Archive for September, 2013

This weekend I am co-leading the Point Blue Conservation Science Youth Bird-a-thon Team, the Drake’s Beach Sanderlings!  This is the first year I will be a co-leader, but I have been participating in this bird-a-thon since it was founded over a decade ago.  When I tell people about a bird-a-thon, which is when a team of birders travels around a particular geographic area and attempts to find as many species of bird as possible in one day, they often look at me a little quizzically as if wondering why someone would do such a thing but are too polite to ask.  Given these responses, I started think about this question myself.  Why do I bird-a-thon?  Amid thousands of little reasons, thrills and memories, three big reasons came to mind.

One is that it is just a lot of fun.  In the ‘sport’ of birding, we don’t have major athletic events.  Instead, we have bird-a-thons.  They are an opportunity to push oneself and challenge your own abilities.  To pull off a successful bird-a-thon, you need to know the area you will be searching in intimately.  The Drakes Beach Sanderlings travel back and forth across Marin County, CA, and we search as many nooks and crannies as we can.  You also have to be fast.  The key is to get to as many different habitats as possible and search them thoroughly to find all the species present.  This means that you cannot take ten minutes to identify each bird you some across.  Instead, you need to find the bird, see its distinguishing field marks, identify it, and move on to the next in as little an amount of time as possible.  This is pretty challenging and to keep doing to for 18 or 24 hours requires a fair bit of endurance.

Another of my big reason is the money this bird-a-thon raises for conservation.  Point Blue Conservation Science (formerly PRBO Conservation Science) is a leading conservation organization.  It started out as a very bird conservation focused group, but they have broadened their view to the conservation of whole ecosystems and now work from Alaska to Antarctica.  The bird-a-thon is a way to help support those conservation efforts by asking people to sponsor a team.  All the money raised by bird-a-thon teams go straight to protecting ecosystems and the organisms that live in them.  To date, bird-a-thon teams have raised millions of dollars, which translates into a lot of excellent work being done.  I hope you choose to support the Drakes Beach Sanderlings by following this link:  http://birdathon.kintera.org/faf/search/searchTeamPart.asp?ievent=1082358&lis=1&kntae1082358=89C3F039B1594543876A9DC62034E9CD&team=5630262

and clicking the ‘Donate Now’ button on the right side of the screen.

My third big reason is that as a youth team, this event serves as a way of introducing new people, and new young people in particular, to birds and birding and bird conservation.  I do not think the importance of this can be overstated.  The only things that people will preserve are the things they love, and for people to love something they have to introduced to it first!  By having a youth bird-a-thon team, PBCS is supporting the next generation of conservationists and showing them that they have something important to contribute.

I hope you decide to join our effort!

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Today is National Public Lands Day!  What’s that you say?  You did not even know that there was such as thing?  Well, you are not alone.  It dose not get a lot of attention, but it should get more!  National Public Lands Day (NPLD) was started in 1994 as a day on which people could go out into public lands and help to keep them public and beautiful.  It is the largest single-day effort to help our open spaces, and it is all volunteer based.  It is a day for the public to learn about the environment and to volunteer to help land managers care for the environment.

When it began, there were only three sites that participated with a total of about 700 volunteers.  This year marks the 20th anniversary of NPLD.  Over those 20 years, the event has grown to include 2,206 sites and over 175,000 volunteers!  Those volunteers have cleared and improved thousands of miles of  trails, removed tens of thousands of pounds of invasive plants, planted hundreds of thousands of native trees and shrubs, and hauled away hundreds of tons of litter.  Involvement in NPLD can be highly organized with sites registering particular events and individuals signing up to attend those events, or highly unorganized like my own efforts today.  This year was the first year that I participated in NPLD.  I spent the morning at the Sacramento Bypass Wildlife Area picking up trash.  The Sacramento Bypass is a Type C Area managed by the California Department of Fish & Wildlife.  Type C Areas get very little management attention and so are often very much in need of some tender loving care.  My morning was a lovely one spent wandering around open grasslands, picking up trash, and enjoying some casual birding.

So, what did you do for NPLD?  If you missed it this year, mark your calendar for the last Saturday in September, 2014, and get out to some public lands near you and lend a helping hand!

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It is bird-a-thon season at Point Blue Conservation Science (formerly PRBO Conservation Science)!  A bird-a-thon is where a team of observers go out into a particular geographic area, usually a county, to see as many species of birds as possible in a 24-hour period!  It is a big day, fundamentally, but with a twist.  PBCS organizes the bird-a-thon as a fundraising event.  The teams collect sponsors who donate a fix amount or pledge a certain amount per species seen on the bird-a-thon.  This acts as an extra drive for the team to find the maximum number of species they can.  Over the course of the last couple of decades that the bird-a-thon has been taking place, teams have raised over 2 million dollars!  Every cent of this money has gone straight to the bird conservation efforts of PBCS.

I have been a member of one team for over a decade now.  It is the PBCS Youth Bird-a-thon Team,  called the Drake’s Beach Sanderlings.  This team was founded and led by Rich Stallcup and Ellen Blustein, and I was one of the original members.  Even now that I am not a ‘youth’ I have continued to participate as a mentor.  We go out for a whole day and drive back and forth across Marin County, CA to find as many species as we can.  We usually find about 150, and our all time high was 172!  It is always an incredibly fast-paced and exciting day!   Rich passed away last December, and so a new leader was needed.  Actually two new leaders were selected to fill Rich’s shoes: Bob Battagin and myself.  We will be joining Ellen as co-leaders this year.  I am very excited and honored to be participating in a new and more involved way in this event that is so near and dear to me.

One of the many reasons that this is such an amazing bird-a-thon are the youths.  These are kids who have a strong interest in birds and birding and who simply have a love of going out into nature.  They are the conservationists of the future, and by supporting this team, you can help to support and inspire this next generation of birders and bird conservationists.  You can help to insure that there will be people  who care about birds and will work to protect them tomorrow and the next day and the next.  And making a donation is easy!  Just go this link:


and click on the ‘Give Now’ button on the right side of the page.  I hope you will choose to support this team.  It generates money for bird conservation, it supports young birders, and it helps to insure the future of birding.  By making this year a success we make sure that this important event will continue.

Thank you!

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My brother and I visited Hawk Hill (just about our favorite place in the world) in the Marin Headlands, just north of San Francisco, CA.  One migrant that passed us by was an Osprey, and this bird got me thinking.  The bird had very solid, dark plumage on its back which meant that it was an adult bird as hatch year birds show scalloping of white on the tips of the feathers on the dorsal surface.  On the ventral side, it had the iconic, pure white breast and belly, and this is what got me thinking.  Some Ospreys have a necklace of dark streaks that run in an arch across the breast.  I remember that there has been some confusion and debate over this necklace as to what it indicates.  Does it mean that the bird is a male or a female?  Is there overlap between the two with some males having a necklace and some females not having one?  So, I did some reading, and here is what I found.  Most females have a darker necklace than males, but there is some overlap with some males having a pretty strong necklace.  This is most dramatic in the North American Subspecies, Pandion haliaetus carolinensis.  However, I could not find any reference that said that females could have a necklace so light that it disappeared.  Only the males can show the pure white breast with no necklace at all (from what I have read so far).  So this means that this field mark has a sort of asymmetrical usefulness.  If you see an Osprey that has a necklace, this could be a female or a strongly marked male, so the field mark is not particularly useful.  However, if you see an Osprey that has no necklace, like the one my brother and I saw on Hawk Hill, this is likely to be a male bird, so the field mark may be much more useful!

References Used:

Crossley, Liguori, and Sullivan. 2013. The Crossley Guide: Raptors.

Dunne, Sibley, and Sutton. 2012. Hawks in Flight, 2nd ed.

Ferguson-Lees and Christie.  2001. Raptors of the World.

Liguori. 2011. Hawks at a Distance.

Poole, Bierregaard, and Martell. 2002. Birds on North America: Osprey.

Wheeler. 2003. Raptors of Western North America.

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Yesterday, I was up in the Sierra attempting to do some field work for my dissertation.  As I have discussed, the species I study is the Evening Grosbeak, a large finch that can be found throughout the mountainous areas of North America.  Can be found, that is, if you are lucky.  I was not lucky yesterday.  I spent my day at the Boca Springs Campground near Truckee, CA.  I visited this spot that last year, at this time, and found a decent number of Evening Grosbeaks hanging around the campground and nearby wet meadow, so I was fairly hopeful that this trip would be a success.  Well, as so often happens, nature did not fit in the nice tidy box that we humans frequently try to put it in.  There were no Evening Grosbeaks at Boca Springs.  Amusingly, there was a flock of about 8 or 10 Red Crossbills this visit, where there had been none last year.  This just serves to illustrate why both of these species are examples of nomadic species, and one of the major reasons they are hard to study.  Still, I did get to spend a lovely morning birding in the mountains which included seeing all three species of nuthatch that occur in California, so even when field work does not go well other rewards are there for the taking.

The full list of bird species that I saw this trip included: Steller’s Jay, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Mountain Chickadee, Dark-eyed Junco, American Robin, Northern Flicker, Clark’s Nutcracker, Mountain Bluebird, Green-tailed Towhee, Pygmy Nuthatch, Acorn Woodpecker, Yellow-rumped Warbler, White-breasted Nuthatch, Chipping Sparrow, Red Crossbill, Song Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Townsend’s Solitaire, Brown Creeper, Red-tailed Hawk.

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