Tag Archives: birding

Wikipedia – Lockdown Bird Highlights #3

or How I beat the blues by sharing bird information on Wikipedia.

I made the claim some time ago that I was going to post about some of the good birding things that happened in a bad birding year – 2020. Little did I know when I wrote those words that we what we were experiencing was not the end of the road but a brief lull before another wave and another lockdown. The April to June third wave of 2021 – in Canada at least – was not the worst in terms of mortality rates and overstretched hospital capacity. But for many of us it was the most challenging of all. It was becoming harder to maintain morale – we were languishing.

Now here we are again climbing out of the pit and hoping that we are on an upward trajectory. For the first time in almost a year I stopped by my local for a socially-distanced pint at an outdoor patio. It felt like a bit of a victory.

So to pick up the thread of good things in a lockdown year… I spent a couple of hours this morning on my new working-from-home pastime: adding bird content to Wikipedia.

Wikipedia

I admit to being a major fan of Wikipedia. It’s what we early net enthusiasts thought cyberspace would be: people all over the world sharing information, with no paywalls or ads. Most of the worldwide web went, as they say, in a different direction, but Wikipedia has stayed true to its purpose.

And despite the cries of the Cassandras, it is a very useful tool indeed. It’s a living encyclopedia, replacing the biases of an expert author with the collected wisdom of the world, all carefully annotated so you can check the source documents yourself. Yes, it is true that you can replace a carefully-written page with stories about your cat, but virtually every page has someone watching it who will rapidly correct your vandalism.

The true beauty of the tool, and one that may not have been foreseen by its creators, is that it gave enthusiasts (nerds, if you must) a place to share and refine their enthusiasms. Star Trek is a prime example. Prior to web 2.0 there were lots of Trekker fan newsletters but each one only reached a small audience. Wikipedia gave them a forum to share and contribute on a global scale. So if you want to know anything about any episode from the Star Trek universe there is a page for it – and the same is true for any significant TV series, book, or movie, not to mention highly detailed pages on every aspect of hundreds of other interests.

And that finally leads us to birds.

When I get back from a birding trip I have a workflow for identifying photos and adding the new birds to my list that involves checking field guides, eBird, Avibase and Wikipedia so that I am sure of the identification, ideally down to subspecies level. It’s a somewhat baroque process but I’m not aiming for efficiency – I’m trying to consolidate the new birds in my memory.

When I started seeing birds in the neotropics I ran into an information vacuum. A large number of the South American bird species have only a line or two of text on their Wikipedia pages – information which I later learned was generated by a clever bot that a Wiki contributor had invented.

Editing Wikipedia bird pages
Rusty Flowerpiercer
Editing Wikipedia bird pages
And its basic bot-generated species page.

So with time on my hands I set about learning how to flesh out these entries. The obvious place to begin – for me anyway – was with the endemic birds of Colombia.

It was a bit of an adventure getting started but there is a full set of tutorials under Learn to Edit, and an online forum where you can ask for advice from fellow editors. A bit of browsing around took me to the WikiProject_Birds page , which includes ideas for information on sources, a set of guidelines for editing articles and links to highly-rated bird pages.

Coding for non-coders

The process of editing is relatively straightforward. I won’t try to give a precis of the tutorials – if you want to try your hand that is the place to start. But it’s worth highlighting one key feature: you do not have to learn hypertext markup language (html). Wikipedia uses behind-the-scenes coding to make it easier for the average punter to make their edits without blowing up the system. For example, this phrase from Alice in Wonderland:

“Take some more tea,” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.

In html you would need to enter the following code:

<p>”Take some more <a href=”/wiki/Tea” title=”Tea”>tea</a>,” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.</p>

Whereas in Wikipedia you simply write:

 “Take some more [[tea]],” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.

Wikipedia and research

The challenge is finding sources. Wikipedia wants information referenced to sources that other people can check, so the preference is for books, journal articles and websites that have permanent URLs (permalinks). A certain amount can be gleaned from field guides and websites, but to achieve the goal of a good quality article I needed to sharpen up the research skills I used to get my MA.

After some prospecting and some good tips from Wikiproject Birds I was able to build a list of reliable sources. The best ones are listed at the end of this article… in case you might be interested. 😊

Referencing is straightforward – it looks complicated on the screen but the actual input of data is relatively simple (though it is a bit tedious).

Alas even the best references can’t totally fix the issue that a lot of South American birds are under-studied. Sometimes there is just not enough information available to fill out a species page. If reincarnation is a thing I wish to come back as a field researcher.

And of course if the page lacks photos you can add your own through Wikimedia Commons.

Moustached Brushfinch, added to my current project.

So what’s the point?, you ask…

This was an idea for an activity that would occupy my mind during the lockdown(s), the alternative being endless doomscrolling. And I think this one has stuck – I intend to keep editing pages until all my beloved neotropical birds are properly described. This may require more years than I have left but it’s a worthy pursuit.

If you seek internet fame and fortune this is not the way to go. Even if someone wanted to see what I was working on they would have to know my username, which is purposefully opaque. (It’s not a good idea to use a recognizable name).

But I find it very satisfying to complete a project and increase the bird information available to everyone. So it’s definitely a good birding thing that came out of a bad birding year.

In case you’re interested in what one of my “finished” pages looks like, check out this one: the Gold-ringed Tanager.

Sources

The University of New Mexico’s Searchable Ornithological Research Archive – SORA – applies your search term to a large collection of publications. https://sora.unm.edu/

Google Scholar – often turns up good journal articles, and they are generally available as free downloads. (Search by the scientific name of the species).

Avibase – for general information, but particularly for the Synonyms section, which provides good clues on who first identified and named the species.

The Biodoversity Heritage Library – an online archive of historical journals. If you have a date and the name of the publication you can usually find the original journal here.

The publication archives of the American Ornithological Society. You need to be a member to access these publications, and it’s a bit pricy. But one of the add-ins is a subscription to the Birds of the World website, which contains much of the content of the very expensive Handbook of the Birds of the World (17 volumes at €140 each!!!).

Searches by these methods typically lead to English-language sources, which leaves out a wealth of information in Spanish-language ornithological journals. I started to pay attention to the bibliographical references in the papers and journal articles I unearthed, and these led to good sources like Conservación Colombiana and Caldasia, as well as regional journals. I usually run the key paragraphs through Google Translate, which has become very good, though you still need enough Spanish to work out what is going on when the magic doesn’t work.

The two volumes of the Colombian Libro rojo de aves de Colombia are invaluable, as they provide full information on all species of concern.

And in the course of my research I discovered some rather abstruse books that really deserve a place on anyone’s coffee table, including the Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names, the Eponym Dictionary of Birds, and the trusty IOC World Bird List.

January – 2020 Bird Highlights #1

In January I like to put together a post about the birding highlights of the previous year. This time around it has been a bit slow in coming. Somehow it’s hard to get excited about a year spent mostly at home under the spectre of a pandemic.

With trips lined up to Colombia and Argentina, and with a cottage booked for two weeks next to Point Pelee, I had been harbouring wild thoughts that if all went well I might see 1000 species of birds in 2020. And it started out so well…

However, the point of this blog is to focus on the positive, and when I thought about it in those terms I started to see that there had been a few good things amidst the bad. (Spoiler alert – I had to set the bar fairly low. Not everything here would make the cut in a normal year 😊). Here’s the first installment.

January 13th 2020 - Ross's Goose at Bath ON
Ross’s Goose – an unusual winter visitor in our area.

January 77

A new year means a new year list. For birders, that is the incentive that gets us out on the land when the days are short and the weather is less than optimal. If you have been in this game for a while you probably keep lists, and the advantage of a year list is that it starts at zero. So while new birds for my Ontario life list are very hard to come by, starting another year list means that even the humble Starling and House Sparrow become new sightings.

In a normal year I would expect to see about 50 or 60 bird species in January – 50 or so in the local area and another 6-8 from the annual winter pilgrimage to Algonquin Park. However in 2020 a combination of good luck, persistence and a few extended twitches bumped that number upwards.

Road Trips

Early in the month I heard some intriguing reports on the grapevine of a covey of Grey Partridge near Ottawa. I had seen this species a few times in the UK but it would make a nice addition to my Ontario list. So the first twitch of the year was a round trip through Nepean, Carleton Place and Ault Island near Morrisburg. This pleasant drive in the country netted the partridges as well as a Northern Hawk Owl and a Harris’s Sparrow. So far, so good.

January 7th 2020 - Northern Hawk Owl near Carleton Place
Northern Hawk-Owl – always a tricky bird to find.

Twitch #2 followed rapidly, as Erwin and I hunted down a Mountain Bluebird near Pickering and a Purple Sandpiper at Presqu’ile, with an incidental find of Iceland Gull enroute.

January 10th 2020 - Mountain Bluebird (female) near Pickering
Mountain Bluebird (female). Apparently took a wrong turn at Albuquerque.

I had agreed to lead a KFN field trip to Algonquin Park in mid-January and that worked out very well. We nabbed all the winter finches including both species of crossbill, plus the obligatory Canada Jays, and by virtue of a slight detour picked up the long-staying Varied Thrush at Bark Lake – a lifer for most of the party.

Varied Thrush – another Western bird going walkabout.

2020 Part 1

So the upshot is that by the time I left for Colombia on the 25th I had already set a personal best for January in Ontario with 77 species. That 1000 species goal was well on its way. Or so it seemed…

Post-Processing – Wildlife Photography Tips #5

In the previous post of this series I explained what happens in a digital camera – how a batch of photons is converted into a digital file. This post will cover how to use that file to create an image which can be displayed electronically or printed. This activity is called post-processing, because the initial processing of the image is done by software within the camera.

For wildlife photography, I believe the aim of post-processing is to produce a final image that replicates what you saw as closely as possible. And by “what you saw” I mean what you saw with your eyes through your binoculars, and not what the camera thinks you saw. Modern cameras are extremely capable, but their abilities are vastly inferior to those of the eye, especially the eye aided by precision optics. Occasionally the camera will manage to capture an image exactly the way you wanted it, but most of the time, especially in wildlife photography, the raw material produced by the camera will need some help.

The above images show the out-of-the-box version (Dusky Antbird 1) and the final version after post-processing (Dusky Antbird 2). Which would you prefer?

Continue reading Post-Processing – Wildlife Photography Tips #5

Top Ten Birding Sites – Hato la Aurora

The next stop on my world tour of great birding sites is Hato la Aurora. I posted about this site a few months ago, so I won’t repeat all the detail – you can read about it here. Suffice it to say that the Llanos region of Colombia and Venezuela is a must-see for world birders. And why take just my word for it? The Colombian newspaper El Espectador recently rated the site as one of their seven top places to see birds in Colombia.

Birding Hato la Aurora
Fork-tailed Flycatcher
Continue reading Top Ten Birding Sites – Hato la Aurora

Top Ten Birding Sites – Fair Isle

The next in my personal list of top birding sites is one that’s on every British birder’s bucket list: Fair Isle.

Fair Isle, Scotland

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Fair Isle is a small island, about 5km long and 2.4 wide, with a population of about 50 people. It sits roughly halfway between the most northerly island in the Orkney archipelago and the southern tip of the Shetlands.

Fair Isle map

Fair Isle is legendary as a place where rare birds can be seen. Not necessarily rare as in endangered, but rare as in almost-never-seen-in-Western Europe.  Why these birds choose Fair Isle is not entirely clear, but every September and October birders flock there in hopes of adding exotica to their British bird lists. In 2012 I had the chance to go there as part of an Army Ornithological Society expedition, ably organized by Tim Cowley and Andrew Harrison.

The Fair Isle Experience

Birding Fair Isle is not without its challenges. It’s not an easy place to get to, and once there the only place to stay is at the Bird Observatory Guesthouse. Not that this was a hardship – the meals were excellent and the beds were comfy. But there is limited capacity so rooms have to be booked well in advance.

And on the subject of the Lodge – in March 2019 the Observatory and Guesthouse suffered a catastrophic fire. It is now being rebuilt, and if all goes well it will reopen in the Summer or Autumn of 2021.

The daily routine on Fair Isle begins before dawn with a walk to check out one of the areas where migrant birds collect. Then back to the lodge for a hearty breakfast. By then the wardens will be in the midst of their daily rounds and reports will be arriving about what birds are being seen and where.

Fair Isle 2012
A somewhat younger me on Fair Isle.

After breakfast it’s back to patrolling. The Observatory staff will make a couple of runs to drop birders off at their desired locations, which is handy because otherwise all travel on the island is by shank’s mare. Then walking and birding until lunch, then more walking and birding, then dinner, followed perhaps by a pint at the bar. Then rest and repeat.

The routine is broken if a mega-rarity is seen. In that case the Observatory van goes careening around the island flying a red flag. All available souls pile in and then van heads for the site where the bird was last seen.

Rarities and Mega-rarities

We spent five days on the island and had an amazing haul of really good birds. The truly exotic finds (given with their normal ranges) included: Paddyfield Warbler (India, Bangladesh, and Kazakhstan); Lanceolated Warbler (Russia to Japan); Pechora Pipit (between Kamchatka and Indonesia), and Arctic Warbler (Northern Russia to Alaska, wintering in Southeast Asia). We also had great views of some Western Palearctic species that rarely venture as far as Britain: Red-backed Shrike, Red-breasted Flycatcher and Bluethroat being highlights.

Sadly, my visit was in my pre-photography days so I just have a few cellphone pictures to add – you will have to Google the rest if you want to see them. Start with this beauty.

PG Tips.  But the mega of megas was a sighting of Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler, known to British birders as PG Tips. To give you an idea of the grip this bird has on birders, one fellow who was at the lodge while we were there said that he had come every October for 20 years hoping to see one. It breeds in places like Siberia and Manchuria and winters from India to Indonesia.

I’m not sure why this one species has so captured the imagination, but as luck would have it one dropped by during our trip. Like all Old World warblers it is a skulking bird with cryptic plumage, but it was relocated in a field full of long grass. Eventually everyone present managed to get a brief view, but when the wardens decided to ring the bird we were all hoping to get a closer look.

And we did. Hosanna!

Fair Isle PG Tips
The mythical wee beastie revealed.

How to get there

First, you need to get to Shetland. Loganair flights run from places like Aberdeen to Sumburgh Airport, and an overnight ferry service runs from Aberdeen to Lerwick. Once on Shetland mainland you need to make your way to a little airstrip (Tingwall) outside Lerwick where a worryingly small Airtask aircraft makes the hop to Fair Isle. Alternately, if you are keen on adventure and regurgitation, the Good Shepherd IV, a fishing boat, will take you from Grutness near Lerwick to the island over some of the roughest seas available.

Tingwall
Tingwall. The blue and white miniature airplane on the left goes to Fair Isle

Fair Isle airport is a single gravel airstrip, so if the wind is too far off from the axis of the runway aircraft cannot land or take off. Your plans need to be flexible enough to allow for being stuck on the island for extra days (yay!) or stuck in Lerwick waiting for a flight (boo!).

Would I go back to Fair Isle? In a heartbeat. Is it likely to happen? Hard to say, but if not at least I got a chance to live the Fair Isle experience. 😊

Top Ten Birding Sites – Cape St Mary’s

This is the first in a series of posts about my favourite birding sites.

Cape St Mary’s, Newfoundland

Northern Gannets at Cape St Mary's

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Cape St Mary’s, and its Québec cousin Bonaventure Island (still on my to-do list), are without doubt two of the best places in the world to see one of the world’s great birds: the Northern Gannet.

These mighty pelagic birds spend most of their lives out at sea, but once a year they come to land to nest. Their preferred nesting area is a sea stack – a pillar of rock with no connection to the land, so their chicks can be safe from terrestrial predators.

Most of the big Gannet colonies such as Ailsa Crag give good views of flying Gannets but aren’t accessible for close-in views. But the sea stack at Cape St Mary’s is very close to the land. We were able to stand and view the Gannets from about 30m distance, close enough to observe their nesting behaviour and the tenderness with which they treat their mates. And needless to say the photographic possibilities are awesome.

Northern Gannet at Cape St Mary's

The cliffs around the sea stack also provide nesting opportunities for Black-legged Kittiwakes, Guillemots, Razorbills and Black Guillemots, as well as the occasional Thick-billed Murre. We also saw some interesting birds in the grassy fields around the visitor centre, including American Pipits and Horned Larks. (Though not, as the Visitor Centre suggests, Water Pipits. Were a Water Pipit to show up in North America it would be the first, and would be pursued by hordes of birders from across the continent).

Where is it?

Cape St Mary’s is at the south end of the Avalon peninsula so it’s a bit of a trek to get there. We managed to combine it with a whale-watching trip from Bay Bulls in a one-day trip out of St John’s.

So if you haven’t been there yet, once the pandemic is subsided the doctor prescribes a visit to Cape St Mary’s! 😊

Top Ten Birding Sites (so far)

With 77 Ontario species in the bag by the end of January, followed by a three week Colombia trip, 2020 was shaping up to be a particularly good birding year.

And then came the pandemic…

One by one my planned excursions, both local and international, fell off the schedule and I was left during the lockdown with only virtual birding.

So it was a good opportunity to catch up on birding homework. My Covid projects have included tagging and organizing all my bird photos across several platforms, converting my life list to taxonomic order, and setting up a secure backup process for the images. All very geeky stuff but it has helped fill the birding void.

Going through my photos and records did cause me to remember some of great birding experiences I have had and the great places I have been privileged to visit. So I thought I might share the best of them in a series of short posts so that other birders can be inspired to plan their own visits.

Miguel and Florencio, near Pueblo Nuevo

To be clear, this is not a list of the top ten sites in the world. To begin with there are some legendary places that still remain on my wish list: the Okavango Delta, Cape May, Stewart Island, the south Texas coast, Iguazu Falls, South Georgia and coastal Chennai just to name a few. Rather, these are the top ten sites that I have visited, all of which I hope to re-visit in the future.

Great Birding Sites

What makes a great birding site? Great birds, evidently. Great quality or great quantity, or both if possible. If it is located in an area of natural beauty so much the better. Given a choice I would prefer rustic and rudimentary over comfortable and commercial. Crowded places will never be my favourites (hello, Point Pelee). If the site is remote, then basic but decent accommodation and good local food options are desirable. But really, it’s all about the birds.

Top Birding Sites - Páramo de Cruz Colorada, near Soatá
Páramo de Cruz Colorada, near Soatá

The List

I would be hard pressed to decide among these sites which is the best, so here they are in alphabetical order:

  • Cape St Mary’s, Newfoundland, Canada
  • Fair Isle, Scotland
  • Hato la Aurora, Casanare district, Colombia
  • Lake Manyara, Tanzania
  • Cerro Montezuma, Risaralda district, Colombia
  • Presqu’ile Provincial Park, Ontario, Canada
  • Prince Edward Point National Wildlife Area, Ontario, Canada
  • Pueblo Nuevo, Vaupes district, Colombia
  • Skomer, Pembrokeshire, Wales
  • Soatá, Boyaca district, Colombia

Coming up shortly – Cape St Mary’s. Stay tuned! 😊

Birding Colombia’s Llanos – Hato la Aurora

Llanos Birding

Birding Colombia's Llanos

When we last saw our heroes, they were being bird-bedazzled during the long march into the grassland plains of the Llanos…

After a long, hot and bird-filled journey we rolled into the lodge in the late afternoon. Our options were: (a) have a well-deserved siesta, relax and await dinner, or (b) bird the local area. A difficult dilemma, one might imagine.  So by dinnertime Pale-headed Jacamar, Southern Beardless Tyrannulet and Pale-eyed Pygmy-Tyrant among others had found their way onto the trip list.

Red Howler Monkey
Birding Colombia's Llanos
Pale-eyed Pygmy-Tyrant
Capybara on the move.
Continue reading Birding Colombia’s Llanos – Hato la Aurora

Birding Colombia’s Llanos – The Approach March

After thoroughly sampling the full Amazonia experience, our next key target in the 2020 Colombia expedition was the Llanos – a huge grassland plain that stretches over eastern Colombia and Venezuela. About 500km of driving lay ahead of us from Bogotá. Obviously we had to look for Eastern Andes endemic birds along the way, so several days were to pass before we reached our jumping-off point in Paz de Ariporo.

We spent some time working the forests near Santa María, Boyacá, and then another couple of days climbing up into the foothills near Monterrey. I will just mention a few highlights from these stops before we get to the main event.

Fasciated Tiger-Heron (juvenile) on the road to Santa María

Santa María

This is a small town (less than 5,000 inhabitants) in an out-of-the-way corner of the Andes. It had a short period of growth during the construction of the La Esmaralda dam and power plant, but has now lapsed back into small-scale agriculture and torpor, enlivened by a bit of eco-tourism. It seems that Santa María is a hotbed for arachnid species, though we did not encounter any spider tourism groups during our stay.

Development is not permitted in the forested hills surrounding the reservoir, so they are home to a large variety of birds. We managed to add three new entries to the birds-whose-names-start-with ant category, the smart-looking Golden-headed Manakin, Rufous-and-White Wren, Crested Spinetail and the enigmatic and highly prized Spotted Nightingale-Thrush. A evening of owling was quite productive. And I also saw more Cerulean Warblers in three days than I have seen in ten years in their breeding range. Photos of the more cooperative species are below.

Continue reading Birding Colombia’s Llanos – The Approach March

Lists, Taxonomy and the Black-capped Donacobius

I have been posting a bird of the day on Facebook, aiming to give friends something attractive to look at amidst the gloom of Covid news. Today’s bird is the Black-capped Donacobius, a rather charismatic bird that resides primarily in wetlands of the Amazon and Orinoco basins.

Lists, listing and the Black-capped Donacobius

Explaining why this bird came to mind involves delving a bit into the obsessive world of bird listing, which I concluded was a bit excessive for the lighthearted intent of a social media post. So for those who might want to increase their knowledge of the eccentric subculture of birding, here is the story.

Lists and Listing

Birders, if they have bitten hard enough on the hook, tend eventually to develop into listers. The most common manifestation is the life list, which is just what it says on the tin: a list of all the birds one has seen. Deeper forms of the obsession manifest themselves in year lists, month lists, and day lists, not to mention country lists, province or state lists, and so on.

I remember in my early days heading out to Somerset in hopes of seeing a Short-eared Owl that had been hanging around a certain field. I arrive at the place and within a few minutes the beast appeared. It was a life bird for me and I was happily watching it for a while when I noticed two other birders down the road who seemed somewhat discontented. I went over to tell them that the views were better from my vantage point, but they were not mollified. It emerged that they needed the bird for their Oxfordshire year list but it was stubbornly staying on the Somerset side of the fence.

Continue reading Lists, Taxonomy and the Black-capped Donacobius