Friday, January 27, 2012

Snowy Owl Adventure Part 2: No Gull, No Worries!

Friday, January 27, 2012
Our birding gang at the concrete bridge in Ashtabula.

After a pit stop at Dunkin' Donuts to take on/drain off various liquids, we headed east along Lake Erie, all the way to Ashtabula (which, by the way is pronounced Ash-tah-BYEW-lah, not Ash-TAB-you-lah). Our target bird was the black-tailed gull, a vagrant from Asia that had been hanging out around the town's harbor since November. Scores of birders from all over have been there to see it. I'm not really a chaser, but the allure of a truly rare vagrant just an hour away from a virtually guaranteed snowy owl was too much to resist.

The industrial harbor/train yard at Ashtabula, OH where the black-tailed gull has been seen.

We followed the excellent directions on Jen Brumfield's website to the various Ashtabula haunts of the black-tailed gull and we found gulls—about 50,000 of them! At the Lakeshore Park overlook we encountered three fellow birders also seeking the black-tailed gull. No one had seen it yet on this sunny, cold, calm Sunday afternoon, but we had high hopes. We spent the next few hours scanning the gull flocks, hoping to see a single bird with the key combination of field marks that would make it the black-tailed gull. It was exactly like searching for a needle in a haystack of needles.

Jen's recommendation was to bop from spot to spot hoping to see the gull. So we drove back and forth, spending time at the overlook and the cement bridge. Multiple times we'd see a gull with a black terminal tail band, or one with a seemingly dark back. No dice on the ice. We never did see it.

So we did what any relatively normal (and not completely obsessed) bird watchers would do, we went looking for more snowy owls. Two of the guys at the overlook had spotted one from the concrete bridge, sitting on a giant coal pile, earlier in the day. We headed back that way. While Daniel and I braved the increasingly breezy afternoon chill, the gals sat in the comfort of the Zickmobile, heater on. We looked for the gull in the marina, facing away from the lake, while the gals gazed lazily out toward the coal and rock piles and the lake beyond. I thought they were probably napping.

I was wrong.

"We need the scope over here, guys! NOW! Hurry! And you're going to want to see this!" they exclaimed, as they climbed out of the toasty car and pulled their Elmer Fudd hats on.

"What do you have?" I asked.
"Come see for yourself!" they blurted.

This was when they started dancing what could only be described as a jig that was equal parts joyous and taunting.

They had found our second snowy owl of the day. On top of one of the hundred-foot-tall piles of gravel. Plain as day.

I was happy to see the owl and dutifully put the spotting scope on it. But I felt a bit silly that I hadn't seen it when I got out of the car. Oh well.
Here is the distant look we got through the scope. The owl was probably about 1/3 of a mile away. And here's a cropped view, below.

A zoomed up view of snowy owl #2.

We high-fived each other to celebrate our Two Snowy Owl Day. And I made a pitch that we go back to the overlook to scan for the gull some more. We did, though by this time we were all getting tired, eye-weary, and the cold was starting to invade our bones. As the sun dropped lower and the light turned lemon, then peachy, I spotted a distant snowy owl on another gravel pile. This one looked whiter and cleaner than the one we'd seen 20 minutes before from the bridge. But was it just a trick of the light? Was this the same owl from the bridge, just a different view?


I took some documentary photos and we decided to compare these with the view of the second owl over by the bridge. So back we went. We found the two Maryland birders there, confirmed that none of us had seen the gull, and told them about the other snowy owl. They immediately got excited and went to see it—stoked at having their OWN two-snowy-owl day (which was old news to us veterans at this point). I asked them to call me when they found it, and showed them my photo of where it was. Twenty minutes later they called to confirm that their owl (owl #3) was sitting on top of the gravel pile where we'd left it. Owl #2 was on the ground about 300 yards in front of us at this point, so we KNEW these were two different birds, and we had also just confirmed our first-ever THREE-SNOWY-OWL day!

Snowy owl #3 at Lakeshore Park overlook in Ashtabula, OH.

Now that's an awesome day of birding! Gull schmull! I got to see my spark bird, one of the least-encountered owl species in North America, right in my home state, not once, not twice, but THREE times in a single day!

Happy owl watchers at the end of an epic day.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Snowy Owling Adventure

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

My most recent snowy owl was in the Jurong Bird Park in Singapore in September 2010. Yes, it was inside a zoo in Asia! Not really thrilling to see—actually kind of depressing. And even though our winter this year in Ohio has been fairly mild (recent days excepted), it was actually getting kind of depressing, too.

Sunday, January 22 promised to offer a break in the harsh, icy winter weather we'd been enjoying in Ohio, so I decided to mount an expedition northward looking for special birds. This has become an annual ritual—as if giving myself over to the colder, more wintry northern latitudes could help break the spell of my winter lassitude. Last year it was Bohemian waxwings, recently named my Bird of the Year in a vote that made the recent political primaries look like nap time in Romper Room.

Before the warmer air mass moved in and melted all the ice, things were mighty cold and drab around the farm.

This year I would try to find the great white invader of the North: the snowy owl. I have a special connection to this species. The snowy owl was my spark bird way back in November of 1968, when one flew into our front yard in Pella, Iowa. That's the first bird I remember seeing and identifying myself. It sparked my interest in birds and bird watching and I've watched birds ever since.

Flashing back to the now... The winter of 2011-2012 has been a well-documented invasion year for snowy owls. And there is some debate about what causes this phenomenon. Is it a super abundance of food (lemmings, primarily) last summer that resulted in lots more baby snowies surviving to fledging? Is it a crash in the lemming population that forces starving snowies of all ages south in search of sustenance? Or does it just happen randomly every other decade or so? According to the experts, we don't really know.

My last Ohio snowy owl was in November 2001.

No matter the reason for the invasion, I was determined to try to see at least one snowy owl this winter. I missed the big influx of great gray owls a few years ago, which was a bummer. Wanting very much to ensure success, I called a hotshot birder in northern Ohio, Jen Brumfield. As I suspected, Jen had the hook-up. We made plans and I began spreading the word that I was heading north.

Funny thing about big birding excursions... they sound a lot more appealing when you first hear about them than they actually are when it's time to get your rump in gear and go. I asked 14 of my fellow birders—some of whom are actual relatives of mine—and all of whom had expressed enthusiasm for this mission—to come along. I envisioned a giant caravan of cars, all packed sensibly with bird watchers who were giddy at the prospects of the day. In the end only two friends joined us (three if you count Julie, who really had no choice). And these two friends, Kelly and Daniel, are brand new bird watchers. I complimented them on their courage. It would, after all, be at least eight hours in the car, with low temperatures—probably as cold as the dangly parts of a brass monkey, and we might completely strike out! They were undaunted.

We left home at 7:30, met our pals at 8, gassed up, and hit the road headed north. Our destination was to be a field near an airport in Cleveland. Kelly and Daniel asked questions and shared observations about owls and other birds as we drove. About an hour from our destination my cell phone rang and it was son Liam, part of the slugabed stay-at-homers in our family. He had a message to relay: "Jen called and she's at the spot looking at the snowy owl right now!"

I stomped on the accelerator.

We got there in record time, found Jen, and then cast our eyes upon the owl, about 200 yards distant. Oh glory be! Such a beauty! She turned, gazing one way then another.

We picked out details: she had tiny dark ear tufts, something we'd never noticed on other snowy owls. The back of her head showed markings that looked vaguely like a raptor face. Her eyes shone bright yellow in the late morning sun. Wow!

Jen told us the interesting story of how it had been found and what its habits seemed to be. Soon the owl floated to another spot, this one more out of our easy line of sight. So we talked of other birds. I was particularly interested in trying to see the vagrant black-tailed gull near Ashtabula, as long as we were this far north. Jen again had the latest intel, so, after watching our snowy owl for an additional 20 minutes, we headed for hot coffee, warm bathrooms, some food, and thence to the far northeast corner of Ohio.

to be continued.....

From left: Kelly, Jen, Julie, Daniel, happy snowy owl watchers.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Caption Contest #20 Winner!

Monday, January 16, 2012
The body was dumped in an area which was guaranteed to get no foot traffic. At press time, police have yet to locate the left arm.

Wow! Jason over at OpposableChums really hit a homer with his caption. Or as perennial caption maven Erik Bruder put it: "OC brough a cannon to a pillow fight!"

Jason is the proud winner of a set of birding bumper stickers from the BWD Nature Shop.

Other entries that got numerous votes from our panel of judges (though we always like ALL of the entries):

Harley Winfrey said...
Sure he's a birding celebrity, but when you meet BT3 in person, he's just so down to earth.

Julie Zickefoose said...
Thousands attended Bill's book signing. Thousands of chiggers.

steve moore said...
Bill learns that when stretching the elastic Bino Harness to maximum should never just let go.

Peggy said...
Virgin planker gets it all wrong!

John Workman said...
Noted Author and Authority on Birding Demonstrates "The Thompson Method" for Attracting Turkey Vultures.

Thanks to everyone who played. We'll post another caption contest as soon as we find the next truly goofy photo.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Caption Contest #20

Monday, January 9, 2012
My dear BOTB readers: It is time for the first Caption Contest of 2012. Please send in your clevermost caption for the image above. Use the Comments interface below to craft and deliver your bon mot.

Deadline is Friday morning, January 13, 2012 at 10:14 am. I (and my panel of very nearly ethical judges) will select a winner on that day. The winning entry gets a set of birding bumper stickers and a NEW CAR* to put them on!

Good luck and may the farce be with you.

*by "new car" we mean a Matchbox car stolen from my son Liam's overflowing toy chest in the basement. I promise to choose one that still has all four wheels fully functioning.

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!