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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Prospect Park, Green-Wood Cemetery & the Gardens

My wife's niece came up from Charlotte, NC, to stay with us for a week. She and her family lived in Brooklyn until they relocated about 6 years ago, so she's no stranger to the Big Apple.

Organizing the agenda for an 18 year old female is not really my forte, so I left the cultural activities and clothes shopping outings with her aunt. Bethany is a talented, self-taught artist, who enjoys painting, drawing and photography. Her father recently bought her a really nice digital SLR that's been getting a lot of use. Finding cool places for her to take photos - that's right up my alley.

I don't know if reading my blog put the idea in her head, but one of the first things that she told me that she'd like to do is go on an "adventure". I presumed that she meant a nature adventure, because pretty much that's all I'm good for. I hadn't been to the Ridgewood Reservoir in a little while, and she seemed intrigued by my description of it, so we decided that would be our first destination. Thankfully, she likes to walk ... I mean, REALLY likes to walk. She is a little over 5 feet tall and maybe 105 pounds, but I have to shift gears to keep up with her!

Bethany and I climbed down into the reservoir's northeast basin. We spent over an hour hiking through the forest and bog. Wearing cargo shorts and Teva sandals was probably not the best decision I made that morning, especially since the basin has an abundance of thorny plants, such as multiflora rose and blackberry. It seemed like a good idea at the time, because it was hot and humid, but by the end of the day our legs looked as if they'd been used as scratching posts for an entire neighborhood of cats.

Speaking of cats (sort of), the interior of the basin was loaded with Gray Catbirds and their offspring. At one point, we were pursued by a very agitated, mewing catbird, presumably because we were close to its offspring. They are as common as dirt in New York City parks during the breeding season. Many are curious and approachable, but this individual actually seemed intent on driving us off. I'm guessing that the basin birds don't see very many humans near their nesting territory, so we obliged by moved away quickly.

Before the Ridgewood Reservoir property was turned over to the Department of Parks & Recreation by the Department of Environmental Protection, there was a small, homeless encampment inside of two basins. Those folks are all long gone, evicted in 2004, but artifacts from their homesteading days can sometimes be seen poking up through the emerging forest's floor. Most items are merely discarded food containers or shelter materials, but sometimes I stumble on, what can only be described as, the bizarre. A detached and slightly burned doll head would fall into the latter category.

We took a short stroll through Prospect Park on Monday. I was hoping to locate one of the members of the Ravine Red-tailed Hawk family. I figured that even if we didn't find a hawk the park is really lush at this time of year, so I was confident that we'd find something interesting to photograph.

Starting in the Ravine, we walked up the east staircase to the roofless wooden shelter, over the Boulder Bridge, then passed Rick's Place to my favorite muddy puddle. When we were approaching the puddle on the bridle path, Bethany focused her sights on the towering arch of the Boulder Bridge ahead of us. She wanted to take some photos of it. As we were walking, I mumbled something about looking for bats underneath, put my bins up to my eyes, then, as if by magic, spotted a fuzzy, brown head sticking out from between the stones. I couldn't believe it and was ecstatic! For 14 years I've been walking under that arch and thinking, "This would be a good place for a bat to roost", but this was the first time that I found one who agreed with me. Encounters with bats in New York City parks are usually just abrupt flashes of diving, darting silhouettes in the dark. For me to be able to stand beneath one and look up into its sleepy, red eyes was a special experience.

After a long look at the bat, and a search through the other openings in the bridge, we headed back into the Ravine. Along the edges of the paths, Purple-flowering Raspberry vines are fruiting, but the animals are going to have to wait just a little longer if they want sweet, ripe fruit for their cereal. At the Fallkill wildflower meadow near the baseball fields, tall stands of Wild Bergamot was attracting a diversity of bees, butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies. One big surprise was finding a Hummingbird Moth, then realizing that there were 4 or 5 more in the vicinity. Bethany had never seen one before and was amazed by the insect's mimicry.

My good friend Marge is a member of the Green-Wood Cemetery Historic Society. In addition to all her other talents, she is a virtual encyclopedia of American History facts. Her dedicated work on the Civil War Project at the cemetery uncovered a high-ranking, but forgotten Civil War captain buried in Green-Wood. In the past, she has offered to give us a guided tour of the cemetery and I decided that Bethany might enjoy it.

The Green-Wood Cemetery is, essentially, a museum and monument of New York and American history. It is not only the final resting place for many famous and infamous Americans, but also the location for an important battle of the American Revolution. My thoughts were, why bring Bethany to a stuffy museum when we could enjoy the rolling scenery and untold stories in the cemetery.

Among the tens of thousands of sculptures, headstones and mausoleums is probably one of the most striking, sorrowful and haunting portrayals of "Azrael, the Angel of Death". The sculptor, Solon H. Borglum, was a personal friend of Brooklyn Mayor Charles Adolph Schieren. When Schieren and his wife died of pneumonia within hours of each other, Borglum decided to create a unique memorial for the pair. At only 40" high, I think the artist succeeded in creating a piece that is even more powerful that some that are ten times larger.

We spent about 15 minutes gawking over the beautiful lighting within the cemetery's chapel. During the day, the Warren and Wetmore building is illuminated by luxurious, arched stained glass windows by Tiffany. The Bridge and Tunnel Club has a page with several images here. Photographs don't seem to capture the vibrant hues and saturation of the real experience.

On the 22nd we walked across Prospect Park to the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens.

Entering at the Flatbush Avenue side of the garden, we meandered north, towards the Native Flora Garden. An island of selected daisies within the Family Plant Collections section was buzzing with insect life. Most of the yellow and white flowering plants towered above Bethany's head making photographing bees and butterflies impractical. Artichoke Thistle near the fountain at the south end of the Cherry Esplanade was a surprising addition in an area dominated by roses. Bumble bees seemed to enjoy its hard to reach, but abundant nectar. I'd never seen artichokes outside of the produce market and was surprised at its hard, thorny exterior. I wonder who got it into their head that, deep down inside that forbidding armor, there could be something soft and delicate to eat.

In the forested Native Flora Garden the buttonbush flowers have all withered and the jewelweed has gone to seed. Across the path from the kettle pond new flowers have emerged. Suspended from thread-like stalks, brilliant orange Turk's Cap Lilies bobbed on the breeze.

Summer Azure butterflies flushed from their perches on knotweed plants and fluttered ahead of our steps.

Next week Bethany's younger brother will be staying with us for several days. I haven't yet given much thought to any adventures with him, but I'm sure he will also keep me moving fast. Over the past year he joined the track team and recently returned from track camp. I thought New Yorkers were supposed to be the hardcore walkers. Well, they were born in New York and I guess that is something that isn't lost just by moving to another state.

by Rob Jett for "The City Birder"

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Cycling along the Brooklyn/Queens Coast

During the week I've been riding short loops around Prospect Park. On weekends, I've been taking a long ride on either Saturday or Sunday. This past Sunday I pedaled to Marine Park, Floyd Bennett Field, Ft. Tilden and Breezy Point. I met my friend, Paige, who is also a birder, and we spent most of the day "birking" along coastal Brooklyn and Queens.

It was high-tide when we parked our bikes at the Marine Park Saltmarsh Nature Center. A row of normally exposed wooden pilings were covered with the high water and a few Common Terns dove for fish nearby. I was scanning the shoreline from the retaining wall behind the nature center when I noticed a Spotted Sandpiper teetering along the boulders at water's edge. There were also a couple of Marsh Wrens gurgling from within the tall reeds that dominate the marsh. For the most part, there was very little bird activity at the saltmarsh to report.

From the Flatbush Avenue bike path we took a short detour into Floyd Bennett Field. The cricket field near the "North 40s" is usually a good place to look for birds, but the only animals we found flying around at that location were dragonflies. We continued riding to the "Return a Gift Pond". Unfortunately, as we peered through the openings in the wooden blind, it occurred to us that the pond might well have been renamed the "Return a Gift Algae Flat and Mud Hole". The only inhabitants were one optimistic Black-crowned Night-Heron and three worried Red-eared Sliders.

Several of the old runways/roads have been barricaded by the National Park Service to prevent illegal drag racing at Floyd Bennett Field. Shane recently mentioned to me that, since the speeding cars and motorcycles are gone, birds have been gathering at large rain water puddles along the pavement. Paige and I pedaled over to check it out.

Most of the water had already evaporated, but one tiny puddle still remained near a stretch of orange barricades. I counted six Least Sandpipers and a single Killdeer in a watering hole no more than 4 feet across. Surrounded by a seemingly vast stretch of concrete, I stared down at the thirsty birds and thought, "You guys could do a lot better".

Crossing the Gil Hodges Bridge brought us into the borough of Queens and onto the Rockaway Peninsula. We made a brief stop at Jacob Riis Park, so I could refill my water bottle, then headed west across Fort Tilden.

One of the effects of Hurricane Bertha's strong winds and swells was that it pushed a huge number of Moon Jellyfish towards the coast. Millions of these harmless jellyfish created a glistening slick along the shore. Many more remained in the water. Swimming among flotillas of the rubbery globs was like bobbing around in a tub filled with silicon breast implants. It was a little creepy. Less fun were the Lion's Manes Jellyfish which have arrived along our beaches earlier in the season than normal. Yesterday I was stung by one while swimming at Riis Park.

After a brief stop near the Silver Gull Beach Club, we continued riding to Breezy Point. The paved road ends at a parking lot. From that point, a fisherman's permit-only, 4-wheel drive sand road continues for 3/4 mile to the ocean. I don't recommend attempting to pedal down the road. There are sections of hard-packed sand that are ridable, but much of it is deep, loose sand. We pushed our bikes most of the distance.

It was low-tide and a wide expanse of wet, packed sand attracted flocks of gulls and shorebirds to the edge of the surf. I was pleasantly surprised to see a relatively large number of young Piping Plovers. These tiny shorebirds are listed as endangered in New York State (Federally listed as "Threatened") and nest along the beaches at Breezy Point. Most were commingling and feeding within flocks of common Sanderlings. We counted a whopping 17 of the minute, sand-colored plovers!

At the Breezy Point Cooperative beaches there were hundreds (possibly thousands) of pairs of nesting Common Terns. Residents of the cooperative have erected wood and string "arbors" above the beach access walkways to protect themselves from very aggressive parent terns. In my experience, most dive-bombing by Common Terns is purely for show and they rarely actually strike people. Near the edges of the dunes we found young terns in various stages of development. Some appeared to be recently hatched while others were already fledged and the size of their parents. Families of American Oystercatchers could be heard squealing up and down the beach, while Black Skimmers silently flew across the dunes towards the bay.

By 4pm the wind had picked up and was gusting out of the southwest. Sunbather's blankets were disappearing under sand drifts and the tiny, blowing grains were stinging my legs. As we headed north towards the bridge, I commented that the strong tailwind would make our return trip very quick.

I was nearly at the center of the bridge when I was startled by a cyclist passing me on my left. The pedestrian path is very narrow and it is common courtesy (not to mention safer) to alert a fellow cyclist when you are passing. Moments later he was followed by a young woman. I angrily shouted to her that she should warn people when passing. Once passed the peak of the roadway, I leaned way down on my handlebars and positioned my pedals parallel to the ground. There was a dangerous crosswind blowing off the water and I was attempting to decrease my wind resistance.

The young woman who had passed me a few minutes earlier was a couple of hundred yards ahead when I saw her go down. My guess is that a gust of wind caught her by surprise. Her front wheel jerked to the right, she overcompensated, then flipped off the bike.

She had terrible abrasions on her forearms, knees and chest. Her mouth and nose were bleeding as was a bump that was forming on her forehead. She never lost consciousness but was bleeding a lot. I told her to sit down and used my cellphone to call 911. Paige asked if the young man who also passed us was her boyfriend. She nodded her head, "yes". He had been traveling so fast that he was out of sight and probably wondered about his missing girlfriend. Paige gave her some tissues to hold on her head, then took off on her bike to find the girl's companion. While waiting for the ambulance to arrive, I stood in the pathway and signaled to approaching cyclists to slow down. Several people offered more napkins and other assistance.

It seemed to take forever, but eventually a bridge construction vehicle with a large flashing yellow arrow arrived to block access to the near lane. A few minutes later the ambulance pulled up. A pair of New York's bravest hopped over the railing and onto the pedestrian path. They quickly attended to the young lady. Paige held her hand and reassured her that everything would be fine. I just tried to stay out of the way and direct bike traffic. In addition, despite the shock, pain and blood, I managed to get a laugh out of her, which is an important part of emergency medical treatment. She didn't appear to have any broken bones, just a lot of road-rash. Incredibly, she hit her face hard enough to have sustained two fat lips, a bloody nose and a knot on her forehead, but didn't knock out any teeth.

Paige and I stayed until the EMTs wheeled her down the path to the toll plaza, where they could access the roadway and place her in the ambulance.

Now for my brief lecture:

Neither she nor her boyfriend were wearing helmets. I pointed out to both of them that most people don't get a second chance after they fly off their bicycle and hit their head! I wish her a speedy recovery and hope to see her out cycling someday, but wearing a really stylish helmet.

by Rob Jett for "The City Birder"

Friday, July 18, 2008

Brooklyn Botanic Garden

I received a phone call a couple of days ago from my friend Dave. We hadn't spoken to each other for a couple of months. "Big Dave" is a retired steelworker who has the unlikely hobby of photographing wildflowers. This is probably the first time that you've read the words "steelworker" and "wildflowers" in the same sentence, and Dave is far from the artsy, metrosexual New Yorker that that description might evoke.

At over 6 feet tall and close to 300 pounds, Dave honed his skills as a welder on the construction of the World Trade Center in the late 1960s. When this bear of a man handles his camera equipment it looks like a cereal box prize in his massive hands. We met in Prospect Park back in 2002, when I was monitoring "Big Mama's" first nest.

Dave has been nearly bedridden for a while due to medical issues, but his is slowly getting back in shape. He told me that he finally hung up his film camera and switched to digital. We decided to meet up at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden to shoot some pictures.

I rode my bicycle through Prospect Park and locked it up at the Flatbush Avenue entrance to the garden. Dave was sitting on a bench near the Peonies Garden. While we were chatting, I tried to ignore the resident mockingbirds. They were imitating everyone from kestrels to vireos. I wanted to stay focused on the flowers, for a change.

We spent most of our time in the Native Flora section. Joe-Pye Weed, Butterfly Weed, Buttonbush and Jewelweed were some of the native plants in bloom. The brilliant, scarlet spikes of the Cardinal Flowers were just beginning to emerge.

Dave and I spend about 90 minutes exploring the flowers and insects in the garden. He headed home via bus, I cycled back through Prospect Park.

I was approaching the brass placard marking "Battle Pass" when I heard several robins calling out. I hadn't seen Ralph, Alice or their two offspring in a while, so I decided to stop and see if the robins had spotted one of the red-tails. Ralph was perched in a dead tree on the ridge just south of the pass. His pale face was unmistakable. While I watched him scanning the ground for prey, I wondered if George Washington or his troops ever encountered Red-tailed Hawks during their campaign along "The Heights". Perhaps, if they did, like many unenlightened people in the past, they merely used them for target practice.

by Rob Jett for "The City Birder"

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Ridgewood Reservoir

On Friday afternoon, at around 5pm, I did a little birding at the Ridgewood Reservoir. While scanning the lake in the central basin I spotted a pair of Pied-billed Grebes. I did not see any of chicks, but their presence during the breeding season could be a positive sign. The pair stayed close to each other much of the time. Several times, they appeared to be pointing their heads into the air or turning their heads from side to side. This could have just been their way of looking out for predators. I found the following information about their courtship displays:

"Like other grebes, P. podiceps is monogamous on a seasonal or multi-seasonal basis. However, unlike other grebes, it has no intricate courtship display. Courtship has five different stages: Advertising, the Pirouette Ceremony, Ripple Dive, Circle Display, and Triumph Ceremony.

Advertising marks the beginning of courtship, swimming around with sleek feathers and elongated neck allow the single bird to let birds of opposite sex take notice of his or her availability. In the pirouette ceremony, each bird approaches the other and then takes an upright posture and may give a greeting call followed by a series of head turning jerks. The Ripple Dance involves dives and races underwater to show the other bird his or her swimming prowess. The Circle Display is self explanatory and can be initiated by either sex; during the Circle Display the pair are several meters apart on the water surface. The Triumph Ceremony, which takes place after mates have been established, consists of each mate circling around the other in a stooped position." (Palmer, R. 1962. Handbook of North American birds. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press)

I did a search of NatureServe to find out more information on the Conservation Status of Pied-billed Grebes. According to their database, they have "declined locally due to degradation, disturbance, and loss of wetlands. The greatest threat to populations in the northeast is alteration and loss of wetland habitat through draining, dredging, filling, pollution, acid rain, agricultural practices, and siltation (Gibbs and Melvin 1992). Palustrine emergent wetlands, including inland freshwater and brackish marshlands frequented by grebes, are among the most threatened wildlife habitats in the U.S. Over 4.75 million acres (1.92 million ha) of such wetlands were destroyed in the U.S. between the mid-1950s and mid-1970s, and losses continue at 160,000 ac/year (64,777 ha) (Tiner 1984)."

There are some very good views of Jamaica Bay from the Ridgewood Reservoirs high vantage point. While scoping the Fountain Avenue Landfill I noticed something curious. There was a plume of something rising up out of the old landfill that distorted the image. The effect was similar to heat distortion. I digiscoped the following video. I am assuming that it is a plume of methane, because landfills need to vent off methane that is produced during decomposition of organic matter.

Ridgewood Reservoir, 07/11/2008
Wood Duck (14)
Pied-billed Grebe (2. Possibly breeding.)
Red-tailed Hawk (1)
Laughing Gull
Ring-billed Gull
Chimney Swift
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Willow Flycatcher
Warbling Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo
Tree Swallow
Bank Swallow (2)
Barn Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
Carolina Wren
House Wren
Gray Catbird
Northern Mockingbird
Brown Thrasher
Cedar Waxwing
Yellow Warbler
American Redstart
Common Yellowthroat
Eastern Towhee
Chipping Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Common Grackle
Orchard Oriole (1)
Baltimore Oriole
American Goldfinch

Other common species seen (or heard)
Herring Gull, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Downy Woodpecker, Blue Jay, American Crow, American Robin, European Starling, Northern Cardinal, Red-winged Blackbird, House Sparrow
by Rob Jett for "The City Birder"

Friday, July 11, 2008

Another Recommended Blog

The Bluebird of Friendliness is a very good urban nature blog you should check out. The Brooklyn-based author has some really nice observations and photos.

by Rob Jett for "The City Birder"

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Prospect Park hawk update

I had the day off yesterday and spent two hours in Prospect Park cycling and birding. Part of my agenda included finding out how Alice and Ralph's two youngsters were managing in the wilds of Brooklyn.

A massive European Beech tree recently fell on the eastern rise of the Vale of Cashmere. The resulting tangle of branches and rotting wood has become a magnet for birds and chipmunks. Several species of birds foraging within the fall included a surprising abundance of juvenile American Robins. Throughout my two hour amble in the park I noticed that these common thrushes where just about everywhere I looked.

As I pedaled passed Nelly's Lawn, I heard the "Tut, tut, tut" alarm calls of several robins in the distance. I thought, "red-tails on the prowl", and adjusted my route towards the east side of the Aralia Grove and the source of the sounds.

A couple of months ago I found a circa 1870s map of Prospect Park on the Internet. The map identifies the previously unnamed stretch of woodlands north of the zoo as the "East Woods". It is the patch of forest where Big Mama and Split-tail raised their second family back in 2oo3. As I rode beneath the beech tree that held the old nest, I spotted the object of all the robins concern - Ralph. Perched halfway up an old sweetgum, the pale-headed hawk scanned the ground for a meal. With dozens of pairs of robins in the park now raising their second or third brood, Ralph was a picture of a lazy hunter. As some of the adult robins made feeble strafing flights into the predator, he calmly held his ground, waiting for an unwary young bird to cross his sights. I shot a few minutes of shaky, hand-held video, then continued south through the park.

His cries sounded like the pained yelps of a puppy who had his paw stepped on. One of the fledgling hawks had progressed across the Nethermead Meadow and was flying back and forth through the woods of Lookout Hill. I've come to recognize the sharp, upslurred whistle as the desperate "feed me" call of recently fledged Red-tailed Hawks. As I rode up Lookout Hill's pitted asphalt road I caught glimpses of the hawk flying from treetop to treetop. The hungry bird was searching for his parents. I found him perched in a conifer north of the Maryland Monument.

While I was looking for a good vantage point to watch the hawk, two joggers and a dog walker passed me on the footpath. I wondered how they could have ignored the piercing whistles of the young hawk a short distance off the path.

A second hawk began calling from nearby, but unlike the begging juvenile, made a typical Red-tailed Hawk "keeerr" sound. It was Ralph and his hunting foray was successful. He arrived with a freshly killed young robin in his talons. Rather than deliver the meal directly to his offspring, he remained a few yards away, impelling the youngster to come and get it. At one point he dropped the prey and flew to the ground to retrieve it. Eventually, the juvenile hawk got the message and took the food from his father. One would think that that would end all the crying, but it didn't. Instead, I followed the small, male hawk around the edge of the woods watching him awkwardly trying to balance on a branch and pluck his meal at the same time. The poor bird continued to cry "feed me, feed me", but Ralph just monitored the young bird from several yards away. When I left Lookout Hill I could still hear his cries in the distance, only they had a more muffled quality, as if he was stuffing his face and complaining at the same time.

by Rob Jett for "The City Birder"

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Manhattan Red-tailed Hawk Summary

Bruce has a Manhattan Red-tailed Hawk end of season summary on his "Urban Hawks" blog. Unfortunately, it has been a disastrous year. His post's title, "Annus Horribilis" is, sadly, very appropriate.

by Rob Jett for "The City Birder"

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

On Monday afternoon I went into Prospect Park to look for the fledglings from the Ravine Red-tailed Hawk nest.

I began my search by heading towards the stretch of woods north of the nest. My plan was to gradually work my way south, past the nest tree and towards the Quaker Cemetery. I stood on the Boulder Bridge for a few minutes then decided to scan the treetops of the Midwood from the ridge on the west side of the forest. I found a pair of White-breasted Nuthatches chattering to each other as they scaled a tuliptree. There was also a pair of Great Crested Flycatcher perched on a dead snag, but no sign of the red-tails. Then, as I was walking down the footpath towards Center Drive, I heard the first squeal. I whistled back and spotted a young Red-tailed Hawk in the woods near Rocky Pass. They hadn't gotten very far.

From the edge of Center Drive I spotted one of the young fledglings perched in an oak tree. Robins were sending out alarms from a stand of linden trees farther down the road. The second juvenile was perched quietly in that spot. I could tell by the bulge in his crop that he had recently eaten. His sibling was hungry and cry nearly nonstop. The young bird also made short flights from one side of the Ravine to the other, but remained only a couple of hundred yards away from the nest tree. I walked up into the woods to get a better view of the two hawks.

At one point, both hawks were silent, their perches hidden from view by Quaker Ridge's dense forest. Overhead I heard the familiar "keeerr" of an adult Red-tailed Hawk. Through openings in the canopy, I spotted Alice slowly circling the nest woods, turning her head from side to side as she scanned for her offspring. She must have spotted them, because she eventually soared off to the north.

Yesterday afternoon Marge and I drove over to Green-Wood Cemetery to look for those two fledglings. It was late in the day and we didn't have much time to search for them. Fortunately, they found us. Within moments of parking the car, one of the eyass flew across the road in front of us and perched on a low branch. It was the youngster that Marge has been referring to as "Lucy". Lucy is pretty large, possibly a female, and has a white patch on her head.

We walked up the hillside to get a better look at the hawk. She was feeding on the remains of a squirrel. It was likely a previous meal as it looked pretty well picked over.

While she was intently pulling off any bits of remaining meat a mockingbird decided he didn't like her in his tree. The small, gray bird was taking his life in his hands. Like a trapeze artist, he'd begin from a high perch on one side of the hawk, swoop down, swat the hawk's rump then return to a high perch on the other side. The hawk seemed either clueless or just didn't care, but the mockingbird went on like that for nearly 10 minutes. Lucy eventually finished her meal and flew off to a cedar tree where the mockingbird left her alone.

Below is a short video of the hawk and mockingbird comedy sketch:

by Rob Jett for "The City Birder"