Archive for December, 2013

A look at the results of the recent Christmas Bird Count reveals some interesting facts. The total seen ( 120 species and 55,000 individuals) is about average for the past 90 years. But, as is typical, the numbers for specific species varied. Some were up; some, down.

For example, woodpeckers seem plentiful with the quantities of Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Flickers, and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers setting new highs. Red-headed Woodpecker also set a record. And the number of Downy Woodpeckers was the highest in 17 years.

On the negative side, for the first time in 57 years no one saw a single Green-winged Teal. And there were also no sightings of Purple Finch.
Another number that surprises many backyard birders is the quantity of Robins seen. The common impression is that Robins migration south in winter. Yet over 1,000 Robins were seen on the Christmas Count.

There were more Robins than the total number of Chickadees, Titmouse, and Cardinals combined. Yet we believe Robins go south while Chickadees, Titmouse and Cardinals frequent our feeders all winter.

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Merry Christmas Tree
On the Sunday before Christmas birders of all skill levels fanned out through lower Westchester and upper Bronx to identify and count all the birds they could find. They identified 120 different species and tallied more than 55,000 individual birds.

Their efforts, known as the Christmas Bird count, continued a tradition that has occurred annually for 90 years in this area and even longer elsewhere. The idea of venturing out in cold weather to count birds may not seem like a traditional jolly Christmas activity. It actually started as a kind of protest.

At the turn of the 18th century large family gatherings were commonplace on Christmas Day. Lots of food, family and gifts. On the following day, the day after Christmas, they continued holiday festivities with an event know as the “Side Hunt”. The men and boys grabbed rifles and shotguns and headed to the fields and forests to shoot birds. Any bird. Every bird. As many birds as possible. At the end of the day, the man with the largest pile of dead birds was declared the winner.

Non-Violent Protest.

The Christmas Bird Count began as a non-violent protest to this senseless killing. Instead of shooting birds, they simply counted them.
The popularity of the “side hunt” has died out. But the Christmas Bird Count continues strong. Last year, over 60,000 people participated making it the longest running Citizen Science survey in the world. And the count has generated signification data about the distribution of birds and their populations.

In my next post, I point out some interesting data from this year’s count.

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Despite the recent mild weather, it is officially Winter. It begins on the shortest day of the year, the Winter Solstice. The term “shortest day” is somewhat of a misnomer. All days have 24 hours. However, the day of the solstice has a least number of daylight hours and the greatest number of darkness hours. In the NYC area, that works out to only 9 hours of daylight versus 15 hours of darkness. (I just learned the exact numbers recently and was surprised by size of the difference.)

The differences in the amount of daylight hours are important to birds, particularly the birds that migrate. Scientists have shown that the change in the number of hours of daylight is the major factor in determining when birds migrate. Birds do not carry calendars. So they can’t say “oh, its April, time to head north”. Instead, they notice that the hours of daylight are increasing. Or, conversely, in autumn they notice the daylight hours are shrinking and it is time to head south.

The availability of food also affects the timing of migration. When food is scarce, migration may begin somewhat earlier. But if it is plentiful birds might not be in any hurry to begin a major journey.

While food is important, daylight has a greater influence on migration. To verify this, scientists conducted an experiment. They put small birds in a bird cage and placed the cage within a dark room. Then using artificial light to simulate daylight, each day they varied the amount of “day light” the birds were exposed to. As the length of daylight increased, the bird’s activity level increased and more of their activity was directed in a northern direction.

Since the scientist could place their artificial daylight anywhere in the dark room, in another experiment the oriented the artificial daylight at ninety degree from the actual daylight outside. And sure enough, the birds adjusted their increased activities to what would be a northern direction relative to the mis-positioned daylight.

These test show that not only do birds time migration around the increase in daylight hours but that they also determine their direction of migration based on the location of the sun (daylight) and not on an internal compass.

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Birders need good optics. But there are over 20 world-class manufacturers making high quality binoculars. And each company has a least a dozen different models. With so many choices how do you find the best binoculars?

First I recommend buying from a good optics vendor – my store for example. I try to sort through all the different models from all the manufacturers and sell only what I consider the best in each price range.

Another suggestion is to study the results of independent organizations that test and review binoculars. Kind of like the Consumers Reports for binoculars. Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology just completed a study of over 100 hundred model from over a dozen companies. All binoculars were put through a battery of scientific tests as well as field ratings by expert birders. Once the testing was completed they divided the various models into different price categories, rated each model and then compared those models within each price category. Finally, they selected the Top 5 Models with each category.

I am proud to say that I stock at least one of the Top 5 Models that Cornell rated in each category. Below is a summary of the models I offer and Cornell’s comments on them.

Under $200 Price Range
Opticron Oregon 8×32 Excellent value. Small size, ideal for small hands. Best of the lower-priced small binoculars. Great for kids!
$200-$399 Price Range
Nikon Monarch-5 8×42 Lightweight, well balanced and comfortable in the hand. Feature clarity of ED glass.
Opticron Trailfinder 8×42 A crisp image with a nice feel in the hand and sensitive focus wheel that is quick to focus.
$400-$699 Price Range
Nikon Monarch-7 8×42 Fantastic for the price category. Sharp image, a great feel in the hand. Nikon Monarch have been a popular line for years and this is their new top of the class

Binoculars are a great gift that last a lifetime
If you are looking for binoculars as gift for yourself or someone else, come into the store and check them out personally.

I feel the best way to judge the quality of binoculars is to actually try them out yourself. How they feel to you is the most important factor. If Cornell or I say a particular model is good but it doesn’t feel “right” to you, then it is not good for you. Your opinion is the most important.

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There is currently a lot of talk in local birding circles about the influx of Snowy Owls into our area. People love owls. Snowy Owls are big and showy. And they occur only infrequently – roughly once every 4 or 5 winters. And this winter appears to be one of those years.
Although the flashy appearance of the owls makes them notable, there is another species that is appearing in the area that is equally spectacular – the Red-head Woodpecker.

I like Snowy Owls and recall vividly the first time I ever saw one. But one of my favorite recollections is a view of a Red-headed Woodpecker I saw one Thanksgiving morning. It was a spectacular sight. It was clear blue, cloudless sky. The woodpecker was at the top of a dead tree. I can still see the image of that black, white and red of the bird against the sunny blue sky.

Red-headed woodpeckers are uncommon in Westchester. Red-bellied woodpeckers are very common. Many people mistakenly refer to the red-bellied as a red-head woodpecker. That is understandable. They do have bright red color on their head. And no one every sees any red on their bellies. So why aren’t they called red-headed?

The explanation is simple. The red-headed woodpecker was discovered and named first. And you couldn’t have two different birds call red-headed. In those days, ornithologists usually shot the birds they wanted to study. Then they could hold the bird in their hands to get a really good look. And if you hold a red-bellied woodpecker in your head you would notice a blush of red color on its belly, more pronounced during breeding season. Hence, the name red-bellied.

If you hold a red-headed next to a red-bellied, there is no doubt which one should be called the red-headed. The entire head ( face, top, neck, back) are a brilliant blood red color. Nothing subtle about its coloring. It is red, black and white. No streaking, no eye rings, no wing bars. Just solid red, black and white.

Red-headed Woodpecker

Red-bellied Wookpecker

I saw one last week at Croton Point Park. Another has been reported at Pelham Bay Park. If you have a chance go see for yourself what a real red-headed woodpecker looks like.

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