Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Footprints & Snow

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Liam cannot resist the fluffy whiteness of snow. He goes out onto the deck barefoot to scoop up a handful which he then eats with great gusto.

I pointed out to him that, given the number of bird tracks in the snow, he might be eating a bit of bird poop. He just laughs at me like I'm crazy.

I think I'll tell him the story about the time I got sent home from school in first grade for wearing a Snoopy patch on my jeans that said "Don't Eat Yellow Snow." My mom sewed on that patch over a hole in the knee of my jeans. Mrs. Humphrey, the first-grade teacher at Lincoln Elementary School in Pella, Iowa was not pleased with the patch and sent me home early to change my jeans to something less offensive.

I've always wondered if she was offended by the subtle implication of peed-upon snow, or was she just anti-Snoopy, or did she think the advice on my patch was somehow not worth sharing with others? A few weeks later I remember taking mercury from a broken thermometer to school for show-and-tell! I dropped it before my turn and it scattered into a brazillion tiny pieces. Those were the days...

I wish I still had that patch. I'd sew it onto Liam's jeans. Bet he wouldn't get sent home from school nowadays.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009


Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Walk with me, this snowy path
Look close to see who passed this way
deep in the night now turned to day.

Softly whispering across the snow
listen now, nature's silent song
a melody lingering all winterlong.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Some images of winter birds, winter colors, and winter scenes to go along with my best holiday wishes to all of you: the readers, comment-makers, and friends who stop by Bill of the Birds. Heck I'll even send along a happy holidays to the blog spammers from the Far East—clearly my posts mean a lot to them, too.

I'll be otherwise occupied through the end of the year: enjoying some family time, working on a book manuscript, trying to reconnect with our farm in its winter mode, and of course watching birds. I hope to be back to my regular blogging schedule in 2010, but I hope you know (and can understand) that I may not be an everyday poster.

Am I burned out? Not really. This could just be a hangover from the bad experience I had last night watching the movie "Julie and Julia" which, IMHO, made blogging seem like one of the planet's more insipid pursuits. But I digress...

What I love about having Bill of the Birds is that it allows me to [attempt to] write creatively. My goal is to balance the need to post daily with my in-born editor's sense of only posting what's worth writing AND worth reading. Because we all have days when we really having nothing to say, right?

But that's a conundrum for another day, another year. Right now it's time to write the captions on the next issue of Bird Watcher's Digest, then out the door for some last minute shopping. I will endeavor to stop several times during this holiday season to count my blessings, among which you all figure prominently.

Happy and merry and peace!

Bill of the Birds

Monday, December 21, 2009

When the Going Gets Rough (leg)

Monday, December 21, 2009

On our late November birding trip to The Wilds, the birding started out very slowly. Normally as we drive the roads around the property we spook up flocks of horned larks, Savannah sparrows, American tree sparrows, and dark-eyed juncos. Not on this reasonably mild winter day. It was Deadsville, dude.

So we did what any bunch of bored birders would do, we started scanning to see if we could spot anything interesting. I've already recounted our observations of the local white-tailed deer, plus the captive endangered species at The Wilds. A few red-tailed hawks, a flashy male American kestrel, and a distant male northern harrier were nice, but I was hoping for something a bit rougher. And there it was: a rough-legged hawk.

It was a distant bird, but even before I got the scope on it, I had a hunch it was a rough-legged because of where it was perched. It was in the top of a small tree along a fence line. It would be unusual to find a redtail perching in such a small tree. But for the comparatively tiny-footed rough-legged hawk, the thin branches of the small pine were perfect. Rough-leggeds have small feet for grabbing smaller prey such as rodents.

On the Arctic tundra where these birds breed, lemmings are a main prey item. Here at The Wilds, it's probably meadow voles. The red-taileds with their larger feet are seeking rabbits in the meadows and squirrels along the woodland edges. And when they perch, they are perching on larger, sturdier branches.

Around the back side of The Wilds we pulled up to an overlook and quickly spotted another roughleg hovering over a hillside. We jumped out of the van and took up positions in a grassy ditch to take some photographs. The hawk obliged us by flying over. I'm still not great at getting good shots of flying birds, but this bird was large enough that I couldn't strike out completely.
Here are a few of the images from that fly over.

The bold black-and-white wing pattern of a rough-legged hawk in flight.

Long, wide wings with black carpal patches. A black belly band.

The white tail with a broad black band shows well in this photo.

It was very cool to see this second rough-leg. And this sighting seemed to open up the birding action a bit. Soon we were scoping rafts of buffleheads and mallards, gadwall and scaup. We never did see a single lark, though, which seemed weird. Maybe the more recent snows have brought them down from up north.

Soon enough it was time to suit up and bug out. We let the sun say its fare-thee-well and then we did likewise.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Phoebe's Giraffe

Friday, December 18, 2009

Here's a short video from our recent trip to The Wilds, where we re-enacted a memorable moment in the life of daughter Phoebe Linnea, from one of her very first birding trips. This commemorates her first accurate mammal ID call using a spotting scope. Now she's all growed up! Man, time surely flies...

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Buck Fever at The Wilds

Thursday, December 17, 2009
The rolling grasslands of The Wilds, a "reclaimed" strip mine that is now an endangered animal facility and a birding hotspot.

Heading back to The Wilds for another post or two...

On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, we took the kids on a drive to The Wilds, near Cumberland, Ohio for a day of birding and animal watching. Deer-hunting season was set to start in two days. Because The Wilds has vast areas of fenced grassland where endangered animals are captive bred and studied, hunting is not allowed inside its boundaries.

The local white-tailed deer know this, and they spend hunting season inside the fenced areas, practically thumbing their noses at the hunters driving the perimeter roads. The hunters, for their part, can barely see out of their truck windows because their hyperventilating has caused the glass to fog. Why are they hyperventilating? Because right across that tiny little fence is a group of monster bucks practically begging to be "harvested." Aside from the bounty of meat these giant deer would provide, their heads and awesome racks would look so righteous on the den wall back home.

The bucks gather in loose groups, loafing, grazing, casting glances at the trucks driving slowly past—trucks with heavy sighs and even sobbing coming from them. Each buck we spotted was bigger than the last. Eight-pointers looked puny. Ten pointers and larger were the norm.

But there are other, even more impressive antlered creatures at The Wilds. The super-rare Pére David's deer from Asia is bred at The Wilds. Its antlers branch upward impressively, dwarfing the largest of the white-taileds. This species, extinct in the wild in its native China since the late 1800s, was saved by a French missionary named Father (or Pére) David Armand. Captive breeding in Europe throughout the last century has permitted the species to be reintroduced to small parts of its former range in China.
Pére David's deer, digiscoped at great distance.

While we were enjoying a northern harrier coursing low over the fields, a herd of sable antelope trotted over the rise. These handsome dark brown animals have long, tapered horns that arch up and backward. Native to Africa, sable antelope are prized by big game hunters for their amazing horns. The herd here at The Wilds seemed to be about a dozen animals, including at least one well-horned male which stood out in the crowd. Unfortunately I did not get a decent photo, so I borrowed this one from The Wilds' website, where you can see images of all the animals being bred and studied there.
Sable antelope. Image ©The Wilds.

With the day's end drawing near, we enjoyed the sunset and began the drive home. Just a mile down the road, we found the last monster buck of the day, crossing a field rather nonchalantly. He was outside the fence but seemed to think he was still off-limits because he scarcely made a move to run as we lowered our windows and snapped photos. The light was poor, so the pictures were less than ideal, but this regal creature seemed the picture of health.

We hope he's still that way now, several weeks later.

A trip to The Wilds may yield some great looks at birds, but there's a lot of other stuff to ogle, too. By the way, for those of you within driving distance of The Wilds, The Ohio Ornithological Society will be holding its annual winter birding day at the Wilds, on Saturday January 16, 2010. You can get more info on this free event at the OOS website.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Here Comes the Solstice!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009
It's wonderful to think that by next week the winter days will begin to lengthen and the nights begin to shorten. We can't complain, really. Our winter has been fairly mild thus far. But the killing frosts and chill morning air remind me just how much I love spring.

These two shots show the last full moon over the winter landscape near our southeastern Ohio farm. How ironic that as winter begins, so, too does the long slow tilting of the Earth toward spring.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

New Podcast Episode: Birding in Panama

Thursday, December 10, 2009
A male fiery-throated hummingbird at Los Quetzales in Panama.

Episode #24 of the This Birding Life podcast is ready for your listening and viewing pleasure at Podcast Central on the Bird Watcher's Digest website. In this episode we travel to Panama on the Panama La Verde Birding Circuit where I interviewed the folks behind Panama La Verde, as well as four of my fellow birding travelers.

Our fam trip group in Cerro Azul.

If you'd like some back story about the trip, you can see a handful of BOTB posts on Panama here, here, here, and over here too. And here.

If you'd rather ingest a bit of poetry that came to me while birding on this isthmus between Central and South America, then hie thee to this link about the view from Cerro Azul.

Birding along a forest road in Panama. Photo © Jeffrey A. Gordon

On the other hand, if it's Giant Things that float your dugout canoe, then here you go amigo.

For more general information about birding spots in Panama, see the "Far Afield" article in the Jan/Feb 2010 issue of Bird Watcher's Digest (now mailing from the printer), and on the BWD website under the "Watch Our Website" links at the bottom of the homepage.

Hope you enjoy the new episode of TBL. Let me know (good, bad, indifferent, constructive criticism) if the spirit moves you.

See you out there with the birds!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Swans Mystery

Wednesday, December 9, 2009
Back to the mystery swans we encountered at The Wilds. As some of you web-savvy readers have already determined, these were trumpeter swans. I should pay more attention when I name my images for uploading!

Before 1900, trumpeter swans were extirpated from most of their North American breeding ranges by hunting. Only a remnant breeding population remained in Alaska and remote parts of the West.

During the 1990s there was a captive breeding and reintroduction program for trumpeter swans here in Ohio. The Wilds served as a captive rearing facility for birds hatched in captivity. The goal was to acclimate the birds to living in the wild so they could later be released along the Lake Erie marshes. More than 150 swans were released and today there is a small breeding population. At The Wilds a few birds are still around. I assume the flight feathers on their clipped wings grew back and they are now fully flighted, but don;t really know where to go.

The weird thing about these two birds is that one had black legs and one had yellow legs—at least the upper parts of the legs we could see above the water. You can see this in the photo below: the right hand bird has the yellow upper legs.

We checked the birds carefully in the spotting scope. Black bills eliminated mute swan. No pale yellow lore leaned us toward trumpeter. The notably long, straight black bill also pointed to trumpeter. The yellow-legged bird also was banded.

Yep. Captive but free-flying trumpeters.

Knowing that trumpeters had been captive-raised here, it's exciting, but not that exciting, to see them. Now if these had turned out to be tundra swans, we'd have been a bit more stoked. Tundras fly right over southeastern Ohio in the late fall/early winter on their way to the Atlantic Coast. Seeing a couple of tundra swans is always a notable event.

Odd swans are the least weird thing one can see while birding at The Wilds. More on that soon.

Monday, December 7, 2009

At The Wilds: Mystery Birds

Monday, December 7, 2009
The Saturday after Thanksgiving we took the kids birding to The Wilds, a 20,000-acre recovering strip mine that's an endangered animal breeding and research facility. In the temperate months you can tour The Wilds in one of their buses. But most bird watchers visiting The Wilds just like to drive the roads to see what birds are around, in the vast grassy fields, and the many ponds and lakes that dot the landscape.

On the south side of The Wilds there's a long, string-straight piece of road that passes a couple of long, narrow lakes. Well, calling these lakes might be a bit of a stretch—they are not naturally occurring. Really, they are deep scars in the earth, cut by massive machinery as it removed seams of coal. Now these giant holes have filled with water.

That matters not to the waterfowl that pass through these parts. The two white birds above were on this lake, loafing and preening. Swans, at first glance. But which swans?

More on this line of inquiry tomorrow.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Greed and Manners at the Bird Feeder

Friday, December 4, 2009
Tufted titmouse eating with its bill open.

Our new feeding station on the deck railing outside the kitchen table window has been a busy, busy place these past two weeks. The weather has taken a decided turn for winter. The naturally occurring food supply—fruits, berries, seeds, late insects—has been diminished, so our seed, nut, and suet-eating friends are coming to our feeders in greater volume.

Tufted titmice, I've noticed, are hit-and-run eaters. Normally they drop in, hop onto a feeder, grab a seed or peanut, then fly off to a handy perch to consume it. One titmouse seems to want more from his foraging visits. He tries to take more than a single bit of food. Does he perhaps have some blue jay or American crow in his ancestry? Those well-known gluttons will gobble up several food items, filling up their throats before adding one or two more pieces, held firmly in the bill. These corvid family members will cache food—hiding it for later consumption, but that's not as well known as a behavior in titmice. However, it turns out that they DO cache food, too.
Twisted titmouse.

This particular titmouse was intent on getting another peanut into his bill, perhaps for caching. But every time he'd pry one loose, it would fall before he could grab it. The piece he had in the back of his bill prevented him from getting a secure grip on a second nut. Notice I am assuming this was a "he" even though TUTIs are not sexually dimorphic. This just seemed like typical behavior for a male.

As he tried, other birds would land on the peanut feeder and he would try to chase them off. Most fled, but not the male red-bellied woodpecker. He parked himself on the feeder and stayed put. I watched as the peanut dust flew and the level of nuts in the feeder dropped noticeably.

Red-bellied woodpecker.

I sat there wondering if the birds ever think of each other like we humans do. Do the other titmice give each other knowing looks and mutter things like "There's Todd that greedy hog. Just look at him stuffing his face! That dude needs to learn some manners! It's like he was raised by jays or something!"

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Cooking Lunch in the Woods

Wednesday, December 2, 2009
This image and most on this post were taken by Julie Zickefoose.

The borders that were most likely to be breached having been thoroughly posted, Liam and I headed down the valley toward Beechy Crash. Beechy Crash is so-named because in 1992, when, with the ink still wet on the real estate papers, we first hiked this land of ours, we discovered a huge sandstone and shale ravine crisscrossed with fallen, giant beech trees.

An early spring hike to Beechy Crash a few years ago. One of these people is Sharon The Birdchick Stiteler.

Most of those fallen monsters are gone now, rotted back to the soil by the combined effects of time, weather, and the ravine's moist embrace. Just upstream from Beechy Crash is a flat spot where an old logging road once passed. This is the spot where our food cache was waiting, where there was plenty of firewood, and a fire circle of stones I'd gathered a few years earlier.

Halfway down the hillside, Liam and I met with the girls and Chet Baker, who initially barked at us gamely, as if he did not recognize us as a part of his roaming pack.

The kids raced down the hill. The parents proceeded more carefully.

Once the light bulb of recognition went off in Chet's head, he ran headlong for us and gave us warm dog kisses.
Chet Baker strikes a majestic pose.

I moved downhill ahead of the others, wanting to get the fire going. This day was mild enough that we did not need the fire for heat, but that is not always the case. Once last winter we went for a long, cold hike down this same valley with friends. The four kids (two from each family) all got soakers falling into the stream. A front blew in and the temperature dropped as we headed home, but home was a long way off. In a moment of clarity I forged ahead of the group and built a fire along the path—at this same spot where we were heading today. I'm not sure a warming fire was ever appreciated more by chilly hikers.

By the time Liam, Phoebe, Julie, and Chet arrived, I had this cooking fire going—at least slightly. The kindling on the ground was still a tad moist from recent rains, but with some newspaper we got things burning soon enough.

Out came the hamburgers, onions, frying pan, beans, cook pot, utensils, and we were cooking caveman style!
When I was a kid, growing up in tiny Pella, Iowa, sunny fall Saturdays when my dad was home, we'd load up the station wagon and drive a few miles out into the country for a picnic. Sometimes we'd invite another family along. We'd toss a football, or perhaps hike or fish a little. But the highlight was building a fire and cooking out. Hotdogs were a staple, but we'd sometimes add other dishes like corn on the cob, or my mom's potato salad. And always there were the s'mores.

Now I find it particularly gratifying to try to make some of this same kind of memory with my kids. Julie and I were laughing about my caveman like tendencies, loving the challenge of cooking a meal in some remote spot. She said "My dad used to take us out for long country rides in the car all the time. But we never got out of the car much, and if we did we certainly never cooked a campfire meal. This is WAY more fun!"

The caveman with his caveman meal cooking on the fire.

Caveman not able leave fire alone. Must poke it to make flame big. Fire good!

Liam, I do believe, has caught the bug, too. He loved stirring the beans. And his cooking "jones" has been documented before by his mom.

Of course we had to share our food with Chet Baker, who behaved like a perfect gentleman even though we were far from civilization.
Please dew not take pitchers of me beggin'. It ain't dignified, but I am helpless to resist hamburger.

Everyone agreed that the burgers and onions tasted fine (even without ketchup!) and the beans were nicely smoky. The s'mores were pleasingly gooey and messy.

After the meal was consumed, the paper plates burned, the gear washed and re-packed, the fire put out (by the Hotdog Brothers with an assist from the stream), we headed for home, stopping only once, to say hello to our old friend, the beech we call OK 1902.

This old tree has done well for itself in the 107 years since it felt the bite of a farm boy's pocketknife.

The sun was sagging behind the western hills now. It was time to get home and savor a day well spent.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Hotdog Brothers Post the Border

Tuesday, December 1, 2009
Liam was a big help on our border posting expedition.

Two Saturdays ago, Liam and I had the first major Hotdog Brothers' adventure of the winter. We finished posting the east and south borders of our 80-acre farm with No Hunting/No Trespassing signs. Having lived on this patch of land for the better part of the past two decades, I know that my signs are really just a formality—a way to ask nicely that our boundaries be respected. Most years we have hunters on our land anyway. I do my best to assume that it's accidental trespassing by cityfolk out enjoying their annual walk in the woods while fully armed. But I know that it's not all that innocent.

With the economy being so tough we had several more folks ask us for permission to hunt our land this year. We aren't anti-hunting at all. But we feel that it's important that some portion of our immediate area should be free from the disturbance and the noise. So we thank them for asking and explain why our answer is no.

Finding the actual property lines in these woods and hills is part science, part art. Our land is a giant rectangle, a half-mile on the north and south and a quarter-mile on the east and west. But it doesn't follow the contour of the land at all. Two large wooded valleys and dozens of heads and hollers filled with downed trees, viney tangles, and slippery, leaf-covered slopes make walking difficult.
We choose trees for posting that are plainly visible..

But I know where certain boundary markers are and I can find the line by looking for clues. A twist of rusty barbed wire sticking out of a tree trunk means I may have found a "line tree." Line trees are trees along a property line where the tree served as a fencepost for the omnipresent barbed wire. Since our farm and all the land around it was open, treeless grazing meadow about 40 years ago, there were wire fences all around the perimeter to keep the cows contained. Remnants of the fence persist.

Loggers hate line trees because they are often the only large trees still standing on a wooded property. But nothing ruins a saw blade like an old piece of fence wire, so the line trees are left uncut. Good neighbors won't cut line trees and I don't post my signs on line trees, either. I post well back from the line, but still plainly visible.

Gearing up for posting, I carry the signs and tools in the same newspaper shoulder bag I used in the mid-70's to deliver the Marietta Times.

I'd been out posting part of our border a few weeks before. It's no simple matter. I need to take a hammer on a belt hanger, a nail pouch full of short roofing nails, a roll of bright yellow signs, some hand clippers, a hatchet, my binocs, a walkie-talkie, a pocket camera, some water, and a bucket. The bucket is to stand on so I can post the signs high on trees, out of reach. About ten years ago, along our south border, someone walked along our line after I'd posted and ripped my signs down or cut my name out of them with a knife. With the bucket along, I can add a couple of additional feet of height to my reach at 6' 4". So, unless Yao Ming comes along to help, no one is going to reach the signs.
Posting high on a tree. Photo by Julie Zickefoose.

Liam initially was belly-aching about having to go along, saying things like:
"Hey Daddy? When are we going back to civilization?" and "Hey Daddy, how LOOOOOONG did you say this was going to take?"
My personal coffee-cup holder.

But soon enough he got into the spirit of the adventure and task at hand. I think he finally got a feeling for how much land we own, and how important it is for us to take care of it.

We took a few breathers—it was hard work hiking the hollers.

As we worked our way along the line, spotting line trees, old fence posts, gas lines, and other telltale markers, we fought through the briers and brambles, leaped over the dry runs and rills, hitched over logs, all the while keeping one eye on the line and one eye on the hunt for perfect posting trees. Many of the previously posted trees still clung to their signs. The good ones I left in place. The ragged ones I tore down and replaced. The one aspect I really dislike about this job is having to pound nails into the trees. I use the shortest nails possible—so short that many trees actually push them out as they grow. Still, I always say a quiet apology to the trees I'm posting. I try to choose already dead wood, or trees with extra thick bark, or trees so big that it's clear they have survived much worse treatment from weather and woodpeckers.

As we worked along we found some evidence of other people. Along the township road there is much litter. Once hunting season is over, I'll go out with a couple of trash bags and pick it up. As much as it disgusts me, it also reminds me how lucky I am to come from a long line of people willing to shout "Litterbug!" at those who care so little about their impact on the planet.

Finding an unfortunately placed tree stand complete with bait below it, I knew it was time to ask for help from my neighbor. I needed to know where the corners of our properties met and neighbor Sherm was kind enough to walk out into the woods with us to find it. The tree stand is on the property line, but the baited area is not. It's the work of some new neighbors who live up north and come down here, like thousands of others, to hunt in the southeastern Ohio woods. I hear they're nice enough. I figure I'll meet them one day and we can talk about the border we share.

Mystery solved, Liam and I bid Sherm a farewell and began the long hike down to the bottom of our east valley. Just then the walkie-talkie crackled. It was the girls calling. They were headed down to Beechy Crash from the other side of the valley.

Liam asked excitedly me if Mommy and Phoebe were coming to meet us? I said yes, and that we were going to cook our lunch in the woods. He whooped for joy.

Earlier in the morning, I had packed up two large backpacks of food, drinks, and all the necessary gear to have a campfire lunch in the woods. Julie toted the bags down to Beechy Crash for me and left them, and I knew just where we'd rendezvous for the feast.

Tomorrow I'll tell you all about it.

Heading down the southeast slope of our east valley, through wide-open beech forest toward our rendezvous with civilization.