Time Flies when Birding

We had our first field trip to the Field Station this Tuesday. Going to the Field Station, I knew that there would be many different types of birds at the Field Station, but what I didn’t know was how hard it would be to actually spot them.

Dr. Duerr told us that one of the best ways to learn about a bird is to learn to associate bird sounds to the individual species. However, trying to actually find the bird that is making the call is harder than it seems. There were many instances in which we would hear a bird, but no matter how hard we searched, we wouldn’t be able to find it. Was it because of the brushy terrain or maybe the cold windy weather?

It was a considerably windy day

After doing some research, it seems that there are other reasons aside from just being windy that cause some birds to remain unseen in thick brushy landscapes. Thinking about it, it makes sense that birds use these brushy areas to take cover from the wind for warmth. However, these brushy areas serve another purpose when it comes to food sources. Reading from a website on winter birds, in the winter, insects become more scarce, leading birds to focus more on foraging for seeds and berries. Consequently, these are both food sources that are found in thick bushy landscapes. Larger trees are less likely to provide this resource in the winter. Furthermore, this thick low brush could serve as protection against predation compared to taller trees which are more exposed.

A visual of both the brushy landscape and taller trees surrounding it

While we did struggle with seeing birds in these brushy areas, this didn’t limit us completely. We still saw considerable amounts of birds flying in the sky and perched higher up in the taller trees. Again, thinking about the wind, it is clear now why we saw  a few raptors in the sky. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology raptors such as the Red-tailed Hawk, when flying in windy conditions, hover without flapping while facing the wind. We noticed this behavior because we saw raptors flying in the opposite direction that the flags were blowing towards.

Aside from raptors, we noticed a flock of Dark-eyed Juncos. This made me think, “what purposes does flying in flocks serve?” Considering the windy conditions, I thought that maybe this would serve some purpose in keeping warm. However, it makes more sense that a flock of perched birds (but not flying) would be warmer while in this closer proximity. On the other hand, Audubon points out that flying in flocks would be safer and less risky than flying on their own out in the open. This was especially true, considering the raptors we say soaring above.

Dark-eyed Junco,  Image Source: Cornell Lab of Ornithology

While considering the features of flying and safety, I’ve stumbled upon a revelation. Doesn’t it make sense, biologically, that many birds have darker feathers on their wings and upper-body/back while having a lighter underbelly? Think about it! If a predator sees a bird flying below, camouflage is of the essence and a darker upper body is more likely to blend in with the landscape below. If a bird is flying above the predator, the lighter underbelly would blend in more with the lighter colors of the sky.

All in all, it was a really fun experience birding at the Field Station and I would recommend it to anyone, even if it’s just for a simple walk. Time definitely flew by as we birded and explored the different habitats along the paths around the Field Station.

Basic Birding in verrrry Basic Weather

Starting our first Tweetspeak course off, Dr. Duerr made sure that before anything else she wanted us to know that Birders and bird watchers are NOT the same thing! Confusing the two would be a grave mistake indeed. Correct terminology is very important in the study of Ornithology and Birding, but for the time being, we stuck to the very basics.

Image Source: The Cornell Lab of Ornithology

This being said, our creativity was put to the test when we tried to come up with names for our first bird picture of a Northern Parula. Some names included the Sunset Chested Bluebird, Orange Tufted Bluebird, and the Chirper.

Little did we know that, while wrong with the actual name, we were on the right track to the process of naming birds. Many of us described characteristics of plumage, color, or bird sounds. We learned that combined with other characteristics such as size, song, habitat, what a bird eats, migration, and geographic distribution a birder has a much easier time trying to name specific birds when using all these tools.

Putting all of these features together into one place, a Field Guide enables birders to quickly identify birds. In this Tweetspeak course we are specifically using “The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America.” We have much to learn from this book.

Between Screen and Real-Life

23858406533_8133ac6a28_zBefore making our transition from screen to real-life birds out in the open, we had to first explore the basics of using binoculars. Most of us probably hadn’t touched binoculars since we were kids, but we were ready to learn again. While familiar with how to use the Center Focusing Ring, most of us had probably never heard of what a Diopter was. I know I hadn’t. A Diopter is located on one eyepiece of the binocular and is used to make adjustments in finding a happy medium between the vision in your right and left eye. This was done by separately cupping each eye, first using the Center Focusing Ring, then using the Diopter to focus the vision for each eye.

Screen Shot 2016-01-21 at 10.56.27 PM

We also learned that it is best for people with glasses to have the eyecups unextended, while for those without glasses to have them fully extended. After some more brief testing, we were finally ready to venture outside and find some birds!!!

It’s time!!!

Finally it was time to go outside! I wasn’t expecting to see too many birds, but much to my surprise, as a class, we were able to find over 10 species. We first scanned the bird feeders. At first we didn’t see anything, but as we moved closer to the parking lot near the back side of Patterson, we noticed a few birds near a bird feeder down the hill between two pine trees. After thinking about it, I noticed that only smaller birds were feeding at that feeder. Larger birds such as crows were nowhere near that bird feeder.


Image Source: The Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Curious about this, I did some research and found that people actually try to discourage certain birds from feeding at their bird feeders. Reading from wildbirds.com, some birds are supposedly classified as “pest birds.” The Humane Society points out that sometimes it is best to keep aggressive birds such as grackles, cowbirds, sparrows, and crows from bird feeders. This can be done by using specific birdseed that these “pest birds” don’t like. Aside from being aggressive, these birds tend to be messy eaters.

Protecting smaller birds from predators is also important. We noticed that the bird feeder down the hill was positioned between two pine trees. The Humane Society specifically advises this tactic because it can provide cover from predator birds such as sharp-shinned hawks, roadrunners, Coopers hawks, and American kestrels. This could be another reason why we saw more birds at that particular bird feeder compared to the other bird feeders. The other ones did not have the same cover.


What I learned

Aside from learning that I need warmer clothes in this -10 feel weather, I have learned that a lot of thought goes into naming birds. While, it may seem a bit tricky at the moment, I know that I will get the hang of it eventually. As long as I can stick to remembering the four rules of size and shape, color and pattern, behavior and posture, and habitat and distribution, I know that will progress in successfully naming birds.