Thursday, December 30, 2010

Making Suet Dough: The Movie

Thursday, December 30, 2010

This is a video Zick and I made showing how we (as crazy people) make our suet dough for bird feeding. It also features cameos by Chet Baker, Boston terrier and by Liam Thompson, creeper. Much of the video footage was shot by Phoebe Linnea Thompson.

I hope you like this short how-to video. It felt like we were shooting some weird cooking show for bird watchers.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Persimmony Pursuit

Thursday, December 23, 2010

When the fall colors paint the woodlands we know that soon the trees will be naked. Perhaps the only redeeming thing about this transition from blazing scarlets, oranges, and yellows to bare leafless branches is that it reveals a delicious fruit treat known well to woodland sprites and observant humans: the persimmon.

Phoebe, Liam, and Chet on our persimmon quest.

Off we go to the site of last year's best persimmon tree, out at the end of the meadow. Once there, we turn our eyes skyward, hoping to see this:

Persimmon fruits stand out against the sky in the leafless persimmon tree.

After locating the source tree, we scour the ground below it for "drops." These are persimmons that have already fallen. Conventional woods wisdom holds that persimmons rarely fall before the first hard frost. And if they DO fall before that event, they will be bitter and not fit to eat. This autumn the persimmons we found—well before the first hard frost—were perfectly juicy and delicious.

Phoebe and Julie looking up and down for our quarry.

We shake the tree, gently encouraging it to share. As the small fruits (about the size of a large grape or a small Brussels sprout) drop we try to catch them. If they make it to the ground, they seem to disappear—their warm orange hue blending in with the leaf-covered ground.

Tenacious persimmon.

We gather them up in handfuls, sneaking one or two into our mouths "just to check them for eatability." Here's how to eat a persimmon: You squeeze the insides out of the persimmon's skin, and then begin the exquisite process of divining pulp from seeds. The seeds, which are the size of pumpkin seeds, but thicker, are most of what's inside the fruit. One by one these are ejected onto the ground. Animals that eat the persimmon fruits eject the seeds another way. Scoured by the mammals' stomach muscles and digestive juices, these seeds are the start of a new generation of persimmon trees.

The late-season haul from the line of wild persimmons in our east woods.

In our east woods there is a line of persimmon trees, all about the same age and size. These were probably "planted" by mammals that visited some older, now departed persimmon tree day after day in the fall and early winter. As they chewed up the fruits and took in their pulpy goodness, yesterday's seeds came out the other end, thus ensuring that this symbiotic relationship would continue in our patch of woods into the future.

Knowing all of this makes me thankful that I'm part of this giant web of life.
Happy holidays to one and all! May your new year be full of wild and delicious fruits.

Monday, December 20, 2010

eBWD: An Award and Video Guide

Monday, December 20, 2010
A screen-shot showing the new issue of eBWD. Click to watch a video!

This just in! Well, OK, it happened back around Halloween...

The digital edition of Bird Watcher's Digest (the magazine for which I humbly work as editor) has been awarded a Silver Award from the 2010 Digital Magazine Awards! Everyone here at the offices of BWD is buzzing with excitement over this award, so I just had to share it here on BOTB.

We've produced six issues of eBWD thus far and each one has helped us refine our thinking and offerings for the digital realm. One thing has remained constant: All subscribers to the print edition of Bird Watcher's Digest automatically get free access to our digital edition.
That's correct, amigo. If you subscribe to the print edition of BWD, you get access to eBWD as part of the deal. Feeling the urge? Subscribe now!

As we'd hoped, we have lots of people subscribing solely to eBWD, the digital-only edition. Increasingly readers want to receive their favorite content in some digital medium, and we're happy to oblige.

If you have not yet checked out our "award-winning digital edition" (it's neat to be able to say that) please do so. Some of the features that set our digital edition apart from a print magazine include:
  • videos of featured bird species
  • bird sounds and songs embedded into text links
  • recordings of select authors reading their articles
  • hot links throughout the content and advertisements for immediate exploration
This screen shot shows some of the navigation options in eBWD.

But why read about eBWD when you can:

A: Go there yourself and sample some of the pages.


B: Watch a video in which I and (several of my well-dressed colleagues here at BWD) take you on a tour of eBWD. Here it is:

And remember it's not too late to get a BWD subscription as a holiday gift for that special someone who loves watching birds.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Universal Truths of Birding #5

Wednesday, December 15, 2010
If you watch a flying flock of birds long enough, it will spell out secret messages to you in the sky.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Rarest of Blackbirds

Tuesday, December 14, 2010
On a recent Monday morning that was so snowy that school was canceled and the county roads were undisturbed by any moving vehicles, I went outside to fill the feeders. Moments after returning to the warm indoors I noticed a number of dark birds foraging on the ground, inside the brush pile. Wiping my still-foggy glasses, I could see that they were not common grackles.

The fact that they were foraging inside the brush pile made them very interesting. Grackles and red-winged blackbirds, both regular species at our feeders, usually forage on more open ground. Binocs to the eyes—rusty blackbirds!

This foraging behavior made perfect sense! This is a species that breeds in swampy woods in the far North. It's perfectly at home in dense habitat—especially when there is some cracked corn there to gobble up.

A few identification clues for the rusty versus other blackbirds:
  • the rusty plumage is a great clue in fall and winter. Similar Brewer's blackbird females in fall show gray, not rust in plumage.
  • pale eye stands out on the dark face around the eye.
  • Pale rusty eyeline is obvious in fall females. Red-winged blackbird females are streaky overall.
  • smaller overall than a common grackle.
  • tail and bill shorter than common grackle.
  • Prefers wooded, swampy habitat.

The rusty flock had five birds in it, and so I snapped a few digiscoped shots and a bit of video to document their presence. I'm sure the winter storm of Sunday brought these birds southward. Sadly, when we see rusty blackbirds at our feeders, they rarely stick around. This morning (Tuesday) we had just one rusty foraging under the pines on the western edge of our yard.

From these photos you can see how the species got its name, from the rusty edges on the bird's newly molted-in fall plumage. This is interesting since adult males in breeding plumage show no rust in their glossy blue-black finery. Fall males have dark bodies scalloped with rusty feathers. These three photos in this post show an adult female in fall (non-breeding) plumage.

The rusty blackbird has been experiencing a serious population crash in recent decades—some estimates say the population has dropped by 90 percent! Why? We're trying to find that out.

One thing seems certain: this species is a habitat specialist. It prefers wet wooded habitat and this habitat type has been greatly reduced in North America in the last century due to logging, draining of swamps for agricultural uses, suburban sprawl, and mosquito control measures. But habitat loss along may not be the whole reason.

Scientists suspect that the rusty blackbird's decline may also be tied to changes in food abundance in the swampy/boggy northern woods where the rusty breeds. It forages along the edges of the water, catching and eating lots of water-borne creatures such as salamanders, snails, insect larvae, and small fish. Acid rain and rising levels of mercury from air pollution have had a detrimental effect on this prey base.

Additionally, rusty blackbirds are getting hammered on their wintering grounds. In winter they sometimes join huge blackbird flocks in the South, along the Gulf of Mexico. These blackbird flocks are persecuted as agricultural pests—sometimes dying in the thousands after being sprayed with toxic chemicals from crop-dusting airplanes.

In 2005, the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center formed The Rusty Blackbird Technical Working Group to study this species and its shocking population decline. Last year they held their inaugural Rusty Blackbird Blitz to document the species' presence throughout its winter range. Dates for the 2011 Blitz are January 29 to February 13, 2011. A state-by-state list of Blitz coordinators is available online. Data collection is being handled by eBird, the joint effort by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon. All birders in the rusty blackbird's winter range are invited to participate.

In case you've never seen a live rusty blackbird, here's a short video for you to ogle.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

New Podcast Episode "This Birding Life" Nature in Iraq

Thursday, December 9, 2010
Marsh Arabs have inhabited the Mesopotamian marshes of Iraq for thousands of years. ©Mudhafar Salim/Nature Iraq

Available today at Podcast Central is a new episode of "This Birding Life." Episode #29: Nature in Iraq. I'm quite proud of this one since it contains some positive news from the warn-torn country of Iraq.

Last winter, at a birding conference here in Ohio, I interview an Iraqi civil engineer and an American soldier who connected as birder/environmentalists while both were in Iraq.
Dr. Azzam Alwash with a team from NI, monitoring the marshes. ©Nature Iraq

Dr. Azzam Alwash is the director of Eden Again/Nature Iraq, two organizations working to restore the Mesopotamian marshes of southern Iraq which were drained during the Saddam Hussein regime.

The drained Mesopotamian marshes. ©Azzam Alwash/Nature Iraq

Major Randel Rogers is an officer in the Ohio National Guard who has served two deployments in Iraq with the 371st Sustainment Brigade. During his time in Iraq, Randy went birding on the Al Assad air base whenever possible. He then went looking for somewhere to share his observations. That's how he discovered and contacted the members of Nature Iraq.

Major Randel Rogers of the Ohio National Guard, birding in Iraq.

To hear the rest of their story, you'll have to listen to the podcast episode. Don't worry, it's free. And it's also available via iTunes. Just search for "This Birding Life."

Re-flooding of the marshes has begun. ©Nature Iraq

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Winter Ritual: Building the Brush Pile

Saturday, December 4, 2010
It was a combination of factors that got me rolling on this outside project on a recent Saturday. Bad weather was headed our way. The bird feeders needed to be restocked with food. And we were all rotting our brains with too much TV and computer time.

Phoebe and Julie elected to go for a run, so I grabbed Liam and we launched the annual ritual that is the building of the brush pile.

Our sycamore tree on the edge of the yard to the west of the house lost several large branches in a late-summer wind storm. We pulled these brown-leafed monsters out of the tree and broke them up into manageable pieces.

First thing is to build a skeleton to support the brush pile. I used a cinder block to help hold one of the larger "bones" of the skeleton in place. Then it's just a matter of building a messy tepee of sticks, branches, and boughs.

Liam is really good at hauling the brush pile materials.

We laid most of the branches on the northwest-facing side of the brush pile. This will offer more protection from the elements for birds using the brush pile (our weather does most of its attacking from that quarter). And the open side faces the house, so our views of the brush pile denizens will be more clear and open.

After the holidays, we'll add our tree and wreath to the brush pile, giving it a bit of green to liven the scene.

Liam was proud of what we made. And so was I. We went inside to fix some hot chocolate and by the time we walked back into the studio to look out at our handy work, there were the usual suspects using the feeder. More importantly, there was a newly arrived fox sparrow kick-scratching through the seeds and leaves beneath the brush pile. Now that's what I call instant gratification!

Then, taking a celebratory swig from my mug, I burned my tongue on the too-hot hot chocolate.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Encountering the Warrior

Monday, November 29, 2010
Warrior, of the Huli people in Papua New Guinea.

On an afternoon trip from Ambua Lodge to a nearby roost site of a sooty owl, our birding group got its first encounter with a member of the local Huli people. The roost site was in a cavity in a tall eucalyptus-like tree in the middle of some hand-planted crop fields.

I wish I had photos of our initial moments with the man I came to know simply as Warrior. He was a Huli wigman who appeared in the middle of the road as we were trying to execute a too-tight turn in our combi-bus. He initially waved and smiled, and beckoned us to drive after him down the road. He was running barefoot down the road in front of us, feathered headdress waving with his movement, a bundle of leaves covering his backside.

That's Warrior on the right, walking in front of our bus.

As our bus started to follow him, he suddenly whirled, notched and arrow and aimed it at us through the windshield. I must admit that I jumped and dodged behind the seat back in front of me. A palpable surge of momentary fear had gone through our group. And just as quickly, the man smiled and laughed, turning to resume his trot down the road.

Fewer than 100 yards later, a washed out bridge prevented our further progress, so we dismounted and continued on foot. The wigman immediately came up to me to show me his bow and arrows. I was fascinated, and he could tell. Our conversation went like this:

"I sell you all 75 kina!" he said.
"No thanks. Please tell me your name!"
"Is that really your name?"
"Yes, I warrior. What name bilong you?"
"My name is Bill."
"Beel! My fren!"

Warrior tried once or twice more to sell me his arrows, but each time I politely declined and asked him another question. Despite our language difficulty—he did not speak much English and I could only discern certain phrases in Pidgen, the language most common in Papua New Guinea, a mash-up of English, German, and various local tongues—we learned a lot about each other. The land where we were going to find the sooty owl was owned by him and his clan. He did some farming, but mostly hunting and guiding people. I asked him is this was how he dressed every day, and he confirmed it. Looking closely at his headdress, I could see cassowary feathers, two sulphur-crested cockatoo feathers, fresh plant stems and leaves, and a carefully folded and pinned-in-place label from a food product. A long tan reed was centered beneath the tip of his nose, inserted through a hole in his septum. Elaborate patterns were painted on his face in red, yellow, and black.

We'd be instructed to ask for permission to take photographs of the people we would encounter—this is only common courtesy after all. But we'd also been asked/advised not to pay money for this privilege, since PNG is trying to maintain a spirit of friendly hospitality for visiting tourists. The concern being that if every photo-taking tourist is made to pay to take photographs, the local culture and customs could devolve into mercenary commerce, opening the door to more of the problems caused by so-called "rascals" who commit crimes against tourists and travelers.

It can be a rare thing to enjoy an authentic encounter with someone native to a country you are visiting. Sometimes a place and its people are so inured to tourists that they have little interest in answering the same handful of questions from yet another busload of visitors ("Do you really live here? What do you eat? Did you make that yourself?"). Or, and this is becoming much less common in our modern world, you visit a place where few outsiders go and the people are very shy and reticent. Either way, it can be difficult to get an authentic feel for the people and place.
Waiting for the owl.

I suspect that Warrior could easily rev-up his guiding "act" for a bunch of oblivious tourists. He shot several bamboo "arrows" for us—at a cloud, at a distant tree. He did not shoot any of the more finely made arrows he held in his hand. As we walked along, talking, he seemed to enjoy getting to know me as much as I did him.

We crossed through a farmyard and over a series of creeks, then through planted fields, trying our best to avoid stepping on the vines of the plants growing from the ground. Once at the roost site, one of the local men went forward and used a 30-foot long pole to scratch the side of the tree. This was meant to get the owl to peek outside, which it did. But the owl was startled enough from his daytime slumber that it flew off to a nearby copse of trees.

The roost tree, with the cavity (on the upper left fork)

I had been videotaping the tree scratching, but when the owl peeked out I went for my binoculars and completely missed getting any shots or footage.
After-owl group photo with the local family and our guides.

Our group posed for some photos with the local family and our guides at the owl roost.

The farmer, including Warrior, are paid a fee each time a group of bird watchers visits. This is an excellent example of grassroots ecotourism. The local villagers know that by protecting the owl and its roost tree, they can earn money from visiting groups. We discussed ways to show the owl without spooking it from its roost, and the local folks assured us that the owl usually peeks out for a minute or so and then goes back down inside the cavity to sleep.
Walking through the cultivated fields.

On our way back to the road it began to rain quite heavily. Within minutes we were all soaked through and getting chilled. At the road, we parted company with Warrior and his family. I did buy an arrow from him and he told me about how he made it. He made a slit along one side of the arrow shaft. Into this shaft he inserted some small seeds. He told me that when this arrow goes into his enemy, those seeds will make it hurt more. Knowing how intense the fighting can be among rival clans in PNG, I did not doubt Warrior's sincerity or intent.

The arrow's construction was ingenious. It was designed to come apart mid-shaft. And it was beautifully carved and decorated with paint. The balance was perfect and though I will never shoot it from a bow, I am sure it would fly straight and true.

Before we left Warrior and his family I asked if I could take his photograph.

"Yes, Beel, you my friend! Take photo!"
Warrior posed for me to take his photo.

I did and we shook hands and turned to go our separate ways returning to our separate and very different worlds. I'm not sure Warrior will remember me, but each time I look at the red arrow, I surely remember him.

That's me with my arrow, wearing one of the traditional hats worn in PNG. This one is woven in the colors of the national flag.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Birding in Papua New Guinea: Ribbon-tailed Astrapia

Friday, November 19, 2010

Let's go back to Papua New Guinea for a post or two, shall we? In the afternoon of our first full day afield, the weather waffled between cool/cloudy and sunny/warming. We birded along the Highlands Highway as well as along some forest trails. While we saw quite a few new species, and more individuals of species we'd already added to the list, the most notable encounter was a foraging immature male ribbon-tailed astrapia—our third bird-of-paradise of the day.

Young male ribbon-tailed astrapia.

This young male foraged on the fruits of a tree alongside the road, at about eye level. Though the light was weak, I managed to get a few images with my digiscoping rig. Adult females show a dark brown body, and long dark tail feathers. Adult males have long white tail streamers and a glossy all-black body.

You can see in my video below that this bird is starting to show some white in the tail feathers.

After enjoying the astrapia show, we headed back to Ambua Wilderness Lodge, where the sun finally came out in earnest. We relaxed on the front lawn, enjoying the view and chatting about what we'd seen and what we were hoping to see in the days ahead.

Ambua Lodge view.

Our first full day of birding in Papua New Guinea was coming to an end. And what an incredible experience it had been.

Next PNG post: seeking the sooty owl.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Universal Truths of Birding #4

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

How Birders Are Made. Here is the only look you will get at your life magnolia warbler. This experience frustrates you sufficiently to keep you coming back, hoping for a better look. Which may or may not happen. Congratulations: You are a birder.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Haiku for Autumn

Tuesday, November 16, 2010
Left wanting summer
autumnal melancholy
burns off in colors

Thursday, November 11, 2010

More Birds and More King of Saxony!

Thursday, November 11, 2010
Scanning the forest for signs of bird life.

After birding along the Highlands Highway on that morning of King of Saxony magic, we drove down the dusty road to some land owned by the clan of our guide, Benson. He had cut some forest trails that ambled along to good vantage points for some other avian specialties.

Driving the Highlands Highway in our combi bus. Note the Obama sticker on the windshield!

We saw birds with truly weird names: yellow-browed melidectes, Belford's melidectes, rufescent imperial pigeon, Papuan mountain pigeon, Papuan lorikeet, canary flycatcher, rufous-naped whistler, regent whistler, Whistler's mother, blue-capped ifrita, crested berrypecker, lesser melampitta, mountain firetail, red-collared myzomela (some confusion over its pronunciation: myZOMela or MYzoMELa) and three small, active birds (the names of which sound like a game of "One of These Things is NOT Like the Others") friendly fantail, Willie wagtail, and dimorphic fantail. And, I must confess we didn't actually see Whistler's mother.

Mountain firetail.

Perhaps my favorite bird name of the day was certainly descriptive of the species, but even more, it sounded like the name of a sexy villainess in a James Bond movie from the 1970s: smoky honeyeater.

All of these birds were very nice. Some offered themselves generously for observation. Many did not. What did stand out, however, was another session with a wonderfully cooperative (or oblivious) King of Saxony bird-of-paradise. This one was singing and waving his ostentatious plumes from just inside the forest canopy. Here's a little clip of the late morning antics of yet another King Sexy bird-of-paradise. I apologize for all the camera sound in the background. It was a narrow trail with a small viewing window to the bird, so we were all clustered together trying to capture our images.

This day was only partly over, and we'd already had an embarrassment of feathered riches. We did not know it then, but the day had one final bird-of-paradise sighting in store for us.