Saturday, December 26, 2009

What a year!

It was almost a year ago that I submitted my resignation from Hewlett-Packard after a successful 21 year career. The past year has been spectacular. I can honestly say that it was one of the best moves that I have made.

It was a very stressful and difficult decision to make. Should I leave a good, high paying job and plunge into the unknown. Should I leave the security of pay and benefits for the promise of neither. In the end, I decided it was. At least so far, I was right!

The past year has been dominated by my schooling and my research into avian migration. These activities have kept me busier than when I worked.

Schooling has gone well. I have just completed my third straight semester with a 4.0 GPA. In the most recent semester I received straight A+'s in all of my classes. If it wasn't for a single A- a year ago, I would have a perfect record. The maturity and experience of a career environment has definitely improved my focus and skills for school. It is interesting that I have applied for two scholarships and received both of them. With this track record I probably should have applied for more!

I recently made the decision to pull my graduation up to May of 2010. This makes my spring semester a busy one with 20 credits. I have also applied to graduate school for a Masters degree in Raptor Biology, hopefully starting in August 2010.

My most significant activities for the past year has been my research into the weather impacts on avian migration. The research started as a predator-prey study, but I had to piece out the weather impacts first. After diving into weather impacts, I discovered some new and unexpected results. This shifted my focus onto weather exclusively for the past 6 months. This project has many challenges. Getting the right data, using appropriate statistical measures etc. While there is a great deal of freely available weather data on the web, getting the right data in a consistent format is definitely a challenge. Much has changed over the last 13 years, the time period for the focus of my study. On the statistical side, I originally used methods present in publications dating about 15 years ago. Apparently the statistical expectations have evolved a great deal since then and thus a new approach is required. I have learned a great deal in this area. My manuscript is in its third revision for internal review. We hope to submit for publication early in the new year. I have submitted the abstract to two conferences for presentation and have been accepted by both. I will be in San Diego in February presenting at the joint American Ornithologists' Union/Cooper Ornithological Society conference then presenting in March at the Idaho chapter of the Wildlife Society.

The most interesting aspect of the research was my field work with migrating songbirds and raptors. This was an amazing experience. The remarkable beauty and strength of these seemingly frail creatures continues to fascinate me. Its hard to pick out a favorite bird after inspecting such diversity up close. Is it the striking beauty of a Wilson's Warbler, the tenacity of the Red-breasted Nuthatch, the rarity of the Hermit Warbler, or the simple non-conspicuous nature of the Dusky Flycatcher.

Male Wilson's Warbler.

I've seen birds so fat they can barely fly. I've seen birds so thin that they probably aren't alive today. I've been crapped on by more Dusky Flycatchers than I could count. I've returned a baby bird to its mother to be fed. I've been loved by a kinglet! And I have seen death at the hands of nature and at the hands of humans. The fact that these little creatures, many barely 5 grams, can fly for thousands of miles per year to return to the exact same spot is unbelievable.

The raptor side is equally as fascinating. Watching a group of 23 Broad-winged Hawks (very rare here) fly overhead is impressive. Watching a Prairie Falcon stoop after a Cooper's Hawk was even more impressive. But the most amazing of all was the Peregrine Falcon stooping over my head. This bird, once on the brink of extinction, is the fastest animal on the planet. When it pulls out of a stoop just above your head the roar of the wind turbulence is unbelievable.

Here I am with a Juvenile Peregrine Falcon.

In between all of my bird nerd work, Karyn and I did get out to put quite a few miles on our bike. We explored Fruita Colorado with close friends for spring break, visited Yellowstone to watch wildlife, spent our Anniversary in Stanley, and picked Idaho huckleberries with friends among other activities.

I don't know what all the new year will have in store, but it should start off with a bang as Karyn and I head to Kenya for a few weeks to study East African Raptors and Vultures. Then presenting research at two conferences, finishing my biology degree, starting graduate school, starting new research, and of course playing on the skis and on the bike. It looks to be another great year.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Counting birds for Christmas

For 110 years citizen scientists have joined the National Audubon Society to brave the December and January cold to perform surveys of wintering birds in an event called the Christmas Bird Count. Each participating location chooses a date between December 15 and January 4th to hold their event. Yesterday was the Boise Christmas Bird Count and I was out there counting.

Park Center Pond just after sunrise.

The event includes trying to count every bird in a 24km (15 mile) diameter circle. This includes splitting up into teams. We had about 40 volunteers split up into 13 teams. Each team was assigned and area and headed out before sunrise to begin the count. I joined up with my good friends Jay and Heidi to begin our count. We would be responsible for SE Boise between the river and the freeway.

Adult Bald Eagle on Boise River.

The Boise River is a great place any time of year, but is especially nice in the winter. Bald Eagles fly right through town. This is one of four we would count.

Adult Bald Eagle.

Most of the day would be overcast, although not too cold and little wind. The sun did peak out just enough to provide me some great lighting for this magnificent bird. Another great sighting along the river was finding 4 species in a single tree - Brown Creeper, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Red-breasted Nuthatch, and Black-capped Chickadee.

Adult Bald Eagle.

Unfortunately we were limited on time, so we had to move on. Canvasing the territory we would find at least 3 large groups of Cedar Waxwings including 100-150 birds each. In each one Jay could hear at least one Bohemian Waxwing, but we couldn't quite pick it out in the flock due to the lighting.

Cedar Waxwings with at least 1 Bohemian Waxwing

This particular flock was raiding a berry tree in someone's yard. It was also closely watched by a Sharp-shinned Hawk and a Cooper's Hawk! Later in the day we would return to this tree to see that all of the Cedar Waxwings had flown off leaving two Bohemians sitting in the top of the tree.

Downy Woodpecker.

By noon we had count 50 species within our group, including lots of raptors as we moved out across the desert southeast of Boise. Hiking out on the old Oregon Trail overlooking the Boise River we picked up a couple of species not always seen around here - the Canyon Wren and two American Dippers.

Canyon Wren.

Unfortunately due to other commitments I had to leave the count at 4pm. Karyn came out to pick me up and we counted two additional spots along our route home. At the first spot we found a few of my favorite waterfowl, the Hooded Merganser. There were two males and two females. The males were displaying. It was an impressive sight.

Male Hooded Mergansers displaying.

After a few minutes they realized that the females had lost interest and swam off. They ended the displays and swam in pursuit.

Hooded Mergansers.

My un-official tally for our group was 57 species by the time I had to leave, with bird counts in the many thousands. Its great to be able to contribute to such an important tradition and important survey. It was also a great day to spend outside with friends with lots of great sightings.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Winter Birds

I read an article recently on a way to better control the auto focus on a camera. Its called back-button auto focusing. It works on most digital SLR camera like our Canon Digital Rebel XTi. The concept is that the camera focuses while a button is pressed on the back of the camera. Release the button and auto focus stops. This promises to be a great help when photographing birds or anything in motion. I regularly have the problem when panning that the focus will get lost and I lose the shot.

Wanting to get some experience with this mode before leaving for Africa, I went out on Sunday to try it out. There was a report from Friday of a very cold, lost, rare bird for Idaho, a Tricolored Heron. It was seen and photographed along the Boise River on Friday. While no one could find it on Saturday, I thought I would give it a shot.

No luck. I did find many great birds including three Great Blue Herons.

Great Blue Heron. Boise River.
Great Blue Heron. Boise River.

The lighting wasn't great, but I did get some good experience with the camera mode. Not a bad day for birding either. Other birds - Bald Eagle, Red-tailed Hawk, Belted Kingfisher, American Crow, Common Merganser, American Wigeon, Mallard, Pied-billed Grebe, Barrow's Goldeneye, Northern Flicker, Dark-eyed Junco, and Black-billed Magpie.

Yesterday we received 3 inches of snow. I watched in fascination as the Dark-eyed Juncos learned about snow in my backyard. They flew from the feeder to land on the railing of my deck. They would disappear in the soft powder. They flew out and tied to land on the ground. Once again sinking out of sight in the snow. In a cloud of flakes they flew up looking for a solid place to land. The finally settled in the tree and on the fence where they could remain above the snow. What a different world they woke up in today.