Our Favorite Stories from 2017

Everybody enjoys a good story, and Bird Watcher’s Digest tells great stories about birds, birders, and bird-watching destinations. In 2017, we published more than 100 articles including bird species profiles, heart-warming and heart-wrenching columns and stories, inspiring travelogues, gear recommendations, and more.

If you enjoy reading about birds and bird watching, Bird Watcher’s Digest is something you’ll eagerly anticipate. Here is a collection of 14 stories nominated as the Best of BWD, 2017 for you to read for free. (We were unable to shorten the list to 10 because too many stories were just too good to omit.)

During the 12 years Scott Weidensaul was a newspaper reporter and nature columnist, he received plenty of interesting phone calls and "gifts," including a big box labeled " Live Hawk: Do Not Open" left on his desk, and a bear skull on his front porch. Photo by Bill Uhrich

During the 12 years Scott Weidensaul was a newspaper reporter and nature columnist, he received plenty of interesting phone calls and “gifts,” including a big box labeled ” Live Hawk: Do Not Open” left on his desk, and a bear skull on his front porch. Photo by Bill Uhrich

Migrations: “Is This the Nature Guy?” by Scott Weidensaul

From the May/June 2017 issue

When I was 19, in one of those unpredictable turns on which one’s entire life thereafter hinges, I got a job writing a weekly natural-history column for our local newspaper, on the edge of the anthracite region in the mountains of eastern Pennsylvania.

It wasn’t by plan: I had been casually complaining to an older friend, a sports writer for a larger regional metro, about the lack of any kind of nature coverage in our county paper. “Don’t gripe,” he said. “Get in the car.” Having once worked for the local outfit, he drove me up that very afternoon and introduced me to the editor. After submitting some sample columns, I found myself a few weeks later, in the fall of 1978, writing a weekly missive that appeared in the Saturday edition.

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Most bird watchers keep lists: life list, yard list, trip list, state list, etc. Funnyman Al Batt also keeps a to-do list, and offers suggestions for birders, including: “Come up with a more descriptive name for your favorite bird.”

“A Birder’s List of 20 Things to Do Today” by Al Batt

From the May/June 2017 issue

I taught a class on daily planning. It was called The Daily Planning Class, because it had to be called something. It was a time-management class, meant to help people accomplish more. Each student received a daily planner at the beginning of the class and a hearty handshake at the end.

The daily planner broke a day into 15-minute increments. A student was supposed to fill in each space with an activity. Certain activities were excluded, for obvious reasons. Sleep filled a third of the daily slots, and filling out the daily planner filled another third. That daily planner taught people to make lists of things to do.

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They might appear doe-eyed and vulnerable, but deer have been caught on camera foraging in bird nests, and even going after songbirds on the ground. Bambi is a predator.

They might appear doe-eyed and vulnerable, but deer have been caught on camera foraging in bird nests, and even going after songbirds on the ground. Bambi is a predator. Photo by John M. / Wikimedia.

“Cue the Jaws Theme: Deer Eat Birds” by Ed Kanze

From the March/April 2017 issue

When my friend Stacy McNulty, a biologist at the Adirondack Ecological Center in Newcomb, New York, told me about a snippet of video that graduate student Shannon Buckley had caught on a trail camera, I was astonished. Buckley, who shared the details with me by email, was studying rusty blackbirds in Maine and New Hampshire. She was looking specifically at the habitats of the birds and the raiding of their nests by predators. Once common in wet, boreal woods in northern New England and the Adirondacks, rusties seem to be experiencing a dramatic decline. Trail cameras—motion-sensitive devices used mostly by high-tech hunters tracking the timing and movements of whitetail deer—were set up at nests with the hope of catching any plunderers in the act.

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Roseate spoonbill photo by Mathias Appel / Wikimedia

It’s a popular destination for general tourists and nature lovers, but the Everglades is paradise for bird watchers. The “River of Grass” is teeming with birds. Take a virtual tour of the Everglades and find out the birding hotspots and species you can expect to find. Roseate spoonbill photo by Mathias Appel / Wikimedia

Far Afield: “The Florida Everglades: It’s All About the Birds” by Bean Friend

From the January/February 2017 issue

As my wife and I approached the entrance to Everglades National Park, our hearts were beating with childish excitement. It was the third year in a row that we had escaped the harsh Buffalo winter to visit the tropical paradise of south Florida. But it’s not just the weather that leads us back to Everglades. For my wife Maris, an ethnobotanist and plant enthusiast, it’s the subtropical flora. For me, it’s all about the birds.

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From novices to experts, all birders muff an ID now and then, and such mistakes can be a useful learning tool. Getting it wrong can sharpen your birding skills. Eastern kingbird photo by B. Thompson, III.

From novices to experts, all birders muff an ID now and then, and such mistakes can be a useful learning tool. Getting it wrong can sharpen your birding skills. Eastern kingbird photo by B. Thompson, III.

Identify Yourself: “Getting It Wrong” by Alvaro Jaramillo

From the September/October 2017 issue

Much has changed in birding since I started as a teenager in Toronto, way back in the early Precambrian period. Many of those changes have been in technology and connectivity among birders. But, also, there are many more birders now, which is great but also creates change. When I was a teen birder, if someone had a good day out during migration, you might hear about it at the monthly club meeting weeks later, or, if you were really plugged in, you would get a phone call and become informed.

If a rare bird showed up, let’s say a Louisiana waterthrush at High Park, the phone network went into high gear, sort of like Batman getting the call on the red phone from Commissioner Gordon, telling him the location of the scene of the crime.

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Perhaps because it's not a flashy bird and spends most of its life at sea, much remains unknown about the marbled murrelet. In fact, its nesting habits weren't discovered until the 1970s!

Perhaps because it’s not a flashy bird and spends most of its life at sea, much remains unknown about the marbled murrelet. In fact, its nesting habits weren’t discovered until the 1970s!

“The Mystery of the Marbled Murrelet” by Betsy Rogers

From the July/August 2017 issue

For decades, mystery swirling around a tiny seabird kept the birding community guessing: Where did the marbled murrelet make its nest and rear its young? It had long been surmised that the marbled murrelet’s nesting habits were unlike those of other pelagic species. It did not form dense colonies on islands or coastal cliffs. It did not dig bur-rows into turf, or lay its eggs precariously balanced on the narrow ledges of sea stacks. Although we knew where it didn’t nest, proof of where the marbled murrelet did lay its eggs remained tantalizingly out of reach. When it came to nesting, the marbled murrelet just seemed to… vanish.

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Every fall and winter, western hummingbird species turn up in the East. Columnist Scott Weidensaul, a licensed hummingbird bander, reflects on this phenomenon.

Every fall and winter, western hummingbird species turn up in the East. Columnist Scott Weidensaul, a licensed hummingbird bander, reflects on this phenomenon.

Migrations: “Winter Hummers” by Scott Weidensaul

From the November/December 2017 issue

It was New Year’s Eve morning and a cold one—barely out of the single digits—and old, crusted snow crunched rock-hard beneath my boots. The wind was keening from the North, and occasional snow squalls blotted the sun, obscuring the low central-Pennsylvania mountains. I tried as best I could to stay in the protected lee of this small, tidy home, while keeping an eye on the backyard feeder where a rare bird had been reported.

I’ve shivered and frozen many times while chasing a bird, toes numb and nose nipped by cold. Lots of us have—but usually not, as was the case on this cold December 31, for a hummingbird.

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Hummingbirds at a backyard feeder. Photo by Whilma D'Souza.

Hummingbirds at a backyard feeder. Photo by Whilma D’Souza.

My Way: “DIY Ant Moat for Nectar Feeders” by Scott Seely

From the November/December 2017 issue

Hummer season is about to peak in New Hampshire. As a longtime subscriber to Bird Watcher’s Digest, I thought fellow readers might like to know how to make an effective and inexpensive ant moat to keep ants off of nectar feeders. One advantage of this moat is that you can always see how much water it contains, because it is made from the translucent plastic cover from a stack of CDs or DVDs. It could also be made from a plastic food storage container.

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The Philadelphia vireo is one of those fringe species barely on the radar of casual birders. Its obscurity and the fact that it mimics its larger and louder red-eyed cousin is advantageous. Photo by M. Williamson.

The Philadelphia vireo is one of those fringe species barely on the radar of casual birders. Its obscurity and the fact that it mimics its larger and louder red-eyed cousin is advantageous. Photo by M. Williamson.

“Philadelphia Vireo: A Profile in Deception” by Scott K. Robinson

From the September/October 2017 issue

A species profile of the Philadelphia vireo is a daunting task for anyone foolish enough to agree to write it. It is easily one of North America’s most poorly known and obscure birds. It is named after a city of no great importance to the species—it is an uncommon migrant in Philadelphia—and even experienced bird watchers have difficulty recognizing the species by its vocalizations. It seems to be one of those fringe species barely on the radar of casual birders, forever doomed to be overshadowed by the larger and much more abundant red-eyed vireo. Yet, I am about to argue that their very obscurity is an adaptation that makes it possible for Philadelphia vireos to survive and even to thrive in the face of this overwhelmingly successful competitor.

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A few counties in Ohio seem to host a disproportionate number of rarities. Contributing author Bruce Stambaugh credits the Amish birders in such places, folks whose work keeps many of them outdoors, and attuned to nature. Photo by Bruce Stambaugh.

A few counties in Ohio seem to host a disproportionate number of rarities. Contributing author Bruce Stambaugh credits the Amish birders in such places, folks whose work keeps many of them outdoors, and attuned to nature. Photo by Bruce Stambaugh.

“Rare Birders Find Rare Birds” by Bruce Stambaugh

From the January/February 2017 issue

It happens nearly everywhere I go birding. When I’m with a group of birders and people find out that I’m from Holmes County, Ohio, the inevitable question arises. The form of the query varies, but the point is always the same: “Why do you have so many rare birds there?”

I usually smile, pause, look them in the eye, and casually reply, “It’s not that we have any more rare birds than other locales. It’s just that we have so many rare birders.”

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Sandhill Cranes. Photo by Duane McDowell

From time immemorial, sandhill cranes have bugled in flight along aerial routes we humans barely understand. The cranes have seen changes to the landscape beneath them through time, their voices a metronome of the ages. Photo by Duane McDowell

“The Silence of the Sandhills” by Maple A. Taylor

From the November/December 2017 issue

Sixty, seventy sandhill cranes. The two “Vs” of the flock compress and stretch, subtly, in a slow, wide turn. Curiously, two birds beeline to the south and appear to break away. But, as the main flock circles in its deliberate workings to find rising air, the outliers, in their own circling, intersect the flock and reabsorb back into it.

It is cold here in this Colorado mountain town at eight thousand feet elevation. Tendrils of smoky morning fog rise and fall over timbered crags. Tatters of clouds hang, drift, in the wake of this last storm, breaking now, but not yet broken. Looming above this cloistered valley are peaks from ten thousand to thirteen thousand feet; there is even a “fourteener” nearby, maybe two miles as the crow flies.

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A walk down a country lane in spring yields all sorts of gifts: singing rose-breasted grosbeaks, a red eft, robin egg shells, a wood thrush carrying nesting material. The key is to get out and tune in.

A walk down a country lane in spring yields all sorts of gifts: singing rose-breasted grosbeaks, a red eft, robin egg shells, a wood thrush carrying nesting material. The key is to get out and tune in. Photo by Julie Zickefoose.

True Nature: “Puzzle Pieces” by Julie Zickefoose

From the May/June 2017 issue

Dean’s Fork, a stretch of dirt and gravel the next valley over from our house, is a touchstone for me. It calls to me, never louder than in June, when birds are breeding, and in October, when leaves are coloring. This rutted dirt road drops steadily for its entire 3.2-mile length. As I walk down the first gravelly hill, what little cell phone reception I had drops out, and I smile as I flip it to Airplane Mode. It’s a camera now, sometimes a birdcall playback machine, and nothing more. I feel untethered and free, reduced to my natural resting state of being out of touch, lost to the world and worldly concerns. And that’s when I find things. I find things, and I find myself, too.

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This lightweight mask slips over a binocular's eye-pieces and blocks out peripheral light. While birding in Portugal, the author used this novel device and found that it sharpened her focus. Photo by Dawn Hewitt.

This lightweight mask slips over a binocular’s eye-pieces and blocks out peripheral light. While birding in Portugal, the author used this novel device and found that it sharpened her focus. Photo by Dawn Hewitt.

The Well-Equipped Birder: “Bino Bandit” by Cheryl Smith

From the September/October 2017 issue

It is always fun to see what goodies we get in our BWD Reader Rendezvous “swag bag,” and the first international Rendezvous in Portugal was no exception. What was unusual was that the swag bags were mailed to us in advance of the trip. Included this time was an interesting item called the BinoBandit. In all the pre-trip excitement, I ended up just packing it and didn’t really think about it again until we were on the bus in Portugal, and one of my tour mates pulled out hers. We decided to see how they worked.

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While no one is quite sure how it happened, a tiny red-tailed hawk turned up in a bald eagle nest in British Columbia. BWD columnist David Bird lives nearby and witnessed this remarkable adoption.

While no one is quite sure how it happened, a tiny red-tailed hawk turned up in a bald eagle nest in British Columbia. BWD columnist David Bird lives nearby and witnessed this remarkable adoption.

Watching Bird Behavior: “Hawks in an Eagle Nest,” by David Bird

From the November/December 2017 issue

It was a beautiful sunny afternoon on July 9, 2017, and there, perched high in a tree, resplendent in its first coat of feathers, was a male red-tailed hawk. Only four or five feet away was the huge stick nest it had recently fledged from, inhabited by its three nestmates. But this was no ordinary red-tail and these were no ordinary nestmates.

Roll the camera back to early June. A strange thing took place at a bald eagle’s nest right in the suburbs of the small charming town of Sidney, British Columbia, only a five-minute drive down the Patricia Bay highway from my house. I had learned about this nest from David Hancock, a former wildlife cinematographer, founder of the Hancock Wildlife Foundation (HWF), and arguably the top expert in the world on bald eagles. Hancock lives and breathes these birds.

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