Saturday, March 31, 2007

¡Viva Zapata!

Saturday, March 31, 2007
Marlon Brando was the star of the film.

One of the meetings I attended here in South Texas was held in Roma, along the Rio Grande west of McAllen. We met in the new World Birding Center facility in Roma, which will serve as a nice stopping point for bird watchers driving along the Rio Grande searching for some of the specialty species found in this part of the world: brown jay, green and ringed kingfisher, red-billed pigeon, altamira and Audubon's oriole, and muscovy duck.

That's the building with the famous balcony.

Roma is perhaps most famous as the location where the cult film Viva Zapata! was filmed in 1952. It was based on a John Steinbeck story and directed by Elia Kazan. The black-and-white movie, starring Marlon Brando and Anthony Quinn, was filmed primarily in Roma's picturesque zocalo or market square. The square is largely the same today as it was when it was built. A member of Roma's city council greeted us and proudly pointed out the balcony where, in one scene from the movie, a man jumped a horse out the second-story window, over the wrought-iron balcony rail and into the street.
It wouldn't support the weight of a horse OR Marlon Brando these days.

Roma's square is now a national historic landmark and more restoration is planned to retain the town's borderlife charm.

Interesting stone-building technique was used in Roma's oldest structures.

This was a hardware store for many years in Roma's square. It's now empty and for sale.

The series of World Birding Centers throughout South Texas has elevated this area's excellence for visiting birders. Most of them feature a fine birding site (Roma's center is just a block from a brand-new birding deck on a bluff overlooking the river), plus a welcome/visitor's center and gift shop. They sell guides, gear, snacks and beverages, and have bird sightings logs, air conditioning, bathrooms, and in some cases, optics for loan or sale--all the things we birders want and need when we're afield in a far flung place. Each center is independent, often operated by the local chamber of commerce, local National Wildlife Refuge personnel, or park staff. Lots of winter Texans volunteer at the WBC sites offering help and directions for finding specialty birds.
The Roma Bluffs World Birding Center.

If you have not been to South Texas, you should plan a bird watching trip here. There are at least a dozen bird or nature festivals in the Rio Grande Valley each year. The festivals' organized birding/nature trips are a really good way to experience your first valley birding. Then, once you've soaked up most of the RGV birds, you can easily take a side trip into Mexico. Drive just three hours south and you can find yourself in tropical cloud forest looking at trogons, motmots, and other feathered tropical delights.

I didn't add any new birds to my list this week, but I did get to have another visit with lots of the area's most unusual birds. Highlights included northern beardless tyrannulet, least grebe, gray hawk, neotropic cormorant, and of course, green jay.

More pix and stories to follow. Perdoname, I've got a plane to catch.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Birding Along the Rio Grande

Thursday, March 29, 2007
Signs welcome you to the trails at Falcon State Park above Falcon Dam.

Early mornings these past two days have been spent bird watching along the Rio Grande, the river that serves, here in Texas, as our border with Mexico. We were scheduled to canoe from Chapeño to Salineño yesterday morning, but the water was too high and the winds too strong for easy canoeing, so we just stayed on terra firma.

BTW, for you experienced South Texas birders, the property at Chapeño is now owned by new people and access to EVERYONE, including birders has been cut off. It's a big bummer. Even locals aren't allowed to picnic and fish there as they once were. Birdwise this is not such a big deal since the feeding station that was once maintained there for the brown jays and Audubon's and altamira orioles has not been stocked in a long time. Salineño offers most of the same birds.
A male pyrrhuloxia, one of the hardest names to spell or say in all of birddom.

We walked around Falcon State Park seeing caracaras, pyrrhuloxias, black-throated sparrows, and hearing lots of other birds. Again, the wind kept bird activity a bit subdued. Then we raced off to Salineño where we all started birding at the boat ramp along the river. After a few minutes the rest of our group walked up the hill to check out some feeders in a backyard. It was after they left that the birds started showing up. In about 30 minutes we got quite a few of the South Texas specialties: red-billed pigeon, ringed and green kingfisher, and gray hawk. We also saw a courting pair of Swainson's hawks and a female canvasback, a very uncommon bird this far south.

Cormorants loafing above the ramp at Salineño.

This morning I ventured out with John Schaust from Wild Birds Unlimited, Jim Williams, birding columnist from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and Melissa Pitkin from Point Reyes Bird Observatory. We left before dawn to squeeze in a few hours of intense birding at Anzalduas Park before John's plane back home. John was looking for the two kingfishers and we got him great looks at one of them: the ringed.
John and Melissa scan for kingfishers at the Anzalduas boat landing.

Anzalduas is a great place for birding because you never know WHAT is going to appear. We heard gray hawks calling and a northern beardless tyrannulet, too. We saw peregrine falcon, merlin, a Swainson's hawk, a sharpie, and a Cooper's hawk. Cave swallows were in the air, along with virtually all the heron and egret species. It was a short visit--we left by just after 9 am, but it was as birdy as we'd hoped it would be. We saw or heard 54 species in just under two hours. As we drove to Anzalduas, we made predictions about the number of species we'd see. This is a game I love to play when I'm birding with others. I'm pleased to say we blew away my guess of 42 species. In fact, everyone guessed way too low.
A huge ringed kingfisher photographed at Anzalduas.

If you're in McAllen, Texas tomorrow, stop by the Texas Tropics Nature Festival. I'm leading a trip somewhere birdy and I'd love to have you along.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

It's Tuesday, This Must Be McAllen, Texas

Tuesday, March 27, 2007
I am in McAllen, Texas, for several days of meetings and for the start of the Texas Tropics Nature Festival. We got out for a bit of birding at Santa Ana NWR this morning and saw some mighty nice birds, including clay-colored robin, green jay, chachalaca, great kiskadee, Couch's kingbird, and buff-bellied hummingbird.

It's been a loooooong day, so I think I'll let the pictures do the talking. ¡Hasta mañana!

It was not too birdy on the pond/resaca at Santa Ana, but the trees were hopping with birds (and skeeters).

A golden-fronted woodpecker on a local tour of homes.

There's a new birding tower at Santa Ana NWR. It's HIGH! But the view is fab.

There are two species of cowbird in this photo: bronzed and brown-headed.

By mid-morning the sky over Santa Ana started filling up with kettling broad-winged hawks.

Back in McAllen we spent the afternoon in meetings at the charming Quinta Mazatlan, which is now part of the World Birding Center.

This eastern screech-owl peeked out from his roost hole At Quinta Mazatlan when a squirrel skittered up the trunk.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Birder Hotpsot

Monday, March 26, 2007
Hugh Rose and Judy Kolo-Rose in spring birding plumage.

At times our home becomes an important stopover place for traveling friends. In this way Indigo Hill is very much like a very birdy patch of habitat that birds use in migration. Just last week we had Ohio birding fixtures Hugh Rose and Judy Kolo-Rose with us for two nights. They not only were great company, they filled the feeders and did the recycling! It was a relaxing visit with a bit of birding, a bit of cooking, and a lot of yakking.

Later in the week Jeff Gordon stopped by en route to see a friend in Columbus, OH. Jeff is one of BWD's field editors, the creative force behind the JeffGyr blog, and the sonorous baritone voice featured on several of our This Birding Life podcasts.

On Saturday I got a call from the peripatetic maven of nature sounds, Lang Elliott, saying he was passing our way headed back from Kentucky to upstate New York. Of course we'd be happy to see him By "we" I meant me, the kids, Jeff Gordon, and Chet Baker. Zick spent most of the week in Boston giving talks and visiting family and friends herself. Lang arrived late Saturday night and we stayed up later than the toads just talking about whatever. I even recorded a few short interviews with Lang for the podcast.

Lang Elliott and Jeff Gordon hanging at Indigo Hill. Those are root beer bottles.

Listening to Jeff and Lang talk about everything from sound recording technology to crawfish toads to ivory-billed woodpeckers, I felt dang lucky to have friends with such giant brains who share my passion for birds and nature.

So thanks to all our visitors this past week. Looking forward to seeing you again, soon!

Friday, March 23, 2007


Friday, March 23, 2007
I wish I was in Manakinland
Birding with my manakin clan
Gliding along through the green
of the sun-dappled jungle trail.

Manakins moonwalking
and snapping their wings
and we just fall out laughing,
because they're such silly, beautiful things.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

NEW! This Birding Life!

Thursday, March 22, 2007

I've been anxious to announce this for a couple of months! And since the word is already out there in a few places, it's time to open the curtains and get on with the show.

We're launching a new mode of sharing bird content here at Bird Watcher's Digest, it's a podcast, called This Birding Life.

"Dude, What's a podcast?" you may well ask...

Here's how the wikiheads at Wikipedia define 'podcast'
A podcast is a media file which is distributed over the Internet using syndicationfeeds, for playback on portable media players and personal computers.[1] Like 'radio', it can mean both the content and the method of syndication. The latter may also be termed podcasting. The host or author of a podcast is often called a podcaster. The term "podcast" is a portmanteau of the name of Apple's portable music player, the iPod, and broadcast; a pod refers to a container of some sort and the idea of broadcasting to a container or pod correctly describes the process of podcasting.
There are currently six episodes of This Birding Life (TBL for short) available for your listening pleasure. Among the already released episodes are a reading from Letters from Eden by Julie Zickefoose, a reading by Scott Weidensaul from Return to Wild America, a couple of interviews with Jeff Gordon about birding technology, and a recording from a keynote presentation I did called "The Perils and Pitfalls of Birding."

A seventh episode is "in the can" and should be available soon. I can't promise I'll do a podcast every week, but I'll try to keep them coming as regularly as possible. This is not only new technology and it's a new medium for content delivery so I (along with my colleagues here at BWD) am feeling my way along into the future.

New episodes of This Birding Life will be available for free download on the BWD website. The complete podcast is also available for free in the iTunes Store. Just do a search for This Birding Life. It's also listed here on

The Podcast Central section of the BWD website is sponsored by the Houghton Mifflin Company, publishers of the Peterson Field Guide series as well as the Kaufman Field Guide series. Special thanks to our friends at Houghton Mifflin for their generous support.

I seem to have been building up to this podcasting thing for a while. I love talking (especially to other bird watchers about birds). I enjoy the recording/creation of content process. And Yes, I love technology (but not as much as you, you see!) [That's a Napoleon Dynamite reference for my kids]

So it's my fondest hope that you'll dig what you hear (and, eventually, see) with This Birding Life. Digital content will never take the place of actually watching birds, but it might help us pass the hours between birding trips a little more easily.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Deadly Posts

Wednesday, March 21, 2007
Avid Wood County, WV, birders Dick and Jeanette Esker sent along these troubling photos with a warning that these hole-punched sign posts could be inadvertently deadly to perching raptors.

On December 30, 2006, while birding along a rural road in Wood County, the Eskers spotted a dead great horned owl hanging upside-down from a sign post. They were curious how this could have happened? Had the bird been shot and strung up by an irate farmer?

Upon closer inspection they noticed that the owl was suspended by a single talon that had apparently gotten caught in the top hole of the post. Clearly the bird flew in and perched on top of the post. Then, when it tried to leave, found itself caught by a talon through the hole. It had struggled to free itself, and likely starved to death. How awful!

Owl feet have a locking mechanism that keeps the toes locked around a perch or prey without the need for the muscles to remain contracted. Once locked on to prey/perch, the most natural position for the taloned toes is to remain clenched. Perhaps this natural adaptation made it impossible for the owl to unlock its grip on the pole. Once its weight inverted its body after take-off, the toe became tightly stuck inside the post hole.

After removing the owl, the Eskers took a few photos to document the event. And they asked us at BWD to help spread the word about the unintentional danger these sign posts may pose to any raptor with talons that perches on top. This style of sign post or fence post is commonly used, so how can the danger be reduced?

The Eskers recommend affixing the sign to the top-most hole on the post. Alternatively a simple bolt and nut can be inserted into the top hole or two to block talons from slipping into the hole. Duct tape wrapping might also proof useful, though talons could punch through tape that is weakened by weather.

We're going to publish this in BWD in the near future. But I wanted to get the word out now. Has anyone out there in blogspace ever seen anything like this? If so, please send it along or post a comment.

Photos by Richard and Jeanette Esker

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Evening Vespers

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Gray pressing sunset
cheery orange horizon
robin's vesper hymn

Monday, March 19, 2007

Weird Birds of the Weekend

Monday, March 19, 2007
While driving through snow on Saturday morning (and watching careless drivers spin out on the icy overpasses) we chanced upon this Roadside Hawk near Canal Winchester, Ohio. This certainly must be the first state record for Ohio for this species. We also took its nest building as proof of breeding, so we'll send this record into the Ohio Breeding Bird Atlas, too.

Just in case you don't believe us, here's proof that it was by a roadside. This bird was large enough to qualify as a Giant Thing here at BOTB.

It's clearly a hawk. It's on the roadside. Roadside hawk. What else could it be?

Later that day, Zick and I were giving our "Music of the Birds" program at Aullwood Audubon Center near Dayton, Ohio. Our Canadian pals Rondeau Ric and Anne came to hear us and to do a bit of birding. Ric photographed this male northern cardinal at the Aullwood feeders. Clearly this fellow's been through a lot. Losing his head feathers to mites. Getting trapped in a mist net and banded (see color bands on his near leg).

These trials and tribulations did not seem to affect his appetite, however.

Photo by Rondeau Ric

Our evening performance at Aullwood went well. The audience was enthusiastic and Tom Hissong and the good folks on the Aullwood staff made us feel right at home. It's a wonderful nature center with plenty to do and see. If you have the chance to visit Aullwood, which is just north of I-70 on Dayton's west side, don't miss it.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Early Arrival

Friday, March 16, 2007
Our mid-meadow brown thrasher on his first day back in 2006.

While doing a radio interview this morning on the phone in the tower room, Julie spotted a shockingly early spring returnee: a brown thrasher (!) was scratching around in the detritus under the bird feeders. She said it was painful being on the radio and not being able to shout the sighting down the stairs to me! This is at least a week early--maybe two--for this bird to have returned here to our ridge-top farm. Of course it could just be a migrant. I'm assuming it's a male heading back north early to claim his territory. Welcome dude! Hope you hang around!

We're not worried for Mr. Thrasher's safety since we have plenty of sumacs, dogwoods, and other fruit-bearing trees/shrubs still retaining some of their offerings. And we'll put extra suet dough out, scatter some cracked corn and mixed seed under the brambles where thrashers love to thrash. I only wish the weather were better—it's 40 degrees and raining hard.

We've had a few other signs of spring this week. Peepers are calling as are mountain chorus frogs. The woodcock seems to be in mid-season form with no delays between song flights. Meadowlarks, kestrels, killdeer, and skeins of Canada geese are overhead each day. The tree buds are swelling regardless of species. Crocuses and daffodils are strutting their stuff. The lawn and meadow are beginning to look more green than brown. All the resident birds are singing and all the woodpeckers are playing percussion, beating out their love tattoos on hollow trees. The mourning doves are doing their stiff-winged courtship flights where they briefly look exactly like an accipiter, causing birders everywhere to make bad ID calls.

So spring is arriving, even though it still feels like late winter out there.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Summers Past and Future

Thursday, March 15, 2007

One sunlit eve of early spring, before the falling of the dew
I chanced upon last summer, nestled still in the raspberry thicket.
Woven weed stems, once green, now bleached and fragile as dust
Yet still clinging through wind and rain, snow and thunder.
An instinct-driven creation screaming with the power of life
miraculous in its construction
and now so deathly still, a skeleton moved only by the breeze.

The old nest will rot away in spring rains and summer sun
falling to the duff below, becoming soil itself on woodland edge
to fuel the grasses, raspberry stems, sumac twigs
of a thousand nesting seasons to come.
Each note of field sparrow song drifting above the meadow
a tribute to the summers of the past.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Taking the Show on the Road

Wednesday, March 14, 2007
We've been playing lots of music lately--most of it for Bird People. Last week, The Zick and I did a brief (too early) morning appearance on the local TV station, WTAP. We got to play two songs and part of the station's "Daybreak Concert Series", one of which will be shown on the morning show on March 20 at (the safe-for-the-public hour of) 6:00 am or so. I believe WTAP will also stream the segment on their website after it airs. Unless, of course, there are restraining orders issued.

BWD's Founding Publishers, Bill & Elsa Thompson recorded a "Daybreak Concert" appearance, too. Theirs will air the day before, on March 19, 2007, and will also be available on the WTAP website.

Fresh from our WTAP show, we display our beaming faces (which are better suited to radio).

Late last month we played some acoustic music in Oxford, Ohio, with our buddy, John Kogge, for the Ohio Ornithological Society's Owl Symposium. We billed ourselves as Chick Sandwich (JZ is always in the middle on stage) and played for about 120 or so souls at Hueston Woods State Park.

John Kogge, Julie Zickefoose (chick), BOTB performing as Chick Sandwich. Photo by Hugh Rose.

Of course there was a $20 cover charge and a two-drink minimum. Sign by Jen Sauter. Photo by Hugh Rose.

Each summer our family goes to The Chautauqua Institution near Jamestown, NY for a week-long working vacation. We often teach classes on bird watching and give lectures to the delightful and robust Bird, Tree & Garden Club there. Increasingly, we also play music there, since Chautauqua is such a haven for the arts and musicians are made to feel very welcome.

JZ and BOTB performing al fresco (or is it al dente?) last summer at the Chautauqua Institution in western NY.

This coming weekend we're again taking our show on the road to The Aullwood Audubon Center and Farm where we're performing our program "Music of the Birds." This program is all fluff. You will learn NOTHING about birds, bird ID, bird feeding--it's just music and pretty pictures. If you're within shouting distance of Dayton, Ohio, come on down and see us. Show starts at 7:30 pm on Saturday, March 17. Good seats are still available.

We'll be playing acoustically at Aullwood, so no electric guitar, no necktie, and no fancy headgear.

One thing I'm a little concerned about is the fact that we're going to see acoustic guitar whiz and fab singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn the night before at Stuart's Opera House in Nelsonville, Ohio. This is a belated b-day present to me from Zick. Bruce's performance may make me want to saw the neck off of my guitar. If that happens, I'll fall back on the old comb/wax paper/homemade-kazoo thing as my instrument of choice.

Monday, March 12, 2007

To My OOS Peeps

Monday, March 12, 2007
photo by Jeff Gordon

Never one to pass up an opportunity for a goofy photograph, I've started taking a series of images of myself wearing my OOS "colors" in birdy places around the world. The OOS is the Ohio Ornithological Society, of which I am a founding board member. Ohio's largest statewide birding organization is growing like crazy and we're beginning to do some neat things for birds and for bird watchers both in Ohio and beyond.

This particular goofy shout-out to the OOS, the second such staged image, was taken from the top of Temple IV in Tikal, the ancient Maya city in northern Guatemala. In it I am wearing one of my OOS shirts (with a home tie-dye job) and I'm flashing the gangland symbol of the OOS, so my peeps know I'm still down with them even though I'm far away.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Last Evening in the Meadow

Saturday, March 10, 2007
This time of year, we're always on the lookout for signs of spring to apppear. Yesterday was our first springlike day of the year---temps in the 60's, actual SUNSHINE, snow melting, birds singing their tiny heads off. Perhaps singing is not completely accurate for all the birds.

The red-shouldered hawk was screaming it's ahh-ah, ahh-ah as it soared over the sycamore.

This is a game called Find the Red-shouldered Hawk in an Underexposed Photo.

The mocker is back! S/he is taking up temporary housing in the sumac tangle on the west edge of the meadow.

At least three pairs of bluebirds were flirting with each other and taking a tour of homes. This male staked out the mid-meadow box and its old fencepost.

I spied a meadow sprite flitting across the grasstops. Yes, it's spring at last.

Friday, March 9, 2007


Friday, March 9, 2007
Winter wind-blown weed
rusty wires holding fast
white on rust on blue

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Passageway to Yesterday

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Ancient passageway
Stones framing jungle's embrace
The tinamou calls

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Faces and Places

Wednesday, March 7, 2007
During the past three weeks, The Zick and I have been on the road to a variety of places, encountering a pleasing blur of friendly faces, and seeing a few birds, selling a few books in between. Back home in the snowy hills of SE Ohio, I've been flipping through my iPhoto library looking at my images--mostly of people--and trying to re-conjure the magic of those moments that are now, as they always must, receding into the past.

So I'll bid them a fond farewell for now with hopes of a later re-convergence. These faces are already woven into the tapestry of my memory. I'll share some of them here, with just a brief caption to give you a sense of place, time, and space for each face, starting with the most recent days first, then drifting backward in time.

The Patrick Sweany Band played for Dave Rudie's b-day bash. Dave's b-day is 3/4 and he is 4-0.

After the show, Patrick gave me a birthday knuckle sandwich. (photo by Julie Z.)

Happy Birthday Dave! (photo by Julie Z.)

Earlier in the day we had a jocular breakfast at John Kogge's house with visiting pal Doug Meikle (behind my guitar). Three grown men giggling for two hours straight is a pretty ridiculous scene. (photo by Julie Z.)

Doug has a highly developed sense of smell. (photo by Julie Z.)

On the night of March 2, the moon looked like an eye in the sky.

Julie and I enjoyed our visit to the Murphin Ridge Inn while attending the Amish birding Symposium.

During our visit to the Kogge's house on 2/25, Jesse Kogge (little) and Liam Thompson (big) became good pals.

And so did Mallory and Phoebe.

Denver Holt and Jen Sauter made a BOTB sandwich at the OOS Owls Symposium on 2/24. Photo courtesy Jen Sauter.

This mural at Hueston Woods State Park weirded me all the way out!

On our return flight from Guatemala, we got to know this little girl sitting in front of us. She was full of smiles the entire trip home.

Our last night in Coban Guatemala we were treated to a traditional dance performance, complete with a resplendent quetzal.

This small couple, members of a Guatemalan dance troupe, took their dancing very seriously. They were smooth dancers, too!

One of Guatemala's finest birding guides is Hugo Haroldo Enriquez Toledo. We call him HugoHugo.

Estellita arranged for us to make it back to Guatemala City for our home-bound flight. She also took us to our favorite market for our final bit of shopping.

Amigas de nosotros: Maria Elena (left) works for The Nature Conservancy in Guatemala. Hilda Morales (right) works for CONAP (the National Council for Protected Areas) in Guatemala.

Young marimba professionals in training at the eco-park where we were birding. These three boys played really well--better than most adults I heard!

The leader of the marimba players at El Rey.

On Tuesday 2/20 I led a field trip with 35 Guatemalans to share the joys of birding. First lesson: How to take a goofy group photo.

Guys with giant bird brains squaring off. Peter Burke and Alvaro Jaramillo (our Guate trip partners) argue about whose book is better. Later, a hockey game broke out.

After leading the bird walk, several of us went spelunking in the ancient cave. Claudia Burgos and I posed in front of an underground Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Intrepid birder Josiah Clark describes a bird's flight at Rio Escondido in Guatemala.

On our final morning at Tikal, we climbed the Temple of the Moon. Soon a group of college kids arrived and decided to build their own pyramid atop a Mayan pyramid. No one fell off.

English birder and tour leader for Sunbird Tours, Bryan Bland casts a bushy eyebrow toward a golden-cheeked warbler at Rio Escondido. Bryan has amazing birding travel tales to tell.

Among our best Guatemalan birding pals are Kenneth Alvarado (left) and Marco Centeno. If you see them, say "Gotas!"

I am a lucky guy to be able to go birding in so many places with so many great friends. Excuse me while I count my blessings. (photo by Julie Z.)