New Year, (Mostly) Old Birds

As I enter my age-33 naturalism season,* I find myself seeking new challenges to keep me on my toes. One of those is to continue the improvement and expansion of my butterfly garden. Another is to keep the momentum going on this blog. Most of the rest are general, like “continue to learn about nature” and “ride my bike more.” So far there is only one challenge for the coming year that I’ve put a number on, and that is birding.

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A northern cardinal at my in-laws’ feeder

I was at my in-laws’ home to celebrate the New Year, and I couldn’t help but sit and watch their feeders for big chunks of each day. The common feeder birds there aren’t all that different from those here, but they had this chair in the window and I didn’t have any pressing tasks to accomplish, so I indulged. I was also able to work in some nature walks and talk the family into joining me for some of them. I suppose in winter on Cape Cod it is all about the birds. In addition to the backyard birds I saw an abundance of interesting waterfowl at the Cape Cod Canal. The abundance and diversity inspired me to formulate a personal challenge; in 2017 I want to document more species of birds than I have confirmed in my life prior to 2017.

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An enormous flock of common eiders at one end of the Cape Cod Canal. This was the largest of four or five flocks we saw.

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Even Franklin and Oscar were in on the birding.

That probably sounds like a lofty goal, but it’s no Big Year. I am still learning to distinguish many types of birds, so it’s certain that I don’t have confirmed sightings of many of the birds I have actually seen. As of 12/31/16 my lifetime list stood at 160 species, setting my challenge bar at 161. By contrast, North American birders’ Big Years go well over 500 species (and the top ten are all over 700). So my goal is a Modest Year by expert standards which just happens to be a big one for me.

I think the target is attainable. I reached 33 species over the first five days of the year, and I really only had free daylight hours in which to look on two of those days. More significantly, three of those species were new to my lifetime list. The real challenge is going to be finding enough new-to-me species to make up for those I’ve recorded before but have virtually no chance of finding this year. There are another 30-50 no-doubters which I will see just by virtue of spending time outside in Eastern North America, and frankly the vast majority of the 160 pre-2017 species are relatively common birds. After logging only duplicates yesterday, this morning before even leaving my home I saw 18 total species, checking off 5 more for the year. A short walk in late afternoon added 4 more for the day, two of which were new for the year. That puts me at 25% of my goal with 2% of time expended. The redhead I saw in Wheaton Regional Park’s Pine Lake was another addition to my lifetime list.

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An eastern towhee, mourning dove, and a pair of white-throated sparrows beneath one of my feeders this morning.
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The best shot I could get of the redhead, spotted keeping to the outskirts of a small flock of Canada geese.

Me from a few years ago would find it odd that birding is such a focus for me in 2017; as recently as 2011 or so I’d say that birds (especially the everyday birds of suburbia) were of little interest to me in comparison to other wildlife. That’s not to say I didn’t like birds, but they were a lower priority to me for some reason. I think it was partly a surrender after struggling to ID them in the field. Then I got the Sibley Guide to Birds, discovered the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “All About Birds” website (and later, their app) and got a good pair of binoculars. Trips to the Everglades and Costa Rica didn’t hurt, either.

Now that I’ve spent a few years studying the birds I see with a careful eye (and ear) some things which seemed hopelessly murky are much clearer to me. Small, drab birds used to all look alike to me, but now it only takes a couple of seconds to pick out a house sparrow, white-throated sparrow, song sparrow, dark-eyed junco, house finch, or winter-plumage American goldfinch. Birdsong also once sounded to me like a complicated mishmash of high-pitched squeals, but I can reliably identify many common species by ear these days.

I’ll wrap this up with my 2017 list so far (in order of first sighting).First-time sightings in bold.

  1. white-breasted nuthatch
  2. black-capped chickadee
  3. northern cardinal
  4. house sparrow
  5. dark-eyed junco
  6. tufted titmouse
  7. American goldfinch
  8. downy woodpecker
  9. white-throated sparrow
  10. song sparrow
  11. red-bellied woodpecker
  12. Carolina wren
  13. American crow
  14. mallard
  15. Canada goose
  16. hooded merganser
  17. hairy woodpecker
  18. common eider
  19. ring-billed gull
  20. bufflehead
  21. red-breasted merganser
  22. lesser black-backed gull
  23. American black duck
  24. great black-backed gull
  25. common loon
  26. surf scoter
  27. white-winged scoter
  28. mute swan
  29. American wigeon
  30. Carolina chickadee
  31. European starling
  32. rock dove
  33. American robin
  34. mourning dove
  35. Eastern towhee
  36. northern flicker
  37. blue jay
  38. northern mockingbird
  39. redhead
  40. house finch
*shout-out to all my sports nerd readers who get that joke, by which I am pretty sure I mean one dude.

Scat Cat Spat About Cat Scat (And Other Fecal Matters)

I confess, I’m just posting about the skill of tracking, specifically as it applies to identifying and interpreting animal scat, tracks, and other “signs.” I didn’t write a rap song, nor do I think Scat Cat ever “spat” about any such thing. I have one more confession: I do not have much skill as a tracker despite my interest in the outdoors. Learning more about it is on my bucket list, but here in my 30s I am discovering that the bucket is probably too small to hold everything.

I spend a lot of time outside, so I’m not particularly squeamish about animal poo. Yet, I’ve never been interested enough to overcome the ick factor and study it. It’s still poop. With regard to tracks, all of my attempts to learn have been stymied because it seems I rarely find tracks complete enough to give me a clue much beyond “some kind of bird” or “a smallish mammal.” When I do, it’s usually because I just saw the animal that left the tracks in the first place. Beyond those first two basics, other elements of tracking have eluded me as well. “What kind of bird is this feather from?” Shrug “A brown one?” “What’s the difference between deer ‘rubbing’ and ‘scraping’?” “Wait, aren’t those synonyms?” These are exchanges I have had. As far as scent cues go, I know what skunk spray smells like – that’s something, right?

Self-deprecation aside, I realized when preparing this post that I know more about tracking than I think I do. If you’re a naturalist, an outdoorsman, or whatever other type of person would read this far, you probably do too. A portion of this is subconscious and/or automatic and so I’m not really aware I possess the knowledge unless I really think about it. This applies to a lot of tracking skills, but – bully for you, readers! – the clearest and most numerous examples seem to relate to poop.

As I mentioned before, I haven’t made any sort of robust study of feces. Somehow, though, I seem to have a surprisingly vast scatological catalog. I’ve had dogs all my life, so I’m quite familiar with dog shit. Wild canines produce somewhat similar excrement. I’ve never owned cats, but my friends and neighbors have and I’ve been known to cat sit; cat crap is also a known quantity. I frequently hike or bike on multi-use trails (and I have marched in parades) so I can identify a pile of horse turds without a second thought.  Growing up I rode a school bus past thirteen cow fields each way (I know – I counted) daily, so many times I’ve glimpsed the nightmare apple pie crust that is a cow patty. Rabbits are common both as pets and in the wild, making their relatively innocuous pellets familiar. The occasional annoyance of mouse droppings in a home, office, garage, or shed has bred some familiarity. Then, too, I was recently acquainted with the dung of Norway rats when a couple took up residence under my house. In my efforts to rid myself of these visitors, I learned to distinguish their leavings from roof rat logs. Deer scat is easily identified because it is abundant in this area and distinctive. I’ve been to a pond somewhere that is a place in the world, so I know the green menace that is goose poop. Similarly beach trips have acquainted me with the milky paste ejected from seagulls and car ownership with passerine bird mess. One of my dogs once luxuriated in the pungent leavings of a black bear, so add that to the list. I’ve seen Jurassic Park, so I know that triceratops shit comes in “one big pile.”*

I chose to focus this post on scat because I kept coming up with examples – monarch caterpillar frass, aquarium fish poo, earthworm poop, the list goes on. What I’m really talking about, though, are unconscious, automatic observational skills. We all have them – and if pressed we can consciously call upon them. Don’t worry – I’m not getting mystical or piping the debunked theory that we don’t use most of our brains – there’s just a ton of information in our brains we don’t realize is there. Learning to tap into that is as important to tracking as acquiring the knowledge in the first place. Some of it’s even primal evolutionary stuff. If something looks, sounds, or smells odd it probably is, but most of us are way out of practice at interpreting those signals.

Another example: I used to think I was so terrible at differentiating birdsong that learning was a lost cause. I’m still no expert. But, I can pick out quite a few songs and calls now and it gives me a baseline to narrow my focus to the interesting ones worth listening to. Sometimes that’s even as simple as hearing a call I can’t place but know I hear all the time. I still can’t distinguish very well, without a recording, among the various types of sparrows or finches, but I can reliably identify the shrill call of the Northern cardinal, the song of a robin, the “mep mep” of a white-breasted nuthatch, the coo of a mourning dove, and several others. I can call to mind perhaps fifteen or twenty without thinking too hard. As with the silly list of waste product data, I’ve come to realize that much of this I already knew and it was just a matter of thinking hard enough to access the information.

Yet another way this phenomenon hits me is in the form of knowledge I have but can’t put a name to or express with the correct terminology. This most often relates to field observations which I haven’t formally recorded. It might be a spider with specific markings that I’ve seen a hundred times but don’t have a name for. It could be knowing that some mushrooms has a bump on top of its cap before knowing that it’s called an “umbo,” or that it can  help identify the specimen. It’s been plants I walk by every day, certain that they look similar in some way I can’t quite pick out but unsure if they’re the same species, or even related at all. Itemizing this nameless knowledge can be a useful exercise for a naturalist; it can start one on the right track toward knowing what you don’t know.

So, where was I? Right. Poop. I lied. I did write some (terrible) rap lyrics.

Scat Cat spat about cat scat
‘cuz the scat his brat shat left a splat where it sat
so Scat Cat spat: “brat, you best clean that scat stat
You can’t leave that fat pat just to chill where it’s at

It don’t matter clean that splatter ‘fore I rip you to tatters
Got me mad as a hatter it’s gon’ be batter up
and your body will shatter, ain’t no more pitter-patter
I’m a be your bad luck like you walked under a ladder

Then rat-a-tat tat I’ll come at you with my gat
This ain’t no tit for no tat, I ain’t gonna live like no rat
So brat clean that scat ‘fore I lay you out flat
and if you gonna do that next time put down a mat, drat!

*There’s no way that this was an accurate depiction of triceratops poo. This even bugged me when I was a kid. How is the top of the pile higher than the animal’s anus? Why does it look like an anthill?