Friday, October 30, 2009

Red Sky at Morning

Friday, October 30, 2009
The sky donned its Halloween costume at dawn this morning, dressing up as a huge serving of rainbow sherbet. While waiting to put Liam on the bus, we watched the ever-changing hues, tones, patterns.

The driveway oak shook off its leaves like it had no further use for them. Yesterday it wore an orange-brown dress. Today that dress lies scattered in several thousand pieces on the muddy ground. The oak is readying itself for cold weather ahead.

I guess all the work going on around the house and farm is our way of dealing with the changing seasons, particularly the onslaught of winter. The feeder activity has increased noticeably this week. Fox sparrows got in yesterday morning, and the junco numbers have tripled since last Sunday.

As we walked out the drive, I spotted a red bat foraging overhead. The Chinese believe that bats are a sign of good fortune, and that a red bat sighting signifies "vast fortune." I certainly hope so.

Then there's that old rhyming bit of folk wisdom:
Red sky at night, sailor's delight
Red sky at morning, sailors take warning.

I'm hoping that this morning's red sky was just a simple blessing.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Midwest Birding Symposium Memories

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Whether or not you made the scene at the 2009 Midwest Birding Symposium, held in September in Lakeside, Ohio, you now have a chance to experience (or revisit) the MBS on the Web. Audio files for most of the speaker presentations, a photo gallery, comments from attendees, links to blogs about the MBS, and links to pre-register (as an attendee, sponsor, or vendor) for the 2011 MBS are all available at the event's new landing page:

The audio files of the speaker presentations will only be available for a limited time, so take a few minutes to explore the offerings we've put together. And, if you like what you see and hear and read, make plans now to join us September 15 to 18, 2011 at Lakeside, Ohio for the NEXT Midwest Birding Symposium.

A final thank you to our fabulous sponsors:
Audubon BirdCam, The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Swarovski Optik, Field Guides Birding Tours, and RRI Energy.

Leica Sport Optics, Wild Birds Unlimited, Eagle Optics, The Ohio Division of Wildlife, Lake Erie Shores & Islands, The Marblehead Peninsula Chamber of Commerce, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and Scotts Songbird Selections wild bird food.

Their generous financial support made the 2009 Midwest Birding Symposium possible.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Autumn Views from the Tower

Tuesday, October 27, 2009




Monday, October 26, 2009

Opportunistic Anis

Monday, October 26, 2009
Smooth-billed ani.

Last July I was on a digiscoping trip to Trinidad & Tobago sponsored by Leica Sport Optics. On the second day of the trip, we left the friendly confines of Asa Wright Nature Centre for a bit of birding afield. We drove down out of the mountains to the Aripo Agricultural Research Station, where, after turning off the highway into the station's entrance, we encountered our first interesting birds.

A pair of tiny green-rumped parrotlets was exploring a natural cavity in a tree by the roadside and we stopped our vans to try to get photographs of them. We snapped a few shots, but needed to disembark from the van to let everyone see the birds. As happens so often, our stopping and unloading spooked the birds into flight. Even though hundreds of cars and trucks pass right by this tree each day, few of them probably stop by this tree. And our stopping was enough to encourage the birds to flee. We thought they might be nesting in the cavity, so we removed ourselves a bit and waited, hoping they would return.

Green-rumped parrotlets.

About this time a crew of workers down the road 40 yards started up their weed-whackers. The noise immediately over-rode all other sounds around us and the tall grass which they were cutting down began to fly, in pieces, in all directions. Along a fence line behind the workers a flock of smooth-billed anis began dropping down onto the ground and flutter-walking over toward the weed whacking action. I did a double-take. Conventional wisdom would have had the birds fleeing at the start of the noisy, smoky, grass-destroying trimmers. But these birds were attracted to the noise and activity.

Anis in my experience almost always look disheveled.

And then it dawned on me. The anis were after an easy meal. Just like bald eagles waiting below a dam spillway in winter, grizzly bears gorging on post-spawn salmon, or the barn swallows that follow my tractor when I mow, these anis had made the connection between weed whacking and easy-to-catch insect prey. The string trimmers (called, I once was told, "strimmers" in the United Kingdom!) cutting down the grass were disturbing and maiming lots of grasshoppers and beetles and other yummy bugs. Smart birds.]

Here's a short video of the opportunistic smooth-billed anis:

Judging from the height of the grass, the trimming had not been done here for a long time—maybe a few months. Yet the anis knew to associate the sounds and activity with an easy meal. Isn't that interesting?

Smooth-billed anis are reasonably common birds in the central part of their range: from the islands of the Caribbean, south throughout South America. But they reach the united States only in central and southern Florida, where the species seems to be declining rapidly. Where you find one smooth-billed ani, you are likely to find others since they spend their lives as a part of a noisy flock of a dozen or more birds.

Speaking of a flock of anis. I wonder what the term of venery for a flock of anis is? A showtune of anis? A yawn of anis? A Yanni of anis (for the horrible noise they make)? Your suggestions are welcome here.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Attention Digiscopers!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Bird Watcher's Digest
has partnered with Swarovski Optik for this year's "Digiscoper of the Year" competition. Swarovski has offered this competition for several years, and each year the images submitted get more and more interesting.

You can read the rules here.
And you can see some of the images uploaded so far for the competition by visiting the DOTY homepage.

The good news is this: If your image is chosen, you could win some sweet Swarovski binoculars. Images taken using ANY spotting scope and camera combination are eligible (in other words, you don't have to be a Swarovski user).

Here's one of my digiscoped images: a Savannah sparrow in New Mexico.

The not-so-good news is: The deadline for entries is October 31, 2009. You can upload your images in a jiffy online using the form at this link.

Winners of the North American competition will automatically be entered into the international Digiscoper of the Year competition, also sponsored by Swarovski.

Caption Contest #10 Winner!

Don't let go of me, she's finally taking off her hat. Oh baby, look at that pointed head!

And the winner of Caption Contest #10 is Corey who wrote the caption above! Congrats Corey! You are the winner of a year's subscription to The Backyard Birds Newsletter.

Our second runner-up is:
cyberthrush who said...

During his first-ever visit to Whipple, Ohio, Gnome Chomsky gets a quick lesson in the fine points of birding.

Third runner-up:

Robert said...

I can see Nome from here!

Honorable mention goes to:

TinaG said..

It's all in my new book. Bignomial gnomenclature: The Art and Science

and to:
Chris Harbard said...
The image is pixielated...!
I loved ALL of these entries, and really could have picked 10 winners. Thanks for playing!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

This Birding Life, Episode 22

Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Al Batt speaking at the 2009m Midwest Birding Symposium. Photo © Connie Kogler.

The new episode (#22!) of my podcast This Birding Life is now available for your listening pleasure at Podcast Central on the Bird Watcher's Digest website. This episode features the inimitable Al Batt presenting a program called "Snippets from a Life Gone to the Birds" at the recent Midwest Birding Symposium in Lakeside, Ohio.

Al Batt is a humorist and storyteller from Hartland, MN, where he grew up on a dairy farm. He was one of our keynote speakers at The Midwest Birding Symposium in September, and as you'll hear from the podcast, he had us all rolling in the aisles laughing (wld tht b txtd as RITAL?).

I've had the great fortune of knowing Al for about a decade now, and I can tell you that he's every bit as funny and nice in person as he is in this recording. He is also an avid, excellent birder and holds the distinction of being the world's tallest Lutheran.
This photo shows Al and me enjoying our camp biscuits with "sum o that yaller mustard. hmmmmm. " Photo © Julie Zickefoose.

Last June the family and I shared a four-day canoeing and camping trip down the Missouri River in Montana with Al and two local guides. We were paddling in the footsteps of history: this was the route Lewis & Clark took on their famous Journey of Discovery in the early 1800s.

Being out in the weather and mud, sleeping on the cold hard ground, and eating camp food can try one's patience. Not Al's. He was just as sunny and friendly on the last hot afternoon, eating flat-meat sandwiches, as he was at the outset of the adventure. I think that's because he has the unique combination of a Zen-like outlook on the world mixed with a down-home sense of humor. Plus he knows what it's like to get up at 4 in the morning to milk dairy cows and he's just so dang happy that he's not doing that anymore...

Listen to Al on the podcast, and then do yourself a favor and catch him at one of his many public-speaking appearances. I guarantee that you'll get a good laugh, plus a some Midwestern wisdom that will make you think.

You can access the podcasts in both regular audio (MP3) and enhanced audio (M4A, with images) formats at Podcast Central and in the iTunes Store in the Podcasts category.

This Birding Life is made possible through the support of our sponsor: iBird. To learn more about iBird and the iBird line of applications for the iPhone and iPod Touch, visit them online at

Monday, October 19, 2009

Caption Contest #10

Monday, October 19, 2009

Coming back at you, like a boomerang you, yourself, did not throw, it's the Bill of the Birds caption contest! This is contest #10 and is open to all who love birds. And garden gnomes.

Send your witty caption in via the comments window below, and you could this fabulous prize: A year's subscription to The Backyard Birds Newsletter. That's a $16 value, people!

OK. Hit me with your best shot. Winner gets picked on Thursday, October 22, 2009.

Friday, October 16, 2009

New Feeder Shots

Friday, October 16, 2009
The new feeders I set up two weeks ago, outside the west kitchen window, are getting lots of traffic now. All the usual suspects are in the chow line rotation, which greatly enhances the daytime view from the seats at one end of the kitchen table.

I used a tripod clamp to attach my Canon 30D with the 300mm lens to the table, so I can sit there working or eating or reading the newspaper (remember those?) and be ready to snap off some frames if there's a good opportunity.

I STILL need to spend some quality time learning how to take good bird images. But here's what I grabbed from the new feeders one afternoon earlier this week.
A male red-bellied woodpecker, lured in by the peanuts. He's still not too sure about that large gun-like object I'm pointing at him.

Nice to be able to see the actual red belly on a red-bellied woodpecker.

The American goldfinches are losing their summer colors, fading to their winter tones of drab yellow-green.

A new tube feeder filled with new seed got the GOFI's attention.

The northern cardinals had a phenomenal breeding season—there are dark-billed youngsters everywhere. Even the adults (female above, male below) are looking a bit different as they molt out their summer feathers for a new set of winter duds.

There are some additional enhancements I need to do to the feeding station to make it a bit better for bird photography. I need to add a couple of perches for our mutual convenience. And I may try to add another feeder or two. With our weather set to take a turn for winter, I'd better get cracking!

Here's wishing everyone a birdy weekend.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Big Sit 2009 Afternoon/Evening Report

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

As the day came on and the fog lifted, we began to tally lots more birds from the top of the Indigo Hill birding tower. The feeders got busier and netted us our expected American goldfinches and white-breasted nuthatches, plus three woodpecker species, and both of the common red finches: purple and house. Either one of these could have been a miss.

The list zoomed up into the 50s. At 10:22 am I posted this on Twitter and Facebook:
Indigo Hill Big Sit is at 56 species, just in time for the mid-day doldrums

11:52: Cape May warbler is number 61 for the Indigo Hill Big Sit. Nine more and we break the record!More people began arriving, too. And Phoebe, the social butterfly that she is, came up top fully suited up for the cool air. Unfortunately for this year's Sit, mid-morning was also when we lost Julie as a participant. She had to drive across the state to Dayton to give a talk, so we waved goodbye to her about 11 am. Jules is right up there with Jim McCormac in the birding skilz rankings, so her departure made the rest of us redouble our efforts.
The raptors put on quite a show in the afternoon, as rising warm air made soaring easier. Kettles of turkey vultures, numerous red-tailed hawks, and nice numbers of sharpies and Cooper's hawks were spotted by our keen-eyed sitters. In the photo above, the crew is watching a PO'd male sharp-shinned hawk dive-bombing a large female Cooper's hawk. This show went on for about 10 minutes out over our meadow, south of the tower.

I should apologize here for the lack of bird images. I did not drag my Canon big rig out at all during the Sit. The birding action was too good and, well, with all the Sitters, it was kind of tight up in the tower. It'd be just my luck that I'd drop that expensive piece of gear over the side. As it was, I lost only a pen, a glove, and a few beverage bottles and cans over the tower's edge.

As afternoon surrounded us, the air warmed, a light breeze kicked up, and adding a new bird to the list began to get much harder.
3:00 pm: Species 64 is a fly-by osprey at the Indigo Hill Big Sit.

By late afternoon, the sun had swung around to the southwest of the tower and our shadow was getting longer, stretching out to the northeast.

4:17 pm: Wild turkey, ruby-throated hummer, yellow-throated vireo gets our Big Sit to 67--two from the record for this site.

Here's the view from the tower, looking north, during the afternoon.

Sun dogs appeared late in the day, giving us something to marvel at since the birding was incredibly slow.

The Dirty Stay-ups are the birders who stay until dark.

And we NEVER QUIT birding!

Darkness takes control once more.

The final rays of the sun setting on yet another Big Sit.

And then, it was dark and everyone was gone. I posted one more update for the 2009 Big Sit.

8:09 pm: We'll man the circle 'til the bitter end but it looks like the final tally will be 67. Respectable, but two off the record.

I went downstairs, fixed the kids dinner, and got them into bed. After some clean-up of the kitchen and hauling down of gear, I felt the tower calling me back. So, at about 8:45 pm, I climbed up into the cold, damp night air for a little bit more listening, just in case three new birds for the list flew overhead, calling out their readily identifiable vocalizations.

In my quietude, I heard more Swainson's thrushes, a veery, a chipping sparrow, the barred owls in the east woods, a distant great horned—all birds we'd had earlier in the day. And I heard the echoes of my friends' voices and laughter, reminding me that this event—The Big Sit!—is as much about the people as it is about the birds.

Sixty-seven species is our second-highest total ever, topped only by last year's record-setting 69! It was a valiant effort and a great day of birding (but is there any other kind?)

You can see the results from dozens of other Big Sits from around North America and beyond by visiting the official Big Sit website.

Of course, the following morning there was a male ruby-crowned kinglet taunting me from the birches outside the kitchen window. A jumble of house sparrows took off from the forsythia, laughing that they'd skunked us on Sunday. And I heard the sweet sputter of an eastern meadowlark from the neighbor's hayfield as I walked Liam to the bus this morning.

And yet, I still love The Big Sit like no other birding event I've ever experienced.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Big Sit 2009 Morning Report

Monday, October 12, 2009
Looking like Bazooka Joe at the start of 2009 The Big Sit.

Last year I blogged from the Indigo Hill birding tower throughout The Big Sit. This year my trusty laptop was off getting a new brain put in, so I was reduced to sharing reports via my iPhone on Twitter and Facebook. This was much easier for me, but perhaps not as informative for those of you on the receiving end, since Twitter limits each "tweet" to 140 characters.

I ascended the tower stairs at 11:48 and set myself up to start the 2009 Big Sit. Coats, headlamps, checklist, pens, gloves, my iPod, and miscellaneous other items went up the last set of stairs. The night air was cool and damp—but still, which would make hearing nighttime flight calls of migrants easier. The tower deck and rails were wet with dew, so I spread out a towel to keep my gear dry.

At the stroke of midnight I sent our this tweet:
Good luck and good birding to all Big Sit circles around the world! First bird here in Whipple: Swainson's thrush!

The thrush, and at least a dozen of his friends were flying overhead, uttering the flight call that sounds just like a spring peeper. Within minutes I had great horned and barred owl calling in the nearby woods. The half moon rose in the East, blood-red then tangerine then pale-butter in color as it climbed into the inky night.

My next tweet reflected my frustration at the other sounds of the night:
Heard: E. screech owl, gray catbird, wood thrush, Chevy Cavalier sans muffler, coonhound, 12-gauge shotgun, unidentified sparrow.

At 12:25:
There go the coyotes! Sounds like two packs. Eerie! Falling star tally: 3. Last new bird: Savannah sparrow.

By 1:15 am, things had quieted down, so I went back downstairs for a few hours' sleep. From past experience I assumed that the best time for additional nighttime birding would be in the two hours before dawn, when nocturnal migrants would be flying at lower altitude, prior to landing after dawn for foraging and rest. I set my alarm for 5 am and settled in for a bit of rest myself.

I made it back to the tower at 5:30, a bit bleary-eyed, but excited. Coffee was brewing and I had the whole Big Sit stretching out in front of me. It was still almost completely dark. Other Big Sit circles around the U.S. sent out tweets and text messages, comparing notes. We'd be in touch throughout the day, which was very cool.

By the time I heard the crunching gravel of the first fellow sitter to arrive at Indigo Hill, the list stood at 7 species. The early arrival was Jim McCormac, who'd driven down from Columbus, Ohio. Jim is a great birder and his eyes and ears would net us several new birds for the Big Sit list. As good as Jim is at hearing and identifying soft, distant bird noises, he does not have a realistic idea of his own noise making. Jim thought he'd been sneaky—driving up our long, gravel driveway slowly, without headlights. Stopping next to the garage he proceeded to play a recording of a Chuck-wills-widow. Somehow thinking I'd be fooled into believing this prank. Silly man.

6:12 am. First fellow sitter arrives: Jim McC. We are mired temporarily at 8 species. Just added chipping sparrow.

Soon Zick joined us up in the tower, as did house guests Anton and Nina Harfmann. In the hour prior to actual daylight, a heavy fog rolled up from the valley, enclosing us in its wet embrace.

Jim, Zick, Nina, Anton in the fog.

The resident birds soon began to wake up, and the list began to grow. Slowly at first, then in a fast jumble.

6:44 am Indigo Hill Big Sit is now in double figures. Field sparrow and saw-whet owl! Take us up to 12.

The saw-whet was a surprise. We'd never had one on the Big Sit before. But this bird was consistently calling a descending wheeeer from the north woods for a couple of hours just before dawn. We took this as a good omen

Jim and Nina at a slow shutter speed..

The fog dulled the power of the day-bringing sun. For nearly an hour we were bathed in a misty blue light.

Still too early to see much, but plenty to listen to. Photo by Julie Z.

Hearing birds, but straining to spot them in the fog made us wish the sun would hurry higher into the sky.

Only the closest trees were discernible. We wondered if the fog helped us by forcing migrant birds lower, or if it hurt us by hiding flyovers we might otherwise see.

Soon the fog began to clear, and we could see both the trees and the birds zipping in and out of them.

Chet Baker came up to the tower, once it warmed up a bit. From there he could see everyone arriving. He wore his letter sweater for warmth but it also made a nice fashion statement.

8:26 am Red-shouldered hawk and redtail. We now have more birds than birders. Current total 45 species!

More folks arrived with the daylight. Our ridge top came out of the fog by about 9:00 am. People arriving at our farm described pea-soup fog in Marietta and along the highway. We had clear skies and birds to watch. The 2009 Indigo Hill Big Sit was about to hit full stride.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Plum Nice Birding

Friday, October 9, 2009
Today I got a chance to go birding at a world famous spot in Massachusetts: Plum Island. This is the general name referring to the coastal habitats that include Parker River NWR and Joppa Flats, where Massachusetts Audubon has a wonderful new visitors center. My companions on this adventure were several folks from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, led by editor Lisa White.

After visiting the Joppa Flats center, we stopped at an ocean overlook where we got great side-by-side looks at red-throated and common loons. I was sorry I forgot my digiscoping rig.

Scanning the ocean for gannets, scoters, loons.

Plum Island is a migrant and vagrant trap north of Boston. It gets great birds both because of its great habitat and because so many bird watchers cover the dunes, woods, flats, and marshes so thoroughly.
At this spot we had a mess of sparrows, including song, swamp, white-throated, chipping, and Savannah. We missed the salt-march sharp-tailed sparrow, though. Other feathered highlights: hundreds of yellow-rumpeds, a big female merlin, bald eagle, northern harrier, Cooper's hawk, all three scoters, many northern gannets, and about four billion double-crested cormorants.

That's Taryn, Katrina, Lisa, BT3, Theresa, Tim and Kevin (in front).

It was only a little cold and windy. Still we persevered to a total of 60 species, including a notable uncommon yellow-billed cuckoo.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

More Preparation to Sit

Wednesday, October 7, 2009
That's our birding tower in the photo above. And that's me taking a newly assembled feeder tree over to the side yard to augment our feeding station. Well-stocked bird feeders can be a huge asset on a Big Sit (oh, that does not sound very good, let me re-phrase). Well-stocked feeders can make your Big Sit more attractive (better?) to birds.

I give up!

The point I'm making is that I spend a lot of time scattering seed and placing feeders and water features with the specific intent of luring an additional species or two into view so we can count them on The Big Sit (which is this coming Sunday, October 11, 2009).

Last Saturday I got a wild hair and decided to devote the entire day to work around the farm. This was a welcome break from my normal work (at Bird Watcher's Digest) which, though fun, seems never ending. Think about it: You finish the November/December issue and it's time to start working on the January/February issue. I am in my 21st year of BWD issue cycles (and I still enjoy it!).

Back to my Big Sit preparation (H). I started by assembling the aforementioned feeder tree and adding some new feeders to it. These are the feeders that can be seen from the giant studio windows where Julie works.

Then I decided to add an additional feeding station cluster on the deck outside the big kitchen window, a vantage point from which all of us can watch the activity. I found a few new, unused feeders in the garage left from a bird store shopping frenzy last September, at Nature Niche in Berkeley Springs, WV. These went up on a set of feeder hooks I cobbled together from spare parts.

Sunflower seed, peanuts, and a songbird blend.

I still wasn't satisfied. Then I remembered the gray birch tree trunk that broke off a few weeks ago. It would make a perfect snag. So I set about preparing the trunk and digging a hole deep enough to support the snag's weight.

Once the snag was in place, carefully adjusted so no bird poop would drop directly into the bird bath, I went inside for a frosty cold refreshment, and to appreciate the results of my work. It's nice to do a job, see the progress and completion, and know that that's it! It's done!

The new feeders outside the kitchen window. The first brave feathered soul to visit them was a female American goldfinch. Since then we've had cardinals, titmice, Carolina chickadees, white-breasted nuthatch, and downy woodpecker as visitors. I suspect this station will be very popular as the season progresses. And I expect these new augmentations to net us at least one additional species for the Big Sit—maybe a pine siskin or a purple finch!

But I'd settle for any new, unexpected species, like this blue-crowned motmot! That would be sweet!