Sunday, January 26, 2014

LOOK FOR: Snowy Owls

I think I passed into a new realm of birder geekdom yesterday. I went out specifically looking for a single bird. And I have to say, it was pretty cool when it actually worked.

snowy owl at Reagan National Airport
Snowy owl at Reagan National Airport by Viola Aragon
Snowy owls are two-and-a-half-foot-tall birds that spend their summers breeding in the arctic tundra. For the winter, some (usually younger birds) will migrate south. But "south" for these cold-tolerant birds usually means balmy Canada, or maybe the very northern tier of the US. Once every few years, they show up further south, a phenomenon ornithologists call an irruption.

Photo credit: pe_ha45
This year is one of the biggest snowy owl irruptions in decades. Apparently, 2013 was a summer of abundant lemmings (aka baby-owl food), and as a result there are lots of healthy young snowy owls looking for someplace to spend the winter. They've been spotted as far south as Florida and Bermuda.

How can you see a snowy owl? We went to Gravelly Point in the late afternoon on Saturday. There were several birders already there, and they'd already spotted the owl just behind the fence at the airport. A few of them had scopes trained on it, which made for a much better view of a pretty distant bird.

(Birding tip: whenever you see people with tripod-mounted scopes looking at something, it is always worth asking what they're looking at. I've never met someone who wasn't thrilled to share their find.)

People have also been seeing a snowy owl right downtown, around 14th and L Streets NW.

And how do we know about these hotspots? There are two great resources to check.

  1. The Maryland and DC Birding Group has a website where people post notable sightings. It's full of talk about the snowy owl these days and possibly your best source for real-time updates about whether someone has seen an owl today.
  2. If there isn't a recent post on that website, you can go with the most common locations people have been seeing the owls. For that, your best resource is eBird, which collects data from millions of people about bird sightings and compiles them into searchable maps. Here's the map as of today for snowy owls in DC. See why we went to Gravelly Point? (For an updated map, click on the picture to go to eBird.)

Whether you find an owl or not, enjoy the hunt!

Friday, January 17, 2014

Birding Resources Part IV: Five Great Quiz Programs to Help You Learn More Bird Songs

Every spring I think I've finally learned some new bird songs, then I forget most of them over the fall and winter. Birds sing more in the spring than at any other time of year. And during the rest of the year, I guess I fill up that part of my brain with other things.

Why do I want to learn the songs? Birds are small, and don't hang out at eye level waiting for you to see them. But when you hear their songs, you know to look for them.

Even if I never find the bird, the forest seems fuller. "Cool, there's that here," I can say. I inevitably picture the individual birds in my mind's eye, in all their diversity -- not just generic "birds."

By far the best way to learn bird songs is in the field -- hearing the song and then seeing the bird. But, this winter, I'm going to try to get a head start and start listening before the birds start singing. I've been having fun exploring several quizzes as a way to practice.

Beginner: Quizzes at Into the air and The nature of hiking each include 10 very common birds. Once you get these bird calls down you'll be amazed how often you hear them when you're outside.

Advanced Beginner:

Virtual birder presents a bird quiz in a matrix: match five songs to four pictures of birds, leaving one unused. The program cycles through six habitats, and pulls from about 10 birds per habitat. There's a fair amount of overlap between the birds included each time, meaning lots of repetition, but that can be good practice, too.

eNature's quiz plays a bird song and gives you three choices (with both pictures and names) for which bird it is. They draw from the library of about 550 North American birds, narrowed down for your zipcode. The large selection of birds makes this quiz more challenging, as you're more likely to run into birds you don't know.

Dendroica plays a song, and gives you a text list of 6 or 18 birds to choose from. After you answer (whether correctly or incorrectly), it shows you a large picture of the bird you guessed and plays its song. You can't limit birds to your area; there are an awful lot of shorebirds and western birds in here that we never see. But you can easily skip to the next song if you don't feel like puzzling through.

Larkwire has two modes. Both keep track of which songs you've missed and comes back to them more often. For that alone this program might be worth paying for. In "Gallery" mode, you click on the bird picture that matches a song (shown here); in "Field" mode you don't have the benefit of multiple choice. Larkwire is very attractive, with clear pictures and high-quality recordings. Check out the free demo, which includes about 8 birds. Pricing for a fuller collection varies by how many birds you want included in your package, from $3.95 for 25 backyard birds, to $44.95 for 600 land and shore birds, and many levels in between. It's available both as an iPad/iPhone app and a web program that you can access from computers as well as mobile devices.

iKnow Bird Songs is available only as an iOS app, so I haven't tried it. It looks like it plays a song, then gives you four names to choose from; after you answer, it shows a picture of the bird (you can also ask for the picture as a hint). The app comes with 370 birds, which can be narrowed by region and season. You can set your own "decks" of songs you want to learn.

Have you used any of these programs, or any others, to learn bird songs? Leave us a comment!