Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Rules of Digital Photography

Tuesday, January 30, 2007
These days, when the opportunity presents itself, I am learning about digital photography as it specifically applies to birds.

This is not impossible, yet I am struggling a bit and getting a tad frustrated. I SHOULD read the manual, take a digital photography course, and ask for advice from my fellow photographers. At this point I have only accomplished the last "should." I peppered my fellow birder/photogs with techy questions during the Space Coast Birding Festival.

So here at BOTB I will share with you some of the rules I have learned the hard way these past few days and weeks.

RULE #17
Do not leave your camera on "burst" mode (multiple images captured in rapid succession) on a cooperative bird/animal/subject. Burst mode is normally used for flight shots and to freeze/capture subjects in motion.

If you leave the camera on "burst" while photographing a cooperative bird, you will end up with this, before you can say "Digital SLR":

Monday, January 29, 2007

Pretty in Pink

Monday, January 29, 2007
Apologies for the dearth of posts here at BOTB. I've spent every spare moment taking pictures, mostly unsuccessfully. But even some of my most spectacularly bad images are worth a gander.

I took this spoonbill shot on Night/No Flash yesterday long after the sun had disappeared. This was in a roadside lagoon on Black Point Wildlife Drive in Merritt Island NWR.

Am splitting for home early today. Did you know that it's no longer possible to change a flight (at least on US Airways) without getting charged MORE than the original flight? I wanted to fly home earlier today than my planned evening departure. They wanted to charge me $440. So I pulled out my Silver Preferred Dividend Miles Card and called THAT number thinking it would be better. $550 to make the change. I guess I really AM a preferred customer.

Florida has been a blast and I promise to post more expansively soon. After I get home...


Friday, January 26, 2007

More Space Ghost

Friday, January 26, 2007
It's birdy and busy here in Titusville. I am knackered from an early start this morning and from being chilly most of the day. Feels good, actually, to be inside for a few.

I gave my "Perils and Pitfalls of Birding" talk last night and really enjoyed it. Friendly crowd (most had just attended a wine and nibbles reception), nice room, lots of laughs (in the right places in the talk).

By the way, this festival, the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival is a really great one and getting better. Loads of interesting birds and birding sites. Lots of knowledgeable local naturalist/birders and everyone is very friendly. Oh, and you can eat your own weight in seafood everyday.

Here are some image highlights from yesterday (rainy and gray) and today (sunny and windy). I'm hoping to spend much of tomorrow focusing on photography.

Female anhinga tucked in the rain.

Gannet over the Atlantic from Cape Canaveral National Seashore.

Skimmers facing into the wind and rain.

Active barn owl nest on Zellwood WMA.

My best shot of a life mammal, a river otter at Zellwood, taken through the bus windshield.

Anhinga coming in for a landing. My first ever decent flight shot.

A bird so nice I posted it twice.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Space Ghost

Wednesday, January 24, 2007
I am at the Space Coast Birding and Nature Festival in Titusville, Florida. For some reason it feels right to call this event Space Ghost. Not sure why. Could be I've been watching too many cartoons.

Today I went a-birding with some pals to the Viera Wetlands and saw many birds. Took a few photos, too, despite the dreary gray conditions.

Here are just a few of the images I did not immediately relegate to the e-trash can.

Common moorhens are numerous and noisy.

This eastern meadowlark sang for us and threw in a few very western meadowlarky-sounding phrases.

Mr. Wilson! I found your snipe!

My fave duck, blue-winged teal. Already paired off and thinking about making some little teal.

Drippy the limpkin was eating snails.

And we found a very scarce owl the Stodgian owl. This is the only US record. Its origin is suspect.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Blanket of Winter

Tuesday, January 23, 2007
Snow has been falling heavily off and on throughout the last couple of days,
covering the landscape like a blanket of swan feathers.
Revealing the in perfect detail the earth's most subtle contour,
hillsides slopes visible through battalions of naked tree trunks.
Casting a hush over the forest,
the birds repairing to their own quiet places
to wait this weather out.

Even the skeins of geese are silent,
as if out of respect for the pall of silence cast by the snow.
And we sit by the fire, staring at blue-orange flames
saying very little
for the snow has also quieted our voices
and we are happy to be inside, warm, dry
as if covered by a blanket of swan feathers.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Sunrise @ Mile Marker 34

Monday, January 22, 2007

While driving to central Ohio for a board meeting of the Ohio Ornithological Society on Saturday, this sunrise happened upon me, or rather, we happened upon each other.

So I did what any normal shutterbug/naturalist would do: I pulled off the interstate and stole its soul.

Friday, January 19, 2007

A Star, Then a Sunset

Friday, January 19, 2007
Scott Weidensaul, author, naturalist, all-around nice guy.

Our good friend, Scott Weidensaul, came to town last night to speak to The Marietta Natural History Society. His talk was about his fabulous book Return to Wild America which is the account of his retracing of the Wild America trip made by Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher in 1953. Big shoes to fill, but Scott is the right person for the job.

His program covered the many places he visited and what he found had been preserved, what had been lost, what is endangered, and what might yet be saved. While it's clear that much has been lost in the 50-plus years since the original Wild America journey, not everything is environmental gloom and doom. Scott delighted in telling us about the positive things he found--magical natural places now protected, birds and animals on the rebound and many more abundant today than they were 50 years ago.

It's impossible to do his program justice here. Go buy his book. Better yet, buy ALL of Scott's books, which include The Ghost with Trembling Wings (about extinction), and Living on the Wind (about bird migration and for which Scott was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize!), among others. Scott is a bright, shining star among nature writers.

Scott stayed overnight with me and the kids at Indigo Hill. It was a fine thing to hear his appreciative words about our farm, house, and birding tower. He asked me at one point: "Do you REALLY get 70 cardinals here when it snows in winter?" I was flattered that he had gleaned this tidbit of info from Bill of the Birds (Hi Scott!).

"Yep! And that's just counting the ones we can see all around the edge of the yard." A little later snow flurries started up and the cardinals converged on the feeders. We counted more than 40 out one window.

I interviewed Scott for "This Birding Life" and recorded him reading a selection from Return to Wild America. What a voice! No wonder he's know as "The Velvet Fog of the Schuylkill." These audio files will be posted on the BWD website in the near future.

Later, after Scott left, after the kids got back from school, after the phone started working again, after our Internet connection got straightened out, after I cooked turkey and lima beans for dinner, after I got another load of laundry started, after I got the Zick report from FL, after Baker took his evening wee-wee amble, there was a very unusual sunset.

Not sure what this portends, but there was a long orange-sherbet-colored streak reaching like a rocket trail most of the way across the sky, from west to east.

It was lovely just the same.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

New Birding Blog

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Our buddy Jeff Bouton, top birder, digiscoping wizard, and birding field rep for Leica Sport Optics has a new blog hosted by Bird Watcher's Digest. It's called, simply, The Leica Birding Blog and it already has several meaty posts by Jeff.

I first met JB years ago in Cape May, NJ, where he was the official hawk counter. He hails from the frozen tundra of the Rochester, NY area, where he saw his spark bird, a snowy owl. But he's has spent lots of time living and birding in Alaska, and now resides in balmy Florida.

Jeff attends most of the major birding and nature festivals around North America leading field trips, talking optics with attendees, and teaching the field craft of digiscoping. The blog has a schedule of his upcoming appearances, so you can plan to intercept JB and ask him your burning questions. If you DO see him, tell him what you think of his new blog. And ask him what his favorite song is to sing at karaoke. Dude has got some serious singing pipes.

Jeff Bouton, spotted afield in the north woods of Maine at last year's ABA convention.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Disturbed at Midnight

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

I stumbled out front door the other night, just after midnight, in need of a lungful of fresh, cold air. It was drizzling, tiny droplets falling soft as a caress, but the stars twinkled in a cut of blackness just above the treetops along the northeast border. All else was clouded.

A female robin flitted down onto the sidewalk in front of me, pit-pit-pitting her disgust at the intrusion. I had spooked her from her comfortable place of nocturnal repose in the arbor vitae at the corner of the house. She cocked her head over her shoulder, with a beseeching mien, as if asking me not to come a single step closer.

I spoke softly to the robin, asking why she had chosen a small shrub right next to the house for roosting. I wondered if it reminded her of where she'd been born--perhaps in a bit of suburban landscaping. We shared a quiet moment, then another. She listened to my heartfelt apology for disturbing her.

Flicking her tail she jumped into flight, bound for the Virginia pines along the drive. Back in 1994 when I'd planted them, these pines were foot-high treelings. Little did I know then that they'd grow so fast, or crowd so close to one another. I had no idea that their needle-clad boughs would someday offer shelter to a weary bird whose peaceful nighttime roost I had disturbed unintentionally. My guilt let up a bit.

In the morning she was gone. Perhaps she had joined the swirling flocks of robins moving along the edge of the east woods. Or perhaps she'd left in the wee hours, navigating by the light of the waning moon hanging low in the inky western sky.

Ships Passing

Now that Letters From Eden is out and rocketing off the shelves at bookstores everywhere, The Zickster is finding herself even more in demand as a speaker. This morning, before the sun had a chance to wipe the sleep-drool off his face, JZ was on the road, headed to two events in The Sunshine State, one at Ding Darling NWR (where we both spoke last winter) and one in Naples at The Southwest Florida Birding Festival.

This is how things will look for JZ in sunny FL. Here in rural-most SE Ohio, it's 16 degrees and the grass is crunchy underfoot.

In Florida, the white ibises are chillin' out, poking holes in the warm, wet sand. She'll have fun with her new camera.

Meanwhile this will be me, guarding the homefront.

Next week I go to the Space Coast Birding Festival (which I seem to only be able to refer to as Space Ghost). This will be my turn to take photos of tame water birds with my new, honking camera. When I get back, we'll have an in-house show-off showdown to see who got the best pix.

Until then, we're more like ships passing in dawn's early light.

Monday, January 15, 2007

The Road's My Middle Name

Monday, January 15, 2007
BirdWatch America is a great place to see the year's new products. This one was fairly predictable.

Finally back home from my southern campaign--five days, two trade shows, thousands of people, two hotel rooms, and three airplanes full of sneezing, coughing fellow travelers. Sadly, no trips to Waffle House. But life on the road is just so.... perfectly discomforting. That's why the road is my middle name. William Henry The Road Thompson, III.

It's raining here now, and warm, but the freezing weather is headed this way. Hope it does not complicate Zick's southern campaign which launches in a few days.

Here are just a few images from BirdWatch America, the Atlanta tradeshow for the birding industry that is always a complete schmoozefest for all of us at BWD. We've been doing this show for enough years that it's more like a reunion than a straight biz trip.

Oh, and the forecasters were right. There WAS a bit of skaryoke in ATL, at a club called B-52's, though we heard none of the music of this seminal Georgia band while we were in da club. There was spartan turn-out from the usual birding karaoke krew, too, but we persevered and had fun anyway. Jeff Gordon (see below) sang perhaps his finest version of "Secret Agent Man" ever. I branched out with a new song: "Mama Tried" by Merle Haggard. BirdChick crooned a couple of emotive ballads--there was not a dry eye in the house. We missed having AJ, JB, and JZ there to raise the quality of the performances. It seemed to be "Tone-Deaf Karaoke Night" at B-52's.

It's good to be back home. Happy MLK Day!

At the SHOT Show many booths feature scantily clad women or NASCAR drivers to lure in potential customers. We used Jeff "The Birder" Gordon as "booth candy" in the BWD booth at BirdWatch America.

Chet Baker wants to go as our booth candy next year. He heard Phoebe Stokes was there this year and he felt left out.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Motor City Birdman

Friday, January 12, 2007
The Nuge and BOTB in the Mossy Oak booth at the SHOT Show.

Those of you who are older than 30 might recognize this famous rocker as Ted Nugent (above left), the Motor City Madman (he hails from the Detroit area). Ted Nugent's original fame was as a member of the Amboy Dukes. Later, his solo career featured such classics as "Cat Scratch Fever" and "Wango Tango." Most recently he was in the band Damn Yankees. Here is his Wikipedia bio. And here is his website.

Ted Nugent is a birder. What I mean is, he watches birds while he hunts. And he hunts a lot. One of his favorite phrases is "whack 'em and stack 'em!" One of his best-selling books is "Kill it and Grill it!" He is an outspoken conservationist, an avid outdoorsman (which is why he's one of the many celebs that are featured at the SHOT Show), and a political commentator.

Most years Ted shows up at the SHOT Show in a sponsor's booth to sign autographs. Yesterday as Linda and I were making our final walk through, there was "the Nuge" signing camo hats in the Mossy Oak booth (remember the camo bus?). I knew I had to have one of those hats for my brother Andy who is a fan of Nugent (and a fabulous breakdancer).

When my turn came up, I got the usual patter from the Nuge, who was clearly a veteran of many such receiving lines. Then he saw the embroidered hooded warbler on Linda's BWD shirt and said: "Hey that's a nice little warbler." We explained our affiliation with North America's favorite bird-watching magazine, gave him a copy, and the we listened while he rapped on about all the birds he sees while bow hunting.

Now usually when a non-birding someone is trying to connect with me by talking about birds, they say things like "I remember one time, I looked up and saw a bald iggle!" Or "Hey, I've got a bird question for you. What's the black bird that's got red on the wings?"

Not Ted. He cited birds specifically: white breasted nuthatch, cedar waxwing (which he boasted he could ID in flight), Baltimore oriole, black-capped chickadee. In fact he chatted so long about birds that the people behind us in line started to get impatient--feet were shuffling, throats were being cleared.

What a hoot!

So here's to you Ted Nugent! Shredder of guitar solos, Shooter of arrows, Whacker of the stackable, Killer of the grillable, Sayer of crazy things, Wearer of camo cowboy hats, and best of all, Watcher of birds! Rock on!

Camo Bus Revealed!

Image technicians working here in the Bill of the Birds laboratory have refined my image of the camouflauged bus. They expertly brought out the details so that now humans with normal eyesight can see it.

Amazing stuff, isn't it?

Shot Show

Pentax binox and riflescopes.

Many meetings and conversations at the Shot Show yesterday. And more in store for today.

Each year, this is the best place to check out the new optics coming onto the market. I won't go into great detail about that here. Suffice to say that it's a great time to be a bird watcher--there are more and more optics choices now available than ever before.

More later from either Orlando or Atlanta.

Kowa is debuting their new scopes here at SHOT.

The competition can get a little snippy at times.

Camo is HUGE at the SHOT Show. There's a camouflaged bus in this photo. See if you can find it.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Trade Shows a-Poppin!

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Over the next days I'll be attending two different trade shows in the sunny Southland. At the SHOT Show in Orlando, which is a hunting show, I'll be checking out the new makes and models of binoculars and spotting scopes from all the optics manufacturers. Over the years I've developed quite a few friends at this show, which alternates between Las Vegas, NV, and Orlando, FL, so I no longer feel like an outsider, even though our publications are not about hunting or fishing.

The SHOT Show also features a huge paramilitary/police equipment area. One year I accidentally wandered into that building while looking for a specific booth of a book publisher. Being surrounded by police, Navy SEALS, ninjas, James Bond wannabees, and all their associated heavy armament and gear was a bit unsettling. "This one's just a bird watcher. Release him back to gen pop."

Last year, at the SHOT Show in Vegas, you might recall that I sat next to another Bill Thompson on the plane ride. There were also sightings of Ted Nugent and Wayne Newton.

On Friday we go to Bird Watch America in Atlanta, the birding industry's largest annual trade show. BWD has attended every Bird Watch America since the start, so it's like an annual reunion of colleagues and friends. It's great to reconnect with folks and interesting to see what new products are coming onto the market. Last year it was several new handheld digital devices. Who knows what it will be this year.

The forecast calls for a chance of karaoke. Consider yourself warned.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Girl from the North Country

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Dear young Ms. Black-throated Green Warbler:

I was looking through some of my images from last fall, and I remembered the September day you dropped out of the sky, headed to the tropics from your home in the north country.

Please condsider this your embossed, hand-addressed invitation to return to the Indigo Hill weeping willow tree next spring or fall, on your way through Ohio. You know the tree, it's right off the deck out back. We never spray it, so the insects on it are "organically grown" you might say. I'm not sure what it is about willows, but all the songbirds seem to love them.

Since you last visited this ridgetop farm, I've gotten a new camera and I'd really love to take your picture again, if you don't mind.

There's no need to r.s.v.p. Just show up whenever it feels right.
I'll be outside watching for you.

Until then may you have safe travels, gentle rains, and helpful tailwinds.

Your friend,

Bill of the Birds

Monday, January 8, 2007

Short-eared Owls

Monday, January 8, 2007
Disclaimer: This post will not dazzle you with quality bird photography.

Birding at dusk on Saturday at The Wilds, I enjoyed nice long looks at a number of distant short-eared owls. As much as I willed them closer and squeaked like a meadow vole, I could not get a single one of these birds within reasonable camera range. That's reason enough to go back on a sunny winter evening.

These images are evocative (photo-speak for out of focus, poorly framed, and birds tiny in the frame) and I hope they'll give you a bit of a sense for what it's like to watch these mini-Mothras in action.

Sunday, January 7, 2007

Wet & Wilds

Sunday, January 7, 2007
At the start of the day's trip I was already wishing I'd worn my rain pants.

Saturday's birding trip to The Wilds was nearly a washed-out bust thanks to the sideways rain, chilling-to-the-bone wind, which combined to produce an almost birdless landscape for much of the day.

Dedicated bird watchers began showing up at the rendezvous spot about 8:30 am. We all remarked about how the weather was fine until we got within 10 miles of The Wilds.

"It's a clearing off shower."
"It's supposed to blow through and clear off."
"It'd be better for the birding if this turned to snow."
"Where's the mobile Starbucks cart?"

As the leader of one of the trip's three groups, I felt it necessary to stand outside my van welcoming arriving birders, gathering my group, explaining our plans, and, most importantly, giving out directions to the bathrooms. I stood in the rain for 20 minutes or so and got soaked through to the skin. Bad idea. I could have starred in one of those spoof commercials from Saturday Night Live for "Bad Idea Jeans." I had wet feet and legs for the remainder of the day.

OOS field trips are always well organized with lots of helpful signage. These are trip leaders Jim McCormac, BOTB, and Jason "Stockboy" Larson.

We split into our three groups and my gang, Group 2, headed off to the entrance to The Wilds where a northern shrike had been seen by several arriving birders just an hour before. We gave it a really good attempt but ended up shriking out. Leaving the shrike-free spot our bird list was: American crow, song sparrow, Carolina wren (heard only), red-tailed hawk, northern harrier. Not much for an hour's effort.
Everyone was bundled against the cold and wet. It's always at least 10 degrees colder at The Wilds.

Back to the Jeffrey's Point Birding Station, a nice birding deck (with a roof!) perched strategically atop a ridge overlooking several ponds and much of The Wilds' prime real estate. I have never stopped at the birding station when it hasn't been either raining or snowing. I need to go up there this summer when the drought settles in, just to test this theory. From the deck we added some waterfowl (mallards, ring-necked ducks, trumpeter swans from the captive-bred birds at The Wilds, Canada geese) and a few other expected birds. Then the rain increased its intensity, blowing across the deck (which has no walls to stop either wind or rain), and seeing no Starbucks cart in sight, we repaired to our vehicles to shiver and let our binocs fog up and become useless.
Judy is always well-prepared for birding in nasty weather.

In the remaining time before the blessed arrival of lunch time when we'd get to sit inside a BUILDING WITH HEAT, we birded the lakes on the backside of The Wilds, along 340. This is a lonely stretch of highway, running straight as a string up and down several hills, east to west. The lakes it skirts typically offer the best waterfowl watching because of their seclusion, protection from the direct wind, and, for birders, the fact that you're looking down on the birds. We grabbed a smattering of new birds here, including a female ruddy duck, a female bufflehead and some gadwall. There were also horned larks along the road and a single, singing eastern meadowlark.
Birding along lonesome highway 340 on the backside of The Wilds.

From there we decided to try for another shrike spot atop the strip-mined ridges of Prouty Road. Again no shrike appeared, but we did score our first rough-legged hawk of the day.

Lunch inside The Wilds' nice visitor's center was the warming-up we all desperately needed. Zick (ever wise at providing good trip food) had packed some homemade turkey soup AND a hotplate. People's laughs turned to envy as the soup began to steam and smell good. I took the first spoonful in a giant sip, then poured half the bowl down each leg. I could finally feel my toes once again.

Dr. Nicole Cavender gave us a short presentation on the good conservation work being done at The Wilds. If you've never been, put a visit the The Wilds on your short list. It's a very cool place.

After lunch we headed back out into the rain, newly determined to find our quest birds: short-eared owl, golden eagle, northern shrike, and the mythical prairie falcon that often haunts The Wilds in winter. Our score was yes, yes, no, no. My group revisited our morning sites, picking up a few birds, finding the roads a lot muddier than they had been before lunch.
Roads were nearly impassably muddy and I almost got the BWD van stuck turning around here.

Then the call came over the radios that the golden eagle had been spotted from the Jeffery Point Birding Station. We raced there. No eagle. Then..... EAGLE! An adult golden eagle rose up from the woods on a distant ridge. Though the look was from perhaps a mile away, we were able to get everyone on the bird, with many looks through the scopes. Soon the eagle perched and several of us left to drive nearer to it for a better look. We got some more flying views from Zion Ridge Road, and lots more looks at rough-leggeds and male harriers.

Our pal Shila is an uncanny bird spotter. I think she has birding ESP or senses the birds' auras or something. Sheels was in Zick's car all day and basically spotted every single good bird. It was while we were watching the eagle that Shila said, "Here's a long line of birds and there's some white in them! What would that be?"
Our skein of 'waveys' as the old-timers call snow geese, for their wavering lines in flight.

It was a line of about 50 snow geese, uttering their high-pitched calls, flying toward us from the northeast. This was a surprising sighting. Even more interesting was the fact that the skein included a large percentage of blue-form snow geese. I raced to the van for my camera and clicked off a few frames. The geese seemed to want to settle onto The Wilds but changed their minds and headed off to the west.

At the end of the day the remaining hearty souls converged on the birding station to scan for short-eared owls. What we thought was the reappearance of the golden eagle turned out to be (after a cooperative fly-by) a sub-adult bald eagle! A new bird for the day!

JLar stayed too long and had to run to get to work on time.

It was still raining in small drizzles, but then the sun seemed to FINALLY take control, chasing the rain away. Though it offered us no warmth, it did give good light for owl watching, a nice sunset for photography, and a lovely ending to a fine, if challenging, day afield. We all hugged and handshaked our goodbyes and headed home, friendly taillights disappearing in all directions as night's black curtain snuffed out the day.
A nice sunset put a pleasant coda on the day.