Archive for December, 2012

0206 SnowOne number from the Christmas Bird Count that surprises many people is the number of Robins seen. Typically we think of Robins as the harbinger of spring or the summer bird running across your lawn. They go south in winter. That is sort of true. Most Robins do migrate to warmer climes, but some stick around.

On this year’s Christmas Bird Count, 560 Robins were seen. That is more than the total number of Cardinals seen (414)

As you might expect, a covering of snow and frozen ground make it difficult for wintering Robins to find their favorite summer food – worms. So they switch to eating berries. And, unlike the lone Robin you see running on your front lawn in summer, wintering Robins band together into small flocks that travel together looking for ripe berries. It is not unusual to see a group of Robin on snow cover branches of berry producing tree and shrub. One day they will be there. The next day, when all the berries are eaten, the flock moves on.

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The annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC) for the Lower Westchester–Upper Bronx area took place last Sunday with an estimated 90 people participating. Preliminary data show a total of 126 species were seen which ties the record for the greatest number of species seen in the 89 years of this count. The total number of birds counted was over 30,000.

Three species were seen for the first time ever on the CBC:
a Barnacle Goose in Van Courtland Park
a Magnolia Warbler at Wave Hill in the Bronx
2 Clay-colored Sparrows, one in Pelham Bay Park and a 2nd bird at the Marshlands.

Surprisingly, the total numbers some common species seen was low
The number of Mallards seen was the lowest total in 29 years
The number of Starlings seen was the lowest total in 69 years
The number of Mute Swans was the lowest total in 26 years

On the positive side the total numbers seen set new high records or greatly exceeded numbers not seen for decades in some species: Brown Creeper, Winter Wren, Black Scoter, Long-tailed Duck, Ring-necked Duck, Red-necked Grebe and White-winged Crossbills

What does this all mean? As my old professor used to say “one point does not make a trend.” Over time patterns do emerge. In the short run, it means that many people spent enjoyable time as “citizen scientists”. And that’s not all bad

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In many species of birds it is difficult or impossible to tell the male from the female with the naked eye. They both look the same. Common birds that fall into this category include Chickadee, Robin, Blue Jay, Titmouse, Crow, Catbird and many more. You will never know if it is him or her.

In another group of birds, the male and the female can be recognized by differences in their plumages. Typically, the male is more colorful and vibrant, and the female is more subdued. The bright red male Cardinal versus the more restrained female. The male Mallard with its glossy green head and the inconspicuously colored female. The gaudy male Wood Duck and less flashy mate. Even the humble House Sparrow is more colorful than the female.
But when it comes to differences between the sexes, woodpeckers are my favorite examples. There are differences but the differences are slight, subdue, barely noticeable unless you are very observant.

Male and female Downy Woodpeckers look exactly alike except for characteristic. The male has bright red spot on the back of the head and the female does not. The same slight difference is noticeable for Hairy Woodpeckers are well.

Male and female Red-bellied Woodpeckers look identical at first glance but there is a difference – the red patch on the top of head. The red patch on the male woodpecker extends from the nape of the neck over the top of the head down to the bill. On the female, though, the red patch begins at the nape but only extends part way over the head. My favorite difference separate male and female Flickers. The male has a mustache, the female doesn’t.

Even the large Pileated Woodpecker shows a difference. The male’s red patch covers the forehead and the top of the head. The female usually has a black forehead and a less extensive red patch. Of course, when I get a good look at a Pileated I am too excited to take a good look.

Only the careful observer will see these minor differences. But they are very important to woodpeckers.

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In a continuing effort to supply you with bird facts in a meaningful way, try these:

1. An Ostrich egg, weighing about 3 pounds, is the largest egg. We all know about how heavy 3 pounds is. But maybe a better way to depict the size of an Ostrich egg, is to describe what you can do with it. There is enough matrial in a single Ostrich egg to cook the equivalent of 24 fried (chicken) egg sandwiches. That is 2 dozen chicken eggs.

2. Birds usually fly at an altitude of less than 100 feet. During migration, however, they fly higher often as high as several thousand feet. The altitude record is held by the Bar-headed Goose, an Asian species which annually migrates over the Himalayas including Mount Everest, the highest place on earth (elevation: over 5 miles).

3. The bird that undergoes the longest migration is the Arctic Tern which annually travels over 24,000 miles round trip, from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back. By the time the tern is 10 years old, it could have flown to the moon.

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I’m still obsessed with the notion that expressing a fact in terms that your audience can relate to makes the facts more meaningful. It is not just an abstract number.

I often point out that birds are truly lightweight, any excess weight would necessitate more energy for flying. So you seldom see a fat bird. A chickadee, for example, only weighs about 0.4 ounces. That sounds pretty lightweight, but who really can sense what 0.4 ounces feel like?

Would you find it easier to relate to that number if, instead of quoting a statistic, I compared the weight of a chickadee to the weight of a McDonald’s quarter pounder? Well, it would take 10 chickadees to equal the weight of one meat pattie.

A hummingbird is even lighter than a chickadee, weighing about 1/8 of an ounce. How light is that? Imagine stuffing 8 hummingbirds into a standard business envelope. You could mail all those hummingbirds to California using just a single 1st Class postage stamp.

Do these illustrations give you a better sense of how lightweight a bird is?

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In my recent post about Bald Eagles with ironing board wings I mentioned that now I realize that a plain fact probably isn’t very interesting. In order for a fact to “strike a chord” with a person it has to relate to something that person is familiar with. A mere fact, or number, is just, that a number. It may have no meaning.

Personally I am often fascinated with unusual facts about birds, you might call it bird trivia, how big they are, how small, how much they eat, etc. Now I understand that, in order to make these facts fascinating to others, I have to present each fact in more relatable way.

Consider the well-known fact that the Peregrine falcon is the fastest creature on earth having been timed at over 200 miles per hour. That sound pretty fast. But how fast is it really?
Here is my first attempt to put that common factoid into a more meaningful context:

The typical city block is about 1/10 of a mile long. A peregrine flying at 200 mph would travel the complete block in less than two seconds. To me, when I define a Peregrine’s speed in that way, it sounds really fast.

Or here is another way to put the speed in perspective. A cheetah is the fastest land animal reaching speeds of 60 miles per hour. A very fast human sprinter may go about 20 miles per hour. Lets say at the next Olympics they decide to hold a 100-meter dash with a Peregrine, a Cheetah, and the world’s fastest man competing.

At the sound of the starter’s gun all three competitors take off at top speed. When the Peregrine crosses the finish line a hundred meters away, the Cheetah will only have traveled about 1/3 of the way to the finish line. And the human would be barely out of the starting blocks having traveled only about 10-meters.

Yep, I think both of these exampless make the Peregrine seem very fast.

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How big is that bird?

Bald Eagle in FlightLast night I attended a lecture at Bedford Audubon Society about Bald Eagles in the Hudson River Valley. It is encouraging to note that the eagle is off the Endangered Species List and that the number of mating pairs in the Hudson River Valley has grown from zero in 1997 to over two dozen pair last year. All good news.

But what struck me most in the talk was the example the speaker used to illustrate just how large an eagle is. He compared each wing of an eagle to the size of a familiar household object – an ironing board. Place two ironing boards together end-to-end and you get an approximation of the wingspan of Bald Eagle.

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After flying south what do birds do? Do they nest again and raise another family? Or, like human “snowbirds” do they just bask in the Florida sun?

Migration takes a lot of energy. Once birds reach a suitable wintering spot, they spend the first days and weeks exploring. They need to identify the best places for finding food, for hiding from predators and for nightly roosting. In their summer home, they knew all the places to find food. Down south they have to learn all over again.

They have to replenish the energy lost during migration. And build up energy for the return trip. Some species molt into a fresh set of new feathers for the journey north.

Like most good vacations, time passes too quickly and it is soon time to head north again.

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Wisdom Re-discovered

The oldest bird ever tracked in the wild is a Laysan albatross, named “Wisdom”. She was originally banded in 1956 while she was incubating a chick. Since it takes 4-5 for years an albatross to reach breeding age, Wisdom would be over 60 years old today.
She was recently re-discovered near Midway Atoll in the North Pacific where she was incubating another chick.
I guess wisdom comes with old age.

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Playing Favorites

I often get asked “What is your favorite bird?” The honest answer is I do not have one single favorite. My favorite changes, usually based on what I have seen most recently. This past weekend, for example, I saw a Belted Kingfisher so that is now one of my current favorites.

SONY DSCI wondered why I like kingfishers. There are probably a number of different reasons. (1) I do not see them very often (2) They are kind of “goofy” looking, with a huge head out of proportion to the rest of its body, a dagger-like bill, and shaggy crest. (3) They have an aloof personality ignoring humans and other birds. They hang out by themselves and don’t form flocks. I wonder how they ever able to reproduce. (4) Their song is unmusical, described by Roger Tory Peterson as sounding like a stick being dragged along a picket fence.

The real reason kingfishers are on my favorites list is that when I was just a beginning birder there was always a kingfisher in my local birding spot. It would sit on a bare branch overlooking a pond patiently looking for a fish. It was easy to get a good close-up look.

Of course, this weekend I also saw another one of my favorites – a male Wood Duck. It is the gaudieswood duckt looking bird, looks like it was painted by a child using his favorite colors. A very striking, unnatural paint job. I can’t imagine how evolution could have explain it distinctive patterns.
It is another one of my favorite birds. At least until I see another one of my favorites.

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