Earlier this month, I spent two weeks in the Netherlands for an astronomy conference and some family matters. May is an excellent month for bird watching because of spring migration, where birds of many species leave their wintering grounds in Africa or southern Europe and head towards their breeding territories in northern Europe. This was my first trip back home during spring migration since I took up birding as a hobby, so I was very excited about the possibilities of finding a lot of new birds.
The full list of 82 species included two birds that are considered rare in the Netherlands: black-winged stilt (steltkluut) and glossy ibis (zwarte ibis). Both normally live around the Mediterranean, but a few stray to more northern latitudes each year. My brother and I found two individuals of each species on a rainy and windy afternoon at the new Ruygeborg Nature Area in the town of Nieuwkoop.
One of the good things about business trips is that I can usually find some time to go bird watching in a part of the world that I don’t normally visit. This can be as simple as carrying my binoculars on my way from the hotel to the meeting location, perhaps leaving the hotel a little early, to see what flies across my path.
When I was in Dallas, Texas last week for the 2014 Spring Meeting of the American Chemical Society, I did just that. The walk from my hotel to the convention center led through the only substantial green area in downtown Dallas: Pioneer Park Cemetery. Over the course of five days, I got a total of eighteen different birds. Hardly spectacular, but not too shabby for a fairly small park in an urban area. The highlight was my first ever Bewick’s wren. Other nice finds were five species seen for the first time this year: great-tailed grackle, white-winged dove, eastern phoebe, ruby-crowned kinglet, and field sparrow.
The American Chemical Society organizes two meetings each year, bringing together chemists from all across the world to discuss the latest and greatest results in a broad range of fields. To impose some order on the throng of about 15,000 participants (!), the meetings are split into divisions and subdivisions. The Division of Physical Chemistry recently added a subdivision on astrochemistry, leading to our very own symposium inside the 2014 Spring Meeting of the ACS in Dallas, Texas.
We kicked off, rather ridiculously, at 8:30am on Sunday morning. My own talk on episodic accretion was Sunday at 11:20am, by which point everyone was at least awake, though perhaps not yet entirely at peace with losing a precious weekend day. The astrochemistry schedule continued for the rest of the day, all of Monday and Wednesday, and Thursday morning, plus a poster session Wednesday evening. Tuesday was reserved for a set of plenary awards talks for the entire Division of Physical Chemistry.
The winter in much of the United States has been unusually harsh this year. Here in Ann Arbor, we had a record amount of snow in January and temperatures dipped below -25 °C or -10 °F on a few nights. Since the start of the year, we’ve had only six days where the temperature got above freezing. The high point so far was a mere 6 °C or 42 °F on January 13.
In the midst of all that, a weekend getaway to Sanibel Island in Florida sounded awfully pleasant, and that’s exactly what it was. For the first four days of February we enjoyed plenty of sunshine and temperatures of around 25 °C or 80 °F. This was our second time on Sanibel; the first time was back in April of 2012. We stayed at a Castaways cottage on both trips, near the northern tip of the island and within walking distance of both the ocean beach and a secluded bay.
Working in astronomy comes with a fair bit of travel. Now that birding has turned into a full-fledged madness hobby for me, whenever I’m on the road, I’d like to take the opportunity to explore the local avifauna. It’s a good way to unwind after a few days of conference or a few nights of observing. Birding away from home also offers excellent opportunities to see new species.
This week I was in Austin, Texas as an invited speaker at BashFest 2013. With a return flight at 5pm the day after the symposium, I had plenty of time to go out to see what I could find. I took an early taxi from my hotel to the airport, picked up a rental car, and found myself at the Hornsby Bend Biosolids Management Plant just as the sun was rising. Located in a loop of the Colorado River, Hornsby Bend is where sewage and compostable trash from Austin are recycled into dirt. The facility’s 1200 acres of mixed habitat (ponds, woods, mudflats, fields, …) are so attractive for birds that Hornsby Bend offers the largest numbers and widest variety of any location in or near Austin. On top of that, it’s right next to the airport.