Posts Tagged ‘Birding’

Singing Sparrows

June 6, 2014


From The New York Times we learn that chipping sparrows love their neighbors, but only if they are weaklings. Male intruders can invade and take over another bird’s territory and strong invaders are usually the winners. Male chipping sparrows will form a neighborhood coalition to defend their territories, but apparently only if the intruder is weaker.  And how do they know this?  By the intruder’s song.  If the intruding sparrow’s trill is weaker, i.e. slower, then that bird is less aggressive.  A faster trill indicates a strong invader.

Stick to those music lessons, little chippers!

Click here to read the New York Times article.

Basic Bird Photography

February 14, 2012

Photo Copyrighted by Linda Rockwell

The Fat Finch presents monthly events.  The next one will be Saturday, February 25, a workshop on photographing wild birds.

Taking  good photographs of wild birds can be a challenge.  In addition to understanding your camera, it helps to know a bit about basic bird behavior.  Take a lesson with two photographers who are also experienced birders.  This workshop will be a fun and easy event, perfect for any level photographer with any kind of camera.

Space is limited, so call The Fat Finch at 505-898-8900 for more information and to make a reservation. We’ll meet at the store and drive to the Rio Grande Nature Center after a brief orientation. Participants will receive a one-day 10% off coupon for use at the Fat Finch. Click here for directions.

The Big Year

October 18, 2011

The Big Year is in movie theaters everywhere now. Well, maybe not everywhere. I understand that movies aren’t big in Somalia right now and the little town in New Mexico where I grew up no longer has a movie theater, but aside from minor exceptions like that, the movie is playing everywhere. And why not? It has Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson in it and it’s a major movie about birding.

You read that correctly, a popular, well-funded, star-studded movie about birding. Based on the book by the same title by Mark Obmascik, the movie chronicles the unofficial competition between three men after a non-existent award for the most bird species seen in a single year in North America. Some human interest comedy has been added for the movie, but otherwise, it is a reasonably accurate portrayal of the book.

Of course, as usual in these matters, the book is better. And, if you live in Albuquerque, you can win an autographed copy for free. All you have to do is listen to KHFM (95.5), our local classical radio station and call in when you hear the ad for The Fat Finch. Not only can you win a copy of the book, you can also win a gift certificate for use in the store.

The birds are mostly accurate, even though a few are digital versions of their real-life counterparts and the flip book of birds at the end of the movie, during the credits, are the best reason to sit still until the lights come up. And this is a movie where the jokes are about non-birders instead of birders.

But the best reason to see the movie and to see it on the big screen is to reward all the people involved in it. Here is an attempt by Hollywood to show us something of the wild world and why we need to get out in it from time to time. Here, from the New York Times review of the movie is a sentence I wish I had written:

Birds are evidence of the miraculous and protean work of evolution and, more important, emblems of wildness in an overcivilized world.

It’s good to see a movie about them. And, after you’ve seen it, you’ll want to read the book again, either for the first time or for a re-reading. Then you’ll want to put on a good pair of hiking shoes, grab a pair of binoculars and go see some wildness.


Here are links to two reviews, one from serious birders at Cornell and the one from the New York Times.


PS. We’ve been away awhile and are glad to be back. Thanks for staying with us. This post is the 400th in the blog’s history and we just recently passed 800,000 views. Thanks to all our readers.

The Fat Finch Goes Birding

October 2, 2009

The staff and management of the Fat Finch are leading bird walks this weekend.  Here they are out scouting.


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.

Abraham Lincoln and Birds

February 11, 2009

abrahamlincolnauto1This week marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln.  More books have been written about Lincoln than any other human being with the possible exception of Jesus.  Long ago, people said that it was impossible to say anything new about Lincoln, but writers and commentators keep doing it.  A deluge of new books about Lincoln have been published to coincide with this anniversary and just about every commentator has noted the synchronicity or the coincidence or the conjunction of this anniversary and the election of the first Black to the American presidency.

But, as far as we know, no one before us has marked the anniversary by saying anything about Abraham Lincoln and the birds.

Not that there is much to say.  Do a word search for “bird” in the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln and you get five hits, three of which deal with proper names of people and two in which Lincoln uses birds generically as illustrations of political points he is making.  Searches for specific species come up empty.  There is one mention of a generic “sparrow” in a letter to his brother in 1851 when Lincoln’s father was dying, asking his brother to remind his father of the quote from Matthew about God noting even the fall of a sparrow, presumably to comfort his father.  (Lincoln did not bother to attend the funeral.)

Lincoln also referred to generic pigeons once.  In the last of one of his 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas, Lincoln compared Douglas’s argument about popular sovereignty to a, “homoeopathic soup that was made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had starved to death.”

On another occasion, when pestered with questions about Douglas’s stand on slavery in Kansas, Lincoln responded, “In every instance the question is accompanied with an anxious inquiring stare, which asks, quite as plainly as words could, ‘Can’t you go for Douglas now?’ Like boys who have set a bird-trap, they are watching to see if the birds are picking at the bait and likely to go under.” Lincoln refused the bait and continued to assert that Douglas actually favored the extension of slavery into the western territories.

A Politic Convocation of Robins

A Convocation of Politic Robins

There is a story about Lincoln saving some baby birds.  Once, the story goes, when he was out “riding circuit” as lawyers did in those days, a group of lawyers came upon two baby birds that had fallen out of their nests.  In one version of the story, they were Robins. All the lawyers kept riding except Lincoln who allegedly stopped, found the nest, and put the babies back in it.  The other lawyers needled him and he said something to the effect that he could not have slept unless he rescued the baby birds.

To us, that resembles the tale of George Washington cutting down the cherry tree. The story is just a little too sweet.

In the first place, Lincoln was born and raised on the frontier in the early 19th Century. People seldom got all gushy about birds and other animals, which they considered food, beasts of burden, or pests. Unlike today, not many people lived in urban areas.  No one in rural Kentucky or Illinois popped down to the grocery store for some meat and vegetables for supper.

Nor did they romanticize wilderness. For most, wilderness was something to be conquered, not a place to resort to for mental or emotional solace.  Wilderness was a place of darkness; danger; and, occasionally, death.  Modern habitat destruction, which is killing birds and animals at a far faster rate than the frontiersmen of old, was not yet even a cloud on a distant horizon.

Passenger Pigeon

Passenger Pigeon

In fact, the modern hobby of birding, beloved by so many, may be seen as one of earth’s responses to the habitat destruction wreaked by humans: Aware of the damage, earth propagated millions of people who bird, fish, hunt, and hike in order that a constituency be formed to protect what habitat is left.

While it is pleasant to imagine that Lincoln would approve of our efforts, he lived a long time ago in a place far different. When the sun went down, it was dark outside.  And silent. The Milky Way was brightly visible.  During daylight hours, the sounds of birds would have been little more noticed than we mark the sound of tires whirling down asphalt roads or the sound of airplanes overhead or any of the rest of our urban background noise.  We need the birds and wildness more than Lincoln did.
While Lincoln was not a birder — no life list is found in the Collected Works — he would have noticed many species of birds around him while growing up.  The National Park Service maintains a list of birds found in the vicinity of Lincoln’s childhood home.

He also would have seen birds, such as Passenger Pigeons, which are gone.  He might have heard a Bachman’s Warbler, or even seen the “Lord God bird”, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

Credit for the The Passenger Pigeon painting goes to Hayashi and Toda (artists), Charles Otis Whitman (author), published before 1920.

A Pine Flycatcher

January 10, 2009

It doesn’t take much to get a serious birder excited and on an airplane or in a car.  Here is an example:

The A.P. and the New York Times are reporting a sighting of a Pine Flycatcher in Choke Canyon State Park in Texas.

A Pine Flycatcher is a tiny bird, maybe 5 inches long including its tail feathers. A dull looking little bird that has serious birders on their way to south Texas in droves.  That is because it is not supposed to be in south Texas or anywhere else north of central Mexico.  The one seen in Choke Canyon is, in fact, the first one ever seen in the United States. It lives — or is supposed to live — more than 200 miles south of the Texas/Mexico border.

Ah, but what a bird to have on your life list; the first-ever sighting of a Pine Flycatcher in the United States.  (We checked for you.  Choke Canyon lies about half-way between San Antonio and Corpus Christi.  Southwest flies to both.  You still get peanuts on Southwest and probably water.  Go!)

We can’t find a public domain photograph of a Pine Flycatcher but here is a link to a photograph of one from a U.K. touring company.  Just scroll down the page.  The Pine Flycatcher is about half-way down on the right. There is also a photo here, on the American Birding Association’s blog.

A couple of years ago, a Yellow Grosbeak traveled North all the way to Albuquerque, New Mexico.  It too was way out of its proper range and people came from all over the place to see it.  It spent a part of a summer hanging out in the back yard of a local lawyer, who put a sign up in her front yard directing people around the side of her house to the backyard, where she provided coffee and doughnuts and chairs.  The bird divided its time between a big pine tree and a feeder.  Here is its photo.  As you can tell, a Yellow Grosbeak is really just a goldfinch on steroids.

Yellow Grosbeak

Yellow Grosbeak

Birdwatcher – The Life of Roger Tory Peterson

August 15, 2008
The Life of Roger Tory Peterson by Elizabeth Rosenthal

Birdwatcher:The Life of Roger Tory Peterson by Elizabeth Rosenthal

For birdwatchers, Roger Tory Peterson was a pioneer. When I was a young girl, already a member of the Junior Audubon Society at age 8, Roger Tory Peterson was my hero. The 70 million birdwatchers in the United States owe a great debt to him. 2008 marks both the 100th anniversary of his birth and the 10th since his death. Born with artistic talent and a love of birds, Peterson published his first bird identification guide in 1934. Before that book, no field guides for the general public existed and birding was a rare pastime. A Field Guide to the Birds opened a whole new world. A quick look told them what kind of bird they were looking at. His guides, now published in multiple editions, are some of the best selling books of all time; although at the time of the first publication of the guide, the publisher printed only 2000 copies. It was an expensive book because of its four-color plates and the publisher was so worried that it wouldn’t sell that Peterson was not paid a royalty on the first 1000 copies.

Besides producing his field guides and other books, Peterson was a vital environmental force, alerting the public about wildlife disasters caused by DDT and other chemicals. He was an active conservationist his entire life.

In a new biography Elizabeth J Rosenthal interviews friends, family and disciples of Peterson and the book is full of quotes and anecdotes. Too many, in fact; they interrupt the narrative. One day Peterson will be treated to a biography by a better writer. In the meantime, this is a pretty good book about a great birder, a mediocre husband and father, and lousy driver. We celebrate him for the birding.

Shakespeare’s Birthday

April 23, 2008

Today might be the anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth in 1564. No one knows for sure, but this is the traditional day.[1]

Chandos Portrait of Shakespeare?
The correct day of his birth is just one of the ten thousand details about Shakespeare’s life of which we know next to nothing. Some people aren’t even sure Shakespeare was really Shakespeare. He might have been somebody else. But this blog is unafraid of that controversy. We take the position that Shakespeare was Shakespeare and that he wrote the plays and the poetry attributed to him. He is dead now. Dead since this same day, April 23rd, in 1616, the same day that Cervantes died.

With all that out of the way, we can get to the point of today’s post: While we know little about Shakespeare’s biography, we know that he loved birds. His writing is full of avian references. And not just general references but explicit ones about individual species and their behaviors, indicating that Shakespeare knew the birds of England very well indeed. According to one scholar, Caroline Spurgeon, of all the images in Shakespeare only images relating to the human body outnumber those relating to birds. Falcons, Eagles, Hawks, Kites, swans, crows, ravens pelicans, doves, choughs, lapwings, herons, sparrows, owls, larks, even chickens populate the plays.

Goshawks “wing the wind”, turkey-cocks strut beneath “advanced plumes”, wild geese are “ scattered by winds and tempestuous gusts”, and falcons, “tower in [their] pride of place.” Chided by her father for her choice in husbands a daughter tells him, “I chose an eagle, and did avoid a puttock.” Falstaff bemoans a lack of courage on the part of a fellow robber by noting that he has no more valour than a wild duck. Juliet longs for, “. . .a falc’ners voice, to lure this tassel-gentle [Romeo] back again.” ” Anthony flies after Cleopatra like a “doting mallard.” And Othello promises to whistle Desdemona off like a falcon and let her, “down the wind to prey at fortune” should she prove unfaithful. Beatrice, “like a lapwing, runs close by the ground.” Prince Hal, wasting his youth but soon to be King Henry V, is a Cuckoo in June, “heard but not regarded.”

We could go on and on and would; except there is, “Yet left in heaven as small a drop of pity as a Wren’s eye.” Instead, we will, “. . . with reasonable swiftness add more feathers to our wings” and depart this post before trying your patience further. As we used to say in the Royal Navy, “You may, “Heave [us] away upon your winged thoughts athwart the sea.”

[1] At the time of his life, Britain still used the Julian Calendar. The British Empire did not officially begin using the Gregorian calendar until 1752.

The Secret Spot

April 22, 2008

High in the mountains or maybe down in the valley, just before the river melts into the sea, is that semi-mythical secret spot of fishermen; the spot where the sun filters through the trees to that deep hole where the big fish live, a place known only to a few and never disclosed to any but closest friends.

Birders have such secret places too.

The places have trees, brush, water, insects; everything birds need to live. Miniature bird habitats, known to hundreds of birds but only a few birders.

These places stay secret not because fishermen and birders are greedy or paranoid. They stay secret because discovery would ruin them. They are small, precious places and crowds would destroy them.

Some years ago we moved to a community and opened the first bird store. We met the local birders, went to Audubon meetings and generally made ourselves useful. We did this, not because it was good business, although it was; we did it because of our shared love of birds and our desire to make new friends.

Eventually, they decided we could be trusted with a treasured piece of local knowledge: They told us about the “Secret Spot.” We were required to never disclose its location and, for our first trip, to take a guide, since we would never find it otherwise.

On private land, with access left open by a kind-hearted owner who expects nothing but that we respect his land, the Secret Spot is small, perhaps only an acre or so. Maybe as big as Walden Pond was when Thoreau stopped by for a visit. Full of brush and a few trees, birds use it as a way-station during migrations and a few live there year around. Along with numerous Doves, Red-winged Blackbirds and Kestrels, it is home or hotel to a wide variety of others. We saw our first Painted Bunting there. Our first Blue Grosbeak. Our first Yellow breasted Chats.

We’ve since left that community and moved on. But business took me there over the weekend and there was time for a short visit, the first in a couple of years, to the Secret Spot. Nothing much was happening. I saw only a few birds and nothing unusual. But it was fine to be there in the early morning light and to have a cup of coffee from the thermos and listen to the awakening day. To remember the friends who, eventually, came to trust us with the knowledge. Life is a fine thing and friends one of the best parts of it. Especially those who know and share their own Secret Spots.

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