Monday, November 30, 2009

I'm Gonna Git You Sapsucka!

Monday, November 30, 2009
6 comments
My crummy image of a beautiful adult male yellow-bellied sapsucker.

It's been a great fall for yellow-bellied sapsucker sightings around the farm. Some years we get one or two sappies that stick around through the fall. This year, given the number of migrant sapsuckers we've seen, I'm hoping we'll have a handful of wintering birds. I'm not sure our trees are happy about this, though they have nothing, really, to worry about.

On several occasions I've seen three individual YBSAs at once, swooping from tree to tree in that unique sapsucker way. Nearly all of the birds we've seen have been youngsters (birds born last spring/summer) and we can tell this by their splotchy, ill-defined plumage. On Saturday morning of Thanksgiving weekend a beautiful adult male yellow-bellied sapsucker showed up. I had stepped out onto the back deck to check the temperature and heard a light tapping coming from the nearby weeping willow tree. When the male peeked around from the trunk, the morning sun caught his red crown and throat (adult females have a white throat) and I bolted back inside the house for my camera.

This guy had a set of wells going on each trunk of the willow.


In my experience, yellow-bellied sapsuckers are very quiet birds. They seem to lack the red-bellied woodpecker's zest for life, the downy and hairy's constant activity, and the flicker's flashy flight style. Sapsuckers can be easily overlooked, which is why it's so helpful to know the audible clues to their presence.

This young female looks like a bump on a birch trunk, doesn't she?

The tapping noise they make when excavating sap wells sounds like someone absent-mindedly tapping a pencil on a desk: tap-tap-tap —pause—tap-tap —pause—tap-tap-tap-tap. It is irregular in its rhythm and soft enough to go unnoticed.

Sapsuckers do vocalize quite regularly, making a soft, wheezy, descending meearr that sounds somewhat catlike. Our birds have been mewing a lot—perhaps scolding each other, trying to figure out whose territory this is going to be for the winter.

The long vertical white wing stripe is an excellent field mark for all of our sapsucker species.

We've watched the sapsuckers make their rounds, visiting their sap wells like trappers checking their trap lines. On Saturday I noticed three other woodpecker species visiting the newly drilled sap wells in the willow: a downy, a hairy, and a red-bellied woodpecker. The male sapsucker actually tried to drive off the hairy, when it was caught poaching a drink at a ring of wells.

A few neat factoids about sapsuckers:
  • They drill lines of small holes in trees, causing the tree to emit some sap to protect itself. The sapsuckers then revisit these wells on a regular basis to consume the sap and any insects attracted to it. The holes are visible scars in the tree bark, permanent evidence that a sapsucker was here at least once!
  • It is thought that sapsuckers do not do much harm to healthy trees. In fact some ornithologists believe that sapsuckers prefer to drill holes in trees that are already under stress because they produce sap that is higher in certain nutrients. Still many sapsuckers are persecuted, especially by orchard owners.
  • Sapsuckers don't actually "suck" sap—they lap it up with their tongues, which have short feather-like projections on the end. Sapsucker tongues function more like a brush than a straw.
  • Dozens of other birds and many animals and insects will visit sapsucker wells to drink the slightly sweet sap.
  • In spring, early arriving hummingbirds rely on sapsucker wells when plant nectar and insects are unavailable.
  • Sapsuckers are avid migrants, with some birds reaching Central America and the islands in the Caribbean.

A very young female—no red at all yet.

I've also seen our sapsuckers perch nearby our feeding stations, which are always stocked with sunflower seed, peanuts, suet, and suet dough. I'm hoping they will "tap into" this additional source of food so we can enjoy them all winter long.

Only rarely have we had a sapsucker as a regular feeder visitor. This is an adult female.

Here's a very informative page about the yellow-bellied sapsucker.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Winner of Caption Contest #11!

Friday, November 27, 2009
3 comments
Editor of Bird Watcher's Digest photographed hazing an intern, forcing her to provide him
constant shade while in the field.

“NASA reports that the reflection off my head is contributing to global warming. I just see this as another example of the green movement providing new job opportunities” responded Bill Thompson III.

Congratulations to Robert Mortensen for this two-part doozy. Robert blogs here.

Some other chuckle-makers:

2stampis2b said...Dost thou need a breeze, M'Lord?

Anonymous said...Honestly the ad said it was guarenteed to grow hair using veiled solar rays in just 6-12 hours!

cyberthrush said...Now you can focus the sun's rays to get that quick long-lasting tan you always want in minutes, with the new portable 'Jimdandy Tanner' from Ronco. (...and if you order in the next 15 minutes, we'll throw in a pocket fisherman for free!)

Su said:....."I knight thee Sir Birdsalot"

In this photo, Lisa White, amazing bird-book editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company in Boston is holding a giant light reflector over me while Jeffrey A. Gordon (standing out of the frame) videotapes an interview with me. This was for the Peterson Field Guide podcast series, and was meant to be a part of an interview with the podcast producers (Jeff, me, and our project manager, Lisa). But we all hated so much how we looked and sounded on camera, that we scrapped the idea. Special thanks to Phoebe Thompson for taking the photos of our failed in-the-field interviews.

Thanks, too, to everyone for sending along their clever captions. Wishing you a restful, birdy-as-heck holiday weekend! I am calling the Hair Club first thing Monday morning.


Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 26, 2009
2 comments


Happy Thanksgiving to all
from the entire flock here at Bill of the Birds.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Caption Contest #11

Tuesday, November 24, 2009
27 comments

Here's one to ponder while you're in that tryptophan-induced nod...it's the Bill of the Birds Caption Contest #11!

Send us your clever caption for this image, using the Comments window below. Our team of highly compensated pointyheads will select a winner on Friday, November 27, 2009.

The fabulous prize for the winner of this contest is a copy of the mind-expanding book "Good Birders Don't Wear White." More on that later...

Good luck!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Bird Boxers

Monday, November 23, 2009
11 comments
Birders need all kinds of gear for their activity. Photo © David Tipling.

Bird watching has finally arrived as a viable market segment of society. Birders are consumers but it's only been in the past decade or so that the business world outside of our niche market has begun taking an interest. They have done so by creating products specifically aimed at bird watchers, and some of these products have really taken off. Witness the success of the iBird family of applications, one of which Apple featured in its national iPhone ads during the last season of "American Idol."

And then there is the birding clothing realm. Hats, vests, pants, coats, shirts, gloves, boots, and socks are among the clothing items designed, manufactured, and marketed specifically with birders in mind. But until now, it was impossible to dress yourself (or someone you love) in complete birding clothing from head to toe.

There was no birding underwear.


Bird Boxers.
About 15 years ago I had the idea to produce a line of boxer shorts with birds on them, but I could never find the right combination of elements to make the magic happen. Now that's all changed, and the first two Bird Boxers designs are rolling off the manufacturing line as you read this.

The artwork, by the multi-talented Julie Zickefoose, is screen-printed and depicts an American woodcock (on the black boxers) and a hairy woodpecker (on the gray boxers) at or very near their actual sizes. In fact it even says "Actual Size" below the birds' names. The boxers are a very nice and comfy cotton-poly blend.

If there is a more perfect holiday gift for the boxer-wearing bird watcher in your life, I'm not sure what it is.

You can find more information about Bird Boxers here at this link. And you can place your order at this link, or by calling us at 800-879-2473.

Yes we have more ideas in the pipeline.
And yes, we are working on some items for women. More on that later.

Happy holidays!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Traditional Welcome Ceremony

Friday, November 20, 2009
4 comments
The birding tower at Indigo Hill as seen from the western side.


When special guests come to our rural farm in southeastern Ohio, we welcome them in the traditional way of our people: we throw rotten pumpkins from the top of our tower. This is the primary reason we mortgaged our childrens' future to build this giant structure: to throw things off it that will go splat and make us laugh.

That and because it increases our Big Sit numbers.
From left: Kevin Sibbring, Shirley Stary, Wendy Eller—all from Lakeside; Chet Baker, Julie Zickefoose and Jen Sauter.

No, we don't throw the rotten pumpkins AT the arriving guests (although that's not a bad idea, come to think of it!). We invite our honored guests up to the tower top to witness the grunt-toss-thunk-splatter action first hand.

So when our friends from Lakeside, Ohio came for a visit, we rolled out the pass-the-freshness-date pumpkins for them.

Three potential victims, resting in their decrepitude. We chose the middle one, originally a pig.

The ceremonial carrying of the pumpkin up to the tower is performed by a specially trained member of the tower staff.

Carrying the mushy pumpkin (carved into the likeness of a pig) to the tower presented a challenge. Have you ever smelled rotten pumpkin juice? By comparison, Limburger cheese smells like Chanel No. 5.



And speaking of Chanel No. 5, Kevin Sibbring was standing by to help me wish the pumpkin a toothless goodbye.


Ready? One.....Two.....Three.......

Ooof! Thar she flies!

Inches and milliseconds before impact.....

And the post-splat money shot of the final carnage. Pumpkin tossed. Honored guests properly welcomed. Skunks and opossums happy.

Just another reason to love Halloween.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

One Moment: Leaping Blackburnian

Wednesday, November 18, 2009
5 comments
On the morning of September 11, 2009, my camera captured a young male Blackburnian warbler launching into flight from our side-yard sycamore tree.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Lack of Photo Ops & Chops

Monday, November 16, 2009
5 comments
Roseate spoonbill.

I've been in a dry spell for taking interesting bird photographs lately. Partly due to being busy with work, life, and other stuff (IS there other stuff?), partly due to the fact that I haven't been anywhere that offered decent photo opportunities, and partly due to my dissatisfaction with my modest skills. What images I have managed to snap have mostly had one problem or another due to "operator error." I know enough to know that I don't know enough about my camera.

For me to get a really great bird photo, the planets have to align perfectly. This seems to happen about as often as the Comet Kohoutek passes within view, or as often as the Pittsburgh Pirates win the World Series.

In order for me to take a decent bird image, the following things have to fall into place:
  • I have to be close to the bird.
  • The bird has to be relaxed and not moving very fast or very far.
  • The bird's head and eye(s) need to be visible.
  • The light needs to be good (not too bright/too dark) with the sun behind me and the bird in front of me.
  • I have to have the right lens on my camera.
  • The compact flash card inside the camera has to have some space on it.
  • The camera's batteries have to be charged.
This last point was the clincher this past weekend when I spotted an American tree sparrow in our birch tree. Perfect light, calm bird, grabbed my camera, aimed it, hit the shutter button and nothing happened.

I believe it was the second part of the compound expletive I shouted that scared the sparrow into woods, never to return.

I keep on telling myself that one of these days I'm going to find the time to finally learn how to use my camera and all its fancy settings. And then I'm going to make time to get myself into situations that are conducive to taking many, many bird pictures. When that happens, because my brain is swollen with all that camera-using knowledge, I won't have to toss out 86% of the images I take, because I'll know how to use the camera properly!

Roseate spoonbill.

Looking at the calendar, I'm thinking the late-January trip to Florida for the Space Coast Birding Festival might be my next best opportunity. Phoebe is traveling with me for that event, so she can be my sharp-eyed bird spotter. Maybe I can get another shot of a flying spoonbill when I'm there.

That is, if I remember to charge the camera batteries.

Friday, November 13, 2009

A Friday Haiku

Friday, November 13, 2009
3 comments

Wind rippled shadows
alone against tones of blue
somehow a foothold

Thursday, November 12, 2009

New Podcast Episode: The Big Sit!

Thursday, November 12, 2009
0 comments
Part of the crowd at the 2009 Indigo Hill Big Sit.

If you've ever wondered what it's like to do a Big Sit, episode 23 of my podcast, "This Birding Life" will take you deep inside the record-setting 2008 Big Sit at the Indigo Hill birding tower in southeastern Ohio.

You can listen to the episode, and the 22 that preceded it, at Podcast Central on the Bird Watcher's Digest website, or in the iTunes store, where "This Birding Life" is available for free in both regular audio (MP3) and enhanced audio (M4a) formats. Search in Podcasts under the Games & Hobbies for the MP3 version and in Literature for the M4a version. Unfortunately the new version of iTunes makes it a bit harder to navigate into the podcasts category, so I suggest you use the Search function in the upper right-hand corner of the iTunes window.

More than 5,000 episode files of "This Birding Life" are downloaded each month from Podcast Central (and that's not counting the episode files listeners access via iTunes). If you haven't listened to my podcast before, I wish you would. I promise it's easy on the ears.

Recording the latest episode. Photo by Julie Zickefoose.

Thanks for listening (and reading) and I'll see you out there with the birds.—BOTB

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Liam and the Gorilla

Wednesday, November 11, 2009
4 comments
Last Friday, as part of his 10th birthday celebration extravaganza, we took Liam and his sister Phoebe, and two of their Columbus pals, to the Columbus Zoo. Liam really wanted to see the gorillas, though he assured me that the bison was still his favorite animal.

So, after checking out several of the other animal exhibits (broken up into continental themes: Asia, Africa, North America, etc) we headed over to the Gorilla House to visit the relatives. The gorillas at the Columbus zoo are western lowland gorillas.

What happened next was pretty cool.

We were looking through the thick glass enclosure at a humongous male silver-backed gorilla. It was eating some tiny seeds it was picking up off the floor. Liam was fascinated to be so close to such a huge animal. Adult male western lowland gorillas can weigh almost 500 pounds and stand 6-feet tall. They are called "silver-backeds" because the hair on their backs goes silver as they age—at about 12 years old. Males younger than 12 years have all black hair.

I couldn't resist taking some pictures of Liam watching the male eating.
And then the male turned to look at Liam...

And the two shared a moment of quiet, mutual contemplation....

I was so proud of Liam for staying in the moment and for realizing how special it was to be looked at by a mature male gorilla.

The only thing Liam said was "Man, this gorilla really likes looking at me!"

Liam even canted his head to the side, aping the great ape's head position.


We humans have something like 98% similarity in our DNA to that of western lowland gorillas. And yet, gorillas are endangered wherever they occur due to deforestation, bush-meat hunting, and persecution. While it's not as special to see gorillas in a zoo as it would be to see them in the wild, places like the Columbus Zoo help to educate (and fascinate) the public about these incredible animals. And the Columbus Zoo generously funds a variety of gorilla research and conservation programs in countries where these wondrous animals are struggling to sustain their populations.

If you have not yet been to the see the gorillas at the Columbus Zoo, I'd highly recommend a visit. Take the kids. Take the neighbors. Take your friends. But definitely take yourself. By the way, 2009 is the Year of the Gorilla at the zoo.

As we were leaving the gorillas, Liam waved goodbye to his new pal. And then he said "Waal, I think that giant man gorilla knew it was my birthday and that's why we had a special connection!"

Who was I to argue with that?

Monday, November 9, 2009

Making More Podcasts

Monday, November 9, 2009
3 comments

I've been spending some time lately in GarageBand, the nifty recording software that comes with all Mac computers. It's what I usually use to create my podcast episodes for "This Birding Life." Messing around with sound recording software and equipment is something that I really enjoy—in fact I wish I could do it more often. Way back in the early 1980s, before I went to college, I nearly went to an intensive recording workshop program instead. Why? Because I loved the recording process—recording tracks, layering on effects, building songs out of ideas. And because the recording school looked cool in its advertisements in the back of Rolling Stone.

These days I have to fit the podcast recording and building in among a plethora of other tasks demanding my time. But I still like it when I get to do it. I get into a sort of Zen-like zone with the recording and episode editing.

Recording the original material is the easiest part. I guess I find it really easy to talk to people—my subjects often tell me that I "give good interview." The real work starts with the editing. This is where good software comes in super handy. Once I listen through an entire unedited interview, I go back to the beginning and do an edit pass. Among the things I'm looking to fix are volume anomalies, bits of mis-speak, and extraneous noises (don't make me list them here, please).

After I have a rough audio edit done, I go back through to listen for image cues. If the person speaking mentions something worth illustrating, I jot it down along with a time stamp. Later, once I've acquired the necessary images, I place them in the proper spot in the audio timeline so everything matches up.

Then it's time for a final listen-though to make sure there are no blips, buzzes, jumps, pops, snaps, umms, burps, or other body noises. And once these dragons are all slain, its time to pop the whole thing into my Easy Bake Oven, turn the temperature knob to "podcast" and wait.

I always make two versions of each episode: a plain audio (MP3, with no images) and an enhanced audio (M4a) which has the embedded images. These are uploaded to the Podcast Central server by seasonally-employed podcast elves, and to iTunes by the fabulously tech-savvy Katherine the Good Witch of the Web. And we are officially podcasting to the world.


In 2008, in honor of the centennial of Roger Tory Peterson's birth, and in conjunction with the new Peterson Field Guide to the Birds of North America, I, along with the multi-talented Jeffrey A. Gordon, produced a series of video podcasts. These are available for free from the Peterson Guides site. They cover a variety of species profiles, some bird family overviews, a few tutorials on bird identification, and a couple of biographical sketches of the great RTP himself.


Notice I said video podcasts. These were created in Final Cut, a video editing software that is both wonderful and dauntingly powerful. These podcasts act just like any enhanced audio podcast, except that they can contain video clips, and a variety of more movie-like effects, such as pans, zooms, fades, and so on.



Some day I want to move "This Birding Life" over to video podcast format simply because it's so much more like watching a movie as opposed to watching a slideshow. Besides, many of us now have the capability to watch video over our mobile devices and smart phones.

All I need is time. So if you've got any to spare, send it my way, will you, please?

Well, it's time to record some voice-overs for my next episode of TBL. This next one's about The Big Sit! It should be done and available in a few days. Check-in back here and I'll let you know when it's up.

Until then, please lean close to the microphone and speak slowly and clearly.....

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Happy Birthday to Liam!

Sunday, November 8, 2009
5 comments

It's been a weekend cavalcade of activities to celebrate Liam's 10th birthday. One of which was a Friday trip to the Columbus Zoo. Here's the birthday boy rasslin' with a tiger sculpture.

Today, the actual birthday, we're having his choice of food (cheeseburgers, sweet potato fries, salad with pesto-ranch dressing, and chocolate cake with orange icing). The family is converging here at the farm, so we're bustling around in preparation.

Of the many things I admire about my son—his brains, his artistic ability, his curiosity, his ability to make us laugh—it's his inherent sweetness that I love most of all.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Here's Looking at You!

Friday, November 6, 2009
2 comments

Every so often, when taking photographs, you get a head-on shot of a bird. Most of these images are fairly weird-looking, and often, they are unusable for publishing because they do not show the key field marks necessary for visual recognition.

Some of them are usable, however. I use this one (of a Carib grackle from Trinidad) to intimidate my kids into cleaning their rooms. I know, brilliant, right?

Here's how: Simply hang a poster-sized version of this image (shown below) on the wall, and pipe in the audio track from "The Birds."

Like Billy Dee Williams used to say about Colt 45 Malt Liquor: "Works every time!"

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Signs Along the Way

Wednesday, November 4, 2009
5 comments
I found this sign outside a fire department compound on the island of Tobago in the West Indies.
Too many rules take all the joy out of living!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Counting the Months Until Warblers

Tuesday, November 3, 2009
6 comments
Male blue-winged warbler in our orchard.

It's early November here in southeastern Ohio. Daylight Savings Time is no longer in effect, making the days seem shorter than they actually are. The air is cooler—verging on cold. The trees have lost their collective grip on their foliage, leaving dark spiderwebs of their naked branches etching patterns on (mostly) leaden skies.

I already miss the warblers.

Most years we have a dozen species of eastern wood warblers nesting at Indigo Hill. From April through early October we can see and hear them. Now in November, when the landscape seems tired—resigned to the killing frosts and weak sunshine of another winter, we have the occasional yellow-rumpeds passing through, issuing their soft tchups to one another. They won't linger here on the ridge where the wind blows cold. They'll spend the winter along the river eating dried pokeweed berries and poison ivy and sumac fruits, taking advantage of the micro hatches of insects on sunny winter days.

Yellow-rumped warbler in winter plumage.


I was editing some video the other day. It was footage I shot on our farm during an interview last summer. The amount of bird song audible in the background of the footage was stunning. Indigo bunting, common yellowthroat, blue-winged warbler, prairie warbler, hooded warbler, yellow-breasted chat, red-eyed vireo, white-eyed vireo—they've all gone south now.

Prairie warbler, male, singing along the edge of our meadow.

Funny how the spring and summer bird song chorus just sneaks up on you. A few more birds chime in each week until the singing is nearly constant. Yet your ears have grown accustomed to it to the point where you don't really notice it. Now, in the relatively quiet days of early winter, that bird noise on the video is a startling reminder of what we had all around us just a short while ago. My how things change with the seasons!

So I'm counting the days—months really—until the warblers and other migrant songbirds return and the air is once more filled with song.

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