Bird Migration Forecast

Despite the much lauded launch of Cape May Bird Observatory’s, the most exciting thing for me on the site is the Mid-Atlantic Birding Forecast. When its updated, it provides a nice update on the potential weather conditions for movements of birds. David La Puma of woodcreeper.com is the guy who updates it and he has several years experience of looking at wind conditions and weather patterns to guesstimate flight conditions for both north and south migrations. I would recommend reading both these sites as well as Paul Lehman’s National Migration Forecast.

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10 Ways to See more Birds

These aren’t backed by any guarantee, just what has held true from my experience. In no particular order I present you with 10 ways to see more birds.

Walk slower. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen people walk past birds because they aren’t walking slow enough, giving the birds more time to move and become visible. There is always the urge to walk fast and cover more ground, but I have found that it is when I am moving the least that I see the most.

Spend more time outside. This one is obvious, there aren’t many birds that you can see from your house unless you have a spectacular feeder setup. Not everyone gets to spend two months outdoors counting hawks in the spring, but any chance you have to bird could be the time you find something really special.

Start earlier. Birds are most active in the first couple hours of the day, particularly during migration when they are landing at first light after a long night of flying. Being there when they are most active means there will be more to see. I spent many mornings at Garret Mtn Reservation in northern NJ this spring, and I always felt bad for the people who had just showed up at 8:30am, after I had already seen 17 or so species of warbler. By the time they showed up the warblers were not as active and their chances of seeing even 10 species was getting small.

Know the habitat. Birds can turn up anywhere. Birds can and will show up in backyards, waste water treatment plants and pretty much any other place that might not seem enticing. But this is more the exception than the rule. Spending time in high quality habitat that the birds are more likely to navigate towards will often allow you great observations of foraging behavior.

Learn to interpret radar. An excellent way to get an idea if new migrants will be arriving is to check the radar every night. My favorite sources are the National Weather Service and the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Woodcreeper.com is a great website that posts nightly about migration conditions in New Jersey. Reading the past posts can be a great way to learn about how this tool can be used to predict where birds will be.

Look at the weather. Great birding days can come when the weather stalls the migration during the night, leaving lots of little birds to forage while they wait for better weather. Checking out some good locations during a light rain or after a rainstorm can be very productive.

Understand migration timing. For instance, in mid-May, you will want to head to spot to catch migrating warblers, in January find an unfrozen lake that might hold ducks and in August look for flooded fields or mudflats to see shorebirds migrating south. September can bring large Broad-winged Hawk flights, while November will be dominated by the Red-tailed Hawk. Knowing what to look for will point you towards the correct type of habitats to bird.

Learn birds calls, flight calls, chip notes, contact calls, noises their wings make, and anything else that gives their presence away. Birds communicate with their voices and it is the easiest way to find them. A well hidden bird can still be heard, giving you clues to its location as well as its identity. Chips and flight calls can help you identify the bird even if you only have a brief look at it. Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs is an excellent resource for the birds songs while Flight Calls of Migratory Birds is great for learning the flight calls. Any sounds you add to your repertoire will increase you skill and enjoyment of birding.

Bird with friends. Take a buddy or two along, even if they aren’t experts. An extra set of attentive eyes can go a long way in finding birds. I would have missed my life Boreal Chickadee if my interested but inexperienced friend hadn’t asked me, “Hey, whats that one? It looks different.” And if they are experience birders, there is always the opportunity of learning new information or tricks to identify difficult birds.

Find migrant traps. There are certain places that, because of weather, topography or location, attract ridiculous concentrations of bird during migration. Point Pelee, High Island, Garret Mountain and Sandy Hook all come to mind. Some of these spots are bottlenecks, where the birds are all forced into a small area as they avoid flying across water until the last moment. Others, such as High Island and Point Pelee are the first places that birds reach after a long water crossing and so they land en masse, covering the trees as they desperately try to recover and find food. Visit a migrant trap like these and you could see flocks of warblers, tanagers, flycatchers and anything else that is flying.

I hope that these ten ideas help you to see more birds and if you have more helpful ideas, please leave them in the comments.

How to count birds

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Snow Geese flock, originally uploaded by topherous.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird site has just posted Bird Counting 101. For anyone who spends time out in the field watching large flocks, whether they are shorebirds, waterfowl or hawks knows that estimating flock size can be ridiculously hard. Just looking at the flock of Snow Geese above is overwhelming if you want to try and estimate the number of birds. Estimating sizes of flocks can be biologically important because it is an additional data set that can be more useful than just knowing whether a species is present or absent.

Cornell puts forth several different tips for counting in their first installment:

  1. It is very important to write your observations down right away. No one can remember counts for 40+ species at a time. You will also end up second guessing yourself if you don’t write down what you see, particularly with the more common species, “Did I really see a Mourning Dove today or was that yesterdays walk?”
  2. Be conservative in your estimates, making sure you are not counting birds twice.
  3. For larger flocks, count a small portion of the flock and then extrapolate for the rest of the flock. For instance, count 10 birds in the flock and get a good idea of what that feels like. Then count the flock in 10 bird increments. This fall I was the counter on South Lookout at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, PA on the morning that a flight of over 5,000 Broad-winged Hawks migrated through. I mainly counted in 5 and 10 bird increments because the birds kept coming and coming and coming.

One fascinating fact from the article was that we have a hard time estimating flocks when they are flying in 3D space. If a large blackbird flock is 100 birds wide, 100 birds long, and 100 birds deep, that is 1,000,000 blackbirds! I have a hard time imagining that.

Check out the full article.

my flickr groups

Thought you should all know that there are some excellent uses for the photo sharing site, Flickr.
I just started two groups to document the variation of Song Sparrows and Fox Sparrows across North America. Because of the new mapping feature I hope to make it possible to quickly look at photos of all the different subspecies of these two sparrows. Its just starting so there are not many photos up now but if you see any, please invite them.

I also have two longer running groups that have grown a lot. The first was to compile lots of pictures of hawks in flight to help ID them as you would from a watch site. The Flight: Raptors of N. America group now has 86 contributors and almost 300 pictures. The Confusing Fall Warblers was formed to compare all those fall plumaged warblers that can be so hard to identify.