Friday, November 28, 2008

Chowing Down

Friday, November 28, 2008
Yesterday was Thanksgiving—the only national American holiday where we all have license to stuff ourselves until we explode. I did. Did you?

Interestingly the birds at the suet dough station were following suit. Especially the blue jays.

Blue jays are creatures of boom and bust. When they find food in abundance, they load up as much as they can in their large, expandable throat pouches, and take it away to cache. This is a hedge against leaner times ahead, or so the ornithologists tell us. In this way blue jays help keep our forests healthy. They cache thousands of acorns, beechnuts, and other edibles of their choosing. They only remember and re-find and consume a small number of these caches. The forgotten ones may germinate and become trees. In many cases these trees are a long distance away from where they might have grown had they not been transported by the cache-minded jays. This is how jays are unknowing healthy forest helpers.

Had my Wingscapes BirdCam been located at the far end of my parents' dining room table during yesterday's holiday feeding frenzy, I'm not sure the images it captured would have looked very different from the ones below. We staggered home in a food malaise about 8 pm and immediately began groaning and taking Alka Seltzer. My parents, Elsa and Bill, totally out-did themselves. Best gravy ever. Wicked good turkey and taters. Awesome rutabagas. Cherry-custard pie.... I put a hurtin' on it all.

Now I won't have to eat until sometime in mid-December. That's December 2025.

Anyway, check out the blue-crested suet-dough pig of Indigo Hill (the jay—not me).
Happy digesting!

The jay's main feeding mode is basically squat and gobble.

Checking around to see if anyone is watching him clean out the ENTIRE batch of dough.

The all-you-care-to-eat suet dough buffet is OPEN. Please use a clean bill on each return trip.

In this photo he's thinking: "I can get one more bill full in there I think!"

He makes his getaway with the precious gooey loot.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving

Thursday, November 27, 2008
Male wild turkey ready to do what male wild turkeys were born to do.

In bright sunlight, an adult turkey's feathers show beautiful iridescence.

I wonder if any of the Pilgrims or First Peoples at the original Thanksgiving took the time to consider what a cool bird the turkey is. Or did they simply add it to their life list before shooting it with the blunderbuss and dropping it in the big black cauldron? Most ponderable, that.

If you're into learning more about the wild turkey, check out the Peterson Field Guide's video podcast about the species here. Click on the yellow Species Profile tab, then the wild turkey icon.

Wishing you and yours a wonderful Thanksgiving Day with lots of reasons to be both happy and thankful. Beware the tryptophan.

—Bill of the Birds

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Birds I Am NOT Seeing

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Of all the species of birds I am not seeing today on my snow-covered farm in southeastern Ohio, perhaps none has a more interesting hunting strategy than the Harris' hawk.

Did you know that Harris' hawks hunt cooperatively in packs composed of family members? It's true. The hunting groups may number as many as a half-dozen birds and they fly in one or two groups until potential prey is flushed, then all pursue it. When prey is captured and killed, it is shared. This type of cooperation is very rare in birds of prey.

Today I am thinking about the Harris' hawk—yet another bird I am not seeing right this very moment. I have seen them recently, however. This distant one (above) I photographed at Estero Llano Grande State Park near Weslaco, Texas.

Monday, November 24, 2008

GameCam Night Pix

Monday, November 24, 2008
I call this one: "Devil Bunny, Tire Swing, Moon, and Pear Tree."

I have been having fun with my two remote nature cameras. One is a Wingscapes BirdCam designed to take daytime images at feeders, nest boxes, bird baths, etc. The other is a MoultrieGameCam designed to take nighttime images of wildlife. Many hunters use gamecams to see what deer are coming in to a feeding station or what game is using a certain trail.

The night cams have motion sensors and a flash unit that lets them take a shot every time something walks past the sensor. These remote cameras bring out your inner spy.

I placed the Moultrie out in the east edge of the yard to capture images of the critters that were coming in to eat the pears falling from the ancient pear tree. I got what I expected—mostly rabbits and deer. Here are a few of the more interesting shots.

At 4 am, a nice-sized buck comes in for some pears. Check out the temperature registered on the camera. Brr!

This old boy is big enough to reach some of the low-hanging fruit. Smaller deer have to wait for wind falls.

A "fork-horn" buck hears the camera click.

And a nice six-pointer hoovers up some fruit.

Just at dusk, the first buck checks for any newly dropped fruit and also looks toward the house to see if anyone is about.

All kinds of wildlife gets captured in action.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Moment of Zen

Friday, November 21, 2008

I recently watched this mist moving over a mountain lake in Tennessee. I was up and outside, shortly after dawn. It was crisply cold and there was no sound—not a call note from a bird, no rustling of leaves, no sound from the wind on the water.

Such a peaceful moment was, I thought, worthy of sharing.

Unheavy Friday


Like you, I've spent a lot of time in recent years wondering what ever happened to Omar Sharif. Well, you never know what you'll learn at a birding festival. At the recent Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, I found out what happened to Omar. He's running for office in South Texas.

His campaign staff needs to use their spell-checker before ordering signs.

I hope he won since it seems like he's not doing much in Hollywood anymore.

Happy Unheavy Friday!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Crows On Pie

Thursday, November 20, 2008

One of the wintertime sports around the farm here at Indigo Hill is watching who and what comes to the meat pile. We throw old, freezer-burned steaks, over-the-hill chicken carcasses, and past-its-freshness-date hamburger in a big pile three-quarters of the way out our middle meadow path, along with anything else that might attract hungry wildlife, and we watch to see what comes in.
Ten days ago we put a frozen fruit pie out, along with some carbon-datable chicken fingers. Then we placed a Moultrie GameCam (courtesy of our friends at WingScapes) nearby to capture snapshots of the action. Most of the activity occurred at night and that's the stuff of another post. But we also caught some visits during the day by our local American crows.

I can just imagine how long they must have perched in the woods nearby, sure that this was a trap. They might have watched for hours before the bravest among them swooped down for a closer look. Even when other flockmates joined in, you can still see that they are wary—checking for trip wires, joy-buzzers, pit traps, Ed McMahon.

Finally satisfied that this is simply a big pile of gourmet grub set out just for them the crows tie into the pie. They look like hungry diners at a lunch counter. And I can almost hear their mealtime conversation.

Crow #1: "Hey bro! You know what would go GREAT with this pie?
Crow #2: "No idea, dude. What?"
Crow #1: "A cup of caw-fee!"
Crow #2 "Fershizzle!"

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

For A Grackle Eating Dog Food

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Black shine yellow eye
Great-tailed grackle eats dog food

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Alcid Indigestion

Tuesday, November 18, 2008
The camera's date is wrong, but the cameraman's mad ID skilz are in full force.

While digitally flipping through the images from the front yard Wingscapes BirdCam this morning I was shocked and pleased to add ANOTHER new bird to the property list here at Indigo Hill. If you look in the lower frame of this image, you'll see a nice shot of a fox sparrow (of the eastern legless race). But it's the OTHER bird I am super excited about. The one in flight. See it?

I've studied it for several hours now and feel I can conclude with complete confidence that the motion detector on the camera caught an image of a flying alcid. To be completely, awesomely specific in this identification: It's a razorbill!

Now why would a razorbill end up on a dry ridgetop in southeast Ohio?

Then I remembered! I threw some old sardines out on the compost pile the other day.

Mystery solved! Eat your heart out David Caruso! And take those stupid shades off your face. You look like a leprechaun in a Blues Brothers movie.

Nailed it! Razorbill, baby! Sweet!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Hello Winter!

Monday, November 17, 2008
Snow falling on sumac. Hey wasn't that a book?

There's a wet snow falling here in SE Ohio, with the temperature hovering just above freezing. It's not yet sticking on the roads. The barometer is calling for more.

The feeders are stocked and today's specials are: homemade suet dough (really popular with our regular customers), unsalted peanuts (sans shells), and black-oil sunflower seed.

I am marking the bird spa for early retirement. Bob the chipmunk is racing around like a maniac stuffing his cheekbags with seed. Why? Because tomorrow never knows.

Special message to Guyana Gal: Yes, the greenhouse thermostat is jacked. Bonsai pit is covered. Baker is under many blankets. Snoring. At least I HOPE those are snores...

Friday, November 14, 2008

Unheavy Friday

Friday, November 14, 2008
If this were one of those motivational business posters, the caption would probably read:
Every ascent has its perils.

I'd like to invite you, my creative bloggawkers, to contribute a caption for this photograph (forget the business/inspirational constraints).

Here's one to get you going:
"Dude! I can see your HOUSE from here!"

Got it? Fire at will.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Young Birders in Texas

Thursday, November 13, 2008
I was glad to have my spotting scope along. I kept it set on midget and the kids dug the great bird looks. Photo by Liz Gordon.

During the recently completed Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, I gave a presentation my most recent book, The Young Birder's Guide and discussed how we adults can help to get more kids into birds and nature. And that was fun and seemed to be well-received.

What was even better was getting to take two groups of local kids out birding in the park across the street from the festival headquarters. All told we took out about 35 youngsters and a dozen or so accompanying adults. The bird list was not exceptionally long, but we had big fun. Helping me herd the kids, spot birds, and impersonate sun-bathing Inca doves was Liz Gordon. Liz is a natural with kids, due in large measure to her own forever-young outlook on life. (Thanks again Liz of the Cosmos!)

We gathered 'round the field guide after each new species was sighted. Photo by Liz Gordon.

Susan Hoehne was the festival's coordinator for kids activities and she graciously arranged for us to borrow 15 pairs of compact Brunton binoculars from the Valley Nature Center. These came in very handy (as did the binocs loaned to us by our friends at Eagle Optics)—each kid got to have his or her own pair to use on the field trip.
Small binoculars work best for small hands and close-set eyes. Photo by Liz Gordon.

After a few quick lessons on using the binocs we crossed the street to Lon C. Hill Park seeking birds. The afternoon prior I had scouted around the auditorium and park to see if there were any stake-out species I could rely on. There were no birds in the afternoon heat. ¡Campo sin pajaros!

I felt better on Saturday morning when I showed up an hour before the first kids bird walk and found lots of bird activity. A pair of red-crowned parrots low in one of the park's trees were the best of the early birds. Alas they did not stay around for the kids to see.

Our total bird list was as follows:
  1. great-tailed grackle
  2. Brewer's blackbird
  3. golden-fronted woodpecker
  4. yellow-bellied sapsucker
  5. house sparrow
  6. rock pigeon
  7. Inca dove
  8. Eurasian collared dove
  9. European starling
  10. Couch's kingbird
  11. turkey vulture
  12. Lincoln's sparrow
  13. northern mockingbird
  14. laughing gull
  15. orange-crowned warbler
I gave away copies of the Young Birder's Guide to a few very interested youngsters and sold a few others to their thoughtful and generous adults.

The thing I was most pleased about was that Liz and I opened the eyes of these three dozen or so young south Texans to the avian wonders of their part of the world. They knew about the local parrots and chachalacas, but the mockingbird, golden-fronted woodpecker, Inca doves, and Couch's kingbird had them saying "Awesome!" and "Cool!" and "Oh WOW!"
Watching two very active golden-fronted woodpeckers. Photo by Liz Gordon.

I have to say, I am pretty sure that's why I was put here on Earth—to show people (of all ages, but especially kids) awesome and cool birds!

The second field trip of the morning. That's me in the green shirt with the littlest birder. At far left: Liz Gordon, my co-leader.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Una Paloma

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Even though it's a non-native invader of our fair land, I have to admit that the Eurasian collared-dove is a good-looking bird.

This species first came to our hemisphere via the Bahamas in the 1970s. Now it's found throughout the South and great flocks can be found around town grain elevators in the Great Plains. It is universally considered one of the most successful colonisers of all birds—easily spreading itself across Europe, Asia, and as far north as the Arctic Circle. And it is non-migratory, so you know it's one tough bird!

I found a small flock of EC doves in Lon C. Hill Park across the street from the Harlingen, Texas community auditorium where the Rio Grande Birding Festival was being held. When I first started taking birding trips to South Texas, the Eurasian collared-dove was not present. Now they are fairly easy to add to the day's bird list in any of the Rio Grande Valley's towns.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Gray feathers with buffy edges and tips help the pauraque blend in to its habitat.

OK Blogsters. Here's the answer to the mystery photo from yesterday, which several of you have already sussed out.

It's a pauraque (paw-RAH-kee; sometimes called common pauraque, often mis-spelled paraque or parauque). This member of the caprimulgid family (nighthawks, whippoorwill, poorwill, etc) makes it across the border from Mexico only in southernmost Texas. Like its relatives in the Caprimulgidae it catches insect at night by flying around low to the ground. Its large eyes provide the necessary vision and the stiff rictal bristles surround its mouth help to funnel moths and other prey into its huge gape. For more about the life history of this species, along with photographs of this same individual bird, see the new Cornell Lab blog, Round Robin, written by Hugh Powell.

During the day the pauraque roosts on the ground, blending in perfectly with the duff-browns and grays of the scrub forest floor. Our bird was spotted by a sharp-eyed birder and dozens of eager bird watchers followed the directions out the Alligator Pond trail at Estero Llano Grande State Park to see it. I saw it twice—once on Friday and once on Sunday. Both times the pauraque was right where it was supposed to be. Both times, even though we knew right where it was, it was still difficult to pick out its shape—especially when its eyes were closed.

Cryptic coloration makes it hard to determine where the edge of the bird meets the ground.

This was my best look ever at a pauraque. My other looks have been of birds flying up off the roadside at night, or spooked into flying, like a giant tan moth, from the forest floor during the day, only to disappear in the thick brushy woods.

How did the pauraque get its name? It's named for a very loose interpretation of the bird's call, which is usually rendered in field guides as purr-WHEE-rrr. Navigate your ears here to hear a pauraque not say its name.

Monday, November 10, 2008

What Is It?

Monday, November 10, 2008
"You can't tell me there is no mystery"—Bruce Cockburn.

I am taking guesses as to what this is in this photograph. It is a shot that I digiscoped on Sunday, November 9, at Estero Llano Grande State Park near Weslaco, Texas.

Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Answer and story tomorrow. Good night and good luck!

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Deer Prudence

Saturday, November 8, 2008

While birding the King Ranch a few days ago, we encountered these curious white-tailed deer bucks. They were wondering where the food was. On this huge Texas ranch, the wildlife managers sometimes scatter deer feed along the roads, so I'm sure these guys mistook a bunch of birders for the chow wagon.

The bucks we saw had small bodies compared to our Ohio white-taileds, but the antler racks on these Texas animals are huge! Aside from cattle ranching and a little bit of tourism, the King Ranch also sells hunting leases. I found myself wondering if these deer were a little too curious for their own long-term good.

The birding on the King Ranch was really great—this was my first visit. More on birding the ranch in the near future.

I am down here in south Texas for the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, one of the best and biggest in the country. This morning I'll be taking a couple of groups of elementary school kids out birding on the festival grounds. The weather looks good, the wind is low, and I'm counting on a few great-tailed grackles, great kiskadees, and Couch's kingbirds to make an appearance.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Unheavy Friday

Friday, November 7, 2008
Black-bellied whistling-ducks at rest at Estero Llano Grande State Park near Weslaco, Texas.

I spent yesterday afternoon with a handful of friends, walking the trails at Estero Llano Grande and doing some casual birding and some even more casual bird photography. ELG is one of the World Birding Center sites in south Texas.

It's been a long, heavy-duty week, month, year. Time to kick back and have an Un-heavy Friday to start the weekend. And I wish that very thing for you.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

New Day

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Bird (Life) Goes On

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Nice to know, in spite of major things happening in this big old goofy world of ours, that the birds just carry on with their lives.

I set up a Wingscapes BirdCam on our new platform feeder this weekend and got a few images of our regular customers. Still need to reset the camera's date and time I see....

If you've never tried a remote birdcam, you might want to—it's a lot of fun. The Wingscapes BirdCam is really user-friendly. I think it took me about 15 minutes to set up everything, including batteries and memory card. More images from and comments about the Wingscapes BirdCam in the future.

I really like the look on this tufted titmouse's face. I think he's asking if you managed to VOTE TODAY!

Monday, November 3, 2008

My Favorite Tanager

Monday, November 3, 2008
I've seen a lot of tanager species in my years of bird watching. Both summer and scarlet tanagers nest on our 80-acre farm in southeast Ohio every summer—more scarlets by far. Tanagers come in a wide variety of color schemes, often involving bright red, yellow, or orange. Yet my favorite tanager is one that comes in subtle hues: the blue-gray tanager.

Blue-gray tanager in Cerro Azul, Panama.

I can't tell you why I like the blue-gray tanager best of all. Maybe it's because, like mountain bluebirds, they make the most of a rather plain uniform. Or perhaps it's because they are common and easy to see throughout much of the New World tropics—from central Mexico to the northern half of South America. I've enjoyed them in Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Panama, and Peru.

Bay-headed tanagers are fabulously beautiful. I got to see them in Panama a few weeks ago, along with crimson-backed, silver-throated, and golden-hooded tanagers—all stunning birds.

I don't know. There's just something about a blue-gray tanager.

There's not much left on this piece of fruit.

During my recent trip to Panama, while staying at a nice hotel in Cerro Azul called Hostal Casa de Campo, there were blue-gray tanagers visiting the fruit feeder just outside the dining room. Due to our schedule and the weather we only had about 15 minutes with the birds, but I managed to capture a few worthwhile images in between bites of lunch.

Blue-gray tanager in Cerro Azul, Panama.