Lost in translation

Kazakhstan should be more popular with birders.

It's an unsung gem of a country, one I visited very briefly in 2008, working on a communications campaign for the Kazakh government.

Birding-time was fleeting; snatched moments and quick glimpses between work and client dinners (one which involved getting driven miles out of the city to a strangely palatial restaurant where we sat in a private room, smoked weed and politely drank sour yak milk - a delicacy here and utterly rancid).

Anyway, having just taken delivery of the (mighty) new Chats and Robins monograph, I was trying to work out a couple of female-type redstarts that went frustratingly unidentified at the time.

To help me, I turned to the Kazakh birders Facebook page, which is all in Russian.

Which brings me in a roundabout way to the point of this post; the Russian names, once Google has auto-translated them into English turn out to be awesome!

Barred warbler, becomes Hawk warbler! How apt is that for this giant of warblers?

The lowly water rail becomes the water shepherd...

And the sought-after Himalayan specialty, the white-browed tit-warbler, simply becomes PAINTED BIRD;

Changes your perceptions of things seeing new names, right?


Christmas Counting

Sunday 20th saw the first real cold front push into the NYC area. Listservs and twitterspheres abounded with news of lark sparrows, painted buntings and the occasional rare gull. Would the northerlies bring fresh birds for the Christmas Bird Count?

Spoiler alert; not really. At least not for the Lower Hudson count.

But we tried anyway. I was assigned a northern section of the Lower Hudson count  (which spans Manhattan, the Hudson River, and much of Jersey City and Secaucus). Whilst those in Central Park had hundreds of eyes on their teams, I was relying on Coloradan artist and birder Cathy Sheeter to double the eye-count.

The early strategy involved checking those iconic, apocalyptic Jersey wasteland-type places. Industrial warehouses lining fetid canals. Overgrown and long-forgotten parking lots. Those last redoubts of concrete-interred mafia bodies, starlings and the occasional ghostly barn owl.

promising wildlife habitat in Hudson, NJ

My local Hoboken wasteland was empty, save for a song sparrow, two newly arrived ruddy ducks (a full month after they arrived here last year), and two flightless canada geese who are being kept alive by a crazy woman who cooks them pasta dishes.

Next I hit James Braddock park for woodpeckers. Mike Britt (our NJ compiler) had told me it was wise to carry a knife here. Um, ok.

Anyway, given the early hour, it was boringly devoid of gangstas. And despite forgetting to bring any weapons, I managed to get good numbers of fox sparrows, a new wave of juncos, the common woodpeckers and some nice hooded mergansers on the pool. The song of white-throated sparrows rang out through the woodland as if it were a mid-spring day.

Tracking back along the river I hit a few parking lots, getting hassled by two mall cops who couldn't fathom my accent or what I was doing squeezing through the chain link at the back of their warehouse. I later heard from Mike that one of his crew had a more serious stop-and-search by NJTransit police whilst trying to sneak into a black-crowned night heron roost.

The rest of the day went more smoothly. I met up with Cathy, we worked some of Hudson County's remnant natural habitats, picked up a pair of great horned owls, dipped on the parakeets, and watched an aerial fight between a merlin and peregrine.

All told, we got 2251 birds representing 51 species, which I think was the highest species-diversity for any of the Hudson county groups; not bad considering we didn't have any coastal or real saltwater habitat on our territory.

an adaptable resident peregrine uses flood lights for a hunting perch

Postscript: I worked out my year count for the Lower Hudson Circle was 215 this year. This might make a good (and equally arbitrary as a county boundary) territory for a Big Year, given I live and work across a state border.....


Winter is Coming

To steal the ominous language of Game of Thrones, Winter is Coming.

I can't wait. 

I just re-read Bernd Heinrich's Winter World in preparation.

It's no surprise that the wonder, intrigue and science in Winter World is far beyond anything in his other (albeit excellent) book, Summer World. The adaptations to surving in a frozen landscape are unimaginable to us temperate-world humans. From manufacturing glycerol to full cellular freezing, the litany of mechanisms to cope with cold are mind bending. 

Here's a small selection of my brother's 'Snow Portraits'. A timely reminder, for me at least, as to why winter is the season of wonder. 

For more of Ben's images, see: benhallphoto.com/


Texan vagrants, take two

The weekend did indeed bring more luck.

I'd hatched a vague plan to go meet Mike Britt at Laurel Hill to try for Golden Eagle, but he (wisely) called it off to hit the coast.

Unsurprisingly, I'd barely got out the car at Laurel when I got the text for Lapland Longspur and Bonaparte's Gull in Liberty State Park. Breaking a few speed limits, I headed over. There were a few folks on the Bonaparte's and I had a quick look through a scope before even turning the engine off. Just as well, as a harrier kited over the cove and put the birds up, and this delicate, diminutive little gull floated away on the breeze.

The gales were howling on the edge of bay, and I barricaded myself against a tree, searching in vain for the longspurs. One of my nemesis birds, and I had a creeping feeling they weren't going to just fortuitously reappear for me.

I was about done, when I looked up.

Against the blue, all 15 grams of Texan Cave Swallow rowed bravely into the howling headwind, coming in off the ocean and passing front-lit above the London plane trees. It was a fleeting moment, but its tawny rump, throat and neatly capped head were crisply illuminated by the still low sun. I later realised how different the view would have been in silhouette.

This was even better than a Franklin's gull (for me anyway - I saw many wintering Franklins living in Arg/Chile).

POSTSCRIPT: Sunday morning I was on my balcony just doing a quick scan through the gull flock that roosts on the pier below, when another bundle of hirundine energy came in off the river and hawked insects at eye-level with my 8th floor vantage point. I was torn between running 3 blocks to get my SLR out the trunk of my car, or just watching it and trying to get some video on the point-&-shoot.

I did the latter. Lesson for the day - shooting cave swallows with a tiny camera IS NOT EASY.

But the views as it hawked in the sunlight for around 30 minutes were amazing.

I put the news out on the Manhattan side and there was a bit of a scramble from friends over there to get on the same bird, but the Hudson river is nearly a mile wide here, so it was tough for those guys who hit the Chelsea pier.

It's not very often Hoboken gets one up on Manhattan on the bird front....



Every time I looked at my phone today there was another coastal report of Franklin's gulls.

I figured I'd be lucky to get one this far up the Hudson river, but two were seen off upper Manhattan this morning, and Andrew Farnsorth reported one from the East River.  I've always been puzzled by why the East River attracts so many more Laughing Gulls than the Hudson, at ostensibly equal tidal reaches. Would this apply to storm blown Franklins too?

Coming back from work early I stationed myself on my balcony in Hoboken, with a view spanning 8 miles of river - from the GW Bridge to the Freedom Tower. 

Surely, if there were any Franklin's about, they couldn't sneak past this checkpoint...`

Margaux hoping to be the youngest person to see a FRGU in the Hudson River

The real issue was volume of gulls (huge). I finally had two possibles following a debris barge, but they were over the midpoint of the river and too far to separate from Laughing. Do FRGU even do this? I'd imagine as inland gulls they wouldn't have adapted to the behaviour, although I've seen them happy on wintering grounds in bustling Chilean ports.

Maybe tomorrow will bring more luck.


Chaco Eagle!

Over the last few weeks the SACC has been cleaning up some names; a lull in the flood of new taxa perhaps?

Anyway, I was quite pleased to see today that this proposal to recognize Buteogallus coronatus as Chaco Eagle, befitting its core range in the heartland of the Chaco, has just passed. 

This is a hugely under-appreciated biotope, with many ecological threats and subsuming one of the poorest regions of the continent at its epicentre in Paraguay and northern Argentina.

How great to have a name that situates this apex bird in its geographic heartland.

And what irony that my last three trips to the Chaco I've dipped on this bird.

As an aside, they could have gone with Crowned Buzzard-Chicken ;)



During the months over the last two winters I spent working out of my client's office in northern Georgia, I got my pretty accustomed to seeing Orange-Crowned warblers. They'd be the last to arrive and last to leave - lingering with the siskins and purple finches along the rich riparian corridors of the Chattahoochee.

So with winter looming, this drab little parulid was on my radar for Hudson county, and as local advice and eBird records showed, I figured I'd have plenty of time to target it at Mill Creek Marsh over the next month.

So it was a nice surprise to flush one this morning at Laurel Hill, when i was more focused on sparrows and (absent) pipits.

But wait, was it an OCWA? A little voice in the back of my head said it could easily have been a Nashville, especially a drab fall bird. The warbler in question flushed into the scrubby woodland behind the dinosaur fence, so all i could do was pish, wait, pish some more, walk around, wait some more.

Eventually I pulled up the call on my phone and within a half-second it came rocketing out of the birches.

It was far from impressed to see a human with an iPhone, and if this hadn't been a passage bird I would have felt pretty guilty. It perched for all of two seconds, looked aggressively around, or as aggressive as a 10 gram warbler can get, then disappeared from whence it came...

When I got home I had a found this lengthy discussion, contributed to by some heavyweights like Kaufmann, Jaramillo et al, about this individual:

My bird looked pretty much like the bird being argued over here. But it's getting quite late for Nashville here, my last being over 2 weeks ago in Hoboken of all places.

Moreover, what I saw this morning looked intuitively different; showing a dirtier, greenier yellow underneath than I've ever seen on a Nashville, and lacking any contrast between throat and hood color. If you cut my bird in half, the back half would be brighter and richer than the front half. This is kinda the opposite from what I'd expect on any Nashville.

I'm taking the unequivocal response to playback as confirmation - but whatever the rationalisation, I know if I hadn't called the bird out, I'd still have a few nagging doubts....


a good excuse

Some nice folks back in England, doing an admirable job of promoting and funding conservation for shorebirds, are entreating everyone to go out find waders this weekend.

As if we should need an excuse to go look at waders, now we have one anyway. Wader Quest will give you a signed shorebird poster from probably the *best artist to ever paint a bird, the one and only Lars Jonsson.

Get involved, wherever you are, at waderquest.org

*Don't believe me? Look at these eiders battling the North Sea;


Denizens of the saltmarshes

I managed a late spurt in my Hudson County Not-So-Big-Year this weekend, adding some laggards which I should really have had by now; American wigeon, Carolina wren, field and savannah sparrows, and ovenbird! (the latter isn't as easy as you'd expect in Hudson, which is very strange as a few hundred yards over the river, NYC is dripping with fall ovenbirds in almost every available inch of habitat). The same goes for thrashers, which seemed to have forsaken Hudson for Manhattan this fall.

Hitting Ocean Terminal for my second attempt at Nelson's sparrow (walking the sea wall netted me constant false alarms as swamps sparrows constantly popped up in response to pishing), I bumped into a birder from Nyack, NY and we finally got on at least 4 saltmarsh sharp-tails, which were swaying on the seed-heads of the spartina grasses.

But after nearly two hours, still no Nelsons.

With the wind picking up, I gave up and was driving out when I passed Mike Britt sitting on the sea wall, so I stopped to say hi. He was trying to conjure up a Eurasian wigeon, and after he left i thought I'd grab once last quick scan of the marsh. A few seconds later, movement! Two sharp-tails were methodically working the edge of the spartina, staying a foot or so inside the edge. After some cat and mouse and fleeting glimpses, both birds ventured close enough to the edge for great views. Finally, two Nelsons.

I'd go out on a limb to say they were both alterus interior birds, bad cellphone pics notwithstanding.


The Wasteland

Maybe it was growing up in overpopulated England, but I've always been drawn to neglected wastelands. Forgotten corners where nature has fought back.

A block from my apartment on the Hudson River is just such a spot. Barely two acres in size, it consists of old pier pilings, industrial waste and the detritus of river reclamation; the kind of place that probably looks exactly the same now as it did before being battered by hurricance Sandy.
And judging by the maturity of some of the trees and shrubs, the area hasn't been touched since clippers docked on the piers and unloaded tea from India.

I've birded casually from the roadside without vaulting the locked perimeter fence; good enough for phoebes and song sparrows in the spring, and even an Iceland gull this winter, but until now I'd never actually gotten inside.

Today, I found the gate unchained. And having just been talking with Ben Cacace about Manhattan's under-birded "microparks" I thought why not sneak in and have a proper look.

Being overlooked by hundreds of apartment windows, there's really no point trying to conceal yourself. So i just sauntered in, binoculars conspicuously dangling should the anti-terror police turn up and demand an excuse.

Inside it's a wonderland.

Swamp sparrows foraged in the pilings, two phoebes hunted from the boulders and metal-waste on the beach, a tennessee warbler vied for insects with a palm warbler and the ubiquitous yellowthroats.

A kingfisher protested my human intrusion. I suspect this bird isn't even a migrant, and has simply fished undetected right here, within full view of the Manhattan skyscrapers.

The next day I sneaked in again while waiting for the NYC ferry commute. A lincoln's sparrow greeted me. I reckon any day you see a Lincoln's is a good day, so seeing one a block from my apartment was pretty cool. A minute later the ringbills rose in unison from their loafing pier and I saw our resident peregrine cut across the sun. Then, just as i was leaving, I stumbled upon a late female scarlet tanager sitting quietly in a rowan tree.

I wonder how long it will be before someone realises the gate is unchained....

POSTSCRIPT: A few hours later I had another lincoln's in the small gardens behind my office in Midtown. Must have been a big flight last night.

POSTSCRIPT 2: Went back today, 12th Oct, and its locked again. Just when the front will be pulling in new arrivals. It was good while it lasted (3 days...)


Torrent ducks

What's your desert island bird?

I think this may be mine. 

I found this family group (and later their ducklings) navigating the tumbling glacial waters of a mountain stream in the southern Patagonian Andes. 

As a whole, we don't think of ducks as exhibiting much ecological diversity, but once you've seen torrent ducks hunting in water you can't even stay afloat in, let alone swim or stand up in, you'll never look at a mallard the same way....


CONW (or COWA for some)

I stopped by Trinity Church this morning on the way to work, in response to a tweet from Ben Cacace about a Mourning warbler (which i still need in NYC), and it was hopping.

I guess it's no surprise given the radar blooms and northerlies last night, but my local Hoboken patch didn't turn up much this morning other than yellowstarts, pewees and 3 freshly arrived phoebes.

So it was a nice surprise to find one, and possibly two, Connecticut warbler lurking among the flowers and plantpots of the graveyard at Trinity. My first good find of the year since January's iceland gull.

I've still never seen an adult, but despite their drab appearance these juves are still nice birds - with a really striking walking posture and gait, like a pigeon in a tiny body, and the habit of lowering their heads and peering up at prey in a very deliberate fashion.

They're also usually shy, and I thought this individual was going to be scared off pretty quickly, especially when the first crowd of tourists arrived en masse and flushed it from behind a grave.

In the end, it was surprisingly confiding, clearly more intent on feeding after what was probably a lengthy flight in last night's northerlies. I guess it shows how hunger during migration effects behavior!

THIS shaky phone-bincoular shot doesn't really capture this unique skulker, nor does it's specific name, agilis, which means active.....

For some much better shots of yesterday's birds, see Jean Shum's website - which shows the feeding and 'peering' behaviour very well. 

I also received a bunch of shots from others who saw the birds later in the day, and my original suspicion seems to have been right. There were indeed two individuals, rather than one bird adept at teleportation.

This raises an interesting question. Either these were individuals migrating separately which happened to fall-out into the same 1.5 acre patch of greenery, which seems highly unlikely, or they are evidence of social migration in this taxa.

In fact, fall migration undertaken as a family unit has been documented in connecticut warblers, so these two birds perhaps represent the fruits of one nest and are first year siblings migrating together.


World Shorebird Day

Despite a failed search for early migrant warblers in the morning (just lots of yellowstarts), I rushed out to Mill Creek Marsh in the afternoon - as Rick Wright was looking at a stilt sandpiper.

This is a bird I've been trying to hit all year, so how auspicious that on World Shorebird Day I was able to park the car and walk right up to it, resting and preening on the flood tide amidst a host of yellowlegs and least peeps.

Tides over six feet, like today's, flood all the resting habitat for shorebirds at Mill Creek - even the phragmite edges, and push the birds into an impoundment filled with ancient cedar stumps, where they jostle for position;

Five species of wader on one stump is pretty good for urban New Jersey (did you spot the dowitcher?)

Stilt Sandpipers are talented birds, managing to look huge next to short-billed dowitchers, and tiny next to Greater Yellowlegs....

This guy's showing off a little now, exhibiting high degrees of rhynchokinesis - the controlled flexibility in the upper mandible that aids searching for and manipulating prey you can't see.

Interestingly, rhynchokinesis is believed to have evolved independently in at least 7 shorebird lineages. 


The peregrine

Over the last few days of stagnant, lingering southerly winds, I re-read JA Baker's The Peregrine.

Then today,  I saw one hunting from my balcony.

I think it may be the juvenile that over-wintered last year, taking up residence on the Hudson Tea building, which has a steady supply of ring-billed gulls and pigeons.

I won't try to describe it.

The only person who has done justice to this bird in prose is JA Baker, so I'd just urge you to read his book.


Armchair ticks? No so easy

When the new Clements revisions rolled around a week or so ago I expected a few easy armchair ticks, despite the conservatism of the AOU compared to IOC and other institutions.

Not so fast.

It was only after randomly coming across this article in the Hindu times, that out of curiousity I looked to see if I'd gained the new Indian taxa.

I had indeed.

But it seems my other records of what used to be the superspecies Asian paradise-flycatcher had also reverted to the new Indian taxa, including even records from Borneo, which should have become Blyth's Paradise-fly.

I guess it's worth going through the splits & lumps; see if anything catches your eye. You might have to do some work (albeit from your armchair) for those new ticks.


Tech birding

I finally bit the bullet and subscribed to HBW Alive.  So now, in theory, every plate, every citation, and all the data that made Lynx Ediciones bible of birdlife so good is available in the field on my phone (4G connection notwithstanding...)

I have around half the books, and the non-passerine volumes (published from the late 90s) are starting to show their age, taxonomically. And while they're beautiful, they're expensive at about $240 a pop.

Case in point, look at the splits across these families since their respective volumes were published....

So, I'm now trying to use the HBW Alive data and plates to link in with Xeno Canto and Cornell's neotropical birds to make my own virtual guide to the birds of Argentina.

It's not going to be as nice as Mark Pearman's new book. But they're still working on that and the publishing date is a couple of years out.

Now if all this was available offline, you'd never need another fieldguide.... Just a few gigabytes of memory ;)



I was back in Georgia a few times this Spring, and made daily visits to one of my favorite sites - Johnson' Ferry, a ribbon of riverine old growth forest and bottomland swamp along the west bank of the Chattahoochee river.

It's not much more than a few hectares, barely outide metropolitan Atlanta, but it always amazes me how biodiverse it is. In an hour or two in early October here I had Philadelphia vireo, yellow-throated vireo, rose-breasted grosbeaks in the same tree, 7 warbler species and 6 species of woodpecker within the following 10 minutes. I was surprised, looking back at eBird, to see that I'd racked up 70 spp. here within 5 or 6 visits.

And it got me thinking about edge habitats.

Here's the acre in question (with a confiding - yes that's a cellphone shot - red-shouldered hawk in it):

There's a little scrub, some riparian willows along the creek, and a bit of successional woodland and tall grasses along an old clear-cut for a gas pipeline, which the sparrows love in winter.

But walk out of this scrubland and into the surrounding forest, and the diversity drops off a cliff.

Given that northern Georgia was entirely forested until less than a century ago, why is there such diversity in these (formerly scarce) edge habitats compared to the forest interior?

Some of these are migrants, clearly, but the same pattern plays out across the year.

Various studies have tried to untangle this question, some of which suggest that many species thought to be 'edge' specialists are in fact shrubland specialists. I was interested to see that the idea of an 'edge specialist' may be largely a misnomer, with a few possible exceptions:

If shrubland birds are not edge species, then what exactly is an edge species, and do such species exist? Imbeau et al. (2003) suggested that merely inhabiting an ecotone does not define an edge species. Rather, an edge species must make use of both of the adjacent habitats (see also Ries et al. 2004). By this definition, few birds included in our meta-analysis would actually be considered edge species. One exception may be Indigo Buntings, which nest in scrubby areas, but appear to prefer territories with tall trees, used as song posts (Taber and Johnston 1968). Still, buntings were edge averse in our meta-analysis, suggesting that their usage of edges and tall trees may be opportunistic rather than obligate.
Read More: http://www.esajournals.org/doi/full/10.1890/08-0020.1

But shrubland specialisms should develop where there are good shrubland niches available, and as the study above shows, these shrubland species tend to be edge-averse within shrubland habitat anyway!

Moreover, shrubland is rare in northern Georgia, which in evolutionary terms has been continuously forested until very recently, and retains more contiguous forest than most of the lower 48.

So, is the high diversity in places like Johnson's Ferry an adaptation to the (relative) continuing abundance of forest in the region, concentrating birds who avoid tall trees (blue-winged warblers and such like) and can't forage effectively in deeply shaded forest?

If so, it's almost the reverse of the scenario that plays out in urbanised and deforested suburban areas, which concentrate migrants in refugial forested tracts. Just go to Central Park's Ramble to see this effect at its most heightened.

Understanding how and why both residents and migrant use these kind of ecotones will only become more important as habitats of all kinds fragment further.



I've never seen a Dunlin in breeding plumage. And it's beginning to get to me....

From California to the Fenlands, I've seen thousands of these birds, but always on passage and in winter garb.

And they continue to evade me this year. My eBird needs alert pops up for Dunlin every few days in Hudson county, where I live. Usually it's individual birds, and whenever I'm there, they're not. And vice versa. I'm sure some of these elusive Hudson birds are in breeding plumage too....

This oil by Lars Jonsson, to my eye the finest living bird artist, made up for failing to find a Dunlin today. And the singing marsh wrens, orchard orioles, and black skimmers at Liberty State Park added the colour to an entirely waderless day.


World Migratory Bird Day.

If you're in India it's Endemic Bird Day.  If you're in the States its Global Big Day or the World Series of Birding, depending on your proclivities for competition. In Europe the BTO and others have deemed it Migratory Bird Day. If you're in Colombia it's Try-to-hit-400-species Day.

Either way, right here in the north east a low pressure front has shut down movement overnight. And after a week of great birding, I have feeling everyone's going to find it tough to go out and get a blue riband big day this year.

I'm pretty happy to rest up though. I had my migration moment a few days earlier in Central Park, when after a week of not much action beyond yellow-rumps, I had a crazy tens minutes at Strawberry Fields, with one big oak (not the normal warbler tree either) simultaneously hosting yellow-throated vireo, blackburnian, bay-breasted, yellow and blue winged warblers among other newly-arrived gems. The next morning cape may and hooded both arrived in the park, and within 24 hours I'd seen most of what I'd wanted to see in New York City this year.

Now I need some warblers in Hudson County....


April; end of winter or beginning of spring?

It might be the cruelest month, but this April was crueler than most.  So I was surprised to see yesterday that I'd racked up around 115 species over the month. How so, when migration feels so late to start?

Checking my eBird records i realised that nearly all of these are late wintering species. RT Loons and Red-necked grebes right up the Hudson in Manhattan in April!  Late juncos and rough-legged buzzards. It reads like a February census.

I wonder if the same climatic effects delaying our migrant arrivals are also retaining these late-staying wintering birds?


playback ethics

Down in Georgia the last few days i had a conversation with a local birder about playback, and it reminded me how unresolved this issue is. 

As a guide myself, I'm probably unusual in not condoning playback. But for me, it has got the point where it's clearly damaging. Most of my birding (and all of my guiding) is in the neotropics and southern cone, where it’s much more obvioulsy an issue than in North America (where most people, some photographers excepted, are pretty sensitive).

However, on a recent trip to Panti in Malaysia (a critical refugia – one of the Malay peninsula’s last reminaing lowland dipterocarp forest amid a sea of palm-oil plantation) I was pretty horrified by the playback use. It made even what I’ve seen in S. America seem benign: 

This video i took (surreptitiously) on one deck of the only observation tower at Panti. What's hard to see is that these Japanese and Malay photographers have rigged a pretty big speaker to the roof, and are playing barbet calls on a loop at way higher decibels than any naturally vocalising bird. They’d sit around smoking until the bird came in so close to the point it was attacking the speaker, then they’d leap up to their tripods for a shot. An hour or so of this, and then they'd repeat for other species. The whole thing - falling over tripods and high-fiving - was farcical to the point of a comedy sketch, but when you consider the habitat of Panti, harbouring threatened and vulnerable taxa and one of the Pensinsula's critical IBAs, it's actually pretty devastating. 

The argument I often hear is that walking around birding in the forest, especially in groups, could be more damaging than sitting back and calling birds to you. Personally, I find this argument pretty spurious. Birds have co-evolved with our species, and have adaptations to deal with our physical presence – avoidance tactics, most simply. They haven't co-evolved with a iPod playlist and big-ass speaker blasting songs across the canopy.

In the end I waited and ripped the speakers down...

Yellow-throated warbler, but not in NY

Having made a failed twitch across Brooklyn to Long Island for the Valley Stream YTWA, spending a good four or five hours searching the only day last week the bird was barely seen, I got some penance by tracking two singing males down in Georgia yesterday.

Cooper's Furnance is old-growth riverine bottomland forest, bordering Lake Allatoona. In a short walk along one stream bed I also found nesting-building Louisiana waterthrushes, 4 or 5 singing worm-eating warblers - with males busy establishing territories only around 100 yards apart from each other.

Overnight southerlies had also brought in a fresh indigo bunting and a redstart, so while migration feels like it's barely started in NYC, it was clearly in full flow here in the South. 


Darwin Day

In honor of Darwin Day, I was re-reading my battered copy of The Voyagle of the Beagle this morning. Battered because it was actually dropped in the Beagle Channel itsef. An appropriate baptism while I was taking a group of scientists from University of Washington to explore the channel region, retracing some of Darwin's footsteps, and looking at the bryophytes and birdlife of the region.

Comprising some of the most pristine wilderness left on the planet, the southern Andes curve down through Tierra del Fuego until only their peaks are left above water, creating a labyrinthine archipelago. A last redoubt.

And whilst avian diversity is surprisingly low - compared to similar latitudes in the northern hemisphere - it makes up for it in impact.

Here a black-browed albatross cruises down the Channel;

An upland goose surveys its breeding territory on one of the Channel's islets;

And a Chilean skua passes in front of Mount Olivia;

The very same mountain just as it was painted by Conrad Martens, the ship's artist who accompanied Darwin on the Beagle. Only a small amount of poetic licence exercised here!


Brant or Brent?

Coming back from New York City today across the Hudson river, devoid of icebergs despite the ice-storms of the previous few days, I saw my first Brant of the year. Foraging on the broken terminus of an old tea-clipper pier, a small group of 7 birds gathered.

The brent geese are just out of sight at the end of the abandoned pier, which is currently a pretty active roost of ring-bills, herring and great black-backeds. Every once in a while I see a local juvenile peregrine bomb through this roost, and the ring-bills rise like confetti on the wind.

I've never got to the bottom of why this taxon is called Brant in the US and Brent in the UK. Is it just an accent thing? The genus is Branta so you'd favour the Americans in this case, but then again the naming of the oil trading commodity Brent crude derived from the bird too. 


Predicted Antwren

This proposed taxon to the South American CC recently passed. So we have a new species of Herpsilochmus antwren on the Purus river, deep in south-western Amazonia:


I read it and thought maybe they were going for Predictable Antwren, perhaps some wry comment on behavior, and something got lost in translation.

But no.

They really mean Predicted Antwren:

"The name refers to the fact that the existence of this species was predicted before it was actually found and recognized"....

I thought it was amusing that the name polarised the review committee too.

Personally I agree with Alvaro that it's kinda cool. 


Least Seedsnipe

These cryptic little things are strange. Like a cross between a lark, a dove, and a sandgrouse. I'd never seee one, despite the years driving across the Patagonia steppe, until something tumbled up from the dust and bounced off the windscreen. We stopped and hunted through the gravel and there she was, looking a little stunned - for only one or two cars a week come down this route, in the deep south western corner of Argentine Patagonia. A few minutes in the car revived the bird and we released her into the big winds rattling across the steppe, where she disappeared among the sea-rolled gravel and stunted berberis.

Endemic to the southern cone and Andes, seedsnipes are an oddball clade. There are only 4 species and their closest relative is the equally odd Plains Wanderer, from which they split around 40mya.

Looking out over some prime seedsnipe habitat;

My photo
I work in NYC and own a wildlife and wilderness agency specializing in the southern cone of South America. I still do some guiding down there, especially looking for Fuegian and Patagonian avifauna. I'm particularly interested in the wintering ecology of neotropical migrants, and in avian biogeography in general. You can follow me at - @domhall And find me at - AventuraArgentina.com