Saturday, December 30, 2006

Gearing Up for New Year's Eve

Saturday, December 30, 2006
The Swinging Orangutangs have been woodshedding for weeks for our show on New Year's Eve. Today, December 30, was filled with lyrics gathering, set-list finessing, guitar string changing, bikini waxing, and gear loading. The van is groaning from the load of amps, speakers, monitors, guitars, and heavy-duty pennywhistles.

The van is already loaded. Normally the activity of equipment load-in and load-out conjures rainstorms. Not today. Is that bad or good?

Vinnie's fingers rarely leave his hands when he plays the keyboards.

Drummer Steve listens carefully to a song we're learning.

The pain of practice often calls for some painkiller, as bass player Marty demonstrates.

Zick the Mistress of the Lyrics organizes, copies, collates.

On Tuesday night I went gig clothes shopping for the boys in the band. At a local El Cheapo clothes outlet I found matching white shirts with blue polkadots and almost matching ties. Steve, Vinnie, Marty and I will all wear dark blue suits. We'll look swank--maybe not Hilary Swank--but certainly swanker than we normally look. Zick the Band Chick also scored a gig outfit that will complement the duds of her sidemen.

The official uniform of The Swinging Orangutangs.

I'll head to the hotel to play my normal Sunday morning jazz gig and then will spend the day setting up, tuning up, napping, and doing my pre-gig ritual of primal-scream yoga and Tuvan throat singing. Then I will fill my bandmates' individual brandy snifters with their chosen color of M&Ms, place them in each dressing room, check the Green Room spread, and we will be fully ready2rock.

Squint your eyes, There's a secret message in these song titles from our actual NYE set list.

I am really looking forward to this show. We're debuting a lot of new material, including some originals, and several completely knock-out covers (see: Burnin' Down the House our first song after the stroke of midnight). Among the bands/performers whose music we'll be covering are: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Marley, Talking Heads, Ryan Adams, Wilco, Lucinda Williams, Tracy Chapman, Sublime, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, John Mooney, Sonny Landreth, Eric Clapton, Sheryl Crow, Beck, John Prine, War, Jem, The Cure, Cheryl Wheeler, Steely Dan, The English Beat, Rod Stewart, The Violent Femmes, Santana, Fleetwood Mac, The B-52s, Tony Joe White, Bruce Cockburn, Cyndi Lauper, Albert Collins, Richard Thompson, Bonnie Raitt, Bad Company, The Grateful Dead, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Wilson Pickett, The Classics IV, Rufus Thomas, and Modern English, among others.

I'm sure I'll have a post-gig post or two but that'll have to wait until next year.

Hope y'all can make the scene. You'll dig it if you do.

Oh, and New Year's Day we'll start our 2007 birding year list off with European starling in the hotel parking lot.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Misnamed Birds

Friday, December 29, 2006
What's in a name?

Here's a quote from William Shakespeare, taken from his recently discovered play about birding (found in a dusty attic in Stratford, Connecticut):

What's in a name?
That which we call a rose-breasted grosbeak.

By any other word would sing as sweet. [sic]

--From Birding with Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

As for me, I have an Everyday Joe name: Bill Thompson. It's such a generic name that lots of people end up calling me Bob or Tom or Bill Thomas or Bob Thomas or Tom Billson--well, maybe not that last one.

When I lived in New York City there were 88 William H. Thompsons in the phonebook for Manhattan. It was easy to tell would-be apartment-crashing visitors "Hey, I'm in the phone book!"

Even down the road from me in rural-most SE Ohio there is another William Thompson. That's why I use the suffix III on my name. And am BT3 for short.

If you don't like your existing name, there are ways to discover other names that exist for you that you may not have known about. This may be the true reason why the Internet was invented. You can figure out your Soap Opera Name, your Adult Film Star Name, and other names you'll hope never to hear used in public here.

I loved getting my Pirate Name (Mad William Flint) from this web site.

And now we come to bird names, and especially birds with bad names. Where to start?

Above is an image I took of a red-bellied woodpecker showing some of the red belly for which the species is named. But the era of shotgun ornithology (where birds were shot, examined dead in the hand, then named for some physical attribute or a fellow ornithologist or the tree they were in or where they were shot) also has given us ring-necked duck. Have you ever seen the ring on the neck of a ring-necked duck? Me either!

Some other peevish bird names:
Purple finches are raspberry in color not purple.
Goatsuckers do not suck the milk or blood from goats.
Palm warblers aren't usually found in palm trees
Magnolia warblers are not normally found in magnolias (but Alexander Wilson shot some in a magnolia tree back in 1810 or so).
Prairie warblers avoid the prairies.
Connecticut warblers are fairly hard to see in Connecticut.
Ditto Cape May warblers in Cape May.
Magnificent hummingbirds are nice, but....
Sapsuckers drink sap rather than sucking it.
Have you ever seen the Nuttall's on a Nuttall's woodpecker?

Hey, I'm just getting warmed up here...

Got your own suggestions for the worst bird name? Give me a shout!

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Bluebird on Heron

Wednesday, December 27, 2006
This morning's skies teased us with a few sucker holes of blue amidst a sea of gray. Then the blue skies disappeared and much of the rest of the morning was cloudy. Of course after I got to work, the sun peaked out off and on and the light was really nice. I felt an itch to take pictures but, because I was shackled to my desk, this was an impossibility.

So, as much for my viewing enjoyment as yours, here's a shot I took about 10 days ago when I was home, the sun was out, and the birds were all around me. It's a female eastern bluebird sitting on our weathervane.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Boxing Day Postcard

Tuesday, December 26, 2006
After the delirious chaos of Christmas Day and all the joy it brings--especially getting to see the kids open their gifts a squeal with delight--we settled back into our quiet routine here on the farm. Writing, cleaning, cooking simple meals, and watching the birds at the feeders.

Today is known as Boxing Day in the United Kingdom. Traditionally Boxing Day was the day you gave a gift to those who worked for you (folks who delivered the mail, cleaned you home, your servants, etc.). The name comes from the tradition of servants bringing a box on Christmas Day to their employers who would then place coins or other valuable gifts in them. Then the servants got Boxing Day off (having worked on Christmas Day serving the Lord and Lady their hassenpfeffer).

Boxing Day is also known as St. Stephen's Day, or Hunt the Wren Day, the day in English folklore when the boys in a village would catch a wren and take it around to each house, introducing the tiny bird to all. This was to ensure a happy, healthy new year and a bountiful harvest of crops. And also to ask each household for a donation of money. I can't help but think about the poor wren--terrorized to the point of death I'm sure. Perhaps this is why the villages still observing this odd custom now use a stuffed wren instead of a wild-caught bird.

It's cold here today and the birds seem to sense that winter is no longer playing around. They are waiting at the suet dough dish in the morning when we get up, with what could only be described as imploring looks on their faces. When the feeder is filled, they chow down like so many 400-pound men in a Belgian waffle-eating contest (which actually aired on ESPN last night!).

It's one small consolation for winter's desolate embrace--the birds crowd the feeders and seem very appreciative of our generosity.

This is, after all the season of giving. Happy Boxing Day!

Thus far it's been only our resident Carolina chickadees at the feeders. No black-cappeds yet.

The feeders are slamming these late-December days. It's a sight to see.

Caveat: No wrens were harmed in the creation of this post.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmastime is Here

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Here's another song file from The Blennerhassett Trio for your listening enjoyment. For some of you this song might conjure memories of the Charlie Brown Christmas special...

Christmastime Is Here

Wishing you and yours a joyous, blessed, and safe holiday, wherever you are.

Merry Christmas and Peace on Earth,


Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Song in My Head

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Tonight the song in my head is:

Transcontinental 1:30 a.m.
by Vienna Teng
from her album
"Dreaming Through the Noise"

I love this woman's voice.

Julie always says I am a sucker for a woman singing sweetly with an accent (see Ivy, Bjork, Garbage, Edith Piaf) but I also like to listen to nice female voices without accents (see Sheryl Crow, Lori Carson, Natalie Merchant, Aimee Mann) and Vienna Teng has no accent that I can discern, but then I've only listened to this song 10,000 times so far.

In Transcontinental 1:30 a.m. I can tell that she's singing very softly in the studio, very close to a microphone that's cranked up to maximum sensitivity. This gives this song a personal, proximate feeling, like she's singing just for you, the listener, right in your ear.

I first heard this song about three months ago on Mark Hellenberg's Crossing Boundaries show on WOUB-FM out of Athens, Ohio. I was in my car, driving home from working late, and I had to stop and listen to the entire song, then wait for the end of Mark's five-song set, to hear the artist's name. This is not the first time this excellent show has turned me on to a new artist. And this is also why I send in my pledge money every year to support our local public radio station. I'm not hearing this kind of music anywhere else...

You can hear Transcontinental 1:30 a.m., and several others by Ms. Teng, here. Or you can visit her website and listen to the songs she's posted for the public.

Here are the lyrics to this song, from Vienna Teng's website:

Transcontinental, 1:30 a.m.

wait. don't let this line go slack. don't go alone into the cold. wait. don't give up on this yet. I know that there's more you haven't told. wait my love, just one more thought...wait my love, I haven't got time in my life to watch you drift out to sea. so please, wait. don't let this line go slack. I want to bring you back to where I know you. wait. don't give up on this yet. I just want you to let you let me hold you. wait my love, just one more thought...wait my love, I haven't got time in my life to watch you drift away. but I've all kinds of time if you'll stay. I know we're transcontinental, 1:30 a.m. and there's not even a wire, just a whispering in air. I know we're transcontinental, 1:30 a.m. but I'm here.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Another Deformed Bill

Friday, December 22, 2006

BOTB reader Terence Busic took this image of a male brown-headed cowbird at his backyard feeder in Wayne County, Ohio, earlier in December. He wrote that the male cowbird seemed healthy and was able to grab and eat seeds by turning his head to the side. He affectionately named the bird "Gonzo."

Cyrano or Pinocchio or GĂ©rard Depardieu might've been alternative names.

Thanks Terence!

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Happy Solstice!

Thursday, December 21, 2006

If I had the time, right now I'd be building another sweat lodge out of saplings and blankets in the middle clearing in our orchard. Then, tonight, I'd light a big bonfire and invite some friends over to celebrate the Winter Solstice. Today is the shortest day of the year and tonight will be the longest night. From here on, the days will lengthen and the nights shorten, until the Summer Solstice in June.

In the aforementioned sweat lodge, we'll spread straw and blankets on the ground. Outside at the bonfire we'll fetch white-hot fire bricks out of the flames with a garden fork. These will be carried into the sweat lodge and dropped into a hole dug in the center. Sage leaves and water sprinkled onto the bricks will create massive clouds of steam, super-heating the inside of the lodge and making all inside perspire. This method of cleansing the body by sweating out impurities is ancient. It's been done here in North America since long before European settlement. If your interest is piqued, here's a bit of history about sweat lodges.

A few years ago I built a comfy little sweat lodge out in the orchard and we passed into the New Year inside its steamy confines along with a few intrepid friends. That lodge is long since fallen down and returned to the Earth, but the Winter Solstice brings out my pagan caveman urges to build a new sweat lodge, make bonfires, build brushpiles, cook meals in a Dutch oven, split firewood, and clear trails. These are all things I will endeavor to fit in during the holidays. They are a nice antidote to e-mails, cellphones, digital everything, and even, ummmm blogging.

Happy Solstice to you from all of us here at Bill of the Birds.



Can't seem to get my Happy Solstice post to "take" with Blogger. It's been quirky for most of the day. Is it the image or some coding problem? Or is it my computer's carburetor that's messin' me up?

If this MODO photo goes up, maybe I'll have more luck.

(BTW, if you are wondering what MODO stands for, there's an article in the upcoming [March/April 2007] issue of Bird Watcher's Digest that demystifies the bird-banding codes for you.)

MODO=mourning dove.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Mr. & Mrs. Reddy

Tuesday, December 19, 2006
When my parents first started Bird Watcher's Digest, people would ask my dad bird questions, thinking that, since he was the publisher of a bird magazine, he'd have a vast knowledge about birds. My mom was the bird watcher in those days. Dad's expertise was in journalism, not birds, and was far more valuable to the fledgling publishing venture than bird knowledge. Still, he'd feel a bit awkward about not being much of a birder (he's since become much more interested and avid) so he'd make a joke about it.

"I only know two birds and their names are Mr. and Mrs Reddy. I think you bird watchers call them cardinals or something like that!"

Surprisingly this resulted in few--if any--cancelled subscriptions.

Here are recent images I captured of Mr and Mrs Reddy when they visited the bird feeders at Indigo Hill. By late January, we'll have more than 75 cardinals at the feeders daily.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Sunday Jazz

Monday, December 18, 2006
My parents in one of their early jazz bands, circa 1956. That's BT2 on the left, Elsa in the middle, and Bruce DeMoll on the right.

I spend many of my Sunday afternoons playing jazz at The Hotel Blennerhassett in Parkersburg, West Virginia as part of a group known casually as The Blennerhassett Trio. That's Bruce DeMoll on piano, Chet Backus on drums and me, Bill of the Birds, on bass guitar.

We play jazz standards for the folks brunching in the swank surroundings of The Blenner. This time of year we also lay in a heavy rotation of Christmas songs.

Yesterday I took along my new portable digital recorder and captured a couple of songs we played.

Here's one of them we recorded, Song for My Father, a composition by legendary jazz pianist Horace Silver.

Hope you enjoy it. As you can hear, we had a nice crowd on Sunday.

I feel pretty dang lucky to get to play music on a weekly with these two master musicians. But I'm dedicating this post to MY father (and mother), who made sure our house was full of music when I was growing up. I'm trying to carry on that same tradition in our house for Phoebe and Liam.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Faded Blues

Saturday, December 16, 2006

I spent a few hours this morning and again in the afternoon taking pictures with the new Canon 30D. Finally figured out that I was using the wrong indicator marker for the AUTO setting--I had it on Program instead. This explains why some of my images were not as sharp as I thought they should be. Derrr!

I got decent pix of cardinals, juncos, titmice, white-breasted nuthatches, Carolina chickadees, downy woodpecker, and house finch. But the stars of the show were the pair of eastern bluebirds that FINALLY came in to the perches near the suet dough. I sat perfectly still until my back ached, snapping frame after frame of our charming blue thrushes.

The quality of a bluebird's blue is so different between males and females. And it's also different from summer to winter. The winter blues in their plumage look like dusty versions of their summer feathers. These dusty-pale blues will darken as the feathers wear over the winter. By spring the pale feather edges are worn off, revealing the darker blue central portions of the feathers, making the bluebirds bluer than blue for the breeding season to come.

I love how they look at this time of year--like faded denim. They seem to blend better with the season's colors--earthtones of dark browns and grays. But that first deep-blue male bluebird of spring against the lemon-lime greens of new meadow grass--that's MY first thrush signaling spring's arrival (sorry robins).

Here are three of the frames I shot today. Don't they make a handsome couple?

She was much braver than he was. She came first to the suet dough while he scolded at her from above, perched on the dinner hook on the tower. Eventually he came in and made a big show of eating his fill at the dough dish as if to prove that he'd conquered his inner wimp.
She paid him no attention.

Thanks to The Bluebird Oracle for setting me straight on my Sialia-related facts.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Whisper Song

Friday, December 15, 2006

O master singer
of deep north woods,
a hermit wherever you live
I envy your voice,
the life-force by which
you survive
on this old farm
all winterlong.

When on sunny afternoons
you flit through sumac tangle
to eat the frost-softened fruits
letting loose in a whisper
your springtime song
the very thrill of it
warms me from
the inside out.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Buried Bunny

Thursday, December 14, 2006
A regular early-winter chore around Indigo Hill is the traditional harvesting of the whiffle balls. They are found in every bit of tall grass where they've hidden since summer when we play whiffleball almost every night. Balls slugged into the middle of the forsythia, over the garage, or into the wildflower meadow east of our house rarely land where they can be retrieved. We can't see them and so we wait for nature to die back and reveal these orbs, like so many bleached-white Easter eggs tucked into grassy nests.

But it's not only the deep grass or foliage that keeps us from getting them, it's the other "dangers" as well: poison ivy, briars, and, of course, copperheads. All wayward whiffle balls are revealed to us each winter.

Bunny takes a dirt nap.

Last Saturday I was burning some trash and noticed the wildflower meadow was pretty mashed down by the recent rains. I walked into the center of it to retrieve a single, recently exposed whiffle ball. As I bent down to grab it I spied four more whiffle balls in various states of vegetative undress. Then I saw our favorite Frisbee, lost since an errant throw during August dinner party.

As I stooped to pick up the Frisbee I noticed pieces of what could only be a rabbit. The hind legs and lower body were protruding from under a messy pile of grass and moss. Now Chet Baker loves him his bunnies (bennehs) but we've never seen him catch one. They see him coming, running like a rocket across the yard to the edge where they graze. Once he's within 15 feet or so, the bunnies give a hop or two, Baker roars past them, and they take off in the other direction, while our loyal pup struggles against the forces of momentum and gravity to reverse his course, like the coyote chasing the roadrunner. It's entertaining.

The cache was well disguised by the predator.

No this was not the work of Baker. But it was the work of a predator. The rabbit was half eaten and this was where it was stored for another, later meal. The mud was scrapped up around the cache, where the grass and moss had been pushed into place.

Julie "Science Chimpefoose" Zickefoose came on the grisly scene. She's part of the Whipple Nature Crime Scene Investigation Unit. She noticed the lack of pawprints in the mud, eliminating coyote and fox. I hypothesized mink or weasel, both of which we've seen on the farm. "No, they'd chew up the rabbit more." The carcass was opened up cleanly, like it had been cut by a knife. Owl? Hmmm.... the grass seemed too deep for an owl, like a great horned to hunt in. And wouldn't it just fly away with the rabbit to carve it up and cache elsewhere?

Moss, grass, and weeds were scraped on top of the rabbit carcass.

Chimpefoose went to the Web and found this page with a photo documentation of a skunk killed and consumed by a great horned owl. Note how the bones are picked nearly clean but not chewed. Eureka!

So our killer was most likely a great horned owl. Back at the crime scene, we took more pictures and noticed where the mud might've been pressed down under the taloned feet of an owl. And there were the vertebrae of the poor rabbit, pulled out and plucked clean.
Are these the pad/talon marks of a great horned owl in the mud?

Reconstructing the events of the night this "murder" happened, we surmised that the GHO flew into our yard and perched on the pole that holds our martin gourds and waited for a rabbit to make a move. When it did, the owl dropped onto it and ate what it could (big rabbit) and hid the rest.

Why not our other common large owl, the barred owl? They tend to stick to the forest when hunting. This spot in the middle of our yard is a better fit for the edge-hunting GHO.

Mystery solved, but that's not the end of the story...

The next afternoon Chet came into the house carrying something in his mouth. We could tell from his guilty look that he knew he was doing something he wasn't supposed to do. And sure enough, he had a dirty, smelly, chewed up rabbit's foot in his mouth. Nice, Chet! That explains your breath.

He gave it up, but was not done with the benneh. That evening he went out for his nocturnal micturation and ran to the edge of the wildflower meadow, site of bunny brutality, and barked his head off. He would not go into the weeds. . . was the owl there finishing off the rest of the bunny? It was almost entirely gone the next morning.

Neat mystery of nature right in the backyard.
Now I have a strange urge to read Watership Down now...

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Hatching Nuts

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The white-breasted nuthatches at our feeders do the one-seed-at-a-time-thing. They grab a black-oil sunflower seed and fly off to some handy perch to hack (or "hatch") it open. We hear them pounding on our shingle roof all day long--seven or eight blows until the shell is cracked open and the nutmeat devoured. Then they swoop back to the feeder for another seed.

This guy was working on a seed he'd wedged into a crevice on a gray birch trunk. He did not like the attention I was paying to him with my giant camera lens, so he spun sideways and flew up to the top of the tower, where he finished his work on the seed unmolested.

I like how he's pushed off with his feet and how his pot-belly is showing. To me this looks like a man in a nuthatch costume.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Adventures in Book Promotion

Tuesday, December 12, 2006
I not only stand behind my books, I hide behind them. Photo by Phoebe Thompson

Julie and I did a book signing at Sugden's Bookstore on Front Street in Marietta, Ohio on Saturday. It was really an event created for Julie's new book, Letters From Eden, but the gals at Sugden's were kind enough to let me sit there with a pen and a pile of books, too. I sold a few copies of All Things Reconsidered and Bird Watching For Dummies and Ohio Bird Watching.

Zick, however, sold out of her book and took advance orders on the next shipment. All told she moved about 100 copies, which totally rocks.

I spent my time keeping Julie's side of the table stocked with books, chatting up the folks in line, and wrangling kids. We managed to spill hot chocolate on just two copies of Letters From Eden, which for us is a record low amount of book destruction.

It was a nice time in historic downtown Marietta, which is all dressed up for the holidays. It felt good to sell books through a locally owned bookstore.

It's not too late for you holiday procrastinators out there. You can still order autographed (or pristine and untainted) copies of any of my books by calling BWD at 800-879-2473, or by visiting our online store. Julie's book and artwork are available on her site.

Or, if you can get to Marietta, Ohio, buy your copies at Sugden's on Front Street!

Monday, December 11, 2006

The Song in My Head

Monday, December 11, 2006

During my recent all-day, snowy trek home from Jamestown, New York I had my music to keep me company (and to help reduce the white-knuckle grip I had on the steering wheel). I put my iPod on "random" because I was sick of hearing the same 47 songs I was playing over and over again.

One of the songs that popped randomly into my ears immediately became the new Song in My Head. It's from a recent Paste Magazine CD (I've sung the praises of this music mag here in BOTB before). And I am composing a fan letter to Paste's editor even as I write this.

So without further a-doo-doo, the current Song in My Head is:

Hide and Seek
by Imogen Heap
from her album "Speak for Yourself"

I. Heap was formerly part of the Brit duo Frou Frou. Now she's gone solo and is making her own kind of music. I find her work listed most often under "Electronica" but that's not a genre I find myself gravitating toward very often.

I've posted a link to a YouTube video below of Imogen performing the song live, however it's the studio version that really grabbed me. It's got lush and digitally enhanced vocals, swirling waves of sound in harmony that's both succulent and dissonant. I flashed backed to Laurie Anderson's Superman. Then farther back in time to that headphones-and-weed song by The Steve Miller Band that preceded Keep on Rockin' Me Baby, the Moog synthesizer patterns wafting first in your right ear, then drifting over to the left and back again. WAY far out, man!

There's a modern sensibility to this song, though. It's not meant just for space-out time listening. It carries the weight of sadness, longing, and bitterness with it.

Imogen's lyrics in this song do not rhyme, nor do they follow any set pattern. Instead, they are launched in floating phrases by her multitudinous voices. Oddly chosen words that work really well together.

I listened to Hide and Seek for about an hour straight.
Guess that's why it's still in my head these several days later.

My ears are adding this message: Thanks Paste! Thanks Ms. Heap! Thanks Weather Gods! Well, maybe not the Weather Gods...

Check her out for yourself, folks. And buy the song from iTunes or elsewhere: Hide and Seek by Imogen Heap. It's 99 cents well spent.

The Bluebirds are Mad


Our eastern bluebirds remember that we offer them mealworms in the winter. They have not gotten any yet this winter, but they are not about to let us forget about it. This female, and at least one male bluebird, regularly perch on a metal hook on our deck, exactly above where the mealworm dish used to be. And they stare holes in us through the sliding glass door.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't this stare seem to say: "HELLO? Aren't you FORGETTING something?"

Saturday, December 9, 2006

Another Reason Why I Love Birding

Saturday, December 9, 2006

Every now and then I get a nice reminder of how special it is that so many of us share this love of watching birds.

Here's a letter I got last summer but just re-read. It's from a young birder that was on one of my bird walks a few years ago. I'll let him tell the story...

Hi Bill,
I apologize for attempting to reach you through your work e-mail address, but I could not find a more personal e-mail address. My name is Alex H, you may remember me from the visit you made to the Chautauqua Institution, New York in the summer of 2002. I was the young kid who also attended the bird walk (you found me my one and only Warbling Vireo).
I wanted to follow up four years later and tell you I am still a very avid birder. I still live in Miami and am out and about all the time. I just saw my 295th bird in Florida on Monday, a Red-billed Tropicbird during a pelagic off Miami! Since I met you I have seen hundreds of new birds in Arizona, Florida, and Europe.

I wanted to thank you for enlightening me that morning about the birding community. Until then, I really didn't know too much about anything outside of my own backyard. Once I got home to Miami, I joined the local Audubon society immediately. I like to think that year I became an avid birder and you helped spark it.

Thanks again for everything.

Alex H., 17
All I'm doing is paying forward all the kindness and helpful support shown to me when I was a young bird watcher. My mentor, Pat Murphy, was a cranky ol' gal, except when it came to teaching people about birds. Then she was as tender as an angel of mercy. But if you ever tried to thank her, she turned back into her regular persona, which made us wonder if her clothes were lined with sandpaper.

Boy oh boy did she have the knowledge. And I know she was proud of me when all that knowledge began to stick in my brain to be referenced on each and every field trip. It made me want to get to a point where I was good enough to help other bird watchers, just like Pat (without the sandpaper, of course).
A couple of years ago, an emcee introduced me as a speaker at a birding festival by saying "Bill is the pied piper of birding. If you go on a bird walk with him, you'll see what this hobby of ours is so incredibly enjoyable. His enthusiasm is contagious--you can't help but get into bird watching."

I was so flattered by this intro that I got all choked up and couldn't say anything for a few minutes. I take that role very seriously and completely to heart...

Bird watchers are the nicest people on the planet. And that's a fortunate thing because it looks like it's going to be up to us to save this planet. More birders means more of a focus on conservation and preservation of birds and their habitat. That's a GOOD thing.

Let's all make it our goal to get more people--young and old--into watching birds. It will make the world an immeasurably better place.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

The Snowy Road Home

Thursday, December 7, 2006
NY Route 86 in Chautauqua County, just before the roads got really bad.

I made it home to SE Ohio from W NY after a hairy, eight-hour drive that should have been a little more than half that. Roads were horrible all the way south to Pittsburgh.

I drove at least two of the hours with the flashers on, going 25 mph. Needless to say, given recent events this winter, I was not going to drive like the roads were clear and dry. Some passing motorists did, however, earning themselves a customized one-finger salute (which, sadly, they could not enjoy from behind their slush- and salt-coated car windows.)

Sorry, I'm normally such a sweetheart behind the wheel. But I was in no mood, having had a couple of those adrenaline-pumping moments when you suddenly realize you have NO control over the car. You're turning the wheel and nothing happens and the brakes start giving their percussive "we give up now" moan. Saw a few wrecks, but mostly just unlucky cars that had slid (slud?) into the median ditch.

It's nice to be home safely.

And speaking of one-finger salutes....



I gave my presentation on the new book of essays by Roger Tory Peterson last night at the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History. RTPI is in RTP's hometown of Jamestown, New York (also the birthplace of Lucille Ball and hometown of Natalie Merchant of 10,000 Maniacs). The staff at RTPI made me feel very welcome and comfy and the crowd for both the reception and presentation were kind and enthusiastic. Mon@rch's Blog has a nice recap of the evening and photographic evidence, too.

A huge treat was getting a guided tour of the RTP archives at the institute. Marlene, the archivist, showed me original RTP paintings, correspondence with practically every luminary of the past 80 years, and thousands of books, hundreds of thousands of slides--the lifetime output of a great man.

Working on the book of his BWD column essays, I had a chance to look through lots of Rogers photographs. Compared to the images that you or I can get with our auto-everything cameras by pushing a single button, Rogers images are of moderate quality. He often wrote about his passion for photography and spent countless hours trying to get good shots of birds, insects, and animals. It makes me wonder, given his passion and drive, what kinds of images he'd get today, using the powerful, auto-focus, image stabilized digital cameras.

This morning, I awoke in my Jamestown hotel room to lake-effect snow. There are already 4 inches on the ground and more expected. I'm planning to wait until the roads are plowed before I venture out. The folks at RTPI laughed at me when I told them about the expected snow: "Eight inches? That's nothing! That's just a dusting!" Of course they have lots more experience living with the 200 to 300 inches of snow per year that Chautauqua County, NY gets.

I'm in no hurry today, so I'll take it slow and easy on the highway.

I want to thank Jim Berry and all the kind people at RTPI for having me as part of their lecture series. And I want to encourage Bill of the birds readers to visit the RTPI in Jamestown. It's a pilgrimage well worth making. And in summer, I understand, the area has very little snow.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Golden-crowned Queenlet

Wednesday, December 6, 2006
What's the old adage about never leave the house without your binoculars or camera, for if you do, something amazing will appear and you'll regret your thoughtlessness? Well it's still true.

I walked out our 1/4-mile-long driveway to get the mail and paper on Saturday morning. I had my binocs and my pocket digital camera, but not the new super-duper Canon. Halfway out the drive I noticed a small songbird flying directly toward me. It was a golden-crowned kinglet, a female, and she flitted and swooped so close to my face that I flinched. She landed on a pine bough four inches from my nose and began foraging and hover-gleaning. She was so close I could smell the aphid eggs on her breath (they smell like baked chicken).

Yes, I immediately regretted not having the good camera along. So I did what I could and snapped a few frames of her with my small Canon Powershot as she flitted among the branches. The image above is the best one. If you squint your eyes just right, you can see a tiny piece of her golden crown.

She spent a few minutes flit-fluttering all around me, then headed for the deeper woods. I consider encounters like this one to be visits from woodland sprites. They are bringing us messages we rarely understand.

Monday, December 4, 2006

Mr. Saucy

Monday, December 4, 2006
Our Carolina wrens are with us year-round. We have at least two pairs, one near the house and one that roosts in the wet woods below the house. All day long we hear the wrens calling back and forth with their mates.

To me the wrens seem like the most lively and exciting of our winter yard birds. They have a certain spark to their movements, a saucy glint in their eye. As though they are not about to let winter get them down.

Back in 1977-78, during the two worst winters in recent history, we lost most of our Carolina wrens here in southeastern Ohio. They just cannot survive long periods of snow and ice coverage of everything they eat. I'd like to think that we provide enough organically grown spiders and yummy insects, plus suet dough and sunflower bits, to get our wrens through a stretch of bad weather.

I took this image of Mr. Saucy the Carolina wren yesterday morning. He was checking out the suet dough dish I'd just filled and I was able to photograph him through the double-paned window over the kitchen sink. I'm starting to like this new camera.

Saturday, December 2, 2006

Marker Birds

Saturday, December 2, 2006
Notice anything different about this titmouse? Look closely at the bill.

I spent much of the morning outside trying to take bird photographs. It's cold out there, people--below freezing--and a reason to be thankful for the invention of disposable hand warmers (which of course I do not have).

Sitting, waiting for the birds to get used to the large creature intently watching them, I began to notice the habits and appearance of individual birds. The Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, and white-breasted nuthatches are the brave souls who return first to the feeders after I've moved into position and scared everyone away. I noticed that the bravest of the titmice had a feature that made him/her/it a marker bird--an overgrown upper mandible. Marker birds are individuals that have some sort of physical trait that allows you to tell them apart as individuals--a bald cardinal, a one-eyed house sparrow, etc.

This type of minor bill deformity is not uncommon in birds, but it's interesting to see. And I might not have noticed it had I not been creeping up close to take pix of our feeder birds. There are many theories about the cause of such a physical anomaly--poor diet, some sort of injury event, a kink in the DNA, or as the result of contaminants in the environment. There are studies being conducted with black-capped chickadees and other species to determine the cause of these deformities.

Our little TUTI seems to be getting by just fine. The overgrown portion of its bill looks thin enough that it might wear away or even break off while a sunflower seed is being pounded open.

So that's your obscure fact for the day about bird bills from Bill of the Birds.

We have another marker bird around the feeders this winter, a dark-eyed junco with a pale head. This type of abnormally pale or white plumage is frequently (and incorrectly) referred to as "partial albinism." The correct term is leucistic or leucism referring to a reduced amount of the normal pigmentation in plumage in birds and other animals. Albinos are completely lacking in pigment. An albino bird would be pure white with pink soft parts (bill, legs, even eyes).

Our junco has a splotchy pale head, but seems to be completely healthy and normal otherwise. I've taken about a dozen images of it during the past two weeks.

But we humans are not the only ones who notice marker birds...

I remember going to visit a purple martin colony in Williamstown, WV, with my mom's bird club, way back in the early 1970s. The colony was huge and thriving, living in big, wooden martin houses along the Ohio River. In the colony there was a single albino martin. This individual bird was incredibly easy to see, not only because it stood out amid all the dark, normal-plumaged martins, but because its colony mates would not leave it alone. They constantly dive-bombed the albino, trying to force it away from the colony. From their instinct-driven perspective this made sense. A white bird would be more likely to attract a predator, such as a Cooper's hawk, to the colony. And maybe the other martins simply perceived this white bird as a freak that did not fit in.

I remember being very sad about this. I felt sorry for that albino bird who just wanted to live among his own species. He may not have even known he was different. How sad is that?

Friday, December 1, 2006

Winter's Come

Friday, December 1, 2006
The old wolf oak at the end of the driveway looks to me like a skeleton on this cold winter day.

The huge front that's all over the news arrived here at Indigo Hill today. Any trees that were pretending it was still autumn were smacked hard in the face by the howling, and I mean HOWLING, winds out of the southwest.

If we thought we were cheating winter these last few days, with temperatures in the 70s(!) we were reminded today just how foolish those thoughts were.

Changeable weather makes everything weird. I get all itchy and restless. Tonight, while fixing dinner (chicken potpie and brownies--a comprehensive culinary coverage of the food chart) I dropped the eggs twice, breaking 5 total. Is there anything harder to clean up from a kitchen floor than smashed eggs? I am such a spaz.

At 3 pm I HAD to get out of the house. The temperature had gone from 65 this morning to 32 and the raindrops had metamorphosed into snowflakes. But get out I must. So I walked until I couldn't take the sparring of the wind anymore. My eyes were welling with tears from the snappy bite of the wind. My fingers drew no comforting warmth balled up in my coat pockets.
I watched the edge of the front roll the last of the blue sky under its wheels along the southeastern horizon. It was the curtain coming down on the fall. Winter now owns the stage and this act of the play lasts from now until the woodcocks start peenting in March.

But not all about winter's body-slam arrival is bad. New birds show up at the feeders, blown into our midst by the push of the weather front. Today the purple finches are back and I heard a pine siskin lisping into the swirling air, though it failed to make an appearance at the feeders.

The wind today was so strong that the leaves--even the huge sycamore leaves--are all blown from the yard. In 13 years here at Indigo Hill, we've never raked leaves. Instead, on this ridgetop farm, the winter wind rakes for us.

I stood out on the hill, by the fire circle and the tire swing and I remembered summer--and the feel of the dewy grass under my bare feet last June. Hard to conjure that same feeling standing on top of the dead, brown, crunchy stuff now underfoot. But conjure we must. It's all we have until winter is weakened by spring's emergence.

I'll ply the fire with kindling now, I'll pull the blankets up to my chin
I'll lock the vagrant winter out and bolt my wandering in....

I'd like to call back summertime
and have her to stay for just another month or so...

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Some Visions from NM

Thursday, November 30, 2006
I find that I am rarely successful at sharing all I wish to share with you here in Bill of the Birds. This is especially true after a long and wonderful trip to some birdy place. There's far too much to show and tell and not enough time to do it all justice.

So here, below, I'll share some images and comments from our recent New Mexico sojourn.

Can you spot the burrowing owl in this frame? Taken in the I-25 cloverleaf north of Socorro, NM.

Loggerhead shrikes flash like black-and-white pinwheels in flight. This one is from the road to Magdalena.

My tribute to Ansel Adams--a color image so underexposed that it looks like AA's black-and-white. This is the roiling Rio Grande near Manby Hot Springs.

Gray-crowned rosy-finches from Sandia Crest near Albuquerque. I had all three rosy-finch species there--two of which were AOU split-lifers for me.

Liam meets a yak near the Lewis' woodpecker colony. They talked about Lightning McQueen.

Phoebe, sprite of the desert spring, contemplates life atop a shaded boulder. Photo by C. Quine.

High desert road in predawn light. We can see the torn-paper shapes of distant mountains, but the road's course is obscured.