Saturday, May 30, 2009

A Warbler Charm Bracelet

Saturday, May 30, 2009
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Male Canada warbler.

When I was a kid, my grandma Thompson had a charm bracelet that she'd wear most days. I loved flipping the charms through my fingers, asking her about each one—where it came from, who gave it to her, what it symbolized. She'd patiently tell me the story of every charm.

While flipping through some of my bird photographs from this spring, I got to the sets of images I took at Magee Marsh in mid-May and I was surprised at the number of species—particularly warbler species—of which I got decent images. Decent=web-usable, nice to look at, but not publication-quality.

If you'd asked me while I was there, I'd have said I got a few, but mostly I wasn't quick enough, the light was bad, I lacked the right equipment (an external flash unit is what the pros use there), blah-blah-blah. It WAS frustrating shooting there, and after a while I just decided to look at birds and enjoy them. That lasted a few minutes, until yet another beautiful wood warbler hopped into the sunlight on a branch, six feet away, then it was click-click-click.

So, here is my charm bracelet of warblers from two days in May at Magee Marsh. I'd love to share these with Grandma Thompson, but she's no longer alive. Who knows, maybe she's seeing them anyway?


Male Wilson's warbler.

Male black-throated green warbler.

Male magnolia warbler.


Female Cape May warbler.


Male black-throated blue warbler.


Male bay-breasted warbler.

Male prothonotary warbler.


Male chestnut-sided warbler.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Mystery Vireo: Your Best Guess

Thursday, May 28, 2009
7 comments


At Magee Marsh two weekends ago, in addition to the myriad warblers present, there were several vireo species there, too. I photographed this vireo from the boardwalk assuming it was the warbling vireo that had been singing from the same vicinity.

We'd also seen a Philadelphia vireo or two during the morning.

When I got home and started going through my photos to select any that were 'keepable' and to ditch those that weren't I came across this bird again. I thought to make it a Mystery Bird ID Quiz, and sent the image to two birders whose ID skills I respect. One said Philly, one said warbling. It's a bit tough with the mostly head-on views.

I still feel it's a warbling vireo, but maybe one that recently ate a Philly Cheesesteak at Pat's, thus making its lores dirtier than normal and it's overall look pale and washed out (no doubt from the Cheez Whiz). To me the bill does not look stubby enough for a Philly.

What do YOU say?

Maybe one or more of the bird ID aces that occasionally lurk here at BOTB will be kind enough to chime in. [You know who you are.] If you DO answer, please give your reasons.

Game on!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Lucky Shot: Chimney Swift

Wednesday, May 27, 2009
7 comments
Chimney swift.

These images may not look like much via the Blogger interface, but I'm fairly happy about them. I shot this gliding chimney swift as he swooped past our birding tower on our second Big Day, May 10.

Normally swifts zip past our tower at high speeds and zig-zag off into the blue, leaving me with a dozen images of nothing but sky. If you've ever tried to photograph a chimney swift, you know what I'm talking about.

But this chimney swift and his two traveling companions made to slow circles of our birding tower, probably checking it and our chimney out as possible nest sites. After their first slow circumnavigation, I realized what was going on and grabbed the camera. This was the only shot I got that had a sizable bird in the frame.

Here it is cropped slightly.
For the first time in my bird photo life, I was as swift as a swift.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

This Birding Life Episode 20: iBird

Tuesday, May 26, 2009
1 comments
A screen-shot from the iBird app on my iPhone.

Episode 20 of my podcast, This Birding Life, is now available for free downloading at Podcast Central on the Bird Watcher's Digest website and in the Games & Hobbies and Literature categories in the Podcast section of the iTunes store.

This episode is an interview with Mitchell Waite, the creator of several database-driven websites for bird identification, and the new and very popular iPhone application called iBird. Mitch tells about his early career as a writer and publisher of computer books and how this set the stage for merging his fascination with technology and love of birds into several neat product ideas.
Mitchell Waite and two of his iBird app logos.


In our next episode (TBL episode 21), we'll be in The Philippines, talking with a woman who is working to save two critically endangered endemic birds on the island of Cebu.

Thanks for listening to This Birding Life! More than 3,000 TBL episode files are downloaded each month—just from the BWD web servers, not counting those downloaded from iTunes. We're proud to be making interesting "ear candy" for bird watchers! And I welcome your comments, suggestions, and questions about the podcasts.


Monday, May 25, 2009

Meadows Gone to Hay

Monday, May 25, 2009
3 comments
Male bobolink.

Lucky for our grassland-nesting birds, it's been a wet spring. So I suspect (or hope) that the meadowlarks and field sparrows, and grasshopper and Henslow's sparrows, and bobolinks have gotten their first broods off successfully.

Hay fields are a unique habitat type. When the hay is cut in early May, the grassland birds have no chance. Many nest are destroyed and some brooding females killed when the fields are cut. But without regular cutting (which probably accomplishes the same thing the grazing bison herds did until they were wiped out about 250 years ago) the fields turn to brush, then woods, over time. So the same grassland-nesting birds that may perish from the cutting also benefit from it.
Raking the hay into rows.

Four days of dry weather in the forecast means it's time to cut hay here in southeastern Ohio. So knee-high lush grass is reduced to cuttings and left over night. The next afternoon, if the air is dry, the hay gets raked into rows. Another day or so and the rows get baled. Around here lots of farmers use the large round bales. Some hay-makers leave the rolls wherever they drop off the baler. Others move the giant round rolls around and into neat straight-line groupings.

Raked hay waiting to be baled.

I love the smell of new-mown hay and I like seeing the bales lying around the cut fields. But I'm always glad when the spring is wet and cold and the hay cutting has to wait until the end of May to give the nesting birds a fair chance.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Dew Haiku

Friday, May 22, 2009
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Dawn mist arising
Grass heads sagging heavy dew
Meadowlark sings clear

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Lucky Shot: Black-throated Green

Thursday, May 21, 2009
2 comments

While following colorful, feathered sprites around Magee Marsh last weekend, I managed to score a few lucky shots. This one I especially like. It's a male black-throated green warbler and it looks like he's singing. But if you look closely, you can see he's actually noshing on a small insect.

So there I was, having taking this warbler's picture, and I started thinking about mortality. The thought crossed my mind, as I strolled farther along the Magee boardwalk with insectivorous birds all around me, that if I were to be reincarnated as an insect or caterpillar, I REALLY hope it's not in May on the south shore of Lake Erie. That would be a very short life indeed.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Reality of Warbler Photography

Tuesday, May 19, 2009
22 comments
Cameras purchased by bird watchers who want to become bird photographers should come with a warning sticker that says:

Bird photography is not as easy as it looks.
In fact, it's not even close to being easy!

You need to be prepared to be extremely disappointed
in the images you'll be getting despite spending all this money.

Don't say we didn't warn you.
And no, there's nothing wrong with your camera.



That sort of fair warning/truth in advertising would go a long way to helping me feel better about the plethora of warbler images I take that look like this:


Or the ones that look like this:


Or this. Great photo of vegetation, perfectly in focus, hiding a blurry bird.



And then, before you figure things out, the bird bolts. Sweet!

But if the birding gods are smiling, the bird does a 180 and stops to check you out for just five seconds more, and you get this (below), an image which is JUST GOOD ENOUGH to keep you coming back, camera in hand, chasing after colorful fleeting things with wings.


Cropping and tweaking results in an image that is good enough for the old blog, but probably won't pass muster for the cover of National Geographic. Still, what a handsome devil this male magnolia warbler is!

Happy shutter-bugging to every bird watcher who is similarly afflicted.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Warblers Up Close

Monday, May 18, 2009
10 comments
Bay-breasted warbler, probably an old female, at Magee Marsh.

Having lived in Ohio for most of my birding life as a grown-up (relatively speaking), you'd think that catching the phenomenal warbler and songbird migration at Magee Marsh along Lake Erie's southern shore would be something I'd experienced annually. Most avid bird watchers in Ohio (and in the surrounding states for that matter) get to Magee at some point during the height of spring migration—between mid-April and mid-May.

To a migrant songbird in spring, Magee Marsh is the perfect rest stop before flying over Lake Erie and into Canada. When the wind is blowing from north to south (a headwind for migrants) the birds drop into the trees at Magee to rest, forage, and wait for more favorable traveling weather.

I'd been to the famous Magee boardwalk in spring, but always a bit too early or too late to catch many migrants. And I was there once with a team of birders trying to break Ohio's Big Day record. We timed things perfectly for everywhere in the state, except Magee, which was practically birdless on that May morning. Perfect weather—clear skies and a south to north wind—encourages the northbound birds to keep on moving across Lake Erie. And we chose for our Big Day attempt, a perfect weather day for the birds to keep on flying north. We ended that day deep in the wilds of southern Ohio, with 186 species (well short of the record) and with a bunch of unchecked boxes among the warblers on our checklist.

Last weekend the Ohio Ornithological Society held its annual meeting not too far from Magee Marsh. As a board member of this fine organization, I was required to be at the meeting, with the happy knowledge that it would REQUIRE me to spend two mornings watching birds at one of North America's most famous warbler hotspots.

The first day, Saturday, was overcast but warm at the start. By the time we left Magee around 11:45 AM to head to some other local birding sites, it was getting cooler and starting to rain. Still, we saw 20 warbler species, three vireo species, three thrush species, and so on. It was my best day ever at Magee. My fellow bird watchers chuckled at my enthusiasm.

Then came Sunday. Sunny and cold at daybreak, it did not really warm up until well into the afternoon. Bird watchers along the boardwalk gathered in crowds within the scattered pools of sunlight. If I'd thought Saturday was good, Sunday was amazing. Thousands of newly arrived birds moved through the trees, brush, and undergrowth. Everywhere you looked there was movement and song. People called out warbler names to no one in particular, with a mixture of joy and wonder in their voices. I thought to myself: This must be what heaven is like for birders. Except heaven would have a few more Porto potties and beautiful angels would be plying us all with warm doughnuts and hot coffee. But this was pretty close!
The boardwalk at Magee is crowded with bird watchers from late April through mid-May.

There were more female warblers present on Sunday, and more young, first-spring males, giving us a chance to note the subtle differences in plumage. However the most incredible thing about Sunday's bird action was the behavior of many of the migrants. Whether it was hunger, the cold temperatures, or just the rush of the migratory imperative, many of the warblers were low in the vegetation, foraging and singing actively, seeming to be oblivious to the humans a few feet or even mere inches away! And it's not like we were all being quiet and respectful. Cameras clicked, beeped, whirred, and flashed. Birders shouted to one another and narrated the birds' every moves:

"OH MY! LOOK at this bird! COOL! He just caught a bug! Now he's flitting over here! He's attacking that other bird. Oh, he's gonna poop! WOW! What a great LOOK! I can't BELIEVE THIS!" and so on.

But that was not all.

I heard at least three throaty cries of ecstasy—the kind of sounds that are usually accompanied by bad dialogue, cheesy jazz, and a rating beyond the reach of NC-17.

Like I said, the birding was good.

To illustrate one of my own close encounters of the warbler kind, here is a short video (rated G) that I shot with my point-and-shoot camera.


You can hear some birders talking in the background, including Jon Dunn, author of several key field guides, including the National Geographic Field Guide to Birds of North America. This male black-throated blue warbler was less than two feet from me, on the trunk of the tree, completely unperturbed by all the chattering humans draped in expensive optics.

I already know where I want to be when the birds come back next May.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Yellowlegs ID

Thursday, May 14, 2009
6 comments
Lesser (left) and greater (right) yellowlegs at the Tank Farm along Rt 7 near Newport, Ohio.

During our Washington County, Ohio Big Day, the Whipple Bird Club was fortunate enough to see BOTH species of yellowlegs. Not only that, but as we were discussing the finer points of telling greater yellowlegs from lesser yellowlegs, the birds obliged by standing next to each other in perfect profile for a few moments.

This really gave us a good look at the key field marks: the differences in bill length and size; body size; leg length; and plumage markings on the flanks (of the greater).

It might make birding less challenging, but wouldn't it be great if more birds cooperated like this? I'm talking to YOU sharpies & Coops, scaups, peeps, empids, chickadees, shrikes, ibises (ibi?), and most of the dang sparrows!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Washington County Big Day 2009

Tuesday, May 12, 2009
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What is that old saying about publicity? I don't care how you talk about me, just talk about me?

Saturday morning, May 9, 2009, came mighty early for those of us who were playing a gig at the Whipple/Wrangler Tavern the night before. But did that stop us from getting up at some ungodly hour to tally birds in the Mostly Annual Washington County, Ohio Big Day? Nope.

When I was a mere boy bird watcher, under the watchful tutelage of Mrs Pat Murphy and my mom Elsa Thompson, it was an annual ritual each May to try to see 100 species within Washington County, Ohio, where we all lived. We called it a Century Day—get it? Century=100 species!

I think I remember maybe one year when we got 100+ species. Nowadays with all our newfangled technology, including the Tubes of the Interwebs and The Google, we can pinpoint the location of happening bird action on a minute-by-minute basis. Our friends can tell us where all the warblers are warblering and where all the tanagers are tanagering.

These days, three full decades removed from Pat Murphy's Century Days, it's The Whipple Bird Club that has taken up the chalice and taken on the challenge of trying to top 100 species in little old Washington County, Ohio. This is an account of how things went on Saturday.

After we finished our gig on Friday night/Saturday morning, we loaded up the vans and cars with gear and everyone hit the road. I stayed behind a moment to collect my thoughts—the only person still extant at The Whipple/Wrangler Tavern. And I was rewarded for my fortitude by the nocturnal flight call of a Swainson's thrush! A mere 20 minutes later, as I traipsed up the walk to the house, I added species #2: An American woodcock which kindly peented its way onto the list.

And then I slept for 2.5 hours.

To start the daylight portion our Big Day, I rolled my tired carcass up the stairs to our birding tower. Day was dawning and the birds were already aloft, calling, or stirring themselves to life. But the clouds in the West indicated a day of unsettled weather. In quick succession I heard or saw a dozen, then two dozen species. By 7:15 am I was up to 45 species. That's when Shila showed up and added her bird-spotting skills to the team effort. The wind picked up and we pulled on additional coats against the wind. At least it was not raining.

The day started off promisingly from the birding tower.

The Whipple Bird Club is four core members: me, Julie Zickefoose, Shila Wilson, and Steve McCarthy. We've got lots of honorary members, but, it's the four core peeps who wave the flag of the good ol' WBC.

Every Big Day has a few birds that are total surprises and a few that completely skunk you. One of our early surprises was a merlin that Shila and I saw skirt the tower not once but twice! I got a bad photo of it flying away, having missed on its chance to nail a tree swallow.

Julie floated up the tower stairs about 8 am, bearing more coffee and some munchies. We were somewhere north of 50 species. Three hours later we were ready to leave Indigo Hill for the rest of the county and we had 70 species.

Pine siskins were still hanging around after last winter's influx.

A gorgeous male rose-breasted grosbeak came close enough for digiscoping.

Our male blue-winged warbler sang from the end of the orchard.

Phoebe and Chet came up to check on us in the tower.

Down the road just a couple of miles, we came across an eastern box turtle. It was a beautiful adult male and we helped him across the road to wherever he was going.

The box turtle we saved.

The Whipple Bird Club flashes its gangland hand signs near the Belpre Bridge (where there were no peregrines).

After poking around the western part of the county in a largely fruitless search for some long-shot species, and waiting to pick up the Royal Meteorologist of the WBC, Steve McCarthy, we headed back toward Marietta, the county seat, for some more familiar birding turf. We got the bobolinks not far from Route 676 where they've nested for a few years. We got American kestrel and killdeer there, too. Then it was off to the Kroger Wetland for some target shorebirds. We got both spotted sandpiper and solitary sandpiper there, plus willow flycatcher and house wren. A bonus yellow-billed cuckoo flew over. We dipped out on phothonotary warbler, however.

It was 5:00 pm and we had 96 species. The county record (unofficial) is 110 set by Steve, Shila, and me in 2007. We ate LEAST wanted to tie that. Preferably we'd beat the living tar out of it.

Spotted sandpiper at the Kroger Wetlands.

Steve scans the Kroger Wetlands while Liam and Phoebe dream.

Then we headed up the Ohio River for some other hopeful hotspots counting every species we got and plotting to add the next bird. We ran into a streak of shorebirds at the tank farm along Ohio 7: greater and lesser yellowlegs, plus an unexpected snowy egret. Then we hit Newell's Run. By this time it was already dinner time and the sun was sinking below the hills. We added a few of the expected warblers along Newell's Run: Louisiana waterthrush, yellow-throated warbler, and
Trying to drum up a few target birds on Newell's Run.

Bored kids will find something to climb.

By 8:30 pm we were deep in the woods of Wayne National Forest, hoping for a cerulean warbler. We got no joy. By 9:10 pm it was actively dark and the kids were weeping from hunger (as were we). A calling whip-poor-will came in as species #108 and we called it a day.


We pulled out ALL the stops in our effort to find more than 100 species.

I stepped outside the house a couple of times before midnight, but the wind was howling and the rain spitting and I knew that no self-respecting owl would be calling in such weather.

108. One shy of tying the record, which still stands.

Of course, the next day dawned clear and sunny and still and I felt like doing it all over again.
But would I?

Monday, May 11, 2009

Finally, a Decent Bird Photo!

Monday, May 11, 2009
5 comments

It had to happen sooner or later—the happy convergence of a fabulously lovely bird, the rich light from the sun on a clear morning, and my camera with a working battery and plenty of flash card space.

Thank you, Mr. Bay-breasted Warbler, for stopping by our weeping willow tree on the only sunny morning we've had for two weeks.

I did back-to-back Big Days this past weekend. More on that tomorrow. Or the next day. Or the day after that.

Friday, May 8, 2009

The Swainson's Warbler Trip!

Friday, May 8, 2009
16 comments
It's always a bit dodgy when you're asked to lead a birding festival field trip that is dedicated to finding one particular bird species. This is exacerbated by the following additional factors:

1. It's a rare bird, known for skulking in rhododendron thickets.
2. Lots of people sign up (and pay money for the privilege).
3. It's pouring rain.
4. It's the last day of the festival and everyone is COUNTING on seeing this bird.

And so it was last Saturday morning when my friend (and festival founder/raconteur) Geoff Heeter and I loaded 12 or so brave and eager souls onto a Ford Econoline van somewhere near the New River Gorge in West Virginia. This was the Swainson's Warbler Trip and it had but one target bird.

As we drove across WV 19 onto a country road that would take us to a spot that had at times hosted a Swainson's warbler, I was already drafting my apology for the trip participants in case we totally dipped out. The rain pounded on the van roof, pouring down like silver over the windshield, visibility nil.

"Well everyone, we tried our best. Some days you get the bird. Some days the bird gets you. Some days you feel like you've been flipped the bird. Sorry we missed it, but that's a great reason to come back next year!"

or this:

"Those Swainson's warblers are harder to find than a working microphone at a Milli Vanilli concert!"

or this:

"If I had a nickel for every time I've missed this bird, we'd be birding from a stretch limo instead of this rattletrap and eating caviar for lunch instead of flat meat."

Little did I know, I was wasting my time thinking up disappointment-softening excuses.

At our first stop Geoff and I heard two distant Swainson's singing along the creek in separate directions. Neither one was close enough to see or to lure in with a taped call. I decided to walk the group down to a nearby bridge while Geoff and Ned Keller got the vehicles.

From the bridge, one singing male sounded lots closer. Then he moved even closer, but was still out of sight in the thick rhodies, 30 yards upstream. I filled Geoff in about this new development and we motioned to the group to stay put while we carefully moved up the road for a better vantage point. Barely 150 feet farther along, I spotted the bird, teed up and singing against the trunk of a giant hemlock. Within seconds I had him in the spotting scope. Geoff beckoned our group forward and we all took turns drinking in this very rare sight. And the male Swainson's warbler sang and sang and preened and sang....

It felt SO great to show more than a dozen birders this cool and hard-to-find bird. It felt even better to locate a bird that was relaxed and singing from a favorite perch on its territory. No audio luring necessary! No trying to get bird watchers onto a het-up, moving bird. Just us, this beautiful male Swainson's warbler, some nice optics, and the rain, still falling down, but completely unnoticed.
Doing the Swainson's Warbler Life Bird Wiggle.

After we all got great looks I realized, in one of those I-could-kick-myself moments that I had ABSOLUTELY NO CAMERA WITH ME to take this bird's photo. No digiscoping rig. No 30D with a 300mm lens. Nope that stuff was warm and dry in the van. Hearing my remorseful cries, Geoff handed me his camera phone. I held it up to my Swarovski spotting scope and here's what I got!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Nest Building & Mohair

Thursday, May 7, 2009
11 comments
Nesting material dispenser filled and ready for action.

One of the many blessings of being the editor of Bird Watcher's Digest is that I sometimes get sent products to try out and provide feedback on to the manufacturer. Many of these products are great ideas that never make it in the marketplace for one reason or another. Others do make it and become part of the vast landscape of bird-watching and nature products.

I do my best to look all of them over and offer my opinion. But I don't always "get" what the products are about, so some of them inevitably get sent back, or donated to bird clubs or school nature groups. And some of them find a spot in our very messy garage.

I have no idea when BWD received the BirdNEST FEEDERS of Loretta's Blue Star. I happened to find the package while working on my tractor a few weeks ago, and saw that this product was a way to offer nesting material to birds. Since spring was about to be sprung, I took the dusty package outside for a better look. Inside was a foot-long piece of tree branch with quarter-inch holes drilled through it; a package of white animal fur, and an eight-inch piece of copper wire with one hooked end. The white fur was all-natural mohair fiber from Angora goats, which the packaging told me lived on the manufacturer's family farm in Bonner's Ferry, Idaho.

The instructions were easy enough: poke some mohair into a hole and pull it through using the copper hook, so it hangs loosely out of both sides of the log. Place dowels in some of the adjacent holes for birds to use as perches, slip the chain through the screw-eye and hang it near your bird feeders. In three minutes I had all of these things done and decided to hang the new attractant on the deck, near the suet-dough feeding station used by titmice, chickadees, and nuthatches.
Tufted titmouse gathering mohair from the dispenser.

Just hours later, I had my first customer. A tufted titmouse. Its mate watched excitedly from nearby as the titmouse tugged and pulled a huge bill-full of material out of the hole. I got a few images and tried to get some video—so far no luck due more to my schedule than the birds' interest. When I got back from a week away, most of the mohair was gone.



I like to think that some tufted titmouse eggs are nice and toasty, nestled in mohair inside a tree cavity on our farm. It's been a cold spring and I could use a little mohair myself.

Seeing how effective this homemade product was, I got online and looked for birdNEST FEEDERS of Loretta's Blue Star, Bonner's Ferry, Idaho, to see if the product was still being made. No accurate results were found, unfortunately, and the packaging has no contact information, so I can't point you in the direction of the manufacturer. But I can encourage you to make your own nesting material dispenser. You can re-create this idea, or simply offer a basket or mesh bag of hair clippings for the birds to work into their nest building. A few years ago we put out a small wicker basket of Phoebe's red hair trimmings and watched the front yard chipping sparrows gather it up. That fall we found their nest in the Japanese maple tree, completely lined with red hair.



Just remember that pieces of string or fiber longer than 2 inches are a potential tangling hazard for nestlings, and things like dryer lint and felt retain water rather than shed it. For this reason I think the fine strands of mohair, with their water-shedding and heat insulating properties, might be a good compromise. Our titmice surely seem to love it!

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