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home : birding w/don reimer : birding w/don reimer
January 29, 2020

4/1/2015 12:19:00 PM
On the Road-
Canada Warbler (Photos by Don Reimer)
Canada Warbler (Photos by Don Reimer)
Snowy Owl
Snowy Owl
by Don Reimer

In late March, I motored south for the Connecticut Ornithological Association's annual bird conference. In general, conferences can be boring or stimulating, depending on your interest level in the subject. Birds? Well yes, I was definitely interested. Prior to the day's three birding talks, 215 registrants milled through aisles of bird books, artwork, optics displays and birding tour vendors. As the familiar expression goes, I even bought the t-shirt. More later.

With spring migration purportedly on our doorsteps, The Overlooked ID Points that Make Identifying Warblers Easy was the first talk. For many folks, the terms "warbler" and "easy" are incompatible in the same sentence. Spring warbler migration is condensed into a period of weeks or days, allowing for limited periods of extended observation. In addition, the hungry warblers tend to elude our study as they flit among branches.

The "easy" ID points involved subtle facial features, color impressions, feather edgings, rump contrast, and foraging style, location and behavior. Perhaps the most useful information emphasized looking closely at diagnostic tail and facial patterns (note the Canada Warbler's facial markings in my photo).

Next, Norman Smith, director at Environmental Education Center in Milton, Massachusetts, reported on Snowy Owl incursions. Since 1981 Norman has spent countless days and nights, in every imaginable weather condition, observing, capturing, banding, and color marking Snowy Owls at Logan International Airport. Winter airports are prime habitat for these majestic white owls.

During any typical winter, 6 to 12 Snowies are captured and banded at Logan. By sharp contrast, a remarkable 179 owls were captured there during the 2013-14 season. Norman's studies have reversed some preconceptions and myths about these birds. Myth 1: Snowy Owls arriving in New England are predominantly sick and/or starving to death. In reality, most of these owls are in good physical condition upon arrival. Myth 2: Most irruptive Snowy Owls die and never make it back to Arctic nesting regions. Radio-tagging studies suggest that many of these owls do return north. By April, most Snowy Owls will have vacated New England. In recent days, though, a lingering Snowy Owl is seen near the Weskeag Farm fields on Buttermilk Lane in South Thomaston.

The featured conference speaker was author of "The Sibley Guide to Birds," David Allen Sibley. His Psychology of Bird Identification talk explained how we perceive the world around us, and how our brains both help and hinder our efforts at bird identification. How many of us have ever mistaken a clump of grass, cluster of twigs or insect web for a bird? Remember that Snowy Egret that turned out to be merely a Clorox bottle? Foggy weather conditions can also deceive our senses, since fog magnifies the apparent size of birds. Regardless of our personal birding ability, recognition of a bird is often shaped by our personal expectations.

Sibley cited a Whiskered Tern discovered at Cape May, New Jersey, in September 2014. This Eurasian species had been recorded only twice in North America. During peak fall migration time, hundreds of zealous birders ply Cape May Township. In retrospect, the vagrant tern had flown past many seasoned birders for several days. This odd-appearing tern was passed off as a Common Tern in some weird phase of feather molt. Events shifted dramatically when a visiting British birder scanned the beaches. When the unique tern appeared in his scope's viewfinder, the Brit nonchalantly uttered, "Whiskered Tern. Is that rare around these parts?"

The conference t-shirt I purchased has a simple logo of planet earth on the front. Beneath the logo, it reads, "Bird Wherever You Are." So go ahead. Observe all the birds around you at every opportunity.

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