Wings

One of the delights of living near the US Air Force Academy is watching the various ways the cadets get into the air. There are the small training planes, the gliders, and the air mattress-like parachutes. Every so often, most often during football season and at graduation, we’re treated to an old bomber or two. And then there are the incredible Thunderbirds, whose aerial display comes right over our house. What a view!

Of course, you can immediately tell when the Thunderbirds are in town—you can hear their screaming engines echoing off the Front Range mountainsides. (If you want to actually see the jet, look far ahead of the point  where the sound seems to be originating.) But let’s eliminate the sound for a moment. How can you identify a single-engine prop plane from a glider from a parachute from a jet? Easy—look at the shape of the wing.

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Colorful Birds: Part 1

What’s the first thing you see when you look at these birds? For me, it’s their incredible diversity of color! And it’s not only tropical birds—even cold climates produce blue Steller’s Jays, red House Finches, yellow goldfinches, and pink rosy-finches. Or consider the ruby gorget on a Broad-tailed Hummingbird, flashing its iridescent hue when the sunlight hits it just right. How can feathers be all these colors? It varies.

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Beaks

Rhinoceros Hornbill @DenverZoo 20090527 LAH 238r

We have hands. Birds have beaks. Have you ever noticed how useful a beak is? While lacking our manual dexterity, birds have no problem securing their dinners and stuffing said meal down the gullets of their young. Beaks are used to manipulate objects and preen ragged feathers. Some birds use their beaks to impress potential mates, or to scare away intruders. Beaks can even be used as weapons. Have you ever tried to steal an egg from under an irritated hen?

Beaks are also useful to birders, as their size, shape, and color are all helpful when it comes to identifying bird species. In fact, the more attention I pay to birds’ beaks, the better birder I become.

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The AOU’s 2019 Bird List

Hawk Trip-ElPasoCo-CO_LAH_6738Every year, the American Ornithological Society (AOU) reviews a number of proposed changes to the classification of North American birds. This affects the definitive list on which we birders base our life lists. Species may be added or deleted. Sometimes, a species is divided into two or more new species, such as the split of the Western Scrub-Jay a few years ago. (I gained a new life species as a result, as I have seen and photographed both the California Scrub-Jay and Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay.)

Other times, species may be lumped together—what was once considered two species is now thought to be only one, with various subspecies. Sometimes, entire genera are moved into new families. Or, a species remains unchanged, but the name is updated, as when the Gray Jay became officially known as a Canada Jay.

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Splitting Red-tailed Hawks?

Red-tailed Hawk_CanonCity-CO_LAH_8371.nef

If you’ve been birding for any length of time, you know that species come and species go. The birds don’t change, but our perception of which variations are actually different species is constantly undergoing review. We have lumpers, who combine disparate species into one, and splitters, who separate subspecies into two or more different species. Add in the (relatively) new ability to examine DNA, and you have a recipe for constant change.

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