Tuesday, January 3, 2012

My Bird of the Year, Part 2

Tuesday, January 3, 2012
Picking up where I left off in my last post (from just before Christmas!) I've been scrolling through the images I downloaded onto my computer during 2011, trying to select my bird of the year. It's tough because all of the birds I'm choosing as finalists are ones that were particularly memorable for one reason or another. Like the male ruddy duck (above) that put on a show of extreme courtship, doing the bubble dance/display on a North Dakota slough last June. But for whom was he performing? There were no other ducks on that small patch of water. Yet he kept at it and I shot his picture over and over. Perhaps he was posing.

This adult male ruby-throated hummingbird let me get very close to him as he rested on a plant hanger in our garden. It was my best hummingbird photo of the year, taken on a fine July morning in southeastern Ohio.

On a pre-dawn birding outing at St. Marks NWR in the Florida panhandle in September I had to stop to snap this photo with my point-and-shoot Canon G12. The heron's silhouette on the dawn-brushed, still water was vastly more stunning than the camera's sensor and lens could capture. It was one of my more peaceful moments in the field in 2011, despite the mosquitoes and no-see-ums.
Back to North Dakota for an outing during the Potholes and Prairie Birding Festival on which we found a Sprague's pipit—a lifer for everyone in my group. Sadly there were no photos of the pipit, which was sky-dancing 300 feet above us.

And back to Oklahoma for another life bird for yours truly, a male black-capped vireo in the Wichita Mountains NWR. My friend Eric Beck knew just where to go to find vireo territories—a long hike up a canyon. And although we were on the early side of their spring return date, we did manage to find three different singing males. This was my best digiscoped shot of a male black-capped vireo—not great but a great adventure and memory!

In November I was on a birding tour in Israel and while there I got to enjoy hundreds of bird species that I've rarely, if ever, seen. I could make an entire BOTY list just from birds on that fantastic trip. But in the interest of staying focused, I'm going to narrow it down to just a few highlight birds, one of which is the male Palestine sunbird (above) which came to drink nectar on a flowering shrub just outside my hotel room in the Hula Valley. This is as close to a hummingbird as it gets in the Middle East. Lovely, active little birds.

The most stunning avian attraction of the Hula Valley where I spent most of my time in Israel was the giant flocks of common cranes that migrate through Israel in winter and spring. Some stay in the Hula for the winter and the local farmers and communities, along with local preserve/refuge managers are devising ways to keep the cranes from damaging crops while letting them spend the winter foraging and roosting. It's an ingenious concept—humans and birds coexisting symbiotically. On two separate mornings and several evenings we witnessed between 15,000 and 20,000 common cranes in giant, noisy, swirling flocks.

Here's a photograph of a tiny bird I found in the Agamon Valley in Israel. Believe it or not this is a warbler known as a chiffchaff. It's named for its onomatopoeic call chiff-chaff. This little guy (or gal) was foraging in some low weeds outside a viewing blind at the Hula-Agamon Park. After watching large mega-birds like cranes and eagles all day, it was a nice change to spend some time with a small songbird.

My closest-ever look at a merlin occurred in the Negev Desert near a birding hotspot that's basically a power highline cutting through agricultural fields. A small copse of pines were the only cover for miles around and our guide, Israeli birder Jonathan Meyrav had just said "This can be a good place for merlins" when we spotted this beauty in a tree.

As I flipped through the Middle East bird field guide on the flight over to Israel, this bird (above) was tops on my list of most wanted: the cream-coloured courser. We found a flock in the Negev Desert, just as a huge approaching storm made the afternoon seem like dusk. These coursers were digiscoped at a great distance, but were a thrilling sighting nonetheless.

Here we are at the end of a year of wonderful birds. These are only MY very subjective highlights and, as I said in the beginning of this post, it's really hard to choose just one to be my Bird of the Year. But I think I have one. It's the Bohemian waxwing, above. This was a life bird for me—one that had eluded me for many years. Bohenian waxwings are birds of the far North. However, the winter of 2010-11 was something of an invasion year for BOWAs and I did not want to miss out on my chance. So my friend Geoff Heeter (a native Michigander) and I made a road trip north, nearly to the Upper Peninsula, seeking a flock of these wandering fruiteaters. Every lead we chased came up empty, until a kind birder on the Mich-Birds listserv sent me a direct message with a hot tip for a place in Traverse City, where she'd seen Bohemians the day before. We got there, found a flock of seven, and I had my lifer (and so did Geoff).

This quest took on added significance because it came shortly after the rather sudden death of my dad, William H. Thompson, Jr. Shortly after Dad's memorial service, Geoff and I left Marietta, Ohio, headed north, and even if we hadn't seen a single Bohemian waxwing, the healing power of birding helped me to overcome my grief.

It's funny. Bird watching means different things to each of us. In 2011, as exciting as my birding experiences were, the one bird that sticks out is a life bird that helped me escape the agonizing pain caused by a death. Without birds, I'm not sure where I'd be right now. I'm so thankful for the wonder of birds, and for the joy that comes from watching them with my friends and family.

I'm looking forward the the birds of 2012!


On January 3, 2012 at 2:10 PM birdchaser said...

Gives new meaning to the term Life Bird. Thank you!

On January 3, 2012 at 3:16 PM Geoff said...

Birding heals. I have seen it, felt it, shared it and hope to again. Thank you.

On January 3, 2012 at 4:56 PM Anonymous said...

Birding does heal.

On January 3, 2012 at 8:40 PM buster said...

i don't get to church as often as i should as i bird almost every Sunday. i feel closer to God walking trails and climbing breakwalls searching for his wonderful creatures than i do listening to a preacher....

On January 5, 2012 at 9:43 AM Chatterbirds said...

Yes, birding certainly heals. I can never settle on just one "bird of the year". I would be tempted by that Cream-colored Courser though!

On January 5, 2012 at 10:39 PM Anonymous said...


I share your sorrow, for I lost my Dad on Christmas Eve, last year. Friends and family help us cope and give us a reason to keep going. But when they're not around, a dose of nature is a "for sure" cure.

My Dad, like your Dad, loved birds. He passed that love along to me. I couldn't have asked for a better gift.


Now that you've seen your waxwings, what's next on your most wanted list? How about a Snowy Owl for your yard list.

On January 19, 2012 at 11:14 PM Laurence and Maria Butler said...

Truly marvelous photographs. I'm sure the accompanying tales have etched each and every sighting on you quite indelibly. Our pains and passions, triumphs and tribulations do not stay at work or at home. They accompany us into the field. Luckily, the joy and beauty of birding stays with us forever, and provides the colorful backdrop to the rich life of family and friends that envelop you every day.

Thanks for sharing Bill of the Birds, I look forward to following your blog.

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