bird lovers, and consequently the difference between the two terms is of great importance.
One term bird enthusiasts use often is the word “muggle,” in reference to those who do not hold an interest to birds - a word borrowed from the famous Harry Potter novel series, referring to the public unaware of the magical world. Many bird enthusiasts view the public in this manner: unaware of the magic of birds. While most “muggles” are aware this community exists, they do not know what it entails. They consider all bird lovers “birdwatchers” and routinely picture an old woman watching goldfinches from her kitchen window. Although they are not entirely wrong, they are oblivious to the converse side of the bird community.
To most bird enthusiasts, being a “birdwatcher” and being a “birder” have two separate meanings. It is much more meaningful to an enthusiast to be a “birder,” and any birder with an elitist syndrome is likely to look down on a “birdwatcher” as ignorant and inexperienced. These birders share the view of the “muggles,” picturing birdwatchers as old women flipping through pocket guides at their kitchen window, habitually misidentifying Chipping Sparrows as “finches.” This rather unpopular view of birdwatchers is held only by a select few birders and most birders respect birdwatchers as like-minded members of their little clade. From a juxtaposed perspective, a birder’s view of a birdwatcher may be likened to a famous athlete contemplating his or her fans. The fans have an interest in his sport, but they do not actively take part in it. Birdwatchers are dipping their toes in the water while birders are diving in head-first.
Thus, in actuality, being a “birder” is more than watching birds. Birding is a lifestyle. For a birder, birds are the underlying factor when considering life choices. Whether it is choosing a car, buying a house, applying for a job, or picking a spouse, a birder makes sure it corresponds with his or her feathery interest. Extra money goes to expensive and necessary birding equipment, such as
The King Rail is a species you won't see on your feeder!
spotting scopes, binoculars, detailed bird books, bird song apps, bird-related t-shirts, bumper stickers, and vanity plates. Birders travel constantly, near and far, to find birds. No distance is too distant if a rare bird has been seen. Nearly all birders have a blog to record and share their escapades into the wilderness and few birders are not “listers”. Their obsession with lists is manifested in the assorted lists found on their blog: life list, year list, state list, county list, county year list, birds-seen-from-my-bathroom year list. This leads to a fair amount of competitiveness among birders, as if a large number on a list allows bragging rights. Furthermore, birders have their own unique lexicon – an amalgamation of funny words to describe various birding-related functions. “Twitching,” “pishing,” and “dipping” are simply part of a birder’s way of life and part of what being a birder entails.

The vigorous life of the birder contrasts strongly against “birdwatching,” the laid-back version of enjoying birds. Birdwatchers are essentially casual birders. They have a vague interest in birds and
mainly observe birds from their house, in their yard, or on occasion, the local park. Pocket guides and pocket binoculars are their birding supplies and they prefer to occupy their time with seemingly pointless activities such as knitting or sleeping. Birdwatchers lack the detailed knowledge of the birder due to their casual disposition and most have a difficult time differentiating Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers. These bird lovers simply lack the driving motivation of the birder. Trekking through swamps and deserts or taking a boat 5 miles out to sea does not appeal to them. Birdwatchers are content watching birds from a relaxed, uncompetitive environment.
Some enthusiasts may argue there is no difference between birders and birdwatchers and that any such argument is simply splitting hairs. Others may contend that birdwatching is a part of every birder. After all, all bird enthusiasts started out watching birds from the window. It is true these arguments have some veracity. Few things are ever black-and-white (with the exception of Mniotilta varia), and there are bird enthusiasts that consider themselves in-between birders and birdwatchers, but the majority of bird lovers relate themselves to one group or the other. This categorizing helps them to associate with like-minded people.
Therefore, it is important to note the distinguishing factors of the two groups. The primary difference between a birder and a birdwatcher is simply the degree of interest and the measure of motivation. Birders are obsessed. In addition to having an irrevocable love for birds, they thoroughly enjoy the chase and all the risks birding necessitates. Birdwatchers are casual. Their passion for birds is less invigorating and their motivation is minimal, but the interest is ever-present. Birders seek out birds, birdwatchers watch birds. Each category is unique with its own special perks and the bird community welcomes and encompasses all types of enthusiasts – birders and birdwatchers alike.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Chasing Misidentifications

(Thursday, September 18, 2014)

Today wasn't just a normal Thursday.

Most Thursdays, after my classes at GRU, I pick up lunch at Chik-fil-a and coffee at Dunkin and head home. But today I had plans. Today I was going to find birds.

The previous day, I had received an eBird alert of rare shorebirds in Burke County, which is the county below my home county, and adjacent to my little town of Hephzibah. I decided after my Thursday classes I would head down to Waynesboro to try for the reported White-rumped and Stilt Sandpipers, both birds I need for my life list.

After picking up lunch and coffee, I headed South to Southern Swiss Dairy, a cow farm near Waynesboro featuring a muddy pond on the corner of Hwy 56 and Rosier Road that is easily visible from the road. There are usually Cattle Egrets, White Ibis, Killdeer, and Canada Geese here, but last month, I found 11 Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks.

I arrived shortly after 1 PM and immediately noticed a large flock of Blackbirds hanging around the cattle and in the trees. It was easy to guess they were Brown-headed Cowbirds and a quick look through my binocs confirmed my suspicions.

Out on the pond, I noted FOS (first of season) Blue-winged Teals and Lesser Yellowlegs, as well as the usual Canada Geese, White Ibis, and ubiquitous Killdeer. I tried to find peeps on the nearest shore, but to no avail. A little further out, on a muddy sandbar, there were a number of peeps, but scanning with my binoculars only revealed Least Sandpipers.

As the cows moved across the muddy shallows, the sandpipers took flight and landed on the far side of the pond. Fortunately for me, this meant all the peeps were concentrated in one part of the pond. I walked across the road to the opposite side of the pond where I was able to see the sandpipers more clearly. Once again, I only identified Least Sandpipers.

There was one bird I pegged as a possible White-rumped, but it wasn't any larger than the surrounding Leasts. This was a problem I constantly encounter with Leasts; they are so varied in size, posture, color, patterning, bill length, and bill shape that it can be very hard to differentiate them from similar peeps. It helps that their legs are a bright color, instead of black, but their legs are often coated in mud and it can be difficult to gauge leg color when the sun is overhead.

The aforementioned eBird report also included Semipalmated Sandpipers, which would be a year bird for me. I found no Semipalms. Though I couldn't definitively tell leg color on many of the peeps, I saw no short, straight bills.

A little further onto the pond I noticed on a muddy bank a few larger shorebirds. In addition to a couple Least Sandpipers, this little flock was comprised of Killdeer, Lesser Yellowlegs, and my FOY (first of year) Wilson's Snipes, a species which I was surprised to have missed this winter.

I was able to observe these two groups of birds for a number of minutes, but it wasn't long before a pair of Red-shouldered Hawks flew over, flushing all the peeps. This gave me an opportunity to look for the tell-tale white rump of the White-rumped Sandpiper. I wasn't able to spot one, but not all the birds were not letting me see their rumps.

These weren't the only shorebirds they flushed, though. I managed to find a larger shorebird flying separate from the flock, calling distinctly. After landing on the opposite side of the pond, I identified it as a Pectoral Sandpiper, a common shorebird that was much needed for my Georgia list.

Also present was a Bobolink in the grassy field behind the pond.

At this point, I decided to call it day and head back home. I didn't find the Stilt Sandpipers or the White-rumped, or even the Semipalmated. After my arrival home, I viewed the reports again and the pictures labelled as Stilt Sandpipers were Lesser Yellowlegs. I'm not sure about the White-rumped Sandpiper, but the species was removed from the eBird checklist, leading me to believe it was a misidentification. I never saw any photos of the Semipalmated Sandpipers, but these too could have been Least Sandpipers in poor light, causing the legs to look dark.

Today hadn't been a total loss: I acquired 1 new bird for my Georgia list (Pectoral Sandpiper), 1 new bird for my year list (Wilson's Snipe), and 7 new birds for my Burke County list (Yellow Warbler, Wilson's Snipe, Pectoral Sandpiper, Lesser Yellowlegs, Bobolink, Red-shouldered Hawk, and Blue-winged Teal). This pond is a great spot for shorebirds, with a rich history including species such as Stilt Sandpiper, Wilson's Phalarope, and American Golden-Plover, and I will certainly be visiting here again before shorebird season is out.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

A Daytrip to the Coast

*linked words lead to eBird checklists

Part 1 - the mainland


I woke up bright and early, ready for a day full of great birds. I packed all my necessities (camera, binocs, memo pad, food, etc.) and was out the door around 7.


The day started out cloudy, and extremely foggy. It was difficult to see the road even a few feet ahead and I was grateful for hi-beam lights since I regrettably don't have foglamps. It takes about two and a half hours to drive from Augusta to Darien so I finally arrived at my first stop, Altamaha WMA at 9:27. I parked my car on the grass by the big, white, seemingly abandoned building and walked towards the observation tower just behind it. I was able to spot Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks and Green Herons as a King Rail called from the marsh. Also present were a couple of Yellow Warblers, one of which I was lucky enough to photograph.

I was hoping to bird Butler Island and Champney Island, which are usually good hotspots for birding, but there appeared to be a hunting event happening so I decided to hit the road and try my next target location.


Just short of an hour later, I entered a dirt path off the main road in the western half of Brunswick. Apparently, this dirt road, Andrew's Island Causeway, is a good spot for fishing as well as birding as a number of folks were here for Saturday morning fishing. There was not a whole lot of bird action on the Causeway, but one of the first birds I spotted was a gorgeous adult Black-crowned Night-Heron perched on a dead tree right by the Causeway.

Further down the Causeway I such birds as White Ibis, Little and Great Blue Herons, Willet, and Laughing Gull and Clapper Rails and a Marsh Wren added to the chorus of insects. I spotted a single American White Pelican flying overhead, a yearbird for me. I only birded the Causeway for 20 minutes, but as I was leaving I happened upon a number of Prairie Warblers low in the bushes along the road. They were difficult to photograph, but I managed one good photo.


After driving around the quaint, coastal town of Brunswick for 10 minutes, I arrived at Marshes of Glynn Park, which, at low tide, overlooks a mudflat. The first birds I saw were the ubiquitous Fish Crows and Boat-tailed Grackles, but waders such as Snowy Egret, Great Blue Heron, and Great Egret were present as well. A quick scan of the mudflats revealed Georgia Black-bellied Plovers, a nice addition to my Georgia list, as well as my FOY Semipalmated Plovers and flyby Marbled Godwits. Greater Yellowlegs and Killdeer were present as well and both species of vulture flew overhead. As I scanned further, I noticed a group of large white birds sitting in the water near the FJ Torras Causeway. Upon further inspection, they revealed themselves to be 6 American White Pelicans, always a nice species to see in the state. I walked a few yards to the north and scanned the far section of the mudflats, yielding more Plovers as well as my first lifer of the trip - a very basic/juvenile-plumaged Gull-billed Tern.
I was able to get an ID'able photo.

Feeling excited, a took a quick snack break and headed out to St. Simons Island at around 11:12.

Part 2 - St. Simons Island


Nearly twenty minutes later, I arrived at my next target location, the Pier on St. Simons Island where a pair of Gray Kingbirds have been hanging out all Summer. The pier is adjacent to the island's Lighthouse so it's a popular tourist attraction.
Here is the lighthouse for you lighthouse lovers:

I walked about the parking lot and the park hoping to see the Kingbirds perched in the tops of the trees, but I saw none so I walked out onto the Pier. Boat-tailed Grackles and Eurasian Collared-Doves were everywhere as always and I spotted a tame Brown Pelican perched on the pier rail.

I decided to take a selfie with him, since you know, YOLO.

Boat-tailed Grackles in molt:

At this point I noticed a number of shorebirds on the beach and decided to grab my binoculars, which I had left in my car, and try to find anything worthwhile in the flock. As I was walking from my car to the beach, I noticed two birds fly overhead, and though I wasn't able to photograph them, there was no mistaking the shape and color - they were the two Gray Kingbirds I had been hoping to see, my second lifer of the trip! After that brief bout of excitement, I headed down to the beach and almost immediately was greeted by a huge, black-and-white gull which flew over and landed on a wooden post near me. It was another bird I needed for my Georgia list: Great Black-backed Gull.

On the beach I didn't find anything too interesting, just the usual Willets and Sanderlings, plus a Tricolored Heron which I had hoped to be a Reddish Egret, a species needed on my Georgia list.


Bummed I didn't find my lifer/nemesis Wilson's Plover, I headed back to my car and drove off to my next target location.


I guess I birded a long time at the Pier because it was an hour later I arrived at Gould's Inlet at the north end of St. Simons Island. As I stepped out onto the rocks I noticed several Brown Anoles:

I quickly realized Gould's Inlet wouldn't be too productive for me as the birds were very far out and I don't own a scope (donations anyone?). I wasn't able to make out many birds, but as I tried to identify the specks in the distance, the whole flock took flight suddenly and I watched as a Bald Eagle swooped around the flock trying to catch one of the shorebirds. Though it was too far to tell what the eagle caught, I observed that it had indeed successfully caught something, likely a Black Skimmer or Royal Tern. I stayed for a few minutes, but I realized I had other places I wanted to visit and the day was already halfway over, so I walked back to my car and headed for my next target location.

Part 3 - Jekyll Island


After acquiring lunch in Brunswick, I drove out to Jekyll Island, one of my favorite places. Just before I entered the island, it started raining so I stopped at the Welcome Center to eat the lunch I had acquired and to wait out the rain. The Welcome Center at Jekyll Island has an observation tower overlooking a marsh, which is generally good for shorebirds, but unfortunately I didn't see much. In the gift shop I bought a Jekyll Island sticker and a key chain with a Wilson's Plover illustration, a good luck charm which I hoped would help me finally find my nemesis. I stuck around for a few more minutes and then headed onto the island ($6 fee).

Here is the view from the observation tower:


I had hoped the rain would let up, but unfortunately it rained for an hour or more. I drove around the island to pass the time, but finally decided I would hit my main target spot of the trip, despite the light rain.


I arrived at 1 Macy Ln just before 3:00 and walked across the rickety boardwalk framed by dripping, drooping plants to the South Beach. This beach is hard to access, but fortunately that means there are few people and lots of birds. As I walked along the nearly non-existent path through the dunes I came across a single Common Ground-Dove foraging on the sand dunes - a beautiful sight which I think would make a great painting. I was unable to photograph it, but it was a precious moment. As I stepped onto the beach I was greeted immediately by a plethora of Barn Swallows skimming the surface of the sand and a Belted Kingfisher calling over the dunes. Laughing Gulls slept on the shoreline and Sanderlings hopped about nearby. I walked about a quarter of a mile down the beach where I observed numerous flocks of dozens of birds. These flocks consisted mainly of Black Skimmers, Royal Terns, and Brown Pelicans, but also present were Sandwich Tern, Forster's Tern, Caspian Tern, and my FOY Lesser Black-backed Gull. There were over 200 Black Skimmers on the beach.

As I headed back, the rain ceased. Before I entered the path through the dunes, I saw a nice Herring Gull, a common species, but a good one for the checklist:

I wasn't looking forward to trekking through the wet, mosquito-filled, nearly non-existent path through the dunes to the car, but I realized quickly the dunes were filled with wildlife and I enjoyed walking this path almost more than the beach, despite the 3" mosquitoes. Immediately after exiting the beach, I noticed a Ceraunus Blue, a butterfly I had only ever seen in Florida before:

And another butterfly which I probably haven't seen before but forgot to identify until this moment:

I also saw a couple of does, one of which was tame and allowed me to photograph from a good 10ft away. I didn't want to disturb her so we watched each other with mutual respect from this distance for a number of minutes.

Then we both headed in different directions:

I was also lucky enough to see my first buck just before I reached my car. I was unable to photograph him, though, as he was more skiddish and was in the shadows of the underbrush.

At this point I decided it was time to head to my next target location as it was already past 4 and my next target location was a good hour or more away. Before I left the Island, though, I stopped by at the Welcome Center once more and by chance found one of my target species, a bird I needed for my Georgia list and yearlist: Roseate Spoonbill. I later saw two flying over Ocean Hwy, but this one really had me excited.

Part 3 - Okefenokee Swamp


After arriving in Folkston, a small town in Georgia, I was nearly at my next and final birding destination, but I thought I would take a little detour to the town of Hilliard, Florida since it was less than 10 minutes out of the way. After crossing the Florida-Georgia Line (yep, that's how we do it 'round here) I turned around and headed back towards Folkston and arrived at Suwanee Canal Road right around 5:50. This is part of the Okefenokee Swamp, a huge national wildlife refuge encompassing much of Southeast Georgia and Northeast Florida. The habitat is predominantly Cypress swamps and Sandhill Pine woodlands, a paradise for any herp enthusiast.

Shortly before my arrival, the sun broke through the clouds and since it had recently rained, the woods were filled with the songs of frogs and toads, so many species it was hard to identify the different songs (there were Oak and Southern Toads, Eastern Narrowmouth Toads, Gray Treefrogs, Pine Woods Treefrogs, Chorus Frogs, Little Grass Frogs, maybe others). It had rained steadily all day and the paths through the forest were flooded so I didn't attempt to go far into the woods. I was seriously hoping to find Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, a potential lifer, in the woodlands and Sandhill Cranes (ssp. pratensis) on the boardwalk trail, since this spot is apparently one of the most reliable spots in the state and I needed Sandhill Crane for my state list. I was unsuccessful at finding the Red-cockaded Woodpeckers at the entrance, though the Red-headed and Red-bellied Woodpeckers were plenty willing to put on a show. I decided to drive down to the visitor center to see if I could find any recent sightings of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers or Sandhill Cranes and prayed I would see the Woodpeckers at least. The woman at the center told me the Sandhill Cranes preferred to stay deeper in the swamp, in a prairie only accessible by boat and that the Red-cockaded Woodpeckers were generally hit and miss, easy to hear but difficult to locate. Bummed by this information, I headed towards the short trail, which yielded only common birds, the best of which was Wood Duck. However, in the parking lot I was alerted by a flock of birds flying overhead and to my surprise they were all migrating Eastern Kingbirds, 81 in total! Also present were Eastern Wood-pewees:

I decided it was time to call it a day and head back home around 7:00.
I thought my day was over, but I was halted about a mile past the refuge gates by a Gopher Tortoise crossing the road. I had seen these in Florida, from a pool, but had never had the opportunity to photograph one, so I eagerly exited the car and started snapping photos.

Now as I was watching this cute fellow, I happened to hear a squeaking noise, similar to but pointedly different from the squeak of a Brown-headed Nuthatch and certainly a woodpecker noise. I immediately thought of Red-cockaded Woodpecker, but figured they were likely young Red-headed Woodpeckers, which make similar noises. I didn't feel like risking a lifer, though, so I pulled my car over to the grass and brought out my binocs and camera and raised them to the pines. Almost immediately I saw the bird making the noise and I couldn't believe my luck - hanging from a pine cone was none other than the elusive Red-cockaded Woodpecker! I tried to take photos, but it was getting dark and I had to use ISO3200. Shortly after, the woodpecker flew across the road to another grove of pines, followed by not one, not two, but four others! I managed to take voucher photos, but the quality of the bird outweighs the quality of the photo, in my opinion!
There are two in this photo.

After they flew deep into the woodlands I drove back to the visitor center to report my success. The woman there was extremely excited to hear about my luck.

It was getting darker and I decided if I wanted to get home before midnight, I would have to leave immediately. The drive back to Augusta was long, but the birds kept coming. On Hwy 82 towards Nahunta I witnessed dozens and dozens of Nighthawks swooping and hunting low across the highway. Truly a sight to behold!

I arrived home at 11:57PM. I was tired, and worn out, but I had a fantastic day. Here's to hoping throughout the year I will have more days like this.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Being a Colorblind Birder

Can you picture the flaming orange throat of a Blackburnian Warbler? The vibrant rufous on a Hermit Thrush's tail? The purple iridescence on a Lesser Scaup's head? These are all sights a color deficient birder like myself will never be able to experience, or at least fully appreciate.
Colorblindness confuses many people. Often times when I tell someone about my colorblindness, their response is usually somewhere along the lines of, "so you can't see any color at all?" Of course, like any decent troll, I tell them, "no, I see in black and white."
But that's a lie (or a bit of deadpan humor). Colorblindess, or more accurately, color deficiency, is not necessarily the total loss of color vision. There are many types of colorblindness, monochromacy (total color loss) included, that are caused by a faulty or absent cone cell in the retina. Since the cone cell in my eye that senses red light is malformed, I have Protanomaly and have a hard time distinguishing reds in other colors. For instance, what most people see as purple, I see as dark blue; pinks appear diffused and grayish; oranges are yellowish; and rufous is a light brown. Reds (e.g. scarlet) themselves are only less vibrant to me.
To illustrate what I see, I have added this comparison collage of a Hermit Thrush. Since I'm the colorblind one, please understand that the photo may not be 100% accurate.

Left: HETH with red tones decreased
Right: HETH with red tones untouched
I see no substantial difference between the two photos

So how does colorblindess affect my birding? To be perfectly honest, it's not much of a crutch. Regarding North American birds, the only genera I really have trouble with are Cathartes, Icterus, and Selasphorus. As I commented earlier, I have difficulty seeing rufous, which is one of the most reliable ways to differentiate Allen's and Rufous Hummingbirds or Hermit and Gray-cheeked Thrushes. So how do I get around these problems? Other field marks and assistance from other birders. For example, Hermit and Gray-cheeked Thrushes can be distinguished by the density of the spotting on their chest and Rufous and Allen's Hummingbirds can be differentiated by the shape of their tail feathers when extended. However, if I cannot see the chest of a Cathartes thrush, or if a Selasphorus hummingbird doesn't extend its tail, I won't be able to identify them as I should be. This is when I have to seek aid from my normal vision friends, who can help me identify the birds properly.
In the end, I do feel like I'm missing out on something, but it doesn't affect my desire to find or identify birds. As amazing as birds would be in normal color, I don't mind seeing them the way I do.
Still, for those of you who are not color deficient, don't take your ability for granted. Appreciate birds to the fullest!

Good birding!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

2012 - a quick review

I haven't posted in a few months, I know. I'm a very poor journalist.
So here's a short post I decided to write for you about my year.


List for month: 67
Lifers: 1 - American Black Duck
Total yearlist: 67
Total lifers for year: 1

Birding at my grandparent's in the country on Jan 1. Awesome mix of woodlands and open grassland. Neat birds seen included Field Sparrow, Northern Harrier (male!), and Hermit Thrush.
Birding with my sister at Phinizy Swamp Nature Park (eBird) and later at the same location with friends (eBird). Found my lifer American Black Duck as well as neat stuff such as Rusty Blackbird, Northern Pintail, Gadwall, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and an Otter.

Obviously the bird on the right


List for month: 40
Lifers: 2 - Fox Sparrow and Winter Wren
Total yearlist: 76
Total lifers for year: 3

Birding alone, as per usual, at Phinizy Swamp Nature Park (eBird). Birds: lifers Fox Sparrow and Winter Wren plus a Greater Scaup (uncommon find inland)

Very flattering photo of my lifer Fox Sparrow


List for month: 61
Lifers: 1 - Broad-winged Hawk
Total yearlist: 90
Total lifers for year: 4

Begining of migration, including my first Palm Warbler for the yard - an Eastern subspecies.
Birding alone at Phinizy again was also pretty successful. No lifers, but still a nice outing. (eBird)
Probably among the best photos I've ever taken (Broad-winged Hawk)

(For a detailed review, see April: a Month in Migration)

List for the month: 88
Lifers: 4 - Prothonotary Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Worm-eating Warbler, and Cape May Warbler
Total yearlist: 122
Total lifers for year: 8

Birding at Congaree National Park for the first time was a neat experience. Dreadfully hot, but I found my lifers Prothonotary and Prairie Warbler. (eBird)
Later during the month I found my lifers Worm-eating Warbler and Cape May Warbler in my yard.
Birding at Phinizy Swamp alone, I found the usual birds, but with 5 FOYs, I wasn't complaing.
At a friends house at the end of the month I found some nice migrants including Cape May Warbler, Acadian Flycatcher, and Kentucky Warbler.

As always, my photography is so breath-taking. The colors are totally right here and there's not noise at all!

(For a detailed review, see May: a Month in Migration)

List for the month: 95
Lifers: 2 - Black-and-White Warbler and Yellow-breasted Chat
Total yearlist: 139
Total lifers for year: 10

Very nice migrants in the early portion of the month, including Blackpoll Warbler and Bay-breasted Warbler and my lifer Black-and-White Warbler, in my yard.
Birding with my brother at Phinizy Swamp, I found awesome birds such as Bobolink (numbering near a thousand individuals), Yellow-throated Warbler (adults feeding juvenile birds), and my lifer Yellow-breasted Chat. I also heard one of my nemesis species, Northern Waterthrush (didn't count it). (eBird)
Later in the month, I helped my father (an elementary school teacher) lead two field trips for his classes. The kids were lucky enough to see the Ospreys on their nest on the Windshear tower, and Painted and Indigo Buntings feeding on grass seeds in the constructed wetlands. (eBird 1, eBird 2)
I decided to bird a little more at Phinizy later in the month with my sister. We found FOY Yellow-crowned Night-Heron and Green Heron, as well as Glossy Ibis (3 individuals) - a fairly strange sight inland. (eBird)

Okay, still pretty good - my lifer Yellow-breasted Chat

List for month: 80
Lifers: 0
Total yearlist: 141
Total lifers for year: 10

Birding at Phinizy twice with my sister. First time (June 4), we found the usual suspects, but a single Painted Bunting being particularly cooperative was probably the highlight of the trip. Second time (June 15) we found, apart from the usual suspects, a trio of Tree Swallows on the wire near the campus, including a juvenile. Only this year have the Tree Swallows began breeding in the Augusta area, so this was a fairly nice spotting for June.
Also, Bobwhites are cool.
Van Gogh's Bunting


List for month: 125
Lifers: 24
Total yearlist: N/A
Total lifers for year: 34

Birding with my sister at Phinizy Swamp on the 7th (eBird). A very successful trip, including my lifers Cliff Swallow and nemesis Least Bittern as well as my first Black-crowned Night-Heron for Richmond County. Also noteworthy was another Tree Swallow, which appear to be gaining prevalence in the Summer months here.
A week later, we went birding with extended family from California (eBird), not nearly as successful as the first trip, but I finally found my FOY Black-bellied Whistling-Duck.
Then, of course, there was the trip to California. I racked up a total of 33 lifebirds. A full memo can be found here: parts 1, 2, 3, 4

Just your average, run-of-the-mill Allen's Hummingbird photo


List for month: 113
Lifers: 16
Total yearlist: N/A
Total lifers for year: 40

Still in California up until the 9th. See full memo.
My first Swallow-tailed Kite for the yard! My sister had told me she saw the bird the day Kyle and I returned from California, and I was able to relocate it a few days after.What a gorgeous bird!
Birding at Silver Bluff Audubon Center & Sanctuary for the first time, with my mom and brother (eBird). My mother isn't a very outdoorsy person, but was very excited to see Wood Storks, a Blue Grosbeak, and a Bald Eagle. I was surprised to find out she enjoyed herself very much. I found lots of shorebirds in the muddy, vegetated ponds, including my lifer Pectoral Sandpiper, the species I was targeting and the reason I decided to come to Silver Bluff.
I ended the month with a trip to Phinizy on the 31st. Nothing particularly exciting, but I did see my FOY Yellow Warblers and met Richmond County's no. 1 birder for the first time.
Another highlight for August were the hundreds of Nighthawks I see migrating over my yard every August and September- truly an amazing sight!

My lifer Pectoral Sandpiper!
...wait, nevermind.


List for the month: 74
Lifers: 2 - Chestnut-sided Warbler and Philadelphia Vireo
Total yearlist: N/A
Total lifers for year: 42

Two lifers in the yard - Chestnut-sided Warbler on the 17th and Philadelphia Vireo on the 24th. The Philadelphia Vireo was actually a pretty excellent find for my county, being only the 10th or so record ever.
Birding at my friends house (incidental), I found some nice migrants in the pecan trees in his yard, including Redstarts, Parulas, Yellow-throated, Chestnut-sided Warblers.
Birding at Phinizy Swamp with my dad on the 22nd (eBird), I found my official lifer Northern Waterthrush at the end of the equalization pond, as well as my FOY Sora on the constructed wetland trail.

Back to the amazing photos! (Philadelphia Vireo)


List for the month: 78
Lifers: 1 - Swainson's Thrush
Total yearlist: N/A
Total lifers for year: 43

Mini-fallout in the yard on the 1st, including: Redstarts, Yellow-throated Warblers, Black-and-White Warblers, Pewees, and Yellow Warblers. Not incredible, but beats the ho-hum everyday mockers and cardinals.
Another mini-fallout on the fifth brought about a record number of species for the yard, including awesome birds such as: Pewees, White-eyed Vireos, Tree and Northern Rough-winged Swallows, Redstarts, Cape May Warblers, Parulas, and Magnolia Warblers. FOY species included: Tennessee and Black-throated Green Warblers, plus Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Of course, the day wouldn't be complete without a lifer, and I was lucky enough to run into not one, but three Swainson's Thrushes.
Y'all probably noticed I visit Phinizy every month. During October, I visited it twice. The first time nothing exciting showed up, and the second time was nearly the same, with the exception of a Sedge Wren calling from within a wet field. I was confident enough to report it to eBird, but not confident enough to add it to my lifelist.

I'm not obligated to post my lifer photos am I?
Because that Swainson's Thrush photo was just too amazing.
(White-eyed Vireo)


List for month: 70
Lifers: 2 - Surf Scoter and Brown Creeper
Total yearlist: N/A
Total lifers for year: 45

Went birding at Phinizy three times during November (surprising?). The first trip, I was chasing a female Surf Scoter reported at the equalization pond. This is a rare bird inland, and a lifer for me. Also present in the pond was my FOY Redhead. The second trip I went with my brother in late afternoon, searching for a Short-eared Owl reported the day before. We didn't find the Owl, but just after dusk, King Rail and Virginia Rail started calling. The Virginia Rail would be a lifer for me, but I am hesitating adding it to my lifelist, given its a heard-only bird. We neglected to check the equalization because it was getting late, and it was just my luck! apparently my friend Vickie had been there the same afternoon and had spotted a Red-breasted Merganser hen in the equalization pond, another rare duck inland. This urged me to visit Phinizy for a third time, but I was only able to go two days later, because I was sick over the weekend. I dipped on Red-breasted Merganser when I did go, but my trip wasn't at all in vain. I managed to find my lifer and nemesis Brown Creeper! A bird that had been evading me for a few Winters already. Despite still feeling pretty bleh after being ill, the trip was well worth it.

Creepiest bird I've ever seen


List for month: 69
Lifers: 0
Total yearlist: 234
Total lifers for year: 45

Birding at Phinizy Swamp twice. Neither was particularly exciting, but the first time I observed my first Hooded Merganser for the county. (2nd trip eBird)
For once she's not in Bulloch County!

2012 as a whole
Total yearlist: 234
Lifers: 46
eBird Checklists: 376

I think I can confidently say 2012 was my best year birding by far. It really urged me to get out more and increase my knowledge and experience. I definitely made memories I will remember my whole life and 2012 is a year I will never forget.

So there's my "quick" review of 2012. The new year has started out very well, already on 84 for the yearlist, including two lifers!

Wishing you all the best for 2013!
Liam, the Colorblind Birder