Archive for March, 2012

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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Signs of Spring

My calendar indicates that spring officially begins in a few weeks, March 20th  to be precise.  But you don’t have to look at a calendar to know that spring is coming.

 The natural world has its own internal calendar to sense that spring is in the air.  By observing what is happening outside you can see the coming of spring.

 In March, for example, look for:

  • Blackbirds appear  (Grackles, Starlings and Red-wings)
  • Skunk Cabbages appear in swampy areas
  • Spring Peepers are in full chorus, especially during or after a gentle rain
  • Woodchucks wake up and prepare to raise havoc in your garden
  • Bluebirds start nesting
  • Blubs are pushing shoots farther up through the surface
  • Tree Swallows return
  • Great Egrets begin to show up
  • Golden-crowned Kinglets migrate

 You don’t need a calendar to know spring is on its way.  Just look out the window.

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New York gossip columnists seem to have grown tired of following the love life of Pale Male, the Red-tailed Hawl that nested for many yearts on 5th Ave. across from Central Park.  Their current interests focus on Bobby, another male Red-tailed Hawk from the Washington Square Park area, who has an on-going affair with Rosie.  The pair has established a nest on a 12th floor ledge of the NYU library.  Actually the nest is just outside the office of the President of NYU. 

The first egg of 2012 was seen in the nest this week. 

 Last year a live web cam drew tens of thousands of visitors.  This year you can again keep current with lives of Bobby and Rosie by checking the live web cam. 


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Pain in the Neck

Binoculars can be a real pain in the neck.  Literally.  After an hour of birding with heavy binoculars dangling from your neck, your neck gets sore.  You feel a dull pain.  Shoulders ache.  It feels like an anchor hanging from your neck.  Sudden jolts and jarring pain shoot through your neck whenever you stoop under a limb or jump from a rock to rock. 

 The problem isn’t that your binoculars are too heavy.  Usually the pain occurs because the neck strap is often inadequate.   Typically the strap is a thin, stiff strip less than one-half inch wide.  Sometimes it is no more than a thick cord.  Sometimes it is rigid hard plastic.

 This simple neck strap may seem unimportant but is the key factor in much neck pain.  The full weight of your binoculars is transmitted through this thin strap directly into your neck.  In technical terms the pressure per square inch of strap is high.  And it is continuous.   It may seem even higher when you bend under a branch or scramble over a rocky stream.  Binoculars bounce and sway cutting deeper into your neck.  No wonder it hurts.

 One solution to reducing pain is to get smaller, lighter-weight binoculars.  Compact-sized binoculars often weigh less than one-half larger models.  Less weight means less strain.  And yet, you don’t have to forego a good image.  Quality compact-binoculars produce brilliant, sharp images, often a better image than the one produced by lower quality full size models.  Bigger is not always better.   And I like the idea that the small size allows you to easily slip them into a purse or pocket making them ideal for taking them to the theater or a sporting event.  I took mine with when my wife dragged me to the ballet.

 If you like full size binoculars there is another, less expensive pain relief.  Get a new neck strap.  Factory-supplied straps that come with new binoculars are often too narrow.  A wider strap, at least twice as wide as your current strap, will distribute the weight over a greater surface area lessening the intensity of the strain at each spot around the neck.  Switching from a strap that is one-half inch wide to one that is two inches wide reduces the pressure per square inch by 75%.

 Check out professional photographers or paparazzi who often have several large cameras with long, heavy lenses draped around their necks.  They all use wide neck straps, often 3 or 4 inches wide.  Learn from these pros.

 In addition to a wider width, some strap manufacturers add additional padding or cushioning to the strap resulting in a thicker, softer strap that is easier on your neck.  The type of material used for the strap is also important.  Straps constructed from soft woven fibers or from thick, foam-rubber type of material not only spread the weight but also cushion impacts.  Now, when you duck under a limb and gravity tugs at your binoculars, instead of cutting into your neck, the strap stretches absorbing muck of the shock.

 An even better solution is to utilize a binocular harness or strapping system rather than the traditional neck strap.  A harness completely eliminates all weight from your neck, instead transferring it to your stronger, wider shoulders.  In principal, a harness consists of two separate loops neither of which goes across you neck.  The loops go over and under your shoulders, meeting in an X-type configuration in the middle of  the back with the binoculars attached in the front.  This design is surprisingly effective.  Binoculars feel significantly lighter, with absolutely no strain on the neck.  As an added benefit, the harness holds your binoculars close to your chest which prevents all swinging and swaying of your binoculars even if you are running or stooping.

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Birds and birders are both influenced by the weather.  I planned a Bird Walk this morning but the day dawned with heavy fog, continuous light mist interrupted by occasional showers.  Not surprisingly, the turn out for the Bird Walk was very low.  People just don’t like to walk in the rainy conditions.  They don’t mind snow, but people avoid getting wet.

Birds don’t relish rain either.  They tend to hide under leaves and overheads to shelter themselves from the rain.  Only occasionally do they venture out from their protected location.

I’ve often wonder what it must feel like to be a bird flying along minding your own business when wham, you are smacked by a large raindrop.  Relative to a bird’s size, an individual raindrop is large, maybe like a baseball hitting a human.  And as the bird flies raindrops hit it continuously again and again.  It must hurt, or at least be uncomfortable.  It is not surprising that birds stay sheltered from the rain.  Humans, on the other hand, bathe regularly, or at least they should, so why are they so reluctant to get wet?

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