Amazing Memories of Hummingbirds

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Flitting from one flower to the next, their long, narrow beaks perfectly adapted to reach seemingly inaccessible nectar, hummingbirds hover with their wings a blur, their iridescent feathers shining in the sun. New research has revealed that these fascinating little creatures are even more amazing than previously thought. While they may be tiny, it has been discovered that the area of the hummingbird’s brain related to learning and memory – the hippocampus – is the largest in comparison to body size of any other bird, and up to five times larger than that found in seabirds, songbirds and woodpeckers. With the frantic activity of hummingbirds requiring relatively large quantities of nectar to fuel it, it makes sense that this huge memory is likely to be used in pinpointing where the prime locations of this sweet substance are.

It has been noted by researchers that hummingbirds retain this memory of where each feeder is located, both when it is at home and as it travels along its migration path. This ability to remember locations of food sources, and therefore plan their route with precision, referred to as episodic memory, was previously thought to have been restricted to humans. Not only do they remember where all the prime sources of nectar are, field studies reveal that they appear to be able to judge how long the flowers will take to produce more nectar after they have emptied them, and do not revisit those particular flowers until they have something worthwhile to offer.

In addition to field observation, the study included dissecting the brains of several species of wild hummingbirds, as well as related common swifts, using the data to compare with stored data relating to hippocampus development of 77 other species of birds. The conclusion of the dissection study was that the hippocampus of the humming bird is substantially larger than that of any other bird on record, relative to size. Scientists are of the opinion that, given the long distances hummingbirds travel, they cannot afford to waste time or energy searching for food sources, and the brain has compensated for this by developing the hippocampus and facilitating a large memory.

Tropical Birding in January (Part 2)

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Tropical Birding in January (Part 1)

The second half of the tour was spent in Tuxtepec, on the opposite slope of Oaxaca. We crossed over the Continental Divide, passing through humid montane forests with regular roadside stops to get good looks at Emerald Toucanets, Black Hawk-Eagles, Collared Trogons, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, White-breasted and Grey-breasted Wood-Wrens, Yellow-billed Caciques, White-collared Manakins and Cinnamon-bellied Flowerpiercers.

During one extended rest stop we wandered aimlessly down the road for lack of any birds to see, conversing instead, and inspecting various flowers and plants at the roadside. We hadn’t discovered any new local species; it was near evening and quiet, except when a fast-moving car passed too closely and forced us all to jump in alarm into the ditch at the shoulder. While we were standing there in confusion, Michael level-headedly remarked, “I think I hear quail peeping.” He crossed the road, ear cupped and bent toward the muddy hill on the opposite side. It was a steep slope; covered in thick, low-growing vegetation and none of us could see into the wet gloom much less hear anything, save the nervous rumble of cars in the distance. I joined him and, when concentrating hard enough, could hear a faint sound at the very edge of human hearing-like the soft, contented cheeps of young pheasant chicks-emanating from the foliage. We were only standing a few feet from the sound, but still could not see anything. I blindly scanned the area with my powerful binocular and only then could see movement beneath the leaves: there was a covey of Spotted Wood Quail, in perfect camouflage with the humus of the earth! It was the first any of us had ever seen, including Michael with his impressive life list and years of guiding. I grabbed my field guide, thumbing through the pages to find the quail, and then shared the reference and binocular with my companions so they, too, might see them. Had it not been for our guide’s super-human hearing, we most certainly would have missed them. To experience a “tour group lifer”, one that the professional guide had not seen nor any of the members, is a rare and memorable experience. I would never have been part of that moment had I not joined the trip. It suddenly felt good to share something with a group of people that appreciated seeing nature as I did. We talked about it all the way back to the hotel and, needless to say, the Spotted Wood Quail won the “My Favorite Bird of The Day” contest hands down that evening.

It took a whole day of driving and part of the night to reach our next destination; we kept each other awake and entertained with stories long after the darkness had fallen. Once at the Hotel Villa Esmeralda I checked into a room, exhausted from the long drive, and eagerly crawled into bed to sleep. I had hardly closed my eyes when the monotonous hooting of a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl began. The bird was just outside my window, in a large tree overlooking the hotel swimming pool. The serenade lasted most of the night and I finally got up around 3 o’clock in the morning to confront my noisy neighbor. The owl flushed when I opened the door and flew off into the night, leaving me with a scant few hours of quiet time before I had to meet my tour mates in the lobby. At breakfast the next morning I overhead some bleary-eyed vacationers at the adjacent table complain that ‘somebody’s car alarm went off in the middle of the night’ and had to laugh. Little did they know that a tiny sprite of a bird was guilty of keeping them awake half the night and not a vehicle! Michael added the pygmy-owl to our checklist during breakfast; it was the first bird of the day to be counted and we hadn’t even left the hotel yet!

Soon after breakfast we left to look for more birds around Tuxtepec. One of the chosen places was a muddy swath in the forest, wide and circuitous, that the locals used as a “road”, although I suspect it was an active floodplain that channeled run-off during the wet season. The bed was sodden at the time we visited it and filled with many round limestone rocks, which had probably been washed smooth from years of successive floods. The rocks were slippery and hard to cross, but we held onto to each other to prevent falls. The floodplain provided a natural path to follow deep into the woods. As we walked along we were able to peer into the thick vegetation from the edges and see many marvelous birds hidden within. It quickly became one of my favorite bird watching sites in Mexico. The place was warm, inviting and secretive and filled with so much life that I could have easily reverted back to old habits, chasing birds and insects through the forest in luxury. I had to force myself to stay within earshot of the tour group.

Expectation beckoned us further and further into the heart of the rainforest; it was hard to know when to stop and turn around when newer and grander sightings waited for us with each step forward. Birds with names as exotic as the foliage: Olive-backed Euphonias and Crimson-collared Tanagers fed in epiphytes cradled within the arms of trees; Plain Xenops, Long-billed Gnatwrens and Northern Bentbills darted for cover from hedge to hedge; Spot-breasted and White-bellied Wrens hid within tangles of philodendron; Sulphur-rumped Flycatchers flitted among brightly colored orchids; Bananaquits, Rufous Pihas, Violaceous Trogons and Blue Buntings were around every “next corner”. Pale-billed, Chestnut-colored and Black-cheeked Woodpeckers drummed in the distance and teased us with their cunning, silently gliding from tree to tree, only to disappear from view behind a vine or branch in as little time. We had to run after them, tripping over rocks and craning our necks this way and that, to relocate and verify birds for our life lists. If someone marked a bird, he or she would quickly point it out for the rest of us to find. We all worked together to track species and build each other up in lifers and confidence. There were breaks high in the canopy and, looking up, we could see Lesser Swallow-tailed, White-collared, and Vaux’s Swifts streak like stars overhead. Flocks of White-crowned Parrots and Mealy Parrots flew past, squawking loudly, and broke the heavy, humid silence of the trees.

Our guide had brought us to the floodplain because of the rich biodiversity that prevailed there; and also because it was the home of the elusive Sumichrast’s Wren, a bird we all yearned to see. The muddy road into and about the rainforest was, in fact, nicknamed “Sumichrast’s Wren Trail”. Despite the honor, Sumichrast’s Wren did not long to see us and proved to be a very stubborn bird even on its namesake path. It would not respond to the recorded tapes at all and sulked in the shadows of the forest understory, out of the sight of prying eyes. Michael stopped by its known territory, multiple times each day to play the tape, but the bird would not show itself. I was beginning to believe that I would never see a Sumichrast’s Wren; that the bird would follow the lead of the Oaxaca Sparrow and remain forever unacquainted. Finally, on the very last day at Tuxtepec, Michael tried a new site whereupon a Sumichrast’s Wren was thought to have been heard singing in the distance. We hiked a ways into the forest, off the well-beaten path, to entice it to us. This time the ruse worked and the wren appeared, to the shock of us all. Nobody knew whether it flew in or walked in….It just materialized out of thin air for a moment directly in front of us, as much a part of my own imagination as the rock it stood upon, and then vanished as it had come. In the seconds I saw it, the bird reminded me of an American Dipper, dark colored and tail cocked, leaning forward from the weight of an elongated, down-curved bill. Of all the lifers seen on the trip, Sumichrast’s Wren became my favorite; I had to hope and want to find one and that, somehow, endeared the bird to me more than any of the others.

Another bird that magically revealed itself to us was the Aplomado Falcon. We saw two mated pairs of the falcons, hunting and flying together in the open fields outside Tuxtepec. They are listed in the neighboring state of Veracruz, along the Atlantic coastline, but not on the eastern side of Oaxaca. In fact, the species was not even cited on our checklists and we had to write the common name in by hand at the bottom of the page. The falcons were sighted at midday, on the hot, dry plains along the road. It was by random chance that we saw them because normally we did not transverse the main road at that time. On this particular day we needed to run last minute errands back at the hotel, and so, left the birding site in the rainforest at noon. It was a serendipitous find, made all the more evident by the strict logistical constraints of such a vacation.

As we traveled from site to site, I was amazed at the numbers of neotropical migrants overwintering from my home country: Broad-tailed and Rufous Hummingbirds, Brown Creepers, Greater Pewees, Yellow-rumped, Chesnut-sided, Black & White and Nashville Warblers, Violet-green Swallows, Yellow-throated and Plumbeous Vireos, Grey Catbirds and others aforementioned in the text. In some areas we visited migrant species outnumbered the tropical residents and we had to ignore them to concentrate on finding the endemic ones. A few of my compatriot birds I know only from Mexico or Central America; I’ve never seen them in my native country. Hammond’s and Vermillion Flycatchers, Virginia’s, Hermit, Orange-crowned and MacGillivray’s Warblers, Lincoln’s Sparrows and Swallow-tailed Kites would still be lifers for me had I not seen them outside the United States. For these species and me, at least, all ties are severed once winter vacations are over and we return to our northern haunts. I wondered what it must be like for a Mexican bird watcher to experience the Spring and Fall migrations of birds? Does he or she feel the loss of so many species during the summer months and joyously welcome them back during the winter ones? Do their fields and forests seem empty of birds in May, at a time when ours seem full? If so, a Mexican bird watcher’s expectations of the seasons must be the perfect reversal of my own.

The tour ended as abruptly as it had started and I soon found myself at the Oaxaca Airport waiting for a return flight. In the preceding week I had grown so accustomed to following behind a line of birders, which by now had become friends, that I checked my luggage along with theirs’, despite having a flight on a different airline! I realized my mistake just in time and the agents had to run alongside the conveyor belt to grab my bags before they were lost. Not wanting it to end so soon, we sat together in the airport as the group we had been, separating only when our departing flights became imminent.

I know that I could have gone birding alone in Mexico and been successful, as I have done most of my adult life, but that was not the reason for the trip. I took the tour to be among a host of bird watchers, who ultimately accepted me as some sort of long-lost relative that had finally come back to the family. In a sense, I guess I was. I met some wonderful people that I would not have otherwise, all whom share a passion for conservation and nature. We traded many bird watching and travel stories on our long rides to and from the field. We shared laughs and advice and adventures, field guides and equipment, and the food on our dinner plates. We pointed out birds for each other in the brush. Bird watching with other birders, I found, was far livelier than watching birds by myself. After all, who could disagree with me over identifications when alone in the field? I just wrote a name down in my notes and the bird became what I wrote. During the tour, surrounded by naturalists, I actually had to defend my sightings in what would become an intellectual challenge. The Tropical Birding tour was everything I imagined it to be and more: It was fun. It was a great way to develop friendships, bird watching skills and a stronger knowledge of natural history. I would highly recommend one to other recalcitrant bird-tour takers.

Article written by Stacia A. Novy

Accompanying photograph of Collared Trogon credited to Michael Retter

Attracting Birds: Seed Preferences

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There is no better way to decorate your garden than with a collection of wild birds that bring color and song to the trees and landscaped areas. Luring a variety of birds to a garden is not always as easy as it may sound. Most birds know exactly what they like and will travel to an area where they know they can eat their preferred seed or form of food. Fortunately, if you know what birds you want to attract, you can purchase the seeds and items that draw these species into your garden.

It is important to fill a variety of bird feeders and place them in different locations throughout the garden. This way birds will not be fighting to get to the food and a greater number of birds will frequent the feeders. Putting out their favorite foods is the best way to ensure that they will continue to return, and in winter bird feeders assist a great number of birds to survive the cold weather. Wild birds will not usually eat artificial pellets or processed seeds as they are not accustomed to them, so natural seeds are the key.

Sunflower seeds are generally a safe bet, as a wide variety of birds will eat them, such as chickadees, nuthatches, finches, cardinals, grosbeaks, sparrows, blackbirds, jays, woodpeckers and titmice. All these birds, with the exception of the sparrows, blackbirds, jays and woodpeckers, will also eat Safflower seeds. When trying to lure ducks, geese, mourning doves and quails, cracked corn will do the trick; and woodpeckers, titmice and chickadees are also known to eat unsalted peanuts. Nyjer (or Thistle) will attract redpolls, doves and pine siskins; while orioles, thrushes and hummingbirds prefer nectar. Fruit is another option to use in combination with seeds as mockingbirds, bluebirds, thrushes, cedar waxwings and orioles will enjoy the treat. The preferred food for juncos and towhees is millet. Setting out a mixture of seeds, fruits and nectar will have any garden filled with birds in no time, allowing home owners to enjoy the beauty of these winged creatures and relax to the melodies of their cheerful songs.

Everglades Birding Festival

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The Everglades Birding Festival is a fantastic opportunities for bird watching enthusiasts to explore the natural features of Cypress Swamps, beaches and Everglades prairies. Birds you may spot include Peregrind Falcon, Burrowing owl, Sora, Snail Kite, Roseate Spoonbill, Pileated Woodpecker and others. During the event, expert guides will assist you in bird identification. There will be instruction and workshops regarding bird watching skills and techniques, along with field trips, friendly birders, and great lodgings.

Date: 13 – 19 January 2010
Venue: Hollywood Beach Golf Resort
City: Hollywood, FL
Country: United States of America

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Bird watching in Thailand

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Many bird watching enthusiasts have already discovered the magnificent opportunities that wait in Thailand. With almost a thousand bird species, Thailand is a treasure trove of birding experiences that can be enjoyed in various provinces around the country. Tourist operators also specialize in bird watching excursions, offering daily hikes and even week long hiking packages, through some of the most breathtaking landscapes in Thailand. Bird watching here, is a unique and unforgettable experience.

Some of the more popular bird watching sites include Khok Kham, the Khao Kieo Wildlife Sanctuary, Kaeng Krachan National Park, Doi Chiangdao Wildlife Sanctuary, Khao Pra-Bang Kam Wildlife Sanctuary, Chiangsaen and the Koh Similan National Park. Although there are various bird species that overlap in all the provinces, some bird species prefer specific provinces according to landscape and food supply.

In the Samutsakhon Province for instance, the habitat is blanketed in fish ponds, swamps, mangroves and mudflats, luring species such as the Nordmann’s Greenshank, Streaked Weaver, Malaysian Plover, Ruddy-Breasted Crake, Pheasant-Tailed Jacana and the Asian Dowitcher to this region. Birds such as the Large Hawk Cuckoo, Asian Golden-Weaver, Forest Wagtail and Black Blaza prefer the woodlands and rice fields of the Nakhonpratom Province, while Grey Peacock Pheasants, Blue-bearded Bee-eaters, Violet Cuckoo, Green Magpie and White-hooded Babbler feel at home in the forests, by water streams and waterfalls located in the Petchburi Province.

Some of the larger national parks have a variety of habitats within their borders, having a larger variety of birds in one area. The Khao Yai National Park, in North-Eastern Thailand, gives visitors the opportunity to see birds such as the Siamese Fireback, Mountain Hawk Eagle, Scaly-breasted Partridge, Coral Billed Ground Cuckoo and many more. Other breathtaking species to be seen in Thailand include the Black-backed Forktail, Chestnut-flanked White-eye, Long-tailed Minivet, Collered Owlet, Hume’s Pheasant, White-bellied Redstart, Stripe-breasted Woodpecker, Sapphired Flycather and the Crested Tree Swift. In general, many national parks have more than two hundred different species of bird living and breeding within the park, giving visitors the experience of a lifetime. To see truly amazing bird life, Thailand is the perfect bird watching destination.

Acorn Woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus)

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The Acorn Woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus) is a relatively common bird species found in habitats extending from Oregon, California and Western Mexico, right through to the highlands of Central America as well as the Colombian Andes. Described as having a clown-face, the Acorn Woodpecker is a very social creature, with groups living together in a complex social system. A fascinating bird, the Acorn Woodpecker is worth looking out for.

Acorn Woodpecker’s can be quickly identified by the following distinctive features: a white eye ringed by black; black around the classic woodpecker bill; white on the cheeks and forehead; a red crown and a soft yellow throat. Other physical characteristics to look out for are the white rump, white belly with thin dark streaks along the flanks, a black tail and a body length of 8 inches. An adult male Acorn Woodpecker’s red cap merges directly with its white forehead. The females differ in that there is a black section separating the white forehead from the red cap.

As implied by its name, the Acorn Woodpecker’s preferred diet consists of acorns. They will also dine on insects, fruit, sap and nectar. They have also been known to feed on grass seeds, bird eggs and lizards. Foraging typically takes place near the tree canopy and the woodpecker species will seldom be found on the ground. The bird will either remove single acorns from a tree or they may remove an entire twig with up to 3 acorns attached. Sap is eaten as a group with all family members gathering at the sapsucking holes. Acorn Woodpeckers are known for storing acorns for the winter months. The nuts are carefully stored in what is referred to as a granary. A granary tree may be a dead tree or a very old tree with thick bark. Holes are drilled into the tree, some trees have had as many as 50,000 holes counted on them. By living in groups, the Acorn Woodpeckers are able to gather large quantities of nuts as well as defend their stash.

Due to their diet and method of storage, Acorn Woodpeckers are usually found in pine-oak woodlands, riparian corridors, hardwood forests and suburban areas with many trees. They are permanent residents and therefore do not migrate at all. Reproduction rituals can be quite complicated amongst Acorn Woodpeckers. Whilst some are monogamous, other groups engage in cooperative polygyny. Groups may have up to 7 breeding males and 3 egg-laying females. Females will lay their eggs in a joint nest cavity. Nest cavities are located within trees and are gently lined with wood chips. Eggs are white and elliptical in shape numbering up to 6 in a clutch (that of the entire group). The incubation period of Acorn Woodpecker eggs is 11-12 days with both females and males involved in incubation. Nestlings are ready to leave the nest cavity after 30-32 days.

Endangered Bird Species on the Road to Recovery

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Most people may not know much about the red cockaded woodpecker. Even if they have been fortunate enough to see one, they probably won’t know that these special little birds are a federally endangered species. In fact, the bird was declared endangered in 1970 and currently has the same endangered status as the much better known bald eagle and whooping crane.

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A Look at the Intriguing Lives of Honeyguides

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Honeyguides, also known as indicator birds or honeybirds, are a relatively small Old World family of near-passerine birds, related to woodpeckers and barbets. Honeyguides are entirely parasitic, laying their eggs in the already occupied, but temporarily vacated, nests of other hole-nesting species such as barbets, kingfishers, bee-eaters, woodpeckers and tinkerbirds. For this reason, honeyguides are often treated as pariahs by other birds in their neighborhood. Birding enthusiasts agree that these aggressive, opportunistic little birds are fascinating to watch.

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The San Diego Bird Festival

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The 12th San Diego Bird Festival, sponsored by the San Diego Audubon Society, is set to take place from 6 February through to 11 February 2008. The venue for this popular birding festival is the superb Marina Village Conference Center in Mission Bay, San Diego, California.

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