Tag Archives: birds

The Future of Voucher Specimens

Kannan, R. 2007. New bird descriptions without proper voucher specimens: reflections after the Bugun Liocichla case. Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society 104: 12-18.

This story begins with the discovery of the Bugun Liocichla, a spectacular but possibly rare bird discovered recently in India. The formal description of the bird stirred up a lot of controvery, as no type specimen was sent to a museum or examination, as is the formal procedure. Rather, the authors decided to take photographs and feather samples, as they believed that the species was too rare to allow for the taking of an individual. This raises some important questions about the current state of museum specimens, and whether they remain relevant in biology today, and if traditional practices are conservationally unadvised. Continue reading


Birding with Joanna and her Dad

Definitely the most frustrating part of Finals period is not necessarily the stress and the busyness, but the fact that I have to miss spring migration! Finally, I got a chance to head into the Crum this morning with Joanna and her dad, which was a nice treat. We headed out around 1030 am, which is a bit of a late start for me, but it didn’t matter as we found some great birds! Continue reading

Spring Migration Timing

Currently re-reading Scott Weidensaul’s Living on the Wind, a personal account of bird migration in the Americas, while studying how and why birds migrate, and what the future of migratory bird conversation looks like. In high school, it was one of my favorite books, as it combined both my scientific fascination of birds along with my more personal connection to birds and their environments. There’s a lot of really scientifically interesting stuff on the mechanisms of bird migration, but there’s also some really emotional stuff about the death of thousands of Swainson’s Hawks due to insecticides in Argentina, for instance.

Re-reading it now, it’s not quite as good as I remembered. The book doesn’t have a clear narrative arc, which I’m fine with, but it also doesn’t do the ‘sprawling New Yorker style’ that McPhee does so well, and that I’ve been reading so much of lately. Instead, there really doesn’t seem to be much of a structure at all, and feels like facts and stories haphazardly thrown together. There are probably better ways to structure this book.

Anyways, one small factoid caught my attention as I was reading the second chapter. It was mentioned that birds know when to migrate based primarily on two factors: genetic predisposition, and photoperiod (length of daylight). Continue reading

Well I Walked Out Onto the Jetty

After yesterday’s success with the Snail Kite, I had high hopes for the morning’s birding at Huntington Beach State Park, possibly my favorite birding location in the world. Both the quantity as well as the quality of birds that can be found at Huntington Beach are incredible, and I’ve never had a bad visit.

Which I suppose means that it was about time for one, and that’s just about what happened. This morning’s visit was a bit of a disappointment. I only got one life bird, a Wilson’s Plover on the beach at the south end of the jetty rockpile. That’s a great bird, one I’ve been seeking for a while, but usually I pick up many more new birds than that. Perhaps I’m just exhausting the park’s possibilities or something. It’s just that the last time I visited, I picked up Least Bittern, Piping Plover, and Common Ground-Dove, three absolutely fantastic birds that only Huntington Beach could have offered me, and today was just a disappointment in comparison.

Still though, a bad day at Huntington Beach is still better than the vast majority of birding walks I go on. The same beach where I found the Wilson’s Plover was also home to Ruddy Turnstones in breeding plumage, American Oystercatcher, Black Skimmers, a feeding Osprey, and a Least Tern nesting colony. The causeway was filled with Semipalmated Sandpipers, a few Greater Yellowlegs, Black-necked Stilts, and various herons and egrets flying around, as well as a few American Alligators to make things even more exciting.

And that was just about it. Sandpiper Pond was completely silent. I couldn’t rustle up any Painted Buntings anywhere in the park. The only birds on the walk to the jetty were Sanderlings. I really shouldn’t be disappointed, as it really was a great day by my usual standards, but I guess I’ve just come to expect more from Huntington Beach. Regardless, I will be back for sure.

This whole trip was made possible by ten hours total of solo driving, but that driving was made possible by the fact that I put together an mp3 cd to keep me sane on the road. In all, I fit seven albums onto one disc, and I really got to know those albums pretty well, if I didn’t already.

George Harrison – All Things Must Pass
I’m beginning to believe that I actually like this album more than any of the proper Beatles albums. Isn’t that amazing? I’m not even a huge fan of George’s output with the Beatles; Here Comes The Sun is probably his only composition that would make my best-of mix. Yet somehow, he was capable of crafting a double album that is completely unmatched in terms of consistent quality over its length. Starostin complained about the Apple Jam on the final third, but I actually really dig that stuff, it makes for great driving music. I guess Starostin just doesn’t know anything about driving now would he lol. Guy needs to update his site bigtime, by the way. But really, the only possible complaint I can think of it is that Phil Spector’s production is actually the real winner here, and lifts some relatively mediocre Harrison tunes into the transcendent realm. I sometimes start thinking that the album should be credited to both Harrison and Spector instead of just Harrison, as I think Spector’s production plays a completely crucial role in crafting the sound of this album, more so than the production on the vast majority of albums out there. Nevertheless, who cares about details like that, the end result is that this is one of the best albums ever. Period.

The Silver Jews – American Water
I didn’t like this album much on first listen. Random Rules is of course a near-perfect song, and the thunderous Smith and Jones Forever coupled with the fireworks of Night Society combines for one of the best opening salvos I’ve heard on an album, but after that I really wasn’t a fan of anything in the sequence. But now this record is growing on me more and more, and now I’m a huge fan of quite a bit of the thing. If I still have one complaint, it’s this: too much Malkmus. I know, if you’ve known me since high school, you’d know that the statement I just made would amount to heresy in my high school mind, but really it’s just the truth. His songwriting and singing contributions are just embarrassing next to Berman’s, and almost upset the mood of the record. Some of his guitar work is nice enough, but I think the Jews would be better off without him somehow.

Wilco – Being There
I think I’ve discussed this one enough already. See two posts previous.

Yo La Tengo – I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass
I still don’t know what to make of this. At times, I think it’s their best work since their masterpiece I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One, and it’s a brilliant way to get out of the corner they’d been painting themselves into. But there’s also times where I actually think it’s their poorest effort since, well, their debut Ride the Tiger. But I can’t really put my finger on why that is. Something about this album sounds…forced. Or fake. Like the band isn’t having fun anymore, and is just going through the motions of ‘being eclectic’. They pick a few styles to tackle, write a formulaic song-by-the-numbers in that style, and move on, instead of incorporating that style into their own unique world. Sometimes, it just really doesn’t sound like an inspired album to me. But then of course, I hear the guitars on Pass the Hatchet I Think I’m Goodkind and I’m all like, forget that, this album frickin rules. I’m completely undecided as to which viewpoint I best hold.

The Beatles – Let it Be
Garbage. Outside of two or three songs, I completely dislike this album, especially in comparison with the rest of their untouchable catalog. Seriously, I think I even prefer Please Please Me. It’s good that this isn’t really a proper Beatles album, because it’s abundantly clear that the thing is unfinished. With a little more time spent on it, I can see Let it Be becoming a sort of concise, poor man’s White Album. But as the abandoned project that it really is, I can’t take this album seriously as a true Beatles album.

Bob Dylan – The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
Brilliant. It’s amazing what this guy can do with just an acoustic guitar and a harmonica, and his voice obv. I don’t understand why it’s taken me so long to get out of my indie rock cave and discover all this classic stuff, because it is so, so glorious.

The Court & Spark – Witch Season
Not enough people have heard this album. It deserves more. Great, great album. There is some really beautiful stuff on more that needs to be heard by more people. I can’t understand why their followup Hearts sucked so hard, when an album like this can express so much sensitivity and musicality. If you haven’t heard this album, please fix that, it really is a lost gem.

And there we go.

Searching for a Kite

The Carolinabirds email listserv has been on fire lately due to the incredible news that a Snail Kite (Rostrhamus sociabilis) has shown up near Lake Marion, South Carolina. This is the first record of a Snail Kite ever occurring north of Florida. The first ever. Needless to say, the Carolina birding community is really really excited, if that actually means anything at all, haha.

So I figured, hey, I have nothing better to do, why don’t I go seek out this creature? It sounds like it’s sticking around, and I don’t anticipate being in the Florida Everglades any time soon, and they’re rare there anyways, so why not give it a shot? I sketched out a quick itinerary, adding a second day to bring Huntington Beach State Park into the trip, and made the necessary preparations.

It was a long and grueling drive down, but after four hours I finally got off I-95 at the necessary exit. From there, I went further and further down unmarked rural roads. Every time I thought I’d gone too far and missed the unmarked turn, I spotted a noted landmark and knew I was on the right track. How in the world this bird was found in the first place, I will never know.

10 miles out from metaphorical Nowhere, I finally found myself at Elliott’s Crawfish Farm, where the bird had been spotted. Srsly, how the original discoverer or the Kite itself found this place is a complete mystery to me. I noted a lone birder standing by Pond #1, and after speaking with him, I learned that he’d been circling this pond for the past hour, and had not found the Kite. I helped him search for a few minutes before the eponymous Mrs. Elliott showed up with her toddler in a pickup trick, and gave us some tips on where it’d been seen that morning.

As we headed around, I suddenly noticed a dark bird flying low over Pond #2. Brought up the binoculars, and found myself looking at a slate-gray raptor, white base to the tail, and then the distinctive orange bill. Frickin’ Snail Kite, baby!!!

By the time we got to Pond #2, it had flown again and perched itself on a low overhanging branch in plain sight of our vantage point. Beautiful, beautiful bird. We got great binocular views, and it filled a scope view as well. I watched the Snail Kite for a full hour, as it flew to various perches around the pond, and unsuccessfully dove for crawfish several times. I hope this guy makes it okay; the theory regarding why he’s up here is that the drought and wildfires down in Florida have driven him desperate and up into this unfamiliar territory, eating crawfish instead of the usual Apple Snails. All indications are that he’ll stick around, but hopefully the crawfish diet will suit him just fine. I wanted to get to my hotel in Myrtle Beach in time for a dinner, so I bid farewell to the two newly-arrived birders who had joined the Kite’s entourage, caught one last glimpse of the Kite soaring to another perch, and headed back on the road.

Other birds noted: A cooperative Yellow-crowned Night-Heron at Pond #2, replete with long breeding-plumage head plumes, first time I’ve seen them with those plumes, cool stuff. Also, a soaring Wood Stork on the drive to Myrtle Beach. At first, my heart skipped a beat as I thought it might be a Swallow-tailed Kite, but no such luck. Of all my remaining Nemesis Birds, the Swallow-tailed Kite is the most beautiful, alluring siren of them all…someday, you will be mine…wow that sounds a little creepy, haha.

Photos from Royal National Park

An hour’s train ride south of Sydney
Hiked 10 km on the famous Coast Track
Probably one of the most beautiful parks I’ve ever visited

I believe those flowers are Heath Banksia (Banksia ericifolia), though I could definitely be wrong.

Anyways, it was just a fantastic walk. Coming to visit this park again may have actually become the #1 reason I would want to come back to Australia, overshadowing anything in Sydney or tropical north Queensland. Actually, the Great Barrier Reef comes close as well, but who knows how long that’ll be around. But yeah, my walk covered only the tiniest sliver of the park’s territory, and there’s some really different habitats in the other corners that I’d love to see someday. Just a great park in general, it gets my highest recommendation.

As for Sydney, I browsed through a Sydney Food Guide in the bookstore, and have now singled out some completely clutch hole-in-the-wall restaurants in the labyrinth commonly known as Sydney Chinatown. For dinner today, I walked into what looked like one of those apartment/business building complexes that nobody actually uses, went up one floor, and suddenly found the best Japanese ramen noodles I’ve ever had, for five dollars total. Swish.

But I’m also leaving for home on Sunday. Honestly, my fond memories of the program are much less intense these days, so it feels like the right time to head home. I had a great time on this mini-vacation, but it’s definitely time for me to dive back into the real world. See you there!

Rolling Down the Esplanade

Most weekends here, Saturday is like a weekday, filled with classes and field exercises, and Sunday is our only free day of the week, which most people spend lazily lounging around the Centre, reading books, listening to their iPods, and watching the rain. This weekend, we were tipped off on an Australian Soccer preseason game being played in Cairns, featuring two of the top teams in the league, and so we made plans with the staff to skip out early on Saturday and spend that night and all of Sunday in Cairns instead of at the Centre. Probably glad to get those troublesome kids off their hands, the staff agreed, transportation was arranged, and by Saturday afternoon we were off into the city, for the first time all semester.

Even Saturday morning was a bit of a break from class. The day started with community service work, as we helped TREAT (Trees for the Evelyn and Atherton Tablelands (we’re on the Atherton Tablelands, I have no idea where the Evelyn Tablelands are, sorry Evelyn!)) plant rainforest tree seedlings on an abandoned farm on the banks of the Barron River. Trowels in hand, we removed saplings from their pots and carefully planted them along the existing rainforest edge. Our little group of 16, including a one-armed kid (dislocated elbow from frisbee two weeks ago, not a fun thing to watch), with the help of a handful of regular TREAT volunteers, managed to plant over 2000 trees in just over two hours’ time. We were rewarded with an incredible barbeque at the planting’s end, I drank a lime-flavored drink that looked like mouthwash but tasted like lime brilliance, and we headed off to the Yungaburra Markets, a monthly event where vendors from all over the region gather to sell their goods. We had been regaled with tales involving firebreathers and jugglers performing amongst booths filled with inventive crafts and fresh fruits, but instead we arrived at a nearly desolate field populated by a handful of small gift sellers. The only substantive purchase made was a VHS copy of Biodome, if that says anything at all about what was available. How disappointing, but we were assured that this was not normal, and vowed to return next month. Afterwards, I followed a few of the girls into a nifty-looking shop in downtown Yungaburra, which turned out to be an unfathomable mistake as the girls spent the next hour trying on skirts, asking for my wholly uneducated opinion on them. I emerged completely shell-shocked and shaken to the bone, and we drove back to the Centre for a short afternoon of lectures before we finally loaded up the vans and headed into Cairns.

Cairns is the one large city in our area; it’s large enough to have a busy international airport, to give you a rough idea of its size. If you plan on ever visiting the Great Barrier Reef, you’ll ultimately come to Cairns, as it’s the gateway to the Reef which everybody comes through. Because of that, it’s a really touristy city, there’s Tourist Information Booths on nearly every block in addition to the dense concentration of Outdooring and Diving stores. To us though, it was civilization, and a chance to escape the increasingly suffocating boundaries of our relatively remote Centre.

We stayed at Gilligan’s Backpackers, a hostel in downtown Cairns, and though I’ve never stayed at a hostel before, you really don’t need to have any points of reference to tell that Gilligan’s was an incredibly nice hostel. It didn’t feel like a hostel at all, it felt more like a luxury 4-star hotel for young, attractive people. Instead of a ballroom, there was a nightclub attached to the hostel, and instead of fine dining, there was a retro bar and casual restaurant where I munched on Fish and Chips while watching rugby on a massive wall-sized television. But we didn’t stay at Gilligan’s for long, we dropped off our stuff and hailed a taxi to get to the football game.

I may have misled some people with information about this game, and part of it is due to my own misunderstanding: we were not going to watch a rugby game, or a soccer game, or an American football game, we were here to watch Australian football, a unique sport endemic to this continent which is best described as a cross between soccer and rugby. Instead of carrying the ball in for a score like American football and rugby, teams tried to kick the ball between goalposts like in soccer. Or at least, that’s as far as we could tell. None of us knew the rules as the taxi rolled up to the stadium, and as we bought our tickets for the uncovered, outdoor spectator area, it started to rain. By the time we found an open place to stand on the hill, it was pouring, driving rain. And it didn’t let up. We got absolutely soaked. My rain jacket was overwhelmed and even my t-shirt underneath got waterlogged. My khaki shorts got totally saturated, and even my boxers were dripping wet and soaked with rain. At times, it was raining so hard that we couldn’t even see the players on the field. It was pretty much a stereotypical Idiot Male scenario; men drinking beer and disregarding the pouring rain to watch guys on the field throw a ball around and then smash everyone into the ground. It was a total blast. At halftime too, a bunch of little kids were brought on to play some Australian soccer, and we all jokingly picked our Fantasy Stars of the Game as the uncoordinated schoolkids bumbled around in the rain. After they were done, some of the guys ran down to the field to high five their fantasy stars, and then the rest of the kids too. Hilarious. I don’t even know who won the game, we couldn’t see the important part of the scoreboard and didn’t really know the rules anyway, but we wooped and hollered and had a great time anyways. After the game, most of the group went clubbing, but instead I went to bed. Srsly, can you see me in a dance club? Ever? If I had to choose between clubbing, or helping girls shop for skirts, I’d probably…throw spears at Woolly Mammoths and watch football. And that was Saturday.

On Sunday, I didn’t feel like wandering around the city with bitter, hungover college kids, so I got suckered into joining a group of girls to ride the Skyrail into Kuranda. The Skyrail turned out to be a cablecar ride over the canopy of a rainforest, and it was one of the most touristy attractions I’ve ever seen. Fortunately, everyone else realized this too, and we spent most of the ride mocking the tourist brochures with our now superior knowledge of rainforest ecology. Near the end of the ride, we stopped over at an overlook to see Barron Falls, a very impressive waterfall that was swollen way past its usual capacity by the wet season that we’re in. The Skyrail journey ended in Kuranda, a town which seemed to be populated entirely by tourists or tourist shopowners, I’m not sure if it has any permanent residents otherwise. How absurd.

I soon found out that the whole reason the girls were here was because an Animal Park in Kuranda allowed you to hold a Koala, and so the girls were just OMG KOALAS and Blaine and I were suddenly trapped. We got to the park, and spent some time looking at kangaroos, wallabies, monitor lizards, and some other things, but then as we got closer to the Koala enclosure and the girls saw the Koalas for the first time, they started squealing, I just about lost my hearing, and wanted to blow up the sun. The girls paid another fifteen dollars to have their pictures taken while holding the Koalas, and as they posed with the Koalas and the other girls squealed even higher, I was crossing my fingers for apocalypse. By the end, I’d gotten dragged into a group photo with the Koalas, which I hope to never lay my eyes upon ever, and Blaine and I finally escaped the Koala enclosure. Oh well, I guess that was their payback for the Australian Soccer game, well-deserved then. Which ultimately means that I’d rather stand in the pouring rain for three hours watching a sport that I don’t even understand, rather than hold a koala? Amazing.

We rode the Skyrail back to Cairns, and headed for the famous Esplanade, a street along the beachside with tons of shops, restaurants, and a saltwater swimming lagoon. But once I got to the Esplanade, I saw something that I hadn’t seen in more than a year, and missed sorely: the ocean at low tide. Exposed mudflats. Shorebird habitat. Crunchtime.

Lauren and Blaine and I, the three birders, spent two hours on the Esplanade, and only covered 100 meters of its length, a frighteningly slow pace. The reason: in those two hours, we found almost 25 new species of birds for our lists, probably the highest density of new birds we’ve had all semester. I doubt that the Esplanade is an especially great birding spot in the grand scheme of it all, but since none of us had been to the Australian coast before, all of these birds were new for us. Even the abundant gulls flying around were a new species, the Silver Gull. The evening closed with massive flocks of Pied Imperial-Pigeons wheeling over the city, another exciting new species for us, and we hopped back into the vans. Before we even knew it, we were back home at the Centre.

In two weeks, we’ve got our mid-semester Spring Break, and I have no idea what I’ll be doing. Since I don’t want to go horseback riding for five days, or spend ten hours driving stick shift on the left side of the road down to the reportedly ‘totally sick’ Whitsunday Islands like other members of the group, I may be stuck with the Koala girls again. Hopefully, no more Koala-holding or skirt-shopping will happen, but even with those nightmare occurences, it was still a fun weekend. Rehab is going well thus far.