Monday, January 15, 2018

Gila Woodpecker

Gila Woodpecker (Carpentiro de Gila [woodpeckers are literally called Carpenters in Spansih])
Cabo San Lucas, Baja California Sur, Mexico
November 2017
Member of the Woodpecker Family
§A Gatling of Woodpeckers
A Climate-change Threatened Species

~true bird fact~ Even though many birds use cactus-based nests, this is the guy who creates most of them (at least in Saguaro and Mesquite plants). They excavate the holes working in pairs, and have to leave them to dry for several months in order for the cavity to become solid enough to use. After the woodpecker pair has moved on, many species will go on to use it. Pay it forward?

Seems gruff, but has a big heart
Goes as a Gila Monster every year for Halloween, can't get enough of that joke
Can often work so hard or long that he misses out on bonding time with family

Saturday, January 6, 2018

2017 Birding Year in Review: Wren it Rains it Pours

Hola bird fans. How was your 2017? Good? Not good? Extremely not good? Are you ready for 2018? Yeah, I am too. But I can't go into the New Year until I've left the old year behind and reflected on some of the best and most memorable birds we birded and blogs we blogged, as is our tradition.

First, some statistics: we did 44 blogs last year- a significant number for sure, but it represents an overall decline in blog production. What happened? Well, we really slowed down around the time your editor here got a new and somewhat more demanding job, leaving fewer hours in the week to bird and to write about it. Something we'll have to be figuring out going forward is whether or not this is a more sustainable pace, or if we'll be able to jump back up to higher blog numbers.

The most popular post this year was the surprise micro-viral Xmas sensation, Bird Ornament Detective. I was proud of how this one turned out, but especially of the concept, which was a spontaneously arrived-at rare bit of 'relevant content'. And I can tell you that I am for sure going to be Merlin-ing more non-bird objects. It would be good if I could more regularly produce blogs tied to current events. For more of this see my SuperbOwl post on the Atlanta Falcons, and my math-based arguments on why they, as a group of Falcons, would easily defeat the New England Patriots. As with so many of my bird-based predictions, this turned out to not be correct.

Our second most popular post was our BUrdZZFEED What Bird Are You? Quiz. Another outside the box idea that I'm glad I did, although it's possible that some of the popularity has to do with people actually mistaking my website for Buzzfeed. In this category see also my exhaustive breakdown of the State Bird Power Ranking (part 1 and 2). And of course there were the .gifs- both of the surprisingly bird-heavy Labyrinth and of a bunch of music videos. Even though they stubbornly refuse to achieve viral sensation status, I'm really happy with the template I've established for these .gif articles.

Probably the best thing that happened to our bird blog in 2017 is that we inspired some fan art for the first time. That was on our entry for Pyrrhuloxia, the excellent desert bird who should still just have a different name already, and it was done by the talented Ayelette Raviv. It was also one of my favorite photos of the year- for more good good bird pics, check out Verdin, and especially Greater Roadrunner.

Desert birds were something of a theme this year, and that's no coincidence. This year I've found that for better or worse most of my birds came from 3-4 big trips somewhere else rather than local birding. In this case that would trips to the Caribbean, South Texas, and most recently Baja California Sur, Mexico. This might be because I have less time for local birding or that I've already gotten so many of the photo-cooperative and easily identifiable local birds. Although I will say that when I was going through my photos for this post, I was heartened to see that there's still a lotta birds in the hopper.

So enough hemming and hawing, how did we do with our resolutions from last year? Honestly, it's a mixed bag. I actually did better with conquering old resolutions, such as the Painted Bunting, the Golden Eagle, and the aforementioned Roadrunner, rather than actually sticking with what I said I'd do last year. The only one I can really say I did was 'do some solo birding', which was what my trip to Texas was, but does doing it once even count? I definitely didn't do more local birding, if possible I got less confident in my camera knowledge, and never really approached the idea of showing my work anywhere outside of the context of this blog. But I feel like the good birds I saw this year have to count for something.

So let's give me a score of: Hangin' in There for 2017.

What about next year? Well, 1. I want to put in some effort on the less glamorous local birds. Really see about some of those ducks, sparrows, and finches who show up on every local e-bird list and actually learn them. Maybe I'll even ID a gull correctly.

2. Come up with a schedule that works for me and incorporates some of the changes I want to make to this blog. Right now I'm thinking maybe 2 new birds per month and 1-2 entries that are more timely/bigger/weirder.

And you know what, let's just do those 2 resolutions. Another thing I've learned this year is that I'm happy with my current level of birding involvement, and that while I love the hobby there is such a thing as taking it too far for me. 2018- all about keeping it stable here on bird blog, and hopefully out in the world.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Bird Ornament Detective

Happy Holidays nerds! One of the nicest things about the holiday season for your amateurnithologist is the prominent placement of birds in decoration and festive embellishment around this time of year. Whether they're adorning your Christmas Tree, Hanukkah Bush, or your Kwanzaa Kinora, these birds embody the spirit of peace and love the holidays are meant to represent.

But what are they though? A question only asked by the most compulsive of birders, sure, but one still worth considering, at least academically. Could a bird ornament be IDed? It turns out there's a lot of variety in how much veracity these ornaments have. The core philosophies of creation seem to range from extremely intentional recreation of a specific species to "make a bird". Today we're going to be looking at a couple of examples. Pull a cozy chair up to the fireplace and sip your hot cocoa as you join us for this pedantic holiday exercise.

As a fun bonus we're going to be running the very impressive Merlin Bird ID app through its paces to see if it can offer any additional insights beyond my own arcane system.

Key Features: Drab coloration, rufous crown, brown streak across chest, sparrow-shaped
Best Guess: Bachman's SparrowMerlin says:  Brown Thrasher
illustrated images copyright

I feel it's clear they were going for a certain type of bird at least, but how much further they went than that is anybody's guess. There are a few defining features that could be used for identification, but sadly most of them rule out real birds. The yellow eye is most damning, but the small black beak also doesn't help. At this point it's worth noting that many bird ornaments don't have feet, but rather flexible wires, which to my knowledge is not consistent with any known bird species. Still, the red crown and brown streaked breast make me fairly confident of my identification. This raises another question however- why would anyone make an ornament that looks like a Bachman's Sparrow?
Ornament Rating: 🐦🐦🐦

Key Features: Prominent red coloration, black features including crown, chest, eye stripe [left]
Yellow head, black, curved bill, blue wing spot [right]
Best Guesses: Cardinal [left] Yellow-headed Blackbird [right]
Merlin Says: Northern Red Bishop [left] Yellow-throated Toucan [right]

Terrible, just terrible, in both cases. The red bird, to me, is clearly meant to represent a Cardinal (the crest really gives it away), a really Christmas-y bird. However, it's got these needless features that make it completely incompatible with any real bird. If you were already 90% of the way to making a serviceable cardinal, why would you make a black crest and eye stripe? The other bird is just as bad, having a combination of colors and body shape that make it mostly impossible. The most prominent feature is the yellow head and dark body, which rules out pretty much everything other than the Yellow-headed blackbird all by itself. You could be extremely generous and assume that the blue wing is a kind of opalescent sheen that you can sometimes seen on black birds. I did find some examples of budgies with yellow heads and blue bodies, but the tail and beak take this too far away from the essential shape of the bird to be what they intended.
Ornament Ratings: 🐦 (each scored half a bird, together they get 1)

Key Features: Owl shape, prominent white mask, black eye ring, dark wings
Best Guess: Northern Saw-whet Owl
Merlin Says: Northern Saw-whet Owl (We got one!!)
"What if Bratz, but an Owl" a criticism of this ornament (which may or may not be a promotional item from the ill-fated owl adventure, Guardians of Ga'hoole) might go. But then you remember that a Northern Saw-Whet Owl is actually a thing, and that this looks almost exactly like it. While I'm not fully convinced that they thought they were making anything other than a cute owl, this ornament gets high marks for accuracy. Needs a little more streaking and a lighter breast, but the face is pretty darn close.
Ornament Ratings: 🐦🐦🐦🐦

Key Features:  Bluish back, yellow belly, white eye mask, upturned tail
Best Guess: Blue Tit 
Merlin says: Bananaquit (?!)

Blue Tit Body Illustration
This is really close, in my opinion, to a real Chickadee or Nuthatch of some type. The only issue is really the shape of the white eye mask. The shape of the bird is just right, and for the most part the colors are all within throwing distance of the real thing. In fact the ornament's so detailed that I'm almost feeling like my ID is the problem, and there's some real bird that looks just like this.
Ornament Ratings:🐦🐦🐦🐦

Key Features: Silvery-grey, prominent tuft, black beak, darker wing
Best Guess: Black-crested Titmouse
Merlin Says: Black-crested Titmouse!

Apologies for the very bad photo, call this one a #worstbirdornamentpic. To be honest, this ornament is just about perfect. The only criticism that I'd make is that as a group of birds, the titmouse family is not particularly distinctive, with really only the crest and overall shape being what clues me in.
Ornament Ratings:🐦🐦🐦🐦

Key Features: White, crested, black ring around the neck, spotted wings, striped tail
Best Guess: Leucistic Bluejay
Merlin Says: Mourning Dove

This is undeniably a leucistic Bluejay, and was clearly made either by someone with an obsessive knowledge of birds or someone who was trying to make a bluejay, but ran out of blue dye. That black necklace really is what gives it away. Either way, a brilliant post-modern deconstruction of our ideas about the bird ornament genre.
Ornament Ratings:🐦🐦🐦🐦🐦

There you have it birdfans. Now you have all the example you need for how to irritate your friends and relatives by flailingly 'identifying' the birds hanging on your own tree at Christmastime. And I was pretty impressed by Merlin as well, although it's got a long way to go before I can start using it to identify pokemon and stuff.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Cactus Wren

Cactus Wren
Cabo San Lucas, Baja California Sur, Mexico
November 2017
Member of the Wren Family
§A Chime of Wrens
State Bird of Arizona

Favorite Cactus: Saguaro

~Loves to build nests in cacti, using their naturally spiky nature to defend their roosts. They build tons of them, way more than most birds. Some of these appear to be decoy nests, meant to distract predators. Others they just sleep in. Some males might use them to start secret second or third families. Shady behavior to be sure- it's not wonder they've got such a contentious relationship with Curve-billed Thrashers, who they often share the neighborhood with.

Gets into all sorts of trouble with the law
Sensitive to spicy foods, even though you'd expect her to be into them
Always spoiling for a fight