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Showing posts from 2020

Eared Quetzal Trip Report

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You probably don’t need me to tell you that today (November 3rd, 2020) is Election Day. If you haven’t already, please go vote. If you have, it might be healthy to think about something else for a bit. To this end I offer a humble trip report from early October when Nell and I headed to southeast Arizona. The primary target of our trip was a pair of famed Eared Quetzals that had been reported since June this summer. Nell and I were hesitant to chase these birds for months because they’re the kind of birds that draw crowds and, for some reason, we’re uncomfortable with crowds this year. However, the birds persisted through summer and fall, sometimes disappearing only to be re-found in nearby canyons. With the crowds thinning by early October we could almost hear the quetzals squealing to us. Finally, a series of coincident reports of other incredible birds in southern Arizona came through the birding grapevine, coalescing into a perfect itinerary for a quick tour of southeast Arizona. J

Getting Started – Birding by Ear with Merlin

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If you've been reading my blog, maybe my rambling about birds (coupled with a complete lack of public social life and a yearning for brief relief from constant confrontation with the absurd cruelty of present reality) has inspired a bird curiosity . Maybe you've taken note of the birds singing outside and maybe you've even used your phone to record a few minutes of sound. Nice. In my previous post I hinted at the virtues of listening without assigning labels to sounds, but there is a very big flip-side to that: there is also tremendous value in being able to name the birds you hear. Learning the voice and patterns of specific birds not only develops a general listening proficiency, but adds depths of nuance, associations and connections to a purely aesthetic or utilitarian mode of listening. It can turn a bird sound jumble into a choir of kin. Moving beyond a vague concept of “bird”, a named bird becomes familiar. When you observe the behavior of a named bird, such as a Gr

Grassland of the Pipit

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A word of advice: record the places you go. It is easy to forget how remarkable everyday sounds are until you are far away, both in distance and in time. Below is one of the only sound recordings I made during my 2015 field season in the grasslands of Alberta, Canada. One of my tasks for that research project was to conduct line transects where I would write down every bird seen and heard while walking a predetermined line for a set amount of time. Before doing each line transect there is a buffer period where you are required to be still, watch, and listen. On this morning I set up my cheap Zoom H2 field recorder to document the buffer period. (Headphones recommended) At the time I was new enough to birding that I didn’t fully realize I wouldn’t get to hear many of these grassland birds' songs again for a long time, including Savannah Sparrows, Grasshopper Sparrows and Long-billed Curlews. All of these birds stop during migration or even spend winters in Arizona, but while they

The Phainopepla is a curious bird

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The Phainopepla is a curious bird. Their tall crest and feathers of silky black or gray are accentuated by piercing blood-red eyes. They reveal luminous white wing patches in their somewhat slow yet buoyant flight. In the Sonoran Desert they fiercely defend their clumps of desert mistletoe from intruders with an inquisitive “Wert?” A charming and charismatic bird at first glance, the closer one looks into any aspect of its natural history, one realizes the veracity of Allan Philips' claim in The Birds of Arizona : "Phainopeplas have no respect for the rules." "And there isn't any need for you to doubt it" -Rum Tum Tugger Phainopepla nitens – sketch by the author "Wert?" call The Phainopepla song is a modest volume series of burry and polyphonic phrases, evocative of blackbird and shrike vocalizations in their complexity. Those that work closely with Phainopepla have noted a bizarre vocal behavior when they're distressed while being handled: th

Roseate Burrow #18

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In the Summer of 2019 I worked on Stratton Island in Maine for National Audubon's Project Puffin. There were no puffins but many birds bred on the island including four species of tern. While Common Terns were the most...common, there was a sizeable Roseate population in the center of the colony, a few Arctic Terns scattered throughout, and Least Terns on the sandy beach landing. We had many intimate and intense interactions with the terns that summer. We regularly checked nests, counted eggs, weighed, measured and banded chicks all while the adult terns screamed in our ears, pecked the tops of our heads with surprising force, and aggressively covered us with tern excrement. Typical tern greetings in slow motion It wasn’t all chaos though. We also spent a lot of time in platform blinds throughout the colony which allowed us to observe the birds in relative peace. Courtship dances, copulation, eggs hatching, chicks hopping up and down awkwardly flapping their wings. We watched certa

Water in the Gulch

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It's another hot dry day in Phoenix. Wildfires are burning across Arizona including the fifth largest fire in state history, 30 miles northeast of where I sit. The birds out the window have their beaks agape, increasing their evaporative cooling while also appearing to share my slack-jawed incredulity at the relentless low-desert summer heat. Normally at this time of year I do biological field work in cooler climes but with many field seasons being suspended this year due to COVID-19, I am plodding through summer with the rest of Phoenix. Through the magic of digital recording, however, I’m able to time-travel to a mere three months ago: It is in the mid-60s and after a sudden early spring downpour, the normally bone-dry gulch behind my house is full of flowing water. Birds Make Sound · 200312 1624 Gulch (Headphones Recommended) -- Recorded with Sony PCM-A10 and FEL Stereo Clippy EM172s The somewhat unusual aural combination of flowing water with Sonoran desert regulars like a whi

Whitewater Draw Mystery

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Listen to this: (Headphones recommended) It's been over a year since I recorded this in March 2019 and I’m only just beginning to understand what it is. We arrived in the dark of night, the graded dirt road violently vibrating my Honda Fit. After a few minutes of straining to hear, I turned off the radio and listened to the sound of every piece of my car and body rattle.  We pulled into the dirt parking area, shut off the engine and stepped outside. Suddenly free from the confines of the car, our ears began to open up beyond the immediate vicinity, expanding outward in every direction into the darkness...until we heard them. My girlfriend Nell and I had come to Whitewater Draw on the last night of February to experience the Sandhill Cranes that winter at this 600-acre wetland in the southeast corner of Arizona. A huge striking bird, I had only previously seen handfuls of migrating cranes off rural county roads outside Phoenix. Hearing tens of thousands of them at night though, di