Monday, December 29, 2014

2014: A Birding Year in Review

At the beginning of this year, I posted some birding resolutions for the coming year. Well, it's our last blog post of the year, and I think it's a good time to look back at some of those goals and see just how much we accomplished, as well as setting some new ones. Were they mostly amateurnifails or amateurnisuccesses? It's a time for reflection, a time for introspection, it's the amateurnithologist year in review.

1) Take a picture of a Golden Eagle

Amateurnithologist should have set this goal as 'take a million pictures of bald eagles' since it was really their year. I saw them probably a dozen times this year, but never even spotted a golden eagle. This goal will have to continue forward, since I still totes wanna see that bird.

2) See a Roseate Spoonbill

Status: Semi-success
Well, I definitely got to see this bird, and I even got a picture of it, so maybe it's a full success. But I just can't get over how disappointing it is that I didn't have my good 'birdin camera' on this very eventful trip to Florida. It broke shortly beforehand and I had to use a backup, hence why there haven't been many pictures from it post to the blog. We're a victim of our commitment to quality here on Bird Blog. Next year maybe I will get a picture of a Spoonbill worth a portraiture entry.

3) Get a good picture of a Vulture

Status: Good Job!
Actually was able to knock the whole North American Vulture Family off the blog list this year, with solid entries for both Black and Turkey Vultures. It was most exciting that I finally got to find some at rest and take intimate portraiture shots that you don't often see of these birds. Condors, my 'reach goal', were not to be had, but they were always unlikely.

4) Blog about more ducks

Status: Duckcess!
We managed to get a few good ducks on the blog in this year, and have several more in the queue. Most importantly, I paid more attention to ducks in my day to day birding, and as a result got quite a few interesting ones, including the inexplicable Lake Merritt Tufted Duck and the Surf Scoter that was my 'duck to look for'.

5)  Track down the elusive Snail Kite

Status: DID NOT DO
Yeah, when I went and visited his home, there were simply no raptors to be seen. I think I'd need to dedicate a lot more energy to finding this guy, and frankly he doesn't seem worth it. If Snail Kite happens, he happens, if not, I'm willing to let this one go. I did get a ton of other raptors this year, many of which will be blogged about in the new year, including the above Merlin.

6) Find a Painted Bunting

Status: Welllllll... 
This Painted Bunting Pic (PBP) was taken by Amateurnithologist's mom at Green Cay Wetlands in Florida. So, since I worded the goal 'find the Painted Bunting', you could call it a success. I now know where he is. However, never one to rest on his laurels, the Amateurnithologist will not be satisfied until he sees one himself and can put a quality picture of it up on the blog. Next year Painted Bunting, next year!

Total Success Rate: 50%
I'd say halfway getting to your new years resolutions is better than most people manage, so I'm going to call this one a success. So, just to recap, what am I going to be trying to do in 2015? I think this year's goals are going to be mostly local, trying to take in the rarer birds that I know are here, but haven't gotten to see yet. It will the year of the California bird.

Three goals that carry forward
1. Golden Eagle
2. Califonia Condor
3. Painted Bunting

and three new ones
4. Audubon Society blog (expertly named Audublog) posted recently about Owling California. It seems California is positively lousy with the things. I'm a huge owl fan, as seen in entries about the Barn and Burrowing Owls, and would be excited to get, let's say... Two More Owls this year.
5. Sitting nearly right under your Bird Blogger's nose are the Farrallon Islands one of the great birding destinations. You don't need to travel half way around the world to see Puffins, and this year, I'm hoping to get out there by boat and capture some images of Tufted Puffins.
6. Road Runner. I just want a picture of a road runner. He lives in, like, all of our deserts. Let's make it happen.

Thanks for joining us on this journey, loyal readers. Join us next year for another fantastic year of birding amateurishly.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal aka. Common Cardinal aka. Redbird (colloq.)
Chicago, Illinois, USA
November 2014
Member of the Cardinals and Piranaga Tanagers (whatever that means) family
§A Conclave of Cardinals§
State bird of Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia. More state bird titles than any other bird

~true bird fact~ One of the more territorial birds, Cardinals will aggressively attack their own reflections in windows and other reflective surfaces. These imaginary battles can last for hours. 


Totally buff (and a big showoff about it)
Both starts and resolves conflicts very easily
Drove girlfriend's car into a ditch recently

The brains of the relationship
Coffee aficionado
Kind of a nag, but it's really for his benefit

Friday, December 19, 2014

Cedar Waxwing

Cedar Waxwing
Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia, Canada
August 2014
Member of the Waxwing Family
§A Museum of Waxwings§ (eyeroll)

~true bird fact~ One of the few North American birds that subsists on a mostly fruit-based diet, the Cedar Waxwing has all kind of berry facts associated with him. [berryfact 1] When a berry-laden branch is only accessible to one bird at a time, often members of the flock will form an assembly line, passing berries to each other from beak to beak to ensure everyone gets to eat. [berrryfact 2] Sometimes, a waxwing's trademark tail band is orange instead of yellow. This is because he has been eating a berry with a certain kind of pigment. [berryfact 3] Because of their heavy fruit diet, waxwings are the rare bird that occasionally gets drunk by eating fermented berries (awesome! party on dude!). This can lead to the inebriated birds flying into cars or windows, or sometimes simply dying of alcohol poisoning (oh... not so awesome).

Cool, but a lot of work goes into it
Lots of high fives among cedar waxwings
Often egg each other on into engaging in dangerous stunts
"I just like to have fun!" said defensively

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Elsie Roemer Bird Sanctuary

Let's be frank, your amateurnithologist is in over his head here. I never realized how difficult shorebirds could be until I visited the Elsie Roemer Bird Sanctuary in beautiful Alameda, California. They are pretty much innumerable here.

That's a lotta birds. But not only that, dear reader, that's a lotta different types of birds.

When I visited, back in October, I kind of assumed I had see probably 4 or 5 different species of shorebirds. Once I started doing my research, I wasn't so sure. According to very reliable sources at, the Else Roemer Bird Sanctuary is home to no less than 147 species of birds. What??? I didn't even know there were that many birds.

Rather than attempt to profile all of them now, I'll share a few that I saw and share my current best guess. Did I egregiously mislabel a bird? Sound off in the comments! I promise I won't get mad at you.

Marbled Godwit

Elegant Tern (center)

OR Caspian Tern OR Royal Tern (distinguished based on size of tern and color of bill. But who knows, life is uncertain)

Black-bellied Plover
OR Pacific Golden Plover (could be really anything, apparently distinguishable by his "white rump", but your amateurnithologist is dubious)
Constantly looks annoyed, even when not

Also spotted at the sanctuary were our old friends
Long-billed Curlew (aka. Candlestick Bird)
Willet (ft. above in 2nd picture along with godwits)
Black Phoebe
& Snowy Egret
Among probably many others

We attempt to capture the utter bird chaos with the follow .gif

By the way, this bird sanctuary is named after a local conservationist, best known for her efforts to preserve the San Francisco Bay's natural salt marsh habitat, which was being drained and developed at a breakneck pace in her time. Her park now provides shelter for, the aforementioned 147 birds, including endangered species like Heerman's Gull and the California Clapper Rail, which is kind the ultimate reward for a fighter for birds, I suppose.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Trumpeter Swan

Trumpeter Swan
Lincoln Park, Chicago, Illinois, USA
Member of the Duck, Goose, and Swan Family
Largest Waterfowl
Heaviest North American Bird
§A Regatta of Swans§

~true bird fact~ Trumpeter Swans are one of the few birds to come back from the brink of extinction. By 1900 it was believed that they had been hunted to extinction for their meat, skin, eggs, and feathers (which were believed to make the best possible quill for a quill pen). However, small populations still survived in sparsely inhabited and hard to reach places like Alaska, central Canada, and small mountain valleys in middle America. Efforts to preserve the remaining swans and reintroduce them began, and at first populations remained dangerous small. Recently however, populations have begun to rebound, quadrupling in the past 35 years. Today Trumpeter Swans are again beginning to live in some of the places they were once hunted out of. An inspiring and hopeful story for your holiday season!

A mind like a steel trap
Finds weird things to be fun or entertaining, like doing her taxes
Gets stressed out on long trips. Not a good travel companion

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Long-billed Curlew

Long-billed Curlew aka. Sicklebird aka. Candlestick Bird
Cambria, California, USA
Member of the Sandpiper Family
★Largest Shorebird in North America
Largest Bill of Any Shorebird
§A Skein of Curlews§

~true bird fact~ This is an especially interesting one for me, your amateurnithologist, as a San Francisco Bay Area emigree. Candlestick Point was named for these birds, which once lived there in the thousands. By the time Candlestick Park (home of the Giants) was completed, the birds were all but extinct in the area. In fact, they were so overhunted (and have such a restricted range) that they were once considered Near Threatened by the IUCN. Happily Curlews have made something of a comeback in the last 50 years or so.

Would decorate her home with a lot of native art
Thinks a long time before speaking. Goes 'hmmmmmm'
Smiles when being spoken to
Introduces you to new foods and teas

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Black Guillemot

Black Guillemot aka. Sea Pigeon aka. Tystie (?)
Bird Islands, Nova Scotia, Canada
Member of the Auks, Murres, and Puffins Family
§A Loomery of Guillemots§

~true bird fact~ A truly impressive diver. Can go as deep at 165 feet below the water and can stay down for nearly two and a half minutes. Hey, if you don't think it's impressive, you can try it.

Wise and patient. Mentorly
Likes minty flavors
Likes warm weather, yet lives pretty much exclusively in really cold places. Dreams of Florida
Somewhat disconnected from the problems a modern bird faces

Wednesday, November 5, 2014


Oceano Dunes Natural Preserve, Oceano, California, USA
Member of the Sandpiper Family
§A Grain of Sanderlings§

~true bird fact~ Sanderlings are one of those extremely long distance migrators. They only breed in the high-arctic tundra, but they spend the winter in a variety of southern locales. Some travel as many as 6000 miles in a season to winter in sunny South America. You gotta go what you gotta do!

Tax dodger
Cares first and foremost about taking care of his friends
Thinks his nonsense is way funnier than it actually is
People are secretly intimidated by his bad temper, but no one is willing to bring it up, so he doesn't even know it's a problem

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Life of Birds.gif Part 3: The Spookening

Mwa ha ha! Happy Halloween! To me, the amateurnithologist, there's nothing spookier or more appropriate for the season than birds. Why? Well, basically because birds fit every mood or season for me. You could say I'm CRAZY for birds! Now, like the mad (amateur) scientist I am, I will subject you to the most creeptastic spooktacular bird .gifs I could gather from BBC Nature's 1998 bird doc, The Life of Birds.

Boo! This haunted hawk is a perfect example of bird getting into the spirit of the season! What's that? Not enough bird skeleton to scare you? How about this-

Now that's what I'm talking about! What's going on in this moving image? I'd tell you, but isn't it more frightening not to know?

Know what else is scary? Dinosaur birds! Also, drowning. This imagine deviously combines your two greatest fears!

And what is the only thing prehistoric birds fear? Gigantic ancient eagles! No, it's not silly looking at all, it's super scary. Believe me, if you were there you'd be scared.

Enormous flocks of birds have been scary since, at least, The Birds. Imagine if these guys all decided they wanted to peck you to death or something. You must be positively quaking in your boots by now, so I won't go into any further detail. This is a family blog.

You know who's not afraid of giant masses of birds? Sir Attenborough! He's the hero of this grisly tale. Would you make it out alive? Well, that's it for spooky .gifs for this year. I decided to relent and let you off easy, lest all my readers be scared to death and my blog becomes a ghost town. I mean, more than it already is.

In the mood for more .gifs? They may not be spooky, but they are spookily high quality and interesting! Parts 1 and 2 available here! I hope you've enjoyed our scary bird showcase this last month. May all your trick-or-treaters have bird related costumes! See you next fall! Eeh hee hee hee hee!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Mountain Chickadee

Welcome back to bird blog's Spooktober special! Today's bird might not be as shockingly scarifying as last week's Turkey Vulture, but you wouldn't know it by the company he keeps-
Ahh! I know, it is pretty terrifying, but try to read on. More than just being a frightening image, this picture raises some haunting questions. A bird on a spooky skull, wow, how did amateurnithologist even get such an awesome Halloween picture? Did he make a deal with the bird devil (presumed to be a goose at this point)? And why is it so mysteriously blurry, is it the spirits of the dead communicating with us from the other side? Or perhaps it was shot through a sliding glass door. Like all the best scary stories, I'm afraid this blog will leave these questions suspiciously unanswered. On with the profile!

Mountain Chickadee
Graeagle, California, USA
Member of the Titmouse and Chickadee Family
§A Dissimulation of Chickadees§

~true bird fact~ Sometimes a bird just doesn't have very many interesting facts about it. My usual sources were full of hopefully worded tidbits, but I like to think everyone involved understood that these details were kind of boring. They make a cap for their nest to keep their eggs warm when they're away! They only need to eat 10 calories per day! Mountain Chickadee Eggs take a week longer to incubate than Black-capped Chickadee Eggs! Wow! The closest I got to a really fascinating thing was that they are colloquially called Cheeseburger Birds, because this is what their call sounds like, Cheese-bur-ger (to an insane person presumably).

Loves rustic DIY projects. Big into Pinterest type stuff
Advocates for her friends a little too enthusiastically without realizing it is not really what they want (ex. Complains about a friend's meal to a waiter when the friend was actually only a little disappointed that they forgot the, i don't know, cornbread, and would have rather just let it be)
Always has a lot of questions for you. Good at keeping up the conversation
Uses the word "discoveries" describe things she has bought

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Turkey Vulture

Mwahahaha! Welcome back to Amateurnithologist's Spooktacular Shocktober Birdstravaganza! We continue our exploration of the spookiest birds with a really prized find. That's right, Turkey Vulture is finally joining the blog as I've had a few lucky occasions lately to finally get a good picture of these guys. These two pictures were taken at Mount Diablo (scarily topical!).
What do you think of when you think of spooky birds? Probably owls first (and for good reason, they are heavily connected to the supernatural after all). Perhaps crows? At some point you start to think about the only bird that you ever hear about eating human flesh, the vulture. The Turkey Vulture is the western hemisphere's archetypal scavenger-bird. You might know him better as a Turkey Buzzard, or simply Buzzard. The bird that outlaws are left to in the desert. That guy.
It might not surprise you that we here at bird blog have a different perspective on vultures to offer you. First and foremost, Vultures serve an important purpose and occupy an otherwise empty rung of the avian food chain. In fact, vultures are so important to the ecosystem that on other continents, there are convergently evolved bird that are almost identical. Furthermore, some cultures see the Vulture as a sacred being because of his role in the intersection between life and death. Zoroastrians in India and Tibetan Buddhists are both known to practice "sky burials", in which the dead are left somewhere high up for Vultures to consume them, thus releasing their souls. Great job vultures!

Turkey Vulture aka. Turkey Buzzard aka. aka. Buzzard aka. John Crow aka. Carrion Crow
Cambria, California, USA
Member of the Vulture Family
§A Committee of Vultures§

~true bird fact~ They really are harbingers of death though. Turkey Vultures have an extremely refined sense of smell, assisted by an unusually large 'smell section' in their brains, which allows them to sniff out a special gas emitted by newly dead corpses. Very few birds use their sense of smell for much of anything, but Turkey Vultures can find their food using smell alone.

Meticulously organized. A real bean counter
Appreciates the chance to 'let loose' with coworkers every once in a while
Never showy, but contributes a lot
Knowledge gained through studying and reading a lot, not through innate talent

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Mystery Bird: Anxious Bird

Church Lake, Nova Scotia, Canada
Best Guess: Brown-headed Nuthatch (out of usual range?)

Obsesses over timing. Always thinks about being 'too late' or 'too early'
Puts everything on an immaculately color-coded calendar. Good at planning
Awkwardly freezes up at parties and uncomfortable social situations. Better one on one. A little better.
Really thoughtful gift giver. Knows just what you like

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Razorbill / Great Auk Talk

Bird Islands, Nova Scotia, Canada
Member of the Auks, Murres, and Puffins Family
§A Strop of Razorbills§

~true bird fact~
Hide the babies and the grandmas, unless it's a sassy grandma who raps or something. This bird loves sex. Razorbills are one of those famous monogamous type birds who picks a partner and then sticks together. Sounds charming and quaint, right? Well, let's just say they the fire doesn't go out for our Razorbill couple. Quoth Wikipedia- "The pair will mate up to 80 times in a 30 day period to ensure fertilization". Sure Razorbill, to ensure fertilization, that's what you're having all that sex for.
As long time readers know, one of my jobs as amateurnithologist is to come up with imagined personality traits for birds. These ideas are usually snap judgements, vaguely impressions gained from spending time around the bird, or conclusions I come to based on a highly dangerous and mystical mind-melding techniques. Sometimes, however, your opinion of a bird changes based on your research. To be honest, I never would have pegged Razorbills as enthusiastic lovers. They seem more like fighters to me. Maybe it's the name (and it is probably the most bad ass name among birds), or maybe it's that their closest relative is the extinct Greak Auk. Since I'm not so sure about Razorbill's personality anymore let's talk about his ancestor instead.
John Gerrard Keulemans, Public Domain

This impressive bird was the northern hemisphere's convergent evolution of penguins. Almost three feet tall and with a razor sharp bill almost as long his wings, this flightless bird cut quite an imposing figure. Of course not imposing enough to avoid being hunted to death by explorers. They were used extensively for their meat, their feathers, and as kindling for fires (no kidding, their flesh was oily enough that it was the only source of long burning fuel in places that were too far north to have trees). As Great Auk supplies dwindled, the demand for them and their extraordinarily large eggs only increased with wealthy Europeans. One was killed in England by sailors who thought the bird was a witch in disguise.
The final nail was driven into their coffin when a previously unreachable colony in Iceland was discovered. Ironically, museums who wanted specimens for preservation were responsible for killing the last birds in 1844. They were strangled to death, because the Great Auk as a species apparently hadn't been through enough already. I always hold out hope that extinctions like this turn out to be false, like the miraculous Coelacanth. They are, after all, sea birds, and if there's one place we perhaps haven't explored perfectly it's the Arctic Ocean. A report of a sighting in 1858 holds out a little hope for this kind of thing. Like his contemporary, the Dodo, the Great Auk has gained a place in culture as one of the few birds we've really gotten to see go extinct. Great Auk regret is a fairly common theme in literature, and wikipedia lists a number of depressing sounding children's books especially on the topic.

We'll close with an Ogden Nash poem about the bird

A Caution to Everybody
Consider the auk;
Becoming extinct because he forgot how to fly, and could only walk.
Consider man, who may well become extinct
Because he forgot how to walk and learned how to fly before he thinked.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Great Black-backed Gull

A lot of people say to me "Amateurnithologist, huh? Maybe you should change your name since you're such a bird expert now!" Then they usually take my lunch and shove me into a locker, because the world is filled with mean bullies. On the other hand though, I can see the point they're trying to make. I have gotten better at this birding thing. I mean, probably, right? I'm correctly identifying more birds in the field, people are asking me bird related questions in my real life, and I recently got accepted into an awesome bird picture calendar. But something still nags at me, keeping me from saying I'm truly a moderately-well-versed-nithologist. If I want to figure out if I've really gotten better, I'll need a rematch with my old foe, seagulls. For a brief perusal of my embarrassing history with seagulls, click here, here, and definitely here. Ok, that was demoralizing, but let's give it a try~

Great Black-backed Gull
Bird Island, Nova Scotia, Canada
Member of the Gull Family
★Largest Gull
§A Flotilla of Gulls§

~real bird quote~
"While cruising along the bleak and barren coasts of southern Labrador I learned to know and admire this magnificent gull, as we saw it sailing on its powerful wings high above the desolate crags and rocky islets of that forbidding shore, its chosen summer home. Its resemblance to the bald eagle was striking, as it soared aloft and wheeled in great circles, showing its broad black back and wings in sharp contrast with its snow-white head and tail, glistening in the sunlight. It surely seemed to be a king among the gulls, a merciless tyrant over its fellows, the largest and strongest of its tribe. No weaker gull dared to intrude upon its feudal domain; the islet it had chosen for its home was deserted and shunned by other less aggressive waterfowl, for no other nest was safe about the castle of this robber baron, only the eider duck being strong enough to defend its young."
-Arthur Cleveland Bent, Life Histories of North American Gulls and Terns, 1921

~true bird fact~ It's true, what Arthur Bent said up there. The Great Black-backed is a tough bird. Here is a *not great* image I captured of him chasing away the notoriously chicken Bald Eagle. This was a behavior I observed many times on my birding trips. This bird fears nothing, is huge (5 foot wingspan), and has been known to swallow up smaller gulls and puffins (no!) in one bite. Well, he fears nothing except the most deadly animal of all (turns out its man). In the 1800's Black-backed gull feathers were considered extremely fashionable, and so the gull was hunted to the point of serious population depletion. After the feather trade ended in the 1900's, the population recovered, thanks in large part to the expansion of garbage dumps that gulls could easily feed at.

Exactly as tough as everyone thinks he is
Had a bad childhood. Doesn't know any other way to do things
Has a menacing calm to him
Just a real bad dude with real bad 'tude overall
Makes an example of those who get in his way

 /!\ Trigger Warning: Dead Bird /!\

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Black-capped Chickadee

Black-capped Chickadee
Cavendish, Prince Edward Island, Canada
Member of the Titmouse and Chickadee Family
★State Bird of Massachusetts and Maine
§A Banditry of Chickadees§

~true bird fact~ Chickadees are tiny, tiny birds, so you might expect them to be kind of dumb. They do have super-small brains, after all. However, all evidence points to them actually being very bright- they've got an extremely complex system of communication, having different calls for alarms, contact calls, identifying specific other birds, or even other flocks. They can also remember food that they've stored in hundreds of different places. They even appear to have some kind of social hierarchy within their flocks. How do they do this? Well, apparently Chickadee neurons die off in huge numbers every year in the autumn, allowing them to grow new neurons which quickly pick up new and useful information. In other words they never run out of room to learn new things.

Curiosity and mischievous nature often gets her into trouble
Precocious vocabulary, very dramatic
Even grumpy old people can't help but smile at her positive attitude
Orphaned by her parents at a young age