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Monday, January 23, 2012

Review #3

The Crossley ID Guide - Eastern Birds

"Turning Birding Upside Down" reads the literally upside down double page advertisement for the Crossley ID Guide. It was instantly clear to me that this guide was going to revolutionize the birding world.


Six months later I was holding this very book in my hands and reverently flipping through the pages.

The Crossley is a big book not the slim, dog eared, field guides that birders can carry out in the field tucked away in a back pocket. This is more of a lap book designed for the birder to memorize the birds while sitting in their living room and sipping a cup of tea or coffee not while cruising through a field of waves on a pelagic trip.

What so attracted me and thousands of other bird enthusiasts to the guide were the stunning illustrations which have been put together in a way never before seen on the pages of a North American guide and probably not in any of the worlds many guides. A guide unique to itself. Photographic guides have rarely used more then five images for any one species and here was a book using hundreds of photographs. All the photographs were taken by the author.

Each plate is mosaic of richly layered photoshopped images; dragging and placing over 10,000 photos of 640 species. An individual, or sometimes two, in each different plumage is placed in the foreground while many more birds of the same species can be seen in the background. Often the birds in background are no more then specks. Crossley calls this reality birding. I enjoy it when I am able to recognize a place that I have birded, namely the sandy beaches of Cape May.

All these birds are placed on a background image showing the habitat the species is likely to be found in. Common and uncommon species are each given a whole page while rarities, vagrants and species restricted in range have half a page or less for their illustration and descriptions.

The descriptions discuss, habitat, status, identification, and often voice. Each description is written in a light tone along the lines of this: "Elegant and beautiful, or big and nasty, take your pick as both can apply. Takes over it's patch, immediately attacking any other swan that dares to come nearby. Nest is large and conspicuous. Young are protected zealously: an adult, standing it's ground, has hissed fear into many a human.". Quoted from Crossley's description of the Mute Swan.

The Crossley ID Guide is a very enjoyable book to read. It's the type of book I can spend hours thumbing through and still have not had enough.

Instead of the usual taxonomical order this book is arranged in the order which Crossley, Howell, O'Brien, Sullivan, Wood, and Lewington suggested in their November 2009 article in Birding titled "Taxonomy Vs. Utility" (pg. 44). They suggest that guides should be arranged in this order:
1. Swimming birds such as Alcids and Cormorants
2. Flying birds such as Tropicbirds and Gulls
3. Walking birds such as Oystercatchers and Herons.
4. Upland Gamebirds such as Quails and Grouse
5. Raptors such as Vultures and Falcons
6. Miscellaneous Larger landbirds such as Corvids and Nightjars.
7. Aerial Land birds such as Hummingbirds and Swifts.
8. Songbirds such as Tyrant-Flycatchers and Finches.

I find this a very reasonable ordering compared to some guides arrangements. Case in point: the American Bird Conservancy's All the Birds of North America muddled organization.

The body size measurements are given but wing span measurements are surprisingly absent; these on occasions could have been useful.

Next to the scientific and English names are the banding codes aka "alpha codes". I, for one, have not yet come across a guide which uses the codes so extensively. In the descriptions when Crossley mentions another species he will put the birds banding code in place of the full English name. For example in the description of the Tundra Swan (TUSW) Crossley writes: "Slightly smaller than MUSW with shorter and straighter neck. Head and bill profile strikingly different. With head tucked in, shorter tail is quite easy to pick out (TRUS is also short tailed).". This at times can be confusing if you haven't memorized all the codes - a challenging task. But these codes do allow more room for the text which is squished below the prominent illustrations.

Beside the descriptions are the range maps which look puny next to the oversized illustrations. These maps are no smaller then any other field guides and their puniness is just an illusion.

Occasionally a keen sighted reader will come across a stray species such as the puffins floating unobtrusively in the background of the Common Murre plate or the American Coot hiding behind an American Wigeon in the American Wigeon plate. I am unsure if these birds where intended to be in the background. For a beginner it may cause a misidentification though that is highly unlikely considering that these puffins are barely more then spots in the background and when a species is in better focus such as the Northern Pintails in the Cinnamon Teals plate it is almost always mentioned. I think that often times these species are used for size comparison, such as the male Mallard which is in the Cackling Goose plate. I have found the spot-the-stray-species game an enjoyable pursuit; a birders Where's Waldo.

I think this is an amazing guide and I look forward to the promised The Crossley ID Guide - British Birds and The Crossley ID Guide - Western Birds.

One can visit Crossley's website for more information on the book as well as some videos giving tips on birding, www.crossleybooks.com/.

I've had some great birding recently. On the the 10th I saw the Snowy Owl on Island Rocks at Sachuest Point NWR. This bird had been seen there since the 5th: really cool. My third Snowy in two weeks. Is it just me or has everyone noticed that quite often when you finally get a life bird you suddenly find yourself seeing this species on a regular basis. This was the case with the Barred Owl and the Roughed Grouse on my life list. Following this pattern I bet I'll see tons of Red Necked Grebes the next time I can convince my parents to bring us down to Satchuest.

I had an adult Bald Eagle circling over the Washington Bridge on the Providence/East Providence line. Wild Turkeys spotted grazing by the side of the Col. Rodman Highway and a very needed lifer Red-necked Grebe at Beavertail State Park.

So far I have seen 74 species of birds this year.

Good job to anybody who identified the last the two Dunlin and the Greater Yellowlegs in the last photo quiz. Here's your next quiz.
This photo was taken some time in November at Nayat Point in Barrington, RI

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Dec/27/11 Parker River NWR aka. Plum Island: the greatest birding hotspot in New England

This year my family's annual "Solstice Bird Count" was delayed due to numerous factors and instead our walk was conducted on the 27th at Plum Island, the #1 birding hotspot of New England.

We (me, my brother and my grandfather) arrived at the Audubon, the clock reading 12:40pm giving us about 4 hours to see loads of life birds here at Joppa Flats and at Plum Island. Joppa Flats is a tiny speck of land located on the Southern side of Newburyport Harbor. Despite its size many an awesomely amazing bird has been sighted here by some overjoyed birder like Pomarine Jaeger and Black Skimmer.

Many Canada Geese, Mallards, Black Ducks and Buffleheads littered the water in front of the visitor center all divided into small flocks. As we were losing hope of seeing anything in the least bit interesting here I noticed a medium sized dabbling duck whizzing by overhead with fast shallow wing beats. What gave the bird's identity away was its overly large and ungainly bill. It was a female Northern Shoveler, a nice bird for the area and a great start for the day.

Although the Shoveler had seemed a good omen at the time we quickly realized that the birding wasn't half what we had hoped for. The quantity of American Black Ducks, Canada Geese and American Robins was vastly bloated while not much else stirred with the exception of a few Mallards and gulls.

Birding began picking up when we spotted a female Northern Pintail accompanying sixty or so Black Ducks in their wild endeavor to devour the marsh. It was a large slender duck with a long elegant neck and a dark blue black bill. Along with being a very handsome dabbler it was also a year bird. Way on the other side of the marsh we spotted a few small sandpipers wheeling about, their identity remains unknown but I suspect that they were Dunlins. We were surprised to see a posse of five Wild Turkeys making their way across the road and sweetly posing for the cameras.

A posse of turkeys - that is actually the official group title for turkeys.

Although we didn't check Hellcat Swamp's famed boardwalk we did go up the observation tower; a great place for viewing Snowy Owls and other fascinating birds, mostly in the duck department. Hellcat Swamp is a marshy section of the refuge, most of the Swamp is taken up by a wet deciduous forest, but also affords great looks at the salt marsh, which is best viewed from the previously mentioned observation tower. From the tower I could see a few Mute Swans, Common Goldeneye, Hooded Merganser and scaup of both species in the pond which had been dammed off by a dike on which the tower stands. In the marsh were a few American Black Ducks and Mallards.

A male Lesser Scaup

We learned from one of the many birders we discovered traipsing the refuge that the Snowy Owls where being seen at parking lot #7, aka Stage Island, at the very Southernly tip of the refuge. Lot number seven also had access to an observation tower along with an observation deck on the sand dunes which gives great looks at the ocean. On our way to lot seven I spotted a distant raptor perched precariously on the top of a bare tree which overlooked the marsh. Scoping it out from the car I was able to see that the bird had a dark back with a few splotches of white, a head (which most birds have) patterned like that of the Marsh Harrier of Eurasia, and when it took flight I was able to see the whitish tail with a black tip. All these field marks suggested a Rough-legged Hawk. As we continued down the road that leads a straight path through the refuge, I re-spotted the raptor. This time perched on an Osprey nesting platform. A tall sturdy wooden poll stuck into the marsh with a wooden rostrum placed on top, always the favored nesting site of any reasonable Osprey. This time the raptor was too far to ID but probably the same hawk as before. Talking to some other birders who had seen the hawk on the tree, we learned that their ID was completely different from ours. Though not certain, our group all leaned towards Rough-legged Hawk, they however, swore that the bird had been a juvenile Bald Eagle; a species I had instantly ruled out when I saw the size of the birds bill. Silently I categorized them as "dumbasses" and then we continued on our way.

We continued on to lot number seven. Scanning from the top of Stage Islands observation tower I picked out a few pintails and a mockingbird. Then turning our backs on the marsh we went to scan the dunes and beach. There wasn't a Snowy to be found.

The ocean was littered with eiders, scoters and mergansers, most of the birds gathered about a group of rocks which projected from the water in a set of gray humps. The large majority of the ducks were Common Eiders but many were White-winged and Black Scoters while others showed the distinctive field marks of Red-breasted Mergansers. Also on the water were a few Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls, loons of both species and some Horned Grebes. We were unable pick up a Red-necked Grebe, a bird which leaves a horrible blank spot on my life list.

We were informed by some other birders that the bird which we had seen on the Osprey platform WAS a "young, light morph, Rough-legged Hawk". We trusted the birder that had told us it was a Rough-leg but we decided to wait for a better look before marking it on our life lists.

By now the sun was sinking slowly below the horizon and our birding time was running short. We still hadn't seen a Snowy.

We started back down the refuge road heading towards parking lot #3 where we planned to wait for the owl to show. American Robins where everywhere gathering in large flocks which, come nightfall would descend upon the trees of the refuge blanketing them in a layer of sleeping birds. Two raptors soared low over a field by the side of the road, one clearly was a harrier, the other we weren't sure on having only caught a glimpse. This unidentified bird landed in a tree 20 ft away from one of the many parking lots on the side of the road. Pulling our car to a squeeling stop we hopped out only to see the hawk fly to a more distant tree. Watching the hawk in flight I was able to make out the distinctive wing pattern of a Rough-legged Hawk. I set my scope on the bird, my grandfather doing the same with his scope. Although the light was now fading fast we were able to make out many of the field marks which identify a Rough-leg. Due to the light and distance I wasn't able to get any good photos of the bird but amazingly my brother, who I have also classified in the order of Dumbass, took some much more reasonable photos with his Ipod through my grandfathers scope. The birders who had identified the last Rough-legged Hawk we had seen where there and for a second time that day they confirmed our suspisions that this was a "young, light morph, Rough-legged hawk". This time we had no doubt of its identity, a Rough-legged most certainly was.

We kept the car moving onward to parking lot 3 passing one of the two (very late) Great Egrets still hanging around the refuge. They are amazingly late for the season. This time it wasn't a hawk which waylaid us but the ranger, spreading the news of a report of a Snowy Owl which had been seen perched on the dike some 20 minutes earlier from the parking lot which we had just vacated. So we turned the car around and headed back up the road. We were unable to see the owl from the parking lot where we had seen the Rough-leg so we decided to check out the tower at Hellcat again from where we would have a great view of the dike.

Walking up the path which leads the observation tower, I spotted a small sparrow fly up from the side of the path and land in a bush. The bird was probably an American Tree Sparrow - but I didn't have time to identify it, for at that very moment I heard an angelic hoarse croak like no other. Looking up I saw the shape I had been dreaming to see for years - it was a Snowy Owl! It flew past me only 20 feet from where my feet were positioned, headed North West. This bird was a fairly dark individual with many a black spot showing on the more obvious white feathers. Its flight style is best described as a mix between a large herons and a moth and not as fast as most owls.

The Snowy Owl is one North Americas largest and heaviest owls and is by far the most amazing being dressed in white from head to toe. This was my fifth and favorite owl species that I have laid delighted eyes upon. I have never seen an owl yet which hasn't left me shaking from the thrill of the encounter.

The bird was headed towards the dike. Just as it passed over the top of the dike another white form which had been on the far side of the dike flew up to meet it. For a brief moment they seemed to tackle in the air before separating and flying in opposite directions. Then when they where about 50 yards apart they both turned and landed side by side on the banks of the canal where they stayed. Now the light had faded almost entirely, making these pure white giants fade away into the gray water behind them. Taking photos was wildly unsuccessful and we had run out of time. So we all took one more squint at these amazing birds before turning our backs and walking away.

Here's our (late) Solstice Bird Count list seen at Plum Island:
Canada Goose 500+
Mute Swan 2
American Black Duck 175
Mallard 24
Northern Pintail 3
Greater Scaup 3
Lesser Scaup 3
Common Eider 50+
White-winged Scoter 10
Black Scoter 9
Bufflehead 11
Common Goldeneye 7
Hooded Merganser 3
Red-breasted Merganser 10
Wild Turkey 5
Red-throated Loon 1
Common Loon 5
Horned Grebe 5
Great Egret 1
Northern Harrier 3
Rough-legged hawk 2
Red-tailed Hawk 1
Ring-billed Gull 8
Herring Gull 35
Great Black-backed Gull 3
Snowy Owl 2 (!!!)
american Crow 13
American Robin 100+
Northern Mockingbird 1

Good job to anybody who ID'd the male Wood Duck in the last photo quiz.
Here's your next quiz.
This photo was taken at Chace Farm in Lincoln Rhode Island sometime in December. Hint: not all the rules of nature are set in stone. Aren't hints always cooler when you say them in a slightly riddle-ish way? Good Luck and Happy New Year!