Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Wordless Wednesday

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Monday, September 28, 2009

A Bad Case of Falcon Fever!

Monday, September 28, 2009
The mystery falcon soon after it was first sighted.

Three weeks ago, I was up in the Indigo Hill birding tower with our friend Nina who was visiting from the southwest corner of Ohio. We were chatting as we watched birds zip through the trees, and across the sky. It was not yet peak fall migration, but there was still enough to look at that our conversation kept getting interrupted by birds that required a glance or two before an identification could be placed on them.

As birds appeared and I called them out, Nina would politely ask me about certain details of the birds' field marks. Lucky for me, she was asking questions for which I had accurate, easy answers. This served to make me feel like I was helping a fellow birder along the path to bird identification enlightenment. It was satisfying.

Oh but pride doth come before a fall. And it being fall, I was about to take a serious fall in terms of my bird ID skills and reputation.

A falcon hove into view, pumping hard from over the old Morganstern place, headed south-by-southwest toward us. It was a half-mile away when I spotted it and it looked big and strong. But what caught my eye first was how hard it was pumping its wings. "This could be a merlin" I said to Nina.

The bird tacked a bit east of its path to avoid a clump of tulip trees. This put it against a stark milky-white background of high clouds. "Might be a peregrine!" I said with more excitement, because to my eyes (which were suddenly on fire with Falcon Fever) the bird now looked worthy of consideration as a larger, more powerful falcon. I had shifted my ID hypothesis from merlin to peregrine.

The falcon slowed its pace, flared its wings and tail and began to glide in a circle. As it turned, it showed (or at least I thought I saw) dark wingpits. "NO WAY!!!!" I shouted to Nina. "There's NO WAY this could be a prairie!" Perhaps the most reliable field mark for a prairie falcon is its dark wingpits. This species is seen irregularly at The Wilds, about an hour's drive from our farm. So this species could be possible, but far less likely in southeastern Ohio than a merlin or a peregrine.

At this point I was insane with Falcon Fever. I SO wanted this to be a good bird. Somehow, I remembered to grab my camera and take some photos of the falcon, which by now was much nearer. It was using the heat rising from our ridge top to gain some soaring altitude. snap-snap-snap-snap. I got image after image.

Up and up the falcon went, into the milky overcast. As it rose, it drifted farther south and was soon out of sight, headed toward the West Virginia hills.

At no time did I reach a final conclusion to the bird's identification. It had flown rapidly with strong wingbeats like a merlin. It had looked large when it first started soaring, like a peregrine. It had shown dark wingpits, like a prairie falcon. What the heck WAS this? I knew I'd gotten some images, so we watched it disappear over the ridge to the south of us, and we headed down from the tower to look at the images and sort out this bird's identity.

As soon as I saw one of my later images, with the bird's wings and tail flared for soaring, I had a hunch that I'd been fooled. Fooled? Yes, fooled.

It was a large, immature, female American kestrel.

The strong wing beats? They could have been those of an inexperienced flyer. But it had flown like a merlin, and looked like one when I saw it head on, coming at us.

The dark wingpits? Perhaps a trick of the light, or a symptom of Falcon Fever?

The large apparent size? That came from its age and gender—young raptors are often larger than their parents after leaving the nest. But it also came from the White Sky Effect. This unofficial phenomenon is well known among birders: Any bird seen against a background of bright overcast or white sky can appear much larger than it actually is. I don't know any of the science behind this phenomenon—it could be all bunk for all I know.

But I also know that it's easy to blow a bird identification, even under ideal viewing conditions. It's one of the things that keeps us humble as bird watchers. And it's also one of the things that keeps me coming back for more. Because every so often you actually get a hard bird identification right, and that feels really good.

I am now under doctor's orders to watch first, remember the obvious, and speak only after a moment or two of quiet reflection. It is hoped that this will cure me of Falcon Fever.

Soaring and looking big.

This CAN'T be a kestrel.

Hey! Dark wingpits! DUDE!

DOH! It's a kestrel. Check out the thin wings and red tail!

I know some of you are saying to yourselves, "Bill, there's nothing in these photos that says ANYthing else, but kestrel." And you'd be right. But you had to be there to catch the fever like I did! It's not the first time I totally blew a call and it surely won't be the last.

Special thanks to Nina of Nature Remains, for not going "Haa-haa!" like Bart on "The Simpsons" when we discovered how utterly wrong I was about this bird. And to Zick, who DID say "Haa-haa!" But only after first trying to convince me that this was just a big, young kestrel. I should have listened.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Gray Birch: Bird Magnet

Saturday, September 26, 2009
A male Baltimore oriole stops by one of our gray birch clumps.

We planted some gray birches (Betula populifolia) on our southeastern Ohio ridgetop farm about a decade ago. Julie was the one who wanted birches specifically, since they reminded her of the New England woods where she'd spent her college and post-college years. Being an artist, she loves birches for their visual appeal: pale bark dotted with black, bright green leaves that turn golden in autumn. In winter, when the birches, like most other deciduous trees, are completely leafless, the stark white trunks flecked with black seem to fit perfectly—almost beautifully—into the stark landscape.
Beautiful even during the leafless winter months.

Gray birch does not occur naturally in our area. In fact the only birch native to our part of Ohio is the river birch. Our dry ridge is not the preferred habitat for the gray birch, but they are short-lived trees anyway, so when they begin to age-out, we plant a few new ones.

Though we planted them for their aesthetic value, little did we know what bird magnets these trees would be. We've planted them in clumps of two or three all around the yard and it's rare to look into one of these clumps and not see a bird. I've watched migrant warblers, orioles, tanagers, vireos, cuckoos, and thrushes drop out of the sky into the birches. My guess is that, when flying over, they recognize the birches' shape, color, or foliage.
Yellow-billed cuckoos seek caterpillars in our birches.

What do the birds get from the birches? The primary thing is food. Birches seem to attract a lot of insects—insects that eat the leaves, live in the bark, bore into the wood. Insects that hatch from the foliage, caterpillars that munch on the soft green leaves. Our chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches seem to love the trees as stopover points as they come and go to the feeders. The loose bark of the birches is a good place to lodge a seed so it can be hammered open by a tiny bill. But I've also seen warblers grabbing ants from the birch bark, squishing them, and rubbing them through their feathers.

A black-throated green warbler anting in one of our gray birches.

Sapsuckers seem to be drawn to our birches and their rings of small sap holes are easy to spot on every large trunk.

As the gray birches age, some of the branches lose their leaves, much like and aging man begins to lose his hair. These bare sticks are perfect perches for ruby-throated hummingbirds and insect-hawking flycatchers. They are song perches for blue-winged warblers, and indigo buntings that next in the nearby edge habitat.
Springtime birch buds go nicely with the first singing American robin in our yard.

Even when a birch tree is dead it still provides for the birds. Flickers dig ants from the rotting stumps. I gather the dropped branches together to weave a brush pile near the feeders before the first snowfall blankets the ground.

Our willows and ashes and oaks and maples and mulberries and tulip poplars and sycamores and box elders and sassafrases and red pines are wonderful, bird-friendly trees. But none of these seems to draw the birds in every month of the year like the gray birch does.

Here are a few images of fall warblers in the gray birches from last week.
A magnolia warbler.

Blackburnian warbler in fall plumage.

A very dull fall-plumaged blackpoll warbler

A pair of bay-breasted warblers dropped into the dead top of a birch just after sunrise.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Haiku for a Pre-dawn Grosbeak

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Last day of summer
"Eek" like rubber sole on wood
Willow bough your stage

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Philly Vireo Invasion

Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Fall provides the best birding on our farm in southeastern Ohio. And the middle weeks of September are the peak of fall passerine migration. Among the birds we see more regularly in the fall than spring is the Philadelphia vireo. This morning, when the sun started warming the birch trees in our yard, the foliage came alive with foraging warblers and vireos. By far the most numerous species was the Philly vireo.

Several birds (there were at least 10 Philly vireos) paused long enough in the birches to have their picture taken. Though these images aren't great, they represent the pinnacle of my Philly vireo photography career.

There is something about the face of a Philly vireo that makes it instantly recognizable to me. The gray cap, white lines curving above and below the large, black eye, and the somewhat stubby-appearing bill all combine to help me put a name on this gray-yellow-green leaf-skulker whenever I see it.

The field guides will point to the yellow-washed underparts and the dark spot before the eye (or in some cases a thin black line through the eye). But this species can vary in appearance. Pale Phillys can be easily confused with warbling vireos.

Also making an appearance this morning, in the few short hours before I headed in to work at BWD: magnolia, Tennessee, Nashville, black-throated green, Cape May, bay-breasted, blackpoll, and Blackburnian warblers and American redstart. I heard a singing black-and-white warbler, but did not see it.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Giant Things at the County Fair

Tuesday, September 22, 2009
In our county here in southeastern Ohio, we have a wonderful county fair each Labor Day weekend. Among the many things we look forward to seeing there, aside from the funnel cakes, the elephant ears, the corn dogs, the bloomin' onions, the cotton candy, the lemon shakes, the sausage sandwiches, and the bologna sandwiches, is the giant inflatable sheriff's deputy. It's not just a Giant Thing, it's a giant thing that can walk around and gesture to people.

I am certain that the giant inflatable deputy appeals to kids, helping them to see law-enforcement officers as something other than threatening. But I was surprised to see how many fully grown, otherwise normal adults wanted to have their photos taken with Deputy Blowup. Women especially seemed to like this giant inflatable man in a uniform.

Liam asked me: "Daddy, what does that giant inflatable deputy do?"
"Son, he solves giant inflatable crimes in our community."

It was a hot afternoon at the fair, so the giant inflatable deputy, and his smaller fellow officer, headed off toward the inflatable log cabin nearby, each one casting a long shadow.

I love seeing the giant inflatable deputy. But, you know, when he's gone, I feel just a bit deflated.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Scenes from the Midwest Birding Symposium

Monday, September 21, 2009

As the just-finished 2009 Midwest Birding Symposium was about to start, the Lakeside businesses were putting out the welcome mat. It seemed like the entire Lakeside community was happy that the birders were invading.
The Hotel Lakeside is a grand old gal, and once again she hosted the majority of our attendees staying on site. Golf carts, the best mode of transport in this gated community, were purring along every street, moving MBS attendees from the Hotel Lakeside, south to South Auditorium and Wesley Lodge.

Ohio Ornithological Society board member Marc Nolls was the keeper of the check list for the MBS.

Attendee badges were lined up in alphabetical order, awaiting their matching attendee. In all, we hosted well more than 800 people at the 2009 MBS.

South Auditorium at set-up time (above) was much less lively than South Auditorium on Friday morning, shortly after opening (below).

The crew from Field Guides mooches some fancy coffee from Jeff Gordon.

Hoover Auditorium on Thursday afternoon.

Hoover Auditorium on Friday morning, I took this photo from the podium, before the event's opening remarks.

Jim McCormac was our first keynote speaker, with a program entitled "Lake Erie Birds & Birding." Ten minutes into his talk I got a text message that a Kirtland's warbler had been found and confirmed at nearby East Harbor State Park. It was hard not to stand up and shout the news. Instead, I waited until the talk was over to make the announcement. Fortunately many folks got to see the bird, which was very cooperative, if not consistent in its appearances.

Alvaro Jaramillo, a guide for Field Guides, Inc, and the author of the "Identify Yourself" column in Bird Watcher's Digest, gave a talk called "Bird ID Outside the Box." He was constantly preening himself so he'd look good on the Big Screen to the left of the stage.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Preparing to Launch the MBS

Thursday, September 17, 2009

We are deep into the final approach to launching the 2009 Midwest Birding Symposium. It all started with a van full and trailer load of stuff we needed to haul from southeast Ohio to Lakeside, Ohio, on the sunny south shore of Lake Erie. My BWD van was not happy about its heavy load. The rear end dragged a few times. And so did the van's.

Not much clearance, so we drove very carefully up route 250, through Amish country, stopping in Wooster, waiting for trains, and finally arrived at Lakeside.

Once there, the prepping/stuffing/organizing frenzy began. Fortunately we had a lot of help from the Lakeside staff and a small army of volunteers.
Bags waiting for attendees to arrive.

Hoover Auditorium is empty now, but will be filled soon.

South Auditorium, before the show set-up for vendors in the Birder's Marketplace.

Signage is being deployed... and in two minutes, the event will officially be open!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Join the ABA

Monday, September 14, 2009
Birding with the ABA in Utah.

If you are a bird watcher who enjoys the company of others who share your interest in birds, I suggest you consider joining the American Birding Association. The ABA, as birders call it, has undertaken a new initiative to attract members and they are offering some incentives: namely a new lower price and a cool birding T-shirt.

Click on the icon above for the inside scoop. I plan to renew my ABA membership at the Midwest Birding Symposium, where the ABA has a booth in the Birder's Marketplace. If you've never belonged, I suggest you check it out. I've been a member since 1988.

I can think of a few reason why joining the ABA is a good thing for a bird watcher, but the most important one (in my opinion) is the social connectivity it provides. ABA annual conventions and regional events provide wonderful opportunities to meet and get to know birders from other parts of North America. And the birding is pretty darn good, too.

Let's face it, we birders need a national organization that caters to our interests. Any ABA members want to chime in on this topic?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Two Upcoming Birding Events

Thursday, September 10, 2009
In the tower during The Big Sit!

There are two birding events I'm really looking forward to this fall.

The first is next week's Midwest Birding Symposium held in Lakeside, Ohio. Bird Watcher's Digest is one of the hosts (with the Ohio Ornithological Society and the Lakeside Association) for the event and we're expecting 800+ bird watchers there for a weekend of fun, birding, and bird-brain enhancement.

In a single 24-hour period it is feasible, at the Midwest Birding Symposium, to take a sunset boat cruise, watch a birding movie, catch fall warbler migration, hold an newly banded songbird, donate your old optics to a good cause, buy yourself some new binoculars, ride a Segway, book a tour to a world birding hotspot, enjoy an array of world-class speakers, get your favorite bird book signed by the author, learn about blogging, go digiscoping with a pro, enter a birding raffle, sponsor a bird on the conservation checklist, and meet several hundred new birding friends.

It's not too late to register, but you should not tarry. Get thee here for more details.

You can also call the MBS registration hotline: 800-879-2473. Or you can register at the MBS, which will be held September 17 to 20, at the Lakeside, Ohio that is on Lake Erie, near Port Clinton, Ohio.

Exactly one month from tonight I will be climbing the stairs of my birding tower to start the 2009 Big Sit. It goes from midnight to midnight on Sunday, October 11, 2009. The Big Sit has been called many things: Birding's most sedentary event; a tailgate part for bird watchers. What it really is is fun, exciting, and challenging. Basically the Big Sit involves staying put inside a 17-foot diameter circle in some birdy locale, and counting the species you can see or hear in a 24-hour period on the second Sunday in October. You can do your own Big Sit anywhere you like.

The concept has been around a long time, but was formalized (and trade-marked: it's officially called The Big Sit!) by the New Haven Bird Club in Connecticut. Bird Watcher's Digest hosts the Big Sit on our website and you can find details, including how to register your own Big Sit circle, by following this link.

I will be sitting again this year, the ninth Big Sit in our birding tower, along with 30 or so of my friends, birding and "normal," who will stop by throughout the day.

If you've never been to a birding festival, the Midwest Birding Symposium is a wonderful place to start.

If you like challenging your observation skills, and you like to sit around with your birding friends, try The Big Sit! You'll be glad you did!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Church Owl

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Rosy wash of sunset leaving
trees back lit in silhouette
the village church tower like an owl
whose hunting has not started yet.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Birding at Cley

Tuesday, September 8, 2009
The famous west wall at Cley, where many a vagrant was ticked and many a twitch ended in a dip.

On the Monday following the British Birdwatching Fair, David Tipling, my kind and generous host in Holt, took me birding at Cley, the famous bird watching hotspot in Norfolk. I'd known about Cley for years and had recently finished Mark Cocker's excellent book "Birders: Tales of a Tribe" which depicts Cley as the epicenter of the U.K. bird watching scene in the latter part of the 20th century. Though it is less of an epicenter now, Cley was legendary for its rare and vagrant birds, and for the legions of birders who congregated in the hides, homes, cafes, and pubs of this small coastal town.

Kestrel at Cley.

Out first stop was a pull off near the beach, some images of which I've already shared with you. On the way in, we had a close look at a European kestrel (which the Brits call, simply "kestrel"). I was sorry for the first (but not the last) time that I'd left my big rig Canon camera at home in Ohio. David, a world class bird and nature photographer had kindly left his gear at home, too. Today we were merely watching birds, not shooting them with cameras. I tried to convince myself that this felt liberating.

Salt House Pond just before the shrike.

After the kestrel and a look at some black-tailed godwits and a smattering of other waders, we drove back to the main road and stopped at a site known as Salt House Pond. We were hoping to find a little gull that had been seen here recently. On this day is was being seen elsewhere, not here. As we were turning to leave, I spotted a bird teed up on a nearby bush.

"Hey look! A shrike!" I said with a modicum of amusement. This caused David to spin around and glass the bird himself.
My shrike at a fair distance.

"That's a good bird, more than likely" he said. And it was. It turned out to be a juvenile red-backed shrike, likely a wanderer from The Netherlands across the North Sea from Cley. We never did get a great look at the bird, but enough to confirm its ID. Of course we got no photos—just my crumola images here.
My best shot, cropped and barely recognizable.

David reported the bird by cellphone to a local contact and minutes later the sighting rang through on his rare bird alert pager. Soon other birders were on the scene, sending in updates about the shrike's whereabouts. David commented that it was probably the best bird of the day along the Norfolk coast, which made me quite the happy lad.
Looking inland over Cley Marshes from the sea.

We spent the rest of the morning walking Cley's paths, down to the sea, along the shingle dunes, between the pools with strategically situated hides (what we call blinds). These hides are masterfully designed. The doors, floors, and benches do not squeak. The viewing slots have tension hinges that keep the slot doors from banging shut. And the bird watcher is rewarded, thanks to this ingenious design and forethought, with amazing view of waders and ducks and herons and gulls.

Entering a hide.

No shortage of viewing slots in the hide.

The view from one of the hides.

By mid-day I was hungry and I had my heart (and its precious aortic valves) set on fish and chips. David knew a place farther along the coast, so we jumped in his vehicle and zipped down the road. Arriving in a larger coastal town, we found the chip shop. It must be good, I thought, since a line of customers snaked out the door onto the sidewalk, waiting for service.

We eventually got to the order counter and were confronted by these fried choices:

Lunch was fish and chips, at my request.

I selected the cod and chips. David and I moved out of the chip shop queue (pronounced cue), and across the street to the quay (pronounced key) and ate our lunches while talking about the birds we'd seen at Cley (pronounced Kly).
It tasted far better than it looked. We ate on the seawall.

It was one heckuva day birding in one of the world's great, birdy places.