Monday, March 31, 2008

Oropendolas Forever

Monday, March 31, 2008

In Guatemala, in the middle of the Gran Plaza at the ancient Maya city of Tikal there is a clump of trees with a nesting colony of Montezuma oropendolas. These large dark birds are loud and conspicuous as they call to one another, and their huge baglike nests are a curiosity noticed by even the most bird-oblivious tourists.

This large member of the Icterid family (blackbirds and relatives) is a Central American native. They are quite common throughout their range and are often one of the first truly weird tropical birds added to the lifelists of visiting birders (after the 'everywhere' birds are seen).

Gorging on the fruits of a fig tree.

Males are a bright chestnut over most of the body. The tail is primarily bright yellow but the head is where the crazy color action starts, with a large light blue face patch and pink wattle. The bill is black with an orange tip. For a more complete description of the Montezuma oropendola, get Wiki with it.

Some colonies of the Montezuma oropendola may contain more than 150 nests.

The nests are intricately woven things, made up of small bits of vine, grass, and other plant fibers. The nests can hang down more than five feet, looking like really giant Baltimore oriole nests.

I've seen larger colonies of oropenola nests than the one at Tikal, but this one is easily approached and observe. The birds in the colony were nest building when I was there in early March. One or more would stay behind to thwart the ever-present guild of nest raiders hanging around the plaza. I watch a melodious blackbird make a pass at the nests as well as a great-tailed grackle. Both were routed from the area by the oropendola sentries. There were brown jays about, too, and I'll bet they eat quite a few oropendola eggs and young.

An adult Montezuma oropendola standing guard near the nest which is still under construction.

Flying from the colony to get nesting material.

Returning past Temple II with some small vines to add to the nest.

As I sat there on the warm stones of a side temple in the Gran Plaza, watching the Montezuma oropendolas come and go, I found myself wondering if the Mayan people watched the antecedents of these same birds nearly 1,000 years ago. Did the raucous burbling calls of this species echo off these same temple walls?

I am certain they did. And it's an amazing thing to ponder.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Golden Platte River

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Golden river sun
skeins of Morse code writ by birds
dancing cranes cavort

Friday, March 28, 2008

Pale-billeds at Yaxha

Friday, March 28, 2008
The male pale-billed excavates a grub from the base of a large tree.

On March 4, many of the participants in The International Birdwatching Encounter in Guatemala were split up into teams for a birding challenge. The team that saw the most bird species during the day would be the winners! There was much kvetching about who would be on what team and where would we go and so forth. It ended up just being another wonderful day of birding in The Peten.

We were bussed to Yaxha, an ancient Maya city much like Tikal, but less developed and excavated. The birding was brilliant. The weather varied between hot and humid, hot and rainy, hot and sunny, and just plain hot.

The day started auspiciously with at first one, then a pair of pale-billed woodpeckers. Although it was foggy, we all took many photos of these members of the genus Campephilus—same genus as the ivory-billed woodpecker.

That white thing hanging down from the woodpecker's bill is a giant wood-boring grub.

This image looks like a painting to me.

A quick flap to help hike up the tree trunk.

The pair, foraging together. Look how their pale bills and eyes stand out even from a distance.

I love the blazing red on the pale-billed's head, bisected on top by darkest black.

I wished Julie (confirmed ivory-billed woodpecker lover) had been there with me to watch these birds dig effortlessly into the base of a huge tree for similarly huge grubs. The grubs were so big, they looked like long white cigars in the bills of the woodpeckers. Alas Julie had awakened that morning feeling ill and elected (wisely) to stay at Villa Maya. Poor thing was down for two days.

Though these images aren't top quality, I thought I'd share them. These are special birds. Wish we still had our own Campephilus woodpeckers here in the USA. Who knows, maybe we do?

Thursday, March 27, 2008

March 3, 2008

Thursday, March 27, 2008
I went to bed on March 2, 2008, still a young man in my mid-40s. I awoke the next morning, on March 3, having crossed over into my 'late' 40s. This was mitigated somewhat by the fact that I was in Guatemala and had a full day of tropical birding ahead of me. Back in 2006, I also got to celebrate 3/3 in Guate.

Our 2008 group, attending the 4th Annual International Birdwatching Encounter, headed off in the pre-dawn darkness to Cerro Cahui, a reserve in the Peten Department of Guatemala that is mostly recovering woodland. We spent all morning on the trails there and the birding was excellent. If you don't believe me, check out Mike Bergin's account of the day.

Part of our group craning necks to see the gray-throated chat.

This post will be a glimmer across the events of March 3, 2008. I'll try to let the photos do most of the talking.

Rufous-tailed jacamar, calling from high in the canopy.

This tiny brown sprite is a ruddy-tailed flycatcher.

The gray-throated chat--such a boring name for a bird with huge patches of crimson.

Jeff Bouton's lunch. I warned him not to eat the pink sausages (lower right).

Julie Z (right) and Brian Bland, a top British birding tour leader, laughing over one of Brian's stories.

Climbing the nail-less tree tower. Photo by Jim McCormac.

Our lunch hotel had a tree-top tower, built without nails. It snaked up into a giant tree that shades the hotel's deck. From the ground you could not see the top of the tower. I HAD to climb it, so I gobbled down my lunch and hove off. It was a hardy climb up and a scary climb down, but the view was spectacular. When I got back to the ground I had no nails either, having bitten them all off.

The view from tower top, of Lago Peten Itza.

Birthday boy self-portrait in dorky hat on top of the tower.

The afternoon heat was settling upon us, so I decided, unilaterally, to go for a swim in Lago Peten Itza. I was assurred that, yes, there were cocodrillos, but they stayed over on the other side of the lake. The lure of the cool, blue water was too much to resist. My clothes came off. The Guatemalan boatmen shaded their eyes from the bright glare off my pasty-white skin.

I was happy I had very swimsuit-like underpants on. This meant there was a reduced liklihood of being arrested.

Mi amiga fina Liz Gordon joined me for the wonderfully cooling dip. Photo by Julie Zickefoose.

Boating across Lago Peten Itza to our buses waiting in Flores.

Nearing Flores we spotted a troop of howler monkeys in the lakeside trees.

Fellow traveler Jeff Bouton and I had an unspoken blood oath that I'd help him find the orange-breasted falcon at Tikal if he could show me a bat falcon. How I'd been to Guatemala three times prior without seeing a bat falcon was baffling to several of our party. Rick Wright even called me on a cellphone while we were in the boats crossing the lake to say he was looking at a bat falcon and did I see it. No. We were miles apart at that moment. It was a very kind gesture on Rick's part, though quite unkind to his cellphone bill I would imagine.

But just a few minutes later, as we were waiting for our afternoon cervezas at a dockside bar, good old Bouts came through. "Hey BT3! Come here and look at this bird! I think you'll want to see this bird, dude!"

It was my bat falcon. At last. Many pictures were taken. High fives were slapped. Bottles of Gallo were ceremoniously clinked. What a GREAT birthday gift. A lifer and a jinx life bird, at that! Jeff has already told his side of the story. But with better photos of the bird.

My birthday bat falcon in Flores, Guatemala!

Three of my best birding pals, (from L to R): Jeff Gordon, Jeff Bouton, and Jim McCormac at the bat falcon site.

Gallo goes great with a life bird.

Soon it was time to head back to Villa Maya for some afternoon programs and, perhaps, a short siesta. The balcony outside our room called to me and I sat there, looking at the lagoon beyond and enjoying the birds that happened by.

A pair of white-fronted Amazons was nesting in the tree near our balcony. This is the male.

On a late afternoon walk with Julie and Jim, JZ gives some scale to a palm frond.

Northern parula, which I later found out was a really great bird sighting for Villa Maya.

My last image of the day, a great egret stalking the dusky shallows at Villa Maya.

The very special (for me) day was capped off in grand style with a surprise birthday party after dinner, complete with yummy cake and candles, arranged by my dear amiga Ana Cristina. Julie had arranged for several of my closest friends to say a few words—toast or roast. I was completely flabbergasted.

Looking around the room at so many smiling faces standing up to sing Happy Birthday. . . lordy--it made my knees weak, but in a happy way.

I wish I could exactly recall the wonderfully funny and sweet things that Julie, Jim, Jeff B., Keith Hansen, and Marco Centeno said in my honor that night. But the truth is, I was overcome. And I am again, even now.

I am so lucky to have the wealth of friends and loved ones that are in my life.
What a journey. And I can't wait until tomorrow!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

America Has Spoken!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008
Wild turkey: 18 votes as Ugliest Turkey Head in the World.

Ocellated turkey: 8 votes as Ugliest Turkey Head in the World.

The winner in an 18-to-8 gallinaceous romp is: the WILD TURKEY.

If you did not get to cast your vote: there's still time! Our vote-tallying machines had a bit of difficulty counting all the hanging snoods. However, this is America, and like in any important election, we can tweak the voting totals to get exactly the outcome that we want. Or exactly the outcome we most fear.

Thanks for voting. Thanks for commenting. And thanks for being an American (or Canadian, or Peruvian, or [your nationality here]).

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The World's Ugliest Turkey Head

Tuesday, March 25, 2008
Tikal's Gran Plaza.

On Wednesday, March 5, 2008, I was part of a group of international birders who spent the day enjoying the birds, animals, people, and the stone temples of Tikal, the ancient Maya city in northeast Guatemala. In the mid-afternoon we encountered a small flock of ocellated turkeys foraging in the shade behind Temple IV. The birds were accustomed to hordes of people walking past them, so we were able to get close for some full-frame shots.

Tikal is famous as a place to see the ocellated turkey, one of only two native turkey species in the world—the other being the wild turkey of North America. The OTs at Tikal are tame because they are not persecuted. Most other places in this bird's range they are hunted because they are a large wild creature packing a lot of tasty meat.

I shot 100 or so images of the ocellateds. They have incredibly ugly heads (blue with orange 'warts') balanced somewhat by gorgeous iridescent body feathers. I thought they might actually win the prize for ugliest bird head.

Little did I know it, but just 40 hours later I would be up close to a flock of wild turkeys in Raymond, Nebraska. They were coming in to a feeding station at the home of our hosts and friends Steve and Cheryl Eno. I shot another 100 frames of the world's OTHER turkey species from point-blank range, but through the glass pane of a window.

Several of the males were getting their snoods in an uproar, fanning their tails and sending the blood rushing to where it would have the most apparent effect. After all, it was a sunny day and there were some gallinaceous hotties nearby.

This got me pondering: Which Turkey Has The Ugliest Head?

Is it the ocellated turkey of the Central American jungle?
Or is it the wild turkey of North America.
America, we await your votes.
With only two native turkey species in the world, the winner of this contest can lay claim to the title:

The World's Ugliest Turkey Head!

First, the ocellated turkey: hairy blue head with orange lumps and red eye skin.

Second, our wild turkey contestants in various states of arousal, from least to most:

Please use the comment button below to register your vote. Vote early, vote often, but please vote. We will tally the results and pick a winner by the end of the day Wednesday, March 26, 2008.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Giant Things of Nebraska

Monday, March 24, 2008

Donut shops seem to have more than their fair share of cool roadside signs. These signs often incorporate Giant Things. It's been a while since I've shared a Giant Thing sighting here in BOTB, but it's not from a lack of desire on my part. I simply have not been fortunate enough to see the usual plethora of Giant Things from which I would pluck only the most fascinating and succulent.

This giant rooster has a lot to recommend it. It's really big. It's a cool rendition of a cocksure bird. It's crowing to let you know that the donuts are hot and fresh. AND it's announcing the recent birth of somebody's l'il rooster.

Next time you're in Kearney, Nebraska looking for a cup of joe and a sack of hot donut holes, check out Daylight Donuts right on the main drag. I photographed E. Clair Cruller, the Daylight Donut Rooster earlier this month in Kearney. It was the peak of crane and goose migration and the sky was full of birds, so I'm surprised there aren't V's of geese in the blue sky behind E. Clair.

Saturday, March 22, 2008


Saturday, March 22, 2008
This morning dawned sunny and cool—almost springlike if you just looked and listened out the window. One step outside, however and the chill in the air was easily felt. The weather forecast was for winter to reassert itself this afternoon, so I decided to get a little outside time in before the arrival of the next weather front.

We've been having some fox sparrows around the yard. They always show up in earliest spring, hanging around for a few days on their way back north. Earlier this week, Julie counted seven fox sparrows at one point—nearly enough to make a fox sparrow fur coat—not that we'd actually DO that. But isn't that a good term of venery for this species? A fur of fox sparrows?

I spent the morning in the Doghouse. By that I mean the Doghouse photo blind I use to get close-up images of our flighty feeder birds. These visiting fox sparrows are a shy lot, so the blind worked its perfect magic. I am surprised each time at how quickly the birds seem to accept the blind's presence and return to their normal business.

Here are some of the images I captured this morning of our foxy-brown migrants.

At first the fox sparrows stuck to the brushy edges of the yard, unwilling to be the first visitors to the newly scattered corn.

Three birds kept to the shadows beneath the spruce on the north border. Their spot-breasted plumage must help them blend in under dappled light conditions on the woodland floor.

One of the fox sparrows finally came out into the light long enough to be photographed.

Classic fox sparrow pose: eating while scratching with its feet for more cracked corn.

I'm glad I got out to take some pix while the light and weather were in my favor. It's now snowing and sleeting and the wind is picking up—classic Easter weather for SE Ohio. Our kids wouldn't know HOW to look for their Eastern baskets if it were warm and sunny. They'd be completely lost without mud boots and down coats and mittens on Easter morning. They'd squint at the bright yellow light, flail their pasty-white arms, and run around in circles squealing confused squeals.

Happy holiday weekend everybody!