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By Michael Levin. Top image: Emmet the Osprey by Sally Mitchell.

Live bird cams have all the makings of a Hollywood blockbuster. We get an intimate, birds-eye view of the stars, and can’t help but fall in love as we watch their story unfold. The birds are practically celebrities. So imagine the surprise of Sally Mitchell, an avid watcher of the Cornell Lab’s Montana Osprey cam, when she met one—all the way down in Texas.

Not 5 miles from her home in Rockport (near Corpus Christi), Mitchell was walking along the beach taking photographs of local egrets. “I heard an Osprey call,” she said, “which was unmistakable after having watched the nests so often online.” She looked around, camera swiveling, and spotted one sitting on a nearby light pole.

Peeking through the lens, Mitchell did a double take. A baby blue smudge on the bird’s left leg caught her eye, a band with bold, white writing reading “M8.” “I knew he must have been from Montana,” Mitchell said. It was the same kind of band the Montana Osprey Project uses to identify birds that hatch around Missoula.

Mitchell passed her photos along to Dr. Erick Greene, a professor at the University of Montana and part of the research team that runs the Montana Osprey Project. He quickly confirmed that he had banded this particular bird in July—appropriately enough, at a nest on the home field of the local baseball team, the Missoula Osprey—and only a mile and a half away from the Bird Cams Osprey nest in Hellgate Canyon, Missoula, Montana.


In this photo from July 2014, Dr. Erick Greene of the Montana Osprey Project (in blue shirt and tan hat) prepares a blue band that reads “M8″ for the young Osprey on his right, who we now know as “Emmett.” At the age of about four months, Emmett flew solo from Montana to Texas, where Sally Mitchell, a Bird Cams viewer, spotted him. Photo by Judy Ellis, Missoula Osprey Baseball.

“The first picture I opened, I knew instantly it was one of our birds,” said Greene. “These are such rare events, and I just got this tingle.” The rarity of resighting a bird without any kind of tracking device cannot be overstated. Along with Rob Domenech of the Raptor View Research Institute, Greene has banded upwards of 200 Ospreys since the Montana Osprey Project began in 2006, and only three of those birds have ever been resighted.

Greene got back to Mitchell with the exciting news and asked her if she would give the bird a name. She settled on Emmett, a clever echo of his identification number.

Mitchell said she plans to keep watching and photographing Emmett during his stay in Texas. Dr. Greene looks forward to gaining new insights into Osprey behavior, much as he did with the Osprey cams. “The first time we put up a camera, in the first five minutes I was watching it, I was seeing stuff I’d never, ever seen before,” said Greene. Mitchell’s photography will help Dr. Greene fill in the gaps about a bird whose previous life we already know so much about.

Turns out, Emmett isn’t the only Missoulian in eastern Texas, which is a popular wintering destination for Ospreys. Real-time location data shows that an adult female Osprey named Olive, who nested this year less than 15 miles from Emmett’s nest, has settled within 20 miles of him in Texas. She’s even given Rockport a flyby every now and again. Another Montana bird, named Rapunzel, is staying just up the coast near Galveston for the winter.

Other satellite tracking research has shown that Ospreys from certain breeding areas often do winter in the same regions. For instance, Ospreys from the Northeast work their way down the Atlantic coast, then island-hop through the Caribbean and Cuba to South America; whereas West Coast Ospreys tend to hug the shoreline and settle in Baja California. Midwestern Ospreys head south on similar paths but seem to disagree about which spot is best. Some peel off west to Mexico’s Pacific coast, while others head east for the Gulf of Mexico. Regardless, Greene said, having two birds end up so close to each other at both ends of their migration is rare.


Emmett works on his fishing skills in Rockport, Texas. He’ll probably stay around Texas for the next few years until he’s ready to try to find a mate and raise young of his own—at which point he’ll most likely head back to Montana. Photo by Sally Mitchell.

Emmett’s migration remains pretty mysterious. We know he flew lengthwise across the country, logging at least 2,000 miles to make the trip, and that juvenile Ospreys figure out their own migration routes and destinations. What we don’t know is what the birds do while on the move, or why they choose certain areas to eventually settle down in.

“He probably won’t migrate back next summer—he’ll probably stay for another full year,” said Greene. Juvenile Ospreys stay up to four years in their wintering grounds, presumably honing their fishing skills so they can provide for a mate and young when the time comes. Take heart, Missoulians—and in a few years, keep an eye out for that M8 band. “Males tend to settle closer to where they are born,” Greene said. “My prediction would be that Emmett will probably end up somewhere in that general area [of Missoula] up in Montana.”

For now, Mitchell is more than content to have Emmett nearby. She sets out regularly to play paparazza. “I’ve checked his two favorite sites almost every day,” she said. She marveled at the sheer odds involved in spotting him—“When you think of the territory they cover and the birds that have been banded, that I should see him is miraculous,” she said.

So if you pass through Rockport any time soon, keep an eye out for blue bands and a white belly. Just be careful asking for any autographs.

More stories from our Bird Cams project:

(Dr. Erick Greene and the Montana Osprey Project are partners in the Cornell Lab’s Osprey cams. Tracking of Olive and other Montana Ospreys is conducted by Rob Domenech, the Raptor View Research Institute, and MPG Ranch—where you can follow further movements of Olive, Rapunzel, and other Ospreys.)

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Mystery brown duck (late September, Monterey, California). Photo by Brian Sullivan.

Ducks are fun to watch because they’re large, they sit out in the open, and the males are beautifully colorful. In fact breeding males are so distinctive that they draw many a birder’s attention away from the less colorful members of the flock. But taking a closer look at brown ducks can open a whole new level of appreciation, and can even add a few species to your day’s checklist.

A brown duck in late fall could be a female, an immature male, or even an adult male that hasn’t molted into his colorful plumage yet. To figure them out, you’ll want to look for anything that’s not brown—such as the wings—to reveal their identity. Let’s take the above picture as an example.

Step 1. What do we see?

Let’s use the four basic keys to bird identification—the four most important questions to go over in your mind as you look at a bird:

Size & Shape: this bird is clearly shaped like a duck with a chunky body and a wide, flat bill. The bill is fairly thin for a duck, and the bird has a fairly long body and short tail. There’s little else around for scale to help judge its size.
Color Pattern: The bird is brown with some gray tones, and it’s pretty much entirely patterned, with no blocks of solid color.
Behavior: It’s walking in shallow water, not swimming, and it’s picking food off the surface.
Habitat: It’s in a flooded crop field.

Step 2. To which group does this bird belong?

Okay, we know it’s a duck, and we know it’s snatching something from the surface. Ducks fall into two main categories—divers and dabblers. We wouldn’t see a diving duck walking to pick food off the surface, since they have legs positioned farther back on the body, making them very awkward on land. Dabbling ducks, on the other hand, are pros at searching for food in shallow water and mudflats.

And what if they’re on the water? Dabbling ducks tend to be taller at the stern than the more streamlined, tapered divers. Also, dabblers tend to be patterned with spots, streaks, and chevrons. Most divers are a more even shade of brown.


Compared to the mystery duck (left), this female Lesser Scaup (right) is a more even, less patterned brown and has a streamlined shape especially at the tail. It’s also on a deeper body of water, and would not typically be seen in very shallow water. Lesser Scaup photo by Brian Sullivan.

Step 3. Which species?

Now that we know this is a dabbling duck, we can narrow the species list. One species can be quickly ruled out based on Size & Shape: the Northern Shoveler’s enormous bill jumps out as distinctive no matter how confusingly brown the rest of the bird is.


The mystery duck has a much smaller bill than this female Northern Shoveler (at right), photographed by Chris Wood.

It always pays to consider the most common species in a group. Mallards are everywhere, but the females are fairly easy to confirm with their orange-and-black bills and their blue wing patch (speculum) bordered in white.


This female Mallard (at right) shows its distinctive orange-and-black bill and a hint of a blue speculum in the folded wing. It’s also much more coarsely patterned than our mystery bird (left).  Mallard photo by Laura Frazier.

Northern Pintails are small dabbling ducks with a distinctive shape and color tone. It can take some practice, but look for their warm brown tones, graceful long neck, and relatively thin bill.


Despite overall similarities in body color and bill color, the Northern Pintail (right) is a crisp, warm brown and has a graceful outline thanks to a long neck and tail. Northern Pintail by Jason Crotty.

Blue-winged Teal (and Cinnamon Teal) have slightly larger bills and would lack the buffy stripe near the tail. These teal also have powder-blue patches on the wing, although this is often not visible when their wings are folded.


This Blue-winged Teal (right) has similar patterning to our mystery duck (left), but it doesn’t have that buffy stripe near the tail. It also is showing a bit of its powder-blue forewing patch, which is most often visible in flight. Blue-winged Teal by Philip Dunn.

Coming back to the Color Pattern details we noticed earlier, this bird’s buffy stripe near the base of the tail and green peeking out in the wing point toward a Green-winged Teal. The green speculum is often hard to see on birds that aren’t flying, but that buffy stripe is nearly always visible, making it a valuable clue to remember.


Our mystery bird (right) is a Green-winged Teal. The bird at right, also a Green-winged Teal, doesn’t show the green speculum, but the buffy stripe near the tail is still there as a helpful clue. Photo at right by Cornell Lab.

One final clue would have been size—if there had been other ducks in the photo to compare with. Green-winged Teal are astonishingly small ducks and in flocks their size difference is usually apparent.

There are a few other common dabbling duck species that it pays to look at when confronted with a brown duck: Gadwall, American Wigeon, American Black Duck—but we’ll leave those for you as a homework exercise. Looking at brown ducks is a great skill-builder that will have you picking up on subtler aspects of size, shape, and color in no time—not to mention enjoying those fine shades of brown and intricate feather patterns. Hope you enjoy!

More ways to have fun and build your identification skills:

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Here’s a list of holiday gift suggestions to appeal to any bird or nature lover on your list. These are gifts that improve the mind, create fun, and highlight the beauty of the natural world. A portion of the proceeds from all these items will support the Lab’s bird education and conservation efforts. Check out our website for a full list of holiday “birdy” gifts.

Cornell Lab 2015 Calendar2015Calander
Spend a year with the birds! This new calendar features great photos with fascinating facts about each species. This colorful cast of characters is yours with a gift to the Lab of $10 or more. ($10)

Project FeederWatch
You can now give FeederWatch as gift, introducing friends and family to this long-running citizen-science project. By submitting bird observations to the Lab, participants contribute to scientific understanding and learn more about their backyard friends along the way. In order for the kit to arrive by December 24, please order by November 30. ($18)

Tutorials and Webinars
The gift of knowledge is priceless. Cornell Lab tutorials and webinars will appeal to beginning and intermediate birds who can’t get enough about bird identification and behavior. The “Be a Better Birder” self-guided tutorials and one-hour, expert-led webinars on ID for shorebirds, waterfowl, and raptors each put greater bird knowledge well within reach. ($10 to $29 each)

MasterSet BundleBird Sounds and BNA: Master Set Bundle
This year the Lab is offering a special pairing of the Cornell Guide to Bird Sounds: Master Set for North America and the unparalleled Birds of North American Online reference. This combo includes a one-year subscription to BNA Online, the most complete source of  information for the more than 700 species of birds that breed in Canada and the United States.  Each species account includes the latest science as well as photos, sounds, and videos of interesting behaviors. The new, revised Master Set includes multiple examples of sounds for each of 737 bird species—a total of more than 4,900 tracks. This version of the Master Set requires less storage space than the original. ($69.99; a 20%  savings over separate purchase of these items)

Essential Set Bundle
This package includes a six-month subscription to Birds of North America Online and the Cornell Guide to Bird Sounds: Essential Set for North America. The Essential Set provides the most common sounds of 729 bird species found in North America with 1,379 tracks. ($24.99; save more than 30% over purchase of these items separately)

Birds and Beans Gift Set—Coffee for Everyone!CoffeeGift
Just in time for the holidays, get more than 25% off this special gift set. It contains a dozen 12-ounce bags of Bird-Friendly certified coffee, including Wood Thrush Breakfast Roast, American Redstart Light Roast, Scarlet Tanager French Roast, and more. Ground or whole bean available. Your purchase supports organic, fair trade, shade-grown coffee farms that shelter migratory birds. A portion of the proceeds supports Cornell Lab conservation efforts. ($115, includes shipping)

BirdSleuthCardsBirdSleuth Game Cards
Hit the deck! This deck of 5″ x 7″ game cards from the Cornell Lab’s BirdSleuth K-12 program has full-color images of the 36 most common backyard birds, plus games and a bonus online quiz. With each purchase you also receive a finch sock feeder, two bird ID posters, and BirdSleuth Investigator, the program’s kid-friendly publication. ($14.95)

Bird Spy Bingo Cards
This is a great stocking stuffer from the Cornell Lab’s BirdSleuth program! Each dry-erase card invites kids outside to look for birds. Spotting a group of birds, a colorful bird, a feather, or even bird droppings can help you win bingo! Play while traveling, out for a walk, or just sitting in your backyard. Cards are available in English and Spanish. ($1.50)

Bird Apps
Find more birds with BirdsEye, upload sightings from the field with BirdLog, or discover 24 North American birds in four games for kids with My Bird World ($4.99–$19.99). Then toss in the Merlin Bird ID® app for good measure to help beginning birders ID more than 400 North American species—it’s free!

Cornell Lab Membership
Lab membership supports efforts to improve the understanding and protection of birds around the world. The quarterly Living Bird magazine is included with every one-year supporter gift membership. ($44) You can introduce someone new to the Lab at the one-year Newsletter level ($29) and they will receive our All About Birds newsletter geared for beginning to intermediate bird watchers.

For more gifts that support the Cornell Lab, check out our full holiday shopping guide.

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By Hugh Powell. Top image by Marcello Gomes via Birdshare.

In 2003, a movie called The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill told the story of an eccentric, sensitive, periodically homeless man named Mark Bittner and the flock of 40+ cherry-headed conures (technically, Red-masked Parakeets) he had befriended in San Francisco, California. The movie’s mix of keen observation and exceptional tenderness toward its stars, both human and parakeet, turned it into an audience favorite. Eventually it earned the fourth-highest gross for any documentary film about animals.

At the time, few people probably paid attention to the logo of the production company, Pelican Media, as it flashed onscreen during the opening credits. But this week, with the release of producer/director Judy Irving’s remarkable next film, Pelican Dreams, her company’s name illustrates how long she has been fascinated by these familiar but strange, stupendously gawky birds. In fact, Irving says, the Wild Parrots story was originally an interruption to her pelican project.

Now she’s turned back to her first love, and Pelican Dreams is both a natural progression from Wild Parrots and a close companion in terms of its tone and approach. Pelican Dreams features more of Irving’s detailed natural history footage, but this material never overshadows the questions she is really interested in: What does it mean to be wild? How closely can a wild animal live to humans and retain its essential nature? When we project our wishes and longings on animals, what does it say about our own wildness? You can watch this movie and join the director in pondering these imponderables, or you can watch it for the beautiful natural history sequences—it works both ways.


““Gigi” stops traffic on Golden Gate Bridge in the opening scene of Pelican Dreams. Photo courtesy Judy Irving/Pelican Media.

The stars of Pelican Dreams are two young Brown Pelicans undergoing rehab. One was found emaciated during a traffic jam on Golden Gate Bridge; Irving names her “Gigi.” The other, “Morro,” is cared for in a Doctor Doolittle-like homestead owned by rehabilitators near Morro Bay, in central California. Irving follows these pelicans and the people who care for them as the birds recuperate, bond with their caretakers, and attempt to regain enough strength to return to the wild.

Along the way, we take detours to breeding colonies in California’s Channel Islands and in Baja California, to a “Coney Island for pelicans” on an island in the Columbia River, to fishing boats and wharves where fishermen fling bones and fish heads to waiting pelicans, not realizing the birds will choke on these big scraps. We learn about how DDT almost doomed these birds to extinction, and we briefly visit the Gulf of Mexico for a few heartbreaking seconds of a pelican mired in Deepwater Horizon oil (footage originally shot by a Cornell Lab team).

In Wild Parrots, Irving took the unorthodox approach of inserting herself into the margins of the film. In Pelican Dreams, she goes even farther and makes an intensely personal movie. Though it brings in the varied voices of rehabilitators, biologists, fishing captains, and members of the public, the central voice is Irving’s. It’s a tribute to her filmmaking that she can balance natural history, two narrative arcs about injured birds, and her own sense of yearning and wonder in a movie that also features long, quiet stretches of beautiful cinematography and music. There’s no hyperbole, no melodrama, no forced humor. Her narration is honest, plaintive, vulnerable.

She’s also unabashedly sentimental. As Wild Parrots did with its stars, this movie relentlessly asks how Gigi and Morro are feeling, whether they’re lonely, whether they may fall in love someday, whether they are trying to teach us something, whether they dream. This focus on the inner soul of a pelican may rankle some viewers looking for a more measured view of the animals themselves. On the other hand, this is also the emotional cord that ties many people to animals, that lies close to the heart of the environmental ethic, and that made Wild Parrots such an affecting story for so many moviegoers.


Judy Irving (filmmaker) & Gigi (pelican) in the aviary at International Bird Rescue. Photo courtesy Judy Irving/Pelican Media.

And in this movie, Irving wisely balances her own heart-on-sleeve viewpoint with the studious approach of Gigi’s rehabilitator, Monte Merrick. He bears a passing resemblance to Mark Bittner: glasses, kindly demeanor, curly brown hair pulled back in a ponytail. But unlike Bittner, Merrick is resolutely scientific with his charges. He evaluates their weight, determines their sex by their bill length; reaches down their throats to feed them Pedialyte; measures their progress toward flight; refers to them by their band numbers. When Irving suggests they give Gigi her name, he politely declines, “so that we remember that they’re not pets.” When his patients are fit enough to return to the wild, he does not attend the releases.

That’s not to say he’s unfeeling—in a cage full of nearly identical pelicans, he remarks on how much cuter Gigi is than the others. To soothe her during her initial physical exam, he calls her “sweetie pie.” His pragmatism and emotional distance are a different, but no less caring, approach than Irving’s.

For moviegoers, pelicans are perhaps a slightly harder sell than parakeets, which are cute, colorful birds with big eyes and a tendency to nuzzle and preen each other. Parakeets are as cute as we wish we were; pelicans (on land, anyway) are as gawky as we fear we are.

Fortunately for viewers, that earthbound goofiness is balanced with shots of wild birds in their element, soaring on rock-solid wings or half-twisting in midair to plunge arrowlike into the water. Irving has a few moments of genius camera angles that create a kind of transcendent film beauty: I could watch slow motion shots pretty much forever of pelicans diving in a frenzy into a school of sardines.

There’s also an ingenious half-in-the-water shot that shows the birds feeding at the surface. Paddling their big feet, plunging with their bills after fish, they are caught midway between their awkwardness on land and their imperturbable grace in the air. Irving is caught too, between attachment to the pelicans she has come to know, and her desire to restore them to wildness. Perhaps the closest she, or we, can come to joining them is to follow them with her camera lens until they disappear into the northern California fog.

Pelican Dreams is 80 minutes long, rated G. It opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, November 7, 2014. You can find more information, including theaters and dates, at the Pelican Dreams website.

More Cornell Lab movie reviews:

Watch the Pelican Dreams trailer:

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