Posted May 7th, 2013 by kcorliss. Comment (1).

I guess it’s only fair. I have acquired a few life birds “in the mail,” as it is said, I suppose it’s only fitting that some would be taken away in the same fashion.

The posting on the ABA’s blog two days ago talked about the second proposal of 2013 to the AOU bird checklist. For those unaware, that checklist is the working bible for birders in North America and serves as THEE reference  for the most current scientific thinking of all things birds, at least in terms of taxonomy.

A couple years ago I was handed two new birds without even leaving my chair: Pacific wren (split from winter wren) and Mexican whip-poor-will, split off from whip-poor-will (now Eastern whip-poor-will). Nice to add lifers without paying for an airline ticket, packing bags, renting a car, staying in a cheap hotel, and renting a car.

Well, the AOU giveth and the AOU taketh away. If the petitioners get their way all three rosy-finches will be lumped into one thereby negating two birds from my list; both gotten last year in separate epic journeys, one to Colorado, the other to Wyoming. (I took this photograph on top of Beartooth Pass in Wyoming, depicting a young black rosy-finch begging from an adult).

It’s all good though. In the end we should all embrace the science (DNA shows them to be merely clines of the same species) and move forward, despite that little selfish voice in our head.


Icing, and things that fly

Posted April 10th, 2013 by kcorliss. Comments Off on Icing, and things that fly.

Since the early days of aviation, the phenomenon known as airframe icing has proven to be a very very bad thing for flyers. I won’t go into the science behind this, but know that once a wing begins to accrete ice, it begins to lose efficiency. There is an ultimate point with every flying machine where, given enough ice accumulation, it will simply fall out of the sky. Countless aircraft accidents have been blamed upon aircraft icing and likely will well into the future.

While I have read aircraft accident reports about icing my whole career, never had I read of the process happening with birds. Until now.

Yesterday I flew in an aircraft to the state of Washington and back. The whole while I was keeping an eye on the radar as a tremendous winter storm was unfolding in South Dakota, wondering if it might affect my arrival back in central Minnesota. The Sioux Falls area, in particular, looked to be being absolutely pounded by freezing rain throughout the day. As it turns out, it was.

Today, the city is crippled by the storm, thousands without power, trees down everywhere having smashed through homes, structures, and vehicles. It’s all the news in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader newspaper. Among these compelling stories, though, one in particular stood out for its oddness. The ice, as it happened, hit soaring turkey vultures too. Not only that, the birds had literally dropped from the sky, presumably due to “airframe icing.” (click here for full story and photo of iced up turkey vulture).

From the story:

“My wife was making breakfast, and she suddenly yelled, ‘Adam! A large bird just fell out of the sky!’,” said (Adam) Weber…


Weber said he called Animal Control, who told him that they had received several calls about similar incidents in the McKennan Park area.

File this one under, “Things I Never Thought I’d Hear.”





Swans, yes, but which ones?

Posted April 8th, 2013 by kcorliss. Comments Off on Swans, yes, but which ones?.

First, dear reader, notice the snow-and-ice background. Indeed this area of the Upper Midwest continues to be held tightly within the grip of a cold and damp cycle. Here in Fargo I hear the high temperature for the year has been…drum roll…43 degrees. Hardly a late winter/early spring to brag about. If someone has access to that pixie dust known as global warming, could you back that truck up and dump a load of it here. Please?!

To the subject at hand…this photo comes to me via Bob E., a friend and fellow aviator with an eye toward birds, taken at his lake place in western Minnesota last Friday. Even the most casual of observers would surmise that what we are looking at here is a pair of swans (Cynus sp.). The more-than-casual observer wants to know, however, which swan? Would anyone like to take a guess at this one? Some hints and a little background might help in your efforts at identifying these birds to species.

Historically, trumpeter swans (C. buccinator) nested in this area but were reduced in population over the decades to the point where the birds were labeled “threatened” in Minnesota. It is highly susceptible to lead poisoning (ingesting shotgun pellets while feeding). An aggressive reintroduction program started many years ago has met with tremendous success and the birds are proliferating across a lot of Minnesota. Sightings outside of their usual range (i.e. North Dakota) are increasing every year even to the point where North Dakota now even has a confirmed nesting attempt.

On the other hand, tundra swan (C. columbianus) populations have not really been threatened. This is the species which nests in the High Arctic and in Alaska and migrates through our area–sometimes in huge numbers–twice a year, going to and from wintering grounds in Chesapeake Bay (at least “our” population does). Seeing this species is a usual occurrence this time of year. In fact I saw a pair on the edge of town yesterday.

It’s safe to say these birds are one or the other, but which one is it? Care to venture a guess? There are no penalties for wrong answers by the way.

Oh, in 2006 the venerable David Sibley was kind enough to impart upon the uninformed masses his take on the separation of these two species. It’s exceptionally good, well worth your time, and accessible here. Good luck.


Should my Daughter Reconsider?

Posted June 22nd, 2012 by kcorliss. Comment (1).

After enduring the embarassment of driving dad’s hand-me-down 1993 Suzuki Esteem for several years, my daughter has gone ahead and purchased a “new” used car: A spotless Dodge Stratus with low miles. Here’s the kicker though, it’s red.

I know what you are thinking, ‘aha, she will be targeted by police for speeding tickets with a red car.’ Yeah, targeted maybe, though not by police necessarily.

According to the Metro (out of the UK), a survey conducted in five English cities has found that red cars are more likely than any other colors to be the targets of birds when pooping. The story doesn’t actually tell us who conducted the survey or how it was done so we have no way of digging deeper into the mechanics of the actual poll;  we can only assume the data are accurate. If that is the case, I wonder if this bit of news would disappoint my daughter. Somehow I don’t think so.

Now that’s kinda weird

Posted May 10th, 2012 by kcorliss. Comments Off on Now that’s kinda weird.

From the “Things they didn’t teach me in motorcycle safety class” files:

In the aviation biz there are some obvious risks (what in life doesn’t?), not the least of which is the potential for collisions with other flying things, be they birds, other aircraft, or any number of things in the air. Several tools are available to most pilots in the form of on-board radar (mostly military), TCAS, air traffic control radar, procedural rules, one’s own eyesight, etc. But in the end there is no fool-proof escape from the danger of mid-air collisions. Back in my Air Force days we used to refer to this assumed risk as the “Big Sky Theory.” Which simply meant, yeah, there’s a lot of stuff in the air but there’s a huge amount of sky for all of us, thus the chances of us meeting at the same place and the same time are so small that I’m not going to worry about it. 

It’s a little different when you are only occupying a two-dimensional space, things get a little more cluttered. I only mention this because I saw earlier this week yet another motorcyclist was killed–this time in Maryland–due to a collision with a turkey vulure. That’s right, a bird-strike led to the death of someone on the ground. Weird huh? Funny thing is this is not the first time. Go ahead and google “vulture kills motorcyclist” and you’ll come up with multiple stories.

Next time you straddle that bike you might want to wear a helmet. Oh, and be on the lookout for large dark birds.

Full story found here, courtesy of

Getting closer…

Posted March 21st, 2012 by kcorliss. Comments Off on Getting closer….

I would imagine the dream of human flight has been with us since we have been walking upright. Observing the birds around us and their seemingly effortless courses through the air, well, a bit of jealousy is natural. We tend to credit the Wright Bros. with the first powered flight. Fine. But do we really emulate the birds re: flapping under our own power? Not really. As of now, we need gobs of power (in relative terms) and carefully crafted rigid wings with just the right shape to produce lift (variable geometry wings such as F-111 and F-14 notwithstanding).

Through the years some have made attempts at copying the birds, some have even gotten close. Now a Dutchman–Jarno Smeets–seems to have taken us one step closer. His blog (click here) contains all the details you need to know, but more to the point, the video of his most recent flight is pretty amazing really. 

Only two small shortcomings that I see 1) It is still powered by a small motor (until we develop gigantic breastbones with equally gigantic breast muscles with which to power “wings” we will forever need help flapping) and 2) It still seems like quite a violent up-and-down movement to counter the wingbeats.

Still this is way cool and I love the way this guy thinks. His inspiration?: DaVinci and his grandfather.

Look for the mini-snowmen

Posted February 22nd, 2012 by kcorliss. Comments Off on Look for the mini-snowmen.

If you haven’t seen a snowy owl this winter somewhere in the continental U.S. you haven’t been looking. The irruption of these huge Arctic owls into the lower 48 has made news reports for at least a few months and the birds continue to impress with incursions into areas where snowys are normally quite rare. Today I received the Winter 2012 issue of BirdScope, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s newsletter and sure enough, there was yet another brief article describing the impressive showing of snowy owls across the country this winter.

Making this piece somewhat different than most was the explanation for the phenomenon. You see, most articles I’ve seen this winter try and make the claim the birds are starving, that a lack of lemmings up north has forced them down into less productive feeding areas, and that the birds are in trouble. Truth be told we are not 100% sure why such irruptions take place but this story talks about the fact that when lemmings are “plentiful, the owls can raise double or triple their normal number of chicks. Once autumn arrives, that horde of hungry youngsters has no choice but to fan out and head far south of the species’ normal range.” This makes much better sense to me.

Here in North Dakota, the birds are annual winter visitors and just the numbers vary from year to year. Most this year indeed appear to be immature birds. But last weekend I happened upon a nice adult male (hardly a dark  spot noticeable whatsoever) in the middle of a field. Folks infrequently ask me how to find snowy owls. I tell them, look for a piece of snow that doesn’t belong. In other words, just look for a mini-snowman out in the middle of a field. Such as this one…

Reverberations far and wide

Posted January 20th, 2012 by kcorliss. Comments Off on Reverberations far and wide.

A recent decision by U.S. District Court judge Daniel Hovland might very well ring much more broadly than in just our little corner of the world. The issue was whether oil companies operating in North Dakota violated the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 by killing 28 birds which had apparently landed in collection pits currently allowed by North Dakota law. Hovland said no. I think this was a good decision.

Before anyone goes bonkers let me explain…

I’m not privy to the entire written decision of the judge, but a couple of his statements in a Bismarck Tribune story are spot on: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has recognized “countless” ways in which legal acts could result in the deaths of migratory birds, Hovland wrote. Okay, then there’s this one: “It would not be feasible to prosecute all or even most of those persons or entities who technically violate the Migratory Bird Treaty Act,” the judge wrote. Exactly and that has been the problem with selective interpretation and prosecution of the law.

Oil companies have been fined or prosecuted under this law many times over the years but never does a wind power company face the same scrutiny even though wind farms likely kill more birds overall. Why? Because it doesn’t fit the model of oil and gas companies representing the Big Bad Wolf while wind power is the innocent Little Red Riding Hood.

Here’s the other huge problem the judge addresses with his second statement. If one were to make a strict interpretation of the law, any person or entity who kills a bird, unwitttingly or not, is liable for a crime. That literally means if you hit a bird with your car or if one runs into your picture window at home and dies, you should be held accountable under the law. What about the oodles of birds killed annually by running into tall buildings. Should they all be fined under the MBT Act? No, the judge has rightly set the bar higher by ruling it should be a willful act.

Now, is there a problem with current North Dakota rules. Absolutely. But that is being addressed: State regulators have proposed changes that would ban the dumping of liquid waste. A hearing on the changes is scheduled for 9 a.m. Monday at the state Capitol.

There should be pretty high environmental standards for these companies to operate in the North Dakota oil patch. An open pit with all sorts of waste should not be allowed to go uncovered or unprotected. Let’s fix that. Companies are benefitting greatly from the petro-wealth found under our state, the least we can do is to demand clean operations from them. But this is wholly separate from the legal decision. 

Willy-nilly prosecutions under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act are unjust for the reasons stated above and judge Hovland is right.

Immediate seating available

Posted January 19th, 2012 by kcorliss. Comments Off on Immediate seating available.

Of all the avian visitors which tend to frequent the backyard feeders of us urban dwellers, perhaps the most unwelcome–at least in the hearts of most–are the small group of woodland hawks in the family Accipitridae. Within this small three-species group (in North America) easily the most common to appear near your bird feeders is the sharp-shinned hawk, at least in winter. (I’m speaking strictly for our immediate area of the southern Red River Valley).

Come summer sharpies disappear to be replaced by their larger cousins, Cooper’s hawks. The third family members–Northern goshawks–are very rare in our local urban area and not even worth mentioning at the moment.

So it was with a degree of surprise that I happened to look out the kitchen window yesterday to see a first-year female Cooper’s hawk throwing herself around in an effort to catch a house sparrow. Twenty minutes of effort produced nothing for her however. Looking at the photo at right, I would only offer one small critique for this bird: You might want to disguise your intent a little better…

Here’s to boreal owls

Posted January 4th, 2012 by kcorliss. Comments Off on Here’s to boreal owls.

First an admission, I like beer. Not so much the usual mass-produced American lagers which end up advertising during major sporting events. No, I much favor the small crafted beers which have been popping up all over the country for the past 20 years or so. It’s a good time to be a beer lover to be sure. I’ll even go so far as to shamelessly plug a local effort to enter this competitive market. A small group of fellows have started the Fargo Brewing Company and I was fortunate enough to be at the public rollout of their wonder Woodchipper Ale some months ago. Yum.

All that aside I received an interesting little brown ale for Christmas from a friend. It was wonderful. Making it the full experience for me was the label which featured a boreal owl of all things. How cool is that, two of the things I enjoy in life tied together in one neat little package?