Sam Crowe on March 18th, 2018

Did you know there was a sea in the mainland of the United States?  It is the Salton Sea and is located in southern California.

The Salton Sea is a shallow, saline, rift lake located directly on the San Andreas Fault, predominantly in California’s Imperial and Coachella valleys, east and a little north of San Diego.

The Salton Sea is more than 200 feet below sea level!  It has a surface area of about 350 square miles, but is shrinking rapidly.

The history of the Salton Sea is quite interesting and is described in Wikipedia.

The area alternates between a dry valley and a lake.  According to Wikipedia the cycle is about every 400-500 years.  In 1900 the area was dry.  The California Development Company began to construct irrigation canals to divert water into the Salton Sink.  In 1905 heavy rainfall and snow melt overran canals and flooding the area, creating the current iteration of the Salton Sea.

The Salton Sea has become an important nesting and wintering ground for many bird species.

Efforts are now underway to provide water to the sea. The following information from The Birding Community E-Bulletin describes some of the efforts.

“This may be a crucial year for the famous inland Salton Sea in Southern California, an Important Bird Area (IBA) of global significance. In the last five or so years, water level has dropped to the point that some nesting birds began abandoning entire colonial nesting sites, and shallow habitat areas at the water’s edge have begun to rapidly vanish, especially at the sea’s south end.

But starting last year, significant amounts of water (perhaps 40%) that enters the sea through adjacent agricultural fields began to be diverted elsewhere. The sea will continue to shrink, and this will become more obvious this year. State and federal officials will have to address these consequences as they impact bird habitat, boating recreation, and even human health (e.g. asthma increases with blowing dust). Impacts on birds includes the fact that the number of Eared Grebes is clearly declining, 30% of the continent’s American White Pelicans wintering at the sea are at risk, and the future status of many shorebirds wintering there is in question. As less water flows into the Salton Sea, it will become increasingly saline with resulting shrinkage, and eventually it could become inhospitable for many birds, fish, and insects.

A late-2016 report by Audubon California, Point Blue Conservation Science, and Cooper Ecological Monitoring, Inc. modeled the use of bird habitat at the Salton Sea using data collected in 1999 and 2015. The report’s recommendations could still become a standard for urgent sea conservation, and it can be found here.

Additional information on the issues is available on the Audubon web site.”

Sam Crowe on March 11th, 2018

Two of the big annual events in the birding world are coming up soon.

Great Texas Birding Classic
Registration is now open for teams wishing to enter the Great Texas Birding Classic. Tournament Dates: April 15 through May 15 (your choice of day).This is the 22nd year of this rapidly growing event. Participation is a great way to enjoy some excellent birding and an opportunity to explore new parts of Texas. Registration fees and sponsorship dollars go toward Conservation Grants for birding, nature tourism, and habitat restoration and enhancement projects throughout Texas. Select winning teams will help choose which projects are funded. The more teams that register, the more funds we can award!

Information is on The Great Texas Birding Classic web site.

PS – I participated in the very first Texas Birding Classic, hard to believe it has been 22 years.

World Series of Birding
The Grandaddy of all the birding contest is the World Series of Birding event put on by New Jersey Audubon. The event will be held May 12. all teams must be registered by April. 20th.

The gold of this year’s event is to raise $200,000 for bird conservation programs.

Visit their web site for additional information.

Sam Crowe on February 18th, 2018

Be a scientist for a week and learn how to contribute to science at home.
June 10 to 15, 2018

Act now if you want to register for a new program on Audubon’s Hog Island this summer. I have been to the area and it is beautiful and the programmers offered receive rave reviews.

Here’s info from their web site.

Learn about challenges birds face in our changing climate and what scientific techniques can help us better understand how birds will respond to these challenges. You will find out about the latest research news from scientists and work-side-by-side with experts from across the country. Whether you are interested in learning how to band birds, prepare museum-quality specimens, record bird song and other natural sounds, or census breeding birds, this session will give you hands-on experience with many facets of bird science. Your efforts will contribute to citizen science projects.

You will go home with a better understanding of citizen science projects in the bird world, and how you can utilize them in your backyard, at your school or your local Audubon chapter.

Sam Crowe on February 6th, 2018

The New Caledonian crow is the only non-human animal known to craft hooked tools in the wild, but the ecological benefit of these relatively complex tools remains unknown. Here, we show that crows acquire food several times faster when using hooked rather than non-hooked tools, regardless of tool material, prey type and extraction context. This implies that small changes to tool shape can strongly affect energy-intake rates, highlighting a powerful driver for technological advancement.

From Nature Ecology and Evolution

Sam Crowe on January 13th, 2018

2018, marks the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the most powerful and important bird-protection law ever passed. In honor of this milestone, nature lovers around the world are joining forces to celebrate the “Year of the Bird” and commit to protecting birds today and for the next hundred years.

Support is coming from a wide-range of organizations. Visit the National Geographic Web site to see supports of the Year of the Bird and how you can participate.

Adult Bald Eagle

Adult Bald Eagle

The Department of Homeland Security has announced that the first new section of the proposed border wall at the Lower Rio Grande Valley (LRGV) in South Texas will be at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge.

The proposed 2.9-mile section of wall at Santa Ana NWR would be constructed in a 10-mile gap in the existing barrier. The wall would be 30 feet tall with additional 18 feet of steel bollard fence atop it. Additionally, there would be a cleared 150-foot enforcement zone stripped of vegetation immediately to the south of the wall. This zone would include a road and surveillance towers with floodlighting. On either end of this imposing construction, there would be no wall. That’s right, no wall.

The Santa Ana segment is projected to cost $45 million – approximately $15 million per mile – and is slated to be completed by July 2019, according to Army Corps of Engineers records acquired by the Texas Observer and described in a highly revealing article (along with excellent maps and illustrations). It is still uncertain what the fate of the refuge and access to it would be after this construction. Construction would likely begin in 2018.

Santa Ana NWR has been long been referred to as “the jewel of the National Wildlife Refuge System.” The refuge was originally created in 1943 to protect migratory birds, and almost 95% of the property has been acquired through Stamp/MBCF dollars. The refuge is an important stopover site for many species on the Central Flyway. Some 400 bird species have been seen there, including “South Texas specialties,” as well as 450 species of plants, and it hosts both the rare Texas sabal palm and the endangered ocelot. Other wildlife species – from rare mammals to herps and butterflies – call the area home.

Elsewhere in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, the National Butterfly Center, a non-profit sanctuary and wildlife center, recently filed a lawsuit in Washington D.C. against the Department of Homeland Security demanding that the Trump administration conduct federally required environmental assessments, and follow the constitution and legal due process before attempting to build a border wall through their 100-acre nature and wildlife sanctuary.

According to those Army Corps of Engineers documents recently acquired, the wall also would cut through other valuable nearby habitats and properties, such as the Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park.

Let your members of Congress know where you stand on this issue. You can find phone and e-mail information for your Representative and Senators through their websites for the House and Senate. Don’t put this off. The process is currently playing out, and action now is of the essence.

Sam Crowe on December 18th, 2017

Some interesting news about the Passenger Pigeon.

A study released last month in Science sheds new light on the possible reasons for the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon. A team of researchers has suggested that “Natural selection shaped the rise and fall of passenger pigeon genomic diversity. Of course, it is now well known that the now-extinct Passenger Pigeon was once the most abundant bird in North America, or perhaps even on Earth, and that it was ultimately hunted to extinction. But wholesale market hunting is only one causal explanation. Gemma Murray and her colleagues examined the genomes of Passenger Pigeon samples from different locales throughout the species’ range. They concluded that a reduction in genetic diversity provided few avenues for the bird to respond to serious human pressures. It may be that it was population instability that seriously contributed to this species’ surprisingly rapid extinction. Natural selection may have played a role in the pigeons’ extinction, with the birds well-adapted to living in large populations, but not in situations where their numbers were much smaller. (From the Birding Community E-bulletin).

For a quick review of some of the pros and cons of this theory, you can go to an NPR story from All Things Considered:

But the Passenger Pigeon story my not be over.  An organization called Revive and Restore is undertaking the task of restoring the Passenger Pigeon. Phase one of their three phases is completed, and includes:

Phase 1 – Since 2012, through through their collaborative partnership with the UCSC Paleogenomics Lab, they have:

Sequenced DNA from 37 Passenger Pigeons, including 2 whole genomes;

Sequenced, assembled, and publicly released a high quality reference genome for the Band-tailed Pigeon;

Made valuable scientific discoveries of the species’ evolution and population genomics.

Not only have they discovered that the Passenger Pigeon was a well adapted, resilient, and ancient bird, they have identified some of the first genes that may help revive the species.

In 2017, they welcomed aboard a new project partner to sequence and research more genomes for Passenger Pigeon de-extinction, the Center for Genome Architecture at Rice University’s Baylor College of Medicine.

Using the Band-tailed Pigeon as the host species the organization hopes to produce a living Passenger Pigeon by 2025.

Sam Crowe on December 7th, 2017

Despite Benjamin Franklin’s efforts to enshrine the Wild Turkey as our national symbol, the Bald Eagle was selected instead. The large, majestic adult Bald Eagle, dark in color save for the pure white head and tail, is familiar even to non birders. After a brush with extinction following the widespread use of the chlorinated hydrocarbon pesticide DDT, the Bald Eagle has made a remarkable comeback, due mostly to the banning of DDT, but also as a result of successful reintroduction efforts. Today, among the lower 48 U.S. states, only two states do not currently have nesting Bald Eagles. Nesting populations in the southern U.S. are supplemented in winter by a large influx of northern birds abandoning frozen lakes and rivers that make the Bald Eagle’s fishing habits impossible during several months of the year. Observers along major river systems such as the Missouri and Mississippi, and observers in southern states with large numbers of impoundments such as Oklahoma, have no trouble seeing Bald Eagles, especially during the winter months.

Adult Bald Eagle

Adult Bald Eagle


Adult Golden Eagle

Adult Golden Eagle


Golden Eagle in flight

Golden Eagle in flight

Another species of eagle, the Golden Eagle, is actually more closely related to the buteo hawks than to the Bald Eagle, and is also quite widespread in winter. Though rare in the southeastern U.S., the Golden Eagle can potentially be seen almost anywhere in the lower 48 states during the winter months, the same time at which Bald Eagles are most numerous there. While adult Bald Eagles are quite distinctive and pose little in the way of identification difficulties, both species of eagles have distinctive transitional plumages over a period of several years before maturity is reached, something that also occurs in gulls and a few other species. It is these younger birds that may cause birders to take a second look when a large raptor with the size, bearing, and behavior of an eagle flies overhead.

Juvenile Bald Eagle

Juvenile Bald Eagle

Plumage features to note on an eagle other than an adult Bald include the amount and distribution of white in the tail and the undersides of the wings. Juvenile (first winter) Golden Eagles typically have distinctive, discrete white patches near the outer ends of the wings, dark axillaries and coverts, and a white-based tail with dark terminal band. First winter Bald Eagles have widespread white mottling on the undersides of the wings, especially on the axillaries and coverts, while the belly is brown. The underside of the tail is often largely white, though less pure and pronounced white than in Golden Eagles. Second through forth year Golden Eagles look much more like adult Golden Eagles, i.e., they have relatively little white in the wings and tail. Second winter Bald Eagles have even more extensive white on the undersides than first winter birds, with the white not being limited to the wings and tail but also including the belly. Over the next two to three years, they gradually attain the dark body and wings, and white head and tail, of mature Bald Eagles. The golden nape of Golden Eagles is present in all age groups, and is another useful plumage feature to look for.
Differences in shape can also be useful in distinguishing Bald and Golden Eagles, even when lighting is bad or the bird is distant. The head of a Bald Eagle in flight appears rather large, while Golden Eagles appear small-headed by comparison. The wings of Bald Eagles appear somewhat straighter and narrower than those of Golden Eagles, which have broader secondaries creating a “bulge” in the rear edge of the wings.
Finally, though not definitive given the wide ranging nature of these large raptors, Bald Eagles are primarily fish eaters and are usually found near large bodies of water, while Golden Eagles are primarily mammal eaters, and are usually found in open country. Careful scrutiny of each eagle in winter may result in an unexpected addition to the day’s bird list.

Thanks to Dan Reinken for this information.

Sam Crowe on November 26th, 2017

Learning to identify the songs and call notes of the birds you see in your backyard can be lots of fun. Start by trying to create an association with the songs that you hear.

Some birds say their name. The chickadee’s song is an easily recognized chick-a-dee-dee-dee.

Some birds have songs that remind people of easy-to-remember phrases:

Carolina Wren: Tea kettle – tea kettle – tea kettle
White-throated Sparrow: Poor Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody
Tufted Titmouse: Peter, peter, peter (Although I think it sounds more like kitty, kitty, kitty.)
Barred Owl: Who cooks for you-all, you-all.

Sometimes you can relate one bird’s song to another. Many are familiar with the singing of the northern mockingbird. The brown thrasher can have a similar sounding song but usually repeats it’s phrases only twice, while mockingbirds repeat their song phrases several times.

Sam Crowe on November 19th, 2017

Noting the color of the iris can help identify or age a bird.

Most birds have a black pupil surrounded by a dark brown iris.  This is not always the case.  The color of the iris can change based on age or sex of the bird. Other species have a notable eye color.

Red eyes
The Red-eyed Vireo was named for the color of its eye.

Red-eyed Vireo

Red-eyed Vireo

Red eyes are not that unusual in birds. The Spotted Towhee, American Coot and several dove species also have red eyes.

Spotted Towhee

Spotted Towhee

White eyes
The White-eyed Vireo is well known for its bright, white eye.

White-eyed Vireo

White-eyed Vireo

Most owls have yellow eyes. However, both Barred and Barn Owls have dark brown eyes.

Great-horned Owl

Great-horned Owl


Barred Owl

Barred Owl

Age-related changes in eye color
Eye color may change with age. The three accipiter species found in the U.S. are the Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk and Northern Goshawk. In all three of these species the eyes of juveniles are yellow, gradually turning orange and then red in the adult.

Cooper's Hawk

Cooper’s Hawk

Gender differences
In a few species males and females will have a different eye color. For example, the adult male Brewer’s Blackbird has yellow eyes while females have dark eyes.

Male Brewer's Blackbird

Male Brewer’s Blackbird


Female Brewer's Blackbird

Female Brewer’s Blackbird