Friday, January 29, 2010

Ruddy Winter Turnstone

Friday, January 29, 2010
Ruddy turnstone in winter plumage.

This afternoon, while frolicking on the beach at Cape Canaveral National Seashore with daughter Phoebe, I snapped off a few shots of the foraging ruddy turnstones. None of them was in breeding plumage, but then—I forget myself—it's January! They SHOULD be in winter plumage.

Not a whole lot of bird photography on this trip, at least not yet. Though, Phoebe got some nice shots for me of a loggerhead shrike at Viera. Here's one of them:

Loggerhead shrike at Viera Wetlands, FL. 1/27/10 by Phoebe Linnea Thompson

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Masked Duck: My Latest Lifer!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Here's a short bit of digi-video of my life masked duck. I love that you can hear Phoebe commenting on a flyover Caspian tern in the background. We were birding at Viera Wetlands south of Cocoa Beach in east-central Florida. Viera (a sewage-treatment facility, natch) is one of the primo birding spots of the area and is especially great for bird photography. The duck was at least 120 yards away when I shot this.

Special thanks to Jeff Bouton and Mike Freiberg for the directions to what is my life bird #668 (or is it 669?). I can't dismember.

Anyway, super awesomely cool bird! This species is one I'd dipped on many times in Texas. It's especially sweet to get to see such a rarity with Phoebe (whose life list is not that far behind mine).


Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Changing Places

Wednesday, January 27, 2010
Daughter Phoebe and I have migrated south to Florida for a few days of giving birding talks at schools in and around Titusville as part of the Space Coast Birding and Nature Festival.

So we've traded icy flocks of ravenous starlings for....

.... white ibises against the sunset.

We'll report in soon about the talks, birds, sun, and surf. We hope you are warm and happy wherever you are.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Scratching the Rhino

Monday, January 25, 2010

The special surprise offered to participants in The Ohio Ornithological Society's Wilds Winter Birding Extravaganza on Saturday, January 16, was a trip behind the scenes at this endangered animal breeding and research facility. Where behind the scenes? To the rhino building to see the southern white rhinoceroses, including Anan the new baby rhino born last Halloween! This was perhaps the only thing that got our kids to go along on the trip—the promise of seeing rhinos up close.
Anan and her mom.

After a bit of bus hopping and a short introductory talk from The Wilds' rhino experts, we were ushered into one of the two rhino barns, tucked deep in a valley, and surrounded by industrial-strength, rhino-proof fencing.

We were told we could touch the rhinos—that they even liked it! But that we needed to be very careful when sticking our appendages through the metal pipe fence lest a rhino accidentally lean toward us and pin our body parts against the fence.

Clearly these animals were used to humans and approached our curious group for a closer look.
SO MASSIVE! My gosh these things look and feel like armored tanks, but their eyes are soft and small.Look at the massive feet on these surprisingly mobile and nimble mammals.

We all took turns petting, scratching, and admiring the rhinos as they stood next to our reaching hands.
The rhino skin was hard and dusty, like mud-spattered heavy canvas overlaying concrete.

Anan made her appearance, walking right up to Julie and Liam. Julie, of course, kissed her right on the snout. Watch for her blog post soon, likely titled "Frenching the Rhino."

But Zick The Animal Charmer did not stop there. Oh noooo. As soon as the mama rhino came over to be scratched, Julie began scratching her inside a giant crease in her skin on the flank in front of the hind legs.

The rhino gave many signs that this felt good: leaning in closer, relaxing her skin to let Julie scratch more deeply, exhaling deeply, breaking rhino wind (true!), and finally, as if feeling the ultimate in relaxation, dropping slowly to the ground.

But Julie was not the only one with a special connection to these animals.

Liam immediately felt he had "special rhino powers" much like the "special gorilla powers" he experienced at The Columbus Zoo (which is affiliated with The Wilds). Who were we to disagree, when we saw how the adult female rhino seemed attracted to Liam, and how calmly he stood there petting and talking to her, when others in our group backed away?

Phoebe would be mad if I did not include her rhino photo here, too. And since she and I are about to spend a week at a birding festival together I need to stay on her good side.

Even I got a chance to scratch the rhino, and I really dug it.
What a completely cool addition to our winter birding adventure at the Wilds. I've still got a buzz from those rhinos. So much so that I am thinking of changing this blog to Bill of the Rhinos. What do you think?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Birding the Wilds

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

More than 150 brave and bundled souls showed up at The Wilds for the annual winter birding trip with The Ohio Ornithological Society. The weather began as bleakly as expected. The parking lot where we met was solid ice covered in a layer of slush. But there was no wind. My group, co-lead with Peter King and Julie Zickefoose, was group 5, assigned to begin at Long Lake. I knew Long Lake would be frozen (and likely duck-free) so we only drove about 150 yards down the road to our first stop. There we spotted a handful of raptors, including red-tailed hawk (3), rough-legged hawk (4), American kestrel, and what turned out to be the lone northern harrier of the day.

This single harrier, where normally we might see five or more, told us that the small mammal population was probably very low. No food, fewer birds.

Still a four-raptor stop was a great start, so we moved on down the road happily. Well, not everyone was happy. Phoebe and Liam sometimes get a notion to act like going on a birding trip in winter is akin to being condemned to 50 years of doing algebra homework. That "brattitude" would change on this day...we had a secret weapon in our arsenal.

Maybe asking Phoebe to be the trip photographer was not such a good idea.

We got to Long Lake and, as expected, it was frozen solid. Then the wind kicked up and so we headed for some back roads that offered a bit of wind protection. We did have several nice flyovers from trumpeter swans—actual wild trumpeter swans that now spend part of the winter here.

At the Jeffrey Point Birding Deck we spotted lots of white-tailed deer, many of The Wilds' captive large mammals, very few birds, and Papa Green Smurf.

While we scanned for birds (hoping for a golden eagle) along Zion Ridge Road, the sun came out. We hardly knew what to do. Then it began to warm up, thoroughly confusing us. This was The Wilds in January after all. Wha-ha-hoppen?

We thought it might be a trick, so we kept our sensible headgear on just in case.

We bird-dogged some horned larks along Zion Ridge Road after hearing their tinkling call notes.

And that was a life bird for several among us, thus the mandatory Life Bird Wiggle celebration to appease the Birding Gods.

We ended the birding portion of our day with somewhere north of 50 species—a most respectable total. I never did set eyes on a golden eagle, though many others did. For me the skies were empty, but our hearts were full.

Next stop: Scratching the Rhino.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Cold Birding, Ohio Style

Thursday, January 14, 2010
Marc Nolls of the OOS birding at The Wilds.

This Saturday, January 16, the Ohio Ornithological Society will hold our annual winter birding trip to The Wilds. In the good news/bad news department, the trip is already maxed out at 150 participants, with a waiting list of 30+. This is surprising to me given the weather we normally have for this outing: think Arctic Circle. No matter what the weather person predicts, it's always 20 degrees colder at The (wide-open) Wilds. If you're coming along, wear everything you've got and activate the hand warmers.

We're hoping to see some specialty birds there. Among the highlights in past years have been golden eagle, northern shrike, prairie falcon, snow bunting, and white-fronted goose. More likely (though not guaranteed) are northern harrier, horned lark, rough-legged hawk, and short-eared owl.
Rough-legged hawk.

Even if we don't see many birds, we'll still be treated to some mammal watching and the omnipresent Canada geese.

Our group will split into smaller car pools to cover all the prime birding spots. Jim McCormac (shown above demonstrating the effectiveness of his deodorant) always attracts a big crowd with his mad birding skilz. Even when the birding is slow, we still have a good time. We're hoping it's cold enough to keep the mud frozen, but not SO cold that bodily extremities are frozen.

The Wilds is 20,000 acres of recovering strip mine: prime habitat for grassland birds year-round. Poor habitat for trees, as this photo indicates.

And at the end of the daylight hours, if we are lucky, we might catch a glimpse or two of a short-eared owl.

A short-eared owl in the low light of a January dusk.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Migrating South with a Phoebe

Tuesday, January 12, 2010
We've had snow for most of the last month at Indigo Hill.

Later this month I will be getting onto an airplane with my red-headed daughter Phoebe Linnea to go to Florida for a bit. We'll be participating in the Space Coast Birding Festival in Titusville, FL as speakers/trip leaders. Yes, that's right, Phoebe is launching her career as a birding festival performer and, knowing her as I do, I feel certain that she will surpass me (and perhaps her mom, eventually) within a a short while.

Phoebe dreaming of migrating south.

Getting to split from the frozen wonderland of southeastern Ohio for the less-frozen sand-and-seascape of Florida's east coast has made Phoebe a much happier youngster during our recent string of snow days.

Liam is not happy he's missing the FL trip

Liam is not so happy about this and he's gone into "extracting exclusive trip promises from the parents" mode. We're still sorting through the possibilities, but a dinosaur-viewing trip to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and a bison trip to North Dakota are strong candidates.

Phoebe and I will be giving presentations at three different schools in the Titusville area, plus at the Space Coast Birding Festival itself. After each talk, we'll go outside for a bit of birding. The topic for our talks is kids and bird watching salted with some stories from our work on The Young Birder's Guide to Birds of Eastern North America.

Phoebe's class at Salem Liberty Elementary School spent half of fourth grade, all of fifth grade, and part of sixth grade helping me to create the Young Birder's Guide. We'll talk about how the book was created, how the kids liked it, and about some of the other cool things we discovered along the way.

One of our early appointments during the trip is in Celebration, Florida, where we'll do an interview at Radio Disney on a show hosted by two young gals who are about Phoebe's age. It will be neat to see what Phoebe thinks of this crossroads of pop culture, teen sensation, and mass media.
That's me with the kidcasters from Radio Disney and Sunny, their producer, during an interview in 2009.

When I asked Phoebe last summer if she wanted to go to the festival with me in January, she immediately said "Yes!" Followed by "Wait! Will it be warm there?" When I confirmed that it was likely to be warmer there than in Ohio, she was all in.

This is NOT Ohio in January.

Then I asked the inevitable question, since we'd be flying into Orlando:
"Phoebs, do you want to go to Disney World since we'll be right there?"

And she said immediately:
"NO! I want to see manatees!"

This ranks among my proudest moments as a parent.
Phoebe the bird girl is now in 8th grade!

Of course I also hope to show Phoebe some of Florida's sweet birds, like wood stork, roseate spoonbills, and egrets at Merritt Island, and the limpkins, anhingas, and rafts of ducks at Viera Wetlands. I expect she'll dig these feathered wonders even if it's not sunny and 75ºF the entire week.

American wood stork at Merritt Island NWR near Titusville.

I'm also looking forward to introducing my daughter to some of my friends from the birding festival circuit. She's already met many of them, but being the proud papa, I can't resist showing her off just a bit.

If you're planning to attend the Space Coast Birding Festival, please come to one of our public talks and walks on Saturday, January 30.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Here Kitty!

Monday, January 11, 2010
The feeder birds all love our suet dough. The northern cardinals are especially loyal customers. But I'm not sure they appreciate the bowl we use to feed the dough on our deck railing.

She is wondering if this might be a trap...

This male cardinal looks as though he's re-reading the letters on the bowl.

Notice the pale feathers on his flanks? He's got some plumage variation, I think. More on him in a future post.

Friday, January 8, 2010

A Cardinal Haiku

Friday, January 8, 2010

All nature slumbers
world reduced to black and white
warm cardinal flame

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Clever Junco!

Thursday, January 7, 2010
Male dark-eyed junco eating sunflower bits on the hopper feeder.

When the weather gets tough, it's fascinating to see how birds will change their behavior to adapt. Conventional wisdom says that juncos are ground-feeding birds that prefer to scratch through whatever is covering the ground for their food. Or they may mount a weed stalk to get at the seed heads near the top. Normally at feeding stations, they are on the ground below the feeders, scratching for mixed seeds such as millet, cracked corn, or sunflower bits.

With our recent snows and ongoing low temperatures, the bird feeders are a blur of activity. When I looked out the other day, I did a double take. There was a junco, perched on a vertical log feeder, pecking at bits of suet dough we had packed into the drilled holes. The suet log, hanging nearly six feet off the ground, is normally visited by woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees and titmice, starlings, and Carolina wrens. Seeing the junco using it, despite the lack of strong clinging feet, was a new one.

We'd seen the juncos at the hopper feeders (top image) picking out sunflower bits. And we knew the juncos loved the suet dough we put out on the deck railing, so I guess his should not come as a huge surprise. After all, the birds don't read the books describing their behavior. They're just trying to survive until tomorrow.

The male dark-eyed junco on the suet log.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Snow, Stimulus, and Response

Tuesday, January 5, 2010
Male dark-eyed junco.

We don't often get lake-effect snow way down in southeastern Ohio, but we surely are getting it now. We've got six inches on the ground here at the farm and another few inches on the way. After being home for the holiday break since the week before Christmas, our kids are looking at a week of snow days. (The hills are echoing with the cheers of children and the groans of parents). It's a light, dry snow—very powdery—so no danger thus far of a power outage.

Fortunately we're well provisioned inside and are keeping the bird feeders well-stocked outside, too. We have about 35 dark-eyed juncos in the yard most days—more when the snow cover is deep.

This chap (photo at top), fluffed up against the 17ºF cold, was staring me down through the kitchen window, trying his best to let me know that the suet dough dish out front needed a refill.

The birds have us really well-trained. Here's what they do:
They flutter down to the feeder.
Look into it, find nothing.
Then glance in the window with a forlorn look on your face at the clueless humans.
Fly off a short distance when the humans come scrambling out the door, hands full of seed, suet, peanuts, filling the air with apologies.

Like Pavlov's dogs, we respond every time to the birds' stimulus.

Monday, January 4, 2010

My First Bird of 2010

Monday, January 4, 2010

My first bird of 2010 was a male eastern bluebird eating suet dough on the deck railing. I managed to avert my eyes long enough to get this individual bluebird as my first bird of the new year. We had grand plans to go birding on New Year's Day, but they got canceled by poor weather and illness. I was suffering under the effects of a chest cold that laid me low from 12/30 through today (1/4/10)! But thanks to good fortune (and my indulgent wife, Julie) the bluebird (of happiness) was my first bird of the new year.

Because we were denied the annual ritual of going birding on 1/1, the members of the Whipple Bird Club connected by telephone to share our new year's sightings. Shila's first bird was a downy woodpecker. Julie's was a Carolina wren (heard) and a Euro starling (visual). Steve's was a dark-eyed junco.

What was YOUR first bird? I hope it was a good one.

Happy New Year to all!