Monday, January 30, 2012

Birding Montana opportunities

Lazuli Bunting

This summer I will be involved with a couple of birding adventures in Montana so if you are interested in seeing some great birds and incredible landscapes, check these out -

In late May I will join David Sibley at the Pine Butte Swamp Guest Ranch for their Birding the Mountains and Prairies With David Sibley Workshop. I will do the introductory few days of the workshop and then David and I and Keith Hansen will co-lead the rest of the week. David will then co-lead a second workshop with Keith Hansen. Here is a link for David's posting on the workshop (he does a great job of describing the pace and expected birds) and a link to Keith Hanson's website.

McCown's Longspur

What can I say. I led this workshop a few years ago and really enjoyed the staff, the people that joined me at the workshop, and the place. I feel very privileged to be asked to do this again, but even better, I get to work with David and Keith this time around. Oh and the birds - Pine Butte is wonderful location to base a birding workshop from. There is relatively easy access to a wide variety of habitats within a short drive of the ranch and on the ranch property as well. Hopefully we can even find Northern Hawk-Owls like they did in 2010 as well as Long-billed Curlews, McCown's Longspurs, and Lazuli Buntings. Did I mention that I am really excited about this workshop? I am assuming that most people reading this will be familiar with David Sibley (Sibley Field Guide to the Birds of North America and more), but Keith Hansen is also a great bird artist and has been a favorite of mine for many years. Keith has a great talent for imagining unique perspectives for his subject and then rendering them in a accurate and artistic way. My favorite is an illustration of a Prairie Falcon flying over a Greater Sage-grouse lek as see from above and to the right of the falcon. Two great bird artists and me.
For a complete itinerary, description, and price check out the workshop link above.

Another opportunity to experience Montana birding with an organized group, this time traveling around a good chunk of the eastern part of the state, is a tour run by Peg Abbot with Naturalist Journeys.

Black-tailed Prairie Dog

I will be helping Peg out for a few days as she tours around some of the places I know best - the prairies of Eastern Montana. The details can be found here. This promises to be a great tour full of wonderful prairie wildlife including the possibility of observing McCown's Longspurs, Chestnut-collared Longspurs, Sprague's Pipits, Baird's Sparrows, and Long-billed Curlews - all while standing in one spot! Not just one individual either!

Baird's Sparrow

There is also a good chance that while we are standing there a Ferruginous Hawk or Swainson's Hawk might fly over or the Marbled Godwit will come holler at us. Lots of other great prairie wildlife will be found on this trip I am sure.

American Bison

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Petrels, Albatrosses, and Storm-Petrels of North America: A Photographic Guide

Petrels, Albatrosses, and Storm-Petrels of North America: A Photographic Guide. Steve N.G. Howell.

Cloth 2012 $45.00 ISBN: 9780691142111 520 pp. 975 photos and figures. 66 maps.

Perhaps the best way to begin this book review is to repeat a quote that Howell included in the front pages - "The cure for anything is salt water - sweat, tears, or the sea." from Isak Dinesen because this book certainly made me feel the need for a salt water cure for my longing to be at sea, observing these birds again, this time with this book in hand.

Howell packs so much information into this book. It begins with the Preface, a concise overview of our knowledge of seabirds in general and continues in the "How to Use This Book" section where Howell explains the general outline of this work, including how the book will treat the confusion of common names this group of birds has accumulated as a result of their rather dynamic taxonomic status, names often at odds with current AOU standards. However, I think that H0well presents "a realistic course" through this confusion with the taxonomy and common names he uses. My favorite is the use of Steller's Albatross for the species currently known as the Short-tailed Albatross; a name that epitomizes Howell's belief in using names that "evoke a sense of ocean exploration and discovery". Even the Acknowledgements contain an impressive list of who's who in seabird knowledge from throughout the world.

Early on Howell recommends that the reader takes time to read the Introduction, but this plea is in the "How To Use This Book" section, which like the Introduction, is an often overlooked part of any book so I am going to repeat the recommendation here - READ THE INTRODUCTION. Howell's Introduction is a excellent primer on tubenose birds, oceanography, taxonomy, field identification, bird topography, molt and conservation. All of this is discussed in the context of the seabirds he focuses on in this book, but so much of the information can be applied to birds and birding done away from the ocean that this is well worth the price of the book by itself, even if you never see a tubenose in you life.

However, this book isn't even close to being done with the good stuff at the end of the Introduction. Howell follows with seventy species accounts of the species of petrels, albatrosses, and storm-petrels found within 200 nautical miles of the North American shoreline from Alaska to Panama, including the Caribbean. This is nearly half of the currently recognized tubenose species in the world. Each species account is thorough and includes a species overview of identification summary, taxonomy, names, and status and distribution sections, followed by a field identification section that includes portions on similar species, habitat and behavior, and a description of the bird in flight and on water along with molt information. Following the text is a series of photos depicting the species and often similar species as well. Also included is a distribution map. Often the species accounts also open with an evocative photo depicting the species at a distance. The species accounts are full of identification tips gained from what I can only imagine are countless hours at sea observing these birds. Tips such as noting the relative heavy body and narrow wings of the Hawaiian Petrel for navigating the windy North Pacific versus the lighter body and broader wings of the similar Galapagos Petrel which inhabits less windy tropical regions. Howell has also included a couple of my favorite tidbits of seabird history including the inland record of the Manx Shearwater in Montana and the fact that Steller's Albatross used to breed in the Caribbean.

This book is large and heavy, which somewhat limits it's usefulness in the field, but I am willing to overlook this given the density of information contained within. My only other wish for this book was something that I probably wouldn't have noticed if Howell hadn't pointed it out for me. In the Townsend's Shearwater account Howell has inserted a plate of this shearwater and three similar species painted by one of my favorite field guide artists, Ian Lewington. When I saw this plate I wished that there would have been more of them in this book, just to illustrate what the idealized versions of the different species might look like to compare with the excellent selection of photos. But the book is already big enough and I am not sure what Howell would be able to give up to include more information and keep the book size somewhat manageable.

Howell has done a tremendous job throughout this book in evoking a sense of ocean exploration and discovery through seabirds and I think that he succeeds admirably in his goal of synthesizing the present knowledge of tubenose identification. He has also succeeded in fueling my desire to experience the magic of pelagic birding again, to be back on the ocean and wonder about the lives of these iconic and mostly little know wanderers of the open ocean.

Montana Snowy Owl

When I was back in Fort Peck before Christmas, I was able to find a few of the many Snowy Owls that have been reported across the U.S. this winter. One day Laura and I found seven owls on a drive in south Valley County. No Snowy Owls this far south yet.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Rough-legged Hawks again

Yesterday I got to get out north of town with my friend Jeff. We didn't find much except for a large number of Rough-legged Hawks. One bird we found was sitting in the grass next to a spring (above).

But the bird that was the most fun to watch we first observed on a steep dive into the dense grass next to the road just ahead of us. We watched it emerge from the grass shortly after it disappeared, but it didn't look like he was carrying anything in his talons. We lost track of it as it flew south and we were distracted by another bird. We found him again just down the road on a fencepost and it was apparent the it had indeed captured a small mammal of some sort.

We watched as his finished the meal in just two large bites, then flew back over the grassy area to look for more.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Billings, Montana Sunrise

We have had some amazing sunrises and sunsets the last few weeks. Most of the time I haven't had my camera with me, but I did this morning.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Tanzania Wildlife Management Area program

This video describes the Wildlife Management Area concept in Tanzania that I was involved with in 2010. Much of it was filmed in the Enduimet WMA where I taught the village game scouts how to contuct resource monitoring. The video is quite well done and describes the challenges the WMA's are facing and includes a number of people I worked directly with at Enduimet or at USAID.
It was wonderful and very rewarding work, but I feel that we had just begun to get our training to the point where it would be effective and then we left with no follow up. It's not just that I didn't get to go back to Tanzania either- I really felt that we were making a difference and really just getting started. The people that I worked with were very appreciative of us being there and I don't like the feeling that I have not been able to follow up and help out more.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Crossley ID Guide Review

The Crossly ID Guide: Eastern Birds
by Richard Crossley.
Published by Princeton University Press (a review copy was provided to me by Princeton University Press). Cloth Flexibound. 2011. $35.00 ISBN: 9780691147789 544 pp. 7-1/2 x 10 10,000 color images.

This guide has been out for a while and has garnered a fair amount of press and hype. I have to admit that I was a bit skeptical about it being able to live up to the promise of being a "revolutionary" field guide before I even saw it despite the author being a co-author on another guide that I really grew to like after initially having some hesitation (The Shorebirds Guide). I am inclined to be more critical of anything that is over-hyped and I have hesitated to do this review because I wanted to see if my initial bias would temper over time like it did with the Shorebirds guide.
I was not overwhelmed by my initial impression of the book although there were aspect of the book that I liked. I was surprised by the size of the book - certainly not a a guide I would take on a walk with me which limits it's field utility from the start.
After quickly scanning through the pages I started reading the Introduction, an often overlooked but important part of a field guide. I found it peculiar that Crossley began with a section titled "I Don't Like Text" - in which he proceded to state that he "soon get(s) bored with the introductory section of any book" - and then followed that with more introductory text than either my field guide standard, the Birds of Europe by Sevensson, Mullarney and Zetterstrom, or The Sibley Guide to Birds. The good news is that, despite his dislike of text, Crossley delivers a good introduction to his book and birding in general.
The plates are intended to be the "heart and soul" of the book and they are an impressive accumulation of photos taken by mostly one person. The Introduction proceeds to explain the intent of the plates including the explanation that the plates were not fully captioned to help the reader learn from the captioned images. The only problem with this idea is that there is no feedback to ensure that the readers guess on the age and/or sex of the bird is either verified or rejected. This is one of the strengths of the Shorebird guide - the answers to the quiz photos are located at the back of the book. There are also a number of plates where it is obvious that all the photos were taken on the same occasion and the diversity in lighting and and individuals is limited. This could have been rectified by bringing in photos from other photographers, but it seemed more important for Crossley to claim that he took most of the photos than provide better photos for his guide.
I also still cannot see how I would use this book to better identify a bird I have observed in the field. I rely on my field guide to help me make an educated guess on the identity of a bird I am observing, usually by helping me differentiate between similar species. First, as I noted above, I wouldn't have this book in the field and once I would be able to consult this guide, I still have a hard time figuring out how to use this book to aid in bird identification. Perhaps I am just unable to connect with Crossley's plea to "think of and use this book differently than any other guide" I own. And perhaps that is the issue. He states a few times that the book is intended to be interactive, but then really misses being interactive. Maybe this shouldn't have been a guide book in the traditional sense. Maybe Crossley should have created a guide that was revolutionary and different. What if it could be really interactive? A few years ago that might have been a moot question, but today it isn't.
I agree with Rick Wright that this should have been the first truly electronic guide and his assessment that all that is good with the book would get better and most of the shortcomings would disappear (see his review linked above for a more thorough discussion of this concept). Maybe then this guide would truly be interactive and could have really lived up to its hype of being revolutionary and turning birding upside down. I have a feeling I would have really liked (and used) this guide like that. As it is, I may refer to it occasionally if I am looking for another reference when I am working on an identification, but it will not be the first book I turn to, nor the second either.