Monday, April 26, 2010


Once upon a time I had another blog. This blog was about baseball. Today I was thumbing through some old posts on this blog and I crossed one where I wrote the following:

"Do you ever wonder why?
Why do we watch this game?
Why do we take 3 hours out of our day only to see our team blow the lead in the 9th inning to take a grueling loss?
Why do we give it our all?
Why do we care so much?
Why do we love this game when it clearly loves no one?
I was sitting around asking these questions to a few people today.
Seriously what is the point of it all?

Life is tough enough as it is... so why deal with this game that does nothing but seem to break me down?

Here’s what I came up with so far:

Baseball is so great because it has a point, its something we understand. There are different levels to it so it isn’t fair. We don’t like fair. We like to be distinguished. There are different levels within the game and different levels to understanding it. All the same anyone can understand it on some level.
Baseball is, in essence, pitching, fielding, hitting. There’s a point to it; an end goal of victory. More points, better score, equal victory. It’s something we grasp, its real, and it makes life seem real. Life isn’t something we can grasp. It’s beyond comprehension, but baseball isn’t. Baseball is life on a level we can understand.
Baseball is man’s struggle to be great. It’s man working, cheating, stealing, pushing, lying, and grinding out plays, games, and seasons. It reflects life perfectly. Some people are better at it than others. Some have different key skills. Some people play fair, some don’t. It can provide happy and depressing memories. That’s what makes baseball great. That’s why we spend so much time on it.

I spend too much time thinking.

Go Sox."

Yesterday I went to a baseball game. My team didn't win. In fact, they were up by 3 and blew the lead after they took out Tim Wakefield after 6 2/3rds innings. Somewhere after the home run which tied the game I realized that it didn't really matter if they won or lost because I somehow had found peace and happiness in just attending the game. As I once said to my peers in Michigan while trying to describe baseball - "it's safe, its peaceful, its home."

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Dutchman's Breeches

One of my favorite spring flowers. Seen here with Spring Beauty.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

How to understand a bell curve

The following is an example of a Bell Curve.

What is a Bell Curve you probably ask? Well this is from wikipedia: "In probability theory and statistics, the normal distribution or Gaussian distribution is a continuous probability distribution that often gives a good description of data that cluster around the mean. The graph of the associated probability density function is bell-shaped, with a peak at the mean, and is known as the Gaussian function or bell curve"

In other words - most things are average, a few are better, a few are worse. So why am I talking about this instead of talking about birds? Well I AM talking about birds. More specifically I'm talking about spring arrivals.

Everyone is up in arms this year because it "seems so early". So the other day I did a little research and broke down the species into 3 categories using Pam Hunt's spring arrival dates list. If a bird was reported before the 1st quartile it was considered early, if after, it was considered on time, if the bird should be here (later than median) by now but has not been reported it was considered late. I ignored nocturnal birds (ie - Virginia Rail, American Bittern) and birds that also overwinter regularly (ie - Cooper's Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, etc.) as it would be impossible to determine if the bird was an overwintering bird or an actual arrival.

7 species were considered "early", 30 species were considered "on time", and 5 species were "late". Basically most are average (on time), a few are better (early), a few are worse (late). It is interesting to note that about half of the "on time species" were clustered close to the 1st quartile date and the other half lagged slightly behind. I found this chart using google image search which sums up the data of the 7, 14, 16, 5 split very well:

In other words there have been:
7 Early Adopters - aka early bird gets the worm
14 Pragmatists - lets face it, it's a long journey to the breeding ground, what if you get lost? And building a nest and setting up territories is a lot of work!
16 Conservatives - they're enjoying their journey up and seeing some sights on their way; trip to Cape May, Cape Cod
5 Laggards - maybe they should listen to the pragmatists
... and that's still a completely normal distribution

So the next time you say its an early year because you heard a Pine Warbler on an earlier date than you ever had before... remember that it's not an early year. After all, you still haven't seen a Barn Swallow.

Monday, April 12, 2010

More Than Sightings

Birding to many is about getting outside and seeing what you can find. It's about the challenge of an identification, the pursuit of a new species (for your life, state, year, month, or day list), and about having fun. What many people fail to realize or investigate are bigger picture questions dealing with migration patterns, seasonal distribution, distribution on breeding grounds, distribution in migration, overwintering challenges, habitat use, etc.

Lately these sorts of topics have been dominating and directing my birding (along with the desire to find out if this is ACTUALLY an early spring or if it just seems that way... more on this later though).

While there are some species which we know a lot about, it is safe to say that for almost every single species, even the most common (such as your local species of Chickadee) there are many more things that are unknown about its life, behavior, and distribution. There are many examples of ways that people can investigate these species more without much effort and fill in the gaps of our knowledge. One of my favorite examples is counting migrating goldfinches. I'm sure NH birders are laughing and already know what I'm talking about here, but for the rest of you here's a bit more information. During migration, two of NH's best birders (Steve and Jane M.) hit the coast and park at a spot they like to call "cutsie dootsie" and count migrating goldfinches overhead. Since American Goldfinch is common year-round in NH most people aren't invested in detailed observations of this species. Something as simple as counting the number of goldfinches migrating past forms a unique data pool for a species in which most people are familiar with.

While we information like this is helpful for all species, there are a few groups of species which deserve specific attention as there is extremely little known about them on their breeding grounds. These include: grassland(including salt marsh), bog/boreal, and early-successional species. Right now there is great need for information on species within these habitats as so little is known and without good information conservation efforts will not be informed.

(Vesper Sparow - one of many grassland species which is under threat due to destruction of habitat)

I'm sure the citizen-scientist part of birding isn't for everyone. I'm also sure that many people think that understanding distribution isn't a necessary part of birding. Perhaps it's not. However, I would argue that understanding distribution, investigating questions related to distribution, understanding vagrancy patterns, etc. all make one a better birder.

So the next time you see a bird - ask yourself, how much do you really know about it? Do you know much more than field marks? Do you know if it nests on the ground, in trees, or in sphagnum bog mats? What does it eat? Does it migrate, and if so when? Is it habitat specific? Does it prefer certain plants? If its a rare bird, is this a typical time for it to show up as a vagrant? Is its likelihood for vagrancy dependent on weather conditions; what sorts of weather conditions?

If I described a bird as glossy black with red and yellow shoulder badges with a slender conical bill you would probably immediately know I was talking about a Red-winged Blackbird. If you saw the following photo you'd probably know it was a Red-winged Blackbird.

But did you know that Red-winged Blackbirds build their nest low within marsh vegetation or in low shrubs? Did you know that the females choose the nest site yet males have some input? Did you know that sedges, phragmites, cattail, alder, willow and other plants are suitable vegetation for nests? Did you know that the oldest recorded lifespan is 15 years and 9 months? Did you know that Red-winged Blackbirds are highly polygynous?

In some states Red-winged Blackbirds overwinter, in others they don't. Sometimes they form HUGE concentrations (hundreds of thousands) to roost. Here's a video of a mixed blackbird flock headed to roost in NH. On this particular day we estimated 200,000 blackbirds going to roost. Others estimated 500,000 on a later date...

So the next time you see a bird... think... do you know more than just field marks? Do you know anything about its life? How does your sighting fit into the picture of distribution on a local, regional, and national level?

Saturday, April 10, 2010


Ben Griffith and I joined up with Jason Lambert (and Len Medlock for part of the day) for a day of spring birding. Things started out slow, but we had a few interesting non-bird sightings and ended the day on a high note with a stunning Royal Tern in Hampton Harbor!

Not only are Royal Terns generally rare for the state, but this is an extremely EARLY date. As far as I know there are NO previous April records for Royal Tern ANYWHERE in New England. The northernmost April record in eBird is in New Jersey, and the earliest record I know of for Massachusetts is May 17.

As we were driving over the Hampton-Seabrook bridge, Ben noticed this bird and casually remarked that there was a Bonaparte's Gull flying into the harbor, at which point it quickly became apparent that it was not a "bony," but a tern! A frantic search of Hampton Harbor ensued, and I spotted the bird roosting with a handful of gulls in the marsh on the north side of the Hampton Marina. The bird was not much smaller than the Ring-billed Gulls next to it, and through a scope we could see the thick, orange bill, black cap with a few scattered white feathers, a squared-appearance to the nape, and pale gray primaries. We studied the bird from 6:00 to 6:45 when the bird took off and flew over our heads before continuing east over the houses towards Hampton Beach. Luckily we were able to get the word out and about half a dozen other birders were able to get to see the bird before it left.

Photos from the day can be found here:

Friday, April 09, 2010

Cute Puppy

I recently went home to NY. I didn't see much bird wise but I thought I'd share this picture of my mother's new puppy "Cap" who is 12 weeks (or so) old. Pretty darn cute.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

New Hampshire's Common Gull

There's been quite the huzz-buzz lately in New Hampshire over a bird which we nerds refer to as a Common Gull which is not that "common". Rather, this bird, if accepted by the NH Records Committee will be the first accepted state record.

There are other records for the state but none which follow the state rules for documentation of a first state record. That is, in order for a bird to be accepted for the first time there either must be adequate photo documentation or 3+ observers.

The bird which has been hanging out in Exeter fulfills both of these requirements.

So why do so many people care about a little sea-gull? What makes this Common Gull so special? Well, here's my attempt to answer that in just 3 short points:

1. Its a vagrant from far away - the Common Gull is really a subspecies of Mew Gull from "Europe" which is pretty interesting and pretty cool.
2. Its a first documented state record - anytime something is a first it's exciting - just think of being there for Jon Lester's first game, or for your child's first word, etc.
3. When a bird looks pretty generic superficially the challenge can be exciting. Just think - do you prefer the puzzle with 4 pieces or with 400 pieces? Which is more exciting and fun to complete? This gull is much the same way - it's not a straightforward identification, rather its an interesting puzzle where multiple field marks have to be assessed and analyzed - and when you do your homework and get all of the pieces in order - you realize the puzzle design is pretty neat.

OK that's all for now - if you're interested in more about Common Gull identification perhaps I'll post some more some other time. Otherwise I'll continue on with the random spring posting.