Evening Photography

I went for a drive one evening at the end of April with the intent of photographing the nearby one-room school house in the beautiful evening light, but I saw some good birds as well.

There were lots of Snow Geese, Canada Geese, and Northern Pintails feeding in our field and in the neighbours’; Northern Shovelers, Buffleheads, American Avocets, Lesser Yellowlegs, Tree Swallows, Snow Buntings, and a Red-tailed Hawk were also around.

A pair of Buffleheads,

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Nikon D610, handheld, f5.6, 1/500, ISO 160, Nikkor 200-500mm, natural light

Northern Shovelers,

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Nikon D610, handheld, f5.6, 1/400, ISO 160, Nikkor 200-500mm, natural light

Driving down one of the back roads, there was a big raptor sitting on a fence post, and it was a Peregrine Falcon! I took a few photos before it flew off. This is the second Peregrine I’ve seen in the area. The last and first one I saw was in September last year.

The Peregrine Falcon — such a stately bird,

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Nikon D610, handheld, f5.6, 1/400, ISO 160, Nikkor 200-500mm, natural light

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Nikon D610, handheld, f5.6, 1/400, ISO 160, Nikkor 200-500mm, natural light

A view of the school from distance,

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Nikon D610, handheld, f6.3, 1/640, ISO 100, Nikkor 200-500mm, natural light

I switched my 200-500 mm lens to the 50mm lens to better photograph the school. A Great Horned Owl was sitting in the back window of the school, and because of the lens switch, I didn’t get very good photos.

The departing Great Horned Owl,

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Nikon D610, handheld, f1.4D, 1/400, ISO 160, Nikkor 50mm, natural light

The quaint Chatsworth School,

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Nikon D610, handheld, f1.4D, 1/500, ISO 125, Nikkor 50mm, natural light

Two Rock Pigeons then flew out the windows, and that pretty much concluded the birding for the evening.

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Nikon D610, handheld, f1.4D, 1/1,000, ISO 320, Nikkor 50mm, natural light

Book Review: Birding For the Curious

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There are a lot of volumes geared toward new birders, but Nate Swick’s first book, Birding for the Curious: The Easiest Way for Anyone to Explore the Incredible World of Birds, is perhaps the only book ever written for non-birders. This is the perfect book for gardeners, armchair naturalists, and others who find themselves considering birding as a hobby.

Nate’s knowledge and enthusiastic style makes birding seem very easy and appealing for non-birders. while the book is intended for adults, it would also be the perfect book for older kids. While Nate is an experienced birder who writes at his The Drinking Bird blog, is the editor for the American Birding Association’s blog, and is a contributor for the 10,000 Birds blog, his new book offers is a very gentle introduction, an easy and unintimidating first step, to birding.

The book has 10 chapters, which covers such subjects as using a field guide, choosing binoculars, the basics of identifying birds, and citizen science. The chapters aren’t very long, but the information provided is solid and very useful. Each chapter has at least one “activity”, such as going on a bird walk or learning how to pish.

Nate is a big user and advocate of eBird and writes about it in the book, even devoting two “activities” to learning how to submit sightings to, and finding birds with, eBird. However, he mentions only one birding app (BirdLog), and while I do understand that new apps are being released all the time (and others are going through changes), the book could have benefited from a list of basic birding apps that would be helpful to new, especially younger birders.

The book has a few photographs as well as watercolour illustrations. The latter are fairly unusual for books of this nature. But I think they work well with the subject and also with Nate’s style of writing, encouraging the reader to pick up a field guide and learn more about birds.

As an entry level birding book, Birding for the Curious is an excellent choice anyone looking for a gentle introduction to a hobby that is a passion for so many of us. The book is available as a hardcover (which is perfect for schools and libraries) and as an eBook, which makes it very portable. This would make an excellent gift for the beginning or young birder in your life.

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Thank you very much to Page Street Publishing for providing me with a review copy.

Birding with Bird Boy

Just a few hours before we left last week on our last-minute ski trip to the mountains, I emailed my friend Ethan, whom you might know already as Bird Boy, to let him know I’d be in the area and ask about birding around Banff and Canmore.

As it happened, Ethan and his family were just returning from a trip of their own, so the timing was perfect. Ethan has a couple of posts on his blog about birding in England — you can find them here and here. Ethan’s family invited us to dinner on our last evening and the next morning before we headed out, Ethan showed me around Canmore for some birding. Thank you all very much for your hospitality, a very enjoyable evening, and all the birding!

Ethan and I walked along some of Canmore’s trails and talked about being young birders, the birds we still need to see, and the feral rabbits that are taking over the town!

Along with Banff, Canmore is very nature and outdoor-centric, so there are many good natural areas and walking trails in the city. We saw Mallards, Pine Siskins, Mountain Chickadees, Northern Flicker, Coyote, Red Squirrels, a Pileated Woodpecker, and more. You can find our full eBird checklist here.

The Mallards provided us with some good photography chances and while we watched them, a coyote walked by on the other side of the bank,DSC_1457DSC_1463DSC_1453DSC_1449Mountain Chickadees are more prevalent than Boreal Chickadees, but we got to see a few Boreals up close and I got this shot,DSC_1476Ethan was a terrific guide and it was so nice to spend time birding with him. It’s now your turn, Ethan, to come visit here in the Lakeland region and I’ll show you Sprague’s Pipits, Sandhill Cranes, and maybe a Harris’s Sparrow!IMG_0009

10 Days in the North

Last month, I enjoyed a wonderful 10-day trip to the Northwest Territories (NWT) with 4-H, and even got to do some birding. I hope you don’t mind a little bit of a 4-H detour before I get to the birds I saw!

Back in May, I headed down to Olds, Alberta, to participate in my first 4-H Selections. Selections is a program for senior Alberta 4-H members, from 16 to 20 years old. It’s a little like camp but more about personal development. At Selections this year, there were 103 members at Selections this year who had applied and been chosen for the program.

At Selections, members are scored on their 4-H Diary (members fill out a dairy each year to keep track of their 4-H career, because for every event you attend you receive points — and the more points you have, the higher you rank at Selections). During the program, members are also judged by the group facilitators and peers, and their knowledge of 4-H is tested with a quiz. Everything combined creates a ranking for the program.

At the end of the long weekend, I was honoured to be chosen as one of six members in the Premier’s Award Group. All six of us became 4-H Ambassadors for the province, for a two-year term. I didn’t receive the Premier’s Award, but I am thrilled  to be part of the group of six and to be able to represent 4-H as an ambassador.

At Selections, members are also awarded a variety of trips — for example, to Ottawa, California, Washington, DC, and the Northwest Territories. All of the trips are in conjunction with a 4-H event except for the Northwest Territories trip, which is a camping and agricultural tour. At the beginning of the program, each member ranks the trips in order of personal preference. I put down the 10-day Northwest Territories camping trip as my first choice as I’d never been before, camping is right up my alley, and it was a good time during my summer job to go.

At the awards ceremony, the NWT trip was the last to be awarded and I was over the moon to get a spot with 21 other members.

I highly recommend attending Selections to any 4-H members, as you meet some wonderful new friends and might even get an award or two out of the program.

In mid-August, my parents drove me to Edmonton, where the 4-H members and our chaperones boarded a bus and started the drive north to our destination — Yellowknife, NWT. We camped at each stop — Queen Elizabeth Campground, Hay River Territorial Park, Fred Henne Territorial Park, Twin Falls Gorge Territorial Park, Last Lake Guest House (absolutely charming!), Tangent Park Campground, and the Carson-Pegasus Campground.

We stopped at Hutch Lake, Alberta on our second day for our lunch break. The lake was beautiful and very clear. The Mallards were certainly enjoying it,

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A view of Hutch Lake,

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We made it!

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Common Ravens are very common in the NWT. I saw them everywhere and because they are important to the First Nations culture, they are very popular in the local art,IMG_9343

On the trip we stopped at a number of waterfalls, one of my favourite parts of the trip. This one is Alexandra Falls,IMG_9299IMG_9301IMG_9312IMG_9318IMG_9319

In Yellowknife, we camped at the Fred Henne Territorial Campground. It’s a very nice campground and the views from the Prospector Trail are beautiful.

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A view of Great Slave Lake from the trail,IMG_9415IMG_9397

The Fred Henne campground was very good for birding. I added Common Loon, Pine Siskin, and Belted Kingfishers to my Year List and three species — Hudsonian Godwit  and Gray Jay — to my Life List. Unfortunately, I was the only birder on the trip.

The Gray Jays were very inquisitive and came close to our campsite,IMG_9402

This Herring Gull was sitting on rocks along the shore of the Great Slave Lake in Yellowknife,IMG_9347

A juvenile Ring-billed Gull,IMG_9353

I’ve seen the Northern Lights before at home, but their vibrancy was nothing like what we saw in the NWT. The Northern Lights are famous for “dancing” in the sky and we certainly saw them do so,IMG_9432IMG_9439IMG_9432IMG_9422

In Yellowknife, we walked around Old Town and did some shopping and sightseeing. On one of the large rock formations, you can see the Common Raven design,IMG_9452IMG_9455

We said goodbye to the city by taking a photo in front of the Yellowknife sign,IMG_9460

We were all sleeping on the bus when we could feel our bus driver slam on the brakes. Looking out the window, we could see a mother Black Bear and her cub — everyone was wide awake at this point and trying to get photos of the two before they disappeared in the trees,IMG_9474IMG_9480Another roadside mammal we saw from the bus was a bull Woods Bison, grazing in the ditch,IMG_9469IMG_9467

We saw this sign about the bison earlier on the trip,IMG_9372

The waterfalls seemed to be situated perfectly for bathroom breaks! We got out of the bus and walked down the trail to view Lady Evelyn Falls.

If you look closely at the middle of the photo, right above the water, you can see two Red-breasted Mergansers flying — another species for my Year List.IMG_9489IMG_9483IMG_9488

The last falls we visited were Louise Falls,IMG_9500IMG_9499IMG_9506IMG_9507IMG_9517IMG_9514

On the way back to Edmonton, we toured historic Dunvegan, near Fairview, Alberta.  The Dunvegan area was first occupied by the Beaver First Nations people. European explorers arrived in the late 18th century and Fort Dunvegan, named after Dunvegan Castle in Scotland, was established in 1805 by the North West Company.

The Peace River,

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We spent our last full day heading to the Carson-Pegasus Campground near Whitecourt, Alberta. When walking around the campground, I saw over 30 Common Loons on the lake. You can view my eBird checklist from the campground here

Sunset over the lake at Carson-Pegasus,IMG_9576

I had a wonderful time on my trip and was sad to say goodbye to friends, new and old, and some new favourite places.IMG_9583

Birding at la Plaine de Sorques

A short drive from the house where we stayed, on rue Renoult in the village of Bourron-Marlotte (near Fontainebleau, south of Paris), is the Plaine de Sorques near the village of Montigny-sur-Loing. The Plaine is a protected nature conservation area, with two bird observatories overlooking the marsh.

From the parking lot, it’s a short walk to each of the observatories, but the closest observatory seems to be the main one and is very popular with birders and nature photographers in the area. One birder told my mother that the sightings at the first observatory tend to be better “75 percent of the time”! IMG_7175

Unfortunately, it was cloudy on both days that we visited Sorques, which wasn’t ideal for photography, but I got some decent photos.

Here’s the first observatory. As you enter the covered observatory, you can look out the (glassless) windows to the vast marsh beyond.

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There were two other birders who were scanning for birds on the water. Any time they would see something of interest, they’d call me over so I could take a look. Not surprisingly, European birders are just as generous as North American birders.

On the lake were Mallards, Gadwalls, Common Pochards, Tufted Ducks, Great Crested Grebes, European Cormorants, Grey Herons, and Northern Lapwings. In fact, there were hundreds of lapwings, another life species for me.

This Northern Lapwing came very close to us. They are very dapper shorebirds with quite the “hair-do”,

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I was very excited to see Tufted Ducks as they were a target species for me for the trip.

Two male Tufted Ducks,

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A Grey Heron that landed close to the observatory,

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One of the favourite birds that the French birders showed me was a Common Kingfisher which liked to perch close to the observatory and hunt for fish. The Common Kingfisher is electric blue on the back and wings with a chestnut-coloured breast.

The kingfisher flew to this perch three times in less than an hour,

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The sun setting at Sorques,

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My father and I drove to Sorques again at 9 am the next morning to see if I could spot some new species. Two photographers were already there waiting for the kingfisher!

A Mute Swan,

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Both of the swans feeding along the edge of the marsh,

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I saw two Common Kingfishers flying around the lake, and but this one stopped to do some fishing right in front of us,

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While watching the kingfisher, five Little Grebes swam out of the willows past the observatory,

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The photographers put some sunflower seeds on the ground and on a rail near the entrance to the observatory. A Marsh Tit was the first bird to check out the seeds,

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A few European Robins were also interested in the seeds, but they were challenging to photograph. Here’s one of my better photos,

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While I was trying in vain to get photos of the robins, this little bird showed up. It’s a Dunnock, a species that’s uncommon in France during the winter,

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After an hour at the observatory, my father and I left since we had other plans for the rest of the day.

If you’re visiting the Fontainebleau area, take some time to visit la Plaine de Sorques. You’ll see some great birds in a beautiful part of the French countryside.

If you need more convincing to visit Sorques, look at my eBird checklists, here and here, from both of my visits to the observatory. And here are some lovely photographs from one of the photographers that I met.

On the way to the observatory I saw lots of trees with “balls” of leaves. I’m not sure what species of tree this is, or if a particular growth habit causes this, but I’d really like to know. My family thought they looked rather like Dr. Seuss trees.

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Birding through troubled times

In the past six years, since I was 12, both of my maternal grandparents died, my paternal grandfather has had a stroke and moved into a nursing home, and my father was diagnosed with cancer. It was only this summer, after the stroke and my father’s cancer surgery, that I realized just how much birds and birding have helped me through very difficult times. Birding has been a distraction and a comfort for me, something that has both calmed and energized me.

In September 2009, several months after I started birding, my maternal grandfather was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and given 12 to 18 months to live. It was hard to believe at the time, because I knew only happy times with my grandparents, either here in Alberta, or visiting them at their homes in New York and the Caribbean island of Nevis. My grandfather, who was a keen photographer and loved the outdoors and gardening, gave me my first pair of binoculars, which I’m still using, and also a copy of of Les Beletsky’s Bird Songs, with its digital audio player that was a tremendous help for me when I was so young and curious about birds. After my grandfather started radiation treatments, my mother flew from our farm in Alberta, Canada, to New York in November to help him.

Unfortunately, the radiation didn’t work and the doctors told my mother and grandfather that his prognosis would be even shorter. When it became apparent that it would be his last Christmas, my mother had my father, my brothers, and me travel to NYC to spend Christmas together with my grandparents one last time (he would die several weeks later, in early January). As a distraction from a very sad situation — my grandfather’s illness, his changed personality, my grandmother’s sadness — in a very small New York apartment with seven people, my father (who isn’t at all a birder) took me to Central Park for a bird walk. Although it was snowing quite heavily, we saw some good birds, many of which were lifers for me. We even walked over to the Fifth Avenue apartment building where the celebrated Pale Male lives, but swirling snow prevented us from seeing the nest.

Several months after my grandfather died, my family flew down to Nevis in October to help my grandmother sort through my his things at their retirement house, and to prepare the house for sale. Although our days were very full with clearing out, cleaning, and painting the house, I still had time to go birding every morning. While on Nevis, I added lots of species to my life list, including three new species of hummingbirds — Antillean Crested Hummingbird, Green-throated Carib, and Purple-throated Carib. I showed my grandmother many of the photos I took, and her favourite was a backlit photo I took of a Purple-throated Carib. One of the highlights of that trip was finding a female Antillean Crested Hummingbird on her nest, and also photographing it. For a 12-year-old birder, this was certainly something special.

The female Antillean Crested Hummingbird on her nest (2010),

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Nevis is also the place I started this blog. Because I was taking lots of photos, and seeing so many new species, I thought a blog would be the perfect medium for chronicling my adventures. But partway through our stay, my grandmother became very sick, and then died several day later, very suddenly and unexpectedly. What had already been a difficult and sad trip, so different from our previous family visits, was even harder. Being able to go birding every morning gave some sense of normalcy to my days, and also gave me something to look forward to, especially after we found out that our return home would have to be delayed for several weeks while my parents made all the necessary arrangements. And while I started the blog at a difficult time, it has brought me so many friends and opportunities. It’s another reminder that good things can come out of terrible circumstances.

This year has been particularly hard. In April, my paternal grandfather, who lives nearby and with whom I’ve always been very close, suffered a severe stroke and nearly died. He was in the hospital for five months and recently moved into a nursing home. He is no longer the man he was — he is confined to bed or a wheelchair, and his memory and speech are almost gone. He doesn’t know me anymore, and there have been days when he’s been so agitated that it’s upsetting to see. And his stroke has changed my grandmother too, from the calm and always smiling glue of the family to someone who is now almost always sad, anxious, and distracted. It’s rather like finding out that two rocks you have been able to count on your entire life have suddenly crumbled.

Our family spent much of my grandfather’s first few weeks in the hospital with him, and after long hours of being cooped up, it was wonderful to be able to go birding in, to escape to, the nearby Provincial Park, a short walk away. The hospital had its own little oasis, too,  a central courtyard with a garden, and from the window in my grandfather’s room, I could watch the Blue Jays, Black-billed Magpies, and House Sparrows that came every day. The species weren’t particularly exciting, but I realized that for patients and visitors, even a House Sparrow can bring some cheer after days and weeks spent in the same room. Keeping my grandmother company, I would sometimes bring my ABA field notebook to work on, and show her my sketches in progress.

A sketch of a Hermit Thrush I finished while in the hospital,

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I’ve thought often that one of the things my grandfather and I liked to talk about, one of the things we’ve had in common, are a love of animals in general and birds in particular, and it’s painful to know that we won’t be able to talk about this and share it any more. Spring migration was in full force during much of his stay at the hospital. I’d bring my iPad to the hospital room and show my grandfather my photos. Sometimes he would laugh and smile when looking at the photos, other times he would cry and look very sad. My grandfather always loved nature and he loved to share his knowledge and experiences with his grandchildren. Now that he’s in the nursing home, unable to stand, to remember his family, or to express himself clearly most of the time, it’s hard to accept that he will never again be the person I once knew — a person who enjoyed nature, who could spend an entire afternoon watching the birds through his kitchen window. I can also appreciate how miserable he must be, unable to get around on his own and confined to a facility, unable to be outdoors where he was always happiest. Birding, and photographing birds, is a way of remembering and honouring both of my grandfathers.

Shortly after my grandfather’s stroke, my father was diagnosed with prostate cancer. It was a frightening time for my family, especially waiting to find out whether the cancer had spread. His surgery was in Edmonton, a three-hour drive from our house, and my mother was with him for the four days they were in the city; she kept in touch by telephone, but for a family used to spending so much time together because of home schooling and farming, the distance was difficult. It was rather disconcerting to be so far away from my parents at such an important time, and we didn’t have any family staying with us because my grandmother, aunts, and uncles were all looking after my grandfather. I did go birding a few times while my parents were gone, which was a helpful release and a chance to forget about everything happening. Even when I didn’t have time for dedicated birding, I was always observing birds. On my way to work every day, I would see everything from hawks, gulls, and a pair Guinea Hens crossing the road (escapees from a neighbouring farm), to a large group of pelicans flying north from the river. Almost every morning I would see an American Kestrel siting on the power line or fence post often with prey in its talons. This is one of the beauties of birding — birds are everywhere and can help distract your thoughts from times of hardship.

A Killdeer from one of my bird walks this summer,

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During the difficult times my family has had to face, birding has helped to keep me strong. I’ve learned to go birding as often as I could, to make the time even when I was busy with my summer job and farm chores, because it helped me relieve stress and remind me of happier times. Especially because birding around our farm or the Provincial Park nearby means going for very long walks, I was able to lose myself whenever I went birding. Most birders know Emily Dickinson’s famous line, “Hope is the thing with feathers”. I’ve found that birds do indeed give me hope, especially at times when life seems to be rather hopeless, whether it’s the anticipation of migrants returning in the spring, or that tomorrow might bring a new species for my year list or life list or even just the sighting of an old favourite. Being out in the woods or on the prairie surrounded by birds — surrounded, as I wrote this the other month, by tens of thousands of Canada Geese and Snow Geese — I was reminded at this harvest time of the generosity and abundance of nature. That no matter how hard or ugly life can be, there is always beauty, grace, and strength in this world. That just as as winter always comes, with witherings and departures, so to does spring, with returns and rebirth.

A male Mountain Bluebird at the local Provincial Park. My paternal grandparents are particularly fond of Mountain Bluebirds,

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Birding News #66

:: The government of Alberta is considering a Sandhill Crane hunt for the autumn of 2015

:: The Yurok Tribe Wildlife Program, the Ventana Wildlife Society, and several federal and state government agencies have signed a memorandum of understanding to work toward reintroducing captive-bred California Condors to the north coast region

:: A Saudi prince poached more than 2,100 internationally protected Houbara Bustards in 21-day hunting safari in Pakistan, during which he also hunted in protected areas

:: Birds are continuing to die at the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in San Bernardino County,

:: In February, Oxford University evolutionary biologist Joseph Tobias and colleagues published a study in Nature questioning how widespread character displacement is in nature, focusing on Ovenbirds.

:: The California Department of Food and Agriculture is working with the USDA’s Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service to develop an anthraquinone-based bird repellent to minimize damage to crops such as almonds, lettuce, melons, and ginseng.

:: The continuing California drought is endangering fish and bird populations, including the Tricolored Blackbird, and causing mortality in Foothill Pine trees.

:: There’s a new penguin cam at Antarctica’s Yalour Islands.

:: 28 years after the Chernobyl disaster, researchers have found that birds in the exclusion zone are adapting to, and possibly benefiting from, long-term exposure to radiation.

Great posts in birding blogs this week: 

:: From Jacob at The Eyrie: Bird Courtship

:: From Dan at Bird CanadaSpring Scouting at Frank Lake

:: From Josiah at Birds in Your Backyard: Spring has Sprung (Part 4)

:: From Kirby at Birding is Fun: Pledge to Fledge — Every Day!

:: From Larry at The Brownstone Birding BlogThe Secret City Of Great Blue Herons

:: From Rick at the ABA BlogWader Quest in South Australia

:: From Eileen at Viewing Nature with EileenSaturday Walk

:: From Jeff at NeoVista BirdingComing Soon: New Generation of Cooper’s Hawks

:: From Alex and Drew at Nemesis BirdWillow Ptarmigan – 1st for New York!