Sunday, June 29, 2014

Where Sam is Going

Being a high school student means that the instant school is out for the summer I get bombarded with questions such as: What are you doing this summer? What are your plans for the break? Are you getting a job? Where are you going? What are you even going to do with yourself? To this I respond with an answer that leaves a feeling of disappointment hanging in the air around both the questioner and the questioned. I say this: Oh, I'm going to central New Jersey! Ouch. Their mouths usually say: That sounds...cool, any good birds up there? But their eyes betray them. I know what they're thinking. It goes a little something like this: Why the HELL is he going to New Jersey? There aren't any birds up there in the summer! One person didn't even bother with the niceness. He just said: "Oh that sucks."

eBird map, depicting the avian-rich region known as the Pine Barrens in July.
The truth of it is, I had no choice in the matter. I applied for the Student Conservation Association, a program I did last summer in the Allegheny National Forest of Pennsylvania. I get to live in the woods for a month and restore/build trails, build bridges, staircases, and pathways, become an expert camper and experience the wonders of nature firsthand. I had such a great time last summer that I wanted to do it again, but I don't get to choose my position, I go where they put me. It's one of the things I love about the program, I get to find new places to fall in love with. I know there aren't going to be birds there, but there's going to be a unending supply of motivation and inspiration coming from a group of conservation-minded teens like myself.

There may not be birds to see, but I've got this fun li'l guy to look out for.
 LIFER MONSTER (Jersey Devil)
So when people ask me what I'm doing this summer I say: "I'm going to the Pine Barrens of New Jersey" with pride, knowing that I am going to have a transformative experience while giving nature a little bit of help.

I also follow up the New Jersey statement by mentioning my vacation to Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks following my month in the woods. That usually changes the subject before I have to defend myself about the whole New Jersey thing.  

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

What Audubon Called The Birds

No character in history, with the possible exception of Roger Tory Peterson, has had such a profound impact on America's perception of birds as John James Audubon.  However, when looking through his works, a few things stand out as being, well, a little "different" from what the modern birder is accustomed to.  For the life of me, I cannot figure out what the hell the Carbonated Swamp-Warbler or the Washington's Eagle even are.  Some birds' names have been changed completely - leaving behind their colorful colloquial roots to occupy a more utilitarian space in our 21st century language.  This is a shame - Audubon probably had a lot more fun identifying birds by these "antiquated" names than we ever will by our modern, AOU-certified ones.  Let's explore some of my personal favorites from Audubon's extensive repertoire:

Aquatic Wood-Wagtail - Now known as Louisiana Waterthrush

I can't think of a more fascinating name for one of my favorite birds.  A Wood-Wagtail?  It sounds so exotic.  Let's face it - Louisiana Waterthrushes have hardly anything to do with Louisiana.  They do, however, wag their tails emphatically, live along wooded streams, and enjoy water.  Sure, it makes you think of those pipit-like Eurasian birds, but technically it's not a "thrush" either.  So I propose we return to our ancestral American roots and change the common name back to AWWA.

Red Palarope - Now known as Red Phalarope

I know this is just a misspelling, but it made me laugh.  If any bird would be your pal, it would be the Red Palarope.
They just look friendly, don't they?  Like lil' buddies.
Hyperborean Phalarope - Now known as Red-necked Phalarope

"Hyperborean" comes from the Greek word for a mythical people that lived beyond the North Wind, a fitting (and mysterious) name for a bird that breeds in the Arctic and migrates offshore.  Come on y'all - this is so cool.  "Red-necked" just makes me think of muddin' and Jeff Foxworthy.  We could make this name even better by calling it the Hyperborean Palarope instead.  
Some Hyperborean Palaropes the Birder's Conundrum team saw off Cape Hatteras.

Foolish Guillemot - Now known as Common Murre

Back before I was a birder, I went on a puffin-watching trip in Newfoundland.  On the way to the breeding colony, the captain of our boat pointed out a few chunky seabirds desperately trying to take off.  He told us that they were Murres who had eaten too much, and thus couldn't fly.  That's pretty foolish.  I think "Foolish Guillemot" is an excellent name that should be reinstated.

Scolopaceous Courlan - Now known as Limpkin

This has to be my favorite of these names, if only because of the sheer ridiculousness of the first word.  "Scolopaceous" means "woodcock-like" (remember Scolopax is the genus that Woodcocks fall under).  Why an adjective would be created to mean something so specific as "woodcock-like", I have no idea.  "Limpkin" sounds like something I don't really want to look up on Urban Dictionary.  So Scolopaceous Courlan is definitely preferred here.
Scolopaceous Courlan - Barra del Colorado, Costa Rica

Tell-tale Godwit  - Now known as Greater Yellowlegs

"Tell-tale" makes me think of Edgar Allen Poe, so this name automatically gets bonus points.  The name "tell-tale" actually refers to their noisy call, which would often give away a hunter's position before he could approach a flock of shorebirds (I'm sure this has happened to birders too).  Greater Yellowlegs is a fitting name, but Tell-tale Godwit is more poetic, don't you think?
Illustrations from audubon.org

Monday, June 23, 2014

Guide to the Common Towhees of North Carolina and Virginia (Review)

In his groundbreaking new book, Field Guide to the Common Towhees of North Carolina and Virginia, Lucas R Bobay explores the diverse group of emberizid sparrows called Towhees. He uses this book as a way to focus in on the species of Towhee native to the Carolinas (specifically North Carolina) and Virginia and really go in depth into the patterns of vagrancy and migration.

This is Lucas R Bobay's sixth book on Towhees - his past ones studied Towhees in different parts of the world. It is safe to say that he is the world's foremost expert on this group of species.  This is quite obvious as the information in the book is of the utmost quality.  Having grown up in North Carolina, it is obvious that this is the group of Towhees that Bobay has studied the most.

The beautiful cover art adds to the allure of this fascinating work.
The book is quite hefty, about 350 pages, but no page is wasted. It starts off with the "Topography of a Towhee" which outlines every part of the Towhee in great detail, so when Bobay mentions the "slightly rufescent supercilium" or something else along those lines, the reader knows exactly what he is talking about. He then goes on to mention the patterns of vagrancy in Towhees in North Carolina and Virginia. Now, you may be thinking: Isn't this a book of common Towhees of North Carolina and Virginia? The answer is: Yes. But this does not mean the book cannot study the vagrancy patterns of the species mentioned. This section includes detailed maps depicting common patterns and lines the Towhee may follow along with which times of year certain Towhees are to be expected.

Next up in the book are the plates. Included in the book are both drawings and photos, 134 altogether. The drawings show all of the color morphs and differences in Juvenile, Immature, Adult, Male, and Female Towhees of North Carolina and Virginia. I prefer the photos over the drawings due to their very high quality, as is seen on the cover. Most people say "don't judge a book by its cover" but the quality of the photo on the cover of this guide is truly representative of the quality of the information contained within it.
Sample Page showing the extensive historical accounts.
Much of the book explores the historical records of these birds (sample page above). It explains and explicates the reasons for movement within the populations as well as changes in the number of birds seen in different types of years.  I would recommend it to any birder who struggles with Towhee identification in the Carolinas or Virginia.

There are only a few apparent errors in the book. A few times the word Towhee is spelled "Towhss," but other than that the book is flawless. This book is exceptional and honestly the most groundbreaking book of 2014. I look forward to what Lucas R Bobay comes up with next.

This book is available in no bookstores, anywhere.

Review by Samuel Jolly

Friday, June 20, 2014

Graph - A Year in the Life of a Birder

Birders follow the calendar differently than the average person.  Our moods and personal cycles entirely depend on what the birds are doing.  This creates a roller coaster of emotion, sending people like me into an oscillating phase bouncing between fits of unbridled rage and complete elation.  I realized last year that these phases follow a relatively clear-cut pattern, generally peaking at the two migrations.
Enter this incredibly detailed and beautiful graph depicting the major phases of the birder's emotions.  We here at The Birder's Conundrum used complex and mind-blowing mathematical expressions to create this.  Keep in mind that regional variations apply, but this works for the Carolinas and Virginia pretty well.  Especially notable is the Red-eyed Vireo Valley - the lowest point of the year, summarized by the incessant singing of REVIs, invisible Cuckoos, and Cicadas.  This is the time of year where birding nearly ceases, and birders briefly lose sight of their ridiculous obsession and begin doing "normal" things.  The mind wanders to other pursuits, like posting beautiful photos of Cardinals and Bluebirds to Facebook pages, until at last a sandpiper shows up on a mudflat somewhere.  We are currently stuck in this treacherous valley.  Come on Baird's, White-rumped, or Pectoral - we need you. Please.

Faced With The Birder's Conundrum

Birding is a conundrum, in both senses of the word.  Here at The Birder's Conundrum, an up-and-coming birding blog, we strive to explain this dual meaning to the best of our abilities.  The simple act of birding is riddled with "confusing and difficult problems or questions" - perplexing identifications, new science, and why we do what we do as birders.  We also will ask difficult (and sometimes embarrassing) questions for your reading pleasure, by exploring the pastime's quirks and obsessive characters that can make birding funny as hell.  Nothing is off-limits.  So welcome, and get excited.  This is going to be Great(er).