Monday, January 19, 2009


In celebration of tomorrows peaceful, orderly regime change, following what appears to have been a remarkably free and fair election (especially by recent standards), bringing to an end the eight-year reign of one the world's greatest terrorists (murderer of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians) and worst traitors in our nation's history, there is something new on our front porch:

It is going to take some getting used to, considering all the associations that have grown with "flag-waving jingoistic right-wingers" over the years. But if we the people, ALL the people, want our country back from their claws, doesn't it make sense that we should reclaim our country's flag as well?

This seemed like the day to start; today is a national holiday, tomorrow is inauguration day when the Unmentionables are formally thrown into the gutter.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Season of the Big White Bird

This seems to be what we have entered in the last week.

Last Monday I glanced at a borrow pit alongside the freeway I was driving down, and spotted two Big White Birds. Swans. Something about the scene just said "Trumpeters;" maybe a flashback to my summers in Yellowstone where the sight of a pair of these birds on a pond was one of the classic naturescapes. I pulled onto the shoulder, pulled out the binoculars, and sure enough, they were a pair of Trumpeters. The smaller had a yellow collar bearing the code "00Y." Some after-the-fact investigations suggests that this collar is most likely from Michigan, from a reintroduced population that is well-established and now considered "wild and countable." If the Michigan origin pans out, and the Tennessee records committee decides to honor Michigan's decision, this would be the first accepted record of "wild" Trumpeter Swans in Tennessee since the 19th Century. I didn't get a decent photo, but Mike Todd got some great ones later that afternoon (click for larger image and his gallery):

Then, last night I got a phone call from an Alabama friend wanting to know if I was near the computer. Seems a friend of his had just spotted a Snowy Owl in Spring Hill, right near the (former) Saturn plant and just 60 miles from me. So I posted an alert on the TN-birds list, got up at 5:00 this morning, and was in the Cracker Barrel parking lot before dawn (the sorts of places these birds choose when they wander down here!). Sure enough, at 6:40 the Big White Owl appeared perched atop a highway sign in the middle of the highway interchange. Within an hour or two about a dozen birders had gathered, crawling all over the highway, getting leisurely views and taking many photos. Here's a good shot by Richard Connors (click for his gallery of all three shots):

And here is a short video snippet that I shot this morning. Not so sharp as the photos, but gives a better sense of how this bird is hanging out right in the middle of a highway interchange:

This is the first Snowy in Tennessee in many years; he's been quite a hit! It's also the first Snowy I have seen in 17 years; the last (and first) was a very memorable lifer in the sun atop a sand dune at Plum Island on my only visit there. Even the non-birding locals have noticed him over the last week or so; they were quite happy to have some knowledgeable people show up and tell them the stories. People always like tales that involve lemmings, it seems.

So what's next? A white-phase Gyrfalcon??

Friday, January 09, 2009

Bilaterally Gynandromorphic Cardinal

Now is that a mouthful or what?

While I'm on this apparent blogging binge, this fascinating news bit just came into my inbox:

Unusual cardinal visits Rock Island yard

It turns out gynandromorphy in birds is a well-known phenomenon, with manifestations varying between species depending on whether plumage differentiation is strictly genetic or hormonally controlled. Evidently cardinals are in the "strictly genetic" camp. If you google for "gynandromorph" and "bird" you will find more instances.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Woodpecker rumblings...

Cornell has posted a note about their upcoming searches, as anyone who is following this saga doubtless already knows. Quite interesting to see where they are focusing their effort this year; it makes one wonder if they found more there last year than they have let on (no, I don't know anything). I'm very pleased to see them expanding their vision beyond the classic "old growth bottomland hardwood" myth, a habitat that ceased to exist in any significant quantity nearly a century ago and to which the Ivorybill never was restricted, based on historical accounts. If this species has persisted, obviously it has done it without the benefit of extensive virgin bottomlands.

In their discussions of other areas, South Carolina finally seems to be getting its due recognition as one of the swampiest of states; remember you read it here first three years ago! Now if someone would take serious notice of the Oconee-Altamaha corridor in Georgia or the Ouachita-Saline drainages in south central and southwestern Arkansas... both of which consist primarily of large private holdings with little or no public access that have seen almost no birders in them ever.

Quick mentions are made of search activities in a variety of other areas, including Tennessee. In the new spirit of non-openness about Ivorybill matters (lovingly fostered by years of vitriolic attacks on nearly all people involved in activities intended to actually determine empirically, not just theoretically, whether this species still exists), what I can say about this is nothing. Well, OK, I can say a little. As I understand it, by and large these searches are being carried out in undisclosed locations, by unnamed people including volunteers, state, and/or federal personel, using teensy weensy budgets... in at least some states less money per year for the entire state than is blown by a typical flock of gringo birders attempting to beef up their world lists on one single international birding tour. So if you wanna pitch a fit about wastes of resources that could be used for conservation...

eBird widget

I've just added the eBird "Notable Sightings" widget to my sidebar. It's a fun tool to play with, and if you happen to live in one of those areas where the density of people using eBird is great enough it can actually be useful for keeping track of rare birds! You can click the "Change" button on it to see sightings from other states, I have it defaulted to Tennessee, of course.

Jurassic birding

I was surfing through Wikipedia last night for some info on bird taxonomy, which lead me into pages about bird evolution and dinosaurs. Of course, we all know in a general sense much of the work of recent decades demonstrating the close relationships between birds and dinosaurs. What I had not really appreciated, though, was that it is now nearly universally accepted in paleontological circles that birds are not just descended from therapod dinosaurs, they still are therapod dinosaurs. I knew there were many who had made this suggestion, but I didn't realize that it had actually become the accepted mainstream view. The "classic" dinosaurs are now refered to as the non-avian dinosaurs.

Apparently recent fossil finds, especially in China, have pretty well erased the distinctions between birds and dinosaurs. Most of the traits that were considered Class-level defining characteristics of Aves have been found to be widespread in dinosaurs and inherited by birds from them: such things as feathers, hollow bones, and homeothermy were distinctive dinosaur traits as well. Sorry to break the news to Hollywood and Michael Crichton, but Velociraptors were apparently feathered. About the only things left that separate all modern birds from dinosaurs are the short fused tail and modifications to the shoulder to allow powered flight. Well, these are hardly class-level traits, and Archaeopterix, universally viewed as a bird, had neither! We great apes have modified shoulders and short fused tails relative to most of our mammalian cousins, but that hardly makes us non-mammals. I've always thought that birds, in spite of their great diversity, actually have far less variation in their fundamental body architecture than do the other amniote classes. Think of mammals, ranging from bats to whales, and reptiles, which include turtles and snakes. In that context the difference between a penguin and a hummingbird doesn't seem so great. But if in fact modern birds are just one sub-branch off of the larger class of dinosaurs, then the variety gets more comparable (now it's Tyrannosaurus to Archiolochus).

This leads me to wonder two things (one serious, one jesting)... First, when will these changes be reflected in the Linnaean taxonomy? Don't the Class lines among reptiles, dinosaurs, and birds need to be redrawn? Have the AOU and BOU even begun to think about this? Actually, given that Aves has been known longer than dinosaurs, doesn't this mean that dinosaurs should be moved into Aves instead of vice versa? In terms of nomenclature it would seem by the rules of precedence that bird are not dinosaurs; rather, dinosaurs are in fact birds.

Second.. if some real-life Jurassic Park type person actually does clone some cute little ("non-avian") dinosaur, and it manages to survive our drastically lower atmospheric oxygen than what prevailed when it last lived, and it escaped and got established in the wild, would it be countable as a bird?

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