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How High is Up?

Educators express concern that today’s kids spend more time looking at digital screens than connecting with nature. Because of the time they spend in the digital world they are comfortable using computers, tablets, cell phones and are skilled in using them. But the natural world is less familiar. Yet, I’m always energized when I lead bird walks for youngsters. Their enthusiasm is contagious. Young boys in particular are fascinated by a bird’s ability to fly. Every nine-year-old boy dreams of flying. He can picture himself flying over his backyard or school. He is a superhero racing through the sky to fight evildoers. “How high can a bird fly?” they pester. “Can they fly over the tree tops? Over skyscrapers? How about mountains, can they fly over mountains? Do birds fly as high as a jet plane?”

            I explain that during their normal day-to-day life, birds generally fly close to the ground, usually less than 50 to 100 feet high. However, during migration, birds fly at higher altitudes because the wind is better. Backyard birds, for example, may fly at 1,000 feet when migrating. Larger birds such as ducks and hawks may fly at an even higher altitude.   And sometimes birds fly incredibly high.

            I ask the boys what is the highest spot on earth. They know. It’s Mount Everest, just over 29,000 feet above sea level, more than 5 miles up. Then I mention that elite mountain climbers attempting to scale Mount Everest have reported seeing flocks of bar-headed geese flying over their heads. Bar-headed geese, slightly smaller than our common Canada geese, have pale white heads with two black horizontal bars. They nest on the Tibetan Plateau, called “the roof of the world,” and migrate annually over the Himalayas to reach their winter territory in south Asia.

            Mountain climbers are skilled athletes who train for months to climb Everest. Yet sometimes it is a struggle for them just to gain a few feet of altitude. The amount of oxygen in the air at 29,000 feet is less than half of what it is at sea level. Climbers refer to it as “thin air,” and it makes it hard to breathe especially when they are exerting tremendous effort to climb. So they bring extra oxygen for climbing at high altitudes. Their Sherpa guides lug hundreds of oxygen tanks up the mountainside so climbers can breathe. Without them, most climbers would never scale Everest. Yet the bar-headed geese just sail gracefully over their heads with no extra oxygen. Cool.

            Airliners cruise at about 30,000 feet. At that height, most people feel the effect of low oxygen. So, to make passengers more comfortable and keep pilots alert and able to function, airlines pressurize a plane’s cabin and add oxygen, simulating conditions at ground level.

            Why do pilots and elite athletes need extra oxygen and geese don’t? Their respiratory system has evolved allowing geese to extract more oxygen from the thin air than humans can. Kids aren’t interested in those technicalities, so I don’t mention it. I want to leave them with the image of sitting on a mountain top and watching birds sail overhead. That is awesome.

            However, there is one element of high altitude flight that I do not fully understand: the outdoor air temperature at 30,000 feet is -35 degrees Fahrenheit. In a plane you can turn up the heat to stay warm. Climbers wear special insulated clothing. But how does a goose stay warm at that temperature? The physical effort required to fly generates body heat and a goose has a thick down coat, but the answer has to be more than that. Maybe someday I will learn the answer. Or, better yet, I’ll just ask a kid if they know. Today’s kids are smart.

            After one recent bird walk when we were back inside the nature center building, one young boy stopped me short saying “Mr. Weber, you were wrong.” That got my attention. “I just Googled it” he said “and it says the bar-headed goose is not the highest flying bird. It’s the Ruppell’s griffin vulture from South Africa. Want to see its picture?”

            I walked over to check his laptop screen. He was right. In the 1970s a Ruppell’s griffin vulture was sucked into the jet engine of a plane flying at 37,000 feet in altitude, more than a mile higher than Mt. Everest.

            Although I was embarrassed that he discovered my error, I was thrilled that he cared enough to Google it. Later, I did my own searching on the internet and learned that other species also fly at high altitudes similar to the bar-headed goose. Most are large African and Asian birds, such as swans and vultures, with very long wings. The highest altitude positively identified for a North American bird was recorded in 1961 over the Nevada desert when a plane collided with a mallard at 21,000 feet.

            Youngsters may spend hours each day looking at digital screens but they still are attracted to the natural world. They have the best of both worlds. Today, if a young boy asks me how high a bird can fly, I still tell him the story of Mt. Everest then add several thousand feet to my previous answer to identify the vulture. Then I explain how he can access the internet with his digital device and discover all kinds of interesting information on his own.

            Learning from kids is just as exciting as teaching them.

Ironing Board Wings

Summer is a slower, laid back time of year. As a result I haven’t posted anything new to this blog for some time. Now is the time to start being more active.

I’ll start with the article below that I wrote and will soon be appearing in the Sept/Oct issue of Bird Watchers Digest magazine.

 

Just the facts, Ma’am

The Case of the Bird with Ironing Board Wings

 

Jack Webb, who portrayed Sgt. Joe Friday on the early TV series, Dragnet, uttered the iconic line “Just the facts, Ma’am”. Today, 50 years later, that line is still heard, even among those who have never watched black and white television. Keep the facts plain and simple.

I am a nut about bird facts, the more obscure or remarkable the better. In a bird trivia competition, I could be a finalist. What’s the largest bird? The smallest? The fastest? Who flies the highest, the farthest? I often use remarkable facts to impress new or novice bird watchers.

Recently I attended a program on bald eagles hoping to learn some new tidbits. I didn’t. But I did learn a valuable lesson.  When describing the size of an eagle, the speaker did not, as I would have, simply state that an eagle has a wingspan of 8 feet. That’s a fact, a dramatic fact, I think. But the speaker realized many people do not relate well to numbers. It is like saying the national balance of trade will increase a trillion dollars. Is that good or bad? Who knows how much a trillion dollars is?

Instead, the speaker compared an eagle’s wingspan to something more familiar to the audience – an ironing board.   Each wing, he said, is as long as an ironing board. Place two ironing boards end-to-end and you have the wingspan of an eagle.

Wow! I never thought of it that way. Using his description, I could visual just how big an eagle is. I instantly understood that, in order to make a fact more attention-grabbing, it must be presented in a way the audience can easily relate to.   For the next few days I spent every moment trying to create colorful new ways to describe facts about birds.

How fast is a peregrine?

Consider the well-known fact that a peregrine falcon is the fastest creature on earth, having been timed at over 200 miles per hour. That sounds pretty fast. But how fast is it really?

A typical city block is about 1/10 of a mile long. A peregrine would be just a blur as it travels the complete block in less than two seconds. To me, that sounds even faster.

Or, here is another way to put speed into perspective. A cheetah is the fastest land mammal reaching speeds of 60 miles per hour. A very fast human sprinter may run 20 miles per hour. Let’s say the next Olympic Games holds a 100-meter dash featuring a peregrine, a cheetah and the world’s fastest human. At the sound of the starter’s gun all three competitors take off at top speed. When the peregrine streaks across the finish line, the cheetah will have travelled only 1/3 of the way and the human would barely be out of the starting blocks. That’s fast.

How much does a bird weigh?

I often point out that birds are truly light weight, any excess weight necessitates 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 something more familiar, say a McDonald’s quarter pounder? Well, it would take 10 chickadees to equal the weight of just the meat patty in one quarter pounder. That would be a mouthful of feathers.

Or put another way, one chickadee weighs about the same as a dozen paperclips. That’s light.

A hummingbird is even lighter, weighing only 1/8 of an ounce. How light is that? Say you had 8 hummingbirds laying around and imagine stuffing all of them into a standard business envelope. You then could mail all those hummingbirds to anywhere in the country using just a single 1st Class postage stamp. Eight hummingbirds weigh about one ounce, the same as three sheets of paper.

Do these illustrations give you a better sense of the lightness of birds?

More Facts

Trying to relate facts to common, everyday items was addictive. Once I started, I created more.

An ostrich egg, weighing about 3 pounds, is the largest egg. You can probably sense about how hefty 3 pounds feels. 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 material in a single ostrich egg to cook the equivalent of 24 fried egg sandwiches. That is 2 dozen chicken eggs.

The highest flyer

Birds usually fly at an altitude of less than 50 feet. During migration, however, some fly at higher altitudes, often as high as several thousand feet. If you strapped on an oxygen tank and climbed to the summit of Mount Everest in Nepal, the highest place on earth (elevation: over 5 miles), you might see bar-headed geese fly overhead as they migrate over the Himalayas.

Arctic terns make the longest migration – over 24,000 miles round trip – annually flying from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back.   By the time a tern is 10 years old, it has flown enough miles to reach the moon.

I am still working on clever new ways to present common bird facts (including the classic: how much does a pound of feathers weigh?) Instead of just remembering unusual facts about birds, I am now passionate about finding ways to make those facts more relevant.

An eagle’s wingspan is still 8 feet, but I never use that fact anymore. Instead, I have become an advocate for “the bird with the ironing board wings”.

 

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The Summer Solstice is upon us — the official start of summer. And we associate summer with the appearance of warm weather suitable for outdoor activities. Hurray for summer! Especially after the terrible winter we just had.

The Summer Solstice is also the day of the year with the longest period of daylight and the least amount of darkness. From now there are fewer hours of daylight. Each day has less and less daylight and more darkness. That is nothing to cheer about.

I, for one, vote for the warmer days of summer

Birding with Ben

Leica, the high-end camera and binocular company, is sponsoring an essay contest.  They are looking for essays of less than 300 words about an experience mentoring young birders.   Here is my contribution:

 Birding with Ben

           He is now studying ornithology at Cornell. But I first heard about Ben from his 2nd grade teacher, Mrs. Conca, who weaves birds into her curriculum. Ben was her star pupil and his interest continued to grow.    For several years I tracked his progress mostly via rumor. Until one morning, Ben, then a high school freshman, joined my Saturday birdwalk. This was my mentoring opportunity, a chance to share knowledge.

            It didn’t work.

            Gentle drizzle made for slow birding. Ben, the only teenager, was quiet, respectful and focused totally on the few common birds we did find. I reinforced his enthusiasm.  As we neared the end of our walk without a long bird list, Ben quietly approached asking if I would allow him to play a call on his phone. He had audio of Chickadees mobbing a Screech Owl. Was it OK?  I agreed as long as he didn’t overdo it and stress the birds.

            Ben smiled and hit the play button. The call echoed through silent woods without any initial effect. But after 2 or 3 repeated plays, birds appeared everywhere eager to join the mob chasing away the intruding owl. In the next five minutes we saw more birds than we had seen all morning.

            After the walk I offered to drive Ben home, but he insisted on calling his mother. Waiting with him meant time to talk birds. However, I was curious and this was before smart phones became widespread. So Ben, a tech-savvy teenager, showed me the basics explaining how it can help birders.

            Mentoring morning was a double success. I encouraged Ben’s enthusiasm and, maybe, passed on a few tips.   He helped me learn about smart phones and how to attract birds when none are being seen.

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When I was eight I longed to be a bird. Birds were cool. If I bird wanted to go from here to there, it just flies straight there. No need to worry about streets or sidewalks or traffic. I envied their flying ability. I felt the life of birds was carefree and spontaneous.

But at age ten I changed my mind. I was playing at Tommy’s house when a huge dark storm appeared approaching rapidly. Home was a fifteen-minute bike ride away – 5 long blocks on Brown Street, turn right, then left. As I wondered if I could beat the storm, birds were darting into bushes and other sheltered spots. How easy for them. They could fly home in less than 5 minutes.

I pedaled furiously but only got half-way home before the heavens opened dumping huge cold raindrops. I got soaked, my wet shirt clinging to my back. Next it started to hail.   Then one pea-sized hailstone slammed into my cheek. That was the moment I decided not to be a bird. It is too dangerous.

The hailstone stung slightly as it bounced off my cheek. If I had been a tiny bird instead of a mighty ten-year old, it would have knocked me out of the sky. The pain, I thought, might be equivalent to dropping a bowling bowl on my toe. Ouch! Dangerous.

When I finally reached home somewhat chilled and thoroughly soaked, mom brought me a fresh change of clothes still warm from the dryer. If a bird gets wet, it stays wet. If it gets cold, it stays cold. It doesn’t have a welcoming, warm home.

A pleasing aroma of soup warming on the stove cheered me more. Nice. But if I was a bird, no one would make a meal for me. I’d have to search for a worm or bug or find some seed. I could wait for the storm to end or, if I was starving, I might venture out in the rain and hail.

That night as I slipped under the covers I remembered that a bird would be huddled in the fork of a tree branch for the night trying to stay warm and dry. I preferred my safe, comfortable bed.

 

TO BE CONTINUED . . . . .   Some day I will add to this post. Until them remember a bird’s life is not as ideal and carefree as it seems. There are many dangerous elements a bird’s life. I will talk more about them (some day)

Today, when I saw my first Chimney Swift of the year, I had to marvel at Roger Troy Peterson’s apt description. A Chimney Swift, he said, looks like a cigar with wing. That’s it exactly. No apparent tail, just a long, tapering cigar shape with curved stiff wings. Almost bat like.Chimney Swift - Flying Cigar

At night Chimney Swifts roost inside tall brick chimneys. However, there aren’t many brick chimneys today. Chimney Swifts and chimneyAnd most have grating over the opening. So, like any species whose habitat is being depleted, Chimney Swift populations are in decline.

However, based on some dubious thinking, I do have some hope. I always wonder where Chimney Swifts roosted before there were any chimneys. Maybe they will return to their original habitat.

Moonbird Seen Again!

Red Knots are medium sized sandpipers that summer north of the arctic circle and winter at the tip of South America. That’s a migration journey of over 8,000 miles each way.

One individual Red Knot, nicknamed “Moonbird”, has been making the trip for at least 21 years. Easily identified by its orange-colored leg band with the number “B-95” on it, Moonbird was seen again on May 25th at Reeds Beach, NJ

The nickname is based on the fact that in over two decades of migrating this particular bird has flown a distance equivalent to flying to the moon and halfway back. That is a lot of frequent flyer miles

red_knot_3

As a general rule in the natural world larger creatures prey on smaller ones. In birds, hummingbirds are as small as it gets. But they are incredibly quick and maneuverable. Typically a large hawk or eagle won’t bother with them, too hard to catch. And even if somehow they were able to catch one, it is too small to make a satisfying meal or even a hearty snack.

However, hummingbirds do have predators you would not suspect. Predators that do not concern other birds. These unusual predators include insects, spiders and fish. (I am not kidding.)

A Praying Mantis will grab an unsuspecting hummingbird if it strays to near.

If a hummingbird gets entangled in spider’s web, the spider will secure the hummingbird so it can’t work loose, let it die, and then eat it bit by bit.

Hummingbirds do catch and eat tiny, flying insects, often just above the quiet surface of a pond. At times a large fish will leap out of the water and grab the startled hummingbird.

And of course, in some cultures, humans are said to relish the taste of properly prepared hummingbird tongue. That, I think, is a myth.

 Bond, James Bond. Agent 007. Master spy in service to Her Majesty. Thanks to Ian Fleming’s novels and subsequent movies this fictional James Bond is famous worldwide. Even his preference in alcoholic beverages is well known. All that notoriety, I think, would have made him somewhat ineffective as a secret agent. But that James Bond was fictional where anything is possible. The real life James Bond, however, remains relatively obscure.

He was a 20 Century ornithologist with his own modest claims to fame (at least in the birdy crowd.) He was curator of ornithology at the prestigious Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. He was “the expert” in birds of the Caribbean area and wrote the authoritative book “Birds of the West Indies” Later he was author of the Peterson Field Guide Series for the West Indies.

Although most people are unaware of his connection with the fictional James Bond the linkage is well documented.

In addition to working at a low level for the spy service during World War II, Ian Fleming was an avid birder. (he was British after all). While attending a spy conference in Jamaica he fell in love with the island, and after the war eventually bought an estate there that he called “Goldeneye”. (I know that is a bird name. Was it a Bond title?) In the early 1950s he was in Jamaica finishing the final draft of his first novel. But he wasn’t completely happy the name he had given his main character.   The story goes that when his eyes fell on the name James Bond on the cover of the “Birds of the West Indies” he shouted “eureka!” and ran to tell the king.   No, I think that is another story.   Well, he thought the name, James Bond, was a good, solid name and adapted for his hero.

Bond and Fleming did correspond about usurping his name. Fleming never apologized or offered any compensation but in the classic British sense of fair play, Fleming agreed that Bond could use his name whenever he wanted to. And he hoped that Bond would discover a new bird species and call it the Ian Fleming. It never happened.

What can you learn from this little tale? Not much. But if early one morning you are near a nuclear power plant and run into an Englishman with binoculars you may wonder if he is a spy or a bird watcher. And never tell him your name.

On May 10th, the Redheads won the 2014 World Series of Birding. The Redheads are the team of elite birders from Cornell Lab of Ornithology that includes Benjamin Van Doren as a member.

World Series of BirdingThe World Series of Birding attracts about 1,000 of the best birders from around the world. The World Series is like a big day – the objective is to determine which team can count the greatest number of bird species within the state of New Jersey within a single 24 hour period. In the process, the teams raise funds for good causes by having friends and families pledge a monetary amount for each species seen, raising over $500,000 annually.

This is the 31st year of this annual event which draws top birders to the competition. Around 100 teams officially enter the competiton.  In addition many unofficial teams participate.  And it is a competition. The elite teams actually scout the state for the week ahead of the event. They meticulously plot where every key bird can be found and enter it into their GPS.

The results astound me. The winning team totals around 220 – 240 species during the event which is normally held on the 2nd Saturday of May. That equates to 10 new species per hour, or one new species every 6 minutes for 24 straight hours. During the event the winning team often drives 4-500 miles.

Some teams are not quite so competitive. Rather than cover the entire state of New Jersey, some teams restrict their birding to only Cape May County, some to only a part of Cape May itself , while others do all their birding by bicycle. There is even one team that rents a school bus and leisurely birds Cape May stopping for nice lunch.

It is a fun (and for some, a serious) event that raises a lot of money for charity.

Congratulations to Benjamin and the entire Redhead team for winning this year.