Friday, August 23, 2013


Today is the 200th Anniversary of Alexander Wilson's death.

To be honest, a month ago I didn't know much about Alexander Wilson, but, in the last few weeks I have daily added to my knowledge about him (thanks largely to my hubby, Rick). I have even been to the cemetery where Wilson is buried (if you think a cemetery is not a very romantic place to spend time, let me tell you that before we were married Rick took me to a sewage pond--you birders will understand!)

At any rate, I have become increasingly fascinated by this young man who was a few years older than I when he died (and had achieved significantly more--I have some major catching up to do). Though he appears not to have appreciated Bloomfield, NJ, where he lived for a short while (and where we now live), I have to respect him for his talents--in particular I am impressed with his artistic depictions in American Ornithology.

But I was even more impressed (not necessarily positively) with his words about the Killdeer. I have a partiality for plovers--perhaps because years ago I saw a film adaptation of Brideshead Revisted and the one scene that has stayed in my head is when the protagonist talks about his mother having sent him plover's eggs to eat, a scene that made me feel I need to protect plovers from omnivorous humans.

Wilson offers two fascinating tidbits: one, "There [in South Carolina planters' yards] the negro boys frequently practise the barbarous mode of catching them [the killdeer] with a line, at the extremity of which is a crooked pin with a worm on it" American Ornithology, p. 158;

and two, "Their [killdeer] flesh is eaten by some, but is not in general esteem, though others say, that in the Fall, when they become very fat, it is excellent." (ibid)

The thought entered my head that killdeer are being treated as fish and that they have some affinity with Thanksgiving turkey. Two very strange things to learn about killdeer--they're treated as fish and could be eaten like turkey....


Sunday, August 8, 2010


If you read my blog, you will no doubt know my predilection for large and stationary birds. Common Moorhen and American Coot, don't exactly fall into category, but they are usually fairly chunky (chunky enough to make some people eat them--at least the Coots, I'm not sure about the Moorhens) and slow-moving, if not quite immobile. As far as Rallids go, they're probably the easiest to see, which makes them my favourite among their closer relatives.

It's not too difficult to see the similarities between the two: both are gray-ish birds, both live in marshes, both have a similar body shape. Yet there are some differences that are worth noticing (just in case you're ever in a situation where immediate identification is not possible!). For example, their rear ends: the American Coot's rear end just slopes down (rather like a duck's) while the Common Moorhen's rear definitely points upward. Then their feet (which of course are hard to see) differ, too. While Coots have four lobed toes, green in color, Moorhens have very long toes, not lobed, yellow in color, and a little reminiscent of claws.

The more challenging distinction is of course between baby coots and baby grebes--but at the moment I lack a photo of a baby coot, so that entry will be coming up as soon as I get an appropriate shot....

Sunday, July 11, 2010


I have always had a soft spot for the more literary side of birding: years ago I remember learning that the former common name for Lark Bunting was White-winged Prairie Blackbird. As a beginner, I really relished bird names that incorporated a key visual aspect of a bird and thus I was particularly pleased with this name. Admittedly, it reflected only the male of the species, but as a neophyte I was only looking at males! I suppose I have 'progressed' in the sense that I now look more at shape, location and other non-color aspects of a bird, but I still enjoy hearing--and using--other English names for a particular species.

Thus, for example, while looking up this Surf Scoter in the second, revised editon of Peterson's A Field Guide to the Birds, I was happy to discover that it is sometimes referred to as 'Skunk-head Coot'. Apparently that is not a former name, it's just an appellation common enough in Peterson's time to merit inclusion in his guide. And it does reflect a key aspect of the male bird: his head is indeed "Black, with one or two white patches on the crown of head..." (Peterson, 50).

This individual was swimming around in mid April in English Bay, Vancouver and as I am now in the SW desert awaiting the monsoon, I am fantasizing and writing about ocean birds!. I did learn a little more: in the 1947 Peterson Guide, the entry below Surf Scoter is American Scoter (Oidemia nigra americana), a name that doesn't occur in Sibley. This got my research instincts flowing and with the help of my husband I now know that this 'American Scoter' was re-named Melanitta nigra sometime after 1957. Then, in 2005 the British Ornithologists' Union split this taxon into Melanitta nigra (Old World species), Common Scoter, and Melanitta americana (New World species), Black Scoter. So, as far as I can tell, there is no 'American Scoter' name anymore. I suppose none of this information is crucial to my enjoyment--or field identification--of the actual birds, but it is always interesting to me how much discussion and study is behind the names which provide many of us with a sense of satisfaction when we match them to the 'correct' bird.

Sunday, June 13, 2010


Any birder who identifies birds following the dictates set out in the field guides--shape, bill length, habitat, range--will immediately, naked eye, identify this one as an American Robin.  Fortunately, this is what I did this morning at Colony Farms, just east of Vancouver. 
However, when I took a closer look,  I have to admit I got to thinking.  Not questioning my identification, but rather marveling at how much pattern and color invite confusion into birding!  Without a doubt the bird has what I think of as a thrush-like posture: rather erect and 'tall'.  Its bill is appropriately-sized: neither too long for its head like Long-billed Curlew nor too short, like Bushtit!  The bird is where it's supposed to be--on a grassy lawn--and as American Robins are common throughout the area, its appearance is nothing out of the ordinary. 
But had I relied on the coloring of the bird I might have been thrown; based on that (and actually supported by the habitat), Fieldfare jumped to mind.  Also a thrush, Turdus pilaris is the same length.  Both birds also have a nice white supercilium.  Furthermore, like the bird pictured above, the Fieldfare is not uniformly colored on the breast--though it has streaks (i.e., the 'arrows' of the 'pilaris') rather than blotches.  The two thrushes have a similar stance. 

The telling difference, of course, is that I have just described an adult Fieldfare and the above American Robin is a recently-fledged one: he's still going to attain his uniform color.  Also, there's the helpful aid of range maps: Fieldfares do not occur with any regularity in the New World:  as the Nat Geo Complete Birds of North America notes they are a 'casual vagrant in northeastern North America'; 'accidental to Ontario and Minnesota'; and 'casual in western Alaska'.  Still, there's always a first time...

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Black, White and Red all over...

When I started birding my criteria for a 'good' bird were size and immobility--that is to say that I appreciated herons most and warblers least! I have since broadened my perspective and actually enjoy the challenge of finding and identifying numerous warblers. But that still doesn't diminish my joy at easily identifiable birds, and I would have to say the Acorn Woodpecker is one of those.

It's not exactly stationary nor is it particularly big, but its block-like division into black, white and red makes it a hard bird to misidentify in the West (were I in the East, I'd have to at least consider its relatively close relative, Red-Headed Woodpecker, which has even more stringent color blocks, but this is where those range maps in all the field guides come in handy!) To me, Acorn Woodpeckers always look a bit clown-like--maybe that's partly due to their call that seems to say 'wake-up! wake-up! wake-up!'  Or maybe it's the fact that they're so social and are constantly chasing each other around, making me laugh at them.

I think of them as an Arizona bird--but that's just because I've seen them there.  When I read up on them in the Nat Geo's Complete Birds of North America, I found that they are accidental in BC.  This gives me hope that I'll see one in my native land!

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Spotted Towhee

There are many things I love about my 'home and native land'--the way people so many people call out thank you on the bus here in Vancouver comes to mind--but probably one of the best things is that I have a 90% chance of seeing one of a pair of these beauties on my short walk from bus to office in the morning.  There's a hedge just outside my building and invariably a towhee is hopping around in there.  Given the fairly obvious difference in head color (females are brown, males glossy black), I feel quite confident in identifying which of the pair I am seeing.  I keep hoping to see some streaky babies...I can't imagine a better addition to my Towhee sightings!

Unlike most of the birds that pose protracted identification challenges for me, the Spotted Towhee is really quite easy--especially for a sparrow (think of distinguishing Cassin's and Botteri's.... or the various subspecies groups of Dark-eyed Juncos).  Even in flight, Spotted Towhees are recognizable by their big white tail spots, visible from afar.

Their call could potentially be confused with that of the Catbird, but because the latter are very rare here on the West Coast, I assume Spotted Towhee unless proven otherwise (I suppose that is a sign that I am no longer quite a beginner--I have lost the conviction that I am seeing something incredibly rare every day!).

Maybe the ease with which I can identify Spotted Towhees is the true source of my partiality for this large sparrow, but I like to think that it's more due to the bird's good looks and the attention it pays me at the beginning of my day.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

My Vote for the National Bird of Canada

Lincoln's Sparrow was first described in CANADA: in Labrador by Audubon and named for a CANADIAN, Tom Lincoln. Apart from being the most beautiful sparrow in my opinion, Lincoln's is found in all the CANADIAN provinces and territories. Though initially people might hesitate to choose a sparrow as a national bird, Lincoln's Sparrow's distinctive features and beautiful song will, I am sure, encourage people to make the effort to learn one more bird.

Red-tailed Hawk--the current frontrunner--would be a disappointment as the bird for CANADA. It was first described in Jamaica and its scientific name, Buteo jamaicensis, reflects that.

You can add your voice in favor of Lincoln's Sparrow by clicking here.