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An open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond

A 12-step program for birders

 

Birders now have their own 12-step program.

 

It has nothing to do with addiction, although birding can be addictive.

 

A new book by a pair of long-time birding guides offers 12 steps to help you become better at identifying birds. “Peterson Guide to Bird Identification in 12 Steps” will be released in April by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

 

Authors are Steve N. G. Howell and Brian Sullivan. Howell is an international tour leader and popular speaker. Sullivan works at the Cornell Lab of Ornirthology.

 

They do not make this information difficult to understand and use. Like any 12-step program, however, it requires some effort.

 

Keeping their suggestions in mind will make you a better birder from the time you leave home. Just the first four steps can make a big difference. They stress context. Context defines the bird.

 

Open your field guide to any page. You are looking at a family of bird species. They share characteristics — shape and behavior as two examples. 

 

You are looking for a particular species. Being able to narrow the field to family will save you the frantic paging most of us have done at some time. Where is the bird that looks like the bird I am looking at? It’s gotta be here somewhere!

 

First, become familiar with the book and the order in which bird families are presented. This is important. It need be, make a list of the order. Tape it inside the cover.

 

Next, to find your bird, pay attention to where you are. Birds favor particular kinds of habitat. You are unlikely to find Brown Creepers on a stretch of prairie. Creepers are woodland birds. Nor is the grassland longspur likely to be seen in the woods. 

 

In the book, after you look at the illustrations, read the text and look at the maps. The maps are important sorting tools. You’re narrowing your choices.

 

Large,long-legged white birds wading in the shallows of a pond, as the authors explain, are like likely to be egrets, Great Egrets or Snowy Egrets. Not Cattle Egrets. Cattle Egrets are the long-legged white birds you find on grassland, often times mingling with livestock. One is very unlikely to be seen in the habitat of the other. Habitat counts.

 

Season counts. Birds move with seasonal change. They are very faithful to this trait. That small yellowish bird at your feeder in December is unlikely to be a warbler. Wrong season. And warblers are eaters of insects, not seeds.

 

The authors move on. They deal with the tricks light can play on your ID efforts, with the tricks distance can play on your estimations of size. They want you to pay attention to what the bird is doing: scratching in the dirt for seeds or flitting through the tree tops, looking for bugs? Some species scratch, others glean.

 

What does the bird sound like? How about structure? All birds don’t have the same profile or shape characteristics. And color. Color can be influenced by the bird’s age, the season, the position of the sun, and the bird’s sex. Avoid making an ID leap.

 

Even if it looks like an Allen’s Hummingbird, here in Minnesota, it’s most likely not. (Believe the range map.)

 

Weird, unexpected birds do appear in impossible places, but probably not. To paraphrase the philosophical rule known at Occam’s Razor, the simple answer is usually the correct answer.

 

This book is built around a good idea: you will enjoy birding more by knowing what you are looking at. Here are 12 steps to help you do that.

 

The book is Peterson field-guide size. It has a waterproof cover. It is well made; it will stand up to use. It is illustrated, has an index, and 152 pages. It is published with the cooperation of the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History.

 

 

 

Owl sees mouse 600 feet away

How good is Snowy Owl eyesight? Read on.

 

There is another Snowy Owl irruption this winter, mostly to the east of us. Owls are being seen in Minnesota, but with nowhere near the frequency we enjoyed during the winter of 2014.

 

Project Snowstorm is the organization that has been tracking Snowy Owl activity since that banner year. Volunteers capture owls (nets) when possible so the birds can be equipped with devices that receive satellite signals used to determine the owl’s location. 

 

Information is retrieved from cell phone towers. The recorders automatically unload data when the bird is in cell phone range.

 

For subscribers, owl activity is updated by email. 

 

One owl is being tracked in North Dakota. It was caught in a net trap early last week. 

 

The bird was estimated to be 600 to 700 feet from the trap location. Inside the wire mesh trap was a mouse. The trapper reported that the owl stared intently at the trap for 45 minutes. Then it flew straight in, and was caught.

 

The bird apparently saw the mouse from a distance of 600 feet.

 

Four Snowy Owls are being tracked in Wisconsin. Two are in the Buena Vista grasslands in the central part of the state. The third has been traced near Madison, the fourth near Green Bay.

 

No Minnesota Snowy Owls have been tagged as of Feb. 16. 

 

Tagged means a small, light receiver/transmitter has been attached by harness to the bird’s back. Batteries in the devices are recharged by solar cells.

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