Friday, February 29, 2008

Sandhill Cranes and Bluebirds!

Friday, February 29, 2008

Whoever heard of a birding festival focused on both sandhill cranes and bluebirds?

Um. Some friends of ours in Nebraska who LOVE bluebirds and who also happen to live near the world's largest spring gathering of sandhill cranes.

When Steve and Cheryl Eno contacted us way back in 2006 about speaking in Nebraska for a festival in the spring of 2008, we said "sure!" Then I asked Steve what kind of festival it was going to be? We'd been out to other events the Enos had been involved in, namely a 2003 North American Bluebird Association convention held in Kearney. It was well-run and well-attended and lots of fun.

"Oh you know, there'll be some bluebird stuff and we were thinking about including the cranes, too!"

I remember thinking "Gee those are some pretty different birds and I'm not sure you'll attract a lot of the normal birding festival goers with them." There are other events devoted to sandhill cranes after all. And bluebird enthusiasts are a breed apart, hence the name Bluebird Nation.

But I should have known those Nebraskans would pull it off. I mean I've seen Steve and Cheryl's house, which Steve built out of bricks, and farm, which is devoted to animals of many varieties. The basement rooms are given over to bluebird houses that people have sent to Steve for review and potential approval as suitable for bluebirds to nest in. And the barn workshop is, well, let's just say if Steve lined up every bluebird house he's built and given away through the thriving Bluebirds Across Nebraska organization, they'd likely stretch across the whole Conhusker State. In fact they probably nearly already do.

This is NOT your normal birding festival. It's better. It's more down-home and relaxed.
You should come! It's right around the corner: March 6 to 9, 2008, in charming Kearney, Nebraska.

Here are three reasons to come to Kearney for the Sandhill Crane & Bluebird Festival next week:

1. If you have never seen several hundred thousand sandhill cranes take off from a river against a pink dawn sky, you are missing out on one of birding's most amazing experiences.

2. Al Batt will be speaking. Al is both the funniest and the tallest man I know. His stories make me laugh until my ribs ache and the runzas come out of my nose.

3. You will have the chance to eat a local food item called a runza.

4. OK I lied. I've got more than three reasons. There are prairie chicken leks nearby.

5. If you have a question about bluebirds (and who doesn't) several of the continent's Bluebird Oracles will be at this event.

6. Live music every day.

7. Live auction of truly one-of-a-kind items, some of which defy labeling.

8. You will learn how to pronounce Kearney.

9. Did I mention runzas?

10. The cranes and bluebirds will miss you.

I hope to see you there.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Tough Times for Bluebirds

Thursday, February 28, 2008

There have been some very mild late Februaries here in southeastern Ohio. This is not one of them. The bluebirds' normal food sources—fruits, berries, the occasional grub or nearly frozen grasshopper—are covered in snow and ice or simply gone in the case of many of the grapes and pokeweed berries. So they are seeking out alternative food sources. I watched them today doing what Julie described to me a week or so ago—eating sunflower bits from a tube feeder.

Bluebirds are not habitual nut eaters. The sunflower bits have no shell to deal with and are small and fairly soft. The bluebirds were on the feeders every chance they got, until the starling mob descended and took over.

I made sure to keep the suet dough feeder by the kitchen sink window full of food. The bluebirds know to watch for the re-up there and they come in right after the first daring tufted titmouse.

I'll bet the bluebirds are as eager as I am for spring to get here. I caught myself starting to eat a handful of sunflower bits tonight. . . hey—it was cold and my traditional source of food is not available.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Winter Neverending

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Now again upon us like some old musty horse blanket
Winter's bland embrace smothers the land and its inhabitants
no spring swirl of swallows or even a twittering of redpolls
can yet break the trance in which we plod.

Bare branches of ash trees look like witches' brooms
stuck into the frozen ground handle first.
Would there were a witch hereabouts
because I'd barter with her to break this spell.

Oh Winter you've been harsh this year
wielding all of your power yet sharing few of your gifts
I'd like to curse your blinding whiteness,
your gray slush and clinging clay mud, your knifing wind and stinging sleet,
yet what good would that do?

Instead I'll wait you out
'til spring comes 'round to wrest control
when the tiniest zeeee from the first gnatcatcher
sends you scampering to hide behind Autumn once more.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Goodbye Privacy Tulip

Monday, February 25, 2008
The glorious Privacy Tulip on the last day of its long life.

Our house sits on a windswept ridge in southeastern Ohio. The woods are all around us, but they are recovering woodlands, with few tree more than 40 or so years old. Timber harvesting happens all around us every year. Somebody's woods will have finally grown old enough to be 'harvestable'. Not ours. Our woods will never get old enough. Because we don't plan to timber them.

Several times every year various fellows in flannel shirts, Carhartts, and muddy boots come to the door and politely introduce themselves asking if we realized that we were sitting on ready cash with all these trees on our land. We smile and tell them "No Thanks!"

Our neighbor to the north is having his acreage timbered. It's a selective cut as they say. This means that instead of cutting everything standing, only the trees of a certain size will be cut. For two months now we've listened to the clanking roar of the bulldozer as the timber man cuts a muddy swath up and down the hills of our neighbor's land to get at the prime trees. Everything over 18" in diameter is being cut—and that means a LOT of trees. The chainsaw has whined nearly every day it wasn't raining or snowing. We've heard dozens of loud, creaking crashes—the very last sounds made by dozens of oaks, maples, hickories, and tulip poplars.

It's our neighbor's right to harvest his timber. We've got no recourse, so we tell ourselves that while the destruction being wrought is bad news for wood thrushes, scarlet tanagers, ovenbirds, Cerulean warblers, and box turtles, it might be good news for yellow-breasted chats and indigo buntings, and Kentucky warblers, and hooded warblers—all species that prefer brushy woodlands over older growth forests.

The one tree on the neighbor's land that we've had a special bond with is a giant old tulip poplar we called the Privacy Tulip. It blocked the direct view of our house and birding tower from the country road a half-mile across the valley. We liked having the privacy from the Privacy Tulip. All winter its branches covered the view of our house. In summer, its leaves smothered the noise of the county road. We worried that it would get cut down with all the other trees. The more we thought about it the more unhappy we became.

Viewed from our birding tower, the Privacy Tulip stands above all others. It's value to us is not measured in board feet.

Julie even called our neighbor to try to buy the tree, but he was having none of it. He was perfectly nice in turning her away but turn her away he did. To him, once a tree falls down from old age or weather, it's no good to anyone. Better to cut it now and make something useful out of it. I would argue that a downed tree makes for a healthier forest in the long run, adding to the richness of the soil, providing food and shelter for thousands of organisms, opening up the forest canopy to let sun and rain reach smaller trees. But that's not how our neighbor sees it. And I have to respect his opinion at least as far as the boundaries of our adjoining properties go.

So it was with a heavy heart a few Saturdays ago that I called to Julie when I realized the timber cutter had rumbled his 'dozer right up under the Privacy Tulip. He was so close I could hear him spit as he got off the 'dozer. The chainsaw started and it was over in a matter of minutes. The Privacy Tulip's reign on the hillside below our house was over. How long had it been there? Certainly long before our house was built. One hundred years? One hundred and fifty?
Leaning away from the biting chainsaw, the Privacy Tulip is brought down once and for all.

Twenty minutes later, scalped of its branches and crown, the core log of the Privacy Tulip—more than 34 inches in diameter near its base, was being dragged downslope through the mud to await stacking on the log truck for transport to the mill.

I think back on the many birds I've seen in that tree: the bluebirds loved it as a lookout perch. The cedar waxwings, too. They'd swirl to a stop in its top before dropping down to eat our grapes and wild cherries. All of the woodpeckers used the tree as a stopping point between feeders and nest sites. The male scarlet tanager always seemed to make his first major singing appearance of the spring in the top of the Privacy Tulip. What stage will he sing from now?

I can't go visit the stump just yet. I'm still trying to adjust to the new clear view of the county road off to our northwest. There is an un-fillable void there. The headlights of passing cars now dance across our walls where once they were blocked by a forest giant.
A gaping hole in the woodland horizon where the Privacy Tulip once stood.

Friday, February 22, 2008


Friday, February 22, 2008

While doing some sundown birding with a gang of pals last month on Cape Canaveral National Seashore, I got to enjoy the single-minded foraging routine of this nine-banded armadillo. It's been years since I've seen an armadillo so I made a point of watching this one as long as it would let me.

According to scientists, climate change is going to mean we'll have armadillos in Ohio. They've apparently made it into western Kentucky already. Our winters are too harsh for these hard-to-categorize creatures because they do not carry enough body fat to survive long-term cold (and those shells CAN'T be too warm).

This 'dillo was snuffling along the edge of the parking lot, poking into the shore dune scrub, no doubt seeking insects, ants, grubs or something else tasty to eat.

Armadillo, by the way, means little armored one in Spanish. I considered it buena suerte that I got to see this l'il dillo doing its thing.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Blue Jays: Squat & Gobble

Thursday, February 21, 2008

February is National Bird Feeding Month in North America and it's with good reason. For those parts of the continent that have cold, nasty weather February is perhaps the most difficult month for wild birds to survive. It's still as cold as certain parts of a brass monkey on an iceberg and the natural food crop (berries, fruits, nuts, etc.) may be mostly depleted. Warmer weather food sources such as insects, tender buds of trees, and plant nectar will not be available until later in the spring. Or if the weather is not cold and icy or snowy, it's wet and the wind is blowing. Tough conditions.

We've had yet another snow in SE Ohio so the feeders are hopping even more than usual. The food our birds go after most ravenously is the suet dough that Julie makes (although I do help out on the large-batch stirring duties).

Our blue jays are particularly hoglike with the suet dough. They use their food-stashing ability to carry off large throat-fulls of the dough. We've learned to crumble the dough into small pieces to keep the jays from taking golf-ball-sized chunks away to the woods to cache. But every now and then (and don't tell Zick) I put out some wads of dough just to see how excited this makes the jays.

Blue jays (and several other jay species) play an important role in the vitality of our forests. They cache (or hide) food for later consumption as a hedge against food shortages. Most of the food they cache is in the form of nuts such as acorns from oak trees, hickory nuts, pecans, and beech nuts which the jays bury under leaf litter or pine needles or in loose soil. Only a percentage of these cached nuts are ever recovered by the jays that buried them. Many of the un-recovered nuts germinate and become saplings and eventually full-grown trees, often growing far from their 'parent' tree. In this way jays help to keep our hardwood forests diverse and healthy.

When I lived in the East, I used to see this diner—and I can't even remember where—called Squat & Gobble. I loved that name and it's a perfect description of how our jays take in the suet dough from our bird feeders.

It would surely be nice if the suet dough the jays cache would sprout into a suet dough tree from which we could harvest ready-made suet dough. It would save a lot of lard melting and two-handed mixing.

Here's a series of images of a blue jay at the suet dough.

The jays stab hungrily at the suet chunks looking like they've just been rescued off of Tom Hank's desert island volleyball camp.

A tilt of the head and the dough drops into the throat pouch, now bulging.

Isn't there a rule about never swallowing anything bigger than your eye?

I LOVE the eyebrows on this one.

This jay stared me down until I realized there were no more big suet chunks—only scraps and crumbs.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

BWD Cover Sneak Preview

Wednesday, February 20, 2008
BWD's current cover is a painting of red knots by Louise Zemaitis.

If you'd like to know in advance what the next cover of Bird Watcher's Digest will look like, step on over to Drawing the Motmot, the fascinating blog by Debby Kaspari. I've known Debby for nearly 20 years—since her days as a jewelry designer and lead banjo picker for the All Girl Boys in the SF Bay Area of California. She plucked under the nom-de-tune of Debby Cotter then.

Debby is a mutli-talented artist and has lent her work to the cover of BWD numerous times. Her post about creating the May/June 2008 cover painting for the magazine can be found right here.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Things I Did Not Know

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

More knowledge absorbed inadvertently during my Las Vegas odyssey.

There is actually a product that mixes Budweiser and Clamato (which is clam juice and tomato juice combined). Now to my mind that's just gilding the lily a bit too much.

I would give almost anything to have been in on THAT marketing meeting.

Marketing Genius #1: Gentlemen, those Defecting Dalmation commercials are killing our sales of Bud! We've GOT to come up with something new to turn things around!

Marketing Genius #2: We could add something to every can! Like lime or algae!
MG #1: Nah. Green is SO 2007!
MG #2: How about another color? Purple! We could say there's a little bit of Barney the Dinosaur in every can!
MG #1: No. Giant costumed creatures freak me out. Same with clowns and mimes.
MG #3: Man I feel sick. I think I ate some bad clams last night!
MG #1: BRILLIANT! We'll add CLAMS!
MG #2: What color are clams?
MG #1: Who cares! We'll toss in some tomatoes too and make it Bud Red!
MG #2: That's why you're Marketing Genius #1!
MG #3: raaaaaaaaalllllllpppphhhh!

It's great that you can buy 14 ounce cans of this stuff.
I wonder if it comes in kegs?

Monday, February 18, 2008

Moment of Zen: Manatee

Monday, February 18, 2008
Don't know about you, but I cannot believe it's almost the third month of the year!
Where the heck did the time go?

Since its very auspicious start, 2008 has been a blur, sort of like looking at the world through a stretched piece of taffy, while riding a roller coaster, the roar of the wind drowning out all thought.

So I am trying to slow down a bit just now. Seeking a stillness.
Stillness. . . it's so elusive, isn't it, in this immediate gratification world of ours?

I'd like to share a few seconds of digital video that I recorded at Blue Spring State Park in Florida last month. Jeff, Liz, Lisa, and I went there seeking manatees and we saw at least 30. It was a clear, snappy-cold morning, so the manatees were attracted to the springs' warmer water. There is a calming stillness in the way this gentle, giant creature moves effortlessly through the water.

Hope you enjoy this Moment of Zen.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

My Funny Valentine

Thursday, February 14, 2008
I took this photograph two days ago of a male northern cardinal escaping from the deck feeding station with a big wad of suet dough. Since it's red and swirly and weird, I thought of you.

So here is a valentine for all of my bird-obsessed/bird-centric friends out there.
Happy Valentine's Day!

I hope your heart is full.


Bill of the Birds

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

For a Dancer

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Watching you through the heat-steamed glass
snowflakes hissing with the wind
you swooped in close as if by chance
my camera swung to take you in
and clicking it I startled you
Just as you did this little dance.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Snowflake is Still Here

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Snowflake the leucistic female dark-eyed junco was on the deck rail yesterday, eating suet-dough bits. It was so cold that she kept one foot or the other tucked in her belly feathers.

She is such a beautiful bird.

I hope she makes it back again next year. It'll be interesting to see if she continues to get whiter with age. For any new BOTB readers, here is Snowflake's story.

Here's hoping the sharpie over on Zick's blog does not come to BOTB hunting some junco white meat.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Red-bellied Mullets

Monday, February 11, 2008

I've watched red-bellied woodpeckers for more than 35 years. But today is the first time that I noticed what totally awesome red mullets they have! I used to think this was just a field mark—but I was so wrong!

Other names for the mullet: Beavertail, hockey hair, mudflap, Kentucky waterfall, Missouri Compromise, Tennessee tophat.

Dude! It's a feathered fashion statement. Now I know why they have zebra-striped backs. These are the avian equivalent of zebra-striped pants favored by mullet-wearing rockers.

I love the way this mullet fans out across the woodpecker's nape.

It just goes to show, you're never too old to learn something new.
And I believe this is further evidence of the undeniable, never-ending power and majesty of ROKK!

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Attracting Vultures

Saturday, February 9, 2008

My apologies for the utter dearth of posts here since mid-last week. I've been down with the flu and am only just now coming around enough to shoo the vultures from my windowsill. They could tell I was about to start decomposing. In fact, in one of my fever-dreams, I heard this conversation between two turkey vultures that were perched above my bed, looking at me:

Young vulture: "Hey Dad! Is that food?"
Dad vulture: "No my boy. That is a human male, still breathing, but apparently very sick"
YV: "What do we call food that's not yet ready to eat, Dad?"
DV: "Alive. But all things die, so we can wait. There will always be food for patient vultures."
YV: "And when he dies, what will he be then?"
DV: "Carrion, my wayward son."

Wednesday, February 6, 2008


Wednesday, February 6, 2008
Leica digiscoping set-up. Courtesy Mike McDowell.

Most birders are now familiar with the term digiscoping—using a digital camera to take photographs or digital video through a spotting scope or (less commonly) through binoculars. There are countless websites devoted to sharing digiscoped images (here is a good one from Leica, and one from Swarovski, one from Zeiss, one from Nikon, and another one affiliated with Eagle Optics). There are also online forums where digiscoping's ever-changing technology is discussed and debated.

I learned a new "digi" term at the SHOT Show in Las Vegas last weekend. But before I describe it, let me set the scene for you.

The SHOT Show is held annually in either Las Vegas, Nevada, or Orlando, Florida. It is the outdoor industry's largest trade show, drawing more than 30,000 buyers from retail gun shop owners, to travel outfitters, catalog publishers, hunting club managers, law enforcement, and the military. There to display their wares and services are manufacturers of anything you might need for hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, recreational shooting, gun or knife collecting—it's actually impossible to describe the scope of the SHOT Show. It is, some would say, naturally, a very male-dominated show.

So you can imagine the conflict—the torment even—when the SHOT Show's regularly scheduled operating hours conflicted with the year's biggest sports event: The Super Bowl. We're talking thousands of people who HAD to stay in their display booths while the most-watched sporting event in the world took place last Sunday afternoon.

SHOT Show booth operators are nothing if not resourceful. Many of the largest companies at the show spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on their booths. Some of this money is spent on the highest-end video display monitors and these are often mounted where passersby can watch a promotional message from the company, or videos of their products in use, or, most often, episodes of the hunting shows they sponsor. So in spite of warnings to the contrary, several of these companies with massive booths and steroidal TV sets tuned in to the Super Bowl. As you might guess, these booths were very crowded during the game.

As I was walking the show aisles, I happened upon the Leica Sports Optics booth where my friend Jeff Bouton was working. Behind Jeff was a TV with a scruffy-looking Tom Petty singing away during the Super Bowl halftime show. The following conversation ensued.

"Jeff! Dude, you guys have the GAME on!" I said.
"No, we don't. That would mean we had an outside video feed. We do not," he replied.
"But how....?"
"It is digi-poaching my friend!"
"You see that massive booth 50 yards down this aisle here?"
"Do you see their huge-screen TV tuned to the game?"
"We are demonstrating the clarity of our Leica digiscoping system by focusing on that screen and sending the image to this otherwise normal TV display in our booth."
"Digi-poaching! Genius!"
"No amigo, merely superior optics doing what they do best!"

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Leaving Las Vegas

Tuesday, February 5, 2008
I tried my best to post to BOTB from Lost Wages on Monday but something about paying $12 for Internet access on top of paying $200+ for a Motel 4-1/2-quality hotel room made me pause to consider. Then I tried posting from my iPhone which was only possible sans images and, you know, I'm nothing without images.

So now, settled safely back into farm life in rural (and rain-saturated) SE Ohio, I have access to the few images I nabbed in Vegas. Sorry to disappoint, but No Nuge. Perhaps it was his Mossy Oak camo that made him impossible to locate...

One thing is guaranteed on the long flight from the East to the West: Cool things to look at from the air. Most of the images to follow are ones I took with the camera in my iPhone. The aerial shots were all taken through an airplane window—two or more layers of unbreakable plastic. Given these limitations, I think the shots came out OK.

Sky above, cloud below at 35,000 feet above Oklahoma.

If ever a river could be called serpentine, this one is it. It looks like it's slithering across a Thanksgiving tablecloth.

Lake Mead, the huge body of water formed behind Hoover Dam. To me this looks like those bumpy parts of my elementary school globe. Hey is that Australia?

My Las Vegas lodging. Dirty room, clanging slot machines, too many clowns. At least it was smoky. Just Say No.

See the tiny vertical sliver between the concrete on the left and the pink glass on the right? That's the view of the Nevada desert from my hotel room.

Leaving Las Vegas late at night. Even from the air it looks like an old hooker all bedecked with sequins.

I did not spend a single farthing on gambling in LV—something I aspire to each and every time I go there. But they make it soooo easy to spend your money on games of chance. Or even to spend your money on anything. The safe in my room cost fitty cent to use!

The SHOT Show was one big adventure. I enjoy the cacophony and challenge of talking business with so many knives and firearms all around. (I really do!). I'm already looking forward to next year!

Tomorrow: The advent of digi-poaching!

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Viva SHOT Vegas!

Saturday, February 2, 2008
SHOT Show floor.

In a few days I will be spending nearly all my time inside a giant convention center in the city that REALLY never sleeps: Las Vegas.

The SHOT Show is an annual event for me. As the editor of a birding magazine, I go, not to gamble or to see Barry Manilow or Wayne Newton, or to explore the carrying capacities of the endless buffets, but to discover what's new in the way of optics for birding. But hey--if I happen to run in to Barry or Wayne or The Nuge, then we'll have a chin wag and head for the buffet...

The SHOT Show is for hunters and all the gear and accoutrement for your basic consumptive outdoor pursuits. It is unbelievably huge. I will walk the soles off my shoes.

Promo banner showing happy gun owners. "More chardonnay, Bryce, or would you like a dose of buckshot?"

This year's show coincides with the Super Bowl, which will make for some interesting conflicts of interest among the companies displaying at the show—it won't be possible to split early to catch the Super Bowl pregame. Oh bother!

As for me, I plan to be in my hotel room, having a cold cerveza, reading a good book, wearing my bunny slippers when the Big Game comes on. I have no vested interest in the outcome—couldn't care any less about the two teams playing. But I am certain to see ecstatic and despondent people in Vegas after the game is over and the bets are paid off. Of all the weekends to have to go to the Dante's Inferno of the American West, why Super Bowl weekend?

Well, I've got a plane to catch, and as Marty DiBergi once said: "Enough of my yakking! Let's boogie!"

Friday, February 1, 2008

For the Avocet in Winter

Friday, February 1, 2008

I saw you walking all alone
lost in thought or concentrating
pale shadow of your springtime self
perhaps it's spring you're contemplating

Sunlight makes you paler still
with every step the water deepens
stopping once to wet your bill
concentric ripples outward sweeping.

When your head returns to burnt sienna
the nest you'll tend along the coast
'neath summer sun that leaves me squinting
I'll remember you, my winter ghost

American avocet in winter plumage, Merritt Island NWR, Titusville, Florida.