Archive for the ‘Birding’ Category

The Red-Crowned Nap-Robber

September 29, 2009

For two days I’d been pulling weeds down in the flatlands resulting in awful hay fever of the kind that prevents good sleep.  You keep waking up gasping for air if at any moment your mouth slides shut because nothing, not even a single molecule of air, can get through your nose. But now I was 3500 feet higher, at a mountain cabin and the hay fever had subsided.  It was early afternoon, the perfect time for a nap.  Warm outside, the cabin was pleasantly cool and the couch beckoned.  Tired as I was from lack of sleep, the prospect seemed delicious.
snare drumSomewhere down the hypnagogic slope to sleep, in that place just before unconsciousness where weird things happen, a great clattering began echoing around inside my head, bouncing from side to side so loudly I was certain my head was a hollow tree. The noise continued unabated as I resolutely tried to drive past it into real sleep.  I deserved a nap, or so I thought.

But the pounding continued and so I began rising back up the hypnagogic slope and came to realize the racket wasn’t inside my hollow head at all, it was inside the hollow cabin, bouncing off the walls in a cataract of noise. One rap hadn’t finished its journey before another began.  It felt like being inside one of Gene Krupa’s drums.

“Woodpecker,” I thought,  by this time fully awake.  “How did a woodpecker get inside the cabin?”

But not inside at all.  Outside.  But which way?  From the echoing, I couldn’t tell.  The din was unbelievable.

And here was the culprit.

Hairy Woodpecker-1

Pounding away on 70-year-old cedar shakes on the west side of the cabin.  (I assume the bugs weren’t that old.)  The east end of the cabin is even older, 106 years and woodpeckers have been after it in the last few years as well.  I figure as long as they don’t poke holes through the walls on top of the logs, that I should let them eat whatever they want.

At first, it wasn’t clear whether the nap-robber was a Downy or a Hairy Woodpecker.  Both species look remarkably alike, from the red crown of the male all the way down to the white spots on the side.

But the Hairy Woodpecker is bigger, about nine inches long.  The Downy is only about 6.5 inches long.  I suppose that is the best way to tell them apart: Downies are smaller, more petite, and cuter.  You can tell that this bird was larger than a Downy from this photo.
Hairy Woodpecker-2

The cabin was built in the old days, back when a two inch by six inch piece of lumber was actually two inches by six inches, unlike today. You see that the bird was at least 8 inches long because he covers the six inch side of one board plus the two inch side of another.

Even though the two species of woodpeckers look almost identical except for size, they are not close relatives.  Examples of “convergent” evolution, they evolved similar appearances from different lineages. The classic example of convergent evolution is the wings of birds and bats. Structurally similar, the bat wings are attached to mammals.

Pronghorn Antelope

Pronghorn Antelope

The wild world is full of other examples.  The Pronghorn Antelope of North America is only distantly related to the true antelopes of the Old World, but looks and behaves similarly, probably because both occupy analogous positions in their respective ecosystems. None of the five species of freshwater dolphins are closely related.

Sometimes only one or two traits evolved convergently.  Platypus have something that looks a lot like a bird’s beak.  Possums have opposable thumbs. Peyote cacti of the desert and Ayahuasca vines of the Amazonian rain forest produce the same toxin, probably to deter predators.  (Although that is not always successful if the predator is human.)  The anti-freeze protein of deep-sea Arctic fish is the same as the protein in the unrelated deep-sea fish of the Antarctic.

In the world of birds, in addition to Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers, other examples include the wrens and robins of Australia which look like northern birds, but are not close relatives.  Flightless penguins of the Southern Hemisphere evolved independently from  flightless, wing-propelled, diving auks of the Northern Hemisphere. The Turkey Vulture riding the wind in our last post is not in the same family as Old World Vultures.  (In fact, no one knows for sure where Turkey Vultures came from.) Both have featherless heads, are large, flock in trees, soar for hours, and circle carrion before landing, but only Turkey Vultures use smell as well as sight in the hunt for dead flesh.

But, as far as I can tell, the The Red-crowned Nap-Robber is new to science, so I don’t know if it too is an example of convergent evolution. Personally, I doubt it.  I suspect it is a cousin of the better known Yellow-bellied Napsucker.

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Think you could have slept through the racket?  Here is what Gene Krupa’s drums sounded like. “Jungle Madness” and “Sing, Sing, Sing”

Thinking the Bird

September 4, 2009

Across and above the creek the Ponderosa Pines stand, anchored in the good earth, staring south toward the willows lining the creek.  Further south, a creature with my name sits in a clearing, waiting for a bird to appear.

There ought to be a White-breasted Nuthatch somewhere around here, I think.  This is a mature forest, with water, insects, seeds, and cover. It’s the right time of the year, it’s midday, and later it is going to rain.
cabin-1
And, after a while, a White-breasted Nuthatch makes its upside-down appearance, climbing down one of the pines, gracing my thought of it with its reality.

I don’t mean to imply that I conjure up birds by thinking about them.  Far from it.  Unlike my wife, I just haven’t been birding long enough to know where to look and what to look for, without thinking about it first.  While I was busy thinking that this is good habitat for White-breasted Nuthatches, I probably missed ten other birds.

Because I am not much of a birder yet, I often have to think about a bird before I see it.  If I was better at it, I would see the birds without having to think them first.  Like other artists, truly adept birders don’t have to do as much thinking.  They transcend the thinking process; they just “see.”  Of course, their “seeing” is an educated seeing. Following their avocation for years enhances and refines the skill and they do their homework about the kinds of birds that live around them, so that flicker of movement conveys more meaning to them than to an uneducated eye.

Perhaps one day, if I live long enough, I will reach that plateau where thought comes after the sighting and not before.  In the meantime, I suppose I’ll just have to keep thinking if I want to see any birds.

The Perils of Raptor Identification

August 27, 2009

The plan for today was to post this photo and then tell you about Merlins.  But, upon reflection and study of the photo and the one below, we decided this wasn’t a Merlin at all, but a juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk.

merlin-2

So, there is no occasion to tell you that most Merlin identifications go like this: You’re out someplace flat, maybe Cape May or Laguna Atascosa or the Klamath Basin Wildlife Refuge when, on the far left of your field of vision you glimpse a small darkish blur.  By the time you react and focus, the blur has exited your field of vision stage right.  Then you say, “That was a Merlin,” and add it to your list for the day.

A merlin’s low, ground-hugging flight achieves an average speed of 50 km/h and often exceeds that.  Capable of aerial maneuvers rivaling its larger cousins — Prairie Falcons and Peregrine Falcons — it dines primarily on small birds.  And, every so often, one visits a backyard bird feeder on its daily rounds.  Sometimes, she even sits still long enough for a human to get a photograph.

Which was what we thought happened until we really looked at the photograph and realized there was no excuse to tell you anything at all about Merlins.  Which are really fast falcons and among the fastest birds in the world at level flight. It would be really fine to have one visit and sit still for a portrait.

Sigh.

Pretty Neat Bird

Pretty Neat Bird

Because we really wanted this bird to be a Merlin, if you think we are wrong about it being a Sharp-shinned Hawk, please let us know.

My name is Bond, James Bond (007 Goes Birding)

August 16, 2009

“My name is Bond, James Bond.”

Connery-as-Bond-in-Dr.-No

No. No. No. Not that James Bond.  This one:

bond1970

The real one. I’m the one who published more than 40 original ornithology papers but never once shot anyone with a Walther PPK.  Ian Fleming stole my name.

I was the author of The Birds of the West Indies, first published in 1936.

birds

In real life, I was an American ornithologist and lived from 1900 to 1989.  When Ian Fleming needed a name for his fictional spy, he chose mine because he used my book often when he was living and bird watching in Jamaica.  Apparently he saw my book on his bookshelf in his home in Jamaica and decided that mine was the perfect name for his spy.  In 1964 he gave me a first edition copy of his book, You Only Live Twice. He inscribed it for me:

“To the real James Bond, from the thief of his identity”

I never minded that he borrowed my name, although I must tell you; birding in the Caribbean was never like this, except for the clouds:

dr_no_still3

His books and mine, even though we are both long since dead, are still in print.  You can get mine from Amazon or have your local bookstore order it for you.  That is better.  Your local book store needs the business. Now, it is named The Peterson Guide to the Birds of the West Indies.

If you’re interested in more about me, Auk published a nice obituary after my death.

The Fat Finch Reads

August 13, 2009

We love to read, but since opening a bricks and mortar store, the owner’s reading consists of several paragraphs at bedtime just before falling asleep. She no longer has the energy to sit leisurely in a chair reading for hours with nothing else on her mind. She comes home at the end of her day with just enough energy to cook dinner. She hates that part of running the store.

But here she is on a different book, one that did not put her to sleep:

life list

Recently I wanted to read a summer page-turner, a book so engrossing that I would sit in a chair and read until I finished it. In the past those books have been the occasional well-written mystery or the dying-a-hideous-death-mountain-climbing on-Everest book.

This summer’s page-turner turned out to be a birding book, Life List by Olivia Gentile.  I read it in one sitting and loved every moment.  It was as good as going birding.

I love birds, of course, so I might be biased; but this book, about birds, birding, and obsession, really is a page-turner.

It chronicles the life of Phoebe Snetsinger. Snetsinger was a 1950′s housewife (the same vintage as my mother) who felt trapped in her life as a wife and mother.  Her introduction to birds was a revelation and she became obsessed.  In her late 40′s she was diagnosed with an incurable cancer and given only a year to live.  She decided to spend her time seeing as many birds as possible.  (We call these people “listers”. Listers keep track of the number of birds they see.) Phoebe had a list of more than 8400 bird species before she died. (Almost twenty years after the diagnosis and grim prognosis and it wasn’t the cancer that killed her, it was a car wreck.) Seeing that many birds requires often dangerous travel to remote parts of the world.  At the time of her death she had seen 84% of the world’s bird species.

As far as anyone knows, that is the record.

A Blackburnian Warbler, the first bird on her list.

A Blackburnian Warbler, the first bird on her list.

Phoebe Snetsinger would never have won the wife or the mother of the year awards. Was she too independent to have been a “good” wife or mother? Did obsessions run in the family? Was it the one-year death sentence when she was only in her 40s?

Or maybe it was just the birds.

Olivia Gentile reports the details of Phoebe’s life as a journalist should—without judgment. Gentile examines all facets of Phoebe’s life—as daughter, wife, mother, cancer-survivor and obsessive and loving birder.  It is clear that watching and searching for yet another bird for her list kept Phoebe alive.  She shared her love of birds with her traveling companions and inspired others whom she met along the way.

The last bird on her list, a Red-shouldered Vanga

The last bird on her list, a Red-shouldered Vanga

I don’t aspire to be a lister, but I do know that my love of birds is one of the greatest joys of my life.  Watching birds brings me into the moment, those moments when life’s petty little problems disappear.  Life List chronicles those moments in the life of a great birder and is a fine read for a summer’s day.

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We have the book online and at the store. So do the big book stores and Amazon but, as always, we encourage you to find a small, locally-owned book store and buy it from them.

birding on borrowed timeMs. Snetsinger wrote her own book, which we don’t have but can get for you, Birding on Borrowed Time, published posthumously by the American Birding Association in 2003. For another book about life-list obsessions, you might enjoy, To See Every Bird on Earth by Dan Koeppel.

The photograph of the Red-shouldered Vanga was made by Mike Danzenbaker, that of the Blackburnian Warbler by a wikipedia user who identifies him or herself only as “mdf.”

For more on Olivia Gentile, here is her website.  (Warning:  It opens with sound.)

Listening Point

August 9, 2009

Scientists tell us that the earth is about 4 billion years old; the Rocky Mountains, 70 million.  In another 4 billion or so the Sun will have used up its hydrogen fuel and our lovely blue planet will no longer be habitable. Measured against those time scales the span of a human life is short indeed.

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk at 4UR Ranch

Which is why, when you find one of earth’s special places, you should spend as much time there as possible.  Especially if the birding is good. The Fat Finchers spent last week at one of those special places, a Colorado guest ranch called 4UR.

The owners of 4UR, the Leavell family, could shut the place down tomorrow if they wanted and they must be tempted from time to time. Fortunately for those of us who know this mountain valley to be one of the earth’s special places, they haven’t. They regard themselves as stewards first; owners second. The 4UR is in good hands and available to those willing and able to pay the freight.

A Piece of Goose Creek

A Piece of Goose Creek

The ranch is best known as a fly fishing destination.  Goose Creek flows through the property and is proof of the adage that trout live in beautiful places.  Divided into 15 fishing stations the six miles of river traverses at least three zones of flora providing diverse habitat for many birds and four species of trout. (It is a well known secret of private fishing streams that the really large trout are often stockers.  They stocked some while we were there.  One leviathan was holding in a shallow riffle and allowed me to tickle him. Trout tickling — scratching their bellies until they become semi-comatose is an old method of catching them.  And when I say old, I mean it. Shakespeare refers to it more than once.  Here is Maria in Twelfth Night, talking about Malvolio, “. . . here comes the trout that must be caught with tickling.” Because it is a “catch and release” stream, I only tickled; I did not catch.)

One of the offerings at the ranch is what they call “The Fifteen Stations Marathon.”  To participate you begin fishing at Station One and, as soon as you catch a fish there, move on to the next station and so on until you catch your last fish on Station Fifteen which is almost 1500 feet higher than Station One.  You must catch a fish in each station before moving to the next.  The current record belongs to the guest ranch manager, Aaron Christensen, who completed the six-mile fishing marathon in 2 hours and 37 minutes.  Someone gave it a try last week but surrendered at Station Ten after six hours. It’s not an easy thing to do.

Western Meadowlark at Station Six

Western Meadowlark at Station Six

We suggested a similar marathon for birders, one species at each station.  Probably, given the number of bird species which summer here, the river could be birded in less time than it takes to fish it. Here is a list of birds we saw:

Mallard duck, Turkey Vulture, Red-tailed Hawk, American Kestrel, Spotted Sandpiper, Great Horned Owl, Belted Kingfisher, Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Rufous Hummingbird, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Downy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Dusky Flycatcher, Western Kingbird, Steller’s Jay, Black-billed Magpie, Common Raven, Tree Swallow, Violet Green Swallow, Barn Swallow, Cliff Swallow, Mountain Chickadee, House Wren, American Dipper, Mountain Bluebird, American Robin, Starling, Yellow Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, MacGillivray’s Warbler, Western Tanager, Green-tailed Towhee, Chipping Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, White-crowned Sparrow, Western Meadowlark, Red-winged Blackbird, and Pine Siskin.

The naturalist Sigurd Olson had what he called his “listening point” to the universe and everyone ought to have a place like it.  A place to sit and contemplate and attempt to comprehend the wonder of the planet. Olson’s was in the Boundary Waters of Northern Minnesota; Thoreau had Walden Pond in Massachusetts; John Muir listened in the California Sierra; Edward Abbey in the high deserts of the Southwest; Robert Service in the Yukon; and Wendell Berry on his farm in Kentucky.

If you haven’t found yours yet, you might try 4UR.

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By the way, if one of your loved ones is a fly-fisher, here is a photo of one of the fish we caught this week and it is by no means the largest one caught.

4UR-5

Or Maybe that Bird is a Cordilleran Flycatcher?

July 13, 2009

Hammond's Flycatcher (7 of 3)Or maybe that bird we thought might be a Hammond’s Flycatcher is actually a Cordilleran Flycatcher?  A reader named Keith thinks it might be a Cordilleran and he may be right.  (His comment is attached to the last post.) We are posting two more photographs of the bird today, so he and you can have another look.

All of which brings up another point about identifying birds:  It is difficult to do it with nothing in front of you but a photograph.  (Obviously that does not apply to all birds but it does to the ubiquitous “Little Brown Jobs” (LBJ’s) which inhabit our world.  Some are almost impossible to distinguish when you are looking at them in the flesh, let alone looking at a marginal photograph.  In fact, our preference for field guides is that they not have photographs.  We want the art of Sibley or Peterson or Kaufman or the National Geographic in our field  guides rather than photographs.  Artists can be more careful about color and can put more detail into a bird than a photograph.  While that may be a departure from reality, it is a better learning tool.

The age of digital photography further complicates identification by photograph.  Modern digital cameras can take marvelous photographs but you can never be absolutely certain about the colors.  Some cameras may saturate the colors more than nature does. The process of rendering the digital image onto the computer screen, changes the colors more.  And every computer monitor shows them slightly different than any other monitor.  Every browser mangles the color as well.  Most important,  All cameras see the world differently than the human eye and brain.

Here are examples.  Every digital camera has a control called the “white balance” which is simply the color temperature of the ambient light the camera perceives.  But you can change it for every photograph you take.  And here is why it makes a difference.  Look at the three photos below.  It is the same photo but with three different white balance adjustments.  Because the identity of this bird depends, in part, on how much yellow it has, you can see that the white balance alone makes a huge difference.

Photo as it came out of the camera

Photo as it came out of the camera

Because of all the green in the background it is difficult to tell if that is yellow on the lower breast of the bird or merely reflection of the predominant green in the background.

Photo Adjusted to "Auto" in Adobe's Lightroom

Photo Adjusted to "Auto" in Adobe's Lightroom

And, here is the last example”

Photo adjusted to "Daylight" in Lightroom

Photo adjusted to "Daylight" in Lightroom

Then, and finally, we  run into the fallibility of human memory.  In my memory this bird was not showing much yellow, but my memory may be wrong.

That is why no substitute exists for the experienced birder.  If you are a casual birder and want to be better at identifying birds, you simply must go out with someone who knows what he or she is doing.  As an example, take this bird:  Keith would have nailed the identity in a flash, told us, and we would have remembered. As it is, we may never be certain.

And, as we always remind you:  The bird doesn’t care what you call it.  All you really have to do is see it and you’ll be more than a casual birder.

Hammond’s Flycatcher?

July 9, 2009

Do you know why swallows build in the eaves of houses?  It is to listen to the stories. J.M. Barrie – Peter Pan, Act I.

Listening and Brooding

Listening and Brooding

That is not a swallow sitting on her nest under the eave of a Rocky Mountain cabin in the photo above.  The best current thinking around here is that it is a female Hammond’s Flycatcher listening to the stories, but we could be wrong and invite comment more knowledgeable than ours.  After all, the first three people to look at this bird all thought it was a Solitary Vireo.

But that can’t be right.  Solitary Vireos are no more.  So says the DNA.  What birdwatchers used to call Solitary Vireos are actually three distinct subspecies, Cassin’s, Plumbeous, and Blue-headed.  None are commonly found in the southern Rocky Mountains which is where this nest is.

And so, mistakes were made.  But we can be forgiven.  The white eye ring led us astray.  Vireos have them and it is a prominent feature on this little bird.

So, what is it, that cute little bird sitting atop two nestlings?

Here is another photo to help us with our labeling exercise.

Hammond's Flycatcher (2 of 3)

The birds don’t care what label we give them, of course.  Labeling is a curiously human occupation leading to mixed results such as science or war.  But we are birders and we want to know what it is we have seen.

The first clue is the Aspen sapling on which the bird is perched.  That means we are in the mountains and in a mixed conifer-aspen forest.  That pretty much eliminates all the vireos except a Gray Vireo or a Plumbeous Vireo.  All the others live lower and in different ranges than the southern Rocky Mountains.  Moreover, we know they are nesting and raising a family so are not migrants.

Range maps, by the way, are important clues for casual birders.  Most birds live in the ranges indicated by the guides, especially if your guide is relatively current.  (Climate change is affecting the range of many birds.)  And, while it is possible the bird you just saw was out of its range, it isn’t likely, so you’ll need more evidence.

Back to our bird: The white eye ring, does not run all the way down to the top of the beak.  That lets out the Plumbeous Vireo.  And this little bird has two white wing stripes and the Gray Vireo has only one.

Conclusion: This is not a vireo.

The head looks as if you would like to scratch it because of that little, barely visible tuft.  The tuft leads to the possibility that it is a flycatcher of some kind.  (And that is some kind of fly in its mouth.)

So which flycatchers breed in the southern Rocky Mountains and have white eye rings and are as small as this bird?  (Western Wood Pewees meet other criteria, but are larger than this bird.)  That leaves us with four possible flycatchers: Least, Hammond’s, Gray, and Dusky. All have eye rings and two wing bars.  All inhabit the southern Rocky Mountains, although Least Flycatchers are rare.  In fact, the fourth and non-casual birder eliminated the Least because it mainly lives in deciduous forests, orchards, and parks. Moreover, its eye ring often extends to the top of the beak.

She also eliminated the Gray because it prefers the semi-arid habitat of the Great Basin and seldom goes higher than pinon-juniper forest elevation which is too low for Aspens.

Down to two now, she tosses the Dusky Flycatcher because its eye ring also extends too far — at least in the National Geographic, Sibley, and Kaufman field guides.  (Kaufman is of the opinion that the best way to identify these flycatchers is by voice.  In our defense, these two birds never made a sound that we heard.)

Feeding Time

Feeding Time

After announcing her conclusion, the real birder went off to run the store, leaving me, the sous-birder, to wrap it up by doing actual research on the Cornell web-site.  (I have a day job, but it is not as interesting.)

From Cornell’s “Birds of North America” (BNA) I learn,

Hammond’s Flycatcher is a common but poorly known migratory species that breeds in mature coniferous and mixed forests of western North America from New Mexico and Colorado to Alaska.

Later, the article confirms that Hammonds breed in north-central New Mexico, inhabit conifer and aspen forests, at elevations above sea level varying from from 2,100 to 3,000 meters, which is where we found these birds.

Both the male and the female fed the nestlings, but only the female sat on them; exactly how BNA describes their behavior at the nest.  Both were silent while feeding, also spotted by Cornell as behavior of Hammond’s Flycatchers.

Pushing the identification into the realm of near certainty, Cornell notes that Hammonds’ white eye rings are “often thicker behind eye”.  Finally, we read that the upper mandible is blackish and the lower is “yellowish” at its base. The bill is shorter and more narrow than the Dusky or the Gray.

We casual observers can take comfort from this,

[Hammond’s Flycatchers are] perhaps most renowned for being difficult to identify in the field, often being confused with the Dusky (E. oberholseri) and Gray (E. wrightii) flycatchers, whose habitats occasionally overlap those of Hammond’s. Size and color differences among these species are subtle, and the songs and calls, especially of Hammond’s and Dusky, are similar enough to make field identification difficult for the casual observer.

Thank you. That makes me feel better.  Perhaps the birds nested in the eaves not to listen to the stories but to listen to the people struggle to identify them.  Probably with a sense of wonder that we could be so busy trying to label them rather than just stare in wonder.

We conclude with this photo of the babies.

© Larry Glover of Wild Resiliency, used by permission

© Larry Glover of Wild Resiliency, used by permission

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Credit for the information from BNA belongs to James A., Sedgwick. 1994. Hammond’s Flycatcher (Empidonax hammondii), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/109

We welcome comments about this identification.

Life List

June 13, 2009

life listOne of us just finished “Life List,” a new book by Olivia Gentile.  It’s a biography of Phoebe Snetsinger who saw more species of birds than any human before her.  Ms.  Gentile was interviewed this week in the New Yorker’s blog, The Book Bench.  Decscribing a trip to Kenya — to follow the path of one of Ms. Snetsinger’s birding trips — Ms. Gentile told them, “I had this sense that I was exactly where I was supposed to be, doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing—learning that life is about survival, mating, storing your food, caring for your young.”

If you need a reason for bird-watching, that is as good as any.

Sun Screen: It’s Not for the Birds

May 15, 2009

This week the New York Times scooped the Fat Finch.  That is probably why having prosperous newspapers is a good thing.  No blogger, however good, can be expected to think of everything and get it on a blog before a major newspaper. They wrote about sun screen even though we had this post about ready to post.  The nerve.

sunscreen-proposed-label
But why, you may ask, does the New York Times care about sun screen?  Why, you may ask, is this birding blog writing about sun screen?  You may even be saying to yourself, “Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t stop reading right now!”

Wait!  Here is the reason: Skin cancer is a bad thing, you don’t want it, and we’re about to tell you how not to get it while you are out with the birds.  Besides, you may have noticed that you can now buy sun screen with a SPF rating of 100.  Perhaps you have wondered if that isn’t marketing overkill on the part of the manufacturers of sun screen.  To find out the answer you either have to read to the bottom of this post or go read the New York Times article which will take you longer to read and be troublesome.

We begin with those SPF numbers, SPF standing for “skin protection factor.”  Don’t be fooled into thinking those are objective or accurate numbers. They are simply estimates of how much longer you can stay in the sun without getting a sunburn if you have properly applied the sun screen.  So, if you go out at high noon and would normally begin burning in about 30 minutes, you can remain in the sun without burning for about 7 hours without burning, if you have SPF 15 sun screen properly applied.  Unless you sweat a lot of it away and you will.

So, if are a fair-skinned, freckled red head and normally start burning after 10 minutes in the sun, SPF 15 will protect you for about two hours.  On the other hand, if your skin is darker and you can stay out for two hours without burning exposed skin, you are protected for the entire day, assuming the sun screen is not washed out by sweat or water. For you, SPF 100 is definitely overkill.  You could stay out for 200 hours if the stuff lasted that long.

But nothing in life is really that simple.  The SPF estimates only tell you about ultra-violet B ray (UVB) protection while telling you nothing about the ultra-violet A (UVA) rays the sun also emits.  UVB rays are the cause of sunburn.  UVA rays are the ones that are aging your skin which, by the way, is your body’s largest organ. That is why you need to use a sun screen with either avobenzone or mexoryl sx in it.  They provide some protection from UVA rays.
skin

Of course, most birds have the good sense not to be very active when the sun is high.  That is why birders get up early to spot them.  Or stay out until the hour before and the hour after sunset.  At those times, the sun’s slanted rays are less harmful and the need for protection is less.  If you are not going to be out in the middle of the day, exposed skin certainly needs no more than SPF 30.

But it must be applied properly.  That means an ounce if you are covering your entire body.  That means a thick application on your face, ears, neck and hands if you are wearing long pants and long sleeves and a hat.  And that is the best of all. Which only one of us ever seems to do.  Guess who.

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For more information, here is the FDA’s information page about sun screens.


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