I Conquered My Nemesis

In a recent post, I wrote about my nemesis; a crafty bird with a dark mask that had eluded me at every turn for over 3 years. There had been a couple of occasions where I heard a Black-throated Blue Warbler singing, but I was unable to catch even a glimpse of him. There were whispers, legends really, that these warblers could be found at certain sites, but my pursuits proved unfruitful. Last week, I stumbled upon some recent records that indicated my nemesis was holed up with a number of his relatives along a trail in the Great Smoky Mountains. Along with my father, I set off in the morning to find my nemesis under the guise of a nice hike in the woods. 

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Shortly after we began hiking the trail, I heard was I was eagerly listening for; the buzzy “Beer beer bee!” of a Black-throated Blue. As to be expected with a clever nemesis, we were unable to get a bead on his location among the treetops. Confident that we would have ample opportunities, I moved on down the trail. A few minutes later, I heard another one singing and my razor-sharp eyes caught a quick flash of movement. Pulling my binoculars up to my eyes, I finally saw my nemesis for the first time. The moment felt so sweet, and I realized that the years of searching and disappointment had culminated in a great victory. I watched the warbler forage among the leaves and then continued hiking, stopping to see other birds and the creeks along the path. Sometime later, a Black-throated Blue Warbler actually came out around some bushes about 5 feet away and chopped down an insect while I watched. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to take a picture with my phone in time, but it was still a cool experience. I ended up seeing 4 males and a female, and also heard about 9 other males! I also saw Winter Wrens for the first time, which was a nice bonus. As I was hiking back to my car, I heard the nasally call of a Red-breasted Nuthatch in the distance, but could not locate his position. Perhaps he will become my new nemesis, but for now, I’m going to revel in my victory.

Black-throated blue warbler Black-throated blue warbler male singing

Male Black-throated Blues are quite handsome.

Male red-breasted nuthatch

Is this my new nemesis?

An ice cream celebration is certainly in my future. If you have a nemesis, keep pursuing him/her and don’t give up. Be persistent, even when disappointment strikes and eventually your efforts will be rewarded. Unless you’re trying to catch a porcupine with your mouth. And if your nemesis continues to elude you, you can always say in a deep gravelly voice, “I’ll get you next time Gadget . . . next time.”

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Gonna catch them all!

Many people are currently enthralled by the recently-released Pokemon app that allows users to chase after virtual Pokemon around neighborhoods, forests, and lakes. I’m currently doing something similar, but with real live birds. The project I’m assisting with involves setting up mist nets to catch songbirds around clearcuts (areas that have been harvested for timber). The purpose of the study is to determine how the birds are responding to management practices and whether they can thrive despite the apparent loss of habitat. As an added bonus, I get to see some cool birds up close! I don’t get to train them to fight in arenas, though that’s a great idea for a future study on natural selection.


Indigo Bunting vs. Kentucky Warbler, who would win?

So how do you catch songbirds? We use mist-nets that catch birds as they move through the clearcuts. The birds become tangled but can be safely removed without harm. Measurements are taken of important features (such as mass, wing length, tail length, and bill length) and the sex of the bird is recorded. Birds are fitted with a band that can identify individuals in the future. Acquiring this information is needed to better understand bird behavior and habitat use. Also, it gives me a chance to have face-to-face conversations with birds. Most of them aren’t very good at sitting still while I’m talking, but some of them want to talk very loudly and interrupt me. How rude.

Two of the more chatty birds that I interact with. Left- Yellow-breasted Chat, Right – White-eyed Vireo. Vireos are like little devils, but I love them anyway.

Below are some of the birds in my “collection”. Yes, they hatch from real eggs.

Yellow-throated Vireo

Scarlet Tanager – one of my favorites!

Hairy Woodpecker

Blue-winged Warbler

Me having a face-off with a Hooded Warbler

Hopefully this brief tour through the world of birds will give you a better appreciation for them and inspire you to go out in nature and finds some cool birds on your own! You can even compete with your friends to see what species you find in different habitats. Plus, there are ways you can contribute to science by engaging in citizen science projects with your local Audubon society. You can also look up Christmas and backyard bird counts, which allows you to help scientists map out bird populations and trends. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to train a Red-eyed Vireo to fight a charmander.



A bird in paradise

As Spring marches on (no pun intended), the trees are beginning to grow new leaves, flowers and bushes are coming into bloom, and the birds are starting to migrate back to their summer homes. Birds are well known for using their singing abilities to attract mates and defend territories, but did you know that some birds use dancing to woo their loves? And did you also know that the 2010 Dance Dance Revolution champion was an albatross named Jessica? Sorry about that. Anyway, some of my favorite birds are the birds of paradise, which live primarily in Papua New Guinea. Many male birds of paradise have brilliantly-colored plumage and engage in extravagant displays.  Let’s take a trip to paradise and see some of these cool birds in action!

Male blue bird-of-paradise foraging

The Blue Bird-of-Paradise is well known for its bold colors and fancy dance moves. Unfortunately, this bird is threatened in some regions due to habitat loss and hunters looking for nice feathers. Blue Birds-of-Paradise are often found in tropical forests, where they forage for berries and other fruits in the canopy. They have a bold white eye ring and blue wings. Males can be distinguished from females by the tail feathers (males have longer plumes) and the underparts (males have dark bellies while females have chestnut bellies). During the mating season, the males of this species will gather at display grounds to impress females. These areas, referred to as leks, offer males an opportunity to impress passing females who come for the show. The males will make calls, spread out their wings to show off their plumage, and swing upside-down during courtship displays!

Blue bird-of-paradise perchedMale blue bird-of-paradise practising courtship dance

Left – female, right – male displaying.

The next dancer is the Greater Bird-of-Paradise. Males of this species have beautiful plumage and eye-catching tail plumes. These birds feast primarily on fruit and insects, and males will hop around on tree branches in an effort to attract the ladies. Instead of trying to describe their ritual, I’ll let you watch two males in action! Their calls make me laugh!

Another interesting bird is the smaller King Bird-of-Paradise. These birds usually feed on fruits and insects, though they occasionally get bloodthirsty and will hunt small tree kangaroos 3 times their size! They also rule over the tropical forests and push out any birds that annoy them. Okay, I may have made a few things up, but I’m sure at some point in history a King Bird-of-Paradise has touched a tree kangaroo. Though females are plainly colored brown, males have bright red colors, blue feet, and long tail wires used in displays. Males will strut around on tree branches while making a variety of vocalizations to attract females. They also spread their wings and shake the tail wires to enhance their attractiveness. 

King bird of paradise on branch

King Bird-of-Paradise

Hopefully you’re now getting a taste of the beauty and wonder of these awesome birds! My next blog will have details on more birds-of-paradise, but for now, you should take what you learned about these birds and apply it to your workplace so that you can impress others. Me? I’m going to work on a few dance moves in the trees and practice my courtship calls.

Greater bird of paradise male





These are not the birds you’re looking for

As a biologist who enjoys spending time in nature and chasing after birds, there are inevitably moments where the feathered creatures become elusive in an effort to confound me. On other occasions, birds make no attempt to hide from me, but instead color my car and binoculars with a beautiful white paste. In any case, searching for particular bird species has its ups and downs, with the downs often involving thrashing around in the thorns of multiflora rose or wandering around in dangerous areas. Sometimes the bleeding is worth it, other times the birds just laugh at me.


Sometimes I risk my life to find dumb birds.

In 2011, I spent the summer running after beach-nesting shorebirds throughout the Gulf Coast. This was one year after the major oil spill, so I saw numerous beaches where clean-up crews were still working to remove dried oil mats. My position with the Coastal Bird Conservation involved marching 8-11 miles a day across beaches in hot and humid conditions and no shade. At least I can put that I like long walks on the beach on my Tinder profile. The focal species of interest included two species of plovers, American Oystercatchers, and several species of terns. Terns are easy to find as they tend to nest in such large colonies that you can see one everywhere you tern. Once you focus in on the clues to a nesting site, it’s hard to tern it off. I’m sorry, this is really bad. Let me tern this blog around and write about something else.

Caspian tern vocalising, with chick

“Stay away from my children! Tern around! Make a U-tern!”

Wilson’s Plovers were the primary species of interest in my surveys. Plovers are similar to sandpipers, but tend to have larger eyes and shorter bills. There are also behavioral differences, as sandpipers are very tactile and tend to probe their bills in the sand in search of food, while plovers are more visual and often use a run-stop-run-stop strategy when foraging. Anyway, when I was trekking across the dunes of Tatooine the Gulf Coast, Wilson’s Plovers would often run ahead of me in the sand. As I moved closer, they would continue to keep just enough of a distance so that I had to keep chasing them to confirm the ID and record their position with GPS.

Wilson’s Plovers make “whip!” calls and race across the sand without regard for my data-collecting techniques.

During my fieldwork as a point count technician in Indiana, there were a number of times I was hoping to find certain birds based on calls or movement, only to discover tricksters that I wasn’t looking for. Many of my adventures involved chasing after Wood Thrush and searching for nests.

During spring migration, other species of thrush move through the area, hopping around and pretending to be Wood Thrush. I would see the silhouette of a thrush in the early morning hours and engage in hot pursuit, only to be disappointed by the realization that it was a Swainson’s Thrush . . . or a Hermit Thrush . . . or a Gray-cheeked Thrush . . . or a Veery . . . well, you get the point. On other occasions, I would be recording birds by songs and calls. Some birds, especially warblers, can sound very similar to one another. If that’s not enough, there are regional dialects in bird songs and calls, just like there are in the human world. There’s nothing like getting excited about hearing a new song or call, only to discover that it’s just an ordinary titmouse or warbler that decided to be creative.

Swainson's thrush

This is not the thrush I was looking for.

The message from this blog? Birds will actively try to elude you and deceive you, except for terns, which will scream and attack you. Even though there have been moments where my hopes of seeing a new or rare bird were crushed by an ordinary songbird, I still enjoy spending time in nature and watching birds. And try as they might, the birds cannot always escape me.

Fighting Falcons

When most people think of falcons, they imagine a fierce, fast-flying bird that hunts with sharp talons. Other may think of the NFL team which appears to be fast and powerful for a few games before plummeting to the earth with a quiet whimper. Perhaps a few of you associate the word ‘falcon’ with the popular fighting game “Super Smash Bros”. Captain Falcon is best known for his special move where flames would appear around his fist in the shape of a falcon as a voice yelled “Falcon Punch!”

Down you go: The falcon takes down a glider in South Bay, Los Angeles, after it flies to close to her nest

Peregrine Falcon that didn’t take kindly to an intruder. She was probably angry at the Cleveland Browns colors.


Falcon Punch!

The “standard” falcon that is often used in falconry for hunting and that many people are familiar with is the Peregrine Falcon. Peregrines are spread throughout the world and are the fastest animals on earth, capable of reaching speeds of over 200mph in dives! These falcon dive at extreme speeds when pursuing aerial prey, such as pigeons or waterfowl. Peregrines can pack quite a punch when striking prey with their talons with great force at high speeds! A falcon may even strike a bird in the air, then swoop around and dive to strike it multiple times before the prey hits the ground! The fighting ability of a peregrine in flight is nearly unparalleled.

Peregrine falcon diving

Peregrine falcon ssp. macropus with parrot kill

Yes, Peregrines occasionally eat parrots.

The American Kestrels I’m studying for my master’s research are of the smaller, more colorful variety of falcons. American Kestrels have been used in falconry, especially by beginners. My studies focuses on the behavior of wild kestrels. Even though kestrels are small for falcons (9-10 inches long, about Robin-size), they have a lot of fight for their size. I’ve observed quite a few occasions where a kestrel dive-bombed a Red-tailed Hawk, which can weigh twelve times more than a kestrel and have more than double the wingspan!

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This is a beautiful male named Eastside that I’m following for my research. Still from a video taken by a friend (M. Cannon).

The preferred hunting method for kestrels involves waiting for prey from a perch, but sometimes kestrels will snatch insects in mid-air or hover-hunt, where the kestrel will seemingly hover in place by facing a strong wind and rapidly flapping its wings. I recently watched a kestrel strike a butterfly while chasing after a hawk. It’s like the kestrel was thinking “Ooh, a butterfly . . . I think I’ll kill it on my way to attack my enemy.” Kestrels usually hunt insects or small rodents, but will occasionally prey upon lizards, snakes and small birds. Just a few days ago, I saw a male kestrel munch on a small snake and then discard the skin to the ground!

Photo: Alberto Lopez/Audubon Photography Awards

Kestrels will also engage in battles with their own kind. I’ve seen kestrels respond to unwelcome intruders with alarm calls and swooping displays. Recently, I watched a pair of kestrels vigorously chase off another kestrel. One of my experiments involves using a kestrel model with playback of “klee” calls. Sometimes the kestrel I’m targeting will call back and engage in the swooping displays, which is pretty fun to watch! Hopefully you’ve enjoyed learning more about peregrines and kestrels! I would not recommend imitating the hunting style of peregrine falcons, but maybe you could perch and wait for food like a kestrel. A great idea would be to perch on top of a counter or table and wait until your spouse/significant other brings out some food. Then you can pounce quickly upon your prey (the food or the person, whichever you prefer). May you fly like a falcon!

American kestrel flying


Fun with Falcons

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, my master’s thesis work involves studying American Kestrels; small falcons that nest in cavities and nest boxes. Keeping up with such quick and mobile creatures can sometimes be exhausting. If I had a hoverboard things would probably be easier, but apparently grad students can’t afford such things. Observing kestrel behavior can often be an enjoyable experience . . . provided I don’t want to finish experiments or accomplish actual work.

Male American kestrel in flight

One of the fascinating things about kestrels is their plumage. Many raptors in the U.S. have plain brown, gray, or white plumage with occasional touches of reddish-brown or blue-gray. American Kestrels, on the other hand, have rufous and blue and black and white colors. The males are especially beautiful with their blue wings and rufous belly. Kestrels exhibit reversed sexual dimorphism (RSD), where females are larger than males. One of the hypotheses for RSD (not to be confused with LSD, which makes kestrels have a wide variety of colors and sizes) is that the smaller size of males may increase agility in capturing prey items such as insects. Males often provide much of the food during the nesting season so being a good provider would be an important advantage for a male.

American kestrel holding prey in beak

This male would make a good provider.

Another interesting thing about the kestrels I watch is that they have different personalities. Some of the falcons are very skittish and fly away whenever I drive up by their territory. I always call out to them in their native tongue (klee klee klee!), but they never listen. One of the kestrels that is often shy is J.J. Abrams. J.J. has frustrated many an experiment by flying from tree to tree and hiding behind the leaves. Other kestrels are bolder and even curious. These kestrels will usually let me get fairly close. Duncan (named for the Dunkin’ Donuts nearby) hunts out in the open near a main road and is used to cars, while Howie and Heidi are a pair that usually behave for my experiments

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J.J. Abrams is very secretive, except when you taunt him with an intruder (female model) and playback of alarm calls!

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Howie is more open and approachable.

Observing the interactions between a pair of kestrels is also fascinating. Yesterday I saw a male and female circling in the sky together. The show they put on was almost as entertaining as the presidential debates. The female would make a pass at the male and then he would make a pass at her. They also called out to each other and did various swooping displays. I wonder if swooping displays and singing would work for me? Anyway, I’ll talk more about the behavior of my kestrels and some of the cool things I’ve seen in my field work (including falcon fights!) in my next blog. For now, I leave you with a short clip of kestrel nestlings peeking out of a nestbox.



Superbird: The Song of a Heron

A few summers ago I was doing bird work in southern Indiana. I spent much of my time on an old army base that had been converted to a wildlife refuge. During the drives out to my sites, I would often spot a Great Blue Heron wading in the ponds and streams throughout the refuge. After consistently seeing a heron by one creek crossing, I decided to name the heron ‘Jerome’. Every time I saw a blue heron I would call out “Jerome!” My coworkers tried to tell me that Jerome couldn’t be everywhere on the refuge, but they didn’t know Jerome like I did. Jerome was a superbird and therefore my next birdsong parody is dedicated to him. With apologies to Five for Fighting, here is Superbird.

Great blue heron wading through water

Superbird (It’s Not Easy)

I can’t stand to fly
I don’t feel that free
I’m just out to find
The beautiful blue sea

I’m more than a duck
I’m more than a crane
I’m more than some pretty bird out in the rain
And it’s not easy to be me

I wish that I could sing
Rest beneath the trees
Eat bugs on the wing
Without any bee sting

It may sound absurd, to call like a reed
Taking water baths down in the stream
If I am disturbed, you better take heed
My bill will cut your skin and make you bleed
And it’s not easy to be me

Up, up and away, away from me
Well that’s alright
You can still sleep sound tonight
I don’t have rabies or anything

I can’t stand to fly
I don’t feel that free
Birds weren’t meant to ride
With legs out in the breeze

I’m only a bird with a silly long beak
Digging for juicy frogs in this mountain stream
Only a bird with a silly long beak
Longing for special wings outside of me
Outside of me, outside of me [x2]

I’m only a bird with a silly long beak
I’m only a bird looking for a dream
I’m only a bird with a silly long beak
And it’s not easy
It’s not easy to be me