Biggest Week in American Birding 2010

Posted 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. :)

May 21st 2010 | 9:04 pm CET | No Comments »

Facebook’s photo verification

Posted 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!

May 12th 2010 | 9:01 pm CET | 91 Comments »

Looking for injured birds in Chicago

Posted 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 FLAP.org.

April 15th 2010 | 8:23 pm CET | 1 Comment »

Squirrel antics

Posted by Amy in Funny, Nature, Weather

I can’t believe it, but the forecast for tomorrow is calling for a wintry mix – that means SNOW! Why, just last week our neighborhood squirrel was too hot to even stand up straight!

We watched this cutie scoot around on the ground for a while, foraging and eating while remaining flat on its stomach.

In the end she scampered off, so we think she was just trying to keep cool.

If you think this is cute, you won’t believe what I got to do last week – feed a baby squirrel!

April 7th 2010 | 9:48 pm CET | No Comments »

Charging for incoming texts should not be allowed

Posted 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 mymessages.wireless.att.com 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.

April 2nd 2010 | 9:43 am CET | No Comments »

Spring is finally here

Posted 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

March 11th 2010 | 11:14 pm CET | No Comments »

10 Lost Designs on CafePress

Posted 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 »

March 11th 2010 | 3:27 pm CET | No Comments »

NBC’s Poor Coverage of the Vancouver Olympics

Posted 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 nbcolympics.com 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.

February 15th 2010 | 10:58 pm CET | 2 Comments »

Cold winter

Posted 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.

January 8th 2010 | 10:45 am CET | No Comments »

Tips for viewing a shuttle launch from the causeway

Posted by Amy in Space, Travel

There are only five more Space Shuttle missions before the program is retired. We had a great time viewing the launch of STS-129 in mid-November. We planned our schedule by using information provided to us by NASA that accompanied our tickets, and reading a few trip reports made by other shuttle fans. Here are my tips for making the most out of viewing a shuttle launch from the causeway.

Wear shoes, not sandals. I love my Tevas and wear them almost exclusively in the spring, summer and fall. They were the only shoes I brought with me during a holiday in India and they were all I needed. They were the only shoes I brought to Florida and were fine everywhere except the causeway. The brittle dry grass hurt my feet, I was bitten on the top of my foot and middle toe by something within two minutes of arriving and cut my heel on a sharp rock in the grass.


Owie dry grass with hidden dangers.

The literature that accompanied our tickets said that backpacks and food were prohibited at the causeway. We saw tons of people with both monster backpacks and buffets of food at the causeway. Just saying.

We had read that in case of a launch cancellation or postponement after ticket-holders got on the bus to the causeway, one would have to purchase a new causeway ticket. For this reason we thought it would be a good idea to wait until as late as possible to get on one of the causeway buses. But the tickets are relinquished when you get in line, not when you get on the bus. Plus, as soon as you get in line you receive a voucher, shown below, which can be redeemed for a ticket once you return to KSC. We really didn’t understand how things would work in the event of a canceled launch after boarding the bus, and we were anxious about it. Hopefully this info will save someone reading this the same anxiety. We waited for about 45 minutes to get on a bus and we were among the last brought to the causeway, having to sit farther away than many others who had gotten in line and boarded buses much earlier. If we were going to do this again, we would get on the bus as soon as possible and wait out at the causeway. Especially if the chances for launch are as good as they were for STS-129 that day – 70% for go.


Voucher in case of launch cancellation after bus boarding.

Look at the launch – especially if it’s your first time. When we got back in the bus after the launch I was surprised how many people were showing each other the videos and photos they took of the launch. Even if you have professional equipment, from your causeway viewing site your video or photos will never be as good as what NASA provides. Watch the launch, enjoy the experience, and watch the professional videos later.

Bring your best optics. If you have a scope, bring it.


The launch was sweet to see through the scope.

Do a little wildlife watching while you’re waiting. Especially if you’ve traveled a great distance to view the launch, the wildlife in Florida probably has some different flora and fauna on offer than you’re used to at home. We watched the birds, of course, including an Osprey who had a very nice view from a perch about halfway between us and the shuttle. While waiting on the bus to return to KSC, we were treated to a few dolphin sightings.

While at KSC, before boarding the bus to the causeway, there are a lot of activities available. On the morning of our launch, they were even running bus tours to the gantry and Saturn V building. Many attractions were open as soon as we were able to get inside, from 6:00AM or so. During our previous launch-viewing attempt, attractions and shops were open in the middle of the night! KSC status updates are usually interesting and they were running NASA TV in the astronaut experience building, where we got to watch the astronauts boarding the shuttle as it was happening.

When looking for a place to sit on the causeway, you will probably want to find a spot where you can see the shuttle unobstructed by the small mangrove islands that lay in the water between the causeway and the launch pad. For this reason we walked further from the shuttle itself when we got off the bus. We found a prime viewing spot and were soon surrounded by other viewers. We were, however, exactly between two loudspeakers, so we had a hard time hearing the announcements. An unobstructed spot as close as possible to a speaker would have been a better choice. On the other hand, we were getting updates from SpaceFlightNow via Twitter while we were waiting, which sometimes informed us of what was going on before the info came over the loudspeakers.


Our view of the launch pad between mangrove islands.

If we had to do it all again, I don’t think we would lug all of our stuff around all morning. We got to KSC very early and had an awesome parking spot. Still we carried our spotting scope, cameras, binoculars and lawn chairs around with us from building to building until we got on the bus. If you keep an eye on the crowds and don’t wait until too late, you should be able to leave your causeway stuff in your car until you want to get on the bus. Get a handstamp as you exit so you can come back in again.

Finally, tickets for the next launch go on sale this Wednesday. We had some drama obtaining our tickets, but eventually calling is what worked for us. If you’re going to try online, why not try calling for tickets at the same time?

January 4th 2010 | 8:26 pm CET | 10 Comments »