The Beauty of Flight (S.E.#2)

Lately in my Bio 201 class, I have been learning about feathers and flight. I never realized just how spectacular wings could be until taking this course. There are many different functions of a bird’s wings. For example, birds can use them to help catch prey, for warmth, during migration, to protect their young, for balance, in making calls, powered flight, in mating rituals, and so much more.

Of all these functions, I am most intrigued by how, even though all birds have wings, there are multiple types of flight. These include: gliding, soaring, flapping, hovering, and subaqueous flying.


Courtesy of Cornell Lab of Ornithology  

Gliding is the least effortful type of flight. With wings outstretched, birds glide by lowering their altitude, catching updrafts, and making use of changes in the strength of the wind. However, like the Swallow-tailed Kite in the video above, gliding is usually not sustained for long periods of time. Albatrosses, Condors, Vultures, Eagles, and Storks are also known for their gliding.


Courtesy of the American Bald Eagle Foundation (ABEF)

While similar to gliding, soaring is more effortful, as it involves actively making use of wind, updrafts, and air currents. Two examples of soaring include thermal soaring and dynamic soaring. Some land birds such as the Bald Eagles in the video above, use rising thermal air currents to help them climb higher into the air. This upward circling is a very slow and time consuming maneuver. Dynamic soaring, on the other hand, is more common in sea birds, as it involves gaining speed through turning and climbing up into the wind. Instead of just continually soaring upward, this kinetic energy is also used to turn and travel downwind.


Courtesy of Cornell Lab of Ornithology

When most people think of birds in flight, they probably picture the flapping of a bird. This type of flight is the most effortful type. Many birds, such as the Sharp-shinned Hawk in the video above, make use of larger and heavier muscles that use more energy for the continuous flapping needed for their flight. Compared to the other types of flight, this type enables birds to attain faster speeds in a shorter amount of time. It can be useful when speeding up to catch prey, to escape from predators, and for fast take-offs.


Courtesy of Stanford University

Of course, when most people think of hovering, they immediately picture a Hummingbird hovering over a flower with its remarkably fast wingbeats. The main function of hovering is to maintain balance while remaining stable in one spot. As seen in the video above, the mechanics of hovering involve the wingtips making a figure-8 motion. Despite being associated with Hummingbirds, hovering is also seen in other birds such as the Storm-Petrel. This seabird hovers and keeps its balance by keeping its feet in the water.

Subaqueous Flying

Courtesy of National Geographic 

The concept of flight is not restricted to the air. What about flightless birds, such as the penguins seen in the video above? They still use flight abilities, just not in the air. Instead, they simulate flight underwater when they propel themselves after their prey by beating their wings. This subaqueous flying is also seen in seabirds that are non-flightless. For example, the Short-tailed Shearwater is also capable of a fast pursuit of fish underwater.

For more examples of birds in flight click here.


Bird’s Eye View Birding

This last weekend was the Great Backyard Bird Count. Even with the frigid 5 degree weather and heavy snow fall we had the nights before, Sunday morning I decided to venture off into the woods to find some birds.

Despite the long trek out to the trail south of Brittain Lake, I wasn’t going to let a little snow stop me from having an awesome birding experience. Once on the trail, I was hoping that I might see some birds, but somehow I just couldn’t see any. So, I thought, “what if I try something different and see if I can spot birds from higher up?”

As a kid, I’d always climb trees in my neighborhood and you really can see a lot from up high. Despite how crazy it sounds to climb a tree during winter, I decided to do it anyways. You never know what you might see or hear from up in a tree.

Eventually, I found a somewhat easy tree to climb. Given that it was a fallen tree, I had a much easier time climbing up than if I had tried to climb a tree with less leverage. I definitely learned that you need to brush off the snow first because it can be slippery.

True to my theory, I was able to see much more from up in the tree. Not only did I have a broader viewing range, but I could also figure out more easily where certain bird sounds were coming from.

Capturing Birds in Flight (S.E.#1)

Earlier this month on Wednesday the 3rd, my Biology of Birds course had a guest speaker. Glenn Thompson, an Alumni and Westminster Board of Trustee member, gave us an inspirational presentation on bird photography that I will never forget. While I have been interested in photography for multiple years now, I learned so much within the span of his 45 minute presentation.

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Along with the awe of seeing such a diverse spectrum of bird species, my interest was piqued when I heard Glenn Thompson talk about how difficult it was to capture birds in flight. Birds are difficult enough trying to capture them as they hop around from branch to branch. They just never seem to be still long enough for you to get a good picture.

Fortunately, Glenn Thompson taught us three key principles to use when capturing such elusive birds: Patience, Light, and Perspective.


Rufous Hummingbird

I’ve found that one of the hardest birds to capture in flight is the Hummingbird. With 52–62 wingbeats per second, this can be very daunting. Trying not to make too much movement and to not be too close as to scare them away is challenging. It takes patience to situate yourself and wait for the right moment when they are hovering over a feeder or flower. At the same time, you have to make sure you’re ready for it to show up at any moment’s notice. While it may be easier to capture the slower wingbeats of other birds, patience is still required if you’re going to get good quality pictures.


Silhouette of Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Taking the example of the Hummingbird again, light can be tricky when considering how
fast your camera’s shutter speed has to be. Using a higher shutter speed will allow you to capture the wings; however, this means that you are letting less light into the camera lens. On top of that, you definitely don’t want to have the background to be too bright. This can cause the bird in the picture to be more silhouetted. It is very important that you make sure you keep your back to the sun for the best lighting.


Choosing the right angle to take your photograph can be a challenge as well, especially if you’re not sure what direction the bird will be taking off in. Professional photographer, Arthur Morris, points out that “birds like to face the wind when they fly because they don’t like having their feathers ruffled.” Using this advice, you can place yourself so that you are not facing into the wind. Instead, you can have the wind blowing parallel to you. As far as positioning yourself goes, another professional photographer, Tony Northrup, suggests “finding a place on a hill so that you are more at level with the bird instead of having to point up at the birds.’

In this youtube video, provided by Canon USA, the key features of lighting and positioning are emphasized. However, without patience, your chances of capturing a good quality image of a bird in flight are slim.

Check out Glenn Thompson’s amazing bird photography here.

Braving the cold at Jennings

This Tuesday, the 9th of February, we had an exciting field trip down to the Jennings Environmental Education Center. Dr. Duerr informed us that we would need to be bundled up for some cold-weather-birding. This being said, we did get to enjoy the warmth of being in the Nature Center at Jennings for the first part of our field trip. Having never been to this state park, I was excited to learn about its unique features.



True to their mission of fostering environmental education, two representative staff members from the Center gave us a talk which expanded our knowledge on birds as well as the conservation that goes into protecting these birds’ habitats. We started off by refreshing our knowledge on general information about citizen science and bird identification.


Along with the cool showcase of bird taxidermy, my interest was piqued by how many different kinds of field guides there displayed. One book in particular (the one to the far left in the picture) was pointed out to be especially helpful in bird identification because it provids ‘field marks.’ These marks show the unique characteristics that distinguish one bird or species from another. I thought that this was a very useful tool.

Indoor birding

During the talk I couldn’t help but be slightly distracted by all the movement that was going on at the bird feeders just outside the windows. Going over a list of potential birds at the feeders, I was surprised that there were so many  different species.

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Because we saw so many birds of the same species fly in and out, it was hard to tell if we were seeing the same individuals or new ones. To tackle this dilemma, we recorded the highest amount of an individual bird species that was seen at one time. The four most prevalent birds were the Tufted Titmouse (5), Black-capped Chickadee (3), White-breasted Nuthatch (3), and the American Goldfinch (5).

24803106112_0bcb06dcf1_zAlong with seeing a large diversity of bird
species, we were also able to use headphones to hear the birds as they made their calls and fluttered around. For example, while we didn’t see the Brown Creeper, we were able to identify it by its distinctive high pitched call.


All bundled up for birding outside, we headed on our way to explore the habitats of the park. Stopping for a brief 10 minutes, along the way, I got to hear pishing for the first time. Pishing involves a series of sounds that are made to attract birds. After the pishing, I could definitely hear more birds as they reacted to the sound.

While briefly browsing online about any information on pishing, I noticed that there was a noticeable emphasis on the negative influence of pishing. An article from Audubon emphasizes that sound made from pishing, but more particularly from recorded playbacks, can be stressful to birds and distract them from normal routines. Instead of being distracted by these sounds, they could be foraging, watching over a nest, or looking for a mate. I would say that, while pishing can be harmful, if it is kept to a minimum, it should be alright to do it for brief moment.


A key feature of the national park at Jennings is its 20-acre prairie ecosystem. It is the only protected prairie in Pennsylvania. It is also the home of the Massasauga Rattlesnake which is protected as an endangered species. While observing the prairie, we learned about the important role it plays for birds and other species.


Interestingly enough, I learned that Jennings uses prescribed burning to manage the prairie. This is kept under careful control. Also, to replace the natural grazing of bisons, Jennings performs seasonal cutting of the prairie grass to help control overgrowth.

Click here to learn more about the prairie management at Jennings.

Into the woods and back

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Despite the cold weather, we still saw some birds. While we did not see as many birds in the woods, we got to see various habitats. These included the prairie habitat, woodlands, and a lower wetland habitat. We noticed that most of the birds we saw were closer to the nature center, probably because of all the food provided at the feeders.

If anyone is looking for a great place to go birding, I would recommend going to Jennings on a not-so-cold day.


eBird- where birders gather

Visit eBird here

I was first introduced to eBird during our second week in lab. Upon my first introduction to this website, it seemed to me that this was simply a platform to share my bird counts with other citizen scientists. However, it wasn’t until this past Tuesday’s lab that I was able to make full use of eBird. I never would have guessed how useful it could be.

Our old friend, the Field Guide

The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America

There is only so much a Field Guide can tell you. For example, the Sibley Field Guide offers information portrayed in range maps, bird illustrations, bird status, bird habitat, bird behavior, and bird voice. While this may seem like a lot of information, if you really want to do some in-depth research on a particular bird species, eBird is the place to go.

Asking questions

This begs the question: Why would someone need to do research on birds in the first place? It all begins with a question. Maybe you wonder why you haven’t been seeing a certain bird that usually shows up at this time of the year or maybe you want to know what the best location is to spot a specific bird species. Both of these inquiries and many more can be answered using eBird.

Key features of eBird

Once on the site, to answer any questions, you will navigate your way to the Explore Data tab on the top bar. This page will give you access to 6 main features: Explore a Region, Explore Hotspots, Species Maps, Bar Charts, Line Graphs, Submission Map.

Explore a Region
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visit here

The Explore a Region feature allows you to directly search for any location across the world and see data on the species found in that particular area.

Explore Hotspots
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visit here

The Explore Hotspots feature allows you to find places that you could potentially visit if you want have a sure-guarantee of seeing a particular bird. Clicking on these hotspots will tell you a specific count of how many bird species were spotted in that area.

Species Maps
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visit here

I found the Species Maps feature to be the most interesting. This feature allows you to track migration patterns of a bird species across the course of the year. This can be especially useful if you want to know if the bird will be in your area during breeding season.

Bar Charts, Line Graphs
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visit here

Both the Bar Charts and the Line Graphs features allow you to graphically view the distribution of bird data (frequency, abundance, bids per hour, average count, high count, and totals) across a monthly basis. It also allows you to view the number checklists that were submitted for each month.

Submission Map
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visit here

Finally, while the Submission Map feature may not necessarily help you in your research, it can show you who is currently entering data onto eBird. This feature is useful for seeing the distribution of bird count submissions across the world.



3 Things you need when Birding


Starting my Tweetspeak cluster, I did not have much birding experience at all. I knew a few bird names, but this wouldn’t really help me when going birding. In our first class, Dr. Duerr told us that there are three essential tools that we would need when birding. First off, without binoculars birding can be quite challenging. Often you hear birds, but can’t spot them. As a result, binoculars are extremely useful in chasing down those birds. Second, having a Field Guide is extremely useful. For me, this means looking at the bird images in the Guide, then matching these images as well as other details up with the birds I see outside. Our Tweetspeak cluster specifically uses the book “The Sibley Field Guide To Birds of Eastern North America.” Finally, having a Field Journal can help you to keep track of all the birds you see. This way you can compare your counts and remember which locations you can find which birds.

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.

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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, 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.