Wednesday, January 30, 2008

This ought to be interesting...

It seems that "Mad Bill Smith" is planning on releasing his Ivory-billed Woodpecker book very soon. Though the tone of his announcement of this upcoming event is more than a little troubling, I must admit to being extremely curious to see what he actually reveals. He promises to rock the world with his photos of living Ivorybills from central Florida. As has been well recorded, his earlier photos have not been well received by me or very many other people. My hopes are obviously not high, but from what he says we shall all see for ourselves soon enough.

One point here... he takes exception to the quotation marks that some of us use around his name. Well, there is a very simple reason why we do this. The private e-mails we have received from him have a name in the "from" field that is not "Bill Smith." Messages on other forums from a poster using this same e-mail address and claiming the same part of Florida as his abode have been signed by yet another name, still not "Bill Smith." These other names he has used are regular, ordinary names, not obviously artificial internet screennames. So, honestly, we don't know what his "real" name is; hence I treat any name he uses as a likely alias. Oh, and as for the "Mad" monicker, he claims that for himself (check out the URL of his website).

Does anyone else keep picturing G.O.B. from Arrested Development?

ADDENDUM: A bit of googling etc. reveals that the various names he has used, including Bill Smith, are all various combinations of his legal name. What has been confusing is that he sometimes abbreviates his last name to just the initial, plus he often arranges and/or concatenates his names so that it is unclear which name is first, middle, and last. Hence the difficulty of knowing if he was even using his own name. "Bill Smith" is probably what most people with his full legal name would choose to use as their informal name. So no more quotation marks from me.

Friday, January 25, 2008

A Political Interlude

With "Super Tuesday" looming, I thought I'd revisit an essay by the late, great Molly Ivins, first posted in January of 2006. An excerpt:

"AUSTIN, Texas --- I'd like to make it clear to the people who run the Democratic Party that I will not support Hillary Clinton for president.

"Enough. Enough triangulation, calculation and equivocation. Enough clever straddling, enough not offending anyone This is not a Dick Morris election. Sen. Clinton is apparently incapable of taking a clear stand on the war in Iraq, and that alone is enough to disqualify her. Her failure to speak out on Terri Schiavo, not to mention that gross pandering on flag-burning, are just contemptible little dodges."

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Birthing a new CBC

I originally intended to organize a full-fledged dry run of a prospective new Lewis County CBC this year, but I didn't get around to it. So instead, I spent the first part of January scouting the prospective CBC circle on my own. The major purpose was to thoroughly evaluate the roads, habitats, and territory of the preliminary circle to see if it needs any adjustments. The location is fairly constrained already by the need to avoid overlap with the Buffalo River CBC, my desire to keep it almost entirely confined within Lewis County (one of Tennessee's smallest counties), and of course by the desire to include the homes of a few likely participants. After fine-tuning it a little bit, I settled on a circle centered at N35deg31.1min, W87deg31.4min, which is about 3 miles SE of downtown Hohenwald. Some of the landmarks this includes are the Natchez Trace Parkway from Jack's Branch to Fall Hollow Falls (including the Meriwether Lewis area), the Lewis State Forest, all of Hohenwald, Hick Hill WMA, a teeny tiny tip of Laurel Hill WMA, a long stretch of the Buffalo River, and vast expanses of hillbilly holler country, paper company and gun club holdings, north to Kimmins, west and south to Buffalo Valley, and east to Gordonsburg and the NACO Natchez Trace resort. Of necessity, the circle excludes the easternmost parts of the county, so The Farm and the Swan Land Trust holdings are not in it. The circle center is only 15.3 miles from the center of the Buffalo River circle, so there's no room to go any farther east without overlapping. Plus, it would lose my house...

To scout this area I drew up 4 preliminary party territories (optimistically I'm hoping to round up a total of 4 qualified party leaders for the first run next year). I then split each territory in half, and spent one morning (about 4 hours) in each semi- territory. Much of my attention was taken up by negotiating the roads using our horribly outdated and inaccurate county road map (GoogleMaps and all the others just buy their info from the local gov'ts, so the online maps are just as inaccurate as the 20 year old paper ones). My birding was almost entirely within 20 feet of my truck, spishing and screech-owl tooting, at quick roadside stops. If you've never tried to scout out an entire CBC circle in detail, let me tell you they are HUGE. But the effort was definitely worthwhile, as I now have piles of info on where habitats, birds, and roads really are, so I can draw up more balanced party territories and give the leaders lots of info to help them out. As many of y'all probably know from your own experience on understaffed small-town CBCs, even 1/4 of a count circle is far more than any single party can really cover in a day, so good scouting and planning are essential.

My bird tallies actually are pretty good, considering how rushed and distracted by navigation and note taking I was. All told, between January 6th and 17th (2008) I spent 32 hours out, driving 383 miles. My totals for the whole period are:

Canada Goose 157
Wild Turkey 42
Northern Bobwhite 15
Pied-billed Grebe 2
Great Blue Heron 3
Black Vulture 69
Turkey Vulture 57
Cooper's Hawk 1
Red-shouldered Hawk 17
Red-tailed Hawk 17
American Kestrel 11
Killdeer 40
American Woodcock 2
Rock Pigeon 67
Eurasian Collared-Dove 10
Mourning Dove 52
Eastern Screech-Owl 1
Barred Owl 1
Belted Kingfisher 5
Red-bellied Woodpecker 16
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 2
Downy Woodpecker 29
Hairy Woodpecker 10
Northern Flicker 27
Pileated Woodpecker 24
Eastern Phoebe 3
Blue Jay 31
American Crow 374
Horned Lark 1
Carolina Chickadee 105
Tufted Titmouse 130
Red-breasted Nuthatch 2
White-breasted Nuthatch 54
Brown Creeper 8
Carolina Wren 121
Winter Wren 21
Golden-crowned Kinglet 84
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 9
Eastern Bluebird 211
Hermit Thrush 18
American Robin 24
Northern Mockingbird 34
Brown Thrasher 1
European Starling 751
Cedar Waxwing 1
Yellow-rumped Warbler 15
Eastern Towhee 34
Chipping Sparrow 53
Field Sparrow 441
Savannah Sparrow 3
Fox Sparrow 22
Song Sparrow 222
Swamp Sparrow 76
White-throated Sparrow 429
White-crowned Sparrow 12
Dark-eyed Junco 644
Northern Cardinal 198
Red-winged Blackbird 72
Eastern Meadowlark 163
Common Grackle 2
Brown-headed Cowbird 20
Purple Finch 18
House Finch 51
American Goldfinch 77
House Sparrow 95

Total species: 67

I was quite pleased with these results, and with the diversity of habitats the circle contains. As you can tell, there is very little open water habitat. Of the four largest lakes in the circle, only one (Napier Lake) is visible from a public road. The others are entirely ringed by private land; one sits in the middle of the Elephant Sanctuary, which is among the most heavily secured, fortified, and restricted 1000 acres of forest the entire state (for obvious reasons). I might be able to arrange access to some of the other lakes, but even so, smallish lakes in the Highland Rim rarely produce much in the way of waterfowl anyway.

Weedy fields, fencerows, and brushy woodland edges are the forte of this circle. I was especially happy with the total of 9 sparrow species (not counting Junco). The Lincoln's Sparrow is a fairly common migrant here, but this is the first one I have ever found in this area in midwinter. The shrike was the first I have found in Lewis County ever; both it and the Lincoln's Sparrow were in an area I have not birded regularly in the past. I'd not be surprised if the shrike is a regular there. The two biggest "misses," Red-headed Woodpecker and Pine Warbler, are species that seem to be down throughout this area this year. Other "misses," like Wood Duck and Sharp-shinned Hawk, are always difficult in winter here. I didn't do any owling other than what I heard around my own farm in the evenings,

It will be interesting to see what turns up next year with real parties devoting full attention to the birds!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

We filthy environmentalists

An echo of what I was talking about a few weeks ago:

Survey shows eco-warriors are worst polluters

As I said before, our shit doesn't stink...

Someone will doubtless make the argument that, well, environmentalists are generally better educated, and therefore better off, thus accounting for the difference. But if in fact we are better educated and better off then doesn't that mean we should have the knowledge and resources to reduce our energy consumption in meaningful ways?

Of course, this short article doesn't mention the real, single most important "lifestyle choice" that most profoundly affects an individual's lifetime environmental footprint: How many children he or she has. That might have changed the conclusions substantially.

Predatory Scrub Jay

Once again a news item from my sister's house in San Ansemlo, California, where she caught this video of a Western Scrub-Jay attacking (and apparently killing and intending to eat) an another bird:

The prey bird is an LBJ, hard to tell if it is a House Sparrow or House Finch. I don't recall ever having seen a jay go after a live, adult bird like this. My sister describes a "thump" on the window just before seeing the incident; this could have been the LBJ smacking the glass and being stunned, leaving it more vulnerable. Even so, it is quite surprising to me that the jay would swoop right in on it like this. The jay seems to have some trouble finishing the LBJ off, not appearing to be fully equipped for the task.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

CBCing #2

Savannah, Tennessee, this time. As with Buffalo River, my second year on the count and covering nearly the same turf as last time, a mixture of the cultivated bottoms and cypress sloughs of the Tennessee River bottoms and the adjacent bluffs and uplands of the western edge of the Highland Rim. Last year we raked in a phenomenal total of 111 species, which was a close second to Reelfoot Lake (116) for highest species total in the state. No such luck this year. As I have been noticing all over this part of Tennessee since autumn, numbers and diversity of land birds are down. This year we came in at 105 species. Just in my area, my total was 62 species, down from 65 last year. A big factor was the dry spring, which allowed the farmers in the Tennessee River bottoms to plow their fields from edge to edge. Hence, there were no fallow spots in sloughs, swales, etc.; hence there were no LeConte's Sparrows, Marsh Wrens, Common Yellowthroats, etc. There's also a pronounced depression in numbers of most woodpeckers, Blue Jays (complete failure of acorn crop from last spring's freeze), and many woodland and brushland passerines. Sparrows (other than LeConte's) seem to be doing okay; perhaps the late summer and autumn rains were enough to produce an acceptable crop of composite and grass seeds.

Still, as always, there were some nice things. This itty bitty teeny weeny male Merlin greeted me at sunrise and allowed me to walk right underneath him, just 10 or 15m over my head, before he flew (usual lousy pic snapped with inexpensive digital cam held to eyepiece of binocs):

I swear he was the smallest Merlin I can recall ever having seen; I realize absolute sizes are rough to judge in the field but he seemed smaller even than the average male Kestrel. Some of the other goodies for the day included a squadron of 16 Sandhill Cranes coming in for a landing, and an unexpected Least Sandpiper in a mud puddle with two Killdeer (third record for the Count). Plus I finally got my Lapland Longspur for Tennessee; 43 of them, in fact. All told I had three species not found by any other party: the cranes, Least Sandpiper, and astonishingly my lone Pine Warbler. I did have 11 of the 12 White-crowned Sparrows (luck) and 10 of the 11 Winter Wrens (good habitat and careful listening). And as a special treat, several of the 7 Fox Sparrows I found were singing in the morning.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Great tit on Hungarian webcam

Originally from

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Yellow Purple Finch

Or, the way the AOU does things, a Yellow Purple-Finch. No, not a newly split species of South American emberizid. It's a xanthochromic Purple Finch visiting my sister's feeder in San Anselmo, California. She sent me these pictures when she wasn't able to identify the bird herself (click for larger view):

She was relieved to learn that this bird really isn't in the field guides, it wasn't just that she couldn't find it! I've never seen a bird like this in person, and only found a very few references to this color variation in this species when I googled. One I did find was the Born Again Birdwatcher, which uses a shot of a very similar bird (from Oregon) as its header.

P.S. If you are wondering why this isn't just a yellow House Finch, note the typical Purple Finch face pattern with less sharply contrasting eyebrow line, the extensive suffusion of the yellow color over the head and onto the wings, and the absence of prominent brown streaking anywhere on the bird's underparts (marks all easier to see on the larger view). Also note the size and stockiness compared to the female House Finch. Turn the yellow on this bird into wine-red and you'd have a typical male Purple Finch.

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