Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Birding the Confluence

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Remember those 70's T-shirts that said "My mamaw went to Disney World and all I got was this lousy T-shirt"? Well I took my lunch at the confluence of the Ohio and Muskingum Rivers today at noonish and all I saw was this lousy American crow. And a couple dozen nonmigratory Canada geese. I expected a bufflehead or a pied-billed grebe, a great blue heron, or at least a mallard of questionable parentage.

There are days when the confluence has a nice mix of birds, especially in winter when the watercraft traffic is non-existent. Maybe next visit. Still no local reports of bald eagles. Guess we'll have to wait for Lake Erie to freeze before "our" birds will come south.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Sapsuckers et arrive!

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The good thing about the winter's first cold front is that it always brings some of the season's new birds with it. This afternoon a yellow-bellied sapsucker made her first appearance. We can tell she's a sub-adult female by her streaky overall appearance (less clean looking than an adult female) and by her red crown, and whitish (not red) throat.

Here are two images of her. One is enlarged and cropped. She's a beauty, don't you think? Sapsuckers are irregular on our farm from early autumn through late spring. Since we sometimes go a year or more between sightings, we're always happy to see one. It's one of the seven woodepcker species we see here on our southeastern Ohio farm, five of which nest on our property.

Blazing Chet


Chet loves deer. It's a non-lethal attraction. He chases them. They run away.

I think the blaze orange makes him look really macho.

Deerly Beloved


Here's some evidence that we've got at least one good-sized buck on our farm. He's rubbed all the bark off the trunk of this sapling. He was so busy rubbing the velvet off his antlers that he forgot his hat.
While posting the eastern half of our land on Sunday afternoon, I spooked a great horned owl out of a giant beech stub where it was roosting. What was really interesting about this is that the owl, when it flew away, kept the tree trunk between itself and me. Some of my ivory-billed woodpecker-seeking friends have described this same evasion behavior from the Lord God bird.

Once the deer-hunting season is over, Julie and I will check out the beech stump from a spook-free distance to see if the owl is merely roosting there or has plans to nest there. We've heard a pair of GHOs hooting to each other from our east woods,the male's lower-toned hooting sounded pretty romantic....

Phoebe made this sign for our front door. It's her contribution to my posting effort. Our local schools are closed on the opening day of deer season because if they tried to hold classes very few kids would be present.

Excuse Our Absence


Sorry for the lack of posting activity of late. It's been a hectic couple of days here in Birdland. Lots of new projects, all the holiday bustle, our trip to Charm City for Thanksgiving, and several side trips all contributed to my bloglessness.

Mostly I've been practicing guitar. My hands are stronger than ever. Just LOOK at the results!

Deer Prudence


Yesterday was the opening day of Ohio's gun season for deer hunting. In a fall ritual that I've done nearly every year since 1993, I walked the perimeter of our 80 acres posting our land. It's a nice workout, walking our wooded ridges, valleys, and streams, nailing the yellow signs to the most visible trees. And our deer population is robust, making for good hunting in this area. I saw eight deer in two hours yesterday, though none was a buck.

Our wise old neighbor Karl once said "Well, door locks are to keep honest people out. If someone really wants in, that lock's not gonna stop them."

I feel the same way about our No Trespassing signs. Two years ago someone killed a medium-sized buck, sawed off the antlers, and left the carcass in our creek, just 1/8 of a mile from our front door. The person who did this walked right past at least two of the bright yellow signs that designate our property lines. Just now a hunter walked through our front yard, accessing the neighbor's acreage. I hallooed him and pointed him in the right direction. He had no idea he was trespassing, though he walked right past one of my signs.

Most hunters in our area are honest, respectful outdoorsmen and women. These folks would no more trespass on private land than slash their own tires. I put my signs up for them, and for the less-respectful handful of hunters who don't really care where they do their hunting.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not anti-hunting. We need hunting, especially since it's been about 200 years since humans removed the natural predators that kept the deer population in check. The main population check on white-tailed deer, other than hunting, is the automobile.

No, my concern about hunting on my farm is this: I just don't like the idea that there are strange people, perhaps from some distant city, rumbling around in our woods with shotguns. Do they know where our house is, or where the nearest gasline or oil well is when they prepare to shoot? Sometimes I have a hard time knowing exactly where I am on our land. A few accidental shootings happen every year in Ohio.

And then there's this: I can always tell where one or two of the hunters have been. They usually leave trash (potato chip bags, snuff cans, toilet paper, plastic bottles (sometimes full of urine!), and fired shotgun cartridges) in their wake.

We stay out of our woods during deer hunting season. We don't walk the kids out the driveway to meet the bus--we drive them. When we do go out, we wear blaze orange. Hey, that's life in the country.

I walk the woods a week or so after the season has ended and check for signs that our signs have been ignored, pick up a few handfuls of trash. I check to see which deer groups have survived. And we settle in for another 50 weeks of enjoying our woods.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Congratulations Karen & Jason!

Thursday, November 24, 2005

We hope you end up with kids just like these.
We're not sure how we got so lucky, but we hope you're just as lucky as we've been.

We're Thankful


We're visiting in Severna Park, Maryland at Julie's sister Nancy's house. Grandma Ida Zickefoose (who lives nearby) hugs Phoebe and Liam. Phoebe waits forlornly for dinner. Julie bakes her first-ever pie, and signs the finished piece. Nancy samples Julie's dough and places the pie in the oven.
We eat to excess and then pass out on the couches, chairs, and beds. The pie awaits. We sleep. Thanksgiving settles on the Earth.

Happy Thanksgiving!

This is a view of our side yard and orchard late last winter. Julie, who took the photo, calls it "Yardful of Meat."

The turkeys, deer, and countless other creatures, come in to nibble on the corn we broadcast beneath our pines.

I want to wish all a Happy Thanksgiving!


Whipple Bird Club!

This is the board of directors (and the entire membership) of the Whipple Bird Club, on a 2004 outing to The Wilds, near Zanesville, Ohio.

From left: Shila Wilson, Steve McCarthy, BT3, and Julie Zickefoose. We are flashing the gangland symbol "W" for Whipple. This hand sign is recognized the world over as signifying Whipple.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Giant Birds of Costa Rica

Tuesday, November 22, 2005
My friend Rondeau Ric McArthur from Ontario encountered these giant macaws in Tortuguero National Park in Costa Rica. He crept up on them and, using all his stealth, snapped this very rare photo.

Note how the birds are engaged in their complicated breeding season courtship ritual. It won't be long before there are half a dozen little bird statues running around the grounds of Tortuguero.

Thanks Rondeau Ric!

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Another Ridiculous Giant Thing

Saturday, November 19, 2005

While grocery shopping in Jamestown, New York, last August,Julie, Phoebe, Liam, and I stumbled upon a treasure trove of giant statues adorning a miniature golf course. The course had been abandoned, which made the statues seem all the more wild and real.

I want to ask: could YOU calmly putt your golf ball into the clown's nose while this magnificent beast was charging you?

I didn't think so.

Neither could Tiger Woods.

Quotable Bird Watchers


In my teens, the mere glimpse of a bird would change my listlessness to fierce intensity. I lived for birds. It was exciting to see them move, to watch them fly. There was nothing thoughtful or academic in my interest; it was so spontaneous I could not control it.
--Roger Tory Peterson

Friday, November 18, 2005

No Such Thing as a Free Breakfast

Friday, November 18, 2005
At least not at this San Diego motel. You'd think that, if you can spell jacuzzi and suite, that breakfast would be a no-brianer.

I mean no-brainer.

SOMEWON didn't eat there Wheety's for brakfast.

Entering the Duck


As an editor, it's impossible for me to pass by a sign like this without cringing.
How hard would it have been to re-break the type so that the sign said:
Entering the
Duck Creek

This sign reminds me of that great Tom Lehrer song about the town road signs of Massachusetts, "Entering Marion."

Am I being too picky?

The Eagle Flies on Friday

After a hectic and frustrating morning at the BWD offices I headed out the door at 1 pm for lunch. I knew I wanted to try to do a bit of bird watching, so I elected to make my first trip up the Muskingum River, to Devol's Dam, to see if any bald eagles had arrived for the winter. On the way I stopped to pick-up lunch at Huck's, a family owned farm-produce store along the river that makes sandwiches and soups at a little deli counter. At least once a week in the winter I'll hit Huck's and then eat my lunch at Devol's Dam, where the bald eagles, a collection of gulls, and a few waterfowl can usually be found. Where is Devol's Dam? At the end of Devol's Dam Road, of course. I like saying that: Devol's Dam Road.

I walked in the door at Huck's, placed my sandwich and soup order, and bantered with the deli gal. Then I realized that I HAD NO MONEY. No wallet, no folded bills, no check book, no credit cards. I ran to the car. $1.46 in change was staring at me from my change holder.

Sheepishly I went back in to the counter and confessed my momentary poverty. Instead of making me wash the meat slicer, the deli gal said "No problem!" and made me out a slip for $4.08. That's one of the benefits of living in a small town.

Alas no eagles, ducks, or even a great blue heron at Devol's Dam. But I'll head back up the river next week to check again. And I'll be sure to stop at Huck's (with money in pocket) for my lunch.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

I Miss Digiscoping

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Back in "the day" when digiscoping was a relatively new phenomenon, I bought a Nikon CoolPix 950 digital camera, outfitted it with a couple of plumbing washers so that it nested perfectly over the eyepiece of my older Swarovski 80mm spotting scope and I took tons of photos of birds. The shots were pretty good, but getting the images off the camera and onto the computer was a pain. And in bright sunlight I couldn't see the LCD screen on the back of the camera, so many of my mid-day shots were bad. And the camera ate batteries.

I upgraded cameras, acquiring an Olympus 700 series digital camera which takes higher megapixel images, is easy to use, and really easy to transfer images onto my Mac laptop, but it is no good for digiscoping. Look at the image of the white stork with the big black circle (vignetting) around it. That's the kind of shot my current set-up takes. The large lens of the camera is too big for the relatively small lens of my scope's eyepiece. I can crop the dark circle and still get a decent shot, but if I had THAT kind of time I'd probably be trying for the world's record at dominoes or something.

I MISS digiscoping. Especially now that so many optics/camera companies are making gear specifically for digiscoping.

Here are a couple of my Texas images. The pair of neotropic cormorants is a digiscoping shot that I re-cropped to eliminate the black circle. The black-bellied whistling ducks are just a non-digiscoped grab shot I took as they flew over the Ramsey Preserve in Harlingen. The spotted owl chicks I digiscoped in August 2003 though a friend's scope.

When I'm all grown up I'm going to get back into digiscoping.

Here's a fairly robust site that explains digiscoping. And another excellent one by Mike McDowell, from this side of the pond.

Warning, digiscoping, like playing bingo, popping bubblewrap, and eating Fritos, can be addictive.

A New Kind of Big Sit: The Big Fly

All week long at The Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival the field trip leaders were talkin' smack to each other. So it was logical that this friendly competition would continue on the plane ride home from Harlingen this past Monday. On board the Continental flight with me were Jeff Bouton (Leica Optics), Stephen Ingraham (Zeiss Optics), Chris Wood (WINGS tour leader and E Bird co-coordinator), Kevin Karlson (bird photographer), and Amy Hooper from WildBird magazine. I joked that if the plane went down, bird magazine publishing and birding optics would be set back decades.

Just after we got the enlightening speech about seat cushions being flotation devices, Bouton, from Row 11 shouted back to me in Row 18: "BT3! Big Sit all the way to Houston! Starting now!"
Problem was I was in an aisle seat with a rotund seatmate, so my birding options through the tiny porthole window were significantly limited. Bouton and Wood had window seats and got most of the birds. None of us had optics in hand. This was bare-knuckle, bare-eyeball bird watching at its most challenging.

We ended up with 12 species for the 1.5 hour flight from Harlingen to Houston. Bouton called some other festival leaders who were flying from Harlingen on a later flight to challenge them to top us. Rumor has it that they actually scouted around the perimeter of the Harlingen airport before entering to stake out some possible sightings once they boarded their plane. They also bribed their fellow passengers to trade seats so they had expanded window/scanning coverage. In spite of these questionable tactics (and the likely use of performance enhancing drugs) they only managed to tie our total of 12 species. But now it's ON for future festivals and the Big Fly.

Try a Big Fly the next time you are soaring the friendly skies. For my next flight there's no doubt that I'll need to be in a window seat on an exit row, with binos in hand. I wonder if I could mount my spotting scope on the armrest...

Sleeping Through the Checklist

Field trips at birding festivals can be intense experiences. The basic idea is to see as many birds as possible, and while you are not racing around, as on a Big Day, you do want to maximize the list of birds seen, and make sure the birds are seen by everyone. Among the trip leaders, it can get downright competitive when it comes to comparing lists and braggin' about good birds found. But ultimately it's all in good fun.

When the leaders read through the checklist at the end of a field trip, often during the bus or van ride home (as shown at right, above) some folks madly follow along checking off the birds they've seen. Others use the opportunity to catch 40 winks. After our recent trip to Anzualduas Park along the Rio Grande, we found it really hard to stay awake as we listened to the basso-profundo voice of Mike Overton (without beard in photo) reading over the day's check list. Heck, even Jim Danzenbaker (the bearded wonder of Brunton) was unable to refrain from snoring when Mike had the mic. Fortunately Overton is a top birder and butterflyer, so the sightings list was long and we all got a good nap.

Field trip tip: A great way to wake up your fellow birders so they pay attention to the check list is to perform your rendition of the "song" of a male yellow-headed blackbird over the bus' PA system. Like Colt 45 Malt Liquor, it works every time!

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The Domino Effect

Wednesday, November 16, 2005
A house sparrow in The Netherlands was shot and killed with an air rifle after accidentally knocking over more than 20,000 dominoes that were being set up in an attempt to break a world record.

The complete story is on CNN's site today.

Two things make this an interesting story.

1. The house sparrow (or English sparrow) is a declining "species of concern" in the UK and Europe. So it's highly illegal to shoot one, even if it did just ruin your attempt at a world record.

2. What kind of humans have the time to set up that many dominoes? And what kind of glory accrues to the owner of such an accomplishment?

"Hey, remember that dominoes world record that was set a few years ago? That was ME!"

I think any bird that can knock over 23,000 dominoes without any help should itself be in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

March of the Bird Watchers

Tuesday, November 15, 2005
Early on Sunday morning, November 13, a busload of bird watchers disembarked at Anzalduas County Park along the Rio Grande, south of McAllen, Texas. We spread out in a skirmish line and marched across the giant open field along one side of the park in search of possible Sprague's pipits, which are known to winter at this site.

The technique worked! Everyone got decent in-flight looks at the birds--it's almost impossible to spot a Sprague's pipit on the ground. We also found at least 60 eastern meadowlarks, a few dozen Savannah sparrows, and several American pipits.

The foggy effect of this photograph is an artifact of taking my camera from the cold air conditioning of the bus into the hot, humid 80-degree morning air. No matter how much I wiped the lenses, the fog returned until the camera (or binocular or spotting scope) returned to the ambient outside temperature. In extreme situations this can take up to an hour!

We learned that it's best to keep your optics and cameras on your lap during the bus ride. Your body heat helps minimize the fogging later.

The Price an Emcee Pays...


When I agreed to be the emcee of the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, I did not know that I would be subject to the artistic talents of my fellow bird watchers. My friend Marci Fuller, chairperson of the festival, put up posters with my photo and bio to help people cope with the fact that the ever-popular Father Tom Pincelli would not be this year's emcee.

She also thought it would be fun to let people decorate my face with erasable pens.

Let me tell you, this was the least offensive version.

Maybe we need to put out crayons and paper at future festivals, because there seems to be a lot of pent-up artistic frustration among today's avid bird watchers...

Texas Seafood

The birding was great in South Texas but the fishing was even better. Check out the size of this crab I caught. And I didn't even have to go to the Gulf of Mexico. I caught this one walking through the auditorium in Harlingen. I had to cook it for hours before it was edible, however.

Meeting Bill Thompson

I met Bill Thompson in Harlingen, Texas. He's a professor at University of Texas Pan American. Do we look related?

He teaches marketing and statistics at UTPA and was at the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival conducting an economic impact survey on ecotourism. We field trip leaders passed out the surveys on every trip. It'll be interesting to see what the results are.

Professor Thompson told me that, being in South Texas, he's often asked by bird watchers if he's related to me! It's nice to know that at least one Bill Thompson on this planet understands statistics, because it's Greek to me!

Hermits as neighbors

While cooking dinner for the kids tonight, I heard the chickadees and titmice engaging in some very enthusiastic scolding. I could not find what had gotten their dander up (was hoping to find a screech or saw-whet owl). Instead, I noticed two hermit thrushes in the mobbing flock of birds. Both gave that soft tchup! call as I approached the sumac and grape tangle where the flock was gathered. One confiding hermit thrush stopped to show me that he indeed had buffy rings around both eyes, and a rusty tail, too.

It's a warm afternoon here, but it won't stay that way for long. These thrushes just arrived on a huge weather front that hit us last night.

Our hermits will survive on sumac, dogwood, pokeberry and greenbrier fruits through the winter. It's such a treat to see them on our winter walks. Their warm brown colors seem cheery against the drab gray and dun of the leafless forest. I can say with confidence that these hermits make great neighbors.

How the Couch's Kingbird Got Its Name

I must confess that I am not everyone's cup of tea as a field trip leader and I recently proved this at the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival. I think it's because I cannot resist having fun, especially when the birding gets intense. Intensity was in the air as we pondered the identity of one of the confusingly similar South Texas yellow-and-gray kingbirds. While helping out as one of four trip leaders on an outing to Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, I explained how the Couch's kingbird got its name.

"Back when this area was first being settled, the early pioneers did not have any furniture, so they had to make their own. They found that certain locally available natural materials worked best for their purposes. The feathers of this species of kingbird made the softest, most comfortable couch stuffing, but it took hundreds just to make one cushion, so the process was abandoned, but the name stuck. And ever since that time this bird has been known as the Couch's kingbird."

Loud groaning filled the air. Serious birding was resumed.

Actually the kingbird was named by ornithologist Spencer Baird in honor of Darius N. Couch, a Civil War general who took a leave of absence from the U.S. Army to participate in a zoological expedition to northern Mexico.

Apologies to the groaners. I couldn't resist.

Monday, November 14, 2005

The New Birding

Monday, November 14, 2005

You've probably heard that tangerine is the new black. Well butterflying is the new birding.

During the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, which concluded yesterday in Harlingen, Texas, I was surprised at the explosion in the interest in butterflies. I've noticed the butterfly wave growing slowly over the years, but this trip to Texas it seems to have hit critical mass. There's a great new spiral-bound guide to the butterflies of Mexico (handy for those tough South Texas butterflies), lots of new binocs specifically designed to be good for BOTH birding and butterflying, and almost every birding site we visited during the festival had its own native plants garden for butterflies. Pictured is the butterfly garden at the new Bentsen State Park vsitors' center, where Parker Backstrom was helping us to sort out unusual species from among the hundreds of queens that were nectaring on the flowers.

John Tveten, the longtime Texas naturalist and author,even told me that butterflies were getting so popular that he's moving on to moths, a field where we still don't have all the North American species identified. BTW, if you want to dip a toe into butterflying, I suggest Kenn Kaufman's excellent field guide. It's easy to use and pocket-sized.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Bentsen State Park

Friday, November 11, 2005

Bentsen State Park has really changed since I last visited it. There's no longer any camping allowed inside the park, but the birding is still really good despite the loss of most of the feeding stations the campers maintained (and where it was very easy to cherry-pick many of the park's choice birds). The new visitor center is really nice (air conditioning! bathrooms! food!) but the best feature of the New Bentsen is the hawk watching platform (shown) which is a long, softly sloping boardwalk that towers over a newly re-flooded resaca. There's tons of room along the walkways of the tower, so one does not feel in the way. It's sturdily built, too, so scope shake is minimized.
We scored most of our birds here, including sora, Wilson's snipe, olive sparrow, American bittern, vermilion flycatcher, and about 50 other species. The tower alone makes Bentsen a must-re-visit destination for birders.

Later, near mid-day, we walked along the resaca near the old boat ramp and caught some good looks at ringed kingfisher, anhingas, and behind the water feature, we spotted a pair of clay-colored robins all ratty-looking from just having bathed. A skulky life bird for nearly all the folks in our group. Unfortunately, later groups missed the robins...

Also worth mentioning, lots of very obvious javelinas scarfing food from beneath the remaining feeding stations.

And a really cute gray-morph eastern screech owl taking a bit of afternoon sun.