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Radar technology has helped put a more precise number on the birds migrating through the United States each fall and spring. Illustration by Jillian Ditner/Cornell Lab of Ornithology

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Using cloud computing and data from 143 weather radar stations across the continental United States, Cornell Lab of Ornithology researchers recently estimated how many birds migrate through the U.S. and the toll that winter and the birds’ migratory journeys take.

“We’ve discovered that each autumn, an average of 4 billion birds move south from Canada into the U.S. At the same time, another 4.7 billion birds leave the U.S. over the southern border, heading to the tropics,” notes lead author Adriaan Dokter, an Edward W. Rose postdoctoral fellow at the Cornell Lab. “In the spring, 3.5 billion birds cross back into the U.S. from points south, and 2.6 billion birds return to Canada across the northern U.S. border.”

In other words, fewer birds return to their breeding grounds after going through fall migration and spending months on their wintering grounds. But the researchers, writing in Nature, Ecology & Evolution, were surprised to find that the migrants arriving across the U.S. southern border had an average return rate of 76 percent during the 5 years of the study (2013 to 2017) and the birds wintering in the U.S. had only an average return rate of 64 percent.

“Contrary to popular thought, birds wintering in the tropics survive the winter better than birds wintering in the U.S.,” says Andrew Farnsworth, co-author of the study and leader of the Cornell Lab’s aeroecology program. “That’s despite the fact that tropical wintering birds migrate three to four times farther than the birds staying in the U.S.”

To reach these numbers, the researchers developed complicated algorithms to measure differences in biomass picked up by weather radar — in this case, the total mass of organisms in a given area, minus insects and weather. The same technology powers the Lab’s birdcast.info website, which presents real-time migration maps.

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To birders, “looking through the glass” refers to binoculars. Wildlife photographer Glen Apseloff, however, thinks of the phrase as referring to the windows of his house. Using a handheld camera without a flash or special filters, he has photographed enough birds from inside his house, through closed windows, to create two books. Some of the photographs and text in this slideshow can be found in his more recent book, Backyard Birds and More—Looking Through the Glass. All of the birds in this slideshow, like all of those in his books, were taken through closed windows from inside his home in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio.

This slideshow begins with the Rose-breasted Grosbeak above. He wrote the caption below as well as the other captions in the following slideshow.

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks have been described as sounding like robins with opera training, or like drunken robins. Males are striking, with a bright red patch on their breast, whereas females are relatively plain and brown. Juveniles are variable in appearance, depending on their age and sex.

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks can live for more than a decade in the wild. Two have lived at least 12 years and 11 months, and both were rereleased after recapture. They typically spend their summers north of where I live in central Ohio, and they winter in the Caribbean, Central America, or northern South America.

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Blackburnian Warbler. Photo by Tom Mast

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In On the Move, our regular column about migration, we present pairs of distribution maps from eBird that you can use to compare where interesting birds are at different times of the year. We featured Blackburnian Warbler, pictured above, in our October 2018 issue.

Blackburnian Warbler

Maps from eBird show where Blackburnian Warbler have been spotted in June 2007-2017 (on left) and September 2007-2017.

The stunning flame-orange throat and breast of the male Blackburnian Warbler is difficult to forget. A Setophaga warbler of boreal spruce woods and Appalachian hemlock stands, Blackburnian spends the majority of its time foraging high in the upper reaches of the canopy, a niche specialization that allows it to coexist with other warblers of the same genus. In June, it breeds across the Canadian boreal forest, from Alberta to the Maritime provinces, in parts of the northern lower 48, from Minnesota east to New England, and in Appalachia south to northern Georgia. In September, the species is on the move and can be found in forested habitats across much of the eastern U.S. Birders in the West, particularly along the California coast, should be on the lookout for lost individuals that have misoriented during fall migration.

See eBird’s real-time distribution maps for Blackburnian Warbler.

eBird is the real-time online checklist operated by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon. “On the Move” is written by eBird’s Garrett MacDonald, Chris Wood, Marshall Iliff, and Brian Sullivan. Submit your bird sightings at ebird.org.

A version of this article appeared in “Birding Briefs” in the October 2018 issue of BirdWatching.

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Sandhill Cranes. Photo by Tena Southern

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As fall migration continues throughout the United States, October offers many birding festivals taking place throughout the country. Below is a roundup of nine taking place during the month.

October 3-6
Alabama Coastal BirdFest

The 15th Annual John L. Borom Alabama Coastal BirdFest offers many opportunities to see birds, alligators, wildflowers, dolphins, and other wildlife around Baldwin and Mobile counties. Visit the festival website.

October 5-7
New York State Birders Conference

Greg Miller of The Big Year fame will serve as the featured speaker at the 71st annual meeting of the New York State Ornithological Association and New York State Birders Conference. There will also be ample opportunity to see shorebird and songbird species around Henrietta, New York. Visit the festival website.

October 5-7
BirdFest and Bluegrass Celebration

Join the Friends of Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in celebrating the return of Sandhill Cranes to the refuge. Events include activities for kids, bluegrass music, a live bird show, and local artists and food from Ridgefield, Washington. Visit the festival website.

October 5-7
Bridger Raptor Festival

This free festival held near Bozeman, Montana, centers on the largest known Golden Eagle migration in the United States. Events feature raptor viewings, nature walks and talks, and other educational and entertaining programs for people of all ages. Visit the festival website.

Read about Bridger Mountains Hawk Watch, Hotspot Near You No. 171

October 12-14
“Ding” Darling Days

The 30th annual celebration of “Ding” Darling Days is a weekend full of eco-activities with free tram tours around Sanibel Island, Florida, live wildlife presentations, and other family-friendly activities. Visit the festival website.

October 11-14
Florida Birding and Nature Festival

This four-day festival in Tampa offers field trips, boat trips, a nature expo, events and workshops for kids, and more. The keynote speakers are Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jack E. Davis, acclaimed photographer Mac Stone, and Project Puffin director Steve Kress. Visit the festival website.

October 16-21
Wings Over Water Wildlife Festival

The annual Wings Over Water Wildlife Festival takes place in six national wildlife refuges in northeast North Carolina (Outer Banks area) and hosts 90 different birding, paddling, photography, art, and natural history programs. Visit the festival website.

October 18-21
Cape May Fall Birding Festival

Cape May, New Jersey, is home to many incredible birding hotspots, and the best way to experience them all is by going to the Cape May Fall Birding Festival. This year’s featured speakers are J. Drew Lanham, a professor of wildlife at Clemson University, and Merlin Tuttle, the founder of Bat Conservation International. Attendees can join bird walks with local naturalists and indoor activities as well. Be sure to stop by the BirdWatching booth in the Convention Hall! Visit the festival website.

October 31-November 4
Yellow Rails and Rice Festival

Designed with fun in mind, the Yellow Rails and Rice Festival in Jennings, Louisiana, provides participants with a unique venue to view Yellow Rails while bringing birders and farmers together to realize the bird’s value to the area’s “working wetlands.” Visit the festival website.

Know of other birding festivals taking place? Add them to our online calendar

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This photo of a previously unknown species of hummingbird led to the discovery of the critically endangered Blue-throated Hillstar. Photo by F. Sornoza-Molina

In 2017, researchers working in the Ecuadorian Andes stumbled across a previously unknown species of hummingbird. They’ve announced the discovery of the bird, Blue-throated Hillstar, today in a study published in The Auk: Ornithological Advances.

Hillstars are unusual among hummingbirds. They live in high-elevation habitats in the Andes and have special adaptations to cold temperatures. Francisco Sornoza-Molina, of Ecuador’s Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad, first observed and photographed a previously unknown hillstar during fieldwork in southwest Ecuador in April 2017. After the first expedition, he went back the next month with other researchers to study the possible new species, capture specimens, and confirm the finding. They dubbed the new species Oreotrochilus cyanolaemus, or the Blue-throated Hillstar, for its iridescent blue throat.

Sornoza-Molina and his colleagues recommend in their paper that the bird be designated critically endangered on the international Red List.

The Blue-throated Hillstar is found only along bush-lined creeks in an area of about 100 square kilometers, and the researchers estimate there are no more than 750 individuals, perhaps fewer than 500. Threats to its habitat include fire, grazing, and gold mining. “No conservation measures have been taken to date, but a nature tourism initiative is currently underway at Cerro de Arcos, managed by the local community of Sabadel, and a conservation action plan is currently being designed,” the authors note.

“Complete support from national and international conservation agencies is needed in order to save this species,” says coauthor Sornoza-Molina. “The action plan for the conservation of this bird is creating a network of protected areas along its geographic range.”

“The hillstar hummingbirds occur in the most rugged, isolated, and inaccessible parts of the Andes, where they roost in caves, forage on the ground, and spend half their lives in hypothermic torpor, so the discovery of a new species in this group is incredibly exciting,” says the University of New Mexico’s Christopher Witt, a hummingbird expert who wasn’t involved in the study. “This striking discovery confirms that life in the high Andes still holds many secrets to be revealed. The location is fitting for a new species of hillstar, because it’s a remote, high mountain range that is isolated and is sandwiched between the ranges of two other hillstar species. The authors did a thorough job comparing the new form to its relatives in every respect.”

A new species of honeyeater found in Indonesia

Bahama Nuthatch, feared extinct, rediscovered on Grand Bahama Island

Camera trap records rare ground-cuckoo in Sumatra

New antbird species discovered, named after biologist E.O. Wilson

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Broad-winged Hawk. Photo by Marian McSherry

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In On the Move, our regular column about migration, we present pairs of distribution maps from eBird that you can use to compare where interesting birds are at different times of the year. We featured Broad-winged Hawk, pictured above, in our October 2018 issue.

Broad-winged Hawk

Migration maps from eBird show where Broad-winged Hawks have been spotted in June (left) and September.

Shy and retreating during the breeding season, Broad-winged Hawk moves in stunning numbers along upland ridges and other migratory funnel points during the fall, where it migrates in large flocks or kettles of birds utilizing favorable wind conditions for long-distance migration. In June, the Broad-winged Hawk can be found in the eastern U.S. and the boreal forest of Canada, where it breeds in deciduous and mixed-deciduous woods. By September, many individuals have departed for southerly locations. Huge concentrations of migrating individuals occur at places like Hawk Ridge, on the southern shore of Lake Superior, and at Hawk Mountain, in the Pennsylvania Appalachians. Birders in the western U.S. and southwestern Canada can expect to see a small number of Broad-wingeds fly past hawk-watch sites on favorable weather days in September and early October.

See eBird’s real-time distribution maps for Broad-winged Hawk.

eBird is the real-time online checklist operated by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon. “On the Move” is written by eBird’s Garrett MacDonald, Chris Wood, Marshall Iliff, and Brian Sullivan. Submit your bird sightings at ebird.org.

A version of this article appeared in “Birding Briefs” in the October 2018 issue of BirdWatching.

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Bat Falcon in Costa Rica. Photo by Mario Wong Pastor/Shutterstock

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We like all kinds of bird books. The ones that tell stories about people, or endangered species, or Big Years, or getting kids into birding. The ones that are scholarly. And we especially like the ones that are useful in the field. The four books featured here fall into that category. They can lead readers to new places to bird or help readers identify birds in places far and wide. Click “Next” to scroll through the list.

Best Places to Bird in the Prairies, by John Acorn, Alan Smith, and Nicola Koper, Greystone Books, 2018, paperback, 280 pages.

In this useful new guide, three of Canada’s top birders reveal their favorite destinations for spotting local birds in Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan. They highlight 36 of the region’s most highly recommended sites, each of which has been expertly selected for the unique species that reside there. With exclusive lists of specialty birds, splendid color photography, and plenty of insider tips for finding and identifying birdlife year-round, the book is accessible and easy-to-use. The next time you head to the prairie provinces, use this book to set your itinerary — and find great birds!

Check the price on Amazon!

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An American Flamingo forages in a small lagoon in the Galpágos Islands. Photo by Kanokratnok/Shutterstock

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Flamingos are a paradox of sorts. They are beautifully plumed from white to light and deep pink to crimson, and they have black flight feathers. They are graceful in flight and while walking, and they can form huge flocks of a million or more that are a sight to behold. As individuals, however, they are odd looking. Their legs and necks seem proportionally too long, and their large bills have a weird shape. Unlike with all other birds, the lower mandible is larger than the upper. The strange-shaped bills, however, are key to their success.

The bills are very thick and bend sharply downward near the middle of their length. When feeding, the head is lowered into the water, the bill points backward, and the top of the upper mandible is closest to the sandy bottom and parallel with it.

Flamingos are the most specialized filter-feeders of all birds. In fact, their method of filtering is unique among birds and, among vertebrates, compares most closely to the baleen whales. Basically, flamingos have a large number of horny, comb-like platelets (lamellae) that function as strainers.

The tongue is thick and moves forward and backward in a groove in the lower mandible, much like the plunger in a syringe. Water enters and leaves the bill along the sides of the two mandibles (gape). When the tongue is drawn back, water is brought in, and when the tongue is pushed forward, water moves out. Food items are removed from moving water by strainers and passed to the gullet.

Straining mechanisms are of two types. In deep-keeled strainers, the upper mandible is long and narrow with a deep “V” shape that fits in the V-shaped lower mandible and pretty much fills the oral cavity. The large surface areas of the sides of the upper and lower mandibles are covered with huge numbers of comb-like platelets that filter small planktonic organisms, such as blue-green algae (cyanobacteria, Spirulina) and diatoms — some the size of a human hair. These flamingos have specialized strainers on the edges of the mandibles that serve as excluders, regulating the size of food that enters.

The upper mandible of shallow-keeled flamingos is neither thick nor V-shaped, like the deep-keeled, and the strainers are fewer and larger. It is designed for larger prey, with size determined by the size of the opening between mandibles (gape). Preferred prey items include brine shrimp (Artemia), larvae of brine flies (Ephedra), and some mollusks and fish.

Where flamingos get their colors

The pink to crimson colors of flamingo plumages comes from beta carotenoids in their diet. Important contributors are brine shrimp and blue-green algae.

Because flamingos occur in such large flocks, finding enough food can be a problem. They solved this dilemma by selecting a habitat that is so extreme, they essentially have no competition. Flamingos utilize highly alkaline lakes and lagoons, most of which are twice as salty as sea water. Many have layers of crystalline salts on the surrounding mud flats. These anaerobic conditions create a stench that is exacerbated by temperatures that can exceed 120°F.

Some waters are caustic. Leslie Brown, while discovering the first nesting ground of the Lesser Flamingo in 1954 (Lake Natron, Tanzania), walked through a shallow soda lagoon and burned his legs so badly he required skin grafts. Flamingos can drink some salt water (they have salt removal glands), but most is too toxic. They either search for freshwater springs or drink from geyser pools, which can be near boiling.

Flamingos are monogamous. They first breed at 3 or 4 years of age, and subsequent breeding occurs every few years. This sporadic cycle is compensated for by a long life expectancy. In February 2013, for example, a dead flamingo was found that had been banded as a chick 50 years earlier.

Flamingos build cylindrical mud nests on mud flats or in shallow water, typically lay one egg, sometimes two, and both sexes incubate for about a month. Nestlings are fed a reddish crop milk right after hatching and, later, form creches of thousands of youngsters fed by their parents. Parents and their young identify each other by sound.

Flamingos are circum-tropical in distribution, sometimes venturing to the subtropics. Shallow-billed flamingos include American Flamingo from the Caribbean and bordering regions (occasionally visiting the southern United States), the Greater from Europe and Africa, and the Chilean from South America. Deep-keeled flamingos include the Lesser from Africa and Andean and James’s (or Puna) from South America.

The extreme habitats of flamingos reduce the threat from terrestrial predators, such as foxes and jackals. Avian predators, including eagles and hawks, are a more serious problem. During the Roman Empire, humans killed huge numbers of flamingos, as emperors believed flamingo tongues to be a delicacy and served them for special dinners. Today the human threat is primarily loss of habitat by drainage and construction of soda ash “mining” plants on the saline lakes.

Flamingos are among the most amazing birds. They thrive under extreme conditions while maintaining a graceful elegance.

Founding Editor Eldon Greij.

Eldon Greij’s column “Amazing Birds” appears in every issue of BirdWatching magazine. This article appeared in the September/October 2018 issue. Eldon is professor emeritus of biology at Hope College, located in Holland, Michigan, and the founding editor of Birder’s World magazine. 

Read other “Amazing Birds” columns by Eldon Greij

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Ewan Pritchard, photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Credit Ewan Pritchard’s older brother with getting him hooked on birdwatching. The kid tagged after him for so long that –

No, wait; it was earlier than that. Ewan recalls younger days, looking out the back door at his home a few miles east of Atlanta, where a suet-and-seed feeder drew birds to the deck. Another feeder attracted hummingbirds; they swarmed with a vibrant energy that mesmerized the toddler.

Or maybe it was even before that? When he was just a baby, a bundle of young humanity bundled tight in his parents’ arms as they walked the woods?

“I’ve been [a birder], I guess, forever,” he says.

For Ewan, “forever” is 15 years. A high school sophomore, Ewan is among a growing number of young birders.

He’s good at it, too. Ewan and four friends earlier this year took first place in the annual Georgia Youth Birding Competition. The quintet went on a birdwatching romp that began at the coast and wound up, 200 miles and 24 hours later, at a state-owned wildlife tract in east Georgia.

For Ewan, the first-place finish underscores a simple fact. “I like this,” he says. “I don’t think I’ll ever give up birding.”

Young Mr. Pritchard has embraced a hobby millions enjoy, says Dottie Head, communications director of the Atlanta Audubon Society. The organization, a subsidiary of the National Audubon Society, teaches advanced birding. In recent years, she says, the chapter has responded to public demand and now offers two courses instead of one.

“It’s growing in popularity,” says Head. The hobby, she says, appeals to a wide range of enthusiasts, from people who hike in national wildlife refuges to folks who gaze out their kitchen windows.

National figures underscore the hobby’s appeal. A 2016 report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that more than 45 million people are birdwatchers.

‘Really cool’

Ewan is a member of the Wood Thrushers, a team comprising himself, two classmates from his school and a couple of other enthusiasts he met through birding. The team takes its name from the Wood Thrush, a songbird found across North America that’s related to the robin.

It’s also the name his older brother, Angus, used for his team. When Angus joined another group, kid brother Ewan promptly appropriated the name.

Angus, says Ewan, may be responsible for his fascination with birds. When his brother went birdwatching, Ewan sometimes came along. Getting his own copy of the Peterson Field Guide to Birds,a must-have for birders, completed the transformation from bystander to participant.

That interest paid off this spring, when the Wood Thrushers and other birders participated in the annual birding competition. The event, sponsored by the state Department of Natural Resources, began at 5 p.m. April 27 and concluded at 5 p.m. the next day.

Ewan’s team began at the coast, prowling the St. Simon’s area, binoculars and field guides at hand. The birders stayed up late, spending the night with a Brunswick couple. They rose early the next day, April 28, and headed inland. They stopped at the Altamaha Wildlife Management Area, as well as the Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge.

At each stop, they added more birds to their list. They wound up at the Charlie Elliott Wildlife Center in Mansfield, where 27 teams turned in their totals. When the counting was done, the Wood Thrushers’ 161 species took first place.

It was, says Ewan, a team effort. He and his friends had been practicing for a year or more. When the clock started ticking, they started watching.

His favorite bird? Ewan paused. “An Osprey,” he says, naming the coastal raptor noted for creating immense nests. “I think they look really cool.” He’s partial to Carolina Wrens and bluebirds, too.

Also cool: the Philadelphia Vireo, a small songbird that breeds primarily in Canada. Its migratory pattern encompasses part of Georgia. Ewan identified one this year. It was a “lifer” – one he’d never ID’d before.

This summer, Ewan and his brother spent a month in Ecuador, looking at birds. The boys pitched the proposal to their dad, Rusty. He gave it some thought and said OK. Ewan took over all the household chores he and Angus had shared while big brother got a job washing dishes at a pizza restaurant.

The money they made from those tasks funded a four-week excursion that wound from the Andes Mountains to the Amazon River. The brothers counted 652 species — more, says Ewan, “than I had seen in my life.”

Now, says Ewan, he and the other Wood Thrush guys are looking toward the forests of north Georgia, 100 miles or so from Atlanta’s asphalt tangle. They’re thinking about scouting out the good birding areas in the mountains.

It’s not too soon to start thinking about the next birding competition.

“It’s about finding out where the birds are,” says Ewan. “That’s what I like.” — Mark Davis, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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Photo by Chris-Håvard Berge (Creative Commons)

The one piece of equipment that just about every birdwatcher owns is a pair of binoculars. These ingenious items of glass, sturdy outer armor, eye cups, and focusing knobs allow us to see birds in sharp focus, to study their behaviors, or simply to catch a glimpse when distance would otherwise make birds virtually invisible to our sense of sight.

Of course, most birders don’t jump into the hobby with high-quality binocs. We’ll either use a hand-me-down from a parent or grandparent, pick up a cheap pair, or use a pair that was made for hunting, viewing theater, or other non-birding purposes. So with that in mind, we compiled the following roundup of high-quality binoculars that are great for birders. We hope you find it useful. — Matt Mendenhall, Editor

And if you like this, check out our list of five spotting scopes that we like. 

Kowa 8×33 Genesis 33 PROMINAR XD

Designed for extensive outdoor use, the Kowa 8×33 Genesis 33 PROMINAR XD provides a good balance between power and portability with a moderate magnification and objective lenses.

Check the price on B&H’s website.

Leica 8×42 Noctivid

The Noctivid is able to produce bright and clear high-contrast images due to its use of SCHOTT High Transmission glass with a 12-element lens configuration and its HighLux-System of anti-reflection multi-coatings, and phase-corrected compact prisms. Made with a dual-hinge/open-bridge, the Noctivid has extra gripping surface area and reduced overall weight without sacrificing strength and stability.

Check the price on B&H’s website.

Vortex 8×42 Viper HD (2018 Edition)

The Vortex 8X42 Viper HD produce bright, sharp, and clear high-contrast views with accurate color fidelity and crisp resolution. The binoculars are also waterproof and resistant to internal fogging, and each pair comes with a GlassPak harness case to keep it from swinging and swaying as you hike or climb.

Check the price on B&H’s website.

Swarovski 8.5×42 EL42

The Swarovski 8.5×42 EL42 was developed to give birders a slightly higher magnification over standard 8x optics while preserving a wide-angle field of view. It also limits visible hand shake common in higher power glasses.

Check the price on B&H’s website.

ZEISS 8×32 Conquest HD

The 8×32 Conquest HD’s performance starts with high-definition glass elements that transmit clear images with minimal distortion. It is built for the outdoors with a chassis made from lightweight and durable aluminum alloy with a protective slip-resistant rubber armor.

Check the price on B&H’s website.

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