Birds & Birding

The Best of Cool Green Science 2015: Birds & Birding Edition

A male ruby-throated hummingbird. Photo © Justine E. Hausheer / TNC

“What was your spark bird?” It’s a question birders often ask one another. Which bird sparked their interesting birding, turning a passing interest in one slice of the natural world into a life-long passion. Or obsession.

I don’t have a spark bird. I grew up in Florida, where packs of ibis roamed my front lawn and bald eagles dropped fish-guts in the driveway. But it was only after I’d moved to the urban jungle of New York City that I found my spark bird in a Barnes & Noble.

Starved of wildlife (aside from the too-friendly rats on the subway platform) I found myself in the field guide section, paging through the familiar The Sibley Guide to Birds, which my parents kept on the coffee table. But next to it there was a tiny volume on the birds of Brazil. Page after page of bizarre, foreign, beautiful, and almost unbelievable birds unfolded before me. An entire world of birds — nearly 10,000 of them.

Birds unlocked the world for me. No matter how new a landscape or distant a country, there are birds. South Africa has a white-headed fish-eating eagle, and gangs of ibis patrol Australia’s wetlands, too. For every astonishing difference there is a heartwarming similarity.

In the years since, countless other birders (including you readers) have expressed the same sentiment: Whether in their back yard or traveling the globe, there are birds. And wherever there are birds we feel at home.

I hope you enjoy our best birds and birding posts from the past year, and good birding to all.

  1. Your field guide is wrong. Many of North America’s birds are depicted incorrectly. OK, maybe that’s not quite right: your field guide would look wrong to a bird. Birds see a whole range of colors that we can’t see – colors that are literally unimaginable to us.

  2. Taking a blood sample from the northern cardinal. Photo © Justine E. Hausheer / TNC

    Migratory birds don’t travel alone — they often carry ticks and tick-borne pathogens with them on their annual routes. Using data from the Mad Island Marsh bird hotspot, researchers are studying exactly which ticks and diseases are making their way northward with migratory songbirds.

  3. Sharp-shinned hawk (Accipiter striatus). Photo © Zak Pohlen/Flickr

    One of North America’s greatest natural spectacles happens every year near you: the annual fall raptor migration. Major hawk migration routes have become popular birding destinations, and your observations can help citizen science. So, gather around the kettle. No, not a kettle on the stove: a kettle of raptors in the sky.

  4. Horned lark along the Hurricane Hill trail in Olympic National Park in Washington. © Cara Byington

    Staff writer Cara Byington was always tempted to tell fellow hikers to put their phone away and look around them. But then she discovered Merlin and the world of app-aided birding.

  5. A Nazca booby on Isla Genovesa, Galapagos Islands. Photo © Justine E. Hausheer

    Birding is hard. You can travel across the country to find a bird that just isn’t there, while another day a lifer turns up next door. But the surprise birds are often the most memorable.

  6. A Lesser Bird-of-Paradise displaying in the Adelbert Mountains. Photo © Timothy Boucher

    Conservancy birders Tim Boucher and Justine Hausheer set out to find a Lesser Bird-of-Paradise in Papua New Guinea. Only one of them succeeds.

  7. Woodcock in hand: Flickr user Matt MacGillivray under a Creative Commons license.

    Timberdoodle. Bogsucker. Becasee. Is there a bird that inspires more unusual nicknames than the American woodcock? Perhaps that’s for good reason, because this is one of the most unusual birds you’ll ever meet.

  8. A downy woodpecker at a winter bird feeder. Photo: © Chris Helzer/TNC.

    Winter bird feeding is one of the most popular ways for people to interact with nature, and most do it to help birds get through these tough months. But what does this really mean for conservation? Does feeding help or hurt birds?

  9. An Arctic Tern. Photo © Brian Gratwicke / Flickr

    Compared to other species, the world’s nearly 10,000 birds receive a lot of conservation attention. But what if one of our most common conservation tools — protected areas — are failing to protect migratory species?

  10. A Conservancy scientist takes the measurements of a red knot before releasing it. The Conservancy's Virginia Coast Reserve (VCR) is a key stopover site for migratory red knots. © Barry Truitt

    Geolocators. Nanotag radio transmitters. Solar-powered satellite tags. The technology for tracking wildlife gets fancier every year. But, sometimes, it pays to be old school. For two decades, researchers at The Nature Conservancy’s Virginia Coast Reserve (VCR) have been counting red knots and other migrating shorebirds the old-fashioned way: one bird at a time.

Justine E. Hausheer

Justine E. Hausheer is an award-winning science writer for The Nature Conservancy, covering the innovative research conducted by the Conservancy’s scientists in the Asia Pacific region. She has a degree from Princeton University and a master's in Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting from New York University. Justine's favorite stories take her into pristine forests, desolate deserts, or far-flung islands to report on field research as it's happening. When not writing, you can find her traipsing after birds, attempting to fish, and exploring the wild places around her home in Brisbane, Australia. More from Justine

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  1. I was able to identify most of the birds in this article quickly. I guess I’m a birder.
    I have helped many birds over the last 30 years…sometimes it’s just a matter of being quick and getting to them after a collision with a window and giving them a quiet safe place to unboggle their heads. I provide water and food and a safe environment, free of pesticides and herbicides, for most creatures that pass through or stay to make a family. I do enjoy just about all that nature has given me; I am grateful for their songs, colors, movements and lessons that they teach me.
    Thank you, Sam

  2. Want to buy my wife a book on “Birds of the World” for Christmas — any suggestions?