Blog Birding #298


Our time in nature is wonderful for the birds we enjoy, but also for the fellow travelers we meet, as Justin Cale reflects at Notes from the Wildside.

I continued my walk down the wide path that would eventually become the wall of a dam. Breathing in deeply, I couldn’t help but smile as I admired the beauty nature had so thoughtfully put before me. The trees were on fire with color, and many birds were chirping and bouncing around their branches. I happened upon a small flock of Yellow-rumped Warblers and one of them was kind enough to pose for me.

As woodpeckers go, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is a strange one, and its behavior is enough to pose questions for a young Kenn Kaufman, in the story he tells at Kenn Kaufman’s Notebook at Audubon.

The name fit. Yellow on the belly-check. Sucking sap-yep. According to the books, this unconventional member of the woodpecker family made a habit of digging little pits, or sap wells, in the bark of trees and then coming back later to lick up what oozed out. It also ate insects like other woodpeckers, and sometimes feasted on wild fruits and berries. But much of the time, it was filling its (yellow) belly with sap.

Few studies have provided us with more information on the charismatic Snowy Owl than Project SNOWstorm. It’s back for another season and Scott Weidensaul explains what they hope to accomplish and what mysteries still remain.

The biggest challenge we scientists face, then, is to cover similar continent-wide areas to assess breeding densities. Given the size of the Arctic tundra ecosystem, coupled with the transportation costs required to cover this huge expanse of land, and the security issues associated with field work in this remote wilderness, it is impossible to precisely assess absolute numbers of snowy owl pairs on a continental basis. That is why we monitor a few key sites where we can precisely assess breeding numbers and then extrapolate to the whole region.

A recent study, published in The Auk: Ornithological Advances and related at The AOU-COS Blog, looks at the head movements of hawks as they seek out prey and navigate their environment. Come for the cool insights, stay for the photo of the goshawk in a crazy helmet.

To gather data, Kane and her colleagues examined archived videos of hunting raptors recorded from the ground, but they also got some hawk’s-eye footage with the help of Shinta the Northern Goshawk, a falconry bird raised in captivity. Wearing a head-mounted camera to record her head movements, Shinta hunted pheasants and rabbits under the supervision of her handler, Robert Musters. “Robert has been a phenomenal falconer to work with on several studies now,” says Kane. “He’s been extremely creative in designing the helmets used to hold the miniature video cameras, as well as expertly flying Shinta during the actual fieldwork.”

More sophisticated radar systems not only allow for more precise weather prediction but a more complete understanding as to how migrating birds orient themselves in different weather conditions. At All About Birds, Pat Leonard shares what researchers are finding out.

“On calm nights, fall migrants in the eastern U.S. would typically head southwest. But the prevailing winds there blow from west to east,” explains Benjamin Van Doren, a Cornell University undergraduate who was also a coauthor on both studies thanks to an NSF grant for research experience for undergrads. “These winds can shove migrating birds over the Atlantic Ocean where there’s nowhere to land.”


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