Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Appreciating the beauty of grackles

Snap, grackle, pop!

I know some people don’t like grackles. Of the 3 species in North America, they are all fairly common within their ranges. I don’t have feeders but apparently Common Grackles can be aggressive, which is why people often dislike them. They are also not always obviously bright and colorful.

But it all really depends on how you look at a thing.

Grackles are quite bright and colorful when our eyes, light, and their feathers align. Many colors of birds are due to pigments, actual substances in the feathers. Other colors are caused by the structure of the feathers, such as blues in Eastern Bluebirds or iridescence in grackles. Iridescence is not unique to birds, but here is how it works in the avian world:

“Iridescent colors are produced by differential reflection of wavelengths from highly modified barbules of the feathers that are rotated so that a flat surface faces the incoming light. The detailed structure of the barbule reflects some wavelengths and absorbs others, and the reflected wavelength changes with the angle of reflection. The structural color is registered by the eye in response to the reflected wavelengths and changes with the angle formed by the light, the reflecting surface, and the eye.” –Stanford University, Birds of Stanford, Essays, “The Color of Birds” https://web.stanford.edu/group/stanfordbirds/text/essays/Color_of_Birds.html 

Or more simply:

“Iridescent feathers appear black or dull one moment, then flash into glittering color as light hits them at just the right angle. The colors are produced as the feather’s microscopic structure reflects some colors while eliminating others.” –The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Bird Academy Handbook Chapter 4 “Iridescence: and the Birds-of-Paradise”, https://academy.allaboutbirds.org/iridescence-and-the-birds-of-paradise (Watch the video!)

It all begs the question: Is a grackle still colorful when you aren’t looking at it?

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Looking more closely at feathers

The Black Vulture above shows off the feathers that allow it to soar the skies. The feathers of the wings and tail are major reasons a bird can generate lift and thrust and also maneuver in shifting air currents. You can count the feathers- about 70- that make up the flight feathers.

And yet, according to Feathers by Thor Hanson, hummingbirds have around 1,000 feathers and swans have up to 25,000 (apparently mostly in the neck) (2011). Most birds have less than 10,000 feathers, with smaller birds having in the lower thousands (Wetmore 1936). Even if the Black Vulture above had only 1,000 feathers, its feathers primarily dedicated to flight represent less than 10% of the total. Although all feathers contribute to flight by streamlining the bird and reducing its weight relative to other substances, they do so much more.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

February birds at Van Cortlandt Park

A male Northern Cardinal splashes red and orange onto the browns of
dormant pants and the white of remaining snow.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

SuperB owl Party 2017

I celebrated the biggest game of the year by going birding, attending a SuperB owl walk in Pelham Bay Park, Bronx, NY. The score was three owls- a win for the birders!

Northern Saw-whet Owl

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Museum of Modern Bird Art in New York City

New York City is full of art galleries and museums. While there is no official museum of modern bird art, all you need to do is explore the city's streets, subways, and parks to find diverse portrayals of the feathered kind. No fees required. Well, maybe a subway fare!

Owl statue (with obligatory Rock Pigeon) overlooking Herald Square,

One of many Audubon Mural Project paintings in Washington Heights
(formerly Audubon Park!), Manhattan

Monday, December 26, 2016

Christmas Bird Count in the Bronx

One young Red-tailed Hawk.

For the East Bronx section of Bronx-Westchester Christmas Bird Count (CBC), I birded the southern zone of Pelham Bay Park with a group of five people. We covered about 2.5 miles of distance (not including backtracking) in over five hours. Our goal was to identify and count every single bird to submit as part of a larger citizen science effort to track bird populations and distribution.

Early light at Pelham Bay Park landfill, part of the southern zone of the park.

One of the highlights of covering the southern zone is entering the generally-closed-to-the-public landfill area. With its grassland-like habitat, it always holds promise for interesting birds.

New York City landmarks, just part of the scenery!

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Triple helping of Christmas Goose

Snow Goose started off the holiday visual feast on 12/25/2016
at Van Cortlandt Park, Bronx, NY. Canada Goose followed. 

The main delicacy, a Pink-footed Goose, in Van Cortlandt Park, Bronx, NY,
with tons of Canada Goose on the side.

With little time and declining light we did not pick out a Cackling Goose, but one may have been hiding there!