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February 2015
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February 3, 2015 [LINK / comment]

Three swan day in Dayton

After teaching class at Bridgewater College* this afternoon, I drove over to Silver Lake on the north side of Dayton, about four miles away. I was intrigued by a recent report of a Trumpeter Swan and a Tundra Swan being seen there, so I figured it was worth a shot. Boy, was it! As soon as I arrived, I counted four swans on the lake, along with a hundred or more other waterfowl. Not being very familiar with either species (about all we ever see in this area are Mute Swans), I thought that they were just two Tundra Swans and two Mute Swans. After looking at my photos back home and comparing them to my field guides, however, I realized that the bird with the all-black bill and sloped forehead was actually a Trumpeter Swan, which is quite rare. Wow! Size is another clue: Trumpeter Swans are bigger than Mute Swans (see second photo below), which in turn are bigger than Tundra Swans. When Birds of Augusta County was last published in 2008, there had been only one record ever of Trumpeter Swans, a species which is found mostly in western states. Another was reported in 2011. As you can see, lighting conditions were almost ideal for taking photos.

Trumpeter Swan

Trumpeter Swan, showing the stained head feathers that are typical for this species.

Trumpeter, Mute Swans

Trumpeter Swan (left), next to a Mute Swan.

Tundra Swan

Tundra Swan, immature. ("Ugly duckling"?)

Also on Silver Lake today were several dozen Canada Geese and Mallards, a dozen or more Gadwalls (see the Wild birds yearly photo gallery page), several Redheads, a Wigeon, and a possible Canvasback.

I thought the Trumpeter Swan might have been a life bird for me, but after checking my life bird list, it turns out that I saw some in South Dakota in 2008. To my surprise, however, I realized that I had failed to add Tundra Swan to that list after I saw a flock of them on a pond near Bell's Lane last March. So, after making the revision (for a second time), that makes 49 life birds seen last year, bringing my lifetime total up to 457. Maybe I'll finally reach 500 this year!

* More on Bridgewater College soon...

February 12, 2015 [LINK / comment]

Redistricting reform fails

I learned this evening via Bob Gibson on Facebook that the the Virginia House Privileges and Elections Subcommittee voted against two bills (Senate Bill 1000 and Senate Bill 824) that would have addressed the problem of redistricting. I was sad to learn that 25th District Delegate Steve Landes (Republican) was among those who voted no. (See I regret that I have been too busy with teaching lately to let my own elected representatives know what I thought, and it's apparently too late to do anything this year. Angry and frustrated, I downloaded the official map, modified it, and posted what follows on Facebook:

According to Article II, Section 6 of the Constitution of Virginia (,

"... Every electoral district shall be composed of contiguous and compact territory... "

And yet a quick glance at the map reveals numerous crazy, twisted districts such as this one (I have shaded the map for the sake of clarity), where I live. The 20th House District is squeezed so tightly on the west side of Waynesboro that you could just about hit a golf ball from the 24th District (SW) all the way to the 25th District (NE). It's a blatant violation of the state constitution: Gerrymandering 101.

Does all this matter? Do most people care? Perhaps not, but that itself would be a side-effect of this deliberate manipulation of the democratic process, leaving the people confused about which district they live in. It's one more way that our elected representatives insulate themselves from the will of the people. In the 2011 House of Delegates races, 73 of the 100 races were not competitive, i.e., the losing candidate received fewer than 30% of the votes. Some democracy.

What recourse do We the People have? Since the electoral process itself is essentially rigged, and the state constitution does not provide for citizen-initiated referenda that might change things, the only real hope for reform would seem to lie in the court system.

Virginia 20th House of Delegates District 2010

(Map from, modified.)

Is it any wonder that the state government allows such highly unpopular things as the Dominion Atlantic Coast Pipeline (natural gas) to be carried out? (More on that soon...)

February 26, 2015 [LINK / comment]

Life bird: Smith's Longspur!

Thanks to Marshall Faintich and other alert birders in this area, I was able to see -- and photograph -- a Smith's Longspur today, my first life bird of the year. Two birds of those species were identified at the Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport over the past couple days, and my initial skepticism was quickly dispelled as photos taken by Marshall and by Brenda Tekin clearly showed several key field marks such as two white feathers on the outer edges of the tail, rather than just one such tail feather on each side for the more-common Lapland Longspur. Unfortunately, none of my photos (several dozen at least) showed the tail feathers very well.

There were five other birders with me at the airport this afternoon -- from Roanoke, Charlottesville, and Danville. For them to drive so far was a good indication of how significant this finding was. I had to wait at least 15 minutes before the target bird finally made its appearance, but the wait (in the cold) was worth it. No doubt the recent snow storms created this special opportunity, as many ground-foraging birds are forced to move to cleared areas along roads whenever their preferred open-field habitats become snow-covered.

This is the first time a Smith's Longspur has ever been recorded in Augusta County. [UPDATE: Brenda Tekins informs me that it's the first time one has ever been seen in all of Virginia!] Lapland Longspurs have been seen on occasion in winter months, and some were at the airport yesterday but not today. I last saw a Lapland Longspur in South Dakota in January 2014. This makes #458 on my Life bird list. We also saw several Savannah Sparrows and Horned Larks along the road.

Smith's Longspur

Smith's Longspur, at the Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport.

Savannah Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow, at the Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport.

Horned Lark

Horned Lark, at the Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport.

I have posted other photos taken today, and in recent weeks, on my Wild birds yearly photo gallery page. Earlier in the day, after lunch* and before my Latin American Politics class, I made a quick trip over to the North River bridge in Bridgewater. There I saw several interesting birds that had been reported there recently:

It was the first time I had seen a Goldeneye in over a year, I believe. The photo I took was from a distance and in bad lighting, unfortunately. I almost missed seeing the Pintail, which was right next to the shore less than 40 feet away with a group of Mallards, but caught a glance and then took some photos just before I left. It might have been the same one I saw there last month.

Northern Pintail

Northern Pintail closeup, on the North River in Bridgewater.

* I had lunch with Prof. Robyn Puffenberger, who took her Ornithology class to see the Smith's Longspur at the airport in the morning. Quite a coincidence!

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