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Luke Tiller has his eye on raptors

October Birder of the Month
By Amanda Grennell

Hawk expert Luke Tiller.

For Luke Tiller, lifelong outdoor enthusiast, self-taught hawk expert and tour guide, and environmental consultant, watching birds is all about their behavior.

“I like leading tours where it’s not just chasing some rare bird, but there’s some kind of spectacle,” said Luke. “I want to see something amazing that kind of knocks your socks off.”

Like many birders, Luke took a circuitous path to birding. After growing up in London and earning a degree in Philosophy, Luke found his way through various nonprofits to a management and marketing job with Connecticut Audubon. That’s how Luke discovered his love for raptors – which he describes as an “acceptable gateway” to birding.

“They’re big, they’re voracious. If you have a bald eagle flying over your head it seems to have more of an immediate impact on people,” said Luke.

Changeable Hawk-Eagle (Nisaetus cirrhatus). Photo: Luke Tiller.

When he got sick of working in offices, Luke found a way to make a living outdoors by running hawk watches on the East Coast and the Great Lakes, running the “Soaring Bird Surveys” in Israel, and guiding tours on major raptor migration routes. According to Luke there’s no magic or secret to becoming an expert in raptors – it’s comes just from watching them for a long time. After more than 15 years of focusing on raptors, Luke has definitely earned his expertise.

Unlike songbirds, raptors migrate during the day – so you can actually watch migration happening in real time. In the Americas, birds like the Swainson’s Hawk, the Broad-winged Hawk, and the Turkey Vulture migrate from the Northern continent to Central and South America in the fall (August to October), and back again in the spring (March to May). A similar migration pattern happens from Europe and Asia to Africa, for other raptor species.

Swainson’s Hawk (Buteo swainsoni). Photo: Luke Tiller.

Because raptors don’t usually migrate over the ocean, the land’s geography forces them to funnel through chokepoints – leading to a phenomenal number of birds in the sky.

“I’ve been in Panama when we’ve had had one million birds migrate in one day,” said Luke. “The sky gets blackened with birds.”

And what exactly keeps these powerful birds away from the water? The absence of thermals to keep them aloft. Instead of wasting energy on flapping, most raptors spend their time simply gliding from one thermal to the next. Flying distances of up to 7,000 miles, which the Swainson’s Hawk accomplishes every year, they need to be as efficient as possible. But above the massive heat sink that is the ocean, thermals don’t usually form.

Ferruginous Hawk (Buteo regalis). Photo: Luke Tiller.

In fact, Luke points out, seabirds can be quite dangerous for a raptor that ventures too far from shore. To cross between North Africa and Spain, raptors will get as high as they can above land and then coast over the Straight of Gibraltar. But sometimes they don’t make it.

“They are a fish out of water on the ocean. Gulls will force them out of the air and down to the water and drown them and eat them. And gulls don’t have talons like raptors, so they just rip them apart. It’s kind of gross.”

Some raptors, like Peregrine Falcons and Ospreys, are more adapted to life on the water, and consequently are built for lots of flapping, rather than gliding.

Apart from these natural chokepoints, raptors congregate in other places as well. The Amur Falcon, Luke says, migrate from Siberia and Korea to South Africa along the Doyang river. Before making the 3,000 mile journey over the Arabian Sea, they stop at a hydroelectric dam in Nagaland, a northeastern state in India, hundreds of thousands of birds at a time. Luke was lucky enough to guide the first commercial tour to see this gathering.

Adult female (bottom left) and male (top right) Amur Falcons (Falco amurensis). Photo: Richard Lowe.

The tour was motivated by a remarkable story: with fishing stock decimated by the dam, the local people turned to the Amur Falcons as a food source, repurposing fishing nets to catch the birds. During the huge migration event, they were caught by the thousands, and within a couple years the decline in population was noticed at their wintering grounds. But when Bano Haralu, a local journalist and conservationist, uncovered the source of the population decline, multiple organizations stepped in to protect the birds. They explained the problem to the villagers subsisting on the falcons, who then decided to stop hunting the birds and invest in tourism instead.

As a keystone species, the Amur Falcons’ story is not just about the birds, it’s about the ecosystems that depend on them. With the help of the government, forest service, NGOs and local communities, zero Amur Falcons are captured or killed in northeast India now – a resounding success for the environment.

Luke is fond of many environmental success stories with raptors, citing it as another reason to enjoy hawk watching. Bald Eagles, for example, were down to 500 breeding pairs in the 1960s. But after reducing the use of DDT, their numbers have soared past ten thousand pairs. Reduction of pesticides, along with a captive-bred release program also allowed Peregrine Falcons to recover.

“When you are talking about the environment many stories are depressing. I think it is important to share stories of success, especially when the problems are usually manmade,” said Luke.

Though he’s reluctant to pick a favorite – “Favorite birds are whatever you can think of when you get asked that question, and they change often,” – Luke said his current favorite is the Harpy Eagle.

Immature Harpy Eagle Harpia harpyja). Photo: Peter Boesman.

The national bird of Panama, the Harpy Eagle is endemic to South and Central America, living in pristine forest habitat. Because of this, they can be somewhat hard to find. Luke puts a sighting between uncommon and rare. But, if you know the location of a Harpy nest, chances are good, as their chicks stay around for up to a year. Luke had the great fortune to travel to a Harpy nest in Panama a couple years ago.

“We had an hour drive, a two hour boat ride, about an hour and a half hike through the jungle where it was 90 degrees and 100 percent humidity. But it was all worth it when we finally got to the nest. Here was this baby Harpy and the mother sitting together. It was pretty amazing,” said Luke. “That’s why I like hawk watching and migration. You go to interesting places and you see this incredible spectacle.”

Luke Tiller with a tour group in Panama.

If you’d like to learn more about hawk migration in the U.S. check out the Hawk Migration Association of North America. You can also find hawk watch site near you on Hawk Count, which maintains a database of bird counts at over 300 sites across North America.

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August Birder of the Month: Rene Valdes

Birding and Conservation in Mexico with Rene Valdes
By Amanda Grennell

Rene Valdes: field ornithologist, conservation consultant, photographer, and birder extraordinaire. Photo: Antonio Hidalgo

One thousand. That’s how many birds in Mexico Rene Valdes aims to identify before he turns forty. He’s got two more years and only 31 species to go — and after learning that Rene basically lives and breathes birding, we won’t be surprised when he hits his goal.

How did Rene get into birding? In high school he volunteered to develop nature trails in an estuary preserve in Mazatlán. The lead on the project, a birder from the Netherlands, lent Rene his binoculars and challenged him to find “Woody Woodpecker” out on the estuary. That first bird, actually a
Pale-billed Woodpecker, got Rene hooked — soon he was identifying all the birds in his hometown, and a little later began photographing birds. Little did he know that there are about 1,100 bird species native to Mexico.

Pale-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus guatemalensis). Photo: Rene Valdes

In college, Rene chose to study biology, but specialized in ornithology by joining in research projects, sometimes at other universities, to study birds and conservation. At one point he put his formal studies on pause to spend four months in Peru, studying parrots in the Amazon. That experience led him to research parrot conservation in Northeast Mexico for ten years after graduating college.

Maroon-fronted Parrot (Rhynchopsitta terrisi). Photo: Rene Valdes

During this time, Rene focused on the Maroon-fronted Parrot, an endemic species to Mexico that is endangered. While living and studying in Northeast Mexico, Rene started guiding in his free time. He just couldn’t get enough of birds. He started leading tours in Mazatlán and the Pacific Coast, but branched out to new spots he learned about from his personal birding trips — Chiapas, the Yucatan Peninsula, and Monterrey, where Rene now lives. “Chiapas is one of my favorite places,” Rene said.

One of Rene’s many guided tours. Photo: Rene Valdes

In 2011 Rene stopped doing academic research, switching to consulting with private companies. But he’s always watching birds, and studying their behavior for fun. “Last year I was studying a nesting colony of terns and gulls,” Rene said. Now he works with wind farm companies to do bird surveys on the Yucatan Peninsula to better understand how building windmills will affect bird populations. His studies aim to minimize the effects of wind farms on birds.

For the past six years, Rene has also guided tours for the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, which focuses on birds living along the border. It’s a huge affair with almost 100 guides — well worth checking out if you want to add more than 30 new birds to your life list. (This year’s festival is Nov 6-10, so there’s still time to plan a trip!)

Another guided tour with Rene. Photo: Rene Valdes

Disclaimer: Rene also works for BirdsEye, developing content, uploading new content, approving photos on birdseye.photo, and coordinating citizen science projects. He’s worked on creating Birds of Ecuador, Birds of Peru, and Birds of New Guinea — some of our apps that streamline guidebooks into excellent smartphone apps. And he reviews eBird sightings for three states in Mexico.

Like many birders, Rene is also a photographer. I might be biased, but Rene’s photos are stunning. But he’s never had lessons or taken any classes. So how did he hone his skills? “It was just practice.” Rene said. “I made a lot of mistakes. I started with a film camera, so I learned from my mistakes and tried to fix them.” Rene did get help from a friend to jumpstart his editing skills in photoshop, but after that he says he learned by himself, again, through lots of practice.

You can view many of Rene’s best photos on his birdseye.photo page.

Rene’s favorite bird may not be what you expect. In a country filled with vibrant birds in a rainbow of colors, Rene’s pick is a simple black and white: the Tufted Jay. “Very endangered species, but it is beautiful. There are no more than 1,000 birds left in the wild. It is gorgeous,” Rene said. Rene’s favorite tours are to the Mexican states of Sinaloa and Durango, where groups of up to twenty Tufted Jays can be seen.

Tufted Jay (Cyanocorax dickeyi). Photo: Rene Valdes

Rene is also partial to the Horned Guan because of the effort required to find its territory. You have to hike 5-6 hours to the top of a cloud forest in Chiapas to reach one of the only places it is known to live.

Horned Guan (Oreophasis derbianus). Photo: Rene Valdes

It’s hard for Rene to pin down exactly why he loves birding. “It’s addictive actually,” Rene said. “I travel a lot in Mexico to find birds that I have never seen before.” His Mexico list sits at 969 bird species identified, though Rene says he’s only snapped photos of about 600-700 different species from Mexico. “Discovering a new bird that is awesome, colorful, just beautiful birds. That helps people get into birding,” Rene added.

“As I say to my friends, when you have very few birds left, it is very expensive to get them. You have to travel a lot for only one bird sometimes. The first 200 or 300 species are for free.” 

Even still, Rene saw five new birds on a recent trip off-shore of Baja. Yep, he’s going to have no problem getting to 1,000. Go Rene!

Rene loves birds, and they love him. Photo: Rene Valdes


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Best Bird Photos From July

Every day, BirdsEye users submit beautiful bird photos from around the world. The images are verified and incorporated into our apps to help our users better identify species as they birdwatch. The following images are a collection of our staff’s favorite pics submitted to our BirdsEye.photo site in July 2019.

Have a favorite image in our apps that you’d like to see featured? Email us at info@birdsinthehand.com.

Photography Contest: Birds of South America

Announcing the Summer 2019 BirdsEye Photo Contest!

Thanks to users like you, BirdsEye Nature Apps has amassed one of the most complete and high-quality photo collections of birds, odes, and butterflies in the world! Our company is dedicated to acquiring a comprehensive photo library for our nature apps, and we rely on our users for many of these brilliant images.

To celebrate the summer, we are delighted to announce our second BirdsEye Photography Contest. This time, our contest will feature the beautiful birds of South America. The contest is designed to bolster our South American bird collection and highlight accomplished birders and photographers.

So if you’ve been birding in South America, or are planning a trip this summer, consider snapping a few shots to share with the BirdsEye community.

Enter today—for free—for a chance to win the following prizes.

First Prize: $100 Amazon giftcard

Second Prize: $50 Amazon giftcard

Third Prize: One free download of the Birds of Peru app

Additional Prizes: A one-year membership to BirdsEye Worldwide will also be awarded to the first 25 contestants who submit high-quality photos of any species on this list. These photos may be featured on our recently launched Birds of Ecuador app!

Photo Guidelines:

We are looking for photos of birds native to South America depicted accurately in their environment. These photos will feature in our apps and marketing campaigns to help users identify birds when they are in the field. We always give proper credit to the photographer.

Judges are looking for clean, unobstructed photos of birds in a natural environment. Extra consideration will be given to pictures of rarer birds or photos depicting unique bird behaviors.

Contest Rules:

Photos for this contest should be submitted to birdseye.photo/submit anytime between July 23, 2019 and September 30, 2019.

If you don’t already have a BirdsEye photo account, create one at birdseye.photo/create_account/.

All photo contest submissions must include the hashtag #photocontest2019 in the caption section of the submission page. This hashtag is the only way we will identify contest submissions.

Following #photocontest2019 in the caption, please include a short description of the bird. To verify photos were taken in South America, all submissions require location information.

Photos should be submitted as .JPGs and should be under 5 MB in size. We prefer to receive photos that are 576 x 720 pixels or larger.

Potential winners may be asked to provide higher resolution photos, and/or .RAW files to help in judging.

All submitters must agree to the BirdsEye Terms of Service.

Eligible Regions:

SOUTH AMERICA
Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Galápagos Islands, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay, Venezuela



If you don’t have an BirdsEye photo account, create one now!


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Who Shot it Best?

We are happy to announce the winners of our most recent Who Shot it Best photo contest.

Congratulations to Tasha DiMarzio whose photograph of a Red Knot garnered the most votes from over 1,300 entries!

And congratulations to Wendell Gilgert, the new owner of a free pair of Zeiss binoculars! Wendell was selected at random from over 1,300 entrants who voted in the photo contest, winning a pair of TERRA ED 8×32 Zeiss binoculars.

Wendell Gilgert enjoys his new Zeiss binoculars, compliments of the BirdsEye Red Knot photo contest.

Check out our current photo contest, featuring the birds of South America, ongoing until September 31, 2019!

BirdsEye would like to thank Zeiss for sponsoring our contest.

Zeiss Sports Optics
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Who Shot it Best?

We are happy to announce the winners of our Who Shot it Best photo contest. Congratulations to Kristy Leigh Baker whose photograph of an American Goldfinch garnered the most votes from over 3,000 entries!

Congratulations are also in store for Pia Niewoonder, the new owner of a free pair of Zeiss binoculars! Pia was selected at random from over 2,400 entrants, winning a pair of TERRA ED 8×32 Zeiss binoculars. Upon winning, Pia remarked, “Wow—these are so awesome!! Thank you, I’m really enjoying them!”

Stay tuned for more photo contests like this—you too could win a free pair of binoculars or other cool swag.

BirdsEye would like to thank Zeiss for sponsoring our contest.

Zeiss Sports Optics
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Best Bird Photos From March

Every day, BirdsEye users submit beautiful bird photos from around the world. The images are verified and incorporated into our apps to help our users better identify species as they birdwatch. The following images are a collection of our staff’s favorite pics submitted to our BirdsEye.photo site in 2019.

Have a favorite image in our apps that you’d like to see featured? Email us at info@birdsinthehand.com.

Snapping My Dream Shot

By Shiva Kumar

My passion for photography grew to extreme levels when I moved to the forest. I knew right away that I wanted to live my life as a full-time nature photographer. Nature photography is an art, but it is also about education: An image graphically captures a decisive moment in time and helps explain the world in which we live. I want to tell a story with my pictures to help preserve the wonders of the natural world—I feel blessed by nature when I get my dream shots.

I captured one of my dream shots recently when I found an Indian peafowl (Pavo cristatus), the Indian National Bird, at Osman Sagar, a lake in the Indian city of Hyderabad. I was working during the golden hours—early morning around sunrise—and was wondering if I could capture a picture of the dawn. Then I saw the peafowl. I was mesmerized and captured this shot. The photograph tells a story of how a bird interacts with its natural surroundings. And shortly after that, nearly 150 of the birds settled at this sacred place!

Shiva Kumar explains how he photographs birds and wildlife in India. He discusses how he captured his dream shot of an Indian peafowl (Pavo cristatus)

An Indian peafowl (Pavo cristatus) at Osman Sagar, a lake in Hyderabad, India, at sunrise.
(All photographs courtesy of Shiva Kumar)

Tips on Wildlife Photography

Knowing the habitat helps us understand the birds we see in them. Try and visit as many different habitats as you can. Forests, farmland, scrub, lakes, reed-beds, rivers, coasts—all have their own characteristic birds. The edges of fields, streams, and rivers are all excellent spots to see birds. The best time to see birds is sunrise to early morning, and then again in the mid and late afternoons; birds tend to rest during the day.

At places like lakes, we can observe birds throughout the day. While it is possible to watch birds at any time and any place, it is helpful to know when and where to look. When I shot the peafowl, most of the bird activity occurred in the opening and the edge of the forest near human habitation. Most of the species in the area were either insectivores or omnivores feeding mainly on the ground in open patches. The birds preferred the forest edge, which provided them with mixed habitats, open spaces to feed in, and suitable perching points to capture the aerial prey.  

When we think of bird photography, we think of tight-cropped, detailed pictures of birds. However, using silhouettes in wildlife photography can provide beautiful and artistic photos. Bird photos created using silhouette photography techniques can produce stunning images, especially at sunrise or sunset.

Shiva Kumar

Shiva Kumar is a professional wildlife photographer & Wikipedian from India. He uses innovation and technology to achieve fresh perspectives in his work and is passionate about wildlife conservation. You can follow Shiva on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

August updates to photo site

In mid-August we released an update to the birdseye.photo website where we curate the images that appear in the various BirdsEye apps. These updates were targeted towards making it easier to see what is available in the apps, and supporting photo submissions for Dragonflies, Butterflies, and Bumble bees. As you can see in the gallery below, each category of species now has its own homepage if you are interested in just seeing submissions and photos from that category. When you submit your photos for dragonflies, you’ll now get a list of variants that make sense for that category, such as adult male, female (male-like), teneral, and more.

A mobile icon is now superimposed in the bottom left corner of any photos that appear in the apps. You can curate the best photos to feature in the apps by clicking on “Suggest Changes” under a photo and suggesting that a photo be included or excluded from mobile apps. Our goal is to include several high quality images for each class of a species (adult male, male in non-breeding plumage, female, teneral, immature, etc.) in the app, and you can help us get there!

 

Another improvement is that your photographer page now lists how many of your photos appear in the app, as well as how many photos you have in each of the categories (birds, dragonflies, butterflies and bumble bees). Another great way to track what you have been photographing!

View which photos of yours appear in the apps, and how many photos of each category you've submitted.

View which photos of yours appear in the apps, and how many photos of each category you’ve submitted.