Friday, February 27, 2009

On the Radio

Friday, February 27, 2009

Here's a heads-up for your ears. I'm going to be a guest on the Martha Stewart radio show "Living Today" today at 2:30pm. This show is available for subscribers to Sirius/XM satellite radio, on channel 112. I realize that not everyone subscribes to Sirius/XM but you can sign up for a free three-day Internet trial subscription on their website.

I've been on the MSL show several times before, usually being interviewed via the telephone. But last May I was in New York City for a variety of events and I was invited into the Sirius Radio studios for an interview, which was pretty cool. Today's spot will be a phoner from Whipple. We'll be talking about bird feeding and the approaching spring migration.

I'm hoping the wind quiets down a bit—it's howling this morning as I write this—loudly enough to be heard over the phone!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Caption Contest #5

Wednesday, February 25, 2009
Your caption here.

It's the Bill of the Birds Caption Contest #5 and you, mi amigo, could be the LUCKY WINNER! The entrant who writes the winning caption will receive their choice of a year's subscription to Bird Watcher's Digest (a $20 value!) or $25 off an individual registration for the Midwest Birding Symposium (Yes, that's a $25 value for you math majors out there!)

Deadline for entries is midnight Saturday, February 28, 2009. The Caption Contest Awards Selection Executive Sub-committee will deliberate ad nauseum and will announce a winner Sunday morning, March 1, 2009.

Knock yer dang self out, people!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Moment of Zen: Preening on the Beach

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Doesn't it feel great when you get everything in the right place after a good preen? This mixed flock of gulls, terns, and shorebirds got into the preening mood as I was watching it one February morning on Sanibel Island, Florida. One moment they were napping, then one bird started preening and its neighbors decided that was a really good idea, so they started preening, too. I captured about 10 seconds of the action on video.

In this flock are the following species: laughing gull, ring-billed gull, royal tern, Forster's tern, Sandwich tern, and red knot. I love that the birds kept on preening even as the two humans walked by just feet away.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Mystery Shorebird: Knot or Not?

Monday, February 23, 2009

While spending a morning last week on the beach on Sanibel Island, Florida, I was seeing the usual shorebird suspects: willets, sanderlings, and a few ruddy turnstones. Then a flock of chunky birds dropped in, settling among a resting mixed flock of terns and gulls. My first pre-bins guess was dunlin, but when I got them in my binocs I noticed that they were bigger than dunlin, plumper looking, and lacked the dunlin's longer decurved bills. They settled down and immediately tucked their bills under their wings to rest. Could they be tired migrants?

These birds were in drab winter plumage, with uniformly gray-brown backs. They had a medium-length bill. A fair amount of scalloping was on the breast and flanks and the legs were dull yellow and relatively short. There was the hint of an eyebrow and a darkish cap.

This was adding up to be a pretty neat species. Finally the snoozing birds raised their heads and and I felt solid in identifying them as red knots. This is one of our most imperiled shorebird species. Red knots winter along the southern coasts of the U.S. We almost never see this species in Ohio.

I've seen red knots many times before—usually along the Delaware Bay where they stop in spring migration to feast on the bountiful eggs of horseshoe crabs. Nature in its infinite wisdom and perfect timing, aligned the nesting of horseshoe crabs, which come to shore to deposit their eggs by the millions in spring, with the passage of migrant shorebirds—especially the red knot. The knots fatten up on the tiny green eggs and put on fat necessary to fuel their remaining journey to the northernmost sliver of the North American continent to nest.

The fishing industry in the East has been over-harvesting horseshoe crabs to use as bait. The resulting reduction in nesting horseshoe crabs has drastically reduced the primary migration food source for the red knot. And this has affected the red knot population, which has dropped more than 50 percent since the 1980s.

It was a privilege to see this small flock of red knots, as yet unbanded, spending the winter here on this beautiful beach. I wished them well in their season of travel to come.

Friday, February 20, 2009

I Missed a Bird (and I Liked It!)

Friday, February 20, 2009
What IS this bird? Hint: It's NOT a northern harrier.

Earlier this week I flew down to Fort Myers, Florida to give a couple of presentations at events associated with Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. In addition to the fine Florida weather, and some early glimpses at birds we would not see in Ohio for two months, I had one particualr species on my hit list: short-tailed hawk.

I have never seen a short-tailed hawk in North America. In fact, it's one of just a couple of raptor species not yet marked on my life list. Some of the others are: gyrfalcon, California condor, the two "sea" eagles that sometimes make it to Alaska, and Eurasian hobby. Some day I will go after a gyrfalcon. And the Cali condor will be mine the next time I visit the Grand Canyon. The others I don't have any particular urge to see. But the short-tailed hawk intrigued me. So I gathered some intel on this species near Fort Myers and made my plans.

My parents had been sent by a birding friend, Phil, to a place called Harns (sometimes spelled Harnes) Marsh northeast of Fort Myers, in Lehigh Acres, Florida. They scored a short-tailed hawk there in a matter of an hour or so. My hopes were up for similar good fortune.

But fate had other ideas.

I arrived at Harns Marsh after a longish drive in heavy afternoon traffic. It's an out-of-the-way place tucked on the edge of a suburban neighborhood. Several houses on the road in to the marsh still bear the damage from recent hurricanes. I found the marsh itself and got out of my rental car. First bird: Turkey vulture. Second bird: Osprey. Third bird: Black vulture. Fourth bird: SNAIL KITE!!!

I love snail kites and this place was full of them. I kept scanning the skies and scoping the trees looking for my target bird, but my eyes kept falling back to the kites. A lot of beautiful, dark-gray adult males were hunting for apple snails in the marsh shallows. Working my way around the marsh edge to get the sun at my back, I was treated to wonderful looks. Such graceful birds!

For the next three hours I watched the birds of Harns Marsh. Sandhill cranes garroo'd, wood storks glided past, a peregrine, then a kestrel flew over. Ducks and blackbirds and limpkins and fish crows all made themselves known. It was a peaceful afternoon. So peaceful, in fact, that I was not disappointed about never seeing anything resembling a short-tailed hawk.

Oh well. I'll be back.

Here are some imags of the kites that I was able to capture.

Snail kite taking off. Note the bright orange-red feet!

An adult male snail kite.

Portrait shot of an adult male snail kite. See the elongated bill with the bodacious hooked tip? This is their escargot utensil.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Thursday, February 19, 2009

I have been unavoidably away from the Web for the past few days. I was not, however, at lunch.
More soon, I promise.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

More Snowy Feeder Scenes

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Carolina wrens don't do well in winters that have long cold spells and lots of snow and ice.

"The recent unpleasantness" is how many Southerners would refer to The Civil War in the decades following the war's end. Unpleasant is a word that thoroughly applies to our winter thus far in southeastern Ohio. We've had several tenacious snows, a smattering of ice storms, and enough "snow days" off school to make us feel like we're home schooling our kids.

One of the few benefits of the harsh winter weather is that it keeps the feeders hopping, as long as we keep them full. We get visits from most of our backyard birds.

A nice three-fer: Eastern bluebird, tufted titmouse, dark-eyed junco.

The flying pigs attack! European starlings gobble up the suet dough.

The bluebirds often pose for their portrait between feeding bouts.

An over-wintering field sparrow has become a suet dough regular.

This winter reminds me of the winters of 1977 and 1978 when we had lots of snow and ice that stuck around. As a high-school-aged bird watcher, I remember those winters for their evening grosbeaks and common redpolls that came to my parents' feeders. And I remember those years as killing off most of SE Ohio's eastern screech-owls and Carolina wrens. I'm hoping this winter does not do the same.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Then Came the Snow

Monday, February 16, 2009
This male bluebird has some scapular feathers that are always out of place. We call him "Shoulders."

After the ice storm on January 27, we had a series of snowstorms. Fortunately the cold temperatures meant the snow was light and drifty. A wet and weighty snow would have meant much more damage to trees and more downed powerlines. As it was, the ice had already knocked out our power—we'd be out a total of three days—and canceled a week's worth of school for the kids.

Here are a few more images from the snowy aftermath of the ice storm.
Everyone's home was covered in ice and snow.

Even the clip art bird on our Birding Area sign looked cold.

Fluffed up against the cold wind, a female bluebird stares me down. The feeders needed a refill.

When horrible weather sets in, we let our guard down and permit even the hoggish European starlings to get a meal.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Dreams of the Old Oak

Friday, February 13, 2009
Standing alone, exposed,
the forest around since carved away
the lone oak thinks upon its life,
two hundred years and this still day

when ice and snow have everyone
and every creature small and great
hunkered down or holed up tight
waiting 'til the weather breaks

How did all this come to pass?
On these fields once forest stood
a thousand saw teeth cut a swath
reducing tree to pile of wood

The soldier coming home again
did shelter from a summer shower
shivering children bound for school
meet the bus, ungodly hour

Horses reins loosely tied
around my trunk much thinner then
while high above the red-tailed hawk
screamed his love in April's wind.

Scars of plows that bit my bark
love-torn farmboys' crude-carved hearts
shotgun slugs and hatchet lines
all of these have left their mark

the woodcock's nasal serenade
harvest moon on hayrolls gleam
hooting owls and howling wolves
all of these are in my dream

an autumn day so long ago
my leaves all red and orange-brown
the air held promise of a snow
a million wings came whirring down

fat pigeons came to eat me bare
the acorns heavy on my limbs
birds so focused are unaware
of danger nearby, creeping in

One secret thing I still hold close
twelve feet above my largest knot
deep in the heartwood an arrowhead
from a young warrior's first pigeon shot.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Ice Storm Cometh

Thursday, February 12, 2009
A tree sparrow waits for the feeders to be refilled the morning after our ice storm.

On the night of January 27, 2009, southeastern Ohio (and parts of the surrounding states) was blanketed with a horrible ice storm. Freezing rain—not snow—fell, despite temperatures in the low 20's and every single exposed surface was encased in ice.

Throughout the night we heard repeated cracking and crashing noises as trees gave way under the weight of the ice. We dreaded waking up to see what the world would look like after the ice storm.

This has been a hard winter, as our winters go. Lots of cold temperatures for days and weeks at a time. Snow that sticks around well past its welcome. This has resulted in many snow days for the kids and quite a few power outages.

We can cope fairly well with the power outages. And we can make fun out of the challenges of no power and no vehicular mobility. But I always worry about the birds and animals which have no heated shelter.

Here are some of the images that greeted us around the farm the morning after the ice storm.

Our ancient pear tree completely iced. The sunlight glints off its clear shell of frozen water.

Martin gourds where our eastern bluebirds roost on cold winter nights.

A forsythia twig, dead flower stems preserved in ice.

The rain came down and froze immediately onto whatever it struck.

Frozen tears on the weeping willow.

White-tailed deer were standing up on their hind legs and pawing at the heavy sumac fruit clusters, desperate for access to any food.

We put out extra food for the birds, deer, squirrels, rabbits, and anyone else in protected spots around the yard. Needless to say we had to replenish these feeding areas several times during the day.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Midwest Birding Symposium

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The website for the 2009 Midwest Birding Symposium is now up and running.

Why am I telling you this? Here's why:

If you want to have as much fun as is humanly possible as a bird watcher (in September, in Ohio, without breaking any laws), we invite you to join us at Lakeside, Ohio next fall.

And if you don't mind me making a suggestion, register for your programs, meals, and lodging early, because we're fairly sure this event is going to sell out. As you can see on the registration form, some of the presentations have limited seating.

Lakeside, Ohio is a charming community on the shores of Lake Erie (clever how they named it, huh?). Your hosts for the event are Bird Watcher's Digest and the Ohio Ornithological Society, and we've put together a great line-up of speakers and programs.

Plus, attendees can:

Full details are on the newly launched MBS site. Please check back often—we'll post updates as they are available.

We'd like to offer a special thank you to the sponsors for the Midwest Birding Symposium, who are helping to make all of this possible.

Hope to see you in Lakeside next September!

Bill of the Birds

Monday, February 9, 2009

White Ibis Sunset

Monday, February 9, 2009
On my final trip around the Black Point Wildlife Drive at Merritt Island NWR near Titusville, Florida, I was standing along the road with a few friends at sunset when a passing bald eagle scared every bird nearby into the air. Nearest us was a flock of white ibis. These birds burst into the air from an impoundment to our east, flapping frantically past us, headed west into the sunset. I tracked them with my camera and took about 25 photos of the flock as it wheeled left and right.

Then the birds were gone, disappearing over the trees on the western horizon.

Here are the highlight images of those few moments when the ibises were in the air.

The white ibis flock as it took off—the low light turned the fast-moving birds into blurry figures.

Turning to head northwest, the white birds took on the pink of the sunset.

Just enough light to discern some detail.

Well above the bright western horizon, but a hint of the sun's color comes through the ibises' primaries.

Turning back from north to west.

To my eye these scimitar shapes look more like skimmers or bulbats than ibises.

Dropping lower on the horizon now, against a tangerine sky.

The requisite palm tree helps us know this is Florida..

The flock changes its collective mind and wheels northward again.

Every child has drawn the M-shaped birds in pictures created with lots of sky space. Now I know why.

My camera loved the palms as much as my eyes did. Birds are still passing.

The final frame. Lead birds are setting their wings to land.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Caption Contest #4 Winner!

Saturday, February 7, 2009
And the winner is:
Chris (no blog listed) who said...

If you can just replace that "S" with an "R", you've got yourself a sale!

Chris, I loved this one for its cleverness.
Please contact me at Bird Watcher's Digest to claim your prize.

Here are the runners-up, all of which made me laugh:
Julie Zickefoose

South's gonna do it agin.Delete


This should be a lot easier when they get that so-called Bird Atlas finished . .

Arj said...

The Mrs. is gonna be so proud that for once I did stop and ask for directions...

which resembled this fine entry:

Dubs said...

Must be a female wren; a male would never stop for directions


Non-migratory species can not rely on an innate sense of direction, but there are other ways....

elizabird said...

I am the Northern Wren.Thanks for playing, everyone!

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Photo Caption Contest #4

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Here is the latest image in need of your funny caption.

Deadline is Saturday, February 7, 2009 at noon. A winner will be announce shortly thereafter. Prize is a year's subscription to either Bird Watcher's Digest or The Backyard Birds Newsletter.

Please submit your entry using the Comment window below. Good luck!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Photographing Tree Swallows in Flight

Wednesday, February 4, 2009
Have you ever tried to do something that you knew was next to impossible and yet you could not stop yourself from trying anyway?

On my recent sojourn to east-central Florida's Space Coast region, I noticed large flocks of tree swallows foraging on the wing in several different birding spots. I was both bird watching and taking bird photographs, two activities which, in order to be done well, should be mutually exclusive. You can't enjoy birding if you keep dropping the binocs to grab your camera. And if you're trying to take the best possible photographs, you'll only get frustrated by all the shots you miss when you drop the camera for the binocs. This is one of the immutable laws of the universe.

As I was driving around Black Point Wildlife Drive at Merritt Island NWR on fine day, I found that the sun had climbed to its highpoint and the bird activity was beginning to slow. The daylight was getting a bit harsh for photographing water birds, so I moseyed along to a point where a tree swallow flock was slicing the air into a million pieces. The birds seemed to be taking advantage of some large hatch of tiny insects.

I stood and watched for a few minutes, mesmerized by the swooping of swallow wings (wasn't that a Joni Mitchell album?) and noticed that some of the birds were following a somewhat repetitive flight pattern. Oh it was camera time, baby! This would be my chance to totally nail a great shot of a flying tree swallow!

To dream the impossible dream.....

Over the next half hour I took approximately 650 shots. Most of these contained only grass or sky, digital frames completely innocent of the slightest hint of swallow. Some contained a tiny sip of swallow—a tail tip or wing edge.

A very few captured entire birds and were close enough to being in focus that you could even tell what kind of bird it was. These I will share with you here and now.

Photographing birds in flight is a thrilling challenge. Large birds are easier, obviously (see yesterday's post). Small, supremely gifted and speedy fliers like tree swallows are almost impossible to photograph well, unless you are patient, lucky, and in the right place at the right time with the right camera settings and light conditions. And you are not holding your binoculars. And your camera's lens cap is not still on.