Archive for March, 2012

Birds are not my only interest.  Lots of other area interest me as well, maybe too many and thus I spread myself and my time too widely.  Recently, as I was perusing a mathematics book (that’s one of my interests) I came across an interesting historical (that’s another interest) tidbit about Sherlock Holmes (that’s a third)

Arthur Conan Doyle created Professor James Moriarity, a mathematician and criminal mastermind, to be the arch enemy of Sherlock Holmes.  Conan Doyle and Holmes referred to him as “the Napoleon of crime” and the brains behind all criminal enterprises in London.

Conan Doyle used real events and locations to add authenticity to his stories.  Sherlockian scholars believe that Professor Moriarity was based on a real-life criminal named Adam Worth.  Born in Germany, Worth traveled to America as a youth.  Starting as a pickpocket and small-time thief, he eventually organized his own gang that specialized in major robberies, even bank robberies, in New York City.  In the 1860s when his favorite safe-cracker, Piano Charley Bullard, was imprisoned in the White Plains jail (this is the part that caught my attention) Worth helped him escape by digging a tunnel.  They fled to Boston and one year later broke into the vault of the Boylston National Bank by tunneling into the bank from a neighboring store.  To escape the law and Pinkerton detectives, he fled to England to continue his career. 

Those of you who are fans of Sherlock Holmes may recall that in the story, “The Red-headed League”, criminals tunneled into a bank from the shop next door.

It is a small world to realize that one of the best known stories has ties to three of my interests and is based on a true criminal exploit here in nearby White Plains.

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Today I walked at Rockefeller State Park with a couple of friends.  Since I plan to go there next week on my regular monthly bird walk, you might think that this was a pre-scouting trip to check out the birds.  Actually, it wasn’t.  It is just that Rockefeller is lovely place to walk particularly in spring.

I remember that last year when we went to Rockefeller for my monthly walk we were blessed with a lovely weather and nice birds.  We spotted Bluebirds, Tree Swallows, Pileated Woodpeckers.   It was a nice walk.  It was also the last time Meredith Matthews joined our walked before she left for the greener pastures of Chicago.  I thought about naming next week’s walk the “Farewell Meredith Bird Walk”, but realized (a) that sounded too fatalistic and (2) many of the new participants didn’t know her.  So it will just be my April walk.

Today, I added 5 species to my 2012 Year List.  Adding a bunch of new birds is a good sign that migrants are returning from their winter vacation.  Some of our winter visitors were still hanging around.  Saw large flocks of White-throated Sparrows and Juncos flashed their white out tail feathers as flushed from the low shrubs. 

Spring is a great time of year for birders.  You never know what you might find.  Join of walk on the first Saturday of April, the 7th, to find out what birds will be at Rockefeller.

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Common Mallards

Mallards are the House Sparrows of the waterfowl world.  Wherever there is even a tiny puddle of water, there are Mallards.  They are so common, we tend to overlook them.  However, unlike sparrows, the male Mallard is actually a fairly handsome fellow and the female has a certain amount of under-stated elegance.

The name “Mallard” comes from an old French term for masculinity, with the pejorative suffix “-ard” added as in dullard, drunkard, or sluggard.

The male is very promiscuous and will attempt to mate with almost any duck species.  That is why you see so many Mallard hybrids.  It is said that the male can’t actually recognize the female of its own species, so mate selection is the responsibility of the female.     One study found that almost half of all Mallard broods are fathered by more than one male.  So a string of Mallard ducklings all in a row they are as likely to be half-brothers or sisters as full-blooded siblings.

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Historically the swallows return to Capistrano on St. Josephs’ Day, March 19th.  In reality, depending on the weather, the swallows may show up a day or two or even a week earlier.  But the local inhabitants just keep their eyes lowered and don’t look up until March 19th.  So the first day the swallows are seen every year is the 19th.  It is a civic duty.  Good for the town and local businesses.

 If you don’t happen to be in southern California, communities closer to home have also tried to capitalize on such natural events.  For example since 1957 Hinckley Reservation in a small town near Cleveland has celebrated the annual return of the Buzzards (Turkey Vultures).  Buzzard Sunday, which is the first Sunday after March 15this a big event attracting hundreds or thousands of people (and buzzards).

 I learned about this event from a friend who attended college in Cleveland.

What I remember most, in fact it is all I do remember, is the following line from the song/poem that was created for a pamphlet promoting the event:

                           “The buzzards of Hinckley all ugly and pinkly”

 Words like that are hard to forget.


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Last night I went to presentation at Teatown Reservation by Don Riepe, former naturalist at Jamaica Bay National Wildlife Refgue.  Although his presentation was somewhat disjointed I did learn a few things.  For example, I did not know that Red Knots stop there when the horseshoe crabs bred in mid-May.  Or that there are 15 pairs of nesting Barn Owls.  Or that Snow Geese do not head north until mid-May.

The best “take aways” of the evening were Don’s first-hand reports of recent sightings and returning migrants.  Earlier this week E. Phoebes, Killdeer, and Tree Swallows arrived from down south, Osprey showed up yesterday, Snowy Egrets, the day before.

 His good news of spring birds raise my spirits and made me eager for the good sightings to come .

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Today was precisely the type of day that gives Spring such a good reputation.  It was absolutely lovely.

I decided to cross the Tappan Zee Bridge and enjoy the afternoon along the Hudson River in Rockland County.  Explored the creative and antiquey towns of Piermont and Nyak.    Also looked for new birds of Spring.  But none appeared and my year list remains static.

I did flush one Junco.   So I guess winter is not really over yet. 

Still it was a fine way to spend a spring afternoon

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It is officially spring, a time of anticipation for gardeners and birders.  New bulbs will soon be blooming.  Migrating birds will be returning.  Careful observers may note the exact date of the new occurrence e.g., last year my tulips bloom in the first week of April.  I saw my first Phoebe on the 24th of March last year.  The  first Tree Swallows arrived on the 26th.  The first of the season is eagerly anticipated.  But what about the last of the season?

 Yesterday, the last day of winter, I saw a pair of Juncos.  Hadn’t seen one for a few weeks.  I assumed they had already migrated north to their breeding grounds.  (Actually, that isn’t true.  I haven’t thought about them at all.  Out of sight, out of mind.  I’ve been awaiting the new arrivals from down south.)  I haven’t  seen White-throated Sparrow for some time either.  I wonder if they have headed north.

Noting the last date you see a winter visitor is difficult unless you keep meticulous daily records.  It is also more exciting to anticipate seeing friends you haven’t seen for some time.  I’m ready.  Lets celebrate spring with new birds.

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Benjamin Van Doren was introduced to birds in 2nd or 3rd grade.  Now a senior at White Plains High School, Ben has turned his initial interest in birds into a passion and scientific pursuit.

For a science project Ben studied data on the migrations routes of 40,000 birds and observed that they changed direction just after sunrise.  His project became one of almost 2000 entries in the national Intel Science Talent Search (formerly the Westinghouse competition).  He was chosen as one of forty finalist and recently went to Washington DC to present his project to the final judges.

Ben was not the ultimate winner, but came in a very respectable fifth place winning a $30,000 prize which will help with tuition as he enters Cornell University this fall.

And it all started in his 2nd grade classroom

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What makes a bird a bird?

I love to get children excited about birds.  Recently when talking to a 2nd grade class, I asked the children “What makes a bird a bird?  What makes them different from all other creatures?”

“They have wings and can fly.” was the first guess.  But insects, bees, butteries and bats all have wings and can fly.  So that is not the answer.

Finally one young girl suggested feathers.  That’s it!  Every bird has feathers and no other creature (except, maybe angels) has feathers.

Feathers are amazingly strong, light-weight skin coverings.  They make birds unique.

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Novice and beginning birders are eager to see and identify new birds.  But, let’s face it, identifying a small brown bird dashing into dense underbrush is not easy.  The best way to learn birds is to start with the common birds in your backyard, cardinals, chickadees, robins.  Beginners quickly learn to ID these common visitors to the backyard.  That’s a good start.   Jumping from knowing your backyard birds into identifying spring warblers is a great leap.

I suggest that ducks make a good family of birds for beginners to master.  There are many reasons;

  • Ducks are big, so they are easy to see.  Sparrows, on the other hand, are all small brown birds with coloration that consists of different patches of brown.  
  • Since ducks are large their field marks are large as well and easy to see.  Male ducks, in particular, have very distinctive field marks that are easy to see.
  • Unlike small woodland birds, duck are easy to see.  There are no branches, leaves, trees, or shrubs to obscure your view.  They just sit on the water with nothing to interfere with your view.
  • Again unlike small woodland birds, ducks tend to remain fairly stationary.  They are not in continuous motion darting here and there chasing insects.   They float motionless on the water surface, sometimes even sleeping.  Sometimes they do “tip up” stretching for food under the surface or maybe they dive for food.  But even this behavior helps identify them by type of duck.
  • You don’t have to walk miles to find them or bushwack through woods and fields filled with vines and ticks.  Waterside locations for ducks are usually very easy to access and provide a pleasant environment.  
  • And one of my favorite advantages of watching ducks:  You don’t have to get up at the crack of dawn to find them.  They are available for viewing all day.  You can sleep late.

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