Saturday, February 28, 2009

Top 10 Tips for New Birders

1. Buy a Sibley Guide to Birds: Eastern or Western. We consider this the best guide to have with you in the field. For a good home reference buy The Sibley Guide to Birds. This guide covers the whole United States with more detail included for each species.

2. Buy Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs: Eastern or Western. This is one of the best ways to learn bird calls at home. Each species is on its own track so you can flip between them easily. The Peterson Bird Songs: Eastern and Western are also good to have. They group the calls into groups that sound similar to help you learn them more easily.

3. Go birding by yourself. By birding by yourself, you will not be relying on others to identify the birds you see. This way you will learn more and become a better birder.

4. Join a local field trip. While this may seem to contradict #3, it is also important to surround yourself with experts that can help you with difficult identifications and give you tips on local birding and birding locations.

5. Study your bird books before going out. This will help you become familiar with the common birds and will make your outing more enjoyable.

6. Subscribe to your local birding list-serves. By reading the posts from other birders, you will learn what to expect while you are birding which will help you identify birds more quickly.

7. Try to identify every bird that you hear singing. If you do not know what one of them is, attempt to find it so that you can learn what is making that sound.

8. Read bird identification articles in birding magazines and on bird related websites. This will help you sharpen you identification skills beyond what you can learn in a typical field guide.

9. Get involved in May Day and Christmas Bird Counts. Not only will you be birding but you will be helping scientists learn about birds in your area.

10. Be patient. The more you are in the field, the more you will learn and the more fun you will have!

Thursday, February 26, 2009

#6 Tundra Swan vs. #11 Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

Tundra Swan

  • The whistling swan is the American version of the Tundra Swan.
  • While the Tundra Swan sleeps on the water during the winter, it spends the breeding season sleeping on land.
  • Tundra Swans will defend their nests against foxes, weasels, and gulls but will leave the nest quickly when bigger predators approach such as wolves, people, and bears. They do this to make their nests harder to find for predators that they cannot fend off.
  • Tundra Swans stay in flocks whenever they are not on their breeding grounds.
  • The roundtrip migration for Tundra swans covers 3,725 miles.

© Denny Mont

Click here to view more information on Tundra Swans.

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

  • The stomach acid of the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron is capable of dissolving the shells of turtles that they sometimes feed on.
  • They tend to stay active during the day unlike other night-herons.
  • A group of night-herons is called a "battery", "hedge", "pose", "rookery", or "scattering."
  • These beautiful birds are listed as threatened in New Jersey and endangered in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
  • It is important to protect this birds during their nesting season in order to avoid nest abandonment.

Click here to view more information on Yellow-crowned Night-Herons.

Lighting is Everything - SkyWatch Friday

For most people, the difference between the lighting during the morning and evening hours are not that much different than the lighting durign the day. But for photographers, lighting is everything. The morning and evening hour lighting is much warmer and makes scenes have much less contrast and much more dramatic effect. However, there are subjects that are best photographed in flat light (cloudy weather) such as waterfalls.

This photo was taken a few hours after we were hit with a 10 inch snowfall in southern Indiana. The lighting in this shot creates some dramatic effect by spotlighting the hill on the opposite shore. But since the lighting is not hitting the foreground the foreground looks flat and lifeless.

This photo was taken about 5 minutes after the previous one. The warm lighting hitting the foreground created much more drama. It also created much more depth and the photo looks much more full of life.

Let me know which photo you prefer and if you have a reason why.

Check out more great SkyWatch Friday post here.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Book Review: Inner Beauty of Nature: X-Ray Photography by Bert Myers

Inner Beauty of Nature: X-Ray Photography by Bert Myers

This very interesting book is about the history and techniques of x-ray photography. It begins with an introduction to x-ray photography and a brief overview of the history of the art. He then lays out everything it takes to produce the wonderful images that follow. While this information is a little dry for people not interested in actually making these types of images, it is great for anyone that would like to give it a try.

The rest of the book is dedicated to showing the beautiful images that Dr. Myers has created. It is amazing to see how different nature looks through x-rays. I especially enjoy the many images of shells. The structures and shapes are wonderful to look at. It is also very interesting to see how he has added color to some of the images. This really makes x-ray photography not only a photographic pursuit but an artistic one as well.

Another great feature of this book is that the author lists other x-ray artists with a description of them and their work and how to find out more about them.

I highly recommend this book for anyone that is interested in learning about alternative ways of taking photographs.

To purchase this book please click here.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A New Perspective - Watery Wednesday

All of the following photos are from McCormick's Creek State Park in Indiana. Every time there is precipitation the entire scene changes making every visit very interesting. Luckily for me I go to Indiana University which is only about 15 minutes away.

To make any of the waterfall images that I post I use long exposures to get the soft smooth feel for the water. Without a tripod this would not be possible unless you set your camera somewhere stable before releasing the shutter. In the above shot, foam was forced to swirl under the falls creating a great opportunity for some interesting shots. I used a 2.2 second exposure on the above shot.

I had photographed this little falls very similarly in the past but wanted something a little different than the past results. I think that this photo shows the rest of the creek better than my last attempt. Follow this link to see my past attempt:

This was taken from on top of the ridge above the falls. I like the foreground grass and leaves on this one. I am almost always down in the canyon right next to the falls but I do like the new perspective.

Check out more great Watery Wednesday Posts here.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Heron and Egret Identification: A Closer Look at White Plumaged Wading Birds

White plumaged waders include Great White Heron (white morph of Great Blue), Great Egret, Snowy Egret, white morph Reddish Egret, juvenile Little Blue Heron, and Cattle Egret. This is a much more detailed account of identification of white wading birds than my last ID post.

Cattle Egret

This species is very easy to tell apart from March-July when it is in breeding plumage. When this egret is in its breeding plumage it has orange on its crest, back and breast. No other egret or heron will ever show this trait. The adult in nonbreeding plumage should be easily seperable from the other egrets and herons by the combination of stocky orange-yellow bill and short black legs. The juvenile looks like the adult nonbreeding but instead of an orange-yellow bill it has a black bill. This species should always be seperable from other herons and egrets by its short, stocky appearance.

White Morph Reddish Egret

The adult Reddish Egret is easily distinguished by the pink based, black tipped bill. Its larger size relative to Snowies and Little Blues is also easily recognized. The combination of all dark to mostly dark bills and blue-gray legs distinguishes the young Reddish Egret from other species.

This is an adult dark morph Reddish Egret. The dark morph is much more common than the white morph.

Great Egret vs. Great White Heron

Great White Herons only need to be considered in an identification in southern Florida. When in southern Florida the combination of pale yellow legs and big yellow bill with grayish lores distinguishes the Great White Heron. The Great Egret has a small bill relative to the Great White and has black legs unlike the Great White.

Juvenile Little Blue Heron and Juvenile Snowy Egret

Both of these species have a pale bill tipped with black. The Snowy has a pale yellow bill that matches the color of its legs. The Little Blue has a grayish blue bill. Notice that the Snowy has the same colored bill and legs. The Snowy also has a much more dagger like bill while the Little Blue has a shorter stumpier bill (no where near as stout as the Cattle Egrets bill though)

This is an adult Little Blue Heron. Notice the straw colored legs and bicolored bill (similar color as in the juvenile).


One helpful tip on all identifications (not just the birds mentioned above) is to use what you can. Most people do not think that comparisons are possible on single birds. Instead of comparing a bird to a separte bird compare colors, pattern, dimensions, etc. on a bird to the rest of the bird.

Friday, February 20, 2009

100th Entry

It is amazing to me that after only blogging since mid-August, we are making our 100th post.

It has been incredible getting to know other nature bloggers and reading all of your blogs. We look forward to meeting many more of you and sharing our stories and tips with you all. Its amazing how fast the entries add up!

Thank you all for your comments and support!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Eagle Creek Park Sunset - SkyWatch Friday

On my way back to school this past Saturday I stopped by a local reservoir just west of Indianapolis, Eagle Creek Reservoir. Many species of waterfowl have moved into the area so my plan was to find a few of the species that I still hadn't seen this year, the ducks cooperated (including Ruddy Duck, Greater and Lesser Scaup, Common and Hooded Merganser, and many Common Goldeneyes) and the sunset cooperated too. Here are a couple shots from the sunset.

This shot was taken looking south over the lake. The dam is in the distance.

The sky opened up creating some interesting lighting conditions and reflected off of the water running into the lake.

For more great SkyWatch Friday Posts, click here.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Egret and Heron Identification

In a little less than a month I will be in Florida enjoying the many species of birds but in particular the egrets and herons. For the most part these species are very easy to identify with just a quick glance. But I do see and hear many questions about identifying some of these birds. For example a common misconception for beginning birders is that the only way to identify a Snowy Egret from a Great Egret is the yellow feet. In many bird ID forums this is the only way people will explain the difference between the two. How are you supposed to tell them apart when their feet are in the water?

The Snowy and Great Egrets are also easily seperable by bill color, an identification cincher in many more situations than the yellow feet of the Snowy. The Snowy has a black bill with yellow lores while the Great has a yellow bill with green to yellow lores. Once you have a little experience with both of these species the size and habits of the birds' will result in a quick identification.

The more troubling identification problems come from the juvenile plumages of Little Blue Heron and Snowy Egret. Both of these birds are very similar in size. The key to this identification is all in the leg and bill color just as the identification between the Great and Snowy Egrets. The Snowy has a pale yellow bill with a black tip while the Little Blue has a grayish bill with a black tip. The legs of the Snowy are pale yellow (similar to the color of the bill) and usually have some black mixed in throughout the legs. The Little Blue's legs are pale yellow-green and never has any black on the legs at all.

There are many more species that can cause a problem that I will write about in the next few days. If you have any IDs that you struggle with let me know and hopefully I will be able to help you out.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Turkey Run State Park - Watery Wednesday

After over a foot of snow had melted and about an inch and a half of rain I decided to make a trip to a couple of waterfalls to see how well they were flowing. All of the waterfalls I went to flow into Sugar Creek. From the mud line on the shores of the creek you could tell that Sugar Creek had flooded quite a bit but most of the canyons leading into Sugar Creek had already cleared out. There was a decent amount of water but much less than I had expected.

To get to this waterfall you have to take two ladders down into the canyon. There were actually fish at the bottom of this falls.

This trail goes along Sugar Creek and cuts through big boulders. The park buildings are on the other side of Sugar Creek but there is a suspension bridge to get to the other side when it is flooded.

This waterfall is called the Punchbowl. It is in the main canyon in the park and runs into Sugar Creek.

Check out more great Watery Wednesday posts by clicking here.

#5 Red-faced Warbler vs #12 Hooded Warbler

Red-faced Warbler

  • Both sexes are known to attempt to attract a mate during the breeding season.

  • In one study, over 45% of the nests contained young that had no genetic link to the apparent breeding male. This means that the female had copulated with more than one male.

  • Red-faced Warblers are highly sensitive to environmental changes especially logging. Logging tends to cause huge decreases in the number of individuals present or cause their complete disappearance from and area.

  • They are known to flick their tails from side to side while feeding.

  • The Red-faced Warbler is the only North American warbler with both a bright red face and upper breast.

Click here to view more information on Red-faced Warblers.

Hooded Warbler

  • Unlike many other warbler species, Hooded Warblers are highly territorial on their wintering grounds.

  • Males and females frequent different habitats while on their wintering grounds. Males prefer mature forests while females are attracted to scrubbier forests and seasonally flooded areas.

  • The last part of the Hooded Warbler's scientific name, citrina, refers to its bright yellow color.

  • Hooded Warblers can be difficult to find during the breeding season because they prefer the dense understory of shrubs and heavy vegetation.

  • Other than their hood, another field mark to look for is their white outer tail feathers. These are highly noticeable when the Hooded Warbler is is flicking or fanning their tail.

Click here to view more information on Hooded Warblers.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Starting to Sing

Lots of bird movement has started to occur in the midwest over the past week. Waterfowl has started to move back into the area after the deep freezes and many cowbirds, grackles, and blackbirds have moved back into the state. It was also the weekend for the Great Backyard Bird Count. Many birds are starting to sing including Cardinals, Song Sparrows, and House Finches. On Friday I drove some country roads through farmland while driving from Bloomington to Indianapolis and eventually ended up at Eagle's Crest which is on Eagle Creek Reservoir. The Killdeers had arrived. Quite a few were heard or seen in the flooded fields. Also in the flooded fields were many Red-winged Blackbirds and Brown-headed Cowbirds. In the pine stand at Eagle's Crest there were a few Pine Siskins, a Red-breasted Nuthatch, and a Barred Owl.

I birded Lake Waveland on my way to Turkey Run State Park on Saturday. This was my first visit to this location and it was well worth it. There were Wood Ducks and Common Mergansers on the water and Bald Eagle, Red-tailed Hawk, and Rough-legged Hawk hunting around the lake. On Sunday I birded Eagle Creek Park in the morning and evening. In the evening ,on my way back to Bloomington, I was able to find Ruddy Duck and Greater Scaup both year birds for me (a year bird is a bird that I have not seen in the current year).

Spring is almost here!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Maui Lava Rocks - Watery Wednesday

These photos were taken in June of 2008 just outside of a hotel we were staying at on Maui. Unlike many hotels that are right on the sand beaches, our hotel was situated where the black lava rocks and the ocean meet. This created many small tidal pools in the lava and allowed for close looks and many marine species.

This is what the area all around our hotel looked like. This was taken at high tide.

At low tide, it was easy to find these small black crabs all over the lava rocks.

During low tide, many species became visable in the shallow pools of water. The variety of species and colors are incredible.

It was also amazing to me how quickly the ocean dropped off at the edge of the lava. It went from just a few feet deep at the most on the lava to at least 20 feet deep within just a few feet.

To see more great Water Wednesday posts click here.

#5 American Avocet vs #12 Virginia Rail

American Avocet

  • Avocets physically attack predators near the nest including Northern Harriers and Common Ravens.

  • American Avocets have been known to parasitize nest of their own species as well as other species. There are also documents cases of other species paracitizing avocets nests, including a Black-necked Stilt which the avocet raised as its own chick.

  • Chicks leave the nest within 24 hours of hatching and can walk, swim, and even dive to escape predators.

  • Avocets are known to raise their nest up to a foot or more with sticks and other materials in response to flooding. this keeps their eggs above water and saves their nesting attempt.

  • American Avocet numbers are threatened by the destruction of the wetlands they use to nest and feed.

Click here to view more information on American Avocets.

Virginia Rail

  • In order to escape from predators, Virginia Rails have the ability to swim underwater. They propel themselves with their wings.

  • Virginia Rails build many nests per nesting season but only use one to lay their eggs. The other serve as dummy nests to distract predators.

  • Rails have the highest ratio of leg muscles to flight muscles of any bird.

  • Virginia Rail's forehead feathers have adapter to resist wear from pushing through dense vegetation in marshes.

  • Although not known for their ability to fly, Virginia Rails do migrate long distances each year.

Click here to view more information on Virginia Rails.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Redpoll Identification

I made a trip to the Indiana shores of Lake Michigan to see a previously reported Hoary Redpoll among many Common Redpolls. These redpolls were visiting residential feeders but making many trips in and out and at many times none were present. When they did come in the whole flock would descend on and take over the feeders. There were about 50 redpolls present.

Some identification problems arise between the two species of redpolls, the Common and the Hoary. These species are very similar and close study is needed to differentiate the two. The best way to try to find a Hoary in a flock of redpoll's is to try to pick out a pale/frosty looking bird. The only thing that this does is to specify a candidate that could possibly be a Hoary.

After finding a candidate for Hoary Redpoll look for the following features:

1. Limited and pale to very little streaking on the sides.

2. Clean white undertail coverts. Hoaries may show a couple black specks on the undertail coverts but they are usually clean of specks.

3. Pale scapulars. A Hoary will show white scapulars but a Common will show brown scapulars.

4. A grayer back. Hoaries usually show grayer/paler backs but female Commons can also have a pale back.

The reason that these two species can be so difficult to identify is because of the variability of both of the redpolls.

This picture of a Common Redpoll was taken last year at Indiana Dunes State Park.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Weather Change - SkyWatch Friday

After a couple days with lots of snow Lake Monroe in southern Indiana didn't look like a lake anymore. It is the largest lake in Indiana and is completely frozen with a foot of snow on top of the ice. The sunset looked like it was going to be an interesting one so I headed out to the lake. When I first got there it was mostly cloudy but within about 10 minutes a snow squall had moved in reducing visibility to about 30 feet. I figured that it wouldn't last long so after waiting for only about 1o minutes the sun came back out and by the time the sun was about to set it was partly cloudy with blue skies.

This was taken during the snow squall. The exposed tree roots created an interesting foreground with good contrast with the white out.

This was taken as the sun was about to set. Many clouds in very interesting shapes were drifting over the lake at sunset. I used a grad ND filter for this and the following shot.

This photo was also taken right before sunset over Lake Monroe.

Monday, February 2, 2009

#5 - Scissor-tailed Flycatcher vs. #12 - Red-headed Woodpecker

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

  • In the late summer, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers form large premigratory groups of up to 1000 individuals.
  • In some years, nearly half of all nest failures are the result of high winds and thunderstorms.

  • A study found that individuals that nest in urban areas of Texas use up to 30% artificial materials in their nests.

  • Scissor-tailed Flycatchers hunt by waiting on a perch and then flying out to catch insects. This is called hawking.

  • Scissor-tailed Flycatchers are very aggressive when protecting their nest, just like other kingbirds.

Click here to view more information on Scissor-tailed Flycatchers.

Red-headed Woodpecker

  • The Red-headed Woodpecker is one of only 4 woodpeckers that is knows to store food. It is the only one that has also be observed covering that food with wood or bark. they regularly store Grasshoppers alive but they wedge them tightly into places that they cannot escape from.

  • Red-headed Woodpeckers are very aggressive in their nesting area, even destroying the nests of other woodpeckers.

  • Recent tree diseases have created great nesting habitat for this species.

  • The cartoon character, Woody Woodpecker, is roughly based on a Red-headed Woodpecker.

  • The U.S Postal service featured a Red-headed Woodpecker on a 2-cent stamp in 1996.

Click here to view more information on Red-headed Woodpeckers.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

January is Gone but Here Comes February

Wow, January went by fast but for some reason it also seems like it drug on a little too. Many great birds were seen, the temperatures dropped to unbearable, and the snow stacked up to a foot. Many winter finches moved into and through Indiana including record setting numbers of White-winged Crossbills, some Common Redpoll, many Pine Siskin, and many Purple Finches. Rarities were found including Spotted Towhee and Varied Thrush. I was able to find 95 species in Indiana in January without really putting forth much effort. The highlights for my January would definitely include my trip to the lakefront to see both Spotted Towhee and Varied Thrush, great looks at a White-winged Scoter at Eagle Creek Park, and watching a flock of over 200 Horned Larks, 75 Snow Buntings, and 20 or so Lapland Longspurs feeding close to the road in some open agricultural fields.

February started off well today too with very warm temperatures and many birds including Snow Bunting, Horned Lark, Purple Finch, Hermit Thrush, and Yellow-rumped Warbler. Keep the warm weather coming.

Here is my favorite photo from the month of January.