Thursday, April 24, 2014

Travel Hacks : Bird Festivals

In high school I spent a lot of time birding in groups
like this one, I'm in the red hat, OYBC Field Trip 2006

One of the wonderful things about traveling is that there are new birds to see. It can also be a little overwhelming. trying to figure out where to go and what you are likely to see. Bird festivals are one way to get around this problem, visiting a new place during a festival you can take advantage of all the great people there.

Bird festivals are a strange beast, if your a solo birder, like Boone often is, they might sound a bit ridiculous. I grew up with the chaos of the Magee boardwalk in the spring, where claustrophobia and birding go hand in and and I love it. Birding to me at a young age was a group activity and spending time with the people was as  much a part of it as the birds.

If you want to meet people who are just as geeked out over things with feathers as you are bird festivals are fantastic. In addition to meeting many fellow bird loves they are great ways to check out new equipment (scopes and binoculars!) and meet birding celebrities. They can also help improve your birding skills but participating in workshops and field trips led by fantastic guides. Festivals can also be great ways to go birding in a new place. If you've never been to South Texas before knowing where to bird and identifying all the new species can be intimidating. By taking advantage of the bird festival you'll be around many knowledgeable people who can help you have a great time.

What is important when deciding to attend a festival is to do your homework so you pick the festival that best fits what you want. One of the big things to find out before you plan a trip, especially for big festivals, is if there is anywhere near by to stay. For some festivals in remote areas the limited hotel space fills up fast, so plan ahead, or prepare to be flexible. Often by checking out a festivals website you can get a quick feel for the festival and if it will fit your needs. Some festivals are all inclusive, where you are 'expected' to do everything. Others are buffet style, you pick a workshop here, or a field trip there, and can do things at your own pace.
The boardwalk at Magee WILL be packed, much more
then this (Dakota Kingfisher)

Last fall Boone and I were down in South Texas for the Rio Grande Valley Bird Festival. Being cheap we didn't go on any of the field trips (though I hear they are fantastic!). We attended some of the speakers and hung out at the vendors fair. It was a great way for us to get to meet other birders and get to enjoy the atmosphere of the festival, while also having the freedom to go birding as it suited us. You can't take all in a piece meal fashion, though you can find a way to make any of them fit your needs, you just have to do your homework.

My personal favorite festival is The Biggest Week in American Birding, held every May in NW Ohio. I'm a native Ohioan, and I love the marshes of Lake Erie. The Biggest Week is the brainchild of the wonderful people at Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO). It has become a great way of bringing birds and birders to the attention of local communities. BSBO is all about showing local businesses that birders are bringing their money to NW Ohio because of the birds, and using the tourism opportunities to help both our local economy and the birds! (it's pretty awesome)

The Biggest Week is a festival you can definitely piece meal if solo birding is more your style. I should warn you though, true solo birding is going to be challenging because there are SO MANY PEOPLE around searching for birds, but you don't have to go on field trips if you don't want to. There are many workshops, talks and other activities going on though that I would encourage you to check out. They are great ways to expand your skill set and meet some like minded birders.

There are dozens of birds festivals in the U.S. alone every year (and many more in other countries). The database from the American Birding Association lists many of them and helps you get started planning your next big trip. What is great is you can search by both region OR month. So whether you're a student trying to find something over spring break or you want to find something in your home state, you've got the right resources.

Hope to see you at the Biggest Week this year, I'll be there just for a day, but I cannot wait.

- Auriel

Thursday, April 17, 2014

I found a baby bird! What do I do?

Its that time of year again! Across the northern hemisphere birds are raising their young and sometimes their young end up in unexpected places. This infographic from the provides a nice flow chart, with a good dash of humor, since not every baby bird you see needs your help.

(Credit to

There is a lot of misinformation out there about baby birds, likely told with the best of intentions. Most people read this infographic and immediately respond 'if I touch a baby bird the parents will abandon the baby, the mom will smell me.'

Birds aren't the best at smelling, (though they can) but there is no evidence picking up a baby bird and putting it back in the nest will cause the parent to abandon it. When you find a bird who is very young (almost no feathers, or eyes closed) then they aren't ready to be on it's own yet and putting it back in its nest will probably help it survive.

If you find a baby bird who can't seem to fly, but has open eyes and lots of feathers, they are a 'bird in training' and while moving them off the sidewalk is probably helpful its important for them to bring on the ground so they can figure out the whole flying thing. Baby birds have a training period where they leave the nest and learn how to fly. This often means they spend a lot of time on the ground since they can't get back up in the tree. Their parents are still around feeding them, and if they seem to be making a lot of racket that's because they are hungry and they want mom and dad to be able to find them. 

It can pull on your heart strings to leave a baby bird sitting under a bush when it appears to be abandoned, but if you take a step back (well probably several steps back) and watch for awhile mom and dad will return. 

There are, of course, circumstances where a young bird does need help, if it has been injured, attacked by a cat, or if you have been watching it for more then a day and no one is feeding it then that bird needs help. If that happens you need to contact a wildlife rehaber. Rehabbers are specially trained to take care of injured birds, and they know what to feed them and how to help them heal. It's very important for baby birds eat the right things. Feeding them whatever you have around the house isn't going to help them and could very well hurt them. Many wildlife rehabers take on volunteers, so if you want to learn more about how to properly care for them, contact your local rehaber.

So do not fear if you find a little ball of feathers as you go about your day, just follow the handy diagram and act accordingly, nature is all around us and having the opportunity to see young animals up close is always special, but not always a reason to get involved. 

- Auriel

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Travel Hacks : How to Start Hiking

Devil's Den State Park, Arkansas
Have you felt intimidated walking into a sporting goods store and seeing all the specialized equipment? All you want to do is go hiking this weekend and now there are a bajillion brightly colored things everywhere. You're not alone if you feel overwhelmed by all the stuff. Lucky for you, don't need any fancy equipment, all you need is some basic knowledge on how to plan your day and what to expect. With a little bit if basic knowledge you can hit the trail this weekend.

Understanding how to plan a day, and most importantly what you are capable of tackling in a given amount of time is important. More than once I've come across a pair of hikers who are in way over their heads. They're four miles from the trail head, didn't bring water, have no idea where they are or what is going on. These kind of experiences can be scary and unpleasant, so it important to have a rough idea of what you can tackle in a day so that you can do what you're going to enjoy.

Before You Go

The big thing that most people don't know is how long it takes to hike, and how far a mile really is. You might go quicker then this, but with stops to enjoy the scenery, taking breaks and such, a half hour a mile is a good rule of thumb. If you are hiking in a fairly flat area, most people can hike several miles no problem, but if there is a lot of elevation change it can become challenging quickly if you aren't used to it. Sometimes pushing yourself this way can be really enjoyable, but if you have small children with you, or aren't ready for it, it can be an unpleasant challenge. So assess your own abilities, hiking can be a great way to get in better shape, but that is a gradual process.

Most trails will have maps online, or at the trail head that give you basic information about how long the trail is, and often a rating of difficulty. Checking out this information beforehand can help you pick a trail that matches your abilities. I prefer taking loop trails so that there is always something new to see and explore. I also like trails that have one or more 'high points' that is designated bits of scenery where you can stop. Often hikes to overlooks, tops of mountains, and waterfalls are set up this way.

Once you are at the trail head and before you head out take a few minutes to familiarize yourself with your surroundings, look at the map, find your place on it and look at where you are going to be hiking. Find out what will mark the trail, often the trail will be clear since it is heavily used, but in some places it may be posts in the ground or marks on trees that show you the way. Its always a good idea to have a map with you, and if there aren't paper ones for you to take, snap a picture on your phone.

What to Bring

This is about all you need to enjoy an afternoon hike. 
What you bring with you on the trail is pretty flexible, except for one thing, ALWAYS BRING WATER. I don't care if its a half mile hike on a paved bike trail, just bring it. Worst case scenario you carry some extra weight and burn an extra calorie or two.

Dressing for the weather is also important, so check the weather before your hike. Wearing layers is often the best idea so you can add/remove them as necessary. Even if the sun is shining bringing a rain coat is always a good idea, they can block the wind and the rain and keep you warm if the weather changes quickly. During the summer make sure to wear sun block, when you're hiking sun burn can creep up on you so be careful. You do NOT need fancy clothes to spend a day out hiking, what you have already is more then sufficient. Wear shoes that give you good footing, like tennis shoes or hiking boots. No flip-flops or loose sandals, they can result in a twisted ankle.Throw on some clothes you don't mind getting dirty, grab a jacket appropriate for the weather, toss your water bottle and a snack in a backpack and you are good to go!

Taking photos of your hike is a great way to help you look more closely at what you see and its a great way to share your adventures with your friends and encourage them to come along next time. So grab your camera or use your phone and document the cool thing you find! 

On The Trail

Many people like planning things to the minute, this is often unrealistic when you are outdoors. Let the day guide you. Hiking is not a competition, and its way more enjoyable to take things at your own pace, be respectful of other hikers and let them pass if they are hiking faster then you. If you find a sunny beach along the trail and want to spend the afternoon there, do it! If it starts to rain and you want to call it an early day, that is fine too.

Hiking is a great, cheap way to get out in the sunshine, stretch your legs and explore a new place. Once you get away from the trail head you never know what you might find,so get out there and explore and come back and tell us what you find!

- Auriel

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Migratory Timing at Cape May, New Jersey. Now with more graphs!

While the Gulf Coast is getting it's first influx of spring migrants, I'm stuck in Delaware, 10 degrees too high in latitude, only one week away from the last snow storm. Instead of being sad, I decided to follow up on my last post and figure out how long it would take for birds to get to me in Delaware and the rest of the north east.

I chose two of the hottest birding spots in the country in spring, Cape May, New Jersey and north west Ohio.

What followed was a frenzy of graph making that borders on overwhelming, so I decided to split this up into two posts. This post we'll focus on Cape May.

Because I already described the methods, I'll keep it short and mention what changes I made this time around. If you want the full methods, check out my previous post.

Because of the delay in timings I chose to take only data from March onward, and then ran it through the same filter to filter out only birds who spent <66% of their time in the area and filter out relative rarities. I also decided to filter out certain species for different portions of the analysis, this hopefully makes things easier to digest.

All in all Cape May had 201 birds identified as migrants and 37 total warbler species. It also had high numbers of checklists each week, which resulted in smooth graphs and trends.
General Timings
This graph was the easiest to digest and discern. The overall weighted average turned out to be May 17th, which coincides with this years Cape MAYgration Festival. Unfortunately for me, early April looks pretty bleak, but quickly ramps up and by May migration really takes off.

What surprised me the most about this is the 3 week disparity between the gulf coast and New Jersey. It takes migrants three weeks to go the 1000 miles from Tallahassee to New Jersey. For many species this isn't even close to their end destination. But for many species, New Jersey represents an end point and migrant diversity stayed high for the remainder of the breeding season. I expect this mainly to be the waders, gulls, terns, and shorebirds that nest in the region, as well as many species of orioles, warblers, and tanagers.

Warbler Timings
Many birders love spring because of the plethora of colorful warblers migrating through. In all North America hosts 56 species of Warblers and Wood Thrushes. Of those 56, Cape May hosts 66% of all of these species in the entire country. So when do these beauties show up and when is the best time to see them?
Luckily I made very large graphs to help you out.
To save space I used the 4 lettered Alpha Codes for species. You can download a pdf of all the species codes here. I used the first date that a bird was seen with a higher than 1% chance to filter out the extreme individuals and the accidentally overwintering birds. This should represent a conservative if not accurate average estimate of first arrival. We see Palm Warblers and Yellow-Throated Warblers are already expected to have shown up, this is largely to due a couple of years vagrants overwintered in the area. The first Louisiana Waterthrush just showed up in Delaware and New Jersey this week justifying the early timings in the data. After that, birds seem to ramp up over the second and third week in April with the first wave of typical early migrants (Ovenbirds, Prothonotarys, Hoodeds, and Black-Throated Green Warblers. Then curiously there's a large break before the final wave of migrants show up May 1st and the famously late warblers show up (Blackpolls, Black-throated Blue, and Cape May Warblers).  While I've heard of 'waves' of migrants I didn't actually expect it to show up with such a large gap.

To get at when the bulk movements of these warblers were, and if these waves are seen in the bigger picture I graphed the average timings for each species. This came up with a much different graph.
The first thing to notice is that despite some really early timings, all warblers peak in the latter parts of May. While averages are expected to be smoother we can still see certain waves, but now it could be broken up into as many as 5 different groups.
Early- Palm Warblers, Louisiana Waterthrush, Nashville Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, and Black-and-White Warbler
Mid-early- Ceruluean Warbler, Black-throated Blue warbler, Northern Parula, Black-throated Green warbler, Cape May Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, and Blue-winged Warbler
Mid- Blackburnian warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Ovenbird, Hooded Warbler, and Prairie Warbler
Mid-late- Tennessee Warbler, Wilsons Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Worm-eating Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, Kentucky Warbler
Late- Blackpoll Warbler, Canada Warbler, American Redstart, Prothonotary warbler, Mourning Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Yellow-breasted Chat

While many of these make sense, the resident warblers are obviously getting pulled farther back than expected. I suspect that's why we see Yellow Warbler, American Redstart, Ovenbird, Prothonotary Warbler, and Yellow-breasted Chat on the back end of these graphs instead of closer to the beginning.

Family Timings
At the beginning of this work I was curious in looking at all migrant timings across families to compare when birds migrate across large areas. My first try resulted in the infamous gulf .gif that plotted every family's timing across 4 locations spanning 1500 miles. While I still want to figure out a way to graph broad scale timings like this across multiple locations, I think it's easier to digest each location separately. So I made a graph depicting the timings of 9 families just for Cape May.
 The most surprising part to these graphs is how quickly most of them spike. I expected all of the graphs to turn out like the Warblers and Shorebirds with smooth ramps to the peaks and gradual drop offs. This is most likely due to the large amount of species and numbers incorporated in the Shorebirds and Warblers, where as other groups like Orioles and Cuckoos may have only two species representing them. It mainly shows how concentrated the migration of any one species is, and how in sync each individual is to the timing of a species as a whole. I'll briefly go through each of these families.

The Shorebirds and Warblers peak right around when Cape May's over all numbers peak and then drops off much more suddenly than in April.

The Night Jars and Hummingbirds curiously peak at similar times and have similar graphs. They both peak slightly later than normal around the last week in May

Cuckoos true to their nature show up late and then stay at high rates of detection due to their wonderfully nostalgic and unique call.

Flycatchers are another set of late bloomers that technically peak near June and stay to breed. These include the charismatic Eastern Kingbirds that are hard to miss.

Vireos usually follow the Warblers in timings and despite an abrupt start generally follow the same graph as the warblers. They peak just a day behind the warblers and their tail end graphs look almost identical.

Tanagers, Grosbeaks, Buntings, and Orioles were groups I expected to have similar timings just from anecdotal evidence and I am continually surprised every time I find this trend still showing up in the data. Not only do their averages land on the same day (June 1st) they have almost identical graphs, and both represent strong residential populations after migration.
That's it for now. Spend the next week staring at these graphs and hopefully learning to make your own. I'll be back April 17th to present the North West Ohio data just in time for the Biggest Week in birding!

So go out, and start looking for migrants!