Friday, February 27, 2015

Open water

Open water is a critical ingredient in winter birding; without it, your birding repertoire will be limited to a few dozen passerines. The recent deep freeze has concentrated waterfowl in the ice-jammed Ohio River. I took a cruise along the river this afternoon and found decent numbers of ducks (a flock of over a hundred Canvasbacks was a clear highlight) to reward my numbed toes.

The only birds close enough to photograph was a small pod of scaup near downtown Cincinnati. Greater Scaup were more numerous today, but I did see two Lessers. One of them is in the photo below. Can you find it?

The two scaups are so similar that I'm sure many novice birders have smashed their binoculars in frustration. At close range, the fine differences are easier to notice. In the top photo, the Lesser is leading the pack; below, it is the topmost bird.

I became curious about scaup distribution--thank goodness for eBird! As I drove along, all I could remember was that Greater Scaup occurs in both the Nearctic and the Palearctic, while the Lesser lives only in North America. These maps are for winter (December through February).

Greater Scaup range--generally, it seems to stick a bit further north and seems more strongly associated with coasts.

And the Lesser Scaup. It ranges farther south and is spread more evenly across the continent.

After completing my river circuit, I made a detour on the way home to check the lake at East Fork State Park. This is a massive lake; I had a hunch there might be some open water. There was--just one small patch that was peppered with Mallards, mergansers (all three species), and goldeneye. They appeared unnerved by the pair of Bald Eagles standing vigil nearby.

 Bald Eagles are certainly majestic, but after hearing several dozen breathless accounts from nonbirders about that time back in '87 when we saw an EAGLE at the cabin, they can become annoying.  I'm sure these eagles are enjoying the deep freeze as much as I am--it makes hunting duck easier, a welcomed supplement to a diet of roadkill and dead fish. With temperatures predicted to rise next week, the eagles will have to go back to their carrion and I to my chickadees and White-throated Sparrows.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Name Conundrum

Allow me to give you a brief history of this podium for avian bombast.

In 2007, a nerdy fourteen year-old young birder created this site and began to write earnest chronicles of his local birding adventures. He named it “OCBirding,” short for “Orange County Birding.”

By 2009-2010, the blog had garnered something of a following and displayed increasing levels of grandiloquence.

In 2010, the author moved out of Orange County, rendering the title obsolescent.

It wasn’t until about 2012ish that the author finally realized that “OCBirding” was no longer an appropriate title. The lackadaisical author slapped the new name, “Not just birds,” onto the blog with barely five minute’s thought and returned to homework.

Now, in 2015, emancipation from school allows me ample time to fret over my blog. The insipid title offends me. So, after a full day’s contemplation, I hereby rechristen this blog “Obsessive-Compulsive Birding.”

There are lots of potential names out there. The Avian Confessions of an Ex-Nerd. Birding in Lotsa Places. Ornithological Warfare. Eat, Pray, Bird. You get the idea. I chose thus because:

1. Back in the OCBirding days, people jokingly joked that the “OC” stood for “Obsessive-Compulsive.” Take that.

2. The web address of this blog is, and I’ll be damned if there isn’t a better OC title than “Obsessive-Compulsive.” Hmm. Ornithological Crap?

3. I’m think I renamed the blog “Obsessive-Compulsive Birding” back in my college days. I’m just not sure. That’s why it’s not in the history.

4. Finally, my patterns of birding behavior are arguable obsessive-compulsive. I think about birds constantly and go birding all the time. And when I’m not birding, I’m worrying about the birds I’m not seeing. I’m not sure why.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Snowday sapsucker

Cincinnati has neither the snow-removal infrastructure nor the cold tolerance of more northerly cities. Moderate snowfall that would be met with a shrug in Grand Rapids paralyzes this city. As a result, I had two snow days from work last week. But, I can’t complain—I used that time to bird. (Don’t even ask me how many hours I wasted poking my head into the bellies of Red Cedars looking for Saw-whet Owls.)

On Wednesday morning, I stumbled across a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker working a sugar maple. It looked miserable, as it should have—temperatures were barely breaking the positives. No sap would weep from its wells today.

Sapsuckers are a hot topic at the nature center this time of year. We regale the visiting children with the importance of the quasi-mythical woodpecker called a sapsucker. We showcase old wells and explain that other species will steal from the sapsucker’s property. However, I was taken aback when my supervisor referred to sapsuckers as a keystone species. Really? I wondered. I bet if all the sapsuckers disappeared from these woods, business would be unchanged…

Fact: other species plunder sapsucker wells. I’ve caught Yellow-rumped Warblers in the act. But, I would contend that, at least in the sapsucker’s winter range*, other species don’t glean a significant percentage of their daily caloric intake from sapsucker wells**.  And, here in Cincinnati, I don’t think winter sapsuckers are abundant enough to support significant populations of, say, Ruby-crowned Kinglets…

I realized that my hang-up might be semantic. I launched an archaeological dig to unearth my biology textbook, which I have admittedly used more often as a dumbbell than a vehicle of scholarship. Page 1073 defines a keystone species as an organism that “has a much greater impact on the distribution and abundance of the surrounding species than its abundance and total biomass would suggest.”

Huh. Vague.

A brief search on Google Scholar confirmed my suspicions—I found multiple articles questioning the usefulness of the term, including one that read, “The term keystone species is poorly defined and broadly applied.” Yup. The concept is real—as George Orwell would say, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” But, labeling Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers and apex predators like wolves with the same title seems ludicrous. I will have to tinker with my sapsucker spiel before the next school group comes to learn about maple syrup.

*I got thinking about sapsucker range and had to look it up. Basically, there’s a flip-flop around the tension zone in Wisconsin and mid-Michigan. Cincinnati is well within their winter range, but they don’t seem abundant here.

Summer (Jun-Jul)

Winter (Dec-Feb)

**Of course, there are exceptions. See Dorian Anderson's blog for an intriguing example.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Winter Wraith

The lair.

On a recent visit to the nature center's Long Branch Farm property, I encountered an avian insurgent, an insectivorous guerrilla that defies winter's frigid tantrums in the shelter of ravines and creek banks. That bird was a Winter Wren, a stubby little bird the color of dark chocolate. I imagine it must tussle with chipmunks and salamanders in the quasi-subterranean niches it inhabits.

As this photo demonstrates, the Winter Wren is, under normal circumstances, undetectable as it lurks in dark crevasses. Fortunately for birders, the Winter Wren would perform well in the role of a crabby mother-in-law; at the first sign of conflict (i.e., pishing), it emerges from the catacombs and scolds voraciously. 

The bird skated around on the frozen creek before taking off for a more peaceful hovel. That illustrates another dimension of the Winter Wren personality; it never (i.e., never) sits still. 

As a boy, I was perplexed about this wren's name. A much better name would be October Wren, I thought. For that was the month they always appeared in my backyard, burrowing through the woodpile and popping out in unexpected places. In Michigan, a winter Winter Wren is a prize, a bird worthy of a high five on a Christmas count. Here in southern Ohio, they are easier to find--walk a half mile of any creek, and you will kick one up.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Sojourn in Cincinnati

Life brings me to Cincinnati, Ohio, where for five months I am working as an education intern at the Cincinnati Nature Center. On any given day of work, you may find me leading school programs, hauling firewood, feeding snakes, working the center's front desk, tapping sugar maples, playing with get the idea. It is a varied (and invariably fun) gig. What follows is an anthology of my photos from my first month of work.


The business card of a Pileated Woodpecker




Cincinnati Nature Center's intern crew. I am honored to work with these talented folks.

Temporary immortality.

Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor)

An Eastern Gray Squirrel's business card.


Symphony in Grey Minor

Hairy vine, no friend of mine. Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans)

Adjusting to a new area's avifauna is always a fun challenge. In this case, the differences are subtle--but, don't be fooled, the 238 miles (yes, I checked on Google) that separate Cincinnati from Grand Rapids are sufficient to produce discrepancies in the bird life. A few species (e.g., Carolina Chickadee, Black Vulture) don't occur in Michigan (at least, not commonly). Others are much more common here in winter than they are in Michigan. This is true for Eastern Towhees--I can easily see eight in a day here, while a winter towhee in Michigan would be remarkable. There are plenty of other examples--Field Sparrow, Winter Wren, Hermit Thrush.

More to come. Hopefully.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Map Monday: The Californians

 California is a great spot to go birding. List-oriented birders are well aware that California boasts two endemic species as well as a number of range-restricted birds most reliably seen in the Golden State. Let's test your bird distribution knowledge: here are the (unlabeled) maps of twelve specialties. Included are the six birds whose names honor California: the gull, the quail, the condor, the thrasher, the gnatcatcher, the towhee. The other six are birds that my friends from the East (or, heck, the Rocky Mountains) covet. What are they? And which is which? Good luck.

1. A coast-hugger with a predilection for vagrancy...

2. A patch here, a patch there...

3. This one is only found in California--provided, of course, your definition of California includes the Bajas.

4. Woah, woah, woah, hold up. Why's this in here?

5. What do Cabo San Lucas and Eugene have in common?

6. I don't think it's supposed to be in Hawaii...

7. Nice how it stops at the Oregon border!

8. Let me get my magnifying glass out...

9. Ok...

10. This is getting hard!

11. Oof...I swear, the last three have been exactly the same.

12. California and California only!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

An Encounter with the Masked Birder

             Sodden leaves and pulverized acorns robbed the parking lot of space delineations. I haphazardly swung my Taurus to a halt across two or three spaces without excessive guilt—the lot was desolate, and I deemed it unlikely that anyone else would appear on such a blustery October day. I exited the car and shivered.
I consulted my trunk, that veritable pantry for outdoor exploration. After a short interval, I located my jacket, scope, and one glove. Oh well. You really only need one hand to scan.
I had been visiting Manistee Lake daily, enjoying my role as its only birder. There are so few birders in northern Michigan that one can possess a harem of lakes to scope. Therefore, I was highly surprised to see a lean figure, binoculars raised, at the lake’s margin. Fighting feelings of indignation, I told myself, “Come now. A public lake is not a concubine. You can share.”
“Hey!” I called as I approached, “Seeing anything good?” The figure lowered his binoculars and turned.
He was tall, positively gaunt, a haggard heron of a young man. And his face was concealed by a bandana that had once been red.
“Your Red-necked Grebe from Wednesday is still here. Plus a couple Surf Scoters.” He seemed positively frosty, so I set up my scope at the maximum distance that is socially acceptable among birders. Obviously, he knew who I was, but to me, he was a man in a mask. I scanned in silence.
I had been squinting at a bobbing flotilla of Aythya for five minutes before he spoke again. “We’ve met before, you know.”
I looked up. He was scanning with his binoculars—an ancient pair of Zeiss, at least twenty years old. They looked like looked like they had been through the laundry multiple times. “Yeah? When?”
“Mouillee, April 2004. Looked at a couple Yellow-headed Blackbirds together.”
I remembered the birds but not the birder. “You must have not been wearing the mask,” I observed.
“Nope. That was before I turned vigilante.”
I chuckled, for now I knew who—or rather, what—he was. The Masked Birder. A mysterious celebrity in the ABA, a sort of birder Bigfoot. Rumors swirled. Some speculated that he was the illegitimate son of one of the birding greats. Some considered him a sort of Messiah, others disparaged him as a bum, and still others dismissed him as a narcissistic Quixote. Me? I’m impartial. I mean, birders are a strange bunch. A birder wearing a mask and bumming around the country isn’t that unprecedented. Hell—there’s birders who eat cat food, birders who refuse to ride in internal combustion vehicles, birders who keep meticulous lists of the birds they’ve seen while urinating…
“So—what brings you to these parts?” I asked.
“I was at Whitefish for a week…working on a personal project on sparrow migration, so I’m following the White-throats south. Saw your eBird reports from this place and decided to stop in.”
I glanced up and saw him entering an eBird list on an iPhone. It clashed with his wayfaring persona. “Hey, since when does the Masked Birder have a smartphone?”
I suspect he would have looked embarrassed had it not been for the bandana. “It’s, uh, new,” he said. “I was in Alberta a few months ago and led a rich twitcher to his life Boreal Owl. His 700th. He was so happy that took off his Swaros to give to me. Well, I’ve got these,” he said, patting his Zeiss. “They were my dad’s, and I’ll never bird with anything but them. I told him that, and he said, ‘Son, well, you better take this. You gotta put your stuff on eBird,’ and handed me his phone.” 
“Wow,” I said, scanning through a cloud of gulls settling to roost. “How do you get around?” I asked, remembering the dearth of other cars in the lot.
“Walk. Hitchhike. Commandeer snowmobiles. Grayhound if I have a few bucks. Bald Eagle,” he said, gesturing overhead. The bird circled, catching the last rays of sunlight.
We watched the eagle in silence for a couple minutes. Then, I started to collapse my tripod legs. “Listen,” I said, “There’s a bar just down the road. Wanna go? I’ll buy you a beer.”
“Sure!” he said. He grabbed his tired-looking backpack and followed me to my car.
By the time we were buckled in, he had warmed up to me sufficiently that he was babbling nonstop about birds. First, it was jaeger identification—apparently, during his week at Whitefish, he had developed a formula for identifying jaegers based on wing beat frequency (though, variables for wind speed were still giving him trouble). Then, he was on to thermodynamics and migration. “…you see, bird populations must conform to the laws of entropy…”
Our arrival at Dingman’s interrupted his discourse. “Guess I’d better take this off if we’re going in there,” he said, loosing the bandana and letting it fall around his neck. His face was youthful and ornamented with wispy facial hair that anyone above the age of thirteen would not be proud of. His eyes reminded me of a mountain stream—blue, icy, darting.
As we began to sip our beer, I asked, “So…why the mask?”
He belched delicately and waved his hand. “Aw, man. The birding community is just so full of bullshit. Being anonymous and elusive stirs the pot.”
“Bullshit? Like what?”
“Oh, for one thing, this obsession with Big Years. Big Days. Big Everythings. Everything in birding has to be bigger. Kaufman, Komito, Hayward…get real, people. It’s been done before.”
“Well…some people think it’s fun.” I said.
He drained the last of his pint and snorted. “Yeah, whatever…then there’s the issue of reputation. You make one mistake, and you’re screwed for life. Like this kid I used to mentor—one day he reported a Curlew Sandpiper, turned out to be a Dunlin. Know what? Since then, he’s become phenomenal, but still, no one believes his reports because of that one little ID fart five years ago.”
I couldn’t help but agree.
He continued his rant. “And you become defined by the rarities you find. I’ll bet the ABA has a database listing all birders by social security number, name, and rarest bird they’ve found.”
“I don’t believe that.”
The bar tender came over. Asked, “More beer?”
“Sure!” said the Masked Birder.
“Nah, I’m driving,” I said.
“Okay, well, maybe the database thing is an exaggeration. But even I know that the rarest bird you’ve ever found was a Bar-tailed Godwit in 2009. You’d better find something else fantastic before they forget you.”
I was speechless. Finally, I said, “Well…you’re right, I guess. Whenever people meet me they say, ‘Oh, you’re the fellow that found the godwit.’”
The beer arrived, and the Masked Birder took a draught. “So—what’s the rarest bird you’ve ever found?” I asked.
He sneered. “I don’t report my rarities, so that doesn’t happen to me—“
That makes you an asshole,” I pronounced.
“Well, wait, wait. I make sure people find out about them. I’ll be birding around Cape May and find a Garganey at Lake Lily. I’ll go up to the next capable-looking birder I see and ask him what he’s been seeing. Then I’ll say, ‘Man, you really should go check out Lake Lily. There were tons of ducks there, and with the winds we’ve been having, it’s high time a Eurasian duck showed up.’ Of course, he’ll run over there, find the Garganey, and get the glory.”
“But what if you’re in the middle of nowhere?”
“Well…that happens. Either I’ll leave an anonymous message on the rare bird alert, or I won’t report it. That’s what happened with my Eurasian Kingfisher in Newfoundland…”
“WHAT?!” I exploded.
“Uh…yeah. Last October. Didn’t bother reporting it.”
“But that would be the first ABA record!”
“Okay—that makes you an asshole, I’m sorry,” I said.
To my surprise, he looked hurt. He drained the last of his beer and signaled for another one. The bartender raised an eyebrow and fetched another stein. The Masked Birder shifted in his seat and said, “Yeah, I guess I feel bad about that one. But, in a couple years, I’ll submit my photos and documentation.”
Our conversation turned to happier matters—gull identification, Ron Pittaway’s winter finch oracle, the paucity of young female birders. After his fourth beer, the Masked Birder staggered from his seat and said, “Well, I’d better get going. Thanks for everything.” He lurched toward the door like a Reddish Egret.
I jumped up and grabbed his shoulder. “No way, man, you come with me. You’re drunk, and it’s cold out. Stay at my house.”
He didn’t resist and followed me to my car. The whole ride home, he sang Pish & Twitch parodies and hallucinated Boreal Owls on the roadside. I ushered him into my house, and he instantly collapsed on my couch, binoculars still looped around his next. I threw an old blanket over him and went to bed.
Screaming Blue Jays awoke me in the morning. Snuggling back under my covers, I was nearly asleep again when I realized that my encounter with the Masked Birder had not been a dream. It all seemed too bizarre to be true, so I extricated myself from the blankets to confirm my memory’s veracity. To my surprise, he was gone. He had left a note—scribbled in child’s handwriting—that read,

Dear Neil—thanks for the company. I need to continue south. You might want to scope Big Twin Lake this morning. Yours, The Masked Birder.

I jammed my bare feet into boots, grabbed my scope, and sprinted down the driveway towards Big Twin Lake with my laces undone and bathrobe flapping. Breathlessly I planted my tripod in the damp sand, began scanning, and—there, fifty yards offshore, was a pristine drake Smew with a raft of Hooded Mergansers. “You sneak,” I said aloud, reaching for my phone to spread the news.
It stayed on the lake for two days, and, as the first state record for Michigan, it attracted birders the way overripe bananas attract fruit flies. People began to refer to me as “the guy who found the Smew.” I cringed every time.
           A year passed. The guilt mounted—until now, I never disclosed that it was not I who found the bird. I have not received word of the Masked Birder since. I often peruse prominent birding blogs in hopes of seeing mention of him. But—he is ungraspable, like a migrant songbird passing overhead at night, undetected save for a single note. If you ever encounter the Masked Birder, treat him to a beer and tell him that I say “hi.”