Sam Crowe on November 20th, 2016

Another Audubon Christmas Bird Count season is just around the corner.  This great winter birding tradition started in 1900, making this its 117th season!  This  year the count runs between December 14 and January 5.  Tens of thousands of volunteers working throughout the Western Hemisphere help monitor populations of wintering birds.

If you have not been on a Christmas Bird Count, they are fun!  Birders work from down to dusk, and perhaps even longer to record and report the birds they see.  Reports include a list of each species seen or heard as well as an estimate of the number of each species.

Prairie Warbler.

Prairie Warbler. © Greg Lavaty.

Many counts have a Count-Down dinner at the end of the day.  All the participants gather for a nice dinner and a count down of all the species identified.  Birders with rare and exclusive species are rewarded with appropriate cheers and admiration.

Birders of all skill levels, from the beginner to the expert, are welcomed and encouraged to participate.

Participating on Christmas Bird Counts is a great way to see more birds and learn about new birding locations.  Travel around your state, to other states  and even into Mexico, Central and South America to experience great birding opportunities.  Out-of-area birders will often been placed in a small team lead by an expert birder familiar with the area. Its like having your own personal guide in an area you have never birded before.

Northern Jacana

Northern Jacana. © Sam Crowe

116th Christmas Bird Count Alphabetical Index of Regional Summaries
A fun way to review previous Christmas bird counts is to visit the Audubon regional summaries. Coastal counts usually report the greatest number of species. Here is a review of a few of the top count areas.

Texas has always been a hotbed for CBCs.
In 2015 a total of 3021 birder days expended 7864 party-hours on 110 CBCs to produce 376 species, 12 infraspecific forms, and 11 exotics.

Matagorda County led the state with 239 species, and was followed by Guadalupe River Delta with 224.  Freeport greatly improved with a report of 211 and San Bernard (195), Corpus Christi (186) and Port Aransas (180) had a good year on the Coast.

Grace's Warbler.

Grace’s Warbler. © Greg Lavaty.

Southern California
This is the area to be if you are looking to add to your list of pelagic species.

Northern Fulmars were reported from Oceanside-Vista, Orange County (coastal), Rancho Santa Fe, San Diego, and Santa Barbara. A scattering of shearwaters found in Southern California included a Pink-footed from Thousand Oaks, a photographed Sooty in San Diego, and a well-documented Short-tailed Shearwater on the Palos Verdes Peninsula count. Many counts reported Brown Booby including Malibu, Oceanside-Vista, Orange County (coastal), Palos Verdes Peninsula, Rancho Santa Fe, San Diego, Santa Cruz Island, and Thousand Oaks.

If you are planning a winter trip to Florida, why not add a Christmas Bird Count to the activities. The state hosted 74 CBS which recorded 285 native species. The Jacksonville count lead with 168 species.

Crimson-collared Grosbeak

Crimson-collared Grosbeak. © Greg Lavaty.

Several warbler species and along with the colorful Painted Bunting can be seen on many of the Florida counts.

Tropical CBCs
In South America, Colombia reigns again as far as number of counts included this season, with 27 areas submitted. My first tropical birding experiences were CBCs in Mexico, they were fantastic experiences.

Blue-winged Warbler.

Blue-winged Warbler. © Greg Lavaty.

All of the images shown represent species seen on one of the Christmas Counts in Texas in 2015.

Sam Crowe on November 12th, 2016

We should all know a little more about the countries to the north and south of us.

Almost everyone knows the Bald Eagle is the National Bird of the United States.  Some may know that Benjamin Franklin wanted the Turkey to be the National Bird of the United States,

But what about our friends to the north?  Do you know what the National Bird of Canada is?

Think hard.   Still don’t have it?

Don’t worry, you are not alone.   Canada does NOT have a national bird.  But that may soon change.

The Royal Canadian Geographic Society recently held a national poll to determine what the citizens of Canada wanted as their national bird.  The top three vote getters, in order, are:

Common Loon

Common Loon


Snowy Owl in flight

Snowy Owl


Gray Jay

Gray Jay

The Royal Canadian Geographic Society will make its official recommendation on November 16.  Their recommendation to the Canadian Parliament will be based on the public poll, an expert panel and other input.

Each of these birds nest and raise their young in the vast Boreal Forest, often described as North America’s bird nursery.  The Boreal Forest extends across much of Canada and into Alaska.  The Boreal forest Initiative seeks to preserve at least 50% of the Canadian Boreal Forest.  Both Ontario and Quebec have pledged to conserve at least 50% of their northern Boreal regions.

For additional information:

Canada’s Choosing A National Bird (And It’s Surprisingly Suspenseful)

National Bird Project

Boreal Songbird Initiative

Sam Crowe on November 2nd, 2016

Bird identification can often be a real challenge.  Birds captured at banding stations sometimes provide an opportunity to study unusual plumages.

In the spring of 2014, researchers at Long Point Bird Observatory captured an interesting-looking warbler which somewhat resembled a Magnolia Warbler.

After a detailed inspection of the bird’s plumage and a genetic analysis, it was determined that the bird is the first-ever documented hybrid between Magnolia and Chestnut-sided warblers.

Male Magnolia Warbler

Male Magnolia Warbler


Female Chestnut-sided Warbler.

Female Chestnut-sided Warbler.



Hybrid Magnolia x Chestnut-sided Warbler.

The results were published by Ken Burrell (Natural Resources Inc.), Jeff Skevington and Scott Kelso (Agriculture and Agri-food Canada), and Mike Burrell, Dayna LeClair, and Stu Mackenzie (Bird Studies Canada) in the most recent issue of the Wilson Journal of Ornithology.

Here is the abstract of the article.  Subscribers to the Wilson Journal can read the entire article

New World Warblers represent a complex and closely related family, with a high propensity to hybridize. With more than 73 known hybrid pairings of Parulidae documented, we report a previously undocumented hybrid: a Chestnut-sided (Setophaga pensylvanica) × Magnolia Warbler (S. magnolia). The parentage of the hybrid individual and its identity are supported by morphological and genetic evidence. DNA sequencing of a fragment of cytochrome oxidase c subunit I (COI) supports the female parent as Chestnut-sided, while strong morphological features support Magnolia Warbler as the father.

The new hybrid represents the first documented hybridization of Chestnut-sided Warbler.

Although hybrid warblers are rare, they do occur.  The most well-known are perhaps the Blue-winged x Golden-winged Warbler hybrids.

First generation hybrids are know as Brewster’s Warbler and have a Blue-winged head pattern.  The even rarer Lawrences’s Warbler is a Blue-winged x Golden-winged hybrid that has a Golden-winged head pattern.

Blue-winged Warlber.

Blue-winged Warbler.


Golden-winged Warbler

Golden-winged Warbler


Brewster's Warbler

Brewster’s Warbler

Hybird Chestnut-sided Warbler x Magnolia Warbler photograph by Ken Burrell.

Other warbler images © Greg Lavaty.

Two of the largest and most influential ornithologist organizations are the American Ornithologists’ Union (The AOU) and the Cooper Ornithological Society (COS).

Among other things, the AOU is the keeper of the official bird list of North America, including the official common and scientific names and the placement of birds in specific families.

Since its inception, the COS has worked to disseminate ornithological knowledge, mentor young professionals, and promote the conservation of birds and wildlife in general.

In August the two societies agreed to merge.  A news release announced the agreement.

” At the historic NAOC VI meeting last week in Washington D.C., where more ornithologists—representing 41 countries—were brought together than ever before, the American Ornithologists’ Union and the Cooper Ornithological Society proudly announced their decision to bring their membership together as the American Ornithological Society, or AOS, in the very near future. In recent years we have actively collaborated as separate organizations: meeting together, publishing our journals jointly, and working together to benefit the conservation of birds. After a year of fact-finding and due diligence, and in response to the tremendous positive feedback of our membership, our two societies have voted overwhelmingly to merge.

When the societies announced the news during NAOC’s opening plenary session, more than 2000 participants—ornithologists and bird specialists from academia, government, nonprofits, and industry, along with students and citizen scientists—cheered! Our message was clear: a single merged society will better serve ornithologists and advance ornithology by combining our assets—human, financial, and intellectual.

We wish to thank all of our members who responded to queries and contributed valuable viewpoints, and also to recognize the many individuals who worked tirelessly and objectively on the effort. Onward!

With the decision made, the important next steps include the legally required actions to complete the merger, and implementing a new communications and marketing plan for AOS. We anticipate announcing the new AOS in late October to broad audiences—this will be the “effective date of merger.” At the same time, we’ll launch our redesigned websites and social media platforms. The 2017 membership renewal cycle will quickly follow, introducing AOS memberships along with a variety of new services and benefits to members.

Next July, when we come together at the 2017 annual meeting in East Lansing, Michigan, we look forward to opening the 135th stated meeting of American Ornithology and the first meeting of the AOS. Please join us!”

Sam Crowe on October 15th, 2016

Woodpeckers offer an endlessly fascinating study in bird behavior and style. The more you watch, the more engaging they become. Part of it is anatomy. Their broad wings, stiff tail feathers, and unusual toe arrangement are ideally combined for maneuvering quickly through your trees and bushes, screeching to a halt, and grabbing onto the bark with their feet in a perfect, amazing vertical landing. Then, using their tail for counterbalance, they almost rappel down your tree, tail first, until they reach their goal.

Nuttall's Woodpecker

Nuttall’s Woodpecker. © Greg Lavaty.

There are 22 species of woodpeckers in the United States.  The new mini-guide to Woodpeckers features full descriptions  and images of 10 of the most common or unusual woodpeckers plus images of the other 12 woodpecker species found in North America.  The photographs feature the work of three of North America’s top bird and nature photographers.

Information includes tips on feeding woodpeckers and woodpecker fun facts.  A range map for each of the featured 10 species is included.

The guide is ideal for educators wishing to teach about these fascinating birds.  The downloadable file includes a printable PDF document along with the calls of five different woodpecker species.

The Guide is free to download.

Williamson's Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus thyroideus) perched on a branch in British Columbia, Canada.

Williamson’s Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus thyroideus) perched on a branch in British Columbia, Canada. Photo by Glenn Bartley.

Additional free materials for educations, including bird flash cards and a bird bingo game are also available on

Sam Crowe on October 10th, 2016

To answer the question of what makes a white bird white we first have to ask what makes a black bird black.   The answer to that question is a pigment called melanin.  Melanin is a black pigment that produces the black feather color in birds.

Melanin is an important pigment to birds, even those that are almost white in their normal plumage.   Melanin adds strength to the feathers.  Many gulls and the American White Pelican are mainly white, but tips of the otherwise white wings are black.  The wing tips have the most stress and the melanin provides greater strength.   Birds with less melanin in their feathers have weaker feathers that tend to wear faster.

Leucism is a complex condition that causes birds to have abnormally pale or white feathers.   The entire bird may be effected or just the feathers on certain parts of the bird.  In Leucistic birds other pigments, such as carotenoids, which creates yellow or orange colors, may still be present and active or may also be inhibited from some other cause.

Leucistic Red-tailed Hawk

Leucistic Red-tailed Hawk

The term leucism covers several different conditions that are difficult to distinguish.

In a leucistic bird or leucistic feathers, the melanin-producing cells are absent and melanin is not produced.

Another condition is sometimes referred to as Dilution.  In this case the chromatophore (pigment cell) is present but produces less pigment than normal, producing feathers with a washed-out look.

Leucistic grackle

Leucistic grackle

So what about an albino bird?

Technically Albinism is caused a genetic mutation causing an absence of tyrosinase in pigment cells, which means the bird can not produce melanin. As with leucistic birds, carotenoid pigments may or may not still be present.

While the root cause of the two conditions is very similar, eye color is way to tell the two conditions apart.   Albino birds have a pink eye, leucistic birds have a dark eye.

True albino birds are rare and seldom live very long in the wild. Poor eyesight is thought to contribute to their short lives.

With albinism, unlike leucism, there can not be a partially albino bird.

It’s confusing:
There is much conflicting information about the two conditions on the web.  The British Trust for Ornithology, a highly-respected organization, says this:

“As with leucistic individuals, albinos can retain carotenoid pigments if normally present in the plumage.”

The widely-read About web site has this conflicting, and inaccurate, information:

“Albinism, on the other hand, affects all the pigments, and albino birds show no color whatsoever in their feathers. Furthermore, an albino mutation also affects the bird’s other pigments in the skin and eyes, and albino birds show pale pink or reddish eyes, legs, feet and a pale bill, while leucistic birds often have normally colored eyes, legs, feet and bills.”

The most complete explanation that I have found is provided on the Sibley Guides web site.  It discusses both brown and black melanin and has illustrations of a normal cardinal, an albino cardinal, partially leucistic cardinal, leucistic cardinal, a cardinal lacking phawolwmanin, a cardinal lacking eumelanin and a cardinal in Dilute plumage.

Melanism is the opposite condition.  In melanistic birds more than a normal amount of melanin is present in the feathers and the bird is darker than normal.  This condition is generally rarer than leucism in small birds.  Several raptor species, however, have both a light color morph and a very dark color morph.

New research from the Nature Conservancy and university scientists revealed that only 41 percent of the natural land area in the United States retains enough connectivity to facilitate species tracking their preferred climate conditions as the global climate changes. As part of that study, scientists modeled the distribution and habitat needs of 2,903 vertebrate species in the Western hemisphere against land use and projected climate patterns.

The migrations in motion map provides a unique visualization of migratory patterns of birds, mammals and amphibians.

Conservancy cartographer and analyst Dan Majka brought this data to life in a series of maps that show what corridors mammals, amphibians, and other animals will use as they move to new habitats under projected climate change. Inspired by wind maps of the United States, and using code from Earth global wind map, adapted by Chris Helm, Majka’s dynamic map allows scientists and the public to see the continent-wide impact of climate change on animals and visualize corridors they will need to move.

The animated map and more information on the Cool Green Science web site.

Sam Crowe on September 26th, 2016

A widely used phrase for developing a bird-friendly yard is “habitat development.”  Plant a few trees, shrubs and flowers, add a water feature and you are done – habitat developed.

I prefer to think of my home, its two inhabitants and the surrounding yard, as a micro-ecosystem.   If a giant, and oddly shaped bell jar was placed over my home and small yard could I and the other creatures living there survive?  Obviously not, but I try to think along those lines.

To develop my micro-ecosystem I considered two things that work together.

1.  Use of safe, natural organic gardening products.  Avoid pesticides and harsh chemical fertilizers.
The most important part of my ecosystem starts underground.  Healthy soil is loaded with heaps of microbial life and critters like earthworms.  These underground denizens of my yard will do great things if I let them; as they feed on things like dead blades of grass and leaves.

And just as too much salt in the diet is not good for people, too much salt is not good for the those underground caretakers of the yard.  Chemical fertilizers act as a salt, either killing or driving beneficial underground life down deeper or away from where they can do the most good. Every good gardener knows good earth is the key to a good garden and that extends to the yard.

Pesticides are also a bad idea.  They kill good insects and have potentially bad effects on other wildlife.

I turn to Howard Garrett, AKA the Dirt Doctor for information on safe, organic gardening and yard management.  He has a great web site and his radio show is broadcast on over 200 stations across the country.

Howard Garrett the Dirt Doctor.

Howard Garrett the Dirt Doctor.

2. Native plants
For flowers, tress, shrubs etc I focus on the use of native plants.  I hired an expert on the native plants that do well in my north central Texas location.  He helped with the planning and selection of the plants and was able to supply many of the plantings.

Native species do well with less water and tend to be insect and disease resistant, helped along by the healthy soil in which they are grown.

Audubon has a great new web site for native plants.  Users enter their email address and zip code.  The results show  list of native plants for the area along with information on the birds attracted.

Audubon native plant database

Audubon native plant database


Audubon native plant database search results.

Audubon native plant database search results.

I am not where I want to be yet, but am always looking for ways to support my micro-ecosystem.  Composting is next on my list of things to do.

Sam Crowe on September 21st, 2016

One of the most interest facets of bird watching is studying bird behavior..  The behavior of a bird, including posture, the way they move, feed and fly can be distinctive enough to identify a bird just by its behavior.   Here are my five favorite bird behaviors, mostly learned early in my birding career, which is probably why I enjoy them so much.

1. Marsh Hawk
Many years ago I needed two hours to graduate from college. My botany professor, Dr. Bob Neal, offered to give me the credit if I would do some research for him and learn to identify 100 birds by sight and 25 by their call, and some more research.  I had never been birding before in my life.

On one of the first trips Dr. Neil identified a Marsh Hawk at a great distant, no binoculars needed.  It turned out the Marsh Hawk (now called the Northern Harrier) hunts by flying low over grassy fields.  I was impressed, also by the distinctive white rump of the hawk.  Of course I later learned that Short-eared Owls hunt in a similar fashion.

2.  Black Skimmer
An early trip to the Texas coast revealed a bird I had never heard of called a Black Skimmer.  Their unique bill and feeding style made this bird an easy ID for a beginner birder and a fascinating introduction into the world of unique bird behavior.

3.  Spotted Sandpiper
This bird stands out as a shorebird I identified by myself, far from the coast.  They are a rather plain looking bird when they visit Texas in the fall.   They bob as trey walk around but the more distinctive move to me was the way they fly.   Their seemingly stiff wings beat rapidly and show a thin white line across the back.  They seldom raise more than 3 feet or so when moving along a shore line or mud flat.

4.  Reddish Egret
Many years ago I was birding on the Texas coast in the company of a young lady,  She had been birding a few years but was not experienced with coastal specials.  She was trying to convince me that a Reddish Egret was really a Little Blue Heron.   I told her to be patient and watch the bird’s behavior.  If it started to hunt for food it would move around in what appeared to be a drunken, erratic manner.   It also might use its wings to shield light from the soon.  Right on time, the bird began to dance around in search of a fish.  That call paid dividends later that evening:)

5. Brown Pelican
Many years ago the Brown Pelican was almost extinct in the United States.  My first observation of this bird occurred on a lake near Dallas.  A very unusual inland record and at the time a very good record for the state.

Brown Pelicans have made a remarkable recovery and are one of my favorite birds to watch.   They will glide effortlessly along the surface of the ocean, sometimes seeming to fly in the trough between waves.  So smooth and graceful.

Their feeding style is what make them so spectacular.  As they soar high over the water in search of a fish that almost come to a stop before folding their wings and diving straight into the water.  A spectacular move i can watch for hours.

Sam Crowe on September 11th, 2016

Euphonias and chlorophonias are neotropical birds in the finch family.  They were previously placed in the tanager family.  DNA research has moved them to the finches but future research may change things again.

They are typically small, colorful birds about 4 inches long. They primarily feed on fruit and berries and will also take small insects. They have short tails and a chunky body.

Both groups are endemic to the Neotropics.

Chlorophonias are mostly green birds. There are only five recognized chlorophonia species.     The unusual bright green color make them one of my favorite, albeit very small, family of birds.

Yellow-collared chlorophonia
Blue-naped Chlorophonia
Chestnut-breasted Chlorophonia
Blue-crowned Chlorophonia
Golden-browed Chlorophonia


Blue-naped Chlorophonia


Golden-browed Chlorophonia

Golden-browed Chlorophonia

Male euphonias are often colorful, with dark metallic blue above, contrasting with yellows, and reds below.  Males and females are very different in appearance.  Females much duller.  There are 27 recognized species according to the 44th supplement of the AOU checklist.

Violaceous Euphonia

Violaceous Euphonia


Orange-bellied Euphonia

Orange-bellied Euphonia


Orange-bellied Euphonia female

Orange-bellied Euphonia, female


Chestnut-bellied Euphonia

Chestnut-bellied Euphonia

All photographs are by the outstanding nature and bird photographer Glenn Bartley.