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yellow warbler by brian mccaffrey

Yellow Warbler by Brian McCaffrey via Birdshare.

By Hugh Powell

Warblers are a fascinating mix of beauty and frustration: eye-popping color and sweet song, along with the ability to disappear behind the smallest of leaves and to molt into head-scratching plumages each fall. The Parulidae finally got the field-guide treatment they deserved in 2013—and we loved The Warbler Guide’s mix of information and innovation.

But authors Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle didn’t stop there. The Warbler Guide app followed in late 2014. The app is far more than a straight repackaging of the printed content. It does feature a huge amount of information from the book—all of the photos, the quick finders, the ID text, comparison species, ageing and sexing guides, and song info—but it adds imaginative and really useful functions that are only possible in a digital format. Here’s a rundown of what the app lets you do:

3d comparison in the warbler guide app1. Compare 2 species from any angle using 3-D models

You had me at “3-D models.” This is the kind of thing we used to dream about when flipping through field guides—a way to free those illustrations from their static, side-on poses and rotate an entire bird left, right, up, down, until it was in the exact position you saw it in (usually, for me, a 3/4 view of the belly and undertail coverts).

These rotatable views are probably the coolest feature of the app—especially since you can do it with two birds at a time to compare exactly what’s different.

Put it this way: we now live in a world where a Golden-winged Warbler can dance to a Kanye song.

How-to: From the species finder, select a warbler species. When its page opens, swipe until you see the bird in profile, then tap the “3D” icon that appears in the upper right of your screen. To compare two similar species, select a comparison species, make sure you’re on the profile view, and then tap the 3D button to bring up a split screen. Then rotate to your heart’s content.

2. Narrow down using plumage and song clues simultaneously, using the Filter

Filtering tools are a pretty common way for digital field guides to help you find what you’re looking for. But one thing makes the Warbler Guide’s filter special: you can add together plumage and song clues into a single filtered list of possibilities. This works nicely for the classic warbler-viewing experience, where you hear the bird singing but strain to get a clear view of anything more than the belly. For example, if your warbler is camped out behind a leaf and all you can get is a black back and a rising song, the filter can still narrow it down to just one bird.

using the filter in the warbler guide app for bird id

How-to: tap the “Filter” icon in the top right of your screen. On an iPad, a Filter tray will slide out from the left side of the screen. On an iPhone, the Filter tray will take over the whole screen. Tap on a part of a bird to select the color or markings you saw, and/or tap to select the sound qualities you heard. On an iPad, the warbler list will update as you select items; on an iPhone just tap on the Filter icon again to show the list of possible species.

Tip: keep to a low number of filtered items at first. This will narrow the list of possibilities but will reduce the chance you’ll wind up with no choices (for instance, if you judge a color or sound differently than the app’s authors did). You can always add items to the filter as you go.

3. Listen to lots of song recordings—each one with a spectrogram

You do at least 50 percent of your warbler watching with your ears. Songs help you zero in on a target species, or find those elusive rascals as they flit from the top of one leaf to the top of the next. Both the Warbler Guide book and the app go the extra mile to provide excellent help with learning songs.

One of the great benefits of an app over a book is the ability to play sounds rather than resort to written evocations such as “sweet, sweet, sweet, I’m so sweet.” (I am a big fan of the Warbler Guide’s haiku-esque song descriptions, but actual recordings are still preferable.) The Warbler Guide app goes further, compiling up to a dozen song variations and chip notes for each species (recordings are from our own Macaulay Library). And each one comes with its own spectrogram—a tried-and-tested but criminally underused tool invented by bioacousticians. A spectrogram is a graph of pitch versus time—it lets you use your eyes to learn sounds. (If you’re new to spectrograms, our Bird Song Hero game is a fun introduction to them.)

How-to: You can play songs straight from the list of warbler species, or you can play them from the Songs tab in each species profile. Tap the musical-note icon that appears under the images of male warblers. This brings up a list of calls and songs. Tap on the carat at the top to display a detailed description of the song’s makeup. Tap on an entry in the list to play that song. The text at the top changes to display the spectrogram and text specific to that recording.

browsing the many sound and song features of the warbler guide app

4. Not just similar species—similar-sounding species

Going all the way back to the great Peterson guides, one of the most useful parts of a field guide is the similar species section. This is where the reader gets to lean on the expertise of the author, learning both which species you should worry about and how you tell the difference. The Warbler Guide app can help you with similar-looking species. But it goes further, pointing out similar-sounding species as well. Their explanations are incredibly specific, too—similar-sounding species are compared on a song-by-song basis.

How-to: To see comparison songs, you’ll need to choose a warbler species and go to its species account. Tap the Songs tab and select a song. A list of species with similar songs appears below. Tap to play a song in this list, and the spectrogram appears along with text telling you how this song differs from the song you’re comparing it to.

5. Learn a song’s details by slowing it down to half-speed

Guitarists have for years been slowing down recordings so they can learn the secrets of fleet-fingered heroes like Stevie Ray Vaughan or Bonnie Raitt. Now it’s our turn. And because we live in a digital age, it’s even possible to slow down a recording without lowering its pitch. The notes sound the same, they just come at you slower, so you can concentrate on the details. For reference, musicians pay around $15—more than the Warbler Guide—for an app whose sole function is slowing down music. That’s with no recordings, no expert text, no colorful, rotatable warblers. This feature is yet another example of how the Warbler Guide authors went above and beyond expectations with this app.

How-to: From any song list, choose a song and press the Play icon. The song will begin to play, but you’ll also see three new buttons appear. Tapping the middle one (1/2) will start the song over and play it at half speed.

A few final notes about the app

The Warbler Guide app is only available on iOS devices at present. The app works just fine on an iPhone, although the larger screen of an iPad makes it easier to use features like the Filter. According to Stephenson, the sweet spot in terms of screen size vs. portability is an iPad Mini or an iPhone 6+. The text is small enough on an iPhone that older users (such as this reviewer) may find themselves reaching for their glasses (although it’s still more readable than the text in the second edition Sibley guide). And finally, you’ll need to get used to the fact that the app does not have a search bar. Fortunately, the app is limited to just warblers; it’s easy just to scroll down the alphabetic list of warblers to the one you’re interested in.

Bonus: Video tutorials can help you find these hidden features and more

We highly recommend the Warbler Guide app to anyone with an interest in seeing, hearing, and learning the 50-odd warbler species in North America. Do bear in mind, however, that—like the book—the app has so much packed into it that it can be hard to find your way to all of its features. To help users deal with this, the authors prepared some helpful video demonstrations to get you up and running.

As Stephenson and Whittle are fond of saying, Happy Warblering!

More about warbler identification:

(Warbler Guide screen images courtesy Tom Stephenson/Scott Whittle.)

Posted in identification | 11 Comments
PSiskins-Vuxinic

Pine Siskins by Bob Vuxinic via Birdshare.

By Joe Rojas-Burke

With puzzling variability, vast numbers of birds from Canada’s boreal forests migrate hundreds or thousands of miles south from their usual winter range. These so-called irruptions were first noticed by birdwatchers decades ago, but the driving factors have never been fully explained. Now scientists have pinpointed the climate pattern that likely sets the stage for irruptions—a discovery that could make it possible to predict the events more than a year in advance.

The researchers found that persistent shifts in rainfall and temperature drive boom-and-bust cycles in forest seed production, which in turn drive the mass migrations of Pine Siskins, the most widespread and visible of the irruptive migrants. “It’s a chain reaction from climate to seeds to birds,” says atmospheric scientist Court Strong, an assistant professor at the University of Utah and lead author of the study.

Many seed-eating boreal species are subject to irruptions, including Bohemian WaxwingsCedar Waxwings, Boreal Chickadees, Red Crossbills, White-winged Crossbills, Purple Finches, Pine and Evening Grosbeaks, Red-breasted Nuthatches, and Common and Hoary Redpolls. The authors focused on the Pine Siskin, a species featured prominently in earlier work on irruptive migrations.

Previous studies have found evidence that irruptions are triggered by food shortages caused by the large-scale collapse of seed production in northern pine, spruce and fir forests.

“We’ve known for a long time that weather was probably important, but prior analyses by ecologists have been unable to identify exactly what role weather was playing in this phenomenon,” says ecologist Walt Koenig, a senior scientist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and coauthor of the new study incorporating climate science. “It’s a good example of the value of interdisciplinary work,” Koenig says.

To resolve the question, the scientists turned to a remarkable trove of data gathered by backyard birders as part of Project FeederWatch, a citizen-science initiative run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. FeederWatch volunteers systematically record bird sightings from November through early April and they gave the scientists more than two million observations of pine siskins since 1989. The crowdsourced data makes it possible to track the movement of bird populations at a continentwide scale.

BChickadee-Jess

Many seed-eating boreal species, like this Boreal Chickadee, move elsewhere to find overwintering habitat with adequate food, and are subject to irruptions. Photo by Jess4407 via Birdshare.

“Avid birders across the U.S. and Canada have contributed sustained observations of birds at the same broad geographic scale in which weather and climate have also been observed and understood,” says coauthor Julio Betancourt, a senior scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, Virginia.

Pine Siskins breed during summer in Canadian boreal forests, where they rely heavily on tree seeds for food. When seeds are abundant, Pine Siskins in eastern North America largely stay put in the northern coniferous forests of Canada through the winter. But when seed production is poor, Pine Siskins and other boreal birds move elsewhere to find overwintering habitat with adequate food. During these irruptive years, the eastern populations of Pine Siskins forage as far south as the Appalachian Mountains. Western populations show less variability in irruptive movements.

Amateur birdwatchers have recorded dramatic shifts in siskin migrations over the years. The winter ending in 1990, for example, featured a massive “superflight” south of the boreal forest, while during the winter ending in 2004 there was a near absence of boreal Pine Siskins in the U.S. The winter ending in 2009 saw another big irruption south of the boreal forest, followed by greatly reduced counts the following winter.

In the new study, researchers combined FeederWatch observations with climate data in a statistical analysis. This allowed them to link bird population movements with established patterns of climate variability across North America. As expected, they found that extremely cold winters tend to drive birds south during the irruption year.

More surprisingly, the researchers found a teeter-tottering pattern between the north and south that influences bird migrations two to three years later. When the prevailing weather is wet and cold and unfavorable to seed production in one region, it tends to be warmer and drier and favorable to seed production in the other region.

This climate “dipole” tends to push and pull bird migrations across the continent. The heaviness of seed production in a given year depends on how favorable the climate was during the two or three previous years required to set and ripen seeds. That means that, in principle, it might be possible to predict irruptions up to two years in advance.

The finding also raises a question about the impact of global climate change: could the perturbation by massive carbon dioxide emissions disrupt the coupling between north and south such that unfavorable conditions unfold simultaneously, leaving birds with poor seed supplies everywhere in some years?

The answer is unknown. “The boreal forest is the world’s largest terrestrial biome and is home to more than half of North America’s bird species,” says coauthor Benjamin Zuckerberg, an assistant professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “It is likely that these irruptions, driven by climate, are a critical indicator of how climate change will affect northern forests and their dependent species.”

For more information:

Posted in Birds, science | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

GlobalBigDay2

By Pat Leonard

***Update: since this was posted, the Global Big Day tally has continued to rise (as people entered the day’s checklists into eBird after the fact). The total stands at 6,069 species as of May 27, 2015, including more than 43,000 checklists and nearly 14,000 participants.***

When the Cornell Lab of Ornithology invited bird watchers everywhere to go birding on May 9 and report their sightings for the first ever Global Big Day, no one knew what to expect. The results have exceeded all expectations! From Panama to Australia, India to Lithuania, participants enthusiastically accepted the invitation, tallying more than half of the world’s bird species. The numbers are still going up as participants continue to enter their lists through May 12.

GlobalBigDayMap

Black dots indicate where checklists were submitted for Global Big Day. The large yellow dot shows a new checklist dropping in.

See current results.

But the day also turned into something the numbers cannot capture. Global Big Day was defined by team efforts worldwide and was not necessarily about competitive goals or checking off species. It was about truly appreciating birds, unique habitat, and diversity—and about sharing the excitement of birding and the importance of conservation.

Thank you to everyone who donated to support the Lab’s Global Big Day teams. There’s still time to make a gift toward bird conservation—the other driving force behind this event.

Worldwide Overview

As of Monday morning, May 11, Global Big Day included participation from more than 11,000 individuals from 119 countries, tallying more than 5,600 species on more than 36,000 checklists. A few highlights:

  • The very first bird reported for Global Big Day was a Bush Thick-knee from Queensland, Australia
  • Every country in Central America participated, along with 16 countries in the Caribbean. In Panama, Sociedad Audubon de Panamá mobilized teams nationwide, with 84 birders posting over 650 checklists and 620 species, almost two-thirds of the country’s species! Prominent and luxurious birder destinations including the Canopy Family (Canopy Tower, Canopy Lodge, Canopy Camp, and Canopy B&B), Los Quetzales Ecolodge and Spa, and Tranquilo Bay Eco Lodge also mobilized teams to participate in Global Big Day, hosted Cornell Lab staff in the lead up to the Big Day, and provided amazing logistical support. Every one of them provides a great birding destination for visitors to Panama and is highly recommended.
  • South America had stellar participation. The cumulative lists for both Peru and Brazil topped 1,000 species in each country, with Peru slightly ahead of Brazil
  • In Peru, the organization CORBIDI motivated birders across the country; Peru’s list edged out Brazil to become the highest species count for any country in Global Big Day
  • Brazil’s birders also compiled a 4-digit species list, thanks to a big mobilization effort from SAVE Brasil and Butantan Bird Observatory
  • More than 28,500 checklists were submitted from all 50 U.S. states and every Canadian province and territory
  • 30 countries in Europe joined the effort; kudos to Lithuania, where the organization ORNI prompted participation and resulted in 22 checklists
  • India is one of the most active eBird countries year-round and turned in a most impressive 548 checklists during Global Big Day
  • Taiwan contributed an exceptional number of sightings, reporting more than 200 species
  • In Malaysia, thanks to the Sandakan Borneo Bird Club in the Sabah portion of Borneo, participants submitted 53 checklists with a whopping 333 species
  • BirdLife Zimbabwe did a great job with the event and birders there have contributed 232 species, one of the highest totals from a country in Africa so far.
  • Australia is in the top 5 participating countries and closing in on an astonishing 500 species

Sapsuckers in Panama

TeamSapsucker

Team Sapsucker in Panama (L-R) Carlos Bethancourt, Chris Wood, Jessie Barry, Tim Lenz, Marshall Iliff. Photo by Carlos Gómez.

“On Global Big Day, we were Panamanians,” says Chris Wood, captain of the Cornell Lab’s Team Sapsucker and co-leader of eBird. He and four others on the team reported 320 species during the day, reveling in an exceptionally warm welcome from a country that may be small geographically but is super-sized when it comes to diversity of species and its importance to birds throughout the Western Hemisphere.

“This event is promoting interest in and appreciation of birds,” says Wood. “Once you have that, you have a solid foundation for long-term monitoring. Monitoring results in better understanding about where birds go and how they use the habitat—and it helps create more effective conservation efforts.”

For the Sapsuckers, birding in Panama was an eye-opening experience. Their day began at midnight at home base, the Canopy Tower Lodge. The first bird they heard was a Mottled Owl followed by a Great Tinamou and a Black-and-white Owl. Pre-dawn birding included one of several life-birds for the team, a Rufous Nightjar, along with Capped Heron and Boat-billed Heron.

Daylight brought humidity and temperatures in the nineties. The team spent 2 hours on the famously birdy Pipeline Road, which is really a dirt track through the forest. They bounced along in the so-called “BirdMobile” supplied by their Canopy Tower hosts and driven by Domi Alveo. Having Canopy’s Tower’s Carlos Bethancourt on the team was another eye-opening experience, notes Sapsucker Marshall Iliff. “Carlos’s knowledge of Panamanian species and his ability to find them and recognize their sounds is extraordinary,” says Marshall. “We felt truly humbled!” For example, Panama boasts about 100 species of flycatchers alone, each with slightly different whistles and trills. The Sapsuckers counted 39 of them.

PanamaTrail

Following the Pipeline Road. Photo by Carlos Gómez.

The entire day was punctuated by memorable moments as the team moved from tropical rainforest to marshes, highlands, and rice fields. Imagine having a Spectacled Owl fly by so closely you can feel the wind from its wings; having a Pheasant Cuckoo perch at eye level along the Pipeline Road; floating down the Chagres River to discover 40 super-rare Masked Ducks; hearing the spine-tingling “roar” of a Rufescent Tiger-Heron at night while Panamanian night-monkeys cavort in the trees. For Sapsucker Tim Lenz, the highlight was seeing dozens of hummingbirds jockeying for position at backyard feeders in the Cerro Azul development northeast of Panama City, including male Rufous-crested Coquettes with their punk-rocker hairdos.

After being dazzled by so many new species the Sapsuckers say they finally “felt like competent birders” again when scoping the bay at Panama City where a large proportion of the global population of Western Sandpipers winters, along with other familiar Arctoc breeders such as Black-bellied Plovers, Whimbrel, and Short-billed Dowitchers.

The Sapsuckers ended the day at rice fields and lowland marshes where they identified the Pied Water-Tyrant and Cocoi Heron, finally wrapping up with Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, Common Nighthawk, and Barn Owl in the rapidly fading light of a tropical sunset. If the day could be summed up in one word, it might be “diversity.”

“The huge diversity of birds sounding off during the dawn chorus almost overwhelms your senses,” says team member Jessie Barry. “It’s a blend of so many birds, some familiar and others more scarce—there are dozens of species you try to pick out at each stop. It was a dream come true to see so many birds.”

“Inspiration” is another word that keeps coming up. Every step of the way, the Sapsuckers say they were inspired by the efforts of participants around the world and the phenomenal levels of participation in Global Big Day which they could follow in real time on the eBird website.

Redheads in New Jersey

RedheadsFog

For the state Redheads team and everyone else, finding birds was hampered by thick fog. L-R: Ben Barkley, Luke Seitz, Brendan Fogarty, Benjamin Van Doren. Photo by Andy Johnson.

The Big Day spirit of cooperation was also evident at the 32nd annual World Series of Birding in New Jersey. Teams were allowed to share information for the first time and it served everyone well as they all struggled with persistent fog, a bit of rain, and migrant species that vanished overnight.

Three teams made up of Cornell University students, collectively called Team Redhead, competed in the event’s state, county, and Big Stay divisions, registering stellar performances across the board.

“Even though the conditions were not great—we went an hour without finding any new birds at one point—we still came away feeling really good about the day,” says state Redheads team member Ben Barkley. “Even though it’s still a competition, there was a lot of sharing.”

The state team, made up of Barkley, Andrew Dreelin, Brendan Fogarty, Luke Seitz, and Benjamin Van Doren, totally upended the traditional birding route, starting the day with a Northern Mockingbird in the Meadowlands. But the real highlight was hearing a bird that’s been missing from World Series tallies for years: the secretive Black Rail, a find made possible after another team shared the bird’s location. The state Redheads team defended last year’s championship title, bringing home the Urner Stone Cup for the highest species total: 208. They happily shared the title with a Maryland youth team called the Raucous Gulls. Although technically not eligible for the award, the youth team tallied 216 species.

The Redheads team that birded Cape May County included Teresa Pegan, Eric Gulson, Mary Margaret Ferraro, and Max Witynski. They were very happy with their tally of 148 species which put them in second place in their division.

The Big Stay team, which did its birding in one location, won its division by just one species, reporting 71 in all. Sarah Dzielski, Lauren Flesher, Nathanial Hernandez, and Reid Rumelt made up this team and were thrilled to include a Mississippi Kite in their final tally.

The Swarovski Carbon Footprint award is shared by two teams, one of them the CMBO Birds and Blooms Scarlet Knight Herons which was raising funds for the Cornell Lab with its efforts. The team of David La Puma, Don Freiday, Timothy Freiday, Jessica Gorzo, and Bill Lynch identified 126 species as they did their birding without the use of a motorized vehicle. Way to go!

Fueling the Conservation Engine

For the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Big Days have traditionally been a means of raising funds to support its programs in education and conservation and to assist with undergraduate research through the Redhead Fund. This year was no different. Thanks to the generosity of supporters we are closing in on $300,000 toward our goal of $500,000 (so please consider donating to help our cause). As participation in Global Big Day grows, the hope is that conservation groups in other countries will find the event a useful way to bring in funds for their important work as well.

please-donate-cta

“I believe we will look back on this day as a pivotal event,” says Chris Wood. “This is when we really begin engaging a global audience and making Big Days about uniting birders in a collective global effort to survey birds, doing it together, and forging vital partnerships.”

CarlosBethancourt

An extraordinary talent: Sapsucker Carlos Bethancourt.

Many thanks to all who have supported Team Sapsucker and Team Redhead this year and who participated in Global Big Day. And an especially heartfelt “thank you” to Raul Arias and the entire Canopy Family for their tremendous hospitality during our team’s visit to Panama.

“There is no question that we would have seen far fewer birds and been much less comfortable without their help on every level,” says Wood. “Their local expertise, excellent lodging, delicious food, smooth logistics, and superlative skill at finding birds are simply unmatched. Everyone in the Canopy Family was simply amazing.”

Thanks to drivers Domi Alveo and Lorenzo Ibarra; to Jenn Sinasac who coordinated the entire visit; to Rosabel Miro and the staff at Panama Audubon; to eBird reviewers Jan Axel and Darien Montañez; and to the incomparable Carlos Bethancourt.

“Carlos was clearly the most valuable member of Team Sapsucker and personifies the rare combination of traits one looks for in the very best leader, conservationist, guide, and friend. Carlos—you will always be a Sapsucker!” says Chris Wood.

The Sapsuckers agree: “We can’t wait for next year!”

For more on the teams, Global Big Day, and more:

Posted in Big Day | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Author Laura Erickson, and wildlife photographer Marie Read talk about their new book, Into the Nest: Intimate Views of the Courting, Parenting, and Family Lives of Familiar Birds, that documents every stage in the family lives of birds. Their book offers rare glimpses into birds’ daily lives during the breeding season; from dramatic courtship to nest construction, egg-laying, and first attempts at flight by the young.

The talk took place on May 4, 2015. It was part of the Cornell Lab’s long-running Monday Night Seminar series, a tradition established decades ago by Lab founder Dr. Arthur Allen. If you enjoyed this seminar, check this page for our list of future speakers—we’ll note which upcoming talks will be livestreamed—or come visit us in person!

See our index of archived livestreamed seminars to enjoy more talks from the Cornell Lab.

Posted in Birds, Monday Night Seminar | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment
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