Saturday, December 31, 2005

Whipple's First Hanukkah?

Saturday, December 31, 2005

Julie's college friend Martha Weiss and family are visiting us on the farm this week. Martha, her husband Josh Rosenthal, and daughters Annie and Isabel, live in Washington DC. They have shared their celebration of Hanukkah in our home for the past two nights. Our kids were fascinated by the candles and the ceremony. And by the gifts and games of course. It's been an enriching thing for our kids to see a different holiday celebration than Christmas. We all wondered if this might be the first time Hanukkah was observed in Whipple.

We've had a really nice visit. Both Josh and Martha are biologists so we've spent lots of time talking about nature, birds, plants, and Martha's area of expertise, caterpillar poop. As one of our Hanukkah gifts, they gave us the new field guide to North American caterpillars, which is ultra great.

The Weiss/Rosenthals head out today for Cincinnati and the Thompson/Zickefooses will go shopping for our FABULOUS New Year's Eve outfits. I am sure I'll inflict photos on you.

Enjoy the last hours of 2005.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Another Bird I've Never Seen

Friday, December 30, 2005
Great gray owl photograph by Tim Driscoll.

Our pal Tim Driscoll of Grand Forks, ND, sent me this image of a great gray owl, one he saw on a recent trip to Beltrami State Forest in NW Minnesota. This is the same place that Tim, Julie, and I, and a handful of other birders (including Patti Alleva, and Dave and Cec Lambeth) visited last June seeking life birds.

I was hoping (in June) for five possible lifers: great gray owl, Connecticut warbler (my total jinx bird for a decade), three-toed woodpecker, black-backed woodpecker, and spruce grouse. We dipped out on all five, though we heard a few CT warblers singing.

So good old Tim is "kind" enough to send me a note when he sees any of my most-wanted birds, including this lovely great gray. Last summer he sent me two notes about Connecticut warblers he'd seen.

Perhaps I am not meant to see any more birds in this lifetime.....yeah right!

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Zick the Radio Star

Thursday, December 29, 2005

If you listened to NPR's "All Things Considered" last night, you might have heard Julie Zickefoose reading a commentary about the return of some hummingbirds we raised at our home in 2003. Julie has been a bird rehabilitator from more than 20 years and has many fascinating and heartbreaking stories from her experiences. Perhaps none has captured more attention than her story of raising two broods of nestling hummingbirds orphaned by violent storms in June of 2003. Four nestlings (all males) survived the storm and three survived to fledging and release late that summer.

Some months ago Julie recorded a follow-up commentary for NPR/ATC on the birds' amazing return to us the following spring. It surprised us that it finally aired last night, and we missed hearing it during the show. If you missed it, you can hear it here.

Julie has done 18 commentaries for NPR/ATC and each one has generated a lot of neat e-mail and communication with listeners. Her radio career has even smoked out some of her schoolmates from grade school, high school, and college. And some distant relatives, too.

I am very proud of The Zick. Few people can weave a story like she can and I bask in her reflected glory. It's good to be Mr. Julie Zickefoose.

Acorn's King Eider


This came in late last week from Nature Nacho John Acorn, aka The Alberta Bugster, about Eiderblitz--his quest for a king eider on a nearby lake.

Oooh, we had a good day at Lake Minnewanka, and the eider was as cooperative as any immature, backlit distant duck I've ever encountered. Wish you were there!

Me too, Nacho, me too. For some reason I do not have king eider on my yard list. Perhaps in 2006.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Birding with DG

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Debbie Griffith, BWD's managing editor, had a birthday over the weekend, so I bought her lunch today and we headed up the Ohio River in search of bald eagles. Our first stop was the Willow Island lock and dam between Reno and Newport on the Ohio side of the river. In winter there's almost always something to see--sometimes just gulls and cormorants and Canada geese, but always something.

Today our first birds were coots, pied-billed grebes, mallards, and a smattering of ring-billed gulls. We also spotted a small flotilla of hooded mergansers along the lock channel--the males had their headgear fully extended showing the contrasting black and white. Hoodies are among my favorite winter ducks because they are commonly seen here in winter, usually close to shore.

Just above the dam, on the West Virginia side is a huge power plant. Warm water flowing from the plant keeps this part of the Ohio somewhat temperate in winter, so the waterfowl always seem to congregate in the placid, somewhat warmer waters above the dam. The public viewing tower on the Ohio side provides a good vista for scanning the river. I've seen common loons here, four different grebe species, and even some of the less common (for us) waterfowl species, including long-tailed duck, northern pintail, common merganser, tundra swan, and snow goose.

We left the dam and headed farther north to the Newell's Run embayment, a backwater created by the Willow Island dam. I did many a bird trip here as a kid and can still remember the life birds that this place has shown me. Debbie and I found more hoodies, more great blue herons, more ring-billed gulls, and black ducks mixed in (literally and probably genetically) with some mallards. Canada geese are thick here, too. As we pulled back onto Route 7 to head back the BWD's offices, we scanned the trees on the head of Middle Island. These huge sycamores and water maples are a favored resting/roosting spot for our wintering bald eagles. Sure enough, I finally spotted a big dark lump in one of the trees--a lump too big to be a squirrel nest.

It was a third-year bald eagle with a dirty-white head and upper back, and a dark tail. After ogling this bird for ten minutes or so, we snapped a distant digital image of it and headed back to work. Not bad birding for a lunch hour, And we had some bird to brag about to our co-workers when we got back. I think DG had a happy birthday.

Visitors from Afar, Optics Musings


Clay Taylor (who is the pro birder for Swarovski Optik North America) one of Julie's birding pals from her days in Connecticut and his daughter Grace came to Whipple for a visit yesterday. It's always great to see Clay to catch up, talk about birding, birds and butterflies we've seen lately, and other topics of interest. But it was really cool to meet Gracie, who is perhaps the nicest 13 year old we've ever met, and who looks like she could be our Phoebe's sister.

We see Clay many times each year at birding festivals around the country. In fact he told me that in his job for Swarovski,in one recent year, he had some event or other on 42 weekends. That's busy!

If you've been to a birding festival in the past five years, you've surely seen Clay either in the Swarovski booth, giving a program on digiscoping, or out in the field leading a trip. When Swarovski hired Clay as its fulltime representative to the bird watching world, it changed how optics companies market to us. Of course it helped that Swarovski came out with its high-end EL series of binos not long after hiring Clay. The ELs became a runaway success, propelling Swarovski into the lead in the birding optics race. There are now many other high-end binocular models vying for the top spot with the ELs, so it's hard to say any ONE model is IT. But isn't that a good problem for us bird watchers to have?

Today most of the major optics manufacturers have birding reps that are actual, knowledgeable birders. These companies are finding that having an actual birder in the field helps them sell product, keeps them in touch with changes in the marketplace, and generates new ideas and innovations for future products. I'm sure you know at least some of these pro birders: Jeff Bouton for Leica, Stephen Ingraham for Zeiss, John Riutta for Leupold, Michael Freiberg for Nikon, and the small army of birders (Mike, Ben, Katie, Sharon) that Eagle Optics employs--they're all out there regularly offering advice to optics-hungry bird watchers.

These optics companies have also supported birding festivals by being sponsors, by buying vendor booth spaces, and by offering programming. It's all good for birding and a lot of this can be traced to Clay Taylor's years of "being there" in the field with the rest of us. Thanks dude!

Monday, December 26, 2005

Boxing Day Smile

Monday, December 26, 2005
My friend Rondeau Ric McArthur sent me this image, saying "I have no idea what this is supposed to be for, however, it made me laugh."

Me too, and a chuckle is much needed on the day after Christmas, especially when it's gloomy and gray. Hope it makes you laugh, too.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

What Santa Done Brung Us

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Phoebe got a flashy and warm new winter hat, a 20 questions game, and new slippers (among 1.2 million other things)

Liam, of course, got mostly train stuff, and new slippers (in addition to 1.5 million other things)

Julie got some new Keens, some music, and the traditional gift of Portmerion dishware from her fabulously thoughtful hubby.
I got some new Keens, too, some music, and some Mr. Bill pajamas. The jammies are from my mom who gets everyone in the family new PJs each Christmas. Thanks Mom!

Chet Baker (best dog ever) got some new teeth.

It has sho 'nuff been a good Christmas.

Hope yours has been good too.

Before/After the Frenzy

Our family room, in the wee hours of Christmas morning, was peaceful and beautiful. Ahhh....Christmas....

A few short hours later, it was like an animal feeding frenzy at an African watering hole. See the despondent animals, sleepy from the intensity of their activity, wondering what has just happened here.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Happy Christmas from Indigo Hill

Saturday, December 24, 2005
May your holidays be merry and bright (and birdy, too).

Peace on Earth.


OK 1902

Jules and I visited our east woods late yesterday afternoon to check on the old beech snag where I suspected the great horned owl might be roosting. We found no owl, but we did get to visit one of the oldest trees on our 80 acres. It's a gigantic American beech tree, growing right along the old oil/logging access road at the bottom of our east valley.

Our property has been farmed, grazed, and logged heavily during the past 200 years, but the loggers left the beeches, considering them trash trees, unworthy of cutting. Someone visited this old beech 103 years ago and carved "OK 1902" in its trunk. If you look closely in the first photograph you can barely see the scarred inscription.

Huge parts of the old beech have fallen off. It's got a giant stress fracture down one side, and most of its roots have rotted away, but it's still standing. I like to think of all this tree has witnessed in its lifetime. It certainly heard our township's first tractor roaring in a nearby field, and the first automobile, too. It might have seen the airship Shenandoah pass overhead before it crashed about 25 miles north of here, near Caldwell, Ohio in 1925. World wars, several oil booms, catastrophic flooding and tornadoes. I wonder if the beech, perhaps as a sapling, saw the last great flocks of passenger pigeons that roamed the Ohio valley.

We know that one day the beech will no longer be able to stand and will come crash to the ground. There it will return to the soil to feed some of its many offspring scattered across the hillside around it. Until that sad day, we'll keep visiting it, running our hands over its scarred, ancient trunk, talking to it, and cherishing its presence on our little piece of this planet.

Friday, December 23, 2005

While Out Shopping...

Friday, December 23, 2005
I have nothing, really, to say about this amazing bumper sticker, spotted in the parking lot of our local KMart, except "Thanks for the Warning!"

My Favorite Martin

Like millions of other people, I've often wondered what it would be like to shut a guitar in the sliding door of my mini van. Well wonder no more, people, because I am here to tell you that, SURPRISE! It's not a fun experience.

Returning home from Phoebe and Liam's stellar performances in their elementary school Christmas/holiday program last Tuesday night, I was astounded at the amount of crapola in my van. It had been accumulating during the holidays, I could clearly see that now. As I moved a large pile of boxes full of unwrapped Christmas presents away from the prying eyes of the rest of my family, I spied my Martin Backpacker Guitar nestled between the back seats. I had loaded the instrument into my van on Sunday so, as is my annual habit, I would have a guitar to play at the BWD office during the holidays. Why? Because the office is nearly empty, and I can play a song or two while waiting for something to print out, and know that I am disturbing no one. Sort of like Tom Cruise's tube sox and tighty-whities dance in Risky Business, minus the Ray-Bans. And (at the office) I am normally fully clothed and a foot taller than Mr. Cruise.

Many guitar players do not like the Martin Backpacker because:
a: it does not really look or sound like a normal guitar (unless amplified)
b: it actually looks more like a kayak paddle, but it does not well as one, the sound hole fills up with water.
c: it is physically impossible to play it sitting down, due to the guitar's shape.

Julie bought me this guitar to take along with us on trips. It's designed to be a travel guitar--one that easily fits in the overhead compartment of even the tiniest, gerbil-powered commuter airplane. And when I've taken it to perform at birding festivals, with the right amplification, it's really sounded great. So, Mr. Martin Backpacker, this little weird-shaped box of wood and strings has been a good companion to me on many adventures. He's been all over the United States and to Canada, and Mexico. His birding lifelist is huge.

Back to the fateful night.....
It was going to be really cold that night, and guitars do not like to be below freezing, so I slung Mr. Martin Backpacker (in his travel bag) over my shoulder, picked up my briefcase, the gift boxes, a coffee mug, and grabbed the door handle to shut it. Now this was not the fancy automatic door on my Toyota Sienna that closes slowly and makes a loud beeping noise that says: "Kids, pets, limbs, guitars BEWARE! I am closing and you may be CRUSHED!" It was the old-fashioned pull-and-slam-shut sliding door.

As I yanked the handle and flung the door along its runners to close it, Mr. Backpacker decided to end his life. He slipped forward, just getting his thin, fragile neck between the van's door and door frame.

The crunching sound made me sick. It was several long minutes before I could open up the case to see what I already knew awaited my eyes. A headless Martin.

Why, Mr. Backpacker, why? Was it something I played or sang? Are you jealous of my other dozen guitars? Am I playing too much bass these days? SPEAK TO ME! SHOW ME A SIGN!

Today I am taking Mr. Backpacker to the guitar shop (Marietta's Third Street Music) to see if we can rebuild him. I am prepared to be met with hysterical laughter. If he is unrepairable, I may have to have a funeral pyre for him. That would be sad indeed.

Don't tell Mr. Backpacker, but I hear the new mini-Martins are pretty hot.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Making a Magazine

Thursday, December 22, 2005
Here at Bird Watcher's Digest we're working almost as hard as the elves in Santa's workshop. Not only are we making thousands of bird watchers' dreams come true by sending out their gift subscriptions for the holidays, we're already working on the March/April 2006 issue!

Today I am writing captions for the layouts and trying not to merely describe what's going on in the photograph. Ideally when you read one of the captions in BWD, your brain will grow a tiny bit, like those chickadees whose brains grow larger to help them remember where they cached their sunflower seeds.

Now where was I.....let's see. I got up this morning, then I had some coffee, and some juice. Oh yeah! We're really cranking out the content these days here at BWD. Did I mention that we're already working on the March April 2006 issue? It's gonna be great!

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Web Witches

Wednesday, December 21, 2005
BWD's Wicked Witches of the Web were in town on Monday, so following an afternoon of intense meetings, the editorial team took them out to dinner. In the party, from left to right, were Katherine Koch (one of the WWOTW), BWD's Managing Editor Deborah Griffith, DG's husband David, BWD Production Director Sarah Brady, BWD Editorial Assistant (and future WWOTW) Amy Wells, and WWOTW Laura Kammermeier.

We were at The Marietta Brewing Company on Front Street, where the beer is really good and the food makes you want to drink more beer (crafty business plan, that). We continued our business discussion during and after dinner and finally came to the conclusion that this whole World Wide Web thing is nothing more than a flash in the pan. So we went back to our offices and unplugged all the computers.

Now we've got more time for churning our butter, carding our wool, and listening to the old wireless.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Moon Over Whipple

Tuesday, December 20, 2005
I could not resist taking this picture yesterday morning while taking the kids to the school bus. It's the winter solstice full moon setting with the rising of the sun.

As that wise sage Nigel Tufnel once intoned:

And oh how they danced...
the l'il people of Stonehenge.

Happy winter solstice to one and all!

Queen of the Suet Dough

My super-talented wife, Julie Zickefoose is a renaissance woman. She paints, draws, writes, does all the family things, gardens, blogs, trains the dog, and she sings, too.

But our birds don't care.

They only care about one thing Julie does in the winter: She creates suet dough. For the past six years or so, our front door feeding station has been busier than the free sausage sample table at Sam's Club. Our birds LOVE the bird dough that Julie makes.

I tried to help stir the thick, burbling mixture of lard, peanut butter, and corn meal once to give JZ a break. All I did was break the wooden spoon.

"Ragnar sorry, Jooly."

You can read Julie's first-person account of her latest suet dough creation session on her relatively new blog.

Why is it Rock Pigeon?

OK. A question for the ages: Why is the rock dove called rock pigeon? Why not underpass pigeon? Or roof dove? Or park pigeon? I've heard them called sky rats and roof rats and a few other less-polite names, too.

The official explanation is that rock (doves) pigeons formerly nested on rock ledges and cliffs. The American Ornithologists' Union adopted the name change from rock dove to rock pigeon to conform to the British Ornithologists' Union's decision to make this name change. On bird species that we share with Europe, the AOU wants its Check-list of North American Birds to be in synch with the BOU. How veddy British! Pip-pip! Cheerio!

I say old chaps! Let's call it ye olde English wire pigeon-dove from now on!
Right? BRILLiant!


Sunday, December 18, 2005

A Great Holiday Bird Card

Sunday, December 18, 2005

We get a LOT of bird-themed holiday cards this time of year. Some are really nice. Some are not that nice. And some have artistically rendered birds that make you wonder simply "Why?"

And then there are always a couple of cards that stand out.

Ace bird photographer Marie Read sent out this holiday card image on Sunday night and I liked it so much I asked her if I could upload it here to share.

She replied:
Glad you like it. And it's "real" (not a digital composite) too - I sat
all morning in a freezing blind to get it!
In my 18 years at BWD, I've looked at hundreds of thousands of bird images. Marie's photography is almost always instantly recognizable to me because it's so personal and really seems to capture the essence of the birds' personality.

Her new book Secret Lives of Common Birds is a visual treat, with lots of amazing bird images, like this tufted titmouse on her clever holiday card. Check it out.

.Secret Lives of Common Birds

Holiday Party Small Talk


Each year at holiday parties, during the chit-chat and small talk, it's guaranteed that I will hear something like this:

Guy in holiday sweater and tie: Say, you're bird person...what are they called, a orthodontologist?

Me: Ornithologist? That's a scientist who studies birds...I'm a bird watcher.

Guy: Whatever. I seen this bird the other day standing down by the river. It was HUGE!

Me: It was probably a great blue heron.

Guy: No. It was HUGE! And gray. Some kinda long-legged crane or something.

Me: Well, great blue herons are very common around here all year lo....

Guy: No it was a bird that I never seen before.

Me: Did it have a long bill? And a curved neck?

Guy: Yeah

Me: That's a great blue heron.

Guy: No it wasn't that. I seen herons in Florida and they're white.

Me: Yes but...

Guy: And they don't come up here because it's too cold.

Me: Sure, but...

Guy: I thought you said you was a orthodontical bird guy...

Me: Have yourself a merry little Christmas.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

New Arrival at the Feeder

Saturday, December 17, 2005
Out first American tree sparrow of the winter arrived yesterday. I got a few brief glimpses of it as it scampered around under the brushpile for cracked corn. Then the male Cooper's hawk, who's been hanging around like a dirty shirt, made a pass through the yard and all the birds hid out for the next half hour.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Winter's Longest Days

Thursday, December 15, 2005
Man, today was one of those winter days that makes even the youngest among us think of moving to Florida, or at least to somewhere less frigid. We had freezing rain from dawn onward. That's just not right. The birds at the feeders looked downright miserable--like a bunch of taxpayers waiting to be audited.

I went in to the office at BWD and participated in some incredibly robust meetings, but I'd much rather have been reading my copy of North America's finest birding publication under a palm tree on Mexico's Isla Mujeres (as shown above).

Have you ever read BWD in some unusual place? (The bathroom is not THAT unusual). If so, please send in a photo of you (or someone) reading your beloved BWD in some unusual place or situation. And (assuming it's OK for public consumption) we'll share it with other Bill of the Birds readers. Cool? Cool!

Here's hoping the sun shines tomorrow, on all of us.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Let It Snow (Geese)

Wednesday, December 14, 2005
We've all been out on a bird watching trip and noticed that someone has "the hot hand." They are spotting all the birds, finding the unusual species, nailing the tough IDs--they are ON.

My buddy Steve McCarthy has had the hot birding hand lately. He's not only a local real estate baron, AND the Royal Meteorologist for The Whipple Bird Club, he's also the drummer for The Swinging Orangutangs, and a really good birder. For the second time this week, Steve called my cell phone to report a neat bird sighting. This time is was a trio of snow geese mixed in with a huge flock of Canadas along the Ohio River levee.

When Steve calls, I listen. So after getting his message, I called BWD's Managing Editor (and budding birder) Debbie Griffith.

"DG! Get your coat and be out in front of the office in one minute! Bring your binocs! We've got snow geese on the Ohio!"

After initially spazzing that they might be Ross' geese, I called Steve again and moments later he arrived with his sweet Swarovski scope. This gave us the look we needed to confirm that these were not the smaller-billed Ross' geese, they were dark-smiled snow geese (something I could not discern with 8x binocs from a distance.)

Amy, sorry about the flat tire, but at least you got snow goose for your life list!

It was a great way to start an otherwise unremarkable Wednesday.

Can't wait to get Steve's next call.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Smells Like Horned Larks

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Whipple Bird Club member Steve McCarthy called my cellophone yesterday with the breaking news that a flock of horned larks were on Stanleyville Road a few miles from our farm. He said "You can find 'em by looking for them, or you can roll down the window and smell them. They're on a the only freshly manured field on the road!"

Sure enough, I found the larks this noon, right where Steve had sniffed them out.

Just goes to show you that bird watchers should use ALL of their senses when in the field.

Thanks Stevo! You rock!

Baby It's Cold Outside!


Twelve degrees at dawn here on Indigo Hill. Even the birds outside, clinging to our full feeders, looked pretty miserable. At least the sun is shining, giving the frost on the meadow weeds a beautiful sparkle.

Julie just shouted down to me from her studio that the adult male Cooper's hawk was back yesterday, trolling for careless mourning doves. It was a failed mission, but I'm sure he'll be back. Our modos are corn-fed after all.

It's about time for our flock of wild turkeys to start showing up under the pine clump where we scatter the cracked corn and mixed seed. We've had as many as 17 at once, but that was the winter following the 17-year locust hatch year, so the abundance of crunchy insects made for enhanced breeding success. Last year we had a group of three toms and another group of five or six hens almost every day. When the ground is covered with snow and ice, it's harder for the turkeys to scratch for food items in the leaf litter. I can imagine one of them saying, "Well, we could go over to that nice farm where they throw out the handfuls of corn."

And another replying: "Yeah, but they way the people inside the house look at us really creeps me out!"

Monday, December 12, 2005

Pondering on the Path

Monday, December 12, 2005

Just back from an invigorating x-c skiing jaunt around our orchard and meadow. While pausing to catch my breath at the far end of the meadow I started thinking about the ivory-billed woodpecker rediscovery and the ongoing search. With all the emotion, wonder, hypotheses, anxiety, fear and loathing, political, scientific, and financial jostling for position, we still have very little in the way of facts, or actual knowledge, about the bird or birds that have been seen.

My thought was: If I could interview an ivory-billed woodpecker, what questions would I ask, and what would the bird's answers be?

The very first question would be:
Where the heck have you been all these years?

and the follow-up:
So, how did you avoid detection for most of the past four decades? There must've been some close calls....

I'll come back to this fantasy Q&A in future posts. Right now I'm thinking about how the bird might answer...

ivory-billed woodepeckers at nest cavity ©Julie Zickefoose

Sunday, December 11, 2005

The Ivorybill Hunter

Sunday, December 11, 2005
Jeffrey Gordon, BWD field editor, and expert birder from Delaware, sent me this image taken of him at Bayou DeView, Arkansas, just a short distance away from where the history-altering sightings of 2004 took place.

He writes: I don't know if the picture really conveys the size of the cypress tree--suffice it to say that it's not small. I'm actually standing several feet above ground level on a burned log, so the top of my head is probably 8 to 10 feet up the trunk.

As a part of the official ivory-billed woodpecker search team, Jeff is not able to make any statements about the search efforts in Arkansas. The need for secrecy is huge since so little is known about the birds, including how many of them exist, where they roost, nest, forage. All we've had so far are (the well-documented) anecdotal reports of fly-by birds and a few seconds of accidental video.

Since we cannot hear any immediate up-to-date news from the search team, we'll just send them our best holiday wishes for fruitful searching.

Don't know about you, but I'm asking Santa for 5 minutes of high-resolution video of a pair of courting ivorybills at a nest cavity.

Would You Like Giant Fries with That?

A giant waiter captured in action near Port Clinton, Ohio. Image courtesy Jim McCormac, who was taking a break from chasing rare birds along Lake Erie.

What was somebody THINKING when they created this mammoth figure? Maybe....

I know! We'll make a giant waiter guy out of fibreglass and people will immediately know how great our food is!