ABA Birder’s Guide Magazine

13147854_1112297072147158_6121386051175132453_oI was contacted last year to contribute an essay to the ABA’s Birder’s Guide to Conservation & Community (the link seems to work from my phone but not from my laptop) on the subject of being a woman and/or young birder in a community made up mostly of men, and increasing female leadership in birding. I’d like to thank my friend Jody Allair at Bird Studies Canada for suggesting me as a contributor.

You can read the “sneak peak” for the issue here, see the table of contents here, and join the conversation on the subject at the ABA blog here. There’s also an article on starting young as a birder which I’m looking forward to reading.

I was honoured to be asked and to have my thoughts added to this publication along with so many influential women birders — Shanin Abreu, Elsa Alvear Rodríguez, Megan Crewe, Shawneen Finnegan, Melissa Hafting, Alvaro Jaramillo, Kimberly Kaufman, J. Drew Lanham, Maureen Leong-Kee, Ann Nightingale, Debi Shearwater, and Lili Taylor.

You can read all of the articles at the American Birding Association’s website (again, the link seems to work from my phone but not from my laptop at the moment), or in your printed copy if you are a member of the ABA.

Birding with Rick Mercer

I love watching The Rick Mercer Report on Tuesday nights, so when I found out that Bird Studies Canada (BSC) was going to be on the show I was very excited. Bird Studies Canada is a very special place to me, doing work I consider very important, so it’s wonderful to know that more people will learn about this wonderful organization and its staff.

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From left, Steven Price, Rick Mercer, Jody Allair, and Stuart Mackenzie at Bird Studies Canada, Port Rowan; photo by Elaine Secord.

For those who don’t know about The Rick Mercer Report or its host, Rick Mercer is a Canadian satirist, author, and television personality. The show, on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation), is in its 11th season, and we try to watch it every Tuesday.

The Rick Mercer Report crew visited the Bird Studies Canada headquarters in Port Rowan, Ontario for a tapping on October 25th and 26th. Rick met President of BSC Steven Price and my friends Jody Allair and Stuart Mackenzie, who showed him around and introduced him to all the great conservation projects BSC is involved in including the migration monitoring research at the Long Point Bird Observatory (LPBO).

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From left, Jody Allair, Rick Mercer, and Stuart Mackenzie at Bird Studies Canada, Port Rowan; photo by Elaine Secord.

Jody, BSC Biologist and Science Educator, was the main guide for the day, showing Rick and his crew around and talking to them about bird research and conservation – and some aspects of what BSC does, and why. The RMR crew also spoke with BSC’s president Steven Price about Bird Studies Canada and conservation. And Stu, LPBO Program Manager, was co-leader for the portion of the visit where they learned about migration monitoring.

Vortex Canada generously donated a pair of Viper HD binoculars to Rick, who didn’t have his own pair.

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Stuart Mackenzie and Rick Mercer at the Old Cut banding station in Port Rowan, looking at a White-throated Sparrow; photo by Elaine Secord.

The visit will air on the The Rick Mercer Report on CBC-TV, Tuesday, December 1st at 8 pm (8:30 NL). If you can’t watch the show on Tuesday, you can catch it online following the broadcast by visiting The Rick Mercer Report’s YouTube channel.

Peterson Guide to Owls

IMG_0964Last week’s mail was very bird-themed*, in part because I received a copy of the new Peterson Guide to Owls of North America and the Caribbean by Scott Weidensaul, sent by my good friend Ray from the radio show, Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds.

(If you’re not familiar with Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds, it’s a live radio show from Massachusetts about birds, birding, and conservation. The show airs Sundays at 9:30 am (Eastern time). You can listen live from anywhere in the world through the WATD website. If you can’t listen live, all of the past shows are available on the website and iTunes. If you’re looking for a birding show or podcast to listen to, Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds is excellent and you might even win a Droll Yankees feeder for their Mystery Bird contest!)

I just had time to page through the book quickly, and noted some very good photos of owls by a number of photographers, including from my friend Christian Artuso in Manitoba (Christian has a Ph.D. in Environmental Science, did his thesis on Eastern Screech-Owls, and is the Manitoba Program Manager for Bird Studies Canada). I’m hoping to read the book and write a review before the end of this month.

Thank you for the great book, Ray! Some readers might remember that I had the incredible opportunity to meet Ray and the Talkin’ Bird’s crew one year ago this month when I traveled with my father to Washington, DC to be a part of Ray’s 500th episode. For the past year, I’ve also been part of the show with a “Charlotte’s Weblog” segment every other week, which includes my sightings from here in Alberta as well as information for young birders and naturalists.

*Also in the mailbox: the latest issue of BirdWatch Canada from Bird Studies Canada, the Birder’s Guide to Listing & Taxonomy from the American Birding Association, and two new digiscoping adapters!

An Interview with Kristen Marini on her new Birding Game

Kirsten Marini, in her second year of the Master of Environmental Science program at Thompson Rivers University (TRU) in Kamloops, B.C., has developed a game to help train birders doing “point count” surveys on birds, and is looking for volunteers to test the training program.

The game consists of an initial challenge, then a set of smaller challenges of increasing difficulty, and a final challenge to see how much the birder has improved by the end. The birding game involves listening to a variety of bird songs during a five minute period, so you’ll need a media player such as a smartphone, laptop, or tablet.

If you want to play the game, email Kristen at kristen-marini AT mytru DOT ca and she’ll send you the full instructions on October 30th. The game officially starts on November 2nd and runs until mid-December.

I’m happy to have been able to interview Kristen for this post, and I hope you enjoy the opportunity to learn more about the game. Hopefully readers will be interested in helping Kristen by taking part in her study!

Prairie Birder: Tell me a little bit about yourself, please, including your studies.

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With my dads’ tame pigeon, this one is a couple years old but is a favourite of mine.

Kristen: I’m in my second year of the Master of Environmental Science program at Thompson Rivers University (TRU) in Kamloops, B.C., studying how urbanization affects the reproductive success and song of Mountain Chickadees. For that, I spend the spring and early summer monitoring breeding chickadees in both urban and rural habitats, and measuring how well their offspring grow and survive. I also record males while they are singing during the dawn chorus to see how song changes in urban environments. I’ve only just started the analysis of my data, so I don’t quite know yet if chickadees are affected by urbanization.

At the same time I am working in partnership with Golder Associates to develop a distance estimation training program that they can use to improve both the species identification accuracy and distance estimation abilities of their employees who are doing bird point count surveys. This is what the bird game is ultimately for!

When I’m not at school working on one of these projects, I like going out hiking with my dachshunds, kayaking, and trying to learn how to rock climb!

These are some 6 day old mountain chickadee nestlings. We band them with a unique CWS band, then weigh and measure them every 3 days until they are 12 days old.

“These are some six-day old mountain chickadee nestlings. We band them with a unique CWS band, then weigh and measure them every three days until they are 12 days old.” (Photo courtesy Kristen Marini)

A 9 day old mountain chickadee nestling. By 9 days they are starting to look more like birds, their flight feathers are starting to erupt, and most of their body feathers are filling in. This little guy has a silver CWS band on his right leg so that we can re-identify him, and a PIT tag on his left leg so that we can track his movements.

“A nine-day old Mountain Chickadee nestling. By nine days, they are starting to look more like birds, their flight feathers are starting to erupt, and most of their body feathers are filling in. This little guy has a silver CWS band on his right leg so that we can re-identify him, and a PIT tag on his left leg so that we can track his movements.” (Photo courtesy Kristen Marini)

PB: How and when did you first become interested in birding?

Kristen: I’ve always been interested in nature and animals, doing lots of camping and hiking when I was growing up, but I only really became seriously interested in birding about four or five years ago. I started a research project with a really amazing professor at TRU, Dr. Matt Reudink, looking at how habitat influences colour in American Redstart feathers. Matt loves birds, and is so knowledgeable and enthusiastic about them, it really got me interested in learning more about birds. The first time I held a bird, probably a little Mountain Chickadee, I was hooked and I knew I wanted to keep studying birds.

PB: For your current M.Sc. research project, you’ve developed a birding game to help birders sharpen their identification skills. How did you come up with this idea? How does the game fit into your research project?

Kristen: I created this birding game as part of a project I am working on for Golder Associates [a civil/geotechnical and environmental consulting corporation]. They were looking for ways to improve the distance estimation accuracy and species identification skills of their employees, so that when they are out doing point count surveys, they can be as accurate as possible. Initially, I came up with a training program consisting of two tests set up to simulate what a real point count would be like, and a training tape for volunteers to listen to. The results show that people did improve and become more accurate after training, but many volunteers had a hard time completing the training because it wasn’t very interactive or engaging.

So we came up with a game! There are still two tests, an initial test (to assess the baseline volunteers’ skills) and a final test at the end (to see how much they’ve improved by), but the training now consists of a set of small, themed challenges, that start off easy and become increasingly more difficult. As volunteers complete these challenges they will get personalized feedback, and maybe a few cheesy bird puns.

I’m hoping that by creating more game-like training, volunteers will be more engaged and motivated to compete against themselves and finish the game.

Kristen and a Cedar Waxwing that the volunteers at the Iona Beach banding station let me hold a couple weeks ago.

“With a Cedar Waxwing that the volunteers at the Iona Beach [BC] banding station let me hold a couple weeks ago.” (Photo courtesy Kristen Marini)

PB: Can anyone participate in the game, and how long should it take to play? Are there levels available for beginning birders, intermediate birders, and advanced birders?

Kristen: Anyone who is interested is welcome to participate! It is a bit of a challenge, I initially geared the overall difficulty level toward people who are fairly experienced birders doing point count surveys as part of their job, but I have had fairly inexperienced birders successfully complete the training. Because each birder is competing against themselves, there is no minimum experience requirement, I just ask that volunteers self-assess their skills before beginning and rank themselves as either a beginner, intermediate, or expert birder. The total time required to complete the game will vary with each birder, as each volunteer is instructed to train until they feel ready to move on. It could be from as little as 1.5 hours for someone who is already very comfortable with identifying birds by song, up to around six or eight hours for someone who is less experienced.

PB: You’re targeting boreal forest species, and Canada Warbler and Olive-sided Flycatcher, in the game. Can you tell us why you’re focusing on these species?

Kristen: Many of the point counts are being conducted by Golder are in the boreal forests of northern Alberta, so these species were chosen to be representative of what their employees would encounter while out conducting a point count survey.

A mountain chickadee that we just finished banding.

A Mountain Chickadee that we just finished banding. (Photo courtesy Kristen Marini)

PB: How will you analyze the results at the end of the study period?

Kristen: At the end of the study, I will basically be looking at two main things: how did species identification accuracy change and how did distance estimation accuracy change? By comparing each volunteer’s score before and after training, I will be able to assess how the skills of each volunteer changed, as well as how each skill class (beginner, intermediate, or expert) changed overall.

Based on the results from the first time I tried this, what I’m expecting to see is that after training birders will be able to correctly identify more species as well as estimate the distances to these species more accurately.

PB: Do you think you might turn the game into an app or computer program?

Kristen: This is something that we talked about doing, but with the time line and budget for my project, turning it into an app or online game just wasn’t feasible.

Thank you, Kristen, for telling us more about your project. As a reminder, for anyone interested in helping Kristen test the program, please contact her by Friday, October 30th at kristen-marini AT mytru DOT ca

2015-2016 Winter Finch Forecast

Every year, Ontario ornithologist Ron Pittaway analyzes the seed and berry crops of the boreal forest to predict the movements of winter finches. Certain species will move south or stay in their usual wintering grounds. This year’s Winter Finch Forecast predicts several species will stay in northern Canada for winter as the food supply is relatively good, but others might move south.

However, it’s a good idea to take the forecast with a grain of salt, as some species might move further south than predicted. Have your feeders full and ready, just in case.

General Forecast: This winter, spruce seed specialists such as White-winged Crossbills and Pine Siskins should be concentrated in eastern and western North America where cone crops are heaviest. Northwestern Quebec and Ontario have the least spruce cone abundance with only poor to good crops. Conifer crops including on ornamentals are heavier in southern Ontario and could attract finches. Common Redpolls may move into southern Ontario because birch seed crops are low to average in northern Canada. A small flight of Evening Grosbeaks is expected in the East because of increasing numbers due to expanding spruce budworm outbreaks in Quebec. Pine Grosbeaks also should move south in small numbers because the mountain-ash berry crop is below average in northern Ontario. Expect a scattering of Red Crossbills across the East this winter.

You can read the full 2015-2016 Winter Finch Forecast here.

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#WeaselPecker

Last week, as you might of seen a bird and mammal photo was all over the internet and television. The photo is of a young Least Weasel “riding” a Eurasian Green Woodpecker, and was taken by Martin Le-May, an amateur photographer in Britain and posted to his Twitter account.

Here is how Mr. Le-May recalled his sighting when he spoke to ITV News on March 2nd.

It was a sunny afternoon, with the occasional cloud making the Hornchurch Country Park seem that grey brown dull winter colour even though it was the 2nd March.

My wife, Ann, and I had gone for a walk. I had hoped that she might see a green woodpecker as she has not really seen one before.

As we walked we heard a distressed squawking and I saw that flash of green. So hurriedly I pointed out to Ann the bird and it settled into the grass behind a couple of small silver birch trees. Both of us trained our binoculars and it occurred that the woodpecker was unnaturally hopping about like it was treading on a hot surface. Lots of wing flapping showing that gloriously yellow/white colour interspersed with the flash of red head feathers. Just after I switched from my binoculars to my camera the bird flew across us and slightly in our direction; suddenly it was obvious it had a small mammal on its back and this was a struggle for life.

The woodpecker landed in front of us and I feared the worst. I guess though our presence, maybe 25 metres away, momentarily distracted the weasel. The woodpecker seized the opportunity and flew up and away into some bushes away to our left. Quickly the bird gathered its self respect and flew up into the trees and away from our sight.

The woodpecker left with its life, the weasel just disappeared into the long grass, hungry.

Eurasian Green Woodpeckers spend lots of time on the ground searching for ants which makes them vulnerable to predators such as weasels.

Least Weasels are ferocious predators, but usually hunt small mammals like mice and voles. Occasionally they will also take down other prey including rabbits, frogs, and birds.

Mr. Le-May’s photo caused such a stir that people started using the hashtag #WeaselPecker on Twitter.

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Photograph by Martin Le-May, 2015

There was much debate about whether the photo was a fake and/or Photoshopped. Hany Farid who’s a professor of computer science at Dartmouth College, who researches digital forensics and image analysis, told National Geographic,

This would have required a nearly perfect and coincidental alignment of the two animals in their original photos so that they could be composited together… This type of forgery is therefore more difficult to create than, for example, two animals simply standing side-by-side.”

Here are two other photos by Mr. Le-May from that day,

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Photograph by Martin Le-May, 2015

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Photograph by Martin Le-May, 2015

Looking for Canada’s National Bird

While Canada has a national tree, horse, and animal, it doesn’t have a national bird.

The Royal Canadian Geographical Society, and its magazine Canadian Geographic, believe that it’s time to remedy this oversight and so have started a national campaign to establish Canada’s national bird, The National Bird Project, by asking Canadians to vote for their favourite species.

There are 40 bird species that you can choose to vote for, from the Harris’s Sparrow to the Northern Goshawk.

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So far, the Common Loon is in the lead with the most number of votes, with the Snowy Owl not far behind it.

NBPscreenshotThe winning species will be announced in Canadian Geographic’s next annual wildlife issue, and the RCGS and magazine will then promote it in the hopes that it will be named the official bird of Canada in time for the country’s 150th birthday on July 1, 2017.

If you’re having a hard time choosing a bird to vote, then read this excellent article about “A Case for the ‘Underbird”, by my friend Jody Allair, a biologist and science educator at Bird Studies Canada.

“This Hour Has 22 Minutes” recently featured a segment on the campaign, which you can see here.

Vote for your favourite bird here and maybe it will become Canada’s national species!