Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Bald Iggle

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

There are days when Inspirado is nowhere to be found.

There are days when I wonder where the heck this country and this planet are headed.

Today happens to be the confluence of these two types of day, so to honor this confluence, I give you a weird sign involving a bird. We've been down this road before, you and I.

Playing some music with the Orangutangs tonight will certainly serve to shake some monkeys out of the trees.

Peace, amigos y amigas.


Monday, January 30, 2006

Rock Wren in a Shrike's Larder

Monday, January 30, 2006
This interesting message and incredible photograph came in to Bill of the Birds from my friend Bill Clark (that's the Nevada/Arizona Bill Clark, not the South Texas/hawk expert Bill Clark).

Nevada Bill Clark writes:
I was completing a Nevada Bird Count transect near Laughlin along the Colorado River. Around stop 9, I observed this hatch-year rock wren moving through a large creosote. Both of us were "ambushed" by a loggerhead shrike. The shrike whizzed by me, choosing the smaller prey. I did not witness the kill, but I knew something was going on. As I headed to my next point I flushed the shrike and it flew off with the wren. I made a note of the shrike's landing site and returned about 15 minutes later, having completed my survey, to discover this "hanging tree." From the wear and the amount of dried blood on the branches, it was apparent this site had been used previously.

A recent thread on a bird listserv I subscribe to was about the carrying capacity of raptors. A general consensus was that a raptor could carry about 1/2 its own weight. The wren was about 1/3 the shrike's weight. But what really impresses me is what you discover when you compare wing spread to body length. More wing= more lift, right? A golden eagle has a 2.5 to 1 wing-to-body ratio. A loggerhead shrike has about a 1.3 to 1 wing-to-body ratio. This loggerhead shrike is one strong dude! He's got to work lots harder to fly, carrying his prey item to the larder.
Thanks for sharing this experience, Bill!

It would have been even more amazing if the shrike had been able to subdue you (instead of the rock wren) and then flew to the larder tree, carrying you in its bill.

Now THAT'S a nature documentary I'd pay to see!

The Unfrozen Band

Special thanks to Rondeau Ric for this piece of ape art.

I am pleased to announce the recent discovery of The Swinging Orangutangs. This band had been frozen in the polar ice cap for much of the past two years, but were found partially thawed in a free-floating ice floe by some Antarctic geologists.

The band has now been completely thawed out, reconstituted, and put through a battery of tests. The Swinging Orangutangs have been declared fit for public performance, and, what do you know, their first public performance is this coming weekend at The Marietta Brewing Company.
The Swinging Orangutangs, on a break from their wood-shedding practice, relaxing and rehydrating.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

The Driveway Oak

Sunday, January 29, 2006
At the end of our driveway is a huge old oak tree. Who knows how old it is, but from all the scars and broken snags on it, you can tell it's been through a lot of winters, wind storms, and lightning strikes.

Yesterday afternoon I thought the old girl looked mighty pretty in the warm golden sunlight of a late afternoon. It'll be a sad day when she finally falls.

My father-in-law used to say that a tree spends 100 years growing, 100 years living, and 100 years dying. On our walk yesterday we found a recently fallen giant, brought down by the high winds we had here on Friday night. I won't still be here when it's all rotted back to the earth.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Our Holiday Letter

Saturday, January 28, 2006
I am always amazed each year around Thanksgiving time, when the first holiday letter appears in our mailbox. Whoever sends these early letters (and you know who you are) not only has their act together sufficiently to write and send the things out, they also already know that nothing worth mentioning is going to happen in late November or during the entire month of December. So why not get those letters out there?

Now THAT'S organization.

Here on Indigo Hill, we take a more natural approach. Waiting until the spirit moves us before we actively ignore the need to compose our holiday letter. We're certainly not even thinking about it until we've gotten 15 or 20 such missives from friends, family, and various unmentionables during the December/January confluence.

Our effort usually goes like this.
Me: "Are we going to do a letter this year?"
Julie: "I don't know. Do we really want to?"
Liam: "Hey, Guys! Could somebody turn on SpongeBob for me?"

a few weeks later....

Julie: "Well, I wrote our letter today. Tell me what you think."
Me: "Honey this is very nice. I am sure everyone will love all the news about Chet Baker."
Julie: "Everybody LOVES Baker!"
Me: "We might want to work in a mention or two about your husband and your children."
Julie: "Do YOU want to write the letter this year?"

a few weeks later....

Me: "Happy Valentine's Day, Zick! Should we finish off those holiday letters?"
Julie: "Good thing we didn't specify WHICH holiday!"
Phoebe: "Hey Mr. and Mrs. Gutenberg, why don't you just send an e-mail letter out?"

And so we took the opportunity this afternoon to finish sending out the holiday letter. It was an astoundingly beautiful day here today. Almost 60 degrees F, sunny. We did the work outside, sitting at our picnic table in the front yard, squinting at the white paper in the bright sunshine. Writing notes, cramming letters and cards into envelopes. Placing American flag stamps crookedly on each one.

It was a fun way to spend the afternoon. And now we can get to work on the 2006/2007 letter. In fact, we've already started writing it...

Dear Friends:

It's been two weeks since our last holiday letter to you....

An Afternoon Walk

After a full day of work yesterday, Julie, Liam, Chet Baker, and I went on a long walk around our farm and onto our neighbors' land (80 beautiful acres owned by our friends Sherm and Beth).

We saw some amazing things, and although it was pretty cold, the sun kept our spirits high. Down in the creek bed, at the bottom of the valley, we visited the place we call Beechy Crash, where several old beech trunks have fallen into the bottom of the hollow. The trunks and the large sandstone boulders in this part of the creek are covered in bright green moss. I couldn't resist snapping several dozen images.Liam and his dad (The Hotdog Brothers) posing in Beechy Crash.

Farther down the creek, which empties into Goss' Fork (called "Gossy" by most local folks), we visited the amazing ice cave. This cave gives me the overwhelming feeling that people have lived or sheltered here in the past. Native Americans? Probably. Early settlers? Likely. Escaping slaves following the Underground Railroad route? Perhaps even more likely, since we know the route went right through our township. Until 1863, the state across the Ohio River from us, just 10 or so miles away, was Virginia, not West Virginia as it is now. And the Ohio River was considered a boundary between "slave" and "free" states.

I always expect to see flint arrowheads or even cave paintings in the ice cave, though I've never found either one. Chet explored the nooks and crannies while Liam broke off and tasted icicles. Jules and I just soaked up the moment inside the cave, and admired a perfect phoebe nest from last summer, built in the only part of the cave wall that a black snake could not get to.
Chet sniff the entrance to the ice cave.Inside the ice cave, looking out. The sunlight in the icicles was brilliant.

After a tough slog up the western hill, we found some serious pileated woodpecker workings. Our entire walk was accompanied by a soundtrack of pileated (and other woodpeckers') drumming and calling.
My shadow pointed out some pileated workings on an old rotted log.

We've been monitoring the pileateds' work on an old sassafras tree near our southern fenceline. One male pileated was drumming so loudly and sharply that it sounded just like a machine gun being fired. He's found himself a really resonate drumming site. We can hear him for a mile.
This pileated woodpecker has been busy. They seem to love sassafras. Does it have more carpenter ants?
Zick insisted on sticking her hand in the cavity. Note the sassafras twig she's gnawing on.
Liam was sure there was a bird hiding in there.

Hawk-Owl Hullaballoo

Once every few years, a northern hawk-owl shows up in the Northeast. This causes the expected stampede of birders and bird photographers. Wherever the bird appears regularly, the locals and landowners are forced to deal with obsessed birders, some of whom may have come from very far away in hopes of seeing this rarity from the northern woods.

And, we birders are willing to go to some extreme lengths to try to see a rare bird. This is why many of the hawk-owl chasers near Lydonville, New York have been showing up with pet store mice to use as bait for the hawk-owl. Now a pet store mouse, released on the snow in front of a hungry hawk-owl does not stand much of a chance. But, there are times when the owl does not catch, kill, and consume these heartfelt offerings from eager birders. And the local resident humans want to know WHERE ARE THESE ESCAPED MICE GOING? ARE THEY INVADING OUR HOMES?

"Hide the cheese, Mother, those bird watchers is back trying to feed our owl!"

Read this piece in The Houston Chronicle for the whole absurd story.

Friday, January 27, 2006

The Home Office

Friday, January 27, 2006
This week I've been working at home where it's easier to write. Most mornings find me up in the birding tower where, when I glance up from my labors, I can survey our farm and the surrounding habitat.

Two weeks ago, I put in a wireless network so now, with my laptop, I can write, answer e-mails, update "Bill of the Birds" and generally be productive from anywhere in the house, including our tower.

Yesterday I saw two red-tailed hawks, a red-shouldered, a big female Cooper's hawk, and a courting pair of pileated woodpeckers--all birds that I would have missed if I had not been working in the tower.

Here's the view from the home office.

This eastern bluebird comes to the adjacent part of our house roof when I'm in the tower to let me know that the suet dough feeder is empty.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Back in School

Thursday, January 26, 2006
I visited Phoebe's 4th Grade class today to give a short presentation on the publishing business.

We had a little friendly wager, the class and I. I thought there was no way they could name 20 species of birds, giving the actual names. In other words, "sparrow" did not cut it. But field sparrow counts.

If they got 20 bird names right, I told them I'd put their picture on Bill of the Birds and take them all birding this spring on our farm. If they lost, they'd get another hour of me talking to them about publishing, WITH NO NAP TIME OR BATHROOM BREAKS!

With a little help from bird-brainiac Phoebe (who was supposed to be disqualified)the class scored 21 bird species, properly named.

So, since it was part of the deal, here's the class' photo. Look at those smug smiles!

Feeder Elf


We have an elf, a kindly woodland sprite, that comes and fills our bird feeders each evening at dusk. We rarely see this Puck-like creature, who visits in the gloaming to make sure that our birds wake up to feeders full of tasty good things to eat. And to make sure that we wake up to feeders teeming with birds.

Tonight I left my digital camera trained on our feeding station, rigged with a sensor to record any movement. These are the amazing images I captured.

As you can see from the body language and the headgear, this is clearly an elf, probably from one of the Appalachian species of sprites partial to mixed deciduous woods. The camera recorded no sound, but our kids, who witnessed this visitation from the studio windows, distinctly remember hearing the elf singing two complete verses of "Take It Easy" by Jackson Browne. If that doesn't cinch the ID I don't know what will.

Perhaps if I put a team together and comb the woods for the next 12 months I might find a nest or roost cavity.

Or maybe it's best to let this chimera live on in our imaginations? After all, I LIKE having my feeders filled up each evening.

O blasted conundrum.

Got Cardinals?


This morning, while reading book copy in the uppermost indoor level of our birding tower, I spied this conflagration of cardinals.

To some this may look like quite a gathering of male northern cardinals. But let me assure you that the record for winter cardinal numbers at one time at our feeders is 72 birds. This gathering today is nowhere near the numbers we get when it's really cold and snowy.

Still, I thought this image of cardinals in our winter trumpetvine tangle, was quite pleasing to the eye.

Bank Swallows Gone Wild!

My friend Myrna Pearman from Alberta sent along this incredible story and photo from a birding experience she had last summer on the way home from work. First of all, here's the photograph:
I'll let Myrna set the stage:
I saw what appeared to be bizarre bird behaviour last night while driving home from Ellis Bird Farm. There is a section of road along Twnship Road 40-0 with wetlands on both sides of the road. Last evening, dozens and dozens of bank swallows were feeding over these wetlands as well as over a nearby cultivated field. One had been recently killed, likely hit by a passing car. What caught my eye as I drove by was the frenzy of birds copulating with this dead bird. There were up to 7 at a time trying to mate with the corpse, and the sight of one mating seemed to stir the others so much that they actually tried to copulate with the copulator(s)!!! The corpse got flipped around on both its back and stomach, but both positions seemed irresistible. I took quite a few photos, some of which turned out to be fairly clear (it was about 8:30 pm and very overcast, so the lighting was lousy). Perhaps this is well-known behaviour and I ve just never heard of it before.

Myrna sent her observation along to several ornithologists and biologists in Canada, and one, sent her this reply:
Dear Ms. Pearman:
The behaviour you described, known in the literature as Davian behavior, has been recorded previously in birds, but infrequently. To my knowledge, however, the contexts in which this behaviour occurs has not been determined, that is, what the relationships, if any, were between the participating individuals, what were the ages of the birds involved, and so on. That there were so many individual bank swallows copulating or appearing to copulate with the corpse suggests no relationship among the individuals and whether true copulation occurred, with a transfer of sperm, cannot be confirmed. As the breeding season of bank swallows may be over for this year, the behaviour is even more puzzling. Is it possible that at least some the individuals involved were juveniles?

I have witnessed this behaviour once, involving silvery-throated jays in a Costa Rican cloud forest. The freshly dead bird on the ground (cause of death not determined although the bird, an egg-laying female, was skinned out and no visible wounds were detected) was being mounted by two unsexed individuals.

You may want to consider preparing a written account of your observation for the Blue Jay or Alberta Naturalist, accompanied by your photograph. Keep the bird in the freezer as its status, i.e., sex and age, would be important to know.

I appreciate receiving the highlights of your observation. All the best with your work.

Birders and ornithologists always talk about how anyone can make a contribution to our knowledge of birds, through citizen science projects, through organized research projects and field work. But we can also make contributions simply by sharing our observations of bird behavior, like this rather unusual one that Myrna witnessed.

Myrna is one of North America's leading experts on bluebirds and a longtime member of The North American Bluebird Society. She works at The Ellis Bird Farm near Red Deer, Alberta, where the mission is to help conserve birds (especially mountain bluebirds and violet-green swallows), to do field research, and to help to educate the public about birds and nature.

Thanks, Myrna, for sharing this with me (and with the readers of Bill of the Birds). I believe I speak for all of us when I say that we'll never look at bank swallows quite the same again....

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The Mad Titmouse

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

This little dude HATES it when we watch him eat his breakfast.
That's Zick's suet dough and our birds love it.
As she says "It's the LARD that makes it HARD (to resist)."

Customers for our crack ....uh.... suet dough, include:
tufted titmouse (pictured), Carolina chickadee, northern cardinal, eastern towhee (the towhee formerly known as rufous-sided), song sparrow, tree sparrow, field sparrow, Carolina wren, red-bellied woodpecker, downy woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, white-breasted nuthatch, northern mockingbird, brown thrasher (in summer), gray catbird (in summer), eastern bluebird, blue jay, dark-eyed junco, house sparrow (yecch), and European starling (yecch).

Need the recipe? Here you go.

Me & My Shadow


I've been working at home a lot lately, writing and editing, mostly. In the early mornings, before the rest of the house is awake, I've been taking walks to the far, infrequently visited corners of our 80 acres. I've noticed that my shadow has been following me in a very odd way--almost like a detective "tailing" a suspect.

Yesterday, I caught a glimpse of my shadow as he passed in front of a sizable oak on the southeast corner of our land. I'd been sitting on top of the hill, on the moss-covered girth of a fallen maple trunk, copy-editing some text and just contemplating. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my shadow watching me.

A pair of pileated woodpeckers laughed maniacally to each other from opposite sides of our beech grove. This distracted me momentarily and, when I looked for him again, my shadow was gone.

I caught sight of him a few more times as I walked up the brambly hillside, across the gushing draw, along the township road, and down our drive. But I didn't let on that I saw him.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Dawn on the Farm

Tuesday, January 24, 2006
This is dawn this morning from the birding tower on our farm. Today is very cold and windy, but spring is in the air, and she can't hide herself forever.

Loving Technology


I've been trying all morning to upload a new blog. Blogger is not working for some reason. Or it could be my mad blogging skillz have deserted me.

This can mean only one thing. It's time to eat lunch. Care to join me? We're having suet dough, just like the bluebirds.

A MoDo Sandwich

In 1998, Ohio citizens went to the polls and voted to legalize the hunting of mourning doves. Last year, according to the Ohio DNR website, 50,000 hunters took 300,000 mourning doves.

I am not anti-hunting. But hunting mourning doves seems to me to be more about having something challenging to shoot on the wing, than it does about putting food on the table. Once you clean a mourning dove, removing all the feathers, bones, and other inedibles, you are left with a very small piece of breast meat (that may still have some shot pellets in it.) According to one estimate, one modo yields about half a hotdog's worth of meat. It's a lot of work for not much food. To feed a family of four (at two wieners per), a hunter would have to bag at least 16 mourning doves. For a look back at the 1998 debate about the dove-hunting issue here in Ohio, see Julie Zickefoose's excellent article. And while you're at it, visit her compelling blog.

Do you know any terms of venery? A paddle of ducks, a murder of crows, an exaltation of larks, an ostentation of peacocks, and so on? Gazing out into our yard this morning, I spied, under our pine trees, eating our cracked corn, a sandwich of mourning doves.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Ivorybills, Water, Lawsuits....

Monday, January 23, 2006
Here's a news item appearing on the MSNBC website about the role the ivory-billed woodpecker may play in halting a huge irrigation project in Arkansas. What a gift for environmental groups opposing this project to have the bird story of the century fall right in their laps!

Thanks to Debbie and David Griffith for passing this along.

America's Birdiest City/County

This just in, from Phil Pryde of San Diego Audubon. This is a very clever, enjoyable, and increasingly popular birding competition. Check it out!

2006 America's Birdiest City/County competition

The 6th annual America's Birdiest City and Birdiest County contests will conducted once again in April and May of 2006.

The objectives of the "America's Birdiest City/County" contest are quite simple: to see which cities and counties in the various categories can document the highest count of bird species during a selected 72-hour period within its city (or county) limits during the month of April or May.

Because cities and counties come in greatly different sizes, and because some parts of the country (such as coastlines) have inherently more species of birds than others, there are 9 categories in the competition. They, and the 2005 winners, are:
Large Coastal City Corpus Christi, TX
Large Inland City Chicago, IL
Small Coastal City Dauphin Island, AL
Small Inland City Duluth, MN
Inland Eastern County St. Louis County, MN
Inland Western County Kern County, CA
Coastal Gulf Coast County Nueces County, TX
Coastal Atlantic County Kings County, NY
Coastal Pacific County Monterey and San Diego, CA

Cities and counties of all sizes are invited to join the competition in 2006.

The key to success is having lots of birders in the field-- there's no limit on the number of participants. Combining the event with a fund-raising birdathon is often a good route to success. And you pick your own optimum dates.

To participate, just send an e-mail to the address below, and indicate whether you wish to enter one of the City contests, one of the County contests, or both. You'll receive the complete rules of the competition by return e-mail.

It's fine to decide at the last minute if you want to participate; there's no "sign up" deadline. However, you should enter early enough to get organized, and do send an e-mail requesting a copy of the competition rules.

The ABC/C competition is primarily a fun event, but it’s also a good educational and public relations event as well. Start making plans to field your city or county’s team now! For more information, contact:
Phil Pryde, San Diego Audubon Society, ABC/C coordinator
e-mail: PhilPinSD@cox.net

Make It Through Sundays

There's a great Lucinda Williams song, called "Sundays" that so often seems appropriate on our gray winter days. As a kid I really disliked Sundays. Monday and school followed inevitably and that was a bummer. This has diminished slightly as I've grown older, but Lucinda's song still strikes a familiar feeling for me.
I can't seem to make it through Sunday
I can't seem to make it through Sunday
Monday through Saturday I get by just fine,
Every other day of the week, I feel all right.
But I don't know why, I don't know why....
I can't seem to make it through Sunday.

Yesterday was a Sunday that broke the pattern, however. Glorious sunshine in the morning, and even though it was cold, the birds were singing, including the male in our side-yard pair of bluebirds. Mr. Blue sang and waved his wings while his mate ducked in and out of our side-yard bluebird house. No word on whether he got lucky later.

Heading into the Blennerhassett Hotel for my Sunday gig, I hear a very randy mourning dove calling from the top of the Parkersburg courthouse annex. The natural reverb between the large buildings on this quiet street really augmented his song, and I wondered if he chose this spot for its acoustics. He certainly didn't choose it for its natural habitat--there's very little.
The Sunday morning mourning dove sounded great singing from his terra cotta stage.
I think this mourning dove uses this perch frequently.

Back home in the afternoon it was practice time for The Swinging Orangutangs. Visit Julie's funny blog about our practice for the straight dope. Man, it felt great to play with the full band again. So good, in fact, that I completely forgot to take any pix to share with you here, until practice was over and we were in Orangutangs' Afterglow. So here are a few apres-prakky pix.Julie and Steve, basking in the glow of another righteous O'Tang Clan practice.

Vinnie, smashing up Steve's drums after our Sunday afternoon practice. Hope his parole officer does not find out.

We ran over about 15 songs from our existing repertoire, chiseling off the rust from our hands and voices (our last gig was back in October) and learned three new tunes. One was "Lick Your Boots" by Eels, a quirky, spacy song. Another was an original composition by Andy called "My Baby's Like an ATM." Jade, I'm sure he is not referring to you in this song--it's not about anyone specific.

And finally, the band helped me flesh out a bridge for my latest effort, called "Trying to Forget You." It's the first slow tempo song I've written in a long time. This line-up of our band is very cohesive, so it's a good place to ask for advice on lyrics and chord changes. Vinnie, who is playing bass with us, suggested an E-flat chord that really fit nicely. The song is sad, but pretty, and as the band played through it a final time, I realized how lucky I am to have music in my life, and good friends and family with whom to play it.

It makes it easier to make it through Sundays. And through life in general.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Adventures in Music

Saturday, January 21, 2006
As Dad, Chet, and I were setting up for our gig this afternoon, Chet (who booked the job) casually let this slip.

"Hey do you guys know "Margaritaville?" The guy who hired us wants us to play it."

Now I knew a little bit about this gig. It was for a very nice man's 90th birthday party in a swank banquet room of a restaurant. The birthday man's son had hired us after hearing us last fall. Everything was going along just fine until Chet dropped his bomb.

"Chet, why did you just say that?" I asked, picking myself up off the floor and dusting myself off.

"It's not a big deal, but the birthday guy likes margaritas, so his son asked if we could play "Margaritaville" when he arrives." Chet replied, like it was the most normal thing in the world.

I once took a blood oath that, in order to preserve a microscopic shred of musical dignity, I would never again play certain songs. On that list of forbidden music, "Margaritaville" is #1 with a bullet. Adding to this horror show is the undeniable fact that "Margaritaville" is a guitar song. We are a jazz trio consisting of piano, bass, and drums.

But we're professionals, so, after panicking and screaming for a few minutes, my dad and I sat down at the piano so I could teach him the song. He professed to never having heard it. Lucky man. My dad is a master musician, but I quickly deduced that, in spite of the fact that the song only has three chords in it, our version of it was not going to happen without some sort of sheet music.

So I jumped in the Birdmobile and headed down the road a couple of miles to CA House Music, thinking I could surely find a sheet music book there with the songs of Jimmy Buffett, a man who has made millions of dollars singing songs about parrots, rum, and lost shakers of salt.No dice. I blew out my flip-flop trying to find the song in the store's psychotically organized sheet music sections (there were five different places in the store with sheet music on display). If I'd been desperate for any song from the 1890s, no problemo.

Big Manhattan Transfer gig coming up? We got your music right here, Sparky. But this was a Buffett-free zone as far as sheet music was concerned.
Just when I was about to give up hope, I spied Bill, a drummer I'd worked with last year. He works at CA House. I told him of my predicament. He sympathized, knowing that I was in a real pickle. "Man, I once had to chase down the chords to "Una Paloma Blanca" for a VFW gig on a Sunday afternoon in Keokuk," he said, shaking his head.

Bill summoned the computer guy for the store who, with a bit of coaching from me, was able to get online and find the chords and words to "Margaritaville." He printed it out and placed it in my sweaty hands. I raced back to the party, arriving just in time to transpose the key from D to C (better for piano) and scribble a few notes on the sheet.

Enter the birthday man. The crowd cheers. He is handed a Margarita. We begin that cheesy riff--ba-ba-baba-ba, ba-ba-baba-ba--that sends parrotheads into rapture....I lean into the microphone, and say a silent prayer to St. Jaco, patron saint of bass players.

The rest is a blur.
I can now say on my resume that I have serenaded a 90-year-old man with "Margaritaville." How many people can say THAT?

And you know what? We didn't sound too bad doing it.

Oh, and on the way home, we saw two red-tailed hawks perched close to each other in a huge oak tree. I took this as a sign that I should never again sing "Margaritaville."

Music Weekend

The Swinging Orangutangs rock the house at The Blennerhassett Hotel last fall.

Lots of music on the docket for this weekend. First is a jazz gig Saturday afternoon with my dad and drummer Chet Backus for a birthday party in Parkersburg, WV. Then my regular Sunday jazz brunch gig at The Blennerhassett Hotel.

Then a knock-the-rust-off practice for The Swinging Orangutangs at our farm on Sunday afternoon. The O-Tang Clan has a gig on Saturday, February 4, at The Marietta Brewing Company, and to avoid being arrested for aural assault, we're honing our mad skillz well in advance.

This show will feature our buddy Vinnie Mele on bass and vocals. The rest of the band is the ususal suspects: Julie Zickefoose on vocals, flute, and percussion. Andy Thompson on rhythm guitar, piano, vocals, percussion, and City Council At Large. Steve "Charlie" McCarthy on drums. And me, BT3 on lead guitar and vocals.

We'll be learning some new material, including a song I just wrote, called "Trying to Forget You." We also do original songs by Andy, and we cover a lot of material from other bands, including, but not limited to, The B-52s, Eels, Wilco, Mr, Neil Young, Santana (before he went all Rob Thomas on us), The English Beat, The Cure, Ween, and The Violent Femmes. We can also whip out some jazz standards, classic country, or rock if the situation calls for it. Here's a little-known fact for the "VH1 Behind the Music" folks: Someone once paid us $100 to play "Take Me Home Country Roads."

Our motto is, and always will be: "The more you drink, the better we sound."

Music makes the world go 'round.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Two Whales Tales

Friday, January 20, 2006
Perhaps the most intelligent mammal ever to visit Parliament.

How often do you get two interesting whale stories in one day? Well, today was one of those two-whale days.

First, here's the story of the northern bottlenose whale that decided to visit London, so it swam up the Thames River. Thanks to David Griffith for the news tip.

Next, here's a spoof news item, called Seismic surveys from Down Under about a whale that "died of old age." Not that THAT'S funny, mind you. Just an interesting story. Thanks to John Acorn for sending this one to me.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Afternoon Delight

Thursday, January 19, 2006
Let's check in with the Bill of the Birds Weather SkyCam®:
"Nothin' but blue skies, from now on!"

What a gift today's weather is. It's sunny, unseasonably warm, and mostly still. Sort of one of those days that's creepy because you KNOW it's trying to lure you outside in your cut-offs, flip-flops, and doo-rag to throw frisbee and crank the Allman Brothers out the window.

Sadly, I am inside today, held there by the production deadline for the next issue of our magazine. But there is hope in Birdville. Beautiful day + lunch hour + binocs = 60 minute birding adventure.

After securing a sandwich and soup at a local purveyor of foodlike products, I went to The Kroger Wetland, just down Acme Street from BWD. This wetland is a remnant patch of Ohio River bottomland swamp nestled between I-77, several chain motels, and (you guessed it) a Kroger supermarket. This local Kroger donated the land to the City of Marietta and local volunteers, city workers, and various clubs have worked together to clean up the trash and make the wetlands accessible to visitors. Trails have been cut and wood-chips laid down. Footbridges have been built over perpetually wet spots, and most recently, an observation deck and well-placed benches have been added along the trail.
Boy scouts and local volunteers have built footbridges and benches around the wetland's paths.

This little patch of nature is very attractive to waterfowl, waders, and shorebirds year-round, but spring and fall migrations are the prime birding times. I did not expect much today at the wetlands. I really just wanted to get out for an hour to enjoy the air, sun, and the pleasing feeling that spring may actually return soon.

Even in the middle of the Kroger Wetland you do not escape the fact that you are surrounded by civilization. The whine of traffic on the interstate, the smell of grease from the fast-food joints, and the other visual and aural signs of humanity are omnipresent. Still, it's a thrill to hear the first spring peeper from the bogs, as I did today. And you never know what birds will be present.
Vernal pools like this one surround the Kroger Wetland, and are the home of the now-awakening spring peepers.

I feel a special kinship with this place, not only because it's the nearest decent birding spot to my office at BWD, but because the land along one edge of the Kroger Wetland once belonged to my great-grandfather. When I-77 came through on the edge of Marietta in 1964, it barreled right through the living room of the farm house where my dad's side of the family had lived and farmed for many years. There was no choice in the matter. While some of our city's leaders felt that the interstate "put Marietta on the map" from today's perspective it seems to have mostly made Marietta a good place to get gas, a Big Mac, and get right back on the interstate. But I digress....

I found a sunny spot and one of the new benches along the west side of the wetland and settled down for lunch and some quiet reflection time. With all the ways we humans stay in touch with each other these days, I find it restorative and utterly refreshing to go somewhere for a few minutes or a few hours, where nobody can reach me. Sometimes I'll even find myself smiling when I realize that no one know where I am right now! I keep this within reason, of course....
The mallards are already pairing off, further proof that spring is in the air.

Some of today's highlights at the Kroger Wetlands included several gaggles of mallards, perhaps nearly 20 birds in all. A rattling belted kingfisher flying from snag to snag. He kept this up so long that I began to suspect that he was laughing at me. And a lone spring peeper gave a few peeps from one of the vernal pools along the wetland's jagged, messy edge.
The view of the wetlands from a knoll, looking eastward.

It won't be long before the red-shouldered hawk is kee-yah-ing overhead. He nests here every summer. The wheeeeep-wheeep of wood ducks is just a few weeks away, too. And the liquid music of the tree swallows will once again fill our ears as soon as the midges and danceflies are hatching in late-March.Beaver sign is everywhere in the Kroger Wetlands. Wally sign, not so much.

It was a delightful way to break up my day. And as I squished up the path to the parking lot, I was thankful to have a little bit of green space so handy and accessible.

I hope you're getting outside today, too. Winter is not defeated yet and she's sure to return with great, frigid fury to remind us that spring's first day is still two months distant.
My shadow followed me to the wetlands and waved to me as I departed.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Footage of Carolina Parakeets

Wednesday, January 18, 2006
One of the things I love about my job as editor of Bird Watcher's Digest is that I never know what the next phone call or e-mail will be about. Yesterday I got an e-mail and phone call from a young woman from a California advertising agency. "I've got some footage of Carolina parakeets that will be appearing in The New World, a film opening this Friday!"

Naturally, my interest was piqued.

The New World tells the story of the initial encounter between Europeans and Native Americans during the establishment of the Jamestown (Virginia) settlement in 1607. It's also the story of the relationship between John Smith, part of that first band of Europeans, and Pocahontas, a young Native American woman living with her people near what would become Jamestown.
"Excuse me, my good man. Is this Jamestown?"

Or, if you prefer to get your information directly from press releases, here's what Tasha, from the ad agency sent me:
"The New World, opening in theaters nationwide January 20th, is an epic adventure set amid the encounter of European and Native American cultures during the founding of the Jamestown settlement in 1607. Inspired by the legend of John Smith and Pocahontas, acclaimed filmmaker TERRENCE MALICK transforms this classic story into a sweeping exploration of love, loss and discovery, both a celebration and an elegy of the America that was…and the America that was yet to come.

Against the dramatic and historically rich backdrop of a pristine Eden inhabited by a great native civilization, Malick has set a dramatized tale of two strong-willed characters, a passionate and noble young native woman and an ambitious soldier of fortune who find themselves torn between the undeniable requirements of civic duty and the inescapable demands of the heart.

In the early years of the 17th century, North America is much as it has been for the previous five thousand years—a vast land of seemingly endless primeval wilderness populated by an intricate network of tribal cultures. Although these nations live in graceful harmony with their environment, their relations with each other are a bit more uneasy. All it will take to upset the balance is an intrusion from the outside. One is not long in coming."
Chief Powhatan and his people were welcoming to the strangers from across the sea, up to a point.
So how do parakeets fit into all of this?

A digitally created pair of Carolina parakeets has a nine-second appearance in one of the scenes between John Smith (played hirsutely by Colin Farrell) and Pocahontas (played by the beautiful and unknown-til-now Q'Orianka Kilcher). Oh, and the movie also features one of my favorite actors, Wes Studi, as a warrior. You might remember him as Magua from Last of the Mohicans.

Turns out, the movie's writer/director, Terrence Malick (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line) is a bird watcher himself and thought BWD and other media outlets might be interested in the digital recreation of an extinct bird species. Well, he was right!

The amount of time we see the parakeets is fleetingly short, but it's still pretty amazing to see, and to imagine what the living birds must have been like.

View the clip of the Carolina parakeets from The New World at your chosen size and bandwidth.
Quicktime, small.
Quicktime, large.
Windows, small.
Windows, large.

The movie's official site is here.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology provided audio files of natural sounds and creatures for the film. And although no sound recordings exist of the Carolina parakeet, that did not stop the lab from creating one. Here's the press release from Cornell:
"What would a Carolina parakeet sound like?" This was a difficult question because the species has been extinct since the 1920's. However, in 1607 Virginia, the parrot would have been one of the more colorful and noisy inhabitants of Pocahontas' world, and it was important to director Terrence Malick that the sounds of THE NEW WORLD be as historically accurate as the costumes and sets.

To this purpose, the production contacted the Macaulay Library at Cornell University's Lab of Ornithology which houses the largest collection of animal sounds in the world, with more than 160,000 recordings, including 67 percent of the world's birds.

Curator of Audio Greg Budney took on the challenge of finding a Carolina parakeet stand-in. Although no recordings of the parrot exist, based on body size and beak shape, Greg determined that the song of the Aratinga mitrata or mitred parakeet would be a good approximation.

In the end, the Library provided cues for over 75 species of birds, frogs, insects and mammals that were appropriate for the time and place of the story, adding a rich layer of auditory detail to the sound mix of THE NEW WORLD.
The Lab of O did not have anything to do with the digital recreation of the parakeets. That was the work of a digital artist who used this well-known painting by John James Audubon as reference.

Bill of the Birds readers might also enjoy Julie Zickefoose's painting of this stunning species.

If you go to see The New World (remember it opens nationwide this Friday, January 20) take along your binoculars and try to catch a glimpse of the parakeets. Then, on Saturday, when you're out birding with your friends, you can say, "Yep, the LAST bird I focused these babies on was a Carolina parakeet!"