Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Great (National) Seal - Bird Debate of 1784

The Great Seal was adopted by Congress on June 20, 1782 – with the bald eagle as its centerpiece:

Writing from France on January 26, 1784 to his daughter Sally (Mrs. Sarah Bache) in Philadelphia, Franklin casts doubt on the propriety of using the Bald Eagle to symbolize the (1) "brave and honest Cincinnati of America," a newly formed society of revolutionary war officers. 

Benjamin Franklin's Letter to His Daughter (excerpt)

"...For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.

"With all this Injustice, he is never in good Case but like those among Men who live by Sharping & Robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District. He is therefore by no means a proper Emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our Country...

"I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America... He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on..."

While in the beautiful and serene north-woods this past Christmas season (to get married and visit relatives) Barbara and I had occasion to see a flock of roadside turkeys and nine separate bald eagles while driving along the various highways between Boulder Junction, Hayward, and Rhinelander, WI.  

Here are two wonderful pictures we were able to snap from the car window:

(1) The Society of the Cincinnati is an historical, hereditary lineage organization with branches in the United States and France, founded in 1783 to preserve the ideals and fellowship of the American Revolutionary War officers. The city of Cincinnati, Ohio, then a small village, was named after the Society. Now in its third century, the Society promotes public interest in the American Revolution through its library and museum collections, exhibitions, programs, publications, and other activities.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Roadside Birding this Holiday Season

A person can go bird-watching anywhere, anytime...why not while driving in the car?

On a recent WPT trip to the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul Minnesota to spend some pre-Christmas time with my two oldest children; I counted birds as I drove.  Counting helps the miles fly by and also assists in staying awake.  In order to do this, one must be traveling during the daytime.  Thankfully I was.  In addition, my trusty IPod was busily sending a nearly endless wireless signal to the WPT's stereo of over 125 different "For the Birds" (older) but informative and entertaining podcasts gleaned from the gentle and hugely talented, multi-book author and former staff science editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Laura Erickson.  (The Bird Lady) FYI: Her "newer" podcasts are located here.  

Living in Duluth Minnesota with her husband and three children, Laura has dedicated her professional life to the love, understanding, and protection of birds. She is author of five books about birds, including 101 Ways to Help Birds, The Bird Watching Answer Book, and National Outdoor Book Award winner Sharing the Wonder of Birds with Kids. Since 1986, she has written and produced “For the Birds,” a 3–5 minute radio program broadcast on several public and community stations mostly in the Upper Midwest from Powell, Wyoming, to Jamestown, New York; the program is also podcast on iTunes. Laura was science editor at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a contributing editor for BirdWatching magazine, blogs for the American Birding Association and BirdWatching, and maintains her own birding blog at She writes regularly for a rural newspaper, The Country Today, and has contributed articles to Birding, BirdScope (which she edited for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology from 2008-2011), Audubon, Wisconsin Trails, The Passenger Pigeon, The Loon, the Wisconsin State Journal, Duluth News-Tribune, and the Minneapolis Star Tribune. 

She serves as the “American Robin Expert” and the “Whooping Crane Expert” for the Webby-Award-winning website Journey North. She was Awarded the 2007 Bronze Passenger Pigeon Award “for significant contributions to Wisconsin ornithology,” and the Conservationist of the Year award by The Raptor Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. Laura spent two decades as a licensed wildlife rehabber caring for injured and orphaned birds from her home. She rehabbed hundreds of birds of many species, from hummingbirds to owls and loons, specializing on Common Nighthawks. She’s served as a counter for raptors and songbirds at Hawk Ridge and along the Lake Superior shoreline in conjunction with Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve, and was awarded the Frances F. Roberts Award at a joint meeting of the Wilson and Cooper Ornithological Societies for her paper, “Daytime Warbler Migration along Lake Superior.” She was also a winner in the American Ornithologists’ Union’s bird-calling contest in the repertoire category for her owl calls.

Chris Biddleman
Chris Biddleman - photo
Without a doubt the most common bird to see is the Canada goose. Large and small familiar "vee" flocks of flying geese move over the landscape along that particular route from Milwaukee to the NW. Stationary groups can also be seen moving amongst the corn stubble in fields on both sides of the freeways; their heads sometimes the only thing that juts above the roadside snowbanks. I believe I counted in the neighborhood of 140.  Ducks can be seen wading in shallow ponds and are a bit more difficult to identify at 65 MPH, and fellow drivers frown understandably if one hits their brakes suddenly in an attempt to make a positive species ID. My strong advice; Just call them "ducks" and call it a day. Small but fierce falcons called American kestrels are much easier to identify as they sit on wires and highway signs overlooking the roadside for small moving prey, and the much larger Red-tailed hawk, also sits watching an open field for it's next meal. I counted three kestrels, 19 Red-tails, and two Cooper's hawks in my 600 mile journey on both sides of the freeway.  I also spotted approximately 40 turkeys in lightly snow covered open areas (most likely old farm fields) and an assortment of Black-capped chickadees, Blue jays, and small flocks of American goldfinches as they roller-coastered past the windshield.
If possible; try it yourself the next car trip you take.  You might even invent a game of Avian Roadside Bingo for your children to play as they see certain birds that correspond to their game board; marking them with a sticker or some such identifier.  You know that would be a challenge right?  Just to get today's kids to shut off their cell phones, IPads, DVD players, etc. and actually look out the window at America...HA...who am I kidding?  LOL...

Anyway, one can hope...good luck! - B.Stud

Christmas Bird Count 2012

Counting birds (instead of shooting them) for 113 years and beyond...

Good old Frank Chapman had it right back in 1900 when he suggested a bird "census" as an alternative to the annual "side hunt" that had routinely claimed the lives of many feathered animals.  I personally have been participating for a mere 10 years, and this particular count was the wettest one in my short association with citizen science contribution.  It rained and rained all day on December 15th, 2012 with a temperature of 47 degrees as the high of the day.  I stayed in "Area 20" as my one-mile "square" of the 15 mile count circle managed by Andrea Szymczak.  Carl Schroeder acts as Wisconsin's CBC Regional Editor for data.  I was on my own this year as Barbara needed to be at work on that particular Saturday and I'm almost certain that in the end, staying warm and dry was just fine by her; however I know that she would have if she could have gone along to be with me.

I began my search for random avian life along the south bank of the Menominee River Parkway just south of State Street in Wauwatosa on the easternmost "edge" of Area 20.  Despite the gray skies and miserable conditions I tallied some Dark-eyed juncos and Mallards, with a pair of Ring-billed gulls out in the drizzle and cool of that particular CBC morning.  On my way back out, I encountered three individuals walking towards me on the woodsy path.  They looked just like birders. In fact, they were when I asked them what they were "up to" on this wet morning.  Interestingly I did not expect to encounter anyone else on this stretch of the CBC, as one must first "register" with the count chairperson beforehand.  It turns out that this group was part of a larger group on the bluff-side of Doyne Park led by Urban Ecology's Timothy Vargo.  Somehow he had his small group of soggy bird-watchers walking through a combination of CBC areas, and claimed to have "told Andrea" this planned route in the week prior.  I pointed out that I had "done" Area 20 for the past three years and that (while I was glad to see company) that perhaps it might be problematic if his group just moseyed through several areas "counting" birds that may have already been accounted for by the area leaders.  Well, ultimately...that's for the "experts" to sort out; I just knew I was "official" in my area, and that all I could do was to continue my organized census in the constant rain. With a round of handshakes for his group of fellow well-intentioned birders I climbed into my trusty WPT, eventually leaving them as they walked northward towards who-knows-where - counting the birds they saw for who-knows-what eventual purpose.

A stop inside Calvary Cemetery next to the freeway that also abuts a strip-joint property called Monreal's Encore scored me another group of juncos, Northern cardinals and a half-dozen Black-capped chickadees.  I marveled at some of the elaborate graffiti scrawled against a retaining wall and listened to the disjointed echoes of a microphone-narrated ceremony to honor fallen war veterans that wafted through the rainy mist across four lanes of traffic on I-94 from the direction of the distant but impressively expansive, civil war era (36,738 gravesWood National Cemetery.  I mused that those patriotic umbrella-wielding folks with their uniformed attachment were also getting pretty soaked, but for an even grander cause than I was currently involved with.  I respectfully paused to attempt to glean the purpose of the solemn rainy-day gathering, but was unable to distinguish the exact meaning due to the distance, and the constant splashing of the cars and trucks on the rain-soaked freeway.  I moved on.

The remainder of the day's count went fairly routinely with one exception; a surprise encounter with a homeless person "living" in an encampment deep in the woods between (upper) Vliet Street and (lower) Juneau Ave.  In a small, grassy woods-clearing just below an Milwaukee Police vehicle facility (on approximately 48th and Vliet streets) there's a small City tot-lot with a swing set planted in a bed of wood chips. I walked past it as something deeper in the woods caught my eye. I began moving towards the color.  I almost blindly wandered right into a bright-blue, tarp-created, homeless domicile out of sheer careless curiosity. As I crunched on the wet branches and high-stepped through the leafless bramble; I saw sudden movement.  I froze. A black-jacketed figure wearing a fuzzy-rimmed hood, hunch-walked towards a pile of soaked newspapers piled on a stump and began riffling through them with some purpose unbeknownst to me.  I peered into my drippy and foggy binoculars and spied the sprawling homeless "spread" that had a lot of miscellaneous items scattered around that looked suspiciously as though they might have been "liberated" from the surrounding neighborhood. As I stood watching from a distance leaning against a large tree trunk, I saw a newer looking green ten-speed type bicycle wheeled out from the brush, and this unlikely bicyclist  proceed to actually "lock" it to a nearby tree.  (Apparently there's no honor among the homeless either.)  

Now perhaps this particular unfortunate situation is somehow known and tolerated, however if my home was located in that cozy Milwaukee neighborhood, it would majorly creep me out knowing that while my small children were at play on the tot lot swings in that clearing, that there was a disgustingly grubby human lurking nearby in the woods with some of my stuff possibly collected from my own back yard.  I debated stopping in to tell the police in person however I envisioned a hassle with that scenario, so I sent an anonymous email "tip" instead.

I drove the remainder of my route in a serpentine fashion, cutting up one street and down another with my window open as much as I could tolerate the wind and raindrops; listening.  I was rewarded in the Washington Highlands neighborhood with a random Red-bellied woodpecker call and four different groups of House sparrows, noisily cheeping deep within clumps of weather-protective shrubbery.  I called it quits just as daylight (gray as it was) began to fade into dusk.  I was wet and tired, ready to tally up my sightings for the day.  I later emailed my results to Andrea and skipped the post-count festivities at the Schlitz Audubon Center for the dryness and warmth of the apartment and the equally warm company of Barbara; the 2012 CBC was now only a memory with only the day's census results to view.  That was just fine with me...I did my part and felt glad to have assisted in even the smallest of ways.   The data collected by observers over the past century allow researchers, conservation biologists, and other interested individuals to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America. When combined with other surveys such as the Breeding Bird Survey, it provides a picture of how the continent's bird populations have changed in time and space over the past hundred years. 

Next year; why not join me?  

Email me your interest for 2013 -