Birding News #91

:: In Alberta, the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and Mikisew Cree First Nation filed a lawsuit last week in federal court against a $7.9-billion hydroelectric project that was given environmental approval by the Canadian government earlier this fall, saying that the dam site was approved without considering the environmental impacts on the crucial Athabasca delta where the river runs into Lake Athabasca. The delta, one of the largest freshwater deltas in the world, is a designated UNESCO heritage site and is a critical area for migratory birds and wildlife, including dozens of threatened species.

:: Companies are working to improve glass design to save birds

:: A San Diego supermarket was using an electrical device to prevent pigeons from gathering near the store entrance, but unplugged the device when customers complained that it electrocuted a bird.

:: Mosquitoes prefer to suck blood from male birds, a study has found.

:: Birdlife Australia says in a new report that the extinction of threatened birds in the Mallee region is all but guaranteed as a consequence of the Australian state of Victoria’s bushfire prevention policy; species at risk include Mallee Emu-Wren, endangered Black-eared Miner, vulnerable Malleefowl, Red-lored Whistler, and the eastern sub-species of the Western Whipbird and Regent Parrot.

:: A study tracking neotropical bird speciation, or the process by which new species emerge, found that they arise as a result of emigration across physical boundaries rather than separation because of geological or climate changes.

Birding through troubled times

In the past six years, since I was 12, both of my maternal grandparents died, my paternal grandfather has had a stroke and moved into a nursing home, and my father was diagnosed with cancer. It was only this summer, after the stroke and my father’s cancer surgery, that I realized just how much birds and birding have helped me through very difficult times. Birding has been a distraction and a comfort for me, something that has both calmed and energized me.

In September 2009, several months after I started birding, my maternal grandfather was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and given 12 to 18 months to live. It was hard to believe at the time, because I knew only happy times with my grandparents, either here in Alberta, or visiting them at their homes in New York and the Caribbean island of Nevis. My grandfather, who was a keen photographer and loved the outdoors and gardening, gave me my first pair of binoculars, which I’m still using, and also a copy of of Les Beletsky’s Bird Songs, with its digital audio player that was a tremendous help for me when I was so young and curious about birds. After my grandfather started radiation treatments, my mother flew from our farm in Alberta, Canada, to New York in November to help him.

Unfortunately, the radiation didn’t work and the doctors told my mother and grandfather that his prognosis would be even shorter. When it became apparent that it would be his last Christmas, my mother had my father, my brothers, and me travel to NYC to spend Christmas together with my grandparents one last time (he would die several weeks later, in early January). As a distraction from a very sad situation — my grandfather’s illness, his changed personality, my grandmother’s sadness — in a very small New York apartment with seven people, my father (who isn’t at all a birder) took me to Central Park for a bird walk. Although it was snowing quite heavily, we saw some good birds, many of which were lifers for me. We even walked over to the Fifth Avenue apartment building where the celebrated Pale Male lives, but swirling snow prevented us from seeing the nest.

Several months after my grandfather died, my family flew down to Nevis in October to help my grandmother sort through my his things at their retirement house, and to prepare the house for sale. Although our days were very full with clearing out, cleaning, and painting the house, I still had time to go birding every morning. While on Nevis, I added lots of species to my life list, including three new species of hummingbirds — Antillean Crested Hummingbird, Green-throated Carib, and Purple-throated Carib. I showed my grandmother many of the photos I took, and her favourite was a backlit photo I took of a Purple-throated Carib. One of the highlights of that trip was finding a female Antillean Crested Hummingbird on her nest, and also photographing it. For a 12-year-old birder, this was certainly something special.

The female Antillean Crested Hummingbird on her nest (2010),


Nevis is also the place I started this blog. Because I was taking lots of photos, and seeing so many new species, I thought a blog would be the perfect medium for chronicling my adventures. But partway through our stay, my grandmother became very sick, and then died several day later, very suddenly and unexpectedly. What had already been a difficult and sad trip, so different from our previous family visits, was even harder. Being able to go birding every morning gave some sense of normalcy to my days, and also gave me something to look forward to, especially after we found out that our return home would have to be delayed for several weeks while my parents made all the necessary arrangements. And while I started the blog at a difficult time, it has brought me so many friends and opportunities. It’s another reminder that good things can come out of terrible circumstances.

This year has been particularly hard. In April, my paternal grandfather, who lives nearby and with whom I’ve always been very close, suffered a severe stroke and nearly died. He was in the hospital for five months and recently moved into a nursing home. He is no longer the man he was — he is confined to bed or a wheelchair, and his memory and speech are almost gone. He doesn’t know me anymore, and there have been days when he’s been so agitated that it’s upsetting to see. And his stroke has changed my grandmother too, from the calm and always smiling glue of the family to someone who is now almost always sad, anxious, and distracted. It’s rather like finding out that two rocks you have been able to count on your entire life have suddenly crumbled.

Our family spent much of my grandfather’s first few weeks in the hospital with him, and after long hours of being cooped up, it was wonderful to be able to go birding in, to escape to, the nearby Provincial Park, a short walk away. The hospital had its own little oasis, too,  a central courtyard with a garden, and from the window in my grandfather’s room, I could watch the Blue Jays, Black-billed Magpies, and House Sparrows that came every day. The species weren’t particularly exciting, but I realized that for patients and visitors, even a House Sparrow can bring some cheer after days and weeks spent in the same room. Keeping my grandmother company, I would sometimes bring my ABA field notebook to work on, and show her my sketches in progress.

A sketch of a Hermit Thrush I finished while in the hospital,


I’ve thought often that one of the things my grandfather and I liked to talk about, one of the things we’ve had in common, are a love of animals in general and birds in particular, and it’s painful to know that we won’t be able to talk about this and share it any more. Spring migration was in full force during much of his stay at the hospital. I’d bring my iPad to the hospital room and show my grandfather my photos. Sometimes he would laugh and smile when looking at the photos, other times he would cry and look very sad. My grandfather always loved nature and he loved to share his knowledge and experiences with his grandchildren. Now that he’s in the nursing home, unable to stand, to remember his family, or to express himself clearly most of the time, it’s hard to accept that he will never again be the person I once knew — a person who enjoyed nature, who could spend an entire afternoon watching the birds through his kitchen window. I can also appreciate how miserable he must be, unable to get around on his own and confined to a facility, unable to be outdoors where he was always happiest. Birding, and photographing birds, is a way of remembering and honouring both of my grandfathers.

Shortly after my grandfather’s stroke, my father was diagnosed with prostate cancer. It was a frightening time for my family, especially waiting to find out whether the cancer had spread. His surgery was in Edmonton, a three-hour drive from our house, and my mother was with him for the four days they were in the city; she kept in touch by telephone, but for a family used to spending so much time together because of home schooling and farming, the distance was difficult. It was rather disconcerting to be so far away from my parents at such an important time, and we didn’t have any family staying with us because my grandmother, aunts, and uncles were all looking after my grandfather. I did go birding a few times while my parents were gone, which was a helpful release and a chance to forget about everything happening. Even when I didn’t have time for dedicated birding, I was always observing birds. On my way to work every day, I would see everything from hawks, gulls, and a pair Guinea Hens crossing the road (escapees from a neighbouring farm), to a large group of pelicans flying north from the river. Almost every morning I would see an American Kestrel siting on the power line or fence post often with prey in its talons. This is one of the beauties of birding — birds are everywhere and can help distract your thoughts from times of hardship.

A Killdeer from one of my bird walks this summer,


During the difficult times my family has had to face, birding has helped to keep me strong. I’ve learned to go birding as often as I could, to make the time even when I was busy with my summer job and farm chores, because it helped me relieve stress and remind me of happier times. Especially because birding around our farm or the Provincial Park nearby means going for very long walks, I was able to lose myself whenever I went birding. Most birders know Emily Dickinson’s famous line, “Hope is the thing with feathers”. I’ve found that birds do indeed give me hope, especially at times when life seems to be rather hopeless, whether it’s the anticipation of migrants returning in the spring, or that tomorrow might bring a new species for my year list or life list or even just the sighting of an old favourite. Being out in the woods or on the prairie surrounded by birds — surrounded, as I wrote this the other month, by tens of thousands of Canada Geese and Snow Geese — I was reminded at this harvest time of the generosity and abundance of nature. That no matter how hard or ugly life can be, there is always beauty, grace, and strength in this world. That just as as winter always comes, with witherings and departures, so to does spring, with returns and rebirth.

A male Mountain Bluebird at the local Provincial Park. My paternal grandparents are particularly fond of Mountain Bluebirds,


Podcast for “Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds” Show #500

If you didn’t get a chance to listen to the special live radio broadcast on Sunday, you can now listen to the podcast of the 500th show of “Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds” from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History:


mp3 at Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds Tumblr 

The show features host Ray Brown; Smithsonian ornithologist Bruce Beehler (the second edition of his book with Thane Pratt, Birds of New Guinea, Second Edition, is now out); and me. There’s a segment on a bird that keeps warm in a “winter rental”, Mike O’Connor from the Bird Watcher’s General Store in Orleans (MA) talks about whether to keep hummingbird feeders up longer, and I was thrilled to help out with the Mystery Bird segment.

Thank you very much to the sponsors of “Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds” for helping to make the show happen — Birds & Beans Coffee, the Bird Watcher’s General Store, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and the American Bird Conservancy. (I hope I have them all listed!). Thank you to Sharon Duffield and Catherine Browne for all of the photos. And a very special thank you to Ray for sponsoring my trip and helping to make such a wonderful adventure happen.

I’ll write more on my experience and behind the sciences after I return (we fly back tomorrow).

*  *  *  *

Here are a few photos from yesterday’s show, including some from “Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds” Facebook page:

Talking to Ray on-air during the show,

photo courtesy of Ray Brown's Talkin' Birds (Facebook)

photo courtesy of Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds (Facebook)


Ray with Jennifer, winner of the on-site raffle,

courtesy of Ray Brown's Talkin' Birds (Facebook)

photo courtesy of Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds (Facebook)


Getting ready for the show with (from left) assistant producer Emma Morgenstern, Smithsonian press officer Kathryn Sabella, me, and executive producer Mark Duffield,

Photo by Sharon Duffield

photo by Sharon Duffield


The Birdist blogger Nick Lund, Ray Brown, and president of the Maryland Ornithological Society Tom Strikwerda

photo courtesy of Ray Brown's Talkin' Birds (Facebook)

photo courtesy of Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds (Facebook)


With Dr. Chandra Taylor Smith, Vice President, Community Conservation & Education, National Audubon Society,

Photo by Sharon Duffield

photo by Sharon Duffield


Birding News #90

:: Scientists take a look at what the North American bird population might look like in 60 years

:: An exploration of  the new exhibition “The Singing and The Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art”, which opened last week at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, including an interview with exhibit organizer and curator of contemporary art Joanna Marsh, who says, “Birds are a vivid expression of life. I’m glad we could bring together the science world and the art world and I hope people will be inspired by these works.”

:: An interview with the men behind The Lost Bird Project — Todd McGrain, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s artist-in-residence, and Dr. Andy Stern; more on The Lost Bird Project: the art (currently at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC), the movie, the book, the free origami Passenger Pigeon so you can Fold the Flock (scroll all the way down for the PDF)

:: The shape of birds’ eggs helps to explain their evolution, and might have helped birds survive whatever killed off the dinosaurs

:: 122 waterfowl died, and most were euthanized, after landing last Tuesday on tailings ponds operated by Canadian Natural Resources Ltd, Syncrude, and Suncor in Alberta’s tar sands; the Wildlife Rehabilitation Society of Edmonton called the loss of life “unfortunate” in light of the organizaton’s “many successes in the cleaning and rehabilitation of contaminated wildlife”.

:: The Dodo had kneecaps, one fact revealed when palaeontologists used a laser scanner to create the first-ever 3D digital model of the extinct species.

:: Manitoba’s backyard and veteran birders, citizen scientists, and biologists came together last week to celebrate the fifth and final year of recording and mapping the province’s birds for the Manitoba Breeding Bird Atlas; biologist and atlas co-ordinator Dr. Christian Artuso, Manitoba Program Manager for Bird Studies Canada, expects it will take a year to compile the more than 300,000 observations logged over nearly 40,000 hours, and the results will be posted at the project’s website as a living document and a legacy for all Manitobans. The Manitoba Breeding Birds Atlas is a partnership between Bird Studies Canada, Environment Canada’s Canadian Wildlife Service, Manitoba Conservation, Nature Manitoba, The Manitoba Museum, Manitoba Hydro, and The Nature Conservancy of Canada.

:: An English gamekeeper convicted of “the worst case of bird of prey poisoning” recorded in the country has been given a 10-week suspended sentence and ordered to pay the prosecution costs; he had been found guilty of deliberately killing 10 buzzards and a sparrowhawk, and possession of pesticides and items used to prepare poison baits, in order to protect pheasants he was raising.

:: The Hermit Thrush seems to prefer singing in harmonic series, a hallmark of human music.

:: The Los Angeles Times reviews the new movie, “Pelican Dreams”

Listening to Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds Radio Show Tomorrow

Just a reminder that tomorrow morning at 9:30 eastern is the special radio broadcast celebrating the 500th show of Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds [this link isn’t working for me at the moment],  live from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.  You can listen tomorrow online with live streaming or via podcast. You can also follow the show on Facebook and Twitter. One of tomorrow’s guests is  Smithsonian ornithologist Bruce Beehler. I’ll be on the show too, and I’m sure Ray and crew will have some other surprises!

Here we are earlier today, after checking out the Q?rius Theater at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History; from left to right, associate producer Emma Morgenstern, me, Ray Brown, and executive producer Mark Duffield (photo courtesy of Talkin’ Birds Instagram),

Screen Shot 2014-11-08 at 4.01.15 PM

More about Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds:

Yesterday’s interview with Ray Brown, at Nicholas Lund’s blog, The Birdist (Nick will be here tomorrow, too)

Boston Globe article by Linda Matchan

Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds website

Talkin’ Birds podcasts at iTunes

Talkin’ Birds on Facebook

Talkin’ Birds on Twitter

Talkin’ Birds on Instagram

Talkin’ Birds Tumblr

Ray Brown, beyond the birds


Prairie Birder is headed to Washington, D.C.

Since I started birding in 2009, my favourite birding radio show has been Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds — a weekly call-in show out of Boston on 95.9 WATD FM. Last year, the show was featured in a Boston Globe article by Linda Matchan, which you can read here. The show airs Sundays at 9:30 am and you can listen online with live streaming or via podcast. You can also follow the show on Facebook and Twitter.

I’ve been a loyal listener for about six years, and consider Ray to be a good friend and incredibly generous mentor. And in the interest of full disclosure, I’ve won more than my fair share of Droll Yankees from the show’s mystery bird contest. In the past year, the crew at Talkin’ Birds and I worked on incorporating into the show my sightings from here in Alberta as well as  information for young birders and naturalists. Earlier this spring, the crew and I sorted out my piece of the show — a twice-a-month segment, about two minutes long, called Charlotte’s Weblog.

This month, Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds is celebrating its 500th show — a big congratulations to Ray and Talkin’ Birds! I’m very excited to share that I’ve been invited to be a part of the celebrations with a live broadcast next Sunday November, 9th at 9:30 am from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Thank you very much to the show and sponsors for paying for the cost of my flight and hotel room.

If you’re in the Washington area and are interested in attending the live broadcast, please visit the Talkin’ Birds Facebook page for details and to RSVP.

I’m so excited to meet Ray in person (and Mark and Emma) to be able to celebrate such a wonderful anniversary!


Birding News #89

:: In very local news, The Edmonton Journal reports that plans for wind farm, by German-based company E.On Climates and Renewables, calling for 50 turbines to be erected southwest of Vermilion (east of Edmonton) is raising a variety of serious concerns among local residents, from possible fatal effects on migratory birds and bats, to human health and a lack of consultation.

:: The call-in radio show Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds (Sundays at 9:30 am on 95.9 WATD FM) is celebrating its 500th show with a live broadcast on Sunday, November 9th, from from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC.

:: Also in Washington, DC, the exhibit The Singing and the Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art” opens on Friday, November 7th, at the American Art Museum; the exhibit features 46 works by 12 artists.

:: The Clearwater Audubon Society in Florida is monitoring a group of migrating Red Knots that have turned up on local beaches with illness symptoms such as paralysis, head twitching, droopy wings, and lethargy. Possible causes include a virus, red tide, a toxin, or some other natural occurrence.

:: The two UK scientists behind the Warblr app, which has been called “Shazam for birds”, are crowdfunding with Kickstarter toward a Spring 2015 launch date.

:: Renowned Alaskan bird researcher Heinrich “Henry” Springer, a longtime contributor of ornithology specimens to the University of Alaska Museum of the North, is under investigation by the US Fish & Wildlife Service for allegedly using the museum’s permit to illegally smuggle specimens for his private collection, which includes more than 5,000 birds. No charges have been laid.

:: Scientists have found that Superb Fairy Wren embryos can recognize sounds from different birds of their own species, which allows growing chicks to learn a “password” from the mother bird, which they then use to beg for food upon hatching; the findings represent the first time a species other than humans has been shown to distinguish between individuals in utero.

:: Scientists who wanted to know how running birds negotiate a step have found that small birds, such as quail, and large birds, such as ostriches, deal with obstacles very similarly.

:: The UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has released its annual Birdcrime report, which reveals 164 reports of shooting and destruction of birds of prey in 2013, as well as 74 reported incidents of poisoning, which the RSPB believes represents just a fraction of the illegal persecution of birds. Naturalist Bill Oddie, who is vice president of the society, said, “We’re losing hundreds of our most magnificent birds each year because of the mindless and senseless slaughter by a minority group, and it needs to stop. I believe it is up to those figures within the shooting industry to help stamp out the killing of birds of prey, once and for all.”