Monday, April 30, 2007

Birding Almost Heaven

Monday, April 30, 2007

Later this week I head south to the hills of West Virginia for the annual New River Birding and Nature Festival, held for a week each spring in and around Fayetteville, WV. It seems like this is the fourth year I've been to this festival--it's a can't miss for me.

The New River Birding and Nature Festival is kept intentionally modest in size so the quality of the experience is high. That's a great philosophy for a birding festival--bigger is not always better.

Birding by boat is a very popular field trip. As we float down the breathtaking New River, we're flanked on each shore by the ancient Appalachian Mountains. The songs of hermit and wood thrushes, scarlet and summer tanagers, Baltimore and orchard orioles, and many warblers echo across the gorge. Such a peaceful way to spend an afternoon. And, yes, we avoid the whitewater portions of the river.

Warblers are a key focus of the New River festival. We often see 20+ warbler species on a single field trip. These happy folks (above) have just seen their life golden-winged warbler. They are performing the Life Bird Wiggle® high atop a mountain, where it's safe to dance like no one's watching.

Mark your calendars for next spring and join us in Almost Heaven, West Virginia... (you know the rest...)

Sunday, April 29, 2007


Sunday, April 29, 2007
A few images, taken yesterday, of one of our male blue-winged warblers. They've been back for about a week, calling Bee-buzzzzz all day long from the orchard and meadow edge.

I don't really have anything edifying to say, so I'll let the pictures tell the story.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Worm Eating

Saturday, April 28, 2007

We have several territorial worm-eating warblers on our farm this spring. Here's one fellow I ran into today along the east-facing slop below the oil road, while looking for morels. No dice on the mushrooms, but this bird made up for it nicely.

Friday, April 27, 2007

The Song in My Head

Friday, April 27, 2007

Is it too early to start thinking about summer? I hope not. Because I'm listening holes in a new song about summer from a newish (to me) band called The Decemberists.

I first heard about The Decemberists from my sister Laura, who has great taste in music. So when I read all the raves about the band's album called The Crane Wife, I paid attention. Last month I finally downloaded the album from the iTunes store.

Yes, I'm pleased to report, The Crane Wife lives up to its hype.

This band reminds me of The Band, and of CSNY, and of much of the great melodic, non-formulaic music I've always loved. I'm drawn to music that has layers of meaning and melody, like peeling an onion. And in this way, The Decemberists could be called The Onionists. Their songs are like epic dramas--every one telling a whole story with full character development.

Today, The Song in My Head, is:
by The Decemberists

from their album
The Crane Wife

There's a guitar/melodion riff at the start of Summersong that is reminiscent of the famous guitar riff in Breakdown by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. This made me love it on first listen.

The instrumentation in Summersong is fab. The arrangement of the song is strong to the point of being Beatles-esque. The tempo lilting. The lyrics are fascinating and deep.
The vocals are alluring. All in all one great song. Go here to learn about the band, and to listen to their online jukebox.

Give The Decemberists a try. I know I'll be listening to them all year long--not just in December.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Meet Our Prairie Warbler

Thursday, April 26, 2007
Our spring–summer resident prairie warbler got in early on Tuesday morning, after spending the winter in the Sunny Tropical Southland. He shouted out his glorious song, rising up the chromatic scale, from halfway out the meadow--the same place he held a territory last summer.

Zick and I sallied forth with our cameras hoping for a bit of luck. The words of our friend and master digiscoper Clay Taylor echoing in our heads: "Prairie warblers are the hardest songbird to photograph! I've NEVER gotten a good shot of one!"

The prairie warbler as we first saw him.

The western edge of our meadow is covered in the kind of brushy, scrubby stuff prairies love. It's got multiflora rose and sumac, saplings of several tree species, Japanese honeysuckle, and grape vines. And the middle-aged woods rise up behind this messy edge, tall tulip poplars, aspens, oaks, and maples, creating the perfect blend of buggy paradise, thick cover, and exceptional nesting and singing spots for songbirds.

A few minutes after tracking our singing male prairie, we found him about 25 feet high in a sumac/honeysuckle tangle. He sang as he foraged, seeming to ignore our movement closer to him as easily as he ignored our pishing.

Then, as if possessed by a magic spell, he came closer, then closer still. All the while he sang and foraged. And we went into full photo-monger mode. Our cameras clicked and beeped as we choked back our giggles at our good fortune.

Crouching prairie, hidden cloacal protuberance.

It lasted just a few minutes, then he was gone. But he'd given us a memorable show. We shared views of our images, high-fived a few times. Then I headed back to the house to work on a book project and Zick headed out to the orchard to continue to try her shutterbug luck.

Here are a few of my best shots from the morning. Check out Julie's blog for her excellent pix.

Spring is here, at long last.

Perhaps a bit curious about the clicking and beeping of our cameras.

Singing for all he's worth from an apple branch.

Prairie warbler badonkadonk. Dig the red neck! He fits right in here on the farm!

Is THIS his best side?

Or is THIS his best side? Or is it the badonkadonk?

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Just-Missed Kiss

Wednesday, April 25, 2007
Seconds after these cardinals were beak-to-beak, happily swapping seeds, I snapped this photo. Too late!

On Saturday last weekend, recovering from my Hotdog Brothers revelry of the night before, I was in my new photo blind, taking pix of birds.

We have about 1.2 million northern cardinals around the farm right now. They are fighting like mad over turf, especially around the feeders. Males and females are blurry streaks of red and gray as they parry and thrust at interlopers.

Our male cardinals are such sexy beasts!

This pair of cardinals did two different "cardinal kisses"--where the male feeds a seed to the female as part of his courtship. They performed this ritual right on top of the feeding station, in full view. These priceless nature moments happened while I fumbled with my camera. DOH!

I missed the kiss. And although I continued watching for an hour, they never did it again (at least not where I could see them).

We'll get 'em NEXT year.

"I feel his staring eyes! But I'm NOT going to look! Oh this is creeping me out!"

"OK. Now I'm ready! Kiss me you fool! But just because you pass me a seed, does NOT mean I'm going to... you know..."

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The First Big Wave of Spring

Tuesday, April 24, 2007
Yesterday morning the first sound I heard was a yellow-throated vireo singing from the orchard to the west of our house.

The second thing I heard was Julie running into the room shouting "Get up! There's a yellow-throated vireo singing outside!"

The male YTVI was not alone. There was a red-eyed vireo out there too. And a white-eyed vireo! All of them were singing.

I was fascinated to see that the tent caterpillars were obvious all of a sudden. Perfect timing for this vital bird food source.

I hurried upstairs to get my binocs and then stepped out onto the deck. A blue-winged warbler sang from way out the meadow. I shouted the name of this new arrival in to Julie. She shouted back from the front yard with another species.

We walked the kids out to the bus, then spent about an hour on the deck listening and watching. It was sweet noting the new arrivals, after such a long wait for spring's arrival. We had a false spring with warm weather and bursting flowers. This was followed by 10 days of cold, snow flurries, and icy nights in the 20s. We were happy that few songbirds arrived early because they would have had a tough time of it.

As the morning wore on and I began thinking of getting to work, the burry song of a scarlet tanager burst forth from The Point, along our north border. Then, as if we'd willed it, the male scarlet took his place at the top of an elm sapling and sang for a few minutes. What a sight for sore eyes his scarlet color was! We drank him in through the spotting scope until he moved farther into the woods.

The first male scarlet tanager of spring. The last scarlet tanager I saw here at the farm was on last year's Big Sit!

After several weeks of anticipation, with many missed early-arrival dates, spring itself arrived--in feathered form--in a big way!

All in all we had 11 new bird arrivals for Monday, April 23:

  1. Yellow-throated vireo
  2. Red-eyed vireo
  3. White-eyed vireo
  4. Hooded warbler
  5. Prairie warbler
  6. Yellow warbler
  7. Palm warbler
  8. Blue-winged warbler
  9. Scarlet tanager
  10. Wood thrush
  11. Louisiana waterthrush
The wood thrush and waterthrush (no relation) were heard last evening just before dusk, while we sat out in the lawn, talking to our neighbor, Dave Hawkins.

Photographic proof of a pass-through palm warbler. Too bad the camera focused on the dead willow leaves.

Our broad-winged hawks got back a week ago. I have not yet heard their two note whistle, but surely will soon.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Going Camo: My New Photo Blind!

Saturday, April 21, 2007
For Christmas Santa Zickefoose brought me a new portable photo blind. One of the advantages of being married to a Science Chimp is that she does lots of research before making an equipment purchase. She consulted many websites and several of our professional photographer friends for info on a portable starter blind--one that I could use here on the farm to photograph feeder birds. All the data pointed to the Doghouse Blind by Ameristep.

For one reason or another, I had not used the new blind until today--a mere four months after it dropped down our chimney and nestled under the tree. And I've got to say that this blind totally ROCKS!

The blind popped up quick as a flash--instant camouflage.

I pulled it out of the bag, and like many of the lightweight, high-tech camping tents in this modern era, it practically sprang into fully set-up form by itself. Since there was no wind this morning I did not stake it down or use the internal struts that help solidify its shape. Instead, I stuck a lawn chair inside, along with my tripod, camera, binocs, and coffee and I was ready to go.

Oh wait!

Forgot to fill the feeders and put up a few handy snags with perfect backgrounds.


OK, bring on the birds!

During the winter, I sat outside in many layers of outerwear, trying to get some feeder bird photos. I got a few, but the birds were slow to return to their relaxed feeding activity no matter how still I was sitting there. With the Doghouse (which I am strangely accustomed to being in) the birds resumed their activity almost immediately.

Wow! Now I wish I had used this blind much sooner!

Taking it down was only a little more difficult than setting it up. But once I get used to it, I'm sure it'll be a snap. From my own search of the Internet, it appears that the Doghouse is available in many retail stores, including hunting/camping/outdoor stores like Cabela's and even the big box stores, if you're so inclined.

The blind fits into this Boston-terrier--sized bag (and it comes with shoulder straps for hauling--the blind, not the dog).

Here are a few of the morning's keeper shots.

The male American goldfinches are nearly ready for spring.

Male eastern towhee at the suet dough.

Male northern cardinal wondering what that clicking sound is inside that giant pile of leaves.

Boo! Hiss! The female brown-headed cowbirds are back.

I'm proudest of this male eastern bluebird image.

This blind also works for photographing other wildlife besides birds.

Friday, April 20, 2007

We Are the Hotdog Brothers!

Friday, April 20, 2007

Tonight and most of tomorrow Liam and I will be having all-guy time at the farm. Phoebe is sleeping over at a friend's house. Julie is in the Far North giving a talk at Mohican State Park.
We boys are FREE!

Liam and I have a two-member club, that meets only on weekends like this. We are called The Hotdog Brothers. This started a few years ago, when Phoebe would accompany Julie on weekend trips to wherever. Liam and I, left to our own devices, would cope as best we could, and The Hotdog Brothers were born.

We even have a theme song for the Hotdog Brothers that goes like this:

We are the Hotdog Brothers
Yes We Are!
We are the Hotdog Brothers
Yes We Are!
Hotdog! Hotdog!
Yum! Yum! Yum
Hotdog! Hotdog!
Lots of FUN!

We don't always eat hotdogs, but the often comprise two or more of the food groups on our planned menus.

Tonight, an otherwise normal Friday in April, we had plans to do EXACTLY what WE wanted to do. With no GIRLS around to say otherwise. We'd eat, spit, pee outside, and tell jokes and scary stories. Our menu would be of our own choosing. This involved chocolate milk, hotdogs roasted on an open fire, baked beans, beer (for some of us), chips, and s'mores (not necessarily in that order).

We can do WHATEVER we want, including taking off our shirts and dancing around.

We always have plenty of wood for hotdog cooking.

I started a fire in the fire circle up on the hill east of our house. Liam gathered wood for the fire. We watched it until it was well established.

The fire starter.

Watching the fire.

Then we created some art on the sidewalk in front of the house, just in case some unsuspecting civilians happened upon the scene.

While we were cooking our dinner on the fire, Liam wax philosophical:

"What is it about springtime that makes us SO happy? The sound of the crickets? The sound of the sun rising? The sound of a lawnmower running over a little girl's hair!"
Liam tells me a story--one of many.

NEVER get between a Hotdog Brother and his hotdog.

Yum! Yum! Yum!
And the sun sets on another Hotdog Brothers extravaganza at Indigo Hill. The problem is we have just 48 hours to clean up the house and grounds before the gals return.

S'mores are a crucial part of our ritual.

The shimmering embers remind us of the hotdog that burns (forever) in our souls.

Liam is the best Hotdog Brother a guy could ever ask for (and he likes chocolate milk as you can see).

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Vulture Mystery Solved

Thursday, April 19, 2007

While driving through a major city in the American tropics on recent afternoon, I noticed a turkey vulture standing in a puddle at the edge of the road.

"That's strange!" I thought. "I wonder why that TV is doing that?"

I looked skyward and saw another adult vulture, then several more, soaring overhead, just above the roof of a nearby store.

"Is there something dead on top of that roof? Why would those vultures be swooping so low over a store?"

Then I noticed the sign on the front of the building and all my questions about vulture behavior were answered. I always thought that vultures located their food by smell. But now I think it may be because they can READ!

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Your Favorite Field Guide?

Tuesday, April 17, 2007
Photo by Mitch Casey for BWD.

I'm doing an informal survey here on Bill of the Birds about the various field guides to the birds that we bird watchers use.

Here are a few questions that I really want to ask (and I hope you'll be willing to answer):

1. How many field guides do you own?

2. What is your favorite field guide and why?

3. Do you prefer field guides illustrated with photographs or with artwork/paintings?

4. Do you always take a field guide with you when you go birding?

5. Do you find yourself using one guide in the field but referring to a different guide at home?

6. Do you think printed (book format) field guides will ever be replaced by digital devices (such as the
Handheld Birds PDA that features the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds.)?

Please use the comment function here to post your answers.

I'll be interested to see what y'all have to say.