Shallow Thoughts : : birds

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing and Technology, Science, and Nature.

Sun, 20 Dec 2015

Christmas Bird Count

Yesterday was the Los Alamos Christmas Bird Count.

[ Mountain chickadee ] No big deal, right? Most counties have a Christmas Bird Count, a specified day in late December when birders hit the trails and try to identify and count as many birds as they can find. It's coordinated by the Audubon Society, which collects the data so it can be used to track species decline, changes in range in response to global warming, and other scientific questions. The CBC has come a long way from when it split off from an older tradition, the Christmas "Side Hunt", where people would hit the trails and try to kill as many animals as they could.

But the CBC is a big deal in Los Alamos, because we haven't had one since 1953. It turns out that to run an official CBC, you have to be qualified by Audubon and jump through a lot of hoops proving that you can do it properly. Despite there being a very active birding community here, nobody had taken on the job of qualifying us until this year. There was a lot of enthusiasm for the project: I think there were 30 or 40 people participating despite the chilly, overcast weather.

The team I was on was scheduled to start at 7. But I had been on the practice count in March (running a practice count is one of the hoops Audubon makes you jump through), and after dragging myself out of bed at oh-dark-thirty and freezing my toes off slogging through the snow, I had learned that birds are mostly too sensible to come out that early in winter. I tried to remind the other people on the team of what the March morning had been like, but nobody was listening, so I said I'd be late, and I met them at 8. (Still early for me, but I woke up early that morning.)

[ Two very late-season sandhill cranes ] Sure enough, when I got there at 8, there was disappointment over how few birds there were. But actually that continued all day: the promised sun never came out, and I think the birds were hoping for warmer weather. We did see a good assortment of woodpeckers and nuthatches in a small area of Water Canyon, and later, a pair of very late-season sandhill cranes made a low flyover just above where we stood on Estante Way; but mostly, it was disappointing.

In the early afternoon, the team disbanded to go home and watch our respective feeders, except for a couple of people who drove down the highway in search of red-tailed hawks and to the White Rock gas station in search of rock pigeons. (I love it that I'm living in a place where birders have to go out of their way to find rock pigeons to count.)

I didn't actually contribute much on the walks. Most of the others were much more experienced, so mostly my role was to say "Wait, what's that noise?" or "Something flew from that tree to this one" or "Yep, sure enough, two more juncos." But there was one species I thought I could help with: scaled quail. We've been having a regular flock of scaled quail coming by the house this autumn, sometimes as many as 13 at a time, which is apparently unusual for this time of year. I had Dave at home watching for quail while I was out walking around.

When I went home for a lunch break, Dave reported no quail: there had been a coyote sniffing around the yard, scaring away all the birds, and then later there'd been a Cooper's hawk. He'd found the hawk while watching a rock squirrel that was eating birdseed along with the towhees and juncos: the squirrel suddenly sat up and stared intently at something, and Dave followed its gaze to see the hawk perched on the fence. The squirrel then resumed eating, having decided that a Cooper's hawk is too small to be much danger to a squirrel.

[ Scaled quail ] But what with all the predators, there had been no quail. We had lunch, keeping our eyes on the feeder area, when they showed up. Three of them, no, six, no, nine. I kept watch while Dave went over to another window to see if there were any more headed our way. And it turns out there was a whole separate flock, nine more, out in the yard. Eighteen quail in all, a record for us! We'd suspected that we had two different quail families visiting us, but when you're watching one spot with quail constantly running in and out, there's no way to know if it's the same birds or different ones. It needed two people watching different areas to get our high count ot 18. And a good thing: we were the only bird counters in the county who saw any quail, let alone eighteen. So I did get to make a contribution after all.

I carried a camera all day, but my longest regular lens (a 55-250 f/4-5.6) isn't enough when it comes to distant woodpeckers. So most of what I got was blurry, underexposed "record shots", except for the quail, cranes, and an obliging chickadee who wasn't afraid of a bunch of binocular-wielding anthropoids. Photos here: Los Alamos Christmas Bird Count, White Rock team, 2015.

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[ 14:21 Dec 20, 2015    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Mon, 06 Apr 2015

Quickly seeing bird sightings maps on eBird

The local bird community has gotten me using eBird. It's sort of social networking for birders -- you can report sightings, keep track of what birds you've seen where, and see what other people are seeing in your area.

The only problem is the user interface for that last part. The data is all there, but asking a question like "Where in this county have people seen broad-tailed hummingbirds so far this spring?" is a lengthy process, involving clicking through many screens and typing the county name (not even a zip code -- you have to type the name). If you want some region smaller than the county, good luck.

I found myself wanting that so often that I wrote an entry page for it.

My Bird Maps page is meant to be used as a smart bookmark (also known as bookmarklets or keyword bookmarks), so you can type birdmap hummingbird or birdmap golden eagle in your location bar as a quick way of searching for a species. It reads the bird you've typed in, and looks through a list of species, and if there's only one bird that matches, it takes you straight to the eBird map to show you where people have reported the bird so far this year.

If there's more than one match -- for instance, for birdmap hummingbird or birdmap sparrow -- it will show you a list of possible matches, and you can click on one to go to the map.

Like every Javascript project, it was both fun and annoying to write. Though the hardest part wasn't programming; it was getting a list of the nonstandard 4-letter bird codes eBird uses. I had to scrape one of their HTML pages for that. But it was worth it: I'm finding the page quite useful.

How to make a smart bookmark

I think all the major browsers offer smart bookmarks now, but I can only give details for Firefox. But here's a page about using them in Chrome.

Firefox has made it increasingly difficult with every release to make smart bookmarks. There are a few extensions, such as "Add Bookmark Here", which make it a little easier. But without any extensions installed, here's how you do it in Firefox 36:

[Firefox bookmarks dialog] First, go to the birdmap page (or whatever page you want to smart-bookmark) and click on the * button that makes a bookmark. Then click on the = next to the *, and in the menu, choose Show all bookmarks. In the dialog that comes up, find the bookmark you just made (maybe in Unsorted bookmarks?) and click on it.

Click the More button at the bottom of the dialog.
(Click on the image at right for a full-sized screenshot.)
[Firefox bookmarks dialog showing keyword]

Now you should see a Keyword entry under the Tags entry in the lower right of that dialog.

Change the Location to http://shallowsky.com/birdmap.html?bird=%s.

Then give it a Keyword of birdmap (or anything else you want to call it).

Close the dialog.

Now, you should be able to go to your location bar and type:
birdmap common raven or birdmap sparrow and it will take you to my birdmap page. If the bird name specifies just one bird, like common raven, you'll go straight from there to the eBird map. If there are lots of possible matches, as with sparrow, you'll stay on the birdmap page so you can choose which sparrow you want.

How to change the default location

If you're not in Los Alamos, you probably want a way to set your own coordinates. Fortunately, you can; but first you have to get those coordinates.

Here's the fastest way I've found to get coordinates for a region on eBird:

Then look at the URL: a part of it should look something like this: env.minX=-122.202087&env.minY=36.89291&env.maxX=-121.208778&env.maxY=37.484802 If the map isn't right where you want it, try editing the URL, hitting Enter for each change, and watch the map reload until it points where you want it to. Then copy the four parameters and add them to your smart bookmark, like this: http://shallowsky.com/birdmap.html?bird=%s&minX=-122.202087&minY=36.89291&maxX=-121.208778&maxY=37.484802

Note that all of the the "env." have been removed.

The only catch is that I got my list of 4-letter eBird codes from an eBird page for New Mexico. I haven't found any way of getting the list for the entire US. So if you want a bird that doesn't occur in New Mexico, my page might not find it. If you like birdmap but want to use it in a different state, contact me and tell me which state you need, and I'll add those birds.

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[ 14:30 Apr 06, 2015    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Thu, 18 Sep 2014

Mirror, mirror

A female hummingbird -- probably a black-chinned -- hanging out at our window feeder on a cool cloudy morning.

[female hummingbird at the window feeder]

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[ 19:04 Sep 18, 2014    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Wed, 18 Jun 2014

Fuzzy house finch chicks

[house finch chick] The wind was strong a couple of days ago, but that didn't deter the local house finch family. With three hungry young mouths to feed, and considering how long it takes to crack sunflower seeds, poor dad -- two days after Father's Day -- was working overtime trying to keep them all fed. They emptied by sunflower seed feeder in no time and I had to refill it that evening.

The chicks had amusing fluffy "eyebrow" feathers sticking up over their heads, and one of them had an interesting habit of cocking its tail up like a wren, something I've never seen house finches do before.

More photos: House finch chicks.

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[ 14:40 Jun 18, 2014    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Fri, 21 Mar 2014

Flicker Morning

[Northern Flicker on our deck] "There's a woodpecker sitting on the patio", Dave said, shortly after we'd both gotten up. He pointed down through the gap where you can see the patio from upstairs. "It's just sitting there. You can go down and look through the door; it doesn't seem to mind."

Sure enough, a female northern flicker was sitting on the concrete patio deck, immobile except for her constantly blinking eyes and occasionally swiveling head. Definitely not a place you'd normally expect to see a woodpecker.

Some twenty minutes earlier, I remembered, I'd heard a couple of thumps on the roof outside the bedroom, and seen the shadow of wings through the drawn shades. I've heard of birds flying into windows and getting stunned, but why would one fly into a roof? A mystery, but I was sure the flicker's presence was related to the thumps I'd heard.

I kept an eye out while I made coffee and puttered around with normal morning chores. She wasn't budging from that spot, though she looked relatively alert, keeping her eyes open even while sitting immobile.

I called around. (We still don't have internet to the house -- Comcast keeps giving us the runaround about when they'll dig their trench, and I'm not entirely convinced they've even applied for the permit they said they'd applied for three weeks ago. Maybe we need to look into Dish.) The Santa Fe raptor center had a recorded message suggesting that injured birds be put in a cool dark box as a first treatment for shock. The Española Wildlife Center said if I thought she was injured and could catch her, they could take her in.

I did suspect she was injured -- by now she'd been there for 45 minutes or more, without moving -- but I decided to give her some time to recover before going for a capture. Maybe she was just in shock and needed time to gather herself before trying to fly. I went on with my morning chores while keeping an eye out for coyotes and ravens.

For two hours she remained there. The sun came out from behind the clouds and I wondered if I should give her some shade, food or water, but decided to wait a while. Then, as I was going back to the bird book to verify what kind of flicker she was and what gender, she suddenly perked up. Swiveling her head around and looking much more alert than before, she raised herself a little and took a few steps, to one side and then the other. More head swiveling. Then suddenly, as I was reaching for my camera again, she spread her wings and flew off. A little heavily and stiffly, but both wings looked okay.

So our morning's flicker adventure has a happy ending.

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[ 11:46 Mar 21, 2014    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Sun, 18 Aug 2013

Learning to Sing

[House finch] I was awakened at 6:30 this morning by what sounded like a young house finch learning to sing, just outside my window. It got me thinking.

Every fall, songbirds which have stopped singing during high summer start up again, briefly, to sing for a few weeks before weather gets cold. A discussion several years ago on a local birding list concluded that nobody knows for sure why birds sing in autumn -- are they confused about the weather and think it's spring again, hoping for a last fling before the cold weather sets in, or what? There's a a wonderful ditty about it, "The Autumnal Recrudescence of the Amatory Urge", apparently written in the 1970s by Susan Stiles.

It's too early in the year right now for autumnal anything -- it's still quite warm. But lying there in bed listening to the exploratory notes of a bird clearly not yet confident in his song, I got to thinking about how birds learn their songs.

In most birds it's not innate: young male birds learn singing while still nestlings from listening to their father sing, much like human babies learn the rhythms of their native language from hearing their parents talk; and if you raise a songbird in a nest of another species, they will often learn the wrong song, or end up with some hybrid song that doesn't attract females of either species. (A good overview: The Development of Birdsong on Nature.) More recently, there have been all sorts of interesting studies on how young birds learn their local dialect, since a species' song varies quite a bit from one location to another.

But ... not all birds sing much once the eggs are laid, do they? They sing their hearts out while acquiring a territory and trying to attract a female; but once nesting starts, I don't remember hearing much activity from the house finches. Mockingbirds are an exception: I've seen mockers singing day and night even after they're feeding nestlings, though not all male mockers are quite so industrious. But I thought most species stopped singing much once the nest was built and eggs laid.

But if that's true, when do the young males learn their songs? Even if the father does sing a little, off and on, while the nestlings are being raised, that's not very much time to learn. Suppose the adults started singing again in the fall before the family disperses. Wouldn't that be an advantage to the young males who are just learning their songs? If a fledgling, off the nest and mostly able to care for himself, is "babbling", trying exploratory notes while learning what sounds he can make, wouldn't it be helpful to have a few nearby males who occasionally burst into song even if it's out of season?

Maybe the "Autumnal Recrudescence" isn't birds being confused about the weather at all. Maybe it's an evolutionary aid to help the young birds crystallize their songs before heading into their first winter. By singing in autumn, the males help their sons crystallize their songs for the next year, which helps the sons be more successful when it's time to look for a mate next spring.

Just a theory ... but I think it makes some sense, and I'll be listening to this autumn's chorus with new interest.

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[ 11:57 Aug 18, 2013    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Wed, 07 Jul 2010

Huge brood of wild turkeys at Rancho San Antonio

[Wild turkey chicks scuffling] Late last week in the field next to the parking lots at Rancho San Antonio we had a chance to watch a wild turkey family foraging in the dry grass. Two adults and twenty chicks -- that's quite a brood!

Two of the chicks got into a scuffle and kept it up the whole time we watched them. The adults didn't seem interested, but some of the other chicks gathered round to see what was going on.

Photos: Wild turkeys.

Meanwhile, in other nature news, the hot weather has brought the odd unidentified chlorine smell back to the redwood forests. On the weekend, when we were having 90-degree days, the smell was very noticable around Purisima and El Corte de Madera, and on a few parts of Highway 9. Today, though the weather is cooler, the smell was everywhere on the Skyline trail at the top of Sanborn. Still no idea what's producing it.

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[ 20:23 Jul 07, 2010    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Fri, 30 May 2008

The falcon, the owl and the chickadees

We went for a little afternoon walk at RSA yesterday. I was out of the car and waiting for Dave when I saw motion out of the corner of my eye and heard a thump! of something hitting the ground a few feet away. Maybe something fell out of that tree? It sounded like it fell right ... there ... what's that? It looks almost like ... a bird? But why would a bird fall out of a tree? Is it dead?

And then the bird came to life, stretched its wings, and turned into a kestrel that exploded off the ground and flew away. I never did see if it caught whatever it was after, but I'm happy to have had the chance to see the little falcon make a strike so close to me.

[small owl, maybe a young screech owl?] Later, on the trail, a spotted towhee burst out of a tree and flew past us. Then a small woodpecker emerged from the same cluster of branches the towhee had just left. As we drew nearer we could hear quite a commotion up in the branches ... a dozen or more small birds, mostly chickadees, chattering and darting in and out like bees around a hive. It seemed centered on ... that unmoving spot there ... wait, doesn't it look a bit owl-shaped to you?

I snapped a few pictures, but none of the small owls in the bird guides have a facial pattern like this. It was smaller than a screech owl, but young screech owl is still my best guess.

[bullfrog] And as long as I'm posting nature pictures, the bullfrogs are back at the Walden West Scum Lake. Just floatin' there, though ... they weren't making any noise or moving around.

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[ 23:18 May 30, 2008    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | comments ]