Yerkes Observatory Refracting Telescope

Paul & I looked through a bit of history, visiting the 40″ refracting telescope for an observing night. It was something I’d always wanted to do but never made time for when I lived in southern WI. The price to look through the old telescope is a little steep considering it’s an outdated refractor ($100/person); it seems to take advantage of those who just really want the experience (like me tonight) and maybe don’t know better. It hurt to shell out that kind of cash for an event I used to get paid for! Nonetheless, it was a really fun experience, and I can’t remember the last time I spent the better part of a night in an observatory (must really have been sometime in undergrad). Also, our docent was awesome and the decades of his amateur astronomy hobby showed in the knowledge he shared throughout the night. There was plenty I’d forgotten, was rusty on or just plain never knew!

It was a 1st quarter moon on a mostly clear night (but with somewhat poor seeing), so we looked at a heavily cratered area and Copernicus. Within our own solar system, we saw Neptune, which I’m not sure I’ve ever seen before! Triton was also very faintly visible alongside it. Ergo, it wasn’t as dark as it could be, but we still managed to check out some deep sky objects. We saw a globular cluster, the Saturn nebula, and the Andromeda galaxy.

G3 Aurora Near Autumnal Equinox

I’m actually still outside as I type this, in case the aurora decides to act up again! Tonight I saw the brightest sub-storm I’ve seen yet…from my deck! Before 10:30 PM I noticed a sub-storm brewing, which is a big deal if I can see it from my apartment. I could actually see structure and movement so I went out to my favorite dark sky spot. It’s always a tense drive if I wait until after there’s activity to get out of the city lights, but just even seeing a diffuse glow in the night sky that’s not the moon is thrilling along the way. Even so, once I got onto scenic north shore drive, I could see patches even while driving. Once I got to my spot, I could clearly see the homogeneous patches pulsating and moving. At that time, the aurora filled up about half of the northern sky with the “racing clouds” phenomenon.

I got to my spot just after 11 PM and for the first time saw “Steve” just west of the aurora. I stayed out until sometime after midnight, submitting a live Aurorasaurus report with my best photo at the time from the “Slow Shutter” app. Getting sleepy and cold, and since it was a work night (turned morning), I decided to head back home. I looked out my bedroom window to take a last gaze, and noticed it was quite bright! Then, I saw double homogeneous arcs start to form from the glow, so I grabbed my warm folding chair and rushed out to my deck (I’m lucky to be on the top floor and thus above the street lights). The arcs “broke up” into the colorful dancing ribbon, and I gasped as well as kicked myself for leaving my dark sky spot! I couldn’t believe how visible it was even from my apartment. After the band dissipated, I noticed those spiky, trapezoidal rays to the northeast, though this time from my vantage they were not as bright nor colorful. I watched the flaming phenomenon for awhile filling up the whole sky to the zenith from my vantage. The real clouds are now chasing me inside which is probably a blessing for my sleep, but also a tease as I can see the lights getting bright behind the clouds again! Once more, seeing that brightness behind the clouds which would usually be a full moon is a thrill in itself.

Onomatopoeia in American Bird Names

Birds names given by the earliest cultures that encountered them were often imitations of their songs/calls. What may be surprising is how many of those names have stood the test of time! For instance, Native cultures of Central America named the “chachalaca” for its calls. Unsurprisingly though, many of our North American English common names come from European cultures who had encountered the bird (or something like it) in Europe and named it there.

Ancient (before 1700)

Almost all of the definitions are directly copied from the numbered source following the definition (corresponding to the bibliography at the end), hence the quotation marks. Most of the etymological sources come from Online Etymology Dictionary (1) and were queried simply by typing the word into the search engine. Note that I also carried over their notation (i.e. the same use/meaning of the * also defined at the end of the post). Sub-bullets are bird names related to or deriving from the same root word.

  • booby – “…probably from Latin balbus ‘stammering,’ from an imitative root” (1)
  • goose – “…[Proto-Indo-European] *ghans (source also of Sanskrit hamsah (masc.), hansi (fem.), ‘goose, swan;’ Greek khen; Latin anser; Polish gęś ‘goose;’ Lithuanian zasis ‘goose;’ Old Irish geiss “swan”), probably imitative of its honking.” (1) Because of the mentioned relation in this definition, I include…
    • swan (1)
  • garganey (2)
  • heron – “…perhaps from a common [Indo-European] root imitative of its cry (compare Old Church Slavonic kriku ‘cry, scream,’ Lithuanian kryksti ‘to shriek,’ Welsh cregyra ‘heron,’ Latin graculus ‘jackdaw, crow’)” (1)
    • egret – “…diminutive of aigron ‘heron'” (1)
    • crane – “…cognates: Greek geranos, Latin grus, Welsh garan, Lithuanian garnys ‘heron, stork.’ Thus the name is perhaps an echo of its cry in ancient ears.” (1)
    • crow – “Old English crawe, imitative of bird’s cry.” (1) (There seems to be some suggestion that “sparrow” could be related to this word too.)
    • bittern
    • gannet
    • grouse
  • pigeon – “…from pipire ‘to peep, chirp,’ of imitative origin.” (1)
    • wigeon (2)
  • kite – “…Old English cyta, probably imitative of its cry” (1)
  • quail – “…from Old French quaille (Modern French caille), perhaps via Medieval Latin quaccula (source also of Provençal calha, Italian quaglia, Old Spanish coalla), or directly from a Germanic source (compare Dutch kwakkel, Old High German quahtala ‘quail,’ German Wachtel, Old English wihtel), imitative of the bird’s cry.” (1)
  • chicken – “…from root *keuk (echoic of the bird’s sound and possibly also the source of the word “cock”…)” (1)
  • kittiwake (2)
  • gull
    • mew – “‘seagull,’ Old English mæw, from Proto-Germanic *maigwis (source also of Old Saxon mew, Frisian meau, Middle Dutch and Middle Low German mewe, Dutch meeuw ‘gull’), imitative of its cry.” (1)
    • guillemot – “Fr., prob. Celt.; Bret. gwelan, gull, and O. Fr. moette, a sea-mew, from Teut.” (3)
  • skua
  • auklet
  • whimbrel
  • curlew – “from Old French courlieu (13c., Modern French courlis), said to be imitative of the bird’s cry but apparently assimilated with corliu” (1)
  • cuckoo – “from Old French cocu “cuckoo,” also “cuckold,” echoic of the male bird’s mating cry” (1)
  • owl – “…imitative of a wail or an owl’s hoot” (1)
  • shrike – “…probably echoic of its cry and related to ‘shriek'” (1)
  • jay – “…probably echoic of the bird’s harsh warning cry” (1)
  • raven –  “…imitative of harsh sounds” (1)
  • finch – “…perhaps imitative of the bird’s note (compare Breton pint ‘chaffinch,’ Russian penka ‘wren’)” (1) Because of that I include…
    • wren (1)
  • siskin – “via Fl or Du < Ger zeischen, dim. of zeizig < Czech čížek, dim. of číž (akin to Pol czyz, Russ čiž), of echoic orig.” (4)

*”not attested in any written source, but has been reconstructed by etymological analysis” (1)

Recent History (1700’s onward)

  • bobwhite
  • willet
  • poorwill
    • chuck-will’s-widow
    • whip-poor-will
  • pewee
  • phoebe
  • kiskadee
  • chickadee
  • veery
  • towhee
  • bobolink
  • pipit
  • grackle

Sources Cited

  1. Online Etymology Dictionary.
  2. Google search of the word + “etymology”
  3. Chambers’s Twentieth Century Dictionary
  4. Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 4th Edition. Copyright © 2010 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

Some Processing I’ve Done in GDAL

I have GDAL installed in Linux (i.e. the easiest way to install/implement it) so the following examples represent command line usage. I have used a smattering of different GDAL utilities, and the links in the descriptions go to the manual page for the utility in each example. I have incorporated these example commands into various bash scripts if I need to implement them in an iteration over multiple files.

This is an example of re-sampling a raster to larger pixel sizes (in this case to a lower resolution of 0.09 degree from the original 0.0002 degree [30m LANDSAT pixels]) by taking the mean of the pixels encompassed in the coarser output.

gdalwarp -tr 0.09 0.09 -r average -ot Float32 file.tif fileout.tif
This is the output of the above command, where a 30m resolution image was scaled up to 10km resolution image. The new pixel values are the averages of the binary raster pixels (0,1) that contributed to them. All maps are plotted in R 3.4.1

I have used GDAL to set no data values (in this case, I reclassified 0 as the no data value).

gdal_translate -of GTiff -a_nodata 0 PPR/2000/Playas_2000.tif region_img/Playas.tif

Here’s an example of stitching 2 tiff’s together into a larger area, and setting the output no data value to be where the 0’s were in the original input files. -o region_img/Canada.tif -a_nodata 0 PPR/2000/Alberta_PPR_2000.tif PPR/2000/SAK_MAN_PPR_2000.tif
Notice blue is the only color, representing the only value left in the raster (1).

If you want to stitch shape files together into a new file, you have to initialize the new shape file first with one of your input files and then add to it.

ogr2ogr regions/Canada.shp shapefiles/Alberta_PPR_2001.shp
ogr2ogr -update -append regions/Canada.shp shapefiles/SAK_MAN_PPR_2001.shp -nln Canada

If you’re going to, say, turn your raster into polygons, you can get rid of clumps below a certain threshold before doing so (in this case, I’m getting rid of single pixels in my unary raster when using an 8-neighbor clumping rule). -st 2 -8 file.tif

Then, I can make my polygon layer, simplified. In the 2nd line, I project the shapefile to Albers Equal Area. -8 file.tif -f "ESRI Shapefile" shapefile/file.shp 
ogr2ogr -f "ESRI Shapefile" -progress outfile.shp shapefile/file.shp -t_srs "EPSG:5070"
Here’s a shape file of wetlands created from the TIFF of the Canadian Prairie Pothole Region!

First Meeting for MOU Young Birders’ Committee!

Today we had our 1st meeting, though with my continued west coast cold (there must be germs I’m not immune to out there) I just “typed in” while listening/watching all my other fellow committee members share thoughts, etc.! There were some pretty exciting things in the works, and diversity is a topic of great importance for all involved. We’re going to be jointly addressing the needs of the young (20-40) and youth (13-17) birders in the state. Our age group is a growing demographic in birding, and will eventually be torch-bearers for leadership (not to mention, plenty are already) within the birding community. I think there’s a lot of potential to reach out to young adults, and it starts with education, resource availability and “spark experiences” to get people curious. Also, engaging young adults in the type of events they’re already interested in (e.g. social gatherings, perhaps in conjunction with other compatible interests) seems to be working as a way to get people in the door.

I’m also excited to be a liaison and mentor for youth birders to engage with the wider birding community of MN. It will be great to think about challenges, barriers to inclusion, and this how we can help this age group get connected and supported. Hopefully too, they’ll want to engage with young adults in the “next age bracket up” to do some fun birding activities. I hope too they’ll help fill me in on the latest cool stuff going on with the kids these days, because at the ripe old age of 30 I already feel pretty out of the loop on the hip new things. 🙂

Waterfowl & Wetlands Literature Review

Studying waterfowl with large extant datasets is intimidating because I often have the sneaking suspicion “someone has done this before.” I’m in the process of figuring out which of my suspicions are correct.

  • Are there more ducks where there are more wetlands in the surrounding landscape? If so, what scale is relevant to predict waterfowl abundance (e.g. are there more waterfowl when the 10km surrounding them have more wetlands)?
    • No…
      • duck abundance on a given pond is lower when there are more wetlands in the surrounding landscape (Bartzen et al. 2017)
        • The Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey (WBPHS) 1993-2002
        • Canadian PPR
        • generalized least-squares regression models
        • compound symmetry covariance structure to account for repeated annual counts on ponds
        • AIC model selection

Literature Cited

Bartzen, B., Dufour, K. W., Bidwell, M. T., Watmough, M. D. and Clark, R. G. (2017), Relationships between abundances of breeding ducks and attributes of Canadian prairie wetlands. Wildl. Soc. Bull., 41: 416–423. doi:10.1002/wsb.794

Learning to Identify Birds by their Vocalizations

I can’t say birding by ear was one of my natural talents: it took hard study because I wanted to learn it. Yet, with many hours, it paid off! I can’t recommend my favorite by ear guide enough:

Birding by Ear: Eastern/Central (Peterson Field Guides)

It taught me how to listen to bird song. I used to have it on an old iPod, which is lost somewhere in a pile of antique technology. So, I just ordered myself the CD copy, so I can have it to lend out and also remember why I liked it so much (UPDATE 9/18: it arrived, and I’m re-listening to it when I’m in the car).

As perhaps my latest posts have suggested, I’ve been interested lately in how we learn to identify birds, and best learning strategies. “By ear” is perhaps a great new place to explore, because most people aren’t auditory learners. So, it seems maybe there is more devoted “learning” here, that requires taking in information through what many consider to be a somewhat secondary sense.

Training my ear first required being able to classify song types as per the audio guide. Solidifying auditory memory included such experiences as watching a bird singing, and going out and testing my knowledge in the field (i.e. guessing a species by its song, and then visually confirming the bird’s identification). Then of course, there’s no substitute for time spent in field study. You hear variations, and continually gain familiarity with songs and calls.

A good place to go, if not obvious, is to keep tabs on what you don’t know. Once you listen to birds a lot, you can pick out subtle differences in chip notes. One of the first chip notes I learned (beyond the obvious and quite distinctive, e.g. cardinal) was perhaps unsurprisingly the species I focused on in my M.S. thesis: painted bunting. From following this species around all day and looking for nests, I started to learn the subtle difference in its chip note from everything else around. From there, of course the species from which I learned chip notes were those with a.) distinctive sounds and b.) those I encountered most commonly.

A current by-ear frontier for me is warbler chip notes, and nocturnal flight calls. There are of course some more distinctive and common than others (e.g. yellow-rumped warbler) that lend to learning through repeated exposure. Nocturnal flight calls are valuable to learn, because then you can listen to migrants passing overhead. I know the most basic and easiest of these, but still have plenty of study to do, which brings this full circle: birding is constant learning, which keeps it challenging and fun!

My Favorite Places I’ve Been Birding

Phew — just typing that title sounds daunting; there are so many! I don’t know how I’m going to break this list up but I figured I’d at least start it and chip away as I go. Please comment regionally with your favorite places too! My current home city is Duluth, MN so my favorite places in the state…


  • Canal Park
  • Minnesota Point
  • North Shore Scenic Drive: as the name implies, this goes along the north shore of Lake Superior, with lots of pull-offs
  • Agate Bay
  • Sax-Zim Bog
  • Pine Island State Forest (Toumey-Williams Rd.)
  • McGregor Marsh State Natural Area (SNA)
  • Cook Co.: the water treatment ponds can have surprising things, and there’s lots of nice bog here, far enough north to get some real boreal specialties in roadside habitats
  • Carver Co.: back closer to “in town”, a rural area adequately birded by Twin Cities birders in search of farm fields


  • Wisconsin Point
  • Crex Meadows Wildlife Area
  • Buena Vista Grasslands
  • Lake Maria
  • Horicon National Wildlife Refuge (NWR)
  • Wyalusing State Park
  • Schurch-Thomson Prairie
  • Rose Lake SNA
  • Door Co.
  • Trempeleau Co.: including the NWR, it’s a fun area to explore
  • Sauk Co.: this was a frequent birding destination for us because of all the unique natural areas in the county, including…
    • Spring Green Preserve SNA
  • Dane Co.: this is where I lived for 4.5 years during my Ph.D., so I spent a lot of time on campus. I used to do the Big Green Birding Year (BIGBY) which meant finding as many species as I could on foot/by bike, so I walked and biked much of Madison, WI.
    • Pheasant Branch Conservancy
    • 9 Springs
    • Lerner Conservation Park


  • Chicago: there are lots of small city parks, and lots of birders, so it’s likely something interesting will be found
  • Sugar Grove Nature Center

South Dakota

  • Roughlock Falls
  • Haakon Co.: farm fields for days!


  • campus: there was an AOU meeting here in 2015!
  • Wichita Mountains NWR
  • Great Salt Plains State Park


  • Hampton Creek Cove


  • Western Regional Park
  • Centennial Lake
  • Patapsco Valley State Park
  • Ocean City inlet
  • Assateague State Park
  • Truitt’s Landing


  • Assawoman Wildlife Area


  • Great Dismal Swamp NWR
  • Huckleberry Trail
  • Heritage Community Park & Natural Area
  • Pandapas Pond
  • Cascades
  • the Blue Ridge: broadly…
    • Appalachian Trail
    • Blue Ridge Parkway
    • New River
  • Mountain Lake
  • Claytor Lake State Park

North Carolina

  • Outer Banks: this area likely needs no introduction as a tourist destination
  • Pickens Nose
  • Jackson Park
  • Dupont State Forest

South Carolina

  • Clemson Experimental Forest
  • South Carolina Botanical Garden
  • Lake Conestee
  • Huntington Beach State Park
  • Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center
  • Pitt St. Causeway
  • Bear Island Wildlife Management Area (WMA)
  • Edisto Beach
  • Savannah NWR
  • Anderson Co.: home of Townville, the bird mecca of the upstate.
  • Beaufort Co.: this is where I did my M.S. field work on golf courses, so I went on a number of private properties as well as natural areas in the county.


  • Georgia Botanical Garden


  • Storm Water Treatment Area 5/6
  • Everglades National Park
  • Lee Co.
  • Collier Co.: my parents used to have a beach house there, so I birded a lot of places (mostly wherever I could walk)
    • Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary


  • Alki beach
  • Discovery park
  • Luther Burbank park


We took the clipper from Seattle to Victoria and saw some great birds along the way! Highly recommended!

  • Holland Point Park
  • Gonzales Bay
  • Trafalgar Park
  • Kitty Islet
  • Queen’s Park
  • East Sooke Park
  • George C. Reifel Park
  • Queen Elizabeth Park