Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Ruddy Turnstone Convention

Wednesday, January 30, 2008
Ruddy turnstones along the causeway beach.

Ruddy turnstone in winter plumage.

There's a place along the causeway from Titusville, Florida to Merritt Island NWR, just after the drawbridge, on the left, as you head toward the refuge, where there's a seaweed-covered bit of bay beach you can drive along. There are always large resting flocks of gulls and shorebirds there. And a few wading birds, too. The thing is, the birds are really close. You can drive right up to them and sit there taking photos or scanning with your binocs while they feed and snooze and loaf.

This place always has several budding bird photographers there with their cameras and long lenses, working the flocks. Even when the light is poor you can get really great bird photos because the birds are so dang close.

As I drove up to the spot on Thursday morning last week, I noticed two winter-plumage ruddy turnstones in the grassy strip between the sandy shore and the sandy parking lot where the cars (including mine) were parked or inching along at 2 mph. I stopped the car and tried to focus on the turnstones. But they came closer and closer until I could no longer focus on them. Then they went under the car! I moved the driver's-side rear-view mirror and saw that the turnstones were feeding in the wet tire tracks I'd made in the sand. It must have disturbed the sand enough to expose some food items. The turnstones fed in the tire tracks for a minute or so then ambled back across the grassy strip and down to the water line. Clearly these two turnstones were tuned in to this unusual foraging opportunity.

I drove 50 feet farther down the beach and another turnstone came out and circled around my tires, poking and picking in my car's tracks.

Smart birds—or at least very opportunistic.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Wood Stork Ankles

Tuesday, January 29, 2008
Wood storks. White plumage, long decurved bill, and a really lovely bald head covered in wart-like skin.

While driving back to Titusville, Florida on Sunday after enjoying a few hours at Merritt Island NWR (and voting six times in the Florida primary, which will only count for 3 votes) I ran into a small posse of wood storks lounging along the causeway.

I thought to myself, "White birds with black heads in bright sunshine against dark green grass. Huzzah! What a perfect opportunity to take a boatload of under- and over-exposed images!"

So I did that very thing. Somehow I did manage (accidentally) to take a couple of keepers. The rest will need an iPhoto makeover before they'll be eligible to be voted on to Hollywood.

A young wood stork, its neck still covered with feathers. Adults have featherless necks.

Then I saw a wood stork that was shorter than the others. It looked like Tom Cruise standing in a flock of Kelly McGillises, but without the height-giving phone book to stand on.

A closer look revealed that the stork was resting. On its ankles.

Did you know that the part of a bird's leg that we think of as the knee (though it bends backwards compared to human knees) is actually the bird's ankle? So this wood stork is resting on its heels.

The lower part of a bird's leg is the tarsometatarsus, a bone formed by the fusing (by our friend evolution) of the metatarsal and tarsal bones. What we see as a bird's foot is really its toes. Its foot and tarsus is the lower leg (or tarsometatarsus). Its upper leg corresponds to our shin. Its knee is up next to the body. Confused? Well think of it like this: birds are walking around on their tip-toes all the time. [special thanks to Science Chimp for that last analogy].

The noticeably short wood stork that I thought was Tom Cruise except that it wasn't jumping up and down on Oprah's couch.

The morning had been cold and in the warming mid-day sun several of the wood storks in the flock plopped down on their ankles. Were they just resting or was this a better way of soaking up the sun's warmth? Do you have a theory on that? If so, please share it with the rest of the class.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Space Coast Moment

Monday, January 28, 2008
Reddish egret on Black Point Wildlife Drive in Merritt Island NWR.

I am just back in the past few hours from Titusville, Florida, where I was attending the Space Coast Birding & Nature Festival. Florida in winter. . . man i could almost see buying some Bermuda shorts, a floppy hat, a Members Only windbreaker, and some golf clubs and hanging it up down there in the Sunshine State. Or maybe not just yet.

The Space Coast of Florida (the area around Cape Canaveral, epicenter of the NASA space program) could use as its marketing phrase: "It's Birdy as Heck Here!" There are huge flocks of American robins already preparing to move north. The sky is peppered with swooping tree swallows. Lines of ibises, cormorants, pelicans, spoonbills, and skeins of ducks look like stitching across the sky. Every bit of water hosts a wood stork, white ibis, coot, or gallinule. Bald eagles and osprey are so common as to elicit a yawn from the local birders. Yellow-rumped warblers tchup from every shrub and tree, joined by the occasional palm warbler.

Among the birds I encountered in Florida are several species I get to see just once or twice a year. Perhaps the most interesting such water bird is the reddish egret. It has an unusual hunting strategy—it walks along slowly in shallow water until it spies a school of fish. Then it chases the fish, trying to catch them by stabbing its bill into the shallow water. As it runs it looks something like a drunken sailor, legs and wings reaching out in all directions.

The reddish egret's color scheme is subtle but evocative—classic colors blended so well. I love the pink bill with a black tip. I got these few pictures of reddish egrets while in FL.

More about FL soonish. Right now, like an astronaut might experience coming back to Earth, I am in the midst of re-entry into my normal routine.

Space Coast Moment


I am just back in the past few hours from Titusville, Florida, where I was attending the Space Coast Birding & Nature Festival. Florida in winter. . . man i could almost see buying some Bermuda shorts, a floppy hat, a Members Only windbreaker, and some golf clubs and hanging it up down there in the Sunshine State. Or maybe not just yet.

All the birds are enjoyable there—many of them species I get to see just once or twice a year. Among the most interesting is the reddish egret. It has an unusual hunting strategy—it walks along slowly in shallow water until it spies a school of fish. Then it chases the fish, trying to catch them by stabbing its bill into the shallow water.

I also love the reddish egret's color scheme—classic colors blended so well. I got a few pictures of reddish egrets while in FL. Here's a small sampling.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Winter Day at The Wilds

Thursday, January 24, 2008
Dust-bathing horned larks.

The Ohio Ornithological Society had its annual winter birding day at The Wilds in SE Ohio recently. More than 125 hardy souls made the scene. It was colder than a gyrfalcon's uvula there on the rolling grasslands near Cumberland, Ohio. The Wilds is a rare animal breeding and research facility nestled in the middle of 10,000 acres of recovering strip mine. And it's got the birds. In winter it's home to loads of raptors. The day's raptor tally included American kestrel, red-tailed hawk, Cooper's hawk, northern harrier, rough-legged hawk, bald eagle, and golden eagle. Large numbers of waterfowl were seen on those few ponds still unfrozen. Horned larks, a snow bunting, and even a few over-wintering eastern meadowlarks were present, too.

Cars lined up to see the last bird of the day.

But the bird that about half of us stayed to see waited until sunset to make its appearance. A short-eared owl coursed low over the frozen grasses giving all of us a great look.

Short-eared owl.

It was a fitting end to another wonderful day of birding with my fellow members of Ohio's largest birding organization.

For an another report of the day, see OOS Director Jim McCormac's blog here.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

From Ice Scrapers to Skimmers

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Later this week I'll be heading to Titusville, Florida for The Space Coast Birding Festival, going in a few hours from the land of ice scrapers to sand flats full of black skimmers. It's 11 degrees F in SE Ohio this morning. Even the icicles are shivering.

I've found over the years that there's nothing like a beach covered in resting black skimmers to cure the winter blahs (or even your run-of-the-mill seasonal affective disorder).

If I get any good bird pix, you'll be the second to know. Until then, go easy.

Monday, January 21, 2008

When Chickadees Attack!

Monday, January 21, 2008
We put out a LOT of food for our wild birds. When the winter weather is cold as it has been thus far in 2008, we struggle to keep the feeders stocked. We might fill the feeders in the morning, and again at 3 pm and STILL the food disappears by dark.

On really cold mornings we've often got a crowd of birds hanging out all around the feeders, staring crossly at our kitchen window. Like a surly gang of teenagers waiting for the Slurpee machine to get refilled at a 7-Eleven, our birds are hungry and p-o'd that we're not out there filling the feeders RIGHT NOW!

Once in a while a male eastern bluebird will perch just outside the deck window and wave his wings at us. It's the same move he uses to impress the "ladies" in the spring when he's showing off the nest boxes in his territory. But he's not trying to encourage us to mate with him (at least we hope not). He's letting us know that we're failing to keep the feeders full of mealworms and suet dough. Yesterday he tapped his bill lightly on the upstairs bedroom window to remind Julie that he and his azure flock were ready to eat. The un-anthropomorphic among us might say he was merely fighting his reflection (sorry, the window was covered in frost) or nabbing an insect (it was 4-degrees out! there WERE no insects).

Nope he was communicating with us. Reminding us of our responsibility as feeding station operators.

Then there's the Carolina chickadee (one of about 40 that we have around the farm feeders). He got so mad at the tiny amount of suet in the suet feeder that he threw a fit. I managed to document his latest fit in photos. See below....

Carolina chickadee: "Let me say this again, s-l-o-w-l-y so you can understand it. WE NEED MORE #@*%$# SUET!!!"


Do we understand each other?

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Optimism of the Sun

Friday, January 18, 2008

It's been a bleary winter for the most part thus far in 2008. We've had a few finches—purple finches and pine siskins—but still no redpolls or pine grosbeaks. And we've had a good bit of snow, too.

Today started out gray and bleary again. Then the carpet of clouds lifted slightly and the world turned a lovely warm peach color.

Sun shining over the eastern treeline and under the clouds drawing down.

Even the leafless whip-like branches of the weeping willow tree looked beautiful, like golden strands of hair.

The sycamore and trees in the old orchard, though leafless, took on a fall-like glow. From the orchard came some bird song, encouraging the sun to stay a little longer—a cardinal, a pair of Carolina wrens, a tufted titmouse, an eastern towhee.

At the peanut feeder, a pair of harlequin book ends: a red-breasted and a white-breasted nuthatch.

I thanked the sun and invited her to come back again any time. It's the sun's golden warmth that brings on the optimism making us smile and making the birds sing.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

This Birding Life, Episode 12

Thursday, January 17, 2008
Bullfrog tadpoles.

Messing around with nature can really screw up the balance in an otherwise stable ecosystem. Take Fergus the bullfrog for example. When he was first released into a small backyard pond, he was a cute little tadpole just living his life. Two years later he was a voracious predator.

Fergus the bullfrog, looking hungry.


Then you might want to listen to the new episode of my podcast This Birding Life available from Podcast Central on the Bird Watcher's Digest website. This episode is called "Paradise Lost" and features Julie Zickefoose reading from her best-selling book Letters From Eden.

Episodes of TBL are also available from the iTunes Store. Just click on 'podcasts' and search for This Birding Life.

This Birding Life is sponsored by Houghton Mifflin and hosted on the Web by Bird Watcher's Digest.

BirdWatch America


Every January a handful of the BWD crew goes down to Atlanta to display our wears and press the flesh at The BirdWatch America trade show. We've attended every one of these events since the show started in New Hampshire in the late 1980s. The basic concept of the show is that manufacturers and distributors set up and buyers for stores (wild bird stores, hardware stores, nature centers, etc) come buy to shop. It's not open to the public, hence the name "trade" show.

We used to sell a lot of booklets and books at BirdWatch America, and we still sell a significant amount, but over the years, as the wild bird industry has matured, a variety of distributors have come on the scene offering store buyers the convenience of shopping for a range of products all at once, year-round. Now most of the wholesale sales of BWD's products happens through these distributors.

Still the show is really useful for us to gauge trends, to network, and, perhaps most importantly, to see our friends and colleagues in the industry.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Raising Sand

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The new CD from Alison Krauss and Robert Plant is called Raising Sand. My friend Debbie G. burned it (legally) for me and it's getting major replay in the Birdmobile as I drive to and from BWD.

I've liked Alison K's music for a while, but have of late gotten a bit turned off by the Perfect Bluegrass Production on her albums. This one, produced by T-Bone Burnett, is a keeper, baby.

Robert Plant is perhaps best known as the lead singer for Led Zeppelin. This is a fabulous departure for him, too.

At this link you can check things out for your own dang ears. There's even a bird-themed song on it: Polly Come Home.

Get it. You'll dig it!

Monday, January 14, 2008

This January Day

Monday, January 14, 2008

Though winter's demise has been foretold
since pagan solstice last month passed us
We're still shivering in the cold
with bitter winds that do harass us.

Red-winged blackbird has lost his song
yet epaulette still lights up his shoulder
and each of us still slogs along
through day time cold and night time colder.

Sounds of spring, I hear your ghosts
the cardinal's cheer in his throat sleeping
frost-killed grass like day-old toast
I strain to hear spring peepers peeping.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Stuck Inside, Pining

Saturday, January 12, 2008

I was inside all day today (and will be all day tomorrow) at a convention center near the Atlanta Airport at the BirdWatch America Show. This trade show for the wild bird industry is where lots of vendors come to try to sell their products to lots of wild bird stores.

All day I was talking to people about bird stuff, new products, trends, ideas, mergers and acquisitions, and so on. I enjoyed it but would have been overjoyed to have been birding outside, instead.

I did see a small sharp-shinned hawk as we entered the trade show POD today. That and a song sparrow were the extent of my day's bird list. Kind of ironic given the focus of this trade show on actual wild birds.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Young Birder's Guide

Thursday, January 10, 2008
That's me in the yellow shirt in April of 1970 only a few months after seeing my spark bird.
Dad (BT, jr.) is in the middle and brother Andy is on the right.

I saw my spark bird in November of 1969, when I was 7 years old. It was a snowy owl that flew into a tree in our front yard in Pella, Iowa. I keyed the bird out in my mom's Chester A. Reed Bird Guide.
Until the mid-1930s, millions of households relied upon the Reed Guide for bird identification. In 1934, Roger Peterson changed all that with the publication of his revolutionary Field Guide to The Birds of Eastern North America.

The Reed Guide was basic by today's field guide standards, but it served my purpose. I keyed out the snowy owl—there was no doubt about it.

The snowy owl page from the Chester A. Reed Guide.

Then I noticed all the other birds in the guide! And I set out in the woods behind our house to find some of the other species depicted in the Reed Guide. Little did I know that all the bobolinks and painted buntings and indigo buntings and eastern kingbirds were far to the south of Iowa in November. So I set about identifying the cardinals and tufted titmice and dark-eyed juncos in the evergreen windbreak and the house sparrows in our barn.

We moved to Ohio in 1971, and my mom once again gave my interest in birds a boost. She joined a local bird club made up mostly of women, who were happy to have my brother Andy and me along one Friday a month. These gals went birding somewhere every week! And the leader Pat Murphy, wrote about their trips and sightings in our local newspaper, The Marietta Times. Every club member had a nickname (perhaps to avoid putting their real names in the paper—birding was not yet socially acceptable). My mom was The Catbird—a name which fits her chatty, high-energy nature, and which has stuck to her to this day.

During these early years of bird watching, the seeds of what would eventually become Bird Watcher's Digest were planted. It would be another seven years before we'd start the magazine in our living room, but during each of those years we became more interested in birds.

As a kid, I would have LOVED to have had a basic field guide that was somewhere between the Reed Guide and the Peterson or Golden Guides. Those latter guides were wonderful, but they were far too all-inclusive for me. I was constantly identifying birds only to find out that they were nowhere near our area. Of course this was in my youth, when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth.

Fast forward to a couple of years ago, when I started working on the concept of a field guide for young birders. I wanted it to be welcome mat for all those 8 to 12 year olds out there who are sort of interested in birds, but who are not yet bitten by the bird watching bug. My goal was to create a guide that would be a starting place for them. A book they'd LIKE READING as well as using to ID birds. So we knew we'd need to include some puke, some guts, some screaming, a few gross-outs, and so on, and, baby this book's got 'em!

I made some initial notes and started talking to the kids in Phoebe's elementary school class about it. The kids and their teachers and I worked on the guide for almost three years! We studied how books are created from idea to proposal to manuscript to layouts to final galleys. In a eureka moment, we realized with that in being written, printed, shipped, and distributed, the book would actually travel around the world!

The kids helped me with the design of The Young Birder's Guide, they helped me write some of the text. We chose many photographs together. We selected page layout preferences. We worked on tweaking the cover design. I must have gone in to Phoebe's fourth, fifth, and sixth grade classes more than a dozen times in all to work with her classmates on the book.

Now it's all done and being printed and we CAN'T WAIT to see it. I've seen a bound galley and it looks and feels just like I hoped it would. It's narrow and tall—easy to use for smaller hands and easily stuffed in a pocket or backpack. The pages are packed with color—one species per page with photographs as illustrations.

The publisher, Houghton Mifflin is debuting the book at this weekend's birding industry trade show, BirdWatch America in Atlanta. I'm heading down to give a talk about getting kids into birding and, I have to admit, I'm completely excited about the launch of this book.

The kids at Phoebe and Liam's school are excited, too. Anytime they see me they ask about the book and when it's going to be here. It does seem like a long time coming. But that's publishing for you.

Of all the books I've been involved in as author, editor, project manager, or idea-monger, this is the one that is closest to my heart. Why? Because I want my own kids (fingers crossed) to know the joy of watching birds.
Our kids are good sports about their crazy birding parents. Photo by Julie Zickefoose.

And because I believe that the future of this planet is in their hands. We need them to know about birds and nature so they understand the value of the natural world. And the Playstation or the Wii is not going to teach them the difference between the song of an American robin and a rose-breasted grosbeak.

But this book just might accomplish that. The good folks at birdJam have created a playlist of 160 of the 200 species in the book. Kids can augment their copy of The Young Birder's Guide with the songs and images on this optional digital download.

Too bad it's going to be several weeks yet before we see actual copies, shipped express from the printer overseas.

I won't really feel the book is real until I walk into Phoebe's class with a box full of copies for all the kids who helped with the project. THAT'S going to be awesome!

Phoebe's fourth-grade class outside, posing with imaginary binoculars.

And here is a glimpse at the cover. I've got more to say about this book, but will save that for later. Right now I've got to finish writing my talk about getting kids interested in birds!

In case you're curious about it, the on-sale date for this book is sometime in mid-to-late April. I'll certainly keep y'all posted on that.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Playing the Lottery

Tuesday, January 8, 2008
I do not play the lottery. My mom buys instant lottery tickets for all of us every year at Christmas and we all giggle as we rub off the numbers. I've never won more than $5 on those.

We've seen what happens to relatively normal people who win a big lottery jackpot.

Besides, I really dislike gambling and the lottery feels like gambling to me. So I avoid it.

But there are times, like when we were in New Mexico in November, when it would be handy to write a check with a LOT of zeros to buy something really big, wonderful, and amazing.

Like 23,000 acres of high desert near Magdalena, New Mexico.

You would certainly have mountain bluebird, loggerhead shrike, and prairie falcon on your Ranch Bird List. Ted Turner would be your almost neighbor so there's an outside chance at aplomado falcon. And you'd have pronghorn antelope on your Ranch Mammal List.

But (and this is a Deep Thought) if you owned this spectacular New Mexico ranch would you still eat Ranch Dressing on your salads?

This is how Liam would look on your new New Mexico Ranch. He could be your Ranch Artist-in-Residence. Better get a satellite dish, though, because the Artist-in-Residence likes to watch SpongeBob when he gets home from school.

Here's how Phoebe would look on your ranch. She could be your Ranch Bloghand since, at age 11 she already has a blog and gets more comments on her posts than either of her parents get on theirs.

She should be blogging now, but I'm sending her up the road to the country store to get me some o' them lottery tickets.

Monday, January 7, 2008

The Birds: Watching with New Eyes

Monday, January 7, 2008
Last night Julie and I watched the last half of The Birds, the legendary Alfred Hitchcock movie set in Bodega Bay, California. This movie came out in 1963, when I was 1 year old, but I know that I saw it several times (and was terrified by it) before I was 10.

The Birds was a revolutionary film in terms of concept, special effects, and story. But it also, unintentionally, set bird watching back as a socially acceptable behavior by at least two decades. This happened on two levels. First, by elevating birds to Potential Monster Status (there are billions of them and they could attack at any moment). And secondly by placing, smack in the middle of a riveting horror film, a memorable stereotypical characterization of a dowdy bird watcher: Mrs Bundy.

Also starring in Hitchcock's avifaunal classic were Jessica Tandy, Rod Taylor, Suzanne Pleshette, and the ever blond and perky Tippi Hedren.

We were enthralled once more by The Birds. And we were amazed that we could recall each scene in great detail—almost like watching The Rocky Horror Picture Show! where you scream things at the characters. "No Tippi! You DITZ! DO NOT take the convertible into town! The birds are attacking! They will SERIOUSLY mess up your bouffant!"