Thursday, May 31, 2007

Searching for Words, Birds

Thursday, May 31, 2007
Photo by mi esposa J. Zick.

Sorry, BOTB readers, that I have not had a lot to say of late.
I've been busy running all over and have been searching for both birds and words.

I'm off again soon to my next speaking gig. This one's at the Allegany Nature Pilgrimage near Salamanca, NY. I'll be giving my "Perils and Pitfalls of Birding" talk on Saturday evening in the big tent in Allegany State Park.

And I'll probably play a little music because no one can stop me.

No web access there either, so you'll have to bear with me until next week. In the meantime, I'll keep searching for both birds and words.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Burning of the Tree

Tuesday, May 29, 2007
There's something so cleansing about a really hot, huge fire.

Since moving to our farm in SE Ohio in 1992, we've always put our Christmas tree to triple duty. First we decorate it and enjoy it from mid-December until early January. Then we haul it out and build a brush pile around it for our feeder birds to shelter in during the harsh weather of late winter. Finally, on Memorial Day, we burn the tree and dance around it, howling.

Last night was our night for the annual Burning of the Tree. The brown remains of our Fraser fir went up like crackling gunpowder. Our howling put the local coyotes to shame. And our dancing, well, let's just say it looked like we'd been electrocuted, then attacked by biting ants.

I am the FIRE KING burning off both winter and spring. Cold and snow are now long gone. Let summer rule from here on!

Thanks to Steve, Shila, David, Mary Jane, Zane, Margaret, and (especially) Oona for making the scene. A great way to usher in summer.

An extra dollop of gratitude to Shila for these images.
Basking in the fire's glow. Stars in the sky above, whip-poor-wills in the meadow below.

I am but a simple caveman. Your modern ways confuse and confound me.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Here Today Oriole

Sunday, May 27, 2007

On a recent morning, the whistling rattle-scratch song of a male orchard oriole cascaded down from the black willow tree on top of our hill. We've had orchard orioles nest on the farm here once or twice before, and we're keeping our fingers crossed for more luck this year.

He sang and sang, calling out to a female who was not there—at least not yet.

The next morning there was no oriole song. I listened throughout the day, hoping he was still around. Maybe he was just quiet, having found his gal. Or maybe he'd moved on to another place, on another hill, with another tall, leafy tree.

Before he left, the male oriole flew to the dead ash tree, singing still. But with the sun in my eyes, he looked like a mere shadow of his former self.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Voting for the Prothonotary

Friday, May 25, 2007
Male prothonotary warbler photographed at Fort DeSoto State Park, FL.

In Pennsylvania you can see, hear, and VOTE for a prothonotary. Now we birdheads know this word as it relates to a certain large, bright yellow warbler with a loud song and a predilection for wooded swamps. Our word is pronounced pro-THON-oh-tair-ee.

In Pennsylvania and on Prince Edward Island in Canada the prothonotary (pro-tho-NOTE-ar-ee) is an elected official of the court system.

Or, as Wikipedia (the source of the most accurate info that you can get in 2 seconds) defines it:
The prothonotary is the chief court clerk in certain courts of law in certain Anglo-American jurisdictions, including Pennsylvania and Prince Edward Island.

A few weeks ago, Julie was in western PA at a new bird festival in Oil City. An article about her appeared in the local paper and she brought a copy home for us to see. It was a nice article, but I was even more interested in the political ad I saw on page 2. Hey! Ms. Vlasnik has my vote. But we're going to have to follow a dress code....

In some instances from history, including from the Roman Catholic Church, we know that the prothonotary wore a golden robe. This is how our golden warbler got its name. Same as the cardinal, named for the crimson robe worn by the church's cardinal.

This, as my mom would say, is your obscure fact for the day!

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Nightjar in the Road

Wednesday, May 23, 2007
Last night, while driving home from my softball practice (where the orchard orioles were courting and the common nighthawks were peenting), I caught a flash of eyeshine in the middle of our gravel township road. It was a whip-poor-will sitting there, his eyes catching the light from my headlights.

He (I assume females are on eggs now) was probably soaking up the remaining heat of the day from the road's surface. Or he might have just been using the road as a song stage, calling out his name over and over in that lilting whistle. Or he could have been taking a dust bath.

As I pulled closer and confirmed the identification, I realized I had my camera with me. I stopped the car, reached for the camera, looked up and.... he was gone.

I have no photo of a North American nightjar to share, but I can re-share this image of a fiery-necked nightjar, photographed on the gravel road to Bonamanzi Game Park in Zululand in South Africa. It's from last summer, but it looks pretty much like the bird I saw last night here on a dusty road in southeastern Ohio.

Funny how similar birds do similar things on opposite sides of the world.

Fiery-necked nightjar along the road to Bonamanzi in Zululand, RSA.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007


Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Black outline joining blue to white
like stitches tossed skyward
by persnickety thermals.
Teeters, then rocks, rising
the only sound a whisper
of air across sable primaries
carving poetic invisible paths
all the while seeking out
the reek of death
in valley, meadow,
roadside ditch.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Signs of Today

Monday, May 21, 2007

In today's competitive business environment, companies are focusing their marketing efforts on very specific niches.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Three Days at Mohican

Sunday, May 20, 2007
We had 26 folks on the Gorge Overlook field trip on Saturday. Best bird: A very cooperative Canada warbler.

Friday through Sunday afternoon the hills and hollers of Mohican State Park and the halls of the Mohican Resort resounded with the shouts, gasps, and laughter of 200+ bird watchers attending the Ohio Ornithological Society's annual conference.

This is how you get warbler neck.

We saw nearly 160 species in this fascinating hunk of special habitat (three glaciers met here a few thousand of years ago and made the landforms and subsequent plant and animal life a very north-meets-south feel.)
This river of sycamores (full of yellow-throated warblers) exactly follows the contour of the river itself.

I'm home now and weary. But we had us a good old time. Steve McKee lectured about Mohican's birds and plants on Friday. Donald Kroodsma lectured about bird songs and sounds on Saturday. Our brains grew. The coffers of OOS's Conservation Fund also grew by $1,800 thanks to the generous bidding on the silent auction items (and only a little coercion from me while at the podium).

A pair of wood ducks that sat tamely while we took photos from the van.

Since I was leading field trips on Sat. and Sun. I did not carry the big Canon camera. It's too heavy and besides, it's hard to lead a field trip AND take photos. So I've got lots of grab shots and a single keeper digiscoped image.

My only decent digiscoped image: a rough-winged swallow photographed from the covered bridge .

While waiting for the veery we lost ourselves in the skunk cabbage.

Group shot of Sunday's field trip. The gorge is in the background.

My favorite bird of the weekend? The veery we got last of all this afternoon just near a huge patch of skunk cabbage. He sang and preened and veered. And sat still for me to get him in the spotting scope for my group.

And the sun sets over Mohican's main lake on another great OOS convention.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Flying North with the Birds

Thursday, May 17, 2007
A singing male indigo bunting, photographed at Shawnee State Forest during the 2006 OOS annual conference.

I'll be leaving this weekend for the annual conference of The Ohio Ornithological Society at Mohican State Park near Loudonville, OH. We expect about 200 avian enthusiasts for the event--the OOS's third annual conference. Saturday night's keynote speaker is Donald Kroodsma, famed ornithologist and bird sound recorder/interpreter.

I'll be hoping to catch up with migration, too, in heading north. The blackpoll warblers are passing through here right now, which means that the major flow of spring birds is ebbing. Blackpolls have always seemed to me to be a signal that migration is slowing down. Yesterday the spruce tree outside my office window held several Cape May warblers. Today it's all blackpolls.

Wherever you are this weekend, get outside--away from the "real world" and spend some time in nature! Books and magazines and blogs and websites are great, but there's no substitution for immersing yourself in the real natural world.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Big Day 2007

Wednesday, May 16, 2007
Steve and Shila birding near a quarry where the bank swallows nest.

Apologies for the delay in posting Part 2 of this nailbiter. Major editorial deadlines today at BWD plus a semi-trailer of booklets to unload...but those are just excuses.

Where was I? Oh right!

I drove into town on Saturday just before noon, dropping off the Wild Chiquitas at ballfields, houses, relatives' houses, until, it was just me and my two offspring. Phoebe was so tired from NO SLEEP the night before that she asked to stay at my parents' house in town for more comfortable napping. Liam, loyal soul that he is, would not abandon his Hotdog Brother on such a momentous occasion, so he came along. We picked up Steve, Royal Meteorologist for The Whipple Bird Club, at his humble abode on Harmar Hill. While there we got brown thrasher, northern mockingbird, and house finch. We took off after the bobolink field we'd discovered some years before, secretly hoping it was not already divided into house lots.

It took about half an hour, but we finally heard the bobolinks not too far from where we'd found them in 2003. This is a vanishingly rare bird in southeastern Ohio. It loves wide open grasslands, something that's in short supply here in the heart of Wayne National Forest. Then we chanced upon a farm pond that had, of all things, more mallards, an orchard oriole, and both least and semipalmated sandpipers, plus a spotted sandpiper and killdeer. Shorebirds, like grassland birds, are a huge Big Day bonus in this part of the planet.

From the "bob-o" field we dropped down to the Ohio River to scan for water birds. Mallard, then bank swallow (which can be tough)! As we were passing Shila's house, we were surprised to see her car in the drive. We thought she was away this weekend. I trotted into the backyard, found Shila, got an emphatic YES! from her about joining us, and we arranged to meet her in the cemetery in 30 minutes. The cemetery where earlier in the day my brother Andy had seen summer tanager!

From there we scored some greasy fast food (part of a balanced Big Day diet) and two Happy Meals and headed up the hill to the cemetery. This place has some of the oldest standing trees in town. It's a great spring migrant trap--much like Central Park in NYC--the biggest, oldest patch of green habitat for miles around. Alas we were too late in the day for much fall out. Still we scored house wren, chimney swift, rock pigeon, and that summer tanager before leaving.

Shila at the Kroger Wetland, nailing down the surprise shorebird.

Wth Shila on our team, we knew we'd miss fewer birds. She's got birding ESP and can spot the tiniest dot in the sky or the most well-hidden perching bird, even from a moving car. We headed to my parents' house to check on Phoebe. While there, we paused to help my dad finish building a raised garden bed. It only took us 45 minutes. No new birds added during this bit of altruistic carpentering.

Then it was down to the county fairgrounds to get Steve to his son's baseball game. Matthew was pitching so Steve stayed while we walked around scanning for birds. Not much new here. Lots of warbling vireos. Lots of orioles of both species. Nothing to add to the list. We were getting antsy, so Shila, Liam and I went upriver to Devol's Dam. This is where this Big Day became special. We ran into a streak of completely unexpected birds.

Sheels spotted the first tern just as I found a semipalmated plover on the sandbar. Then we found a female red-breasted merganser, and a purple martin. The six terns, it turns out, after much deliberation were comprising two--not one--species. Forster's tern and common tern. Both unusual migrants through this area in spring and late summer. What a bummer Steve could not see them (he'd later get a good look at common terns at the confluence of the Ohio and Muskingum).
Forster's (left) and common tern (right) near Devol's dam. A lucky photo I did not know I got.

It was hard to leave the dam, but the light was beginning to slant in late afternoon and we had miles to go. We were sitting at about 88 species with several good potential stops yet to hit. Picking up Steve (and sharing the good news/bad news with him) we booked to the confluence. Steve got his tern. We added cliff swallow, eastern kingbird, rough-winged swallow, and ring-billed gull.

From there we went to the Kroger Wetland, a new piece of city property not far from BWD. I often take my lunch to the Kroger Wetland. There are nesting tree swallows and plenty of creatures to watch, including beaver. We had a few target birds and we got them and several more, too! Out incredible luck was holding. At the KW we found a dunlin (really unusual), more peeps, green heron, belted kingfisher, wood duck, great blue heron, and willow flycatcher. We were within kissing distance of 100. And we still had the embayments upriver to visit.
Three shorebirds in one. Dunlin, semipal plover, and least sandpiper at the Kroger Wetland.

We drove up Route 7 full of enthusiasm, our total at 98. We knew we could reliably get a common nighthawk in Marietta after dark, but what other birds would we be able to get? While waiting for Steve to buy some bottled water at a quicky mart nicknamed the La Brea Tar Pit of Reno, I tallied the list again and added 7 species we'd forgotten to mark. There went the century mark while sitting in a gas station parking lot. Still, the record of 108 seemed pretty distant.

In amazing succession we got solitary sandpiper and double-crested cormorant near Newell's Run. Then up the run we got Louisiana waterthrush and yellow-throated warbler. We'd broken the record! That was species 109! Time for some high fives.

Liam, poor boy, missed the celebration--he was asleep in the back of the van.
Liam catching 40 winks.

Back to town we went, to meet Julie at our favorite Mexican restaurant. Leaving after eating far too much, we got #110 when a common nighthawk peented overhead.

What a day! A new Washington County Big Day record (at least for us) of 110. And we could have gotten another dozen easily had we really planned and started earlier. Missing from the list were these common (or at least gettable) birds: red-shouldered hawk, broad-winged hawk, ruffed grouse, wild turkey, sharp-shinned hawk, chestnut-sided warbler, coot, pied-billed grebe, yellow-bellied sapsucker, barred owl, eastern screech-owl, great horned owl, cerulean warbler.

But what's the fun of bird watching if you see every bird every time?

It was a fabiola time with my Whipple Bird Club crew. We missed Zick, but she was there in spirit and got updates throughout the day as she drove home from a PA birding festival.

I'm already planning our route for 2008.

Flashing the gangland W hand sign for the Whipple Bird Club. If you see this sign, run for your life. Photo by Liam.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

No Place Like Home for a Big Day

Tuesday, May 15, 2007
Last Saturday was International Migratory Bird Day. Here in the eastern half of the continent, the second weekend in May is typically the peak of spring bird migration. It's when birdathons are scheduled, bird club outings to the best migrant traps are run, and the World Series of Birding is held in New Jersey.

The Couchless Kingbirds, BWD's World Series of Birding team in 2004 conducting our Big Sit at Cape May Point State Park.

For lots of years, you'd find me at the WSB or at some other scheduled event in some birdy spot. Then a few years ago I realized that I'd been completely missing bird migration at my farm each spring because I was always traveling somewhere else. The saying "There's no place like home" began to run through my mind. I've got 13 species of warbler breeding on land that I own--so why was it I was going somewhere else to enjoy watching birds?

Instead of accepting any more invites for this spring, I planned to conduct my own simple Big Day here in Washington County. As a young birder, way back in the late 70's, I could not wait for our "Century Day" as Pat Murphy, our birding mentor called them. We'd try our best to see 100 species in a single day--no small feat for southeastern Ohio. I don't remember our totals form those birding days of yore, but I do remember being thrilled at the volume of colorful migrants we'd see and hear. Pat was an amazing birder and she taught my family a lot about birds.

Julie and I, and our pal Steve, have done a few Big Days over the years, and our best ever total was 108 in 2004. We normally start out at our farm then roll around the county trying to see the max number of birds. Typically we run out of time and daylight before we get to 100.

This year the prospects for breaking the century mark looked grim. Julie was out of town at a festival in Western Pennsylvania. Steve was busy with work and his son's sports activities. I was hosting a sleepover for four of Phoebe's friends, so I knew that it would be a late night and probably not an early morning.
The Wild Chiquitas.

The Big Day started at midnight as I was cleaning up after the Wild Chiquitas' s'mores-eating contest by the fire circle. I heard, in quick succession: an American woodcock, a black-billed cuckoo, and a flyover eeek! from a Swainson's thrush. An Acadian flycatcher did his night song, then an ovenbird. Hmmm. Not a bad start. I went to bed hoping I'd wake up early.
Field sparrows are a common breeding bird on our farm.

I jumped out of bed at 7:56 a.m. bummed at the birds I was missing. The girls were up having slept exactly 2.5 winks. They wanted pancakes and bacon. Start the bacon. Make coffee. Step outside. Take a quick load of gear to the car. Clean up the yard. Do the dishes. Step outside for a few more birds. Redtail overhead. Kentucky warbler! Worm-eating! LEAST FLYCATCHER--a new arrival.

Just passin' through: a least flycatcher "che-becked" from the orchard.

Blackburnian! Baltimore oriole! Warbling vireo! Make the pancakes. Call the girls. Common yellowthroat. Blue-winged and yellow warbler. Call the girls again. Field sparrow. Put the food in the oven to keep warm. Let Chet out. Take a 3-second shower. Barn swallow, tree swallow, Carolina wren! Feed the girls. Pack them into the van. Get all my other gear. Make a few calls. Hit the road.

By the time I left Indigo Hill I had 71 species. But it was 11:30 am. The heat of the day was upon us. Would it slow down? Would the birds take their siesta? Would Steve be able to make his son's baseball game by 3 pm? Would Shila, the fourth member of The Whipple Bird Club, be able to join us for this adventure? Would Liam, who was accompanying us, be able to handle 9 hours of birding? Would we break the county Big Day record?

Tune in tomorrow for the continuation of this story...

Monday, May 14, 2007

Weekend of Birds

Monday, May 14, 2007
Had a really busy weekend of birds, kids events, more birds, Mother's Day, and then some birds. It was a whirlwind and I must report on the highlights, but it's 2 pm and I'm about to go into a series of meetings and conference calls, so that bit of bloggery will have to wait.

In the meantime, here's an image I shot yesterday of one of our breeding warblers. This male Kentucky warbler has a territory that borders our driveway woods. He's a consistent singer, so it was not hard to find him when I wanted to take his picture. It was super cool to see him. There are some years when I only get to hear our KY warblers.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Hog Island Audubon Camp

Thursday, May 10, 2007
Hog Island shoreline in summer. Photo courtesy Hog Island Audubon Camp.

Where will you be in June? If you've got June 19–22 free, why not consider spending it watching birds on an island off the Maine coast, accessible only by boat? We'll be helping to teach a week-long session for adult birders with the theme "The Joy of Bird Watching" at the Hog Island Audubon Camp.

Our buddy Scott Weidensaul has been a regular instructor at Hog Island for several years and he raves about the place and the experience. So when we were asked to help out as instructors for a session this summer, we did not waste a lot of time pondering.

Photo courtesy Hog Island Audubon Camp.

Hog Island has been hosting summer nature camps under the auspices of Maine Audubon and The National Audubon Society since 1936! Besides the glorious setting of the Maine coast in Muscongus Bay, there's lots of natural-history history on Hog Island. Roger Tory Peterson was an instructor there. Rachel Carson mentioned it in Silent Spring. Olin Sewall Pettingill and Allan Cruickshank were on staff, too. These days the likes of Stephen Kress, Kenn Kaufman, Mark Garland and many other experts on subjects as diverse as wildflowers, nature writing, and yoga teach courses on Hog Island for campers young and old. An overview of the camp is available here.

We're looking forward to getting back to Maine and to making new friends--feathered and otherwise. Hope to see you there.

Atlantic puffin adult returning to nest burrow with food. Photo courtesy Hog Island Audubon Camp.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Signs, Signs

Tuesday, May 8, 2007
Sign near the Cranberry Bog boardwalk in Greenbrier County, WV.

Resident, uncommon, rare, migrant, and vagrant thieves must use OTHER areas of the park.

Sign along Sugar Creek Mountain Road in Fayette County, WV

Hey, at least they're not using the shotgun to hunt.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Bay-breasted Wisp of Smoke

Monday, May 7, 2007
I endeavored to take pictures of a male bay-breasted warbler on Sunday morning, after the end of the New River Birding Festival. Geoff Heeter, owner of Opossum Creek Retreat where much of the festival is held, and his wife Kyle, had us over to their farmhouse for breakfast and a smidge of birding.

After breaky, we headed over the hill down to the creek, where, in the thickest stands of rhododendron, several Swainson's warblers nest each spring. We caught glimpses of this spooky warbler, but never really set eyes on him. Good thing Zick had gotten great looks the day before (and I, last year) or we might have been bumming...

Back to the bay-breasted. He never sat still, except when he was perfectly backlit or behind a thick bough. Here are the only images not already committed to the digital trashcan.

Cursed branch! Stop vexing me!

Such a lovely bird and still, so shy.

Laws of the Universe dictate that 89% of all warbler images look like this.

Can you find a better color scheme than this?

Blow it up and sharpen the crapola out of it and it starts looking like art.

Sunday, May 6, 2007


Sunday, May 6, 2007
For the past week I've been leading birding trips in south-central West Virginia for the New River Birding Festival. This event is a lock on my travel calendar every year because it's like going to bird watching camp--most of us stay in cabins where the wood thrushes sing us to sleep at night and wake us in the morning.

The first field trip I led went to Redneck Corner. Coincidence? I don't think so.

The 100 or so attendees come for multiple days, so we see each other repeatedly--on field trips, at the morning rallying point, at the evening meal and banquet--and get to know each other better. And many folks, like us, come to the New River Birding Festival every year. It could be the birds, but I think it's more likely the laid-back atmosphere for birding and getting to see fellow bird-watching pals that's the real attraction.
Lots of states represented here. This birders were from Alabama.

The field-birding focus is on warblers and this part of the world is like Warblerville, USA. I led two golden-winged warbler trips in the past two days. The first day we got 17 warblers (but no GWWA). The next day (yesterday) we found about12 golden-wingeds, plus 19 other warblers. I'm pretty sure they might have just come in overnight.

Our quest bird: the male golden-winged warbler. They nest in old clear cuts here in WV.

On yesterday's successful GWWA trip the warblers we had were: golden-winged, n. parula, yellow, chestnut-sided, black-throated blue, black-throated green, yellow-rumped, Blackburnian, prairie, black-and-white, American redstart, worm-eating, ovenbird, Louisiana waterthrush, Kentucky, mourning (heard only), common yellowthroat, hooded warbler, Canada, and yellow-breasted chat.

Male American redstart.

Male hooded warbler.

My favorite warbler, the black-throated blue--this is a male.

The event is not without its trials and tribulations: On Friday's trip one of the vehicles had a flat tire which I changed. On Saturday's trip, the borrowed SUV I was driving (with four other passengers) got locked somehow with everything, including the keys, inside. Many cell phone calls and two hours later, the vehicle's owner (the kind, lovely, and patient Lynn Pollard) came with a spare set of keys. The "send-the-unlock-signal-over-a-cellphone" did not work.

Painted trillium along Glade Creek Road.

I hate to ponder what might have happened this morning if I'd been leading a trip....untimely lightning strike?

Fogged in on Bobolink Hill. Still saw the bobos, though.

If you love watching warblers, consider coming to the New River Birding Festival in 2008. It usually starts on the last Sunday of April and runs for a week. After all, there aren't THAT many places where you can get 20+ species of warblers in one day while seeing breathtaking mountain scenery like we've enjoyed here on the edge of the New River gorge.

We enjoyed this view at Babcock State Forest while waiting for the "locksmith" to set us free.