Friday, July 31, 2009

Skywatch Friday Haiku

Friday, July 31, 2009

Pink curtain of night
blue-black waters lapping, hide
things beautiful, strange

—Speyside, Tobago

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Asa Wright: Toast For Breakfast

Thursday, July 30, 2009
Relaxed tropical birding from the Asa Wright verandah.

As dawn arrives in the Arima Valley of Trinidad, the birds are the first ones to stir, followed shortly by the bird watchers. In between these stirrings, there is a very important thing—a ritual you might say—that happens in the gardens that separate the rain forest from the buildings at the Asa Wright Nature Centre: the bird feeders are filled.

The well-stocked bird feeders at Asa Wright Nature Centre, as seen from the verandah.

I'd been hearing about the Asa Wright bird feeders for 30 years, at least. Twenty-one years ago, the very first article I worked on as the newly minted assistant editor for Bird Watcher's Digest was an account of birding at Asa Wright and Trinidad by Steve, Dave, and Karl Maslowski. Over the years thousands of bird watchers have made the pilgrimage to Asa, the first nature center dedicated to bird watching and conservation in the American tropics, and still one of the best.

When dawn begins her slow awakening, it is the voices of the forest birds that are your alarm clock at Asa. Each morning during our recent week there it was the bearded bellbird, the great antshrike, or the palm tanagers that awakened me. And then, when you wake up and realize where you are, you begin to move as rapidly as possible to get dressed and down to the main building—the original house that Asa Wright herself lived in—to get to what is probably the world's most famous porch, or as they call it at Asa Wright Nature Centre: the verandah! Yes, they spell veranda with an 'h' on the end, and I've got to tell you, the Asa veranda IS ah-inspiring.
The view, looking down the Arima Valley, from the Asa Wright verandah.

Sitting on the verandah at Asa Wright, you are never at a loss for birds. Bananaquits and palm tanagers are everywhere. The palm tanagers even nest inside the main building, coming and going just inches from the bino-toting bird watchers who have come to experience this bit of the American tropics. Beyond these ubiquitous birds there is a never-ending cavalcade of tanagers, euphonias, honeycreepers, motmots, hummingbirds, and doves flitting to and from the bird feeders. All the while the skies are filled with martins and swallows, vultures and hawks, oropendolas and thrushes, and a constant chorus of songs, calls, and fluttering wings. To sit on the verandah at Asa Wright is the tropical equivalent of sitting in Times Square in New York City for a bit of people watching. Sooner or later, everyone passes by you.

A male bananaquit gets his carbs from bread at the Asa Wright bird feeders.

So what makes these feeders so special? I've visited a number of tropical eco-lodges where nary a bird feeder could be seen. The difference at Asa is that the birds are accustomed to the feeders and they are tuned in to what is being put out daily just for them by the staff at AWNC.

So they must have some secret formula, right? Perfectly devised offerings for tropical bird feeding? Surely that's the secret of Asa's success!

Nope. It's toast, slices of watermelon, papaya, and some nectar in the hummingbird feeders, and that's basically it! I could hardly believe my eyes on my first morning on the world-famous verandah as I watched a staff member carefully placing slices of toast underneath the protective mesh wire that holds the food items in place. She had scarcely stepped a foot away before the bananquits and palm tanagers were on each of the platforms pecking out tiny billfulls of toast.

A preening palm tanager.

Most of the feeder visitors seemed to enjoy the bread, but a few, such as the turquoise-browed motmot, and the crested oropendola, come in just for the fruit. The hummers ( a half-dozen or more species) have eyes and bills only for the nectar in the feeders, though they will occasionally nab a small insect flying over the fast-ripening feeder fruit.
Blue-crowned motmot.

The experience of verandah birding made the folks in our party want to stay put, right there. The birding was that good, and relaxing. But we had trails to walk, birding expeditions to take, and other places, other birds to encounter. If I am lucky enough to return to Asa Wright for another week sometime, I believe I will allot at least 50% of my time there to verandah birding. There's just nothing better than enjoying the birds of the topics from the comfort of a covered porch elevated over the feeders, with a commanding view of the Arima valley.
Bay-headed tanager.

A constantly changing river of birds trickled through the trees surrounding the verandah, including many spectacular tanager species. Regular readers of this blog know that I have a soft spot for tanagers, so you won't be surprised to know that my first really good looks ever at the stunning bay-headed tanager made my knees weak.

I'm only sharing a fraction of the images and amazing birds I saw during our verandah sitting at Asa Wright. Our trip was filled with very talented birders, including our hosts Jeff Bouton of Leica Sport Optics and Mark Hedden of Caligo Ventures. Our fellow participants were Pete Dunne (of Cape May Bird Observatory and New Jersey Audubon) and his wife Linda, Kenn and Kim Kaufman (he of field guide fame and she of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory). To this we added the experienced guides from the Asa Wright staff, so you can be sure that very few birds were left unidentified. Leica sponsored the trip, the focus of which was digiscoping using the new Leica spotting scopes, adaptors, and digital cameras. I'll post more soon about the digiscoping. For now, let me just say that the Leica digiscoping rig is amazingly easy to use and the images (motmot, bananaquit, video in this post) will speak for themselves.

A tegu lizard looks for something to eat below the Asa Wright bird feeders.

And just in case you think we were far too bird-centric in our focus, I'll say that we saw at least five different species of large lizard on the Asa grounds, plus a handful of toads and frogs, and numerous colorful butterflies. Sadly (but perhaps fortunately) we did not encounter any of the snake species common to the Asa property.

One final thing to know about the verandah: It's coffes (or tea) in the morning; tea (or coffee) at the 4 p.m. tea time, then rum punch at 6:00 p.m. This is when most of the lively conversation takes place.

To learn more about the amazing history of the Asa Wright Nature Centre, visit the organization's website. To get a multimedia taste of what the feeder action was like on the verandah, check out this one-minute video I shot of bananaqits and a female green honeycreeper enjoying their morning toast for breakfast:

p.s. Sorry for the day-late posting. Re-entry to the real world is a mind-bender/time-eater.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Flying Home from Trini

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

As you read this I am in the air somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean (or perhaps over the good old USA), flying home from Trinidad and Tobago. It's been a wonderful trip. Many birds, lots of laughs, no major catastrophes, and a decent (but bearable) load of chiggers.

Perhaps the second-most numerous tanager we encountered on this trip was the blue-gray tanager. The palm tanager took the crown as the MOST numerous, by the way. We saw this ubiquitous species every day in good numbers. I caught this blue-gray tanager taking off from a perch in a fruiting tree at the Aripo Agricultural Station. I was digiscoping him and happened to catch his launch into the air. A lucky shot!

Now it's time for my launch into the air. This has been a fabulous trip (and I love to travel) but as always, I'm looking forward to being home once more.

See you soon!

—Bill of the Birds

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Birthday Chimp Self-Actualizes

Friday, July 24, 2009
Julie Zickefoose with a hatchling leatherback turtle

Today, July 24, is Julie Zickefoose's birthday. Last night, in a full-on assault on commemorating her special day, our band of birders went to Matura Beach here in Trinidad, to witness the nesting of the leatherback turtles. Being the Science Chimp that she is, this was a BIG DEAL to Zick.

Here are photos to document her night spent communing with these giants of the sea. We started off with a few hatchlings which the turtle nest monitors let us hold and examine. Then we walked up the beach to watch several adult females dig nests in the sand and lay their eggs. It was a magical experience and a good way to spend a birthday.

Zick got to see the laying female up close. Every so often she would grunt. By 'she,' of course, I mean the adult female leatherback turtle.

While the female turtles lay their eggs, they go into a kind of torpor where almost nothing will disturb them. During these minutes, it's possible to touch the turtles. Once the laying stops, so do the close human/turtle encounters

Special thanks to Jeff Bouton from Leica Sport Optics, for inviting us to visit Asa Wright and Trinidad on this Leica-sponsored trip.

Happy birthday, Jules!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Don't Tread on Me!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

About a week ago, Phoebe greeted me upon my return home from work with the news that she'd spotted the first copperhead of the summer. This is big, if expected, news. The copperhead was near the garage door, heading into a chipmunk hole. We waited and watched it for the next two hours. It was waiting for nightfall. We were waiting for it to come out so we could catch and relocate it.

Eventually it came out, while I was standing near it talking on the phone. I'm not sure who was on the other end of the phone, but they heard me scream out "The snake's outta the hole!" as I was hanging up.
We caught the copperhead and placed it in the bucket (shown above). It now lives in another place, far from our high-traffic garage.

I don't mind snakes, but I HATE being surprised by them. Where I am staying right now in Trinidad there are three deadly poisonous snakes in the jungle around us. Fer-de-lance, bushmaster, and coral snake are my three neighbors. They belong here—I am just a visitor. I hope to see one or more of these creatures, preferably before they see me, and, from a safe distance. So I'm being extra careful as I walk the forest trails around Asa Wright Nature Centre. No sightings thus far.

This place is amazing, even with the snakes. You can read more about AWNC here. And I'll be posting more from and about Asa in the days and weeks to come.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Ooh, I Hear Lapwings in the Rain

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Neil Sedaka never sang a song about hearing lapwings in the rain, but he should have. I heard this southern lapwing yesterday afternoon—in the rain—at the TrinCity sewage lagoons, which smelled better than the Waterloo fishing dike we birded this afternoon. I'm sad that we don't have a big, dynamic, and noisy shorebird like the lapwing in North America. The killdeer is noisy, but not as large and in charge as the southern lapwing is.

I'm still in Trinidad, which is on the southwest edge of the Caribbean and on the northeast corner of South America. It is hot and humid and as birdy as anyplace I've ever been. Our group is based out of Asa Wright Nature Centre and we're all pining to spend more time on the centre's veranda, but first we have to visit some of this island's OTHER birdy spots.

Good night from 10ยบ north of the Equator.

Monday, July 20, 2009

A Jacobin in Trinidad

Monday, July 20, 2009
White-necked jacobin, male.

We spent the day birding around the Asa Wright Nature Centre in Trinidad. One of the very first birds seen well by our group during the early morning birding from the famed veranda was this male white-necked jacobin who was guarding the nectar feeders.

I'm using the new digiscoping rig from Leica and I have to say, it's getting some tastyawesome images.

More soon. Right now it's time for eyelid movies in anticipation of tomorrow's pre-dawn departure for the land of the Trinidad piping guan.

Winner Caption Contest #8!

"So You Think You Can Fly," new FOX reality show, starts this fall at 9/8 central.
Caption posted by Arthur who blogs here.

Congrats Arthur! Please send your contact info to my office at editor AT and we'll send your beautiful print on its way.

Other solid contenders for the throne:
Rap,rap, rap
They call him the Raptor
Rap, rap, rap
You know what he's after
—posted by Sandy Brown

"Cause I'm as free as a bird now,
And this bird you can not change.
Lord knows, I can't change."
—posted by Little Orange Guy

Buster rephrases his question about war planes so the ex-president may understand it better.
—posted by Dubs

What was really happening in the photo (which I think was taken by Hugh Rose) was I was holding a mic for Denver Holt of the Owl Research Institute during his presentation to the Ohio Ornithological Society two winters ago. Denver was imitating some portion of snowy owl behavior, which clearly required the use of his entire body to demonstrate.

Thanks to all who played in this round. We'll do it again soon.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Trouble Focusing

Sunday, July 19, 2009
Is this what they mean when they say "You're not seeing the daisies for the trees"? And who IS "they" anyway? And why are they questioning my ability to focus? So many questions, so littleHEY LOOK A CHICKEN!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Turtles in the Road

Saturday, July 18, 2009

June and July are the busiest months of the year for box turtles. Here in SE Ohio any morning following an evening rain I know I'm going to see at least one box turtle crossing the road as I drive into town to work. If it's possible to stop I do, picking up the turtle gently and transporting it across the road in the direction it was heading.

I always try to determine the sex of the turtle. Males have a concave plastron on the bottom of their shells—for a better fit when they are fertilizing the eggs inside a female. I also check each turtle for signs that they've been hit and hurt by a passing vehicle. If they're hurt, I take them home to Dr. Zick Medicine Woman. She uses her healing powers, her knowledge of animal rehabilitation, and her network of contacts in the world of box turtle lovers. When the turtles are fully recovered, we release them where we found them.

On a recent morning I found a medium-sized female crossing the road in front of Bird Watcher's Digest. Where she was headed or coming from, I'm not sure. There's no sizeable box turtle habitat nearby—only small patches of woods scattered around a small-own neighborhood. I guessed she might have been an escapee from a well-meaning human turtle-napper. People see a turtle crossing the road and they think it's lost, so they take it home to their backyard, or garden, or aquarium tank, and keep it. It's far better to help them cross the road and let them be. I picked up this gal and took her into the office.

She was in fine health, showing some signs that a chipmunk, squirrel, or raccoon had tried to chew their way into her shell. Her left front foot was missing some toes and nails, probably from the same mammal attack.

After a phone consultation with Dr. Zick, we agreed that we'd let her go on our farm where she'd at least have a chance at finding other box turtles. That would be highly unlikely in the yards and streets of the part of Marietta where I'd found her.

It is said that box turtles may roam the same bit of habitat their entire lives. When removed from their home range, they will roam around trying to re-find it. What a sad thing. For this female, found crossing a busy city road, we really had no choice but to relocate her to a safer place. So she came home with me to Indigo Hill—80 acres of prime box turtle habitat: old deciduous woods and no busy roads.

We fed her up on earthworms, blueberries, and banana and released her along the dirt path that skirts our meadow. She immediately walked over and submerged herself in a puddle, taking a long soak. Now she'd know where a source of water was. As we walked back to the house, we talked about what she must be thinking. And we wondered if we'd ever see her again. If we do, we'll know her by her left front foot.

Box turtles face a lot of dangers during their long lives. For every turtle I "save" by helping across the road, I see at least ten that are already smashed. I hope there's never a time when we are forced to talk about box turtles in the past tense. So I keep on helping them whenever I can.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Caption Contest #8

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Hey Kids! It's the BOTB Caption Contest #8 and this is your chance to win a matted limited-edition print of the current cover painting for Bird Watcher's Digest. Our prints are signed and numbered by the artist who created the original.

The current cover is a painting of elegant trogons by Lisa Walraven. You can preview it here. Here is a thumbnail of the cover painting.

Please use the Comments link for this post to submit your clever caption. I will choose a winner (and explain the situation depicted in the photograph) on Monday, July 20.

¡Buena suerte, amigos!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Clawing at the Dirt

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

This morning I woke up, shook off the night, grabbed my cup of coffee, and went outside to scratch in the dirt. I had an urge to do this, you see.

No I am not an avid gardener, though I do enjoy a ripe, homegrown Sungold tomato as often as I can get them. I had another reason for my strange desire. I wanted to turn dirt into dust.

Let me explain.

Our lawn is so pathetic that it could turn a riding mower down a gravel road—and it often does. We care not about the clover and crabgrass, and wild strawberries, and hawkweed, and dandelions that grow there. Come fall the sparrows will relish the seed heads we let develop on these "weeds." We have an open arms policy, admitting anything that covers the bare soil, but that is not exotic and invasive. We battle creeping Charlie and pampas grass to the death. Our lawn, ratty as it would appear to the folks in the lawnscaping industry, is wonderfully diverse with tiny flowers, insects, grubs, birds, snakes, and other living things.

The soil below the grass is mostly poor: clay and bits of sandstone and shale. This as a result of nearly two centuries of farming and other human activities, plus the effects of weather and summer's baking sun. Poor soil quality means open patches where the grass cannot seem to grow. I've tried seeding these spots with grass seed and a bit of mushroom compost soil, but without fail, they fail.

Which brings me back to my early-morning soil clawing. If you can't lick 'em, join 'em. I spied a brown feather near one of the bare spots a week or so ago, and, realizing what that meant, asked Phoebe to get a garden claw (the short-handled implement used to scratch out weeds). I explained that I wanted her to loosen the dirt in the bare spot. She gave me a strange, puzzled look, then smiled and shook her head. Moments later, thanks to Phoebe's efforts, the bare spot was reduced to a pile of fine, dry dust.

The following afternoon, Phoebe surprised Julie with five separate brown feathers she'd found near the bare spot. They were from one or more brown thrashers that I had suspected were using the spot as a dust bath.

Last night, I noticed that all the dust had been swept out of the bare spot by the dust-bathing birds, so I made a mental note to start my day off this morning with a bit of dirt scratching.

Dust-bathing brown thrasher. Photo by Julie Zickefoose.

Summer is the perfect time of year to create (or enhance) a dust bath in your yard. Find a bare spot of earth and scratch/dig/poke/kick it until it's loosened, then grind your shoe onto the dirt clods, reducing them to fine dust. Dust-bathing birds will squat down in the loose soil and shimmy-shake the dust through their feathers. This has the beneficial effect of driving feather mites out into the open where they can be preened away. Many birds dust bathe rather than bathing in water, including wild turkey, quail, some sparrows, thrashers—more than 200 species have been observed using "dirt to get clean."

I've tried to explain to Liam that this will not work for him.

I'm sure our brown thrashers found the refurbished dust bath and used it today—and maybe other songbirds, too. This makes me really happy. I'd wager it makes the thrashers happy, too. The feather mites getting evicted by the dust (and it's been a big year for the feather mites)—they're probably not so happy.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Get Your Duck Stamp On!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The ad above is a public service announcement aimed at encouraging more bird watchers to purchase Federal Duck Stamps. A bunch of conservation-minded bird watchers are behind this campaign and I think it's a great idea.

Duck stamp karma must be floating around the cosmos today.
Just this morning I went to the Whipple Post Office today and picked up two duck stamps. It cost me $30—they are $15 each.

There are three reasons why I buy a duck stamp annually:

1. I want to support the hugely successful land acquisition program that duck stamp sales make possible. Dozens of my favorite, regular birding areas were purchased entirely or in part with money from duck stamp sales. Added bonus: having a current duck stamp gets you in free to federal sites such as National Wildlife Refuges, that charge an entry fee.

2. The stamps look cool on my binoculars and are a conversation starter with my fellow birders ("Hey BT3, what's that on your binocs?"). This gives me a chance to talk about the stamps and habitat acquisition. We bird watchers need to do our part to support conservation, and there's no better way to do that than by purchasing land.
Last year's stamp on my binocs. The new one goes on tonight.

3. I no longer have to take any you-know-what from hunters who say they pay for everything with their hunting licenses, taxes on gear, ammo, etc. One hunting friend of mine was particularly obnoxious about this, claiming that birders get a free ride with hunters and sportsmen/women footing the bill. Now I simply hold up my binocs, point to the duck stamp affixed there, and smile.

Go get your duck stamp today. You can order them online or purchase one at your local U.S. post office. To learn more about the Federal Duck Stamp Program, go here.

Below I've uploaded the other PSAs created by the group of birder/conservationists and designed by Jay Gundel & Associates. Images for these ads were donated by photographer Kim Steininger.

Please feel free to grab these images off my blog and place/publish/post them wherever you think they might do some good.

My thanks to Bill Stewart of the Delmarva Ornithological Society and to Paul Baicich and their team for getting this series of PSAs out there for the rest of us to use to promote duck stamp sales to birders.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Hard Drives and Hummingbirds

Monday, July 13, 2009
Female ruby-throated hummingbird at our kitchen feeder. Photo by Phoebe Linnea Thompson (teenaged kidcaster).

I have a LOT of trouble managing the number of photographs on my computer. It seems that at least once a week my trusty MacBook Pro gives me a message that makes my heart sink:

Your computer's hard drive is nearly full. Please delete some files or it's gonna crash like last time and you'll be reduced to a pile of blubbering flesh because you've lost everything on your computer. And by the way, when are you going to start doing regular back-ups? I don't know why you have me so clogged up with your bird images. They are really not that good. Any photographer worth his or her salt would trash at least 96% of the shots you are currently keeping. Loser! OK I'm done now.

And then there are those times, like this morning, when I'm trolling through a recent batch of images downloaded from my camera and I come across an image that may not be perfect in terms of focus, composition, or subject matter, but it's still cool enough to keep.

Like the two images in this post.

I'm fairly certain that Phoebe took them with my short-lens camera, shooting out our kitchen window. I'm thrilled that she likes to take pictures—and she's pretty good at it. I thought that these two hummer shots were nothing special, that is, until I noticed that the camera captured just enough of the hummingbird's wing motion to hint at the horizontal figure-8 pattern each flap of the wings describes. In Phoebe's photos, you can see faint lines where the camera caught the edge of the wing for a fraction of a second.

This unique motion not only provides the bird great lift it also allows it to hover in place, to fly backwards, and upside down. Sources state varying rates of wingbeats per second for hummingbirds. Bigger hummers beat their wings more slowly, smaller ones more rapidly. Our ruby-throated hummingbird female here is probably beating her wings at a rate between 50 and 60 beats per second. Yes, per second (and this is not my computer talking). With power and speed like that it's no wonder they can hover and fly like tiny buzz bombs. And it's more understandable why they need such a high-energy diet to keep their motors running.

You can watch a movie of this wing stroke pattern here on

Now it's time for me to dump more photos off my computer, which is beating its wings far too slowly. Maybe I should pour some sugar water in the keyboard?

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Phoebe: My Favorite Bird

Saturday, July 11, 2009

This is a tribute to my favorite little bird and the sweetest daughter a Dad could ever have: Phoebe Linnea Thompson. Phoebe turns 13 today—yep, she's a teenager.

But I'm not worried. Phoebe is smart, deep, caring, sweet, really funny, and lovely. And every day she gets more so.

She can be tough as nails, hanging with her homey, Liam.

She's not afraid to take a wild ride.

Or to let us know when we've been out birding for WAY too long.

She's a truly kind big sister to Liam, who adores her. They miss each other when they're apart.

Since she was 18 months old, Phoebe has been traveling with us. She's a really good traveler.

She's a dreamer, like her old man.

She loves a good adventure, like a hike into a canyon to see petroglyphs, as the sun is setting over the Montana mountains.

But she also loves to hike at home on our farm. I love that she's waking up to the amazing things nature has to offer. And she's happy exploring them on her own. She gets that "comfortable in solitude thing" from her mom. And that's a rare gift.

I hope she follows her folks into music, too. She's starting down that path. My secret wish is for Phoebe to front her own rock band called Six Foot Redhead. She's only got about 7 more inches to grow.

A week before her 13th birthday, Phoebe got a new bike. She's scarcely been off it ever since.

I don't know where I'd be without my Phoebe. Sometimes I think my life really started the day she was born.

I love you, Phee!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Recalling the Green-headed Tanager

Friday, July 10, 2009

What a week this has been! Between the deadlines, headlines, equipment malfunctions, wardrobe malfunctions, poisonous snakes, stepped-on rakes, event planning, e-mail spamming, deal making, wind breaking, close calls with spotty fawns, hissing of summer lawns, I am wondering where the past five days went?

That's a question with no answer. Like this one: Where does your lap go when you stand up?
To Lappland? Methinks it is so.

So I find myself taking solace in memories. Like this green-headed tanager from Brazil which I photographed last summer near Ubatuba. He's a handsome devil. And if I close my eyes, I can almost smell the woodsmoke and hear the soft sounds of the bossa nova drifting through the trees.

Bring on the weekend and let it linger long.