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Biggest Week in American Birding 2010

Posted on May 21st 2010 by Arthur in Birds, Life in America, Nature

Magee Marsh, a wildlife area in northern Ohio, is considered one of the best places in the United States to witness spring migration of neotropical birds. Lake Erie forms a natural barrier and birds pile up in large numbers as they rest and refuel before they continue their journey across the water. From mid-April through May thousands of birders flock down to the area to witness the event. A boardwalk (of approximately 0.8 miles) that runs through the marsh provides an excellent opportunity to watch these beautiful birds up close.

Magee Marsh boardwalk

This year, a birding festival named The Biggest Week in American Birding was organized for the first time. It was a huge success and hopefully will become an annual event. For 10 days there were many activities, like bus trips, guided walks, workshops and talks. We had the pleasure to attend the festival last week from Thursday to Sunday and stayed in nearby Port Clinton.

Magee Marsh sign

We spent a lot of time on the boardwalk, which was simply amazing. Birds flit around at eye level and they are apparently so tired and hungry from their long journey that they do not mind the people watching them up close. In our first minute on the boardwalk we spotted a Black-throated Blue Warbler right in front of us and we watched it for about 10 minutes hopping around just a few feet from our faces. This is a really good way to observe these birds and learn them. We had already seen quite a few warblers here in Illinois last year, but they are often in the tree tops, making them just small specks and hard to identify. In total we saw about two dozen different warblers at Magee Marsh and the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge (which is right next door) and a hundred other species.

American Redstart
American Redstart

Prothonotary Warbler
Prothonotary Warbler on a nest right along the boardwalk

Friday was by far the best day bird-wise. On Thursday afternoon we were on a shore bird excursion, standing in a field watching some Black-bellied Plovers, when all of a sudden temperatures went up about 20 degrees and it became very windy. These southern winds brought a huge amount of birds to the area and Friday the warblers were everywhere.

Scarlet Tanager
Scarlet Tanager

Organizers of the festival and bird guides from Tropical Birding were tweeting rare sightings throughout the day, so we were often checking our iPhone for updates. The boardwalk is numbered, so it would say something like “Gold-winged Warbler at marker 25 MM boardwalk” and people who still hadn’t seen one of those would go and try to find it. At one time on Friday we were standing on the boardwalk when Chicago birder Eric Gyllenhaal passed us and told us to check our tweets. He was referring to:

Twitter: Kirtlands on Magee east beach 300 yards east of parking lot Kenn K

OMG, that’s from Kenn Kaufman, world-renowned birder and author, who just saw one of the rarest warblers nearby. No wonder people were running over to see it. But what were the chances that it would still be hanging around when we finally got there? We started walking toward the beach, about a mile away, and more and more people joined us. When we arrived at the end of the parking lot we saw a long line of people walking along the beach to the place where Kenn was standing. We ended up having great looks at the rare little warbler, and so did an estimated 4,000 other people that day. The bird stayed there almost all day (very cooperative!), just hopping around on some low bushes at eye level. People around us were overjoyed, many thanking Kenn for a life bird that they had been trying to see for years.

Flock of birders watching the Kirtland's Warbler on the beach near Magee Marsh
Flock of birders watching the Kirtland’s Warbler on the beach near Magee Marsh

Kirtland's Warbler on the beach near Magee Marsh
The rare Kirtland’s Warbler

In the four days we stayed in the area we spent a lot of time on the boardwalk, walked around Ottawa NWR and attended several workshops, presentations (including one by Alan Davies and Ruth Miller who, in 2008, broke the world record for most bird species seen in a year), and a bus trip to Oak Openings. We also attended a bird banding demonstration at Black Swamp Bird Observatory. Below you can see a Magnolia Warbler held by one of the banders. Check out these other bird banding pictures at BSBO that Amy took.

Magnolia Warbler
Magnolia Warbler handled by bird bander at Black Swamp Bird Observatory

If we get the chance we’ll definitely go to the Biggest Week again next year.
It was great. :)

Facebook’s photo verification

Posted on May 12th 2010 by Arthur in Craziest Things I've Ever Seen, Websites & Tools

I tried to log on to Facebook today from a public wifi location and Facebook wanted to verify who I was by showing me some random photos of Facebook friends. It tried to show me 7 photos with faces of friends and for each one I had to pick from a list of 6 names. In the end Facebook decided if I’d answer enough correct ones to let me in or not. Unfortunately, most of the photos I got were just random photos like screenshots from Farmville or photos like the one below.

How am I supposed to know who posted these photos? This is a ridiculous verification method. I ended up just guessing most of them. I had to try it four times and each time had to wait an hour before I could try again!

Looking for injured birds in Chicago

Posted on April 15th 2010 by Arthur in Birds, Chicago, Nature

On the last few Thursdays we have been volunteering with the rescue and recovery of injured birds in downtown Chicago. We do this with Flint Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation, which organizes rescue and recovery twice-yearly for 10 to 12 weeks during bird migration.

Chicago Skyline at Night
Chicago skyline via Flickr

Thousands of birds strike Chicago’s tall buildings every year as they migrate through the city. The stunned birds fall to the ground where they lie unconscious and risk being eaten by gulls, stepped on by pedestrians or dying from their injuries. Teams of volunteers go out every morning during migration to look for injured birds. They probably only find a fraction of the birds that hit, as many of them will fall on awnings, ledges and rooftops. Fortunately, about 90% of the birds rescued by volunteers from Flint Creek recover after treatment and can be released back into the wild. This is a great program.

Another city that I know of with a similar program is Toronto, where since 1993 FLAP volunteers have picked up over 44,000 birds from 162 species!

American Woodcock
Our team salvaged and rescued several American Woodcocks in the last few weeks
(photo via Flickr)

Today was our fifth time. We got up at 3:45am, left the house at 4:00am and arrived in Chicago at 5:00am. It is nice to see that many of the buildings in Chicago have their lights turned off during these migration months, which is an effort that has helped reduce bird strikes in the last few years. We drove and walked around Chicago’s downtown loop until about 7:30am today. It’s a large area to cover, so we run around a lot, with our large net, flashlight and backpack full of paper bags. Amy and I also carry walkie talkies which makes it easier to split up and cover different parts of a building and stay in contact.

Brown Creeper ... landed next to me today
Volunteers have also been finding a lot of Brown Creepers these last few weeks
(photo via Flickr)

We try to do the buildings that we have to check along the Chicago River before the sun comes up and the gulls come out, as they are known to snatch up injured birds right in front of rescue volunteers!! Flint Creek has provided us with maps of the City. There are over 125 buildings on the map marked in pink, and these are the buildings that we need to check. This is a huge area, so we’ve split the area up in three parts. Amy and I do one part and two other volunteers do the other areas.

Map of Chicago with rescue area

Flint Creek has two locations in the suburbs and a facility at Northerly Island. This last place is only a 10-minute drive from downtown (see map above), which is great for the birds! Timely treatment is important to survival rates and bringing them to this nearby location increases their chance of survival. After finishing our route we call our two teammates and check if they found anything. If they did we swing by their locations to pick up any bags with birds and then head to Northerly Island, where a triager takes care of them.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (photo via Flickr)

This morning we found a live Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (see above) and dead Palm Warbler (see below). Fortunately, we have not found so many birds yet on our days. I don’t know whether it’s still too early in the season, if it’s the weather or if we haven’t been looking in the right places. In any case I’m happy when we find less birds as that means more birds made it through Chicago without hitting buildings.

Palm Warbler (Yellow -Eastern form) - Peachtree City CBC. Dec '09
Palm Warbler (photo via Flickr)

For more information about rescue and recovery in Chicago see the Flint Creek website. For the Toronto program see

Charging for incoming texts should not be allowed

Posted on April 2nd 2010 by Arthur in Life in America, Science & technology

A major difference between Europe and the US when it comes to mobile phones is that carriers in the US charge their customers for incoming calls and text messages while in Europe they don’t. If I get a 10-minute call from someone then 10 minutes go off of my allotted plan minutes. And if I receive a text message I have to pay for it, or it goes off of my allotted messages for the month.

I don’t have a messaging plan on my AT&T phone, so I pay $0.20 for each message that I send and receive. I don’t mind this because I hardly use text messaging, but lately I have been getting more and more spam messages and ones with some random words from numbers I don’t know. This is extremely annoying because AT&T charges me $0.20 for each of these.

Why does the FCC even allow this to occur? Charging for incoming phone calls is okay, I guess, as you can simply not pick up if you don’t recognize the number, but text messages just arrive and there’s nothing you can do about it. Someone could send me 1,000 text messages right now and I’d have to pay $200 for them. This should not be allowed!

AT&T has a website at where you can block text messages that were sent as email, but it’s not possible to block regular messages that were sent from mobile phones, which is most of the ones I receive. It also only works for short 5-digit numbers, but I tried to block some of these and still received text messages from them, so it didn’t work.

I called AT&T and the representative told me that I can block up to 15 regular phone numbers on my account. Why only 15? If this trend continues I’ll soon get unwanted text messages from way more than just 15 different numbers. Fortunately, AT&T allowed me to completely block my text messaging capabilities. I’ve read about other carriers who don’t have this option and customers are forced to receive these spam messages and pay for them. I can’t believe the FCC allows this. Imagine you’d have to pay for each spam email you receive or unsolicited mail you get delivered to your home. That’s ridiculous!

AT&T and other operators in the US should really stop charging for incoming text messages (as is the case in most of the world!) or at the very least allow their customers to keep a list of numbers from friends and family that they do want to receive texts from and block everything else.

Spring is finally here

Posted on March 11th 2010 by Arthur in Nature

Yesterday we had a late afternoon walk at Grant Woods, a forest preserve just a few minutes from where we live. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon and at 60°F (16°C) it was the first time we didn’t have to wear our winter coats this year!

Grant Woods

There was still some snow on the ground, which caused an eery low fog to hang around the forest. It also made it very humid, with all that melting snow, and a challenge to walk through all the ice and mud. The bottom of our pants were soaking wet after finishing the 1.8 mile trail.

We saw a group of ten deer, which was a nice treat. They would all freeze each time we stopped walking. Look, they’re doing it right now:

Grant Woods

Lots of birds that weren’t here a few days ago were suddenly singing all around us. We saw American Robins, Grackles and heard Killdeer too, all birds that just arrived from the warmer south. Hundreds of male Red-winged Blackbirds were singing, which is always a welcome indication of the return of spring. I look forward to spending more time outside in the weeks and months ahead. :)

Grant Woods

10 Lost Designs on CafePress

Posted on March 11th 2010 by Arthur in Pop culture, Shopping & Stuff, Television

Last month, CafePress made a deal with ABC allowing people to make their own Lost designs on t-shirts and other products using names and logos from the TV show. As Lost fans we got to work and had a lot of fun making some designs. Here are ten of our Lost designs:

LOST Ajira Airlines Go Back to the Island

More »

NBC’s Poor Coverage of the Vancouver Olympics

Posted on February 15th 2010 by Arthur in Life in America, Television

Rant alert! NBC is doing an awful job covering the Vancouver Winter Olympics to the American people. The TV channel shows mostly recaps, commercials, profiles of athletes, talking heads, reruns of the fatal luge accident and things like “the history of snowboarding” … but hardly any live sporting events. I’m really amazed by how poor the coverage is. Tonight I wanted to watch the 500m speed skating race but at the time of the event NBC was showing a travel show about Vancouver. When I returned some time later they had a piece about polar bears in Manitoba (I’m not kidding). The speed skating event is now long over but highlights will be shown later tonight. No thanks, I’ve already seen the results.

It wouldn’t be so bad if they allowed us to watch live feeds online, but the only live video on are hockey and curling. No other sports are shown live here! The website does offer a lot of replays, but they are only available for people with a TV subscription. That’s right, you have to log in to Comcast, AT&T or whatever your TV provider is to watch NBC’s Olympic videos online. That is wrong on so many levels. NBC is a free broadcast station! I’ve read of people who tried to log in with their cable account only to be shown a message that they don’t have the premium package. At least it works for us, and we have the smallest Comcast package.

My family in the Netherlands (and I’m sure in most other countries in the world) can watch the games on multiple stations on TV and multiple feeds online. Unfortunately these live videos on foreign websites are blocked for people outside these countries, because of rights issues. It’s unfortunate that there are no alternatives for us here. In Holland I used to be able to switch to Euronews, BBC, Belgian, German or French TV … but here it’s just NBC.

It isn’t even so bad for us here in the Chicago area. On the west coast NBC is apparently showing everything on tape-delay! People in California and Seattle are in the same timezone as the actual Olympics in Vancouver and they are seeing everything 2 or 3 hours late. Even the opening ceremony on Friday was shown 2 hours late. That’s just unacceptable in a time when everyone’s on Twitter and Facebook sharing things. It’s just impossible for people on the west coast to see anything without first hearing the results somewhere. Local NBC affiliates have started to apologize about the matter.

For more people complaining about NBC poor coverage see #nbcfail on Twitter or the NBC Olympics Coverage Sucks group on Facebook.

Cold winter

Posted on January 8th 2010 by Arthur in Life in America, Weather

We’ve been having a couple of cold weeks here recently, with temperatures some days not getting above 15°F (-10°C) during the day and getting below 0°F (-20°C) during the night. In the last 24 hours we had over a foot (31 cm) of snow here. We just spent a good half hour clearing our driveway this morning, which was a lot of fun. :) I hope the mailman can reach our mailbox today.

We’ve lived here for a year now and I’ve been comparing our utility costs to what we paid for gas, electricity and water back in Holland when we lived in Leiden. We have our heater on a lot more here because of the cold weather, but we still use about the same amount of gas here as we did in our old house. The reason for this is that our old house in Leiden (which was built in 1915) had lots of leaks and our current house is very well insulated. But, our total gas costs are about five times less than what we paid in Holland!

Another big difference with utilities here is that our gas and electricity companies (two different companies) come by once per month to read our meters, which are on the outside of our house. In Holland our gas and electricity came from the same company and they only came by once per year to check the meters. They calculate the average and you pay a fixed monthly price. At the end of the year you’d have to pay the difference or get money back. Our utility companies here come by 23 more times in a single year than they did in Holland, yet gas is 5 times cheaper and electricity is quite a bit cheaper too. It’s also quite nice to get a monthly bill for exactly how much we used. The bill has a historical graph on it too, and we can even see how much the previous tenants used over the last years to compare.

Arthur’s Best of 2009

Posted on December 18th 2009 by Arthur in Personal

The year is almost to an end. 2009 was my first full year as an American resident, after moving here from the Netherlands in September 2008. Here is a list of my personal favorites of the year 2009:

Best Experience: Space Shuttle Launch (16 November 2009)

Space Shuttle DiscoveryWe drove to Florida twice this year to try and see a Shuttle launch. We first tried in June for the STS-127 launch of Space Shuttle Endeavour. We spent a week in a hotel on the Space Coast but bad weather and a leaking fuel tank made NASA scrub the launch. We got tickets for the causeway again for STS-127 and finally saw the lift-off of Space Shuttle Atlantis on 16 November. It was spectacular.

Best Movie: Star Trek

Star TrekI haven’t seen Avatar yet, so my opinion on this can still change before the end of this year, but for now J.J. Abrams’ new incarnation of Star Trek was my favorite film of the year. The actors were great, the story was awesome, the special effects were amazing! I am looking forward to seeing more of these. Runner-up: Up!

Best Bird Sighting: Barred Owl (19 November 2009)

Barred OwlWhen driving back from Florida in November we stopped at a small nature reserve in North Carolina called Great Swamp Sanctuary. We saw lots of Pileated Woodpeckers, heard our lifer Carolina Chickadee and the best bird of the day (or year!) was a Barred Owl that flew across the path right in front of us and landed in a nearby tree.

Best Waterfall: Niagara Falls (29 April 2009)

Arthur at the Niagara FallsIn April, when my parents came to America to visit us, we took a roadtrip to the Niagara Falls for a few days. We drove from our home in Illinois through Indiana, Michigan and Ontario and spent the night on the Canadian side of the falls. The next morning we all got soaking wet on the Maid of the Mist boat tour. We had a wonderful time and were very impressed with the magnificent falls.

Best Pizza: Flippers Pizzeria

PizzaI’m not a big fan of the thick American-style pizza that is served in 99% of pizza places here. The best pizza I ever had was the pizza napoletana in Naples. These thin pizzas made in brick ovens are simply delicious. The closest to the style and taste of this pizza that we have found in this country so far is at Flippers Pizzeria in the Orlando area.

Best Kick-in-the-pants: CafePress Announcement

CafePress Bad, Zazzle GoodWe own a few webshops where we sell our designs on print-on-demand t-shirts and gifts. At the beginning of this year we were mostly using CafePress and business was going well. In April, CafePress suddenly announced some major changes that hurt thousands of shopkeepers, including us. We lost a lot of money from this awful announcement, but it was a great kick-in-the-pants to start moving our designs to other (better) PODs, like Zazzle.

Best Book Signing: Buzz Aldrin (22 July 2009)

Buzz AldrinOn July 22nd we went to An Evening with Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell organized by the Adler Planetarium and afterward Buzz signed my copy of his book Magnificent Desolation. Runner-up: At the the Midwest Birding Sympsium in Ohio we had The Sibley Guide to Trees signed by David Sibley, author of North America’s best bird guide.

Best New TV Show: Modern Family + The Middle (tie)

Brick of The MiddleThere are a few new TV shows this fall that we are watching, including FlashForward and V, but every week I look most forward to ABC’s Comedy Wednesday with two of my favorite new shows: The Middle and Modern Family. Though not as good as, say, Seinfeld or Arrested Development, these are two excellent sitcoms.

Best Newly Visited Museum: Harley Davidson Museum (16 April 2009)

Harley Davidson MuseumIn April we drove to Milwaukee to visit the Harley Davidson Museum. The purpose of our visit was mainly to see the Indiana Jones exhibit, but we were surprised at how much we enjoyed the museum, considering we are not motorcycle enthusiasts. The museum has a huge collection of motorcycles and other Harley-Davidson memorabilia, and the history of the company is extremely well laid out in beautiful displays.

Best Holiday: Groundhog Day in Woodstock (2 February 2009)

Brick of The MiddleGroundhog Day starring Bill Murray is one of my favorite movies, and we now live just 30 minutes away from the town where the movie was filmed: Woodstock, Illinois. Every year around February 2nd this cute town organizes Groundhog Days, with special events. We had a tour of the filming locations led by the movie’s location manager and on the actual day we got up early to see Woodstock Willie predict six more weeks of winter.

Best Mammal Sighting: Black Bears (19 November 2009)

American Black BearDriving back from Florida in November we had to make a detour through Smokey Mountains National Parks because of a rock-slide on the interstate. To our surprise we saw two American Black Bears close to the road. It was the first time we had seen bears in the wild.

Best New Sandwich: PB & Banana

Peanut Butter and Banana SandwichWhen visiting a 50s Diner somewhere this year, I ordered their “Hunka Hunka Love” sandwich. It was the first time I had a grilled sandwich with peanut butter and banana, and I was sold! I have since made many of these at home and I love them. Peanut Butter, Banana and Bacon was apparently Elvis’ favorite sandwich, but I find it fine without the bacon.

Best Parade: St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Chicago (14 March 2009)

St. Patrick's Day Parade ChicagoOn March 14th we went to the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Chicago and had a great time. The parade took about 3 hours and we burnt our faces in the bright sun as we stood there catching candy and free gifts thrown from the floats. About 400,000 people watched the parade, and I guess at least twice as many were in the parade. Seeing them greenify the Chicago River was very neat to see too.

Best New Lunch Place: Noodles & Company + Sweet Tomatoes (tie)

Noodles CompanyWhen we moved to the US I was afraid that we’d have to mostly have burgers and fries when on the road, but we’ve found a few really nice restaurant chains with some nice vegetarian options. Two of my favorite ones ares: Noodles & Company (love the Indonesian Peanut Sauté) and Sweet Tomatoes (delicious soups, salads and the corn bread is so yummy).

Best Soda: Pepsi Throwback

Pepsi ThrowbackMost of the soft drinks made in this country use high-fructose corn syrup as the sweetener. I don’t like the syrupy taste of these American sodas and it makes me feel bad too. There are just a handful of alternative brands that use natural sugar, but they are hard to find around here. Pepsi has limited runs of Pepsi Throwback made with real sugar and I like this a lot. They just started another limited run this week and I stocked up for the next months.

Best New Computer Game: Tales of Monkey Island

Tales of Monkey IslandThe original Secret of Monkey Island (1990) is my favorite computer game of all time. I was really excited to learn earlier this year that a new adventure with Guybrush Threepwood was in the making: Tales of Monkey Island. I’ve been playing this game lately and I love it. It’s a great new Monkey Island adventure.


LOL at Rifftrax Live

Posted on December 16th 2009 by Arthur in Movies, Pop culture

Tonight we had a lot of fun at a live show of RiffTrax at our local cinema. The stars of Mystery Science Theater 3000 made fun at some hilarious Christmas shorts. Fathom Events organizes these special broadcasts that are streamed live to cinemas across the country. It’s a pretty cool thing.

We also went to the first Rifftrax in August, when they riffed Plan 9 From Outer Space. The Christmas shorts they picked for tonight’s show were SO funny … weird stuff! It was fun that special guest “Weird Al” Yankovic was there too, but I expected him to sing a song or two at least. We had a blast and I hope they’re going to do more of these.

Rifftrax Christmas