Monday, March 24, 2014

Crested Guan//Hell Chicken

As an amateur bird enthusiast, my interest is always peaked when birds get a little bit of attention in the news. You can imagine how excited I was when I saw a headline like this one, from CNN.

Scientists Unveil Dinosaur Dubbed 'the chicken from hell'
or heard this story, from NPR

The 500-Pound 'Chicken From Hell' Likely Ate Whatever It Wanted

An illustrator's conception of Anzu wyliei.
Wow! A 10 foot tall, 600 pound bad-ass bird. Sounds pretty exciting. Most importantly, Anzu wyliei, as hell chicken is being called now, is the largest species of this type of bird/dino ever discovered in North America and gives scientists some insights into the development of modern birds. In fact, paleontologists have long considered birds to be the only real example of surviving dinosaurs. They share unique evolutionary features, like hollow bones and nest building behavior. The fact is, feathers fossilize so poorly that scientists today are unsure of which of our most beloved and famous dinosaurs were actually covered in pretty little feathers. Today's bird might not be quite as old as hell chicken, but he had some real staying power.

Crested Guan
Guanacaste, Costa Rica
Member of the Guan/Curassow Family

You can see the resemblance, right? Crested Guan here belongs to one of the oldest families of birds. Fossils of this sort of fellow date back as far as 50 million years ago. For reference, the dinosaurs all went extinct 66 million years ago. Some scientists have speculated that this bird's roots go back even further. What this guy is is essentially a large, tree dwelling turkey. Members of his family only still really exist in places that are wild enough that all the large game birds haven't been hunted to extinction by people yet. Rumored to be delicious, but your amateurnithologist wouldn't know a thing about that.

A wikipedia article about the origins of birds, in case you want to take a more in-depth look

Friday, March 21, 2014

What Kind of Bird is Flappy Bird?

Flappy Bird has taken the iphone world by storm. Many e-pages have been dedicated to this little yellow bird, but I've yet to see anybody speculate about the species of Mr. Flap. Unlike his e-avian compatriates, the Angry Birds, he does not have an official bird he is modeled after (yep, Angry Bird has canonical species). With a little investigation and birding know-how, we just might be able to figure it out.
The majestic Flappy Bird in flight. Some might be content to answer the central scientific question of this blog with "a Yellow Bird", but not us. We are birders, and we crave identification. Note the round, yellow body; the orange beak; the large, white eye. He also seems to have traces of light yellow or white, but that may just be a shadow. Where does this get us?
c. 'Mdf'of
Some might assume that the closest match is the Evening Grosbeak or the American Goldfinch, with their prominent yellow and white. The Goldfinch even does a fairly good job of matching the beak. Unfortunately, these birds have secondary black features that probably would have made it onto flappy bird, even given his low resolution. I think we can do better.
Baltimore Oriole - juvenile
c. John Schwarz of
The juvenile of many Oriole species does a much better job of passing the 'must be all yellow' test. It would also go a long way toward explaining what a clumsy flier he is, if he were a young bird. His beak leaves a little bit to be desired, but he's also a pretty round bird. Our best match yet!

c. Unknown. Retrieved from
A Yellow Budgerigar is a good next step (fun fact, Yellow Budgies are actually the result of selective breeding in captivity. It's a type of albinism!) We've got the colors spot on now. However, for some reason I doubt that Flappy Bird is a budgie. Traditionally parrot species are mostly suited for short flights between trees, whereas Flappy Bird can go on (theoretically) forever.
c. Glenn Bartley,
Somehow these birds are just not quite capturing the essence of Flappy Bird. Is it because they're not adorable enough? Wilson's Warbler is a terrific match in this category. Just take a look at the vacant facial expression, the beach-ball body, the tiny wings. We may have our flappy bird.
Photo by Steve G
c. 'Steve G' of
But we're not done. No. The Little Yellow Flycatcher takes what was good about that warbler and takes it to the next level. No dissonant black cap here. His bill is even a little closer to the right color. However, there's one major component of Flappy Bird's design that we have thus far been unable to replicate in the real world. The large, white eye. I mean, birds don't have white eyes, so this is just impossible, right?

c. Veli Pohjonen on

Wrong! Well, still right, but you see what I mean. This fellow is the Oriental White-eye and he is my best guess for Flappy Bird's bird of inspiration. He is strictly white and yellow, has the prominent white eye spot, and is distinctly spherical. We can quibble over the beak, but I call it artistic license. Another important note- The White-eye is endemic to Flappy Bird creator Dong Nguyen's native Vietnam. I think that little bonus point effectively seals the deal. You can officially tell your friends that Flappy Bird is an Oriental White-eye. And if they disagree, tell them some guy on the internet told you so. Try arguing with that logic.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

8 Tips to Take your Amateur Birding Game to the Next Level that They Don't Want you to Know. You Won't Believe Number 6!

Today it is our second anniversary on amateurnithologist dot blogspot dot com. While we proudly maintain our amateur status, after two years of looking at birds, it is safe to say we've learned a lot. Are you an armchair birder too? Here are some of the things we've learned along the way. Maybe you'll find something helpful here too.

1. We are all Time's Subjects
By this I mean get to know what different times of the day mean for birding. Most people probably know already that close to dawn is when birds are most easily observed. "The early bird gets the early bird", as the old saying goes. However, late afternoon can be just as rewarding of a time to go birding, and a much less annoying one to be awake during. I recommend the last hour and a half or so before sunset. Your mileage may vary for different birds. Try going on the same hike a few times during different times of the day and making observations about what you see.

2. Become a Seasoned Birding Expert
I also recommend that you start paying attention to seasons. You might think you've seen all the birds a local spot has to offer, but if you just went in fall, you're going to miss out on all the spring birds. Little know fact: birds fly around, and live in different places, you know? There should be a word for this behavior. Another assumption is that birding is most profitable during the Spring, but because birds migrate in lots of different directions it's really worth it to look year round. Your chilly lake may be just the right temperature for a bird who summers in the arctic.

3. Learn the Hot Birding Spots in your Area, but Don't Ignore Everywhere Else
Where do birds live? The answer is basically everywhere. Birding starts in your own neighborhood, on your city streets, in the drainage pool behind the mall. Some of the rarest bird's I've seen have just been spotted wandering around residential neighborhoods or college campuses. While's got a great database of birding hotspots that I can't recommend enough, it's also important to do some looking on your own. One general tip about birds: bodies of water are always a great place to start.

4. Hurry Up and Do Nothing
Our most exciting sounding tip yet! While the hobbies of birding and hiking intersect, there is a key difference in goal and generally in pace. When you walk through a park looking for birds, make it a leisurely stroll. Observing your environment carefully, rather than giving it the casual once-over, will increase the number of birds you see dramatically. Found a nice spot where you can hear some birdsong? Stop and sit a while. Relax. Birds will appreciate you more if you're a chill dude or lady.
5. Go by Yourself (or with Very Laid-Back People)
Let's face it, birding is not an inherently social activity. Maybe a group of birders can pull this one off, but if you plan on going someplace mainly to look at birds, and you're inviting some of the uninitiated, you'd better give some fair warning. Either your friends are going to get super bored while you stare at some bird and take a million pictures of it, or the bird is going to fly away and you will secretly resent them for breathing too loud. Anyway, one of the greatest pleasures of this hobby (to me at least) is peace and space to think that you can get from a little bit of solitude.

6. Think Like a Bird
Does a bird want you to point at it and shout? Probably not, right? My frequent walking partner, N, can always tell I've spotted a really neat bird because I go completely quiet. If a bird is flying away from you, don't pursue it. It can be hard to ignore this impulse, but you have to be willing to let the birds come to you. When a bird really wants to be photographed, he'll come by and pose for you. You just have to wait for the right moment. Another part of this tip is to be logical in where you are looking for birds. Birds of prey often hang out on the unobstructed branches of tall trees or telephone poles because those are the best places to spot prey from. If you never look up there, you'll never see one.
7. Preparation is 9/10ths of the Bird
This is probably a tip only for people as dumb as your amateurnithologist, but don't forget all your stuff at home. A shameful number of times I've brought my camera with me, but accidentally left the memory card at home, or neglected to charge the batteries. It can also be a good idea to take your birding stuff with you even when you aren't planning on spotting a bird, because sometimes they just show up. Lately I've noticed a family of Orioles at my work and started bringing my camera with me, just in case I get a good opportunity to take a picture. Ancillary tip: Don't leave expensive looking birding equipment in your car. Ever.

8. Be Patient with Yourself
This tip won't necessarily help you bird better, but it'll prevent you from birding burnout (or birdout, as it's known in the community). I can still remember the first time I successfully identified a bird without the use of a guide. That was less than 3 years ago, and just this past weekend I was walking along the bay shore and was impressed by just how many of the birds I recognized immediately. You have to be willing to give yourself time to grow and improve, and be aware that you're going to make a lot of mistakes at the beginning. Unless you really cram and study (and who wants to do that) you're going to remain an amateur for some time. And that's great. Remember, we are all on this amateurnithological journey together. And you know what they say about the journey and the destination. For the bird blog, this is A., signing off.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Black Oystercatcher

Black Oystercatcher (not to be confused with the Blackish Oystercatcher of Argentina (really bird naming people? Really?))

Point Lobos State Reserve, Carmel, California, USA
Member of the Oystercatcher Family
§ A Parcel of Oystercatchers§

~true bird fact~ Oystercatchers have some tough babies. They nest in shallow bowls made of sand, small rocks, and shell fragments and their eggs are very hard and tough enough to survive being submerged during high tides. Once the chick is born, it leaves the nest after only a day. Young oystercatchers have been known to dive underwater to avoid predators, even though they cannot swim.

Likes to shock older people with provocative behavior
Unexpectedly intelligent
Might be a witch

How endangered are they? While he's listed as a species of least concern by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, he is considered by a lot of people to be a bird of significant ecological and conservationary importance. There are less than 12,000 of these birds and they have a very limited habitat that they can occupy- that is rocky, tidal shorelines along the pacific coast of North America. They are considered a Species of Special Status by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. This is partly just due to their limited global range, but also has to do with how sensitive their habitat is to all sorts of modern problems like rising sea levels, ocean acidification, and (of course) people. Let's all do our best for black oystercatcher.

Bonus Fact: The Wikipedia Page for Black Oystercatcher does not mention specifically whether or not he eats oysters, even though they mention like 8 other things he eats. Comedic oversight or inaccurate name? You, dear reader, be the judge.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Mystery Bird: Bird with expressive eyes

Guanacaste, Costa Rica
Best Guess: Immaculate Antbird

This mystery bird comes from the jungles of Costa Rica. In fact, he's from the same little bus stop that your amateurnithologist spotted both types of macaws (and an upcoming surprise bird!). It is notably more difficult to identify birds outside of North America. My usual resources are only good for identifying more local species. Someone over at or should get cracking on a global database. Anyway, sometimes it's just not possible to get a clear ID, even with a great shot like this. We all have our little failings. Here's a profile on him anyway.

A sensitive soul
Always figuring things out
A true extravert, hates to be alone
Behaves inappropriately in public sometimes. Some might say spoiled