Book Review: “Peterson Reference Guide to Owls of North America and the Caribbean”

Guide to OwlsThe Peterson Reference Guide to Owls by Scott Weidensaul is my first owl-specific guide and my first volume in their “reference guide” series, and what a wonderful introduction to both.

The book covers all 39 species of owls found in North America, Mexico, and the Caribbean. This is a very comprehensive, authoritative, and beautifully illustrated book which has everything you need to know about owls. Because it’s hardcover, it would also be a great coffee-table book.

Scott Weidensaul is a co-founder of Project Snowstormthe research project that bands and tracks the movements of owls that appeared in the recent irruptive years; he is a co-director of Project Owlnet, a project with almost 125 banding and research stations across North America studying owl migration; and for nearly 20 years he has directed major studies on Northern Saw-Whet Owls.

The first part of the guide is the “How to use this book” section which covers a longevity, alpha codes, how to read the range maps, the topography, and explanations for such terms as reversed sexual dimorphism (where “females may be 20 or 30 percent larger than males”).

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The next and largest section is the Species Accounts. The accounts range in length from three to 17 pages, representing the knowledge and research available on that species.

Each Species Account includes both English and scientific names, and the banding (alpha) code. Measurements, longevity, and a general description of the species follow. There are more detailed sections on Systematics, Taxonomy & Etymology, Distribution, Description & Identification, Vocalizations, Habitat & Niche, Nesting & Breeding, Behavior, and Status. At the end of each species accounts, there are Notes and Bibliography for further reading and research.

Each account contains a up-to-date range map and there are also subspecies distribution maps for Spotted Owls, Great Horned Owls, and Eastern and Western Screech-Owls.

One of the best parts of the book is the photos — there are 340 color photos included in the guide. I have an awful time getting photos of owls, so I take my hat off to the many photographers who spent time capturing the behaviour of theses secretive and hard to photograph birds. The easier owl species to find are represented with lots of great photos while lesser-know owls such as the Tamaulipas Pygmy-Owl have only one photo.

As owls are generally heard more than seen, much emphasis has been put on the vocal descriptions which are very detailed and descriptive. However, I find the best way to learn the calls is to actually listen to recordings. The author and publishers have put together a list for anyone interested in audio with 86 owl vocalizations which you can download for free from the Cornell’s Macaulay Library of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology — a wonderful bonus!

The Acknowledgments section includes a list of all the researchers, photographers, and even citizen scientists who helped with the book. Next is the Glossary where you can find all the owl terms mentioned in the book.

There are five pages of General Bibliography listing published papers, ornithological articles, and citations; these are primarily paper versions but there are some links to online sources too. The index includes species and subspecies names, both English and scientific. Pages for photographs, maps, and captions can be found in a bold font.

Even though much of the information is technical, Mr. Weidensaul’s style is very engaging and easy to read. One of my favourite sentences is from the Northern Pygmy-Owl: “Northern Pygmy-Owls rather famously lack a sense of proportion when it come to picking their prey.” And the back of the book is as helpful and comprehensive as the front.

For anyone interested in owls and their ecology and behaviour, the Peterson Reference Guide to Owls of North America and the Caribbean is a must-have. It’s incredibly well-written and well-designed, with informative text, and the photos bring each species to life. This book deserves a special place on the shelf or coffee table. This is a really wonderful book, and I’m hoping it will help me change my bad luck with owls.

I’d like to thank my good friend Ray of Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds for sending me a copy of this guide.

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Review: eBird Mobile App

New birding apps are coming out all the time. One app that looks new, eBird Mobile App, is in fact the Birdseye Log (or BirdLog) with a facelift.

Back in 2012, David Bell’s company, Birds In The Hand, released the BirdLog app. The app was the first and only app to send your birding checklists directly to your eBird account. The Birdseye Log app became so popular that the Cornell Lab and Mr. Bell reached an agreement last year to move the app’s management and development to the eBird team at Cornell.

The revised app, now called eBird Mobile App, can be used worldwide and is available for free on the app store. eBird Mobile sends information directly from your iOS device to your eBird account on the eBird website.
At the moment, the app is available only for iOS devices with the 7.0 update or later. The Android version is in the development stages and should be available soon.I downloaded the eBird Mobile app couple of weeks ago and enjoy it very much, so I thought I should write a review.
The home screen is very clean, fresh, and easy to understand. The first thing you do is tap the start button.

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When you’re ready to pick a location, the app pulls up your established eBird locations or hotspots based on your device’s location, using GPS. You can also create a new location if you’re in a new birding spot. Offline checklists are helpful if there isn’t cell reception.

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Here, I’m choosing a location from the map. If you decide to change your birding location, all you have to do is tap on any of the pin-points,

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After choosing your location, it’s time to set your date and time. Your start time will default to the current day and time, but you can easily change the day or even year if you like. Just scroll down the days, hours, or minutes to set your exact time.

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Once you’ve picked your location and entered the start time, you can record the species you see. The species are listed alphabetically or taxonomically (set your preference in the settings). You can spell out the species name or search by four-letter banding code. For example, the Snow Bunting’s code is SNBU and Black-billed Magpie is BBMA.

Every time you enter a count for a species, the app keeps track and adds to whatever you already have. For example, if  enter “5 BCCH” (Black-capped Chickadees) in the search bar, I then have five Black-capped Chickadees in my checklist. If I see four more later on my walk, I can enter 4 BCCH and then the checklist total will be nine.

Now say I miscounted the chickadees. All I have to do is enter negative numbers and that will subtract the extra birds and give a new corrected total.

You can also add species by tapping on the left-hand side of the bird’s name. You can increase the number of species seen, one tap at a time. This works well if you see only a few birds. However it’s not very practical when entering 1,000 Snow Geese or more. In this case, tap on the right side and you can enter the numbers by keyboard. With this function, you can also add comments to that particular species.

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At the end of your birding, enter the protocol information for your checklist — how long it took, how the observation was made (Travelling, Stationary, or Incidental) along with distance traveled, number of observers in the birding party, and if you’re listing all the birds you saw.

The app keeps track of how long you’ve been birding, but unfortunately not your walking distance (there are other apps that can keep track of that). If you have any extra notes about your checklist, you can add them to the comment box.

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All your checklists, including In Progress and Accepted can be found in the My Checklist part of the app (found on the home screen). You can delete inaccurate or test lists by swiping right to left on the right side of the checklist to show the delete button.

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If you submit a checklist and then decide you want to go back to edit it, the app sends you to the eBird website. This is my only quibble with the app. It would certainly be easier if one could edit the checklist in the app; however, it isn’t a big problem. If I do have to edit, I usually wait to do so on my laptop.

Play around with the app and you’ll quickly get the hang of it. Submitting a checklist from the field requires a cell connection, so if you have only WiFi you’ll be unable to enter checklists.

Since I have my new phone with me all the time now, the app makes it very convenient for submitting sightings to eBird. Just last week, I was horseback riding and saw a Rough-legged Hawk flying over our pasture — my first for the fall season. I was able to enter my sighting right from the field. The app is so easy to navigate that you can even use it on the back of a moving horse!

Overall, the app is wonderful and I highly recommend that birders download it on their phones. It’s free, easy to use, and you are contributing to the knowledge of bird distribution and abundance across the world.

You can find the app at the iTunes store here.

New Bird Books on My Shelf

Earlier this month, my Mom bought me two wonderful new bird books (thank you, Mom!) — the first book is Ornithology by Frank B. Gill and the second is Manual of Ornithology: Avian Structure and Function by Noble S. Proctor and Patrick J. Lynch. I think these books will pair nicely with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Handbook of Bird Biology I’ve been slowly working through for the home study course.

I haven’t had much time to read over these two books yet, since my full-time summer job, farming, and other projects have been keeping me busy. I’m also hoping to review these books sometime soon. But I need something else for lighter summer reading!

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Rusty Blackbird Blitz 2014!

Yesterday marked the launch of the new Rusty Blackbird Spring Blitz 2014 in Alberta. The Blitz is a North American-wide citizen science project that birders can participate in by submitting checklists to eBird. There are different target dates for the different states in the US and different provinces in Canada, and you can find them all here. The target dates for Alberta’s Rusty Blackbird Blitz in Alberta are April 1st through mid-May. The population of the Rusty Blackbird has been rapidly declining across North America, and this decline has raised concerns for the past few decades.

The new Spring blitz is an initiative by the International Rusty Blackbird Working Group, in partnership with eBird, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and the Vermont Center for Ecostudies to track the RUBL population and hopefully learn about conservation strategies for this declining species.

From the website:

In an effort to better understand the distribution of this species during migration, the Rusty Blackbird Spring Blitz was initiated this year. This citizen science project will provide insight for conservation objectives such as Rusty Blackbird habitat selection during migration and whether or not some of these choice stopover locations may or may not be protected.

Researchers are also interested in “zero-observations”. So, if you’re out and do not see any Rusty Blackbirds, please report “0” in your eBird checklist. Even if you don’t see any Rusties, that’s valuable information for researchers.

To submit a checklist, click on the “Other” tab and select the Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz (as shown here),

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Explaining the need for the Blitz, Southern Alberta co-ordinator Yousif Attia wrote to me, “The reasons for the sharp decline in Rusty Blackbird numbers over the past 20 years still remain largely speculation, [and] initiatives such as this one may shed some light on the cause(s) before it’s too late. Identifying specific stopover habitat and locations can help focus conservation efforts and at the least provide some measure of assistance to the species.”

You can learn more about the Blitz, Rusty Blackbirds, and how to submit your sightings at the Rusty Blackbird Blitz website, and there is also a Rusty Blackbird Facebook page you can follow.

If you have any questions about the Spring Blitz, please contact any of the co-ordinators for Alberta: Yousif Attia (Southern Alberta), ysattia (at) gmail (dot) com; James Fox (Northern Alberta), jamesfox (at) hotmail (dot) ca, and Jason Rogers, hawkowl (at) hotmail (dot) com.

Rusty Blackbirds in our farm yard in October 2012, gathering up for Fall migration,

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Blogging My Way Through the Cornell Lab’s Home Study Course in Bird Biology

HBBBI’ve been hoping for a couple of years now to take the Cornell Lab of Ornithology home study course in bird biology, but the textbook (second edition, 2004, Princeton University Press) has been out of print and used copies sell for hundreds, and thousands, of dollars. I found out that a new edition is in the works, but it been delayed several times already, and according to the Cornell website its publication date is now the summer of 2014. The course takes about four to six months to complete, and because I’m in grade 11 and have an awful lot on my plate, I want to take the course before I finish high school. If there are any more publication delays, if I depend on getting the new text, I probably wouldn’t be able to keep to my plan.

I spent most of this past spring and summer looking for a copy to borrow, but it wasn’t easy. I was finally able to find a copy from a birder in Calgary, who is generously letting me borrow it for the time I need to take the course. Thank you, Doug!

I’ve decided I’m going to blog my way through the course and the book, for anyone else who might be interested in the course and is wondering whether or not to do it. My mom signed me up for the course earlier this week — approximately $200, with the membership discount and shipping of course material to Canada — so now  I’m just waiting for the package to arrive.

I’ve already started reading the book, but once the materials arrive, I’ll be able to start the course properly and blog my way through it.

Birding News #6

:: Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are migrating weeks earlier in the decades past.

:: Ziplines are not good for migrating and nesting birds in the Creve Coeur Park in Maryland Heights, Missouri.

:: The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has created a website just for the Birds of Paradise project.

:: Columbia University neuroscientist Sarah Woolley is studying the parallels between the brains of humans and songbirds and how they use language or song, in the hope that this research will one day help with information about developmental diseases.

:: Ravens and crows do not appreciate unfairness.

Great posts in birding blogs this week:

From Dan Arndt, beat writer, at Bird Canada: The Great Horned Owls of Sikome Lake

From the ABA blog: An Interview with 2013 ABA bird of the year artist, Andrew Guttenberg

From The Birdist: An Interview with Photographer Todd Forsgren

Birding News #3

:: The British Columbia government has approved the shooting of Barred Owls to help save their endangered cousins, the Spotted Owls.

:: A study from Duke University found that live Swamp Sparrows are aggressive to taxidermied Swamp Sparrows. A video of the live sparrows attacking the taxidermied ones is at the bottom of this post.

:: The New York Times, the American Bird Conservancy, the Canadian Broadcasting CorporationScienceNews, and many other publications had articles last week about the new Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute study about the staggering amount of birds and mammals killed by cats.

:: The Cornell Lab of Ornithology will host a Young Birders Event, August 22-25, 2013. The application deadline is April 1st, and 10 young birders will be accepted.

:: Volunteers are needed to help monitor Red-shouldered Hawk nests in Wisconsin

Great posts in birding blogs this week:

:: From Scott Simmons, beat writer at Birding is Fun: Bird Photography for Birders

:: From Nemesis Bird: Looking at Marbled Godwits

:: From Clare Kines, beat writer at 10,000 Birds: His take on Baiting Birds, Owls in Particular

:: From 10,000 Birds: I and the Bird: What is a Raven?

The Swamp Sparrow video mentioned up above,